by Sheila Paulson
Summary: When Blair's burned out car is found with a body in it, Jim doesn't want to accept that his guide is dead. Rated PG.
Author's Notes: Originally published in Observations on the Function of a Modern Sentinel.
Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, The Sentinel and its characters do not belong to me but to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount.
But where will you go
and who will be your guide
and which way will you turn
the waters are so wide
cos I never told you
no you'll never really know
I need you so
--This Morning: Hayward and Lodge
Geena Craven was going to die. She knew she was going to die, alone, desperate, deprived of air. Shivering, even if the room was too warm, she struggled against the bonds that held her, the duct tape around her wrists, the gag in her mouth.
She'd told him not to gag her, pleaded with him, insisted she wouldn't be able to breathe. After three weeks in Cascade the damp weather had played havoc with her always-sensitive sinuses. Her nose would clog up, and with the gag in place, she'd suffocate and die.
About to place a strip of duct tape across her mouth, the burglar paused, frowned--she could tell that in spite of the ski mask he wore-- then pulled a grimy handkerchief from his jeans pocket and shoved it into her mouth instead. "I don't want to kill you, lady, just get away. You can spit this out eventually, but by then I'll be gone. Hubby will come home and untie you, and you'll be free, just a whole lot poorer."
She cringed away from the filthy rag in her mouth, already feeling it drying her tongue. She hadn't dared to let on that Jack wouldn't be home at the normal time. They'd just moved to Cascade so he could take up his new position at Dyno-Tech, and there had been paperwork on the old house he'd needed to complete. Jack had flown back to Chicago and wouldn't return until Sunday night. She hadn't lived here long enough to make friends who would miss her and her own new job didn't start for a week and a half. No one would ever know, not until Jack came home in two days and found her dead. Dead at thirty. She couldn't bear it.
The young man patted her cheek, making her cringe. "You've been good. I don't want to hurt you. I'll call when I reach--where I'm going, and tell the police about you. But I can't let you cry out and warn anyone about me." He shoved the money from the wall safe into a manila envelope. She'd always told Jack not to keep money around the house, but Jack had always been a high roller; he liked to keep cash on hand. He called it his safety cushion in case the bank crashed or the economy folded. There was even more money here than usual because they'd moved so recently. Jack had meant to deposit most of it in their new bank account but he hadn't gotten around to it yet. Whether the burglar had learned Jack's monetary habit or if he'd simply been lucky Geena didn't know. He'd known enough to break into the safe by the time she crept into the room to investigate the sounds she'd heard.
"Don't worry. You'll be able to yell soon enough. It's all right, babe. I might like other people's money but I haven't killed anyone yet. " He smiled, and it sent chills down her spine. "Don't worry. You won't die." He stuffed the envelope under his light denim jacket, into the back waistband of his jeans, and left the room, whistling to himself.
*Jack, I need you*, she thought desperately. Already she could imagine her sinuses clogging up, depriving her of air. Frantically she started spitting, trying to work the gag free.
Jim Ellison had been uneasy for what seemed like hours. What's more, he thought it had to do with Sandburg. It wasn't as if there were any kind of psychic link between them or anything. Sandburg couldn't read his mind and he couldn't read Sandburg's. But Blair had already taken over the loft and slid into Jim's life so smoothly that it was hard for Ellison to remember a life without the kid filling the day with eager enthusiasm, weird health foods, crazy music, obscure tests. Some of it irked the hell out of him, but for the most part, Jim liked it. Sure, he'd had to lay down a few ground rules. It was that or give up any rights in the loft, because the kid was like a human bulldozer, roaring in and filling up the spaces with chunks of his life. That Jim would miss those chunks if Blair should leave was a given, never mentioned but accepted by both men.
Sandburg was in his mind in ways he'd never expected. Nights when he'd been under stress and insomnia threatened he could always fall asleep by focusing his hearing on the reassuring beat of his Guide's heart as he slept the sleep of total abandon. Knowing he had a guide, a friend, just down a flight of stairs while he slept made a difference Jim hadn't thought about it much but it was a difference he wouldn't give up. The kid had wormed his way in at the station, too, so that even Simon had come to tolerate him, to respect his intellect and the unusual perspective he could offer a tricky case. Simon wouldn't admit it, but he liked Blair these days. He'd probably rather be tortured than admit it, but Blair knew.
Tonight uneasiness had come creeping into Jim's awareness, gradually distracting him from the pre-season Jag's game he'd been watching. Sandburg had told him he'd be working late but wouldn't be home much past ten. It was nine forty-five when the feeling became a conscious one, when Jim realized he'd been watching for nearly ten minutes without seeing a play or noticing the score.
He closed his eyes and focused. Obviously sight wasn't the issue here, and he could rule out taste and touch as well. Was he smelling a faint and indistinct odor that triggered a memory? Smells were evocative and had a subtle effect on the memory. But he sorted through the smells in the loft and every one of them could be traced to a valid source. Hearing? First he focused out the sound of the game on television. Riding dangerously close to a zone-out, he concentrated entirely on the hearing until his apartment faded away from him. He could hear a couple fighting in an apartment on the other side of the street, a woman singing along with her car radio, or rather fondly imagining the sound she made was singing. He heard a cat howl in the alley, a thunder nearby that was the ticking of the clock. But there was nothing to indicate what danger his subconscious had realized without him. Shaking himself to awareness again took a conscious effort. He realized he'd been drifting for nearly half an hour. The game had ended without his noticing it. The local news had come and gone, and in its place was a talk show, Jay Leno doing his monologue. He'd really zoned out. But the uneasiness that clutched at the pit of his stomach was still there.
It was about Blair. He knew, without a single clue, that he was alert to a danger to his friend even if he didn't understand it and didn't have any way to verify it. As near as he could figure it, Sentinels weren't telepathic. Blair had never said anything about an enhanced sixth sense, and when Jim had wondered about it once out of idle curiosity he'd never mentioned it for fear of an endless round of new tests. "Damn it, Sandburg," he muttered. Crossing to the balcony windows he frowned down at the street below for traces of Blair's car, but it wasn't parked along the street.
Jim called Sandburg's office at Rainier University but the telephone rang and rang. He hadn't turned his office answering machine on when he left. Could that be part of the trouble? No, he forgot it half the time anyway.
Then he heard footsteps outside the door. "Sandburg, if that's you...." he began, falling silent when he realized he'd recognized the sound; not Sandburg but his captain, Simon Banks. He flung the door open then froze in alarm at the expression on Simon's face.
The tall black man stood there, his eyes huge behind his glasses, new lines etched in his face since Jim had seen him at the end of his shift. They were lines of grief and regret, and of a horrible reluctance to speak that made Jim's stomach twist into a tight, anguished knot.
"Sandburg?" he blurted, grabbing Simon by the arm and dragging him into the loft. "This is about Blair, isn't it?"
"God, Jim, I'm sorry. His car went off the Gray Street overpass at high speed and landed down there near the Northside Pier. It exploded and burned on impact." He sounded like he was reciting a nasty lesson learned by rote, not one shred of expression in his voice. His eyes glittered with a suspicious brightness that made Jim think oddly, *Blair will never let him live that down*. "A...body was retrieved. He was the right size, right height. We couldn't identify him visually. He had been...badly burned. I saw it; he's unrecognizable, but for a few strands of long hair at the back of his head where he was pinned against the seatback and the fire didn't quite touch. But--" His mouth twisted as if the memory of what he had seen made him want to go off and be sick.
"If he's unrecognizable..." Jim discovered it was hard to wrap his tongue around those words, but he forced them out in an attempt to prove Simon was wrong.
"Jim, they found the remains of a wallet in his pocket. The forensics guys might be able to get a name out of it. From what I could tell, it looked like he was wearing that leather jacket he had on this morning at the station." He reached out and gripped Jim's shoulders. "God, I'm sorry, Jim. What with the car and the bits of that jacket we could identify--Blair is dead."
Jim stared at him blankly as if he'd said, "My cat can fly." Simon's words made every bit as much sense as that. "I don't..." he began, then it came together; the deep uneasiness he'd been feeling. "It's a mistake," he said, his tongue still numb, his lips barely able to frame the words. It was funny he could talk when there was a sudden empty hole inside him so big it seemed to swallow up his entire body. A crashing pain replaced the numbness, and he yanked himself free of Simon's hands. "It's just a damn coincidence!"
"Jim, come on. Jim, I know..." Simon began, dropping soothing hands on Ellison's shoulders, but Jim pushed free of the comfort without even realizing what it was, his entire being caught up in Simon's news.
*Oh, god, not Blair*. "It's not Sandburg," he insisted, angry at Simon for making such a stupid mistake, for coming here and lying to him. "He's not dead," he said with cold reason. "Don't you think I'd know if he was dead. I'd know." He wanted to believe that so badly, but deep down inside, he was afraid it was wishful thinking. No. He didn't want to accept that. He was supposed to know, wasn't he? Blair was his best friend.
"I'd *know*," he insisted desperately. "I'd know. I'd kn..." The last word trailed off and he closed his eyes tightly, straining for evidence of Sandburg's existence, proof his friend still lived. There was nothing in his mind, no psychic tie to his Guide, nothing he could reach. Damn it, there was supposed to be. There was supposed to. He was a Sentinel, Blair was his guide. He'd know. But he couldn't feel anything, no mental strands connecting them.
That didn't mean anything, though, just that he wasn't up on his ESP. Fine, then he'd do it with his five senses. Out there in the city, thousands of hearts beat, their sound echoing and resonating in his mind until the quest for the one that beat no longer overwhelmed it. He should be able to sense Blair, sense his awareness, the bright mind, the eager enthusiasm. It should stand out like a beacon. But the city beat and pulsed with stranger's hearts and he couldn't find his way out of the thudding that rose up to dominate every fiber of his consciousness so he could narrow it down to the one heartbeat that mattered.
Simon's hands closed around his upper arms, fingers digging tight, the bigger man shaking him violently, yelling his name. "Jim! Snap out of it, Jim. Don't you dare zone out on me. I don't know how to snap you out of it."
He sagged in Simon's grip, conscious, aware, hating the heightened senses that had failed him when he had most needed them. He would never use them again! They had betrayed him, made him fail Blair, left him alone, a Sentinel without a Guide. Without a purpose. Without his friend. Without anything that mattered. "It's just some stupid mistake," he insisted, but he knew from Simon's face that he believed it. There were a couple of tear-streaks down the black man's cheeks that he hadn't even noticed. Jim stared at them, then he reached exploring fingers up to touch his own cheeks. They were dry. His eyes were dry and his heart was hard in his chest like a stone. If he cried, it would be true. Blair would be dead. As long as he didn't cry it was all a lie. "It's not true." Any minute now, Blair would come strutting into the apartment, arms full of books, bouncing around, greeting Simon, proving it was a lie.
"God, Jim, I'd give anything I had for it to be a mistake," Simon told him. He steered Ellison over to the couch and pushed him down on it. Jim found it easier to move than to resist. He sat there gazing up at the taller man.
"So what the heck...do I do now?" he said. He could hear his voice, small and stunned, and empty.
Simon winced at the sound of it. "Do you want me to stay with you?" he asked.
"No," said Jim without hesitation. "I'm all right." The conventional words were automatic. They had nothing to do with reality. He wasn't sure he could ever *be* all right again. He was a man without a soul. His soul had died in a fiery crash tonight. "No," he said again. "It's not true. It's just a goddamn mixup, Simon."
Simon patted his shoulder and vanished into the kitchen where Jim could hear him making coffee. Every sound was vivid to him, every movement, the pressure of the sofa against back, buttocks, and legs, the flickering glow from the television screen, the smell of the coffee as it percolated. Jim made an abrupt, chopping gesture and tried to block them out. He didn't want heightened senses. All they had done was draw Blair into his life and then take him away again.
When Simon handed him a cup of coffee, he muttered a vague thanks, and tried to appear normal enough for Simon to go away. The coffee was hot, but anyone would be able to tell that. He didn't need to be a Sentinel to drink coffee. He didn't need heightened senses. He only needed....
"I want to go to the scene," he insisted.
"Jim, no. It--you shouldn't see him. Don't make that the last image of him in your mind."
He could understand Simon's words, his reasoning, but that didn't matter. "I need to see where it happened," he insisted. "You owe me that, Simon. I'm going. I've got the right."
Banks shook his head but not in denial. "All right, Jim, I guess I owe you that. Grab your coat. It's cold out there."
Cold? It was cold for Blair. Jim snatched his jacket automatically and headed for the door. He'd prove they were wrong, somehow he'd prove it. Blair was alive. He had to be.
The gun that jabbed Blair in the spine was totally unexpected. He'd been caught up in planning a new experiment to try on Jim when he returned home, working out the details and dreaming up a way to convince Jim he ought to come in to be connected to electrodes so a brain scan could be made when focusing. Blair had arranged time in the science lab with an incurious teaching fellow, who didn't care what Blair did as long as he did it after hours and cleaned up afterward. Sandburg was pretty sure his friend wasn't going to stand for Sentinel testing that required that kind of monitoring, but the time was free and he didn't want to waste it.
Hurrying across the dark parking lot he'd felt a momentary regret that he'd parked so far from a streetlight. The weight of the books he balanced against his chest was so heavy that he had to lean slightly backwards to compensate. He'd just reached his car and unlocked the door, dropping the books into the passenger seat. When he gun poked him in the spine, he wasn't thinking of muggers, just relief. There was only one other car near his, and no one else in sight.
"Okay, gimme your keys," snarled an angry, young voice in his ear.
The whole scenario felt so surreal that Blair choked down an uneasy laugh. "Man, did you pick the wrong car," he exclaimed involuntarily.
"Shut up." The gun barrel poked hard enough to hurt. "I don't want to shoot you here; somebody might hear. But I will if you don't gimme the keys."
Blair held them out to be snatched roughly. "Get in, get in," urged the gunman, prodding Blair to scramble into the passenger seat, dumping the books on the floor in his hurry to obey. If only Jim had arranged to pick him up tonight, but he had an early class in the morning and he would need it. So he didn't have Cascade's best cop to back him. *Can you sense I'm in trouble, Jim? Can you feel a link? I think I'm in deep shit here. Come and find me, man.*
The driver scurried around the car, the gun never lowering. Blair considered diving out again and running for the ditch but it was twenty yards away and he knew he couldn't make it before a bullet found his back. That wasn't the answer. Maybe there would be a better chance later on. After all, he had to be smarter than the gunman. Maybe he could work out a solution. The guy hadn't gunned him down in cold blood or even whacked him on the head. Maybe all he really wanted was the car. He'd dump Blair along the road and the young anthropologist could flag down a cop or passing motorist.
The guy wasn't much taller than Blair, an inch at most, and his hair was long, too, though a little more tightly curled, and he wore it pulled back in a pony tail. His face was hard with desperation, though, displaying none of Blair's easygoing good nature. The gun remained steady as he slid into the driver's seat and reached around awkwardly to stick the key into the ignition with his left hand. "You try anything when we're driving and I'll blow your head off," he growled and started the car.
"What do you want with me?" Blair demanded, moderating his voice to sound soothing. The last thing he wanted to do was upset the guy.
"For starters, your wallet. Hand it over."
Blair did. The driver opened the wallet and flipped through the contents in disbelief. "I see why you drive a car like this," he said.
Sandburg shrugged. At least he wouldn't lose much money.
The driver tucked the wallet into his jeans pocket. "Now your jacket," he said.
"It's leather," complained Blair. The jacket might be old but he loved it. He'd gotten it broken in entirely to his satisfaction.
"I don't care if it's 18-carat gold, it's mine," the gunman replied. "Gimme."
With a sigh, Blair shrugged out of the jacket and the gunman put it on very carefully over his own denim one, involving a couple of dexterous moves with the gun when he slid his right arm into the sleeve. Blair never felt his attention wavered enough to make a jump for him, not when the car was already in gear. Instead he wrapped his arms around his chest. It was October, and the night air was crisp, leaving him grateful for his long-sleeved shirt. He glanced around the near-deserted parking lot but the other cars stood unattended and there was no one to witness his abduction. *I hope you're paying attention, Jim, Blair thought urgently. Tune in to me, focus on me. I need you to come and take out this creep.*
The gunman lifted his foot from the brake and peeled out of the parking lot with a wailing squeal of tires. *Listen up, Jim. Tune in. Find me.* Of course they'd have to get close enough for Jim to sense his heartbeat. And the creep's route led nowhere near the loft. If only he'd insisted on those tests to find out if Jim had any extra-sensory abilities, enhanced the way his five senses were. It would have come in handy right about now.
The idiot handled his car like he was going into the final turn in the last lap of the Indy 500. Blair watched him carefully, hoping for a chance to escape.
As soon as he was away from the university the gunman slowed down and proceeded at a slightly more decorous pace toward the waterfront. He probably wanted to catch the freeway that looped just this side of the harbor. After that, he could be up the coast, link up with The I-5 and be on his way to Canada before anyone even knew he was missing. Or vanish into an even bigger city like Seattle.
Before he reached the freeway, he cut off the street, turned down a narrow alley, and pulled to a stop. Gesturing Blair out with the gun, he slid after him across the seat, leaving Blair with no chance to run. The thought of ending his life in a filthy back alley made his stomach knot up. "Come on, guy, just leave me here, you don't need to do this."
"Inside," snapped the gunman. He gestured to the abandoned warehouse ahead of him. He was going to kill Blair in there, in the darkness, where he might not be found for weeks.
"You don't want to do this," Blair soothed. "I'm no threat to you."
"Inside." He gave Blair's shoulders a shove, and Blair stumbled over the threshold, then, with a horrified yell, he found himself falling. The warehouse had no floor. He pitched down into blackness without a clue about how deep the drop was, all his fear of heights stampeding back.
He hit the bottom with his right foot and left wrist and felt his ankle turn, and a searing pain shoot up his left arm before he bumped his forehead and the darkness took him, still waiting for the impact of the bullet into his back that never came, never feeling the soft, fluttering fall of the denim jacket that landed across his shoulders to provide him just enough warmth to survive. He didn't hear the gun the carjacker tossed away now that he had what he wanted land among the crates either, burying itself in rubble.
By the time Jim and Simon arrived at the crash scene the car fire was out and smaller fires that had caught among the piles of garbage and abandoned crates had been doused, too. Jim climbed out of Simon's car and stood staring in wide-eyed horror at the burned out wreck. Sandburg's car hadn't been that great to start with, but this...
Because it *was* Blair's car. There was no questioning that. But Blair was a good driver. He might speed, but never enough to cause a spectacular crash like this one. Could the accelerator have jammed?
No. Questions like that didn't help. He scanned the crash-site, focusing his vision slightly. No body. It would have been removed to the morgue already. Whoever it was. Not Blair. Yes, it had been Blair's car, possibly Blair's jacket, maybe even Blair's wallet although they hadn't proven that yet. But not Blair.
An object moved under his foot and he bent to retrieve it automatically. It was a book, crisped about the edges, pages torn, cover blackened and soaked with water from the firemen's hoses, but when Jim brushed his fingers over the cover, he could just make out the title. "Tribal Family Structure in Oceania." And when he flipped open the cover, he could see one of those fanciful bookplates with a picture of Darth Vader that Naomi had given Blair last year for Christmas that he'd been so tickled over. "Property of Blair Sandburg," it read in the familiar scrawled handwriting.
Jim's fingers tightened convulsively on the ruined book. Seeing it hit home like nothing had until now. Anguish tearing through him, he threw back his head and cried, "Nooooo."
Simon was at his side in a second, clasping his shoulder, fingers squeezing sympathetically. "Easy, Jim. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought you here." He held out a hand for the book.
Jim clutched it against his chest, holding onto it as if it was all that was left of Blair.
"Captain Banks?" It was one of the investigating officers approaching them slowly. Jim knew him but his mind was blank and he couldn't remember the guy's name. "I'm glad you're back. The ambulance driver found this when they were loading the body into the ambulance." He held out a manila envelope that was charred around the corners and covered with soot, enclosed in a plastic evidence bag. "He had it tucked into the back waistband of his jeans under the jacket. It didn't receive as much exposure to the fire, especially the way he was pinned in there, rammed up against the seat." His eyes flicked to Jim, moved away in embarrassment. Jim didn't like the expression on his face, but he didn't understand it.
"Has this been printed?" Simon asked, peering into the envelope without touching it, his eyes widening. He pushed his glasses into place with a long finger.
"They did a preliminary and they're going to run prints on it, but it's not in very good shape," the man said. "What with the charred condition, I don't think the envelope itself will hold prints." Radeke, that was his name, Jim suddenly remembered. He didn't know the man very well. "But when we saw the contents--" He broke off abruptly.
"And this was actually on the body?" Simon demanded tightly. He did not appear at all happy.
"What is it?" Jim asked, shaken from his misery by Simon's perplexed frown and narrowed eyes.
"It's nearly $100,000," Radeke replied. "All in twenties and one hundred dollar bills."
Jim felt a sudden surge of anger pump through him. "If you're trying to make it look like Sandburg was into anything crooked--" he cried with heat.
"Easy, Jim, no one's saying that," Simon soothed. But Jim could see it in the investigator's eyes, even a faint hint of doubt around Simon's tight mouth. Simon knew Blair and trusted him, but he wore the expression of a man who was trying to come up with a scenario where the presence of so much money could be explained innocently and couldn't. Why the hell would Blair have had money like that? It proved to Jim that, whoever the dead man was, he hadn't been Blair Sandburg. Blair didn't have that kind of money. He barely had enough to pay the rent and keep his car running. This meant the dead man was someone else. He had to be.
"Then what the hell *are* you saying, Captain? That Blair was into something shady? He wasn't, I can guarantee it. The guy who died in that car wasn't Blair and this proves it." He felt nothing about the evidence bag that could tie it to his friend.
"Jim, it happened. The ambulance guys had nothing to prove. If they'd been crooked they'd have kept this. Most of it is intact, at least enough to use." He reached out and clasped Jim's shoulder again. "Jim, he was found in Sandburg's car. He had on Sandburg's jacket and had his wallet in his pocket. He had long, curly hair. Who else could he be? If you claim it's not the kid, then we not only have to wonder who the dead man was but where is Sandburg. There are too many certainties for it to be anyone else. As for the money, there's bound to be an innocent explanation for it. I can't see the kid as dirty."
Jim's mouth was tight. "It wasn't Sandburg," he said stubbornly.
"Jim, we'll prove it one way or another. They'll check his dental records. They'll be able to ID the wallet."
Ellison pulled away from the captain's hand. "It's not Sandburg," he insisted desperately. Once again he tried to stretch out and find Blair's heartbeat, but he couldn't pick it out, not out of all the heartbeats in Cascade. Jim wasn't sure how far he could reach, but he always knew before he reached the third floor if Blair was in the loft. He could find him at headquarters even if he was on another floor. Beyond that, he'd probably need Sandburg to coach him through it....
He closed his mind to his senses. To use them would only cause pain. "It's not Sandburg," he said again, his voice raising. "It's *not Sandburg*." He'd been so sure he'd know....
"Come on, Jim," Simon said gently, dropping his arm around Jim's resistant shoulders. "I'll take you home."
The air was going. She was fading, losing control. No matter how hard she struggled, Geena couldn't breathe. She was going to die.
*Oh, god, Jack, I need you. Please. Come and find me.*
She worked her tongue furiously, and the gag popped out. Stunned with relief, she took long, desperate breaths through her mouth. Maybe it was all right. Maybe she would live.
At first, her every concentration was given to breathing. She was really alive. He hadn't murdered her. But she was frightened. What if he thought she could identify him? Yes, he'd had the ski mask on, but she'd seen that long, curly hair escaping from it. She knew his size, his posture. She'd memorized them. She thought she might be able to pick him out of a line-up. What if he came back? What if he had meant her to die, in spite of his reassurance?
With a sigh, she struggled to push herself upright on the couch. The duct tape that held her hands behind her back was not so tight to shut off circulation entirely in her hands and feet, but it was tight enough to keep her from struggling with it. She hadn't tried to stand up before; breathing had been more urgent. But now she gazed longingly at the telephone on Jack's gleaming, glass-topped desk. If she could get up, knock the receiver off the hook, maybe she could back up to the phone and punch in 911. Maybe even do it with her nose. Able to breathe again, she had ideas in profusion.
"HELP ME!" she cried at the top of her lungs. "Somebody, help me!" But the den was in the rear of the house, and she didn't think her cries would reach to the street.
Grateful for the hours she and Jack had spent at the fitness center in Chicago, she struggled awkwardly to her feet, wavering as she tried to catch her balance. Then, with grim determination, she hopped over to the desk, turned around and boosted herself up onto the desktop, sliding sideways until she reached the phone. It was hard to lift the receiver with her bound hands, but she managed it, driven by her desperation. Fumbling with her fingers, she pushed the buttons she thought were right, but must have missed. Nothing happened. With a sob, she clicked the button with her fingers and felt carefully, trying to remember what was placed where. This time, there was an answer.
With a sob, she raised her voice, wiggling around to face the receiver. "A man in a ski mask broke into my home and tied me up while he robbed us. Please help me." She was too far from the receiver to hear the reply, but she flopped down on her side and wiggled closer until she could hear the operator asking for her name and address.
"Geena Craven, 6798 Lyndenwood Drive," she said. "I'm tied up with duct tape and I can't untie myself. Please, send help quickly."
The calm and soothing voice reassured her that a squad car would arrive within five minutes.
"The door's locked, but they can break it open," she said into the mouthpiece. "The kitchen door might even be open. I think that's how he broke in. Tell them to try that first."
"Ma'am, is the burglar still in the house?"
"No, he left at least an hour ago, probably more. I lost track of the time. He'd gagged me and I just worked the gag free. He said he didn't want me yelling until he was far away. He said he didn't mean to hurt me, but I'm so scared."
"It's all right, ma'am. You should hear the siren approaching very soon now."
She strained her ears and was rewarded with a distant wail. "Yes, I can hear it now."
"Don't hang up the phone, ma'am. The officers will do that when they arrive."
It was less than two minutes later when two uniformed policemen found her and freed her, being very gentle about pulling the duct tape from her wrists and ankles. Soon she was seated on the couch, curled up in one corner, a throw pillow clutched in her arms for comfort. One of the officers left as soon as she was freed to check the house, the other picked up the phone to talk to the 911 operator. Geena didn't listen. She just sat there, shivering with reaction.
Five minutes later the second cop returned bearing a cup of steaming hot coffee in one of the blue ceramic mugs Jack's aunt had given them for a wedding present. She curled her fingers around the cup.
"He said he didn't want to hurt me."
"What did he look like, Mrs. Craven?" The officer who had stayed with her hand the name "Pauling" on his uniform. He was Jack's age, mid- thirties, with wideset eyes of the deepest blue she had ever seen. Laughter lines creased their corners, and the wide mouth had to struggle not to turn up. Geena trusted him instinctively.
"He had a ski mask on. But he was really short, shorter than me." She was five foot nine in her stocking feet. "He was slim, and he had long, curly hair. I could see it poking out the back of the mask like he'd pulled it into a pony tail. He had blue eyes, not quite as blue as yours, Officer Pauling, but very blue. He moved easily like he was in good shape, and I think he was young. I couldn't see his hands; he had on leather gloves so he wouldn't leave fingerprints. He had on blue jeans." She closed her eyes trying to remember. "I think I'd know him if I saw him, but I can't guarantee it, especially since I couldn't see his face. But I might be able to tell from the way he moved or if I heard him talk. I don't think I could ever forget that voice."
"Could you see any distinguishing features at all?" The cop who had brought her coffee, Officer Stressner, leaned down to ask the question. He was probably 6'3, and thin with a wiry strength. His face held less emotion than Pauling's did but his eyes were sympathetic.
"Only the hair. I did think his face might be slightly roundish--he didn't have a long face anyway; I could tell that much even with the mask on. But I know I can't be helpful. He didn't leave fingerprints. I think he was parked in the parking lot behind our fence. It's university parking, but there are a row of pine trees there. You can't see the parking lot from the rear windows, except from the attic, but you can squeeze between the trees and reach it. There's a path; I think students used to cut through the property before we moved in. Jack's going to put up a fence." Aware that she was babbling, she reined herself in. "He took almost $100,000 in cash. Mostly in hundreds with some twenties. Yes, I know," she said at their frowns. "It isn't smart to keep that much cash around. Jack, my husband, always did. He was going to replace the safe that came with the house with a modern one but we've only been here three weeks. He's ordered the replacement but it hasn't come. You don't suppose anyone from the safe company would have done it?"
"Who else would know there was so much money here?"
"No one. The safe company didn't know. We only said we wanted a better safe, not what we wanted to use it for. Whether Jack said anything at the office I don't know. Please, might I call him? He had to go back to Chicago; our house there was about to fall out of escrow."
"You and your husband are wealthy, ma'am?" asked Stressner.
"Jack pulls down a healthy six figures a year, and he inherited a lot of money from his grandfather. Wealthy? We aren't millionaires, but we have enough to tempt a thief." She sipped the steaming coffee, feeling it trace a path of warmth down her throat.
"We'll report it in, ma'am," said Pauling. "But recovery of cash is always difficult. And since you never saw the thief's face..."
"If you mean we're simply out the money, I know that," she said. "But there has to be a way to find out who he was."
"We'll do all we can," Pauling promised her. "But we might never know who took your money."
Blair revived with a heartfelt groan, lying chilled and shivering, with a dull pain in his right ankle and a worse one in his left wrist. At first the only thought that penetrated was his misery; he was cold and suffering, aching all over, and nothing made sense. Opening his eyes revealed a thick, weighted darkness with a faint strip of light slashing across a wall above his head. Its pattern was not familiar, and he didn't know where he was. This wasn't his room in the loft and the hard, gritty surface beneath him was hardly a bed. But gradually awareness filtered through and he groped feebly at the slight weight across his shoulders. It felt like a jacket, and putting it on seemed the most important thing he could do. Shivering violently, he pushed himself up in the darkness, squinting at the faint edge of light high overhead. He was grateful to that sliver of illumination that traced a path down the wall. It meant he could see, and in such a time of confusion, vision was a positive ability. He didn't have Jim's edge, but...
"Oh, man, Jim, I'm in a mess," he said aloud, his voice echoing weirdly in the darkness. Wherever he was, it was a large room. Even if he wasn't a Sentinel, he could feel the space around him, open and empty. A man didn't have to have heightened senses to know when he was alone.
"*Jim*!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. If Jim was searching for him, if it was late enough for Jim to have missed him, he might be open to the sound even if he was a distance away. "Jim! Come and find me. Get with the program here. Jim?" His voice echoed through the emptiness. Blair had no way of telling if Jim--if anyone--had heard him.
Sitting up made his head spin, but after the first few queasy moments, it settled down again leaving a dull ache in his forehead. He raised his right hand--the one that didn't hurt--and touched the sore place. Already a knot was rising. He must have hit his head when he fell.
Fell? Pushed! Memory settled into place and he recalled what had happened, the carjacker, the shove into darkness in the abandoned warehouse. How far had he fallen? He didn't know. He was hurt, but he thought he'd have worse injuries if he had fallen further than one level. Had the whole warehouse been missing a floor or was there only a gap near the door? From the pattern of the light that probably came from a streetlight he thought large chunks of the floor had gone.
But first he had to warm himself up. Groping for the thing that had lain across his shoulders, he realized it really was a jacket. Maybe the carjacker had thrown it down after him, maybe it had been here already. That didn't matter. He slid his arms into it, the motion causing pain to flare through his left wrist, so acute he cried out involuntarily, feeling sick to his stomach. Was his wrist broken? He finished pulling on the jacket, then, very carefully, he tried to flex his fingers. They moved obediently but the action sent pain stabbing from his fingers to his elbow. Sprained, then, probably. It was already swelling, puffy beneath his touch. *Great! That's all I need.*
The jacket had a front zipper, and starting it was an exercise in masochism. His wrist screamed with new anguish at every movement. But he gnawed on his bottom lip and forced himself to continue. The temperature hadn't hit freezing at night yet this year, but tonight it was expected to drop into the lower forties, maybe even the upper thirties. He had to keep himself warm, even if his wrist hurt. A denim jacket wasn't much, but it was far better than nothing even it was slightly tight across the shoulders.
Once it was zipped, he blinked hard, hoping his eyes would soon adjust to the darkness. He could see vague shapes, packing crates, maybe, stacked against the far wall, just below the slash of faint light. Maybe there was a flight of stairs. A door. Anything. He had to get out of here, find a phone. The carjacker had taken his wallet but he hadn't taken Blair's pocket change. He had enough for a phone call, and hadn't he seen a pay phone about a block before they'd pulled into the alley?
"So all I have to do is haul my butt out of here," he said. "Before he comes back."
Blair didn't think the carjacker meant to return, though. He had intended to get as far away as possible. He hadn't been out for a joyride and he'd hardly stolen Blair's car to sell it to a chop shop. So that meant he wanted it to go somewhere. Maybe he was on the run from the police, his own car known. Blair thought back. There had been a car parked not far from his in the university parking lot. Could it have been the carjacker's own car? He didn't have enough reason to believe that and, anyway, he couldn't remember what make of car it was. He hadn't been paying any attention, and it didn't matter now. What did was blowing this popstand and calling Jim.
Jim. Funny, but a couple of years ago, Blair would never have believed he would have a friend who was the automatic solution to any given problem. Or someone he could trust with everything about himself. Casual friends, sure, he had a ton of those. But a friend to trust all the way down to his toes? And a man like Ellison, who was hardly the type of person Blair would have chosen, if not for the Sentinel abilities? Funny how life turned out differently than one expected it. In Jim he'd not only found a great research subject, the one full Sentinel he'd ever encountered in all his studies, but he'd found a friend, a friend like he'd never dreamed was possible. He hadn't even known until he'd come to know Jim that such a depth of understanding could exist between two people, two such different people. But now, when he was in trouble, his first thought was to take the problem to Jim. It was a two way street, too. Jim could come to him with *his* problems and he did when his senses went haywire. Not that Ellison was an open book, though. And maybe Blair wasn't, either, although Jim had thought so in the beginning. But as Blair sat in the darkness, the one spot of warmth in his entire being was the knowledge that Jim was out there searching for him. If he couldn't figure a way out of this place himself, Jim would find him. Blair knew that. It was a given.
But who said he had to sit here and wait for rescue? The certainty that Jim would tear Cascade apart to find him gave him the strength to pull himself to his feet, even if his injured ankle protested the movement. Sitting here helplessly waiting for rescue was not the way to be worthy of a friendship like Jim's, and it wasn't Blair's style either. He might have the headache to end all headaches, his wrist might feel like bones were poking out through his skin, and his foot didn't like holding him up, but that didn't mean he had to sit back and take it. There was a way out of this place and he'd find it or know the reason why.
Limping painfully toward the visible wall, he eased his left wrist into the pocket of his jacket in place of a sling. He felt something fuzzy in there and carefully worked it out, hoping it was gloves. Instead it was a ski mask. Well, that was better than nothing. Rolling it up, he put it on as a hat, pulling it down to cover his forehead and ears. Every little bit helped.
Then he studied the darkened basement. One of these walls was sure to have a door. Or he'd find a staircase to the ground floor. He'd rescue himself and then he'd call Jim to come and pick him up. Then they'd recover his car and arrest that little twerp who'd stolen it.
"I'm gonna get out of here, Jim," he said in conversational tones. "But that doesn't mean you can wait for me. How about a little quid pro quo here?"
Even with his night vision, parts of the basement room were too dark to see clearly until he got right up to them. Slowly, grimly, limping hard and pausing often to rest, he made his way around the huge room. From time to time, stacks of crates blocked his way, forcing him to venture into the center of the room to circle around them. He sat on low boxes ever few minutes to take the weight off his foot. He didn't think it was sprained, but it was sore. He could walk on it, but he didn't enjoy the process.
He found a door almost immediately, but it was locked, and from the hinges he traced with his good hand, it opened inward. Kicking it open was not an option even if he had been able to balance on his aching right foot long enough to do so. If it had opened outward, he might have tried, but the door frame and hinges were against him. He felt in his pocket for his Swiss Army knife but let it fall into place again. He didn't think he could even open it one-handed, let alone pick the lock with it. Why they heck lock a door in a building with a door one floor above that was open to the street? Why lock a basement that didn't have a ceiling above it?
Blair dropped onto another crate and massaged his temples one at a time with his good hand. He glanced at his wristwatch and discovered it must be close to two a.m. Jim must be going nuts. He'd known Blair meant to come straight home after he graded the last test. The two of them had talked about going fishing in the morning, bright and early, and Jim knew he wanted to go.
His head ached and his whole body trembled with fatigue, but he pushed himself upward again and continued his circuit of the room. Another door led into a closet, a third into a small bathroom, which he was grateful for. The toilet even flushed, although with a gurgle and rumble in the pipes that sounded like it wasn't about to keep doing so. But he found no stairs, no easy exits. Yelling only produced scuttling sounds in the dust around him that might have been rats. Blair froze as he listened. He couldn't risk sleep. The rats would find him when he was defenseless. Rats could chew on people, do a lot of damage. The very thought of a rat on him made him shiver. He had to get out of here.
But there were no stairs and the only door was locked.
He took the knife out again and tried to pull out a blade with his teeth. It was easier said than done, but when he had it out, he tried the lock. Picking a lock in total darkness was not all it was cracked up to be. He couldn't get it to work, and the harder he squinted at it in the darkness the more his head throbbed.
Okay, when the sun came up, he'd give it another shot. In the meantime, he'd do one more circuit of the place. If only he didn't hurt so much.
Miserable, Blair pulled himself onto a small crate, then onto a higher one. He had no illusions it removed him from the rats' reach, but it was better than the filthy floor below. Huddling against a bigger crate, he curled up as best he could in an attempt to warm himself. Maybe the pain in his wrist and the headache would keep him awake until daylight.
Simon lowered his cell phone and looked at Jim. They had returned to the loft, simply because there was nowhere else to go. If the man in the van really wasn't Sandburg, where would they start to hunt for him? But Banks knew it had to be Blair. He was the right general build, he was wearing what was probably the familiar jacket, and had been driving his car. Not only that, he had long, curly hair. If by a bizarre fluke he wasn't Sandburg, that meant the real Sandburg would have to be out there somewhere, and so far, there had been no word of him. Simon knew Blair was dead. God, he hated that, hated losing a man, even if Blair was one of his men in a roundabout way. He'd come to like the kid and the loss hurt.
Jim, of course, refused to accept it. Banks knew denial was one of the stages of grieving, but Jim acted like he could tell through his Sentinel abilities that common sense and the evidence was wrong or that he wanted to believe he could. He'd insisted they do a blood typing first thing. Simon had insisted on that and got a little response. When the victim might be one of their own, he had more leverage to push. They'd probably hear on that pretty soon. In the meantime, Simon had gotten the name of Blair's dentist so the coroner's office could request Blair's dental records be forwarded to the morgue for comparison, but his dentist was away for the weekend. The autopsy wouldn't take place till Monday morning anyway. There was no doubt in Simon's mind who the victim was. The dental records would only confirm it.
Jim had collapsed on the couch the minute Simon brought him home. Then he had jumped up to check the answering machine, turning away when he saw he had no messages. After that he'd gone to Blair's bedroom, opened the door and poked his head in, withdrawing immediately. Simon watched him sadly as he returned to the couch and sat there, looking lost and helpless, so far from the usual confident officer who was Cascade's best that Simon might have passed him on the street without recognition. He'd known for a long time that Ellison had come to view Sandburg as more than a friend, maybe a kid brother, and of course he depended on him utterly for that Sentinel gig of his. The two men had been closer than any pair of partners Simon had ever seen before. He'd seen men go to pieces when their partners died, and the hollow emptiness in Jim's eyes scared him.
And now this new evidence, the money. He still didn't buy into it, but it was another link in the chain of evidence, one he didn't even want to mention to Jim.
But as he tucked away the phone, Jim lifted eyes that were agonized in an otherwise expressionless face. "Sandburg?" he asked, although he must have known from Simon's expression that the answer would not be anything good.
"God, Jim, I don't know," he said. "You know those big houses beyond the parking lot Sandburg uses?"
Jim nodded. "Did someone see him there?" He didn't want confirmation that Sandburg had hurried to his car and driven away.
"Jim, a woman in one of those houses was robbed tonight. Her husband kept a lot of cash on hand. She said the burglar was about Blair's height and build, had blue eyes and long, curly hair. She said he took around $100,000 from their wall safe."
"That's crazy! Sandburg never pull anything like that. She wouldn't be able to identify him. We'll show her his picture and she'll verify it wasn't him."
"He had on a ski mask, and he wore gloves so there were no fingerprints."
Jim stood up, drew himself to his full height and met Simon's eye with grim determination. "It wasn't Blair," he insisted. "Come on, Simon, don't you think I know what he's capable of and what he isn't." His face was rigid with denial. "Whoever this guy was, he wasn't Sandburg. You can't believe Blair would pull a stunt like that?"
Simon hesitated torn between the known facts and his assessment of Sandburg. "No, Jim, I wouldn't have thought so. I liked the kid. I'd have sworn he was honest. But there's too much evidence."
"Come on, Captain, it's circumstantial. You know it is."
"Damn it, Jim, I know that, but what the hell else can it be? When I see a big, black and orange striped cat that prowls around and has huge teeth and it's in a cage labeled 'tiger', I don't think, maybe it's a lion in tiger make up."
"This guy broke in and tied this woman up--" Jim began, his face blank with incomprehension. "Blair wouldn't..."
"He tied her up with duct tape, Jim."
"What the heck does that mean? That the dead man is MacGyver? If you say he pulled a gun on her, I'll *know* it isn't Sandburg."
Simon frowned. That had bothered him too. Getting Sandburg to touch a gun was a major production. Jim had once taken him to the police shooting range to show him how to use a weapon with Blair resisting all the way. The only reason he'd gone was because Simon had pointed out a knowledge of weapons might one day save Jim's life. But he'd worn a distasteful expression the whole time. Simon couldn't imagine him acquiring a gun of his own. Jim was right, circumstantial evidence wasn't proof, and he didn't want Sandburg to be dead. Even though he'd have never admitted it to the kid's face, he'd enjoyed Blair's enthusiasm for life, the way he had humanized Jim, the unusual tangents his questions had led to on cases. But he was sure the dental records would match simply because for the dead man to be someone else not only meant he had stolen Sandburg's car but presented the question of where Sandburg had vanished. Jim had insisted on swinging by the parking lot on the way home to see if he could find a clue at the university and had stood in the lot near where Blair usually parked, unable to detect any clues with his senses. The woman who had been bound and gagged must have called 911 shortly after they left.
"I can't see the kid with a gun either, Jim. But if he was jumped by a ringer--"
"He doesn't have to be a ringer, Simon. You said he was wearing a ski mask. He just has to be Sandburg's approximate size and have long hair. A lot of students have long hair."
"Jim, that doesn't do us any good right now."
"It means there's a chance Blair is alive."
"Jim, there's always been a chance. But it's never been a very good one. We'll know for sure when they have those dental records on Monday morning, and with luck we'll get the ID on that burned wallet or a comparison on the blood type before then. Right now, I want you to get some sleep. It's nearly three a.m."
From the stubborn expression on Jim's face, sleep was the last thing he wanted to do, but he was drained and weary, his face sporting new lines that hadn't been there this afternoon, and his eyes were hollow. "He's not dead, Captain," Jim insisted.
"Have you tried focusing on him?"
Jim's face closed away from him. "What good does that do? It didn't do any good when he needed me."
*Uh-oh. That doesn't sound good.* "None of this is the fault of your senses, Jim," Simon began.
"What the hell good are they, Simon? They tear up my life, cause me nothing but trouble, and when Blair really needs them to work, what am I doing? Watching a stupid pre-season game on television. If I can't save my best friend, I don't want the damn senses."
Simon had known Jim Ellison for years and he'd never heard an outburst like that one, full of anguish, pain, bitterness and fury. Jim was riding the edge. "Without the senses, you wouldn't have even known Blair. Would you sacrifice all that just because it hurts now?" He curled long fingers around Jim's wrist and gave a sympathetic squeeze.
Jim froze. His mouth moved, but he couldn't force words out. "I couldn't save him, Simon," he breathed.
"What the hell could you do? You can't read the kid's mind. You'd have no way of knowing anything happened, so it's damn well not your fault. I'd be the last man in the world to offer false hope, but if there's one chance in a hundred that Blair is alive, you'll *need* those heightened abilities to find him. I know a lot of people will start wondering about him tomorrow when the news spreads."
"You mean the other guys in Major Crimes will believe this cock and bull story?" Jim demanded hotly.
"They know Blair and they like him. But what else *can* they think?"
"That somebody robbed that woman and grabbed Blair's car," Jim insisted. "Because there's no way in hell he'd rob a woman at gunpoint."
"Then that's what you have to prove, Jim. You shouldn't *have* to prove it, but you will. Not to me. I can't see Sandburg doing this either. Not to Taggart either, or Brown. But to others. And the only way you can find him is with those abilities you want to dump. Remember, Blair was at the university. You can't hear that far."
"I had a feeling he was in trouble, but there was nothing I could do with it. I can't read his mind, I can't sense him unless I'm close to him. But there was an edge.... Not enough."
"Not enough for you to blame yourself for anything."
"I didn't go hunting for him. I had a crazy feeling something was wrong and I sat around here trying to figure it out. I should have gone out to the university right away. At least if I'd been out there I might have been in range with my senses."
So that was what was eating at him. Guilt. "What makes you think you could have done anything?" he demanded harshly, refusing to pander to the guilt. "By the time you started with that uneasy feeling, it was probably all over. You know it was. If you think he's out there, use your senses. Drive around, concentrate on him. But not tonight."
"I can't let it go, Simon. Tonight's when Blair's in trouble." Jim grabbed for his jacket.
"Jim, come on. I don't care how good you are, you're operating by rote right now. You need rest. After you've slept, you'll be alert and Blair will stand a better chance of being found. I think right now you could walk past a marching band and not even hear the drums. If you can focus even one of your senses when you're so tired I'll reconsider, but you know you can't. You're at the end of your strength. So you're going to bed and you're going to sleep if I have to tie you down. I don't want to lose two of my people tonight."
Jim turned those empty eyes on him accusingly, pain vivid on his face. In general, Ellison had one of those faces that didn't show a lot of emotion except to people who knew him well. Right now a stranger could read his agony.
"Come on, Jim," Simon urged, steering him to the stairs that led up to his bedroom. "I don't want to have to undress you and put you in the bed, but I will if I have to."
That didn't even win a faint flash of amusement. Jim's mouth tightened, then he called himself to order and sucked all that pain inside where it didn't show except in his eyes, and said, "Wake me at dawn. Then I'm going after Sandburg."
*God, Jim, I hope you won't be going after his body.* But the woman had been tied up, not shot. If the robber had grabbed Blair's car in the parking lot, Blair had to have been with it or he'd have called in to report his car missing; he'd have phoned home and told Jim about it. So that would leave two options: one, that he was tied up in a place not easy to find, either because of the darkness or because of its remote location or, two, he was dead and his body hadn't been found for the same reasons. The image of Jim finding Sandburg's body caught in Simon's mind and he prayed he wasn't wrong for allowing Jim his hope.
"I'll help you search for him, too," he said. "And that's a promise."
He watched Jim trudge up the stairs, his shoulders slumping.
Jim lay in the darkness conscious, in spite of his frustration and fatigue, of Simon's deep, steady breathing on the couch downstairs. It wasn't the normal, reassuring rhythm of Blair's breathing and heartbeat that could coax him back to sleep when he lay wakeful in the middle of the night, but it was there. His senses alert enough to reach beyond the living room just below. But he could do it. In the morning he could go out there and find Blair.
And if that body on a slab in the morgue-- *No. That isn't Sandburg. That can't be Sandburg.* But if Blair lay dead in another place, dumped by a burglar who had stolen his car.... If Blair wasn't in the world any longer... *I'd know if he was dead. He's alive. He has to be.* But he was so tired, so confused, so alone. How could he really know anything? How could he give himself the luxury of reassurance when it was probably only wishful thinking? *Sandburg, if you go and die on me... You can't die on me.*
Even squeezing his eyes shut so tightly it hurt didn't stop the moisture that gathered there. It wasn't tears. He knew it couldn't be tears. He was just tired, right? And the smoke from the fires had irritated them. He wouldn't let it be real. Blair wasn't dead, and dead in such a way. No. Blair was alive and well, and in the morning he'd find him. He rubbed his eyes. Just fatigue and stress and smoke. In the morning he'd find Sandburg.
He dozed restlessly and woke, dozed and woke, for the rest of the night.
Concluded in Part Two...