This is the last of those "Jim angst" stories I was writing earlier. Not that there won't be more Jim angst in the future-- this is just the last of that batch. <eg> BTW, I know why I was being so evil to poor Jim; I gave up chocolate for Lent and me without my chocolate...well, I'm not very nice. Sorry, Jim.
An A.R. story should arrive shortly. The Family story has turned out to be one of those transitional ones, like Moral Dilemma was, and you know how long it takes for me to get those "just right". I'm working on it, but have a little patience.
My beta, K, hasn't given up on me yet, but if you find any mistakes, they're mine.
This one is a just a tiny bit over 100K, so I won't break it into two parts-- unless people have trouble getting the whole thing. Let me know and I'll fix it.
Spoilers for the episode Crossroads. This is a post-doctoral story which means it will probably become an A.U. at the end of this season. This is rated TVMA (language (someone have a bar of soap handy?), violence, and the aftermath of torture).
Hope you enjoy!
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain-- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
"Something must be going on," Blair Sandburg commented to his best friend Jim Ellison, as they watched a stream of police cruisers swarm out of the department's parking garage. They were returning from the scene of a home invasion, one of the cases Jim was working as a Major Crimes detective. Blair was a consultant for the department and Jim's partner.
Jim nodded, but before he could reply, one of the cars stopped next to him and rolled down the window. Jim did the same. "Ellison, you did some tracking in the Army, didn't you?" the man asked.
"Yes, sir," Jim answered Captain Willis politely.
"We have a missing boy in Cascade Woods. Thanks to that virus going around, I'm down a couple of experienced men. Want to help out?"
"I'll have to clear it with my captain," he began.
"I'll talk to Banks. Turn around and come on."
Jim looked at his partner and shrugged. "Looks like we're going to have to put that paperwork on hold for a while."
"Darn shame," Blair said, grinning from ear to ear.
"Well, I could let you out and you could get started while I--"
Dark blue eyes rolled in their sockets. "No way, man. You're going to need me, especially doing this kind of field work."
Jim couldn't argue with that. He was a Sentinel, which meant all five of his senses were heightened. This made for a very good detective, but there were problems that cropped up occasionally. Sometimes Jim zoned-- slipped into a fugue state when he concentrated on one particular sense too much. At other times, the enhancements caused mishaps that "normal" people didn't have. He was affected by minute traces of substances such as drugs and other chemicals. Harsh lights could blind him, and loud sounds could deafen him. That was why his Sentinel ancestors, it was a genetic trait, had Guides-- companions who took care of them, watched their backs, and tethered them to the real world when zones threatened. Anthropologist Blair just happened to be Jim's Guide. So, if he, dedicated Sentinel that he was, was going to use his special abilities to help find the missing child, he would definitely need his Guide. And the paperwork would get done when it got done.
They stood side by side, listening to Captain Willis as he explained what the distraught mother, Karen Hatcher, had told the park's security. She and her six-year-old son Chris had come to the park for lunch. Chris had a frisbee, which he enjoyed tossing and retrieving. While he played by himself, she had cleaned up the remains of lunch. When she looked around, he was gone. No amount of yelling had brought her child running.
Willis unfolded a grid map of the Cascade Woods and started assigning positions. When he came to his borrowed team, Jim stopped him. "If it's okay, sir, we'd like to work this our way."
He started to protest, but he remembered that their captain, Simon Banks, often gave this team leeway in handling cases, and Major Crimes now had the best solve rate in the state. "Just as long as you don't interfere with what my men are doing." He handed him a two-way radio.
"We won't, sir."
He watched them jog away, Ellison in front because of his longer legs, but Sandburg easily keeping up. What a pair. The entire station had talked about them in the beginning, when Sandburg was just a mere grad student with an observer I.D. and a ride-along permit. Speculation had run rampant for months...until their success started overshadowing the incongruities of their partnership. And to top it off, Sandburg had turned out to be a pretty decent guy who respected cops, despite his ponytail. With a shake of his head, Willis turned back to making his assignments.
"Mrs. Hatcher, I'm Det. Ellison, and this is my associate, Dr. Sandburg, a consultant to the department. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
"I've already...." Her hand fluttered toward the uniformed cops and security, who were starting to spread out.
"We know, ma'am," Blair said gently. "We'd just like to hear what kind of boy Chris is, so we can get a better handle on where he might have wandered."
She sniffed and nodded. "Okay."
Jim smiled gratefully at his partner. "Is this the frisbee he was playing with, ma'am?" he asked, seeing the plastic resting on her purse.
"Yes. I found it, but not him." She handed it to him. "He was always so happy when he could get it to fly like it was supposed to. Most of the time it just wobbled a couple of feet, and sometimes it came down on his head. But he was working on his 'wrist action' as he called it. His dad had been helping him."
"Has his father been notified?" Blair asked, covering as his partner examined the frisbee with his acute senses.
"Yes. We're divorced, but Chris stays with him every other weekend."
"Does Chris like nature? I mean, could he have gotten caught up in following the ducks to the lake, or gone looking for a scampering squirrel?"
"I doubt it. He's asthmatic, and while he's okay with running around while I or his dad watches, he's sort of hesitant about going off on his own."
Blair caught a nod from Jim and patted Mrs. Hatcher's hand. "Thank you for your assistance. We'll do the best we can to bring your son back to you." He walked off with his partner. "What you got, Jim?"
"A scent. His palms were sweaty when they handled the frisbee."
Blair placed his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Focus on the smell. Find where it's the strongest."
Jim swayed for a few minutes, getting lost in the scent, but firmly anchored by the safety line of Blair's touch. "This way," he finally said.
They ran for far longer than Blair figured a child could go, but he didn't doubt the Sentinel was on the correct trail. Suddenly, Jim stopped, frowning. "What is it, man?"
"Where?" Another guiding touch.
"There." A few steps brought them to the edge of a ravine.
"Shit," Blair murmured mournfully. The area was dark, even in the middle of the day. "Do you hear a heartbeat, Jim?"
"Faint. Weak. Call it in, Chief. I'm going down." He looked at Blair, his eyes bleak. "Don't follow."
Blair understood. The child was dying. Jim would be with him so he wouldn't have to die alone, then he would bring the body up for the parents to bury. "Okay, Jim. I'll be waiting right here for you." You won't be alone either.
The two were somber as they entered the Major Crimes bullpen much later that afternoon. Simon Banks watched them drag in and motioned for them to enter his office. "I heard about the child. I'm sorry it didn't work out better. Accidents like that are always difficult to accept."
"It wasn't an accident," the detective said, his blue eyes blazing. "The case has been turned over to Homicide."
The tall Black man was stunned. "Why?"
"Jim smelled chloroform on the child."
"Damn." The captain eyed the duo knowledgeably. "Go home. Clean up. Go out and do something fun. And, Ellison, if I catch you wallowing in guilt over this, I'll triple your paperwork. Understand?"
Jim gave a weak smile. "Yes, sir. Come on, Chief. Let's go have big fun." He left the office.
"Sandburg--" Simon began.
"Take care of him," Blair completed for the captain. "I know, and I will. But the kid died in his arms, Simon. Can you imagine what death must sound like to a Sentinel?"
"No, and I don't want to know." He didn't want to think about the things his detective could sense, especially considering the work that he did, and he knew the only thing keeping the man sane was probably the man he was speaking to now. "Need anything, let me know."
Blair smiled. "You're a softie, Simon."
"Get out of my office!"
Two days later, Jim sat at his desk, listening to Blair explain the theory of basketball evolution to their Major Crimes co-workers. Since he'd heard the exposition on the way in to work, he was kindly excluded from the discussion and was supposed to be doing paperwork. But the death of young Chris Hatcher still haunted him, interfering with his sleep. Blair thought it was because he'd been there with Chris as he died, but the boy's murder was irritating another part of him, a part he didn't often admit to having. Warning bells were going off in his head, his sixth sense crawling off the scale. So far, he had been able to control it, letting Homicide handle the case, but he knew it wouldn't take much for him to go begging to Simon to have the case transferred to Major Crimes. However, for the immediate future at least, he was content to just sit back and listen to Blair's voice soothe him. A moment ago Blair had winked at him, as if to say he knew exactly what Jim was doing, and approved of it.
The serenity of the moment was harshly broken by the ringing of his telephone. "Ellison.... Okay, Dan. I'll be right over." He hung up the phone and picked up his jacket. "Dan Wolf wants me to visit the morgue," he called to his partner.
Blair frowned. "Chris Hatcher?"
"Nah. But it does belong to Homicide. He just wants to run something past me."
"Uh, you need me?" Blair asked hesitantly.
Jim shook his head. He didn't expose Blair to the morgue any more than he had to. Although working with Jim had brought him face-to-face with bodies in various forms of mutilation, decomposition, and sheer destruction in the five years they had been partners, the anthropologist still hadn't gotten used to seeing the brutalized corpses. Jim hoped he never would.
The drive was short and Jim walked familiarly through the halls of the Coroner's Building. Dan Wolf stepped out of one of the autopsy rooms and gestured to him. "How's it going, Jim?"
"Must be pretty good since I haven't seen you in a while. What's happening?"
Dan gestured to the sheet-covered figure on the steel table. "Male. Thirty-seven years of age. Discovered in an alley off of Eighth St."
"COD?" Cause of death in that part of the city was usually lead-related.
So, not bullets, but a knife. Same difference. "What's my supposed interest in this?"
Dan shrugged. "Maybe nothing. But I came across something curious when I was getting ready to open him up." He pulled down the sheet to the pubic area, exposing the chest. "See anything that looks familiar?"
Jim stepped forward, then halted. He stared at the body without moving for so long that Dan looked over at him in concern. Surprisingly, the concern was warranted. Dan had worked with Jim for a number of years, had found that the detective definitely had the stomach to be a coroner himself. In fact, he was so good at finding details on the bodies that Dan had found himself often going over his reports with Jim. So to see his friend paled whiter than the body, and swaying on obviously weakened knees, came as a shock. "Jim?"
The sound of his name had the detective whipping his head around to the source of the voice. Which was the wrong thing to do. Putting his hand over his mouth, he hurried toward the bathroom.
Dan was used to people losing their lunch over his "clients", but this was beyond abnormal. He picked up the phone and made a call.
Simon put the phone back in its cradle and made a decision. He grabbed his jacket and stepped into the Major Crimes bullpen. "Sandburg, you're with me," he said sternly, not stopping as he crossed the area and headed to the elevator.
Blair was at his side in a second. "What's happened to Jim?" he asked quickly. The only reason the captain would request his presence was if something had gone wrong with his partner.
"I don't know. Dan called. Said Jim lost it at an autopsy. Was in the rest room, puking out his guts."
"Jim?" Blair questioned in disbelief. The man had poked insect-ridden corpses without the slightest hint of reflux action, even when the bugs crawled on him.
Simon nodded. "That's why I'm tagging along," he said, even though he was getting into his own car. "Think this is sensory related?"
The Guide shrugged. "It could be. Or maybe Jim ate something bad at lunch." Just a smidgeon of bacterium was enough to send the Sentinel to the hospital.
"You track your partner down," the captain said as they entered the Coroner's Building. "I'll talk with Dan, find out a little more about what happened."
Blair nodded and headed to the restrooms. Out of necessity, he was quite familiar with their placement. Although he'd only passed out the first time he'd watched an autopsy, he'd lost his last meal on several occasions. Jim had been good about not teasing him. In fact, his partner had gone so far as to be sympathetic. Now it was his chance to repay the favor.
He pushed through the door. "Jim?" he called.
A toilet flushed and a metal door was batted open. He stepped inside to see his partner sitting on his knees beside a basin. "Dan called in the cavalry, huh?" Jim said weakly.
Blair was startled to see how bad Jim looked. Pale, a sheen of sweat on his face, a tremor in the hand that reached out toward his offered assistance. "Yeah, and I see why. You look like shit, man. Simon's got his car. Let's get you to the E.R."
Jim leaned over a sink and washed out his mouth, then doused his whole face. "Unnecessary. I'll be fine."
"Jim, you could have picked up some bug--"
"I'm okay, Chief. It wasn't some damn bug that had me spewing. Trust me."
"Then what was it?" Jim mumbled something. "Sorry, Mr. Sentinel, we Guides aren't as equipped as you. What was that again?"
Blair was the one who was decidedly pale now. As a child, Jim had been "strongly encouraged" to repress his Sentinel abilities. Along with the skills, he had repressed the memories associated with them-- memories that were often painful and violent. His sudden queasiness was all for his friend and the anguish he must be feeling. "Something with the body brought it to the surface?"
Jim shook his head. "It was already on the surface, Chief. Usually good for three, four nightmares a year, I think."
Blair knew of his nightmares. Actually, they knew of each other's nightmares. Sharing a loft made that kind of intimacy a given. He would awaken some nights, not knowing why. He would listen and hear Jim's soft panting as the demons chased him, or he'd hear Jim pacing the loft as he walked off whatever the demons left behind. "If it's affecting you like this, maybe it's time you talked about it, Jim," he said carefully. Jim was hesitant about sharing his inner thoughts, even with the partner he trusted like a brother.
"Can't," he replied. "Military regulations."
Shit. Blair was even more worried now. Much of Jim's Army career was labeled confidential and classified. That was because Jim had worked what some called covert operations, but he preferred the more descriptive term-- black ops, which was whatever shit the Army pulled that they didn't want the public to know about. "Then maybe if you talked to a therapist at the V.A...."
Jim put his hand on his partner's shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I'm going to do something about this."
Blair didn't like the cold, speculative gleam in the blue eyes. "What exactly are you going to do?"
Before Jim could answer, Simon barreled his way through the door. "What the hell is going on, Jim?" Then he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the lights in the restroom. "Damn, you look like shit."
"Well, since everyone's in agreement," Jim drawled, trying to smile but finding it a difficult task. "What did Dan tell you, sir?"
"He didn't tell me; he showed me. You know the victim?"
"No. Never seen him before."
"Any particular reason why a stranger has your name carved in his chest? It is your name, correct? Not just a coincidence?" he added hopefully, although he knew from Jim's reaction that his detective was up to his neck in this one.
Jim shook his head. "No, it's my name, Simon. And it's a personal message."
"Which tells you what?"
"A monster is roaming the streets of Cascade, killing, and seeking revenge."
"Against you?" Simon didn't even know why he bothered to ask. Before him stood his best investigative team. But with the best came certain detriments-- namely, they attracted as much crime as they solved.
Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, looking for relief from the headache that accompanied these discussions with the two of them. "This monster have a name?"
"Yes, but I can't tell you what it is. All I can say is that you should warn Dan and the Homicide unit that this case is going to be taken away from them. Army Intelligence, or maybe even the CIA, will be all over this when I call in."
"I'll pass that along. You need a lift to the ER, or will you trust your partner to drive you there in your truck?"
Jim stood straight, drawing from the inner strength which always amazed Blair. "I don't need to see a doctor, Simon. The shock has worn off. I'm fine. In fact, I think I should have another look at the body before the vultures swoop in."
"And I think you should go home," Simon countered, unwilling to admit his friend had scared him. He knew the capable, muscular detective with enhanced senses wasn't quite the iron man he pretended to be. His father had weakened his spirit as a child, made him hard, yes, but also brittle. The Army had reinforced William Ellison's lessons, adding in their own little tweaks and fixes. The more he learned about the man's past, the more amazed he became that Jim had survived long enough to become his officer. Quite frankly, suicide and/or recklessness should have sent the tortured soul to hell years ago.
Of course, there was no danger of that happening now. Sandburg had come into his life, and somehow ferreted out the Jim that was supposed to be-- Sentinel, caring friend, sociable human being. "Go home, detective," he ordered, his warm brown eyes taking the sting out of his gruff words. "I'll come over after work, and maybe you can tell me a little more, off the record."
Jim gave a stiff nod and started out of the bathroom, his partner close behind with a supportive arm that wasn't quite touching him, but was close enough for a quick save if necessary. Simon watched them make their way slowly down the corridor, and shivered. Something big enough to rock Jim was going to have major repercussions in Cascade. He could feel it in his bones. Worse, he had read it in Jim's eyes.
"What the hell?" Simon asked as he walked into the loft. Stuff crunched under his feet with each step. Broken stuff.
"Those are the remains of a cell phone," his escort around the mess explained. "If you throw said phone against the wall, then proceed to stomp on each piece until it can't break any more, this is the result. If you look closely, you can probably recognize part of the battery pack."
Simon stared at the mess, then at the person who had apparently wreaked such destruction. Jim sat on the balcony, a dejected figure even from a back view. Several brown beer bottles sat on the table beside the wooden deck chair he occupied. "Don't you think you should sweep this up before he comes back inside? Not that I think you should clean up his messes--"
"Hey, no offense taken, man. He's cleaned up some serious crap of mine, but I have been forbidden to touch this. Just as I've been forbidden to put the beer bottles in the recycling bin. He wants to keep the trash around him."
Simon peered at the grad student in shock. Ellison was the neatest man he knew. In fact, his Sentinel senses had him cleaning stuff no one else could even see. "This is bad, isn't it?"
"The worst I've ever seen," Blair agreed. "The good thing is that he's not hiding his emotions. The bad thing is that his emotions are all over the place. Be glad you weren't here earlier. My ears are still ringing from the shouting on that poor unfortunate phone. And the language.... It would have made you blush, Simon. Hell, it made me blush and I know curses in six different tongues."
Since the man on the balcony made no notice of his presence, the captain took a seat on the sofa. "Tell me what's happened."
Blair folded his legs under him as he got comfortable on the loveseat. "When we left you, we didn't come straight home. Jim made me drive him to the bank. Said he had to get something out of his safety deposit box. I figured it was the telephone number for whoever he was planning to report to. Imagine my surprise when he comes out with a duffle bag. That means he has one of those huge boxes, Captain-- rentals like five hundred dollars a year. Anyway, we come home and he opens the bag. Of course, I'm looking over his shoulder. Should have known he wasn't in a stable frame of mind when he didn't shoo me away. In fact, he starts lecturing me on each piece, as if we were at an exhibit or something. Scramblers and satellite transponders.... We're talking major spy equipment, Simon, and none of it was old. He supposedly got out in '89, but this stuff hadn't even been invented ten years ago."
Simon flicked his eyes toward the balcony. Once again, he wondered if Jim had ever completely left the military, or was he just on loan until he was needed again. "I guess on a need-to-know basis, we probably don't need to know, Sandburg," he cautioned.
Blair shrugged, as if he didn't agree but was willing to put the argument aside. "So Jim hooks A to B to C, then dials his cell phone. Whoever answers puts him on hold for a while, and that just got him even more pissed. You see, at the morgue, he was scared and angry, like he was the first time he showed up at my office and threw me up against the wall."
"He did?" Simon interrupted. "I didn't know that."
Blair waved away the concern he heard in the captain's voice. "That was a long time ago, and it's just part of his fear defense mechanism."
"Courtesy of William Ellison?" Simon growled.
"You know, we need to talk about your hatred of this man, Simon."
"I thought we were talking about Jim," the captain said sternly.
Blair tucked the thought into his mental "Later" file. "On the way home, Jim drops the scared part and he's just angry-- even I can hear his teeth grinding, right? Well, the delay on the phone just takes him over the edge, man. When the person comes on, a general no less, Jim fills him in with short, precise words. Apparently, this information is not a real big shock to the general, and I guess that's when Jim hit flashpoint. He demands answers. Why wasn't he informed of the situation? What are you people doing to contain the problem? The answers, I suppose are less than satisfactory. Jim reels off several scathing, and inflammatory, remarks, then tells the general to go tongue-fuck himself because it's obvious his head is already up his ass."
"A general?" Simon sighed.
"A general," Blair confirmed. "That's when the phone made contact with the wall. After stomping around for a while, he goes to the fridge and gets out the six pack we bought last night, and heads for the balcony. He tells me it's best if I keep my distance for a while-- something I had already figured out. I nod and go for the broom. He says no, and mutters something about 'they can clean it up.' I ask no questions and he takes up his post out there, knocking back the bottles with frightening speed. And that's about it for my afternoon, Captain. How about yours?"
Before Simon could answer, Jim yelled for his partner. Blair raised an eyebrow and stepped outside. A moment later he came back in, several bills folded in his hand. "Well, this is an interesting development."
"What's that? Food money?"
Blair shook his head. "Liquor run. Haven't done one of these since undergrad days. Any preferences, Simon? He wants tequila. Says we can get what we want."
The captain frowned. He couldn't stand the stuff. Mexican piss, he called it. "I better take a raincheck on that, Sandburg. If he's planning on getting smashed, someone around here better keep his head."
"According to Jim, you don't want to hear the story he's going to tell while you're stone cold sober."
Simon thought back to the final autopsy report which Dan Wolf had let him see. "Scotch."
Blair nodded. "We can share. Back in a sec."
Simon found himself in the loft alone and normally, this didn't bother him. He was just about as comfortable here as he was in his own home, which said a lot about the amount of time he spent at his friends' place. He walked over to the balcony doors.
"Don't come too close," Jim warned his approaching friend. "Planning multiple homicides makes me a bit edgy."
Simon waited for a punchline, but none was forthcoming. "You're joking, right, Jim? I mean, doesn't the department have a big enough workload as is?" he said, trying for light, but ending up with strained.
"Not a problem, sir. No bodies, no investigations."
Shit. The man was serious. "You're a cop, Ellison."
"Not in this, Captain."
Simon took a step back into the loft and wished like hell for Sandburg to get back with the alcohol. Twenty minutes later, his wish was answered. Blair returned not only with the liquor, but also a box of Chinese food. "It's not good to drink on an empty stomach," he told Jim as he handed him the requested bottle.
"Good is not exactly what I'm going for, Chief," his partner replied dryly, and broke the seal atop the long neck.
"Jim," Blair began.
"Leave me," Jim said quietly.
If he had yelled, Blair would have argued. Instead, he went back into the loft where Simon was getting out plates and silverware. "How's Daryl doing, sir?"
They talked about a little of this and that as they ate their dinner, occasionally looking out where Jim continued to sit, and drink. Finally, with the dishes done, they could avoid the subject no further. "Dan let me see the autopsy report," Simon said as he reclaimed his seat on the sofa.
"The man died from blood loss due to a slit throat."
"But?" Blair prompted.
"There was evidence of a sexual assault prior to death."
Blair was amazed at how calm he was taking this. Two or three years ago, he would have been shaking by now. "So he rapes this man, carves Jim's name into his chest, then slits his throat. What kind of pervert are we talking about here?"
"Not a pervert, but a scientist, according to the perp," Jim said as he entered the loft, the half-empty bottle of tequila dangling from his hand. "There was no sexual assault...well, no assault where sexual satisfaction was the intended result. It's all about science."
"The report says--"
Jim held up his hand. "Let me guess. There was tearing and bruising of the anus, possibly of the rectum as well. There were marks on the penis, evidence of ejaculation just prior to death. There were also other marks on the body: bruising, burns, residue of tape, ligature marks on the wrists, ankles, and neck."
"Torture," Blair whispered.
Jim shook his head. "Science. The human body is a series of electrical impulses. That's how we think, move, feel. So, if someone could map these impulses, know the exact spot to send a charge to elicit a particular response, then that person could totally control his subject. If you can cause a man to writhe in agony, without leaving a mark on his body, then you have a weapon no one can prove you used. If you can make a man's finger pull back on a trigger against his will, or pull a knife across his own throat, then you have created a perfect assassin."
"Shit," Simon murmured. "That man was tortured to death for some fucking government experiment?"
Blair stared at him, no color at all in his face. "How do you know so much about this, Jim?"
The Sentinel took a swig from his bottle. "I had just become a Ranger-- young and still believing in my own immortality. I was called to my C.O.'s office. There was a man in a suit sitting there. CIA. Told me my country needed my help. When he dismissed my C.O., I should have left too. Hindsight, right?" he laughed harshly. "Anyway, this man told me of a scientist, who had strong ties to the Army-- read 'we're paying him but you won't find any records on file'-- who had gone rogue and was doing unauthorized experimentation on a village in Mexico. He needed to be stopped with the least amount of fuss. Avoidance of an international incident and all. The man had a large private force, mercenaries, working for him. No way to get to him without a lot of attention-causing gunfire. However, it seemed I resembled the scientist's brother. If he thought his brother was looking for him, he would send some of his henchmen out to bring me to him. Then we would have the exact location of his hidden facility, and a surgical unit could be brought in. Nice and neat."
"I'm not sure if the plan was faulty, or that I wasn't informed of the actual plan. To make a long story short, because I don't remember much of it anyway, I woke up in the facility. The doctor knew I wasn't his brother, but he was just so darn eager to show off his work to someone, that he chose me to be his confidant. I kept waiting for the strike, but it never came. Finally, when I discovered the child, I refused to wait any longer. Maybe because I took the initiative, back up decided to arrive. The last I saw of Dr. Bertrand, he was being hauled off in cuffs."
"What child, Jim?" Blair asked softly.
"Bertrand wanted to know if adults, with far more developed nervous systems, were more, or less, sensitive to his technique than children. How do you go about doing that? You take a child and an adult, then subject both to the same stimuli."
Blair picked up the shot glass of scotch and threw it back. Simon did the same. "You think Bertrand is in Cascade now?" the captain asked.
"I know he is. He blames me for ending his experiments just when he was on the verge of a big breakthrough."
"How did he escape custody?"
Jim rolled his eyes. "I'd bet my badge the bastards never put him in custody; they probably gave him his own lab and enough 'willing' subjects to keep him happy. But I think he found out where I was, and decided revenge came before the job. Psychopaths can be so predictable."
"Has he carved Ellison in other people?" Blair asked hesitantly.
"One other." Jim tugged his T-shirt over his head, then fingered his chest. "It healed nicely, but ever since my senses came online, I can feel the marks. The 'E', the 'L's...." He reeled off the letters one at a time, his fingers tracing the outline of each one.
"What else did he do to you, Jim?"
Jim looked at his partner, then picked up his tequila bottle. "Nothing an Army Ranger couldn't handle, Chief."
Jim ignored him. "You both look a bit shaky. Drink up. I'm buying all the rounds tonight."
"You talk to anyone about this, Jim?" Simon asked, willing his hand to lift the glass, not crush it.
"Talk about what, sir? Officially nothing happened. Officially, I was on leave. Officially, there is no Dr. Bertrand. So what would I have to talk about?" Simon muttered a curse.
"Jim, I have a couple of questions."
"Why are you talking about it to us? If you've kept your silence all these years...."
"I made it clear that my silence was based on certain contingencies. When those were violated, my promise was null and void."
"Do they know this?" Simon asked.
Jim shrugged. "They should. I have always been a man of my word."
"These are dangerous people you're going up against," Simon warned his friend. People who had covered up an atrocity like this, probably weren't the type to forget a breach in privacy.
"And I'm a dangerous man. They created me, but I doubt if they know me. Their problem-- not mine. So, Chief, you had another question?"
"What does this have to do with Chris Hatcher?"
Jim smiled, like a teacher who had a particularly bright student. "See, Simon? I'm not that difficult to know. My brilliant Guide has taken two seemingly separate cases, factored in my responses to each, and has concluded they are connected. Maybe if you were in Military Intelligence, Chief, their name wouldn't be such an oxymoron."
Blair flushed at Jim's praise, but he was more interested in how Jim said it, than in what he said. The Sentinel's speech patterns were slightly different, more erudite. He had always known Jim was an intelligent man, but he always played down his education and his slightly affluent background. Blair figured it was his way of blending, of not calling attention to himself, which of course, was totally negated by his daily heroic actions. But either the alcohol, or the anger, was tugging away that "Everyman" veneer. He wondered if Simon had noticed the difference. Probably not. The more Jim talked, the more Simon knocked back the Scotch. He reached out his glass in order to get his share.
"I believe Chris Hatcher was abducted to be the co-subject in Dr. Bertrand's latest experiment. However, as soon as the abductor learned Chris was asthmatic-- brought to his attention by the child's reaction to the chloroform-- he realized Chris was not a suitable subject. Chris was then tossed into the nearest deep hole and left to die. I wonder if he realized how lucky he was to have been dumped into the ravine."
"Lucky?" Simon and Blair chorused.
"A broken neck is a mercy compared to what Bertrand would have put him through."
The only sounds in the loft were the clinking of glass and the pouring of liquid.
"Chief, you do have a bed just a few feet away," Jim said, as he tucked a blanket around his roommate. Although his partner was shorter than he was, the loveseat was still too short for him to be very comfortable on it. The longer sofa was already occupied by a rather large captain, who was already snuggling up in his blanket.
"Wanna have my nightmares with my friends 'round me," Blair said, struggling not to slur the words.
"Sorry to give you nightmares," Jim apologized, knowing exactly what dreams Blair was fearing.
"S'okay. Me and Simon, we can handle anything. Right, Cap'n?"
"You didn't warn me he talks as much drunk as he does sober, Ellison," Simon groused, wondering what had possessed him to drink as much as he had. Because he felt Jim's pain, that's what. Sympathetic drinking. A new sport. "Jim?"
"Yes, Simon?" He turned out the lights and settled into his yellow chair.
"Sandburg and I sared...shared a bottle, which still has a little bit left in it. You had your own bottle and it's empty."
"Good observation skills there, Captain," Jim said encouragingly.
"Why are Blair and me slightly...unsteady and you, you're as sober as a jug...judge?"
"Because tequila doesn't make me drunk, Simon. It just makes me mean."
"You going to bed, Jim?"
"No, Chief. I'm going to sit here and wait on some visitors."
"Vis'tors? Should I put my shoes back on?"
Jim laughed. "No, they won't be staying that long. Probably won't notice that hole in your sock."
"Hole?" Blair twisted his body to search the bottom of his feet and nearly fell off the loveseat. Jim caught him just in time. "I have a hole in my sock, Jim," he whined.
"We'll get you a new pair tomorrow."
"Get Simon a pair too?" he asked, always taking care that no one ever felt left out.
"I'm perfectly cabubble...capable...of buying my own hosiery, Sandburg."
Blair snickered. "Would that be thigh highs or pantyhose, Capshun?"
Jim tapped Blair on the back of the head. "Thanks, Jim," Simon said gratefully.
"Sure thing, Simon. Everyone knows you prefer a garter belt."
"Tomorrow, I will have a hangover. I will not be in a good mood. And I will remember this, unnerstand?"
He listened to them fall asleep, Blair laughing softly, Simon still muttering threats. When he was sure he wouldn't disturb them, he silently paced the loft, trying to channel the rage that had been building in him ever since he saw the body in the morgue. When the walking didn't help, he decided the bathroom needed cleaning. When he couldn't find another speck of anything in the bathroom that didn't belong, he headed for the kitchen. It was there, just as he removed the last fleck of grease from the far corner of the oven, that his senses picked up the movement he'd been waiting for. About time.
Even as he removed the bright yellow gloves protecting his skin from the harsh cleansers he was using, he analyzed what he heard. One hostile was entering the building, creeping up the stairs. The other was in the alley, preparing a grappling hook to toss onto the balcony. Predictable. He slipped into a black T-shirt and positioned himself behind the front door. Although the loft appeared completely dark, the Sentinel was able to gather the light from the full moon which filtered from the skylights, and made the apartment quite visible from his viewpoint. So when the doorknob jiggled, he saw it, frowning at the noise the perp was making as the lock was picked. Predictable and sloppy. Good help was so hard to find these days.
The door opened and a slim figure eased through. Before the intruder even sensed his presence, he was snapping the wrist holding the gun. As it dropped to the floor, he found a pressure point, which quickly had the assailant following the same path as the weapon. Even before the body settled, Jim was moving toward the balcony. Similar actions achieved similar results, and he slung the second body over his shoulder to dump it next to the other; dragging the inert form would have only scuffed his recently buffed hardwood floor. Assured they would be out for a while, he frisked them for weapons, then grabbed his gloves and started on the refrigerator.
A change in pulse-rate signaled their revival. When they came to, the intruders found themselves confronted with one of their own weapons. Jim put a finger to his lips. "My friends are sleeping, so we'll make this brief. Tell the general I expect to see him here, not more of his preparatory entourage. In other words, if any more of you people show up here, I will break something more vital than a wrist. If the general doesn't believe me, I suggest you make your colleagues believe. Now, get out, while I'm still in a generous mood." He opened the door for them and waved goodbye.
A rapid heartbeat made him look toward the living room. His Guide sat up, sleepily watching the proceedings. Ever his back up. "It's all right, Chief. You can go back to sleep."
"'Kay." He lay back down. "Jim?" he whispered softly.
"You're right. Tequila does make you mean."
"I'll be nicer in the morning."
When Blair woke next, the sun was arching toward the center of the sky...and he hated it. "Bright," he muttered, turning his head into the back of the loveseat.
Jim hurried over and closed the blinds. "Now try it, Chief."
Blair blinked. "Better."
"Than what?" Simon tried to ask gruffly, but 'gruff' was a little beyond his reach at the moment. "It's a sad day when a man realizes he's too old to drink."
"Especially when he's as young as I am," Blair agreed. He eyed the man who was busy pouring coffee in the kitchen. "Not even a hangover, right?"
The mugs were plucked eagerly from Jim's hands. "Right."
"You broke their wrists," he accused.
"What wrists?" Simon asked.
"Simple fractures. They will heal with minimal care."
"So you're over this now? No more mean Jim?"
"What wrists!" The coffee was giving the captain renewed strength.
"The tequila is out of my system if that's what you're asking. But you know me, Chief. Even on my best days...."
"Yeah, yeah," Blair replied with a smile, then quickly sipped the coffee when the action reminded him that he did have a hangover.
Which was quickly aggravated when Simon thundered, "You have exactly five seconds to tell me what the hell you're talking about!"
"I told you we were going to have visitors, Captain," Jim reminded him gently.
Simon blinked. "Someone was here last night?"
"You broke their wrists?"
"Here? In the loft?" A confirming nod. "And I didn't waken?" A confirming shake of the head. "You heard this, Sandburg?"
"Just the end part where Jim threatened to break something other than wrists if the general sent more men over."
Simon groaned. "That's it. No more alcohol for me. When I can sleep through an invading army and the resulting battle, it's time for me to give up the bottle, the can, whatever. Soft drinks and water from here on out. Loan me a couple of aspirin and I'll take my sorry, on-the-wagon ass home."
"Actually, you don't need to do that. You can just borrow our shower," Jim offered.
Simon sniffed himself. "Even without heightened senses, I know I need clean clothes, Ellison."
Jim pointed to a cleaner's bag hanging on a wall hook. Simon adjusted his glasses and frowned. "Those are my clothes."
"I had a lot of pent-up energy last night. After I cleaned the bathroom, the kitchen, and swept the floor, I went for a walk. Found myself in your neighborhood, Simon."
"That's about ten miles away," the captain murmured.
Jim shrugged. "Lots of energy, okay? Anyway, I got to thinking that maybe it would make matters easier for you if you didn't have to get up, with a headache, go home, then come back to the loft before the general makes his appearance. So I went in and picked up a few things. By the way, you really need better locks, Simon. A cop should know that."
"I have an alarm system," he replied defensively. Jim rolled his eyes. "You defeated that too?"
"I'm a Sentinel, sir."
"I can't face this right now. Maybe after a shower, after several more cups of coffee, a shave.... You wouldn't happen to have picked up my shaving stuff and my toothbrush?" Jim pointed to the small black pack sitting on the table. "He's damn handy to have around, isn't he?"
"Why do you think I'm still here?" Blair replied. "Certainly isn't for his pleasant demeanor and kind voice."
"I could dump that fresh pot of coffee I made," Jim warned sweetly.
"Shut up, Sandburg." Blair and Simon looked at each other as they spoke in tandem. Jim just laughed.
Blair looked up from his laptop. "The general?"
Simon carefully folded the newspaper he'd been reading. "How mad is he going to be that we're here?"
Jim shrugged. "His problem."
"When will it become yours?"
Simon looked at him shrewdly. "Why do I think you're holding more cards than you're letting on?"
Jim just smiled enigmatically and headed for the door. "Hello, Gen. McClellan. Nice morning, isn't it?"
"Cut the crap, Colonel! I do not appreciate the fact that I have been summoned here under the threat of harm to my people! You should know--" The slightly plump man with short white hair peeking out from beneath his star-adorned cap stopped in mid-sentence when he saw there were others in the loft. "What the hell is this, Ellison?"
"High tea, of course," Jim replied with a smirk. "Come on in and I'll make introductions. General Sam McClellan, this is Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department and Dr. Blair Sandburg, consultant to the department and a professor of Anthropology at Rainier University. Gentlemen, Gen. McClellan."
"This is not funny, Colonel!"
"No, it's not, General. Neither is having my home invaded by two of your goons in the middle of the night."
"What was I supposed to do? You call yesterday, raving like some lunatic--"
"Yeah, a lunatic who just found out that a fucking psychopath is running around the city carving my name into people, sir!" The general cast his eyes balefully at the duo sitting on the sofa. "They know, General. When the coroner finds a body with a detective's name etched into a corpse, he informs the authorities. In this case, that's the police."
"Not for long," the general replied.
"You've assigned someone?"
"Not yet. Contrary to your belief, we didn't know Bertrand was in Cascade. We just knew he had disappeared from where he was supposed to be."
Jim shook his head as if to say it wasn't worth the argument. "Fine. Activate me."
McClellan stared at him. "You know I can't. The risk--"
"What risk? I'm a cop, remember? I'm sure the case can be handed over to Major Crimes...." He looked to Simon for confirmation. Confused, but trusting his detective, the captain nodded. "My cover will remain secure."
"I don't--" McClellan began.
"You owe me," Jim interrupted. "Especially this."
McClellan frowned, then whipped out a cell phone. He didn't say anything, merely pressed a series of buttons, then closed the case. "It's your assignment, Colonel. But just because you're on this as a cop--"
"I know my job, General."
"Fine. And you better watch yourself on this one. I'm not exactly happy with your performance so far."
"Want to take it higher?"
The general opened the door and walked out, the men he'd left waiting in the hall falling in behind him.
Jim closed the door and turned to face his friends. "Questions?"
"You better believe it, Colonel Ellison," Blair muttered.
"If you stay in long enough, Chief, you get promoted."
"But you're not supposed to be in, Jim. You got out, remember?"
Jim shook his head. "They wouldn't let me out. I knew too much to be allowed out."
"So exactly what are you doing, Jim?" Simon asked. "You told McClellan your cover would be safe since you'd be acting as a cop. So, you're not a cop?"
"I am a cop, Simon," Jim declared. "Have you ever seen me act otherwise? I have been true to the oath I stated when I joined the department."
"But it's not the only oath that binds you."
"We are all bound by more than one oath, Simon. We make promises, get married, swear in court...."
"Word games, Jim? I expected more from you," Simon said wearily.
Jim closed his eyes and fell back against the loveseat. "Fine. You want more? Just ask."
"Who are you?" Blair asked.
"James Ellison, detective first class, Cascade P.D.; colonel, U.S. Army; sentinel of Cascade and Chopec Territory."
"What do you do in the Army?"
"I'm a specialist for Military Intelligence."
Blair remembered the disparaging remark he'd made earlier about Military Intelligence. He hadn't realized Jim had been downing himself. "What sort of specialist?"
"There is no official designation, but within our own ranks we are called sweepers."
"Does that mean you clean up... messes left behind by others?" Simon asked softly.
"Do you really want to know, sir?"
Did he really want to know that his best detective, his friend, the man he would and had depended on to save his life and his son's, was a government-approved assassin? No. "Even though it's my day off, I'm going down to the station to get started on getting this case transferred to Major Crimes. I suspect I'll be hearing from you later today?"
"Yes, sir. I have to see about getting a new cell phone and--" he looked over to where Blair sat silently staring at him-- "clear up a few things around here. Then the case will have top priority."
Simon nodded and left.
"You don't get off that easy with me," Blair whispered, angrily. "What is a sweeper? In very plain, layman's terms."
"When the masters make certain messes," he began slowly, and Blair nodded his understanding, "they call for particular servants to clean up those messes." Another nod. "But sometimes it is the servant who has either made the mess or is himself the mess. That's when a sweeper makes an appearance."
"So when the government fucks up, they call in an assassin. When the assassin fucks up, they call in a sweeper." Okay. That was pretty clear. But what if.... "When a sweeper fucks up--"
"Another sweeper is called in."
"Your tax dollar at work," Jim said lightly.
"You said you knew too much for them to cut you completely free. So this was your only option?"
"I had several options, Chief. This just seemed to be the best one."
"You could have remained a soldier?"
"Yes. A career man. Retire with a pension at the end of twenty. Just like in the department."
"You could have done 'wet work'?" he said, using the term he'd heard in one of the action flicks Jim was always renting. Hmm. Brushing up on his skills, perhaps? Seeking new techniques?
"Yes. I could have been an assassin or merely an operative, seeking and stealing information. Or I could have become a sleeper."
"Which is?" He'd heard the word, but wanted to make sure he wasn't confusing all the terminology.
"Basically, deep cover. You go in and stay in, until you are activated. Then you destroy whatever it was you were in, from the inside out. Although I passed the psych test for that, I'm not sure I would have been able to handle it that well," he added honestly. "Thankfully, however, I was good enough that I could decide where I wanted to be placed."
Blair looked at Jim, assessing the man in front of him. "How do you assassinate an assassin?"
"By being better at the job than he is."
"But you are all schooled by the same teachers."
"Yet, some excel at a higher rate than others. You're a good teacher, Chief, but not all your students receive A's."
"True. So, I guess it's safe to assume you pulled a 4.0 in your studies."
Jim shrugged. "I've always been an overachiever, Chief."
"You have more freedom than B students?"
"Yes. One of the key advantages a sweeper has is complete anonymity. Even among ourselves, we do not know who the others are. For all I know, you could be a sweeper. Who would suspect a mild-mannered anthropologist of being a government agent?"
"Or a decorated detective?"
"Exactly. A sweeper's cover is for life. Unlike the regular specialists, we do not move around, becoming this or that in order to get near a target. Unlike sleepers, we do not destroy our cover to complete the mission. We are given an assignment. We step out of our lives for those required moments, then slip back into them."
Required moments. So that's what a hit is called now. "How many required moments have you had, Jim?"
"Two." Blair's eyebrow lifted in surprise. "A rogue assassin is not a common event, Chief. By the very nature of the beast, an assassin has to be a controlled person, patient and thinking."
"Of course." Maybe they should have recruited me. After all, I'm not in the bathroom throwing up over this, right? Guess some of your control has rubbed off on me, Jim. "Did this go on under my nose, Jim? I mean, I'm just wondering how blind I've been. Should I come home in the evenings and ask how your day has been, did you kill anyone today?"
Jim jumped up from the loveseat. "Maybe I should have kept this from you. But it just didn't feel right, and I wanted you prepared in case...."
"In case what?" Blair asked quickly.
"If McClellan hadn't activated me, I would have gone after Bertrand on my own."
Blair paled. "Which meant you would have been rogue, and a sweeper would have been sent after you."
"What about now, Jim?" Blair asked, listening to his partner cross to the balcony doors. "Is telling Simon and me a mess? Are the three of us now targets?"
Jim gasped softly and Blair turned to look at him, surprised at the hurt the blue eyes revealed. "Is that the way it is now, Chief? Have I abused your trust so much that you would think, even for a second, that I would willingly put you and Simon in danger?"
That wasn't what he'd meant...was it? No. The only person Jim ever voluntarily put into danger was Jim. And had Jim abused his trust? Or was it the opposite? His partner had honored him with the truth and instead of accepting the gift, he was making bitter accusations. Why? Because Jim was a soldier? He'd known that from the beginning. Because Jim killed? Jim's ability to do so had saved his life on several occasions. Can anyone say "Lash"? Because Jim killed on order? So did the people he killed. Think, Sandburg. Think of the mayhem one professionally-trained killer could cause when he's out of control. The cops would be helpless to stop him, the citizenry just so much target practice. The government created these assassins, had always created them. It was only right that they maintain control of them. And sometimes that meant....
"I would die before I allowed that to happen," Jim said softly.
"I know," Blair replied, equally quiet. "I'm just mouthing off because I'm scared, man."
"For you. Your superiors can't be too happy over this. The general--"
"Screw the general. In the whole scheme of things, I'm more important than he is and he knows it. Handlers are a dime a dozen. The number of people skilled enough to become sweepers is limited. I guess you can label us a protected species."
Jim's eyes settled on Blair, acknowledging his partner's fear. "No, Chief. The decision to take out a sweeper has to be an unanimous decision of the unofficial network that governs our existence."
"Because you are so valuable?"
"Yes. And because we are so darn hard to kill. Activating a sweeper to take out another sweeper could result in the loss of two or more of our ilk."
Blair marveled that they were having this conversation. As if it were the most natural thing for Jim to be explaining his life as an assassin. "This network is military in its composition?"
"Not totally. Sweepers have varied backgrounds."
"Alphabet soup, huh?" FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.
"Yeah," Jim said with a chuckle.
"Do they know you're a Sentinel?"
"No. I have quite a bit of autonomy in my work. They are more interested in my completing my assignments than in how I do them."
"Would your...masters is how you referred to them earlier, I think.... Would your masters be of any assistance if others found out about your abilities and wanted you for experimentation purposes?" An old fear for both of them.
Jim quirked an eyebrow. "I hadn't thought about that. I'm not sure what their reaction would be. Depends on their view of my value at the time, I suppose."
His value at the time. Blair grew cold at the thought of these people thinking of his friend as just a piece of merchandise to be assessed for depreciation. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Let's table this discussion for a while, but I retain the right to pursue it at any time. Deal?"
"So I guess we have a case to work. It is we?"
"Det. Ellison's partner is Dr. Sandburg."
Blair shook his head. "You know the next time someone calls you boring, I just might have to shoot them."
"People think I'm boring? Really?"
"Don't be offended, man. Think of it as aiding your cover," Blair taunted.
"Who thinks I'm boring? Come on, Chief. Spill."
"Is this how super spies get their information? They beg for it? I'm so disappointed, Jim."
"You want covert operations, Sandburg? I can do covert."
"Promises, promises," he replied with a mocking grin. "Let's go, man. Somebody is in need of a new cell phone."
Jim sighed. "They just don't make them like they used to."
Two pairs of blue eyes met and laughter exploded.
"It's good to see you looking so normal," Dan Wolf said as Jim and Blair accompanied him into the morgue. "Yesterday, you looked like shit."
Jim laughed. "It's unanimous then. Sorry about that, Dan. Burritos for lunch. Must have been a bad bean somewhere."
"Scratching burritos off the menu for a while," the Native American noted as he reached for his lab coat. "You know, I was surprised to get your call. Captain Banks led me to believe the case was going to be taken away."
"We convinced the powers that be to reconsider that," Jim said smoothly.
Dark eyes narrowed shrewdly. "I just bet you did. You said something about there being no sexual assault?" He opened one of the silver drawers and slid out the tray. "Oh, did I mention we got an I.D.? Thomas Dillon. Guess that'll be in Homicide's files when they transfer them to you. Major Crimes is taking the case, correct?"
Jim nodded."Since we have reason to believe this case is connected to the Chris Hatcher one--"
"You want to go over his autopsy while we're here too?"
Jim heard Blair's pulse spike and figured it was at the thought of seeing the young boy on the table, but when he turned to assure his partner he didn't have to stay for that, he realized Blair hadn't even heard them. Instead, he was staring, transfixed, at the chest that Dan had bared, the chest with the letters of his named carved down it.
"Chief?" he called softly. No response. "Sandburg!" Blair shuddered, and pained eyes looked across the body at him. "It's not me. Do you understand?"
His partner nodded and took a deep breath. "Sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for. Why don't you take the truck to the station while I finish up here?" Jim suggested. He could hear Blair's rapid heartbeat thundering in his ear. "I can either walk back or bum a ride. Unfortunately, this place is usually quite busy."
"Remember the good ol' days when we were in the department basement? You'd just have to get on the elevator.... Not that I'm complaining about having our own place," the M.E. added quickly.
"Just gets a little lonely, huh?" Blair asked.
Dan looked at him warily and nodded. The kid read people way too easily. "I'm heading out when we finish, so I'll drop Jim off at the station," he offered, feeling as strongly as Jim that Blair needed to get out of there. He had run into many a veteran on the force who couldn't take an autopsy, so he knew what the morgue did to Blair. But beyond that, it had to be creepy as hell to see your best friend's name scratched into dead flesh.
"Thanks, Dan. Here are the keys, Chief."
"I can handle this, Jim," Blair protested, trying to convince himself as well as Jim.
"I can too," he replied meaningfully. "Let me walk you out to the truck. Back in a sec, Dan."
"Take your time."
"Listen, Jim," Blair said as they stood next to the blue and white pickup, "I'm sorry about zoning in there, man. But if you need me to stay...."
"I'm okay with this, all right? Yesterday, I wasn't, but today, I am. Maybe it's because I'm in the position to do something about it now."
"It's your case. You can control the outcome; therefore you can control your fears."
Jim smiled. "Exactly. You're starting to know me a little too well, Chief."
Blair shook his head and returned the smile. "Not a chance in hell of that ever happening, Colonel Ellison."
"Get out of here. Check on the paperwork for the home invasions if you need something to do. Simon's probably going to farm it out to Brown or one of the others."
"And then we focus exclusively on finding Dr. Bertrand?"
"Yes, and ending the nightmare once and for all."
Blair didn't know how long he'd been sitting at Jim's desk, just staring off into the distance until a hand landed on his shoulder.
"Where's your partner?" Simon asked. He'd just returned from filing the paperwork to get both the Dillon and Hatcher cases transferred to Major Crimes.
"Conferring with Dan."
"Any problems?" he asked softly in deference to the detectives around them.
"Other than me zoning on seeing his name etched for all eternity in a dead man's chest? No."
Simon nodded sympathetically. "It sorta knocked me for a loop when I first saw it, too."
"Anyway, he sent me over here to prepare the home invasion file for one of the other teams."
"I already have it on my desk. Come on back." He ushered the anthropologist inside and shut the door. "How are you doing with everything else?"
"You mean with Jim's secret life? Quite frankly, I'm disgusted."
Simon's eyes widened. "Isn't that a little harsh? I know that you probably don't agree with everything the government does--"
Blair interrupted him with a bitter laugh. "Don't agree? Simon, I don't agree to the point that some people would label me a revolutionary, part of the radical fringe."
"People like who?"
"The FBI, for one. My mother heads one of the most organized anti-government movements on the planet."
"Naomi?" To say that Simon was shocked, would have been an understatement.
"Yeah, flaky Naomi Sandburg. Cool cover, huh? As her son, with a doctorate degree to my name no less, I am listened to by very influential people."
Now this did not shock Simon; he knew how good Blair was at garnering support. "Does Jim know about your secret life?"
Blair nodded. "It's hard to pull something over on a Sentinel. We made a pact early on to not discuss it. But that was back when I was just Naomi Sandburg's son. Lately, I've been standing on my own qualifications, and I'm in a lot deeper."
"Damn. No wonder you're disgusted by what he's doing."
"If it were only that simple," Blair groaned. "Jim doesn't disgust me, Simon; I disgust me."
"What do you mean?"
"I find out that my partner, my best friend in the whole world, is part of everything that I am against. He knows this, and yet he has the courage to tell me straight to my face. I ask him questions and he answers without hesitation, knowing that in my eyes, he's digging himself deeper into a hole I can't share. And do you know how I feel while he's sharing this with me? Proud, Captain. So very, very proud."
"Well, you can't say you've never heard this one from me-- I don't understand a thing you're saying, Sandburg."
Blair laughed. "I'm proud of Jim for telling me. I'm proud of Jim for having enough faith in our friendship that he could tell me, and not expect me to leave him. Hell, I'm even proud of Jim for being so good at what he does that he can be a sweeper. They are the elite of the elite, Simon, the assassins of assassins. He was that good without his Sentinel abilities. Oh, man, can you imagine what an expert he is now? Damn, I want to shout. That is my best friend and he's the fucking best killer in the world!" Blair dropped his head into his hands. "That's why I'm disgusted, Simon. And my mother will just drop dead if she finds out."
"Will she find out? I mean, this is proof, living proof, that the government has its own little death squads roaming around. This could further your cause, actually trigger reform."
"And pull the trigger on Jim. It's not an option."
"How do the two of you do it?" Simon asked wonderingly.
"Get along, work together, live together, hell, even speak the same language. I thought when Jim brought you in here, claiming that you were his cousin, that I hadn't seen two such different people since Mutt and Jeff on the comics page. When you started working together, I said to myself, physical appearances really don't make that much difference. But there is more than just physical differences between the two of you. You have radically different philosophies, styles.... Yet, you make it work. It stuns everyone. The Chief of Police, the Commissioner, even the Mayor, have asked me the secret of your success. You complement each other so effortlessly. How?"
Blair shrugged. "I guess it just boils down to the fact that when we discard all the surface differences, deep inside we both want the same thing."
"When we find out, we'll let you know."
Simon rolled his eyes. But he knew what it was. They both had this ridiculous desire to protect. Jim wanted to protect the world and Blair. Blair wanted to protect Jim and the world. Somehow this protecting thing overrode whatever else that could potentially get in the way of the two acting as one. Whether it be outside forces or internal conflicts, nothing stood between the Sentinel and Guide for very long. "The two of you impress-- and scare-- the hell out of me," he quietly admitted.
"Welcome to the club, Simon. Your membership kit will be in the mail," Blair said with a grin.
"Does it come with a decoder ring?"
"Yeah, but it doesn't always work."
The captain sighed. "Should have known."
"Yeah, you should have," Blair teased.
Before Simon could throw him out of the office, Joel Taggert came in. Joel had been the captain of the Bomb Squad before deciding to spend his last years as a Major Crimes detective. So he worked under Simon, but also covered for him on his days off, which this was supposed to be. "So, Blair, don't tell me they've corrupted you too?" Joel asked his friend.
"Of course they have. They're very bad influences, Joel. Why just last night--"
"What do you think we've done to the kid this time?" Simon interrupted before last night could be discussed.
"It's bad enough you don't know how to enjoy a day off, Simon, and Jim, well, I think he relaxes better on the job than he does at home. But now you have poor Blair coming in when he should be out doing something interesting."
"Joel's exactly right. I should be out doing something interesting," Blair argued.
"I've always considered baiting Simon as being pretty interesting, Chief," Jim said as he came through the door. "Hey, Joel. How's it going?"
"Fine, Jim. You've been out shopping?" he asked in amazement, looking at the bags Jim had in his hand.
"I wouldn't exactly call it shopping. Just making good on some promises from last night."
"Ah, last night," Joel said gleefully. "Blair was just getting ready to tell me all about it."
"I was?" Blair scratched his head. "Actually, Joel, I don't remember much of it."
"You mean I didn't have to buy these?" Jim pulled out a pair of socks and tossed them to his partner.
Blair grinned. "Oh, man. These are great, Jim! Feel how thick they are. Must have cost a fortune," he continued as he slipped off his hiking boots and bared his feet.
"Well, quality costs, Chief. And lasts. It'll be a while before you whine about a hole in those."
"Sandburg, isn't this something you should be doing in the privacy of your home?" Simon asked distastefully.
"Gee, Simon, that mean you aren't going to put yours on?" Jim asked, pulling out another pair, and flipping them toward the captain.
"You didn't?" Simon moaned.
"I'm a man of my word, sir. I told Blair I would get you both a pair, and I did."
"Because of last night?" Joel prompted, wanting to hear the juicy details. Nights at the loft could get quite entertaining, and he'd known Simon had spent the evening there because he'd left the number with the desk sergeant.
Jim ignored the eager captain and focused on the one who wasn't so eager. "And to keep that scowl off your face, Simon, I got you a treat." He reached into his bag and pulled out a package containing stockings-- ultra sheer.
Minutes later, Simon lifted his head from the desk where he had dropped it. He knew they were still laughing, he could hear that, but now he could see Sandburg who was curled up on the floor, heaving outrageously, and Joel who was bent over, one arm wrapped around his stomach, the other wiping the tears that spilled from his eyes. The main culprit, one Jim Ellison, stood smirking in the corner, looking highly pleased with himself. Just as Simon opened his mouth to blast his detective, Jim winked, and suddenly Simon understood. This was needed, would be needed, to get through the days ahead. He reluctantly smiled at his lead investigator, his eyes promising payback at a later date. As he looked at the flat package in his hand, the smile turned into a laugh. Which caused everyone else to lose it all over again.
If it hadn't been for the telephone ringing, they might have laughed the entire afternoon away. But the message Simon received soon had everyone sober. "That was Homicide. The detectives want to talk through the cases with you and Sandburg, Jim. I told them you'd meet them downstairs in five."
"Understood, sir. Let's go, Chief." Blair nodded and the two of them walked out of the office.
Joel watched them go, then turned to his fellow captain. "Jim only plays this hard when something big is about to come down. Is that what we're facing?"
Simon nodded. "Sit down, Joel. It seems we have a mad doctor running loose in our town. And his ultimate target is Jim."
"Jim?" Blair looked up from the laptop placed on the dining table. It was a sleek, new model, complete with encryption programs and doohickeys that drew information from satellites and trapped it within a labyrinth of firewalls. Needless to say, it was from Jim's bank "stash."
"Yeah, Chief?" Jim replied from the sofa where he was going over each case file with all of his sentinel and investigative skills.
"You said Bertrand confided in you, even though you weren't his brother?"
"That's right. The only people he had working for him were mere hired muscle. I guess he thought they wouldn't understand, or else he figured he could tell me because I wouldn't be alive much longer to spill his secrets anyway."
"You think he told you enough to be able to get into his head?"
Jim closed the file carefully, straightening the pages, making sure nothing was creased. "What are you getting at?"
"What we have here," he pointed to the files, " and here," he pointed to the computer, "is what Bertrand has already done. What we need to know is what he is going to do. You're probably the only one who possesses that knowledge."
"I'm not a profiler, Chief."
"You knew Bertrand came to Cascade to taunt you."
Jim sighed. "We're not going to do some regression thing, are we?" He hated his lack of control when he was under, although he trusted his partner to protect him and bring him back safely.
Blair smiled and joined him on the couch. "Nothing so drastic in the beginning, Jim," he said and Jim caught the inference that the option was still open. "Let's start with a simple question. Why did he carve Ellison into your chest?"
"He kept asking me my name and I wouldn't give it to him. For most of our association, he just called me Soldier Boy. Then one of his goons found out who I was. He didn't want anyone having the same trouble getting the information that he'd had, so he cut it into me."
Blair winced sympathetically. "Why do you think he cut it into Dillon?"
"As a message to me."
"Wouldn't it have screwed up the results of his experiment? How would he know if Dillon's reactions were caused by the electric volts or the pain of the cuts?"
"He was through with Dillon when he did it. As soon as he finished the N, he cut the man's throat."
Blair wondered if Jim noticed how easily he answered the questions. "So the experiment was a success?"
"No. Without the child, the results were invalid."
"So what will Bertrand do now?"
Jim shrugged. "Get a child first. Oddly enough, they are the hardest to come by. A missing child is quickly reported, while adults are usually missing at least 24 hours before anyone notices or calls for assistance."
"Would he try another grab-and-run like at the park?"
"No. He wouldn't take the chance of getting another unhealthy subject."
"Where would be his best bet at getting a healthy child?"
Jim closed his eyes, trying to stay in the mindset Blair had led him into. It was weird how easily his Guide could pull information out of him that he didn't even know he knew, but in an odd sort of way, he was getting used to it. "A sports event, maybe? All children have to have physicals to participate. So you go down to the local soccer field, maybe scout a child who's playing hard, but loving it. Hopefully, his parents aren't among the spectators. Maybe his friend's mom is going to drive him home. When he doesn't show up at the car, you win valuable minutes as the adults try to figure out if signals have gotten crossed. Did his parents pick him up? Did he ride home with someone else? Did he decide to walk home? By the time everything is straightened out, the kid is halfway to his destination."
"God, you're good, man," Blair said with a shiver.
Jim opened his eyes. "I was going to say the same thing about you. How in the world did you know I could do this?"
"How many investigations have we worked together, man? I know your method of tagging this and that, cataloging everything a suspected perp says."
"But that's because I'm a Sentinel. I wasn't then."
"You were; you just didn't know it."
That was true. "I need to notify the station. Put out more patrols where kids are playing...unless one has already been taken. Better check with Missing Persons too." He reached for the phone.
By the time he finished, Blair had gravitated toward the balcony. The spring night was mild, with a breeze that had a bracing nip if one stayed out in it too long. "So far, so good, Chief. No recently missing children, and the force is going to make itself very visible at all student activities."
"That's good, man. Now we're one step ahead rather than behind."
"That's always a good place to be." Jim looked out at the lights of his city. Bertrand, you were a damn fool to come here. No one threatens what's mine. No one.
"How long do we-- you-- have to complete this 'assignment'?"
"I have time."
Blair crossed his arms and stared out into the night. "Doesn't this bother you? That you have been forced into this position?"
"Forced into the position of taking Bertrand down again? Yes. Forced into being a sweeper? No."
"No? You were coerced into becoming a killer, man!"
"I have always been a killer, Sandburg," Jim said simply. "I am a protector. Sometimes that means making life and death decisions, choices that have to be made whether you want to or not. I made peace with that long ago. If I hadn't, then I damn well have no business out on the streets with a gun."
"Being a cop is different," Blair argued. "Your goal, your purpose, is not to kill, but to bring justice. If people die, it is because they give you no choice, not because you have been ordered to execute them."
Jim was silent for a few minutes, and Blair was afraid he had pushed too hard...or too far. Then Jim spoke. "What would happen if I wasn't who I am? My superiors would just send someone else to do what I do, and maybe this other person wouldn't be as careful as I am. Maybe he would see bystanders as mere collateral to be sacrificed for the good of the cause, instead of innocent people who deserve to be kept out of the job. Or worse, these rogue agents would just keep on doing whatever they're doing: going into business for themselves, or settling old scores with the skills that they have.
"I would love to go back into time, Chief, and stop our government from creating people like me, stop other governments from creating the need for people like me. But how far back would I have to go? And one government stopping the practice would do what? Do you think it would change history? Do you think if I could stop it then, that the need wouldn't arise somewhere else in history?"
Blair shook his head. "So we should all just lie back and let the government fuck us because they have always fucked us? I can't buy into that logic."
"So you fight your rapist and die. Then what? He goes out and rapes again even before your body gets cold. Where is the logic in that?"
"My soul finds peace."
"At the cost of how many other souls? What if you hadn't resisted? What if you had survived the attack and lived to warn others? What if you lived long enough to find the chinks in the rapist's armor, or ways to hamper, even restrict, his movements? A dead martyr can be worshiped, but it takes living beings to make differences that stick."
Blair stared at the man standing next to him. "Do I know you? Have I ever known you?"
"I have always done what I thought was necessary. You don't always agree. I respect you for that. But, yeah, you know me, Chief. You knew me before I even knew myself."
"Handing out way too much credit, Jim." The night claimed the conversation for a few moments. "So, is this the advice you pass on to the students in your self-defense class?" He had suckered Jim into teaching the class at Rainier when Jim had arrested the scheduled instructor for grand theft auto.
His partner grinned. "Hell, no. I tell them to aim for the balls with anything that's handy."
"Shit. That'll never work in your case, man," Blair muttered.
"Everyone knows our government doesn't have any balls, man."
"Jim, you should be in bed."
Blair, still fascinated with the information he could access on the new laptop, looked up from the screen and across the room at his partner who was sprawled along the sofa staring at the ceiling, or maybe a bug on the ceiling, or a dust mote, spider web-- he was never sure what Jim saw with those Sentinel eyes. Stay on topic, Sandburg. It was one thing that he was still up; the well-soused Guide had slept last night. Jim had kept watch like a good guardian which meant he needed sleep. Was he on guard duty tonight as well? That didn't make sense. So far, all the known children of Cascade were accounted for. The homeless ones, Jim had assured him, would not be under consideration for study. So what was worrying him? "You think we're going to have more visitors?"
"Then go to bed, man."
Jim sighed and sat up. "I think I like you better drunk. Promise you a pair of socks and you shut up."
"Promise me you're going to bed and I'll shut up now." Blair didn't need Sentinel hearing to know what his partner muttered wasn't fit for innocent ears. He chuckled as the bathroom door nearly slammed behind Jim. He pecked at the keys some more, frowning at what came up on the screen. "Hey, Jim?" he called in a normal tone, knowing closed doors meant nothing to the Sentinel.
"Why is it that when I type your name into the U.S. Military Personnel site, I come up with Captain James J. Ellison, discharged 1989?"
"Hit F7-213AH Alt B 9257*8."
Blair pushed his glasses up on his nose as information filled the small screen. "Shit, man. You sure you want me to see all this?"
Jim entered the room, his shirt neatly tucked in the hamper in the bathroom, a small towel hanging around his neck. He stood at the end of the table, looking intently at his partner. "You sure you want to read it?"
Blair considered the question carefully. Then he closed the window with the information, and powered down the machine. "No. Your secrets are safe from me."
The older man shrugged. "They're also safe with you. You're right; you don't need to read the file. All you have to do is ask."
"Can I?" Blair murmured softly.
"You say you've only had two missions as a sweeper. When were they?"
"In '92 and '98."
"'98? That means I was here."
Jim rolled his eyes. "I wish you had been here, Chief. Instead, you and Simon were on my tail the minute I left."
"Oh, man! You mean--"
His partner nodded enthusiastically. "Exactly. Sure, I knew saying I needed time alone wasn't going to go over well, but I didn't think it would be translated into 'come and join me', either. I had to scramble like hell to complete my assignment and get to Clayton Falls ahead of you guys. It would have served you right if that had been a real quarantine."
Blair's mouth had dropped open when he realized what Jim was saying, and was only now slowly closing. Damn. He'd been truly hurt that Jim had wanted to get away from him. That was why he'd gone along with Simon's scheme to track him. But the Sentinel hadn't been tired of his Guide; it was just the soldier going on assignment. What a relief! "That'll be our code from now on, man," he said cheerfully.
"Yeah. You get an assignment and you say, 'Sandburg, I need time alone' and I'll say, 'Sure, man, whatever.' That way you'll know that I know that it's about work and not us."
That it's about work and not us. Apparently his ruse had stung for a while. In all the excitement of stopping the money train, he'd just assumed he'd been forgiven. If this was his chance to put that behind them.... "Sure, man, whatever," he said glibly, heading to his room.
"Yes!" Blair gloated. "I knew we'd get around to the code thing. This is so cool!"
Jim fell asleep with a smile.
The next few days passed without any missing children, making Jim relieved but edgy. "It's obvious the increased patrols are having an effect. But my sources indicate a number of known mercenaries have been trying to come into Cascade. That means Bertrand is trying to shore up his operation here."
"Trying?" Simon asked, leaning back in his office chair.
"Yeah, but the Feds are cooperating. The foreigners are being turned back and the Americans are being detained." He noticed Blair's frown at the word, and shrugged without remorse.
"So what's next?" the captain asked. "You say Bertrand likes to set up in a warehouse. Unfortunately, the supply of those seem limitless in Cascade. You getting anywhere with that, Sandburg?"
Blair gnawed on one of the handles of his glasses. "Not really. The computer is searching for every real estate transaction made in Cascade in the past six months, which is how long Bertrand has been out of custody. However, if he's as revenge-minded as Jim says he is, he could have been preparing for this for a while. The warehouse arrangements might be a year or so old."
"Try accessing the power company's records, Chief. See if there has been a large power output lately in a particular sector or maybe several localized surges. If I remember correctly, the doctor's machines were resource hogs. It would be easier to track this if he had a current subject, but it appeared he spent some time with Dillon. It just might show up."
"I'll start the search as soon as we get back to the loft," Blair said. He hadn't brought the laptop to the station because of the questions it would have invariably generated. "Jim, if Bertrand can't get a child victim, or even get his mercs into place, what will he do?"
"Wait. He's a scientist, used to waiting for ideal conditions."
"How long will your people wait, Jim?" Simon asked worriedly.
"Don't worry, Captain; 'he has time'," Blair quoted dryly.
"Well, the department doesn't. We can't keep our resources focused on the playgrounds for very long. If this is going to be some drawn out--"
"It won't be," Jim interrupted.
"But you just said--"
"If the mountain won't come to Mohammed...."
"What the hell are you planning?" came the soft question from his partner.
"If Bertrand doesn't want to play until he has the ideal conditions, he may settle on having the ideal subject instead."
"And that would be?"
"The more I think about it, the more I'm not liking your plan," Blair said quietly as he let himself into the loft after his class. This semester he was teaching a night class, once a week. It wasn't very satisfying, but Rainier was trying its best to hang onto him until one of the older professors finally admitted it was time to retire. Blair wasn't so enamored with his teaching abilities that he thought that was the only reason why Rainier was desperate to keep him. It was just that police response time to campus incidents was so swift with a member of "their own" on the staff. Of course, working for the police had been "disruptive" while he was a student. But professors had much more flexible schedules.
"Why am I not surprised?" Jim muttered as he went to check his lasagna. He wasn't a gourmet chef, but he had a few specialties he liked to prepare. This was one, although he thought it would have been better with meat-- Italian sausage, perhaps?-- but he knew his roommate was going to be a little miffed over the tentative plans that had been made in Simon's office earlier. He didn't need to give him another reason to get mad at him.
Blair ignored the remark. The whole idea of using Jim as bait was a doing a number on his Guide alert. This enemy had already had a shot at the Sentinel, had done God knows what to him. How many jolts of electricity had he sent into his friend's body? Had Jim been conscious or unconscious when Bertrand had taken the knife to his chest? And regardless of Jim's scientific explanation, Bertrand was guilty of sexual assault; only the act mattered, not the motive behind it. All of this Jim had borne in silence for years, not even the terrifying nightmares loosening his tongue. Now, he was planning on facing the demon in his lair once more. Intentionally. "You're not a piece of cheese, you know."
"I am to a certain rat-doctor, Chief. Bertrand wants me and I want him."
"Sounds like a perfect love match," his partner replied dryly as he got out the silverware and set the table.
"Yeah, we'd both love to kill each other, causing as much pain as possible as we do so."
"But that's your job, Jim."
"Not the pain part, not anymore."
Blair put down the last fork. "Jim?"
He flushed and removed the lasagna from the oven. "There are things I have done, Chief, that I regret; even if they were done under orders."
Blair sat down. He knew he was an empath, had been raised to be one-- if that was possible. Naomi was always telling him to be sensitive to other people's emotions, to tread lightly, to read their bodies for signs of what they were feeling. Perhaps if she had known how he would eventually use his gift-- dealing with criminals and their victims, and caring for a bunch of cops-- she might have led him down another path. But no. He had recognized it as a natural ability, especially after Jim's friend Incacha told him he was a Shaman. Suddenly it all had made sense. There was a reason why he "felt" so deeply for his fellow earth creatures, a reason why he hated picking up guns, why he preferred to talk his way out of trouble. He needed to soothe others in order to soothe his own soul.
But Jim was an empath too. The simple fact that he was a Sentinel made him one. However, Blair suspected his friend's empathic talents came from another source-- his heart. His quickness to accept responsibility, to shoulder guilt, were indications of this. He felt what others felt and tried to take those burdens away from them. Like his mother's leaving. Blair suspected Jim not only had to deal with his pain, but with Steven's and William's as well. When William had lashed out to protect his privacy, Jim had secreted a hard shell around his heart, much like an oyster oozed mother of pearl around an irritating grain of sand. But no matter how hard that shell had been, some things managed to work their way inside. Blair was sure someone being tortured, by Jim or Jim's associates, would have been in that category. So, Jim would have stood there, his lips a mere thin line, dispassionately watching the events, but also feeling the pain deep inside. He must have known what each instrument used had done to the victim, which ones had merely hurt the body...and which ones had done irreparable damage to the soul.
"Hey, buddy. You're looking a little pale. What's wrong?"
Blair looked up at the man standing over him, a hand placed on his shoulder to monitor him, as well as give him comfort. The shell was gone now, the heart vulnerable to the pain of others. The Sentinel had learned that he needed to feel in order to do his job properly, had learned that he could depend on his Guide to protect his heart when it was out in the open. "I don't want you to get hurt, Jim."
"I take risks every day, Chief," he said, misunderstanding Blair's worry.
"As a cop, not as a sweeper." He looked at the casserole dish as Jim placed it on the table. "This is not the usual way you do this, is it? I mean, in order for you to complete your assignment and make it to Clayton Falls before Simon and me, you just went in, did it, and headed back out, right? Why is this one different? Why has it taken days?"
Jim just shrugged and took his place at the table. "Each case is different."
Case. That was it. "You're doing this one by cop rules...everything by the book. Why? To protect your cover?" Jim didn't answer because he knew Blair was talking more to himself than his companion. "Nah. If the murderer was found dead, you'd just add it to the file as you usually do, then move on to the next case. No one would even think to look in your direction. So, why are you playing it this way? Man, the government tracks us all the time. I'm sure if you wanted to, you could go into the computer and find out exactly.... Shit, Jim!" he shouted as he figured it out. "Stop trying to protect my sensibilities! I'm not afraid of you...or what you do!"
"I know, but if I can afford to do this in a way that is inoffensive to you, let me."
"Can you afford it? Can you allow this man to send his people to grab you?"
"It worked the first time."
"Yeah, and help barely arrived."
"It's different this time. You and Simon will be the ones coming for me. You trust me to save you, don't you? Why can't I do the same?"
"Of course you can trust me, Jim, but if something happens to you, I am never going to forgive you. Got it?"
"Got it, Chief."
"Blair, don't fight it."
Blair looked at his partner in surprise as they crossed the street to the parking lot where both of their vehicles sat. Jim had told him the details of his plan as they sipped beers into the wee hours of the morning. But he hadn't expected something to be happening so soon. They had just finished breakfast. "It's going down now?"
"Yes. Just remember I need you alive and in working order."
Before Blair could nod his understanding, a hand snaked out from beneath one of the parked cars. He crashed to his knees painfully, but before he could cry out, a rag covered his face and he smelled chloroform. The world swam dizzily around him and he forgot what he was supposed to be doing or why. As the blackness descended, he merely mumbled a weak, "Jim?" and passed out.
"Dr. Sandburg? Come on, Doctor. Wake up now," a voice gently cajoled him. He ignored it, liking the peaceful place he'd found.
"Sandburg, wake up!"
"Ah, the voice of my master," Blair teased, opening his eyes to a very worried captain. "Ever thought about using that voice to wake the dead, Simon?" Then his stomach heaved and thankfully the nurse was standing by with a handy basin. Thirty minutes later, Simon was allowed in to see him again. "Never take chloroform on a full stomach," the pale anthropologist warned.
"I'll endeavor to remember that, Sandburg." Simon couldn't stop his hand from reaching out to touch the consultant's forehead. At least it wasn't overly warm. "You doing all right, kid?"
"Probably better than Jim. How long was I out?"
"It's a little after ten."
Blair struggled to sit up. "It happened just before eight. So, have you tracked him yet? You know where he is, right?"
Simon actually liked being a captain. Sure, he griped about this and that, yelled at his men, muttered nasty things about his superiors, but overall, he thought he was an effective leader and that he was using his skills to the best of his abilities. But then there were times like this, when being the captain really and truly sucked. "You know we chose to put the tracking device in Jim's shoe because it wouldn't have to be moved each day, if it took days for him to be kidnapped." It had sounded so sensible. Even if Jim was stripped when he arrived at the lab, his shoes would probably be placed aside or at the worst, thrown in the trash can. But it would still be emitting and they would be able to find him.
"What happened?" Blair asked anxiously. "Did he kick someone and break it, or did he stub his toe? What, Simon?"
"From what we can deduce, when they were moving him...somehow he lost his shoes. They were found in the parking lot. I'm sorry, Blair. Bertrand has Jim and we have no way to find him."
"You have unusual healing abilities."
Jim blinked away a few remaining cobwebs and stared at the man leaning over him. Bertrand. The scientist had not aged well, his skin loose about his face, his hair a shaggy white. "It's a good thing to have in my line of work," he finally managed to say.
Fingers stroked his chest. "You should have scarred. I can find no evidence of surgery, so I take it you did not have them medically removed. Also, the paralysis drug you were injected with is wearing off much too early."
Jim shook his head, feeling the cuff around his neck tighten. A quick check confirmed his ankles and wrists were also confined. He also realized he was completely nude, and he struggled against an almost dizzying sense of deja vu. He knew he was lying on a stainless steel autopsy table, could feel the metal beneath him, the drainage holes strategically placed for best use. Suddenly he realized how much he really, really, didn't want to be there. "Maybe you just do lousy work."
"Practice makes perfect," the doctor argued. "I've waited a long time for this, Soldier Boy. For over a decade I have dreamed of you."
"So we have something in common after all."
"It was bad enough that you threatened to kill me, but you set my lab afire, burned up all my notes, my disks, everything. I am still trying to recover that which you took from me."
"Ah. Another point in common." He didn't even flinch when one of the gloved hands smacked his face. "You're a pathetic old man, Bertrand. Did it ever occur to you the reason why you can't recover from the disaster I wrought upon your research, is that the research was flawed from the beginning? You were-- are-- just a second-rate scientist and that's all you will ever be."
Hazel eyes searched his. "Perhaps you are right, detective. After all, you're the only other person who knows the details of my work. There were flaws, weren't there?"
"And what I did to you was not science, but torture?"
Jim started to get a little edgy over the conversation. Bertrand was being too agreeable. "You didn't see it that way."
"Until you took the veil away, my dear Soldier Boy. I saw the disgust in your eyes, even though I knew you were intelligent enough to understand the point of my study. That worried me, even as certain people discussed my fate. When I was returned to a lab and subjects were provided for me, I started seeing the light. You see, if they were interested in my work, they would have given me children to work with, but I only received older subjects. So, I realized instead of being Merlin, I was merely the castle torturer, the master of the dungeon. That's when I learned something else."
"That I could grow to like my job."
Bertrand stepped out of his view for a moment, then Jim heard a beeping noise. Fighting the neck restraint, he turned his head and saw a heart monitor. His pulse was leaping off the scale. In the minutes that followed, he heard machines start up all around him. He managed to tune it all down to a faint hum by the time Bertrand returned.
"I have become what you knew I was from the first moment we met. I think that calls for a special celebration, don't you?" He raised his hands for Jim to see the metal disks and clips he held. "Now, let's see whose dreams will come true, Soldier Boy."
Blair didn't say a word as he took in Simon's statement. He merely got up from the E.R. bed, glad to see he hadn't been stripped and gowned. "Hand me my shoes, man."
"Sandburg, we have everyone out looking for him. We'll turn this city upside down if we have to."
"We don't have to. Jim's a professional, remember? He prepared for this contingency."
"What do you mean 'he prepared for this contingency'?"
"Drive me to the loft and I'll show you." He stood and almost fell.
"What is it?" Simon asked quickly. "Do I need to call a doctor?
"No! I just hurt my knees when I fell. Damn it. The last thing Jim told me was that he needed me alive and in working order. Guess one out of two ain't bad. Come on, man. Let's hit the road."
A half hour of paperwork later, Blair and Simon finally made it to the loft. "Jim had it done yesterday, just after he told the Feds to let the mercenaries in. It's implanted right below the skin," Blair was explaining.
"Subcutaneous implant. Sounds like something from a damn science fiction movie."
"Emphasis on the science part, Captain. Technology is like the little pink bunny; it just keeps going and going."
"Just like someone I know," Simon muttered.
"What was that, man?" Blair asked, going through Jim's "bank" bag.
"Nothing, Sandburg. You find what you're looking for?"
"Yeah. A simple touch of the button and--" The hand-held monitor lit up, then nothing.
"Shouldn't it be beeping or something?" Simon asked, looking over the shorter man's shoulder.
"It's okay," Blair said, trying to calm himself as well as the captain. "This just means Jim hasn't activated it yet."
"Yeah. To turn it on, you have to press down on it twice, like double-clicking a mouse. That's to keep it from being discovered if someone does a sensor sweep or you have to go through some kind of detector."
"So he hasn't activated it yet. What does that mean?"
Blair shrugged. "He could still be unconscious. You know Jim and drugs."
Or he could be dead, Simon thought, knowing the kid wouldn't say it. Maybe Jim had underestimated Bertrand's desire to exact revenge. Maybe he just wanted Jim dead. Hell, he wasn't going to say it either. "I need to get back to the office, see if we're making progress on that end." He nodded toward the device Blair held. "Keep me informed."
"Will do, sir."
Sir? God, the kid was scared shitless. He lay his hand on the smaller shoulder for just a second. "Hang in there, Sandburg. Your partner is always surprising us."
"I'll call as soon as he activates the tracker."
"You do that, son."
Blair closed the door behind the captain, then collapsed on the sofa, his eyes never leaving the small screen in his hand.
"So, it looks like we're all set," Dr. Bertrand said as he hovered into Jim's view again. "Everything is attached properly, the machines are all powered up. The only thing missing is your beautiful name. But while we wait to make sure the drugs are completely out of your system-- we wouldn't want to minimize the procedure by having parts of you paralyzed-- we can take care of that small matter."
Jim refused to flinch from the sharp knife the man held up to his face. "You are a sick, sadistic bastard," he muttered.
"Yes, I know. And you are my creator. How does is feel to know you are responsible for what I am?"
"I am not responsible for anything about you, Bertrand."
"You removed the blinders from my eyes," the doctor said as he made his first cut. Surprisingly, his captive didn't make a sound or a movement. Maybe his chest was still deadened. He finished the E. "You made me see what I truly was."
"But that does not make me your creator. You were depraved before I met you; your self-deception changed nothing about your essence."
"But I couldn't have reached my pinnacle while I was deluded. I would have still been hooking men and children up to these precious machines and expecting a breakthrough." His hand accidentally grazed across one of the nipples on the smooth chest and it tightened. So, Ellison had feeling now. He went on to the second L. No reaction again.
"If you're no longer experimenting, why did you try to have Chris Hatcher kidnapped?"
Bertrand smiled. "You figured that out, did you? The two of us could have been a great team, Soldier Boy. Your mind is so quick--"
"And yours is so perverted--"
"As I said, the perfect team." He made the I, putting lines across both ends. Still, the strapped down man never moved. "How are you doing this?"
"You're not reacting to the pain."
That's because I have a dial which is resting on negative two. "Training."
"Did anyone ever tell you that you are a superior human being?"
"Maybe once or twice," Jim said smugly.
The doctor carved the S slowly, preferring to make it curved instead of boxy. "I took the fellow, and would have taken the little boy if he had not been flawed, for old times sake, I suppose. I wanted to remind you of our past."
"Hallmark has a card for that."
"But that seemed so impersonal."
"Then try Create-A-Card."
Bertrand laughed. "It's going to hurt like hell to kill you."
"I'll file that away with, 'this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.' Didn't believe that one either."
"Your parents beat you?"
"Ah. The progressive types, right? If you teach a child by hitting, you teach a child to hit."
"If that's true, what the hell did your parents do to you?"
Bertrand daubed the blood away to look at his work. Not bad. "Ignore me."
"Mine too. So that theory doesn't work, because neither of us are the 'ignoring' type, are we?" No response. Jim sent out his hearing. There were a couple of heartbeats outside the building. Patrolling the perimeter. He focused on a wider area, wondering if Blair and Simon were on their way. Maybe he better activate the back up device just in case. Before he could move, strong fingers dug into his chin.
"Where are you? Where did you just go?" Bertrand demanded.
"What?" While the doctor focused on his face, Jim flexed his wrist against the restraint twice, and felt the hum of the implant as it switched on. Damn thing itched like hell.
"You did that before. Right before you slipped out of the restraints and destroyed the lab."
"You're even more insane than I thought," Jim said contemptuously, and jerked his face away from the grinding fingers.
"Yes, yes I am. But you don't have to tell me your secrets right away, Soldier Boy. They never tell their secrets right away." Bertrand leaned forward and whispered into Jim's ear. "But they always tell."
He pressed a button and waited for Jim to scream.
Blair looked at the screen three times before he dialed Simon's number. "It's transmitting, Simon," he said, surprised his voice sounded so normal when he was so obviously close to losing it. He had lain on the couch and thought of the many reasons why Jim hadn't activated the tracker. They had all disappeared until one remained-- Jim was dead.
"Stay where you are. I'm on my way."
Blair took the time to grab a quick shower and patch his knees. He knew Jim would smell the blood on him if he didn't. By the time Simon's sedan pulled up in front of the loft, Blair was waiting on the sidewalk with his backpack and the tracker. "Head northwest," he said tersely as he closed the door.
Simon remained quiet for a few minutes, but couldn't ignore the tension emanating from his passenger. "He activated the tracker, Blair. He's okay."
"Is he, Simon? It's two o'clock. He's been missing since eight. He's been waiting for six hours for us to rescue him, and we're not there yet. And don't say he just activated that stupid thing in his arm, because that will make it his fault and it's not."
"Sandburg, you've waited for Jim to come rescue you, haven't you? Sometimes it gets hard, but you get through it because you know he's coming. Jim knows we're coming, Blair. He'll hold on."
Blair nodded, sitting up a little taller. "Yeah, Jim will hold on. He knows we're coming. He'll hold on, Simon. He better."
"I can't kill you."
"My...my...my loss," Jim stuttered softly. Tremors wracked his body, the electrical current he had been subjected to screwing up the natural order of his system. Neurons fired whenever and wherever they wanted to. Commands from the brain struggled along neural pathways that were disrupted, and in some places broken. Nerves were completely fried-- signaling pain, pleasure, itchiness, stinging, and burning all at once. He was in hell, and the constantly changing sensations were keeping him from zoning-- which meant he was without relief completely. Death would have been welcome, but for the fact he didn't want his friends finding his body. He had stood over Blair's dead body once; he never wanted his friend to go through the same.
"What's your name?"
"Go...to...hell." His face spasmed or he smiled; he wasn't sure which. "Act...actually, you'd be jo...jo...joining me there."
"That's why I can't kill you. You're too special to die, Soldier Boy. You don't react like any other patient I've encountered. I keep giving and you keep taking."
"Sou.sou...sounds li...like my...marriage. You...you want the chi...chi...china, dear, or the s-s-sil...silver?"
"Just you, Jim Ellison. You and I are going to disappear. The government can find a new minister of torture and the Cascade police can find a new detective. We're going to a very nice, very isolated island, and we're going to learn to live and work together."
"Al...already got a par...par...partner like that. Just got him house...housebroken. May...maybe next year." He forgot to breathe as a frisson of pure agony snaked from his big toe to the top of his head. But once the pain faded, something else lingered. Help was near.
"Let me give you something to help with the pain," Bertrand offered.
"Just stay...the...hell away...fr.from me and I'll be...fine."
"At least let me take the clamps off."
"No. No more electricity."
Jim forced his hand up to brush across Bertrand's. "Th...th...thank you."
The doctor looked at the hand touching his and squeezed it. Then he carefully removed the electrodes, making sure not to damage the abused skin further. He started to remove the restraints, but remembered what the man had done to his lab before when he should have been too weak to move. Instead, he fluffed a sheet over him and used the intercom system to have one of the guards stand by while he freed his captive. A minute later, the door opened, and he turned to give his orders.
Instead of his mercenaries, he was faced with six policemen in black nylon jackets and holding rather large guns, all pointed at him.
"Cascade P.D.!" an imposing Black officer, obviously in charge, yelled. "Put your hands on your head and step away from the table!" When Bertrand did as he asked, he signaled the other officers to cuff the man while he cautiously approached the table. Blue eyes blinked up at him. He grabbed the nearest cop. "Get Sandburg in here now!"
Only because he had been threatened with handcuffs, Blair stood beside Simon's car, his head bowed as he sent his strength to his friend inside. Jim was alive; at this close proximity, the Guide could feel his Sentinel, but the spirit which touched him was weak. "I'm here, Jim," he chanted. "I'm here."
"Sandburg! The captain wants you!"
Blair grabbed his backpack and raced inside where Simon was gently unbuckling the restraints. He winced when he saw the red marks around Jim's throat. "Hey, man. How you doing?"
"Be...be...better now that you...you are here. Help...me up."
Simon shook his head and Blair touched Jim's arm. "We have an ambulance coming, partner. Just take it easy until then, okay?"
"Au...autop...sy ta...table. Want down, now!"
Blair paled, the sheet shielding the table from his view. "Sure, Jim. Help us, Simon." They sat Jim up, holding him when he swayed.
"No...no clothes," Jim murmured forlornly.
Blair gently tipped him toward Simon and grabbed his backpack. "Uh, I remembered what you said about before, so I grabbed some sweats."
"My...my par...partner," Jim said proudly, and Blair flushed at the praise.
They got him into the pants and off the table, finally settling him against a wall while the cops, and eventually forensics, completed their work. Jim had made them cancel the ambulance, stating that Simon could drive him to the E.R. when he finished. "You still doing okay?" Blair asked, sliding down beside Jim and moving his partner's head to rest against his shoulder.
"You're so full of bullshit, man," Blair teased gently.
"Before. On...on the table?"
"When Bertrand had you the first time?"
"Yeah. I...heard the boy."
"You told us about the child before, Jim."
"No...I...heard...the...boy," he said insistently.
Blair's eyes widened. "As in 'sentinel-hearing'?"
"Yesss. Made me so mad, I didn't feel pain when I pulled my hand through the re...restraint. But we...we...won't be...test...testing that, San...Sandburg," he threatened lightly.
"Jim, it's going to be a long time before I ask you to test anything," Blair admitted, shuddering as he looked at the autopsy table and the machinery surrounding it.
A shadow fell over them, and Blair looked up at Simon. The older man looked slightly stunned. "What is it, Captain?"
"Squad car just reported in. The officers were taking Bertrand in when he suddenly had some kind of seizure. By the time they got to the E.R., he was gone."
"Good riddance," Blair replied dryly. "Can we go now?"
Simon looked at Jim, then nodded. "I'll go pull the car closer. Just sit here until I get back."
"Think you can get to your feet?" Blair asked his companion.
"N...no problem." Bracing himself against the wall and with his partner's help, Jim made it unsteadily to his feet.
"You have a smudge on your thumb, Jim. Is it okay if I wipe it off?" Blair asked casually.
Jim nodded. The poison was only potent upon immediate exposure. A flick of a fingernail had removed the thin film covering it just before he touched Bertrand.
"Mission complete," Blair said softly as he wrapped his arm around his partner.
"I do...what I do...with a cl-clear conscience...Ch...Chief," Jim said, leaning into the caring hold.
"That's all anyone can ask, Jim. That's all I will ever ask."
Blair powered down his laptop and went to join the man on the balcony. "All is well in Cascade, man?"
Jim nodded. "For the moment, Chief. But you know Cascade...."
Blair laughed. "Oh, yeah, man." He sobered quickly as noted the faint red marks around Jim's neck. At least they would fade. It was still questionable if the cuts on his chest would leave scars or not. "You had a nightmare last night."
"It's getting better. The images are less intense. Give me a few days and they'll go away. They always do."
"And they always come back."
"Not this time, Chief." He turned to face his partner, trying to put into words what he felt during the dreams. "There's a finality to these nightmares, a sense of closure that I didn't have before. When they leave this time, they will be gone forever. Of course, there are others just waiting to take their place."
Blair smiled. "Of course. You know, our lives would terrify most people."
"But we aren't most people, Blair. We are who we are...and that's because we have each other."
"We are lucky, aren't we?"
Sentinel and Guide relaxed side by side as they stood guard over their city.
The man stared at the computer screen. "Damn, he did it."
"He said he would," his companion stated nonchalantly.
"Yes, but...damn. How?"
"He's that good."
"No one is that good."
"He is. Somehow he managed to find out about the upcoming orders to dispose of the problem. He managed to find us and make the deal. Then he managed to complete the project as he said he would."
"I'm still trying to find out how he knew Blair Sandburg was scheduled for termination."
"What difference does that make now? He found out and neutralized him."
"By telling him the truth."
"Weird concept, huh?
"I could understand if he had said, 'Hey, Sandburg, they're going to kill you if you don't shut down your website.' But that's not the truth he told him. He revealed his secrets, and that was enough to compel his partner to get rid of his. Unbelievable."
"Only if you don't believe in love."
"He loves Jim Ellison enough to give up his life's work for him? I don't get it."
"You don't have to. The proof is in front of your eyes. What does it say on the screen?"
"'The Sandburg Network is officially closed by order of the owner. What I do, I do with a clear conscience.-- B.S.' I wonder what the hell that means?"
"Don't know, don't care. All I know is that he has not only shut down his network ,but has also severely damaged Naomi Sandburg's credibility. People start to wonder when a son turns his back on his mother, you know? By the way, have you seen his new website? He wants people to contact him who suspect a government agent of being a loose cannon or rogue."
"Think he's planning on freelancing Ellison?"
"Once again, I don't know and don't care. Less work for us. Now what about that dinner you owe me?"
"You bet we'd end up killing both Ellison and Sandburg, remember?"
"Oh. Can't it wait until payday?"
"You are so cheap. I'll treat you, okay?"
"So this is a working dinner. Who's our operative?"
"She's working the drive-thru tonight."
A snicker. "If our fellow Americans only knew...."
"Damn good thing they don't."
"You know what?" he asked, staring at the screen for several seconds before clicking it off.
"Glad Ellison and Sandburg are on our side."
"Yeah, me too."