Author-Sherrylou and Author-LindaS
Bet Me a Lifetime
by Sherrylou and LindaS
Disclaimer: The guys don't belong to me.
Summary: A bet leads to life-threatening consequences.
Author's Notes: This story is my offering for the SA February Themefic and is loosely based on the "I Spy" episode, Bet Me a Dollar. The story wouldn't have been completed without my twin. When I got stuck, she gently nudged me along and soon was writing the rest of the tale with me. Thanks once again to my wonderful beta readers, CJ (Alberte) and Lorri (Nickerbits). A fine job, both of you!
The late afternoon sun beat relentlessly upon his body as Jim traversed the rough trail, kicking up small dust clouds with every step. The unusual heatwave Cascade was experiencing only compounded the frustration he felt. Staring up at the sweltering orb, he wiped his sweaty brow and then lowered his eyes, scanning the horizon in front of him. Nothing. He wondered if Brown and Rafe were having any better luck along the Upper Samena trail. At least that area was heavily forested, providing ample shade.
Discouraged, his hand reached up and swiped at his dirt-streaked face again. How had everything disintegrated so quickly? This weekend was supposed to be fun -- a little fishing, hiking, and R&R. A bet. It had all boiled down to a stupid bet.
Searching for some shade, Jim found a small copse of trees. He leaned back against the trunk of the nearest tree, grateful for the respite from the searing heat, and gathered his thoughts. Reaching for his bottled water, he unscrewed the lid and took a sip of the tepid liquid. With the dryness in his throat eased, Jim raised his eyes and gazed out from his shadowy alcove, searching the surrounding area once again. Where are you, Blair? Where are you hiding? This isn't fun and games anymore.
A hand on his shoulder shook him from his intense concentration. Looking at the sweating man beside him, he passed the water over to his captain, noting that his superior looked as weary as he felt.
Silently accepting the bottle, Simon tilted it up and swallowed several times, then he filled his palm with a little of the water and splashed it on his face. Finished and only looking a tad cooler, he handed the bottle back to Ellison. "Any sign of Sandburg?" he asked hopefully.
"Not recently, I think. He was here... that's all I can tell. Damn it, Simon, we're running out of time."
"Look, we got S & R along with most of his co-workers out here looking for him. You've got to believe we're going to find him."
Slumped against the tree, Jim nodded, accepting his captain's statement. He lifted his head and directed his gaze at the other man, pinning Simon with concern-filled eyes, before asking, "But in time?"
"Whoa, man. Cholesterol City! You're not really going to eat that? All those eggs, cream cheese, ricotta...."
"Not to mention the sour cream, sugar, vanilla and lemon," Jim added, as he took another bite, savoring the delicate flavors of the cheesecake.
"Enough with today's health alert, Sandburg. I plan to enjoy my pecan pie without a running commentary on the evils of refined sugar or the dangers of eggs."
Sandburg attempted to look abashed. "Hey, don't mind me, Simon. I'm only thinking about your well-being. Both you guys are getting up there in age."
Raising an eyebrow, the captain stared pointedly at the younger man and then turned to his detective. "Did you hear that, Jim? I believe the kid here was calling us old."
"No -- no -- not old, Simon," Blair backpedaled. "You're more like a classic. Age has its benefits -- like fine wine or a vintage car."
"Oh, so now I'm being compared to Ellison's junk of a truck?"
"Hey, that's my sweetheart you're talking about." Jim chuckled at the mild jesting and smiled warmly at his two friends. "Eat up and enjoy the last few vestiges of civilization now," he said, using his fork to point to the other two's desserts. "Tomorrow we start roughing it."
Sandburg grinned and brought another spoonful of his fresh fruit medley to his mouth, the sleeve of his shirt slipping down with the movement, revealing a white bandage.
"What'd you do to your arm, Chief?" Jim asked, just now noticing the large gauze bandage on his partner's right forearm.
"Oh, this?" Blair remarked, turning his arm around to take a look. "Just a scratch. Susie Parsons and I were unpacking a crate of artifacts that came in from South America. There was this ceremonial knife -- somehow it must have gotten dislodged from its sheath in transit. We were both reaching into the crate at the same time. I lucked out -- like I said -- not much damage, only a nick. The knife, however, caught Susie in the arm really deep, she needed nine stitches."
"I hope your tetanus shot's up to date."
"It is. Don't worry. The hospital checked us both out. I'm fine."
"That's good," Simon commented as he scooped up the last remnant of his pie, which was smothered with a healthy dose of whipped cream. "I've been looking forward to this little expedition all week and I wouldn't want your mishap to spoil it."
"You know, Jim," Blair began, changing the direction of the conversation. "You were really awesome with the Davidson case. The way you honed in on the murder weapon. Finding where it was hidden. This was one case where you were putting your senses to good use."
"I have to admit that having the senses helped, but I would have solved the case anyway."
Incredulous, Blair shook his head. "Face it, Jim, your senses make you a better detective."
Jim bristled at the statement. Yes, it was true, but he didn't like to think that he relied on them exclusively. His other skills certainly played a factor in his work. "I did just fine before my sentinel senses came on-line. Simon can attest to that fact."
The captain looked up from his cup of coffee. "Don't drag me into this. I plead the fifth."
"Jim, if you didn't have your sentinel senses you'd be no different than -- than Bill Braddock."
Jim snorted. "What?!" You're comparing me to a two-bit television gumshoe?"
"Well, if the gumshoe fits." Blair grinned. "How about we see these great detecting abilities of yours in action? Feel like taking me on -- no sentinel senses allowed? You up for a little game of hide and seek? Brains versus brawn?"
"And you would be....?"
"Not much of a test. I could easily find you without my senses -- don't forget that I was in covert-ops, Chief, a trained army ranger. My tracking skills are legendary."
"Oh, yeah. And I was -- was -- well -- from my time with the Ashanti tribe, I learned how to blend into the environment. Be one with nature. I was pretty good at it. I bet I could evade you this whole weekend -- no problem."
"Be one with nature!" Jim laughed. "The only thing you're good at out there in the woodlands is getting lost, remember the 40 miles in the wrong direction?"
"Well, then I bet I could get so lost you'd never find me."
Jim leaned forward in his seat, an enigmatic grin spread across his face. This was going to be easy, too easy. Like taking candy from a baby. "You're on. What're the stakes?"
"I don't know. How about winner takes over the household chores for a month? And, no cheating."
The twinkle in his eyes and the slight upturn of his lips belied Jim's shocked pretense. "Who? Me, cheat?"
"How soon one forgets. How about that little ruse you pulled last week with the Jags cheerleaders? I didn't stand a chance from the get go. I was lucky to get out of their locker room with my clothes intact."
Remembering his part in the scam, a full smile bloomed across the detective's face. "You got me there, Chief." Thoughtfully rubbing his chin, Jim continued, "Okay. Not to worry. Our illustrious captain from Major Crime will be along. He'll keep me honest."
Without missing a beat, Blair snappily wisecracked, "Yeah, but can I trust him?"
"Sandburg, I'm greatly disappointed by your lack of faith in me," Simon remarked lightly, finally entering the conversation. "However, this proposal of yours is getting mighty interesting. If I'm going to be involved in it, I just might like a piece of the action."
"You're on," Blair readily agreed.
Soon all three men had their heads together as the bets were approved and plans were made for the next day.
"You all set?" Simon asked, taking one of the packs from Jim and setting it by the front door.
"Yep. Just waiting for the call from Sandburg and then we can head out."
"He get off okay?"
"Never saw anyone so anxious to win a bet. It was still dark out when he left."
"You don't really think he stands a snowball's chance in hell of winning?"
Jim stopped his preparations and grinned at his superior. "Stranger things have happened. Getting a little nervous, Simon?"
"Well, I do have a lot riding here."
"Oh, riiight. We wouldn't want to be responsible for your reversal of fortune. What was your wager again? One box of those Nicaraguan cigars you like versus a memory upgrade for Sandburg's laptop? Trying to break the kid? You do realize that the cigars are probably equivalent to one week of his lowly TA's pay?"
"Heh, heh, heh," Simon chuckled, wearing a big, toothy grin. "If you can't hang out with the big guys, then you don't deserve to play."
"You're all heart." The ringing of the phone interrupted any further comments. "That's probably him now." Jim crossed over to the living area and snatched up the phone. "Ellison."
"No, he's not here, can I take a message?"
"This is Dr. Brenner from Cascade General. It's important that I speak to him immediately."
"Well, he's away for the weekend."
"Can he be reached? It's vital!"
Unsettled by the urgency in the doctor's voice, Jim asked, "Just what's this all about, Doctor? I'm Detective Ellison, Blair's roommate."
"I treated him yesterday for a knife wound. It's imperative that I see him again."
"A young woman, Susie Parsons, who was also treated for a knife wound, was admitted late last night. Apparently, the knife's contaminated with an unknown strain of bacteria. We're fighting the infection with a broad spectrum of antibiotics, but she's very ill and may still die. Both of them were cut with the same knife...."
"And you think this knife may have infected Blair?"
"How much time does he have?"
"It's hard to say, but the sooner you get him to the hospital the better. At first he'll feel a little sick, headache, fever, body aches, and then get progressively worse. Unless treated, count on it being fatal."
"How much time does he have?" Jim took a steadying breath. He couldn't believe he had to repeat the question.
"His wound was not as severe as the woman's...."
"How. Much. Time?" He grinded out each word through clenched teeth.
"Probably no more than twenty-four hours."
Jim stayed on the phone a few minutes longer, getting all the pertinent details from the doctor, and then hung up. His hand lingered on the receiver as he stared out through the glass window in front of him. Dawn was just breaking and the glow from the early morning's sun danced gaily across the water's surface.
"What, Jim? What is it?" Simon asked anxiously, having picked up bits and pieces from the call and having noticed the tight concern in his friend's voice.
Moving to the window, Jim rested his head against the cool pane, ignoring the brilliance of the sun's rays upon the wakening city. The detective remained with his back to his superior as he relayed the doctor's message. His softly spoken words came haltingly. "Uh, that... that was the doctor from Cascade General. He said... he said that Sandburg needed to get to the hospital right away. Apparently there was... some type of bacteria on the knife that had cut him yesterday. Susie Parsons, the TA that was working with Sandburg, is in ICU... on life support right now."
The captain closed his eyes and a soft "oh, god" fell from his lips.
They both stood quietly, momentarily frozen to their spots, as the doctor's news slowly sunk in. A loud ringing broke the somber atmosphere that hung between them. Startled by the jangling, Jim reached for the phone like he was grabbing for a lifeline.
Feathery pink streaks splashed across the sky as the early morning sun peeked from above Devil's Ridge. Blair tore his eyes away from the brilliant vista and deeply inhaled the fresh mountain air. Looking around the campground, he set down his backpack by his other supplies. This was to be the starting point, where Jim and Simon would begin their hunt in approximately -- he paused, glancing at his watch -- two hours with Jim being the hunter and Simon basically the neutral observer, making sure all rules agreed upon were followed.
With not a lot of time before his partner's arrival, Blair knew that he needed to get busy if he wanted to lay a few false trails and prepare some other surprises, but his first objective was a phone call to the waiting party. Fun and games are fine, Chief, but we're playing it safe. Jim's no-nonsense voice reverberated through his head. Blair smiled at the thought. Yep, that's his Sentinel -- vigilant to the Guide's safety to the very end!
It had been decided, mostly by the overly cautious detective, that there would be periodical check-ins, with Blair's initial call starting off the little game of hide and seek. Then during the day, he was expected to make contact with Jim every two-hours via a radio. Spotting the payphone by the registration cabin, Blair headed over to the telephone, leaving his pack by the car. He quickly dialed, and hearing the customary "Ellison" at the other end, cheerily spoke, "Good morning! It's a beautiful day here in the Cascade Mountains."
"Chief! You need to come home right now! A doctor from the hospital called. Susie Parsons is in ICU. Your cut is infected with some unknown strain of bacteria."
Blair shook his head and chuckled. He'd expected his partner to try something; he would have been disappointed if Jim hadn't, but not so soon. "Aw, come on, Jim. You can do better than that."
"I'm not joking here. I'm deadly serious."
Wow! Jim's growling on the other end almost sounded sincere, though the desperation in the voice was a little over the top. Blair stooped down and picked up a twig. "What's that you're saying, Jim?" Tapping the small piece of wood against the phone, he continued, "I can't hear you, you're breaking up. Must be a bad connection." Amused at his actions, Blair tapped a few more times while struggling to keep from laughing. "What? What?" he yelled, holding the phone away from his body. Smiling, he hung up the receiver.
"What'cha doing, Mr. Sandburg?"
Startled, Blair spun around toward the voice and then smiled. There stood Billy Hudson with a mop of golden curls gleaming in the morning sunlight and wide brown eyes peering up at him with all the innocence of youth. The nine-year-old boy looked like he had grown quite a bit since Blair had last seen him. The cut-off shorts were apparently from last summer and long, thin legs stretched out of them giving an almost stork-like appearance. The tee shirt, old and worn, pulled tightly across Billy's chest.
"Hey there, Billy. Good to see you again. And remember, I told you that you could call me Blair."
"Okay. So, what'cha doing, Blair?"
"How about you tell me what you're doing up so early? Where're your mom and dad?" Absentmindedly, he brought his hand up to rub at his forehead. Damn! A nagging headache had been steadily gnawing at him since he first got up. Pushing the annoying ache aside, he shifted his eyes back to the small boy and waited for an answer.
"Uh... They're still sleeping, but they did mumble something about me going out to play."
Wise to the way that Billy sometimes twisted the truth, the wary man crossed his arms. "Mm-hmm."
"Honest, Blair. They said don't come back to the campsite until the sun was this high." Billy held up his arms together to demonstrate the sun's position. Dropping his arms back down, he crooked his index finger and wiggled it, indicating to Blair to come closer. "I think they wanted to be by themselves," he whispered.
Blair had to stifle the urge to laugh. He knew Billy's parents, having met them several times before during past camping trips. Greg and Carla Hudson were avid campers, spending about every weekend at assorted State Parks and campgrounds, this being one of their favorite camping spots. Billy had grown up among nature enthusiasts, a sub-culture unto themselves, and knew many of the regular campers by name. Comfortable in this surrounding, he was often given free rein to explore the environment.
"How'd you like to help me out?"
"Sure!" popped quickly out of Billy's mouth and a huge smile broke across the boy's face.
"Well, you know my partner --"
"Detective Jim," Billy supplied eagerly.
"That's right, Detective Jim. Anyway, he's going to be here in about two hours." Blair lowered his voice, adding an official tone to his words. "We're executing a police operation. I'm going to take cover somewhere in the area and Detective Jim has to hunt me down."
Puzzled, Billy scrunched his forehead. "Sounds more like hide and seek."
"But that's a kid's game."
"Well, even grown-ups like to have a little fun. Come on. I'll get my pack and we'll get started. I'll explain my plan on the way." Blair slung his arm around the boy's shoulder, ignoring the ringing of the payphone as they both headed back to where Blair had left his backpack and camping supplies.
"Sandburg... Sandburg," Jim stuttered. He stared at the silent receiver clutched in his hand. How could Blair have hung up on him, didn't he realize how serious this was?
"Simon... he... Blair thought I was joking." The stunned man stood still in disbelief, totally unnerved by his roommate's reaction.
"Can't you call him back?"
Jim pulled out a small notepad and found the page with the park's phone numbers. Quickly he pounded out the numbers as his other hand maintained a death grip on the receiver.
"Answer, damn it," Jim shouted to no one in particular as he listened to the repeated ringing. They had twenty-four hours, only twenty-four hours. With no response, he slammed down the phone and headed for the door with a brusque order of "let's go." Snagging his bag, he continued on his way.
"What about notifying the authorities?" Simon shouted to the disappearing detective.
"You can do that on the way." Without another word, Jim sprinted down the stairs, too impatient to wait for the elevator.
Blair dropped his backpack and surveyed the area. "What do you think, Billy?"
The boy glanced around. "You got a good view, and it's pretty hard to be seen up here."
"Okay." Blair nodded in agreement. "Let's get things organized."
It had taken a lot of hustling, but with Billy's help Blair was soon ready for Jim's arrival. He'd remembered a small cave up on Devil's Ridge that he'd found from the last time they'd gone camping and was pretty sure that Jim was unfamiliar with its location. That would be his first base camp and where he'd spend the night. His second base camp was in a heavily forested area off the Samena trail. Now, situated not too far away from the cave, among some rocks and brush, he and Billy sat waiting. With binoculars, he had a clear view of the parking area.
A dust trail alerted him to an arriving vehicle. Focusing the binoculars, he was shocked to see that the vehicle was Jim's blue and white truck. What'd he do, run with lights and sirens all the way? Shit! Twenty minutes early.
Blair turned his attention back to the two men exiting the truck. He watched Simon unload some equipment as a dark sedan pulled alongside. Shifting the binoculars to the car, he blinked in astonishment as four people popped out. No. No way. He blinked again. There standing with Jim and Simon were four very well-known and unexpected people!
What the hell were they doing here? Megan, Joel, Rafe and Brown? Oh, now this was not fair -- not fair at all. And then there was "Black-ops" Jim who looked like he was preparing for a major assault, busily stowing supplies. Damn it, Ellison! I can't believe you'd go to all this trouble just to avoid a little housework. His initial astonishment soon turned into raw anger. Blair gritted his teeth as he saw Jim pick up a radio and hand one to Simon. Fumbling for his own communications device, Blair unclipped the radio from his belt and turned it on.
"Jag 1, Jag 1, do you read? Come in."
He watched as Jim's head darted around, searching for where his partner might be hiding, and then the detective lifted the radio to his mouth. "Chief! Hey, come on down and join us. The gang's all here. We'll do a little fishing, some hiking...."
"I don't think so, Jim."
"Sandburg, you're sick."
"You got that right, Jim! I'm sick that you'd stoop so low just to win a bet." Blair glanced through the binoculars and saw the Sentinel strike a familiar pose, head cocked to one side. Now the rage he felt at Jim's deceitfulness edged up another notch. "And I so do not believe it! You're... you're using your senses! Man, that's low, even for you, Jim." Setting the radio down, his free hand groped around the inside of his backpack, finally clamping onto a cool, metallic object. He handed it to Billy and picked back up his radio.
"Listen, Chief --"
"No," Blair interrupted sharply. "You listen. Listen to this." A momentary pang of guilt flashed through his conscience as he nodded to Billy and the boy brought the whistle up to his lips and blew hard, directly into the radio Blair held. The grad student winced in sympathy as he watched Jim drop the radio and fall to his knees, clasping both hands tightly around his ears.
Clicking off the radio, Blair turned around away from the distant scene and leaned back against the rocks, resting his head on his knees. His head was now pounding ferociously. And hot. When did it become so hot? His shirt clung to his chest, soaked with sweat, and tiny beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. Scratching at his sore arm, he dug deeper in his pack for the first aid kit. Popping a couple of aspirins and downing some water, he spotted the ammonia capsules as he placed the pill bottle back into the kit and an idea formed. Okay, don't say you didn't ask for this, Jim. Let's just even the playing field.
Finding an old envelope and a slip of paper, he started to scribble a quick note, pausing for a moment as the words began to swim around on the paper and the outer edges of his vision dimmed. Bringing up both hands and rubbing at his eyes until the fuzziness passed, he finished the message and dropped it and the capsules into the paper packet. "Hey, Billy. I got another job for you." Quickly explaining the chore, he watched the boy carefully climb down the back of the ridge and make his way around to the path that would lead him back to the campground.
You want to play dirty? Blair thought smugly as he waited for the aspirin to kick in. Let the games begin!
Pacing across the picnic area, Jim was anxious to begin the search. The Sentinel side of his brain was screaming at him to toss all rational thoughts aside, to charge off alone and to find his Guide -- now! He felt like he was wasting precious time waiting for the Search and Rescue team to appear, however, he knew that in the long run an organized plan was much more effective than running off into the woods half-cocked.
"Relax, Ellison," Henri offered. "The team will get here soon enough."
"Yeah, not everyone has taken the Jim Ellison advanced speed driving course." Rafe quipped.
"Huh? Oh, yeah." The distracted detective smiled weakly and rubbed at his still-ringing ears again. Settling down for a moment and leaning against a table, he observed the gathered co-workers. Blair had made many good friends among the officers of Major Crime and the detective was touched by their show of support. "Thanks, guys, for coming out."
"Hey, not like I had a better offer for my day off. Gets me out of painting the shutters." Brown smiled.
Jim's attention diverted from Brown as he saw two jeeps pull into the parking area. The other detectives from Major Crime rose and stood together, all silently watching the approach of the new arrivals.
The rugged man with a generous peppering of gray hair extended his hand to the tall black man while acknowledging the group that stood around the picnic table. "I'm Kent McAllister and these are my team members: Kathy Paxton, Dwayne Fisher, Annika Berger and Sean O'Reilly."
"I'm Captain Simon Banks." Simon gestured to his men and woman. "My detectives: Jim Ellison, Henri Brown, Brian Rafe, Joel Taggart, and Inspector Megan Connor. We're here to help with the search. Blair... Blair Sandburg is Ellison's partner."
The S & R leader nodded a greeting and unrolled the map across the wooden table. "From your phone call, I understand that time is the utmost importance. Twenty-four hours?"
"If that," Jim whispered.
"Okay. Then we need to get started right away. We'll divide up into groups of two's, each taking a different sector." His finger traced the segments on the map. As he talked, Annika handed out smaller maps and radios to the men and women with each assignment. "Follow the trails in your area and convey immediately back to base any unusual findings or sightings. You're to report in every hour on the hour. Once it's dark, our efforts will be severely hampered." McAllister paused, his voice taking on a grim tone. "And, if that's the case, we'll be looking most likely at retrieval rather than a rescue." Ellison's piercing look of reproach at that statement didn't go unnoticed by Kent. He ignored the glare and continued, "Annika will remain here at the base to coordinate the efforts among the teams and organize any rescue attempt. Any questions?"
When no questions were forthcoming, the team leader clapped his hands together, signaling the end of the meeting. "Okay, then let's move out."
As the assorted rescue workers and police officers moved away from the table, McAllister approached the worried detective and eyed him appraisingly. "So, Ellison," he started. "You want to explain this to me again, just so I have it clear why the man we're seeking won't exactly be cooperative."
"Well, you have to understand Sandburg. He thinks this is all a game and he'll be evading us at all cost."
"Captain Banks had mentioned something about a bet?"
As Ellison spoke, self-loathing could be heard in his voice. "Yeah, just something to do for the weekend. Something stupid."
"And now something deadly," McAllister countered.
The realization of the team leader's words stunned him. Jim walked away in shocked silence to join up with his superior and fellow detectives. Every minute counted, minutes that meant life or death. A comforting pat on the back brought him out of his stupor.
"Don't worry, Jim, we'll find him."
"Thanks, Joel." Taggart's sincerity warmed Jim's heart.
"You know Sandy. No matter what, he always tends to land on his feet." Megan gave Jim a sympathetic smile before joining her partner, Joel, in picking up supplies.
Yes, he did know Blair and that's what worried him -- underestimating the kid. Sandburg could be more resourceful than they truly realized, especially when challenged. He stared across the wooded landscape and hillsides. Blair had to be at a point above them in order to see their arrival, but where?
Caring pats and gentle squeezes along with reassuring platitudes were offered to Jim as the group dispersed, and he just nodded, unable to speak. His eyes shone with gratitude and his throat tightened with the swelling of emotion. Pushing back down the intense feelings, he took a deep breath. Think with your head, Ellison, not with your heart, he chastised himself. More settled and in-control, Jim turned toward his captain, ready for them to begin the search.
"Have you picked up anything yet?" Simon asked in a hushed tone, waving a hand in the air.
"Well, considering the fact that my ears are still ringing from the earlier incident, don't count on my hearing being up to par." He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "Sandburg was here, but it's been awhile." He extended his sight, piggybacking the sense of smell hoping that somehow he could pick up any sign of his partner, possibly a trail or a clue. A small voice interrupted his search.
Feeling very important, Billy carried the envelope with both hands as he neared the parking area. He saw two men head off toward the Samena Trail and a pretty woman with a large black man go off in the direction of Chelan Lake. Some others were gathering supplies, preparing to get under way. He shook his head in amazement. There sure were a lot of people looking for Blair. It was a much bigger operation than he'd realized, and he chuckled at all the commotion. Those police sure took this game seriously.
He thought back to how upset Blair had been at seeing all the people gathering to play the 'game' and told him that Detective Jim was cheating. That had surprised him. He didn't think that the police cheated -- ever -- especially Detective Jim. But Blair said that he had and told Billy to be careful, that Detective Jim might even try to trick him. Feeling the wind blow at the envelope in his hand, he looked around the area; he needed to find the officer.
Scurrying around a very, very tall black man that seemed almost like a giant to him, he saw a familiar face. "Detective Jim! Detective Jim!" The small boy ran up to his police friend.
Jim stooped down eye-level with the youngster and placed a hand on Billy's shoulder. "Hey, there, Billy. No time to chat today. I'm kind of busy."
"Okay. But I have this note for you. From Blair."
"Blair?" Jim hastily reached for the envelope but as his fingers touched the edge, Billy let go and it fell to the ground. Quickly the boy stamped on the envelope with his foot, crushing the capsules inside. Remembering what Blair had told him, the boy took off as fast as he could.
The sound of choking and the coughing scared him, but Blair had said it would be okay, that it wouldn't really hurt his police friend. Billy ran deeper into the woods, away from Detective Jim, away from the angry shouts of the tall giant, and away from Blair's hiding place just in case he was followed. Running until his breaths were coming in short, harsh gasps, he slowed down and looked around. Seeing no one nearby, he started to skip his way back toward his campsite.
Billy's actions momentarily surprised Jim, then the awareness of what was actually happening overwhelmed him. The ammonia wafted up from the dirty envelope, searing his nasal cavities and burning his eyes. Blinking back tears, he longed to take his nails and scratch at his inflamed eyes, the itching and fiery burning almost unbearable. Falling back on his rear, Jim, coughing and gasping, clutched one arm to his stomach, his chest feeling like all the air had 'whooshed' out of him, as he scrubbed across his eyes furiously with his other arm.
"Jim! Jim!" Hurriedly, Simon reached into his pack for a bottle of water and then hunkered down beside his friend. "Let me help." Pulling away the one arm from Jim's face, he first poured some of the cool water over the swollen and sore eyes and then held the bottle as the gasping man struggled to take a few sips.
Ellison reveled in the cool liquid, which was such a relief not only to the burning eyes but also to his raw throat. Blinking several times, watery, red puffy eyes looked up at the captain. "Thanks. I... think my sinuses are... burned from the inside out," Jim choked out. Wheezing and coughing, he tried to draw in the much-needed air into his ammonia-abused lungs. How foolish he had been, leaving his senses wide open like that. Who knew him and his weaknesses better than Sandburg?
Sitting up and feeling a little better now that the burning had lessened somewhat, he tentatively took a sniff. Nothing! Zip! A deranged skunk could saunter up behind him and he wouldn't know it. And there'd probably be nothing for a couple of hours. Scanning the area, he blinked a couple of times. The way his eyes ached, he was sure that he wouldn't be pushing them to see too far, either. Well, nothing to do now but to track his partner the old fashioned way, and he had an idea exactly where to begin.
"You feeling better?" Simon asked, giving Jim a hand up.
"Yeah, I'll live," he replied, brushing at his dirt-covered seat.
"What was that?"
"My own personal love note from Sandburg." The detective stooped over to reach for the envelope, then thought better of that action. "Ah, Simon, could you?" He gestured toward the white packet.
The captain bent down and picked up the envelope, removing the ammonia-coated note from inside.
"What does it say?"
"It says: In baiting the mousetrap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse. Well, that's one huge piece of stinky cheese you tried to feed me this morning, and this mouse ain't biting. Afraid that you can't catch me all by yourself, you had to add a few more players to the game? Well, call in the troops for all I care. Senses or not, I'll still beat you."
"Bloody stupid American men!" Megan muttered loudly as she stumbled over another rock. Their search so far had turned up no signs of the missing police observer. Stooping down and picking up a small stone, she heatedly tossed it into the lake. Taking her aggravation out on a pebble didn't solve her problem, but the action made her feel a little better. An "ahem" caught her attention and glancing over at Joel, she realized her slip-up of words. Blushing, the Australian inspector quickly amended her statement. "Present company excepted, of course."
Joel grinned and accepted her offhanded apology graciously. "Of course."
"I mean, this whole macho posturing, mine is bigger than yours, I'm better than you are one-upmanship, I just don't get it. What are men trying to prove anyway?"
"Well, a few of us have outgrown the need to drag our knuckles and wield a big club." The large man chuckled. "But I think Blair would say that what they're doing kind of comes naturally and dates back to primitive cultures where status among the tribe was achieved by such methods as hunting skills, cleverness, bravery, and proficiency in war.
Surprised, Megan stopped her walking and looked directly at the dark captain. "Whoa! When did you become so knowledgeable on the role of males in society?"
"Chalk it up to a couple of late night chats with Blair in the break room. Uh, he kind of rubs off on you."
A wide grin broke across Megan's face as she acknowledged Taggart's comment. "He does at that!"
Sighing longingly, Joel's eyes skimmed across the lake, taking in all the small boats and fishermen.
"You'd like to be out there in one of those boats?" The inspector asked, following the captain's line of sight.
"Yeah. But that's neither here nor there. Come on, let's continue our search down at the docks."
Picking up a stick, Billy tapped at the leaves above his head as he skipped along the trail. It had been a fun morning and he planned to meet up with Blair again after he checked in with his mom and dad. As he neared his campsite, the boy suddenly felt two large hands clamp down onto his shoulder. Feeling himself spun around, he gulped as his gaze traveled up to a grim looking face and met two red-rimmed eyes that drilled into him.
"Where's Blair?" A hoarse voice croaked out.
The tone was cold and flat and -- and scary! He blinked owlishly and pasted on his most innocent look. Taking a deep breath, his response was no more than a choked whisper. "B-blair?"
"Yes, Billy. Blair. Where is he?"
"I... uh... don't...."
Jim knelt down and softened his voice. "Look, Billy. It's very important that we find Blair. I don't know what he's told you, but he's sick. He needs to get to a hospital."
"No. No. He said that you'd try to fool me." Adamant, he first looked at Detective Jim and then up at the dark giant for confirmation. A gentle hand guided his gaze back to his police friend's eyes, pleading eyes.
"This is no trick, Billy. It's a matter of life and death."
The small boy chewed on his bottom lip. He wasn't sure what to do. Detective Jim had always been so nice before and, after all, he was a police officer. Once the decision was made, the words came out in a torrent. "The lake. Blair said he was going to the lake."
Watching his police friend and the other tall man charge toward the lake, Billy slowly uncrossed his fingers.
"Do you think the kid was telling the truth?" Simon huffed out while trailing after Jim.
"Couldn't tell." He had tried to gauge the child's response, but his hearing was still on the fritz.
"Well, I didn't like the way he was looking at me." Pushing harder, Banks lengthened his stride, catching up to the sprinting detective.
"Face it, Simon. You can come off as pretty impressive at times."
"Is that a nice way of saying that I intimidate children?"
Jim shrugged and kept the pace up.
The captain paused to catch his breath. Thinking more clearly, he pulled out his radio and contacted the base station regarding Blair's possible location. After which, he radioed ahead to Joel and Megan to meet them at the docks.
With the aspirin having taken off the edge of his headache, Blair was enjoying his boating excursion. The cooler lake breeze was a godsend to his overheated skin. Dipping his hand into the chilly water, he let the drips fall from his fingertips onto his bare arm. Mmmm, shockingly cool but refreshing. Unbuttoning his shirt and pushing the material aside, he dipped his hand into the lake again, scooped up more of the brisk water and then drizzled it across his bare chest.
Leaning back against a seat cushion and crossing his legs, he pushed his hat forward over his eyes and just let himself drift, allowing the rocking of the small boat to lull him into a semi-dreamlike state. Blair chuckled to himself. Hiding among the other fishermen out in the middle of the lake while watching Megan and Joel search for him along the shore had been a blast. Too bad he couldn't stay here all day.
Glancing out from under the brim of his hat, he saw two new players enter the scene. Oops. Time to put the next phase of his plan in action.
"What's up, Jim?" Joel questioned the man upon his arrival.
Breathing hard, Jim took a few moments to catch his breath. "We received a tip that Sandburg is at the lake. Have you seen anything -- anything at all?"
"Nothing," Connor responded. "Although we've only been here a short time."
Jim moved down toward the lakeshore, trying to scan the lake. He rubbed his sore eyes, but the sunlight bouncing off the ripples only served to increase the irritation.
"Damn," he muttered to himself. Now when he needed his senses the most, they were essentially useless. Blair had pretty well scrambled his hearing, sight, and sense of smell. Frustrated, Jim picked up his radio. "Come on, Chief. If you're out there answer me."
Jim felt Simon's presence behind him. A warm hand touched his shoulder. "Sandburg, I'm serious... I need you. I... I need your help here."
Just when Jim had given up hope, the silence was broken.
"What's wrong, Jim?"
The Sentinel's head shot up. His hearing came on-line long enough to locate the voice out in the middle of the lake. Without pause, he ran over to the only boat available, a canoe, and pushed it out onto the water. He watched as a familiar figure gave him a jaunty wave and then started the motor on the small boat.
"Wait!" Jim shouted.
"Sorry, no can do," Blair yelled back. "Enjoy your swim!" Then flashing Jim a smile and tipping his hat, he headed the boat off in the opposite direction.
Jim watched in dismay as the distance between the two boats grew, not noticing at first the increasing water swirling around his feet. Finally abandoning his sinking boat, Jim swam back to the other detectives waiting on the shore.
Megan, seeing the scene unfold, sadly shook her head. At any other time it would have been funny watching Blair get one up on Jim, but not today.
The boat, along with Sandburg, disappeared from her sight, and she turned her attention to a very wet and bedraggled Ellison, who was just stumbling out of the water.
"Give you a hand, mate?" Connor reached out toward the exasperated detective.
A cold hand clamped onto her arm and she reached over with her other hand, steadying Ellison as he made his way onto the rocky shore. He stumbled once again, but she supported the large man and smiled, hoping that her gesture offered a touch of reassurance.
She could read dejection in every line of his well-built frame, from his slumped shoulders to the hanging of his head. Megan gave Jim's hand one last squeeze before moving away, giving him his own space to cope with Blair's little ruse. Shaking off the water, Ellison squared his shoulders and walked over to his captain.
Connor could hear her superior on the radio, updating the command center on the past events and in what direction Blair had headed. Knowing that they were still no closer in catching the elusive police observer, the inspector directed her gaze back to where she'd last seen the boat and to the woods that lay beyond. "Oh, Sandy," she mournfully whispered. Her eyes crinkled with a touch of sadness, and she blinked away the gathering moisture.
Blair, as a Guide, had to steel himself against going to his Sentinel. Listening on the radio, there had been a moment when hearing that Jim needed help, that he was ready to head back to the shore. That was until he observed Jim's mad dash for the boat.
He was fortunate that Billy had told him about the canoe. Of course, there had been a sign on the boat that read: Do Not Use. Could he help it if somehow the sign had conveniently been misplaced? Jim really shouldn't take things that didn't belong to him.
The canoe sure went under fast and Jim's expression, as captain of the sinking vessel, had been priceless. Turning off the motor, Blair jumped out of the boat and pulled it up onto the shore. Grabbing his backpack, he was stunned as a sudden wave of dizziness overwhelmed him. Stumbling, he plopped down on the shore, waiting for the vertigo to pass. What was going on? Was it the heat? After several deep breaths, his head cleared and he got to his feet unsteadily. Disappearing into the forest, Blair hoped to meet up with Billy again. Perhaps, he could get the kid to pick up an extra radio from the command center. A smile crossed his face as he suddenly realized what he could do with an extra communications device.
Brown swatted at the swarm of gnats surrounding his head. He'd thought at first that both he and his partner had been the lucky ones being assigned to the Samena Trail. The thick forest with its dense shade provided relief against the hot sun. However, their sector had numerous underground springs, turning a large portion of the area into a marshy terrain. The additional moisture along with the heat, made the air thick and oppressive. The trail was slippery and slimy, and the growth of ferns and fungus looming around them was reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
Smirking as Rafe smacked at another annoying insect, only earned him a dirty glare. 'What?' his eyes shot back. Misery loved company, and they were both certainly miserable! The insects were the worst. Loving the damp environment, the whole area was teeming with them. The pesky bugs seemed to take some perverse pleasure at tormenting them, wheedling their little segmented bodies into ears, eyes, and noses.
He wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve, thankful that he'd kept the long-sleeved shirt on despite the heat. It offered some protection against the nasty critters. Man, this was murder... Blair would have to be crazy if he were hiding out in this area.
Slowing his pace, he yelled at Rafe to take a break. A chuckle escaped Brown's lips and he shook his head in amusement as he saw his partner attempting to scrape some mud off an expensive pair of sneakers. Rafe was fighting a losing battle on trying to keep the shoes clean. Brown at least had the intelligence to wear a pair of hiking boots. He watched with interest as his partner wandered a few yards off the trail and knelt beside something.
"Hey, H. Come here a minute. What'cha make of this?" Rafe called, waving his partner over.
Brown joined his partner and surveyed the unusual construction of twigs and branches weaved together. "I'm not sure. It looks like some kind of crude screen."
The young detective stood back up, looking around the area. "Not a bad location, either. Someone hiding behind here would have a good view of anyone coming up or down the trail. You think it might have been Sandburg?"
"Maybe. But if it was, he's nowhere around here now. There're a lot of tracks around here." Brown fingered a few broken twigs and noticed the trampled brush. "Look's like whoever it was headed off this way." He only moved ahead a few feet before stopping in front of a tree.
"Not sure," Brown replied as he ran his hand over the bark, examining a small red spot. "Looks like this marking was painted on. Whoever did it probably used a stain made from berries."
"So? Anyone could have made the mark?"
"No... no, it's fresh. And it reminds me of something Hairboy once told me -- about one of his adventures with some tribe in South America."
Rafe walked over to another tree further off the trail. "Well, there's another one this way. You want me to call this in?"
"Yeah, go ahead. Let them know what we've found and that we're going to follow the marks."
Both men picked up their pace as they tracked the painted route. Soon, they found themselves quite a distance off the main trail, struggling through the muck, when a small, blonde-haired figure popped up in front of them a few yards away.
"You think that's the kid helping Sandburg?" Rafe questioned, spying the boy.
"Maybe," Brown replied, edging closer, not wanting to move too hastily and scare the kid.
Waiting until the two detectives were almost upon him, the boy took off in a hurry, careful to stay out of their grasps, and knowingly weaved his way through the groundcover.
"Hey, kid! Wait! Billy!"
Rafe, leading the pursuit, saw the gap narrow and quickened his pace. As he neared his goal, his foot snagged on a string strung across the path. Losing his balance, his momentum carried him forward, arms flailing as he slid face-first across the fern-covered mud. Brown, following too close, tumbled on top of his partner.
The small boy appeared before the two fallen detectives. "Blair asked me to give this to you," Billy said as he held out the paper. As soon as Henri snatched the note from the child's fingers, Billy turned and scampered off into the woods.
Pushing up from the muck, Brown attempted to chase after the boy, only to succeed in slipping back into the muck as his feet flew out from under him. Exasperated, he sat back down next to Rafe, watching as his partner tried to scrape off some of the mud. Might as well give up, lost cause, buddy, he thought, shaking the wet mud off his hands. Hair, face and clothes were caked with mud that was rapidly drying.
"So, what does it say?" Rafe asked as he pulled a towel out of his backpack and proceeded to wipe at his face and hands.
Brown looked at the muddy note. "Not only is your name mud, but you're covered in it! In the 1700's, the word, 'mud' was slang for 'fool' or 'stupid person.' Now, don't you feel foolish for helping Jim to cheat?"
Crumpling the paper between his mud-covered hands, Brown grabbed the towel from his partner. "Call in and report this... this incident," he requested through clenched teeth, frustrated at being caught in one of Blair's booby traps. Oh, they'd better find the police observer before it was too late, because he definitely wanted a chance to repay Sandburg.
Blair had spent the early afternoon with Billy laying down a few more fake trails and setting up traps. At times, it had been hard staying ahead of the search teams. When Billy had reported success with Operation Mud, Blair slapped him a high-five, pleased that the trap had actually worked. Now, though, Rafe and Brown were rapidly approaching his current location and it was time to abandon his second base camp. Making plans to meet up with the boy later, he decided to put the radio that Billy had procured for him to good use. Hiking over to the backside of Devil's Ridge, he found the perfect spot.
Changing into a clean shirt, he took the sweaty, damp shirt and placed it behind a boulder, making sure one sleeve would be visible from below. Taking the binoculars, he set them on top of the boulder, angling them so that they would reflect the sunlight in about a half an hour. Then finally, he placed the radio next to the huge rock, setting it to a channel the search teams were not using. Locking the radio switch to receive only, he rose to survey his staged set. Now, wherever he went, when he transmitted from his radio on the same frequency, his voice would be broadcasted over the second radio... just another way to confuse his Sentinel or whoever else might come along and stumble upon his little deception.
Pleased with the preparations, he sat down to rest in the shade of a large outcropping of rocks. All the hard work and running around was really getting to him. The dripping perspiration stung his eyes; irritated, he swiped an arm across his sweaty forehead and then cursed the heat. Glancing down at his clean shirt, he was dismayed to find that it was already saturated. Damn! Must be the hottest day on record for the Cascade area and the freaking heat only compounded the never-ending headache he felt. Opening a bottle of water, he took a swig and then grabbed for the bottle of aspirin. Shaking out the last two pills, he paused before swallowing the aspirins as the first twinge of nausea clutched his stomach.
Curling on his side, he closed his eyes against the whirling landscape and waited for the cramping to pass as he took slow and even breaths. When the earth seemed to steady, Blair cautiously sat back up, one arm still tightly wrapped around his queasy abdomen. After a few more deep breaths, he uncurled the fingers that still held the pills and swallowed them swiftly, drowning the bitter aftertaste with the rest of the water. Not feeling much better, but knowing that he needed to move on, Blair picked up his pack and, conserving his waning energy, set a slower pace down the trail to the forest below, ready to wait for a fly to land on his web.
Jim took another draw of water before forcefully replacing the cap. Frustration would be an understatement...he was more than frustrated, he was closer to being desperate. Time was his enemy and it was quickly running out. What was left -- another four or five hours of daylight and then what? He could go on in the darkness, but not the other search teams.
Stepping away from the shade of the trees, he once again scanned the cliffs above him. A flash of light from an outcrop of rocks caught his eye.
"Simon," Jim called out to his captain while nodding toward the cliff. Feeling Simon move next to him, he stretched out his senses as he felt a firm and steadying hand placed on his shoulder.
Jim focused his sight and easily located the binoculars perched on top of one of the rocks. Catching a glimpse of the shirt he was sure Blair had on just that morning, he extended his hearing. The sound he expected to hear was not there and fear squeezed his chest.
"What's the matter, Jim?"
"Nothing...it's just that..." Jim stretched out his hearing again trying to convince himself that his ears were still playing tricks on him, especially after Sandburg's earlier stunt with the whistle. He had twenty-four hours...the doctor had said twenty-four.
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he began to eliminate the surrounding sounds, the birds chirping, the rustling of leaves, the murmur of a nearby creek, along with Simon's breathing and heartbeat. Then there was nothing... only silence.
"Hey, Jim, having a little problem with your hearing?" The voice crackled from above.
"Blair?" Jim scanned the rocks, discerning no movement. Puzzled, he shook off Simon's hand and advanced toward the trail leading up the hillside. "Blair?" He called out louder.
"Jim! Slow down." Simon warned
"I heard him. He's up there."
"Jim, stop and take your time. This is too easy. Heaven knows we've walked into enough traps today."
Jim paused mulling over Simon's words. He was right, there was something different about the voice.
"What ya waiting for... an invitation?"
The sound reverberated, not only from above but also from another location. There was also some static quality of the voice, as if coming from a receiver. If Blair wasn't above him, then he had to be somewhere near, watching him. Glancing slowly around, he was able to locate his friend, not more than a hundred yards to his right hidden where the trail entered a heavy wooded section of the reserve. The heartbeat, although a little fast, confirmed that it was his friend.
"Chief!" Jim shouted as he moved toward the spot.
Blair stepped out, momentarily stunned at being located. Jim paused as relief swept through him. Blue eyes locked onto blue. Then like a rabbit, Blair turned and ran, swallowed up by the dense forest.
Jim didn't hesitate to follow. His sight quickly adjusted from the bright sunlight of the open trail to the shadowing rays filtering in through the green canopy. His eyes never left his friend and locked on the figure jumping over small obstacles, tearing through the small bushes and around the trees. Running pell-mell, Jim ignored any warnings shouted by Simon to slow down.
So intense was he on capturing his prey, he never felt the small vine break against his leg, or saw the sapling whipping free from its pulled back position until it struck. The main force of the thin limb caught the sentinel under the chin, snapping back his head and causing him to fall flat on his back.
Hearing the crash, Blair paused to glance back. He never thought Jim...Jim, who lived with the Chopecs, would actually walk or run into one of his traps. Fleeting shame crept over him. This wasn't fun anymore. How had things gotten so out of hand? It was just a bet, wasn't it? Pushing the damp curls off his forehead, he wondered if he should call the whole thing off. Everything was so fuzzy; it was hard to think. God, why did he feel so bad? He was hot and sweaty. His head hurt, his joints ached and his arm was throbbing. Right now he would like nothing more than to go home, take a cool shower and collapse into bed.
Taking a few steps back, he watched as Simon helped his partner up. Jim, eyes closed, bent over, was trying to take some deep breaths, while the captain was rubbing his back. A twig breaking beneath Blair's feet alerted the captain to his vicinity.
Blair paused as he read the accusation in Simon's eyes. Fear and puzzlement drove Blair to turn and run. Not listening to the cries of "stop" or "wait," he cut through the forest and headed for the hidden location of his first base camp.
"Damn stupid bet," Simon mumbled under his breath as he made his way back to where he left Jim. He knew that he was a poor substitute for Blair. That had been demonstrated many times today. He had been barely able to contain or control Jim, allowing the man to stumble into numerous traps set by the kid. Twice Jim had zoned and Simon never realized it until he walked into the back of Jim. After this was over, he was going to pull Sandburg aside for a little talk and this time pay more attention to instructions regarding the care and handling of a sentinel. He found the man leaning against a tree, rubbing a hand along his jaw.
"I guess you weren't able to catch up to him?"
Simon winced at the bruise on Jim's chin and the small cuts on his face caused by the sapling. "No, he must be part jackrabbit. I have to give the kid credit...he's quick."
"Not only that, but he's running circles around us."
"You're right, Jim. I hate to say it but I don't think we're going to be able to catch him this way. We're going to have to outthink him. Back in the military, if you were dropped into a hostile environment, what would you do?"
"Probably set up more than one base camp and make friends with the sympathetic natives."
"I guess that's what you would call Billy...a sympathetic native. So, Jim, how would you counteract that?"
"I guess I would find some unsympathetic natives."
Jim and Simon stared at each other as the same thought crossed their mind and then they both spoke in unison, "Billy's parents!"
Billy squirmed in his seat under the watchful eyes of his parents, Carla and Greg Hudson. Looking at their faces, he could tell that neither one were too pleased with him right now, especially after hearing what he'd been up to all day and his involvement in duping the police officers.
The young boy glanced from his parents to Detective Jim and the large man called Captain Banks. This was just like the interrogations in the movies, but in the movies didn't the captured soldier only have to provide his name, rank and serial number? He sat mutely. His eyes defied them to get him to spill the beans. Go ahead! Torture me, he mentally challenged. Blair's location was safe with him.
"William Thomas Hudson, you answer Detective Ellison and answer him truthfully... this isn't a game!" Carla Hudson slapped the picnic table for emphasis.
Billy jumped and gulped at his mother's words. Maybe he should rethink this whole situation. Right now she looked scarier than that tall black guy. "But, Mom!" he whined.
Jim sat down on the bench and turned the boy to face him. "Billy, Blair needs your help." He spoke softly but firmly, hoping to convey the seriousness of the situation to the child. "I'm not lying to you. If you know anything... anything at all... you have to tell us. Listen, the last time you saw Blair, did he complain about being sick or a headache? Anything?
"Well, he did say he had a headache. I saw him take some pills."
"He's sick, Billy. He's very, very sick and he needs to see a doctor soon."
"Blair? He's really sick?" Billy stared at the detective's eyes. There was no deceit in them, only concern.
"Yes, he is."
Brown eyes welled up with tears and the bottom lip quivered. "Is he... is he going to die?"
"Not if we get to him in time."
The small boy burst into tears, sobs coming in quick, choking gasps. He flung his arms around his police friend, burying his head into the strong, supportive shoulder.
"He said it was a game, like hide and seek. I didn't know. I didn't know!"
"I know. Shhh, it's all right." Jim soothed and comforted Billy, wrapping his arms around the small boy and lightly stroking his back. As the boy's sobs softened, he pulled Billy back so that he could look at the tear-streaked face, and asked the most important question. "Do you know where Blair is?"
Peering up through wet lashes, Billy tried to control his tears and took a big breath before responding. "I'm supposed to meet him up near a cave. It's off from the trail, kinda hard to find, but I can lead you to it, Detective Jim."
Once again, the youngster was enfolded within the strong arms of his police friend as the relieved man whispered softly in his ear, "Thanks, Billy."
The sun was just setting as Jim, Simon, McAllister, Fisher, and Paxton made their way up the trail with Billy in the lead. As they neared a small plateau below Devil's Ridge, he studied the terrain and realized that they would probably have to carry Blair out. The ground appeared too rough for a copter to land.
"What do you think, McAllister?" Ellison asked the S & R team leader as the older man joined the detective.
"I'll have Kathy relay to Annika that we'll need the copter to land down by the Sequim Flats. It's the closest level area. We'll use the portable stretcher to transport him there."
The detective nodded in agreement as they continued their trek upward. Having left the forested area below, small brush and assorted gravel and rocks lined the dirt footpath, making the hiking a little more difficult. Jim marveled at the ease in which Billy navigated the rocky terrain, confident and sure-footed. The boy scurried along like he was part mountain goat, urging the group to hurry and keep up.
"We're almost there. Just a little farther," Billy called out.
If Jim hadn't been paying attention, he would have missed the turn, hidden as it was, as the boy left the trail for a small animal path. Now, forced to walk in a single file, the pace slowed as daylight decreased.
Reaching a break in the path, Billy scampered around some boulders and into a small clearing. "Blair... Blair!" the boy shouted.
Jim followed Billy in his search. A quick scan with his hearing confirmed his worst fear. "He's not here, Billy."
"He has to be! Blair told me to meet him here. I'm not lying, Detective Jim."
"I know you're not lying. Blair's just not here. He's sick, he may have forgotten that he was going to meet you."
Disheartened, the small boy collapsed onto the ground and rubbed at his tear-filled eyes. "Why'd you do such a stupid thing -- make that bet with Blair? Now, he'll die and it'll be your fault -- and mine."
Taken aback by Billy's statement of blame, Jim wondered the same thing. Why did he agree to the bet? What was he really trying to prove? In the long run, his senses did make him a better detective, enhancing the skills he already possessed. His senses were a part of him, not a tool to be clicked off and on. A sentinel will always be a sentinel if he chooses to be, and he had made that choice. He had accepted that responsibility. Looking down at the small boy, he uttered the only words of reassurance he could think of. "It's not your fault and it's not... not mine. What happened wasn't planned. You and I didn't set out to hurt Blair. We'll find him, Billy. You've got to believe that."
He stared back at the rest of the rescue party. They were now back to square one with night rapidly descending. Wondering what to do next, he was surprised when his thoughts were interrupted by the squawk of the radio.
Breathing hard, Blair paused. Damn! Where was he and why was it still so hot? With the sun going down, he should at least feel a little cooler. A sauna. It felt like a freaking sauna with the air so thick that it choked him to breathe. He should have been at the base camp by now. Did he miss the turn? He staggered a bit and then turned around. He was supposed to meet Billy. Billy? Why did he tell the boy to meet him at sunset? What was he thinking about having the boy out in the wilderness after dark? God, was he even thinking?
He sat down on the nearest rock, resting his head in his hands. His headache, which had been growing all day, was now almost a blinding pain. Reaching into his backpack, he removed the first aid kit and searched for the aspirin. Finding the empty bottle, he flung it in frustration, hearing it clatter as it bounced over the rocks and down the hillside. Great, Sandburg... just do your part for the environment. The bottle was probably non-biodegradable.
Rising on shaky legs, Blair let the pack slip from his numb fingers. The world spun dizzily around him; everything was blurry and swirling with streaks of muted colors. Falling to his knees, he tried to clear his vision, blinking several times. Why did he feel so weak? Pushing up from the ground, a fiery, white-hot pain shot up his right arm, and he fell back, moaning. He cradled the injured arm to his body, shuddering and gasping as the worst of the pain ebbed. Inspecting the inflamed limb, he saw that his right arm was a mottled red, hot to the touch, his fingers all puffy and the arm, itself, was swollen past his elbow.
With sudden clarity, Jim's early morning conversation sliced through his muddled mind.
"Chief! You need to come home right now! A doctor from the hospital called. Susie Parsons is in ICU. Your cut is infected with some unknown strain of bacteria."
Oh, god! Oh, god, oh, god, oh, god! With trembling fingers, he fumbled for the radio and prayed that someone was listening. "Uh, I... I think I need... help." The shaking now made it hard to hold the radio.
"Sandburg! Where are you?"
The radio slipped from his hand. Reaching for a nearby boulder, he pulled himself upright. Jim. He had to find Jim. Unsteadily, Blair moved a few feet away from his support. "Jim," he silently mouthed, the name no more than a whisper on his lips. Taking a few more stumbling steps, his foot skidded on a rock and he felt the world dissolve beneath him.
"Sandburg! Where are you?"
At first, Jim couldn't believe it when he'd heard Sandburg's voice over the radio. There it was, out of the blue, totally unexpected. It was like a godsend. Hopeful eyes met Simon's and relief soaked into his weary limbs as an end appeared in sight. The group gathered around him, waiting for a response, but no tinny words sprang from the radio -- only static.
"Sandburg! Blair?" Quiet. Each person was quiet, attentively silent, as he tried again. "Answer me, Chief! Tell me where you are!" Still no response.
"Jim." Simon stretched an arm out to the detective's shoulder and guided him away from the others. "Maybe he's not too far away. He was supposed to be on his way here. Can you try to sense him? Concentrate!" he hissed out urgently. "I've seen you do some remarkable things with your senses. He's out there. Find him."
Concentrate. Yeah, yeah, he could do that. He ran a shaky hand over his face and took a deep breath. Blair needed him. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes, shutting away the distracting visual influences, relaxing the tightness and anxiety he felt within, and allowing his hearing to drift effortlessly around the ridge, over brush, and through the top of whispering trees.
There! Now the sound was louder. A rapid heartbeat, raspy breathing and then one word -- one absolutely, undeniably, most wonderful sounding and welcoming word in the whole English language. "Jim."
"This way." Without looking to see if the others were following, he took off. His feet flew over the hard compacted path, leading him closer to his objective. Blair! As the darkening sky heralded the end of another day, Jim darted off the trail, ignoring the small rocks under his feet that threatened to trip him up and the brambles that grabbed at his ankles.
"Where's he going?" McAllister asked, confusion obvious in his voice.
"No time to explain. Just follow him," Simon replied, as he hurried to keep up with the sprinting man.
Seeing the sprawled body twenty feet below, Jim slid haphazardly down the steep incline, feet kicking up gravel and dust. The descent seemed agonizingly long as he maneuvered around prickly brush and fallen branches. Reaching the bottom, he scurried over to Blair and knelt beside the still figure. Anxiously, he reached up and touched the fevered brow. Hot -- so very, very hot.
"Oh, Blair," he gasped softly as he got his first good look. Sweat-laden curls clung limply around the ashen face. Carefully, he checked out the rest of his partner, noting a few bruises, probably from the tumble down the hill. Then his eyes landed upon Blair's grossly swollen arm. No longer bandaged, the exposed, pus-filled wound looked painful to the touch and was colored an inflamed red.
"Down here. Hurry!" Jim called to the others now gathering atop the hill. McAllister and Fisher quickly made their way down to the two men. From above, he could hear Paxton on the radio, conveying their location and that Sandburg had been found.
Hearing a soft groan, Jim jerked his head back to his injured friend. "Chief?" He peered intensely, his one hand stretched out to cup the heated cheek. Eyelashes fluttered, and then glazed slits of blue appeared through half-lidded eyes.
Moistening his lips with his tongue, Blair swallowed and then whispered hoarsely, "j-jim."
Relieved, Jim's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Yeah, buddy. I found you." Offering a brief prayer of thanks, he grasped Blair's left hand tightly and squeezed. So good, it felt so good to feel Blair's warm hand in his. "Hang in there, Chief. You're going to be okay."
Simon and McAllister stood side by side, watching as the helicopter lifted off and headed toward the hospital. Jim had managed to wrangle his way onboard, assisting the medics and advising them as to Blair's condition and what doctor to contact.
A grin wormed its way onto McAllister's face as the lights of the copter disappeared. It was a good ending, a very good ending to a possible tragedy. In his line of work, it was more than likely to end on a bad note, so it was a good morale boost for him and his team to recover a live one. Though, he had to give Sandburg's partner the credit. Amazing how swiftly the man had been able to locate the missing man!
"Tell me, Banks. How was your man able to find Sandburg so quickly?"
Simon cleared his throat. "Well, uh... Detective Ellison is ex-military... a trained army ranger. He was in covert-ops, tracking a specialty."
"Well, let him know that if he ever needs a change of job, he'd be more than welcome to join the Search and Rescue team. We can always use someone with his background."
The captain nodded as he retrieved his and Jim's backpacks. Darkness had settled upon the flats and the group still had a trek back to the command center and their vehicles.
Blair lay back in the boat, watching as his partner fished. As rapidly as the bacteria had invaded his body, it had likewise been defeated once the proper antibiotics had been discovered. Now, the only reminder was the sore and slightly swollen right arm. Restricted in use by a sling, he had been assured by the doctor that the arm should be better within a week. God, he couldn't believe that it had only been a week ago that he led Major Crime on a merry chase through the forest. All for a stupid bet. What had he been thinking? He thought that he was above the macho....
A tug on Jim's line brought Blair out of his musing. Sitting up, he encouraged his partner, offering advice and tips and earning several amused looks from the experienced fisherman. After a short struggle, Jim landed a nice size trout to add to the others caught earlier.
"Looks like you'll be cooking dinner tonight, Chief," Jim stated, holding up his prize.
"Well, since I caught them, you get to clean and cook them."
"Wanna bet?" Blair's teasing tone took the sting out of the words.
"I don't think so, Chief." Jim replied as he started the motor. "My betting days are over," he called over his shoulder as he navigated the small craft back to shore.
Pulling the boat up to the dock, he secured the lines and then assisted Blair out before retrieving the fish, rod, and tackle. Hearing their names called, they both turned and saw an energetic little figure running up the small wooden pier toward them.
"Blair! Detective Jim! Did you come back to play some more?" Billy shouted gleefully.
"Not this weekend, Billy. I'm still recovering."
"Oh." Pouting, the boy was unable to suppress his disappointment. Scrunching up his forehead as if thinking, a sudden smile bloomed across his face. "Well, then you have to come and meet my aunt. I told her all about you."
Blair rolled his eyes at Jim. "Sure, Billy. I'd love to meet your aunt."
Billy grabbed Blair's good hand and tugged him along the shoreline. "This way. Hurry!" Blair followed good-naturedly, wondering where they were headed. Not too far from the docks, they stopped alongside a reclining figure, and the boy made the introductions. "Aunt Molly, this is my friend I was telling you about."
The young woman pushed up her sunglasses and set aside the book she'd been reading. "I didn't realize that Billy's friend was so much older than Billy... and so attractive. Won't you have a seat?"
Blushing, Blair proceeded to sit next to the long legs that extended out of the oh-so-almost-not-there swimsuit.
The young boy, now finding himself ignored, ran off to find a new playmate.
Gathering together the fishing supplies, Jim turned as he felt a small hand tap on his back and was surprised to find Billy standing beside him.
"Detective Jim, since Blair can't play with me, will you?"
The pleading brown eyes melted his heart. Jim stared at the little face and then glanced over at his partner, who was now engaged in a lively conversation with Billy's very good-looking aunt. Well, he may have caught the fish, but Blair caught something a whole lot better. Sighing, he picked up the rod and string of fish and handed the youngster the tackle box. "Sure, Billy. Let's head back to camp and once I've taken care of the fish, we can play."
Billy eagerly grabbed the box with one hand and clasped his other around the detective's. "Okey dokey, Detective Jim. We're going to have lots of fun together!"
The two figures headed back down the trail. Listening to the laughter of his roommate, Jim turned toward the boy and said with a smile, "So, Billy. Have I ever told you about the time Blair was locked in the Jags cheerleaders' locker room?" Jim chuckled. If he were to bet on anything, he'd bet that Billy would be sure to pass that story on to his aunt. That was... if he were a betting man.