Payback’s a Banana
By Gil Hale – firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply.
Author’s Notes: May Themefic for the SentinelAngst List—”Missing scenes or epilogues from the first two seasons, and stories featuring mothers of any of the characters.”
Jim Ellison threw the last broken piece of a mug into the garbage bag he had almost filled. He glanced at his watch. Two hours. Two hours he’d been cleaning up the disaster area one small Barbary ape had created in the loft. Where the hell was Sandburg?
He straightened up slightly stiffly—he’d picked up a few bruises in the pursuit of Williams—and looked round the loft. It was almost acceptable again. Everything broken, torn or ripped had been thrown out, spills had been mopped up, and scratches and stains given a temporary treatment. Luckily anything that really mattered to him tended to be locked away. He hoped that was true of Sandburg’s stuff too, though the kid had little enough in the way of possessions anyway after the spectacular destruction of the warehouse he’d been calling home.
Those remaining belongings had mostly been piled in boxes in the small spare room. Jim looked in at the chaos there and wondered whether to make a start on it. He’d left it ’til last because he had no idea what was important in the mess of scattered papers which now lay in drifts on top of heaps of clothes and partly torn cardboard boxes. Of course, it was hard to be certain how much of the muddle Larry had caused and how much was the way Sandburg normally left his room, but he winced at the sight of torn books. He’d known the kid for long enough to realise he would mind that more than anything.
A slight sound somewhere lower in the building caught his attention. It was at ground level, he realised, well beyond the range of normal hearing. Without intending to, he must have been listening for the return of his temporary roommate.
He listened deliberately now; he was able to extend his hearing at will these days, and sometimes almost relished the ability. It was Sandburg all right, sounding a bit ragged as he came up the stairs, and muttering more uncharitable things about Larry than even Jim had been thinking. Jim opened the door just before Blair got to it. He meant it as a friendly gesture, not a startling one, but Blair made a noise like a strangled parrot and leapt backwards.
“Whoa, give me a heart attack why don’t you?” he said irritably.
“You know me,” Jim said smoothly. “Always practising those senses like you tell me, Chief. What happened to you, anyway. Larry give you trouble?” There was a large scratch down Blair’s cheek, and a bandage on his hand, but he looked more annoyed than hurt.
“Trouble? You wouldn’t believe it, man. I really understand that ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ thing. I mean, I could tell Larry was terrified of the animal control people, so since he was safely back in his cage I said I’d take him back to the animal house myself. I know the man who does night duty there; he’s a kind old chap. All the apes love him.”
“All the apes?” Jim had always thought of Larry as a sort of solo act.
“Sure. They have a small colony there. They’re social creatures. Some people study their interaction. Anyway, I could tell Larry was pretty mad at me from the way he was chittering in the car, but I said soothing things all the way and gave him a bit of fruit. We’ve been buddies for weeks. You’d think he’d remember all that popcorn and those hours of having the best place on the couch…”
“But when you let him out, he bit you,” Jim said hastily as Blair paused, either for breath or to muse on the ingratitude of it. Not that Jim was unsympathetic—really—but he was tired, and the punch line of this had been signalled a long time ago.
Blair nodded. “Yeah. I think he blames me for the whole Animal Control thing. Amos—that’s the old man on night duty—he says Larry bears grudges.”
“Well, he’s safely behind bars, so I don’t think we need worry about a revenge hit,” Jim said. He was sorry for Blair, but it didn’t run to listening to some nightwatchman’s amateur ape psychology. “What we do need to worry about is this…” He gestured at the wreck of what had once been a spare room.
Blair, already uncharacteristically subdued, looked at it in dismay. “Oh, no…” He glanced round, as if noticing for the first time that he wasn’t standing in a scene of similar chaos, and added hastily, “I’ll clear it up, man. I never meant to land you with doing all the rest on your own. Amos made a big deal of cleaning my finger up, and then the Volvo wouldn’t start and…”
He stopped because Jim had taken hold of his shoulders and turned him around so that he was no longer looking at the chaos but at Jim himself.
“The mess doesn’t matter,” Jim said, trying to mean it. “I didn’t leave it for you because of that, I just wasn’t sure which papers mattered or where they should go. I’ll give you a hand with it now you’re here to tell me.”
“I can do it,” Blair said, flushing slightly. “Hell, Jim, I landed you with two unwanted houseguests, one of whom practically destroyed your place. I ought to have done the cleaning up.”
Jim started picking up clothes, wondering how many of the holes had been there before Larry’s spree. “You did a good job today with Mrs Lacroix,” he said, which was as close as he could manage to telling the kid he wasn’t actually unwanted.
Blair started picking up pieces of paper. “She’s a lovely lady,” he said. “They were real troopers, all of them. You should have seen them when the 47s came in.”
That was something Jim had very mixed feelings about; seeing Blair negotiating around threats and switchblades had pushed buttons he hadn’t realised he’d got. But it was good to hear a bit of enthusiasm from him, so he simply said, “Well they’re having a good party there tonight.”
“And we’re picking up paper,” Blair sighed, but he got on with it, sorting chewed and stained notes into some sort of order. Jim finished the clothes and started on the books. Blair was so tired that his movements were oddly regular and mechanical, and Jim noticed immediately when he stopped.
Blair was staring at something he’d picked up with the last papers. It looked like a piece of torn cardboard to Jim, but the expression on Sandburg’s face suggested it had been something more important than that. Focussing on it, Jim realised it was part of a photograph. He vaguely remembered that one of the few things Blair had taken from his pile of boxes had been a photo in a wooden frame. It had stood near the bed—a picture of a woman, waving he thought. He’d wondered if it had been a girlfriend.
He wasn’t sure whether to offer to help find the other pieces, or whether to mind his own business, but before he could do either Blair silently put the fragment on top of a large book and went back to what he’d been doing. He’d already looked exhausted, now he looked somehow defeated as well.
“You know, you could sleep on the couch and we could finish this in the morning,” Jim said slowly. It went against his military training, hell it went against his whole life’s training, the military had been less demanding than his father, but he knew that as long as he went on the kid would push himself to keep up.
Blair looked at him blankly, his brain apparently in slow motion. Jim expected some kind of token protest, or maybe a joke about whether he could sleep knowing the mess was there, but Blair just said uncertainly, “You sure? Thanks Jim.”
Jim began to wonder if he should be worried. Of course, anyone might be subdued after a week which had included an exploding home and facing up to one of the nastier gang disputes, but Blair was nothing if not resilient.
“Want me to take a look at your hand?” he asked, uncertain how much damage there was under the bandage. “You ought to get a shot, really.”
Blair flopped down on the couch. “It’s okay, thanks. I’ll go to the clinic tomorrow. It’ll do for tonight.” It seemed to dawn on him that Jim was… well, definitely not hovering, but what Jim might have called hovering if someone else had been doing it.
“I’m fine, Jim, honestly. Just hasn’t been a great week, and Amos picked up my mail for me and I got a letter calling a visit off from someone I was looking forward to seeing. Then all this… It’s no big deal, really. Anyway, things always look better in the morning, right?”
“Right,” Jim said, trying to put out of his mind the fact that in his experience the morning generally showed up the nastier details in full colour. He tossed Blair a blanket, and by the time he came back from the bathroom the kid was asleep. Jim glanced into the spare room. He had one more thing in mind before he went to bed himself.
Aided by sentinel sight, it didn’t take him too long to find the rest of the pieces of the ripped photograph. Well, it didn’t take him as long as it would have taken Sandburg, at any rate. He put them all on the book, and fitted them together to make sure none were missing. A woman took shape, walking away as he’d remembered. She was looking back and smiling, but her hand was raised in farewell. Not a girlfriend, Jim realised. The woman looked young, but it was an older picture than he’d realised. The colours were slightly faded, the woman’s clothes more real hippy than Sandburg’s version. Whatever she was, Sandburg had valued the picture. Jim thought maybe they could fix it enough to get a good copy made.
He left the pieces where they were for now, and finally headed towards bed. Blair had managed to lose half the blanket and get the other half knotted round his knees. Jim straightened him out; he didn’t want to be woken up by the crash when the kid tumbled off in the early hours of the morning. Blair didn’t stir as he was shifted about; Jim knew he usually slept well enough, but this time he must have been totally wiped out. Jim stood there looking at the newly tidied heap of anthropologist for a moment. Really, considering he’d done the PD a thoroughly good turn with old Mrs Lacroix, it would be no more than fair for Jim to suggest he extended the week’s deadline to a couple of weeks or so while he got back on top of things. He’d do that tomorrow.
Tomorrow evening, he decided when he woke the next day. The morning was too much of a scramble to get through showers and breakfast to allow for much in the way of discussion, and for all he knew Blair had had enough of both Jim and the loft. They could talk over the options in a civilised manner over dinner.
Blair, hurrying out to some early meeting, paused at the door. “Don’t worry about the room—I’ll clear it up this evening. I’ll be back in plenty of time.”
“Don’t forget to get that hand looked at,” Jim said hastily before he could disappear completely. “Tell them to check if your tetanus shots are up to date. And you need to recharge your phone. And you’d better take that jacket—weather looks like it’s getting worse.”
He’d never understand Sandburg. Why a simple list of common sense instructions should make him laugh all the way down the stairs he couldn’t imagine. Still, at least he went with something more like his normal bounce. Jim listened to him as far as the car, as a sort of experiment, and was relieved to hear him curse inventively as it took a while to cough into life. The kid might be weird, but he made life interesting.
At the PD, interest was not the order of the day. Routine and paperwork, followed by paper work and routine, were for Jim something of an endurance test, alleviated only by the occasional sugary snack—it was safest to get his doughnut ration at work; Blair was unsound on doughnuts. The one good thing about this sort of day was that he was able to leave promptly for once, and he decided as he gratefully shook off the dust of report writing that he’d call ’round by Rainier and see if Blair would rather hit a restaurant than get the takeout they’d been planning.
He called as he negotiated the traffic. Blair was in his office… and agitated. “You won’t believe this, Jim. Amos just called me. He says Larry’s somehow got out again, with another ape this time. He doesn’t think they’ve had time to get off the premises, but I don’t know if you want to go and make sure the loft’s secure.”
Jim thought about it. He wasn’t an expert, but he thought that unless some other TA had done experiments into Barbary apes and map reading it was highly unlikely that Larry could find his way from Rainier to 352 Prospect. He pointed this out.
“Some animals can navigate over long distances,” Blair said defensively. “I read an article once… Ow! What the…”
There was an odd sort of noise, and Jim lost the connection. He found he’d nearly floored the accelerator well before he’d decided whether it was rational or not to be alarmed, and by the time he’d convinced himself it was probably just another Sandburg thing he was already screeching into Rainier. He headed for Blair’s office at a run.
The noise hit him before he was even in the corridor. He was surprised it had brought no one else onto the scene. Blair’s office was in a relatively obscure location, and it was past the hours for classes, but the combination of thuds, curses and manic chattering had to be unusual even in a university.
It was the chattering that told Jim what to expect. He’d heard that particular note from troops of monkeys in the jungle when they’d been mobbing a predator, and he thought—though he would definitely not have mentioned this—that he could recognise Larry’s voice. It seemed the revenge hit was on after all, and Larry had brought a mate.
Even though he was prepared for something of the sort, the scene in front of him as he reached the office doorway was enough to make anyone skid to a halt. Never a tidy place, the room was now plunged into indescribable chaos. Larry and another larger ape were dancing around picking up anything movable and hurling it at Blair who had taken refuge underneath his desk. The floor was a sea of files and books, and loose sheets of paper fluttered everywhere. Both sides were making a lot of noise, and no one even appeared to notice Jim’s arrival in the doorway.
He glanced hastily up the corridor. No witnesses. Right. At the top of his voice, a volume any parade ground sergeant would have been glad to achieve, he yelled, “Cascade PD! Freeze! All apes up against a wall!”
You either had it or you hadn’t, and Jim had it. There was instant silence in the room. The apes quickly dropped what they were holding and moved nervously to a corner. Blair put his head very cautiously above the level of the desk.
Jim tossed him the cell phone; Blair’s office phone had been ripped apart. “You’d better call the animal house,” he said, and paused to glare at Larry who’d moved slightly. Larry whimpered, and jumped into the arms of the larger ape, who looked at Jim reproachfully.
Blair was already talking rapidly into the phone. “It’s Amos on again,” he said to Jim as he finished. “I told him you’d got them under control and he says he’s on his way.”
Jim looked round his crime scene. Criminals suitably cowed and showing no signs of trying a sudden escape; victim unharmed and edging cautiously round to join Jim in the doorway.
“Jim, I can’t believe you just did that.”
“It worked, didn’t it,” Jim said, not removing his glare from the apes. “That’s the voice of authority, Chief. Everyone recognises it except you.”
“Ha ha. Do you think I can start picking some of this stuff up, or will that start them off again?”
Jim moved forward from the doorway and into the apes’ personal space. Larry hid his face in the other ape’s fur. “You’re not thinking of trying anything, are you?” Jim said. “All right, Sandburg. Why don’t you start on that side of the room?”
He heard Amos coming from a corridor or two away, and was interested to see that it wasn’t long after that that the apes looked up a little. Rather than a jailer they seemed—if he’d got ape body language right—to see the animal house officer as their rescuer. He could see why when the man turned up. He was a big Afro American, perhaps in his sixties, with a remarkably gentle presence and an obvious fondness for his charges.
Larry and his companion waited ’til Jim moved aside, and jumped into Amos’ hold. He’d brought a cage, but it was hardly necessary. The apes were clearly not going anywhere but home while Jim was on the premises.
Amos closed the door carefully, and looked at Blair’s office. “My word. You’ve some tidying up to do here, Mr Sandburg. It’s a bad streak in Larry, this wanting to get back at people, but I think perhaps this time he’s learned his lesson.”
The little ape made a small noise when he heard his name.
“Yes, you got a fright, didn’t you,” Amos said to him. “Let your temper get the better of you, and got into trouble with the police.”
“It won’t go on his record,” Jim said. “Who’s his friend?”
At the sound of Jim’s voice Larry had instantly hidden back against the bigger ape. Amos looked down at them. “Oh, that’s not a friend. That’s his mother. You mustn’t blame her, Mr Sandburg. She was just looking after her own. Larry was very upset the other night, and naturally she was upset for him.”
“Larry was upset!” Blair muttered, short on his usual sympathy.
Jim looked at the mother ape. She was holding firmly onto Larry, and picking something out of his fur. “Well, maybe if she thinks Blair belongs to me we won’t get a repeat of this if they make another jailbreak,” he said, taking an equally firm hold of Sandburg and ruffling through his curls, making sure the mother was watching his movements.
“Jim! What the hell…?!”
“I think she’s got the idea,” Jim said after a minute, releasing him.
Amos, amused, nodded. “That’s right. Hear that noise she’s making now. That’s her coffee morning noise. She’s sympathising with you and telling you young ones are a lot of trouble. Well, I’d better be taking them back, Mr Sandburg. I’m sorry about your office.”
Blair, for once, was speechless. Jim grinned. “Thanks for coming so promptly. I’ll look in sometime and make sure Larry’s behaving himself.”
“Be a pleasure to see you,” Amos said, and left, still talking quietly and rather reprovingly to the two Barbary apes.
Jim eyed the wreck of the office. “Well, Chief, it’s your call. We can do this now, or we can go out and have a meal. My treat.”
Blair sighed, but his sense of humour seemed finally to be returning. “It’s not going to go anywhere; lets eat. Just so long as it’s a steak or something and not jungle fruits. Payback’s a banana.”
Jim didn’t know anyone else who could actually make him laugh aloud. Doing the monkey thing on Sandburg’s hair again to make him yelp, he took him off to a restaurant where the prices made the kid blink. “Hey, Jim, this is kind of a special occasion place. It’s not your birthday or anything is it?”
Jim took a sip of his wine. “No. Different sort of occasion.”
He refused to give on this all through the meal, and Sandburg’s guesses got wilder ’til they were both laughing more than they were eating.
“Streaking Captain’s Day,” Blair tried as the coffee arrived. “Buy a Cop a Doughnut Day. No, I’ve got it. Truck Wreckers Anonymous of the World Unite Day?”
“Nope,” Jim said smugly. “Try closer to home.”
“Truck Wreckers of Cascade?”
“No. Give up?”
It was a pleasure to watch the twin forces of dignity and curiosity fight it out. Curiosity won, as he’d known it would. “Bet it’ll be a real let down,” Blair grumbled, refilling his cup.
Well, it probably would. Suddenly not feeling quite so much like laughing, Jim handed over the polite and formal invitation he’d made in a moment of terminal boredom with his paperwork. Blair might or might not want to stay in the loft, but at least he wouldn’t feel like an uninvited guest any more.
He watched Blair read it, heard his heartbeat speed up, saw the uncertainty on Blair’s face as he looked up.
“It’s not a joke,” he said quietly. “You’re welcome to stay ’til you’d rather move on.”
“Oh, man,” Blair said, looking overwhelmed and exactly like someone who was going to express their enthusiasm in a neo-hippy way rather than with a nice reserved ‘yes please’.
Jim nipped that in the bud hastily, though it was kind of nice the kid was so pleased. “Of course, it’s even more suitable now you’re a member of my troop. Larry’s mother will expect you to be there if I have her around to tea.”
Blair started to laugh again. “Amos is never going to let me hear the last of that. Jim, I’ll write you a polite and formal acceptance the next time I get near a computer. Thank you. The loft is the coolest place I’ve ever lived in.”
Jim indicated to the waiter to bring the bill. “We’ll get a bit of furniture for the room after work tomorrow.” Again he caught that momentary uncertainty. “Hey, I owe you. Anyway, it’s an investment. If you get fed up with me and decide to move out you’re not going to take the furniture with you.”
Blair had that overwhelmed look again, and he got hastily on with signing the bill. He wasn’t surprised though, that when they got back Blair began immediately clearing up the remaining muddle in his room. He hadn’t wanted to make the kid feel too indebted; in Jim’s book, as he’d said, he owed the kid, but it wasn’t easy to convince Blair of that.
He left him to it while he watched the rerun of the game, and when he finally looked in the place was remarkably tidy. He’d give that about twenty-four hours. Blair was squatting on the floor, fiddling with something. He looked up as Jim’s shadow loomed across the room.
“You found all the pieces.”
Ah. Jim looked at the jigsaw puzzle of photograph. “Someone special?” he asked quietly.
Jim blinked. She must have been practically a child herself when she had Blair was his first thought. Blair was pushing the pieces a little more closely together so the joins showed less.
“I used to keep the picture by my bed when I was a kid,” he said. “Naomi—she liked me to call her by her name—she had to leave me with people quite a bit. You can’t take kids everywhere. Someone took that photo of her once just as she was going, and it’s kind of how I think of her. Smiling back at me.”
And leaving, Jim thought. As mothers did. He couldn’t even remember his own looking back at him. One up to the Barbary apes. He refrained from saying any of that, though, and instead told Sandburg his idea of how they might get a good copy done.
Blair brightened. “That would be great. I’d like to get it fixed. I’d hoped mom would be coming to Cascade this week but she couldn’t make it. Then the photo being ripped as well… guess I overreacted to it a bit…”
Jim picked up one of the pieces, and felt it very gently. “I think I could learn to date photos from their feel,” he said. “If I’d made a guess at the age of this one I’d have been dead on.”
Blair stopped looking at the pieces and looked at Jim instead. “That’s interesting. I wonder if you could do it with other paper as well. Can you feel ink?”
One long and incredibly tedious hour later, Jim was finally able to give up fingering things with his eyes shut. It had been worth it though. Blair was scribbling notes hastily, and had forgotten the original reason for this bit of research. Jim sat idly, thinking. He wondered about Blair’s mother, and Blair’s obvious lack of any sense of resentment; he wondered about his own, and if she’d wanted to look back. Not enough evidence to come to any sort of conclusion. Maybe he’d open the file again though; it had been slammed shut for a long time.
He glanced at Blair, sitting with legs tucked under him and his hair curtaining off the distraction of the TV. He looked as if he belonged where he was. Jim went and found an old desk light for him so that he had some light on the page, and Blair looked up and grinned. “You know, I don’t really think you were joking with Larry’s mother, Jim. You’re definitely taking care of me here.”
Jim looked at him thoughtfully. “It’ll go with house rules, Chief. Lots and lots of house rules.”
“I can live with that.”
Jim shook his head in open disbelief. If ever he’d met a natural rule breaker, it was Sandburg.
Blair’s thoughts seemed to have been continuing along the—slightly loopy—track they’d started on. “You know, it wasn’t such a joke really, Jim. I often think that about sentinels.”
“What—that they have the habit of apes?” Jim asked, mock-threatening and looming over him ominously. “As well as being throwbacks?”
Blair just grinned. Come to that, Jim hadn’t scared him much the first time. The kid had looked him in the eye as he was held up against the wall and had kept talking as only Sandburg could talk.
“No, but that sentinels must have been some of the elders in the tribe. Being guardians—that’s kind of a parent role.”
Jim thought about it. “Disciplining the young and teaching them some respect?”
“I was thinking more like taking on the boring responsibilities.”
“Making sure everyone in the tribe does a share of the work.”
“Protecting the tribe,” Blair said. “So the… er, thinkers, sages or what have you have time to do some great thinking.” He ducked hastily to avoid Jim’s cuff. “Hey, someone has to do it. Think you’re not up to it?”
“Too much like hard work. Think I’ll stick to the ape version,” Jim said. “Bet there’s lots of insect life in all that hair.”
Blair ducked again, rolled off the couch and escaped to his room. “Remind me some time to tell you about the communal nit-searches this tribe in Mesopotamia does on feast days…” he called back. “It’s fascinating stuff. And now I’m going to do some profound thinking, on my bed. You can guard the boundaries.”
Laughing, Jim went to bed as well. It seemed to him that when you got down to it, Amos had put it more neatly than Blair. Looking after your own, that was the phrase he’d used.
“Looking after my own,” he mused aloud, listening to the soft sounds that told sentinel ears there was no one else awake in the loft. “I can do that, Chief.”
~ End ~