Thanks for your patience. I know you've waited a while for this one. K, my beta, helped me over a block, so you can thank her for this. BTW, she doesn't beta my "Author's Notes", so ignore the bad grammar and punctuation. :-)
Speaking of K, she warned me that I left a number of loose strings in this one. Most will be addressed in the next Family installment.
Warning: Jim calls Blair "dad", Jim tells Blair to do something without explaining and Blair does it, Jim and Blair are apart for much of the story, there's an OFC (Original Female Character), and I'm sure there are other squicks just waiting to pop up and bite one or more of the readers. Therefore: READER BEWARE!
I debated whether I should break this into two parts or not. I didn't, but if you have problems getting it, I'll redo it.
If you have comments, and with this one you probably will, feel free to write. I won't promise to respond (I've broken that promise way too many times lately), but I will read your remarks (and appreciate them), and if the moon's in the right phase and the stars are correctly aligned, you just might get a response. Now, is that honesty, or what? :-)
Quite unplanned (those darn muses!), there's a scene in this story that is a reply to a challenge found on Jen & Suzie's Challenge page. (Challenge #3)
Okay, bad news/good news time. Bad news: I'm not going to post anything in August. Good news: I'm going to spend the time writing on some of the longer stories that I've been pushing to the back burner like "Inferno"-- the next GoH entry, "Inversion"-- the sequel to "Deep Cover", and "Shamanic Ecstacy"-- a post TsbyBS story. I'll still be surfing, so if you have any comments, you know my addy. I know you won't miss me-- the college crowd will be back in August with tons of new stuff to post. Gee, I'll even be able to catch up on my reading!
Look for my next story at the beginning of September!
Hope you enjoy!
To know the pains of power, we must go to those who have it; to know its pleasures, we must go to those who are seeking it: the pains of power are real, its pleasures imaginary.
Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon
Gregory Hernandez watched the goings on around him, and knew without a doubt that hate couldn't kill. Because if it could, there would be one less man on the planet to plague him. How could they worship him like that, tag after him as if just touching him on the arm or shaking his hand could change their lives? Who the hell did they think he was, the fucking messiah! No, of course not. The messiah could come and go, and they wouldn't care. No, this was the great and powerful Elder they were showing obeisance to.
He sipped his lemonade, which was heavily laced from the silver flask in his pocket. A Family reunion, he was calling this lavish affair. Free food and lodging for over a thousand people. What a waste of money. If he was the Elder, he certainly wouldn't be buying servitude like this. Well, not this kind of servitude anyway. Under his leadership, the men would be nonexistent, and the women would be a lot less dressed.
"So, Gregory, enjoying yourself?"
He squinted up into the sun to see that the man himself was actually gracing him with his presence. "Thoroughly, James. This was a great idea you had."
"I think it was time we remembered we were a family," the Elder said, smiling at his people. "By the way, I'm glad you took care of the concerns I had about the operation in South America."
Interfering son of a bitch. "Yes, well, I hadn't realized things had gotten so out of control. Sometimes I guess we are too close to the problem to see how dangerous it has become."
The Elder patted his brother's shoulder. "That's why we have to look out for each other." His head whipped around. "Jamie Lin's waking up. I'd better go get her before she starts a ruckus."
"That's one cute goddaughter you have." Goddaughter, daughter...what the hell, right, O powerful leader? "Looking forward to the Christening."
"Me too. Talk to you later, Gregory."
Not if I see you first. "Okay, James."
He watched the man start off toward the farmhouse, his progress halted every few steps by someone wanting to talk or touch. Damn it. It should have been him. He should have been the Elder. Father had chosen him first to be one of the vice-presidents. Because of that, he should have been named the heir. But no. James appeared, and suddenly the crown prince had been named. And to add insult to injury, he had been dumped to THIRD in line. James' little lackey, Adam, was now second, heading the entire North American operation, while he was shipped off to South America-- where the natives were outrageously thankful if they had a pot to piss in.
The only thing he could do was carve himself a niche in the place they had given him. Then the Elder had decided to take that away too. "Gregory, I've heard some painful rumors about how you are treating the women in your operation," the Boy Scout had said. "Is this something I will have to look into personally?" Like I should look into your life, James? Living with Mr. Ponytail, and a "goddaughter" with your eyes? And just what part did you play in our sister's death? She goes into a cave with you and your roommate, and is carried out in a body bag.
"I'll right the matter, Elder," he'd said, as the other siblings and Father had looked on. Just thinking about it made him want to puke.
Live large, James, for now. Because soon, my dear brother, soon I'll have your kingdom...and your head.
Detective Jim Ellison sat back in the sedan's passenger's seat, quite pleased with how at ease he was. His roommate, and usual partner Blair Sandburg, would be surprised how easily he gave up control, but he was learning, slowly, that there were parts of his life he didn't have to control to be in control. Oh, yeah, Blair would definitely have a cow when he admitted that. The news would have to wait, however. He was currently teamed up with Joel Taggert, because Blair was in South America....
"Man, I can't believe how nervous I am," Blair said a week ago, as he checked his backpack for his passport.
"I can't believe it either," Jim replied dryly. "Tell me again how many times you've gone around the world on your own?"
"But I've never represented the Family on my own, man. What if I screw up?"
"Then, you screw up," he answered with a shrug, and since he was the Elder, his was really the only opinion that mattered. "Besides, you're not going to screw up. The Family could not have a better cultural liaison than you, Chief."
Blair grinned at the title. Cultural Liaison. Just a high-falutin' title for anthropologist really. The guys at the police station thought he was going to South America for an anthropologists' retreat. Rainier University, however, had been told the truth. The Family had contacted the school, and explained that Family Labs, Inc., a global scientific company, was interested in preserving a major portion of the rain forest, and they wished to employ Blair Sandburg as their go-between in the delicate negotiation. Unlike several benevolent American societies, who rushed in to save the area because they thought the natives were too dumb to do anything on their own, the Family wanted an anthropologist as a cultural liaison to the indigenous peoples who lived in the areas they wished to acquire, and Mr. Sandburg was obviously the perfect choice. The university had been flattered that one of their "own" had been singled out by such a prestigious organization, and had eagerly made arrangements for Blair to be gone for three weeks, understanding how the Family wished to keep everything low-key.
Blair was pleased with the way the Family was handling the matter. They really hated that they had to buy the land-- because the money would not go to the true owners (well, it was still debatable whether land could actually be "owned" to begin with)-- but in reality they knew if they didn't grab legal proprietorship, someone would, and the forest would fall to the ax as so much of it already had. So, they tried to find a happy medium; they would pay the politicians their blood money, *and* pay the peoples of the land by mainly leaving them alone. Blair was to make sure that the natives understood what was happening. Although he knew a few weeks wasn't long enough to establish any true working relationship with the inhabitants, he had no doubt that he could at least get across the idea that the Family was not the enemy.
Blair was looking forward to visiting the four known tribes. He never imagined that his academic leanings would fit so well into Jim's "alternate" lifestyle. He'd known the Elder was determined to make the Family accept him as a member, and he had been prepared to do whatever little project Jim assigned to him, just to make his friend feel better. Jim probably thought he still had doubts about the Family, and the way they policed the scientific community. But he had not only come to grips with the Family and their mission, but also his place in the organization. He was not Jim's, the Elder's, right hand in this. He was, at best, just a mere employee (he'd tried to send back the first check that had arrived; a look from Jim had quickly squelched the idea). But now, he was an employee, with a specific job that he was more than qualified for. He was a contributing member of the Family...and darn proud of it.
It was the other part of the job, however, that made him nervous, the part which had him wearing a charcoal gray suit with a royal blue shirt that was embroidered down the front in lieu of a tie. When he arrived in Brazil, he would meet with members of the government to establish that the Family would be taking an active role in managing the lands they had purchased. The Family wanted to create a biosphere reserve, much like the one created in Peru. The Manu Biosphere Reserve attempted to keep life in the rainforest as it had been for millennia-- human life, animal life, and plant life co-existing as nature dictated. The local politicians weren't going to be too happy with the Family's plans, because keeping things the same didn't increase revenue. The neighboring owners eventually wouldn't be happy either, because the Family would monitor its boundaries carefully, and if they found proof that the oil company to the north, or the timber company to the east was contaminating the reserve in some way, the Family would retaliate-- and unlike the locals, they wouldn't be bought, ignored, or bullied into anything. The Family was a transnational organization just like the "big guys". They would fight, and fight well.
Jim told him that he didn't have to wear the suit, or worry that his presence wasn't "intimidating" enough, that the Family could, and would, deal with any misperceptions others had about him. But Blair figured if he was going to be the cultural liaison, he had to be able to walk in both worlds. "You promise not to do anything 'creative' with your senses while I'm gone, right?" he asked the Sentinel. "And if you do, you promise to have Simon around, right?"
"I promise, Sandburg," he said in a long-suffering tone. "Geesh, anything else, Dad? No wild parties, right?"
Blair grinned. "At least not till I get back, big guy. Well, I guess I'm out of here." His luggage had already been taken downstairs and placed in the limo's trunk.
"Just a minute, Chief." Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out an amulet dangling from a silver chain. As he said something in Quechua, the language of the Incan Empire which he'd learned from the Chopec, he placed the charm over Blair's head.
Blair looked at the talisman closely. A jaguar, crudely carved from a silver nugget. When he touched it, a shiver ran through him. "What is this, Jim?"
"Incacha gave it to me. He said it was to protect me as I foraged far from the tribe." He gave a half-shrug. "I figure since you're foraging far from the tribe, you might need it."
"What did you say as you gave it to me? It sounded beautiful."
Jim blushed and shrugged slightly. "It's something I learned from the tribe. 'May the cold of the north, the heat of the south, the rains of the east, and the winds of the west treat you kindly until you dwell within my shelter again.' I guess it's some kind of Chopec blessing. It seemed appropriate."
*A Chopec blessing...or a Sentinel one, my friend?* Blair tucked the silver beneath the shirt, and felt it warm to his skin. It felt...comforting. "Thanks, Jim. I'll take care of it for you, protect it."
Jim shook his head. "Let *it* protect you."
"I will, Jim. I will."
"So, Jim, what are you thinking about having for dinner?" Joel Taggert asked, the question dragging Jim back to the present.
Jim started to reply automatically to the captain and fellow detective, when he realized how many times he'd been asked that question, in some form or fashion, during the past week. "Okay, that's it. What's with the sudden interest in my dietary habits? If it's not you asking, it's Rafe, or Brown," he began, listing other detectives. "And, hell, Simon didn't even bother to ask. He just took me out to eat twice yesterday. You'd think I wasn't capable...." He stopped as he realized what was going on. "Blair?" he questioned softly. Joel nodded.
"The kid was worried about leaving you alone, Jim," Joel said, explaining, not apologizing. "It's only been a few months since you had brain surgery, remember?"
Jim nodded. Both he and Blair had almost died during a trip to the mountains. A blizzard, plus a speeding, and eventually exploding, car had left them hurt and freezing. It was only thanks to Simon, and the Family's resources, they were found, revived, and repaired. "Thanks, Joel. Sorry to be such a bother."
The big man shrugged. "You've always been a pain in the butt, Jim, and it's much too late for you to change. Your friends, generous-hearted creatures that we are, understand this and accept it."
Jim snorted. "You all are just too kind."
"We know." Joel grinned. "So, when are you finally going to get a new truck? There's no way you can ever use that Jag you've been driving as a police car."
"You don't think it would blend in well?" he asked with a grin.
"Sure-- at the local chop shop. I wouldn't want to have to be the one to tell your brother that his car had been stolen while you were in the middle of apprehending someone. And I sure as hell wouldn't want to tell him you used it as a pursuit vehicle."
"It can outrun every car out there."
"It's not the other cars you have to worry about, Jim. It's the brick walls and storefronts that should be your main concerns."
Jim laughed aloud. It was true that solid objects sometimes posed serious problems for his vehicles. "I'll eventually settle on something non-ornamental, Joel. It's just that I loved that old truck, you know. And she didn't even die in the line of duty...."
"Which was an amazing feat," Joel agreed. Unlike Jim's other vehicles, the blue and white pickup hadn't been destroyed in pursuit of criminals. The accident in the mountains was the official cause of death. "Maybe you shouldn't get anything you'll get too attached to, Jim. That'll make it easier when--"
"When I destroy it?" Jim completed with a chuckle. "I hear you, man. I--" His cell phone shrilled and he plucked it out of his pocket. "Ellison-- When?-- Damn it! How prepared are we?" He glanced out the window. "I'm on the freeway, just past Exit 9.... Fine." He pressed the end button, then rapidly dialed another number. "Sam, I need a secure line to Blair. Ring when you get it!" He flipped the phone closed.
"Problems?" Joel asked, his skin crawling as he looked at the blue fire spiking from his passenger's eyes. Then, as he watched, the fires were banked until they merely smoldered. He wasn't quite sure which state was more dangerous.
"A revolt in the ranks. Something I should have taken care of a long time ago," Jim muttered.
Jim sighed. "Of course he is. Listen, Joel. I have to go. Tell Simon I'll be in touch as soon as I'm fully briefed."
Joel looked out the window at the passing highway. "Go where, Jim?"
Joel did as ordered, but knew there was no way he was going to leave Jim on the side of the road. Blair would kill him. But before he could argue, he noticed a sleek black limousine pulling off behind them. The door opened, and he saw Adam Black exit, and lope toward the car. Ah. Things were starting to make sense. Adam was Jim's brother, and both were involved in something that smelled of the government.
"Elder," Adam said, as Jim opened the door. "I have ten teams on standby, and a command center is being set up on the plane."
"Have we determined the extent of losses in South America?" Jim's phone rang, and he held up his hand to halt Adam's reply. "Yes? Thank you, Sam.... Alice, wait for the panther or hawk." He closed the phone, and slid completely out of the car. "Keep Cascade safe for me, Joel."
"Will do, Elder," the detective replied, pieces coming together in his mind so fast that his heartbeat was racing. "Sir? You mentioned South America. Blair okay?"
Jim was so distracted, he didn't hear the new respect in his senior officer's voice."Yes. I just talked to him. Don't worry, Joel. I'll bring him home safely."
"I know you will, Elder."
Joel waited until the limo pulled off and around him before pulling back onto the road. So, Jim was the Elder, the head of the unnamed and undefined organization which had swooped in and taken over when Jim, Blair, and Simon were shot. He knew it was an international group because a disobedient member had been reassigned to the Antarctic office as punishment-- a punishment he agreed to rather than face the Elder.
Yeah, Joel thought, as he headed back to the station...he'd pick a glacier over Jim's wrath any day too.
"Alice, wait for the panther or hawk."
Blair hung up the phone and crammed as much as he could into his backpack. He had no idea what was going on, but if Jim wanted him to make like Alice In Wonderland and slip into a rabbit hole, he could do it-- even if he was in another country, and had just been told to trust no one other than Jim or Adam.
*What have we stepped into this time, Jim? And why aren't you trusting the Family? And why the hell did this have to happen when I'm in the middle of the jungle?* Why not earlier in the week, when he'd been in Brasilia, trying not to gag on the crap the politicians were dishing out? He would have loved to have had an excuse to get away from them, and he would have had a major city in which to disappear. Okay, to be truthful, he wasn't in the middle of the jungle, yet. The base camp was set up just on the outskirts of the rainforest. There was a town just five miles north of them. He could make it there easily...and then what? He'd stand out like a proverbial sore thumb among the brown-skinned natives. But, if he went deeper into the jungle, he'd probably get lost, or knowing his luck, stumble upon an unknown tribe of cannibals.
Unconsciously, his hand closed around the amulet which lay beneath his T-shirt. *You knew I'd get into trouble, didn't you, man? Well, here's hoping your blessing wasn't just a handful of empty words.*
"Shaman, you are troubled?"
Blair spun around, and saw one of the translator/guides that had been hired for the "safari". "What did you call me?"
The thin, copper-colored man...no, boy, Blair amended as he looked closer, bowed his head. "I meant no disrespect, sir. But I come from a line of shamans, and know the energy which surrounds them. You are a shaman, are you not?"
*Why argue with an apparent expert?* "I am."
"And you are troubled?"
*I'm going with my instincts on this one, Jim.* He fingered the amulet again. *And yours.* "I am. I have been told that I am not safe here, that I cannot trust those who travel with me."
"The spirits have spoken to you?"
*Actually, it was a satellite phone, but why get picky?* "Um, something like that. You have any ideas of where I can go?"
"I could take you to my tribe. I am Malachua."
The Malachua were the dominant tribe in the region the Family had just purchased. He had planned on visiting them anyway. "Trouble may follow me. I have no wish to endanger your people."
The native looked up and grinned. "The danger will be to those who cross the Malachua path, Shaman."
Blair returned the grin. "I'd be honored to be your guest--?"
"Toki. My name is Toki, Shaman."
"And my name is Blair."
Blair shrugged, and picked up his backpack. "Well, Toki, as they say in my country, let's get the hell out of Dodge."
"Do you need to go by the loft, Elder?" Adam asked, turning to speak to their driver.
"No. Go straight to the airport. Whatever I need, we can pick up later. Tell me what you know."
"Rafael called. You were smart to trust him. Gregory had no idea his second-in-command was now 'your' man."
"Not mine, the Family's."
Adam shrugged as if to say there was no distinction between the two. "Yesterday, Gregory contacted the heads of Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile-- his list of power countries. He told them in no uncertain terms that South America was seceding from the Family, and the choice was theirs: come in with him, or suffer the consequences,"
"He's recruited himself an army of mercenaries."
"Using Family funds and contacts, no doubt," Jim said bitterly.
"Do we have a location on this army? An ordnance report, perhaps?"
"They're based in Colombia."
"Gunrunners' capital," the Elder said, disgust heavy in his voice. "Father wanted to clean it out years ago. I should have let him. Guess it's never too late."
Adam smiled. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
Jim shook his head in amusement. "You are a bloodthirsty son of a bitch, aren't you?"
Adam continued smiling. "Is that a yes?" Gregory, as most people who lived with their heads up their asses, had no idea of the resources the Family had. In the year or so that the Elder had taken a more active role in the organization, James had shored up weaknesses in Family defenses. Blair said it was probably due to Jamie Lin; people often thought of safety issues when they had young they were responsible for. Adam, however, thought it was because Blair and Captain Banks had been injured; he knew for a fact that getting shot himself, and hit by a car, hadn't played into the Elder's decision at all. Anyway, for whatever reason, Security's budget had tripled in the past several months. Too bad Gregory was too full of himself to read the financial reports. Taking out his little army would be a piece of cake.
"I want the army disbanded, and the weapons destroyed," Jim replied steely.
"I'll see to it personally, Elder," Adam said eagerly.
"No, you won't," Jim answered, knowing he had other uses for his best soldier. "Is Gregory aware that we know of his plans?"
"What kind of support does he have?"
"Brazil, of course." That's where the Family was headquartered in South America. "Venezuela is with him, as well. The oil companies are looking forward to him taking over. Frederick in Argentina called to ask what you needed. He thinks Gregory is a fool, and wanted you to know immediately that he was not part of this coup."
"See if he can get some people into Rio. I need to know how heavily fortified the Family compound is there."
"Certainly." Adam was on the phone as they switched from the limo to the plane.
"Elder," the pilot greeted him. "Shall we go over the flight plan?"
Before Jim could answer, his cell phone shrilled. "Yes?" he answered crisply.
"Jim?" Simon said hesitantly, used to hearing him bark "Ellison".
"Simon, I was just getting ready to call you."
"What the hell's going on? Joel came in here saying something about the Elder going off to rescue Blair. You blow your cover?"
"More than just my cover's been blown, Simon. Gregory has decided to stage a takeover."
"Gregory? He's the vice president over South America, right? Damn. No wonder you're worried about Sandburg. Do you know if he's safe?"
"I spoke to him briefly, just long enough to tell him to get his ass into hiding."
"Could it be a coincidence that this rebellion is occurring while he's down there?"
"No," Jim said, without a single doubt. "But don't worry, Simon. Sandburg's good at keeping his head down. He'll be safe until Adam gets there."
"Adam?" Jim could hear Simon frown. The captain still didn't trust the man. "Why aren't you going yourself?"
"Because as the Elder, it is my duty to deal with Gregory." However, Adam was the only person he trusted to go after Blair in his stead. If Adam hadn't been available, Gregory would have had to wait.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be a singular lack of surprise in your voice, Jim. Were you expecting this?"
"I was expecting something, Simon, but I'm not sure this was it. Gregory has been out of control for a while now. Both Adam and Arielle warned me of his excesses. I tried to rein him in during the reunion, but I feared a reprimand wouldn't be enough. That's why I had people in position to catch this before it could spread too far."
"What kind of excesses are we talking about?"
"Women mainly. Sexual harassment...maybe worse. I'm going to have to go over the books as well. He's more than likely doing some major payoffs to the local officials to make them look the other way, and with it being Brazil, there's a good chance he's into gambling as well."
"Jim--" Simon began.
"Don't say it, sir," the detective interrupted. "I know I should have taken care of this long ago. But believe me, Captain, when I say it ends now."
"What I was going to say, was be careful, Jim. You're going to be in a foreign country-- way out of your jurisdiction."
"Not really, Simon."
"Shit," the captain muttered, remembering he was dealing with the Elder, not his detective. He wasn't sure if the Elder considered anywhere "out" of his realm of power. "Where are you now, Jim?"
"At the airport, with a pilot who is patiently waiting for my approval of the flight plan."
"In other words, I need to shut up, and let you get on with whatever it is you're planning, right?" Simon sighed. "What do you want me to tell the guys here?"
"Whatever you feel is best, sir. They already have their suspicions...and maybe it's better to prepare them."
"Prepare them for what?" Simon nearly shouted.
"I don't know, Simon, but apparently, the current situation is not working out. There may have to be some...changes."
"I don't know anything, not yet. Just let me get through this, okay?"
"Okay. Don't worry about anything here. Just do whatever you have to do to keep your partner, and yourself, safe. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir." He closed the phone, and focused on his pilot. "Let's file that plan, shall we?"
"So, Toki, how do you know English so well?" Blair asked his young guide. The boy, he was sure he was only fifteen or sixteen, moved through the jungle with the agility of youth, and the ease of having been born there. The poor "old" man following him was having a hard time keeping up, so he thought talking might slow him down.
"My father works for Cyclops Oil."
Blair forgot about slowing down, opting for a complete stop on the heels of that announcement. Cyclops Oil was responsible for not only the death of one of his friends-- a beautiful woman named Janet-- but also the death of Incacha, the Chopec shaman who had befriended Jim. "I didn't know Cyclops had a division in Brazil." Neither did the Elder-- of that he was sure.
"Not really a division," Toki replied, looking at Blair in puzzlement. "Just a small office to keep the other oil companies from the area which they wish to acquire. Why have we stopped, Shaman?"
Blair smiled. There was no way in hell Jim-- no-- James, would EVER let Cyclops Oil set up permanent shop here. Not after they had nearly destroyed the Chopec. "Uh, Toki, I think you should tell your father that he should apply for a new job. I think Family Labs could find him a position." He moved forward as he said this, and Toki took this to mean the flag had dropped again. He zoomed off into the jungle, leaving Blair to use the moving grass as a trail.
When he finally caught up to him, Toki was in a small clearing, obviously preparing a camp. "My mother and father live with the Cyclops Oil people," the boy continued, as if the conversation had never stopped. "I live with them, and we all speak English. When the winter teacher leaves, I am sent here, back to the tribe to live with my grandfather, who is shaman to the Malachua. This year, he sent a message that I was not to come to the tribe until I could bring with me the wise white man with the long hair. I thought he had perhaps journeyed too far into the spirit world. Then I saw you, and I knew what must be done."
Blair looked around. "Are we safe here?"
"Those who follow know not of this shortcut to the Malachua. It will take them three days."
"And how long will it take us?"
"We will be with the tribe in the morning."
"Oh." Maybe running Toki's marathon had been worth it. Blair dropped to the ground, and opened his backpack in search of a granola bar. He looked up, and saw Toki nearly drooling over the bright wrapper, and he pitched the package to the kid.
"Thank you, Shaman," he said, before biting into the treat. His smile was one of pure ecstasy.
Watching him, Blair suddenly understood how the natives had sold Manhattan Island for a handful of beads. He shifted uncomfortably, realizing how easy it would be to take advantage of these simple people-- simple as in unworldly, not in brain wattage. "Do you know how the Malachua feel about Family Labs?"
"You own us."
"No!" Blair protested.
"You own this land?" He spread his hand across the ground. Blair reluctantly nodded. "Then, you own us."
Shit. This was going to be more difficult than he expected. Unconsciously, his hand wrapped around the talisman Jim had given him. His partner had said it was for protection, but he had used it all week as a focal point when he felt overwhelmed...like now. He drew it out from under his T-shirt, calming as the metal warmed in his hand.
An audible gasp made him look at his companion. With the speed he had used all day, Toki flung himself upon the ground, turning his head from Blair. A stream of Quechuan flowed from him, along with a fear that Blair could actually feel. "Toki? What is it, Toki?" he demanded, his heart pounding in fright.
"Enqueri," he whispered, still refusing to look at him.
"Enqueri?" Blair repeated softly, knowing the word was familiar. Enqueri! Jim's Chopec name. But the Chopec were in Peru. How did the Malachua...? "Enqueri is my friend," he said gently. "He gave this to me to protect me in my travels."
"Enqueri," Toki said again, but this time he turned his head toward Blair. "It has been said that Enqueri went to the great city to find his companion. Are you this companion, Shaman?"
Blair nodded. "Yes, I am Enqueri's Guide. How do you know Enqueri? He is Chopec."
Toki shook his head. "He is Enqueri of this." He indicated everything around him.
Blair filed the comment in his head for further study. It was true that they were close to the Peruvian border. Maybe the Chopec and the Malachua traded with each other, or maybe Enqueri was a generic name for Sentinel. Maybe the Malachua had a sentinel of their own. "What does Enqueri look like?" he asked.
The boy shrugged. "I have never seen him, but the rumors...." His eyes narrowed. "Is it true that blue lightning flies from his eyes when he is very angry?"
Blair laughed. Okay, Toki was definitely talking about Jim. Blue eyes were a rarity in these parts, and ones that sent out laser beams when angry were even rarer. Jim was going to love this-- NOT! And being a conscientious anthropologist, he knew he couldn't go around knocking down people's legends and beliefs. That was a big no-no. Up there with Star Trek's infamous Prime Directive. "Uh, only when he's very, very angry. He's usually quite..." well, 'friendly' wasn't the word, but maybe..."cordial. Did the Chopec tell you about him? Do you trade with the Chopec?"
"The Chopec have nothing we want."
Blair didn't have to be a scholar to catch the condescension in Toki's voice. Trade was out. How about.... "Did a Chopec prisoner tell you of this man?"
"The Malachua do not take prisoners."
But the Malachua were warriors, and if they didn't take prisoners, that meant.... Blair shuddered. "Okay, Toki, you can get up now."
The youth shook his head. "Not in Enqueri's presence...unless he tells me himself."
Blair sighed, and stuck the jaguar back beneath his shirt. Toki sat up, and continued eating his granola bar. "What do you know of Enqueri?" he asked, deciding this was a safer way of approaching the topic. As far as he knew, Jim's territory was only in the La Montana region of Peru. What had Toki meant when he said he was "Enqueri of this"? This what? The jungle? The entire rainforest? And was Enqueri not simply a name, but a title, given to him by all the natives in the region? What exactly did you forget to tell me, Jim? Nope, not gonna buy the repression theory this time, man.
"He is a great warrior who watches over us...well, he did until he went to the great city to find you. Does this mean he's coming back?"
The grad student shrugged. "In a way, I suppose. He has sent Family Labs to look after your interests. He wanted you to know that. That's why he sent me."
"Why did he not come himself?"
"He is very busy. The great city has many troubles."
"So, we are no longer worthy of his attention?"
Dig the ditch a little deeper, Sandburg, and you'll be able to bury yourself.*"Enqueri thinks you are so worthy that he is personally sending his people to see to your needs."
"Family Labs is 'his' people?"
Blair looked around, then leaned over conspiratorially. "Can you keep a secret, Toki?" He nodded eagerly. "The Elder is head of the Family. The Elder is Enqueri."
The teen frowned, thought a little, then smiled. "Enqueri is undercover, yes? Like "Starsky and Hutch", "Scarecrow and Mrs. King", "The Mod Squad"? To attack the enemy from the inside, yes?"
*Okay. Toki must be getting the South American version of TV Land.* "Yes, something like that. As the Elder, the oil companies and others who wish to take your land, have to listen to him."
Toki nodded. "He bought us, so that they would know he owns us-- in their language, since the Malachua already know this."
Hopefully, his rescue wouldn't come until after he had a long talk with the chieftain of the tribe. "Who else belongs to Enqueri?"
Toki shrugged. "We all do." He handed Blair the bar's wrapper, and curled up on the ground. "We sleep now. The Malachua will meet us tomorrow."
Blair blinked, and before he could protest, he realized the kid was already asleep. Five seconds later, darkness descended over the jungle. There had been no gradual sunset...at least not from his point of view. But apparently Toki had been expecting it, and with the thought that maybe daylight did the exact same thing, and Toki would be off and running with the same suddenness, Blair stuck both granola wrappers in his pack, and took out his thermal blanket.
Wrapping his hand around the silver panther, he went to sleep.
Jim waved Adam into the lounge area of the plane, which had been partitioned off as his private sanctuary. "Everything is proceeding as planned?"
"Yes, sir. We're beginning our descent into Mexico City."
Jim nodded. The plane would stop overnight in Mexico in order to give the others time to get into position. Adam would take another plane when they landed in order to retrieve Blair. So far, it appeared that Gregory had no idea his plans had been 'discovered' by the Elder. "Did you ever think we'd be doing this again, Adam? Planning strategies, maneuvering troops, going off on missions?"
Adam shrugged. "We do what we must."
"Must? It should have never gotten to the point of 'must', Adam."
The lean soldier took the seat across from his commander. "Is that your trademark guilt I'm hearing, James?"
"This wasn't the way it was supposed to be," Jim said softly.
"How exactly was it supposed to be, James? Father puts eight battle-trained men and women in control of the world, and the seven of us are supposed to roll over and just let you lead? Puh-leeze! If you or Father believe that, then both of you have your heads stuck so far up your asses that neither of you have any business at the helm of a daycare, much less a multi-national organization."
Jim laughed. "Come on, Adam. Tell me how you really feel."
"I'm serious, James. In a world where survival of the fittest is the rule, Father put together a group of the fittest, and we were supposed to have at it. But you wouldn't play in the beginning...you took yourself off the battlefield--"
"And fucked up everything," Jim exclaimed bitterly. "The Family was put into my hands, and for once in my life, I ignored a responsibility, and that is what led to this! I was selfish, Adam. I didn't take myself out of play-- I just wanted to play by my own rules. And now...now we're paying the price for it."
"You are the one who is best at seeing all the angles of every situation, the very man who taught me how to do so, yet, when it comes to your own life, you can't see beyond what you did wrong. Father has done no wrong in this? He'd been told about Gregory years ago. Gregory hasn't done anything wrong? You warned him at the reunion that changes had to be made. I haven't done anything wrong?"
"You? What the hell do you have to do with this, Adam? Yes, Father bears part of the blame, and Gregory shoulders a major share of the load, as well. But you?"
"Yes, James, me. I never trusted Gregory from the beginning, and I should have shared that with you. Whenever you and Father would disappear to talk about all the little things you leaders talk about, Gregory would make nasty comments, and veiled threats. I knew he coveted your position."
"So, you're guilty of not telling me about him?"
"No. I'm guilty of not killing the son of a bitch earlier, and saving us all this trouble."
Jim knew his brother wasn't joking. "You'd serve time in prison for someone like him?"
"Sorry," the Elder said, a corner of his lip turning upward as he fought a smile. "Forgot who I was talking to for a moment."
"That's okay," Adam said magnanimously. "You have a lot on your mind. I'm assuming that's why you're not seeing that this situation is just the opposite of what you think it is."
"Explain please, Professor Black."
"You're spending way too much time with that kid, James," Adam observed with a roll of his eyes. "It is not your lack of attention to the Family, but your increasing interest, that is the impetus for Gregory's current actions."
Jim lifted an eyebrow. "I'm listening."
"Gregory had been content to sit around and wait for Father to die, before attempting a takeover. You were in Cascade and 'out of the loop' in his opinion. His kind would never believe the women to be a threat, and he easily bullied the others, except for me."
"What about you, Adam? What did he plan to do with you?"
The lean shoulder shrugged. "Ignore me, or kill me. It's been known from the beginning that I am in this only because of you, James. I like what I do, and I'm good at it, but I have never hidden the fact that I do this for you. When I thought you were dead, I did it for your memory. When you moved to Cascade, I did it for your peace of mind. If you were truly out of the game, then I would be too, and I wouldn't be a threat. If, for your honor-- or something equally as stupid-- I decided to fight Gregory's takeover, he would have tried to have me killed-- *tried* being the operative term. He's such a short-thinker. My elimination should have been further up on the list."
"Perhaps he thought taking you out, would put me back in." Blue eyes met black ones. "He would have been correct."
"He's still a fool. After Juliette's little stunt, and your subsequent re-entry into visible control, he should have known you weren't going to take this lying down."
"You're right; he should have known." Jim smiled at his brother. "Thank you, Adam, for putting this all into perspective for me. It's not about past failures or mistakes. It's about Gregory wanting what is mine...and me not letting him have it."
"It really is that simple, James." He reached for his seatbelt as the light blinked on. "Gregory's greatest error, I believe, is not securing Blair before contacting the others."
"No, you're wrong, Adam," the Elder replied, as he too, clicked his restraint into place. "His greatest error was making Blair part of his plans in the first place."
"So noted, James."
Jim eyed him speculatively. "So, if this is some kind of battle of the fittest, are you coming after me next?"
Adam waited until the expected bump of the wheels on the landing strip. "Why the hell would I risk my life for a question I already know the answer to? Getting my ass kicked to prove something which is already known is not my idea of fun."
"Don't put me on a pedestal, Adam. That way you won't be hurt when I fall."
"And don't put yourself so low, that you won't be able stand."
Jim read a lot in that statement. Adam was worried that his feelings of guilt, not to mention his feelings of brotherhood toward Gregory, were going to get in the way of doing what had to be done. Also, he was uneasy because he wouldn't be there at the Elder's side during the confrontation. He knew protecting Blair was important, that Jim was showing his faith in him by allowing him to go after the anthropologist. But Adam would be more comfortable if he was watching his back. "I'll be standing when you and Blair join me, Adam. I promise you that."
Adam jerked his head in a nod. "I'm going to hold you to that, James."
Somewhere near Miraflores, Colombia
"Everyone is in place, sir."
"Good. We'll hold, then attack at dawn. Surveillance indicates that's when they are most vulnerable. Some will be asleep, others will be tired from being on watch all night, and the rest will be either bathing, or taking their morning crap. Should be fun watching them coming out of the privies with their pants down around their knees."
"Should they be in any particular state at the end of the raid?"
"Preferably breathing. Most of these mercs are wanted in various countries for some pretty horrible crimes. We are to make like Santa, and give some governments what they really want."
"What about the ones no one is looking for?"
"Adam says to leave them for him."
Green eyes sought brown ones in the faint pre-dawn light. "I think I would confess to some crime somewhere, if no one claimed me, rather than take that option."
"Yeah. Me too."
Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil
Adam watched the helicopter that was being carefully unloaded from the C130 cargo plane. As soon as it was ready for flight, he would be off to the campsite where Blair was supposed to be. Although he was going there to start his search for the hidden man, he wasn't going to let the people at the camp know that. Oh, no. He was going to saunter into the camp, as a favor for the Elder to see how his personal friend was handling his first big job for the Family, and then he was going to be shocked and angry, that they had "lost" the anthropologist. Adam smiled as he thought of the panicked reactions. Hopefully, he was going to discover that most of the men and women in the camp were innocents; that they had merely been following Gregory's orders because Gregory was a vice president-- albeit not for long.
That reminded him of the questions he'd overheard at the airport in Mexico. Several of the Family workers were wondering what was going to happen to Gregory. How was he going to be stripped of not just his title, but his power as well? How would he be punished for having the audacity to try a coup? Finally, where the hell was he going to go, and what would he do for the rest of his life? Adam had shared those questions with James as they waited for supplies and manpower to be loaded onto the planes which would carry Adam to Brazil, and a small force to Colombia. His solution had been the simplest-- one answer, eliminating the need for the others. Of course, James had disagreed, preferring to adopt a "let's wait and see" attitude.
Adam hadn't argued-- much. The call was entirely left up to the Elder. Father had abdicated any authority in the matter, too disheartened by the whole affair. Two of the eight people he had hand-chosen to lead his empire-- a full one-fourth-- had proven unworthy of the power he had give them. First, Juliette had turned out to be quite insane, and had tried to kill Father and Blair, before killing herself. Now, Gregory was betraying the organization. Both incidents called into question Father's judgment, and no one was more aware of that than Father. James had been worried about the older man, but he was already split in two directions-- retrieving Blair and dealing with Gregory. He could only hope Father could hold it together until he got back to the States.
"Just find Blair for me," the Elder had said when Adam had asked how best to be of help to him. "I don't want my fear for his safety to color my handling of Gregory. I don't want to confront him from a personal angle."
"Why not? By involving Blair, I think he was prepared to make it personal," Adam pointed out.
"Maybe so, but I don't have to play by his rules."
"Then play by your own, James, and I don't mean the ones dictated by the Cascade P.D." He had looked closely at the suited figure beside him. An assistant had met them at the airport with a complete wardrobe and accessories for the Elder. "Your badge is in your other pants, Elder, along with Cascade's definition of legal. You're not in that world now."
"What world am I in, Adam?"
"Yours, James. Justice is your only concern."
"What about mercy?"
"You're showing mercy by attending to this matter yourself. Otherwise, you would have sent me."
James had smiled, then sobered. "Find Blair and bring him to me," he had ordered. "I need you both by my side."
"As you wish, Elder," Adam murmured to himself, as the helo pilot signaled all was ready, and they could leave for the jungle known as Amazonia. "As you wish."
Mexico City, Mexico
"Would you like something else, Elder?" an assistant asked, noticing Jim had barely touched his dinner. "I could have the chef--"
"That's not necessary. Please make my apologies to Reynaldo. The food was excellent, as usual. It's my appetite that's off."
"Is there anything else you need?"
"Not at the moment, Anna. Thank you. I have a call to make. Why don't you rest? We'll be taking off soon."
"I'll go check status reports, sir."
Jim smiled as she walked away. Nobody with a military background took waiting very well. Patience in the field was one thing; twirling your thumbs was another. But the attack would be a coordinated one, which meant that some had to wait while others moved into place. With a sigh, he picked up the phone and dialed a very familiar number.
"Hi, Captain. It's me."
Simon's hello had been gruff with sleep, but as soon as he realized who was calling, he was instantly awake. "I was hoping you'd call, Jim. How's it going? Where are you?"
"Just getting ready to leave Mexico. Things are going to get busy once I reach Brazil, so I thought this was the best moment to check in with you."
"Adam is on his way to get him now."
A brief hesitation. "Are you sure that's the best plan?"
Jim frowned. "I thought you and Adam had buried your respective hatchets when you rescued us?"
"We have. Black is a pretty handy guy to have around when the shit hits the fan, but...."
The Sentinel finally got it. "But Adam isn't me...and nor is he you, right, Watcher?"
Simon sighed. This was a discussion he really didn't want to have. "Can he find Sandburg?"
"Not the same way you or I can, but Adam is a good tracker. Remember, we were finding people long before either of us --"
"Shut up, Jim."
Jim chuckled in sympathy. "I've been where you are, Simon. I know how strange, how disconcerting these feelings can be. To be able to reach out--"
"That's where you're wrong, Jim. I didn't reach out. You and Blair reached out to me. All I did was backtrack the connection. Sandburg and I discussed this--"
"He finally got you to talk about it? Where was I?"
"Hmm. The Guide and the Watcher plotting behind the Sentinel's back..... I don't know if I like that," he teased.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't the first time, and I doubt if it's the last. Although we outnumber you two to one, we need every advantage we can get to keep you in line."
"Is that a warning?"
"A statement of fact."
"So, you and Sandburg discussed this, and came to the conclusion that...."
"That my...." He struggled to find a word he could live with, finally settling on, but not liking-- "abilities are passive. When you're in trouble, I pick up the vibes you send to me."
"And in the E.R.?" When Jim had coded in the E.R., Simon had frantically latched onto him and Blair at the same time. Just like that, Jim's heartbeat had stabilized.
"I bridged the physical gap between Sentinel and Guide. Whatever mojo you two have going on, used me as an extension cord. Just think of me as that handy accessory you can't live without," Simon said, laughing at himself. He wondered if the words "As Seen On TV!" were stamped across his forehead.
"I always knew you were an essential part of our lives," Jim replied with a smirk. Then he thought of something. "You aren't ticked that I didn't ask you to go get Blair, are you? I mean, I would have, if I didn't know--"
"That covering your sudden AWOL status was going to be hard enough, much less trying to cover my own? It's okay. My feelings weren't hurt or anything. Besides, someone has to stay here and look out for the tribe."
Jim smiled, wondering what he had done to deserve such a good friend...and excellent Watcher. "So, you're buying into Sandburg's tribe theory now? Damn. Seems I really should have been at that meeting you two had. Darwin must have put on one hell of a show."
"The kid could talk Satan into holding a prayer meeting," Simon grumbled. "Fine. Black is capable of rescuing Sandburg. But if he's off doing that, who's watching your back?"
Just then, someone entered the cabin, and Jim had to smile. "William, you're right on cue," he said to the clueless man. William had designated himself as the Elder's personal bodyguard, whenever the Elder allowed himself to have a bodyguard. "I should have known you were on your way. Simon," he said into the phone, "I'm very well protected. You don't have anything to worry about."
"I hate to tell you this, Jim, but if you're involved, there's reason for a lot of people to worry...about property damage, insurance coverage, re-building funds, etc."
"You're a real laugh riot, Simon. Listen, I have to go now. I'll contact you when I can."
"Okay. Be careful, you hear me?"
"I will, Simon. Talk to you later." Jim broke the connection, just as the pilot came in to say the plane was ready for take off. The Elder nodded and fastened his seatbelt. "Glad to have you with me, William," he said to his guard.
The man nodded and fastened his own seatbelt, adjusting the gun holstered beneath his left arm. "Glad to be here, Elder."
Malachua Territory, Peru
Blair wasn't sure what woke him. He'd been amazed at how fast he'd fallen asleep in such a strange area. But with the talisman securely in his grasp, he'd felt safe and protected, even in the middle of the jungle. Now, it-- or possibly his own instincts-- was telling him that something wasn't right. Cautiously, he opened his eyes, and stared at several pairs of long, thin legs. Brown legs, with sandals protecting dusty feet. He followed the legs upward, noting the tanned skin loincloths, painted chests, and finally painted faces. Warriors. Malachua warriors, if he'd done his homework properly. Malachua warriors who didn't take prisoners....
"We're sure he's fine, Adam," Philip Lawson said hastily, as he explained that Blair Sandburg wasn't in the camp. Waking up to find that Adam had arrived looking for Blair had been the start to what looked to be possibly his worst day ever. Why was the head of North America in South America looking for the anthropologist who had just up and disappeared yesterday afternoon? It was either all a horrible coincidence...or life as he knew it was completely fucked forever.
"And why are you so sure of that?" Adam replied, glaring at the man.
"Because someone else is missing-- a young guide we hired. He's Malachua, so we think Blair talked him into taking him to the village."
James was right; Blair is quite resourceful. "And why would he do that, Philip? Why didn't Blair wait until the group was ready to go?"
Philip shrugged, and turned away, but not before Adam glimpsed something in his eyes. Damn. He'd always liked Philip. "Don't walk away from me, Philip. Not before we have a chance to talk," Adam said softly.
Philip froze, he shoulders drooping in defeat. "You know, don't you?"
"What do you think?"
So, fucked forever's going to win out. But I'm not going to go down alone. "Okay. I'll tell you everything."
Adam nodded. It was so much easier when they volunteered.
While attempting to make no moves that could be misconstrued as threatening, Blair cautiously sat up. He glanced at his companion, and frowned when he noticed the boy was still sound asleep. "Toki?" he whispered. No reaction. "Toki?" he hissed a little louder. Out of the corner of his eye, he peeked at the men surrounding them, hoping the warriors didn't mistake his tone for that of anger. The kid slept on. Forget this. "Toki!" he yelled, with impatience.
"Yes, Shaman?" he replied sleepily, not bothering to open his eyes.
Gee, kid. Don't you recognize fear when you hear it? "We have company."
Toki cracked open an eye, looked around, then closed it again. One of the warriors said something in Quechua and Toki muttered something back. The warrior swept down on the boy, grabbing him by the waist and yanking him to his feet. Just as Blair was preparing to intervene, he realized the two were now hugging.
"Shaman," Toki said with a grin. "This is my uncle, Rotapi. He and the others have come to escort us to the village."
The warrior and his associates bowed, and Blair responded in kind. Toki said something to them, and suddenly the anthropologist found himself under heavy scrutiny. The men and Toki seemed to argue back and forth, until Toki looked at Blair and said, "Show them, Shaman. Show them that you are of Enqueri."
Of Enqueri? Curiouser and curiouser. He pulled out the amulet, and watched them all drop to the jungle floor. He tucked it back beneath his shirt, and told Toki they could all get up now. Toki took his time in translating. "No more games, Toki," Blair warned. "There will be people following me."
"The Malachua will take care of them."
"But there might be one traveling alone. It will either be Enqueri, or one sent by him. He is not to be harmed."
"No one would harm Enqueri, and we will protect those of Enqueri." He turned and spoke rapidly to the warriors. Two of them melted into the forest. "It will be done," he told Blair. "Now, come, Shaman. The boats await."
Boats? He was escorted to a river where three boats sat bobbing. He, Toki, and Rotapi climbed into the middle craft, while the other warriors divided themselves into the other two. The trip down the river was smooth, Rotapi guiding the boat with a simple rudder. Blair appreciated the variety of flora and fauna, some of which he got up close and personal with since, on occasion, the boat convoy would stop and fish for a while. Mostly they would bring up nets of silver, round fish that Toki called palomettas. Blair had never heard of them, but considering the amount piling up in the boat, he figured they would be the entree du jour at the village "luncheon."
Eventually, they came to a point where Blair could see traces of civilization. Wood which had become lumber, crude tools, and eventually a rickety pier, signaled they were getting close to the home base of the Malachua. They stopped at a somewhat sturdier pier, and strong hands reached down to help him out of the boat. He stared into a handful of brown faces.
"Hopikachu, our chieftain," Toki said, bowing to an old man who wore an animal skin draped across one shoulder.
Blair returned the bow. "Tell him I am honored to be among his people."
Toki did the translation. "He says he is the honored one. It is a rare and blessed day that Enqueri sends his own to tend to our needs."
"You told him why I'm here?"
"Yes." The chief spoke again, and Toki interpreted. "The Malachua will celebrate tonight. We will also send out runners to the other tribes. If Enqueri wishes to unite us under his hand, we shall do so. We are saddened to lose so many worthy enemies, but are gladdened to gain so many allies. Enqueri is wise, as always."
Well, Jim wasn't going to hear that from him. "What happens now?" Blair asked.
"I am to take you to my grandfather, shaman of the Malachua. He will make you welcome."
They walked through the village, their passage slowed by children who seemed to all want to touch Blair, especially his long, curly hair. He supposed it was an oddity, considering all they had seen was the straight, black locks of their people, so he didn't begrudge them the patting, and slight tugging, but he was grateful when Toki led him into the small wood and grass hut of the shaman.
Blair, knowing they were family, stood back as Toki and his grandfather greeted each other with hugs, kisses, and excited conversation. Then Toki guided him to a circle drawn in the dirt floor. He sat when the older man sat, smiling when the shaman gave him a gapped-tooth grin. "Grandfather says the two of you will walk and share knowledge. Then he will take that knowledge to the tribal leaders tonight and all will be as Enqueri commands."
Thanks to having continued his journey by boat, Blair didn't mind the idea of strolling through the area with the shaman. When the old man handed him a carved mug, he drank the brew inside, thinking it to be a refreshment before they started their walk. It was only as the walls of the hut began to undulate, and the floor began to shudder beneath him, that he realized the shaman had been speaking of a spirit walk...aided by ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic drug-- which he'd just drunk a preparation of.
His last coherent thought was that Jim was going to kill him.
"Status report," Jim barked, as he slid into the back of the long black limo.
"Both the main compound in Rio, and the mountain retreat outside Anapolis are experiencing communications blackouts. Teams are in place at both sites, awaiting your orders, sir."
"In residence at the mountain headquarters. He still has no idea we are on to him. It has been suggested that he moved to the mountain site in order to be closer to the authorities in Brasilia."
"What about the 'authorities' in Brasilia?"
"Taken care of, Elder. There will be no interference from that quarter."
"Thank you, Anna." He moved over to make room for William, who crossed over to sit beside the aide. Jim hit the intercom. "We're ready, Marco."
"Yes, sir, Elder." The vehicle pulled off the tarmac smoothly.
"What about Colombia?" Jim continued.
"The operation has been completed. No casualties on our side. Two on theirs-- minor wounds which will not get in the way of their trials. We are currently transferring them to the countries who possess the longest grievance lists."
"Any left for Adam?"
"At the moment, three. That number could change, however. Two are willing to confess to undiscovered crimes in order to escape him. The third is willing to take his chances."
"No one said mercenaries were particularly bright," Jim said dryly. Adam would be pleased. He knew his brother had been slightly miffed that he couldn't take part in the cleaning operation. This would appease him nicely. Speaking of.... "Still no word from Adam?"
Jim tapped his fingers nervously. He had complete faith in both Adam and Blair to keep safe, and to hook up with each other in the near future. The future.... That was what concerned him the most. Juliette had done more than just nearly kill Father. She had started a chain of events that was going to profoundly change his life. He shook his head. Had he really believed, even in the beginning, that he would never have to actually lead the Family? Had he not known that one day Father was not going to be capable of running the ever-growing empire? Possibly, he would have had a few more years, maybe even a decade of playing the absentee landlord, if Juliette hadn't attacked Father, damaging his soul far worse than his body. But his sister had succumbed to her madness, dragging him firmly back into the leadership position he had sworn to take. Now, this foolishness of Gregory's was going to suck him in further. Apparently, whether he felt he was ready or not, it was time for the Elder to take control of what was his. No more sidelines for you, Jim, my man. Jim Ellison had never given less than one hundred percent of himself; James the Elder would do no less.
Perhaps a reorganization was the answer. Shift a few people around, knock a few heads together to establish his position.... The main weakness appeared to be a lack of discipline, which usually occurred when leadership wasn't clear. Hell, he could be pretty imposing when he wanted to be. Maybe a detailed review of the troops, plus a heavy dose of looking over key people's shoulders....
"We're approaching the main gate, Elder."
"Thank you, Anna." He felt the vehicle slow to a stop. The driver's window slid down, and he heard a guard questioning Marco, refusing to let the limo pass. Jim rolled down his window and leaned out slightly. "What seems to be the problem?" he asked politely.
The guard's face appeared in the open window, trying to force Jim back inside. "Who the hell are you?" he growled.
"The Elder," Jim replied, not backing down in the slightest. "And who are you?"
The guard turned a sickly green beneath his chestnut-colored skin. "Oh, shit," he groaned.
The Elder lifted an eyebrow. "Very well, Mr. Shit, here are your orders: you're going to let my car pass without alerting anyone, especially the house and Gregory, to our arrival. Next, you are going to turn off the electricity to the fence surrounding the compound, and ignore the people, my people, who will be coming over said fence. Then, you are going to sit here in this guardhouse and pray to the deity of your choosing, that I forget you exist. Do you understand, Mr. Shit?"
The man nodded obediently, frozen in the bent position before the window. When he continued to stand there, the Elder cleared his throat and angled his head toward the barricade. "The gate, Mr. Shit." The reminder had the man jumping to do his leader's bidding. The limo headed up the drive.
James leaned back against the butter soft leather, and crossed his legs contentedly. "Strange name that fellow has. I wonder what the 'O' stands for?" he mused aloud.
"Otis," Anna replied, like the good aide she was.
"Otis?" the Elder questioned.
"Yes, sir, as in," she adopted a British accent, "O tis very deep shit I'm in, and sinking fast."
William and Marco coughed, trying to hide their laughter. The Elder merely nodded to his aide. "Thank you for clearing that up for me, Anna."
"You're welcome, Elder."
By noon, Adam reached the site where Blair and his guide had spent the night. The path they had taken through the jungle had been erratic at best, and he probably would have lost the trail a number of times if Blair hadn't left subtle clues for him to find, such as a strand of hair here and there, and the clear imprint of a Nike swoosh in a suspiciously damp spot.
His eyes swept the campsite, and he frowned. He squatted for a better look. Damn. Multiple footprints. Someone had found Blair before he had. The shoeprints indicated the sandals of the area's natives. Perhaps--
His gun was out before he noticed the two painted warriors staring at him had made no move to touch their own weapons, the spears held casually at their sides. He holstered his sidearm, and spoke to them in Quechua.
<<You are Malachua?>>
<<We are Malachua.>>
<<I seek a man traveling with a young Malachua warrior.>>
The men grinned. <<Toki will be excited that you call him a warrior.>>
<<So, you know of whom I speak? Can you tell me where I can find him?>>
<<The shaman is in the village. Our brothers took him there as the sun rose.>>
Shaman? What secrets have you been keeping from me, brother of my brother? <<Will you take me to him?>>
<<We are here to serve.>>
<<There might be others looking for him.>>
One of the warriors shrugged. <<There were others. Now, there are not. Come, we go.>>
Adam smiled and followed. Damn. He knew there was a reason he liked the jungle.
By the time they reached the village, the boat was full of fish and other foodstuffs-- the warriors had giggled like schoolkids when they found a berry patch next to the riverbank-- and it was late afternoon. As they walked through the center of "town", Adam could tell that a huge celebration was being prepared. Was this some sort of holiday?
A horn sounded from the river. <<The Yurello are arriving.>>
Adam's eyes narrowed as he looked at the speaking warrior. The Malachua and Yurello were sworn enemies. In fact, he remembered stumbling upon the remaining carnage after the Malachua had raided a Yurello camp. Several of the men in his command had become ill at the sight. Had he and Blair inadvertently wandered into a war? He analyzed the reactions of his escorts, then took in the celebratory mood of the village. Maybe the war was over and this was the after-party?
<<The Malachua have been victorious?>> He gestured at the preparations going on around the village.
<<We celebrate the unity.>>
A toothy grin answered him. <<A marriage of the tribes. Your shaman tells us this is the way it should be?>>
What have you been up to, Blair? <<The shaman speaks wisely.>>
One of the men snorted. <<Of course he does. He speaks for-->> An elbow in his side halted his words. <<Yes, the shaman is wise.>> He rubbed his side sheepishly, and pointed toward a wooden lean to. <<Your shaman is inside.>>
Adam nodded, and before he could ask any further questions, the men disappeared. Curious, but anxious to see Blair, he ducked into the hut. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust and when they did, he was stunned to find Blair and an old man lying on the floor, twitching. "Shit," he muttered, stepping forward.
"No," someone called out, and he turned quickly to the hut's other occupant. It was a boy. "Do not step into the circle."
Adam had barely seen the circle scratched into the dirt floor. "What's going on?" he demanded.
"They walk the walk of the shamans. They must not be disturbed," Toki explained.
Damn it! They were losing light fast. "How long will they be out?"
Toki shrugged. "The ayahuasca put them on the path, but only the spirits know when the walk is complete."
Ayahuasca? Adam sank to the floor, and pulled out his cell phone. "I've found him, Elder," he said as the satellite circling overhead bounced his signal across the large country. "Uh, that won't be possible. He's in the middle of some delicate negotiations at the moment. That's why we're not going to get out of here tonight.... Yes, sir. You know Blair-- give him a job and he gives it his all.... What am I hiding from you? You really don't want to know, James. But I assure you, he's fine. You have my word on that.... Yes, Elder, we'll leave at first light.... You be careful too, James."
He disconnected the call, accepted something vaguely edible from the boy, and waited for Blair to come home from his walk.
Someone inside the house must have seen the limo drive up, because Gregory and several armed guards were waiting as Marco opened the door. James exited, and Gregory paled. "Elder!"
"Gregory," James acknowledged. "You want to get rid of the hardware before I get offended?" he questioned, eyeing the rifles with disdain.
"Of course, James," Gregory said, recovering his equilibrium. "Since the gatesman hadn't told me you were coming, I didn't know who or what to expect."
"I told Otis," three snickers came from behind him, "that he didn't have to announce me. After all, the Elder is at home on all Family property, am I not?"
"You are, Elder. I'm sorry to seem so inhospitable," Gregory remarked as he ushered his brother into the large manor, "but your arrival caught me off guard. To what do I owe this honor?"
James shrugged. "Blair is in Brazil. Adam is in Brazil. You are in Brazil. Thought I'd come and see for myself what the attraction is."
"Adam is here?" Gregory asked nervously. "Why? Isn't North America big enough for him?"
"He came down to surprise Blair. The two of them have grown rather close. I think Adam likes the idea of having a little brother." He looked around the interior of the house, and one word came to mind-- gaudy. Why hadn't he ever noticed that Gregory lacked taste? He peered at a curio cabinet in the corner. Incan artifacts. Nothing like having an anthropologist as a roommate to be able to recognize the real thing when he saw it. If they weren't in a museum, they were probably black market. *Ah, Gregory. Have you added grave-robbing to your list of crimes, as well? What next, my brother? Or do I dare ask that question?*
"I was under the impression that the only thing Adam liked was you," Gregory replied dryly.
James ignored the comment. "Isn't it customary that you offer visitors refreshments?"
"You're the one who said this was your home. I took that to mean you weren't a visitor."
The Elder shrugged. Turning to one of the servants, who thought he was hiding discreetly behind a door, he ordered Cokes, switching to Portuguese when the man tried to play dumb. He didn't blame the servant; if he wasn't aware of the Family hierarchy, he wouldn't understand what was happening. Assured that his order had been understood, the Elder went into the main room, sat on a long sofa, and propped his feet up on a coffee table that looked more ornamental than useful.
"You always were an arrogant asshole," Gregory muttered as he reluctantly took the seat across from him.
"Pot calling the kettle black, Gregory? My people and I require quarters. Marco needs to know where to put the luggage."
"I suppose you want the master suite," Gregory huffed.
"And what if I did, brother? By all rights, it's mine."
Dark eyes narrowed shrewdly. "Just what the hell is going on, James? Why are you here?"
"This," James said, spreading his arms wide, "belongs to the Family. I'm merely here to make sure that what belongs to the Family stays in the Family."
"What are you talking about? I--" He paused as a phone shrilled.
James reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the chirping instrument. "Yes?.... Excellent! That's exactly what I needed to hear, Adam. Put him on.... What does that mean? He's talking with the Malachua?.... What are you hiding from me?.... I trust you, both of you. Just get here as soon as you can. Be careful.... Yeah, I will." He punched one button, then a string of them. "You have a 'go'," he said tersely, then clicked the phone back into standby mode.
Gregory looked at him speculatively. "I could have sworn communications were down all across the country."
"New technology. You know me, always eager to try out the newest Family gadgets," James bluffed.
Gregory didn't buy it for an instant. "This is all bullshit, isn't it, James? Why don't you be man enough to tell me why you're really here?"
The servant returned from the kitchen and James reached for the glass extended on a silver platter. "Fine, Gregory. I was growing weary of pretending anyway. The real reason I'm here is to relieve you of your position. As of this moment, you are no longer a vice president in Family Labs, Inc.--"
"What the hell is this! Some kind of fucking joke?" Gregory roared, leaping up to glare at his brother.
"What this is, is the end result of a poorly planned, and ill-timed, coup." James crossed his arms, and planted both feet on the floor. "Did you think I wouldn't find out about it, Gregory? Or did you think I wouldn't care? I warned you that evening at the hospital that I did care, that I wouldn't let any of you take the Family away from me. You really should have listened then, and at the reunion."
"Which one of those dickless bastards betrayed me? Bet it was Frederick. Just wait until--"
"How dare you speak of betrayal!" the Elder yelled, surging to his feet, his eyes blazing. "Father gave you a trust! And how do you repay him? By stabbing him in the back while he's already down. Yours is not only an act of treason, but sedition!"
"He betrayed me first! I should have been the Elder! I should have been his heir!"
"Why?" James questioned furiously. "Because you were chosen first? This isn't some fast food restaurant, Gregory, where 'first come, first served' is the order of the day. Nor is the Family based on primogeniture. The order Father 'had' his sons makes no difference. His successor was, and is, his choice. And he made it. Thank God he had the foresight to see what a bitter, weak-willed dictator you would become," he nearly spat.
"Strong words for someone who is now in *my* territory," Gregory countered.
"You still don't get it, do you?" James questioned, his anger waning. "This is not *your* territory. This is Family territory." He walked over to the window and flung back the curtain. "And those," he indicated the figures in green camouflage trotting back and forth, " are Family troops. It's over, Gregory. It's over."
"You son of a bitch!" the man screamed, flinging himself toward the Elder, and pulling up short when William's gun pressed against his temple.
"Take him to his quarters, and keep him under guard," James ordered, as William signaled other members of security to restrain the ex-vice president. "Oh, and Gregory, I'll take a guest room tonight. But tomorrow, we make other arrangements."
"Fuck you!" He stalked to the foot of the stairs between two guards. "And it seems I can take 'dictator' lessons from you, O Great Elder!"
James watched the procession disappear up the stairs, then turned back to his companions. "Am I a dictator, Anna?" he asked curiously.
"Yes, sir," she answered solemnly, with a teasing glint in her eye, "but a benevolent one."
He cocked his head to get a better look at her. "Adam chose you, didn't he?"
She appeared startled. "Yes, sir. He said he couldn't think of a better aide for you."
James smiled. "Don't tell him I said so, but I wholeheartedly agree. Well, ladies and gentlemen, let's get to work. Now, that the surgery's complete, it's time to stitch the patient back together."
Blair groaned, and forced his eyes open. Where was he? Just a minute ago, he would have sworn he was basking beneath a gentle waterfall, talking with Teanu...except the Malachua shaman didn't speak English, and he didn't speak Quechua.... But he was sure Teanu was telling him the dreams the Malachua had for themselves. Then a shadow had flown overhead. A hawk. He'd laughed, and told Teanu that his ride had arrived.
"Hey, Adam," he called out without looking around.
Great. "So, you know?"
"Oh, yeah. The big question is-- does he know about this?" He used his hands to symbolize drinking from a cup.
"I told him you were in negotiations with the tribe and couldn't be disturbed."
"Bless you, Adam."
"I thought it was something you'd want to tell him in private," he said meaningfully.
Blair understood. He would get to choose the time and place, but Jim would know what had happened. "So, are we, like, out of here?"
"It's too late. I won't put the team at risk for a non-critical extraction. We move at first light."
Toki chose this moment to sweep into the hut. "Shaman, you're back! Grandfather?" An affirmative reply came in Quechua. "They're all here!" the boy continued excitedly. "All the tribal representatives. I've never seen such a sight! Come! They await you both!" He repeated the news in Quechua to his grandfather as he helped the old man to his feet.
"Adam, man, since you said we'd be here until morning..." Blair pleaded. This was an historic event. He had to be there to witness it, although he was sure Teanu was now capable of stating the Family's intentions as well as he.
"We leave at first light," Adam repeated patiently.
"Gotcha," Blair said, as Toki pulled him out of the shack.
Adam sighed, and strolled out at a slower pace. He had no idea what was going on, or how Blair had pulled off this miracle, but as long as James knew.... The Malachua paid no special attention to him as he drifted through the village as the celebration began in earnest. Every so often he would catch something about submitting to the will of Enqueri, but then the speakers would look around, see him, and change the subject. He figured it was some religious thing, and therefore decided not to pursue it. If they wanted to keep their worshipping a secret, who was he to butt in?
Under the wavering light of a thousand torches, dancers twirled, drums beat, food was consumed, and pacts were made between tribes which had warred since before the days of the Incan Empire. Quite an achievement for a doctoral candidate, Adam thought, as he found a comfortable spot against one of the sturdier-looking huts, and watched as Blair conversed, assisted by Toki, with the visiting shamans and chieftains. He was animated, apparently quite at ease in the midst of the natives, and they all seemed pretty fascinated with him. Although he wasn't close enough to the group to overhear the conversation, he could see that they listened attentively when Blair was talking (or Toki was translating). They commented, nodded, laughed, and asked questions. A regular roundtable.
He drifted into a state of relaxed readiness, and remained there until his internal clock told him to check his watch. Immediately, he became alert, noting even as he dialed the phone, that Blair was still chatting with the tribal elders. After a few words to his team, he went over to the group and tapped Blair's shoulder.
The anthropologist turned around, his eyes still sparkling with excitement even though he'd been awake all night. "Time to go?" he asked.
A sleepy Toki made the translations, although Adam could have done them himself. The chiefs called out to several aides, and suddenly they were flooded with gifts. "What's going on, Blair?" Adam asked bewilderedly.
"For the Elder. In appreciation for what he's done," Blair explained, juggling the items in his hand as another was added. "It would be insulting not to accept them."
Adam bit back a curse as several more gifts were piled into his arms. Eyeing a wooden cart, he asked permission to borrow it. Chief Hopikachu was distressed that such an inferior piece of craftsmanship would be used to haul the treasures of Enqueri, but was appeased when one of his warriors draped an intricately woven blanket across the cart, and everything was carefully placed on top of it. The quick-thinking warrior was rewarded by being offered the opportunity to push the cart to whatever destination the shaman desired. The warrior's answering smile threatened to split the corners of his mouth.
So it was that the helicopter pilot's mouth dropped open, as out of the jungle came Adam and Blair, followed by a painted warrior pushing a cart, and a line of brightly dressed and heavily ornamented men. Adam didn't say a word as he transferred the contents of the cart to the helo's storage area, then stood watch while Blair made his goodbyes. The colorful, diverse group followed the flight of the silent metal bird as it soared off the ground, and into the rapidly lightening sky.
Then they headed back to the village for some well-deserved sleep. Enqueri had not abandoned them. He'd gone to the big city, found his companion, and made plans for those for whom he cared.
All were at peace.
James ran his hand across his eyes as the screen in front of him blurred. He'd been scanning the files all night, marking places he wanted the Family's team of accountants to examine. Anna had urged him to go to bed several hours ago, and to get her to rest, he had reluctantly shuffled off to his room-- for a shower, and change of clothes. Then, he'd snuck back downstairs to continue his assessment of Gregory's abuses.
Abuses.... More atrocities he was going to have to face. He'd already had Anna set up appointments to talk with the women at both compounds. It was obvious that Gregory liked to surround himself with the female form. The only males around him were his second-in command, the security team, and the kitchen staff; apparently, he was bright enough not to have the women cook his food. Of all that Gregory had done, his treatment of the other sex galled James the most. It went against everything he'd been taught. No, it had nothing to do with them being women, per se. He had never considered them the weaker sex; some of them kicked ass better than most men. But these women weren't those. These women had been raised to fear men, to cower, to subjugate themselves, or be penalized with their society's blessing. Although this was part of the culture they lived in, as a man he didn't like it, and as a soldier, he found what Gregory had done, distasteful. In war, these people would have been the ones to protect, not subjugate even further.
"Oh, here you are, Elder," William said, with just a hint of disapproval.
"Have you been looking for me, William?"
"I tried your room, and when I did not find you there, I knew to come here."
"It's nice to be so predictable. Why were you looking for me?"
"It's Gregory, sir. He is demanding to see his son."
"His son? What son?"
William shrugged. "He claims to have a three year old son who lives with his mother here on the compound. Her name is Marita."
"Marita works in the laundry," Anna said, entering the room. "She is seventeen years old."
"Goddammit!" James roared, smashing his fist against the closest solid object. That meant she was only fourteen when Gregory had impregnated her. Of all the.... He took deep breaths like Blair had taught him, trying to master a calm he didn't feel. "If she and the child are awake, bring them to me," he ordered.
"What shall I tell Gregory?" William asked.
"Tell Gregory to--" Another deep breath. "Tell Gregory that he is no longer in a position to demand anything. If the child wishes to see him, if the child's mother agrees, then-- and only then-- I will consider the request."
"Give me your hand, Elder," Anna said, and James looked at her bewilderedly. "You're bleeding all over the furniture, sir, and the stuff looks bad enough as it is."
James looked at his hand, surprised to see blood pouring from a gash. He looked at the desk and saw the shattered remains of the computer's mouse, the jagged plastic edges as sharp as broken glass. "We have a technology team on the way?" he questioned.
"As soon as they finish securing the compound in Rio, sir. I'll call and tell them to pack an extra mouse." She cleaned the wound competently, and adhered a bandage to it. "You must be careful, sir, or the bleeding will start again."
He nodded. "Was Marita scheduled to be interviewed?"
"Did you know about the child?"
"No, sir. And, without you thinking that this has my approval, I'd just like to point out that it is not unusual for girls here to have children so young."
"And I'd like to point out that Gregory isn't from here," James countered. "He grew up in the U.S. where this is statutory rape. I need to know if he has other children, Anna."
"I'll get right on it, sir." She turned to leave, and saw the figures at the door. "You have visitors, Elder."
James looked at the young girl in the doorway, a small child peeping out from behind her legs. A deep inhalation took care of the flare of anger, and he gestured for them to come closer. "Hello, Marita. Do you speak English?"
"Yes, sir," she answered softly, her eyes sticking to the floor.
"Do you know who I am?"
A nod. "You are the Elder."
"Do you know what that means?" Another nod. "This is your son?"
"Yes, this is my Hector," she said proudly, her black eyes lifting to his for just a second.
"Gregory says he is the boy's father. Is this true?"
"I would not lie about such a thing," she replied with a gasp of indignation.
"No, that isn't what I meant," James interjected quickly. "I was not questioning your honesty, but Gregory's. He's...in a bit of trouble at the moment, and I was afraid he was using Hector as a way of--"
"Softening your heart?" Marita guessed quietly. James looked at her in amazement. "I see your face as you look at Hector. You like children. Do you have many of your own?"
"I don't have any. But you are right; I like them. Does Gregory spend a lot of time with Hector?" He made a funny face as Hector peeped out at the sound of his name. The child grinned, and ducked back into hiding again.
"He has seen Hector twice since his birth."
James made another funny face, so as not to scare the child with the anger coursing through him. "He wishes to see him now. What do you wish?"
"You are going to take Gregory away?"
"Then Hector should see his father one last time."
"Okay. Afterwards, we will meet again, and discuss Hector's future."
She paled. "You will take him away from me?"
James smiled, shaking his head. "No. But he is a member of the Family, and that entitles him to whatever he needs. You too, for that matter."
"Thank you, sir."
He nodded to one of the guards at the door. "Michael, take Marita and Hector to Gregory's suite." Something in Marita stiffened. "And stay with them at all times." She gave him a grateful look, and followed the guard.
He turned back to the computer, and was just getting the hang of doing everything via the keyboard, when he heard the cry. Anna, standing beside him, jerked back as he shoved past her and took the stairs two at a time. By the time she and William reached him, the Elder was standing in the doorway of Gregory's suite.
Inside, Marita knelt on the floor, weeping openly, while Gregory stood over Michael's limp form, Hector up in one arm...and in his other hand, Michael's weapon pointed straight at Hector's small head.
"Wonder how the Family would feel about opening a museum? Jim received enough gifts to start a South American Native exhibit, and I don't think the loft can hold much more," Blair commented as he got comfortable in the plane, which they had transferred to after the helicopter.
"Take it up with James. It sounds like a worthy endeavor."
"It does, doesn't it?" He wiggled into the generously padded seat, yawning as he recalled that he hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours-- unless you counted the spirit walk, which really wasn't sleep as such. "This isn't the plane we used in Cascade. Does Jim have that one? How many of these things does the Family have?"
"James gave me this one for my birthday a couple of months ago."
"I didn't know you had a birthday," Blair exclaimed, then blushed sheepishly when Adam's mock glare made him realize what he'd said. "That's not the way I meant it, and you know it. Of course you have a birthday. It's not like you were created by spontaneous combustion or anything. I just meant that I didn't know when your birthday was. Wonder why Jim didn't say anything?"
"It was just after Christmas...and the accident. He had set up the delivery beforehand, so I'm not even sure he would have remembered the date if I hadn't thanked him for the gift. I'm told brain surgery plays hell with one's memory."
Blair laughed at the understatement. "Jim's forgiven, and so are you. But now that I know, I won't forget."
"Is that a warning?"
Blair just laughed again. The pilot came on the intercom asking them to buckle in, and the plane took off down the runway.
"Blair, something's been puzzling me. Although we had to do intensive research when I was assigned to this region in the Army, I don't recall the natives worshipping a god known as Enqueri. Yet, I heard him referred to several times in the village."
His companion squirmed uncomfortably. "Uh, I think he's more of a legend than a god."
Adam shrugged. "Still seems strange I hadn't heard of him. Especially since he seems so well known by all the tribes."
"The internet has nothing on word of mouth," Blair chuckled hesitantly.
"Uh huh. Well, I can't wait to see the Elder's reaction to all the gifts. You know how he hates displays like that. He does what he does because he perceives it to be his duty, not because he expects something in return."
"Selfless. That's our Jim," Blair agreed cautiously.
"Guess that's what makes him 'legendary', huh?" He lifted an eyebrow when Blair gaped at him. "Rare is the time that one plus one doesn't equal two, Blair."
"I'm not sure he knows the extent of the legend, Adam. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm sure he doesn't. There would have been some warning before I left, I think. Something along the lines of, 'don't believe everything you hear.'"
"You know, when it comes to his own life, he's one of the most clueless people I've run across," Adam mused.
"You've noticed that too, have you? It's an endearing quality, but sad as well. It speaks of years of avoidance. But you know how that is, don't you, Adam? All of you do. I wonder if that's what Father saw in you...that hunger, that fight in each of you to be accepted on your own terms."
"Don't put me in that group," Adam protested. "I'm not clueless about who I am."
Blair snorted and shook his head. Right, Adam. You look at yourself and see the darkness in your soul, but none of the light. Thankfully, Jim does, and Mandy as well. I see it too, and even Simon had a glimpse of it. Avoidance, denial, yeah...a perfect fit, Adam. "Speaking of clueless, does Jim know we're on our way?"
"He was resting when I called, and I didn't want him disturbed. He confronted Gregory, and contained him. I know that took something out of James."
Blair nodded. "He really does consider you guys his family. This must be difficult for all of you."
"Some more than others," Adam replied dryly. "I wonder if James will allow me to escort Gregory to his exile."
"Is that what's going to happen? He's going to be exiled?"
"The Elder hasn't made any definite plans, but he's leaning in that direction."
Blair sighed. "I guess it's better than the alternative."
The younger man laughed, and settled in for a nap.
"Gregory, don't do this," James said as soon as he was able to speak.
"Is that an order from the Elder?" Gregory sneered, stroking Hector's hair with the gun's muzzle.
"No, it's a plea from a concerned uncle. Don't do this to your own son."
Gregory's eyes narrowed as William and Anna skidded to a stop behind James. "Do your commander spiel, James, and tell him to put down his weapon."
James turned to see William had drawn his gun. "Do as he says."
"He won't shoot his own son," the bodyguard argued.
James studied the man he called his brother, and shivered when he saw the intent in his eyes. "Put the gun down, William," he said forcefully. The man complied. "All right, Gregory. Now what?"
"Since you're so worried about the brat, Uncle James, why don't you take him? That way I know you won't be making any sudden moves. Wouldn't want you to try any of that Ranger stuff on me."
Hector, confused and increasingly frightened, nearly leapt into the other man's arms. At least this one had smiled and played with him.
"It's okay, Tiger," James said, absently comforting the child. "Uncle James has you. I'll keep you safe." He placed a kiss on top of the head nuzzling against his neck.
"That's right, Hector. Uncle James is going to do everything your poppy says to keep you safe." He kept the gun pointed at the boy. "Let's go, Uncle James."
"To secure a ride."
They all clumped down the stairs together, a nod from James parting the armed security force that was waiting. "Your limo," Gregory said, prodding them in the right direction. "Surely the Elder's limo is bulletproofed. Tell them to open all the doors, and start it."
"Marco, you heard the man."
"Just do it!" Hector jumped at the yell. "Shh, Tiger. I didn't mean to scare you. We're going to go for a ride with your daddy, okay?"
James hadn't even known the child could talk. "Mama can't come. But you'll see her later, okay?"
And he knew English. What a bright little boy. "Let me leave Hector here, Gregory. I'll come with you willingly."
"No! I want to know where your hands are. I want to know you aren't going to try anything. And you won't, not with that kid in your arms. So, get into the car. Through the driver's side and slide over. Remember, the gun is aimed at the kid, not you." He followed them into the car, looking around to make sure no one was hiding in the back. "Have one of them shut the doors. And if they follow us? I wonder if kid brains leave permanent stains...."
James' hand protectively cupped the back of Hector's head. "Listen to him, people!" he ordered tersely. The doors closed, and no one headed for the other vehicles.
That accomplished, Gregory took off down the road at a fast pace, one hand on the wheel, and the other aiming the gun. "You have a plan?" James asked casually.
"I always have a plan, James. I'm a soldier, remember?"
"I remember. I just wondered if you did."
"Meaning you haven't been thinking like one. Why the hell would you stage a takeover at this point? You had to be aware you didn't have enough support."
"That's the reason why I had to try now, James. My influence has been eroding thanks to your little reunion. Suddenly, you weren't just some figurehead. You were a real person with real authority. You made them nervous. A lot of my former close associates have been cleaning up their acts."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because the Family should be mine! And I'm not just talking about the order we were chosen. I'm basing this on the fact that you were wrong for this from the start. You were intelligent enough-- must have inherited your business acumen from your real father."
James realized that was an intentional dig. Years ago, it would have made him angry to be compared to William Ellison. Now, he could ignore, or even accept, the comment. "Do I hear a 'but' approaching, Gregory?"
"But it takes more than just business savvy to run an organization like the Family. It takes a powerful man, one with the strength and courage to do what has to be done. That's where you come up short, James. I've seen you look at Father's ring with disgust. You fool. That ring symbolizes everything that Father is-- ruthless, dominating, feared."
"Father doesn't rule by intimidation."
"The hell he doesn't! How the fuck do you think he convinced those first scientists to 'join' the Family? Why do you think he keeps his army of goons on hand? He used the mob sub-structure as a pattern for the Family because he knew the mob knew how to wield power properly. Kiss the ring, or feel the kiss of hot lead or cold steel."
James shook his head. "If I'm so wrong for the job, why are you losing support?"
"Because Father has spent years building up this myth about you, and your cold, hard nature. God. He has people quivering just at the thought of having to speak to you. He's made you out to be quite the Wizard of Oz. But we all know what's hiding behind the curtain, don't we?" he sneered.
"You're breaking my heart here, brother. You know how much I value your opinion."
"You should. You all should. Because within five years of your control, the Family is going to be no more. You're too soft to keep it together."
James gave a bitter chuckle. "You know nothing about me, do you? If I'm so soft, why did Father choose me to be the Elder? Do you think he wanted to see his life's work go down the tubes?"
"Have you looked in the mirror lately? You're the spitting image of Father. He looks at you and sees someone who could be his real son. In his mind, you are the *natural* heir, James. Because of that, he overlooks your obvious weaknesses."
"You think you have this all figured out, don't you? But, I hate to tell you, Gregory, you don't know shit. This image of me.... Are you blind, or just stupid? There is not a soul that knows me who would call me soft."
"Then they are the stupid ones. Look at how you're protecting my son-- and you just met him a little over an hour ago. That is your greatest weakness by the way-- your need to protect everyone."
"I thought that was the purpose of the Family."
"To protect the world, James-- not individuals. God, you're hopeless, man. If this plan would have succeeded, at least part of the Family would have survived. I'd have let you fall on your ass, then I would have picked up the pieces and created a new empire. But you just had to screw it up," he muttered.
"Thought I was too weak to do that," James replied sarcastically.
"You are. This has to be Adam's doing. Now, that's a sneaky, calculating bastard. Too bad he's been ruined by some obsessive loyalty to you."
"It's called friendship, Gregory."
"Yeah, right." He pulled the limo over to the side of the road.
James frowned. Would the cars following them realize they had stopped before Gregory was aware of their presence? He'd heard the engines soon after they had left the compound. "What are you doing?"
"Being a soldier. A limo isn't the greatest of getaway cars. Too easy to track. We're going to go on foot through the mountains, emerge on the other side, and find some legitimate transportation."
James relaxed as he heard the engines idling behind him. *Must be using binoculars.* He eyed the mountains speculatively. "That's some tough terrain. It's going to be hard setting a good pace with a child." The boy was asleep, relaxed and limp against his chest.
"If he becomes a problem, we'll dump him."
"He's your son, man!"
Gregory shrugged. "That's what I've been saying, James. You're weak."
"Let me leave him here," James suggested. "He's not a security threat. He can't tell them where we went, or even point them in the right direction. Give him a chance, Gregory. Please."
"Fine. Whatever. But you better not give me any trouble, because it won't take much for me to kill you, then come back here, and put a bullet in his head."
James lowered the child to the center of the seat, and raised his hands. "No trouble."
They both got out of the car, Gregory indicating James should walk about ten yards in front of him. "We seem to be lacking supplies for a hike," the lead man commented, as they moved through the thick cover at the base of the mountains. Eventually, the trees would thin as the altitude increased and the temperature decreased.
"There are streams for water, and if I get hungry, I can always eat you," Gregory replied with a sick grin.
James sighed, and continued to walk.
"Something's wrong," Adam said tersely as he looked out the window and saw the security detail waiting for him. He unbuckled his restraint, and was waiting impatiently as the staff opened the door and lowered the steps. "Anna?" he questioned quickly.
"Gregory escaped the compound taking two hostages: his three-year old son, and the Elder."
"Was either of them hurt?" Blair asked, coming to stand beside Adam.
Anna shook her head. "Gregory's armed, and controlling the Elder by threatening the child." She led them to a jeep. "William and a team are following at a discreet distance. You should be able to catch up to them."
Blair and Adam climbed into the back of the vehicle, the driver and an armed guard sliding into the front. "You have matters under control at the compound?" Adam asked.
"Then let me worry about the rest." He gave her a brusque nod, then yelled to the driver. "Let's go!"
"I guess simple exile is out of the question now," Blair stated, merely because the silence was driving him crazy.
"Even the Elder will have to agree with that. But of course, that really doesn't matter because I plan on killing him as soon as we reach them."
"You're just going to execute Gregory?"
"I wasn't talking about Gregory."
"Oh," Blair said, deciding that maybe a little silence wasn't such a bad idea. Of course, he knew where Adam was coming from. There were times when he, too, had planned on killing Jim as soon as he was discovered alive and well. It was all a part of loving the man.
A half hour later, the jeep slowed down, and Blair concentrated on the scene in front of him: a limo pulled to the side of the road, a handful of armed men, and a wailing child. No Jim. Damn.
"William, report!" Adam bellowed.
"The Elder and Gregory are now on foot. I guess the Elder convinced him to leave Hector behind," he added, juggling the child and making him cry louder.
Blair, finding it impossible to ignore the boy's misery, reached out and plucked the child from William. Surprised, Hector stopped his screams, and latched onto one of the brunette curls. Blair smiled. Jim must have known the others weren't far behind if he'd left the child. That meant his Sentinel was online and functioning. He knew that backup was on the way. Glancing down at the child, he frowned when he saw bloody fingerprints on the back of the tyke's shirt. "I thought Jim wasn't injured," he said accusingly.
"What?" Adam whipped his head around to see what Blair was talking about. "William?"
"That might be from an earlier wound. When the Elder found out that Hector's mother was only fourteen when she had him, he took out his frustration on a computer mouse."
Fourteen? It was a wonder the entire computer hadn't suffered his wrath. "Was it a serious wound?" Blair continued.
"A nasty gash. Anna bandaged it, but thought it might bleed again if he didn't take care."
"Why are we wasting time standing around?" Adam demanded.
"Uh, I have men out, sir, trying to find their trail. The area around here is thick and--"
Adam cut him off with a slash of his hand, turning with hopeful eyes toward the man beside him. "Blair, can you find him? Like Captain Banks found you?"
Blair whispered something into Hector's ear, then passed him off to one of the others. "I can try, Adam. Give me a minute." Adam nodded.
The Guide walked away from the waiting men and women. "Jim?" he said aloud softly. "I'm here, man. Adam and me. We need to know where you are, and that you're all right." The shaman took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. "Give me a sign."
In the distance, he heard the howl of a wolf and the shriek of a panther. As he opened his eyes, a gray streak drew his eyes to a particular area. "Thank you," he mumbled, then turned back to Adam. "I got the trail. Let's go!"
James sensed Blair's arrival, and made a decision. One second he was plodding along, and the next, he stopped, sending what he hoped was a reply to his Guide. Then he heard Blair call out to Adam, and knew his message had been received.
Gregory threatened to shoot him, but he refused to take one more step. "It ends now," he said, turning to face his brother. "There's no going forward for you, or back. Don't expect me to feel sorry for you, either. You brought all of this on yourself."
"What do you know that I don't?" The gun was pressed firmly against his temple.
"That Adam is on the trail below us. It really doesn't matter what you do to me, because we both know he's a lethal son of a bitch, but if I'm alive I might be able to buy you some time," James bargained.
"But I'd rather have the Family fall into his hands than yours."
In the split second before his finger depressed the trigger, James moved. He felt the bullet sear into his shoulder, but he turned down his pain dial, and wrestled with Gregory until the gun flew out of his hand and into the tall grass.
Gregory punched the injured shoulder, and scrambled to his feet as James bent over in pain. Deciding that looking for the gun would be futile, he opted for running.
By the time James successfully blocked the pain enough to see straight, Gregory was already out of sight. With a grunt, he rose to his feet...and followed.
"That was a gunshot!" Adam shouted, keeping on Blair's heels as the anthropologist sprinted toward the sound. In fact, he was so close that he almost tripped over him when Blair stopped abruptly on the trail. "Blair?"
"Jim was shot here," he said, his voice an eerie whisper. "But he managed to disarm Gregory." He walked into the weeds, and picked up the gun, handing it to a bemused but believing Adam.
"Where are they now?"
"Gregory ran. Jim went after him." He started up the path again. Adam tucked the weapon into the back of his pants, and joined him.
James was just about ready to say screw it, and wait for Blair and Adam, when his Sentinel sight focused in on Gregory, finding his brother dangling from a rope bridge which stretched between two angular peaks. Cursing, he surged forward.
"Hold on, Gregory!" he called out as he cautiously stepped onto the wooden structure. Looking down, he saw a narrow, rocky stream far below; if Gregory lost his grip, there would be no deep river to break his fall. He inched his way out to where the man bobbled, and saw the broken slat which had caused him to slip. "Grab my hand, and I'll pull you up," he ordered.
Instead of reaching for the extended hand, Gregory latched his hands around the Elder's ankle. James crashed to his butt. "What the hell are you doing!" he shouted.
"Taking you with me, of course."
James felt himself sliding forward and reached out to hold onto the side ropes. He grimaced at the pressure on his injured shoulder, and nearly groaned as the rough material dug into his wounded hand. Somewhere between the compound and here, Anna's bandaging had disappeared, leaving the gash open and bleeding. He mentally grabbed the pain dial, and jerked it to it's lowest setting. "Don't do this, Gregory," he said. Then softer. "Don't make me do this."
"You don't have the guts, James," Gregory taunted. "Look at it this way-- we can fight for the top spot in hell."
There was a definite tug on his leg. The pain dial lost its battle. Fire seared through his upper body as he inched closer to the edge. Why the hell couldn't the hand and shoulder be attached to the same arm? One-armed, he had options; this way, his choices were limited. "I'm through fighting you, Gregory," he said, and realized he meant it. "Either pull yourself up, or let go," he demanded softly.
"Or what?" Gregory said mockingly.
"Or I'll make you let go. I don't have the strength to rescue you, but I do have the strength to save myself. It's your choice, brother. Your choice."
"I've already made it." The fingers dug in tighter.
"Then so have I." With that statement, James drew back his free leg, and slammed his foot into Gregory's face. His heel hit just below the nose, then shoved upward. Bone splintered, and the force of the blow sent the shards into the soft tissue known as the brain. Gregory was dead even before his fingers got the message, and limply let go.
Dispassionately, James watched the body plummet to the rocks below.
"Shit," Adam hissed, as he watched his two brothers on the flimsy bridge. Although he was too far away to hear what was being said, he saw James plead with Gregory, then kick him. The lack of a scream told him that James had been as humane as possible. Lucky son of a bitch. He started across the bridge.
"No," Blair ordered. He looked at how Jim was sitting so still on the bridge, and realized he had zoned on his brother's body. Adam wouldn't know how to handle him, could possibly startle him into losing his precarious hold. "Let me go."
"I thought you had a fear of heights?"
Blair took a deep breath. "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't mention that at the moment."
"James-- Jim needs you, Blair. I know you can do this," Adam encouraged.
"You didn't happen to be a cheerleader in a previous life, did you?" Blair quipped as he started across.
"I hope the hell not."
"If you hear whimpering, please ignore it."
Despite his position, Blair had to grin. You can take the soldier out of the Army, but not the Army out of the soldier. By focusing totally on Jim, he made it to his friend's side. He was taken aback by the amount of blood decorating the white oxford shirt he wore. "Jim? Listen to me, man. You need to come back. If you can't hear me, then hear this racing heart of mine, okay? I really, really need you with me." He put his hand over the one that was still clinging to the rope, just in case. "Come back to me, Jim."
There was a shiver, then pained blue eyes met his. "I had to, Chief," Jim whispered.
"I know, Jim. And we can discuss it ad nauseam if you feel like it, but just not here. Okay?"
Jim looked at him, then at the bridge. "Shit, Sandburg! What the hell are you doing out here?"
Blair shrugged nervously. "Having a heart attack, maybe?"
"It's okay, Chief. Let's head back. We'll take it nice and easy--"
"And fast? Can we do fast, Jim?"
"Sure we can, buddy." Jim stood, and found himself swaying.
"Whoa, man!" Blair yelped, and grabbed on to his arm. "Blood loss does nothing for the balance, you know. You were shot, remember? Both Adam and I heard the shot, but I knew the bullet hit you. Weird, huh?" he continued, walking his partner across the bridge, not noticing the altitude as he tuned in on Jim's shaky condition. Before he knew it, Adam was reaching out, and taking a lot of Jim's weight.
"You guys saw what happened?" Jim asked as Adam sat him down and started stripping off the shirt.
"Yes," Adam said tersely, nodding when he saw the exit wound. Good. It didn't look too serious, and thanks to a suggestion from Mandy, he'd brought along a supply of blood for both the Elder and Blair.
"Don't start, James. I'm not in the mood to listen right now." He looked up as William and the others finally made it to their position. A first aid kit appeared. He ripped open a couple packages of wadding, and expertly bandaged his patient's shoulder. Next, he focused on the hand, cleansing it as best as he could, and deciding that stitches could wait until they could secure someone more qualified for the task.
"Adam, please--" the Elder tried again.
"I said no, dammit!"
Blair looked at him in alarm. "Back off, Adam," he warned.
"Tell him to back off!," the man countered, retreating even as he spoke. "Tell him I don't want to hear the gruesome details! I don't want to hear how he balanced on the edge of that bridge, and had to make a fucking decision!"
"Adam, I know he was your brother, man--" Blair began.
"You think I'm this fucking angry because Gregory is dead? That's not what this is about, is it, James?" he asked furiously.
Jim shook his head. "He's mad because I took the time to make the choice--"
"It wasn't a choice, dammit! You should have kicked the bastard free and been done with it!" Adam paced manically. "You promised me, James. You. Promised. Me!"
Jim looked at his brother, the others giving Adam a wide berth as he stalked to and fro. "Help me up, Chief," he said, extending his hand. Blair pulled him up. "William!"
"On his way back to his mother."
"Good. Organize a recovery detail. Gregory is...." He paused wearily, marveling at how draining the words were. "Gregory's body is located on the rocks below, two meters from the stream bank."
"You can head back to the vehicles now. We'll be down shortly."
William nodded, and started down the mountain.
"You want me to go too, Jim?" Blair asked softly.
"You're okay, Chief."
Jim staggered into Adam's path, unnoticed until Adam bumped into him. Reaching out to steady him, Adam wrapped his arms around his brother and pulled him close. Jim returned the embrace with his good arm.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "But I'm still standing, Adam. Just like I promised. Okay?"
Blair watched the dark head nod, and he started down the trail, leaving the two to mourn their brother in private.
"You have any idea what's going on in there?"
Blair shook his head as Arielle plopped down on the sofa beside him. They were all gathered in the library at the farmhouse, waiting for Jim and Father to come from a closed door meeting. Gregory's funeral had been held earlier in the day, then Jim and Father had disappeared into Father's office. "Jim and I haven't had any time to talk. Once Gregory was retrieved, we were on the plane and headed here. Because of his injuries, he slept most of the way."
"Are you worried?" she asked perceptively.
He smiled and lifted an arm so she could snuggle against him. "No. Jim will do what has to be done. It's his way."
"And your way?"
"To follow his lead. Some would probably call me a doormat for that--"
"And some would call you a good soldier," she interrupted.
He laughed. "I'm not sure which is the bigger insult. But by following him, I'm following myself, if that makes any sense."
"Your paths are the same, so whether you're following or leading, you are keeping true to yourself."
"Exactly!" he exclaimed happily. Walter glared at him from the other side of the room, where he sat with Matthew. Blair shrugged off the look. He knew Walter had been particularly close to Gregory-- which was why the Elder was planning an extensive investigation of the African operation. Matthew had been close to Gregory too, but Blair got the feeling that he was glad to have him out of the way. Theresa sat by herself, meditating to a CD of aboriginal music. The only vice president who hadn't been able to make it was the newest one, Laura. Getting out of Antarctica was always an iffy proposition, especially in the middle of its winter.
"And there are times when I lead," Blair continued, "but you know what? Jim follows with the same dedication and trust with which he leads. Knowing the trust is there makes whatever position I'm in, comfortable."
"I agree. Having James' trust is very valuable," Arielle said loudly, watching with amusement as Walter flinched. The amusement faded as she thought about going back to England. "Whatever the Elder's decision, I'm not looking forward to going home," Arielle moaned. "Jamie Lin is going to be impossible."
"It's not your fault she had an ear infection and couldn't fly," Blair said sympathetically.
"Tell her that."
"I'll do something even better. I'll tell Jim to tell her that."
"Thank you! Jamie Lin holds a grudge even better than an adult."
"Just like her mother," Adam quipped as he joined them.
"I am an adult," Arielle replied. Adam lifted a disbelieving eyebrow. "Want to take this outside, brother?" she offered.
"No way. You fight dirty."
"I fight the way you and James taught me."
"That's the reason why I won't fight you," Adam said reasonably.
"Nice to hear some things remain the same."
Everyone jumped when they heard the Elder's voice. No one had heard him, Father, and Raleigh enter the library. "Here's the deal," he said, without preamble. "For the next year, I will be conducting an extensive review of the Family's holdings. I will re-organize, re-define, and re-structure at my discretion."
"By whose authority?" Walter asked arrogantly.
Father stepped forward, tugging off the ring that symbolized his power. He then placed it on James' finger, and kissed it, before turning to address his audience. "James prefers the title Elder, but know that he is the head of the Family. I'll still dabble here and there, maybe offer my two cents on occasion, but all final decisions rest in his capable hands."
They all lined up to pay homage to their new leader. When it came Blair's turn, Jim looked at his friend and shook his head. But the blue eyes questioned him, demanding that Jim decide-- was he a member of the Family or not? With a sigh, Jim extended his hand.
Just as Blair bent over to bestow the kiss, he said in a Sentinel-low whisper. "Just don't get too used to this. I'm still going to leave my towels on the bathroom floor." The others were startled to hear the Elder chuckle at such a solemn moment.
"So, does this mean you're no longer a detective?" Matthew asked.
"I'm taking a leave of absence. Hopefully, by the time the year is over, I will have the Family set up in such a way that I can handle it, and being a cop."
"And if not?" Walter inquired.
"Then I quit being a cop." He could tell that was not the answer Walter wanted to hear. "I made a promise years ago. I am a man who always keeps his promises." He exchanged glances with Adam. "You're all free to go. I'll see you soon."
"Will there be a schedule of your activities passed out?" Theresa wondered.
"No. I've decided to wander with the wind," the Elder replied whimsically. He could sense the nervousness of Walter and Matthew. Interesting. Theresa was slightly apprehensive, but nothing too extreme. Arielle was excited. And Adam...was Adam.
Everyone filed out to make arrangements for their flights, except Arielle. Blair, Father, Raleigh, and Adam also remained. "I can see you're in good hands, Elder," Father said, eyeing the core of his son's support.
"I've always been in good hands, sir, ever since you took me in," James said graciously. "And I hope you're not planning on abandoning me now?"
"Never, my son." He gave him a long hug. "One of my racers pulled a ligament, so I'll be out at the barns."
"I better go with him," Raleigh said. "You know, when we started this, he didn't know one end of the horse from the other. But he learned, doing it his own way." He lifted a hand to the Elder's cheek. "*Your* way, James. That's how you will succeed."
"But it'll be okay if I ask for advice?"
Raleigh chuckled evilly. "I don't think you'll have to ask. One of the perks of getting old is that we can say what we want when we want. Since Father and I were never ones to hold our tongues...."
"Daily calls, huh?"
"Daily, hourly...." Raleigh smiled, and ambled after his partner.
James watched him walk out. "Take care of them for me, Adam."
"I'm going to have to go to Cascade and clear up some matters. You mind taking care of the preparations for me?"
"You'll be coming back here before you take off for your 'world tour'?" James nodded. "Then I think I'll tag along. Mandy will want to know what's going on."
"Since you're playing travel agent, see if you can get me a seat on the Concorde," Arielle said with a grin.
"You want a wing seat, right?"
"Wing seat coming up," Adam smirked, walking out of the room.
"Brothers," Arielle muttered, then lifted on her tiptoes to kiss James' cheek. "At least there's one decent one in the bunch." She cocked her head at Blair, then kissed his cheek as well. "Make that two. Let me know when you want the European rounds, James. Or don't tell me. Just show up at the door. I'll be ready-- unless Jamie Lin throws a temper tantrum and doesn't let me into the house."
"Tell her I said to behave, or she won't get to go traveling with us."
Arielle grinned. "The entire household will thank you, James. Now, let me go keep Adam out of trouble, because if I'm in a seat over the wing, I guarantee there will be trouble."
"I'm so glad you two are on different continents," James said, laughing as she tossed back her dark hair and sauntered out the door. He looked at his remaining companion. "You doing all right, Chief?"
"Yeah, man. You?"
He shrugged, or tried to, but was hampered by the sling he had to wear. "I'm getting there. I'm not happy about any of this-- the way everything went down in South America, taking a leave of absence from the Cascade P.D.... But my happiness has never been in the grand scheme of things anyway. I'll survive. I always do."
"What constitutes happiness for you, Jim? What's the standard for a good day in your book?"
"This is the end of a good day," he admitted sheepishly. "You and me, relatively healthy, and not in danger."
"And together?" Blair asked softly.
"That too. But I'm adaptable."
"Why are you planning to adapt?" the anthropologist questioned carefully.
Jim sighed. "I can't ask you to--"
"Then don't ask," Blair interrupted. "Just get on the phone, and tell Rainier that Family Labs needs my services for the next year. If they want to stir up a fuss, promise them a building, or something."
"Blair, you can't put your life on hold for a year--"
"Why not? I've been dragging my feet on the diss anyway. What's one more extension?" he said off-handedly. He figured Jim would freak if he told him the truth. Okay, it wasn't a secret that he loved learning, and sharing what he learned. But whether he was a student at Rainier, or touring a Family Lab in Antarctica, he would learn, and he would teach. Maybe his teaching would just be telling his adventures to the man beside him on London's tube, but that was teaching. And talking to the man would be learning. But the third thing he loved doing required more than just his mind and his mouth. To be a Guide, he needed a Sentinel. No. Not just a Sentinel, because he wasn't merely a Guide. He needed Jim because he was Enqueri's Companion, and Shaman-To-Those-In-Enqueri's-Care. That was what the shamans in the jungle called him. That was who he was.
"Besides," Blair continued cockily, "what kind of grad student would I be if I turned down a free world tour?"
"No buts, Jim. This is my life. I do the choosing," he said firmly.
Jim nodded. "Okay, Chief. Welcome aboard." He glanced at his body in disgust. "I'd say 'let's shake on it', but I'm already aching from holding out that damn ring."
"If you don't like it, why are you wearing it?"
"Because Gregory had a point."
"Yeah, at the top of his head."
Jim snorted in amusement. "I'm serious, Chief. He said that the ring is a symbol of Father's power."
"Father's, not yours," Blair pointed out.
"Right. But I can't snatch away that power, without having something to put in its place. So far, the Elder has just been a myth. I started taking on actual form when I hosted the reunion. I'm hoping that this 'tour' will make me real. But until that happens, I have to depend on Father's legacy."
Blair stared at him. "You know, when you first brought me here I wondered how a soldier got suckered into being the head of an international corporation. Now, listening to you speak this way, I'm wondering how someone who obviously belongs at the head of an international corporation got suckered into being a soldier. Man, a shrink could build his entire career around you."
"Sorry. An anthropologist got his hands on me first."
"Psychiatry's loss," Blair quipped happily. "So, Elder, next stop-- the world?"
Jim started toward the door. "Nope. Next stop-- Cascade, and a certain police captain."
Blair walked ahead of his partner, opening doors and moving objects out of his way. "You know, you have a point, man. I really don't need to follow you everywhere. Why don't I just stay here--"
"I am not facing Simon by myself, Sandburg," Jim protested. "I need to use that cute face of yours as a shield."
"Sometimes Simon doesn't respond to cute, Jim. What if we get a puppy and...."
Jim smiled indulgently as Blair's scheme grew more and more elaborate. In the end, they would walk into Simon's office and tell him the truth-- because the captain deserved it, and would accept it...eventually.
"What kind of dog are we talking about, Chief?" he inquired, admitting a little insurance wasn't a bad thing. Blair and a puppy. Simon wouldn't stand a chance....