New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections IX: Unexpected Places and Other Strange Roads
Part One
by Dasha

Summary: AU. Really, something had to be done about Brackett! Multiple crossover. Warnings for violence and language.

Disclaimer: Not my characters. Not my universe.

Notes: So the crossover AU has expanded yet again: Benson, Bones, Diagnosis Murder, Numb3rs, Psych, and Quantum Leap--in addition to the usual. I really, really wanted to squeeze in Murder She Wrote, but I just couldn't do it. Bah. Maybe next time. If you're curious about the crossovers, email me or check in at my Live Journal.

Because everything belongs to other people (or large, corporate entities with the legal rights of people), all disclaimers apply. I can't take credit for any of the best parts.

I am deeply indebted to Martha, Quasar, and, Dreamfall for their wonderful help getting this ready. The fact that it took so darn long is in no way their fault.

~Late Sept 1996

Monday

"At first, you know, it was a regular seminar," Sandburg was saying, "just for the new grad students. They held it in one of the first floor classrooms over in Hargrove. It's gotten so popular now, though, that they moved it to the small lecture hall over in Briggs."

Jim smothered a smile. "People come to this for fun?"

"Well, the anthro undergrads. And some of the psych undergrads. And usually some from the nursing school; we're starting to get a few nursing students picking up some courses to get a head start on their AG(N). And some of the Art, Architecture, and Design faculty."

Jim shook his head. How hard up could the higher ed community be, that they were coming to an orientation lecture for entertainment? He didn't have the right to talk, though. He had been talked into coming 'for fun,' after all. And look, just ahead of them going in the doors were Joel and Marcia. Apparently this qualified as a 'lunch date.' Jim nudged Sandburg and motioned toward the couple.

Sandburg snickered. "Oh, yeah, she's still trying to scare him off," he muttered.

Without pausing, Marcia glanced back and casually, her hand where Joel couldn't see, flipped him off. Sandburg responded with a friendly wave and whispered, "It won't work. I don't see the attraction myself, but Joel is completely smitten with her."

Jim knew she could hear that. He rolled his eyes and knocked Sandburg gently on the head. "Quit being a shit."

Pausing in the doorway, Jim looked down at the arcing rows of desks that ended on a small, low stage at the bottom. The 'small' lecture hall looked like it would hold about a hundred and fifty people, but this early it was nearly empty. Joel and Marcia had followed the gently sloping floor down to the bottom and were taking seats on the very far left. Jim briefly considered following them, but there was no way he wanted to be confused with a 'good' student. He nudged Sandburg ahead of him into the top row where the seats backed up against the wall.

Students in torn jeans and battered backpacks wandered in. The undergraduates moved in small clusters, laughing and joking. The serious ones--smelling stressed and looking a little lost--those had to be the new guide students. Jim tried to imagine what Sandburg had been like in those days. He couldnít. At this point, he couldn't even picture his guide as a student anymore.

Jack Kelso came in and tidily angled his chair into the narrow space between Jim's seat and the entryway. "Mind if I join you?" he asked.

Jim leaned over and smelled him. It was rude, he knew. It was perfectly fine to smell his own guide and family members and crime victims and suspects, but colleagues and casual acquaintances, no. Certainly not Sandburg's supervisor; Jim didn't have to the right to just take information that wasn't given deliberately.

Except Jack never showed any sign of disapproval or offense.

From Jim's other side, Sandburg said, "Sure, but what are you doing up here? Isn't this your show?"

"Not any more," Jack said cheerfully. "It was eating into my research time. Four years was enough. Angela is the new graduate director effective last week." He motioned toward the stage where a tall, dark-haired woman was speaking to John Sheppard and Dr. McKay, the presenters.

"You are kidding me," Sandburg squeaked, and Jim remembered that before Jack had been Blair's advisor--well, how many professors named Angela could the anthropology department have? Right down there was the woman who had told Blair he would never have what it took to be a good guide.

"Blair," Jack said sternly, "your personality conflict with Angela aside, she is a very good guide and a very good teacher."

Jim felt a flicker of irritation. He swallowed it and motioned for Blair to back down. "Not your problem anymore, Chief," he said. Another four months and Sandburg would be finished with his supervised practicum. He'd have his papers, and then nobody's opinion would matter but Jim's.

Down on the low stage, the new graduate director was calling for quiet. Sheppard had seated himself casually on top of the short demonstration bench. McKay had taken a position behind the podium. The last of the straggling students hurried to seats.

"Good afternoon. My name is John Sheppard and I'm an Accredited Guide (Anthropologist). I've been invited here--"

"Aren't you going to introduce me?" Rodney interrupted.

"You're already infamous. Anyway, you're not here to lecture, mostly you're here to heckle."

"Oh. Actually, that's mostly true."

"May I continue?"

"Oh, yes, John. Please do."

Sheppard turned back to the audience. "I've been invited here to scare the crap out of any undergraduates who are considering guide school and to make sure that the new grad students lose any last scraps of romanticism they might still be carrying."

"Statistically, most of you will make lousy guides anyway," McKay added, looking deeply unimpressed.

Sheppard stopped and turned to face his partner. "You just got the talk about not verbally abusing students. Again."

"Yeah, so?"

John sighed. "So. That is your boss. Sitting right there." He pointed to a suit in the front row.

"They're not our students!" McKay protested irritably.

The audience dissolved into laughter. So did Sheppard, but he sobered quickly. "The problem is, he's not actually trying to be funny. My partner is abrasive, impatient, short-tempered, and selfish."

Jim found himself watching the kids spread out in front of him. They were watching with rapt attention. Now they looked toward McKay to see how he would take this appraisal. Rodney shrugged and nodded. "Yeah," he said, "Pretty much."

"He also doesnít much care what other people think of him. He's demanding and unforgiving. If he can't sleep, I can't sleep. If he's bored, it's my job to be entertaining. If he's upset over something at work, I will hear about it for hours. Or possibly days. He drives me absolutely crazy." Sheppard wasn't the best speaker Jim had ever heard, but that didn't seem to matter to this crowd. The audience was hanging on every word. Jim supposed that most of them wanted very badly to be guides.

"At the same time, he is my best friend. He's funny. He's brilliant. He's an excellent cook. He loves water slides and math games and word games, and he is my family."

Sheppard paused for a moment. The room was terribly quiet when he continued. "Rodney is fragile. Statistically speaking, sometime in the next twelve to fifteen years I will probably have to watch him die."

Jim swallowed hard. This wasn't what he expected. Down on the stage, McKay didn't seem particularly upset by this frank discussion of his own mortality, but next to Jim, Jack suddenly smelled sour and unhappy.

"In the program here, you'll study the theory that says the best way to keep a sentinel healthy and comfortable is to be professional and careful and make no mistakes. You'll also study the theory that says that your own compassion and willingness to get emotionally involved is what will make the biggest difference in your partner's life chances. I'm not going to get into the pros and cons of this argument. This fall Rainier is hosting a small conference on guide theory. We'll have the top people on both sides locked in a room together, and I'm sure they'll work it out." He glanced at Jack and smiled slightly. "I expect it will be fantastic. Today, though, I'm going to talk about the problems you can't solve.... The days when nothing you've learned, no good idea you have, nothing you do seems to help. And no matter how good your training is, no matter how much you care, there will be days when nothing you do makes any difference, and everything goes to shit."

He took a deep breath, rubbed his hands together. "How many guides before me, Rodney?"

"An even dozen if we don't count Margaret. And she only lasted two days, so I don't usually count her," McKay answered patiently.

Sheppard smothered a smile. "And were they all incompetent?"

"Oh, no. A little more than half of them quit because they really hated me. They had trouble accepting constructive criticism." He shot Sheppard a mildly irritated look. "You're no better, but instead of cutting and running, you just do whatever the hell you want anyway."

Jim was beginning to see what Blair had meant about this being funny. McKay didn't actually have to put effort into sounding grumpy and bossy. He interrupted his partner's lecture frequently and flapped his hands in 'blah blah' motions when he thought things weren't moving fast enough.

Framed by this teasing patter, though, were stories that were, frankly, hair-raising. Rodney had a couple of medical conditions that were so rare and bizarre that doctors not only hadn't named them yet, they weren't even sure they existed. Except they were apparently life-threatening and progressive. A list of chemical triggers that covered both sides of a sheet of paper--small print, two-column. Repeated hospitalizations, one while John was out of town and under arrest.

"The only new item to add to the list since we gave this talk last year happened in December, when, standing on a girder of an unfinished building forty stories in the air, Rodney reacted to an exposure we still haven't identified and hallucinated he was in a zoo surrounded by wild animals."

"Oh, come on," McKay groused. "You act like it's such a big deal. Most of us hallucinate animals now and then." He looked around impatiently. "I recognize at least four other sentinels here. How many of you have seen things that weren't there? Well, get your hands up. Don't be shy."

Jim raised his hand. So did someone he didn't recognize. Mike, from the Anthro Department, and Marcia didn't move.

Rodney glared. "Yeah. Like I believe that. Raise your hand, Marcia. Admit to your boyfriend that you're just as psycho as the rest of us."

She put her hand up slowly.

"There. See? It's just over-active brain cells acting out or something. It happens every few years. Sun spots maybe. It's not a big deal."

It happens every day, Jim thought. Every day. And not just that damn panther anymore, either. There was a spotted jaguar that had taken to haunting his dreams, and a raccoon, quick and clever, that he saw sometimes when he was relaxed for a body check. And a hound that he always saw when he visited the morgue. And some kind of lean, funny-looking rodent that hovered at the edge of his vision. The last one was almost visible most of the time. It hovered in shadows and in corners. Jim could never look straight at it, but it seemed to be a little mangy and battered.

When Jim turned his attention to the stage again, he realized he had missed some of the program. McKay and Sheppard were arguing about food. Or scheduling, it was hard to tell. Jack was sagging sideways, laughing helplessly. Blair looked pensive.

"Apparently, this tendency to micromanage is fairly common," Sheppard was saying irritably. "But, Rodney, you could not do my job."

This brought McKay up sharp in the middle of whatever tirade he had going. "No. That's true. He's right. I could not do his job. There is no amount of money that would induce me to try."

"Aw. Rodney. Not even for me?" Sheppard laughed.

McKay didnít seem to think it was funny. "Especially not for him." He spoke a little stiffly, his eyes on the audience, not his partner. "When John had his appendix out, I was frantic. I very nearly had to be sedated. And I didn't have to make any decisions. I can't imagine being a guide, having a partner in the hospital and being presented with two options, both of which might be effective, both of which might have fatal side effects...and no way to know ahead of time. I couldn't do this job. I don't know how anyone does."

There was a long silence. The kids in the audience looked completely freaked out. "So, there you have it," Sheppard said quietly. "That's the job. Now you have to learn to do it." As it became clear that they had nothing more to say, the new graduate director stood up and thanked them for their presentation. Slowly, the students stood up and made for the door. The crowd was much more subdued than it had been going in.

Jack was penned in by the students coming up the aisle, so Jim and Sandburg were penned in by Jack. "I've been meaning to talk to you," Jack said. "Something you might be interested in. Or not. I'll leave it up to you."

"What is it?" Jim asked, turning in his seat to face him.

"A friend of mine is doing a study of late bloomers. He's looking for participants. I said I'd put the word out."

Jim smothered a scowl. "A research project?"

Jack nodded. "He's having trouble locating subjects. It's not like there's a national directory for that."

"There are files--"

"Of scores on the national tests. Which nobody usually takes until they're looking for a job or college placement and want numbers to put on their resume."

Oh.

"I don't think so," Sandburg said politely, but Jim said, "What kind of study?"

"A medical exam. Questions. A lot of questions. Some on a list that the participants answer themselves, and some the researcher asks in person."

"I'm not...I mean, I can't imagine my experience was," he edited out the word "normal" just in time, "representative."

"The truth is, we don't know what's representative, Jim. The late bloomer transitions were studied to death in the fifties, but our theoretical models and medical knowledge have changed a great deal since then. There's a lot to be learned."

"And you think I should sign up?"

Jack laid a hand on his arm. "I think you should look at the material and decide."

"You know this guy?"

Jack nodded. "A friend of mine. A medical doctor. The best, actually. That's my ulterior motive here, I want you on this man's list. Not that I *expect* we'll ever need him for a consult, but if we did....He's the best doctor I've ever seen. He'll be here for the conference John mentioned. You could meet him yourself."

"I'll think about that," Jim said.

Most of the crowd had cleared out by then. Sheppard and McKay were coming up the aisle. Rodney leaned down and passed his face a few inches above Jack's shoulder. Jack didn't react to Rodney's rudeness any more than he had to Jim's. "Fantastic job, guys," he said.

"I don't know," John drawled in exaggerated boredom. "I think some of the material is getting a little stale. And Rodney's delivery was never that great to begin with."

McKay snorted. "I swear, you ego is just--gigantic." He rocked his hip into Sheppard, not quite hitting him hard enough to knock him off balance. "My ego? My ego! Jack, guys, he's making a web page. It's completely shameless. A massive tribute to Rodney's brain."

"That's just fact," Rodney said. "Name one thing on there that isn't true."

He was so into the argument that he didnít notice Marcia and Joel coming up behind them until Marcia said, "Does it mention that you're an insufferable bastard?"

"You know, what puzzles me is, how were you ever a spy? I mean, aren't spies supposed to be clever and subtle?"

Sheppard stepped between them. "All right, children. That's enough."

Rodney had already gone just a bit too far. Marcia's usual irritability evaporated, leaving her pinched and white with icy anger. McKay didn't notice her reaction, of course. It was the sharp smell of Jack's distress that brought him around and caused him to stammer an apology.

The lecture hall suddenly seemed too small and claustrophobic. "We've got to get back to the station, Chief," Jim said, nudging Blair around the others and toward the door.

Jim's current transportation was an ancient Ford truck that replaced the SUV, which had been destroyed--through no fault of Jim's--in a fiery explosion at the end of July. In the wake of yet another personal vehicle trashed in the line of duty, the insurance on something new was enough to buy a whole additional vehicle, so Jim had gone with something...economical.

Sandburg was grinding his teeth, but he didn't say anything until they were in the truck with the engine running. "How bad is it?" he asked.

"How bad is what?" Jim asked. Knowing Sandburg, it could be anything.

"How sick is Jack?"

Jim wondered what he was missing. He looked at Sandburg blankly.

"He *liked* being Graduate Director, Jim. He liked hosting the annual party. He liked meeting with the prospective students. He never missed a deadline. He wouldn't just quit. Something's wrong, so spill."

Jim thought about that. "I'm pretty sure asking me to sniff people out and tell you private information is rude."

"Yeah. It's a fucking ugly breach of privacy and trust. Spill."

"He's all right. Mostly. He lost a lot of research time while he was recovering. And there has to be a lot of work involved in getting ready for that conference Sheppard mentioned. And except when she's working--and she only works a few days a week--he's Marcia's guide. Blair, he smelled tired and stressed out most of the time *before* the shooting put him weeks behind. I'm sure he hated to give up the position, but something just had to go."

"And that's it. Something just had to go."

"That's it," Jim said, shrugging.

Sandburg was unusually silent on the way back to the PD. He didn't even complain when Jim stopped at the Wonderburger drive-through and bought them hamburgers and fries for lunch.

The plan had been to eat at their desk while working on paperwork, but Henri caught them on the way in. "There's a couple of guys waiting for you in the conference room. They say it's about the Brackett case. They won't talk to anybody else."

Jim thanked him politely, set the sack of burgers on the desk, and walked calmly and casually to the conference room. As close as a second shadow, Sandburg followed.

The two men waiting were completely different from one another. One was White, middle-aged, and smelled of exhaustion and despair. The other was Black, only a few years older than Sandburg, and smelled of excitement and anger. They both jumped up as Jim and Sandburg entered.

Jim had walked into hundreds of meetings with hundreds of strangers, talked about vital topics--

He'd always known what to say before. It wasnít usually his own fuck-ups that had people frightened and grieving. He'd let Brackett escape. He hadn't made any progress in finding him. It had only been a matter of time before disaster hit, hadnít it? "I'm Detective Ellison. Please--sit down."

They glanced at each other. They sat down.

Jim nodded to Sandburg, motioning for him to stay by the door. Guarding the exit? Or keeping out of the way of danger?

"My name is Alan Eppes. This is Burton Guster," the older man said. "We're--" he stumbled to a stop, his voice drying up. He pushed two files across the table. Jim flipped them open.

Two young men, mid to late twenties. White. Dark hair. They both had summary sheets from Princeton Testing, the kind released to potential employers. If Jim was reading the scores correctly, they were both highly rated and talented sentinels.

"They've been missing since the beginning of June," Eppes said in a flat recitation. "They were taken the same day--This one, my son, Charlie Eppes, from our home in Los Angeles. And Shawn Spencer from his place of work in Santa Barbara."

"Shawn...he wasn't predictable. He took off sometimes, you know?" Guster said. "The door was locked. An empty pizza box on the desk. We didn't have a case.... I didn't think anything of it for a couple of days. And then I didn't know where to look."

Eppes took up the narrative. "It was the same day as the bridge explosion. The terrorist attack. The police didn't have the manpower to address--they took it seriously. Charlie consulted--consults--with several federal agencies. But there was no sign of forced entry, no sign of an intruder. Don--" he broke off and looked away.

Into the pause, Guster said quickly, "His guide. Don Eppes. Charlie's older brother. He was shot during the abduction, unconscious for several days. He didn't remember much of what had happened. He and Charlie had been quarreling...at first the police thought Charlie was a suspect who'd fled the scene."

"For shooting his guide," Jim repeated. And how far had he come in the last year, that that idea actually shocked him? "The police thought he was the prime suspect for shooting his guide?"

"By the time the police in LA were searching for Charlie Eppes as a kidnapping victim," Guster said, "The police in Santa Barbara were already sure that Shawn had just taken off and I was a really annoying pest. The, um, the police at home didn't like Shawn much."

"Troublemaker?" Jim asked, glancing at the files the two men had accumulated.

"Private investigator. He kept...solving cases."

Jim winced inwardly. No, he wouldn't like competing with a privately hired sentinel either.

"We didn't get together until a couple of weeks ago," Eppes said. "Gus had a witness, a man who worked for the accountant next door. He was opening up early and saw someone hanging around. He did a composite drawing that the FBI thinks might be Lee Brackett. But they have no idea where Brackett is." He reached across and pulled a copy of a pencil drawing from one of the files.

It was Lee.

Blair came over and took the page from his hand. "That's him. Oh, my god, he's collecting sentinels."

Jim already felt like he'd been gut-punched. Sandburg's words just dragged it out into the open. "The sex therapist," he gasped. A sentinel assaulted in Las Vegas in May, a couple of weeks after Brackett had escaped. And they'd known, hadn't they, that something was up? They'd been waiting until the other shoe dropped. The Las Vegas PD had thought he was a perv who got his jollies tormenting sentinels, and Simon and the Cascade PD psychologist had thought he was trying to make a name for himself as a hired killer. But Jim--

Jim should have known. He looked around for the animals that had been hanging around all these weeks. Of course, there was no sign of them now. Jim tried to take a deep breath. He couldn't. Well--to hell with breathing. He surged to his feet. He had to warn--everybody. Brackett was collecting sentinels--

Sandburg's hand on his arm was strong. He nudged Jim back into his chair. "Look at the times, Jim," he said leaning over Jim's shoulder and tapping the scattered pages. "The accountant saw Brackett almost at the same time they think Eppes was taken. How long does it take to get from LA to Santa Barbara? About an hour and a half?"

"When it's not rush hour. When the traffic isn't backed up everywhere because of a bridge bombing," Guster said.

"So he's not working alone," Sandburg said.

Jim looked back down at the files. Some of the pages were copies of police reports. Some were filled with photographs of people or places. Some were handwritten lists.

"When he was finally able to speak, Don told us that Charlie--that he was taken by a woman. But he couldn't give us a description. He doesn't....He's much better, now, but he still doesn't remember many details from that morning."

Sandburg nodded. "We know Brackett was working with a woman. At least for a while this spring. She arranged the sighting that set things up to look like he'd died in a car crash."

Eppes leaned forward. "We can't convince anyone that the cases are connected. The FBI had been very...polite. But they think I'm grasping at straws."

Jim stood up slowly. He felt remarkably calm. "Wait here," he said. "Sandburg--get them some coffee or something. This will take a few minutes."

Steady on his feet and completely clear-headed, Jim walked back to his desk and ran a missing persons search for sentinels who'd disappeared since Lee's escape. It took five minutes for the computer to spit out a list of six people. Looking at it, Jim could eliminate two right off the bat: a seven-year-old boy whom witnesses said had been taken by the non-custodial parent and a fifteen-year-old girl who'd run away with her boyfriend. There had been no sign of either of them in two months, and if Lee had been behind it, he would have killed the boyfriend and not bothered to hide the body.

The others...maybe. Shawn Spencer was on the list. Charles Eppes wasn't. Jim changed databases from 'missing persons' to 'crime' and ran another search. This one would take longer and be less precise. While 'sentinel,' like height and eye color, was a search parameter for missing persons, in this database it would only be included hit-or-miss in the notes section of victim descriptions.

***

Blair got the two men coffee. Then he went to check on Jim, who was completely wrapped up in his computer. Right. Okay. This might be one of those days when Jim needed a partner working on the case more than he needed a guide fussing over his shoulder. Blair went back to the conference room.

"So. Anyway," he said. "I'm Blair Sandburg, Jim's guide. Do you mind if I--" he motioned to the files they'd brought.

"No, go ahead," Alan Eppes said. "Please."

They weren't like police files. These were clearly personal. "They were both self-employed?"

"No," Guster said. "Charlie was a consultant through the university, and Shawn set up an LLC when he opened the Detective Agency, so he was employed by his own company. He'd majored in accounting for a term and a half in college."

Blair spotted a resume in Spencer's file and pulled it out. It was three pages long. He frowned, trying to picture what kind of sentinel--

"I did that," Guster said. "Last year. It was a joke, you know? Kind of a hint that it was time to get his act together...."

"Oh. So he didn't spend three months in 1991 as a beach comber?"

"Oh, no! That's all true."

Blair gaped openly at the resume. "What kind of a sentinel works at Wonderburger? How could he even get a job at Wonderburger? I can't believe they'd hire a guide--"

"He didnít tell them."

"Mr. Guster--"

"Gus. Call me Gus."

"I don't understand. These jobs--" There was no college graduation date, although that was not unusual; even as "unskilled labor" there were decent jobs a sentinel could get. But most of these jobs weren't like that. Five months as a fire inspector, yeah, okay. Life guard. Mystery shopper, odd, but maybe. But what kind of job was "concessions vendor" for a sentinel? In five cities. And "foot and ankle model" in Tulsa? ESL teacher in Thailand? Hotel desk clerk? Water-ski instructor? Mardi-Gras float construction? Event planner? Choir director? Chicken sexer? "I don't even know what a 'chicken sexer' does."

"Shawn is really intelligent, but he has a short attention span. He's curious about everything," Gus said.

"But--a sentinel--how could he get hired for--"

"Mr. Sandburg," Eppes said, "What can you tell me about Lee Brackett? And what has this man done with my son?"

Blair swallowed hard. "I don't know," he said.

"Is he torturing Charlie? For--for--" His hands groped helplessly.

Blair felt sick. Did Brackett get his jollies watching sentinels suffer? Dr. Grissom in Las Vegas thought so. Blair--hated him too much to form his own opinion. "He...didn't go out of his way to hurt Jim. Not until after Jim fired him." Blair gulped a little. "He was impatient and short-tempered and cold and controlling. And he was a bad guide--" Blair realized he wasn't helping and shut his mouth. After a moment, he said more calmly, "He was a public service guide," 'public service' being a euphemism for military and spy training. "He quit the CIA a couple of years back. I--I don't know how he thinks or what he wants. I--" Jack would. Jack understood Brackett; he'd come from the same world, worked, for years, with men just like him.

There was no way that Blair was going to ask Jack for help. He was already overworked and behind. The last time Blair had called him for help, he had ended up in the hospital.

But. Jack took Brackett's existence almost as a personal affront. That a guide could do the kinds of things that Brackett did, that a system existed to produce a whole line of brutal bastards who failed and neglected their partners as part of just another day at work--Jack would want in on this. And he wouldn't forgive Blair for concealing new information.

Blair had left his cell phone in his backpack in the bullpen, but there was a phone on the wall of the conference room. He had dialed half of the department's number before realizing that Jack would not be there. There had been a guest lecturer that day, and it was usual to take them out for a meal or at least drinks afterwards. He dialed Jack's cell phone, instead, and hoped it was turned on.

It was: "Kelso."

"Jack, it's Blair. I'm sorry. We've had--ah--something turn up in the Brackett case. I, ah--"

"Are you at the station? I'll be there in twenty minutes." And he was gone. Blair hung up the phone and sat back down.

He had to force himself to meet the eyes of the two men who were waiting. Blair understood what they were feeling. Jim had been kidnapped the previous winter. He wasn't gone for long, just a couple of days, but it had been horrible. A son, a partner--until Jim, Blair had never really had anybody to worry about but Naomi, and although he hadn't always known where she was, she had never been taken away against her will. It wasn't the same. Blair had always tried to be a compassionate and sympathetic guy, but he couldn't have imagined what their fear and pain might be like, not until he'd lived it.

Before Blair had to figure out what he could possibly say, Jim came back with a stack of print-outs that started with a list of names. He read them off slowly. None of them were familiar to their guests. They were all sentinels who were missing or victims of recent crimes and currently unaccounted for

"You're not saying Brackett took that many people," Gus protested. "Where's he hiding them? How can there be no trace?"

"I don't think he took them all, no," Jim said. "But at this point, I don't know how to narrow down how many or which ones."

Mr. Eppes closed his eyes. "Compare May, June, and July to February, March and April, run the numbers again for both periods for last year. The averages would give you a place to start looking for patterns. If there's been a large jump in the number of disappearances." He opened his eyes and looked at them. "I don't know what to do next. I could never follow Charlie after it started to get complicated. See who fit the victim profile, I suppose. But two data points doesn't give us much of a profile. Sentinel. Male, I suppose. White. Mid to late twenties. Pretty common--"

"Three data points," Jim said. "In May there was a botched grab for one in Las Vegas. Female, early forties, I think. Self-employed. We might be able to add that to the pattern--self-employed or consulting."

When Jack arrived a few minutes later, Gus and Mr. Eppes told their stories again. Jim showed him the lists of crimes. Everyone waited expectantly, although Blair, for one, could not have said what he was expecting.

What he said was, "Jim, can you get the list from the abductions last December?"

It turned out that Jim had it memorized: Name, age, occupation, date of abduction. He grabbed a legal pad that had been left in the corner and began to write it out.

"You think it's the same people--but, Jack, they're still in jail. There's no bail, it's going to trial in a couple of months--"

"The hired help is still in jail," Jack corrected. "Whoever had the resources to arrange and pay for that operation--?" He tisked softly. "Nope. Ah, damn. They must have been so happy to find Brackett. It can't be easy to find guides who'll hire out for a kidnapping."

"There isn't a lot you can do with an abducted sentinel."

Breeding program, Blair thought. But no, you wouldn't take a woman over forty for that. They'd gone around and around with this last time, and never come up with a likely idea. That had been one of the hardest parts, wondering what the abductions were for.

Jack questioned the out-of-towners closely, and then hinted that maybe they should get take a rest--settle into the hotel, eat a late lunch--while he did some research.

As soon as they were gone, Jack took the finished list from Jim and drew lines through 'Cassie Wells' and 'Aaron Mabry.' "A mistake they won't make again," he said. "After losing two, they'll be very careful with Sentinel health. Hmmm. Also, law enforcement and search and rescue--they won't try that again, either. You and Fraser gave them too much trouble. Consultants are all right, but they won't want someone they have to subdue." From the current lists, Jack crossed out everyone in law-enforcement or ex-army. Then he crossed out everyone over forty-five or under eighteen. "I assume we can get more information?" he asked. "Medical information? We can discount fragile or questionable sentinels, too."

About two hours--and multiple trips by Jim to his computer and his phone--Jack presented three names to add to Charlie Eppes and Shawn Spencer: Katherine Gatling, Jack Stewart, and Temperance Brennan.

"This is just a guess," Jim said carefully.

Jack shrugged. "There may be others; I still don't know what their plans are. But these are the ones I would take." Jack's eyes were hard and pitiless. Every time Blair was reminded--vividly, concretely reminded--of the kind of job Jack used to do he felt a little chilled.

Jim wasn't fazed, of course. He just requested more data on the people Jack had selected. Faxes began to arrive--pictures, resumes, forensics reports, medical histories.

Katherine Gatling was blond and a little plump. She was a graduate student in marine biology. Unmarried. Excellent health. She'd been missing since late May.

Jack Stewart was a young doctor, recently moved to Massachusetts. Healthy. Unmarried. At the time between guides. He was taken three days after Gatling.

Temperance Brennan was a forensic anthropologist. She specialized in identifying decomposed human remains. She had brown hair. She was unmarried. Her case was currently classed by the FBI as a drug hit, some kind of message. Apparently, she had been instrumental in reclaiming important evidence from a mass grave in Colombia about a month before her abduction.

About nine o'clock that evening they ran out of information and ideas. Simon had peeked in before leaving, given the project his blessing, and extracted a promise of an update in the morning. Dinner had been left-over Wonderburger and sandwiches from the machine in the breakroom. Jim looked distant and grave. Jack looked worn; at least ten years older than he actually was. Enough.

"Let's call it a night," Blair whispered to Jim. "We need to be fresh in the morning."

Jim tried to put up a fight. It wasn't that late. More information might come in. Blair only had to look pointedly at Jack, who was hunched over a computer, canted slightly to the left and breathing oddly, to make his point.

Jim squatted beside him. "Hey," he said softly. "We won't get any more tonight. Even in this time zone we're into the night shift. Where did you park?"

Jack dredged up a tired half-smile. "At the college. I didn't take my car to the restaurant, so I drafted Mike for a ride here." Blair was secretly relieved. Jack was clearly in no shape to drive.

It seemed simple enough to give him a lift home, but presented with Jim's truck, he laughed. "You're kidding," he said. "That's the new truck?"

"You know," Jim said, "The list of people I'll let laugh at my truck is very short. I'm not even sure you're on it." He was only teasing, though, and he planted himself behind Jack as he levered himself in. It was a long way up, and Jack was tired and a little shaky.

As they pulled up in front of Jack' ancient Mission Style house, Marcia came tearing down the front steps. Blair saw her coming and ducked around the back to retrieve Jack's chair out of the truck bed. Marcia was on the war path, and that just wasn't fun.

"How nice of you to drop back onto the face of the Earth," she said. "Are you going to turn your phone back on, too?"

Jack, scooting to the edge of the seat, sighed. "It ran out of power. I was planning to charge it this afternoon at my office, but I spent the afternoon at the police station instead."

"Oh, yes. I know. Joel told me when I called him, frantic because you were a missing person."

Jim, tired and irritated himself, began to say, "If you knew where he was--"

"Oh, yes. If I knew where he was, why worry? After all, you've taken such good care of him!"

Jack reached out, caught her arm. "We got a break on the Brackett case. He's abducting sentinels--"

"So what?" she asked icily. "Oh my god. Tell me you're not being stupid enough to help them?"

"Marcia--"

"You know what he is!" She was angry, not giving on any points. Sometimes Jim forgot just how unpleasant she could be. "Lee Brackett will eat these two infants for breakfast. Any help you're giving them will just get them killed."

"Now wait a minute--" Jim began. He made the mistake of trying to slip between them. Marcia clawed her hand and reached out to do something painful to him.

Jack managed to intercept her, nearly sliding out of the truck in the process. "Please," he gasped. "I really can't do this now. I'm sorry."

Marcia was borderline irrational at this point. She wouldn't let Jim touch her partner, so it was Blair who helped her ease Jack out of the truck and into his chair. "I'm sorry," Blair whispered, apologizing to everyone. "Do you need any help?"

"Possibly," she answered icily, taking possession of the chair and heading it toward the house. "But since there isn't any actual help available, I'll manage."

Blair took a step after them, but Jim snared him at the waist and held him still. "Don't," he whispered. "I can--I can understand. You were right before. When you said something must be wrong."

"What happened? I don't understand--"

"I think," Jim whispered, "he got too tired to sit properly, which made it more work to breathe. That's why he folded so fast. I didn't recognize...." Jim sighed miserable and leaned against Blair's back. "I just screwed up big time, Chief."

"Well. But me, too."

Jim didn't say anything on the ride home until they turned onto Prospect. Then he said carefully, "Sandburg. Marcia may be right."

"Um. About which part?"

"We don't know what Brackett is doing. I havenít even been a sentinel for two years. I could be leading you into a really bad situation."

"Well, obviously it's a bad situation--" Blair began. The end of that thought was such a surprise, though, that it stopped him cold. "Wow," he said.

Jim parked the car and turned off the engine. "What?" he asked.

"I always thought--I mean, I watched Naomi try to save the world my whole life. And I watched her fail, and I swore, man, one person at a time. That's all I was going to do, one person at a time. Except. I'm a cop's guide. And it's not *just* about saving you."

"Sandburg, you're a guide, not a cop. You aren't responsible. It's not your job."

"It's *our* job."

Jim sighed, staring out the front window into the darkness. "I joined the army to get away from home. After the army, there werenít a lot of good choices, not for me, not then. But--Blair--you--you have other choices."

"Do I? I can help these people. Five missing sentinels, at least. And their families. Nobody but us is working this case. How can I *choose* not to help them? It's not what I expected, but--"

"Marcia may be *right,* Sandburg. I, I have to admit--" Jim took a deep breath. Blair wished he could see his face. "Brackett--"

"Jim. You're not ignorant and sick now. Brackett is dangerous and well-trained, but so are you. And you're a sentinel. And you've got a competent guide. Marcia is wrong. She's burnt out. And she thinks we're idiots."

"Are you sure?"

"Do you think they're still alive? Shawn and Charlie and Katherine and the others? If they're still alive, then we have to try to find them."

"Yeah. All right. You're right." Jim took a deep breath. "We have to be smart about this. We have to be careful."

"I'm down with that," Blair nodded, hoping that was reassuring.

Still looking out the front, Jim reached out with his right hand. Blair took it, squeezed. "You okay, man?"

"I'm not sure," Jim admitted. "I think I just want to get some sleep, you know?"

***Detour***

Marcia locked the door and set the alarm, although it seemed to physically hurt to make Jack wait while she did it. But she could tell that once she really turned her attention on him she would lose all perspective. If she wasn't able to watch the door, they damn well better have it locked.

She turned back to him before the alarm was done chirping. "Bed?" she offered. He smelled like crap. For that matter he looked like crap, too. He was pale and sweating, and his breathing had deteriorated even further into shallow, uneven pants that were scary as hell to hear. There was a good chance he was too exhausted to manage transfer into the bed. Apparently she wasn't the only one thinking that. He shook his head weakly. "Couch."

The transfer to the couch was more like a sideways fall. Marcia shoved the chair aside and eased him onto his left side. "No points," he whispered, "for grace. Or degree of difficulty."

"You might have to give up on the Olympics this year," she answered, sweeping his legs up onto the couch. She paused to smell him. She didn't know this one; he was clearly badly distressed, but why or if this was the sort of problem that got worse instead of better--she just didn't know. Ellison was the one that was so talented with bodies. What the hell had he been thinking?

Unfortunately, the bastard wasnít here to yell at. Ignoring her anger, Marcia snagged the soft pillow for Jack's head and the two stiff ones to support his right arm, since right now the weight of it seemed to be hampering Jack's breathing.

"Brackett's taking sentinels," he gasped at the edge of her hearing. "We don't--know why...."

"Yeah. I donít care right now," she answered shortly, looking around for the blanket.

He caught her wrist, tangled her hand. She looked down, and aw, damn it, his eyes were pleading. Marcia laid a hand on the top of his head. "I promise. Tomorrow, I will listen. I will do anything you want. Okay? But right now you need to rest."

At once he let go of her hands, his eyes drifting shut. Oh. She gently fluffed the hair under her hand. "Just relax. It's okay."

"Don't be mad." His breathing had already eased enough that he was getting all the words out together.

"No, I'm not mad. I was never mad at you."

"Liar." He smiled weakly, but he didn't have the strength to laugh.

"I was just mad...near you."

She found the blanket and covered him. She took his glasses off and set them on the end table. She removed his shoes and loosened his belt. And then she hesitated, unsure what to do next. His heart was slowing, that was good. And his smell was a little better--still strained, but not nearly so desperate.

She wondered what to do next. It wasn't even ten o'clock yet; it wasn't too late to call John for advice, a habit she'd picked up in the month following Jack's shooting. John was very, very good with people who were ill or miserable. But she already knew what John would say--what he always said, sooner or later--so she could save herself the phone call: "Jack has been modeling support and gentleness for you for years now. Ask yourself what he would do if your positions were reversed." John made this sound very easy, but wasn't, because unlike Marcia herself, *Jack* always knew what was going on and what was likely to happen next. Standing here, listening to his breathing--still too shallow, still too fast--Marcia had no idea what was going to happen next, and even thinking about it scared the crap out of her.

"I'm not going to sleep for a while," Jack said softly. "You might as well go to bed. It's all right."

She lifted his head enough to steal away the pillow and insert herself in its place. "Is this okay for you?" she asked. He nodded against her leg. Of course it was all right. Guides had a thing for physical contact. "Why can't you sleep?"

He didn't answer. Well, this part was a little like running an interrogation. She sniffed him gently. "You're a little scared. Jack, you can't do anything about Brackett tonight. You know how this works, and you haven't lost your mind. A case like this--" but no, that wasnít it. "You're afraid...if you fall asleep you won't be able to breathe. Right. I get it." She laid a hand on the top of his head and with the other, rubbed slow, gentle circles on his back. "My last assignment, Dallas, I had terrible nightmares....I would have traded years off my life, not to have to sleep."

He reached over the pillows that were bracing him and patted her knee.

"I'm right here. Nothing is going to happen to you. Not right now. And you need to sleep, because you're so tired....I'll be right here."

If anyone had told her it would be that simple--that he would sigh and slip away into sleep so immediately and deeply--she would have called them a liar. For a moment she froze, afraid any movement would ruin this desperately needed rest. Very, very slowly she leaned back into the couch's cushions. Then--still slowly--she leaned sideways and clicked off the light. In the darkness, she tipped her head back and closed her eyes, letting hearing--so much more useful, since it wasn't blocked by walls or doors--take over her attention. Jack's breathing was slower and deeper now, and she heard no congestion. The house was empty, except for the two of them. The sink in the bathroom was dripping again. But fuck that. She could ignore it for now. A raccoon was sniffing disappointedly at the garbage curbies out back. Good. Fine. This was something she knew how to do, the vigilant wait.

It was long hours later, and Marcia was half-asleep, when she felt Jack beginning to wake. He didnít move; the habits of caution kept him still as he became aware of his surroundings. Marcia patted his arm. "Hey. It's okay. I'm right here."

"Bathroom," he croaked. He cleared his throat. "Bathroom and bed."

"Okay," she said, bracing him as he sat. There were--things--everywhere: pillows and shoes and Jack's notebooks all over the floor. She kicked them aside and pulled the chair back over. The shift from couch to wheelchair was still ungraceful, but at least it wasn't completely uncontrolled. He wasn't as weak as he had been. That was something. "Sore?" she asked.

"Stiff," he corrected.

"Do you need some help?" she asked.

For a moment the frustration and bent pride that he usually hid so well swelled to the surface. And then it was gone. He managed a rueful smile. "That pathetic?" He didn't wait for her answer but turned away and headed down the hall.

"Well...in comparison to what? In comparison to my last filling, then no." She'd had an adverse reaction to the dental anesthetic and poor Jack had spent the next three days holding her hair while she puked.

She sat down on the floor in the hall while he showered. It was easier than deciding what else to do. The sound of the water was soothing, and when he opened the door fifteen minutes later, smelling of soap and toothpaste, she was nearly asleep.

"I'm sorry, Marcia," he said. "It won't happen again."

She pushed her lank hair out of her eyes and looked up at him. "Yeah, it will," she said.

His hands knotted into tight balls. "Please, don't start yelling," he said.

She shook her head. "No. I won't. It's not like you do this on purpose." She sniffed the air. He had washed the scent of distress off, but the underlying fragility he'd been living with since the shooting couldn't be masked by any amount of soap. "You have this huge blind spot when it comes to Jim Ellison and Lee Brackett. You can't help yourself."

"Marcia, please don't--" The tone he usually used when he was afraid she was working herself up.

"And part of the reason is, when you're helping *him* and fighting that battle, you stop thinking about everything else. You can stop thinking about me, and how every time my body goes wonky, you remember of all the things you should have done differently when we were working together."

He went very still. Worried, Marcia shifted onto her knees and reached for his hand. Jack flinched and pulled away. "I used to think you retired and lost your mind," she said. "But it wasn't like I had many friends, and you couldn't have gone crazy on purpose, right? So I humored you when you got all touchy-feely. Only--I've been watching, lately. Ellison and Sandburg. And John and that idiot McKay. And you were right. We were both living in a fucked up dream world. It was warped. You remember that time in South Asia, when I was reacting to something in the air? I had welts. I could barely see. I should have been pulled out of there--"

"I know that--god, do you think--"

"*I* didn't know that then! I didn't know that. Neither one of us considered scrubbing the mission. Because we were both living by some weird rule book that had nothing to do with actual life. It wasn't just you!"

"I was your guide. You were my responsibility."

He was looking at his lap, refusing to face her. Marcia leaned down into his personal space and seized his chin, forcing him to look up. "Then what was I? I wasn't responsible for myself at all? Was I a participant at all? In my own life? Jack?"

"No, I suppose you weren't. They took that away from you, too, and I went along with it."

"Well--well, give it back. I'm not--an object. And I'm not a symbol of your past sins. I'm not ignorant now, any more than you are. And I'm not going to let you punish yourself. Not again. We're not doing this again." She was dizzy and a little confused. Despite admitting that Jack's stupidity tonight wasn't deliberate, she was still angry at him. He had scared the crap out of her, first by not answering his phone and then by coming home so exhausted he was sick.

He laid a hand on the back of her head and gently coaxed her down so that her head was in his lap. "I don't know what to say."

"Well. You could say, 'nyah, nyah,' because you were right about everything." She tried to laugh. "But it's not just you who has to see things different and unlearn bad habits. It's me, too. Only we're together in this thing and I can't re-write my life and go forward if you're lost in the past doing some terrible penance--" She realized she was weeping and wiped her nose on the back of her arm.

"I'm so sorry. It *won't* happen again--"

"No," she said. "No, um, itís not your decision anymore. I'm not going to *let* you. It's my turn to take some responsibility for what happens to us and--and--"

"Marcia, I have to do my job."

"Right. You have to do your job. And you have to save the world. And I'm on your side, with that. I was on your side when I thought you'd lost your mind. But. But." You can't die, she thought, unable to say the words aloud. She stood up suddenly. "Bed," she said. "Now."

"No--" He reached to catch her arm, but she was already moving around behind him. "We can't leave it like this."

Why not? She could see a solution they could live with. Both of them. In the present.

Obstinately, Jack turned on the light and folded his arms, making no move to get into bed. "We can't leave it like this."

She sighed. "All right. Fine. I'm not mad at you. I won't even come down on Ellison--" He was shaking his head. No? "Okay, I'll give them hell." She kicked off her shoes and tossed them onto the corner. "Iím flexible." She turned off the light and climbed onto the bed. "Well?"

Finally he tossed back the covers and transferred in beside her. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.

Marcia moved closer, snuggling in beside him. She would have liked to put her head on his shoulder, but he probably couldn't deal with the extra weight right now. "Let's stop being sorry," she whispered. "Let's work on making it good. Please."

"Don't think it was just guilt. It wasn't all about that. I love you--"

She punched him gently in the shoulder. "No shit? What? You think I can't smell that? Try again."

"Right," he said tiredly. "Of course."

Marcia propped herself up on her elbow and pushed back the darkness until she could see his open eyes. "I love you, too," she said. "You're my best friend. My family. And--and, as family goes, I really lucked out."

"Lie down," he whispered. "Go to sleep."

***End Detour***

Tuesday

When Blair came out of the shower the next morning, Jim was scrambling eggs. Blair ducked into his bedroom long enough to throw his clothes on, and when he came out breakfast was on the table. "You've been up for a while," he said.

Jim nodded, shoveling in his breakfast with efficiency.

"Didn't sleep real well, huh?"

"Wow. Those intuitive leaps are impressive--" Jim began testily. He stopped suddenly and lowered his eyes. "Look, how do I--? I mean, is there a formula for telling you I've got a headache?"

"No," Blair said gently. "You just tell me." He waited for a moment, but Jim just looked edgy and embarrassed. "You want some help?"

Jim nodded firmly. "Please," he said.

Blair stood up and walked around to stand behind him. "Start by not bolting your food?" he suggested. "That's not helping."

"It's not anything," Jim said, already distancing from his request for help. "It's just stress."

"Well, obviously it's stress." Blair palmed the back of Jim's neck for a moment, then slid his fingers up into the hair, searching for muscle tension or puffiness.

"Can't I just take something?"

"Well, you could. You don't have adverse reactions to ibuprofen. But that would just get rid of the symptom." Blair combed his fingers down, pushing against Jim's scalp.

"That's kind of the point," Jim said.

"If we leave the stress alone, it will just come out somewhere else. You have to deal with the cause, man." He slid his fingers down Jim's neck toward his shoulders until he found a knot.

"Stress...is kind of unavoidable right now, Chief."

Blair pressed the knot under the heel of his hand. No pinching, no thumbs. "Breathe. Again. Jim, I'm not going to tell you this is just another case." Another knot, just inside the shoulder blade. "But you've got really good coping skills. Some people choose to do really terrible things. And some people have really terrible things happen to them. But you don't bring that home and--and make those bad things part of you. I've been watching you for a year now. You can handle this."

"Except I'm not. Hence the really nice backrub."

Blair laughed and hugged him gently. "Nah. It's just easier and faster to use the guide. A shortcut." He gently pulled Jim's shoulders back, trying to stretch that second knot. "Breathe."

When they got to the station, detailed reports on four of the missing sentinels were waiting, and the fifth was coming off the fax machine from the FBI. Before they could sit down with the casenotes, Simon called them in for a meeting. "Let's go. Tell me what you've got." When they finished, he looked back and forth between them. "So. Basically, you've got zip, am I right? The victims have nothing in common except that they're healthy sentinels. There is absolutely no evidence connecting the crimes--"

"It's the right MO. And we've got Brackett's description on the Spencer case," Jim protested. "And Las Vegas--"

Simon shook his head. "You're looking for zebras here, boys." He picked up one of the files. "Katherine Gatling," he read. "Her father is the US ambassador to Taiwan. This is a political thing."

"A political thing. For weeks. With no demands reported," Jim ground out.

"It went bad--"

"And no body found? Come on, Simon. Brackett's been doing *something* for months now. We knew that. This is it."

"All right. Fine. What's your next step?"

"We're...working on that."

"Well, while you're working on that, I want you on the armored car thing."

"Since when is that a major crime?" Jim said irritably.

"Since it involved two million dollars. I want you to go over the truck and the scene and take a look at the neighborhood. The chief set up a neighborhood command post. We're working with the media and the local churches, offering a week-long amnesty period. Anyone can turn in money, no questions asked."

Jim's mouth thinned to a sour line, but he made no protest. "I'll check it out," he said.

"Jim, I want you to find out what's going on. If this wasn't a freak accident, I want to know who did it and why."

Jim went to get a copy of the file from Rafe, who'd been handling the case for the last two days. Blair made a quick call to the anthro department to check on Jack. He wasn't there. He had called in sick and canceled morning office hours, although the workstudy manning the phones said he was expected to be in class that afternoon.

Hell. That was bad. Jack didn't cut office hours casually.

On the other hand, Marcia would do it without hesitation if she thought he needed the rest. And she wouldn't let him come back in the afternoon if he weren't doing all right.

While Blair was staring at Jim's phone and wondering how worried he should be, it rang. "Detective Ellison's desk," he answered automatically.

"Hi, Blair. It's Stephen."

"Oh, hi. Jim will be back in a second."

"You can probably answer my question. What's a good birthday present for a sentinel?"

Blair blinked. "It's not Jim's birthday," he protested, suddenly worried that he was wrong.

To his relief, Stephen answered, "No, it's not. It's Rodney's. I stopped by the university to drop off the latest set of specs on the maglev, and John invited me to the surprise party. The note he slipped me said, 'gift not necessary,' but...you know. I really need to do some sucking up. He's grumpy about the space allotment."

"Right," Blair said. The remodel on the entertainment center had started with the race track, but the plans for updating the amusement park next door were already being assembled. Stephen had made quite a coup in recruiting an engineer of Rodney McKay's status. He'd had inside information; Rodney wanted to design rides badly enough to do the work for cheap. The maglev was his current obsession: as silent and smooth as a water ride, as fast and elaborate as a roller coaster. But even eager, Rodney was notoriously difficult to work with. "Okay. You want the most expensive chocolate you can find. But listen: nuts and caramels, not fruit fillings. Sometimes the machinery gets cross-contaminated, and Rodney has dangerous sensitivities. If you buy him something questionable, you'll go on John's shit list."

"Right. Thanks. I owe you." He rang off, and Blair buried his face in his hands. The party was tonight. He'd forgotten. Blair had bought the gift already. And going would probably be good for Jim, get his mind off Brackett. But Jim wouldn't want to go, not while he was worried about at least five missing sentinels.

Jim certainly didn't want to fool around with a stupid armored car accident. He was radiating irritation as he came back with the file. "Hop to, Chief. Let's go," he snapped as he breezed by the desk.

Jim ground his teeth all the way to the armored car office. He looked over the building and garage, got a copy of the duty roster, interviewed the guards. He didn't seem very serious about it, though; he talked to them all together and didn't bring them in to the station. "So I see there was a last minute schedule change?"

A glance passed between them. "Well, Westerberg was supposed to be on the job, but I guess he called in sick. Food poisoning, wasn't it?"

This was supported by nods from the other two. "Yeah. He ate something bad last night."

"So, uh, I got the late call, and I met the truck here after the guys picked up the load of money."

Jim nodded and tuned to one of the others. "And which one of you was in the back?"

A different man waved his hand. "I was. We took a hell of a ride. Smashed in the guardrail. Impact popped the door right open."

Jim looked him over narrowly. "Hmm," he said, sounding unimpressed. "You couldn't stop the money from flying out?"

"Detective, it was all I could do to keep *myself* from flying out."

"Right," Jim said, looking them all over. "Thanks." He nodded pleasantly and walked out.

Blair found himself hurrying after him. "What?" he asked, as he caught up to Jim in the parking lot. "That's it?"

Jim snorted. "That's plenty. They're all lying."

It would be unkind to remind Jim that he couldn't admit his opinion that someone was lying as evidence. "So--they were in on it? In on what? They didn't *get* the money." Robbery gone wrong? How would this robbery have gone right?

"I don't know yet. Maybe they're covering incompetence. Maybe they were drinking or something. Maybe something really nasty. Something, though. I can smell the lies."

The next thing to check out was the accident site and the neighborhood below the overpass that the money had blown into. Southtown was a poor neighborhood--more than poor, destitute: graffiti, scattered trash, a couple homeless people sleeping in the alley. Jim stalked through it with grim resolve, his eyes expressionlessly cataloging things only a sentinel could see. Whenever Blair got more than two feet away, Jim's hand latched onto his upper arm and reined him in.

At the unused storefront where the PD had set up its amnesty headquarters, Jim checked in with Detective Rafe, who was in a blue uniform and looking bored. There were more policemen inside than locals, and the small fire safes they'd brought to transport the money in were mostly standing empty in the corner of the room.

Jim scowled. "Well. This is going well," he said.

Rafe looked slightly defensive. "We passed out flyers all over the neighborhood. We've urged people to come forward. You're pretty much looking at the response."

"How much money has been turned in?"

"About twelve thousand dollars. I'd say we're about as popular as the ice concession on the Titanic."

Experimentally, Blair started to wander toward the table where a cute little uniformed cop with curly brown hair was waiting (boredly) to make out receipts for people turning in found cash. He managed two steps before Jim absently reached out and caught him by the collar. Blair was willing to bet he wasn't even aware he was doing it.

Rafe lifted one of the small cases onto the table and opened it, revealing a neat stack of money. "It's not a major crime. It's five or six hundred petty crimes."

Jim reached out and pulled one of the bills out of its rubberbanded packet. "This was supposed to be old money...." he said.

"It looks pretty beat-up to me," Blair said.

"It doesn't smell like old money." Jim latched one hand around Blair's wrist. "It doesn't smell like *money*." He began to pull bills out of the packet, his eyes intent. "It doesn't smell like used money, there's no old sweat on it....It doesn't really look like used money." He was stroking one of the bills between his fingers, zoned and probably on the edge of slipping out of contact completely. "Anybody got a hundred dollar bill?"

Rafe laughed. The other cops--who had gathered in a loose circle to watch the department sentinel work his gig--shook their heads. Feeling a little embarrassed, Blair produced his emergency hundred and slid it into Jim's hand.

Jim stared at the hundred for long seconds. He folded it in half and rubbed it against itself and smelled it. He wadded it into a ball and unfolded it and looked at it again. Without a word, he passed Blair's bill back and began to spread the others out on the table, sometimes pausing to crumple or smell them.

Suddenly, an idea clicked over and Blair was struck with a bolt of horror. He grabbed Jim's hands and tried to pull him away from the table. "Stop! Stop! Jim. They're hundred dollar bills."

"No, they're not."

Too late; Jim already wasn't making sense. Bodily, Blair got between his partner and the money. "There was a study--or maybe it was an urban myth--most hundred dollar bills have traces of cocaine on them."

"They're counterfeit. They're not real."

"Jim, get away--" Blair had left his backpack in the truck: no baby wipes. Maybe the empty store's water hadn't been turned off.

Jim blinked at him, took a deep breath, focused his eyes, caught Blair by the shoulders. "Chief. What? No. It's okay. It's not real money. It's all counterfeit. And it's not really used. There's nothing on it but expensive ink."

Blair let go and stepped back. "Oh," he said. The bolt of adrenalin was still racing around in his blood. It was easy to keep Jim away from recreational drugs when they were packed in evidence bags and clearly labeled, but that didn't mean Blair ever forgot the fact that even small amounts of cocaine or narcotics could be deadly to sentinels when they had their senses wide open. Been there, done that, had the hospital records to prove it. Blair very nearly hugged Jim with relief, but at that moment Rafe said, "Wait. It's all counterfeit? You're sure?"

"Here, smell it." Jim scooped up a handful. "*Real* old money is pretty rank. This paper was aged in an oven or a washing machine or something. And here, look. The fraying at the edges, it's not soft enough--"

Rafe shook his head. "Sorry, Jim. It all looks the same to me."

Jim looked around at the small crowd that had gathered--seven cops and two elderly men who were turning money in. He slowly squared his shoulders. "Bring everybody in--the three guys from the truck, the guy who called in with food poisoning, the owner of the company, and whoever initially loaded that truck. Where's the truck? Did we log it into evidence?"

Rafe shook his head. "It was a traffic accident."

"Right. Okay, Chief. Let's go find that truck."

The armored car company had a contract with a specialized body shop downtown. They had no trouble pointing out the tire they'd removed the day before. Jim laid it on the hood of his truck and examined it in the patchy sunlight. "What have you got?" Blair asked, trying to peek under Jim's arm.

"Something. I'm not sure what. Petroleum jelly?" He brushed a gloved finger against the tear and touched it to his tongue. "Yeah. And I think I see--"

"Jim! Do not *taste* evidence." A couple of months before, Jack had handed Blair a copy of *The Human Crime Lab: Sentinels in Forensic Analysis*, a compilation of articles on how to make the best (and safest) use of enhanced human senses in police work. It was something Blair should have found himself--and months sooner--but he'd never expected to be a police guide, and he'd initially been distracted by trying to teach a late bloomer everything there was to know about being a sentinel in the first place. One of the chapters had spent five pages describing why no one (but particularly not people with heightened senses) should ever put evidence in their mouth. Blair had gotten Jim to read the chapter, but he refused to take it seriously.

Case in point: "Don't worry. Iím pretty sure--wow. That's weird. I have no idea *what* that is."

Blair threw up his arms. "Fuck, Ellison--" He stopped as he realized Jim was laughing at him.

"Come on, give me a little credit, here, Chief. I wouldn't have tasted it if it smelled dangerous. You're the one who keeps telling me I should trust my perceptions."

Blair firmly shut his mouth and turned away. He was seriously pissed off. This was not a game, and god-knows-what kind of toxin wasn't something to play around with. He'd worked damn hard to get Jim healthy.

Behind him, Jim sighed. "Okay, I apologize. All right? I'm sorry."

Blair took a couple of deep breaths, forcing his jaw to unclench. "Nah, man. Don't pay any attention to me. I'm just...edgy, you know?"

"Yeah. I know. Me, too."

Blair wondered what he should say to that. This was a great case, and normally, they would be having a ball with all this weirdness, but all Blair could think about was Lee Brackett and five missing sentinels. And if that was all *Blair* could think about, Jim must be climbing the walls.

"Never mind," Jim said. "Take a look at this. I think there's some kind of wire or metal sliver embedded in the rubber. Let me have your pocketknife."

It was almost one when they made pulled into the police garage. Blair was acutely aware that Jim hadn't yet taken time for lunch. He was also aware that missing one meal wasn't the end of the world, and that he tended to obsess over food. Jim was determined to show the tire to Joel.

Joel poked at the tear with a swab and shrugged. "That's one heck of a blow out. Petroleum jelly? You know, it sounds like a potassium chloride device. All you have to do is add the chemical with the jelly, set it off with an electrical charge. You wouldn't need much to blow out a tire, and it wouldn't leave much trace."

"And that could be detonated with a remote triggering device?"

"Absolutely," Joel said cheerfully. "Got a suspect?"

"Three or four. Rafe's working on that end of things. He should have pulled them in by now. If we get a search warrant--"

"Right. I'll go along, see what I can find."

"Thanks." Jim turned the tire, the swabs, and the baggie with the tiny fragment of wire in it over to the lab and went to Major Crime to check in with Simon.

They found Gus and Mr. Eppes waiting for them. Jim cursed very quietly and nudged Blair into the lead. Blair put on his best serious-but-competent face and shook both their hands before leading the way into the nearest empty interview room. "Mr. Eppes, it was good of you to stop by, but we don't have anything new, I'm afraid. We're convinced that the cases are related, and we're looking at a multiple kidnapping here, but...."

Alan Eppes closed his eyes. "You haven't convinced anyone else."

Jim winced slightly. "No. Not yet."

They only looked a little angry, and only for a moment before settling into a grim resolution. "I see," Gus said. "Well."

"We're not dropping the case," Blair said quickly. "We don't know what to do *next*, but we aren't giving up."

"Thank you," Mr. Eppes said stiffly. "At least for trying."

There wasn't much to say after that. Jim made them both promise to call if they came across anything that could shed light on the case. Blair walked them to the elevator. When he got back to the interview room, Jim was leaning over the table with his head resting on his folded arms. Blair walked all the way around him and approached from the other side so that Jim wouldn't feel snuck up on or crowded. "Hey," he said gently.

"What, Blair? *What* can you do with kidnapped sentinels? If they're healthy enough that that they won't sicken and die....What can you do with them? If we knew 'what' we could guess about where or how or even if we're looking for someone alive or...."

"Breed them. If you've got twenty years and a *lot* of resources. Clone them, except you wouldn't need the whole body and nobody's cloned a mammal yet. Test them, but they won't perform normally under duress and physical stress. At least...none of the standard tests I can think of....No."

"It's in the brain, mostly, not the sensory organs. Right? They could be doing lobotomies. Or autopsies. Trying to find out what makes us tick."

Ick. "No. Jim--just, no. There are plenty of sentinels who die from natural causes and accidents. They don't need to kidnap autopsy victims--"

"Well, they're taking them for something! Damn it--"

The door popped open and Simon poked his head in. "Hey. Jim. Nice work. Rafe just got one of the armored car guys to roll over on his partners. Good job."

As the door shut, Jim laughed bitterly. "How nice. We've solved the armored car job. Lovely."

They spent the afternoon reading the files on the missing sentinels. Over and over. It didn't tell Blair a darn thing about who might have taken them or why, but it did help him begin to paint pictures of them as people. Charlie Eppes, brilliant and funny and kind and a little shy. Katherine Gatling, driven and dedicated and quirky. There was a picture of her holding handfuls of algae and laughing.

Shawn Spencer, who was either a complete genius or a complete flake, it was hard to tell. In his entire life, he had worked for less than a month with a formally trained guide, but lately he'd been running a successful detective agency with just the part-time help of a buddy who dropped in when he could get away from his day job. What kind of self control would a sentinel have to have to work like that?

Jack Stewart, who grew up on welfare, but used sentinel memory and his sensory gifts to fly through medical school on scholarships. Temperance Brennan, a workaholic scientist who did the most horrifying, heartbreaking work and never flinched.

All of them intelligent. All of them healthy. All of them Caucasian. Three male, two female. Three of them doing part-time consulting work for law enforcement. Three of them in the biological sciences, if you counted the medical doctor.

All of them missing.

At five-thirty, Blair looked up and said, "Are we close to making some sort of headway, here?"

Jim sighed. "No," he said.

"Look. We should go to Rodney's party. We need a break, and this really means a lot to John."

Jim closed the file and stood up. "All right," he said. "Fine. Whatever."

"Jim, if staying would--"

"No, you're right. There's no point in staying here. It's not like we're getting anywhere." Jim grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. Cursing inwardly, Blair stumbled after him.

****

Continued in part two...