New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections VIII: One Warm Line
Part Four
by Dasha

See disclaimer and notes on part one.

In the dark there wasn't anything to do but look down at the compass or up at the stars. Vecchio was taking a turn driving the boat. Dief had settled down at Blair's feet for a nap. His body was nicely warm, but he pinned Blair's feet firmly in place. The air was cool and sweet. Sometimes, in the distance, they passed the lights of other boats.

"You might as well try to get some sleep," Vecchio said, his voice raised over the noise of the engine. "I won't be able to drive all night."

Blair was pretty sure he hadn't misheard that. "How could I possibly sleep?"

Vecchio shrugged. Like it was no big deal. Like this was just an ordinary day on the job.

Blair wrapped his arms around his chest to hoard his warmth and closed his eyes. He wouldn't sleep, but he'd learned the meditation for rest without sleeping when he was ten. That would have to do.

***

Jim listened at the door as Wu returned back along the passage after walking them to their cabins. As soon as Jim heard the outer hatch close, he slipped out and into the room next door. Kowalski was practically dancing on his toes, but he waited until Jim had swept around the room, listening for bugs and paying attention to the tiny hairs on his arms (weak electromagnetic fields left a static charge he could usually notice). Jim nodded, and Kowalski exploded into a quiet tirade that began, "Was that dinner whacked or *what*? Was that some kind of test, or is that guy just crazy? And if he's crazy, how crazy is he? I mean, what the hell? Is there any sign of Fraser? My god, are you sure he's here?"

"No, I don't know where he is," Jim said, since the tirade had paused, presumably so Jim could respond. "What worries me is, what is he going to do tomorrow morning when Sandburg and Vecchio show up with the goods and presumably sail away? With us. Back to Cascade."

"Crap," Kowalski hissed. "Crapola, crap, crap!"

The quick footfalls in the hall were nearly silent, and Jim had only a second's warning before the door blinked open and closed, depositing Benton Fraser into the tiny, crowded cabin. "We have to get out of here," he said without preamble. "Ng knows everything."

Kowalski, only momentarily put off by the sudden arrival, protested, "How could they?" He turned to Jim, "Even if they overheard something, they couldn't know--*everything*."

"Ng knew who we were when he arrived," Fraser said, seizing Kowalski by the wrist. "We are outnumbered. They are armed." He turned to the door, which opened--

Ho Ng and Tommy Wu were standing on the other side.

Fraser rushed the door. He was fast and competent. Ng was faster and better. He caught Fraser easily and slammed him sideways into the door frame. The decorative wood made a cracking sound.

Kowalski was between Jim and the door, which Fraser was blocking anyway. They could only watch as Fraser's arm flashed out, deflecting Ng's hand and the small knife it held. With his free hand, Ng pulled Fraser off balance. Sweeping his leg, Ng dumped him hard onto the floor. Jim started forward, glancing down so he wouldn't tangle his feet in Fraser's motionless body. When he looked up, Wu was holding a gun.

In such close, confined quarters, it wasn't like Wu could miss, even if he was a bad shot, which Jim suspected he wasn't. Jim swallowed dryly. "Something you wanted to talk about?"

Wu's eyes glittered angrily. "Get your friend up. Move it."

For just a moment, Jim considered playing innocent. But it wasn't paranoia he saw in their eyes, it was utter certainty.

"Come on," Kowalski said. "You had us checked out."

"Oh, yes," Ng said. "You had references. Keith Roark. A government informant." His eyes flicked over Jim knowingly. "A well trained sentinel can smell lies. But then you'd know that." Jim didn't think he'd ever been spotted before, or at least, not by any other clue than the guide that followed him around. He wondered what the tell was.

Kowalski had to half-carry Fraser though the passage and down a narrow flight of stairs into the hold. He'd been hit hard, but not, Jim thought, in the head. He was barely conscious and unable to support his own weight, which would have been bad even if Jim had known *why*.

They were tied. Though his hands were behind him, Jim thought he recognized the knots. Competent and tight, but not painfully so; Tommy Wu was still a polite host. As soon as they were all secure--even Fraser, still silent and pale--they were left alone. No bluster and no threats, no sullen henchman kicking them on the way out for fun. Wu ran a classy operation. Jim almost laughed out loud.

The hold was dark, only a sliver of light coming in from the hatch above. It was enough that Jim could see fairly well after his eyes adjusted. Forcing himself to be calm and methodical, Jim slowly surveyed the room, looking for something to facilitate their escape.

Some tools were piled on the port side. They didn't look very sharp. You couldn't cut ropes with a hammer. Block and tackle. Heavy, but probably useless. Rope, but they already had too much of that. Ha. He might have zoned, he was so absorbed in peering into the dark corners. It was a soft sigh from Kowalski that brought him back just in time to see the fed strip the ropes from his hands and sit up to start on his feet.

Jim said nothing. Ho Ng was a sentinel. Probably better trained than Jim and certainly more experienced. It was a bit of information his file had never mentioned; so the fact they knew it meant that Ng couldn't afford to let them live.

What Jim didn't know was how good he might be, what the range of his hearing was, or if he could compensate for the sound and vibration of the ocean enough to hear into the hold.

No wonder Wu hadn't bothered to bug anything.

Completely free, Kowalski carefully moved over to check on Fraser, then, with a sigh, whispered, "Make a noise so I can find you."

He'd taken a tiny pocket knife from Fraser's sock, and the bonds holding Jim's hands behind him gave in about fifteen seconds. Jim sat up and took the knife so he could work on his ankles. It would be easier for him, since he could see. "How badly is Ben hurt?" he whispered.

"I dunno," Kowalski answered. "Ng really twisted that leg, and it was kind of messed up to begin with, you know?"

Jim picked his way across the floor and made it to Fraser before Kowalski. He searched first for a head injury, running his fingers lightly along the scalp looking for swelling or heat. Nothing. Fraser shifted under his hands, conscious but not really present, his breath stuttering in what Jim thought might be a ragged attempt at pain control.

On his knees beside them, Kowalski cut his partner free and took his hand. "Hey," he said softly, "Frase. Hows about you wake up now?"

"Has this happened before?" Jim asked, wishing he knew more about sentinels.

"No," Kowalski answered. "Yes. But not nearly this bad. Not like this. But a couple of times, you know, just in these last few months. He's had a hard time with pain, you know?"

Jim didn't. "Having a hard time with pain" could mean a lot of different things to sentinels. Rodney McKay, for example, went into shock and tried to die when faced with severe pain. Jim, on the other hand, could usually make the pain of a pulled muscle or minor injury disappear completely if Sandburg talked him through a visualization--except those few times when absolutely *nothing* worked to dim the throbbing. "What does Vecchio do? When he's hurt?"

"Um. He counts."

"Okay, he counts...?" Jim repeated, trying to get more information.

"Backwards from six. Over and over. I don't know why."

Oh. Jim probably did. The counting was probably a cue for a breathing pattern. It wasn't one Jim had ever used, but Blair had only tried to teach him the simplest. He wished he knew more about it, now.

He did know a little about pain. Sandburg had drilled him on the pressure points he could find on himself and shown him the ones that had to be done by someone else. While Kowalski counted, Jim found the nerve clusters in Fraser's hand, his inner arm, behind the left ear.

None of it seemed to help. Kowalski, Fraser's head cushioned in his lap, counted resolutely backward from six, stopping every once in a while to protest that he wasn't the guide and didn't know what the hell he was doing and beg his friend to focus and come back. Even over the counting, Jim could hear Fraser's heart beat; it wasn't as loud as it should be, and it was fast and irregular. Damn, this wasn't right, but Jim didn't know what was *wrong*. How badly had Fraser been hurt and why couldn't he cope with it? Nothing Jim had seen--or felt or smelled--indicated internal bleeding or allergic reaction or... what was left? What else went wrong with sentinels?

Fraser's heart rate dropped suddenly. So did his breathing. This was sort of familiar. The goal of the harder breathing patterns (like the goal of the more concrete visualizations) was to enter an altered state to escape pain that couldn't be controlled or coped with or blocked out. Fraser was retreating. From the rumors Jim had heard, Fraser probably knew more about this stuff than Sandburg. Certainly a hell of a lot more than Jim himself knew.

The injury just wasn't that serious. The leg was a little swollen, a pulled muscle at most. No blood. No broken bones. No head trauma. Pain, yes, the hold stank of it, but--

"Is this good?" Kowalski asked suddenly. "I don't think he's conscious any more. This is not good."

They couldn't escape, not carrying Fraser completely non-responsive. Especially since Kowalski couldn't swim. Blair and the other Ray were coming. They'd walk right into Ng's trap. Maybe see Jim and Kowalski waving from the deck (and not see the guy with the gun behind them). They'd hand over the goods and then, all of them tied to an anchor and dropped overboard.

"I can't find his pulse. Oh, my god--"

Jim caught Kowalski's flailing hand. "His heart's slowed down. He's trancing."

That seemed to confuse Kowalski. "No. He doesn't have any toad venom."

"What?"

"There's a chemical he uses to put himself under. But *this* is not *that* because he used all he had while we were trapping Van Zandt."

Toad? Jim thought helplessly. Sandburg had never mentioned anything about toads. But even if he knew about it, why would he teach it to Jim? Jim was barely past the most basic lessons. God, he didn't know nearly enough, about anything. He had nothing to work with here. Nothing.

Fraser didn't smell like pain anymore. He didn't smell like very much at all. That couldn't be good, but Jim didn't say so out loud. Kowalski had already covered that part of things. Jim reached out with his hand, knowing that he couldn't *touch* Ben, not really, not with his flesh, but he didn't know how else to search for him, or with what else he could call him back. "Where the hell are you," he whispered. "Where did you go?"

Hey, Fraser's dreams were blue, too, which maybe meant that Jim was more normal than he'd guessed. Jim tilted his head back and looked up toward the sky, or, specifically, toward the leaves that blocked the sky. Blue, and a wild place, but not the jungle. There was nothing tropical here. The trees were old growth evergreens, the leaves sharp, short pine needles, the ground soft beneath his feet and mostly clear of plants. The far north, probably, although Jim had never been much past the Canadian border.

Fraser shouldn't be hard to find. After all, it was his dream. Jim looked around and found him very quickly, a shuddering, blood-covered body lying at the bottom of a shallow ravine. Except it wasn't Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that he found. It was a wounded caribou. Blood matted its fur and flies landed to feed.

Jim looked down at himself, half-expecting to find himself a large cat or maybe dressed in nothing but cut-offs and face paint, but no, he was wearing a suit, just like he was dressed to testify in court. Huh.

His black dress shoes slipped and slid as Jim climbed down the ravine, mostly slinging himself from tree to tree so he wouldn't fall. It didn't take him long to reach the bottom.

The caribou watched him but made no attempt to rise or flee. It wasn't a small animal. Jim glanced at its antlers, its hard, sharp feet and slowly knelt at its back so he wouldn't be a handy target if the animal panicked and struck out. He could see now that most of the blood was from a rear leg. Multiple wounds. Bullet wounds, Jim had seen too many of those without these two more. A tear that might be a knife. Jim chased away the flies and laid his hand against the lower leg. It was hot, even through the insulating fur. Jim sighed. "Ben?"

The caribou huffed softly. Jim looked at the blood and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do. He'd wanted to talk to Fraser, but what kind of conversation could he have with the animal who had appeared in the place of his friend? What did that leave? Jim took off his tie and suit coat. It ought to be easy, in a dream, to rip his coat into strips, but it wasn't. He did get several large, uneven chunks, torn along the seams. He folded them into pads and bound them into place with his tie, making the wrapping tight enough to put some pressure on the wounds.

When the leg was taken care of, Jim moved to check the rest of the animal. A small, shallow cut on the chest was bleeding steadily, the blood streaming down to pool and sink in to the dirt. Fuck. This was--This was just--

Jim tore his gaze away from the torn fur and focused on a small plant pushing out of the soil near his left hand. The plant was terribly familiar and *completely* out of place, since it belonged in the jungles of Peru, not the pine forests of Canada.

Apparently, Jim had brought his own help with him. He remembered this plant in Incacha's hands. It was something he could use. It did nothing for pain, but it would speed clotting and help ward off infection. Jim stripped three of the leaves with his cleanest fingers and popped them into his mouth, chewing with his front teeth. The sharp astringent taste surprised him, reminding him to wonder if the leaves were real. They were as real as Fraser's injuries, but would a hallucinated Chopec cure do anything for a hallucinated injury?

Jim took the lump of gooey slivers out of his mouth and packed it into the shallow wound. The caribou grunted and tried to pull away. Jim put what he hoped was a quieting hand on its neck. "Ben?" But the animal only shuddered and panted strangely.

Jim wiped his bloody hands on his pants and began to search for other injuries. He found the next one on the back, going straight in as though the caribou had been shot directly from above. Or no, this was Fraser's wound, not an animal's. He had been shot from behind. It was bad, a small wound, but inflamed and bleeding heavily. "The bullet is still in." Fraser's voice.

Jim pretended not to notice the change. The body was still furred. Jim put another of the bitter leaves in his mouth and chewed. This one was worse than the others. It was leaking more than blood. "What happened?"

"Ray,,, wasn't shooting at me."

Intuition or magic or just wrong guess, but Jim was sure this 'Ray' was Vecchio not Kowalski. He spit the pulp into one hand and started chewing on another leaf while packing green mess into the open wound. "Who was he shooting at?"

"Her."

It wasn't fur around the wound now, but smooth flesh, pink and human. Jim looked up. The animal was gone and Fraser was lying naked on the ground, the remains of one of Jim's best suits tied around his leg in makeshift bandages. He was on his side, lying as the caribou had been. His eyes were closed and his color was terrible. "Ben. It's Jim. Can you tell me what's happening here?"

"Here? *Here* isn't real."

"I know that. I know. I think I followed you here. Ben, we need to wake up. We have a *problem*."

Fraser didn't answer.

"Tell me why we're here," Jim said around a mouthful of leaves. He felt a stab of sympathy for Sandburg, who had been living for months with Jim's multiple, simultaneous emergencies, unsure just how bad 'bad' was, guessing at what was happening, asking questions Jim couldn't answer. Jim wondered if he should pray or something, because he didn't have a clue. "Easy, Ben. It's all right."

"It's my fault. I don't know what to do anymore."

"Well. That happens to everybody sometimes." That had to be the right answer, because it was true.

"I'm not sure I ever did. I think maybe I've been lying to myself when I thought I did."

Jim packed another wad of leaves into the bullet wound. It was still streaming blood, and Jim pushed his hand against it, trying to stop the flow with direct pressure.

"They tried to teach me not to need anyone. You can't expect other people to meet your needs. It's not fair, and it's not possible."

"Well," Jim said helplessly, "other people can't meet all of your needs." He was reminded--and this was not a good time--about his own anxieties about depending too heavily on Sandburg.

"They leave," Ben whispered, not really answering. "It's not their fault. It's not even wrong. People have their own destinies, their own needs. They die." He shuddered weakly. "They move on."

So... what? "The people you're with now can't meet all your needs forever so you might as well give up?"

"I wasn't supposed to need anyone at all. I wasn't supposed to be that weak."

Jim felt a little sick. He could understand this. "But you do. And they leave you." Jim pushed harder against the tide of blood that dripped out under his hand. "Or they fail. Ray shot you."

"It wasn't his fault. He did everything he could. Much more than I deserved. I failed him. I think probably I'm always going to."

"Ben. Ray is coming. With Blair. They don't know what kind of trap they're coming into. We have to--" he stopped. "That happens. You fail sometimes. Everybody does. But let's not fail this time." *They die. They move on.* "Ray and Blair won't leave this time." Ben closed his eyes. Jim pushed, not knowing what else to do. "They aren't going to fail us." Nothing. "I need you."

Fraser shifted painfully against the ground. He was still bleeding. Nothing Jim had done was helping. Joining Fraser in this little nightmare wasn't helping, finding out the problem wasn't helping, treating the visible injury wasn't helping. Jim was here and there was no one else, and he should *do* something. Whatever the right thing was, he hadn't guessed it yet. Clearly. The poor bandages Jim had made were soaked and red. Jim's left hand, cramping from how hard he was pushing, was hot and sticky. "I can smell that they love you," Jim said. "Your guide. Your partner. Why isn't that enough?" Wasn't Jack's whole research resting on how that should be--well, if not enough, something. More than this. Something between Ben and this killing despair, this fear.

"It won't keep them here."

"Oh."

"It didn't keep my parents."

Jim tried to remember the wild stories he'd heard. The Mountie who'd come to Chicago on the trail of the men who'd killed his father. "They died."

"And then they left me."

"He'd been guiding you," Jim guessed.

Fraser laughed once. "I hope not. He was a terrible guide."

Right. Jim had heard that before somewhere. "So it's not about your senses."

Another weak laugh. "My senses. No. My senses are never any problem. Or not much of one. It's everything else that goes wrong."

What could Jim say to that? It was sort of true. Jim's senses weren't a big deal compared to the fact that his first guide had been sort of a psycho sadist. The senses had stayed the same, these last few months. It had been Jim who'd changed, and the people he'd met who'd made a difference. People were always the hardest part of any situation. "I hear you," and *crap* how pathetic was that? He was quoting Naomi now?

"Ho Ng... our intelligence never mentioned enhanced senses. Our plant in Tacoma couldn't have stood up to a sentinel interrogation. I'm not sure Ray could have, if it got that far. But he may have smelled it. If he was that good. I think he heard me on the boat."

At least he was thinking about the case now, and not just giving up and letting his life drain away. "Ben. We have to stop him. I don't know what time it is, but Blair and your guide can't be too far behind us."

Fraser leaned forward and pushed himself onto his knees. The wounds were still bleeding, although the ones Jim could see weren't bleeding as much as before. He was visibly shaking, but he didn't cry out at the pain. "We have to go back," he gasped.

"Hey," Jim said, reaching out. Fraser did not look like a man who should be getting up.

"We can't stay here." He got his bare feet under him, but made it only to his knees and listed to the side.

Jim caught Fraser's arm, supporting some of his weight. "I don't know how to get back."

Fraser attempted to collect himself. He was, Jim noticed, in uniform now. The red wool one. It was torn and bloody. "I've never done this alone," he admitted through clenched teeth. "Usually my father... well, no point in dwelling on that." He took a deep breath. "I believe it is an act of will."

"So we have to want to wake up," Jim said.

"Want to? No. We just have to do it."

Jim was sitting in the dark, his butt growing numb under him, his arms and shoulders a little cold. Startled, he pulled back and nearly lost his balance.

Kowalski didn't notice. He had Fraser cradled in his arms and was--possibly accidentally--restraining his attempt to sit up. "Frase? Fraser? What the hell!"

"Ray--"

"Look, nowhere in the contract does it say you can just randomly drop dead."

"Ray--"

"I am not good with that. I am not *down* with that."

"Ray. Ray."

"You don't get to do that. Christ, Fraser, I couldn't find your heartbeat!"

"Ray. I'm fine."

Kowalski froze. "Ben--?"

"I'm fine. I'm... sorry."

There was a short, painful silence. Jim looked down at his hands: dry and slightly dusty. Of course, there wouldn't be any blood. That hadn't been real.

"Jeez, Frase, what the hell was that?" There was no answer. Kowalski repeated the question.

"It doesn't matter." Fraser turned to Jim, speaking very softly. "Your range is probably much better than mine. What can you hear?"

Jim listened for a moment. "Nothing," he said. Open air and vast amounts of water did a real number on acoustics.

"Try again," Fraser said firmly. "You should be able to hear Ng."

Kowalski shook Fraser's shoulder. "What?" he asked, unable to follow the quiet conversation.

Fraser shook his head. "Sh. Listen, Jim."

Reluctantly, Jim closed his eyes. There was a lot to hear, and none of it made any sense. He listened to the spectrum of sound, trying to tease out the different vibrations into something meaningful. Voices. Rattles. The wave resonance of air on metal and wood. It was complicated and difficult, and Jim really didn't want to do that without Sandburg.

No choice. He had to do this. Fraser was there and Kowalski was there and they'd have to be enough to watch Jim's back and keep him from losing his focus and getting lost in the input because there was nothing else.

Sound blurred to noise and then seemed to recede to almost nothing. Damn.

Fraser lifted up Jim's left hand and ran light fingers over his pulse. "Try again," he said.

Jim gripped the offered hands *hard* and shifted his attention outward, listening. Voices, he wanted voices.

"--must get rid of these witnesses." Cold, hard.

"No." The voice of their former host, mild but resolute.

"Tommy, don't be stupid. If we don't kill them, they can identify us."

"As poachers, not as murderers."

"That will be enough to shut us down, Tommy."

"They were seen boarding my boat. When they never get off--"

"You'll say you put them ashore somewhere--"

"Lying," Jim breathed, "Ng. He's lying to Wu. Setting him up. For our murders."

Lips against his ear: "Sandburg?"

"Not yet," Jim answered, nodding.

Fraser slid away and stood up. He was stiff and limping, but completely silent as he went to the ladder and climbed up to the hatch. Jim heard the tiny click of the heavy metal door pushing against the bolt, then nothing. While Fraser came back down, Jim crept to the floor-level door they had entered through. It was also bolted from the outside. Kowalski started to help with the search, but in the dark hold he tripped on a coil of old rope. He appeared to realize that he was making way too much noise and sat down.

Jim was appreciative that, if he was going to be trapped in a dark hole with another sentinel it wasn't (for example) Adrian Monk, who would be screaming from claustrophobia by now.

Jim's hand, brailing a promising pile of empty crates and coiled wire, found something heavy and cold. He shifted it carefully. Not carefully enough, though. It tapped against the wall, making a soft clang. Jim froze, hoping this wasn't the sound that would give away their movements to Ng.

Silent as a breeze, Fraser glided over to him. His hands slid down Jim's arm to the metal bar and he shifted it again, more gently. The clang it produced was quiet, but resonant. Fraser did it again.

"Shh," Jim breathed.

Fraser took Jim's wrist and led him away from the promising pile and to the opposite wall. He rapped the wall here with his knuckles and then pressed Jim's palm flat to the surface. "What?" He didn't understand what Fraser was showing him.

"Too much space," Fraser whispered in his ear. "We have to--wait--I--here--"

Jim followed his hands, found the loose bolt Fraser was fussing with. While Jim opened up the wall, Fraser collected his partner.

Jim set the panel down with excruciating slowness and peered into the cavity behind. From the echo it made of Jim's own breathing, he could tell the space was small, but it was too dark for even him to see. Carefully, he reached out with his hand and tried to find the far wall. His fingers closed on a rung. A ladder. Jim's breath caught, but he didn't cheer aloud.

He didn't groan, either, a moment later when he heard a small boat closing on Wu's yacht.

***

Dawn. Red sunlight turned the water to fire but didn't do a damn thing for the cold. Shivering, Blair checked his watch again and redid the math in his head. They should be there soon. In five minutes. Or maybe in twenty. Unless they'd gone off course, in which case they were just *so* completely screwed.

Beside him, Ray squirmed away from the bright light, bumped into Blair's shoulder and snuffled awake. "Are we there yet?" he asked, rubbing his face.

Blair clenched his teeth and shook his head. Vecchio stretched, eliciting a vocal protest from Diefenbaker at his feet. "Yeah, yeah, stay on your own side."

"Do you think--" Blair started, breaking off as he saw a smudge on the horizon. "That look like an island to you?" Blair pushed up the speed, anxious to get closer.

It seemed to take forever. Vecchio pulled out a small brass telescope and scanned the water ahead. At Blair's surprised look, he snapped, "What? It's Fraser's." He sighed. "And because it's Fraser's, it's not nearly as strong as I'd like. I see two boats."

"The *Island Commander*?" Blair asked hopefully.

"I'm looking..."

Blair forced himself to take a deep calming breath.

"Yes. Thank you, God. That's them."

Blair slowed as they approached the large boats. He'd driven a truck one summer, and he was a decent hand with a rowboat, but he really didn't want to slam nose-first into the yacht because he didn't have a lot of experience with powerboats. That wouldn't make a good impression.

Jim's contact, Tommy Wu came forward and called, "Good morning!" as he held out a hand for the rope. He looked a little tense, Blair decided.

Two of the crew deftly pulled the small boat up against the bigger one and then hopped in to check the cargo. Blair and Vecchio stepped up onto the deck, Diefenbaker leaping after them.

Ho Ng nodded as the crewmen held up samples of pelts and leather. "A good shipment. Quality merchandise. But I wouldn't expect less from undercover police."

Vecchio started to reach for his gun. He froze mid-movement. Wu had already drawn on him. For a long moment, it was like a photograph or an image made out of crystal; no one moved, all the edges were sharp, and the air was clear and still. It only lasted for a moment, then at once, the crew reached for their weapons.

They were frozen again, this time by a soft growl. Everyone looked down. Diefenbaker was off the leash. He was right in front of Wu, muzzle wrinkled, wicked teeth next to his crotch. Wu started to move backwards. The growl came again and he froze.

Something small and heavy--a hook? A wrench?--sailed through the air and hit Wu's gun square-on, knocking it clear out of his hand and into the water off the prow. At once, Vecchio launched himself at the crewman standing next to him. Blair looked around, caught a glimpse of Jim--thank god--holding someone in a headlock, and realized belatedly that he ought to do something. Blair leaped at Wu, just barely managing not to trip over Dief in the process. It was a good tackle, and they both went down, but Wu was strong and fast. He caught Blair hard in a nerve junction and leaped away as Blair's world whited out in pain.

Gasping, Blair made it to his knees and forced himself to look around. For a moment, he thought it was over; the deck was littered with bodies, Jim and Kowalski were covering everyone still moving, and Vecchio was cuffing someone. "All right," Jim drawled. "Let's just settle down."

Ng stepped out of cover on the upper deck. He had a short machine gun slung over his shoulder and something squat in his hand. "I don't think so," he said. "If I trigger this, we all die. Get up here. Throw your weapons down." A grenade, Blair realized. He was playing with the half-pulled pin.

Jim hesitated for a moment, then smiled. "No, I don't think so."

Ng's arrogance faded just for a moment, his polished contempt giving way to uncontrolled anger. In that moment, something flashed between his fingers and the grenade. Blair panicked and froze, knowing he could never get to the grenade in time and also that they couldn't get away.

Then he realized that the pin had been broken off in Ng's hand.

Astonished, Blair looked up.

Benton Fraser was standing on the roof of the wheelhouse, his hand full of--small tools? Screwdrivers? He was still filthy and dressed like a wharf rat, but he practically glowed. He might as well have been wearing a dress uniform, he looked so sparkly and noble. Blair suddenly understood what Jim had meant about "living legend." If Blair told this story, nobody would believe it had really happened.

Jim took a step toward Ho Ng. "Put down the gun. Now." He waited until Ng had complied. "Sandburg, call Simon."

***

It had only taken ten minutes for the Coast Guard (and a man from Fish and Wildlife and Simon) to show up. They came in force, one large boat and three small ones, and suddenly the *Island Commander* was swarming with efficient men and women in uniform who looked at Blair and his companions like they were kids caught playing in empty refrigerators or something. Amateurs. Interlopers.

Fish out of water.

The Coast Guard re-searched and re-bound the prisoners while the fed inspected and photographed the cargo. Gathered together on the *Island Commander's* foredeck, Blair and the others waited for someone to come and take their statements.

Blair, tired and bored and a little cold, sniffed himself discretely. He needed a shower. Sure, he probably didn't smell worse than anybody around him, but still, there were two sentinels well within range. Blair shifted to stand downwind.

Jim sat down on the deck, his back to the rail. The Rays paced restlessly in opposite directions. Fraser sat down on an empty crate and wrapped his arms around Diefenbaker, who leaned against him and whined.

"Frase--" Ray Kowalski began.

The answer was brisk and immediate. "I'm fine, Ray. There's nothing to worry about."

"Like hell there's not! You were both unconscious for *four* hours. I couldn't find a goddamn pulse--"

Ray Vecchio spun around, closing on his partners. "What?"

"It was nothing to worry about, Ray. I pulled a muscle. I'm fine."

"Oh. Right. The fine where you're unconscious! Remind me what fine that is!" Vecchio was nearly dancing with rage.

*You were both unconscious for *four* hours.* Both of them. "Jim--"

"I'm all right, Chief."

"Unconscious?" Blair asked pointedly.

"Trancing."

Blair wasn't sure what was more surprising: that Jim had entered an altered state, or that he was so casual about admitting it.

Vecchio squatted in front of his partner and said softly, "We can't keep doing this, Benny. It's getting worse. Pain reactions aren't a game."

"Ray--"

"It's not about pain," Jim said.

Vecchio moved protectively between them. "What do you know about it?"

"I went with him."

Blair jumped up. "Right. Okay. We can't do this here."

It turned out that Blair had a talent for playing 'asshole guide.' He went to the captain of the biggest Coast Guard boat and demanded transportation. Two sentinels had been captured. One of them had been injured, both of them had been unconscious, you could not leave delicate resources sitting around in the sun with nothing to eat and no access to basic first aid supplies, and no, that first aid kit was not going to cut it for *sentinels* could we stop playing around now?

Simon, surprised and a little irritated, tried to get him to settle down. Blair didn't even break his rhythm. "Captain Banks, I don't tell you how to do your job, so I really think you should stay out of mine. I want a boat. I want it now." Maybe Simon understood that something was up, because he muttered colorfully about what a pain in the ass it was working with sentinels, and backed off.

One of the smaller boats was dispatched to take them back to Cascade. Blair wasn't sure that anyone was up to a repeat of the journey out, but the Coast Guard put them on a stubby utility boat that was a lot faster than the little one the smugglers had given Blair and Vecchio.

The boat had a tiny, covered cabin. It was the first time Blair had been out of the wind since the day before. Blair sat Jim on one of the ancient metal benches and stepped in close, so he was standing between his knees. "Bear with me," he murmured, laying a hand on Jim's shoulder. "We're modeling physical comfort." To his surprise, Jim didn't just tolerate the touch, he put an arm around Blair's waist and pulled him in closer. "Look," Jim whispered, "If you're gonna chew me out--"

"Do you need chewing out?" Blair asked. He didn't feel like yelling, he really didn't.

"What I did was dangerous and I don't have the training." Jim's muscles had gone rigid, but he forced out the confession.

Blair rubbed a slow circle across Jim's shoulders. "What was it you did?" he asked.

The answer was so quiet he barely heard it. "I followed him into a blue dream. There were animals. An animal dream."

A Spirit dream. The mystical stuff Jim hated. No wonder he was unsure and torn up. "Jim, this isn't like eating preservatives or using Raid in the house. I can't--I don't have the right to make decisions about this. I can help you. I can encourage you--and okay, yes it scares the crap out of me to think about you messing with your consciousness without me there in case you get into trouble, but, Jim, your heart is your best guide here. Your own higher consciousness."

Jim laughed once, tightly. "Shit, Chief. Don't start with the 'higher consciousness' business. You'll be talking about auras next."

"Jim--" Blair paused, trying to think of a language that wouldn't completely creep Jim out. "You've got really good instincts about this sort of thing." Instinct was completely wrong, but he didn't need Jim using the correct terminology, he needed Jim to have confidence and comfort. "The only problem you've ever had is fighting yourself." Slowly, he knelt down in front of Jim so that they were face-to-face. "What was it you did? You went into Ben's dream? You followed his animal?"

"I don't know how I did it. Well, I know, I just can't--"

"Describe it?"

"Right. No." Jim glanced up, and Blair craned his neck to follow his gaze. Fraser was sitting on the far side of the cabin. He had Rays pressed against each side and Diefenbaker lying against his legs. "He's bleeding. No, not here, *there*. He's already lost--"

All right, yes, even though his one Anthro of Religion at Rainer hadn't prepared him for this, seventeen years with Naomi had. "What's he losing, Jim? His soul or just his strength?"

That got him a very, very shocked look.

Blair cleared his throat and tried again. "If I were to ask you if Ben was all there or if some parts of him were somewhere else, you would say...?"

"He's all there. He's just... sick. Inside."

"Okay. That's good." It was great. Blair didn't even want to think about what soul retrieval might entail. "What does he need?"

Jim gaped at him. "You're going to help me fix this."

"Well, I'm going to try."

"I was--Well, I was thinking up all these arguments about why I'm not just, you know, crazy."

Blair sighed, kind of hurt. "Oh. You can tell them to me if you want to." Although, really. Blair had made a lot of mistakes since they'd met, but assuming Jim was some kind of unreliable psycho wasn't one of them.

"They weren't very good."

"Fine. So tell me what Ben needs."

Across the little cabin, Ben abruptly stood up. "Thank you kindly for your concern," he said politely. "But I really don't need anything." He strode to the hatch and exited onto the deck.

Kowalski looked at them. He looked at the shutting door. "What the hell was that?" he asked.

***

The trip back to Cascade took three hours. They were three very quiet, uncomfortable hours. Jim, hungry and filthy, spent the trip wondering just what he should have done differently. He didn't know.

When they pulled up at the marina where they had left Jim's SUV and the unmarked Fish and Wildlife truck, they disembarked in grim silence. The only conversation was Fraser's formal and unembellished thanks to the crew.

The trip home was quiet, too. But at least that was only a tired quiet, not an embarrassed and worried quiet. At home, Sandburg shooed Jim off to the shower and threw together an omelet. They ate it on the couch watching late morning talk shows. They fell asleep there, too. When the phone rang, Jim woke up with his head on Sandburg's shoulder and the TV still on.

He reached for the phone, but he had to lean across Sandburg's body and--god, he was *rank*. Jim flinched back and Sandburg fumbled for the handset. The hello he managed was thick and slurred.

"*All right, Sandburg. How about you tell me what the hell was going on this morning.*" It was Simon. He was so loud Jim could have heard him with normal ears.

A sigh. "I wish I could, Simon, but I have no idea."

"*It's your job to have ideas.*"

"Something on that boat had two sentinels unconscious for several hours. Do you know how *rare* that is, for two sentinels to have identical, simultaneous reactions? We'd have to sweep the boat, and it would take weeks to test everything--"

"*So why are you at home and not at the hospital?*"

"He's not currently showing symptoms, so I'm not turning him over to a bunch of biomedical quacks in lab coats who can't do anything but test for chemicals that aren't in high enough concentrations to detect. This is my job, Simon. Jim is clean and he *was* sleeping."

Simon relented surprisingly quickly and allowed Sandburg to ring off. Jim looked at him with surprise. "Wow," he said. "I finally think you have this lying business down pat."

Blair cheerfully flipped him off. "That wasn't a lie. Every word was true."

"And completely misleading!"

"A little obfuscation never hurt anyone. Besides, would the truth have made him happy? Would he have learned anything useful if I'd said that you and Fraser had spent most of the night spiritwalking?"

Jim winced. That was a very good point. "Not to change the subject, Chief, but you really stink."

"So, what? First I'm a liar and now you're making personal comments?" He was grinning as he aggressively moved into Jim's personal space.

Jim laughed. A mistake, as it gave him a snootful of way overripe guide. "You're getting more disgusting by the second," Jim said, nearly gagging. "Go wash."

"Wow," Sandburg said, heading off to the shower. "I'm really feeling the warm fuzzies here, Jim. I'm really touched." His bitching and moaning continued after the door shut. Jim ignored it and went into the kitchen. He was looking for a beer and maybe a snack. Was there any left over anything?

It really had been a very bad day. Even worse than a bad day, it had started yesterday, after all. Jim checked the clock. It was after six. Dinnertime, then. Maybe they could order pizza.

The phone rang. Hoping it wasn't Simon again, Jim picked up.

It wasn't Simon. "*Jim? I'm sorry, but I really think we need your help. I didn't know who else to call*." Kowalski. He sounded frantic. In the background, Vecchio was speaking softly and intensely.

"What's happened?"

"*Fraser just walked out of a meeting. He just got up and left. It was... it was rude. He's... he's walked to a park somewhere, and he won't talk to us--Ray doesn't know what to do. The wolf's upset--*"

"Where are you?" Jim cut in.

A miserable laugh. "*Seattle. We got cleaned up and took the truck back. We were in a meeting with the local Fish and Wildlife people. We... they were telling us what a good job we'd done. And he just got up and left. The sign says 'Freeway Park.' He's sick, isn't he?*"

Jim was already on his way to the bathroom. He didn't knock, just pulled the towel off of Sandburg's head and held the phone to his ear. "Um, hello?" Sandburg said, giving Jim a curious look. His expression got very serious very quickly. "He's in the park now? All right. Stay there. If he'll drink, give him water. If he'll eat, give him something simple like crackers. Nothing with a lot of sugar. Don't make him talk.... No! Don't even think of calling an ambulance unless he has trouble breathing. Or if he asks you to.... No, we'll figure that out when we get there. Bye." He pushed the phone away, took one last swipe with the towel, and brushed past Jim with his hair still dripping. "Come on, let's go."

By the time Jim had put on his shoes and socks, Sandburg was waiting by the door holding his backpack.

***

The Saturday evening traffic was just getting started and the usual forty-five minute trip to Seattle took just over an hour. The park in question was on the map and not hard to find. There were a few parking spots. Jim didn't hesitate about choosing which one. "There," he said, pulling in. "Behind those trees."

The park was perfectly manicured; bright green grass, flowering bushes, artistic concrete walls here and there. Blair gritted his teeth. No doubt there was pesticide and fertilizer everywhere. This was no place for sentinels.

Fraser was wearing his dress uniform. He was seated on the perfect, green grass with his back to a small tree. Ray Vecchio was squatting in front of him and Ray Kowalski was sitting on a park bench, slumped forward, his head in his hands. As they got closer, they could hear that Vecchio was talking almost non-stop. "What, Benny, just tell me? Do you need to go home, is that it? I'll take you home. We can go get in the car right now and we won't stop until we hit tundra. Or we'll go find Eric, how about that? I'm not sure how, since he's sort of a fugitive, but maybe you know a medicine man who's not playing games with the law? It doesn't matter. Whatever you need to do, we'll find a way. Aw, hell, Benny, don't do this to me."

He didn't seem to notice their arrival until Jim leaned down and gently tugged him back and to the side. Vecchio let himself be led. He was clearly at the end of his rope. Blair didn't blame him. Ben looked like hell.

Blair squatted down, moving closer until Ben flinched slightly. This was a good sign; it meant that the problem wasn't a zone so bad that Ben was completely unaware of his environment. "Hi," he said. "It's Blair."

No answer.

"Ben, I'd like to touch you, but I won't if you tell me not to. Okay?" There was no answer to this either. Moving slowly, he lifted Ben's right hand and turned it over so he could lay the tips of his fingers along the inner wrist. No doubt Jim could have told him Ben's pulse rate, but Blair was also curious as to how Ben would respond to human contact. He didn't. The answer to the pulse question was fast. Very, very fast.

Blair looked up at Jim, who still had Vecchio loosely by the shoulders. Jim's eyes were closed and his head was cocked as though he was listening for something. "Jim?" he whispered. A little help here would be nice. A clue?

Jim shook his head. "I can't tell what's here and what's there. I don't think he's hurt *here*, in his body. I think all the bleeding is *there*, but--" Jim winced.

Okay. Well. Jim was half somewhere else. Hell. "Ben. Ben, I really want to get you off this grass. It can't be good. Why don't you let us take you to a hotel or to the beach or up into the mountains?"

"I was hoping, if I sat down, I could feel the ground," he answered, speaking for the first time. "I can't feel the ground. I can barely feel this tree."

Blair wondered what the hell that meant. He wondered what was wrong. Statistically it was probably some kind of sentinel problem. Benton Fraser, living legend and all that, but he traveled a lot, was under a lot of stress. If he'd developed a sensitivity to, say, a furniture polish commonly used in hotel rooms, well, there would have to be lifestyle changes. Or it might be clinical depression. Which would really suck, because the only antidepressant that wasn't completely contraindicated for sentinels (since the goal of treatment wasn't to make the patient either completely crazy or dead) tended to cause liver damage even in regular people. Or it might be some other undiagnosed illness.

Ray Kowalski got up off the bench and sat beside Fraser on the ground. "Frase, let's get you out of here," he urged gently.

"No, Ray. It doesn't matter."

Standing just behind Blair, holding on to Vecchio, Jim said, "You're his guide. You have to help him."

Vecchio lost it. "Help him? I can't help him! He's grieving." He shoved Jim away, although Jim was taller and had at least twenty pounds on him. "I can't make that go away. Don't you get it? I can't give him back what he's lost. I can't make his dad come back. I can't make it not hurt any more."

Fraser's head shot up. "Ray--" he began, horrified.

But Vecchio was still tangled up in Jim, who was leaning down into his face and shouting back, "You're his guide. He chose you because he trusts you--"

"You shut the hell up! I don't know anything about sentinels--"

"And he did that because he needs you. If you're so afraid of his pain that you can't face it with him, he's going to die."

The silence that followed was sudden and terrible. Even the birds were quiet. The cars on the freeway seemed strangely far away. Vecchio and Jim were staring at each other, panting. Fraser was on his feet, sort of, leaning heavily on Kowalski. Vecchio sagged and closed his eyes. "What do I do, Benny? Tell me what to do."

"He can't ask you," Jim ground out. "He can't ask you. He's been too well trained not to ask, to pretend he doesn't need--" Jim suddenly let go of Vecchio and stepped back. He was shaking.

Shocked, confused, Blair looked at the men around him. Vecchio looked horrified and lost. Fraser just looked broken. Jim--Blair had no idea what to do about Jim.

It was Kowalski who figured out what had to happen next. Abruptly, he turned Fraser to face him and, still supporting his weight, whispered, "I won't leave you. This is the life I want. You are the partner I want. Whatever it takes." He broke off as he found himself struggling to keep Fraser upright. Before Blair could move, Vecchio had closed on him from the other side. Together, they managed to get Fraser as far as the bench Kowalski had been sitting on before.

"I'm sorry," Vecchio was murmuring. "He's right, Benny, I was scared. I was scared of screwing up. God help me, scared of screwing you up. I didn't know what to do. But that doesn't mean I didn't want to. My best friend. The best friend I've ever had."

"It's too much," Ben whispered. "I never should have asked. Being a guide is a terrible burden--"

"What's too much?" Vecchio asked, forcing Ben to look at him. "Cutting you a break once in a while is too much? Giving a shit is too much? Like hell it is, Benny. The best thing that ever happened to me was being your guide."

Gasping, struggling to contain himself, Ben began to cry. He wasn't very good at it. The ragged sobs seemed to almost choke him. "Yeah," Vecchio said. "Let it out. You never got to do this. It's all right."

"I c-can't--R-Ray--" Panic. Desperation. Blair had to look away.

"No. It's all right. Let it out, let it go. I'm right here. I'm not... I'm not afraid of you being upset."

Jim had stepped back. He was supporting himself by holding on to a flowering tree. Stumbling a little, Blair went to him. "Hey, man," he said, trying to sound normal. "How you doing?"

Jim didn't answer, except for a look that asked if Blair was crazy. Blair winced in apology, and went to stand next to him. Jim slipped an arm around his chest and pulled him closer. Blair could feel Jim shaking and had a brief spike of panic. Was this what happened when you let upset sentinels near each other? Was it contagious? You kept them away from each other when they were sick, you had to do that, but *spiritual* disturbances were dangerous too? But then Jim sighed and laid his cheek along the top of Blair's head. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Blair wrapped his hands around Jim's encircling arm, the only part of his partner he could reach.

"I didn't.... I was no better, Chief. I'm sorry."

What the hell was he talking about? Blair opened his mouth to ask and shut it again. He was going to wait this time. He was going to give Jim space.

Over on the bench, both Rays were rubbing Ben's back and shoulders, coaxing him to breathe and relax.

"The thing I should have said. The thing I should have admitted to you," Jim whispered. "Months ago, maybe. I want to live. I want to *live*. I want it to be wonderful. I'm so scared--"

Blair spun around and wrapped his arms around Jim's waist. He wished he could find Jim's spirit world, he wished he could reassure him *there*, say that Jim was strong and Blair would help and everything would--well, not be all right, not all the time, but that it would be wonderful sometimes.

"I'm ready to give this sentinel thing a serious try, Chief. I want to."

It was starting to get dark before any of them made motions toward moving. Jim was first. He stretched restlessly and began to sit on the ground. Blair caught his hand and shook his head. He didn't even like the idea of the sentinels standing on this grass, he certainly wasn't going to let Jim get any closer to it.

Over on the bench, Vecchio pulled out a bottle of water and ordered Ben to drink. Diefenbaker got up from his spot on the ground and whined imperiously. Jim sighed and rubbed his face and stepped back from Blair, who dug out the hypoallergenic baby wipes and passed them around to anyone who might want to wipe their faces off. The spring evening was turning chilly. Blair wished he'd thought to bring a jacket.

"You all have had a really long day," Jim said. "Why don't you let Sandburg drive that green monster back to your hotel?"

Kowalski sighed. "Thanks, but we won't go back to Cascade tonight. We'll find a better park or go out of town and camp somewhere."

Blair blinked. "You just can't camp out somewhere." Well, you could, but not in the nice parts of town. "Even this early in the season, I'm not sure you could get a camping spot in one of the parks."

Vecchio smiled wryly. "We're still on the clock for Fish and Furry. Anybody hassles us, we show them our ID and say we're on stake-out."

Ben managed a weak protest. "Ray, that's hardly an appropriate use of our authority."

Kowalski laughed. "You're kidding, right? With our luck, we'll catch someone poaching or dumping toxic waste."

"Oh," Ben said. "That's a very good point."

Blair collected his partner and headed toward the car, the opposite direction of where Ben and the others were going. For right now, they were going home. They could deal with the world tomorrow.

***

Epilogue: Two days ago, in Arizona

The prisoner was crying. He'd cried all the way from Los Angeles, all of last night, and, after a break for a few hours' sleeping, all afternoon today. Stupid brat wouldn't have lasted a month in the army. Of course, Alex had only lasted a year in the army, so she wasn't one to talk.

There was no way to escape the sounds of hopeless weeping inside the cabin. Alex went outside into the fresh air in search of relief. She wondered how far down the gravel road she'd have to go not to hear him anymore. She wondered if going back inside and threatening him would shut him up. Both were idle daydreams. If she couldn't hear him and he escaped, or if she actually hurt him and he got sick, then all the effort of capturing him was wasted. There had been too much waste already. Months of planning, weeks of work, and the first attempt to bring a group out of the county had been foiled by some local police department. Then four more months lost in that really stupid bid to use indigenous subjects. This latest round of attempts had damn well better produce results. Her associates were getting impatient.

The pop of tires on gravel caught her attention and Alex looked around for cover, her hand on her gun. The trees here were thin and short, the bushes were too scrawny to provide either shelter or concealment. Before she could get too worried, a familiar voice laid itself over the sounds of the car: "Hi, honey, I'm home. And I brought you a present." Lee. Alex let go of her weapon.

Her associates had had high hopes that--besides what his skills could add to the project--Alex herself would be made more efficient by having a guide of her own to work with. Not in a million years. Lee was civil enough to leash his contempt for sentinels around Alex, and she wasn't actually worried he would try anything, not with her so well armed and so much money riding on this enterprise. But trust him? Obey him? Relax around him? Never.

The bland sedan parked in front of the cabin and Lee got out smiling. Alex didn't smile back. "You're late," she said.

"Yeah. Well, there was this funny thing. Some bridge came crashing down on the highway east of Santa Barbara. Backed up the traffic in all directions. Very inconvenient."

"If you're fishing for compliments," she said coolly, "fine. You were brilliant. The crash was magnificent. The timing was perfect. The position was fantastic. Blah, blah, blah."

"Hey, it took them almost a day to figure out it wasn't an accident." His heart wasn't in bragging, though. He walked around to the rear of the car. "I've got our package."

"Tell me you didn't stop to play with this one," she said. Lee had never admitted it, but taking time to have some fun was how they'd lost the whore in Las Vegas. His wrist was still in a cast.

"Nah. He's no fun. But you were right. He was a great target. Estranged from his family, self-employed, no real guide. He may not be missed for days." He unlocked the trunk and raised the lid to reveal a handsome young man in his late twenties holding a pair of handcuffs and trying to look charmingly chagrined.

"This isn't what it looks like," he said.

Alex drew her gun. "Mr. Spencer, you're valuable," she said. "But you're not irreplaceable. The moment you become more trouble than you're worth, I will shoot you and we'll go capture some other sentinel. All right?"

"What? No, wait. Sentinel? See, I'm not a sentinel. I'm a psychic."

Alex sighed as Lee hauled Spencer out of the car and dumped him on the ground.

"Ow. No, really. I'm not a--"

"Your scores are on file with Princeton Sensory Testing," Alex drawled.

Lee jerked Spencer's arms behind him and re-attached the cuffs. He casually hauled Spencer to his feet by his hair while asking Alex, "How did yours go?"

"Messy," she admitted. "His damned guide was there. I had to shoot him."

Lee widened his eyes in mock surprise. "No! you? Really?"

Alex sighed. "Oh, shut up."

"Hey, do I hear *crying*? I do." Alex wasn't surprised that Lee could hear it. Eppes was getting loud again. "You've got yourself a winner. Just wait. This one will be totally useless." He was hauling Spencer toward the cabin by his hair. The scent of pain was adding to the smell of unwashed and exhausted.

Alex wrinkled her nose and stepped upwind. "Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before."

"Eppes is a whitebread kid who still lives at home. The only guides he's ever had were his mommy and his big brother. He'll crack under the least bit of pressure."

All of that was true, but he had to see there was no point in arguing with Alex. She hadn't made the final decision. "His sensory scores are right down the middle of sentinel average. His intelligence is beyond exceptional. He hasn't had a hospitalization in fifteen years. And he doesn't have any skills he could use to escape."

"He consults for five separate federal agencies. They will look for him." At the short set of steps leading to the porch, Lee shoved Spencer forward so he fell going up and crashed to his knees.

"He has known enemies. We're being circumspect. And you'll like him. He's cooperative." Except for the crying, which was really getting on her nerves.

"Who's next? The mystery writer?"

"No," Alex said. She opened the front door for Brackett and the prisoner, then let them into the small back room that held the Plexiglas cages that would hold their guests for the next day or two until it was time to move. "She's too old. Besides, thirty years as a housewife and substitute English teacher, what kind of life is that for a sentinel?" She waited as Lee uncuffed Spencer and shoved him into the small, transparent box. The activity had drawn the attention of the occupant of the second box. Eppes didn't stop crying completely, but the sobs turned to disheartened sniffles. Alex had the sinking feeling she was going to regret shooting that guide all the way to South America. "I picked up the file on our next target on the way through. Come on."

In the outer room, she handed him the file of silky fax paper. "Last minute addition, a target of opportunity. She'll be in Albuquerque this week for a conference. We can pick her up on the way."

Lee flipped through the pages until he found a grainy picture. "Her? She doesn't look like much," he said.

"Temperance Brennan. She's a bioarcheologist working at the Jeffersonian in Washington DC. Top of her field. Solid test scores. Excellent health."

Lee nodded. "What's the hitch?"

"Her guide. The Jeffersonian couldn't keep one for her for more than a month at a time, so the FBI gave her one of theirs as part of her consulting package. He keeps a close watch on her, and he's a sharp shooter. You might as well consider him a bodyguard."

Lee grinned. "Sounds like fun."

In the back room, Eppes was telling his story to Spencer. His words were hard to make out for the crying. Alex sighed. Life had been easier when she'd been forging Munch paintings. Good money, better hours, a lovely loft apartment in Boston. She really hoped all this was going to be worth it.

The End