Disclaimer: The usual. All The Sentinel regulars belong to Pet Fly and Paramount. Since all the rest of these folk are figments of odd mental aberrations on my part, they belong to me. No money earned, many sleepless nights involved.
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)
Thanks to all who have written about my stories over the past months. Real life has kept me hopping with very little time to write. I do have several new stories in the works. None are quite ready for posting, however I do have an 'old' story to offer in the meantime. <g>
The following story, Judgments, was previously published in Sentry Post #3. Linda has graciously released the story back into my hands for 'net' consumption. It has been minorly edited since the zine version was released. Per the show's timeframe, this story would take place after Warriors. I hope you enjoy it.
Judgments started out as a short story about a journey and ended up as another monster-length piece. Don't blame meblame my Muse. She obviously had a firm direction that she wanted me to takeand specific points she wanted me to make. I've learned not to argue with her. <g>
My thanks to my beta reader Carolyn, for pointing out a few 'gaping' holes and supplying virtual pats on the back; to Chris and Wendy for their encouragement and proofreading assistance; and, to Linda, for doing me the honor of including this story in her superb zine.
"What do you mean there's no bus?" Blair Sandburg asked in surprise.
"I mean there's no bus," the station attendant answered brusquely, not even raising his eyes. "The bridge to Arendo is out."
"I understand that, but I only need to go as far as the Integra Reservation," Blair explained patiently. "I'm meeting some friends to work on the new dig site. That's this side of the bridge."
"No bridge, no bus," the man snapped, his attention shifting back to the magazine in his hands.
Struggling to control his rising irritation, Blair glanced around the bus station. His eyes caught for a moment on the bright Nevada sunlight streaming in through the doors, and he felt a shiver crawl up his spine. He'd known that there was something wrong the second he'd stepped inside and found the place nearly deserted. The last time he'd been here it had been full of laughing children, people laden with suitcases, and solemn retirees. Now it was just him, an old man who was stretched out on one of the benches with a newspaper draped across his chest, and the less than cooperative attendant behind the counter. This can't be happening. Not now.
"Until when?" he pressed.
The clerk raised his head and gave Blair a scathing glare; eyeing his earrings, his long hair and his threadbare jeans in disgust. "Until they fix the bridge. Is that simple enough? Or do you want me to write it out so that you can read it over a few times? Assuming you can read, that is," the man added contemptuously.
"Now wait a minute." Blair's temper was close to erupting. Tired of being ignored, he reached over the counter to grab the man by the arm, determined to make one more attempt to get around his stonewalling.
The man pulled away as if he'd been stung by Blair's touch and practically lunged for his phone. "Get your hands off of me you Indian-loving, hippie freak!"
Blair stepped back, startled by the hatred in the man's voice. "I'm just trying to"
"You're all scum!" the attendant hissed, cutting off his protest. "I'm calling the cops. They're gonna throw your lazy ass in jail."
Blair's frustration and irritation abruptly crystallized into full blown anger. "Why you"
"Hey, partner, I'm sorry I kept you waiting." Jim Ellison was suddenly at his side, the big man's hand closing firmly on Blair's left shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
Blair glanced up and saw the flash of icy fire in his partner's eyes, the tightening of his jaw muscles. Recognizing the warning signs of his friend's temper, Blair's mouth snapped shut on the tirade he was about to let loose.
Ellison's gaze shifted to the attendant, flicking from the man's ID tag to his face. "Good morning... Mr. Weston, is it?" Jim pulled his own identification from his pocket. "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade, Washington PD. I see you've already met my partner."
With a silent groan, Blair realized that Jim must have heard every word of his 'discussion' with the man behind the counter. Jim's gold shield flashed in the man's face, his voice betraying none of the anger that Blair knew was boiling under the surface.
"I heard you talking about calling the police," Jim continued. "We're a little out of our jurisdiction, but perhaps we can help."
"Your... p-partner?" The attendant had gone pale and he barely managed to stutter out his question, his eyes flickering to Blair and then back to Jim, uncertainly.
"Blair Sandburg," Jim said, nodding toward the anthropologist. "Mr. Sandburg and I were scheduled to be on the next bus. Is there some problem?"
Blair had to drop his own gaze to hide the burst of laughter and satisfaction that bubbled up inside as the man stammered out a response to Jim's question. The attendant was talking rapidly, suddenly realizing that the 'freak' wasn't going to be such an easy target. Blair composed himself and looked up, enjoying the clerk's discomfort.
"... so you see, until the bridge is restored there's no way of crossing the river. The bus line has suspended service until that happens," Weston babbled, anxiously eyeing Ellison's towering form.
"I see," Jim said softly, his face going hard and still. His gaze locked on the clerk for what seemed like an eternity.
Blair forced himself not to laugh. He'd seen his friend do this trick before, but it never failed to amaze him how menacing and deadly Jim Ellison could appear if he wanted to.
"I... I'm sorry..." the man stammered, turning even whiter.
"I'm sure you are," Jim murmured quietly, a dangerous edge to his voice, his body tensed as if ready to spring. He held that pose for a moment, then turned casually to Blair, handing him his backpack. "Looks like we'll just have to find another way out to the reservation, partner." Jim's tone was light as he focused his smiling attention on Blair, completely dismissing the man behind the counter.
Blair didn't trust himself to speak. Nodding in agreement, he allowed Jim's firm grip on his shoulder to turn him in the direction of the door. Before stepping out into the sunlight, he paused, glancing over his shoulder. The clerk still hadn't moved and he looked like a good candidate for a stress-relief seminar. Barely smothering a chuckle at the man's discomfort, Blair let the door swing shut behind him.
Once outside, however, his feeling of smug satisfaction quickly shifted to stinging disappointment. Blair had been excited about the opportunity to see the new dig site and visit with his old friends on the reservation. More importantly, he'd been looking forward to showing Jim around, sharing a part of his life for a change. Now, that wasn't going to happen.
With a disheartened shake of his head, Blair stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and started across the street. His shuffling feet kicked up small clouds of dust as he glumly followed his partner to the small park adjacent to the bus station.
Jim dropped his travel bag on an old-fashioned iron bench. As he stretched and rolled his shoulders to work the kinks out of his back, he stole a quick look at the anthropologist, observing the range of emotions that flickered across Blair's expressive face. Troubled, Jim glanced away, scanning the small city square in frustration, struggling to control the anger he still felt at the bus station attendant's treatment of his friend.
He pretended to study their surroundings while he focused his Sentinel senses on his partner, hoping to get a clue as to what to do next. He'd caught the soft chuckle from Blair when they'd left the station and hoped that the expression currently darkening the younger man's face was due to the unexpected set back, not Jim's interference.
He hadn't expected to find trouble waiting for them in this sleepy little Nevada town, but it had been evident the moment Jim had stepped into the bus station that something was wrong. He had sent Blair ahead to check on the bus while he'd collected their bags and paid off the driver who had brought them from the airport. Without conscious effort, the Sentinel had tuned into his Guide's distress and frustration, his enhanced hearing easily picking up the attendant's snide remarks. Jim had frowned, irritated, but he'd held back, confident that Blair could handle the situation, expecting the patented Sandburg charm to smooth things over as it usually did. The sudden increase in Blair's heartbeat had pushed the alarm button on his 'Blessed Protector' instincts and he had found himself in the middle of the confrontation almost before he realized it.
It was Blair's anger which surprised him. Over the course of their rather unconventional partnership, he'd seen or felt his friend's temper only a handful of times. Blair's normal response to a tense situation was to turn the uncomfortable into a joke. Or simply ignore it. If it was bad enough, the response was flight, not confrontation. But just moments ago, the younger man had been ready to leap over the counter and take on the bigoted clerk physically. His behavior was distinctly out of character.
Blair dropped heavily onto the bench, lowering his backpack to the ground with only a little more care. His eyes were fixed on the ground; his face a closed, silent mask.
"I'm sorry if I stepped into the middle of something I shouldn't have," Jim apologized.
Blair's head snapped up, eyes wide with surprise. "What? Oh, no man, your timing was great. The look on his face when you did that 'Ellison thing' was just priceless."
"That 'Ellison thing?'"
"Yeah, you know. The stone face look. Gets 'em every time." Blair contorted his face mimicking Jim's stern expression.
Jim glared at the younger man, then let his face relax into a smile. He knew the look Blair meantthe one that he'd been accused of practicing in front of the mirrorand he felt no guilt as he remembered the pale, frantic look on the attendant's face. Serves him right for screwing with my partner.
Blair grinned back at him and then glanced around. The smile faded after a moment and he rubbed his eyes wearily. "Sorry man. Looks like we hit a major dead end here. Guess we might as well head back to the airport and find the next flight home."
Jim remained silent, studying his friend closely. The blue eyes which normally sparkled with excitement were dull and the signs of fatigue were clearly evidentthe result of too many days stretched between working with Jim, while still carrying a full load of teaching responsibilities. Not to mention the time he put in on his own research and studies.
Ellison realized abruptly that it was the station attendant's 'lazy ass' remark that had propelled him into their confrontation. While Jim might tease Blair about sleeping 'til noon or having a 'soft' teaching job, he didn't take it well when someone else tried it. Sandburg was one of the hardest working, most responsible people he'd ever met.
Blair had been pushing harder than usual over the last few weeks. Making time to sleep had been at the bottom of a very long list of priorities. When he hadn't been sitting on overnight stakeouts with Jim, the anthropologist had been frenetically grading papers and writing lesson plans for the TA who was taking over his classes for the few days that he planned to be gone. Jim had heard him moving quietly around the loft at all hours, the scratching of his pen or the soft tapping of his fingers on the keyboard carrying upstairs as the Sentinel automatically monitored his Guide's presence throughout the long nights.
And Sandburg looked thinner, especially since the searing heat of the Nevada morning had forced him out of the oversized jacket and layers of shirts he usually favored. He looked smaller and somehow vulnerable, sitting dejectedly on the park bench, dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt and a pair of his favorite worn jeans. Jim was struck suddenly by how young his friend looked. And how disappointed.
It just wasn't fair. They'd gotten this far. Surely there was another way to get out to the reservation. "What about calling your friends?" Jim offered. "Someone at the reservation must have a car. Maybe they'd drive in to get us. Must be a woman there who'd be susceptible to the Sandburg charm."
"Unfortunately they're wise to that angle," Blair said ruefully, a small smile flickering across his face. "My friend Nate's got a car, but it's in worse shape than mine. I've got too much respect for that desert to risk the drive in his bomb."
"Why don't we just rent a car ourselves?" Jim suggested, an idea forming in his head.
"Look around you, Jim," Blair said slowly. "Unless you're picking up something with that Sentinel sight of yours, I don't see any Hertz signs. That's why we were taking the bus, remember?"
"No, I mean, why don't we try to rent a car from someone in town?" Jim responded, ignoring the jibe. "There's got to be someone who wouldn't mind a little extra cash."
Blair brightened, considering the idea. But only for a moment. "Sounds good in theory, Jim, but I think we'd be better off just heading home."
Jim stared at his friend in confusion. "I don't get this, Sandburg. You've been talking about nothing else but this trip for the past three weeks. I was ready to have them sedate you to keep you in your seat on the plane. Now you're ready to just give up and head home?"
"You're usually like an immovable object once you get an idea fixed in your head," Jim continued, his eyes fixed on the younger man's face. "Giving up's not your style. What's going on?"
"Just facing reality, man," Blair answered, meeting Jim's gaze almost angrily, gesturing with a quick jerk of his head toward the bus station. "I've been here before, remember? That guy's attitude is pretty consistent with the rest of the local perspective. They might rent a car to you, Joe Friday, but they're sure as hell not going to rent one to an 'Indian-loving, hippie freak.'"
Jim grimaced at the anger and hurt in his friend's voice. Considering his words carefully, he sank down onto the bench next to Blair. "Is that how you see yourself?"
"Hey, man, this isn't about my self-image," Blair responded flippantly, reaching for his backpack. The Sentinel immediately sensed the increase in his friend's heart rate and caught his arm.
"Answer the question, Sandburg," Jim growled, vowing that for once, he was going to get a straight answer out of his friend.
Ellison felt the rigid tension in Blair's muscles; watched a flood of raw emotions flicker in the expressive blue eyes. The stress seemed so great that he was sure that the younger man was going to bolt. He was surprised, and relieved, when Blair took a deep calming breath and settled onto the bench once more.
Sandburg stared out across the park, his eyes half focused, his voice a bare whisper when he finally answered. "I learned a long time ago not to worry about what other people think about me."
The undercurrent of pain in Blair's voice merged with the loud pounding of his heartbeat and Jim 'heard' the truth that his friend was trying to obscure. He wondered again at the strange upbringing the young man had experienced as a child. Jim liked and respected Naomi, but he sensed that her Bohemian wanderings and new age philosophies would have made it very hard for Blair to be accepted by his peers.
"Jim, just let it go, okay?" Blair pleaded, still not meeting Jim's eyes.
"Do you think that's how I see you?" Ellison pressed, voicing the disconcerting question which had arisen in his own mind.
Blair's heartbeat surged again, old insecurities suddenly laid bare to the Sentinel's probing senses. Jim was hard pressed not to grab his partner and shake some sense into him. Somehow he forced himself to remain still.
"You did once," Blair finally whispered, turning his head to meet Jim's unwavering gaze. Ellison flinched and Sandburg immediately shifted gears, forcing a lightness into his tone. "But that was a first impression thing, right? We're past that. I'm not always sure about Simon and some of the other guys at the station, but you and me, we're past that now."
Despite Blair's assertion, an unspoken "Aren't we?" hung in the air between them. Jim nodded. He'd been ready to make a sarcastic, teasing retort, but the pain and uncertainty that tinged his friend's voice and filled his eyes stopped him. As did a memory. Ellison remembered guiltily that he had used some of those same insulting terms one of the first times they'd met.
"Long past it, partner," Jim said truthfully. His eyes never flinched from Blair's searching gaze and he gave his friend's arm a gentle squeeze before releasing his hold.
Blair glanced away, but the immediate lessening of the tension in the set of his shoulders reflected the relief Jim's words had provided. He finally sighed, scrubbing his face tiredly. "We'd better see about exchanging those plane tickets."
Unwilling to upset the fragile balance of understanding they'd just achieved, Jim took a deep breath of his own, weighing his next words carefully. "Look, I know that sometimes you think I get a little out of line with my 'big brother' protectiveness, but I know how much you were looking forward to this. So I'm going to ask you to keep quiet for a minute and consider something, okay?"
Blair made a gesture that could only be interpreted as 'zipping his lips', then sat back, eyeing Jim suspiciously.
"I'd like to go ahead and try to find us a car." Blair immediately opened his mouth to object, but Jim waved him off. "You can sit here and relax, enjoy the sunshine. I'll pick you up as soon as I find us some wheels and we'll head out to the reservation. It's what, a four-hour drive?"
"More like five," Blair responded, shaking his head. "Jim you don't have to do this. I'm really"
"Okay with this," Jim interrupted him. "Yeah, I know. Think of how much more 'okay' you're going to feel when the local red-necks see you driving out of town with 'Joe Friday'."
Blair stared at him for a moment, astonished. Then a grin split his face and he laughed delightedly. "Simon's right, Jim," he commented, leaning back into the park bench and relaxing. "You have been spending too much time with me. You're getting devious."
"I was devious long before you met me," Jim replied, rising to his feet and slapping his hand gently against Blair's knee. "Just sit here, and try not to get arrested for anything while I'm gone, okay, Chief?"
"Sure, Big Brother... anything you say, Big Brother," Blair teased, taking his glasses from his pocket and drawing a book from his pack.
Jim glared down at the younger man in mock irritation, then cracked a smile and headed off in pursuit of their transportation.
Peering over the top of his glasses, Blair watched Jim cross the street and enter one of the stores. Oddly enough, he found himself worried about his tall friend and sent a silent 'Watch your back' thought speeding in the Sentinel's direction. Then he shook himself, laughing at the irony of the situation. Jim wasn't the one out of place here; he was. The staggering wave of hate the clerk in the bus station had sent his way wasn't the first one of its kind that he'd ever received. He'd had a lot of experience with being the odd man out'the freak'all of his life.
It hasn't been a big deal for a long time, so why now? Blair asked himself uneasily. Why does it matter now?
He flashed back to the moment his anger had almost erupted at the attendant and realized it was not as foreign an emotion as it had seemed at the time. Suddenly he remembered a lot of black eyes and aching heads, the results of coming up against someone bigger or faster than he was.
But that was a long time ago. You were much younger and a lot dumber back then. Why let this guy get to you now?
He slipped off his glasses, tucking them back into his shirt pocket and closed his eyes, rubbing them against the fatigue that rolled through him. The station attendant's words rippled through his memory again, accompanied by older memories of other curses; other words voiced in hatred. Other taunting nicknames.
He opened his eyes again and glanced toward the stores just in time to see Jim exit a second one. The older man glanced in his direction with a thumb's up signal as he moved easily down the street and ducked into another doorway.
"Atta boy, Joe Friday," Blair snickered, using the nickname that he'd pegged for the detective on their first meeting.
He wondered whether Jim realized it was a joke. He'd always hated nicknames himself. He'd had his own share of them as he was growing up and most of them brought back less than positive memories. His own given name didn't immediately suggest one, but that hadn't stopped the kids from coming up with their own ideas. 'Flower-child.' 'Hippie.' 'Freak.' 'Bastard.' He'd fought a lot of battles over that one until his mother had stepped in and convinced him that he didn't need to fight to protect her honor, or his own.
And now he had at least a dozen more, thanks to Jim; 'Darwin,' 'Einstein,' and the ever popular, 'Chief'. Absently he wondered why those names didn't carry the same sickening rush of anxiety and the answer came to him abruptly, sitting him straight up in his seat.
It was because they came from his 'Blessed Protector.' His Sentinel. For Jim they were only words of friendly familiarity; a verbal acknowledgment of the sense of closeness and trust that he shared with very few people besides Blair. When Jim spoke those names there was no hatred, no taunting.
After years of pretending he didn't need or want it, Blair suddenly found himself immersed in a friendship that demanded complete honesty, respect and trust. He found it almost overwhelming sometimes, fearing he would let his friend down, knowing that his lack of true knowledge as to how to guide and protect the Sentinel might someday have drastic consequences.
"It's not your style," Jim had said. But there were some days when Blair wasn't sure what his style was anymore. Raised to be a wanderer by Naomito treat life as something that was to be sampled, then abandoned for the next experiencehe'd spent a lifetime not connecting with anything permanent, only to suddenly find himself sharing a loft and a life with a man who had entirely different ideals; strong ideals about stability, commitment and friendship. Without much resistance, Blair found himself adapting to his partner's perspectivesalthough sometimes it was a scramble trying to live up to them.
And that was what had set him off earlier. Jim had offered a friendship that he had never before experienced. Jim had shared a part of his life with Blairhad made him a part of his life. It was a commitment that went far beyond even the Sentinel and Guide connection. When the news about the site discoveries had reached him, Blair had jumped at the chance to offer a glimpse into his own life in return.
He'd been frantic to make sure all the basis were coveredhis classes, Jim's paperwork, everything. He'd even managed to pay for their plane tickets by wheedling a travel stipend out of the anthropology department. Everything had been going fine. No last minute case, no raging lunatics from their past showing up at the gate of the airport. The plane had even been on time and the seat next to Jim's had been empty so he'd been able to sit through the long ride in relative comfort, his long legs stretched out instead of cramped into the seat in front of him. And now, a few hours from their destination, they'd hit a major road block. It was the frustration of a plan gone awry, combined with a few choice comments from a bigot, that had blown his cork.
"Hey, you're not from around here."
Blair looked up abruptly into the face of a young woman.
"No, I'm not," agreed Blair, smiling tentatively.
She smiled back, touched the book in his hands and grimaced when she saw the title. "You actually like to read this old stuff?" The expression on her face and the tone of her voice reflected her disbelief as she curled up on the bench next to him.
"Yeah, I do. I'm an anthropologist," Blair admitted, chuckling and offering his hand. "My name's Blair Sandburg."
"Connie Phillips." She took his hand and shook it, but didn't let go. "An anthropologist? Does that mean you only study dead people?" she asked, leaning forward suggestively.
"Actually, my current subject is alive and well, thank you," Blair answered, grinning at her obvious flirtations.
"Where are you from?"
"Cascade... Washington. A friend of mine and I came down to check out the new dig site at the reservation." Blair eyed her warily for a moment before adding, "... and to see some old friends there."
"So, you got a car?" she asked with studied innocence, snuggling closer. "Maybe we could go out there, together. Would your friends mind if I tagged along?"
"No... no I'm sure they wouldn't," Blair stammered.
Caught off guard by her aggressive advances, he eyed the attractive woman sitting next to him uncertainly. Blonde, blue-eyed, with a figure not diminished by the shapeless waitress uniform she wore, she looked to be in her early twenties. Normally, he'd be more than willing to pursue this and see where it went, but today... He cleared his throat and nervously pushed his hair back, weighing his words carefully. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, after all.
"The problem is we don't have a car. We were going to take the bus, but with the bridge out we're kind of stuck. My friend's trying to see if anyone has something we could rent."
"Jake's got a car he'd probably let you have," she offered, squeezing his hand gently.
"Jake?" Blair brightened immediately. Come on, Sandburg, where's that charm Jim's always kidding you about?
"Yeah, he runs the only garage in town. Just a block off the main street," she added, pointing out the direction. "His name's Jake. Jake Sanders. He's usually got an extra car that he lends out when he's fixing one for somebody."
"You really think he'd let me rent it?" Blair asked dubiously.
"Sure. He's a nice guy. Not like some of the other jerks in this town. Offer him a good price and he won't care who you are, or what you're wearing."
Blair's grin widened even further at her comments and he was almost ready to bounce off the bench in his excitement.
"We could walk over there now, if you want. I could tell him you're a good friend. It might even help lower the price." Connie leaned toward him and Blair realized that she was planning to kiss him.
The sudden screech of brakes and the roar of an angry voice caused him to shift backward in alarm.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
Startled, Blair realized that Connie had moved away from him. She was standing a few feet from the bench, staring at the beatup convertible that had just pulled up with an anxious, almost fearful expression on her face. Blair grimaced as the driver launched himself out of the vehicle, heading straight toward them, his face contorted with anger.
Great... the angry boyfriend.
The other two occupants in the car were also climbing out, not bothering to open the doors. Why is it the tough guys always do that? Blair wondered cynically. He watched them closely and decided that the best course of action was to sit still and see how things played out. The three men were all in their mid twenties, all at least six feet tall and each outweighed him by a good thirty pounds.
"Ben let go! You're hurting me!"
Connie's fearful exclamation snapped Blair's attention back to the driver. The young man she'd identified as 'Ben' had grabbed her by the arm and was shaking her angrily.
"You were supposed to wait for me at the diner," Ben snarled. "Instead I find you here practically climbing down this guy's throat."
"Nothing happened!" Connie protested. "I was just"
"Shut up you lying little slut!" Ben snarled, shaking her again.
Instinctively, Blair reacted, rising from the bench and taking a step forward. "Hey man, ease off. She's telling you the truth."
His words had an immediate effect. Ben's attention abruptly shifted to Blair and he found himself halted in mid-stride by the force of the young man's hatred.
"You talkin' to me, freak?"
Jeez, that was a mistake, Blair reprimanded himself, but he held his ground, meeting the younger man's angry gaze as calmly as he could. "I'm just asking you to cool down, man," Blair responded in the most reasonable tones he could manage, aware of Connie's frightened expression. "You're making a mistake. Nothing happened here."
"He was just looking for a car to rent," Connie interjected. "I was telling him about Jake"
"A mistake?" Ben asked softly, ignoring her comments, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
The other two young men closed up ranks behind their leader and Blair groaned silently. This was going from bad to worse. He could almost hear Simon's voice in his head'What's with you Sandburg? You attract trouble like a dog attracts fleas!'
He felt himself tensing under their scrutiny and wondered whether he remembered enough of his self-defense lessons to keep himself from getting pulverized. Jim where are you? Now would be a good time for the 'big brother' routine.
Face dark with rage, Ben took a menacing step forward. Blair took a deep breath, preparing himself for the worst. Help suddenly arrived from an unexpected source.
"Ben, come on, honey," Connie murmured soothingly, no longer struggling to get away from her boyfriend, but clinging to him suggestively. "You promised me a ride."
Ben paused, his attention still on Blair. Connie snuggled up to him, whispering into his ear. Blair didn't need his partner's enhanced hearing to know what she was saying; not by the way Ben's face looked, his expression changing from rage to lustful interest almost immediately.
"A ride, Ben, remember?" Connie said persuasively, pulling at his arm.
Ben's gaze shifted to her for a moment and then immediately focused on Blair again. "I'll deal with you later," he snarled, planting his hand in the anthropologist's chest and shoving him backward.
"Yeah, sure... later," Blair muttered as he regained his balance. He watched Connie pull her boyfriend away while keeping tabs on the other two young men who seemed reluctant to leave him standing in one piece.
"Jens, Harvey, come on."
Responding to their leader's voice, the two thugs-in-training gave Blair a sneering glare before returning to the car.
Ben gunned the engine and the car roared away with a screech of tires. Blair kept an eye on them until the convertible wheeled around a corner. Once they were out of sight, he took a deep breath and sank down on the bench.
"That went well," he murmured aloud, shaking his head and running his fingers through his hair nervously. That does it. No more kissing strange girls in parks until you have Jim run a complete background check on themname, address, status of boyfriends, size of boyfriends, mental health of boyfriends... He could feel his heart pounding and he wondered why he wasn't shaking all over. Blair closed his eyes and took a deep breath and then another, trying to calm his frayed nerves with some of his mediation techniques.
After a few minutes the breathing exercises helped, and he found himself chuckling at his run of luck. Things hadn't turned out so badly after all. He'd managed to escape the confrontation without any bruises, although this did seem to be his day to have people saving him from himselffirst Jim and now Connie. But the good news was that she'd given him a lead to a car and a way to get out of town. One thing was certain, he didn't intend to run into Ben and his buddies again. Not even with Jim around.
"What went well?"
Startled, Blair spun around in surprise. Thinking that they'd snuck up on him and expecting to be attacked at any minute, he almost gibbered in relief when he saw that it was Jim.
"Easy, Chief," Jim cautioned. "What's up?"
"Nothing." Blair rose to his feet and shook his head. "You startled me, that's all," he explained, embarrassed to admit what had actually happened. "Any luck?" he asked brightly, hoping to redirect the conversation.
Jim's face grew tight and his eyes glittered angrily. "No. I even stopped into the local cop shop. The sheriff's out of town somewhere and his deputy wasn't particularly helpful. Guess they've never heard of Joe Friday."
"Guilt by association." Catching his partner's odd, questioning glance Blair added, "News travels fast in a town this size. Sorry, man."
"Well, I'm not finished yet," Jim said determinedly, his jaw clenching even tighter. His expression suddenly changed and he glanced at Blair curiously. "What 'went well'?"
Blair stared at him in confusion.
"I heard you from the other end of the park," Jim explained. "You said, 'That went well.'"
"Oh." Blair felt himself starting to blush in embarrassment and reached down to pick up his book and stuff it into his backpack, hoping that the Sentinel wasn't 'listening' closely enough to pick up his thundering pulse. "I was talking to one of the local kids," he responded, finally raising his head to meet Jim's gaze. "She gave me a possible lead on a car."
"She?" Jim flashed an amused, knowing smile. "I should have known. And how old was 'she'?"
"Old enough to give me directions," Blair answered, grinning. "Come on."
An hour later they were on the highway, headed out of town. Blair closed his eyes, settling himself deeper into the comfortable seat. Things had gone better than he'd hoped. Connie had been right: Jake had turned out to be a nice guy. Better than niceonce they'd gotten him out from under the hood of the car he was working on and explained what they were after. He'd given them a long, hard look before he'd agreed, but then he'd made them a surprisingly good dealone that even Blair's meager budget could afford. And he'd rented them his own car, not the beater that he usually lent out.
The result was that they were now driving a three-year-old, dark green Chevy, complete with air conditioning, tape deck and cruise control. When he'd learned of their destination, Jake had thrown in two ten-gallon cans filled with gas and an extra water jug, explaining that it was standard procedure for anyone heading across the desert.
Jim had wanted to stop for something to eat, but Blair had convinced him that a quick run through the local grocery store for some on-the-road supplies would be enough. Jim had agreed without too much argument and while he'd gone in to get the groceries Blair had called out to the reservation, leaving a message on Nate's answering machine to let his friend know they were coming.
Blair shifted in his seat, relaxing for the first time in weeks. As his mind drifted toward sleep, two nagging problems emerged: Connie was one of them. While he really had appreciated her rescuing him from her boyfriend, he couldn't help but feel a little guilty and worried about her safety. He promised himself that he'd talk to Jim about her and see if maybe they could check into that situation when they came back. Of course, that brought up problem number two; he really should have told Jim what had happened at the park. The threat from Connie's boyfriend echoed loudly in Blair's head. "I'll deal with you later..." Maybe it was just all air, and then again, maybe not. The safest thing to do was to get out of town and let it blow over. I'll talk to Jim about it later.
Problems resolved for the moment, he settled more deeply into the seat.
Jim heard his friend's heartbeat slow to the even, measured pattern of sleep. He smiled in satisfaction as he adjusted his sunglasses and fixed his gaze on the road. His sensitive nose picked out the freon discharge of the air conditioner at work, but he didn't turn it off. It was already hot out there and it was going to get hotter.
Two hours later, Jim was shifting uncomfortably in his seat, trying to ward off a growing headache. The blazing sun made his eyes hurt, even behind the polarized lenses. The heat, rising off the pavement in endless shimmering waves, made it hard to focus on anything and he blinked again, tiredly.
Ellison glanced over at his sleeping partner and sighed. He'd hoped to let Blair rest for a while longer, but he needed a break. Easing the car over to the side of the road, he pulled to a stop.
"What's up?" Blair questioned sleepily, the brief lurch of the braking car waking him from his 'dead-to-the-world' slumber.
"Nothing's wrong, Chief. I just need a break. Your turn to drive."
"Break... drive... oh, yeah, right..." Blair stammered groggily, squirming to sit upright. He rubbed his eyes, blinked, and then winced. "Man, that sun is bright!" he yelped, digging in his pack and dragging out a pair of sunglasses. "You got it dialed down, man?" he asked, shooting a concerned glance at Jim.
"Any further and I'd be driving with my eyes closed," Jim answered wryly, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
"Headache?" Blair asked softly, his voice modulating to a soothing pitch.
"Just a small one," Jim admitted, putting his glasses back on.
"You should have stopped sooner," Blair admonished. He dug in his pack again and pulled out a small bottle, handing it to Jim. "These should help."
"I don't know if I'm up to one of your voodoo remedies," Ellison cautioned, viewing the unlabeled bottle warily. Blair shifted to kneel on the seat, reaching into the back and digging through the bags of groceries that they'd purchased.
"Aspirin, Ellison." Blair pulled out a bottle of water and plunked it in Jim's hand. "Straight over-the-counter pharmaceuticals."
Jim gave him a suspicious stare, then nodded his thanks. He pulled out two caplets and swallowed them with a gulp of water.
"You hungry? Want something else to drink?" Blair's voice was muffled as he leaned even further over the seat.
Jim thought longingly of how good a cold beer would taste at that moment, but shook his head. "This is fine. I grabbed my sandwich while you were sleeping. You should eat something though."
"I will," Blair assured him, still digging. "Where... oh, here... great."
"I had something more substantial in mind with that suggestion, Chief," Jim commented, noting the bag of granola and bottle of water that Blair dropped onto the seat next to him. "There's still a sandwich left."
"No way, man. That's processed mystery meat. You have any idea what's in that stuff? Scary!"
"No scarier than some of the stuff I've found in your side of the refrigerator."
Blair grinned at the familiar jibe and pushed down on the handle to open the door. "Ugh..."
Ellison forced back a smile as Blair scrambled out and then climbed out himself. Even with his Sentinel ability to lower his own tactile awareness, the heat was still intense. The difference in temperature hit him immediately, intensified by the coolness of the air-conditioned car.
"God, I'd forgotten how hot it can get out here!" Blair exclaimed. "It's like walking into a oven."
"Oh, I don't know... doesn't feel that bad to me," Jim teased, schooling himself to an expression of innocence as he stretched. Blair flashed him a glare, and pulled his hair back into a loose ponytail as he stomped around to the driver's side.
Ellison grinned and moved to the passenger's side, reaching down to shift the seat back before sliding in. Blair settled into the driver's seat and then paused, an odd expression on his face as he realized that his feet didn't even reach the pedals. Jim hid another smile as he heard the younger man fumble with the seat lever and mumble something about "living with a giraffe," and "thank God for bucket seats." Stretching his legs as far as he could, Jim closed his eyes, sighing in relief.
"So, where are we?" Blair asked, as he started the car and eased it out onto the road.
"Just past the half-way point," Jim answered, not bothering to open his eyes. "We're making good time. Think I'll take a nap and see if I can shake the rest of this headache."
"This has got to be a first," Blair mused quietly, amusement coloring his voice. "You never sleep while I'm driving. Not that you let me drive that often, but"
"I haven't seen another car for an hour and a half," Ellison responded, cutting off Blair's ramblings. "And it's a straight shot to the reservation. Not even you can get lost out here."
Jim heard Blair's soft chuckle and knew that his partner's good humor had returned in full force. He shifted once more to ease a kink in his left leg and took a deep breath, relaxing into sleep.
Blair was fidgeting before he'd driven more than 30 minutes. He didn't do 'still' well. Not ever. And especially not when he was excited. The nap had re-energized him and he was impatient to get to the reservation. A fragment of music teased at the edge of his mind and he caught himself tapping the steering wheel in time to the beat. He glanced anxiously at Jim to see if he'd awakenedhis drumming fingers would have sounded like pounding hammers to his partner's enhanced hearingbut his friend hadn't budged.
Letting out a sigh of relief, he turned his attention to the road, taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to settle his energy level. Moments later, he was practically bouncing in his seat again. He contemplated switching off the cruise control, but he decided against it, realizing that in his current state he'd probably end up varying his speed so much that he'd make Jim crazy.
He gripped the wheel firmly and then found himself almost laughing out loud at the number of adjustments he was making for Jim's benefit. If anyone had told him two years ago that he'd be changing his own patterns to accommodate someone else he would have laughed them out of the room. Of course, that was before he'd met Jim Ellison. Now he was constantly adapting his behavior to suit the older man's rules. Some of those rules made sensemost of them having to do with the proper procedures of police work. But some of them were just anal. Like the house rulesno flushing after 10 o'clock, no drinking out of the orange juice carton, no shoes on the couch.
Blair found himself smiling again, recognizing that he was, in Jim's terms, finally getting 'housebroken'. Oddly enough, adapting to his partner's patterns was easier and more natural than he would ever have thoughtalthough he still protested vehemently whenever Jim brought up some new rule. It was particularly easy to adjust when it came to his partner's Sentinel abilities. Blair had seen the discomfort and pain in his friend's eyes often enough to know that having enhanced senses wasn't always a comfortable thing.
That was what it was all aboutfriendship. You did things for friends that you didn't do for co-workers or acquaintances or even college deans. You made adjustments for friends. You made accommodations for them. Of course, Blair had never had a friend like Jim. He carried the whole concept to an entirely different level, with a commitment that sometimes left Blair wondering about his own.
With Jim Ellison, friendship was a very direct, straightforward thing and once given, it carried over into everything. Blair's own approach was a little more complicated. He was used to categorizing people based on the responsibilities or feelings that he had for them. With Jim that was getting harder to do. As Jim's Guide, he was teacher and protector. As his partner, he acted as a sounding board while he offered advice and watched the detective's back. As a friend, he adjusted. And then there was the whole Shaman issue which he was still trying to come to grips with. But the more time Blair spent with Jim, the more things kept getting mixed up; he could no longer tell just where the differences lay between Guide, Shaman, partner and friend.
Blair was so absorbed with his thoughts that he didn't even see the car that was barreling down the road toward them until it was only a few hundred feet away. With a startled jerk, he gripped the wheel and made sure that his daydreaming hadn't caused him to drift into the wrong lane.
He glanced to his left as the car flashed by and as his mind registered on the details of car and occupants, his stomach suddenly lurched. Frantically, he glanced up into the rear-view mirror, holding his breath as the car pulled away. He was about to relax and breathe again when he caught a flash of red tail lights.
Oh great, he groaned silently, shifting his eyes between the road ahead of him and the reflected image of the other car. Beatup convertible, angry driver, two no-necks and a pretty girl show up on your tail in the middle of nowhere. Wonder who that could be and what they want? he asked himself sarcastically, pressing his foot down on the gas.
Blair glanced anxiously at his partner, who, wonder of wonders, was still sleeping soundly. He must be as exhausted as I was. He started to reach out to shake his friend awake, genuinely regretting that he hadn't told Jim about Ben and his friends earlier. The sudden blare of a horn made him clutch the wheel and the car swerved a bit before he got it straightened out.
Blair heard Jim's groggy question, but his teeth were clenched together as he concentrated on driving and he couldn't answer. He risked a glance at the rearview mirror again and realized that the they were no longer behind him. They were pulling up alongside.
"Sandburg," he heard Jim growl as he pressed his foot on the gas once more and swerved to the right to avoid the other car.
"Sorry, Jim. I'm a little busy right now," Blair muttered as he struggled to keep the car on the road.
Jim caught the panic in his friend's voice and snapped fully awake, jerking upright in his seat. "Hit the brakes," he ordered as he caught a flash of the convertible swerving toward them.
Blair reacted immediately, jamming his foot down on the brake pedal. The Chevy started to nose-dive and he gripped the wheel, fighting to keep control of the car. Jim grabbed onto the shoulder belt with one hand, his other cushioning his collision with the dash. There was a moment when they both thought that the convertible would hit them, then it swerved and tore off down the road.
The Chevy screeched to a stop, fish-tailing to end perpendicular to the highway. Assailed by the smell of burning rubber and abused brake linings, Jim winced, but he kept his gaze on the horizon, the convertible now out of even his enhanced sight.
Jim turned to look at Blair, registering the shakiness in his partner's voice, picking up on the pounding heartbeat and the rapid breathing. "You okay?" he asked softly, reaching out to touch the younger man on the arm.
"Did you get a good look at them?" Blair asked tersely, his voice oddly flat.
"Older model convertible, three men, mid twenties and a young woman," Jim responded after a moment's search of his memory. "Probably some local kids with too much to drink, out for a joyride."
"They'll be back..." Blair whispered dully, his hands still clenching the wheel.
"I doubt it," Jim answered, eyeing the horizon again. "Pop the trunk, will you, Chief? I want to make sure nothing got shifted around back there."
Blair's gaze shifted to him and Jim could see the confusion in his friend's eyes. Suddenly understanding clicked in and the color drained from the younger man's face.
"Hey, easy, buddy. Are you all right?"
Blair took a shuddering breath and shook his head. He slumped back in the seat and closed his eyes. Jim watched him closely, monitoring his vital signs, but he could find no sign of an injury. Reaching beyond Blair, Jim popped the trunk latch. He did a quick tour around the car, checking for damage. Finding nothing, he opened the trunk, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw the two gas cans still strapped in their places. Satisfied, he returned to the passenger side and eased onto the seat.
"Everything's fine back there," he said encouragingly. "We should get moving. You okay to drive?"
"Yeah... yeah, I'm fine... just dealing with the aftermath of another one of my screw-ups that could have gotten us killed, but I'm fine..."
The bitterness in Blair's voice made Jim frown. "Sandburg, I know that line that Simon's always giving you about attracting trouble, and the truth is you do have a way of finding it. But trust me, you are not responsible for every crazy thing that happens. Besides, we haven't been here long enough for someone to want to kill you." Jim added the last part lightly, hoping to ease his partner over the worst of his scare.
The eyes that Blair turned on him were tortured and filled with doubt.
Blair's mind reeled with the possibilities of what could have happened.
I should have told him... I made the mistake of not taking them seriously and they nearly killed us... if I'd told Jim about it... he would have been ready... the gas cans... what if they'd tipped?... they could have exploded... Jim... Jim could have been killed...
Just tell him... you owe it to him to tell him... What kind of partner are you?... What kind of Guide... What kind of friend?
"Blair, talk to me..."
What if they come back?
With a panicked gasp, Blair cranked the car to life and put his foot on the gas, wrenching the wheel around. Jim felt his door swing open at the movement. Seeing his Guide's eyes wide with terror, he grabbed for the wheel to keep the car on the road, and to keep himself from being thrown out.
Suddenly, Blair hit the brakes again, snubbing the car to a stop. His hands jerked away from the wheel and he pressed himself into the seat, shuddering.
Jim released his own hold on the wheel and placed his hand on the back of the younger man's neck, gently massaging the tight muscles. He remained silent, monitoring Blair's racing heartbeat. Slowly, he felt the tension ease and 'heard' the pounding pulse slow to a more normal rate.
"I'm sorry, Jim... I almost did it again..." the whisper was so soft, that even with his Sentinel hearing, he almost missed the words.
"Tell me what happened at the park."
Blair flashed him a shocked glance. "How did you?"
"I'm a detective, remember?" Jim responded, mentally kicking himself for not picking up on Blair's odd behavior earlier. "I'm supposed to be good at putting together clues. Just tell me what happened."
Haltingly, Blair told him about his confrontation with Ben at the park. As he talked, Jim heard not just the words, but also the embarrassment and regret in his young friend's voice. While the lines of fatigue were evident on his face and in the posture of his body, it was more than just physical tiredness that the Sentinel felt emanating from his Guide. It was a tiredness of the spirit. A spirit that Jim cherished and felt compelled to protect.
"You did the right thing," Jim assured him, when Blair had finished.
"You did the right thing. Three against one are not good odds."
"Never stops you."
"Sure it has. Lots of times. More often since you've been with me."
Blair shook his head, still refusing to meet Jim's eyes.
"Blair, I used to be a maverick. Used to drive Simon crazy. I'd go off for days at a time, never calling in, just handling whatever needed to be handled. Almost got myself killed a dozen times. It wasn't that I didn't care what happened. I didn't have a death wish or anything like that, but I think I had less appreciation for life before I met you."
Jim waited until Blair raised his head and met his gaze before continuing. "You've made a difference in my life, Chief. Not just with these senses, but with my perceptions. I do think about the odds now. Not just because you're with me, but because I value my life a great deal more than I did before. You did the right thing back there. You kept your head and got out of a bad situation, without anybody getting hurt."
"I should have told you," Blair whispered. "You would have been ready in case they did show up. Face it man, my ego got in the way and almost got you killed. You deserve better"
"I'm satisfied with what I've got."
Blair looked away, his gaze focused on the horizon where the convertible had disappeared.
"This hasn't been a good day for you, has it?" Jim asked softly.
Blair gave Jim a halfhearted smile. "Actually it's had some high points. Right now they're outnumbering the low ones."
"Good. Then let's get going. I'd like to make it to the reservation before midnight. You drive and I'll ride shotgun," Ellison added, catching the look of uncertainty in Blair's face. "I don't think they'll be back for another shot, Chief, but if they do, we'll be ready."
Blair took a deep breath and nodded, starting the engine and shifting into gear carefully as he eased the Chevy out onto the road.
"So, tell me again about your friend Nate. Where'd you two meet?" Jim tried to keep his tone light, hoping that the casual question would help divert his friend's mind from what they'd just gone through.
Blair shot him a wry smile, communicating the fact that he recognized what Jim was trying to do. Turning his gaze to the highway, he began to talk, slipping into his storytelling mode. Jim saw his hands relax on the steering wheel, the tension beginning to ease as what were obviously good memories started to take the sting out of the day's experiences.
The Sentinel, however, was anything but relaxed. In his mind he replayed the scene at the bus station and then used the details Blair had supplied to flesh out what had happened at the park. A rush of anger swept through him and he turned his head so that the younger man wouldn't see his reaction.
How dangerous are these guys? Jim found himself wondering, his gaze flickering back to the highway again. Were they just some local bullies filled with hot air, or was there more? From Blair's reaction to the one called Ben, Jim guessed that there was a definite threat there. His partner was a good judge of character, whether he wanted to give himself credit for it or not. It was entirely possible that his Guide's instinct for self-preservation had kept him out of something very nasty. Maybe the game of tag on the highway had been just an attempt to frighten them, and maybe it was something more serious.
"Slow down," Ellison ordered abruptly, catching sight of a familiar shape in the distance.
Blair's foot eased off on the accelerator and glanced at Jim nervously. "What is it?"
"There's something up ahead. On the side of the road."
Blair scanned the highway anxiously. All he could see was a black spot shimmering in the heat. "What do you want to do?" The thought of meeting up with Ben and his buddies sent a shiver down his spine.
"Just keep going. Take it slow," Jim answered. Reaching into the back seat, the detective pulled his gun out of his bag.
Blair swallowed hard and kept driving, his eyes glued to the road, straining to see what Jim had already seen. Finally, he recognized the distinctive shape of the convertible, sitting at an odd angle just off the side of the road. The front end was pitched down, out of sight, as if it had been driven into a ditch. There were no signs of life. He glanced over at the older man questioningly. The detective shook his head, his concentration on the car ahead of them.
"Pull up another twenty feet and stop."
Jim opened the door as Blair cut the engine. Listening intently, the Sentinel could hear the music blaring from the radio, and underneath that, what he thought were muffled heartbeats. Climbing cautiously out of the car, he saw the skid marks that tracked tight 's' curves across the road.
"Looks like they lost control and ended up in the ditch," he reported. He focused again, but all he heard were the same sounds. Tucking his gun into the back of his belt, he glanced at Blair.
"I'm not getting much. Someone's in the car, but they're not moving around. If they lost it at the speed they were traveling, they might be hurt. Stay here, I'm going to check it out."
"Jim, I don't think that's such a good idea," Blair objected, the shiver he'd felt earlier pricking at the hairs on the back of his neck.
"Just stay here."
Blair's hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as he watched Jim walk toward the car. "Be careful, man." A slight nod told him that the Sentinel had heard the whispered warning.
Blair watched nervously as Jim stopped at the driver's door, leaning forward, as if to check something. The breath caught in his throat when he saw someone move from the back seat, rising up to tower over his partner. There was a flash in the sunlight and he saw Jim stagger backward, collapsing to the ground.
The agonized cry tore out of Blair's throat and he was out of the car, running toward his fallen partner. "Get away from him!" he screamed as he saw Ben leap from the convertible and reach down toward Jim's motionless body.
Ben straightened and raised Jim's gun. Desperate to reach his friend, Blair simply opted to ignore it. That worked until the explosive discharge of the .38 caliber handgun pummeled his ears and a burning sensation knifed through his leg. Stunned, he went sprawling, thrusting out his arms to break his fall. He hit the pavement with enough force to drive most of the air from his lungs, but he forced himself to his knees. Blinding pain shot through him as something hard hit his stomach, dropping him to the burning asphalt again. He rolled to his back and tried to focus his blurred vision on the figure that wavered above him.
"I told you we'd meet again," Ben sneered.
Blair willed aching stomach muscles to function and tried to sit up. Ben kicked him in the shoulder, dropping him to his back. Frantically, Blair tried to turn so that he could look behind him, to where he'd seen Jim fall. Ben kicked him again and he doubled up in agony.
"Ben, stop it!"
Blearily, Blair recognized Connie's voice and blinked his eyes open. Ben loomed over him. Jim's gun was pointed at his head. Blair stared up at the dark muzzle of the revolver, only vaguely aware of Connie struggling with the other two. Anger washed through him. He wanted nothing more than to wipe the smirk off Ben's face, but a stronger voice was screaming in his head, reminding him that his Sentinel needed him. Jim was hurt. Blair might be angry enough to lose his own life in an unsuccessful attempt to strike back at Ben, but then what would happen to Jim?
"Don't do it, man," Blair gasped, forcing his eyes to focus on Ben's face, instead of the gun.
Something inside of him rebelled and he clenched his teeth, refusing to answer. Ben's face hardened and Blair heard the gun cock, ready to fire.
"Say it," Ben demanded, the hate and intent naked in his eyes.
Anger warred with caution and for the space of two heartbeats Blair refused to listen, but Jim's need outweighed his pride.
"Please," he whispered. "Don't shoot."
Ben held the gun on him for what seemed to be a lifetime, then suddenly raised it, firing into the air. Blair flinched at the sound and Ben laughed. Blind anger flared to life again and Blair started to raise himself from the pavement, his only thought to put his hands around his tormentor's throat. Ben was quicker. The angry youth delivered another kick to Blair's already bruised stomach, flattening him once more.
Blair lay on his side, struggling to draw air into his tortured lungs. He heard Connie's shrill protests, the scuffle of feet and then the sound of car doors slamming. An engine revved and he forced himself to raise his head. The Chevy leapt forward. In desperation, he rolled to the side. The car streaked past, missing him by less than a foot. He heard the squeal of the tires as the car swerved around and headed back toward him. Lurching awkwardly to his feet, Blair scrambled out of the way once more. Gasping for breath, he kept his eyes glued to the car, certain that they'd be back for another try. The Chevy's wheels spun, burned rubber and showered him with loose gravel as it sped away.
Blair sank to the ground, watching in disbelief until the car was out of sight. He closed his eyes and a tremor racked his aching muscles. He felt numb inside. All he wanted to do was go to sleepto escape from this nightmare. He wanted to get away from the screaming voice inside his head, too. He screwed his eyes shut even tighter, hoping the spinning blackness would send it into oblivion, but it just shrieked louder.
Jim is hurt... he needs your help.
Blair tried to turn and locate his friend. Bruised muscles protested and nearly doubled him over again. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to his knees. When he attempted to get to his feet, a burning pain in his left leg stopped him. He looked down at the ugly inch-deep furrow that the bullet had plowed across his upper thigh. It was bleeding freely.
At least the bullet's not still in there. Just think of it as a 'scratch'. It may hurt like hell, but you're still alive. You can stick a band aid on it latera BIG band aid. Get your butt in gear and see to your partner.
Stubbornly, he lifted his head, focusing on the motionless detective. Settling for an awkward half-crawl, half-drag combination, Blair worked his way to his friend's side.
"Jim... wake up," he pleaded, horrified by the blood that was streaming down his partner's face. He slipped out of his t-shirt and held it against the ugly gash at Jim's left temple, hoping to at least slow the bleeding. "Come on, man... don't do this... don't die on me..."
He lost track of how long he sat there, cradling his injured partner's head in his hands, repeating the urgent mantra. Finally there was a responsea low moan. With a sign that Jim was still alive, Blair's mind began to work again.
Help. Jim needed help.
"An ambulance with about a dozen EMTs and all sorts of fancy gear would be just the thing right now, don't you think so, Jim? I mean, I know I'm usually against all that techno-crap, but I really think I could be persuaded in this case." Blair winced at the panicked edge to his voice and knew he was close to losing it.
That's the last thing Jim needs right now.
Easing the older man's head back to the pavement, he pushed himself to his feet. He needed to deal with Jim's head wound. Stop the bleeding. Clean it first. He needed water for that. In the trunk...
He took an unsteady step toward the Chevy before he remembered it was gone. The impact of that loss almost dropped him back to his knees. They'd taken everything. The water, the food, his precious backpack... Blair almost sobbed in despair and reeled backward into the convertible. His eyes drifted to Jim's motionless form and he struggled to regain control over his emotions.
He felt the pounding heat of the sun. Water... they needed water. He thought longingly of the jug that Jake had loaded in the trunk of the Chevy, wishing he had just a cup of it.
The trunk... Jake had put it in the trunk... standard procedure...
Lurching to the rear of the convertible, Blair hammered at the trunk in frustration, then staggered back to the driver's door. Flinging it open he searched frantically for the release, nearly breaking it off when he yanked it upward. Returning to the back end of the car he jerked the trunk open, a mad giggle of relief burbling out when he saw the water jug.
Blair settled Jim on the ground against the right rear tire of the convertible, careful to avoid the searing hot metal of the car's frame. The way the vehicle listed to the right in its nose-dive position made him nervous, but it was the only patch of shade available, and getting his partner out of the burning sun was high on Blair's list of priorities.
With a grimace of pain, he sank down next to Jim. Wrapping his fingers around the older man's wrist he closed his eyes, concentrating on the steady pulse that throbbed beneath his touch.
Grateful for at least that much reassurance, he opened his eyes and stared listlessly at their surroundings. Rippled waves of heat rose from the pavement, distorting everything in their sickening dance. Beyond the highway, the flat, monotone landscape seemed to mock him with its total absence of movement. Memories of his first trip to the reservation came back unbidden, reminding him of the fragile line between life and death in the unforgiving desert.
He shuddered and shifted his gaze to the older man once more, scanning his partner for any sign of returning consciousness. He knew that Jim's chances for survival dropped the longer he was out.
"Come on, man... where's that hard head when I need it working for me instead of against me?" he murmured, barely restraining himself from giving Jim a desperate shake.
He reached out and pulled the water bottle closer. Carefully pouring only a few drops into the cap, he tipped it to Jim's partly open lips, hoping the precious fluid might revive his friend. But there was no response. Grimly, he poured another capful and drank it himself before screwing the lid back on the jug.
He shifted slightly and hissed through clenched teeth as pain shot through his left leg. With both hands he grabbed the fabric of his jeans and levered the limb into a more comfortable position. He'd managed to rig a crude bandage from an old, relatively clean shirt that he'd found in the back seat of the convertible. His own t-shirt had been reduced to little more than scraps after he'd dealt with Jim's head injury. There was barely enough left to cover his shoulders, but even that scant protection was welcome against the sun's burning rays.
His leg throbbed again and he grimaced at the sight of fresh blood staining the wrappings. It's just all the moving around. It'll be fine if you just sit still for a few minutes, he told himself.
But the silent assurance that he tried to feed his whirling mind wasn't working. The problem was that he couldn't sit still. He'd managed to get Jim's head wound cleaned and bandaged and had taken care of his own injury to the best of his ability, but that was only the first step in a long line of many. He had to figure a way out of the mess he'd gotten them into. Blair couldn't ignore the fact that if the run in with Ben and his buddies at the park had never happened, then they wouldn't have been attacked on the road and Jim wouldn't have been hurt.
God, what if he doesn't wake up... What if there's some kind of internal hemorrhaging?
The horrifying thought of losing his Sentinel ate at the slim control he'd managed over his emotions. With a groan, Blair wrapped his arms around his aching stomach and rocked slowly, struggling to take one breath at a time, fighting to push away the despair-filled thoughts.
Get a grip... Jim needs you thinking... not falling apart... he's depending on you, damn it!
Gathering every ounce of willpower he could find, he forced himself to sit still and concentrate on breathing. After a few minutes, the trembling that had gripped his body eased. A quick glance at his partner showed him that nothing had changed. He could see the even rise and fall of the Sentinel's chest. The small patch of blood spotting the bandage on his head hadn't grown any larger.
Swallowing hard, Blair grabbed onto the car and pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the blistering feel of the sun-fired metal. With their injuries addressed, the next order of business was transportation and the only thing available was the convertible. Wishing he'd spent at least one session in auto shop instead of opting for all the extra science classes, Blair made a slow circuit of the vehicle. To his uneducated eye, there appeared to be nothing wrong with the car, other than the fact that it was half in the ditch. The suspicion that Ben had faked the accident in order to draw them into a trap dawned quickly. Anger flared and Blair used it as fuel to feed his burning need to keep moving.
Opening the passenger-side door, he peered inside and found that the keys were still in the ignition. A delighted smile filled his face and he turned to look down at his partner.
"Hey, man... maybe our luck's changing here. All we need to do is get this baby started and then I'll get you to a doctor."
Buoyed by that positive thought, Blair made his way around the front end, doing another quick check underneath to make sure that there was no visible damage. He glanced down the highway toward the reservation and then back toward town, already trying to decide which might be the best choice once they got moving. He froze when he caught sight of a tiny black shape wavering in the distance, like a fly struggling in a spider's web. The shape seemed to increase in size before his eyes, and he realized with a lurch that it had to be an oncoming car or truck.
Seized by the hope that help might be only moments away, Blair stepped away from the car, onto the highway, waving his arms in an attempt to flag down the vehicle. He started yelling and gesturing frantically as the car drew closer and still showed no sign of slowing, much less stopping. Disbelief over what was happening turned to horror when he suddenly recognized the dark green Chevy.
A bullet exploded in the pavement near his feet sending stinging shards of asphalt flying up into his face. Blair dove to the left, tumbling into the ditch. Pain shot through his body and black spots danced in front of his eyes, but he scrambled, crab-like, around the front end of the convertible, hoping it would shield him from the gunfire. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Jim, still propped by the back tire. He lunged toward the older man, dragging him toward the passenger door in an attempt to keep him out of the line of fire.
A rain of bullets pummeled the driver's side of the convertible. Blair leaned over his partner, covering Jim with his own body, determined to protect his Sentinel even if it meant his own life. As the Chevy flashed by, Blair heard a burst of raucous laughter. A snarl of anger escaped his throat and he loosed a string of curses, wishing Ben and his buddies into every kind of hell he'd ever heard of or imagined.
The smell of gasoline cut off his tirade. Eyes wide with fear, he looked under the convertible and saw something dripping from the undercarriage. The roar of an engine caused him to swivel his head to the right and his heart skipped in terror. The Chevy was making a screaming turn and it would be only moments before it was headed back toward them.
He locked his hands in Jim's shirt and jerked backward, frantic to get him away from the death trap that the convertible had become. Leaving the slim shelter that it afforded would put them out in the open, making them easy targets if Ben pursued them, but it was either that, or risk being caught in the explosion if the car blew.
Pain screamed through him as he dragged Jim's unconscious body along the ground. When he'd managed what he hoped was a safe distance, he glanced back at the convertible and caught sight of the water jug, still sitting near the rear tire. Knowing that if they made it through this attack, that they'd still die if they didn't have water, Blair stumbled back toward the car. Gasping for breath he snagged the jug. The Chevy was just pulling up even with the convertible and he could hear the jarring laughter from its occupants over the roar of the engine. He lurched away, struggling to get back to his partner. Shots rang out behind him and then the world exploded into a blinding wave of sound.
Searing heat and a painful throbbing in his skull were Jim's first sensations as he regained consciousness. With a groan he rolled to his side, forcing his eyes open. Blackness, at odds with the white-hot feel of the sun, greeted him, freezing the Sentinel in place. Cautiously, he blinked. And blinked again. There was no change to the darkness.
Only years of training helped him hold the surge of fear at bay. Jaw muscles clenching, he pushed himself into a sitting position. Leaning forward to catch his breath, he held his pounding head in his hands.
Sight was gone and his remaining senses were running amok. The rank smells of burning oil and plastic swamped his nostrils, coating his tongue and making him want to retch; scorching heat enveloped him with a pounding force that threatened to drive him to the ground again; and a thunderous crackling assailed his eardrums.
What the hell happened?
Three vivid images flashed through his mind, instantly answering the questionBlair's face filled with terror, a convertible sitting in a ditch beside the highway, and a shapeless figure towering over him.
The kids in the car... it was a trap... Blair... Where's Blair?
His head snapped up and he stared sightlessly around him, the fear he'd fought off earlier only a shadow of what he was feeling now.
He held his breath, fighting to listen over the pounding of his own pulse. When there was no answer he shouted again.
"BLAIR... WHERE ARE YOU?... ANSWER ME!"
Only the disturbing crackling noise reached his ears. Jim pushed himself to his feet, swaying dizzily at the abrupt movement and at the demands of his overloaded senses. Gritting his teeth he fought to bring them under control, mentally wrenching at the dials that his Guide had suggested he envision.
Control... I need... to control this... I have to... I have to find him...
Far too slowly, the confusing sensations diminishedleaving him trembling, but with at least a modicum of control. His sight was still affected and he closed his eyes, refusing to be distracted by what he couldn't, for the moment, do anything about. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hoping that it would help him focus. He reached up to touch the throbbing point on his temple and felt the soft sensation of cotton.
Gently exploring the bandage, he felt a curious wash of relief. Someone had tended to his injury. The most likely candidate for that was his partner. It was a leap of faith, but Jim was eager to believe that scenario, because it meant Blair had survived the ambush. But if he had, where was he?
Jim rubbed his eyes and blinked them several times, wishing that the damage to his vision might miraculously be healed by that simple action. But the darkness persisted. It was like being blinded by the Golden all over again. The same feelings of fear and frustration. It had been Blair's gentle, supportive and inventive presence that had gotten him through that incident. Now he found himself in the same situation, but without his Guide.
Venting his frustration with a audible snarl, Jim concentrated on the senses that were operative. If Blair were within range, he would be able to pick up the younger man's heartbeat. All too aware of the danger of focusing on only one sense, the Sentinel reached down and scrabbled in the dirt, finally finding a small sharp rock that fit in the palm of his hand. Closing his fingers around it, he squeezed his fist until he felt a trickle of blood. Straightening, he kept up the pressure, using the pain to keep him grounded as he focused his hearing.
At first, all he could hear was the crackling sound. Unable to identify it, he filtered it out. The familiar throb of his Guide's heartbeat suddenly filled his ears. Turning slightly to his left he inched his way across the rocky ground until the rhythmic pounding roared in his head. He stumbled and went to his knees, his fingers catching on something smooth and silky.
It took Jim's dazed mind a few seconds to understand what he'd found. Using the long curly strands of his partner's hair as a guide, Jim reached out to place a hand on the younger man's head. Blair was lying face down, he discovered quickly. Tracing the curve of Blair's jawline with Sentinel-sensitive fingers, he worked his way to the pulse point on the anthropologist's neck, breathing a sigh of immense relief at the steady throbbing that confirmed what he'd heardhis Guide was alive.
Alive, but unconscious. Jim shook his head in frustration ignoring the dizzying twinges that accompanied the movement. Compelled by the need to hear his friend's voice, the Sentinel eased the younger man to his back.
"Chief... Blair... wake up buddy..."
Blair grimaced against the stab of pain in his leg as gentle hands rolled him over. It was a major production just to open his eyes, but the sight of his partner hovering over him was well worth the effort. Ignoring the annoying ringing in his ears, he smiled, a crooked grin filling his face as he sank back onto the rocky ground.
"Hey, Jim... you're awake. That's great, man."
The smile shifted into a frown as the words reverberated in distorted waves of chaotic noise. He struggled to focus on Jim, who was still holding him tightly. He could see his partner's lips moving, but there was no sound. At least none that Blair could interpret as actual words. And there was an odd look to the older man's eyes.
"You can cut the lip syncing routine, Jim," Blair muttered in annoyance, thinking his partner had decided to shift into one of his 'give Sandburg grief' modes. "It's not nice to take advantage of someone who's brain damaged." He flinched as the words warped into weird echoes again, pounding painfully against the inside of his skull.
Blair's words weren't making any sense to him, but they increased the panic of his Sentinel to a new level. What lip syncing routine? Brain damaged? What's he talking about? The smell of blood abruptly flooded the Sentinel's nostrils and he jerked back in surprise.
Even with his blurry vision, Blair caught the subtle signs of an impending zone-out.
"Hey, man... hold on. Now's not the time to lose it," Blair demanded, struggling to sit up.
The ringing in his ears was like a hundred telephones going off all at onceshrill, piercing clamors at far too high a decibel range. He grabbed at his head in agony and felt strong fingers encircle his wrists, pulling his hands away. Blair looked up into Jim's strained face and saw his own pain reflected in the older man's pale blue eyes. Seeing the Sentinel's mouth working, he suddenly realized that Jim wasn't joking with him.
"Jim... I can't... I can't hear you!"
The horrified declaration exploded from his lips taking all the air from his lungs in one gasping cry. He tried to fill them again, but it felt like a giant was sitting on his chest. He inhaled noisily feeling the dry, hot air burning his throat. It still wasn't enough.
He tried to push away the giant and found himself gripping Jim's wrist. He met the Sentinel's gaze and shook his head desperately.
"Come on, Chief... just breathe," Jim demanded. He didn't need his sight at that moment. The anguish in his Guide's voice gave him a clear picture of the younger man's distress. He knew he needed to find a way to cut through the panic and reach Blair somehow, but this time he couldn't use words.
Grabbing the younger man's hand he drew it forward to rest on his own chest. "Breathe, just breathe..." he ordered, inhaling and exhaling in exaggerated movements. Then he placed his hand against Blair's chest again, mouthing the words slowly.
Over and over he repeated the gestures and the words, until finally he heard a change in the younger man's breathing and the hammering of his heart.
Okay... Okay... Okay... Okay...
Blair concentrated on the mantra of silently repeating that one word until the space between them was even and matched each drawn and exhaled breath. When he felt he had himself under control, he looked up gratefully into his partner's face.
"Thanks..." Wincing at the garbled noise that should have been recognizable words, he missed the strange vacant look in his partner's eyes. "Sorry... it's so weird... all I can hear is this ringing... I can't even hear the words I think I'm saying... can you understand me at all?"
"You're coming across loud and clear, Chief," Jim assured him, nodding. He released the hold he still had on Blair's wrist and settled back on his knees, hesitant to tell his Guide about his own injury until he had a better picture of what they were facing. "What happened? The last thing I remember is someone moving in the back seat of the convertible."
"Jim... wait... I can't understand you..."
Blair pressed his fingers to his ears and massaged them gently. Grimacing at the painful throbbing, his gaze shifted to Jim once more. He stared at the older man, certain that something was wrong. The lines of tension around the pale blue eyes drew his attention, teasing his memory with a disconcerting sense of familiarity. It took another moment to identify just exactly where and when he'd seen that lookand what it meant. His own eyes widened suddenly in shocked comprehension.
"Oh, man... You can't see, can you? That blow you took to the head"
"Easy..." Jim reached out to grab him by the shoulder, hoping to head off another panic attack, but he missed his hold and found himself being held instead.
"Forget about me, man. Can you see anything at all?" Blair demanded. Fingers clenched in Jim's shirt he peered desperately into the older man's eyes.
"Blair, settle down..."
"Damn it... how am I supposed to... if I can't hear you... I can't understand..."
"Breathe!" Jim ordered, placing his hand on the younger man's chest again.
The gesture stopped Blair cold.
"Okay... Okay, we can do this, right?" Blair muttered, reining in his panic and grabbing on to what little control he had left. Losing it was not a choice here. Taking a deep breath, he kept talking, hoping his words were making sense to Jim. "You can hear me, I just can't hear you... gotta find a way for us to communicate... just give me a minute to think..."
He glanced back at the remains of the burning car and scanned the highway. There was no sign of Ben, but Blair didn't want to discount the possibility that he could come back to finish them off. Third time might just be the 'charm' in this little adventure. He bit back a groan when he saw the broken water jug, swallowing convulsively against the fear that surged in his heart.
The increase of pressure on his wrist brought his gaze back to meet Jim's worried expression. "I'm working on it, man... I'll get this figured out... I promise..."
Communication... cell phones... modems... sign language... smoke signals... yeah, right... go for cave paintings while you're at it, Sandburg!
"Not cave paintings... sand paintings..." he whispered suddenly. Grabbing a stick he used it to smooth the ground in front of Jim's knees. Wrapping the Sentinel's fingers around the crude writing instrument, he maneuvered the older man's hand toward the ground. "Sand writing to be exact... I'll talk, you write. Got it, Jim?"
The perplexed look vanished from the Sentinel's face immediately. Awkwardly, he scratched out a single word in the sandy soil.
"Report?... oh... tell you what happened..." Blair ran his fingers through his hair, pushing the tangled locks out of the way. "The short, unadulterated version is that Ben and his buddies laid a trap for us. One of them clobbered you and made a prize idiot out of me. Then they took Jake's car and left us here."
Jim's head snapped up and he tapped Blair on the arm. Holding one hand up like a stop sign, he used the other to smooth the sand and printed three more words.
TOOK THE CAR?
Blair cringed at the disbelief in his partner's expression. "I know I should have done more to try to stop them, it's just that... Look I'm sorry man, I was a little busy dodging bullets at the time... and trying to keep you alive... After they took off I managed to find some water in the trunk of the convertible and get that gash on your head cleaned up and I..."
His words faltered as he glanced down at his own wound, and then back up at the older man's face. Jim couldn't see it... didn't realize that he'd been shot... and Blair suddenly was determined to keep it that way for as long as he could.
"I guess I tried to hold it together, hoping you'd wake up," he rushed on. "But they came back. They took a few shots at the convertible on the first pass. There was gas leaking out from either the fuel tank or the cans in the back... I don't know which... I got you away from the car and then realized I'd left the water behind. I went back for it, thinking I could get it and get out of range before they made another pass... I had the jug in my hand, man... I thought I was gonna make it... there was an explosion... next thing I know you're waking me up and I can't hear a thing."
Jim had begun to write something new and Blair craned his neck to read it.
"SHOCK... yeah, well I'd say that's probably a pretty safe bet, Jim."
A hand on his arm stopped his rambling. Jim gently tapped Blair's left ear with the stick and then gestured with his hands. He brought them together quickly, palms smacking solidly and then shook them as if they stung.
"Sound... no, shock... explosive... oh... the explosion... of course... it was like getting hit by a solid wall of noise... no wonder I can't hear anything... concussive shock or something like that..."
Blair's gaze shifted back to the darkened patch under the broken water jug. Putting into words what had actually happened made it all too real. The desperateness of their situation hit him like a blow. The heat of the sun pounding down on his aching head and the dryness of his mouth were vivid reminders of just what lay ahead. Without realizing it, he moaned aloud.
Strong fingers suddenly cupped his chin and he turned to find his partner's face creased with concern. The Sentinel's gaze held a penetrating intensity that even the blindness couldn't erase. With a ragged breath that was almost a sob, Blair looked away, swallowing convulsively. Teetering on the brink of losing it entirely, he gritted his teeth to keep from either laughing like a madman or bursting into tears.
Jim touched his cheek and Blair jerked back, shaking his head.
Responding to his Guide's anguish, the Sentinel grabbed Blair by the shoulders, forcing the younger man to look directly at him.
"We're still alive," he said firmly, hoping that his expression would convey what Blair couldn't hear in his words. " We'll get out of this, Chief. It's going to be okay."
He released his hold and quickly scratched the word OKAY in the dirt.
"Okay?" Blair's voice cracked on the near scream. "Nothing's okay! We're stuck in the middle of nowhere with no wheels, no food and no water because I blew it. Not to mention the fact that you practically had your head split open before I did anything to back you up..."
Jim tried to interrupt him, but Blair was on a roll. Hearing the rising panic in his partner's voice and the rapid pounding of his heart as he raged on, Jim knew he needed to do something to stop it. Reaching out blindly, he grabbed one of his friend's flailing arms and pulled the younger man toward him until Blair's hand was resting on his chest.
"Breathe," Jim ordered, holding Blair's hand in place as he took several deep breaths of his own, hoping that what had calmed his friend earlier would work again.
Blair started to pull away, but the look on Jim's face stopped him. He forced himself to inhale and exhale, slowly and evenly, shuddering at the distorted pounding of his own hammering heart.
If it sounds this loud to me, what's it sound like to Jim? he wondered. The expression on the older man's face told him that the Sentinel was close to zoning.
That possibility shook Blair out of his panic. "Jim! Come out of it," he urged, reaching out to grip the detective's arm.
The Sentinel shuddered and drew a deep breath.
"Okay," Blair nodded, taking a few more moments to quiet his own racing heart. "I've had my panic attack and wigged out, you've zoned out. Now we're even. Guess we should concentrate on getting ourselves out of this. What's the next move?"
Jim sat quietly, intensely aware of the heat of the sun on his back and head. It was hot already and it was only late morning. With no water, that would be a problem unless they found a place to hold out for a while. He fumbled for the stick and scratched a word into the dirt.
"SHELTER?" Blair murmured, reading what Jim had written. He scanned the horizon again, wishing for his friend's eyesight. Nothing except flat desert and pavement, stretching for miles. "No rooms at the inn here. Guess we'll have to take a walk and look for other accommodations. Question is, which way? Forward or back?"
Blair looked back the way they had come and then shifted his gaze to study the road that stretched toward the reservation.
"I haven't been out here in years," he admitted. "But there was an old guy that lived next to the highway, about an hour's drive this side of the reservation. Kept some gas on hand just for those people who thought that they could ignore reality and make the trip on less than a full tank."
"Used to charge an arm and a leg just to get a few gallons off of him," Blair added, a wry smile crossing his face as he remembered running out of gas himself and what it had taken to get the old man to sell him some. He glanced at Jim who was listening intently to his ramblings and quickly got to the point.
"He might not be therehe was ancient even thenbut it's the only shelter I remember, unless you saw something while I was sleeping. Something closer?"
Jim's expression hardened as he concentrated on remembering what he'd seen while driving, then he shook his head negatively.
"Guess it's forward then," Blair muttered, struggling to his feet.
He winced and uttered a muffled curse as he put weight on his left leg. He quickly glanced over to his partner who had also risen. Seeing Jim sway dizzily on his feet, Blair reached out, catching the Sentinel's arm. The strange look on his friend's face made him swallow the wisecrack he'd been about to make.
"Hey, it's okay," Blair whispered, tightening his grip. "We can do this. We've done it before, remember? And this time it'll be even easier. We're going to be walking a straight line down the road. No desks and chairs to navigate around."
Blair watched closely, but the look on his partner's face didn't change. He's not worried about being blind, he's worried about being out of control. And being in control was everything to a man like Jim Ellison.
"I know this is hard for you, man. Trust me. I won't let you down. Just put your hand on my shoulder. I'll lead and you follow. This'll work. After all, I'm your Guide, remember?"
For a moment, Blair was sure that Jim hadn't heard him, or else that he didn't trust him enough to let him help. But then the Sentinel's face lost its odd expression, filling instead with a slight smile as he nodded.
"Okay," Blair breathed in relief, reaching out to guide the older man's hand to his shoulder. "You ready?" Jim's grip tightened in answer and Blair eyed the long stretch of road ahead of them grimly.
"At least we're traveling light."
It was awkward at first. With Jim positioned almost directly behind him, Blair found himself constantly trying to adjust his shorter stride to the Sentinel's longer one. After a few minutes, he felt the pressure on his shoulder shift as the older man moved alongside. Blair still had to push his own pace to match his partner's, but Jim was moving easier, with more confidence.
Blair knew he wouldn't be able to keep up the pace for long. He could feel the throbbing in his leg as the bleeding started again. That sensation was almost as bad as the stab of pain that accompanied each step. No, he wasn't going to last long at this rate, but he wasn't about to ask the detective to slow down. Jim would want to know why, and Blair was determined to delay telling him about the gunshot wound for as long as possible. If Jim knew, then he'd want to hold up, take it easy; he'd ignore his own injury to make things easier for his partner.
And they couldn't risk that. Neither of them could. Blair's past experiences had given him a healthy respect for, and fear of, the dangers of the desert. Lack of water wasn't their only problemheat or sunstroke could be just as deadly. If they were going to have any chance of surviving, they had to keep moving while they still had the energy to do so.
Taking a deep breath, Blair pushed away his concerns and concentrated on matching his partner's rhythm. They fell into sync within moments. After a while, Blair felt a curious, disjointed sensation sweeping over him as his body shifted into an automatic response to keep his feet moving forward. The feeling worried him, and he cast a quick look at Jim, watching the older man intently for any sign of a zone-out. From the tense expression on the Sentinel's face, Blair guessed that even though his sight was off-line, his other senses were probably working overtime.
Blair started talking, hoping to give Jim something to focus on. He kept his voice pitched in what he jokingly thought of as his 'Guide Mode'although the ringing in his ears distorted every sound and left him wondering whether he was actually saying the words his mind was forming. It was eerie not being able to hear his own voice. He could feel the vibration in his skull, the movement of his jaw, but that was all. Still, he kept talking.
He spoke of things that were unimportant, filling the silence with references to their life in Cascade. He joked about the leftover's that he'd forgotten to take out of the refrigerator before they'd left; about how he'd had problems with his car again and that he'd have to find a way to get it fixed when they got back; insisted that they had to check out the new Oriental grocery store that had opened just around the corner from the loft; raved about plays from the last basketball game they'd watched together.
Jim's hand clutched convulsively on his shoulder and Blair felt their pace falter when his partner pulled to an abrupt stop. He wheeled around and saw the look of intense pain and confusion on the older man's face. He reached out and grabbed Jim's arms just as the older man swayed unsteadily. A shudder rippled through the Sentinel and with a gentle push, Blair eased him to the ground.
"Easy, Jim... you're on overload." He murmured soothingly to his distressed friend, hoping the panic that he was feeling wasn't evident in his voice.
"Blood... I can smell blood," Jim rasped, shaking his head as his senses zoomed in and out of control.
"Jim... I can't hear you... remember? We've got to get your senses dialed back." The Sentinel shook his head in confusion, and Blair squeezed his arm gently. "One at a time, all right? Start with smell. Take it down to zero if you can."
Jim had a brief flicker of rational thought and found himself wondering how his Guide had known which sense was troubling him the most. The smell of blood filled his nostrils again and he shivered, forcing himself to concentrate on Blair's voice and the soothing directions that he was giving. Slowly, the nauseating odor retreated to a vague sensation and Jim nodded in relief. Taking the rest of his senses down to a more comfortable level was easier and he finally drew in a deep breath, his control reestablished.
"Great Jim... that was just great." The Sentinel could hear the relief in the younger man's voice even without his senses being enhanced. "We just had an overload there. Kind of like a zone-out, but with all senses misfiring at once," his Guide continued in quiet explanation. Jim nodded and felt Blair's grip on his arms release, then sensed a small stone being placed in his hand.
"Can you tell me what happened? Was there something that set it off or did it just all hit at once?" Blair's voice was quiet, with the familiar, questioning edge that the Sentinel always identified as his 'Guide searching for answers' tone. Awkwardly, Jim scratched out the letters of a single word on the pavement.
Blair was glad that his partner couldn't see the stricken look that he was sure was plastered on his face. The gash on Jim's head was bleeding again, but Blair was certain that the small amount wouldn't have been enough to set off the overload. His partner had to have picked up the gunshot wound. For a split second, Blair considered telling Jim about the injury, but his words caught in his throat and a strangled gasp was all that came out. He saw the older man's head jerk up, the sightless gaze fixing on him in concern. He reached forward once more to grip the Sentinel's arm.
"It's no wonder you're picking that up, man," he managed to murmur, his mind racing to come up with an explanation that Jim might accept. "That blow you took to the head bled a lot. Your shirt's covered with it. When your senses kicked into hyper-drive you must have zoned on the smell."
He watched Jim anxiously, wondering if the older man would buy into the misdirection. Blair knew that what he'd said could be the truth, and he hoped he had put enough conviction into his tone to carry off the lie. When Jim finally nodded in confused acceptance, he breathed a small sigh of relief.
"Look, it's bleeding a little again. I'd better put another bandage on it. In the meantime, I think you'd better keep everything dialed back to the minimum." Pulling the remains of his t-shirt over his head, Blair quickly tore the fabric into strips and bound another layer of bandaging around the Sentinel's head.
As he worked, Blair could feel the heat pounding down on his bare shoulders, making him lightheaded. He took a deep breath and helped Jim to his feet, certain that he'd made the right decision in not telling his partner about his own injury. There wasn't anything that could be done about it until they found help, anyway. The overload had frightened Blair and made him even more determined to get Jim to a doctor, or, at least, to a place of shelter.
"Just keep everything off-line, Big Guy. Let me lead the way."
As the afternoon sun grew hotter, Blair's incessant, rambling conversation faltered. They moved automatically; Jim's pace now matched to his partner's, Blair keeping his eyes fixed on the wavering horizon ahead of them.
With his senses dialed down to the minimum, Jim slipped into old Ranger habits, moderating his breathing and his movements to maximize his body's strength. He felt the dullness in his mind only at the fringe of his consciousness and he was unaware of his Guide's increasing fatigue and distress.
Jim felt Blair stumble and heard him swear softly. Both the movement and the whispered comment jarred him out of the fuzzy mental state he'd fallen into. He realized with a lurch that they'd been walking without a break for far too long, and he cursed himself for losing his concentration. Cautiously, he released some of the hold on his senses and nearly cried out as he felt the sun and heat beat down like a physical blow.
He cursed again as he felt the heat radiating off Blair's bare shoulder where his hand rested. The grad student's ragged breathing and pounding heart hammered in his ears and he squeezed his Guide's shoulder briefly, urging him to turn around.
"Jim... what is it?" Blair asked blearily, struggling to shift out of his own dazed mindset and respond to the needs of his friend.
"We've got to stop. Rest," Jim gasped, suddenly aware of his own parched throat.
"Jim... I'm sorry... I still can't..." Blair whispered in response, the confusion and weariness obvious in his voice.
Angry at himself for forgetting Blair's inability to hear him, Jim shook his head and put his hands together forming a 'T'.
"Time out?" Blair whispered uncertainly, his brain working hard to understand what Jim was trying to tell him. "Oh, yeah... time out... a break... good idea..." He glanced around, looking for any place that they might find some relief from the pounding sun. "There's a spot about twenty yards ahead, just off the road to our left. Looks like just a pile of boulders, but there might be some shade there."
Jim barely heard him as he struggled to regain control under the onslaught of his unleashed senses.
"Jim, did you hear me?" Blair asked urgently, his own difficulties forgotten as he saw the look of confusion on his friend's face. "Concentrate... dial it back, man."
The Sentinel struggled for a moment, catching the nauseating smell of blood again in his nostrils. He shook his head sharply, hoping that the movement would help clear it. He managed to clamp down on his senses, finally nodding to his Guide that he was ready.
"About fifteen feet, then we'll leave the pavement... watch your step... the ground's pretty uneven," Blair murmured, anxiously guiding Jim across the broken terrain.
As they approached the tumble of rocks, Blair eyed them hopefully. Moving to the east side of the pile he found a small crevice that would provide some shelter and eased his partner to the rocky ground. Even with his senses shut down, Jim felt an immediate sense of relief from the heat and smiled gratefully.
"I'll be right back... I think I saw something..." The Sentinel heard the younger man move away and then, a few moments later, caught the soft scuff of footsteps that announced his return.
"These are Argula pods," Blair explained in a soft rasping voice, dropping something leathery into his friend's hands. "They're fibrous... store a lot of moisture... but they taste awful, so be prepared..."
Jim nodded and turned the pods over in his hands curiously before snapping one and touching it to his dry lips. Even dialed down, his taste buds recoiled at the sour taste, but he placed it in his mouth and sucked on it, knowing that his body needed the precious moisture it contained.
Blair grinned briefly at Jim's dismayed reaction, then gritted his teeth and eased himself to the ground, holding back the moan of pain that threatened to escape. He pressed his left hand against the bullet wound in his leg and felt the wetness of new blood. Grimacing, he leaned back into the rock. Wincing at the contact of rough stone against sunburned skin, he closed his eyes, struggling to keep his distress to himself.
Just sit here for a minute... It'll get better.
But it didn't. The ringing in his ears was turning into a painful buzzing that seemed to increase in volume now that he was sitting still. And his leg throbbed. He knew that he should rebandage it; that the precious moisture of his own body was leaking out onto the sand, but he'd already used up the last of his t-shirt on his partner's head wound, and he wasn't about to ask Jim for his shirt. Not yet.
He found himself wondering how long they'd been walkinghow many miles they'd traveledbut he had no idea. He'd lost all track of time, focused as he had been on just moving them forward. The attack had occurred half-way into the trip. That put the old man's store at least another hundred miles ahead of them. Assuming it was still there. A hundred miles. Just an hour and a half of driving. But on foot? Blair began to doubt his own judgment, as the desperateness of their situation hit him. In the shape they were in, it would take them days to make it that far. But they wouldn't. Not without food and water. They needed help. Jim needed medical attention for that head injury.
Where could help come from? Not from the town they'd left hours ago. Not from the kids that had attacked themBlair had spent the first hour or more of their trek glancing over his shoulder, afraid that Ben and his friends would come after them and try to finish the job they'd started.
That left Nate. Nate was expecting them. At least he should be. Grimly, Blair remembered his friend's tendency to get more than a little wrapped up in the excitement of his work. The two of them together had once spent a full three weeks on a round-the clock dig, ignoring the rest of the world in their enthusiasm over what they'd found. If Nate did get the message Blair had left on his answering machine, then he'd come looking for them in the morning. If not...
A sudden shaft of pain shot through his leg and he cried out, his eyes flying open in shock. Stunned, it took him a moment to get past the pain and focus on what had happened. Jim was shaking, his hands pressed against his ears, his body almost curled into itself in pain, pressing against Blair's injured leg.
"Jim... listen to me! You're on overload again!"
Instinctively, he reached out toward his friend. Jim's hand flashed out, knocking Blair's away, then suddenly grabbing for it, imprisoning his Guide's wrist in a vice-like grip.
"Easy, man... easy," Blair whispered, trying to keep his voice as soft as possible. "Focus... take 'em one at a time."
He saw Jim shudder as though his whispered words had been shouted directly into the older man's ears. The iron grip on his wrist tightened even further. Blair imagined that he could feel the bones grinding together, but he set his jaw and held his breath, refusing to make a sound. He saw Jim's jaw muscles clench as his friend struggled for control. Blair closed his eyes and focused on his own heartbeat, willing it to slow, striving to find a way to send his own strength and support through their physical link.
"You can do this, Jim." Through his own clenched teeth he managed to repeat the encouraging words over and over, like a healing mantra.
Finally, just when he thought he would cry out from the pain in his wrist, he felt the pressure lessen. His eyes flashed open and he focused on Jim's face, relieved to see the lines of pain smoothing away, replaced by a look of confusion and utter weariness.
"You got it. What happened? Did you forget to concentrate?"
Jim's answer was a quick shake of the head and his eyes flickered shut.
"It's just like before, Jim. Something must have tripped one or more of your senses out of whack when you relaxed."
Anxiously, Blair struggled to focus his own fatigue laden thoughts. What had happened? What stimulus would have been strong enough to shift Jim into overload again? He glanced down at his own bleeding leg and shuddered. Was it his blood that Jim was sensing again or was it something else? His gaze caught suddenly on the broken remnants of the Argula pod that he'd given Jim. Was that it?
"Jim... listen to me," Blair murmured urgently. "I need to know what you remember just before it hit. You were sucking on one of those pods. Was it the taste of that? They're pretty strong. Maybe it just caught you off guard and that's all it took."
Still struggling to keep his senses from running wild, Jim considered Blair's words and then shook his head again.
"Then what was it?"
What had happened? Jim asked himself. He forced his mind to go back through the sensory chaos he'd just experienced. He realized that he was still gripping Blair's wrist and he used that physical contact to ground himself, searching his memory for the answer.
He had been sucking on the pod, and it had tasted awful, but he'd managed to control his reaction to that. No, it hadn't been something he'd tasted. Think! he ordered himself. Drawing in a deep breath he could almost hear Blair's voice in his headPut yourself there, Jim. See it like a picture, then freeze it, walk around it.
... sucking on the pod, getting past the taste and letting the moisture ease down his dry throat... feeling the comfort from the small portion of shade that his Guide had found for them... the relief of stopping for a while... relaxing... allowing his other senses to open up just a bit... smelling something... something that frightened him... something that Blair had told him...
Suddenly Jim tensed, caught in the memory of fear that had thrust him into the overload. "Blood! I smelled blood again," he gasped, the memory of it so vivid that he squeezed Blair's wrist without even realizing it.
"Ow! Jim take it easy!"
Jim was so focused on the overwhelming feeling of terror and the scent of the blood that he barely heard Blair's pain filled exclamation. Instinctively, he loosened the control on his sense of smell and drew in a deep breath, recoiling physically as the raw odor filled his nostrils.
"Jim... listen to me, man!"
Blood... he could smell it now. Where was it coming from? He touched the wound on his head. Nothing but a damp spot. That couldn't be it. Even with his senses working overtime, that small amount wouldn't have set this off. A quick inventory of the rest of his body confirmed that other than a few scrapes and bruises, the blow to his head was the only injury he'd taken. And if it wasn't his blood, then it had to be...
Jim's eyes widened, a look of anguish crossing his face. Suddenly he was aware of the grip he had on Blair's wrist, the thundering of his friend's pulse as the blood surged beneath his sensitive fingertips. Blood... on his hands? On his Guide's hands?
Blair stiffened as the expression on Jim's face changed to one of anger. He winced and cried out again as the pressure on his wrist became almost unbearable.
"Blood," said Jim out loud, his sightless gaze focused on Blair's hand, seeing in his mind what he couldn't see with his eyes.
"What?" Blair started to ask what Jim had said. His breath caught as he realized what the Sentinel was focused on, felt his own heart lurch as he saw the blood on his hand.
Oh my god! That "is" what he's reacting to!
Blair tried to pull his hand away, hoping to break the contact. Jim's grip tightened even further and the look he turned on his Guide was pure blazing anger.
"Damn it Sandburg, what's going on?" Jim roared.
"There's blood on your hands!"
"Jim... I can't..." Blair gasped, the throbbing in his wrist echoing in his pounding head.
His Guide's racing heartbeat reached the Sentinel and he forced himself to struggle for some kind of control. With his left hand he pried open the younger man's clenched fist , touched the blood there and held out his stained fingers accusingly. Blair struggled to swallow against the icy blue anger he saw directed toward him.
"Let it go man... it's... it's not... that bad..." he finally whispered.
"Where? Where are you hurt?" Jim asked grimly, his senses reaching out to probe his friend's body, searching for the wound that he knew Blair had been hiding from him.
"WHERE?" Jim shouted, the expression on his face telling Blair what his ears couldn't hear.
"My left leg," Blair mumbled miserably.
Jim dropped his Guide's wrist and reached out to where he thought his partner's leg would be, extending his tactile senses. His fingers touched the rough denim of Blair's jeans and kept searching. He paused for a moment when he felt a stiffness that could only be dried blood. Panic started to fill him, but he pushed it back in anger.
"Jim... it's all right," he heard Blair insist, but his fingers kept moving, following the path of the dried blood up the pant leg. He hissed when he felt fresh wetness and the soaked bandage.
The anger on the Sentinel's face nearly held Blair speechless. He'd made a mistake. He should have told Jim. "It's just a graze, man." He winced, hearing the feebleness of the excuse in his own head. "The bullet's not in there. It's just bleeding again because of all the walking..."
Jim's hand froze over the wound, his mind absorbing the younger man's words. Bullet? This was caused by a bullet? When...? Suddenly he recalled Blair's sarcastic response when Jim had started to give him a hard time about not keeping their assailants from taking the car. "Sorry man, I was a little busy dodging bullets at the time... and trying to keep you alive..."
An image of his young partnerhis Guidedead, his blood leaking out onto the rocky ground filled his mind and he stiffened, horrified at what might have happened. He could be dead right now and where would that have left me? What would I have done if he hadn't been alive... What would I do if...?
The panic that he'd been holding back broke over him like a wave. Terror that made him reach out, desperate to touch his partner, to assure himself that his friend was all right. He felt Blair flinch away from his grasp, and his fingers tangled in something soft. Convulsively, his left hand closed around a handful of the younger man's hair and twisted it, pinning Blair in place while his right hand sought the beating pulse at his Guide's throat.
Gasping in pain as his head was wrenched backward, Blair tried to pull away, but one glimpse of the intensity in the pale blue eyes made him stop struggling. As Jim's hand locked around his throat, he closed his eyes in submission. There was no way he was going to win a battle of strength with Jim Ellison. Even on a good day, the Sentinel could break him in two with his bare hands if he wanted. And this was far from a good day. If Jim, in his overloaded state, killed him, it would be his own fault. It was his mistakes that had gotten them into this mess. His mistakes and his failure as a Guide.
Blair felt a physical wrenching, as if his very soul was being torn apart. He'd done this. He'd damaged the trust between them; the essence of the bond between Guide and Sentinel. He'd thought he was protecting Jim, but all he'd done was drive him to the point of another overload.
Unaware of the thoughts going through his partner's head, Jim rejoiced at the pulse under his fingertips. Blair is alive. He's not dead, he told himself, forcing the earlier image from his mind. But his Guide was hurt. How badly? What else was wrong besides the gunshot wound? Was the hearing loss only from the concussive effect of the explosion, or was there more that Blair hadn't told him?
Still gripping the silky, tangled hair with his left hand, Jim reached out with his right, running his fingers across Blair's facea face that was burned into his memory and as familiar to him as his own. With a feather-like touch he searched, his fingers pausing momentarily at a cut on his Guide's left cheek. Jaw clenching he moved on, feeling the warmth of a bruise forming on his friend's jaw. He felt Blair wince slightly as he touched the area below the younger man's left ear. Jim made his touch even lighter, gently tracing the path of dried blood that had trickled down onto the anthropologist's neck.
The thought of more blood made Jim reach out to touch the pulsing artery at Blair's neck once again, reassured by the strong beat that throbbed there. He began to lose himself in that rhythmic pounding until a soft whisper reached him, shaking him out of another zone-out.
"Jim... please... let me go..."
Realizing that he was still holding the younger man pinned, Jim released him abruptly. Sinking back into a kneeling position, he struggled to concentrate, struggling to get his overloaded senses and emotions in check. Get a grip, Ellison. Blair needs you. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to remember his Guide's directions. Directions that had always saved him from this loss of control in the pastTurn down the dials, Jim. One at a time...
Blair's eyes flickered open when Jim released him. He sat dazed, barely able to look at the man in front of him, much less meet his eyes. He could see the knotted clenching of the Sentinel's jaw, and shivered at the anger he could sense there.
You blew it big time, Sandburg, he told himself.
"I'm sorry man," he whispered, closing his eyes against the tears of regret that burned there. "I didn't mean to let you down... I should have handled things better... should have let Ben's buddies beat the shit out of me at the park... maybe they wouldn't have come after us if I had... I should have told you... I never should have let them take the car..."
Blair realized that he was babbling, but the words poured out and he was too exhausted to stop them.
Focused on his own internal struggle, Jim didn't hear the words, he only heard the sound of his Guide's voice. A voice that was lending him the support he needed. Four of his senses were under control now. That left one to go. Keep talking Blair, a part of Jim's mind pleaded. Keep talking, I can still hear you. The Sentinel dialed down his hearing to a point where his partner's words were no longer recognizable, the sound of his voice more a vibration than anything else.
Establishing even a partial sense of control freed Jim's mind to seek an answer to his loss of sight. Remake the connection. He'd done it before when he'd lost his vision. Could he do it again? That loss hadn't been the result of a head injury. It had happened when he'd gotten the Golden in his eyes. His resolve wavered in the face of doubt until he heard Blair's voice in his mind again, urging him to try it.
Remake the connection. Jim concentrated every ounce of his energy on a vague memory of what he'd done once before. He opened his eyes and stared toward where he knew Blair was sitting, building a picture in his mind of his friend's face.
For a moment his sight seemed to clear, but what he saw was no match to the mental image he'd created. In his mind, he'd seen Blair's face grinning back at him as if he'd just managed to talk Jim into something questionablehis expressive eyes flashing mischievously. What he saw now was his Guide's exhausted, bruised face, the blue eyes closed tightly, a trace of moisture on his cheeks. Jim recoiled in shock and the flash of vision ended abruptly, leaving him in darkness once more. He became aware of Blair's voice again, and he instinctively turned up the 'volume', focusing on his partner's words.
"... screwed up once more... Simon's right, man... you need a real partner... you need a real Guide... someone you can trust... I know you're angry... I know you're disappointed... I promise you... if we get out of this... I'll be gone..."
Blair's words jolted Jim into the present, clearing away the daze that had been with him since he'd been attacked. He heard the anguish in his friend's voice, understood the mistaken guilt that his partner was trying to shoulder. He sensed the fear and doubts that threatened to overwhelm his Guide. He did the only thing he could do.
Blair found himself suddenly enveloped in Jim's embrace. A surge of uncertainty flashed through him and he almost pulled away. Instead he leaned into Jim's hold, burying his face against the bigger man's chest, trying to absorb the strength and safety that was emanating from the Sentinel.
Tears were running down his face, but he made no move to stop them. He felt Jim gently stroke his hair, comforting him as he hadn't been comforted since he'd been a child. He felt the vibration in Jim's chest as the older man spoke, and although he couldn't understand the words, he grew oddly peaceful.
Jim held him until he felt the tension in Blair's muscles ease, the racing of his heart start to slow. Then he gently shifted the younger man back to rest against the boulder.
Blair opened his eyes and saw Jim staring at him intently. He started to apologize once more, but before the words were even out of his mouth, the Sentinel reached forward and placed a finger on his lips, silencing him. He watched curiously as his partner smoothed the ground in front of him, scribbling out a message in the dirt.
"Scared? Jim, I've never seen you scared of anything. You're a rock, man."
Jim shook his head, smoothing the ground and writing once more.
YOU SCARED ME
"Me? How could I..."
I NEED YOU
Blair read the words and raised his eyes to his friend's face in amazement. He shook his head slowly.
"Jim, you need someone you can count on..."
Jim drew a line under the words for emphasis and then hurriedly wrote out two more.
Blair's breath caught in his throat . He felt the sting of tears in his eyes again. "Man, are you sure?" he managed to whisper. "This won't be my last screw-up, you know?"
In answer, Jim smoothed the ground once more. Blair leaned forward, his heart racing as he read what Jim had written. Four words, each linked together with arced lines forming a circle. No beginning. No end. Continuity.
Blair looked up into the face of his Sentinel, his friend, and reached out to him. His hand wrapped easily around his partner's wrist and he felt Jim's close around his own. Time seemed to stand still for both of them then, their unspoken words and emotions surging across the physical link, settling into a deeper connection of commitment.
The throbbing of Blair's pulse under his fingertips brought Jim back to the present and with a smile he released his hold. "We'd better get a new bandage on that," he said, gesturing toward Blair's leg before pulling off his own overshirt and ripping bandages from it.
Blair nodded and settled back into the rock, grimacing as he bent his knee and shifted his leg so that Jim could reach it more easily. He pulled out his pocket knife and started to saw through the blood soaked bandage, but Jim reached out and stopped him, taking the knife from his hands.
"Rest," the Sentinel ordered, placing his hand on his Guide's shoulder and gently, but firmly, pressing him back.
"Okay, I got it," Blair murmured, falling back into his pattern of light-hearted joking. "I just want you to know that there's a big element of trust going on here. I mean, I don't let just any blind guy take a knife to my leg, you know."
He saw Jim's face crease in a quick grin, then he winced as the tightness of the bandage released. Black spots danced in his vision, and the buzzing in his ears turned to a roaring thunder. A firm hand on his shoulder grounded him again, and he sighed, leaning back into the rock. Jim quickly put pressure on the wound and applied the new bandage.
He watched as Jim tied it off, then helped him straighten the leg once more. The detective scrubbed his hands in the coarse sandy dirt. Grabbing a large flat rock, he eased it under Blair's left ankle to elevate the injury.
It took a moment for Blair to realize what his friend was doing. "Jim... can you see?"
"I'm working on it." Jim made a small pinching motion with his fingers. He picked up the tattered remnants of the shirt he'd been wearing and helped Blair slide into it before settling himself to the ground and into the small patch of shade.
"Flashes? Like before?" Blair asked hopefully, still anxious about his friend's impaired vision.
"So, so," Jim answered, motioning with his hand.
"Man, that's great!" Blair exclaimed, the relief evident in his voice.
Jim wanted to reassure his friend that all was fine, but he realized that he had to be honest with his Guide, if he expected Blair to be honest with him.
COMES AND GOES, he scratched out in the dirt.
"So don't depend on it yet, right?" Blair nodded in understanding. "Okay. We'll wait it out. It'll get better."
Blair saw Jim nod in tentative agreement. Feeling the sun on his face he glanced up, trying to assess the time of day. "It's late afternoon," he said thoughtfully, glancing over at the older man. "This is probably the best shelter we're going to find. Do you want to sit it out for a while and get moving again when it gets cooler? We'll probably feel some temperature change in a few hours. Sun should go down around eight."
The Sentinel considered his Guide's words and then nodded. He reached down and tossed one of the Argula pods into Blair's hands, then touched his fingers to his eyelids making a motion as if drawing them closed.
"Got it. Have a drink and take a nap." Blair nodded. Snapping open the pod he made a face at the sour taste. He saw Jim do the same, sucking on one of the pods for some time before putting it down and shifting to find a more comfortable position. "You know, this would be a lot easier if one of us knew more sign language," Blair murmured. He felt a nudge at his right boot and glanced up to see Jim glaring at him.
"I know... I know... house rules apply even out here. No noise while the detective is sleeping." Blair closed his eyes, a smile flickering across his face as he drifted off.
Jim lay still, monitoring his partner's heartbeat and breathing. When he was certain that Blair was completely asleep, he eased himself to his feet and moved to stand over the still form. He strained for a return of his vision and was rewarded with a brief flash of an image before blackness reformed in front of his open eyes. It was less than what he'd hoped for, but it was enough to reassure him that Blair was resting easily. Satisfied for the moment that his Guide was safe, he turned and faced out onto the barren landscape.
Concentrating on opening his senses slowly, so that he wouldn't be overwhelmed, he counted to ten, allowing himself to absorb as much as he could in that time, then he dialed back his controls. He felt exhaustion creeping through his tired body and quietly lowered himself back into the position he'd occupied before. He reached out lightly with his senses, shifting his leg so that it rested gently alongside Blair's uninjured one. Satisfied that he would sense any change in his partner through even that light physical contact, the Sentinel settled back, his mind turning over the grim possibilities of getting the two of them out of this mess alive.
There was nothing but darkness...
And heat... burning with an intensity that threatened to consume him... evaporating each drop of moisture on his skin until it felt like it would simply flake off if he moved... choking his lungs each time he inhaled...
And there was a constant, thundering throbbing that reverberated in his head ... a familiar rhythm... his Guide's heartbeat...
The Sentinel's eyes flickered open and he winced at the assault of light.
Blinking cautiously, Jim slowly levered himself off the ground into a sitting position, leaning heavily against the rock. There was light, where earlier there had been nothing but darkness. Had that been real or was he confusing it with the black emptiness of his dream? Uncertain, he reached up and felt the cloth bandage encircling his head.
No, it was definitely real... just moving from one nightmare to another, that's all.
Concentrating on the connection he'd found earlier, he struggled to make the images in his vision clearer. There was a fuzziness at the edges, and a stomach rolling distortion that ebbed and flowed each time he blinked, but his sight was returning. Just not fast enough to suit him.
With his Guide's voice ringing in his ears, he glanced at the younger man, startled to see that he was still asleep. He grinned suddenly, delighted that his vision had cleared enough to allow him to actually see his partner. The pleased expression slipped as he studied Blair, noting the bruises, the flush of his skin, the dried blood staining the bandage on his leg. As if aware of the scrutiny, Blair moaned, shifting slightly. His forehead creased in a frown and his breathing became more rapid.
He's caught in a nightmare of his own, Jim realized abruptly. Two guesses as to what it's about.
Easing forward, Jim extended his other senses. Blair's heartbeat and respiration were accelerating and he was spiking a temperature.
That's probably where the heat in your own nightmare came from, Ellison. He's running a feverprobably an infection from that damn bullet wound.
"Chief, wake up... you're dreaming," Jim murmured softly. Grasping the younger man by the shoulders, he shook him gently.
Dazed blue eyes met his questioningly. "Jim... what...?"
"You left a request for a wake up call at the main desk, but they're a little busy right now, so I offered to handle it," Jim answered, forcing a smile.
A puzzled expression filled Blair's face for a moment. Then the eyes widened.
"Wake up call... you said 'wake up call'..."
"You heard me?" Jim rocked back on his heels in surprise.
Blair's frown was back for a second, and he shook his head in annoyance. "I'm just getting fragments. Say something else."
"If you really did forget to empty the garbage before we left, you're going to be scrubbing the loft from top to bottom until the smell's gone, Sandburg," Jim growled in mock irritation.
"I got enough of that to know that there's a threat in there somewhere... something about garbage and cleaning, right?" Blair asked anxiously.
Jim's smile was genuine this time. It stretched from ear to ear and filled his eyes as he nodded.
"God, that's a relief," Blair whispered, closing his eyes and leaning back against the boulder. "It is only temporary..."
The Sentinel gripped his Guide's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. He hadn't realized until that moment how frightening the possible permanent loss of his hearing had been to his friend. True to form, Blair had sublimated his own fears and focused on helping Jim through his.
As if on cue, Blair's eyes flashed open and he fixed the Sentinel with a hard, searching stare of his own. "How's your vision, man? Still improving?"
"I can see light now, and some images. It's still pretty fuzzy, but it's better when I focus on something. I'm still working on holding the connection. It takes a lot of concentration."
"Don't push it too hard, Jim," his Guide admonished. "What about everything else?"
"Staying pretty much in balance," Jim assured him.
"Good." Blair shifted to ease a cramp in his side and hissed at the stab of pain that the small movement had caused.
"Let's take a look at that leg," Jim said quietly. He pulled Blair's knife out of his pocket and quickly slit through the wrappings, salvaging those strips that weren't tainted with blood.
"I take it the desk was too busy to send up room service, huh?" Blair muttered through clenched teeth.
"Not a four-star choice, I guess," Jim responded, keeping his tone light while he examined the wound. "We'll have to find the manager and register a complaint."
"Too bad they didn't leave some extra towels," Blair said softly, starting to pull off the shirt that Jim had given him.
"Keep that on, Chief," Jim ordered. "You're going to need it when the temperature starts to drop. Slipping out of his tank, he began to tear the undershirt into strips.
"What about you?" Blair argued.
"I can dial down my sensitivity to the cold. You can't. And it's distracting when your teeth chatter, Sandburg."
Jim flashed a quick grin at his partner to take the sting out of the teasing jibe. Blair reciprocated with a grimace of annoyance, although his eyes glittered with a smile of their own.
Rebandaging the injury took only a few more moments. Jim grabbed the remaining Argula pods and tossed two to Blair, who nodded in thanks. "We should harvest as many of these as we can find before we get moving," the anthropologist noted.
"Just tell me what to look for, Chief."
"Jim, I can"
They both grinned over the familiar standoff. Blair shrugged and quickly described the type of plant that Jim needed to look for. Giving his Guide a playful pat on the top of his head, the Sentinel rose to his feet and moved away from the rocks, searching for more of the pods.
Watching his partner's almost painfully slow progress, Blair realized that Jim's vision was still far below normal. Sucking on one of the pods, he took a quick look around. He could see the flat band of highway only a few yards away and breathed a sigh of relief. They hadn't come far from the road, so they would have no problem getting back to it.
Glancing upward, he saw the sky deepening in hue and there were hints of color starting to form on the horizonthe first signs of approaching sunset. They'd slept longer than he'd thought, but the results seemed to have been worth the lost time.
Looking toward the east he could see the faint silhouette of a half moon, and the first faint glimmer of stars. He was thankful that they'd have at least some light for their evening trek. Without Jim's Sentinel vision to guide them, they'd have to rely on whatever natural light they had. Fortunately, they'd be traveling on the flat highway.
And I'm going to make SURE we don't stray from it!
There was a touch on his shoulder. He looked up to see the Sentinel standing over him, his face creased with concern. "You okay?"
"Yeah, just thinking," Blair answered, pushing away the fears which threatened to unearth themselves from deep within his memories. "Give me a hand, will you?"
Jim pulled him to his feet, steadying him until he regained his balance. Tentatively he stepped forward on the injured leg. He felt the familiar stab of pain, and the wound began to throb again. He felt Jim's arm encircle his waist and pull him closer. With a quick nod to hide the grimace of pain, Blair worked his arm under Jim's, reaching up to clutch the older man's shoulder for support.
"Back to the highway, man. It's time to find new accommodations. Preferably some place with lots of running water and a huge buffet," he said lightly, hoping his voice sounded more confident than he felt.
They started out fairly strong, quickly making the necessary adjustments to their new pattern of combined movement. Concerned that Jim was pushing his control over his eyesight too fast, Blair convinced him to ease off for a while and let him continue to lead. Jim grudgingly agreed, but he left his other senses dialed up to normal, and kept close tabs on his partner's vital signs.
They walked for thirty minutes and then took a short break. Blair had objected to stopping, claiming that he could go farther, but Jim knew that the renewed burst of energy they both felt was destined to be short-lived. He intended to set a pace they could both meet and was determined not to let them get overextended again.
That set the pattern for the next several hourswalk, rest, walk, rest. Occasionally one of them would pull out one of the pods and suck on the sour, refreshing moisture. Conversation was kept to a minimummostly short anxious questions from Blair, testing both the Sentinel's condition and his own hearing. Jim understood that his partner had his own set of protective instinctsinstincts which needed verbal reassurance the older man was quick to provide.
The desert slid from blistering day to soft twilight, shedding the oppressive heat in exchange for a significantly cooler wardrobe. Wide bands of color stretched from the horizon as the setting sun burned its way into the far hillsthe vivid pinks, oranges and purples an intense contrast to the flat, faded blue which had filled the sky earlier.
Night came on in a rush, hurrying to push twilight from the sky in its eagerness to begin its own cycle anew. The ethereal glow of the moon and the twinkle of stars overhead bathed the landscape in gentle rays of light, smoothing shadows and softening the knife-sharp edges of the harsh terrain. Life began to appear where there had been no trace beforesmall creatures on individual life-quests of their own, scurried and crawled out of their holes and crevices.
To the Sentinel's sensitive hearing, it was like listening to a symphony tuning up for a performance. Not quite a cacophony of sounds, but definitely a prelude as nature nudged her chorus into line. His Guide's harsh, ragged breathing was even more noticeable as the desert voices came into sync and sang one long pure note that formed the opening of the evening's overture.
Jim eased Blair to the asphalt. "Rest, Sandburg. That means your mouth, too."
"You know, I think I'm having a relapse," Blair murmured, shaking his head. "I'm sure I didn't hear that last thing you said. I know you wouldn't be insulting me. Not in my condition."
"Relapse, huh? I suppose now you'll be using this as an excuse every time I tell you to stay in the truck."
"Not to worry, man. You've said that line so often I'm sure I could read your lips if I had to. Now your yelling at me about the optimal state of cleanliness for the loft... that just might trigger a another hearing loss."
"Guess I'll be signing us up for sign language classes when we get home," Jim muttered, smiling.
"Sign language," Jim repeated, wiggling his fingers in front of Blair's face.
"Only if the department pays for it."
"I'm sure Simon would jump at the chance, if it meant keeping you out of the line of fire once in a while."
Blair eyed Jim uncertainly for a moment, and shook his head, his expression growing anxious again. It reminded the older man that his partner's hearing, while improved, was still spotty. He laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder and gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze. His Guide gave him a shaky smile and then stretched out on the rapidly cooling pavement.
"Ummmm, this actually feels good. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is out here at night. Last time I walked this stretch I wasn't in the mood to appreciate the scenery."
"Yeah... I made my first trip out here between my freshman and sophomore years. I'd planned to spend the summer on a dig in Mexico, but at the last minute the guy heading the expedition decided to fill my slot with his own kid."
"A little rampant nepotism?"
"Sounds unfair," Jim amended.
"Happens," Blair replied with a shrug. "Anyway, I had to shift gears pretty fast. I crashed with a couple of other friends for a month or so and ended up doing some house-sitting for one of the visiting professors. Nate got wind of my dilemma, and invited me down. I managed to scrape up enough money to make the trip, and headed out here at the beginning of August. I got stupidhey, I was sixteen, you knowand didn't pay attention to the gas gauge. Ran out of fuel about twenty miles from the old man's place. Course I didn't know it was there at the time."
"You made this trip in the Corvair?"
"Nah, worse. I had an old beater of a Fiat then. Great car except in cold weather when you had to spend ten minutes massaging the stick to free it up. It had a tendency to freeze in the winter"
"I get the picture, Chief," Jim growled, forestalling another of Blair's off-topic rambles. "Stay with summer for a minute and finish that story first."
"Finish? Oh... yeah... well, I figured I'd just brought my usual run of luck south with me. I pushed the car off to the side of the road, grabbed my pack and started hiking. When I hit the old man's placeHarold, that's what his name was, I knew I'd remember it sooner or laterwhen I got to Harold's I had to do some fast talking. He reamed me from head to toe, man. He finally sold me enough gas to get me out to Nate's. Gave me a lift back to the car and threatened me with seven deadly forms of physical abuse if I ever found myself in that situation again."
"Blessed Protector number one?" Jim grinned down at his Guide.
"I didn't think so at the time," Blair said softly. "I learned differently, later... in fact, I learned a lot on that trip..."
Jim heard the slight catch in the younger man's breathing and focused in on his friend. Blair's face had taken on an odd, distant expression.
"We should get moving," Blair announced abruptly, pushing himself to his knees. Jim grabbed his arm and helped him to his feet. He was about to make a sarcastic comment about headstrong Guides when he felt the heat radiating off of the younger man.
"Your fever's up again," he said tersely. Turning his partner to face him, Jim placed the back of his hand against Blair's forehead to make sure he understood. "We can rest a while longer."
"No. We can't. We need to keep moving," the younger man objected, shaking his head.
"Damn it, Jim. This is why I didn't tell you about the gunshot wound in the first place," Blair hissed angrily. "You don't know this desert like I do. We can't afford to be stuck out here another day. We don't have any water. Those pods are only a short term fix. We need to keep moving. We need to find a doctor. You were out for a hell of a long time, man. I thought for a while you were never going to wake up. Your vision's getting better, but what if there's something else wrong? I'm not going to be the one holding us back, I"
"Blair, stop it," Jim ordered , gripping the younger man tightly. "Stop beating yourself up over this."
"We need to keep moving, Jim. Please..." Blair's anger had evaporated, but the urgent plea in his voice and his eyes was just as intense.
"Okay... we'll go... but we'll stop whenever I say, and no arguments."
"Just as long as we get moving now," Blair agreed glibly.
Recognizing the futility of arguing against what they both knew they had to do, the Sentinel shifted his hold on his Guide and they walked on into the night.
It was still dark when Dave Heller pulled his squad into the parking space next to the station. The headlights illuminated the small sign at the front of the stall and he smiled. After 36 years with the departmentthe last 20 of them as Sheriffhe never failed to appreciate coming 'home'. He turned off the engine and crawled out of the car, wincing slightly at the stiffness in his limbs. Even after a night in his own bed, he still felt the effects of three long days on the road.
Good to be home and in one piece, he grinned, grabbing his hat. He took a moment to look around, drinking in the quiet familiarity of the predawn streets of his hometown.
Fergis, Nevada, population 2365with three more on the way before the end of the yearwas far from a hot bed of crime. They'd helped the big city boys out a time or twoonce in apprehending a trio of bank robbers who had seriously underestimated the dedication of the sleepy little town's law enforcement community. Although not one bullet had been fired, that episode had given the town gossips enough ammunition for a year's worth of stories. He'd been more than pleased to have gotten out of it with all of their skins intact. Dave Heller was not a man who pursued danger and excitement in the job. He never turned away from his duty, but he preferred quiet and uneventful.
And that was pretty much what he'd gotten during his terms as Sheriff. Mostly it was local troubles; hot-tempered neighbors nursing disagreements that had existed for years; doing his 'bad cop' routine for the local kids whousually out of boredom or on a daregot into mischief and needed a firm warning to settle them down; and adding a few dollars to the local coffers when someone decided to stretch the speed limit further than the law allowed.
The town was his base of operations, but his responsibilities included the entire county. Once a week either he or his deputy would tour the highways and half-paved roads. The three-day round trip he'd just made was, as usual, uneventful. He'd visited with some old friends, checked on a couple of the area's more colorful 'hermits' and done his typical thorough sweep. He missed the time away from the town and his family, but as his wife Jean so aptly reminded him, as long as the job of Sheriff was an elected position, he needed to keep his face well known to the local populace.
Only a third of the territory under his watchful eye was inhabited, and even that small segment was sparsely populated. The rest was desert. And that was more than trouble enough. The locals understood it. So did the tribe on the reservation. Technically, his authority extended there as well, although the tribal council policed its own people with efficiency. The few times he'd had any trouble, it usually manifested itself in towna brawl at the bar between a couple of hot-shots who'd had a few too many beers and some of the reservation kids out to prove something to themselves.
No, it was mostly the out-of-towners who kept tempting the desert's fickle sense of mortality. The sandy oven had claimed more than a few lives over the yearshe still had occasional nightmares from one case that had happened not long after he'd taken over as Sheriff. Over the past few years he'd added five more missing persons cases to his 'unsolved' files. Three young men and two women. Five lives that the desert had simply swallowedonly their vehicles, abandoned on the highway, left any tangible trace that they'd been there at all.
He stretched again, rolling his shoulders. At 56, Heller was still a man winning the battle against aging. His back was ramrod straighta carryover from his time in the Marinesand although he knew that all the driving and desk work were making him a bit flabby, his extra 'inch' around the middle came from enjoying his wife's cooking a little too much, not from knocking back too many brews at the local bar. His hair, graying at the temples in the last two years, was still full and carried the auburn tint that Jean had always admired. The hazel eyes were still sharp and his easy going manner belied a quick and intelligent mind.
He walked to the front of the building and stood for a moment before the entrance, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He held his breath as he tried the door, a full grin filling his face as the knob turned easily in his hand. Shaking his head in amusement, he let himself inside, hanging his hat on a rack near the entry. Turning on lights as he made his way through the office, he nudged open the door to the break room and peeked inside, already certain of what he'd find.
"Molly, you never cease to amaze me," he said, greeting the woman who sat bent over the small table, thumbing idly through an out-of-date magazine.
Warm brown eyes rose to meet his, flickering with mischief. Molly Brown was a tiny handful of woman. Nearly his own age, she looked barely thirty-five. Her cropped, sandy blonde hair and lithe figure added to that illusion.
"Why, Dave, compliments so early in the morning? How thoughtful."
Heller was drawn to the aroma of freshly brewed coffeeit was always waiting, no matter what time he arrived. He slid past her to the counter and poured himself a cup, eyeing the plastic wrapped plate of muffins.
"'Course, it's probably just to get on my good side," Molly murmured. Rising from her chair, she slipped the plastic wrap off of the homemade goodies. Picking up the plate, she waved it under his nose. "Blueberry... that's your favorite, isn't it?"
"I thought maybe I had you this time," Dave grinned.
"In your dreams, Dave. You forget how long I've known you. You're like an open book. You always come in early the day after a road trip."
"And you're always here ahead of me. How do you do it?"
"Trade secret, Sheriff," Molly grinned back, giving him a quick squeeze on the arm. "Only one muffin until you finish the paperwork I've got ready for you."
"Yes, Molly. Anything you say, Molly."
With an easy laugh, she left him to claim his prize and made her way to her own desk. Heller chuckled himself. He'd known Molly since they'd both been scrawny kids. They'd gone head to head growing up, competing in almost everythingbaseball, spelling contests, science fairs. He'd even competed for her, once he'd opened his eyes and seen what a lovely young woman his tow-headed companion of youth had become. His best friend had beaten him to the punch. Molly had married Tom Brown just a year out of high school and he'd been the best mana favor Tom had returned several years later when Dave had married Jean. The four of them had been inseparable. Until Tom had died seven years ago.
The smile on his face faltered. His best friend's death had been a blow. Tom had been his deputy, a man he trusted with his life and the safety of his town. Killed when his squad car crashed into a ravine, the loss had been a bitter one. It still rankled because the cause of death had never been completely explained. From the remains of the vehicle, they'd determined that Tom had been on a high speed pursuit when he lost control. But who or what he'd been chasingthat they'd never resolved.
Molly had dealt with her husband's absence with the perseverance and determination that made her so much like her Broadway musical namesake. She'd been working a few days a week at the station all along, handling the paperwork and dispatch duties for a meager hourly wage. After Tom's death, Dave had stretched the budget to bring her to work full timenot only for her own sanity, but also, selfishly, for his own. Her warmth and generous spirit had made walking in and seeing his friend's empty chair that much easier to take.
Not that the seat had remained empty for long. He'd brought on a new deputy a few months after Tom's death. Bob Holland had been no match for his friend, but he was from the area, knew the basics of law enforcement, and he did have an eye for detecting trouble. Privately, Dave thought that was because wherever Bob's son Ben turned up, problems soon followed.
"Only one, Dave!" Molly called out, shaking him out of his reverie. Snatching one of the blueberry muffinsstill warm from the ovenoff of the plate, he grabbed his coffee and walked to his office.
True to form, Molly had three stacks of paperwork waiting. Settling down to the onerous task, Heller chuckled again. Personality wasn't the only reason he liked having Molly around. She was damn good at her job.
Heller wondered if Molly was part psychic too, as she appeared almost magically at his desk just as he was finishing the last of the files. She winked at him, grinned knowinglythe gentle camaraderie of their friendship was as reassuring to her as it was to himand placed another muffin on his desk.
"Thanks," he said, sizing up the new confection appreciatively. "As usual, it looks like everything's well in hand. I take it it's been pretty quiet."
"It has, although you wouldn't know it from the pile of messages I've got for you," she answered, handing him a stack of pink slips.
"Damn, I'll be stuck on the phone all day," he grumbled, fanning the sheets of paper with a thumb. "Want to give me the highlights?"
"Brad Jenson's ranting about the kid's driving their ATVs across his property again. At least six of those are from him. Bottom of the stack. First one's from Bob. He left a message on the machine that he needed to run some personal errands this morning. Said he'd check in later."
Heller nodded, shifting the top sheet off the pile. "This looks like a number from out at the Integra reservation. Who's Nathaniel Spiritwalker?" he asked, staring at the second slip uncertainly.
"I don't know... I left the message on the machine. He asked specifically for you. Called in the middle of the night."
"Wonder if he's related to Joseph?" Dave murmured. "The old man's got a whole slew of kids and grandkids..."
The phone rang and Molly went back to her desk to answer it. Heller glanced at his watch and decided to hold off returning the call until a more reasonable hour. The surprise in Molly's voice made him look over to her curiously.
"Jake?... I don't think I've ever... yes... he's in... no... not this morning, he's... no... sure... I'll tell him..."
With a puzzled expression, Molly hung up the phone and walked back to Dave's office. "That was Jake Sanders. He's on his way over to see you."
"Can't be. That man never rises before the sun. What's he want?"
"He didn't say. Just asked if you and Bob were in."
"Well, we'll know when he gets here. Somebody probably tried to stiff him on a repair or something." He turned his attention back to the messages. "Anything else vitally important in this mess?"
"Third one's from Sherry Phillips," Molly answered with a frown. "Seems Connie didn't come home again last night."
Heller's eyes flickered to his deputy's empty desk, then back to Molly. They were both obviously thinking the same thingBob needed personal time, Connie's mother was looking for her and Ben was the common link between it all.
"Hope Ben didn't do something foolish again," Molly muttered with a shake of her head. "And Connie... you'd think that girl would have more sense" She broke off her comments as the outside door opened and Jake Sanders stepped inside. "Morning Jake," she greeted the new arrival pleasantly. "Want some coffee to wash the sleep dust out of your head?"
"Thanks, Molly, but I'll pass," Jake answered tersely, glancing past her to meet Heller's eyes.
"Go right ahead, then. Dave's expecting you." Connie ushered him into the Sheriff's office. Catching a small nod from Heller, she pulled the door shut and returned to her own desk.
Dave took a moment to study Jake carefully. The man was definitely uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot almost like an errant school boy.
"Have a seat, Jake," Heller offered, smiling in welcome. "What brings you here so early?"
Jake settled into a chair, his gaze meeting Heller's for a second, then dancing away. "We've got a problem, Dave."
"We have, or you have?" Heller asked curiously.
"We have. The town has."
"So tell me," Dave prodded.
"Yesterday morning I rented my car to a couple of guys from out of town."
"The Chevy?" Heller asked in surprise. Jake loved that car.
"They said they were headed out to the reservation. You know I wouldn't trust that old beater I use for a loaner for a trip like that."
Dave's gaze had strayed to the pink message slip at the side of his desk at the mention of the reservation, but it immediately slid back to meet Jake's encouragingly.
"They pay cash?"
"Nah, traveler's cheques."
"You worried that the cheques were stolen?"
"No... it's not that..." Jake broke off for a moment and cleared his throat nervously. He took a deep breath and met Dave's stare evenly. "I didn't have any concerns about renting them the car. The older guy was a cop, Dave. Detective. Gold shield and all. Claimed the younger man was his partner..."
"But you're not sure?"
"Pretty odd pairing on the surface," Jake answered, shaking his head. "But they seemed pretty tight."
"So what's the deal, then, Jake? You having regrets about loaning out your 'baby'?"
"I don't think they're still driving it."
Heller sat back in his chair, eyeing the other man speculatively. "What makes you think that?"
"I worked late last night. Finally finished that overhaul on Jim Peter's truck."
"Congratulations. I know he'll appreciate the fast turnaround."
"Yeah... anyway, I stopped at Sid's for a beer to celebrate. Tim Rudolph was there."
"His home away from home," Heller sighed. Rudolph was a regular in his 'cooling off' cell on practically a weekly basis.
"He'd had a few, like always," Jake continued. "Funny thing was, he came up to me, all pissed off. Said he didn't understand why I'd let Ben Holland drive my car when I wouldn't let him borrow it. I told him he'd better check his alcohol levelsthat I had rented the Chevy out, but not to Ben. But he insisted. Said he'd caught sight of it headed out of town only an hour earlier. Claimed Ben was behind the wheel. And that his buddies were in the back."
The hairs on the back of Heller's neck had begun to prickle as soon as Jake had mentioned Ben Holland's name. He reached for a notebook and pen.
"I need a description on the two men you rented the car to," he said, suddenly all business. He jotted down the descriptions that Jake offered, keeping his own thoughts and comments in reserve. "The detective... you catch his name?"
"Ellison... can't remember his first name, but he said he was from Washington. Cascade, Washington."
"And the younger man?"
Jake reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Blair Sandburg. He's the one who paid for the car. Signature's on this." He handed Heller the traveler's cheque.
"Molly!" She was standing in the doorway seconds later. "See if you can find that National Police Association directory. I need you to check out a couple names and get me a number if you can." He scribbled on the bottom of a piece of notebook paper and tore it off, handing it to her.
"Right away, Dave."
Heller waited until the door had closed behind her again before turning his attention back to Jake. "You say these two were headed out to the reservation?"
"Yeah, something about the dig site there. The younger man... Sandburg. He seemed pretty excited about it."
"What time did they take off?" Dave fingered the message from Nathaniel Spiritwalker absently.
"Late morning. The car was completely gassed up and loaded with an emergency kit in the back. Look, Dave, I'm not sure about this Sandburg kid, but the older guy was ex-military. Looked like he could handle just about anything. Something serious must have happened"
"Don't go jumping to any conclusions here, Jake. All we've got is Rudolph's word that someone besides Ellison and Sandburg were driving your car. You've got to admit he's not the most reliable of witnesses. There's nothing that ties these two men to Ben Holland."
"Rumor has it Sandburg had a run in at the bus station with Zeke Weston about an hour before they came to see me," Jake said softly.
Heller snorted in disgust. "From the description you gave me, I could almost expect it. Zeke can be a real asshole. They were at the bus station? Must not have known about the bridge repairs. How'd they know to come looking for you?"
"Sandburg mentioned Connie Phillips when they introduced themselves. Said he'd met her at the park."
"Still doesn't tie Ben to them," Heller cautioned, eyeing another pink slip worriedly.
"You know what Ben's like around Connie. He acts like he owns her. If he caught her and Sandburg together... well the kid's just the type that Ben would take a shot at anyway, just for his version of fun. Open your eyes, Dave. Something's wrong here and you know it. Ben's been seen driving a car he had no business in and Bob's conveniently not here?"
"Jake, I know Ben's been in and out of trouble, but it's always been pretty petty stuff."
"You know something I don't?" Heller asked quietly.
"No... it's just a feeling. The kid's bad news, Dave. The only reason things haven't gotten out of hand up until now is Bob's intervention. You know that."
"I only know what I can prove, Jake. That's how the law works."
"Just hold on... all right?" Heller held up a hand and Jake subsided in his chair.
Picking up the phone, Dave punched in the number for the reservation. After only two rings a still sleepy voice answered. Identifying himself, he asked for Nathaniel Spiritwalker. A few moments later, a young man picked up the phone.
"This is Sheriff Heller, you called me last night. What can I do for you?" Dave listened to the caller for a minute. "Pardon me, Nate, is it? Can you hold on for a moment?" Heller put his hand over the mouthpiece and glanced at Jake. "Give me a few minutes here, will you?" He waited just long enough for Jake to exit the office, then returned to the call, his face growing grimmer by the second.
Heller's explosion drew both Jake and Molly back to his office. "Nathaniel Spiritwalker is Joseph's grandson," he explained, staring up at Jake. "Seems he was expecting a Blair Sandburg and his friendJim Ellisonlast night. Sandburg called yesterday, late morning, to let them know that they'd be arriving around nightfall. They never made it. Joseph's concerned enough that he's ready to send out a search party from their end. Apparently he knows the younger man pretty well. He's confident that Sandburg wouldn't have done anything stupid out there. Says he understands the desert." Dave shifted his attention to Molly. "Any luck tracking down that directory?"
"Right here," she murmured, flattening the booklet on the desk. "There's a James Ellison listed. Detective, Major Crime, Cascade PD, Central Precinct. No Sandburg listed among the rest of the officers, but his name does show up as a Civilian Observer. Ellison's also listed with a whole series of commendationsIncluding Officer of the Year."
"Guess that settles any questions about their identities," Jake said softly. "Nice to know I was a good judge of character."
"There's a Captain Simon Banks listed as head of Major Crime"
"Already placed the call, Dave," Molly interrupted him. "He's due in the office about 9:00. They're going to try to track him down before that."
Heller glanced at his watch. It was 7:15. He rose to his feet and slid open the desk drawer, pulling out his backup weapon. Giving it a quick 'once-over' he slid it across the desk to Jake, along with a deputy's badge.
"You're being drafted, Jake," he told the stunned man. "I need you to stay here and keep a lid on things. I told the Spiritwalkers that we'd keep them informed with any news that we had. Molly, I want you to try to reach Bob. Tell him I want him in my office. Now."
"You want him to bring Ben in as well?"
"Don't even mention the kid's name," Dave warned. "Just tell Bob I want to see him. If he tries to stall you, call me right away. Once he gets here, Jake, I want you to take his car and head out west on the highway. See if you can find anything. If Bob gives you any trouble, lock him in one of the cells. Just keep him here. I don't want him in the middle of this."
Heller slipped around the desk and stalked past them, stopping at the door to retrieve his hat. "I'm going to have a few words with Tim Rudolph and Sherry Phillips. If this Simon Banks calls before I get back, patch him through to the unit. If Ellison's as important a detective as he seems to be, I have a feeling I'm not going to enjoy that conversation one bit."
Continue on to the Conclusion...
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Page last updated 8/15/03.