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 mine—fortunately they don't demand much in terms of food and board. No money made, no point in chasing me for money.

Author's Notes:


Smoke and Mirrors
by
K. Ryn

kdkm@aol.com

 


SMOKE SCREEN

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 ago—when 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 cornices—it 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 prey—fertile 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 loss—not 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 home—a 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 hand—but 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 remains—at 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 debris—searching for any evidence that might help them solve the puzzling string of arsons and murders—but 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 better—he'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 men—assuming 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 residents—those 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.

"Sure—as 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 meant—if it had been anything more than just his tired mind fixating on his earlier memories—would 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 him—he 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 job—couldn'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.

"ELLISON!"

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 case—Simon 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 there—for 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 close—roommates, friends, partners. They could be hard on each other, but up until now, there was always something that kept them together—a 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 life—work 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.

"Ellison..."

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 owners—the 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 rooms—each 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 welcome—not 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 cramped—barely 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 by—and 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 agenda—it 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 title—Shaman of the Great City—but 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 lost—and 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 feeling—abhorred 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 mouth—and his own—seared 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 truck—the back end of which was loaded with cardboard boxes—while 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 trouble—at least not with the two jocks on the scene—he'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 warning—Ellison 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 pressure—truths 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 case—nothing 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 unusual—Sandburg 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, jerky—like 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 had—or 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 picture—he'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 detective—tension 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 thinking—what 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 sight—disappearing 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 surprise—Blair 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 quickly—making 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 that—needed 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 behind—in 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.

"Chief?"

Jim's worried voice carried across the softly lit room, but Blair didn't dare open his eyes or move—not 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 do—what 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 knees—Jim'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.

"Blair?"

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 fears—real 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 it—once 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 show—at 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."

"Sandburg..."

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 real—too 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 punch—even 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 over—something 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 Ellison—and the Sentinel—bore 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 fears—not 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 himself—and part of his essential spirit—already.

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 separation—and 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.

//Understood.//

"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 sidewalk—his 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 watcher—Rick Smithson, in a dark green sedan—and 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 before—would 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.

"Gordon."

//You're sure?//

"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 bait—hook, line and sinker. This had to work. His life, and the life of his Guide, depended upon it.


MIRROR IMAGE

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 absently—Blair 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.

Waiting...

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 stop—the grocery store—but 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 engine—the same one he'd heard the previous night—pounded 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 captains—they 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 replacement—Smithson's now familiar heartbeat echoed from the alley where he had stood watch earlier.

Jim felt the beginnings of a headache forming behind his eyes—the 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 machine—an 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 elaborate—Blair'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 milk—he 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 anthropologist—whose incredible mind was seemingly never comfortable with processing only one thing at a time—would 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 presence—as 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 this—to 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 risky—if 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 anthropologist—the 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 death—he 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...

Smoke.

Searing tongues of fire flared and burned their sinuous image on the inside of his eyelids.

NOOOOOOOO!

The reverberations of his scream—and a sudden earsplitting clap of thunder—chased 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 tired—physically 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 had—or, 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 happening—real 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 first—but 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 this—all 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 again—and 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 murder—that 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 dreams—in which his Guide had figured prominently—had 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 shadows—the 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.


FOGGED MIRRORS

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.

"Sandburg?"

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 office—based 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 one—he need confirmation.

"Jim's all right, isn't he?"

"Yeah."

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."

"Oh."

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 been—Simon's or Jim's.

"Tell me that he at least took Simon along as backup," Blair murmured. A longer hesitation this time—one 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 friend—offering 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."

"What's that?"

"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 hot—with 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 all—just 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 blinked—once, twice, three times—and 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 minutes—or 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 disposal—if not the nearest straight-jacket. That did not fit in with his plans.

"Blair..."

"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."

"Hopefully not."

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 again—and 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 two—and 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 bond—one 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."

"With Jenson?"

"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 opponent—your ego won't protect you from a bullet. Never assume a level playing field—you're liable to trip and never recover. Never assume you have the element of surprise—or you'll find yourself on the wrong end of the gun. Never assume anything—assumptions 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 spooky—like when Gordon had walked in. If he hadn't known better, Jim would have sworn that Blair was right by his side—the sense of the younger man's presence had been that strong.

Sometimes it was simply reassuring—as 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?"

"Bullshit."

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."

"We?"

"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 reflection—jaw clenched in anger, eyes narrowed and shining like ice—and 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 him—probably Jenson in response to an urgent phone call from Gordon—but 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 transpired—and 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 Guide—he knew that instinctively. What form the danger would take, or from what direction the attack would come—those 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 eye—someone he could trust—was 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 man—something 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 thing—getting 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."

//"Persuaded how?"//

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."

//"What else?"//

"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 Crimes—that 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.

Continue on to the Conclusion...


E-Mail K. Ryn at kdkm@aol.com
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Page last updated 8/15/03.