Disclaimer: Characters from The Sentinel do not, unfortunately belong to me. Pet Fly and Paramount own them. UPN abuses them far more than I ever have. All other original characters are minefortunately they don't demand much in terms of food and board. No money made, no point in chasing me for money.
While hunting up a title for another writer, I came across this marvelous quote by Georges Bernanos: The most dangerous of our calculations are those we call illusions. It rumbled around in the dusty corners of my mind, generating a scant kernel of a story idea, until the Muse found it. I think she was appalled at the condition it was inshe's a much better housekeeper than I am. She shook off the cobwebs and demanded I clean up my act and get busy. What can I say? I learned long agonever, ever, argue with the Muse.
My boundless thanks to Chris for her constant support and for a great TS-overload visit; to various readers (Hi, Carmen!) who wrote and encouragedthreatenedme to produce another story post-haste; to Majik for originally posting this to her site; and to Carolyn, whose fine-toothed comb and sharp eye made this a much better piece. Attributions and credits for quotes found at certain section headings appear at the end of the story.
Smoke and Mirrors
It wasn't a pleasant neighborhood.
It had been once.
From dawn to well past dusk, the streets and buildings had pulsed with life and hope and innocence.
Children had filled the streets with laughter and the casually abandoned toys of youth, confident of their own immortality.
Lovers young and old, with eyes only for each other, had strolled hand in hand down the sidewalks, dreaming of the future and reliving the joys of the past.
Even the night was welcomed; not feared.
Generations agowhen the bricks that formed the building blocks of homes and stores still bore the faint heat of the inferno from which they were molded; when mortar gleamed pure and white as it was troweled onto each layer; when the pine boards that were sawn and shaped still seeped droplets of pungent sap; when artisans sculpted scrolls and magical beast-like creations on the cornicesit had been a place of new beginnings.
Back then, the buildings wedged shoulder to shoulder like marching soldiers had breathed with a life of their own. They exuded a vitality that had welcomed wanderers from afar, gathering the refugees into a safe harbor from which they could begin their new lives.
Now, it was a place stained by more than just the passing of time.
The fires that warmed the brick-faced structures brought destruction, not conception; the cement that had once bound the building blocks of pride was gray and crumbling from neglect; rough splintered wooden boards were hammered haphazardly across broken windows, barring the world from entry; broken faces leered like vultures from the rooftops, their beautiful images distorted into monstrous shapes that formed the stuff of nightmares.
There were gaps in the ranks, marking soldiers who had fallen victim to age and avarice. Between the structures that still stood, rubbish littered alleys gaped like hungry maws, ready to devour unsuspecting preyfertile playing fields for the darkness.
Lassitude and age permeated the streets, offering no real welcome except to those with nowhere else to go.
Yet there was still a spark that beat beneath the surface. In the decaying wasteland there was still life; struggling not just to hold its ground, but to move upward, straining toward the sun- -toward hope and the promise of dreams.
And it was that feeble flame that gave Blair Sandburg hope of his own as he leaned wearily against the side of the old blue and white truck, waiting for his partner. He rubbed his eyes with the sleeve of his coat and grimaced at the sting of gritty ashes and soot. One glance at his hands told him that they were no cleaner. He wiped his palms against his jeans, trying to remove the worst of the grunge. Pulling out his shirt tail, he scrubbed at his face, wishing he could erase the scene before him just as easily.
Another fire. Another death. The sixth in as many weeks.
With an audible sigh, Blair gave up on trying to get clean. Crossing his arms over his chest he leaned back, letting the solid bulk of the pickup support him. His gaze drifted to the smoldering ruin of what had been a three-story apartment building. There was nothing left of the structure except the shell and the jagged, blackened timbers that had once formed the interior walls of the first floor. The strobing bubbles of the emergency vehicles and squad cars cast the street in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of color, making the whole scene even more surreal.
"About, about, in reel and rout, The death fires danced at night," he whispered, recalling the words to a poem he'd once read. The verse was painfully appropriate now.
Blair shook his head and mourned the lossnot the loss of the building, but the loss of what had been a home to at least a half-dozen families. He could see them without turning his head. Men, women and children huddled in blankets on the sidewalk across from the ruins, grasping the pitiful remnants of their possessions and each other.
Their shell-shocked expressions were far too painful for the young Shaman to observe for long. His empathic soul felt as battered as they looked. The presence of the Red Cross van and its gentle volunteers did little to ease the heartsick young man.
He let his gaze drift again, feeling somewhat guilty in the knowledge that he would be leaving this all behind in a short while to return to the safety and comfort of the loft. Unbidden, the memories of his own loss to fire returned and he shivered. The images that paraded through his mind were as fresh as the night the warehouse had been destroyed. With a determined effort, he shook them off. He'd made a new beginning then. Perhaps there was one waiting for these people as well.
Maybe there's a Blessed Protector waiting in the wings. Or a Guardian Angel, he thought hopefully. After all, I got lucky. And Jim's always saying that there must be someone with some clout watching out for children and wayward anthropologists.
Buoyed by that thought, Blair glanced back at the remains of the building. His partner was still inside, directing the forensics team.
And probably ready to bite someone's head off, Blair mused grimly. He'd better not be trying to push his senses anymore tonight, or I'll be pulling an all-nighter just trying to get them back into line.
For a moment, he considered going back inside, but then decided against it. Jim Ellison might be a Sentinel, but he was also a cop. And as much leeway as Blair had in their relationship, he knew that there were times when he had to step out of his Guide mode and into his police observer role. This was one of those times. Jim had a job to do, and even though his Shaman worried about the way the man pushed himself, he understood that there was a time and place for hovering.
Blair shifted and wedged his shoulder into the support of the side mirror, resting his left cheek against the cool metal. It was late and he was tired. Jim had told him he could take the truck and head for homea testimony to just how wrapped up in the case his partner really was, since the pickup was his pride and joy and the times that he had allowed anyone beside himself behind the wheel were easily counted on the fingers of one handbut Blair had elected to remain. His Sentinel would need him before the night was over, even if it was only to offer the comfort of some mindless chatter on the way home.
It wouldn't be just his partner that he would be distracting with his ramblings either. Letting his mouth run was a sure way to keep from thinking about the body that they'd discovered in the debris. It had been impossible to determine anything from the remainsat least for Blair. Jim had voiced his own opinions, based on what his senses had revealed, but even with his enhanced abilities, the only things they could be sure of at this point were that the victim was male, that he'd been shot in the head and that the fire had quite neatly covered the killer's tracks.
The same facts that they'd picked up at each of the previous crime scenes.
They'd spent hours going through the debrissearching for any evidence that might help them solve the puzzling string of arsons and murdersbut they'd found little to give them the break they so desperately needed. By the time Jim had been ready to hand that part of the investigation over to forensics, the Sentinel had been nearly exhausted, although he'd adamantly denied it. Blair knew betterhe'd seen the strain on his friend's face and the tension in the taught muscular frame. So Blair had stayed on, waiting for the detective to call it quits- -waiting to take the frustrated Sentinel home.
Probably with a headache the size of Cascade.
Smiling at the appropriateness of the analogy, Blair raised his head and pushed himself away from the truck. He could feel the nagging complaint of his own headache and started to wander down the sidewalk away from the crime scene, hoping that some minor aerobic activity would help.
There were at least seven patrol cars still blocking the street and he nodded in silent greeting to the cops that he knew, or at least recognized from some past case or event, giving a wide berth to those that didn't look familiar. Blair felt pretty secure with his standing within Major Crimes, but the uniformed cops often forgot to look past the long hair and earrings and he wasn't in any mood to explain his right to be there.
He walked as far as the corner and turned to survey the area. The firefighters who had valiantly battled the blaze remained, watching the smoking charred remains with wary eyes and casting an ocean of water on the nearby buildings in hopes of containing the destruction. Blair saw the sorrow in several of the men's eyes and felt a strong, peaceful kinship with them.
He could still see a couple of the families who had been burned out, but the rest had apparently been shepherded to either medical care or some temporary facilities. The thought that they'd sleep with a roof over their heads for at least one night made the young Shaman's heart a bit lighter.
There were other people crowding the sidewalks now. Onlookers whose expressions ranged from the mildly curious to horrified. The anthropologist in Blair couldn't help but study them, thinking about the odd melting pot of nationalities and ethnic origins that made up the small community that he was getting to know all too well.
Ranging from ancient to infant, the population living in the crowded and less than hospitable neighborhood was a mixture of cultures and lifestyles. Given the variety of values and beliefs, Blair had expected to find a kind of war zone mentality, with each common group clinging together for safety and support. What he'd discovered was a powerful sense of community. It had intrigued the anthropologist and delighted the Shaman's soul.
But in the course of their investigation, he'd unearthed the hint of something dark as well.
Something that smelled of fear.
Blair shook his head and dragged a hand through his tangled curls, frowning as he tried to pin down the undefinable something that was flittering in the back of his mind. He hadn't talked to Jim about it yet. It was too vague, too much a feeling as opposed to fact. And, realistically, it didn't seem to have any bearing on the case at hand. No matter how fascinating Blair found the odd subculture of the neighborhood, it still didn't explain why six people were dead, or give them any clues as to who had killed them.
He took a quick look toward the site of the most recent fire, but he still saw no sign of his partner. Deciding that he had given Jim more than enough time, he started to walk back, letting the facts that they did have roll through his mind.
The victims had all been area merchants. One woman and five menassuming his Sentinel's assessment of the newest corpse was correct, which Blair didn't doubt. Each was murdered execution style, with a bullet to the head. Jim had theorized that some kind of protection racket was operating in the area, using strong arm tactics and murder when necessary to secure their hold over the residents. So far, no one had come forward to volunteer any information that made that assessment anything more than educated speculation.
Then there was the arson angle, which appeared to be a cover for the murders. Jim had put Rafe and Brown to work on digging through the paper trail on the buildings, just to make sure that they weren't missing some important connection. So far they'd come up with reams of printouts, but no concrete leads.
All of the fires and homicides had taken place within an eight block radius of tonight's destruction. He and Jim had walked the streets, talked to the remaining merchants, interviewed the residentsthose that would talk to them anyway. He'd actually had more luck than his partner in getting anyone to say more than a few words.
Guess sometimes it pays to look less than intimidating.
Lost in his thoughts, Blair stepped down off the curb and caught the heel of his right shoe on a broken piece of concrete. He pitched backward and flailed his arms trying to regain his balance. Strong hands wrapped around his left arm and jerked him upright. The anthropologist drew in a quick breath and looked up, expecting to find his partner at his side. To his surprise, it was a stranger.
"You okay?" the man asked in concern.
"Yeah... just forgot to watch where I was going," Blair explained, grinning in mild embarrassment.
The man released his hold on Blair's arm and stepped back, shaking his head. "Good way to break your neck, kid."
Blair grimaced at the reference to 'kid', but bore the designation with patience. He'd been called worse, and to be truthful, he did look younger than his 29 years. Certainly he was young enough to be this man's son.
Blair nodded absently, acknowledging the man's words while he studied him. He was nearly as big as Jim, but far older. Late 60s maybe, although not at all frail, given the grip he'd wrapped around Blair's arm just moments earlier.
A full head of silver hair topped a rugged, life-creased face. The clothes he wore had long since gone out of style, but they were clean and he wore them with the air of someone who had once held the reins of command. The eyes that glittered beneath bushy eyebrows were sharp and clear as they swept across the chaotic scene.
"Quite a mess," the man observed. "This used to be a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. Worst thing we had to deal with in the old days was keeping the kids off the basketball court after curfew. Wasn't that they got into trouble or anything, but the noise of that ball bouncing at all hours used to drive the old folks who lived across from the school crazy. Hard to believe with everything that's been happening lately."
"Sounds like you're pretty familiar with the area," Blair said quietly.
"Lived here all my life, except for the time I spent in the service, of course. Spent my childhood on this very street, a couple blocks north," the old man replied. Turning his gaze back to Blair, he favored the anthropologist with a scrutinizing stare that would have done the Sentinel proud. "I don't remember seeing you around before. You have a place to stay yet?"
It took Blair a moment to realize that the old man had mistaken him for a new arrival to the neighborhood. Given his disheveled appearance it wasn't hard to understand why.
"Uh, well, actually..."
"Mind if I give you a little advice, kid?" the man interrupted before he could correct the false assumption.
"Sureas long as you use my name instead of calling me kid," Blair replied with a grin. "Blair Sandburg," he offered, extending his hand.
The old man eyed Blair's grimy palm warily, then enfolded it in a firm handshake. "Guess that's fair enough," he answered and then introduced himself. "Andrew Jankowski."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jankowski."
Andrew eyed him quizzically. "Pretty fancy manners, Mr. Sandburg. Nice to see that there's still some that respect the old ways."
"Actually, I have a great deal of respect for older cultures and traditions, Mr. Jankowski," Blair answered, grinning broadly. "It's kind of my life's work, plus my mom was pretty unorthodox, but she was a real stickler for manners. I have to admit, being polite probably got me out of a lot of the jams that my youthful enthusiasm landed me in the middle of."
"Well politeness isn't going to do you any good if you get in trouble in this neighborhood," Andrew said grimly. "These bastards don't waste time with pleasantries. Cross 'em and you'll end up with a bullet in your head."
"What?" Blair gaped at the man, his tired mind trying to come to grips with what Jankowski had just said.
Face filled with an expression of disgust, the old man grabbed him by the arm and spun him around to face the street.
"Open your ears and eyes, boy. You want to stay alive, stay away from them!" Jankowski hissed.
Blair stared at the assembled crowd of onlookers, cops and firefighters, desperately trying to figure who the old man was talking about. Suddenly he was aware that the hand on his arm had dropped away. He turned to find Jankowski already stalking down the sidewalk.
"Wait!" Blair scrambled after the old man.
"I already gave out all the free advice I'm offering tonight, kid," Jankowski called over his shoulder.
"You know... don't you?" Blair gasped, grabbing at the old man's jacket and pulling him to a stop. "You know who murdered those people!"
Jankowski's eyes narrowed dangerously and he pulled out of the younger man's grasp.
"You have to help us," Blair plunged on. "Before someone else dies."
I don't have to help anyone except myself."
"But this is your neighborhood," the Shaman argued. "You said you've lived here all your life. You must have known the people who died... How can you stand by when you know the truth?"
"The truth can get you killed, kid," Jankowski snarled, turning away.
"Please... talk to my partner," Blair pleaded.
Jankowski whirled around and grabbed the anthropologist by the front of his jacket. The mixture of rage and fear in the old man's face made Blair flinch, but he forced himself to maintain eye contact and not look away.
"Your partner?" Jankowski spat out the words like they were poison. "You're a cop?"
"No... I'm an anthropologist... a civilian observer... Jim Ellison's my partner... he's a detective with..."
He got no further with his stammered explanation. The old man's eyes widened in fear and he shoved Blair backward. The anthropologist hit the ground hard. As he lay gasping for breath, he heard the sound of running footsteps.
He's getting away... gotta find Jim...
Blair rolled over and pushed himself upright. Shaking his head as he struggled to fill his lungs, he took two staggering steps forward, frantically scanning the crowds on the street.
Suddenly his eyesight blurred and a wall of flame sprang to life in front of him. Stunned, he lurched backward. The flames grew higher, blocking out everything in sight. He felt the blistering heat sear his skin and he clapped his hands over his ears as the destructive force screamed with a deafening roar.
And then it was gone.
He sank to his knees, dazed. Hesitantly, he touched his face, expecting to find it bleeding and raw, but only fresh stains of soot coated his fingertips when he examined them.
He looked up and surveyed the street again. Everything was just as it had been before the nightmarish vision. Before Jankowski had fled...
"Damn... I have to find Jim!"
Lurching to his feet Blair headed back to the burned out building at a run. Jankowski had the answers that they needed. What the vision had meantif it had been anything more than just his tired mind fixating on his earlier memorieswould have to wait.
I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror...
When he shoved the loft door open two hours later, all Blair wanted to do was stumble into his room and collapse on the bed. After he'd located Jim, they'd searched for Jankowski, but the old man had disappeared as abruptly as he had surfaced. Before they'd left the scene, the observer had given the beat cops the best description of the potential witness as he could and an APB had been issued from headquarters. Jim had called in his terse report to Simon and the captain had ordered the partners home for some well-deserved sleep.
Blair slipped out of his coat and made a half-hearted effort to hang it on the rack. The attempt was short by several inches and the jacket fell to the floor in a jumbled pile.
Much like my thoughts, Blair brooded tiredly. He reached down to pick it up and collided with his partner who was in the process of hanging up his own garment.
Jim flashed him an angry glare, snatched Blair's coat off the floor and hung it on the rack next to his own before the younger man could make another attempt. With more force than was necessary, the detective slammed the front door shut and stalked into the kitchen.
Blair's feet felt like they had grown roots, planting him only two steps inside the door. Physically tired, his mind was still whirling madly with unanswered questions and grim speculations. Topping it all off was the little shamanic vision that he wasn't even sure he'd experienced. Dealing with a pissed off, frustrated Sentinel was the last thing he wanted to do right now. He eyed the French doors to his room longingly, contemplating how much energy it would take to get himself to that safe, cozy haven.
He opted for the bathroom instead, emerging a few moments later. He'd left the top layer of grime coating the sink, deciding that it wasn't worth cleaning up until both of them were finished.
The refrigerator door closed with the same force that the front door had, drawing the younger man's attention back to his partner. Jim was savagely twisting the top off a bottle of seltzer water. Blair felt a strange flash of sympathy for the inanimate object, but was glad it was the plastic that the detective had his hands wrapped around and not someone's neck.
Especially not mine!
With a soft, resigned sigh, Blair shuffled over to the table and dropped gratefully onto one of the chairs. Resting his weight on his elbows he propped his chin on steepled fingers and took a deep breath, prepared to wait out the worst of the storm. He knew Jim wasn't really angry with himhe was simply the closest, and most forgiving target. The Sentinel was exhausted, stressed and the lack of progress on the case was driving him nuts. In typical Ellison fashion, he'd made solving the murders a personal issue, and he was incensed that things were happening that he couldn't control.
He watched as Jim finally wrestled the cap free of the bottle and started to raise it to his lips. Before he could voice a warning, the carbonated liquid fizzed and erupted with the force of a miniature volcano, drenching the older man's face and the front of his shirt.
With a snarl, Jim slammed the bottle down on the counter, fountaining more of the sparkling water over the countertops and onto the floor. The detective took a step back and halted, his whole body quivering with suppressed rage.
Blair counted to five before breaking the silence. "If I'd known how desperate you were for a shower, I would have given you first dibs on the bathroom, Jim."
The gaze Jim shot him was chilling, but Blair innocently quirked an eyebrow at his partner. The frozen fire in the Sentinel's eyes flared and then died back to the softer hues of an early morning sky. A bemused grin slowly formed on the detective's face.
"And have you contaminate the entire loft? I don't think so, Sandburg. You're shedding a layer of dirt every time you take a breath," Jim teased.
"I'm not about to apologize for breathing, Ellison. And my current state of disrepair is not something you should comment on until you've looked in a mirror."
Jim glanced down at his equally filthy clothes and grimaced. Blair pushed himself to his feet and headed into the kitchen, grabbing a handful of towels. With a quick swipe he grabbed the water bottle and dried it off. Handing it to the Sentinel he made a dabbing motion at the older man's shirt and shook his head in mock irritation.
"I bet you were one of those kids that got their good clothes dirty within five minutes of putting them on," he grumbled. "You're doing your own laundry this week, man."
"Goes both ways, Chief," Jim shot back, still grinning.
A smile spread across the anthropologist's face and he gave Jim a gentle shove to move him out of the kitchen. "Go. Shower. I'll clean up in here."
Jim gave him a skeptical glance. "You're volunteering to do housework?"
"I may be shedding dirt, big guy, but you're dripping mud and you smell like a foundry," Blair muttered, bending to wipe up the floor. "Go, before I change my mind. And leave me some hot water, or you'll find those clothes stuffed under the seat of your truck. They'll be pretty ripe by morning." "It is morning, Sandburg."
"My point exactly, Jim."
"All right, all right, I'm going." The detective padded off to the bathroom. Moments later Blair heard the hiss of the shower. He smiled smugly, pleased that his efforts to distract his Sentinel had worked. Grabbing another towel he returned to the task of wiping up the spill.
Ten minutes later it was his turn to wash away the filth of the night. He shirked out of his clothes and nudged them into the corner by the hamper with his foot, unwilling to handle them again until he had to. Stepping into the shower he flinched at the first stinging spray, shivering slightly until the cool water that was still in the pipes changed to warm and then hot.
He scrubbed away the accumulated dirt and washed his hair twice before relaxing under the soothing cascade. As the water pounded against the back of his skull he took deep, cleansing breaths, savoring the moist steam as it flushed the taint of smoke from his lungs and sinuses.
Closing his eyes he formed a picture in his mind of a peaceful mountain lake, imagining the shower as a thundering waterfall at his back. The meditative exercise started to take hold, clearing his head and letting his confused thoughts regain some kind of order.
Without warning, the wall of flame filled his inner vision. He gasped and clutched at the wall for support. Fire shot down his back and he fumbled for the faucet handle, wrenching it desperately until he had turned the water off.
He stood there trembling, both hands pressed to the wall. The flames were gone, but in his mind's eye he could see the street and the crowds from the last fire. Jankowski's words rang in his ears "Stay away from them!"
Who's them? he wondered frantically. Someone in the crowd?
He tried to concentrate on the faces that he'd seen. Was one of them the murderer? No... Jankowski had said them as if there was more than one person he was pointing out. Straining to recall how the people on the sidewalk had been grouped together, he suddenly drew a sharp breath.
"Them..." he whispered, horrified. "Shit! That's it."
He scrambled out of the shower and hurriedly dried off. Wrapping a towel around his waist he scurried to his bedroom and grabbed a set of sweats from the pile of laundry that was stacked on his dresser.
He whirled around, ready to charge out into the living room and suddenly froze. If he was right, Jim was not going to be happy.
Hell, that's an understatement. He'll be furious!
Chewing his lip nervously, Blair pondered his choices. He didn't have any proof, just a gut feeling. Was it enough? Would Jim even believe him? He was about to trample on sacred ground, and if he was wrong, the results would be disastrous.
He shifted from one foot to the other, weighing out the options. The image of the burned corpse that they'd found at the scene flashed through his mind. Resolutely, he squared his shoulders and stepped through the doors.
His partner was camped out on the couch staring at some preppily dressed twenty-something who was droning on about the joys of owning your own phone-card business. Blair perched himself on the arm of the couch and studied his friend intently. The shower had done the Sentinel a world of good, but a trace of the anger that had sparked so violently earlier remained. Jim's jaw was still clenching and his blue eyes were narrowed in concentration. Blair knew it wasn't the infomercial on TV that had captured his partner's attention.
He looks like hell. Maybe I 'should' wait with this.
"Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can go forward, Jim," Blair murmured. "Maybe some sleep..."
"I'd be a step closer if Jankowski hadn't slipped out of our hands," the Sentinel muttered.
"I'm sorry about that, Jim," Blair said quietly, accepting the blame without blinking an eye. After all, if he hadn't blanked out for a few seconds, the Sentinel would have had the lead that he needed. "If I'd been thinking clearer I wouldn't have let him out of my sight."
"I just don't get it," Jim growled, pushing himself off the couch abruptly. He stalked over to the sliding glass doors of the balcony and stared out at the city for a few moments before turning back to face the younger man. "From what you said, Jankowski knows who the killer is. Why didn't he come forward? Why doesn't anyone down there want to talk to us?"
"They're afraid, Jim," Blair said in gentle rebuke. "There are a lot of families in that neighborhood just trying to make a future for themselves and their children. Given the places that they've come from, it's not difficult to understand why they don't trust authority."
Jim nodded, acknowledging the truth of the younger man's words, but his frustration was still obvious in the deep frown lines that creased his forehead. "I know that, Chief, but it makes it damn hard to help. Someone's preying on these people and I can't get past the feeling that they know precisely who it is."
Blair grimaced. He understood his Sentinel's exasperation all too well. Cascade was his city and the residents of it his tribe. But without their cooperation, he couldn't do his jobcouldn't protect them. He took a deep breath, knowing that his next words would only worsen his friend's outlook.
"Jim... what if they're not talking because they're afraid of the cops?"
"Practically everyone down there's afraid of the police, Chief. Either us or immigration."
"That's not what I meant, Jim," Blair said quietly. "What if they're really afraid of the cops?"
The anthropologist shivered at the angry ice-blue glare the detective turned his way.
Where there's smoke, there must be fire...
Joel Taggert paused on the sixth floor landing to catch his breath. He was puffing as the result of climbing the seven sets of stairs from the precinct parking garage to the floor that held the offices of Major Crimes. However, he was far less winded than he had been the first time he'd attempted the exercise several weeks earlier.
Once he'd dropped the first 40 pounds that his physician had strongly suggested that he lose, he'd hit a plateau in his diet. Adding in some exercise had helped put the weight-loss program back on track. Not particularly inclined to spend the time in the gym, he'd taken to using the stairs instead of the elevator whenever he could.
Even if things at the station got chaotic, he tried to make the first trip of the morning the staircase route. Scaling the one hundred and sixty-eight steps gave him time to clear his head and focus on the needs of the day. The reminder of just how much weight he'd just lugged up the stairs also made it easier to bypass the confections on the donut cart.
He glanced at his watch. 7:50 a.m., running ahead of schedule. He grinned, gratified to see that he'd taken a few seconds off his personal best time, and that his respiration and heartbeat had leveled off to normal quickly, as well.
With a satisfied smile, he pushed the stairwell door open and stepped out into the corridor. He heard the ding of the elevator as it announced its arrival on the same floor. Before he could turn to see who might be inside, Blair Sandburg exploded out of the half-open doors. The anthropologist blew by him without a glance and slammed through the doors of Major Crimes.
The livid rage on the younger man's face propelled Joel into action, carrying him into the bullpen in time to hear the observer's angry shout.
Joel froze just inside the doors, taking in the scene. All activity in the room had halted. Brown and Rafe were at their desks, staring in open-mouthed surprise. Simon was poised in the doorway to his office, obviously just as shocked by the observer's entrance. The only one who seemed oblivious to the unfolding drama was Ellison, who sat calmly reviewing a file on his computer screen.
Sandburg stalked across the bullpen toward Jim's desk, his fists clenched at his sides. He was wearing the same clothes Joel had seen him in the day before, but they were more rumpled than usual, as if he'd slept in them. His hair was pulled back into the ponytail that he normally wore to the station, but long curling tendrils escaped to frame his blazing eyes.
Joel sucked in a sharp breath. The relationship between the partners had been strained for the past two weeks. At first Joel had blamed it on the arson/murder investigation the two had been working on. The toll on that one had risen to eight deaths and the lack of progress had everyone on edge. The heat was coming down from the top to solve the caseSimon Banks had spent hours dancing for the commissioner and the mayor, and, just the day before, they'd grilled the detective and his observer. Ellison had come out of the interrogation snapping and snarling and Sandburg had been a pale shadow of his usually energetic self.
But it had become clear that there was more going on than just the stress of the case. In the last fourteen days, Ellison had reverted back to the cold, unreadable ex-military loner that he'd been before Sandburg had teamed up with him. In a stark departure from the man who'd always accorded his colleagues at least at modicum of respect, he'd begun treating everyone like dirt. He'd become argumentative, making snide comments about the way the department was run, complaining about the lack of professionalism out of forensics.
The change in the man was shocking, and all of them had looked to the young observer for an explanation. But the anthropologist was fighting his own losing battle. In the past week, Ellison's attitude had shifted to a new target and Sandburg was at the center of the bulls-eye. Half of the time the detective treated the observer like he wasn't even therefor the other half, he flung derogatory comments and derision in the younger man's face.
Sandburg had suffered through it all in silence, still shadowing the older man, still filling his obligation to the partnership, but with less and less of his normal zest and bounce.
Given the kid's propensity to talk, that silence should have clued us all in, Taggert thought grimly.
If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, Joel would have laughed at anyone who even hinted that Ellison would ever intentionally hurt the younger man. They were too closeroommates, friends, partners. They could be hard on each other, but up until now, there was always something that kept them togethera line that they wouldn't cross, no matter how bad things were.
Now it appeared that the bomb that he'd heard ticking for the past two weeks was about to explode and there wasn't anything he could do to stop it.
"Damn it, Jim, I'm talking to you!" Blair snarled, planting himself at the side of his partner's desk.
Ellison finally looked up, his face set in a sneer of contempt.
"Finally decided to show up, huh Sandburg?"
"You know damn well why I'm late!" Blair spat back.
"Oh, yeah? Let me see... that's right, you had a hot date last night, didn't you? She take you home for some fun? Or did she dump you and you were too embarrassed or drunk to find your way to your own bed?"
"I was in my office all night, Ellison," Blair answered angrily. "Trying to catch up on the other side of my lifework that I've put off in order to be here. You'd have known that if you'd bothered to pick up the phone or play back the half-dozen messages that I left on the machine."
Jim shrugged. "Hey, I'm not your keeper kid. If the schedule's too much for you, you know where the door is."
"Yeah, you pointed that out to me this morning, didn't you?" Blair hissed. "What I do and where I spend my days or nights is none of your business. Not any more. I got the message. You boxed up all my stuff and left it sitting on the curb. What's the matter, couldn't manage a note? Eviction too big a word for your limited vocabulary?"
Joel felt the tension in the room increase exponentially, mirrored in the icy glare and the dangerous narrowing of Ellison's eyes. Any sane person would have backed off immediately, but Sandburg stood his ground.
"Your week was up a long time ago, Sandburg," Jim said darkly.
"So you just kick me out? Dump my stuff in the street? After everything we've been through... after all the time I've put into this partnership..."
"Let's get one thing straight, junior," Ellison snapped. He rose from his chair and came around the desk to stand chest to chest with the younger man. While the difference in the two men's heights was not that great, the ex-ranger seemed to tower over the grad student like a menacing, fairy tale giant. "We were never partners. I'm the detective. You're just an untrained, pain-in-the-ass civilian who's been dogging my heels like a long lost puppy for way too long."
"ELLISON. SANDBURG. MY OFFICE. NOW!"
Joel flinched at Simon's bellow, but it didn't faze either of the partners.
"So, the truth finally comes out, huh, Ellison?" Blair stared up into the older man's face defiantly, jaw clenched in an impressive imitation of the detective's.
"You want the truth, kid?" Jim sneered. "You've been nothing but a nuisance since the day you wormed your way in here. I've had to risk my own neck and the lives of other real cops pulling your ass out of the fire more times than I can count. I don't know what's worse... the way you whine and complain about following the most basic order, or the fact that you can't keep your mouth shut for more than thirty seconds at a time. Do you really think anyone's interested in that crap you dish out? Well, they're not."
Ellison jabbed Sandburg hard in the chest with one finger, forcing the younger man to take a step backward.
"You're nothing but a liability around here, Sandburg."
"And you're just what Naomi said you were, Ellison," Blair retorted hotly. "A bootstrap, red-necked pig!"
Ellison's face flushed crimson with fury and he lashed out with his fist, catching Sandburg on the left cheekbone. The force of the blow knocked the younger man to the floor with a resounding crash.
There was an audible gasp from everyone in the room. Time seemed to stand still, capturing everyone in a horrified moment of disbelief.
Then Ellison lunged forward, grabbing Sandburg by the jacket and dragging him to his feet. Hands that were deadly weapons in their own right locked around the younger man's neck.
The attack broke Joel and everyone else out of stasis. Taggert ran forward, vaguely aware of Simon, Rafe and Brown moving as well. Banks got to Ellison first and pounded on the detective's arms, trying to break the choke hold that Jim had on the smaller man. Brown and Rafe joined their efforts to their captain's and managed to separate the partners before Joel was in reach.
"You bastard!" Blair gasped, clutching at his throat.
"No, you're the bastard here, Sandburg!" Ellison tossed back as he was pulled even farther away from the observer.
Taggert came up from behind and wrapped his arms around Blair just as the younger man started to lunge forward toward Ellison. Holding the seething anthropologist was like trying to contain a firestorm. Blind anger and outrage gave the smaller man surprising strength and Joel had to use brute force to drag him backward.
"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Simon shouted, his harsh command cutting through the air.
Joel pulled Blair farther away, stopping just inside the main doors. The younger man had quit struggling, but Taggert held on tight, afraid that the trembling ball of energy in his hands would explode at the least opportunity.
Simon released his hold on Ellison, but Brown and Rafe maintained theirs. The ex-ranger's face was dark with rage and disgust, but he, too, had stopped fighting to get free.
Silence reigned once more, broken only by the harsh, heavy breathing of the two men and their holders.
"I don't know what's going on between you two, but it stops now!" Banks snarled. "The bullpen is not the place for you to go ten rounds with each other. I will not abide this infantile behavior any longer. You either work it out or I'll work it out for you."
"There's nothing to work out, Captain," Ellison snapped. "I want him out of here." The detective fixed the shaking grad student with a withering glare. "You hear that, punk? I find you anywhere near me or my place again, and I promise you, you're going to regret it."
Joel felt Blair stiffen in his grasp, the tension sizzling in the younger man's body at the naked threat.
"That's it, Ellison. You're suspended until further notice!" Simon barked. "Sandburg, go cool your heels in my office until he clears out."
"I don't think so, Simon," Blair hissed. "I've wasted enough time and energy here as it is."
He jerked his shoulders and Taggert reluctantly released his grip. The anthropologist pulled his observer's pass from his jacket with an angry tug. With a flick of his wrist he sent the laminated card sailing like a Frisbee across the room. The gaze he directed at the man who had been his best friend was as cold and hard as Ellison's had been.
"You stay clear of me, Ellison, or you'll be the one regretting that we ever crossed paths."
"Words, little man," Jim taunted. "You haven't got the guts to back up the threat."
Joel reached out to forestall another retaliatory surge, but Sandburg simply shot Ellison a venomous glare, pivoted precisely and stalked out through the bullpen doors.
Taggert turned, seeking Simon's eyes, hoping for some sign that things were not beyond repair. The captain's expression was rigid and unreadable.
"Let him go," Simon ordered, nodding at Ellison. Rafe and Brown released the detective and stepped warily away.
"Stay away from Sandburg, detective. If I find out you've been harassing the kid, that suspension will be permanent," Banks vowed.
"Don't worry. That piece of trash isn't worth losing my job over," Jim sneered.
The detective shrugged at the warning in Simon's voice. He walked around his desk and grabbed his coat. "We done?" he asked belligerently.
"Yeah, we're done," Simon said quietly, disappointment obvious in his face and tone.
With an air of smug superiority, Ellison strolled across the bullpen. He glanced at Joel as he passed by, and the bigger man felt a shiver run down his spine at the intensity of that brief contact.
As the doors closed behind him, Joel mourned the heartbreaking loss. Not only had the department lost its best team, but the friendship that he'd envied between the two men had obviously just died a painful death as well.
Hither and thither spins
The windbourne, mirroring soul;
A thousands glimpses wins,
And never sees a whole...
Blair pulled the Volvo into the patched asphalt lot of the Peaceful Slumber Motel, parking the car under the gaudy, orange and blue flashing neon banner. The 'vacancy' sign was still lit, but at 11:30 at night, he didn't think they'd find too many more customers. He wouldn't be here himself, if he'd had another choice.
He stared grimly at the blinking sign, certain that given the current state of affairs, his sleep would be anything but peaceful.
'Nightmare Alley' would be more appropriate, he mused darkly. Or maybe 'Insomnia Bay.'
He turned off the car and pocketed the keys. Grabbing his backpack, a six-pack of bottled water and the already grease-speckled bag of fast-food he'd picked up on the way, he slid out from behind the wheel. Checking to make sure both doors were locked, he took a quick look around the parking lot. The simple action brought back a flood of memories. Jim had drilled that safety precaution into his head during the first few days of their working together.
He shook his head angrily, banishing the painful thoughts and images to the far corners of his mind. There was no point in looking backwards. Not now.
Slipping his pack to his shoulder, he clutched the bag of food in one hand and tucked the bottles of water under the other arm. With a determined effort, he trudged up the sidewalk to the front of the hotel. It was an old, well-worn, single story structure. Its brick and wood paneled facade had been indifferently cared for over the years by a parade of ownersthe most recent of which was a fat, balding, middle-aged man who had leered suggestively at the anthropologist when he'd paid for the room earlier in the day. Unloading his possessions under the man's penetrating gaze had been one of the creepiest experiences of his life. He was glad he'd brought two of his students along. Not only for their help, but they were both seniors on the football team and their combined bulk was threatening to behold.
Ten mucus-colored doors marched in sequence down the length of the long building, identical except for the numbers scratched into the painted metal panels. Ten windows, all the exact same size and shape, paired with the doors to mark the boundaries of the roomseach one as loathsomely nondescript as the next. The curtains to all but his were closed. Bright vertical streaks of light at the gap of the drapes in three of the units were the only tell-tale signs that anyone was in residence.
He headed down to the end unit, pulling the motel-room key from the pocket of his jeans. He'd chosen the room partly because it afforded the greatest distance between him and the resident owner, but also because it was the only one with a second window. The eastern exposure would allow him at least a glimpse of the first rays of the rising sun, something he'd become accustomed to waking up to.
With a grimace, he realized he'd opened the door to more memories and picked up his pace. Four long strides brought him to his room and he thrust the key into the lock. There was a loud 'click' as the tumblers turned. He paused, taking a deep breath, preparing himself for what lay within.
"So, shall we see what surprises are waiting behind door number 10, boys and girls?" he muttered under his breath.
He gave the knob a sharp twist, pushed the panel inward and stepped across the threshold. The faint glow from the parking lot didn't make a dent in the darkness of the interior. The only light source was the reflection of the hotel's sign in the mirror at the far end of the room. The reversed image pulsed sickeningly. The rest of the room remained drenched in shadows.
Blair elbowed the door shut and flipped on the light switch. A tarnished brass floor lamp flared to life. Its forty-watt bulb cast enough light to see by, but not nearly enough to chase away the gloom.
"Hey, honey, I'm home," Blair murmured to the empty space.
There was no answering welcomenot that he had expected one. He dropped his backpack on the bed and headed toward the small bathroom, depositing the bag of carryout and the bottles of water on the top of a battered dresser on the way.
He emerged a few minutes later, wiping his face and hands on a threadbare towel. Shimmering droplets of the tepid water that he'd splashed on his face in an effort to perk himself up, dripped from his hair onto his shirt. Blair patted at the damp spots half-heartedly before abandoning the effort. He tossed the towel back onto the tile bathroom floor and turned to survey his new domain.
The room was small and crampedbarely twenty feet square, not including the tiny bathroom. Certainly a far cry from the spacious openness of the loft.
Do NOT go there, he reminded himself.
A sagging double bed and two mismatched upholstered armchairs accompanied the dresser that was serving as his temporary kitchen counter. The rest of the space was filled with cardboard boxes. He knew the contents of those all too well.
He crossed back to the door, shot the deadbolt into place and slipped the safety chain onto its track. Taking one quick glance out at the parking lot, he pulled the drape. He opened the east window, leaving the curtain pulled back to let in whatever breeze happened byand found himself longing for the balcony of the loft, where he and Jim had spent many a quiet evening, drinking a beer and sharing stories, or just rehashing the day.
With a savage shake of his head, Blair turned his attention back to the room. He spent the next ten minutes rearranging the boxes so that he had a clear space to pace, making sure not to block the access door that led to the room next door. "Always allow yourself an escape route." That was something else Jim had taught him.
There wasn't enough room to sit on the floor and meditate, but he had little intention of doing that anyway. If he wanted to try that exercise, he could use the bed, although he surmised that the ugly floral print of the spread would be a rather potent distraction, even with his eyes shut.
No, meditation was at the bottom of his current agendait had been for the past two weeks. What had once been a calming, soothing exercise had turned into a repeat performance of hell.
Since the night of the sixth fire, the vision of a raging wall of flame had haunted every attempt he had made. He still had no idea what the image meant, but it terrified him.
He paused in the center of the room, running his hands through his hair in frustration. That was the problem with being an untrained Shaman. Sure, he had the titleShaman of the Great Citybut it was one that he'd flippantly assigned himself. Incacha had passed on his gifts and abilities, but, like the vision, he still had no clue as to what that really meant. Or, what responsibilities it entailed.
If I'd known it was going to produce these kinds of hallucinogenic episodes, I would have grabbed my 'Get out of jail free card', proceeded directly to 'Go' and gotten the hell out of Dodge.
Not that the choice had presented itself. Incacha had grabbed his arm with his bloody hand, fixed him with an ancient, desperate gaze and it had been a done deal. He had to admit he'd been fascinated and flattered that the Shaman had deemed him worthy of the bequest. But figuring out what to do with it had left him significantly overwhelmed.
He'd tried analyzing it from a scientific perspective, but the cold, clear eye of reason fell far short when it came to the mystical. Up until now, meditation had been the only route to an even minimal understanding of what was happening to him. With the door closed on that option, he felt lostand more frightened than he had ever been in his life.
He ground his teeth together in frustration and disgust. Unwilling to go backward; too afraid to go forward. He hated that feelingabhorred the fact that his own fears might be holding him back from a path that he was destined to follow. He wished wholeheartedly that he had a Guide of his own. Someone to tell him what he was doing wrong, or at least give him some sense of direction.
He closed his eyes for a moment and a tongue of flame danced in his mind.
Now is definitely NOT a good time for this, he thought desperately.
With an effort of will, he opened his eyes. The image of the flame was gone, replaced by the bland reality of the motel room. He breathed a sigh of relief, but felt a flash of irritation as well. While he respected the shamanic traditions, at times like this he balked at the fact that fate seemed to be playing its own little game with his life.
Guess I'm getting a taste of what Jim's gone through.
He'd never had the chance to talk to Jim about the vision. Things had escalated quickly after their discussion that fateful night. He could still see the expression of rage in the Sentinel's eyes, the look of pure betrayal as Blair had voiced his theory.
A look that had resurfaced on Jim's face that morning.
Blair muttered a curse and started pacing again, wishing he could drive his mind to the same state of exhaustion that the rest of his body felt. Maybe then he could just collapse and not worry about fires, or blackened corpses, or about the fact that he was now a Guide without a Sentinel.
But no matter what he did, the confrontation at the station replayed itself over and over in his mind like a looped tape. The hateful words that had spewed from his Sentinel's mouthand his ownseared streaks of fire across his heart. They burned a thousand-times hotter than the bruise on his cheek.
He choked back another curse and headed back to the bathroom in search of a cool compress for the still swelling injury.
Smoke gets in your eyes...
From his car on the east end of the parking lot, Joel Taggert watched the troubled young man with a sinking heart. He could see Sandburg through the open window, flickering in and out of view as he paced the small room. It looked like it was going to be a long night. For both of them.
Worried about the anthropologist's safety and state of mind, Joel had left the station only moments after Ellison. He'd followed the detective back to the loft and then headed out to the University, hoping that he'd find the grad student safely tucked away in his office.
A few casual questions to students emerging from the Anthropology Building had assured him that Sandburg had indeed returned there. Uncertain as to whether his presence would be welcome, Taggert had located the younger man's car and found himself a spot where he could watch both the entrance to the building and the vehicle.
He hadn't had to wait long. Within an hour, Sandburg had emerged with his pack on his shoulder and two very large students in tow. The trio had made their way to the parking lot and after some discussion, the would-be linebackers had piled into a pickup truckthe back end of which was loaded with cardboard boxeswhile the anthropologist had headed to the Volvo.
Taggert had trailed them to the motel. Once it had become apparent that the slimy manager wasn't going to give the grad student any troubleat least not with the two jocks on the scenehe'd hung back, watching from a distance as the boxes were unloaded into the end unit. When the last of what Joel assumed were the anthropologist's possessions were inside, the students had left and Sandburg had disappeared behind a firmly closed door.
Joel had contemplated approaching the younger man then, but had refrained. He could only imagine the pain that the sensitive observer was experiencing and had no words that would offer any real comfort. He'd headed back to the station, promising himself that he'd check on the anthropologist later, although he'd been pretty convinced that even Ellison, with his uncanny knack for tracking down the most elusive subject, would have a hard time finding the young man if he didn't want to be found.
The nagging suspicion that things weren't exactly as they seemed had begun to grow shortly after he'd returned to work. He'd ignored the insistent needling thoughts at first, assuming that it was just his own inability to accept what had gone down. But the idea that something was very wrong with the current picture kept clamoring for attention.
By dinner time, unable to pinpoint what was bothering him, he had decided that it was none of his business.
At ten he'd been in his car, headed back toward the motel, determined to get to the bottom of things. If that meant a head- to-head confrontation with Sandburg to pull the truth out of him, then that's what it would take.
Now it was almost midnight and he still hadn't made a move to approach the younger man. From the look of things, he had been wrong and he was back to being able to do nothing except offer his condolences.
Blair's hurting and that's a fact. No one could be that good an actor. And Ellison has been a royal jerk. I've seen that for myself. What ever possessed me to think that this was all some weird sleight-of-hand game? What would be the point?
He let his gaze drift across the lot, and caught a flicker of movement near Blair's car. The main sign had been turned off a few minutes ago, and the few working streetlights in the area didn't have enough power to penetrate the shadows around the front of the building. But he'd been sitting in the near dark long enough for his night-vision to identify the shape creeping stealthily toward the end unit.
Ellison... What the hell? How'd he find the kid?
Taggert watched as the ex-ranger paused outside of the ninth door. Joel was out of his car the moment the detective slipped inside. Reeling off a silent string of curses, the bigger man headed for the motel building. In a structure like this one, there would be a door in each room that allowed access to the adjoining unit.
He vetoed the idea of pounding on Blair's door in warningEllison could move like lightning and the younger man could be dead before Joel's words were out of his mouth. Grimly, he pulled his own weapon and paused outside of the ninth room. He nudged the door open with his toe. There was no sign of Ellison, but there was a slim line of light emanating from the wall on his right, denoting the location of the door into the unit that Sandburg was occupying.
Sliding through the darkness with an agility that his larger bulk belied, Taggert strained to decipher the conversation he heard coming from Sandburg's room.
//"This is your own fault, you know,"// Ellison snarled. //"This has to be done... you haven't left me any choice."//
//"Damn it, Jim, let go. You're hurting me!"// Without waiting to hear any more, Joel threw open the door and charged forward. His eyes widened in horror when he saw that the ex-ranger had the anthropologist pinned down on the bed.
"FREEZE ELLISON!" he shouted, as he burst into the room.
Jim whirled around, automatically going for his own gun.
"Don't, Jim!" Taggert cautioned. "Don't even think about it."
Ellison slowly raised his hands.
"Move away from the bed," Joel ordered.
"Not until you put away your gun," Jim said softly. "You're making a mistake, Joel."
"The only mistake here, is that Simon didn't put you in lockup after you threatened Sandburg this morning," Taggert retorted harshly. "Now step away from him, or I swear I'll shoot you where you stand."
During their exchange, Blair had pulled himself to a sitting position. At Joel's warning, he launched himself off the bed and thrust himself in front of Ellison like a shield.
"He's right Joel... you're making a mistake... he was just checking out the bruise on my face and I wasn't cooperating... put the gun down... please," Sandburg urged.
"Blair..." Ellison tried to move around the younger man, but the anthropologist shifted with him, keeping himself between Jim and the weapon.
"Sandburg, get away from him," Taggert hissed.
The grad student shook his head. "Not until you put that thing away, Joel."
Something in the young man's steady gaze and the determination with which he stood protectively in front of Ellison, convinced Taggert. He kept a wary eye on the detective and holstered his gun.
Both Blair and Jim visibly relaxed.
"Why are you here, Joel?" Blair asked quietly. "No one was supposed to know where I was."
"I followed you... this morning... I was worried..." Joel admitted, still not taking his eyes off of Jim.
"Thank you. But why are you here... now?" Sandburg pressed.
Joel paused, taking one more long look at the two men before answering.
"Because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make myself believe that what was going on between the two of you was real."
To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressuretruths revealed.
To Joel's shocked surprise, Blair turned toward Jim and held out his hand, a delighted smile filling his face.
"Pay up, man. You owe me. Twenty bucks."
"No way, junior. He didn't figure it out. He came in here because he thought I was going to kill you," Jim smirked, leaning back against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest.
"No way!" Blair exclaimed, turning to face Taggert again. "You didn't, really... aw, come on, Joel! You know Jim better than that!"
Taggert's face suddenly paled. "Twenty bucks?" he asked weakly. "You're telling me this was all some sick practical joke to win a bet?"
Jim saw the anger blossom on the captain's face and stepped forward quickly. "Not a joke, Joel. A game. And the stakes are high."
"The ante's up to eight lives," Blair added solemnly.
Anger gave way to confusion and, finally, to understanding. "So this does have something to do with the arson/murder case the two of you have been working on," Joel murmured. Jim nodded in confirmation. "But I still don't understand. What purpose does sundering your partnership serve?"
Jim glanced at Blair, but the younger man's gaze was suddenly fixed on the floor. "Protection," the Sentinel answered softly.
"And who are you protecting?" Joel asked, his eyes shifting toward the anthropologist.
"Me," Blair admitted abruptly, looking up to meet Taggert's gaze. "And Jim, too. We have a lead on the killers, but we don't have enough to make the casenothing that would stand up in court, anyway. Jim's going to try to get inside the group we've identified. He can't do that with me hanging around. Not that I want to reinforce anything he said this morning, but in this situation I am a liability."
"I knew I was going to end up mortally regretting that comment," Jim muttered. "You are not a liability, Chief. You're my partner. If something goes wrong, I want you out of the line of fire. These men have already killed eight people without blinking an eye. They're not going to hesitate at offing an anthropologist even if he is an official police observer."
"You know who's behind this?" Joel interrupted. "From the ranting and raving around the office about dead ends, that's the last thing I expected to hear."
"Smoke and mirrors, Joel," Jim responded. "We had to make it look like weren't making any progress."
"An illusion... you want the people you're after to think they're safe," Taggert murmured, nodding his understanding. "And this group you're going to try to infiltrate... they're cops, aren't they."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "How did you figure that out?"
Joel grinned. "They don't give out captain's bars to just anyone, Sandburg. It's the only explanation that makes any sense. I take it you've been planning this for the past couple of weeks?"
"The delay has cost two more people their lives," Jim said grimly, "but we didn't have enough to move on until now."
"That delay might have also bought your safety, Jim." Blair's tone was tinged with anger. "I regret their deaths as much as you do, but I'd regret yours a lot more. We needed the time to make your change in attitude and behavior believable. If you had tried to get inside Jenson's group..."
"Jenson? Phil Jenson from Vice?" Joel's face reflected his shocked surprise.
Blair turned toward Jim, his eyes wide and filled with regret at his slip. Jim laid a hand on his shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. "It's okay, Chief. We can trust Joel." The Sentinel glanced at Taggert, feeling slightly embarrassed. "We probably should have included you on this from the beginning, Joel. Phil Jenson is one of the six players that we've identified. We just don't know how many more there might be hiding in the wings. Because of the risk, we decided to keep this on an absolute need-to-know basis. I'm sorry you had to find out this way. "
"No apologies are necessary," the bigger man assured them. "From what little you've said, I can more than appreciate the need for secrecy. I'm assuming that Simon knows what's going on? "
"Knows all, hears all," Jim acknowledged, his gaze flickering toward the floor lamp.
"Bugs. Not enough here, so we had to import our own," Blair muttered in disgust.
The anthropologist crossed to the dresser, retrieving the water and food he'd left there earlier. Sandburg gestured for Joel to take a seat in one of the armchairs and gave Jim a gentle shove toward the other. "We might as well be comfortable." Blair gave Taggert one of the bottles, opened another with a flourish for Jim and planted the paper bag in his partner's lap.
"What's this?" Jim asked in surprise.
"Cholesterol on a bun," Blair grumbled. "I picked up a burger for you on my way back from campus. Eat."
"What about you?"
"I'm not hungry right now. I'll grab something later," the grad student answered smoothly. "Something healthy."
The Sentinel eyed his Guide dubiously. "When was the last time your stomach had more than its own lining to chew on, Sandburg?"
"Hey, I had a huge breakfast before our blow-out scene at the station this morning."
And probably lost it all as soon as it was over, too, Jim mused grimly as he opened the bag and extracted the foil wrapped hamburger.
Blair began filling Taggert in on the details while Jim ate. The Sentinel watched his Guide closely. The younger man's hands fluttered in accompaniment to his words and he paced while he talked. That in itself was not unusualSandburg was the living, breathing embodiment of the term 'perpetual motion'.
But something was off. Blair's movements normally flowed with a graceful eloquence, a dance that was as expressive as his eyes. Now they were nervous, jerkylike a marionette whose strings had been tangled.
Jim finished his sandwich and balled the wrapper in his fist, wishing he could crush Jenson and his gang just as easily. If it weren't for them, his Guide would be headed home tonight, not left alone and vulnerable in some strange, broken-down motel room.
Joel's soft voice broke Jim's reverie and brought him back to the conversation at hand.
"... Phil Jenson and his partner Archie Gordon, Martin Randolph and Rick Smithson from down at the West Precinct, Mark Harris and Jeff Rogers from East. You're certain about those six being involved?"
"We are," Jim answered.
"My God, Jim. Jenson and Rogers are regular speakers at the academy," Joel murmured in amazement. "And from what I hear, Randolph and Smithson have the best arrest record at West."
"Yeah, they're all pillars of the community," Blair grumbled.
"I know it's hard to believe, Joel, but we've managed to link them all together in this," Jim said quietly. "Once we figured out we were looking for cops, we went back and started reviewing all the evidence we had on the murders. All the victims were shot with a different gun. The ballistics reports at Central and West didn't give us anything, but we got lucky when we checked the records at East. The fourth victim was killed with a .38 that was supposedly in evidence lockup."
"How'd you get your hands on the records?"
"Let's just say it took some inventive keyboarding and leave it at that, Joel," Blair said softly.
Taggert raised one eyebrow in speculation.
"Turns out Harris and Rogers had handled a burglary case that the weapon was tied to," Jim continued. "We checked, and found that the gun had been cleaned recently. The logs showed that Harris had been in and out of evidence lockup the day before and the day after the murder."
Taggert looked even more surprised, but simply nodded. Jim was relieved that the captain didn't ask how they'd managed to get in and out of another precinct's evidence room without being questioned.
"We shadowed Harris and started digging into his personal accounts," Blair said, picking up the explanation. "He'd made several larger than usual payments on his mortgage, which had been seriously in arrears up to that point. We couldn't find any records to indicate a change in income, so we started trying to track the money trail."
"Since he and Rogers have been partnered for a while we looked into his background and activities as well," Jim added. "Blair's cousin, the one that's got some less than sterling references," he shot a quick grin at his partner, "told us that Rogers had been in pretty deep to one of the local loan sharks. Apparently he has an unhealthy attachment to the ponies. A week after the third murder, he bought back his marker."
"Following Harris and Rogers led us to Randolph and Smithson. We weren't sure about them at first," Blair explained. "We couldn't locate any evidence of the same kind of payoff going on. Fortunately we managed to find a connection through the arsons."
"Brown and Rafe had been running background checks on the ownership of the buildings in the neighborhood. The paper trail was pretty deep..."
Blair snorted at Jim's statement. "Yeah, from here to China and back again." "... but after following a pretty intricately laid circuit, we discovered that all four men had purchased property rights to several lots in the area. There were a dozen or more dummy corporations listed so it took some time to dig through the morass of forms and false leads. We finally came up with a link to an insurance firm that specialized in commercial coverages."
"Let me guess," Joel offered. "You found policies for each of the properties that they'd bought."
"Got it in one, Joel," Jim said, smiling. "Each with a higher than normal fire and accident coverage. Not really that unusual given the neighborhood and the age of the buildings, but enough to make us suspicious, given how providentially several of the units had suddenly gone up in smoke."
"The insurance angle led us to Gordon and Jenson," Blair interjected. "They hold the same types of policies on additional properties within the radius of where each of the fires took place. In fact, Jenson made a bundle on the first fire."
"Backtracking Jenson gave us another connection," Jim pointed out. "I called in a couple of favors out of some old friends at CIA and the army. Jenson was a Major and Gordon served several tours on his personal staff. At one point or another, the other four men either served under Jenson's command, or were quartered on the same base. We figure that he's the main man behind all of this."
"I assume that you've got this all documented?" Joel asked quietly.
"In triplicate," Blair muttered. He dug through his backpack and pulled out a stack of fat file folders. He stuffed all but three back into the bag and handed those to Joel.
Taggert hefted the pleated folders thoughtfully. Each was a good two inches thick. He looked inside one of them and pulled out two micro cassettes. "Tape too?"
Jim eyed his partner in surprise. Blair met his questioning gaze for a moment, then shrugged and looked away. "I figured we might need a verbal statement as well. Just in case..."
Just in case neither one of us makes it through this alive, Jim thought grimly.
"The two of you did all of this yourselves?" Joel asked quietly, still staring at the folders in amazement. "This represents the work of a full-time task force."
"Simon gave us whatever help he could," Jim said quietly. "But we couldn't risk involving anyone else. We've theorized that the murders are a sort of 'hazing ritual' to join Jenson's little club. Two weeks ago there were six dead, now there are eight. Unless one of the men we've identified so far has decided he likes killing, that means there are two members of the group unaccounted for."
Joel's eyes narrowed as he considered the implications.
"Everything we've got is in those folders, Joel. Still, most of it is guilt by association and some incriminating, but not substantiating evidence. There's almost enough to build a case against the six we've targeted, but I want the rest of the slime as well," Jim stated grimly. "Jenson and his men have a stranglehold on the residents in that neighborhood. We think that in addition to the arson angle, that they've been hitting up the shopkeepers for protection money. Those that don't pay, end up as targets. We can't let them get away with it any longer. The people living there have it hard enough as it is... they deserve better protection than what Jenson and his buddies are offering."
The Sentinel felt the weight of his Guide's hand on his shoulder and looked up into the younger man's worried face. Jim manage a small smile of thanks for his partner's silent support and gesture of comfort.
"And to do that you're planning to get inside... find out who the players are first hand," Joel murmured. "What makes you think that Jenson's going to be interested in adding you to the group? You wouldn't appear to have the same kind of money problems that Harris and Rogers hador have you managed to falsify a few records?"
"Nah, Jim's credit report is a thing of beauty, Joel," Blair grinned. "No way to trash that in a short period of time. Not without arousing suspicions we don't want." He glanced at his partner and turned serious again. "Money, or the lack of it, doesn't appear to be the only motivating factor. Attitude plays a big part. Jenson and his pals may look like paragons of virtue on the surface, but underneath all the politically correct posturing, they're bigots. And they're into control and power, big time. Jim handles some pretty sensitive cases out of Major Crimes and he's got access to a lot of inside information. We figure that, plus his background, should do the trick. Especially now that we've sullied his sterling reputation."
Joel's expression grew grim and he looked the Sentinel squarely in the eyes. "Damn, Jim. If you're right about all of this, Jenson will kill you the second he figures out what you're up to."
Jim felt Blair's grip tighten on his shoulder and heard the anthropologist's heartbeat thunder in response to Taggert's words.
"I don't intend to get caught napping on this one," the Sentinel said firmly, his vow meant not just for Joel, but for his frightened Guide as well.
Taggert glanced up and eyed both partners before nodding. A small smile formed on his face. "It may sound kind of corny, but I'm glad to see the two of you side by side, instead of at each other's throats. I have to admit that your performance over the last two weeks has been pretty painful to watch."
Blair made a small, choked sound and turned away. Jim watched him intently for a few seconds, and then turned back to meet Joel's steady gaze. "It's been pretty painful from this side too," he said softly. "Hopefully it was convincing."
"Oh, I'd say it was," Joel assured him. "Especially after today's confrontation. You've managed to alienate practically everyone with the hard-ass routine. Jenson should find you a very attractive candidate. I assume the suspension was also part of the plan?"
Jim nodded. "Along with getting Blair out of the picturehe's not the type that Jenson would be interested in recruiting into his private little army."
"Long-haired, hippie-looking Jews need not apply," Blair growled.
Jim shot his friend an amused glance. "Personally, I think it's your brains that they're afraid of, Sandburg," he teased. "Now that I'm officially on the shit-list at the station, I'm hoping Jenson or one of his buddies will come calling. They should have heard all about our little blowout by now. "
"And when they do contact you?" Joel prompted.
"Then I'll get the answers and evidence we need to put them away for a very long time."
"There's one thing I still don't understand," Joel said quietly. "How'd you figure that there were cops involved in the first place?"
"Actually, it was Blair that made the connection," Jim responded.
"Only after you'd already figured out the protection racket angle," the younger man countered.
"Take some credit, Sandburg," Jim frowned. "You're the one that found Jankowski."
"Jankowski? I vaguely remember that name... isn't there an APB out on him?" Joel asked.
Jim grimaced. "There is. Unfortunately we couldn't find a plausible excuse to cancel it. He's a long-time resident of the neighborhood. Sandburg met him the night of the sixth fire. It was his comments that pointed us in the right direction."
"Yeah, and I'm the one that let him get away as well," Blair hissed bitterly. "If I hadn't lost him, none of this would have been necessary. Jankowski would be safe and you wouldn't be about to risk your neck."
"We still would have had to make the case, Chief." Jim frowned and fixed his partner with a firm stare. "We've been over this before, remember? I know you feel guilty about putting the old man's life in jeopardy, but with any luck we'll wrap this up before anyone else gets hurt."
"Every beat cop in the area is watching for him," the anthropologist argued. "How do we know that one of them isn't tied into Jenson's group?"
"There's been no sign of Jankowski for over two weeks, Sandburg. From what you told me about his reaction to your being involved with the police, I'd say he's probably found a safe place to wait out the storm, or left the area for a while."
"I hope so, man," Blair whispered, shaking his head uncertainly. "This is going to be over soon, Blair," Jim murmured, putting all the confidence he could into the simple words. "Just keep the faith a little longer."
The Sentinel waited until his Guide nodded a hesitant acceptance before turning back to Joel.
Taggert held his gaze, the captain's eyes reflecting his understanding of Jim's determination and his concern for the younger man. "What can I do to help?" he asked quietly.
My days are crackled and gone up in smoke...
They talked for hours, laying out the entire plan, modifying it to add Joel into the mix. Taggert's admiration for Ellison's strategy and cunning grew with each new detail. When he tried to compliment Jim, the detective shrugged off the praise and glanced at his younger partner with what could only be interpreted as an expression of pride.
"A lot of the credit goes to Sandburg. If he'd ever cut his hair, the boys in Covert Ops would probably be fighting over him. He's got a sneaky mind."
Blair muttered something unintelligible, but Jim suddenly laughed and reached out to cuff the younger man lightly on the head.
"Hands off, Ellison," Blair objected, chuckling himself. "You've already gotten in one shot today. That's your limit."
Jim's laughter died immediately, his partially shadowed face going still and unreadable. Blair's grin faltered, but he held eye contact with the older man.
"You were supposed to duck," Jim finally whispered, reaching out to touch the bruise on the observer's face.
"I know," Blair admitted, spreading his hands in a gesture of apologetic explanation. "But it needed to look real, man."
Taggert held his breath. The two men were so focused on each other, that for the space of several heartbeats, he was certain that they had forgotten that he was even in the room. Then Ellison shifted in his chair, rising to his feet in one smooth movement.
"I should head out," Jim announced brusquely, grabbing his jacket off of the chair and shirking into it.
Joel saw Blair reach for his own coat and suddenly freeze, his fingers clenching the soft plaid fabric for just a second before he dropped it. Jim had gone still as well, and was watching the younger man intently.
Sandburg forgot he was staying behind, Taggert realized abruptly. He's so used to shadowing Jim... watching his back... now he's got to sit the sidelines... and he is NOT happy about it.
The anthropologist's gaze was locked on the floor and his hands were clenched in fists at his sides. "Sorry..." he murmured, just loud enough for Joel to hear. He looked up and gave them both an embarrassed, rueful smile. "Force of habit, I guess."
Joel nodded his understanding, but Jim remained silent and motionless.
"Guess it's time to make my exit, as well," Taggert said quietly. He struggled out of the overstuffed chair far less gracefully than Ellison had and crossed over to the outer door.
"Hold on a second, Joel," Blair said abruptly. "I'll walk you out." He moved to the bigger man's side and gave Taggert a feeble grin. "Guess we might as well do this right and give anyone watching a good show."
The grad student paused with his hand on the knob and turned to where Jim was standing in the shadows of the room, a questioning expression on his face. Joel watched Ellison cock his head to the side, his whole posture one of extreme concentration. Taggert could almost feel the tension and stress emanating from the detectivetension that abated abruptly with Jim's terse nod. Beside him, the anthropologist let out a soft whistle of breath.
"We don't appear to have an audience, but better safe than sorry," the younger man murmured.
As Blair ushered him outside, Joel was once again struck by the almost psychic bond between the two unlikely partners. Without a single word, they'd both appeared to know exactly what the other was thinkingwhat the other expected and needed. Their ability to work as a cohesive unit was almost unnerving to watch.
But there was a price to pay for that closeness. Taggert had studied them carefully over the last several hours. He'd seen the anxious looks that Blair had sent Ellison's way and those that Jim had cast in the younger man's direction. It was clear that they were worried about each other.
Blair had hovered within arm's reach of his partner during the entire time they'd been talking, stepping away only to retrieve a folder of information and a fresh bottle of water, which he'd pressed into Ellison's hands. As the discussion had worn on, the observer had intruded farther and farther into the detective's personal space, laying a hand on Jim's shoulder several times, as if both offering and seeking comfort in the physical connection.
Ellison hadn't seemed to mind a bit. In fact, unlikely as it seemed, the anthropologist's proximity seemed to put the detective at ease. He'd reached out several times to bat playfully at the younger man, tugging a long lock of hair gently and teasing him with the good-natured banter that had always characterized their verbal exchanges. The wariness in the pale blue eyes and the worried tightening of Jim's jaw had materialized without warning the two times that Blair had moved out of his line of sightdisappearing just as quickly when the grad student had returned to his side.
Joel realized that he'd watched this particular dance hundreds of time before and had never quite understood the significance of the performance. Whatever it was that bound the two of them together, it was stronger than anything he'd ever seen. Together, they were an almost unbeatable team, but now, forced into separate roles, that loss of connection was generating almost palpable anguish, particularly for the younger man who would be remaining behind.
Blair paused just past the threshold, pulling the door partially closed behind him to mask Jim's presence. The angry scowl on his face caught Joel by surpriseBlair had stepped back into his role of betrayed and abandoned partner in the blink of an eye. Meeting the younger man's determined glare, Taggert found himself examining his opinions of the anthropologist once more, wondering how anyone could question Blair's right to be at Jim's side. As difficult and painful as this was for the observer, he was obviously determined to see it through.
Up until the last week, the general consensus at the station had been that crossing Sandburg was like asking Ellison to hand you your head on a platter. What hadn't been as obvious until now, was that the fierce protectiveness ran both sides of the equation. As he searched frantically for something to say, Joel recalled the way Blair's dark blue eyes had burned with an unholy fire when they'd discussed the possible complications of the sting. The younger man had covered quicklymaking some joking remark about having some well deserved downtime if Jim ended up in the hospital, but Taggert recognized what he had seen, and it had sent a shiver up his spine. The seemingly innocuous anthropologist would be as deadly and dangerous as Ellison if anything happened to his partner.
That realization made the bitter words that flowed from the younger man's lips even more bizarre.
"I really do appreciate your coming by, Joel, but there's no way I'm going back to work with that jerk," Blair intoned. "Ellison's an asshole. That's all there is to it. I'm tired of putting up with his attitude and his stupid rules."
"I can understand that, Blair," Joel answered, picking up his part of the act. "I just wanted you to know that if you need something, you've still got friends down at the station."
"Thanks, but after what happened today, I'm not setting foot in there again," Blair snarled. "I'm not going to be Ellison's personal punching bag any longer."
"You can still press charges, Sandburg. He not only hit you, he threatened you."
"If he comes near me again, I will," Blair decreed. "You tell him that. If he doesn't stay away from me, I'll get a restraining order to make it official. And if that doesn't work, I'll have his ass hauled into court, cop or not."
"I hope it won't come to that, Blair," Joel said quietly, extending his hand to the younger man who gave it a quick shake. "You've got my number. Stay in touch, all right?"
"I'll try, Joel. But I'm not making any promises. It all depends on what happens in the next week or so. I might not even stay in Cascade once the semester's finished. After wasting the last couple of years, it might be a good idea to get away. Start fresh somewhere else."
"Just don't do anything rash," Joel urged, still playing along, but far too aware of the flash of determination that had filled the younger man's eyes. "Don't do anything without calling me first, okay?"
Blair nodded, somewhat reluctantly, and Taggert hoped that he was responding to the double meaning in the bigger man's words. "I promised Simon the same thing. Don't worry, I'll be fine."
Taggert nodded and turned away. As he made his way down the short sidewalk to his car, he felt the younger man's gaze fixed on his back.
The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart...
Blair held the bitter expression on his face as he watched Joel walk toward his car. With an angry shake of his head, he stepped back inside and closed the door. As the latch clicked into place, he released the breath that he'd been holding and closed his eyes. The words that he'd just spoken echoed in his mind. He could taste the vile ugliness of each syllable and his stomach churned up acid that left an equally nasty tang in the back of his throat.
They're just words, damn it! They don't mean anything... not really. Jim and I don't hate each other. Once this is over, things will go back to normal... I'll be back home and we'll be tossing 'harmless' insults at one another... just like we always do...
He wanted to believe thatneeded to believe it. But it was hard to keep things straight after the stress of playing the other role practically non-stop for the past two weeks. And there was no way to tell how much longer they'd have to keep up the charade. What he did know was that his Sentinel was about to put himself in the line of fire while he stayed behindin a strange and lonely motel room, surrounded by the piles of boxes that held the contents of his life. He suddenly felt incredibly weary, as if the little scene at the threshold had drained every ounce of his energy. Trembling, he placed both palms against the door and leaned into it; closing his eyes and resting his forehead against the metal panel; fervently wishing that the nightmare was over instead of just changing scenes.
"God, this is hard..." he whispered.
Jim's worried voice carried across the softly lit room, but Blair didn't dare open his eyes or movenot until he got himself under control. He was afraid that if he turned and faced his partner right now, he launch himself toward the Sentinel, grab on and never let go. It was what he wanted to dowhat his Guide's instincts screamed at him to do.
But I can't... Jim has to do this... I have to let him do this...
Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself away from the door, forcing himself to stand upright. He opened his eyes, focusing on the ugly gray metal panel in front of him, still not trusting himself to meet his friend's gaze.
"I know this is how this has to play out, man," he murmured, shuddering, his hands opening and closing into fists, flexing to punctuate each word. "I know it's all a sham... pretense not substance... but it feels... it feels so wrong!"
He felt the stress and exhaustion of the last several weeks wash over him like a storm-swept wave. Fear rode along with it, threatening to drag him away from the solid footing of the life he'd come to love and immerse him in an undertow of despair.
A warm, firm pressure on his left shoulder forestalled the buckling of his kneesJim's solid, reassuring physical presence grounding him against the terror he felt swirling within.
"Blair, look at me..."
The quietly spoken command couldn't be refused. It was an order, but there was comfort in the beseeching voice as well. Jim Ellison was a man of few words, but Blair had learned to listen to the Sentinel's silences and they spoke volumes. The nuances of the older man's tone and body language conveyed his emotions better than any long drawn out speech. The Guide drew a shaky breath and allowed himself to be turned to face his Sentinel.
"Are you going to be all right?" Jim asked softly, pulling Blair toward him and gently massaging both of the younger man's shoulders.
Blair looked up into the Sentinel's face and forced an awkward grin. The pale blue eyes that had more than once frozen criminals in their tracks, blazed now with worry and a desperate, protective gleam.
A gleam that changed for an instant into a flicker of flame, wiping the half-smile from the Shaman's face. The flame expanded in his mind's eye, growing in intensity until it became a solid wall of fire, cutting him off from his Sentinel.
Blindly, Blair reached out, his right hand flattening against Jim's chest. His own pulse pounded in his ears as he sought to feel the Sentinel's heartbeat. The grip on his shoulders tightened, matching the urgency of his friend's voice.
"Chief? What is it?"
Wide eyed, and straining to feel the rise and fall of the older man's breathing, Blair couldn't answer immediately. The flames filled his mind and he struggled for air against the imagined, smothering heat and the primal roar of its destructive dance.
"Promise me!" he gasped, his own voice hoarse and distant in his own ears.
Jim's voice cut through the vision, ending it abruptly, leaving Blair confused and trembling. Suddenly aware that he was gripping his partner's shirt like a frightened child, the younger man took an awkward step back, pulling out of the Sentinel's hold.
Shit, what the hell was that?
Still reeling from the roller coaster ride of raw emotion, Blair risked a quick glance at his partner. There was confusion and concern in the older man's eyes.
Get a grip, Sandburg. Jim doesn't need this now. He has to stay focused on the case and not on your inability to handle your own fearsreal or imagined. These little mystical episodes of yours need to 'stay' your problem not his.
"Promise you what?" Jim pressed, taking a step closer.
Blair opened his mouth to speak and abruptly shut it with an almost audible snap that made his teeth hurt. He turned away and walked across the room, placing some physical distance between them. He forced himself to stop and stand still, hovering next to the small floor lamp. Nervously, he crossed his arms over his chest and drew a deep breath, banishing the unreasoning, irrational terror back into the farthest corner of his mind. There would be time enough later to pull it out and examine itonce the Sentinel was gone and Blair was beyond sensory range.
He took another deep breath and managed to face Jim once again. He knew that the Sentinel was scanning him, listening to every traitorous signal that his body was sending out, but he was determined to put on a good showat least on the surface.
"Promise me that you're not going to trash the stuff I left in the refrigerator," he dissembled weakly. "The pasta and the leftover Chinese is mine, man."
Jim didn't look at all convinced. His eyes narrowed and he shifted another step closer.
"I'm not kidding, Jim," Blair rambled on, filling the tense silence with the first thing that came to mind. "I figure you're gonna wrap this up fast, so I expect to have something to eat when I get home."
The almost angry expression in the detective's eyes and the annoyed tone of his voice nearly took Blair's breath away. It was too close to what he'd seen and heard during their little act at the station. That had been pretend, but this was realtoo real and far too painful. He needed to get Jim out of there now, before he lost it entirely.
"You'd better get moving, Jim," Blair said abruptly, half turning away so that he wouldn't have to meet the Sentinel's penetrating stare. "You're going to stay in touch with Simon, right? He'll fill me in on how things are going."
The awkward silence stretched between them again and Blair held his breath, waiting for the soft resigned sigh that would tell him that Jim was going to back down and move on with this. When it came, he wasn't sure if he was glad or not.
"Yeah, I'll keep Simon in the loop," Jim finally responded. "Now that Joel knows what's going on, we'll have a second contact in case things don't go as planned. One more set of eyes to keep you out of trouble as well."
Blair managed to don his most innocent grin and glanced over at his partner. "Me? Find trouble? Not on this case, man. I'm more than content to sit the bench while you go play with the bad guys."
Jim snorted in disbelief and shook his head. "I'll believe that when hell freezes over, buddy."
"You know, Jim, in some cultures that scenario is already an accomplished fact," Blair said smoothly. "If you were staying longer, I'd be happy to bring you up to speed. I know I've got several books on ancient religions here somewhere." He gestured with one hand toward the pile of boxes.
"Yeah, I'm sure you do, Professor," Jim smirked back, holding up his hands in a posture of surrender. "Maybe another time. When this is over, okay?"
The anxious expression was back on the Sentinel's face and Blair knew that the older man was as unhappy about the forced separation as he was. The implied promise that things would return to normal let him breathe a little easier.
"I'm going to hold you to that, Jim," he said quietly. "You do what you have to do, man. I'll do my best to hold up my end."
"You always do, Chief," Jim said just as softly. "You're clear on your schedule for the next few days?"
"Same as always," Blair answered with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. "Classes, office hours, trips to the sta..." He caught himself before he finished the now forbidden word 'station' and glibly substituted "... stacks. Yeah, Jim. I've got it memorized. Don't worry. I'll keep a low profile."
"By low, you'd better mean keeping your head down and your cell phone close," Jim growled. "You check in with Simon or Joel before you go anywhere, understood?"
"Yes, Dad," Blair shot back in the most patronizing tone he could muster. "Hold on a second and I'll get the light." He heard the soft hiss as Jim sighed and saw his partner shaking his head in disgust.
Better disgust than worry, Blair reminded himself, reaching for the switch to the lamp. He gave it a savage twist and plunged the room into darkness.
He glanced back to where his partner should be standing, but in the almost total darkness, he couldn't even make out the older man's silhouette. He forced a crooked grin anyway, knowing that the Sentinel would have no such problems. He heard the soft rustle of fabric and then the click of a latch as the door to the adjoining room was opened. Jim's soft whisper floated surreally across the void.
"Take it easy, Chief."
"You too, man," Blair whispered, sentinel-soft.
And then Jim was gone, the door closing quietly behind him.
Frozen in place, the young Guide's smile died and he closed his eyes, sending a prayer into the darkness, pleading with a dozen deities for his Sentinel's safety.
It was a long time before he moved, shuffling through the small space to crawl wearily into the lumpy bed. It took even longer for sleep to claim him.
Only thin smoke without flame...
In the adjoining room, the Sentinel allowed himself a small smile when he heard his Guide's breathing change to the slow and steady pattern of sleep.
Finally. I was wondering how long that was going to take. Get some rest, partner. You deserve it.
With a shake of his head, Jim crossed the darkened room and paused at the outer door. He did a quick scan of the area before slipping out into the night, moving as silently as his phantom spirit guide. Within minutes, he was sliding behind the wheel of the rental car that Simon had supplied. Reaching into the glove compartment he pulled out a cell phone and punched the speed dial.
"I'm heading out," he said tersely, not bothering with any pleasantries. The unruffled acknowledgment on the other end signaled Simon's understanding of Jim's current frame of mind- -Banks had been monitoring the entire evening's proceedings through the bug that they'd planted in Blair's room.
Clicking off the phone, Jim laid it on the seat and cranked the engine to life. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he wheeled the sedan out onto the empty street and headed back toward the downtown parking garage where he'd left his truck.
In full surveillance mode, he guided the car through the quiet streets, checking for any sign of a tail. It had been risky, going to the motel, but he'd been worried about his partner. Maintaining the sham of their dissolving friendship and partnership had drained the anthropologist of his normal energetic bounce and dulled the light in his eyes. Blair had played his role like a consummate actor, but Jim had begun to wonder whether the toll it had taken on his Guide's spirit was too high a price to pay.
Remembering the ugly purpling of the bruise on the younger man's face, he felt a stab of irritation and guilt. He should have known that Blair wasn't going to duck when he'd thrown that puncheven though that's what they'd planned.
'Wanted to make it look real', huh , Chief? Well, you did. I just hope that black eye was worth it.
He pulled up to a red light and looked in the rear-view mirror again. Still no sign of anyone following. He glanced at his watch and shook his head. It was nearly 3:00 a.m. He'd planned to be back at the loft before bar time, but waiting for Blair to fall asleep had put him behind schedule. Not that he regretted the delay. At least he knew that his Guide was safe for the night.
As safe as he can be until this is over.
Lost in contemplating the uncertainty of just how and when this whole mess was going to go down, Jim abruptly realized that the light had changed. Frowning, he pressed his foot to the gas pedal, easing the car through the intersection. For a moment, he debated going straight to the garage, but decided to keep to his original plans and turned right at the next corner, heading toward the nearest freeway ramp. It would take a good twenty minutes to make the loop and circle back to pick up the truck, but it was the prudent thing to do.
Once on the highway, he let himself relax a bit, changing lanes cautiously, hoping to blend into the traffic just like any other late night traveler headed home. Now was not the time to get sloppy. Not with so much on the line. He glanced at the empty passenger seat and felt his stomach do a slow roll. He was alone now and it felt strange. And, in more ways than one, dangerous.
He shook off the unsettling sensation and tried to concentrate on the road. This is how it had to be. As much as he missed having his partner by his side, there was no way he was going to let Blair get any closer to this case. Not only was it necessary for the younger man to be out of the picture so that Jenson and his buddies would allow Jim into their murderous circle, but the potential for his friend to be harmed if things didn't go down as planned was just too great.
The thought of Blair being in any kind of danger, especially from his fellow cops, made his blood boil. Jaw clenched and eyes narrowing to glitter dangerously, Jim reviewed the plan in his mind, playing out the possible permutations of each move in the upcoming game. He'd have to be on his toes every minute. Any mistake on his part could easily mean his partner's death as well as his own. Jim was certain that Jenson and his pals would have no qualms about taking out their vengeance on Blair if they discovered what Jim was up to.
A low growl escaped his throat and he clutched the wheel in a frustrated, white-knuckled grip. He'd wanted his friend tucked away in a safe house until this was all over. He'd pushed for it, but Simon had pointed out that Blair's disappearance would raise more questions than they wanted. He'd even gone so far as to suggest that it might make Jenson more interested in the younger man. Jim had to agree to the logic, even though he didn't like it. Blair, of course, had been adamantly against going to ground, asserting that he was not going to put himself into the safekeeping of some cop who could turn out to be a part of Jenson's merry little band.
Of all the arguments, that one had probably carried the most weight. Even though they'd identified six players, they still had no idea of just how many cops Jenson had managed to sway to his way of thinking. Jim had finally had to settle for getting the observer out of the station and the loft, trusting to Simon's assurances that the captain would personally keep watch over the anthropologist.
Jim guided the sedan into the right hand lane and slowed as he entered the off ramp. He shifted restlessly in his seat as he waited out the traffic ahead of him. As much as he trusted Simon, it was hard to place the responsibility for Blair's safety in anyone else's hands. He was too used to fulfilling that role himself.
But this time he couldn't. Nor would he have Blair's presence to keep him grounded. He'd have to watch his own back until this was oversomething he hadn't needed to do in a long time.
He rolled his shoulders, trying to relieve the ache between his shoulder blades. Running the deceptive, deadly game over the last fourteen days had taken its toll on both of them. Assuming an undercover persona for 24 hours a day was not only difficult, it was dangerous. It was too easy to lose yourself in the role, to start to believe your own half-truths and lies. To mix reality with fantasy.
He'd had experience in dealing with it. Between his time in Covert Ops and the stint he'd pulled in Vice, he'd found a way to shield who he was deep inside and survive intact. The few days he'd been inside the prison had tested that barrier, however. He'd discovered that it was possible to bury your real self too deeply. Once they'd decided on this plan, he'd been on edge, crossing the line only as long a necessary before pulling back.
Having his Guide at his side had helped. His concern for Blair's safety had kept him sharp and the younger man's physical presence had been a reassuring reminder that the real Jim Ellisonand the Sentinelbore no resemblance to the bigoted jerk he was pretending to be.
The anthropologist, on the other hand, had no training for this type of subterfuge. Sandburg took a lot of grief for being the 'king of obfuscation' and it was true that the young man could bend the truth in multiple directions at once, but this kind of deception ran counter to his very nature. Blair's generous and forgiving soul had landed him in the middle of trouble more than a few times, and Jim had often wished that his friend could form a tougher outer shell. However he had realized early in their partnership that to ask his Guide to become something other than he was, was to risk losing who he was, forever.
Blair had hated it, but he'd thrown himself into his assigned role with a desperation borne of his fearsnot for his own safety, but for his Sentinel's. Picturing his partner's drawn, pale face; the lines of stress around the tired blue eyes; the strained tension in his body; the way his clothes hung much looser, made the Sentinel wonder if his Guide had lost part of himselfand part of his essential spiritalready.
Sure, Blair had held his own against Kincaid and he'd handled several other undercover assignments with an ease than no one, himself included, had anticipated. But those experiences had been brief forays into the dark world of lies and half-truths. This... this hit too close to home. The little scene they'd played out at the station had been a distorted mirror image of the truth.
And now we really are going our separate ways. No wonder he's reacting the way he is.
Mix in a little insecurity, too little sleep, some very real fears; sprinkle liberally with a heavy dose of stress and enforced separationand you had the makings for one seriously distressed Guide.
Seeing a familiar intersection only a block away, Jim reached for the cell phone again. Simon answered the pre-programmed number immediately.
//Ready for phase two?//
"Just a few blocks away. I'm staying with the original plan. Should be back at the loft within an hour," Jim reported.
"How is he?"
//Not a peep since you left. Except for the snoring. Sounds like a dull power saw chewing raw timber. Does he do that at home?//
Jim grinned into the darkness. "All the time."
//Glad he's your roommate and not mine.//
The Sentinel laughed softly and shut down the connection. He slipped the phone into his pocket and flipped on his turn indicator. At the next corner he made a left and then three successive rights. The maneuver headed him toward the parking garage from the opposite direction in which he'd come. When there was still no sign of a trail, the detective pulled into the ramp.
He parked the sedan in a shadowy corner of the third level. Locking the doors and pocketing the keys, he slipped along the wall to the stairwell. Moments later he let himself out into the alley at the back of the ramp. Hugging the wall he headed west for three blocks, quickly crossing the open streets only after determining that the coast was clear.
He stopped at a dumpster twenty feet further on and knelt to retrieve the package that Simon had left there earlier. Extracting a six-pack of beer from the paper bag, Jim pulled three of the cans free. He dumped those and the bag into the metal trash container and headed back to the opening of the alley.
Abandoning the shadows, he strolled down the sidewalkhis slightly rolling gait, the occasional stumble, and the remaining beer cans dangling from his fingertips by the plastic rings, lending credibility to the pretense that his evening had been spent immersed in the bar scene.
Jim headed directly to the parking garage and took the elevator to the fifth floor where he'd left his truck. He kept up the same half-shambling stride as he crossed the dimly-lit space, opening up his senses to sweep the area at the same time. He didn't pause or turn his head when he picked up the faint sounds of a heartbeat to his left.
Halting at the driver's door of his vehicle, he dug in his jacket pocket for the keys. He fumbled them and they dropped with a dull jingle to the concrete. Affecting the exaggerated movements of a man who'd had a few too many drinks, he bent to retrieve the errant keys. The ruse allowed him time to pinpoint the location and identity of his watcherRick Smithson, in a dark green sedanand also to scan the truck for any tampering.
Finding none, he straightened slowly, inserted the key into the lock and opened the door. He tossed the beer cans onto the passenger seat and clambered in, pulling the door shut. The loud clang reverberated through the quiet garage, followed by the truck engine roaring to life.
Several minutes later, Jim pulled out onto the main street and steered toward the loft. Prospect was only a dozen blocks away. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror confirmed that the man he'd tagged in the parking garage had followed him. The game was definitely in play.
Pulling up in front of the apartment building, Jim parked the truck in one of the empty spaces that lined the street. He shut off the engine and grabbed one of the cans of beer. Flipping the pop-top, he took a long pull, using the action as a cover as he unleashed his senses again. The car that had been tailing him cruised by and turned the corner. It was out of sight, but not beyond his hearing range. He gripped the can tighter, using touch as a secondary focus and concentrated on locating the vehicle.
His eyes narrowed when detected the idling sound of an engine. The rough putter that he'd been listening to died as the vehicle was shut off. The heartbeat that he'd identified earlier remained stationary. The Sentinel widened his search and detected another presence somewhere to his left.
At least one outside, maybe two... wonder if I have visitors upstairs?
He grabbed the remaining beers and elbowed the driver's door open. He stood next to it, took another drink from the open can and then lobbed the container toward the nearest trash bin. It fell short, splattering foam and gleaming trails of liquid down the outside of the basket. Shrugging indifferently, Jim slammed the truck door shut and half-staggered toward the front doors.
He took the elevator. By the time it released him on the third floor, he knew that there was no one waiting in the corridor. Taking his time, he unlocked the door to the loft, certain that there was no welcoming committee inside either.
But someone had been there. The stale reek of cigarette smoke hit the Sentinel's sensitive nose with the first gust of air stirred up by the opening of the door. Jaw clenching against the surge of rage that erupted at the thought of one of Jenson's henchmen having invaded his personal territory, the detective crossed the threshold and shut the door firmly behind him.
He flicked the switch near the door and the loft was bathed in a soft light. Crossing to the kitchen, he dropped the beer on the counter and went to check the answering machine. There were three messages. He hit the rewind button and let his senses sweep across the apartment, only vaguely aware of the soft swish of the tape. He hesitated just as he was about to hit the play button and pivoted warily on his toes.
There was an intruder, but not the human kind. A soft electronic pulse drifted across the room. Moving soundlessly, he approached one of the lamps. His sharp eyes found the expertly concealed listening device and his lips curved in a silent snarl.
If they've bugged the loft, they've probably tapped the phones, too.
He felt a momentary flush of fear.
How long has this been here?
He searched his memory. He couldn't remember having heard the sound beforewould he have picked up the telltale pulse if he hadn't been alone and the loft empty of his roommate's normal chatter and music? They had discussed the possibility that Jenson might try to bug the apartment at the beginning of this venture. He'd done a sweep of the loft every time they'd come home and found nothing. But what if it had been here all along and he'd missed it?
He stood as still as a statue, replaying all the conversations and phone calls he could recall having had with Blair or anyone else over the last few days. Gradually, he let himself relax a bit. They'd been careful. Hopefully, careful enough.
He moved back to the answering machine and hit the play button. The first call was from Simon, ordering him to contact the station first thing in the morning.
Might as well give whoever's listening something to chew on, he decided.
"Yes sir!" he snarled sarcastically. "Anything you say, sir! Shit... Banks... what a loser. No way he'd be a captain if it weren't for affirmative action."
The second message was for Blair, from one of his students. Jim made a mental note of the caller, and launched into a stinging diatribe over the contents of the message.
The third was also for Blair. Jim let it play only long enough to identify the anthropologist's advisor's voice and hit the stop button.
"He doesn't live here anymore, you moron!" Jim ranted for the benefit of his invisible audience. He stalked over to the coffee table, grabbed the remote and turned on the television. Cranking the volume up several notches, he flipped channels until he came to the sports network.
Still grumbling, he headed toward the bathroom and turned on the shower. He let it run for a few moments before easing the door half-shut. He would have rather closed it all the way, but he didn't want to arouse any suspicions. With no roommate in evidence, it would have been out of character to worry about privacy.
He turned on the sink tap instead, hoping the combined sounds of running water and the TV would block out any trace of what he was about to do. Pulling the cell phone from his jacket, he muffled it in a towel and punched the speed dial.
"I'm in, I've had company, they're listening, is he all right?" he whispered tersely.
//No sign of trouble. Who?//
The Sentinel breathed a sigh of relief.
"Yeah. Smoke," Jim replied. He'd smelled enough of the man's cigarette leavings during the time that they'd had him under surveillance to recognize the odor of the unfiltered brand the detective preferred.
//I'll have Joel take over for me here... //
"No. Stay. Watch him."
//Jim, the kid's fine. You're the one under the gun.//
"Don't leave him!" the Sentinel hissed. "You made me a promise, Simon. That's the only reason I agreed to any of this."
There was silence on the other end and then, finally, an exasperated sigh.
//All right. Can I at least send Joel in for backup?//
"No. Someone tailed me. Better keep clear."
Simon's muffled curse was like a shout to the Sentinel's ears.
"Next check 8:00 am. Keep him safe," Jim pleaded softly before he cut the connection.
He decided to let the shower and the tap run for a few more minutes. Leaning wearily against the wall, he shut his eyes and ran the plan through his mind once again. There was no turning back now. Jenson was interested. It was up to Jim to make sure that he swallowed the baithook, line and sinker. This had to work. His life, and the life of his Guide, depended upon it.
According to schedule, Jim called the station at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. In harsh, clipped phrases, his captain read him the riot act about his behavior the previous day. The Sentinel maintained his posture of surly insolence and Banks gave him 48 hours to rethink his attitude.
Having showered and dressed earlier, Jim flipped on the television and headed to the kitchen to fix breakfast while he caught the morning news. As he stirred the eggs in the frying pan, his thoughts turned automatically to his partner. Making breakfast was normally Blair's task and a time when the two of them connected, planning their days and comparing schedules. No matter how late the grad student had been up studying, he always managed to crank himself out of bed to prepare something for the detective even if he himself wasn't ready to face food.
The Sentinel was acutely aware of his Guide's absence. He'd woken throughout the night keenly aware that the young man's steady, throbbing heartbeat was missing from the bedroom below his. The usually comforting morning ritual of breakfast felt as hollow as the rest of the loft, which had been stripped of Blair's possessions the day before.
There was some solace in the fact that during the haranguing phone call, Simon had used one of their prearranged code words to let him know that all was well with the younger man. Having monitored the evidence of his Guide's distress with his senses the previous night, the Sentinel doubted that Blair was indeed well, but for the moment, he would have to rely on his captain's assurances.
Breakfast was dispatched quickly; the plate and coffee mug rinsed and left in the sink to be washed later. Glancing at his watch, he nodded absentlyBlair would be at the university by now, going through the motions of his regular class and teaching schedule. It was time to get himself moving as well.
Jim's own plan for the day was to keep himself visible and accessible. He wanted to give Jenson every opportunity to make his move. Hanging around in the loft wasn't going to make that happen.
The faint crackle he'd picked up through the ear piece when he'd talked to Simon had confirmed that the line was tapped. Satisfied that the captain's announced 48-hour window had broadcast his availability, the detective packed a bag with his workout gear and headed downtown to the small gym that he frequented on his days off, or when the precinct facilities were too crowded.
A few hours of exercise in a public place suited his tactics and would have the added bonus of helping him burn off some of the tension while he waited.
It was never easy; never had been.
Action was what he needed. What he wanted.
But he wasn't in control of this round of the game. Jenson was.
He'd have to bide his time. For now.
Moments after he pulled the truck out into traffic, he picked up a tail. Not the vehicle from the night before, but the same driver: Smithson.
Jim spent the next three hours at the gym, working easily through several full circuits on the weights, using the sauna and taking a second shower. Over the course of the morning he noted several vaguely familiar faces. He'd catalogued each man by sight and scent, storing the information away for future reference.
The car that had tailed him from the loft was parked three blocks away when he stepped out into the bright midday sun. He paused and slipped on his sunglasses. Behind the black shades, his eyes glittered with suppressed anger. He allowed a trace of the ugly emotion to surface as an arrogant sneer and sauntered to his truck.
Smithson followed him to his next stopthe grocery storebut was nowhere in sight when he exited a half-hour later. Jim casually loaded the two bags of food he'd purchased into the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel. Within a few minutes of leaving the lot, he caught a glimpse of a dark green sedan hanging three car's back.
Trade off... they're being cautious... same car as last night, different driver... Harris this time... that's two accounted for...
His tail stayed with him all the way back to the loft, passing by and turning to stop just around the corner, as it had the previous night. Jim carted his groceries upstairs. A quick scan of the loft revealed nothing out of order. He made himself a sandwich, grabbed a beer and went out to the balcony to eat his lunch.
He hoped he appeared calmer than he felt.
The Sentinel let his gaze drift, his enhanced sight picking up Harris, standing in the shadows of a nearby alley. He put up his feet and leaned back in his chair, donning the dark glasses once again.
He spent the next hour sitting there, ostensibly absorbing the warm early afternoon sun, while surreptitiously running his own surveillance. His watcher never moved, the phone never rang.
Come on... come on... enough of this already. Let's get this show on the road...
His silent demand went unanswered for another fifteen minutes. Recognizing the inherent danger of his own impatient thoughts, Jim sat up, collected the remains of his lunch and went back inside.
Just keep moving... change locations again... keep sharp... he reminded himself.
He placed the three-quarter's full bottle of beer in the kitchen sink and let the golden fluid chug down the drain while he rinsed the plate and set it aside. Retrieving the bag of garbage from the kitchen wastebasket, he grabbed the now-empty bottle and headed out again. An unhurried trip to the dumpster at the back of the building gave him another opportunity to check on his watcher. Harris was no longer in the alley.
With a casualness that betrayed none of his tension, Jim crossed the street to his truck, sweeping the area with his senses. It took a few moments to filter out the ambient noises from the traffic and the pedestrians that filled the busy street. Mentally picturing his Guide at his side and the soothing timbre of the young man's voice helped him find his focus.
Dialing up his hearing, he concentrated. A few seconds later his efforts were rewarded: the distinctive chugging noises of a rough enginethe same one he'd heard the previous nightpounded against his eardrums.
The rest of the afternoon was spent leisurely attending to mundane errands. He made a lap of the city, stopping at his regular haunts. At the hardware store he picked up a gallon of semi-gloss enamel to use in repainting the bathroom. A stop at a small garage on the east side yielded a part he'd had on order for the truck. He purchased a half-dozen new fishing lures at the outfitter where he consistently bought his camping gear.
His tail changed just before dinner time. Harris had been replaced by Martin Randolph in a non-descript beige van.
Jim stopped for a hamburger, a large order of french fries and a cup of coffee at a fast-food spot that his partner had once referred to as 'Artery-clog King'. He smiled to himself at the memory of his friend's horrified expression and caustic tone of voice when the younger man had remarked on Jim's food preferences. It caused him to wonder whether Blair had made time to eat over the course of the day.
Probably not. If Sandburg grabbed more than a can of juice out of the vending machines at the student union this morning, I'd be surprised, he mused grimly.
Schooling the frown from his face, Jim took a seat near the expansive windows of the busy restaurant. He had a good view of the street from that position and Randolph had one of him as well. He took his time; for all appearances a man with no worries and no place he had to be.
Concern for his partner rippled under the surface of his calm demeanor. Unflaggingly energetic as his Guide normally was, even Blair needed to stoke the fires occasionally. It wasn't unusual for the younger man to go for hours on a cup of tea and a toasted bagel, working off some invisible reserve, but the Sentinel feared that the enervating stress of the last few weeks had emptied that tank. From all indications, Sandburg was cruising on pure will power and adrenaline. A major crash was only a matter of time.
The second cell phone was a heavy weight in his left jacket pocket. There had been no call from either Simon or Joel all day. For safety reasons, Jim had the responsibility of initiating contact with the two captainsthey would call him only in an emergency. The lack of communication should have been reassuring, but the detective knew it simply indicated that things were proceeding according to plan. It didn't give him any insights to his partner's actual well-being or mental state.
Finishing his meal, Jim tucked his worries close to his heart and forced himself to concentrate on the role he had to play. He stopped at a video store down the street from the loft and took his time browsing the selections, killing more time. The detective steered clear of the foreign film section, even though he had several favorites in that genre that he wouldn't have minded renting again.
Further evidence of Sandburg's insidious, pervasive influence on my life, Jim thought fondly, grabbing a couple of action flicks and turning toward the checkout.
He parked and locked the truck outside the apartment building, five minutes later. The beige van had turned left at an intersection two blocks back. The Sentinel didn't have to search for Randolph's replacementSmithson's now familiar heartbeat echoed from the alley where he had stood watch earlier.
Jim felt the beginnings of a headache forming behind his eyesthe result of using his senses so intensely for such a prolonged stretch of time. Once inside the loft he flipped on the lights and locked the door, slipping the safety chain noisily into place for the benefit of whomever was listening. He wanted them to believe that he was in for the night.
There was only one call on the answering machinean offer from another long-distance carrier. He rewound the tape and set the unit to pick up on the fourth ring. A quick sensory check revealed that the bug was still in place and active, but that no new little surprises had been added during his afternoon away.
Placing his jacket within easy reach on the arm of the couch instead of in its usual place on the rack near the door, Jim pulled the second cell phone from the pocket. He turned on the TV and slipped a video into the VCR, thumbing the volume slightly louder than he'd left it at earlier that morning. While the previews ran, he went to the kitchen and started a pot of strong coffee.
A grumbling burble and hiss of steam announced the end of the brewing cycle just as he emerged from the bathroom and tucked the cell phone back into the jacket. His check-in with Simon had consisted of a single code word that signaled his return to the loft and his lack of contact with Jenson. Banks' reply had been a bit more elaborateBlair's day had been blessedly uneventful and he had returned to the motel for the night.
Returning to the kitchen Jim filled a large mug with coffee, savoring the aroma of the dark, rich blend. He didn't add his customary dollop of milkhe wanted this dose of caffeine full strength and unadulterated.
Jim started to head back into the living area, but found himself hesitating, strangely reluctant to take his regular spot on the couch. It took him a moment to realize that he was again sensing the void generated by his partner's absence. The nearly constant activity of the day had kept that sensation at bay. Now, with nothing except what he suspected would be a long, solitary vigil ahead of him, he felt the disturbing sense of loneliness. It had been nearly three years since the apartment felt this empty.
Although their caseload and Blair's university schedule had made quiet evenings together at the loft a rarity, those companionable sessions were firmly etched in the Sentinel's memory. The anthropologistwhose incredible mind was seemingly never comfortable with processing only one thing at a timewould typically be seated at the kitchen table or on the floor in front of one of the couches, tapping the keyboard of his softly humming laptop with one hand while deftly wielding a red felt-tip marker across an open exam booklet in broad strokes of praise or encouragement with the other. Half-buried by stacks of his student's papers or chattering away about some obscure tribe, Blair would still be unerringly tuned in to Jim's presenceas if he had some instinctive Guide-radar that allowed him to pick up on the Sentinel's mood shifts at the blink of an eye.
It never ceases to amaze me how you do that, Chief. If anyone here has an enhanced 'sixth' sense, it's got to be you. Is that a result of your being my Shaman? Or is it simply a sign of how committed you are to all of thisto helping me with my senses... to our friendship...
They were questions that he'd asked himself before, and like always, he had no firm answers. Shaking his head in wonder at the quirk of fate that had brought the younger man into his life, he forced himself to cross the short distance to the sofa. Plunking himself down, he resolved to sit out both movies he'd brought home before he headed upstairs to bed. As much as he missed his friend, the loft was a potential war zone. Right now, the safest place for Sandburg was the motel on the far side of town.
At 11:30 p.m. he turned off the VCR and the television. Flipping the switch at the base of the stairs, he killed the lights and trudged up to his bedroom. Lying in the dark, he knew that sleep would be a long time in coming. The oppressive silence that hovered thickly in the shadows was magnified by the missing heartbeat of his Guide.
We're going to get these guys, Chief, he vowed, staring up through the skylight at the star filled sky above. If they don't make a move by mid-morning, I'll take the game to them... Just keep it together...
"... keep yourself safe."
Blair murmured the soft prayer to the twinkling stars before closing the drapes on the east window of his motel room. If the forecast was correct, there would be rain shortly before dawn and the thought of waking to a gloomy, overcast sky was too disheartening.
He turned and wandered listlessly to the bed. Arranging himself in a half-lotus in the middle of the lumpy mattress, he let his gaze drift around the room, seeing, but not really focusing on his surroundings.
Papers were strewn at one end of the bed, spilling out of the stuffed folders that he'd pulled from his backpack hours earlier. They represented his one remaining active link to the case. There were still reams of information to plow through on the insurance angle. He'd hoped to make some progress identifying Jenson's other cohorts, but so far all he'd managed to do was exacerbate the headache that had become his constant companion.
Retaining the data had been riskyif Jenson or one of his buddies discovered the printouts, they wouldn't hesitate to kill him. Of course, if they did come bursting through the door, it would mean the game was up anyway.
And that Jim was probably already dead.
The anthropologist shied away from that line of thought immediately and tried to ignore the mocking white sheets. The flat, rectangular Styrofoam container at the end of the bed caught his eye. He snagged it and pulled it into his lap. Flipping the lid, he stared down at the remains of the salad he'd purchased for dinner. The lettuce and vegetable concoction had tasted like cardboard when it was fresh. Now, wilted and soggy after sitting for hours, it was truly an unappetizing sight.
He closed the container and pushed it away with a shudder. His eyes tracked across the room again, seeking something to occupy his mind. The meaningless drivel of late night television would have been welcome, but the cheap motel room had no TV. The manager had one in his attached apartment and he'd made it clear that he was more than eager to share it, and more, with the anthropologistthe man had blatantly propositioned Blair in the parking lot when he'd returned for the night. The grad student had scurried to his room and had no plans to set foot outside until the safe light of morning. He was desperate for a diversion, but not that desperate.
His portable CD player, three disks and a set of headphones lay near the pillows. Music was usually his distraction of choice, however he'd already played two of the disks to deathhe was sure the lyrics to the songs were permanently engraved on his brain at this point. The third CD was one he often used for meditation, and he was leery of even pulling that one from its case.
He glanced at the piles of boxes. Somewhere in that mess was the rest of his CD collection. He sighed and looked away. The idea of digging through the jumbled odds and ends of his life was less than appealing.
He found himself staring at the telephone. He knew it wouldn't ring. The cell phone in his pack was his link with the outside world, and right now that universe consisted of Simon and Joel. There had been one brief call from the captain, filling him in on Jim's status, and that was all he expected for the night.
Blair pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, hugging himself against a shiver that had nothing to do with the temperature in the stuffy room. His body and weary spirit craved the respite of sleep, but his frenetically active mind didn't share that desire, relentlessly walking him back through his day one more time.
He'd always believed that time was a fluid entity and today had proven that hypothesis. It had rushed past like a storm swollen stream during his morning lectures. Unfortunately, it had slowed to the speed of a sluggishly draining sink over the course of the afternoon.
This would be the day that none of my students decided to take me up on my extended office hours, he mused humorlessly.
He'd tried to keep busy, sorting through the unending piles of papers and university forms that the anthropology department bureaucrats produced like rabbits. The reports had reminded him too much of what he'd typically be doing at the station if he were there, so he'd abandoned them to his already overflowing in-basket and spent some time rearranging the artifacts on the shelves.
He'd caught himself grumbling out loud and pacing the confines of his office at one point. He'd quickly seated himself at his desk with his mouth clamped tightly shut, doing his best imitation of his partner's clenched jaw routine. His office, like his motel room, was bugged. Not wanting either Simon or Joel to descend on him like worried mother hens, he'd flipped on the radio and forced himself to pick up a book.
After staring at the same page for over twenty minutes, he'd given up on the pretense of reading and had simply stared out the window. Watching the students criss-crossing the grounds had been a soothing way to occupy his time, but the moment Blair had felt himself starting to nod off, he'd packed up his belongings. He'd announced his intentions to the empty room, locked his office and headed out to his car.
He'd stopped for dinner at a favorite Indian restaurant a block from campus. It was on his approved itinerary, and he'd held hopes that the intriguing menu would stimulate his appetite. It had turned out that the salad was all he could stomach, and he'd ended up bringing more than half of the meal back to the motel with him.
And here you are, safely ensconced in a haven for the morally deprived. Having come full circle and accomplished absolutely nothing over the last eighteen-plus hours, you now have the joy of another day just like this one staring you in the face.
He stifled a groan and closed his eyes, resting his forehead on his knees. The only good thing that could be said about the day was that the flames and firewall of his vision had not deigned to make an appearance. Cynically, Blair thought that its absence was a conspicuously bad thing and that it was just waiting until he lowered his guard before it came calling.
He felt the tense tightening of already stressed muscles and wished he had a way to relax. A tiny voice in his head reminded him that he had a proven way to make that happen. Throughout the day, he'd managed to silence that nagging tongue by drowning it out with the sound of his own voice or blaring music. It had grown stronger and more insistent as his spirits had plunged and now it was demanding to be heard.
It whispered seductively, promising peace. A Shaman journeyed into the spirit world in search of healing and truth, murmured the voice. Knowledge, power and guidance waited in that altered state. All he had to do was open the door and it was his.
Blair raised his head and opened his eyes. Warily, he reached for the player and headphones. His hand trembled as his fingers closed around the third CD, a collection of drumming songs. As if compelled, he opened the case and lifted the disk free. He inserted it in the player and settled the headphones over his ears.
Shifting into a full lotus position with practiced ease, he took several deep breaths, trying to compose himself. Normally, he would have lit a candle or burned some incense, but those implements were packed away and a flame was the last thing he wanted to see anyway.
Concentrating on the path the air followed as it surged in and out of his lungs, he closed his eyes. When he'd reached a point where his breathing was even and unhurried, he slid his finger across the raised buttons and pressed play.
Four solemn drum beats called the powers of the Four Directions to the Medicine Wheel. A soundless prayer for thanks vibrated on Blair's lips along with a plea for help during his journey. The unmistakable flutter of a spirit rattle merged with the disappearing echoes of the drums. The imagined aromas of sweet-grass and sage filled his nostrils. Another smell intruded, and the small, rational part of his mind that had yet to be swayed by the crooning rhythm identified it...
Searing tongues of fire flared and burned their sinuous image on the inside of his eyelids.
The reverberations of his screamand a sudden earsplitting clap of thunderchased the vision away and left him gasping for breath. He jerked off the headset and flung himself from the bed. Panicked, he scrambled backward, eyeing the still running player like it was a poisonous snake. A solid, unyielding wall halted his mindless flight. He stood half-crouched and shaking, his breathing harsh and horrible to his own ears.
He waited, certain that at any second, either Simon or Joel would be forcing the door open in response to his blood- curdling cry. The only visitation was in the form of the rain that tapped against the door and windows, announcing the onset of the anticipated storm. Finally, when neither the wall of flame or either of the two captains appeared, he allowed himself to slide to the floor.
It took a bit longer until his brain started functioning in something other than escape mode. Profoundly weary, he rubbed at his temples. The headache was pounding with a vengeance. He knew he needed to get up, get some water, dig through his stuff for some aspirin or something else to relieve the pain, but he didn't have the energy.
Leaning his head back against the wall, he stared at the ceiling. Hopeless. That's how he felt. And tiredphysically tired down to the marrow of his bones; emotionally tired of worrying about Jim's safety; mentally tired of having to deal with things that an anthropologist had no business in the middle of; so very tired of being separated from his Sentinel.
He lowered his head and his gaze drifted toward the bug hidden in the floor lamp. He was still stunned to realize that he hadn't screamed out loud. He was certain that he had. While a part of him would have been mortally embarrassed if Joel or Simon had shown up, another part of him fervently wished that they hador, more specifically, he wished that Jim had. Right now he wanted nothing more than to have his Sentinel/Blessed Protector/friend/partner/roommate physically here, ready to shield him from everything that was happeningreal and imagined.
One word was all it would take. A single cry for help and the troops would come blasting in. Whoever had drawn his surveillance for the night would call Jim before the shout was fully out of his mouth. It was a toss-up to say who would arrive firstbut his money was on his partner. A threat to his Guide would bring the Sentinel running, as if the devil himself was at his heels.
... his heels... a tail... Simon said he was being followed... Jenson...
He bit back a groan, the horrifying scenario that his outcry would set in motion playing out in his mind all too vividly.
Jim would come... Jenson would follow him... Jim's cover would be blown...
And shortly thereafter, his Sentinel would be dead.
Destroyed by his Guide's cowardice.
"No way," he vowed, the whispered promise too soft for even the ultra-sensitive listening device to pick up.
Pure stubbornness got him off the floor. Gritting his teeth, he commanded his feet to carry him to the side of the bed. Repressing a shudder of revulsion, he reached down and hit the stop button on the CD player. With a hard jab he ejected the disk. His fear screamed for him to throw the CD away. He started to turn toward the small garbage can that sat on the floor next to the dresser, intending to do just that.
Disgust surged through him before he could drop it into the trash.
You're so pathetic, Sandburg, he berated himself silently. You've got everything you could ever have wished for, and you're ready to pitch it all away just because things have gotten rough. Get a grip. Jim's the one out there putting his life on the line. This stupid vision or whatever it is isn't worth getting him killed over. This is 'your' department. You're the one that told Jim that you didn't want to go back to your safe, ivory tower academic world. Now either find a way to handle thisall of it- -or find the guts to tell him that it's too much and be prepared to walk away. You're either a Shaman or you're not. You're either his Guide or you're not. You're either his friend or you're not. Take a stand and stick to it. Jim deserves better than this.
Time slowed to a stop as he considered his choices. It started up again a few heartbeats later. Confronting his fears and his own shortcomings was a small price to pay when faced with the ultimatum of losing everything he had worked so hard to gain.
Face set in an expression of grim resolve, he slipped the drumming CD into its case. Soon, he would use it againand when he did, he would be prepared for whatever the vision threw at him. But first, he had some work to do. Grabbing a notebook from his pack, he settled himself on the bed. Letting his memories guide him, he let his thoughts float back to the evening of the sixth murderthat was the first time the wall of fire had made an appearance. Pen gliding rapidly over the lined sheet, he began to write down everything he could remember about that night.
And a wisp of smoke rose from the smoldering embers...
By 11:00 a.m. the next morning, the atmosphere in the loft was several shades darker than the leaden sky outside. As predicted, a front had moved in during the night, covering the city with a heavy blanket of rain-laden clouds. The Sentinel had heard the first faint rumblings when the storm was still many miles distant.
The breathing and relaxation exercises Blair had drilled into him had allowed Jim to slip into a deep sleep fairly quickly. A seemingly endless parade of disturbing dreamsin which his Guide had figured prominentlyhad put an end to that slumber well before dawn. That was when he'd heard the first ominous roll of thunder.
The details of the dreams had vanished the moment he'd opened his eyes. What had remained was an uneasy feeling that something was wrong. He'd scanned the loft automatically. The annoying pulse of Jenson's electronic 'ear' was the first anomaly he found. The absence of his Guide's heartbeat was the next.
All was as it had to be; not as it should have been.
Unsettled, he'd climbed out of bed. Wrapped in his robe, Jim had padded silently down the stairs to the main level. He'd stopped near the balcony's partially open doors, listening to the rising winds that heralded the storm's approach. Sentinel vision had searched the darkness, but even his enhanced abilities couldn't see clear across the city to where his Guide was sequestered.
A change in his depth of field had brought his watchers into focus. Two of them: Harris and Rogers.
A low rumbled growl had caused him to turn and examine the inside of the loft once more. A familiar form had detached itself from the rest of the shadowsthe panther, pacing in front of the closed French doors that led to Blair's room. Tail lashing in agitation, luminous green-gold eyes all the more baleful in the dark, the beast had given vent to its displeasure with a definitive feline hiss.
I'm no happier about this than you are, the Sentinel had silently assured his Spirit Guide, sensing that the panther's animosity had little to do with the crooked cops sitting surveillance and everything to do with the absence of his Shaman.
The huge ebony cat had flowed toward him, bringing its personal thunder with it. It had stopped at his side, pressed tightly against his right leg. The panther had stared out into the night, motionless except for the twitch of its tail and the constant vibration that rumbled through its body. A bolt of lightning had streaked across the sky, followed by an explosive clap of thunder. The black phantom had suddenly lifted its head, nostrils flaring. Jim's breath had died in his throat and he'd gone as still as the statue-like form beside him, caught by the same sizzling current of danger.
As suddenly as it had occurred, the sensation disappeared. The panther had mouthed a silent snarl, echoing Jim's own. It had raised its great head and their eyes met, exchanging a wordless promise. Then, like a common house cat, it had rubbed against his legs and vanished, leaving the Sentinel alone and sorely troubled by what had transpired.
Something had threatened Blair. He and the panther had both sensed it. The nature of the danger had been vague, like his dreams, but it had triggered an instinctive reaction. He'd been halfway to the door before he'd pulled himself to a halt.
The compelling need to protect his Guide had been almost overwhelming, but his years of training had won out. Rash action would only endanger the one he sought to shield. He'd grimly realized that he would have to rely on the men to whom he'd entrusted that precious life.
The Sentinel had remained at his post.
Dawn had been a long time in coming.
The morning had dragged as well, and Jim was seriously considering his vow of the night before. He'd already been in and out of the loft twice, which should have given Jenson ample opportunity to make his move.
The rain had already accumulated in inch-deep puddles by 6:30 a.m., when he'd taken a run down to the bakery at the corner. The bag of donuts still sat on the kitchen counter, untouched. He'd had to restrain himself from walking up to Smithson, who was parked down at the opposite end of the block, and offering him one.
At 8:00 he'd headed off to the gym again. He'd managed to burn off several thousand calories in that ninety minute stop, but there had been no attempt at a contact, even though his personal shadow had followed him to and from the gym.
The telephone rang and he glared at it, deciding to let the answering machine pick it up. He'd already had his hopes raised by three previous calls. Two had been Blair's students. He hadn't had to fake the irritation with which he'd handled them. The third had been from a call center wanting him to take fifteen minutes to answer a survey on his radio station preferences. He'd growled something about 'anyone who played Santana' and cut them off.
Four rings, a click, his own terse message, followed by the beep... and nothing for ten long seconds. Jim turned away in disgust and abruptly whirled around when a familiar male voice uttered four soft words.
Blair stared blearily at the notebook lying open on his desk. There were over twenty pages of entries. He hadn't given in to the need for sleep until he'd filled those narrow-ruled sheets from top to bottom. He'd racked his brain and his memory; recording every fact, thought, and emotion that he'd had over the past two-plus weeks that could be even marginally connected to the firewall vision.
The words had seemed to make sense in the dark hours of the night, but now, in the light of day, the scribbled black characters seemed as jumbled as the thoughts they represented.
He turned the pages absently, pausing on one spread where the writing was streaked and blotted. He didn't remember those tears. He peered closely at the content, and shuddered.
No wonder... those passages relate to the night before I left the loft... I was here then too, already banished, prowling my office while Jim packed up my stuff...
With a sad shake of his head, he flipped the notebook shut and swiveled his chair so that he could look out the window. The sullen gray skies and the steady downpour of rain matched his mood.
Hours of fruitless soul-searching and a sleepless night were all he had to show for his efforts. He took off his glasses and rubbed at his tired, bloodshot eyes. He was going to have to get some sleep, or he wasn't going to be of any use to anyone. It was no wonder that he couldn't make heads or tails out of what he'd written, foggy as he was.
Huge splotches of rain splattered against the window. He watched them elongate and chase in random trails across the pane, zigging and zagging at the whim of the wind. He smiled grimly, comparing his own situation to the harried droplets. Pushed by unseen forces, real and mystical, neither he or the water appeared to have any control over their destinies.
It occurred to him, dimly, that his morose thoughts and fatalistic attitude were a stark departure from his usual approach to life. Not that he went around wearing rose colored glasses all the time. He'd seen more than enough of the dark side of life during his time with Jim that some of it was bound to rub off. This, though, was more than that. It was as if his whole way of looking at the world had altered.
Hell, my entire world's been turned upside down... why wouldn't my perspective be a little skewed?
But the thought nagged at him, as if it were a truth of some distinct importance.
Blair whirled around in his chair. Joel Taggert stood in his doorway.
The anthropologist's throat constricted and his mouth went dry at the sight of the big man. Joel wouldn't be here unless...
"I packed up your things from the station," the dark captain explained, hefting the cardboard box in his hands. "Thought I'd bring them by, see if you wanted to go grab something for lunch."
Blair could only stare in numb shock at the older man, his wide-eyed gaze shifting from the worried brown eyes to the carton.
"Hey, you all right?" Joel asked in concern, stepping into the room and letting the door swing shut behind him.
"Uh... yeah... sure," Blair dissembled awkwardly. "I just didn't hear you come in."
Taggert glanced around, obviously looking for a place to put the box. Blair gestured to one of the chairs.
"Just put it there. I'll find a spot for it later."
Joel eyed the suggested surface uncertainly. A haphazard stack of files already occupied the seat that Blair had suggested. Setting the box on the top of the pile, he backed away cautiously.
"Thanks," Blair murmured.
"No problem," Taggert smiled, turning to the younger man once more. "So, how about grabbing a sandwich or something? My treat."
Blair glanced at the clock on his wall, surprised to see that it was almost 2:00 p.m. "Isn't it a little late for lunch, Joel?"
"That's what my stomach's been telling me for the past couple of hours," Taggert grinned. "I got tied up with some new developments on a case I'm helping out on and couldn't get away until now."
Blair was more than intrigued by the big man's casual comment, but he was also well aware of the risk of being seen with him. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea, Joel," he said hesitantly.
"Come on Sandburg, even you have to eat once in a while," Taggert prodded. "Besides, I've already cleared the time."
There was no mistaking the slight emphasis. Blair's eyes narrowed for a moment, trying to guess the reason behind Joel's arrival and invitation. His initial fears seemed unfounded. If something had happened to Jim, Taggert wouldn't have bothered coming up with a cover story for the visit. Simon had told him that morning that there had been no activity out of Jenson during the night. Had the contact that they'd been waiting for finally been made?
Only one way to find out. "Okay... just give me a second." He grabbed the notebook and slid it into his pack along with some of his student's papers. Snagging his keys he took a quick look around the officebased on Taggert's odd behavior, he wasn't sure he was coming back any time soon. Satisfied that he had everything he needed, he motioned for the bigger man to precede him.
Once they were outside, Joel steered them toward the visitor's lot. "How about Zantigo's over on the east side? I hear they've got some killer burritos."
"Ummm... sure... wherever..."
Joel unlocked the passenger side door of his light blue four- door and the anthropologist slid inside. After fastening his seatbelt, Blair wedged his hands between his knees to still their trembling. At least a dozen half-formed questions whirled in his mind, clamoring to be asked, but he forced himself to wait until Taggert had pulled out of the parking lot before voicing the most pressing onehe need confirmation.
"Jim's all right, isn't he?"
There was only a hint of hesitation in Taggert's reply. Enough to worry the already stressed Guide. Blair closed his eyes for a moment in an attempt to get a handle on his emotions. When he opened them again, he looked directly at Joel, studying the older man's profile intently.
"What's going on Joel?" he asked softly. "Why the sudden concern for my dietary habits?"
Taggert's eyes flickered toward him for an instant before the captain turned his gaze back to the road. Blair saw him take a deep breath and stiffened.
"Jim's got a meeting in about an hour. At the Lariat."
Blair swallowed hard and pointedly looked away. That explained everything. The contact had been made. The Lariat was one of Archie Gordon's hangouts. Blair remembered the hole-in-the-wall country-western bar from the surveillance they'd run on the detective. It was the perfect location for a clandestine meeting. At three o'clock in the afternoon, the place would be nearly deserted.
The fact that the bar was on the west side of town also explained Taggert's lunch invitation to a restaurant on the opposite end of Cascade. Blair felt an irrational flash of anger at the way he was being 'handled', and wondered whose idea it had beenSimon's or Jim's.
"Tell me that he at least took Simon along as backup," Blair murmured. A longer hesitation this timeone that caused Blair to shake his head and answer his own question. "Of course not, what am I thinking?"
"It's a preliminary meet, Sandburg. Both sides checking each other out."
"Yeah, if that's the case, then why the bodyguard routine?" Blair heard the snarl in his tone and immediately regretted it. Taggert was just doing his job and at the moment that meant keeping Blair safe so that Jim could do his. Joel was also a friendoffering a shoulder to lean on in a time of stress. "Sorry, Joel. I didn't mean..."
Taggert responded by patting Blair's leg gently. "Don't worry about it. I know this has been tough on you. You're Jim's partner and you want to be with him, not stuck out in the cold, waiting for us to feed you little tidbits of information. But I also know how important you are to him. If anything happened to you..."
"Couldn't," Blair interrupted. He didn't want to hear that rationalization. "Not with two captains watching over me." He managed a crooked grin, even though his heart wasn't in it. "You guys have it all covered. Just one question."
"Is lunch coming out of your pocket or the department's? It'll have some bearing on how much food I order. Don't want to take advantage of a friend, you know, but since observers don't get paid, I wouldn't mind taking a bite out of the station's budget."
Joel shook his head and chuckled. "I'm sure I can find a way to justify the meal on my expense report." He turned his attention back to guiding the car through the surprisingly busy rain drenched streets, leaving Blair to his own anxious thoughts.
Despite his threat, Blair's lunch order amounted to a taco salad and an iced tea. He would have preferred the beverage hotwith honey and lemon, and drunk in the comfort of the loft with his partner safely seated on the couch watching a Jags game. As it was, the drink was cold and weak; much like he was feeling.
As he toyed with the salad, Joel filled him in on the sketchy details. There was little more to add beyond how and when the contact had been made. Taggert made small talk after that, asking the younger man questions about his classes and students. Blair appreciated the efforts his friend was making to distract him, but he found it hard to keep from watching the clock on the far side of the room.
As the hands inched their way closer to three o'clock, Blair gave up all pretense of eating and simply clutched his water glass, taking small sips every few seconds. Joel kept up the one-sided conversation, shifting to an update on the status of the office basketball pool.
Blair let Joel's soft patter fade to the background. He stared at the clock, counting the seconds as they crawled by, their agonizingly slow movement a painful counterpoint to the staccato beating of his own pulse. The smoldering embers of his earlier anger flared to life, fueled by his worry and frustration. He wanted to be with his Sentinel. That's where he belonged. Not here.
At the stroke of three he closed his eyes. While Blair had never been inside the Lariat, Jim had ventured into the bar several times, scoping it out. From his partner's detailed descriptions, the younger man could easily envision the setting. Behind his tightly shuttered lids he could see his Sentinel opening the door to the bar. Jim would pause for just a moment on the threshold, letting his eyes adjust to the darker interior. There would be no outward signs of the sensory sweep he'd conduct before stepping forward.
He'll let the door swing shut behind him... If there's no sign of any of the six, he'll head to the bar... no, a table... one that would put a wall at his back and still give him an unobstructed view of the interior and both exits... He'll order a beer, something they have on tap probably... He'll keep the small talk with the waitress to a minimum, giving her no reason to hover... an attempt to keep another innocent out of the line of fire in case things go bad... He'll take a sip of the brew... a small one... pacing himself... outwardly calm, inwardly tense... a lone warrior girded for battle...
Be vigilant, my friend, the Guide prayed silently.
Eyes that can see for miles will flicker over each patron and employee... watching, evaluating their potential threat in a single glance... Taste and smell will work together, sampling the stagnant air for the salty tang of perspiration and the smell of fear... Touch will come into play as well, his skin tingling in warning with any perceived evidence of tension or change in his surroundings... He'll glance at the clock above the bar, reading 3:07 now, the sound of its ticking as loud as the footsteps on the pavement outside, as distinctive as the metallic scream of hinges turning on themselves as the front door opens...
For an instant Blair was there, seeing through Jim's eyes as a figure shaped itself in the doorway. A silent malevolence, silhouetted against the rectangle of gray outside light, features lost in shadow until a lighter flared, the summoned flame burning away the darkness...
Erupting into a wall of fire.
It filled Blair's mind. All consuming, roaring a scream of death, the flames blotted out everything. He couldn't hear Joel's anxious whispers; didn't feel the big man's hands lock around his arms. He had no knowledge of being dragged to the restroom; no sense that he was the object of curious concern from startled restaurant patrons. There was nothing except the fire and the suffocating heat that stole the air from his lungs.
A splash of cold water in his face doused the vision. Harsh reality returned, sentinel-sharp. The grouted crevices in the cold tile bit like icy shards into his knees. Glittering shafts of fluorescent brilliance reflected by the mirrors were like daggers in his eyes. A throbbing resonance surrounded him, its pulses goose-pimpling his skin.
He wanted to ignore it alljust curl up in a ball and shut out all the stimuli. But the vibration pounded against him, finally resolving itself into an urgent, demanding voice.
"Sandburg, look at me!"
The Guide and Observer recognized that commanding tone, even though the voice was not the one he longed to hear. Blair blinkedonce, twice, three timesand Joel's anxious face came into focus.
"That's better." There was no mistaking the relief in the big man's tone. "God, Blair, you just added ten years to my life!"
"Sssorry..." The response was hoarse and slurred, but audible.
"Are you all right? Can you stand or do you want to stay where you are for a little longer?"
"Stand, I think..."
Blair reached for the edge of the sink that hovered like a white beacon at the edge of his peripheral vision. Taggert's huge hand tightened around his arm, gently supporting his efforts to drag himself to his feet. Blair was thankful that grasp didn't falter once he was upright.
"Thanks," he murmured when the world had stopped lurching and the nauseating roll of his stomach had quieted. "What happened?"
"You tell me. You mumbled something about fire and then nearly did a nose-dive into your lunch."
Fire... the vision... Jim... the bar... Man, what happened?... It was so real...
"What time is it?" he asked urgently. Joel glanced at his watch. "3:30."
Blair did a mental double take. He'd lost 23 minutesor was it 30? Confused, he lifted his head. The pale, haggard reflection of a stranger stared back at him. He shuddered and grabbed the sink again for balance.
"That does it. I'm taking you to the hospital," Joel muttered grimly.
"No," Blair objected immediately. That was the absolute last place he needed to be. He was certain that the doctors would take one look at him and pull out the strongest sedatives that they had at their disposalif not the nearest straight-jacket. That did not fit in with his plans.
"I'll be fine... Just give me a second."
"Trust me, Sandburg. I've seen fine and you by no means fit that description," Taggert retorted.
"Give me a break, Joel. I'm just a little wiped."
Joel snorted in disgust. "A little? You're a mess, kid."
"You know, I'm getting pretty tired of people thinking I can't take care of myself," Blair objected heatedly. A fresh surge of anger gave him the strength to shake off Taggert's grip. He turned and glared at the bigger man. "This may come as a surprise, but I've been self-sufficient for a long time. Hell, I was only sixteen when I met my first tribal chieftain and I managed to come out of that encounter with my skin intact. So just back off. I already have a mother, and it's been a long time since I've needed a baby-sitter."
"You're right. You don't need a baby-sitter. You need a keeper," Taggert responded just as forcefully. "I've seen you worn to the bone before, but this is different. Something's wrong and it's more than just stress. You're not acting like yourself, Blair."
Joel rolled his eyes. "I swear, Sandburg, I don't know how Ellison does it. If you were my partner..."
"But I'm not. I'm Jim's, which is the whole problem here." Blair drew a deep breath and forced his anger down, deep inside. "No hospital. No doctors, Joel. And no telling Simon about this... episode." His gaze turned from firm to beseeching at Taggert's stubborn expression. "You can't, Joel. Even if Simon doesn't say anything to Jim, he'll know that something's going on. My partner's got a great sixth sense when it comes to me and trouble. He'll do something stupid like coming to the motel againand this time Jenson or one of his goons will be right on his heels. It'll get him killed."
He saw Taggert's eyes narrow in acknowledgment of the truth and pressed his advantage. "You know I'm right, Joel. This needs to stay between the two of us. Please."
Taggert frowned and Blair held his breath. "All right," the big man finally agreed. "But if you want my silence, you're going to have to agree to a few rules."
"Jeez, what is it with you cops and rules?" Blair sputtered. He held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. Lay 'em on me."
"The first one is that you're going to start eating regular meals again. Sleeping more than two hours at a time is number twoand don't think you're going to con me. I know exactly how much sleep you got last night. I was listening."
"Fine. Done. Can we go now? I'd like to get some fresh air." Blair tried to brush past the older man, but a firm hand on his arm halted him in his tracks.
"Rule number three, Blair," Joel murmured, his intense dark gaze holding the younger man just as resolutely as his grip. "You have another one of these... episodes and you're going straight to the hospital."
"You're making too much out of this, Joel..."
"Do we have a deal or not?"
Taggert's expression and tone was as intractable as Jim's in the same mood. Blair nodded his less than enthusiastic agreement to the conditions and Joel released his arm. They headed back out to their table. Blair glanced at the clock as he gathered up his belongings and Joel paid their bill. It was quarter to four. The meet could still be going on, or it could be long over. Was his Sentinel all right?
He followed Taggert out to the car. Once he was belted in, Blair rested his head on the back of the seat. He let his eyes follow the hypnotic swish-pause-swish of the wipers. The rain had slowed to a gentle downpour, but the clouds were still dark and swollen, a good indication that the storm would worsen again. He let his thoughts range free, too tired to try to control them.
The idea that he'd somehow tapped into Jim's reality had startled him at first, but once he'd gotten past the initial shock, it was actually very easy to accept. Burton's writings and his own experiences suggested that Sentinels and Guides shared a special bondone that could easily kick in unexpectedly, especially in the face of danger. And, after all, it was no stranger than his partner seeing a black panther in the middle of downtown Cascade.
I was there somehow. What I saw was happening... did happen...
The experience had been weird and it had obviously taken a toll, but what Blair found much more worrisome was not knowing what had happened after the firewall vision had broken their connection.
The man at the door... he was the one Jim went there to meet... Who was it? Probably not Jenson... he's too smart to show himself until he's certain that Jim's interested in the proposition... Gordon, most likely... it's his hangout, and since he's from Central, he'd be at least a vaguely familiar face...
Blair let his gaze drift to the clock on the dash.
3:57... nearly an hour since Jim arrived at the Lariat, fifty minutes since Gordon walked in, assuming that the clock over the bar was correct... What happened? Was the contact made, or was it just a test to see if Jim would show? Had things gone down as planned? Did Gordon buy the cover story? Is Jim 'in'?
The glowing green numbers on the clock changed. Fifty-one minutes. It felt like years.
Come on, Jim... call Simon... let us know you're all right...
The rhythm of the wipers claimed his attention again. Swish. Pause. Swish. Wait.
God, I hate this. Waiting. Not knowing. What I'd give for Jim's patience level right now... He's always so cool... always in control when it comes to this covert shit... They all are. Joel's sitting there like we're out for a Sunday drive. Simon's probably just as relaxed. I can picture him, leaning back in his chair smoking one of those awful cigars... Me? I'm ready to climb out of my skin...
His eyes danced back to the clock. 3:59.
Pick up the phone, Jim... if you can...
He forced his gaze away from the dash and back to the wipers. He wished he could push away the fear that something had gone wrong just as easily.
Calm down... Jim has to wait until he's clear to make the call. He could still be meeting with Gordon. And even if the meeting's over, he's still going to be under surveillance... they wouldn't stop following him now... Maybe he didn't even leave on his own...
Blair shuddered and immediately shot a sideways look at Joel, worried that he'd noticed. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The big man's attention was still on the road.
Keep it together, Sandburg... if he didn't leave on his own that doesn't mean that things went bad... Gordon could have decided to take him to Jenson right away... Jim's a pretty good pitchman... he'd demand to meet with whoever's in charge before committing himself... that's what we discussed... get to Jenson, get him to reveal the rest of the players...
The thought that things might be going according to plan was less than comforting. The zillion other questions whirling in his head weren't either.
The shrill ring of Taggert's cell phone shot Blair bolt upright in the seat. Wide eyed, he watched Joel fumble the unit out of his suitcoat pocket. He was inordinately glad that the bigger man had the chore of answering the call, because he wasn't sure he would have been able to even choke out a 'hello' at this point.
"Taggert... yeah, Simon, he's still with me."
Joel shot Blair a quick, uncertain look and the younger man's throat constricted even tighter.
"He is? Hold on a minute." Joel's face was filled with a relieved smile as he lowered the phone and looked at Blair again. "Jim's okay," he said softly. "I'm going to pull over so we can get the details."
Taggert's last comment was lost on the anthropologist. The assurance that his partner was all right meant his heart could start beating again. Blair nodded numbly and turned his head to stare out the passenger-side window. The raindrops sliding down the glass mimicked his own unshed tears of relief.
He didn't turn back to face Joel until the bigger man placed a gentle hand on his arm. Dimly, he realized he'd missed the rest of the one-sided conversation.
"Jim's back at the loft," Taggert began. "Things went well. Archie Gordon was the contact." Blair nodded at the confirmation of what he already knew, but kept silent. "Jim thinks that he managed to convince Gordon. He pushed for another meet."
"Gordon didn't say who it would be, but Jim told him he wanted to meet whoever was in charge."
"When and where?" Blair prodded.
"Jim doesn't know yet. They're supposed to call him."
Blair considered that information for a moment, then rubbed at his eyes worriedly. "Does that mean they did buy the act, or they didn't??"
"It means they're being careful," Joel said quietly. "They tested the waters with the first meeting. That they're going to set up a second one makes it look promising."
Promising? Yeah, right. Or maybe they've seen through the deception and they're going to lure him somewhere so that they can kill him in private instead of in front of witnesses. Blair kept those grim thoughts to himself. He took a deep breath and straightened in the seat, pushing his fingers through his unruly hair to shift it out of his face.
"So we're back to waiting," he murmured aloud.
"Looks that way."
Blair appreciated the sympathy he heard in the bigger man's voice, but it cut into the defenses he was trying so desperately to keep in place. "Well, we've waited this long, what's a few more hours, right?" he said with forced lightness. "Good thing I've still got a pile of my student's papers to grade. That should keep me busy at my office until at least ten o'clock."
"You're not going back to your office, Blair," Joel said with a sigh. "Now that Jim's made contact, you're too exposed there."
Blair shut his eyes for a moment, swallowing hard against the anger of being dictated to once again. "My car's still at the university," he acquiesced wearily. "If you'd drop me at the lot, I promise to head straight back to the motel."
"I'm sorry, Blair. I'm supposed to take you there right away. Simon's orders."
"Come on, Joel. I'm not sure if you noticed, but the motel neighborhood's not exactly the kind of place that I'll be able to just grab a cab. I'll be stranded..." Blair's eyes widened as he realized that was exactly what Simon had in mind. "Damn him!" he exploded, jerking at the door release.
Taggert grabbed him and stilled his efforts. "Simon wants you at the motel and so does Jim. That's where you're going. End of story," Joel announced. "If you've got those papers with you, you can work on them for a few hours and then you're going to sleep, like you promised me. I'll pick up something for you to eat later. You're going to sit tight and wait, just like the rest of us."
Blair pulled free of Taggert's hold, but didn't make another break for the door. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared sullenly at the dash. "Not quite. No one else is under house arrest," he snarled. "Who's the criminal here? Jenson or me?"
"You know darn well why they don't want you to have your car, Blair," Joel said firmly. "Admit it."
Blair's face darkened even further. "Jim's my partner. It's my job to watch his back," he hissed.
"But you can't this time. You told me the other night that this separation was for Jim's protection as well as your own. You know what would happen if you went sneaking around and got caught."
The soft words carried the force of a gut-punch. Blair's eyes closed and his head dropped. All the fight went out of him in the face of that simple, deadly truth. This was Jim's show. Reserved seating only. And he didn't have a ticket. Totally drained, Blair didn't attempt to argue any more. He huddled further into himself as Joel started the car and eased out into the flowing traffic.
You who dirty the mirror, cry that it isn't clean.
Never assume anything.
Jim had first heard that cautionary warning from a combat- hardened drill sergeant when he was a wet-behind-the-ears recruit. Ellison had taken the sage advice to heart immediately and years later he was still thanking the various officers and instructors that had drilled their own versions of that decree into his brain. Never assume you're smarter than your opponentyour ego won't protect you from a bullet. Never assume a level playing fieldyou're liable to trip and never recover. Never assume you have the element of surpriseor you'll find yourself on the wrong end of the gun. Never assume anythingassumptions got you killed.
The words reverberated in his head as he watched Archie Gordon pause in the doorway of the Lariat to light his cigarette. He would make no assumptions about this man or any of the others. They were smart and they were deadly. He'd need every ounce of cunning and craft that he'd learned over the years to beat them.
But beat you I will, the Sentinel vowed. He raised the glass of beer to his lips and took a sip. He let himself settle even further into the arrogant, lone-wolf persona he'd fashioned and met the other man's gaze without a blink.
Gordon gave him an almost negligible nod and wandered over to the bar. While he ordered a drink, the Sentinel inched up the dials on his senses, examining his adversary. On the surface, the other detective was calm and cool, his expression as he'd made eye contact with Jim a little smug. But there was tension and the cold smell of fear emanating from the man as well.
An inch or so shorter than Jim, Archie Gordon carried at least thirty more pounds on his heavy frame. His dark hair was stringy and oily-looking, and his denim jacket and jeans were long past the point of needing to be washed. From where he sat, the Sentinel could already smell the reek of stale smoke and wondered how he was going to stand it once the man sat down next to him. His eyes were already watering.
"Just dial it down, Jim. Get past it," his Guide's voice reverberated in his mind. Ellison had to remind himself not to smile. Even when Blair wasn't by his side, the younger man's guidance and support still kept him grounded.
Sometimes the extent of the invisible connection that they shared was spookylike when Gordon had walked in. If he hadn't known better, Jim would have sworn that Blair was right by his sidethe sense of the younger man's presence had been that strong.
Sometimes it was simply reassuringas it was now. The sensory control techniques that the insistant Guide had pounded into his stubborn Sentinel's head were queued up and waiting for just the right occasion.
Jim mentally lowered the sensory dials a notch. He forced himself to breathe easily, his gaze never shifting from his adversary as he reviewed what he knew of the man. Gordon had transferred to Central from West's Vice squad just after Ellison had left the department. Their paths had crossed on a few cases, but they'd never worked together directly. From all reports, he was a good cop with an impressive arrest record.
But the Sentinel knew differently. All he had to do was prove it.
Jim was careful to keep both hands in clear sight as Gordon approached his table. The man stopped and rested one hand on the back of the chair to Jim's right, one eyebrow raised questioningly. The Sentinel's eyes narrowed a fraction, but he gave a terse nod and Gordon slid into the seat.
Gordon placed his glass on the table and busied himself lighting another cigarette. His gaze flickered once around the room before returning to Jim. "I hear you've had some problems down at the station."
"You heard wrong," Jim answered evenly.
Gordon eyed him in surprise. Jim took another drink from his glass and settled back in the chair, his expression and body language broadcasting an air of casual indifference. "The way I see it, it's Banks that's got the problems. He's the one that's got to explain to the 'powers that be' why no one's working my cases, while I enjoy this little vacation he so graciously granted me. The one major pain-in-the-ass problem I did have is no longer in the picture. No matter what happens from this point on, it will have been worth it not to have some stupid civilian dogging my heels night and day."
"So Sandburg's out, eh?"
Jim let a nasty grin fill his face. "Hell, Sandburg's always been out. He inhabits his own little world, several steps outside reality. I just don't have to put up with it any more."
"Still, seems kind of strange... always got the impression that you two were pretty good friends," Gordon pushed.
Jim's grin died and his eyes grew ice cold. "And I always had the impression you were a pretty bright guy. I'll say this once, Gordon. Listen well. Banks stuck me with the kid. I put up with him because it was expedient to do so. My choice. It's no longer expedient, so I got rid of him. Again, my choice."
"Hey, I believe you. If it had been me, I would have tried to strangle the punk months ago, just to shut up his yapping mouth. What's it going to cost you?"
Jim covered his anger at the comment about his partner with a shrug. "A couple days of attitude adjustment... without pay. Small price considering."
"And then it's back to Major Crimes?"
Jim's face darkened and he stared down into the glass in his hand. "I suppose so," he said slowly. "I'll have to suck up to Banks for a few weeks... take the crap and the shit cases until he's forced to give me back what's rightfully mine." His eyes lifted and caught Gordon's, narrowing even further and glinting menacingly in the dim light. "Why the sudden interest in my future plans, Gordon? Internal Affairs send you to check me out?"
"You're a fellow cop, Ellison," Gordon protested. "I heard what went down. I know what kind of crap you had to put up with dragging Sandburg around. Just wanted you to know that I think you're getting a pretty raw deal from Banks and the rest. Man needs to know he's got friends, right?"
Gordon's pulse and respiration skyrocketed, much to the Sentinel's grim delight. Jim fixed him with a glare that kept it that way. He reached out, plucked the cigarette from the man's fingers and stubbed it out viciously in the ash tray.
"You and I are not friends, Gordon," he hissed, his voice as cold as his eyes. "Never were, never will be. Now cut to the chase and tell me why you wanted me here."
The other detective wrenched his gaze away with a barely concealed shudder. He started to reach for another cigarette, but abruptly wrapped his slightly shaking hands around his glass instead. "I'm here to check you out," he said quietly. "Maybe offer you an opportunity, if you're interested."
"In Vice? No thanks, I've already been down that road," Jim said, intentionally misreading the man's intent.
"Actually, vice is pretty well covered. We'd prefer you stayed in Major Crimes."
"Some... associates and myself," Gordon hedged, squirming a little under the Sentinel's scrutiny. "There's a small group of us who've been dissatisfied at the direction that the department's taken over the last few years. If the rumors I've been hearing are true, it seems you feel the same way."
"And what if I do? You and your associates have a way to change it?" Jim put as much skepticism into his voice as he could.
"Not exactly," Gordon admitted. "But there are ways to work around the system. Ways to make some extra cash."
"Money's always a consideration, but not the only one," Jim countered with a shake of his head.
"What about power? That hold any interest for you?"
"Depends on what kind of power you're talking about," Jim responded.
Gordon leaned forward, his face shining with the same light the Sentinel had seen in the eyes of fanatics and madmen. "Real power. Life and death. Judge and jury. Spoils and profits to the victor. Interested? We could use a man with your background. Your skills. Your connections."
"Sounds illegal." Jim murmured.
Gordon simply smiled.
Jim took another sip of his beer. Letting the lukewarm liquid coast down his throat, he let his gaze drift over the interior of the bar. "You're taking a pretty big risk, approaching me. How do you know I won't turn you in?"
It was Gordon's turn to shrug. "Your word against mine, and right now yours isn't worth much inside those hallowed walls. Besides, it's in your best interests not to. Being a cop's a dangerous occupation. You have to depend on backup, you know? Especially if you're working alone."
The veiled threat hung in the air between them as the Sentinel considered his response. Was it hot air or was the network of crooked cops much larger than they'd thought?
"I want to meet the man in charge," he said finally.
"Doesn't work that way. You're my recruit. You work with me. I'm the only contact you need."
Gordon's smile was smug as he grabbed his drink and started to raise it. Jim reached out and wrapped one hand around the other detective's elbow. Before Gordon could react to the unexpected movement, Jim's fingers dug into a pressure point. The glass dropped from the man's nerveless grasp and he barely stifled an agonized cry of pain. The glass shattered and beer cascaded over the tabletop. The Sentinel ignored the mess, locking gazes with his opponent.
"Think again," Jim whispered in his most deadly voice. "I don't deal with messengers. I meet the man. Tonight. You set it up. You call me."
Jim squeezed his fingers and Gordon whimpered in pain, nodding immediately.
The Sentinel released his hold and rose smoothly to his feet. Towering over the other detective, he paused, his gaze still razor sharp. "Oh, by the way, tell Smithson, Harris and Randolph they're out of practice. Next time I see any of them in my rearview mirror they'll find out just how much I like being followed. And you... you stay out of my loft. I found your little presents. Your eavesdropping days are over as of now."
Gordon blanched and barely managed another nod. Jim patted the other detective on the shoulder and left the bar without a backward glance.
Ignoring the steady rain, Jim paused at the edge of the sidewalk, glancing left and right to check the oncoming traffic before crossing the street to his truck. The momentary hesitation at the curb had revealed the beige van that had followed him the day before, parked a block behind his own vehicle. Jim fought back the urge to reach for his gun, digging in his jacket pocket for the keys instead.
Unlocking the driver's door, he slid behind the wheel, started the truck and eased out into the steady flow of traffic. Glancing into the rearview mirror as he flipped on his lights and the wipers, he saw the van slip into line four cars back. He caught a glimpse of his own reflectionjaw clenched in anger, eyes narrowed and shining like iceand forced himself to take several deep breaths.
Careful... now's not the time to blow this... stay cool... see what they do...
His gaze kept flickering back to check on his shadow as he guided the truck through the traffic. After six blocks, he saw the van veer off onto a side street. The driver's face was mostly obscured by the cell phone he clutched to his ear, but Jim was able to recognize Harris.
When no new tail appeared after a few blocks, he breathed a small sigh of relief. Jim relaxed the deathgrip he had on the steering wheel, but kept up his guard, watching the upcoming intersections and criss-crossing alleys for any sign of trouble.
Confronting Gordon about the surveillance and the listening devices had been a risk, but Jim had deemed it necessary. He wasn't about to wait on the slimy vice-cop's bidding. Not when he had bigger fish to catch. Pushing had been a gamble; one that appeared to have paid off. Someone had called off the men tailing himprobably Jenson in response to an urgent phone call from Gordonbut he still had to be cautious. One wrong step and they could just as easily decide that Jim was too dangerous an accomplice to acquire; and set the wheels in motion for his death.
Yet the Sentinel could barely suppress a feral grin.
The little power play he'd instigated had shifted things into gear.
Which was exactly what he'd wanted.
The electronic snooper that had been hidden in the lamp was his first target upon returning to the loft. His enhanced hearing picked up every tinkling snap and crackle of its individual wires and components as he crushed it underfoot. He did a quick check of the phone, but found nothing foreign inside the device, confirming his earlier guess that they'd tapped the line, not the equipment. A thorough scan of the rest of the apartment uncovered no other active bugs and no sign of any other type of intrusion. A quick sweep of the street and the alley came up empty as well.
He glanced at his watch as he pulled the cell phone from his jacket. Just over an hour had passed since Gordon had stepped into the bar. Time to make his call to Simon and let him know what had transpiredand to check on his Guide.
The impression of danger that both the Sentinel and the panther had sensed the previous night still lingered. It was connected to his Guidehe knew that instinctively. What form the danger would take, or from what direction the attack would comethose remained unanswered questions. Given his partner's ability to find and attract trouble, what he was picking up might not even be related to the case.
Jim sighed and punched in the speed dial number to reach his captain. Keeping Blair out of the line of fire and under someone's watchful eyesomeone he could trustwas the best he could do for now. He needed Simon's help, but he wasn't sure how to go about explaining what he didn't quite understand himself.
//"I'm here, Jim,"// Banks responded immediately. //''You okay? Where are you?"//
"I'm fine. I'm back at the loft. Is Sandburg still with Taggert?"
//"Joel picked him up as planned. He's got instructions to drive the kid around until he hears from me. Why? Did something go wrong?"//
"No, everything went down pretty much as we'd hoped. Gordon was the contact. We got past the shaking hands and flattery stage and he's supposed to call me to set another meet for tonight. Look, things are going to move pretty fast from this point. I don't think it's a good idea for Sandburg to go back to the university today. The place is too open. Jenson could make a move..."
//"Wait a minute, Jim,// Banks interrupted. //"Is this that big brother protectiveness of yours or do you really think the kid's in danger?"//
The Sentinel hesitated. Over the past two years, Banks had pretty much ceased questioning his partnership with Blair. Part of that was due to the fact that they'd proven themselves time and time again. They were a good team with an impressive arrest and conviction record. Part of it was Simon's grudging acceptance and growing respect for the younger mansomething that Jim knew that his captain would deny vehemently if pressed. And part of it was because of the friendship that they shared.
Yet even though Simon was a good friend, Jim sensed that the older man was still uncomfortable with the whole Sentinel/Guide concept and what it entailed. Accepting that his detective had enhanced senses and needed the help of an anthropologist to use them was one thinggetting him to believe that said detective had a mystical connection to a Spirit Guide who materialized out of thin air in the form of a black panther and that the long-haired talkative grad student was also a novitiate Shaman who occasionally dabbled on another plane of existence was something else entirely.
"Just call it a gut-feeling, Captain. Blair's name came up in the conversation. I'd feel better if he were back at the motel," Jim admitted.
//"You know Sandburg's not going to like this."//
"Trust me Simon, he's not the only one. Never thought I'd say it, but the loft's too quiet without him around. I'd like nothing better than to have him with me, but I won't risk it."
//"And I wouldn't authorize it, anyway. All right, give me a couple of minutes. I'll set things in motion. Is it safe to call you there?"//
"Just use this phone. I'll be waiting."
Jim shut off the cell and crossed to the kitchen. He pulled a bottle of water from the refrigerator and busied himself by making a sandwich. He'd taken one small bite when the phone trilled again.
//"It's done,"// Simon announced tersely. //"They're on the way to the motel now. I told Taggert to take him straight there and to leave Sandburg's car at the university. Joel's going to take a room at one of the other motels down the street from Blair's and he'll take over monitoring the kid personally. I'll warn you though, you're going to owe Taggert big-time for this little maneuver, Jim."//
It'll be worth anything Joel wants, as long as Blair's safe, Jim vowed, setting his sandwich aside. "Understood, sir."
//"All right. Let's get down to it. Are you still under surveillance?"//
"Not any more. I persuaded Gordon to end it. I trashed the bug they'd planted here just before calling you, but I'm not sure my main phone line is safe to use yet."
There was no mistaking the irritation in Simon's tone. Or the worry. "I had to resort to playing a little hardball, Captain," Jim explained. "Gordon wanted to keep things just between the two of us. I told him that wasn't going to happen."
//"Damn it, Jim, are you trying to get yourself killed? I thought we'd agreed that you'd take this slow."//
"Gordon's not running the show, Simon. Jenson is. Until we get to him, we're not any closer to nailing these guys than we were when this started. We can't afford to dance attendance on one of his grunts until they decide it's safe to let me further inside. There hasn't been another murder or fire yet this week and I'd like to keep it that way. I was there, I made the call. It felt like the right thing to do. Besides, if he's really interested, Jenson has to have checked me out. He'd know about my background in the military and Covert Ops. I think the tails and the electronic surveillance were some kind of a test."
//"To see whether you're as good as your reputation suggests you are?"//
"Maybe. Gordon said something about my background being valuable to them."
"He talked about money and power, but only in vague terms. Gordon mentioned his associates, but he didn't give me any names. The only thing he did say specifically is that they wanted me to return to Major Crimesthat they had Vice pretty well covered."
//"Damn... how deep does this thing go?"//
"We'll know soon. I pushed for a meet with whoever's in charge. Once they call, I'll have more details for you."
//"You'd better. You're not going in without backup, Jim, so don't even try to argue that point,"// Simon warned.
Jim's gaze flickered to the closed French doors of his partner's room. "As long as it's not Sandburg."
//"Don't worry. I gave Taggert permission to sit on him if necessary. He's going to be keeping a close eye on him."//
"Better than last time, I hope," Jim grumbled.
//"Joel's learned his lesson,"// Simon responded. //"No ostrich chili this time."//
Jim snorted and then turned the conversation to discussing their strategy for dealing with the next meet. When he concluded the call, he tossed the remains of his sandwich in the kitchen trashcan and made a quick lap around the loft, locking things down. After turning up the volume on the answering machine he climbed the stairs to his own bedroom. Sleep was what he needed now.
Slipping into the 'mission eve' mindset he'd learned to use years earlier, Jim eased into a sound sleep. If there were dreams, he didn't remember them when he awoke five hours later. He slid out of bed and headed downstairs. He started a fresh pot of coffee and checked the answering machine before entering the bathroom.
He was showered, shaved, dressed and ingesting his wakeup brew a short time later. After the first cup, he retrieved his guns and laid them on the table. Methodically stripping them down and cleaning both weapons, he began to prepare for battle. Once he was satisfied with their readiness, he took another trip upstairs. He was considerably more lethal, and the battered footlocker that he kept in the rear of his closet was decidedly emptier, when he returned to the kitchen to freshen his coffee.
He leaned back against the kitchen counter, slowly sipping the cooling drink. His gaze drifted across the apartment, committing everything in it to memory. It occurred to him that he'd done the exact same thing when he'd been in the rangers and then later during his time in Covert Ops. Each time he'd prepared to leave on a mission, he'd fixed each detail of his no- nonsense, well-ordered existence in his mind as a reminder of what he was coming back to. There hadn't been much to inventory.
This time it was different.
The loft appeared stark and uncluttered, just as his barracks and private quarters had, but the invisible traces of his Guide's presence were there. The Sentinel closed his eyes, picturing Blair's books sitting elbow to elbow with his own on the wooden shelves against the walls; the younger man's never- ending avalanche of papers and reports cascading over the coffee table. He heard the resonant whisper of drums and pan fluteshis Shaman's earth musicfilling the air with an ancient, soothing rhythm. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the remembered scent of herbal shampoo and the musty tang that emanated from the tribal masks that normally decorated the walls. The mixed aroma of freshly ground spices and dried herbs wafted from the kitchen, activating his sense of taste, reminding him of comfortable meals shared and confidences exchanged.
His Guide's life-force filled the rooms even in his absence. It swirled around the Sentinel, cresting like the tidepersistent, elusive, unstoppablemurmuring softly like a gentle brook as he welcomed it into his heart.
This is what I'd leave behind if I fail. Not some sparsely furnished apartment, not the job, but life itself.
He picked up the cell phone and dialed a number that he'd committed to memory, but never used. It rang three times before it was answered.
"It's me, Chief..." the Sentinel murmured, grimacing at the weariness embedded in the sleep-dulled voice of his Guide. . //"Hey, Jim..."// "Sorry to wake you, buddy. I didn't think you'd be asleep yet. You okay?"//
//"No... I mean, yeah... I'm fine..." Blair stammered. //"What time is it?"//
Despite his concerns, Jim smiled. As difficult as it was to get his partner to shut down and go to bed, waking him was even more of a challenge. Blair and sleep did not part company easily. Or quickly. The Sentinel had a clear mental picture of his Guide, half-buried under the covers, blinking groggily, shaking his head in an attempt to clear away the last vestiges of sleep.
"Someday we're going to have to get you a watch, Sandburg, and teach you how to use it. It's just after ten."
There was silence for a moment and then a slightly more alert response. //"Ten... a.m. or p.m.?"//
"Ten o'clock as in two hours before midnight, Chief," Jim responded.
There was more silence and Jim frowned. "You okay, Sandburg?"
//"Yeah... just lost some time, man... that's the second time it's happened today... I guess I..."//
Blair's rambling was broken off abruptly in a sharp inhalation of breath...
... followed by a dull 'clunk' as if the phone had fallen on something soft.
And finally a choked gasp.
Blair gripped the phone tightly to keep from fumbling it into the blankets again and scrambled out of bed, launching himself toward the bathroom. The cold tiles under his bare feet made him shiver, but he welcomed the sensation as it shifted him further awake. Pushing the door shut behind him, he laid the phone gentlyalmost reverentlyon the floor, and turned on the sink's cold water tap, taking a second to splash some on his face. Still dripping, he left the water running and bent down to retrieve the phone, taking a deep breath before he spoke.
"Jim? Are you there?"
//"Still here, Chief. Why the sudden change of venue?"//
"What? Oh... Joel's got the magic ear duty, man. I didn't want him hearing something that he shouldn't about you know what, so I moved the party to someplace with a little more privacy." Blair winced at the tremulous quaver in his voice and the pitch which was at the top end of his range. "Why are you calling? Is something wrong?"
//"Slow down, Professor and catch your breath,"// Jim admonished with a low chuckle. //"Nothing's wrong. I'm still at the loft. No action yet."//
Blair slid to the floor and rested his back against the toilet. He wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or worried. "No action... you mean no call from Gordon?"
Blair recognized the irritated growl in his partner's tone and decided worried was the way to go.
"You think there's a problem?"
//"I hope not. I'd hate to think that my Oscar-winning performance this afternoon was wasted."//
Blair found himself grinning. "Did you use the Hard-Ass Covert Operative approach or the Shady Detective acting method?"
//"A little of both with some Obfuscating Observer thrown in to top it off. You would have been proud."//
"I'll bet Gordon was suitably impressed. I wish I could have seen it..." Blair caught himself as he realized what he was saying. He had seen some of itat least the opening act.
"I think he got the point. I'll tell you, Chief, I'm not going to sit through another meeting with him unless he stays downwind and leaves his cigarettes behind. I can still smell burnt tobacco."
Blair launched himself into the opening that Jim had given him. This was Guide territory that they'd just entered. "How are you doing? With your senses, I mean? Any spikes? Headaches?"
//"Everything's working fine, Chief. All the dials are responding just like you programmed them to and I've been careful not to push any one sense too much. My one and only headache went away as soon as Jenson's thugs stopped tailing me."//
Blair stiffened, wondering what his partner had done to produce that result. He decided the details weren't important, just the evaluation of the fallout.
"Jim, aren't you the one that told me it's always better to know where the enemy is? I mean, I'm sure it wasn't much fun seeing that vermin in your rearview mirror every time you turned around, but now they could come out of the woodwork from any direction."
He heard the older man sigh and mumble something that sounded like 'necessary risk.' He shuddered. "Jim... you are being careful, right?" he asked softly.
//"Yes, Mom. I'm being careful. How about you?"// "Me? I've got nothing to be careful about, man. " Bitterness and anger tinged his tone and the harsh words poured out before he could stop himself. "No worries, you know? Joel's put himself in charge of my sleeping and eating schedule. I think he's even contemplating changing the passwords my computer to make sure I don't tire myself out working too hard. Don't have to worry about whether my car's going to be broken into out in the motel parking lot because it's not therealthough since it's not parked in the long term area at the university I'll probably have to pay a fortune to get it out of impound when and if you and Simon decide to let me out of here..."
"And I've got lots of distractions," he plunged on. "Lots of things to keep me from worrying about whether you're zoned out or just plain dead. I've had offers, you know, if I have to make a career change. I mean, what good's a Guide without a Sentinel? The old guy that owns the place has made it pretty clear that he'd be interested in getting to know me better... lots better, if you catch my drift. Come to think of it, this could work out pretty slick if you do survive this shit and decide that you want me out of the loft for good. All my stuff's here and it'd be a short trip down to the other end of the motel..."
//"Sandburg, will you just stop for a minute?"//
The desperation in his partner's voice cut through Blair's awareness and ended his tirade abruptly. Horrified by what had just spewed out of his mouth, Blair clenched the phone in both hands and lowered it between his knees.
What the hell's wrong with me? he wondered miserably. How could I have lost it like that?
Jim's voice was a tinny whisper on the other end of the phone, urging him to get back on the line, but he couldn't movecouldn't trust what he might say. At least not until he heard his partner threaten to come to the motel if Blair didn't pick up in the next few seconds. That put him back in gear immediately.
"No... Jim, wait! I'm here... just... just give me a minute..." he pleaded.
Jim's voice came on the line again, soft and soothing. //"Okay... breathe, Chief. Nice cleansing breaths, just like you're always coaching me to do..."//
Blair struggled to comply with his Sentinel's directions. In. Out. In. Out. Slower. In. Out.
//"That's better buddy, keep it up. You're doing fine,"// Jim murmured encouragingly.
"Do I sound... that patronizing... when it's you on the... receiving end?" Blair gasped, trying to cover his embarrassment with sarcasm.
//"All the time, Sandburg."//
"Bet you're... enjoying this, then."
An awkward silence followed that flippant remark and Blair immediately apologized. "Sorry, man. I didn't mean that. Guess I'm just having problems controlling what's left of my brain. Must be more tired than I thought."
More silence, and then, //"Talk to me, Blair. Tell me what's going on in that head of yours."//
"Nothing and everything," Blair replied honestly. "I'm just tired of all of this. And worried. I don't like the idea of you doing this alone."
//"That goes both ways, partner,"// Jim said quietly, mirroring Blair's own thoughts. //This will be over soon. Tonight, if I can make it happen."//
"Jim, don't rush things. It's too dangerous," Blair pleaded.
//"Careful, you're beginning to sound like Simon."//
Great. I needed another identity crisis, Blair thought grimly. "Normally I'd be insulted, but in this case I'll take that as a compliment. Listen to us."
//"Tell me about this guy that owns the motel," Jim urged, switching the subject abruptly. //"Has he really been hassling you?"//
"Put the Blessed Protector Cape back on the hook, Jim. The guy's creepy, but he's not dangerous. I can handle him just by keeping the door locked."
//"Make sure that's both doors, Sandburg.//
"Relax, Jim. Look, just forget everything I babbled about a few minutes ago, okay? Chalk it up to ravings from the Sandburg Zone, and let it go. You need to keep your head in what's going to go down tonight after Gordon calls."
//"I need to know that you're all right, Blair."//
The concern in his Sentinel's voice surged through the phone line. A wave of fierce protectiveness followed in its wake. Nothing was lost in the transmission.
"Then hear me, Jim," the Guide said quietly, sending every ounce of his trust and confidence in his Sentinel back across the miles that separated them. "I'm okay. I'm safe. I promise you I'll stay that way. As much as it scares me, I understand what you have to do and why you have to do it. And you will. You'll get these guys. Just do me a favor and don't forget to duck when the bullets start flying."
Before Jim could respond, Blair heard the faint sound of the loft phone ringing in the background. "That's your call, man. Go get those assholes."
"Watch your back, Jim," Blair whispered as he cut the connection.
Slightly dazed, Jim stared at the now silent handset. Blair's last words rang in his ears, a fitting compliment to the annoying trill of the other phone. He set the cell down on the table next to his guns and crossed the room.
"Ellison," he growled, picking up the phone before the answering machine could grab the call.
The voice on the other end was Gordon's. The message was nearly as brief as the one he'd delivered earlier in the day.
//"Third and Lexington. Twenty minutes."//
Jim waited for more, but there was only a sharp click followed by the annoying buzz of the dial tone. Cursing under his breath, he spun on his heel and picked up the cell phone again. He punched in Simon's pre-programmed number and reached for his weapons, sliding them into their respective holsters at his back and ankle while he waited for the call to go through.
"I've got a location," Jim announced tersely, giving his captain the coordinates he'd received.
//Jim are you sure? There's nothing there. The city's been razing the buildings on both sides of Lexington for weeks to make way for the new revitalization project."//
Jim walked toward the front door and grabbed his jacket off the rack, shirking into it as he talked. "I know, Simon. My guess is that the actual meet's going to take place somewhere else."
//"Which means you could end up anywhere."//
"I think we can safely rule out the three precincts as possible options, sir," Jim quipped weakly as he grabbed his keys out of the basket by the door.
//"Damn it, Jim. This is no time for jokes."//
"Sorry, Simon. Must be Sandburg's evil influence," Jim responded. "Have you got a copy of the real estate listings that Blair put together from the insurance records?"
//"I've got it. What do you want to know?"//
"Check and see if there are any properties near that intersection."
The Sentinel heard the rustle of papers being shuffled and after only a few seconds, Banks was back on the line.
//"No such luck, Jim. At least nothing in what we've unearthed so far.//
"Sandburg was still digging through that mess. He's probably got the printouts with him. Have him look for anything in proximity to the meet site. Maybe he can come up with something by the time I get there."
//"Once he knows there's trouble, the kid's not going to want to sit still and wait this out, Jim."//
"I know Simon," the Sentinel sighed, remembering the disturbing conversation he'd just had with his Guide. He hadn't managed to determine the source of his friend's distress, or pinpoint the danger that he'd sensed, but he knew what part of the problem was. The younger man's protective instincts were just as strong as his and being forced to sit on the sidelines was frustrating the hell out of him. Giving him some way to contribute would alleviate some of that stress. Unfortunately, the solution to one dilemma would generate another. "But Blair knows that material better than anyone. If the answer's there, he'll find it. If he tries to pull a Houdini on Joel, have Taggert remind him that he promised to keep himself safe."
//"You think that'll stop him? Sandburg tends to forget about self-preservation when your safety is on the line."//
"Then I guess Taggert will have to sit on him," Jim replied grimly.
//"I still don't like it, Jim. With Joel minding the kid, I'm the only backup you're going to have. I'm not going to do you any good if I don't know where you are. What about bringing Brown and Rafe into this? We could alternate tailing you from the pickup point."//
"I agree that it's time to bring them into the game, sir, but there's no time to get them in place. I'm going to have to push it to make the rendezvous as it is. Besides, Jenson's not stupid. Gordon may have acquisition duty, but you can bet that there will be others watching to make sure that no one follows us. I think our best option is to put Brown and Rafe onto setting a trace on this phone. I'm going to wipe all the programming so nothing will lead back to you, then I'll reactivate contact. I'll keep this line open as long as I can."
There was a long moment of silence before Simon spoke again.
//"All right. You're the man on the hot seat. I'll have to trust your judgment and instincts on this. I want your word though, that you'll take it one step at a time. You smell a trap and you get your butt out of there."//
//You can thank me by not getting yourself killed. I don't want to be the one to tell Sandburg he's going to lose out on getting that doctorate."// Jim cut the connection and cleared the memory on the cell phone. He took one last glance around the loft and with a terse nod, headed out. By the time he slid behind the wheel of his truck, he'd wrapped his undercover persona around him like a cloak. He set the phone down on the seat next to him and cranked the Ford to life, flipping on headlights and letting the wipers swish once over the rain speckled windshield to clear it. The rain had finally stopped, but the skies were still overcast. The heavy cloud cover hung low, clinging to the rooftops like a false ceiling. Reflections from the streetlights and the signs of still open businesses shimmered in the standing puddles of water that littered the streets. Once he was moving, Jim picked up the phone and punched in the seven digits to reach Simon. He waited until he received an acknowledgment from the other end, then slipped the device carefully into his jacket pocket. Turning his attention completely to the road, he urged a little more speed out of the truck.
He pulled up to the intersection with only a minute to spare, scanning the street with his senses even as he turned off the engine and killed the lights. The fragmented remains of buildings and mountains of debris from the city's demolition efforts created an unearthly landscape of black-on-black shapes and shadows.
The faint sounds of a rough engine swung his gaze to the rearview mirror. A car had just turned onto Jefferson and was headed his way. Choosing to meet his contact in the open, he got out of the truck and closed the driver's door before leaning back against it. He took a good look at the oncoming vehicle and then averted his eyes so that the headlights wouldn't blind him. He didn't recognize the battered Pontiac, but the reddened glow of a burning cigarette tip gave off enough light for him to identify the driver.
Gordon tossed the lit butt out the driver's window before he pulled to a stop parallel to the truck. The vice cop reached across and opened the passenger door. Jim slid into the empty seat and closed the door with a firm tug. Gordon remained silent as he shifted the car into gear and turned left at the cross street, heading north on Third. Nose wrinkling from the lingering odor of the smoke that permeated the cab and the other detective's clothes, the Sentinel dialed down his sense of smell and taste a notch.
In such close proximity to the sweating man behind the wheel, it didn't take much effort to pick up the man's heavy breathing and racing heartbeat. Jim continued to monitor both their route and Gordon's movements while he considered the possible reason's behind the vice-cop's behavior. Granted, he'd shaken the man's composure by his actions at the bar, but the level of tension and fear he was detecting now seemed out of proportion to that incident.
Which can only mean that there's trouble waiting at the end of this ride.
Whether that meant that they'd caught on to the sting or that whoever was waiting scared Gordon more than he did, Jim didn't knownor would further speculation give him the answers. That they hadn't insisted on a blindfold suggested that this game would be resolved tonight, one way or another. He forced himself to relax, keeping his muscles loose, his mouth shut and his eyes on the road.
As he'd suspected, they didn't go far. Less than ten minutes after Gordon had picked him up, the man made a sharp right and pulled into an alley. He slowed his speed, but didn't stop until he reached a cross street on the opposite side of the block. Turning right again, he drove about 50 yards and then spun the wheel to the left, easing the car up over a low curb and into an opening in the side of an older three-story brick building.
The Sentinel heard the whine of a motor, followed by the screel of metal scraping across metal. He glanced in the cracked side-mirror to his right and saw a heavy, segmented garage door closing behind them. Gordon let the car coast forward a few more feet before braking to a complete stop.
Jim opened the door and climbed out of the car, but stayed close to it. The interior of the building was dark. The headlight beams of the Pontiac brightened a space in front of the vehicle, revealing a stained and chipped concrete floor. The Sentinel's heightened vision penetrated the darkness another fifteen feet, but even he couldn't distinguish much beyond that. He cranked up his other senses and was rewarded with a wealth of sensory input, which he struggled to categorize.
Iron, zinc... more metals... damp wood and cardboard... This was some kind of a factory at one point... The odors are faint ... residual traces more than anything else... and the air itself is musty, so it's been empty for a while... generator hum, so there's still power enough to operate lights and the garage door...
Casually, Jim shut the passenger door with a hard shove, trying to judge the size and layout of the building from the resulting echoes.
Mostly open space on this level at least... the floor plan's deeper than it is wide... roughly the size of the precinct parking garage...
Aware of the danger of being lured toward a zone-out by the seductive reverberations, he filtered out those sounds and searched for those that would be distinctly human.
Swish of cloth against skin... scuff of leather against concrete... heartbeats...
Sentinel senses augmented years of military training and the instincts of a cop who'd managed to survive more than a few close calls. Ignoring Gordon's frantically beating pulse, Jim concentrated on pinpointing the locations and relative positions of the enemy.
The closest was the man roughly two car lengths behind him. The one who'd closed the outer door. Smithson.
Several more were waiting some thirty feet ahead of the car.
... four, five,... Smithson's six, Gordon makes seven... where's number eight?
He felt a warning prickle that raised the hair on the back of his neck. He stiffened. There was another man, off to Gordon's leftnear what the Sentinel had determined was the far wall.
Full house... not good odds, but not impossible either...
He pivoted slightly to face the waiting men and closed his eyes until they were bare slits, dialing down his vision at the same time. Lights flared a split-second later. He blinked and pretended to wince, using the action to cover another quick scan as he confirmed what his senses had already told him.
Ranged ahead of him were five men. Jenson stood a few feet in front of the others, his arms crossed over his chest. In contrast to his partner Archie Gordon, who looked like the stereotypical vice-cop, Phil Jenson dressed and acted like he'd just stepped off the pages of GQ. In his early fifties, Jenson was still a man in superb physical condition. An inch taller than Ellison, he held himself like the ex-Major that he was. The tell-tale wrinkles of age hadn't yet touched the hard angled planes of his face and the close-cropped auburn hair showed no trace of gray. If Gordon was the 'dealer', then Jenson ran the actionsmooth, sophisticated, dangerous.
Martin Randolph and Mark Harris stood to his left, carbon copies of Gordon. Jim didn't recognize either of the two men to Jenson's right, but they stood at what could only be described as 'parade rest'an indication that they'd also been connected to Jenson through the military. The man leaning against the wall near a bank of light switches, however, was vaguely familiar. Jim searched his memory and came up with a nameRobert Allen. Not a cop, but a man of influence.
You wondered how deep this went, Simon? Try all the way to the Mayor's office, Jim thought grimly.
Of the six they'd originally identified as being involved, only Jeff Rogers was unaccounted for. Where was he?
He dropped his shoulders a fraction of an inch to ease the tension that had gathered there and met Jenson's piercing gaze with a level one of his own. Their eyes lockedpale blue ice and steel gray. Measuring. Calculating. A battle joined without physical contact.
Jenson blinked first. "Ellison." A small nod accompanied that greeting.
"Jenson." Jim parroted the man's actions.
A small, humorless smile hovered on Jenson's lips. "A man of few words, but many questions. You gave my partner a pretty hard time."
Jim's own smile was a mirror image of the vice-cop's. "Maybe you should have chosen a different messenger. One who knew the answers."
"Perhaps, although I doubt that anything less than this little get-together would have satisfied you."
"I'm far from satisfied, yet," Jim responded.
Jenson nodded again. "Down to business then. If you'll be so good as to hand Mr. Smithson your weapon, we can get started."
The Sentinel's eyes narrowed, fixing his adversary with a deadly glare.
"I understand your reticence, Detective," Jenson remarked casually. "Certainly you can appreciate ours as well. Your reputation precedes you."
Ignoring Smithson, whose soft tread he could hear behind him, Jim stepped forward, slowly closing the distance until he was within arm's reach of Jenson. Randolph and Harris had both pulled their own guns to cover him, but their leader never moved, his gaze still locked with the Sentinel's. "If that's the case, you should know better than to ask me to turn over my weapon to someone other than another officer," the ex-ranger said softly.
Deliberately, so that his movements wouldn't be misinterpreted, Jim reached back with his left hand and pulled his gun from the holster at his waist. He held the piece by the grip for a moment, pointed at the older man and then hooked his finger in the trigger guard and let the barrel drop. The weapon's handle rotated up and toward Jenson. "Of course," Jenson acknowledged, accepting the proffered weapon.
Without taking his eyes off of the older man, Jim reached down and pulled his backup piece from the holster strapped to his right ankle. He rose and handed off that gun too. "Consider this one a gesture of good faith."
Jenson tucked the weapons into the front of his belt. "Thank you, Captain," he replied, the use of Jim's old military rank a verbal salute between them. "Now if you'll remove your jacket and indulge me one more minor precaution, we can move on to the subject at hand."
With an indifferent shrug, Jim slipped out of his coat. In the process he pressed the inside of his left forearm against the phone in his pocket. The click as the connection was cut off was inaudible to anyone except him. He tossed the jacket to one of the men he didn't know and stood waiting.
Harris holstered his gun and stepped forward with a hand-held electronic detector. He walked a quick circuit around the Sentinel, sweeping the unit over the ex-ranger from head to toe.
"No wire, sir, but I am picking up metal," Harris reported.
Randolph's finger tightened on the trigger of his gun, and Smithson, who had come up behind Jim, pulled his as well. Jenson simply smiled and waved the other detectives off. "At ease, gentlemen. I think we'll let Mr. Ellison keep his other toys. As a gesture of our good faith." He met the Sentinel's gaze once more and gestured with a lift of his chin. "We might as well be comfortable while we talk."
Jenson turned and the others parted ranks to let him through. They trailed behind him like a royal honor guard. Jim followed, flanked by Smithson and Gordon. Ellison experienced a flash of deja vu when he saw what Jenson was leading them toward. In the middle of the empty factory floor stood a long table with seating for five. A single straightback chair occupied the space in front of the table. Jenson's idea of 'comfortable' reminded the Sentinel of the set up for a military board of inquiry. He'd sweated out interviews in a similar setting, justifying his actions in front of a panel of high ranking officers and CIA agents several times after he'd returned from Peru.
A subtle power dance took place as the players arranged themselves. Jenson commanded the center position, with Randolph and Allen, the Mayor's aide, taking the seats immediately to his left and right. Smithson slid into the chair on one end and Harris took the other. The two, as of yet unknown men, took up positions behind Jenson. Gordon, who Jim assumed had been demoted to bottom end of the odd little hierarchy, stood nervously near the empty chair.
"I'm assuming you know everyone here, with the possible exception of Mr. Hiller and Mr. Barnes," Jenson said, gesturing sketchily to the men who stood behind him.
Jim's gaze slid over the two as he seated himself in the waiting chair. He'd never seen them before, but he recognized the names. Both were uniformed cops, assigned to the neighborhood where the fires and murders had taken place.
He hid his chilled reaction and met Jenson's speculative gaze. "If you're finished playing host, perhaps we could move on to why I'm here," the Sentinel said brusquely.
"You're here because we have an interest in you," Jenson responded. "My associates and I have embarked on a rather interesting business venture. You'll pardon the military analogy, but like the marines, we're looking for a few good men to fill in some select positions. You certainly have the right qualifications, and we're eager to make you a bona fide offer, however there remain some questions that need to be answered."
"You don't trust me," Ellison said flatly.
"Quite so. You're an enigma, Ellison. A paradox that's both intriguing and unsettling at the same time. You were a loner for years, then you suddenly team up with a wet-behind-the-ears college kid. Your track record as a cop had been good, but it suddenly became impressive. Decorated veteran, top of your class at the academy, lead detective in Major Crimes, Officer of the Year... very clean slate. The Boy Scouts could have drafted you as their poster child."
Jenson's expression had been contemplative, now it turned serious. "Suddenly there's a dark side emerging. For the past several weeks it's as if you were intentionally destroying that 'white knight' reputation. You severed ties with anyone that was close to you, most notably the friendships with your captain and the partner that's been your constant shadow for the last two-plus years. You kicked the kid out of your home and made threats on his life. Your actions and insubordination earned you a disciplinary suspension. A somewhat suspicious turn of events, you must admit."
Jenson spread his hands in entreaty. "Surely you can see why we're somewhat hesitant to welcome you into our ranks without some kind of explanation."
"I already gave my explanation to your partner. I don't make it a habit of repeating myself," Jim answered darkly. His gaze flickered toward Gordon for a moment and he had the satisfaction of seeing the man flinch.
"Ah, yes," Jenson murmured, drawing the Sentinel's attention back to the table and the men seated there. "Expediency."
Jim allowed a small smile. "Exactly. My actions and attitude are dictated by what's necessary for the situation. I learned survival from the best the military had to offer."
"And is that what motivates you now? Survival?" Jenson pressed.
More than you know, asshole, Jim thought grimly. He shrugged and shook his head. "Not entirely. I simply decided that playing the game wasn't worth the effort any more. The way the deck's stacked, the chances of being promoted are pretty slim, and having seen the crap the upper echelon has to deal with, I'm not sure that it would be worth it anyway. Now, if I were in charge of making the rules, or I had some say in how they were executed... then I'd have to rethink my position. For the short term, at least. I have no intention of risking my neck for the unwashed masses forever."
He felt the weight of Jenson's gaze studying him, evaluating his answer. Four other sets of eyes burned with unasked questions, skepticism and more than a little fear.
Finally, without garnering his associate's opinions, Jenson made his own decision. "Good enough. Let me tell you a bit about what we have on our agenda."
The details poured out and the Sentinel absorbed them like a sponge, his expression never changing, even though the rank greed behind the murders and fires threatened to make his stomach revolt. It had begun as a simple discussion between Robert Allen and Jenson. The Mayor's aide had inside information about the city's intent to revitalize various neighborhoods. Several million dollars in Federal grant monies had already been secured. Which of the target areas the city was going to choose remained the only question.
Recognizing that whomever held the titles on the lots within the selected area stood to make a substantial profit when the properties were sold, Jenson and Allen had put together their plan. They chose one of the neighborhoods on the city's list, confident that Allen's position guaranteed they'd have the influence and connections to push their choice to the top.
Allen handled the paper shuffle while Jenson recruited the troops. The first of the purchases were simple transactions, dealing with absentee landlords who accepted the offered sums easily. They ran into a snag when it came to those properties held by the local residents. There weren't many, but they were strategically placed. Without ownership of those lots, their grand scheme was doomed. The protection racket was born out of their need to convince the resident-owners to sell, and to underwrite the cost of the overall venture.
"Unfortunately, we had to resort to extreme measures in order to meet our timetable," Jenson concluded.
"Murder, you mean," Jim said, forcing a casualness into his tone. "And the fires were set to cover the killings while generating what I suspect was another profit center when you collected the insurance money."
"From a man who's sworn to 'Serve and Protect', you don't seem at all disturbed by the facts," Jenson observed.
Jim flashed a grim smile. "Expediency, remember?"
Jenson's return smile never touched his eyes.
"You seem to have things pretty well covered," Jim observed quietly. "Just where do I fit in?"
"And what's in it for you?" Jenson almost smirked. "As my partner explained, we'd like you to return to Major Crimes. Make peace with your captain and co-workers to whatever extent is necessary so that you're reassigned to the case. As the lead detective, you'll be in a position to keep us apprised of any complications. There should be none. We've been careful so far. I promise you that we have no intention of getting sloppy now. You control the investigation and you'll be well rewarded."
"I can play the role again, with the proper motivation, but I want more than just money," Jim countered.
"Power is more attractive, isn't it?" Jenson replied. "I can assure you that this venture is only the beginning. We plan to negotiate with additional associates like Mr. Allenpeople in positions of influence who can open other doors for us. We'll be able to take whatever we want."
"Assuming that you're satisfied with the results of this interview, what's the entry fee into this little club of yours?" Jim prodded. He had enough information. It was time to finish this and get the hell out, preferably in one living breathing piece if he could manage it. He'd heard no sounds from the outside of the building to suggest that any backup had arrived. Either they hadn't been able to trace the call or they'd come up empty on the search for this particular property. He knew Blair would have done his best, but if this building was owned by Allen or one of the others that they hadn't already identified, the odds that the younger man would pick it out were slim to none.
"Just a simple initiation ceremony."
Jim locked gazes with Jenson and slowly rose to his feet. "Who do you want me to kill?"
"What if we said, your ex-partner?" Randolph asked, breaking his silence for the first time.
"I'd have to count you all as fools and reject your offer, generous as it appears," Jim answered, letting his deadly blue- eyed stare drift across the assembled men.
Allen's expression was intent. Curious. "Why?"
"Because there's no profit in it," the Sentinel retorted. His harsh expression gave no hint of the rage he felt at the casualness with which these men discussed ending his Guide's life. "There's no percentage. Not for me. Not for you. I have no intention of winding up in a cell charged with murder, and that's exactly what would happen if Sandburg turned up dead right now. My experience and connections won't do you any good if I'm in jail."
"And if we insisted?" Randolph pressed.
A tense silence stretched between them. Just when Jim was certain that Randolph or one of the others would push the matter too far, he caught the sound of a car engine outside of the building. Seconds later, the grating of the garage door being raised ended the standoff.
The Sentinel turned, senses dialed up to maximum. Probing. He'd already picked up the presence of two people within the vehicle. One of the heartbeats was racing. He focused his hearing, afraid of what he would find.
And almost sighed in relief.
It wasn't his Guide.
"You're right, Detective," Jenson murmured. Rising from his chair he stepped around the table and stopped at Jim's side. "Mr. Sandburg can be dealt with later if the need arises. We're ready to welcome you to the unit." He gestured toward the car that had just pulled in.
Jim moved forward to follow Jenson who was already striding toward the car and its occupants. The others followed as well. The Sentinel identified Jeff Rogers before he slid from behind the steering wheel, pulling a struggling, blindfolded and handcuffed figure out of the vehicle with him.
Ellison found himself face to face with the man that his young partner had been so worried about protecting. Andrew Jankowski.
"You're late, Mr. Rogers," Jenson frowned, eyeing the final member of his team with disapproval.
"Yeah, well the old geezer here decided to be uncooperative," Rogers grumbled, grabbing the old man and shoving him forward.
Jankowski stumbled, but regained his balance.
"Why, Mr. Jankowski, what poor manners," Jenson smirked. He reached out and tore off the old man's blindfold.
Jankowski blinked and glared at the circle of men surrounding him. He squared his shoulders and raised his head defiantly. "Courtesy's wasted on animals," he hissed.
"I assume you recognize our guest, even though you haven't had the pleasure of meeting him until now," Jenson said amiably, ignoring the old man's angry retort as he glanced at Jim. "Mr. Jankowski is the gentleman that your partner spoke with a few weeks ago. Sandburg's description of him was very accurate. It made finding him quite simple."
The Sentinel felt the full force of Jankowski's scathing stare and heard the surprised intake of breath.
"The young man... the night of the fire. He was your partner? You're the one that he wanted me to trust?" Jankowski shook his head in disgust. "I should have let him fall and break his neck."
"Caustic to the end, eh, old man?" Jenson taunted, his mouth a savage sneer. "You've been a troublesome complication, Jankowski. Stirring up the locals with your stories of the old days. Trying to convince them not to sell even when we made them generous offers for those dung holes. Spewing your antiquated garbage about civic responsibility. You should have kept your mouth shut."
Jenson backhanded Jankowski and the old man staggered sideways a step. He raised bound hands to his cracked and bleeding lip. Ugly purple-black bruises testified to the rough handling the man had seen, but he still held himself with pride, staring at his enemies in contempt.
"But you didn't," Jenson continued, a smug grin creasing his face. "Now you pay for that mistake and do us a service at the same time."
Jenson snapped his fingers and Hiller moved to Jim's side, holding out a gun. The Sentinel took the weapon, feeling the weight of the deadly metal laying heavy within his soul.
"Mr. Hiller was scheduled to have the privilege, but he's agreed to step aside for our newest recruit. You should feel honored, Jankowski. Ellison's an ex-ranger. Army. Just like you."
The old man's face was a mask of stunned betrayal which shifted quickly to derision. "Be careful who you insult, punk," he snarled, meeting Jim's eyes with a glare of pure fury.
In one smooth move, Jim crossed the distance between them and raised his gun, placing the barrel against Jankowski's temple. "Watch your mouth, old man," the ex-ranger warned softly.
There was no trace of fear in his victim's eyes. Ellison wanted to smile.
No, not smile... salute. Hope I live long enough to be as tough as this man.
The Sentinel cast his senses outward, hoping to find some sign of Simon bringing in the cavalry, but there was nothing. It was up to him.
Holding Jankowski with a frigid, blue-eyed glare, the Sentinel relied on his other senses to feed him the data he needed. Shuffles of leather and rubber soles against the concrete; a harsh chronic smoker's cough; heavy, excited breathing; the scrape of denim; and the thunder of heartbeats, fixed the nine men's positions in his mind. Rogers stood just beyond the old man and Jenson a few feet to Jim's right. The rest stood in a rough semi-circle, waiting with evident impatience for the kill.
Like the carrion-eaters that they are, the Sentinel raged silently. Vulturous birds of prey... damn them. They took an oath.
And so had he. One far more ancient and binding than any that these men could have even dreamed of. The proud old man in his gunsights might have recognized the truth of itthe need to protect; the need to find justice for those who couldn't fight for themselvesbut at the moment he was blinded by his own anger and feelings of betrayal.
"Go ahead. Kill me," Jankowski hissed. "Look right into my eyes and pull the trigger. If you can."
"Oh, I assure you that's going to happen, old man," Jim sneered, never flinching or lowering the gun. Still hoping to run the bluff, he directed his next words to Jenson. "I assume you want him done the same way as the others."
"Yes. One to the back of the head," Jenson answered. "It will reinforce our message to the rest of the holdouts. That gun's clean, by the way. No way to trace it to us, or to you."
The ex-ranger didn't blink an eye although his gut tightened. This sucks, he thought, using his partner's patented expression "Tell me where you want it finished," he requested, hoping to buy a little more time. If this killing ran to pattern, there would be another building set ablaze to cover the murder. The factory wasn't within the target area. He hoped that Jenson would order him to take Jankowski to the selected site. Even if half of the men went as chaperones, the odds that he could overcome them and get both the old man and himself to safety increased dramatically.
"Here. Now," Jenson said quietly.
Jim nodded and tightened his grip on the weapon, his mind racing, his expression giving nothing of his inner turmoil away. The gun felt light and almost like a toy in his hands. His eyes narrowed as suspicion bloomed. Was the gun actually loaded? He dialed up his sense of smell.
Gun oil... it's been cleaned very recently... just a trace of gunpowder... no reek of metal casings... damn... I don't think there's any ammunition in the clip... a bluff... another test... Jenson's not sure of me so going to let me hang myself... I pull the trigger and I'm in... if I don't shoot they gun both of us down... loaded or not... How sure are you, Ellison? Willing to risk a man's life on these senses of yours? Blair would say go for it, but he's the one with absolute faith in your abilities. You're the one with the doubts...
Jim took a deep breath and made his decision. When in doubt, follow the wisdom of your Guide, Sentinel, he told himself.
Unfortunately Jankowski chose that moment to take matters into his own hands. The old man jerked away from the gun, lowered his head, and barreled into Jim. One bony shoulder struck Ellison mid-chest, throwing the detective off balance. At the same time Jankowski jerked his head upward, the top of his skull connecting with the underside of Jim's jaw. The impact drove the Sentinel's teeth together with an audible click and snapped his head back.
Silently cursing the old man's timing, Jim immediately changed tactics, shifting from attacked to attacker. Clutching Jankowski, the Sentinel used their combined momentum and weight to carry them several steps backward. As the two men tumbled toward the floor, Jim swept outward with one leg, knocking the feet out from under the two men standing closest to them. Gordon and Hiller wavered and toppled like errant bowling pins, carrying Allen to the floor in a jumble of thrashing arms and legs as well.
The ex-ranger hit the floor and rolled away from Jankowski, pushing the old man flat against the concrete and rising fluidly to his feet in one blurred motion. He homed in on the next closest targetRandolph. Jim raised the weapon he still held and pressed the trigger. There was a click, not the reassuring sound of a bullet leaving the chamber. The gun was uselessempty as he'd suspected.
Nonetheless, it was still a weapon and significantly harder than his fist. Ellison stepped toward the advancing man. He swung the gun in a punishing arc, connecting with Randolph's jaw. The force of the blow sent the other detective reeling.
The Sentinel's mind registered four enemies down as he pulled a knife free from its hiding place in his left boot. He feinted right toward Smithson, then lunged to the left to take down Jenson. He grabbed the vice-cop's jacket and spun both of them toward the concrete. Jenson rolled with the movement and even as they fell he jabbed upward, striking Ellison's right elbow with an expert blow that jarred the knife from Jim's suddenly nerveless fingers. The Sentinel grunted as the air whooshed out of his lungs and he ended up on the unyielding floor with Jenson's weight pinning him down.
His head snapped to the right as Jenson's fist connected with his jaw. Jim fought off the blackness, trying to free himself. The air was filled with the sounds of scuffling feet; grunts as flesh struck flesh, moans of pain; the metallic slide of a weapon being primed; and his Guide's voice ringing in his head "Stay out of your own way, man!"
Instinct and training took over, launching the Sentinel into action again as he fought back. He wrenched his arms free of Jenson's hold and struck out with his fists, pummeling short blows into his adversary's ribs. The resulting grunts of pain energized him and he arched his back, driving one knee upward at the same time.
Jenson collapsed to the side, doubled over and gasping. Jim rolled in the opposite direction, snagging one of his guns from the other man's waist. He lurched to his feet and took two running steps toward Jankowski. The old man was crouched on the floor next to Barnes, who he had somehow managed to take out. The Sentinel heard the cocking of two more guns and whirled around, resolutely placing himself between Jankowski and death, his own weapon rising.
The explosion as someone fired, blasted the Sentinel's hearing. He was reeling in anguish before the burning pain registered midway between the center of his chest and his right shoulder. Ellison fell backwards, crashing into Jankowski and knocking the older man aside. Dazed and half blinded by the sweat pouring into his eyes, Jim struggled to get up, swinging his head groggily toward where he thought his attackers would be. He caught a blurred glimpse of jeans-clad legs just before something hard struck him along the left side of the head. A regretful apology to his Guide and the old man that he'd failed to save flashed through his mind before a lightning bolt of red- hot agony seared his sight and darkness took him.
Seething with fury, Jenson glared down at Ellison's motionless body. "You're good, Ellison. I almost bought the act. Almost." He shifted his gaze to Jankowski who stood unresisting in Rogers' grasp, a stunned look of horror on his face. "You blew it old man. Army was on your side all along."
Gordon stumbled up, glanced at the blood pooling under Jim and grabbed his partner's arm in panic. "Jesus, Phil... What are we going to do now?"
"We're going to finish off tonight's work as scheduled," Jenson answered, shirking off Gordon's grip and shooting a disgusted glance at his partner. "We'll take them to the site and finish things off there. Ellison will just be another unexplained body. It'll look like he was investigating the fires and got careless."
"He knew about us," Allen said quietly, joining them at last.
"It would appear so," Jenson said darkly. "Somewhere along the line someone's made a mistake." He turned his glare on the assembled men. "That won't happen again," he declared.
"If Ellison was on to us, then we've got some damage control to do besides tonight's cleanup," Randolph murmured.
Jenson nodded. "Starting with Sandburg. That punk's got to be in on thisthat's why Ellison got him out of the picture. We'll finish this and then find him, wherever he's gone to ground. He'll tell us who else was involved and how much evidence they've got." Jenson gestured toward Jim. "Strip him of anything that looks like a weapon and then load him up with the old man. Be thorough. He's probably carrying enough gear to take out a small army. Move it gentlemen. I want to be clear of this location within ten minutes."
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side.
Blair's universe was shrinking.
Two hours earlier, it had included every mile of the city of Cascade. Simon's call had sent him into a flurry of frantic activity. He'd scrutinized every insurance record that he had in his possession, desperate to figure out where Gordonassuming he'd handled the pickupmight have taken his partner.
The world had been reduced to the geometric proportions of six square blocks thirty minutes later, when Joel had contacted him to let him know that Rafe and Brown had managed to trace Jim's cell phone to a manufacturing district in the older part of town.
It had shrunk to 23,000 feet of deserted factory space five minutes after that. Taggert had called again. Simon was confident that they had a fix on the exact location and he was moving into position.
The news that the signal was no longer active had constricted the viable space around the anxious young man to a seven foot by two foot section of threadbare carpeting in a seedy motel room.
Blair had paced, hard-pressed to control his rising fear and to ignore the printouts which lay strewn across every flat surface of the room, taunting him with his failure. Thirty minutes of examining the weave of the rug and the tips of his sneakers, he'd punched in the speed dial to reach Joel. Talking to Taggert had been far from reassuring. He hadn't heard from the backup team either. The 'no news is good news' adage hadn't been the least bit comforting.
Fourteen square feet had became eight as his stride had grown shorter and his nerves more frazzled. Eight had become four, finally reduced to the footprint that his battered Nike's occupied as he ground to a halt. Shaking so hard that he was unable to take another step, his mind obsessed on the passage of time. Too much time. And no reassuring phone call.
Stress-induced fatigue had dropped him to where he sat, a forlorn, cross-legged figure on a lumpy bed. Mind and body burning with the certainty that his Sentinel was in grave danger, he was vaguely surprised that he himself hadn't already ceased to existextinguished, like the rest of his world, in a puff of smoke.
After all, what good is a Guide or a Shaman with no Sentinel to lead and counsel? What good is an observer without a detective to traipse around after? What good is it to be alive when your best friend was...
Blair's bloodshot eyes swung to the door. He wanted to break down that barrier and reclaim his world again. To scour the depths of the city on his own. To run, screaming into the night and somehow find a way to his partner's side.
But his own words bound him. His promise to Joel to 'stay put' he would have broken in a flash. His oath to his Sentinel was another matter entirelyone formed by honor, trust and faith.
He shot off the bed as heavy pounding rattled the front door and the sound of Simon's voice urgently calling his name thundered through the cracks in the walls. Blair fumbled the safety chain in his frantic efforts. Banks shoved one shoulder against the flimsy panel and the scream of tortured metal and stripped screws sent the younger man stumbling back several steps to avoid the door as it crashed inward.
"Grab your things, Sandburg, we're getting you out of here," Simon ordered tersely.
"Where's Jim?" Blair was surprised at the steadiness of his own voice.
"We don't know."
The regret and concern that tinged the captain's brusque answer and the grim expression on his face made Blair's heart twist, but he struggled to retain his composure. He turned back to the bed and began stuffing items into his backpack. "You located the factory?" he asked softly.
Simon nodded. "Yes, but by the time we'd determined that it was safe to go in, the place was deserted."
Puzzled, Blair glanced up and met Simon's gaze. "If there was no one there, then how do you know..." His voice died and he swallowed. Hard. "What did you find, Simon?" he whispered, already dreading the answer.
"There were partial tire tracks on the floor not too far from the main garage door. At least two vehicles had been inside. Looked like one of the vehicles was leaking oil. It could have been the car Jim's contact was drivingthe thing sounded like it was on its last legs. There was a fair coating of dirt and dust. Enough to find evidence of shoe and boot prints. Jim's boots leave a pretty distinctive pattern."
Simon drew in a deep breath and Blair felt his stomach lurch.
"There were signs of what was probably a fight involving several men. There was also an area of the floor near where we found the oil that had been scrubbed clean. I didn't want to bring in forensics yet, but I can only think of one reason for that much effort."
Blair felt the blood drain from his face and he leaned against the side of the bed for support.
"We also found this."
Simon handed Blair a three inch wide coil of narrow-gauge wire. The anthropologist let the strand spiral out to its full twenty inch length and stared at it in confusion. "I don't..."
"That's a garrote. High tensile steel," Banks explained. "It's the kind of thing Jim would have learned to use in the rangers. Easy to conceal. It'd be a logical backup weapon, especially if you thought you were going to be searched."
It was Blair's turn to nod. He gathered the wire back into a tight coil and slipped it into his pocket. Given Jenson's military background, the garrote could have been his, or one of his men's, but the worried Guide's instincts told him that Simon was correct in assuming it was Jim's. The ex-ranger would have planned for any contingency, including the possibilityno, certaintythat Banks had just mentioned.
Simon didn't spell it out... of course he doesn't have to... Things went to hell and Jim's either dead or badly wounded. Let's hope for the latter. Let's not even contemplate why they cleaned that space on the floor, or how much blood that meant...
The anthropologist swallowed against the bile that had risen in his throat and reached for his headset and CDs, mechanically stuffing them into his bag.
"Guess that explains why you practically broke down the door," he murmured as he slipped the backpack on his shoulder and looked up to meet Simon's gaze once more, struggling to project more confidence than he felt. "Okay. I'm ready. What's the plan?"
"Joel's dug in at a motel just a block away. He'll run surveillance on this place. If Jenson or one of his men comes looking for you, we'll gather them in."
Blair breathed a small sigh of relief. "Great. That leaves us free to look for Jim." He immediately started gathering up the insurance records. "We'd better take these with us," he muttered as he darted about the small room to retrieve the precious sheets. "I should know them by heart, all the addresses, I mean..."
"... but I don't want to take the chance I forgot something, or transposed a number, you know? Now's not the time to waste time, right?"
"... I figure we'll start with the process of elimination thing," Blair rambled on, not even registering Simon's attempts to break into his overdrive monologue. "We'll check out the properties we know they hold the deeds and insurance coverage on. If we don't find any sign of them, then we'll just cruise the streets. I mean, how hard can it be to find a small army of crooked cops and one Sentinel in less than ten city blocks?"
Blair's voice cracked as a wave of despair tightened his throat. Shaking his head he reached toward another pile of papers stacked on the chair near the door, only to find his path blocked and his wrist pinned in a firm, dark grip. Stunned and surprised he looked up and met Simon's determined glare.
"You're not going anywhere near that neighborhood, Sandburg," Banks decreed.
Blair pulled angrily out of Simon's hold. "The hell I'm not."
"Don't 'Sandburg' me, Simon," Blair retorted heatedly. "I've done everything you and Jim wanted throughout this whole damn case. I am NOT sitting on the sidelines any longer. My partner's out there, and if he's not already dead, he's sure to be a corpse before the night is over. We have to find him. I have to find him. A Guide's duty is to protect his Sentinel. I let all of you sidetrack me from that obligation up until now, but no longer."
"You go out there and you'll be a dead man the second Jenson gets his hands on you," Simon thundered. "Right now you're the only witness who can testify to everything that you and Jim discovered. I can't allow you to jeopardize the case, or your own safety."
"I don't care about the case, Simon! All I care about is getting Jim out of this mess alive! I can't believe you don't feel the same way!"
Banks grabbed Blair by both arms and gave him a hard shake. "I do feel the same way! But I'm also a cop and protecting you as the prime witness to a major crime is MY duty." Simon's harsh expression softened and his grip loosened slightly. "Besides, you're not the only one that made Jim a promise."
Blair flinched at the reminder. He had promised to keep himself safe, but that was before Jim's life was at stake. Surely the Sentinel would forgive him this breach of trustand if he didn't? What was his soul worth if one half of it was gone?
"I'm prepared to live with the consequences of breaking that vow, Simon," he whispered, holding his head high.
"Well, I'm not," Banks countered, releasing the younger man. "I gave Jim my word that I'd personally take charge of your safety. If anything went wrong, I agreed to keep you out of the action. That's exactly what I intend to do. You're going to get in that car outside and I'm going to take you back to my place. You're going to do exactly what I tell you and if I so much as get a hint that you're thinking about sneaking off to go running around on your own, I'll handcuff you to the pipes under the bathroom sink."
The older man's face was set in stone. He looked just like Jim did when he pulled his 'I'm the boss' routine. It was an expression that Blair was all too familiar with, and one that he usually had to back down fromat least temporarily. But this time the stakes were too high to give way without a fight.
"Damn it, Simon. Don't do this! Jim's depending on me. On us! We're the only chance he has!" Blair pleaded.
"I'll make you a deal, Sandburg," Simon growled. "You tell me where he is, and we'll go get him. Can you do that? Can you use this bizarre connection that the two of you have as Sentinel and Guide to tell me precisely where he is?"
Blair inhaled sharply. Banks had hit a nerve. A raw one. You don't know how badly I wish I could do just that Simon, he thought bitterly, closing his eyes against the tears of frustration that threatened.
Tongues of flame flickered against the inside of his eyelids and he shuddered. Maybe there was a way. When he opened his eyes again, they blazed with an inner fire of their own and he barely heard Simon's stammered apology.
"Blair, I'm sorry... I shouldn't have said that... We'll do our best to find him. Rafe and Brown are out looking. They'll call us as soon as they find anything."
"You just made me a promise, Simon. And I'm going to hold you to it," Blair said firmly. "Let's get going. I've got some work to do."
He strode out the door to the waiting car, ignoring the captain's suspicious stare.
Blair didn't utter a sound during the drive to Simon's apartment. He looked out the passenger window, his vision focused not on the wet streets, but inward. Simon's words played over and over again in his mind.
//"You tell me where he is, and we'll go get him... Can you do that?... Can you use this bizarre connection that the two of you have as Sentinel and Guide to tell me precisely where he is?"//
I could do it... Not as Jim's Guide, but as his Shaman... if I have the courage...
Blair forced himself to take a deep breath and released it slowly. He focused on the sensation of the air moving out of his lungs, willing the individual molecules of vapor to carry away the fear and tension that gripped his body and mind. To act as the Sentinel's Shaman would mean facing the firewall, something he'd been unable to do. There was a connection between the vision and his partner. It had been a premonition of dangerof death for his Sentinel. He was sure of it. All he had to do was figure out what it meant and how to alter the outcome.
He remained silent as Simon opened the door to his apartment and ushered Blair inside.
"Why don't you try to get some rest, Sandburg," Banks suggested, gesturing toward the bedroom that Daryl used on the weekends that he visited. "I'll make a few calls and see what progress Rafe and Brown have made."
Blair wanted to scream that rest was the last thing on his mind at that moment, but he didn't have the energy to waste on another verbal confrontation. Gripping the strap on his pack, he nodded his assent and crossed to the room that Simon had indicated. He stepped inside and closed the door. Leaning back against it, he absorbed the strength of the hard, smooth surface and inhaled the enclosed darkness, trying to settle his nerves even further.
A flip of the switch just inside the doorway bathed the modest space in a warm soft glow. The queen sized bed looked inviting, but he had no intention of giving in to the need for sleep. He pulled the backpack from his shoulder and crossed over to the bed. Upending the bag, he poured out its contents. With trembling fingers, he sorted through the mess, selecting specific items that he tossed into a second pile. The balance he stuffed back into the pack.
He stretched, rolling his head in clockwise, then counter- clockwise circles to loosen the tension in his neck and shoulders. Blair took several more deep, cleansing breaths and then seated himself in a full lotus on the center of the bed.
Out of the pile he drew his CD player and the drumming disk. He inserted the CD and fiddled with the controls. Queuing up the track he'd played the night before, he donned the headset. He reached for the remaining itemthe notebook in which he'd catalogued his thoughts and impressions of the vision. He didn't need to open it to see the words that he'd scribbled on those pages. They burned in his mind like bright beacons. He could follow them to the answers he needed, if he could overcome his own fears.
But can I?... I failed before... I couldn't face that wall of fire... I panicked every time I got close...
An image of his Sentinel, blood pooling slowly around him, filled his mind. He angrily pushed his doubts away and began the breathing exercises that would lead him into the beginning stages of a meditative trance. Impatient, he turned on the player long before he was in the proper mindset. His body jerked at each beat of the drums. Their echoes pulsed in discordant patterns of sound and energy. He tried to mentally wade through the barrier of sound, but it twisted and enveloped him.
Sound became flames that leaped to life, searing his outstretched hands as he attempted to force his way forward. He tried to see beyond the fire, but it was as if it filled the universe. A strangled cry was choked from him and he fell back...
Smothered by defeat, he came out of the trance, shaking with anger. He ripped off the headset and threw the notebook across the room. He clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned forward, rocking out the extremes of his emotions.
Why can't I do this? What's wrong with me? he agonized.
Abruptly, the sound of Taggert's voice filled his head. //"You're not acting like yourself, Sandburg."//
Blair's eyes widened and he froze in mid-rock.
The memory of sitting in his office, pondering the same thought that Joel's words evoked, surfacedas did the recollection of staring at himself in a mirror and seeing a stranger's face looking back.
Held motionless by an elemental truth, he felt the world tilt dizzily on its axis again, as it fought to right itself.
My God... Could it be that simple?
By pure force of will he brought himself under control. He dropped his hands to his knees, turning them palm up, feeling the coarseness of his denim jeans and the warmth of his own body heat against his skin. He raised his head and straightened his back, rolling his shoulders so that he sat erect once again. Closing his eyes he breathed deeply and turned his sight inward, using the drumming of his own heartbeat to guide him.
Calm... find your center... yours... not that of the man that you've created over the past few weeks... but yours... that which is truly Blair Sandburg's... that which is the Guide's... the truth that the Shaman requires... find the balance that you've lost... shatter the illusion... you know who you are...
"I am friend and partner. I am Guide and Shaman to the Sentinel," Blair whispered aloud.
The firewall filled his mind like a roaring inferno. This time he didn't flinch from it, nor did he try to force his way through. He held back, studying the flames. They hissed and danced like a living entity.
"I know what you are," Blair whispered. "In my ignorance and fear I mistook you for death, ignoring the truth that fire also cleanses and renews, like a prairie fire bringing life out of the blackened debris of destruction. I forgot that, just as I forgot who I was. Jim warned me, but I didn't listen. I let the illusion gain substance until it was reality. I let myself believe that the physical separation between myself and my Sentinel had severed the ties that bind us. I allowed myself to listen to the pretense of the angry words between us and let them drown out the voice of my heart. I betrayed the Shaman's need to seek truth and cloaked my soul in lies."
In his mind, he took a step closer to the firewall, feeling the heat beat against him, hearing the crackle of the waiting flames.
"But no more. I know who I am again. And I know my duty as his Shaman. I need to understand your purpose, your truth. Not for myself, but for my Sentinel. I broached you once for a brief instant when I saw the light of your fire in his eyes. I reached through you and touched himhe was strong and solid on the other side just as always. In that split second I put aside my own fears and acted from my heart, with his safety my only concern. Destroy what you will of me, but his life waits on the far side of your existence and I will do whatever it takes to save it."
With a roar, the flames surged forward, engulfing him. This time, instead of pulling back, or trying to fight it, he nurtured the fire, feeding it his memories, his desires, his dreams, his need. He fought to hold onto the image of his Sentinel that he'd built in his mind, drawing on the connection that they shared to hold his own.
Unbidden, the red tongues of fire became bloodhis Sentinel's- -and his concentration wavered. Pain such as he'd never imagined burned across his skin and a deafening wind stoked the flames even higher.
He screamed his defiance into its fury and filled his mind with the memory of clear blue eyesthe color of the morning sky reflected in a cool pool of water fed by a mountain stream.
The strength that lay behind those eyes extinguished the pain. Blair stepped forward, becoming one with the fire as he shed the charred remnants of the persona he'd assumed. No longer a stranger to its consciousness, the Shaman moved through the red-orange sea like a living flame himself...
And stepped beyond it into another memory.
In yon smoke concealed
"Come on, Simon. Can't this tank go any faster? We've got to get there!"
Banks let the squeal of rubber tires on wet pavement answer for him as he tapped the brakes and spun the wheel to the left, guiding his special edition Taurus around another corner. He spared a glance for the 'backseat driver' in the passenger seat next to him before turning his attention back to the slick streets.
The darkly subdued and brooding young man of the past two weeks was gone, replaced by the barely contained bundle of white energy that had always typified the anthropologist in his mostat least to Simon's way of thinkingaggravating and headstrong mode. Banks welcomed the change, surprised at how much he'd missed the 'real' Sandburg.
"Just keep your seatbelt on and your hand off the door release, Sandburg," Simon growled, in earnest disgust. "I don't know how I let you talk me into this in the first place."
"Because you're a man of honor, Simon. You issued a challenge and I met it," Blair replied softly.
There was no hint of smugness in his tone, and none on his expressive face when Simon risked another look. Worry, exhaustion that the nervous energy held at bay, and a trace of fear, yes, but those faint clues were all but wiped out by the light of determination shining in the grad student's eyes.
It was the same adamant expression that had filled them when Sandburg had burst out of the guest room ten minutes earlier. His abrupt and emphatic entrance had practically given Simon a heart attack. The frantic explanation for his actions had almost had Banks reaching for the phone to call an ambulance. He'd thought for sure that the kid had gone off the deep end, spouting a rapid stream of nonsense about firewalls and premonitions.
I was sure the stress had gotten to him and he'd just folded. That he needed to be sedated. But one long look into those eyes...
Simon shook his head and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
Admit it Banks, he got to you the same way he always gets to Ellison. You stonewalled him so he pulled an end-and-around like a pro running back. Now you're scrambling to keep up. I don't get it... How could Blair know where Jim is? Some sixth sense or just some new Sentinel/Guide weirdness?
Simon saw the light ahead turn red and gunned the engine. The car streaked through the intersection to the accompaniment of honking horns and at least one shouted obscenity from a cab driver whose taxi they nearly clipped in passing.
Damn, this is nuts... driving pell-mell across town... It's madness, chasing after a vision... But the kid looked so certain when he claimed to know where Jim was being held... How could I not check it out?
"Don't you think we should call Rafe and Brown, Simon?" Blair asked, interrupting Banks' mental grumblings. "And anyone else you think we can trust? We're going to need backup. An ambulance too, for Jim."
"I'm not pulling them off their own search until I'm sure this isn't some wild trip into the Sandburg Zone," Simon answered grimly.
A small, firm hand wrapped around his right forearm and he glanced sideways to find Blair staring at him, dark eyes pleading.
"I know you don't understand this, Simon. I'm not sure I do either, to tell the truth," the grad student admitted, his voice tight with strain. "Call it a hunch or instinct, or whatever you're comfortable with. Just trust me. We need to go back to the site of the sixth fire. That's where this all started. That's when the vision of the firewall first appeared. I just didn't understand the significance until now. Until I faced it. When I walked through the flames, I came out standing right where I was when I met Jankowski. The building where they've taken Jimit's the one across the street from the apartments they torched that night."
Blair squeezed Simon's arm once and then let go, turning his gaze back to the darkened night. "Jim will be there. So will Jenson and his men... if we're not already too late."
The last came out as a cracked whisper and Simon frowned. If they didn't find Jim in time, the kid was going to crash and crash hard. He didn't relish the idea of being the one left behind to pick up the piecesespecially when half of them were missing.
He pressed down a little harder on the accelerator. Only a few more miles to go.
Blair ground his teeth, but kept his frustrated comments to himself when Simon slowed the car to a crawl before they'd reached their destination. He chided himself for his impatience. The captain was being justifiably cautious. They couldn't just blow in there and demand that Jenson and his men release Jim and give themselves up.
Although it would be nice if they would, Blair mused wistfully. He sent a silent round of encouraging thoughts in the direction of his Sentinel. Just hang on a little longer, Jim. We'll get you out of there.
"I don't know about this, Sandburg. Outside of a few wrecks that look like they've been rusting at the curb since the beginning of the decade, the street's deserted. Not a soul in sight," Simon observed as he peered through the rain- splattered windshield. "Which building did you say it was?"
Blair wiped away the condensation that had formed on his own window. The rain had started againa fine misting drizzle combined with a clinging ground-fog that had reduced their visibility drastically.
"Third from the corner." Blair pointed toward a large, four- story brick apartment building on his side of the street.
"It is. The guy that owned the property before Jenson got his hands on it had already started to gut the place. Apparently he ran out of money half-way into the renovations. It's a shame that he couldn't hold onto the property. Each floor of that building could have easily housed a dozen families."
Blair studied the structure as Simon inched the car forward.
"It's one of the few buildings that Jim and I didn't check out from top to bottom, but I'd guess the layout's pretty similar to the place that burned down across the street. One entrance at the front, another at the rear that leads out onto the alley. Some of the owners added an emergency exit to bring things up to code, but I don't know about this one. Which way do we go in?"
"We don't. Not yet."
Banks shot Blair a withering glare. "We do this my way, or not at all. Is that clear?"
"Okay, okay!" Blair responded, waving his hands in surrender. "Anything you say as long as we keep things moving."
"Oh, we'll move, all right. I'm going to drive by and take a look. You get your head down and keep it down. The last thing we need is to have one of Jenson's goons get a good look at you."
"I'll crawl under the car and hang from the front axle, if it'll get us to Jim," Blair muttered. He grabbed the release for the seat and slid it back as far as it would go, then crouched down sideways under the dash, facing the older man.
Simon eased the car forward, maintaining a slow, but steady speed as he cruised past the building that Blair had targeted.
"Still nothing," Banks reported. "Stay put, I'm going to swing around the corner and take a look down the alley."
Blair nodded, his eyes glued to the dark captain. He leaned into the seat, shifting his balance to match the motion of the car. He saw Simon take a quick glance out the window at his back and stiffened at the anger that filled the older man's face.
"Damn... there are at least four vehicles parked behind the building," Banks hissed. "Keep down. I'm going to circle the block and find a place to park us out front."
Blair felt every hole in the pavement as a separate and distinct jolt through his spine as Simon sped up the back side of the block. Banks cranked the car to the right, then right again. He had his cell phone out before he braked to a full stop.
"Rafe, I need you and Brown with whatever backup from the department you can muster at 1722 Almond Street... yeah, we think Jim's inside with Jenson and who knows what army... No, I'm not waiting for a warrant... as far as I'm concerned we've got probable cause..."
While Banks barked orders into the phone, Blair crawled up onto the seat. "Don't forget the ambulance, Simon," he reminded the older man. Banks nodded and added that requirement to the list he was reeling off.
Blair rolled down his window, trying to get a better look at the building, but his view was obscured by the rain and the windswept fog. The snick of a seat belt being released brought his attention back to Simon.
"Backup will be here in a few minutes," Banks said tersely. "You stay in the car and wait for them. I thought I saw a flash of light in the alley when we drove by... could have been someone with a cigarette. I'm going to check it out."
"It could be Gordon," Blair offered. "He's a chain smoker. Never saw him without a butt dangling from his fingers."
Simon nodded and opened the driver's door, easing silently out of the car, his gun already out of its holster. Banks paused and glared in at Blair before closing the door. "I mean it, Sandburg. Stay put. If Jim is in there, he's not alone."
Blair didn't argue, but he didn't do anything that might be interpreted as agreement, either. He watched as Simon headed down the street, using the parked cars as cover. Once Banks was out of sight, Blair slipped out of the car and followed the same path until he was just a few feet from the front entrance. He let his gaze drift upward, scanning the windowssome broken, some surprisingly still intactfor any sign of life or light.
I know you're in there, Jim, but where?
He found nothing on the first floor, nor the second. But his breath caught when he saw what he was sure was a flicker in one of the third-story windows.
Not a light, but a flame!
Propelled by the fear that they'd arrived too late, Blair shot toward the entrance. Flinging open the front door, he stumbled into the darkness.
Stairs... gotta find the stairs...
He almost gasped out loud when his groping fingers touched the smooth metal of a firedoor. Fumbling for the knob, he wrenched the door open and took several shuffling steps forward. When the toe of his shoe hit the base of a step, he reached out and grabbed the railing. Guided by instinct and the smooth metal under his fingertips, he headed upward, searching for his Sentinel.
Blair scrambled up the dark stairs as silently as he could. He was relieved that he hadn't smelled smoke yet, although he was sure that it had been flames that he'd seen in the open windows.
Maybe you just have fire on the brain... Don't start questioning a good run of luck when you find it, Sandburg, he admonished himself. No smoke and no flames means that Jim might still be alive.
Buoyed by that hope, he charged upward. He'd just passed the second floor landing when he heard the sound of a door slam shut somewhere above him. Blair froze, one sneakered foot hanging in midair, his heart pounding painfully in his chest. The thud of heavy footsteps headed his way broke him out of his fear-imposed stasis. He whirled and fled back down the steps.
He opened the firedoor to the second floor and slipped out of the stairwell. He left the door slightly ajar and plastered himself to the inside wall. Holding his breath, he peered out through the slim vertical crack, straining for some glimpse of whoever was coming down the stairs. A faint circle of light bounced from step to step, and within seconds, a figure rounded the landing and continued down toward the front entrance. There wasn't enough light from the flashlight the man carried for Blair to recognize him.
Blair exhaled slowly through his mouth, swallowing hard against a new surge of fear. The close call had reminded him that just finding Jim wasn't going to be the end of this. If his Sentinel was badly injured, it would be his responsibility as Guide to figure out a way to get both of them past an unknown number of undoubtedly well-armed cops who would like nothing better than to see them both dead.
Opening the firedoor, Blair poked his head out into the stairwell. He could hear the faint rumblings of voices up above, but he couldn't make out what they were saying.
I could really use your enhanced hearing right about now, Jim. He retreated to the relative safety behind the closed door. Okay, time for a plan... At least one guy down at the front exit and who knows how many right over my head. Maybe the safest route is the back stairs. Hopefully that's the end of the building where they're keeping Jim. Once I find him, we could head down the rear stairwell. Simon's got to have corralled whoever was out in the alley by now...
With that decision made, Blair turned and surveyed his surroundings. Two safety lights pulsed in fitful bursts along both long walls. Their intermittent glows cast a weird strobe effect across the interior. Most of the internal walls that had formed the original rooms and apartments had been demolished. The structural beams loomed like black telephone poles strung in a bizarre zig-zag pattern across the depth of the space. The abandoned remodeling blitz had left huge piles of splintered wood, jagged shards of drywall and mounds of plaster scattered like miniature chains of rugged mountains in its wake.
Blair moved cautiously forward, sliding his feet along the rubble strewn flooring. The last thing he wanted to do was run into something and announce his presence. However, when he did slam his toes into a hard, unyielding object, it came as no surprise. He clamped his mouth shut and swallowed a grunt of pain. Kneeling down, he examined his inanimate assailant.
To his delight, he found a well-equipped tool box. He quickly rummaged through the contents, stuffing two screwdrivers, a good sized hammer and a handful of nuts and bolts into his jacket pockets. He hefted a heavy pipe wrench and laid it quietly on the floor next to his feet. A lopsided grin filled his face as his fingers wrapped around a familiar cylindrical shape. He pulled the small acetylene torch from the box and clutched it to his chest. A few more seconds of digging unearthed a small lighter which he also pocketed before picking up the wrench once more.
Armed with his odd assortment of makeshift weapons, he rose to his feet and headed toward the back end of the building.
Andrew Jankowski pressed the folded length of cloth that had once been Ellison's shirt sleeve against the bullet hole in the detective's shoulder, relieved to see that the flow of blood had lessened. Part of his own shirt was wedged under the unconscious man's back, soaking up the leakage from the exit wound. Shredding their clothing to form the rough bandages had been difficult with his wrists still handcuffed, but he figured it was the least he owed to the man who'd tried to save his life.
"I've done some foolish things in my long life, but I've never been a fool until today," he murmured ruefully, staring down at the prone figure under his hands.
Their captors hadn't been gentle with the injured detective. After stripping him of an impressive array of weapons, they'd cuffed his wrists in front of him and stuffed him into the trunk of one of the vehicles. Jankowski had been forced into the back seat of a second car. He hadn't seen Ellison again until the ex- ranger was dumped on the floor of the room that they now occupied.
The harsh sounds of voices raised in angry argument caused the old man to lift his head and glance toward the doorthe only way in or out of their temporary cell. The roughly 6-by 8- foot space appeared to be new construction; part of the renovations that he'd glimpsed when he'd been hauled upstairs. The small room was largely finished, except for an opening above the cheap wooden door. That area had been framed in, but hadn't been dry-walled yet, which Jankowski took for a providential twist of luck in their favor. If not for that opening, the room would have been pitch black and there would have been no way he would have managed even the rudimentary first aid that he'd applied to the detective's wounds.
Jankowski strained to make out the words of the arguing men, but all he caught were fragments. He smiled grimly. As long as they were fighting amongst themselves, he and the detective still had some time. Not that he contemplated any hope of rescue. He'd eliminated that option when he'd made his preemptive strike against Ellison.
"I should have listened to that young partner of yours," Jankowski mused softly, his gaze still fixed on the faintly lit space above the door. "Although it's still hard to believe that he was hooked up with you. Pretty mismatched pair if you ask me. He must be something special."
Jankowski looked down in surprise at the rough whisper. Against all reason, Ellison was awake. The warm, compassionate blue eyes that strained to remain open were a far cry from the cold, empty orbs that the detective had turned on him at the factory.
Before Ellison could attempt to move, Jankowski pressed down gently against the makeshift bandage. "Take it easy. I've almost got the bleeding stopped. You move around and you'll start it up again."
The detective's reply was an almost imperceptible nod and a soft question. "Are you wounded?" "Just my pride," Jankowski muttered. "You're the one who needs a hospital. I've done what I could, but it isn't much."
"Bullet went clean through. Doesn't look like it did much damage, but you've lost a lot of blood and you're running a bit of a fever. You took a nasty knock to the head, too."
Ellison's eyes fluttered shut for a moment and Jankowski watched him closely, fearing that he'd slipped under again. A worried frown creased the detective's brow and the heavy eyelids raised once more. The old man found himself gripped in a fierce, piercing gaze.
"Sandburg... he's not here, is he?" Ellison's voice was as harsh and demanding as his glare.
"No, I don't think so. The guy in charge said something about sending one of his thugs out after him, but I haven't heard anything to suggest that they found him. Not that I can hear much beyond odd snatches of their bickering."
Jankowski gestured with a lift of his chin toward the opening above the door. Ellison slowly turned his head in that direction, his eyes narrowing and his face assuming an expression of intense concentration.
After ten long seconds, the detective shook his head in disgust. "Can't focus... can't control the dials... need my Guide..."
Jankowski eased up on the pressure he was applying to the wound and placed the back of one hand against Jim's sweaty forehead. He pulled away and repositioned his hands on the bandage, confused. The detective's fever didn't seem to be any worse than it had been a few minutes earlier.
"This guide that you need... what is it?" the old man asked softly, trying to understand what Jim's disjointed rambles meant.
"Not 'what'... who... Sandburg... grounds me... guides... can't do much... without him... not like this..."
"Now I know I've heard everything," Jankowski teased gently. "An ex-ranger admitting that he needs help from a rough around the edges kid? He must be one exceptional young man." A faint smile lifted the corner of Ellison's mouth. "He is... full of surprises... always popping up when you'd least... expect him to..."
"Any chance he's going to materialize out of the woodwork and bring the cavalry?" Jankowski asked, half in jest.
The smile died. "I hope not," Ellison answered grimly.
Jankowski nodded his understanding. It was obvious that the detective cared a great deal for the younger man that he claimed as his partner. It wasn't at all strange for Ellison to wish him far away from this deadly situation.
Jim's gaze seemed stronger as it flickered around the empty room before returning to Jankowski's face. "Where are we? Where's Jenson?"
"Is Jenson the guy in charge?" At the detective's nod, Jankowski motioned toward the door again. "He and his buddies are out there, determining our fate. Sounds like they can't quite agree on the details. As for where we are, I think we're pretty close to where I met your friend the night of the fire. We came in the back door, off an alley. They dragged me up three flights of stairs to this room. I can't be certain about the time, but I figure that it's been close to and hour and a half since you were shot."
"They'll have to... make their move soon..." Ellison observed. "They can't risk... waiting too long..."
"That was pretty much my conclusion, too. Any chance you had backup that might have followed us here?" the old man asked hopefully.
"If they'd found... the factory... they would have been here... by now. I'm afraid we're out of luck... from that quarter. Guess we'll have to... make our own. I had a second knife... in the seam of my left boot..."
Jankowski shook his head. "They took it. Along with the rest of your weapons. The one that Jenson called Randolph did a pretty thorough search."
Ellison's frown returned and he let his head fall back wearily, his eyes closing against the pain and the bad news. "I'm sorry that you got swept into this, Mr. Jankowski," he apologized quietly. "Once the APB was out, there was no way to cancel it without raising suspicions that we didn't want. Blair was worried about your safety. If we don't get out of here, he's going to blame himself for your death. And mine."
The detective opened his eyes and stared up at Jankowski. Once again they were as hard and cold as milled steel and filled with resolve. "I don't want him to carry that guilt around for the rest of his life. At least one of us has to survive this. Both of us, preferably. I'm going to need..."
Ellison's head jerked toward the door and he froze.
Jankowski glanced nervously at the door and then back to the detective. "What? What is it?"
"Someone's out there..."
Blair slumped to his knees and let the pipe wrench slip to the floor from numb fingers. He stared at the man he'd just decked and tried to convince his heart to climb down out of his throat and back into his chest where it belonged. He gave the motionless body a tentative shove with the end of the blowtorch, relieved when it didn't jump to life.
Shit... I didn't intend to play Rambo... Why'd the guy have to be standing right there when I came around the corner? Who is he, anyway?
Still wary, Blair edged closer for a better look.
No one I recognize... not one of the original six... Frowning, he silently addressed the prone figure. Guess I'll just refer to you as Number 8 and the guy out front as Number 7 until we're all properly introduced, which I sincerely hope will happen with you two on one side of a locked jail cell and me on the other. Now, what do I do with you? You're too heavy to lug very far and I haven't got any time to waste...
Blair got to his feet and took a quick look around. The prior owner had made a fair amount of progress with his efforts on the third floor. Blair had found several fully constructed rooms and had threaded his way through the skeletal wooden framing for a dozen more. He hadn't seen any signs of life until he'd come around one side of a dry-walled upright and found himself face to face with Number 8, who'd been as shocked as he was. The anthropologist had struck out with his left arm, intending to try and ward off the hands that had reached for him. He'd forgotten the fifteen pounds of pipe wrench clenched in his fist. The next thing he knew, his attacker was lying flat on the floor.
Crude, but effectiveand that's all that matters at this point, Blair reminded himself. He caught sight of a door about ten feet to his left and nodded. That looks like it might have been intended as a storage closet. Precisely what I need.
He set the blowtorch on the floor and grabbed Number 8's ankles since they were the closest part of the man's anatomy to his chosen hidey-hole. He was puffing by the time he'd lugged the unwieldy body to the door and was grateful that he didn't have to drag the unconscious lump any further. He grabbed the doorknob and gave it a hard twist. It didn't turn. Blair stared at the ugly wooden panel in confusionhe hadn't expected to find it locked.
Confusion turned to irritation. I do NOT have time for this! He pulled one of the screwdrivers from his pocket, placed the tip into the keyhole at the center of the knob and shoved inward. Wincing at the sound the cheap lock core made when it broke and released, he hurriedly shouldered the door open.
Blair turned around to retrieve his unconscious adversary and suddenly found himself grabbed from behind. A pair of strong hands latched onto his jacket and dragged him backward into the room he'd assumed was empty. When he tried to struggle free, something hard struck his ankles. He fell sideways, both feet knocked out from under him. The hammer that he'd stuck in his pocket tumbled free. He snatched it up, rolled to his knees and came up swinging...
... face to face with Andrew Jankowski.
"It would seem you do pop up, and in, unexpectedly, Mr. Sandburg," the old man said dryly.
Blair gaped at him, astonished. It took a few seconds for his brain to send an intelligent signal to his vocal chords and when it did, the result was a choked, high-pitched squeak.
"Given the present circumstances, I think we can forgo the formalities. I'd be honored if you and your partner would call me Andrew."
The Observer's stammered response died in his throat, replaced by an anguished whisper torn from the Guide's soul as he caught sight of the room's other occupant.
Wide-eyed with fear, the Guide scrambled to his downed Sentinel's side. Blair reached out to touch Jimneeding to assure himself that it was his partner lying there and not some illusionand immediately snatched his hand back, hissing in dismay at the sight of the blood soaked bandage.
His gasped whisper was barely audible, yet it elicited an unexpected response.
"You thinking of taking up carpentry... as a new career, Chief?"
Blair's gaze shifted to Jim's face. His partner stared back, pale blue eyes smiling in welcome recognition. For the second time in less than a minute, the younger man found himself speechless.
"Earth to Sandburg... come in, buddy," Jim prodded, his expression changing to one of concern.
Feeling slightly dazed, Blair touched his friend's face, rejoicing in the warmth of the skin under the tips of his trembling fingers.
"You're alive..." he whispered, his voice filled with relief and wonder.
"Still ticking," Jim joked weakly. The worried Guide cringed at the pain he saw imbedded in his Sentinel's eyes, but he was too grateful for the life that emanated from them to register any complaints with the deities that he'd mentally assigned to watch over his partner.
"Yeah, but man... you're a mess," Blair growled. "You see what happens when I let you go off alone?" The tremulous smile that filled his face negated the gruffness of his tone. "And what's that crack about carpentry for?"
The anthropologist followed the direction of Jim's glance and realized that he still held the hammer in his right hand. Blair's smile broadened to one of his trademark grins.
"What? This?" He waved the tool like a conductor brandishing a baton and then dropped it to the floor. "Just something I picked up along the way, like the rest of my skills."
Ignoring Jankowski's presence, Blair dropped into Guide mode. Putting his own fears about the severity of the bullet wound aside, he concentrated solely on his Sentinel, lowering the pitch and volume of his voice to it's most soothing.
"So... tell me how you're doing, Jim. Where are the dials?"
"Pretty far out of whack," the Sentinel admitted softly. "I didn't know it was you out there... until you made your grand entrance."
Blair reached out to take Jim's pulse and paused, frowning, when he saw the handcuffs. He dug out the second screwdriver that he'd acquired earlier.
"How 'bout we try 'em one at a time," his Guide-voice crooned, while he started to work the locks on the restraints. "Start with the pain receptors. We've got to get you on your feet."
Jim closed his eyes, opening them a few moments later when Blair uttered a satisfied grunt and snapped the locks, freeing his partner's hands.
"Nice to know I haven't lost my touch," the anthropologist murmured. He glanced down into the Sentinel's eyes. "Any luck on your end?"
"Down to four and still dropping," Jim answered.
"Good. Take it to two and then concentrate on getting the audio dial under control. I have a feeling we're going to need it."
Jim's expression shifted abruptly from pleased to troubled. "As much as I appreciate the refresher course in sensory control and the picklock service, I want to point out that you're not supposed to be here."
"Then pretend that I'm not," Blair retorted. He tossed the handcuffs aside and motioned for Jankowski to kneel down beside him so that he could work on the old man's restraints. "With any luck, I'll have you out of here before Simon realizes that I'm not still sitting down in the car like a good Observer."
Jim started to try to get up, but Blair flattened him with a glare and a gentle touch. "Just stay put until I'm finished with these, will you?" He waited until he was sure his partner was going to do as he said before returning to the task of opening the locks on Jankowski's cuffs. "Yes, Simon's here. He's taking care of some trash out in the alley. We've also got backup on the way. And an ambulance."
"We're going to need to secure those bandages at least temporarily," Jankowski said quietly, rubbing his sore wrists gingerly.
Blair froze. "Bandages... plural?" He turned to look at Jim, his heart stuck in his throat once more. "Where else are you hurt?" His frantic gaze raked the Sentinel's body, searching for another injury.
"Take it easy, Chief," Jim urged. "One bullet, two holes. Front and back."
Jankowski's steadying hand on his shoulder helped the young Guide hold off the panic that swept over him.
"I'm no expert, but the bullet looks like it went through clean," the old man assured him. "I think he'll be fine once we get him to some medical help."
Blair nodded, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Jim's, nor could he seem to find the strength to move. He couldn't get the image of his partner lying in a rapidly spreading pool of blood out of his mindnot until the Sentinel reached out and took his hand, entwining their fingers together.
"It's going to be all right, Blair. We can do this. Together. Just like always."
"Yeah... sure..." Blair managed a small smile. "Guess I'm going to get that downtime after all. Maybe you can milk this for a couple of weeks, huh?"
Jim nodded. "Sounds like a plan, Chief."
Jankowski squeezed Blair's shoulder and gestured toward the body that lay just outside the door. "Help me haul in this trash, and then I'll give you a hand with your partner."
Leaving his Sentinel's side, even for a few seconds, was the last thing that the frazzled Guide wanted to do, but he recognized the urgency in Jankowski's voice and pushed himself to his feet.
The Sentinel watched his Guide worriedly as the younger man helped Jankowski drag Hiller's body inside the room. Blair's presence had given him the grounding that he needed to bring his senses under at least marginal control and he used them to monitor his partner closely. The anthropologist's face was lined with fatigue and the dark circles under his eyes were a stark contrast to the pale complexion.
Blair's exhausted. How the hell is he staying on his feet? His heart's pounding like it's going to jump out of his chest any minute, if he doesn't drop from a stroke first.
Yet underneath the surface signs of stress there was a strength in the slim form and a sense of purpose in those deep blue eyes that Jim hadn't seen in weeks. It was as if the radiant spirit that the Sentinel had feared was dying had been rekindled.
Or reclaimed. He's himself again. Something happened. He's fought a war and wonscarred, but victorious. What kind of battle was it? He looks worn to the bone, but otherwise physically unharmed. One of the mind and spirit, then? Some inner conflict that only Blair could resolve? Is that the threat that I felt, but didn't understand?
The Sentinel brought his confused thoughts to a halt. Explanations would have to wait. They were all still in very real danger. He was grateful to have his Guide back, but it chilled him to think of what Blair must have gone through to reach him. The young man had faced not only his own inner demons, but those that occupied the physical world as well.
The Sentinel drew upon his own inner strength and fought against the pain and weariness of his injuries. He had a Guide and a witness to protect and he was determined not to rely on whatever blind luck had carried his partner safely through the ranks of nine stone cold killers to get them out of this mess.
"Maybe I can rig something to hold those bandages in place with my jacket," Blair muttered, shirking out of the garment and moving back to Jim's side. He dug a handful of objects out of one pocket, transferring them to the front pocket of his jeans. "Andrew, I'm going to need your help here."
The old man cuffed and gagged Hiller before positioning himself at Jim's right side, across from Blair. He eased one hand under the Sentinel's injured shoulder and steadied the bandage on the exit wound. He glanced up at Blair and signaled his readiness.
"Okay, Jim," Blair murmured, sliding his arm under his partner's good shoulder for support. "We're going to sit you up. Just concentrate on breathing, all right?"
Jim nodded. "Let's do it." He concentrated on holding the pain dial level as the two men lifted, physically doing what he could to assist their efforts. He managed to choke back all but a small grunt as agony surfed through his body at the change of position. Blair wrapped both arms around him for a moment and anchored him against a tide of dizziness.
"You're doing great, big guy." His Guide's tone was filled with encouragement, but the younger man's eyes broadcast fear and regret at having caused his Sentinel additional pain.
"So are you," Jim responded. "The jacket's a good idea... use the sleeves like the ties on a sling..." "Got ya," Blair muttered as he wrapped the garment around his partner as instructed and tied off the sleeves. The hastily rigged support trapped Jim's right arm across his chest, but it held the bandages in place. "This should do it 'til we get out of here. Ready for the full upright position?"
Jim was standing a few seconds later, leaning into the support of his Guide. Blair's arm tightened around his waist. With his arm draped over the younger man's shoulder and his wrist locked in the anthropologist's firm grasp, the Sentinel drew upon the offered strength and adjusted the mental sensory dials once more. He smiled, grimly. His control was back, but the blood loss had drained him, making him dangerously weak. Resolutely pushing that frailty aside, he concentrated on the rough voices of Jenson and his men.
"Sounds like they're winding down their argument," he reported. "Time to go."
"We're closest to the back stairs," Blair murmured as he guided them out of the storeroom. "Hold on just a second." The Sentinel raised one eyebrow curiously as his Guide leaned over and snagged a small acetylene torch from the floor. Blair hefted it in his right hand and shot Jim a grin. "Can't forget my backup weapon."
The Sentinel gave him a terse nod. He had no intention of seeking out a fight. They were seriously under-equipped and out-numbered, which meant flight was definitely the way to go. Jankowski had offered Jim Hiller's gun, but the detective had pressed him to keep it. Even if he was a little rusty, the old man had the training and right now he was steadier on his feetand had both hands free. A welding torch wasn't going to have much impact against the firepower that Jenson and his men had at their disposal, but if it gave Blair some comfort, Jim wasn't about to argue.
With painstaking care Blair guided them through the maze of half-formed walls and piles of lumber toward the rear of the building. It was slow going. His Guide stumbled several times as they picked their way through darkness broken only by the dim illumination of some randomly placed safety lights. The Sentinel clenched his jaw, dialed down the pain another notch and urged them forward.
They rounded a corner and entered a hallway that appeared to be nearly finished. Open doorways gaped on both sides of the corridor. Blair scooted them past the empty rooms that they represented.
His Guide's forward momentum slowed as they approached the far end. "Almost there," he whispered, eyeing the closed firedoor ahead. "You ready for some steps?" The Sentinel nodded and then froze, head cocked to the side.
Blair looked up into Jim's face, anxious, but silent. "What?" he mouthed.
Jim jerked his head in the direction of the firedoor. "Company," he hissed.
Jankowski hovered at Jim's right, and raised his gun, thumbing the safety off in one smooth motion. He glanced at the Sentinel and raised an eyebrow as if asking "How many?"
Jim held up two fingers.
Jankowski motioned for Blair and Jim to move back along the way they'd come. The Sentinel and his Guide ducked into one darkened room and the old man ducked into the other, directly across the corridor.
Jim almost protested as Blair eased him back against the wall to the left of the doorway. The younger man cut him off with a glare and tapped his ear. His Guide gripped the torch at the nozzle end and positioned himself in front of the Sentinel, ready to attack or defend as the situation required.
Cursing silently at the twist of fate that had him playing the role of protectee instead of protector, the Sentinel armed himself with the only weapon he had at hand. He placed one hand on his young partner's shoulder and sent his senses out in pursuit of information. Heavy footsteps... definitely two sets... No trace of Simon's cigars and unless Rafe and Brown have changed aftershave it's not them either... Foes then, not friends... Cloth rubbing against what? Metal?... What's that splashing noise?... check the smell, not the sound, Ellison... damn... gasoline...
Jim tracked their progress and gave Blair's shoulder a slight squeeze when the men reached the third floor landing. The anthropologist nodded and tensed, leaning forward slightly to sign a warning to Jankowski across the way.
There was a loud thump as the metal firedoor was thrust open. The Sentinel's eyes glittered with feral pleasuretheir adversaries weren't concerned about making noise, which would make them easier targets. Under his sensitive fingertips, Jim felt the shudder that rumbled through Blair's body and heard the sharp inhalation as the younger man drew in a deep breath and held it.
Jim gave Blair's shoulder one more squeeze and then eased back out of the younger man's way. His Guide shifted his stance and brought the tank up to his shoulder like a batter waiting for a juicy pitch.
The Sentinel distinctly heard every grumble of the two men. Harris and Rogers weren't happy with the grunt duty they'd been assigned. Jim allowed himself a grim smile as the two walked unsuspectingly into the ambush.
Blair struck first, taking a step forward and lashing out with a major league swing. He caught Harris square in the stomach. The cop let out a choked grunt and dropped to his knees. The metal gas cans he'd been carrying tumbled to the floor with a loud clang. Jankowski nailed Rogers with a hard rap to the back of the head as the man spun to see what had happened to his partner. The anthropologist followed up his first strike with a second back hand blow that downed Harris instantly.
Using the wall for support, Jim eased out into the corridor. Jankowski was already dragging Rogers into the room that he'd occupied. Blair stood straddling the man he'd taken out. He still clutched the torch, but the younger man's breath was surging in and out of his lungs in ragged gasps, his free hand braced against his left leg to keep him upright.
The Sentinel moved to his Guide's side and placed his hand on the younger man's back, rubbing gently as Blair struggled to catch his breath. Jim was just about to congratulate him on his aim when the sound of gunfire ruptured the silence.
Blair jerked upright and whirled around to face the firedoor. More shots rang out, echoing up the stairwell from the alley below as Jankowski moved to join them. Jim gripped Blair's shoulder and glanced in the opposite direction, scanning for any signs of activity out of Jenson's group. The sounds of running feet and shouted curses were obvious even without enhanced senses.
All three men exchanged grim looks. They were in the proverbial space between the hard place and the rock. With enemies blocking their escape route and coming up behind, they were trapped unless they could create a diversion.
Blair shifted into action, motioning for Jankowski to take charge of Jim. "See if you can get down to the second floor. We can cut across to the front exit. I'll try to stall these guys up here."
The old man nodded and grabbed Jim around the waist, but the Sentinel shirked out of his grip and reached for his Guide. "No way, Sandburg. If anyone's staying behind it's me."
Blair met Jim's glare with a determined one of his own. "I'm not staying behind," he explained as he dug furiously in his pockets. "Here." He dropped a generous handful of nuts and bolts into the Sentinel's palm. "Pretend these are marbles... toss 'em down the steps below the second floor landing. That stairwell's dark. Maybe we'll trip them up and buy a little time." He set down the torch and snatched up two of the gasoline cans. Wrenching the caps off, Blair shot his partner a crooked grin. "I'm just going to give these guys a taste of their own medicine."
Jim's eyes glowed with approval for his partner's inventiveness, but he still refused to yield to Jankowski's insistent tugging.
"I'm not leaving you behind, Chief."
His Guide touched him gently on the chest. "Then at least take cover behind the firedoor. Andrew, get this stubborn partner of mine moving, will you?"
"If you don't come flying through that door in sixty seconds, I'm coming after you," Jim vowed, tightening his grip on Blair's arm.
"Start counting, man. I'm shooting for fifteen," Blair retorted.
"I'm serious, Sandburg."
Blair's gaze hardened. "So am I, Jim."
Against his better judgment and all his instincts, the Sentinel released his Guide and let Jankowski lead him toward the stairwell.
Another burst of bullets struck the wall over Simon's head, sending needle-sharp shards of brick flying in all directions. Banks popped up, fired off a round of his own and then ducked down behind the dumpster that he was using for cover.
Where the hell is my backup? he wondered, glancing down the alley toward the street. Another volley of shots turned his attention back to the two men crouched behind the cars at the rear of the building. He fired again, hoping to keep the shooters pinned down until help arrived.
It had taken him longer than he'd hoped to find a position where he could take out the man he'd originally found in the alley. He'd been about to act when the odds had shifted drastically. Three more men had emerged from the back door of the building. In the faint light from the stairwell, he'd recognized Harris, Rogers, Smithson and Gordon. Unwilling to tip his hand, he'd been forced to sit back and watch. Harris and Rogers had dragged several items out of the trunk of one of the vehicles and headed back inside. It didn't take a genius to figure out what happening. Simon had stealthily shifted positions to get a better angle on the two remaining targets.
Unfortunately he'd disturbed a very large rat in the process. The creature scurried out of a toppled trash can and scrambled down the alley. Its abrupt exit sent the rusting container rolling. The sound caused the two men near the cars to turn in Simon's direction. With a muttered curse, Banks had flung himself behind a metal dumpster just in time to avoid the first burst of gunfire.
Now he was not only trapped, but the firefight was sure to bring more of Jenson's men to see what was happening, worsening the situation even further.
All I need is to have Sandburg come running up and this disaster will be complete. I hope for once the kid's got enough sense to stay in the car... ah, who am I kidding? If Jim can't get him to stay put, why would I think I could?
He winced as bullets ricocheted off the metal barrier. He started to lean around the dumpster to fire again and froze as the chatter of more gunfire filled the night. The thick moisture- drenched air made it hard to be certain, but the sounds appeared to be coming from the front of the building. Banks fired again and ducked back, hoping desperately that it was his reinforcements. If not, Sandburg had found fresh trouble.
One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand...
Blair jogged down the corridor, the upended gas cans spilling their toxic contents in glugging torrents at his heels. His rough plan was simple and inspired by the vision that had haunted himcreate a firewall of his own to keep Jenson and his men from pursuing them down the back stairs. At the end of the finished section of hallway he dodged right through a series of half-erected walls and ran another dozen feet before stopping.
... six, one thousand, seven, one thousand...
He set one can on the floor and splashed the contents of the other over the raw pine timbers, soaking them. When there was still an inch or so of liquid remaining, he laid the can on the floor, letting the balance of the contents gurgle out on its own.
... ten... eleven... twelve...
Retracing his steps he crossed the corridor and started to douse that area as well, forming the left side of the 'T' shaped barrier. He regretted being the cause of more destruction, but if the diversion would mean the difference between getting his Sentinel to safety or notwell, it wasn't hard to choose life over crumbling bricks.
... seventeen... eighteen...
He was just about to upend the second can when a bullet whistled by his ear, tearing off splinters of the wood framing to his right.
"... eighteen..." The whispered count died in the Sentinel's throat when the sound of a gunshot tore through his awareness.
Still holding the gas can, Blair spun and launched himself toward the corridor, dodging a hail of deadly missiles. He dug in his pocket as he ran, searching for the lighter. His fingers closed on the garrote, instead. It uncoiled as he tugged it from his jeans. Skidding to a stop when he reached the hallway, he took shelter behind the length of finished wall. With trembling fingers he wrapped one end of the wire around the handle of the container. Jenson and his men were too closehe had to buy a few more precious seconds.
Jankowski was hard-pressed to keep Ellison from bolting into the corridor. He wedged himself between the detective and the firedoor, pushing the metal panel open so that they'd have a clear view of the hallway.
Sandburg suddenly appeared, a half-step ahead of the bullets and Jim's grip on the old man's shoulder tightened. It grew to vice-like intensity when the younger man stopped and turned to face the enemy instead of rushing to join them.
"Chief, come on!" the detective shouted, straining to get around the old man who blocked his way.
The Guide could hear his Sentinel calling frantically for him to move, but he held his position. Gripping the free end of the deadly wire in both hands, he started to swing the can back and forth. He almost dropped it when a fusillade of bullets peppered the wall behind him. He felt fire streak across his back as he stepped forward into the opening. The wire burned a trail across his palms as he released the container, heaving it through the air in the direction of his pursuers.
With his senses fully extended, the Sentinel staggered as the thunder of gunfire assaulted his ears. The deceptively soft 'whump' that followed as the partially filled can exploded, pierced by one of the bullets, nearly drove him to his knees.
"Sandburg!" he gasped. "Get out of there now!"
Having seen the results of the explosion first hand, Blair needed no encouragement. Fire was already licking greedily wherever the burning liquid had fallen. He spun around and slipped on the gasoline soaked floor, falling to his hands and knees. Coughing on the fumes, he scrambled to his feet, only to be knocked flat as a heavy body collided with his. He managed to roll over to his back and found himself staring up into Randolph's sneering face.
"Good try, punk," the angry cop snarled. "Just not good enough."
The black hole that was the end of Randolph's gun loomed and filled the anthropologist's vision. He felt a moment of absolute despair. He'd come so close...
Fighting to regain control over his senses, the Sentinel caught the blur of movement as Randolph launched himself toward the unsuspecting Guide. He'd pulled a flanking move and attacked from the right side of the corridor while the other's held Blair's attention.
"One o'clock!" he screamed in Jankowski's ear.
Blair flinched at the sound of a discharging gun. He blinked, astonished to see Randolph reeling backward. The cop dropped to the floor, his eyes blank, a small round hole at the center of his forehead.
"MOVE IT, BLAIR!"
The stunned anthropologist twisted his head around. Jankowski stood in the stairwell doorway, still posed in a classic firing stance. Jim stood just behind the old man, the fury in his eyes rousing Blair to action.
The Guide crab-crawled toward the firedoor, fumbling in his pocket for the lighter. When he reached the two remaining gas cans he twisted off the caps and dumped their contents. The rank fuel flowed down the corridor in a wave. His hands were shaking as he struggled to flick the lighter to life. Blair heard the sound of running feet approaching, of voices screaming as Jenson's men attackedand froze.
They're too close! If I light this, they'll die! They'll be trapped in the flames!
He'd intended the blazing barrier to delay, not kill. Horrified by the thought of ending a lifeeven those of the men that had intended to murder his partnerthe young Shaman uttered a choked cry of grief.
Gnarled hands closed over his, pulling the lighter from his grasp. Jankowski thumbed the tiny torch to life and touched it to the floor, jerking Blair backward at the same time. A river of fire sprang to life as tongues of flame danced over the fumes. Sweeping toward the far end of the corridor, the inferno grew with each inch it consumed.
Blair felt himself hauled to his feet and pulled urgently toward the firedoor. The hands that held him were gentle, familiar, insistent. Guide instincts kicked in, drowning out the screams of the fire, the men that it hunted, and the guilty pangs of his conscience. He wrapped his arm around the waist of his injured Sentinel and hung on tight.
Jankowski shoved open the firedoor and took up a position on Jim's other side as the three men bolted down the stairs.
Jim's whispered "wait" halted them just inside the firedoor to the second floor. Their frantic descent had jarred the bandages loose from his wounds, but he ignored the fresh trails of blood seeping down his chest and back and fought to hold on to the controls for his senses. The trembling body of his Guide plastered to his side and Jankowski's harsh breathing were more than sufficient incentive.
The Sentinel scanned the dim landscape of the second level trying to ignore the thunder above them. The roar of the fire continued to grow in intensity as the blaze swept through the flimsy new construction and began to feed on the structure of the building itself. They had to get out before it spread any further.
He nodded toward the firedoor. "Open it."
Jankowski complied with his order, pulling the metal panel open a few inches. Jim strained to filter out everything but the noises rising from below. There was gunfire, a loud answering volley, and then voices raised in warning. The detective allowed himself a grim smile. The reinforcements that Simon had been waiting for had arrived and had Jenson's men pinned down. Unfortunately, their position at the bottom of the stairs blocked the escape route the Sentinel had hoped to use. That left the plan that Blair had suggestedcut across the second floor and out the front.
Jim handed the nuts and bolts to Jankowski with a terse "toss these." In the few seconds that the old man was gone, the Sentinel turned his full attention to his Guide. What he found was less than heartening.
Blair's arm was still locked in a death grip around Jim's waist. The younger man appeared dazed and deep, gasping breaths racked his body. The Sentinel inhaled the scent of sweat and fear and gasolinehis Guide's clothes reeked of the rank fuel. The threat of the raging inferno above took on a whole new meaning. There was something else as well. The sour smell of blood. Its stickiness coated Jim's fingers as the Sentinel traced the furrow that one of their attacker's bullets had carved across his Guide's back. Biting back a curse, he gently squeezed Blair's right shoulder.
"You still with me, Chief?"
His Guide's head raised and turned, instinctively looking upward. The dark eyes squinted in the dim light, filled with confusion and dull regret.
"I'm sorry, man..." Blair whispered.
"Save the apologies for the next time you leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor, Chief," Jim growled softly. Jankowski rejoined them and took his place at the detective's right side. The Sentinel's words of encouragement were meant for all of them. "Just hang in there. Backup's waiting downstairs. All we need to do is get to them."
Together they began a lurching journey through the wasteland of debris. Blair seemed oblivious to the moans of the tortured ceiling above them, but Jim exchanged a wordless gaze with Jankowski and knew that the old man was aware of the danger.
They were halfway to the opposite end when Jim heard the sound he'd been dreading. He shifted his weight and sent them all tumbling backward. Before they hit the floor, an entire section of the ceiling gave way. Smoke and flames poured forth like a waterfall. The cascade of burning wood and smoldering insulation rained down, casting deadly sparks that eagerly sought fresh territory for destruction.
The bone jarring impact with the floor broke the Sentinel's control over his senses. A shaft of debilitating pain shot through him as he tried to roll off of his injured shoulder. Smoke filled his lungs with each breath, causing fresh blasts of agony each time he coughed. The scream of the fire deafened him. He kicked off the smoldering pieces of wood and ceiling tile that had fallen onto his legs and blindly reached for his Guide. Fingertips touched snarled silken strands and groped their way to the throbbing pulse point at the younger man's throat.
A hand locked around his wrist. Blair's grip was weak, but reassuring. Jim blinked rapidly, trying to clear his tearing eyes and found Jankowski crouched next to him. The old man had to shout to make himself heard.
"We're not cut off yet, but we will be if we don't get moving!"
The Sentinel nodded and with the old man's assistance managed to sit upright. He felt the grip on his wrist loosen and turned toward his Guide. The younger man was still crumpled on the floor where he'd fallen, half-buried under a smoking pile of debris.
Blair stared in horror and let out a choked cry as a line of fire sprang to life along the length of his shirtsleeve, feeding on the gasoline soaked cloth. Jankowski tore off his coat and beat out the flames.
Jim's eyes grew as wide as his Guide's. He levered himself awkwardly to his knees and crawled the few short feet to the younger man's side. The Sentinel grabbed a smoldering board and flung it aside. Cursing the injury that made it a one-handed effort, he ripped off the sling. He kept digging, ignoring the fresh bursts of pain from the bullet wounds and the burns that lanced his palms, working frantically to clear the deadly litter off of his partner's body.
Having dislodged all but one large wooden beam that lay across his Guide's left leg, the Sentinel rose to his feet and grasped Blair's wrist. He strained backward, hoping to pull the anthropologist free. His partner's strangled gasp ended that attempt.
"We're going to need help!" Jankowski shouted, his face only inches away from Jim's.
"GO!" the Sentinel screamed, waving the older man toward the door.
"Jim... go with him!" Blair urged. "Andrew... please... make him go!"
The old man hesitated, his gaze locking with Jim's. The Sentinel shook his head. Jankowski nodded and dug the gun out of the waistband of his pants. He dropped it and his jacket at the detective's side. Sketching a rough salute, the old man disappeared into the smoke.
Blair groaned in despair. "Damn it, Jim..."
"I told you upstairs... that I wasn't leaving you behind, Chief," Jim responded amidst a fit of coughing. "Just hang on."
His Guide's answer was drowned out by the sound of gunfire. Bullets chipped at the beam that held Blair's leg pinned to the rapidly heating floor. Jim snatched up the gun and swiveled in the direction of the shooter.
"You're dead, Ellison!" Jenson's scream of rage floated eerily out of the firey chaos. "You and that punk partner of yours ruined everything! Now you'll both pay!"
The Sentinel shook his head, trying to clear the smoke and sweat from his eyes. He scanned for Jenson's location, but the overwhelming barrier of heat and sound and smells resisted his efforts. Suddenly a familiar warmth pressed against his left leg. He absorbed the strength and grounding of his Guide's simple touch and sent his hearing questing outward. Jenson's enraged shouts drew him like a beacon. The ex-ranger raised the gun and fired, catching Jenson square in the chest, just as the crooked vice-cop emerged from the smoke.
The force of the bullet's impact drove Jenson backward. He staggered and started to raise his weapon, intent on finishing what he'd begun with his dying breath. The elemental entity that the fire had become acted before either detective could shoot again.
An agonized scream tore from Jenson's throat as tendrils of fire wrapped around him. Like fingers closing into a fist, the flames enclosed the writhing man and drew him backward into its deadly embrace.
Amidst the crackling harmonies of the fire, Jim heard Blair's harshly whispered prayerthe Shaman's chant for a fallen enemy. He stared at the younger man in amazed silence for a few seconds, then shifted positions so that he could renew his efforts to move the beam.
Their world became a nightmare of heat and smokeand flames that the Sentinel struggled to keep from reaching his Guide. He beat back another tongue of fire that had begun to crawl up Blair's pinned leg and dropped, exhausted, at the younger man's side. He sought the Shaman's eyes and drew in a sharp breath. Blair's dark gaze was fixed on the wall of flames that danced only yards away.
"Guess... one trip... through the fire... wasn't enough..." the younger man murmured obliquely.
The oddly calm, accepting expression in his Guide's eyes terrified the Sentinel more than the fire. "Don't you even think about giving up on me, Sandburg," he ordered. "Say not the struggle nought availeth..."
Sluggishly, Blair turned his head toward Jim, the corner of his mouth lifting in a grimacing smile. "Didn't know... you had it... in you..."
The Sentinel bent forward to catch the soft words. His body shielded his Guide, cutting off the younger man's view of the flames. "What's that?"
"... never thought... I'd live to hear... you... quoting poetry..."
"I've still got a few... secrets, Sandburg," Jim managed a lopsided smile of his own. "Picked it up... years ago... I'll regale you... with the whole thing... if you promise... to stay awake..."
Jim reached down and pulled at the front neck of Blair's t-shirt, shifting the cloth up and over the lower part of the anthropologist's face and nose to form a rough filter against the smoke. Gripping his Guide's hand, he began to speak. From the depths of memory and his heart, he cast the words of verse defiantly at the wall of fire that was nearly upon them.
"Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been, things remain.
"If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
"For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making
Came, silent, flooding in, the main,
"And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward look, the land is bright..."
The Sentinel's voice trailed off as he looked down and met his Guide's eyes. He heard a muffled, "See you on the other side, Jim," before they fluttered shut.
The Sentinel felt the heat and screams of the fire at his back.
Trained to look death in the eye, he turned to face it.
And was rewarded with the sight of a full complement of firefighters stepping through the firewall to their aid.
Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.
Jim let himself into the loft, breathing a soft sigh of relief at having reached the quiet refuge of home. Hanging his jacket on the hook by the door, he located his partner, sitting on a chair on the balcony, bare feet resting on the railing.
The twitter of flutes and jungle drums danced in counterpoint to the fragrant aroma of lasagna wafting out of the kitchenfitting accompaniments to the litter of papers and books that covered the coffee table. The Sentinel smiled as he detoured to the refrigerator and pulled two bottles of beer from its depths.
Home. Filled with the sights and sounds and scents of his Guide. After three long grueling weeks, things were back to normal.
Jim frowned as he caught a glimpse of the piles of still unemptied boxes in the younger man's room.
Correction... almost normal.
He set the beers down on the table and headed upstairs to his bedroom to change clothes. He felt the twinge of protesting shoulder muscles as he pulled a sweatshirt over his head, but it was the pain of healing, not the agony of fresh injury. The burns on his palms were nearly gone, too, the bandages more of an inconvenience than anything else at this point.
Slipping into a pair of well-worn jeans, Jim padded down the steps. He paused at the bottom of the stairs, monitoring the young man on the balcony.
Blair was healing as wellat least on the outside. The burns that he'd acquired in their escape had, thankfully, been minor. The bullet wound had been painful, but not serious and would leave only the faint trace of a scar. And his energy level, while still a far cry from Sandburg-normal, was vastly improvedafter spending several days in the hospital, lodged in a room with his Sentinel, the exhausted Guide had retreated to the quiet haven of his room, spending several more days in a sleep- eat regimen that Jim had eagerly encouraged.
Both of them had suffered surprisingly minimal affects from smoke-inhalation, although the anthropologist's voice still had a tendency to take on an unhealthy, raspy quality when he spoke for an extended period of time.
And talk they had. To the district attorney. To the mayor. To the commissioner. To Internal Affairs. To the media. They'd made statement after statement; reviewed every word of the painstakingly detailed written reports that Blair had kept; repeated the same story word for word until it was etched forever, not just into their memories, but into the legal paperwork that accompanied the completion of the case.
Simon had finally put his foot down during a meeting with Internal Affairs that had become more of an interrogation than a fact-finding session. The IA officer in charge had become almost belligerent when questioning Blair. The inquiry kept returning to the issue of how the young man had known where his partner was being held. His Guide's sudden increase in respiration and the pounding of his heart had sent Jim's Blessed Protector instincts into overdrive.
Banks had cut off the inquisition before the Sentinel had decked the man, announcing that he, as Captain of Major Crimes, was satisfied with the answers that the Observer had already given. He also made it clear that both Ellison and Sandburg were unavailable for further questioning, placing them on a medical leave of absence and banishing them from the station until further notice.
They'd spent the following days together, neither content to be far from the other's side. The partners had both indulged in a little 'mother-henning"Blair hovering and muttering about stubborn Sentinel's who didn't know enough to rest after having been pierced both front and back by foreign substances that had no place in the human body; and Jim hovering and muttering about headstrong Guide's that didn't know enough to stop tapping at the keyboard at all hours of the night when he should be resting.
The partners had been grateful for the respite. Joel, Rafe and Brown had brought Blair's possessions back from the motel, saving the anthropologist from having to revisit that scene. Andrew Jankowski had called several times, both to check on Jim and Blair, and also to deliver some good newsthe old man was heading up an effort within the neighborhood to buy back some of the properties that Jenson's group had gotten their hands on, and they were making surprisingly good headway in their efforts. Simon had continued to shelter them from the fallout from within the department and the insistent media pursuit, giving the Sentinel and his Guide the time they needed to recover not only their health, but their stability.
Jim had spent what he hoped was the last session with the district attorney that very afternoon. Simon had been there as well, rehashing the part that he'd played in the case. The detective had listened to his captain intently, searching for some tidbit of information that he might have missed beforesomething that would give him a clue as to what was going on inside his partner's head.
Because there was still something bothering his Guidesome inner turmoil that Blair was struggling with.
At first, Jim had thought that it was the ghosts of the men who had perished in the fire that haunted the anthropologist. Of the nine men who had been involved, only three survived the inferno that reduced the building to ashes. Smithson, Gordon and Barnes were in secure cells, guarded by officers that Simon had hand-picked. Internal Affairs and the DA's office were having a field day with the testimony that had spewed out of their mouths. Fortunately, the disease that Allen and Jenson had incubated hadn't spread any further. Still, Banks had been adamant that there would be no deals struck on his watch. His men had risked too much to allow that to happen.
The remains of Jenson, Hiller, Harris, Rogers, Randolph and Robert Allen had been identified by forensics after several days of detailed examination and sifting. It had been a time- consuming processthe fire hadn't left much.
In the early hours of a sleepless night a week earlier, Blair had admitted to feeling some lingering guilt at being the cause of the men's deaths. He felt responsible for the fire, even though it had been Jankowski that had sparked the flames to life. The Sentinel had done what he could to put the loss into perspective, but he knew that the burden of those lost lives would continue to weigh heavily on the Shaman's soul for some time to come.
Blair had also confessed to feeling like he'd failed Jim in their final moments. The Sentinel's own memories of that time were fuzzy at best, but he had adamantly rejected his Guide's contention, reminding the younger man of his inventiveness and courage.
Jim had gotten the details from Simon the day after they'd been pulled from the fire. While Blair had dozed in the bed next to hisan arrangement that suited both Ellison's preference, the doctor's requirements and the hospital staff's needsBanks had filled him in on the events that had transpired.
Rafe and Brown had surprised Barnes at the front entrance, before the shootout at the rear of the building had brought them to Simon's assistance. Smithson and Gordon had beat a retreat into the stairwell. Banks and his reinforcements had been ready to give chase. To their stunned surprise, the two felons had tumbled head over heels down the steps to land at their feet, saving them the chore.
Apprised by Brown that Blair had been no where in sight out front, Simon had attempted to reach the upper levels of the building from the rear stairs, only to be forced back by the billowing clouds of acrid smoke. Banks had ordered his men around to the front of the burning structure to meet the remaining backup and emergency personnel who had arrived in a blare of sirens and flashing bubble lights.
A soot-blackened, coughing figure had emerged at a dead run from the front doors as the first group of firefighters stepped foot off their trucks. Simon had been closest and had grabbed the old man. Barely recognizable under the grime and ash that coated his hair, clothing and skin, Jankowski had identified himself and crisply delivered his urgent message. Jim and Blair had been brought out only a few minutes laterjust seconds before the blazing structure collapsed inward.
The Sentinel remembered arguing the need to remain at his Guide's side until the younger man was freed. He knew that he had managed to scream a warning about the anthropologist's gasoline drenched clothing in between bouts of coughingone of the firefighters had draped a fire-resistant blanket around Blair before they lifted him off the floor. Once he'd seen that his partner was in good hands and on the way out of the hellhole that the second floor had become, his own pain had resurfaced, thrusting him up into the light of pure agony before drawing him down into velvety black darkness.
He'd awoken in a hospital bed. Two anxious blue eyes, burning with studied impatience, had fixed him with a glare. When he'd muttered some marginally intelligible responses to the barrage of questions that had poured forth, his Guide's expression had softened to one of reliefa feeling that the Sentinel wholeheartedly shared when his not-so-subtle monitoring of his partner revealed that he too was all right. The news that Andrew Jankowski had also escaped unharmed had generated wide smiles from both men, and the healing had begun in earnest.
Jim heard Blair stir and shift positions in his chair. With a determined stride, the detective retrieved the still-chilled beverages and crossed the room. Only a few unresolved issues still lingered and they all revolved around the young man on the balcony.
A soft, "Hey, Jim," greeted the Sentinel when he stepped out to join his Guide. He handed Blair a beer and settled into a chair. His own stockinged feet joined the anthropologist's.
"There's a welcome back party planned for Friday after the day shift's finished," Jim informed his partner casually. "We've been warned to leave the truck and the Volvo at home. Joel's going to chauffeur."
"Cool. Where's the bash?"
"Someplace where they won't mind you dancing on the bar, I presume," Jim responded drolly.
A low chuckle was the younger man's only response.
They sat together in companionable silence as dusk slipped quietly into the robes of night. Flickers of light dotted the city, challenging the pinpricks of stars in the cloudless sky for dominance. "I really missed this."
Blair's soft declaration floated out into the darkness. The Sentinel found himself frowning again at the sigh that followed it. He studied his Guide with eyes that pierced the shadows, but couldn't penetrate the invisible barrier that his friend had erected. There was a new, quiet strength in the younger man. There was also a sense of profound sadness.
"Then why haven't you unpacked?"
A sharp inhalation of breath met Jim's question.
"Because we need to talk... and after we do, I might be leaving," Blair finally answered.
The Sentinel feet slid off the railing and he sat forward in his chair, stunned. "Leaving? You want to leave?"
"No... but you might want me to."
Jim took a mental step backward, reminding himself that this was the convoluted territory of Sandburg's psyche that he was trying to navigate. Even with a roadmap crafted by nearly three years of friendship, it was a difficult path to follow. The emotional pitfalls could easily swallow you alive if you weren't careful.
"And why would I want that?" the Sentinel asked quietly.
"It's kind of hard to explain." His Guide's voice was a bare whisper. Hesitant. Filled with longing and regret at the same time.
Jim decided to test the theory about a straight line being the shortest distance between two points. "Does this have something to do with why my Spirit Guide showed up and camped himself outside your door the first night you were out of the loft?"
Blair's bare feet thumped to the deck. "Your Spirit Guide did what?"
"The panther was definitely displeased with your absence. He made that quite clear."
"Nice to know I was missed." An awkward attempt at levity that fell flat and toneless.
The Sentinel reached forward, touching his Guide lightly on the sleeve, needing the physical connection. "Blair... talk to me. Tell me what happened. Tell me what's still troubling you."
A hard swallow. A resigned sigh.
"I forgot who I was."
The simple answer's myriad implications took Jim's breath away. Blair's hand reached up to grasp Jim's in reassurance.
"It's okay. I found myself again. Most of me, anyway."
The genuine smile that creased the younger man's face was a light to rival even that of the awakening city or the stars.
Still, the sadness remained, damping the radiance.
"Then what's the problem?" Jim pressed.
Silence, underlaid with the whisper of Blair's fingers sliding through his hair in a familiar gesture of uncertainty. The Sentinel caught the rasp of another deep breath and its slow exhalation. He could almost hear the spinning wheels of his Guide's mind slow their frentetic pace as the younger man came to a decision...
And gave his answer.
"I always thought that I would do anything for you. For our partnership. I realized during this case, that there's something I can't do. Not if I want to remain true to who I am. What I am. That limitation scares me, because it could endanger you."
"Chief, you're risked your own life to save mine. More times than I want to remember," Jim murmured. "What more could you do?"
"I could do whatever it took to protect my partner... even if that meant taking a life..."
"No, you couldn't," Jim objected. "Not and be who you are."
"Exactly. That's the problem."
The Sentinel prodded the investigation in a slightly different direction with another question. "When we were trapped... you said something. You said 'one trip through the fire wasn't enough.' What did that mean?"
"The night I met Jankowski, I had a vision. Of a wall of fire. That's what kept me from chasing after him."
"You never told me."
"I didn't know what it meant... and then we were caught up in all the subterfuge. I didn't know if it was connected with the case. I didn't want to distract you. I didn't dare. It was my problem. I needed to deal with it."
The random pieces of the puzzle that Jim had been holdingthat had, up until that point, failed to form any recognizable patternsuddenly locked togetherSimon's reluctance to discuss just what had led them to the apartment building after having lost him at the factory; Blair's reaction to the Internal Affairs officer's questions on the same topic; his Spirit Guide's appearance; the sense of danger that he'd been unable to pinpoint...
"A premonition. That's how you knew where I was," the Sentinel murmured, his voice tinged with wonder.
"Partly," his Guide admitted. "I should have realized what it was earlier. Maybe if I had... but I didn't. I didn't let myself." A disparaging laugh. "I think I broke the Shaman's code of ethics."
"Because you forgot who you were."
"Yeah. A Shaman seeks truth, Jim. He's supposed to see beyond the illusions. I didn't. I let myself get sucked into believing all the crap that we were broadcasting for Jenson. I gave life to the lies. That almost cost me. And you."
Blair took a deep breath and plowed on.
"The vision took on a life of its own. Scared the shit out of me. I couldn't face it. Not until you were missing and confronting it was the only thing I could think of to find you."
"That was the battle..."
"When you showed up out of the blue to rescue Andrew and me... I could tell something had happened. I remember thinking that you looked like you'd fought some kind of battle."
"Hey, you're the one that was bleeding all over the floor, man," Blair responded. "I stage my fights on the metaphysical plane. Less blood loss that way."
"But not appreciably less pain," Jim countered.
"No... probably not," Blair admitted. He paused, turned to stare out into the night, and then lowered his gaze. He picked at the label on the bottle nervously. "I did finally manage to confront the damn thing. Screwed up my courage and walked through it. Burned off a layer or two of filth in the process. When I came out the other side, I knew where you were. Then it was just a matter of convincing Simon that I wasn't a candidate for the funny farm."
Jim raised an eyebrow at that. He knew Blair couldn't see his expression in the darkness, but the younger man chuckled anyway as if he'd been expecting the reaction.
"He was ready to bring in the guys in the white coats, Jim. Trust me. Ultimately, Simon didtrust me, I mean." The Shaman's voice grew pensive again. "Passing the barrier of the vision not only told me where to find you, but it also revealed a hell of a lot about me. If I'm going to honor Incacha's legacy, then I need to be true to his teachings. And my own conscience. That's why I couldn't... I couldn't light that fire. I couldn't take those lives, even though I knew that they meant to kill us."
"And you think I'd hold that against you? Well I don't. You're supposed to be an observer, Chief. Not an active participant." Blair shook his head and looked away, but Jim didn't give up. "I still don't understand what the problem is, Blair. By your own admission you walked through fire to save my life. Why would think I would want you to leave?"
"Because I risked your life, man." There was stark terror in the gaze that the Guide turned toward his Sentinel. "First by not facing who I am, and then by accepting it. And I can't promise you that it won't happen againthat at some point in the future I'll won't have to make a choice and you'll end up dying just to save my principles. Even if you don't want me to leave, I'm not sure I can stay, knowing that."
"Chief, what you call principles are what men like Andrew and Incacha would call honor and duty. There's no disgrace or weakness in following that code. It's what separates you and them from men like Jenson or those that joined him."
Jim could see that the younger man was unconvinced, so he shifted his attack.
"You didn't fail me, Blair. You've never failed me. And you never will."
"You never will. Not as long as you remain true to yourself. That's what I value, Chief. That's who I trust. You. I knew what this insanity that we were playing at was doing to you. I could see how much you were hurting. I'm sorry that it happened. And that you had to go through... what you went through, alone. Believe me. I wouldn't ask you to be something or someone that you're not. Being who you are is challenge enough."
"I'm not sure I know how to take that, Jim," his Guide responded, one eyebrow raised in query. "Is that an insult or a compliment?"
"You decide. You're the academic in this partnership."
Jim softened his tone and dropped the teasing banter.
"You're a bundle of raw energy, combined with a compassionate heart. You have ways of turning the world around you upside down and inside outand you still land on your feet. You invite everyone within your reach along on that magic carpet ride that is your life, and we're all better for it. You're a Guide to a Sentinel. Shaman of the Great City. Teacher. Partner. Friend. Many hats; one unique person. Some people live their whole lives never knowing who they are, Blair. Accept the fact that you do as a blessing, not a failing or a limitation. I do."
His Guide was silent, but the Sentinel could hear the even beating of his heart. It thrummed with life and peace. When Blair finally spoke, Jim didn't need enhanced senses to see the light shining in his eyes.
"So, does this mean you're going to help me unpack?"
"As soon as you go rescue dinner," Jim replied with a smirk. He rose to his feet and headed inside, still talking. "And wash the dishes, and clean up the mess you left on the coffee table, and..."
"Hey, I thought you just acknowledged me as Shaman of the Great City. Don't I deserve some respect?" Blair shot back, rising from his chair as well.
Another list of housekeeping duties answered that question as the Guide followed his Sentinel inside.
"How about if I just wash the dishes on the astral plane? Will you buy that?"
The sounds of their combined laughter echoed through the loft.
~ End ~
Author's Additional Notes:
I would be remiss if I did not offer attribution for the quotes or phrases that prefaced each section of the preceding story. Therefore, to authors and poets living on the earth or on the spirit plane, thank you. Credits are listed below.
My days are crackled and gone up in smoke. Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven
When a lovely flame dies,
Smoke gets in your eyes. Otto Harbach
Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth Arthur Hugh Clough
There is no fire without smoke. (There can no great smoke arise, but there must be some fire. Lily, Euphues)
Only thin smoke without flame... Thomas Hardy
Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror cracked from side to side. Tennyson
The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart. Saint Jerome
To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. William Shakespeare
I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror, and from others to take an example for himself. Terence
Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he. Publilius Syrus
Hither and thither spins
The windbourne, mirroring soul;
A thousands glimpses wins,
And never sees a whole. Matthew Arnold
About, about, in reel and rout The death fires danced at night. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
You who dirty the mirror, cry that it isn't clean. Juana Ines de la Cruz
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Page last updated 8/15/03.