When Secrets Fall From the Sky
Summary: A witness for the FBI has to be delivered. A helicopter chase and crash follows. Can be considered AU, just because it has a different background for Blair. Rated G.
Notes: This was inspired by Laura Valentine (thanks Laura). She did a series called Dog Tags on SXF, which solved the problem of how to start this story. I asked her permission to use her idea and this is the result. Thanks to EagleEye for betaing and making suggestions and bugging me until I was done.
Feedback and comments welcome.
Disclaimer: I do not own The Sentinel characters, nor do I make a claim on them. Established characters are the property of Pet Fly Productions. Original characters are the sole property of the author.
Jim opened the front door a second before a 'CRASH' echoed through the loft, originating from his roommate's abode. The sound was followed by several swear words in English, Spanish, a smattering of Russian and a few dialects Jim didn't recognize. Jim grinned to himself. Didn't sound like Sandburg was hurt.
"You all right in there?" Jim called as he hung up his jacket and jogged up the stairs where he removed wallet, gun and holster.
"Yeah," came the disgusted reply. "Just busy making a mess."
Jim came back down the stairs and leaned against the frame of the French doors. He watched Blair, who was on his knees, picking up an assortment of stuff and throwing it back into a drawer barely hanging out of the small desk. A top was spinning at Jim's feet and he bent down and scooped it up.
He tossed it back to Blair. "Toy drawer?"
Blair grinned at him from his place on the floor. "Something like that. I was looking for a pack of postcards I got from Mom when she was in Tibet two summers ago. The drawer over-balanced when I pulled it out too far." Another handful of *stuff* landed back in the drawer.
Jim recognized bits of pottery and electronics, weird pens and notebooks, a couple of paperbacks with the covers missing and dropped to his knees to help. He picked up a small square tin that rattled when he shook it.
His nose twitched at a strange scent and he held the tin closer, sniffing cautiously. He'd expected to smell a herb or some type of incense, so the oily smell of fuel and hydraulics fluid surprised him. He looked up at Blair, who was watching him.
"Chief?" Jim handed the tin back to his partner. "What's in this? It smells ..."
"Smells how, Jim?" He took the tin and popped the lid off, dumping the contents into his hand. A knotted chain wrapped around a pair of dog tags fell out, along with a folded photo, a set of stripes and a squadron insignia patch. Blair looked at the items, then took the patch in his fingers, rubbing it gently.
Jim took the chain out of Blair's palm and held it up. The dog tags unrolled from the chain, and dangled, flashing the embossed name and numbers in the light for a moment.
"Chief, these look authentic." The metal tags were cushioned with black rubber around the edges and back. He could smell fuel on them, and oil. Underneath the artificial smells, Jim scented old sweat that he was very familiar with.
Blair took the chain from Jim's hand. He rubbed a thumb over the embossing. "I'd almost forgotten I still owned these." His eyes were distant as memories played out in his mind.
Jim slid the patch from Blair's hand and looked at the worn fabric. The triangular patch contained a black helicopter embroidered over a desert landscape; the words Desert Storm were stitched in red across the bottom. Jim's sensitive fingers could feel bits of sand still embedded in the fabric. The patch was worn, sun faded. Oily smells permeated the fabric. Jim looked up at his partner and met the dark blue eyes.
"You want to tell me something?" Jim handed back the patch and sat down hard on the floor.
In an answer, Blair handed him the folded photo. The photo was of four men, kneeling in the sand in front of a helicopter, armed to the teeth with guns and missiles. The sky was bright blue and there were waves of heat coming off the black chopper.
Jim squinted at the badly creased photo. The four men were in desert fatigue pants, beige tee shirts, sunglasses and desert wide floppy brim hats. Two of the men were very tall, dark skinned, one was Latino, broad and medium height, the third smaller than all the rest, his fair neck and arms sunburned. Jim recognized the grin immediately. Sandburg.
"I wasn't kidding when I said I flew helicopters in Desert Storm. I just wasn't a pilot. I was a mechanic and electronics tech on the Apaches." Blair took the photo, looked at it with a sad smile, then folded it back into the tin. He added the patch and dog tags, closed the can and tossed it back into the drawer. "Ancient history, man."
Jim looked at his partner with his mouth open. "You can't just throw that back into the drawer without telling me about it, Chief. You were military? Active duty? Army? You saw combat?" The questions kept rolling off his tongue.
Blair climbed to his feet, dusted off his knees, then offered Jim a hand up. Without a word, he went into the kitchen and pulled out two beers and offered Jim one. Sandburg leaned against the kitchen counter and twisted the cap off. An absent-minded flick of his wrist sent the cap into the trash can.
Jim's eyes followed the spinning cap as it arched into the trash can with a clatter. His did the same and he sipped on the bitter brew while he waited for Blair to explain.
"Jim, you know I started college at sixteen. By the time I was eighteen, I knew what I wanted to be, what I wanted to study. But I couldn't afford the courses. Scholarships and grants only go so far and I didn't want to hock my soul for my degree. The Army offered me a deal I couldn't refuse. I could take my two years of school, roll that into a military college program, go to school on Uncle Sam as long as I did four years for him. So I did. Went through basic, got assigned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Worked on helicopters by day, went to college at night. When the Persian Gulf heated up, I went TDY over there, finished my last year and got out. By then I was ready to go for my master's. The GI Bill paid for that, and gave me a good start on my Ph.D." Blair finished his beer and lobbed the bottle into the trash can. "And now you know about my military years. You're the only one. Mom doesn't know and I want to keep it that way."
Jim was shaking his head. "I don't believe it. How did you go from the Army to a hippie school teacher? There is no trace of the military in you. I'd never pegged you as a Vet." He finished his beer, then slid down the support column dividing the kitchen from the living area. He stared at the empty beer bottle.
Blair came over and slid down the column on the side opposite of Jim. "After I left the Army, I had to re-enter school on the west coast and make Mom believe I'd been living rough for awhile. I only saw her three times over the years I was active duty, always at some jungle location of my choosing. I did go to a lot of native sites in South America, Jim. I had 30 days of leave each year. I always chose a location that my knowledge was needed and invited Namoi to join me. She always saw me up to my elbows with a tribe, learning, teaching, working. She would jump right in, wanting to experience what I was learning. Sometimes, I'd leave her there, knowing that she'd get lost in the new experience and the next time she'd look for me, it'd be months later. By then, I'd be planning the next expedition and talking her into joining me."
"Didn't she notice your hair?"
"I kept it short because of the heat and trouble it was to wash it. No big deal." Blair shrugged. "She always assumed I was living with friends on campus in Kentucky, which wasn't too far of a stretch. She'd get postcards from me while I was TDY somewhere for training, whatever. I'd always tell her about a university in the area or a museum I was visiting, or some girl that'd caught my eye. The hardest time was when I was in the Gulf. I couldn't write her and tell her the truth. I almost dropped completely out of sight for six months. Fortunately, she was in Brazil, or Chile, I think. She was living on a plantation helping a family get on their feet after a bad winter. I couldn't get mail to her, and she couldn't get mail to me." He shrugged. "It worked out for the best."
Jim was shaking his head. "And you bitch at me for having secrets. Why didn't you tell me?"
Blair rocked his head back against the column and blew out a breath of air. "What difference would it make, Jim? You needed me for my knowledge, not because I could handle a helicopter or a gun. You wouldn't have believed me anyway."
"Why did you say that?"
"Being in the Army taught me a couple of things Jim. One, I'm afraid of heights. That comes from being in a busted chopper as it auto-rotates to a landing, while you are under the dash with a face full of smoking wires. Two, no matter what, I will never be comfortable shooting a gun. I can. I even have a marksman ribbon in that drawer somewhere. But shooting at a target and shooting at a person are two different things. And three, I only did the military thing for my own selfish reasons. I needed money for school. End of story. Playing the ponies helped, scholarships helped, grants helped. But Uncle Sam did most of it." Blair rolled around the square column and looked at his partner.
"You don't talk about your military service, why should I talk about mine?"
"Mine's classified, or at least most of it."
"Mine's boring except for the last 6 months. That was just terrifying."
Jim looked at his partner. "Well for what's it worth, I'm glad you told me, and I'm proud of you." Jim's hand reached out and tapped Blair on the cheek. "But the next time you try to play innocent over something military, I'm not going to believe you."
Blair levered himself off the floor. "I don't think you believed me the first time. My innocent act wore thin with you real fast."
Jim climbed to his feet too. He grinned at his partner. "I just learned that you *talk* a lot but *don't* say much. People who do that are hiding something. Sometimes it's a painful past, sometimes it's a lie. Or maybe they're just protecting themselves from the big, bad world."
Blair walked across the room and flopped on the couch. "Which am I?"
Jim joined him. "You? I think you're trying to protect the people you love. You put on this bright, friendly, innocent face and people can't help but want to be near you. But underneath, you're this strong, demanding, in control person who sees his goal and aims for it with deadly accuracy."
Blair looked at his sentinel and grinned, eyes glowing, teeth bared. "Now, the real question is, what are you?"
Jim looked at the mysterious man on the couch and pondered his answers. "Right now? Hungry." He reached for the phone.
Two weeks later.
Jim pushed Blair into the back seat of the Ranger chopper and climbed in. Both men put on headphones and fastened their shoulder harnesses, trying to get comfortable in the red jumpsuits that they'd borrowed for their flight over water. Simon climbed into the front seat and the chopper lifted off the roof.
Blair leaned between Simon and the pilot. "Explain to me one more time why we need three people to pick up a witness? How come the feds aren't doing the taxi service?" He didn't intentionally yell, but Jim and Simon both flinched at the sound over the headphones.
Simon answered him. "The Feds have her at a safe house at the base of Rainier. Mulroney-Jim, don't you start-asked for us to pick her up. He said he didn't trust anybody else."
Blair looked at his partner who was staring out the side window with a huge frown on his face, forehead wrinkled.
"Trust Mulroney to ask for us for a babysitting job." Jim growled through the mic as he stared at the retreating landscape. The city was rapidly disappearing and they banked over the water to head toward the lofty peaks capped by Rainier. Jim looked at his partner, the frown a little deeper. "You okay on the height thing, Chief? As many times as you've been up here, you shouldn't be bothered."
"Easy for you to say, man." Blair looked at the receding land, then glanced away. "I'm not looking down," he mumbled over the mic. "I'm not looking down."
Jim was leaning against the glass again, eyes closed. After a moment, Blair tried to follow his example, and laid his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes. Maybe a nap would make the trip go quicker.
The trip by helicopter took a little over an hour before they landed at a closed resort. Jim watched the flat ground between two cabins come up to meet them as the pilot set the chopper down and killed the engine. Blair was stirring beside him, rubbing his eyes and stretching in the limits of his seat.
The pilot turned to his passengers. "I've got to refuel before we can take off again. The FBI was kind enough to bring in a couple of barrels of gas for me to use. Anybody want to help me set it up?"
Blair pulled off the earmuffs. "Yeah, I will." He draped the muffs across the pilot seat and climbed out after Jim. He hopped down on the ski and stretched, watching Ellison do the same.
"Simon and I will get the witness then." Jim slapped his partner on the shoulder of his red mustang suit as he went by, and joined Simon as the two cops walked toward the cabin and man on the porch holding a rifle.
Blair ducked under the tail boom of the chopper and trotted toward the pilot who was rolling a blue 55 gallon drum toward the aircraft. Blair grabbed a second one next to a storage shed and carefully tipped it open, lowering it to the ground. He rolled the second drum next to the first one and pulled it upright.
The pilot looked at Blair's actions while he ducked under the rear of the chopper and opened the cargo department. He pulled out a manual pump and hoses.
"You know anything about whirlybirds?" He tossed the coil of fuel hoses toward Sandburg.
"A little." Blair pulled out his pocket knife and used the screwdriver to pop the bung in the top of the fuel drum. Then he deftly uncoiled the hose while the pilot attached the hand pump to the top of the drum.
The two men refueled the chopper in silence, then put the empty barrels into a rack for pick up and refilling. There was an outside water faucet and a roll of paper towels next to the rack of fuel barrels, and they washed the fuel off their hands.
Blair shook his hands, then smelled them. "At least we didn't get fuel all over us. Fuel stinks."
The pilot nodded. "Especially if you get it on your leather jacket." He stuck out his hand. "Tom Wilson."
"Blair Sandburg." They shook hands, then started back toward the blue and white aircraft. The cabin door opened and Jim and Simon came out, a petite woman clutching a case between them.
Wilson nodded toward the woman. "That your extra special package the FBI is so hot to get back to Cascade?"
Blair looked at the pilot sideways. The man didn't carry himself like an agent. He looked the part of a helicopter pilot, in heavy carhart jeans and worn leather jacket overtop a lightweight flotation vest. His sunglasses were tucked in the collar of a dark tee shirt.
Simon interrupted the conversation. Jim was opening the rear door and helping the woman into the bench seat.
"Are we ready to go?" Simon stopped, halfway into the front seat.
Wilson nodded, then slapped Sandburg on the back. "Thanks for your help."
The men strapped themselves back into the Ranger and the pilot spun the engine up as the rotors started to turn.
Blair turned to their new passenger. She was looking around, brown eyes huge in an ashen face as her hands twisted the handle of her case. He quietly handed her a pair of ear muffs and pointed at her ears, knowing that the noise of the engine made speech impossible. Her muffs were only protection for her hearing.
Jim's voice came over his headphones. "You okay, Chief?"
Blair nodded, leaning past their passenger in the middle to meet Jim's eyes. "What's her story?"
"She was a data processor for a guy who is connected to the Russian Mafia. Turns out he and his company have been fronting a gun running operation out of the Soviet Union ever since the government collapsed. The FBI have been watching him for several years, trying to find a crack in his organization. Then she -" Jim waved a hand at the woman trying to hide between them by huddling down in the seat, "-realized what all the data she was handling really meant, put two and two together and decided to run. The feds want her to testify about her knowledge of the operation, in return for a new life somewhere warm. She agreed."
Blair nodded. "Do we know the name of the guy behind the operation?"
Jim shook his head. "Simon has the file. I haven't read it yet."
"What's the chances of him coming after us?"
Simon answered from the front of the cockpit. "If I know Mulroney, real good. The feds can't keep a secret, you know that."
Jim was peering out the windows, eyes squinting at the flat light. He reached into a pocket, pulled out his sunglasses and scanned the sky again. Then he looked at the inside hinges of the helicopter door.
"What are you thinking, Jim?" Blair watched the worry line between the dark brows deepen.
"I'm thinking that if we have a fire fight, these doors will have to go."
Simon looked over his shoulder, eyes glaring at Jim, then at Sandburg. "Don't even go there, Jim. It's going to be a nice delivery job, nothing more."
Jim looked at his captain and shook his head slightly. "Always be prepared," he said into the mic, then pulled his weapon out from under his jacket and checked the clip.
Their pilot spoke up. "Hey guys, I don't really want to know what you're thinking back there, but I'm not really in the mood to be shot at today. The charter company doesn't pay me enough to get shot at."
Simon looked at their pilot. "Didn't they tell you what you could be getting into?" Wilson shrugged. "The charter dispatch called, said he had a charter to Rainier and back. Offered me my standard fee, plus 50% if I got you back, today, in one piece."
"And you didn't think anything of a 50% bonus?" Simon growled over the microphone, wishing for a cigar and something more than his .38.
Tom shook his head. "I get bonuses all the time for speedy transport. I just knew the FBI was paying the bill. They always want something as fast as possible."
Simon nodded to the pilot, then leaned back closer to Jim. "You pack anything more than a sidearm?"
Jim had already pulled a long case out from under his feet. "Yes sir." He unlocked the case and began assembling a high-powered rifle. He took a moment and stared at Sandburg. "You think you can handle my gun? If the situation comes to that?"
Blair groaned over the mic. "Jim, I'll do whatever I have to do. You know that. I may not be happy about it, but I'll do it."
Jim nodded. "Good boy."
Blair glared at Jim's choice of words. Then he nodded toward their passenger. "She say anything?"
At that moment, their passenger chose to look at her escorts. She pulled off the ear muffs. "I can't hear a thing with these on," she yelled over the engine. "But I'm not just a sack of flour being delivered, you know. If you want to talk about me, let me at least be able to answer you." Her brown eyes were more angry than scared and her lower lip was stuck out. Her hands still twisted the handle of her case, and her knuckles were white from the pressure.
Jim and Blair looked at each other and shrugged. Jim tapped Simon on the shoulder and the police captain handed back another pair of headphones. Jim plugged the mic into a jack into the roof then handed them to their passenger. She put them on, nesting them into her curly black hair.
"Can you hear us?" Jim asked, watching the woman carefully. She was maybe 30 or a little younger, a little overweight, dressed in jeans, sweater and long coat. She might have been pretty if she would stop frowning and didn't look so terrified.
"Yeah, I can hear you. And my name is Jennifer." Her voice was gruff over the headphones, but there was an undertone of whining under it. "Before you ask, no, I didn't know what the company was doing before I was hired. As soon as I figured it out, I started keeping a separate record of the stuff I thought suspicious." She tapped her case. "I didn't tell anybody my suspicions at the company. When I thought I had enough evidence, I went to the FBI, didn't even go to the local police."
"Then what?" Simon asked from the front seat.
"The FBI wanted me in protective custody. I turned in my resignation, gave the boss some song and dance about being bored and wanting to go somewhere else. I thought I'd covered my tracks pretty good, but the boss wanted my laptop, and my computer at home. When I said no, that he had no right, somebody broke into my house and stole both. I ran. I called my contact at the FBI and they brought me here. That was 5 days ago."
"I take it that they thought the evidence was on your computer. If they stole it, where's the evidence?" Sandburg asked.
"I made copies on a zip drive, then kept the zip drive and the disk in my purse. It never left me. When I ran, all I had was my purse, a change of clothes, and whatever money I could get at an ATM. I didn't dare use a credit card. I figured they'd trace it."
Jim nodded. "Good move. But you think they know you went to the feds."
Jennifer nodded. "Oh yeah. After my house got robbed, I ran. Three days later I called my brother and let him know I was alive and okay. He said he'd been called by some man demanding to know my whereabouts. Then the feds showed up, and warned my brother to keep quiet about what he knew about my job. We figured the first call was my old boss calling to see if he could shake out some information. I told my brother I was okay and safe, and I'd call him as soon as it was safe. The feds let me use a hotmail account and e-mail him yesterday."
Jim and Blair exchanged glances. "Think your boss could trace the e-mail?" Blair asked Jennifer.
"I don't know. It would take someone who really knows stuff like that. I don't know." She leaned back against the seat. "I just know I'm scared, tired, hungry and I really want this to be over with."
Jim nodded. "I hear that. You never told me the company, or your boss' name."
Jennifer mumbled some name that sounded like a mouthful of consonants, which Jim took to mean it was a foreign name, either Russian or oriental, and the company name was Land and Sea Shipping. Which sounded like a good company to front a gun smuggling scheme.
Wilson interrupted them. "We've got company." The pilot pointed toward a helicopter that was approaching them on an intercept course. "You were expecting trouble? I think it found us."
"How good are you with this thing? Think you can out-maneuver them?" Simon asked, even as he was pulling out his handgun and checking the clip.
"I'm good, but a well placed bullet in the fuel tank will end it fast. If you've got any ideas, I'm all ears."
"Yeah, get low, and get fast. Sandburg, pull the pins on your door and toss it." Jim was already working on his door.
"You really know how to show someone a good time, don't you, Ellison?" Sandburg called as he forced the two hinge pins up and out. The door fell away and went spinning into the ground.
Jim's door went flying and the sentinel's eyes followed it all the way to the ground. "That's what I live for, Chief, to show you a good time."
"Thanks, Jim. I really appreciate that." The force of the wind swirling through the two open sides of the helicopter cabin swirled the long hair that had escaped Sandburg's ponytail. Blair tried tucking the strands back in, but soon gave up.
Simon's voice came over the mic. "Ellison, Sandburg, when was the last time a friendly helicopter pulled up beside you with rifles pointing out the windows?
"Been awhile, sir." Jim glanced at the chopper that had looped around them and now was paralleling their course. A rifle with a human attached to it leaned out of an open doorway. The man behind the rifle was making motions with his hand that was easily interpreted as 'land the chopper'. Jim handed Sandburg his handgun. "In case I need some back up, Chief. Don't shoot unless it comes into range on your side. If the pilot sees only one rifle, he may think we have a blind side."
Blair took the handgun, and nodded to Jim. Then he pushed Jennifer as close to the floor of the cabin as possible. "Stay down and don't move. Things might get a little hairy."
The woman looked at him with wide frightened eyes but did as she was told.
Wilson had put the chopper into a moderately steep dive as if he intended to follow their pursuers instructions. As soon as he was closer to a range of hills he began zigging and zagging between them, looking for a way to dodge out of sight and put some distance between the two choppers. It wasn't working. There weren't any river canyons to run through, no tall skyscrapers to hide behind. Just lots of hills and trees.
"I'm open for suggestions," he called to his passengers.
"Keep heading in the general direction of Cascade. If we can get closer to civilization, we might have a better chance of loosing them. They might not be so willing to open fire if they think they may be spotted." Simon offered.
"I doubt it." Jim tapped Simon on his shoulder and pointed. "They're making a run at us. If they can force us down, or to crash, the witness and the evidence goes down with us."
The cops watched as the 'copter started closing on them. It had been pacing them, slightly behind and too one side. Now it was pulling even and narrowing the distance between them.
Jim saw the finger tightened on the trigger a split second before he saw the muzzle flash from the rifle.
"He's firing! Move this thing!" Jim yelled, his own rifle coming up and braced against the door frame.
Wilson sent the Ranger plummeting downward, dropping the chopper as fast as he could and still maintain control. He skimmed it along the trees for a second, then lifted it up, over the crest of a hill then down into a valley. He spotted power lines on tall towers and swung the aircraft toward the towers, hoping to confuse the attack chopper into cutting it too close and wrapping its rotorblades in the wires.
Ellison fired off a couple of rounds at the attacking aircraft and groaned to himself at the miss. He didn't have the ammo to take pot shots and hope to get lucky. Every shot had to be hoarded until he knew he could hit the machine.
For the next five minutes the two helicopters danced and pirouetted though the sky. Wilson took the Ranger around huge towers of high intensity power lines, underneath the thick cables. He danced it sideways though cuts between hills, and behind jutting rock cliffs. Occasionally the chopper would jerk one way or another, as Jim would yell as their adversary's finger tightened on the trigger of his rifle. Jim held his fire, waiting, knowing he only had a few shots that would make a difference between living and dying.
"We've got to end this soon!" Wilson yelled over the headphones. "I don't have the fuel to play with him all day!" He pulled the chopper into a steep climb, sending his passengers back into their seats, then sideways as he dodged another tower. "If anybody has any bright ideas, now's the time to sing out."
"What happens if we land?" Simon bellowed, one hand holding his pistol, the other the open window frame next to him, his eyes never leaving their opponent.
"If I find us a flat landing area and get down with enough time to get out of this thing, we stand a fighting chance of surviving. But if they're too close, we'll be sitting ducks. One good shot will take out the chopper. Then they can land and hunt us at their leisure."
"Great." Blair mumbled from the back. His wide eyes looked at Jim. "Better take that hundred to one shot man. It might be our only hope."
Jim nodded. "Pick your spot, against a ridge. Make sure that I'm facing him. I'll try to hit the pilot. Get ready to get out of the way."
Wilson nodded and the Ranger spun around. For a second they were nose-to-nose with the other chopper, then they darted away. Wilson firewalled the throttles and the nose dipped as the aircraft sped toward another ridge of rocks and trees. Their adversary followed and everyone on board felt the metal behind them ping as it absorbed several rounds.
Wilson yelled as his chopper was hit. "They missed the fuel and oil lines. We were lucky." The blue and white 'copter aimed toward a rock wall. "Get ready."
Jim was braced in the open doorway of the copter, his seatbelt undone but his shoulder harness as loose as he could make it and fastened diagonally across his body. Blair had reached around him and wove one hand into the belt of Jim's mustang suit, holding on for dear life.
Wilson spun the chopper around so it hovered next to the cliff, Jim facing outward toward their enemy. The approaching machine was flying sideways and the gunner was firing as they approached, hoping that quantity of bullets would overcome quality of marksmanship.
Jim aimed for the nose of the attacking aircraft, firing three rounds toward it, then sweeping toward the cockpit and cabin. His superior sight was useless for aiming; there were too many variables. But it did let him see the holes that pock-marked the engine cowling. Almost immediately smoke started to seep from the front of the chopper.
The Ranger rocked as several rounds found their mark and Ellison glanced away from their enemy for a second, just in time to see Wilson jerk, then slump in his seat.
"Shit! Chief, the pilot's hit!"
Blair was already scrambling. He let go of Jim's belt and unbuckled his own harness and seat belt. He quickly stashed Jim's spare gun into a net bag on the back of a seat. Then he was leaning between the seats, reaching for Wilson with one hand and the joystick with the other.
The next thirty seconds slowed down to a crawl. Jim couldn't watch what his partner and captain were doing because he had to keep shooting, knocking the gunman from the other chopper and blasting the tail rotor. He could see the oil streaming from holes in the engine cowling and calculate that their opponent was going to hit the ground somewhere under them. He could also see that the bullets that had impacted their cockpit had taken a few instruments as well as Wilson's life.
Simon was trying to help, pulling Wilson's body away from the controls he'd slumped over, while Blair was bodily climbing between the seats and holding onto the joystick.
Then time speeded up again and Jim dropped his rifle to the floorboard and reached for Wilson's limp body, pulling him between the seats, while Blair went over. Simon was twisting around, grabbling legs and lower body, lifting and pushing.
And through it all, Jennifer kept screaming, her arms wrapped over her head, eyes screwed shut, mouth open in one wail after another.
"Chief, can you handle this thing?" Jim called, eyes intent on the casualty. There were two red splotches on the pilot's body, one in the chest, the other in the stomach. Jim's fingers could not find a pulse.
"Maybe." Sandburg answered, his eyes on the instruments, hand on the joystick, and feet on the pedals. One hand dropped to the lever beside the seat and he pulled up on it gently, then advanced the joystick just a hair and the chopper lifted up and over the cliff. The explosion from the other chopper rocked them a little as Sandburg fought for altitude.
"Simon, you okay?" Sandburg spared a second to look at the police captain, who was staring at him, mouth open. "Simon, are you hit?" Blair yelled louder.
"Uh, no. Sandburg, don't tell me you know how to fly one of these things." Simon's voice over the intercom was quietly intense.
"Okay, I don't know how to fly one these things." Sandburg was looking at the radio, turning dials. "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Is anyone listening? Mayday." Blair glanced at Simon, "Keep trying the radio. Change frequencies until you hear something, or someone. I have no idea of our location. Jim, we're hit. I've got to land this thing. You know where we are?"
Jim glanced up from the bloody body he was trying to secure on the bench seat. He looked at their surroundings. It took a few seconds to pinpoint their general location in reference to Cascade. "Yeah, there should be a highway on the other side of this ridge. If you can follow it, it'll lead us to a town. Can't tell you the name, but I'm pretty sure it's close."
Simon was looking at the instruments, trying to decipher what they were telling him. He pointed at one. "Isn't that a GPS?"
Sandburg nodded. "You're right, Simon." He reached into a pocket in the pilot's door, pulled out an aerial chart, handed it to Simon. "See if you can figure out where we are." His eyes bounced between the instruments and the terrain.
"Jim, we're losing fuel. I've got to get it down. How's Wilson?"
Jim leaned between the seats. "Dead." He met the startled blue eyes of his partner. "Think you can set us down in one piece?"
"Do I have a choice?" Blair turned back to the windshield. "Simon, figure out where we are yet?"
Simon folded and refolded the aerial map. "No, Sandburg, I haven't. I was never a map reader."
"Jolt down the readings on the GPS. We can use them to call in some help if we survive the landing." Jim patted Simon on the shoulder, then turned to their other passenger. Jennifer had quit screaming, but now she looked like she was completely in shock, eyes dull and unfocused. Jim hauled her up from the center of the floor and strapped her into her seat. He took the case she'd been clinging to and tied it to the cabin with a cargo strap.
Blair looked at the terrain, then the instruments. They were flying straight and level, five hundred feet off the ground. The fuel gage was rapidly spinning toward empty and he tapped the gage on the second tank, hoping that the switching mechanism and the other tank, worked. But the other concern was the oil gage. Pressure was dropping on that gage too. Without oil, the engine would fry, and they'd crash, fuel or no fuel.
Simon had continued with the Mayday call, deciding that no matter what happened, someone would have to rescue them. There was no way in the world Sandburg was going to fly them out of this. He had added in the lat-long readings on the GPS, hoping somebody was receiving them.
Jim leaned over Blair's shoulder again. "How you doing, Chief?" He placed one hand underneath the ponytail and rubbed the tense neck.
"Wishing I was anywhere but here." Blair pointed at the gages. "You see any sign of that road?" The altitude showed three hundred feet as the chopper crossed over another ridge. The engine made a protesting, coughing sound.
Jim was scanning the terrain, eyes fully dilated as he tried to see further and pick out minute details that could be interpreted as civilization. "Nothing but a logging path, Chief. If we could spot an active camp, we might be able to land and get some help."
Blair nodded. "Good idea." He tapped the fuel gage showing empty. "I've got to switch tanks and hope the other one has fuel still left in it. Otherwise, we're going to come down the hard way."
Jim nodded, his eyes still on the terrain around them. "Go ahead, Chief." His eyes had picked up a break in the trees a few miles in front of them, indicating an area that had been recently clear cut. Maybe there was a logging camp close by that would hear the crash and start a rescue attempt after all.
Blair looked at Simon, then placed his hand on the switch. "Think good thoughts everyone." He flipped it, then watched the gage. If there was fuel in the tank, it would continue to read full, or close to it. If there wasn't, the arrow would start swinging to a true fuel reading almost instantly.
Neither one of those things happened. Sparks arched from under the dash and smoke from burning electrical wires rolled up into Sandburg's face.
"Shit!" Sandburg coughed, eyes stinging. He waved his hand in front of his face, then flipped the switch back and forth. "This isn't good guys!"
Jim was coughing and wiping his eyes, trying desperately to see the ground. He'd spotted a trail in the distance, something that looked like a bulldozer path. He squeezed Blair's neck and pointed. "There's a trail on that next ridge. Can we make it?"
"I doubt it!" Sandburg yelled. "The best I can do is auto-rotate us down and hope we don't crack up when we hit."
"Sandburg, do you really know what you're doing?" Simon yelled, his eyes huge in his dark face.
Blair ignored the man, eyes searching for someplace that he could land the crippled machine. It had been too many years ago to remember more than the basics in how to crash land a 'copter. It was too late to think about it now. He had to just let his hands do what they remembered and try not to think about what was under them. The engine gave one more cough then died completely. The rotors slowed but never really stopped turning.
"Hang on!" Sandburg yelled. He flipped several switches and started pulling the lever at his side, forcing the 'copter into a slow, falling spin.
Jim tossed himself back into his seat and fastened his shoulder harness tightly around himself. Then he checked the witness' harness.
The Ranger dropped from the sky. It came down into tall trees, breaking limbs and shattering glass as it crashed through the upper canopy of spruce, cedar and fir. The skis caught on a trunk of a tree and swung the body of the chopper into another tree. The tail boom snapped free, impaling itself on a tree limb, then dangling from a rotor blade, locked into a ragged gash in a tree trunk.
Screams filled the cabin as the chopper continued its plunge to the forest floor. It landed upright, skis crumbled under it, engine cowlings ripped off. It took several minutes before anybody stirred inside the mangled wreckage. The pilot's door fell to the ground, followed by a battered body in a red mustang suit.
Sandburg rolled to his knees and pulled himself upright, using the broken fuselage as a ladder. He leaned on the bent seat and looked inside.
Simon was moving, his head raising from his chest, blood running down one side of his face. The police captain's hand went to his blood smeared temple. Jim was conscious, struggling with his shoulder harness.
"Everyone all right?" Blair groaned at the sound of his own voice, wincing at the pounding in his head.
Simon blinked at Sandburg. "What happened?"
"We crashed." Blair held onto the door frame and levered himself to the back seat. He took one look at the occupants in the back and lost his lunch on the crumbled sheet metal fuselage.
Jim looked up at the sound of his partner's retching. His hands stopped from unfastening his lap belt as he saw what several tree limbs had done to Wilson's body and to their witness. Jennifer's body was pierced by three long jagged tree branches. Her mouth and eyes were open, her eyes staring sightlessly into the sky. Blood covered the inside of the cabin, dripping into pools on the floorboards.
Jim met Blair's ghost white face as Sandburg straightened up and wiped his face. Then he looked down at himself, seeing the blood splattered on his legs and boots.
"Chief, you all right?"
Blair nodded. He looked at the mangled bodies, then back at Jim.
"Get her case, Chief. We can't do anything for them." Jim's seatbelt finally released and Ellison stepped out of the wreckage. While Sandburg untied the case from the cargo straps, Jim helped Simon out of the co-pilot's seat and over to a convenient log. Blair joined his companions and dropped to the ground. He looked at his friends.
Simon had the most serious injuries. The blood on the side of his face was starting to dry and he held his left arm close to his body.
Jim stripped the jump suit off Simon's shoulders, and eased the man's arms out of the sleeves very gently. Underneath the suit, Simon had worn a hooded sweatshirt, tee shirt and jeans. Jim ran his fingers down the length of Simon's arms, felt the dislocated arm carefully. He finished his examination of the injured shoulder, then started working himself free of the jumpsuit, emptying out pockets as he went. Sandburg was doing the same thing, then trotted back toward the crash site.
He called over his shoulder. "There should be a first-aid kit. Let me find it."
Jim knelt in front of his friend and studied the dark eyes. Simon returned the gaze, but his eyes were unfocused and the pupils were uneven.
"You've got a dislocated shoulder, Simon, and a pretty good concussion. I'm going to try to reset the shoulder as soon as Sandburg finds me a medical kit. Maybe there will be some pain relievers in it."
"If not, just knock me out and do what you have to do." Simon tried to smile, but it came out as a groan of pain.
Blair slid to a stop at Simon's feet, two large duffle bag straps on his shoulders. He unzipped one and handed Jim the first aid kit. Jim opened it and surveyed the contents. He handed Blair a bottle of aspirin and an elastic bandage. Their eyes met over Simon's head and the shared glance confirmed a set of actions.
"Hey, Simon, look what I found." Sandburg dug through one of the large canvas bags he'd retrieved from the wreckage. "There are chocolate bars and some instant oatmeal. We've got dried ice cream and a pile of MREs. Jim, didn't you say you'd never eat those again?"
"No, I think you said that, Sandburg. Something about jello and warm water and sand in your food." Jim was standing behind Simon, one hand under the man's left arm, the other on an elbow. Jim felt Simon tense and knew there was no way he could slip the joint back into place as long as Simon fought him. The detective waited for the second when Sandburg had sufficiently distracted the injured captain.
"Sandburg, what is wrong with you? We've just crashed, we're out in the middle of nowhere, there were people shooting at us and -- YEOWW!" Simon yelled as Jim expertly popped the arm back into place.
Jim and Blair's eyes met again. "Good job," each told the other.
Simon glared at both of them. It wasn't a very focused glare. "I'll get you for that, Ellison. One of these days when you least expect it, I'll get you for that."
"It can wait until we get back home." Jim cleaned the cut on Simon's head and pulled it together with several small Band-Aids, then slipped the injured arm into a makeshift sling, tying the ace bandage behind Simon's neck. Blair shook out a couple of painkillers and gave them to the police captain, then handed him a bottle of water found in the bottom of one of the bags of survival gear.
The two of them helped Simon to the ground and leaned him against the log, using the jumpsuit as a cushion. Jim patted his captain on the uninjured shoulder then motioned Sandburg aside. They walked back to the destroyed fuselage.
"Anything more in this thing we can use?"
"Probably. I didn't dig around in it to much, just grabbed that stuff and came back. These birds have all sort of storage compartments scattered about inside them."
Jim tucked his arm around Sandburg's shoulder for a moment. "How you feeling, Chief. I've been so busy worrying about Simon I --"
"I'm okay, Jim. Just bruised a little, just like you." Sandburg looked at the sky as it started to turn dark, with tinges of rose. "It'll be dark soon. We're going to need a secure camp."
Jim nodded. "We'll have to do something about the bodies. We leave them like that, we could end up with a hungry, four legged predator paying us a visit."
"That doesn't sound like a pleasant project." Blair leaned into Jim for a second as if he was absorbing strength from his sentinel. Then he straightened. "Guess we'd better get to it."
Concluded in Part Two...