New Arrivals
Author-Sheila Paulson

Nine and Sixty Ways
by Sheila Paulson

Disclaimer: Alas, Jim and Blair, Simon, and all characters from The Sentinel do not belong to me but to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount.

Summary: When Jim goes through one of his periodic episodes of frustration with being a Sentinel, Blair gives him some breathing space -- and walks into a hostage situation.

Warnings: Some violence and profanity.

Author's Notes: This story was originally published in Sensory Overload #3.

Blair Sandburg was gloating over the statue of Chac Mool when he spotted the weird guy in the post office. It was the raincoat that caught his attention, hanging around the man in trailing folds, so much like the one Duncan MacLeod wore on the Highlander television series that for an instant Sandburg couldn't help wondering whimsically if he had a sword concealed beneath it. Or, if he'd been in a bank, a gun for a robbery. But this was the main post office in Cascade, and you didn't usually think of post office robberies. Okay, so the guy was walking a little stiff-legged. Maybe he had the sword to protect him from other immortals in a sheath tied to his leg -- yeah, right, Blair, for a fast draw, he thought wryly, before turning back to the small pre-Columbian figure he'd just picked up.

Trust Caroline Spender to forget he wouldn't be home during the day and send the package to him express mail so necessitating a special trip to sign for it. A fellow anthropology graduate, Caroline had been working in Central America for nearly a year on a jungle dig. Mayan, Blair remembered, his fingers tracing the statue. She was a physical anthropologist, on site because they'd been pulling human bones out of the cenote or sacred well for her to catalog. Once, in his undergraduate days, he and Caroline had dated for a whole semester, and even after the passion faded out, they'd stayed friends. Caroline was one of his few former girlfriends who had ever met his mother, and Naomi had liked her. But Caroline was quick, impulsive, and prone to disorganization. She'd mailed the package from New Orleans, evidently visiting her family on a flying visit, and he'd come home to find the yellow slip stuck to the loft door last night. Knowing he wouldn't be home at delivery time today either, he'd called in to make sure he could pick it up. Ordinarily express mail was claimed at the airport substation, but a freak helicopter crash the week before had damaged the structure and he was told to come to the main post office. Not that it was that far from Jim's office....

And not that he didn't mind taking off and avoiding his friend today.

Jim had awakened in one of his periodic moods where he resented his Sentinel abilities, and he'd been ready to let Blair know about it from the moment he came down the stairs and started griping until they reached the station. He would never be entirely enchanted with his heightened senses, but usually he took them for granted, valued the boosted abilities that helped him on his cases, and even worked with Blair without (much) complaining when he devised a new test for his Sentinel's talents. But just lately he'd been a bit cranky, and this morning, when Blair had mentioned in passing that he hadn't done any practice on sensing various textures and materials for a few months, Jim had blown up.

"I'm just a guinea pig for your stupid tests," he'd blurted. "Is that all I am, just a lab rat for you to run through mazes?" He slammed the bread into the toaster.

"Whoa, easy, man, where did that come from?" Blair countered. He could understand Jim's frustrations, up to a point. Ellison was far more conventional than Blair could imagine being, and he didn't like being different. Sometimes it just got to him. But what Blair couldn't understand was Jim's lack of excitement at his sensory abilities. To Blair, it would have been so thrilling, the most wonderful gift, like a giant Christmas present. Not an annoyance. He could grasp why Jim thought so, but he couldn't share the feeling.

"Let's try this. How about that," Jim babbled, vaguely imitating Blair's voice as he dug the butter out of the refrigerator. "Do you ever stop to think what a damn nuisance it is to have you attach me to electrodes or make me try hearing sounds at varying decibels? I just want to live my life, not become a living science project."

"Sure, Jim," Blair replied quickly. He didn't want to get into a fight. It was all old ground, anyway. He knew Jim didn't really mean it. Okay, so he didn't love the tests, but they were necessary. Someday his life -- or a civilian's -- might depend on his ability to focus one sense or another. Fueled by self-righteous virtue, he plunged on, "You need to keep working on your abilities. It's like firing your gun. You go out to the test range and practice to keep your hand in. This is like that." Jim had been pretty laid back about the whole thing lately. Maybe he was due for an explosion.

The explosion came right in time with the toast popping up, a lengthy diatribe that catalogued every fault Blair possessed and some he didn't as Jim slapped butter on the toast, and in between bites as he finished his hasty breakfast. Using up hot water, keeping weird foods in the refrigerator, leaving his possessions strewn about the loft, those were Blair's great sins, and every one of them old ground. Sandburg let him vent, even a little amused about it, which he knew would only piss Jim off. But he couldn't help it. He knew his friend needed to blow off steam from time to time. Let him. Jim went on and on, all the way out of the loft, down the stairs, and on the way to work. He was on a roll. But when Jim began on his dating habits as they left the truck at the station, Blair called a time out.

He grinned wickedly. "Guess I can tell when I'm not loved any more."

Jim grimaced. "Oh, for god's sake, Sandburg," he groaned. He wasn't ready yet.

Okay, breathing space. Blair knew when to back off and when to push it, and this was the time to back off. Jim would go too far in another minute and then he'd be too stiff and self-righteous to apologize all day long. He'd be even more unbearable, so Blair figured the only thing to do was to take off for awhile. "Hey, Jim," he continued, "I've gotta run and pick up that package. I'll be back in fifteen minutes. It's only a couple of blocks from here. Give you a chance to be away from your main pest." He quirked an eyebrow, hoping for a quick grin as Jim let it go.

Ellison only nodded. "Yeah. Go on." He didn't apologize for his diatribe, but then he didn't usually apologize with words. He'd probably pick up lunch or something later, before dropping Blair off at the university for his afternoon classes. Sandburg would let him off the hook then. He was pretty well used to Jim Ellison by now, and moods like this one weren't really that common. By the time Blair got back, Jim would probably have had a chance to blow off steam with Simon Banks, and everything would be fine.

Looking back, he realized he could probably have cut Jim's tirade off sooner if he'd wanted to. It was just that he'd learned from experience that if Jim didn't sound off periodically and get it all off his chest, he'd be even tougher to live with for awhile.

The line at the post office had taken forever. Everyone in the world must want to send express mail, certified mail, registered mail. The guy in front of him had six -- count em! -- packages. So much for the fifteen minutes he'd promised Jim. It had already passed. When he finally got his package, he carried it over to the nearest empty counter and opened it. He couldn't wait any longer to see what Caroline had sent him, and a prolonged delay might do Jim good.

Wow! It was a statue of Chac Mool, resembling one of the statues at Chichen Itza, the reclining figure with its knees drawn up. Mayan/Toltec -- Chac was the Mayan rain god, but the Chac Mool figure had been what? A messenger to the gods? He couldn't tell if it were genuine or an excellent reproduction, but he suspected the latter, simply because such artifacts would generally be the property of the government of Mexico and Caroline wasn't the type to smuggle them out of the country. Or had she even been in Mexico? He wasn't sure what the rules were in various other Central American countries, since he was a cultural anthropologist rather than an archaeologist. His interest was always the living indigenous tribes rather than the artifacts of tribes long dead. But this was a great figurine -- one more thing with which to pollute the holy space of the loft. He grinned, curling his fingers around the little statue, enjoying the slightly rough texture against his fingertips. It was about as big as a baseball.

The guy in the MacLeod coat edged closer to the window. He walked stiffly as if one leg didn't bend right at the knee, like Chester in those old Gunsmoke reruns Jim liked. But the fabric of the coat caught at an outline beneath it that wasn't a leg brace. Sandburg stiffened, sensing trouble. Maybe Jim's cop senses (as opposed to his Sentinel ones) were rubbing off, but he had a sudden feeling that chaos was about to erupt.

Blair had half a second to realize the man had a major gun under his coat instead of an immortal's sword before the guy whipped back the coat flap and yanked free a weapon that looked like an AK-47. Few things interested Blair less than guns, but Jim had made him learn to recognize dangerous weapons for what they were, drilling him on Uzis and the like. Statue in hand, he dove flat behind a table containing express mail packaging and stacks of forms as the first rounds traced a pattern on the wall behind the heads of the two women at the windows. Everyone else followed Blair down half a second later and some guy in a uniform who must have been a security guard from the bank next door who had been waiting in line to mail a package, let out a startled bellow and clutched his right shoulder. Blood oozed out between his fingers as he collapsed to the marble floor.

"Nobody moves!" bellowed the gunman. "Nobody does anything!"

Uh-oh, that was bad. He sounded so close to the edge the least little thing might set him off. Definitely spaced. Blair held his breath and prayed for invisibility.

Two women began to scream hysterically, and the gunman charged over and stuck the gun in the face of the nearest one. "Shut up or your head decorates the walls."

She gulped, gasped, and froze, choking back her last screech. Blair tensed, bracing himself to go to her rescue, and oh, god, he didn't want to, but then she shuddered and subsided into the arms of her friend and the gunman spun away, satisfied. "Get Sandoval out here," he bellowed.

From behind the counter, a timid voice called, "He went out with Jackson on his round."

"Then you better get hold of him and get him back here or all these people are gonna die."

The timid voice quivered. "I'll have to go to the radio in the back."

"Stand up." He waved the gun around at the postal patrons scattered on the floor. "No heroes. None of you be a hero or you'll be a dead one. I want Jack Sandoval, and until he gets here, I'm gonna blow somebody away every fifteen minutes. You. Sharon. Go back and call him."

The timid voice proved to be the young woman who had retrieved Blair's package for him. She peeked cautiously over the counter. "Steve?" she blurted, eyes huge with shock and horror.

"Go call Sandoval. You call anybody else, all these people die. Their lives are on your hands. Got it? No Feds, no cops. Just Sandoval."

"What do you want with Jack?" she faltered, wringing her hands. "He wasn't the one who fired you, Steve. You know it wasn't his fault."

"He's still got his goddam job," Steve spat. "Get out of here, Sharon, and remember, I've got hostages. He pointed the AK-47 at the woman who had screamed so much. "She dies first," he spat.

Sharon fled, her back hunched as if she expected a bullet to hit her between the shoulder blades. Blair hoped she'd call 911 the instant she was out of sight. Maybe they even had a button alarm to push like banks did. He hoped so.

Uh-oh. This was not good, not good at all. Blair shivered. 'Crazed former postal employee goes berserk -- dozens die.' The imaginary headline flashed before his eyes. The gunman had a hair trigger if Blair had ever seen one. He was 'going postal' in the worst way possible, and that guard over there might die if somebody didn't do something to stop the bleeding. Checking out the other postal customers with a quick glance, Blair didn't see anyone who wasn't too cowed or terrified or helpless to act.

That left him.

Oh, man....

Sitting up very cautiously, Blair ventured, "Steve?" He eased the statue down beside him to free his hands.

The gunman whirled, leveling the weapon at Blair. Its mouth looked a yard wide. "Shut up, shut up."

"Easy, man, I'm not armed." Holding up his empty hands, he displayed them cautiously. "But that guard over there needs somebody to stop the bleeding. You've got it in for this Sandoval, but that guy's just a poor jerk putting in his time. You don't want him to die."

The hot, irrational gleam in Steve's eyes refuted Blair's words. His face was flushed and sweaty, his hair tangled and unwashed. He looked as if he had given up caring about anything but his one fixed purpose, a major explosion waiting for a spark to trigger him. Blair felt like the worst kind of spark but he couldn't back down. He couldn't let that guard die.

"You a doctor, hotshot?"

"No. But I know some first aid." Blair was glad he hadn't put on his police nametag badge yet. It would make him an even bigger target than he was right now. He'd probably be bleeding on the floor beside the bank guard if the guy guessed he was a police observer.

"Then help him," the guy said. "Bandage him then you go right back where you are now. I don't want you talking to him and if you go for his gun, I'll cut you in half." He gestured peremptorily with the AK-47. Blair shuddered.

The gunman saw it and chortled. "You're afraid of me. All of you are afraid of me."

"You said it, man. We're terrified," Blair soothed.

"Goddam it, don't patronize me!"

"Easy, easy. I'm not. I'm just too scared to know what I'm saying," Blair made himself babble. True, he was scared, but he'd been in bad situations before, with Jim, on the job, and he was probably a little more used to being under fire than the other people here were. He tried to look as small and helpless as possible, and it wasn't that much of a stretch.

It must have worked because the anger receded to its former level and he waved Blair over to the downed guard. "And don't talk to him," he hollered. "Nobody talk at all. Sharon!" he bellowed. "Get back out here."

Blair slid over to the downed guard. Oh, man, there was a lot of blood. He shivered fastidiously, then squared his shoulders for the task. "Can I get a first aid kit?"

"Shut up, shut up!" Steve waved the weapon at him. "Do it without bugging me or get back over there."

Something white edged up on one side and he jerked his head around to see a young woman sitting on the floor, holding out what looked like a diaper. "For a bandage," she whispered. "It's a Pamper." She was attractive, very fair haired, with wide blue eyes -- and a wedding ring on the requisite finger.

"Hey, thanks." He took it and opened the man's shirt. A middle-aged guy in a business suit on the other side of the guard offered the handkerchief from his suit pocket to clean the wound. Blair shuddered at the sight of the ugly hole in the man's shoulder and the way blood welled up before his eyes, but a part of him felt exhilarated because the other hostages were helping without even being asked. Somebody in a movie once had said that human beings were at their best when things were worst. He couldn't remember who had said it, but he'd seen people rise to the occasion too often to doubt it. He'd also seen the other side of the coin a few times, but that didn't matter now. He grinned gratefully at the businessman, who leaned closer cautiously, prepared to jerk back if Steve took exception to his actions.

"Looks bad," he murmured in an undertone.

Sharon returned from the back room then and Steve focused on her, taking a moment's pressure away from Blair. He knew he had to do something. Except for the downed guard, he was the only one here who had any police experience. Never mind it was observer experience. He'd done his share more than once, foiled the bad guy. But he didn't even have a weapon now. He could hardly attack Steve with a Pamper.

Mopping away the blood from the wound, he steeled himself to look closely, sliding his hand cautiously under the man's shoulder to feel for an exit wound. There wasn't one. The bullet was still in him. Blair supposed he was lucky he'd been hit only once, considering the weapon.

When he'd done the best he could with cleaning, the businessman helped out again. He produced a silver hip flask. "Whiskey," he said.

"Shut up!" howled Steve again and fired another burst into the ceiling. Plaster clattered down around them. The businessman shrank back.

Hastily Blair uncapped the flask. They did this all the time in Westerns, didn't they? He poured a bit of it onto the one clean corner of the handkerchief and mopped at the wound with it. Even in his unconsciousness, the guard flinched. "Sorry, man," Blair told him, then he poured more over the wound. Rough and ready first aid, but in the absence of a real antiseptic, it would have to do. It was all he had.

As he was pressing the absorbent side of the Pamper over the wound and trying to decide how to fasten it in place, there came a yell from outside.

"Police! Throw down your weapons and come out with your hands up. The place is surrounded."

Blair didn't think it could be. There hadn't been enough time. But the cops out there, probably a pair from a patrol car, summoned through a 911 call, from a signal from Sharon, or because someone had reported gunfire, had to take a stand.

Steve sent a burst of fire through the front door, shattering glass from the top panel. "Stay back!" he howled at the top of his lungs. "Anybody comes in here, I start killing hostages!"

The woman with the diaper passed Blair a rolled up Ace bandage. "Use that to fasten it," she breathed. He couldn't help wondering what else she had in her capacious purse. Maybe a gun? Even a slingshot would help. Quickly he secured the disposable diaper into place. That was when he noticed the gun in the guard's holster. It was sealed in place with a leather flap. Blair stared at it for a long time.

He loathed guns. He didn't want to touch them at all, and he had hated it when Jim had taken him to the police range to teach him how to shoot. But this gun was right in front of him and the gunman was distracted.

Blair frowned, then he shook his head. He was no expert. Touching guns made him way too nervous. If it hadn't been secured, he might have tried for it, but he didn't think he'd better try. The last thing any of the hostages needed was a grandstand play from someone who didn't know what he was doing. There would be other chances. There had to be. What would Jim do? He'd wait for the best chance he had, and Blair didn't think this was his best chance.

Silence from outside. Probably there wasn't anyone here yet who could negotiate, but it wouldn't be long, and then it would probably be Simon Banks. Major Crimes was so close they'd be here in minutes, once the word got through.

And that meant Jim Ellison. Blair closed his eyes for a moment in sheer relief. He wasn't sure when he'd stopped regarding Jim as a wonderful research subject and the ticket to the best dissertation known to anthropology and started regarding him as a friend, indispensable for Blair's comfort, and his Blessed Protector in times of crisis. It hadn't taken very long at all. Just knowing Jim was coming made all the difference. Blair knew he could handle himself -- but he didn't believe anybody could handle Steve. The man was crazy, out to kill that Sandoval he'd sent for. He didn't care who else he killed along the way. So it was up to Blair to keep things as calm in here as possible until Jim and the SWAT team and hostage negotiators arrived.

He held up a hand like a student in a classroom. "Excuse me, sir, I'm done with the bandage."

Steve flinched and jumped, but then he gestured Blair back peremptorily. That was when he noticed the guard's gun. A measuring glance at Blair, then back at the gun, then he said, "You're smart, hero. If you'd tried for that, you'd be spattered all over the floor right now." That made one of the women who had had hysterics gasp in shock. Her friend tightened her grip on her.

Blair edged over to where he'd been sitting before and leaned his back against the table. "I don't want to fight you, man," he said, spreading his hands peacefully. "But the police are going to talk to you any minute now. They're gonna want a sign of good faith. Maybe you should let the women go."

"I'm not letting anybody go," Steve insisted hotly. He let go of the weapon's stock with one hand and rubbed it against his jeans. His palms were sweating.

"Okay, peace, man. Just trying to help."

"Shut up or you'll help by dying, hotshot," Steve yelled.

Blair glanced around at the other hostages. There were sixteen of them besides Sharon. He wasn't sure how many people were working in the back rooms, but if they had any sense they were long gone now. Sharon had only come back because she must have realized he'd start shooting hostages if she didn't. She stood at the counter now, her face the color of parchment, her eyes huge and dark with shock. Blair struggled to catch her eye, looking a question. She glanced nervously at Steve, who was watching the front door, then she bowed her head once in a quick nod. She'd called for help. Blair didn't know whether she had also called for Jack Sandoval, but he hoped she hadn't. If Steve hated him that much, the very sight of him might make him start shooting.

Gathering up his pre-Columbian statue into his hand, he leaned his head back against the side of the table. There was nothing he could do yet. But he'd have to be alert.

Simon Banks burst out of his office, an expression on his face that pulled Jim to his feet, along with every other man in the bullpen. "Shots fired at the main Post Office," Simon announced. "It looks like we have a hostage situation there."

Jim stiffened as if he'd been blindsided. "Sandburg's there," he said involuntarily. "He went over there to pick up a package when I was coming in. I wondered what was taking him so long. Damn it --"

Simon grimaced. "You don't know he's in there, Jim. He could be on his way back -- or it could happened before he got there."

Jim shook his head, unable to believe it. "No way, Simon. You know Sandburg is a magnet for trouble. I'd bet money he's there right now. Let me try to call him. He's got his cell phone." He reached for the telephone on his desk.

Simon caught his arm. "Don't. If this crazed gunman is balanced on a hair trigger, hearing the phone ring might set him off. Give Sandburg a chance. He might be able to call you. Leave it to him to do that. We'll get over there." He raised his voice. "Vests for everybody."

As they prepared and headed toward the main Post Office, Jim found himself remembering his bad mood of the morning. He'd griped and complained about Sandburg from the moment he got up, and there'd been no reason for it. Blair hadn't even pissed him off. He'd just been in a grumpy mood and the kid was a handy target. It would have been nice to believe that Blair had simply shrugged it off and his parting comment had been intended to lighten Jim's mood, but now the words came back to him with painful impact. "Guess I can tell when I'm not loved any more." Just what Jim needed to remember. And what had he done to lighten the moment? "Oh, for god's sake, Sandburg." Impatient. Unyielding. Nice going, Ellison. You sent him off to face a crazed gunman in the best possible way, didn't you?

"Jim?" Simon was beside him as he got out of the pickup and stood at the police barricade looking at the imposing bulk post office, the shattered glass from the top of two panels in the door spread out on the street. The place had windows but they were well above eye level, no way to get a shot at the gunman, not from street level. "I don't like that look on your face. This is personal for you, with the kid in there. You gonna be able to hold up?"

"Of course I'm able to hold up," Jim said instantly. He didn't want to be sent away from here, and Banks was perfectly capable of doing it if he thought Ellison could turn into a loose cannon and endanger hostages. But Jim had no intention of leaving here. Besides, once Sandburg realized he was out here, he could communicate with Jim simply by talking softly. Once the Command Post was set up and a call went in to the Post Office, he'd know. He might even know right now. Sandburg was like that.

"It's personal for you," Banks repeated. "I just want you to remember not to try any hot shot stuff. Sure you want Sandburg out of there. We all do. But even with your senses, I don't want you taking chances."

"You think I'd take a chance with Sandburg's life?" Jim defended himself and his right to be here.

"No, guess you wouldn't. But you've got a personal agenda here, Jim, and I want you to remember that it won't help the kid if you go charging in and get your head blown off. This is the time we need your expertise. I want you to get as close as you can without moving into the gunman's line of fire, and I want you to see if you can hear anything. Report back to me anything that gives us an idea where the hostages are and where the gunman is. We'll post snipers, but the window angle is bad. If somebody can spot him through the front door...." He gestured at the SWAT team positioning itself around the bank. There were probably more spreading out in nearby buildings for an angle shot down at the windows. "Last thing I want is for them to go in blasting everything in sight. Go on, see what you can find out."

Jim left as Brown and Rafe, both armed with heavy artillery and wearing bulletproof vests, joined the captain. From the glances they cast him, they clearly knew Sandburg was in the building. Or was he? Jim frowned as he moved into position. Maybe Sandburg had picked up his package and headed for the University. He might have felt the need to give Jim some space after that stupid diatribe. God, I hope so, Sandburg, he thought.

Focusing without Sandburg there was fairly risky; that he could go in too deep and chance a zone-out when he concentrated on his senses too hard. But he didn't have a choice now. Simon had his own job to do, contacting the gunman if he could and trying to talk a deal, and none of the other cops in Major Crimes knew what he was up to. The Feds would be here any minute, too. The very location of this incident marked it a Federal crime, so Ellison glanced around hastily and saw a few FBI types he recognized moving through the crowd. One of them had joined Simon. Banks was arguing with him, gesturing at the building.

It was their jurisdiction but Simon must want to stay involved, especially with one of his own inside the building. He and Sandburg got on better these days, and even if Blair was a police observer rather than an actual detective, at a time like this, Simon would count him one of the team.

So Jim concentrated. He focused his hearing carefully, directing it at the bank. The gunman's voice erupted into his hearing so dramatically he flinched then banked down his hearing the way Sandburg had taught him. "Shut up, nobody moves, nobody talks," he screeched. A telephone in the post office rang, Simon calling, Jim realized, looking over at the hastily set up command post and Banks at the phone with one of the Feds at his shoulder. The gunman swore violently and a quick round fired. A woman screamed.

"Easy, man." The voice was Sandburg's, and for an instant Jim closed his eyes in sheer relief at the sound. Sandburg was still alive; Jim would be able to tell if he was hurt, and he wasn't. "They're just calling for your demands. They always do that. I've seen movies."

"What do you know about it, hotshot?"

"Nothing," Blair denied, sounding scared. But Jim had locked in on his heartbeat and while the rate was a little elevated, he wasn't as apprehensive as he sounded. Jim could tell, but he doubted the gunman would. "You let me help the guy who got hurt. So you've got something going for you when you negotiate. You can offer to let him and the women go. I bet they'd like that. Come on, answer the phone."

"I don't trust you, hotshot," snarled the gunman, but a moment later, he must have picked up the phone because he yelled, "Nobody out there better try anything. I've got seventeen people in here and I don't care if all of them die." After a pause while Simon spoke, he yelled, "What?" and Simon tensed then began to speak into the receiver again in a calm, rational voice while the Fed prompted him.

"He doesn't care, Jim." Sandburg's voice was faint, right at the bottom edge of Jim's limits. He was speaking in an undertone, hoping to get through to Jim under the cover of the gunman arguing with Simon on the phone. "He's got an AK-47 and I think he's got a whole pocketful of clips. He shot a security guard who works at the bank next door but he's still alive. The guy let me bandage him but he needs out of here first. I know you can hear me. Keep focused but not so close you go into a zone --"

"Who are you talking to, hero?" demanded the gunman abruptly and Jim felt Blair's heart rate shoot up.

"Easy, guy, easy," Blair wailed, trying to sound more afraid than he was. "I was... uh, praying. You scare me, man."

"Well, quit it. You don't have to pray out loud. What are you, some kind of religious nut?"

Jim smiled faintly at Blair's quick recovery. Edging over to Simon, he said in an undertone so the FBI agent wouldn't hear him, "There's an injured bank guard in there -- the gunman probably went for him because he was in uniform. See if you can get him out."

Simon nodded, glad of the information, able to guess the source of Jim's information without hesitation. He said into the phone, "Is anybody hurt in there? If we can move the wounded out, it would be an excellent sign of good faith on your part. We'd be more receptive to your demands."

Jim heard the gunman yelling, knowing Simon could hear it over the phone. "No praying! No talking at all! Shut up, shut up!" And a burst of fire. Several people screamed and Blair's heart rate and breathing shot through the roof. Ellison felt it as if he'd been kicked in the gut.

"Guess I can tell when I'm not loved any more."

"Oh, for god's sake, Sandburg!"


Banks reached out and a big hand grabbed Jim by the arm. "Stay put," he said firmly. "You don't know the kid's hit." He let go long enough to put his hand over the receiver of his field telephone, moving a few steps away from the FBI man. "Come on, Jim listen in. You can tell what's going on. I need that right now. Those hostages need that."

Jim forced calmness upon himself and concentrated as he stepped away from the Feds. Already Sandburg's heartbeat was starting to stabilize. He was scared and it showed -- anybody would be scared when pinned under automatic weapon fire. But Jim could feel his breathing slowing, too. Fighting down a normal panic reaction, Blair was regaining control. He didn't dare try to talk again, but what he had said had helped out.

"Easy, easy," Simon said into the phone, as if he sensed Jim had calmed down and would charge into the bank on a foolhardy attempt to get to his partner. "Let's work together here. You let us take the wounded out and then we'll negotiate."

"I don't trust you. Nobody comes out until I see Sandoval."

"Sandoval?" Banks prompted carefully.

"I want Sandoval. I want to blow his pointy little head right off his neck. I want him here now or all these people die."

Blair's doubtful voice sounded in the background. "Uh, better tell him who Sandoval is. They won't know."

"Didn't I tell you to shut up?" But he must have seen the sense in the guide's words. "He works here. He's out on a delivery route. I want him in here in twenty minutes or I start shooting and I don't care who I hit. And that means you, hotshot," he bellowed in an aside.

"Easy, man," Blair muttered. "Only trying to help."

"Shut up!"

"Shut up, Sandburg," Jim murmured as if he could will it. Blair was attempting to calm the guy down, but he didn't sound calmable. It would take so little to push him over the edge and Sandburg was not trained as a hostage negotiator. He was smart and quick and he had studied psychology, but he might not be able to recognize the signs. He might push the guy over the edge without meaning to. Damn it. Jim hated this. He tried to tell himself how inventive Sandburg was, how good he was at thinking on his feet, but all Ellison could see was a creep with an AK- 47 ready to blast his partner at the drop of a hat.

Simon resumed his conversation with the gunman, trying to explain that Sandoval was being sent for, on his way here. There was no way the police department would send in Sandoval in answer to the man's demands, but it might help to put him on the telephone when he was found. Simon would weigh that possibility when the time came. And in the meantime, Sandburg was on his own. Jim grimaced.

"Captain?" It was Rafe, leading a redheaded woman up to them. "This is Donna Chamberlain. She was in the back area when the gunman arrived and managed to escape. She knows who he is."

Simon put his hand over the receiver again. "Banks," he said to her. "Tell me what you know."

She was about forty, tall and elegant looking, but the crisis had upset her; wisps of hair were escaping from a neat roll at the back of her neck and fear shone in her eyes. "His name is Steve Waterson. He got really stressed on the job. He started screwing up. He had a psych evaluation and evidently they said he couldn't take the pressure of the job. He got really belligerent and threatened everybody. They had to let him go. His wife tried to get him into therapy. We hadn't seen him or heard anything for nearly three months. Sharon Deems, who works at the counter, tried to calm him down when he came in but he wouldn't be calmed. She got a call out to Sandoval -- he was Waterson's supervisor -- and warned him. He's coming back right now. He should be here in five minutes or so. Steve blames him for everything and wants to shoot him."

"Somebody make sure this Sandoval isn't visible from inside the bank when he gets here," Simon instructed. "Thank you, Mrs. Chamberlain."

Rafe led the woman back to a more secure position, saying something in an aside to Brown, who gestured to a couple of the Feds. The agent who had been talking to Banks went over to join them and they conferred in low tones. Jim didn't bother to listen to them.

Banks spoke into the telephone again. "Steve? This is Captain Banks. Are you still there?"

"I want Sandoval! I better get him or I'm gonna start blowing off a few heads to prove I mean it." Jim could hear an uneasy rustle from the hostages and a woman began to sob. At once Blair's voice again.

"Ssshh, easy. It's okay." And the sobs subsided.

"I'm getting tired of you, hero." Blair's breathing intensified. Jim imagined him looking down the barrel of the AK-47. He gnawed on his bottom lip, knowing bursting into the bank in an attempted rescue would probably do Sandburg more harm than good. "Keep it quiet, Chief," he muttered under his breath. "Don't antagonize him."

Blair didn't have Sentinel hearing. He didn't shut up. "Trying to help, man. You don't want to kill these people. You only want Sandoval. As long as you have us, the police won't stop you, remember?" He cleared his throat nervously.

"As long as I have some of you," Waterson reminded him. "Nobody says you have to stay alive, hotshot. Who the hell are you anyway? A cop?"

"I teach at the university," Blair said hastily. "I'm an anthropologist. Nobody who can mess with you, man. Just a guy who grades papers. I am so harmless, man. I'm afraid of my own shadow."

"You better be more afraid of me, hero. Because when I start shooting, you'll be the first to go, right after Sandoval."

It took no imagination to see Sandburg sitting on the floor, spreading his hands pacifically. "I can help you, Steve. Talk to me. You don't want to hurt these people. They're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You only want Sandoval. These people are innocent, man. Let them go. You've got me. At least get that wounded man out of here."

"One more word out of you and I am personally going to scatter your brains on every wall of this room."

Jim could hear Sandburg's gulp. He must have believed Waterson because he didn't say anything else.

"I could hear, Jim," Banks said, gesturing at the phone. "He's got good instincts but this guy isn't buying it. It would take so little to send him off. The kid better lay low from now on. I wish he could hear you as well as you could hear him, so you could tell him to cool it." He raked a hand through his hair, and tried to get Waterson's attention again with a promise that Sandoval would be here soon.

Another round of fire from inside the bank proved the Captain's words. Ellison knew Sandburg was talking to try to keep him informed, but he wished his guide would just be quiet and not take any more risks. The SWAT team was working into position, and it might be possible to get a clear shot at Waterson through one of the high windows of the post office building. Sharpshooters were moving into position in neighboring buildings that offered the correct angle.

He could still hear Sandburg's breathing and heartbeat, sense his guide's anxiety. He hadn't been hit by the latest burst of fire. Ellison could tell Blair was scared but he hadn't fallen victim to a panic attack. He was in control of himself and doing his best to protect the other hostages. Ellison would have expected no less from him; Blair was one of the most inventive men Jim had ever met, ready to improvise a quick solution at the drop of a hat. Look at the way he had dealt with the elevator bomb. But Jim didn't want to leave him hanging. The longer the stalemate lasted, the worse was the risk to the hostages.

"Just hold it together a little while longer, Chief," he said in an undertone. "We'll get you out of there."

Blair's skin crawled with tension. The last few times Steve had fired had come way too close to him. A man on the other side of the room had sustained a slight graze to his left arm, but fortunately no one else had been hit. Sitting back against the envelope table, Blair watched a matronly woman bandaging the arm with a lacy handkerchief and an elastic belt from her pants suit. Steve eyed her with heavy suspicion while the panicked woman who had screamed before wept silently, a hand pressed hard against her mouth to keep from making any noise. Her friend had an arm around her shoulders, ready to hold her back if she lost control and tried to run. Blair made calming motions in her direction and the friend nodded and tightened her grip.

Blair let his eyes travel over the other hostages. Most of them looked too frightened to move, but there was a guy nearest the door who had a wild-eyed look Sandburg didn't trust at all. He'd edged an inch or so closer to escape every time Blair had distracted the gunman, and had even given him a smug thumbs' up when Blair had covered for talking to Jim with his praying excuse. The last thing Blair wanted to do was encourage the guy to make a crazy break for it. He'd wind up shot in the back. There was no way he could outrun an AK-47. Blair knew that but he could see the other guy didn't. A man midway between Jim and Blair in age, he had a self-confident, yuppie air, an Armani jacket, a Rolex watch, and the suggestion of conscious muscle as if he worked out to keep himself fit and believed this meant he could take on armed gunmen as part of his daily routine.

If he made a break for it, Steve would be on him in an instant, and who knew how many more hostages would die in the process?

The guy was trying to catch his eye now, probably wanting Blair to offer a distraction. But Sandburg avoided his gaze deliberately. He didn't plan to do anything to tick Steve off any further. And even if he had felt suicidal, the last thing he'd do was help this hotshot save himself at the expense of everybody else.

Most of the others were trying as hard as possible to turn invisible and Blair would have liked to practice invisibility himself, but he was the only one here who had any training at all, even if his knowledge was of the on-the-job variety picked up by riding around with Jim. That made Blair responsible. It was an option he would have loved to forego, but he couldn't. He could imagine Jim expecting him to 'do the right thing'. When Blair did what Jim considered right, he was inclined to offer praise, and praise from Jim Ellison was always to be valued. But that wasn't why Blair had to do it. It was because he knew enough to be responsible. He couldn't weasel out of this, no matter how much he wanted to pass the buck to the SWAT team and members of the Major Crimes unit who prepared themselves outside. They weren't in here. Blair was. Oh, man, I hate this. This really sucks.

The guy near the door shifted another inch or two. Blair watched him uneasily, avoiding eye contact, but he shook his head warningly. Don't do this, man. You won't make it.

"Where the hell is Sandoval?" Steve yelled at the top of his lungs. "Get him in here or there'll be a ton of dead people. You'll be up to your knees in blood." He must have liked the sound of that image, because he repeated it softly. The tone of his voice made Blair's stomach twist unhappily.

Steve fired another round at the front door. Glass shattered. People screamed. He fired another burst at the ceiling and one of the neon lights exploded, sending glass fragments raining down. Blair ducked involuntarily, hands over his head, while chunks of plaster ricocheted off his back. Chac Mool pressed painfully against his left thigh. Come and get me out of here, Jim, he thought desperately. I don't know how much longer I can do this, man.

"Shut up, shut up," Steve bellowed at the terrified hostages who hadn't done more than breathe. "I'll kill you, I swear to god I will."

"Easy, everybody," Blair tried. Jim would hear his voice, know he was still alive. "Steve, listen to me, man. We have to get that bank guard out of here. You don't want him to die. You don't want to be a murderer."

"I want Sandoval dead," screamed the gunman. "I want him to eat bullets. I want him dead, and if you don't shut up, you little hippie prick, I'll serve you up as an appetizer first."

Blair felt the room shudder with tension. He knew it was going down; he'd feel the bullet in another second. Worse, the hotshot by the door was ready to break for it and there was no way for Blair to save him. He stared up into Steve's mad eyes and felt more helpless than he had ever felt in his life before. He couldn't stop this. He knew he was going to die. I don't want it to end like this, he thought miserably. Jim, do something!

The yuppie lost it and sprang for the door, hoping to burst through the shattered glass and out onto the street. Steve jerked up the AK-47, whirling around to fire.

Almost without conscious volition, Blair grabbed the statue of Chac Mool and flung it with all his strength. It caught Steve on the back of the head just above the neck. Gun squirting from nerveless fingers in a burst of fire that came close enough to pluck at the yuppie's sleeve and slice a narrow line across his left earlobe, Steve dropped like a stone. The yuppie gave a near-soprano shriek and collapsed onto the marble floor, a damp stain spreading across the front of his designer jeans. Blair, who had come close to wetting his pants a few times during the crisis, could almost sympathize.

But there wasn't time for sympathy. He corralled the woman with the Pampers and the guy with the hip flask and they descended on Steve like avenging furies. "Hold him down, let's tie him up before he comes around," Blair urged. The blonde woman promptly sat down on his back to hold him in place while the businessman made sure he was really unconscious, then eased the AK-47 out of his reach.

Stunned and shaking, the other hostages started moving, some of them staggering to their feet, some of them breaking down in tears at the release of tension. Blair pulled Steve's hands behind his back and secured them with a roll of duct tape from his backpack, making sure it was tightly in place, passing the role of tape to the businessman to bind Steve's feet. Then he raised his voice and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Don't shoot. We got him. It's okay, Jim."

The yuppie sat up cautiously, fingering his ear, and scuttled away from the downed gunman, avoiding everyone's eyes.

When Ellison burst into the post office a minute later yelling for Sandburg, he was greeted by the sight of his guide sitting cross-legged beside the secured gunman, holding the statue of Chac Mool in his hand, while the shaken yuppie tried to blend into the background. The woman with the huge purse dabbed rubbing alcohol on his bleeding ear while Sharon emerged from behind the counter to offer sympathy to the hysterical woman.

"What the hell happened here, Chief?" Jim demanded urgently as Simon Banks, SWAT team members, three FBI agents, unmistakable in raincoats and sunglasses, and some of the detectives from Major Crimes spread out to check the survivors.

"He was gonna blast that guy," Blair said, pointing at the mortified yuppie. "He made a break for it and Steve was gonna shoot him in the back."

"What stopped him?"

"He did," said the woman with the giant purse, pointing at Blair. "He did it all, kept him calmed down, got the guy to let him bandage that man over there -- somebody should get paramedics for him right away." She beamed approvingly at Blair. "Then when this jackass --" her finger stabbed at the yuppie, "-- tried to run, and Steve was gonna shoot him in the back, he threw that thing at him. That statue. And hit him on the back of the head and knocked him out. He saved all our lives. He ought to get a medal."

"You threw that at him?" Jim demanded, eyes wide. He slid sideways to allow the EMT's room to race past with their equipment. "You hit him?" He dragged Blair to his feet, grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him over carefully for traces of injury. The Sentinel's fingers dug hard but it didn't occur to Blair to object. He could see the worry only just beginning to ebb in Jim's eyes and knew his friend's fear had been on his behalf. It made him feel suddenly humble.

"It was the only thing I could do, Jim," Blair said, shaky now that the crisis had passed. He felt about a hundred years old. It would have been great to get away and collapse somewhere. Maybe it was good that Jim was pretty much holding him up or he'd slide down in a puddle beside the gunman.

Jim exploded like a firecracker. "Do you know what a crazy risk you took, Sandburg? What if you'd missed? We had the SWAT team out there. That's their job, to take the guy down. He could have blown you away. Are you crazy?" He shook Blair lightly.

"Your precious SWAT team wasn't here. He was," the woman persisted. "He saved all our lives and I'll tell anybody who wants to know."

But Blair had heard the utter panic in Jim's voice when he charged in yelling his name. Jim had been worried about him. He'd been scared bad. He was mad because of that, giving Blair hell out of sheer relief. Blair couldn't help grinning a mile wide. Jim was reading him the riot act because he cared, and that meant more to Sandburg than anything.

"It wasn't your job to stop him, Sandburg," Simon joined the fray. Wow! Captain Banks had worried about him too. Blair loved it.

He couldn't hold back the delight, knowing it shone on his face. Jim could read it and understand it. He could always read Sandburg like a book. "What do you want me to say, guys?" Blair challenged them. "It doesn't matter how we did it, as long as we did it. I couldn't let him zap that guy. You know how it goes? 'There are nine and sixty ways of composing tribal lays. And-every-single-one-of-them-is-right.'"

"What the hell does that mean?" Jim's relief began to turn to anger.

"It's from one of Kipling's poems, Jim," Simon put in hastily as if he recognized the tone of Ellison's voice. "Don't tell me you never read Kipling. The kid's right. It worked. It wasn't the way we would have done it, but it was the only option he had. No cop could let somebody be gunned down if they had a way to stop it. I'd like to know what you would have done in here -- and I'd bet a week's salary it wouldn't have been waiting for the SWAT team."

"But he took a hell of a chance," Jim protested, still angry.

"And he's alive because of it and so are all these people." Banks replied, gesturing around the post office. He turned to the stunned anthropologist. "You did good, Blair. Next time, I'll see you have some hostage negotiation training."

Wow, he was 'Blair' to Simon? That didn't happen every day. "Can we just skip the 'next time'?" he asked hopefully.

"I'll buy that part, too," Jim agreed. "Can we get out of here?"

"Sure, Jim. Head over to the station and you and Sandburg write up your reports."

"Reports?" Blair echoed without enthusiasm. He just wanted to forget this as soon as he could. If he never had to play hostage again, he'd be content.

Banks grinned wickedly. "Goes with the territory, Sandburg. Then you and Jim take the rest of the day off."

"Come on, Chief," Jim urged, corralling Blair with a chokehold and pointing him in the direction of the door before Simon could change his mind. Blair wiggled free and started for the door, stunned when his fellow hostages suddenly burst into a round of applause for him. He felt color run across his face and managed a crooked grin before Jim steered him away.

"Oh, man, I hate that." He was sure his face had reddened.

"Goes with the territory," Jim told him. "Come on, hero. Let's get you out of here."

Blair shuddered involuntarily. "Don't call me that, Jim. It's what he said." He gestured at the downed Steve, who was stirring restlessly and struggling against his bonds. In spite of what the man had put them through, Blair felt a sudden, overwhelming relief that he hadn't killed him.

As if he sensed the change of mood, Jim all but pushed him out the door and fended off questioning reporters all the way back to the truck.

"I didn't mess things up in there?" Blair asked Jim when they arrived at the loft, carrying bags of Chinese take out and dumping them on the coffee table. "You know, really screw up?"

"Hell, no, you didn't screw up." Jim flopped down on the couch and dug impatiently in one of the bags. "Where the hell are the crab rangoons? What makes you think you screwed up? You handled it great, Chief. I could hear you talking to him. You warned me what was going down and you played it just right."

"I know I took a chance with the statue," Blair said slowly, depositing Chac Mool on the table next to the food bags. "I could have missed."

Jim froze, a crab rangoon in one hand, a container of sweet and sour sauce in the other. He'd been trying to avoid that thought since he'd realized what had happened. "Come on, Chief, I've seen you throw a baseball. You're good -- and you were too close to him to miss." It wouldn't be smart to let him worry over the possibility of a miss. Knowing Sandburg, he'd be sure to brood himself into an anxiety attack over it.

"It was that guy's only chance," Blair burst out. "He was a loose cannon; he was gonna run. I knew he was but I couldn't get him not to. I could only wait and hope I could do something. God, Jim, I was scared."

"You'd have to be insane not to be scared in a situation like that," Jim consoled him. "But you held it together. You didn't panic, and you did what needed to be done. You were right about your 'nine and sixty ways' of whatever. What the hell is a tribal lay, anyway?" He plunged on before Sandburg could enlighten him, probably at great length. "Sometimes there's just no other choice. You've got great instincts. You did the right thing, you saved all those people, and that's what matters. I've gotta say this is probably the first time a crazed postal employee got taken down with a Mayan statue, though."

"Well, Mayan with a Toltec influence, Jim," Blair started to explain, continuing hastily as Jim frowned, not particularly interested in an archaeological discourse. "What will happen to him?" Sandburg persisted. "He wasn't sane, Jim. I could see it in his eyes. That's why I had to keep backing down. Because I knew if I pushed him one inch too far he'd go ballistic."

"He didn't kill anyone," Ellison replied. "That guard from the bank is going to be all right with some therapy, and there were a couple of flesh wounds from near misses and flying glass, but Sandoval wasn't jeopardized. He showed up right after you got him, Simon said. Shaking like a leaf. He's okay. Everybody is. And that's thanks to you."

Blair felt uncomfortably close to bawling and knew it was reaction. "Thanks, Jim," he said fervently.

Ellison patted him on the arm and gestured at the take out bags. "Eat something."

"God, Jim, I'm too wired to eat. What a day! And you did great too. You had to be focused like crazy and you didn't bring on a zone-out. Wow, I wonder if motivation has anything to do with that. Sure, Simon was there but he was too busy to coach you through it. You had to do it on your own. And you showed me you could. You showed yourself. I bet this means we could run some more tests and see just how far you could go. Because you've gotta use your senses sometimes when I'm not there to monitor you, and the more we can find out how you avoided a zone-out, the safer it's gonna be for you."

"I should have known you'd be pushing for more tests before very long."

Blair's face fell. Ellison knew without a second's hesitation that Sandburg had suddenly remembered his tirade of the morning, the way he'd sent his guide off into danger without unbending for an instant. He still felt like a jerk over that.

"Oh, well, Jim, sorry, I don't want to bother you." Damn it, the kid was a prime manipulator. Check out that sneaky look in his eyes. He knew he could push it after the post office incident.

"Like hell." He couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. "You are waaaaay too transparent, Chief. I know what you're up to."

"Yeah, Jim?" Blue eyes sparkled with mirth.

"Yeah. And just because I let you get away with it this time doesn't mean you can make it a habit, you got me?"

For an instant Jim was afraid Blair was about to hug him, but then his guide bit his bottom lip to restrain wicked laughter. "I'll take it any way I can get it," he said.

"Yeah, I figured that. Stay away from guys with AK-47's next time, okay?" He reached out and tousled Sandburg's hair.

"No fair, yours is too short for retaliation to be fun." But Blair lunged for him anyway and they enjoyed a wrestling match that did wonders to relieve the tensions of the day. When Jim succeeded in pinning the smaller man to the couch, Blair shot out a hand sideways and grabbed up his little green statue from the table. "Don't forget, I'm armed."

Jim let him go, grinning. "I'll get you a badge that reads 'deadly with artifacts'," he threatened.

Blair wiggled free, bounced up, and reached for one of the food bags. "You know, maybe I am hungry after all. I mean it's okay. I don't have to worry about not being loved, after all."

"Oh, for god's sake, Sandburg," Jim exploded involuntarily, and both of them cracked up laughing.