Disclaimer: The usual. Wish the major characters were mine but they're not. I'll lay claim to the kids though.

Author's Notes:

Calling the Beasts
K. Ryn



Jim Ellison jabbed the escape key on his keyboard and watched the image on the computer monitor reset to the previous menu. He frowned, leaned forward, studied the options and typed in another command. When yet another dialog box appeared, flashing 'bad command or file name', he growled in frustration and sagged back in his chair, glaring at the screen.

Unfortunately, the angry expression which had often caused the most hardened criminals to crack and spew their secrets had no effect on the fifty-some pounds of hardware perched on his desk. Jim glanced around the bullpen and saw Henri Brown staring at his own monitor. He didn't look happy either.

"H? Have you been able to access the NCIC files this morning?"

Brown shook his head in exasperation. "No. I can't get to half of our own data, either. Not since the new software upgrade was loaded to the system."

"Great," Jim muttered. "You'd think they'd test the new version to make sure it worked before they dumped it on us. How the hell are we supposed to get anything done?"

"I called tech support almost two hours ago, but I wouldn't hold your breath on their showing up soon. Too bad Hair Boy's not here," Henri observed. "He could probably figure this stuff out."

Jim grunted. While no slouch on the computer himself, he preferred pounding the pavement over pounding the keyboard. Blair, on the other hand, was much more comfortable with the technology. The brilliant grad student had an affinity for coaxing the most stubborn system or software into action. Privately, Jim believed that it was partly a matter of one kind of artificial intelligence recognizing another. But there was also another reason for his partner's apparently amazing success with the machines.

"I don't think even Sandburg could find his way through this mess. But you're right, it's too bad he's not here. We'd be up and running in no time."

Brown looked puzzled.

"He's got you snowed, too, huh?" Jim shook his head. "Think about it, H... what percentage of the IS department is female?"

There was a short pause, then a chuckle of laughter from Brown. "So that's his secret. Sweet talk the support staff. I'll have to remember that."

Jim's desk phone rang and he answered it absently, his glare once again targeted on the blinking screen.


//"Jim? Oh, man, am I ever glad to hear your voice. Your real voice, I mean, not your 'please leave a message' voice-mail voice..."//

Despite his foul mood, a smile lifted the corner of the detective's mouth at the sound of his partner's voice and breathless, rapid-fire delivery. The speed at which Blair Sandburg could talk was sometimes, but not always, proportional to the amount of information he had to divulge. After nearly three years of working and living together, Jim had a better handle on interpreting his friend's run-on sentences, but he still hadn't mastered it. Often it was a matter of letting the grad student roll until he ran out of breath, and then backtracking to find the kernel of wisdom that was hidden somewhere in the previous five minutes of chatter.

Movement at the edge of Jim's peripheral vision and the faint scent of cigars warned the detective of his captain's approach. He nodded an acknowledgment as Simon Banks came to a halt next to his desk and quickly interrupted the anthropologist's rambling patter.

"Well, it's good to hear your voice, too, Sweetheart," Jim drawled. Simon raised an eyebrow at the endearment and Ellison grinned, mouthing 'Sandburg', and making 'talking' motions with his right hand in explanation. "It's been less than an hour since I dropped you at the museum, Chief. What'd you do? Forget something at home or in the truck?"

//Huh? No... no, I've got everything I need for the session with the kids, it's just that something unexpected's come up and..."//

Jim groaned, thinking that he knew where this conversation was going. For the past seven weeks, Blair had spent Thursday mornings at the Shraeder Field Museum working with a small group of third grade children. In an effort to interest a younger audience in the marvels of antiquity, the museum's board of directors had established a special seminar program. When they'd approached Rainier University with a request for help staffing the project, one of Blair's professors had immediately volunteered him for the job.

At first, the Sentinel had been irked that still another demanding task had been dumped in his overburdened Guide's lap, but the grad student's reaction had cooled that irritation. Blair had been overjoyed at the prospect of guiding young minds and after each session with the kids, he'd positively glowed with satisfaction.

Jim knew that the museum board couldn't have found a better candidate—if anyone could make musty old relics interesting to a group of eight year-olds, it was his partner. Blair's energy and enthusiasm for life, and its wonders, was infectious—and he was a terrific teacher, no matter how old his audience. The anthropologist had been especially excited about today's session, something to do with shamans and power animals. He'd even slyly suggested that Jim might want to sit in and learn something new, or better yet, add his own insights to the discussion. Ellison had turned down the invitation, but now he was sure that Blair was trying to find another way to get him involved.

"Don't even ask, Sandburg," Jim growled. "You're going to have to tap dance your way through today's presentation without me. I've already done one stint as your guest lecturer and we both know how that turned out." He shifted the phone, cradling it between his left ear and shoulder so that he'd have both hands free.

//"Hey, man, that wasn't my fault. This isn't about the kids... well, in a way it is, but isn't... It's about the other exhibit... the one with the incredible pre-Colombian masks and relics that I was telling you about the other night... I was thinking that right now would be a perfect time for you to come down and check it out."//

Traveling the Sandburg Zone without a road map took time and patience, neither of which Ellison had in abundance at the moment. "Look, Chief," Jim stabbed at the keyboard with his right hand and reached up to take the folders that Banks held out to him with the other. "I'm in the middle of a battle with that new software the eggheads in tech services installed, up to my ears in paperwork on that string of jewelry store heists —" He glanced at the files his captain had just given him and grimaced. "And Simon's just graciously presented me with three more cases."

//"Simon's there?"// Blair's tone brightened. //"Good. Bring him. Brown and Rafe, too. And maybe even the SWAT team if they're available..."//

The SWAT team? Jim shook his head. You had to admire the kid's persistence. "Good try, Chief, but I'll pass."

//"I could really use your help here, man."//

Jim hesitated. There was something in the younger man's voice that was starting to set off alarm bells in the Sentinel's head. Still, he wouldn't put it past his partner to try almost anything to get his way. "What's the matter, professor? Having problems managing a handful of eight year-olds?"

//"They may be a challenge at times, but at least they listen to me,"// Blair retorted.

The emphasis wasn't lost on the Sentinel. Dialing up his sense of hearing, he concentrated on the sounds coming across the line. Blair's rapidly thumping heartbeat and ragged breathing made Jim sit upright in his chair and take a firmer grip on the phone. Replaying the sense memory of his Guide's last comment, the Sentinel noticed something else—there was an odd echo to the younger man's words, as if he were in a small, enclosed space.

"Sandburg, what's going on? Where are you, exactly?"

There was a long, discouraged sigh and then Blair's whispered response.

//"Where I frequently am, man. In the middle of trouble. Only this time, I'm not alone."//

//"Talk to me, Chief."//

Blair leaned his head back against the cool wall of the museum's restroom and felt the panic that had sent him flying into the tiled refuge recede to a workable level. He'd managed to reach Jim. The knowledge that his Sentinel would shortly be headed to the rescue made everything easier to handle. He took a deep breath and tried to make his explanation as concise as possible.

"Because I caught a ride in with you, I ended up with a half hour to kill before the kids arrived. I decided to take another look at that pre-Columbian exhibit. Since it was so early, it was just me and the artifacts, which was great. It's been so packed with people all the other times I've been here that I hadn't had a chance to really check things out."

//Hold up a second, Chief. Is that the visiting exhibit that the museum put in the special security system for?"//

"Yeah... it was either that or pay a small fortune, no, make that a huge fortune for insurance coverage. The relics are priceless, man and not just from an antiquities perspective. There's a gold Chimu funerary mask inset with precious stones that are as big as my fist, not to mention the gold and silver jewelry and metalwork. Guess the board of directors figured that one-point- five mill for a security system and some renovations was cheaper than what Lloyd's of London wanted... Anyway, I spent about fifteen minutes looking around before I discovered that I wasn't alone anymore. There were six other guys scoping things out, and at least one of them looked vaguely familiar. That's when I realized they were all wearing trench coats. Long trench coats..."

//"Chief, this is Cascade. Wearing a trench coat is hardly a crime."//

"Ordinarily I'd agree with you, Jim, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't an umbrella I saw sticking out from underneath one of the men's coats."

It didn't require enhanced senses to hear his partner's sharp intake of breath.

//"Blair, are you telling me these guys are armed?"//

"I'm a lot more conversant on weaponry since I started riding with you, Jim," Blair answered with a shudder. "What I saw looked like the business end of a semi-automatic rifle. I think they're here to rob the exhibit."

"Where are they now? Are you —"

"I'm okay, man. They haven't done anything yet. They're still in the exhibit hall... at least I think they're still there. Hold on a second."


When there was no immediate response, Jim's eyes flashed up to meet his captain's.

"We've got a robbery about to go down at the Shraeder Field Museum, Simon. Six suspects, at least one of them armed."

"Is Sandburg still inside?" Banks shook his head and sighed when Jim nodded. "Why does that not surprise me? Is he okay?"

"Sounds like it. Scared, but in one piece so far."

"Let's keep it that way," Simon growled. "Get whatever details you can from him, while I start things moving." Banks cleared his throat and then his voice rang out, cutting through the ambient noise in the bullpen. "Listen up people, we have a situation..."

Jim nodded. Grabbing a pad of paper and a pen, he waited impatiently for his partner to get back on the line.


Blair ignored the irritated tone in Jim's voice and slid closer to the restroom door. Opening it slightly, he peered through the crack. From his position, he could see into the inner exhibit chamber. He took a quick look and shut the door before he was spotted.

"At least four of them are still there, Jim," he reported in a whisper. Blair edged away from the door and moved toward the far end of the restroom, hoping that his side of the conversation wasn't carrying out of the room. "I'm not sure about the other two, I can't see them."

//"Where are you? It sounds like you're talking from inside of a well."//

"I'm in the restroom, man... you know, my favorite refuge when faced with armed goons." Blair immediately wished he hadn't evoked that particular memory. "Naturally, being the observer of human nature that I am, I couldn't help checking these guys out. When I realized that at least one of them had a gun and that they were definitely as interested in the security set-up as they were in the displays, I decided it was time to make myself scarce. Unfortunately, Amanda, the TA that's been helping me out, and the kids showed up just then. There was no way to herd them out without making the creeps suspicious, so I sent them off to the classroom, grabbed my cell and ducked in here."

//"Sandburg, I want you to alert building security and get your butt out of there, now,"// the Sentinel ordered.

"I'd love to oblige you, Jim, but there are a few problems with that scenario. The first is that building security consists of the fancy-ass electronic system that the museum installed so that they wouldn't have to rely on fallible human beings. The only rent-a-cop they've got prowling the corridors is a kid that looks about ten years younger than me. I'm not even sure he's got a gun, much less knows how to use it.

"The second is that the bad guys are between me and the only way out. The exhibit's in the same wing as the room we're using for the seminars—in fact you have to go through the main display area to get to the classrooms and the museum offices."

Blair forced himself to take a deep breath before plunging on, anticipating his partner's reaction to what he was about to say. "The third, and most important, is that I'm not alone, remember? I've got Amanda and eight kids to think about, not to mention the rest of the staff and whoever else is here. I can't just leave them behind. Nor do I feel all too confident about trying to parade the children out under their noses. Call me paranoid, but I don't think these guys are going to let anyone back in this area leave. I think they chose today to hit the exhibit for a reason —"

//"Because of the kids. They wanted hostages available in case things went down wrong,"// Jim said grimly. //Blair, you said that you thought one of the men looked familiar..."//

"Yeah... I've been trying to place him, but... oh man!" Blair froze, hardly breathing as the echoes of his near shout reverberated off the tile floors and walls.

//Chief! What is it? What's going on?"//

Blair's stomach was still half-way up his throat when he finally answered his partner's urgent queries. No one had come storming in, but he dropped his voice to a whisper that only a sentinel could hear. "Jim, it's the guys you've been looking for... the ones involved in the jewelry store holdups. The man with the gun matches the description that the witnesses from the last two robberies gave us —"

//You mean Gavin Hennesey? Sandburg, are you sure?"//

Blair gave an exasperated snort. "Jim, I've been staring at that creep's description and picture in the files for weeks. No wonder he looked familiar. I just didn't place him at first—out of context, you know? Jeez, things just went from bad to worse in a hurry, didn't they..."

//"Just sit tight, Blair. I'm on my way with help."//

"Jim, I can't sit tight. I know how you drive, man, but it's still going to take some time for you and the cavalry to get here and get set up. We don't know when these guys are going to make their move. Wait... what time is it?"

//"Almost 9:15."//

"The first guided tour of the day starts at 10:00 a.m.," Blair murmured. "If these guys have done the kind of research on this hit that they did on the others, they'd know that. Maybe that's what they're waiting for. They'd have a whole room of hostages to use as leverage if the turnout to see the exhibit is as good as it has been the last few weeks." Blair shook off the horrifying image of the bloodbath that could easily occur if things went sour. "Jim, I have to get back to Amanda and the kids before they come looking for me. Right now they don't have any idea of what's going down and I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible."

//"I understand that, but I don't want you thinking you have to play hero, Chief."

Blair chuckled nervously. "Hey, why do you think I called you? That's your department, Jim. I'm just the sidekick, remember?"

//"How about you just stick to Observer on this one?"//

"I'd be my pleasure," Blair assured his worried partner.

//"Okay. Simon's rounding up the troops as we speak. I need some idea of the layout so we know what we're walking into."//

Blair bowed his head and closed his eyes, picturing the floorplan of the museum in his mind. "The exhibit's in the west wing. You have to go through the central arcade to reach it. There are two rooms. The first one's pretty big—roughly sixty feet deep. Cross that space and there's an entrance that leads to a smaller room. That's where the most valuable pieces are displayed—also where Hennesey and three of his friends are currently camped out."

//'The other two are probably in the main room,"// Jim suggested.

"Maybe, or maybe I just can't see them from the doorway of the restroom," Blair murmured dubiously. "On the left side of the smaller room is an opening that leads onto a short, T-shaped corridor. Turn right and go about ten feet and you get to the restroom where I am now. You turn left to reach the classrooms. The one we're using is the second door on the right-hand side of the hallway."

//"What about the administrative offices? Where are they?"//

"There's another T-shaped corridor that's accessed from the other side of the inner display chamber. It's the same layout as this side." Blair shook his head and sighed. "Only one way in and out, man." //"What about windows or an emergency exit?"//

"There's nothing on this side. I think I remember a fire exit near the Director's office, though." Blair opened his eyes and let his gaze drift around the small enclosed space, as if seeking an exit that he might have missed before. A glimmer of light caught his eye. It took him a second to identify what he was seeing.

That's not fluorescent light... that's daylight...

Blair pushed himself away from the wall and opened the door to the last stall. About a foot from the ceiling was a small window, and roughly three feet below that, a wall-mounted baby changing station. The fragments of a wild plan began to take shape in his head.

"Hey, Jim, there might be another way out after all," he reported eagerly, climbing up on the toilet to check it out. "There's a window in here... in the last stall. It looks like it can be opened, but it's been wired into the security system."

//"How big is it?"//

Blair stared at it measuringly and swallowed hard. "Big enough for the kids and Amanda, I think."

There was a long moment of silence.

//"But not for you."//

The anthropologist sighed. "No such luck, man." Jim's muttered curse mirrored his own sentiments exactly. "But that's no reason not to give this a shot," Blair said firmly, pushing his own fears aside. "Look... call the museum office. Tell them what's going on and get them to shut off the security system. If they keep their cool, they can probably clear the few early morning patrons out of the rest of the museum without raising any suspicions, and they can keep anyone else from coming inside. The rest of the staff can sneak out of the building through the emergency exit. I'll get Amanda and the kids organized to go out through here. Once they're safe, you guys can storm the gates and take down the trench coat brigade."

//"Sounds good in theory, Chief, but you're forgetting one thing,"// Jim countered softly.

"Yeah, what's that?" Blair asked, jumping down from his perch.

//From what you described, you're going to have to pass an open doorway to get Amanda and the children from the classroom to the restroom. Hennesey and his buddies aren't going to miss your little parade."//

"Don't worry," Blair answered, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. "You just get the powers that be to cut the juice and have someone waiting outside the window to help the kids out. Oh, and keep this line open, okay? I'm going back to the classroom and turning the phone over to Amanda. She'll let me know when you've got the system down. I've got a plan to handle the rest. " //"Damn it, Chief, what kind of plan?"//

"Nothing complicated, man. I'm just going to tell the kids a story."

Blair took a deep breath and pasted his most innocent expression on his face before he left the relative safety of the tiled refuge and stepped out into the corridor. It had taken three, long, tense minutes to persuade his stubborn, extremely unhappy Sentinel into seeing things his way, but he'd finally succeeded. Behind the closed door of the restroom, his arguments had seemed valid, but now, with nothing standing between him and the thieves, he wasn't sure that he should have been so insistent.

Get a grip... Jim's working his end... rallying the troops and alerting the museum staff... Quit thinking about your own fears and concentrate on the kids and Amanda... their safety's got to be your first concern...

Eyes firmly fixed on his destination, Blair still shivered when he caught a glimpse of the four men loitering in the small display chamber. None of them reacted in any way to his presence, but he was sure that they had seen him—or that at least Hennesey had. The armed man that Jim had identified as the leader of the group of thieves was casually leaning against the inside of the arched passageway between the inner and outer rooms, his intense, dark gaze taking in every detail of his surroundings. The anthropologist felt Hennesey's menacing stare boring into him and he gripped his cell phone tightly, holding it flat against his right leg in an effort to shield it from sight. He held his breath as he walked toward the classroom door, certain that at any second he was going to be stopped by a shout or a bullet.

But surprisingly, he made it to the classroom without incident. His fingers trembled on the knob as he turned it and pushed inward. With a sigh of relief, he slipped inside the room, letting the door swing shut behind him.

The cheerfully lit and decorated room was bustling with activity. Oblivious to the drama unfolding just a few feet away, Amanda and the children were busily shoving tables and chairs toward the walls in order to open up a clear space on the carpeted floor. At the front of the room was a raised platform where the speaker's podium stood, but Blair had never used it for his sessions. He preferred to sit on the step, with the kids seated or sprawled on the rug around him. His backpack, jacket and a large box sat on the table where he had left them earlier. For the moment, he ignored them. Catching his assistant's eye, he beckoned for her to join him.

"I was beginning to think you fell in," Amanda teased. Her grin faded a bit as she studied him closely. "Hey... are you all right? You look kind of pale."

Blair met her probing gaze with one of his own. At just five feet tall and a weighing a smidgen over 100 pounds, twenty-six year-old Amanda Richardson was barely distinguishable from the third graders that they were teaching. But what she lacked in stature, she made up for in grace, energy and determination. Short whitish-blond hair framed a heart-shaped face and green eyes that usually sparkled with laughter. She was one of the most intelligent people Blair had ever met, and also one of the most driven. A grad student in archeology, Amanda was as close to finishing her dissertation as Blair himself was, having gotten sidetracked fewer times than the anthropologist. They'd known each other for over six years, and they were good friends.

God, what do I tell her? How do I tell her?

Blair glanced over at the children, who were starting to get impatient with the delay. "Yeah... look, I need you to do something for me while I get the kids started on today's session. Take this," he said softly, carefully handing her the cell phone, making sure that she saw that the line was still active. "My partner's on the other end —"

Amanda blinked in surprise. "Jim?"

Blair nodded and dropped his voice even lower, knowing that the Sentinel was listening and would fill in whatever loose ends he left hanging. "We've got... a problem... The six guys that were hanging around the exhibit when you came in... well, Jim's been looking for them."

Amanda's eyes widened in fear when she grasped the meaning behind what Blair saying.

"It's going to be okay," Blair assured her with a quick smile. "Jim's on top of it, and you know I think he's the best the city's got. Once I get started, I want you to get on the phone and talk to him. Jim's going to explain what's going on and what you're going to need to do. I'll warn you, it's going to be scary, but I promise that everything's going to be fine. The important thing is that you and I keep our cool."

His gaze flickered to the children and then back to meet hers. Amanda's eyes widened even further. She bit her bottom lip and nodded hesitantly.

Blair patted her gently on the arm. "I knew I could count on you. I'm not exactly sure how much time we've got to pull this off, but no matter what, don't shut off the phone. Just stay on the line. Jim's going to let you know when he's got things ready on his end. When that happens I want you to give me back the phone and follow my lead, okay?"

"Okay," she whispered. "I'll get them settled down while you get set up. Then I'll talk to Jim."

Hearing Amanda's words, Jim let out the breath he'd been holding. The young woman was obviously scared to death—the Sentinel could hear her pounding heartbeat easily—but she, like Blair, seemed ready to do what needed to be done.

Keeping the phone cradled to his ear, but covering the mouthpiece, Jim looked around the bullpen for his captain. Banks was in his office, standing behind his desk, also on the phone. From the stormy expression on Simon's face, the conversation wasn't going well.

"Jim, you still on with Hair Boy?"

Ellison glanced to his right to see Brown jogging into the squad room, with Rafe only a step behind.

"His assistant," Jim replied tersely. "Another grad student that's been helping him out. Sandburg's trying to keep the kids occupied." Ellison handed Rafe the rough floorplan that he'd sketched from Blair's description. "Can you make some copies of that?" The detective took a quick look at what he held in his hands, nodded, and spun away toward the copy machine.

"I don't give a DAMN about proper channels!"

Every head in the bullpen turned toward Simon's office at the captain's enraged shout. Brown shot Jim a worried look, which the Sentinel noted, but didn't return, his attention fixed on the one-sided conversation.

"You listen to me," Banks demanded. "Sandburg says you've got armed men ready to rob that exhibit. He also tells me that besides your museum staff, there's a group of grade school children in that same wing. Now I don't think you want to be responsible for anything happening to them, do you?... I didn't think so..."

Simon glanced through his office window and glared at Jim. Ellison knew what that was about—Banks had been less enthused with Blair's plan than he himself had been, but the Sentinel had managed to persuade him to give it a try. The man on the receiving end of Simon's tirade was the museum director, Robert Pike—a stuffy bureaucrat that Jim had met just once and to whom he had taken an instant dislike. The feeling had been mutual, which is why it was Banks trying to persuade the man that he had a time-bomb ticking away inside his precious museum, instead of Ellison.

Come on, Simon... sweet talk him into this or I'll use my own methods... we need to get them out of there...

Although Blair's plan was risky, realistically, they had no other options. If his partner was right, and the six men were the ones that the department had been chasing for weeks in connection with a series of brutal armed robberies of the city's jewelry stores, then they couldn't risk going in with guns blazing away.

The man Blair had recognized, Gavin Hennesey, wasn't going to give up without a fight. He'd already served time for two other armed robberies. If he was arrested and convicted of a third, he'd be in prison for life. And from the statements that witnesses had made at the other crime scenes, the rest of his men weren't likely to be any more amenable to surrender. They'd already demonstrated a tendency toward irrational violence—in three of their heists, the thieves had taken a clerk hostage, and while they hadn't killed anyone yet, they'd severely beaten each of the abductees before discarding them. One of the clerks was still hospitalized, in critical condition.

Hennesey's a clever bastard, choosing the day the kids are there to make his hit, Jim mused grimly. He knows that there's no way we'll do anything to risk the children's lives. We have to take him and his men down before he makes his move. If he gets his hands on Amanda and the kids... or on my partner... Simon's only slightly more patient sounding voice cut off that appalling line of thought. "Yes, we have a plan for getting them out and for stopping the robbery... that's why I want the security system shut down as soon as possible... I understand it's not as simple as just flipping a switch... How long?... Thirty minutes?"

Jim met Banks' inquiring gaze with a shake of the head, mouthing, "too long."

Simon held up one hand as he listened intently to what the director was saying. Tight-lipped, he glanced at Jim and shook his head. "All right, Mr. Pike. Do what you can. The SWAT team will be there shortly to contain the area. Do NOT let anyone else into that exhibit area, is that understood? And please, alert your people inside, but be discrete. I trust you understand what will happen if you start a panic on your end... Yes, I'll be arriving shortly myself... Detective Ellison? Yes, he'll be there too... What was that?... Yes, I'll be sure to tell him. I'll be back in touch with you in fifteen minutes."

Simon hung up the phone and grabbed his coat as he exited his office. He stalked over to Jim's desk and took a copy of the floor plan sketch that Rafe offered. "Mr. Pike wanted me to tell you that he hopes there aren't any hard feelings over the little misunderstanding the two of you had," he said dryly, meeting Jim's gaze. "I gather you know what that's all about?"

"I took exception to the way Pike treated Sandburg when he was selected to handle the project with the kids," Ellison answered, jaw clenching in irritation. "We had... a few words."

Simon snorted his disbelief at Jim's answer. It was an established fact around the precinct that no one messed with Blair Sandburg, unless they wanted a face-to-face with his partner. A conversation consisting of a 'few words' with an irritated Jim Ellison, especially if the cause of the ex-ranger's ire had been an affront to his partner, was something few walked away from unscathed—assuming they walked away at all. It was no wonder Pike was quivering in his wing-tips. Banks shook his head at the image that thought evoked and let the subject drop, immediately becoming all business.

"Communications is routing that call to your cell phone now, Jim." He nodded at the handset tucked next to Ellison's ear and the detective's cell phone rang from within the pocket of Jim's jacket at the same time. Rafe snagged the coat from the rack where it was hanging and tossed it to Ellison. While the Sentinel pulled the phone free and activated it, checking the connection, Banks looked at Henri. "Brown, did you —"

"Yeah, I got them." Henri handed Jim a headset which the Sentinel accepted and slipped into place as he eagerly shifted to his feet. He took the Kevlar vest that the other detective offered as well, shrugging into the armor with practiced ease.

"You stay in touch," Banks ordered firmly. "You're our only link to what's going on inside. I don't want you trying anything on your own."

"Simon —"

"That's an order, Detective," Banks growled, his eyes flashed and then softened. "We'll do our best to move up the timetable, Jim, but from what Pike explained, unless that system's shut down properly, we're going to have alarms going off all over the place." "I just hope that thirty minute delay isn't cutting it too close, sir," Jim answered curtly. "Once Hennesey realizes that no one's showing up for the 10:00 tour, he's going to act. If we don't have Sandburg and the others out by then —" The Sentinel broke off, unwilling to voice the rest of that thought. He laid his desk phone down gently, leaving the line open and clenched the cell tightly in his left hand. "I need to go. Keep me apprised of your progress and I'll do the same."

"We'll be right behind you," Henri assured Jim.

Jim barely nodded an acknowledgment as he ran toward the stairwell. Stiff- arming the door, he sailed through and began a breakneck trip down the steps.

While Amanda urged the children to take a seat on the floor, Blair crossed the room to where he'd left his things and opened the box. Inside the cardboard carton were a small tape player and the hand-crafted rattles that his friend Emily, a grad student in the Fine Arts program, had helped him create. Each rattle represented a totem or power animal. Blair had intended to use them as visual aids during today's session and to send them home with the kids as mementos. He'd even had one made for Amanda. Now they would serve a slightly different purpose.

And the story will have to change a bit as well. Good thing I'm relatively well versed on the subject...

He pulled a cassette tape out of his jacket pocket, not bothering to see which one he'd grabbed—whatever was being sacrificed was far less valuable than a human life. Blair carried the box over to the low platform in front of the speaker's podium, extracted the tape player and placed it on the floor next to the carton. Then he hurried over to the shelves that lined one side of the room and picked out a second player.

Returning to the front of the room, he slipped the second tape into the additional recorder and set the machine down next to the first one. He took his customary spot on the step, sitting 'pretzel-leg' like the rest of his charges and forced his own fears to the back of his mind. In order to pull off his plan, he had to keep the kids calm, which meant that he had to at least appear calm himself. He glanced over at Amanda who was hovering by the door and nodded.

As she turned her back on them and raised the phone to her ear, Blair shifted his attention to the children. Most of them were gazing at him expectantly. He did a quick mental attendance check, letting his eyes drift clockwise around the circle of young faces.

To his left, sat tiny Marisa, smiling shyly at him as usual. He winked at her and was delighted to see one sky blue eye wink back before she hid behind the curtain of her long blonde hair.

Next was Claire, blessed with huge brown eyes that smiled warmly out of a face that was as dark as Marisa's was fair. Blair waggled an eyebrow at her, just to hear her musical laughter. He wasn't disappointed.

Freddy, the oldest of the group, having just turned nine, sprawled on one elbow to Claire's left. The short, stringy-haired boy in patched blue jeans met Blair's gaze challengingly. Blair had learned in their first session that Freddy was a kid that cut straight to the chase. Street smarts, and what the grad student suspected was a surprisingly high IQ, combined to make him a tough sell—no pulling the wool over this kid's eyes—so Blair simply nodded and let his gaze drift onward.

In contrast to Freddy's studied arrogance and ease, Talan's posture was defensive. Looking younger than any of the others, the boy sat tucked into a tight ball, his knees to his chest, his arms wrapped around them, his dark eyes flickering everywhere.

Not surprising behavior for a child who spent his formative years in Bosnia amidst the daily horrors of war and death, Blair mused sadly.

The twins, Jenny and Julia, nestled next to one another, knees and elbows touching. Identical down to the position of the freckles on their noses and the parts in their short red hair, Blair had learned to distinguish who was who by their body language. Jenny was perpetual motion; Julia was as still as a stone. A double giggle was their response to his quickly flashed grin.

Dark-haired Kim sat with her hands folded loosely on her lap, and she met his searching gaze with a slight smile. She was an oriental puzzle that Blair was still trying to figure out. She seemed older than her 8 1/2 years, with dark eyes that took your measure easily. And there was sometimes an almost eerie stillness about her—Kim could sit so quietly that it was easy to forget that she was in the room.

With a sigh, Blair glanced at the last of his students. Seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world, Ryan was staring off into space, wire-rim glasses perched half-way down his nose, his forehead furrowed in concentration as he sorted out some inner puzzle. The grad student absently wondered what new invention the youngster was playing around with in his head.

He's so clever... they all are, actually. Bright, funny, full of life... I have to get them all out of here safely. I have to!

He forced himself to meet their innocent gazes with a welcoming grin. "Good morning," he began. "We're going to do something a little different, today."

His announcement elicited a mixed response of groans, exclamations of curiosity, and a skeptically raised eyebrow. Blair took it all in stride, waving them to silence without losing his composure. He'd gotten identical reactions from his undergraduate classes in the past, when he'd begun a lecture in a similar manner.

He glanced at Marisa and caught the crestfallen expression on her face. "Don't worry, Marisa, there's going to be a story," he assured the youngster softly. He saw her eyes light with pleasure. "But instead of me doing all the talking, all of you are going to participate."

Blair let his gaze swing to Freddy, who still looked less than enthused, took a deep breath and launched into his explanation. "In one of our first sessions, we talked about why story-telling was important to ancient cultures —"

"Because they didn't have TV," Jenny interjected.

Blair smiled. "That's partially correct. Stories were told for entertainment. To make people laugh or cry," he dropped his voice to a whisper. "Or tremble in fear." He felt a shiver course down his own spine and forced a grin at the delighted giggles of the children. "But they were also used as a form of teaching, so that the tribe's history and beliefs could be passed from one generation to the next. Remember that many cultures had no written form of language for hundreds of years."

The anthropologist glanced toward Amanda who still stood near the door, the phone cradled to her ear. Blair took a quick breath and plunged on. "When the tribe gathered around the communal fire for a celebration or for the simple act of sharing a meal, anyone could be called upon to tell a story, but it was usually the tribe's Shaman who took that role. Do any of you know what a Shaman is?"

"A witch doctor," Freddy said quickly with a nasty chuckle. "The guy who stuck people in big kettles and shrank their heads."

Several pairs of eyes grew round in dismay and stared at Blair for reassurance.

"Shaman have been called witch doctors, or Medicine Men—or Medicine Women," he added quickly, smiling at the girls. "But that's because they were healers, not because they practiced some strange black magic, or put spells on their patients. They used—still use—what we might think of as unconventional medicines and practices—herbs and rituals, instead of pills and surgery. But healing isn't the Shaman's only calling. The Shaman is also a teacher and a spiritual leader—a person who walks not only in this reality," the anthropologist spread his hands to gesture to the room around them, "but also in another world —" "Where he talks to the spirits of the past."

Blair looked sharply at Kim, who had spoken, and nodded slowly. "The Shaman has the ability to enter what you might call an alternate reality—a dream world. A Shaman enters that realm to acquire knowledge, power and to help other people. He or she usually has several 'spirits' that they can call upon for help or guidance."

"What kind of spirits?" asked Ryan thoughtfully.

"It depends," Blair hedged. "Shamans have long believed that their powers were those of the animals, the plants, the sun—all the basic energies of the universe. In ancient cultures, people were convinced that animals and humans were related—that they even shared a common speech."

"So what happened?" Claire asked. "Why can't we talk to each other any more?"

"I don't know. Some of the legends suggest that man grew too arrogant," Blair said quietly. "That he forgot that all creatures were meant to live in harmony on the earth—to share its wonders and embrace its differences instead of destroying them. Perhaps it's not that we've lost the ability to speak, but to listen..." The grad student glanced at Talan, who was nodding, his eyes focused on something only he could see.

"But a Shaman can still talk to the animals?" whispered Marisa hopefully.

"To their spirits," Blair answered, nodding. "Many tribes refer to the guardian spirit as a power animal. Sometimes the spirit takes the form of an animal and sometimes that of a human being. In either case, a Shaman relies on his guardian spirits to connect with the power of the animal world, the mammals, birds, fish and other beings. The Shaman has to have a particular guardian in order to do his work, and his guardian helps him in certain special ways."

"Is it only the Shaman who has a guardian spirit?"

Blair met Julia's curious gaze and shook his head. "Some tribes thought that every adult had one, but some believed that it was the lack of a guardian spirit that accounted for a person's lack of power or success in life."

"So this is just an adult thing, huh?" scoffed Freddy.

"On the contrary," Blair responded. "There are many cultures even today, who believe that a child would probably not even reach the age of eight without some protection from a guardian spirit. Traditionally, there was usually some kind of ceremony held for a newly born infant, where the parents would ask the Shaman to 'find' a guardian for their child."

"So we've all got one!"

Blair grinned at Jenny's exclamation. "As a matter of fact, I can guarantee we all do—at least for the next hour or so."

Blair reached over and opened the box, pulling out the rattle that Emily had designed for him. He hadn't asked for one for himself, so he'd been stunned—and pleased—with the animal she'd picked for him. He stared at the painted image of a wolf's piercing gaze and found himself wishing that he really did have the ability to call up the power of this spirit guide. He'd feel a whole lot better with a good set of sharp teeth protecting them.

The anthropologist held up the painted gourd and gave it a shake. The solid 'ka-chuck, ka-chuck' sound of the dried seeds clattering together inside, raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He tried to ignore the eerie, goose- pimpling sensation as he addressed his students.

"The story I'm going to tell you today, is about a young Shaman who saved a group of children from an enemy attack on their village by calling upon the help of the children's power animals. We're going to call up our spirit guides and then act out the story. A friend of mine helped me make one of these spirit rattles for each of you. If you'll come up one at a time, I'll present you with yours."

Jenny was the first one on her feet, her sister trailing only a few steps behind. Blair grinned, knowing that he'd chosen well for the impulsive youngster. He handed Jenny a rattle painted with the image of a grasshopper. "Perhaps he'll be able to help you find a safe place to land the next time you jump into something without looking first," the grad student murmured. Jenny grinned and gave the rattle a hard shake, her eyes widening in glee at the sound.

To Julia, Blair handed a rattle that featured the repeated likenesses of an ant.

"My neighbor Tommy has an ant farm," she said quietly, turning the gourd over in her hands as she examined the design. "They're incredibly patient. I've watched them for hours, working to move just one grain of wheat back to their nest."

Ryan came forward as Julia returned to her seat, taking the rattle decorated with a turtle that Blair held out for him. "Turtles are patient, too," the youngster remarked. "And their means of defending themselves by pulling into their own shells is pretty inventive. They can outwit almost any predator just by waiting them out."

"You're right," Blair answered, wishing he had a shell big enough to hide them all in until the danger that they faced was past. "Can you do me a favor and give this one to Amanda?" He handed the boy a second rattle, decorated to represent a deer.

"Sure, Teach," Ryan replied. He crossed the center of the circle and tapped Talan on the shoulder in passing. "I bet he's got something cool for you, too," he said encouragingly. "Go ahead."

Talan slowly rose to his feet. While he waited out the youngster's approach, Blair's eyes slid to Amanda, eager to observe her reaction to the power animal he'd chosen for her. She took the rattle with a smiled 'thank you', and let it rest in her open palm for a moment, as if appreciating not just the painted design, but also the beauty in the instrument's balance. When she looked up to meet the anthropologist's curious gaze, she managed a tremulous smile. Turning his attention back to Talan, Blair presented the boy with a rattle that featured an emerald green lizard. The youngster took it uncertainly, and for an instant, Blair feared that he had unwittingly made a mistake and chosen a creature that had negative connotations for the youth. He'd selected the lizard for the child specifically because the creature's wisdoms included the ability to face fear, and because of its powers of regeneration—not just of the body, but of the spirit and hope as well. Amanda had told him that Talan had been adopted by a childless Cascade couple only six months earlier, after his entire family had been wiped out in a bombing attack. The dark eyes that finally met and acknowledged Blair's gaze were wary, but not quite as suspicious as the first time the grad student had met him.

"Thank you," Talan murmured in painstakingly exact English. "The workmanship is beautiful. Your friend is truly a wonderful artist."

"I'll be sure to pass along your compliments," Blair said softly. "In fact, I'll see if I can't get her to come down next week, so that you can meet her."

Talan's face broke into a smile, and Blair silently vowed that he would do everything in his power to make sure that pleased expression didn't shift into a mask of fear and horror. He disguised his own unease with a quick glance into the box. "Marisa, I have one here with your name on it," he called out.

The petite blonde was at his side almost instantly. Shyly, she reached out to touch the rattle he held up for her inspection. Emily had outdone herself with the stylized representation of a butterfly.

"It's beautiful," Marisa exclaimed softly. "So many colors..."

"Hard to believe that such a lovely creature came from a fuzzy old caterpillar, isn't it," Blair said gently. "All it needed was some time to come out of its cocoon, just like you."

The little girl blushed, but smiled brightly. Blair placed the rattle in her outstretched hands and gave them a brief squeeze. The soft 'shusss' of the dried seeds shifting inside, escorted her back to her place on the floor.

Claire was next, her enthusiasm changing to dismay when she beheld the image painted on her gourd. "A frog? Yuck!"

Blair chuckled. "Don't be so hasty, Claire. Frogs are singers of songs, just like you. In many myths they're associated with magic, especially the lore of fairies and elves. Because of their connection to water, they're linked to the energies of the moon. I'll have you know that the frog was the animal attributed to the Egyptian goddess Herit, who assisted Isis in her ritual for resurrecting Osiris."

Brown eyes stared up at him blankly and he laughed again. "Too much, huh? Okay, how about this. Besides being blessed with an incredible voice, people with frog totems are known to be very sensitive to the feelings of others. They seem to know instinctively how to act and what to say—how to be sincerely sympathetic. That better?"

"Well..." Claire gave the rattle a hard shake. Her face broke into a huge smile at the shifting gurgle of the instrument. "It sounds like raindrops!" she exclaimed. "Or water burbling in a rocky stream."

Holding the rattle close to her ear, she continued to shake it as she retreated back to her place next to Marisa. Blair reached into the box and when he looked up, Kim was standing quietly before him, hand outstretched.

"One of these days, you're going to have to teach me that trick," Blair said, complimenting the girl on her quiet approach, as he handed off her rattle. "I have a friend who can move as soundlessly as a panther, but you'd give him a run for his money."

"The panther is wise in silence, and like the mantis it knows the value of stillness and patience," the girl answered. She traced the pattern of the insect with long graceful fingers. "Wisdom is a thing to be treasured, no matter what form it takes." With an ageless smile in her almond-shaped eyes, she nodded her appreciation and turned away.

Slightly dazed, Blair stared after her for a few seconds, then he shook himself free of the spell her words had cast and glanced around the circle. All of the children had their rattles, except Freddy. Blair beckoned to him. With a resigned sigh, the boy clambered to his feet and shambled forward. He glared at the rattle that the grad student held out for him.

"I'm not a baby. I don't play with baby's toys," he protested.

"It's not a toy," Blair countered. "It's a tool. A very powerful tool in the right hands." The anthropologist gave the rattle a hard shake. The sound of the seeds slamming against the inside of the gourd was hard and sharp, fading away to a soft slithering as the dried pellets slipped into the handle. "The dragonfly is quick and intelligent. It survives where other creatures would easily perish. Very rarely do you see one of these splattered against a window because it thought it was open sky instead of a reflection."

The youngster took the rattle and shook it experimentally. "Doesn't fall for any bullshit, huh?"

Blair refrained from correcting his language and met the challenging gaze head-on. "None."

"Well, I still don't get what we're supposed to do with these," Freddy muttered.

"Simple," Blair answered, rising to his feet and gesturing to the other children to do the same. "We're going to 'dance' our animals and invite them for a visit."

Stuck behind a double-parked delivery truck on a narrow side-street, Ellison pounded on the Ford's steering wheel in frustration and leaned on the horn.

"Move it, NOW!" he yelled at the driver, angrily gesturing at the flashing light on his dash. The man quickly crawled into the cab of his truck and pulled the vehicle forward a few feet. It was barely enough clearance for the old pickup, but Jim gunned the motor anyway and sailed through the opening. He took a left at the next corner, cursing under his breath. He'd hoped to save a few minutes with the short-cut and instead it had cost him precious time.

The Sentinel glanced down at the active cell phone on the seat next to him—Blair's seat—and then brought his gaze back to the road. Shifting the headset out of the way, he focused his hearing on the phone. Somehow he managed to keep both eyes on the traffic, and an ear tuned on what was happening on the other end of the line with his partner. He had to filter past the ambient sounds and Amanda's breathing and heartbeat again, but he finally managed to cut through the auditory clutter and home in on his Guide's faint voice.

//"Simple... We're going to 'dance' our animals and invite them for a visit."//

Jim shook his head in wonder at his partner's inventiveness.

Inviting spirit guides to dance... only you could come up with something like that, Chief, he mused. I don't know where you're going with this plan of yours, other than down the proverbial rabbit hole, but from the giggles I'm picking up, the kids are buying it. Keep it up... just keep their attention for a little longer...

Making a sharp right at the next intersection, the Sentinel's fingers clenched even tighter around the steering wheel and he pressed his foot to the accelerator.

Blair motioned Freddy back to his place in the rough circle and then bent down to turn on his tape player, letting the rhythmic sound of drums fill the room. The anthropologist adjusted the volume, turning it down until the music was an accompaniment, not an intrusion.

"A true Shaman would have a special ritual for 'Calling the Beasts', he explained, straightening to face them. "But what it comes down to is simply opening yourself up to the possibility that another world exists, and that it's inhabited by friendly spirits who, like any other creature, appreciate it when you acknowledge their presence. Since we're going to be asking for their help shortly, I think it's a good idea for you to introduce yourselves to your power animals."

"Blair?" Marisa's voice was hesitant and her eyes were wide. "The animals that live in the dream world... they can't hurt us, can they?"

"No sweetie," he hastened to assure her. "A power animal or spirit guide wouldn't hurt you. It only comes to you because you need help."

"Not that some dumb butterfly's gonna be able to do much, anyway," Freddy grumbled.

"I bet a spirit guide's power isn't limited by size or form," Julia piped up. "Ants are some of the smallest insects in the real world, but they're also some of the strongest."

"It's probably all in how you use whatever power your spirit animal offers that makes the difference," Ryan added thoughtfully.

"You're the science geek," Freddy jeered at the bespectacled boy. "You tellin' me you believe in this weird stuff?"

Ryan shrugged. "A lot of great scientists were thought to be crazy for their theories about stuff we accept now without a second thought. Gotta keep an open mind. You never know what you're going to discover."

Pleased that his young charges had answered Freddy's belligerence and doubts with their own words, Blair glanced at Amanda, who had moved closer to their circle. She still held the phone to her ear in a white-knuckled grip, and her eyes told him that nothing had changed. He glanced up at the clock on the wall to the left of the door and repressed a shudder. It was nearly 9:30. Time to get things moving, even if Jim wasn't ready yet. He looked down at the wolf rattle he held in his hands and saw he was clenching it as tightly as Amanda was holding the cell. He forced himself to relax his grip and turned his attention back to the children.

"I want you to close your eyes, then take a deep breath and let it out slowly," he instructed them. "Hold the rattles still, don't shake them yet... Now another deep breath, and let it out... good... keep breathing like that... I want you to picture your spirit animal in your mind... it doesn't matter if it looks exactly like the design on your rattle... keep breathing... in... out... When you hear my rattle, start shaking your own... You might want to pretend you're making the sounds your power animal could make... If you feel like moving around you can... try turning in a circle, you never know what direction a spirit might approach from..."

In his own mind's eye, he tried to form the image of the gray wolf that the Sentinel had told him about seeing in a dream—the entity that Blair gathered was his own spirit guide—but he knew that he was far too distracted to actually concentrate on the meditative exercise and after a few moments he quit trying. He bent down and hit the record button on the second tape player, then started to shake his own rattle, cueing the children to the next step. With unrestrained zeal, the kids let loose. The room rang with chaotic noise and unabashed giggles and laughter.

Jim saw the SWAT team's familiar boxy dark blue van parked a block away from his destination. He drove one block farther, then steered the Ford into the employee's parking lot behind the museum, readjusting the headset as he pulled the pickup to a stop.

"Patch me through to Banks," he ordered, wincing at the crackles and pops that assaulted his sensitive ears as he was connected to his captain. "Simon, are you there?" he asked impatiently when there was no immediate response.

//"Hold on a second,"// came Banks' terse reply. //"I've got Pike on another line. I'll have an update for you in just a moment."//

Frustrated with the delay, the Sentinel grabbed the cell phone from the passenger seat and climbed out of the truck, shutting the door softly. He raised the phone to his right ear and listened for a few seconds. Satisfied that the high-pitched shrieks he heard were happy ones, he lowered the device. Taking a quick look around to get his bearings, he started weaving his way through the rows of parked cars, working his way toward the west wing. He caught sight of an emergency exit and realized that he was on the side of the structure where the Director's office was situated—the opposite side from where he needed to be.

He also saw something else. An oversized windowless panel van was parked only a few feet away from the door. From his position, he could see the reflection of the driver in the side mirror. The man looked nervous.

That's got to be Hennesey's van... Jim realized. Looks like he came prepared to make quite a haul.

Refusing to dwell on how many young hostages—and jewel-laden artifacts—the robbers could fit inside the huge van, the detective carefully placed the cell phone in his pocket and worked his way over to the vehicle. He came up on it from the passenger's side, using the other parked cars in the lot for cover. Pulling his gun from the holster at his back, Jim slipped silently alongside the van until he was crouched next to the passenger door. Extending his hearing, he monitored the driver for any sign that the man had observed his approach. Finding none, he took a deep breath, grabbed the handle and wrenched the door open.

Faced with the business end of Ellison's gun only inches from his face, the man offered no resistance. Jim pulled him out of the driver's seat and stuffed him into the back end of the van, cuffing him to the base of one of the seat frames. Then he contacted his captain again. The detective reported the situation tersely and crawled out of the van, closing the rear door quietly.

Jim cut across a neatly manicured strip of lawn and turned left at the end of the building. Sentinel vision scanned ahead, searching for the window that his partner had described. He located the small pane of glass quickly and slid along the wall until he stood directly underneath it. Standing on his toes, he peered inside. He cocked his head, detecting a soft buzzing sound emanating from the frame. The security system was still active.

//"Jim, are you there?"//

"Yeah, Simon. I'm on Sandburg's side of the west wing, outside the restroom." Jim eyed the window critically and hoped that his partner's assessment that the kids and Amanda would fit through it was accurate. The opening looked painfully small—barely eighteen inches across and maybe a foot deep. "What's the status on the shut down?"

//"They're still working on it. They're telling me that it'll be no more than ten minutes."//

Jim glanced at his watch and grimaced. "We're going to be cutting this close, Simon..."

//"I know, but everyone's doing their best. I'm pulling up behind the SWAT truck now. Brown and Rafe are right behind me. I'll send Henri your way to help you with the kids. I've got another team assigned to meet the museum staff when they exit on their side. We'll take care of things out front and be ready to move in as soon as you let us know the children and Sandburg's assistant are accounted for."//

"I'll stay here until Brown joins me, Simon, but then I'm going in through the emergency door on the other side."

//"Jim —"//

"I'm not leaving Sandburg in there like a sitting duck," Jim snarled. "Hennesey's got to have at least one of his men posted close to the front entrance. He'll alert the rest of them the second he sees you coming in. You can bet Hennesey's first move will be to gather up any hostage he can get his hands on and I have no intention of letting him or any of his thugs near my partner."

//"You're going to be one gun against five,"// Simon argued.

"I'll bring some backup in with me... besides, I've got some advantages that they don't, sir," Jim said, obliquely reminding his captain of his Sentinel abilities. "But we could use another edge. Hennesey obviously planned to go out through the emergency exit from this wing instead of using the front doors. He's got to have one of his men watching that corridor. Even after the power's cut to the security system, the museum staff aren't going to be able to slip out unseen. Can you find out from Pike where the museum's circuit breakers are located? If we can station someone on the controls, we could kill the lights as a diversion —"

//"That'll have us all operating in the dark, Jim."//

"Only for a few seconds. I'm sure there's an emergency backup system—I think I remember seeing safety lights in the corridors the last time I was in the museum with Sandburg. Check with Pike—they're probably battery operated or work off a separate electrical grid. Most of those systems are set to kick in when there's a power outage."

//"So we'd have a few seconds of darkness to get our people into the corridor, which puts us in place to cover the museum staff's escape when the safety lights come on. Good idea. That might make the critical difference. I'll get the location of the breakers and send Rafe in—he's dressed for the part of a museum dilettante."//

Jim nodded absently at the reference to the younger detective's GQ wardrobe. "Agreed. I'll contact Amanda. Out."

As the kids continued to dance around the room shaking their rattles, Blair anxiously watched the door, praying that he wasn't bringing unwarranted attention to his charges. He was taking a chance—the noise they were making was surely carrying beyond the closed door of the classroom, reminding the men in the display room of their presence—but it was a necessary risk. The tape of the rattling was crucial to his hastily conceived plan and he needed several minutes of it.

A slightly raised bushy eyebrow and the flicker of his dark eyes were the only external signs that Gavin Hennesey was doing anything other than enjoying the sight of the artifacts in the glass case before him. Cool, calm and controlled—that was his style.

Beneath the calm exterior, his sharp mind was already examining the sounds drifting from the classroom—cataloguing them and considering whether they posed any threat to his plans.

The high-pitched shrieks and laughter were easy to identify, but the other rattling and clacking sounds had him puzzled. He glanced toward the tall, heavy-set man who was idly examining a display near the entrance to the hallway on the classroom side of the smaller exhibit room. Frank Nollan sent his boss a questioning look in return.

Hennesey frowned and did a quick scan around the rest of the exhibit. Outside of himself and his own men, there was no one present. He listened intently to the odd sounds that he couldn't quite place, trying to decide whether he should send Nollan in to check on the kids and their teachers. He glanced at his watch. They still had time to kill before the first tour group arrived and that was when he intended to make his move. He didn't want to alert anyone to the fact that he and his five men were anything but tourists—especially not a classroom full of noisy kids.

He flashed Nollan a hand signal to stay where he was, but to remain alert. The other man acknowledged the order with a nod and went back to 'studying' the case in front of him.

He could stand there staring at those pieces forever and not understand anything about them, brooded Hennesey in disgust. He pushed the disparaging thought away immediately. Nollan was brawn, not brains, and he'd proved his worth in that area often enough in the past.

Still wary and alert to the sounds of the children, Hennesey began a slow circuit of the exhibit, checking on the position of his crew and also going over his mental checklist of what they intended to liberate from the displays. He walked casually over to a glassed case of small jade carvings that was located near the arched open doorway between the larger exhibit room and the smaller one, pausing there for a moment.

At the far end of the large room, a short, blond-haired man was standing nose to nose with a hammered gold mask. It was ironic that Mark Smith, a man with a Masters in art history, was practically drooling over an artifact that he was about to steal and destroy. Hennesey smothered a laugh, knowing that it wasn't a love of art, but a lust for money that had brought the man into his employ.

Hennesey let his gaze drift beyond Smith to the small portion of the main lobby he could see through the doorway at the far end. His younger brother Ben was stationed out there, watching for the tour group and also, supposedly, keeping an eye out for trouble. The reservations Gavin had felt about having family involved in his business hadn't disappeared, although Ben had shown a marked talent for dealing with sophisticated electronic systems.

And since it was my money that sent him through technical school to learn those skills, I suppose I should take advantage of it, Hennesey mused. As long as he continues to pull his own weight, he can hang on for the ride.

And it was a ride—a gloriously successful one. He'd had his doubts about coming to Cascade, but they'd managed to hit it big with each jewelry store they'd taken down. And they'd managed to stay a jump or two ahead of the cops. This score would be the icing on the cake. He'd been following the progress of the exhibit as it had traveled from one museum to another across the country, waiting until just the right combination of place, time and circumstances made it safe to hit. It was too tempting a target to pass up any longer.

The layout of the museum with its convenient back door right off of the exhibit meant an easy way out. Timing the hit to the mid-morning hours of a weekday assured them very little traffic inside the museum and outside on the streets. Combined with the roomful of easily managed hostages that the scheduled seminar program provided, those aspects made attempting the score irresistible.

Hennesey let his eyes rove over the two rooms. The larger one was filled with bigger artifacts—sculptures, fragments of reliefs, castings taken from ancient tombs—most of those gathered in displays in the center of the space. Masks and textiles draped the walls and glassed display cases ringed the perimeter.

He shifted position to the opposite side of the case he was supposedly examining and eyed the inner chamber. The room was filled with a number of glassed exhibits of various sizes, mounted on marble pedestal bases. A few smaller masks hung on these walls as well. Besides Nollan to his left, two more of his men were playing their roles, pretending to be absorbed and awed by the items displayed.

Hennesey nodded to acknowledge the signal that Sam Bartleson flashed at him, indicating his readiness. He knew he could depend on the man. They'd met in prison and had formed an allegiance based on need in order to survive. Gavin had quickly discovered that Bartleson was the perfect front man. Nondescript, of average height and build, Sam could case any potential site without raising the suspicions of the most watchful security guards. Bartleson's current meandering path would take him to the right side of the inner chamber and put him in position to keep the museum staff under control.

Brian Matthews, the remaining member of his team was a recent addition, but Hennesey was pleased with the man's intelligence and cleverness. So pleased, that he was willing to overlook Matthew's tendency toward brutality. Matthews shot his boss a quick glance and went back to leafing through the exhibit catalog.

Abruptly, Hennesey realized that the bothersome noises that he'd heard coming from the classroom minutes earlier had disappeared. He shot a quick look at Nollan, but the man shook his head and shrugged.

Maybe the teachers finally got the little pests under control.

Still, he was irritated. He didn't like things that didn't go to plan. Brushing a hand across his coat as if to dust away a piece of lint, he touched the smooth hard shape of the rifle concealed there. That—and the weight of the Berretta in the holster strapped to his right leg—reassured him that trouble, if it arose, would be easily handled. He was well armed, as were his men. More than a match for the kid the museum had running around as their token security guard.

Hennesey took a deep breath and let it out slowly, expelling his tension. Straightening to his full six feet, four inches of height, he rolled his shoulders and moved away from the display case, continuing his circuit as time ticked away.

From his position outside the museum, Ellison pushed the headset mike aside. He pulled the cell phone from his jacket pocket and raised it to his ear. "Amanda..." There was a sharp intake of breath and behind it the noises of the children.


"It's time. Ten minutes until the power's off."


"I'm outside right now," Jim assured her. "I'll be waiting at the window to help you with the kids." //"I... I understand..."//

"One more thing... remind Blair that a panther can see in the dark."


"Just tell him... he'll understand," the Sentinel murmured. I hope...

When Blair saw Amanda stiffen and turn her back to the circle of dancing kids, the cell phone raised to her ear, he knew it was time to move on to the next phase. He quickly stepped down from the platform and moved clockwise around the circle, tapping each of the children on the shoulder. When they opened their eyes he put a finger to his lips to indicate that they should be silent, but motioned for them to keep shaking their rattles. They did as he indicated, settling like a small flock of birds to roost. He returned to his own place, seated himself, and shook his own rattle in slower and slower motions, which the children quickly copied. Finally Blair touched his own gourd to the floor and left it lying there. He reached over and hit the stop button on the recorder, just in time to cut off the delighted shrieks of laughter that erupted from the kids.

He let them rough-house and chatter for a few moments, rewinding the tape and queuing it up to the beginning of the section he'd just recorded. A soft touch on his shoulder startled him. He looked up abruptly into Amanda's fear-pinched face.

"Jim says ten minutes," she whispered.

Blair swallowed hard. "You know what you need to do?" he asked in the same tone, taking the phone that she held out to him. At her nod, the grad student grasped her hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "Marisa will be first."

Amanda nodded again. "Jim said something else... said you'd understand... He said to remind you that 'a panther can see in the dark'."

Blair frowned and then suddenly nodded. "Thanks, I do understand," he said, loudly enough to assure both her and his Sentinel that he had deciphered the cryptic comment. He placed the phone carefully on the step next to him. Amanda turned away and took up a position near the door.

"Okay," Blair called out, dragging the kid's attention back to him. "You all did great. I swear, the room's alive with chirping and fluttering critters."

He grinned at their laughter, and then froze as something flittered by Marisa's head. He blinked, and it—whatever it had been—was gone.

Damn, for a second, I could have sworn I saw a butterfly... come on, Sandburg, get it together. Don't go off the deep end, now. Tell the story and get on with it.

To hide his own nervousness, Blair pulled his glasses out of his shirt pocket and wiped them on his shirt tail before putting them on. "Better to see the spirits, with," he joked. "Now, where were we... Oh, yeah, the story."

He took a deep breath and picked up his rattle, giving it one quick shake. "I want you to close your eyes," he instructed the children. "No peeking now. Your imaginations are going to fuel this tale, powered by the animal spirits that you've summoned. In a few moments, I'm going to begin and I'm going to ask you to concentrate very hard and follow every direction that either Amanda or I give you. It's going to be a temptation to play with your rattles, but I need you to keep them quiet, until I say it's all right to use them."

"Amanda's a part of this too?" asked Kim softly.

"Yes, a very important part." Blair's eyes flickered to Amanda and he smiled tightly. "She's going to play the part of the young Indian maiden who helps the Shaman—that's going to be me, by the way—save the children—that's all of you."

"From what?" Jenny demanded, her eyes snapping open.

"Close your eyes, Jenny, and I'll tell you," Blair admonished. "Eyes all closed?" He took a quick look around the circle and drew in a deep breath. "All right. This story is based upon a legend that I know for a fact is very real. I want you to picture yourselves deep in the jungles of Peru...

There was a small village, tucked into the base of a chain of towering mountains. This was so long ago, that the skies had never seen another flying beast other than those that the Gods had placed there. The waters that tumbled from a noisy waterfall near the center of the village, ran pure and clean. The villagers were a hard working tribe, who had tamed a small area of the surrounding jungle for crops. Mostly though, they depended on the hunters of the tribe to supply them with fresh game, of which there was plenty in abundance. The jungle fed them, the mountains sheltered them, and they were, for the most part, at peace even though it was a hard life, with survival always foremost on their minds.

Critical to their survival, was the strength of the tribe's elders and their warriors. This village was doubly blessed, since they had not only a mighty chief, but also a Sentinel. The Sentinel was one of the tribe's warriors... someone who patrolled the borders... a Watchman. The Sentinel was chosen because of a genetic advantage...

Blair's tone had dropped into the range that he used in his Guide mode, and Ellison found himself straining to listen to the faint words that carried through the line; hanging on every word that the younger man uttered. Despite their grim situation, he smiled when the anthropologist began describing what a sentinel was—using the same explanation for the children that he'd used on a freaked-out cop so long ago.

The kids are probably more receptive to the concept than I was, Jim mused. He glanced at the still buzzing window worriedly, wishing that sentinel gifts included the ability to alter time, because the rest of them weren't doing him a damn bit of good at this moment.

While the Sentinel watched out for the tribe, his companion, or Guide, watched out for the Sentinel. In this tribe, the Sentinel's companion was a young man named Berran. He was not only Guide to the Sentinel, but he was also the tribe's Shaman. The old Shaman of the tribe had been wounded in an ambush and it had been Berran who had found him. Unable to heal the fatal injury, Berran had summoned his Sentinel and together they tended the old man until he died. With his last breath, the Medicine Man passed on his gifts and named the young man as his successor.

Berran was young to have so much responsibility, and often it weighed heavy on his shoulders, for he felt unready, unworthy of the bequest. However, he did the best he could and the villagers seemed content with his efforts.

One morning, Berran gathered up eight of the village children—and one of the young maidens, Taela, who often helped him the teaching—and led them up a narrow path that snaked its way up the side of the mountain. His goal was an ancient structure that had been built into the side of the cliff countless generations earlier. Within its earthen walls rested the greatest treasure of the tribe—their history. Painted on the walls were symbols and pictures that told the story of their village. On narrow, hand-molded shelves rested urns and sculptures that were works of art in themselves, but more precious to the tribe for the connections to the past that they represented.

It was the duty of the tribe's Shaman to maintain and care for the structure and its priceless contents, and Berran had carefully tended to that responsibility. But he also recognized the value of the knowledge that the shelter contained and had begun to bring small groups of the village children to the site, using the artifacts and paintings as part of his teaching...

Blair paused and took a deep breath as he glanced first at Amanda and then at the clock. Minutes were ticking away... he had to hurry...

"Everyone okay on the trail?" he asked quietly, in his normal voice. All around the circle, the children nodded their heads, but no one opened their eyes, caught up in the spell that he was weaving. Blair shifted back into his 'Guide' voice and continued.

On this bright, sunny morning, Berran's mind was filled with the plans that he had made for what he would teach his students that day. He paused briefly at a point on the path not too far from the sanctuary, waiting for the children to catch up, and glanced down at the village below. The women were at their chores as were the men who were too old for hunting or fighting. The warriors were nowhere to be seen, having left earlier to scout and secure the perimeter of the encampment. The Sentinel had left the village before the sun had crested the peaks, seeking signs of a roaming band of raiders that had attacked several neighboring villages. Normally, the Guide would have been at the Watchman's side, but his duty to his students had taken precedence this day. As he always did, when he was unable to be with his Sentinel, Berran aimed a mental prayer in his partner's direction, wishing him safe hunting...

Crouched next to the restroom window, phone pressed to his ear, Jim's eyes widened in surprise at Blair's words.

Is that just a part of the story? Is that Berran 'talking' or Sandburg? Does Blair do that, when he can't be with me?

The sound of high-pitched laughter and the tapping, shussing noise of spirit rattles brought Berran's attention back to the children...

When his own kids picked up on the cue and began laughing and shaking their own rattles, Blair smiled, continuing the story without missing a beat.

Taela was shepherding the last of their lagging strays upward. Berran let his gaze drift beyond her, absently checking the path and stiffened. His sharp eyes had caught movement on the trail below them. Rising to his toes he strained to see what it might be, his right hand automatically seeking out the small knife that hung from his belt. He was not a warrior, but the children were in his charge, and therefore, under his protection.

Berran's eyes widened and fear gripped his heart when he saw a man move stealthily out from behind an outcropping of rock. The nearest village was many days travel on foot, and although they traded with their neighbors, their contact with others outside of their own tribe was minimal, so the appearance of strangers on the path below was alarming. The young Shaman held his breath, his gaze fixed on the spot and within seconds saw several more men creep through the open space and pass out of sight. Warriors, he thought, by the look of their war paint and the weapons he had glimpsed...

The rattling around Blair faltered. "Keep shaking your rattles, remember, the children don't know what's going on, yet," he urged his own kids. The clacks and shusses of their instruments picking up the beat of the still playing drum music. With a quick glance at the clock—9:45—he shifted back into the tale.

Berran gripped his knife desperately, painfully aware that he was ill prepared to deal with a party of armed men. He glanced upward toward their destination and then back down the path. Realizing that there was no way to get the children past the raiders—for he was certain that it was the men that his Sentinel was hunting who were on their trail—he decided to push on and seek whatever safety he could find for his charges in the cliff shelter. He forced a merriment into his voice that he didn't feel and spoke to the children, urging them to hurry onward ahead of him. As the last of them charged past, Taela joined him. He ushered her forward as well, taking her arm and whispering their danger in her ear.

Blair's eyes sought Amanda's as he continued to speak.

Berran could tell that she was frightened, but she, too, was more concerned for the children than her own safety. Her courage gave the young Shaman strength. He urged her to follow the children and get them settled within the sanctuary. Once she was out of sight on the next turning of the path, Berran turned and trotted back down the trail a few yards to his earlier vantage point.

Staring out into the endless jungle, the Guide spoke quietly, sending a message to his Sentinel on the wings of the wind that blew down from the mountain. He searched the sea of green looking for some sign that the Watchman had heard his cry for help. Finally, there was a glimmer of light at the top of one of the trees. Berran smiled in relief, knowing that his message had reached its target. Despite the fact that his partner was so far away, he felt a surge of hope.

Jogging up the path to the shelter, a plan began to form in his mind. His Sentinel would come, but it would be up to Berran to keep the children and Taela safe until he arrived.

The certainty in his partner's voice carried over the phone line, and Jim shuddered. Blair had so much faith in him. He could only hope that this was not the time that he would let the younger man down.

In the museum classroom, reality and fantasy converged.

Within one of the inner chambers of the cliff structure, Berran gathered the children close, his voice dropping to a bare whisper.

Blair's eight students crowed closer to their modern-day Shaman.

"There are raiders coming up the path behind us," the Shaman explained urgently. "We are safe here for the moment, but not for long. I fear it is the treasure in this sanctuary that draws them. There is no way to get safely past the men and return to the village on the trail, however there is another way out that they may not know about. We will use that, but there is still a danger—we cannot travel together for the first steps of this journey. You must go one by one, and slip by them unseen. If the strangers guess our intent, they will try to stop us."

Claire shivered and reached out to pull a trembling Marisa to her side.

Berran looked around the circle of frightened young faces. "I promise I will let no harm come to any of you. The Sentinel knows our plight. He is coming, and with him the tribe's warriors, but we must do what we can to keep ourselves safe until they arrive. I will call upon the spirits of this sacred place to aid us, but I need your help as well. I want each of you to summon your power animals for protection. When I call your name, you will leave this room and follow the corridor to the second room on the left. Enter there and you will find a small opening in the far wall. You will have to climb out, but Taela will be there to help you. Be silent and brave and all will be well. I will remain behind to safeguard your escape."

Blair took a deep breath and picked up the wolf's head rattle. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the soft drum music issuing from the tape recorder, willing his own pulse to match the even beat. He began to shake the gourd in time to the cadence, the children mimicking his actions perfectly.

In the silence between the beats, pulsed another vibration and the Shaman reached for it instinctively, his summons a whisper to the past. "Gentle spirits, this young one and his charges seek your wisdom and strength. Our need is dire... the peril close... Send the guardians of the young so that they may be cloaked in protection... See these innocents safely from this place of danger and delivered into the arms of the tribe's human guardians...

Berran lowered his rattle to the ground, and the children followed suit. When the Shaman opened his eyes, he found the chamber lit with an eerie blue light. He saw to his relief that the spirits had indeed answered. Ghostly shapes flitted and crawled and hopped to the children's sides...

Blair blinked in surprise, for when he opened his eyes, the lights within the classroom seemed to have changed as well, and around the children—

What the —

Blair shot a startled glance toward Amanda who met his gaze questioningly, oblivious to the presence of the beautiful, tawny-colored doe that stood beside her. The anthropologist shifted his stunned gaze to the children, who were looking at him expectantly, all but one apparently unaware that they each had gained an ethereal companion.

Blair blinked again, but the apparitions didn't vanish. Clinging to a strand of Marisa's hair was a brilliant blue butterfly, its wings folding and unfolding gracefully; beating in time to the drum music. Tucked in next to the laces of Claire's right sneaker, a dark greenish-gray bullfrog puffed out the bottom of its throat and emitted a deep resounding croak that only Blair seemed able to hear. A dragonfly hovered next to Freddy's head, but the anthropologist didn't think that it was the creature's furiously buzzing wings that had prompted the suspicious expression on the boy's face. Talan didn't flinch as a foot-long spotted lizard slithered up the sleeve of his shirt, nor did Jenny seem to notice the grasshopper that was leaping from one knee to the other. Julia was equally immune to the small army of ants that scurried on the floor in front of her and the box turtle that sat in Ryan's lap wasn't prompting any reaction from its host either.

Only Kim, who held a delicate, long-legged preying mantis in her open palm seemed to have a clue to the magic that had enfolded them. She met Blair's confused stare with an enigmatic smile and then chirped at the insect encouragingly.

A gust of hot, moist breath bathed the left side of Blair's face and he turned his head abruptly. He found himself staring into the huge, pale yellowish eyes of a gray wolf. Startled, Blair blinked a third time. When he opened his eyes, the lighting in the room had returned to normal and there was no trace of the wolf, or—his gaze swung back to the children—any of the other creatures that he had thought he'd seen. He was more befuddled than he had been seconds earlier.

What the hell was that all about? Was it real? Or just wishful thinking?

"Berran..." Amanda's soft call brought Blair's stunned gaze back to her and to their grim reality. "It's time... I can hear the raiders in the outer chamber," she prompted.

Blair glanced back at the children. Their expectant expressions were quickly shifting to confusion. Act now, dissect this little mystical episode later, he berated himself, turning to the tiny figure to his left. "Marisa..."

Wide blue eyes looked up at him confidently.

"Leave your rattle and go with Taela to open the way..."

The youngster scrambled to her feet. She took one step toward Amanda, then turned and launched herself into Blair's arms, wrapping him in a desperate hug. She pulled back just far enough to look searchingly into his eyes. "Will Berran... will you be safe?" she whispered.

Blair's tight, dry throat and the tears that sprang to his eyes made his voice rough, but he managed a reassuring smile. "Yes. My—his Sentinel will see to that. He always does." He planted a kiss on the top of her head and then gently pushed her away.

"Now go... be careful..."

She nodded and scurried to join Amanda at the door. Together, they slipped out into the corridor.

Amanda found herself holding her breath as she ushered Marisa down the hallway. Placing the little girl to her left side, both to shield her from the robbers' view and to keep Marisa from getting a good look at the men, she laid one arm over the narrow shoulders and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the restroom door.

This should work, Amanda told herself firmly. Kid's this age are always having to make a run to the restroom. Even if the thieves see us, they shouldn't get suspicious...

Yet the three seconds that it took to pass by the open arched doorway that led to the display chamber, and the eight that it took to reach the restroom door, were the longest she'd ever lived. She let out a long noisy sigh of relief the moment she and Marisa were out of sight behind the wooden door. Ignoring the little girl's curious stare, she hurried to the last stall.

As the door closed behind Amanda and Marisa, Blair turned to the remaining children.

"While your guardian spirits protect you, the spirits of the past will keep the raiders confused," Berran explained.

Blair reached over to the second tape recorder and pushed the play button. The pleased shrieks and noisy rattling that he had recorded earlier filled the room. The children's eyes lit with mischief and they smiled gleefully at the trick.

The anthropologist nodded to Claire. "Your turn, kiddo."

"I'll be content with your spirit guide's song until we meet again," the young Shaman assured his student. She graced him with a smile, and quick hug, and then she was gone.

//"Yes. My—his Sentinel will see to that. He always does."//

The Sentinel's finger's tightened around the cell phone when he heard his Guide's confident answer to the little girl's question. He stood up and checked the window again—the buzz of the still active security system made his skin crawl and his jaw muscles clench even tighter. He swung the mike from the headset into place, ready to verbally tear whoever wasn't holding up their end of the plan to shreds, and froze as the irritating noise and vibration suddenly ceased.

Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Jim quickly reported in to Simon. "System's down. Remind Pike that his people can't move toward the emergency exit until the lights go off. We can't risk alarming Hennesey and his men."

//"Rafe just checked in. He's in position. How long to get the kids out?"//

"Sandburg's planning to send one every 30 seconds or so. If things go without a hitch, about four minutes."

//"We might have to douse the lights before that," Simon warned. "Rafe said he thought he picked out one of Hennesey's men in the main lobby area —"//

"Probably waiting for that tour group to start assembling."

//"Rafe said the guy seemed pretty tense, Jim."//

"I'll keep an ear on things from here," the Sentinel replied. "Tell him to be ready to go dark on my signal."

Jim barely heard his captain's acknowledgment as he stood on his toes and peered into the window, impatiently watching for the first arrivals. He heard the scrape of metal hinges grinding against one another, and then the door to the end stall was abruptly pulled open. He found himself staring down into Amanda's anxious face. Ellison tapped the window and gave the grad student a 'thumbs up' signal. The young woman nodded and pulled Marisa into the stall with her.

A second later Amanda and Jim were face to face, her muffled curse carrying easily to the Sentinel's ears as she struggled with the latch. For a heart- pounding moment, it refused to budge. Frowning, the grad student gave the frame a sharp tap with the heel of her hand and the glass panel abruptly swung outward. Jim grabbed the edge of the frame and forced the window wide open.

"I heard you might need a hand pulling off Sandburg's version of the Great Escape," he said softly.

"And they say there's never a cop around when you need one," Amanda whispered back, grinning in obvious relief. "Hold on a second and I'll give Marisa a boost."

She immediately disappeared from Jim's line of sight. He heard a dull thud and guessed that the grad student had opened the wall-mounted baby changing station to give the children a platform to stand on. There was the scuff of rubber against something smooth, the thunk of bony knees contacting plastic, and suddenly Jim found himself staring into a pair of cornflower blue eyes.

"Hello, Marisa," The Sentinel whispered. "I'm Detective Jim. I'm a friend of Blair's. He asked me to stop by and help out with the story. Can I give you a lift?"

The little girl nodded, her eyes wide. Jim took the hands she offered and eased her through the small opening. Wrapping her in a hug, which she shyly returned, Ellison was about to lower her to the ground when he heard Amanda gasp and the restroom door creak again. Tightening his grip on Marisa, Jim peered through the open window trying to see what had alarmed the grad student.


She glanced up at him, her expression strained as she hugged another little girl to her side. "It's okay, Jim. It's just our next escapee. This is Claire..."

Berran continued to speak quietly to his charges, assuring them that all would go well if they kept their heads. After counting thirty beats of his own thudding heart, he gestured to the next child.


The boy rose slowly to his feet. He frowned at the rattle he still held in his hands and then glanced up, his penetrating gray eyes locking with Blair's blue ones.

"Truth or fiction?" Freddy asked softly.

With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Blair realized that the perceptive youngster had seen through the illusion that he'd been trying to weave. I should have expected it... The anthropologist sighed and met Freddy's gaze evenly. "What's the adage? Sometimes truth is stranger?"

Freddy's expression didn't change, but his eyes widened slightly. "No bullshit?"

Blair shook his head.

The boy ran one hand through his stringy hair, pushing it out of his face, then bent and placed his rattle on the floor. Hitching up his jeans, he stalked over to the door. Freddy opened it, stuck his head out to peer at the corridor, then turned around and gestured to Talan.

"You go next. I'll guard the door." Freddy's gaze shifted to Blair and his chin lifted defiantly. "I'm the oldest... it's my right," he said firmly.

Blair glanced toward Talan, who was watching him uncertainly. Knowing they couldn't afford any delays, the grad student swallowed hard and wordlessly nodded his agreement. The dark-haired boy was on his feet in the blink of an eye. He scurried across the room to the door. Freddy placed a hand on the younger boy's shoulder, halting him. He bent close and whispered something in his ear. Blair couldn't make out what was said, but Talan's head shot up and he straightened, throwing his shoulder's back. He met Freddy's offered 'high- five' and then zipped out the door.

Freddy turned back to meet Blair's amazed stare. The boy shrugged and leaned against the door, assuming a casual stance, although Blair could see that he wasn't nearly as calm as he pretended to be. The grad student gave him a quick nod of thanks and glanced at the clock.

Ten minutes to ten... our time's running out... How soon will Hennesey start to wonder where that tour group is?

"Blair?" The anthropologist shifted his attention to Jenny, who was eagerly bouncing on her knees, but it was Julia that had spoken. "I know you said we had to go one at a time, but do you think Jenny and I could escape together? I'm kind of supposed to watch out for her and keep her out of trouble since I'm the oldest."

"You're only three minutes older," Jenny objected crossly, punching her sister in the arm. "You don't have to take care of me."

"Sounds like a plan," Blair interrupted before what was obviously an old argument between the twins went any further. He waved the girls closer so that they would be able to hear him over the noise from the tape. "It's good to be independent, but it's also nice to know that someone cares enough to see you through the rough times," he said, eyeing Jenny thoughtfully. "Your sister loves you, that's why she looks out for you. She balances your headstrong impulses and you keep her from getting too serious for her own good. I know it's probably hard sometimes, being a twin —"

"It is," Julia said soberly. "People treat you like a half person instead of a whole one."

Blair nodded his understanding. "But turn it around and you'll see that you've got something that most people search their whole lives for—you've got a built-in kindred soul in your sister."

The two girls eyed each other in surprise. "You're right, we do," they both said at the same time. The double response almost sent them into a fit of giggles, but Freddy's baleful glare when they joined him at the door made them both quiet again. They slipped out into the hallway in perfect sync.

Watch out for one another, Blair's silent command mirrored that which Berran might have said. The anthropologist closed his eyes, once more wishing he had the powers he had attributed to the fictitious Shaman.

Frank Nollan heard a scuffling noise coming from the hallway. He started to turn to investigate the cause and stopped abruptly when he felt something crawl across the top of his right hand. He looked down and saw a small black ant, patiently making its way toward the cuff of his shirt. With a grimace, he shook the insect off. He raised his foot, intending to squash the annoying creature, but he lost track of it in the short pile of the patterned carpeting.

Shaking his head in disgust, he suddenly remembered the sound he'd heard and stepped over to the corridor to check it out. He glanced right and left, but there was no sign of anyone or anything in the hallway—just the sounds of the kids down in the classroom.

Deciding that those noises must have been what he'd heard, he returned to the display chamber and resumed his post. When Hennesey looked in his direction, he met his boss' questioning stare with a shake of his head.

Reassured that things were still going according to plan, Hennesey resumed his eager contemplation of the exhibit's contents. While it was an impressive collection overall, his admiration and greed were focused on select items.

He ignored the stunning Vicus pottery and concentrated on the numerous metal artifacts: masks, nose ornaments, and other objects fashioned of gold and of alloys of gold, copper, and silver. He glanced at the description in the museum catalog detailing the expertise of the goldsmiths. The centuries-old pieces were depletion gilded, which meant that the base metals had been removed from the metal alloys, leaving a layer of relatively pure gold.

Mentally calculating the current market value of the items in the case, he moved on to the next one.

The blue-green jade Olmec axeheads, carved to represent incredibly realistic jaguars, would bring a good price from a collector he knew who had a seriously 'private' gallery. Those were the only collectibles that they planned to remove and keep intact. The snarling faces of the wild cats stared up menacingly at him from their places—as if daring him to try to take them.

He smiled smugly and wandered from the smaller room to the larger one.

A significant portion of the bigger chamber was devoted to Chavin art. There were several castings made from the lintels, cornices and doorjambs outside of the temple at Chavin de Huantar. Hennesey absently noted that they were incised with animal shapes—eagles, jaguars, and crocodiles. The monochrome ceramics on display also featured realistically modeled jaguars.

The sampling also included several hammered gold headdresses. Hennesey studied them thoughtfully. Strange, whiskered "cat-gods" were depicted with diving- bird headdresses, bared claws, and long tails often ending in human heads. The 'gods' held severed heads by strings, like headhunter trophies. Skeletal human figures seemed alternately to bend over backward or tilt forward, providing a crude mirror image when seen from either side of the mantle.

These will be my trophies, soon, the thief thought smugly.

He walked slowly around the glass-cased displays of Mochican artifacts. Most of the brilliant polychrome ceramics, colorful textiles and even the flints and other ancient weaponry, featured some kind of animal design—remarkably realistic animals with turned heads, alert eyes, and heavy bodies. A stirrup- spouted Mochica vessel was decorated with high molded reliefs of the solar god, identifiable by his Sun-ray headdress and feline-fanged mouth, surrounded by animal assistants.

Hennesey shook his head. They all must have been damn animal lovers, he mused in disgust.

He paused before a display featuring items discovered in a Moche warrior priest's tomb north of Trujillo, Peru. He ignored the ceramics, but the numerous gold, silver, and jeweled ornaments practically made his mouth water.

He passed by the Huari display with only a casual glance, unimpressed by the brightly colored, linear patterned pottery and textiles. He'd already decided which of the metalworked artifacts would be leaving with him.

The display of Chimu art was worth a second look, however. The graves of the Chimu kings at Chan Chan had yielded a rich supply of gold and silver work and the exhibit contained at least three dozen pieces of finely crafted gold jewelry. Their historical significance and craftsmanship meant nothing to him—the fortune he'd earn from them once they were rendered to their base metals was something else entirely.

He lingered for a moment over the lustrous black pottery and then moved on. The ceramic vessels—with their modeled figures and relief scenes featuring rows of identical profile birds or fish, frontal humans, and zigzag stepped patterns—were eye-catching, but not what he'd come for.

However, the six Chimu gem and feather studded masks that hung in the outer exhibit area—next to a hammered gold sunburst headdress from Tiahuanaco, inscribed with winged human and bird figures linked together by a celestial serpent with multiple heads—were on his list.

He took a final look at the Incan textiles and the Necropolis weavings that had been included to round out the exhibit. They were undoubtedly priceless from an antiquities standpoint, but he intended to use them as casually as a moving crew used their quilted blankets—as protective wrappings around the more valuable masks. He glanced at his watch and started to walk back to his position of choice—the arched doorway between the two rooms. It was almost time for the fun to begin.

Henri Brown rounded the corner of the museum just as Jim was lowering Talan to the ground. Ellison glanced in his direction and gestured for the detective to join them. As Brown strode forward, his jacket gaped open, revealing the gun in his shoulder holster. Jim suddenly had an armful of trembling little boy as Talan tried to hide within the Sentinel's embrace. Ellison took a quick look at Henri and realized what had caused the child's reaction.

"It's all right, Talan. He's a friend of mine," Jim murmured, giving the child a gentle squeeze. "His name is Henri Brown. He's a policeman. That's why he has a gun."

Dark, worried eyes flicked in Brown's direction and then shifted back to meet the Sentinel's. "My new parents say that a policeman comes when there is trouble," the boy said quietly. "There is trouble here?"

"Nothing we can't handle," Ellison quickly assured him. "Henri's going to take over for me, while I go take care of something else. Do you think you could give him a hand?"

Talan looked up warily at the big black detective who towered over him. "Are you a friend of my teacher's as well, Policeman Brown."

Henri knelt down on one knee and smiled. "You bet. Hair Boy and I are good friends."

Talan frowned. "Hair Boy?"

Brown smiled. "That's what I call him. It's a nickname... you know, because of all that wild hair he has."

"I see. And it is... acceptable to Blair that you call him this? He is a teacher, and in my country... my homeland... teachers are honored. Perhaps you should treat him with more respect."

Henri looked startled at the quiet reprimand, but then he nodded. "You know, you're right." The detective glanced up at Ellison. "Remind me to tell your partner how smart he is, next time I see him, will you Jim?"

"I'll do that," the Sentinel answered. He patted Talan on the shoulder. "Can I count on you to help Henri with the others?"

Talan inclined his head in a formal bow. "I would be honored."

Jim started to point to the far edge of the lawn, where he'd sent the two girls. A sharp hiss snapped his attention back to the window. He did a double take before he realized that he wasn't seeing double.

"You must be Jenny and Julia," he murmured to the two identical faces that peered down at him. "You're going to have to come through one at a time. Who's first?" He grabbed the first set of hands that reached out for him and tugged the freckled red-head through the opening. Henri had her sister standing on the ground next to her seconds later.

Ellison ushered them both into Talan's care. "Take the girls over to join Marisa and Claire, and stay there with them, all right?"

As the dark eyed boy led the twins away, Jim turned to Henri. "There are only three kids left, plus Amanda. Can you take over?"

Brown gave him a push. "Go, man. Your partner needs you."

Snatching up the cell phone from where he'd laid it on the grass, the Sentinel took off at a run. He'd done his duty to the others, now he had a Guide to rescue.

"Why do you doubt yourself, Shaman?" Blair's eyes snapped open at the sound of Kim's soft voice and he found himself staring into a pair of deep brown eyes that brimmed with ancient knowledge. "You have the power to Call the Beasts —"

Blair shook his head, a slightly sad smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "I think you're confusing the story with the story-teller, Kim."

"No veil blinds my sight, Shaman. I know what I saw... what you saw." She leaned forward and spoke in his ear. "The wolf awaits the panther as the Guide awaits the Sentinel."

Blair jerked back and stared at her in speechless shock.

She smiled gently. Almost reverently she placed her hands together, palms touching. Raising them to her lips, she bowed. Turning gracefully, she walked across the classroom. Freddy opened the door for her without a word, as entranced as Blair at her solemn, dignified exit.

Kim hesitated just outside the door. She was not as calm as she had led them to believe, but she had an ancient heritage of her own to draw upon for courage when the situation demanded it, as it did now. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, forming a picture of her maternal grandmother in her mind. The image brought with it an immense sense of peace. She placed both hands together and then opened them, palms up this time. In her hand sat the mantis, its jeweled eyes studying her intently.

Yours is the power of stillness... the power to move between moments... lend me your wisdom gentle spirit, she prayed.

Before her eyes, the mantis disappeared. She glanced ahead to the restroom door and saw it sitting on the carpeted floor at the base of the wooden panel.

So... it's that easy, is it? Kim closed her eyes and took a step forward, one slender hand outstretched before her. When she felt the grain of the door against her fingertips, she opened her eyes and smiled. She reached down and the mantis crawled into her welcoming grasp. She risked a look behind her and saw a dark coated man in the outer chamber staring in her direction. She stood motionless, radiating stillness, blending into her surroundings as easily as the insect in her hand managed in the wild. She held that pose until the man looked away. He never saw her push open the restroom door and close it behind her, never heard her satisfied whisper.

"Grandmother will be pleased to know that I have followed in her footsteps..."

Around the corner from the front entrance of the museum, Simon glanced over at the leader of the SWAT team, who immediately signaled his group's readiness. He barked a quick question into his com unit and got the same answer from the men in charge at the rear of the museum, and from Rafe. The status report from Brown's position wasn't as positive.

//"Still three... no, wait... another one just showed up... make that two more kids, plus Sandburg's assistant, before we're clear."//

Simon chomped on the end of an unlit cigar, taking his frustration and anxiety out on the stogie instead of on the man on the other end of the line. "We're coming down to the wire on this. I'm sending some additional backup to provide cover in case all hell breaks loose. Speaking of which, where's Ellison?"

//"Where do you think, sir?"//

"Wait here until I give the word," Jim tersely instructed the officers assembled at the emergency exit. "If things go as planned, you're to escort the museum staff out this way. If not, you each take an office and defend it." At their equally terse nods of agreement, he drew his gun and slipped soundlessly inside the museum.

The Sentinel reached for his mental dials, cranking them all up to higher levels. As he absorbed the sudden sensory assault, a shaft of pain lanced through his skull, aggravating his already pounding head. He ignored the discomfort, but heeded the warning. The headache was a reminder that he'd been pushing his senses for an extended period of time. He'd have to be doubly cautious operating without his Guide's grounding presence—he could easily find himself losing control just when he needed it most, or worse, lose himself in a zone-out.

He hugged the inside wall, inching his way down the corridor. A flash of movement made him halt and level the gun toward a partially open door. When he saw Robert Pike's anxious face peering out at him, he curtly gestured for the man to get back inside.

Once the Director's door was shut, Jim worked his way toward the opening that led to the inner exhibit room. Sentinel senses swept the chamber, pinpointing four distinct heartbeats easily. He shifted his focus to the outer room. Picking up one more heartbeat on the far end of the larger chamber, Ellison made an 'X' on his mental floor plan to mark the man's position.

That accounts for five of the six. Hopefully the last man's still out front...

He widened his sensory scan, intending to check on his partner and the remaining children when a new sound clamored for his attention. Targeting the noise, he quickly identified the scuff of hard-soled shoes against carpeted floor.

Someone's headed in this direction... probably Hennesey's lookout... so much for wishful thinking...

Jim retreated back to the door and waved the other officers in, motioning for them to hug the wall. He flashed a hand-signal to ready them, then crept back to within a few feet of the passageway to the inner room. From that position, he could see Hennesey's reflection in the glass of one of the display cases. Keeping an eye on the group's leader, he extended his hearing and found that his suspicions about the identity of the new arrival were correct.


Hennesey looked up from the exhibit catalogue he was pretending to examine and frowned when he saw his younger brother hurrying through the outer exhibit room toward him. "You're supposed to cover the front," he hissed as Ben joined him in the inner chamber.

"I know, but I think we've got trouble," Ben replied. "No one's shown up yet for the tour."

Gavin's scowl darkened. "No one? Not even one of the museum's volunteers?"

"Uh, uh," the younger man responded with a firm shake of his head. "I know we expected the place to be nearly empty, but it's like a ghost town out there. I haven't seen anyone in the last fifteen minutes, except a guy in an expensive suit who headed into the south wing."

"What about outside?" the older man pressed. "Any sign of the cops?"

"No... and I've been checking, just like you ordered," his brother replied.

Hennesey muttered a curse and gestured urgently for the rest of his men to join them. "We've got trouble," he snapped. "Nollan, get the kids. I want them between us and the cops."

Ben looked startled. "Gavin, I didn't see —"

"They're here," Hennesey snarled at his younger brother. "I don't know how they got wind of what was going down, but if we act fast, we can still pull this off."

"What about the teachers?" Nollan asked. "We taking them, too?"

Hennesey nodded. "They'll keep the kids in line and they'll provide two more bodies to use as shields. Bartleson, you secure the museum staff in their offices. By the time you're done with that, we should have things ready to start transporting out to the van. Everybody just play it cool and do your job."

Turning to Ben, Gavin gave his younger brother a none-too-gentle shove toward the outer room. "Go help Mark collect the masks. Don't waste time trying to break the gems free. Just take the whole piece. We'll trash whatever we don't want later. "

"But if the cops are already here, maybe we should just go..."

"No way, little brother. I'm not leaving here without what we came for. Now move it!"

Our time just ran out.

In the reflective surface of the display case, Ellison saw the men split up. His grim assessment of the situation took less than a heartbeat. There was no way he could get through Hennesey and the rest of the thieves in time to stop the man who'd been sent toward the classroom. Announcing his presence by rushing forward would very likely get him killed. At the very least, it would give away his position and those of the other officers in the corridor, endangering the museum staff as well.

Yet he couldn't let Blair be taken by surprise. Frantically signaling the men behind him to move, he raised the cell phone and barked an urgent warning to his partner. With the same breath, he shouted into the headset mike. "Now, Rafe!"

"So, I guess I'm not the only one that figured out that something weird's going on here?"

Blair glanced down at Ryan who had settled next to him on the platform step. The anthropologist put an arm over the boy's shoulder and pulled him closer. "You guys are just too smart for me," he said with a soft chuckle. "And here I thought all of you were spellbound with my story-telling skills. What gave it away?"

"You're good, Teach," Ryan replied, leaning into the comfort that Blair offered. He raised his voice slightly so that the grad student could hear his explanation. "But I'm a pretty good observer. I saw those guys out in the exhibit hall when we came in. They were pretty scary looking. I saw the look on Amanda's face, and yours, when you came in from the hallway, and I saw you give her your cell phone." He looked down at the device on the platform, its blinking light signifying that the line was still open. "After that it was a matter watching you and listening past what you were saying in the story."

Blair gave the boy a quick squeeze. "You're going to make a terrific scientist some day, Ryan... or a great cop." The grad student looked up and met Freddy's eyes, ready to signal the boy to make his trip. Without warning, his partner's voice erupted from the cell phone.

"Chief. Company!"

Before Blair could draw a breath, the lights went out and the classroom was plunged into total darkness.

As frequently happens in the midst of a battle, time's normal, dependable rules of behavior bent and twisted at right angles, leaving the individual participants to sink or swim in its surreal currents...

Hennesey spun toward the source of the shouts and brought up his own weapon, firing off two splattering rounds before it was fully level. He screamed at his men to open fire and dove for cover behind a marble display pedestal as the lights went out.

Ellison flinched at the ear-shattering chatter of the semi-automatic and pulled back another step into the shelter of the corridor as the spray of bullets hissed through the air. The force of their impacts on the inner hallway wall sent shards of debris flying in all directions. A man-made dust cloud of pulverized plaster filled the air. It filled the Sentinel's lungs and sent him into a fierce coughing fit. Pain blasted through his aching skull and his vision went to black.

Brown reached for the young Asian girl, grabbed her by the arms, and pulled her through the window as the first shots were fired inside. As he lowered Kim to the ground he called out to Amanda, urging her to climb through. Even though she was clearly terrified, she refused at first, determined to wait for the remaining children. The escalation of the firefight finally convinced her and once again, Henri found himself reaching into the darkness... grabbing... pulling...

Startled by the sound of the firefight erupting inside the museum, Banks waved the SWAT personnel forward. Following in their wake, Simon forced his leaden limbs to move, even though in his heart, he feared that their desperate efforts would be too late to save the innocents inside.

Trapped in a false night filled with the drum rolls of deadly thunder and the ghostly peals of children's laughter, the anthropologist struggled to control his own fears. Blair knew he should say something—do something—but it was nearly impossible to form a coherent thought, much less a plan of action.

His own pulse thundered in his ears, nearly obliterating Freddy's frantically hissed demands for guidance. At his side, he felt Ryan press closer, trembling and starting violently in response to each gunshot.

"I promise I will let no harm come to any of you..."

The words from the story he'd been telling the children rang strong and clear in his mind, and Blair stiffened.

I made the same pledge... I have to see this through... I have to do whatever I can to keep the kids safe... I just have to remember that like Berran, I have help waiting in the wings...

The Sentinel knows our plight...

'... a panther can see in the dark.'


The Guide gasped as the safety lights flared to life. Their soft, warm glow and the knowledge that his Sentinel was close by, fired a renewed sense of hope and purpose within him.

Blair surged to his feet, pulling Ryan upright with him. He spun the boy around and gave him a push toward the wooden speaker's podium. "Remember the turtle, Ryan," the fledgling Shaman hissed. "He can defeat any enemy as long as he remains within his shell."

The boy's eyes widened for an instant and then he bolted for the hiding place that Blair had indicated. The anthropologist turned and snatched up his own spirit rattle, while at the same time gesturing for Freddy to stay where he was. Blair dropped into a half-lotus position on the carpeted platform step and saw Freddy flatten himself against the wall only a heartbeat before the classroom door was thrust open.

Ellison feared for an instant that he'd been struck by one of the flying bullets, but abruptly realized that he must have experienced a sensory spike just as the main lights went out. The strobing spots he was seeing in front of his eyes were the flashers on the emergency lights kicking in.

Cursing the loss of the few seconds of complete darkness when he might have made a move into the inner chamber, the Sentinel lurched to his feet. His ears rang painfully. His mouth and throat burned. His sight was sluggishly adapting to the strange amber-colored light that dimly illuminated the corridor, and he had no memory of how he'd ended up on his knees in the carpeted hallway. Still trying to wrest his uncooperative senses back on-line, he staggered the two steps to the arched opening.

One of the other cops was crouched against the inner wall at the threshold of the opening directly across from Jim, ready to provide backup. Ellison signaled for him to hold his fire. The detective snuck a quick look into the smaller exhibit room and barely managed to pull back in time to avoid another fusillade of bullets.

"Cascade PD!" Jim yelled. "Drop your weapons and —"

A new burst of gunfire sent a rain of deadly missiles thudding against the corridor walls, drowning out his demands. A return volley from Jim's own side of the corridor answered the assault. The detective checked to make sure that the other officer had decent cover and then looked around for the rest of the team that had come in with him. A quick glance down the corridor revealed an officer stationed behind each one of the partially open doors.

At least the museum staff has some protection...

Any comfort that thought brought with it fled when he remembered that the same wasn't true for his partner or the children who were still with him.

Damn, I need to know what's happening over there...

The Sentinel peered out from behind the cover of the wall, targeted his sight on the opening to the corridor at the opposite side of the room, and cranked up the volume on his hearing. The piggybacking trick worked like a charm, allowing him to cut through the noise levels. He picked up a faint whisper and eagerly zeroed in on it.

And immediately recoiled, slamming hard against the wall, slapping his hands over his ears, his face contorted in agony. He'd been wide open when another round of gunfire battered against his abused eardrums, but it wasn't the weapon's explosive retort that had him nearly writhing in pain, it was the sonic vibrations that were mixed with it—waves of sound that rose and fell in clashing frequencies, and resonated impossibly into the enraged cries of wild creatures.

Jim shook his head sharply, trying to rid himself of the chaos that shrieked across the normal auditory band and zoomed into the ultrasonic. He found himself struggling to ride the crest of that wave, surfing across a seething mass of emotions that were so primal that he found his own lips curling back in a silent snarl. Just when it seemed he couldn't stay afloat any longer, the distinctive scream of a panther ripped through the din, silencing all of the other voices.

Uncertain as to what to make of what he'd just experienced, but fearing the worst, Ellison looked around desperately for the cell phone, hoping to establish contact with his partner through a more conventional method. Jim groaned aloud when he saw the shattered remnants of plastic littering the floor. The electronic lifeline that had connected him to his partner had been severed by a stray bullet.

Gritting his teeth against his own rising panic and the instincts that pushed at him to fight his way to his partner's side, the ex-ranger forced himself to look at the situation objectively.

We're pinned down for the moment, but Hennesey hasn't got much more leeway. He can't go past us and Simon's got to have the front sealed up by now. We could probably sit out this siege until they ran out of bullets, if Blair or one of the kids wasn't certain to end up in the crossfire at some point...

As if Jim's thoughts had prompted Hennesey into action, the thief flowed to his feet, yelling for his man to bring out the hostages. When there was no immediate answer from the direction of the classroom, he fired off another round and dove for the cover of another display case.

Pinned down by the gunfire of the other four men, Ellison growled in frustration and rage. He knew exactly where the man was headed and he was still unable to do anything about it. He'd been relieved that so far there had been no sign of the kids or his partner being dragged into the middle of the fray at gun point. Relieved, but surprised. The man Hennesey had sent to retrieve them had to have made it to the classroom by now. There was no reason for a delay, unless...

Unless Sandburg had pulled another rabbit out of his hat.

I wouldn't put it past him to try to take out the guy on his own, especially if he's trying to protect one or more of the kids... But with what? Blair's unarmed except for that razor like tongue of his... Granted, that's a pretty powerful weapon under most circumstances, but against a semi-automatic?...

Blair got one quick glimpse of the towering, man-shaped form silhouetted in the threshold before he closed his eyes. Seated on the platform step, he gripped his own spirit rattle tightly, and prayed that Freddy would stay put behind the door.

"What the—What's going on here!"

The grad student had intended to act surprised at the man's entrance. The angry shout made his 'startled' reaction an easy thing to pull off. Blair's head snapped up, his eyes opened and he turned slightly toward the man.

"Huh?" He sincerely hoped the blank expression he had summoned was clear in the faint amber light and not lost in shadows.

Nollan took two steps forward into the room. "I said what's going on! Where the hell are the kids?"

Blair filled his reply with all the brightness and innocence he could muster. "The kids? Why, they're —" he started to gesture toward the space in front of him and then stopped abruptly as if shocked himself to find the room empty of the children in question. He lurched to his feet and stared at the man in the doorway in dismay. "They were right here a minute ago! I swear they were!"

The thug took two more steps into the classroom, clearing the edge of the door, but he still wasn't far enough inside for Freddy to slip past him—which was what Blair fervently hoped the boy would do as soon as he got the opportunity.

"Don't play games with me, punk!" Nollan hissed, his gaze sweeping the shadow filled corners of the room. "I know they're here... I heard 'em just before I opened the door..."

Blair slowly turned in a slow circle, making an exaggerated show of listening for the missing voices himself. The tape he'd made earlier was still playing, but it was at the point where only the rattles were audible. That meant he only had a few more moments before the trick was revealed.

"You're right," he murmured. "I can't hear their voices anymore, but I can hear their rattles..." He bent down and with his right hand he picked up Freddy's rattle which was the closest to where he stood. He stared down at the dragonfly pattern and then at the wolf's face that was painted on his own gourd and shook them tentatively. The he took a deep breath and faced the angry thug once more. "You don't... you don't think it worked, do you?" he asked excitedly.

The man's expression started to change from anger to confusion. "What are you babbling about?"

Blair's answer poured forth in a rapid stream that was half nonsense, half academic doublespeak, his arms waving dramatically, the two gourds rattling like angry snakes.

"The story! I was telling them a story about this ancient Shaman and spirit animals and how they could act from the astral plane, well not really the astral plane, but from another reality, and there was this legend that they could turn you invisible, which of course you and I know isn't possible, but —"

"Invisible?" Nollan's expression even more dumbfounded. "You're telling me that the kids are invisible?"

Blair took a step closer to him, gauging the distance between them. "They must be... I mean, you can still hear their rattles, can't you? That means they're still here, but for some reason we just can't see them."

Even in the dim light Blair could see the man's eyes suddenly narrow in suspicion.

"Hey, I know it wasn't my skill as a story-teller that made them disappear," Blair dissembled quickly as he heard the noises on the tape fall silent. "It must be something about the rattles. Here... take a look for yourself."

And in a lightning fast move he flung the dragonfly rattle at the man's head. It sped toward its target as if it were alive. Blair lunged after it, hoping to close the distance between them before the thug could react.

But the timing was off. The moment the rattle left his hand, the classroom suddenly echoed with a loud electric guitar rift. Already in flight himself, Blair immediately recognized the music. He had time for one instant of regret that it had been one of Jim's Santana tapes that he'd sacrificed to the cause before he collided with Nollan.

The sudden change in music had jolted the thug out of his confusion and he'd managed to bat the gourd away with his left hand, sending it flying off into the shadows. The defensive action had shifted him off-balance for a second and had entangled the gun he had concealed in the folds of his coat. That delay was the only thing that saved Blair from taking a bullet in the chest. Instead, the barrel of the rifle caught the anthropologist under the chin as Nolan swung it around in a punishing arc.

The blow sent Blair flying backward. He crashed into the tables and chairs that they'd pushed aside earlier and landed hard on his side on the floor. Gasping for breath he rolled to his stomach and tried to get to his hands and knees. A sharp kick in the ribs dropped him to the carpet again. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he forced himself to look up—straight into the black hole that was the end of Nollan's gun. He froze.

"I'll rattle you, punk!" the man hissed angrily. "Now where's the other teacher? Where are the kids?"

The answer hit him in the back of the knees as Freddy launched himself from where he'd been hiding. Nollan toppled over Blair who rolled out from beneath the bigger man just in time to avoid being trapped by the thug's heavy body. In a move that would have done his police detective partner proud if he'd been watching, the observer scrambled to his knees and slammed the wolf's head rattle against the back of the thug's skull. The gourd exploded on impact, scattering seeds in every direction. But it did the job. Nollan slumped bonelessly to the floor.

Blair hissed a 'stay put' order to Ryan and lurched to his feet. Grabbing Freddy by the arm, he towed the boy out into the corridor.

A familiar racing heartbeat suddenly thundered in Ellison's ears, underscored by the soft strains of a piece of music he knew nearly as well.

The Sentinel's first reaction was one of overwhelming relief. His Guide was still alive. But when he realized where Blair was, and that he wasn't alone, relief turned to fear and a need to act.

Jim glanced anxiously at the officer across from him, hoping that the possibilities for a way out of the stalemate looked better from his angle. The man responded with a grim shake of the head, then ducked into the open to shoot back at the cornered thieves. Risking a quick scan of his adversaries Jim picked up two distinctly different moans of pain. "Give it up, Hennesey!" Ellison called out, hoping to distract the man from whatever his partner had planned, or at least long enough for Simon and the SWAT team to offer some assistance. "You've got two men down already. You want your brother to be next?"

"He knew the risks when he asked to come along," Hennesey yelled back. "Besides, I wouldn't get too cocky, cop. In fact, I think you're the ones that better back off and give me a clear path out of here."

"That's not going to happen," Jim vowed.

"Oh, no? Think again, pig."

Hennesey rolled from behind the marble pedestal he'd been using for cover, fired off another volley and then scrambled for the opening to the classroom corridor.

Blair flinched at the gunfire coming from the display chamber, but resolutely guided Freddy toward the opening. He hugged the inner wall of the corridor, the boy plastered to his left side. Pausing a few feet before the arched doorway, Blair took a deep breath, shot a determined look at the youngster and then sprinted forward, hoping to clear the opening before they were observed.

They were halfway across when Blair caught a flicker of movement to his right. He had just enough time to shove Freddy forward toward the restroom door before Hennesey barreled into him. Thrust sideways, Blair hit the wall with a startled grunt, the air whooshing out of his lungs. His left shoulder and arm absorbed the worst of the impact with the wall. Hennesey's momentum carried him into Blair, and the grad student found himself gasping at the crushing weight that pressed against his already bruised ribs.

He slammed his right elbow backward, but Hennesey deflected the blow. The thief gave Blair's shoulder a shove and spun him face-first to the wall. The grad student pressed his palms to the plaster and pushed his weight backward. Hennesey countered that evasive move by grabbing a handful of Blair's hair and slamming his head forward. The anthropologist managed to turn his face to the right, narrowly escaping a broken nose—a sharp stab of pain spiraled between his eyes as his left cheekbone took the bruising impact instead.

Blair blinked rapidly, trying to see past the bursts of black and white spots that flared in front of his eyes. As horrifying as that disability was, the sight his clearing vision revealed was worse.

Freddy was still in the corridor, one hand on the door to the restroom, his eyes round with terror and indecision.

"Run!" Blair screamed desperately, bucking against the grasp that held him pinned as the boy disappeared into the restroom.

Hennesey shoved him into the wall again. Blair gasped in pain as the rough textured surface clawed against his left cheek and shuddered as something hot and smooth slid across the skin under his right jaw. The tip of the thief's gun came to rest just under the point of his chin.

"Call him back, "Hennesey hissed.

"No way, man," Blair refused, grimacing as Hennesey's savage grip tore several more strands of hair out by their roots.

"Then we'll just collect the others," the robber threatened.

"You're too late... they're all gone," Blair retorted through clenched teeth.

With a snarl of rage, Hennesey jerked Blair backward. He released his hold on the grad student's hair, and wrapped his left arm in a choke-hold around Blair's neck. The anthropologist clawed at his captor's arm, trying to free himself, but Hennesey tightened his hold. Blair nearly gagged at the pressure against his windpipe. Black spots flashed in his vision again as the leader of the robbers dragged him toward the opening to the inner gallery.

Over the raging throb of his own pulse, Blair heard a voice call out "Hold your fire!" as Hennesey stepped through the archway, the grad student positioned in front of him like a shield. His captor nudged him forward a few steps and then suddenly halted.

"Back off, cop!" Hennesey's enraged shout and the sharp pressure against his throat made Blair grimace.

He automatically closed his eyes and asked for a miracle.

When he opened them, the Guide found his prayers answered.

Focused on getting away from the snarling man in the corridor, Freddy flew through the restroom, and was balanced on the groaning wall-mounted platform before he had a chance to think twice about what he was running to. The sight of the huge black man outside the window, reaching toward him, made him pull back in alarm.

"Freddy, it's all right! He's a policeman," called a familiar voice.

He caught sight of Amanda, only a few steps away and lunged forward into Henri's arms.

"He's got him! He's got him!" Freddy shrieked as soon as his feet touched the ground. He grabbed Brown's arm and tugged at it desperately. "You have to help him!"

"Take it easy son," Henri urged.

"Who needs help, Freddy?" Amanda demanded. "Ryan?"

"NO... Ryan's hiding. It's Blair... One of the men grabbed him... he's got a gun! I saw it!"

He was dismayed by the horrified looks that passed between Henri and Amanda, and incensed by the fact that instead of jumping to his teacher's aid, they ushered him toward the other children, mouthing soothing platitudes.

"He'll be all right, Freddy..."

"There are other policemen in the building right now, son..."

"You just go and wait with the others where it's safe..."

Convinced that the grownups didn't have a clue, he stormed over to where the rest of the kids were sitting in the grass. He squatted down in their midst, his eyes flashing.

"Blair's in trouble. We need to do something —"

"But what can we do?" asked Talan.

"The policemen said to wait here," interjected Claire, pulling a tearful Marisa closer.

Freddy scowled at the girls. "He risked his life to get us all out of there —"

"Just like the Shaman in the story," murmured Jenny, clutching her sister's hand.

"There has to be something we can do!" Freddy argued, pounding his fist into the ground in frustration.

"Too bad we can't really ask our guardian spirits for help," whispered Marisa.

"But we can."

Freddy's head snapped up and he stared at Kim. "What do you mean?" he demanded. "That stuff about power animals was all just a trick... something to keep us occupied and play along with what Blair and Amanda had planned."

"Was it?" Kim answered softly. She closed her eyes and turned her head in the direction of the museum. "The panther hunts," she whispered. She opened her eyes and turned back to study the rest of the children. "Our guardians helped us. They could help Blair."

"How?" Freddy demanded.

Kim reached out to take the hands of the two children at her sides. The rest of them followed suit, forming a circle of linked hands. "Close your eyes," she urged them. "See your spirit animal in your mind. Thank it for the service it has rendered in setting us safely beyond the evil's grasp. Think of our teacher and ask the spirits to protect him."

"Let him go, Hennesey," Jim growled. Gun raised and ready, he stepped out from behind the display stand where he'd taken cover.

Blair recognized the tone of the command and the glint in his partner's eyes as Ellison at his most deadly. The affect was unfortunately lost on his captor.

"I said back off, cop," the thief snarled. "Unless you want to be responsible for this punk's brains redecorating the walls of the exhibit."

The observer lost eye contact with his partner momentarily as Hennesey pressed the barrel of his gun painfully against Blair's right temple, forcing the younger man's head slightly to the side. When he met the pale blue stare again, he tried to project all the confidence he felt in Jim across the space that separated them. He didn't attempt to downplay his fear—there was no point with his heart pounding like a sledgehammer in his chest. But he felt oddly at peace, knowing that all of the children were safe and that his own life was in the hands of his friend and Sentinel.

Jim has never let me down... and if it's in his power to get me out of this mess, he will.

Ellison gripped his weapon tighter and glared at Hennesey, his stony expression revealing no trace of his inner turmoil. At Blair's first gasp of pain he'd surged out of the hallway. Only a fraction of a second had passed before the other officer in the corridor with him had snapped off a covering round. Jim had reached the cover of one of the display cases while the thieves were ducking. One quick scan had told him that one of the injured men was already unconscious. He'd rolled from one pedestal to the next closest, firing as he came up and the second man had crumpled to the floor. The Sentinel had narrowly escaped a bullet fired by one of the other three as he'd shifted positions again, desperately trying to find a way to reach his Guide.

A bullet from either his gun or the other officer's had winged one of the others, reducing the number of guns pointed in Jim's direction by one more, but before he could take advantage of the situation, Hennesey had emerged from the opposite hallway.

The gun pointed at Blair's head had significantly reduced the available options.

Anxiously searching for a way out of this dilemma that didn't end with his Guide's blood spilled on the carpeted floor, he opened up his senses for an instant. The same strange animal sounds he'd heard earlier shrieked in his eardrums and the Sentinel immediately spun the dials down.

"You're boxed in, Hennesey," he growled, shaking his head to cover his reaction. "The front exit is blocked and you're not getting through me. Not with him."

"That's where you're wrong, cop," Hennesey sneered and gestured for his brother to come out of his hiding place. As the younger Hennesey stepped out of the shadows, the blood staining his arm from the bullet wound in his shoulder was easy to see. Gavin's face went red with livid rage and he reacted in the blink of an eye. Screaming a curse, he swung his gun toward Jim and fired. The Sentinel leaped to his right, but not in time to avoid the bullet. The round caught him in the chest, the impact knocking him backward. His Guide's scream of denial was lost amidst the shattering sounds of breaking glass.

"NO! JIM!"

The breathless, horrified shout was wrenched out of Blair as he watched his partner crash backward into one of the display cases. Glass shattered and rained down on the fallen Sentinel in deadly, glittering shards.

His instinctive forward lunge was countered by a sudden painful pressure against his windpipe that nearly choked him. Vision spinning, head pounding, he tore at his captor's arm, and dug his elbows into the man's ribs, struggling to get free—to get to his downed partner's side. Hennesey jerked upward with his left arm. The move forced Blair's chin up and almost lifted him off the floor. The black spots that had been dancing before the anthropologist's eyes merged into one flat, black sheet of night. The next thing he knew, he was on the opposite end of the larger exhibit room, being manhandled into the main museum corridors.

Where Simon was waiting, flanked by the SWAT team.

Banks took one look at the hostage in Hennesey's grasp and groaned. Frantically he waved to the SWAT commanders to hold their men's fire. Before Simon could issue any further orders or even attempt any kind of negotiation, both Hennesey and one of the men with him started shooting, sending them all diving for whatever cover they could find.

When Banks looked out from behind a bullet-ridden pillar, he caught sight of the three thieves fleeing down a side corridor, with Sandburg still in tow. Before he could marshal his men, he saw Ellison come running from the exhibit hall. The front of the detective's Kevlar vest bore the evidence of the round that he had taken and his face was bleeding from a number of cuts, but the Sentinel didn't miss a step when he abruptly changed directions and tore off in pursuit of his Guide.

Barking commands, Simon sent men to deal with whatever cleanup Ellison had left behind. Sending other teams to cover the rest of the exits, he gathered another group and followed his best detective.

The Sentinel was on the hunt, and so was the panther. He was vaguely aware of the sleek form flickering in and out of the shadows as he tracked his Guide into the depths of the darkened museum, and he welcomed his Spirit Guide's fierce presence. If Jim Ellison had been a man given to flights of imagination and fancy, he would have sworn that other creatures paced him as well. The eerie whispers of sounds he'd heard back in the smaller chamber teased at the edge of his hearing range—the buzz of a dragonfly, the scrabbling of a lizard's claws, and the roar of a bullfrog. At the edge of his peripheral vision a butterfly drifted along side a leaping grasshopper, accompanied by an army of marching ants.

But it was the panther he accepted easily, the jungle cat's rage matching his own. Jim slowed his pace as he approached an intersecting corridor. Stealthily, he crept closer, his senses scanning ahead for any sign of his Guide or the men who had taken him. The voices of the ghost-like beasts and insects rose to a fever-pitch once more and he winced, staggered by the vehemence in their cries. In a tidal wave of screaming vengeance, they crashed over him and left him behind.

Shaking his head, Jim swore he heard the panther cry once more, and then there was silence—broken only by the sound of his Guide's beating heart. Ignoring the pounding in his skull as his headache clamored for attention, the Sentinel moved quietly forward, following the path of the one bright spirit he was certain existed.

Saving his strength for a moment when his struggles might actually do some good, Blair staggered along in Hennesey's hold as the thief fled further into the recesses of the museum. The anthropologist knew they'd turned into a dead end—he was as familiar with the twists and turns of the museum's corridors as he was with the mind-boggling stacks of Rainier's libraries—but he didn't have the breath to waste on a warning, even if he'd wanted to give one.

Hennesey realized his mistake quickly and turned to retrace their steps. A whisper of sound ahead of them, halted the thief in his tracks.

"Did you hear that?" he demanded, turning to Matthews and his brother.

"Hear what?" Matthews asked.

"That noise... it sounded like..." Hennesey broke off, uncertain.

"Like what?" Ben questioned. "I didn't hear anything."

The anthropologist felt Hennesey's body stiffen as a cold draft gusted across their faces. Blair's eyes sought the source of the strange breeze that carried a hint of rainforest scent and a faint, scrabblng noise.

"There it is again!" Hennesey confirmed, his grip around Blair's neck tightening once more. "It sounds like some kind of animal —"

The Guide's eyes widened even further and glittered with grateful tears. Not just any animal... a panther... Jim!

"Gavin, please, stop joking around and get us out of here!" Ben whined, clutching at his shoulder. "I'm gonna bleed to death if you don't get me to a doctor soon."

"Shut up!" Hennesey snarled. He nodded toward a closed set of double doors on the right side of the hallway. "We'll hide in there until whatever's on our trail goes past."

Matthews hurried to the doors and opened them. As they swung inward, Hennesey prodded Blair forward into the dark room. Matthews quickly shut the heavy wooden panels and turned the locks. Only one emergency light illuminated the huge space, the yellowish light reflecting off glass cases and making fearful, shadowy monsters out of the innocuous statues and relics.

Ben cursed as he stumbled over a low standing display just a few feet inside the doors and tumbled to the hardwood floor. Despite the situation, Blair had to stifle a laugh—falling over something in the dark was usually his run of luck.

The humor was lost on the elder Hennesey. He abruptly dropped his left arm and spun Blair around, grabbing him by the shirtfront with both hands.

"You think my brother being hurt is funny, punk?" Hennesey's whisper was drenched in rage. "That cop shot him. The cop you knew."

Hennesey roughly pulled Blair forward. The anthropologist instinctively tried to shrink back, but the enraged thief held him fast, their faces so close that Blair could feel the man's words beating like blows against his face.

"You warned them, didn't you?" Hennesey hissed. "Somehow you managed to let them know what was going down. You screwed up a perfectly planned score, you little freak! This job was going to bring me a fortune. Looks like I'm going to have to be satisfied with whatever I can take out of your scrawny hide!"

Hennesey punctuated his threat by shoving Blair backward. The anthropologist backpedaled, arms windmilling as he tried to regain his balance. He came up hard against one of the displays, smacking the back of his head against a flat surface that was cold and definitely unyielding. Dimly, he felt the muscles across his back scream in protest as his lungs emptied of air. Jarred senseless, his knees gave out and he slid to the cold floor. He'd barely registered on his change of position from upright to seated when Hennesey's gun crashed into the left side of his head.

Blair toppled over, sprawling on his right side. The world spun and refused to right itself, although he managed—he thought—to remain conscious.

That assumption was tested as the room suddenly seemed to come alive around them. His head was too heavy and filled with shooting pains to raise, but Blair was sure that his eyes were open...

... certain that he saw a wolf shape itself out of the shadows and leap for Matthews' throat...

... positive he heard Ben screaming in panic that he was being attacked by an army of insects...

... convinced beyond a doubt that a black panther leaped from the now open doors and flattened Hennesey to the floor...

... confident that it was a leggy preying mantis that sat patiently near his outstretched right hand, its jeweled eyes oddly reassuring, speaking to him in a language that, surprisingly, he understood...

He closed his eyes and tried not to listen to the screams of the men under attack; the sounds of shattering glass; the snap of breaking bones. He lost himself in the spinning top that the universe had become, not certain whether to hope that this dream was a reality or not...

And found himself when a familiar voice murmured his name.

Or rather, his nickname.

"Chief... come on, buddy... open your eyes."

The Sentinel breathed a sigh of relief when he saw a flicker of movement under his Guide's closed eyelids.

Kneeling next to Blair with one hand resting lightly on the younger man's left shoulder, Jim spared a quick glance at Hennesey's still form, making sure that the thief hadn't moved. Not that it was likely. Ever. The Sentinel hadn't meant to kill. When he'd burst through the doors and seen Hennesey bending over his Guide with a gun, he'd lunged forward, intending to knock the man aside. His momentum had carried both men into the display that Blair lay next to. There had been a sickening crunch of bone when Hennesey's head had struck the stone base. Jim had heard the last breath leave the thief's lungs as he scrambled off his back. Tight-lipped with regret, he turned his attention back to his partner, whose eyes were still shut.

"Let's not get stubborn here, Sandburg... cooperate. Open your eyes or I'll open them for you..."

The softly growled threat had the intended effect. Blair's eyes fluttered, then opened. Jim got a quick view of two dark blue irises before they closed again.

"... you're... a fine one... to talk... about being... stubborn..." the grad student whispered. "... think about... the last time... I tried... to get you... into the lab..."

"I'll tell you what, buddy," Jim said softly, his face creasing in a warm smile. He rubbed Blair's shoulder in gentle encouragement. "You give me another glimpse of those baby blues of yours and I'll sign up for whatever tests you want to run."

This time there was no flutter when Blair's eyelids lifted.

"... can I get that... in writing?"

Jim's eyebrows raised in mock dismay.

"What? You don't trust me, Chief?"

"... only... as far... as I can... throw you..." Blair responded, one corner of his mouth lifting slightly. "... and right now... that's kind of... beyond me... I think..."

"We'll save the display of physical prowess for later, then," Jim assured him.

"... good..." Blair started to take a deep breath and abruptly stiffened, expelling the air in a pain filled gasp.

"Easy, buddy," Jim cautioned, all traces of levity gone from his tone. "Let me check you out." A quick sensory scan coupled with the brush of sentinel-sensitive fingers along the trembling frame assured him that nothing was broken, although the rising lump on the back of Blair's head and the matching one on the left side near his temple had Jim concerned. "You think you're ready to sit up?" he asked softly.

At Blair's grunt of agreement, Jim helped him upright, settling him with his back against the base of the display. The anthropologist dragged his knees up toward his chest, groaned and pressed his arms against his rib cage.

"Stay with me, Chief," Jim murmured. He gently straightened one of Blair's legs to ease the strain on the abused muscles.

Blair tilted his head back and winced when he made contact with the stone base. His head dropped forward again and he gasped at the abrupt movement. Jim reached forward and placed his hands on the sides of the younger man's neck, lending his physical support.

"Easy... you okay? Do you want to lay back down?" Jim asked anxiously.

"... No... just need... a minute..." Blair whispered. His eyes were screwed tightly shut and his face was contorted in pain.

As the anthropologist struggled to get his breathing under control, the Sentinel caught the sound of running footsteps in the outer corridor. He heard a familiar voice shouting his name.


"In here, Simon," the detective called out, his gaze never leaving his partner's face.

Seconds later, Banks and a half-dozen other cops poured through the broken doors, guns raised. Simon snapped off a string of orders. The SWAT personnel hastened to take charge of the three downed thieves, while the captain hurried across the darkened room to the Sentinel's side.

"And let's get some lights on in here," Simon barked as he crouched down next to Ellison, eyeing the battered observer. "How is he?"

Before Jim could answer, the overhead lights flared to life. The Sentinel winced and blinked several times, but kept his grip on his Guide steady.

"... He... would appreciate it... if you would stop... shouting..." Blair muttered. The younger man's eyes opened slowly, growing wide with concern as he stared at his partner.

The Guide reached out a trembling hand and touched the blood trails on his Sentinel's cheek lightly. "You're hurt..."

"I got a little nicked. Nothing to worry about... I've cut myself worse shaving," Jim quipped. He eyed the scrapes and rapidly purpling bruises on Blair's face and felt a surge of anger at the savage treatment his friend had endured.

Blair's hand dropped down to Jim's chest, hovering over the hole that Hennesey's bullet had torn in the Kevlar vest. His pain-clouded eyes met Jim's. "... I thought —"

"I'm all right, Blair," the Sentinel assured his worried Guide.

"You both look like hell." The concern in Simon's eyes belied the gruffness of his tone. "The paramedics are on their way in."

"Better call the coroner, too, Simon," Jim said quietly, finally releasing his hold on his partner and sitting back on his heels. "These three are dead. I'm not sure about the two back in the exhibit hall, or the guy that headed off to the classroom." He scrubbed his face wearily.

"There's already a team in there," Banks assured him. "I don't think we have to worry about any of them going anywhere soon."

Both men missed the stunned expression that flooded Blair's face. The anthropologist sat up straighter and stared at Hennesey in shock. The man's dark eyes were wide open and staring sightlessly, his head turned at an odd, unnatural angle. Shuddering, Blair raised his gaze to where the other cops were clustered around two more motionless bodies. The sound of the men's screams and the images of the animals that he'd thought he'd seen in the dark flashed through his mind. The Guide's confused and horrified eyes sought his Sentinel's.

"Oh, man... Was it real? Did you see them?"

Jim's forehead furrowed as he frowned. "See who, Chief?"

"The animals... there... there was a wolf... and a panther... and the one guy was screaming about insects..." Blair stammered. "The panther jumped on Hennesey... I saw it..."

"A panther?" Simon asked skeptically.

The Sentinel's breath caught in his throat. The screams of the creatures he thought he'd heard echoed in his mind. Surely that wasn't real... it couldn't have been. He shook his head, his frown deepening. "I took Hennesey down, Chief."

"You did?" The confusion in the dark blue eyes grew. "But... the panther... I was sure..."

Jim reached forward and lightly pushed back the hair near the wound on the side of Blair's head, to examine it. "It was me, Chief. The other two were already down by the time I tackled Hennesey. The one who was wounded must have bled to death—it looks like he was thrashing around a lot. The other one... well, he must have fallen into one of the display cases in the dark and slit his own throat on the broken shards."

Shivering at the description of the men's deaths that eerily matched the visions that he'd seen, Blair started to open his mouth to press the issue. An urgent shout from the doorway cut him off.

"Captain Banks?"

"Here," Simon responded, rising to his feet.

The officer hurried toward them. "We've got a small problem with one of the children."

The blood drained from Blair's face. "Oh, man... the kids... Freddy... Is he all right?" he demanded anxiously.

The officer glanced at the small notebook in his hand. "I've got seven safely accounted for, plus the other teacher, but there's a little boy in the classroom —"

"That's Ryan," Blair answered quickly.

"What's the problem?" Simon asked, frowning.

"He says he's fine, but he's hiding inside the speaker's podium. He says he won't come out until his Shaman says it's safe." The cop's baffled expression was obvious. "Who the hell is that?"

Blair cleared his throat self-consciously. "Umm... I guess that would be me." He glanced at Jim, who was trying to contain a grin. "I'd better... go talk to him." The anthropologist started to get to his feet, but Ellison stopped him.

"You stay put until the paramedics check you out," Jim growled, all traces of amusement gone from his grim face.

"But Ryan needs —"

Jim cut him off with a glare and then turned to the officer. "Is there someone with the boy now?" The cop nodded. "Have them give Ryan a radio and give me yours," Ellison ordered. The man quickly made the arrangements and handed the unit to Jim, who turned it over to Blair.

The younger man smiled and lifted it to his ear. "Hey, Ryan, it's Blair..."

By the time the grad student had convinced the 'turtle' it was safe to leave his protective shell, the paramedics had arrived. Blair frowned when he saw the wheeled gurney.

"I don't need that," he grumbled as he handed the radio back to Jim.

"Maybe not," the detective countered quietly. "But let's let the experts make that decision, okay?" He still didn't like the look in his partner's eyes, or the exaggerated slow movements Blair was making to avoid the pain he was obviously feeling.

"Jim, I want to see the kids and Amanda before we leave. I don't want them to see me flat on my back and tied down on some stretcher," Blair argued. Seeing the adamant expression on his partner's face, he reached out to grip Ellison's shirt sleeve. "If you want me to go to the hospital, I will, Jim. But they've been through enough. I don't want... I don't want them to worry about me..."

Jim patted him softly on the arm. "I understand. Let's at least get you cleaned up a bit first. You look a little worse for wear."

"I can tell you haven't looked in a mirror in the last hour or so, Jim," Simon remarked dryly, waving the paramedics over. "You could use some repair work yourself." Banks bent down and placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Good work, today, Sandburg."

Blair stared up at the captain in surprise. "Thanks, Si— um, Captain."

Simon grinned at the normally articulate grad student's stammer and then scowled at both Sentinel and Guide. "I want a full report from each of you on my desk... Monday morning."

"Yes, sir," Jim responded, fighting back a grin of his own.

Twenty minutes later, with his Guide tucked close to his side, the Sentinel pushed open the front doors of the museum and stepped out into the bright sunshine. Loud shrieks from the bottom of the stairs preceded the rush of eight children up the steps. Jim tightened his grip on his partner just in time to keep him from being bowled over by his enthusiastic students.

"Easy, kids," the detective admonished them gently. "Let's let Blair sit down, all right?"

The children backed off just enough to allow Jim to ease the younger man down on the top step. As soon as he was settled, Marisa wrapped her arms around Blair's neck and planted a soft kiss on his scraped and bruised cheek. Blair reciprocated by kissing the top of her head, and drew the other children into his embrace.

The children included the Sentinel in their ebullient greeting as well, whispering 'thank you's' as they gave him a quick hug. He smiled and hugged them back, all the while keeping a close eye on his partner. Jim could see the effort the younger man was making to hide his discomfort from his students, but he also saw the joy and relief in Blair's eyes.

Glancing down the stairs, he saw Henri escorting Amanda toward them. When they reached the top step, the young woman wrapped her arms around Ellison and pressed her cheek to his chest.

"You did good, kiddo," he murmured, holding her close.

She raised her head and smiled, then glanced toward Blair. "He did good," she whispered. "And so did you. Thank you." Jim smiled down at her. The excited chatter of the children drew his attention back to his partner.

"What happened to your head?"

"Were you scared?"

"Who were those guys?"

"Did they come?"

"Did you see them?"

"Did it work?"

"Did Detective Jim save you?"

Blair grinned at the onslaught of questions. "Whoa, one at a time!" he pleaded. He turned to the tiny, blonde bundle who had squirmed her way onto his lap. "Did what work, Marisa?"

"We sent our spirit animals to help you," Jenny answered before Marisa could open her mouth. "Did they? Did you see them?"

Stunned, Blair found himself momentarily speechless. He searched Kim's calm face and saw a sparkle in her dark eyes. He glanced up toward his partner and found an unreadable expression on the Sentinel's face.

"Well, did it work or not?" Freddy asked gruffly.

Blair turned his head to study the boy. The familiar, challenging expression was back. He glanced around the circle of children who were staring at him hopefully. Uncertain of what to say, unclear as to what had really transpired, he looked up at Jim once more. The Sentinel met his probing gaze evenly and then abruptly nodded. The Guide's eyes widened and he swallowed hard.

Jim and I are going to have a long talk about this later, he vowed silently.

The grad student looked back at Freddy and nodded.

"No bullshit?" the boy demanded softly.

Blair shook his head. A chorus of amazed and delighted sighs and oohhs, floated on the morning breeze. Freddy raised one eyebrow, but he appeared intrigued, not suspicious or disdainful.

"What about our spirit rattles? Can we have them back?" piped up Talan.

"I'll make sure they're all returned to Blair," Jim answered quickly. "He can give them to you at next week's session."

"Will you finish the story then, Teach?" Ryan asked.

"Yes," Claire interjected. "We never did hear the end."

"Can't you finish it now, Blair?" Marisa pleaded.

"Blair's pretty tired, kids," the detective reminded them.

"Actually, there's not much more to tell, Jim," Blair said softly, looking up.

The worried Sentinel frowned, but he was unable to ignore the pleading look in his Guide's eyes.

"Keep it short, Chief," Jim finally answered. "You and I have an appointment to keep."

Blair rolled his eyes at the cryptic reminder that the hospital was his next scheduled stop. The paramedics had mentioned the distinct possibility of a concussion and Jim had dragged another promise to head to the emergency room as soon as they finished with the children, out of his reluctant partner.

Amanda left Jim's side and sat down on the steps next to the kids. They all fell silent as Blair began to speak.

"All of Berran's children made it safely out of the sanctuary. Taela took charge and ushered them away from the cliff sanctuary, keeping them out of harm's way until the tribe's warriors arrived," the anthropologist explained. "That left Berran alone to deal with the thieves..."

The young Shaman was frightened, but determined. He called upon his own guardian and the other spirits, enlisting their aid to guard the sacred relics. To his joy and relief, they answered his summons and attacked the invaders. Terrified, the raiders fled the sanctuary. The spirits followed, driving them over the cliff edge to their deaths. The leader of the raiders was not so easily frightened, however. He forced his way past the ghostly defenders and confronted Berran...

Blair turned his head and met Jim's gaze, his voice dropping to a bare whisper.

And though he felt great fear, the young Shaman also knew great peace. Even as the raider towered over him, promising death, Berran heard the battle cries of the warriors and knew that his Sentinel was near. The Guide met the raider's eyes calmly, knowing that if salvation was possible, his Sentinel would provide it.

Jim nodded and moved to kneel behind his friend, his hand closing gently around his partner's right shoulder. Thankfully, Blair leaned back into the strength that he knew was always there for him to rely on, and glanced around the circle of spellbound faces once more.

And, just as he always did, whenever his Guide's need was great, the Sentinel magically appeared. He slew the raider before Berran came to any great harm. Together, they gathered up the children and Taela, and with the warriors, returned to the village. There was much rejoicing at their safe return and at the news that the raiders had been vanquished, but none felt as great a joy as the young Shaman. He had kept the children from harm and he had delayed the raiders long enough to guarantee that the tribe's treasures would not be destroyed. That night he sent a special prayer to the spirits, pledging them his own life in return for the lives that they had helped save.

There was a moment when no one spoke, and then Marisa's soft voice broke the silence. "Berran was very brave. I bet his Sentinel and the rest of the tribe was really proud of him."

"Yeah," Freddy added. "He was a hero. Very cool."

Jim gently squeezed his partner's shoulder and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "Just like you, Blair."

~ End ~

Author's Additional Notes: Background information for this story came from a variety of sources, including:

E-Mail K. Ryn at kdkm@aol.com
Return to K. Ryn's Tales of the Sentinel

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Page last updated 8/15/03.