Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters are completely the property of Paramount and Pet Fly Productions. I use them out of reverence, solely for fun and not for profit.
Rating: R (for language)
Author's Notes: This is a case story, written for Wolfshy.
Simon burst past the doors of Major Crimes with his cigar half chewed through.
"Where's Ellison," he roared, a cursory glance having shown him that his premier detective was nowhere in sight. "Someone get me Ellison!"
Henri Brown exchanged a glance with Megan Conner and they both peered at Rafe van Rijn. "It's your turn," two mouths said silently, and Rafe went pale beneath his tan.
"Uh, Captain?" started the detective with the model good looks and wardrobe to match.
"What?" Simon rounded on the man. "If this is something I don't want to hear, don't say it! Just get me Ellison!"
"I can't." Rafe almost withered beneath Captain Bank's glare, but he was a detective and made of sterner stuff than most. "He's not here."
"Well, I can see he's not here," Banks spat out. "That's why I want you to get him for me."
Henri felt bad for his partner, so he decided he could take some of the heat. "Rafe means Jim's not in Cascade, Captain."
While the head of Major Crimes stared, jaw dropped, H went on. "He's on his way to Newly Island."
Simon took a couple of seconds to digest that fact. "Newly Island?" he asked at last. "What the hell is he doing on a miniscule island in Puget Sound?" Newly was a fingerling, a barren narrow chunk of rock that was a ghost town. All it had going for it was that it was close to some of the 0more habitable islands.
Banks sounded totally lost, and Inspector Conner took pity on him. "He didn't have much choice, Captain."
Simon was galvanized at this. "What the hell does that mean? Sandburg's been kidnapped again? Another terrorist is holding the city to ransom? Ellison has been pressed back into duty as a Ranger? What? What?"
Rafe had found his voice once more. "He was pressed into duty but not by the feds, Captain. It was the Police Commissioner and the Mayor."
Simon began to think he'd stumbled into Sandburgland. "You're telling me that the Commissioner and the Mayor both came to Major Crimes to hustle Jim Ellison off to Newly Island?"
Three heads nodded and everyone else in the room attended very closely to their paperwork. There was absolutely no doubt in their minds that no one was getting out alive unless the paperwork was done. And done right!
Rafe finally told the story. "They took both Jim and Joel, Captain, by the Governor's helicopter. There's a bomb threat at the International Lights In The Sky Fete."
Simon groaned. This was the first of what was supposed to become an annual fireworks display, celebrating the friendship of Pacific rim countries. Jointly hosted by the U.S. and Canada, it would run from July 1, Canada Day through July 4, Independence Day in the U.S., until July 6. In addition to the two host countries, Japan, China, Taiwan and Russia had been invited to take part, and had chosen from among the remaining dates.
It was July 2, China's date with aerial artistry.
"The governor did some kind of computer check and Jim turned up because of Veronica Serris and Brackett and all the other bombing cases we've caught; she remembered him from the Kincaid case; and it turns out Jim's not only got the best arrest record in Cascade, he's got the best record in the state!" Brown sounded very proud of his teammate. "Everyone knows Joel can't be beaten either as a bomb expert, so they're sending the persons specifically requested by the governor for the job."
"Plus of course, we're close to the site," Rafe put in. "It's a flea-hop by air." No one would challenge anything Rafe said about flying; he was a pilot with a plane of his own. Having a trust fund from your grandparents made some nuisances pleasures instead.
"All I wanted him for was to testify at the Grimes case. The defence found a hole in the chain of evidence, and Jim can plug it. I guess I'll have to let the D.A. know. Maybe they can get an adjournment." Simon was looking blankly at the door to his office as his mind tripped over the possibilities of Gordon Grimes walking on the charge of murder in the first. He was a cop-killer.
"Ah, Captain?" Megan asked softly, breaking Simon's line of thought.
"What?" he snapped at the Australian inspector, on special loan to the department.
"Jim kept asking where Sandy was," she said with her brow up.
"Good God Almighty!" Simon hadn't had time to realize just what she meant. A Sentinel without his Guide smack in the middle of a mammoth fireworks display? "Where is he? He didn't go with them?"
At the horror in his voice, every head turned his way, and started shaking.
"Where is he? Where is Sandburg?" Simon blurted out at last.
"We're not sure, Captain," Rafe said. "We tried his office, and the loft, and he's not at either one."
"Jim left under protest, but he told us over his shoulder to find Hairboy if we could," Brown put in. "He really wanted his back-up on this case."
There was something of suspicion in Henri's tone of voice, but Simon ignored it. He was sworn not to tell why Jim needed the back-up of a long-haired, neo-hippie, grunge-style anthropology student when he had Joel Taggert, the former captain of the Bomb Squad and indubitably the best man in the county when it came to disarming bombs.
"Where is Sandburg?" Banks said again, but it was himself he was questioning. A long minute passed with everyone staring at him, waiting, just waiting, and then Simon snapped his fingers, his face lit up like the sky over Puget Sound. "He was babbling about the new Arapaho exhibit at the Lucier-French Museum. I'll bet that's where he is!"
"On it, Captain!" Megan brought up the City Directory on her VDT and was dialing almost immediately.
Simon said over her, "Let me know when you find him." He made a half turn and said, "Rhonda, requisition the PD helicopter."
"No can do, Captain." The blonde, Simon's personal assistant, was looking grim. "It's down for maintenance, so it's ready for the Fourth. They've literally taken it apart."
The police captain groaned. "Could this day get worse? Don't answer that!"
A roomful of police officers held their breath as Banks paced restlessly. At last he threw out, "Rafe, I need you."
He pivoted and strode through the door to his office as Rafe and his partner, Henri, exchanged meaningful looks.
Once inside, Simon swung his jaw at the door, Rafe closed it.
"Sit," Banks said sharply.
Rafe sat instantly.
Megan stuck her head in the door. "I have Sandy on the phone. He's at the museum. What should he do?"
"Tell him to wait there," Simon ordered. "We'll get back to him. Does he have his cellphone?"
"No," Megan confirmed. "Unfortunately. We did call him on it, Captain!"
She sounded reproachful, and Captain Banks just glared. "Now we know where he is, keep him on the line. Tell him to take his cellphone with him the next time Jim's heading into disaster!"
"You got it, sir," Conner agreed, and closed the door after her as she went, and Banks gave his attention to Rafe van Rijn again.
"I need you to accompany Sandburg to Newly Island. He'll never get past security without you. Don't ask why Jim needs him. Don't tell if you find out. Just get Sandburg to Ellison and go from there." Simon contemplated the ceiling for a moment or two. "Tell me what I have to do to get you air clearance here and at the closest landing strip to Newly Island. Do you know where it is?"
"There's a strip on Newly Island itself. No one lives there now, but in the twenties there used to be a beach community of what I think they called the Bohemian set. It's overgrown, but it's not totally worthless. How fast do I have to get him there, Captain?"
"Last week!" Simon pierced the air with his cigar for emphasis. "Jim really does need Sandburg for something like this." Simon shuddered for a moment, thinking of the Sentinel alone facing the ballyhoo and fireworks afterwards, without his Guide to coach him safely.
Rafe simply nodded. The talk around the in-crowd in the bullpenhimself, Taggert, Brown, Conner and Rhonda, Simon's secretarywas often centered on the strange partnering of and friendship between Jim Ellison, a gold-plated S.O.B. loner who once was allowed to be an arrogant bastard at all times because his solve-rate was so good, and Blair Sandburg, the carefree, good-natured and garrulous grad student.
When Blair Sandburg showed up on the scene some three years before, he had somehow taken Ellison-the-hardassed and made him into Ellison-the-friendly, becoming the detective's brother-by-choice and roommate in the doing. No one knew how it happened, no one except sworn-to-secrecy Simon Banks and even he didn't know everything, but the transformation was definitely Sandburg's work, and he did very good work indeed.
Even more intriguing to the Major Crimes detectives than the friendship between the two was their partnership. In all ways, Jim Ellison considered unofficial observer Blair Sandburg his partner on the forcejunior to be sure, but partner nonethelessand there was no one who disputed that fact, after coming up against (a) the hard nose of a Jim Ellison who had been deprived of his Sandburg and (b) the puppydog eyes of a Blair Sandburg who had been deprived of his Ellison and (c) the astonishing jump in Jim's arrest rate, which had gone from merely admirable to only a tick or two off perfection.
You just don't mess with success, you know?
"Where's your plane and what's the fastest way to get there, from here and from the museum?" Banks demanded to know.
Rafe filled him in. "I should go directly to the strip, Pryor Airfield; it's at Birmingham and Pond; Blair can get there faster going directly too. If I pick him up, I'm backtracking and we'll lose time. I'll get there first, but I need to refuel, calculate the flight path, contact the authorities here and at the island..."
"Leave dealing with the authorities to me. I'll get clearance while you're en route to the strip. And I'll let the people on Newly know you're on your way. I'll try to fax your credentials and Blair's to them too."
"The Kid has credentials?" Rafe asked with disbelief. Everyone knew Blair had a three-year-old Special Observer's pass as a ridealong that had been outdated two-and-three-quarters years before.
"He does now," Banks affirmed, and at the set of that massive jaw, the cigar snapped in half.
"I guess he does," Rafe murmured to himself.
"Out! Out!" the captain yelped. As Rafe swung the door open, Banks barked, "Conner, take van Rijn out to the airfield, he'll show you how to get there. Rafe, do as much of the plotting or calculation as you can on the way. Brown, I need you to pick up Sandburg at the museum. You've flown with Rafe before, haven't you?"
The big black man nodded enthusiastically. "Many times." He and his partner were the best of friends, too.
"Take him directly to the airfield." Simon stopped suddenly. "If he says he has to drop by the loft"Jim's place, and Blair's home"do it. Or do anything else he says has to be done. Just trust the Kid and do it."
Henri gulped. "Okay."
"Then what are you waiting for? I have a man who needs a police escort to Rafe's airfield!"
Henri Brown was gone.
Simon sat down at his desk and called for Rhonda on the intercom. "I need special emergency clearance at Pryor Airfield and at whatever the name of the field on Newly is. RAFE!"
A second or two later, van Rijn sped into sight. "Sir?" he asked breathlessly.
"What's the name of the landing strip on Newly?"
"Bohemian Airfield." The cop grinned. "But you'd get clearance through the governor's office a lot faster than trying to find anyone in the backwoods out there who wants to stop in the middle of a bomb threat to deal with a call like this."
"Good thinking," Simon said. As Rafe sped away again, the police captain called for Rhonda again. "Get the governor's office on the phone. Use my name. Use Ellison's and Taggert's. Use Newly Island. Use bomb threat. Use Kincaid. She owes us and she is gonna come through." He pulled his hand away from the phone set and sat back with determination in his gut. Blair Sandburg was going to have some very special, very temporary credentials, straight from the governor's office itself.
Jim Ellison had gone white in face and knuckles on the trip out to the island. Being over open water was not his favourite pastime, and without his Guide to help him through it (a Guide who was deathly afraid of both drowning and heights himself), the Sentinel was using every trick he knew, every meditation technique Blair had shown him, every prayer in a half-forgotten prayerbook, to get through the ordeal.
Joel Taggart found himself wishing that he could tell a tale like Sandburg, but he was pretty sure that kind of phobia-busting was a one-time thing. He settled for trying to make sane conversation with the governor's aide who was briefing them.
"Security is now centered on crowd control," the aide said, eyes trained on a red-flagged file.
"Why hasn't the island been evacuated?" Joel wanted to know immediately.
"It's a political problem." As the men groaned, the aide went on, "This could very well be a hoax, and in fact that's what the Governor thinks herself. The first international Pacific celebration of its type here on the border with Canada, so many countries whose histories intersect badly, you know, it's really most likely that this is only a hoax, and treating a phonecall like this seriously just opens the door for any official occasion to abort at the whim of some creep with too much time on his hands and no brains to speak of."
"Why isn't anyone looking for the bomb?" asked Jim tightly.
"Not enough people." The aide, a spare blonde woman in her forties, looked up from a sheaf of folders. "No one expected this. No one. Plus it's summer and everywhere's short-staffed on account of holidays, and crime is up. Even the few FBI personnel we managed to snag are manning security, and we have a couple of CIA people working from their own offices. But there's only one phone line into Newly, and communications are abysmal. It's a total mess."
Taggart thumped a fist into a paw. "No one ever expects a weirdo with an arson fetish and brains enough to pull off a real bombing. People think insane is the equivalent of stupid."
"Serris. Kincaid. Brackett," Jim started.
"Gentlemen," the blonde put in. "I know of all the cases you've solved together, but we need to focus on this one."
Two indignant faces stared at her. Jim was in the process of turning her to stone when Taggert spoke, deceptively gently. "What makes you think we're not working on this case, madam?"
"Rehashing cases from the past..."
"Cases we solved, cases from which we learned things, cases with differing motives and modus operandi, bombing cases, Ms. Crozier. Please let the detectives do the detective work. We'll ask you for information as we decide we need it." Jim settled his arms across his chest and turned back to Joel. "Okay, motive. Insanity, politics, extortion, corporate sabotage?"
"Corporate sabotage?" the blonde exclaimed incredulously.
"Shut up!" Taggert commanded.
"Shut the hell up!" Jim commanded at the same time.
The blonde shut up.
"If it's corporate sabotage we're in biiiig trouble," Joel declared. "It's terribly easy to make fireworks go off; it's much more difficult to keep them safe. Especially the display fireworks, because they pack a tremendous wallop."
"Okay, then, how would a saboteur set up a corporate bombing? Would heor sheneed anything more than the black powder to go boom?"
"No, certainly not. One can set all the others off. And if it's primarily for effect, and it probably is because we got the bomb alert so early"it had come in at four o'clock, although the Governor had frittered away an hour of precious time before sending for the Cascade's experts"plus the fact that there's nothing on Newly Island, or anywhere around there, that it would make sense to blow up, I'd expect that no one would use any other explosives."
Jim nodded. "Wouldn't need them. Too easily findable with dogs."
Joel continued, "An array of display fireworks all timed to go off via computer that gets triggered by something elseman, you don't wanna know the damage that can do." Joel had hung his head down and was swinging it back and forth with regret.
Jim bit down the bile. He knew what the shrapnel could do to onlookers and what the heatas high as 3000C if a thermite composition were usedcould do to the landscape: if the area was damp, and it could hardly not be, in the middle of Puget Sound, it would create a killing steam cloud. Lobsters, only human.
"Okay, so most likely we're dealing with saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal. Black powder." Jim looked over at the insignificant governor's aide. "Any idea how massive the array is? 'Cause it's going to go down like setting off a materiel magazine, if we can't find the bomb and disarm it in time. The island may have to be evacuated, and we need to know everyone's off safely."
"Oh, no!" Crozier exclaimed in horror. "We can't cancel this! This is surely a hoax and there are immensely important trade issues and..."
"Fuck the trade issues, lady," Jim cut her off crudely. The blonde looked more horrified at the language than at the concept of hundreds of people dying in a blast. "The political fall-out of an explosion would be a whole lot worse than 'trade issues'."
"But the Chinese... Saving face... Prestige..."
Joel was staring at the woman. She obviously could not learn. "Madam, please confine yourself to providing such information as we need."
"You're wasting our time," Jim stated bluntly.
Then both men went back to their conversation and simply spoke over every protest the spluttering, red-flushed aide attempted to make.
"If it's corporate sabotage, chances are one firework has been tampered with, and it is probably the time fuse that's been gimmicked." Joel was thinking out loud.
"Too bad," Jim said. "Can't use the dogs to find a bomb when every single paper jacket contains one."
"Lance, Jim, the cardboard jackets are called lances. They're fired from steel mortars and the firework that explodes is a shell. Just like in the army, only it's supposed to be for entertainment."
Both men had had army experience in their pasts. Both knew how close a 'harmless' firework came to being a lethal weapon of war. They started turning ideas over in their minds, only having to hush the Crozier woman twice more for her to get the picture.
Ellison turned to his comrade, lips pulled thin. "Okay, what if it's the computer that runs the timing of the display that's been hacked into and reprogrammed?"
Joel pursed his lips. "That's not a bad idea, at all, Jim. It might take time for a hacker to find out how the manufacturer of the fireworks has set the array up, but inserting a virus or bug wouldn't take more than a few seconds alone with the central command computer."
"Oh, my God!" The blonde's jaw dropped. "It's that easy?"
The men looked at her tiredly. "It's that easy," they chorused.
"I wish Sandburg were here!" Jim scowled at the aide.
"Sandburg?" she asked.
"My partner, Blair Sandburg."
The blonde flipped through the paperwork. "I have you down as not being partnered at all. Is this a new pairing?"
"No," Ellison bit out. "I've been working with him for three years and more. He's a consultant with the department, and our computer buff."
"Of course, he does a lot of other things too, besides buff the computer," Taggert said with a sidelong gleam at Jim.
"Yeah, he goes undercover in mob families."
"Undercover in prisons."
"Undercover in asylums for the criminally insane."
"Undercover as the mark in a contract assassination."
"Undercover with drug dealers and illegal arms traffickers."
"I get the picture, gentlemen," Ms. Crozier said drily. "He does active duty as well as support staffwork."
"Oh, yeah," Jim said with fierce pride. "He certainly does active duty. He's my partner and I want him. If he shows up, it's your hide I'm coming after if he is not allowed to join me. Got that picture, Ms. Crozier?" Jim was smiling. With far too many teeth.
The aide stared into blue eyes colder than the heart of any iceberg and gulped. "Got it, Detective. I don't suppose you have a photo of him around?"
Jim pulled out his wallet and slipped out a press clipping with a snap of Captain Simon Banks, Detective James Ellison, and Police Consultant Blair Sandburg. He always knew that Cop-of-the-Year award would come in handy someday.
The blonde's brown eyes got big. Three extraordinarily good-looking men in tuxedos were looking back at her. One of them was the forbidding man with the Medusa frown, unexpectedly smiling in good humour here, one a big black man in glasses who looked to be the older of the third by almost a generation, and the third, well, he was a smallish version of Michaelango's David, a Renaissance work of art come to life. "That's..that's Blair Sandburg?" She pointed to the third man.
Jim took the clipping back with a sigh. "That's what the caption said." This woman was too hard to work with or around. He planned a letter of complaint to the Governorif only they got out of this alive.
"Okay," the aide made her commitment. "If I see him, I'll get him through the barricade."
Jim looked up, surprised. "Okay," he made the pact. "I'll hold you to that."
Joel smiled softly.
Then they went back to discussing the possibilities of a hacker being politically motivated to destroy the Chinese contingent's first participation in the newborn international spectacular. In the end, they decided that the available FBI expertise should focus on identifying U.S. nationals as possible culprits and act as liaisons with the CIA regarding international terrorists. Jim and Joel would be the field investigation team, attempting to find and disarm the bomb. Aide Crozier agreed with that assessment, thought it was clear she thought their involvement utterly unnecessary, since this had to be a hoax. The detectives meditated silently for a while as they thought about how to find what the bomber had planned.
Who had done it could come later, as far as they were concerned. Just as long as everyone was safe.
The flight out to Newly Island would have been unremarkable except for one thing. Blair Sandburg suddenly screamed in pain.
"My God, Blair," Rafe shouted, very nearly losing control of his Piper Cub. "What the hell's wrong?"
But Sandburg was doubled over, his hands plastered over his eyes and forehead, rocking, rocking, rocking. He obviously could not speak.
Rafe reached out hesitatingly, afraid to touch him, but needing to comfort his friend. "Blair?" No response. "Blair?" No response. "Sandburg?"
The change in nomenclature did it; Jim usually called his partner by his last name when they were working together. It recalled Blair to himself.
"I'm, I'm, 'mallrigh..." The words trailed off as Blair pushed himself up to rest against the back of his seat. His hands stayed put.
"What happened?" Rafe asked softly. "You had me scared there for a while."
Blair took his hands away from his eyes to peer at the pilot, and immediately regretted it. "Ow, ow, ow," came a muttered refrain.
"Blair, are you sure you're all right?" Rafe asked with some fright. He was thinking of all the concussions Sandburg had suffered in the course of the past three years. God, please don't let it be a burst blood vessel!, he prayed silently.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Blair whispered. "I just, it just, oh, man, my head hurts!"
Rafe looked at him, more frightened than ever. "Blair, tell me. I have to know. I'll bring the plane down for an emergency landing if I have to!" He began scouting out places beneath them, but it was not friendly terrain for a forced landing.
"No, no! It's not an emergency! It's just... a headache." Blair took his hands away from his eyes, but kept them closely shut. His teeth were gritted, and his words hissed out between them.
"Just a headache?" Rafe was not buying that line. "Headaches don't make you scream in pain, Blair."
"Migraines can," Blair returned.
Rafe was taken aback. "I know you get migraines, and I know Jim does too, but I thought it was overwork, like tension headaches. This is..." He stopped, having no terms to describe the piercing agony of Blair's involuntary cry.
"Migraines aren't tension headaches, Rafe. I only wish they were."
"Do you have anything you can take for it?" Rafe was desperate. There was no mistaking the degree of anguish his friend was experiencing. It was told by his entire body, scrunched up in pain.
"Not on me. Back at the loft," Blair sighed. The loft was far, far away. "Never mind. It just took me by surprise. It happens like that sometimes. I can get by. Jim needs me." He tried opening his eyes. Then he closed them instantly. With a visible effort he made himself blink, trying to adjust to the light intensity.
His friend noticed his actions. "Sunshine bothering you?" Rafe asked.
"Yeah, some," Blair admitted. He was striking his left palm over his left eye again and again and again.
"Whoa, Blair, are you sure that's just a headache? I mean, it could be..."
"Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry." Blair was clearly in too much pain to be able to think his way through real sentences.
It only added to the pilot's concern.
"I'm taking her down," he decided.
The pronouncement galvanized the Guide. "Like hell!" he hissed out, nailing his fingers to Rafe's shoulder. "I've had these since I was a kid in diapers. I know what they're like. I thought I'd outgrown them, but I guess I haven't."
"Okay, okay," Rafe said, startled but a little more comfortable with his passenger's health. "You're sure you're okay?"
Blair pried his hand off van Rijn's arm. "Sorry, I'm sorry. Yeah, I'm okay." He drew in a deep breath, gulped suddenly, clapsed his stomach, and began to breathe hard through his nose.
Rafe watched in alarmed silence.
At long last the police observer opened his eyes, drew a chestful of air into his lungs through his mouth, and turned his lips into his best attempt at a wry smile. "It's just a migraine, Rafe. Really. A bad one, but a migraine."
The pilot watched as his friend shuttered his eyes with his hand. "Here, try these," he suggested, holding out a wraparound, dark visor. "I don't need it, now or on the ground." He started fishing around the cockpit. "Here's the first aid kit. There are some aspirins, or acetaminophen, I don't know which, in there. Will they help?"
Blair accepted the gifts with much gratitude. "Oh, yeah, thanks, man. This is just what I need." He put the glasses on, dry-swallowed a handful of analgesics, and sighed with relief. "Just what I need." Then he turned green. He stayed green for a very long time.
Rafe remained quiet until he was sure that Blair was in control again. "So, um, how do these migraines work, then? I mean, if you had them as a kid..."
"Oh, yeah," came a gusty answer. "And to be truthful, every now and then as an adult too, but not with any regularity, like when I was little. But I forget how bad they can get when they're gone."
Rafe nodded. It is a mercy of the universe that you can't remember pain as pain after it was over, he thought to himself.
"The worst ones start out with a shot like a bullet right through my head just above my left eyebrow." Blair paused and panted a little. "A lot of men have migraines that start out that way."
"That's what you just had? A bullet of pain through your head?"
"Yeah," Blair said, ashamedly. "I feel like such a wuss."
"Well, if I never saw it coming, I expect I'd let out a yelp if a bullet whacked me in the brain," his friend commented. "I'd probably do more than yelp if it winged me in the ass."
Blair chuckled weakly, and Rafe rejoiced at the sound.
"Are we about to fly through patchy weather or anything?" the Guide asked. "'Cause if we are, that's probably what sent the bullet flying."
Rafe checked the instrumentation, gazed into the sky and pointed out a mass of indeterminate origin ahead of them. "That's a thunderstorm, dead centre. Want to avoid it?"
Blair had gone white at the weather report, and a little of the colour returned to his cheeks at the offer. "If we can avoid it without trouble or making us any later," he started.
"No problem, Sandburg," van Rijn concluded. "We won't fly through it."
Blair let a little of the tension go, and Rafe thought he looked like a marionette dropped by the puppeteer.
It was a challenge for the aide herself to broach the security set-up. Not only were her, and Jim's, and Joel's, credentials checked by far too young bravos at the perimeter, but once the trio were inside the beach cottage serving as headquarters they were reconfirmed by telephone to the Governor's office directly, which was on 24-hour call for this emergency.
As Crozier melted into the shack, Jim and Joel pushed past the burly guards who were holding back a conglomerate of people, many of them shouting at the guards and each other. There were an awful lot of media personnel jockeying for position. With the beefed-up security measures standing in their way, it looked to Jim as if a mob mentality were forming.
"I wanna be out of here before that turns ugly," Joel said with a side glance.
"It's already ugly," Jim replied. "I just wanna be out of here alive."
"You got that right," Taggert said. He began his personal prayer vigil for them both, well used in decades of bombing incidents.
"What's the time?" Jim asked as they moved further inward from the crowd.
"I've got five-fourteen." The display fireworks were sitting innocuously in trailers on the beach, just rows and rows of circles, uninteresting, boring, industrial strength ennui.
Joel checked his watch. "Five-eighteen. The show is supposed to start at 8:30."
"We'll go with your time. Five-eighteen. The bomb is due to go off at 8:00. I'd say that's showtime."
A grunt of agreement answered him.
They started with the delivery system. Everything had been shipped in by common carrier, since it was far too dangerous to cart in a small truck; if anything blew, the driver and all bystanders would be dead in seconds, either from the explosion itself or the shrapnel shredding people's flesh. Travelling pipe bombs, only more of them. Many, many more of them.
Joel was looking the boxcars over with a professional eye to packing stuff and Jim following suit, relying on his colleague, wishing Sandburg were with him so he could do a better job himself, when a young blood in a Sheriff's uniform showed up at a jog.
"You are?" he demanded to know abrasively.
"Ellison and Taggert," Jim responded just as brusquely.
"Like I'm supposed to know you from your names?" the Sheriff sneered.
"Like we're supposed to know you from your face?" Jim sneered back.
The Sheriff was a little staggered by that rejoinder. "I'm Corbin Mayes. I'm Sheriff of Milson county. This is my jurisdiction. I wanna know what the hell you're doing here."
"We're detectives with Major Crimes in Cascade, and according to the Governor, we're in charge." Jim looked over at Joel. "We're in charge, right?" he asked conversationally.
"Right, right." Joel was off-handed. "We're in charge." He went back to being engrossed with the detritus on the boxcar's floor.
"We're in charge," Jim politely informed Mayes. Then he surveyed the Sheriff from top to bottom of his uniform. "And I wanna know what the hell you're doing here."
Mayes turned fuchsia. "I'm trying to protect the people in my county."
"Then go talk to the Governor and get her to evacuate the island." Jim did not have time for this palaver. "Right now, we"he nodded at Joel who nodded in return"have a bomb to find and disarm."
The Sheriff was left in their dust as they continued beyond the first boxcar, discussing shipping procedures as they checked out the next one.
Jim caught the swearing with Sentinel ears and smiled tightly to himself. If Mayes would only stay out of their way, he and Joel might pull this miracle off. The thought of how unlikely that was solemnified his features again.
The two Cascade detectives swarmed over the boxcars, but there was nothing in any of them to indicate a problem with packaging. "Hell," Joel admitted, "if they weren't packed right, they'd have gone off when ferried here."
They checked out a fishing shack, but saw only teenagers hanging around it, none of them inclined to talk to them, all obviously suspicious of what the older men wanted there.
The pier was their next point of investigation. There was no trace of anything other than ordinary traffic, with half a dozen innocent motorboats tied up to the dock. So they traipsed back to the security line at about six o'clock, looking for a lift to the off-shore platform which had been erected especially for the fireworks festival.
It didn't go smoothly.
Blair couldn't help but wince as they set down at the deserted Bohemian Airfield, alongside an FBI jet and the Governor's helicopter. He was doing his best to mask the pain, but this migraine was in its infancy, and he knew that without heavy-duty painkillers at the very least, it would grow to gigantic proportions.
Touching down lightly, as lightly as any pilot ever landed an airplane, was enough to reset the Blair-pain register up a notch.
Rafe helped Blair unbuckle, and took note of the shaking hands. "You okay, buddy?" he asked.
"Yeah, Rafe, it's justwell, you know me and heights." Blair painted on a smile, and it might have worked if Rafe had not been looking into his eyes.
"Yeah, you and heights. Bad combination," Rafe said gently before hopping out and helping Blair down from the co-pilot's seat.
Set the register up another notch, Blair thought sardonically at the long step down, wondering just how many notches were left.
Rafe rummaged through the cockpit and came up with Blair's bookbag and the tin of aspirin. "Don't want to forget these," he mentioned, pushing the painkillers into Blair's hands before slinging the bag over his own shoulder.
The grad student stared at the pharmaceuticals as if he had never seen them before. Then the lagtime on his thinking processes disappeared and he thanked Rafe for his thoughtfulness.
Rafe viewed him with concern. He would not have bet money on Blair being able to help Jim in any way, secret or otherwise, in this condition. There were grooves of agony all over the student's face.
"Come on," Blair said finally, stuffing the tin into his jeans pocket. "Let's get a move on." He set off determinedly in the opposite direction from the display locale.
Rafe caught up and swung him slowly around. "It's this way."
Blair was white-faced again. "You sure?" he whispered, adjusting his sunglasses against the glare of the sun in the west.
"Yeah, I'm sure," Rafe responded sympathetically. "We'll just follow the ruts." he gestured to the tiretracks heading away from the field.
Blair cast him a glance of pure hopelessness and took off his long-sleeved cotton plaid top shirt, leaving on the white tee beneath. With a few deft moves, the shirt became a hat, the collar a handy sun visor.
Then they both started the walk to the west and Jim.
"I don't need clearance! I've already been cleared!" Jim was yelling fiercely. "What kind of schmuck are you, Mayes? How the hell do you think I got past the line in the first place? Or are you just too damn picayune to know how to set up a security line at all?"
The Sentinel started toward the far-too-pleased-with-himself Sheriff of Milson County.
He found himself surrounded by musclemen wearing tin stars, and who had obviously been deputized by Mayes from among whoever was available when the bomb threat was relayed to him.
The media people scented blood and started circling.
"Get them off me now," Jim called over the heads of a couple of high school linebackers, straining against their holds. "Or do you want to be the one who goes down in history for this fiasco? Corbin Mayes! SHERIFF CORBIN MAYES!" Jim was pointing him out forcefully, and no one missed the pointer.
"Sheriff Mayes? Is there something wrong?"
"Live from Newly Island, this is Sarah Winstrom with a report..."
Mayes suddenly realized just how badly he had bobbled the ball. He waved his kiddy deputies down and turned to face the media frenzy he had caused.
Jim and Joel stormed past the confused strongmen and headed toward the tiny island station.
"What is that?" Aide Crozier asked with alarm from inside the station. The lace had three rooms, one telephone jack, and too many people. "What the hell is going on out there?"
"Sheriff Corbin Mayes created a fiasco," Jim said calmly. "Now he's paying for it."
Joel was bobbing his chin up and down.
"Oh, my God," Crozier moaned. "What do I do now?"
"Look, lady," Jim came down on her at once. "I know and you know that you're no Governor's aide, you're a publicist dressed up to look like someone with power."
Crozier's jaw had fallen to the floor. It occurred to Joel that it might require surgical re-attachment. He was dispassionate about the possibility, himself.
"I don't know why the Governor picked you..."
"I'm her sister-in-law."
The merest whisper, far too faint for anyone else to hear, stopped Jim dead in his tracks. He took another look at the pallid, drawn countenance and decided to tone down his attack. Crozier was out of her depth, but there was no question that she wanted to avert trouble. She just had not had any preparation for something like this. Now she was about to let down her family, on top of all the people on Newly Island, and she among the casualties if the worst befell them all.
Jim's Sentinel instincts went off at that thought. This was a member of the tribe in need of help. "Okay," he said in a gentler tone, putting his hands on the woman's thin shoulders, his eyes warming. "Here's what we're gonna do."
Crozier was nodding, wide-eyed.
"You're gonna go out there and take charge like you are in charge. Because you are in charge."
Crozier gulped. "Okay," she said in a high, tiny voice.
"Okay, Ms. Crozier..."
"Betsy." Jim turned his lips up a little. "Betsy, you're going to take control back from Sheriff Mayes. He wants to solve this case himself, but he doesn't have what it takes to do that."
"That's why they sent you," Betsy Crozier put in.
"That's why they sent us," Jim agreed, walking the aide through the confidence-building exercise. "You know the words to tell the media. That's your job, isn't it?"
"Yes." Again, the voice was a tiny first soprano.
"You do it very well. That's why the Governor sent you."
The lesson of the exercise hit home with a punch. "Yes," Aide Betsy Crozier said slowly. "That's why she sent me." This time her voice was firm, a register lower than before, and very, very decisive. She looked through the window of the office where she was in continual contact with the state capitol, and set her mouth. "I am going to go out there and take control."
Jim lifted his hands from her shoulders, patted them once and stepped back a little. "You know just what to do."
"Yes, actually, I do." There was a sudden timbre of laughter in the aide's voice that had never before appeared. Jim and Joel exchanged glances of surprise.
"First of all," the aide went on, "I'm going to make clear to everyone what their jobs are."
She stood up, straightened her suit, and walked to the door. "Sheriff Mayes!" she called.
He looked up at the woman commanding his attention.
"Here. Now." Without any further ado, Betsy Crozier turned her back on the press and re-entered the office.
Mayes found himself having to use his own men to protect him as he flurried to the office door.
"Ms. Crozier?" he said with evident displeasure. "I have a situation out there to handle."
"Since you're the one who created the situation, I don't think you're the right person to handle it."
Mayes gaped at her. "What did you say?"
"You heard me. As of this minute, you are restricted to this office. If you come up with any bright ideas about 'handling' the press, this case, or me for that matter, you will clear it through channels."
"Precisely what channels would those be?" Mayes was getting confrontational.
"You can fax the Governor your ideas and see what she has to say to them. Nobody here is about to listen to you. If by chance you should interrupt the Governor in the middle of her handling of this crisis, or suggest that she remove her hand-picked investigators, you'll find yourself in deeper shit than any fertilizer company ever bagged."
"Hand-picked investigators?" came a weak voice.
"Hand-picked investigators," said the woman in charge, and there was no brooking her tone. "Sit down there," she pointed to a chair in a corner, "and stay there. Out of trouble. Got it?"
Silence was the only response, but there were a dozen faces aching with the attempt to restrain their laughter. Sheriff Mayes had evidently thrown his weight around before, and gotten away with far too much for the liking of the other law enforcement people trying to stop the bombing. He sat in the designated corner and sulked.
"All right, that's settled. Mr. Perkins? Mr. Perkins is the head FBI agent here, and these are his people," Betsy tossed over her shoulder in an aside to the cops.
A suit in his late thirties stood up from a table littered with notes and people pouring over them. "Ms. Crozier?"
"Do we have an interpreter yet?"
"No, we don't. I promised exclusives to all the Asian reporters and there was nary a nibble."
Both of them looked regretfully at the third room, full of people conversing in some dialect of Chinese which no one on Newly Island could speak. They were obviously technicians and not linguists, and no one wanted to attempt discussion without being certain neither side was misunderstood by the other. Trying to use hand-drawn icons was a total bust, confusing and too time-consuming, and since the laptop belonging to the FBI didn't have Chinese fonts, they were SOL all the way around the communications gap. Someone decided to follow up the hoax angle as the most effective and important use of the computer instead.
The Chinese group looked up hopefully, but when Betsy Crozier backed them down with her palm, they too turned despondent. How this had ever happened, no one could fathom, unless it was to try to keep the choreographing and choices of the display entirely secret by relying entirely on home-grown manpower. But whatever went wrong and however it went wrong, every person in the little shack was determined that it never happen again, not if he or she could help it.
"How's the search for whoever sent the threat coming along?"
"We know the call was made from here in the States, although it was routed all around the world before it arrived. We and the CIA have eliminated a few obvious political possibilities, mostly U.S. nationalsnutbarswith a gripe about China and a penchant for things that go boom, but there are a whole lot more to go. We never seem to run out of crazies." He sighed a sigh for everyone in the place.
"Very well. Do you have any problem with Detectives Ellison and Taggert doing the footwork on tracking down the bomb itself?"
Perkins scanned the two Cascade police officers, taking their measure. "I know their records. Thank you for getting them for me, Ms. Crozier, by the way."
She waved a hand in acknowledgment.
"No, I don't have a problem with them finding the bomb if they can. We can't do everything." The FBI agent grinned suddenly. "And we can't do bomb disarmament anywhere near as well as Captain Taggert, anyhow!"
"Anyone here with superior computer skills?" Jim asked.
Perkins looked around the table. "General use only. Why?"
"We're working on the hypothesis that the bomber has hacked into the manufacturer's computer system and knows how the fireworks are programmed to go off. That's how we think he's going to trigger the explosion, by using the computer system against us."
Perkins looked intrigued. "Good working hypothesis. I can farm it out to other offices and let the whizkids there check through the manufacturer's computer systems, whoever is closest to it. Who is the manufacturer?"
Jim leaned forward. "I think most of the manufacturers are Chinese, but there are some that have been made here in the U.S. and up in Canada too."
"You sure about that, Jim?" Joel was mystified by his colleague's pronouncement.
"Oh, yeah. Different packing materials. You noticed that, right?"
"Yeah, I did." Joel stopped to consider for a moment. "Now you mention it, I'd say there have to be about five separate factories involved. I don't know whose system could have been hacked into, but that widens the scope of the investigation."
"Yeah, it does." Perkins blew out a sigh. "What stage of the procedure do you think he sabotaged?"
"Well, he or she"Perkins threw up a hand to grant the alternatives"might have loaded one, probably the first to go off, with C-4, but I doubt it." Joel conjectured.
"We had dogs all over the place earlier. No C-4 anywhere."
"That's what we thought," Joel said. "If they did get involved in the manufacturing process, they could have gimmicked one of the big fireworks..."
"I thought they were all big," someone around the table put in.
"They're all big, but some are bigger than others," Joel lectured. "A display usually has three sections, the opening, the body and the Grande Finale."
"And the Grande Finale has biggest and best. Right," the FBI agent said.
"One can travel for three to seven seconds before bursting, and can be seen for two to five seconds. The higher, longer ones are the ones with the most blasting power."
"How do we know which those are?" someone else said.
Jim looked at Joel. It was time for them to split up. "I'm going back to work. I'll double check the packing material and get back here with the results."
"Yeah, okay. I gotta make sure the EMT's are ready for action, too. It'll take a while." Joel waved him off and started talking about cakes and pistils and go-getters and Saturn shells. Jim left him to it.
Mayes glared at the Sentinel with almost as much firepower as a rocket. Jim ignored him. He knew a squib when he saw one.
"How much farther is it, Rafe?" Blair asked.
It was only his third time of asking.
"I don't know, buddy." The detective looked around the landscape. "There just isn't anyone here to ask either." Everywhere were deserted cottages, ramshackle and treacherous. Rafe picked out the likeliest one. "You wanna stay here in the shade? We'll come get you later." He hoped there would be a later for all of them.
"Of course not!" Blair spat out, teeth bared. "I know what you're walking into. I know what Jim's already walked into, and Joel. I won't be left behind. If I have to crawl I'll get there." Jim needed him, and he knew it.
Rafe found himself admiring the pure stick-to-it-iveness of the Guide. Unofficial he might be, but he was a partner to make a man proud. No wonder Jim was so fiercely protective, and possessive, about Blair Sandburg.
"Look, Blair." Rafe stopped, hoping that Blair would take a break and stop with him.
No such luck. Sandburg gritted his teeth and kept walking into the sunset.
"Blair! I know it's worse." Rafe said.
"You don't know that. I don't know that." Defiant to the end.
Rafe began to run after the determined police observer. "I do know it! I can tell you're having problems with your sight."
Blair made a misstep and stumbled to get back to the pace he had set. "How?" was all he said.
"Your perspective's off, at the very least. I can tell, Blair. Anyone could tell." Rafe sounded sad.
"I am not the object of anyone's pity..." Blair ground out.
"I don't pity you! I admire your gutsiness! But you need help and you're gonna have to accept it whether you like it or not! Jim needs you, right?" Rafe hated himself for using emotional blackmail, but dammitall, Blair did need his help! "Tell me what's wrong!"
Blair stopped for a moment, shifting uneasily. It seemed to Rafe as if the man's balance itself were off.
"I, I'm having visual problems."
"Nothing I haven't had before."
"Not what I asked. What kind?"
"It's called aura. It started as pinpricks of coloured light before my eyes. Like fireworks, kinda. Ironic, ain't it?"
Rafe didn't see any humour in the situation at all. "That's how it started. So what's it become?"
"I'm seeing weird geometric patterns overlaying everything." Sandburg sounded as tired as if he had run all the way from Cascade to Puget Sound. "Staircase-like. With them starting at the centre of my field of vision and squiggling out to the corners."
"Jesus, Sandburg! No wonder your perspective's off!"
Blair blew a long snort of air out his nostrils and carefully picked up one foot and placed it before the other.
"Blair, for the love of Pete, tell me where it's going!" Rafe was beside himself with concern. He had watched this man struggle in agony for far too long.
"Rafe... I don't know where it's going. It's never been this bad before, not even as a kid. And there weren't any adult strength painkillers back then for me to take. I thought I knew the limits but now I know I don't." There was a huskiness in the words that had not been there before.
"Can you, can you take some more tablets?"
"No, I can't."
"Surely if you're in so much pain a few more..."
"It's not that, Rafe. I could probably take a shot of morphine right now and never lose lucidity."
"What is it then?"
"It would be a waste of a good analgesic. If I swallow anything now, I'll just sick it all up. Even if it's just water."
"Oh, man. How can you keep going?"
"Jim needs me."
Rafe fell into step beside his companion, and when the sun dipped lower and shone right into Blair's eyes, he pulled the shirt down over Blair's face and walked him forward, arm around his waist. They would make the walk together.
Having re-examined the dock and all the boats there, Jim was now scouring the boxcars for clues. He did not expect to find anything, but he was desperate. If the computer system controlling the array of fireworks had been sabotaged, the best bet for stopping a disaster before it happened was determining who had manufactured the fireworks and letting the FBI go to work on the problem from their myriad offices.
But the Sentinel was facing sensory overload already. First of all, everyone seemed to have showered in cologne. In order to fend off just Betsy Crozier's perfume, he had to blank out a hundred different floral and fruit scents. Probably Joy, he thought dourly to himself. But then there was Joel's aftershave, and some horrible concoction Mayes could not have believed would attract anything other than civet cats, and the sweat and stinks of all the media people. And the fireworks had their own, sultry, perilous smell.
Then there were the sounds. Too many people yelling. Too many seagulls screeching. Too many spashes of the Sound water against the dock. Too much, way too much.
There was salt in the sea air, and gunpowder grit in his pores, and the sun was too harsh against his irises, and he could feel every pebble underfoot despite an extremely well insulated sole picked out by his Guide for this very kind of occasion.
And sight was overloading him just from trying to find anything in the dark boxcars. Starting with the packing materials, he had gone on to search virtually every inch of the walls and ceiling with Sentinel sight, looking for something, anything, a fingerprint, something!, to help. But there were fingerprints everywhere and there was no one to match them against. He scratched up a slip of paper with unintelligible symbols on it and ran a hand over his face, then went back to the search. Jim was simply pushing too hard at every faculty. He could not believe, could not let himself believe, that there might be no way to save this situation.
He turned to the east, longing to shepherd everyone to the far side of the island and make them cower in the cold water.
All Jim could think was, I'm glad Sandburg's not here; I'm glad he's safe at home in Cascade.
But before his ruminations could take him farther, his farflung senses told him something stupendous.
Sandburg wasn't at home in Cascade. Sandburg was here. Sandburg wasn't safe at all!
Jim jolted out of the stupor of stagnation he had fallen into at the boxcar. His head went up and swivelled. Yes, he had heard his Guide, and his Guide was hurting, he could hear it in his voice. Where was he then?
The pitfall of Sentinels very nearly overcame him as Jim Ellison sent his hearing scouting out and around for the sound of his Guide's voice, the voice that alone could save him from that pitfall. But Jim dragged himself back from the edge of the zone he had nearly fallen into, and he forced himself to think.
If Sandburg was on Newly Island, Ellison might not know where he was, and might be too overloaded to define his position, but he surely knew where his Guide was headed!
The Sentinel sped to the shack.
"Where is he?" he shouted, drawing stares from every corner.
"Where is who?" Crozier asked.
"Sandburg! He's here!"
"How do you know, Jim?"
Ellison waved down Taggert's question and ignored the rest. "I told them to send Sandburg after me. He's here on the island. Did his credentials come in?"
"Yes, they did," Crozier said. "I specifically checked with the Governor and got them and her okay faxed here. I gave them to the Sheriff."
"Where the hell would he have ended up if he were trying to get past Security?"
Mayes found himself the centre of attention. "Oh, so now I'm important to you, huh? Well, guess what? I have no idea how some interloper would be handled for breaching Security measures."
"You son of a bitch!" Jim picked the hefty lout up by his buttons. Mayes was still sneering. "You're going to tell me," Jim prophesied quietly, "and then I'm going to kill you."
"Pfft!" the idiot Sheriff commented. "Me dead, no one to tell you anything."
"Yes, but I get to pick how you die."
Suddenly there was a complete hush in the room. Jim Ellison looked far too likely to carry out his threat for anyone to breathe.
Mayes suddenly realized he was actually in danger. "Ah, ah, I think probably your partner is over in the beach hut. That's our, um, temporary jail."
"How nice for you," Jim congratulated him. "You get the easy death." He dropped the jerk, and pulled back his fist for a slam-dunk of a punch. Mayes toppled over sideways.
"Well," Betsy Crozier said, "that's the first time I've ever seen anyone knock himself out by putting his foot in his mouth."
"That's what I saw too.
"You said it."
"Wish he'd put his foot in his mouth again."
Mayes was left to rot.
"What time is it?"
Jim Ellison was out the door and running to his Guide, Crozier at his heels.
"What are they saying, Rafe?" Blair was exhausted, agony turning his deep blue eyes black. "I don't understand." He was working the cotton in and out of a death grip.
"They're just... being difficult. I'll work it out." Rafe decided he was not going to bother his companion with any of the illogic the boy deputies were trying to pass off as law in these parts. "Here, sit down and take a load off. Close your eyes for a while."
"Curly there doesn't get a seat," proclaimed one of the young men who appeared to consider himself in charge. He walked his six three, weightlifter frame over to where Sandburg was sagging and took some perverted pleasure in looking down at the sick man. "There aren't enough seats to go around. So they're all for us."
"Fine, great, okay," Rafe returned, and turned to face Blair, intending to ease him down into sitting on the floor. He was nearly decapitated by the stranglehold the kid locked onto him. Certainly he couldn't speak.
"Hey, bozo, I don't know who the hell you are," from the side came a goodly baritone "but that's my friend you're trying to kill." With nothing else at hand, the speaker twirled his shirt into one long rope and looped it around the attacker's neck. "Let him go!"
"Hell! I thought he was out of it!"
"Shit, you fucker, let him go!"
"He lets go, I let go, that's the deal!"
"Let the guy go, Curtis!"
"Curt! Come on, dude!"
"Shit! We don't even know who these guys are! Let him go!"
Curt had to be persuaded to let go by the noose around his neck. With both men gasping for air from near-strangulation, Blair supported Rafe while Curtis's friends pulled him back out of range of the attack-trained animal that had appeared to be a miniature poodle.
"You may not know who he is, but I certainly do." A newcomer stormed into the very much too full hut. "These are my partner and my colleague, and I want them in good shape. Very good shape. Now, what are you going to do about that, Curtis, dude?"
If the man speaking hadn't been Curtis' own match in height, weight and musculature, Curtis might have tried bluffing his way through. But he took one quick measure of the size of the man with his hand at his collar and backed down. Way, way down.
"Uh, sorry, I guess."
Curtis lived to see another sunset.
"So, like, who are you guys?" a voice from the back asked in amazement.
"They are credentialed members of the team sent by the Governor herself," Aide Betsy Crozier spoke up. "They've been held up far too long by Sheriff Mayes's idiotic excuse for a security system. I have to apologize for him, boys. He should never have put you in charge of things. It's no wonder you screwed up so royally."
The teenagers were almost more cowed by the magnanimous bitching-out Crozier had just laid on them than by Jim's unveiled threats. It was clear they knew who she was; Jim guessed they must have seen her giving orders to Mayes earlier.
"Oh, okay. Sorry to have gotten in your way. Can we be excused?" It was the amazed voice again. Apparently one of the kids had some grasp on reality.
"Yes, you can be excused. You might want to think about going home now," Betsy suggested with a tongue of gentle steel.
"Oh," the kid said with disappointment. "Okay. Well, there's four more days of fireworks. We can come back, right?"
"Right," Betsy confirmed. "Tomorrow you can come back. But now you should go home, all of you. You've done enough for one day."
"Huh," the kid conceded, and led the way out, Curtis straggling behind, about to take off on Crozier until the kid in the lead snagged him by his shirt and bodily hefted him back into line.
Crozier closed her eyes and said a prayer of thanks that at least a few kids were now safe.
There was another conversation going on in the hut, a private one, no one else required.
"I will be."
"It's bad, huh?"
"Take anything for it?"
"Nothing to take. Everything's at the loft. Some over the counter painkillers, but I can't keep anything down now."
"What brought it on?"
Jim Ellison looked up at Betsy Crozier. "Do the EMT's have anything he can take? Gravol? Dimenhydrenate? Any painkillers?"
Betsy looked long and consideringly at the two men, one seated in collapse and the other crouching on the floor at his side. "I don't know about them, but I do."
Jim's eyebrows reached the ceiling.
"I get migraines too, Detective," the blonde said with that same slight touch of a sense of humour. "Even if I am only a glorified press agent."
Rafe swung with horror from one face to the other. He knew what a Sandburgless Ellison was capable of and he was envisioning the worst.
"I saw a guy knock himself out today with his own foot," the aide commented. "There's a first time for everything."
Rafe gave up trying to understand.
Jim came back with, "Yeah, I guess there is. I might just see an aspirin or two that look exactly like..."
"... Tylenol 3's."
"And a gravol to go with."
"Sounds like a plan."
"The plan has to work fast, though."
"Give me three of the T-3's," the bundle on the floor said. "Crush them first. I'll take the gravol to begin with and then the crushed tablets right after. The more, the merrier." Blair tried to smile at the Governor's sister-in-law and only succeeded in making her even more sympathetic.
"Aura?" she asked, searching her purselet for a tiny tablet case. She handed the thing over to Jim.
"You betcha." Blair swallowed the orange pill first.
"I know the same language. I've been there too often."
"Me, too." Then Blair was shuddering with the evil bite of the painkiller. "S'good, Jim! I'm okay."
The Sentinel was trying extraordinarily hard not to mother-hen his Guide, but he wasn't having much success.
"Can you guys help me up, Jim? Rafe?"
The plea had Blair on his feet again in an instant. He clung onto Ellison's hand for a moment while he readjusted his balance, closing his eyes before trying and reopening them afterwards.
"Vision screwed, Chief?"
"Yeah, a little."
"Yeah, a lot!"
"Yeah, okay, a lot. Lay off."
"Whatever you say, Chief." But a long arm snaked around a narrow waist and the Guide and the Sentinel slowly left the hut together, Betsy Crozier and Rafe van Rijn close behind.
Blair made the Aide and Jim recount what had happened three times before he could grasp it all. "So," he summed up, "we don't know if there's a bomb, we don't know where it is, we don't know how the display is wired and we don't have anyone to be interpreter with the Chinese techs. Am I missing anything?"
Betsy and Jim exchanged glances. "That's about the size of it."
"There's absolutely no way to persuade the Governor to evacuate the island?" Rafe asked with disquiet.
"No. And I think it's too late now, anyway," Crozier said. "The ferry stopped running at noon; this isn't on its usual run and it was on a special contract to bring out the techs. I don't know how most of the media people got here, but I'd expect it was by helicopters that took off again. The airfield can't handle that kind of traffic."
"Yeah," Rafe put in. "I noticed. From the look of the landing strip, I'd say there was a lot of helicopter traffic earlier but no one landed except the Governor's own 'copter."
"The more local people must have come by boat," Jim said. "That's how the kids from the 'jail' were going home."
No one asked how he knew this.
The group was drawing nearer headquarters, and Betsy Crozier left the men to make a statement to the press. Jim listened in while she cited technical difficulties that might require the delay of the Chinese display. She began fielding questions about what sort of difficulties, how long a delay, was cancellation being discussed, etc., and Jim left her to handle her job by herself.
Joel met the trio of Cascadians with alacrity. "Blair, Rafe, good to see you! Jim, you find anything that could help?"
Jim handed over a small scrap of paper with Chinese writing on it, his only gleaning from the close search of the boxcars. "That's it, and I don't know what it means."
Joel passed it back to Perkins, who had come out to be introduced to the two newcomers. "Anything?" Jim asked as hands were being shaken.
Perkins shook his head. "All the possible leads we've followed are dead ends. There are more, there always are more, but we just don't have the time to track them down." He looked at his watch, and everyone followed suit. Horror was in the eyes of all five men.
"Look, would it help to be able to talk to the techs?" Blair asked suddenly. "To, like, find out how they've got the array set up? The heavy hitting fireworks? The computer system they're using, the triggering and stuff?"
"Yeah," Perkins breathed. "That would be wonderful but we can't do it! No one here speaks the right dialect. We haven't had any luck in the agency or the forces finding anyone either."
"Well, colour outside the lines," Blair said quietly. "I'm gonna kick you guys off the net and go on it myself, 'kay?"
Perkins looked over the head of the man who had pain lines all over his face, and saw assurance in his companions. "Okay," the agent drawled slowly.
Rafe handed over the bookbag, Blair retrieved his laptop, and he excused himself in front of, behind, to the side of and over the other FBI agents in their main office. When he disconnected the wire from the computer to the telephone, the din made him wince, hands over his ears.
"Be quiet!" Jim Ellison spat sotto voce. "He's got a migraine, and he may just be of some help here."
"Precious little else has been," Perkins admitted. "Keep it down, please."
Blair had hooked up his laptop and was sending out an e-mail. Then another. Then a third.
"Who you writing, Chief?"
"Dr. Ping Chao, head of Chinese Studies, Professor Mei Ling Hofstedder in Linguistics, and Tammy."
"Yeah, Tammy. You know Tammy. Tammy Li. She take our orders when we call out for Chinese."
"Oh, her. I didn't know her name. How do you?"
"I asked, Jim. Her parents own and run the restaurant, and live above it. I figure that at least one of these longshots have to pay off."
"We tried to get Professor Hofstedder and Dr. Ping Chao," came an aggrieved voice from among the FBI contingent. "They're not available. But if you can find Muffy.."
Blair turned and fire burned harshly in the slowly darkening room. "Her name is Tammy and if she can help us she is as deserving of respect as either of the other two. Besides, I'd bet you e-mailed their offices."
"Well, yes," said another voice uncertainly.
"I e-mailed their home addy's." Blair slumped into a chair. "If any of them is on the net, we should hear back instantly. I made sure they knew it's a life-and-death situation."
At just that second, Blair's mail program pinged.
"All right, Professor Hofstedder!" Blair exulted.
Again, the riot around him made him flinch with agony.
The room went back to being as silent as a grave.
Blair sent a confirmation e-mail with the telephone number of the island phone in it. Then he disconnected and left the phone hooked up. It rang thirty seconds later.
"Mei Ling? Yeah, yeah, it's me, Blair. Fine. But it's life and death, Mei Ling, we can talk later." Pause. "We need someone who can interpret the dialect of the Chinese techs, and no one knows which dialect they're speaking, let alone speak it himself!" Pause. "Okay." Blair put his hand over the mouthpiece and gestured for Perkins. "Go get the head of the Chinese section, okay? Mei Ling's gonna try to talk to him, and if that doesn't work, she'll go through everyone there one by one."
Perkins darted out of the room. Blair was explaining the bomb threat, the fireworks display, the computer operation, and the off-shore platform to Professor Hofstedder so that she would be know the kind of techinicalese she would need in addition to the basics of the dialect itself.
A tall, corpulent man of great dignity and a wealth of silver hair preceded Perkins into the FBI office. Blair handed the telephone receiver over to him, and stood back.
A conversation commenced. The Chinese man was obviously overjoyed that finally he had someone to speak with. But after just a few exchanges, he handed the receiver back to Blair.
Sandburg began to report Professor Hofstedder's side of the conversation "They say they have not had any threats themselves, and that there is enough explosive power in the array to blow the entire island apart if it were on land. Dump it into the sea and it will destroy the sealife if it is bombed, they've used metals for the colours that will burn in water and it wouldn't all become waterlogged fast enough to dampen the charges. The computer program for controlling the order of the fireworks is a standard one and could well be sabotaged and adapted for remote control from somewhere else, not necessarily here on Newly." He stopped and looked around again.
Everywhere there was dismay.
"We're fucked if it's not a hoax," Jim whispered.
"We can't count on it not being a hoax any longer, either," Betsy Crozier said sadly.
Every head turned her way. Her smile was a little off-kilter. "I looked at all the people in the press line, and they were people to me. Sheriff Mayes deputized the whole highschool football team from Lewis and Clark High on Little Tern Island. All those kids are out there trying to keep order. Here, in this office are people, real people, with personalities and names and lives and families." She drew a deep breath. "I am no longer comfortable with the idea that this should be treated as a hoax. What can we do in the time left to us to try to scuttle the bomb?"
With that go-ahead, everyone sprang into furious talk, Blair handing the phone over to someone else to play announcer between Professor Hofstedder and the Chinese techs. Jim, Blair, Rafe and Joel drew away to the side, where Joel started answering questions.
"If it's remote controlled, we can't be sure of finding the bomber here on the island. That's why they picked Newly. It's empty and it's narrow and with the display on the east there is absolutely clear vision for miles around. People weren't supposed to view the fireworks from here, but from the other islands circling Newly. The bomber may be on the scene, but there are a score of islands to pick and choose from that can see Newly and the action from there."
Jim sank into a deep study.
"Who" seemed to be a useless question to ask.
"What" had already been disposed of: any of a few hundred shells could be the one rigged. Handling any of the shells was less than futile: it could set off the whole lot by accident or by the design of the bomber.
"Why" would have to wait for later.
"Where!" Jim shouted, drawing the attention of everyone to him. "The trailers are all on the anchored platform, right?"
Well, yes, was the answer from all sides.
"We can't let it explode here."
That was the consensus.
"We can't dump the stuff into the sea or we'll have an ecological disaster on our hands."
"So what do we do, Jim?" Rafe asked at last.
Blair's eyes were gleaming, having caught on to Jim's idea. "We disconnect the platform and take it out to sea. Right? Jim, am I right?"
Ellison thumped his best friends's arm. "Right, Chief. You got it right. Let it explode harmlessly upwards, well away from anyone and anything that could be harmed. Hey, Perkins, get the info from the techs about how the platform itself is set up. What kind of tools do we need to free the thing from its anchors?"
Everyone had a part to play in the rescue of Newly Island.
First the Chinese group got and gave permission to abort the display if necessary.
Next the technicians came up with an assortment of tools no one knew they had, or why. It seemed they had been concerned about having to rebalance the float once their trailers were sky-dropped onto it. The Chinese display was to have been magnificence beyond the wildest imaginings. They had had millennia to perfect their artistry.
Then the Governor's helicopter pilot, Dan Broom, volunteered to help drag the raft far enough out into the water that it would not be at the mercy of the currents and accidentally wind up ashore on another, populated island by accident. Rafe agreed to be co-pilot. The two spoke about grappling irons, tow ropes, altitude and windspeed as they gathered what they needed and headed out to the east side of the island.
Once Jim ascertained that all the equipment he could ever possibly want for any purpose in this life or the next was available to him, he snagged the best of it from the Chinese techs, and he, Blair and Joel headed out to the dock and one of the boats hitched there.
Keeping close note of how to contact Professor Hotstedder again if necessary, the FBI personnel got in touch with the Coast Guard and quickly downloaded the information about where the float should be and when it should be there, with all safety to the helicopter and its crew ensured as their first priority.
Then everyone got busy.
The three detectives from Cascade on float duty commandeered one of the larger boats, which had to hold two oxygen tanks, a pair of facemasks and flippers, an acetyline torch, wire cutters, bold cutters, files, and goodness knew what else. They sped to the float and tied up to it. Joel stayed on deck to check out how to tie the raft off for helicopter transport, but Jim and Blair stripped to their shorts, hoisted on the airtanks, and dropped into the frigid water. Both were rocked by how cold the Sound was, but they knew it would only take a few minutes to do the job they needed to perform. They made sure they would not lose the acetyline torch or the bolt-cutters underwater by harnessing them and giving Joel the control of the harnesses.
Jim went to work at once. Beneath the icy depths of the Sound, Blair could see almost nothing, but to the Sentinel everything was visible. He found that the float had been anchored by two sets of chains, one north and one south, that met up and were welded to a single chain that hung in the water, perfectly straight, from the weights at the depth.
That was the weak point. That was where Sentinel and Guide would attack. Jim reached out to his waterblind best friend and brought his hand down to feel the equipage of the chains. Blair felt around the set up until he got the idea and sent a thumb's-up back. Jim tugged lightly on one of Blair's ringlets for attention, and grabbed Blair's free hand. He drew a circle on the wrist and pushed the hand up and down, ending with a hard upward motion. Blair got the idea and swam up to the surface.
"We know how it's set up, Joel. There's only one link to take out. Then the raft will be free. We need you to be in the boat so you can get us. Where's the helicopter?"
Joel squinted against the fading light, looking east. "On their way, can you hear them?"
"Yes, now I can," Blair chattered. "Okay, I'm going back down to Jim. We'll start working on the chains. We won't cut her loose until we have your go-ahead."
Joel gave Blair the end of a length of plastic web cord to wrap around his hand. A couple of jerks on it and Blair knew what the signal would be.
He dropped back into the water. Jim caught him by the foot as he descended and Blair played charades in the dark, circling a finger around and around to indicate the helicopter, then pointing upwards. He swung out a hand which Jim took and Blair felt his way up to Jim's shoulder to grip it hard: Go ahead!
Jim started the torch and began to cut through cold metal. Blair watched the flame for a while, but the migraine was far from gone, and he closed his eyes long before Jim was finished. The cold water was painful to the rest of his body but kind to the headache, at least for the moment. Blair almost fell into a meditation on the paradox, but a jerking of the plastic line brought him back to himself instantly.
He reached out again, able this time to see Jim in the glare of the torch flame. He tapped his Sentinel on the shoulder three times. Jim turned off the torch and left it in its harness. Blair brought up the bolt cutters, and with the strength of the two of them both applied to the vice, cut through the link and freed the float. The torch and bolt cutters both were adrift with the raft.
Above them, pendant in the water, they could see the bottom of the platform moving away, its shadow over them passing at last. When it had moved fully away from them, they surfaced. Joel was waiting a few feet away, eagerly throwing out lines for the Sentinel and Guide to take so he could pull them up to the boat. When both were safe and secure, huddled in blankets, the motorboat pulling hard toward the dock, the three men grinned at each other like idiots.
"We've done it," Blair crowed.
"Oh, yeah, baby," Joel seconded.
"All of us together," Jim commented, his eyes on the swiftly departing helicopter neither of the others could see any longer.
Blair noticed his partner's distraction. "They're gonna be okay, right, Jim?"
"Yeah, they're gonna be okay, Chief. In fact," a slow grin drew the Sentinel's mouth from grimness to great happiness, "I'd bet that right about now they're casting the float adrift and leaving it to the currents to take out to sea. They should be well away from it in a minute or two."
The lazy summer moments passed quickly as they drew up to the pier. They tied off the painter and scrambled onto the dock, Jim and Blair both wearing their blankets.
"What's the time," Blair asked suddenly.
"Seven fifty-nine," Joel said, throttling the engine so they could coast into home.
"Another minute to go, then."
All three of them felt their pulses tick the time away.
"Oh, good!" Blair said, somewhat blankly. "It was just a hoax after all." He rubbed carefully at his forehead.
"Migraine still bad, Chief?"
"Yeah, Jim. But I'll survive."
"We'll get you a shot of demerol before we go home," Jim promised.
"I won't say no this time," the Guide told his Blessed Protector, who was pleased to hear it.
It took another minute to find their clothes. The helicopter was coming into view, the sun fading behind it. Jim and Blair were scrambling into dry clothes when a sudden FLAAAAAAAAAABOOOOOOOOOOM stole the night's peacefulness and the sky was afire.
"It wasn't a hoax!" Blair cried, utterly astonished.
"No, it wasn't, was it?" Joel, former captain of the Bomb Squad of Cascade said sadly.
"But I thought"
"Joel's watch runs fast, Chief," Jim put in. "Now it's time to get you some Demerol, and to get the lot of us home to Cascade."
"Yeah, I guess. Hey, Jim, wanna come out here to watch the fireworks later this week?" Blair asked with a small grin.
"Nope, I think I've had all the fireworks I need for this year," the Sentinel said back, batting at his Guide's long curls.
"Too bad, Jim," Joel commiserated. "I think you pulled security duty at the Mayor's Picnic on the Fourth."
"What?" Jim bellowed. "Never!"
"Could be, man."
"I'm not doing it. They can get someone else."
"Who could possibly do it better, Jim?"
"I know I'm not volunteering."
The bantering went on all through the long helicopter ride back to Cascade, Rafe making the fourth passenger from Major Crimes. The Piper Cub would have to be refuelled before being flown back, and that would have to wait until another day.
The FBI and CIA never made any headway on the identity of the Fireworks Bomber, but there was a quiet execution in China of a group of people for crimes against the country which were never revealed. Blair always wondered whether justice had been served or not. Jim was simply glad to have Blair around to debate issues of justice with, and thereafter wore a small hidden smile whenever Tammy Li took their orders for Chinese.
~ End ~
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Page last updated 8/15/03.