Disclaimer: The usual onesI don't own the characters, I made no money from this and don't plan to. I did get the satisfaction of making good on my New Year's resolution only a few days into '98, so I figure I can coast now from herethat's personal gratification and not monetary folks! <g>
Despite the title, this IS NOT A DEATH STORYI'm not sure I'm capable of writing one of those. So don't let the name scare you off. This was my first attempt at Sentinel fan fiction. Begun after I'd seen only a few episodes from the second season, the story was shelved for months. As a part of my New Year's resolution to finish something that I'd started in '97 before beginning anything new in '98, I pulled this one out of the files.
It needed some major rewriting and updating, but the story remains pretty much intact to what it was when it started out. There is some violence, some angst, and of course, some smarm. It's not my most inventive work, but I hope you enjoy itit's a pretty fast read. There are a few additional notes at the end that explain a couple of other points. I've placed them there in order to keep the story tone intact and not ruin the surprises. If you're one of those people who read the last pages of a mystery first, then be my guest.
All mistakes are mine and feedback is always welcome!
Jim Ellison flung open the doors to the ruined apartment building, his mood as black as the charred wood that still smoldered inside. A few seconds later, Blair Sandburg emerged, trailing in his partner's wake.
"Spontaneously combusting lighters, lethal steak knives, exploding gas stoves... You know, Jim, this is wild."
"I'm not sure that's the word I'd use," Jim growled. He glanced back over his shoulder as he led the way to where he'd parked the truck and Blair flinched at the animosity in his friend's expression. "Unless by wild you mean out of control."
"Okay, maybe weird is a better choice," Blair admitted. "I mean just think about it. Three incidents, in three days, happening to three people we know. If that doesn't stretch that laws of cosmic coincidence, I don't know what does."
"It doesn't stretch anything if it's not coincidence," Jim said grimly.
His comment stopped Blair in his tracks. He stared at the Sentinel, considering the older man's words, then shook his head. "Makes more sense to blame it on the full moon, man. This stuff can not be connected."
Jim stopped and turned, his foot on the curb. He glanced back toward the building where his friend Carl Jorgenson had lived and shook his head, frowning.
"But how?" Blair asked. "Simon's lighter suddenly explodes burning his hands, Cassie is attacked by a guy with a serrated steak knife when she leaves the station, and Jorgenson's gas stove develops a sudden leak starting a flash fire that he barely escapes. What ties them all together?"
"I don't know," Jim answered softly, the frown shifting to an expression of puzzlement. "There's something... something about each one that's familiar. Something I know I should recognize."
"Well, Carl's lucky you were here. He never would have made it out of there without help." Blair had only met Jorgenson a few times, but he knew from Jim's comments that the man had been a respected cop before an arrest had gone bad and a bullet in his spine had ended his career. He shivered, envisioning the handicapped man trying to get his wheelchair out of the building as flames roared around him.
"Maybe that's the connection," Jim muttered.
"I know all three of them and I was there just as each incident happened."
"Now that's got to be a coincidence," Blair objected.
Jim's voice faded off and he stared at the apartment building again. Blair could feel the tension smoldering in his partner. He eyed the older man anxiously, wondering what was going through the Sentinel's mind, watching for the warning signs of a zone-out. Dealing with the fallout from the last three days had been hard enough. Now it sounded like he was taking it personally, even blaming himself for the bizarre events. Blair breathed a sigh of relief when the older man finally moved.
"Let's get back to the station," Jim said, stepping off the curb and heading across the street. "There are some things I want to check out."
Blair nodded and followed, jogging a few steps to catch up. As he approached the truck, he caught an odd reflection on the passenger-side door and slowed, studying it distractedly. It was vaguely familiar, he realized and distinctly out of place. He glanced down at the pavement and saw the source of the image.
"Talk about weird..."
"What was that?" he heard Jim call out from the other side of the truck.
"Weird... this has got to top it," Blair answered absently, now intent on following the trail of crudely drawn characters toward the middle of the street.
"Chief, what are you talking about?" Jim asked, easing into the driver's seat.
"This graffiti," Blair called back, crouching down and staring at the writing on the pavement. "I'd swear it's Peruvian... it almost looks like Hibani script. I mean, it can't be... but I'd swear it is."
Jim's senses tingled with a forewarning of danger at Blair's words. Danger from where? He shifted in the seat, catching a glimpse of his partner's crouched form in the truck's side mirror.
Unaware of Jim's anxiety, Blair's attention remained focused on the concrete. He put his finger to one of the symbols and traced it, fixing it in his mind to check later. When he pulled his hand away he rubbed his finger to his thumb. "This is still wet. Someone painted this not very long ago. Truly weird. Just like everything else that's been happening."
Jim's premonition of danger crystallized as he caught a flicker of movement in the mirrora car had appeared out of nowhere and it was headed directly toward Blair.
"Sandburg, MOVE!" Jim called out, already vaulting out of the driver's door.
Rounding the front end of the truck, he saw Blair's head lift in startled surprise. Jim was moving as fast as he could, but his mind screamed the reality that he'd never get to the younger man in time, that the car was moving too fast. He watched Blair lurch to his feet and turn toward him, the awkward movement throwing the anthropologist slightly off balance. Jim's breath caught as his friend stumbled and dropped to one knee. At the last minute the vehicle swerved and Blair managed a desperate lunge before the car clipped him. The force of the impact sent him flying across the pavement and he crashed heavily into the side of the truck, crumpling to the ground.
Jim was at his side almost as he landed, the Sentinel's eyes flickering once to the car as it sped away, hoping to get a license number. He strained his sight to the limit, but there was no tag to see, no identifying marks other than the make and model of the vehicle.
A groan brought his attention back to Blair.
"Easy..." Jim gripped the younger man's shoulder firmly, trying to keep him from moving, but Blair moaned and pulled away, as if he was still trying to get out of the path of the oncoming car. "Chief, it's over..." Jim said soothingly. "Do you hear me? The car's gone."
Blair stopped resisting as Jim's words finally sank in. "What... happened? Where'd it come from?"
"I don't know, buddy. Take it easy. Just breathe."
Blair started to comply with the order and nearly doubled over from the pain. Jim pulled his shirt open, wincing at the sight of the bruises already forming along his friend's left side.
"You're going to be all right," Jim announced, hoping that his voice sounded more confident than he felt. "Relax... try to breathe as shallowly as you can."
"Oh, man... Jim... it hurts..." Blair whispered weakly, his body starting to tremble as the shock set in.
"Stay with me, Chief," Jim ordered, pulling his cell phone from his jacket pocket and punching in 911. "This is Detective Ellison. I need an ambulance at 1040 South Main, now. I've got a hit and run victim who needs immediate medical assistance."
"Ambulance is on the way," the dispatcher replied. "Do you want police backup?"
Jim looked over his shoulder toward where the speeding car had disappeared and his face grew hard.
"Yes. And contact Captain Banks in Major Crimes. He can reach me at this cell number." Jim set down the phone, shirking out of his jacket and placing it over his shivering partner.
"Just hang in there, Chief," he whispered, holding his friend firmly, as if he could will his own strength into Blair's battered body.
Blair stared up at him, eyes wide with pain as he strained to draw enough breath to speak. "... Jim..."
"Don't talk," Jim ordered, waving him off. "Breathe... stay with me, now... help's on the way."
Two squad cars arrived just as the ambulance did. Jim stayed at Blair's side until one of the EMTs gently shouldered him out of the way. He backed off, watching anxiously as they worked to stabilize his injured partner.
One of the uniformed cops approached and Jim gave a terse description of both the car and what had happened, his eyes never leaving Blair's face. Finally, one of the med-techs rose to his feet, drawing Jim to his side with a gesture.
"He's lucky," the technician reported. "His vitals are stable and there's no sign of internal bleeding. We're ready to move him now. I assume you want to ride along?"
Jim nodded and turned to the officer he'd been talking to earlier. He outlined what he wanted done with the scene and reminded them to call in forensics. Satisfied that things would be covered, he climbed into the ambulance just as they finished loading Blair's stretcher.
As he found a place to sit in the cramped space, he took a good look at his partner. Even with his training, he felt a momentary flicker of doubt and found himself wondering if the EMT had known what he was talking about. Blair lay strapped to a backboard, a restraining collar wrapped around his neck, an oxygen mask covering most of his face.
Jim's concern must have been evident to the tech who was monitoring the anthropologist.
"He's actually in pretty good shape," the man assured him. "Most of this is just for show."
Jim nodded, studying the younger man's face intently. As if in response, Blair's eyes flickered open, the dull blue gaze locking with his immediately. Blair seemed about to speak until a spasm of pain washed across his face and he groaned, closing his eyes again.
"He's going to drift in and out for a while. That's a normal response to the trauma. Once he's been assessed, they'll give him something to take the edge off the pain."
Jim acknowledged the EMT's words of explanation with another nod. He reached forward, wrapping his fingers around Blair's wrist, extending his senses to monitor his partner himself. The slow, but even pulse under his fingertips and the steady sound of his Guide's breathing did more to reassure him than all of the medic's words. He took a deep breath and resigned himself to waiting, not taking his eyes off of his friend the entire ride.
Simon strode into the waiting room and immediately made his way to Jim's side. "How's he doing?"
"The tech on the scene thought that the injuries were minor," Jim responded, his gaze shifting anxiously toward the closed doors of the ER trauma room. "But they've been in there a long time."
Simon nodded and eyed Jim carefully.
Jim looked up at Simon in surprise. "Me? I'm fine, sir."
"Good," said Simon tersely. "I've already gotten the reports from scene. Suppose you give me your version."
In quiet, controlled tones, Jim filled him in on what had happened.
When he was finished, Simon shook his head, muttering something under his breath about Blair's ability to attract trouble, then dropped an envelope of photos into Jim's hands. "Forensics shot these. This is what Sandburg was looking at when he was hit?"
Jim nodded, his eyes scanning the photos, the tingling premonition of danger he'd felt earlier coursing through him again.
"Sandburg was right, these look like Peruvian script symbols," Jim murmured.
"Peruvian?" Simon said in confusion. "What do they mean?"
"I'm not sure... I never did get very far with the written languages... They're familiar though..."
Jim looked up and saw a doctor standing just outside the closing door of the exam room. He rose to his feet and crossed over to the man, shaking the extended hand.
"I'm Dr. Harrison. I'm the attending on your partner..." he paused, glancing down at his chart for a moment.
"Sandburg," Jim prompted. "Blair Sandburg."
"Yes. Well, we've finished with him. He's got several minor fractures of the left ribs, but there's no sign of internal injuries. Neural scans came back clean as well. I'll write a prescription for a mild pain killer that he can take for the next 24 hours. After that all he should need is some aspirin."
Jim and Simon exchanged a quick smile of relief as the doctor continued.
"He's going to need to take it easy for a few days. I'd like to keep him overnight for observation. After that I'm assuming that you can keep an eye on him?"
"If anyone can," Jim nodded, smiling.
"They're going to move him upstairs in a few minutes, but you can go in and see him now."
"Thank you, doctor," Jim said earnestly, shaking the doctor's hand.
"I'm the one who should be thanking you, detective. From what I heard, your quick actions kept him from worse injury. He's lucky you were there."
Jim's eyes widened in shock. The doctor was already walking away, unaware of the affect of his words, but Simon saw the strange look on his face and grabbed his arm.
"Jim, what is it?"
"I was there... Just like the others..."
"What are you talking about?"
"This was no accident," Jim said grimly. "None of them were. They're tied togetheryour lighter exploding, Cassie's assault, the gas fire, and now this attack on Blair. Someone's targeting people close to me."
"That's a stretch Jim," Simon cautioned. "There's no real proof to suggest it."
"There's this." Jim shook the package of photos. "Look at the trail of symbols. It stretches from my truck to the middle of the street. From the passenger side of the truck. Someone wanted Sandburg out in the open where he'd be an easy target. Somebody who was close enough to see me get into the driver's seat before he made his move. And they knew him well enough to use something so unusual that it would stop him in his tracks. Simon, he'd be dead right now if that car hadn't swerved at the last minute."
"Let me get this straight. You think somebody planted this graffiti to take a shot at Sandburg, but that he's not the real target? Then who is? What's this all about?"
"I don't know... but I'm tied into it somehow," Jim answered. "I'll meet you back at the station later. Right now, I want to check on Blair. If he's staying overnight I'll probably have to go back to the loft and get his black book. If I know him, he'll probably have half the nurses on the floor jumping to get a date with him," he finished with a smile.
"I'll arrange for a guard on his room, just to be safe. And Jim, we're not finished with this discussion," Simon warned, giving him a firm look before moving off.
Jim stood outside the exam room doors for a moment, a vague scrap of a memory teasing at the back of his mind. The illusive fragment disappeared as soon as he tried to focus on it. Shaking his head in frustration, he took a deep breath, trying to regain his control before he faced his partner.
Pushing through the doors he caught sight of Blair laying on an exam table, quiet and still, his eyes closed. From the doorway Jim could see the purpling of bruises along the right side of his face, a reminder that Blair had been thrown into the truck as well.
"Next time you decide to take flying lessons, I hope you arrange for a softer spot to land, Chief," he said softly.
Blair's eyes flickered open and he slowly shifted his head to look in Jim's direction. "I'll remember that," he whispered.
Jim crossed the distance to the younger man's side, extending his senses to assess his Guide's condition. "How are you feeling?"
"Right now... I'm not feeling... much of anything..." Blair answered slowly, his voice thick. "They gave me something..."
"Probably to keep you from chasing after the nurses," Jim said with a straight face, although his eyes were lit with a smile. "They want to keep you overnight for observation, but you can come home tomorrow."
"Sounds like a plan..."
Blair shifted slightly and stifled a groan, drug-hazed blue eyes reflecting his distress. Jim 'heard' his heartbeat quicken in response to the pain and touched his Guide lightly on the shoulder.
"Just take it easy, Chief," Jim warned. "You were lucky. You're going to walk away from this with just a few fractured ribs and some bruises."
Blair's eyes locked with his and Jim hoped that he would read the truth there.
"That's good to know." Blair's eyes closed and Jim knew that the drugs were taking hold by the effort it took the young man to open them again. But open them he did, fixing Jim with his "don't give me any crap, tell me the truth" expression. "Now... what's... the rest of it?... It wasn't an accident... was it? It's connected... somehow... to Simon... and the others..."
"It wasn't an accident," Jim acknowledged quietly.
"And you still think... that this somehow... revolves around you..." Blair whispered, his voice strained.
"What I think is that you need to get some rest," Jim countered, turning slightly to see two aides appear in the doorway.
"You let me worry about it for now. That's what I get paid for," Jim patted his arm, cutting off any further discussion. "Get some rest. They're going to take you upstairs and get you settled in. I'll be back to check on you later."
For a moment Blair looked like he was going to argue, but another stab of pain forced him to lay back and follow Jim's directions.
From the chair across the room, Jim looked up abruptly at a whisper of sound from the bed. Laying down the book he'd been reading, he rose to his feet and moved to Blair's side. For a moment, the younger man lay perfectly still, then his body twitched. An odd, contorted expression flickered across his face and a whispered denial passed his lips.
Guessing that he was reliving the attack in his mind, Jim reached out and gently placed his hand on the anthropologist's shoulder in reassurance.
"No!" gasped Blair, louder this time. His eyes flashed open and his body jerked again.
"Blair..." Jim spoke his friend's name softly, watching as the younger man's eyes widened and filled with recognition that chased away the fear.
"Jim..." Blair stared up at him, his body tense, his eyes searching the older man's face. When he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, he immediately winced in pain. Jim squeezed his shoulder gently as he struggled to regain his control.
"Bad choice," Blair finally muttered, opening his eyes and breathing gingerly. "What time is it?"
"Almost two o'clock."
Blair took a quick look out the window and saw only darkness outside. "Jim... I appreciate it... but you don't have to sit here all night. I know you somehow feel... responsible..."
The Sentinel didn't answer, but his face tightened and Blair caught the brief flicker of guilt in his eyes.
"You do... don't you? You said you thought that all of this was happening because of you..."
"So far I'm the only common denominator we have. I've been doing some digging and I'm sure that someone is targeting people I knowpeople I'm close to. What I don't know yet is who and why."
"Jim, I know we said that it was too much for coincidence, but..."
"Simon and I have a review session every Monday. He always lights up a cigar after we're done," Jim said grimly. "Someone watching me closely would know that."
"Okay... but what about Cassie? You haven't worked a case with her directly in weeks."
"No, but I have been helping her with that forensic evidence assessment for the last month. In fact I was on my way to meet her when the assault happened."
"Well Jorgenson doesn't fit the theory. He's not even on the force anymore."
"But I attended Carl's retirement party just last week. I went over to his apartment because I had a phone message that he wanted to see me. I talked to him. He's upstairs on six, still recuperating. He never called me. Whoever's behind this has been keeping pretty close tabs on me for at least a few weeks. They must know me pretty well by now."
Jim paused and met Blair's gaze.
"They'd know you're working with me on a regular basis."
"And it would be a pretty safe assumption that I'd be with you when you went back to check Carl's place," Blair said softly, his eyes shifting away from Jim's again as his mind replayed the memory of the "accident".
He caught sight of the piles of books that littered the small table near where Jim had been sitting. His eyes widened as he recognized them. It looked like Jim had brought in half of his anthropology research books.
"If you're digging in those, you're going to have a long night ahead of you. I haven't even made it through..." his voice trailed off as other pieces connected in his mind. "The symbols... on the street..." He looked up at Jim in surprise.
"You said you thought they were Hibani."
"Yeah... I know what I said, but..." Blair started to object.
"Chief, someone painted those on the street to get you out into the open." Jim crossed over to the table and pulled the forensics photos from the pile. "You're the expert, you tell me what they are," he said, handing them to Blair.
Blair stared at the pictures for a long time. As his eyes shifted from one to another a confused frown filled his face.
"Can't be," he muttered finally.
"It's a tie to Peru," Jim said softly. "It's another tie to me... to my past... There were myths about the Hibani among the Chopec, but no one would speak of them."
"Doesn't surprise me," Blair commented. "I've read most of those reported myths. I looked into it as part of my thesis work, but there wasn't enough to go on so I dropped it. Found out later it was a good thing I did. We're talking a closed society, Jim. A warrior society."
"It has to track back to Peru. Something I did there, before the crash... someone I knew there..."
"It's been what, eight... nine years? Why wait until now? And why the Hibani? You never had any contact with them. Jim, it doesn't make sense."
"Maybe not," Jim acknowledged. "What if it's just someone who lived with them for a time?"
"No way," Blair answered firmly. "To know this language... there's less than a dozen lines of Hibani script that have even been discovered and translated. If this was the real thing, then it would mean that there's a Hibani warrior here in Cascade." Blair paused for a moment before continuing, his face pale. "When I said it's a closed society, I mean closed. Once you're in you never leave it and the only way to be accepted is to prove your worth through a series of killings. Not strangers, eitherthey usually demand the death of a blood relative or a close friend."
Jim fell silent for a long time and then shook his head.
"I can't help feeling that there's something in this that would give us a clue as to what's going on." He sighed in frustration, staring down at the photos of the odd graffiti. "Any chance you can translate it?"
"I can try.There's nothing in those that's going to help though," he said, nodding to the books Jim had been searching. "I can check through some of my old thesis materials. See what I might have hung onto. If not, I can do some digging at the University."
"You need something, just make a list," Jim said firmly. "I'll get someone to pick it up. Otherwise it sounds sedentary enough."
"Jim, you know I don't like anyone doing my research for me," Blair argued. "Besides you said I'm out of here today."
"With the provision that you take it easy," Jim countered. "Doctor's orders. And mine."
Blair stared up at Jim for a moment, eyeing his friend evenly.
"Jim, what happened... it's not your fault."
The Sentinel stared back, his face unreadable for few moments, then he grabbed his jacket off the chair. "Get some rest..." he ordered softly, moving to the door and closing it behind him after turning off the lights.
Uneasy, Blair lay awake for a long time, staring into the darkness.
Jim awoke at six after a restless few hours of sleep. He went through his morning routine mechanically, his mind already working, pushed by the urgent feeling that whoever was doing this was on a schedule and that with the start of another day, someone else he knew could be in danger.
Precisely at seven the phone rang and Jim reached for it, a slight smile crossing his face.
"It's a fine morning, Jimmy," reported a gravelly voice from the other end.
"Looks like it."
"And do you know where I'm supposed to be this morning?" the voice asked softly, rambling on before Jim could answer. "I'm supposed to be off fishing... tickling the little fishies with my best hand-tied flys. But where am I? Cooling my heels outside of a hospital room. Babysitting. I take it it's you I have to thank for this?"
"I'm afraid so, Dutch," Jim answered. "Sorry to ruin your day off. I needed someone I could trust."
"Ah, and now it's flattery," Dutch Hansen answered. "You're going to owe me for this one, Jimmy."
"Normally I'd say this would make us even. But in this case you're right. You know what's going on?"
"I know someone tried to make a hood decoration out of Sandburg yesterday. And I hear that some nasty things have been happening to some good people that you know," Hansen answered. "You think someone's going to take another shot at the kid?"
"There hasn't been a second attempt on any of the others," Jim replied, uncertain how to put into words the feeling that Blair was still in some kind of danger. "Like you said, this'll probably turn out to be just a simple babysitting job."
"Simple's what I like best. Don't worry Jimmy. I like Sandburg. He's a good kid. Still think he needs a haircut, but I won't hold that against him." Hansen's voice slipped out of the bantering tone and shifted to all business. "He had a quiet night after you left... no visitors. Doc was in to see him a few minutes ago. They're going to spring him about nine. What's the plan from that point?"
"He's got some research to do for me. And he's supposed to be taking it easy. I'll stop by before he's released and try to talk some sense into him. Take him back to the loft and keep him there. Don't let him con you into letting him go to the University either. He wants something, you get on the horn and get someone else to pick it up."
"Jimmy I've had experts try to con me," Hansen chuckled. "You must think I'm getting old, you tellin' me how to do my job."
"I just know him better than you do," Jim replied smiling at the thought of anyone getting around the older cop. "Sandburg can be very persuasive when he wants something. Why do you think I asked for you?"
"He'd run circles around some of those young pups the department's got now," Hansen agreed with another chuckle and then his voice grew serious again. "Don't worry Jimmy, I'll take care of him for you."
Jim heard the soft shuffle of approaching footsteps and looked up across the precariously stacked piles of folders on his desk to see Henry Brown headed his way.
"Cassie just sent up the results on the abandoned car," the detective explained, handing off a slim sheaf of papers.
"She find anything?" Jim asked eagerly, scanning the sheets.
"Nothing. Wiped clean. Sorry Jim."
Ellison acknowledged the sympathetic comment with a terse nod. A black and white had found the hit and run vehicle a few hours after the attack, abandoned in an alley on the city's west side. He knew that Cassie's people had done their usual thorough job, and he wasn't surprised that they hadn't found anything that would lead them to the assailant. Whoever was behind the assaults on his friends was very good. Heor shewouldn't make the simple mistake of leaving evidence behind. Not unless it was something they were supposed to find.
Brown leaned against the corner of Jim's desk, his eyes focused on the empty chair that Blair usually occupied.
"So, how's Sandburg?"
Jim glanced up and saw the genuine concern in the detective's face. "They released him from the hospital this morning. He's back at the loft with enough bruises to keep him down for a while"
Brown raised his eyes to meet Jim's and the Sentinel saw a small smile flicker across the other man's face. "You want to bet on that?"
An answering grin started to form on Jim's face. "Nah. I know a losing hand when I see one. That's why I made other arrangements. Dutch Hansen's keeping an eye on him for me."
A deep chuckle erupted from the detective. "Dutch? Oh, I bet Hair-Boy loved that!"
Recalling the look of consternation on his young partner's face when the Sentinel had announced who was going to be "minding" him for the day, Jim's own smile broadened, gentle humor lighting the light blue eyes, the lines of tension across the furrowed brow relaxing a bit.
"He was overjoyed," Jim responded, not even bothering to try to hide his amusement.
"Yeah, right." Brown stood and glanced back at the empty seat before meeting Jim's gaze. "Tell the kid I was asking about him. And tell him that this doesn't get him out of next week's poker game. I'm still down a bundle from the last time. He promised me a chance to get some of my money back."
"Haven't learned your lesson yet?" Jim laughed. His normally laid-back roommate had turned out to be a surprisingly aggressive and experienced card playermuch to the dismay of the detectives from Major Crimes who had thought he'd be an easy mark.
"Just remind him. Thursday night at my place. And tell him to leave his marked cards at home."
Brown gave Jim a final grin and headed off across the bullpen to his own desk. The smile on the Sentinel's face faded as he placed the forensic report into the case folder, but the warm feeling of gratitude that his co-worker's comments had evoked remained. Brown wasn't the first and he wouldn't be the last of the department's personnel to inquire about his partner's well being. The ugly circumstances aside, it was heartwarming to see the tangible evidence of Blair's acceptance.
Thoughts of his young partner made Jim realize that he hadn't heard from the anthropologist or Hansen for a while. Glancing at his watch, the Sentinel was startled to see that it was almost noon. Frowning, he picked up the telephone, speed dialing the loft. An annoying busy signal pulsed across the line and the lines of worry on the detective's face deepened. He disconnected and tried Blair's cell phone, only to get the message that the number was out of service. He punched in the loft number again, frustrated and becoming more concerned when he got the busy signal once more.
He was about to dial the operator and have them break through when Rafe called across the bullpen.
"Hey, Jim. Pick up line 4."
Nervously, Jim hit the button. His anxiety changed to relieved annoyance when he heard Hansen's voice on the other end.
"I've been trying to reach you," Jim admonished. "What's going on with the phones?"
"Sorry about that, Jimmy." Hansen's tone was ruefully apologetic. "The kid's been downloading files to his computer and I didn't realize that his cell was dead. I found it stuffed in the bottom of his backpack. Hard to believe that a grad student doesn't understand the workings of an on/off switch."
"When he's doing research everything else goes out the windowincluding his instincts for self-preservation. I should have warned you. I assume you 'discussed' that breach of procedure with him?" Despite the seriousness of the situation, Jim was grinning widely. He'd fought this battle with his partner too many times in the past to be surprised by it. Maybe Dutch would have better luck.
"I yelled and he nodded," Hansen growled.
"In one ear and out the other. I understand."
"Yeah. When I realized we were out of touch I got my own cell out of the unit. Don't worry, Jimmy. I'm parked out front and I kept an eye on the place the whole time."
"I trust you, Dutch. That's the reason I asked for you," Jim reassured the older cop. "How's he doing?"
"Moving at about one-quarter light speed," Hansen grumbled. "I don't know how you put up with it. Doesn't the kid ever slow down?"
"I haven't seen it happen yet," Jim responded, shaking his head. "Look, I'll pick up some lunch and stop by to have a talk with him. Something from Jacobsen's deli okay with you?"
"I'd kill for a corned beef on rye."
"Well, don't shoot before you check out the delivery boy," Jim chuckled. "See you in about a half-hour."
Wheeling the truck onto Prospect, Jim reached out to steady the carryout containers, watching the street for a place to park. The empty space in front of his building would have been a lucky find at any other time, but now it set off alarm bells in his head.
Don't worry, Jimmy. I'm parked out front... Hansen's words reverberated in the Sentinel's mind. Jim pulled the truck to the curb and leaped out of it, quickly scanning the area for the black and white before throwing open the doors of the building and dashing inside. Gun in hand, he took the stairs two at a time, casting open his senses and 'feeling' for the presence of his Guide and the older cop.
At the top of the stairs he paused, forcing himself to play things out by the book. His raging emotions made his senses unreliable and he struggled to control the internal dials as his Guide had taught him. His focus improved, but his range felt limited. Okay. Cop mode, then.
Gingerly he pushed open the door and eyed the hallway leading to the apartment. It was empty of life, but a discarded cell phone lay on the carpeted floor. Back to the wall, Jim eased his way down the corridor, his eyes fixed on the freshly scrawled graffiti that marked the entrance to the loft.
Seeing that the apartment door was ajar, the Sentinel swallowed convulsively against the sudden tightness in his throat. Sensitive fingertips resting on the door for a moment, Jim tried to read what he'd find inside, but the thudding of his own heartbeat blocked out any other sounds. Taking a deep breath, he nudged the door open, slipping soundlessly inside, gun raised. He let out a little of the air he was holding in when he realized that nothing seemed amisshe'd expected to find the place trashed as it had been after Lash had broken in. Stepping beyond the kitchen, Jim took a quick look around. There were papers strewn across every surface and open cartons of books littering the living room, but he recognized the chaos as his young partner's research style, not the work of an intruder.
But there was still the symbol painted on the door and no sign of the younger man, or Hansen. Maybe there was trouble and Dutch pulled him out of here... maybe that's why the squad's missing... but why wouldn't he have...
The sound of rustling of paper and the faint strains of tribal music made him wheel toward Blair's room. Facing the double doors he raised his gun...
And immediately released the trigger as his Guide bounced through, eyes closed, head nodding to the sounds coming through the headset of his walkman.
Jim's startled hiss stopped the younger man in his tracks. Blue eyes flew open in surprise and he took an awkward step back, raising his hands in a warding off gesture.
"Hey, man... what's...?"
Jim crossed the distance between them in a single step, grabbing his Guide by the shoulder and pulling him close.
"Oww... Jim, come on..."
Mindful of his Guide's injuries, the Sentinel eased his grip and looked down into the younger man's confused face. "Where's Dutch?" he demanded.
"He's right..." Blair's voice faded off as he glanced into the empty living room. Finding no trace of the older cop, the Observer realized that Jim still held his gun cocked and ready. He looked up ito meet his partner's worried gaze, seeking answers. "He was right here just a few minutes ago. He told me that you were coming. I've been camped out in my room downloading files from the Library's reference computer since we got back... Maybe he stepped outside for some air..."
Jim shook his head. "His squad's gone. And we've had a visitor." Steering the younger man toward the entrance, the Sentinel did a quick check of the hallway again before pulling the door open.
Blair's face paled immediately when he saw he symbol and took a step backward. "God, Jim... I never heard anything... did he... I mean is Dutch...?"
"There's a cell phone on the floor in the hallway. Probably his. My guess is he heard something and went to check it out. He might have even thought it was me delivering lunch."
The Sentinel's jaw clenched and the muscles in his face rippled with the effort it took to control his anger. Not only had his Guide been in danger again, but now a fifth friend was missing.
The shrill ringing of Jim's cell phone startled them both. Eyes locked on his young partner's the Sentinel answered the call.
"Count to four... we're keeping score... see who's knocking at the door..."
The voice had a distorted, mechanical quality to it. The Sentinel stood absolutely still, trying to concentrate on the sound and the words. Jim's focused, blank expression drew Blair to his side, one hand resting gently on the older man's arm.
"That seems to be the question," Jim said quietly.
"Answers were given, promises made... the vengeance of memory never fades..."
A pained expression flickered across Jim's face and he closed his eyes, his head bowing slightly. Blair's grip tightened, recognizing the signs of his Sentinel's distress, guessing from the cryptic way his partner had spoken that the voice on the other end belonged to the person behind the attacksand that Dutch Hansen had indeed become the latest victim.
"You're targeting my friends... Why? What do you want?"
"Hot as fire, cold as ice... now you have to pay the price..."
"You want me... name the time and place." Jim's eyes flashed and his voice was filled with barely controlled anger. Blair shivered at the force of the emotions, but the voice on the other end of the line never faltered.
"And now we're up to number five... surely he must be alive..."
"Where is he? Where's Dutch?"
"Find what you fear in the mirror... the past finds its way to correct the error...
"Damn you. Stop playing games. Tell me where he is!"
"Granting wishes... with the fishes..."
With that, the line went dead. Jim slowly lowered the phone and Blair reached out to take it from his partner's hand. With a concerned glance at his stunned Sentinel, Blair punched in Simon's number.
Ten minutes later they were in the truck, headed to the station. Jim took a corner without hardly braking and Blair gasped involuntarily as shifted in his seat. The vehicle slowed and the Sentinel's hand was on his shoulder immediately. His Guide looked up to see the apology in the older man's eyes.
"I'm okay, Jim," Blair murmured, patting his partner's hand in reassurance. "Just take it easy, okay?"
Jim nodded and returned his hand to the steering wheel, clenching his fingers around it in a white-knuckled grasp. The detective's face was a taut, unreadable mask, but his eyes mirrored anger, frustration and guilt.
"We'll find him, Big Guy. Simon put out an APB, right?"
"For all the good that will do us," Jim snarled, finally giving voice to his emotions.
Blair actually breathed a sigh of relief. Talking was good, snarling he'd take. It was much better than the brooding silence that his partner had maintained since he'd reported the phone conversation to Simon. Blair knew that Jim was blaming himself for what had happened to the older cop, but it wasn't his responsibility alone.
"Jim, I'm sorry. If I hadn't been so wrapped up in trying to figure out what those symbols meant..."
"You'd probably be missing, too." Jim glanced over at his young partner and shook his head. "You've already taken your lumps on this case, Chief. Don't beat yourself up over this. It wasn't your fault."
"I'll buy into that if you will," his Guide responded quietly.
The Sentinel stared out through the windshield for a few moments, then nodded, the tension in his body easing.
"So let's get back into the cop mindset here and start doing some detective work," Blair prompted. "He talked in rhymes, posing riddles. He must be assuming that you can figure them out. What was the last thing he said?"
"Granting wishes... with the fishes..." Jim repeated the words softly. Suddenly his eyes widened and he cranked the wheel viciously to the left.
"Hey!" Blair bit back a groan as the abrupt movement sent a burning pain radiating outward from his cracked ribs.
"Sorry..." Jim mumbled, scrambling to pull out his light and plunk it on the dashboard. "Call Simon. Tell him to get some units down to the breakwater pier."
Blair fumbled in his backpack and then remembered that his own cell phone was deadhe cringed at the memory of the tongue-lashing that Hansen had given him for that and made a silent vow to apologize to the older man as soon as they found him.
"Use mine," Jim said quietly and Blair accepted the telephone with a nod. Within moments he'd made the call and shut the phone down again.
"Today was supposed to be Dutch's day off," Jim explained as he shifted gears and increased their speed. "He was going to go fishing. He always heads down to the breakwater first. If our man knew that..."
"That's where he might have taken him," Blair finished the thought.
The next few minutes were spent in strained silenceJim putting the older truck through its paces as he charged through traffic, Blair gripping the shoulder harness and gritting his teeth against the pain in his side. The truck skidded sideways as Jim pulled it to a screeching stop at the upper level parking area ajacent to the waterfront.
"Stay here!" the detective yelled over his shoulder as he jumped out and charged across the lot.
He paused at the railing that overlooked a second parking lot. Hansen's squad car was parked near the entrance to the boat ramp and Jim could see the older cop slumped over the steering wheel.
"Is... that... him...?" asked Blair breathlessly, holding his side as he joined Jim at the railing.
"It's him," growled the Sentinel. "I'm going down there. Watch for the backup."
"Blair..." the exasperated Sentinel grabbed his Guide and shook him. "Please listen to me for once and stay put. You're too important to me to risk here."
"Okay... just be careful, man," Blair murmured, acquiescing to the older man's demands. "If you're right and this guy's really after you, you're going to be a sitting duck out there in the open."
Jim nodded and gave his partner a light pat on the arm. He jumped the rail and began a rapid descent down the boulder sloped hillside.
Blair gripped the railing with both hands, wishing there was some way that he could help, but he knew that his presence would only distract his partner. Right now, Jim needed to be a cop and that meant that Blair needed to be the observer and stay out of the action.
He saw Jim reach the pavement and start across to the car at the same time he heard the approaching sirens. He turned to look over his shoulder, ready to flag the arriving officers down when the world exploded. The ground under his feet trembled and he swore that he felt the push of the pressure wave as it crested past where he stood.
Horrified, he stared down at the burning remains of the squad, straining for any sign of his partner. Panic gave him the impetus to ignore the pain in his side and he launched himself over the rail, intending to follow the path that Jim had taken.
Less than half-way down, clouds of smoke billowed around him and he had to stop, shielding his tearing eyes.
"JIM!" The scream welled up from deep inside, tearing from his throat, pulling at the muscles surrounding already battered ribs. He didn't care. He opened his mouth to call out again, coughing violently as the smoke filled his lungs.
He stared into the shifting deadly fog, leaning heavily against the rocks. He sent a desperate prayer to whoever was watching over wayward Guides and their overworked Sentinels for just one more miracle.
And he was rewarded with the sight of Jim Ellison, climbing slowly toward him. When the detective was within arm's reach, Blair pulled the older man down beside him. There was a bloody gash over his right eye, and Jim seemed dazed, but otherwise unhurt. Filled with sorrow that the explosion had taken the life of the older cop, Blair hugged his Sentinel to him, grateful that it hadn't taken his best friend as well.
Jim leaned back against one of the squad cars and touched the wound on his temple gingerly. Four of his friends assaulted and now, one dead. He watched grimly as the EMTs loaded a covered stretcher into the ambulance, battling against the confusion in his mind, trying to make sense of it all.
The ringing of his cell phone startled him and he fumbled with it for a moment before answering.
"A fine dance, now nearly done... finished by the light of the next rising sun," chimed the distorted voice.
"You killed him," Jim said angrily. "You killed a harmless old man."
"Nothing misses... not death's kisses."
"I've had enough of this," Jim barked. "You say it's nearly over, then it's time to meet face to face."
"Count with me, it's time to review, go backone, two. Back with me to a time long ago, where time stood so. Where partners closer than wives, were abandoned and lost their lives."
"Just tell me where," Jim demanded, his mind racing to try to decipher the riddle.
"We'll talk again, Jim-bo," the distortion clearing just before the line went dead.
Jim stood motionless in shock for a long moment, the sound of the voice echoing in his memoryseeing a face that should be long dead. Suddenly the words of the riddle rippled through his mind again.
"... time to review, go back one, two... Review what? The attacks? Simon was the first, Cassie the second, Jorgenson the third, Blair the fourth and now Hansen the fifth," he thought quickly. "... go back with me... does he mean to go back and threaten one of them again? One, two... that would be Cassie," he realized.
He scanned the area again and caught sight of the young woman, talking to one of Taggert's officers, a man he recognized. He started to breath a sigh of relief and then froze, realizing that he had misinterpreted the riddle.
"Count backward by two."
Jim stiffened, his eyes searching through the crowd for Blair. He caught sight of his captain, stalking angrily between the clustered cops and emergency personnel that had responded to the fire, but he didn't see his partner. Jim had lost track of the younger man when he'd gone off to find one of the EMTs, grumbling that "It's a good thing you have a thick skull, Ellison. Sentinels must be genetically predisposed toward making their Guides crazy. You won't go see them, I'll bring them to you."
"Simon!" he yelled. "Where's Sandburg?"
"I saw him heading for your truck," Simon called back. "Looked like he was feeling a little wobbly."
Jim spun and stared in the direction of his parked vehicle. He focused his vision and caught sight of something hanging from the rear-view mirror. He bolted toward the truck, leaving Simon to stare after him in confusion.
Skidding to a stop, Jim was already sure what he would find. There was no sign of Blair, but the passenger door was wide open and a crumpled styrofoam cup lay on the ground. Slowly, his mind gripped with fear and anger, Jim reached forward and took Blair's reading glasses from the mirror. He spun, earching the area, but even his enhanced hearing and vision brought him no trace of his friend.
Blair awoke in absolute darkness. Groggily blinking his eyes, he experienced a momentary fear that he was blind. Panicked, he tried to raise his head, aware of a coldness under his right cheek, but found his body oddly unresponsive. He tried taking a deep breath and moaned as a shaft of pain shot burned through him. Ironically, the agony seemed to clear his head and he had a flash of memory that made him freeze.
"The truck... the man at the truck..." His spinning thoughts connected the driver of the car that had hit him two days earlier, with the face of the man who had pulled open the door of Jim's truck. He vaguely remembered being led away to another car, and nothing after that. "Drugged... somehow..." He struggled to remember how that might have happened. He'd had a cup of coffee in his hands... and he'd started feeling woozy... the cup... where had that come from? Another flash of memory matched the helpful face of one of the EMTs at the scene with the face of the man at the truck.
A wave of terror swept through him. Whoever the man was, he was behind the attacks. Propelled by his fear, Blair struggled to sit up, realizing abruptly that his wrists were bound with something cold and unyielding. Ignoring the pain in his side, he tried again, intent on getting himself moving and away from wherever he was.
An explosion of agony in his left side flattened him, leaving him doubled up and straining for breath.
"You're not going anywhere, kid," snarled a voice out of the darkness.
"Who... who are you?" Blair managed to ask as he worked to get some control over his reeling mind. He gasped in pain again as he felt a hand clench in his hair, jerking his head backward.
"Your death song," whispered the harsh voice.
Blair gritted his teeth, staring wide-eyed into the darkness, feeling the man's breath on his face. "Come to finish the job you started with the car?" he found himself asking.
He flinched, startled, as his question elicited a barking laugh from his captor. Then he flinched again as the man tightened his hold and jerked backward, nearly lifting him from the floor.
"Smart... a little slow... but smart... just like Ellison," the voice sneered. Blair felt himself shoved forward to land heavily on his side.
"That's what this is about," he whispered, his mind racing. "It is Jim you're after..."
Horror filled himfive of Jim's friends targeted... one of them killed and now he'd been taken hostage. It was a vicious game directed at his partner. But why? Who was this man?
"That's right. And you're going to help bring him here."
The words had barely registered before Blair felt a tug at his wristsa pull that became a stronger force, drawing his arms upward. He tried to shift his weight against it, but felt himself being janked upright. He fought to jerk free, but the handcuffs locked around his wrists bit painfully into the skin and he had no leverage with his feet barely touching the ground.
"I don't know... who you are... or why you're doing this... but you're making a mistake... if you think he's going to risk his life for me..." Blair managed to gasp.
A stinging slap struck him on the left side of the face, whipping his head to the right.
"Don't even try to play that game with me," snarled the voice. "I know Ellison. He's got a code of loyalty toward his partners. He'll come."
"Partner?" Blair almost managed a laugh. "I'm not his partner... I'm not even a cop... I'm just an anthropologist... from the university..."
Another slap stung his face and knocked his head sideways again. Struggling for breath he ran his tongue along his lip gingerly, tasting the blood that was welling there.
"You've made a mistake man... you've taken the wrong hostage," Blair knew that he was pushing the man in a desperate direction that could cost him his life, but he also knew that he had to do what he could to protect his partner. The idea that he would be used to force Jim here, into this madman's hands was something he couldn't live with and it was something that he knew the detective would very easily agree to.
"I guess we'll find out."
Blair was grabbed by his jacket and spun forcefully to the left. His feet scrabbled on the floor as he tried to stop the rotation, but he felt a hard blow to his right leg as something struck just above his knee. He cried out in pain and instinctively jerked his knee upward, which increased his spin. He closed his eyes trying to fight off the dizziness as the dark room whirled around him. He was abruptly pulled to a stop and had just enough time to draw a ragged breath before he was spun in the opposite direction. Again he tried to stop the spin, and once more his efforts were rewarded with a painful blow to his legs. Around and around, back and forth his captor spun him, until finally he let Blair's own momentum carry him to a slightly swinging stop. His mind and body reeling with giddiness, he hung there, fighting to regain some sense of control over his senses. After what seemed like an eternity, his mind began to convince his body that the motion had stopped. He managed to raise his head slightly, staring into the darkness for his tormentor. A brilliant flash of light seared his eyes, blinding him. He winced away in response, crying out when he was struck alongside the head. The force of the blow sent him spinning and his body shuddered in shock. There was a brief moment of blackness and then, as the light flared again, there was another blow.
The pattern continued and Blair's mind and body reeled under the onslaught. Time ceased to have any meaning between the agonizing flare of the light and the brutal blows that fell everywhere without warning.
And then a blow connected with his already fractured ribs. He screamed and tasted blood in his mouth. Panic filled him and he tried to strike out with his legs, hoping desperately to keep the man out of reach.
He screamed again as the light flashed and a blow struck his left knee, numbing it. Another clout, this one to his head, dazed him, sapping him of strength and the ability to fight back. The blackness swirled around him, and he felt his mind fleeing into it until finally he felt nothing else. The last thing he heard was a gleeful roar of laughter that froze his very soul.
Simon entered his office and closed the door quietly. Behind his desk, Jim sat with a cloth pressed to his head, staring out through the blinds.
"You should be down at the hospital having that checked out," said Simon, breaking the silence.
"It'll be all right," Jim turned to focus his attention on his worried captain. "Any news?"
"The APB's turned up nothing. They even swept the loft and Sandburg's normal haunts down at the University. Unfortunately Cascade's a big city. We're going to need something more to go on."
Simon watched Jim cautiously, but nothing flickered in his set face.
"Reports just came in from forensics," Simon continued. "There was some kind of a sedative in that cup we found. One of the SWAT team remembers Sandburg walking around with a similar cup before he headed over to the truck. That means this guy was there, right under our noses the whole time."
He paused, and this time Jim nodded, but still said nothing.
"Our mystery man left a set of prints behind. On the door. Either he's getting sloppy or he..."
"He wants us to know who he is," Jim interrupted. "He said the game was nearly over. Will be by sunrise tomorrow. That's how much time Sandburg has."
"Brown's running the prints now..."
"Tell him not to bother. He's going to turn up a dead man."
"A dead man?" Simon's eyes narrowed. "You know who he is?"
"I recognized the voice. Andrew Dirkson. I was partnered with him for three years in Covert Ops. Nine years ago he was with me in South America. It was about a year before the mission that stranded me there... We were running two teams. I had one, Dirkson had the other. There was a special op... my group came back, his didn't. We went back in looking twice, but we never found any trace of them."
"So, as far as you knew, he's been dead for the last nine years?"
Jim nodded, his face grim.
"Covert Ops," Simon murmured. "No wonder he's been slipping through our fingers. If he's as good as you..." Simon's voice trailed up as he eyed Jim closely. "Is he as good as you? Can you take him?"
Jim met his gaze for a moment before answering. "I used to have an edge. I'd better still have it, for Sandburg's sake."
"I don't get it," Simon said in confusion. "If this guy was your partner, where's he been all this time? Why's he after you now? And why all this set up, if that's what it's been? Why not just go after you directly?"
"We were partners. We were never friends, but we made a good team," Jim answered softly, his eyes staring out the window again as if seeing into the past. "Then the Ops got trickier. More dangerous and more deadly. Dirkson seemed to change somehow, to thrive on it. He got to where he enjoyed the killing."
Jim shook himself slightly and looked back into Simon's eyes.
"I guess you could say we had a falling out. A difference of opinion on how things were supposed to happen. By the last mission we were barely speaking to one another, except on duty. Even then..." Jim's voice trailed off for a moment before he continued. "Dirkson's part of the mission was supposed to be support. He didn't like the fall-back position. He suggested another course, but I had the command and voted him down. Halfway into the op I found out he'd gone ahead with his own plans anyway. They ran into trouble of some kind. He took five other men to their graves with him. At least that's what we all thought."
Jim sat quietly for a moment and his face grew grimmer.
"I'd guess that he blames me for what happened. Obviously, if he's alive, then they weren't killed on that mission. At least not all of them. But something happened. Maybe they were captured. I don't know. What I do know is that Dirkson loves games. That's what this has been. A game. A game with deadly intent."
"Well, whatever his reasons, we still have to find him. And before sunrise. The question is, how?"
"We won't have to find him, Simon. He'll find me."
"You're that sure?"
"He's made sure that I was present or close by for all the other assaults," Jim murmured, his gaze shifting guiltily to the bandages that still covered Simon's left hand. "His vengeance won't be satisfied unless I'm there when he kills Blair."
Simon looked at him uneasily, shaking his head.
"All right. Contact your buddy at CIA and get a picture down here as soon as possible. We'll add it to the APB on Sandburg. Maybe we'll get lucky. Then I want you to head home, and get cleaned up. Take whatever time you need to get your head on straight about this," Simon ordered softly. "We've got a long day ahead of us."
Jim nodded and headed toward the door.
"And Jim, one more thing," Banks said quietly, stopping the detective with his hand on the doorknob. "When he contacts you, I expect you to contact me." Simon's eyes held Jim's in an unwavering stare.
"I won't do anything to put Blair at risk," Jim answered softly. "Sandburg's put his life on the line for me too many times in the past. He wouldn't even be in this mess if it weren't for his involvement with me."
"I understand that," Simon answered, his gaze still firm. "I want him out of this safely as much as you do. But I don't want you trying to take this guy down by yourself. He calls you, you call me. I want your word on it."
An hour later Jim made his way down to the police impound lot to retrieve his truck. Adjusting the driver's seat, he tried not to let his eyes linger on the empty passenger space. He put the key in the ignition and placed his hands on the steering wheel, jerking them back immediately. What had he felt? Tentatively, he fingered the underside of the wheel again, finding a series of tiny raised bumps. A memory triggeredit was a message and only one man could have left it.
"Go home," he whispered, translating the Braille-like characters. He opened up his senses, extending them to their limits, seeking any other clues. He caught the smells of the chemicals that the forensic team had used when they'd dusted for prints; the smells of Simon's cigars; and finally, the faint scent of Sandburg's leather jacket.
He fingered the message again, and he wondered briefly why forensics had missed it, but then he realized that once they'd found the prints that Dirkson had intentionally left, they wouldn't have looked much further.
No, the message had been left for him alone, in a way that only he would have recognized. And because it had been left in such a manner, it also contained a warning. An admonition that this was between Dirkson and himself. Jim thought briefly about his promise to report any contact to Simon, but he temporized. He'd contact his captain, but not before he knew what was going on. "Go home," he muttered softly, turning the key and starting the truck.
Jim entered the loft cautiously. As he did so, it seemed that he was stepping back in time, into another self that he'd thought he'd left behind in the jungles of Peru. Senses extended, he searched through the apartment, but found nothing. No traps. Nothing but a feeling at the edge of his awareness that someone had been there.
Still uneasy, his eyes swept the main room again and his gaze caught on a pile of papers on the coffee table. He hesitated, realizing that the way they were stacked was in itself a message. He moved toward the table and without touching them he gazed down at the stack. The top paper was a newspaper circular from one of the discount stores in the area. He looked closer and saw one of the items circleda refrigerator.
Moving quickly he crossed to the kitchen. He examined the refrigerator carefully and finding no visible traps, he opened it slowly. Leaning upright against a carton of orange juice was a large manila envelope. Gingerly he pulled it out, handling it carefully. He undid the clasp and emptied the contents out onto the counter.
He froze as he saw the first photograph and had to clamp down on his emotions in order to hold onto his control. Steeling himself, he spread out the photos on the counter and forced himself to examine them one at a time. The photos were all of Blair, taken while someoneprobably Dirksonadministered a beating. A brutal beating. Jim forced himself to look beyond the pain in his friend's eyes and examine the shots for any clue that might lead him to his Guide.
Wherever the younger man was, it was dark, maybe a high ceiling room or a warehouse. He examined the prints themselves and noted their grainy quality.
Shot with a high intensity strobe, probably on a timer... blacklight filter... his mind ranged over the details, storing everything for reference later.
At last he let himself look at the content, struggling to control his growing anger as he viewed the extent of the beating. One of the photos showed Blair flinching away from a blow in the ribs, his expression one of pure agony. Jim cringed himself when he realized that that was the same side that had been injured when his partner had been struck by the car.
Finally he looked at what he hoped had been the last shot, one where Blair lay motionless on a cement floor, blood coming from a cracked lip, his left eye nearly swollen shut, his bound hands raised awkwardly as if to protect his head or ward off another blow. Jim stared at the photo, letting the rage sweep through him, leaving him cold and hard.
The ringing of his cell phone brought him back to the present.
"Find the present I left for you?"
"I found it," Jim answered tersely.
"You know, you used to have better taste in partners," Dirkson went on. "I've gotta tell you Jim-bo, this kid's not much on resilience. He never would have made it in our business. Guess they're scraping the bottom of the barrel for cops these days."
"He's not a cop. He's a civilian. Civilian's were always non- combatants, remember?"
"My game, my rules," Dirkson answered with a sneer.
"How do I know he's even still alive?"
"Because I say he is."
"Not good enough," Jim pressed. "I want to talk to him."
"He's not really much of a conversationalist," Dirkson replied. "He didn't have much to say to me earlier, but maybe he'll take a moment to say a few words..." Dirkson's voice trailed off and Jim waited anxiously.
Blair felt himself jerked upright, Dirkson's hand clenched in his hair.
"Talk," Dirkson snarled. "Talk to him!"
Blair strained to draw breath into his laboring lungs, but he couldn't form the words he wanted to say. He'd heard Dirkson's side of the conversation as he'd struggled to stay conscious. He knew that the man was using him to get at Jim. And he knew what Dirkson had planned if that happened.
Jim picked up on the rattling gasp on the other end. He knew immediately that Blair was in severe pain and from the rasping sound as he struggled to breathe, he also realized that the young man's time might be shorter that even Dirkson's deadline.
A punctured lung? Jim guessed quickly, putting together the image of Blair wincing away from a blow to his side with what he was hearing.
"Sandburg, is that you?" he asked softly. "Talk to me, buddy..."
"Easy, Chief. Just hang on a little longer. I'm coming to join the party."
"No... it's... a trap..." Blair managed to blurt out.
There was a broken, agonized cry from the younger man and Dirkson was suddenly back on the line. "I told you he's not much for conversation."
"Let him go, Dirkson. You want something with me, name the time and place. Just leave him out of it. You've already made your point," Jim responded, his eyes flickering to the photos again.
"You don't discard your ace if you're going to win the game," Dirkson murmured. "And you know I always play to win. Now here are the new rules... You want him, you come get him. 2234 Warehouse Drive, nine o'clock. Don't come early. Don't bring any friends. Otherwise the penalty will be a gunshot to the side of his head."
"I want him released when I get there," Jim demanded.
"Jim-bo, it's not that easy," Dirkson sneered. "You must be getting soft. I said you come and get him. That's how it's played, remember? You walk into the maze and find the way through to the prize at the end."
"All right., I'll be there. You make sure he's still alive by then."
"You just follow the rules, Jim-bo. I'll be waiting..."
There was a sharp click on the line and the buzzing of the dial tone. Slowly, Jim closed the phone, placing it on the counter. He stared down at the photos, the sound of Blair's ragged breathing in his mind. The rage he'd felt earlier returned and he felt himself growing colder. Again, it was as though he'd stepped backward in time, returning to the jungle, all the old feelings and habits coming back to roost. An icy wind swept through him and he saw himself in Incacha's hut, shivering with the aftereffects of shock and the injuries he received in the crash.
He closed his eyes and he heard the Shaman's words echo in his mind.
"You seek a battle and it is already upon you... the battle for the balance... the battle between great good and great evil... a soldier you came and a soldier you will remain, but now focused on a greater purpose, your duty to the tribe... you will learn that evil cannot be overcome with vengeance or anger, but with compassion and strength of belief... see now beyond what others see... hear what others cannot... taste the joys of humanity... sift through the sands of despair and find trust... find truth..."
The icy hold of the past released its grip and Jim shivered. He opened his eyes, drew a deep, steadying breath and reached for the phone, punching in a familiar number.
"Simon... it's Jim... I need your help."
He met Simon at the door and gestured for the older man to come inside.
"This was waiting when I got here," he said softly, handing off the package of photos.
Simon drew in a sharp breath as he sorted through the pictures. His expresion grew grim as he studied them, eyeing the last one for a long time before he raised his eyes to meet Jim's.
"I'm surprised you called me."
"Nine years ago I wouldn't have. As it was, I almost didn't," Jim replied. "When I saw those... if Dirkson had been here..."
He sighed softly, shaking his head.
"It was close... the past... what I once was. Incacha said that you always carry your past with you. Maybe Dirkson and I aren't so different after all."
"Jim, what you felt doesn't make you a killer. It makes you human."
"I don't know Simon," he responded softly, the pain evident in his voice. "There was a time in my life where I might have looked at this situation, decided that the personal risk was too great and walked away, writing Blair off as just another casualty of war."
"You? Walk away? From something like this?" Simon asked incredulously, snapping the envelope of photos down on the counter in anger. "I don't buy it. You couldn't. And don't give me that garbage about you and Dirkson being the same. I've watched you put yourself in the line of fire too many times to buy into that."
Simon glared at the detective, hoping that anger would push Jim beyond the doubts that assailed him. For a moment he wondered again at his friend's past, then thrust the thought away. The past was the past and the Jim Ellison he knew was a good cop. And a good man.
He saw Jim's eyes flicker back to the photos, relieved when Jim straightened and the haunted look left the Sentinel's eyes.
"Now, you said you needed my help," Simon said evenly. "What can I do?"
Jim reached over to the counter and picked up a piece of paper. "I need some supplies. Can you get these without anyone asking a lot of questions?"
Simon's eyes widened a bit at some of the items, but he merely nodded. "I'll have to take care of some of this myself. Taggert can handle the rest. It's his specialty anyway."
He saw Jim about to protest and cut him off.
"Taggert owes Sandburg for that help he gave him on those church bombings. Don't worry. He'll keep it quiet." Simon folded the list and placed it in his pocket. "What else?"
Jim stared at him uneasily for a moment, fighting against his own instinct to handle things himself. That was his old way. He'd changed from the arro gant,lone-wolf that he'd been. And this man had been the reason for a part of that change. He and Blair. Jim had learned to trust and depend on others because of them. He'd learned the true value of working as a team. And that was what was going to save Blair's life. Not his forcing his way in alone like some avenging angel.
"I need some backup," Jim said quietly. "Dirkson gave me a time and place. 9:00 tonight, an address in the warehouse district."
"You think he's there now?" asked Simon, glancing at his watch and doing a quick calculationthey had seven hours.
"Probably," Jim answered, gesturing toward the photos. "These look like they might have been taken in a warehouse. There's a cement floor and there's no reflective bounce on the flash. The ceilings have to be pretty high."
"I can have a SWAT team on site in less than an hour..."
"No," Jim objected, cutting him off. "It's his game, and I know how he'll play it. He's going to have the place rigged. If we go storming in there, it's not just Sandburg who's likely to die. The only real chance we have is to play this by his rules. I intend to do that, but at the same time I'm going to put our own game into play."
Simon looked at him carefully, then nodded. "Let's hear your plan."
"First we need to do some air surveillance. With some very special equipment," Jim explained. "WKRO does a traffic flyby over that area every hour. If we can get them to alter their flight plan just slightly, we can overfly the building with a heat seeker."
"What good will that do us?" Simon asked.
"From a comment that Dirkson made, I figure he's going to run me through some kind of a maze once I'm inside. The heat seeker will give us some idea of what part of the building he's keeping Sandburg in. That'll give me an advantage and maybe a way to ruin his plans."
"You mean us," Simon corrected him. "You said you wanted backup."
"I do," Jim said softly, meeting Simon's gaze evenly. "But it's his rules, remember? I have to show up alone. If not, he'll kill Blair before we can make it six feet inside the door. Once I'm inside, our game goes into effect. Ten minutes after I go in, you bring in the SWAT teams to seal off the area. If this goes down the wrong way, I want to know that you're out there ready to scoop him up when he leaves."
"What makes you think ten minutes is enough?"
"Because he's arrogant. Once I'm inside his game is in playhe'll have me where he wants me. He'll figure to finish me and Sandburg off and then thumb his nose at you as he slips away."
"What if we come in behind you? We're not going to do you much good sitting around outside waiting to see who walks out the door."
"Simon, you asked me before how good he was. His specialty was explosives. He's going to have that place rigged with traps that'll be hard for even me to find. And I won't have time to disarm them all."
"What about a wire?" Simon countered, uneasy with the idea, yet knowing that Jim was probably reading the situation correctly.
"We can try it," Jim agreed. "But he'll probably have some kind of jamming signal active."
Simon stared at him for a moment, then turned to pace the floor, his own mind racing to come up with another alternative. Jim let him pace, impatient for him to agree, but also realizing that his captain had to have time to accept the situation on his own. Finally Simon stopped pacing and stared down at the photos on the counter.
"I don't like it," he murmured.
"I don't like it!" Simon barked, slamming his fist down on top of the photos, his face a mix of anger and frustration. "Damn it, Jim, we don't even know if Sandburg's still alive!"
"He is. Dirkson let me talk to him. Just a few words." Jim paused, his own gaze flickering to the photos. "He's in bad shape, but he's alive."
Quickly, Jim told Simon his suspicions about the condition of Blair's lungs.
"If we need to, we'll bring the hospital to him," Simon responded. "I'll make sure we've got a full med staff on hand."
Jim breathed a sigh of relief as he realized that Simon was going to agree with his plan. Grudgingly, but he was going to go along.
"I'll get in touch with the radio station and get started on this list." Simon patted the paper in his pocket as he moved toward the door. "I'll have everything here before you need to leave."
"Thank you, sir," Jim said quietly, his mind already turning to things that he'd need to get ready himself.
Pain brought Blair in and out of consciousness over the next few hours. Pain and the struggle to breathe. He knew something was desperately wrong with his left lung and he found himself constantly tasting blood in his mouth. When the darkness in his mind ebbed, he struggled against the rope that held him dangling upright, but that effort always sent him spinning and back into blackness. At times he simply hung there, afraid to move in case it would draw the attention of his captor. That had happened alreadythe man appearing out of nowhere to deliver another blow without warning.
Sometimes when he awoke he felt almost nothing, and that frightened him the most. When he couldn't feel his legs, when the pain in his side had passed beyond what his body could encompass, then his mind filled with panicĄterror he sought to fight by shifting into some of the breathing and relaxation exercises that he'd learned in his travels. But every time he came close to achieving some kind of balance within himself, he lost his concentration and felt himself fighting just to fill his lungs.
Finally he grew numb inside, his mind moving sluggishly as he stared into the darkness, no longer conscious of the passage of time.
Jim stood outside the warehouse, scrutinizing every detail, looking for a sign from Dirkson. There would be one, he was sure. One door that would lead him into the beginning of the maze. As he extended his senses he caught a faint gleam of metal and he moved forward, approaching a doorway. On the handle hung a headset and after checking for a trap, he took it in his hands, examined it and then put it on.
"Time to get started, Jim-bo," came Dirkson's voice in his ear.
"Not until I talk to Sandburg," Jim countered. "You were supposed to keep him alive, remember? I want proof."
"Then talk to him," Dirkson barked. "He's linked into this frequency."
"Blair, it's Jim... I need you to answer me..." The Sentinel said evenly, none of his own uncertainties evident in his voice.
There was a long silence with no response.
"He's not answering, Dirkson," Jim said angrily. "The game's off if he's dead."
"He's not dead... yet," snarled Dirkson. "He's just being stubborn."
In his headset Jim heard a sudden gasp of pain. His extended hearing picked up the same rasping breathing that he'd heard before, although it was even more labored than it had been earlier.
"Talk to him, damn it," he heard Dirkson order savagely as another gasp reached his ears.
"No..." he heard Blair whisper brokenly.
"That's good enough," Jim responded, realizing that Dirkson was with his Guide at that minute and that pushing him now would only result in Blair being on the receiving end of further abuse.
"Then come inside," Dirkson ordered.
"No... don't... Jim... don't..." came a desperate objection from Blair, which was immediately cut off.
The Sentinel scanned the door quickly and saw a small wire connected to the door knob. His extended senses picked up a faint heat source and he pulled his hand back.
"Not until you disarm the door," Jim countered.
There was an audible click and the door popped open a few inches. Moving cautiously, Jim eased it open just enough to slip through, stepping forward only two feet into the darkness.
He heard a click as the door closed and locked behind him. Jim didn't have to look to know that it had been rearmed as well. As he stood there in the darkness, Incacha's word's echoed in his mind.
"The past is always with you."
Jim abruptly realized the essential element of truth in the words. Instead of the uncertainty and regrets about his past he'd felt earlier, he realized that he could use his past wisely in the presenttake advantage of the positive things his knowledge and training had given him, and use the mistakes as guideposts for the future.
Drawing on a distant memory, he took a quick series of breaths. It was suddenly as if his mind was operating on a number of levels at once. It immediately took in the data that his extended senses were transmitting back to him, analyzing and cataloging the details for later use.
He was aware of a quick burst of relief that Blair was still alive. Another part of his mind noted the fact that Dirkson was with him, near enough to force him to answer Jim's query, and immediately correlated that with the surveillence data that they'd gathered earlier.
It was a four story warehouse, nearly 7,000 square feet on each floor. The chopper had managed five passes and amidst the dozen or so hot spots that the scanner had picked up in the building, they'd identified two as human beings. One of those remained stationary near the center of the building on the top level, while another showed up in different positions on each pass. Jim had designated the first one to be Blair, the second to be Dirkson moving around the building setting his traps. That they were together now didn't mean that they would remain so, but it gave him a relative target location.
The controlled closing of the door also gave him valuable informationĄDirkson had a rigged at least some of his traps to operate by remote. That meant that Jim would have to be on the look-out not just for explosives, but for Dirkson himself. He'd be mobile, not just sitting behind a monitor somewhere, watching.
All of the input and analysis happened in less time than it took for Jim to blink three times and draw in another deep, calming breath.
His eyes had adjusted to the darkness and Jim glanced around, evaluating the narrow hallway he stood in, his eyes flickering over a series of six closed doors.
"You wanted me, here, I'm here," Jim called out. "Let's get on with it."
"Still impatient, aren't you, Jim-bo," came Dirkson's sneering voice over the headset. "Just like the old days. Always gung- ho. Always pushing. Always taking charge."
Jim approached the doors and examined them cautiously, looking for traps while he listened to Dirkson's words.
"Your game, your rules, remember?" he asked softly, still moving along the corridor.
"That's right!" snarled Dirkson.
"Then tell me what you want," Jim responded softly, coming to a stop at one of the doors and eyeing it closely as he caught sight of a wire running down the side.
"What I want?" Dirkson's voice raised to an almost screaming pitch. "I want you to suffer like I've suffered, watching your friends assaulted and dying one by one, and then I want you dead!"
There was a long silent pause which Jim chose not to disturb, worried that if Dirkson was still close to Blair that anything he said might antagonize him into action.
When Dirkson's voice came back on the headset it was calmer, but still brittle with a dangerous edge to it.
"But we've got a long night ahead of us," he murmured. "And you're eager to get started. In fact I'd guess you've already been checking out the doors in front of you. Each of those doors leads into a very special maze that I've constructed just for you. You run the maze and get through it in one piece and you get the prizeyour partner."
"And I'm supposed to believe that if I get to him you're going to let us out of here alive?" Jim asked, listening closely at each door now.
"Well, there is a little surprise waiting with him," Dirkson murmured. "I suppose that if you made it past that, then I'd have to agree to turning you both loose."
Jim made a quick mental note to remember his comment about the surprise and kept examining the doors, now bending to check the base of each.
"I'll hold you to it," Jim commented softly.
"I warn you Jim-bo, if you try to give up halfway through, you forfeit and so does he."
"I'd start worrying about what happens when he's out of here safely," Jim responded, rising to his feet, his eyes on the door he'd chosen.
"Is that a threat, Jim-bo?" chuckled Dirkson.
"Still playing the tough-guy, eh?" Dirkson laughed again. "I think you've lost it, Jim-bo. I think you've gone soft like the rest of those amatuers you've been hanging around with. I don't think you've got what it takes anymore, so I'm going to give you a little advantage. I'm going to activate your partner's com link and keep it open. I'll even get off the link except for a quick interruption every now and then. 'Course if you want to talk to me, beg for a way out, for your partner's life, whatever, then you just give a shout. I'll hear you."
There was a pause, then Dirkson spoke softly again.
"Ready, get set..."
Jim was through the door before Dirkson finished. As he heard him whisper "go", there was a flash of a small explosion in the corridor he'd just left. Thrusting the door he'd chosen closed, Jim moved a few steps ahead, eyeing his new surroundings.
The corridor led to his left and he followed it slowly, senses at their maximum range. He edged around a corner and then froze as he became aware of a click and a faint sound in his earpiece.
"Chief... Blair, is that you?" Jim dodged his head around the corner to get a quick look at what lay beyond.
"Jim... get out... of here..." Blair whispered, his breathing ragged and his voice strained.
"I'm already inside and on my way to you. Just hold on a little while longer."
"No... this guy's crazy... he wants... to kill you..."
"I'm not too fond of him right now, either," Jim answered, moving around the corner and finding another set of doors. "Is he there with you, now?"
"No... who is he?"
"An old army buddy," Jim answered grimly.
There was a moment of silence as Blair struggled with the implications of that comment.
"Jim... listen..." Blair strained to force the words out. "There's no way... you're going... to reach me... he's got... this whole place... rigged..."
"Yeah, I know Chief. I've discovered a few surprises already."
"Then get out... of here..."
"Not without you." Jim touched one of the doors gingerly, pulling his hand away quicklythere was heat there, he decided, moving to the second one.
He caught a whiff of something chemical and backed off from that door too. He eyed them hesitantly, then gave the first door a kick, rolling backward at the same time. He felt the heat of a sunburst flare and shielded his eyes, wary about losing his night vision for even a moment.
"Jim... Jim... are you all right?"
"Yeah... I'm fine," Jim assured his worried Guide, waving away the smoke and making his way forward through the doorway.
A burst of coughing and a groan of pain came through the headset, followed by a wheezing gasp. Jim crouched by the wall in the next corridor, his attention momentarily focused on Blair.
"Easy Chief," he murmured helplessly. He could see what looked like a set of stairs just ahead. "Just take it easy..."
"Jim... something's wrong... inside... something's broken... when he hit me..." The Sentinel heard the rattling gasp as his Guide struggled for air again. "It's hard... to breathe..."
"I know," Jim said softly. "I can hear it. I think you've got a punctured lung. That's why you're having trouble breathing."
"... there's blood..." Blair's agonized voice was a faint whisper. "Can't get... any air..."
"Blair, listen to me," Jim said firmly, rising to his feet and moving forward, anxious to get to the younger man as soon as he could, sensing the pain and loss of hope in his voice. "I want you to stop talking... just concentrate on breathing, slow and easy..."
"... it hurts..." came Blair's response as if he hadn't heard Jim's words.
"You can do it, Chief," Jim said encouragingly, still moving forward, his eyes sweeping the corridor for any sign of another trap. "We've got help waiting just outside. You just need to hang on until I get there."
Jim stopped, staring up into the darkness of the staircase.
"Chief, you remember that relaxation exercise you taught me? I want you to work on it for a couple of minutes. Concentrate on that... but don't fall asleep, okay?"
There was no answer for a moment except for the tortured sound of his Guide struggling for breath.
"Blair, did you hear me?" Jim asked worriedly, eyeing the walls around him.
"Thought... you wanted me... to stop... talking..."
"Smart guy," Jim answered, relieved. "Let's amend that to one word answers."
Satisfied that Blair would hold his own for a few minutes, Jim turned his attention to the staircase. Something felt wrong, but he couldn't place it. He weighed his optionshe could either go back and look for another way up, or he could take this passage. He checked his watch and saw to his dismay that thirty minutes had already passed since he'd entered the building. That decided him.
Jim looked up into the stairwell and pulled a collapsible grappling hook from one of the pockets in his vest. In seconds, he had it hooked to the top of the railing on the next level above him and was rapidly scaling it. Pulling himself over the metal rail, he glanced down. From his vantage point he could see some discoloration on the steps and guessed that he'd just avoided stepping on some kind of chemical explosive or pressure mine.
"You still with me, Chief?" he asked softly, inspecting the single door that lead onward.
"Good. I'm making progress," Jim murmured. "I'll check back with you in just a few minutes."
Jim found the explosive charge that was attached to the door. He pulled out the small case that Taggert had prepared for him and sweated out the next few minutes as he worked to disarm the bomb. He finally drew a slow breath and then gave the door a cautious push, opening it only enough to slip through.
He looked around, trying to assess his surroundings and get his bearings. This had once been a manufacturing floor, he realized, staring at the odd silhouettes of heavy equipment. Glancing upward, he could see a high ceiling and exposed girders. Hefting the grappling hook he swung it in a high arc. It fell short of the lowest beams, clattering noisily to the floor.
The Sentinel froze in dismay. He'd hoped to keep his own position masked, but the banging of the grappler on the concrete was a sure giveaway. He didn't expect Dirkson to sit and wait for him to get to Blair. Jim knew that the temptation to 'hunt' would be too much for Dirkson to pass up, and now he knew exactly where his prey could be found.
Moving quickly, Jim vaulted to one of the pieces of equipment, tossing the hook upward again. This time it held. There were two possible locations for the next stairwell, and he decided to try for the one that was to his right.
Jim tugged at the rope one more time and then began to climb. Reaching the girder he pulled himself onto it, disengaged the hook and tossed it forward again, hooking it to another metal strut 20 feet away. Gripping the rope tightly he let himself swing down, his momentum carrying him past the girder, where he reached out and grabbed another. Stabilizing his position, he tugged the grappler free, gathered it in and tossed it to another strut. He swung down, heard the sharp retort of a gunshot and felt the rope give way. He dropped like a rock toward the floor below.
Instinct and training kicked in. He bent his knees, absorbing part of the shock of landing by bouncing feet first into a piece of equipment and then quickly pulling his legs in so that he'd hit the floor rolling.
The force of the landing was still enough to leave him dazed as he crawled to a more sheltered position, collecting himself as he leaned against a stack of wooden crates.
"That's breaking the rules," he heard Dirkson snarl in the headset. "Stay in the maze, Jim-bo, or the forfeit goes into effect."
The Sentinel shook off the worst of his dizziness, berating himself for underestimating his adversary. Going across the top had been too easy, and he should have expected Dirkson to try to stop him. Massaging his left shoulder, he gazed into the cluttered darkness, straining to get his bearings.
"You know, I'm almost impressed, Jim-bo," came Dirkson's sneering voice. "Guess you haven't forgotten everything from the old days. I was beginning to wonder... I mean it was pretty funny watching you fumble around for the last few days, with no hint as to what was going on. I think you'd still be in the dark if I hadn't decided to restructure the game. And I left you such great clues. All you had to do was put them together to figure out who was behind it."
"I wasn't looking for a dead man."
Jim rose to his feet and dodged to shelter behind another stack of crates.
"You see, that's what I mean," Dirkson rambled on. "You forgot the first rulenever assume an enemy's dead until you check the body."
"You weren't an enemy until now," Jim answered softly.
"That's where you're wrong, Jim-bo," Dirkson growled. "I've always been your enemy. You were just too full of yourself to see it."
There was an almost inaudible click in the headset as Dirkson pulled out of the link and Jim heard Blair's voice calling to him desperately.
"Jim... Jim... !"
"I'm here, Chief." Jim moved to where he could see a set of doors which he hoped would lead out into another stairwell.
"Good... to hear... your voice..." Blair whispered. "I... was getting... worried..."
"Nothing to worry about," Jim answered, his attention on what he thought was a flicker of movement in the window of the doorway. Was Dirkson waiting there? "Just had a little chat session with our host."
"Go after... him..." Blair choked out.
"I will, after you're out of here."
"Forget... that..." Blair argued. "Just get... this guy... before... he gets you..."
As if Blair's words had been a signal, the door that he'd been watching suddenly swung inward. Jim dove to his left, continuing to roll further in that direction as a burst from a flame-thrower seared through the crates where he'd been crouched.
Maniacal laughter roared through the headset, but Jim ignored it and lurched to his feet.
The Sentinel scrambled toward the second location that he'd targeted, dodging around pieces of equipment. A warning tingle raced up his spine and he slid to a stop, just in time to avoid a trip wire. He took a quick look and found three more triggersit was pure blind luck that he'd managed to avoid them.
Stepping carefully around the wires, he listened intently for signs of pursuit. Dirkson's voice echoed in the headset.
"Nice move, Jim-bo. You're really making a game of this, although I admit I'm a little disappointed that you've managed to avoid a few of my more interesting surprises."
Ignoring the jibes, Jim kept moving. Picking his way around smaller piles of skidded crates he was rewarded with the sight of another flight of stairs.
"I am a little concerned about your partner though. I'm not sure he's going to make it through to the deadline. He doesn't look very good."
Jim gritted his teeth and eyed the steps carefully, looking for the same kind of booby traps he'd seen on the first stairwell.
"I tell you what Jim-bo, since you're making such good progress and in the interest of fairness, I believe I'll move the deadline upto midnight."
Jim glanced down at his watchthat gave him just under 90 minutes.
"Maybe I'll just go check on how he's doing..." he heard Dirkson murmur.
"Guess that means I'm too much of an opponent," Jim sneered.
"I can take you out any time I want!"
"Then prove it," Jim challenged, trying to keep Dirkson's attention focused away from Blair.
"No... I believe I'll let you sweat a little longer. I want you wondering where I am... what I'm doing... who I'm with..." there was a pause and then Dirkson's voice came on again. "Watch your six, Jim-bo."
Automatically, Jim turned to look behind him, his gun coming out of its holster. He heard the ring of Dirkson's laughter in the headset, then the click that meant he'd signed off.
And heard his Guide's tortured breathing. He considered warning Blair that Dirkson might be on his way, but decided against it.
"You holding up okay, Chief?"
"... yeah..." Blair's answer was accompanied by another round of coughing.
The Sentinel forced himself to maintain control. Dirkson was trying to goad him into moving faster, into making a mistake. And that was what would get both he and his Guide killed. Was Dirkson actually going to where he was keeping Blair or was it a trick to lull Jim into lowering his guard? There was no way of telling.
With his senses extended to maximum, Jim scanned the stairs again, but found no evidence of traps. He was about to put his hand on the railing when he paused and examined it closely. There was a trace of a familiar chemical odor and he nodded, his face tight and grim. He took the steps, cautiously, careful to stay clear of the handrail.
Again it was a single flight of stairs, but this time there were three doors at the top. He spent a few moments examining each, finding two of them wired. He eyed the third suspiciously. This was the door Dirkson wanted him to use.
Time to take control of the game, Jim decided, turning to one of the other doors.
He worked carefully, ignoring the screaming clock in his head that ticked away the minutes that Blair had left. Snapping the last clip in place to reroute the charge, he gave the door a gentle push and it swung inward. Jim rose to his feet and quickly moved into another corridor.
This floor must have been office support, Jim realized, angling in the direction that he thought would lead him closer to Blair's location. He pulled a handful of small pebbles out of his pocket and threw them ahead of him on the floor. His small detectors sprang no traps and he moved forward again.
He'd covered the length of the corridor when a burst of coughing and an agonized groan echoed through the headset.
"Sandburg... Blair, can you hear me?" he asked urgently. "Just take it easy..."
Alone in the darkness, the younger man was in no shape to listen. Another coughing fit hit him and Blair struggled against it, gasping for air, panic setting in.
Jim heard the desperate sounds in his headset and increased his pace, talking softly and encouragingly at the same time.
"Hold on Chief... do you hear me? Focus on something... you've got to concentrate..."
But Blair was gripped by a panic fueled by fear for his Sentinel, by the blows he'd taken to the head, by the sense of numbness creeping through him. He pulled desperately at the rope, throwing his weight against it.
"Chief, take it easy!" Jim ordered, moving faster now, urged on by his Guide's sobs of frustration and pain.
There was a sudden click and Dirkson's voice broke in.
"Your partner's losing it," Dirkson warned, an excited edge to his voice. "You better find some way to settle him down or his actions are going to evoke some very loud consequences."
As Dirkson clicked off again, Jim jerked to a stop, the meaning of the threat suddenly clear.
"Blair!" he almost shouted into the com link. "Blair listen to me! Don't move. Do you hear me? He's got explosives rigged to you somehow. If you move you're going to set them off! Don't do anything but breathe, do you understand me?"
There was a long moment of silence filled only with his Guide's uneven breathing. Finally the Sentinel heard a whispered, "Yes". It was a mix of pain, panic and despair, but the sounds of movement were gone.
"Okay, that's good, Chief," Jim murmured as encouragingly as he could. "Just stay as still as you can. Try to focus on something... something you can see."
"... no light..." Blair whispered back, his voice more strained than ever.
Jim cursed Dirkson silently, the thirst for vengeance growing stronger. He forced himself to push the desire asidehis Guide needed him to be in control now, more than ever.
"All right... take it easy... we'll just try something else..." he temporized, his mind working rapidly to find another solution.
"You're sure... about... the explosives?"
"Dirkson mentioned a that there would be a small surprise waiting when I got to you," Jim answered evenly. "I'd guess that's what he meant."
"Talk about... overkill... Guess... that's it then... no point... in your getting... any closer..."
"Don't you give up on me!"
"Who knows... maybe I'll get lucky... if he comes back... maybe I can... take him out... with me..." the younger man responded, his voice deadly calm.
"Blair, listen to me, damn it!" Jim barked into the headset, moving forward, his eyes scanning the corridor for the next doorway. "You're the Observer, remember? You're supposed to follow my orders. Now listen to my voice. Close your eyes and just listen..."
Jim shifted his voice into an even, almost sing-song tone.
"You remember that meditation trick you tried to teach me? The one where you imagine a peaceful place? I'm going to walk you through it."
"Just listen... build the picture in your mind... there's a red sun..."
Jim pitched his voice lower as he sought to lead his Guide into the trance- like state, hoping to keep him calm. He kept talking as he moved, avoiding one booby trap and then another. He kept at it for a full ten minutes and slowly he heard the sound of Blair's breathing start to ease. He swallowed against the dryness in his own throat and continued to speak quietly, his voice an invisible lifeline that the younger man clung to desperately.
Just as he began to allow himself to hope that it might be working, he heard a click and immediately lost the sound of Blair's breathing.
"Never thought I'd hear that mystical mumbo-jumbo from you, Ellison."
"You always had a closed mind, Dirkson, that was your problem from the start."
"Wrong Jim-bo. You were my problem. You were the one who cost me nine years of my life."
"I wasn't the one who took five men to their deaths."
"And I listened to them die... one by one..." Dirkson whispered savagely. "And with every one, I swore I'd get even with you."
Several unconnected thoughts suddenly clicked together in Jim's mind. "The Hibani..."
"That's right," Dirkson spat back. "The Hibani. Your partner studied them, but he's lucky... he's never met them... they don't let outsiders leave their territory."
"But you did," Jim said softly, his mind turning over what he knew of the warrior caste society.
"If you manage to survive their torture you're no longer an outsider, Jim-bo. You become one of the tribe."
"To do that you'd have to kill one of your own people," Jim said softly, remembering what Blair had deciphered out of the odd script. "Is that what happened? Did you kill your men so that you could survive?"
"I did what I had to do... The Hibani have an incredible number of ways to kill, did you know that, Jim-bo? They're adept at creating pain... they know all the points of the body to affect... and fire is one of their favorite stimulants..."
His ramblings convinced Jim as nothing else had that Dirkson was insane. He started moving faster, making his way through the corridors filled with vacant offices, searching intently for a way to the next level. He'd switched into the high gear mode he'd experienced earlier, praying that Blair could hold onto the tenuous balance of the trance on his own. On one level he was almost painfully aware of the dangers around him through his hyperextended senses. On another, he could feel the drain in his own energies, but he ignored it, driven by the need to finish the game before Dirkson turned his attention back to Blair.
He edged around another corner and caught sight of a staircase at the far end. He glanced back over his shoulder, then scanned the hallway again. There seemed to be irregularities in the flooring tiles and he tossed his final handful of pebbles across them. Some of them skittered oddly as if they'd hit something and Jim stared down at the tiles grimly.
Pressure mines, he realized.
The whole corridor was scattered with them, but now that he knew they were there, he also knew how to pick his way through. Leapfrogging from one safe spot to another, he crossed to the base of the stairwell. Checking it out thoroughly, he felt a surge of despair. Both the steps and the railings were booby trapped and he didn't have the time or means to disarm them.
He realized that Dirkson was still rambling, but that he'd switched to reminiscing about one of their old missions.
"'Course we had to blow them away, didn't we? To keep up from seeing what we were really after... you remember what Colonel Haraway said when we got back from that mission..."
Dirkson rattled on, switching to another story, but his words had given Jim an idea. Looking up at the drop ceiling, he saw that some of the tiles had fallen in, revealing a system of large, metal air ducts. He searched further, hunting for the opening to the ventilation system, and finally located the grilled vent entrance...
He repeated his leapfrog pattern, crossing back to the end of the corridor until he was clear of the traps. Deciding that the vent and ductwork was big enough to hold him, he dodged back into one of the offices, grabbed a stool and a small box of discarded metal parts. He set the stool down under the opening and climbed up, releasing the catch on the vent door. Pulling himself into the ductwork, he strained to look down the dark length of the metal shaft. He allowed himself a grim, satisfied smile when he saw grilled openings at both the top and 'floor' of the metal tube. He now had another way to the fourth floorall he had to do was crawl through and find an upward exit . Preferably one close to where Blair was being kept.
Now he needed a distraction. Balancing himself, he reached down and pulled the stool up into the duct. He studied the floor and the staircase for a moment, then threw the open box of machine parts toward the stairs. As soon as he'd thrown it, he lunged in the opposite direction down the shaft.
The duct shuddered with a series of violent explosions. In his mind's eye, Jim "saw" the parts fall randomly onto the floor, setting off mines along corridor, the final explosion coming as the box itself fell on the staircase steps. He held his breath as Dirkson's voice suddenly fell silent. His plan hinged on Dirkson believing that he had made a desperate run for the stairs and gotten caught in the traps. If he did believe it, or even if he wasn't sure, he'd come to investigate, and that would pull him away from Blair, buying Jim the time he needed to free his partner.
"Jim-bo? Jim-bo are you there? Sounds like you finally made a mistake, buddy..." Dirkson giggled madly.
There was a click in the headsetDirkson bringing Blair into the loop.
"Hey, kid... did you hear that? Your partner blew it. Literally blew it!"
Jim shut his eyes, cringing at Blair's horrified groan.
"Guess the game's just about over, Sandburg," Dirkson chuckled gleefully. "I'll go check out Ellison's corpse and then you and I will finish off our business."
Dirkson's insane laughter rang through the headset and then it grew silent except for Blair's soft sobbing.
"Oh, man... Jim..."
Scrambling forward on his hands and knees, Jim searched for a way upward. He'd bought the precious minutes he'd wanted and no matter how much he ached to reassure his Guide, he couldn't respond over the com link and risk Dirkson realizing he'd been tricked.
Fortunately it seemed like his luck was holding. He found the opening he wanted within minutes and climbed out onto another concrete floor. The darkness was nearly complete, and even with his Sentinel vision, Jim could barely see more than a few feet in any direction.
A soft, rasping noise drew him to the right. The sound hadn't come from the headset, but he was sure it was Blair. He edged forward, skirting skids of crates as he crossed the floor. He ducked around another pile and froze when he caught sight of his Guide, hanging by the wrists from a rope that disappeared upward into the darkness. He watched closely, but saw no sign of movement in his friend and for a moment he feared he had come too late.
With his own pulse pounding in his ears, it took him several long moments to focus on the younger man's familiar heartbeat. It was slightly fast, but it was steady. Relieved that his Guide was still alive, Jim had to keep himself from bounding to his partner's side. He forced himself to remain silent and approach carefullythe conversation he'd overheard could have been Dirkson's own trap to catch him off guard. The Sentinel stayed alert, searching for any sign of his opponent.
When he was only a dozen feet behind his Guide, he saw the explosivesa small innocuous looking package rested on the floor where the rope that held Blair was tied off. Jim did one more quick scan around and then moved quickly to his partner's side.
Pulling off his headset, he reached out and removed Blair's as well. Startled, the younger man automatically shifted away as if he were trying to avoid a blow.
"Easy... it's me," Jim whispered, placing his hand gently at the back of his Guide's head.
The whispered response was filled with surprise and doubt. "... Jim...?"
"Easy..." Realizing that Blair couldn't see him in the darkness, Jim reached out to steady the grad student's swinging body, giving him a gentle squeeze in reassurance.
"I... I thought... he said..." Blair stammered in confusion. He leaned his head into the support of Jim's hand, groaning as a coughing fit jarred his body.
"I managed a little diversion of my own. Now just hold on and try to breathe... slowly..."
A shudder rippled through the younger man. He drew a deeper breath and another coughing fit hit him.
"Slowly..." Jim cautioned, holding him until the worst of the spasms had passed.
"Okay... let's get you down from there." Jim eased to a crouch next to the explosives. He did a quick check for Dirkson, then pulled out a small penlight. "Looks like a pressure package," he explained, studying both the explosives and the rope attached to them.
"Can you... disarm it?" Blair shifted slightly so that he could look back at Jim.
"It's just a matter of figuring out what triggers the explosives. Don't move," Jim ordered and Blair froze. "Dirkson used to be pretty fond of these when I knew him... in Covert Ops..." The Sentinel's eyes traveled the length of the rope to where it rested on a pulley and then down to where it was tied to the restraints around his Guide's wrists.
"Great..." Blair groaned. "Covert Ops... and I thought... he was just... crazy..."
"You got that part right," Jim agreed, rising to his feet. He took a quick look around and saw what he was looking for. He dragged a crate over to Blair's side and then pulled a length of nylon rope from around his waist.
Blair coughed again, closing his eyes and resting his head on his arms as he struggled for breath. "... this... is crazy, man... don't try it... just... get out of here..."
"For an Observer, you don't listen very well," Jim muttered, climbing on top of the crate and gingerly looping the nylon rope around the other rope just above Blair's wrists. "We're getting out of here together. Now just hold still."
Satisfied that the rope was secure, he jumped down and pulled it taut, securing it around the crate. Then he climbed back up next to Blair, pulling out a hunting knife and putting his hand on the back of Blair's neck again for a brief moment to get his attention.
"Now listen... the second rope should counter the balance. When I cut you free, you're going to drop down. All you need to do is stay on your feet for a few seconds."
"Jim... I'm not sure..."
"You have to," the older man ordered firmly. "I need both hands to steady the rope while I cut it. If you shift forward too suddenly it could upset the balance and set off the exposive."
"Here we go," Jim interrupted him again, sawing at the rope.
Blair felt himself falling as the strands parted and he tried desperately to make numb muscles respond. He gasped, pain shooting through him when his feet hit the floor. He fought to keep himself upright, but the injured knee buckled and he felt himself pitching forward.
Fearing he'd killed them both, he had a moment of absolute panic and then suddenly Jim's arms were locked around him, halting his plunge.
"Got you," he heard Jim murmur in his ear as the older man grabbed him under the arms, dragging him away from the explosives.
Blair's arms and body were like lead. His head was spinning and when Jim stumbled, a shaft of pain burned through him from his left side, forcing a stifled scream from his lips.
Jim immediately lowered him to the floor, but the weight of his ribs on his collapsed lung made it impossible to breathe. Jim saw his distress and eased him from his back onto his right side, where he lay gasping, his face contorted with pain.
"Stay with me, Chief," Jim murmured, crouched at his side.
Enveloped in pain and unable to fill his lungs, Blair tried desperately to concentrate on the Sentinel's voice, fighting to stay out of the blackness that threatened to fill his mind.
Jim placed his hand under Blair's right cheek, cushioning the younger man's head as he raised it slightly, hoping to ease his friend's breathing. After a few ragged breaths Blair opened his eyes once more.
"You know, for somebody who looks so awful, it's sure good to see you," Jim said encouragingly, hoping that his voice and face reflected none of the horror he felt looking at the affects of the beating that his partner had taken. Blair's left eye was nearly swollen shut, his face was covered in bruises, and Jim could see an open gash over his left temple. He flashed the penlight into Blair's eyes and noted the differences in the pupilsa sure sign of a concussion or an even more serious head injury.
Blair coughed again. his body curling into itself as he fought against the pain and the breath it stole from his lungs.
"Hang in there," Jim urged.
"... trying..." Blair gasped, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
"I know..." Jim eased Blair's head down to the floor and gently ran his hands over his Guide's arms and legs to assess what else might be broken. As he touched Blair's left knee he felt the younger man shudder in pain and he turned his attention to the restraints locked around the slim wrists.
"These are going to have to wait until we're out of here," he said, easing Blair's arms down to rest on the floor and taking the bruised face in his hands once more.
"I take it... you've got... a plan..." Blair whispered.
"Don't I always?" Jim answered, thinking fast.
Blair was in no shape to make it back through the maze below themmoving him ten feet had nearly blacked him out. Jim looked down at his friend and realized that they only had one choice.
"We're going to get you stashed away, and then I'm going after Dirkson," he said softly. "We're got backup and medical crews standing by on the outside. Once I take Dirkson out, we'll call them in. Maybe even get you a ride on one of those med-flight choppers."
"Remember... I don't... like... heights..."
"Yeah... I remember. Time to get moving."
Jim pulled Blair to his feet, supporting the wavering body. He took a step forward. Blair tried to move with him, but his left knee buckled again.
"My knee..." he whispered, his voice full of the pain he tried to overcome.
"Lean against me," Jim directed. "We won't go far."
"You're right about that, Jim-bo" echoed a voice from somewhere beyond them. "You left the maze... game's over... you forfeit."
With only that warning, Jim heard a faint electronic click. Wheeling, he practically threw Blair backward, covering his friend's body with his own as an explosion lifted him off his feet and thrust him into blackness.
Jim awoke to a shooting pain in his side and a loud buzzing in his ears. Another sharp nudge pushed him fully awake and his eyes flickered open. For a moment he stared up into blackness, feeling oddly disoriented.
"Wake up time, Jim-bo."
Memory returned in a rush and the Sentinel forced himself to roll to his s ide,his instincts urgently telling him to find his Guide. A flare of light made him blink rapidly, his eyes adjusting to the change. He glanced toward the light and saw Dirkson setting a small lantern on the floor. But Jim wasted no time on watching Dirkson, because between them, crumpled motionless on the floor, lay Blair.
Jim started to rise, intending to move to his partner's side, but Dirkson waved him off, pointing a gun toward the younger man's head.
"Uh, uh, uh..." Dirkson warned.
Jim turned his attention back to Blair. The buzzing in his own ears kept him from finding the heartbeat that he so urgently needed to hear, so he turned to his other senses for reassurance. He could see only the side of Blair's face as he lay sprawled partly on his back, and the Sentinel watched him closely, searching desperately for any sign of life. Focusing on his friend's face he finally saw what he was looking fora brief, regular flaring of the nostrils.
Dirkson noted his distraction and moved to stand between them, the gun now pointing at Jim.
"He's still alive," Dirkson announced, eyeing Blair as he spoke. "But unfortunately he's too far gone to have much use anymore."
Callously, Dirkson put the toe of his right boot under Blair's left shoulder and jerked upward, rolling Blair off his back and onto his side, facing him away from Jim.
"Of course I'll still kill him, but it won't have quite the same effect, now will it?" he sneered. "It's too bad you were so clever with the pressure pack. It would have been so fitting for him to have died at your hands."
"Like you killed your men," Jim murmured softly, his mind searching for something that would distract Dirkson and give him a final chance to overcome him. "You're not a soldier, anymore Dirkson. And you're not even a warrior. There's no honor in what you've done. You're nothing but a coward and a murderer."
"And you're what?" Dirkson sneered back. "You're the same as me. You would have made the same choices I did."
"No," Jim answered softly. "Not now, and not even then. You never could appreciate the value of human life. You never understood the truth."
"Truth!" Dirkson screamed, waving the weapon dangerously between Blair's still form and Jim. "The truth is you abandoned us. You made the mission plans, you sent us into that area..."
"You may have convinced yourself of that over the years. But you're the one that made the decision to go there. Against orders."
"Your orders!" Dirkson screamed again, his body shaking with anger. "Well, I'm tired of your orders. And I'm tired of you!"
Jim saw him raise the gun, saw the insanity in his eyes and realized that there was no place to gothat he was looking at death. He tensed, shifting into motion anyway, determined to buy Blair a chance.
And suddenly the room was thrust into blackness. Angling his lunge fractionally, Jim rolled to the right, scrambled to his feet and then threw his weight sideways to the left, crashing into Dirkson. Together they fell to the floor, locked in a deadly struggle.
Locked in his own battle just to stay conscious, Blair barely heard them. He'd fought through the blackness and woken just as Dirkson had rolled him to his side. He'd stayed motionless, partly out of fear and pain and partly out of hopehope that maybe he could supply Jim with a distraction.
"But what kind of a distraction," he had wondered, his body weak, his mind still dazed.
His eyes had flickered open and caught sight of the lantern only a foot away from his bound hands. With agonizingly slow movements, he had forced himself to reach out toward it, gritting his teeth against the pain, pushing numb and aching muscles desperately as he listened to Dirkson rage at Jim. Blair's fingers were only inches away from the lamp when Dirkson had screamed in anger. Blair had caught the change of toneas if a decision had been madeand forced himself into one final lurch. He'd gasped out loud as pain exploded through him, just as his fingers hit the lamp and sent it rolling to the side, extinguishing the light.
Blair winced as the chatter of gunfire erupted around him.
The explosive rounds of the firing gun echoed in the chamber and Jim fought desperately for control of the weapon, fearing that Blair would be caught by a stray shot.
Dirkson fought like a madman, and for a moment, the Sentinel faltered as doubt filled him. Dirkson took advantage of what he felt was a loosening of Jim's hold and delivered a staggering blow. Pain roared through Jim's mind, immediately followed by anger.
Anger that built into a rage that this time, Jim didn't try to control. Instead he fed images into it that increased its ferocitythe burns on Simon's hands, the look of fear on Cassie's face, the reek of fire and destruction in Jorgenson's apartment, the smell of Hansen's death, the look of pain on Blair's face when he'd been struck by the car.
And finally he fed into it all the emotion he'd held back since first realizing that Blair had been taken. As flashes of his Guide's bruised face and his agonized gasps for breath reverberated in the Sentinel's mind, he found himself turning on Dirkson with an incredible desire for vengeance of his own.
Blair heard Jim scream out something in the darkness and that cry made him shiver. Convinced that something was terribly wrong, Blair scrambled to right the lamp, his numb fingers fumbling with the switch to turn it on. Finally he managed it, wincing away as the light flared in his eyes.
He heard an agonized gasping sound and he turned his head, fearing to find Dirkson looming over Jim. But what he saw was the oppositeJim's hands were locked around Dirkson's neck. The man flailed weakly at the hold, but it was obvious that he was rapidly loosing ground. Jim was winning, he noted with relief, but Blair continued to stare at them, certain that something was wrong.
Then he saw itthe insane expression that contorted Jim's face was too much like the one that had filled Dirkson's earlier. Dirkson had pushed him and now the Sentinel's rage was out of control, seeking its own retribution.
"Jim!" Blair gasped out, seeking to divert his friend. "Jim! Stop!"
A fit of coughing shook him, but Blair refused to give in to it. Spitting out a mouthful of blood he called out again, hoping to break through to Jim and stop him before he did something that would haunt him forever.
"Jim! Stop It! You're killing him!"
But Jim either didn't hear him or didn't choose to listen to the words as the pressure around Dirkson's neck became a deathgrip.
"Jim... stop!... please..." Blair gasped, ignoring the pain and spitting out more blood as he pushed himself to move, crawling toward the two men.
Whether he'd finally gotten through, or whether it was his lurching movement toward them, Blair would never know. Jim suddenly raised his head and looked in his direction. As their gazes locked a strange look rippled across Jim's face and he glanced down, staring in confusion at the man in his grip.
"... Jim... please... don't... he's not worth it..." Blair cried out weakly. He lay stretched forward, his weight resting on his bound arms, straining for just one more breath, his head and body pounding in agony, his gaze locked on his Sentinel.
With a lurch, Jim straightened, releasing his hold on Dirkson and moving a staggering step away from where he sprawled motionless on the ground. Jim stared down at him for a moment, then his gaze sought his Guide's again. Blair thought he caught a glimmer of recognition and sanity in his friend's eyes before the roaring wave of blackness that he'd been holding off finally started to overwhelm him.
"He's... not... worth it..." Blair repeated as he collapsed forward onto the floor.
Jim shuddered as if he'd been drenched in ice water and shook himself, feeling like he was emerging from a nightmare. He staggered to Blair's side and knelt heavily beside him, easing the younger man over to his right side and fumbling to find the slowing pulse.
"Chief..." he whispered, staring down into Blair's bruised face.
Blair's eyes flickered open, but his gaze was dull and filled with pain. He tried to draw in a breath, and Jim heard the gasping rattle clearly. He slipped out of his jacket and slid it under Blair's head, hoping the support would ease the labored breathing.
"Just hold on," he murmured urgently. "I'm going to call in the cavalry and get us out of here."
Jim lurched over to Dirkson, patting him down and stripping him of anything that might be a potential weapon. He nodded in relief as he discovered a cell phone in one of Dirkson's jacket pockets. He also found a small device that he guessed was the remote unit for triggering some of the traps in the building and pocketed that as well. Jim took a quick look around and tugged the body over to a metal pylon. With a set of restraints that he pulled from Dirkson's own pockets Jim secured him to the pole, then crossed back to kneel at Blair's side. With one hand resting on his Guide's arm in reassurance, he punched in the number to reach the SWAT team outside.
"Simon... it's Jim..."
"Jim what the hell is going on in there? Are you all right?"
"Dirkson's contained," Jim answered, rising to his feet and moving a few feet away from Blair. "Sandburg's still alive, but we've got to get him out of here fast if we're going to keep it that way. I'm going to need some help."
"I'll send a team in right away."
"Don't try it," Jim warned. "The floors below us are still rigged with active traps. Any chance you can put one of those birds on the roof?"
"Negative. We already checked that out. The roof won't support the chopper's weight. We can put team up there though and lower down a lifeboat."
"All right," Jim answered, thinking fast. "If there's a way out from this level, Dirkson's probably got it rigged. Maybe there's a way we can take advantage of that."
"By punching a hole in the roof. I'll try to find the location. You get a fix on this cell coordinate when I give you the word."
Jim moved quickly back to Blair's side.
"Hang on buddy, I'll be right back," he murmured softly.
Blair's only response was a wheezing rattle as he struggled for breath, no longer even truly conscious.
Jim started scouting, eyeing the ceiling for the exit that he wanted.
Simon's call interrupted the search a few minutes later. "Jim, you find anything yet?"
"No," Jim responded, even his enhanced senses at a loss in the almost total darkness.
"Turn to your right and go about thirty feet," Simon suggested. "I've got a spotter on the building next door. He says there's a rooftop access theremight be our way in."
Jim moved quickly, following Simon's directions and in seconds was standing under the exit he'd been looking for.
"I see it," Jim reported. "It is rigged, but I can't see the charge. It must be on the outside. Can your man hit it?" Jim asked hopefully.
"He says he can," Simon answered grimly. "But you'd better take cover. We could just as easily bring this whole place down as punch a hole in it."
"Give me two minutes." Jim sprinted back to Blair's side. He looked around for something to shield them with and saw the outline of a piece of heavy equipment like he'd seen on one of the lower floors. Cradling his young partner in his arms, he carried Blair to the far side of the machine and lowered him gently to the floor.
Seconds later the whole place shook as the bomb was triggered. Jim leaned across Blair, sheltering him with his own body while parts of the ceiling fell around them. Finally the shaking stopped and Jim coughed, dust filtering into his lungs. He looked down at his Guide and realized that the gasping rattle that he'd been monitoring was goneBlair was unconscious and no longer breathing.
"Don't quit on me, Chief," Jim ordered, shifting positions and placing his own mouth on Blair's, blowing air into his lungs, trying to help him breathe.
"Jim!" Simon's anxious cry echoed in the darkness.
"Over here... hurry..." he yelled back and then breathed into Blair's lungs again.
Again and again he forced breath into Blair's lungs until his own head swam with dizziness. He was so focused that he wasn't even aware of the pounding of approaching footsteps and the brightening of the room. It wasn't until Simon grabbed his arms and pulled him backward that he realized that help had indeed arrived.
"Jim... Jim... back off... let them work..." Simon ordered.
As his eyes registered on the EMTs surrounding Blair, Jim stopped resisting Simon's hold and let him pull him back to rest against the machine. A shudder rippled through his body and he found Simon thrusting an oxygen mask in his own face and urging him to use it.
"He's not breathing!" Jim objected, pushing away the offered assistance.
"He is now," commented one of the medics who was kneeling near Blair's head. "Pulse is thready... pressure's low. He's losing blood somewhere..." He ripped open Blair's shirt and very gently examined the younger man's injured left side, then leaned forward and listened for a few moments to the rasping breathing.
"Punctured lung," he murmured, nodding. "Has he been conscious at all?" he asked, glancing up at Jim.
"On and off," Jim answered, his eyes never leaving his young partner's pale face.
"Get him on oxygen and a start a unit of O negative blood..." the man ordered one of the other techs. Jim started to lose track of what was happening, the medic's terse commands ringing like screams in the stillness.
"Starting IV, lactated ringers..."
"Left pupil's partly fixed... 10 percent dilation right eye..."
"Immobilize level one..."
"Hold onto him... we'll adjust treatment as necessary after we get him upstairs. Captain, I need these restraints off," the EMT called out to Simon.
"Right here, Simon," Joel appeared almost magically in front of them, handing the keys to one of the techs.
"Dirkson?" Jim asked quietly, not taking his eyes off Blair.
"They're taking him up now," Taggert answered grimly, his gaze also fixed on the younger man.
Jim nodded and finally took a deep breath from the oxygen mask. The medics were fast, he realized thankfully. Simon had recruited the best.
"Let's get him on the LB, people," he head tech ordered. "He's not going to get any better down here."
"Watch his left leg," Jim interjected, taking Simon's hand and pulling himself to his feet.
"We've got it," assured one of the other EMTs, supporting Blair's injured knee gently as they shifted him.
"Go," ordered the head medic, taking one end of the stretcher basket himself.
They hurried off with Jim and Simon only a few steps behind. Jim eyed the hole in the ceiling warily, realizing that Simon had been rightthey'd been fortunate that the whole ceiling hadn't come down when they set off the charge. But luck had been with them, and Jim grimly hoped it stayed that wayBlair wasn't out of danger yet. The med team quickly attached four ropes to the basket and it was hauled up to the roof by members of the SWAT team stationed above. The rest of them made a longer time of it, clambering up two rope ladders into the dark starry night.
Once on the roof, Jim located Blair who was still surrounded by the medics. He heard the thump of rotor blades and glanced upward to see the bright lights of a helicopter dropping down toward them. Once the chopper was in position, a bundle was tossed down and three of the SWAT team members scrambled to retrieve it, helping the EMTs to attach new cables to the basket.
Jim moved toward them just as the head medic rose to his feet and gave a thumbs up signal to the chopper pilot. The cables began to retract and several men stood by to ease the LB upward. Jim watched anxiously as the stretcher basket left their hands and began to move upward toward the waiting craft.
"We're going to medflight him straight in," the medic called out, shouting to be heard over the noise of the chopper. He came to stand next to Jim and eyed him carefully. In the bright lights of the rescue team he could see Jim's blackened face and several cuts oozing blood. "We can load you up as well sir," he said evenly.
Jim didn't hear him, his attention centered overhead as he saw the onboard crew catch the basket and haul it aboard.
"Tell them to go ahead," Simon answered. "I'll bring him in myself."
The medic nodded and raised his fist in a whirling gesture. Immediately the chopper banked and sped off into the night.
Jim stood motionless, his senses focused on the helicopter until it was beyond even his range. He blinked finally, suddenly aware of how tired he was. It had been a long five days. It was hard to believe it was nearly over.
"He's a tough kid," Simon said softly, laying a hand on the detective's shoulder in quiet support. "He'll make it through this."
"I hope so," Jim murmured, turning and scanning the rooftop.
His face grew grim as his gaze settled on Dirkson, standing a few feet away, bracketed on either side by members of the SWAT team.
"If he doesn't there will be at least seven murders to try him for."
"Seven?" Simon asked in confusion.
"He set the bomb that killed Hansen. And his team... he killed all of them so that he could survive..."
Jim's voice trailed off and his expression shifted to one of sorrow and confusion. He stared at Dirkson, not understanding how someone he'd once known so well could have become what he was.
As if sensing Jim's scrutiny, Dirkson suddenly raised his head. His eyes locked on the detective's and they glowed with an inner madness. His guards shifted him forward and he moved with them, never breaking his eye contact with Jim.
"There will be another day, Jim-bo," he called out. "I will have retribution..."
Jim instinctively took a step forward, but Simon caught his arm. At the same time, Dirkson's guards pulled him to a stop, waiting for the men ahead of them to clear the ladder.
"Achi a zu matta," Dirkson called out, staring at the Sentinel. "It was promised."
Jim started, the words strangely familiar.
"Achi a zu matta!" Dirkson screamed. He broke free of his guards and launched himself toward the building edge.
Jim moved at the same time, but Dirkson charged across the distance with incredible speed.
"Achi a zu matta!" he screamed again, throwing himself over and out into nothingness.
Jim reached out to try to catch him, but he was too late. His own momentum nearly carried him over as well, but Simon's firm grasp dragged him backward. Jim could only watch as Dirkson plummeted to the pavement below.
"What was it? What was he saying?"
"I don't know..." Jim murmured wearily. Something... something about forever..."
"Forever's a long time in hell," Simon said grimly. "Come on... let's get you to the hospital. You're going to want to be there when Blair wakes up."
Blearily, Jim eyed Simon for a moment, then nodded his agreement.
Staring out the window through the partially open blinds, Jim saw the first flickers of sunrise light the horizon. The long night was finally over. He glanced over at Blair's still form, and then looked away, still uncomfortable with seeing the aftereffects of the beating he'd taken. He looked into the sunrise again and then looked back at his Guide thoughtfully.
The younger man had already been in surgery by the time they'd arrived at the hospital. Simon had steered Jim into the emergency room and stayed with him to make sure that he had a thorough exam before letting him shift over to the surgical waiting area. Time had seemed to stretch out in almost unbearable slow motion as they waited for news.
When it had finally come, Jim allowed himself a sigh of relief. Blair would make it. Oh, it would take several weeks for his ribs to heal, but the puncture in the lung was repaired and would be of no danger by the time he was up and moving around. By then most of the bruises would be gone as well. His knee, which Dirkson had dislocated would probably take the longest to heal, although the doctors assured them that he'd suffer no permanent loss of motion in it.
And he was alive, Jim thought thankfully, something which even seven hours earlier was not something the Sentinel would have given odds on.
Now it was just a matter of waiting for him to wake up. Jim rubbed his own eyes wearily promising himself a full day of sleep once that happened. As he tried to relax, the phrase that Dirkson had screamed reverberated in his mind again. The words were familiar and he guessed that they were Hibani, although the Peruvian dialects that he knew all had some commonalities.
"Achi a zu matta..." he murmured softly, turning the phrase over in his mind. Something about forever... something menacing...
"That's... a... pleasant thought..." came a soft comment from the bed.
Jim turned and saw Blair's eyes slowly flicker open.
"What?" Jim pulled up a chair to settle at his partner's side.
"Don't get me... wrong..." Blair whispered, his eyes blinking slowly as he stared up at the ceiling. "It's good... to hear... your voice... but you could... come up with something... less... ominous..."
"It's good to hear your voice too. But I think I'm going to have them check your head again. You're not making any sense, Chief."
"Me?" Blair turned his head slightly to focus on Jim's face. "I'm not the one... muttering... in Hibani..."
Jim froze. He hadn't realized that he'd spoken the phrase out loud.
"You understand it?" he asked urgently. "You know what it means?"
"Yeah..." Blair responded, his own face clouding with confusion. "I understand it... but where'd... you hear it?"
Jim stared at him grimly, his face tight and his eyes filled with a mixture of pain, sorrow and anger.
"Dirkson?" Blair suddenly understood Jim's silence. A shudder of fear rippled through him and he reached out to grab Jim's arm. "Where is he? Did he get away?"
"No... No he didn't," Jim answered quietly, reaching out to put his other hand on Blair's trembling arm in reassurance. "He's dead."
A flicker of a doubt appeared in Blair's eyes and Jim immediately knew the cause.
"I didn't kill him," he said softly. "He killed himself. He threw himself off the roof of the warehouse. He screamed that at me before he did. Achi a zu matta..."
"I will haunt... my enemies... forever..." Blair whispered softly in interpretation.
Jim blinked in shocked surprise, sensing that his Guide had gotten it right.
"It's one... of the few phrases... that's been accurately... translated..." Blair murmured, his gaze locked with Jim's. "Part... of the Hibani... death song..."
Jim stared into the younger man's eyes for a long silent moment, then looked away, his mind turning over the truth of the phrase. He knew that what Dirkson had done would haunt him forever. As it would also haunt Blair.
"Hey... did I..." Blair's grip tightened on Jim's arm. "Did I... remember... to thank you?"
The Sentinel looked down into his Guide's exhausted face and a small smile formed on his lips.
"Yeah... you did," he said softly.
Blair's eyes flickered shut again and Jim could see the tension start to drain from his face as he gave into his body's demand's for sleep.
"Good... wouldn't... want you... to think... I wasn't... grate..." The young man's voice faded out as sleep claimed him.
Jim eased his arm out from Blair's now relaxed grip. Rising to his feet the Sentinel settled the blankets around his Guide and then stretched out on the room's second bed. He closed his eyes and with a quick series of breaths cleared his head, pushing even Dirkson's dying curse out of his mind. His last thought before he too slipped into sleep was one of pleasure as he listened to Blair's even, peaceful breathing.
~ End ~
Author's Additional Notes: I do not have a medical background, so my apologies for any incorrectness in procedures and dialogue pertaining to that area. I also admit that I made up the Hibani and the languagefor those of you who worry about that kind of thing, I offer my apologies. For those of you who enjoyed the story even with those admissions, I thank you.
E-Mail K. Ryn at firstname.lastname@example.org Return to K. Ryn's Tales of the Sentinel
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Page last updated 8/15/03.