Disclaimer: Applies as always.
The following version of Guardians contains some minor revisions -- cleanup mostly -- but it is essentially the same story which was originally posted in serial to the Senfic list and archived at Majik's Eclectica site. Like many of my stories, this one started out as just a simple tale and grew to a much more complicated adventure. The Muse knew where she wanted to go and took me along for the ride.
Per the show's time frame, this would fall during the third season, after Warriors. It is a stand-alone story, although it was originally designed to be the second of a three-story arc. I still intend to write the prequel and the sequel, but I'm not making any promises as to when that's going to happen -- the Muse seems content to wait, filling my head with lots of other story ideas for the moment.
My thanks to everyone who wrote with encouragement on this story when it was first posted in serial and since the 'final' version was archived. I'm particularly grateful to Majik for archiving this story on her site while it was still a work in progress, and for hosting it there after it was finished. A big nod of thanks to Night Owl for maintaining a superb site filled with all sorts of lovely reference material and links from which I borrowed for inspiration. Final hugs go out to Chris, Linda and Carolyn -- who encourage, cajole and threaten on a regular basis.
Who Shall Guard the Guardians Themselves?
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
(Who shall guard the guardians themselves?)
Simon Banks reviewed the last of the paperwork and added his signature to the final page of the triplicate forms. With a sigh of relief, he closed the folder and placed it in his 'done-get-it-out-of-here' bin for Rhonda to file. His eyes strayed to the overflowing in-basket and he grimacedthe number of new cases waiting to be assigned was nearly double the manpower he had available.
He glanced up, studying the two silent men in his office. Jim Ellison leaned against the window casing, staring out onto the brightly lit morning. Simon could see the weariness in the detective's stance and in the dark shadows under his eyes, even if the face was as calm and unreadable as usual. Blair Sandburg was slouched on the couch, the young observer's normally ebullient personality dampened, his gaze fixed on the floor as he retreated into introspective silence. Simon shook his head. Ellison and Sandburg were his best team, but one look was all it took to see that their last case had pushed them both to the edge of their limits.
Simon's eyes flickered to the closed file. Major Crimes typically got more than its share of grim cases, but this one had been a nightmare. Every day, for ten long days, there had been a new murder to add to the jacket. Initially, nothing seemed to tie the brutal deaths together; the victims had ranged in age from sixteen to fifty-four, male and female, Caucasian, Hispanic and African American. They came from different social and economic backgrounds, and there had been no evidence that any of them knew one another.
The only consistent elements were the cause and location of death. Each of the victims had been stabbed repeatedlyone poor soul up to forty times, and all had died in their homes. The murders had been violent and bloody. Even the normally unshakable members of the forensics team had blanched every time they'd been called to one of the scenes.
Ellison, of course, had latched onto the case with a vengeance, treating the investigation as if the killer was taunting him personally. He'd driven himself hard, racing a ticking twenty-four hour clock, trying to find the murderer before he struck again.
And Sandburg had been with him, every step of the way. The case had been particularly hard on the young observer. Simon had seen the haunted look in the kid's eyes when they'd entered his office to hand off their final report.
At first, as if anxious to prove to them that he could handle it, Blair had planted himself at his partner's side, slipping into his role of Sentinel's Guide with practiced ease. Simon had privately wondered just how long the kid would stick it out, but by the fifth dayafter Jim had begun to experience more frequent zone-outs as he pushed his overworked sensesBanks had quit speculating. The kid became Ellison's shadow, his dedication to the older detective unwavering. Blair had seen every bloody corpse, read every sickening report, had stood beside Jim as his partner questioned and consoled the grieving families.
In the end, it was Sandburg who'd discovered the lead which had broken the case. In sifting through the endless personal records of the victims, he'd come across a common entry in their checkbooks. Each had placed a classified ad in the Cascade Observer, a local shopper-style newspaper. The 'for sale' ads themselves proved to have nothing in commona 'never worn' engagement ring for a 'steal' at $700.00, an infant portacrib for $45.00, a set of Bose speakers for $125.00, a "bargain basement" offer on a pair of matching love seats going to the first caller who came up with $200.00.
A quick trip to the paper's office, however, uncovered the unifying connection. The same clerk, a 'nice middle-aged man', by the name of Bill Haight had taken all of the orders. A subsequent visit to the man's home, with search warrant in hand, had given them everything they'd needed, including Haight himself. He'd offered no resistance, and thus far, no explanations for the murders, although the evidence they'd discovered in his apartment clearly pegged him as the killer. He was down in the maximum security wing now, waiting for transport to the nearest psychiatric facility for evaluation. No one had any doubt his defense would involve some kind of insanity plea.
What made it all so difficult to come to terms with was the randomness of his acts. The victims had been chosen simply because Haight had waited on them when they had placed their ads. If they had dealt with another clerk, they'd still be alive. Chance had decided their fates, and that's what made it so senseless.
It was finally over, even the paperwork, but the damage the killer had done would affect all of them for a long time. Banks shook his head and sighed. No matter how heavy the new caseload was, these two needed a break, even if it was only for a few days.
"Good job," Simon finally murmured, breaking the silence.
Jim's gaze swung to his captain and he nodded, then glanced at his quiet partner. Blair still sat motionless, lost in his own thoughts. Simon saw the worry in the older man's eyes, accompanied by the expression which often preceded the detective's shift into his protective mode.
"I think a couple of days off are in order," Simon continued softly.
He saw Ellison's eyes flicker to the stack of folders in the in-basket. The look the detective gave him was grateful, but questioning.
"It'll wait," Banks reassured him. He shot a look at Blair and then glanced back at Jim. "Get out of here and take that vagrant with you," he added in gruff exasperation.
A brief smile crossed Jim's face. Simon wasn't fooling anyone with his tone, especially not a Sentinel.
"Thank you, sir," he acknowledged. Moving to Blair's side, he placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Hey, Chief. Time to go."
Blair shook his head and looked up abruptly, his eyes losing some of their 'lost' expression when he focused on the older man.
"Oh... we're done?" He cast an anxious glance toward Simon, abruptly aware he'd been lost in his own form of zone-out.
"Yeah, Simon's cutting us loose for a few days," Jim explained, tugging Blair's arm to help him to his feet.
A broad smile of relief filled the younger man's face. "Great! I mean... no offense, Captain, but I'll be glad to see something other than the inside of this place, or the morgue, for a while."
"No happier than I'll be not to have to put up with your rambling mouth, Sandburg," Simon growled. "Two days, then you're back on the clock."
"We appreciate it, sir," interjected Jim. He forestalled any additional comments from Blair by turning the younger man in the direction of the door. Simon's phone rang before they reached it.
"Banks... Ellison? Yeah, he's here... Who'd you say this is?" Simon glanced up and caught Jim's curious gaze, holding it for a moment before focusing his attention on the call. He grabbed a pen and began writing furiously. "And when did this take place?"
Jim moved a step closer to Simon's desk, trying to read past the concerned expression on his captain's face.
"Yeah, I got it, but we'll need some paper to back this up... all right... hold on." Simon put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and let out a terrific bellow. "TAGGERT!" Within seconds, Joel Taggert's bulky figure filled the doorway. "Check the fax. See if there's something coming through from the FBI's Seattle office," Simon ordered. Joel disappeared like a ghost and was back almost immediately, thrusting a flimsy sheet of paper into Simon's hands.
The captain cut off Jim's question with an abrupt gesture as he concentrated on the phone call again. For a moment, the Sentinel considered using his enhanced senses to listen in on the other end of the conversation, but he pushed the temptation away. Ethical considerations aside, he knew he'd be getting the full story from Simon shortly. He took a deep breath to settle his own growing impatience and was immediately aware of Blair shifting closer.
"What's going on?"
Jim answered the younger man's question with a shrug of his shoulders, his jaw tightening as he contemplated Blair's involvement in whatever was breaking. Maybe I can keep Sandburg out of it. He's done more than enough over the last ten days. He's practically out on his feet.
Simon's next words put an end to that hope.
"Sandburg? You want him, too?" Banks glanced up at Blair and then quickly to Jim, catching the nearly imperceptible shake of the detective's head. "Look," Simon shifted his attention back to the phone call once more. "I've got other officers who are accomplished in S and R besides... yes, Ellison and Sandburg are my best team, but they're just coming off a nasty... yes, I understand the seriousness of... no, the paperwork looks like it's in order, but... oh she did, did she?"
Jim could hear the angry frustration in his captain's voice and knew he was facing a dead end. Despite Simon's best intentions, he and Blair had just been assigned another case.
"All right... I'll have them up on the roof in fifteen minutes... yeah, I'm sure you do." With a snarl, Banks slammed down the receiver. He reached for a cigar, chomping down on the end of it as he studied the notes he had scribbled. Finally, he raised his head and met the inquisitive stares.
"FBI's got a joint effort going with Search and Rescue," he began, chewing the words out around the cigar. "They've asked for you specifically. Seems the mayor's office has decided that you two are the flavor of the month." He shook his head in disgust as he handed Jim the fax. "We've got a missing busload of grade-school kids. They were due at the Tiara Wilderness Camp up north, three hours ago. Some kind of field trip. One of the rangers remembers them checking in at the park entrance on schedule, but they never made it to the camp."
"I assume someone's checked the roads in and out," Jim said quietly, feeling a tightening in his gut as he scanned the fax transmission. "It couldn't be as simple as a mechanical breakdown, I suppose."
"No joy there. Weather's been bad all week and the roads in and out are a mess, but they've done a pretty thorough search and come up empty."
"I don't get it," Blair interjected, finally breaking his silence. "Why's the FBI in on this?"
"Standard procedure, Chief," Jim explained. "Whenever you've got an unexplained absence, particularly one with children, kidnapping is always a consideration."
Jim saw the younger man pale and reached out to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "It's a possibility, Chief, but it's more likely that the driver tried a shortcut and got mired down. You know what that area's like. We went camping up there last year."
"Yeah, I remember. Lovely spot. Lots of high mountains and long vertical drops," the younger man muttered distastefully, rolling his eyes and nervously pushing his hands through his hair.
Jim turned away to hide a worried frown. That camping trip had almost been a disaster and it had been his fault. Neither of them had ever been in that particular area before and in his enthusiasm to break some new ground, he'd inadvertently led them up a trail that had severely tested his partner's acrophobia. He'd mentally kicked himself for months afterwards, remembering the look of terror in the younger man's eyes as he'd edged along a path which had dropped away at their feet, determinedly keeping up until Jim had finally realized what was happening and led them back down.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he focused on his Guide. He didn't need to see him to recognize the physical fatigue that Blair was feeling. He felt it in himself. What worried him was the damage the Haight case had done to the younger man's spirit. He'd seen the anguish growing in his partner's eyes every day. He'd wanted to keep Sandburg on the fringe of this kind of violence, but the demands of using his senses for so long and so intensely had ultimately required his Guide's constant, steadying presence. Even now, with the case over, he could feel the stress still eating away at his friend. To ask him to jump into this unknown situation was definitely far beyond what the anthropologist had signed on for.
"You know, Chief," he drawled casually, still half-turned away from the younger man, "this is likely to turn out to be just a dry run. Search and Rescue will probably have found those kids before we even get up there. Why don't you sit this one out?"
"Don't you think I can handle it?"
The raw emotion in Blair's whispered question caught him by surprise. Jim turned to face him, eyeing his partner intently. The younger man had drawn back a step and stood with his fists clenched at his sides. His gaze was angry, definitely challenging.
"I didn't mean that, Chief"
"You're going. And if you're wrong and they haven't found those kids, you're going to have to use your senses during the search. You're going to need me." Blair's voice shook and Jim saw the fists clench even tighter.
"Blair, the last ten days have been ugly. I know how much sleep you've gotten lately."
"You're not in much better shape than I am, big guy. You're not the only one who can hear footsteps prowling the loft at all hours of the night, you know. I didn't stick with you through all this shit to get dumped aside just because you think I need a nap. What if it is a kidnapping and you get into a firefight? You think one of those FBI agents is going to know what to do when you have a zone-out, Ellison?"
Blair paled and turned away. Jim caught his arm and felt the tremors that were surging through him. Reaching out with his senses he heard the rapid pounding of his Guide's heart and he spun the younger man around to face him.
"What is it? What's wrong?" His gaze locked with Blair's. There was terror filling those familiar blue eyes. And morethere was the impression of immense sorrow.
"I don't..." Blair's whisper trailed off. He shuddered, then seemed to regain his control, the anger returning. "Nothing's wrong. I'm just standing my ground for once. Now are WE going or not?"
They glowered at one another for several long moments, until Jim finally nodded. "Okay," he said softly. "We'll do this together. Just like always."
Blair met his gaze evenly, relaxing as his anger melted away.
"If you ladies are finished...?" Simon glared at both of them, hoping his feigned anger would conceal his concern. Neither one of them is in shape for another assignment, especially if things get rough. Damn, I wish I had a way around this. When they turned to look at him, he shook his head and continued. "FBI's sending a chopper. Get your butts up to the roof. They'll equip you when you reach the staging area. The man in charge is Agent Anders."
"I'll meet you upstairs, Jim," Blair murmured, already headed toward the door. Stopping only to grab his jacket and backpack from Jim's desk, he moved swiftly through the bullpen and disappeared out into the hallway.
"Ellison..." Simon's soft call stopped Jim at the door. "Be careful. Both of you."
Blair let himself out onto the roof and slowly crossed to the helicopter pad. He was short of breath from his mad dash up the stairs, and he had a stitch in his side. Forcing himself to breathe evenly, he kept moving, desperate to get control over his racing emotions before Jim joined him.
"It was just a panic attack, " he whispered, trying to reassure himself. "That's it. Nothing more."
~You know better than that...~
"No, I don't... oh, shit!" He shook his head in irritation as he realized he was having a conversation with himself. "Man, am I the picture of mental health here, or what? Stop this. Get a grip." He took a deep breath, hoping to gain the upper hand on his subconscious, but the insistent voice within his head just droned on.
~Then what the hell was that all about? Why the panic attack? You've stood up to Jim before, so what gives?~
"Shut up, already. I am NOT in the mood for this conversation right now!"
He scrubbed wearily at his face. This is just stress, he told himself. And exhaustion. Jim was right, he hadn't been sleeping much. How could he, when every time he shut his eyes he saw the brutalized bodies of Haight's victims? In retrospect, he knew that it was a case he should have stayed out of. It was just too painful. But Jim's involvement really hadn't given him any choicehis Sentinel had needed him. He was the Guide. It had been just that simple.
~Be honest with yourself. You know what's really going on here.~
He stared down at the painted pattern that would guide the chopper in and shook his head in denial.
~You can't ignore what you are.~
"You wanna bet?"
He scrubbed his face again and closed his eyes, softly repeating one of his meditation mantras. "Find the center... find the center..." He felt one more tug of the almost violent sensation, then his breathing eased. Within moments, he felt better and he opened his eyes, glancing around the rooftop for his partner. Jim hadn't appeared yet, for which Blair was grateful.
~If he'd seen you like that again, he WOULD have sent you home for a nap,~ the voice reminded him.
"Yeah, and if he sees me standing here talking to myself he'll have me committed."
~Accept the truth.~
He started pacing again, using the physical activity to release some of the tension he felt building inside. He swallowed hard against a nervous tremor and glanced wildly around the rooftop. "Where the hell is that damn chopper?"
~Accept the truth.~
"I said NO..."
"What part of no don't you understand?" Forgetting that he was arguing with himself, Blair spun around angrily, ready to confront the nagging voice before he realized that he'd actually 'heard' that last response. His heart skipped a beat when he found himself face to face with Jim. How much did he hear? Man, he really will think I'm crazy!
"Sandburg, who are you talking to?" Jim's face was filled with an expression of concern as he reached out and touched Blair gently on the arm.
"Nobody, man," Blair forced a grin. "Just running off at the mouth as usual. I'm"
The wave of terror and despair hit him so hard it tore the air from his lungs. At that moment everything around him ceased to exist; he could see nothing but blackness, feel nothing except the raging fear and overwhelming sorrow which threatened to engulf him, hear nothing except his own voice screaming Jim's name.
He gulped for air and the real world returned. He felt Jim's firm hand on his arm, pulling him forward and he looked up into his partner's face, expecting to see the Sentinel's blue-eyed stare boring into him. Instead, Jim's gaze was turned away, watching the incoming helicopter as it maneuvered into its landing spot.
For a split second, Blair hovered between trying to cover his reaction to the attack or crumpling into a terrified heap. Part of him wanted to grab Jim's arm and drag his partner downstairsanything to keep them off the helicopter and away from whatever they were headed into. But as he drew in another ragged breath, Ellison's attention shifted to back to him, the Sentinel's eyes filling with concern.
He managed to meet Jim's searching stare with a level one of his own, grimly considering the irony of the situation. For all the times in the past two-plus years that he'd tried, and failed, to beat the man's perceptive senses, he finally had the opportunityand he didn't really want to take it. But he knew he would. Seeing the determination in his partner's face, Blair managed a rueful grin and a shrug, pointing to the aircraft as if to indicate that it had startled him.
For a moment he wasn't sure Jim was buying into his act after all. The grip on his arm tightened and the gaze grew even more intense. Buffeted by the gusts of wind kicked up by the milling rotors, Blair fought to hold his ground both physically and mentally, driven by the instinctive duty he'd felt during the last ten days.
"Are we going or not?" he finally yelled, breaking their silence.
Jim's reluctant nod and the release of the almost painful grip on his arm was the older man's only answer before he turned and stalked toward the helicopter. Trailing in his wake, Blair struggled to keep his heart from climbing into his throat, grateful that he'd have his normal fear of heights, and the objects which flew in them, to occupy his thoughts over the next few hours.
He managed to avoid his partner's inquisitive gaze as they strapped in and donned their headsets. The pilot was all business and short on chatter. They had a three hour trip ahead of them and they would be updated on the situation upon arrival. Immersed in his own whirling thoughts, Blair wasn't even aware the chopper had left the roof until they were speeding out across the bay in a wide, banking arc.
Jim settled back, stretching his legs as far as the cramped space would allow. "It's going to be a while, Chief. Why don't you try to get some rest?"
Blair nodded. Shifting into a more comfortable position himself, he closed his eyes gratefully. He could feel the vibration of the rotors through the seat-back like a gentle massage. Sleep was definitely in order and it meshed nicely with his current avoidance strategy.
~Accept the truth.~
With a resigned sigh, Blair opened his eyes and stared out into the clouds, unable to ignore the challenge that his own mind had posed for him any longer. It would be easy to write the attacks off to frayed nerves and exhaustion. His emotions did tend to rise to the surface when he was tired, and after what they'd been through for the last ten days, he figured he deserved the right to be a little ragged around the edges.
But deep inside, he knew it was more than that. He'd felt this before. Oh, nothing as drastic as what he'd felt in Simon's office or on the roof. Not that full body terror and soul-wrenching sorrow. The previous episodes had been little nudges, gentle love taps compared to the assaults he was experiencing now.
He shuddered and took a deep breath. He'd been enduring these bursts of emotional trauma for the past ten days and he'd originally blamed them on the stress of the case. The incidents had become more frequent, although not necessarily more severe, as the investigation had dragged on. He hadn't paid much attention to them because his concentration had been centered on helping Jim. He'd never felt so helpless, watching his Sentinel slip into one zone-out after another. Toward the end, he'd been terrified that if he left Jim's side for even a minute, he'd lose his friend to the trance-like state forever.
But the case is over now, he reminded himself. So why is this still happening? And why is it worse? Post-reaction let-down or something? That would make a certain amount of sense. The explanation was valid, so why did he feel like it was the easy way out? Probably because it is. Be honest with yourself, Sandburg. These sensations started manifesting long before the Haight case.
And that, of course, was the truth that he had been trying to avoid. In his heart, he knew exactly what was going on, but he hadn't let his head in on the secret yetalthough his subconscious was doing a pretty good job at trying to ruin his plans. He refused to admit it to himself, much less say it out loud. It was too terrifying. Far too big a paradigm shift to deal with right now. He needed time to process it. Time to sort it out piece by piece. Time to figure out a way to talk to Jim about it.
~Accept the truth.~
Not now, he told himself firmly. Now I need to be in control as Jim's Guide. I know that role. I can do that one. I can't handle the other yet.
This time there was no demanding response. Stifling a sigh as he settled back and closed his eyes, he realized that the ominous silence in his mind was as disturbing as the nagging voice had been. It was a long time before he drifted off into a troubled, fitful sleep.
Jim's own internal clock woke him a few minutes before they reached the staging area. He glanced at his still dozing partner and automatically reached out with his senses, monitoring the younger man's life signs. Reassured that the anthropologist's slower pulse and respiration were only the by-products of a deep sleep, he shifted his gaze out the window.
As he watched the forest slip away beneath them, his thoughts returned to his partner and his brow furrowed in concern. Something was wrong and it was more than the stress and horrors of the last case. There had been signs of increasing distress and uneasiness in his friend over the past several months. Why hadn't he paid more attention? Why had it taken Blair's outburst in Simon's office and what he'd tried to hide up on the roof to open his Sentinel's eyes?
The obvious answer made him extremely uncomfortablehe'd grown so used to Blair's presence, that he was no longer really 'aware' of his friend.
Except of course, when he isn't around when I need him. Pretty selfish, Ellison. You've been treating him like an extension of yourself, or worse, like some obedient guide-dog who's always supposed to be at your beck and callnot like your best friend. He's been hurting and you didn't even care enough to notice.
The revelation brought with it a heavy dose of guilt. He, of all people, knew better than to accept the 'nothing fazes Sandburg' persona which his friend used as a facade to keep the real world at bay.
It had always annoyed him when Simon or someone else in the department discounted Blair's contributions to their work. The realization that he, too, had begun to take the younger man for granted, was a painful blow to his own self image. How could he have done that? It wasn't part of the hard-nosed Ellison profile to admit to weakness, but he knew what he owed the younger manhow much he'd come to depend on Blair not only as his Guide, but as his friend.
Jim straightened in his seat, vowing that as soon as this newest assignment was over, he would get to the bottom of what was wrong. It was time Blair saw this as an equal partnership, at least as far as their commitment and respect for each other was concerned. It might take some fast talking on his part, particularly in the face of the dedication that the younger man held for his perceived role, but Jim knew he could be as persuasive as the grad student when he set his mind to it.
The pilot's blaring voice yanked him from his own thoughts. Wincing, he felt a flash of irritation as he dialed down his hearing. Damn, that was loud! He shot a quick look at his equally startled partner and felt his annoyance increase. Blair looked like someone had jolted him awake with a cattle prod. The younger man was shaking his head, blinking furiously as he tried to clear the sleep from his mind. Jim didn't need enhanced hearing to know that the anthropologist's heart was pounding in fright.
"Say again!" Jim requested, still eyeing his partner in concern.
"We're on final approach. ETA three minutes," the pilot answered.
Jim stared out the window, scanning ahead in an attempt to pick out their landing site. A puzzled frown creased his face at the sight of the unbroken forest below.
"I thought we were meeting Agent Anders at the entrance to the park," Jim objected, recalling the details on the fax.
"New orders, sir," the pilot responded. "We received a revised target destination an hour ago."
"Why the change in plans?"
"Beats me, sir. I just fly this thing where they tell me."
Jim glanced over at Blair and saw that the younger man had recovered enough to roll his eyes expressively at the exchange. Ellison answered with a mock frown at his partner's impertinence before turning to study the terrain once again.
"The growth looks pretty dense. Where are you going to put down?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's no place to land this bird at the coordinates they gave me. We're going to have to drop you."
"Drop us?" Blair's choked response rang in the Sentinel's ears.
"Not literally, Chief," Jim assured his stunned partner.
"Well, that's a relief," Blair muttered, wiping at his face. "I thought for a minute you'd gotten me into something dangerous again. I already jumped out of a plane with you once, Jim. It's an experience I'm not eager to repeat."
Jim frowned at the memory that the younger man's words evoked. "You don't have to go along this time. This one's not about friendship."
The eyes that met his were filled with determination. "You're wrong, Jim. That's exactly what this one is about," Blair whispered. He held Ellison's gaze for a few seconds and then shook his head. "We've already been through this. You're going, so I'm going. Just tell me what to do. I presume there's at least a rope or jungle vine for me to slither down?"
"Nothing quite that primitive, Tarzan," Jim grinned, falling into the light-hearted banter which had seen them through other tense situations.
Slipping out of his seatbelt, Jim rose to his feet and began uncoiling the bundled nylon rope and plexiglas ladder which was attached to the door-side of the aircraft. "Once we get into position, we'll open the door, toss this out and head down. You just hold on tight until you hit bottom."
"Wonderful choice of word pictures, Jim," Blair responded sarcastically.
"I'll go first and steady the bottom for you. I'm serious about hanging on tight, Chief. There's probably a pretty stiff crosswind at this elevation, not to mention the gusts the rotors are going to be kicking up. You sure you're up for this?"
The pilot's announcement forestalled Blair's answer. "We're set to go. Can you handle the door?"
"Yeah, I've got it," Jim assured the pilot, his attention still on his partner, awaiting his response.
"You heard the man," Blair said quietly, stripping off his headset as he rose to his feet. He grabbed his backpack and settled it in place, giving the straps a tug to make sure they were secure. He crossed the few steps to his partner's side, struggling to keep his balance when the helicopter caught a small down draft. Jim hauled him closer to the curved inside wall, gesturing for him to take hold of one of the handgrips.
"Door's opening now," Jim called into the headset before he pulled it off. Anchoring himself with his left hand, he slammed the locking lever upward with his right, releasing the door to slide free on the track. He gave it one shove to push it fully open and immediately stepped back away from the sucking rush of air, using his body to shelter Blair from the worst of the dragging wind.
Leaning forward he took a quick look below. The chopper was hovering at least sixty feet above a small clearing. Jim picked out the shapes of a half-dozen trucks and double that many men before he pulled back inside, turning to meet Blair's level gaze.
"You ready?" Ellison had to yell over the roaring of the helicopter's engines. Blair gave one terse nod, and Jim patted him on the shoulder. "I'll see you downstairs!" He tossed out the rope ladder, feeling the reassuring jerk as it unrolled. With a 'thumbs up' signal to his partner, he grabbed on with both hands and swung himself onto the rungs. He lowered himself down two steps and then paused, staring up at his partner. "One more thing!" he yelled.
"What?" Blair screamed back, edging closer to opening as he strained to hear Jim's words.
"Don't stop on the way down to admire the view!"
He waited long enough to see Blair's face contort in an expression of disgust and then continued his descent.
When Jim dropped out of sight, Blair automatically leaned forward to check on his partner's progressand immediately regretted it. One quick peek at Jim working his way down the swinging ladder was all it took to send the whole world spinning into confusion. Twisting back away from the opening, Blair pressed himself into the side of the chopper's fuselage, immensely grateful for the reassuring solidity of it against his spine.
"Breathe... Breathe..." he ordered his already over-taxed lungs. "Come on... you know how... this... works... Air in... Air out..."
Hyperventilating was not a good idea here. Screwing his eyes shut in hopes of fending off the whirling attack of vertigo wasn't the way to go either. With a determined shake of his head, he gritted his teeth and vented his irritation at the closest target.
"'Don't stop... and admire... the view... ' huh, Ellison? What... a sense... of humor... Just wait... until I get on the ground..."
Surprisingly, the anger seemed to help. He was breathing easier, and most of the giddiness was gone. He allowed himself a small grin. Jim had said that on purpose, anticipating that Blair would probably freak the minute he was alone. Sly move, Ellison. You know me pretty well, don't you?
Feeling a little more confident, Blair decided to risk another look over the edge. He took a few deep breaths and pulled himself to his feet. Still holding onto the handgrip with a white-knuckled grasp, he peered down, trying to focus on his partner and ignore the rest of the spinning view. Jim was only a few feet from the ground. If he meant to follow, now was the time.
"This sucks!" he announced to any major deities that were listening. He reached out and grabbed the swaying ladder with his right hand. He felt the tension in the nylon cord increase and knew that Jim had reached bottom and was steadying it for him. With one more deep breath, he released his hold on the handgrip and swung outward at the same time, feeling for the rungs with his feet.
A gust of wind nearly shifted him from the rope, but he hung on, forcing himself to keep moving. Remembering that anger had cleared his mind before, he launched into a litany of vengeful promises every time his feet touched a new rung.
"You're going to pay for this, Ellison," he whispered, hoping that Jim's hearing was tuned to the max. "When we get home there are going to be tests... tests in the lab, man... I know how much you hate those... tests on a daily basis... Taste tests to start, I think... yeah, we'll try out your reactions to every spice known to mankind... and then when you're not looking, I'm really going to turn up the heat... I'm going to dust your lasagna with so much red pepper that you'll be putting out the fire for days... I'm going to switch the covers on the tupperware in the fridge..."
Jim felt the strain of aching muscles and automatically dialed down his awareness level of the pain, his eyes never leaving his partner. Despite his inexperience, the younger man was making good progress in his descent. It was just nerve-wracking to watch. The Sentinel knew what the effort was costing his Guide in both emotional and physical terms. He'd been shaking himself by the time he'd touched the ground, a reminder of how much the stress and activity of the last ten days had taken out of him.
"... and then we're going to do smell... yeah, a trip to the dump... that'll be perfect..."
Despite the gravity of the situation, Jim couldn't stop the grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth. Blair was on a roll. Well you gave him the incentive, Ellison. If he does hold to his threats you'd better just ride it out. You owe him at least that much for all he's put up with from you. Knowing that the venting was partially for his benefit, Jim kept his hearing attuned to his partner as the younger man lowered himself another step.
"... it'll be worse than the sour milk, believe me... shit!"
Jim's breath caught in his throat as Blair's handhold slipped and the younger man slid downward, catching himself with a white-knuckled grip three rungs lower. There was silence from his Guide for a minute as Blair hung onto the nylon rope for dear life. Knowing that the noise from the chopper would wipe out any words that he might scream out to his friend, Ellison tightened his grip, trying to stabilize the swinging ladder while he sent waves of mental encouragement upward. Finally, Blair muttered a curse and started moving again, the diatribe picking up full steam once more.
"Your anal house rules? Yeah, lets talk about those..."
Jim gritted his teeth, his jaw clenching in anger. Whoever picked this landing site was going to get a piece of his mind once Blair was safe on the ground. It didn't bode well for the success of their efforts if the organizational skills of the men in charge were this poor. There had been other sites, not too far away, where the helicopter could have landed. Jim had done a quick surveillance of the area as he'd made his own descent, automatically scanning the terrain, using the higher vantage point to pick out landmarks so that he'd be able to pinpoint their location later. They were far from the entrance of the park, at least a dozen miles northwest, if he remembered the area correctly. The sudden shift in plans irritated him, although not nearly as much as the unnecessary risk to his partner did.
He realized that his thoughts had drifted and he focused his attention on Blair again. The younger man was nearly in reach. Only fifteen feet to go, and his Guide would be out of danger.
The sudden, faltering whine of the engines was all the warning he had before the aircraft dipped and swung to the right. The nylon cord burned across his hands as the ladder was wrenched from his grip. Jim lunged forward trying to regain control of the swinging lifeline, but he overextended, and landed on his knees. He could only watch in horror as Blair lost his grip. The anthropologist swung one-handed for an agonizing moment before losing even that tentative hold. As he plummeted downward, the Sentinel scrambled to his feet, knowing there was no way he was going to reach his Guide before he hit the rocky ground.
Blair knew he was going to fall the second he felt the rope slip in his hands. He gulped for air and had a flash of deja vuhe'd done this falling thing before and he'd wound up breaking his arm. Gonna break more than that if you don't do something, Sandburg. Another childhood memory kicked in and instinctively he pulled in his flailing limbs, tucking himself into a ball. He hit the ground hard, but rolling, his arms wrapped over his head.
He felt firm hands on his shoulders, heard Jim calling his name, but he was too committed to the basic activity of filling his lungs to answer right away. The hands shifted him gently to his side and almost immediately his breathing eased.
"Am I there yet?" he managed to whisper.
"Hell of an entrance, Sandburg. I think you lost points for style on the take-off though."
Blair heard the relief in Jim's voice, and ignored the teasing jibe. "I think... I did that... out of order..."
"What's that, Chief?" Ellison asked soothingly, his hands still running over his partner's smaller frame, searching for injuries.
"Supposed to be stop first..."
"Sandburg, what are you talking about?"
"Stop, drop and roll..."
"That's what you do in case your clothing is on fire, Chief," Jim answered, fighting back a smile. It never ceased to amaze him how Blair could find an instinctive answer or action to fit almost any situation.
"Seemed appropriate at the time."
"Yeah, it was. You going to open your eyes now?"
"Just as soon as the ground stops moving."
"It'll be better if you open your eyes, Chief."
"Easy for you to say."
"Just do it, Sandburg," Jim growled.
Blair caught the undercurrent of worry in his partner's exasperated comment and followed his Sentinel's orders. His eyes flickered open and he found himself blinded by a curtain of his own hair. He started to raise his hand to brush the strands away, but a firm hand on his arm stopped the movement.
Blair obeyed that one word command and lay motionless. Gently, Jim brushed the hair away from his face and tilted Blair's head slightly. Gazing up into his partner's eyes, Blair could almost feel the invisible touch of Jim's extended senses as the Sentinel anxiously checked him out.
"I'm okay, Jim." The barely whispered comment didn't alter the intense look on concentration on the older man's face. Abruptly aware of movement behind his partner, Blair hissed in warning. "Don't zone, man. We've got company."
"My God, is he all right?"
Blair ignored the new arrival, still focusing on Jim's dilated eyes. He saw his partner shake himself free of the zone-out and he breathed a quick sigh of reliefrelief which turned to concern as the detective's face darkened with anger when he became aware of the other man's presence. Sensing Jim's protective instincts surging to the attack, Blair reached out and snagged his fingers in the Sentinel's jacket.
The warning tone in his voice halted the building rage. Blair watched Jim struggle for control and cringed at the cold anger in the sky blue eyes, even though he knew it wasn't directed at him.
"Just lay still for a few more minutes," Ellison cautioned.
Still kneeling at Blair's side, Jim shifted positions slightly, turning his icy gaze on the man who stood next to them.
"He is all right, isn't he?" the newcomer asked.
Blair allowed himself a quick glance at the man before fixing his attention back on Jim. The man's tone was filled with concern, but Blair felt a shudder ripple through him, a fleeting sense of terror flashing behind his eyes.
"Are you the one responsible for picking this drop site?" Jim snarled the question through clenched teeth. Blair tightened his grip on his partner's jacket, fearful that the Sentinel was going to tear off the man's head if he didn't derail this immediately.
"Hey, Jim. Give me a hand here," Blair interrupted, struggling to sit up. Sometimes Jim's 'mother-hen' mode could sometimes override the 'Blessed Protector' instincts. He hoped this was one of those moments.
"Damn it, Sandburg, I told you to stay put!" Jim's attention immediately swung back to him, just as Blair had hoped.
"I want to sit up, man," Blair assured him, his own hold shifting to grip the older man's arm and give him a reassuring squeeze. "I'm okay, Jim," he said softly, holding his partner's gaze until the Sentinel nodded.
"Are you Agent Anders?" Blair directed his words and his attention to the waiting man, who nodded and stretched out a hand, offering to help him up.
Ellison reacted then, not brushing Anders offer aside physically, but edging between the Agent and his Guide. Realizing that the Sentinel's need to protect him was still operating, Blair allowed Jim to pull him to his feet . Following his own instincts, he shifted into position slightly behind the older man, only then letting his gaze return to Anders' face. A warning shudder rippled through him and he forced himself to clamp down on his reaction.
Don't go there, man! This is NOT the time or the place.
Struggling to deal with the revulsion he felt crawling over his skin, Blair took one step closer to Jim, finding relief in the protective aura which was emanating from his partner.
With Blair in his familiar place at his back, Jim's attention focused on the FBI agent.
"I'm Ellison," he said tersely. "This is my partner, Blair Sandburg."
"Frank Anders," the agent said quietly, hesitantly extending his hand and then withdrawing it when he saw the set of Jim's face. "I apologize for this. The cross-winds up here are trickier than we thought." Anders shifted his gaze to Blair and he shook his head in admiration. "You must have a lot of experience in high level descents."
Jim sensed the shudder that ran through his young partner and his jaw tightened even further. "Why the change in plans?" he asked roughly.
"We've made some progress tracking the bus since you left Cascade," Anders answered, meeting Jim's gaze again. "The last sign of a trail that we found is just a mile or so down below us. We're only going to have six or seven hours before we lose our daylight. Given the need to resolve this quickly, I thought we'd be better off picking you up here."
Reminded of the reason they were present, Jim relaxed slightly at the agent's explanation, the part of his mind which wasn't still seething at the danger that his Guide had faced accepting the rationale behind the decision. He pushed away the flash of anger and studied the man closely.
Anders was nearly his height and build, but slightly older. Jim guessed late 40's. Definitely some military background, Jim judged, noting the ramrod straight posture. Salt and pepper closely cropped hair topped a face which had seen its own share of traumatic experiences. There was a long-healed scar trailing down the man's left cheekbone, and a spider-web pattern of discoloration around the right eye which Jim suspected was the result of some kind of powder burn. Again, long-healed.
The man's eyes caught his attention and he found himself automatically dialing up his senses. He'd had the feeling there was something shuttered behind that pale gray stare. After a moment's monitoring, he let himself slip back into normal range, having found nothing to explain the uneasy feeling which had flared in the pit of his stomach. He felt Blair shift behind him and decided he was simply picking up on his partner's odd behavior.
Or maybe you're just at the edge of your limits, Ellison. You know your senses tend to be less trustworthy when you're tired. Just get the job done, so you can both go home.
As if guessing that he'd just passed some kind of test, Anders extended his hand again. "I understand from your captain that you're coming off a pretty ugly case. We really appreciate your joining us."
Jim finally took the outstretched hand and shook it, nodding his acknowledgment, noting that his partner made no move to do the same. The absence of the gesture was apparently lost on Anders who pointed toward one of the supply vehicles.
"Make your choices from the gear in the truck and we'll head out. You can ride with me and I'll fill you in. Oh, and sorry again, for the rough entrance." Anders shot Blair an apologetic smile and moved off to join several of his men at one of the jeeps.
"Let's go, Chief." Jim touched Blair on the arm and started toward the vehicle the agent had indicated.
"He's lying. It wasn't an accident..."
Jim spun around at his partner's angry whisper. One look at Blair's bloodless face and he was back at the younger man's side. "Sandburg..." The younger man didn't respond, his gaze still fixed on Anders. Jim shook him gently. "Blair... look at me."
Eyes filled with rage swiveled in his direction. When they locked with Jim's, the violent emotion suddenly dissipated, replaced with a dazed expression of confusion and frightthe same look which had filled them earlier that morning in Simon's office, and on the roof before the helicopter had landed.
The familiar blue eyes blinked and refocused. "What? Did you say something?"
"No, you did," Jim countered.
Blair ran his hand through his hair and shook his head, giving Jim one of his disarming, wry smiles. "Oh. Sorry. Guess I was just kind of stunned there for a minute. I'm not used to being treated so nicely by the FBI. They're usually ready to kick my ass OUT of the party, not invite me to it and apologize when I trip on the welcome mat."
Jim studied his young friend suspiciously. The smile was still plastered on his face, and his color was improving, but Sentinel senses revealed a different picture. His partner might be a master at misdirection where other people were concerned, but he never fooled Jim. Blair's heart was pounding, his respiration was fast and he was starting to squirm under the intense scrutiny. There was definitely something wrongand for some reason it felt dangerous.
"What the hell's going on?" Ellison hissed, tightening his grip.
Blair ducked his head and tried to pull away, but Jim wasn't about to let him go.
"Answer me, Sandburg, and don't forget that I can hear it when you try to bend the truth."
"This is the third attack of some kind you've had today. Now, either you tell me what's going on, or I'm packing you out of here."
"No, Jim. You can't. I have to stay with you!" Blair gasped. He grabbed onto the Sentinel and stared up into his face, stark fear filling the wide blue eyes.
"Then tell me what's going on," Jim said soothingly, all traces of anger gone from his tone.
"I don't... I can't..." Blair shook his head and shuddered.
"Tell me." Jim pitched his voice even softer, betraying none of the anxiety he was feeling.
He felt Blair stiffen abruptly and realized that the younger man was once again staring at Anders. There was a sharp intake of breath and he almost missed Blair's whispered comment.
"Not here. Not with them watching."
Blair's eyes flickered up to meet his. There was a desperate plea in them which Jim couldn't refuse.
"As soon as we're alone, then," the detective agreed, finally releasing his hold on the younger man.
Blair nodded and started walking toward the truck. Trailing in his wake, Jim began to doubt his decision. It was obvious that Sandburg was in no shape for this. His partner was normally the last person who would make a spot judgment about someone. Why had he reacted to the FBI agent that way? Jim stopped and glanced over his shoulder at Anders, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. As if aware of the Sentinel's scrutiny, the agent raised his head. Their gazes locked for a brief moment and Jim found himself tensing, as though he were preparing for an assault. The odd spell was broken as Anders nodded and looked away.
Sandburg's anxiety attacks must be contagious, Ellison told himself uneasily. You're on the same side, remember? Don't go jumping at shadows. You're tired and you're worried about your partner. Rubbing his neck in puzzled contemplation, Jim hurried to catch up with Blair.
When the ex-ranger saw the assortment of gear and provisions, he gave a mental nod of approval, losing some of his initial reservations about the operation. They may not be able to choose a decent landing site, but whoever outfitted them knows his stuff. Grabbing an empty backpack, he began filling it with his selections, glancing at Blair occasionally as he monitored the younger man's choices.
The anthropologist had declined the use of one of the FBI's packs, opting to hang onto his own, slightly smaller one. Well at least that aspect of his behavior is normal, Jim mused.
It was almost impossible to imagine Sandburg without his backpack. It was more than just a convenient carryallit was like a detachable part of his anatomy. Early in their association, Jim had razzed him about it, referring to the bag as Blair's substitute American Express card. After one such comment, the anthropologist had given him a wary, searching look and then shrugged his shoulders, responding, "Just trying to be prepared, Ellison. Ford Prefect favors a towel, I prefer a backpack."
The suspicion that there was something important hiding beneath the surface of that cryptic comment had stuck with Jim for days. Ultimately, it had nagged at him so much that he'd put on his detective cap and started digging. One call to the reference desk at the public library had uncovered the literary source of his partner's strange remark. He'd waited until Blair had left for a night class that evening, and then, feeling somewhat guilty for intruding into the younger man's privacy, he'd dug through the still unpacked cartons of books in the anthropologist's room, unearthing an obviously well read, dog-eared copy of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.'
Several hours later, he'd returned the book to its box, troubled by the insights which he'd gained. It had been strange, relying on a 'Guidebook' to help him better understand his own Guide, but it had helped. Even the writing style had reminded him of his friend: seemingly disjointed ramblings on the surface, flashes of brilliance and gentle humor underneath.
Jim had found the reference to Ford Prefect and the towel within the first thirty pages, but he'd continued to read, amazed at the parallels between the fictional character and the young grad student. Armed with his towel, Ford Prefect, hitchhiker on the highways of the galaxy, was ready to move on at a moment's notice; backpack on his shoulder, Blair Sandburg, self-confessed wanderer with itchy feet, was apparently prepared to do the same on this planet.
That revelation had set in motion a night of intense, personal scrutiny on Jim's part. It had been the first time he'd admitted to himself just how closely the anthropologist had wormed his way inside his carefully constructed walls. He'd realized then, that if he wanted their friendship and partnership to continue, he was going to have to work at it and give the younger man a reason to stay. The jokes about the backpack had dropped off significantly after that.
The canvas bag had taken on a whole new meaning after they'd returned from Peru. Stuffed to overflowing with his student's term papers, his own research textbooks and Jim's case files, it had come to represent Blair's ability to shift into any of the roles of his multi-layered lifegrad student, teacher, Observer, Guide and friendat the blink of an eye. It still symbolized Blair's readiness to take off at a moment's notice, but Jim no longer worried about watching for flying saucers.
With the fleeting thought that hitching a ride on a UFO might be less dangerous than the descent his partner had just made, Jim returned to the task at hand. Recognizing that both of their energy reserves were down, he paid special attention to packing a quantity of high-protein ration kits and trail bars. He tossed several packages of dried jerky over to Blair, who packed them into his own bag without comment. Ellison raised an eyebrow at that and gave his partner a hard look. Any other time, Sandburg would have launched into at least a ten minute lecture about the questionable origin of the processed meat.
The younger man was still silent and withdrawn, although his heartbeat and respiration had returned to normal. Promising himself that he was going to find a way to get the two of them off alone soon, so that Blair would make good on his explanation, Jim closed up his own pack and slung it to his shoulder.
Blair nodded, still not meeting his eyes. Ellison started to turn toward the jeep that Anders was occupying. A tug at his jacket sleeve stopped him.
Looking down into his partner's face, he could see the younger man's expression shifting back and forth between stubborn determination and uneasiness. Sandburg's gaze flickered to Anders before coming back to meet his.
"Look," Blair whispered, "I know this is going to sound crazy, but I can't shake the feeling that something is wrong here."
"In what way?" Jim asked quietly.
"I don't know... it's just..." Blair shook his head, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He glanced over at the agent again and shuddered, quickly looking away. "That guy Anders. He makes me nervous."
"Maybe it's just because he's FBI," Jim offered, intentionally keeping his tone light. "Your past experiences with the Feds wouldn't necessarily engender a positive reaction."
"Jim, I'm trying to be serious here," Blair retorted, lowering his voice even farther. "Just do me a favor. Be careful about using your senses in front of these guys, okay? I mean, I know we're all supposed to be on the same team and all that, but..."
"But be careful. I got it, Chief. With any luck I won't have to use them at all."
Jim gave him a quick pat on the shoulder and ushered his Guide toward the jeep. Blair's whispered response was so quiet that even with his Sentinel hearing, Ellison almost missed it. The foreboding twinge he felt at his partner's words made him wish he had.
"Somehow I don't think luck's on our side today, man."
While Jim eased into the passenger seat, Blair settled himself in the rear, positioning himself so that he sat directly behind his partner. He was less than enthused about the close proximity to the FBI agent, but grateful to be sitting down. It was going to be a long dayhe was sure of that. A long day on top of too many long days.
As unobtrusively as he could, he rolled his shoulders, trying to ease already stiffening muscles. He was certain he could feel the heat of a good sized bruise forming across the top of his right shoulder blade and countless smaller ones along his right side, testimony to the force of his impact with the ground. Relieved that he'd managed to come out of that little adventure with only some new bruisesthe way his luck was running, he was surprised he hadn't broken his neckhe vowed to remain silent, no matter how uncomfortable he became.
That's all Jim would need to finally decide to keep me out of this, and there's no way I'm going to let that happen.
Anders pulled two manila folders off his clipboard, handing one to each of them before starting the jeep. "That's what we've got so far," the agent explained, raising his voice so that they could hear him over the sound of the engine. He waited until two of the other vehicles had pulled out ahead of him before dropping into gear and following. Blair shifted sideways in order to hear better, inching forward until his right shoulder rested on the back of Jim's seat, . Feeling every bump of the tires through the thin padding of his jacket, he gritted his teeth and flipped open the file, scanning the information.
"We've got nine people missing," Anders began. "Seven children, ages seven to eight, the bus driver and one of the teachers from KinderEdge Institute. It's a private school... pretty upper crust, if you know what I mean. They should have checked in at the camp early this morning. When they didn't arrive, the park rangers did a quick search on the roads thinking that the rough weather might have delayed them. First thing I knew about it was when my director told me to get a team assembled and get my butt up here. More than one of the kid's parents has some pretty high-up clout, I guess. I brought a few of my men and borrowed a couple of teams from SAR. Most of their more experienced personnel are assisting in the fire relief efforts down in Santa Anna, so when I found out we were short-handed, I called your captain on the Seattle Office's recommendation."
Anders paused and gave them both a quick look before turning his attention back to the rough trail they were following. "You two have a pretty amazing track record. The Bureau gave you a glowing endorsement and they're a hard bunch to impress."
Blair grimaced at the compliment and tried to focus on the stack of papers in his hand, struggling to keep his balance as the vehicle lurched from side to side. Anders cranked the wheel around to avoid another pothole and Blair bounced against the seatback, clenching his teeth against the pain which jolted through his bruised shoulder. With a string of his more inventive curses running through his head, he stopped trying to read and looked up, peering ahead to survey their surroundings.
They had passed from the small clearing where the helicopter had dropped them, into dense forest. The 'road' they were following was little more than a beaten down path, barely wide enough for most of the trucks. He was jolted forward again when Anders abruptly angled the jeep to the right. Blair heard the scrape of branches on the sides of the vehicle as they passed between two huge trees, moving much faster than his suddenly pounding heart considered safe.
Great... this little excursion is turning out to be a visit to the amusement park from hell. First the death-defying helicopter drop and now the tree-smash slalom course. What's next? Must be a river somewhere that I can jump into. No trip into the great outdoors would be complete without a water ride, now would it?
Making a silent vow to never again leave the safety of his bedroom, no matter what his inner voices demanded, Blair turned his attention back to Anders' briefing.
"We managed to pick up a track on the bus and followed it up here. From what we can tell, the driver left the main road not too far from the park entrance. We did find a tree blocking that stretch and we thought at first they were looking for a quick detour and just got lost. But they several opportunities to pull off onto other roads which would have led them to the camp and they didn't take them. It looks like we have to assume the worst."
"You did a background check on the driver?" asked Jim, still studying the files intently.
"Right away. Richard Heckt, age 29. No priors, no skeletons in the closet that we could find. The Bureau's still digging, but so far we're coming up empty. He's been with the company that chartered the trip for six years. Good work record and, if we can believe his boss, pretty well liked."
"And the teacher, Amanda Sims? Anything on her that's not in here?"
At Jim's question, Blair flipped back to the pages on the missing woman. There was a fax copy of her photo attached to the documents and Blair found himself immediately drawn to the young teacher. Amanda Sims, age 27, red hair, blue eyes, 120 pounds of pure fun, if her picture did her justice. Even through the blurring of the printout, her eyes sparkled and the smile was infectious, implying a mischievous sense of humor and love of life.
Lucky kids... wish I'd been so fortunate in second grade, he thought to himself, remembering the towering older man who had tried to inflicted his own brand of strict discipline on a free-spirited, scraggly-haired, seven year-old boy. Fortunately he'd only had to endure the man's attitude for a few months, while they stayed with some of Naomi's friends in Fort Lauderdale. The constant switching from school to school was usually painful, but in this case he'd been happy to leave. Any longer and he and the teacher certainly would have come to blows.
"No troublesome boyfriends, no bad habits as far as we're been able to determine," Anders answered. "She or the driver could be involved in thishell, almost anyone could. It would be easy to discover how loaded the parents are. The kind of money you could pull down on just one of those kids would buy a small island somewhere."
Troubled by the agent's words, Blair extracted the photograph he'd passed by earlier. It was a group shot of what he assumed were the missing children. Looking at the smiling, guileless faces, he felt a surge of anger at whoever would be callous enough to destroy their innocence with the terror of an abduction. He raised his head and studied his partner. Noting the clenching of Jim's jaw, he knew the older man was feeling the same emotions.
They both understood the ramifications of Anders' words. There were lives at stakeinnocent victims who needed to be rescued from the whims of fate and whoever was heartless enough to place more value on money, than on life.
Lives which the Sentinel could protect: that was what he was born to do, what his code of honor required him to do, no matter what the cost, with no thought of the risk to himself. And Blair knew with a certainty deep in his heart, that if he tried to keep Jim from using his gifts, kept him from following that sense of duty, it would destroy the bond between them. There was no way he was going to allow that to happennot on the basis of some irrational, emotional episodes. Jim had a job to do and so did he. He was Guide and partner...
~And something more...~
No! He denied the seductive whisper inside his head with a vehemence born of weariness and fear. I am Guide and partner. I didn't ask to be anything else.
~Accept the truth.~
Blair felt the flood of terror and sorrow building deep inside and he fought it with every ounce of willpower he had.
~Protect your Sentinel.~
I will protect him, Blair pledged desperately. I swear I will keep him safe... but I cannot accept this... not now... Now I need to remain who I am. That's where my strength lies...
~Strength wears many faces, young one.~
The voice and the wave of emotions faded abruptly, leaving him drained and exhausted. Grateful for the support of the seat in front of him, he leaned into it, concentrating on regaining his control and suppressing his own fears. Blair took a deep breath, focusing his thoughts on the missing children and their adult companions. They would find them. Jim's skills and senses would make the difference. Blair had absolute faith in that.
And when he finds them and they're safe, maybe it will make up for the lives that we lost last time... maybe I'll be able to sleep again... maybe we both will...
The jeep finally shot out of the dense forest onto a stretch of broken, paved road. Jim breathed a small sigh of reliefhe'd endured every jolt and bounce of the vehicle and he knew his partner had felt them, too. The Sentinel had easily heard the small gasp of indrawn breath every time the anthropologist had bumped against the seat. Jim began to wonder whether he should have checked the younger man more thoroughly for injuries. He shuddered at the memory of Blair's falling bodywell beyond his reachand the heart-stopping sound his Guide had made when he'd hit the ground.
If he hadn't instinctively tucked into that rolled-up ball and protected his head...
Pushing away the horrifying possibilities of what could have happened, Jim concentrated on the reassuring lifesigns of the young man behind him.
... pulse is rapid, but not bad, considering the roller coaster ride we've just taken... respiration's fast, but that's pretty normal, too. Better than a few minutes ago...
He'd almost turned around in his seat to check on Blair when he'd sensed the younger man's distress, but he hadn't wanted to confront his partner in front of Anders. If it had been another panic attack, it hadn't lasted long. Maybe it was just the close calls with the trees, he told himself hopefully. The surging heartbeat had coincided with several near misses as the jeep had careened through the thick growth.
Yeah, and maybe it'll take a fifth episode with him collapsing into convulsions to convince you that this is serious, Ellison. Who are you trying to fool?
With a frustrated sigh, Jim took one more quick sensory peek at the anthropologist. Satisfied that for the time being that Blair was all right, Jim turned his attention back to the road, scanning ahead. He'd already picked out three more parked vehicles and six more men before Anders pulled the jeep to a stop a few minutes later.
"This is where we found the last tire tracks. I'll give you a minute to stretch your legs while I check with my people," Anders commented, sliding easily from the driver's seat and moving off to join the small cluster of waiting men.
Jim nodded and climbed out of the jeep himself, feeling the stiffness of his own muscles, and the ache in his joints which signaled the beginning stages of exhaustion. He shook his head and dialed down his senses a bit more, knowing it would be only a short term cure. Get your head into the case, he reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders in grim determination, he took a quick look around, his sharp eyes picking up a myriad of details as he stretched out the kinks from the rough ride.
He wasn't sure of the elevation, but the slight laboring of his lungs and the crispness of the air gave him the impression him that they were fairly high up. His own internal clocka carryover from his time spent in the militarytold him the same thing the position of the hazy sun didthey were just past midday. Jim turned in a slight arc as he stretched again. He let his hearing drift around the assembled group, picking up snatches of conversation, all pertaining to the mission at hand. He searched for Anders and found him engaged in what looked to be a fairly intense discussion with another, taller man. Jim was just about to eavesdrop when they broke apart.
There was a small frown on the Sentinel's face when he turned back to the jeep to retrieve his pack. The expression deepened when he realized Blair hadn't moved. The anthropologist was still sitting hunched in the back seat, head down, the long flowing curls throwing a curtain across his face. Taking a step forward, Jim peered over his shoulder and saw what was holding his young friend's attention. The folder in Blair's hands was open and on top of the sheath of reports was the photo of the missing children.
The muscles in Ellison's jaw clenched in anger. Of all the cases he worked, those involving children were the hardest for him to keep in perspective, and he knew how painfully they affected his partner. The Sentinel's protective instincts flared, not just for the missing kids, but for his Guide as well. He reached out and gently touched Blair on the shoulder, not wanting to startle him.
The blue eyes which looked up at the soft inquiry were filled with confusion and an emotion Jim couldn't quite identify. The odd, unfocused expression was gone with the next blink and the familiar wry smile on the anthropologist's face made Jim wonder if he'd really seen it.
"Just catching my breath," Blair murmured.
"Good. I thought for a minute you were having a 'zone-out' of your own," Jim responded just as quietly, his eyes narrowing in concern.
"More like lost in thought."
"That's been happening a lot lately, hasn't it?"
Blair's smile faltered at the implications of Jim's casual question and he turned away, busying himself with stuffing the folder into his pack. Grudgingly, the Sentinel took a step back to allow the younger man to climb from the jeep, wincing at his Guide's sharp intake of breath when he moved too quickly. Jim started to reach out to take Blair's arm, but his friend's quick shift backward and almost embarrassed shake of the head, stopped him.
Sliding his pack onto his shoulder, Blair tugged at his jacket to straighten it before finally looking up to meet the detective's eyes. "I'm all right, Jim. Just a little stiff."
Ellison stared down at him for a moment longer, then nodded, the frown never leaving his face. Blair broke his gaze away and pointedly stared off toward the rest of the search party. Realizing that he was facing his partner's usual stonewalling tactics, Jim backed off and pulled his own pack onto his shoulders.
"You know, Jim, one thing has me a little confused."
"Only one?" the detective asked lightly, recognizing the inquisitive tone in his observer's voice and hoping that it meant his partner's uneasiness was finally dissipating.
"Unless I missed it, Anders didn't say anything about a ransom demand," the younger man continued smoothly, ignoring the teasing jibe. "Is that normal? I mean, the kids have been missing for over five hours. If this is a kidnapping, shouldn't someone have been contacted by now?"
The comment brought Jim up short. He did a quick search of his memory and realized Blair was right. Once again, the observer had picked up on something the detective had missed. Running his hand through his close-cropped hair in frustration at his own fatigue induced dull-wittedness, Jim placed a hand on Blair's shoulder and gently propelled him forward.
"You didn't miss anything, Chief. It's a good question. Let's get an answer."
As they made their way through the knots of clustered men, Jim sensed his partner's increasing nervousness. When they were within a few feet of Anders, the anthropologist's pace slackened and Ellison moved ahead, letting Blair shift slightly behind him.
"We're ready to go whenever you are," Anders reported, glancing up from the clipboard in his hand at their arrival.
"We're ready," Jim said quietly. "Just one question. From what you said about the affluence of the children's parents, I assume we're expecting a ransom demand, but you didn't mention one."
"We haven't been contacted by anyone yet. There are agents standing by at each of the kid's homes and I've got one of my men monitoring the satellite up-link. He's got orders to report to us immediately, if anything comes in."
"Satellite up-link? That's pretty expensive technology," Blair observed, one eyebrow raising in mild surprise.
"The Bureau's got pretty impressive resources," Anders answered with a casual shrug. "Besides, without it we'd never get a call out over these mountains. Cell phones won't work up here. Not unless you get well above the tree line."
Jim could almost feel Blair's shiver at the reference to the elevation and quickly shifted the subject. "Where's the track you found?"
Anders led them past the assembled vehicles. The paved portion of the road ended about fifteen feet beyond the cluster of trucks, changing to gravel for another thirty yards before it became simply dirt and grass. The ex-ranger eyed the ground carefully as they trailed behind the FBI agent, his gaze sweeping left and right, hunting for clues. When Anders stopped just short of a heavily churned patch of mud, Jim moved a few steps farther, kneeling at the side of the depression.
As he studied the impressions in the dark, rain drenched soil, he felt the sudden warmth of Blair's hand on his shoulder. Reassured by his Guide's steadying presence, the Sentinel reached out, extending his sight to probe the tire tracks that were evident in the mud.
"Normally, I'd be complaining about the weather, but in this case, it's working in our favor."
Jim glanced up at the unknown voice, meeting the hard, cold gaze of the man he'd seen Anders arguing with earlier.
"Detective Ellison, Blair Sandburg, this is Dirk Bailey," the agent explained. "Dirk's our best tracker. He's the one who got us this far."
"Detective." Bailey's voice was as cool as his eyes, as he gave the briefest of nods in acknowledgment of the introduction, his gaze flickering to Blair for just a moment before returning to regard Jim almost challengingly.
The Sentinel automatically stiffened, but a firm squeeze at his shoulder reminded him of his promise to his Guide and he forced himself to relax.
"Bailey." To his own ears, Jim's curt response was nearly as frigid as the tracker's had been, but neither the tracker or Anders seemed to react to it. The increase of pressure on his shoulder however, told him that his partner had noticed, and he quickly turned to study the muddy impressions again.
"These tracks aren't regulation size for a school bus," Jim observed, leaning forward to run his fingers lightly over the rigid indentations.
"It's one of those small models," Anders interjected. "Carries about 30 passengers."
Ellison nodded absently, his sharp eyes continuing to examine the marks. A puzzled expression began to form on his face. He glanced back over his shoulder at the path they had just walked and abruptly rose to his feet, turning to gaze beyond the puddle once more. The 'road', if you could call it that, branched out into three rough trails just beyond where they were standing. Each was as rugged looking as the course Anders had followed from the drop site, and all three trails disappeared into the overgrown forest. Even given the smaller-sized vehicle, any of the directions would have posed significant obstacles for the missing bus. Jim began to admit that the case was playing out more and more like a kidnapping. None of the obvious options would have been an intelligent choice, if indeed the driver had simply gotten lost.
"There's been more than one vehicle through here since the rain this morning," he announced abruptly, his gaze meeting Blair's for a moment before shifting to the other two men.
Bailey stiffened in surprise at his words, but Anders seemed to take the announcement in stride. "How do you know that?" the agent asked quietly.
"There are at least three different sets of tracks," Jim explained. "One five-tread pattern, probably an ATV of some kind. The impressions are several inches deep, so I'd guess commercial or military issue. It's carrying some weight, too."
Jim knelt back down next to the tracks in the mud and ran his hand along the surface again. He felt an oiliness to the soil and brought his fingers to his nose for a moment before glancing up. "There are two more tread patterns here. Both six-rib tracks, probably 36 to 40 inch wheels. That's consistent with the tires used for the size of the bus we're looking for, as well as about a dozen other models of trucks and vans. One of those vehicles is leaking transmission fluid. I saw some drops on the pavement. Any chance of finding out when the bus was last in for service?"
"I'll have one of my men contact the charter company right away," Anders answered, turning to Bailey curiously. "How'd you miss that, Dirk?"
"I don't know," the tracker replied flatly. "Guess it's time for me to get my eyes checked," he added humorlessly, his eyes flashing with a glint of anger.
"Can you tell which way they went from here, Jim?"
Blair's question broke the building tension between the men and the Sentinel straightened, shifting a step closer to his partner in response to his Guide's nervous heartbeat. Placing his hand lightly on the younger man's arm in a sign of both reassurance and direction, he gestured with a lift of his chin.
"The smearing on the side of the top tread pattern indicates that it bore to the right," he explained, staring down the rough trail for a moment before glancing back at Anders. "Looks like it leads south. Is there another road in that direction? One that leads back down to the entrance?"
"Nothing on the map," the agent answered. "That's our bearing, then?"
Ellison started to nod, then glanced over at Bailey. The tracker's face was unreadable.
"It's a place to start," Jim acknowledged.
"Assign Fredericks and Dunn to two of the other parties," Anders ordered the tracker. "That way you can work with Ellison and Sandburg and we'll still have six teams."
Jim caught the briefest flicker of satisfaction on Bailey's face before the man's gaze shifted to meet his. At the same time, he heard the sharp intake of breath from his partner.
"Sandburg and I are used to working on our own," Jim interjected smoothly. "There's no need to alter the arrangements you already have set up."
Anders froze, his glance shifting quickly from Bailey to Jim. There was a flash of uncertainty in those gray eyes. The Sentinel reached out with his senses to try to get a better read on the man, but whatever he had seen was gone immediately.
"Of course. Dirk, grab a couple of headsets for Detective Ellison and his partner, please."
After a second's hesitation, Bailey gave a terse nod and stalked over to the supply truck.
Anders gave the tracker a thoughtful stare before turning back to Jim. "I guess I should apologize for Dirk. He's not used to being outdone. He really is a good man. This case may be hitting a little too close for home. He's got kids of his own."
"Too close for everyone," Jim responded quietly.
"Isn't that the truth." Anders gave Bailey one more quick look, and shook his head. "You take point. I'll have Dirk align the other teams accordingly. Good job, by the way. I can see why you came so highly recommended."
Anders gave them a final nod of approval and headed back toward the waiting vehicles and men, shouting orders as he went. Blair had remained silent during the entire exchange and Jim heard him release a sigh of relief once the agent had moved away. Ellison turned to study the anthropologist carefully and saw the furrowed brow which was typically a warning sign of his partner's irritation. With a flush of guilt, he knew the emotion was directed at him.
"Well, that was pleasant," Blair growled under his breath. "I can see that we're going to have to work on your interpretation of 'being careful'."
Bailey's return forestalled any other comments. He handed over the headsets, his expression skeptical when Jim assured him that they were familiar with their operation.
"It's not going to be as easy, following that trail in the grass, Ellison."
The sneer in Bailey's voice irritated Jim. I've had about enough of this guy, he thought angrily. He turned to face the tracker, only to find Blair planted between them, his back to the Sentinel, his head tilted slightly upward as he addressed the taller man.
"Maybe we'll get lucky." The adversarial stance and the sharp tone of his Guide's voice stopped Jim from interfering, although he watched the tracker carefully.
"Yeah... maybe you will..." Bailey finally responded, his scathing gaze shifting from Blair and then to Jim. With a final glare, he turned away abruptly and headed back toward the waiting teams.
"Friendly sort, isn't he?" Jim murmured.
"Probably is until he gets put in his place by someone better equipped," Blair responded in a whisper, turning slightly to look up at Jim. "Show-off!"
The Sentinel started to smile at the accusation, but the anxious expression on his Guide's face reminded him of what he'd just done. He took a deep breath and glanced toward Bailey, wondering silently what had possessed him to feel like he needed to put the man in his place.
"At least you have the good grace to look embarrassed," Blair muttered under his breath.
Jim grimaced and immediately felt Blair's hand on his arm. His Guide's gentle touch and the soothing timbre of his voice when he spoke again, took the sting out of the curt reprimand.
"Jim, I'm not asking you not to use your senses. Just tone it down a little, all right? We don't have to impress these guys, just find the missing kids."
Ellison nodded in silent apology and began to adjust the younger man's headset, giving him a quick review on how the communication device worked. Once Blair's was rigged and clipped to his belt, Jim settled his own on his head, cocking the earpiece aside slightly, so that it wouldn't interfere with his own hearing. Flipping the unit on, he spoke softly into the transmitter, watching Blair's reaction to gauge how well his partner's was working.
"Better turn yours down, Jim," Blair suggested, his voice carrying none of the irritation it had contained just a few minutes earlier. "It sounds like you're shouting in my ear. You don't want to get blasted. Do we really have to use these things?"
"The search teams will spread out beyond visual range," Jim explained, adjusting the audio levels downward another notch. "We'll need these to keep in touch."
Jim glanced up in time to see a mischievous grin flicker across the younger man's face.
"Yes, we, Sandburg. You wanted unobtrusive, remember?"
The abrupt departure of the smile and the worried look in his partner's eyes made Jim regret his remark immediately.
"No, Jim. It's all right," Blair answered, reaching out with a feather-like touch in reassurance. "Any other time, I'd be happier than hell at the way you made that guy eat your dust. You did an amazing job, you know, with those tire tracks. They never would have spotted what you did. I meant to tell you that."
"Thanks. I have a good teacher," Jim responded softly.
"Yeah, one that needs to constantly keep you in line. I'll allow an A+ for achievement, but you're still getting an 'unsatisfactory' grade for how you play with others."
Jim grinned back at the friendly banter. It was a familiar pattern and it reflected their ability to put their differences aside and merge into the resourceful partnership they enjoyed.
"You ready to do this?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Blair answered. "Lead on."
As Jim moved forward, following the direction that the tracks had indicated, Blair fell into his accustomed place, several paces behind him. Mindful of his partner's almost anal approach to proper procedure, Blair automatically lengthened his stride, trying to step only where the Sentinel had trod, and found himself grinning despite the seriousness of the situation. Jim really had trained him well, although he knew that sometimes his older partner despaired of ever getting him to follow his orders.
Seeing the Sentinel glide purposefully across the rough ground, brought to mind the image of a panther on a hunt. Blair knew Jim had all of his senses dialed up, searching for any evidence which would help them find the missing bus. He felt a warm surge of pride in his friend and allowed himself to relax a little. This was Jim's area of expertiseSentinel abilities not-withstandingand Blair had every confidence in his partner. He felt a smug sense of satisfaction at the way Jim had out-classed Bailey, even though the action had probably earned them the man's everlasting enmity.
After a few minutes of walking, the open ground gave way to denser forest, although there was still enough roombarelyfor the small bus to have been driven between the trees. As Jim wound a seemingly erratic path through the dense foliage, Blair slipped from Guide mode into his observer role and studied their surroundings. The sunlight flickering through the trees held the marginal heat of early afternoon and he frowned, realizing the day was slipping away quickly. At this elevation, it would start to get cold long before the sun went down. He shivered, wishing he had more than just his lightweight jacket and two layers of shirts to keep him warm.
And those kids probably don't have much more. Another reason to wrap this up as quickly as we can, he thought grimly.
Noting that Jim's longer strides had increased the distance between them, Blair picked up his own pace a bit, scanning the terrain anxiously. The last time he and his partner had been in this area, they'd found that the deceptively gentle forest gave way without warning to deadly ravines. He found himself hoping that the bus hadn't been driven into one of those.
He intentionally turned his thoughts away from the children and their adult companions, seeking a distraction to keep the fears for their safety at bay. In another fluid role shift, he drifted from observer to anthropologist, pondering the evils that seemed to permeate modern society; the consequences of a monetary-based value system; and finally, the mentality behind kidnappings in general.
The diversion helped until he heard a familiar muffled curse in his headset. Jim had come to a halt a few feet ahead, and from the cocked head and tense posture, Blair knew the Sentinel had either momentarily lost the trail, or that he was straining to pick up on some elusive lead.
His own progress faltered as a high pitched squawk shrieked in his ear. With a savage flip of a switch, he shut off the com unit. Shaking his head vigorously at the electronic feedback which reverberated in his skull, he glanced anxiously toward his partner. The transformation from detached anthropologist to concerned Guide was instantaneous. With a worried gasp, he shot forward at the sight of his friend, hands to his ears, nearly doubled over in pain. Blair was murmuring soft reassurances even before he reached the Sentinel's side. Crouching next to the older man, he flattened his right hand against Jim's back, using the physical contact to help his companion focus.
"Easy, man... just dial everything back for a few minutes. Concentrate on my voice."
A terse nod was all the response he received. Blair continued to whisper softly, using his voice as a safety line to draw the Sentinel out of the sensory chaos that the sonic blast had triggered.
Finally, Jim raised his head and Blair watched him closely. There was still residual pain reflected in the blue eyes that met his, but it was fading quickly. "You okay?" he asked softly as they both rose to their feet.
"Yeah... I just had everything wide open when that damn thing went off," the older man answered, his voice a low growl, filled with irritation.
Blair's eyes suddenly went wide with fright and he grabbed at Jim's com unit, letting out a gasp of relief when he saw that it was turned off.
Thank God, Anders didn't hear any of that! he thought gratefully.
Backing a step away, he stuffed his hands into his coat pockets, hoping to hide their shaking. When he raised his gaze to meet Jim's he knew he wasn't fooling the Sentinel. With a grunt of frustration, he pulled them back out, running his fingers through his unruly curls, pushing a stray strand behind the earpiece in irritation.
"These things are nothing but trouble," he mumbled. "Another example of techno-crap. I'd rather rely on your senses any day."
"Wish I could rely on them right now," Jim said softly.
"You can," Blair said firmly, responding to the edge of doubt in his friend's voice.
"I'm not so sure, this time, Chief. I don't like to admit it, but maybe Bailey was right..."
"Bailey's full of shit," Blair snapped angrily. Shaking his head at his own outburst, he dropped his tone to a more soothing level. "You're tired, and you're worried, that's all. You're pushing your senses so hard that you're working against yourself. I know you, Jim. I know that you can do this. Now talk to me. Tell me what the problem is."
Blair watched as the Sentinel took a deep breath and closed his eyes, obviously trying to follow his Guide's suggestion. "Just before the feedback hit, I thought I'd picked up on something, but it's hard to filter through all the input."
"So Mother Nature has a loud voice. You can cut through it. You've done it before. Let's figure out what it was," Blair directed. "Take another breath and step back in your mind. Replay the sensation. Was it sight, sound...?"
"Smell." Jim's eyes flashed open and he turned abruptly to his right. "Gasoline."
Ellison was off at a run with Blair hard on his heels. As he leaped awkwardly over a fallen tree, the thought flashed through the anthropologist's mind that they were going to have a hard time explaining this mad cross country dash, but the hope they'd find the bus pushed that concern from his mind. Blair ignored the protest of his own tired muscles and stepped up his pace, trying not to lose sight of his partner in the heavy growth. He plowed blindly through a stand of brush and felt firm hands grab onto his arms, yanking him backward.
Startled, he drew in a ragged breath as he stared down into a yawning ravine.
"Easy, Chief." Jim pulled him another step away from the edge. "We'll have to find another way down. It's too steep here. Maybe where the truck went over."
"Truck?" Blair forced his shuddering mind to disregard the rolling pitch of his stomach at the close call and focus on his partner's confusing words. "What truck?"
Blair followed the direction of Jim's pointing finger. It took him a few moments to identify the tailgate of what had once been a good-sized pickup.
He felt a tug at his jacket and followed Jim wordlessly, his eyes flickering back to the truck as they worked their way along the ravine edge. It was immediately obvious where the pickup had gone overthe soil was churned into ruts and broken branches littered the ground.
"Looks like it was driven full speed over the edge," Ellison observed, gesturing toward the swath of destruction leading up to the ravine.
Blair turned to look, grateful for the opportunity to catch his breath. When he turned back, his heart skipped a beat. The detective was perched at the very edge of the chasm, his attention focused below.
"Went in head first, that's why we can still see the tailgate. Must be about 75 feet down," Ellison added, seemingly oblivious to his partner's distress.
Swallowing hard against the nauseous feeling in his stomach, Blair edged a step closer. He took a quick peek over Jim's shoulder and drew back shuddering. "Are you getting anything?" he managed to ask, his voice faint even to his own ears.
"I think there's a body in there, but there's so much debris that I can't be sure. I'm not sensing any movement, or any trace of a heartbeat."
"What about smell?"
"The gas and pine pitch are overwhelming everything else," Ellison muttered, the frustration evident in his voice.
Blair shut his eyes and took a deep breath. He stepped forward, gently laying his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Try the piggy-back trick," Blair suggested quietly, closing his eyes again so that the spinning scene below wouldn't interfere with his own control. "See yourself at the cab and open up your sense of smell."
He felt Jim's body tense and then relax under his grip. Blair held his breath, counting the seconds loudly in his mind to keep his thoughts diverted from the drop just inches from his feet. He'd just reached 30 when he felt Jim shift slightly. Blair took a step back himself and opened his eyes, keeping his gaze fixed on his partner's rising form. The clenching of the older man's jaw told him they'd found trouble.
Jim flipped on his com unit and motioned for Blair to do the same. "Anders, this is Ellison."
"Ellison, what the hell's going on? Why did you cut contact?" Anders' shout reverberated through the headsets, making both men flinch.
"We had a little feedback problem," Jim answered evenly.
Blair raised his eyebrows at the understatement, but kept quiet at Jim's warning gesture.
"We'll check out the units as soon as we can." Anders tone was less slightly less aggressive, but not at all apologetic to Blair's ears. "Have you found anything?"
"No sign of the bus, but the tracks led to a wrecked pickup down in a deep ravine," Jim answered, pacing back to the edge. "I'm sure there's a body in there. We'll need to check it out."
Blair's eyebrows crept upward another notch at Jim's words and he found himself wondering if he'd go home with them plastered to his hairline.
"We've got your position locked," came Anders' reply. "The rest of the teams will meet you there in a few minutes."
Jim glanced over his shoulder at Blair and made a quick cutting motion. "I think we're having a few more technical problems, don't you, Chief?"
Blair grinned and flipped off his com unit as the older man did the same. The grin faded as his gaze flickered to ravine. "You said there's a body down there? he asked worriedly.
"There's blood." Jim answered tersely. "A lot of it."
Blair staggered as a cold current of shock swept through his body, draining all his energy and breath in one quick rush. Gasping for air, he closed his eyes against the horrifying images which flooded through his mind. His knees buckled and he felt himself collapsing, barely aware of the hands that grabbed him and broke his fall, easing him to the ground.
"Blair... come on, buddy... breathe for me..."
He heard the words and struggled to pull himself out of the red, roaring tide which tried to draw him under, but its grip was too powerful.
I can't! There's no air here! Just blood...
"Damn it, Sandburg, listen to me!" The raw command was punctuated with several hard shakes. "Breathe and open your eyes!"
Responding automatically to the authority in his Sentinel's voice, Blair's eyes snapped open and he inhaled noisily. The air rushed into his lungs and he found himself sagging forward, nearly choking as his body tried to reestablish its normal functions in one overpowering effort.
"Easy... take it slow..."
Blair allowed himself to relax into the warmth of both the voice and the embrace. After a few more ragged breaths, he felt the overwhelming emotions fading, releasing their stranglehold on his mind and body. When he reached the point where he could draw two lungfuls of air without shuddering, he lifted his head and met his partner's gaze.
And wished he hadn't. The blue eyes which locked with his were filled with a mixture of concern and determinationplus a healthy dose of anger.
"That's it. As soon as the other teams get here, I'm sending you back to Cascade," Jim announced.
"Not another word, Sandburg. I'm not watching you go through another one of these attacks."
"That's not what it was," Blair argued, his own anger surging to the beat of his pounding pulse. "This was different."
"Don't give me 'different', Chief," Jim growled, his eyes flashing with annoyance. "Rapid pulse, minimal respiration"
"And a propensity to make contact with the ground, I know," Blair interrupted. "But I'm telling you it wasn't the same"
"The same as what?" Jim pounced on the unintentional opening, intending to get to the heart of the problem, right then and there. "What's going on inside that head of yours, Blair?"
Blair knew that the shaft of blind fear that rocketed through him had to be evident in his eyes. ~Tell him!~ screamed the voice, deep in his mind.
"No..." Blair gritted his teeth and held onto the words that begged for release.
"Then you're going back," Jim snapped. "I'll have Anders"
"I'd sooner take a walk right off the edge of that cliff, than get into any kind of transport HE arranged," Blair hissed. "Besides, it's your fault. You caught me by surprise and I just... flashed on something."
"What?" Jim asked skeptically.
The whispered name rocked Jim back on his heels. The image of a smiling, confident, eighteen year-old girl filled his mind. That's what she'd looked like in her graduation photos, the face that Jim tried to hold ontonot the way she'd looked after she'd become Haight's tenth victim. He closed his eyes against the horror that memory evoked. Her death had been the worst of them all. There had been so much blood...
"Jim... snap out of it, man!"
The desperation in his Guide's voice shook him out of the zone-out. He raised his head and met the same haunted look that he knew must reside in his own eyes.
"I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to..."
"It's okay," Jim answered gruffly. He took a deep breath and let the memory and tension drain away. Still holding his young partner's eyes, he touched Blair gently on the cheek. "I'm sorry, too. I should have remembered."
... remembered that the anthropologist had experienced the same reaction after the coroner had taken the girl's body away... remembered that Blair had been the one to find her, awash in her own blood... remembered that there had still been a spark of life in that ravaged form and that the young man had feverishly tried to stop the bleeding, screaming in outraged denial as she died in his hands... remembered carrying the exhausted, blood spattered body of his Guide to the truck, listening to the ragged sobs which had shuddered through him...
"It's still just too fresh, man," Blair whispered. "When you mentioned the body... and the blood..."
"I know." Jim reached out and squeezed his Guide's arm in understanding. They sat silently for a few minutes, each deep in their own thoughts, trying to regain the balance they'd need to go on.
"I don't want to leave, Jim," Blair finally whispered. "I need to help find these kids."
Jim studied the younger man's face for a moment before he nodded in agreement. Rising to his feet he glanced back to the ravine and then met Blair's gaze once again.
He was only slightly surprised when the younger man agreed.
"I'll watch for the others."
Easing his way over the edge, Jim began to pick his way down the steep incline. Blair dragged himself upright and started to walk the edge, alternating between concerned glances down at his partner, and anxious scans of the woods for their reinforcements.
Twenty minutes later, Blair's nervous pacing came to an abrupt halt when the Sentinel climbed back into view. Ellison met his questioning gaze with a shake of the head and whispered softly, "It was the driver."
Jim shifted restlessly in the passenger seat of the jeep, his dark, brooding silence broken only by his terse replies to Anders' occasional questions. The Sentinel kept his answers short and to the point, mindful of the subdued presence of his Guide in the back seat. Given the few facts they had, any discussion at this point was going to be purely speculation and he was determined to keep that to a minimum until Blair had a chance to regain some of his equilibrium. Understanding his young partner as well as he did, Jim knew that the anthropologist would find a way to drag the details out of him soon enough.
And Blair was going to need all the emotional balance he could manage. They all were. Things were going from bad to worse in a rapidly collapsing downward spiral. Up until thirty minutes ago the 'case' had still been a search and rescue operation. With the discovery of the driver's body, it had turned into a murder investigation. And there were still eight people missing. The potential for the whole scenario to get very ugly had just increased drastically.
The worst part was that they still had no real answers. Anders had left one of the teams behind to contain the crime scene and look for further evidence, but the Sentinel had already done his own sweep of the area and come up empty. Even with his senses extended to the limit, the search of the wreckage had turned up little of tangible value. Besides the beginnings of what threatened to become a raging headache, all he had gained were a few insights into the bus driver's personal habits. He'd learned nothing about who was behind the apparent abductions and murder.
Well, not exactly nothing, Ellison. You know they're very professional. The slick disappearance of the bus and its passengers, the expertly laid trail to the ravine and the absence of prints or any other identifying evidence in the pickup confirm that. And they obviously have no qualms about killing. After all, Heckt didn't slit his own throat and then calmly drive that truck over the edge.
The question of whether the driver had been an innocent victim, or an interested participant who'd made a bad choice in partners, was irrelevant this point. What was important was the fate of the missing children and their teacher. Eight lives, hanging on their next move.
My next move.
His eyes flickered upward, automatically tracking the location of the sun as it moved across the sky, ushering them toward mid-afternoon. They'd used up precious time only to find a dead end. Now they were headed back to square one with two possible leads yet to follow. With less than four hours of daylight left, there was no time for another mistake.
Blair eased out of the jeep and watched Jim cross to the depression which held the tire tracks. Leaning against the side of the vehicle, he studied the older man anxiously. Blair didn't need to see the clenched jaw or the intense, cold blue eyes to know that Jim was blaming himself for what he perceived as their failure to this point.
With a resigned sigh, Blair accepted that, as usual, his partner was going to take the case personally and push himself to the wall until he solved it. Unfortunately, that kind of effort usually resulted in a tendency to over-extend one sense or another, which of course, led to a 'zone-out.'
And that was precisely where Blair feared his partner was headed now. All the little indicators he'd learned to watch for were there, and the worried Guide catalogued every sign of strain and distress: the tension in Jim's shoulders as the detective crouched to examine the impressions; the furrowed brow and the squint of the older man's eyes as he winced against what was undoubtedly a blossoming headache; the aggravated shake of the Sentinel's head as he tried to focus his hearing.
Yep, definitely a zone-out in the making... and this is NOT the time or place for that to happen.
Taking a deep breath, Blair stretched gingerly to ease his own cramped, aching muscles. With as casual a glance as he could manage, he let his gaze drift over the assembled men and equipment. When he saw Bailey and Anders standing together, he stiffened, reminding himself to take several deep breaths. From his perspective, they seemed to be watching Jim, their eyes following the detective's every move.
This is not the time to go over the edge with your paranoia, Sandburg. Ellison needs you. Get it together and go help him. You can watch his back just as easily from over there.
He pushed away from the jeep and circled to the other side of the depression. Kneeling across from Jim, he stared down at the tread marks. The sun and increasingly brisk wind had dried the malleable mud to the consistency of hardened cement and Blair found himself wondering how, even with his enhanced vision, the Sentinel could possibly read the remaining evidence.
"Which are the ATV's?" he asked curiously.
"The five-treads," Jim answered, tracing the outline of the tracks in question with his fingertips.
Squinting, Blair leaned even further forward, but it didn't help. Even with his partner pointing them out, he still couldn't distinguish the individual tracks from the other seemingly indistinct ridges. Focused on the ground, he felt a gentle tug at his jacket pocket and looked up to see Jim handing him his glasses.
"You keep up all that midnight reading, Chief, and you're not going to be able to see the coeds in the front row of your lectures."
The teasing comment was softened by the concern in Jim's pale blue eyes. Recognizing the razzing for what it wasa means of putting the two of them in sync with one anotherBlair forced himself to play along. With a feigned expression of affronted dignity, he took the glasses and settled them in place, turning his attention to the ground once again.
"Not a problem, man. Why do you think I always insist on one-on-one conferences?" He heard the amused snort from the older man, but didn't look up, unable to manage his normal wry grin as he gathered his courage to whisper his next question. "What did you find in the truck?"
"Basically, what I told Anders."
"And beyond basically?" Blair pressed, raising his eyes to meet his partner's. He held the Sentinel's probing stare with a level, unflinching one of his own and caught Jim's soft sigh of resignation before the older man answered.
"Whoever killed him knew how to handle a knife."
"So that give's the FBI something to check out," Blair responded after a moment, swallowing convulsively against the acid tang of bile that had risen in his throat. "They can look for priors for that kind of assault and weapon use, right?"
Jim nodded, his eyes never leaving Blair's face.
"Not much that will help us here. No evidence as to who killed him. There was a strong smell of cigarette smoke in the cab, but I'm sure that came from the driver. Heckt's clothes reeked of it. From the odor, and the stains on his fingers, I'd guess it was some kind of unfiltered brand, but there were no butts in the ashtray."
"Which means it wasn't his truck."
"Probably not. Whoever's behind this knows what they're doing. The agency will run the make and VIN code, but it'll probably come up stolen or abandoned."
Blair fell silent, his gaze drifting back to the obscure evidence at their feet. "The ATV... can you tell anything about it from the tracks? You said earlier it might be military."
"The tread pattern is consistent with tires which are designed for off-roading, but that opens up a lot of possibilities, including a dozen or so recreational vehicles that you'd easily find used in a national park like this. We can't even be sure if it's a part of this case. As to the vehicle itself, I'd guess it's a little larger than the jeeps we've gotmaybe one of those wide-bodied trucks like the national guard uses. From the depth of the impressions, it looks like it's carrying an extra four- or five-hundred pounds of mass."
Blair looked up abruptly. "If they took the kids and the teacher off the bus"
"That might account for the extra weight. I know." The muscles in Jim's face spasmed as he ground his teeth in frustration. "But it could also be a case of some well-fed mid-westerners out for a scenic drive. Until we find it, or the bus, it's just speculation and guess-work."
"It's never just guesswork with you, Jim." Blair waited a moment for that compliment to be acknowledged with a rueful smile. "What do your instincts tell you? Which one do you think we should follow?"
Jim glanced down at the tracks, then swiveled slightly to gaze toward the two possible paths that they could choose. "I'd stay with the bus. And hope it's not another red herring."
Blair nodded and let his gaze drift back toward Anders, his eyes narrowing as an idea began to form.
"What if we split up the search and track both of the vehicles? Not that I'm doubting your abilities for a minute, but with two sets of teams out, it would improve the odds, wouldn't it?"
"It would make sense, although if we do run into trouble, we'll be short-handed. But it's not my call, Chief. Anders is in charge of this show, remember?"
"Yeah, but you're the only one that's got a clue here, man. You aced Bailey out of the spotlight, so take advantage of it. You're in the position to do some major manipulation if you just put your mind to it. Get Anders to put Bailey in charge of the second group. Better yet, have Anders go with him. They can track the ATV and we'll go after the bus."
"We've got to figure out which one went in which direction before that happens," Jim muttered. Rising to his feet, he moved forward through the calf-high grass in a careful, ever-widening search pattern.
Blair reached down and plucked a blade of the long, fibrous growth, flexing it thoughtfully between his fingers. The tough, wiry strand bent easily, but straightened almost immediately when he released the pressure.
"Great," he groused, not at all amused by the irony of the situation. "You could drive a herd of elephants through this stuff and an hour later you'd never find a trace of their passage. Wouldn't you know that we'd get lucky and find a species of grass that's highly resistant to damage and blessed with adaptive regenerative properties. Guess survival of the fittest applies even to high altitude plant life..."
With a discouraged sigh, Blair straightened and trailed after his partner, absently wondering where they'd picked up such bad karma. Even mother nature seemed to be conspiring against them.
"What we need here is a fresh perspective," he mused, his agile mind chewing on the perplexing puzzle.
The tinge of irritation in his partner's tone made Blair realize that he'd actually spoken the thought aloud and broken the Sentinel's concentration.
"Sorry, man. I was just thinking and it got louder than I intended," Blair apologized, lengthening his stride to close the distance between them.
"Mouth moving faster than your brain as usual, you mean," Jim growled. "Welcome to the 'Sandburg Zone', ladies and gentlemen. The expert on altered states and skewed perspectives will be with you shortly."
Blair took the sarcasm in stride, recognizing it as another sign of his partner's growing frustration, and plunged on with his train of thought.
"Jim, remember how you felt that first day in my office? Your whole focus was on fighting your senses, not on figuring out how to make them perform to your advantage. When I dropped the whole Sentinel concept on you, it turned your world upside down. Granted, your reaction was a little more intense than I'd anticipated, but you have to admit it worked. It made you stop and look at the same facts in a different light. That's all I'm suggesting here, man... a fresh perspective... a different point of view."
Blair reached up to sweep a stray lock of hair out of his eyes and caught sight of something unusual in the forest just ahead. His patter ceased abruptly, eyes widening in surprise.
"Standing on my head isn't going to find that missing bus," Jim snapped in irritation, his own gaze still fixed on the ground. "Drop it down a gear, and come back to earth, Chief."
"No... I don't think so..." Blair whispered softly. "I think you should join me instead."
The Sentinel glanced up, startled by the barely masked excitement in his Guide's voice. Seeing his partner frozen in place and staring into the trees, Jim followed the direction of the younger man's gaze and immediately caught sight of the damaged branches that had captured Blair's attention. Quickly focusing his vision on the overhanging limbs, he found scrapes of yellow paint.
Jim patted the younger man on the shoulder in approval as he scanned ahead for further traces of proof that this was indeed the passage that they sought. He almost grinned when he picked out another trace of yellow on another branch a hundred feet beyond the first.
"I'm going to have to take back that crack about your eyesight, Chief."
"Just remember that the next time you accuse me of missing the invisible grunge in the tub, man."
"Don't push your luck, Sandburg. The statement about the skewed perspective still holds."
Ellison gave the younger man a soft cuff on the back of the head and watched as Blair's face broke into a pleased grin. Dropping his hand to his Guide's shoulder, the Sentinel propelled him toward the waiting search teams.
"Time to get this investigation on track, Chief," he murmured. "Let's give your theory a try and test our hand at a little exercise in the fine art of manipulation."
To Blair's surprise, convincing Anders to split the search into two separate efforts was accomplished with astonishing ease. As he watched Bailey and his three teams disappear into the woods along the western path, Blair found himself breathing a sigh of relief.
Not that he was entirely pleased with the way things had worked outAnders had opted to remain with Jim's group. Blair dealt with the inevitability of Anders' presence by increasing the physical distance between them, choosing to wait for his partner under the canopy of broken branches which marked the beginning of the trail they would follow.
But even distance wasn't enough to stop the shudder which ran through him as the agent approached Jim for a final tactical discussion. Feeling his body fill with the anxiety that occurred every time Anders was in the Sentinel's proximity, Blair gritted his teeth and sought the solace of his favorite meditation mantras and breathing exercises. Closing his eyes he leaned back against the tree, focusing on the sensations of rough bark against his spine, the wind ruffling his hair, the cool earth under his legs. Finding his 'center' was becoming more and more difficult, and it was harder to ignore the unexpected, insistent flashes of raw emotion which were pushing at the limits of his control.
Jim's on the right track now, he told himself determinedly. We'll find the kids, and their teacher... what was her name?... oh yeah, Amanda... we'll find them and they'll be all right... they have to be...
"You ready, Chief?"
Blair's eyes snapped open and he found himself looking up into Jim's measuring stare.
"Yeah... just taking advantage of the downtime, man," he dissembled, grabbing his pack and scrambling to his feet, hoping the Sentinel hadn't heard his startled intake of breath. He turned away, intending to start down the trail, but the older man seized his arm and gave him a gentle shake.
His Guide instincts responded to the Sentinel's worried tone immediately, overriding the fears and uncertainties of the terrified grad student who wished himself anyplace, but where he was. Their blue-eyed gazes locked and Blair felt Jim's compassion and concern reach out, enveloping him like a blanket, wrapping him in a cocoon of safety. In return, he managed a small, but genuine smile, trying to send back some reflection of the overwhelming trust and confidence he had in the older man.
"I'm not going to lie to you, man. I'm not fine, but I still need to do this," he whispered, hoping that Jim would understand and not press him further.
With a soft grunt and a look that warned that further discussion was simply postponed for the moment, Jim released his hold and held out a new headset. "We'll take the lead again. The rest of the search parties will be strung out on both flanks to make sure we don't miss anything. Anders strongly suggested that we try to stay in touch from now on. He gave me his word that they've been checked over. No more feedback problems."
Blair rolled his eyes to indicate what he thought of that promise. "At least Bailey's out of our hair," he muttered, taking the new headset and settling it into place. "One less set of prying eyes is just fine by me."
"Forget about Bailey, Chief." The stern command was delivered in what Blair had learned to recognize early in their relationship as Jim's 'listen and obey without question' tonethe one he used when things were about to get dangerous.
Blair acknowledged the reprimand with a quick nod, but apparently that wasn't enough to appease his partner. The Sentinel wrapped his hands around the straps of Blair's backpack and pulled him a step closer, fixing him with a look that brooked no argument.
"Stay close, keep your eyes open, and your head into the reason we're here," Jim ordered roughly.
Blair realized that he was nodding again, mesmerized by the intensity of the older man's glare. As if satisfied that he'd made his point, Ellison's gaze softened and his grip on the straps eased a bit.
"And if you need something else to occupy that frenetically active mind of yours, Chief, concentrate on dampening down that magnetic field you generate that attracts trouble. I don't want you stumbling over something nasty behind my back."
Blair responded with his best "Who me?" expression and Jim finally released him, a ghost of a smile flickering across the older man's face. Settling his own pack into place, the Sentinel started down the trail with a renewed sense of determination, unaware of how prophetic his last comment would prove to be.
Following the yellow paint trail was like child's play after what they'd been through tracking the truck, and after a cautious start, Jim had pushed the pace as hard as he dared, hoping to make up for lost time.
At first he'd been suspicious at the ease with which he'd found each scrape and broken limb, wondering if he was leading the search party into a trap. After thirty minutes of painstakingly checking every overturned rock, he'd finally begun to relax and give a little credit to his Sentinel-enhanced senses. It was easy to forget that what he saw and heard so clearly was obscured to everyone else. He'd even tried dialing everything back to what would pass for 'normal', and realized that without his special abilities, the evidence would have been very difficult to find.
Following the path deeper into the rugged forest, he'd found other traces of the bus' passagea churned rut where the wheels had slipped on a downhill slope, a recently uprooted sapling that had been battered to the mossy ground, the broken shards of rock that held the slick odor of spattered oilall indications that someone had driven the vehicle through the dense foliage in a hurry.
He paused, fingers running lightly over another scrape of yellow on the trunk of a fallen tree, while he waited for Blair to catch up. Stretching out his senses to monitor his Guide, he frowned at what he foundBlair's breath was coming in rough, noisy gasps and his heart was beating rapidly as his already stressed body battled the affects of the higher elevation and the strain of the pace that they'd been maintaining.
Still keeping tabs on his partner, Jim scanned the trail ahead, anxiously. The next paint marker was another fifty feet uphill, glowing in the shaft of pale sunlight which filtered through the leaves, seductively beckoning him forward. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to resist the urgent need to keep going. Feeling the painful throb of the headache that pounded against his eyelids, he struggled to dial down his sensitivity one more notch.
Blair isn't the only one who's struggling, he thought irritably. We've been on the move for well over an hour and a half and Anders still hasn't called a break. No one's going to be in any shape to do anything, much less take on these murderers, if we don't do it soon.
"Ellison, do you copy?"
As if in answer to his angry thoughts, Anders' voice thundered in the headset. Wincing at the increased pounding it set off in his skull, Jim had to take a deep breath before answering.
"I just heard from Bailey. They found the ATV. Turns out it belongs to a group of vacationers. They claim they went through the area where we found the tracks early this morning and one of them remembered passing a small school bus on the road. The Bureau's checking them out now, but it doesn't look like they have any involvement in this. Looks like you called it correctly."
Jim allowed himself a small sigh of relief. They were on the right trail after all. Maybe their luck was starting to change. "I've spotted the next marker, but there's still no sign of the bus." Jim glanced uphill once more as he continued his report. "I think we should regroup and give everyone a rest."
"Agreed, as long as it's a short break. If we don't find them soon, we'll have to take another look at our options."
"How much air support do you have available?"
"Not much. Two choppers sitting on standby and one medivac unit..."
Blair's eyes had been fixed on the rough trail, listening to the discussion between Jim and Anders almost absently, more worried about stumbling over a hidden tree root than their exchange. But as the voices in his headset began to break up, his attention shifted back to the conversation.
"How much... air... do you... availab...?"
With a crackle of static, the sound faded out altogether. He stopped and checked the connections, thinking that he might have pulled something loose. He played with the volume control as well, but nothing seemed to have any affect. Frustrated, he gave the unit a hard shake and was rewarded with a low level buzz, under which he thought he could detect whispers of sound.
I'd need Jim's hearing to use this technological wonder. Impressive resources, huh? Guess these were bought with whatever was left over after the government paid 1.2 million for that last hammer, he mused darkly, tapping the earpiece in frustration.
He glanced uphill and saw that Jim was waiting for him next to a fallen tree, apparently still deep in the conversation with Anders and unaware of his partner's 'technical' difficulties. Blair opened his mouth to call out to the older man, then snapped it shut as he realized what he had almost done.
Jeez, Sandburg, you are brain-dead. There's no need to yell at the top of your lungs and draw a crowd. He's a Sentinel, remember? He can hear your heartbeat from six floors away from a locked elevator, for crying out loud.
"Uh, Jim? I've got a little problem here," he murmured, still shaking his head at his own foolishness.
He watched Jim spin around abruptly, the older man's hand going instinctively for his weapon.
"Whoa, man. Don't shoot. This thing's already on its last legs." Blair tapped at the headset and added a 'thumbs down' gesture for good measure, as he moved forward to close the distance between them.
A garbled whisper of sound reached his ear and he shook his head.
"No go, Jim. I can't hear you. The volume's all screwed up," Blair explained as he joined the older man.
Disengaging himself from the unit, he handed it to his partner, dangling it by the cords like a dead mouse. The Sentinel's face tightened in annoyance, already in the midst of a heated discussion with the FBI agent.
"Anders, I thought you said you'd had these headsets checked out..."
Blair watched as Jim did a very good impression of his own patented eye-rolling dismay, and chuckled softly, imagining the agent trying to explain away the problem.
"Well, Sandburg's is out of commission... yeah... okay, I'll send him over."
Jim shook his head in disgust and touched Blair on the shoulder, turning him slightly to the left as the Sentinel focused into the distance. "You see the stand of brush to the left of that granite boulder?"
"The one on this side of the mountain or two passes over?" Blair responded innocently. He cringed a step away dramatically, as Jim glared at him, waving his hands in surrender. "Just checking, man," he grinned, enjoying the aggravated look on his partner's face. "Yeah, I see it... even without my glasses on. Is this a test? Do I get a prize for the right answer?"
"You're already a prize, Chief," Jim muttered, trying unsuccessfully to keep a similar grin off his own face. "Just hoof it over there and pick up a replacement, wise guy. Agent Dunn will swing over and meet you just beyond that rock."
"You know, Jim, this really isn't worth the trouble. I'd be perfectly happy without"
"Go see the man, Sandburg," Jim growled, giving him a gentle shove to get him moving.
Blair shot the older man an offended glare, and made a show of stalking off in a huff. "Yes, Sahib, I go... I run... I stagger to do your bidding," the Guide whispered, knowing full well the Sentinel would hear every word of his good-natured harping. "'Go see the man,' he says. It's like being sent to the principal's office or something. What I put up with... me... an almost full professor... sent off on yet another errand..."
Ellison watched the younger man pick his way across the rough ground, shaking his head in wonder. Blair's resilience never ceased to amaze him. Minutes ago, Jim would have sworn that his partner was ready to drop like a stone from exhaustion. Now he was making wise-cracks and pushing all of the Sentinel's buttons, practically bouncing over anything that got in his path.
Winding his way through the trees, Blair passed out of Jim's line of sight for a moment, and the Sentinel felt a shiver run up his spine. He dialed up his hearing and relaxed when he picked up his Guide's playful, bantering monologue. Absently rubbing the back of his neck, Jim turned to look uphill again, his eyes drawn to the paint scratches that marked the trail.
A soft, fitful gust of wind brushed his left cheek. He watched it ripple through the trees, his gaze flowing with it, carrying his sight to another yellow patch, even further away. Eyes narrowing in concentration, Jim sought to bring it into focus, drawn by a sudden awareness that something was different about what he'd just seen. The headache flared with a sharp burst of pain and he pushed it away in annoyance, dialing down his sensitivity to the throbbing ache. Straining against his own limits and fatigue, the Sentinel zeroed in on his target, the rest of the world fading around him.
Blair wasn't sure where his new burst of energy had come from, but he made the most of it, hurrying to the appointed meeting spot. He paused at the boulder and cast a quick look over his shoulder, immediately disconcerted by the older man's unusually still pose.
"Don't go zoning on me now, man," he whispered. "You hear me, Jim?"
He'd expected the older man to turn toward him or show some response, but there was no movement. Nothing to show that he'd been heard. Growing alarmed, Blair tried again, raising his voice slightly.
"Damn it, Ellison, when are you gonna learn to wait until I'm with you to play superman? Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I? Come on, man, pull out of it!"
Panic flared and he swallowed hard to contain it when there was still no response. Glancing around wildly, he looked desperately for the agent he was supposed to meet. Where the hell was the guy? He felt the soft caress of the breeze on his face and for a moment, he thought he caught a whiff of perfume. Pushing the irrelevant sensation aside, he turned toward the Sentinel again, nervously running his hands through his hair as it shifted in the wind, trying to keep it from obscuring his sight.
"Jim, you've got to listen to me... hear my voice..." he murmured, pitching his tone with an urgency that he hoped would reach his friend.
The breeze buffeted him from behind and he nearly allowed it to carry him toward his partner, before he realized that the sweet fragrance that he'd smelled before was back. Distracted, he turned into the wind and took a deep breath. Yes, it was perfume, but there was something else, tooa sour, almost metallic smell. Puzzled by the elusive odor, he took two steps forward and parted the hedge of bushes.
Whispers of sound stroked across the Sentinel's awareness, slowly pulling him back from the void. Sound became vibration, growing more intense, more compelling. Vibration which transformed finally into a single, comprehensible word, whispered by an anguished soul.
The tortured cry of his Guide connected itself to the sense of urgency and the real world returned in a rush of overloaded sensation.
Gasping for breath, Jim whirled, driven by the desperate need to locate his partner. The stench of blood-drenched wind staggered him. Shuddering, he wrenched at his imaginary dials in a frantic attempt to bring his flooded senses into line, nearly dropping to his knees as his controls slammed into place.
Bolting forward, he savagely thrust away the overwhelming awareness of the deadly, metallic smell. He focused on the place that he'd last seen Blair, and sent his hearing ahead, like an arrow, speeding through the trees. He crashed through a thicket of brush, straining for the familiar heartbeat of his young Guide, and was rewarded with the thundering of a trip-hammer pulse. The sound had barely registered in his ears when he caught sight of his friend, standing motionless near the granite boulder, just where he'd been told to wait.
He almost screamed at the relief of finding the anthropologist alive and apparently unharmed, but then the whisper reached him again, accompanied by the smell which he'd tried to evade.
The Sentinel crossed the remaining distance already knowing what he would find, fearing only the degree of the horror which had transfixed his Guide. A quick glance into the brush imprinted the scene on his own mind foreverthe glimpse of red hair was all that he needed to see to identify the body. They had been too late to save Amanda Sims. Turning to Blair, he started to reach out to draw him away, but the look on his partner's face halted him and his own heart lurched in fear.
It was as if Blair's mind had found a way to shut out the horrifying scene, but had forgotten to tell his body to do the same. Blair's eyes were open, staring toward the bloody corpse of the young teacher, but unfocused, the brightly lit windows to the anthropologist's soul tightly shuttered from within. His face was so pale that it was almost translucent, the throbbing veins at his temples pulsing wildly in time to the pounding heart. His lips were moving, repeating Jim's name over and over again, but there was no sound beyond the whisper of air that flowed in and out of the painfully laboring lungs.
"Ellison? I thought... What the hell?"
A fatigue-dressed figure rounded the boulder, and Jim jerked in surprise. It took him a moment to recognize the FBI agent Blair had been sent to meet.
"Get Anders and the rest of the teams here, now," Jim hissed, moving between Dunn and his stunned partner to shield Blair from the man's prying stare.
"Move, damn it!" Jim shoved the agent backward, his building anger pushing him to unleash his frustration on the closest target.
The man hesitated for only a second and then stumbled away to carry out Jim's orders. As soon as the agent had passed the boulder, Jim turned back to his partner, entirely focused on finding a way to bring the younger man out of his shocked trance. Easing in front of his Guide, he gently placed his hands on Blair's shoulders. He felt the younger man's trembling and kept them there for a few moments, then stroked his palms lightly down the anthropologist's arms, stopping to grip Blair's upper arms lightly before returning to hold the slim shoulder's.
"Blair..." he whispered his Guide's name, feeling the trembling increase, but seeing no change in the vacant stare.
He gave a light squeeze to the shoulders again, then slid his hands up the side of Blair's neck, resting his thumbs for a few seconds on the pulsing veins before cradling the pale face in his palms.
"Blair, it's Jim... I know you're in there, buddy... I need you to listen to me... just hear my voice and let me lead you back." He breathed the words out like a prayer and then tipped the younger man's head back slightly so that he could look down into his Guide's eyes.
He had to fight his own shudders at the black glassy circles that reflected his own image. Blair's pupils were so far dilated that Jim could hardly see any of the iris, and what blue he could see was flecked with brown.
"Come on, Chief. You always find a way to reach me," Jim pleaded. "I need some help here, buddy. You're the Guide, remember?"
He felt a shiver ripple through the younger man and then another. Slowly, the long dark lashes swept down, shuttering the eyes completely. When they raised again, a few seconds later, the familiar blue eyes of his Guide stared up at him in startled recognition, and Jim felt the sudden tensing of muscles as Blair started to pull away.
The strangled gasp was like music to the Sentinel's ears. He tightened his grip to hold the younger man in place and tried to pitch his voice in imitation of his Guide's soothing tones. "Easy... It's all right..."
Another blink and this time it was confusion that filled Blair's eyes. "What... what happened?"
"I think you just had a Guide's version of a zone-out," Jim said softly, letting his hands drop back to the anthropologist's shoulders in support.
"A zone... no... not me... you..." Blair stammered, a flicker of fear darting across his face. "You were zoning. I saw you. I tried to talk you out of it from here, but I couldn't reach you. I was going to head back to shake you out of it, but I smelled something... perfume and something else. It was right here..."
Suddenly Jim realized where his partner's thoughts were taking him and he shifted to try to block the hideous view which lay only a few feet away.
But both his warning and movement were too late. The younger man's eyes widened in shock at the sight of the ravaged body. With a curse at his own stupidity, the Sentinel spun his Guide around, propelling him away from the murder site. With a despairing groan, Blair jerked out of the older man's hold and stumbled forward for a few steps before falling to his knees. Jim was at his side immediately, gently pulling him back to his feet and leading him a few yards further, easing the shaking body down to rest against a massive fallen tree.
Blair curled into a huddled ball, his fingers laced behind his head, the long, tangled curls draping his face as he rocked rhythmically, his breath catching in sobbing gasps. Jim knelt beside him, one hand on his Guide's shoulder, anchoring the younger man with a reminder of his physical presence, just as Blair had done for him so many times. They sat that way, Sentinel sheltering his Guide, until the tears stopped.
Blair's breathing had began to ease when Jim heard a crackle in his headset. Before Anders' voice could intrude on the small patch of safety and sanity he had created, he shut the unit off. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught sight of the approaching teams. Even without the headset, he could hear Anders asking where they were, demanding an explanation of what they'd found.
He looked down at Blair and hesitated. He didn't want to leave his young charge, but he knew that if he didn't go back to meet with the agent, Anders would come looking for him and he wanted to give his partner as much time as he could to get himself together before facing the man again. Jim wanted nothing more than to send Blair out of this mess and away from Anders' disturbing presence, but after what they had just gone through, there was no way he was letting his Guide out of his sight unless he could accompany him. And there was no time to do thatespecially if he was right about what he'd discovered, just before he had zonedthat the distant splash of yellow that he'd seen was far too large to be another scraped tree limb. There was a good chance it was the bus.
He squeezed Blair's shoulder gently. "I should go take care of things. Will you be all right?"
Wearily, the younger man unclasped his hands and raised his head. Drawing in a slow, deep breath, he nodded, wiping away the traces of tears with the back of his hand.
"Yeah... I just need a few minutes..." came the hoarse reply.
"Okay. Stay put. Drink something if you can. It'll help." Giving the younger man a soft pat on the arm, Jim rose to his feet. He gave his Guide a final measuring look, then headed toward the waiting men.
Blair shuddered as he watched Jim walk away, knowing that every step he took brought the Sentinel closer to death. What he didn't know was whether it was the young teacher's bloody body or Anders' smiling presence which promised that certainty to his soul.
With light tendrils of awareness still wrapped around his young partner, Jim approached the waiting group of searchers. His jaw clenched angrily as he picked up Anders' urgent questions and Dunn's rapid responses.
"Maybe you overreacted. Are you sure Ellison was"
"I'm telling you he was nuts! He was in my face and pushing me away from Sandburg like some avenging angel or something. I thought for a second he was going to kill me if I took another step. And the kid looked like he was a zombie, just standing there staring."
"So Sandburg found the body, then?"
At the eagerness in the man's tone, Jim's ambivalent feelings toward Anders crystallized into intense dislike, bordering on hatred. He had to fight to keep his emotions under control and his words civil.
"He found it," Jim snapped, stalking up to them. "The question is, why didn't you?" he hissed, taking a step forward to place himself in Dunn's space, his eyes flashing ice-blue fire.
For a second, Dunn drew back, his eyes widening in startled fear, then he pulled himself together and leaned back in toward Jim, his posture totally aggressive.
"That's enough," Anders ordered, stepping in to pushing them apart.
"What the hell kind of sweep were you doing?" Jim snarled, shaking off Anders' hand, but not backing off. "That was your section. There's no way you should have missed that body."
"Listen you freaking" Dunn growled, shifting forward again, his hands balling into fists.
"Dunn! Shut it!" barked Anders, his glare silencing the other agent. Still keeping his eyes on Dunn, the older man spoke quietly, directing his words to both of them. "This case is getting to everyone. Let's just try to keep a handle on our emotions and our minds on what we're here to do. Go cool off, Dunn."
For a moment, Jim wasn't certain the agent was going to back down, but finally the man shrugged and turned away, shooting him one more glare. The Sentinel's response was automatic, stepping forward to finish the confrontation, but Anders' hand on his chest stopped him.
"Let it go, Ellison," Anders said quietly.
The Sentinel's anger shifted to the older agent and he brushed off the hold in irritation. More than ready to take on the man, Jim suddenly paused and turned slightly in Blair's direction, sensing a change from his young partner.
Seeing Blair on his feet and staring at them, Jim took a deep breath and physically stepped back, shaking his head. He forced himself to get a handle on his temper, all too aware that if he didn't, he'd have his Guide by his side in another few secondsand that was the last thing he wanted.
"Just make sure he does his job from now on," Jim warned. "Make sure they all do. I don't like accidents and I don't believe in coincidence. There's been too much of both on this case."
"Just what are you implying, detective?" Anders asked, a hint of challenge coloring his own words.
Ellison looked the older agent in the eye and found himself staring into that cold gray gaze, wondering what was really going inside the man's mind. A warning shiver ran up his spine and the tone of his answer carried that coldness.
"I'm not implying anything. I'm stating a fact. I don't make it a practice of putting either myself or my partner in jeopardy. If I had a choice, I'd pull out of this right now. We're hunting some very dangerous people. We can't afford to be making mistakes at this point."
Their gazes stayed locked and Jim's body tensed until the older man nodded.
"I agree. Look, I'm sorry about your partner finding the body, but Dunn's not to blame. Everyone's doing what they can here. We're stretched pretty thin"
"Too thin to be thinking and acting professionally?" Jim muttered in disgust.
He shook his head and stepped away to kneel beside the body. He closed his eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths to focus himself before opening up his senses, absorbing the sensory assault for a few seconds before dialing everything back. Without moving from the side of the corpse he glanced up, staring across the short distance to where Blair still stood next to the fallen tree. He 'heard' the increase in his partner's heartbeat and shot him a firm stare, silently ordering the younger man to stay where he was.
"You sure you don't need me there?"
Jim shook his head again in answer to his Guide's whispered question. To his surprise, Blair followed his instructions, although Jim could still hear his pulse racing. Turning his attention back to the body, Jim tried to look at the dead young woman objectively, but it was difficult. He had to keep pushing away the memories of their last case, especially the image of Patty Hammond's body which his mind kept superimposing over this one.
There were certainly enough similarities, he mused darklytwo lives ended far too early, both killed with knives, both corpses bathed in blood. He shuddered, realizing that the common elements of the deaths were probably what had triggered his Guide's response. God, why did it have to be Blair that found her? He felt another surge of anger and fought to channel it into a more productive direction.
He sat back on his heels for a moment and closed his eyes, concentrating on the evidence that he had. Throat slashed, just like the driver, so probably the same killer. Strong smell of perfume, skin still slightly warm...
His eyes flashed open and he looked up at Anders.
"The Bureau confirm anything on our vacationers yet?" he asked quickly.
"Still sorting them out, but so far, nothing out of the ordinary. Why?"
"Something doesn't make sense. This body's still warm. I'd guess that she was killed less than two hours ago," Jim replied, frowning as he rose to his feet. "That should mean that we're getting closer, but the evidence trail we've been following is older than that."
"If that's true, then they would have had to double back on their trail to leave the body here," Anders observed. "Doesn't seem likely."
"No, it doesn't." Jim shifted his gaze and stared off into the distance, focusing on the paint scrapes he'd found. "We need to get moving. You might want to call up that air support and have them standing by. I've got a feeling we're not too far from finding the bus."
"Already done. I had Fredericks contact them as soon as Dunn reported the body. I've got Bailey on the move as well. He's left a team with the people at the ATV and he's headed our way. Should be here within an hour or so."
"He'll have to catch up with us. We can't wait that long. Tell them to keep it quiet. I don't want to alert anyone to our presence. And tell him not to make a move until he's cleared it with me."
Jim's tone brooked no argument as he took command of the situation. He didn't care if Anders liked it or not. He'd all but told the man that he didn't like the way the operation was being run. If they were as close as he thought to the bus, then they might also be close to the kidnappers and the killer. He didn't want Bailey charging in and putting anyoneparticularly his partner and the missing childrenat risk.
"All right, you're on point. It'll be your call," the older agent agreed. He slipped off his own headset and handed it to Jim with a small shake of his head, as if in apology for the earlier malfunctions. The Sentinel accepted the unit without a word, turned on his heel and went to join his waiting, anxious Guide.
Blair tried to find out what had happened as soon as Jim rejoined him, but the older man waved off his comments, taking him by the arm and steering him back toward the search path, away from the grisly murder scene. He started to protest, but the grip on his bicep tightened, matching the clenching of his partner's jaw, so he allowed himself to be towed along. Once they were well ahead of the others and partially masked by a heavy stand of trees, the Sentinel swung him around abruptly, holding him tightly by both arms and glaring down at him.
"Jim, come on"
"Damn it, Sandburg, just be quiet for a minute," the older man hissed, his sharp gaze fixing Blair in place as firmly as his hands were.
He fell silent and still, waiting out the scrutiny, knowing that Jim was 'reading' all the physical signals he was sending out. Under that measuring stare, Blair felt like he was being examined inside and out. As stretched and exhausted as he was, he was certain that he was going to fail the Sentinel's sensory test, so he was amazed when the vice-like grip on his arms eased and the gaze softened slightly.
"You're all right?"
"After what you just did, you shouldn't have to ask," Blair said softly.
"I'd feel better if one of my senses could get inside that head of yours, Chief," Jim responded, shaking his head. "Then I'd know for sure."
"Trust me, Jim. You DON'T want to go there," he responded with a slight grin.
"You're wrong, Blair," Jim countered, his voice flat and tinged with anger. "That's exactly where I want to go. What we're doing here is dangerous. Somehow I need to drive that point into that thick skull of yours and I know from past experience that half of what I say goes in and the rest you divert off into some other plane of existence that only you're aware of. This whole thing could get out of hand without warning and where will you be? Right in the middle of it without engaging your brain first."
"If that's where you are, then that's where I'll be," Blair said determinedly, his grin evaporating, but his gaze remaining steady.
"If I had the option I'd get you out of here now, but I can't," Jim growled, giving him a hard shake. "That's my fault. I never should have let you come. You're in no shape for this, physically or emotionally and your sense of self-preservation seems to have disappeared completely. I told you to stay put back there, to keep out of it, yet ten minutes after I pull you out of some weird trance you're ready to jump back in with both feet like nothing happened. Don't bother to deny it. I saw that look on your face. What the hell were you thinking?"
"Jim, you should know me well enough by now to accept that it's not my head that makes those decisions for me, but my heart," Blair said quietly, his eyes not leaving the older man's. "Especially where your safety is concerned."
"We're not talking about my safety here. We're talking about yours."
"Well, since they're intertwined at the moment"
"Damn it, Blair, you're too important to me to lose because you won't take this seriously."
"I am taking this seriously!" Blair snapped, pulling from the older man's hold. He stepped back a pace and glanced back the way they had come, then turned to meet the Sentinel's confused and angry glare. "And you're wrong. This isn't about me, it's about you. I know it doesn't make sense, Jim, but there's something about all of this, and particularly about Anders, that scares the hell out of me."
"This is about the panic attacks isn't it? How can it make sense when you won't talk to me about them?"
"I said I would."
Blair opened his mouth to answer and then closed it with a snap, whirling away from the Sentinel. He took two steps, intent on running like hell, but instead, he grabbed onto the fragile reins of what was left of his willpower and came to an abrupt stop. With his back to the older man, he closed his eyes, clenching his fists at his sides. He felt the warmth of Jim's hand on his shoulder and he opened his eyes, staring straight ahead. "I don't understand it, and I'm afraid to try," he whispered.
"Then we'll tackle it together," Jim said softly, turning him slowly so that their gazes met once again. "Right now, I need your promise that you'll do exactly what I say, when I say it. You don't go anywhere, or do anything without a signal from me first."
"I thought that's what I agreed to when we first started working together?"
"Yeah, and I'm still waiting for you to follow through on it."
"Okay. Observer rules. I got it," Blair muttered softly.
"Just see that you remember this time, Chief."
And the second you get in the line of fire, Ellison, all rules are off again, you remember that, too, Blair thought grimly as he nodded, acknowledging his partner's comment.
Jim squeezed his shoulder once more and prodded him forward, quietly explaining what he'd found and what he thought they we headed into.
Joel Taggert looked up in surprise as the outer doors to the Major Crimes Unit offices crashed shut with a deafening bang. Glancing out through the blinds of his own office windows he caught sight of a dark visage stalking through the bullpen and grimaced. Closing his eyes he started to count slowly under his breathhe'd seen the lightning flash, now he was waiting for the roll of thunder to see just how close the storm really was. He grimaced when he heard another crash of rattling glass and woodthe door to Simon's own office. Eight... usually takes 'til ten to get through the bullpen. Must have been a 'bad' meeting, he thought to himself.
Joel glanced at his watch and shook his head. 3:30, no wonder he's bent out of shape. Wonder who's program got the ax this time. Hope it wasn't one of ours. With surprising agility for a man his size, he eased out from behind his desk, picked up his coffee cup and headed to the break room. He managed to suppress a smile, observing the sudden increase in the level of activity in the bullpen. Everyone knew that dealing with the upper levels of bureaucracy was Simon's least favorite thing to do. Budget days were the worst and judging from the length of this meeting and the Richter scale level of the door slamming, the captain's patience level was exhausted. Looking busy was key at this pointevacuating the scene until things cooled off an even better option, if you could create a plausible reason for it.
Joel filled his cup and peered through the break room blinds, eyeing Simon's office intently. Banks was pacing, the anger flowing off of him in waves. Joel frowned. This was more than just frustration for the bureaucratic process. Simon never let his impatience with the bean counters get this far out of control. No, it had to be something else. He was worried about something or someone. Or, more correctly, two someonesEllison and Sandburg.
Joel shook his head again, his own concern for the two men resurfacing. He admitted he had a soft spot where Sandburg was concerned, but during their last case, he'd also seen the toll it was taking on Ellison. He'd seen them when they'd come in that morning, looking like death warmed over, the kid's usual bounce and energy missing, the detective even more closed down than usual. He knew Simon had seen it. He'd been certain that Bank's had planned to give them a break, even though the waiting caseload was overwhelming. Simon demanded a lot, but he took care of his people and Ellison was more than just the unit's best detectivehe and Banks were good friends. And, although Joel was sure he'd never admit it out loud, Simon liked the young grad student as well. He made less than tolerant noises about Sandburg's presence, but underneath that, Taggert could sense a growing respect and trust.
"Kid does have a way of getting under your skin, doesn't he?" he murmured, grinning at his own reflection in the glass for a moment.
The grin turned to a frown as he considered Simon's current mindset. Banks hadn't been happy about sending the partners off on that search and rescue mission. Word was the mayor had approved it over his head. Maybe that's what had him steaming.
He refocused his attention on Simon. The big man was standing behind his desk now, phone in his hand. Something in his frozen posture made Joel uneasy and he slipped out of the break room. Crossing to Simon's office, Taggert hesitated outside the captain's closed door, waiting until the other man put down the phone before pushing the door open a few feet. The angry expression on the captain's face told him that whatever the call had been about, it wasn't good news.
"Simon?" he asked softly, not sure whether his interruption was welcome. Banks looked up abruptly and Taggert saw definite worry in the captain's eyes. "What is it?"
"Joel... come in and shut the door. We've got a problem." Simon said softly.
Ellison gestured quickly and Blair dropped to the ground behind him, edging closer to bring himself to the older man's side. They were thirty feet from the edge of a small clearing and through the trees he could see the shape of the small school bus, perched on the far side. He turned to look up at Jim's face, not hardly daring to breathe as he watched the Sentinel at work, scanning ahead with his senses, probing for the signs of life they were so desperate to find.
He swallowed hard and tried not to let his imagination run ahead. tried not to think of what could be waiting for them. The thought of finding more bodies, particularly those of the children sickened him beyond belief. He felt an internal 'push' at his emotions and shook his head, attempting to slam the door on another attack.
Not here, not now! he pleaded desperately with himself.
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, willing the feelings to subside and after a few moments, the sensation began to ebb away. Taking a deep breath, he focused back on his partner, grateful that the older man had been too absorbed in his search to notice.
"Anything?" he whispered hopefully. The Sentinel didn't answer immediately and Blair reached out to touch him gently on the arm. "Jim?"
The older man's head slowly swiveled in his direction and he watched the almost expressionless face carefully. Jim Ellison was a hard man to read, but Blair had gotten pretty good at it. Now he was looking at the small signs which he'd learned meant trouble. His eyes widened and he felt his body start to tremble. Jim's hand was immediately on his arm, steadying him.
"There's nothing there, Chief. Nothing. No heartbeats, but no bodies, either," the Sentinel said softly.
Blair felt too numb to speak, so he simply nodded. Disappointing as it was not to find the children, the alternative could have been far worse. He stayed silent as Jim contracted the rest of the search teams, ordering them to move forward, but to keep their eyes open. At his partner's gentle urging, he rose to his feet and followed in the older man's footsteps. At the edge of the trees, Ellison stopped and drew his gun, motioning for Blair to remain behind.
Sinking down into a crouch, Blair watched as Jim crossed the clearing to the bus and climbed on board. His heart was pounding even though he knew that the Sentinel had evaluated the scene and determined the absence of danger before they'd arrived. His gaze flickered around the clearing, noting the appearance of the other members of the search teams, watching as they converged on the vehicle. When Jim reappeared, he almost rose to his feet, but just in time he remembered the stern set of orders that he'd agreed to and stayed where he was. He saw the others milling about and nodded absently when he heard Dunn contact the reserve party, ordering them to bring up the vehicles. He chafed at the restrictions Jim had set, wanting to know what the Sentinel had discovered, but he didn't move until Jim waved him over.
"Anders is going to deploy the rest of the teams to search the perimeter of the clearing," Jim informed him when Blair joined his partner at the front door of the bus. "I wanted you to help me take a look inside. They didn't leave us much."
Blair nodded and followed the Sentinel inside the vehicle. "Take a deep breath, Jim and concentrate. Don't filter anything out right now. Just take it all in. We'll sort it out later," he advised.
The walked the length of the bus, two sets of experienced eyes scanning the interior, pausing to search under each bench-like seat, examining the few items left behinda tiny pink compact filled with Polly Pockets; a well worn sweatshirt that looked like it had belonged to at least one older brother before becoming the property of its latest owner; several cartoon-emblazoned backpacks, filled with school books and pencils. Then, with Blair at his back, Jim walked it again, with each of his senses wide open. At the end of fifteen minutes, they still had nothing to go onthe Sentinel hadn't even found a smudged fingerprint. The kidnappers had been very thorough.
With a discouraged gesture, Ellison motioned for Blair to follow him as he exited the bus. Lingering behind for just a moment, the anthropologist turned at the top of the steps and stared at the vacant seats, trying to imagine the seven smiling, innocent faces that the photo had captured. Somehow he couldn't do it. The bus felt so empty, so devoid of any sense of life, that he couldn't envision the children at all.
"I don't get it, Jim," he murmured, scrubbing at his face in tired exasperation when he rejoined his partner outside. "Does this mean that they're still ahead of us? Or did we miss something along the way?"
"We didn't miss anything, Chief. We were led here," the detective answered softly. "Somebody wanted us to find this bus, just like they wanted us to find the driver and the teacher. Maybe these people like playing games, or maybe Anders and his men missed something on the road before we joined them. I don't know."
Blair watched the Sentinel wince as he rubbed his own eyes in weariness.
"You need to rest and eat something, man. That's got to be one killer headache by now," Blair observed, his voice filled with concern.
Jim shot him a bemused look. "This advice coming from the man who exists on granola and four hours sleep during exam week."
"Hey, I'm a grad student. I'm used to it. You're the one who needs three squares a day and wants absolute quiet after 10 pm."
"Guess we could all use a break," Jim responded. "I'll have a word with Anders. If his men haven't found any signs leaving the clearing, we may end up pitching camp here to regroup and determine a new strategy. We've only got an hour or so left to keep looking. Once we start losing daylight we'll be stumbling around in the dark."
"Well, not all of us."
Jim gave him a scowl and a gentle shove which propelled him toward the supply truck. "Go see if there's anything more inviting to eat than what we've got in our packs. I'll join you in a few minutes."
After a less than satisfactory discussion with Anders, Jim went looking for his partner, following the thump of the familiar heartbeat to the south end of the clearing, where Blair was perched atop a small pile of boulders. Easing to the mossy ground at the base of the rocks, the Sentinel leaned back and gratefully took the water bottle that the younger man offered. Sipping from it, he closed his eyes and tried to relax. His body bought into the plan, but his mind was still turning over the puzzle before them and was getting nowhere fast. Grudgingly, he finally realized that the only thing he was doing was aggravating the headache his Guide had nailed him on.
The soft whisper of denim dragging across granite prompted him to open his eyes. Glancing up, he found that Blair had repositioned himself on the boulders, effectively shielding Jim from Anders' and the rest of the search party's view.
"I thought the 'Protector Thing' was my job," he said softly.
The younger man's gaze shifted to him immediately and held there for a moment before he shrugged and looked away.
Ellison's eyes narrowed in concern as he watched his partner. The anthropologist's drawn face and too tense body; the jerky, uncoordinated movements he made as he reached into his pack for a package of trail rations, all spoke volumes about how 'not right' he was with the world. Jim took a quick look around, noting the location of Anders and his men and decided that the time had come for some answers.
"Okay, Chief," Jim said quietly. "This is the best chance we're going to get. Talk to me."
Blair glanced nervously over his shoulder and shook his head. "Jim, I really don't think"
"Okay... jeez, you sound like Naomi when I was six."
"What happened when you were" Jim caught himself before falling into the trap. As usual, Blair was trying to redirect the conversation. "Oh no, not this time. Stick to the subject at hand, Chief. Tell me what you can about these attacks."
Having caught him in the act, Jim half-expected the familiar roll of the eyes and quirky grin as a response. Instead, Blair huddled into himself, his gaze fixed on the ground, his normally active hands clasped tightly together. The intense, strained stillness was so unlike his partner that Jim took a deep breath, preparing himself for the worst.
"I'm not sure I can explain it," Blair finally answered. "It's kind of like getting hit with an emotional sledgehammer. Just... 'wham.'"
"'Wham'? That's it? You, the master of the 'use three hundred words to explain what most people would say in five' routine are giving me 'Wham'?"
"Guess I'm working on brevity, man."
"That'll be the day," Jim muttered, closing his eyes, his fingers rubbing none too gently at his forehead.
"Headache's still pretty intense, huh?" Blair's voice dropped in pitch and volume, taking on a soothing resonance. "Maybe if you"
Jim's eyes opened and he fixed the younger man with a glare. "Don't even think about it, Sandburg. It's not going to happen this time."
"Changing the focus of this conversation from you to me. You know I'm practically programmed to respond to that tone in your voice when you shift into your 'Guide' mode. You use that trick whenever you want to avoid talking to me."
"That's pretty cold, Jim." Blair's eyes reflected a sudden flicker of anger. "I know you're in some major pain here. I was just trying to help. You want to handle it on your own, then fine."
Jim's hand on his knee stopped him before he could get to his feet.
"Blair..." Jim tried to get the younger man to meet his eyes, but the anthropologist dropped his head and sat in sullen silence. Momentarily at a loss for words to repair the damage his comments had caused, the Sentinel reached out with his senses through their physical link. He could feel the tension in the younger man's body and the minute shivering which could be attributed to either exhaustion or anger.
Or both. Apologize, Ellison, or you're never going to get him to open up.
"I didn't mean it that way," Jim murmured. "I'm worried about you. I realized back on the helicopter that something's been wrong for a while and with everything that's happened... I guess I've been aiming these senses of mine in every direction, but you. There's no excuse for that. And no excuse for jumping down your throat, either. I know you don't take being my Guide lightly. I know you were trying to help. I just wish you'd let me return the effort. I want you to know you can count on me when you need help."
The younger man sat quietly, the silence stretching awkwardly between them, his Guide's rapid heartbeat pounding painfully in his ears. When Blair finally began to speak, his voice was whisper soft, and even Jim had to lean in to hear the words.
"I thought at first it was just nerves and exhaustion... you know... with everything going on with the last case. I started getting these little 'pushes', especially after we'd find... find the victims. They weren't bad... just little emotional blips on the curve. Nothing like what happened in Simon's office or on the roof."
"Or when you met Anders?" Jim's interjection was more a statement than a question, but Blair raised his head, meeting the Sentinel's eyes and nodded. "So this started during the Haight case?" Jim pressed gently when Blair seemed reluctant to continue.
"I'm... I'm not sure..."
Blair dropped his eyes again, avoiding Jim's searching stare. He appeared genuinely uncertain, but the Sentinel picked up the skip of the heartbeat and knew differently.
"Tell me about what's been happening today. You said before that it had something to do with my safety. What's that mean exactly?"
"I don't know, Jim. That's what I don't understand. This thing that's happening... it's not words running around in my head, you know, with instructions for interpretation. It's just feelings... sensations..."
"So what's it feel like?" Jim asked, an edge of exasperation creeping into his voice.
"Like the world's just ended."
The stark flatness of his Guide's voice silenced the words the Sentinel was about to utter. He squeezed the younger man's knee gently, in quiet support and entreaty.
"Everything just stops," Blair whispered, obviously caught up in the memory of the feelings and images the attacks brought on. "There's no sound except my voice screaming your name, no movement, no light. Only darkness... and absolute despair..." his voice faltered and he took a ragged breath, unable to continue, apparently unwilling to say the rest of it out loud.
"Okay, just relax, Chief," Jim directed, eyeing his young partner closely and waiting until he'd regained some control before asking his next question. "This feeling... does it have something to do with me as a cop or with me as a Sentinel?"
The younger man's head jerked up sharply and there was a puzzled expression on his face which Jim knew was real.
"I don't know. It's hard to separate you from who you are, especially in relation to me."
Jim's expression must have reflected his own confusion, because Blair shook his head and gave a sheepish grin.
"That sounded pretty esoteric even for me," he muttered. "Look, my relationship with you gets a little confused at the edges because things overlap so much. You're my Sentinel, you're a detective and I'm your observer, so there's that whole partnership thing, then we're friends and roommates, and of course you have to throw in the 'Blessed Protector' contract and my penchant for finding trouble just to muddle things up even more. I'm not altogether sure how to separate each aspect of you and me out to even answer your question."
Jim grinned in spite of the seriousness of their discussion. The younger man's rambling explanation had hit on something that he'd been thinking about for a long time. Their lives had gotten so intricately entwined that it was sometimes difficult to see where one aspect of their association started and another stopped. He'd also considered parts of their relationship Blair hadn't mentionedthe big brother/little brother thing; the father/son connection that arose every so often; and, of course, the fact that Blair was, by virtue of Incacha's granting of the title, his Shaman as well as his Guide.
He thought about adding his two cents into the mix, but one look at the younger man told him that he'd pushed this about as far as he could for the moment. "When you put it that way, I can see the difficulty. I'll withdraw that question... for now."
Jim lifted his head as the sound of voices carried across the clearing. With a glance, he could see that Anders was starting to round everyone up for a final search of the area. He shifted to his feet and handed Blair the water bottle, watching his Guide closely.
"Anything else you want to tell me?"
"I didn't even want to tell you this much," Blair muttered, raising his eyes to meet Jim's. "Look, I'm sure part of this is just stress, man. That last case and now this. I just need some serious downtime, to get my nerves unfrazzled. But... in case I'm wrong, how about you humor me about being careful around these guys. FBI or not, Anders has his own agenda here, trust me."
"Easy enough, Chief," Jim agreed, recognizing the need to put their conversation on hold, his own reactions to the agent making him more than willing to agree to the younger man's request. "I'll be careful, you be careful. We've still got those kids to find."
Blair slid off the boulder, took a swig from the water bottle and handed it back to his partner. "Yeah, I know..." The observer's voice trailed off as he glanced around the clearing once more. When his gaze settled on the empty school bus, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Jim, something's still bugging me. Something's just not right..."
Ellison looked up and saw the expression of puzzled concentration on the younger man's face. A flicker of movement beyond his partner caught his eye and he shifted his focuson the edge of the clearing, Anders was watching them intently. Under the pretense of placing the water bottle in his pack, he scanned the area, noting the location of each of the men from the search party.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled immediately, kicking his "Blessed Protector" reflex into full gear. He reached out and pulled Blair around to face him.
"Hey, man, what's the..."
"Quiet. Just follow my lead," Jim warned. He pretended to adjust Blair's headset while his eyes scouted the clearing.
Blair looked up questioningly. "What is it?" he whispered.
"Either I'm starting to share your paranoia, or you're right and something 'is' wrong here. Anders has his men strung around the edge of the clearing, but they don't seem to be doing much searching. Their attention is focused inward. It's as if they're more interested in keeping tabs on us, than in finding those kids."
"Oh, man. I knew it. Jim, if they suspect what you're doing, what you're capable of... I mean, these guys are the FBIor worse. They get their hands on you and it's good-bye."
Jim stared down into Blair's anxious face. His Guide's genuine concern for his safety touched him. "I know, Chief. I don't understand what's going on here, but we've still got a job to do. The sooner we find those kids, the sooner we can leave Anders in the dust. Just be careful what you say over this." The Sentinel tapped the headset and stepped away, grabbing his own pack and settling it on his shoulders. "I'm going to take another look around the perimeter, see if I can pick up anything."
Blair gathered up his own gear. "I want to check out the bus once more. I've got the feeling that there's something there that we're missing."
Jim nodded and started walking a pattern of widening circles which would eventually take him to the edge of the clearing. While he checked the rocky ground for any sign of the missing children, he opened up his senses to observe Anders' men. The more he saw, the more uneasy he became. There was no questionthese men did not act like any of the search and rescue workers or FBI agents that he'd come into contact with before. They acted more like soldiers. He felt the warning prickle tug at him again, and, although there were no overt signs of danger, he quickly shifted his attention to monitor his partner's progress. Blair was inside the bus now, and Jim could hear muttered comments through the headset as the younger man walked the aisle.
He smiled at the familiar pattern. Blair was fixed on something with his usual bull-dog determination and he was talking himself through it, voicing his rambling thoughts aloud as he sorted through the puzzle. It was the kind of behavior which drove Simon crazy, but Jim had learned not to question his partner's methodology. He trusted Blair's instincts as much as he trusted his own. For all the grief the Sentinel gave the younger man, he respected the sharp, analytical mind of his Guide. As a scientist, Blair was trained to be a good observer. As an anthropologist, he added an appreciation and understanding of the human side of the equation. Blair's unique way of looking at things had often uncovered a clue or direction Jim would have overlooked.
The Sentinel scrubbed at his face in exasperation. Why couldn't he pick up anything on the missing children or whoever had engineered their disappearance? It seemed impossible that they could have left the bus without leaving some kind of trace. Was it his own weariness making his senses unreliable?
With the unsettling, warning sensation still nagging at him, Jim let his gaze drift across the clearing, trying to determine the source. When his eyes locked on Anders, he stiffened. The agent was staring intently at the bus, his face filled with an expression of hungry anticipation.
What the hell is that all about?
Jim's thoughts flashed back to the initial phone call which had started this trip. Anders, or whoever was running this case, had asked for he and Sandburg specifically. Not just the team who might have the most experience. Someone had wanted them here, and not knowing why was starting to make him very nervous. That, and Anders' disturbing interest in his Guide.
It's a good thing that Sandburg can't see Anders watching him, or he'd have another one of those attacks, Jim mused grimly, his mind filling with the image of Blair's distressed face.
A second image was abruptly superimposed over that of his partner'sBlair's frightened blue eyes replaced by calm, ancient brown ones. Jim almost groaned aloud in shocked recognition.
Damn it, Incacha, is this your doing? His worried gaze shifted back to the bus immediately, his vision focusing on his young Guide.
His fledgling Shaman.
Were the episodes Blair had been experiencing more than nerves and exhaustion? Were they a result of some of Incacha's hastily bequeathed powersa legacy which he and Blair had barely even discussed? As hard as it was to believe, if it was true, it would explain a great deal.
Cursing silently, Ellison made himself move again, ostensibly continuing his search pattern while his mind raced for answers. One of Incacha's gifts had been the ability to sense impending danger, even if he couldn't pinpoint the exact source. Whether Jim understood, or even truly bought into the mystical aspects of the Shaman's abilities, he'd seen the results of the older man's persuasions first hand during the time he'd lived with the tribe. If Blair had indeed 'inherited' those talents, then Jim was going to have to take the foreshadowed danger as a serious threat.
But what kind of threat? The Sentinel shook his head in disgust. He tried to recall everything Blair had said earlier about the attacks, seeking a clue which would tell him what he was missing. The obvious terror and sorrow in his Guide's voice echoed in his mind. Even with everything they'd been through together, Jim had never heard that depth of emotional loss in Blair's voice.
It was so intense... as if it had touched himwould touch himpersonally. It's... it's how I would feel if anything happened to him.
Correction. Had felt.
I knew that kind of fear when Lash kidnapped him from the loft. I ached with that kind of despair when his heart stopped beating in the station parking garage.
Jim shivered and shook his head, pushing away the painful memories. If he could feel that depth of loss, then the reverse was probably also true. Blair's terror stemmed from a Guide's fear of something happening to his Sentinel. That was why he had been so paranoid about Jim using his senses in front of Anders and his men; why the observer had demanded that he had to be at the detective's side. His Guide's own protective instincts were operating at full force and Jim knew from past experience that when his young partner was in that mindset, he would do anything to keep his Sentinel from harmincluding putting himself in the line of fire.
If Anders was the source of the danger, that would explain why his Guide had reacted so strongly toward him from the start. And if all of this did somehow involve his being a Sentinel, then it would also explain Anders' interest in Blair.
Jim inhaled sharply through clenched teeth, berating himself for not paying better attention to his friend's intuitive reactions. How could he have forgotten what they'd discussed after Brackett? They'd learned then, that any danger to the Sentinel was also an inherent threat to the Guide. If we didn't need to find those kids, I'd commandeer one of those jeeps and haul Sandburg out of here right now. Maybe I should do it anyway...
The ex-ranger's eyes automatically scanned the clearing, his mind already estimating their chances of escape, if it came down to what he was beginning to suspect. Blair's broken ramblings intruded on his own troubled deliberations and he switched on the transmitter for his headset.
"Sandburg!" There was a moment's silence before his partner's startled voice answered.
"You know that annoying habit you have of letting your mouth run separately from your brain? You're doing it again."
"Oh... sorry, Jim."
"I think we're going to have to make a move soon," Jim continued, hoping Blair would pick up on the meaning of his words. "Are you having any luck?"
"No... nothing yet. Just give me a couple more minutes."
Ellison continued his sweep around the clearing, changing his angle slightly so that his path would bring him closer to the bus. His guardian instincts were at full alert now and he didn't like being separated from the younger man. He wanted his Guide at his back, where he could protect him.
Blair tapped his fingers on one of the bench seats in frustration, his gaze roving over the interior of the bus one more time. There was nothing unusual to catch his eye, no foreign smells; just the remnants of what had been left behindthe kid's backpacks, a few toys, books, a jacket or two. Nothing that he and Jim hadn't gone over already. So what was nagging at him? What was he missing? He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, concentrating on how the air felt as it filled his lungs and then passed back out when he exhaled. Another breath and he felt himself relaxing.
He let his thoughts drift as his energies centered and his head cleared. In his mind's eye he walked up the aisle again, seeing everything in its place. A vision of his own cluttered room flashed in his head and he swallowed hard, his eyes snapping open in startled surprise.
Missing. It should be here, but it's not. Why not? It doesn't make sense. He scrambled through the aisle, searching the floor and the seats. When he reached the back of the bus his heart was thudding in his chest and he wasn't surprised to hear Jim's voice calling to him over the headset.
"Hey, Jim... I'm... I'm still looking..." Blair stammered, searching for a way to communicate his suspicions to his partner without the others picking up on it.
"Things okay in there?" he heard the concern in the older man's voice and knew that Jim was 'listening', picking up on his rapid heartbeat. Okay, maybe he could use that.
"Yeah, I was just thinking. We're due for some downtime after this, right? Maybe we should just kick back and relax. Get some beer, rent a couple of movies."
"Sounds good, Chief," Jim replied. His partner's heart was still pounding, giving the lie to his easy-going banter. Something was up. "So, you have anything in mind? I'm not sure I'm in the mood for one of those foreign flicks with the subtitles."
"Well, actually I was thinking about one we've already seen. You remember that movie with Roy Scheider where he plays a cop and he's got this observer with him. You know, young guyjeez, I can never remember the actor's name. The flick with the helicopter that could go into whisper mode?"
Blair took a deep breath, covered the mouthpiece of his headset and started whispering.
["Jim, just play along here, okay? I think I've got a handle on part of this, and if I'm right, we've got serious trouble, man."]
There was a moment of silence and then Jim's voice came back over the headset. "Yeah, I know what you're talking about."
Blair immediately picked up on the conversation. "I really thought that the way they wrote the dialogue was pretty cool. It was like their conversation was operating on two different levels."
["I want you to try something, Jim. You're going to need to concentrate, so bend down and take a good look at the ground, like maybe you've found something."]
Blair took a quick look out the window and saw Jim take a few more steps before he dropped to one knee.
"I'm surprised you want to rent that one again. I seem to remember that you thought the observer got an awful lot of grief," Jim replied, making a show of picking through the rocks.
Blair allowed himself a small smile. "Yeah, you even got me my own JAFO hat, I remember. I'd still like to see it again. Besides I know you got off on the action stuff. All those explosions and gunfire."
["Remember how you piggy-backed your sight and smell earlier? I want you to try it again. Look to where I am and see yourself on the bus. Then open up your sense of smell."]
"You sure you want to test my patience right now, Chief?"
["There's a test going on here, man. But it's not one of mine. Just try it. Run back through everything you picked up earlier and filter it out. See if there's anything that we haven't already identified."]
"Hey, I'm always testing your patience, Ellison. That's what an observer does, right?" Blair took another peek at Jim and saw the older man casually look his way.
["That's right, Jim. Focus on me, see yourself here, next to me, then concentrate on what you can smell. There should be traces here that only the kids, Amanda and the driver would have left. That's what we missed before."]
With his heart pounding in his chest, Blair scanned the clearing quickly. He stiffened when he saw one of Anders' men watching Jim with just a little too much interest. He was about to say something when his partner's voice broke the silence.
"I don't know about you, Chief, but I'm not finding anything new."
"Shit, I was afraid you'd say that." Blair winced and slapped his hand over the transmitter and shook his head.
["Stupid. Sorry, Jim. This double conversation is hard to keep track of."]
"I'm not coming up with anything either. Sorry about the chatter, man. Maybe if I shut up for a few minutes I won't be such a distraction. I know you'll come up with something."
["Jim, the guy behind you is watching, get up and get moving again. Head toward the edge of the clearing as fast as you can without looking suspicious."]
"No problem, Chief. Sometimes a distraction's the best idea." Jim rose to his feet and began his search pattern again. But instead of heading away from the bus, he continued to angle toward it. "I think getting some movies is a good suggestion. But maybe something a little tamer. A little more introspective. What was the one that Daryl liked? 'Stand by Me?'"
"No way man, that's about some kids going to see a dead body. I get enough of that just hanging around with you."
["Damn it Jim, don't come over here. I don't know exactly what's going on, but one thing's for sure. There were NEVER any children on this bus. It's too clean. Kids make messes, especially kids on a field trip. There should be candy wrappers, half-chewed wads of grape bubble gum, the residual smell of unwashed gym socks that would have lingered in the bottom of at least one of the backpacks... And you're not picking up on Amanda's perfume, or the stale reek of the driver's cigarettes either. If they'd been on the bus for the trip up here, there should be some trace of those odors for you to find. But nada. That's what we're missingthe smelly, everyday debris of living, breathing bodies!"]
Blair looked out and saw Jim rounding the curve in one of his patterns. He was close to the edge of the clearing now, just coming up behind one of Anders' men.
["Jim, listen to me... The reason you can't pick up on anything, is that there's NOTHING to find. This is like a dressed set. Anders or somebody else put this together. They murdered Heckt and Amandaif those are even their real namesto make the whole thing more convincing. To test you. This is a trap, man. You've got to get out of here, now!"]
"I don't know why you complain so much, Chief," Jim murmured, eyeing the man he was drawing even with. "The way you attract trouble, you're not any safer when I leave you behind."
["I'll be all right, man. I'm not sticking around here either. As soon as you make a break for it, I'm going out the back door and straight into the woods. Jim, please, get out of here! If I don't make it past them, I'll stand a lot better chance of surviving this if you're free."]
"Yeah, but I can always count on you getting me out of a jam, can't I?"
Blair's words, both whispered and over the headset stopped Ellison in his tracks. The whole kidnapping case, the murdersit had all been a sham. It was a trap. A clever, well orchestrated plan to snare an unsuspecting Sentinel and his Guide. And they'd walked into it blindly, with no backup. Why they'd been set up took a back seat to getting the two of them out of there fast.
Jim took a quick look around the clearing, estimating their options for escape once again. Blair was right. They'd have a better chance if they split up and divided the efforts of their pursuers. But he didn't like it. All of his Sentinel instincts cried out for him to protect his Guide, not leave him to his own resources, abundant as they might be. Especially since he suspected that Anders was as interested in getting his hands on Blair as he was in capturing a Sentinel. But if they were both taken...
"You know it, partner," Jim said softly, his voice low with emotion. With a fast step to his left, he caught the man standing near him with a hard jab to the jaw, downing him instantly. Pulling his gun from behind his back, the ex-ranger swung around and aimed at the gas tank on one of the jeeps, firing as soon as it was in his sights. The explosion rocked the ground and sent Anders and his men lunging for cover. Jim's attention shifted to the bus and he saw the emergency door at the back fly open with Blair hanging off of it. He waited just long enough to see the younger man scramble into the woods and then he too disappeared into the forest.
Blair kept his head down and ran, forcing his way through the densely packed trees, trying to put as much distance between himself and the clearing as he could before Anders sent his men in pursuit. He allowed himself a satisfied smirk at his partner's distraction. It had definitely caught them off guard. Hell, it even caught me off guard. Trust Jim to come up with something loud and earth shattering.
He ducked under a low-hanging branch and tucked himself against the trunk of a large tree, listening intently. For a few seconds, he heard nothing except the pounding of his own heart. He took several deep breaths, working to fill his aching lungs with the thin air. Blair snapped his head around at a sharp cracking sound from somewhere to his left and frantically scanned the woods, trying to locate the source. The noise repeated and he took off again, angling slightly to his right, but still headed away from the clearing. He wove in and out of the cover of the trees, more concerned about staying hidden than in trying to go in a specific direction, confident that if he could keep moving, he'd be all right. Jim was out there somewhere. The Sentinel was more than equipped to find him, wherever he ended up. All he needed to do was stay out of the hunters' sights.
As he ran, he forced his mind to function at more than just escape mode. He couldn't be stupid about this. He couldn't afford to make a mistake and end up getting caught. He did not want to be the leash which brought Jim to heel. He didn't think that Anders' men would shoot him downnot after all the trouble they'd gone through to set this upbut he wasn't going to take that chance.
Who are these guys? They definitely weren't search and rescue and if they were FBI they were probably rogue agents. Great. And here I thought the CIA had a corner on that market.
Whoever they were, what they wanted was perfectly clear. This whole scenario had been set up to test and reveal Jim's abilities. How had they found out about the Sentinel, anyway? He and Jim had tried to keep a low profile, but it was obvious that they'd succeeded in piquing someone's interest. Maybe it was as simple as having too good an arrest and conviction record. They certainly had that, especially in the last two years. Maybe that was all it had taken.
Or maybe it's that stupid thesis that you wrote. Jeez, it's like a best seller. Who would have known that it would be at the top of the Militant Reader's charts, instead of gathering the dust it deserves? We get out of this Jim, and I promise you, I'm going to hunt down every last copy and burn them. I should have seen this coming. Damn it, I should have listened to my gut instincts and never let either one of us get on that helicopter. Now we're out here in the middle of nowhere with a small army ready to pick us off and lock us away.
Lock them away, or worse.
Winded, Blair pulled to a stop and bent over, struggling to control not only his ragged breathing, but his overactive imagination. He didn't even want to think about what these guys would do to Jim in a lab, what kind of experiments they'd try to see what made him tick. The thought of Jim Ellison as a caged panther made him shudder. It would kill him.
~So what are you going to do to make sure that doesn't happen?~
Whatever I have to do.
"Whatever it takes. I'm the Sentinel's Guide. He's mine to protect." Blair whispered the words defiantly as he started moving again, determined to stay ahead of the hunters.
The clearing looked like a war-zone when Bailey and his men jogged in. Thick black smoke boiled off of the jeep, spiraling into the darkening sky. The overpowering smells of super-heated metal and melted plastic filled the air, while flames still roared over the vehicle's charred framework. A crosswind swept low-lying waves of smoke through the clearing. In the midst of it all stood Anders, barking orders at his scurrying men.
"It's about time you got here," the older man snarled as the tracker approached.
"We were supposed to be an hour away," Bailey answered with a shrug. "I figured you'd want to stick with the plan." The tracker glanced around the clearing and then turned his attention back to his superior. "I take it Ellison finally got wise to the game."
"Everything seemed to be going fine and then something spooked him," Anders grumbled. "He shot out the gas tank on the jeep and in the confusion, he and Sandburg slipped away."
"No. We at least got that break." The older man gestured toward the far side of the clearing where the man Jim had decked was being helped to his feet. "Ellison overpowered Chambers and took off from there. The kid was in the bus. He went out the back and straight into the forest."
Bailey took one more quick look around and nodded. "Okay, they've only got a few minute's head start. I'll have the men in gear and armed in five, and we'll head out after Ellison."
He started to turn away, but Anders grabbed his arm. "Send whoever's expendable out after Ellison. I want you to concentrate on finding Sandburg."
"You've got to be joking," Bailey objected. "That little hippie can barely tell his right from his left. There's no way he's going to make it out of this park. Chances are he's already going in circles."
"Then you won't have a problem finding him, will you?"
"It's a waste of time," Bailey growled in disgust.
"Are you questioning my orders, Lieutenant?"
"No, sir. Just trying to understand them. I thought Ellison was the one you've been itching to get your hands on, yet you're telling me to let him walk and go after some punk kid."
"For a man who prides himself on his observation skills, you're surprisingly blind to the dynamics of what's been happening here today," Anders remarked.
"Meaning that in his own way, the kid's as important, and as unique, as Ellison. Don't worry. Our good detective's not going anywhere. Not without his partner. You bring Sandburg back here and Ellison will follow. He doesn't have any choice."
Bailey eyed the older man skeptically.
"You'll get your chance at Ellison later," Anders promised. "Remember what I said about sending only men you're willing to lose after him. He was one of the best that Covert Ops had and he doesn't appear to have lost his edge. They won't have much luck catching him, but they can keep him busy while you're going after the kid. We'll get this mess cleaned up and set up a temporary camp. Bring Sandburg back... unharmed, Lieutenant. And do it quickly. I want to stay on schedule. If Ellison doesn't cooperate, we'll move the kid to our home base at first light. That'll cut his options even further."
Nodding grudgingly in agreement to Anders' orders, Bailey saluted sharply and spun on his heel, whistling a cadence to bring his men to order.
On his hands and knees, Blair cautiously backed away from the edge of the deadly drop-off he'd nearly tumbled into, rising on shaky legs only after he could no longer see down into the darkened ravine. He continued to retreat until he felt the rough, unyielding shape of a tree at his back. Leaning into the reassuring support for a few moments, he closed his eyes and tried to push the last whirling vestiges of vertigo out of his head, concentrating on simply filling his lungs. Too shaken to name any individual gods or goddesses at that particular moment, he sent up a generic whisper of thanks to whomever or whatever had kept him from taking that headlong plunge.
Still eyeing the darker line of blackness which indicated the edge of the chasm, he pushed away from the tree, moving to his left. Cursing silently, he realized he was going to have to either double back on his previous trail to find a way around the ravine or make an attempt to climb down. Neither option was very attractive. Backtracking meant running the risk of meeting up with some of Anders' men, but the alternative was trying to make the risky descent in the rapidly fading light.
He decided to keep moving along the rim of the drop-off, not quite following the same path which had brought him there, his gaze flickering uneasily from the surrounding forest to the ravine edge and back again. A sudden noise startled him and he halted, straining to identify the source of the sound, hoping desperately that it was Jim. Unshakable as his faith was in his Sentinel, he was starting to worryit had been nearly an hour since they'd escaped from the clearing and he still hadn't seen any sign of his partner.
Nor had he seen any real signs of pursuit. Initially he'd been grateful for that, but now Blair was starting to wonder if Anders had sent all his hounds coursing after Jim. If he had, even the Sentinel with all of his skills, would be hard pressed to evade them.
The thought struck him suddenly that he was still standing like a dazed, frightened rabbit. He shook himself in disgust. Pushing himself to move again, he ducked around a dense stand of brush.
And came face to face with Agent Dunn.
"Stay right where you are," the man warned, his rifle already targeting Blair's chest.
Slowly, Blair raised his hands, hoping it appeared more like an entreaty than surrender.
"Hey, man. Am I glad to see you," he babbled, assuming his most endearingly innocent expression. "I gotta tell you... that explosion scared the shit out of me. I just took off running. Guess I got kind of lost."
A look of confusion filled Dunn's face and Blair started to take a step forward, hoping to get closer to the man and somehow get control of the gun. The bone chilling touch of metal at the back of his neck and a familiar, deadly voice, stopped him cold.
"Good thing we found you then."
Blair remained motionless, barely breathing as Bailey shifted to stand beside him, the rifle barrel now digging into the right side of his neck.
"Where's Ellison?" the tracker asked, prodding him with the gun.
"Jim?" Blair strove to keep the bluff going as long as he could, his mind racing to find a way out of the mess he found himself in. "You mean he took off, too? That's a surprise. He's usually"
Blinding pain shot through Blair's right side as Bailey pivoted the rifle and rammed the hard wooden stock into his ribs. The force of the blow staggered him sideways and he dropped to the ground, gasping for breath. The tracker grabbed him by the hair and yanked backward, keeping him on his knees and forcing his head up. Blair caught a glimpse of something shiny and froze as the razor-sharp blade of a knife touched his throat.
"Don't bother with the games, kid. I've wasted enough time looking for you and I'm out of patience," Bailey hissed. "I want Ellison."
Defiance reared its head and Blair went with the angry sensation, letting it fill him and push the fear away. "So you got stuck with me, huh, Bailey? Count yourself lucky. Jim would eat you for lunch."
He felt a flash of relief when Bailey's grip on his hair released and then he was reeling sideways, crashing to the hard ground, the left side of his face burning from the impact of the blow. The stab of agonizing pain which shot through his injured side made him struggle for breath again as Bailey's booted kick flipped him to his back. Before he could move, the tracker had dropped down next to him, one knee planted in his chest to hold him in place while the knife pressed menacingly against his throat.
"Take it easy, Bailey. The Colonel wants him in one piece," Dunn called out.
Lost in the haze of his throbbing head and the pressure in his ribs, Blair found himself wondering idly who the 'Colonel' was, and if he was a new player in this bizarre contest, or if it was someone he'd already met. Bailey's next words answered that question succinctly.
"Anders may think you're something special, but I don't, punk," the tracker snarled, pressing the blade harder against the skin under Blair's chin. "As far as I'm concerned, you're just a piece of bait to attract Ellison. Now tell me where he is!"
Blair stared up into Bailey's eyes, saw the murderous glare and made a quick decision. He'd promised himself he wouldn't be used to make Jim surrender and that was exactly what this man intended.
"Go to Hell," he whispered.
Blair watched the rage wash over the bigger man's features and then the heel of Bailey's hand thrust against his chin, pushing his head backward. He felt the abrupt absence of the pressure of the knife blade, then felt the sharp tip touch the side of his neck. With a burst of clarity, he knew who had slit the throats of the teacher and the driver. A strange sense of calm settled over him and he started to close his eyes, his mind forming a silent apology to his Sentinel for dying and leaving him alone.
His eyes flashed open at a strangled cry from behind him and he looked up into Bailey's angry face. The tracker started to rise and then he staggered, his expression changing quickly from anger to amazement. In stunned surprise, Blair watched as Bailey's hand went to his chest, wrapping around the hilt of a knife that protruded from his ribs. Then the man was toppling forward, blood spurting from the killing wound.
Blair grunted in pain as Bailey's dead weight crashed onto him. Pinned to the ground, he could feel the handle of the knife digging into his own chest and wondered fleetingly if he'd somehow been stabbed himself. He tried to get his arms free so that he could maneuver the body off, but his dazed mind wasn't sending very clear signals to his aching body.
He felt a growing wetness through his shirt and realized it was Bailey's blood. He took a gasping breath and almost retched at the stench. Revulsion pushed him to try to get free once more. This time he had help. Strong hands slid beneath his shoulders, grasped him under the armpits and eased him backward. Blair barely stifled a moan of relief as the weight of the tracker's body slid aside.
He didn't resist as he was pulled several feet away and then urged to sit up. Nor did he argue when the powerful arms wrapped around him. Instead, he instinctively leaned forward, seeking the warmth and safety of his Sentinel's presence.
At any other time, the thunderous pounding of his Guide's rapidly beating heart would have been cause for alarm. Now, it was a vital reassuranceproof the younger man was still alive and that life was coursing through his veins, not pooling out onto the hard, cold ground. The Sentinel grimaced at the thoughthe'd almost been too late.
Holding Blair in a fiercely protective embrace, Jim eyed the bodies of the two men he had killed. He felt the twinge of sadness which he always experienced whenever he took a life, but he felt no guilt. It had been a choice between his Guide's life and theirs, meaning that there had been no choice at all. He would harbor no regrets about the actions he'd taken. He'd kill again if he had to, if that's what it took to keep the younger man safe.
Lifting his head, the Sentinel opened up his senses, scanning their immediate surroundings. A gentle breeze caressed the hairs on the back of his neck and he sampled it, filtering out the scents that belonged to the forest, finally finding those of the men that pursued them. Not content to rely only on his sense of smell and taste, he let his hearing range outward. In a few moments, he confirmed the hunters' locations. Loosening his grip, he gave Blair's shoulders a gentle squeeze.
"We need to move. There's a spot where we'll be safer. It's not far. Think you can make it?"
Blair gave a brief nod. Jim eased him upright, wincing as his Guide stifled a cry of pain. The Sentinel wrapped an arm around the younger man and began to steer him away when Blair hesitated.
"Wait..." Blair whispered, shifting them toward Bailey's body.
"My pack," the younger man murmured in explanation, straining to reach down for the bag.
With a deft grab, Ellison caught the straps of the backpack and slung it over his own shoulder. That seemed to appease Blair and he leaned into Jim's grip, nodding again for the older man to lead the way. Attuned to the pursuit behind them, the Sentinel led his Guide deeper into the forest, seeking the place of refuge he'd found earlier.
Trusting Jim to keep them safe, Blair told his muddled thoughts to take a break-ordering them not to return until they made more senseand focused on simply staying upright and keeping his feet moving. Surprisingly, after a few minutes of concentration, the little mind game seemed to work, although he felt strangely disconnected to his bodyas if someone else was in control. He ignored the odd sensation because the results were worth it. Breathing past the distracting pain in his side became easier and his pace adjusted to mirror his partner's, moving with the older man instead of dragging against him.
The smooth rhythm they'd established suddenly altered and Blair found himself blinking in dazed confusion as Jim led him into a rock-sheltered thicket. He sank to the ground at the older man's gentle urging, shivering with cold when he leaned back into one of the boulders. Warmth wrapped around him immediately and he tugged Jim's jacket closer around his body, nodding a silent 'thanks' to his partner. The Sentinel knelt beside him, the slightly cocked head and tense posture indicating that Jim was checking things out, making sure there were no unpleasant surprises nearby. With a quick glance Blair saw that the refuge that the older man had found for them was easily defensible, even to his unpracticed eye. He allowed himself to relax a bit, feeling more confident now that he and his partner were together again.
Blair shifted slightly, trying to find a more comfortable position which wouldn't put as much strain on the sore muscles in his side. The movement brought Jim's attention back to him. Even in the gloom, the aching Guide could see the concern in the Sentinel's eyes.
"I'm okay, man. Just cold and majorly tired," Blair said reassuringly.
A tentative smile broke across the older man's face and despite the circumstances, Blair felt an answering grin filling his own. "What? What's so funny?"
"I think you just set some kind of record, Chief. Those are the first words you've said in over 30 minutes."
Blair raised an eyebrow in surprise. If that much time had passedhe'd been further 'out of it' than he'd realized. Given his normal tendency to let his mouth run non-stopespecially when he was nervous or frightenedit was no wonder that Jim was worried. "Brevity, man, remember?" he said with forced lightness.
The Sentinel's reply was a soft grunt and a shake of his head as he pushed his Guide gently backward into the support of the rocks, his hands carefully probing the younger man's injuries. Blair endured the scrutiny without objection, recognizing that his companion needed the tangible confirmation to ease his fears.
"Nothing's broken, Chief," the older man murmured softly, finally satisfied with his examination. He settled on the ground next to Blair, digging the water bottle and some foodstuffs out of his own pack and handing them to the younger man.
"Good to hear," Blair responded, taking the proffered items. "Your timing was excellent, by the way. As usual. Thanks."
Jim's head snapped up, his jaw clenched, his eyes dark with anger and guilt. "I should have been there earlier, but I had to deal with some of Anders' men. I didn't want to take the chance of leading them to you. And then I was almost too late. Bailey would have... I'm sorry Blair... about all of this. You're in danger because of me. I should have seen through this whole thing before it got this far."
"Cut yourself some slack on the guilt front, man," Blair admonished his partner. "We were set up by experts. But we figured it out, right? We're still ahead of the game. All we have to do is find a way to get home free."
"Might be easier said than done, Chief. Like you said, we were set up by someone with a lot of expertise. Whether it was Anders or his superior, doesn't matter. The fact is, they're good. And they've got the advantage in equipment and personnel. We've got minimal firepower and neither one of us is in any shape to handle a fast, cross-country escape. Not in this terrain."
"We've been in tough spots before, Jim," Blair reminded him, hoping to dispel the older man's doubts and get him back on track. "They may have the numbers, but you're the Sentinel. They are way outclassed, man. They may think they know what you can do, but I've seen it first hand. So what's the plan?"
Jim looked out into the forest, falling silent for a few moments. Blair could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. When the Sentinel looked back at him, he saw grim resolution in the older man's face.
"First thing is to stay ahead of them and try to find some help, or at least get a message out that we need assistance," Jim said softly. "We're pretty deep into the park and from what I remember about the area, the closest ranger station is about fifteen miles to the west. Not an easy trek and it's a move Anders will undoubtedly anticipate. We're going to have to assume he has most of the logical escape routes covered. He's going to try to keep us contained in this area."
The Sentinel's gaze shifted to the forest once more, his expression growing even grimmer.
"They've found the bodies," he whispered. "Anders will assume we're together now. He'll concentrate the search efforts, probably spreading his men in a skirmish line in an attempt to surround us. That 'could' work in our favor. If we can get past them, we might be able to make it back to their camp... maybe steal a truck or at least get a signal out using their equipment."
"But won't Anders be expecting us to try that? If you were in his place wouldn't you?" The silent nod from his partner confirmed Blair's query.
"It's risky, but we don't have a whole lot of options, Chief."
"I don't know... getting closer to those guys doesn't seem healthy..." Blair's voice trailed off as his gaze settled on his backpack. His eyes flashed wide open, his mind grasping at a possible solution.
Without thinking, he made a quick move to grab the pack. The burst of pain which radiated from his injured ribs reminded him of how badly he was hurting and he let out a strangled gasp. Jim's hand was on his arm immediately, trying to shift him back toward the rocks, but Blair shrugged off the restraint, gritting his teeth as he leaned forward and grasped the straps, pulling the bag into his lap.
Ignoring his partner's growling reprimand, Blair untied the pack and started digging through it.
"What we need is something unexpected, right? What if instead of trying to get out of the park, we head further in? Say, up into the mountains?" Blair asked, still rummaging through the bag.
"It's unexpected, but it's also not going to do us much good," Jim responded. "We'll be more isolated than we are now and we won't be any closer to finding help. Not unless you plan on using smoke signals."
"It's an idea, but not quite what I had in mind," Blair murmured, pulling a small object out of his pack. "How about using this instead?"
"You brought your cell phone?" asked Jim incredulously.
"Hey, man, I never leave home without it. Not since I started working with you," Blair replied, grinning.
"What else did you pack in that magic bag, Chief?"
"Well I tried for your truck, but it didn't fit," Blair answered. "How about it? Think we can get through if we get enough altitude?"
"It's worth a shot."
"Great. You head out, I'll wait out the cavalry here."
"No way, Sandburg. We go together."
"Jim, listen to me," Blair pleaded, desperate to convince the Sentinel he was right. "You're the one they're after. I'm only going to slow you down. I won't risk that."
"I think you're missing something, partner. Anders wanted both of us here, today. Not just me. He's not just looking to trap a Sentinel. He wants a Guide as well."
Blair hoped that the darkness hid the terror he knew was evident on his face. "He wanted me only to get to you, man. To use me to control you. And that's what will happen if he catches up to us."
"Whatever he wanted, he's not going to get it. That includes taking either one of us," Jim said firmly. "We're in this together, Chief. I'm not leaving you behind."
The Sentinel kept them moving, herding his stumbling, exhausted Guide ahead of him as he watched for signs of pursuit. Darkness closed in with every step, cloaking them from their enemies, but also slowing their progress. With his vision adjusting automatically to the loss of light and his concentration focused behind them, Jim was unaware of just how black their world had become until Blair tripped and fell, sprawling to the rocky ground. He was at the younger man's side instantly. Jim started to lift his partner to his feet when he felt the tremors racking Blair's overtaxed body.
"Stay put," he murmured, pressing his hand on a slim, trembling shoulder. "Take a minute to catch your breath."
"No way, man... I'm... fine..." Blair's ragged gasps put the lie to his words, but he pushed against Jim's hold, struggling to get to his feet again.
"Sandburg, I may cover your butt when you run out of grocery money at the end of the month, but I draw the line at carrying you up that mountain." The uncertainty in the eyes that stared up at him made Ellison soften his tone and drop the teasing banter. "It's okay, Blair. I don't hear anything. We've got a lead on them."
"You sure?" There was an desperate edge to the whispered question.
"Rest, Chief," Jim answered, putting all the reassurance he could into his voice. "Close your eyes for a few minutes if you can."
Jim heard a soft sigh which was a mixture of relief and pain as Blair slumped to the cold ground, wrapping his arms around his body in an attempt to ward off the chill. Shrugging out of his jacket, the Sentinel draped it over the younger man's shivering form.
"Thanks... just a few minutes... that'll... be... good..."
Blair's voice faded as sleep took him. The Sentinel sat in guardianship at his Guide's side, scanning the night for danger. He knew the hunters were out there, searching for them even now. Extending his senses, he could hear soft, irregular sounds which were no natural part of the forest.
A sudden low growl jerked his attention back to his immediate surroundings. A patch of inky blackness came to life, flowing toward them, taking a familiar shape before the Sentinel's sharp eyes.
Another hunter stalked them by moonlight, yellow eyes glowing in the dark.
The panther settled just beyond Blair, his tail slashing back and forth in agitation. As Jim watched, the lithe animal rose to its haunches and then continued to straighten, morphing into the ancient tribesman Jim had first encountered in Peru.
Jim remained seated and silent as his Spirit Guide knelt beside his young friend, hands extended over the anthropologist's body, palms down. The old man's face creased into a scowl and he sat back on his heels, raising his head to fix Jim with an unreadable stare.
"Your young Guide is in danger, Sentinel."
"I know," Jim murmured, his jaw clenching as Anders' image filled his mind.
The Shaman shook his head almost imperceptibly. "The threat to the body is dire, the threat to the soul even graver."
Jim's eyes widened in alarm at his words. "I don't understand."
"The seed of fear has taken root and flourished. It grows stronger now, out of control because he will not accept what he must."
"What is it that he needs to accept?" Jim asked softly, his gaze flickering to his young partner before meeting the old man's eyes again.
"Who he is." The Shaman shifted his gaze to Blair and frowned again. "The Way was not prepared. Both spirits suffer."
"I don't understand... both spirits... Blair... and Incacha?"
The Spirit Guide's form shifted to the panther for just an instant before taking the old man's shape again. He responded with a slight inclination of his head. "The elder remains, the younger resists. The path grows more difficult."
"You're saying that part of Incacha is still here, within him?"
Disbelief warred with a deeply-buried sense of understanding. Vague memories of stories Jim had heard as a child rippled through his mindtales of spirits who stayed chained to this plane of existence, whether due to the violence of their deaths or because their business on earth was unfinished. Added to that was what he remembered of the Chopec death rituals. The Spirit-Shaman was right. Incacha's death had caught them all by surprise. He hadn't had the time to prepare either himself or Blair for the transfer of his powers, whatever they were.
As if reading his thoughts, the tribesman murmured, "The rites were not performed. Your Guide was frightened and now he refuses to listen."
"Can you help him?"
In answer, the Shaman placed his hands over Blair's sleeping body again, lowering them until they hovered bare inches from the younger man's chest. He held them there for a few moments, murmuring in an ancient tongue the Sentinel could hear, but only dimly understood. Jim watched the intent, ancient face anxiously, nearly crying out in frustration when the tribesman removed his hands and shook his head.
"I cannot. He made his choice in fear. Now he must find the courage to choose again."
Blind rage roared through Jim and he surged to his feet. "How dare you speak of choices? Since when did either of us really have a choice in any of this?"
"Do you regret your own decision, Sentinel?"
The soft question abruptly drained away Jim's anger. He stared down at Blair's still form, and shook his head sadly.
"Not for myself... no. Not once I realized that the real choice wasn't whether to keep my senses or lose them, but to accept or deny myself. Before he died, Incacha told me the same thing, 'a Sentinel will always be a Sentinel, if he chooses to be.' But this... whatever this is, was Incacha's decision, not Blair's. Even being my Guide wasn't really his choice. It was mine. I knew I needed his help. I was desperate for it and afraid that he would leave."
"So you bound him to you."
"At first with his own eagerness and later with those things I knew he longed for. Trust, stability, friendship..." Jim shook his head angrily. "I trapped him as surely as Anders sought to trap us."
"Are you that strong, Sentinel?"
The words caught Jim off-guard and he looked down into the Shaman's face in confusion.
"Do you truly believe yourself powerful enough to hold a Guide's spirit against his will?" The older man rose from his crouch, transforming into the panther once more as it leaped across Blair's body, directly toward him.
Jim took a startled step backward as the huge cat landed with only a whisper of sound at his feet. In the blink of an eye, the panther rose, morphing back into the ancient tribesman.
"Do not underestimate your companion, young warrior. His spirit is stronger than you can imagine," the Shaman warned, his eyes fierce. "Sentinel and Guide are destined to be bound together. To protect the tribe. To complete each other in equal partnership. It can be no other way."
The old man's expression softened and the look he turned on Jim was full of compassion. "Your Guide's path is difficult, but not impossible. You know his strengths and his fears. Use that which has held you together from the beginning"
The Shaman broke off suddenly, growing so still and silent that he seemed to become invisible for a moment. Then his eyes shifted to Jim again, filled with a glowing intensity.
"You world is filled with many dangers, Sentinel. Do not fear for your Guide. What holds him will help him to survive the darkness, if he allows it. You will not be unprotected, nor will he." The Shaman's form began to soften, merging into the darkness even as Jim opened his mouth to object.
"Trust to the Guardians who come with the morning..."
And he was gone, only the faintest echo of the panther's low, warning growl giving evidence that he had ever been there.
The silence was suddenly broken by the sounds of other hunters. They had drawn closetoo close. Jim reached forward and shook Blair awake.
"Blair, listen to me, we don't have much time. Do you trust me?"
"Jim... what?" Confused, exhaustion-dulled eyes stared up at him, shifting slightly as the younger man sought to focus on Jim in the darkness.
"Do you trust me?" the Sentinel demanded.
"With my life, man," came the ragged whisper of affirmation.
"Then trust Incacha. Let him help you."
With a groan of anguish, Blair tried to pull away, shaking his head, his blue eyes widening even further in desperate fear.
"Blair, stop it!" Jim hissed, grabbing the younger man's jacket, pinning him in place. Staring down into the grad student's terrified face, the Sentinel immediately softened his tone. "You've got to stop running from this. You've got to stop fighting him."
"No! You're wrong. He's dead!"
The raw terror in his friend's voice tore at Jim's soul. He let loose a string of silent invective against the men who were hunting them and at Anders in particular. He gulped down his own paniche could hear them now, a dozen men, rushing in to corner them from at least three sides. There was no time for this conversation, yet they had to have it, if the panther's promise that Blair would survive the darkness was to come true. Just as Incacha's legacy had been forced upon him without warning, without choice, now Jim was going to have to bludgeon his young Guide into acknowledging at least a portion of the truth.
"I don't understand it, Blair, but I know that it's true. Some part of Incacha's spirit remained with you when he died. You've known it, too, deep inside, since the day he named you my Shaman."
"How can you know that? How can you be so sure?" Blair's voice was a bare whisper, tinged with horror.
"I saw the panther."
Blair froze in his grasp. The stricken expression on his Guide's face made Jim shudder, but he forced himself to continue.
"It shouldn't have happened. When Incacha gave my keeping over to you, his spirit should have gone free. But things went down too fast and neither of you were ready. He knew he was dying and that all his knowledge and power would die with him unless he could pass it on to you. He was so desperate that he used force instead of compassion. And you were so afraid you slammed up a shield to keep what you didn't understand at bay. But you didn't shut it out. You trapped yourself on one side and Incacha on the other"
"You've kept that wall of fear in place, building it higher and higher. But Incacha's spirit is still there, trying to make you listen, trying to help you understand, trying to undo the damage he's done."
"Please... I can't..."
The younger man's agonized plea was almost unbearable, but the Sentinel ignored it, driven by need and his own desperation.
"You have to. Your life depends on it. When your head wouldn't listen, he somehow found a way to touch your heart, using your compassion and love of life to try to break down that shield and reach you. It bared your emotions. Left you vulnerable. That's what caused the attacks. Every death you saw during Haight's murder spree put another crack in the dam you'd built. Every drop of blood that was spilled today brought your spirit and Incacha's closer together."
"And what happens then?" Blair's voice was hoarse, the words wrenched out of him, revealing the true cause of his fear. "What happens if... when I acknowledge him? Who do I become?"
For a moment, time seemed suspended. The tortured questions of his Guide were so like those Jim had asked himself, when he'd made his choice to accept the return of his Sentinel abilities in Peru.
~Accept the truth.~
"You become who you were meant to be."
The repetitive 'whump' of heavy rotor blades and the whine of an overtaxed engine on low-level approach reached the Sentinel's ears, mixing with the furtive sounds of the searching men. He gripped the slender shoulders of his Guide even tighter, staring down into the terrified eyes, feeling every shudder that racked the younger man's body.
"Blair, I know you're scared. I know you'd like nothing better than to have a few weeks to process all this in that multi-tasking head of yours, but there's no time."
The blue eyes meeting his grew even wider.
"I wish I could tell you that nothing will change... but I can't. I don't know what will happen. I only know that you have to do this. Accept the truth. Accept Incacha's presence."
"How?" The question was a breath of sound, filled with the pain of an anguished soul.
What do I tell him? How do I help him? Jim wondered.
~You know his strengths and his fears. Use what has held you together from the beginning... ~ The words of his Spirit Guide echoed in the Sentinel's mind.
And what has held us together? Need? Friendship? No, more than that. Trust.
The Sentinel loosened his hold, no longer fearing his Guide would try to flee.
"You didn't know Incacha, but I did," he murmured. "He was my friend. I trusted him. I know that he never meant to hurt you. He understood how important you are to me. He had to have sensed that the moment the two of you met. I think he took one look deep into your soul and found a kindred spirit. That's why he picked you."
A sharp, derisive laugh burst from the younger man.
"Let's face it Jim," Blair whispered bitterly. "There weren't a whole lot of candidates available when he checked out. He picked me because there was no one else."
The Sentinel cupped Blair's chin in one hand, tipping his Guide's head back, forcing the younger man to meet his gaze.
"I don't believe that. This was too important to him. He would never have tried to give you his powers if he hadn't found you worthy. I think, had he never come to Cascade, that you would have followed his teachings and his path sooner or later, anyway. Incacha was a very powerful Shaman. He saw in a single glance what I see in you every daystrength, compassion, loyalty, and a gentle, generous heart."
"Believe me, Blair. Nothing he could do would change those things. He wouldn't have wanted that. And there's nothing he could do, alive or dead, that would shake the trust I have in you. You are my Guide. My Shaman. No matter what happens that will never change."
The sounds of the hunters rang sharply in the Sentinel's ears.
"Blair, my Spirit Guide promised that you'd be safe, if you allowed Incacha to help you"
"And what about you?" Blair's eyes blazed with fearfear for his Sentinel, not himself. "What about the attacks today? Was Incacha responsible for those, too? Could he see into the future? Am I... am I going to lose you?"
Before Jim could answer, the quiet of the forest was broken by the thundering roar of the helicopter, hovering almost overhead. Blair's eyes jerked up to search the darkness and then slid back to the older man's face.
Jim swung his partner around, shifting the backpack to his Guide's shoulder and pulling out his own gun in one smooth motion.
"North is that way," he hissed, pointing into the darkness. "You were right. Anders isn't expecting us to head toward the mountains. It's the only path he hasn't blocked. I want you to head straight in that direction and don't stop until you find a place to try the cell. Now get going. I'm going to try to buy some time."
He gave his partner a push and the younger man staggered forward a few steps before the words sunk in. Blair spun around and took a step back toward Jim.
"I'm not leaving you here! I can't"
"You have to. One of us has to find help and that phone of yours is our best chance. Maybe our only chance."
"Then you take it! Damn it, Jim, you'd have a better chance of making it into those mountains than I do. Give me your gun and I'll try to hold them off," Blair pleaded.
"Blair, you wouldn't stand a chance against them. Even if you didn't get yourself killed in the process, they'd have you. Remember what you said? That Anders would use you to control me? You're right. I'd do almost anything he wanted in order to guarantee your safety. I'd have no choice. Please, you promised me you'd follow my orders. I want you to run and don't look back, no matter what you see or hear. Now go. GO!"
Blair stood his ground for a moment longer, then with a groan of despair he turned and bolted into the darkness.
Still tracking his Guide's fleeing presence, the Sentinel turned to face their enemies. Seeking a more defensible position, he faded into the trees, merging with the shadows. The urge to attack those who threatened his Guide clashed with the instincts of a cop and former soldier who needed to protect his partner. One cried out for vengeance, the other faced the grim reality of needing to fight a holding battle with no hope of winning the war.
He heard them, all around him now. Closing in. A savage gleam filled his eyes when he caught his first glimpse of them. He still had an edge over his opponents. He was not blind in the dark as they were. He could sense them coming before they could see him. He could attack and still delay.
Both sides of his soul satisfied with the compromise, he dove to his right, prowling silently toward his first target, downing the man before he could make a sound. He claimed the man's weapon and moved toward his next adversary, sliding a knife into the man's ribs with a killing stroke he'd learned in some distant memory. He moved within the shadows, striking without warning, taking down the hunters without remorse. Four of them would never stalk again. Would never threaten his Guide.
The Sentinel shifted to the cover of a jumbled pile of boulders, lying in wait for the man he could sense moving in his direction. He watched as the hunter materialized out of the darkness, only a few feet a way. He flowed to his feet, focused on sight, intent on taking the man out. Suddenly the darkness turned to blinding daylight and screamed with excruciatingly painful soundhe'd forgotten about the danger from above.
Bathed in the chopper's spotlight, the Sentinel froze and his enemy saw him. Out of reflex, Jim fired into the air, hoping to shoot out the light and rolled to his left, scrambling for cover. But they had his position and shots rang out, the deadly missiles forcing him away from the relative safety of the rocks.
He returned fire, filling the air with the explosions of his own discharging weapon. The scream of the chopper and the wash wind from the blades drove him stumbling, out into the open.
He fired again in a desperate attempt to take out the helicopter, but the spotlight swung around, its beam transfixing him. Struggling with senses which suddenly surged out of control, he heard the click of a trigger and knew that they had him. He tried to send his hearing beyond the chaos, seeking the heartbeat of his Guide, desperate to know that he, at least, was still safe. But the sharp burning projectile that buried itself in his chest carried him to oblivion, his ears ringing with the fading echoes of an angry, ebony scream.
Blair heard the sharp retort of gunfire and skidded to a sliding stop, trembling, torn between the need to obey his partner's orders and the instincts which told him he belonged at his Sentinel's side.
Another volley erupted through the darkness and then there were shoutsindecipherable, but filled with elation. With a moan, he dropped to his knees, digging frantically in the backpack for the headset he'd stuffed inside earlier. Pulling it out he switched it on, not caring that its use would pinpoint his location.
There was a burst of static and then he heard the words he'd been dreading.
And the attack struckjust like before, but even more terrifying, because now he knew what it meant. There was only one thing in the world that could hurt this badly.
It was real.
Jim was dead.
The wave of terror and despair hit him so hard it tore the air from his lungs. At that moment everything around him ceased to exist; he could see nothing but blackness, feel nothing except the raging fear and overwhelming sorrow which threatened to engulf him, hear nothing except his own voice screaming Jim's name.
With a sob he threw himself forward, branches whipping his face. Surrounded by blackness, he stepped out into nothingness and fell forward...
... to land on his feet, splashing through a small creek. Ignoring the slippery rocks under foot he ran, driven by the desire to leave the impossible reality of his Sentinel's death far behind. Lungs straining for air, he lost even the ability to scream his anguish to the night.
He turned, following the serpentine windings of the stream as it led south, drenched with the tears streaming down his face and the spray kicked up by his pounding feet. He fled into the darkness, not caring where he was going, hoping to leave the agony which had invaded his heart far behind. Instead, his mind filled with images that made the pain even worse.
Memories of Jimat the station, at the loft, in the truck, sitting by his side in the hospitalflooded through him, tearing a wrenching cry from his throat. He stumbled and fell. Physical pain from his injured ribs burst like a flare, ripping him apart from the inside.
The water washed over him like a ritual cleansing. Sputtering, he lifted his head clear and gazed, mesmerized, at the dancing motes of water which shimmered in suddenly unleashed shafts of moonlight. He forced himself to his knees and then to his feet, the icy bath wiping all thoughts from his mind but one.
He charged out of the stream, headed north once more. Bursting through the trees, he staggered out into a clearing and stared up toward the rocky crags. They beckoned to him, one in particular, shaping itself out of the shadows like an ancient dragon of myth. He headed toward it, fixing his eyes on that destination, his mind dropping its barriers in the face of his driving need.
A burst of dizzying energy exploded through his body as another presenceanother spiritjoined his and fought for recognition. For the space of a heartbeat, he struggled against the invasion, battled against losing himself and he stumbled. Fear of another kind shrieked through his mindif he fell again, he wasn't sure he'd ever get to his feet. And if he didn't, he wouldn't make it up the mountain. He wouldn't be able to call for help. He'd dishonor his Sentinel's last wishes.
No! I've already lost him... I can't fail him in this, too... Please, help me!
With a shudder, he surrendered his soul.
The spirit which had once borne the name Incacha glided through the forest, an almost ethereal figure, dappled in moonlight and shadow. He allowed himself a moment to revel in the sensations which accompanied his return to physical form, before turning his vision upward, staring through the trees at the starry firmament shimmering through wreaths of windswept clouds. That was where his next journey lay, not within the body of the young one whom he was sworn to guard.
He felt a stirring deep within, the object of his thoughts demanding to be heard. Memories and experiences from his own lifeand hundreds of othersawakened to the Guardian's need. The ancient soul brushed the younger one with a reassuring caress, seeking to soothe the raging river of fear into a pool of tranquil stillness.
He met an unbending will that would not be denied. There was a promise to be kepta pledge made by the Guide to his Sentinel. The Guardian resisted. If the Sentinel was dead, as the young one believed, then it was his duty to watch over the untrained Shaman, not place him in further danger. The Guide insisted, anger and grief fueling his desire, and finally the Guardian yielded to the need to honor that obligation.
Satisfied for the moment, the younger man's weary, sorrowful spirit retreated into silence.
The Guardian paused in the cover of the treeline. Before him stretched a rocky slope and beyond that, the mountain. He eyed the steep cliffs, letting himself adjust to the familiar, yet disconcertingly different feel of the younger man's body.
He pushed long, wind blown strands of hair back from his face, the gesture automatic, yet the silky feel of the curling locks was different than the coarseness that he remembered... Stiff leather enclosed feet which were accustomed to the intimate touch of bare sole to earth, or the comfort of sandals... Eyes that had witnessed the moon's endless cycle of birth and death for countless years, stared across the softly illuminated landscape through irises of blue which had once been brown, and before that, black as the night... His skin chafed at the restriction of layers of cold sodden clothing, he who had known the freedom of skin bared to the heat and humidity of the rain forest...
And deep within, untapped potential and strength. There was power there, waiting to be awakened.
If he'd known how much, he would have never attempted his desperate, dying act. What he'd done was dangerousforbidden unless the need was dire. He'd never understood why, until now, inhabiting a strong young body once again, he felt the enticing temptation to remain, to take that power that he sensed and add it to his own.
To live again...
The terrified mental scream staggered the Guardian. He fell to his knees and bowed his head.
"Do not fear, young one," he murmured. "That is not my desire." He raised his eyes to the sky. "My destiny lies there, yours here. I am sorry I frightened you. It will not happen again. I give you my word. What is mine will be yours and a promise as well, for I too, honor Enqueri's soul.
"We will go, flying ahead of the hunters. And when your duty is finished, we will seek justice for our Sentinel.
"That, and my knowledge, are the gifts I make to you..."
Sensory awareness returned first, along with a primal warning of danger. He remained motionless, obeying the message imprinted on his genesthe same instinct all injured or hunted creatures depended on for survivalwait, watch, listen for the enemy. The ice-cold metal fire surrounding his wrists, trapping them behind him; the sandpaper roughness of the coarse canvas tarp under his cheek; and the thundering of each red blood cell racing through his veins convinced the Sentinel to yield to that instinct, even though it warred with anotherthe need to find and protect his Guide.
As the paralyzing, drug-induced haze began to clear, other survival skillsthose honed by years of training and experiencekicked in. They carried their own warnings and behavioral patternings; identify the enemy, determine his objective, and thenwhen you can operate from a position of strength, not weaknesscounter his plans.
Locking his terror over his young friend's safety deep within his heart, Jim forced his muddled thoughts into a more rational, less emotional direction. The painful, magnified input he was receiving from his senses made him vulnerable and until he could regain some degree of control, he would be no use to anyone.
I could use your help, right now, Chief.
He let a comforting memory float to the surface, hearing his Guide's soothing voice in his mind.
"Control, Jim. That's what it's all about. Your senses are a part of you, like the muscles in your body. When you learned to walk as a child, you learned to control those muscles through practice. You can deal with your hyper senses the same way. Now, humor me for a minute, okay? Remember the dials we talked about? Each represents a different sense. It's a matter of turning them up or down to increase or decrease the sensory input. Your head's in control here, man. Get the picture?"
Yeah, Chief, I got it, Jim thought grimly. Understanding's not the problem. It's the damn drug.
A quiet chuckle rippled through his mind and his Guide's voice was back with a gentle reprimand.
"Hey, man, it's not going to happen all at once. You have to work at it a little at a time."
The Sentinel almost smiled, then remembered the danger and hid his amusement to himself.
Even when you're not here, you're 'here', aren't you, Chief? Thanks for the suggestion.
Turning his attention inward, the Sentinel contemplated the dials again. He'd been trying to wrench them down to normal, one at a time. Now he fiddled with each one in sequence, making minor adjustments instead of pushing for total control. At first, they resisted his efforts, but little by little he managed to nudge them all into lineset higher than he wanted, but at least in some kind of balance.
He opened his eyes and reached outward with his senses, sending grasping tendrils into the darkness. Drenched with sweat, he struggled to hold onto the tentative level of control he'd achieved. He managed to explore the boundaries of his environment before the dials shifted out of sync. Almost growling in frustration, he worked to align them again while his mind assessed the details he'd gathered.
His prison was a medium-sized tentlarge enough to stand upright in. The only discernible opening was to his left, the entry masked by a simple flap which obscured his view of the outside. The pallet he lay upon and a small folding wooden camp chair were the only items in the otherwise empty space. Even the ground had been cleared of rocks, leaving nothing for him to use as a weapon.
The Sentinel felt the dials click back into balance and pushed outward again, trying to focus beyond the canvas walls, hoping to scan the encampment for some sign of his Guide. But it was as if an invisible barrier had been strung around the tent. Prod and poke as he might, he couldn't find a way to send his senses past it.
For a few desperate moments he wondered if Anders had come up with something like the white noise generators Lee Brackett had used against him. He pushed harder and felt a 'give' to the restraining field and let himself relax, deciding that the drug was responsible for his failure.
Driven by the need to locate his Guide, the Sentinel continued to struggle against the barrier. He lost track of time. Nothing existed except the continual push outward and the fight to hold his control.
Suddenly the dials spun out of alignment and he recoiled at the painful surge of sensations. With a frustrated hiss, he rolled to his side and levered himself into a sitting position, no longer caring if anyone heard him or not.
He was still struggling to regain his equilibrium when the tent flap was thrust aside. The Sentinel's head snapped up and his eyes flashed with rage when he identified the man who stepped forward.
Anders responded with a sneering smile. "Back with us, Captain Ellison?"
Setting down a small lantern the older man started to move closer, but the force of the Sentinel's angry gaze stopped him. Jim enjoyed a moment's satisfaction at the brief flicker of fear in Anders' eyes and started to flow to his feet. The agent quickly raised a small dart gun and gestured warningly as he retreated a step. Ellison settled back onto the tarp, his eyes never leaving his captor's face.
"Where's my partner?" Jim demanded, his voice cold and hard even to his own ears.
"He'll join us shortly," Anders answered smoothly. "Until then, you and I have some things to discuss."
Jim's eyes narrowed as he studied the older man. Under the intensity of the Sentinel's stare, Anders' eyes shifted away for a fraction of a secondlong enough to tell the detective what he needed to know.
"Unless it has to do with releasing me, or the long list of charges you're going to be facing, you and I have nothing to discuss," Jim said in the same flat tone. "You don't have any leverage, Anders. I know he's not here." The Sentinel let a ghost of a smile lift his own lips. "He got away from you, didn't he?"
One eyebrow lifted in surprise, then Anders' brow furrowed in barely controlled anger. The flash of satisfaction Jim felt was washed away at the man's whispered response.
"One day... soon... you'll tell me exactly how you knew that. It will be interesting to see just how strong the connection the two of you have really is."
Ellison felt a thrust of panic at the threat and struggled to channel the fear into something more useful. Pale blue eyes darkened and glittered in the soft light, locking with cold gray ones in a silent battle of wills. The tension in the tent thickened until it was almost a physical force, shifting back and forth between the two men.
Anders was the first to blink, shrugging his shoulders almost absently. Without taking his eyes off his prisoner, he snagged the chair. Turning it with a deft twist of the wrist, he planted it just out of the Sentinel's reach. Straddling the seat, he draped his crossed arms over the back, the dart gun hanging casually between the two adversaries as a subtle reminder.
"I won't insult your abilities, or your intelligence by lying to you," Anders continued, his quiet, conversational tone a stark departure from the implied menace of the whispered threat. "Your partner did manage to escape during the confusion you created. I was certain we'd have found him by now, but he's managed to elude us. He's quite resourceful, isn't he? It would appear that I underestimated him."
"You're not the first to make that mistake," Jim said quietly. The smug feeling of pride that he felt for his young friend warmed his heart, although it never touched the icy coldness of his eyes.
"It's not an error I plan to repeat, I assure you," Anders promised softly. "It would appear you've trained him well. But he's not quite as clever as you. He made a mistake and used the headset a few minutes after you were taken down. That gave us his position . With only one option open to him, we know which way he was headed. You may have managed to reduce my assets a bit, but I still have more than enough men to track him. He will be joining us soon. I guarantee it. Unless, of course, he manages to break his neck, stumbling around in the dark before we find him."
Recalling the terrain and the course he'd set for his Guide, the Sentinel knew that the fate Anders' described was all too real a possibility. The thought of his exhausted young friend, running for his life from this man's private army was nearly enough to bring him to his feet in attack. Only his overriding need to maintain his control in front of his captor held him motionless. Jim's eyes narrowed even further and he poured every ounce of his hatred into his gaze.
A gaze that once again, made Anders flinch. The Sentinel caught the involuntary shudder and smiled, a feral gleam lighting his eyes.
"Very good, Captain," Anders finally murmured. "Just the way you were trained. Give no quarter. Don't let the enemy see your weakness, eh? You are good... and it might have even worked on me, if I hadn't seen the two of you in action with my own eyes."
Anders leaned into the chair back, looming over Jim, his eyes growing even colder, no evidence of fear in his demeanor.
"But I know. I know how important he is to you. He's your focus, isn't he? Your control."
The hungry anticipation in the man's face and voice was the same look Jim had seen earlier when he'd caught Anders watching Blair back in the clearing. His stomach clenched and he fought back the gut-twisting need to retch and clear the bile that rose in his throat at the threat to his Guide.
"Game's over, Anders. What do you want?"
Eyebrows cocked upward in mock surprise and the older man settled back, his expression thoughtful.
"The truth? Vindication."
Seeing the surprised look on Jim's face, Anders chuckled, shaking his head.
"Oh, of course, I have hopes for more than that. But after all this time, I'd settle for being right. For rubbing their noses in it."
Anders words did nothing to alleviate the confusion in Jim's mind. "You set all of this up, murdered two people... for what? Some bizarre sense of personal satisfaction?" he asked in disbelief.
The amusement washed from the older man's face and he leaned forward again, his body tense. "Revenge can be extremely satisfying, Captain," he hissed.
"Detective," Jim corrected him.
"Yes... of course." Anders' eyes lost some of their focus as he began to speak in a soft murmur. "James Ellison. Ex-ranger. Special Forces and one of the best and brightest Covert Ops ever had. Listed as missing in action for 18 months after that unfortunate mission in Peru. Left the military with an Honorable Discharge shortly after you returned. Graduated from the police academy with glowing commendations. Moved to Major Crimes after a stint in Vice. Lost one partner and operated as a loner until surprisingly, almost three years ago, you suddenly teamed up with a civilian Observer. A graduate student in anthropology. Recently, Officer of the Year, with a reputation for solving the most difficult cases with a bare minimum of evidence. Whispers of something unusual about him... and his partner... but no one's asking questions because the arrest and prosecution record is so impressive."
The gray eyes flashed in amusement and Anders stared down at Jim almost fondly, possessively.
"You see, you've been my own personal research project for nearly eight years." Anders murmured. "I know all about you, 'detective'. Or should I say, Sentinel?"
Jim had known it was coming, so he didn't blink an eye. Despite his enhanced senses, he'd missed the obvious and led both himself and his Guide right into the waiting trap. Blair had foreseen itthe threatas part of his premonition and although they'd managed to escape once, by that time it was too late to do anything other than fight for damage control and try to keep out of this madman's hands. At least he'd succeeded in getting his Guide out of reachfor the time being at any rate.
So Anders knew about Sentinels and he wanted to know more. Was determined to go to any lengths, including kidnapping and murder, to extend that knowledge. The only reassuring point was that he seemed sketchy on the topic of Guidesand Jim was determined to keep it that way. Especially since his Guide was also a Shaman, with some unusual, dangerous issues of his own still unresolved.
Determined not to play into Anders' game, Jim kept his response to a nonchalant shrug, using the casual, insulting movement to mask the rolling of his shoulders as he sought to ease the tension his cramped position had caused.
"Not a flinch. Very good. Still the perfect soldier, eh, Captain?" Anders' tone was sarcastic, his smile a caustic sneer.
"Still not playing, Anders." Ellison shifted his gaze away from his captor, pointedly dismissing him.
"Oh, but you will. You both will."
Jim's eyes flashed back to Anders' face. The threat had been a bare whisper, tuned to a level that only a Sentinel could have heard.
"It's really too bad that Bailey isn't here," the older man laughed softly. "He never did believe half of what I told him about your abilities. And even with the truth staring him in the face, he was convinced that your young friend was just extraneous baggage."
Anders leaned forward again, studying Jim intently.
"But we know better, don't we. He's the reason you've been able to use your enhanced senses for the last few years without going stark raving mad. Blair Sandburg appears to be an amazing young man. I must admit, my file on him is sadly lacking in details. Highly intelligent, articulate and obviously very sensitive, perhaps even empathic. He seems to be quite respected by his colleagues and his students. Most importantly, he seems to be the only living authority on Sentinels. His thesis was quite illuminating. It's a shame he hasn't published anything on the topic recently. I find myself with far too many unanswered questions, particularly regarding the Sentinel's companion. Mr. Sandburg's references to that person and their role in relation to the... what was the other term he used... ah, yes... Watchman... were rather vague at the time he wrote his paper, although I'm sure he has much more to say on the topic now. I'm looking forward to interviewing him at great length about it."
"Leave him out of this, Anders," Jim snapped.
"So. It would appear I've touched a nerve."
Berating himself for rising to the bait, Jim glared back at the older man. "You want to experiment on me, do your worst. My partner's off limits."
"But that's not how it works, Captain. It's only by observing the two of you interacting that I can learn what I need to know."
"If you think we're going to cooperate in any more little tests like today, you're sadly mistaken."
"It's been my experience, that given the right... motivation... that a man can be persuaded to do almost anything. Once we've retrieved your young friend, we'll move to a location that's more conducive to the kind of research I have in mind. "
"It won't happen," Jim responded confidently. "My captain knows where we are and when we don't check in, he's going to come looking. Simon Banks is not a man to let a puzzle like that go."
"I'm not worried about some third-rate police captain. He won't be a problem. There won't be any 'pieces' to find."
"What do you plan to do? Snap your fingers and make us disappear?" Jim barked angrily.
The flat, dead certainty in the man's voice chilled Jim like nothing he had said before. Ellison's eyes narrowed dangerously, all of his instinctsSentinel's, cop's and soldier'sscreaming for him to lunge forward and take the man out before this could go any further. Anders was either insane to think he could get away with abducting them, or he truly believed that he would succeed. And if the latter was true, that meant...
"Who do you work for?" Jim asked softly, already suspecting that he knew the answer.
Anders stared down at him for a few moments, a strange smile playing on his face. "I work for myself, Captain. And for a few select clients who fortunately have more than ample resources to place at my disposal."
"I rather dislike that term. Always have. I prefer to think of myself as an opportunist."
Jim drew in a slow, deep breath, forcing away the cold fear that pulsed through him as the cryptic comments and minute clues Anders had been giving away finally clicked together, forming a picture the Sentinel had seen only in his worst nightmares.
"You were Special Forces. Covert Ops," Jim said tersely.
"The blackest of the black," Anders replied. "I was once the fair-haired boy of the group. But there were some, shall we say, unforseeable mistakes during a few missions." Anders reached up and stroked the scars by his eye absently. "By the time you were returned from Peru, I was low man on the totem pole. They were preparing to force me out, but I'd seen it coming. I was, and am, an expert at ferreting out secrets. I'd learned from the best, after all."
The older man's face hardened and his voice droned on disdainfully.
"They tried to keep you a secret. You and your abilities, but I knew everything about you from the moment the reports started to come back from the search team. I had my own little network they knew nothing about, you see. Insurance. It cost me a bit to maintain and on a Colonel's salary... well, I was fortunate to already have a few things in the works which allowed me to pay top dollar for what I wanted."
"I already knew your superiors were foolish men. Truly unimaginative at best. Still, I couldn't believe it when I learned they were ready to cut you loose... let you take your discharge and just walk out. I'd read all the transcripts of your debriefing... talked to members of the retrieval team. It was obvious that something unusual had happened to you, was perhaps still happening, but they refused to see it. They were blind to the fact that an incredible weapon had been delivered into their hands. I tried to convince them, of course, but that action only assured my censure. They became suspicious and I had to back off, biding my time."
Anders shook his head, frowning at the memory. His gaze locked on Jim's with sudden intensity, eyes glittering with feverish brilliance.
"That's when you became my obsession, Captain. I watched you, or rather my network watched you. I left the service not long after you dida little subterfuge and a fatal 'accident' took care of cutting the cord quite effectivelyand pursued the 'interests' that I had been cultivating on the side. My new clients required a bit more of my time than I'd originally planned to devote to them, but my attention to the details of your life and activities never faltered."
The older man rose from the chair abruptly, and dragged it aside, clearing space as he began to pace. Even with his senses still swinging in and out of control, the Sentinel heard the increased beating of the man's heart; smelled the sour odor of sweat that beaded the mercenary's brow; saw the fanatical gleam in the gaze which never left his prisoner's face.
"You disappointed me at first, returning to your life as if nothing had happened, burying your abilities. But I'd learned patience at the feet of masters. I knew it was only a matter of time before your gifts resurfaced. So I watched and waited, building up a small, very loyal private army of my own in the interim. And then, there was the Switchman case and everything changed. A difficult assignment, very high profile, with you as the main attraction. My sources informed me the second you made the appointment for tests at the hospital and I knew the waiting was over. I was ready to step in then and gather you up, but fate intervened in the form of a certain young anthropologist."
Anders' pacing ceased and the Sentinel stiffened at the excited heat which poured off of the man.
"To think... if I had acted then, before the two of you connected... how much I would have lost. I was impressed by your young friend from the moment he stole that lab coat and brazenly stepped into your exam room, pretending to be a doctor. I had a copy of his records and his thesis on my desk before he made it back to the University. His research, such as it was, was brilliant. I knew that sooner or later you would approach him. After all, he had the answers you needed. You did surprise me, seeking him out as quickly as you did, so I wasn't prepared for a more inventive initial testingthe little incident with the garbage truck was quite frankly an impulsive move, although I was certain that you'd both pass the trial with flying colors."
The Sentinel somehow resisted the impulse to shudder. If, what Anders was saying was true, he and his Guide had been living under a microscope from the very beginning and they'd never known.
"Why now?" Jim asked abruptly. "If you've been watching us all this time, why choose now to make your move?"
"Actually, I've been tempted to acquire you several times in the last two years, but each time, just as I was about to act, you'd intrigue me with yet another tantalizing glimpse of your capabilities. I decided to leave the two of you to your own... 'training'. The controls were in place and I was quite content to watch and wait. As your partner would certainly agree if he were here, there is nothing more exciting than watching an experiment run its courseparticularly when it's achieving the outcome you anticipated."
Anders began to pace again, his forehead creasing with a puzzled frown.
"Mr. Sandburg was another reason for the delay. The more I observed of your partnership, the more puzzled I became. It was apparent that the two of you were mismatchedlong haired flower child and ramrod stiff ex-military type; free-associating scientist and by-the-book cop. Not a conventional pairing by any means. No common ground. Not at first glance at any rate. Yet the two of you bonded together into an extraordinary team from the outset. You even allowed him to move into your home. The more involved Sandburg became in your life, the more it became obvious that he was essential to your well being, even though I couldn't understand exactly what role he was playing. It became clearer when David Lash abducted him."
Rage poured through the Sentinel and he lurched to his feet. Still under the influence of the drug, the violent movement made him stagger dizzily. Anders took a quick step forward and pushed him backward, knocking him to the ground. Shaking his head in an attempt to clear it, Jim stared up at the mercenary in profound disbelief.
"You knew Lash had Blair... you knew what he planned to do... and yet you did nothing to stop him?"
Anders shrugged. "It was risky, letting that... creature... get his hands on him, but it pushed you in the direction I wanted. While you were so desperately searching for him, you were on the verge of losing control. Once you rescued him, your focus returned. The episode convinced me that the connection between the two of you had to exist because of your Sentinel abilities. I realized then, that the young man was decidedly more important than his innocuous appearance had first led me to believe."
"You're more insane than Lash was," Jim snarled, pushing himself into a sitting position once more.
"Not insane, Captain. Just driven. As I admitted before... obsessed. I needed to know I was right about you. That the others were wrong."
"Vindication." The Sentinel spat out the word as if it were poison on his tongue. "You would have let him die, just to prove your own twisted, self-serving theories?"
"For that... and to hone the weapon."
"You still haven't answered my question," Jim hissed, Anders' words only confirming an intent the Sentinel had already calculated. "Why now?"
"Something... unusual happened several months ago when the Chopec Medicine Man died," Anders answered softly, his voice edged in dangerous curiosity. "Whatever happened between the Indian and your young friend, it changed himaltered some of his standing patterns. The old man introduced a new variable and it doesn't play right. Sandburg was becoming even more unpredictable and I realized that until I corrected the aberration, it was only a matter of time before it began to affect your connection with him. I couldn't afford to let that happen."
"Couldn't let the edge on the weapon be ruined?" The Sentinel's disgust and rage cut through the air like the knife he was describing.
"Precisely. You see I have"
One of Anders men thrust his way into the tent and the Sentinel shifted into motion, eager to take advantage of the distraction. The mercenary reacted immediately, raising the dart gun and pointing it directly at Jim's chest, stopping him before he could make it to his feet.
"What is it, Private?" Anders responded in annoyance.
The man hesitated, eyeing both Jim and his superior warily, sensing the palpable hostility in the small space.
"You wanted to be notified when there were any developments, sir."
"We've picked up a signal, Colonel. Electronic. Signature suggests a low frequency pulse consistent with an active cell phone."
Jim saw Anders' eyes flash with a mixture of anger and excitement which mirrored his own response. He tensed, preparing himself for a final desperate act. He and his Guide had just run out of time.
"Clever, but not clever enough," the mercenary murmured, a satisfied smile forming on his face. "You have the location locked?"
"Yes, sir. Teams have been advised and they're awaiting your instructions."
"Tell them to contain the target, but to wait for my arrival before attempting the retrieval. I want no mistakes this time," Anders ordered tersely.
Jim snarled, surging to his feet and launching himself toward his adversary. Slowed by the drugs in his system, he was still fast enough to make contact with the mercenary, his momentum sending both of them crashing to the hard ground. Rolling free of the hands that tried to contain him, the Sentinel managed to raise his throbbing head just before the world exploded in a burst of agonizing pain.
The wind swept across the mountainside, tumbling small pebbles into deep crevices, caressing the few stubborn strands of grass, keening a soft music attuned to the stars which sparkled overhead. It was the time of huntersthose in flight, those who tread the earthseeking prey that hid in the sheltering darkness.
Wings spread wide, a great hawk soared on the currents, sharp eyes watching the shifting shapes of the two-legged predators who had invaded his hunting grounds. The hawk creeled in protest, joining his song to that of the wind and glided on into the darkness, leaving the intruders far behind.
In the false stillness of the predawn day, moonlight glittered off quartz imbedded walls of stone, dancing to a rhythm as old as time itself. The wind rippled through the forest depths, sending soft sighs and scents of pine floating upward.
The harsh beauty of the night was lost on the young man who huddled miserably against the cliff.
~It is time, young one...~
Blair shuddered and wrapped his arms even tighter around his aching body. The pressure helped soothe the throbbing bruises along his side and he found himself wishing that he could relieve the desperate pain in his soul as easily.
"No." The flat denial to the presence in his mind was no more than a whisper of sound passing through chattering teeth.
~You are cold.~
The grief-stricken Guide shivered and hugged himself even tighter
"As cold as my dead Sentinel," he murmured in anguish.
~Yet you still live... your heartbeats, your lungs draw breath, you still feel~
"Feel what?" Blair demanded. "Pain? That's all I can feel. That's all they've left me!"
~There is always a balance, young one. Good and evil. Life and death. Pain and joy.~
"No. Not for me. Not anymore. His death ended everything. There's nothing left."
~There is duty.~
Blair glanced at the cell phone which lay beside him. The low battery light glowed softly in the darkness, mocking him.
"I've failed him even in that," he answered quietly. "There isn't enough power to last for more than a half hour. Besides, even if help did come, it's too late to make any difference now."
Closing his eyes, Blair leaned back into the cliff face, feeling the chill which emanated from the rocks seeping through the thin layers of still damp clothing. He would just sit here, he decided, absorbing the cold until it froze even the pain. But random images flashed against his eyelids, and he shifted uneasily.
He didn't recall exactly how he'd gotten up the mountain. He knew he'd been running blind in the darkness. His wet clothing proved that he'd fallen into water... a stream... and the vision of the towering peaks still lingered in his mind. He remembered the fear of falling and never rising again... screaming desperately for help... the warmth of recognition and trust and then surrender as another spirit joined his... of letting go...
After that, everything was a blur of surreal sensations and visions overlaid with ancient instincts and knowledge. The presence he'd finally acknowledged had brought him safely through the darkness to this ledge, high above the forest.
Blair trembled, remembering the exact moment Incacha's spirit had relinquished control. The pain and sorrow of his own returning memories had knifed through his body, driving him to his knees; the force of the screams which had been torn from his soul scraping his throat raw. It was only the driving need to carry out the orders of his Sentinel that had kept him movingjust long enough to pull out the cell phone and punch in three numbers. The call had gone out, but there was no way of knowing whether anyone was listening.
"My duty is finished," Blair whispered, resting his head on his knees.
~Your duty to your Sentinel, perhaps. Your responsibilities to the tribe remain.~
The specter of Simon's worried face popped into Blair's mind, followed by those of Joel, Daryl, Brown and Rafe.
"I have no tribe. Not without him," he groaned, shaking his head to chase the visions away.
~A Shaman serves the tribe, with or without a Sentinel. If he is indeed gone, they will need the strength of your heart to guide them.~
"The tribe needed its Sentinel!" Blair spat back, eyes flashing open as he struggled to his feet and screamed his anger out into the night. The wind drove his words back at him and he cringed against the boulders, shaking. "The tribe is unprotected because I failed to do what was required. Because I refused to accept what was happening... refused to listen. If I had... if I'd been strong enough to deal with my fears, I would have understood the premonition. Jim would be safe. Alive."
~You are so certain he is not?~
The soft question immobilized the grieving Guide. Hope flared for a moment, but it was no match for his despair.
"I know what I heard," he whispered bitterly. "I know what I felt."
~You heard the voice of the enemy, felt the razor-sharp edge of a sliver of time... but what did you see?~
Blair trembled and long, dark lashes swept down, shuttering the pain and exhaustion-dulled blue eyes, sending rivers of hot tears coursing down his cheeks.
"Nothing. I wasn't there. He sent me away."
~To protect you.~
~And to protect himself.~
~And when you look into your heart, you are certainbeyond life itselfthat he is dead?~
Scrubbing angrily at his face, Blair brushed away the tears. "I've told you how I feel. Why are you asking me this? What more do you want from me?"
~Beyond and before duty, there is honor. If you truly honored your Sentinel, then you must return and see justice done.~
"Justice?" Blair's voice and body shook with rage. "In a just world, it would be Anders laying dead, not Jim."
~Vengeance holds no honor, young one. A Shaman seeks truth above all.~
"I'm not a Shaman. I amI was a Guide. Now... now I have no one to lead. No path to follow."
~Four paths shape the way of the Shaman. Two you have already journeyed. Two remain. That which lies before you will lead you to a place and time where you will lose your fear and face death.~
Blair pushed himself away from the cliff and stalked to the edge of the ledge, staring down into the ebony shadows which cloaked the mountainside. His eyes tracked to the right, instinctively seeking the place where he had left his Sentinel.
"And the final path?" he whispered.
~A new beginning as is the coming of each day.~
Blair's gaze swung left, seeking the horizon. In the east, the night was losing its hold. Day was indeed coming. He swiveled his head to the west again, drawing in a deep breath. Anders would be there. And Jim. Incacha's spirit had raised questions to which he had no certain answers. If there were any chance his friend was still alive, then he had to find him, or at least die trying. And if Jim was dead, the answer was the same.
A Guide's place was at his Sentinel's side.
"I would know the truth."
~Then let us hunt, young one.~
Jim crouched in the darkness of the tent, struggling to get his wildly fluctuating senses under control. The pain which strobed across the back of his skull and the drug that still lingered in his system, ate away at the little control he'd established earlier. He had tried the breathing exercises Blair had coached him through in the past, but they weren't having much effect.
He tugged at the handcuffs again, testing the links. He'd managed to get his hands in front of him at least. That would give him a better chance to take out the guard when they came in to check on him. The Sentinel's eyes glittered in the dark as the feral thoughts of exacting revenge on Anders and his men filled his mind. Once he took out the guard he'd have a weapon and then nothing would stop him from finding his Guide. Nothing.
His head snapped up. He'd heard a noise in the compound. He closed his eyes, concentrating only on hearing, but his control flickered in and out, distorting the sounds and making him almost sick to his stomach.
Another sound, this one closer and there was a movement at the tent flap. Tensed and ready to spring, Jim waited silently as the intruder entered. Before the flap fell back into place, the momentary illumination from outside gave him a chance to size up his visitorseveral inches taller and maybe twenty pounds heavier. Before the man's vision could adjust to the darker interior, Ellison leaped forward. His unexpected charge spun the taller man around. Swiftly, the ex-ranger slipped his cuffed hands over the attacker's head, using his own body-weight to pull the man backward.
Jim jerked and felt the metal links of the handcuffs choking off the man's air. At that moment he didn't care that he'd be committing murder. These men had taken something precious from him and he intended to get it back. He shifted his hold, preparing to make the killing stroke.
"Jim... it's me..."
Startled by the unexpectedness of the familiar voice, Ellison loosened his hold for just an instant. It was all his captive needed to twist free.
"Take it easy. It's Simon."
A flashlight beam cut the darkness and Jim winced, blinking away the flashing spots which danced under his eyelids. Dazed, he found himself staring at his captain.
Sounds from beyond the tent beckoned to him again. He tried to focus on them, but his senses were still surging in and out. He wavered on his feet and immediately felt strong hands wrap around his upper arms, supporting him.
"I called the Mayor's office, prepared to give her a piece of my mind about loaning out my people without clearing it with me first. Imagine my surprise when she didn't know anything about it. After that I made a few more phone calls." There was a pause, and Simon's voice became apologetic. "It took a while to cut through all the inter-agency red tape, otherwise we would have been here sooner."
"Who else?" Jim struggled to form the words, his mind still in shock. He'd written off any form of rescue and now here it was, living and breathing right in front of him.
"Most of the department, for starters," Simon responded. He brought the flashlight beam up just high enough to take a good look at his friend. "God, Jim, you look like hell. Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Anders took me down with some kind of drug. It put me out for a while and it's still playing havoc with my senses."
"What about Sandburg? Where is he?"
"Out there. Somewhere..." Jim wondered if the despair he was feeling was obvious in his voice. "He managed to get away, but Anders has men searching for him. He wants to test him... us. That's what this was all about, Simon. It was all an experiment to see how we'd react. What we could do. The bastard said he wanted to see what the connection between us was all about. And when he was done with his tests, he planned to make us a part of this private little army he's put together."
"He knows you're a Sentinel?" Jim could hear the horrified realization in Simon's voice.
"And he knows Blair is my Guide," The Sentinel answered in the same tone. "Simon, Anders is insane, obsessed. He knows... everything... things that no one could know or has a right to know. We've got to get to Sandburg before he does."
Jim felt the grip on his arm tighten in sympathetic reassurance. "We will. Come on, let's get you out of those restraints."
He let Simon guide him out of the tent. With his senses still swinging out of control like an erratic pendulum, the sights and sounds in the camp were like a physical assault. Taking a deep breath he tried to manipulate the dials again. Slowly, the world came back into focus and the noise abated to a tolerable level.
Scanning the campsite, he caught sight of familiar faces in the early morning light and the looming form of Joel Taggert headed their way.
"Joel, see if you can find the keys to these cuffs," Banks called out, still maintaining his hold on Jim.
Taggert spun around and barked an order to one of the uniformed cops. Jim watched as the man approached a group of figures, huddled on the ground. Recognizing them as some of Anders' men, Ellison snarled and started to take a step forward.
"Take it easy, Jim," Simon pleaded, holding him back. "I know how you feel, but that's not going to help Sandburg."
It took a moment for the rational part of Jim's brain to accept the older man's words and acknowledge the truth within them. He forced himself to take another breath, pushing back the rage with a promise that retribution would come.
The Sentinel closed his eyes and tried to work the dials again. He would need all of his senses back on-line if was going to be able to help his Guide. That was the important thing now, he reminded himself. Concentrate. Get control. Find Blair.
Slowly, the sensations assailing him settled into manageable levels. He opened his eyes, surprised to find himself sitting on a folding camp stool in front of one of the tents. The handcuffs had been removed and Simon was packing away a first aid kit, staring up at him in concern.
"Welcome back," Banks murmured softly, handing him a thermos cup filled with coffee.
"Thanks," Jim's voice sounded strained and shaky even to himself. He took a sip and felt an immediate rush of warmth. He shook himself and rose to his feet, Simon moving with him, a restraining hand on his arm.
"I'm all right, Simon. Not quite 100 percent, but close enough." He took a quick look around the camp and his eyes settled on the group of Anders' men once more.
"They'll pay for this, Jim. I promise you that," Banks murmured softly. "They were the only one's here when we hit the camp. How many more men did Anders have?"
"At least a dozen," Jim replied grimly.
"Well, between our guys, the FBI and the Rangers, we have them outnumbered at least."
Jim glanced up at him in surprise.
"FBI flew us in," Simon explained, handing Jim a gun and watching closely as the detective checked it and slid it into the holster at his back. "The Rangers provided some special equipment and we managed to track a cell transmission coming out of the mountains just east of here. When we picked up trace signals coming out of this camp we split up, dropping half of our forces here. The other half headed for the source of the call."
"A cell transmission?" Jim asked eagerly, swinging around toward the mountains where he'd sent his Guide. Their dark, rugged silhouettes were shrouded in the early morning fog. "That's Blair. He had his cell phone with him. The plan was to try to get up high enough to get a signal out. He did it. Half dead with exhaustion, scared of heights and all, he did it."
"If we picked up the feed, then Anders probably did too."
"He did," Jim nodded. "That's why he's not here. He went out to handle the retrieval himself. He was going to bring Sandburg back and try out some more fun and games on the two of us."
"What kind of 'games'?"
"I don't know, Simon. He was Special Forces. Anders' idea of a 'game' could mean anything short of outright killing the participants."
"Was is the operative word, Jim. The agency is as eager to get their hands on him as we are."
"No. They're not," Jim whispered, his voice ice cold. Rage burned through him again, but this time he focused it toward the man who deserved it.
"Taggert, get on the link and warn the others to keep a lookout for Sandburg," Banks barked. "The FBI and the Special Forces Rangers seemed a little too eager to catch Anders," he explained quickly to Jim. "Rafe and Brown went with them to make sure they remembered that finding you and the kid was the first priority."
"Thanks, Simon, I" Ellison's eyes widened and his body jerked suddenly.
Before the Sentinel could respond, the faint explosions of gunfire echoed in the crisp morning air.
"Damn!" Simon spun around and found Joel lumbering toward them.
"All hell's breaking loose up there, Simon," the big man gasped. "The FBI agents stumbled upon a group of Anders' men. They had to return fire."
"What about Sandburg? Any sign of him?"
"Rafe says they found the cell. High up in the cliffs. No trace of the kid, though."
"He's coming here."
The half-whispered comment made Banks turn back to Jim. The Sentinel stood motionless, his gaze locked on the forest.
"Simon, Brown says Anders' men are falling back," Taggert reported, one hand held to the headset, his expansive brow furrowed in a frown. "Chances are they're headed this way."
"Jim, if Anders intended to meet them, you know where that puts Sandburg, don't you?"
"Right where he always is, Simon," the detective answered grimly. "In the middle of trouble."
A coal black shape suddenly materialized on the edge of the woods. The great cat turned its baleful yellow eyes on the Sentinel and then abruptly melted into the trees. Jim sprinted forward, leaving Simon and Joel gaping in surprise.
"Where the hell is he going?" Taggert gasped.
"To find Sandburg," Simon answered. To find the other half of his soul.
With a shake of his head, the captain called out for some of the men to join them and took off at a run himself, plunging into the forest in pursuit of his detective.
Blair tripped on a half-hidden branch and grabbed at the trunk of the nearest tree to keep from falling. Chest heaving, he struggled to push back the terror which had claimed him. He could still hear the sounds of the firefight behind him.
~Tread carefully, young one. The third path is before you.~
There was an uneasiness in the voice that Blair had never heard before. Closing his eyes, he made himself breathe deeply, searching for calm, letting the image of Incacha's face fill his inner vision.
"Why are you troubled?" he asked.
~You must walk this path alone.~
"Why?" Blair demanded desperately. "You claimed me and I accepted my fate. Why are you deserting me now? You promised to help me find justice for my Sentinel."
~It is as it must be. At the end, should all prove successful, I will leave you to your destiny and seek mine.~
Realizing a cusp had been reached, Blair trembled, then nodded. "May you reach the stars, Guardian," he murmured, voicing the ancient ritual words that came unbidden to his tongue. "The tribe will be guided... for as long as I live."
~Peace, young one. Seek your way with my blessings.~
Incacha's voice fell silent and Blair opened his eyes, scanning the thick foliage which surrounded him. Seeing a narrow opening in the trees, he started forward, moving as quietly as he could.
Within minutes, he came to a small clearing. He angled to the right, choosing to bypass the open space in favor of remaining protected by the denser shelter of the trees. His foot struck something in the thick grass. He reached down and extracted a handgun. Turning the weapon in his hands thoughtfully, he glanced up, caught sight of a flash of red and gingerly parted the bushes, drawing in a sharp breath when he saw the body hidden there.
One glimpse was all he need to realize that it was one of Anders' men. A knife protruded from the man's ribs and Blair knew that Jim had taken this man outpossibly during the frantic attempt to buy his Guide the precious time to escape. The overpowering sensations the premonition had held threatened to swamp him again, but Blair shook them off angrily. That was the past and there was no changing it.
What honor required, belonged to the future.
Blair's head snapped up at the sound of approaching footsteps. He tightened his grip on the gun and scrambled for cover. A few seconds later, Anders emerged from the trees with two of his men just steps behind him. All thoughts but one were burned from Blair's mind when he recognized the mercenary. He charged forward, the gun raised threateningly.
"Don't move," he snarled, planting himself in front of Anders and taking aim at the man's chest.
The mercenary pulled to a halt, one eyebrow raising in surprise. The two men with him reached for their weapons, but Blair stayed focused on Anders.
"Tell them to put them down and move back, or you're dead," he demanded, his voice cold and seething with anger.
With a quick gesture, the older man signaled them to do as Blair had ordered. Two distinctive thuds announced the contact of the guns with the ground and the men backed off several paces, waiting.
"Now yours," Blair commanded. "And the headsets. Toss them out of reach."
The mercenary stared at him measuringly and Blair brought his other hand up to grip the gun, steadying it. Anders' eyes narrowed as he considered the threat. He remained motionless for a few more seconds before withdrawing his own weapon and slinging it off into the brush. The headset followed.
"You would appear to have the advantage, Mr. Sandburg..."
"Get rid of your assassins. Now!" Blair hissed through clenched teeth, jerking his head to indicate the two men. "They stay away from us, or you're dead."
Blair tightened his finger on the trigger as one of the men started to take a step forward in protest. Anders' reacted immediately, raising his hand in a warding off gesture.
"Go," he ordered tersely, his gaze never straying from Blair.
The two gunmen exchanged a quick look before disappearing into the forest.
"Still your play," Anders murmured.
"I should kill you right now," Blair whispered.
"But that won't get you what you want."
"Where is he? What did you do with him after...?" Blair choked on the words, unable to voice the rest of his demand.
"My camp is just over the last rise," Anders answered calmly.
Blair motioned with the gun. The mercenary turned and moved into the trees, walking at a steady pace, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. Keeping the weapon trained on Anders' back, Blair stayed close enough to guarantee that if he did have to shoot, he wouldn't miss his target.
They walked in silence. Oblivious to the rapidly brightening day, Blair's world had narrowed to the mercenary, the gun in his hand and the driving need to reach his partner. To at least recover his Sentinel's body, so that Anders couldn't hurt Jim any further.
"I have to compliment you on your survival skills," Anders said abruptly. "You've led us quite a chase."
"Just keep moving," Blair snapped.
"I'd be interested in knowing how you got through my men," Anders continued, glancing back over his shoulder as he walked. "We picked up the transmission you know. Not that your low power signal is going to carry far, but it was really a very inventive move. You surprised me by coming back though."
"Shut up and keep moving, I said!"
Blair took a quick step forward and shoved the gun into Anders' back. The older man stumbled forward and dropped to one knee.
"Get up or I'll shoot you right here!" Blair shouted, clenching the gun in his trembling hands.
"No, you won't," Anders said softly. Still crouched on the ground, the mercenary eyed the distraught Guide with contempt. "I know you. You don't have it in you to kill."
"Congratulate yourself, then. You've given me the incentive," Blair retorted angrily. "No one's ever killed my partner before."
Anders' eyes widened in surprise. "Ellison's not dead."
Blair's sharp intake of breath was all he could manage as he stared down into the mercenary's eyes. The hope which had awakened at Incacha's questions surged to the surface.
"Did you really think I'd go to all this trouble and let him get killed?" An infuriating smirk played at the corner of Anders' mouth.
Blair's anger flared again. "I heard the shots. I picked up the exchange over the com link. One of your men said he was 'down'."
"Not gunfire. Dart guns. Loaded with a simple, but quite effective tranquilizer."
Blair's heart thundered in his ears. "Tranquilizer? What kind? How much did you give him?"
"Enough to stop him in his tracks," Anders answered smugly.
"Damn you! I said how much? What dosage?" Filled with terrifying visions of what that kind of drug could do to his partner, Blair took a step forward without thinking, the gun dropping slightly.
Without warning, Anders moved. Blair tried to retreat and raise the weapon, but the older man was quicker. He struck out, swinging a broken length of branch not at the gun, but at Blair's left knee. The younger man screamed as pain erupted from the blow and lurched sideways, legs buckling under him.
The ground reached up to meet him, driving the air from aching lungs and making his next scream a choked gasp. His vision filled with black spots which danced chaotically in time to his pounding pulse. Blair fought off the dizziness, craning his neck to search for the gun that had fallen from his grasp. He reached out for it, but Anders was suddenly at his side, trapping his right wrist with a booted foot and pinning it painfully to the ground.
Desperately, Blair struck out at the man's ankle with his free hand. Anders caught the awkwardly thrown blow easily, pushing the younger man's wrist down against his chest. Blair tried to squirm away, but the mercenary just laughed and with his other hand leaned his weight on the injured knee.
A white-hot stab of pain spiraled from the point of contact, straight up Blair's spine, exploding into bursts of fire in his head, tearing another scream from his throat.
A half mile away, Ellison stopped abruptly, his head whipping around to catch a fading trace of sound.
"What is it?" Simon asked urgently, skidding to a stop at the detective's side.
"Blair. That way," the Sentinel answered, his face reflecting the anguish he'd heard in his Guide's cry.
Without a backward glance at the others, Jim started to run.
Taking advantage of his captive's distress, Anders quickly snapped handcuffs around Blair's wrists and pressed them back against his chest once more, using the weight of his body to hold the younger man in place. The mercenary took a deep breath and gave an odd, piercing whistle which was answered in seconds by another, not too far off.
Anders stared down at Blair, grinning into the dazed, pain-filled eyes. When the younger man tried to move again, the mercenary pushed down on the injured knee and agonizing pain shot through Blair once more, stilling his struggles.
"That's going cure your running away, my young friend," Anders whispered menacingly.
Shuddering, Blair watched in horror as Anders' men suddenly appeared.
"We've got trouble, Colonel," one of them reported. "The retrieval teams on the mountain ran into FBI and what appear to be Special Forces Rangers."
"What about the camp?" Anders demanded.
"Can't raise them."
The news was music to Blair's ears. He managed a lopsided grin. "Guess the game's really over now, 'Colonel'."
Anders rewarded his sarcasm by giving his knee another painful squeeze. As the pain arced through him, Blair clenched his teeth, determined not to cry out.
"It's not over until I say it is," Anders hissed, his eyes glittering with rage. Sadistically, he pressed down on the knee again until Blair writhed and moaned helplessly.
With a satisfied sneer, Anders released his hold and stood up, turning his attention to his men and holstering the gun he'd retrieved from the ground.
"It's time to scram this mission. If they've taken the camp, Ellison's free. He'll be hunting for his partner. We can use that. Contact air support and have them meet us at the delta rendezvous point. That's only a few minutes away."
"You wanted to see your Sentinel again?" Anders asked mockingly as he shifted his gaze back to Blair. "Well, now you will. Bring him," the mercenary ordered his men.
Dragged to his feet, a despairing groan escaped Blair's lips. Help had arrived, Jim was not only alive, but free, and yet what he'd most feared was about to come to pass.
"NO!" he whispered, defiantly as they dragged him away. No matter what it took, he was not going to let Anders get his hands on the Sentinel again.
Hearing extended to its limits, the Sentinel targeted on the faint vibration of his Guide's heartbeat and raced through the forest. He flinched at every skip of that familiar rhythmstaggered at every gasp of pain which carried across the distance that still separated them.
He felt another vibration intruding on his concentration and lengthened his stride, leaving Simon and the others to follow as quickly as they could. Splitting his concentration between the tenuous contact he had with Blair and the sound of the incoming chopper, he altered his course slightly, headed toward where the helicopter was likely to touch down.
His own exhausted muscles screamed at him, begging for relief, but he ignored them, focused solely on the need to reach his Guide and free him before it was too late.
Anders led them to the edge of a deep ravine and followed it almost to the top of the next hill. With a glance toward the still obscured crest, he stopped and waved the men dragging Blair between them, forward.
"Leave him with me. Go and meet the chopper," Anders ordered. Grabbing at the links between the handcuffs, he pulled the younger man to him. Blair took a staggering step and felt his knee give out. He collapsed on the ground at the mercenary's feet, shaking with pain and fatigue.
Anders' cruel laugh reverberated in his head and he gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remain silent. He nearly lost his control when the mercenary grabbed a handful of hair and pulled his head backward. He shuddered at the mad gleam in the man's eyes as Anders loomed over him.
"Call him," Anders demanded.
The older man shifted his stance and kicked out, connecting with Blair's knee. A strangled moan broke from the younger man.
"Call him!" the mercenary hissed, wrenching Blair's head and kicking the injured joint savagely.
The choked cry was louder, but it still didn't satisfy Anders. He jerked the younger man closer and stepped down with his full weight, pinning Blair's leg to the rocky ground.
This time there was no stopping the scream which erupted from the tortured Guide.
"LEAVE HIM ALONE!"
Dully, Blair managed to turn his head just enough to find the source of the outraged shout. His vision blurred with pain and tears, the young Guide's eyes found his Sentinel's.
"Jim." Trust, horror, joy and rage burned through the air between them.
With a rough jerk, Anders pulled Blair to his feet, wrapping an arm around his chest to hold him upright. Anguished blue eyes sought the Sentinel's gaze again as the cold muzzle of a gun stabbed against the soft skin of his neck, just under his right ear.
"I have what you want, Ellison."
Blair winced at the words and at Anders' breath that brushed hot and revolting against his bruised cheek.
"Let him go, Anders," Jim growled as he moved closer, his gun raised, ready to fire at the first opportunity he saw .
"Drop the gun or I'll kill him," the mercenary threatened.
"You won't kill him. You need him for your little tests, remember?" Jim drew another step closer.
"Maybe it's time to change the direction of the experiment," the older man said softly. "It might be interesting to see how a Sentinel survives the death of his control. Or to see how long it takes you to bond with a new focus. I'm confident we could reconstruct whatever it is that Mr. Sandburg here does for you, from his notes. He's been a very thorough observer. I'm sure there's a great deal of material to work from."
The Sentinel hesitated. Up to now, he'd been convinced Anders wouldn't kill Blair, but the conviction in the man's words terrified him. Looking into those cold eyes, Jim realized the mercenary was capable of carrying out his threat. The gun in the detective's hand dropped a few inches.
"Jim, don't!" Blair had seen the flicker of fear in his partner's eyes. He knew what was coming.
"Put the gun down, now," Anders commanded, tightening his hold on his prisoner and cocking his own weapon.
Slowly, Jim lowered his gun to the ground, his gaze locked on his young partner.
"No, man. Don't do this!" Blair shook his head emphatically, panic filling the wide blue eyes.
Anders answered Blair's desperate plea with a triumphant, barking laugh. "He doesn't have any choice." The air around them shuddered with the sound of the incoming helicopter, and the mercenary's smile grew. "It appears that our transportation has arrived. Time to take this game to the next level."
The older man pulled the gun away from Blair's neck and gestured with it, indicating that Jim should precede them. The second the weapon shifted, Blair breathed a whispered warning"Watch your back, Jim"and let his knees buckle. The sudden shift in weight pulled Anders off balance for a fraction of a second. The moment his knees hit the ground, the younger man pushed backward with all of his remaining strength.
The violent movement carried them both to the edge of the crevice. Jim was rolling to his knees, the gun he'd retrieved in a frantic dive already rising, Sentinel sight seeking a target. As he scrabbled for a foothold on the crumbling rocks, Anders' startled expression changed to blind fury. Blair's unexpected lunge had dislodged his hold on the younger man, but his grasping fingers locked in the anthropologist's hair.
Still too far away to reach them in time, the Sentinel watched as Anders and his Guide teetered in a swaying bid for balance at the edge. His horror grew when he realized that Blair was trying to shift them backward, willing to end his own life in an attempt to take the other man out. The roar of denial which ripped from his soul merged with another, much more primal scream of rage. A black wind streaked across the Sentinel's vision, morphing into the sinuous, deadly shape of the panther. The Spirit Guide shrieked its own battle cry, thrusting itself between Anders and his Guide, knocking the younger man forward.
The air exploded in sound as three weapons discharged their deadly missiles. Anders' body jerked with the impact of each bullet and seemed to hang for a split second, suspended in thin air. The panther leaped toward the enemy and the mercenary plummeted into the ravine.
Barely conscious of Simon and Joel running toward them, Jim stumbled to Blair's side. Dropping to his knees he pulled the shuddering body of his Guide into a fierce embrace. The Sentinel stayed in that position, sheltering the younger man from the chaos which followed as Simon directed the pursuit of the men still with the helicopter. Jim whispered soft words of encouragement each time Blair flinched in response to the sharp retort of discharging weapons from the top of the hill.
Finally, the chatter of gunfire ceased and the stillness of the forest wrapped itself around them in a blanket of peaceful silence. Jim eased his hold enough for Blair to raise his head. Fingers latched in a white-knuckled hold on the detective's shirt and deep, ocean blue eyes begged the question a frightened mind couldn't form.
A ghostly, triumphant scream rose from the depths of the ravine and the Sentinel drew in a deep breath, knowing that the nightmare was finally over. Abruptly aware of Simon's presence at his backstanding sentry over them until they were ready to movethe Sentinel nodded, smiling as the fear left his young Guide's eyes.
Knee wrapped in a protective brace, Blair leaned wearily into the support of the tree at his back. He stared at the pacing figure of his partner and shook his head. Jim was still in full 'Blessed Protector' mode with a healthy dose of wary Sentinel thrown in for good measure. He'd nearly bitten the head off of the Ranger medic that had attended to Blair's injuries, ushering the man away as soon as he had finished. He'd snapped in anger at the FBI's demands for an immediate debriefing and Blair knew that it was only Simon and Joel's intercession which had kept things from getting out of hand.
"You're wearing me out, man," he muttered, Sentinel-soft. "Not to mention the damage you're inflicting on the poor ground."
The Sentinel paused, his gaze swinging his Guide for a moment before returning to monitor the activity in the camp.
"Simon's got it under control, Jim," Blair said gently. "It's finished. Give it a rest."
With a sigh, Ellison crouched down next to the younger man, eyeing him uncertainly.
"Anders is finished. He won't bother us again."
Blair nodded. Finished was a relative term. He could see by the look in the Sentinel's eyes that there was something the older man wasn't telling him, but this wasn't the time or place to pursue it. He'd have the full story from his partner soon enough. As far as the others were concerned, it was over, although they had their own questions.
The Rangers had been puzzled when they'd dragged Anders' body from the ravine. What was left of it, that is. The corpse had been savagely mauled. Jim had heard one of the men speculating that a wild animalpossibly a large cathad gotten to the body before they had. The fact that the ferocious hunter had left no tracks was a curiosity to everyone except the Sentinel and his grateful Guide.
"But what about the rest?" Jim prodded. "What about"
"Incacha? That's nearly finished, too."
The quiet confidence in Blair's voice surprised Jim. He studied the younger man closely. Looking past the bruises and the strain of exhaustion, he found a familiar sparkle in his friend's eyes. And something more.
The eyes which had always revealed the totality of the younger man's soul were different. The calm depths seemed to hold something olderalmost ancient. But the change wasn't disturbing. If anything, the gaze that met his was even gentler than before.
"'Four paths shape the way of the Shaman,'" Blair murmured softly. "Three have been traveled. One remainsthe journey of a lifetime. The ritual is nearly complete."
The Sentinel reached out and grasped his Guide's shoulder, squeezing it gently, anxious eyes reflecting his concern. With a blazing smile, the younger man patted his hand in reassurance.
"You were right, Jim. All that was required was trust. I am who I was meant to be. Your Guide. And your Shaman."
The Sentinel nodded. He too saw that there was more his Guide wasn't saying. Yet. Easing Blair to his feet, he guided the younger man to the waiting helicopter. As the chopper lifted and headed toward the still rising sun, the Sentinel watched his Guide slip off into sleep, then settled back himself, lulled by a familiar, invisible purring at his feet.
Seeing the detective relax, Simon leaned back in his seat, studying the two partners through steepled fingers.
The Watcher was no longer, but the Guardians remained vigilant.
~ End ~
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Page last updated 8/15/03.