Rated G. No animals were harmed during the writing of this story.
Many thanks to Kathleen, my blessed, beloved beta, who doesn't even blink when given only a moment's notice.
This one is for Angie because without her,
it never would have existed (especially the title). I mean, seriously,
I'm weird, but even *I* wouldn't think to throw these items together for
a challenge. <g> I tossed in some warm fuzzies for you, Angie!
DUCK TAKES A HOLIDAY
Jim scowled at the cans on the shelf. No pumpkin. There should've been a can of pumpkin. He'd bought it himself less than two weeks ago and had placed it on the shelf. Now it was gone.
For that matter, so were some of his other purchases. The corn was missing, there was only one can of sweet potatoes instead of the three he'd previously placed in the cabinet, and the carrots had vanished. In fact, there seemed to be an alarming amount of space on the usually well-stocked bottom shelf. Two cans of hominy and a jar of candied beets remained.
There had been no reports of food thefts from local home owners, so unless he'd taken to hiding canned goods while sleepwalking, there was only one likely culprit: Blair. But why?
Jim closed his eyes and bounced his head against the cabinet door a few times, trying to recall their conversations, few and far between over the past week. Jim had been unusually busy at the station as criminals stepped up their efforts in an attempt to beat the holiday rush. Likewise, Blair had spent a great deal of time at Rainier, grading and advising, in the hope that he would be caught up and responsibility-free by Thanksgiving. Their joint time at the station had been filled with paperwork, witness interviews, and tedious investigations. Beyond that, verbal exchanges were reduced to snatches in passing and the occasional phone call.
Phone call. Blair had called one afternoon...something about a food drive for the needy...how it was all about holiday spirit and giving and God bless us everyone...and he'd promised to restock as soon as he had time. Case solved, Jim thought wryly, but that did nothing to replace the missing items. He sighed heavily and slapped the cabinet door closed. Time to make up a grocery list...again.
He grabbed a pen and a piece of scrap paper and began writing, stopping occasionally to check for anything else they might need. He finished the list, pleased that his frustration level hadn't effected its legibility. Blair wouldn't be able to use Jim's poor penmanship as an excuse to avoid making good on his word.
"Uh-uh, Tiny Tim," Jim muttered as he tucked the list into his shirt pocket, "*I'm* not wading through half-crazed last minute shoppers the day before Thanksgiving. You emptied the shelves, so you get the honor of refilling them." A distant clang caught his attention and he smiled. "Speak of the devil."
Jim dialed up his hearing as Blair exited the elevator and made his way toward the loft door. The younger man seemed to be shuffling, as though burdened by an awkward load, and he was talking to himself. No, he was talking to someone else. Jim detected only a single pair of footsteps, though there was an erratic flap-flap sound becoming more evident. A tiny child wearing sandals? In this weather?
A rustle, a bang against the door, and finally the knob turned and Blair entered. He struggled with what appeared to be an inner tube, a diaper bag, a few texts, and his own bookbag, yet his ability to speak remained unaffected.
"...right in here where it's nice and warm. Oh yeah, sweetheart, you're gonna love this place. It's open, it's well lit--hi, Jim--it's peaceful...well, except when criminals break down the door and start shooting, but we're not gonna let that happen, are we Uncle Jim? So you just come in and make yourself at home."
"Uncle" Jim watched as Blair promptly dumped everything on the floor and then removed his scarf and coat. His fuzzy "Fargo" hat, flaps down, remained perched on top of his head as he stepped back to the door and peered around the corner. "It's okay. You can come in. He won't bite."
It wasn't a child.
It wasn't even human.
And it wasn't wearing sandals. Sandals wouldn't have been comfortable on such large webbed feet.
"That's a duck," Jim announced in a matter-of-fact voice, like that of a child identifying objects on flashcards.
Blair's jaw dropped open. "Oh my gosh, Jim! That sentinel sight of yours is just amazing! Only six feet away and you could tell it was a duck!"
Jim tore his gaze away from their visitor long enough to glare at Blair. "Keep it up and you're going to be picking feathers out of your teeth. Now, you've got thirty seconds to explain before you and Daffy get to see who can fly furthest from the balcony."
"No, not 'no.' Snow. The duck's name is Snow, not Daffy. Daffy is black. Snow is white. Geez! Some detective *you* are."
Jim closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Sandburg..."
Blair picked up his bookbag and carried it to his room. The duck followed. "She belongs to Doctor Noori's daughter," he called from beyond the French doors. "You remember Doctor Noori, don't you? Anyway, she and her husband were planning a party of some sort a few months ago and decided to have duck something-or-other as the main dish." Blair emerged from his room, crossed to his heap of belongings, and scooped up his books. The duck followed.
"So they ordered a duck from this...duck farm or whatever, expecting it to arrive at their door dead, plucked, and dressed. Well, the duck arrived--in a crate and very much alive." Blair returned to his room, shifting the books into a more manageable position as he walked. The duck followed. "So while the Doctors Noori are staring dumbstruck at the crate and its contents, little Esther spots the duck and bammo, instant pet." Blair exited his room once more, passed Jim and strode into the kitchen. The duck followed. "I mean, it wasn't as if either of *them* was going to say, 'Esther honey, don't get attached to the duck 'cause we'll be eating it later,'" Blair explained as he prepared a cup of tea. "Anyway, Esther got a pet duck and the Nooris opted to serve chicken cacciatore."
"That's a heartwarming story, Sandburg. Sell it to Disney. Now, tell me why Esther's pet duck is walking around in our kitchen."
Blair stirred his tea, then removed the spoon and deposited in the kitchen sink. He ambled back to what remained of his pile. The duck followed.
"The Nooris wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Seattle with Shardul's mom, so I offered to duck sit."
"That's what Shardul said."
"I'll bet. Look, Chief, couldn't they just board the duck somewhere? At a kennel or a bird sanctuary or something?"
"Snow is a very sensitive duck, Jim. The Nooris didn't want to traumatize her by boarding her in an overcrowded, noisy kennel."
"Oh, but it's okay to traumatize *me*?"
"She's just a duck, Jim. You won't even know she's here." Blair knelt down to retrieve the diaper bag.
"What's in there?"
"Her food and toys."
"Toys? The duck has toys?"
"They're supposed to keep her from biting."
"I dunno. Table legs...houseplants...people."
Jim took a deep breath and began counting to ten. He made it to three.
"What's that?" He indicated that inner-tube-like object now in Blair's grasp.
"Hey, man, ducks gotta swim."
Jim exhaled almost violently. "How long?"
"Just until tomorrow evening. Then Snowball goes back home."
"Yeah, that's her full name. I call her Snow, though. It's a bit more dignified. I mean, I'd look rather silly running around the city with a duck, saying, 'C'mon, Snowball.'"
"See? Anyway, like I said, she'll just be with us for a day and then she's gone." Blair place the diaper bag on the dining room table then took the deflated pool into his bedroom. The duck followed. "I'll put this on the balcony later and fill it up."
"Won't she fly away?"
"Nah, her wings have been clipped. She can glide a bit, but her flying ability sucks. Besides, I'll be with her the entire time." Blair left his room and headed back into the kitchen for his tea. The duck followed.
Jim's eyes wandered from Blair to the duck. The squat little fowl seemed to gaze adoringly at Blair, emitting little clucks from deep in her throat as she waddled along behind him. "I think she's in love with you, Chief."
Blair grinned. "Not quite. Watch." He reached up and plucked his furry hat from atop his furrier head and tossed it toward the couch where it landed on the floor. Snow scampered after the hat, her round body doing a fair imitation of a Weeble as she slid clumsily across the hardwood floor. The muffled little clucks of before grew into raucous quacks, subsiding only after she caught up with the hat...and began preening it. Jim could only stare in amazement as the duck nuzzled and picked at the hat, evidently unperturbed by its lack of response.
"It's the hat," Blair chuckled. "She *loves* my hat." He sipped his tea, choking as he continued laugh.
Jim shook his head. "There's no accounting for taste."
"Hey, speaking of taste, we need to get started with the pies. The casserole and vegetables can wait until tomorrow, but the--what? What did I do now?"
"Oh, nothing much. You just gave almost every bit of food we had...and forgot to replace it."
"Oh, man, I totally forgot!" Blair smacked his forehead soundly. Jim was tempted to add his own swat. "I'm sorry, man! With all that's been going on it slipped my mind."
"Did you have to give them *everything*?"
"Jim, man, it's a food drive for needy families. We have to help out those who are less fortunate."
"Well, then why the hell didn't you give them the hominy and beets?"
"Because that would be cruel and unusual punishment! Besides, those things have been here forever."
"They have not!"
"They were here when I moved in!"
Jim opened his mouth to deny it, but a long forgotten memory surfaced. "Carolyn liked beets."
"That long, huh?" Blair grimaced and shuddered.
"Well, that doesn't change the fact that we're without most of what we need to pull this dinner off tomorrow." Jim extracted the list from his pocket and thrust it toward Blair. "Here you go, buddy. Don't be gone long."
Blair stared at the list but made no move to take it. "Um, Jim, aren't you forgetting something?"
Jim glanced down at Snow. The duck was oblivious to all but Blair's hat. "Take her with you." Jim waved the list under Blair's nose. The younger man grudgingly took it.
"I'll need your keys."
Jim snorted. "No, I don't think so. What's wrong with your car?"
"Nothing. It's been running great. That's why I loaned it to Jason." Blair's voice took on a teacher-dealing-with-dense-student tone that grated on Jim's last nerve. "I told you that he was going to borrow it to pick his sister up at the airport, remember?"
Jim felt his jaw clenching of its own accord. "Fine. We'll all go."
Blair nearly dropped his cup of tea. "*All* of us?"
"Yep!" Jim lifted his coat from its spot on the rack and shrugged into it, then took Blair's tea from him and sat the cup on the counter. " I'm not letting you drive my truck with an unleashed animal, I'm not going to stay here and baby sit, and I'm *not* leaving you here alone with it. The last time I left you alone in the loft with an animal I spent four hours cleaning up." He opened the door and crooked his arm like a traffic cop. "Let's get this over with."
Blair looked at him for a long moment, then picked his hat up from the floor, plopped it on his head, and trudged through the front door.
The duck followed.
Jim tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as the elderly driver backed his Cadillac out of the parking space with glacial speed. The moment the oversized car cleared the yellow lines, Jim whirled into the spot, put the truck into Park, and turned to Blair.
"Get everything just like it appears on the list. No substitutions."
"'No substitutions,'" Blair mocked in a whiny voice. "Geez! We wouldn't want to piss off the Jolly Green Giant by choosing Del Monte instead, would we?"
Jim made a shooing motion with his hand. "Just get the stuff and get out, okay?"
Blair opened the truck door and slid from the seat. Snow started his direction, but Jim placed a restraining hand on her back. Blair hurriedly closed the door and jogged toward the store's entrance, dodging cars and other shoppers. Jim looked down at the mass of feathers under his hand.
"It's just you and me, kid." Snow clicked and clucked her reply.
Jim watched shoppers enter and leave the store in a steady stream. He allowed his mind to drift, almost hypnotized by the endless parade of holiday humanity...until a glass-shattering scream ripped through the air, making his hair stand on end.
Those entering the store suddenly stopped, uncertain, as the exit exploded with terrified shoppers pushing and shoving and scrambling for cover. Jim simultaneously searched for Blair amongst the frantic mob, dialed up his hearing while tuning out the hysterical din, and reached for his radio. He focused on the store, searching, searching...found.
/"...cash in the bag or I'll splatter your brains across the floor, ya hear?!"/
/"Please don't shoot! Oh God, please...."/
/"Just shut up and do it! Robby, what's wrong over there?"/
/"I got me a hero here, Mick! Tried to save the day! Well, hero, you don't look so heroic right now, do you?"/
/"Look, man, just calm down. You and your friend are holding all the cards, so just relax, take whatever you came for and leave."/
Jim held the radio mic in a crushing grip as he relayed information to the station. "...and tell Captain Banks that Sandburg is smack dab in the middle of it," he added before tossing the mic onto the seat, killing the engine, and bolting from the truck.
Well, this is an odd development, she thought as she looked around. First the furry one with the fuzzy offspring had abandoned her, and now the bigger-and-not-so-furry one was doing the same. It was all just a bit unnerving.
She watched the bigger-and-not-so-furry one dash toward a large building, waving at an odd assortment of other featherless creatures that were squawking and hooting and making quite a fuss. They frightened her. She wanted to be with the furry one and his fuzzy offspring again. The bigger-and-not-so-furry one had rushed off, but he had been kind enough to leave a hole open in his ugly-noisy-house-that-moves, so if she ran very quickly she could catch up and perhaps he would take her to the furry one and his fuzzy offspring.
Jim pulled his gun as he careened around the corner of the store--and narrowly avoided plowing into a tiny herd of hysterical employees as they poured from a back exit. The sight of his gun did nothing to calm them, so he whipped out his badge and flashed it for all to see.
"What's going on in there?" The reply was a cacophony of chatter and squeals. "Whoa! One at a time! You," he pointed to a young woman whose demeanor implied at least a modicum of authority, "tell me what's happening."
"There's a guy with a gun," she began, squeezing her fists together as though afraid her sanity would slip through her fingertips. "He's got Beth, our head cashier. And there was another guy, too, only he has a knife. He's got Derek and some other guy cornered."
Jim didn't need anyone to tell him who the "other guy" was. "Can you tell me where they're all located?"
The woman nodded. "Beth is in the far corner at the customer service desk. It's over by the paper goods. Derek and the others are one aisle over, aisle 11, where the baby stuff is."
Jim patted the woman's arm. "Thanks. Okay, move your people away from the store. More officers are on their way. Get to the first one you see and tell them that Detective Ellison has entered the building. Tell them everything you just told me. Can you do that?"
"Yeah," she said, nodding again, "but shouldn't you wait for backup?"
A small smile forced its way to Jim's lips. "Your last name wouldn't happen to be Banks, would it?"
"No, it's Stouffer. Katherine Stouffer."
"Okay, Miss Stouffer. Get going." Jim spared the tiny group a quick glance before proceeding to the door. He dialed up his hearing. Assured that the area was clear, he propped the door open with a nearby crate and stepped inside.
She moved away from the thinning crowds of featherless creatures, relieved to discover that the bigger-and-not-so-furry one was just ahead. A smaller, quieter group of featherless creatures had surrounded him moments before, but now they were moving her direction. She crouched between the large building and a sleeping house-that-moves as they scurried by, then continued toward her target. She watched as he entered the large building, but she was not worried. Once again he had left a hole open for her.
Jim stole silently through the storeroom, weaving around boxes and racks as he made his way to the open interior door. He could hear several voices on the other side, and he swallowed a gasp of fear at the sound of Blair's soft voice, calm but tinged with desperation and pain.
/"...stay cool, everything will be all right."/
/"But you're bleeding!"/
/"Well, next time he'll think twice before playing the Good Samaritan, won't you, hero?"/
/"Is that all of it?"/
/"The manager just made a deposit. That's all I have left back here. P-Please, don't hurt me!"/
/"Great! Just great! Damn it, Robby, let's get out of here! This place will be crawling with cops any minute!"/
/"In a sec! I think hero here needs a lesson!"/
/"Hey, man, back off! He didn't do anything to you!"/
/"It's okay, Derek. Just stay out of it."/
/"Yeah, *Derek*! Stay out of it, unless you wanna get cut too!"/
/"Look, your friend is right. You'd better leave while you can. I guarantee you the police will be here soon, if they're not already."/
/"C'mon, Robby! Now!"/
/"Shut up, Mick! I'll leave after I deal with hero! Man, I oughta kill you just for wearing that stupid hat!"/
Jim flexed his fingers around his gun and eased up to the door. He peeked around the corner, zeroing in on a wide, round security mirror that hung from the ceiling in the northeast corner of the store. It wasn't x-ray vision, but it sufficed.
A man with a gun--Mick, he guessed--stood outside the customer service area. The gun was lowered as if he'd forgotten he was carrying it, and he bounced back and forth like a base runner waiting to steal. His attention wavered between the crying woman behind the counter, the glass storefront, and the drama unfolding a few feet away.
The other man--Robby--was one aisle closer to Jim. He brandished a hunting knife threateningly, jabbing and slashing the air around Blair and a younger man. Jim narrowed his focus...and caught his breath. Blair was grasping his left forearm with the opposite hand, but it did little to stem the blood seeping through his coat sleeve and trickling between his fingers.
Taking a deep breath to relax both gut and jaw, Jim slunk toward the aisle with catlike stealth. He used the security mirror to monitor the scene while praying that neither of the thieves would notice *his* reflection. He could hear the sirens as backup units arrived but he was running out of time.
/"They're here, Robby! Let's go!"/
/"I've got a little unfinished business!"/
/"Fine, man! You can go down, but I ain't goin' with ya!"/
Jim cleared the remaining aisles in record time and aimed his gun. "Freeze! Cascade Police!"
Without missing a beat Robby grabbed Blair's arm. "You freeze, pig!" he screamed, pointing the knife at Blair's side. Mick bolted around an end cap, and Jim listened as his footsteps echoed toward the back of the store. One down...
He cautiously advanced toward Robby, closing the distance between them. "You don't stand a chance. Drop it. Now!"
"Hey, man, I'm the one with the hostages, in case you hadn't--umph!"
She clicked and clucked comfortingly to herself as she lumbered through the dark room toward another hole. Brightness beckoned her from the other side, and she picked up her pace. She had lost sight of the bigger-but-not-so-furry one, but she could hear voices so she knew he must still be near. A half dozen more steps brought her into daylight.
The bigger-but-not-so-furry one was creeping along in an odd manner. She followed him briefly, but his movements alarmed her. Perhaps she would do better on her own.
Her first order of business was to find the furry one and his fuzzy offspring, but they were nowhere to be seen. She longed to hop onto something from which she would have a better view, but this place was full of walls that rose straight up from the floor. She could only jump short distances. Frustrated, she gave her body a vigorous wag from beak to tail.
Then she spotted it. It was a stack made of many different colors, but it was definitely a climbing thing, and from the top she would be able to see much better. She clucked victoriously and waddled to its base.
The first step was a doozy, but she succeeded. She ascended steadily, proud of her ingenuity, and finally reached the summit. She gazed about and was almost instantly rewarded. There in the distance, peeping over one of the walls, was the fuzzy offspring! She wagged her tail, took aim, and launched herself toward it.
The fuzzy offspring abruptly shifted, and she changed her trajectory to match its new location. Too late she saw the mountain of squishy block things. Her altitude was too low! She emitted a warning squawk, flapped her wings frantically, and brought her powerful feet forward, but impact was unavoidable. She hit the mountain at an angle and rebounded with a glancing kick. The mountain shuddered, then toppled and collapsed.
She cleared the remaining obstacles and was thrilled to see the bigger-but-not-so-furry one grab the furry one and his fuzzy offspring away from the avalanche of squishy block things. She glided gracelessly to the floor, her body quaking from the ordeal. She slowly turned around, steeling herself for the mess she was certain she'd see, but still a fretful squawk escaped when she beheld the sight.
Oh dear! A featherless creature lay beneath the crumbled mountain of squishy block things!
Jim saw the white-feathered missile a mere half-second before it slammed into the Everest-high stack of Pampers and plopped to the ground, but it was enough. He used his advantage to lunge toward Robby and pull Blair from harm's way as over one hundred pounds of extra-absorbent disposable diapers crashed onto the knife-wielding thief.
An eerie serenity descended over the scene, broken only by a woman's muffled sobs and the squawk of an agitated duck. Jim looked at Blair, who looked at Derek, who looked at Jim, then all eyes dropped to Snow. Derek pointed.
"That's a duck."
A commotion from the front of the store alerted Jim to the arrival of other officers. He shook off his stupor and dug through the heap of Pampers' bags to rescue Robby and retrieve the knife. Rattling off the Miranda, he pulled the dazed man to his feet just as a several police officers, guns drawn, stampeded into the aisle. Jim passed off his prisoner to an officer then turned his attention to Blair.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Jim," Blair assured him. "I just got a little too close to the knife."
"It was my fault," Derek offered. "I was asking Mr. Sandburg about an assignment--I go to Rainier--when all hell broke loose. People were running and screaming...it was nuts! I saw the guys and tried to tackle the one with the knife. Um, that didn't work so well. The guy came after me, and Mr. Sandburg kinda...jumped in between."
"Uh-huh." Jim pried Blair's fingers from around his arm and pulled apart the slashed edges of his coat sleeve. The thick material had done much to dull the impact of the knife, but blood still flowed freely from the gash. "Derek, why don't you see how Beth is...and tell one of the officers that we need a paramedic." Jim waited until the young man was out of earshot then turned to his partner and raised one eyebrow. "'Jumped in between'?"
Blair shrugged. "He was going after Derek with a knife, Jim. I couldn't just stand there and watch."
"So you just flung yourself right into the middle of it."
"I had to do *something*. Next time, I'll just lob a can of Alpo at him."
"I'm being facetious, Jim."
"Uh-huh." Jim placed his arm around Blair's waist and guided him through the shallow end of the Pampers pile. Seconds later he heard a plaintive quack. Passing Blair off to a waiting paramedic, he waded back through the Pampers and gathered Snow into his arms. He carried her over to Blair, cooing and lightly scratching the back of her head to soothe her, then deposited her at Blair's feet. He gently removed the "Fargo" hat from his partner's head, dropped it to the ground, and was immediately rewarded with the contented clicks and clucks of a happy duck.
The paramedic glanced down. "That's a duck," he announced as he pulled a package from his med kit.
"So I've noticed. How's the arm?" Jim asked, leaning against the bottled water display upon which Blair perched.
"He's gonna need stitches," replied the paramedic as he began winding gauze around Blair's arm. "The wound is small but deep."
Jim draped an arm around Blair's shoulders and produced a longsuffering sigh. "You're not gonna be much help in the kitchen this evening, are you?"
"I can turn the stove on and off," Blair offered cheerily.
"Swell. Well, I guess--"
The whoosh of automatic doors...the pungent odor of cigar smoke...Jim dialed his hearing down.
"Ellison! Sandburg! What the hell is going on here?!"
"It's a long story, Simon."
Jim watched Simon's scowl soften considerably at the sight of Blair's injury. "You okay, Blair?"
"I'll live, Simon."
"Two guys tried to--"
"Detective Ellison!" A uniformed officer waved from the main doorway. "They've spotted the other perp!"
Jim gave Blair a parting pat on the back. "You explain it to him, Chief. Oh, and Simon," Jim called over his shoulder as he ran for the doors, "Blair's got a list of things we're gonna need for tomorrow. Pick them up for us, will you? Otherwise, Thanksgiving dinner will be limited to whatever you and Megan bring over." The doors hissed shut behind him, but the rich baritone of Simon's voice drifted beyond the glass barrier.
"'A list'? He wants me to shop for groceries at a time---hey, that's a duck."
Mick, Jim decided, was a likely candidate for "America's Dumbest Criminals."
His getaway car was an older model Ford Taurus painted to resemble the red and white Torino of "Starsky and Hutch" fame. Once he'd escaped through the store's back entrance and jumped into the hardly inconspicuous vehicle, he'd driven from behind the building and passed through the front parking lot in full view of several witnesses. He'd burst onto the main road, barreled around the corner of Jefferson Avenue, blasted past three blocks of city traffic, swung into a "no parking" space at the curb...and parked.
Jim slowed his truck to a crawl half a block down the road and dialed up his sight. Mick stood beside the car, his arms resting on the hood. He nibbled nervously at a thumbnail while scanning the road, but he apparently hadn't seen the black-and-white lurking at the corner.
Jim inched along the street, hoping that the passing cars would mask his deliberate approach. Closer...closer...almost there...
Tires squealed and Jim's head snapped to the right. A crimson-faced man in a midnight blue Blazer pulled alongside him.
"Get out of the way, asshole!" the driver bellowed out his open window. "You drive like an old lady!" With that, the man flipped him off and sped away.
The commotion ruined Jim's plans for a sneak attack. The young thief leaped back into his car and peeled away from the curb. Horns blared, breaks screeched, and pedestrians screamed as the Striped Tomato-wannabe fishtailed through the crosswalk. The black-and-white at the end of the street lurched forward but then stopped, its progress impeded by gawkers and motorists alike.
"Damn it!" Jim flipped on his lights and siren and gunned his own engine, veering right, left, right again, barely avoiding numerous collisions as he pursued Mick through holiday traffic. The distance between them lessened, but Jim was hesitant to close it entirely. A reckless chase on such crowded streets was bound to end tragically, and there was still the risk that Mick might use his gun.
Jim projected his vision ahead, willing a police roadblock to appear. What he saw instead catapulted his heart into his throat. The road ahead was blocked by two SUVs, a Cherokee and a midnight blue Blazer, and two men stood in the center of the street. They shouted angrily and shoved each other, oblivious to the vehicle bearing down on them. At the last horrific second, the Taurus pitched to the right and rear-ended the Blazer.
Jim slammed on his brakes, stopping just short of the Taurus. He clambered from his truck, his gun in one hand and his badge in the other. He flashed the latter toward would-be Samaritans.
"Cascade PD. Everyone step back onto the sidewalk, please."
A brief glimpse was all it took to convince the sentinel that his weapon was superfluous. A howling Mick held his head in his hands and rocked back and forth. Jim pulled the car's door open, noted both the cash bag and the gun lying on the floorboard, and relaxed. He gripped Mick's arm and dragged him from the car. "You're under arrest."
"Oh, man, he's gonna kill me!"
"You have the right to remain silent."
"I wrecked his car, man!" Mick howled. "I killed his baby!"
"If you give up that right, any--"
"I'm sooo dead!"
Jim gave up. He slipped his cuffs around Mick's wrists and spun him around. "Next time, drive more carefully."
"It's your fault! You scared me! I didn't expect you to come after me so soon!"
Jim shook his head and laughed. "You drove three blocks from the crime scene then stopped. The only thing you *didn't* do was staple a sign to your forehead that said, 'Here I am. Arrest me.'"
"Hey, man," Mick snarled, indignation flashing in his eyes, "it's Robby's car! I couldn't just drive off with it! That'd be stealing!"
Jim blinked several times, blinded by the man's glaring stupidity. A uniformed officer approached and Jim shoved Mick toward him. "Read him his rights then book him. Armed robbery, reckless driving...and operating a body without a functioning brain cell."
Megan's musical laugh drew Jim's attention from the pie in front of him to the spectacle in the living room. Blair was engaged in a tug-of-war with Snow over the "Fargo" hat, and the duck was winning. Jim chuckled, then glanced over his shoulder in time to see Simon lift the foil from one edge of the turkey platter and reach in.
"Uh-uh-uh!" Jim turned and wagged a finger at him. "That's a no-no."
"Jim," Simon whispered conspiratorially, his hand still poised to strike, "the kid never has to know. I'll just pinch of a little off the wing..."
"After the Nooris pick up Snow, Simon." Jim carried the pumpkin pie to the dining room table. "We promised."
"*You* promised," Simon corrected. "I stood there in shock and Blair took my silence as acquiescence. I mean, come on, Jim! Whoever heard of delaying dinner just to spare a duck's 'feelings'?"
"Snow is a very sensitive duck, Simon" Blair said, smacking Simon's hand away from the platter as he passed by him on the way to the stove. "After everything else she's been through, I don't think she needs to see us--pardon the pun--gobbling down a distant cousin."
"Oh, gimme a break."
"Hey, imagine how horrible you'd feel if you saw one of your relatives lying on a platter with his feet stuck up in the air."
"You obviously haven't met some of my relatives," Simon deadpanned.
Jim intercepted Blair as the younger man, his arm swathed in bandages, tried to lift a pot from the stove. "Let me get that before you end up back at the emergency room," he said, carefully but firmly nudging Blair aside. He poured the contents into a nearby bowl.
Simon sniffed appreciatively. "Mmmm! Smells wonderful, Jim! You've outdone yourself."
"Hey," Blair piped up, "I helped!"
Simon looked doubtfully at Blair, then pointed at his arm. "And just how much help could you have been with *that* thing?"
"Um...I, um...I turned the stove on...and off...the oven, too...and I got things down out of the cabinet--"
"When he could reach them," Jim added, dodging Blair's punch and safely delivering the spiced carrots to the table.
"--and I set the table--"
"...one plate at a time..." Thwip! Jim winced as the wet dishtowel smacked him in the back of the head.
"--and I stirred things while they cooked."
Simon clapped his hands. "I'm impressed, Sandburg. It's obvious that Jim would've been lost without you."
"You did a marvelous job, Sandy," Megan offered from the living room.
Blair bowed with a dramatic flourish. "Thank you, *Megan*. It's nice to get some respect."
Jim heard movement in the hallway but waited for the visitors to knock before speaking. "Think you can manage the door, Mr. Dangerfield?"
Blair sauntered over to the door, flexed his biceps, then with a body builder-style grimace he grasped the doorknob in his right hand and turned it. To Jim's relief, he adopted a normal facial expression before opening the door.
"Pam! Shardul! Glad to see you! How was the trip?"
Jim smiled and waved to the elder Nooris as they entered the loft, but as he crossed the room to join them a tiny lightning bolt zinged into the room, bounced off his legs, and raced into the living room.
Jim watched, amazed, as the duck stood on the tips of her feet and beat her wings furiously, then with a mighty quack she Weebled across the floor into Esther's waiting arms. The "Fargo" hat sat alone, forlorn, forgotten.
The next few minutes were a flurry of words...no, she was no trouble at all...you should watch the local news tonight...here's her bag and her pool...sure, call anytime...why yes, Esther, I'd love to give Snow a kiss bye-bye.
The momentary silence that arose in the wake of the Nooris' departure was thunderous.
"Nice people," Megan declared.
"Yes, they are," Jim agreed.
"Their daughter's adorable."
"Yes, she is."
"The duck's cute, too."
"Yes, it is."
"Can we eat now?"
Jim detoured through the kitchen to grab a bottle of wine while Simon snatched up the turkey and bore it reverently to the table. Blair pulled out a chair for Megan, then did his best to push it in again with his one good arm. Jim set the wine on the table and assisted Blair with his chivalrous endeavor, then waited for Blair to sit so he could help him with his own chair. Finally, Jim dropped into a chair. He sighed contentedly, looked at those gathered around him, and burst into laughter.
"Okay," Blair giggled, "I guess a formal, solemn holiday observance is out of the question."
Jim shook his head. "Not gonna happen."
"Well, instead of a formal prayer, why don't we all just mention one thing we're grateful for, hmm?"
Jim looked around the table. Megan was nodding. Simon was eyeing the turkey. "Okay, but let's keep it simple." He opened the wine and poured some into each of their glasses.
Blair grinned. "Okay, I'll start. I'm grateful that the Sandburg luck came through yesterday."
Now it was Simon's turn to laugh. "Is that the good luck or the bad luck?"
"There isn't any bad luck in the Sandburg family."
"You walk into a grocery store, it gets held up, you almost get your arm cut off--"
"C'mon, Simon! It's just a scratch! Don't exagger--"
"Scratches don't require stitch--"
"Gentlemen!" Megan's uncharacteristic volume stunned Jim, but it had the desired effect. Both Simon and Blair froze in mid-sentence. "Now," she continued in a softer, honeyed voice, "let me see...I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with Cascade's finest."
Jim winked jauntily at her. "Your turn, Simon."
"I'm grateful that my son is safe and happy and slowly driving me insane."
Jim's smile widened. "I'll bet.?"
Blair held up his bandaged arm. "I'm also grateful that I still have an arm to bandage."
Simon nodded and patted Blair's shoulder. "Agreed. What about you, Jim?"
Jim's eyes roamed around the table, from Megan, to Simon, to Blair...and there they rested. He raised his glass of wine.
"I'm grateful for a brave little duck with impeccable timing."
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