Platinum - by Swellison

"Ellison! Sandburg! My office, now!" Captain Simon Banks' voice boomed from his open office door, although Jim Ellison would have heard the request if it had been whispered behind the closed door.

Jim Ellison, seated at his desk, glanced inquiringly at Blair Sandburg, the police observer who was Jim's de facto partner. "You do anything to rile Simon, Chief?"

"No."

Ellison locked gazes with his partner's light blue eyes and cocked his head slightly, listening to Blair's telltale heartbeat as it increased its rhythm.

"Ahhh," Sandburg ran a hand distractedly through his long dark hair, "I want to spike the eggnog for the Christmas Party—" Blair noted Jim's glare and clenched jaw and hurriedly added, "Not with alcohol, man—chumarri extract. It's a rare African tree whose bark, when ingested, loosens people's inhibitions without affecting their motor control. So you can feel drunk without actually being drunk."

"Why would—? Forget it, I don't want to know."

"But the party's still two weeks away. If Simon's yelling about my future behavior, then he must be suddenly clairvoyant. Besides, I've been here all afternoon, getting your paperwork caught up."

"Shall we?" Jim stood up and waited for Sandburg to get to his feet, too, then they walked across the squad room, heading for Simon's office.

"Course, that'd be kinda neat, if Simon has the ability to see the future," Blair said, hands gesturing as they walked. "Then we'd have a Sentinel and a Soothsayer both. You and Simon would be solving crimes before they're even committed."

"Sandburg," Jim rolled his eyes and they entered Simon's office.

"Have a seat," Simon offered. The black captain waited while Jim settled into one of Simon's visitor's chairs and Blair perched on the edge of the desk.

"So what's up, Simon? Sandburg swears he's innocent," Jim said.

"What? Sandburg hasn't done anything that I'm aware of," the captain noted with interest the quick exchange of glances between his two men. "I wanted to discuss a new case with you."

"At 4:30 on a Friday afternoon?" Sandburg asked, looking at Simon. "This must be some case if it can't wait till Monday."

Ellison noted that Simon's heartbeat sped up a little as he spoke. "Ah, it isn't exactly a Major Crimes case. Another department wants to borrow Ellison for some undercover work."

"Just Jim?"

"We're a package deal," Jim said firmly.

"You could say that," Simon said after a double take. "You'd be going undercover as a UPS delivery man."

"What?" Ellison exclaimed.

"Brown is a good color on you," Blair teased his partner, then grinned. "You know, Jim, a lot of women have a thing for their UPS delivery man. Those guys routinely place in the top five in women's fantasy sex polls, even higher than some actors."

Jim aimed his laser-sharp glare at Sandburg, full force.

"Look on the bright side, man. If you were in Hawaii and going undercover, you'd be wearing shorts - and really driving the ladies wild."

"All right, gentlemen," Simon spoke loudly, "let's get back to the case at hand. Have either of you heard of Platinum? And, no Sandburg, I don't mean the metal with atomic number sixty-whatever."

"Seventy-eight," Blair corrected automatically.

Banks continued as if he hadn't heard, "I'm talking about the new designer drug."

"No sir, we haven't heard of it." Jim answered in the suddenly quiet room.

"Platinum as in—better than Golden?" Sandburg asked Simon.

"Exactly. Platinum has some of the same hallucinogenic effects as golden. It casts everything in a silver glow, like Golden cast everything in a golden hue, but this new drug's effects are reportedly stronger and last longer, hence its inventor named it Platinum."

"And this inventor is—? " Jim asked.

"We don't know. The Feds had an inside man, but he was in a fatal car crash, two days ago. The only information that their man was able to pass on was that the drug is made locally and it'll be shipped out of state via UPS."

"But that's crazy, sir!" Jim blurted. "Who in their right mind would ship a substantial amount of drugs through UPS, especially during the holiday season?"

"Or because it's the holiday season?" Blair said thoughtfully. "I mean just think of it. There's a huge influx of packages being shipped anyway, this time of year. Fed Ex's employees are hinting that they might go on strike, so more people than ever are using UPS. Maybe it's crazy like a fox –like The Purloined Letter."

"The purloined letter?" Jim interrupted.

"Don't you guys read anything besides the Police Gazette? The Purloined Letter, one of the first American detective novels, by Edgar Allen Poe. A letter with a very valuable stamp was mixed in with a bunch of ordinary letters, the origination of the old hide-in-plain-sight theory."

"Okay, I'll buy that, Chief. But what about the drug dogs at the airport?" Jim asked skeptically.

"This is a new designer drug, Jim. It takes weeks, sometimes months, to train a drug-sniffing dog to find a new scent, so right now they won't recognize Platinum as contraband. I can train you—" he rephrased as Jim's gaze bore down at him, "I can devise a method for your senses to detect the Platinum in a couple of days."

"Good!" Simon beamed. "That's just what I wanted to hear, Sandburg."

"So that's what my undercover assignment is," Jim almost sulked, "I'm a glorified drug-sniffing dog."

"If the shoe fits, fetch it," Simon said under his breath, then spoke in his normal voice. "We've got a sample." He extended his right hand, holding a tiny plastic bag full of silver granules.

Ellison reached a hand towards the packet.

"Don't touch that, Jim!" Sandburg ordered and Jim froze. Blair snatched the packet from Simon's hand and the captain's gaze swiveled from Ellison's stilled form to Sandburg.

"I thought I had Sandburg's style pegged as 'Speak softly and carry a big vocabulary.'" Simon mused. "That authoritative bellow was worthy of—me." Simon watched as Ellison twitched, then let his arm casually drop to the desktop.

"Chief?"

"You're not going anywhere near this drug, until I've figured out a safe way for you to handle it, Jim," Blair said firmly. "I haven't forgotten what you did to your eyes with that Golden sample!"

"And I can't forget what that Golden almost did to you," Jim said quietly, a haunted expression flickered momentarily over his face.

The partners locked eyes and Simon almost believed they had forgotten that he was in the room, so he was startled when Ellison turned to him and said, "You've got your delivery man, Simon. I want this case."

"We want it, Simon," Blair corrected his Sentinel.

"You've got it," Simon said, and filled them in on the details of the operation.

"This feels ridiculous," Jim said. Seated on the loft's white couch, he trailed his sensitive fingers over a shoe box sized parcel.

"That's not the kind of description we're looking for, here, Jim," Blair said patiently from his perch on the sofa arm, to the left of his partner. It was almost 11:30 and they'd been testing Jim's sense of touch for most of the morning. Blair was certain that Jim had the ability to feel objects through several layers of intervening packaging. They started out easy, with objects concealed by fabric layers, then worked through paper and cardboard coverings and finally, real boxes. Jim did all right with the cloth-hidden articles, but was having problems with the boxed items. "Try again, Jim. Feel for the differences underneath the paper, below the cardboard—"

"I am trying!"

"You certainly are," Blair muttered to himself. Oops, shouldn't have said that aloud, he realized as Jim thumped the shoebox down on the coffee table.

"You expect too much, Sandburg!" Jim snapped, then got to his feet. Skirting the square coffee table, he began to pace. "I'm not Superman, I don't have x-ray vision! I can't see through solid objects. And we're not re-enacting the Princess and the damned Pea, either."

Not successfully, Blair acknowledged. "Oh, wow! Fairy tales, I never thought of that as a source for Sentinel information. It's not as farfetched as it sounds, though—I mean, they have elves, goblins and fairies—why not a Sentinel or two?"

"I need some air," Ellison growled, stalking towards the loft's front door.

"I know which dwarf is a Sentinel," Blair raised his voice as Jim left, slamming the door shut. "Grumpy."

Reverberations from the slamming door knocked the TV remote off the coffee table. Blair reached down and picked up the remote, accidentally hitting the power button. Across the living room, the television set burst into life. "Beep! Beep!"

Jim's been channel surfing again, Sandburg thought as he pressed the mute button. The frantic chase music was abruptly silenced, but the Coyote continued to pursue the Roadrunner, their legs spinning in faster and faster circles of cartoon motion. Blair glanced at the remote in his hand. If Jim wasn't being so stubborn, he could touch the remote's buttons and tell by the wear patterns which stations we watch the most. Sandburg preferred PBS, TLC, The Discovery Channel and Knowledge TV, with occasional forays into ESPN to watch "the game" with Ellison. He also watched MTV, but only when he was certain that he had the loft to himself. He could just hear Ellison, "Why're you listening to that racket?"

Sandburg's finger inadvertently nudged the mute button again, and the TV regained its sound. The Coyote ran off of a cliff and plummeted downward, accompanied by a fading whistle, which ended in a satisfactory and dusty BOOM! when the predator hit the ground. Sandburg pressed the mute down for ten seconds, then released it. He repeated the pattern: quiet, loud, quiet, loud. Or noise, silence, noise, silence... "Eureka!" Blair clicked the television off and sprang to his feet. He ducked into his room and rummaged through his tapes until he located the right one. He snagged his Sony Walkman and walked back to the living room, placing both items on the coffee table. Glancing at his watch, he realized that it was almost lunchtime.

Blair strolled into the kitchen and over to the ancient refrigerator. He removed the container filled with his homemade vegetable soup and dumped it into a saucepan to heat on the stove. The way to a Sentinel's senses is through his stomach, Blair mused as he stirred the soup.

Minutes later, he heard the key turn and the front door opened. Ellison stepped in, closed the door behind him and took two steps into the kitchen.

"It's lunch time," Blair said as he turned the flame off.

"I know. I smelled your soup cooking from five blocks away."

"Knew you would. Grab a couple of bowls and let's eat," Blair said, motioning towards the cupboard. Jim got two bowls and Blair ladled the vegetable soup into them. Jim fetched the saltine crackers. They carried the soup to the dining room table and sat down, lunching in silence until the meal was almost over.

Jim cleared his throat, "Look, Sandburg, about the tests... I didn't mean to storm off. I'll try harder this afternoon. I just didn't seem—"

"To be getting anywhere, and you got frustrated," Sandburg finished.

"Yeah."

"Well, that's my fault," Blair sighed. "I was protecting you, or trying to. I thought if you could feel the drugs through the packaging, you'd never have to come into direct contact with the Platinum. And no contact means no risk of exposure to the drug's effects."

"No repeat of the Golden incident," Jim said softly, following Blair's reasoning easily. "I'm all in favor of that."

"Me too, man. But our current approach isn't working, so we're going to try a different tack."

Jim looked inquiringly at his Guide and Blair explained. "Since we can't avoid all direct contact, I want to limit the contact you do have to the smallest possible amount."

"I'm all ears, Chief."

"Funny you should mention that, Jim," Blair said as he rose from the table. He headed for the sofa with Ellison following. "That's where we're going to start, with your hearing. Take a seat."

"My hearing? But I can't hear drugs," Jim protested.

"Yeah, I know. Your hearing is one of your strongest senses, though, so we're going to start there. This is an oblique approach to the problem, but it'll work, if you let it. By the way, do you read music?"

"Read music?" Ellison asked as he settled onto the couch, "No, why?"

"Well, if you did, I could describe your next testing in terms of music theory, with crescendos and decrescendos. Throw around some pianos and fortes as well," Blair's right hand sketched a vaguely rhythmic pattern in the air. "As it is, we'll have to use laymen's terms. But that's okay, music is universal."

Sandburg looked at Ellison. His particular layman seemed rather bewildered at the moment. "O-kay, let's start at the beginning. First I want you to put on the Walkman and listen to this tape. It's classical music, Beethoven's Third Symphony. He originally wrote it for Napoleon, but they had a falling out before it was finished and Beethoven changed the name to Eroica—the Heroes' Symphony. Appropriate, huh?

"Anyway, all you have to do is listen to it. I want you to get familiar with the music. It portrays a vast array of moods, and the volume ranges from very soft to very loud. That's the whole point of this exercise, noise control. Once you're familiar with the music, I want you to listen to it again. This time, every time you reach a loud part of the music, dial your hearing down to practically zero, so you can barely hear the music at all. Hmmm, let me give you an example of the type of contrast we're looking for, here. Say, you came home from work early and I was listening to Metallica full blast on your stereo—"

"Metallica at full volume on my stereo system? You'd better not be describing a real incident here, Chief." Jim warned.

"No, Jim. I'm speaking hypothetically, of course," Sandburg hastened to assure the larger man. "So, before you can start yelling, I run over to the stereo and turn the sound down to nothing. From a volume of ten to less than one in seconds flat—that's the kind of noise level change I want you to achieve, at will. Take your time, and get very comfortable with the procedure. Then I want you to rewind the tape and crank up your hearing so that you can hear the customers in Colette's, two floors below. Press the fast forward button and then hit play at random. As soon as the music starts, tamp down on your hearing so that you can barely hear it, or even cut off your hearing completely, so you don't hear any sound. After a minute or so, take your hearing back up to top level and fast forward to another spot on the tape and do the whole thing again. Continue selecting the play button at random, so that after the initial blast of music, your hearing goes down to nothing. And remember, speed is important. I want you to only hear a second or so of music at your full Sentinel hearing."

"Okay, so this is an exercise in volume control, which might be useful," Jim shot a thoughtful look at his stereo, "if I come home unexpectedly early from work. But how does this help me detect Platinum?"

"We're setting up a sense memory pattern here, Jim. I want you to get used to dropping your sense of hearing from top range to practically nothing—and then we're going to apply the same concept to your sense of smell."

"Smell? So you really are preparing me to replace a drug-sniffing dog."

"Yes, Fido. So put that Walkman on and start listening."

"What're you going to be doing?"

"I'll be gathering up items for the next part of our testing." Blair handed Jim the Walkman and headphones. "Enjoy the music."

Jim took the portable CD player and slipped the headphones over his ears. He placed the small black recording unit on the sofa cushion next to him and hit the play button. Ellison closed his eyes and relaxed, letting his head rest against the top of the sofa. The air was filled with a symphony of sounds; he picked out woodwinds, strings and horns. Sandburg's right, the music varies a lot in mood, Jim thought after several minutes' worth of the opening piece. At least it's all instrumental, not opera.Carolyn, his ex-wife, had been a huge opera fan, and had dragged Jim to the opera on more than one occasion. He vividly remembered his first encounter - Luchia the Lamebrained, or something like that. It was a Scottish opera, no, an opera set in Scotland. Carolyn told me there was a distinct difference between the two. I just remember a lot of high-pitched caterwauling and shrieking... Hmm, maybe I didn't like it because my senses were actually starting to kick back in—? This stuff is okay though, kind of like the marching band at school, but it has more flourishes and mood swings than the music I heard on the football field.

I can just hear Sandburg, 'Focus, Jim. Listen to the music, don't free-associate.' Aye, Aye, Chief. I'm listening.

Jim settled down to just listening to the symphony. He kept his eyes open and one hand on the CD player, wising to avoid the embarrassment of zoning out in his own living room. Ellison tracked the music through several moods, as the sound increased and decreased in Beethoven's own complex design. Finally the last note sounded, and Jim immediately began rewinding the tape. He started the tape again, listening intently for the first rapid increase in volume. Horns blared and Jim dialed his sense of hearing down to nil. He glanced at his watch, keeping his hearing at its lowest level until a full ninety seconds passed. Then he mentally pictured the dial and put his hearing back on normal. The music returned and he waited for the next jump in volume.

Almost an hour later, he had worked through the entire tape for the second time. Jim turned the CD player off and stared at the floor. He increased his hearing and focused it downward, listening for sounds emanating from Colette's. Ah, there it is...the cash register. Jim continued listening, "That'll be fourteen dollars and eighty-three cents," he heard the saleslady say, then she counted out change for a twenty. Jim fast-forwarded the tape, temporarily distracted by the tremendously loud, grating buzz of the CD player as it advanced the compact disk. He hit play and trumpets and French horns assaulted his ears. Jim winced and it took him several seconds to dial the noise down to zero. First time out I hit the loudest section in the music, it figures.

Jim glanced at his watch and put the digital display on sports mode so it acted like a stopwatch, measuring out the seconds in clearly displayed numbers. Picturing the volume dial, he notched his hearing up to eight and cast it towards Colette's again. When he heard the activity in the first floor store, Ellison fast-forwarded the tape, then pressed the play button, and activated his stopwatch. He heard woodwinds this time, not as loud as the horns had been, but a far cry from soft, especially at his amplified range. Jim dropped his hearing down sharply, and turned off the stopwatch. Five seconds. Better than the first time, but not by much. Jim kept his hearing on minimum the required minute and a half, then extended his hearing and repeated the whole process. Doggedly, he kept at it, until he managed to cut his response time down to two seconds.

"Jim, hey Jim!" Sandburg appeared in front of him, semaphoring with his hands.

Ellison stopped the music and glanced up, at the same time dialing his hearing up to normal.

"Man, have you been at it all this time? It's almost five."

"Five o'clock?" Jim switched his watch back to regular mode and saw the digital confirmation: 4:53.

"You've been putting together the next part of the testing for four and a half hours?"

"Ah, no, Jim. I finished awhile ago, so I started studying for my finals, next week. Guess I lost track of time—I didn't mean to leave you out here, hammering away at your hearing for so long. Sorry."

"Sandburg." Jim waited until he had his partner's full attention. "You don't have to sneak around to get your studying in, Chief. Take all the time you need. After all, you're not a cop, you're a grad student."

"I know that, Jim. I'm also a Gemini, so leading a double life comes naturally to me. Which means that I'll have no problem giving and taking all my exams next week, and still back you up fully during your first week undercover."

"I knew you gave in too easily when Simon said you couldn't back me up the first week."

"He used unfair tactics, man. Telling us that Cassie was going to be your contact, and you'd be meeting your 'girl friend' daily for lunch. Simon has a Machiavellian streak that I never noticed before."

"Simon and I both know that this is crunch time for you. End of the term and you've got, what? Three exams to take next week and four to give? And a paper due on Thursday, too."

Blair nodded, somewhat surprised that Jim had kept such close tabs on his academic schedule.

"So you don't have time to back me up next week. I'll report to Cassie during our lunches," Jim grimaced. I'll get you for that, Simon. Have to make sure you have plenty of Sandburg's spiked fruit punch at the Christmas party. He continued. "The Feds' best information is that the shipment is going out close to Christmas, after the fifteenth. Next week is really a dry run, a chance for me to get familiar with the route. We've both got our assignments for next week, I'm the UPS guy, and you're the student—full time. Period. Are we okay, here?"

"Yes."

"Good. Now I could use a break from testing. Why don't you go back to studying and I'll cook dinner? I want to give my ears a rest, then we can tackle the next part after supper."

"That was great stroganoff, Jim," Blair said, after swallowing the last forkful of beef stroganoff a l'Ellison. He rose from his chair, gathering his dirty plate and utensils. "Give me a few minutes to put the dishes in the dishwasher and we'll start on your testing, part two." Blair efficiently dispensed with the dishes in just two trips, acquiring the knack of speed cleaning since moving into the loft with Jim. "Stay seated," he instructed Jim, who remained at the table while Sandburg popped into his bedroom and returned moments later.

Blair set a cardboard box on the tabletop, then extracted a black cloth blindfold from the box's contents. "Put this on."

Jim eyed the box suspiciously as he took the proffered blindfold, "You don't have any bad milk in there, do you?" he asked, recalling an earlier pop quiz involving his sense of taste.

"Ha, ha. Very funny, Jim. You haven't let me keep any milk in the fridge a day past its expiration date for the last two years. House Rule Number Forty-four, as I recall." Blair moved behind his seated partner and proceeded to tie the blindfold over Jim's eyes. "This is strictly a test of your ability to smell, I don't want you using any visual cues. You should be able to easily identify each sample by smell alone. And don't worry, you might not like all the smells, but everything is completely harmless."

"Where have I heard that before?" Jim muttered under his breath.

Blair chose to ignore the muttering, after all, he didn't have heightened senses. He took the seat to the left of Ellison, reached into the box and placed an item on the table in front of the Sentinel.

"Okay, Jim. I put something right in front of you. Smell it and tell me what it is. No hands, either—didn't your mother ever tell you 'elbows off the table'?"

Jim sniffed cautiously. "Vanilla," he identified the smell, pleasantly surprised.

"Vanilla what? What kind of vanilla?" Sandburg pressed.

"What do you mean, what kind of—?" Jim took a deep breath and opened his sense of smell more fully. "Oh. It's a vanilla-scented candle," he said, now smelling the accompanying paraffin.

"Good. That's the idea, magnify your sense of smell. Remember, if you don't like what you smell, you can always dial it down, just like you practiced with controlling the volume on the music this afternoon." He removed the candle and placed another object in front of Jim. "Okay, what's this?"

"That's you apple-scented shampoo, with almonds and—henna?" Jim sniffed deeper, "There's a bunch of other scents in there, too—herbs, I guess."

Blair picked up the shampoo bottle and read the list of contents. "Close enough." He replaced the shampoo bottle with another bottle. "How about this?"

Jim sniffed at full intensity. "Yuck. Toilet bowl cleaner." Quickly, he dropped his sense of smell down, to avoid the strong odor of bleach.

"You can't smell the bleach now, right? You dialed down your ability to smell, just after you got a whiff of it, didn't you?"

"Yes, I applied the 'volume control' idea to what I was smelling."

"That's great, Jim! That's exactly what you're supposed to do, man. Was it hard to do? Do you think you can do it faster next time?"

"Next time?"

"Yeah, how about now?" Blair deftly swapped the toilet bowl cleaner with another item. "Take a deep breath, get your sense of smell operating at full capacity, then once you've identified the smell, cut your sense of smell down to nothing and tell me what this is."

Jim complied, raising his sense of smell to top level. He sniffed the item, identified it and dropped his olfactory sense down to nil. "Glue."

"That's right, Jim. You didn't sniff it for long, did you?"

"Couple of seconds, I knew what it was almost immediately."

"And you don't feel light-headed, or dizzy, or anything?"

"No," Jim said, slightly puzzled.

"You know kids get high sniffing glue, Jim. I want to make sure that you're not affected by it, too. You don't feel any different than you did a few minutes ago? No headache, or anything?"

"No. I feel fine, Chief."

"So the glue didn't affect you at all, even with your sense of smell wide open."

"That's right."

"All right! This is going to work, man. Here, tell me what this is," Blair grabbed the tiny plastic container of glue and put a small bag in its place.

Jim sniffed. "Coffee. Jamaican hazelnut coffee. Does Simon know you've been raiding his supply?"

"Hey, how do you know that I didn't just go out and buy it? There's plenty of specialty shops around that sell coffee."

"I got a whiff of Simon's cigar intermingled with the coffee, Chief," Jim pointed out.

"Okay, you caught me, officer. But we're not drinking it; you're just sniffing it. I'll have it back in Simon's office before he even knows it was missing. Now, moving right along..." Blair scooped the package of coffee from under Jim's nose and replaced it with a smaller plastic bottle. "Radar up. What's this?"

"Ah—pepper—choo! Achoo!" Jim squeezed in the answer between sneezes.

"What kind of pepper? Sniff it again."

Jim inhaled again. "Black—achoo! pepper. Achoo!" He sneezed again, and Blair was confident that behind the blindfold, Jim was glaring at him.

"C'mon, Jim, try harder. I want you to smell the pepper and not sneeze. Dial your sense of smell down as fast as you can."

"That's easi—achoo!—er said than done," Jim grumbled, sniffing more pepper.

Blair picked up the pepper container and opened it, spilling about a third of its contents on the table in front of Jim. "Again, Jim."

The Sentinel sniffed again, "You're getting some—achoo! perverse pleasure out of this, Sandburg," he accused.

"No, Jim, honest. I was looking for the substance that most strongly affects your olfactory sense and we've found it—pepper. Now you have to learn to control and eliminate your response to it. Once you've mastered pepper, you'll be ready for the Platinum. Don't you see?" Not the best wording, considering Jim's blindfolded right now. "Control your reactions so that you don't sneeze when you smell the pepper, then you can use that same control when you're exposed to Platinum, and the drug won't affect you. Now, try again. Deep breath and—"

"Achoo! Achoo! Sand—achoo! burg!"

'Okay, okay, Jim. Time-out," Blair's hands formed a 'T', although Jim could not see the gesture. "Let me think a minute, here." Damn. The theory is sound, but I can't apply it if Jim can't stop sneezing. What am I not seeing here? Blair thumped the table in frustration, and a sprinkling of pepper spilled from the opened container in front of him. Too much, too fast? "Hang on a second, Jim," Blair said as he got to his feet. He retreated to the kitchen and fetched a butter knife. Grabbing a couple of blank index cards from the kitchen drawer, he returned to the dining room table.

"All right, Jim," Blair sat down, "maybe we're approaching this the wrong way. I'm going to reduce the amount of pepper that's in front of you." As he spoke, Blair reached over to the pepper pile in front of Jim and evenly split it in two, then scooped half of the pepper onto the index card. He emptied the card back into the pepper container and mentally reminded himself to toss the bottle out when they were finished. Somehow I don't think Jim's gonna want to use pepper on his food for awhile, anyway. "Try it now. Do you still—"

"Achoo!"

"—sneeze?" Blair quickly halved the pepper still in front of his partner. "One more time."

"Achoo!"

Sandburg further reduced the small amount of pepper that remained. "Again."

"Achoo!"

Sandburg made quick work of shrinking the pepper once more. "One more time."

"You sound like a dance instructor," Jim growled—and didn't sneeze.

Blair almost held his breath. "Jim, you did sniff the pepper just now, right?"

"That's all I've been doing for the last—"

"And didn't sneeze! We've found your level of comfort with pepper." Blair eyed his Sentinel. "We need to make sure this isn't a fluke, Jim. Sniff the pepper again."

Jim sniffed and remained silent.

"All right, now we can get down to some real work."

Jim just about groaned. "Can I at least remove the blindfold?"

"No, Jim. I'm sorry. You have to be guided by your sense of smell alone, especially when we're building up your resistance to sneezing." Sandburg's glance fell on his watch, and he readjusted his thinking. Rising from his chair, Blair stepped over to Jim and slipped the blindfold off. "Break time. Take a half hour off –you've earned it, Jim."

Jim rose eagerly from the dining room table, seeking distance from the chair he'd been sitting and sneezing in all night. He stepped towards the kitchen, and reconsidered. Sandburg's never gonna let me have a beer while we're still testing. He thought of escaping to the balcony for some fresh air. Fresh air, yeah. Cold, sleety, windy air is more like it. Jim walked over to the sofa and flicked the remote, settling for mentally escaping the loft. Cartoon snowflakes fell on a blue background and he heard—gibberish. What? Have I been so caught up in smelling everything that I've tuned out my hearing? Or is Sandburg watching the International Channel again? The words became decipherable again, and familiar "Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas, a lot. But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not."

Ellison relaxed against the couch and was transported in time. He remembered years ago, when he and Steven watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" on the console TV in the formal living room, back when Christmas specials were few and far between, and therefore truly special. Steven's favorite was "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer", but Jim had always been partial to the Grinch.

A few minutes later, Sandburg found him on the sofa. "Oh, wow! The Grinch—thought I'd missed it this year." He plopped down on the couch next to Jim, eliciting no response from the absorbed Sentinel. Blair studied Jim's face anxiously, had he zoned? Jim had spent huge chunks of the day using one or the other of his senses at full strength, a rare and tiring sensory workout for the detective. Sensory overload? Blair was just reaching for Jim's shoulder when Ellison turned his head to look at his Guide.

"What? Don't tell me half an hour's passed already."

"No, not even ten minutes. Just wanted to make sure you hadn't zoned—you've been through the wringer, sense-wise, today," Blair glanced at the television and blurted out, "Jim, do I seem Grinch-like to you?"

"What?" Ellison boggled at his younger partner, floored by the question. Sandburg, the Grinch? He's the most un-Grinch-like man I've ever met. Jim's gaze flicked back to the television and shifted from the Grinch's long-eared, tail-wagging little mutt to Blair's face, framed by his long dark curls. If anything, he reminds me of Max. That would make me the Grinch, well, the reformed Grinch now. "Sandburg, do you think you're Grinch-like?"

"No," Blair's fingers nervously combed through his loose curls, "but I was afraid you might, after today."

"Because you've been bombarding me with tests all day?" Jim noticed Blair wince at his phrasing. "As you told me some time ago, testing my senses is part of your job as my Guide. Sure, you pushed me today—and I grumbled about it," Jim admitted, "more than a few times. You should remember that my bark is worse than my bite, Chief."

"As long as we're using cliché-speak, I should also remember that 'All work and no play makes Jim's senses dull.' The lab is officially closed for the night," Blair smiled and rose from the sofa. "So enjoy the rest of your cartoon—I'm gonna go crack the books for awhile. We'll solve your pepper problem tomorrow morning."

"Okay, Jim, ready for the blindfold?" Blair asked his partner, as he stepped behind the seated detective. Blair had moved their testing area to the living room couch, since Ellison seemed more relaxed there. He tied the blindfold over Jim's eyes, scooted around the couch and sat on the floor by the coffee table. He sprinkled a small amount of pepper on top of the coffee table in front of Jim. "All right, what's in front of you?"

Jim took a deep breath and sneezed. "Pepper," he said resignedly.

"C'mon, Jim. This is the exact same amount of pepper that you smelled and didn't sneeze at last night. Try again, relax and take a whiff, concentrate on what you're smelling. Don't react to it, just smell it. Dial down your sense of smell as soon as you recognize it and don't sneeze."

Jim took another whiff of the pepper, clamped down on his sense of smell and remained silent.

"Well? Did it work?" Sandburg prompted after several seconds of silence from his Sentinel.

"Yes, it worked."

"Good, now dial your sense of smell 'way up and try it again."

Jim cranked his olfactory sense to maximum. "Achoo! Achoo!"

"C'mon, Jim. Yesterday you sniffed this amount of pepper at normal sense range and didn't sneeze. You should be able to do the same with your sense of smell heightened. Try again."

"Achoo!"

"Look, Jim, how hard is it not to sneeze? Remember playing hide and seek as a kid?"

"No."

"No—?" Blair glanced at his blindfolded partner and briefly wondered again what Jim's childhood had been like. "Well, I do. I was hiding in a closet, and it was really dusty. I wanted to sneeze, but I didn't, because I didn't want to get caught and be 'It'. Now, if an eight-year-old kid can control his sneezing, then you, the Sentinel of the Great City, should be able to do it, too."

"Sandburg," Jim grumbled, "if that's meant to be a pep talk, it's not helping."

Blair got up from the floor and sat next to Jim on the sofa. "How about a helping hand?" he asked, placing his right hand on Jim's left shoulder, anchoring him. "Try again, Jim. Deep breath, identify the pepper, then slam your sense of smell down, like a vault door closing. Seal yourself off from the pepper, and the need to sneeze."

Jim followed his Guide's instructions and was unaffected by the pepper. They repeated the experiment with the same looked-for result: no sneezing. Sandburg added more pepper to the minuscule portion on the table and had Jim repeat the test, over and over. Blair kept increasing the amount of pepper, until he finally put the whole open container on the table, under Jim's nose.

Jim sniffed the pepper. "How much pepper did you put on the table, Chief, a pound?" he asked after taking a deep breath.

"The whole bottle!" Sandburg beamed. "You knew that there was more pepper and you didn't sneeze. That's great, Jim."

"Yeah, but one thing's bothering me, here. I've been okay with the pepper so far because you've been grounding me. You're not going to be with me next week—I'm on my own."

"So think of me as your Sentinel training wheels. Now that you know you can sniff the pepper without sneezing, we're going to repeat the experiment. You concentrate on not sneezing when you smell the pepper and I'm gradually going to reduce my hold on you until we're not even in contact. Then you'll be handling the pepper completely on your own. Hang on a second," Blair's free hand reached for the pepper container and he spilled a little onto the tabletop, then put the container down on the floor, away from his roommate. "Okay, give it a whirl."

Jim expanded his sense of smell to maximum, instantly getting a whiff of pepper. He clamped down on his sense of smell and willed himself not to sneeze. Nose on maximum, there's the pepper, push the smelling dial down to zero... Damn, the kid's right, this is just like yesterday, when I was controlling the music volume. How did he ever see the connection between the two? Because he's a genius, as well as my Guide. I tend to overlook that...

"That's right, Jim. Let's try it again," Blair said after several seconds of silence. They ran through the testing several more times. Blair increased the amount of pepper that Jim had to smell and decreased his physical contact with the Sentinel at each repetition. Finally, Jim sniffed the whole bottle of pepper, while Blair maintained his contact with his Sentinel through a single fingertip on the shoulder. Blair told Jim to repeat the experiment again and kept both of his hands carefully in his lap.

Ellison sniffed the pepper and kept quiet.

"All right! You're ready for the final test. Just stay put," Blair jumped to his feet and dashed into his room. He returned and dumped something on the coffee table, then headed back to his room for a second trip.

"Hey, Chief! Can I remove the blindfold?" Ellison asked when his partner re-emerged, carrying more boxes.

"Sure, Jim but just stay where you are. I've got one more load and I'll be right back." Jim heard Blair place something heavy on the floor, then he once again retreated to his bedroom.

Jim yanked off the blindfold and blinked, adjusting his eyes to the light. His gaze fell on the dozen or so cardboard boxes piled on top of the coffee table. Blair reappeared, laden with three more medium-sized boxes, which he set down on the rug next to the coffee table. "What is all this?"

"This is the pepper test, your final exam," Blair explained. "I've put together a representative assortment of packages, like the ones you're going to be hauling for UPS starting tomorrow. Some of these boxes have pepper in them, some don't. Your task is to identify the ones that have pepper in them, by smell alone. You cannot open or in any way tamper with the boxes. Your goal is two-fold: find the boxes that have pepper in them, and remain unaffected by the boxes' contents, in other words, no sneezing allowed. Any questions?"

"Can I pick up and examine the boxes?"

"Sure, as long as you don't try to open them." Blair sat down on the loveseat, next to Jim's couch. He gestured towards the stack of boxes. "In fact, handling them would be a good idea. You can use your sense of touch to focus your sense of smell, piggyback the two together. That'll cut down on your risk of zoning, since you won't be concentrating exclusively on smell. Yeah, man, that'll work. Go for it."

"Do I have a time limit?"

"A time limit? Now you sound like my students... Yeah, forty-five minutes. And no cheating." Blair picked up a thick tome on cultural anthropology from the top of a box.

"Cheating?"

"Yeah, don't listen to my breathing or heartbeat to see if you've got the right boxes. It won't work, 'cause I'll be studying."

"Sandburg, the thought never crossed my mind."

"Well, it should have. You should always be alert for ways to use your senses to your advantage."

"I thought that was your job," Ellison said.

"Normally it is, but I'm not going to be around next week—"

"Are we back to that again?" Jim interrupted exasperatedly.

"I'm just trying to make a point—" Blair began.

"Point made," Jim snapped, "But it changes nothing. Now, let me take my exam in peace." Sandburg opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and opened his textbook instead. Jim's gaze lingered suspiciously on his Guide. Y'know, I almost think you did that deliberately, so that if I do try to use you to check my progress, I won't know if your heartbeat is fast because I've got a pepper box or because you're still processing our little discussion. Okay, deep breath and focus. Jim reached for the closest package, about the size of a men's shirt box.

He carefully ran his fingers along the edges of the parcel, then swept them over the top side, trying to connect his sense of smell to the box under his hands. He expanded his olfactory sense and inhaled. Bananas. Now to double-check. Somewhat self-consciously, Jim held the package up to his nose and sniffed again. Still bananas. No pepper. He glanced sharply at Blair, who had his head buried in his book. If you even think of getting a photo of me sniffing boxes, I'll... Jim could not think of a suitable punishment for that offense to his dignity. He set the first package on the floor, starting the reject pile, and went on to the second box.

He cleared the table of all the close boxes, diligently sniffing and classifying each box. Jim shifted his position on the sofa, sliding the remaining boxes still on top of the coffee table closer. Picking up the next package, he set it in his lap and ran his fingers over the edges, easily getting his nose to track his hands. He sniffed the contents of the box, and immediately slammed down on his sense of smell when the glue scent registered.

Put that in to keep me on my toes, huh, Chief?

Jim set the carton of glue down in the reject pile and took a couple of minutes to check his senses, remembering Blair's concerns about glue sniffing. Ellison detected no headache, no dizziness, no change in any of his senses, no reaction to the glue at all. Good, that's the way it's supposed to be. I only sniffed the glue for—what, a grand total of three seconds? Jim glanced from the almost-empty tabletop to the moving box on the floor. He rose from the sofa, stepped around the coffee table and stooped to examine the large box.

Jim ran his hands over the seams and the top of the box, letting his sense of smell flow into his touch. He smelled the woodsy scent of cut paper, and a fainter scent of leather. Books. Ellison picked up the box of books, lifting with his legs, not his back and walked back to the sofa. There must be at least twenty hardbacks in here, Jim thought as he lowered the heavy box to the reject pile. Jim detected movement out of the corner of his eye. He casually checked on Sandburg, and saw just what he expected to see: Sandburg immersed in his book. Jim squatted next to the box of books and sniffed it, cranking his sense of smell to its utmost. Paper, leather from the bindings of some of the books, and... dust? No, pepper! Jim clamped down hard on his sense of smell, heading off a burgeoning sneeze. He rose and nudged the box with his foot, pushing it from the reject to the accept pile.

Jim worked his way through three more packages, then picked up the last one. His hands traveled over the small package and he sniffed. Mmmmm... marinara sauce. And it's fresh, too. When the dickens did you find time to whip this up, Chief? He sniffed again, and categorized the ingredients. Mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, oregano, salt, mozzarella cheese, garlic... but do I smell pepper? Jim glanced down at the two piles of packages. There were fourteen packages total. So far he had six rejects and seven boxes with pepper. Okay, if the marinara sauce doesn't have pepper, then I have seven boxes accepted and seven rejected, even-Steven. Fifty-fifty. Now, does that sound like something Blair would do? Or am I only supposed to think he'd leave the boxes evenly distributed, which means that the marinara sauce does have pepper in it. There's only one way to find out. Ellison lifted the box to his nose and concentrated, letting the delicious smell of the sauce permeate his olfactory sense as he strove to attach a pepper label to what he was smelling.

Ellison placed the small box on top of the pepper pile and remained standing. "Okay, Teach, I'm finished."

Sandburg noted the page number he was on, closed his book and placed it on the coffee table. He stood, walked around the table and examined the two piles of boxes. He made a show of looking at his watch. "You've got eighteen minutes left, do you want to change any of your choices?"

Jim met Blair's eyes squarely. "No."

Sandburg furrowed his brow, then examined the two piles. His glance met Jim's and he said gravely, "Well, if you really must know..." He couldn't hold back a grin as he thumped Jim's arm, "You passed, man. One hundred percent!"

"Sandburg! I oughtta..."

"Hold that thought," Blair said. He spun around and briskly crossed the living room, headed for his bedroom. A minute later, he was back. "Is your sense of smell back to normal?"

"Yes."

"Good, keep it that way." Blair held out his right hand, palm open. A small plastic packet of silvery powder rested there. "Here's the Platinum. Don't touch it, yet. I just want you to get used to what it smells like—at normal levels. Then you can gradually crank up your sense of smell. Remember, we're doing this slowly, step by step. And whatever you do, don't try to compare it to Golden," Blair warned. "As strong as your sensory memory can be, that could trigger a reaction, or even—God forbid—a flashback."

Jim stared at the small but menacing packet in Blair's hand. "I'm listening, Chief. What do you want me to do?"

"For starters, just smell it, and commit the smell to memory. I want you to instantly supply an odor whenever you hear the word 'Platinum'. You also have to let me know immediately if you feel the slightest bit weird or different after you smell the Platinum. Got that?"

Jim nodded and Blair's empty left hand grasped his partner's shoulder. "Now crank your smelling two levels past normal and take another whiff. Let me know instantly if you feel anything."

Jim nodded, picturing the dial that controlled his sense of smell and raising it. The faint but distinctive odor of the Platinum grew stronger.

"Anything?" Blair asked anxiously.

"I'm fine," Jim answered, "but your heart rate's about ten percent faster than it was two minutes ago, Chief."

"Yeah, guess I'm a little nervous," Sandburg admitted. He slipped the Platinum packet into his shirt pocket. "Can you still smell the drug, at this level?"

"Yes."

"Good, maintain your sense of smell at this elevated level. I want to see if prolonged exposure has any cumulative effect on you—or your senses. From time to time, I want you to consciously seek out the Platinum and increase your sense of smell when you do it. Meanwhile I want you to just get used to it as a background smell—like your deodorant. Also, I'm your watchdog for the rest of the day, so you'd better get used to me being underfoot."

"I'm already used to that," Jim teased, smiling. "So, what're we doing, Fido?"

"Well, you could quiz me on my studying," Blair noted Jim's less-than-enthusiastic look, "Or you could watch TV at low volume while I study."

"How about we break for lunch first, then I'll help you with your studies," Jim offered, squelching the 'no' that had automatically risen to his lips. "I'll cook the spaghetti while you heat up that marinara sauce."

"Sounds great," Sandburg said, detouring around Ellison to grab the package with the marinara sauce in it.

"By the way, Chief, when did you find the time to make that sauce?" Jim asked as Sandburg followed him into the kitchen.

"Comfy back there, Chief?" Jim Ellison asked as he maneuvered the chocolate brown UPS delivery truck into a parking space. He swiveled in the driver's rigid seat, glancing down at the floor behind him. Blair Sandburg sat on a beanbag chair, his legs braced against a double stack of packages.

"Yeah, right," Sandburg released the makeshift seatbelt that Jim had rigged to the truck's side panel. I know the beanbag chair was your idea, Jim. A beanbag chair for the front office bean counter, Brian Shelton. How come Jim gets to keep his first name and I don't? Although I've never heard of anyone named Blair who worked for UPS. It was a nice cover, Blair had to admit. The rest of the employees were only too pleased to have the efficiency expert/psychologist pawned off on Jim Evards, the newly transferred delivery man/driver from Portland. Evards was rumored to be a distant cousin of Donald Messinger, the head of Cascade's UPS operation. Jim's first week proved that he pulled his own weight and the other deliverymen more or less tolerated him.

Blair rose carefully and leaned over the back of Jim's seat to get a glimpse of the area. "So, what's your route like?" he asked, one hand brushing his hair back. Sandburg counted himself lucky, he only had to wear a white shirt, the company's brown tie with its yellow UPS logo, and dark slacks—and his black leather jacket covered up most of the company trappings. Jim, on the other hand, was dressed in full uniform: brown pants, matching brown shirt, and a logoed brown windbreaker with his UPS badge attached to the collar tip.

"It's a mixed neighborhood, light industry and strip centers, a few blocks of warehouses, and some residential housing. Nothing struck me as obviously drug-oriented last week, though," Jim answered. "Although if it was obvious, the Feds would've already busted them and we wouldn't be here."

"Obviously," Sandburg echoed, earning a glare from Jim. He sought a swift change of topics. "Brown, Rafe and the Feds didn't turn anything up at the nearby UPS pick up and drop off stores?" Ellison and Sandburg had been assigned the actual delivery route, the most likely contact for the drug smugglers to use. However, several other members of the squad and selected Federal agents had been posted to the local package stores, in case the criminals decided to drop off the packages in person.

"No, Cassie told me they hadn't seen anything suspicious so far."

"So how'd you like working with Cassie?" Sandburg asked idly as he located a black briefcase among the packages.

"That's a rhetorical question, Chief. Fortunately it was only for an hour each day. Friday was the best day, I got to dump her in public. We gave the diners at the local Wonderburger something to talk about, other than their food."

"I'll bet," Blair murmured, settling back down on the beanbag chair and opening the briefcase. He balanced the portable recording and tracking unit on his knees. "Have you got your mike on? We need to do a sound check."

"Why do I need to be wired anyway?" Jim grumbled, minutely adjusting the tiny microphone hidden underneath the shirt collar of his uniform.

"C'mon, Jim. It's one thing for Simon to tell Messinger that I'm the University's expert in the 'sophisticated scanning equipment' you're using, it's another thing entirely for you to have a solid court case. We need tangible physical evidence to connect the smugglers to the drugs, and that means you're wearing a wire. That's SOP for undercover cases, anyway."

"What do you know about standard operating procedures, I thought you always used BSOP?"

"BSOP?"

Jim grinned, "Blair Sandburg Operating Procedures. Not for the faint-hearted."

"Ha, ha."

Ellison jumped down from the driver's side opening and walked to the back of the delivery truck. He yanked open the double doors and lowered the dolly to the ground, then started piling boxes and packages on it. "Chief, can you give me a hand?"

"Sorry, Jim, I'm all boxed in," Sandburg spoke from his seated position. "Besides, I'm here strictly to monitor you and the equipment. I'm not here at all, just a fly on the wall."

"Sandburg!" Jim snarled, Where's a good fly swatter when I need one?

"Don't you mean Shelton?" Sandburg's voice erupted over the microphone and Jim winced.

"Sorry, Jim," Sandburg said in a much softer tone as he lowered the volume knob on the compact control board. He couldn't resist adding, "I told you we needed to do a volume check."

Ellison ignored the comment and finished piling the necessary packages on the dolly. He walked around to the doorless gap by the driver's seat and reached into the van, extracting his electronic signature clipboard. He returned to the back of the truck and put the clipboard on top of the parcels, then rolled the stacked dolly down the parking lot and over to the first two - story building on his route.

Sandburg watched as, moments later, Jim skillfully maneuvered the full cart through an opened set of glass doors. Then Sandburg heard the dolly's wheels roll across a tile floor and into an elevator. He heard Jim pick up packages and then a cheerful female voice said, "Let me get the door for you."

"Thanks, Jennah." Sandburg heard a door open and close, some footsteps, then the sound of something heavy being set down.

"How was your weekend?"

"Fine, and yours?"

"Too short, especially at this time of year."

"I know what you mean. Here. Sign on lines one and two, please."

"Sure, Jim."

A few moments later, Sandburg heard Jim ask, "Do you have any outgoing packages?"

"Not today, probably tomorrow. There's coffee and Christmas cookies on the table over there. Help yourself."

"Thanks, I will."

"Have a nice day," Sandburg heard Jennah say as the door whooshed open then closed. Sandburg heard the dolly being rolled down a hallway, and Jim noisily munching a cookie.

He's doing that deliberately, he knows I'm picking up every sound he makes, Sandburg grumped to himself. The pattern continued as Jim worked his way through the building. Jennah, Sue, Erin, Linda, Corinna - Jim knew all the ladies by name. Either he's cranking up his vision to read nametags, or he's memorized everyone's name in a week, Sandburg thought. The ladies certainly knew Jim's name. I can hear them smiling when they say 'Jim'. Hmm, my partner, the babe magnet... maybe I should look into a part-time UPS job next Christmas? Offers of Christmas cake, cookies, soft drinks, fruit and coffee flowed.

Ellison progressed through the building, picking up and delivering packages. Just over half an hour later, he headed back outside, rolling the parcel-laden dolly through the parking lot and over to the UPS truck. Jim stopped by the opening towards the front of the truck, where an ordinary vehicle's passenger seat would be, and started stacking the new parcels on the empty floor. Then he walked around to the opposite side of the truck and climbed into the driver's seat. He glanced towards the back of the truck and saw Sandburg up on his feet, shifting boxes to make room for the new ones.

'Thought you were strictly observing, being a fly on the wall, Sandburg."

"Flies lead really boring lives, y'know?" Sandburg said, placing a box on top of three others. "Besides that, I didn't want my feet to fall asleep, I hate that pins-and-needles feeling... Have you ever felt that, Jim—I mean since your senses came back online? Hmmm, I wonder if you could control it, would you still walk funny, since your foot would technically still be asleep?"

"Hey, Chief!" Jim said. "One test at a time, okay. Platinum, remember?"

"Of course, I remember. We're here, the boxes are here, it's showtime." Sandburg pointed towards the driver's seat. "Sit, Fido. Time to do some real detective work."

Blair picked up the top box and handed it to Jim, now seated behind the wheel. "Okay, impress me."

Jim's fingers skimmed over the top of the box, following its edges, then slid down the corners to the bottom of the box. "Medical instruments," he announced. "Forceps, scalpels and two—no, three—stethoscopes."

Blair whistled. "Good job." He gave Jim a quick pat on the back and handed him another box. Jim identified that box's contents as pamphlets and worked his way through five more innocuous boxes. He checked out the next box, "Cosmetics."

"What kind of cosmetics?"

"You know, makeup."

"Hmm, women's makeup comes in all sorts of sizes and fragrances. This might be a good smoke screen for the Platinum." Blair leaned over the back of the driver's seat, placing his right hand firmly on Jim's shoulder. "Okay, Jim, concentrate. Tell me exactly what kind of makeup you can smell, separate out each odor, one at a time."

Ellison took a deep breath and lay both hands on the top of the package. "Two different bottles of foundation, three lipsticks, ah... at least five separate eye shadows, and a small bottle of perfume –White Shoulders."

"Very good, Jim. Nothing that smells like Platinum, tho', right?"

"Right, no Platinum."

Sandburg stepped over to the few remaining boxes and listened as Jim rattled off their contents. Jim wrinkled his nose and frowned while sniffing the last box.

"What is it, Jim?" Sandburg asked worriedly, reaching for the detective's upper arm.

Jim sighed. "Fruitcake."

"Ji-im!" Sandburg slapped his partner's arm. "You almost gave me a heart attack, man. Just for that, you can stack up the next load all by yourself."

"Can't you take a joke, Chief? Otherwise, it's going to be a long week," Jim warned lightly as he rose from the seat.

"Long week?" Blair mumbled, as he sat down in the beanbag chair. "It's been a long day—and it's only just started."

Jim stooped and held a napkin-wrapped bundle in front of Blair. "Here."

"What's this?"

"Peace offering," Jim said as Blair unfolded the paper napkin, revealing two decorated Santa-shaped cookies.

"Thanks, man." I forgot. Cops routinely joke about serious things, as a way to deal with the tension and stress—which means that Jim is taking this assignment very seriously. "Can I help?"

"No, you're already all settled in. Besides," Ellison rose to his feet and began shifting boxes. "It'll just take me a few minutes to get organized, then we're hitting the road." He quickly arranged the newly acquired and cleared boxes into neat stacks towards the front of the truck's storage space. He slid behind the wheel and started the truck. Ellison exited the parking lot and drove to the next office complex, two blocks down the street.

They established a pattern for the rest of the week. Jim picked up and delivered truckloads of packages, while Blair dutifully recorded his partner's conversations. Jim thoroughly scanned every outgoing package and carton, under Blair's watchful eye. Sandburg offered coaching and grounding help only on the packages whose contents were difficult to decipher. Mostly Sandburg observed, letting Jim's confidence in both his olfactory sense and his ability to control it grow daily. Friday arrived and the week's packages revealed that an incredible variety of items could be shipped by UPS, everything from axle grease to xylophones.

"Looking forward to tonight's party, huh, Chief?" Jim asked as he returned from his second delivery trip Friday morning. He stacked the boxes at the front of the truck, continuing, "I heard you humming 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' as soon as I stepped out into the parking lot."

"Yeah, I can't believe I'm actually going to see Simon dressed as Santa Claus. I wonder why the mayor picked on, er—picked him?"

Jim grinned as he walked around the front of the delivery truck, easily hearing Sandburg's question. He jumped up on the driver's side and settled in the seat. "Well, as 'Cop of the Year' as Steven likes to call me, I do have some influence with the mayor."

"Jim! You didn't. You did—? So that's how you're getting even with Simon for partnering you with Cassie last week!"

"'Getting even', Chief? I prefer to think of it as letting Simon personify the holiday spirit."

"'Personify', Tough Guy? You've been reading my dictionary again." Blair teased, then handed Jim the first box to be given the once-over. "What's in Box Number One?"

Ellison ran his fingers over the box's edges. "Goose-down feather pillows." He reached for the next box, "Sugar cookies with icing— homemade."

Sandburg handed him the next package, and Jim skimmed his fingers over the top of the medium-sized box. "Coffee," he said, sniffing appreciatively. "That hazelnut blend that Simon likes so much, and Hawaiian—Kona? Something else..." Jim cranked his sense of smell to maximum, tracking the elusive scent. "Platinum!" he exclaimed, hastily retracting his sense of smell as Sandburg grasped his shoulder.

"That's it Jim, shut it down," Blair spoke in his calmest Guide's voice. "Dial the knob down to zero, you don't smell anything. Are you with me?"

"Right here, Chief." Jim patted Blair's hand.

"You don't feel dizzy, or light-headed or anything?"

"Nope, I'm fine—one hundred percent." Jim pointed at the return address label. "Rick's American Coffee, ever heard of them?"

"No," Blair took out his notepad and scribbled the name and address of the shipper, as well as the addressee. "This is going to Chicago, so the information was right about it being shipped out-of-state."

Ellison leaned to his right and quickly scanned the return addresses on the other boxes. "Here's another one," he said, reaching for a similar-sized box and placing it in his lap. Blair's hand tightened on his shoulder.

"Okay, Jim, take it nice and easy," Blair coached as Jim extended his sense of smell again.

"Platinum," Ellison said a few seconds later.

"This one's going to Houston," Sandburg said, adding the name and address to his notepad. "Now what?"

"Now, we get back to my appointed rounds and finish the day's deliveries. We'll pass on the information to Messinger and Simon, then the Feds'll take it from here. Messinger wants to process the boxes like any other shipment, so he can make sure that no one inside UPS is involved with the drugs."

"And you're okay with that? I mean, this is really your collar, and some unknown Fed is going to get credit for the collar and all the glory."

"It's not going to be some unknown Fed, it's Agent Cameron. Besides, it's not important who gets the collar, what's important here is that Cascade's high school students—and Chicago's and Houston's— won't be adding 'Platinum' to their street vocabulary."

"I am down with that, man. Let's get back to work. Mush, Fido!"

Christmas morning, Blair was poking around under the lighted tree, in front of the balcony windows. They had put the tree up two Sundays ago, just before Jim's stint as a deliveryman. Jim had been in charge of the lights, so they hung evenly distributed throughout the tree and blinked in synchronized order. Blair had placed the ornaments on the tree, a mixture of Jim's traditional mono-colored Christmas globes and handmade bread, glass and wood ornaments and knickknacks that Blair had acquired from around the world. Sandburg had lightly tossed clumps of icicles on the decorated tree, insisting that that was the only way for the icicles to hang naturally; Jim had been equally insistent that Sandburg picked up any stray icicles that didn't land on the tree.

Sandburg picked up the last two presents and stood. He walked over to Jim, comfortably relaxing in the couch. "Here," he handed Jim a flat rectangular package and sat down next to him. "It's from me."

"Saving the best for last?" Jim asked with a smile as he took the package. He felt around the edges of the package. "It's a picture," he said and Sandburg rolled his eyes. "The frame is jacaranda bark." From South America—Peru, I'll bet. Jim carefully placed his fingers on the package, making a concerted effort to feel the differing brushstrokes beneath the gaily colored Christmas wrapping. "It's an animal, surrounded by foliage." Jim efficiently unwrapped the present, and examined the exposed painting of a stalking jaguar prowling amidst the lush jungle greenery. "Thank you, Chief."

"You're welcome," Blair said, then grinned. "That was awesome, man."

"Just a little something my Guide taught me," Jim lightly chucked Blair's chin.

"I didn't think that particular lesson took."

"It took a while to sink in," Jim agreed, then added, "I think I'll always be learning from you." He glanced at the last wrapped present. "Your turn."

Sandburg stared at the book-shaped package for a second, then tore the wrapping paper off of it, revealing a turn-of-the-century leather-bound book in mint condition. He opened the collector's item to its end page and read the pencilled in inscription, "To Blair, for your research. From Jim, AKA Grumpy." Blair flipped to the glossy title page, Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm.

"Merry Christmas, Chief!"

the end

A/N: This story is re-posted from the now-defunct Mackie's Idol Pursuit website. It's also a stirling example of my tendency to procrastinate, as it's posted two days after Christmas;-P