New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections X: Intuition
by Dasha

Summary: AU; crossover. The suspect was legally dead, but hopefully that wouldn't pose too much of a problem when it came to getting a tail on him. Mild violence and language.

Disclaimer: Not my characters. Not my universe. No profit but joy.

Notes: Er. Sorry this took so long.


~October, 1996

The smell was sweet and comfortable, redolent of barn.  An irony, since the hay-bale blind was in the middle of a busy crowd. It was an add-on to a hay-bale maze set up for kids, and the thick blocks didn't muffle the shrieks of laughter from the other side.  It was also on the cramped and dim side.

The vantage point was perfect, claustrophobic or not. The bales had been pierced with a dozen narrow pipes, giving a view of the outside. Thirty feet straight ahead--right between an aging hippy woman selling handmade chairs and an odd little man with a table full of what seemed to be brass chickens--was the Children's Hospital booth manned by their target. She was alone at the table--her partner had left a few minutes before to hit the portapotties. Very young and, Jim supposed, very beautiful, but she was too short and too dark and too rounded for Jim's taste.

Not for Sandburg's taste, apparently. He had a set of binoculars wedged into a gap under one of the bales and was staring at the girl with rapt attention. His happy hormones were mixing with the sweet smell of straw and, oddly, were making Jim a little sleepy.

Almost on cue, Sandburg said, "You know, the uncle might not be coming. Or she might already have met up with him somewhere else. We could make contact...."

"Yeah, put the charm away, Romeo. She's not as dumb as she looks."

"Chauvinist, much, Jim? Gorgeous doesn't mean dumb. And, anyway, I could--"

"You couldn't."

Sighing, Sandburg stretched as far as the walls of the blind would let him and then rooted around in the little cooler he'd been sitting on for bottles of water.  "Look, seriously, we've been here since Friday. It's Sunday. He's not coming. And we're missing the Rainer Fall Carnival and Arts Festival--not to mention Ag Field Day, which is going on in the North Field. We could be enjoying ourselves."

Jim was hard put to argue with that. He'd been looking at those chairs for two days now, and he'd made up his mind he wanted one.  Also, he could smell the catering trucks parked over by the library, and he really wanted a turkey leg. The congealed pizza hadn't been a favorite when it was fresh an hour ago.

Behind him, in the maze, two girls were fighting over a lollypop. In front of him, a customer was trying to dicker with the chair vendor.  On the far side of the chair vendor's awning, Rafe and Henry were blending in with the Cascade Fire Fighters' display, waiting to tail Gustavo Alcante--if he did show up. 

The place was crawling with college kids--ridiculously young, frequently self-involved, and--oh, look, those two by the brass chickens were drunk.  They weren't 'disorderly,' though. Probably, no one but Jim would even notice. Which was good, since they could hardly break cover and run them in.

It wasn't just college students, of course.  A lot of local people had brought their kids.  Two elderly women were walking wide around the drunk college students.  One said softly to the other, "Eve, in your heart, I think you know he stole that money.  By the time the auditor arrives next week, he'll be out of the country, and if you go with him, you'll be implicated, too. You'll never be able to go home."

"Jessica, do you have any idea how far-fetched this sounds!"

"The police don't know about him yet. Right now there isn't any evidence. There's still time to stop him--maybe even avoid charges--but you'll have to--" The women turned the corner at the brass chickens and Jim lost the conversation. Something else he couldn't do anything about. Not that it would matter if he could: police departments couldn't set a sentinel out to eavesdrop on random conversations in public places and then submit what they heard as evidence.

Jim heard Simon enter the narrow entryway that had been concealed around the corner of the maze. It was a tight fit, and he had to move slowly.

"Even if he did come to town this weekend," Sandburg complained, "That doesn't mean he'll come to see her at all." He was still staring at the girl through the binoculars. Jim sighed.

Simon poked his head into the little shelter. Blair had to scoot sideways and plaster himself against the straw wall so Simon could squeeze by.  "Let's hope he shows up," Simon said sourly, handing Jim a paper boat with a turkey leg in it. "A three-day, 5-man steak-out is costing the department a fortune.  If we don't get him today, we've lost our chance. The feds are sure he'll be in LA by tomorrow afternoon."

"Look," Sandburg wheedled, "we could approach her. Maybe--"

"We don't know what she knows. We don't know what side she's on, if she *does* know anything. It's too risky."

They went on like that for a while.  Jim took a big bite of his turkey leg and watched the craft fair through his little windows.  A man in a business suit was handing over cash for three of the metal chickens. A teenager passing the chair booth tripped and dropped a foot-long ice cream sundae face down on the sidewalk.  The older woman who'd been denying her probable involvement in some kind of embezzlement came walking back the other way.  She was walking very quickly, and there was no sign of her 'conscience.'

"If you have some time next week," Simon was saying, "I'd appreciate it if you could talk to Daryl." Apparently Jim had missed a change in the conversation.

"What, you need someone young enough to be cool to give him the safe-sex talk?" Sandburg joked.

Simon scowled. "Thanks, but sex I can handle. I someone to tell him he doesn’t want to be a guide."

"Wait--Daryl wants to be a guide? Since when?"

The scowl got darker.  "They had career day last Friday. Some guide-temp with a national company came in and told them how it's a great job and good money and you help people and all that crap."

Sandburg's eyebrows crept up.  Jim thought it was possible he was amused, but he might be just scandalized. "It is a great job and good money and you do help people...and all that crap."

Simon raised his hands defensively and leaned back as far as he could in the little straw cave. "Now hold it. I'm not saying it's not a good job.  And you do help people, I know, I know. But the money? I know what you make, and I know what your student loans are. You need every penny."

Sandburg laughed. "And I shouldn't at all be offended that Daryl even thinking about it freaks you out."

Simon refused to be baited. "It's a good job. And you're good at it. But it's not like a regular job. A normal person can't do it."

Sandburg mouthed 'normal,' at Jim. Apparently he wasn't angry because he found Simon being an idiot hysterically funny.

"It's not like being an accountant or an insurance salesman. You have to have a calling." Simon continued, a little desperately, "It's like being a nun."

Sandburg laughed so hard he nearly slid off the cooler. "It's nothing like being a nun," he gasped. "I've met nuns. I've met nuns who were guides...." That set him off again.

Jim shook his head slightly, trying to signal that maybe Blair should back off.  Simon knew he was out of his depth: at any moment he'd start getting defensive. But Blair didn't see, and anyway, it was too late. Although up till now Simon's insults had been accidental, but the next two digs were impatient and deliberate. "It looks an awful lot like being a nun to me. You live in the store room under Jim's stairs, and it's been so long since you had a date you're looking for excuses to hit on suspects."

Sandburg sobered abruptly. "Simon. Seriously. What the hell."

"Hey, I didn't mean--"

"First off, I still technically haven't graduated yet, and Jim is a huge step up from the teenage nightmare that was my last roommate. Secondly, I had a date last week."

Jim did not comment on how that 'date' had been set up by the anthro department--taking a prospective student to lunch in order to help casually sum her up for the admissions committee.

"Look, I'm not saying...."

Simon was seriously trying to back peddle, but not, from Sandburg's smell, hard enough. "I think I know what you're saying.  I'm some kind of loser doing a job for weirdo--"
   
"Maybe we should keep our voices down? Since this is a stake-out?"

"Not weirdos. Hippies, maybe--" the volume dropped, but not the intensity.

"And you think you're not being insulting--"

"No, I'm not."

"But Daryl's no hippie?"

"Okay," Jim said, leaning between them. "Let's just go back to our corners."

"Fine idea," Sandburg said, turning back to his binoculars.

"Jim, back me up here!"

"Oh, no," Jim tried for jovial and unconcerned. "I’m not getting into this mess. Anyway, Simon, you're my boss, but Sandburg can cook." He pointedly looked back out at the endless stream of fair-goers.

Any chance of Simon managing a graceful exit was spoiled by the fact that he had to crawl over Sandburg to get out.  When he was gone, Sandburg muttered, "If that's the best you can do, next time it's my tern to cook, we're having hamburger helper."

"I'm just trying to cool things down." Four kids had descended on the handmade chair booth and were systematically testing out the product, first sitting in one, than another.  "Come on, Chief. You know worrying about Daryl  makes him crazy. He didn't mean anything by it."

"Except that I'm an underpaid loser living in your spare room."

"You know he didn’t mean that."

"True. He meant I'm an underpaid loser hippie nun living in your spare room."

Jim sighed.

There were two young men in front of the brass chicken booth. Jim frowned. Good looking. Hispanic. Cool.  Too cool to buy brass chickens, that was for sure. Jim wished they'd go look for trouble somewhere else.... The last thing was some kids making a ruckus and scaring off their target.

Jim scanned through his peep-holes again. Oblivious teenagers. More oblivious teenagers.  A trio of screaming kids--completely uncontrolled by the grandfather(?) they were dragging along-- were on a collision course with the cool young men; they might be obnoxious enough to chase them off.  The second older woman from before, walking slowly, distracted, unhappy. 

The cool young men were shooting dark looks at the screaming kids, but they weren't moving on.

An older gentleman in a suit was cutting through the chair booth. Grey hair, balding, small mustache. Damn. Jim thumbed his radio: "Heads up, boys.  Alcante is about twenty feet from making contact. Don't rush it. Play it casual."

"Where?" Sandburg hissed, fumbling with the binoculars--although they were surely close enough that he didn't need them. "Oh. Got him.  Looks like he's alone."

Jim had descriptions of Alcante's regular body guards. His third pass over the area wasn't turning up a sign of them when the dignified older woman collided with one of the cool young men and said (loudly enough that even Sandburg could surely hear her), "Oh, my goodness! I am so sorry! Are you all right? Oh, dear. You seem to have dropped your gun!"

The cool young man gaped at the matronly woman who peered owlishly back. Jim felt equally astonished, but he managed to grope for his radio as he surged toward the narrow entry. "Move. Now. Everybody. It's a hit. We've got to scare them off."

Shouting into his radio, Jim didn't have a hand free to shove Sandburg out of the way.  Sandburg's attempt to flatten himself down and to the side was useless.  His hard push as Jim dove over him saved enough momentum for Jim to avoid a face plant in the fallen straw.

The narrow passage was scratchy and dark and far too long.  When he finally stumbled into daylight between the hay maze and the--dear God--children's art tent, he had to turn and run back toward the exhibit row.  He tripped and nearly fell on the tent lines.

The woman was holding a .38 with just the ends of her fingers.  From her grip, she might have been holding a dead rat. She was saying, in a very reasonable tone, "I think I'd like to see your carrying permit. Is that the right term, carrying permit? Before I hand this back to you.  I'm sure everything is in order, but I don't want to be an accessory to a crime if you're not supposed to have this." 

Everyone in the immediate area was staring at them. It made quite a tableau, the cool hood and the stern little granny. Nobody was looking at Simon, who was easing along the side of the brass chicken booth. He had his gun out.

The second hood had a hand hovering over his jacket.  So did one of those "oblivious teenagers" Jim had written off earlier. If this turned into a shoot-out it would be a disaster.  They would run out of bullets long before they ran out of bystanders. Jim rushed forward, waving his badge in the air instead of his gun. "Excuse me, sir? Is this woman bothering you? We've had some complaints--"

That got everyone's attention. The cool young man (assassin? hired goon?) looked from the woman to Jim and back in confusion and a little terror. The man running the chicken booth laughed once, but reached down to pull one of the rowdy kids out of the way. Several other people stepped back, too, which was fine with Jim. "Ma'am," he said sternly, "I'm going to have to ask you to put that gun down on the table behind you and come with me." She'd have to take two steps back. It would interrupt the dangerous moment and diffuse the terrible tension.  It would also take her and that gun out of both of the young men's immediate reach. 

It almost worked.

"Francisco! No! What are you doing?"  Jim knew that voice. He'd been listening to it for two and a half days. Maya Carasco. He spun toward the Children's Hospital Table to find her clinging to the arm of a tall, dark young man.

Cursing loudly, the man shoved her away and shifted his gun to take aim at Simon, who had almost reached the two cool young men.  "Nobody move. Miguel, get his gun. And his, too." He nodded at Jim. "He's got a badge, he'll have a gun. Hand it over." The Carasco girl was crying.  He kicked her in the shoulder. "Shut up, and don't move. It's your fault."

"Listen," Jim said. "Nothing's happened here yet but a couple of misdemeanors. Right? A little disturbing the peace? You could surrender right now--"

"Where's Alcante? You want these people out of here alive? You hand him over to me."
Jim didn't turn his head to look, but he listened.  He could hear Henry on the ground on the other side of the chair tent. He was lying on top of someone who was breathing hard.  "He ran away," Jim said. "It's too late. You're not going to get him back."

"Shut up." He stalked over and snatched up the gun Jim had laid on the ground. Jim had must a moment to register just how appalling young this Francisco was before the kid swung Jim's own sig into the side of his head.

It wasn’t well aimed. Jim let himself go down anyway; this kid stank of uncontrolled fury and he had at least three armed men on his side.  If let his anger loose he had hundreds of targets--an entire fair full, in fact--to vent his rage on. 

"We're getting out of here," he shouted.

"Believe me, kid, everybody wants you to do that." And that was Simon, doing the calm, reasonable thing.  Jim wasn't sure how much luck he'd have with it. Cautiously, he rolled to his knees and looked up. Simon had his hands on his head, which was awkward, but didn't really distract from his 'patient and thoughtful voice.'  "You know that if we were watching Ms. Carasco, there is more back-up waiting near by.  Maybe some black and whites. Maybe even the feds.  You can't stick around here.  If we get this place surrounded, your chances of getting away go right down the drain."

And, yes, in fact, Rafe had taken up a position about ten yards down in the shadow of a jewelry tent.  He was on the radio to dispatch even at that moment.

"You'll never shoot your way out," Simon continued.  "If you survive, you'll be in prison till you're old and grey. Your best bet is to just walk away right now."

"Damn right, it is. And you're coming with me. You and her." He shoved the woman into Simon and snapped out some fast instructions to his men. Jim waved at Rafe to stay still.  Too many enemies, too many hostages.

Jim stayed where he was until they turned the corner at the Art, Architecture, and Engineering exhibit. As he shoved up to his feet, Blair's arms snaked around his waist, trying to steady him. Jim allowed himself a moment to lean down and whisper, "I'm good, Chief," before pushing him away and depositing the keys in his hand. "Get the truck. Meet me on University Avenue, behind the Johnson Theater."

"What? Why--?"
   
Jim was already running. He called back over his shoulder, "They're still headed north. There are only two lots open up there, and the both exit onto University. Hurry."

It was easy enough to follow them, even through the chaos of the fair. Simon was talking, a reassuring patter directed at the other hostage. He was just making noise, laying down a trail for Jim to follow. Instead of turning at the AAE display, Jim dove behind it and ran up the narrow alley between the backs of two lines of booths.  There were tie-lines for the tents back there, and a bright rope of cables along the ground, but there were no people to dodge and he wasn't easily visible.

At the other end of the row, the alley ended behind a story-teller's tent--more kids, damnit--set up in the shadow of the Millhouse Dormitory. The parking lot here was a  card-entry student lot, but the next two lots over were open to the public today. Jim took cover at the edge of the building and closed his eyes, listening.

"Just let us walk away now. No one can stop you." Simon's voice, but from where?  There were tall, brick buildings on three sides, and they made the sound bounce around and mix with the voice of the storyteller behind him.

"No, they're hostages. We can trade them for Alcante."

Some angry Spanish, an accent Jim couldn't follow. He leaned against the wall and risked a peek around the side.  They weren't hard to spot, even in the packed parking lot, a small group standing next to an idling dark sedan. Jim pulled back, listening for a moment as he caught his breath. Then, holding on to their voices, Jim cut toward the Johnson Theater.   

***

Jim was waiting just where he said he'd be.  Blair pulled into the bus lane and reached for the door handle so that Jim could climb into the driver's side, but Jim waved him off and climbed in the other door.  "Drive," he said.  "They're about a hundred yards ahead of us. Black sedan. Simon's talking."

"Okay, good. Great. What the hell is going on?"

"I think our stake-out interrupted a hit."  He rolled down the window and leaned out.

"Not on that girl--"

"Alcante. Now be quiet." Jim flinched. "Oh, hell."

"What's wrong?"

"They're still arguing about what to do with the hostages. Somebody wants to continue driving down by the bay, and just shoot them and dump the bodies."

Blair gulped and stepped on the gas.

"Simon's threatening them. It's not helping." They were off campus now. Jim pointed toward the right: the stadium, the highway, the Russian district?  Blair was betting on the highway.

"The woman says she's got money. She can pay ransom. Oh, now they just want to shoot Simon. They're taking the highway. Left, left," Jim waved toward the onramp. He laughed once, wryly. "Now she says if they kill a cop, the police will never stop hunting them." Jim paused, and Blair fought the urge to look at him, instead paying attention to the merge. "She's painting quite a picture.  She's just brought up the FBI.  Speed up, they--" Jim broke off, gasping.

"What?  What?"

"They turned on some music," he panted.  "It hurt. I'm fine. Keep going. Keep going."

Blair kept his eyes on the road.  They passed two exits before Jim pointed, "There, they're getting off."

While they paused at the stop sign at the bottom of the ramp, a police car screamed by. Jim clapped his hands over his ears.  Blair clamped his teeth over a curse and reached for Jim's arm. Jim pushed him off. "That way, somewhere." He waved left. "Get me closer."

To the left was the big Mart-Mart and a trendy wherehouse bookstore. Blair pulled off the access road and into the parking lot, scanning for the  black sedan. "No," Jim said. "Behind, behind." 

Blair took the turn hard and a little too fast.  He'd driven bigger vehicles than Jim's Expedition, but he wasn't used to tearing around parking lots in a truck that handled like a tank.  As they cleared the corner, he had to break and swing to the side to avoid a long truck parked at one of the superstore's loading docks. 

On the other side a black sedan was parked in the middle of the alley.  All four doors were open.  The radio was playing. There was no one there.

"They've changed cars," Jim said flatly. He slid from the truck and stood on the asphalt, head back, eyes vacant. Long seconds passed. Blair held his breath.  "I've lost them," Jim said. He flipped out his cell and barked a series of orders while slowly circling the abandoned car. 

Sighing, Blair got out of the truck.  He tried not to think about Simon. 

"Sandburg, if you take another step toward that car, I'll handcuff you to your seat."

Stung, Blair said, "I know how to handle evidence."

"Fuck the evidence. If I'd been running this op, I'd have booby-trapped the car."

"Oh," Blair said faintly.  Right. They were in the middle of a South American drug war, now. Weren't they? One of Jim's other worlds. A particularly brutal and ugly world.  "I'll stand right here."

Jim glanced at him once, almost kindly, and then he began to circle the vehicle again.  Blair waited.  At last, satisfied, Jim leaned into the driver's side door. He pulled back almost at once.  "Stolen. It has to be. There's old fast food wrappers and toys...." He went to the rear seats and stayed for almost two minutes.

"Jim?"

"Simon hasn't been hurt. That woman...isn't nearly as scared as she should be."

"Jim, you need to focus on tracking the kidnappers."

"Carasco is an arms broker.  Alcante was drugs.  I don't know who these people are, but I promise kidnapping is only a sideline."  He fell silent for a moment and bent closer to the floorboards. "Motor oil. Some kind of synthetic lubricant.  Linseed oil. Salt."

"Jim, that’s a boat."

He pulled back. "Right. So we've narrowed it down to the entire Washington coast. Unless they're operating out of Canada."

"The Coast Guard--"

"With no description of the boat, Chief."  He turned away and walked to the edge of the alley to wait for someone to come and take over the scene.


To Blair's surprise, Jim asked him to drive back to Rainer. He kept the window down and his head to the side, listening the whole way. It was just desperate, not that Blair blamed him. 

"Turn here," Jim said at the main gate.

"The road's closed for the fair."

"We're the police." Even so, past the administration building the road had been turned over to a double-line of vendors' tents. Blair parked behind a cluster of black-and-whites beside the porta-potties, and they walked from there.

The fair was taped-off from the Children's Hospital table to the art tent--not to preserve evidence, but to keep the crowd back. A lot of people had gone home in the wake of the attack, but many of those who stayed were gawking at the edge of the tape, trying to see what happened. Jim sighed as he ducked under the tape and hollered for Henry. "What have we got?"

"Well, we've still got Alcante. He's refusing to talk to us. The girl is probably willing to talk, but she's hysterical.  I didn't want to move them until we had more manpower, but there's a big fire over on Belmont. Taggerts's tied up over there, too, and he's the senior on duty--which means, for the moment, we're in charge. And you outrank me by a pay-grade, so," he waved a hand in Jim's direction.

Jim looked around. "First thing, grab the nearest campus security guy and have them clear this crowd out.  I don't want anybody south of Azai Circle. The people we are up against won't have any scruples about killing civilians. And--" he stopped and took a step toward the tape. "Hey, you!" He pointed at someone in the crowd. "Hold it."

An older woman flinched away and looked around frantically. She looked in her fifties. Her head was dark auburn.  She was wearing a hat. She couldn't possibly be part of Chilean organized crime.

"Hold it," Jim repeated, stepping toward her.

To Blair's surprise, the woman turned and ran. Jim took off after her, leaping over the police line as the startled crowd parted to make way for him. Jim closed the distance quickly, and Blair had a few seconds to wonder if he was actually going to tackle a fugitive who was both elderly and female when the woman abruptly turned and raised her hands.

Jim marched her back. Rafe, gaping, managed "She's not part of that gang--"

"No," Jim said curtly. "She's going to tell us who the second victim is."

Blair followed his sentinel and their prisoner--he looked at the perfectly made up older woman and winced--into the tent. Toward the front Alcante was seated at a folding table that was still covered with bowls of macaroni-art supplies.  At the right rear Maya Carasco sat on an upturned milk crate, weeping at a police woman.

Jim seated the woman at one of the low, round kiddy tables near the entrance. They looked absurd sitting on the half-size chairs. "Name?" Jim asked, snaring a notebook from a nearby uniform.

"Eve Simpson. I'm a realtor..."

"You were here with a friend." A statement, this time, not a question.

"Yes, her hotel is just a few blocks away from the campus, and she wanted to buy a quilt for her nephew Grady...."

"So the day isn't going as planned, then." Jim was sharp and unsympathetic--but this woman couldn't possibly be a suspect. "You saw what happened?"

The woman nodded. "But--no--I was over by the clock tower. I wasn't close enough to give you a description of any of--of those kidnappers."

Jim ignored this. "The last time I saw you, you were headed in the other direction at a pretty good speed."

Ms. Simpson blinked at this. Blair himself didn't know where Jim was going.  "I...well, I'd had a disagreement with my friend...."

"She was accusing your boyfriend of blackmail," Jim prompted impatiently.

"Embezzlement!" she protested.

"Fine. And you stormed off--"

"I didn't want to leave things like that--" She caught Jim's eye and flinched. "I thought--maybe--"

"You decided she was right, and you didn't want to face charges as an accomplice after the fact."

She looked down.

"The good news is, I don't care what hankypanky you've been pulling out of state somewhere. I just want to know who your friend is."

Ms. Simpson stumbled again at this. "Her--her name is Jessica Fletcher."

Blair muttered, "Oh, hell." So did Rafe, standing on the other side of Jim.

"She writes mysteries,” the woman said, when Jim just looked at her blankly.

Now it was Jim's turn to be surprised. He looked from the woman to Blair and Rafe.  "Famous?" he sighed.

"Yeah..." Blair said apologetically. He understood Jim's dismay. A famous victim compounded their problem--which was bad enough to begin with. It would bring the press in a lot sooner and a lot hotter.  It would attract the attention of other jurisdictions. It would give the kidnappers more ammunition to use, if they could figure out how to use it.

"Famous. Is she...flamboyant? Likely to do anything creative? Or erratic?"

Ms. Simpson made a face. "I have no idea what Jessica will do." At Jim's dark look, she added, "Truly. I've known the woman almost thirty years, but I have no idea why she does anything.  Oh, whatever is happening, whomever it involves, she *will* interfere. She doesn't understand the idea of  'minding your own business'....although, of course, people like that don't, do they? But how she'll butt in, or why, or what she'll do next? It's a mystery to me, Detective."

Jim sighed again and continued his interview. "What about family? You mentioned a nephew?"

"Grady. He's in San Francisco, I think. I don't know how to contact him. The Sheriff's Department in Cabot Cove would know. Mort Metzger."

Rafe was scribbling this down.

"What about her health?" Jim continued. He was on autopilot now, most of his attention shifting to the investigation ahead. "Do you know of any health conditions? Any medication she's taking?"

"No, I don't think she's taking any medication. Probably not, I mean, people like that can't *take* medication, can they?"

Jim's attention flickered outward or a moment. "People like that?"

She looked at them uncomprehendingly. "Well...you know...."

"Jim, she's a very famous sentinel," Blair said softly.

In the tense silence that followed, Ms. Simpson said, "You do have them in Washington, surely? People like that?"

It was Rafe who answered. "We've had some sentinel kidnappings...." He swallowed hard.

"How do we reach her guide?" Jim ground out. "I assume he's here in town?" Right, because that should have been the first question, shouldn't it? Jeeze....

"There's no guide. She doesn't....Dr. Haslet could answer your questions. They're very *close*. He might also know how to access her funds, if you, if you needed to raise a ransom." She looked away.

Rafe wrote down the doctor's number, took Ms. Simpson's local contact information.  Jim pulled Blair aside and waited.

"I didn't recognize her," Blair muttered.

"She wasn't on Jack's reading list," Jim answered sourly.

"She doesn't write about sentinels," Blair began. "Regular murder mysteries. Look, she makes the news once in a while. Celebrity news, but not *really* because....she keeps getting involved in police investigations." He gave Jim a moment to absorb that. "She's a typical small-town sentinel from back east, you know? The kind that's involved in everything, including local government and police?"

"Nosey," Jim muttered, glancing at the woman Rafe was leading out.

"Yeah, well, the thing is, she's amazingly *good* at it. I guess you could say she's gone sort of national.  Like a consultant. Or something. Her record is really good."

"She gonna give them enough trouble that they kill her, Chief?"

Blair shook his head helplessly.

Jim took a deep breath and pointed at Maya Carasco still huddled at the back of the tent sobbing at a female uniform. "I need to know what she knows, and I probably can't scare it out of her."

"Right," Blair said. "Got it."

He reached for his ID to show the officer, but realized it was a woman he knew. "Hey, Rose." He said casually.

She grunted in his direction. She was smart, but impatient and had absolutely no sympathy for weakness.  She'd given up trying to talk to the witness and was standing with arms folded. Her grinding teeth were probably from the effort of not just slapping the sobbing wreck in front of her.

"Say, maybe you could find her some coffee?"

She grunted again, this time with a look of both irritation and gratitude, and left.  Blair sighed and sat down. "Hi." He said. "I'm Blair. You're Maya, right?"

The girl shuddered and buried her face in her hands.

Blair swung down his backpack and dug out a bottle of water and a handful of tissues.  He held them out without speaking until she took the tissues and began to scrub at her face.

"The thing is, Maya, we really need your help.  The guy who hit you--the guy who came to kill your uncle--"

"He said nobody would get hurt! He promised! He said he just wanted to talk--"  This promising line of thought dissolved into more tears.

Blair handed her more tissues. "The thing is," he began again, even more gently.

"Are you a cop?" she asked abruptly, apparently looking at him for the first time.

"Civilian staff," he said. "Actually, I'm still a student, here. Until the end of December."

"Oh." She said. "My father is going to kill me."

"Your father--" What? Will understand? Her father was an international weapons smuggler, currently doing time in a federal prison. "It wasn't your fault."

"No," she said, wiping her eyes. "Francisco said...."

"He said nobody would get hurt?" Blair prompted.

She nodded.

"What else did he say?"

"May I have that water?" She pointed at the bottle Blair had taken out. He handed it over, fighting down the urge to rush her. And then fighting the urge to get *distracted* by her, because even with all her make-up scrubbed away and a twig in her hair, she was absolutely beautiful.....

"This Franco, he the one who hit you?" Blair asked.

"Francisco," she sniffed.

"Who is he? An employee of your father's?"

Her eyes filled again. "He's my cousin.  Well, sort of. He's Uncle Gustavo's stepson."

Blair held his breath. "Maya...do you know where Francisco is staying?"

She shook her head. "He said he had a hotel room downtown somewhere....He was going to take me for dinner tonight...."

Sure. Right after the hit.  "Maybe you'd better tell me the whole story."

*****

Jim rolled his shoulders once and took some of those deep breaths Sandburg was always touting.  This wasn't another round of the mess they'd just completed in Sierra Verde. Or a replay of the sentinel kidnappings last Christmas.  It was just one sentinel, and she wasn't going to be experimented on. She was just a hostage. A target of opportunity.

He watched Blair wind his way to the back of the tent. If anybody could coax or charm (or lure) that girl into spilling what she knew, it would be Blair. In the mean time--

He turned to the low table where two uniforms stood guard over Gustavo Alcante and introduced himself.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Detective. I'm Alfred Butoni."

"Alfred Butoni," Jim repeated, taking a seat across the table.

Alcante nudged aside a half-completed macaroni rendering of the Rainer clock tower and offered Jim the driver's license from among the ID laid out before him. It did, in fact, say Alfred Butoni. "It's very nice," Jim said. "We'll have to have a talk later about where you got it."

Alcante smiled a little, innocently, helpfully. "This man you are looking for--"

"Has been dead for three years," Jim said agreeably. "And yet here you are. Shall I ask officer Brown to take your prints?" He leaned forward and whispered, less agreeably, "Or, since you claim to be nobody of consequence, maybe I should trade you to that punk who tried to kill you. His hostages *aren’t* nobody, and they aren't dead yet."

Alcante sighed, as though the Cascade police were just hopelessly incompetent. 

In the same soft voice, Jim added, "I was the sentinel in charge of this stake-out. Lying to me is a complete waste of time."

"American police departments don't use sentinels in the field." But he didn't sound certain.

Jim gave him a long silence. Then he said, "Let's try again. What can you tell me about this little ambush today?"

Alcante dropped his eyes for a moment, a tiny surrender.  "His name is Francisco Rivero. He is a warlord who once worked with my brother-in-law."

"Hector Carasco."

"Yes. However, Hector's organization has fallen into disarray this past year...."

"Since the arrest and all," Jim interjected.

"Perhaps you would like to tell the story, Detective?"

"Go on, by all means." Jim leaned back in the tiny chair.

"Rivero has been trying to...expand his operations and step into Hector Carasco's shoes. He's finding them rather too large." 

"He's having a hard time."

"His own fault." A pause. "He is completely ruthless. An animal. And he can be very clever, make no mistake. But he has no eye for the future and no sense of proportion. He is not what you would call a 'competent professional.' Do you see what I mean?"

Jim thought he did: Some one sane and reasonable could be predicted. Someone who was a competent professional wouldn't wastefully kill the hostages or needlessly court police attention with murder.

"Eventually he will come to a bad end, but I fear he will do a great deal of damage first."

"What was he doing here shooting at you?"

"I suppose Maya told him I was coming." He sighed.  "She has known him all her life, and she is a very innocent, naive young woman. If he told her a story about wanting to settle an argument with me or surprise me," he shrugged sadly, "she would have been happy to cooperate."

"That's very interesting. But what I meant was, why was he so determined to shoot you?"

"Ah. That is an interesting question."

"Yes, I thought so when I asked it."

"And I have no idea--no, truly! I am retired.  I am an old man, living a simple life. I am no competition to him."

"So hunting you down was just a whim?"

Alcante opened his mouth, shut it, shrugged. "You would have to ask him his reasons."

Jim waited, staring.

"Perhaps he was making a statement to the other members of the cartel. I used to have quite a reputation, long ago. Or perhaps his goal was not to shoot me: I have some little money.  He could have been after ransom."

"You're lying. You don't believe that."

"No, of course. I am speculating."

"Speculate about this: where has he taken his hostages?"

"Ah."

Jim waited. 

"He did not leave me a forwarding address."

"Perhaps you know some of his friends here in town. We could go visiting."

"Friends of his friends, perhaps." He met Jim's gaze. "I could make a few calls."

"I couldn’t allow that."

"You are asking for my help, Detective. And anyway, what harm could I do with a few phone calls?"

"Shall we talk about your record?"

"That is all in the past. I am retired." He smiled--reasonable, charming, a harmless businessman.

Jim considered. "We'll monitor the calls."

"That is hardly reasonable."

"I'm not trying to be reasonable."

"I have old friends who are still in the cartel.  I wouldn't be doing myself any favor, going on the record as keeping company with known felons."

"I'm sure any information you might have on 'known felons' would offset that. Anyway, you're already wanted by the FBI."

"According to the FBI, I am *dead*." He spread his hands.

"And I'm sure they'll be as delighted to hear about your miraculous resurrection as we were when we got wind of it last month."  Jim considered. "No recordings. Nothing admissible in court. But I hang around when you make your calls." 

"I want forty-eight hours before you trace the calls," he shot back.
 
"Unless I hear a crime in progress on the other end of the line."

Jim suspected that Alcante's hesitation was only for appearances. "Done," he said, with a show of reluctance.

Jim plucked Alcante's cell phone from a pile of personal effects at the corner of the table and waited for him to begin. Jim shut out the ambient noise of the tent and the fair crowd outside in order to focus on the electronic transmission.  The conversations were usually in Spanish, and the speakers had a lot of experience *not* saying anything incriminating over the phone. So, waste time sorting out hint and innuendo? No. Jim concentrated on voice stress, background noises, voices in the distance that even Alcante couldn't hear. 

There was always the possibility that one of these acquaintances would be physically near Francisco and his captives--whether they admitted it or not.  And wherever he was, Simon would be talking. He knew a sentinel was searching for him. He'd talk or hum or tap....

The buzz of refrigerators and car engines. The babble of a toddler.  A scraping sound, like someone digging in gravel. A mouth crunching chips. A game show on TV. Jim imagined himself on the other side of the phone, listening, waiting for a sound that would tell him something useful. 

Another call.  Voices polite. Voices hostile. Voices suspicious. More breathing, more chewing, more traffic, more television in the background....power tools? A clock ticking, or was that a bomb? --but why should it be?

The calls blurred together.

Distantly, he saw Sandburg work his way back from the Carasco girl and talk to Rafe. They were only a few yards away, but Jim couldn't hear their voices.  He couldn't remember how to shift his attention away from the voices on the other side of Alcante's phone, and, anyway, he didn't dare try.

Sandburg came over and sat on one of the low chairs. He laid a cautious hand on Jim's arm, and Jim seized it tight. In answer, Blair rested his other hand on Jim's lower back, holding him still, anchoring his body in the chair so that Jim's *ears* could fly away to the other end of the telephone line.

Traffic sounds, and Jim could envision the kinds of cars, the distance to the road.  More children's voices, and Jim could picture their sexes and ages, not that it mattered, this wasn't what he was looking for....

When it stopped, Jim could only wait in confusion for the trickle of sound to resume.  Alcante said something to Sandburg and laid his cell phone aside. Sandburg, in turn, said something to Rafe and tugged Jim to his feet.  Confused, Jim let himself be steered out of the tent into a patch of sunlight beside the hay maze.  The only seat available was a bale of straw. It prickled.

Perhaps it was that sensation--the scratch and poke of straw through his slacks--that distracted him and broke the spell.  Sandburg was speaking--probably had been talking all along-- "kind of weirding me out, here, Jim.  Non-responsive usually isn't a good sign. Although your pupils are okay and your pulse is good, so if you'd just pull yourself out of this zone--"

Jim opened his mouth to answer, but apparently he wasn't in control of his voice yet.... and he couldn't think of any words. He caught Sandburg's hands and nodded.

"Oh, hey. Welcome back. You okay?"

Jim swallowed, nodded. Sandburg handed him a bottle of water. It was tepid, but wet, and drinking gave him time to try to remember how to talk.

"Did you find anything out?  Alcante says none of his contacts knew where Rivero was staying. Half of them didn't even know he was in town.... Jim?"

Jim cursed.

"Uh, Jim?"

"Nothing. All that for nothing." He leaned his head back and poured half the water on his face. That cleared some of the cobwebs, but brought his attention to the fact that his hands were shaking.

Sandburg noticed, too. "Jim--"

"Don't start, okay, Chief?"

He blinked. "Start what, nagging you about taking care of yourself?" He patted Jim's shoulder. "This wasn't abusing your body, Jim, this was *using* it. Man, you were meant for this! You were incredible."

"In case you didn't notice, hot shot, it didn't tell us anything. Who cares how 'incredible' I am if we can't use me to find Simon?" It only sounded like a growl in Jim's head. Out in the air, the words were weak and far too desperate. Jim's hands were still shaking.

"Yeah, okay, you're right," Sandburg agreed softly. He captured the traitorous hands and steadied the water bottle. "We've got to find Simon.  You've just done something very difficult, though, and you need to take a moment to get your breath and let go. Okay? Just a minute."

Just a minute. Jim closed his eyes. "That should have been scary as hell," he whispered. "I couldn't hear anything around me and I forgot how to talk.  How's that for weird, Chief?"

"No big deal, man. No big deal.  This is what you were meant for. All you need is practice and some back-up so you can let go and concentrate.  That zone was healthy.  I mean seriously great stuff." Damned if Sandburg didn't actually sound *proud*.  "Drink some of the water. Yeah, that's good. Find your center. Everything will be fine. We'll figure this out any minute..."

"You just crossed the line into patronizing." Jim's voice was stronger and the words came easily.

"Are you criticizing my technique?"

Almost involuntarily, Jim smiled a little. "Yeah, I'm criticizing your technique. You have lousy technique...."

"Hey, you go to guide school for three years and you can talk about technique." Blair shoved him gently. It was playful and intimate, and Jim might have hugged him then, except Blair's face stilled suddenly, and Jim followed his gaze.  Alcante was coming out of the art tent, flanked by two uniforms and Rafe. 


****

The cabin on the yacht was small but carpeted. There was a bunk bed, a love seat, a desk. All of the cushions and bedding matched the carpet.  Opening the two narrow doors revealed a tiny closet and a sleek (nearly miniaturized) bathroom.  The room was attractive, but cramped enough to make Simon feel a little claustrophobic.

"Well," Mrs. Fletcher said, peering into the desk drawers, "there are much worse places to be held."

"Lots of experience being kidnapped?" Simon joked lamely. He flipped open the mirror in the bathroom, checked under the sink. A toothbrush, still in the packaging. No cleaning products. No sharp personal care products. Not even a safety razor. 

The older woman smiled ruefully. "I wouldn't say 'kidnapped'...'detained,' perhaps." She sighed. "Last month I spent two days--involuntarily--in an FBI safehouse.  I don't think it had been vacuumed in a couple of years." She had finished her own survey of their prison and sat down on the lower bunk.

Simon, for his part, could only stare at her for a moment.  Was she kidding? And if she was serious, was she *sane*?  The thing was, she was calm.  And had never panicked. She had never cried.  In act, she'd talked to their captors like a professional hostage negotiator.  "What in the world do you do for a living?" he asked.

"For a living? I write fiction."

"And that's a cover for--?"

"What? Oh, I really do write fiction." She held out her hand. "J. B. Fletcher."

Despite the dire circumstance, Simon found himself grinning.  Their captor had pulled their ID and called them by name when he'd searched them, but nothing she'd been carrying indicated that she was anything but a widowed tourist. "The mystery writer.  The captain of our bomb squad is a huge fan." Simon didn't add that he'd always assumed J. B Fletcher was a man.  "That gets you 'detained' a lot?"

The rueful smile again. "No, I--" she stopped, turning toward the door, her mouth forming a hard, serious line. "I can't be sure what they're saying: the Spanish isn't Mexican or Cuban."

"Chilean," Simon guessed automatically.

"I think our host just told the man at the end of the hall to shoot us if we open the door....who seems to want to just shoot us now." She took a step forward, head down, eyes distant, and oh, yes, Simon had seen this before, hadn't he? The story of his life lately, wasn't it? "He's sitting down, now. He's far enough back that even if he falls asleep, I don't think we could reach him before he woke up...."

"You're a sentinel." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, Captain." She nodded once and turned away from the door, beginning her examination of the tiny room again.

Well...this was a disaster. Sentinels had *needs*.  Simon wasn't even sure what those needs were, he was just confident that he was completely unable to take care of one. How long did he have before the first disaster hit?  How bad were things likely to get? "Where's your guide?" he asked. Not that it mattered, without rescue.

She had stripped the lower bunk and was peering under the thin mattress. "No guide," she said cheerfully.

That was obviously a lie. Maybe she didn't trust him. Or thought they were being eavesdropped on. Either way, it would be both rude and pointless to call her on it. Simon ground his teeth.

Halfway through her search of the top bunk she paused and glanced back at him. "It's true, Captain Banks. When I was in school, no one expected a *girl* sentinel to use her senses on the job. Lots of people thought even a sentinel nurse was inappropriate...." She sighed. "It was just a wasted gift, an inconvenience, as far as work was concerned. Oh, it might be useful in gardening or cooking or keeping an eye on the neighborhood children, but you hardly needed a guide for that."

Simon thought of Jim, who could keep track of four separate suspects anywhere in a three block radius. He thought of Benton Fraser, who could track a dog through downtown by smell alone. He didn't say anything.

"In college, I majored in English literature."

"I see. But...you still have to live with the--the senses."

She began to remake the beds. "Oh, yes. And in real life it doesn't work they way the experts assumed it would back then.  If you can watch the neighborhood children, people expect that you will.  They expect you to settle arguments, know who is sleeping with whom....Especially in a small town...." She paused.

"I grew up in a small town," Simon said. But as far as he knew, Clayton Falls hadn't had a sentinel.

"You start to take it for granted, after a while." She looked up briefly. "That's why I started writing. It was just a harmless escape." She was finished re-ordering the beds and began a close inspection of the walls.  "Who was that man our hosts were so anxious to kill? I assume you were protecting him?"

Wondering who it was she had risked all this for no doubt. Simon winced. "Trying to get a tail on him, actually. He...hides money for a large drug cartel." Restless, he started pacing the small room, although he had to turn sidewise to pass her.

Her hands, fiddling with the air conditioning vent, paused. "I see."

Simon tried to smile. "Hardly seems worth the sacrifice, does it?" he said.

"Sacrifice? We haven't sacrificed anything yet but our afternoon. Wait--stop right there."

Simon froze, remembering that this was a sentinel. There was no telling what she was thinking or doing....

"Jump up and down," she said. When Simon looked uncertain, she wiggled her fingers. "Yes, right there."

Simon obeyed. He hopped once, awkwardly.

Instead of explaining, she turned to the corner and crouched, fiddling with the carpet.

"What is it?" he asked.

"There's something wrong with the floor."

"What, like a trap door?"

She shrugged. "Or a compartment. Really, they should have tied us up." She pulled hard on the carpet and several of the tacks came loose.

"Well, what did they think I'm going to do? Fight my way out with--" There was no polite way to finish that sentence. Politely, she pretended he hadn't started it.


***

It turned out that Alcante had come up with an idea--some people who might have information. Not, unfortunately, people whose cooperation he could get over the phone.  And, of course, he didn't expect the police to simply let him go on his own recognizance, but perhaps....

The first visit was to student housing.  Maya had been living in the Bradley Quad since her father's arrest. Only one of her roommates was home--Bradley packed four seniors at a time into tiny apartments--and she eyed them all with suspicion, even after seeing Jim's badge and Blair's student ID.

Alcante lifted a photo of a window ledge and handed it to her. It was a family group at the beach, several years old.  Maya was recognizable, though. So was Uncle Gustavo. In three more minute he had her talking. Yes, a young man matching Francisco's description had visited Maya here a few times a two or three weeks back. No, they never said where they went or where the young man was staying.  Yes, she had seen his car, but she didn't know what kind it was. A sports car, two doors, kind of curvy. Light blue, or grey, maybe. The plates? She didn't notice the number, but....Not Washington. California, maybe?

"Wow. That was a veritable goldmine," Jim said sourly, as they returned to the SUV. 

"You know more than you did. I know the car--a Mercedes CL. Silver." He rattled off the license plates. "You see? We are making progress already. Now, there is a little café over on Alverez...."

Jim growled and grumbled.  And drove where he was told. The interesting thing was that he rarely looked at Alcante. His eyes were everywhere else. Blair didn't want to ask what he was looking for, not in front of their 'guest.'

"The girl we are going to see, she is a good friend of my niece. She has known me for years. You, she knows not at all...." He smiled innocently.

"I make a good impression," Jim said darkly. He stayed back, though, when Alcante approached a young woman who was waiting tables.

"What's his game, Jim?" Blair murmured when their charge was out of earshot.  "He about to run?"

"The weird thing is, Chief...I have no idea. I know he's a wanted felon. I know he's telling me only part of the truth. But he doesn't smell like lies and he never seems to sweat. I'm flying totally blind, here."

Alcante didn't run. He came back to make his report, smiling triumphantly. "He's borrowing a friend's yacht, staying on the water."

"We'd gotten that far" Jim drawled. "Sentinel, remember?  Now the name of the boat would be helpful? Or the Marina?"

Alcante rolled his eyes. "Are American police so lazy that *I* have to do all the work?"

Jim scowled. And stepped forward and loomed. "Maybe it's slipped your mind, but this is a kidnapping case.  Of course, with all the charges lined up against you already, you may not care about 'accessory after the fact'--"

Jim's cell rang.  His eyes on Alcante, he answered it. The conversation was short; in less than a minute, Jim replaced the phone on his belt. "That was Taggart."

Right, because Simon was kidnapped, the latest vice captain just quit, and Stottlmeyer was on vacation, leaving Joel top guy on the totem pole until the Chief of Police got involved.

"There's been a ransom demand."

"Mrs. Fletcher's money?" Blair guessed, wondering how they'd get it.

"Nope. Straight exchange: Simon and Fletcher for our buddy Gus here."

Blair winced, but Alcante didn't appear particularly worried. "And will you make the trade, Detective?"

"Believe me, we're temped," Jim growled. He steered Alcante out the door. Blair followed.  He was mostly sure that Jim didn't mean it.

**** 

The cavity in the floor didn't go anywhere and was not--what were the odds?--full of automatic weapons. Simon sighed. "Well, it was worth a try."

Jessica folded her arms and examined the compartment. "Do you suppose our captors know about it?"

Simon snorted. "Sure. It's their boat."

"Is it? Is this a command center? One of a fleet they use for smuggling? Something he's borrowed--You said you didn't think they were local."

"So? Where are you going with this?"

"We've seen too much. I'd rather risk my luck trying to escape."

Simon shook his head. "Even if we could break through this floor, it would make too much noise."

"Look, stand over by the door and tell me what you see."


**** 

It turned out Blair was wrong. Jim was all in favor of making the trade. So was Alcante, as long as they weren't actually letting Rivero walk away with his prize. Joel wasn't as happy with the idea. They were going round and round on it when one of the junior detectives they'd borrowed from homicide handed Blair the phone.  "You better take this." He looked a little wild-eyed.

Blair took the phone. "Major Crimes, Sandburg speak--"

"Who am I talking to now? Are  you a detective?" The voice was male, kind of gravelly, and loud enough that Jim, across the room, shot Blair a brief look over his shoulder.

"No, I'm civilian staff assigned to Major--"

"So, what? They've handed me over to some kind of secretary now?"

"No, sir, I'm not a secretary. I'm a guide, supporting one of the detectives in Major--"

"Wonderful!" The man did not sound thrilled.

"Perhaps you could tell me how we can help you...Mister...?" Blair prompted.

"I am *Doctor* Seth Haslet of Cabot Cove, Maine. I hold the 503 paperwork for Jessica Fletcher."

Blair winced. "Oh. Right. Yes. We should have called you sooner--" The Northeastern states were almost universally of the opinion that federal safety laws requiring employers to supply sentinel employees with guides were 'an unacceptable infringement on personal liberties.' The idea that medical authority automatically devolved to a guide assigned on the job was particularly offensive in some circles. Unable to countermand federal law entirely, the state legislatures had found ways to give sentinels a simplified procedure to designate a physician or nurse practitioner as medical proxy.

"Where is she?" Dr. Haslet demanded.

"We don't now her current--"

"Well, has she been kidnapped or not? Our sheriff here in town doesn't seem to know anything at all. I hope you are better informed--you do know who has been kidnapped and who has not?"

"Yes." Blair closed his eyes briefly. "She has been kidnapped."

"Well, how much do they want? The banks are closed today, but I can have a hundred thousand dollars in Cascade by nine a.m. tomorrow morning. Any more would take at least another day....I can't--"

"They don't want money," Blair managed.

"Don't want money? Don't want money! They're criminals; of course they want money!"

Blair sighed inwardly.  They didn't have much on Gustavo Alcante's recent activity, but in 1991 he'd laundered about a hundred and forty million dollars. And that was only part of what the cartel had probably made. Guns, drugs, political corruption. "They don't want money."

"Well, what do they want?"

"It doesn't matter--I can't--" Blair lowered  his voice, "They want an exchange of prisoners."

"Oh." There was silence on the other end of the line. When the doctor spoke again, Blair could barely hear his voice. "Well, you can't give them that." He paused. "I assume you're working on it?"

"Yes."

Another pause. "Your sentinel good at his job?"

"The best." Blair took a deep breath. "I have to ask you about your...client.  Her health."

"Jessica is as healthy as a horse. But she's no spring chicken, so don't play around."

"Chemical sensitivities?"

"The usual," he said briskly, "industrial solvents, class one artificial flavorings."

Blair grabbed a pad and began to scribble. "What kind of reaction--neurological, respiratory--"

"Skin reactions only. And not severe, thank God."

"What about hospitalizations?"

"Well, let's see....Last year she was hit by a car. About two years before that, she was shot.  Now, I'm not sure--"

"Any hospitalization for sentinel issues?" Blair interrupted, a little appalled.

"What? No."

"Not in the last five years?"

"Well, I think I'd remember," he said acidly.

"Right. Okay. Anything else I need to know?"

There wasn't, really, but the doctor talked for a few more minutes anyway. He was worried. Blair could understand.

When he got off the phone he went to join the argument that had migrated to Simon's office. On one side was Jim: "Yes, it's risky. But have the personnel, we have the equipment. Joel, we've run risky operations before, and I don't see that there's much choice." Alcante appeared to be cheering him on.

On the other side was Joel. "If they wanted Alcante alive, you'd be right. But as soon a they see him, they *will shoot him*. And then they'll leave and take their hostages with them. We don't have any leverage here."  He was being backed up by Henry and Caroline Plummer.  Rafe was staying out of it and looking kind of queasy. 

Blair felt pretty queasy himself.

"So, what, then?" Jim asked. "What else have we got? Rivero is calling back in ten minutes and we don't have any alternatives."

"As long as he thinks we *might* give him Alcante, he'll keep the hostages alive."

"The longer he has them, the more likely they are to end up dead! We don't have any other--"

"Wrong. We have a general location, and we have you."

"What, you think I can find them? We're talking fifty miles of coastline! Marinas from here to Seattle!"

"We've got *you*. We've got Monk. I know a service here in town that provides sentinel consultants--"

"It could take days!"

"It's my call."

Alcante stepped between them and spoke very softly. "He has two hostages. What if he decides to kill one of them, to make a point? He doesn't care about their lives, Captain Taggart, and he doesn't believe he will ever have to face any consequences." He paused. "Traditionally speaking, it is the man who will die first. Eh? Your captain. And if you do not give in then, he will kill the woman for spite and wait for another chance at me.  In prison, perhaps? It is not so hard to get a little work done 'inside.' This is your only chance, but it is not his.  Detective Ellison is right. You cannot wait." 

*******

“My people are looking for us,” Simon said. “The SOP is for us to sit tight and let them do their jobs.”

“If you were alone, you’d try to escape,” she said reasonably. “It’s only having a civilian along that is making you so cautious.”

“Even if that were true--if, I said--it would be the right thing to do.  I can’t risk--”

“I don’t see a risk,” she protested. “If they mean to keep us alive, and this attempt fails, they won’t kill us.  And if they mean to kill us, we won’t be any worse off if we’re shot while trying to escape.”

Simon realized his mouth was hanging open. He shut it.  She looked so normal, so harmless. She belonged in a church bizarre or baking cookies. She belonged at a bridge club meeting bidding clubs. Could this be a ‘sentinel thing?’ or was she just slightly nuts? “Are you always this cold-blooded?” he asked.

She eyed him sternly. “No. But I am practical, and I would very much like to live through today. Now, I realize I am asking a great deal of you, but I believe the risk is worth it.” She froze suddenly, her eyes drifting toward the door. She had that look, a sentinel listening to a conversation in another room. “Oh, dear,” she said. She shook her head. “Oh, dear.” 

Simon folded his arms and ground his teeth together. You couldn’t rush a sentinel and it never worked out well to ask them to talk and listen at the same time. At the next, “oh, dear,” he had to go sit on the bunk to keep from bellowing pointlessly.

“Well,” Mrs. Fletcher said at last. “That makes the decision rather easy.  All they want is ‘a chance’ at a man you have in custody. They plan to use a bomb during the prisoner exchange. It will blow us to little pieces, too. Now, really, why are you still looking doubtful? You can’t really want to take your chances with them.”

“You don’t know Jim Ellison,” Simon said. “But. I admit I would rather not have to rely on him. All right. How much time to we have?”

“An hour or so, I think. We might as well rest.” She sat beside him on the bunk and scooted back to lean against the wall. “So, how long have you been a police officer?”

They had a nice, friendly conversation. It might as well have been a cocktail party, except for that feeling of having a target painted on the back of his head. When Mrs. Fletcher finally said it was time, he nearly balked again at the idea of shutting and elderly and female civilian in a smuggler’s hole in the floor. “There’s not enough air,” he said.

“Women don’t breathe as much as men. Generally. Less body mass.” She cocked her head. “Anyway, we don’t have much time, I doubt I’ll be in there five minutes.” So he opened up the floor and watched her coil up on her side, knees at an odd angle, sensible shoes in her hands, clutched like weapons, for all good that would do if it came to that.

Simon shut the lid and flipped the carpet back into place. He barely had enough time to slide into position--the narrow spot at the end of the bunkbeds, enough space to hide a single man if he pushed flat to the wall and wasn’t too fat to begin with--when the door opened.

There was a silence. Simon didn’t move, couldn’t look. The sentinel hidden under floor probably knew how many men were standing in the doorway. Simon held his breath.

A quiet curse, footsteps coming closer. One man, not very large but armed, his gun held out in front of him. He looked into the tiny head, but even from the doorway he would have seen that it was empty.

Simon strained to hear: was there someone else? Or just this one. But as the man, cursing again, stepped backwards out of the tiny bathroom Simon realized he was out of time. Taking a single step forward, Simon reached out, seized the man by the neck, and slammed his head into the doorframe. Even as he fell, Simon was turning toward the outer door, looking for--

A second man, also armed. Simon swung his fist forward. In the small space there was no way for the astonished man to dodge. He dropped like a brick.

Shaking his aching hand, Simon heaved him onto the bunk rather than the floor. He flipped the carpet back--it took two tries, the stiff pile catching on the first man’s feet--and opened the trap door.

Hair askew, gripping her shoes, the elderly women heaved out, squirming and awkward and desperate, reminding Simon a bit of a beaching whale. He didn’t make the observation out loud--and then he didn’t have time. She was up and shoving him out the door. “No, not that way!” and they were running through narrow, fashionably decorated hallways.

They burst out a narrow door onto a narrow deck. “It will have to be over the side,” she hissed. When he hesitated she nudged him forward. “They’re looking for us. We’ll never make it to the dock. Jump.” And then she leapt over and vanished into the darkness.

Simon waited until he heard the splash that gave him a location, then hopped over himself. It was a short drop. The water was cold. He kicked to the surface and paddled away from the looming hull of the yacht.

Well, damn.

There were shouts behind them. Lights. Simon looked at the other hulls rising around them, but no, they couldn’t chance it. Not enough people, no clue --if they were to find someone--whose side they would be on. But the marina was small and they seemed to be the edge of it. Simon pointed to the rocks out past the last dock and Mrs. Fletcher began to paddle in that direction.

In a few minutes it was clear that she wasn’t a strong swimmer. Her age? The current? The cold? Maybe she just wasn’t good at swimming. Or maybe the ocean was overwhelming, hadn’t Sandburg mentioned once that it weirded Jim out? In any case, her progress was slow. Simon wasn’t sure how to help. He stayed behind her, out of the way, paddling determinedly.

They were caught in a current, definitely, moving at a good speed northward, more or less. They seemed to be moving parallel to the coast, rather than out to sea. He looked over his shoulder again and again. When the boat passed out of sight their abductors still hadn’t started searching the water. Possibly because hopping over the side and swimming out to sea was such a bad idea nobody would ever expect it.

*******

“I know adult testing isn’t mandatory and I’m not saying it should be. Of course, not. The government doesn’t have a right to know personal information like that, it’s none of their business. I’m just saying it would help if we knew what her hearing range was.” Sandberg sounded so patient, so tolerant. When he had to, he could be a model of the charming, supportive public servant.

The observation would be funnier if it weren’t the same tone he took when he thought Jim was being particularly unreasonable and Sandburg was trying not to yell.

“We understand that you can’t be exact...the thing is, she has a reputation for being a bit proactive and....well, right...I can’t comment on that, but...If we had a way to tell her what we were doing, at least we could be sure we weren’t working at cross purposes, right...so could you....Thanks, yes, that helps a lot.” He rang off and turned to Jim. “How much of that did you listen to?”

“Him? I stopped listening to him after he called you a fascist. Did  I miss anything?”

“He has a rather low opinion of law enforcement and her ‘age related hearing loss’ is minimal and is confined to the higher frequencies. If we drop the pitch and increase the volume a bit, she will be able to follow a conversation at over hundred yards.”

Jim smiled briefly. “Henry sings baritone over at his church.”

“Hey, yeah.” Sandburg glanced at his watch and over at the phone. “They should be calling in ten minutes or so.”

“Time to get something to eat,” Jim said.

“It will have to be a sandwich out of the machine, I’ve got nothing left in my backpack but stale popcorn.”

Their ten minutes came and went. And then twenty. And then twenty-five, and still no telephone call. Joel paced, muttering under his breath. Rafe kept checking in with communications, making sure the lines were working. Sandburg was quiet and patient for the first twenty-six minutes the call was late. Then he jumped to his feet, tossed an empty waterbottle at the wall and demanded, “What kind of incompetent kidnappers can’t tell time?”

The phone trilled.

Joel counted to three and picked it up. Blair put a hand on Jim’s back. Jim took a breath and held it, listening. Still, so still, he kept himself silent, listening. The voice on the other end of the line, he ignored that. It was Simon he was searching for. Or the woman, a crisp voice with a north eastern accent. He heard a boat horn, but that was no help: they already knew they were looking for something on the water. 

The conversation was short, of course.  The well-prepared kidnapper knew you had to talk fast so the police didn’t have time to trace the call. “That strip mall over on Baker Street,” Sandburg said when the call was over. The branch bank there is closed, the drive-through, you know?  We come to the north side and they send Simon and Mrs. Fletcher over from the south side.”

“How long do we have?”

“Half an hour. Did you hear anything useful?”

Jim shook his head. “I didn’t hear them. It might not mean anything.” But it wasn’t good.

They split up, of course. Joel and Rafe went with Alcante. Henry, for his voice control, went with Jim and Blair. Since he wouldn’t ride with Jim driving, they took Henry’s PD sedan.

On Eastern Avenue, they parked in front of a manicurist--and, damn, what a reek-- and went on foot: through an empty parking lot, between a pawn shop and convenience store, and a few yards down the sidewalk to the parking lot of a Wonderburger. Jim checked, then: Blair and Henry were right behind him. He drew them back into the darkness behind the dumpsters. It stank, but since he was upwind of the drive-thru bank he was already ignoring what he could smell in favor for what he could see and hear.

He glanced down at his watch. They were seven minutes before the deadline. Yes, there were five people in the bank parking lot. Ignoring the stench wasn’t working so well, so he held his nose and opened up to his eyes: Two people guarding  the rear edge of the parking lot, one peeking through the drive-thru, presumably on watch for the police coming to make the exchange. And two people in the car, both of them male, and that wasn’t right.

He reached for Sandburg with his free hand--and realized there was already an arm wrapped around his waist. Jim let go of the idea of trying to look at anything across the street and used the direction of his sight to focus his hearing. Nobody seemed to be talking. Professional, not chatting among themselves, or nervous.

Simon wasn’t there. No women. He was positive: Not in the floor of the back seat, not in the trunk, not in one of the three cars parked over on the left.

Jim widened the scoop of his search. No. And no. And no. “Simon’s not there,” Jim ground out. His jaw felt awkward. “No Fletcher woman.” He fumbled for his phone: Joel was 8 on speeddial. He heard a phone ring on the other side of the shopping center. “Taggart,” was in stereo.

“Move in. Now. They don’t have the prisoners.” Another thought congealed, something he’d not noticed that he’d noticed while searching for the captives: “They have automatic weapons. It’s a trap.”

Jim’s eyes roamed almost on their own, one figure to another, seeing stance, movement. This one was nervous, that one was trigger happy. He was the weak spot, looking in the wrong direction. Jim could take him from behind--

The reek of rotting cooking grease made his head snap back. Belatedly he realized that Sandburg had pulled his hand away from his nose and was hissing in his ear, “Don’t you dare, don’t you dare, I swear to God, Ellison, if you take another step, I’ll ground you for life--”

Jim swayed. Right. No. He couldn’t go take out five guys alone. Or maybe he could, but Sandburg wasn’t going to let him when back-up was right there ready to move in.

In his hand, from the phone, Taggert was saying, “Swat needs two and a half minutes.”

Jim heard himself reciting positions and weapons. He shoved the phone into Sandburg’s hand and eased him backwards. “You. Down. Don’t move.” He waited the extra half-second to be sure that Sandburg wasn’t arguing and turned to Henry. “Ready H?”

He already has gun out and pointed tidily into the air.

“Stay behind me,” Jim said, tucking away the shape and heat of the other cop into the edge of his perception. Turning his head, he could hear the SWAT guys moving into position.

Francisco was just getting out of the car when the SWAT team moved in. That was convenient, because he was the only one who didn’t surrender immediately when almost a dozen armed and armored police materialized around that parking lot. Francisco snatched for his gun and got off two shots before Jim piled into him.

Francisco’s head slammed into the car door, which was a sloppy accident, but it wasn’t hard enough a hit to knock him out, and he began to struggle almost immediately. Jim ignored the fist that flailed against his stomach--it didn’t have the room to build up any momentum anyway--and concentrated on ripping the gun away.

In another second he would have had it, but Norton from SWAT snaked a foot around Francisco’s ankle and dropped him from behind. Apparently Norton had been reading the sentinel literature Sandburg had been handing out, because he started talking at once, identifying himself even while he flopped Francisco over and cuffed him.

Jim turned once, tallying the seized thugs as he went, and holstered his weapon. “Good to see you, Norton,” he said--to shut the man up, not because he meant it. He felt....interrupted, not getting to finish the collar himself.  Oh, well.

Sandburg was already coming across the street. So much for waiting with his head down, but at least he had waited until the shooting was over and--by the sound of things--he was walking slowly and waving his badge in the air.

Jim motioned him over with one hand and turned again, attention flipping from one perp to another, all of them tidily in custody, which one of them was the nervous one? There. Him. He paused the two seconds it took for Sandburg to fall in place behind him and then he closed on Nervous Guy. “Hey, Eddy, nice job. Our guy clean? Mirandized all nice and good to go? Mind if I borrow him?” He waited for the nod he knew was coming because it was polite--and since when did he remember to be polite while half in a zone?--and clamped a hand around one of the perp’s arms. With his hands cuffed behind his back, the man’s balance was off.

“See, here’s the thing,” Jim said casually, “I want those hostages. And you are going to tell me where they are.” He marched him through the bank drive-thru to the stripmall on the other side


“Telling you nothing, cop,” he growled in Spanish.

Jim chuckled. “Thing is, you know your boss is an incompetent wack-job. Oh, yeah. You knew this was a horrible idea.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” English, this time.

“Sadly, you’re not afraid of me, and I don’t have the time to scare the crap out of you. Hi, Joel, how’s it going?”

Perhaps Jim didn’t look as together as he felt, because Joel gave him an odd look. Or Maybe Joel was just worried. Jim’s gut was telling him Simon was alive, but Joel tended to assume the worst, possibly a bomb squad thing....

Rafe was leaning against the hood of an unmarked sedan, the kind that had back door that didn’t open from the inside. Jim paused to check: Alcante was handcuffed inside. Good enough. He passed off the prisoner to Rafe and went around to the open window.  “It doesn’t help anybody if those two hostages die. And it helps your case a lot if you get a location for us.”

He tried to crane to see out the window. “Not going to beat it out of him?”

Jim smiled slightly. “My boss frowns on that. Anyway, I thought a short talk from you would be more affective.”

“Please, you flatter me.” But he smiled like wolf. Jim retrieved the prisoner, opened the door on the other side and popped him in.

He didn’t listen; he’d all but promised Alcante he’d be testifying on his behalf, and that was hard to do if he had first hand knowledge of unsavory behavior.

He noticed Sandburg, then.  He was blinking in the floodlights SWAT had set up. He squinted and peered into Jim’s face. “So? Jim? Feeling good?”

Huh. “Feeling great. I think I like adrenalin highs when the senses are working.” 

“Oh. Okay. Glad to hear it, man.”

Jim reached out and took the backpack from Sandburg’s shoulder. It had been a long day, there wasn’t a lot useful left in there: half a bag of stale popcorn, a bottle of water...and there was the aspirin. Jim popped the lid and--low dose aspirin, of course. Blair packed for the needs of a sentinel. He poured out six and snapped the lid back in place with his thumb.

“Whoa, Jim too much.”

“Not for me, for you.” He held out the hand with the pills.

Blair paused with his fingertips an inch from Jim’s palm. “How do you know I have a headache?”

“I dunno, Chief? Because I’m on an adrenalin high and the senses are working? How could I not notice, it’s vivid? Come on, take them. We still aren’t done tonight.”

“Jim--”

“I’ve got a feeling, all right? A cop feeling, not a sentinel feeling. I think. Anyway--Simon’s out there, I know it.”

And Sandburg, bless him, just nodded and said. “Okay, man.”

Jim swallowed a handful of the stale popcorn. You never knew, on nights like this, when you’d get to eat again.

Alcante knocked on the window and Rafe let him out. He wasn’t smiling.

*****

When Simon felt something--sand or mud, something that shifted a little--under his feet he surged forward, found a moment of steady footing...and then another. He reached out and caught Mrs. Fletcher around the waist. She squeaked once in pure fear--and then she seemed to realize that he had his toes on  something and went cooperatively still.

The ground held for another step and another.  For a tiny, elderly woman, she was heavy, but then she was still wearing most of her clothes. Heave, push, splash, paddle--and damn, the sandbar ran out and they were facing water again. But they were close to shore, now. “A few yards,” Simon gasped. “We can do it.”

Resolute, without stopping to complain or hash it out, she paddled forward. Simon followed. He had gotten used to the cold, but it was coming back on him now.  The thought that trained sentinels could put aside petty distractions like hypothermia gave him a moment of envy, but it was chased away as something--hopefully a fish and not a shark or electric eel or something truly obscure and horrible just to make today really memorable--brushed past his knee.

And then, amazingly, his feet were on sand again. He strode forward, seized her around the waist and staggered onto the beach. He knelt in the sand, little sharp things digging into his palms, the wind bitingly cold through his wet clothes, the distant, wonderful sound of car engines just audible over the sound of the surf.

He breathed, glad of the solid ground, relieved that when he looked over his shoulder there was still no sign of pursuit.

“Oh, dear.”

A new stab of adrenalin sent the illusion of heat into his limbs and Simon looked gain. “What?”

“Well--look where we are,” she answered.

Simon tried to look. “On a beach....” But no, they were on gritty, pebbly sand, but not really a beach and there was something dark looming close.... “Is that a cliff? Are we at the bottom of a cliff?”

“I’m not sure it is tall enough to count as s cliff,” she answered wearily, “but I don’t look forward to trying to climb that.”

Right. Only five or six yards....but vertical. He looked around again, straining in the near darkness. “This beach isn’t very wide. Is the tide still coming in?”

She straightened and pushed aside the wet hair that was plastered to her face. She stretched her back and turned to look out over the dark water. She backed slowly toward the  rocks.  “I think it’s almost turning. It’s hard to tell in a strange ocean, I’m afraid. But I think it will come to about...here.”

“Oh, so good. We don’t drown after all.”

She didn’t answer.

“What?” Simon asked.

“Can you climb that in the dark? Because I can’t climb it at all, I’m fairly certain. They took your lighter, so even if we had dry wood, we couldn’t make a fire for a signal or heat.  It is always hard to be sure with jet-lag, but I think we have at least six hours till dawn.”

“I can climb out,” Simon said. He wished he could have said it with more conviction.

“Can you even see it? We haven’t come this far for you to wind up in a bloody heap at the bottom of that!”

“It’s not that high.”

“It’s not the height--it’s the rocks at the bottom I’m thinking of.” She was shivering hard now, and so was Simon.

Simon threw an arm around her shoulder for what little warmth that might give them. “Let’s take a minute to think,” he said. “Sometimes thinking pays off.”

She laughed thinly. “That sounds like you say it quite often.”

“Not as often as I used to....” And that was true. It had been a standard line back in the days when Ellison had been a one-man demolition crew, solving cases but leaving behind a trail of crumpled cars, damaged property, and angry civilians. Simon laughed once at himself. The sentinel thing was weird and complicated, but ever since Sandburg had been added to the equation (and yeah, he was weird and complicated on a good day) Jim had been a lot less of an asshole.

And healthy. And--damn, damn--not hopeless or frightened.  And who the hell cared if weird equaled inconvenient when it also equaled good.

“Okay,” Simon said. “How well can you see that rock face? Can you direct me if I climb?”

****

“The Coast Guard can have the first boat in the area in fifteen minutes. But they’re not...they’re not optimistic. If they didn’t make it to the dock immediately...the water is cold and the current is strong and....”

“If they made it to the dock, they would have gotten help. They’ve been missing for over an hour. They would have called.”

Blair pulled out his pony tail and tried to scrub out the last of his headache with his fingers. “Maybe then never actually left the yacht. Maybe they hid on board. I mean, Simon’s devious, isn’t he? Right?”

Jim was staring at the sky. Blair wondered what he could see through all the light pollution. The only star Blair could see was probably the planet Venus.

“I don’t know....” Jim said. “We’re not doing them any good here, though. Come on, H, you’re driving.” He steered Blair back toward the car. Despite the bad news, he was more focused and thoughtful than frantic. Jim was on his game and had been for hours.

Blair, deep down, was frantic. Simon--right now he couldn’t imagine his life without Simon. He didn’t want to think about Jim working--in this job, facing these dangers--under some probably-less-competent stranger who wouldn’t give a shit. He also kept picturing Daryl. And--God!--he’d been standing right there when Simon and a civilian  sentinel (who’d just stepped in to help, God, she’d been shopping for quilts) had been abducted. Right there, and he hadn’t thought of anything useful to do.

Two good people with families and friends who loved them, and they’d been missing too long already.

When Henry walked around behind the car to dump his vest in the trunk, Jim caught Blair by the arm and blocked him in with his body. “Stop it,” he said softly.

Blair blinked, scrambling inwardly. “What?”

Jim leaned down slightly, said softly, “This is still search and rescue, Chief. You’re not doing them any good by thinking like it’s recovery.”

Blair swallowed hard. “Right. I’m sorry. This is one of those times you check your heart at the door. I know--”

Jim rocked back on his heels. “No--I’m not--I mean--” he closed his eyes. “I’m not telling you caring is wrong. I’m telling you they’re alive. I wish I could point to something I smelled or heard that would prove it, explain why...but I can’t pin it down. I just know. And I need--I need--”

“You need me to believe you.”

“I can’t give you any evidence. I don’t have--”

Everything snapped into focus and the last of his headache vanished. Jim was running on a feeling, pure, brilliant intuition. He was sure there was hope, and so there must be. “Of course I believe you. Why are we standing here? Let’s get going!” He swung down the backpack and scampered into the back seat of  Henry’s sedan.

“So, where are we headed?” Henry asked as he got in. “Search the marina? Search the boat?”

“I’m not sure....” Jim said. “First stop at...there’s a restaurant on the south side of the little inlet there. What’s it called, ‘Frankie’s?’ ‘Freddie’s?’ Something like that?”

“’Ferdie’s,’” Henry answered. “Expensive. I took my parents there for their anniversary.”

“Right. Stop there. I want to take a look at the shoreline.”

In the restaurant parking lot, Jim walked to the railing that fenced off a hundred-foot drop to the surf below and leaned out. Not sure he wasn’t zoning, Blair wrapped an arm around his waist.

Jim patted the hand. “Chill, Chief. I’m not going to fall off. I’m...just...looking....” Jim’s breathing slowed to a faint swell and fall under Blair’s hand. “That must be the boat, the harbor police are all over it.” He looked for a long time. “See those points of light over there? That is the Coast Guard.”  He turned abruptly and stalked back to the car.

“Don’t go into the marina,” he said to Henry. “Keep going.” Jim rolled the window down, but he had his eyes out the front, not the side. They drove on past the marina turn-off, along a road that edged along a drop-off above the ocean.

Blair had no idea what Jim was doing. He thought maybe that should bother him--he was supposed to be the guide, he was supposed to have a handle on things.

It didn’t bother him at all.  When Jim had Henry pull off into the parking lot of an ancient hotel that was currently closed for renovations, Blair asked no questions. He grabbed up his backpack and followed Jim out of the car. When he stalked across the street, Blair fisted a hand in his jacket and made sure no traffic was coming. Jim hardly seemed to notice. He crossed the highway in long strides and climbed over the guardrail. In the scraggly grass on the other side he turned north and slowed, his head angled for listening.

“Um, what’s going on?” Henry asked.

Jim answered absently, “How far would the current have taken them?” He stopped, staring out at the dark water, the specks of light that were distant boats. “I just don’t know, Chief,” he whispered, stepping closer to the edge. “It’s just so big.  How can I find them in the fucking ocean? Maybe I should be on a boat out there.”

Blair reached around him and zipped up his jacket.

That got Jim to focus closer to home. “What’s the deal there, mom?”

“Well, when I try to stop you from going over the side by grabbing your jacket, I don’t want you to fall out of it.”

Jim didn’t answer. He was already gone again, and further this time. A couple of cars passed them on the highway. He didn’t even wince at the light. He walked onward, pacing the edge of the Pacific Ocean, searching for two people.

Suddenly, he broke free and dove toward the edge, landing on his belly with his head over the side. “Simon!” he shouted.

Blair, staggering from the horrible moment he’d been sure Jim had been leaping off the cliff, almost didn’t hear the answer that floated up from the darkness: “Ellison?”

Jim scrambled and was gone over the side. Blair leaned over, had reached to follow him, and realized that he didn’t have a hope of climbing down in the dark. He looked up at Henry. “Get your rope and your blankets and your first aid kit!” Henry had hopped the guard rail and was running along the shoulder before Blair had finished talking.

Blair got down on all fours and peeked into the darkness. “Hey? Simon? Are you with Jessica Fletcher?”

“Yeah!”

Blair almost laughed aloud. Instead he shouted, “Anybody hurt?” 

“No! Just damn cold!” Floated back.

“Are you in the water?”

“No!”

The urge to laugh swapped out with the urge to weep with relief. “Listen! Jim’s coming!”

He couldn’t make out the answer to that, but it sounded sarcastic and irritable. Blair dug out his phone and called Joel.

“Taggert.”

For a moment he had no idea what to say. His tongue tangled in itself. “We’ve got them.”

“What? Sandburg? Is that you?”

“We’ve got them! Jim found them. It’s--I dunno, less than a mile north of the marina. They’re on shore at the bottom of this huge cliff thing--well not that huge, but--”

“Sandburg!” He gulped audibly. “Say that again.”

“Simon’s come ashore about a mile north of the marina. Maybe less, I’m not sure.”

“All right. Hold on. Let me talk to harbor patrol.”  He clicked off.

Blair cradled the phone to his chest and leaned out over the edge again. Long strands of grass tickled his nose and caught at his ears. “How’s it going?”

Simon’s grouchy “Peachy!” was followed by Jim’s quieter “Fine, Chief.”

The phone rang. “Yeah?”

“The Coast Guard is actually closer, but the shore there doesn’t have the draft. Harbor Patrol can be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Yeah, great.” He shut the phone because Henry was coming. Blair took the blankets and shoved them in his backpack with the first air kit. “Is this all the water you had?”

“Yeah,  sorry--hey!”

“Hey what?” Blair tucked the bottle into his jacket since it wouldn’t fit in the backpack.

“You aren’t going down there, someone has to stay here and meet the back-up.”

Blair slipped his arms through the straps of the backpack. “No way, man.  You can stay up here if somebody needs to--”

“Blair, I get it. But I’m the cop here, and I can’t let you just go hopping down that hill.”

For most of a year Blair had been learning to trust cops and stay out of their way. Now the weight of those new habits was like a millstone around his neck, and he started to hesitate.  Not for very long, though, because he really wanted to go after Jim and if he couldn’t talk his way past Henry he might as well join one of those monasteries where the monks took a vow of silence. 

“They’ve already got two cops down there, man. What they need now is a guide.” He picked up one end of the rope and tied it around his waist.

“You’re a civilian--”

“I’m a trained public servant working for this department--Oh, come on, there is a sentinel down there suffering form exposure and probably dehydration. Do you know what to do about that? Because I do.” Never mind that exposure and dehydration didn’t look any different in sentinels than anyone else. That wasn’t the point. “It’s part of my job, taking care of problems like this.” He tossed the other end of the rope to Henry. “I think I can climb down, if you just, you know, keep me from any accidental plunging to the bottom.” Which was good:  he hated repelling.

Henry sighed. “Is Ellison going to kill me for letting you do this?” he asked.

“No, why would he. Nobody’s down there shooting at us.”

They stopped and blinked at that, but of course nobody did start shooting just then. They had Francisco and his cronies in custody.

Blair squatted at the edge while Henry braced the rope around the guard rail.  With one foot he felt behind him, down over the side, there. A rock. Blair knotted his hands in the long grass and lowered himself down onto his left foot.

In a way it wasn’t worse than climbing down an easy rock face in daylight: from above you couldn’t really see your feet anyway...and since Blair really hated climbing and avoided looking down even when he did it during the day, the dark wasn’t all that much of a hindrance.

He cursed the slowness of it, but really it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before Henry called down that they were out of rope and Jim replied--from so close now--that he was only dozen feet off the ground. Blair untied the rope and climbed down the rest of the way. From above he could hear police sirens. 

His feet on firm sand, he scrambled out of the backpack and produced the blankets. Jim was standing behind two figures huddled on a beached log. He had already wrapped Mrs. Fletcher in his jacket. Blair added the blanket. “Whatever you think you’re smelling, it’s just policeman’s trunk, I swear.” He passed the other blanket to Simon along with the half-empty bottle of water from the backpack.

Simon snorted once and grumbled, “Hey, this is used.”

Blair grinned at him. “Suck it up, Captain, Sir. We’re being gentlemen and giving the lady the new bottle.” He pulled the one Henry had given him out of his jacket. Never mind chivalry: you couldn’t ask a sentinel to drink after a stranger. Heck, half of them wouldn’t even drink after a spouse.

But the discussion apparently rang a bell for Simon, who suddenly peered anxiously over his blanket and said, “What if it’s the wrong brand?”

Blair patted his shoulder in the most annoyingly patronizing way he could think of. “Monk’s brand thing? It’s not usually a deal-breaker in an emergency.”

Jim pivoted to face the pounding surf. “Get your flashlight. I hear a boat.”

Blair only had a penlight, not one of the heavy police-issue jobs Jim kept in the glove compartment. Jim didn’t complain about the size, though, just stepped into the edge of the surf and began to signal one of the colored dots moving along the coast. He was fine, so Blair left him to it. He turned back to their rescuees and squatted down. “Mrs. Fletcher? My name is Blair Sandburg. I’m a guide interning with the Cascade Police Department. I realize you don’t know me, but I need to know if you are having any problems...or if you need anything....” He smiled apologetically, quite sure she could see him, very sorry he smelled like he’d spent the day in a panic.

She laughed. “If I need anything? Do you happen to be carrying a hotel room with a Jacuzzi tub and a room service cart?”

Slowly, as though he were reaching for, well, an injured sentinel, Blair laid a hand on her arm. “No, ma’am. Afraid not. But I’ve got a cell phone. Would you like to call Dr. Haslett?”

He felt the shudder run through her and heard the catch in her breath, but when she spoke she only sounded polite. “If it wouldn’t be an imposition. I can assure you I’m good for the long distance charges.”

Simon, for some reason, buried his face in his hands and laughed. Blair ignored him and handed over the phone. When she had punched in the number and found the send button on the unfamiliar phone, Blair turned to Simon and said, “Now you. Warming up?”

“Oh, no, Sandburg. I’m not one of your...whatever. No way.”

“Fair enough. Fine. I’ll just let Jim look you over when he’s finished over there. He’s a better medic than I am anyway. The senses, you know. He can probably read your blood pressure just by patting your head. No problem.”

He glanced once more at Mrs. Fletcher and stood up. As he turned away, Simon was protesting, “Now wait a minute.  Ellison is not patting my head.” It was his cheerful grump, at a normal volume. Blair was almost positive he was fine--and if he wasn’t, well, Jim would know.

The Harbor Patrol boat was pretty small, but it was still blocked by a sand bar and they wound up having to inflate some kind of  rubber dinghy to pull them off the narrow beach.

Mrs. Fletcher clung to Simon’s arm as the boat surged under them. He said something to her then turned to Blair. He called over the roar of the engine: “The guide program at Rainier? Is it the best one?”

“Well. Probably. Although the University of Texas is known for--” He dimly wondered why Simon wanted to compare guide programs now, but even when questions were completely off the wall, the only thing to do was answer them as completely as possible.

“Why didn’t you go to Texas?” Simon interrupted into his ear.

“Rainer’s better,” which was probably the point. Salty water splashed his face and a flash of light from the larger boat caught him and made his eyes burn. He reached for Jim, but Jim already had his head down.

“Okay then! If this is what Daryl wants to do, how does he get in?”

Oh. Blair hoped his shock wasn’t showing on his face. “He needs to be a licensed practical nurse or a BA in anything with at least a minor in Anthropology!” he shouted over the motor. “But it’s way too soon to be deciding this! He’s still in high school! Most sane people don’t declare a major until their sophomore year in college!” And then there wasn’t any more time to talk because they’d reached the bigger boat, and there was someone waiting with more blankets and coffee and Blair realized with tremendous relief that it was finally over.

~end~