Imperfections V: Passing Through the Underworld
See disclaimers and notes in part one.
Blair managed to sleep, which wasn't a surprise. Sleeping was much better than thinking. But he woke up almost forty-five minutes before he needed to, still tired and very antsy. He filled in the time till Jim got up with his own shower, then making breakfast. When Jim came down there was bacon and eggs, oatmeal, and toast with honey. Jim took one look at the table and sighed.
Another sigh. "Do I need to get weighed again? I'm fine. I'm eating."
"Oh. Er. Actually, this is sort of an apology. For completely losing my mind last night."
Jim sat down and reached for the bacon. "That would explain all this food you disapprove of. So, you're over it?"
"You know, the lying would be more effective if you could modulate your smell." Jim was smiling, and Blair managed to smile back and shrug.
The rest of the morning wasn't too bad. If Jim was a little more thoughtful than usual and if Blair stood closer, well, neither of them mentioned it. As they were headed to the car Simon called to tell them to meet him at the site, not the department. The translation had arrived, and Simon was already on his way.
When they arrived, Simon was chewing on a cigar and waving a small piece of paper in the air. "It's directions," he sang. "Unfortunately, they don't make any sense to me, but heck, I can leave that to you." His cell phone rang, and Simon broke off to answer it. Jim took a polite step back, although he could obviously overhear any conversation from the parking lot across the street if he wanted to. Blair found himself watching his partner very closely, wishing they'd had an hour at the sentinel gym so that Blair could run him through the basic drills, just so he could see for himself that Jim was all right. Actually, the regular drills were probably not what Jim needed. He was stable enough now to start some of the more advanced meditation training. Not all sentinels got very far with that, but Jim would. He would take to the mindful altered states like a duck to water. Of course it would take months, maybe lots of months, before he could use it to control his autonomic responses. But once he did, Blair wouldn't have to worry about a physiological train wreck that happened *last year* popping up and biting Jim in the arse.
Catching Blair watching, Jim started to say something, but then his phone rang too. "Hey, Connor! Long time no see. You're missing all the fun." A pause, then, "Ok, I'll bite. Who have you and Rafe got in the car?" He glanced at Blair and rolled his eyes. Then his jaw dropped. "I take it the wrong question would be 'what was the cause of death?' Where are you taking him?" He listened a moment longer, then hung up. "You'll never guess," he said.
Blair shoved him gently on the shoulder. "I'm sure that was cute coming from Megan, but she's better looking than you are. Give."
Jim snorted. "They've got Martin Gillman. He was hiding out in a homeless shelter on Kennedy."
"Yeah. Who knew? Apparently one of your graduate students is studying poverty and saw him last night. He didn't realize why he looked familiar until this morning, when he called it in. They're bringing Gillman now."
"Well," Simon said, closing his phone and turning toward them, "the police chief will be here in an hour."
While Jim and Simon were catching one another up, Henry and Sidney arrived, one right after the other. Jim frowned at them as they made their way across the site. "What?" Blair asked.
"They're in some deep conversation about illegal antiquities." Smiled slightly and shook his head. "Brown seems to have picked up a new hobby. I never would have guessed him for the stones and bones type."
Blair shrugged. "I can see the attraction: excitement, mystery, history, the adrenalin of discovery."
"And yet, I don't see *you* doing it."
"Well, hell, Jim. In between the earthshaking discoveries are years of finding nothing. Most of it is slogging through the mud, working from dawn till dark with people you loathe, and fighting over the last M&M."
The contingent from Scotland arrived then. All three of them were there, and none looked as disgruntled and grim as Adam and Mac had the night before. They passed Simon's translation around between them.
"The directions are pretty clear," Adam said. "But we need the starting point."
Jim and Mac looked at one another. Mac nodded. Jim said, "It's probably those big doors."
"Well," Sidney said, "All we can do is look." Brown was practically dancing with excitement.
Although starting up the generator and getting everybody back down into the pit and then through the narrow tunnels and drops was time consuming, the directions were, in fact, pretty clear. It was almost anticlimactic how quickly they were standing in what had clearly once been a lushly appointed inner sanctum. The floor was covered with a rotted film that had once been a thick rug and the remains of framed pictures hung on what was left of the walls.
Things slowed down then. Sidney, who was by then officially listed as a consultant to the department, took pictures while the sentinels waited out of the range of the flash. Then Sidney and the sentinels carefully searched the room. The room was not so large that it took a long time. In a few minutes it was clear that if a safe full of gold was anywhere in the room, it had to be buried under the half-collapsed east wall.
Simon went back up top to meet the police chief and check in. The sentinels set at once to shoring up the ceiling at the east end of the room, and Sidney and Henry began to clear the debris. The pile wasn't very large, but they were slowed down by Sidney's pickiness about how they stack the fill and because every ten minutes they stopped to take more pictures.
Simon came back with the Chief of Police, who was guardedly impressed and politely supportive. Simon handed his superior off to Adam. "This is more Dr. Pierson's area than mine," and said to the others, "One step forward, two steps back. Martin Gillman just died in interview room four. I need a sentinel to come look at the body."
"What?" It was most of the room asking the question.
Simon shook his head disgustedly. "I don't have an explanation for it. Rafe was in the squadroom getting the paperwork ready. Megan went to get the guy some coffee and a sandwich because he looked dead on his feet, and when she got back twenty minutes later he was dead. Come on, let's go."
"That would be me," Jim said. Mac looked ready to argue, but Adam, not breaking his explanation to the Chief, bounced a pebble sharply off his arm and Mac receded.
The paramedics had already cleared out by the time they got there, although some of their medical litter was in the trash can in the hall. Dan Wolf waited outside the interrogation room with a stretcher, and Samantha from forensics waited irritably just inside the door. Megan stepped forward as they approached, her expression alternating between fury and contrition almost comically. Simon shrugged and shook his head. "Just tell us again what happened. How long were you gone?"
"Longer than I meant to be. I ran into your prosecutor in the hall on the way back from the sandwich machine on the first floor."
"How was he when you left?" Jim asked.
"Depressed. Subdued. Terrified, actually. It was going to be like pulling teeth to get him to talk." A scowl. "Brian and I had been playing good cop/good cop for an hour already. The kid was a mess."
"Did he say anything?"
"Nothing coherent. As soon as we approached him and he knew he'd been located, he kept repeating that he was 'fucked.' He said that it didn't make any difference. He'd thought at first that he could just hide and it would all blow over, but then he read about Watson and Granger in the newspaper and he knew he was dead 'no matter what.' All of which elicits great speculation, but isn't anything either clear or concrete. I thought maybe if he ate something...."
"Did he say how he knew Granger?" Simon asked.
"I wish. The obvious guess is, Granger was his contact to Koren, but that's only a guess."
Jim pulled a pair of gloves out of his pocket and entered the room. Blair forced himself to turn his head and take a good look, then step forward after him. Damn. Just when he got used to seeing the bodies of strangers, then he got to start with dead people he knew. Martin Gillman was lying prone on the floor, his limbs straightened tidily. He had several days' growth of beard and his clothes were long unwashed.
Jim crouched on one knee and made a face. "He reeks," he muttered.
Jim checked his knuckles and wrists, then shrugged and shook his head. No sign of struggle. Gently, he lifted the slack head, leaning over to get a look at the face and neck. He paused, and without warning shot upward and stumbled backwards. Blair seized him by the waist and hauled him back another three steps, nearly slamming into Simon. Jim, his balance shot, clawed at Blair's arms, gasping. "Poisoned," he managed.
For a moment it seemed they were both going down, but although Jim swayed, he didn't fall. "Easy," Blair whispered in his ear. "You're ok."
"What the hell is going on?" Simon demanded at a roar from beside them.
"Give us a damn minute," Blair said. But Jim was standing on his own by then, although he kept one arm around Blair's shoulders. With his free hand, Jim reached to rub his face in a gesture Blair knew very well. With a yelp, Blair intercepted the hand and then with his pinkies stripped both gloves off and flipped them, inside-out, onto the floor. Jim grimaced apologetically. "You ok?" Blair asked.
"Yeah. Fine." He glanced at Simon. "I don't know what kind of poison it was. It was in him for hours, and I think there was a lot of it. It was coming out his pores."
Dan came in then. There was no point in preserving the scene for the sentinel if the criminal act had happened somewhere else hours before. He squatted by the body, sniffing it himself and shrugging. "Was it injected or consumed?"
"I don't know. What do I know about poison?" Jim said. "It smelled really complicated, if that helps."
Rafe told much the same story that Megan did. Simon chewed an unlit cigar and glowered. "How can you not notice the man was *dying*?"
"He didn't say anything," Rafe said. "He didn't tell us he was in pain or anything."
"Yes, he did," Megan corrected. "When we got him out of the car he held his stomach and said he was getting an ulcer or something."
"Great. Just great. There goes our witness. Or maybe one of our suspects. Fantastic."
Jim and Blair picked up a box of donuts, some more bottled water, and a new packet of wipes on the way back to Cantor Construction's torn-up lot. The others fell on their offering like sharks on an unlucky surfer. Except for Henry, who continued to shift rubble. "We've got some kind of structure here. This could be it," he said.
The safe, when they brushed the dirt off and shone lights on it, was an impressive three feet high. About six inches of that, however, was embedded in the floor, which had broken beneath it at some point. Sidney, Brown, and Mac immediately began to argue about pulleys and levers. Jim groused about how long this was taking and how important the case was and wanted to send for a blowtorch. Adam was ignoring the argument and taking notes describing the other objects in the room, occasionally carrying one or another into the hall and photographing it.
Joe was perched on a heap of rubble along the north end of the east wall which Sidney and Henry hadn't excavated yet. Blair joined him. Jim was bringing up the blowtorch idea again; apparently he liked watching Sidney turn rotating shades of purple and crimson. Blair wanted to be out of the way the yelling started for real.
He looked at the safe, canted and wedged into the floor on the other side of Joe. "I guess it will be over soon," he said.
"Oh, yeah. All over. Except for everybody who's dead and everybody who actually had the pleasure of meeting Melvin Koren face to face." It was a quiet comment, but the acid in it could melt steel, and Blair began to stammer an apology. Joe waved a hand. "Sorry, kid. Forget it. It's just...."
"Bad," Blair whispered. "Very, very bad."
As one, the two guides glanced at the quarreling sentinels, and then Joe said, "Tessa's having nightmares. We shouldn't have brought her, but we didn't have a choice. Married sentinels...."
Blair nodded. Married sentinels were notorious for not being able to sleep alone.
"We left her when we went to Madrid. That was a mistake. One of many." He sighed.
Blair was unsure what to say. He went with obvious, but encouraging. "A lot has happened."
"Adam going off with you yesterday, Blair. That wasn't like him. He does *not* take chances. He picks arguments, he complains incessantly, he worries about every little thing, and he won't see a shrink. He won't talk to anyone about what happened. I just wish it was over, you know? We're all sniping at each other now. The only thing anyone could agree about last night, apparently, was slipping me a mickey."
"What?" Blair asked.
Joe looked at him blandly. "What? You didn't think I sat out last night voluntarily, did you? They switched out my medication last night and put me to sleep. They think the schedule we've been keeping is too hard on me."
"God," Blair whispered, trying to imagine being forcibly separated from Jim.
Joe shrugged. "It could have been worse. At least it was Adam with him."
"He knows something about sentinels?"
"Mac doesn't need an expert in sentinels. He needs an external control to balance out his internal controls, which are completely...." he paused, glancing over to where Adam was carefully sliding the remains of a desk drawer in order to take it into the tunnel and photograph it. "Adam is a stubborn, uncompromising, pain in the ass," he said loudly.
Without looking up from the delicate shift he was demonstrating to Henry, Adam called back, "Love you, too, Joe."
"Anyway," he said, returning to the conversation, "Mac goes through guides like toilet paper. They get intimidated by his scores or his record or his family reputation or, hell, just by *him* and they back down. After that, they're completely useless to him as a guide. Adam doesn't back down, at least. Even now. He wouldn't let Mac walk off a cliff just because he couldn't get his attention."
"Walk off a cliff?" Blair asked. A couple of times Jim had tried to walk into traffic while he was tracking something. He tried to imagine what he would do if Jim just ignored or disregarded him. There was no way Blair was physically strong enough to bodily stop Jim from doing whatever he wanted.
"The cliff was the guide before me," Joe said. "The moron said it had never occurred to him that a MacLeod sentinel could ever make that kind of mistake."
"Wow," Blair said.
They were interrupted by a sudden silence, and looked up. "It can't be that easy," Henry said.
Sidney said, "No, don't--"
But Jim was already headed for the hall, calling "We'll see," over his shoulder. At once he was back with a pick they'd left in the hallway. He strode through the others to the canted safe, and struck the pick through the floor in front of it. The crash made everyone jump slightly.
The work didn't go fast, but it went steadily. Jim and Mac took turns chopping up the floor while Sidney fretted and Henry shoveled the debris away. There was a little dust, and the ground under the floor was slightly musty. Blair tried not to worry about the smell, but after about ten minutes he leaned over to Joe and whispered, "Should we call a break and air the place out?"
Joe shrugged. "They'll let us know." Suddenly, Blair saw all of the experience and confidence he didn't have. Whatever else might be going on, Joe had no uncertainty about his sentinel.
Blair closed his eyes and whispered, "I'm not sure he would." He was ashamed. He did not want to admit that his sentinel didn't completely trust him and that he didn't have a hold on the situation, but pretending otherwise would be a lie.
A hand on his arm, the light touch of a guide holding attention. "Because he doesn't have a lot of experience."
"And because of Brackett."
Blair's eyes popped open. "What?"
"I do work with a detective. I've seen the charges pending. I cannot imagine.... I would very much like to know how a sentinel survived attempted murder by his own guide."
Blair sighed and buried his face in his hands.
There was a short silence, broken only by the crack of old wood and shluff of shifting dirt and debris.
"Look, kid. You asked about *right now*. You know what he looks like when something's bothering him, right? When he's overwhelmed. You know what that looks like."
Blair knew. He pictured Jim, his face shifted away, not looking directly at anything, leaning slightly backwards, wincing. He nodded.
"You know the headache look?"
That was subtler, because Jim had lived for so long with nearly constant headaches, but yes, Blair knew that look too. Shoulders slightly hunched, stiff movements, frown.
"When he's present and on top of things?" Blair nodded. "Ok, then. Look at your guy. He in trouble?"
"Then relax. Let him do his job."
Blair forced himself to sit calmly while they finished. It didn't take long. They only needed to clear enough of the floor in front of the safe to get the door open. For a moment, it looked like the sentinels were about to wrestle for the privilege of cracking the safe, but Jim admitted he'd never done it before so it was Mac who knelt in the fresh dirt and put his ear to the door.
It took several minutes, but only because the tumblers were stiff with age and disuse. Then the mechanism clicked and it only took a moment's leaning on the handle to disengage the lock.
It was all Jim could do to sit on his hands and wait while the other sentinel worked on the safe. The comparative quiet was kind of intimidating. This far underground, traffic noise was barely a vibration under his feet. With no voices arguing and no hands digging, all he could really hear was heartbeats and breathing, and the grind of the dial on the ancient safe.
Really, he could hear plenty. Henry's stomach had this gurgle....
But still, the quality of the sounds--or maybe it was just that none of the things he could hear were things he had to do anything about. No private conversations he needed to avoid hearing. No arguments to win. No sirens to keep half an ear open for (nothing that high-pitched could reach that far down here). There was nothing he needed to listen to. He wasn't sure if the quiet was soothing or just eerie.
Briefly, he turned his attention to smell. The musty smell was almost completely washed out now. Mostly there was sweat and anticipation. A blur of suspense that clouded all the slow air currents. Jim closed his eyes and searched for his guide. There. Blair smelled slightly worried. He had calmed down considerably from last night's major freaking-out, but the mellow, 'everything's cool' smell hadn't blossomed yet.
As irritating and inconvenient as it was to have a keeper watching him and second-guessing everything Jim did or breathed or ate, it did occur to him that Brackett had never once smelled worried. Not about anything, and certainly not about Jim. Not in the beginning, when the man had seemed professional and polite, if not terribly friendly. Not at the end, the day Jim had a seizure at the PD.
It then occurred to him that thinking about Brackett was probably *not* a good idea. Was it possible to give yourself a flashback by dwelling on the unpleasant past? He didn't know and wasn't going to ask. Jim did not have time to deal with his issues today. He brought his mind back to his nose, the smells of the room. That should have been neutral and distracting, but sitting beside Blair out of the way, Dawson smelled of distress and pain.
There, he thought. See? Things could be worse.
In the quiet room, the safe abruptly clanked and groaned, making Jim jump. Grinning, MacLeod pulled the lever and leaned his weight away from the door. With a harsh squeal, the safe opened.
At once, Brown was hopping forward, shining a light inside. It glinted off a stack of regular, squarish lumps less than a foot and a half high and about that wide. The gold.
There was a long, breathless silence, and then MacLeod reached in with both hands and removed one gold bar. "This is about five and a half kilograms," he said softly. "There are about sixty-five of these."
"That's, um, a lot, isn't it?" Blair asked.
Sidney pulled out a calculator. For a couple of minutes the only sound was scribbling and tapping. "It's close to eight hundred pounds. It's, um, it's worth about five million dollars at today's prices. Er. Depending."
Something brushed against Jim's hand. It was lithe and soft and (Jim could tell because his hand was in sight at that moment) completely invisible. He jumped, earning him a concerned look from Blair.
"We have them," Pierson said. "This is it. If Koren and Etz murdered your witness this morning, then they are still here. They have not given up." He motioned toward the safe. "This is our chance to trap them."
Blair shivered. "What do you have in mind?"
"We tell the press we found all this. We tell them when we're moving it, and to where. Koren will come for it. We've given him some harsh setbacks. He won't tolerate that. He'll come, and we'll have him."
Jim stared at the flashlight glinting off the gold. "Come on, Chief. Let's go call Simon."
It was drizzling when they stepped out of the tunnel. Water hissed against the tarp which covered the hole. The ladder was slick and wet. They were going to move about 800 pounds of gold, somehow, out of that hole and up this ladder; a logistical pain in the ass even if it weren't also a trap.
Jim made the call and gave Simon his report. The shout of surprise from the other end was so loud that Blair heard it and snickered. Jim rolled his eyes and outlined the tentative plan. When Simon put him on hold, he said, "He's talking to the chief. Rhonda's good at arranging really fast and detailed leaks. We could have cameras set up out there in less than an hour."
"Ok," Simon said, "The chief says we're go. He and I will be there in about twenty minutes. Have someone meet us to show us in."
The disconnect was drowned out by a sudden cacophony of roaring and snarling. He could make out a wolf howling and the call of some kind of bird, but the other sounds ran together like some kind of frantic zoo. Jim looked around, but could see no sign of them.
"Hey?" Blair said softly. "You ok?"
Aw fuck. "You didn't hear that." Not a question.
"Well, no. But that's usual." Blair was peering up into Jim's eyes. The worried smell was a little stronger.
Jim really, really, really wished pretending that nothing was happening was an option here. But not only would that really piss Blair off, if he were having hallucinations, that *might* affect the quality of his work. Shit. "I heard some animals."
Blair looked around. "Where?"
"Not real animals."
"Oh." Blair said. He waited expectantly.
"Well?" Jim said.
"When I said you needed to tell me everything, I didn't mean that. I know you see animals sometimes. You'd rather not talk about it, and I'm fine with that. It's normal for some sentinels. It doesn't interfere with your cognition or your sensory processing. It's not a big deal." He patted Jim's shoulder comfortingly.
A part of Jim was grateful that Blair did not point out that the animals were real. Actually, that was very generous of him. But it did not solve the problem.
"I haven't seen them in... I don't know. A while."
The frown was back. "How long a while?"
"I don't know. A month? I was trying to ignore them, I didn't notice them going away. A while--"
Blair laid a hand on his chest, silencing him. "Wait. Let me think. In the hospital, you said the animals were gone. Do you remember that?"
"In the hospital after the golden? No."
"Damn." Blair closed his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't even notice, I was so worried about your eyes! Well, ok. Ok. Not freaking. As it turns out this damage wasn't permanent either. Man, we are *so* lucky."
"What are you talking about? I stopped having-- And now I am again. How is that lucky?"
"Jim, when the drug messed up your eyes, it must have messed up the part that sees animals, too. It took a week for your eyes to recover. This just took longer."
"But I thought psychedelics were supposed to make you see things, not stop you from seeing things," Jim said sourly. This was unfair, and he saw no point in being a good sport about it.
Blair rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah. If what you're seeing isn't real. I mean, there are some drugs out there that can be used for religious purposes, but most of them just gunk up your aura."
"I'm not even going to ask how you know that."
"Uh, yeah. That's probably best." Blair squeezed his arm. "So we lucked out. You recovered from this, too."
Jim wanted to shake him. He just wasn't getting the point. Jim would rather not see animals at all. Really, he'd been much better off damaged, because-- "Chief," he muttered, "the thing is, they sound really upset."
Blair shrugged. "Well? If I was trying to get your attention for the last month and you'd ignored me, I'd be pissed off, too. They'll forgive you."
Blair had gone berserk over a little flashback, over something that was harmless and in the past and *behind* them. But he just didn't--wouldn't, couldn't--get appropriately upset about animals, which were infinitely worse on all levels.
Jim sighed, and Blair began to rub up and down his upper arm. He was working hard at being the comforting, unruffled guide. Truthfully, it did dissolve the worst of Jim's bitterness and fear, but it wasn't the help he wanted. Not that there was any use in asking for more. Sometime in January, Jim, fed up with the giant black cat that he found sleeping in his bed or sitting in his chair about once a week, had asked Blair to find a way to make it go away. Blair had pointed out that Benton Frasier saw animals all the time, and he was one of the most capable and stable sentinels on the continent. More than that, he was the healthiest sentinel--physically speaking--that Blair had ever met. He couldn't be convinced to put effort into combating something that wasn't causing any real problems and might even be somehow beneficial.
Easy for him to say. Sandburg didn't have animals strolling through the interrogation room while he tried to question a suspect. He didn't, right? "Chief, do you--?"
"Only that once." A warm hand, petting Jim's upper arm. Outside the tarp, the drizzle gave way to a sun break, and the light shining through the tarp turned the pit from dim to blue. "Look, I know you don't like to talk about this--"
"You're right, I don't. And don't say 'but' at this point."
They waited in silence until Simon showed up with the police chief, Mark Cantor, Megan Connor, Hal Buckner, and Carolyn. The vault room hadn't been large enough for that many people before a large portion of it was taken up with rubble. Jim found himself squeezed into a corner with Sandburg while Carolyn and Sidney discussed the best way to transport the gold out of the tunnels.
Simultaneously, Cantor was grilling Buckner about who actually owned the gold. The university and the development company had signed a contract at the beginning that covered how any findings would be divided, but no one had expected a windfall this large. Depending on whether treasure was going to be classified as 'artifacts' or not the state might be able to lay claim to a portion of it as well. Then there was the question of the original owners.
In the meantime, it was going to be transported to police evidence lock-up. Assuming they could get it there, if Koren took the bait.
Connor circled the room, examining the sample, asking very quiet questions. When she circled around to Jim she was scowling. "This isn't going to work," she said sharply.
"He's still in town," Jim said. "I don't believe that poisoning this morning was *accidental*. Our perp has not given up."
She turned in a slow circle, shaking her head. "This is not going to work."
"He won't fall for it?" She was the expert after all. She'd chased Koren for years.
"Pierson thinks he'd try it anyway. He's too arrogant to think we could stop him."
She hesitated. "It won't work," was all she'd say.
The press showed up outside, set up trucks across the street. The newspaper photographer tried to sneak over the fence, got ejected by the uniforms standing guard. Within half an hour, it was mentioned on newsbreaks on the radio. Outside, the plan was going swimmingly.
Inside, the first sample case they tried to move was almost too heavy to lift and dented with its own weight before they made it to the door.
There was no question of just carrying out the bars one at a time, maybe wrapped in canvas or bubble-wrap or something. There were sixty-six bars. They had to be kept track of, labeled, checked, and locked in something, even though they were not, strictly speaking, evidence.
Carolyn called her office. The small crates that were strong enough had considerable weight themselves, even before the gold was added in. They were too large to easily maneuver in the narrow, dilapidated tunnels the basements' hallways had become. The boxes were strong, though (nearly bomb-proof), and she had enough of them.
The afternoon crawled by. Henry, whose enthusiasm had died down now that there was no more digging or discovery, went off to get sandwiches and milkshakes. MacLeod and his guide withdrew to one of the small side-rooms, a disappearance Jim would have found suspicious or even weird a year ago, but now considered perfectly normal. Probably even healthy and necessary.
Heaven knew, Jim's own guide was hovering. Blair never took more than two steps away from him. Jim was having breaks in reality. Not big ones, and he always knew what reality *was*, but Blair was standing close, just in case. Thinking about it--and it was better not to think about it--Jim couldn't help wondering if he had had another guide, what the chances were that he'd be grounded or possibly even on vacation by now.
Jim waited. Sandburg hovered.
MacLeod reappeared and checked out the food Brown had brought back. The look on his face as he tasted one of the milkshakes was almost as funny as the sudden, sharp smell of affronted disgust, and Jim couldn't hide his amusement, not from another sentinel.
MacLeod rolled his eyes, "Well pardon me if I expect something called a 'milk shake' to actually include dairy products of some sort. How can you even eat this... well, I'm not even going to call it 'food.'"
Sandburg was laughing outright now and muttered something like, "been telling him...."
The tension had been building for hours--days--by that point. Jim could not remember the last time he had heard Sandburg laugh. Yesterday? The day before? It wasn't like him. He forced himself to say (very patronizingly) "Well, this is hardly our best example. Now, if you want a real milkshake, you have to go to Wonderburger." Which, as expected, nearly had Sandburg falling over.
Shuddering, MacLeod put the drink back and nervously examined his sandwich. "I've been meaning to ask you guys something."
"Sure," Jim said, because Sandburg was still snorting quietly.
"I understand you Americans keep your sentinel kids in the public schools. I was wondering how that worked out."
At a loss, Jim glanced at Blair. "I don't have much of an opinion, actually."
Blair added quickly, "Jim wasn't on line in school."
Jim laid a hand on his partner's arm. "For a while, I was. But my parents refused to let me be tested. I never got the training."
"In general," Blair said briskly, "It works out pretty well. In specific, it depends on the school system. It isn't just a question of money. Because hardly any school system can hire more than one teaching guide, the quality of that one can make a big difference."
MacLeod was looking at Jim uncertainly, and he smelled of sympathy and confusion. Jim wasn't sure what to say. "From what I understand, many private schools have very good programs. And there are summer camps. Why do you ask, Mac?"
MacLeod took a deep breath, looked up. The pressed tin ceiling was intact directly above them. One could hardly guess looking at it that they were about fourteen feet underground, in the abandoned sub-basement of a burned out secret society. "Joe and Rachel tell me that my daughter processes sensory input like a sentinel."
"Joe and who?" Jim asked.
"My brother's guide. Mary is ignoring the extra volume right now, but it's probably only a matter of time." He set his sandwich down and dug out his wallet, producing a picture of a girl. She looked to be about eight. "The problem is, at home, we send sentinels to special boarding schools. The nearest is in Glasgow. I can't begin to tell you how horrible it was. We've been talking about Otherwise, but--"
"Otherwise?" Blair asked.
"Home schooling. That would work in a number of ways. But she wouldn't meet sentinels her own age at all. We don't have summer camps."
Jim nodded. He would probably have learned a lot in a summer camp. "So you're thinking of moving?" Sentinels, like rocket scientists or Olympic athletes, could get permanent resident status almost anywhere.
"Thinking about it. It would be very difficult. The last thing *I* want is to leave home. Except maybe for Mary to face boarding school alone."
The man had gotten married. Never mind where he had found a woman willing to tolerate a freak, he, himself, had been willing to draw an innocent into his life. Then--incredibly--they had made a baby. How could someone who understood the risk bring a sentinel baby into the world? And all he was worried about was sending her to boarding school? Everything in this life was exhausting or dangerous. A little thing like indigestion had nearly undone Jim. Even now, with a competent guide. That was just this week. Last month a minor--negligible, chemically undetectable--drug exposure had messed up his eyes (and apparently his brain) for weeks. For most of the first year, Jim's throat had periodically swollen, making it a real possibility that he would just spontaneously asphyxiate.
This apparently reasonable man had risked this life for his child.
"The biggest problem for sentinels in America isn't the education, it's the urbanization," Sandburg said.
Jim thought, 'Right. Another culture. Perhaps they were all crazy over there.' They were in the middle of a case, which was, hopefully, about to break. Now was not the time to try to figure out where sentinels fit in the world.
"We have that problem at home." With a sigh, MacLeod put the picture away.
"Mac--" Jim almost changed his mind in that moment. It wasn't like he'd given the question any thought. But he had to know, and there were so few people to ask. "In America, at camp, kids say that if your guide doesn't take care of you, you start to see animals." He shot Blair an apologetic look. This wasn't an accusation, he was fishing. Blair only nodded. His eyes were on MacLeod.
Who didn't seem to find the question terribly important. He shrugged. "My brother Connor sees animals. His guide has taken very good care of him for the last twenty years. But focus and trancing and the rest of it all did come more easily to him. Everything I had to learn with discipline and practice was just natural." He smiled wryly. "Of course, before they knew it was sentinels running in the family, everybody thought the MacLeods tended to be a wee bit 'tetched.'" He sighed. "You have to remember, sentinel children aren't any less confused or any more kind than any other children. They tell each other nasty things everywhere, I think. Animals are just a way of coping."
It was almost six before the detectives went up top to stand guard as the uniforms and evidence people brought up the cases of gold. The rain had stopped, but the churned ground was slick with standing water and the overcast sky was making dusk come early.
The good news about things taking so long was that they had made the five-thirty local news, live and with a grumpily reluctant Captain Banks pretending to downplay everything, including the 'security risks' the interviewer gleefully asked about. Jim smirked, listening in from a distance, and then straightened as the first case was brought into the open excavation and Carolyn readied the pulley rigged to lift the containers out.
His eyes met MacLeod's across the pit, and without speaking, they put their backs to one another and scanned outward.
The wind was cool. Blair stepped closer.
In the distance, Jim could see the police helicopter. It wouldn't come in until the armored car was on the move. It was a short trip from the construction site to the PD, where the gold would be temporarily housed in evidence lock-up since Rainier's only high-security holding was in the virology lab of the Kempler Biological Institute. Koren, if he made his move, had only a short window to do it in.
Megan was stalking around the construction site, haranguing Captain Banks as she passed about the possibilities for "collateral damage." This was not a game. Koren would not care how many people got hurt as long as he got the gold. If he wanted it, he would take it.
The media encampment across the street was up to four broadcast trucks and three photographers. There was no sign of Koren.
To the right, on the other side of the fence at the working construction site, a small group of crows had settled on the remains of the workmen's lunch. They picked over the ground, squabbling at one another irritably. Blair laid a hand on Jim's arm and said softly, "Actual birds, Jim."
It was good, at least, to be in the clean, cool, spring air. The atmosphere in the tunnels was dusty and stale, redolent with the filth that dusted every inch of Jim's skin. It was in his hair, his ears, he couldn't wait for a shower. But it was best not to think about that. He didn't want Blair worried about it, for one thing. For another, compared to how filthy he'd *been* now and again, this was nothing. Certainly no reason to complain. Not compared to the jungle. Or the swamp. He found the helicopter again, tracked it for a moment.
The second sample container was on its way out of the hole and the third was waiting at the bottom of the excavation. Beyond the fences, traffic was passing normally. There was no suspicious flicker or reflection in the windows of the buildings that rose up around three sides of the site. Jim took a deep breath, relaxed his shoulders, and scanned the area again, starting with the near ground and working his way up and out. The attack, if it came, would probably be after the armored car was moving, but because that was the most obvious approach, Jim wasn't going to count on it. Koren had known about this gold for days--weeks maybe. He'd had time to prepare.
Paying attention forward, Jim didn't hear anyone approaching Sandburg until the intruder was right behind him. Automatically, he snatched Blair out of the way. Fortunately, his reflexes were good enough to abort his next move, because Jim was fairly sure that, no matter how reasonable and mellow they appeared, if he had hauled off and hit MacLeod's guide, MacLeod would have promptly attempted to rip Jim's head off.
Dawson looked Jim up and down for a moment and shook his head. "You, friend, are way too tense." He glanced sternly at Blair, who dropped his eyes and nodded, but stepped almost possessively in front of Jim. "Listen, I was wondering, do either of you know where Adam got to? I haven't seen him in a while, I thought maybe he said something to you, Blair."
"No, I haven't seen him. Oh, crap." Blair looked at the excavation. "He wouldn't have gotten lost, would he?"
"I hope not. Although finding him wouldn't be too hard with a sentinel. We can't spare one right now."
Jim shook his head. "It doesn't make sense that he would wander off. The plan was his idea." He swept his eyes over the street, the buildings beyond. It was hard, keeping his ears tracking both the conversation he was in and open to what was going on outside the construction site. Behind them, another container cleared the excavation and was carried to the armored car. Jim had lost count of how many this made.
Then Simon, standing next to the pulley mechanism, said sharply, "What the hell--" and then, "When?"
Jim turned. Simon was gripping his cell phone so tightly his knuckles were grey. "Do we know where they are now?" he asked tersely.
Jim reached out, trying to find the other end of that conversation, but Blair squeezed his arm. "Jim? What's wrong?"
Hell. "I don't know. Come on." He charged back across the lot, Blair scampering behind him and Dawson quickly left behind. They reached Simon as he was hanging up. "Simon, what happened?"
"Twenty minutes ago Koren hit Conover, trying to retrieve Kaspari."
"My god," Jim muttered. "Did he get him?"
"No," Simon said, and here he turned toward MacLeod coming up on the other side. "Because our guest Pierson had stopped by for a visit and was waiting for him." Simon wasn't yelling, but the very air seemed to retreat from his anger anyway. "I don't know how he got a handgun past security, but Kaspari is dead, apparently because Pierson shot him while he was headed for the door."
"The rest of them?" Jim asked, his heart sinking.
"Koren and Etz escaped. They took Pierson with them. Apparently they weren't thrilled about his interference." He turned on his heel and stomped off through the mud toward his car. "We don't know any more--it's chaos over there. There were a couple of explosions."
MacLeod collected his guide and hurried after Simon. "We might still be able to find a trail," he said.
Megan caught his arm, but she wasn't strong enough to slow him down. "Mac, no! It's no good going to Conover. Damn it--" She gave up and let go, throwing herself in front of Jim instead. "Don't leave! Can't you understand, they'll come here next!"
It was the sight of the jaguar blocking the path behind her that brought Jim to a stumbling halt. Now? he thought. *Now* it has something helpful to say? He looked down at Megan, and she repeated, "They'll come here next. Koren doesn't give up. He doesn't forgive. He doesn't let anyone beat him. He *has* to come here next. If he gets away from here with the gold, he'll turn his revenge on the rest of Cascade. If Kaspari really is dead--"
"Yeah," Jim said thickly, "I got it." Jim turned back. "Carolyn," he bellowed, "How much do we have left in the tunnel?"
"About twenty. Jim, this is going to take at least another forty-five minutes. I can't speed it up any more."
Thank god. They were behind schedule. "Don't bring out any more. Leave it under ground. Koren can't steal what he can't get to. Somebody lock up that truck." Jim looked around. Simon was already gone. Well. Someone had to take a look at Conover. "Sandburg? Get across the street and have the news people clear out. Tell them we have a bomb threat or something." Hell, Koren had been known to use explosives now and then. "I need them back a thousand feet at least. Lewis, call dispatch. We need some back up." Three of the patrol cars had left with Simon, and most of their support had been put in place along the route to the PD. There were only five uniforms left, Brown, Megan Connor, Jim himself, and Carolyn's tech and evidence people. "Carolyn, get everybody out of the tunnels. The non-combatants can stay in the excavation; it's as good as a foxhole. But I don't want anybody underground where they could be trapped by a cave-in."
Jim turned in a circle. He really should do another scan of the area, even though there was no way Koren could have gotten across town so fast in evening traffic, but--
With Blair across the street, he couldn't concentrate. The traffic noise was too loud and meaningless besides. The people, the cars, the buildings all blurred together in a great audiovisual roar. He heard sirens in the distance, but could not place where or what kind. He was not sure he could pick Simon out of this chaos, let alone a suspect he had only seen in pictures.
Damn it. "Connor, do you have any idea--"
It was Sandburg's yell of surprise that cut through the meaningless roar around him. Jim spun around to see his guide, crossing the torn ground of the construction site/archaeology project, dodging out of the way of an incoming squadcar that tore through the open gate. Jim had halfway filed the intrusion away as a non-threat when the car spun to a squishy stop and a huge man leaped out and seized Blair from behind.
For one heartbeat, everything froze. Then, almost as one nine cops dropped to their knees and drew their weapons. The only one of them who had any cover was Carolyn, crouching behind the elderly generator Cantor had donated to the project. The rest of them were still unwilling to give up their line.
The man holding Blair was much bigger than he was; Jim could have made the shot at much greater range. Without hurrying, he took aim at the forehead of the criminal holding his guide. Silas Etz, he realized distantly.
From the side, a hand closed on the barrel of his gun and something cold and hard nudged him under the ear. "I don't have anything against Blair, detective, but I don't have much choice."
Jim choked. "Buckner?" He turned his head slightly. Blair's division chair was holding a gun on him. Now the fear, the rage he hadn't felt before roared to the surface. It did no good. He dared not move. A moment ago he had been about to retrieve his guide. Now--
"Tell them to lower their weapons."
It took two breaths for Jim to be able to speak. "Stand down," he said.
Everyone but Megan Connor obeyed him.
The squad car slowly pulled forward and drew even with the armored car. The man who got out of the driver's side was Koren. Jim recognized him from the pictures. He was smiling as he approached, but it wasn't arrogance or joy that was caught in his teeth, and Jim could see, when he looked, that Koren had been crying.
"Megan," Koren said. "Long time no see. Tell me, how is Jackson's widow doing? Making good use of the pension?"
"We've heard the news, Koren. Your sick little minion is dead," Connor returned. "Pierson beat you again. Some nobody from the police lab outsmarted you *again*."
If anything, Koren's smile grew wider. "Don't worry. He'll pay for that. Now, put away your gun. I will have Silas kill the guide. I'm right, aren't I? This is a guide? That will destroy two lives, not just one, won't it?" His eyes found Jim's. He knew what he had. "Better than killing somebody's husband, even. That's a good girl. You are a source of endless amusement. Now, who has the keys to this nice truck?"
It took less than two minutes. Buckner collected the keys from the driver waiting with the rest of the support personnel in the excavation. Koren transferred the limp form of Adam Pierson to the back with Buckner and the gold that was already loaded, then Etz got into the passenger side, pulling Blair in behind him. Jim could not look. He knew he must not scream, must not move, that if Blair could be saved at all, his life depended largely on Jim not getting him killed in these next few seconds. He could not meet Blair's eyes.
He did not see what Koren threw just before slamming the door shut and roaring off, but he heard four wet thumps as --somethings-- hit the ground. He did not look. His ears were focused on the truck, on the muffled and distant sound of Sandburg's heart. The sudden hissing was only a background noise.
It was Inspector Connor who grabbed him and hauled him sideways, her strong hands struggling with his great weight. "Jim, please!" she wailed. Then it was too late.
The tear gas, when it struck, wasn't a smell. Smell vanished at once, leaving only burning. His eyes, his face, every bit of the inside of his body was on fire. He fell. There were voices. It was all dim and distant beside the roaring pain.
Then, almost suddenly, the pain, like smell, blunted and faded too. Jim sank, heavy and thoughtless, into an empty numbness that should have been a relief, except he could not move, could not breathe.
"Blair," he shouted. "Connor, get after them!" But he could not hear the words, and Connor stayed beside him, screaming for help.
Distantly, Jim was aware of people around him. He felt the pressure of hands and knew he was being moved. The voices above him called his name occasionally, but he could not figure out what they wanted. It didn't matter. He couldn't give them anything anyway. In the moments his thoughts were clear, all he wanted was to go after Sandburg, but his arms were leaden and clumsy and he was not always sure which direction was 'up.'
At some point, Connor seemed to turn into Carolyn, but this magical transformation was unimportant. Or unreal. Surely, Carolyn could not be weeping, begging him not to do this. Jim wasn't doing anything.
"We've called an ambulance, Jimmy. Help is coming. You just have to hang on." It didn't sound like Carolyn.
From the cloudiness something familiar emerged. The pressure of hands below his ears, at his throat, at his upper arms. He could not refine any of the details of the touch, although he did know it was not Blair. But from the pattern of the movements, this was a guide.
Jim opened his eyes, found they would only part a tiny slit. His vision was blurry and wet. He blinked, and it helped a little. The face above him was mainly a grey smudge. Dawson, then.
"He's responsive, but in shock. How far away is that ambulance, Mac?"
"I can't hear it. Not close enough. Joe, he doesn't have a lot of time. His--"
"Stand back, damn it. Three meters, MacLeod, do you think I'm kidding?"
"It isn't contagious."
Jim struggled, desperate to get their attention. They had to go after Koren. Koren had Blair.
"Easy, son. Everything's going to be fine." Jim had heard this tone of voice before, once or twice from Sandburg, but mostly from Jack Kelso when Marcia was being treated in the emergency room. Dawson was being a guide, not a cop. Which would not--oh, god--be of any help to Blair.
Jim felt pressure here and there, assumed he was being touched. "We've got a problem, Jim." Slowly, clearly, as though he were not sure Jim would understand. "You're not getting enough air, and if that doesn't kill you first, you are going to die of shock. We have to get some adrenalin moving, or it's all over." Adrenalin. Epinephrine, he must mean. Some alarm floated to the top of Jim's mind. Blair had warned him: Never. No matter what. Ninety percent of sentinels could tell the difference between their own and artificial adrenalin, their bodies rebelled, and they died. "Yeah. This is going to hurt a lot. I'm sorry, son, but we don't have any choice."
There was pressure--the back of Jim's neck? His inner thigh? A wave of tingling passed over his body. Then there was pain. Raw, like being flayed alive. Or burned. It was everywhere. Jim tried to scream and was surprised to only hear a pathetic wheeze.
Impossibly, the pain grew. Even screaming was beyond him now. Then suddenly, like a rubber band snapping, the pain ripped the cobwebs from Jim's mind. The heaviness in his body drained away like water out of a sink. Jim yelled, and it was loud, the unexpected noise slapping against his unready ears.
His yell croaked off into gasping. He could breathe. Almost. Not enough. Jim began to choke, and Dawson said, "Help me sit him up. Easy, son. You're all right."
It was Carolyn who got an arm around Jim's shoulders and sat him up. "Oh, god. I--Thank you." She was nearly incoherent. "What did you do?"
Dawson, seated on the ground beside Jim, began to run his hands over Jim's body. A guide exam. Jim submitted, because he did not have the strength to dodge. "Nothing an ethical American guide would even consider, I'm afraid. Mac, I think that's Blair's backpack over there. Toss it here. You can hit pressure points to make sentinels pump out more adrenalin, but you have to have very strong hands and hit the spots just right, and even then it only works about half the time. Nine times out of ten, it's just a waste of the time you should be using to get some real help." He found the box of wipes Blair carried and began to clean Jim's exposed skin. Jim tried to bat him away (they had wasted enough time on this foolishness. Koren had gotten away) but his hands were shaking too hard to make any impression.
"Will he be all right?"
"He'll be fine," (Jim could not tell if this was the truth or not) "but he needs to go to the hospital. He had an allergic reaction. I don't think that was standard tear gas. Usually it's not quite this bad."
"Like hell." Jim's voice was a miserable croak, so he shut up and dug his wallet out of his pocket. He had to squeeze the tears out of his eyes to focus, but finally he managed to produce Jack Kelso's card. "You call this man. Tell him Koren got to Buckner. Tell him they have Blair. Do not--" Jim had to catch his breath, "tell him anything happened to me."
Dawson took the card and then the wallet. He emptied the wallet--bills, cards, old receipts--into one of the evidence bags from Blair's backpack and pitched the empty wallet away. "Wash the plastic, trade the rest of it away. You need to throw out these clothes."
Jim glared sullenly.
"Koren came armed to kill sentinels. In the nastiest way he could think of. You are not out of the woods yet." He finished wiping Jim and methodically began to clean his own hands with the wipes.
Jim, slow but not totally oblivious, realized that the team from Scotland was not out hunting for Blair *right at that moment* only because Dawson was too committed to leave a sentinel in trouble. He made a show of caving. "Fine. Ok. I get it. Call Kelso."
But they wouldn't leave until Jim had been handed over to the ambulance crew. It was Carolyn who retrieved the change of clothes from the Expedition and came with him to the ER, though, so he counted it as a victory.
The EMTs were too anxious about treating a sentinel without his guide present to do anything more than put him on oxygen and IV saline. Jim bore it resolutely, hoarding his strength. Carolyn sat rigidly beside him. She looked as washed out and blotchy as Jim felt.
The emergency room had a hazmat shower. Jim submitted to being undressed and washed. A nurse sluiced him with something that smelled like mud and lemons and soothed the burning itch that had been crawling across most of his skin. Nobody resisted when Jim put his own clothes (from the gym bag) on instead of a gown. Saying 'it gives me a rash' could get a sentinel out of almost anything.
He submitted to the doctor's exam and accepted the shot of cortisone. Blair did his best to avoid those, since sentinels were as susceptible to the side effects as anyone else. Still, an emergency was an emergency. As soon as the doctor was finished with his needle, Jim slid off the table and collected the evidence bag with his personal effects. "Thanks. I've got to go." He wanted to say more, but didn't trust his voice.
The hospital staff put up a fuss. Naturally. So did Carolyn. Jim did not have the energy to argue, but she planted herself in front of him and refused to budge. "Carolyn, Sandburg doesn't have a lot of time."
"Simon is working on it," she said firmly.
"I have to find him."
"You're no good to him if you collapse. Jimmy. Blair wouldn't want this."
My guide. My friend. But he could not think of a way to explain in terms she would understand. He tried to step around her; she stopped him with one hand. Relenting, Jim whispered, "I owe him everything."
"He was doing his job. Right now, you can't do yours. Damn it, Jimmy, this is your life."
"I would be dead now anyway, if he hadn't. He wasn't doing his job when he saved me from Brackett. He didn't even know me. Please, Carolyn--" Jim had to stop arguing and breathe. The crystalline alertness and shaking had both faded, and he felt only tired in their wake. God, it might already be too late.
She laid her hands on his shoulders. They felt heavy and hot through the fabric, and grated on his skin. "I'm so sorry about what happened to you. I'm sorry nobody understood what was going on. But you can't--"
Desperate, Jim ducked sideways and fled. His best speed to the parking lot wasn't very fast and left him dizzy and gasping just beyond the outer door, but it freed him of that conversation.
It didn't do much else. He had no car here. Even Carolyn hadn't had a car. He wanted to weep. That probably wasn't a good sign, but then he was full of an extraordinary amount of stress hormones right then. What did he expect?
Inside the bag dangling from his left hand, his cell phone rang. Clumsily, Jim dug it out and opened it while trying to get a few more steps between himself and the hospital. "Ellison," he croaked.
"It's Jack. I've got something."
Jim swayed. "You've got something," he repeated numbly.
"I'm in Hal's office now. There isn't a lot useful here, but three days ago he rented a rough fishing cabin about half a mile from Mt. Rainier National Park. It's about four miles off Route 165."
It could be a trap. But while Koren was clever and ruthless, Buckner wasn't. However he had gotten into this, he was playing way out of his league. This might be a genuine lead.
"Jim? Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Fine. I'll call you back in a couple minutes."
They drove toward the harbor less than three minutes before pulling into the loading dock of a converted warehouse that had been serving as loft apartments until it had been damaged by fire earlier in the week. Two closed vans waited inside. At once, Hal and Blair were set to moving the crates of gold from the armored car to the vans.
"How much is here?" Koren asked.
"I don't know," Blair said. This was true. He didn't care enough about the gold to lie. He didn't much care about anything.
It took almost half an hour to shift all the cargo, even with Etz (who was large enough to carry a container all by himself) helping. Then Etz tossed Adam--unconscious still, which Blair realized should be worrying--into one of the vans, taped Blair's hands and feet, and tossed him in after.
For a few seconds, Etz and Koren spoke quietly in a Slavic-sounding language, then Koren said, "Hal, my friend. Why don't you ride with me?"
The doors slammed shut. The engines started.
Blair blinked back tears, not that it mattered very much whether he cried or not. Being brave or clever at this point would not make much difference. He could not change what had happened. Jim--
He dug around in his mind for reassuring statistics on tear gas. Even for the legal varieties, immediate emergency care was usually necessary to avoid permanent damage or death. Even then, the stuff was classified as a deadly weapon in most states these days. Sometimes--
But Jim wouldn't have been one of the lucky ones.
Beside him, on the floor of the van, Adam stirred. Blair roused himself and moved closer, thinking that maybe there was something he could do. He had been shot in the upper arm, both entrance and exit wounds were hidden by clotting blood. His side, too, was torn and bleeding. Blair couldn't tell if the bullet had gone in or just glanced along the ribs. "Adam?" he whispered.
Adam jumped, his eyes snapping open and growing wide with terror. Seeing only Blair, he subsided after a moment, panting. He looked around the little space at the back of the van that they had been crammed in to.
"Adam?" Blair repeated quietly. "How badly are you hurt?" Clearly they should get some pressure on those wounds, but Blair's hands were bound behind him.
Slowly, a sort of coldness passed over Adam's eyes. "Not as badly as I'm going to be." He paused. "I'm sorry, Blair. Things didn't exactly work out."
"So," Blair said sourly, "What exactly was the plan? You set us up as a decoy so Koren would go after the real prize, and then what, exactly?"
Adam's eyes drifted to the stacks of cases filling the forward three-fourths of the small cargo space. "Apparently, I get shot and captured and Koren gets away anyway."
"As they left the site, he tear gassed the police."
Adam's head snapped around. "Mac--"
"He wasn't there. They had already gone after you. Your friend is still alive."
"Tear gas is dangerous," Adam said gently, "But it's not necessarily fatal. There are ways to compensate--"
"Jim had six *months* of training," Blair cried softly. "He can't raise his blood pressure at will or control his autonomic functions or--hell, he can't even regulate his heart rate. Most sentinels can't do those things under pressure, and Jim was only starting to think about controlled zones." Tears were coming freely now, and itching as they dried since he didn't have a free hand to wipe them away. For a moment he couldn't speak. Jim could have learned all those things, if he'd had two or three more years. He was strong and brave and persistent. If he'd had time and training and encouragement, he could have learned all those skills that make so much difference in emergencies. "I wasn't with him. He was alone--" Jim wouldn't have understood what was happening to his body. He would have been afraid. To his horror, Blair found himself thinking, Please, god, let it have been fast.
Adam didn't say anything. Blair cried quietly to himself.
Stop and go traffic gave way to open road. Blair shifted to lean against the doors and tried to stretch his legs. Unbearable pain had given way to a kind of numbness at some point. Probably better that way, actually. He had seen pictures of Koren's victims, and while it was believed that Kaspari had done the worst of the damage, Koren was a skilled torturer himself.
The sun was setting when the van finally stopped and the back doors opened. Past Koren's face, the setting was fairly attractive; they were in the forest somewhere. The pines were thick and dark, artistically backlit and outlined against the pale sky. Koren hauled Blair out and dropped him onto the damp ground and climbed in himself. Blair could not see what he was doing, but after a few seconds his voice floated out, "Very nice. I see the bleeding has stopped. Good. I was afraid you wouldn't keep, and it will be a while before I can take time to see to you properly."
He jumped back out. "Silas, cut Mr. Sandburg here free, and let's go have a look at the house. We have time for a snack before getting busy."
"Snack?" Blair repeated. He hadn't meant to speak, but while he had been expecting terror he had not been expecting confusion.
Koren's cold eyes fell on Blair. "Yes, you too. You'll need the energy. Gold's heavy." He stepped over Blair and held out his hand to Hal. "Combination?"
Hal silently passed over a slip of paper.
Koren started up a set of rickety, wooden steps that led to a small, unimpressive clapboard house. "The thing about gold is it doesn't travel light," he said. "And at the moment, we're such popular fellows. So most of it will wait here while we go on our way."
The huge man, Silas Etz, produced a knife half as long as Blair's arm and slit the tape holding him. "Get up," he said shortly in accented English.
Blair stumbled as his numb limbs refused to obey, and Hal reached for his arm. Blair shoved him away.
"Blair, I'm sorry," Hal hissed. "I didn't know what I was getting into, and then--"
Blair turned away, accepting the bag of groceries Etz shoved at him, and climbed the stairs after Koren.
Simon eyed Jim doubtfully as he got into the car. "Are you sure I should be taking you *away* from the hospital?" he asked.
"Very funny, Sir," Jim said levelly. He had worked sick before, even when his senses weren't on line. After Brackett, well, he'd managed to perform feeling much worse than this. "Did you talk to Kelso?"
"Yeah. I'm not convinced he's right, but we don't have any other leads worth a damn."
Connor and Rafe, two patrol cars, and the team from Scotland were waiting outside Hargrove when they pulled up. Jack Kelso was just coming out. He had a small pile of papers in his lap, which Simon quickly flipped through.
Jim waited in the car. From the corner of his eyes he could see Jack trying to get a look at him. No way. The last thing Jim could afford was a guide who had the authority to ground him seeing what kind of shape he was in. Fortunately, Simon didn't stick around to chat. He got back in and led the little caravan toward the highway.
Jim was spared having to make conversation by the fact that Simon spent the hour and a half trip on the phone with different state and federal authorities. The case was a definite kidnapping, and the Cascade PD was straying out of their jurisdiction. All together, that meant a lot of polite negotiation.
Jim closed his stinging eyes and made himself listen to the conversations. His thoughts kept straying back to what might be happening to Blair, what might have already happened. The pictures that floated into his mind made him furious and terrified. They made his ears ring and his vision go red.
He couldn't afford those feelings, not if he had any hope of helping Sandburg. Panic and fury would quickly burn up what was left of his strength, for one thing. For another, Jim was going to have to *think*, and be very, very careful.
Sandburg had taught him how to not pay attention to something that was distracting or irritating. It worked pretty well with sound. It worked abysmally with smell. There was no reason why it wouldn't work with something he was thinking.
He would not think about that first day, in Jack Kelso's office, when he had promised to keep Blair safe.
At some point the caravan stopped for gas. Jim bought some water and a packet of baby wipes and tried to decontaminate his gun and phone. The wipes weren't great, but the surfaces weren't absorbent, so probably it was enough. The bag with his ID and money, he put in Simon's glove box.
In the end, they pulled off the main road about half a mile from where the cabin was supposed to be. Around two corners of the dirt track, they met two other cars; one contained two state troopers, the other a local deputy.
"I was expecting more than this," Simon said as he got out.
The deputy shrugged. "Tractor trailer jackknifed over at Beaver Crossing." He shook his head. "They haven't got the fire out yet. We're it for right now."
One of the state patrolmen glanced nervously toward the northeast. "Shouldn't we wait for the FBI anyway?"
"No," Jim said. "We don't have time."
A light hand on his arm. Jim looked. Dawson. "Easy," he whispered. "Calm down. We're almost there."
Calm down? Are you out of your mind! Koren is going to kill him. But he's going to make them suffer first. Right now, Blair might-- But Jim managed to keep the words inside, managed not to scream. He tried a deep breath. It hurt.
Dawson sighed and held out his hand, "Okay. Take a look at this."
It was a tiny pebble, or maybe a chip of crystal. The edges were rough, but translucent, and if Jim looked, he could see repeated, miniature reflections of the evergreens around them.
"How many colors do you see?" and then, before he could answer, "See fewer."
The tiny rock slid from rainbow trees to gray and non-reflective.
"You can do this," Dawson said. "Everything is going to be fine, but you have to keep it together. Can you do that?"
"I don't know." Jim was faintly surprised to hear an honest and accurate answer instead of something more useful, like a bland promise that he was fine.
"It would be better, wouldn't it? To be calm and alert? After all, you're not badly hurt. The chemical is gone. Really, you're fine. You're just a little upset."
"I'm just upset--" Jim's voice caught.
"Yeah, I know. It's worrisome. But you're ok. You can handle this. Everything is going to be fine."
"Now, take a couple of deep breaths for me and get ready to work."
From close on Jim's left (and he ought to be surprised at being crept up upon), MacLeod said quietly, "I didn't know you could do that."
"I haven't had to in a very long time. How are his vitals?"
"Not quite normal, but good enough. Joe, you know--"
"Hush. One thing at a time. We have to talk. You need to be careful--"
"I'm always careful!"
"Listen. I don't know how far I can follow you through the woods. If you zone--"
"Hey, I have been doing this a while."
Jim opened his eyes, only then realizing that he had closed them. "I'll watch him," he said.
Before the conversation could go any further, Simon raised his voice slightly to say, "Folks, this is Deputy Markoni. He's going to lead the way to the cabin. It's about half a mile from here, and we're going to have to move because it's getting dark. Is everybody good to go?"
Concluded in part five...