Dean sauntered into Amanda's (surprise, surprise) pink and white kitchen, drawn in by the enticing smells of fresh coffee and pancakes. The hunter's gaze swept over the apple-shaped cookie jar and matching canisters on the pink granite countertop, the outdated pink and red apple border, the pink stove, and apple placemats.
Amanda was seated at the round table, talking on her phone. She smiled at him and continued speaking, adjusting the silverware on the place setting in front of her. "Yes, Dad, I'm fine... Yes, I'll get the car over to Otto's today...Oh, my, that's terrible, how is Joe?...I'll send him flowers from the family...Well, that's a tall order, but I'll try...Love you, too. Bye." Amanda clicked off the handset, then rose to put the wireless phone back on its base on the countertop by the stove. "Breakfast's just about ready," she said over her shoulder, scooping a pancake out of the frying pan and placing it on top of the stack warming on the stovetop. "If you can get the coffee..."
"Sure." Dean skirted the table and picked up the pot from the Mr. Coffee machine on the counter by the sink. Taking the pot, he stepped back to the table and poured into two steaming "I Heart Apples" mugs, then returned the pot to the coffeemaker. Meanwhile, Amanda had transferred the pancakes to their plates and fetched the maple syrup and butter from her fridge. They sat down about the same time and started eating.
"Mmmm, this is delicious, Mandy," Dean said after his first bite of pancake drenched in syrup. After they'd spent the night together, it was pointless to keep addressing her as "Amanda"—and her old college buddies certainly wouldn't.
"Glad you like it. I don't suppose you know anything about apple pies?"
Dean blinked. "That's an odd question, but, as a matter of fact I do. In my travels, I've been up, down and across the country—and I've eaten a lot of pies."
"Well, that's a step in the right direction," Amanda mused.
"What does that mean?"
"Y'heard Chris talking last night? The festival he mentioned this weekend—it's Cashmere's annual Apple Harvest Festival—well-known in these parts. Why, folks come from all over Washington and beyond to experience our Apple Harvest Festival. The highlight of the whole shebang is the apple pie contest. Joe Carpenter was going to be a pie judge this weekend, but he fell off a ladder and broke his leg, so he's laid up in the hospital. He'll be fine, but we're short a judge, and the contest starts Saturday, as in tomorrow. Mighty short notice to find a qualified pie judge, unless you could—"
"Mandy, I know about eating pies, I don't know about judging them."
"Today's only Friday, I can give you a crash course in pie making and judging. You don't need to be a real expert, just have an appreciation for Washington's finest dessert—apple pie. Please, Dean, I don't know where else I can turn."
Amanda tilted her face beseechingly towards him, but she had nothing on Sammy and his puppy-dog eyes. Still, Dean considered the request. A few days' break from hunting wouldn't be a bad thing, he could tell Dad he was hanging around town to make sure that the threat was taken care of. He'd heard Dad use that excuse himself several times. "As it happens, I don't have to be in California til Tuesday—and apple pie's my favorite. So, it looks like you've got yourself a pie judge, Mandy."
Mandy leaned across the table and gave him a quick kiss. "Thanks. You've taken a load off my mind. We can get started right after breakfast."
"Don't you have to work?"
"I mostly telecommute," Mandy waved at the pink Apple laptop on the counter behind her. "My aunt and uncle own Parmer Farms, the orchard's been in my family for generations. I do the bookkeeping and I started handling internet sales two years ago. When I first got back from school, Parmer Farms didn't even have a website. Now, almost twenty percent of our business is internet sales. We're well-known for our Cripps Pink apples, also known as Pink Lady." She smiled and gestured around the kitchen. "When it comes to advertising our apples, I'm a natural.
"Seriously, the whole family promotes the farm and the apple business. Dad's the chairman of the Apple Harvest Festival Committee, and this year the Parmers are in charge of the pie judging – the position rotates annually. So really, by teaching you to be a pie judge, I am working today."
Jim Ellison rose before his traveling alarm clock could buzz. He didn't like the raucous noise that the necessary nuisance made, and he was an early riser. The noises—roosters, songbirds, crickets and whatever the heck else was out in the boundless country wormed their way into his mind, different enough from city noises to get his attention.
Jim walked into the kitchen, his superior senses not required to smell the tantalizing aroma of coffee, potato pancakes, sour cream and homemade applesauce wafting from the room. His aunt stood in front of the stove, expertly flipping two small pancakes with one spatula. He pushed a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down. "Morning, Helen."
"Morning, Jim. Breakfast's almost ready. Can you go tell Blair?"
Jim rose from his seat. "I'll be right back. Prob'ly have to roust him; he's quite a nightowl." Muttering to himself about Sandburg still clinging to his late night hours left over from his student days, Jim climbed the stairs and pounded on Blair's door. "Hey, Sandburg! Up and at 'em! Breakfast's ready!"
He cranked up his hearing without thought, pleased to hear the restless rustle of sheets and a mumbled muttering from Sandburg about morning people. Jim banged the door again. "I heard that!"
"Of course you did!" Jim heard Sandburg's retort, then more active bustling from within the room.
"Get a move on, Sandburg. You've got fifteen minutes to shower and make yourself presentable—or we'll start eating without you."
The door popped open and Sandburg glared up at him. "You're in my way. I'm heading for the shower."
Jim stepped back and Blair strode rapidly down the hallway. Jim grinned at Blair's retreating back and headed down the nicely carved wooden staircase, bound for the kitchen. He stopped at the entrance, "Blair'll be down shortly, Helen. Anything I can do to help?"
"You can pour the milk if you want, but I'm almost done here, dear."
Jim walked over to the spotless white refrigerator, opened it and extracted a gallon of milk. Stepping over to the table, he poured the milk into the three glasses already on the table. Then he carried the platter of potato pancakes over to the table, teasing Helen about the amount. "Looks like you're cooking for an army."
"No; just two cops." Helen smirked, adding serving spoons to the bowls of sour cream and applesauce.
Blair appeared at the kitchen entry, dressed in jeans, gray t-shirt and his favorite blue plaid overshirt. His hair was pulled back into what Jim considered his working man's pony-tail. "Morning, Helen. Jim."
"Good morning, Blair." Helen greeted him."Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, ma'am." Blair sat down.
"Jim's always complaining about how noisy it is here at night, I'm glad at least one of my guests had a good night's sleep."
Jim caught the glint of understanding in Blair's eye and wondered if there'd be any 'how Sentinels can sleep in the country' lectures—or worse, experiments—from his junior partner and Guide in the near future. "I wouldn't call it complaining, Helen. The sounds here are just - different from what I'm used to in the city. I hope I didn't keep you up."
"Don't be silly. Your mother and I could sleep through anything, or at least that's what your grandmother always said." Helen sat at the table and passed the pancake platter to Blair. "I hope you're hungry."
Blair placed the platter on the tabletop and speared three potato cakes with his fork. "Famished." He globbed some sour cream on the pancakes and started eating. Jim coughed and Blair put down his fork and quickly passed the platter of potato cakes over to him.
Helping himself to four potato cakes, Jim divided the cakes into two stacks of two cakes. Then he lavished the first with sour cream and the second stack with applesauce. "Haven't you ever had applesauce with potato pancakes, Sandburg? You should try it—around here, it's like bread and butter."
"It does look tasty," Blair agreed.
"It is tasty," Jim said. "Home-made using Great-Aunt May's secret recipe, right Helen?"
"That's right. Grandma May used her favorite apples in it, too. Granny Smiths, from our orchard."
Blair's eyes lit up with excitement and Jim knew that his partner was about to go off on some exuberant tangent about who-knows-what, so Jim beat him to the conversation. "Speaking of apples, Helen, when am I supposed to judge those pies?"
"The first round of judging is this morning, we need to be at the festival by eight-fifteen, sharp. There'll be two other judges, Mrs. Dawkins and someone that Amanda found to replace Joe Carpenter."
"What happened to Joe?"
"He broke his leg, something about falling off a ladder. Don't worry, he's fine, but he's in the hospital at least until Tuesday, poor thing." Helen sympathized.
"Who's Amanda?" Jim didn't recognize the name, but it felt like Helen knew every one of the two thousand people in her tiny hometown of Cashmere.
"Amanda Parmer, Judge Parmer's younger daughter. She's a nice girl, but very independent. Harold and Nadeen have had their hands full raising her. Why, you may even know her, Blair. She went to Rainier U for two years, then left because she didn't know what to major in. She came back and took over the bookkeeping and promotional side of the Parmer's Apples—brought the family kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, as she puts it. Their sales have increased significantly in the two years she's been back, too." She turned to address Blair directly. "I got out of the apple business five years ago, when the internet was just starting to make an impact on business conduct."
"You had an orchard? Jim didn't tell me that."
"Yes, Doug and I had inherited his family's apple farm. We had prime growing land along the Wenatchee River, and kept the orchards bustling for 30 years. I kept the business going for eight years after Doug died, but I retired and sold it in 1998."
"That's really fascinating. Would you mind if I interviewed you about the early days of the apple industry at some time? Everyone's heard about Washington apples, but I bet you know tons of little-known facts about the industry, from your family and from running your farm so many years."
"Sandburg, you're sounding like a journalist, not a cop. Now, let's finish breakfast and then get on over to the festival. Where is that being held, Helen?"
"In the Square, same as always."
Jim felt Blair's eyes on him. "What?"
Blair nodded at Jim's ironed black t-shirt. "Kinda grim for a festival, don'tcha think?"
"Nonsense, Blair," Helen said briskly. "It's perfect for a judge. Now, shall we go?"
Half an hour later, Jim, Helen and Blair were on the festival grounds, ie Cashmere Square, bordered by Main Street, Michigan Street, Hawser Boulevard and City Hall Road. Jim was glad that Sandburg refrained from commenting on the unimaginative street names, or worse, detailing where the names originated.
A large white event tent was set up on the south side of the square, with a sign-in desk in front, manned by a high school student. "Good morning, Mrs. Fuller," the girl—her nametag said 'Hello my name is Jennifer'—greeted them. "How many tickets do you need?"
"Only two, Jennifer. My nephew, Jim, here is one of the pie judges."
"Oh, right. I've got a form you need to sign, sir. And a badge somewhere." The girl rifled through the folders and opened a 3-ring notebook on the table. She turned the notebook so that the pages faced Jim and said, "This is the judges' sign-in sheet."
Jim picked up a pen and signed his name, then accepted the blue ribbon that had JUDGE in gold letters on it and clipped it over his jacket's breast pocket. Jennifer handed him a two-page document. "Read this and sign it when you're through, please."
Jim scanned the document—apparently the Apple Harvest Festival took the integrity of their pie judges seriously—then signed his name again, with a flourish. "Now what?"
"Please go into the tent, the other judges are already here. Miss Parmer will brief you shortly." Then she turned her attention to Helen and Blair. "That's fifteen dollars for two general admission tickets."
Blair paid for the tickets, Jim noted with approval, then said his good-byes. He drew open the tent’s entrance flap and stepped inside. The large inside area was arranged simply but effectively. Three long tables were set up on the right side of the tent, with five pies and three plates of freshly sliced pie evenly spaced on the crisp white tablecloths that covered each table. The other side of the tent had three unoccupied round tables and a couple of sofas placed to face the empty tables. Several small but potent space heaters were placed strategically inside the tent, keeping the area comfortably warm. The sofas were occupied, the left-hand one by a middle-aged woman and the right one by two young adults who looked like the sparkling young couples in those People magazines that Blair denied reading, but that Jim frequently encountered when he initiated a clean-up crackdown in the loft.
The girl smiled as Jim approached them. "Hi, you must be Mr. Ellison, Helen Fuller’s nephew?"
"Yes, that’s right, Jim Ellison."
The couple rose to their feet, followed by the older woman. The girl extended her hand and shook Jim’s. "I’m Amanda Parmer. And these are your fellow judges, Dean Adams and Norah Scott."
"Pleased to meet you, Norah, Dean," Jim shook hands with his fellow judges, noting that the kid had a strong, firm grip.
"Likewise, I’m sure," Norah said, while Dean just nodded, giving a perfunctory "Jim." No Mr. Ellison from that kid, Jim noted half-amused.
"Now, let’s get down to business." Amanda said. "The Apple Harvest Festival has been an annual event in Cashmere for almost four decades. It was started in the mid-seventies, to draw attention to the local apple orchards, and the delicious apples that are produced yearly by Cashmere and the entire Chelan County apple-growing community. This ties into the first rule of the pie contest; contestants must use apples from one of the nine most popular apples grown in Washington. As it happens, all of them are grown locally, too. The first page of the judging packet lists these varieties. They are: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Honeycrisp, Cameo and Cripps Pink, also known as Pink Lady.
"The other rules mostly relate to the judging of the pies. Since a large portion of the county is involved in the apple business, the only people barred from entering the contest are direct family members of the judges. It's perfectly OK for someone associated with the apple industry to enter our contest. We've fine-tuned the judging process over the years, and have kept it the same for the past six years. Each contestant bakes and enters two identical pies. One is left intact for the judge's inspection, the other is cut into eight pieces, two are reserved for the charity auction on Sunday afternoon, and the rest are used by the judges. One piece of each pie is available to you this morning, for the preliminary round, and then tomorrrow morning, you'll each have a piece of the top five pies from the preliminary round.
"The preliminary judging is strictly by the book: you will each independently judge all of the pies by appearance, taste, crust, consistency and overall impression. Pies are ranked with five points in each category, with five being the highest score and one the lowest. Then you'll turn your marks over to me and I will tally the scores. The five pies with the most points will then be judged tomorrow morning, in the final round. Final judging starts with the same score card system, but then you will discuss the scores and the merits of the pies among yourselves and pick the winning pie by consensus. We really like to have a unanimous decision on the winning pie, although we have occasionally had to accept a two-to-one majority. The winning pie is then announced Sunday afternoon, just before the Charity Auction starts. Usually the judges are present—and sometimes they act as auctioneers, it's up to you whether you choose to do this. At any rate, let me thank you very much from the community for being this year's apple pie judges."
Amanda took a breath. "Did I leave anything out? Oh, yes, for the final judging, the recipes for the pies will be made available to you, if you wish to know an ingredient. However, some of our entries are from secret family recipes, and the contestant has the option to not submit the recipe if he or she chooses. Now, let's get to the fun stuff.
"You may select your pies in any order that's convenient for you. After you've chosen a piece, sit at your assigned table." She waved towards the three round tables, which had a folder and a couple of pencils in front of each table's sole chair. "When you've finished judging all the pies, take your results to Jennifer, she'll be waiting outside the tent. Then you're free to enjoy the festival in whatever way you choose, until final judging resumes at 11 o'clock tomorrow morning. Again, thank you Jim, Norah and Dean, for your participation. Good luck and good eating."
Amanda then walked over to the tent's exit while Jim, Dean and Norah crossed over to the pie-laden tables, after picking up their judging forms and pencils from their assigned tables.
Jim decided to begin methodically, from the far table and work his way down that table, slowly advancing towards the center of the room. He glanced at the first pie - labelled #11—on the back table. The full pie looked appealing, six equal length slits carefully cut into the pie to release steam as it cooked, each close to thirty degrees apart. A very balanced pie, Jim thought. Then he picked up the closest pie piece, noting that the three plates were located towards the front of the table, for easy reach, in roughly the clock positions of five, six and seven. He walked back to the other side of the tent, set the piece of pie on the table and then sat down. He pulled out the first blank judging form and filled in pie # 11, then set the pencil down and glanced critically at the piece of pie on the plate. Right away, he noticed that the plate wasn't a piece of basic white restaurant dinnerware; it was a soft, minty green in color. Whoever made this pie was trying to get points any way possible. Hmmm, distracting from the core taste and consistency values, or only adding to a really nice pie all around? Jim picked up a fork from the fifteen(!) neatly placed on the table. These people were worried about cross-contamination between apple pies?
Certainly they took this pie judging *very* seriously, it was time he did the same. Jim surveyed the pie critically, amping up his sight to get a good look at the inside consistency of the pie as his fork cut into the tip. He chewed thoughtfully on the pie, letting the delightful smell and taste of well-baked apples, cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, flour, and a hint of mint?, some spice in the mint family, at any rate, linger on his tongue as he swallowed, then tasted another bite. He then picked up the pencil and scribbled down his scores for the first piece. Then he rose from the table. One down, fourteen to go. He was opposed to wasting food, but he could hardly eat fifteen pieces of pie before lunch, so the majority of the pie slices would have to be left uneaten. Then again, wasn't the first bite of anything supposed to be the best?
Jim walked back to the far table for his second piece, pie slice #12. He studied the full pie before picking up his slice—this time the three slices were arranged in a row, to the right of the pie. By starting at the back, he was getting the first slice of these pies, so he was also getting the full impact of any intended design in the pie plate placement. Since both of the pieces so far had been deliberately arranged, Jim glanced down the table, taking in the various plate designs for the other three pies. He noticed that only one had white plates, and they were delicate china with a fluted edge. The other two plates were solid colors, one a lilac-y looking pastel, the other a bold red with a white geometric pattern, mostly obscured by the pie slice. That slice was a square, not the traditional triangle. Jim noted with amusement that the full pie wasn't round, either. He grinned slightly, remembering Sandburg's awful joke "pi are squared". Blair had insisted that that was a funny joke, had everyone at school laughing their heads off when he'd filched it from the internet and told it to his colleagues.
Personally, Jim preferred traditional methods, and he made a note to take a few points off the presentation score for pie #14. Meanwhile, he had to judge the second piece. He walked back to his table, drank a sip of water from the iced pitcher that was on his table—for palate cleansing, obviously. *Serious* pie fanatics, here.
Jim ran through the checklist on his second slice, noting its taste and consistency. He compared it with the first slice and found it lacking, the taste not quite as good, the consistency of the filling a bit on the gooey side, and marked down his scores.
Rising to his feet, Jim crossed back for his third pie piece. He noted that Dean and Norah had both started with the front table, from opposite sides, it looked like. Dean was almost through with the first table, making his way from right to left. Norah had apparently started from the left hand side, with pie #1 and Jim saw her slip past Dean and pick up a pie slice from the middle pie, #3, leaving only Jim's slice left.
Jim paused long enough to remember the plating for the pie #13—it had the faintly lustrous lilac plates simply arranged in a row in front of the pie. He picked up his slice and walked back to his table. Setting the piece down, he gave the full piece the once-over before taking his first, senses-on-alert bite. Yummmmm, his tastebuds said, and Jim gave the tangy but sweet pie high marks. Then he left for his fourth piece of pie. He strode quickly towards the table, altering his step to bypass Dean, who was at the left end of the first table, picking up his fifth piece. As Jim passed the kid, he got an unexpected whiff of a strong odor. Oh, yeah, he'd decided to leave his sense of smell heightened while he worked his way through the pie tasting, it was easier than bouncing it back and forth between normal and extra-strong, like a ping-ping ball or something. Still, he wasn't smelling pie, or apples or anything sweet, it was a pungent odor, but only faintly there. If he'd been using his normal sense of smell, it wouldn't have registered. But now that it did, it left Jim puzzled because it didn't belong here...
He picked up his third pie and strode back to his table, purposely walking past Dean's table, senses heightened. And he smelled it again, old, musty...decayed? What the devil?! Jim glanced sharply at his fellow judge, but the young kid was munching contentedly on a piece of pie, the slice almost entirely gone. Jim shook his head at the bottomless pit that the younger man seemed to have for a stomach. Then he sat down and judged his third piece of pie. He'd picked up a few mental tricks from Blair over the years, and while Jim continued to carefully judge the pie contest, a part of his mind was busy trying to pin down the elusive scent—mud? dirt?—that was emanating ever-so-faintly from Dean. Despite Cascade's well-deserved reputation for rain, it hadn't been raining in Cashmere for the past several days, so it couldn't be mud, exactly....
Almost ninety minutes later, Jim put down his fork and marked his last set of scores, for pie #5. He then looked at the other two tables. Norah was frowning over an untouched piece of pie, but Dean's table was deserted. The younger man had finished his judging and left the tent almost fifteen minutes earlier. Jim picked up his scoring forms and crossed over to the tent exit. He opened the flap and saw Jennifer, reading a book as she sat behind the desk. Hearing the tent flap move, she glanced up and smiled. "Hi, Mr. Ellison. All finished?" she reached to take the sheets of paper from him.
"Yes, Norah's still in there." He glanced at his watch, frowning slightly. "Darn, I was supposed to meet Dean here, but I guess he got tired of waiting."
"You just missed him by a few minutes. Mandy met him here about ten minutes ago. She said she'd really like a stuffed animal as a souvenir, and Dean said, 'That's an easy one' and they walked away. Looked like they were heading for the main strip, to me."
"Honestly, Jim," Blair enthused as he, Jim and Helen walked down the festival's busy main path. "You may have been eating apple pies all morning, but I was drinking in everything apple. One of the booths has a fascinating video about the growth of the apple industry, and another has a ginormous number of different species of apples on display.
"Cashmere is a one-industry town, like the old mining towns, but it escaped the pitfalls that can occur with a town being economically dependent on one dominant industry by keeping the local farms family-run. There aren't any huge businesses or combines running the apple orchards, at least not locally. One way that Cashmere's managed to do this is niche marketing their apple products, growing species to fill custom orders—" Blair paused for a breath, and realized that he'd lost his audience. Glancing around, he saw that Jim's and Helen's interests had been caught by a booth further up the path. A noticeable crowd was grouped around the shooting gallery booth. Blair followed Helen and Jim as they walked over and joined the crowd of onlookers at the booth. Peering around Jim, Blair spotted Amanda Parmer and a young man in a leather jacket standing in front of the booth. He heard Jim mumble something like "it figures."
The barker, who looked like he was just out of high school, was handing Amanda a big pink stuffed elephant—she had a pink turtle held in her other hand—and casting an anxious look over the crowd.
"Anyone else want to try their luck? Step right up, in front. You've just seen how easy it is to win a prize—" the booth attendant wiped his brow with a handkerchief as the young man growled a correction "pri-zes"—"Anyone else? Please?"
"I will." Jim stepped forward.
Blair and Helen exchanged glances, and the young shooter protested. "Hey! I wasn't finished."
"A little friendly competition never hurt anyone, Dean." Jim smiled and Blair realized that the shooter was one of Jim's fellow judges. "Let's make it interesting. I'll bet you twenty dollars I can out-shoot you."
Dean smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Fine. But it's fifty dollars. When I win, I'm taking Mandy out to the nicest restaurant in town—courtesy of you."
"If he's expecting Jim to back down, he's got another think coming," Blair spoke quietly to Helen. His Sentinel rose to challenges, as this Dean character was going to find out, the hard way.
"Deal." Jim paid for his turn and watched the attendant load a fresh tube of BBs into the rifle. Afterwards, he inspected the tethered rifle and then set it carefully down on the counter at the front of the shooting gallery booth, waiting while Dean's rifle was similarly loaded. Then Jim studied the targets at the back of the booth: currently non-moving rows of raccoons, ducks, rabbits, squirrels, birds and butterflies. The targets were thin sheet metal cutouts that moved from left to right and obligingly tipped over backwards when hit. They started at the bottom row with ten raccoons and shrank in size to the ten multi-colored butterflies on the highest row.
Jim turned to face Dean. "How d'you want to do this, row by row?"
"Why not?" Dean shrugged. "I'll even let you go first."
"How many shots per row? Fifteen?"
"If you need that many." The kid shrugged, and Blair winced inside that he was seeing men in their early twenties as 'kids.' When did that happen?
Blair saw Jim's jaw tighten. "Thirteen."
"What is this, Name That Tune? Fine." Dean smirked. "Eleven. First shot to sight the rifles, then one shot per target."
"Agreed." Jim picked up his rifle and the attendant turned the display back on, so the targets were moving slowly from side to side, some of the rows going left-to-right, the others right-to-left in a further effort to confuse shooters. Dean stepped closer to Amanda, giving Jim plenty of room to shoot, Blair noted with approval. The obnoxious fake-cheery carnival music had started when the targets were put in motion, but Blair knew his Sentinel could easily tune out that distraction.
Blair watched as Jim raised the rifle to his shoulders, shifted his stance slightly and pulled the trigger. None of the targets fell over. After a few seconds, Jim fired again, his second shot knocking over one raccoon. A short pause, then he fired again, and a raccoon tipped over; another pause, another shot, another raccoon out of the lineup. He didn't stop until the entire bottom row was flattened. Eleven shots, ten targets down. Jim lowered his rifle. "Your turn."
Dean stepped over to the counter and Jim backed up to stand next to Blair and Helen. "Nice shooting," Blair said quietly as Dean calmly picked up his rifle, nestled it into his shoulder and fired, missing all the targets. He shifted minutely, then fired again and struck a duck. Dean methodically shot down the row of ducks, making it look easy. He lowered his rifle and the crowd applauded and murmured appreciation over both men's first round efforts.
They switched positions, Dean going back to watch from Amanda's side and Jim coming forward, scooping up his rifle and starting round two. He sighted the weapon with his first shot, then calmly mowed down the westward moving rabbits, shooting west to east, letting the targets move towards him, instead of vice versa.
"Not bad, Jim." Dean commented as they swapped places. The younger man tucked his rifle into his shoulder, fired a sighting shot, made some minor adjustment to his aim and then started shooting. The row of gray and brown squirrels were moving eastward at a steady crawl.
Blair and the rest of the crowd quietly observed as Dean shot down the line of squirrels, his targets about half the size of the first row's raccoons. Jim whistled quietly and Blair looked inquiringly at his partner.
"He shot them all from east to west, in the same direction that the targets were progressing, tracking them with his rifle. That takes skill and a lot of practice." Then Jim stepped up to the counter as the applause and voices quieted. "Not bad, Dean," he said as he took possession of his rifle.
Jim assumed the position, rifle comfortably settled against his shoulder and fired his sighting shot. A few seconds' pause, then he aimed at the targets. Blam! Blam! Blam! Three birds fell over, neatly struck by Jim's BBs, and the rest of the row followed suit. Jim had hit all of his targets, putting the pressure squarely on Dean's shoulders.
Blair studied Dean's body language as the kid stepped up to the counter. If he was feeling any pressure, he sure wasn't letting it show. The younger man retrieved his rifle, tucked it into his shoulder and fired a shot to test the rifle's aim, although Blair got the impression that the kid was only doing that for show. Then he started firing, in the same measured but quick way he'd shot at the previous targets. Blair watched as the pink, purple, blue, orange, and yellow butterflies were shot down, followed by the second set of pink, purple, blue, orange and yellow butterflies being similarly flattened. The crowd started applauding and yacking before Dean even lowered his rifle to the counter. Another perfect round.
"It's a tie." Jim stepped up to the counter and the two competitors stood just a foot or so apart.
Dean glanced at the booth's attendant. "Got any tie-breakers?"
The attendant wiped his hands on his jeans, nervously. "Yeah, sure." He fumbled behind his side of the countertop, then produced a standard white sheet of paper with huge a red star stamped on it. "The shooting star contest. You have to shoot the star out of the paper, totally. If there's any red—even the tiniest bit—from the star still left on the paper when it's inspected, you lose."
"And what do I win, besides Jim's fifty bucks?"
"Ahhh," the attendant glanced over his remaining stock of stuffed animals. "The pink panther—that's the biggest animal I've got, sir."
"And it's the right color," Dean grinned. "Yeah, that works for me. Jim, you in?"
"Yes. I'm sure Cascade's Children's Hospital can find a good home for a pink panther."
"All right, then. You're first."
The attendant walked to the back of the booth and raised his hands to attach two red-starred pieces of paper to a thin black line that ran along the rear of the booth. Then he sauntered back to the front of the booth, resuming his station at the front corner of the gallery. He flicked a switch and the booth's interior lighting was cut, replaced by two spotlights over the target stars. "For dramatic effect."
"By all means, let's have drama." Dean said. "Could you can the music?" He gestured towards the spotlighted stars. "It ruins the mood."
The attendant nodded, hit another switch and the music stopped. Meanwhile, Dean walked over to stand next to Amanda and Jim picked up his rifle. He fired once to sight the rifle, inched his right foot slightly forward, and then opened fire.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
Five deliberate, evenly spaced shots, followed by a few seconds of silence. Then Jim fired in earnest, unloading the rest of his BBs into the target. He lowered his rifle and placed it on the counter. Then Jim walked over towards Blair and Helen and Blair saw Dean and Amanda kissing, clearly hearing Amanda's "For luck" as Dean stepped up to the counter for the last time.
Dean nestled his rifle into his shoulder as Blair murmured, "Fantastic shooting," to Jim.
"There's a sliver of red still on the paper—I didn't hit one of the bottom points squarely," Jim murmured back. Of course he'd already checked his target with his Sentinel sight. "Let's see how the kid does."
Dean fired his test shot, then repositioned his rifle by the tiniest fraction and pulled the trigger.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
"He knows the trick," Jim muttered at Blair's side. "I thought he would."
Dean then let loose with his rifle, rapidly firing into the second paper target. Then he lowered his rifle, placing it on the countertop. The audience held its collective breath and all eyes were on the attendant as the kid retrieved the targets from the back of the booth.
Blair swiveled his head towards Jim. "Well?" He knew darn well that Jim had zoomed his vision in on Dean's target as his opponent took his turn.
"Dean won. He shot out the points, then shot in a circle around the rest of the star, cutting it out of the paper. Clean shooting, no trace of red star remaining." Jim stepped back to the counter, and Blair went with him.
They joined Dean in front of the booth while the attendant compared the two targets. "First shooter," he held up the first paper in his hands, "left a tiny bit of red on the paper." He set the paper target on the counter and held up the second one. "Second shooter, no red. Second shooter wins!"
The crowd, which had swelled to over thirty people as the shootout progressed, clapped and Dean grinned, waving acknowledgment. Jim pulled out his wallet and handed the kid two twenties and a ten. "Congratulations. Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"
"My dad was a Marine. He taught me everything I know."
"Congratulations, man." Blair grinned. "It isn't often someone can outshoot Jim."
"Where are my manners?" Jim asked rhetorically. "Blair, this is Dean Adams, my fellow pie judge. Dean, this is my partner, Detective Blair Sandburg of the Cascade PD."
Blair kept his face open and friendly. Jim had deliberately introduced him as a cop, to get the kid's reaction. Blair held out his hand and Dean took it, shaking firmly and not showing any visible reaction to Jim's words. "Nice to meet you, Blair. I was wondering about Jim's shooting ability. I had him pegged as the military."
Blair nodded, laughing. "It's the hair, right? Jim was in the military; ex-Army Ranger—but he's been a cop for decades, now."
"Sandburg!" Jim's voice was tinged with annoyance. "You're making me sound ancient."
Dean pocketed his cash. "I've got to go. I'm taking the prettiest girl in Cashmere out to the fanciest restaurant in town. See ya tomorrow, Jim."
Blair and Jim watched the kid approach Amanda and then the couple left, talking animatedly. "Now I feel ancient," Blair muttered, causing Jim to smile slightly.
"Chief, you're an old soul, not an old man."
Go to Part 3 http://swellison.livejournal.com/1924.h