by Sheila Paulson
See notes and disclaimer in part one.
The penthouse floor was quiet with the hush of elegance, thick carpet, and late hours. Fancy doors with numbers and letters in scrollwork marked the various suites. As Blair left the elevator, he saw a hallway illuminated with muted lighting, bright enough to suggest safety, dim enough for those bent on midnight intrigues.
That reminded Blair of the crisis at the Plaza and he glanced uneasily up and down the hall, half afraid a terrorist would leap out at him from the shadows. The stillness hovered around him, heavy as a shroud, offering its own level of white noise, and he wished he'd grabbed Jim off the dance floor to accompany him. But that was stupid. He wasn't a kid afraid of the dark, expecting the bogeyman to pop out from behind a potted palm and cry, "Boo." He'd faced weirder things by far than a deserted corridor in his fieldwork, including bizarre tribal rituals eerie enough to send a man screaming into the night. The worst thing that would happen to him now would be an encounter with Trajan Wade. While an encounter with a dying man on a near-deserted wing of a hotel late at night was strange enough, it shouldn't frighten him.
Blair squared his shoulders and marched down the hall like a little boy on his way to the principal's office.
He had a subliminal sense of presence that stopped him dead in his tracks. Jim would know, he realized. Jim would be able to tell if he were alone or not. He'd focus and listen for breathing or heartbeats and he'd know if anyone was there.
"Sandburg?" The voice made him jump. Another bodyguard? He'd heard that voice before, and recently. But where?
He started to turn, sensing not one but two presences behind him only to have the universe disappear as a sudden object hit him, stinging his shoulder. Craning his neck, he tried to see what it was, if he'd been shot. He could just see a red protrusion--what was it? A dart? He'd been hit with a dart gun? Reeling, he tried to focus, but his knees turned to limp spaghetti and he was falling, falling, falling, down to the center of the earth.
"J-jim?" he tried to call, but his voice was buried in carpet, and the sound of his muffled cry for help was the last thing he heard.
"Hey, Simon, you see Blair lately?"
"Oh, it's you, Jim. Give up on the redhead?"
"What you see is all you get with her," Jim said. "And you can get it without the slightest effort. She propositioned me the minute we reached the dance floor."
"What are you doing still here?"
"On duty," Jim said, but without a lot of reluctance. "I wanted to find out if she knew Jeff Karl. She did but only from the meetings. She was pretty disappointed; apparently he turned her down, too. I saw her leaving with an older man, a guy with grey hair, awhile ago, not too long after I left her. I only saw them from the rear, but she's pretty hard to miss. You think she's maybe working the crowd?" He craned his neck to check out the ballroom. "So where's Sandburg?"
"I saw him awhile ago talking to Maggie Street and her husband."
Maggie couldn't be of any help. "I did talk to Blair for awhile," she said. "But that was probably ten, fifteen minutes ago. I saw him talking to a tall, muscular man, that bodyguard for Mrs. Wade, I think, after he moved on. I don't know if Fred saw him. He's in the john. I'll ask when he comes back, in case he saw Blair there."
Jim wasn't particularly worried about his partner. Blair could handle himself. He was in a crowded ballroom full of cops and Feds. Maggie was probably right; he'd gone out to answer a call of nature. But when his circle of the ballroom brought him near to Doug Stephanowski and Mrs. Wade, he cut between a pair of dancing couples and approached them.
"Have you seen Blair lately. I lost him in the crowd."
"Not since our dance," Jennis replied. "Doug?"
"Trajan called down and wanted to see him," he said, patting his jacket to indicate a cell phone. Between people's phones and beepers that had been going off all evening, Jim had finally focused them out in frustration.
"Ah," said Jennis, acting surprised her son knew how to dial a telephone. "Well, that won't take very long. Trajan will need rest." She eyed Jim narrowly. "Perhaps you could go and bring him down shortly. I suspect you think I have no feeling for my son short of contempt, but that is not true. Though he has always been a disappointment, he is still my son. I am still learning to lose him. I'm grateful Blair went to see him, but he shouldn't stay too long."
"I'll take a run up there in a few minutes." Jim frowned. He had a sudden sense of uneasiness, as if something was wrong, although the ballroom was peaceful. A few of the guests had already departed for the night and the governor was long gone. If Clayton meant to strike tonight, he had waited too long to enjoy full advantage of his actions. But the disquiet persisted as he took his leave of Jennis Wade and headed over to Simon.
"What's wrong?" Banks asked.
"Nothing. Just nerves, I guess. I had a sudden chill, like somebody walked over my grave."
"I don't like those feelings," Simon replied. "You're too good a cop to be spooked just because it's been a heck of a couple of days. Maybe you ought to go home. Even when you were out there dancing with that knockout, you looked like your head was ready to come off."
Surprised, Jim realized he'd been ignoring his headache. It hadn't gone away, but he'd automatically turned down the pain to a bearable level. Could Simon be right? He didn't think so. This was new, a sensation he didn't understand, as if his territory had been violated. Blair would probably crow like a rooster and claim it was a new Sentinel thing, insisting the primitive Sentinels must have felt that about their territory. But the Plaza Hotel wasn't Jim's territory and he hoped his Sentinel senses hadn't decided to accept all of Cascade as his protectorate.
"No, it's Sandburg," he heard himself saying though he hadn't consciously meant to speak. "Something's wrong, Simon. I can feel it."
"Come on, Jim. You don't have a telepathic link with the kid, do you?"
"No...." Maybe it wasn't telepathy, but there was something. He'd grown to sense Blair's presence; he'd know, for instance, that he was in the loft, even before he reached the third floor, and in general, he could turn in Blair's direction in a crowd. He hadn't even realized until now that he'd been doing it. "I think it's a Sentinel thing," he admitted. "I don't understand it all, and Sandburg keeps coming up with more weird information. But he's not in the ballroom, and he's not very close. But it's almost..."
"Almost what?" Simon asked, sounding exasperated, though he probably wasn't. He'd never been comfortable with the Sentinel situation, though he had been grateful for it more than once.
"Like I heard him yell my name," Jim admitted. "I'm going up to the penthouse and check him out. You have an elevator key?"
"I can get one," Simon said decisively. Jim's unease had affected him. "All right, you think something's wrong. But what could it be? Sure Sandburg wouldn't be very happy to talk to his old man--"
"You know about that?" Jim asked in surprise as they left the ballroom.
"He told me. Bare minimum, I suspect. Maybe he knew I'd take it as a conflict of interest that he was related to one of the delegates, I don't know. He's right. It could well be a big conflict of interest even if he insists it's not. Don't look at me like that, Jim. You know I trust the kid--within reason. He means well."
"What worries me is that *Clayton* might have found out about the Wade connection. And he might think Blair is useful leverage to make Jennis do what he wants."
Simon pondered that. They reached the front desk where he showed his badge and expressed a need to go up to the penthouse level. One of the desk clerks produced one and led the way to the elevator.
When they were on their way up, Simon spoke again. "That might be farfetched, Jim. I can't see Clayton trying to manipulate the old lady. I could see the environmentalists pulling such a stunt, but Clayton wouldn't mess around. If he had a hostage, he'd have to negotiate, give him more chances to be caught. I think he's more likely to take potshots like a sniper or plant a bomb and take off than he is to stick around, holding a hostage. There aren't enough places to hide in here, not places he could count on. I bet you good money we'll find Sandburg up there with Trajan and glad as hell to be bailed out."
Jim hoped so. "If you can't get up here without a key, how would an environmentalist manage it anyway?" he wondered. "Clayton, yeah. He'd find a way up here. And he wouldn't need to go for Blair. How would he even know about Blair? He might go for Trajan, though."
Jim hated that idea from the moment he spoke the words. As they stepped off the elevator and found themselves in a deserted corridor, he closed his eyes and focused his senses. Simon waited without speaking.
"That's funny," Jim said. "There's a weird smell, like medicine, only not quite. I think I've smelled it before, but I can't pin it down."
"Presumably Trajan is on medication," offered Banks.
"No, it's strongest here, in the hall." He started toward Trajan's room, pausing abruptly, and stretching out his arm like a barricade to block Simon's passage.
"What do you see?"
Jim concentrated, focusing his eyes on the carpet before him. "Someone fell down here. There's an imprint of a body." His heart felt a sudden urge to jump into his throat. "And it's about Sandburg's size."
"There's no blood," Simon consoled him. "I'll have to take your word for the body imprint; all I can see is that the pile is a little messed up."
Jim knelt near the spot, centering his concentration. He moved his fingers very lightly against the texture of the carpet and sniffed the air. Very faintly he caught the scent of Blair's aftershave. "Blair," he said. "He was here. Whoever did it jumped him, knocked him out."
"Somebody drugged the kid?" theorized Simon. "Could that be what you smelled? Chloroform or something like that?"
"It could be. Clayton might have pulled a stunt like that. But why? This doesn't make any sense. How would anybody know Blair was even coming up here, unless he was followed?"
"Or unless he was decoyed up here. Do we know for sure the message actually came from Trajan?"
"Let's find out," Jim said, jumping up and heading with grim determination in the direction of Wade's room. He made a wide circle around the place where Blair had fallen, and Simon copied him like the page in Good King Wenceslaus, stepping into Jim's footprints to avoid messing up the evidence.
At first there was no answer to their thunderous knocking, then they heard movement, and a few moments later, Jim sensed a presence on the other side of the door, eyeing them through the peephole. A thin line of light traced a path beneath the door. He displayed his badge and the chain rattled free.
Trajan Ware appeared ill indeed, his face lined with pain, his body frail and wasted. He'd lost his hair, probably through chemotherapy, and there was an imprint from the wrinkled pillowcase on the side of his head above his left ear. No question that he'd been here sleeping.
"I'm Jim Ellison," Jim introduced himself. "And this is Captain Banks. Did you send for Blair?"
"Blair?" Trajan echoed stupidly, blinking at them. "No, I was asleep. I usually sleep best early in the evening and awaken around three or four, unable to get back to sleep. Why?" His gaze narrowed. "You're his friend," he said. "Mother told me he had a partner who was a police officer. Is he missing?"
"We think he was attacked in the hallway, either knocked unconscious or drugged," Jim said. "Which means he saw something he shouldn't or our terrorist thought he might be an effective means of manipulation against your mother."
What little color Trajan had drained away. "Oh my god, I never meant anything like that to happen," he burst out, clutching at the door frame for balance as he swayed. Jim and Simon caught and steadied him, then led him into the room again, and helped him sit down in the nearest chair. Barely glancing at the spacious and elegantly appointed room, Jim dragged up a ladderback chair and dropped onto it backward, bringing himself at a level with the older man.
"Never meant anything like *what* to happen?" he asked.
"Mother pushed and prodded and complained until I couldn't endure it any longer. I was a failure, I'd never amounted to anything, I didn't even give her an heir.... When she learned I was dying, she was worse, because she mingled it with solicitude. So out of character. She might be sad at my passing, but she won't grieve, not really, not for me. I couldn't stand it any longer, so I told her about Naomi's child. I knew I shouldn't have done it as soon as I spoke, but by then it was too late. I told Blair about Naomi and me earlier today. I wanted him to understand. But Mother--she never behaves the way people expect. She had him investigated. I should have stopped her, but I've never been able to control her in my life. I'm sure she's insulted and threatened him already. He wouldn't have been so hostile yesterday unless she'd infuriated him. She's good at that."
"Part of it might be how he was deceived all his life, and how you failed to be there for him," Jim said coldly. "But when you said you never meant any of this to happen, do you mean you set him up?"
"To be grabbed? My dear lord, no. I'd never do that." He hid his face in his hands. "I'll tell you what I did do. I leaked information to the environmental groups. It was a small, petty defiance, one I could manage, even if Mother never found out. There was a man here, Jeff Karl. I talked to him. You may not know it but he's been an agitator. We've known of him for years. I leaked information he could use against Mother during the Summit."
"And did you steal membership lists from the Save the Wilderness Conservancy?" Jim asked, glancing down automatically at Trajan's feet. Even in a pair of run-down mules, his feet were far too big to have left the footprints he'd seen.
"Of course not," Wade denied hotly. "Even if I'd had a reason to do it, which I don't, I wouldn't have the strength or energy to steal anything."
"Did you tell anyone that Blair was your son?"
"Only Mother. I don't know who she told, but the investigator would have known and our entire staff that's present for the Summit knows. God, what a mistake. I can't believe I endangered him. I would never have hurt Naomi's child. I loved her, more than I can ever say. Seeing Blair this afternoon was like seeing her again, although there's no real resemblance, perhaps something in the shape of the face. But there's a...a feel of Naomi about him. He has her spirit."
"He has that all right," Jim replied. "We'll leave you now, but tell us first, do you have any idea who would have wanted to kidnap Blair? Who meant to use him as a lever against your mother for the vote?"
"I suppose it's possible. Such things do happen. I know you were searching for a terrorist, but I wonder. Mother's had death threats. I can see a terrorist either blowing up the Summit meeting or taking a pot shot at Mother. I don't know much about this Clayton you're looking for. Mother is investigating him, too."
"With all the issues at stake, there could be a couple of games going down," Simon said, nodding toward the door. "Come on, Jim. Let's see if we can find Sandburg."
Jim nodded. He gave Trajan a pat on the shoulder. "Stay in your room; don't answer the door unless it's the police or the FBI. If Blair is wanted for a hostage, so might you be."
"Or it could be he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Simon remarked.
"I feel for the guy," he added as Jim closed the door behind them.
"That's more than he does for Blair," Jim muttered. "For a father, he wasn't very concerned."
"He was pretty shaken, Jim. I'm not sure he has the strength to feel as much worry as you'd like him to."
"I just know it's not enough," snapped Jim, stomping down his own concern in the need for action. "Hold on, I want to see if I can pick up any footprints."
"Obviously Trajan's feet were too big to be our break-in artist," Simon murmured.
Jim stared at the carpet, edging back to the place where Blair had fallen, keeping pressed up against the wall. Once they were near the spot, he narrowed his eyes and studied the floor. The lighting was poor, but the angle of it was enough to throw footprints into very faint relief. Two distinct sets, one very broad, vaguely familiar, the other much smaller and narrower, a woman's foot--but it was run down on the left heel in exactly the same pattern as the footprint at the Save the Wilderness Conservancy.
"There was a woman here," Jim said. "Well, two people but one of them was a woman. A woman with big feet, a man with very big feet."
"Jennis Wade is the only woman involved, other than Maggie Street," Simon argued.
"Mrs. Wade's feet are quite small. This is not the right size to match Maggie's feet either; hers are smaller, and she was wearing spike heels tonight, not that she couldn't have traded. But these footprints have the same pattern as the ones in the break-in, except that those were in men's shoes."
"So we have a woman who wears men's shoes for all her burglaries? Or maybe just a similar pattern? Come on, Jim, nobody would expect their footprints to be noticed, not in carpet. That doesn't make sense."
"I know it doesn't, but it's the same pattern. The male footprints are a lot like Maggie's husband's, though. I don't remember seeing his footprints, but I saw his feet."
"I doubt very much he's up here running around with another woman, not with his wife downstairs," Simon argued. "Besides, he's shown no real interest in the environmentalist issues, has he?"
"No, I think Blair said he was a veterinarian." His voice trailed off as he said the last word.
Simon frowned as if he'd thought of the same thing Jim had. "Vets use tranquilizers on animals, and he works with farm animals, cattle, horses, the like, so he'd need to know dosages that might affect a human being. He might have used something like that on Blair. That might be what I smelled. It didn't smell like chloroform."
"So you think he brought one of his tranquilizer guns and hid it under his tuxedo, and sneaked away with a mysterious woman with big feet to trank Blair? I think you're reaching, Simon." *I hope you're reaching, anyway.* He rubbed his forehead, trying not to imagine Blair a prisoner, tied up, drugged. It was too much like the time Lash had captured him. That image came vividly to his mind and he stomped it down so he could work, although it didn't entirely leave him. "But we can't let it go. When I was hunting for Blair, Maggie was alone in the ballroom. She said her husband was in the john. He probably was, but...."
Simon took out a cell phone and punched in a number. "Jackson? Banks. Take quick look around the ballroom. See if Maggie Street's husband is present." He looked at Jim as he waited. "If he's down there, we're probably letting our imaginations run wild," he said, his hand over the mouthpiece.
"Any chance to find Sandburg," Jim insisted. "Even if it's a long shot, and I'll take it." If Blair had been drugged, tranquilized, it meant someone wanted him, and wanted him alive--at least for the moment. Who knew how much time they had left to find him before his value as a live hostage expired?
"Okay," Simon spoke into the phone. "Tell the Feds. See if you can find him, and let them know he may be in league with Clayton, or involved with this whole mess." He stared down at the floor. "Can you tell where they went?"
"That way, I think." Jim pointed off down the corridor away from Trajan's room. He started stalking the footprints, moving with the grace and ease of a panther in the jungle, conscious of Simon at his back, accepting his abilities without question.
The footprints he followed were scuffed, as if the people were carrying a heavy burden--Blair's unconscious body. But no one had come up here between his abduction and Jim's arrival, so he could follow them. They went down to the end of the hall and stopped against a doorway marked, "Exit".
"Stairs," Simon said, refusing to touch the knob. "We'll get a forensics team up here to fingerprint it."
"'Warning,'" Jim read aloud from the sign posted on the door. "'No return without a key.' You can get out but not in. I'll head back to Trajan and borrow his key--it'd be quicker than going down to the desk for one if I have to come back up here. Then I'll take the elevator down to the next floor and see what I can find. Maybe if we can get good prints here, you can tell which floor they left from. They could hardly carry Sandburg into an elevator."
"Maybe they could," Simon disagreed, punching numbers on his cell phone. "They could tell anyone they ran into that he'd had too much to drink and they were taking him home. The bubbly has flowed pretty hard all evening. The odds are most people would believe it, or wouldn't want to get involved. Jackson? Yeah, Banks again. Get a team up here to the penthouse level with a fingerprint kit. There's been an abduction and we know which way they went. No, I don't mean now, I mean fifteen minutes ago." He ended the call abruptly.
Jim retraced his steps to Trajan's room and got the key from him, returning as Simon tucked away his cell phone.
"They couldn't carry him out through the lobby," Jim said. "Too many cops here, and they know Blair by sight. They must have a room here."
"And it won't be under Fred Street's name, if by chance those are his footprints," Simon replied. "I wish we knew who the woman was. Your redheaded stunner had big feet, and she was wearing flats."
"Cheryl?" It was possible, but only just. "Come on, Simon, she was propositioning me. If I'd said yes, she wouldn't have been free to kidnap anybody. Besides, I saw her heading out with a grey-haired guy...." His voice trailed off as he replayed the memory. "And it could have been Fred Street. I only saw his back, but he was the right height and build and his hair was the right color. Damn it, Simon...." He turned. "I'm going."
"If they went to a room--"
"Then we'll search all rooms," Jim insisted.
"Do you have any idea how long that would take?"
"I don't care how long it takes, they've got Sandburg," Jim yelled unanswerably as he raced for the elevator, leaving Simon to guard the doorknob.
The exit door on the 27th floor had no such warning sign. Jim opened it carefully and stepped out into the stairwell, then his shoulders sagged. Away from the normal elegance of the Plaza's customer areas, the stairs lacked any style. They were concrete, bare and bland, and they'd been thoroughly swept. Although new dust had begun to gather, the best Jim could do was tell people had walked here; not even his Sentinel vision could make out separate footprints.
*Okay, so much for the easy way.* He stood there concentrating, knowing Blair's captors could have come to this very floor, although he didn't think so. He had noticed nothing on the carpet on his way here. Besides, away from the restrained and exclusive elegance of the Penthouse level, there was more foot traffic. Instead of several suites, there were many rooms on this floor and all the ones below. The Plaza was Cascade's biggest hotel; searching the entire structure, every guest room and suite, every function room, every closet, every passageway, even, he thought, rubbing his still-aching head, every air duct, was a mind-boggling task.
He concentrated on the smell of Blair's aftershave. He had found it upstairs, but Blair had lain with his cheek pressed against the carpet. Here, the air was free of all but a jumble of aromas, none distinct enough to stand out, none speaking of Blair.
"Damn it, Sandburg, where are you?" Jim muttered under his breath.
He went down the stairs, slowly, carefully, flight by flight, pausing at each floor to stop, listen, expand his senses. Without his Guide to back him, he was very careful, determined not to sink too deeply into concentration. He couldn't allow a mistake, not now, not with Blair's life in danger. But without the full use of his senses, he couldn't pick out Blair's heartbeat and separate it from those of the people who belonged on each floor.
Nothing. Nothing, And more nothing. By the time he reached the main floor, he hadn't found a thing. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he ventured out into the public areas, the lobby, then he turned abruptly and headed for the ballroom, a new idea hitting him.
Jennis Wade was nowhere in sight. Did that mean the kidnappers had notified her? That she'd retired for the night? A quick scan of the room revealed an alarmed Maggie Street over in one corner, and he crossed over to join her.
"Mrs. Street? Where is your husband?"
"I don't know. He's been gone since before you talked to me before," she said, clearly worried. But there was a shadow in the depths of her eyes, a hidden knowledge, a secret she didn't want to admit.
"You do know," he said positively. "Tell me quickly, Blair's life might depend on it."
Her eyes widened in astonishment. "Blair's *life*? No, you're wrong, Jim. It's nothing to do with Blair. It's *her*. That woman. I think he's gone off with her. She's not here either. I asked Jeff; he was dancing with her earlier, and I hoped that meant he'd stay with her. You danced with her yourself."
"Cheryl Ransome. You mean she and your husband--"
"They've been having an affair," she admitted. "I tried to pretend I didn't know but now it's pretty obvious-- they've gone off together, right here at a public function." She grimaced, dragging her thoughts away from her failing marriage and looked up with new alarm. "But what does this have to do with Blair? I believe he dated Cheryl briefly, but that was a couple of years ago."
"It's possible they've taken him for ransom, we thought possibly to use against Mrs. Wade during the Summit."
Maggie shook her head so violently her hair bounced in punctuation. "No. Fred doesn't care about that, not enough to resort to violence. Cheryl belongs to the Conservancy, as near as I can tell, to meet men. Why would they attempt a thing like that? You must be wrong. It makes no sense. I'm sorry, Jim. Well, of course I'm sorry; it's my life that's falling apart," she insisted bitterly. "But Fred and Cheryl are probably in one of the rooms upstairs, having sex. They haven't taken anyone for ransom, let alone Blair."
A touch on Jim's arm made him turn abruptly though he knew automatically it wasn't Blair. Instead he saw a very grim Doug Stephanowski. "I need to talk to you right away. Urgent."
"All right. Maggie, stay here. I'll want to question you later. I'm sorry about your husband, but we do have evidence. Wait for me, please."
"Of course, if that's what you want." She moved away toward the chairs and tables against the far wall, her shoulders slumped, all her buoyancy crushed away. Jim was sorry, but he couldn't help her, and he didn't have time to try, not with Blair missing.
"Sandburg?" he demanded of Doug. "Has Jennis heard anything?"
"A ransom demand," Doug said shortly. "Through my cell phone. It was a male voice, deep like Trajan's but stronger. But now I wonder if it was really Trajan that called earlier. It sounds like a setup to me." As he talked he guided Jim across the room. "She doesn't really want police and she definitely doesn't want the FBI. But she said she'd have to have you even if it meant you sounded the alarm because it was only fair you know."
"Fair?" echoed Jim in disbelief. "She hasn't been fair to Blair, not from the very beginning. Now she wants to give *me* the benefit of the doubt? I don't get it."
"She's...well, inconsistent is the wrong word. She has her own rules; her own set of ethics. She puts the business first, but after that, she really can be fair." They left the ballroom and headed across the hall to the women's lounge, where one of Jennis' bright young men stood guard. Doug positioned himself beside him and motioned Jim through. He entered to find Jennis Wade sitting on a lounge chair, her purse clutched tightly in her lap, her color grey. She was alone; no doubt her people had shooed away anyone who wanted to use the lounge and directed them elsewhere.
"I'm sorry, Detective Ellison," she said. "An old lady's greed has endangered your friend."
"If you mean Blair's been grabbed, I know it. I even think I know who snatched him. What did they ask of you? To cancel the Summit?"
"No, they wanted two million dollars in bearer bonds by noon tomorrow; I don't know how they think such a thing can happen; it's nearing midnight and tomorrow is Saturday. Banks aren't open." She grimaced. "I can do it, of course, they know I can, though the logistics will push me to the limits. But, of course, I won't."
"You *won't*?" he echoed, furious. "You'd sacrifice Blair like that? Your own grandson?"
"A stranger to me, a man I've known less than two days. Naomi's child."
It was all Jim could do to keep from grabbing her shoulders and shaking her until her elegantly coiffed head rattled. He drew a deep breath, striving for a calm he was far from feeling. "And that's all that matters? Your precious money, when it was you who involved him in this game in the first place? Doug says you have your own set of ethics, but I hadn't realized how situational they were. I envy you your ability to sleep nights after the choices you make." His hands curled into fists, nails gouging his palms. "Listen to me. This has ceased to be your business. I'm calling in reinforcements. We're lucky. We have the FBI right on hand. We have most of the Cascade police department on the scene. If we're fortunate, Blair's still in the building."
"Don't you understand?" she returned hotly. "This isn't about Blair; he's incidental. This is a cheap little scheme to pry money away from me; he's the lever, that's all. This isn't anything to do with your so-called terrorist threat."
"You're probably right, but that only means we have two problems going, not one. I need to know exactly what they said, and I need to know it right now. You might be his grandmother, but he's my friend and I won't play games with his life just because you're too cheap to clean up the messes you created."
"How dare you!"
"I dare because I won't let Sandburg die," Jim snarled. "He's already been drugged. So tell me what they said on the phone."
"They said they'd call at noon and arrange for transfer of the bonds," she replied. "They said they thought it would keep me from attending the Summit and that suited them, but I think they only threw that in as a distraction. I felt it was all the money, and that the Summit was a...what do they call it? A red herring? Perhaps they know about Clayton and thought to make people believe they had a connection. But I don't believe it. I know the sound of ambition and I know the sound of greed, and this was greed, pure and simple."
"Did you recognize the voice?"
"No. I may have heard it before, but I've spoken to so many people tonight, and a telephone does distort a voice. It could well have been disguised. It was male, and I'd guess he was older, possibly in his fifties. But I can't identify him."
"Don't worry, I think we can."
"You said that before. What do you--"
"I don't have time to explain," Jim said, turning to leave her; the motion saved his life. A pop of sound from the doorway nearly vanished in the shattering of the mirror, glass shards exploding outward like little lethal missiles. Automatically recognizing the popping sound of a silenced weapon, Jim pushed Mrs. Wade hard in the chest, sending her falling over backward to land behind the chaise, temporarily shielded from the gunman. Then he ducked and rolled, coming up with his gun in his hand, firing as he rose. The silenced weapon popped again and Jim gasped as he felt a hot poker sensation sear up the length of his upper left arm. Bleeding started immediately, though he knew it had almost been a miss; he'd only been grazed. He threw himself behind the towel receptacle, which wasn't exactly bulletproof, spotting a motion in the remains of the mirror, a man edging around the corner of the door, gun in hand.
Clayton. Jim had only seen one picture of him, but he was unmistakable, in spite of the fact that his hair was Nordic blond now instead of the neutral brown in the picture, and his skin had been tinted or made up to go with the new look. Bushy eyebrows and a trim mustache added to his disguise. In spite of the tux, he could never have blended with the crowd without being recognized by one of the law enforcement people who had all seen his picture.
So Jennis *was* the target, had been all along. He'd waited until the crowd thinned, until she was separated from the others and chosen that moment to attack, when the normal delegates and guests, who had been drinking for hours, were sleepy and distracted, and when he could move freely as long as he was careful. Jim wondered what he'd done with Doug Stephanowski and the bright young man, who would certainly be noticed if they were lying bleeding in the passage outside. Maybe he'd dragged them into the men's room. Which meant the alarm could be raised at any second; he didn't have time to wait.
He fired once at the receptacle and the bullet plowed right through, passing between Jim's right arm and his body, so close he could feel the wind of its passage before it imbedded itself in the wall. Flinching involuntarily, Jim saw the hand come up, saw the weapon level at the lounge chair, which was even less bulletproof than the receptacle.
Unable to get a decent shot, he did the only thing he could, burst from cover and threw himself at the hand, knocking it upward so the shot imbedded itself in the ceiling, sending a shower of plaster down on Jim's head.
His left arm sent waves of pain coursing through his body when he moved it, but he grabbed the terrorist's hand with both of his own and jerked at the gun, trying to disarm him. Even before he'd been hit, he'd been at less than peak efficiency; the headache still lingered from his encounter with Clayton earlier, and now bloodloss added to a growing disorientation. But he had to move, had to stop him because there was no one else and he couldn't let Clayton kill Jennis Wade or get away.
"Give it up," the terrorist panted as they wrestled across the room, tipping over a tall ashtray, sending a trail of cigarette butts flying across the floor, the lipstick on the filter tips resembling tiny drops of blood. Maybe it really was blood, from Jim's arm. He could feel a floppy wetness where the sleeve had been torn.
Clayton was as strong as a bull, and he hadn't risen to his stature in his line of work without a thorough knowledge of down and dirty fighting. Grabbing Jim's injured arm, he squeezed right over the wound, causing the Sentinel to groan at a sudden overload of pain; his sense of touch shrieking warnings at him. It was hard to try to tone the pain down and not lose concentration on the fight. Yanking the terrorist around, Jim tried to slam him against the wall, but Clayton kicked him hard, the edge of his shoe scraping the length of Jim's shin, sending another blaze of agony through his body. He was weakening, losing control, but he held on doggedly, trying to knock the gun away.
Dimly he was aware of Mrs. Wade shrieking for help, but no one came. Desperately Jim yelled at her, "Get down!" but couldn't spare a glance to see if she obeyed him or not. Clayton fought like a tiger, desperate to complete his mission and flee before anyone came to investigate.
The two struggling men worked their way across the room to the row of lavatory basins, and at the last moment, Clayton spun Jim around and rammed him against them so hard it jarred his spine. He tried to arch his body as Clayton forced his shoulders backward toward a jutting spear of glass from the smashed mirror. It was a good six inches long, protruding at right angles from the glass. Jim could see it out of the corner of his eye and didn't know if it was wedged solidly enough to jam into his back between his shoulder blades or if it would drop away if he touched it but it was not a chance he'd care to take. He fought with all his strength to push himself away from the deadly blade.
A movement behind him made him flinch, but Clayton saw it and jerked sideways so the wild arc of Jennis Wade's descending purse caught him a glancing blow across his cheekbone instead of hard on the back of his head, tearing a jagged line down his face toward the corner of his mouth. It started bleeding immediately. With a savage roar of pain, he backhanded her hard across the face, sending her reeling to the floor, her purse flying out of her grip and landing across the room.
Jim took advantage of his distraction and yanked the man's hand, still clutching the gun directly toward the glass shard and had the satisfaction of seeing it sink deeply into the man's wrist. Clayton screamed, a horrible, high-pitched sound that rent the air, followed by a string of savage curses as the gun dropped from nerveless fingers and went off in the sink, shattering the porcelain of the basin and piercing the pipe. Water spurted out in a jetting stream, hitting Jim in the shoulder and soaking him in moments.
Clayton yanked at his wrist with his other hand, and Jim used the moment to clench both his hands into a joined fist and slam it into Clayton's stomach with all his strength. He doubled over, air leaving his lungs in a noisy whoosh. But he wasn't done. He came up again fast and hard, his head hitting Jim under the chin. Ellison saw stars and reeled backward, a wave of dizziness causing the mirror remnants to fuzz and blur before his vision sharpened again, giving him a glimpse of fragments of Clayton fumbling for the gun. Jennis Wade had scuttled toward the lounge chair, clutching at her reddened cheek.
Grabbing the gun with his left hand, Clayton raised it, and Jim kicked as hard as he could, sending it flying. It sailed high over one of the doors to the toilet stools, followed by a plop of water as it landed dead on target.
Two points, Jim thought muzzily, groaning when he saw the terrorist's hand dive inside his jacket, and emerge with a second, smaller gun. This wouldn't have the power of the nine millimeter, but at close range, it would be just as final if he hit Jennis, or Jim.
He threw himself at the terrorist, but the bloodloss was really starting to tell and he couldn't compensate when Clayton sidestepped. He went down, his foot sliding in the pooling water from the broken sink, but he gripped the man's ankles and yanked. Bleeding badly himself, Clayton lost his balance and reeled drunkenly toward the door. Jim pushed both hands against the floor hard to lever himself up, just as a shot rang out.
His head jerked up to Mrs. Wade, but she hadn't moved except to open her mouth very wide in astonishment. Clayton didn't move either, at first; he stood in an arrested position, the small gun dangling from his fingertips, his body hunched over as if he'd been punched in the gut again. Then he made a very surprised sound and folded in upon himself, the gun falling away as he clutched at his stomach. A vivid blossom of red exploded between his scrambling fingers as he toppled over backward and went down like a great tree.
Beyond him stood Doug Stephanowski, gun in hand, blood covering the left side of his face, the other side as white as chalk, just lowering the gun he'd used to shoot the terrorist. It was a .38 police special. He said very quietly, afraid of the answer, "Are you all right, Mrs. Wade?"
"Yes," she said briskly. "But call a doctor for Detective Ellison. Quickly."
Doug staggered out yelling, and Jim pushed himself up to his knees and edged over to Clayton.
The terrorist was still alive, but Jim didn't think he'd stay that way, not from the location of his wound. His eyes were open and he smiled at Jim, a cold, victorious smile that belied his condition. "You may think...you've won," he panted. "But you haven't. She was...personal for my client. Kill her face to face. But the rest..." He laughed, bringing a froth of blood to his lips. A cough racked his body, then he spoke again, one last time. "You might have saved her, but you won't save them all and you...won't save...the Summit. You'll never...find the bomb...I planted..."
His eyes glazed over and he stopped breathing.
A bomb! Sandburg! Jim's stomach knotted. He had to find him fast. There wouldn't be much time.
He felt a touch and Jim jerked, surprised to see that Jennis Wade had ripped open the hand towel machine and torn out the roll of cloth toweling. She'd unwound a long swath of it and was using it now to bind Jim's arm. Already her cheekbone was darkening from the force of Clayton's blow.
"It isn't serious," she said. "You've lost blood, but you can go on. You have to. Did you hear him? A bomb, he said. You have to find my grandson."
Before Jim could speak, Doug returned with Simon and a procession of FBI men.
"There's a bomb in the hotel," Jim said, struggling to sit up. "I don't know where it is or when it's supposed to go off but we have to evacuate the place now." Fighting free of Simon's restraining hands, he struggled to his feet and stood, swaying.
"For god's sake, Jim, let's get you out of here," Simon said as one of the FBI men spoke into his microphone to relay the information on the bomb to Taggart and the FBI team. Jim could hear orders being passed in the background, people moving, but he ignored them, trying to tug loose of Simon's grip.
"I'm not leaving till I get Sandburg."
"You don't have to do it personally, Jim. We'll tear this place apart, looking for him, looking for the bomb. We'll find him. But you can barely stand. Let's get you bandaged before you lose any more blood."
"Fine, then I'm going to hunt for Sandburg," Jim said flatly.
"You don't even know he's in the hotel."
"Yes, I do," Jim replied with complete certainty. Even weak from loss of blood, he had a strong sense of Blair, not a direct link, not quite, but an awareness. Maybe all Sentinels had felt such a tie to their Guides, and maybe not, but that didn't matter. What did was his certainty Blair was in the hotel, unable to get out under his own steam, and the knowledge he could find him quicker than any of the other searchers could. Beyond that was the simple fact that he *had* to find Blair; he hadn't gone through the past two days only to lose his best friend, not if he had to face twenty bombs. "Get me to a paramedic then," he conceded, knowing that was necessary; he wouldn't help Blair if he passed out in a deserted hallway. "And once he's finished, I'm going in again."
"Listen to him," said Jennis Wade from the background. "He's a very stubborn man. He means it. I may not know him well, but I never saw anyone less likely to back away from a challenge--unless it's Blair."
"You need a paramedic too, Ma'am," Simon told her.
"And so does Doug. All right. Evacuation. But this won't stop the Summit, even if we have to meet in a high school gymnasium. I won't back down from a threat. I never did." She went over to Doug Stephanowski, who stood leaning dazedly against the door. One of the Feds had relieved him of his gun. The bodyguard took her arm and led her from the room.
Jim let Simon guide him out of the hotel, though he ached to stay, to find his real Guide. Miraculously, a paramedic van was pulled up near the door, and Simon guided Jim to it.
He sat down and let them work on his arm while organized chaos reigned around him as the remaining delegates and their friends, and a steady trickle of hotel guests were issued from the building by Feds and uniformed police officers. A P.A. system gave directions for people to evacuate, the disembodied voice filling the night air. Everyone was probably out of the ballroom by now, but the guests who had been sleeping would take longer. He saw Trajan Wade, wearing an elegant, burgundy robe, ushered out by two of Jennis' bright young men.
A surge of guests burst from the hotel, running toward the street, directed by uniformed police officers. They were lucky, Jim realized, thinking of all those elevator banks he'd seen during the questioning that afternoon. There wouldn't be as long to wait for elevators.
He studied the crowd in hopes of spotting Blair, miraculously free and on his own. He didn't see him, didn't sense him nearby. But he did see Cheryl Ransome, eyes wide and frightened, staring around wildly as if she'd been so terrified she'd forgotten her lines.
"There's Cheryl," Jim said, and Simon motioned one of the uniformed officers to grab her. Too astonished to break away, she went tamely with the man toward the patrol cars that were parked along the end of the street. By the time they reached the row of cars she had begun gesturing wildly as she protested her arrest.
"I didn't see her cohort," Simon said. "Did you?"
"I didn't notice." He'd been looking for a shorter man than Fred Street.
Jim's arm throbbed, but he could deal with it. The EMT said something about being lucky, not needing stitches; "It's shallow but long; that's why it bled so much. Check in with your own doctor tomorrow to follow up on this, make sure there's no infection, but you'll be fine. I'm supposed to report bullet wounds, but I guess the police already know about this."
Jim nodded, shivering slightly. It was a chilly night and sitting here in his tee shirt wasn't exactly smart, although part of the chill was worry about Sandburg. Simon noticed and removed his tuxedo jacket, holding it out and gesturing for Jim to put it on. He was a tall man with longer arms than Jim, so the sleeves were too long, but he rolled them up a couple of times, glad enough of the warmth that he didn't care how he looked. Fashion was hardly important when his best friend was being held captive in a building about to blow sky high.
*Hang in there, Chief,* he thought urgently. *I'll find you. I swear it. That's my job. Yours is to stay alive. You hear me? Stay alive.*
He felt the explosion before he heard it, a deep, subliminal quiver that shook the ground beneath his feet, even before all the windows on the first three floors of the hotel exploded outward, causing everyone nearby to duck. People screamed and ran away from the building in a wave. Simon dragged Ellison behind the paramedic van as the roar of the blast pounded at his eardrums. He tuned down his hearing automatically, blocking the thunder of noise that had nearly deafened him.
He struggled free of Simon's grip, his heart trying to stampede up his esophagus into his throat. "*Sandburg!*"
"Jim, easy, Jim," Banks soothed, tightening his grip on Jim's good arm as he struggled to break free. "Stay put. As soon as it's safe we'll look for him."
As the glass and debris fell, Jim ducked reluctantly, feeling like he was turning his back on his friend. He could hear screams of panic and pain over the dying rumbles of the explosion, ominous groaning noises from the damaged structure, and shouts from police and FBI agents warning everyone to move out of range, and the rattle and crash of falling debris. Jim hovered in the shelter of the paramedic van, his stomach tied in fierce knots, desperate to move, to act, to get in there and free Sandburg. Ransome would tell where he'd been, or Street would. He'd find Blair, and he'd be just fine.
"From the angle of the blast, I think it was set right in the ballroom," Simon remarked, raising his voice as if the explosion had affected his hearing as well. "In the wall, in a vent, any place we hadn't had time to search, maybe even under the bandstand, even though we checked everything out ahead of time."
"I'm going in there," Jim stated in the tones of a man who wouldn't brook an argument. "I'll grab Cheryl and make her tell me where he is. Then I'll bring him down."
"You can't go in there, Jim. Look at the place! It could come down any minute. There are bound to be people trapped in there. We need experts. We'll have to get hook and ladder trucks, or take them off the roof with helicopters."
"Sandburg's in there," Jim said with grim determination. "And he's alive. I'd know if he wasn't. I'd *know*. I'm going after him, Simon. I can find him faster than anyone else can, and you know it."
"If he's on one of the upper floors, he's probably unhurt," Simon pointed out. The Plaza tower still stood, stabbing up into the night sky, but the lower section was in ruins. Any minute now that tall spear could fold in upon itself and crash down, bringing Sandburg with it.
"Unless the whole building comes down or fire starts. I don't have time to wait. I've got to find him now. I won't take crazy chances but I'll find him." He gazed around to see if he could spot Cheryl Ransome, but she had vanished. There was no trace of Fred Street, either, but he did see Maggie in the crowd and pushed his way over to her. "Where is he?"
"He was here, but he's gone," she said. "I'm sorry, Jim, I don't know where he went."
Jim did. He'd taken advantage of the chaos following the explosion to disappear, and unless Cheryl was cuffed and secured in the back of a police car, she had gone with him.
Jim's paramedics had already deserted him, racing to assist the wounded. Sirens in the distance marked the arrival of additional paramedics and police, but Jim didn't wait. He ran along the row of parked patrol cars trying to find Cheryl, but she was nowhere to be seen. The uniformed officers had headed for the hotel, knowing there would be people to rescue. She must have made a getaway when the bomb went off. He couldn't remember if she had been handcuffed or not.
Okay, the hard way, he thought, eyes lingering on the devastation that had been Cascade's most elegant hotel. *Hang in there, Chief. I'll find you.*
Nausea warred with a far more pleasant sensation, that of warm lips nibbling his earlobe, brushing along his jawline and teasing at his mouth, and for a long time Blair let himself drift. He didn't know what had happened or why his stomach was in revolt, but the rest of the dream was too pleasant to interrupt. He reached up vaguely for the goddess who bent over him so sweetly, but his hand wouldn't obey his command. Something held his wrist too firmly to pull free, and he was too dazed and queasy to reason it out. When he tried to open his eyes, they met fabric, a cloth bound over them, a blindfold. Kinky.
He muttered weakly, "Bondage?"
"He's waking up."
The speaker was male, putting an abrupt end to his fantasies.
"It's more fun that way." That voice was female, seductive, and familiar, although his head wasn't clear enough for him to identity it. She kissed him again, catching his bottom lip between hers and tugging at it gently, tracing around his mouth with the tip of her tongue, and he felt a stirring in his groin in spite of the weirdness of the situation. He couldn't think or reason, only feel, and she was giving him plenty to feel.
"Leave him alone. We don't have time for games."
The male voice was angry, dampening Blair's confused ardor. He didn't understand was happening, where he was, why he was being kissed before an audience, and the more he tried to reason it out, the less he liked it.
"Don't mind him, Blair, he's a stick in the mud."
His stomach twisted involuntarily and his body arched with an urge to vomit. At once the woman withdrew with a sound of distaste. "You gave him too much, he's sick," she said.
"I was careful. We had to knock him out."
"But he's going to throw up all over my bed."
"After tomorrow noon, what will that matter? We'll be free of here, free of all our obligations. You've done well so far. Leave him."
"Where are you going?" she asked in surprise.
"Back to the party. If we stay away any longer somebody will notice we're missing. You know they will."
The bed sagged as she gave a bounce that nearly caused Blair's dinner to make an unexpected return. His head pounded and he swallowed frantically, trying to gain control of his stomach.
"Back to the party!" the woman cried in disappointment. "But, Freddie, I want to do it with you. I've done everything you wanted me to. I've been good, I've been smart. Nobody in a million years will ever guess I broke into your wife's office. Playing decoy. You're so smart, telling me to wear those scruffy old shoes and gloves and telling me what to do with the computer."
"You did it beautifully," her partner told her.
"And then tonight. God, it was a turn on, helping you grab him like this. I can hardly keep my hands off of you, and that won't do downstairs. Your little wifey would notice. Come on, lover, just a little while longer." The sound of a mild scuffle followed, complete with heavy breathing.
"Not in front of him," 'Freddie' replied sternly, though he sounded like he was as caught up in the moment as she was. "Please, Cheryl, not now. Tomorrow night we'll be far from here and we won't have to worry about interruptions." His voice broke off with a sharp groan that left little to Blair's imagination, then he said sharply, "Don't."
"We can lock him in the bathroom. Please, Freddie, I want you so much."
"No. I have to go back. We can't let anyone suspect anything."
"Your wife already does. You should have seen the nasty glare she gave me in the powder room, like she wanted to claw my eyes out."
"Don't worry about my wife. She might suspect we're sleeping together, but she'll never guess our plan, unless we give her reason to. You stay here, watch him--and only watch him. I could be very jealous if I find you did anything else. I'll sneak up here in an hour, after I've taken Maggie home. We have separate bedrooms, she'll never know. We can dump your old boyfriend in the bathtub and have the rest of the night to ourselves."
"No. Now," Cheryl pouted. "We can be quick. Please, Freddie. I want you so much." Blair heard a zipper go down.
"Oh, god. Not...in here," he said breathlessly, yielding. "He's awake."
"He's drifting in and out. He can't get away. He's tied up too good for that. You're so clever with knots, Freddie. Come on, quick. Hurry."
Blair heard footsteps moving away from him and the closing of a nearby door. Shutting it didn't entirely muffle the sounds that followed, but he tried not to concentrate on them. Instead he worked on clearing his mind, trying to understand where he was and what had happened. God, this was going to kill Maggie. Cheryl and Fred. It boggled the mind. He couldn't imagine any two people more incompatible, but it was pretty obvious what the attraction was. Fred must be in the heart of a midlife crisis, and Cheryl didn't need the slightest encouragement to fall in lust. She'd been kissing Blair to tease her current lover, and it had obviously worked. Blair could only be glad they hadn't decided to share their moment of passion on the bed next to him.
But why would Fred and Cheryl kidnap him? That was so weird. God, if only his stomach wasn't so queasy and his head would stop pounding he might be able to make sense of what had happened to him. Cheryl belonged to the Save the Wilderness Conservancy; that must be how she'd met Fred. It was pretty clear what a middle-aged man would see in Cheryl. But what did this have to do with Clayton and the threat to the Summit?
Cautiously Blair tested his bonds. They were expertly tight. If he pulled at them too hard, he'd only make them tighter. Bound and blindfolded, he considered yelling for help, but he didn't know where he was, although it sounded like he was still in the hotel. There was no guarantee anyone would hear him, and if he did it too soon, Fred and Cheryl would gag him. He shuddered at his helplessness.
No. He wasn't helpless. Jim would find him. He knew it. Jim had found him when Lash had grabbed him; he'd come just in time and rescued him. He'd do it now, too. Sandburg wasn't sure how, but he just knew. There was a link between them, a link that might have grown out of the bond between Sentinel and Guide but had surpassed that. Jim would focus, block out everything, find Blair's heartbeat. He'd be here any minute.
The lovebirds were finishing up in the bathroom. He heard Fred groan loudly and Cheryl gasping, "Oh, baby, oh, baby," and felt a surge of disgust that he'd ever been with her. They'd be out here soon and he wouldn't be able to free himself before that happened.
So why had they grabbed him? Geez, for ransom? If they didn't have a cause and they expected a big payoff, maybe they'd found out about his connection to the Wades and wanted money. They were crazy to try a wild stunt like that. On a night like this, everybody would suspect them of terrorism; they'd be lucky to walk away with their lives. *Cheryl* had broken into Maggie's office and messed with the computer? Why? What did that have to do with anything? She'd said she was playing decoy. Blair doubted from the tone of her voice that she'd understood the ramifications of that, but he wondered if he did. If only he didn't feel so lousy. He didn't think he could stand up if he tried, and his feet were tied anyway.
Decoy? Maybe Fred *wanted* everybody to think the motive was an environmental one, when really he only wanted money to take off with his mistress. Messing with the computer just before the conference had certainly made everyone believe a member of the Conservancy wanted his name to be kept off the records. Did that mean they had nothing to do with Clayton? That their scam was entirely separate? Did Fred think he could pull it off simply because people would *believe* it was terrorism? Was he as stupid as Cheryl to imagine they could escape the net of surveillance that surrounded the hotel, the Summit, Jennis Wade herself? And did they expect her to pay money to have Blair returned? He might be her grandson but she didn't know him and he didn't know her. She might wash her hands of him, especially since he'd already told her he wanted no part of the Wade money. And if they didn't get their money, what would they do with him?
The bathroom door opened, ending his futile speculation. "Oh, baby," Cheryl said, "you're so good."
"You're a miracle," the older man replied. "Quickly, now, I have to go downstairs again. You wait here with him long enough for me to get downstairs, then you come down. Stay downstairs until I've taken Maggie home then come up here again."
"And leave him alone," Fred insisted.
"Spoilsport. I only wanted to play a little. I wouldn't sleep with him, not when we're together."
"You'd better not."
She laughed deliciously, and Blair heard them kiss, then the outer door opened and closed again, instantly followed by footsteps approaching the bed.
Blair cringed involuntarily. He couldn't think of anything more disgusting than for her to paw at him while he was tied and blinded. Maybe if he quit trying to fight his queasy stomach, he could throw up and gross her out enough to keep away.
She flounced down on the bed and reached out to touch his forehead. "You're too hot, Blair," she said. "But it's all right. I'll take care of you. We're not going to hurt you."
"*You* might not. I'm not so sure about him."
"You're awake? I was afraid he'd give you too much of that nasty drug."
"He did that, all right. God, Cheryl, what are you doing this for? Don't you know kidnaping's a major crime? You could be in big trouble, go to prison for a long time."
"But we're not going to hurt you," she said in surprise as if that made it all right. "We only want enough money to get right away from here and go--well, go somewhere else," she caught herself in time. "Fred's so smart, he's got it all planned." She leaned down and kissed him lightly. "He's not as pretty as you, or as much fun, but he knows how to make me feel good. He's going to buy me a sports car and a mink coat and lots and lots of jewels. And we're going to lie on a beach and never have to work again. And what will it cost that old broad? Only a couple of million and she can spare it. She's got billions."
"What makes you think she'll pay it?"
"She has to pay it, she's your grandmother. I wish I'd known when we were dating that you had a rich grandmother, Blair." She kissed him again and touched his chest, teasing at his nipples through his shirt. Disgusted, he arched his body to throw her off, and she pulled back.
"You used to like me to touch you."
"That was before you drugged me and tied me up," he said. "Would you want a kidnapper to make moves on you when you were helpless?" As soon as he spoke he was sorry he'd said the word 'helpless'. It called to mind all the horrors of his situation. He didn't think Cheryl would hurt him, though she might try to force her attentions on him, but he wasn't sure about Fred, not after tonight.
"It might be kind of kinky," Cheryl admitted and stroked her hand down his chest, to his belly, stopping just in time. He tried to roll away from her; god, the feel of her touching him made him sick.
"But you don't like it," she said. "I told you I wouldn't hurt you, Blair. Once we have the money, we'll telephone and let them know where you are. You'll have to stay tied up for awhile, but it won't hurt you. I'll give you a glass of water before I go downstairs and I'll bring you a tray of food when I come back."
"To eat in the bathtub while you have your orgy?"
"I'm sorry," she said. "But it's been so much fun. So exciting. I wish I hadn't told Fred I wouldn't do anything with you."
"Can you untie me?" Blair asked. "Or at least make the ropes looser? I can't get away, but my hands are numb?"
"Well, I could do that, but I won't untie your feet. You can't get away. I'm going to lock the door."
She rolled him over onto his side, and he cried out because his arms had gone to sleep, and his shoulders pulled at the strain of the new position. At once she swept the hair off his neck and kissed him there, then she busied herself with the knots. "You look so sexy in a tux."
"Thanks. I think."
"These knots are sure tight. Don't worry, I'll make them looser."
He didn't think he could manage to jump up and overpower her, not even when the ropes fell away. Circulation hadn't returned to his hands yet; though he could feel pins and needles. It was agonizing. Besides, any quick move would probably make him barf his guts out. But when she redid the ropes, he flexed his wrists and tried to hold them slightly apart. She didn't notice.
When she finished, she made a pleased sound and left him lying on his side. He heard the bed shift and hoped she was leaving, but she came back. "I'm sorry, Blair, but I have to. Freddie said to." And she tied a gag around his mouth. His only consolation was that she did it so inexpertly he was sure he could work it free with little effort. He didn't try now; she was still here. But a moment later the springs lifted as she rose. "I'm going downstairs now. I have to appear so nobody gets suspicious, even though I don't know why anybody would ever be suspicious of *me*." Blair had to agree with that. Anyone who knew her would realize she didn't have two thoughts to rub together in her head. He wondered how she managed to hold down her secretarial job, then he shook his head slightly. If there was ever a woman who would automatically sleep with her boss, it was Cheryl Ransome.
"You'll feel better in a little while," she reassured him, her voice coming from across the room. "Fred said he gave you less than he would have given a cow."
*Yeah, that's real reassuring,* Blair thought.
"When I come back, maybe you'll feel up to having fun," she said and let herself out of the room. As an incentive to escape it was first rate. Blair hated the idea of lying here helpless while she played her little sex games with him. He hated being helpless anyway, knowing that, while Cheryl wasn't ruthless and probably considered this an exciting game, Fred had a harder edge to him. Blair had known the man casually as Maggie's husband, a dour, steady man who was practically part of the background. He'd always known there had to be more to Street than that, but there'd been no reason to try to learn more, the little he ever saw him. Now Blair gave himself a mental kick for being so complacent.
When he was sure she wouldn't return, he tried to work the gag off. It came without much effort, sliding down toward his chin. "Jim, I'm still in the hotel," he said loudly, hoping his friend was close enough and in tune enough to hear him. "I don't know what floor, but it's Fred Street and Cheryl Ransome who grabbed me. It's only for the money."
Then he applied himself to his wrists, relaxing the muscles in his arms. Circulation was still returning and even such a slight movement was agonizing, but he could live with that. He could even live with the bilious feeling in his stomach. What he couldn't live with was the return of either Cheryl or Fred while he was still bound, while his eyes were still covered and he couldn't even see their approach.
That was when he heard a crackle of unexpected sound followed by a public address system, echoing weirdly from a speaker in the hall. "Hotel residents. We apologize for the disturbance, but it's necessary for your safety that we evacuate the hotel. Please leave your rooms in an orderly fashion and be sure to bring your keys with you so you will be able to return to your rooms when the crisis has passed. There will be ample elevator space to accommodate you, or, if you are on lower floors, use the stairs. Please leave immediately."
No explanation, but Blair didn't need one. He understood all too well. Clayton. He must have set a bomb or an incendiary device, and the Feds had learned of it, but possibly not its location. That meant Blair had even less time than he thought he had. Clayton would want his device to go off while people were still at the gala, and it was scheduled to run through two o'clock. What time was it now? 12:30? Later? Sandburg didn't know how long he'd been unconscious. Ten minutes? Half an hour? Longer? The bomb could go off at any moment, while he lay here helpless.
Cheryl was as good with knots as she was with gags, and Blair soon loosened his hands enough to believe he could work free. He couldn't judge how much time passed in the process, but it was more than he liked, especially with a clock ticking down to a lethal zero concealed in the building. Remembering how he'd used oil to slip out of those handcuffs on the oil rig, he wished for something to use. Struggling to loosen the blindfold didn't work. There was nothing to use against it. He'd been able to spit out the gag, but the blindfold resisted him. With a shiver at his helplessness, he tried frantically to think. Sawing through the bonds with a piece of broken glass always worked on TV but he knew it would take too long, even if he had a fragment that would serve. Instead he picked frantically at the knots and was rewarded when his left hand came free abruptly.
Sitting up quickly, he pulled his hands around in front of him, tearing off the gag. The abrupt motion and return of vision hit him hard. He swayed, groaning as nausea hit him hard. The precipitous movement had been too much for his sour stomach, and with a groan, he leaned over the edge of the bed and threw up, the spasms twisting his stomach and making his already-aching head pound unmercifully. But when he was finished, he felt a little better, though hardly ready to take on two kidnappers single-handed. Fumbling with the knots at his ankles, he finally freed himself from his captors' restraints. Then he darted into the bathroom long enough to mop his face, rinse out his mouth, and swallow a few sips of water, trying to ignore the fact that it smelled like sex, then he turned to leave. He didn't know how much time he had left before Clayton's nasty little surprise went off.
On shaky feet, he hurried over to the door and opened it, peering out cautiously to make sure neither Fred nor Cheryl were lurking in the hall outside. Even though Cheryl was taller than he was, he thought he could handle her, but he doubted he could overpower Fred, not while he was still tranked. But no one was in sight, no search party of police, no panicked band of hotel guests waiting for elevators. Everyone must have fled while he was struggling with his bonds. He should have yelled for help. God, if only he could think straight.
Was there time to risk the elevator? He started toward it but had taken only three steps when the floor jumped under his feet, knocking him to his hands and knees as an overpowering crash and rumble shook the building. A vase of flowers on a table launched itself from its position, missing his head by inches. With a yell he ducked, covering his head with his arms as dust and plaster rattled down from the ceiling. All the lights went out.
He crouched in the stygian blackness as the rumbling echoes died, expecting the explosions to continue, believing he was about to be blown to smithereens. Gradually the quivering stilled, and the floor grew solid beneath his hands and knees. Pushing himself upright, he tried to get his balance and his bearings, almost falling when he stepped on a large fragment of the vase that had nearly brained him. He blinked, sneezing in the dust, then he saw a glimmer of light at the end of the hall, the window at the end of that wing. A stairway opened beside the window; he remembered that. It was even money the elevator wouldn't run, and one experience of being trapped in an elevator with a bomb was more than enough to last a lifetime. He went for the stairs.
As he opened the doorway, emergency lighting came up, stark, bare bulbs dimly illuminating the way downward. Blair paused, then he yelled, "Hey! Anybody here!"
No one answered him.
Not even Jim.
Blair shivered, forcing himself to reject the image that forced its way into his brain. Jim was a cop. He'd be in the thick of it all, down there, helping direct the evacuation. He wouldn't leave until he was sure everybody was out. He might be...
Blair refused to take that thought any further. If he did, he'd probably sit down where he stood and just give up. The last two days had been strenuous; he'd already had to live through believing Jim didn't want him around, that Naomi had lied to him. Now, if Jim had died... No. He couldn't handle that. He'd have to shove it away, shove away the worry, the fear, the pain. Or he couldn't go on. And Jim would expect him to. There might be people trapped here Blair could help. It was his job, his responsibility. *You better be alive, Jim,* he thought desperately. *You better be.*
"Damn it," he groaned, knuckling his stinging eyes. Then he raised his voice. "Anybody still here? Answer me!" His only answers were echoes in the silence.
Okay. They'd had time to get out, or they were trapped in the elevators, or they were afraid to answer. He couldn't check every room. He'd work his way down, pausing to yell on each floor. If anyone had been delayed; in the shower, maybe, or asleep when the warning came, they might hear him. He'd feel better if he found allies for his escape.
The emergency lighting revealed a sign on the door that read 'Seventeenth floor'. He had a long way to go.
Then he remembered Trajan Wade, stuck on the penthouse floor, alone and in ill health. *Oh, god, is he strong enough to get down on his own? What if he takes drugs to help him sleep? What if he's still there?* Quickly Blair returned to Cheryl's room and snatched up the telephone, but it didn't work. No dial tone, no matter how hard he jiggled the buttons.
*I've gotta get Trajan,* he thought wearily, stomping down the icy sensation in his veins at the thought of remaining in this stricken building one second longer than he had to. No matter how much he wanted to rush down and make sure Jim was all right he couldn't leave Trajan up there alone.
He climbed steadily, popping in at each floor he passed to yell for other survivors and, every few floors, to catch his breath. The drug Fred had used on him had sapped his strength and it grew harder and harder to force his feet up even another step. Dragging himself higher with the help of the railing, he felt sweat trickling down his back and chest, staining the armpits of his shirt. It wasn't until he reached the penthouse level that he realized the door would be locked. A sign on the door read, "no admittance without a key." Frustrated, he banged violently on the door, yelling for Trajan. No answer. He stood there a second, thinking frantically, trying to make order out of the mush that was his brain, then he pulled a Swiss Army knife from his pocket, opened several of the blades and started applying various ones to the lock. It took him about ten minutes to get in. It felt like ten hours.
Trajan had already gone. The door to his room stood ajar, the bed unmade, abandoned, the pillow still indented with the imprint of his father's head. Blair hoped he'd had time to get down and out before the bomb went off. The Plaza had a great many elevators, and many of the guests would still have been downstairs at the gala. That might mean most people had already escaped before the bomb went off.
"Okay, now what?" Blair said aloud. He hurried to the window at the end of the hall and stared down at the distant street. Below him stretched a field of blinking lights: emergency vehicles, police cars, fire trucks: as rescuers gathered to do their bit. He didn't know if there was fire; he hadn't smelled any smoke in the stairwell and he didn't want to *think* of the possibility. The best thing to do would be to get down to the ground level as fast as possible and leave the building entirely. Opening the stairwell door again, he poked his head into the dimly lit space and sniffed warily. *No smoke. Great. I've got to get out of here in case there's more than one bomb.*
He started down, pausing again at each floor to yell for stragglers. At least going down was easier on him. Maybe the drug was wearing off, too, because his head was growing clearer. Determinedly he worked his way lower and lower, each step bringing him closer to escape.
"You'd better be okay, Jim," he said aloud. "I may be no Sentinel, but I think I'd know if you....weren't." He concentrated on that possibility, forcing himself to believe the link between Sentinel and Guide was that strong. But he wasn't a Sentinel. He was only a Sentinel's protector. And this time he hadn't been there to watch Jim's back.
He didn't find anyone until he reached the fourteenth floor, and then he wasn't sure at first he'd heard anything. He yelled again and was rewarded with an answering cry. As he left the stairwell, he saw a girl, maybe ten years old. She was in pajamas but had slid her feet into tennies and put on a jacket, settling a backpack over it. Clutching a stuffed teddy bear under one arm, she couldn't have looked more surprised if Blair had come from Mars.
"I can't find my mom," she admitted, her voice small and frightened. "Was that a *bomb*?"
"I think so, but everybody's okay. Didn't you hear the P.A. system telling people to leave the hotel?"
She shook her head. "I had my Walkman on. I didn't hear anything until there was this major boom and part of the ceiling fell down. Mom was down at the party and said I had to be good and go to bed early, but..."
"But it was too good a chance to pass up? I know. I used to pull that myself, when I was your age. My name's Blair, who are you?"
"Kirstin." She eyed him with sudden wariness. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
"I'm not a stranger, I'm a policeman," he said, stretching a point, and gesturing to his ID badge that had survived the kidnaping in better shape than he had.
She eyed it measuringly, reassured by the official status it gave him. "Silly. Policemen don't wear monkey suits."
"Where'd you hear that name?" he asked, amused.
"That's what Mom said, that all the ladies were in formals and all the men were in monkey suits. I thought she meant they were dressed like apes, but it was only tuxedos." Clearly that had proven a great disappointment. "I told her I wanted to come down and see the monkeys and that's when she said it was just another name for a tux." Her bottom lip jutted. "Real monkey costumes would have been more fun."
"Well, your mom's waiting for you outside," Blair told her, hoping it was true. "How about I take you down to meet her?"
"Okay." She put her hand trustingly into his, and they headed for the stairs. "There was another guy around, I saw him but he didn't see me," she admitted.
"You didn't answer when he called?" Blair asked in surprise.
"He didn't call. He was going into rooms with open doors, and he had a bunch of stuff in a pillowcase." She raised wide, worried eyes. "I think he was a...looter."
*Oh, great,* thought Blair, realizing the situation was bound to call for activity like that. Panicked people must have fled, leaving doors wide open behind them. Disasters brought out the hero in people, but they also brought out the opportunist. *That's just what we need.*
Concluded in part six...