(See Page 1 for Disclaimer and Author's Notes)

Smoke and Mirrors (Page 2 of 2)
by K. Ryn



Slipping into the 'mission eve' mindset he'd learned to use years earlier, Jim eased into a sound sleep. If there were dreams, he didn't remember them when he awoke five hours later. He slid out of bed and headed downstairs. He started a fresh pot of coffee and checked the answering machine before entering the bathroom.

He was showered, shaved, dressed and ingesting his wakeup brew a short time later. After the first cup, he retrieved his guns and laid them on the table. Methodically stripping them down and cleaning both weapons, he began to prepare for battle. Once he was satisfied with their readiness, he took another trip upstairs. He was considerably more lethal, and the battered footlocker that he kept in the rear of his closet was decidedly emptier, when he returned to the kitchen to freshen his coffee.

He leaned back against the kitchen counter, slowly sipping the cooling drink. His gaze drifted across the apartment, committing everything in it to memory. It occurred to him that he'd done the exact same thing when he'd been in the rangers and then later during his time in Covert Ops. Each time he'd prepared to leave on a mission, he'd fixed each detail of his no-nonsense, well-ordered existence in his mind as a reminder of what he was coming back to. There hadn't been much to inventory.

This time it was different.

The loft appeared stark and uncluttered, just as his barracks and private quarters had, but the invisible traces of his Guide's presence were there. The Sentinel closed his eyes, picturing Blair's books sitting elbow to elbow with his own on the wooden shelves against the walls; the younger man's never- ending avalanche of papers and reports cascading over the coffee table. He heard the resonant whisper of drums and pan flutes—his Shaman's earth music—filling the air with an ancient, soothing rhythm. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the remembered scent of herbal shampoo and the musty tang that emanated from the tribal masks that normally decorated the walls. The mixed aroma of freshly ground spices and dried herbs wafted from the kitchen, activating his sense of taste, reminding him of comfortable meals shared and confidences exchanged.

His Guide's life-force filled the rooms even in his absence. It swirled around the Sentinel, cresting like the tide—persistent, elusive, unstoppable—murmuring softly like a gentle brook as he welcomed it into his heart.

This is what I'd leave behind if I fail. Not some sparsely furnished apartment, not the job, but life itself.

He picked up the cell phone and dialed a number that he'd committed to memory, but never used. It rang three times before it was answered.

//"Ummm... yeah?"//

"It's me, Chief..." the Sentinel murmured, grimacing at the weariness embedded in the sleep-dulled voice of his Guide. . //"Hey, Jim..."// "Sorry to wake you, buddy. I didn't think you'd be asleep yet. You okay?"//

//"No... I mean, yeah... I'm fine..." Blair stammered. //"What time is it?"//

Despite his concerns, Jim smiled. As difficult as it was to get his partner to shut down and go to bed, waking him was even more of a challenge. Blair and sleep did not part company easily. Or quickly. The Sentinel had a clear mental picture of his Guide, half-buried under the covers, blinking groggily, shaking his head in an attempt to clear away the last vestiges of sleep.

"Someday we're going to have to get you a watch, Sandburg, and teach you how to use it. It's just after ten."

There was silence for a moment and then a slightly more alert response. //"Ten... a.m. or p.m.?"//

"Ten o'clock as in two hours before midnight, Chief," Jim responded.


There was more silence and Jim frowned. "You okay, Sandburg?"

//"Yeah... just lost some time, man... that's the second time it's happened today... I guess I..."//

Blair's rambling was broken off abruptly in a sharp inhalation of breath...


... followed by a dull 'clunk' as if the phone had fallen on something soft.


And finally a choked gasp.


Blair gripped the phone tightly to keep from fumbling it into the blankets again and scrambled out of bed, launching himself toward the bathroom. The cold tiles under his bare feet made him shiver, but he welcomed the sensation as it shifted him further awake. Pushing the door shut behind him, he laid the phone gently—almost reverently—on the floor, and turned on the sink's cold water tap, taking a second to splash some on his face. Still dripping, he left the water running and bent down to retrieve the phone, taking a deep breath before he spoke.

"Jim? Are you there?"

//"Still here, Chief. Why the sudden change of venue?"//

"What? Oh... Joel's got the magic ear duty, man. I didn't want him hearing something that he shouldn't about you know what, so I moved the party to someplace with a little more privacy." Blair winced at the tremulous quaver in his voice and the pitch which was at the top end of his range. "Why are you calling? Is something wrong?"

//"Slow down, Professor and catch your breath,"// Jim admonished with a low chuckle. //"Nothing's wrong. I'm still at the loft. No action yet."//

Blair slid to the floor and rested his back against the toilet. He wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or worried. "No action... you mean no call from Gordon?"


Blair recognized the irritated growl in his partner's tone and decided worried was the way to go.

"You think there's a problem?"

//"I hope not. I'd hate to think that my Oscar-winning performance this afternoon was wasted."//

Blair found himself grinning. "Did you use the Hard-Ass Covert Operative approach or the Shady Detective acting method?"

//"A little of both with some Obfuscating Observer thrown in to top it off. You would have been proud."//

"I'll bet Gordon was suitably impressed. I wish I could have seen it..." Blair caught himself as he realized what he was saying. He had seen some of it—at least the opening act.

"I think he got the point. I'll tell you, Chief, I'm not going to sit through another meeting with him unless he stays downwind and leaves his cigarettes behind. I can still smell burnt tobacco."

Blair launched himself into the opening that Jim had given him. This was Guide territory that they'd just entered. "How are you doing? With your senses, I mean? Any spikes? Headaches?"

//"Everything's working fine, Chief. All the dials are responding just like you programmed them to and I've been careful not to push any one sense too much. My one and only headache went away as soon as Jenson's thugs stopped tailing me."//

Blair stiffened, wondering what his partner had done to produce that result. He decided the details weren't important, just the evaluation of the fallout.

"Jim, aren't you the one that told me it's always better to know where the enemy is? I mean, I'm sure it wasn't much fun seeing that vermin in your rearview mirror every time you turned around, but now they could come out of the woodwork from any direction."

He heard the older man sigh and mumble something that sounded like 'necessary risk.' He shuddered. "Jim... you are being careful, right?" he asked softly.

//"Yes, Mom. I'm being careful. How about you?"// "Me? I've got nothing to be careful about, man. " Bitterness and anger tinged his tone and the harsh words poured out before he could stop himself. "No worries, you know? Joel's put himself in charge of my sleeping and eating schedule. I think he's even contemplating changing the passwords my computer to make sure I don't tire myself out working too hard. Don't have to worry about whether my car's going to be broken into out in the motel parking lot because it's not there—although since it's not parked in the long term area at the university I'll probably have to pay a fortune to get it out of impound when and if you and Simon decide to let me out of here..."


"And I've got lots of distractions," he plunged on. "Lots of things to keep me from worrying about whether you're zoned out or just plain dead. I've had offers, you know, if I have to make a career change. I mean, what good's a Guide without a Sentinel? The old guy that owns the place has made it pretty clear that he'd be interested in getting to know me better... lots better, if you catch my drift. Come to think of it, this could work out pretty slick if you do survive this shit and decide that you want me out of the loft for good. All my stuff's here and it'd be a short trip down to the other end of the motel..."

//"Sandburg, will you just stop for a minute?"//

The desperation in his partner's voice cut through Blair's awareness and ended his tirade abruptly. Horrified by what had just spewed out of his mouth, Blair clenched the phone in both hands and lowered it between his knees.

What the hell's wrong with me? he wondered miserably. How could I have lost it like that?

Jim's voice was a tinny whisper on the other end of the phone, urging him to get back on the line, but he couldn't move—couldn't trust what he might say. At least not until he heard his partner threaten to come to the motel if Blair didn't pick up in the next few seconds. That put him back in gear immediately.

"No... Jim, wait! I'm here... just... just give me a minute..." he pleaded.

Jim's voice came on the line again, soft and soothing. //"Okay... breathe, Chief. Nice cleansing breaths, just like you're always coaching me to do..."//

Blair struggled to comply with his Sentinel's directions. In. Out. In. Out. Slower. In. Out.

//"That's better buddy, keep it up. You're doing fine,"// Jim murmured encouragingly.

"Do I sound... that patronizing... when it's you on the... receiving end?" Blair gasped, trying to cover his embarrassment with sarcasm.

//"All the time, Sandburg."//

"Bet you're... enjoying this, then."

An awkward silence followed that flippant remark and Blair immediately apologized. "Sorry, man. I didn't mean that. Guess I'm just having problems controlling what's left of my brain. Must be more tired than I thought."

More silence, and then, //"Talk to me, Blair. Tell me what's going on in that head of yours."//

"Nothing and everything," Blair replied honestly. "I'm just tired of all of this. And worried. I don't like the idea of you doing this alone."

//"That goes both ways, partner,"// Jim said quietly, mirroring Blair's own thoughts. //This will be over soon. Tonight, if I can make it happen."//

"Jim, don't rush things. It's too dangerous," Blair pleaded.

//"Careful, you're beginning to sound like Simon."//

Great. I needed another identity crisis, Blair thought grimly. "Normally I'd be insulted, but in this case I'll take that as a compliment. Listen to us."

//"Tell me about this guy that owns the motel," Jim urged, switching the subject abruptly. //"Has he really been hassling you?"//

"Put the Blessed Protector Cape back on the hook, Jim. The guy's creepy, but he's not dangerous. I can handle him just by keeping the door locked."

//"Make sure that's both doors, Sandburg.//

"Relax, Jim. Look, just forget everything I babbled about a few minutes ago, okay? Chalk it up to ravings from the Sandburg Zone, and let it go. You need to keep your head in what's going to go down tonight after Gordon calls."

//"I need to know that you're all right, Blair."//

The concern in his Sentinel's voice surged through the phone line. A wave of fierce protectiveness followed in its wake. Nothing was lost in the transmission.

"Then hear me, Jim," the Guide said quietly, sending every ounce of his trust and confidence in his Sentinel back across the miles that separated them. "I'm okay. I'm safe. I promise you I'll stay that way. As much as it scares me, I understand what you have to do and why you have to do it. And you will. You'll get these guys. Just do me a favor and don't forget to duck when the bullets start flying."

Before Jim could respond, Blair heard the faint sound of the loft phone ringing in the background. "That's your call, man. Go get those assholes."

//"Blair, wait..."//

"Watch your back, Jim," Blair whispered as he cut the connection.

Slightly dazed, Jim stared at the now silent handset. Blair's last words rang in his ears, a fitting compliment to the annoying trill of the other phone. He set the cell down on the table next to his guns and crossed the room.

"Ellison," he growled, picking up the phone before the answering machine could grab the call.

The voice on the other end was Gordon's. The message was nearly as brief as the one he'd delivered earlier in the day.

//"Third and Lexington. Twenty minutes."//

Jim waited for more, but there was only a sharp click followed by the annoying buzz of the dial tone. Cursing under his breath, he spun on his heel and picked up the cell phone again. He punched in Simon's pre-programmed number and reached for his weapons, sliding them into their respective holsters at his back and ankle while he waited for the call to go through.

"I've got a location," Jim announced tersely, giving his captain the coordinates he'd received.

//Jim are you sure? There's nothing there. The city's been razing the buildings on both sides of Lexington for weeks to make way for the new revitalization project."//

Jim walked toward the front door and grabbed his jacket off the rack, shirking into it as he talked. "I know, Simon. My guess is that the actual meet's going to take place somewhere else."

//"Which means you could end up anywhere."//

"I think we can safely rule out the three precincts as possible options, sir," Jim quipped weakly as he grabbed his keys out of the basket by the door.

//"Damn it, Jim. This is no time for jokes."//

"Sorry, Simon. Must be Sandburg's evil influence," Jim responded. "Have you got a copy of the real estate listings that Blair put together from the insurance records?"

//"I've got it. What do you want to know?"//

"Check and see if there are any properties near that intersection."

The Sentinel heard the rustle of papers being shuffled and after only a few seconds, Banks was back on the line.

//"No such luck, Jim. At least nothing in what we've unearthed so far.//

"Sandburg was still digging through that mess. He's probably got the printouts with him. Have him look for anything in proximity to the meet site. Maybe he can come up with something by the time I get there."

//"Once he knows there's trouble, the kid's not going to want to sit still and wait this out, Jim."//

"I know Simon," the Sentinel sighed, remembering the disturbing conversation he'd just had with his Guide. He hadn't managed to determine the source of his friend's distress, or pinpoint the danger that he'd sensed, but he knew what part of the problem was. The younger man's protective instincts were just as strong as his and being forced to sit on the sidelines was frustrating the hell out of him. Giving him some way to contribute would alleviate some of that stress. Unfortunately, the solution to one dilemma would generate another. "But Blair knows that material better than anyone. If the answer's there, he'll find it. If he tries to pull a Houdini on Joel, have Taggert remind him that he promised to keep himself safe."

//"You think that'll stop him? Sandburg tends to forget about self-preservation when your safety is on the line."//

"Then I guess Taggert will have to sit on him," Jim replied grimly.

//"I still don't like it, Jim. With Joel minding the kid, I'm the only backup you're going to have. I'm not going to do you any good if I don't know where you are. What about bringing Brown and Rafe into this? We could alternate tailing you from the pickup point."//

"I agree that it's time to bring them into the game, sir, but there's no time to get them in place. I'm going to have to push it to make the rendezvous as it is. Besides, Jenson's not stupid. Gordon may have acquisition duty, but you can bet that there will be others watching to make sure that no one follows us. I think our best option is to put Brown and Rafe onto setting a trace on this phone. I'm going to wipe all the programming so nothing will lead back to you, then I'll reactivate contact. I'll keep this line open as long as I can."

There was a long moment of silence before Simon spoke again.

//"All right. You're the man on the hot seat. I'll have to trust your judgment and instincts on this. I want your word though, that you'll take it one step at a time. You smell a trap and you get your butt out of there."//

"Thanks, Simon."

//You can thank me by not getting yourself killed. I don't want to be the one to tell Sandburg he's going to lose out on getting that doctorate."// Jim cut the connection and cleared the memory on the cell phone. He took one last glance around the loft and with a terse nod, headed out. By the time he slid behind the wheel of his truck, he'd wrapped his undercover persona around him like a cloak. He set the phone down on the seat next to him and cranked the Ford to life, flipping on headlights and letting the wipers swish once over the rain speckled windshield to clear it. The rain had finally stopped, but the skies were still overcast. The heavy cloud cover hung low, clinging to the rooftops like a false ceiling. Reflections from the streetlights and the signs of still open businesses shimmered in the standing puddles of water that littered the streets. Once he was moving, Jim picked up the phone and punched in the seven digits to reach Simon. He waited until he received an acknowledgment from the other end, then slipped the device carefully into his jacket pocket. Turning his attention completely to the road, he urged a little more speed out of the truck.

He pulled up to the intersection with only a minute to spare, scanning the street with his senses even as he turned off the engine and killed the lights. The fragmented remains of buildings and mountains of debris from the city's demolition efforts created an unearthly landscape of black-on-black shapes and shadows.

The faint sounds of a rough engine swung his gaze to the rearview mirror. A car had just turned onto Jefferson and was headed his way. Choosing to meet his contact in the open, he got out of the truck and closed the driver's door before leaning back against it. He took a good look at the oncoming vehicle and then averted his eyes so that the headlights wouldn't blind him. He didn't recognize the battered Pontiac, but the reddened glow of a burning cigarette tip gave off enough light for him to identify the driver.

Gordon tossed the lit butt out the driver's window before he pulled to a stop parallel to the truck. The vice cop reached across and opened the passenger door. Jim slid into the empty seat and closed the door with a firm tug. Gordon remained silent as he shifted the car into gear and turned left at the cross street, heading north on Third. Nose wrinkling from the lingering odor of the smoke that permeated the cab and the other detective's clothes, the Sentinel dialed down his sense of smell and taste a notch.

In such close proximity to the sweating man behind the wheel, it didn't take much effort to pick up the man's heavy breathing and racing heartbeat. Jim continued to monitor both their route and Gordon's movements while he considered the possible reason's behind the vice-cop's behavior. Granted, he'd shaken the man's composure by his actions at the bar, but the level of tension and fear he was detecting now seemed out of proportion to that incident.

Which can only mean that there's trouble waiting at the end of this ride.

Whether that meant that they'd caught on to the sting or that whoever was waiting scared Gordon more than he did, Jim didn't know—nor would further speculation give him the answers. That they hadn't insisted on a blindfold suggested that this game would be resolved tonight, one way or another. He forced himself to relax, keeping his muscles loose, his mouth shut and his eyes on the road.

As he'd suspected, they didn't go far. Less than ten minutes after Gordon had picked him up, the man made a sharp right and pulled into an alley. He slowed his speed, but didn't stop until he reached a cross street on the opposite side of the block. Turning right again, he drove about 50 yards and then spun the wheel to the left, easing the car up over a low curb and into an opening in the side of an older three-story brick building.

The Sentinel heard the whine of a motor, followed by the screel of metal scraping across metal. He glanced in the cracked side-mirror to his right and saw a heavy, segmented garage door closing behind them. Gordon let the car coast forward a few more feet before braking to a complete stop.

Jim opened the door and climbed out of the car, but stayed close to it. The interior of the building was dark. The headlight beams of the Pontiac brightened a space in front of the vehicle, revealing a stained and chipped concrete floor. The Sentinel's heightened vision penetrated the darkness another fifteen feet, but even he couldn't distinguish much beyond that. He cranked up his other senses and was rewarded with a wealth of sensory input, which he struggled to categorize.

Iron, zinc... more metals... damp wood and cardboard... This was some kind of a factory at one point... The odors are faint ... residual traces more than anything else... and the air itself is musty, so it's been empty for a while... generator hum, so there's still power enough to operate lights and the garage door...

Casually, Jim shut the passenger door with a hard shove, trying to judge the size and layout of the building from the resulting echoes.

Mostly open space on this level at least... the floor plan's deeper than it is wide... roughly the size of the precinct parking garage...

Aware of the danger of being lured toward a zone-out by the seductive reverberations, he filtered out those sounds and searched for those that would be distinctly human.

Swish of cloth against skin... scuff of leather against concrete... heartbeats...

Sentinel senses augmented years of military training and the instincts of a cop who'd managed to survive more than a few close calls. Ignoring Gordon's frantically beating pulse, Jim concentrated on pinpointing the locations and relative positions of the enemy.

The closest was the man roughly two car lengths behind him. The one who'd closed the outer door. Smithson.

Several more were waiting some thirty feet ahead of the car.

... four, five,... Smithson's six, Gordon makes seven... where's number eight?

He felt a warning prickle that raised the hair on the back of his neck. He stiffened. There was another man, off to Gordon's left—near what the Sentinel had determined was the far wall.

Full house... not good odds, but not impossible either...

He pivoted slightly to face the waiting men and closed his eyes until they were bare slits, dialing down his vision at the same time. Lights flared a split-second later. He blinked and pretended to wince, using the action to cover another quick scan as he confirmed what his senses had already told him.

Ranged ahead of him were five men. Jenson stood a few feet in front of the others, his arms crossed over his chest. In contrast to his partner Archie Gordon, who looked like the stereotypical vice-cop, Phil Jenson dressed and acted like he'd just stepped off the pages of GQ. In his early fifties, Jenson was still a man in superb physical condition. An inch taller than Ellison, he held himself like the ex-Major that he was. The tell-tale wrinkles of age hadn't yet touched the hard angled planes of his face and the close-cropped auburn hair showed no trace of gray. If Gordon was the 'dealer', then Jenson ran the action—smooth, sophisticated, dangerous.

Martin Randolph and Mark Harris stood to his left, carbon copies of Gordon. Jim didn't recognize either of the two men to Jenson's right, but they stood at what could only be described as 'parade rest'—an indication that they'd also been connected to Jenson through the military. The man leaning against the wall near a bank of light switches, however, was vaguely familiar. Jim searched his memory and came up with a name—Robert Allen. Not a cop, but a man of influence.

You wondered how deep this went, Simon? Try all the way to the Mayor's office, Jim thought grimly.

Of the six they'd originally identified as being involved, only Jeff Rogers was unaccounted for. Where was he?

He dropped his shoulders a fraction of an inch to ease the tension that had gathered there and met Jenson's piercing gaze with a level one of his own. Their eyes locked—pale blue ice and steel gray. Measuring. Calculating. A battle joined without physical contact.

Jenson blinked first. "Ellison." A small nod accompanied that greeting.

"Jenson." Jim parroted the man's actions.

A small, humorless smile hovered on Jenson's lips. "A man of few words, but many questions. You gave my partner a pretty hard time."

Jim's own smile was a mirror image of the vice-cop's. "Maybe you should have chosen a different messenger. One who knew the answers."

"Perhaps, although I doubt that anything less than this little get-together would have satisfied you."

"I'm far from satisfied, yet," Jim responded.

Jenson nodded again. "Down to business then. If you'll be so good as to hand Mr. Smithson your weapon, we can get started."

The Sentinel's eyes narrowed, fixing his adversary with a deadly glare.

"I understand your reticence, Detective," Jenson remarked casually. "Certainly you can appreciate ours as well. Your reputation precedes you."

Ignoring Smithson, whose soft tread he could hear behind him, Jim stepped forward, slowly closing the distance until he was within arm's reach of Jenson. Randolph and Harris had both pulled their own guns to cover him, but their leader never moved, his gaze still locked with the Sentinel's. "If that's the case, you should know better than to ask me to turn over my weapon to someone other than another officer," the ex-ranger said softly.

Deliberately, so that his movements wouldn't be misinterpreted, Jim reached back with his left hand and pulled his gun from the holster at his waist. He held the piece by the grip for a moment, pointed at the older man and then hooked his finger in the trigger guard and let the barrel drop. The weapon's handle rotated up and toward Jenson. "Of course," Jenson acknowledged, accepting the proffered weapon.

Without taking his eyes off of the older man, Jim reached down and pulled his backup piece from the holster strapped to his right ankle. He rose and handed off that gun too. "Consider this one a gesture of good faith."

Jenson tucked the weapons into the front of his belt. "Thank you, Captain," he replied, the use of Jim's old military rank a verbal salute between them. "Now if you'll remove your jacket and indulge me one more minor precaution, we can move on to the subject at hand."

With an indifferent shrug, Jim slipped out of his coat. In the process he pressed the inside of his left forearm against the phone in his pocket. The click as the connection was cut off was inaudible to anyone except him. He tossed the jacket to one of the men he didn't know and stood waiting.

Harris holstered his gun and stepped forward with a hand-held electronic detector. He walked a quick circuit around the Sentinel, sweeping the unit over the ex-ranger from head to toe.

"No wire, sir, but I am picking up metal," Harris reported.

Randolph's finger tightened on the trigger of his gun, and Smithson, who had come up behind Jim, pulled his as well. Jenson simply smiled and waved the other detectives off. "At ease, gentlemen. I think we'll let Mr. Ellison keep his other toys. As a gesture of our good faith." He met the Sentinel's gaze once more and gestured with a lift of his chin. "We might as well be comfortable while we talk."

Jenson turned and the others parted ranks to let him through. They trailed behind him like a royal honor guard. Jim followed, flanked by Smithson and Gordon. Ellison experienced a flash of deja vu when he saw what Jenson was leading them toward. In the middle of the empty factory floor stood a long table with seating for five. A single straightback chair occupied the space in front of the table. Jenson's idea of 'comfortable' reminded the Sentinel of the set up for a military board of inquiry. He'd sweated out interviews in a similar setting, justifying his actions in front of a panel of high ranking officers and CIA agents several times after he'd returned from Peru.

A subtle power dance took place as the players arranged themselves. Jenson commanded the center position, with Randolph and Allen, the Mayor's aide, taking the seats immediately to his left and right. Smithson slid into the chair on one end and Harris took the other. The two, as of yet unknown men, took up positions behind Jenson. Gordon, who Jim assumed had been demoted to bottom end of the odd little hierarchy, stood nervously near the empty chair.

"I'm assuming you know everyone here, with the possible exception of Mr. Hiller and Mr. Barnes," Jenson said, gesturing sketchily to the men who stood behind him.

Jim's gaze slid over the two as he seated himself in the waiting chair. He'd never seen them before, but he recognized the names. Both were uniformed cops, assigned to the neighborhood where the fires and murders had taken place.

He hid his chilled reaction and met Jenson's speculative gaze. "If you're finished playing host, perhaps we could move on to why I'm here," the Sentinel said brusquely.

"You're here because we have an interest in you," Jenson responded. "My associates and I have embarked on a rather interesting business venture. You'll pardon the military analogy, but like the marines, we're looking for a few good men to fill in some select positions. You certainly have the right qualifications, and we're eager to make you a bona fide offer, however there remain some questions that need to be answered."

"You don't trust me," Ellison said flatly.

"Quite so. You're an enigma, Ellison. A paradox that's both intriguing and unsettling at the same time. You were a loner for years, then you suddenly team up with a wet-behind-the-ears college kid. Your track record as a cop had been good, but it suddenly became impressive. Decorated veteran, top of your class at the academy, lead detective in Major Crimes, Officer of the Year... very clean slate. The Boy Scouts could have drafted you as their poster child."

Jenson's expression had been contemplative, now it turned serious. "Suddenly there's a dark side emerging. For the past several weeks it's as if you were intentionally destroying that 'white knight' reputation. You severed ties with anyone that was close to you, most notably the friendships with your captain and the partner that's been your constant shadow for the last two-plus years. You kicked the kid out of your home and made threats on his life. Your actions and insubordination earned you a disciplinary suspension. A somewhat suspicious turn of events, you must admit."

Jenson spread his hands in entreaty. "Surely you can see why we're somewhat hesitant to welcome you into our ranks without some kind of explanation."

"I already gave my explanation to your partner. I don't make it a habit of repeating myself," Jim answered darkly. His gaze flickered toward Gordon for a moment and he had the satisfaction of seeing the man flinch.

"Ah, yes," Jenson murmured, drawing the Sentinel's attention back to the table and the men seated there. "Expediency."

Jim allowed a small smile. "Exactly. My actions and attitude are dictated by what's necessary for the situation. I learned survival from the best the military had to offer."

"And is that what motivates you now? Survival?" Jenson pressed.

More than you know, asshole, Jim thought grimly. He shrugged and shook his head. "Not entirely. I simply decided that playing the game wasn't worth the effort any more. The way the deck's stacked, the chances of being promoted are pretty slim, and having seen the crap the upper echelon has to deal with, I'm not sure that it would be worth it anyway. Now, if I were in charge of making the rules, or I had some say in how they were executed... then I'd have to rethink my position. For the short term, at least. I have no intention of risking my neck for the unwashed masses forever."

He felt the weight of Jenson's gaze studying him, evaluating his answer. Four other sets of eyes burned with unasked questions, skepticism and more than a little fear.

Finally, without garnering his associate's opinions, Jenson made his own decision. "Good enough. Let me tell you a bit about what we have on our agenda."

The details poured out and the Sentinel absorbed them like a sponge, his expression never changing, even though the rank greed behind the murders and fires threatened to make his stomach revolt. It had begun as a simple discussion between Robert Allen and Jenson. The Mayor's aide had inside information about the city's intent to revitalize various neighborhoods. Several million dollars in Federal grant monies had already been secured. Which of the target areas the city was going to choose remained the only question.

Recognizing that whomever held the titles on the lots within the selected area stood to make a substantial profit when the properties were sold, Jenson and Allen had put together their plan. They chose one of the neighborhoods on the city's list, confident that Allen's position guaranteed they'd have the influence and connections to push their choice to the top.

Allen handled the paper shuffle while Jenson recruited the troops. The first of the purchases were simple transactions, dealing with absentee landlords who accepted the offered sums easily. They ran into a snag when it came to those properties held by the local residents. There weren't many, but they were strategically placed. Without ownership of those lots, their grand scheme was doomed. The protection racket was born out of their need to convince the resident-owners to sell, and to underwrite the cost of the overall venture.

"Unfortunately, we had to resort to extreme measures in order to meet our timetable," Jenson concluded.

"Murder, you mean," Jim said, forcing a casualness into his tone. "And the fires were set to cover the killings while generating what I suspect was another profit center when you collected the insurance money."

"From a man who's sworn to 'Serve and Protect', you don't seem at all disturbed by the facts," Jenson observed.

Jim flashed a grim smile. "Expediency, remember?"

Jenson's return smile never touched his eyes.

"You seem to have things pretty well covered," Jim observed quietly. "Just where do I fit in?"

"And what's in it for you?" Jenson almost smirked. "As my partner explained, we'd like you to return to Major Crimes. Make peace with your captain and co-workers to whatever extent is necessary so that you're reassigned to the case. As the lead detective, you'll be in a position to keep us apprised of any complications. There should be none. We've been careful so far. I promise you that we have no intention of getting sloppy now. You control the investigation and you'll be well rewarded."

"I can play the role again, with the proper motivation, but I want more than just money," Jim countered.

"Power is more attractive, isn't it?" Jenson replied. "I can assure you that this venture is only the beginning. We plan to negotiate with additional associates like Mr. Allen—people in positions of influence who can open other doors for us. We'll be able to take whatever we want."

"Assuming that you're satisfied with the results of this interview, what's the entry fee into this little club of yours?" Jim prodded. He had enough information. It was time to finish this and get the hell out, preferably in one living breathing piece if he could manage it. He'd heard no sounds from the outside of the building to suggest that any backup had arrived. Either they hadn't been able to trace the call or they'd come up empty on the search for this particular property. He knew Blair would have done his best, but if this building was owned by Allen or one of the others that they hadn't already identified, the odds that the younger man would pick it out were slim to none.

"Just a simple initiation ceremony."

Jim locked gazes with Jenson and slowly rose to his feet. "Who do you want me to kill?"

"What if we said, your ex-partner?" Randolph asked, breaking his silence for the first time.

"I'd have to count you all as fools and reject your offer, generous as it appears," Jim answered, letting his deadly blue- eyed stare drift across the assembled men.

Allen's expression was intent. Curious. "Why?"

"Because there's no profit in it," the Sentinel retorted. His harsh expression gave no hint of the rage he felt at the casualness with which these men discussed ending his Guide's life. "There's no percentage. Not for me. Not for you. I have no intention of winding up in a cell charged with murder, and that's exactly what would happen if Sandburg turned up dead right now. My experience and connections won't do you any good if I'm in jail."

"And if we insisted?" Randolph pressed.

"You won't."

A tense silence stretched between them. Just when Jim was certain that Randolph or one of the others would push the matter too far, he caught the sound of a car engine outside of the building. Seconds later, the grating of the garage door being raised ended the standoff.

The Sentinel turned, senses dialed up to maximum. Probing. He'd already picked up the presence of two people within the vehicle. One of the heartbeats was racing. He focused his hearing, afraid of what he would find.

And almost sighed in relief.

It wasn't his Guide.

"You're right, Detective," Jenson murmured. Rising from his chair he stepped around the table and stopped at Jim's side. "Mr. Sandburg can be dealt with later if the need arises. We're ready to welcome you to the unit." He gestured toward the car that had just pulled in.

Jim moved forward to follow Jenson who was already striding toward the car and its occupants. The others followed as well. The Sentinel identified Jeff Rogers before he slid from behind the steering wheel, pulling a struggling, blindfolded and handcuffed figure out of the vehicle with him.

Ellison found himself face to face with the man that his young partner had been so worried about protecting. Andrew Jankowski.

"You're late, Mr. Rogers," Jenson frowned, eyeing the final member of his team with disapproval.

"Yeah, well the old geezer here decided to be uncooperative," Rogers grumbled, grabbing the old man and shoving him forward.

Jankowski stumbled, but regained his balance.

"Why, Mr. Jankowski, what poor manners," Jenson smirked. He reached out and tore off the old man's blindfold.

Jankowski blinked and glared at the circle of men surrounding him. He squared his shoulders and raised his head defiantly. "Courtesy's wasted on animals," he hissed.

"I assume you recognize our guest, even though you haven't had the pleasure of meeting him until now," Jenson said amiably, ignoring the old man's angry retort as he glanced at Jim. "Mr. Jankowski is the gentleman that your partner spoke with a few weeks ago. Sandburg's description of him was very accurate. It made finding him quite simple."

The Sentinel felt the full force of Jankowski's scathing stare and heard the surprised intake of breath.

"The young man... the night of the fire. He was your partner? You're the one that he wanted me to trust?" Jankowski shook his head in disgust. "I should have let him fall and break his neck."

"Caustic to the end, eh, old man?" Jenson taunted, his mouth a savage sneer. "You've been a troublesome complication, Jankowski. Stirring up the locals with your stories of the old days. Trying to convince them not to sell even when we made them generous offers for those dung holes. Spewing your antiquated garbage about civic responsibility. You should have kept your mouth shut."

Jenson backhanded Jankowski and the old man staggered sideways a step. He raised bound hands to his cracked and bleeding lip. Ugly purple-black bruises testified to the rough handling the man had seen, but he still held himself with pride, staring at his enemies in contempt.

"But you didn't," Jenson continued, a smug grin creasing his face. "Now you pay for that mistake and do us a service at the same time."

Jenson snapped his fingers and Hiller moved to Jim's side, holding out a gun. The Sentinel took the weapon, feeling the weight of the deadly metal laying heavy within his soul.

"Mr. Hiller was scheduled to have the privilege, but he's agreed to step aside for our newest recruit. You should feel honored, Jankowski. Ellison's an ex-ranger. Army. Just like you."

The old man's face was a mask of stunned betrayal which shifted quickly to derision. "Be careful who you insult, punk," he snarled, meeting Jim's eyes with a glare of pure fury.

In one smooth move, Jim crossed the distance between them and raised his gun, placing the barrel against Jankowski's temple. "Watch your mouth, old man," the ex-ranger warned softly.

There was no trace of fear in his victim's eyes. Ellison wanted to smile.

No, not smile... salute. Hope I live long enough to be as tough as this man.

The Sentinel cast his senses outward, hoping to find some sign of Simon bringing in the cavalry, but there was nothing. It was up to him.

Holding Jankowski with a frigid, blue-eyed glare, the Sentinel relied on his other senses to feed him the data he needed. Shuffles of leather and rubber soles against the concrete; a harsh chronic smoker's cough; heavy, excited breathing; the scrape of denim; and the thunder of heartbeats, fixed the nine men's positions in his mind. Rogers stood just beyond the old man and Jenson a few feet to Jim's right. The rest stood in a rough semi-circle, waiting with evident impatience for the kill.

Like the carrion-eaters that they are, the Sentinel raged silently. Vulturous birds of prey... damn them. They took an oath.

And so had he. One far more ancient and binding than any that these men could have even dreamed of. The proud old man in his gunsights might have recognized the truth of it—the need to protect; the need to find justice for those who couldn't fight for themselves—but at the moment he was blinded by his own anger and feelings of betrayal.

"Go ahead. Kill me," Jankowski hissed. "Look right into my eyes and pull the trigger. If you can."

"Oh, I assure you that's going to happen, old man," Jim sneered, never flinching or lowering the gun. Still hoping to run the bluff, he directed his next words to Jenson. "I assume you want him done the same way as the others."

"Yes. One to the back of the head," Jenson answered. "It will reinforce our message to the rest of the holdouts. That gun's clean, by the way. No way to trace it to us, or to you."

The ex-ranger didn't blink an eye although his gut tightened. This sucks, he thought, using his partner's patented expression "Tell me where you want it finished," he requested, hoping to buy a little more time. If this killing ran to pattern, there would be another building set ablaze to cover the murder. The factory wasn't within the target area. He hoped that Jenson would order him to take Jankowski to the selected site. Even if half of the men went as chaperones, the odds that he could overcome them and get both the old man and himself to safety increased dramatically.

"Here. Now," Jenson said quietly.

Jim nodded and tightened his grip on the weapon, his mind racing, his expression giving nothing of his inner turmoil away. The gun felt light and almost like a toy in his hands. His eyes narrowed as suspicion bloomed. Was the gun actually loaded? He dialed up his sense of smell.

Gun oil... it's been cleaned very recently... just a trace of gunpowder... no reek of metal casings... damn... I don't think there's any ammunition in the clip... a bluff... another test... Jenson's not sure of me so going to let me hang myself... I pull the trigger and I'm in... if I don't shoot they gun both of us down... loaded or not... How sure are you, Ellison? Willing to risk a man's life on these senses of yours? Blair would say go for it, but he's the one with absolute faith in your abilities. You're the one with the doubts...

Jim took a deep breath and made his decision. When in doubt, follow the wisdom of your Guide, Sentinel, he told himself.

Unfortunately Jankowski chose that moment to take matters into his own hands. The old man jerked away from the gun, lowered his head, and barreled into Jim. One bony shoulder struck Ellison mid-chest, throwing the detective off balance. At the same time Jankowski jerked his head upward, the top of his skull connecting with the underside of Jim's jaw. The impact drove the Sentinel's teeth together with an audible click and snapped his head back.

Silently cursing the old man's timing, Jim immediately changed tactics, shifting from attacked to attacker. Clutching Jankowski, the Sentinel used their combined momentum and weight to carry them several steps backward. As the two men tumbled toward the floor, Jim swept outward with one leg, knocking the feet out from under the two men standing closest to them. Gordon and Hiller wavered and toppled like errant bowling pins, carrying Allen to the floor in a jumble of thrashing arms and legs as well.

The ex-ranger hit the floor and rolled away from Jankowski, pushing the old man flat against the concrete and rising fluidly to his feet in one blurred motion. He homed in on the next closest target—Randolph. Jim raised the weapon he still held and pressed the trigger. There was a click, not the reassuring sound of a bullet leaving the chamber. The gun was useless—empty as he'd suspected.

Nonetheless, it was still a weapon and significantly harder than his fist. Ellison stepped toward the advancing man. He swung the gun in a punishing arc, connecting with Randolph's jaw. The force of the blow sent the other detective reeling.

The Sentinel's mind registered four enemies down as he pulled a knife free from its hiding place in his left boot. He feinted right toward Smithson, then lunged to the left to take down Jenson. He grabbed the vice-cop's jacket and spun both of them toward the concrete. Jenson rolled with the movement and even as they fell he jabbed upward, striking Ellison's right elbow with an expert blow that jarred the knife from Jim's suddenly nerveless fingers. The Sentinel grunted as the air whooshed out of his lungs and he ended up on the unyielding floor with Jenson's weight pinning him down.

His head snapped to the right as Jenson's fist connected with his jaw. Jim fought off the blackness, trying to free himself. The air was filled with the sounds of scuffling feet; grunts as flesh struck flesh, moans of pain; the metallic slide of a weapon being primed; and his Guide's voice ringing in his head —"Stay out of your own way, man!"

Instinct and training took over, launching the Sentinel into action again as he fought back. He wrenched his arms free of Jenson's hold and struck out with his fists, pummeling short blows into his adversary's ribs. The resulting grunts of pain energized him and he arched his back, driving one knee upward at the same time.

Jenson collapsed to the side, doubled over and gasping. Jim rolled in the opposite direction, snagging one of his guns from the other man's waist. He lurched to his feet and took two running steps toward Jankowski. The old man was crouched on the floor next to Barnes, who he had somehow managed to take out. The Sentinel heard the cocking of two more guns and whirled around, resolutely placing himself between Jankowski and death, his own weapon rising.

The explosion as someone fired, blasted the Sentinel's hearing. He was reeling in anguish before the burning pain registered midway between the center of his chest and his right shoulder. Ellison fell backwards, crashing into Jankowski and knocking the older man aside. Dazed and half blinded by the sweat pouring into his eyes, Jim struggled to get up, swinging his head groggily toward where he thought his attackers would be. He caught a blurred glimpse of jeans-clad legs just before something hard struck him along the left side of the head. A regretful apology to his Guide and the old man that he'd failed to save flashed through his mind before a lightning bolt of red- hot agony seared his sight and darkness took him.

Seething with fury, Jenson glared down at Ellison's motionless body. "You're good, Ellison. I almost bought the act. Almost." He shifted his gaze to Jankowski who stood unresisting in Rogers' grasp, a stunned look of horror on his face. "You blew it old man. Army was on your side all along."

Gordon stumbled up, glanced at the blood pooling under Jim and grabbed his partner's arm in panic. "Jesus, Phil... What are we going to do now?"

"We're going to finish off tonight's work as scheduled," Jenson answered, shirking off Gordon's grip and shooting a disgusted glance at his partner. "We'll take them to the site and finish things off there. Ellison will just be another unexplained body. It'll look like he was investigating the fires and got careless."

"He knew about us," Allen said quietly, joining them at last.

"It would appear so," Jenson said darkly. "Somewhere along the line someone's made a mistake." He turned his glare on the assembled men. "That won't happen again," he declared.

"If Ellison was on to us, then we've got some damage control to do besides tonight's cleanup," Randolph murmured.

Jenson nodded. "Starting with Sandburg. That punk's got to be in on this—that's why Ellison got him out of the picture. We'll finish this and then find him, wherever he's gone to ground. He'll tell us who else was involved and how much evidence they've got." Jenson gestured toward Jim. "Strip him of anything that looks like a weapon and then load him up with the old man. Be thorough. He's probably carrying enough gear to take out a small army. Move it gentlemen. I want to be clear of this location within ten minutes."

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side.

Blair's universe was shrinking.

Two hours earlier, it had included every mile of the city of Cascade. Simon's call had sent him into a flurry of frantic activity. He'd scrutinized every insurance record that he had in his possession, desperate to figure out where Gordon—assuming he'd handled the pickup—might have taken his partner.

The world had been reduced to the geometric proportions of six square blocks thirty minutes later, when Joel had contacted him to let him know that Rafe and Brown had managed to trace Jim's cell phone to a manufacturing district in the older part of town.

It had shrunk to 23,000 feet of deserted factory space five minutes after that. Taggert had called again. Simon was confident that they had a fix on the exact location and he was moving into position.

The news that the signal was no longer active had constricted the viable space around the anxious young man to a seven foot by two foot section of threadbare carpeting in a seedy motel room.

Blair had paced, hard-pressed to control his rising fear and to ignore the printouts which lay strewn across every flat surface of the room, taunting him with his failure. Thirty minutes of examining the weave of the rug and the tips of his sneakers, he'd punched in the speed dial to reach Joel. Talking to Taggert had been far from reassuring. He hadn't heard from the backup team either. The 'no news is good news' adage hadn't been the least bit comforting.

Fourteen square feet had became eight as his stride had grown shorter and his nerves more frazzled. Eight had become four, finally reduced to the footprint that his battered Nike's occupied as he ground to a halt. Shaking so hard that he was unable to take another step, his mind obsessed on the passage of time. Too much time. And no reassuring phone call.

Stress-induced fatigue had dropped him to where he sat, a forlorn, cross-legged figure on a lumpy bed. Mind and body burning with the certainty that his Sentinel was in grave danger, he was vaguely surprised that he himself hadn't already ceased to exist—extinguished, like the rest of his world, in a puff of smoke.

After all, what good is a Guide or a Shaman with no Sentinel to lead and counsel? What good is an observer without a detective to traipse around after? What good is it to be alive when your best friend was...

Blair's bloodshot eyes swung to the door. He wanted to break down that barrier and reclaim his world again. To scour the depths of the city on his own. To run, screaming into the night and somehow find a way to his partner's side.

But his own words bound him. His promise to Joel to 'stay put' he would have broken in a flash. His oath to his Sentinel was another matter entirely—one formed by honor, trust and faith.

He shot off the bed as heavy pounding rattled the front door and the sound of Simon's voice urgently calling his name thundered through the cracks in the walls. Blair fumbled the safety chain in his frantic efforts. Banks shoved one shoulder against the flimsy panel and the scream of tortured metal and stripped screws sent the younger man stumbling back several steps to avoid the door as it crashed inward.

"Grab your things, Sandburg, we're getting you out of here," Simon ordered tersely.

"Where's Jim?" Blair was surprised at the steadiness of his own voice.

"We don't know."

The regret and concern that tinged the captain's brusque answer and the grim expression on his face made Blair's heart twist, but he struggled to retain his composure. He turned back to the bed and began stuffing items into his backpack. "You located the factory?" he asked softly.

Simon nodded. "Yes, but by the time we'd determined that it was safe to go in, the place was deserted."

Puzzled, Blair glanced up and met Simon's gaze. "If there was no one there, then how do you know..." His voice died and he swallowed. Hard. "What did you find, Simon?" he whispered, already dreading the answer.

"There were partial tire tracks on the floor not too far from the main garage door. At least two vehicles had been inside. Looked like one of the vehicles was leaking oil. It could have been the car Jim's contact was driving—the thing sounded like it was on its last legs. There was a fair coating of dirt and dust. Enough to find evidence of shoe and boot prints. Jim's boots leave a pretty distinctive pattern."

Simon drew in a deep breath and Blair felt his stomach lurch.

"There were signs of what was probably a fight involving several men. There was also an area of the floor near where we found the oil that had been scrubbed clean. I didn't want to bring in forensics yet, but I can only think of one reason for that much effort."

Blair felt the blood drain from his face and he leaned against the side of the bed for support.

"We also found this."

Simon handed Blair a three inch wide coil of narrow-gauge wire. The anthropologist let the strand spiral out to its full twenty inch length and stared at it in confusion. "I don't..."

"That's a garrote. High tensile steel," Banks explained. "It's the kind of thing Jim would have learned to use in the rangers. Easy to conceal. It'd be a logical backup weapon, especially if you thought you were going to be searched."

It was Blair's turn to nod. He gathered the wire back into a tight coil and slipped it into his pocket. Given Jenson's military background, the garrote could have been his, or one of his men's, but the worried Guide's instincts told him that Simon was correct in assuming it was Jim's. The ex-ranger would have planned for any contingency, including the possibility—no, certainty—that Banks had just mentioned.

Simon didn't spell it out... of course he doesn't have to... Things went to hell and Jim's either dead or badly wounded. Let's hope for the latter. Let's not even contemplate why they cleaned that space on the floor, or how much blood that meant...

The anthropologist swallowed against the bile that had risen in his throat and reached for his headset and CDs, mechanically stuffing them into his bag.

"Guess that explains why you practically broke down the door," he murmured as he slipped the backpack on his shoulder and looked up to meet Simon's gaze once more, struggling to project more confidence than he felt. "Okay. I'm ready. What's the plan?"

"Joel's dug in at a motel just a block away. He'll run surveillance on this place. If Jenson or one of his men comes looking for you, we'll gather them in."

Blair breathed a small sigh of relief. "Great. That leaves us free to look for Jim." He immediately started gathering up the insurance records. "We'd better take these with us," he muttered as he darted about the small room to retrieve the precious sheets. "I should know them by heart, all the addresses, I mean..."


"... but I don't want to take the chance I forgot something, or transposed a number, you know? Now's not the time to waste time, right?"


"... I figure we'll start with the process of elimination thing," Blair rambled on, not even registering Simon's attempts to break into his overdrive monologue. "We'll check out the properties we know they hold the deeds and insurance coverage on. If we don't find any sign of them, then we'll just cruise the streets. I mean, how hard can it be to find a small army of crooked cops and one Sentinel in less than ten city blocks?"

Blair's voice cracked as a wave of despair tightened his throat. Shaking his head he reached toward another pile of papers stacked on the chair near the door, only to find his path blocked and his wrist pinned in a firm, dark grip. Stunned and surprised he looked up and met Simon's determined glare.

"You're not going anywhere near that neighborhood, Sandburg," Banks decreed.

Blair pulled angrily out of Simon's hold. "The hell I'm not."


"Don't 'Sandburg' me, Simon," Blair retorted heatedly. "I've done everything you and Jim wanted throughout this whole damn case. I am NOT sitting on the sidelines any longer. My partner's out there, and if he's not already dead, he's sure to be a corpse before the night is over. We have to find him. I have to find him. A Guide's duty is to protect his Sentinel. I let all of you sidetrack me from that obligation up until now, but no longer."

"You go out there and you'll be a dead man the second Jenson gets his hands on you," Simon thundered. "Right now you're the only witness who can testify to everything that you and Jim discovered. I can't allow you to jeopardize the case, or your own safety."

"I don't care about the case, Simon! All I care about is getting Jim out of this mess alive! I can't believe you don't feel the same way!"

Banks grabbed Blair by both arms and gave him a hard shake. "I do feel the same way! But I'm also a cop and protecting you as the prime witness to a major crime is MY duty." Simon's harsh expression softened and his grip loosened slightly. "Besides, you're not the only one that made Jim a promise."

Blair flinched at the reminder. He had promised to keep himself safe, but that was before Jim's life was at stake. Surely the Sentinel would forgive him this breach of trust—and if he didn't? What was his soul worth if one half of it was gone?

"I'm prepared to live with the consequences of breaking that vow, Simon," he whispered, holding his head high.

"Well, I'm not," Banks countered, releasing the younger man. "I gave Jim my word that I'd personally take charge of your safety. If anything went wrong, I agreed to keep you out of the action. That's exactly what I intend to do. You're going to get in that car outside and I'm going to take you back to my place. You're going to do exactly what I tell you and if I so much as get a hint that you're thinking about sneaking off to go running around on your own, I'll handcuff you to the pipes under the bathroom sink."

The older man's face was set in stone. He looked just like Jim did when he pulled his 'I'm the boss' routine. It was an expression that Blair was all too familiar with, and one that he usually had to back down from—at least temporarily. But this time the stakes were too high to give way without a fight.

"Damn it, Simon. Don't do this! Jim's depending on me. On us! We're the only chance he has!" Blair pleaded.

"I'll make you a deal, Sandburg," Simon growled. "You tell me where he is, and we'll go get him. Can you do that? Can you use this bizarre connection that the two of you have as Sentinel and Guide to tell me precisely where he is?"

Blair inhaled sharply. Banks had hit a nerve. A raw one. You don't know how badly I wish I could do just that Simon, he thought bitterly, closing his eyes against the tears of frustration that threatened.

Tongues of flame flickered against the inside of his eyelids and he shuddered. Maybe there was a way. When he opened his eyes again, they blazed with an inner fire of their own and he barely heard Simon's stammered apology.

"Blair, I'm sorry... I shouldn't have said that... We'll do our best to find him. Rafe and Brown are out looking. They'll call us as soon as they find anything."

"You just made me a promise, Simon. And I'm going to hold you to it," Blair said firmly. "Let's get going. I've got some work to do."

He strode out the door to the waiting car, ignoring the captain's suspicious stare.

Blair didn't utter a sound during the drive to Simon's apartment. He looked out the passenger window, his vision focused not on the wet streets, but inward. Simon's words played over and over again in his mind.

//"You tell me where he is, and we'll go get him... Can you do that?... Can you use this bizarre connection that the two of you have as Sentinel and Guide to tell me precisely where he is?"//

I could do it... Not as Jim's Guide, but as his Shaman... if I have the courage...

Blair forced himself to take a deep breath and released it slowly. He focused on the sensation of the air moving out of his lungs, willing the individual molecules of vapor to carry away the fear and tension that gripped his body and mind. To act as the Sentinel's Shaman would mean facing the firewall, something he'd been unable to do. There was a connection between the vision and his partner. It had been a premonition of danger—of death for his Sentinel. He was sure of it. All he had to do was figure out what it meant and how to alter the outcome.

He remained silent as Simon opened the door to his apartment and ushered Blair inside.

"Why don't you try to get some rest, Sandburg," Banks suggested, gesturing toward the bedroom that Daryl used on the weekends that he visited. "I'll make a few calls and see what progress Rafe and Brown have made."

Blair wanted to scream that rest was the last thing on his mind at that moment, but he didn't have the energy to waste on another verbal confrontation. Gripping the strap on his pack, he nodded his assent and crossed to the room that Simon had indicated. He stepped inside and closed the door. Leaning back against it, he absorbed the strength of the hard, smooth surface and inhaled the enclosed darkness, trying to settle his nerves even further.

A flip of the switch just inside the doorway bathed the modest space in a warm soft glow. The queen sized bed looked inviting, but he had no intention of giving in to the need for sleep. He pulled the backpack from his shoulder and crossed over to the bed. Upending the bag, he poured out its contents. With trembling fingers, he sorted through the mess, selecting specific items that he tossed into a second pile. The balance he stuffed back into the pack.

He stretched, rolling his head in clockwise, then counter- clockwise circles to loosen the tension in his neck and shoulders. Blair took several more deep, cleansing breaths and then seated himself in a full lotus on the center of the bed.

Out of the pile he drew his CD player and the drumming disk. He inserted the CD and fiddled with the controls. Queuing up the track he'd played the night before, he donned the headset. He reached for the remaining item—the notebook in which he'd catalogued his thoughts and impressions of the vision. He didn't need to open it to see the words that he'd scribbled on those pages. They burned in his mind like bright beacons. He could follow them to the answers he needed, if he could overcome his own fears.

But can I?... I failed before... I couldn't face that wall of fire... I panicked every time I got close...

An image of his Sentinel, blood pooling slowly around him, filled his mind. He angrily pushed his doubts away and began the breathing exercises that would lead him into the beginning stages of a meditative trance. Impatient, he turned on the player long before he was in the proper mindset. His body jerked at each beat of the drums. Their echoes pulsed in discordant patterns of sound and energy. He tried to mentally wade through the barrier of sound, but it twisted and enveloped him.

Sound became flames that leaped to life, searing his outstretched hands as he attempted to force his way forward. He tried to see beyond the fire, but it was as if it filled the universe. A strangled cry was choked from him and he fell back...

Smothered by defeat, he came out of the trance, shaking with anger. He ripped off the headset and threw the notebook across the room. He clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned forward, rocking out the extremes of his emotions.

Why can't I do this? What's wrong with me? he agonized.

Abruptly, the sound of Taggert's voice filled his head. //"You're not acting like yourself, Sandburg."//

Blair's eyes widened and he froze in mid-rock.

The memory of sitting in his office, pondering the same thought that Joel's words evoked, surfaced—as did the recollection of staring at himself in a mirror and seeing a stranger's face looking back.

Held motionless by an elemental truth, he felt the world tilt dizzily on its axis again, as it fought to right itself.

My God... Could it be that simple?

By pure force of will he brought himself under control. He dropped his hands to his knees, turning them palm up, feeling the coarseness of his denim jeans and the warmth of his own body heat against his skin. He raised his head and straightened his back, rolling his shoulders so that he sat erect once again. Closing his eyes he breathed deeply and turned his sight inward, using the drumming of his own heartbeat to guide him.

Calm... find your center... yours... not that of the man that you've created over the past few weeks... but yours... that which is truly Blair Sandburg's... that which is the Guide's... the truth that the Shaman requires... find the balance that you've lost... shatter the illusion... you know who you are...

"I am friend and partner. I am Guide and Shaman to the Sentinel," Blair whispered aloud.

The firewall filled his mind like a roaring inferno. This time he didn't flinch from it, nor did he try to force his way through. He held back, studying the flames. They hissed and danced like a living entity.

"I know what you are," Blair whispered. "In my ignorance and fear I mistook you for death, ignoring the truth that fire also cleanses and renews, like a prairie fire bringing life out of the blackened debris of destruction. I forgot that, just as I forgot who I was. Jim warned me, but I didn't listen. I let the illusion gain substance until it was reality. I let myself believe that the physical separation between myself and my Sentinel had severed the ties that bind us. I allowed myself to listen to the pretense of the angry words between us and let them drown out the voice of my heart. I betrayed the Shaman's need to seek truth and cloaked my soul in lies."

In his mind, he took a step closer to the firewall, feeling the heat beat against him, hearing the crackle of the waiting flames.

"But no more. I know who I am again. And I know my duty as his Shaman. I need to understand your purpose, your truth. Not for myself, but for my Sentinel. I broached you once for a brief instant when I saw the light of your fire in his eyes. I reached through you and touched him—he was strong and solid on the other side just as always. In that split second I put aside my own fears and acted from my heart, with his safety my only concern. Destroy what you will of me, but his life waits on the far side of your existence and I will do whatever it takes to save it."

With a roar, the flames surged forward, engulfing him. This time, instead of pulling back, or trying to fight it, he nurtured the fire, feeding it his memories, his desires, his dreams, his need. He fought to hold onto the image of his Sentinel that he'd built in his mind, drawing on the connection that they shared to hold his own.

Unbidden, the red tongues of fire became blood—his Sentinel's- -and his concentration wavered. Pain such as he'd never imagined burned across his skin and a deafening wind stoked the flames even higher.

He screamed his defiance into its fury and filled his mind with the memory of clear blue eyes—the color of the morning sky reflected in a cool pool of water fed by a mountain stream.

The strength that lay behind those eyes extinguished the pain. Blair stepped forward, becoming one with the fire as he shed the charred remnants of the persona he'd assumed. No longer a stranger to its consciousness, the Shaman moved through the red-orange sea like a living flame himself...

And stepped beyond it into another memory.

In yon smoke concealed

"Come on, Simon. Can't this tank go any faster? We've got to get there!"

Banks let the squeal of rubber tires on wet pavement answer for him as he tapped the brakes and spun the wheel to the left, guiding his special edition Taurus around another corner. He spared a glance for the 'backseat driver' in the passenger seat next to him before turning his attention back to the slick streets.

The darkly subdued and brooding young man of the past two weeks was gone, replaced by the barely contained bundle of white energy that had always typified the anthropologist in his most—at least to Simon's way of thinking—aggravating and headstrong mode. Banks welcomed the change, surprised at how much he'd missed the 'real' Sandburg.

"Just keep your seatbelt on and your hand off the door release, Sandburg," Simon growled, in earnest disgust. "I don't know how I let you talk me into this in the first place."

"Because you're a man of honor, Simon. You issued a challenge and I met it," Blair replied softly.

There was no hint of smugness in his tone, and none on his expressive face when Simon risked another look. Worry, exhaustion that the nervous energy held at bay, and a trace of fear, yes, but those faint clues were all but wiped out by the light of determination shining in the grad student's eyes.

It was the same adamant expression that had filled them when Sandburg had burst out of the guest room ten minutes earlier. His abrupt and emphatic entrance had practically given Simon a heart attack. The frantic explanation for his actions had almost had Banks reaching for the phone to call an ambulance. He'd thought for sure that the kid had gone off the deep end, spouting a rapid stream of nonsense about firewalls and premonitions.

I was sure the stress had gotten to him and he'd just folded. That he needed to be sedated. But one long look into those eyes...

Simon shook his head and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

Admit it Banks, he got to you the same way he always gets to Ellison. You stonewalled him so he pulled an end-and-around like a pro running back. Now you're scrambling to keep up. I don't get it... How could Blair know where Jim is? Some sixth sense or just some new Sentinel/Guide weirdness?

Simon saw the light ahead turn red and gunned the engine. The car streaked through the intersection to the accompaniment of honking horns and at least one shouted obscenity from a cab driver whose taxi they nearly clipped in passing.

Damn, this is nuts... driving pell-mell across town... It's madness, chasing after a vision... But the kid looked so certain when he claimed to know where Jim was being held... How could I not check it out?

"Don't you think we should call Rafe and Brown, Simon?" Blair asked, interrupting Banks' mental grumblings. "And anyone else you think we can trust? We're going to need backup. An ambulance too, for Jim."

"I'm not pulling them off their own search until I'm sure this isn't some wild trip into the Sandburg Zone," Simon answered grimly.

A small, firm hand wrapped around his right forearm and he glanced sideways to find Blair staring at him, dark eyes pleading.

"I know you don't understand this, Simon. I'm not sure I do either, to tell the truth," the grad student admitted, his voice tight with strain. "Call it a hunch or instinct, or whatever you're comfortable with. Just trust me. We need to go back to the site of the sixth fire. That's where this all started. That's when the vision of the firewall first appeared. I just didn't understand the significance until now. Until I faced it. When I walked through the flames, I came out standing right where I was when I met Jankowski. The building where they've taken Jim—it's the one across the street from the apartments they torched that night."

Blair squeezed Simon's arm once and then let go, turning his gaze back to the darkened night. "Jim will be there. So will Jenson and his men... if we're not already too late."

The last came out as a cracked whisper and Simon frowned. If they didn't find Jim in time, the kid was going to crash and crash hard. He didn't relish the idea of being the one left behind to pick up the pieces—especially when half of them were missing.

He pressed down a little harder on the accelerator. Only a few more miles to go.

Blair ground his teeth, but kept his frustrated comments to himself when Simon slowed the car to a crawl before they'd reached their destination. He chided himself for his impatience. The captain was being justifiably cautious. They couldn't just blow in there and demand that Jenson and his men release Jim and give themselves up.

Although it would be nice if they would, Blair mused wistfully. He sent a silent round of encouraging thoughts in the direction of his Sentinel. Just hang on a little longer, Jim. We'll get you out of there.

"I don't know about this, Sandburg. Outside of a few wrecks that look like they've been rusting at the curb since the beginning of the decade, the street's deserted. Not a soul in sight," Simon observed as he peered through the rain- splattered windshield. "Which building did you say it was?"

Blair wiped away the condensation that had formed on his own window. The rain had started again—a fine misting drizzle combined with a clinging ground-fog that had reduced their visibility drastically.

"Third from the corner." Blair pointed toward a large, four- story brick apartment building on his side of the street.

"Looks deserted."

"It is. The guy that owned the property before Jenson got his hands on it had already started to gut the place. Apparently he ran out of money half-way into the renovations. It's a shame that he couldn't hold onto the property. Each floor of that building could have easily housed a dozen families."

Blair studied the structure as Simon inched the car forward.

"It's one of the few buildings that Jim and I didn't check out from top to bottom, but I'd guess the layout's pretty similar to the place that burned down across the street. One entrance at the front, another at the rear that leads out onto the alley. Some of the owners added an emergency exit to bring things up to code, but I don't know about this one. Which way do we go in?"

"We don't. Not yet."

"But Simon..."

Banks shot Blair a withering glare. "We do this my way, or not at all. Is that clear?"

"Okay, okay!" Blair responded, waving his hands in surrender. "Anything you say as long as we keep things moving."

"Oh, we'll move, all right. I'm going to drive by and take a look. You get your head down and keep it down. The last thing we need is to have one of Jenson's goons get a good look at you."

"I'll crawl under the car and hang from the front axle, if it'll get us to Jim," Blair muttered. He grabbed the release for the seat and slid it back as far as it would go, then crouched down sideways under the dash, facing the older man.

Simon eased the car forward, maintaining a slow, but steady speed as he cruised past the building that Blair had targeted.

"Still nothing," Banks reported. "Stay put, I'm going to swing around the corner and take a look down the alley."

Blair nodded, his eyes glued to the dark captain. He leaned into the seat, shifting his balance to match the motion of the car. He saw Simon take a quick glance out the window at his back and stiffened at the anger that filled the older man's face.

"Damn... there are at least four vehicles parked behind the building," Banks hissed. "Keep down. I'm going to circle the block and find a place to park us out front."

Blair felt every hole in the pavement as a separate and distinct jolt through his spine as Simon sped up the back side of the block. Banks cranked the car to the right, then right again. He had his cell phone out before he braked to a full stop.

"Rafe, I need you and Brown with whatever backup from the department you can muster at 1722 Almond Street... yeah, we think Jim's inside with Jenson and who knows what army... No, I'm not waiting for a warrant... as far as I'm concerned we've got probable cause..."

While Banks barked orders into the phone, Blair crawled up onto the seat. "Don't forget the ambulance, Simon," he reminded the older man. Banks nodded and added that requirement to the list he was reeling off.

Blair rolled down his window, trying to get a better look at the building, but his view was obscured by the rain and the windswept fog. The snick of a seat belt being released brought his attention back to Simon.

"Backup will be here in a few minutes," Banks said tersely. "You stay in the car and wait for them. I thought I saw a flash of light in the alley when we drove by... could have been someone with a cigarette. I'm going to check it out."

"It could be Gordon," Blair offered. "He's a chain smoker. Never saw him without a butt dangling from his fingers."

Simon nodded and opened the driver's door, easing silently out of the car, his gun already out of its holster. Banks paused and glared in at Blair before closing the door. "I mean it, Sandburg. Stay put. If Jim is in there, he's not alone."

Blair didn't argue, but he didn't do anything that might be interpreted as agreement, either. He watched as Simon headed down the street, using the parked cars as cover. Once Banks was out of sight, Blair slipped out of the car and followed the same path until he was just a few feet from the front entrance. He let his gaze drift upward, scanning the windows—some broken, some surprisingly still intact—for any sign of life or light.

I know you're in there, Jim, but where?

He found nothing on the first floor, nor the second. But his breath caught when he saw what he was sure was a flicker in one of the third-story windows.

Not a light, but a flame!

Propelled by the fear that they'd arrived too late, Blair shot toward the entrance. Flinging open the front door, he stumbled into the darkness.

Stairs... gotta find the stairs...

He almost gasped out loud when his groping fingers touched the smooth metal of a firedoor. Fumbling for the knob, he wrenched the door open and took several shuffling steps forward. When the toe of his shoe hit the base of a step, he reached out and grabbed the railing. Guided by instinct and the smooth metal under his fingertips, he headed upward, searching for his Sentinel.

Blair scrambled up the dark stairs as silently as he could. He was relieved that he hadn't smelled smoke yet, although he was sure that it had been flames that he'd seen in the open windows.

Maybe you just have fire on the brain... Don't start questioning a good run of luck when you find it, Sandburg, he admonished himself. No smoke and no flames means that Jim might still be alive.

Buoyed by that hope, he charged upward. He'd just passed the second floor landing when he heard the sound of a door slam shut somewhere above him. Blair froze, one sneakered foot hanging in midair, his heart pounding painfully in his chest. The thud of heavy footsteps headed his way broke him out of his fear-imposed stasis. He whirled and fled back down the steps.

He opened the firedoor to the second floor and slipped out of the stairwell. He left the door slightly ajar and plastered himself to the inside wall. Holding his breath, he peered out through the slim vertical crack, straining for some glimpse of whoever was coming down the stairs. A faint circle of light bounced from step to step, and within seconds, a figure rounded the landing and continued down toward the front entrance. There wasn't enough light from the flashlight the man carried for Blair to recognize him.

Blair exhaled slowly through his mouth, swallowing hard against a new surge of fear. The close call had reminded him that just finding Jim wasn't going to be the end of this. If his Sentinel was badly injured, it would be his responsibility as Guide to figure out a way to get both of them past an unknown number of undoubtedly well-armed cops who would like nothing better than to see them both dead.

Opening the firedoor, Blair poked his head out into the stairwell. He could hear the faint rumblings of voices up above, but he couldn't make out what they were saying.

I could really use your enhanced hearing right about now, Jim. He retreated to the relative safety behind the closed door. Okay, time for a plan... At least one guy down at the front exit and who knows how many right over my head. Maybe the safest route is the back stairs. Hopefully that's the end of the building where they're keeping Jim. Once I find him, we could head down the rear stairwell. Simon's got to have corralled whoever was out in the alley by now...

With that decision made, Blair turned and surveyed his surroundings. Two safety lights pulsed in fitful bursts along both long walls. Their intermittent glows cast a weird strobe effect across the interior. Most of the internal walls that had formed the original rooms and apartments had been demolished. The structural beams loomed like black telephone poles strung in a bizarre zig-zag pattern across the depth of the space. The abandoned remodeling blitz had left huge piles of splintered wood, jagged shards of drywall and mounds of plaster scattered like miniature chains of rugged mountains in its wake.

Blair moved cautiously forward, sliding his feet along the rubble strewn flooring. The last thing he wanted to do was run into something and announce his presence. However, when he did slam his toes into a hard, unyielding object, it came as no surprise. He clamped his mouth shut and swallowed a grunt of pain. Kneeling down, he examined his inanimate assailant.

To his delight, he found a well-equipped tool box. He quickly rummaged through the contents, stuffing two screwdrivers, a good sized hammer and a handful of nuts and bolts into his jacket pockets. He hefted a heavy pipe wrench and laid it quietly on the floor next to his feet. A lopsided grin filled his face as his fingers wrapped around a familiar cylindrical shape. He pulled the small acetylene torch from the box and clutched it to his chest. A few more seconds of digging unearthed a small lighter which he also pocketed before picking up the wrench once more.

Armed with his odd assortment of makeshift weapons, he rose to his feet and headed toward the back end of the building.

Andrew Jankowski pressed the folded length of cloth that had once been Ellison's shirt sleeve against the bullet hole in the detective's shoulder, relieved to see that the flow of blood had lessened. Part of his own shirt was wedged under the unconscious man's back, soaking up the leakage from the exit wound. Shredding their clothing to form the rough bandages had been difficult with his wrists still handcuffed, but he figured it was the least he owed to the man who'd tried to save his life.

"I've done some foolish things in my long life, but I've never been a fool until today," he murmured ruefully, staring down at the prone figure under his hands.

Their captors hadn't been gentle with the injured detective. After stripping him of an impressive array of weapons, they'd cuffed his wrists in front of him and stuffed him into the trunk of one of the vehicles. Jankowski had been forced into the back seat of a second car. He hadn't seen Ellison again until the ex- ranger was dumped on the floor of the room that they now occupied.

The harsh sounds of voices raised in angry argument caused the old man to lift his head and glance toward the door—the only way in or out of their temporary cell. The roughly 6-by 8- foot space appeared to be new construction; part of the renovations that he'd glimpsed when he'd been hauled upstairs. The small room was largely finished, except for an opening above the cheap wooden door. That area had been framed in, but hadn't been dry-walled yet, which Jankowski took for a providential twist of luck in their favor. If not for that opening, the room would have been pitch black and there would have been no way he would have managed even the rudimentary first aid that he'd applied to the detective's wounds.

Jankowski strained to make out the words of the arguing men, but all he caught were fragments. He smiled grimly. As long as they were fighting amongst themselves, he and the detective still had some time. Not that he contemplated any hope of rescue. He'd eliminated that option when he'd made his preemptive strike against Ellison.

"I should have listened to that young partner of yours," Jankowski mused softly, his gaze still fixed on the faintly lit space above the door. "Although it's still hard to believe that he was hooked up with you. Pretty mismatched pair if you ask me. He must be something special."

"He is..."

Jankowski looked down in surprise at the rough whisper. Against all reason, Ellison was awake. The warm, compassionate blue eyes that strained to remain open were a far cry from the cold, empty orbs that the detective had turned on him at the factory.

Before Ellison could attempt to move, Jankowski pressed down gently against the makeshift bandage. "Take it easy. I've almost got the bleeding stopped. You move around and you'll start it up again."

The detective's reply was an almost imperceptible nod and a soft question. "Are you wounded?" "Just my pride," Jankowski muttered. "You're the one who needs a hospital. I've done what I could, but it isn't much."

"How bad?"

"Bullet went clean through. Doesn't look like it did much damage, but you've lost a lot of blood and you're running a bit of a fever. You took a nasty knock to the head, too."

Ellison's eyes fluttered shut for a moment and Jankowski watched him closely, fearing that he'd slipped under again. A worried frown creased the detective's brow and the heavy eyelids raised once more. The old man found himself gripped in a fierce, piercing gaze.

"Sandburg... he's not here, is he?" Ellison's voice was as harsh and demanding as his glare.

"No, I don't think so. The guy in charge said something about sending one of his thugs out after him, but I haven't heard anything to suggest that they found him. Not that I can hear much beyond odd snatches of their bickering."

Jankowski gestured with a lift of his chin toward the opening above the door. Ellison slowly turned his head in that direction, his eyes narrowing and his face assuming an expression of intense concentration.

After ten long seconds, the detective shook his head in disgust. "Can't focus... can't control the dials... need my Guide..."

Jankowski eased up on the pressure he was applying to the wound and placed the back of one hand against Jim's sweaty forehead. He pulled away and repositioned his hands on the bandage, confused. The detective's fever didn't seem to be any worse than it had been a few minutes earlier.

"This guide that you need... what is it?" the old man asked softly, trying to understand what Jim's disjointed rambles meant.

"Not 'what'... who... Sandburg... grounds me... guides... can't do much... without him... not like this..."

"Now I know I've heard everything," Jankowski teased gently. "An ex-ranger admitting that he needs help from a rough around the edges kid? He must be one exceptional young man." A faint smile lifted the corner of Ellison's mouth. "He is... full of surprises... always popping up when you'd least... expect him to..."

"Any chance he's going to materialize out of the woodwork and bring the cavalry?" Jankowski asked, half in jest.

The smile died. "I hope not," Ellison answered grimly.

Jankowski nodded his understanding. It was obvious that the detective cared a great deal for the younger man that he claimed as his partner. It wasn't at all strange for Ellison to wish him far away from this deadly situation.

Jim's gaze seemed stronger as it flickered around the empty room before returning to Jankowski's face. "Where are we? Where's Jenson?"

"Is Jenson the guy in charge?" At the detective's nod, Jankowski motioned toward the door again. "He and his buddies are out there, determining our fate. Sounds like they can't quite agree on the details. As for where we are, I think we're pretty close to where I met your friend the night of the fire. We came in the back door, off an alley. They dragged me up three flights of stairs to this room. I can't be certain about the time, but I figure that it's been close to and hour and a half since you were shot."

"They'll have to... make their move soon..." Ellison observed. "They can't risk... waiting too long..."

"That was pretty much my conclusion, too. Any chance you had backup that might have followed us here?" the old man asked hopefully.

"If they'd found... the factory... they would have been here... by now. I'm afraid we're out of luck... from that quarter. Guess we'll have to... make our own. I had a second knife... in the seam of my left boot..."

Jankowski shook his head. "They took it. Along with the rest of your weapons. The one that Jenson called Randolph did a pretty thorough search."

Ellison's frown returned and he let his head fall back wearily, his eyes closing against the pain and the bad news. "I'm sorry that you got swept into this, Mr. Jankowski," he apologized quietly. "Once the APB was out, there was no way to cancel it without raising suspicions that we didn't want. Blair was worried about your safety. If we don't get out of here, he's going to blame himself for your death. And mine."

The detective opened his eyes and stared up at Jankowski. Once again they were as hard and cold as milled steel and filled with resolve. "I don't want him to carry that guilt around for the rest of his life. At least one of us has to survive this. Both of us, preferably. I'm going to need..."

Ellison's head jerked toward the door and he froze.

Jankowski glanced nervously at the door and then back to the detective. "What? What is it?"

"Someone's out there..."

Blair slumped to his knees and let the pipe wrench slip to the floor from numb fingers. He stared at the man he'd just decked and tried to convince his heart to climb down out of his throat and back into his chest where it belonged. He gave the motionless body a tentative shove with the end of the blowtorch, relieved when it didn't jump to life.

Shit... I didn't intend to play Rambo... Why'd the guy have to be standing right there when I came around the corner? Who is he, anyway?

Still wary, Blair edged closer for a better look.

No one I recognize... not one of the original six... Frowning, he silently addressed the prone figure. Guess I'll just refer to you as Number 8 and the guy out front as Number 7 until we're all properly introduced, which I sincerely hope will happen with you two on one side of a locked jail cell and me on the other. Now, what do I do with you? You're too heavy to lug very far and I haven't got any time to waste...

Blair got to his feet and took a quick look around. The prior owner had made a fair amount of progress with his efforts on the third floor. Blair had found several fully constructed rooms and had threaded his way through the skeletal wooden framing for a dozen more. He hadn't seen any signs of life until he'd come around one side of a dry-walled upright and found himself face to face with Number 8, who'd been as shocked as he was. The anthropologist had struck out with his left arm, intending to try and ward off the hands that had reached for him. He'd forgotten the fifteen pounds of pipe wrench clenched in his fist. The next thing he knew, his attacker was lying flat on the floor.

Crude, but effective—and that's all that matters at this point, Blair reminded himself. He caught sight of a door about ten feet to his left and nodded. That looks like it might have been intended as a storage closet. Precisely what I need.

He set the blowtorch on the floor and grabbed Number 8's ankles since they were the closest part of the man's anatomy to his chosen hidey-hole. He was puffing by the time he'd lugged the unwieldy body to the door and was grateful that he didn't have to drag the unconscious lump any further. He grabbed the doorknob and gave it a hard twist. It didn't turn. Blair stared at the ugly wooden panel in confusion—he hadn't expected to find it locked.

Confusion turned to irritation. I do NOT have time for this! He pulled one of the screwdrivers from his pocket, placed the tip into the keyhole at the center of the knob and shoved inward. Wincing at the sound the cheap lock core made when it broke and released, he hurriedly shouldered the door open.

Blair turned around to retrieve his unconscious adversary and suddenly found himself grabbed from behind. A pair of strong hands latched onto his jacket and dragged him backward into the room he'd assumed was empty. When he tried to struggle free, something hard struck his ankles. He fell sideways, both feet knocked out from under him. The hammer that he'd stuck in his pocket tumbled free. He snatched it up, rolled to his knees and came up swinging...

... face to face with Andrew Jankowski.

"It would seem you do pop up, and in, unexpectedly, Mr. Sandburg," the old man said dryly.

Blair gaped at him, astonished. It took a few seconds for his brain to send an intelligent signal to his vocal chords and when it did, the result was a choked, high-pitched squeak.

"Mr. Jankowski?"

"Given the present circumstances, I think we can forgo the formalities. I'd be honored if you and your partner would call me Andrew."

"My part..."

The Observer's stammered response died in his throat, replaced by an anguished whisper torn from the Guide's soul as he caught sight of the room's other occupant.


Wide-eyed with fear, the Guide scrambled to his downed Sentinel's side. Blair reached out to touch Jim—needing to assure himself that it was his partner lying there and not some illusion—and immediately snatched his hand back, hissing in dismay at the sight of the blood soaked bandage.

"Oh, man..."

His gasped whisper was barely audible, yet it elicited an unexpected response.

"You thinking of taking up carpentry... as a new career, Chief?"

Blair's gaze shifted to Jim's face. His partner stared back, pale blue eyes smiling in welcome recognition. For the second time in less than a minute, the younger man found himself speechless.

"Earth to Sandburg... come in, buddy," Jim prodded, his expression changing to one of concern.

Feeling slightly dazed, Blair touched his friend's face, rejoicing in the warmth of the skin under the tips of his trembling fingers.

"You're alive..." he whispered, his voice filled with relief and wonder.

"Still ticking," Jim joked weakly. The worried Guide cringed at the pain he saw imbedded in his Sentinel's eyes, but he was too grateful for the life that emanated from them to register any complaints with the deities that he'd mentally assigned to watch over his partner.

"Yeah, but man... you're a mess," Blair growled. "You see what happens when I let you go off alone?" The tremulous smile that filled his face negated the gruffness of his tone. "And what's that crack about carpentry for?"

The anthropologist followed the direction of Jim's glance and realized that he still held the hammer in his right hand. Blair's smile broadened to one of his trademark grins.

"What? This?" He waved the tool like a conductor brandishing a baton and then dropped it to the floor. "Just something I picked up along the way, like the rest of my skills."

Ignoring Jankowski's presence, Blair dropped into Guide mode. Putting his own fears about the severity of the bullet wound aside, he concentrated solely on his Sentinel, lowering the pitch and volume of his voice to it's most soothing.

"So... tell me how you're doing, Jim. Where are the dials?"

"Pretty far out of whack," the Sentinel admitted softly. "I didn't know it was you out there... until you made your grand entrance."

Blair reached out to take Jim's pulse and paused, frowning, when he saw the handcuffs. He dug out the second screwdriver that he'd acquired earlier.

"How 'bout we try 'em one at a time," his Guide-voice crooned, while he started to work the locks on the restraints. "Start with the pain receptors. We've got to get you on your feet."

Jim closed his eyes, opening them a few moments later when Blair uttered a satisfied grunt and snapped the locks, freeing his partner's hands.

"Nice to know I haven't lost my touch," the anthropologist murmured. He glanced down into the Sentinel's eyes. "Any luck on your end?"

"Down to four and still dropping," Jim answered.

"Good. Take it to two and then concentrate on getting the audio dial under control. I have a feeling we're going to need it."

Jim's expression shifted abruptly from pleased to troubled. "As much as I appreciate the refresher course in sensory control and the picklock service, I want to point out that you're not supposed to be here."

"Then pretend that I'm not," Blair retorted. He tossed the handcuffs aside and motioned for Jankowski to kneel down beside him so that he could work on the old man's restraints. "With any luck, I'll have you out of here before Simon realizes that I'm not still sitting down in the car like a good Observer."

"Simon's here?"

Jim started to try to get up, but Blair flattened him with a glare and a gentle touch. "Just stay put until I'm finished with these, will you?" He waited until he was sure his partner was going to do as he said before returning to the task of opening the locks on Jankowski's cuffs. "Yes, Simon's here. He's taking care of some trash out in the alley. We've also got backup on the way. And an ambulance."

"We're going to need to secure those bandages at least temporarily," Jankowski said quietly, rubbing his sore wrists gingerly.

Blair froze. "Bandages... plural?" He turned to look at Jim, his heart stuck in his throat once more. "Where else are you hurt?" His frantic gaze raked the Sentinel's body, searching for another injury.

"Take it easy, Chief," Jim urged. "One bullet, two holes. Front and back."

Jankowski's steadying hand on his shoulder helped the young Guide hold off the panic that swept over him.

"I'm no expert, but the bullet looks like it went through clean," the old man assured him. "I think he'll be fine once we get him to some medical help."

Blair nodded, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Jim's, nor could he seem to find the strength to move. He couldn't get the image of his partner lying in a rapidly spreading pool of blood out of his mind—not until the Sentinel reached out and took his hand, entwining their fingers together.

"It's going to be all right, Blair. We can do this. Together. Just like always."

"Yeah... sure..." Blair managed a small smile. "Guess I'm going to get that downtime after all. Maybe you can milk this for a couple of weeks, huh?"

Jim nodded. "Sounds like a plan, Chief."

Jankowski squeezed Blair's shoulder and gestured toward the body that lay just outside the door. "Help me haul in this trash, and then I'll give you a hand with your partner."

Leaving his Sentinel's side, even for a few seconds, was the last thing that the frazzled Guide wanted to do, but he recognized the urgency in Jankowski's voice and pushed himself to his feet.

The Sentinel watched his Guide worriedly as the younger man helped Jankowski drag Hiller's body inside the room. Blair's presence had given him the grounding that he needed to bring his senses under at least marginal control and he used them to monitor his partner closely. The anthropologist's face was lined with fatigue and the dark circles under his eyes were a stark contrast to the pale complexion.

Blair's exhausted. How the hell is he staying on his feet? His heart's pounding like it's going to jump out of his chest any minute, if he doesn't drop from a stroke first.

Yet underneath the surface signs of stress there was a strength in the slim form and a sense of purpose in those deep blue eyes that Jim hadn't seen in weeks. It was as if the radiant spirit that the Sentinel had feared was dying had been rekindled.

Or reclaimed. He's himself again. Something happened. He's fought a war and won—scarred, but victorious. What kind of battle was it? He looks worn to the bone, but otherwise physically unharmed. One of the mind and spirit, then? Some inner conflict that only Blair could resolve? Is that the threat that I felt, but didn't understand?

The Sentinel brought his confused thoughts to a halt. Explanations would have to wait. They were all still in very real danger. He was grateful to have his Guide back, but it chilled him to think of what Blair must have gone through to reach him. The young man had faced not only his own inner demons, but those that occupied the physical world as well.

The Sentinel drew upon his own inner strength and fought against the pain and weariness of his injuries. He had a Guide and a witness to protect and he was determined not to rely on whatever blind luck had carried his partner safely through the ranks of nine stone cold killers to get them out of this mess.

"Maybe I can rig something to hold those bandages in place with my jacket," Blair muttered, shirking out of the garment and moving back to Jim's side. He dug a handful of objects out of one pocket, transferring them to the front pocket of his jeans. "Andrew, I'm going to need your help here."

The old man cuffed and gagged Hiller before positioning himself at Jim's right side, across from Blair. He eased one hand under the Sentinel's injured shoulder and steadied the bandage on the exit wound. He glanced up at Blair and signaled his readiness.

"Okay, Jim," Blair murmured, sliding his arm under his partner's good shoulder for support. "We're going to sit you up. Just concentrate on breathing, all right?"

Jim nodded. "Let's do it." He concentrated on holding the pain dial level as the two men lifted, physically doing what he could to assist their efforts. He managed to choke back all but a small grunt as agony surfed through his body at the change of position. Blair wrapped both arms around him for a moment and anchored him against a tide of dizziness.

"You're doing great, big guy." His Guide's tone was filled with encouragement, but the younger man's eyes broadcast fear and regret at having caused his Sentinel additional pain.

"So are you," Jim responded. "The jacket's a good idea... use the sleeves like the ties on a sling..." "Got ya," Blair muttered as he wrapped the garment around his partner as instructed and tied off the sleeves. The hastily rigged support trapped Jim's right arm across his chest, but it held the bandages in place. "This should do it 'til we get out of here. Ready for the full upright position?"

Jim was standing a few seconds later, leaning into the support of his Guide. Blair's arm tightened around his waist. With his arm draped over the younger man's shoulder and his wrist locked in the anthropologist's firm grasp, the Sentinel drew upon the offered strength and adjusted the mental sensory dials once more. He smiled, grimly. His control was back, but the blood loss had drained him, making him dangerously weak. Resolutely pushing that frailty aside, he concentrated on the rough voices of Jenson and his men.

"Sounds like they're winding down their argument," he reported. "Time to go."

"We're closest to the back stairs," Blair murmured as he guided them out of the storeroom. "Hold on just a second." The Sentinel raised one eyebrow curiously as his Guide leaned over and snagged a small acetylene torch from the floor. Blair hefted it in his right hand and shot Jim a grin. "Can't forget my backup weapon."

The Sentinel gave him a terse nod. He had no intention of seeking out a fight. They were seriously under-equipped and out-numbered, which meant flight was definitely the way to go. Jankowski had offered Jim Hiller's gun, but the detective had pressed him to keep it. Even if he was a little rusty, the old man had the training and right now he was steadier on his feet—and had both hands free. A welding torch wasn't going to have much impact against the firepower that Jenson and his men had at their disposal, but if it gave Blair some comfort, Jim wasn't about to argue.

With painstaking care Blair guided them through the maze of half-formed walls and piles of lumber toward the rear of the building. It was slow going. His Guide stumbled several times as they picked their way through darkness broken only by the dim illumination of some randomly placed safety lights. The Sentinel clenched his jaw, dialed down the pain another notch and urged them forward.

They rounded a corner and entered a hallway that appeared to be nearly finished. Open doorways gaped on both sides of the corridor. Blair scooted them past the empty rooms that they represented.

His Guide's forward momentum slowed as they approached the far end. "Almost there," he whispered, eyeing the closed firedoor ahead. "You ready for some steps?" The Sentinel nodded and then froze, head cocked to the side.

Blair looked up into Jim's face, anxious, but silent. "What?" he mouthed.

Jim jerked his head in the direction of the firedoor. "Company," he hissed.

Jankowski hovered at Jim's right, and raised his gun, thumbing the safety off in one smooth motion. He glanced at the Sentinel and raised an eyebrow as if asking "How many?"

Jim held up two fingers.

Jankowski motioned for Blair and Jim to move back along the way they'd come. The Sentinel and his Guide ducked into one darkened room and the old man ducked into the other, directly across the corridor.

Jim almost protested as Blair eased him back against the wall to the left of the doorway. The younger man cut him off with a glare and tapped his ear. His Guide gripped the torch at the nozzle end and positioned himself in front of the Sentinel, ready to attack or defend as the situation required.

Cursing silently at the twist of fate that had him playing the role of protectee instead of protector, the Sentinel armed himself with the only weapon he had at hand. He placed one hand on his young partner's shoulder and sent his senses out in pursuit of information. Heavy footsteps... definitely two sets... No trace of Simon's cigars and unless Rafe and Brown have changed aftershave it's not them either... Foes then, not friends... Cloth rubbing against what? Metal?... What's that splashing noise?... check the smell, not the sound, Ellison... damn... gasoline...

Jim tracked their progress and gave Blair's shoulder a slight squeeze when the men reached the third floor landing. The anthropologist nodded and tensed, leaning forward slightly to sign a warning to Jankowski across the way.

There was a loud thump as the metal firedoor was thrust open. The Sentinel's eyes glittered with feral pleasure—their adversaries weren't concerned about making noise, which would make them easier targets. Under his sensitive fingertips, Jim felt the shudder that rumbled through Blair's body and heard the sharp inhalation as the younger man drew in a deep breath and held it.

Jim gave Blair's shoulder one more squeeze and then eased back out of the younger man's way. His Guide shifted his stance and brought the tank up to his shoulder like a batter waiting for a juicy pitch.

The Sentinel distinctly heard every grumble of the two men. Harris and Rogers weren't happy with the grunt duty they'd been assigned. Jim allowed himself a grim smile as the two walked unsuspectingly into the ambush.

Blair struck first, taking a step forward and lashing out with a major league swing. He caught Harris square in the stomach. The cop let out a choked grunt and dropped to his knees. The metal gas cans he'd been carrying tumbled to the floor with a loud clang. Jankowski nailed Rogers with a hard rap to the back of the head as the man spun to see what had happened to his partner. The anthropologist followed up his first strike with a second back hand blow that downed Harris instantly.

Using the wall for support, Jim eased out into the corridor. Jankowski was already dragging Rogers into the room that he'd occupied. Blair stood straddling the man he'd taken out. He still clutched the torch, but the younger man's breath was surging in and out of his lungs in ragged gasps, his free hand braced against his left leg to keep him upright.

The Sentinel moved to his Guide's side and placed his hand on the younger man's back, rubbing gently as Blair struggled to catch his breath. Jim was just about to congratulate him on his aim when the sound of gunfire ruptured the silence.

Blair jerked upright and whirled around to face the firedoor. More shots rang out, echoing up the stairwell from the alley below as Jankowski moved to join them. Jim gripped Blair's shoulder and glanced in the opposite direction, scanning for any signs of activity out of Jenson's group. The sounds of running feet and shouted curses were obvious even without enhanced senses.

All three men exchanged grim looks. They were in the proverbial space between the hard place and the rock. With enemies blocking their escape route and coming up behind, they were trapped unless they could create a diversion.

Blair shifted into action, motioning for Jankowski to take charge of Jim. "See if you can get down to the second floor. We can cut across to the front exit. I'll try to stall these guys up here."

The old man nodded and grabbed Jim around the waist, but the Sentinel shirked out of his grip and reached for his Guide. "No way, Sandburg. If anyone's staying behind it's me."

Blair met Jim's glare with a determined one of his own. "I'm not staying behind," he explained as he dug furiously in his pockets. "Here." He dropped a generous handful of nuts and bolts into the Sentinel's palm. "Pretend these are marbles... toss 'em down the steps below the second floor landing. That stairwell's dark. Maybe we'll trip them up and buy a little time." He set down the torch and snatched up two of the gasoline cans. Wrenching the caps off, Blair shot his partner a crooked grin. "I'm just going to give these guys a taste of their own medicine."

Jim's eyes glowed with approval for his partner's inventiveness, but he still refused to yield to Jankowski's insistent tugging.

"I'm not leaving you behind, Chief."

His Guide touched him gently on the chest. "Then at least take cover behind the firedoor. Andrew, get this stubborn partner of mine moving, will you?"

"If you don't come flying through that door in sixty seconds, I'm coming after you," Jim vowed, tightening his grip on Blair's arm.

"Start counting, man. I'm shooting for fifteen," Blair retorted.

"I'm serious, Sandburg."

Blair's gaze hardened. "So am I, Jim."

Against his better judgment and all his instincts, the Sentinel released his Guide and let Jankowski lead him toward the stairwell.

Another burst of bullets struck the wall over Simon's head, sending needle-sharp shards of brick flying in all directions. Banks popped up, fired off a round of his own and then ducked down behind the dumpster that he was using for cover.

Where the hell is my backup? he wondered, glancing down the alley toward the street. Another volley of shots turned his attention back to the two men crouched behind the cars at the rear of the building. He fired again, hoping to keep the shooters pinned down until help arrived.

It had taken him longer than he'd hoped to find a position where he could take out the man he'd originally found in the alley. He'd been about to act when the odds had shifted drastically. Three more men had emerged from the back door of the building. In the faint light from the stairwell, he'd recognized Harris, Rogers, Smithson and Gordon. Unwilling to tip his hand, he'd been forced to sit back and watch. Harris and Rogers had dragged several items out of the trunk of one of the vehicles and headed back inside. It didn't take a genius to figure out what happening. Simon had stealthily shifted positions to get a better angle on the two remaining targets.

Unfortunately he'd disturbed a very large rat in the process. The creature scurried out of a toppled trash can and scrambled down the alley. Its abrupt exit sent the rusting container rolling. The sound caused the two men near the cars to turn in Simon's direction. With a muttered curse, Banks had flung himself behind a metal dumpster just in time to avoid the first burst of gunfire.

Now he was not only trapped, but the firefight was sure to bring more of Jenson's men to see what was happening, worsening the situation even further.

All I need is to have Sandburg come running up and this disaster will be complete. I hope for once the kid's got enough sense to stay in the car... ah, who am I kidding? If Jim can't get him to stay put, why would I think I could?

He winced as bullets ricocheted off the metal barrier. He started to lean around the dumpster to fire again and froze as the chatter of more gunfire filled the night. The thick moisture- drenched air made it hard to be certain, but the sounds appeared to be coming from the front of the building. Banks fired again and ducked back, hoping desperately that it was his reinforcements. If not, Sandburg had found fresh trouble.

One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand...

Blair jogged down the corridor, the upended gas cans spilling their toxic contents in glugging torrents at his heels. His rough plan was simple and inspired by the vision that had haunted him—create a firewall of his own to keep Jenson and his men from pursuing them down the back stairs. At the end of the finished section of hallway he dodged right through a series of half-erected walls and ran another dozen feet before stopping.

... six, one thousand, seven, one thousand...

He set one can on the floor and splashed the contents of the other over the raw pine timbers, soaking them. When there was still an inch or so of liquid remaining, he laid the can on the floor, letting the balance of the contents gurgle out on its own.

... ten... eleven... twelve...

Retracing his steps he crossed the corridor and started to douse that area as well, forming the left side of the 'T' shaped barrier. He regretted being the cause of more destruction, but if the diversion would mean the difference between getting his Sentinel to safety or not—well, it wasn't hard to choose life over crumbling bricks.

... seventeen... eighteen...

He was just about to upend the second can when a bullet whistled by his ear, tearing off splinters of the wood framing to his right.

"... eighteen..." The whispered count died in the Sentinel's throat when the sound of a gunshot tore through his awareness.


Still holding the gas can, Blair spun and launched himself toward the corridor, dodging a hail of deadly missiles. He dug in his pocket as he ran, searching for the lighter. His fingers closed on the garrote, instead. It uncoiled as he tugged it from his jeans. Skidding to a stop when he reached the hallway, he took shelter behind the length of finished wall. With trembling fingers he wrapped one end of the wire around the handle of the container. Jenson and his men were too close—he had to buy a few more precious seconds.

Jankowski was hard-pressed to keep Ellison from bolting into the corridor. He wedged himself between the detective and the firedoor, pushing the metal panel open so that they'd have a clear view of the hallway.

Sandburg suddenly appeared, a half-step ahead of the bullets and Jim's grip on the old man's shoulder tightened. It grew to vice-like intensity when the younger man stopped and turned to face the enemy instead of rushing to join them.

"Chief, come on!" the detective shouted, straining to get around the old man who blocked his way.

The Guide could hear his Sentinel calling frantically for him to move, but he held his position. Gripping the free end of the deadly wire in both hands, he started to swing the can back and forth. He almost dropped it when a fusillade of bullets peppered the wall behind him. He felt fire streak across his back as he stepped forward into the opening. The wire burned a trail across his palms as he released the container, heaving it through the air in the direction of his pursuers.

With his senses fully extended, the Sentinel staggered as the thunder of gunfire assaulted his ears. The deceptively soft 'whump' that followed as the partially filled can exploded, pierced by one of the bullets, nearly drove him to his knees.

"Sandburg!" he gasped. "Get out of there now!"

Having seen the results of the explosion first hand, Blair needed no encouragement. Fire was already licking greedily wherever the burning liquid had fallen. He spun around and slipped on the gasoline soaked floor, falling to his hands and knees. Coughing on the fumes, he scrambled to his feet, only to be knocked flat as a heavy body collided with his. He managed to roll over to his back and found himself staring up into Randolph's sneering face.

"Good try, punk," the angry cop snarled. "Just not good enough."

The black hole that was the end of Randolph's gun loomed and filled the anthropologist's vision. He felt a moment of absolute despair. He'd come so close...

Fighting to regain control over his senses, the Sentinel caught the blur of movement as Randolph launched himself toward the unsuspecting Guide. He'd pulled a flanking move and attacked from the right side of the corridor while the other's held Blair's attention.

"One o'clock!" he screamed in Jankowski's ear.

Blair flinched at the sound of a discharging gun. He blinked, astonished to see Randolph reeling backward. The cop dropped to the floor, his eyes blank, a small round hole at the center of his forehead.


The stunned anthropologist twisted his head around. Jankowski stood in the stairwell doorway, still posed in a classic firing stance. Jim stood just behind the old man, the fury in his eyes rousing Blair to action.

The Guide crab-crawled toward the firedoor, fumbling in his pocket for the lighter. When he reached the two remaining gas cans he twisted off the caps and dumped their contents. The rank fuel flowed down the corridor in a wave. His hands were shaking as he struggled to flick the lighter to life. Blair heard the sound of running feet approaching, of voices screaming as Jenson's men attacked—and froze.

They're too close! If I light this, they'll die! They'll be trapped in the flames!

He'd intended the blazing barrier to delay, not kill. Horrified by the thought of ending a life—even those of the men that had intended to murder his partner—the young Shaman uttered a choked cry of grief.

"I can't..."

Gnarled hands closed over his, pulling the lighter from his grasp. Jankowski thumbed the tiny torch to life and touched it to the floor, jerking Blair backward at the same time. A river of fire sprang to life as tongues of flame danced over the fumes. Sweeping toward the far end of the corridor, the inferno grew with each inch it consumed.

Blair felt himself hauled to his feet and pulled urgently toward the firedoor. The hands that held him were gentle, familiar, insistent. Guide instincts kicked in, drowning out the screams of the fire, the men that it hunted, and the guilty pangs of his conscience. He wrapped his arm around the waist of his injured Sentinel and hung on tight.

Jankowski shoved open the firedoor and took up a position on Jim's other side as the three men bolted down the stairs.

Jim's whispered "wait" halted them just inside the firedoor to the second floor. Their frantic descent had jarred the bandages loose from his wounds, but he ignored the fresh trails of blood seeping down his chest and back and fought to hold on to the controls for his senses. The trembling body of his Guide plastered to his side and Jankowski's harsh breathing were more than sufficient incentive.

The Sentinel scanned the dim landscape of the second level trying to ignore the thunder above them. The roar of the fire continued to grow in intensity as the blaze swept through the flimsy new construction and began to feed on the structure of the building itself. They had to get out before it spread any further.

He nodded toward the firedoor. "Open it."

Jankowski complied with his order, pulling the metal panel open a few inches. Jim strained to filter out everything but the noises rising from below. There was gunfire, a loud answering volley, and then voices raised in warning. The detective allowed himself a grim smile. The reinforcements that Simon had been waiting for had arrived and had Jenson's men pinned down. Unfortunately, their position at the bottom of the stairs blocked the escape route the Sentinel had hoped to use. That left the plan that Blair had suggested—cut across the second floor and out the front.

Jim handed the nuts and bolts to Jankowski with a terse "toss these." In the few seconds that the old man was gone, the Sentinel turned his full attention to his Guide. What he found was less than heartening.

Blair's arm was still locked in a death grip around Jim's waist. The younger man appeared dazed and deep, gasping breaths racked his body. The Sentinel inhaled the scent of sweat and fear and gasoline—his Guide's clothes reeked of the rank fuel. The threat of the raging inferno above took on a whole new meaning. There was something else as well. The sour smell of blood. Its stickiness coated Jim's fingers as the Sentinel traced the furrow that one of their attacker's bullets had carved across his Guide's back. Biting back a curse, he gently squeezed Blair's right shoulder.

"You still with me, Chief?"

His Guide's head raised and turned, instinctively looking upward. The dark eyes squinted in the dim light, filled with confusion and dull regret.

"I'm sorry, man..." Blair whispered.

"Save the apologies for the next time you leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor, Chief," Jim growled softly. Jankowski rejoined them and took his place at the detective's right side. The Sentinel's words of encouragement were meant for all of them. "Just hang in there. Backup's waiting downstairs. All we need to do is get to them."

Together they began a lurching journey through the wasteland of debris. Blair seemed oblivious to the moans of the tortured ceiling above them, but Jim exchanged a wordless gaze with Jankowski and knew that the old man was aware of the danger.

They were halfway to the opposite end when Jim heard the sound he'd been dreading. He shifted his weight and sent them all tumbling backward. Before they hit the floor, an entire section of the ceiling gave way. Smoke and flames poured forth like a waterfall. The cascade of burning wood and smoldering insulation rained down, casting deadly sparks that eagerly sought fresh territory for destruction.

The bone jarring impact with the floor broke the Sentinel's control over his senses. A shaft of debilitating pain shot through him as he tried to roll off of his injured shoulder. Smoke filled his lungs with each breath, causing fresh blasts of agony each time he coughed. The scream of the fire deafened him. He kicked off the smoldering pieces of wood and ceiling tile that had fallen onto his legs and blindly reached for his Guide. Fingertips touched snarled silken strands and groped their way to the throbbing pulse point at the younger man's throat.

A hand locked around his wrist. Blair's grip was weak, but reassuring. Jim blinked rapidly, trying to clear his tearing eyes and found Jankowski crouched next to him. The old man had to shout to make himself heard.

"We're not cut off yet, but we will be if we don't get moving!"

The Sentinel nodded and with the old man's assistance managed to sit upright. He felt the grip on his wrist loosen and turned toward his Guide. The younger man was still crumpled on the floor where he'd fallen, half-buried under a smoking pile of debris.

Blair stared in horror and let out a choked cry as a line of fire sprang to life along the length of his shirtsleeve, feeding on the gasoline soaked cloth. Jankowski tore off his coat and beat out the flames.

Jim's eyes grew as wide as his Guide's. He levered himself awkwardly to his knees and crawled the few short feet to the younger man's side. The Sentinel grabbed a smoldering board and flung it aside. Cursing the injury that made it a one-handed effort, he ripped off the sling. He kept digging, ignoring the fresh bursts of pain from the bullet wounds and the burns that lanced his palms, working frantically to clear the deadly litter off of his partner's body.

Having dislodged all but one large wooden beam that lay across his Guide's left leg, the Sentinel rose to his feet and grasped Blair's wrist. He strained backward, hoping to pull the anthropologist free. His partner's strangled gasp ended that attempt.

"We're going to need help!" Jankowski shouted, his face only inches away from Jim's.

"GO!" the Sentinel screamed, waving the older man toward the door.

"Jim... go with him!" Blair urged. "Andrew... please... make him go!"

The old man hesitated, his gaze locking with Jim's. The Sentinel shook his head. Jankowski nodded and dug the gun out of the waistband of his pants. He dropped it and his jacket at the detective's side. Sketching a rough salute, the old man disappeared into the smoke.

Blair groaned in despair. "Damn it, Jim..."

"I told you upstairs... that I wasn't leaving you behind, Chief," Jim responded amidst a fit of coughing. "Just hang on."

His Guide's answer was drowned out by the sound of gunfire. Bullets chipped at the beam that held Blair's leg pinned to the rapidly heating floor. Jim snatched up the gun and swiveled in the direction of the shooter.

"You're dead, Ellison!" Jenson's scream of rage floated eerily out of the firey chaos. "You and that punk partner of yours ruined everything! Now you'll both pay!"

The Sentinel shook his head, trying to clear the smoke and sweat from his eyes. He scanned for Jenson's location, but the overwhelming barrier of heat and sound and smells resisted his efforts. Suddenly a familiar warmth pressed against his left leg. He absorbed the strength and grounding of his Guide's simple touch and sent his hearing questing outward. Jenson's enraged shouts drew him like a beacon. The ex-ranger raised the gun and fired, catching Jenson square in the chest, just as the crooked vice-cop emerged from the smoke.

The force of the bullet's impact drove Jenson backward. He staggered and started to raise his weapon, intent on finishing what he'd begun with his dying breath. The elemental entity that the fire had become acted before either detective could shoot again.

An agonized scream tore from Jenson's throat as tendrils of fire wrapped around him. Like fingers closing into a fist, the flames enclosed the writhing man and drew him backward into its deadly embrace.

Amidst the crackling harmonies of the fire, Jim heard Blair's harshly whispered prayer—the Shaman's chant for a fallen enemy. He stared at the younger man in amazed silence for a few seconds, then shifted positions so that he could renew his efforts to move the beam.

Their world became a nightmare of heat and smoke—and flames that the Sentinel struggled to keep from reaching his Guide. He beat back another tongue of fire that had begun to crawl up Blair's pinned leg and dropped, exhausted, at the younger man's side. He sought the Shaman's eyes and drew in a sharp breath. Blair's dark gaze was fixed on the wall of flames that danced only yards away.

"Guess... one trip... through the fire... wasn't enough..." the younger man murmured obliquely.

The oddly calm, accepting expression in his Guide's eyes terrified the Sentinel more than the fire. "Don't you even think about giving up on me, Sandburg," he ordered. "Say not the struggle nought availeth..."

Sluggishly, Blair turned his head toward Jim, the corner of his mouth lifting in a grimacing smile. "Didn't know... you had it... in you..."

The Sentinel bent forward to catch the soft words. His body shielded his Guide, cutting off the younger man's view of the flames. "What's that?"

"... never thought... I'd live to hear... you... quoting poetry..."

"I've still got a few... secrets, Sandburg," Jim managed a lopsided smile of his own. "Picked it up... years ago... I'll regale you... with the whole thing... if you promise... to stay awake..."

"... deal..."

Jim reached down and pulled at the front neck of Blair's t-shirt, shifting the cloth up and over the lower part of the anthropologist's face and nose to form a rough filter against the smoke. Gripping his Guide's hand, he began to speak. From the depths of memory and his heart, he cast the words of verse defiantly at the wall of fire that was nearly upon them.

"Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been, things remain.

"If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

"For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making
Came, silent, flooding in, the main,

"And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward look, the land is bright...

The Sentinel's voice trailed off as he looked down and met his Guide's eyes. He heard a muffled, "See you on the other side, Jim," before they fluttered shut.

The Sentinel felt the heat and screams of the fire at his back.

Trained to look death in the eye, he turned to face it.

And was rewarded with the sight of a full complement of firefighters stepping through the firewall to their aid.

Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.

Jim let himself into the loft, breathing a soft sigh of relief at having reached the quiet refuge of home. Hanging his jacket on the hook by the door, he located his partner, sitting on a chair on the balcony, bare feet resting on the railing.

The twitter of flutes and jungle drums danced in counterpoint to the fragrant aroma of lasagna wafting out of the kitchen—fitting accompaniments to the litter of papers and books that covered the coffee table. The Sentinel smiled as he detoured to the refrigerator and pulled two bottles of beer from its depths.

Home. Filled with the sights and sounds and scents of his Guide. After three long grueling weeks, things were back to normal.

Jim frowned as he caught a glimpse of the piles of still unemptied boxes in the younger man's room.

Correction... almost normal.

He set the beers down on the table and headed upstairs to his bedroom to change clothes. He felt the twinge of protesting shoulder muscles as he pulled a sweatshirt over his head, but it was the pain of healing, not the agony of fresh injury. The burns on his palms were nearly gone, too, the bandages more of an inconvenience than anything else at this point.

Slipping into a pair of well-worn jeans, Jim padded down the steps. He paused at the bottom of the stairs, monitoring the young man on the balcony.

Blair was healing as well—at least on the outside. The burns that he'd acquired in their escape had, thankfully, been minor. The bullet wound had been painful, but not serious and would leave only the faint trace of a scar. And his energy level, while still a far cry from Sandburg-normal, was vastly improved—after spending several days in the hospital, lodged in a room with his Sentinel, the exhausted Guide had retreated to the quiet haven of his room, spending several more days in a sleep- eat regimen that Jim had eagerly encouraged.

Both of them had suffered surprisingly minimal affects from smoke-inhalation, although the anthropologist's voice still had a tendency to take on an unhealthy, raspy quality when he spoke for an extended period of time.

And talk they had. To the district attorney. To the mayor. To the commissioner. To Internal Affairs. To the media. They'd made statement after statement; reviewed every word of the painstakingly detailed written reports that Blair had kept; repeated the same story word for word until it was etched forever, not just into their memories, but into the legal paperwork that accompanied the completion of the case.

Simon had finally put his foot down during a meeting with Internal Affairs that had become more of an interrogation than a fact-finding session. The IA officer in charge had become almost belligerent when questioning Blair. The inquiry kept returning to the issue of how the young man had known where his partner was being held. His Guide's sudden increase in respiration and the pounding of his heart had sent Jim's Blessed Protector instincts into overdrive.

Banks had cut off the inquisition before the Sentinel had decked the man, announcing that he, as Captain of Major Crimes, was satisfied with the answers that the Observer had already given. He also made it clear that both Ellison and Sandburg were unavailable for further questioning, placing them on a medical leave of absence and banishing them from the station until further notice.

They'd spent the following days together, neither content to be far from the other's side. The partners had both indulged in a little 'mother-henning"—Blair hovering and muttering about stubborn Sentinel's who didn't know enough to rest after having been pierced both front and back by foreign substances that had no place in the human body; and Jim hovering and muttering about headstrong Guide's that didn't know enough to stop tapping at the keyboard at all hours of the night when he should be resting.

The partners had been grateful for the respite. Joel, Rafe and Brown had brought Blair's possessions back from the motel, saving the anthropologist from having to revisit that scene. Andrew Jankowski had called several times, both to check on Jim and Blair, and also to deliver some good news—the old man was heading up an effort within the neighborhood to buy back some of the properties that Jenson's group had gotten their hands on, and they were making surprisingly good headway in their efforts. Simon had continued to shelter them from the fallout from within the department and the insistent media pursuit, giving the Sentinel and his Guide the time they needed to recover not only their health, but their stability.

Jim had spent what he hoped was the last session with the district attorney that very afternoon. Simon had been there as well, rehashing the part that he'd played in the case. The detective had listened to his captain intently, searching for some tidbit of information that he might have missed before—something that would give him a clue as to what was going on inside his partner's head.

Because there was still something bothering his Guide—some inner turmoil that Blair was struggling with.

At first, Jim had thought that it was the ghosts of the men who had perished in the fire that haunted the anthropologist. Of the nine men who had been involved, only three survived the inferno that reduced the building to ashes. Smithson, Gordon and Barnes were in secure cells, guarded by officers that Simon had hand-picked. Internal Affairs and the DA's office were having a field day with the testimony that had spewed out of their mouths. Fortunately, the disease that Allen and Jenson had incubated hadn't spread any further. Still, Banks had been adamant that there would be no deals struck on his watch. His men had risked too much to allow that to happen.

The remains of Jenson, Hiller, Harris, Rogers, Randolph and Robert Allen had been identified by forensics after several days of detailed examination and sifting. It had been a time- consuming process—the fire hadn't left much.

In the early hours of a sleepless night a week earlier, Blair had admitted to feeling some lingering guilt at being the cause of the men's deaths. He felt responsible for the fire, even though it had been Jankowski that had sparked the flames to life. The Sentinel had done what he could to put the loss into perspective, but he knew that the burden of those lost lives would continue to weigh heavily on the Shaman's soul for some time to come.

Blair had also confessed to feeling like he'd failed Jim in their final moments. The Sentinel's own memories of that time were fuzzy at best, but he had adamantly rejected his Guide's contention, reminding the younger man of his inventiveness and courage.

Jim had gotten the details from Simon the day after they'd been pulled from the fire. While Blair had dozed in the bed next to his—an arrangement that suited both Ellison's preference, the doctor's requirements and the hospital staff's needs—Banks had filled him in on the events that had transpired.

Rafe and Brown had surprised Barnes at the front entrance, before the shootout at the rear of the building had brought them to Simon's assistance. Smithson and Gordon had beat a retreat into the stairwell. Banks and his reinforcements had been ready to give chase. To their stunned surprise, the two felons had tumbled head over heels down the steps to land at their feet, saving them the chore.

Apprised by Brown that Blair had been no where in sight out front, Simon had attempted to reach the upper levels of the building from the rear stairs, only to be forced back by the billowing clouds of acrid smoke. Banks had ordered his men around to the front of the burning structure to meet the remaining backup and emergency personnel who had arrived in a blare of sirens and flashing bubble lights.

A soot-blackened, coughing figure had emerged at a dead run from the front doors as the first group of firefighters stepped foot off their trucks. Simon had been closest and had grabbed the old man. Barely recognizable under the grime and ash that coated his hair, clothing and skin, Jankowski had identified himself and crisply delivered his urgent message. Jim and Blair had been brought out only a few minutes later—just seconds before the blazing structure collapsed inward.

The Sentinel remembered arguing the need to remain at his Guide's side until the younger man was freed. He knew that he had managed to scream a warning about the anthropologist's gasoline drenched clothing in between bouts of coughing—one of the firefighters had draped a fire-resistant blanket around Blair before they lifted him off the floor. Once he'd seen that his partner was in good hands and on the way out of the hellhole that the second floor had become, his own pain had resurfaced, thrusting him up into the light of pure agony before drawing him down into velvety black darkness.

He'd awoken in a hospital bed. Two anxious blue eyes, burning with studied impatience, had fixed him with a glare. When he'd muttered some marginally intelligible responses to the barrage of questions that had poured forth, his Guide's expression had softened to one of relief—a feeling that the Sentinel wholeheartedly shared when his not-so-subtle monitoring of his partner revealed that he too was all right. The news that Andrew Jankowski had also escaped unharmed had generated wide smiles from both men, and the healing had begun in earnest.

Jim heard Blair stir and shift positions in his chair. With a determined stride, the detective retrieved the still-chilled beverages and crossed the room. Only a few unresolved issues still lingered and they all revolved around the young man on the balcony.

A soft, "Hey, Jim," greeted the Sentinel when he stepped out to join his Guide. He handed Blair a beer and settled into a chair. His own stockinged feet joined the anthropologist's.

"There's a welcome back party planned for Friday after the day shift's finished," Jim informed his partner casually. "We've been warned to leave the truck and the Volvo at home. Joel's going to chauffeur."

"Cool. Where's the bash?"

"Someplace where they won't mind you dancing on the bar, I presume," Jim responded drolly.

A low chuckle was the younger man's only response.

They sat together in companionable silence as dusk slipped quietly into the robes of night. Flickers of light dotted the city, challenging the pinpricks of stars in the cloudless sky for dominance. "I really missed this."

Blair's soft declaration floated out into the darkness. The Sentinel found himself frowning again at the sigh that followed it. He studied his Guide with eyes that pierced the shadows, but couldn't penetrate the invisible barrier that his friend had erected. There was a new, quiet strength in the younger man. There was also a sense of profound sadness.

"Then why haven't you unpacked?"

A sharp inhalation of breath met Jim's question.

"Because we need to talk... and after we do, I might be leaving," Blair finally answered.

The Sentinel feet slid off the railing and he sat forward in his chair, stunned. "Leaving? You want to leave?"

"No... but you might want me to."

Jim took a mental step backward, reminding himself that this was the convoluted territory of Sandburg's psyche that he was trying to navigate. Even with a roadmap crafted by nearly three years of friendship, it was a difficult path to follow. The emotional pitfalls could easily swallow you alive if you weren't careful.

"And why would I want that?" the Sentinel asked quietly.

"It's kind of hard to explain." His Guide's voice was a bare whisper. Hesitant. Filled with longing and regret at the same time.

Jim decided to test the theory about a straight line being the shortest distance between two points. "Does this have something to do with why my Spirit Guide showed up and camped himself outside your door the first night you were out of the loft?"

Blair's bare feet thumped to the deck. "Your Spirit Guide did what?"

"The panther was definitely displeased with your absence. He made that quite clear."

"Nice to know I was missed." An awkward attempt at levity that fell flat and toneless.

The Sentinel reached forward, touching his Guide lightly on the sleeve, needing the physical connection. "Blair... talk to me. Tell me what happened. Tell me what's still troubling you."

A hard swallow. A resigned sigh.

"I forgot who I was."

The simple answer's myriad implications took Jim's breath away. Blair's hand reached up to grasp Jim's in reassurance.

"It's okay. I found myself again. Most of me, anyway."

The genuine smile that creased the younger man's face was a light to rival even that of the awakening city or the stars.

Still, the sadness remained, damping the radiance.

"Then what's the problem?" Jim pressed.

Silence, underlaid with the whisper of Blair's fingers sliding through his hair in a familiar gesture of uncertainty. The Sentinel caught the rasp of another deep breath and its slow exhalation. He could almost hear the spinning wheels of his Guide's mind slow their frentetic pace as the younger man came to a decision...

And gave his answer.

"I always thought that I would do anything for you. For our partnership. I realized during this case, that there's something I can't do. Not if I want to remain true to who I am. What I am. That limitation scares me, because it could endanger you."

"Chief, you're risked your own life to save mine. More times than I want to remember," Jim murmured. "What more could you do?"

"I could do whatever it took to protect my partner... even if that meant taking a life..."

"No, you couldn't," Jim objected. "Not and be who you are."

"Exactly. That's the problem."

The Sentinel prodded the investigation in a slightly different direction with another question. "When we were trapped... you said something. You said 'one trip through the fire wasn't enough.' What did that mean?"

"The night I met Jankowski, I had a vision. Of a wall of fire. That's what kept me from chasing after him."

"You never told me."

"I didn't know what it meant... and then we were caught up in all the subterfuge. I didn't know if it was connected with the case. I didn't want to distract you. I didn't dare. It was my problem. I needed to deal with it."

The random pieces of the puzzle that Jim had been holding—that had, up until that point, failed to form any recognizable pattern—suddenly locked together—Simon's reluctance to discuss just what had led them to the apartment building after having lost him at the factory; Blair's reaction to the Internal Affairs officer's questions on the same topic; his Spirit Guide's appearance; the sense of danger that he'd been unable to pinpoint...

"A premonition. That's how you knew where I was," the Sentinel murmured, his voice tinged with wonder.

"Partly," his Guide admitted. "I should have realized what it was earlier. Maybe if I had... but I didn't. I didn't let myself." A disparaging laugh. "I think I broke the Shaman's code of ethics."

"Because you forgot who you were."

"Yeah. A Shaman seeks truth, Jim. He's supposed to see beyond the illusions. I didn't. I let myself get sucked into believing all the crap that we were broadcasting for Jenson. I gave life to the lies. That almost cost me. And you."

Blair took a deep breath and plowed on.

"The vision took on a life of its own. Scared the shit out of me. I couldn't face it. Not until you were missing and confronting it was the only thing I could think of to find you."

"That was the battle..."


"When you showed up out of the blue to rescue Andrew and me... I could tell something had happened. I remember thinking that you looked like you'd fought some kind of battle."

"Hey, you're the one that was bleeding all over the floor, man," Blair responded. "I stage my fights on the metaphysical plane. Less blood loss that way."

"But not appreciably less pain," Jim countered.

"No... probably not," Blair admitted. He paused, turned to stare out into the night, and then lowered his gaze. He picked at the label on the bottle nervously. "I did finally manage to confront the damn thing. Screwed up my courage and walked through it. Burned off a layer or two of filth in the process. When I came out the other side, I knew where you were. Then it was just a matter of convincing Simon that I wasn't a candidate for the funny farm."

Jim raised an eyebrow at that. He knew Blair couldn't see his expression in the darkness, but the younger man chuckled anyway as if he'd been expecting the reaction.

"He was ready to bring in the guys in the white coats, Jim. Trust me. Ultimately, Simon did—trust me, I mean." The Shaman's voice grew pensive again. "Passing the barrier of the vision not only told me where to find you, but it also revealed a hell of a lot about me. If I'm going to honor Incacha's legacy, then I need to be true to his teachings. And my own conscience. That's why I couldn't... I couldn't light that fire. I couldn't take those lives, even though I knew that they meant to kill us."

"And you think I'd hold that against you? Well I don't. You're supposed to be an observer, Chief. Not an active participant." Blair shook his head and looked away, but Jim didn't give up. "I still don't understand what the problem is, Blair. By your own admission you walked through fire to save my life. Why would think I would want you to leave?"

"Because I risked your life, man." There was stark terror in the gaze that the Guide turned toward his Sentinel. "First by not facing who I am, and then by accepting it. And I can't promise you that it won't happen again—that at some point in the future I'll won't have to make a choice and you'll end up dying just to save my principles. Even if you don't want me to leave, I'm not sure I can stay, knowing that."

"Chief, what you call principles are what men like Andrew and Incacha would call honor and duty. There's no disgrace or weakness in following that code. It's what separates you and them from men like Jenson or those that joined him."

Jim could see that the younger man was unconvinced, so he shifted his attack.

"You didn't fail me, Blair. You've never failed me. And you never will."


"You never will. Not as long as you remain true to yourself. That's what I value, Chief. That's who I trust. You. I knew what this insanity that we were playing at was doing to you. I could see how much you were hurting. I'm sorry that it happened. And that you had to go through... what you went through, alone. Believe me. I wouldn't ask you to be something or someone that you're not. Being who you are is challenge enough."

"I'm not sure I know how to take that, Jim," his Guide responded, one eyebrow raised in query. "Is that an insult or a compliment?"

"You decide. You're the academic in this partnership."

Jim softened his tone and dropped the teasing banter.

"You're a bundle of raw energy, combined with a compassionate heart. You have ways of turning the world around you upside down and inside out—and you still land on your feet. You invite everyone within your reach along on that magic carpet ride that is your life, and we're all better for it. You're a Guide to a Sentinel. Shaman of the Great City. Teacher. Partner. Friend. Many hats; one unique person. Some people live their whole lives never knowing who they are, Blair. Accept the fact that you do as a blessing, not a failing or a limitation. I do."

His Guide was silent, but the Sentinel could hear the even beating of his heart. It thrummed with life and peace. When Blair finally spoke, Jim didn't need enhanced senses to see the light shining in his eyes.

"So, does this mean you're going to help me unpack?"

"As soon as you go rescue dinner," Jim replied with a smirk. He rose to his feet and headed inside, still talking. "And wash the dishes, and clean up the mess you left on the coffee table, and..."

"Hey, I thought you just acknowledged me as Shaman of the Great City. Don't I deserve some respect?" Blair shot back, rising from his chair as well.

Another list of housekeeping duties answered that question as the Guide followed his Sentinel inside.

"How about if I just wash the dishes on the astral plane? Will you buy that?"

The sounds of their combined laughter echoed through the loft.

~ End ~

Author's Additional Notes:

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

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Page last updated 8/15/03.