starfishyeti: Snowy mountains (pic#3061550)
Disclaimer: I do not own The Sentinel or the REM song ‘Make it all OK’ and I am making no money from this story - much as I would love to do so.


Chapter one

Blair flipped the burger and cursed as the hot fat spat at his hand.

Big Vinnie Parisi slapped him on the back and bellowed in his ear, “Doncha worry, BS. One day you’ll have wonderful hands like mine!” He lifted up two meaty paws, pitted and scarred with numerous tiny burns and waggled them in front of Blair’s face.

“Vinnie, leave him alone and serve!”

“Okay, Maria,” the big man sighed, “I’m coming, my lovely.” With one last slap that nearly sent Blair face down onto the frying food, he turned back to the hungry customers that were yelling orders for burgers, corn dogs and chips.

Blair grimaced and slid two burgers, a fried egg and a slice of bacon onto the warming pan that stood on the counter at the front of the trailer. Immediately, the small woman with the salt and pepper hair, large eyes and larger heart darted in and scooped up one of the burgers and placed it in a bun.

She looked up at him and smiled, her eyes twinkling. “60 minutes and we’re done, all right?”

“BS, three burgers, two turkey steaks and four large fries!” Vinnie drowned out Blair’s soft reply as he tiredly nodded at his employer.

All three of them knuckled down to finish the evening rush of the final day of the Pine Ridge County Fair. The last customers picked up their orders and drifted off into the night as the three people that had served thousands of hot meals and cold drinks over the period of the fair wearily started to clean the small food concession.

“Blair, you don’t need to do this. Vinnie and I can manage. I know you started early today. Billy-Bob told me.” Maria gently took the sponge out of her temporary assistant’s hand and turned his face to look at her. “You did good. You helped us out a lot and we’re grateful. We’d really appreciate it if you could come with us to Sheridan.” She smiled hopefully up at the man who’d been helping them out while her and Vinnie’s only son recovered from a bad motorcycle accident.

Although he’d been with them for nearly three weeks they knew little more about him than the day he’d started. He’d turned up at the fair looking for work and they’d been grateful to take him on for cash and no questions asked. He’d been a good worker and a number of other stallholders had discovered him to be versatile and reliable and had used him for a number of different jobs around the fair. Only that morning, Billy-Bob, the shooting gallery owner had had him fixing the runners on the moving targets. They wouldn’t be the only ones sad to see him go if he didn’t take the Parisis family up on their offer.

As the man pondered her request, Maria couldn’t help wondering again about the sadness held deep in the blue eyes and the air of defeat that hung about his shoulders. Obviously intelligent and well educated, she’d only seen him with one small leather backpack that he carried with him wherever he went and a sports bag that held his one-man tent and a sleeping bag. He was painfully thin, despite her efforts at fattening him up, and walked with a pronounced limp favouring his left leg. His clothes were clean, but threadbare and she’d never seen him buy anything except for absolute necessities.

“Yeah, come with us,” interjected Vinnie. “Please don’t leave me all alone with the little lady.”

“Vinnie!” scolded Maria, “Go and empty the bins.”

As her husband backed out of the small trailer he lifted his hands in an imploring gesture and mouthed at Blair, “See? Pleeeease.” He quickly ducked out of the door as Maria turned and lifted her hand menacingly.

She turned back to Blair. “That man will be the death of me.” But it was said with affection and a small smile graced her lips. “Well, what do you say?”

“I’ve never been to Wyoming.”

“Great!” And to her own surprise she gave him a quick hug. Standing back, slightly embarrassed, she stood dumbfounded as Blair’s whole face lit up with a blinding smile. ‘Oh my,’ she thought to herself, ‘if only I wasn’t married and was twenty years younger…’

The man before her put up his hands and covered his mouth, as a large yawn seemed to erupt from his very soul. He grimaced, “Sorry. Guess I am pretty wiped. You sure you don’t need me to help with the clean up?”

“No, go on. I know your leg’s hurting and you need your sleep. It’s a long drive and we’re leaving early. You’ll need to drive Mikey’s car for him – the idiot. “

“Okay, thanks.” Blair took off the dirty apron that was obviously too big for him and laid it on the counter. He picked up his backpack and limped towards the door then stopped as Maria called to him.

“Wait! Here’re your wages.” She held out a handful of notes. “I’ve given you a $30 bonus… Ah, ah,” she held up her other hand as Blair tried to interrupt. “You’ve earned it. We wouldn’t have been able to manage without you. Go and get yourself something nice.”

‘There goes that smile again,’ she sighed. ‘Just who is he?’

“Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Blair took the money and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. He carefully made his way down the narrow steps of the trailer and slowly cut across the emptying fair ground. People were swarming over the stalls and rides breaking them down ready for packing them away. Some of them waved at Blair and one or two invited him to join them for a beer. He waved in return but held his head down and kept going. Eventually he slipped between two caravans and into the dark space behind.

His small, one-man tent was set up under a large oak. He opened the zip and crawled in pulling his backpack behind him. He lit the gas lamp that was hanging from the centre pole and pulled off his boots. Checking them over he decided that the soles were good enough to last for another couple of weeks especially if he was going to be driving and not walking to Wyoming. Not that he had a particular desire to go to Wyoming, but one destination was as good as another, as long as it wasn’t Cascade. He pulled his tee shirt up to his nose and grimaced at the smell of cooking fat that permeated the material despite the apron he’d worn. He struggled out of it, tugged his jeans off and stuffed them into a plastic bag. He’d be able to wash his dirty clothes once they stopped off for the night. There was always someone among the group who willingly included his clothes when they did a wash. He suddenly realised that he’d forgotten his wages in his jeans and pulled the wad of money out of the pocket.

He quickly pulled on a tee-shirt that had been rolled up in his sleeping bag along with a pair of cut off jeans. Leaning out of the tent he quickly washed his face and brushed his teeth using water from a plastic bottle. Finished, he put the soap in a plastic bag and then put the bag with his toothbrush and toothpaste into his toiletries bag. Maria and Vinnie allowed him to use the shower in their caravan in the mornings, but he had to ‘make do’ in the evenings. He wasn’t bothered; he’d endured worse since he’d been on the road. Zipping the tent up again, he stretched out his legs before him and examined the messy scar on his left thigh. It was red and raw, but he thought that it was looking slightly better. Delving back into his backpack he pulled out a small earthenware pot. Carefully he massaged some of the brown paste from the pot onto the scar wincing at the deep ache and then wiped his hands on a small towel. He then pulled on the cut offs.

After returning the pot he took out a small metal box and flicked the lid open. He unfolded the paper lying on top of the pile of money inside and smoothed it out onto the sleeping bag he was sitting on. Carefully, he counted out his wages and keeping the $30 bonus aside he took out the money in the box and piling the amounts together put it all in a courier service envelope along with a bank slip. Picking up the paper again he subtracted the amount from the figure on the list and wrote the new total underneath. With a sigh he traced his fingers over the numbers then put the paper back into the box and the box back into the backpack. He sealed the envelope and with a slightly shaking hand he wrote the destination on the front:

First Cascade Bank
Student Loans Division
1112 Main Street
Cascade

Placing the envelope in his backpack, he closed his eyes and for a brief moment let his despair wash over him. Then taking a few deep breaths he ran his hand through his short curls, forgetting for a moment and trying to brush them behind his ears, and centred himself. Taking the small windup alarm clock that stood in the corner of the small tent he set the alarm for 5:30. That would give him 4 ½ hours of sleep before having to get up and pack away his tent; that was as long as he managed to actually get to sleep. His first month on the road, he’d slept deeply and without dreams finding it difficult to drag himself awake whether he’d slept in a cheap motel or in his car next to the road. Recognising it as a symptom of his depression he’d been dosing himself with liquorice tea and herbs. However, his depression seemed to lift a little the further he got from Cascade and now his sleeping patterns had swung the other way.

Resolutely he turned off the lamp and crawled into his sleeping bag. He tried emptying his mind so he could slip into sleep, but even in his exhausted state, it eluded him. The different sounds of the fair being dismantled filtered into his tent: voices, laughter, engines and music. Then as one song started his breath caught in his throat and despite his best efforts, tears welled up in his eyes. It was REM’s “Make It All Ok”, the same song that had been playing in the Volvo as he’d driven away from Cascade leaving his dreams, hopes and regrets behind him.

“You threw away the ballast and you rowed your boat ashore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You made your ultimatum too big to ignore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So you worked out your excuses, turned away and shut the door.
The world's too vast for us now, and you wanted to explore.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your hand again I'd have to walk away…”

With a groan, he buried his head under his arms and started humming a rock song. When that didn’t work he started on a mantra designed to calm him down. After a while, the music stopped and the voices faded away. As the moon started its downward slide towards dawn, his breathing eventually evened out and Blair slipped into the blue jungle of his dreams.

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“Ellison! My office.”

Jim looked up from the report he was reading and turned his raised-up eyebrows to his partner. His eyes skittered over the person sitting at the desk next to his and he clenched his jaws. Daniels looked up and grinned at him, but his smile faltered as he noticed the grinding teeth. He knew that once again, the detective had forgotten that he wasn’t the person he wanted sitting next to him.

All he’d ever wanted since he’d started as a rookie detective in Homicide four years ago was to be Ellison’s partner. However, his idol had already had a partner, unofficial true, but still a big presence in the man’s life. At first, and like many others, he’d thought that they were a couple, but finally he’d realised that they’d simply had a strong, if unusual, friendship. He’d thought that all he’d have to do was be a good cop and be patient; Sandburg would eventually get his PhD and go back to academia. Then the ‘diss’ mess happened and before anyone could blink an eye the ‘fraud’ was a real cop.

He watched Ellison head for the captain’s office and tried to quash the bitter taste in his mouth. Sandburg was gone and he, a Wisconsin, backcountry, farm boy, had taken his place. He’d worked hard and deserved to be where he was. He’d seen an opportunity and had gone for it. Squirming a bit in his chair, he remembered exactly what he’d done to get here. Oh, nothing illegal or immoral, just perhaps, a little nasty. A shame really, because Sandburg had been a good guy and all in all he’d liked him. It was all for the best though, as he truly believed that Ellison needed a partner like him; a man without doubts hanging over his head. All that he needed now was for Ellison to realise that too.

Jim strolled into Captain Banks’ office, “You yelled, sir.”

“Close the door and sit down.” Banks lifted his head from the papers he was reading and studied his best detective. He noticed the hard look and sighed internally. Outwardly the man showed nothing of what he was feeling, but he knew his friend was hurting from the ‘betrayal’ perpetrated by Sandburg leaving after only six months as a detective. Everyone thought that he would slip back into his pre-BS character: cold, standoffish and aloof. While it was true that he laughed less and was more reserved, he’d not turned back into ‘Iceman’ Ellison.

He, himself, couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. After Sandburg had accepted the offer of a badge and had passed the academy with flying colours despite his oft-declared hate of guns, he’d hoped that the two men could get their friendship back on track. He’d been a good detective (that had never been in doubt) and Banks was still annoyed that after all his and Ellison’s hard work in getting him the position, he’d thrown it all away three months ago when he’d left Cascade with no explanation and no notice. He’d made no contact since.

However, he also had to admit, that there seemed to have been a brittleness in the younger man and the zest of life that had previously shone in his eyes had been replaced by a world-weary wariness. Where before he’d been sure of himself, maybe a bit too sure, he’d become hesitant and had seemingly withdrawn from his friends in Major Crimes. Ellison on the other hand, had behaved as if nothing had happened even to the extent of once telling Sandburg to wait in the truck! To tell the truth, Jim hadn’t been the only one in the unit finding it difficult to treat the young man as a cop and not the observer he’d been for four years. Perhaps he, as captain, should have tried harder…?

“How’s the Granger case coming along?” He gestured with his coffee mug, but Ellison lifted his hand in a negative as he sat down in one of the chairs in front of his captain’s desk.

He ran his hand through his short hair and sighed. “It’s coming.”

“And what does that mean?”

“What do you really want to talk to me about, sir?”

Simon grimaced. Ellison knew him too well. He took a long drink from his mug as a way of buying time; he wasn’t looking forward to this conversation. “I’ve had news from the Feds. Apparently Berger’s son has stepped into daddy’s shoes and is screaming out for vengeance.”

“What the hell can he do? We took out almost three quarters of his daddy’s cohorts. There’re mostly only lowlifes and small fry left. Hell, how could an 18-year-old boy hope to rebuild the sort of crime base his father had?”

“Well, there’s a problem. According to FBI sources, he’s made a deal with Escobar’s lot.”

“What!?” Jim agitatedly lurched out of his chair and put two hands behind his neck. He glared at Banks. “I thought the Feds had sorted him out. They said they had an ironclad case against him. They said they had two witnesses who saw him take out Councillor Martin. What the hell is going on, Simon?”

Simon’s face showed all the anger and disgust that he felt at the situation. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Sighing, he put them back on and looked up at Jim. “The two witnesses were found with their throats cut under Pier 22.”

“Brilliant! Really brilliant. So what are we going to do now? You know Berger junior’s going to come and try and take us out, don’t you? And with Escobar behind him he won’t care who he takes out with us.”

“I know. Which is why the Feds want to put you, I, and the rest of the team into a safe house until they sort this whole sorry mess out.”

Ellison looked at him in dismay. “You expect us to put our lives in the hands of those bozos? No way! You and the others can go. I prefer to protect myself my way.“

“I’m with you on this one. Nevertheless, we should offer the safe house to the others.”

“Yeah, you’re right. But I have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to say.”

“Just call them in.”

Jim put his head out the door and saw Megan and Joel poring over a file on Megan’s desk. “Hey, you two. You’re wanted in here.” They both looked up enquiringly at him. “Have you seen H and Rafe?”

“In the break room,“ answered Megan closing the file. “What’s going on, Jim?”

“I’ll go and get the other two and the Captain’ll explain.”

Once everyone was seated around the conference table in Banks’ office, he repeated what he’d told Jim. After the comments regarding the intelligence of the FBI had died down and the expected refusals to take advantage of their ‘kind’ offer, they got down to deciding what they could do to take down Berger and Escobar.

During a lull in the long discussion Taggart, studiously avoiding Ellison’s eyes, broke the silence, “What about Blair?”

“What about him?” interjected Simon before Jim could retort, no doubt angrily and at length.

“Well, I mean he was in on the bust as well. Shouldn’t he be warned?”

Unfortunately, Jim jumped in before Banks could respond. “He’s not here, is he? He left and we don’t know where he is.”

“And I wonder why?” Although Megan spoke quietly she knew that Jim would hear her.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Connor? If you remember, he just left without telling anybody anything. Obviously just couldn’t hack it and did his usual cut and run.”

“Oh god, I’ve had it!” Taggart put a hand on her arm hoping she would calm down. She looked down at him, “I think it’s about time he was told a few home truths.” He waited a few seconds thinking, then nodded and lifted his hand off her arm.

“Connor!” Simon barked her name.

“I’m sorry Captain, but I’ve had enough. I didn’t say anything when Sandy was here because he asked me not to, but now he’s gone…”

“Connor, this isn’t the moment…”

“Let her talk, Simon.” Both he and Jim looked in shock at Joel’s quiet statement while H and Rafe looked on in silent amazement. “These things need to be said and Blair needs, and deserves, to be warned.”

Simon waved a hand and looked over at Jim noticing the jumping nerve in his jaw as he glared at the female detective.

Megan took in a deep breath, “Sandy gave up his career and became a cop for you.” She snorted as she saw Jim roll his eyes. “Yeah, laugh it up ‘big guy’.” She deliberately used Blair’s nickname and grinned in satisfaction when she saw the man flinch.

“I never asked…”

“Don’t give me that crap, again! You never asked! No, you just expected. Anyway, that’s not the point. Sandy was trying to be a cop knowing everybody was watching his every move and that half the PD was cheering him on to fail. He knew that he’d have to be twenty times better than anyone else and all the time terrified that he’d have to use his gun. ”

“Hold on a minute,“ interrupted H, “why’d he turn away from us – his friends? Why’d he always eat alone in the break room? We weren’t good enough for him to go to lunch with?” Rafe was nodding along with this and even Jim looked like he agreed.

“You drongo,“ spat Megan, “he was broke and couldn’t eat out all the time! Why’d you think he never came to poker night? He was embarrassed! He’s having to pay back his student loans and a lot of his grants. Rainier insisted.”

“We wouldn’t have made him pay,” insisted Rafe.

“I know, but he had his pride. I tried to make him understand, tried to tell him everyone understood, but you kept organising Jags games and booking that stupid French restaurant. God, he was living on nothing and eating less. Didn’t you notice that he was losing weight? And you,” she pointed a finger at Ellison, “you threw him out. He was down, virtually penniless and then you made him homeless.”

“Hold on a minute!” Jim jumped up from his seat and glared at her. “I was undercover! I couldn’t risk having him at home. He could have said something about my, my senses. I couldn’t have that. Cortizzi had bugged the loft.”

“But he didn’t know you were undercover,” Joel said calmly. “He thought you were throwing him out for real.” He looked over at Simon. “Blair was Jim’s partner and unless there was reason to think that he was the PD leak he should have been told.”

“Unfortunately, that decision was taken out of my hands.”

“But, but… I gave him clues. I thought he’d pick up on that,” Jim stammered.

“How could he?” argued Megan. “He was having to deal with too much. He was convinced you didn’t trust him. That you resented him and were only putting up with him out of guilt. He believed you.”

“No, no. Blair’s brilliant, he’d worked it out. Simon?” Ellison looked in growing dismay at Banks.

Simon opened his mouth to reply when his door burst open and two men walked in. “What the hell’s going on?” he barked. “Who the blazes are you and haven’t you heard of knocking?”

“FBI agent Smith and my colleague, Patel.” Both tall, dark-haired men held out their IDs and the older man continued talking. “Sorry for interrupting, but the Commissioner asked us to come down and talk to you about taking you to the safe house.”

The Major Crimes group looked at each other and then all eyes turned to Captain Banks.


Chapter two

It was still dark when the cavalcade pulled out of the fairground. Blair, in an unfortunate twist of fate, found himself following his employers’ trailer driving a 1969 Ford truck. He was grateful that it was a bright red and had been ‘pimped’. He didn’t need too many reminders of his previous life. Gratefully, he sipped at the hot coffee that Maria had thrust at him as they left their caravan after breakfast. He was clean, well fed, was earning money and was amongst people that he liked. It did a little to fill the empty places of his heart.

They stopped off in a small town that he never knew the name of for lunch. He took the time to search out the local courier office and sent the envelope of money on its way. Getting into the truck he eased the vehicle back into line and dutifully followed the trailer in front. Unfortunately, not having to navigate left his mind mostly unoccupied. This allowed his thoughts to wander and despite his best intentions, they wandered back to Cascade, Jim and the train wreck his life had become. Determinedly, he turned on the radio and searched for a station that played rock. Finding something he liked, he wound down the window and tapping his hand on the side of the truck, he sang along. The wind ruffled his short curls and if there were tears in his eyes he could claim they were from the dust on the road.

They spent the night in another nameless town. It was high summer and Blair didn’t bother putting his tent up. Dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and cut off shorts he lay on his sleeping bag and stared up at the stars. He had no idea what attractive picture he made as he propped up his head with his hands. The short curls that hugged his head accentuated his large eyes and cheekbones. He was underweight, but hard, physical work had built up lithe muscles in his arms, legs and chest and the sadness in his eyes merely created an enticing air of mystery.

“Warm night, isn’t it?”

Blair jerked and sat up. A youngish, plump woman with short blond hair was standing in front of him holding two glasses that glistened with condensation in the ambient light. Not classically beautiful, she had a friendly face and her cupid bow lips were turned up in a welcoming smile.

“Ummm, it is,” he answered. “Felicia, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” The woman beamed obviously delighted that he knew her name. “I thought you might like something cool to drink. It’s home-made lemonade.”

Blair looked at her for a moment. A number of women amongst both the fair people and fairgoers had made it obvious that they weren’t averse to spending a bit of time with him. Up until now, he’d made it plain that he wasn’t interested. He’d not been on a date since just before the fountain and Alex. His head had not been in a good place for so long and romance had been the last thing on his mind. But maybe the time was right to finally move on. He scooted over on the sleeping bag.

“Thank you. I’d love to try your lemonade.”

The woman handed him a glass and sat down next to him. He let her shoulder brush against his and felt the warmth of her leg through the cloth of his cut offs. In her late 20s, he knew that she made jewellery that she sold out of her little caravan and to shops in the towns they stopped at. Her parents ran one of the rides; he couldn’t remember which, along with her brother. He remembered the talk he’d heard about her. She had been married, but her husband had died while trying to break up a drunken fight at some fair a few years back. There’d been no children, but apparently she’d been pregnant and she went into premature labour when she’d heard the news about his death. It had been far too early in the pregnancy and the baby had died. She’d picked herself up with the help of her family and friends, but it had been a difficult time for her.

She, in turn, saw the pain shining out of this enigmatic man’s eyes and just felt she had to do something to help. He was so alone and she couldn’t bear it.

“Do you know any of the constellations?” She asked sipping from her glass.

“This is good,” said Blair as the cool liquid slid down his throat. “Some of them. See that one there? That’s the Great Bear. Do you know there’s a tribe in Polynesia that believes that the stars are the souls of people waiting to be born? They give names to the stars hoping that the soul will come down to Earth.”

“Really? What sort of names?”

“Well, ordinary names…”

“What like Bob or Susan?”

“No,” he chuffed a small laugh, “names like Kalani, Uhila or Mahal.”

“Oh…”

Maria, closing the door of her caravan glanced over to where Blair had placed his sleeping bag. She smiled in delight.

“Vinnie, come here.”

“What, woman?”

“Shhh, just get over here.”

Vinnie sighed and pulled himself out of the comfortable chair he’d been sitting in while reading a newspaper. Standing next to his wife he looked over to where she was pointing. He smiled and put an arm round her shoulders. They stood there for a few moments then pulled the door shut, locked it, turned out the lights and went to bed.

The group got to the fairground late the following afternoon. For the rest of the day it was organised chaos as the stands, rides and booths were set up. The sun was sinking down to the horizon when Blair tiredly set up his tent in an isolated corner of the park. As he sat in the open flap watching the final streaks of red in the evening sky he half smiled to himself thinking about the previous night. Before, in another lifetime when he’d been with an attractive woman, he would have poured on the charm, flirting outrageously, trying to get at least a kiss. But that had been the old Blair. Instead, they’d talked and took comfort in each other’s company. No pressure, no expectations; simply two people passing the time together with, perhaps, a tiny hint of something that could be.

The following morning was equally busy as the fair was set up and Blair was in great demand for his eclectic skills. To his surprise, and quiet pleasure, Felicia brought him lunch under the interested eyes of some of the fair people. He blushed as he heard some of the ribald, but friendly comments from the men. Towards mid afternoon he made his way towards the Parisi trailer. Vinnie and Maria greeted him like a long lost friend rather than the man who was temporarily helping them out. He grabbed an apron and wrapped himself up in its voluminous folds. Mickey, their son was obviously a big man. Grabbing the box of tomatoes sitting on a work area, he started washing the vegetables in the small sink.

Vinnie sidled up to him and nonchalantly started slicing the washed tomatoes and putting the slices into big, aluminium bowls. “Sleep well last night?”

Blair slid him an expressionless look.

“Vinnie!” Maria’s voice sounded from beneath the counter where she was putting out hamburger and hotdog buns.

“What? All I asked him was whether he slept well.”

He winked at Blair, as a short ‘Huh’ was his only response. Blair’s smile was small, but genuine and for the first time in many months he felt the ice around his heart melt slightly. “Well? How d’you sleep?”

“Not bad, thanks. And you?”

“Great. Wonderful. So, you like lemonade?”

“Vinnie!”

“Woman, stick to your buns. This is men’s talk.” Maria jumped up and started poking her large husband in the chest. He lifted up his hands and started back-pedalling towards the door. Blair didn’t understand the heated conversation that followed as it was in Italian, but he had a pretty good idea of what was being said. He smiled to himself and another piece of ice melted.

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“We’re not going,” stated Simon. “We’re police officers for Pete’s sake! We don’t run off because some mobster wannabe has made threats against us.”

Smith closed the door and moved towards the group. “I understand totally. We did try and tell your commissioner that, but he didn’t seem terribly convinced.”

“And anyway,” interrupted Jim, “why should we put our lives into the hands of the idiots who lost the Escobar case?” He crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared at them.

“What he said,” agreed H and the others nodded.

“Yes, well,” said the agent called Patel, “we don’t really blame you. We’re looking into the situation.”

“It’s suspected that there’s a leak in the Seattle office, which is why we’ve been brought in from Atlanta. Neither of us has been north of the Dixie Line apart from times in Quantico and those visits we try to keep to a minimum. Washington’s given us carte blanche to poke into all those dark, shadowy holes that haven’t seen the light of day for years.” Smith smiled depreciatingly at the indignant people before him.

“And I hate spiders,” Patel added deadpanned.

Everyone stared open-mouthed at the strangest FBI agents they’d ever met. Who’d a thought? Feds with a sense of humour?

“Well, anyway,” Simon growled, “we’ll be fine on our own. And the best way of protecting ourselves is to take the bastards down.”

“We’re working on that,“ put in Smith.

“This is our case,” argued Simon. “We put in a lot of work and effort to get Berger and we can get his son.”

Smith laid the file he’d been holding in front of the tall man and opened it. “I’m afraid this is out of all our hands. Because of Escobar, this is an FBI case. It’s going to be difficult enough for us without having to provide protection for you.”

“We don’t need your protection!” Rafe blurted out.

Simon held up a large hand as he slowly went through the contents of the large file. Sighing he handed it onto Taggart who in turn opened it and turned it round so everyone could see the pages. For a full two minutes silence reigned except for the sound of pages being turned and heavy breathing from the people round the table. Each sheet held photos of the detectives and their loved ones in various places around Cascade: in front of the PD, getting in and out of their cars, in front of schools, even through the windows of restaurants and cafés. There was a carefully drawn gun sight over each of their faces.

“These were sent directly to the governor’s office,” Smith continued. “She’s taking the threats very seriously. I’m sorry, but you really have no choice.”

“Where do you want to take us?” sighed Simon.

“Captain, you can’t!”

“Simon, we can’t trust them.”

“Sir, I’m not going into a safe house…”

The Major Crimes group tried to convince their boss through noise alone. Simon sat back in his chair and pulled off his wire-rimmed glasses. He pinched the bridge of his nose and waited for the shouting to die down. Eventually, silence again fell, but everyone still looked pissed.

“We have to take this seriously…”

“Simon, I have an idea.”

Everyone turned to the former Bomb Disposal Unit captain. “The commissioner’s been going on for ages trying to get us to go on one of those ‘team building’ initiatives.” He drew quote marks in the air with his fingers when he said ‘team building’. “Couldn’t we all go on one of those? We’d be together and difficult to find. If we can find one that has military connections I’m sure it’d be even better protected.”

Smith and Patel looked at each other and Smith pulled out his cell phone. “This is agent Smith, could I please talk to the commissioner. Yes, he’s waiting for my call. No problem, I’ll hold.” He put his hand over his phone. “This could take a while.”

Banks sighed, he seemed to be doing that a lot today. “Okay, everyone. You’ve got work to do. I don’t want you leaving this floor alone. Even if you need to go to the john, take someone with you.”

“Gee,“ drawled H, “I ain’t had anyone hold ‘lil Percy while I peed since my mama had me in short pants.”

Simon smiled in thanks at Brown’s efforts to lighten the mood as everyone filed out of his office.

“Don’t worry H,” Megan put an arm on his shoulder. “I’ve got to have someone go with me as well. If you close your eyes, you can come with me into the ladies’ and I’ll handle your problem for you.”

Jim slowly got up from the table and looked over at Simon. He looked shell-shocked and Simon thought for a moment that he was zoning, except his eyes held a pained bewilderment instead of the usual emptiness.

“Go on, Jim. We’ll talk later.”

Ellison nodded and followed the others through the door.

Twenty minutes later Simon called everyone back into his office. “Okay, we have a result.”

He nodded at Smith who spoke encouragingly, “The Governor’s agreed to your idea. Tomorrow you leave for a week’s team building. I’m not going to tell you where because little ears might be listening. Needless to say, it won’t be near Cascade, so you need to pack thoroughly for some rough living. Remember, don’t tell anyone about this. We’ll take care of your families. And don’t forget, turn off your cell phones. You can be traced through them.”

Simon jumped in before the objections that were brewing in his detectives’ eyes could get started. “I tried arguing our case, but the governor was adamant. I’m sorry, I tried, but we have no choice. Just look at it as an all expenses paid holiday. I’ve looked over what’s being done for our families and believe me they will be protected. They’re best protected if we’re not around.”

“Hey, babe,” H clapped Rafe on the back, “you’ll have to leave Armani behind.”

“Yeah,” chortled Megan, “I don’t think they do suits in checked flannel. And by the way, have you ever been camping?”

“Laugh it up. You’ll see…”

“Okay, enough,” interjected Simon. “No-one’s to be alone from now on and that includes tonight. We’re going to have bunk up together. Brown, get your mind out of the gutter. This is what we’ve decided…” It was going to be a long night.

“Simon, what about Blair?” Taggart insisted.

“Blair Sandburg?” questioned Patel. He opened the file he was holding. “Oh yes, he was part of the operation as well. Do you know where he is?”

There was an uncomfortable silence until Banks spoke up, “He left some months ago. Unfortunately, no-one knows where he’s gone.”

“He didn’t leave a forwarding address?”

“No,” Simon’s answer was short.

“Jer,” Smith spoke to Patel, “do what you can to find him. He needs to be protected as well. Mind you, if you can’t find him Escobar probably won’t be able to either.” The unspoken ‘I hope’ was clearly heard by everyone in the room.

The following morning two unmarked cars picked up Banks, Taggart and Ellison from the loft and the others from H’s house. They were driven to the airport where a small plane was waiting for them. Despite the danger hanging over their heads there was a holiday atmosphere in the aircraft. Once the ‘seatbelt on’ sign blinked out Simon stood up and faced his detectives.

“I can now tell you where we’re going. In fact we’re not going on one of those exercises, we couldn’t find one that would take us on such short notice. So, what we’re doing is going on a camping trip. The FBI is going to provide us with off road vehicles and tents and all that we’ll need. And yes, Jim, the equipment does include fishing tackle.”

Jim gave a wan smile while the others laughed. The three men had talked long into the night and both he and Simon had done a lot of soul searching regarding their treatment of Sandburg. Jim was beginning to feel uncomfortable about some of his assumptions and actions. Soul searching was not really something he embraced willingly. He’d rather have his fingernails pulled out! Slowly… Without anaesthetic! He’d genuinely thought that Blair was happy to be his partner despite everything he’d given up and that their friendship was strong. He’d been so convinced that they were on the same wavelength he’d launched himself into the undercover op without a moment’s thought about how Blair would see it. Obviously, wishful thinking and relief that he and Simon had found a way of creating something good out of the ‘diss mess’ had made him blind to what had really been going on.

“Okay, Simon, spill it,” Taggart encouraged. “Just where are we going?”

“Wyoming.”


Chapter three

The fair was in full swing – music, screaming voices and machine noises competed with the smells of candyfloss and cooking meat for Blair’s attention. His head was pounding and his leg was aching, but he continued flipping burgers and hotdogs. Burgers had never been his favourite food and he was certain that after this he wouldn’t even be able to stand the smell of them ever again. He longed for an algae shake or a simple vegetarian meal, but out here in the ‘boondocks’ meat was eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

They’d been there for five days and frankly he didn’t know how long he could continue. He’d lost weight again as his appetite was capricious. Not because of his depression, which at long last seemed to be easing, but because of his physical exhaustion. As a grad student, TA and sentinel’s assistant he’d spent weeks of little sleep and had thrived on the challenge. Now, however, the last three months were catching up with him; the emotional stress, the sense of worthlessness he felt and the physical beating he’d experienced when leaving Cascade. He needed a break.

One thirty in the morning and he could finally hang up his apron. Maria and Vinnie took one look at him and nodded at each other.

“BS,” Vinnie put a big hand on his shoulder and stopped his forward shuffle, “stop a moment.” Blair turned up his bloodshot eyes and tried to focus them on his employer’s face. “Tomorrow’s Tuesday and usually there’re fewer people.”

“And it’s supposed to rain,” added Maria.

“Take the day. Sleep in late and relax. We’ll be able to manage without you for once.”

“No, it’s okay. I can…”

“Blair, stop. You’re exhausted and exhaustion can be dangerous.”

“But, you need… I need…”

Maria took his face in her hands. “Don’t worry. We’ll be okay and we don’t want to lose you. We’ll pay you for tomorrow as well. Now, go. Bed. And I don’t want to see you before ten tomorrow. All right?”

Blair looked from her to Vinnie who nodded. “Thanks. Thanks for everything.” He exited the trailer almost falling down the steps. He dragged his aching body to his tent and flung himself onto his sleeping bag. He managed to pull off his boots and wondered for a moment whether he had the energy to brush his teeth. Before he’d even finished his thought he was asleep.

He woke up the following morning strangely troubled. Blearily, he peered at his little clock: 9:47. Certainly, he felt more rested, but his sleep had been disturbed by dreams of blue jungles and roaring big cats. He remembered very little of the actual content, but the feeling of expectation that had pervaded them, remained. Opening the tent he stared out at the miserable weather and shivered. Pulling on his boots and rain slicker he grabbed his toiletries and a change of clothing and dashed through the rain to the Parisis’ caravan.

The door was pulled open before he could knock by Maria.

“See, I told you it would rain. Come on in.”

He shook out his slicker and left it and his boots under the awning protecting the steps. “Good morning. I know it’s not ten yet, but is it all right if I’m here now?”

“Don’t be silly. Breakfast’ll be ready by the time you’re out of the shower. Oatmeal and honey okay?”

“Maria, it’s a shame you’re already married.”

“Get on with you! Go, go.”

Twenty minutes later and feeling 100% better, he left the tiny bathroom to find Felicia drinking tea with Maria at the pull out table. Maria quickly stood up and gently pushed Blair to the bench.

“Sit, sit.” She placed a mug of tea before him and went to dish up the oatmeal.

“Good morning Blair.” Felicia leant forward and placed a light kiss on his cheek. Both the women ignored the slight blush that infused his face.

“Good morning, Fel. How are you? Miserable today isn’t it?” He gratefully took a sip of the hot brew and smiled at the healthy dose of honey that sweetened it.

“Maria told me that you’re not working today. I’m taking some of my pieces to one of the jewellers in town this morning and I was wondering if you wanted to come with me?”

He glanced up at Maria who was studiously avoiding the two of them. “If Maria’s sure that I’m not needed…”

“I told you already, we’re okay. I can’t see too many people coming today.”

“Then I’ll come, with pleasure.”

“Great! How about I pick you up from here in about 40 minutes?”

Sheridan was a pretty town just outside the Bighorn National Forest. With a population of around 14 000 it was large enough to have most of life’s everyday amenities without losing its identity. It was proud of its heritage and had a number of old buildings and museums. In summer it was full of tourists who were taking advantage of its position near Yellowstone Park as well as its 2 400 kilometres of trails through the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, an area where no motorised vehicles were allowed.

Blair and Felicia arrived at the jeweller’s just before lunchtime. After twenty minutes Felicia and the shop owner shook hands. Felicia had a big smile on her face and she took Blair’s arm as they walked out.

“You must be my good luck charm! That was the best deal I’ve made in months. Let’s go celebrate, my treat. Apparently, there’s a really good lunch place in the historic quarter.”

“But I’ve just had breakfast,” protested Blair.

“Call that breakfast?! You need more substance on your bones. Anyway, I heard that they do really good salads as well as the best chocolate fudge cookie ice-cream in the state.”

“Okay,” Blair smiled, “but I can pay my share.” As long as it wasn’t too expensive.

“No, no. I insist or we go back straight away.”

“But…”

“No buts. I’m not listening.” She put her hands over her ears and walked down the street. “La la la laaa, la la la…”

Blair caught up with her laughing and pulled her hands down. “All right. You win. At least let me pay for the drinks.”

“Done.”

After lunch they were in no hurry to get back to the fair ground. Although the rain had stopped the sky was a sullen grey and the low-lying clouds topped the nearby mountains. Wanting to avoid the commercial district of the town they decided to go and visit the Sheridan County Museum. Walking round the exhibits that told tales of the ranchers, railroaders, miners, soldiers and Indians that had lived in the shadows of the Big Horn Mountains, Felicia was struck at how Blair seemed to know an awful lot about what they were seeing. For the first time since she’d seen him he was totally relaxed and in his element. She watched mesmerised as his eyes sparkled behind the gold-rimmed glasses he’d put on to read the notices and his hands danced as he explained something making the exhibit come to life.

She and Maria had often discussed the mystery that was Blair Sandburg. That he’d been hurt in life, both physically and emotionally, was evident. That he was running way from something was also evident, from what though, he’d given no hint. Seeing him like this only deepened her desire to know him better. She was afraid that she was falling for him; the first time she’d felt any hint of attraction since her husband’s death. She also knew that his stay with the fair was only temporary and she steeled herself against falling too deeply. She would take what today had to offer for who knew what tomorrow would bring.

After two hours of walking she saw his limp becoming more marked and decided to call it a day for the museum. Not wanting to end the comfortable time they were having together she suggested that they go have a drink somewhere.

“Umm, don’t you have to get back to the fair?” Blair looked at her, his blue eyes wide open in question.

“Not really. I’ve made a good sale today, so I can treat myself to some time off.”

“Oh, okay. I umm… well, really…” Blair came to a stop. How to tell her that he had no more money for drinks? There was no way he was going to allow her to buy drinks as well as lunch. He’d spent almost all of his allowance for the week paying for the courier service and replacing a few needed items such as a toothbrush and shampoo. He’d had enough for the drinks at lunch but it had left him with only $3 and some change. Certainly not enough even for two coffees and a tip.

Felicia saw his embarrassment and guessed the reason for it. “I’ve got a better idea,“ she said gaily. “I’ve got some more of that homemade lemonade. Why don’t we go back to my caravan and you can tell me more about the Indians that lived here before we horrible white people came and ruined their lives?”

Blair hesitated and looked into her eyes. However, he could only see unfeigned interest and pleasure swimming in their green depths. And maybe a promise of something else? He made up his mind. “That would be great. I’d love that.”

“Good.” She took his arm and they chatted of inconsequential things as they made their way back to her parents’ little car. The fairground was on the outskirts of the little airport and as they driving past a private plane came to a halt in front of the small terminal. Blair watched as the door opened and a set of steps folded out to the ground. A group of people slowly made their way down them. Although he couldn’t see their faces, he felt a cold hand run down his back and he shivered. He looked harder to see if he could recognise them but by that time the car had moved further away.

“Are you all right?” Felicia stopped the story she was telling about a mishap that had befallen her brother as a child when she saw Blair shiver out of the corner of her eye.

“Yeah. Someone must have walked over my grave.” He rolled his shoulders and smiled. “So, what did your mother say?”

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Jim gratefully shook out his legs as he walked down the plane steps. He’d dozed on and off through the flight but his sleep had been plagued with glimpses of something blue that he couldn’t get a handle on. Walking across the tarmac he gazed across the wet airfield to the cloud-shrouded mountains when suddenly a cold feeling of apprehension made him shudder. He stopped and looked around himself to see if he could spot something out of place.

“What’s up, Jim?” Simon stopped beside him and looked around as well. “Can you sense something?”

“I don’t know,” Jim sighed. Since Sandburg had left his senses had become more and more erratic up to the point that he hardly used them anymore. He had to admit to himself that it was a mixed blessing. He’d hated how they’d controlled his life but on the other hand, they did come in use at a crime scene. “Maybe someone simply walked over my grave.”

Simon clapped him on the shoulder and they followed the others to the small terminal. Once inside Simon walked up to the information desk where a young woman was on the phone. As she saw him approach she hung up and turned a bright smile towards him.

“May I help you, sir?”

“My name is Banks and I believe there are some vehicles waiting for me?”

“Oh, yes. Simon Banks? Could I have some ID please?”

Simon pulled out his driver’s licence not wanting to use his police ID.

The woman examined it carefully then handed it back to him. “Thank you. I don’t know about any vehicles but this letter was left for you.”

Simon took the letter, thanked her and moved over to where the MC group was standing. Opening it he quickly read the contents and then looked up at his expectant colleagues. “Apparently, there’s a delay with the off-roads. They won’t be ready until late tomorrow morning. We’ve been booked into the hotel across the street.“

“Typical,” groused H. “Feds couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.”

“Well, Rafe,” smiled Banks, “it looks like you have a stay of execution. One more night in a real bed.”

“And hot water,” sang out Megan.

“And television,” added Brown.

Once settled into their rooms they met again in the hotel lounge.

“It’s only 6:30 and I know I’ll go stark raving mad if I have to wait around this dump until tomorrow. How about we go into town?” suggested Henri.

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Rafe objected.

“No, I know, babe, but it don’t have ALL the comforts of home, you know?”

Megan jumped in before the two men could get into another friendly dispute. “The receptionist told me there’s a fair on just the other side of the field. There are rides and stalls etc… Why don’t we go there?”

“A fair?” Rafe declared indignantly. “How old do you think we are?”

“Great idea, Connor,” laughed H. “I haven’t been to one in years. I challenge you to a shoot out, Rafe.”

“What do you think, sir?” Megan looked over at their captain her eyes shining.

“Well, I think you should stop calling me ‘captain’ while we’re on this little trip. And I’m not too sure we should leave this hotel or split up. Joel, what d’you think?”

Taggart looked around the little group and spotted Ellison. Although sitting with them, he seemed both miles away and caught up within himself at the same time. Sitting around doing nothing didn’t seem a good idea. “I can’t see any harm in going for a few hours. As long as we stay together and get back early enough.”

“Yes!” Megan and H gave each other a high five while Rafe buried his face in his hands.

As they went back to their rooms to get their waterproof jackets Jim walked up the stairs with Simon. “Uh Simon, I don’t really want to go.”

“Sorry, Jim. We’ve got to stay together and anyway, it could be fun.”

“I’m not really in the mood.”

“It’s just for a couple of hours. Keep the kids happy, okay?”

Jim sighed and nodded. Perhaps a couple of hours of distraction would help him get his thoughts into order.

“Good. I’ll even buy you some cotton candy.”

Once at the fair, Jim was pleased that his senses were behaving as the noises, smells and flashing nights could have played havoc with them. However, the feeling of apprehension he’d experienced at the airport was back and it was making his back itch. He trailed behind the others watching their antics and cursing the mud that sucked at his boots. He ignored Megan and Brown’s efforts to get him on some of the rides and refused Simon’s offer of cotton candy.

An hour into the visit he could feel a headache building up and the itch in his back was becoming an irritation. Following the others again he nearly walked into Joel’s back before he realised that they’d stopped. His heart jumped into his mouth when he heard Megan’s shout.

“Sandy! My God, it’s Sandy.”

He pushed past his colleagues until he could see what they were looking at. A small caravan could be seen behind a fortune-teller’s tent and a stall selling magic tricks. In the soft light over the caravan entrance they could see a blond woman leaning out of the door kissing the curly-headed man standing on the caravan steps.

Before he could stop himself, Jim bellowed, “Sandburg!”

The man jerked out of the woman’s arms and whipped his head round. His face paled as he stared into the flashing blue eyes of his Sentinel. For a moment time stood still as he hesitated and the detectives were frozen in shock. He murmured something to the woman and started to limp slowly towards the group. The woman stared after him for a second and after a long look at the detectives she went back into the caravan.

As he came closer Megan rushed forward and threw her arms around him in a tight hug. That broke the spell and Rafe and H joined her.

“Hairboy, what you doing here?”

“What happened to your hair, man?”

“Where’ve you been? You’re limping. Are you hurt?”

“Hold on a minute,” called Taggart, “let the man speak.” As the three detectives stood back Blair looked at the small group avoiding Jim and Simon’s eyes.

“Hello, everyone,” he smiled grimly, plainly uncomfortable, “what a surprise.”

In the silence that followed Jim could hear the music from the dodgems behind him pound into his head.


“When I saw you at the street fair, you called out my name.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You said we could start over, try and make it all okay.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So our past has been rewritten and you threw away the pen.
You'd said that I was useless, but now you'll take me in again.

Well Jesus loves me fine.
And your words fall flat this time.

Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
‘We don't have a prayer between us.’ “


Chapter Four

Simon took charge and pointed to the space between the stalls. Everyone moved with him to get out of the way of the fairgoers milling about. Blair rolled his eyes, but went with them and positioned himself with his back to the lights so his face was hidden. Although Jim didn’t say anything he was very conscious of how he scrutinised him intently.

“Sandburg, good to see you.”

“Really, Simon?” Blair ran his hands through his short curls. “Well, you’ve caught me at a bad moment. I was on my way out to get some marshmallows.”

“But Sandy, where’ve you been all this time? Me and Joel tried to find you, but…”

“Yeah, we wanted, well…” H came to an uncomfortable stop under Blair’s expressionless gaze.

“I think what he’s trying to say,” continued Taggart, “is that apologies need to be said and we’d really like to know how you’ve been.”

Blair’s eyes flashed and he glared at the people he’d thought, a long time ago, had been his friends. “Hell, I know I made mistakes, but I really don’t think I need to apologise to…”

“No. No, stop,” Taggart lifted his hands to halt the angry man. “We need to apologise to you.”

“Oh.”

“Look, Sandburg… Blair,” Simon tried to keep the frustration he was feeling at the situation out of his voice. “This is obviously not the place for this sort of conversation. We’re staying in the hotel at the airport for tonight. We could talk there, if you’re up for that?”

“Please, Sandy,” whispered Megan. “I’ve missed you.”

He looked around at the pleading and hopeful faces around him then spotted his former partner’s stoic look. “And you, Jim. Do you want to talk?” He almost laughed when he saw Jim clench his jaw in typical ‘Ellison, hard cop, no bullshit’ fashion.

“I think certain things need to be said,” Jim finally and reluctantly agreed. “And an explanation wouldn’t go amiss.”

Simon sighed as he saw Blair bristle under the implied criticism. “I think what Jim’s trying to say in his own inimitable way is that a number of errors were committed on both sides and perhaps we could have the conversation that we should have had months ago.”

For a few long seconds Blair didn’t speak then his shoulders slumped. “You’re right. It would be good to clear up certain things.” Jim was the only person who heard him say under his breath, “And then, I can try to get on with the rest of my life.”

Without noticing, Jim realised that the itch between his shoulders was gone. His senses were humming with energy and he could hear conversations by people high up on the big wheel, smell every spice used in the chilli sauce in a food trailer 20 metres away and see the few fine strands of silver in Blair’s curls even though he was standing in the dark. Everything was back in place and he felt better than he’d felt for months. And it got his back up. He’d been doing fine without Sandburg. Hadn’t he?

“Look, I can’t come straight away,“ Blair continued, “I’ve got things to do.”

“Still after the women, eh Chief?”

“It’s none of your business and I think you’ve forfeited the right to call me Chief!” He took in a deep breath and turned to Simon. “How long are you here for?”

“Only for one night. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Right. I’ll be over in about an hour and a half. Is that okay?”

“Fine. We’ll be waiting for you.”
Jim stood still at the bitter words thrown at him by his former partner. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but the other man had turned and limped away.

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It was almost 10 o’clock by the time Blair made it into the hotel. It had started raining again and despite his rain slicker, he was wet. Shaking it out he spotted his former colleagues in the lounge. Even from a distance of ten metres he could feel the tension radiating from Jim. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and limped over. He really didn’t want to do this, but knew it was the only way he was going to get peace of mind and be able to put the past behind him.

As he approached them, Simon and Joel stood up. Joel pulled up an armchair next to his where they were sitting round a low table and indicated for Blair to take it. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Um, a tea would be good, please. Just sugar, no milk.”

“I’ll get it.“ Rafe jumped up and walked over to the bar. Nobody said anything until he came back with a tray holding a small pot of hot water, a teabag in a mug, a bowl of sugar cubes and a teaspoon. “They only had English Breakfast. Is that okay?”

“That’s fine, thanks.” He poured the hot water into the mug and as it was steeping looked at Simon. “Where do you want to start?”

Simon cleared his throat and ran his hand over his short hair. He opened his mouth to say something when Jim burst out, “Why did you leave without saying anything? I thought we were friends?”

Talk about jumping in feet first.

Simon shifted uncomfortably hearing the pain in the detective’s voice. They all knew that Ellison was a very private person and the fact that he was revealing so much meant that he was obviously under a lot of strain.

“Look,” said Megan, “I think that perhaps there’re things you need to speak about that don’t concern us. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow and I’m bushed. I’m off to bed. Sandy, it’s great to see you. Please, contact me. Phone, e-mail, letter, pigeon post. Anything.” She bent down and put her arms around him before quickly walking over to the lifts.

H and Rafe both shook Blair’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder.

“Don’t be a stranger, Hairboy. I’ve got some apologising to do myself. Also Rafe here’s getting too good at poker. We need you to bring him back into line.”

“I need to apologise as well,” added Rafe. “Call us when we’re back in Cascade. Will you?”

“Maybe,” answered Blair. “I’ll think about it.”

The two detectives grinned and saying goodnight followed Megan into the lift. Joel leant forward and made to get up, “Blair, I should…”

“No, please stay. If you would?”

“If you’re sure?”

“I’d like you to.”

“All right, I’ll stay.”

“Thanks.” Blair fished out the teabag from his mug, dropped in two cubes of sugar and stirred his tea before looking up at Jim. “Will you allow me to tell my story without interrupting? I don’t think I can get through it otherwise.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that he doesn’t interrupt. All right, detective?” Banks gave Jim his patent ‘I’m the captain, you have to obey me’ glare

“Agreed. But we all get to have our say after.”

Blair took a sip of his tea to buy time and hoped that no one noticed his shaking hands. For three months, since his departure from Cascade, he’d relived, analysed, dissected and questioned what had happened since he’d found his Sentinel and how his friendship with Jim had unravelled to the point that it had. At long last he was able to have his say, so why was it so difficult to start? He looked up at the three men sitting around him. Simon looked exasperated, but also a little uncomfortable. He couldn’t tell whether it was from guilt or unease. Joel merely looked encouraging and he nodded when Blair caught his eye. And Jim. Jim looked almost hopeful or was that simply wishful thinking?

“I was blown away when you offered me the badge. I was amazed that you had so much confidence in me after the mess I’d made with my dissertation.” Blair stared into the middle distance not wanting them to read in his eyes how much that whole time had cost him.

Ellison opened his mouth, but closed it when Simon put a warning hand on his arm.

“I mean, I’d just called myself a fraud on television and here you were offering me the chance to become a detective. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy – hell, deep in my heart I knew that it was impossible, but I really wanted to be Jim’s partner. So, I accepted. I mean I’d died, so how hard could it be?” He didn’t notice how Jim flinched at those words. “But God, it was hard. The cold shoulders, the gun training, the little notes left in my locker… I expected that, but the physical hazing… they were training to be cops! If they were treating me that way, how were they going to be with the general public?”

Jim couldn’t hold himself back any longer. “Why didn’t you say anything? God, I’d’ve…”

“What? What would you have done?” Blair for the first time looked Jim directly in his eyes. “This was my battle to fight. And… I…” he almost whispered the words, “I wanted you to notice. I wanted you to SEE me. But you carried on as if nothing had happened.” He took another sip of tea and ran his hand through his short curls.

Jim’s eyes glazed over as he thought about his behaviour while Blair had been in the academy and then as his official partner. He’d been so happy that he’d finally had Blair at his side and that he and Simon had found a way to help him after he’d thrown away his academic future. He’d not lied when he’d told him that he was the best cop he’d ever known, and Blair had proved him right. But had his pleasure blinded him to the real situation? Had his desire to have everything ‘right in his world’ meant that he’d totally missed what had been going on under his own nose? But why had Blair said nothing? Then the answer hit him - Alex… Ever since that whole debacle Blair had been withdrawing within himself. Jim could recognise that now, but did this knowledge come too late?

“And then I started at the PD and for a while things were okay, apart from the times you told me to stay in the truck.” He grinned sardonically. “I could ignore the nasty comments, the fact that I was pulled into IA five times in six months, that my expenses took ten times longer than anyone else to be reimbursed, the fact that the DA wouldn’t allow me to be mentioned on any case unless he absolutely had no choice. That I was suffering from depression, crippled by debt and facing possible prosecution by some of the people who’d awarded me grants,” Jim’s head jerked up at that, “was merely something to get through. I could even ignore the fact that I wasn’t really a part of Major Crimes despite carrying a badge…”

“Now, hold on a minute, Sandburg,” Simon blustered. “How could you even think that?”

“The postal bombing case – ‘What do you know about bombs, kid?’ The Fondsville rape case – ‘Just grow up, Sandburg.’ Even though I was the one who made the connection you congratulated Jim for the bust. The school theft case – ‘When I want your opinion, Sandburg, I’ll ask for it.’ Remember those comments, Simon? In all the time I spent in the PD not once did I hear you denigrate the others like you did me. I know all about entering into closed societies and I knew it was going to be difficult to break four years of behaviour and conditioning. In spite of my training, cutting my hair, dressing differently you still saw me as the irritating, know-it-all grad student observer who’d blustered his way into the department.

“And I let it happen, man. I thought as long as I was Jim’s partner, as long as he trusted me I could put up with anything. I didn’t pull you up on your behaviour. I allowed my guilt over the dissertation to control my actions. Then you, Jim, picked a fight with me and threw me out of the loft.” He lifted up his hand, palm out, as Jim started to object. “And after those long weeks it was revealed that you were undercover, I finally realised that you still didn’t trust me. And probably never would. It’s just beyond you.”

“I do trust you,” the words were almost whispered.

“Then why didn’t you tell me? Why did Daniels know and not me, your partner? Why, when the shit hit the fan, did you accuse me of releasing the diss? Selling you out when I thought you knew I’d never do that? Why…”

“Daniels?” Simon butted in. “What’s Daniels got to do with this?”

Blair tore himself away from his memories and focused on what Simon was asking. He rubbed his forehead and lowered his hands into his lap. “He showed me the notes Jim left in his locker at the gym. The notes he’d left for the DA. He said that he’d been told not to tell anyone until the op was over.”

“Jim?” Simon turned towards Ellison a frown on his face.

“I didn’t leave any notes for anyone. As agreed, I had contact with no one from the PD. What did they say? How’d you know they were from me?”

“Um, they listed bank accounts and names and things like that. I didn’t really read them, but I recognised your writing. I was a bit upset at the time.”

“What the hell was he playing at?” Simon turned to Taggart. “Do you know anything about this, Joel?”

Joel was frowning and looked up at Simon’s question. “Doesn’t Daniels have a cousin in the DA’s office?”

“And?”

“It was well known that he’d been trying to get into Major Crimes for a while and he’d stated many times that he’d love Ellison as a partner. Unfortunately, Jim already had a partner. Maybe this was a way of coming between them. He could have got the notes from anywhere. It wasn’t as if Blair would question where they came from.”

“I shall be having a strong word with him when we get back. I think he’ll be finding himself on the short track to a disciplinary action if not outright dismissal.”

“But why didn’t you say anything to me? Why didn’t you confront me over this? It’d never stopped you before,” Ellison sounded completely confused.

“I wasn’t in a good place mentally!” Blair jumped out of his chair and stood with his back to them facing the large windows and staring at his image reflected in them. He tended to avoid looking at his reflection not willing to see how the last year had changed him from an enthusiastic grad student with a bright future before him to an embittered nobody with nothing but a painful past. “I was confused, hurting. I didn’t know what to do. Then karma really showed me the way.” His laugh was hollow as he wrapped his arms round himself and then fell silent.

The other three looked at each other anxiously as the silence dragged on.

Eventually, Joel quietly asked, “What happened, Blair?”

At first, they thought he wasn’t going to answer, but after dragging in a ragged breath he started to speak, “I was walking up to my front door that same evening you revealed the op when I was jumped from behind. There were at least three men, but they put something over my head so I couldn’t see. I’m sure they were cops, though. They dragged me indoors and started beating on me, nothing worse than I’ve had before, but I couldn’t defend myself, there were just too many. And all the time they were calling me a fraud, and a dirty Jew and that Cascade didn’t need a cop like me and I shouldn’t hope that Ellison would come and save me as he’d obviously decided enough was enough.”

Simon and Joel looked on horrified while Jim was clenching his teeth hard enough to hurt.

“Then… then… they said I’d need a permanent reminder of my sins. They carved the word ‘liar’ in my left thigh with a knife and held me down while they shaved my head. They laughed when they poured vodka over the wound saying they didn’t want me to die from infection. That I should live to suffer as I’d made other people suffer. I passed out. When I woke up I was in my car somewhere, I don’t know where. It was packed full of my clothes and books and stuff. Just shoved in any old how. My leg was bandaged and I… I just… lost it.”

Joel had tears in his eyes as realised what this gentle, intelligent man had gone through. All he’d ever wanted to do was find a sentinel and do good in the world.

“So, I just drove.” He didn’t describe how he’d thrown up at the side of the road. How he’d dosed himself with painkillers and how he’d had to stop every few hours when the pain and the remorse or the shaking had just got too much to continue driving without endangering others. “I don’t know how I did it or where I was going and when the car broke down I walked. I’m still walking, or rather limping. I pick up jobs here and there, send money to pay off my debts when I can and live each day as it comes.” Taking a last final breath and not knowing what to expect, Blair turned round. What he saw brought a lump into his throat.

Joel was looking at him with pained compassion on his face. Simon was staring at him with a mixture of anger and shame while Jim… Stoic, never show weakness, hard ass ex-ranger Jim had tears in his eyes and such anguish on his face his own eyes teared in sympathy.

“God, Sandburg. Blair,” Simon’s uncharacteristic hesitancy would have made him smile in other circumstances, “I’m sorry that you felt that you were on your own, that I made you feel inadequate, that God,“ he pinched between his eyes, “that I failed to give you the support that I should have given you both as your captain and your friend.”

“Thank you, Simon. You have no idea how much that means to me.”

“San… Blair, I want you to think about coming back. You were, are an excellent detective and I would be honoured to have you back in my team.”

“I don’t know. A lot of bad things happened and I don’t know if I can go back there.”

“Think about it.” Simon stepped forward and awkwardly patted the smaller man’s shoulder. “As soon as we get back, I’ll be the one responsible for getting those bastards who hurt you.” Blair looked into his eyes for a moment and then nodded.

Joel stood up as Simon stepped back and enfolded the friend he thought he’d never see again into his arms. With tears in his eyes and a pointed look at Jim telling him not to listen, he whispered long into Blair’s ear. The emotionally charged man at first stared at the floor then jerked his head up. Blushing, he shyly smiled at the man who had quietly supported him both while he’d been an observer and then as a detective. With a final hug, Joel caught Simon’s eye and the two men made their way towards the lifts.

Which left just Jim and Blair standing awkwardly avoiding each other’s eyes.


Chapter five

“Didn't you believe that I have finally turned away?
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
Anything to hold onto to help me through my day.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

Jesus loves me fine.
But his words fall flat this time.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your world, did you think I'd really stay?
If you offered me the heavens, I would have to turn away.
Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
"We don't have a prayer between us."
Didn't you, now? Didn't you, now?
Didn't you?”

Neither moved as the last notes of the song faded into another melody.

“It’s late and I’ve a long day tomorrow,” Blair shook himself free of his introspection and went to pick up his jacket.

“What? You’re willing to listen to the others, but me, I get a brush off!” Jim found he couldn’t help himself. His old fears and reactions reared their ugly heads once more. Looking at the knowing look on Blair’s face he stopped himself from continuing. Taking a deep breath he recognised that this sort of behaviour was partially responsible for the gulf that had kept him separated from the other man.

Blair sighed and sat back down in his chair. “Sorry, man, you’re right. I just didn’t think you’d want to speak to me. No, that’s not right, I suppose I didn’t want to hear what you had to say. I mean I know you’re angry, and you have every right to be. I really dropped the ball with Alex, but I did try to tell you. I know I should have tried harder. But I’m angry, too. You abandoned me…”

“Sandburg…”

“…when I needed you. You pushed me away. I know I should have pushed back, but I was so frightened of losing everything. Then I gave up my life, my academic career to protect you…”

“Blair…”

“Did you even thank me for that? I know I should have protected my diss better, but you…”

“Chief!”

Jim’s use of the nickname he’d given him back when he’d thought that nothing could destroy their friendship brought him to a shuddering stop.

“Blair, I’m sorry.” He almost laughed at Blair’s open-mouthed shock. And he realised that despite everything he still thought of this man as his best friend although he was also certain that he’d ruined any chance of Blair thinking the same of him. He jumped in quickly taking advantage of the silence, “I let you down. Ever since Alex, and even before that, your dissertation was hanging over my head. I was terrified that you’d publish and then be off doing world, book signing tours and I’d be left dealing with all the shit. I know that you’d never do that, but it’s like I couldn’t see beyond my fears.

“Then the diss happened and it seemed as if all my fears had come to be. And you, you gave your press conference. God, Chief, no-one’s ever done something like that for me before. And when Simon and I came up with the idea of giving you a badge, all I could think about was I could finally have you as my full time partner and I ignored what my heart, and if you really must know, a certain black panther was telling me. I allowed you to throw away your life and the only thing I could come up with was something that answered MY needs. You died because of me and lost your chance of getting your PhD all because you wanted to help me. No, let me finish. I know what you’re going to say.”

Blair sank back into his chair mesmerised by the torrent of words coming out of this normally taciturn man. For years he’d tried to get Jim to open up, to come to terms with the more ‘spiritual’ side of being a Sentinel and now that their partnership was over it seemed that the miracle had finally occurred. His mind was reeling from the situation so much that he couldn’t even form a coherent sentence.

“You feel you made mistakes, too, right?” Jim looked at him expectantly waiting for an answer. As the silence progressed, Blair hesitantly nodded. “You did, but no way were they as bad as mine. In fact, just before coming here, Connor let me know in no uncertain terms, just how bad I’d been behaving.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “It was a wake up call. I’ve been an unfeeling, selfish bastard who let his best friend ruin his life because his friend, me, was too frightened to do anything else. I forced you to become a cop when I know it isn’t want you wanted for your life. Um, feel free to jump in at any time to contradict me.”

“Why stop you when you’re on a roll?”

Was that the faintest trace of a smile on his face? “God, I took you for granted. Didn’t appreciate…”

“Okay, enough!” Blair jumped up from his chair. He’d been up and down so many times he felt like a jack-in-a-box. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim? Man, you make it sound like it was all your fault and that I’m some shrinking violet and you’re some emotionally, repressed creep. I’m an adult. I can, and do, take responsibility for my actions.”

“I know, but I didn’t help.”

“Jim, we had a seriously fucked-up, co-dependant relationship. Maybe, we should have gone to marriage counselling!”

Jim’s heart clenched at his use of the past tense.

“It was supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement; you get help with your senses and I get my diss. But we both lost our objectivity. My thesis subject became a friend and I became your partner and that’s my fault. As the scientist I should’ve known better. I became too involved. I had a choice: distance myself from you or change my diss. But I was enjoying the rollercoaster too much. However, I wasn’t a cop and that’s where your, and Simon’s, responsibility kicks in. I. wasn’t. a. cop. But I went undercover, helped arrest perps, assisted in operations. What the hell was I thinking? How did you let me do all that?”

“Because it felt right. You were meant to be there, by my side. Don’t tell me you didn’t feel that, too? And…” Jim hesitated. He hated the ‘mystical’ side of being a Sentinel, but he’d do this if it meant getting through to the man standing before him. He’d refused the water once before, maybe it was time to get his feet wet. “Don’t you think it’s a bit of a coincidence that somehow we’ve both ended up in the same place at the same time? You know; ‘Of all the fairs, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine’,” he said with a terrible Bogart accent.

Blair snorted in amusement and Jim felt a faint tendril of hope grip his heart. “Yeah, no, yeah… Whoa, I hadn’t thought of that. But, God, I was winging it! I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. But, yeah, most of the time it felt right.” He lowered his voice until even with his sentinel hearing, Jim could hardly hear. “But you resented me.”

“Look,” Jim walked up to him, put both hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes trying to put as much sincerity as possible into his voice. “We both made mistakes, but you’re the only one paying for them. I didn’t lie when I said you were the best cop I’d known, but now I know that being a cop isn’t what you are. But this isn’t what you are either. There must be something we can do so that you can be my partner? I miss my friend. And I don’t resent you. Not now. We’re a team. And that’s something I didn’t realise before now. My senses are better when you’re around and if I want to be a Sentinel I need to be the best there is. I need you to help me be that.”

Blair moved so that Jim’s hands slipped off. “I can’t come back. Too many memories, too much… pain. What happens the next time you feel threatened and you turn on me? What would I go back to? I can’t be an academic, I’m not a cop. Those who…” he swallowed, “who hurt me are still there. What if they try again? People want references and they want to know why I have holes in my CV. All they have to do is search my name on the Internet and they’ll have the whole sorry story. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but don’t worry, I’m down, not out. I’ll work something out.”

“But I want to help. I’ll tell everyone about my senses….”

“No! You can’t!” Blair started limping back and forth in front of the rain-wet windows. “You’ll have the press hounding you again. People like Brackett’ll be after you. Man, it would be so the wrong thing to do.” He looked up at Jim a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth. “But thanks for offering.”

“We’ll sort something out. We’ll get those bastards who jumped you. If they’re cops they’ve probably done it to other people and they’ll do it to others that don’t fit their narrow view of what being a cop is. The university screwed you over, so did Sid. You told them ‘no’ enough times. They need to be told they can’t get away with their actions. What if they do the same to someone else?”

“I don’t know,” whispered the agitated man.

“Chief, you haven’t been thinking properly for a long while. You’re a fighter, don’t let them win.”

“God…”

“Tell me something. What were you going to do once you got your doctorate? Teach full time? Go off on expeditions?” He watched as something he’d not seen for such a long time infused the other man’s face.

“You know, before everything hit the fan, I was thinking about that.” His eyes flashed and his hands started weaving patterns in the air. “Lots of police forces are beginning to use forensic and cultural anthropologists. Not just to understand criminals or serial killers, but also victims, witnesses. I mean we live in such a multicultural society it makes sense that if we want to get the best out of the community we have to know where the people that make it up are coming from. And the police are in the front line, so it makes sense that they’re aware of all this.” He ground to a halt as he saw Jim grinning at him. “What?” He asked defensively.

“It’s just so good to see you so animated. I haven’t seen this side of you for such a long time.”

Blair looked away uncomfortably and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Yeah well, I’ve had other things on my mind.”

“If we can work something out, would you try?”

“Jim, what can be done? I declared myself a fraud. On national television, no less.”

“Hell, we’ve taken on serial killers, psychos, South American guerrillas, rogue CIA agents; how difficult are a university chancellor and a puffed up book publisher going to be?”

Blair laughed out loud and Jim’s senses latched onto the sound. God, how he’d missed his partner and his irrepressible humour!

“I need to think this through. It’s too much…”

Jim sadly looked at the man who had suffered so much because of him – No! - because of who they both were and what life had thrown at them. “Is there any good fishing round here?”

“What?” Blair looked at him perplexed at the change in subject. “Hold on a minute. Just what are you all doing here? You on holiday, or what? Because believe me, I just can’t see Rafe slumming it here.”

“Do you remember the Berger case?” As he launched into the explanation of what had happened over the last few days Blair sat down next to him and Jim drank in everything that made Blair, Blair.

An hour later Jim quietly opened his bedroom door trying to be quiet. “How did you get into my room?” He glared at his captain who was lounging on HIS bed watching the television with the sound turned low chewing on an unlit cigar.

“I’m a captain,” he declared as if that explained everything. “Tell me, how did it go?”

“It went… well.” He stopped and thought for a moment. “In fact it went very well, better than I could’ve hoped for.”

“Is he coming back?”

“Too soon to say. He’s going to finish this fair as he feels he can’t let his employers’ down. Apparently, they’ve been really good to him.”

“Did you tell him about Berger?”

“Yeah. But d’you think they’ll find him? I told him to be careful. I also gave him the number for the FBI office here.”

“So, we just hope he contacts us at some later date?”

“I got him to promise to keep in touch and we both know Sandburg keeps his promises. Meanwhile, he’s given me permission to see some lawyers about how the university screwed him over and see if we can get some sort of settlement out of that book publisher. And I’m going to get those bastards who did him over.”

“Don’t you worry, I think you’ll have quite a number of people ready to help you there. And how do YOU feel?”

“Good. Better.”

“Your senses are behaving, aren’t they?”

Jim just smiled and then yawned widely.

“Well, I’m pleased.” Simon hauled his body off the bed and yawned himself in sympathy. “It’s time I was in bed. See you at breakfast.”

“G’night, Simon.”

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At breakfast Banks was called away to the phone. A few minutes later he walked back in and leant over his team. “We have a problem.” Everyone looked up at him with forks and cups frozen in hands and questions in their eyes. “Get your bags and meet me outside in fifteen minutes.”

Twenty minutes later found the group from Cascade standing in the morning sun with their bags around them waiting for Simon to finish the phone call he was having in his room.

“Hey.” They turned round and came face to face with the woman that Blair had been kissing the night before. Something seemed to be bothering her and she looked suspiciously at them. “Aren’t you the people that Blair was going to see yesterday evening?”

“Hello, Miss…?”

“Felicia.”

“Hello, Felicia. I’m Jim. Blair used to be my roommate and partner.”

“Well, was he all right? I mean, he told me he was going to see some old acquaintances, but I could see he wasn’t too happy about it. I made him promise to come and see me when he got back. I waited and waited, but he never came. I thought that maybe he was too upset and had gone straight to bed. So, I went over to his tent this morning, but it’s empty. I don’t think he slept there.”

“Are you certain he didn’t simply sleep elsewhere?”

“I’ve asked everyone. He’s not anywhere! He was upset about seeing you, I could see that. Are you sure you haven’t done anything to him?”

“Miss, my name is Joel. Believe me, we wouldn’t do anything to hurt Blair. He’s our friend, but also, we’re police officers.”

“Oh god, what’s happened to him? Maybe he hurt himself walking back and is lying next to the road. I should go look. Will you help?”

“Okay everyone, we have a possible prob… Oh, hello?” Simon spotted Felicia and ground to a halt.

“Simon,” Jim spoke urgently, “Blair didn’t get back to the fair last night.”

“Shit!” Simon turned to the woman, “Excuse us for a moment, please. I need to talk in private to my friends here.”

“No. You know something. Tell me what’s happened to Blair.”

“I’m really sorry, but I can’t…”

“Don’t give me that. I don’t believe you’re cops. I’m going to call the police.”

“Look, Miss…”

“Felicia.” Jim and Joel supplied together.

“Felicia, if what you say is true then Blair could be in real danger. If I tell you anything more, you could be in danger as well. Here’s my badge. See, I’m a captain in Major Crimes, Cascade, Washington. I’m afraid that if you want to see Blair again you should forget that you ever saw us. Understand?”

She looked round fearfully at the people before her. “No, not really. I don’t understand at all.”

Just at that moment a sedan followed by two off road vehicles drew up in front of the hotel. A slim woman descended from the sedan and walked over to the group. “Mr Banks?” She looked at Simon.

“Yeah, that’s me,” he continued before the woman could say another word, “I take it you’re FBI?” The woman nodded. “We have a problem. Blair Sandburg’s missing. His friend here has just informed us of this.”

The woman turned to look at Felicia taking her badge from a pocket in her jacket. “Agent Archant, FBI. Could you please tell me everything you know?”

As the two women spoke Simon gestured at the detectives to follow him a little distance away. “This is not good,” he spoke quietly, but forcefully. “Smith called from Cascade to tell me that apparently Escobar knows that Sandburg’s here in Wyoming.”

“And as usual,” Brown said bitterly, “they come up with their information just a bit too late.”

Jim said nothing. Suddenly, that maddening itch between his shoulder blades was back.

Chapter six

Blair sighed again and let his aching head drop onto his chest. To put it mildly, his karma sucked, and big time. He’d not seen Jim for three months and within six hours of meeting up again he’d been kidnapped! He hoped that all this suffering meant that when he finally died for good, he was going STRAIGHT to that big, blue jungle in the sky. He was so going to have a long chat with God, Yaweh, Olodumare or whoever about how in his next life his karma was going to be much more on his side. He wriggled trying to find a comfortable position on the damp, stone floor, but having his arms duct taped behind him made it nigh impossible. Luckily, his legs weren’t tied, but for the moment the only advantage to that was he could restore circulation by shaking them out. Using them to escape would have to come later because there was no way he was going to get out of where he was just on legs.

Lifting up his head he tried focussing again. Unfortunately, the effort made his stomach roil and he swallowed in an effort to prevent the nausea becoming full blown. Having already vomited twice he knew exactly how his head felt after. He blinked wishing that he could wipe the blood off his face. It had dried into a sticky mess over his right eye and every time he blinked his eyelid stuck to it. He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious and no idea where he was being kept. It was obviously a cave with a large metal door, obviously locked from the outside, fixed into a man-made hole. He’d woken in a patch of sun that was streaming in from a gap in the rocks way above him. The patch had moved quite a bit since then, but it was his bladder that was telling him that he’d been there more than a few hours. It had taken many tries with him panting heavily through his open mouth to get himself upright.

He had a vague idea of how he’d been taken; blurred images of a car driving slowly next to him as he walked, the sound of footsteps behind him, the pain of something connecting with his forehead as he’d turned around… He should have been more careful, more aware of what was happening around him. Jim had warned him, but his thoughts had been filled with their conversation and how cold and wet he was feeling. However, he’d also thought that it was unlikely that Berger would bother going for him all the way out here. Well, he’d got that totally wrong.

He’d also foolishly imagined that once he’d been able to have his say to Jim, Simon and et al he’d be able to shake the dust off his shoes, figuratively speaking, and be able to move forward. However, he now realised that despite what had gone down and what had been done to him he still wanted Jim as a friend, still wanted to be a part of his life and that of Major Crimes. Which probably made him one seriously fucked up individual! He also admitted to himself that he was frightened; frightened that although on the face of it, Jim was sincere in his protestations of wanting to make things right between them, he was also ruled by his own fears and emotional hang-ups. He didn’t think that he could physically or mentally live through another year like the last one.

For the moment though, he had other, more important priorities. Gritting his teeth against the anticipated pain he called out hoping this time someone would answer, “Hey, anyone out there? You know things are getting a bit desperate here. I’m really not into peeing in my pants…” He ground to a halt as a key turning in the metal lock echoed in the room/cave. He held his breath as the door swung open and two large men entered. He squinted at them trying to see if he could recognise them acknowledging the fact that if they were letting him see their faces his long-term well being wasn’t their main priority. “Um, great guys. I really hope there’s…”

“Get up,” big-bad-guy-#1, as he’d decided to call them, growled.

“’Get up’ he says. Get up, huh?” Blair mumbled to himself as he tried to lever his sore body off the ground without either doing a face plant on the floor or sending his stomach heaving.

“I said ‘get up’,” the goon repeated.

“I’m trying here, man.”

Big-bad-guy-#2 stepped forward and grasping Blair’s left arm just under the shoulder hauled him off the floor. “Whoa…!” Blair gasped as his head spun, his eyes watered and his stomach did a loop-the-loop. Through sheer willpower and by gritting his teeth he managed to hold on to what was left in his stomach. He felt himself being dragged across the cave and tried to get his shaking legs to support him. “Hey, hey, slow down, man.” Ignoring him, the men continued to drag him through the dark for about five minutes until suddenly turning a corner Blair found tears running down his face as he tried to cope with the sudden bright light that streamed through the tunnel entrance.

He felt something tug on his wrists and his hands were free, which was quite fortunate as big-bad-guy-#2 let go of his arm and he pitched forward onto all fours.

“You wanna piss, then piss,” said either bbb-#1 or bbb-#2 he couldn’t tell as their voices were so similar.

Blair dragged himself upright by clinging onto a large boulder near the cave entrance. Turning away from the men he fumbled with his jeans and heaved a sigh of relief as he emptied his bladder. He contemplated making a run for it and just as quickly dismissed the idea as foolish considering his weakened state. While zipping himself up again he thought it was time to try and find out some information. He was pretty certain that his kidnapping was linked to the information that Jim had given him the night before, but wanted to make sure. I mean how likely was it that two completely separate bunch of bad guys wanted to kidnap him? “Uh, guys, do you think…?”

“No talking.”

“I just… Ompf!” Bbb-#1 grabbed his arm and spun him face first up against the rock. Pulling his arms together bbb-#2 again wound duct around his wrists. “Couldn’t you…?”

Bbb-#1 leant against him and hissed into his ear, “If you don’t shut up I just might tape your mouth. Capish?”

Blair nodded emphatically. With the way his stomach was feeling, the last thing he needed was to be gagged.

“Good. You thirsty?”

Blair nodded again. Being spun round for a third time made him feel like he was in a dance that he had no idea how to do. He almost fell as his left leg buckled slightly with the movement. Bbb-#1 held a bottle up to his lips and he drank gratefully even though the water was warm. He tried following the bottle with his mouth when it was pulled away, but a hand on his shoulder held him in place. Perhaps he didn’t have to worry straight away about an early demise if they were giving him water. Hopefully this would give him some time to come up with an escape. Feeling marginally better he looked around to see if he could see anything that would tell him where they were. Unfortunately, the only thing he could say with certainty is that they weren’t in town and that was despite the fact that his eyes were still a little blurry.

They were standing on the side of a steep valley. The slope opposite was covered in pine trees right up to the skyline. The way the sun was hitting the trees Blair reckoned it had to be early afternoon. He must have been unconscious for at least eight hours. Not a good sign. The valley curved round to the left so he had no idea what was beyond while to the right all he could see was more hills and trees. They could be anywhere, even another state for all he knew.

Bbb-#2 started pulling him back into the tunnel and he tried to resist. To his complete mortification the two men simply picked him up by his upper arms and carried him. They reached his prison again and without ceremony he was pitched forward. He desperately tried to find his footing before slamming into either the wall or the floor. However, having his hands tied behind him and with the way his head was spinning he failed miserably. His left leg gave out under him and he hit the far wall with his left shoulder. He awkwardly slid down onto his side with his cheek scraping against the rough rock. For a few seconds he watched the bright lights dancing in front of his eyes until his vision went black and he lost consciousness.

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The whole circus, as Simon liked to call it, had moved into the hotel conference room. More FBI agents had turned up and the room had been turned into a command centre. Underneath the sounds of fingers on keyboards, printers and faxes gorging out paper, phones ringing and the cacophony of many voices speaking, there was an almost palpable hum of anxiety. He glanced again at Ellison who was standing by the window worry and anger almost physically radiating off him. Feeling his captain’s eyes on him the man shook himself out of his introspection and made his way over to him.

“Fancy a coffee in the lounge? I’m paying.”

Simon eyed the very expensive and complicated coffee machine provided by the Feds themselves sitting on one of the desks. The coffee from it was excellent and more importantly, free. “If you’re paying.”

The two men left the noisy room and sat themselves in a corner of the lounge with their coffees. Jim looked around casually to make sure that no one was in listening distance. “What are we going to do?”

“Jim, the FBI are in charge here,” Simon replied mildly waiting for the explosion he knew was going to happen.

“Crap, Simon! It’s Blair…”

“I know, but we’re out of our jurisdiction here. We have no resources, no authority…”

“We have me.” Jim ran both his hands through his short hair.

“Keep your voice down.” Simon looked around them to make sure that no one had heard. Jim had said that his senses were better and could be monitoring the area, but he still wasn’t sure how reliable they were. “What can you do? I know you’re good, but even you can’t find him when we don’t even know where to look.”

“If the agent in charge would let us in on the investigation I know that we could help.” It was obvious that with Blair’s kidnapping the situation had changed drastically and there was no need for them to go running into the hills. By playing his hand this way, it was more important that Berger, and by association Escobar, was brought down.

Simon didn’t doubt that was the case, but SAC Patton was only following procedure in not letting them take an active role in the search. “Jim…” He was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the MC group. They pulled up chairs so they were in a loose circle around the two men almost as if they were protecting them.

“Captain,” Brown started without preamble, “we’ve got to help. I mean, they’re Feds!” As if that explained anything, and perhaps with their previous history with the FBI, it did.

“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” added Connor. “We’ve got the advantage of knowing Sandy and knowing Berger. How can they refuse that sort of help?”

“And we’ve got Jim,” Rafe grinned nodding his head at Jim. “If he can’t find Blair, no one can.” Everyone watched the Sentinel squirm a little and turning their heads so it wasn’t obvious. Even though Blair and Jim had agreed to tell them about what he was (as if they hadn’t worked it out for themselves already. They were detectives after all!), the man still wasn’t comfortable about so many people knowing.

Jim gave Rafe a brief smile of thanks for the confidence he had in him. However, it also created a cold feeling of fear to curl low in his gut. Although his senses had improved since meeting Blair yesterday, they’d been erratic for the three months the man had been gone. How would they act now that Blair was gone again? He gathered his resolve around him like a safety blanket. There was no way he was going to lose his friend having just found him again! He’d make darn sure that his senses worked.

Banks pulled out a cigar from his cigar holder and jammed it into his mouth. He had no intention of smoking it, but it was a good delaying tactic as he searched for an answer. He caught Taggart’s eye. The man was also looking at him expectantly. “Et tu?” He murmured. Before he could say anything else Jim jumped in again.

“Let’s call Smith and Patel. Maybe they can intervene for us with the office here?”

Simon sighed and then stopped. Why not? The agents in Cascade had seemed to be pretty reasonable after all. He also felt that he should be doing something, anything, to find Sandburg. “Wait here.” He pulled himself out of his chair and disappeared into the conference room stiffening his shoulders against the fight that was sure to happen.

After an anxious 30 minutes he came back out followed by SAC Patton and walked over to the group. Jim tried to read Simon’s face, but the man was giving nothing away. They came to a stop and Patton looked around the group. “Okay, you’re in. It was stupid not using the extra manpower, but I had to follow procedure.”

Jim started to say something, but stopped as Patton held up a hand. “You’re in, but there are conditions. If you leave this hotel you take an agent with you. You have no jurisdiction here, so the agent’s in charge. If you question anyone, the agent does it. You get any information, you share. You go anywhere alone and you’ll be back here confined to the hotel. I know your priority’s getting Sandburg back and we’re doing everything we can to do that, but, remember there’s also a bigger picture here. We need to bring Escobar and Berger down. All I’m asking, is that you bear that in mind and don’t do anything to jeopardise the operation.”

“We’ll try…“ started Ellison.

“No! You won’t try, you’ll DO. We’re giving you the courtesy of being in on the search don’t make us regret it. That courtesy can, and will, be revoked if necessary. Understand?”

“They understand,“ replied Simon. “Don’t you?” He glared at everyone individually until they each nodded acceptance. Jim clenched his jaw for a few seconds then reluctantly agreed.

“Good,” stated the FBI agent. “There’s going to be a task force meeting at six. Meanwhile, you can use the phones, computers etc. we’ve set up in the conference room. See you at the meeting.” He turned and made his way back the way he’d come, but stopped and turned back towards them. “Oh yes, I thought you might like to know how Sandburg was found by Escobar.”

The group looked at him expectantly.

“Through a bank. He’s regularly sending back money to pay off his student loans. Sends it by courier service in cash. Apparently, there’s someone in the bank who’s been selling information to the highest bidder.”

“How did you find out?” asked Banks.

“Sheer and utter luck. One of our snitches in Cascade heard the payoff and contacted the FBI offices. Said the name Sandburg caught his attention. Something about having good taste in trainers. Said he’d first tried contacting someone at the PD, but when he was told that person wasn’t there he contacted us as he thought that the matter was urgent.” With that, he walked into the conference room.

“No,” murmured Ellison. “Not trainers. Sneakers.” ‘What were the odds that his snitch was also snitching for the Feds?’ he thought. Was it fate finally deciding to pay back Blair for all the bad luck he’d had ever since he’d found his Sentinel. Whatever it was, once back in Cascade with Blair at his side, he was going to buy the most expensive sneakers he could find in thanks.

“Only Sandburg would get himself into trouble by doing something right,” said Banks. “All right, let’s get our little lost lamb back safe and sound.”

“Yeah!” Megan cooed delightedly. “And then we’re not letting him out of our sight again. He’s coming back with us to Cascade.”

The group followed Simon to the conference room each one either patting Jim on the back or clasping his arm in sympathy. Jim ground his teeth. He appreciated the gestures, but in reality all he wanted was his friend safe and sound. The words of the song he’d heard last night swirled around his head.

“You said we could start over, try and make it all okay.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So our past has been rewritten and you threw away the pen.
You'd said that I was useless, but now you'll take me in again

Well Jesus loves me fine.
And your words fall flat this time.

Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
‘We don't have a prayer between us.’ “

He only hoped that Blair realised that he was serious in his desire to make it all okay. And while it was true that he couldn’t change the past, he, or perhaps even better, THEY could learn from it and do everything to make them have a future together as partners, friends – whatever Blair wanted was fine with him as long as it was side by side as it should have always been from the beginning.


Chapter seven

Simon halted in front of the conference door. “Okay, let’s discuss how we’re going to play this. Connor, I want you to start the research here using anything the FBI are willing to let you use: computers, faxes etc. Joel, I want you to go over everything they’ve amassed so far. Agent Patton seems on the up and up, but on principle I don’t trust them to hold something back. You can help Connor at the same time.”

He turned towards Rafe and Brown. “You two go to the fair and question people there. I’m pretty sure Sandburg’s been taken, but I don’t want egg on our faces if it turns out he simply skipped out. Apparently, he’s well liked there and I think you’ll get more information if you stress that we’re not FBI, but Blair’s friends. You’re going to have to be inventive so whatever agent you’re with doesn’t catch you doing the questioning.

“And that goes for you and me too, Jim. I want to see if you can find anything along the route he took last night. That’s going to be difficult if we have an agent watching our every move. God, where’s Sandburg with his obfuscating skills when you need him?”

Nobody missed the irony in his question.

Megan and Joel slipped into the room discussing possible lines of enquiry they could pursue. Megan headed for a computer that was sitting with its darkened screen in a corner and turned it on. Joel walked up to the large white board that held numerous photos of Berger and Escobar in the top left corner and a photo of Blair in the centre. He wondered where they’d picked it up from, but when he examined it closer he saw that it was a copy of Blair’s PD warrant card. He started reading the information on the board taking copious notes.

Banks followed his four detectives into the room and looked around for Patton. A number of people were either working on computers or talking on telephones creating a low hum of noise. Spotting Patton at the head of the file-and-paper-covered conference table he made his way towards him. He was talking on his mobile phone and while he waited for the agent to finish he cast his eye over the whiteboard that Joel was examining. After a few minutes Patton wound up his phone call and made a few notes on the pad sitting on the table. He then turned to Banks with a questioning look on his face.

“Banks.”

“Patton.” Banks nodded at the agent. “I’ve got an important question I should’ve asked this morning.”

“Uh huh.”

“Any indication that Berger and Escobar know that we’re here as well?”

“Don’t know if they knew before, but if they’re the ones who snatched Sandburg I’m sure they know now.”

“Yeah, that’s how I see it, too. Do we know who’s here in Wyoming?”

“We’re working on it. We think, and I stress that we have no proof, that at least two of Escobar’s henchmen are here and they’ve hired local muscle.” A female agent came up to him and handed him a fax. He read it quickly and then handed it to Simon. “Confirmation that two men known to have connections to Escobar boarded a plane to Casper, Wyoming two days ago. We’re checking car rental places, cab companies, hotels. The usual suspects.”

Simon looked at the grainy photos of two shifty looking large men. He didn’t recognise them, but a number of possible names were listed below: José Martinez, Juan Martinez, Oscar Ramos, Oscar Ramirez etc… “Do we know where they are now?”

“Working on that, too. The photos aren’t great and we’re waiting on clearer ones from the central database.” His phone rang again and he answered with an apologetic smile. “Patton. Uh huh. No. I don’t care what he says; just tell him to get it done. Right. Speak to you later.” He hung up and turned back to Banks.

Simon jumped in before he someone or something else could interrupt them again, “As you can see I’ve got Connor and Taggart here. I’m sending Rafe and Brown to ask around at the fair…” Patton went to say something and he spoke over him. “You’ve probably done so already, but without putting too fine a point on it, you’re Feds and we both know how that more than likely went down with the fair workers. I know you said we couldn’t ask questions, but I’d like you to reconsider in this case. We’ll be asking questions as Sandburg’s friends. We can prove that and there’s a chance that they’ll open up more to us.”

Patton considered his words and then nodded. “Okay, but they go with an agent.”

“Agreed.”

“I’ll tell Agent Archant to meet them in front.”

“Thanks. Meanwhile I’d like to take Ellison and walk the route that Sandburg would have taken last night.”

“Why? Forensics has done it already.”

“I know, but we know Sandburg. He could have left a clue that only we would recognise. He can be pretty inventive.”

“Okaaay.” Patton didn’t sound 100% convinced.

“And we don’t need anyone to come with us. We’re not going to be asking anyone questions.” Simon really didn’t want any witnesses to Jim doing his ‘stuff’.

“Unacceptable. None of you go anywhere without someone with you. As well as you not having any authority here, you’re also under the risk of being targeted by Escobar. I meant it before – I WILL have you confined to this hotel if necessary.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll go get my jacket and meet Agent…?”

“Agent Goodson,” Patton answered after a long, considered look at Simon.

“…Agent Goodson out front.”

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The lunchtime rush had finished, but there were still a number of people ordering food at the Parisis’ trailer when H, Rafe and Agent Archant turned up. Archant had turned out to be a fairly new agent and this was the first major case she’d been involved with. She’d driven the two Washington detectives to the fair all the way talking nineteen to the dozen. H and Rafe exchanged bemused looks. She made them feel old and jaded. Rafe realised that she also reminded him of how Sandburg had been when he’d first started working with Ellison. He didn’t realise how much he’d missed the former grad student and now, former detective.

Waiting for a lull in the orders, they watched the couple that had apparently adopted Blair. Jim had repeated the little Blair had said about them the night before telling them that Blair obviously held them in great esteem. After another fifteen minutes they had their opportunity and stepped forward.

“Mr and Mrs Parisi?” H asked.

The couple eyed them warily.

“We’ve already spoken to you lot,” the large man answered standing protectively behind his wife.

“Oh, we’re not FBI,” countered H. “We’re police officers from Cascade, Washington and Blair’s our friend.”

“You the ones he met yesterday? ‘Cos if you are, Fel said he didn’t seem right pleased to see you.”

“Yes, well,” Rafe answered a little uncomfortably, “Blair left Cascade after a big misunderstanding. We, um,” he knew instinctively that only the truth, no matter how unsavoury, would prove their sincerity, “we didn’t treat him with the respect and consideration that he was due.”

“Basically, we fucked up,” added H, “and lost a good friend and a damn good cop.”

“Blair had been a cop?” Mrs Parisi asked amazed.

“Yeah, it’s along story and I’m not too sure we should be the ones telling you. It‘s really up to Hairboy, sorry, I mean Blair, to give you the details. But just take it from us, he’s one of us and we’d do anything to get him back.”

Mr Parisi looked at his wife for a few seconds and she eventually nodded at him. “Okay,” he said taking off his large apron, “we’ll close up here for a while. The lunch rush is over anyway. We can talk in our caravan, but I don’t know what else we can tell you. BS doesn’t talk much.”

Brown and Rafe looked at each other. Sandburg doesn’t talk much? Were they even talking about the same person?

Unfortunately, the Parisis were right in their assessment of not being to able to give much more information. They’d explained more of how they’d employed Blair glossing over how they were paying him, and stressed what a reliable and hard worker he was. Maria Parisi had made tea for everyone, including Agent Archant, and they were sitting around the small caravan table when she stiffened.

“Vinnie, do you remember what Art said yesterday morning? About Blair’s tent.”

The man looked at his wife for a moment blankly then his eyes showed he’d remembered.

“What? What d’you mean ‘Blair’s tent’?” questioned Rafe.

“BS has a small tent. We let him use the washing facilities here in the morning and sometimes he eats with us, but he sleeps in his tent and keeps his stuff there. Well, the small amount of stuff he has. It amazes me that he can get by on so little.”

“So, what happened to it?”

“Art, Arturo Blanco, he works on the big wheel, said he saw someone hanging around the tent yesterday morning.”

“And?”

“That’s all he told us. We checked it over but couldn’t see if anything was wrong. BS was in Sheridan and we didn’t see him when he got back ‘cos we were working, so we didn’t get the chance to say anything to him.”

“Where is Mr Blanco now?” asked H.

“Working, I imagine,” Vinnie answered.

“Could you take us to him, please?”

“No, I’ll bring him here. Art’s a bit ‘shy’, if you know what I mean?” Vinnie glanced at the cops and FBI agent. “I think he’d be more comfortable here.”

Brown nodded and Vinnie left the caravan only to return ten minutes later with a tall, thin, nervous looking man in tow. Maria went over to him urging him into the caravan when he hesitated.

“C’mon Art, no-one’s going to ask you difficult questions. They just want to know about what you saw yesterday. You’re not in trouble. You know that Blair’s missing and these people here just want to find him. Do you want some tea?” The man visibly relaxed under her soothing chatter, but still eyed the three intruders warily and refused to sit down.

“Mr Blanco, I’m Detective Rafe from Cascade and Blair’s a friend of mine. Would you mind telling us what you saw yesterday?”

The man swallowed and then took a large gulp of the tea that Maria had pressed into his hands. ” I was walkin’ near them trees where Blair has his tent. I was, um, going for a piss like. When I saw a man hoverin’ over the tent I askt him what was he doin’ like.”

“About what time was this, Mr Blanco?”

“Um, just ‘afor noon, I reckon.”

“Please, continue.”

“Well, he just a looked a’ me and said s’mthin’ and walked off. I watched him ‘til he went ‘n came got Maria ‘n Vinnie.”

“Could you describe the man for us?”

“Dunno, really. He was big, though.”

“What do you mean by big?” H tried to coax more information from the obviously uncomfortable man. “Big muscular or tall? What was his hair like?”

“Umm, he was big like. Bigger ‘n you and with muscles. Dinna see his hair, he was wearing a cap.”

“Did you see the colour of his eyes, then? Any idea of his age?”

“I didna notice his eyes, but I reckon he’s like ‘bout same age as Blair.”

“Was he either of these two men?” Rafe pulled out a folded copy of the fax showing Escobar’s men.

Blanco squinted at the bad reproductions and slowly shook his head. “I c’n’t be certain, but ahm pretty sure, no.”

“Was he carrying anything?”

“Nope.”

“Where did he go?”

“I watched him outta the park. He went through trees toward airport.”

“Anything else you can tell us?”

“Nope.”

“Okaay. Well if you think of anything, will you let us know? Here’s my card with my cell number.” Rafe held out his hand to the man who looked at it fearfully then took it and scuttled out of the caravan.

A gloomy silence fell over the group. Although Blanco’s information was interesting, without a better description it was going to be difficult getting an identity. H pulled out his phone and updated Joel back in the hotel who promised to pass the information onto Patton.

“Maybe someone else at the fair saw him.”

Rafe and Brown looked at Agent Archant in surprise. She’d been so quiet up to now that they’d forgotten she was there.

“Uh huh,” agreed Brown, annoyed with himself for not thinking of it first. “Okay, Babe,” he turned to his partner, “let’s get out there and go ask some questions.”

“I think it would be a good idea if I came with you,” Vinnie interjected. “You know, some people might not be so open otherwise, if you get my drift?”

“What about your stand?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Maria said calmly. “Blair needs to be found and found quickly.”

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Agent Goodson eyed the police officers from Cascade with mixed feelings. While he understood their need to be doing something to find their missing friend, he couldn’t understand why Patton had given them so much freedom. Well, he was stuck with them and it was his duty to protect them and he’d do it to the best of his ability. He turned again towards the dark captain and concentrated on what he was saying.

“…must be great fishing out here.”

“I don’t fish.”

“Oh. Do you hunt?

“No. Don’t like hunting.”

“Oh, what about…”

Jim grimaced as he listened to Simon trying to distract the FBI agent. They’d walked the road leading from the hotel to the fairground confident that it was the route that Blair would have taken the night before. The rain that had passed and the mid-afternoon sun was beating down on his head. He wished that he’d thought to remember to take his Jags cap as trying to use his senses in the bright sunlight was giving him a headache. He stared at the road again and sniffed discreetly in an attempt to catch a trace of something that would lead them to Blair. Unfortunately, the rain had washed away any signs of his former partner and there was no telling if any of the detritus on the side of the road related to the kidnappers.

Suddenly, a familiar smell drifted across his nostrils – Blair! The previous evening he’d subconsciously catalogued the younger man’s scent; the smell of fried food, the more subtle smell of a herbal shampoo, the flowery smell of a woman’s perfume. He could now smell the unique combination coming from a clump of bushes on his right. Walking over to them while being careful not to walk on any obvious traces on the ground, he could also see something glinting in the sunlight. Getting closer he realised that it was the torch that Blair had been carrying in his jacket pocket. Although the area around the hotel had been brightly lit, the road had been in total darkness and he certainly would have been using it to get back to the fairground.

Going no further, he called out, “I’ve got something!”

The other two men hurried over, but stopped on the road itself.

“What have you got?” questioned Simon eagerly.

“It’s Blair pocket torch. I saw it in his jacket last night.”

“Okay,” Goodson pulled out his phone. “I’m getting forensics out here.” He started talking rapidly to the person on the other end.

Jim retraced his steps across the damp ground and joined his captain. They moved a few metres away from the agent.

“Anything else, Jim?” Simon asked in a low voice.

“Nothing obvious. The ground’s fairly damp there and I didn’t want to mess it up any more. This is probably where he was snatched and they obviously forgot about or couldn’t find the torch.”

“Or it rolled away and they didn’t want to waste too much time looking for it.”

“Mmm, could be.” Jim looked down the road towards the hotel where he could see a number of vehicles pulling out of the car park. “Hope they find something that’ll help us.”

Simon could do nothing except agree with the man.

Six o’clock came and the hotel conference room was filled with around twenty men and women including the Cascade contingent. Agent Patton sat at the head of the table and cleared his throat, “Right everyone, let’s get this show on the road. Greaves tell me what you got.”

Jim half listened to the report on the searches carried out on Berger and Escobar’s possible financial and criminal links to the area, which to be honest, didn’t seem a lot. His interest was piqued when an Agent Wozniak reported that a car had been rented to two gentlemen holding Washington driving licences. Photos of the licences were displayed on the whiteboard and somehow he didn’t think that the names underneath were real. It didn’t really matter as what was important was now they had clearer images of the men. They were still searching for where they were staying and were using the local police in the search.

Another agent got up giving a forensic report on Blair’s torch and the area surrounding where it had been found. Only Blair’s prints were on it and a few possible shoe marks had been noted, but it was difficult to read anything from the information. The best bit of evidence was a tyre track from a vehicle that had stood on the ground near the bushes where the torch had been lying. They were in the process of searching for tyre brand, size etc. and once having the information they would have a list of vehicles using this type of tyre. As for the kidnap itself, no one had seen anything which was hardly surprising given the time it occurred and the remoteness of the road.

Eventually, the reports swung round to Brown and Rafe and Jim woke up fully. He had heard a little of what had gone on at the fair, and in his opinion, this was the best lead they had.

Brown stood up and walked over to the whiteboard. He placed on it a photocopy of a police-booking photo showing an unsavoury looking individual staring belligerently at the camera.

“Aloysius Temple Brown, 32, a long time resident of Sheridan. No relation I hasten to add.” A polite smattering of laughs came from the room. “He was seen by a number of people at the fair notably around Blair’s tent. We managed to get a good description of him and it turned out that he’s known to the local PD. He’s a small time crook with a couple of convictions for aggravated burglary. An APB’s been put out on him and we’re waiting on being able to go question some of his known acquaintances.”

As the meeting went on Patton threw it open to questions and suggestions. Pizzas were brought it in and the men and women worked into the evening. Assignments were passed out for the following day and eventually everyone went up to their rooms. The Cascade group gathered in the room shared by Rafe and Brown, as it was the biggest.

“So, Simon, what’s next?” Joel eased himself into one of the armchairs standing against the windows. Although they’d been given assignments by Patton, they were low key, ‘something to do’ actions to keep them appeased.

Simon had an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth and he took the second armchair. “Patton doesn’t realise how good we are especially when have a vested interest in the outcome. Joel, you and Connor continue to do what you were doing today. You managed to get some good information. H, Rafe, stick with the agents working with the local PD. You and I, Jim, we’re going to find this Aloysius Brown.”

“What about having to take an agent with us?”

“We’ll ask for Goodson. He seemed to be impressed by your detecting. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind hanging out with us again. Okay, bed everyone. I want us up early tomorrow.”

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Lying on the cold stone did nothing to ease the aches and pains Blair felt in his body. He groaned and immediately started coughing, which unfortunately sent shards of pain through his head. He eventually managed to draw breath without hacking up his lungs and he lay immobile for a moment, a miserable, shivering wreck. He cursed silently. Ever since his drowning in the fountain, his lungs had been susceptible to infections and dust. Obviously getting wet last night and then lying in this cold cave for hours had done him no favours.

Apart from the few gulps of water he’d had earlier and the tea last night (and that he’d brought up), he’d had nothing to eat or drink for a while and he was beginning to feel the effects. He thought about trying to sit up, but realised he simply didn’t have the energy. He found his thoughts wandering and tried to bring them back to his situation. ‘You know, Jim,’ he thought to himself, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I obviously need looking after. I’ll come back to Cascade, but just come and find me first.’


Chapter eight

The phone ringing next to his bed woke Ellison from a disturbing dream. Grabbing it he simultaneously glanced at his watch on the bedside table while growling into the receiver. His watch read 2:34. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“Uh, hello? This is Blair.”

Jim woke up fully hearing the exhausted and pain-filled voice. “Chief! Where are you?”

“Jim! Don’t know. Somewhere in the mountains. I was kid…”

His grunted as the sound of flesh on flesh replaced his voice.

“Ellison. We have Sandburg. He’s alive. If you want him to stay that way you and your colleagues come out to Thorne Rider Park baseball fields without the Feds.”

“How is he? Is he hurt? Let me talk to him.” Stretching his hearing he could hear harsh coughing being muffled in the background.

“No, you listen to me! You don’t listen, he gets hurt. You don’t do what we say, he dies. We’ll expect you at the park at six this morning. We see a helicopter, a uniform or even a car I don’t like the look of and we’re out of there.”

“You’ve got to be joking! We’re being watched, we can’t take a piss without an agent being with us.”

“Well, you’d better find a way or it’s bad news for Sandburg. We’ve got no food for him and I guarantee you’ll never find him in time.”

“Fucking bastards! Let him go or I’ll …” He stopped as he realised he was talking to the dial tone. Immediately, he dialled 69, but got the message that the number was blocked. He jumped out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Grabbing his gun he left his room not realising that he’d not turned on the light and had done everything in the dark. He knocked softly on Simon’s door in an attempt to not to make too much noise. “Simon, open the door,” he whispered trying to project his voice.

Nothing happened. “Simon,” he tried more urgently listening to the snores coming from behind the door. He risked raising his voice some more, “For God’s sake, wake up, please.”

“Wha, wha…?” He heard a bed creak then footsteps and the door opened to reveal Banks dressed in stunning, burgundy satin pyjamas peering at him short-sightedly with sleep-filled eyes. “Ellison, what the…?”

“Shh.” Jim pushed past him into the room after checking to see that no-one else along the corridor had been disturbed. “Keep your voice down.”

Simon slowly closed the door behind him and made his way back to his bed. Sitting down on the edge he picked up his glasses from the bedside table. Putting them on he watched the Sentinel pace backwards and forwards across the small space. “Jim, what’s going on?”

“The kidnappers just called me.”

“What?!”

“Shhh, I don’t want the Feds to hear. I spoke to Blair. He’s still alive.”

Simon felt the curl of fear in his stomach unwind a bit. “So, what did they want? How did they get your number?”

Jim cupped the back of his neck with both his hands. “The usual: go to a place alone or they’ll kill him, don’t tell the FBI, listen to them or they’ll hurt him…”

“How did he sound? Was he able to tell you where he was.”

“Exhausted, in pain. How he always sounds when he’s been kidnapped!!”

“Uh huh.” Unfortunately, he knew exactly what Ellison meant.

“He said something about mountains, but that doesn’t help us much here.” He resumed his pacing. “Why did I let him go back alone? I should’ve made him stay with us or gone back with him at least.”

Simon got up and gently led Jim to his bed then pushed him down so he was sitting on the edge. He pulled the single chair over and sat in it so that his knees were almost touching the other man’s. Touchy-feely wasn’t really his thing, but he could see that he needed to be a bit more empathetic than normal. The last 48 hours had really been an emotional roller coaster (no pun intended!) for the man and he needed grounding. God, he was channelling Sandburg! “Jim, forget about should haves and could haves and let’s concentrate on what we can do now.”

Jim blew out a long breath. “You’re right. Do we tell Patton?”

“You know we can’t acquiesce to their demands?”

“I know. God, I know.” Unfortunately, as a cop he knew only too well that giving in to kidnap demands rarely brought good results. Also FBI policy was to never give in – that led to criminals thinking they could get what they wanted through kidnapping. However, as a private individual it was difficult to take.

“We can only do what we do best – find the bastards before they do anything else to Sandburg. And to do that we need all the resources that the FBI have. We need to find out how they got your number. Did they call the switchboard or did they know by other means?”

Jim simply shrugged, his concerns were more immediate. There was a moment’s silence as each man contemplated the heart wrenching decision they were being forced to make.

The captain took charge. “I’ll get dressed while you go and wake the others. Take them down to the conference room and get the coffee on. I have a feeling we’re going to need gallons of the stuff. I’ll go and wake Patton. Do you know what room he’s in?”

“I think it’s 332.”

“Okay. And Jim?”

“Yeah?”

“Put some shoes on.”

The man looked down at his bare feet then ruefully looked up at Simon. “Guess I had other things on my mind.”

‘And isn’t that an understatement?’ thought Simon.

Thirty-five minutes later sleepy people were slowly filling up the conference room and the coffee machine was working overtime. Patton was in discussion with an agent waiting for everyone to arrive. The Cascade group was sitting in a corner in a protective circle around Jim watching what was going on.

Simon spoke quietly so that only Jim could hear him, “Can you tell me if anyone’s listening in?”

Jim started and looked at his captain then tipped his head to one side in his classic listening stance. Megan spotting what was going on put her hand on his arm grounding him.

After a few minutes Jim lost the glazed look and leant forwards. “As far as I can tell there’s no one outside within a few hundred metres and I don’t think there are any listening devices in this room. I can’t say more than that without risking a zone.”

“That’ll have to do. Joel, remind me to ask Patton if they’ve done a sweep of this building. I wouldn’t put it past Escobar to have someone outside with a directional mike!”

The last person slipped into the room and Patton indicated Banks to join him at the head of the large table. He stood up and addressed the room, “Sorry for disturbing your beauty sleep, but we’ve had a development. I’ll let Captain Banks explain.”

Simon cleared his throat and recounted the very short conversation Ellison had had with Blair’s kidnappers. “It’s now 3:15,” he ended with, “which doesn’t leave us much time to sort something out. Because what ever happens we’re getting Sandburg back.” With a pointed look at Patton he finished speaking and made his way back to his seat.

“As Captain Banks said, we’ve got very little time, so let’s get cracking. This is a map of the park in question.” A large folding map was fixed to a whiteboard and Jim saw why the kidnappers had chosen that particular meeting place. The baseball fields were a large open space with very little cover for anyone approaching. It would be impossible to move anyone or anything without being seen from the surrounding area. Looking at the faces of the people around him he knew that they’d come to the same conclusion. “Gutierrez and Johns get in touch with Sheridan PD. We need them out and about looking for ANY trace of Escobar’s men and who they’ve hooked up with here.”

The two men nodded and headed out of the room.

“Michaels, King contact park rangers, mountain guides, anyone who has a reason to be out in the mountains to see if they’ve spotted anything that could help us.” The male and female agents picked up their notebooks and shot off. “Okay, that leaves the rest of us. I’m open to suggestions.”

An hour and a half later Jim twisted in his seat, frustrated. This was going nowhere. They had two options: go and get taken, don’t go and try to find Sandburg before he starved to death. He knew which one would be chosen; all law enforcing services knew not give in to demands made by criminals and terrorists. And although he understood and agreed with the policy he didn’t have to like it. The Feds were discussing ways of tracking the kidnappers without being caught, but most of the suggestions meant revealing their presence. They had just over an hour to sort something out and get to the meet.

After listening to another stupid suggestion and with a stomach burning from too much coffee, he’d had enough. He eased away from the table stretching his back and slipped out of the room. Simon glanced over at Joel who nodded and went after the detective. He found Jim sitting in a corner of the darkened lounge.

“What are going to do?”

The words were whispered, but in the silent space Joel heard them clearly. “Don’t give up hope just yet. Don’t forget that Blair’s a resourceful and intelligent man. He’s managed to get himself out of tricky situations before.”

“How come this always happens to him?”

“You know what he’d say? Bad karma, man!”

Jim snorted in amusement despite himself. “You know we’ll never get close enough to be able to follow them?”

“What about you? How far can you be and still be able to track them?”

“Close enough. I’m not thinking at my best, Joel! Let’s speak to Simon.”

Patton looked up at the three men exasperatedly. They’d walked up to him in the conference room and had tried to convince him that they could deal with the meet. “What the hell’s the matter with you? You CANNOT go off on your own! Apart from the risk to yourselves, you could jeopardise our operation.”

“What operation?” Jim snapped. “You don’t have a plan and the meeting’s in 40 minutes.”

“Jim, quiet.” Simon put a hand on his arm. “Look Patton, we need to tell you something, but not here.”

“Unless you can tell me you know where Sandburg is and can save him, I don’t want to know. I’m seriously regretting my decision to let you in on this.”

Simon jumped in before Ellison could aggravate the agent more, “It’ll only take a few minutes and it could be the answer we’re looking for.”

Throwing his arms up in the air, Patton stood up brusquely from the table and stalked out of the conference room. Fortunately, the lounge was still empty at this early hour so they didn’t have to go far. He stopped by the windows, turned towards the men following him and crossed his arms. “Well, what is it? And this had better be good.”

The captain glanced over at his detective noting the clenched jaw and blank face. Although he’d agreed to this he knew that he wasn’t particularly happy with the situation. “We’re telling this to you on the understanding that you can tell NO ONE else.” He waited until the agent gave a short, reluctant nod. “Ellison can track the kidnappers without electronic means.”

Patton stared speculatively at the silent man for a few seconds. “So you really do have enhanced senses?”

Jim froze and stared at the man. “What do you know about it?” He asked angrily his automatic, defensive reaction taking over.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t search out all the information I could on the people I’m supposed to be protecting? I read about Sandburg’s dissertation and how he declared it fraudulent.”

The man before him winced, but remained silent.

“So now you’re telling me it was all true? And you expect me to believe that you’re really this Sentinel Sandburg wrote about?”

“I can prove it, but we really don’t have the time, do we? You’ve obviously done your research. Do you really think two police captains would be standing here with me if they didn’t know it was true?”

Both Banks and Taggart nodded at Patton’s questioning look.

Patton was silent obviously thinking things over. “Okay. What can you do?”

“I’ll be able to hear them talking from anywhere on the field. I’ll be able to keep them in view from up to a mile away. If their vehicle is burning oil I’ll be able to tell where they’ve been. Is that good enough?”

Patton nodded slowly. “Tell me something. If you really are, what was the expression again, a Sentinel, why did Sandburg lie?”

An awkward silence followed his question. Simon cleared his throat. “That’s not relevant to this operation and…”

“It’s none of your business,” Jim snapped.

“Perhaps not how I was going to say it, but basically he’s right,” continued Simon.

Patton looked as if he wanted to argue, but looking at the faces of the men before him he realised now was not the time. “Acknowledged, for now. Okay, how are we going to play this?”

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Blair took a sip of water then with shaking hands, carefully twisted the cap back on the bottle. He’d been rudely woken up in the night from his intermittent slumber by his kidnappers bursting into his cell with bright torches. They’d dragged him along to the tunnel entrance and propped him up against the wall.

“You’re going to talk on the phone,” bbb-#1 (he’d thought it was #1 but in the wavering light it had been difficult to say) had told him emphatically, “you’ll give your name and nothing more. Okay?”

“Wha… wh…?” In his weakened state Blair had found it difficult to understand what had been going on. “Owww!” His eyes had watered as his hair had been gripped in a large hand and his head forced up so he’d had to strain up on his toes. He’d scrabbled at the wall behind him with his bound hands in an effort to stay upright.

“Listen, fucker,” the man had snarled directly into his face, “just say your name when I tell you to. All right?”

Blinking away his tears he squinted up into the angry eyes boring into his. “Yeah, man. I hear you.” Thankfully his hair had then been released and he’d locked his knees as his trembling legs had started to fold beneath him. A phone had been held up to his ear.

“Speak,” the man had commanded.

“Uh, hello? This is Blair.”

“Blair! Where are you?” He’d almost collapsed when he’d heard Jim’s anxious voice in his ear. ‘Please, please, please,’ he’d chanted in his head, ‘come and find me, Big Guy.’

“Jim! Don’t know. Somewhere in the mountains. I was kid…” The phone had been pulled away from his ear and he’d been slapped to the ground. He’d landed with a grunt that had set off a spate of coughing. By the time he’d caught his breath the phone conversation had been over and his two kidnappers had been discussing something over his head. He’d been feeling too rotten, too sick to follow the conversation. They’d then dragged him back to his little hidey-hole, cut the duct tape around his wrists and left him there in the dark.

And now he was watching the confines of his prison slowly become visible as dawn sent light down the hole above his head. Another shiver coursed through his body and he wrapped his arms round his chest grateful that he could do so. He wondered why they’d untied him and the only answer he could come up with was depressing. They could see that he was in no state to even attempt an escape or inflict any damage on his kidnappers. His breath whistled in and out of his lungs, his chest felt tight and his left leg hurt with a deep ache. With the way he was feeling he realised they weren’t far off in their assessment.

As the room lightened he saw something gleaming by the door. He crawled over to it and was surprised to see a large plastic bottle of water. Thank God! He was so thirsty. Then realisation hit him like a fist in the gut. This was it! They weren’t coming back; they’d left him to die in this cold, unfeeling place. Then why the water? “Blair, get a grip,” he admonished himself. His voice sounded gravely and his breath wheezed in and out of his lungs. “If they wanted you to die they’d simply put a bullet in your head.” Feeling marginally better he opened the bottle and took a couple of gulps. Not knowing how long it would have to last he made himself stop from drinking more.

It felt wonderful going down his parched throat and he almost opened the bottle again for another mouthful. Unfortunately though, once it reached his stomach it also reminded him that he’d not eaten for quite a while. The nausea from the day before had lessened somewhat, but his head was still aching fiercely and his vision was still a bit fuzzy. He wondered what Jim was doing and questioned himself as to whether the man was even looking for him. ‘Of course he is, doofus. He was pleased to see you and even apologised for his behaviour.’ However, he couldn’t keep the little voice of doubt that spoke softly in his ear quiet. He’d given up too much, lost who and what he was in the fervour of finding and being with a Sentinel. For all his arrogance and surety, Blair still needed reassurance about his usefulness and place in life. The last year had seriously undermined his self-confidence.

He dragged himself over to the metal door and inspected it closely. Perhaps he should see about getting himself out of his prison. Belatedly, he thought about searching his pockets to see what resources had been left him. His slicker gave up a ticket stub to the museum in Sheridan and a soggy receipt. His jeans unfortunately, were empty of his penknife and wallet, but his left back pocket contained a crushed packet of unsalted peanuts. He stared forlornly at the meagre haul. Even MacGyver would have had a problem creating a means of escape with this sorry lot. He debated opening the peanuts. They would ease his hunger a bit, but also increase his thirst. His stomach had other ideas though as it woke up with a grumble at the thought of food. Resigned, he pulled the packet open. The small number of nuts that he allowed himself tasted like sawdust, but determinedly he ate them knowing he needed the energy.


Chapter nine

Dawn was just beginning to tint the sky with a rosy hue as Jim, Simon and Patton settled themselves in behind a pile of rocks on the outer edge of the baseball field in Thorne Ryder Park. Out of sight of the various access roads leading to the park, Patton had assigned various agents and the Cascade detectives to different vehicles. Although in radio contact he’d forbidden them to make contact except for emergencies. Everyone was on edge not knowing what was going to happen.

“Tell me what you can see,” whispered Patton.

Jim smiled tiredly. The agent had a pair of binoculars and was probably able to see just as well as he. “Nothing,” he replied. “And you?”

Patton didn’t answer and continued to peruse the area.

“I can’t hear anything either,” Jim continued, “except the usual sounds of birds, insects and the acid in your stomach from too much coffee. And the only smells I’m getting are your aftershave, Simon’s cigars and that somewhere near here there’s a dead animal.”

The agent started and lowered his binoculars to look at him.

“And believe me, it is an animal,” the detective jumped in before he could say anything. “I can smell the decay and rotten fur.”

Simon didn’t miss the speculative look the man gave Jim. If he’d read the agent correctly he didn’t think the information regarding Ellison’s senses would go any further. However, he wasn’t omniscient when it came to reading people. Look how he’d got it totally wrong when he’d first met Sandburg!

“Unit 1, report,” Patton spoke quietly into his radio.

“Nothing moving here,” came the loud, crackly voice in reply. He quickly turned down the volume.

Jim winced and dialled back his hearing. “Warn me next time, please.”

“Uh, sorry. Unit 2, anything?”

“No sign of any vehicles approaching.” He got the same information from all his agents and he was getting worried. It was nearing the meeting time and he’d thought that there would have been at least one kidnapper keeping an eye on the proceedings. To say he wasn’t happy was putting it mildly.

Suddenly the radio crackled. “Unit 3 here. Vehicle approaching park entrance.”

All three men turned their heads as one towards the road leading into the area. Sun glinted off two binoculars while Jim concentrated on focussing his vision. After a minute a small, red car pulled in and parked under a tree. The doors opened and Simon realised that he was holding his breath. A second later he sensed Jim beside him deflate and curse softly. He felt like joining in as he watched a young couple climb out of the car. Dressed in running clothes they did a few stretching exercises then set off in a loping run along one of the paths.

“Stand down,” Patton growled into the radio. “False alarm.”

Jim turned onto his back and let out a long breath. His muscles were tight and aching from holding them rigid for so long. He hated waiting. He was a man of action and all this doubt and hanging around was doing his head in. He wanted to find Blair so badly he could taste it. How could fate be so cruel to have let the man back into his life and then snatch him away again? As much as he knew that he wanted Blair back he also knew that he was going to have to change his behaviour before the younger man would be comfortable with him again. He just wanted a chance to be able to show Blair that he could.

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With his ear pressed up against the metal door, Blair strained to hear any noise. However, everything was silent and it worried him. He pulled his head back and leant his body against the cool metal. Instead of feeling cold as he had earlier he could feel sweat pooling under his arms and in the small of his back and knew that he now had a fever. He’d watched the patch of sunlight work its way across the rocky floor and judged that at least four hours had passed since he’d eaten some of the peanuts. God, what was going on? A cold ball of fear nestled uncomfortably in his stomach. ‘Shame it hasn’t filled me up!’ he groaned to himself.

Truth to say, he was getting worried. No, in fact he’d been worried before, but now he was getting really worried. He’d vaguely heard his kidnappers talking over his head as he’d been lying on the ground coughing his guts out after speaking to Jim. They’d said something about 6 o’ clock. He could only assume that it was the time that Jim and/or the others were supposed to give themselves up. Surely four hours was enough for something to have happened and someone to have got back here? Unfortunately, it only fed his fear that he’d been left to die.

Despite being so dehydrated he’d had to urinate at least once. He’d banged on the door and called out, but no one had come to take him out. In desperation he’d dragged himself to a far corner and had peed there. With the increase in temperature as the day progressed the smell was becoming more pungent and wasn’t helping his nausea. Feeling his stomach roil again he turned and once more banged on the door. “Hey! Anyone there? Please, let me out.”

His hand slipped down to his side and his body followed it onto the floor. “Please,” he whispered, “I don’t want to die here all alone. Hell, I don’t want to die anywhere.” He shivered as his fever rose. Clasping the rain slicker that he’d removed earlier when he’d felt hot, he clumsily pulled it over himself. Tucking his hands under his armpits in an effort to get warm again, he squeezed his eyes tight. He gave himself over to the despair he felt and cried tears that his dehydrated body could ill afford. He thought of Jim and really, really hoped that he was looking for him and that he’d forgiven him for all the mistakes he’d made as his friend and partner.

As his fever increased he started singing the song that had been turning round and round his head for the last 24 hours. His cracked voice filled the little space and was absorbed by the stone walls. He tried to ignore what the words were saying, but was afraid that they described both his past and his future.

“Didn't you believe that I have finally turned away?
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
Anything to hold onto to help me through my day.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

Jesus loves me fine.
But his words fall flat this time.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your world, did you think I'd really stay?
If you offered me the heavens, I would have to turn away.
Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
"We don't have a prayer between us."
Didn't you, now? Didn't you, now?
Didn't you?”

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“Nothing,” Jim whispered as his sat staring out of the hotel lounge’s windows.

“What was that?” Joel, who was sitting next to him, asked.

“Nothing,” Jim spoke louder. “We waited for hours and there was nothing!” His voice rose, as did his agitation. “No kidnappers. No Blair. Nothing!”

After waiting for another two hours the discouraged agents and detectives made their way back to the hotel. In all that time there hadn’t been even the slightest hint of the kidnappers. They were all beginning to think that it had been a ruse of some kind. After another task force meeting and a quick lunch provided by the hotel Jim had taken his coffee out into the lounge in an effort to clear his head. Joel had followed him ten minutes later.

“Maybe we scared them off,” suggested Joel.

“No, I don’t think so. I think they never intended to show up. All access roads to the site had been under surveillance a good few hours before we arrived. There’d been no sight nor sound of them.”

“So, what was their plan?”

“I don’t know. God, I simply don’t know. But all I do know is that we have to find Sandburg soon.”

Both men looked up when they heard Patton and Banks in full discussion, walk towards them followed by Megan. They stopped in front of where they were sitting.

“Okay, Brown and Rafe are with the PD seeing if they can find Escobar’s men or the local man, Brown,” Simon explained.

Patton nodded his head slightly and continued the report. “Local PD’s been keeping an eye on Brown’s home and known haunts, but no one’s seen him for a while.”

Jim ground his teeth in frustration. Megan, noticing, sat next to him and put a hand on his arm. “We’ll find him,” she whispered. “Or more likely, Sandy’ll get out all on his own. You know how resourceful he is.”

He gave her a small smile and was going to say something when Banks’ phone rang. The captain stood up and walked a little distance away from the group. A few minutes later he signalled to Patton who was talking to another agent. Looking at his face the detectives stopped talking and looked at him questioningly as he hung up.

“That was Rafe. Two bodies were found in an abandoned unit in an industrial estate. They’ve been shot in the back of the head execution style. It’s highly likely that one of the bodies is that of Aloysius Brown.”

“Oh, God!” Megan put a hand over her mouth.

Jim buried his face in his hands.

Just then Agent Goodson poked his head out of the conference door. “Patton,” he called once he’d spotted him, “Sheridan PD on the phone.”

The Cascade group followed him into the conference room and clustered around as Patton took the receiver. “Special Agent Patton…. Uh huh…” The agent glanced up at the group around him. “Hold on a moment, Sheriff,” he spoke into the phone, “I’m putting you on speaker.”

“…problem.” The tinny voice echoed out of the phone.

“Could you repeat what you’ve just said to me, please?”

“Right. It’s definitely Brown and his buddy in drink and crime Eddie Simmons. Simmons was also known to us for his numerous stays in our county prison. Usual stuff: DUI, aggravated assault, public disorder, theft and so on. We’d suspected he was with Brown in this kidnapping. They were big game hunters and knew these mountains pretty well. Simmons had a car and we’re looking for it now. As far as we know Brown was without transport.”

“But nothing on them to give us a hint of where they’ve been?”

“Sorry, nothing. Forensics is going over them now.”

“Uh, hello, Sheriff? Captain Banks, Washington Major Crimes, here.”

“Hi. It was your man we think Brown and Simmons took, right?”

“Yes. We appreciate all that you and your men are doing to help us in this.”

“Hey, no problem.”

“You say the bodies haven’t been moved yet?”

“No, but it won’t be long.”

“Would you mind keeping them in situ until we can get there?”

“Uh, how will that help?”

“Sheriff Black, would you just hold a moment?” Patton interrupted the conversation and muted the phone cutting off the local man. He rounded on Banks. “Why do you want to see the bodies?”

“So Jim can do his stuff,” he replied quietly.

“But forensics…”

“Can forensics pick up smells?” Jim interrupted in a low, forceful voice. “Can they taste car exhaust? Can they say what’s in the soil just by rubbing it between their fingers?”

Patton looked at him startled. “You can do all that?” he asked amazed.

“That and more. But I need to get to the bodies quickly.”

“I had no idea how sensitive your senses can be. Okay, you’re on.” He un-muted the phone, “Sheriff, sorry for that.”

“No harm done.”

“Expect us there in ten minutes and please don’t move the bodies.”

“If that’s what you really want.” By his voice he obviously thought that they were crazy, but wasn’t going to push it.

Fifteen minutes later Patton, Ellison and Banks were standing before two bodies that were lying amongst piles of rubbish in an old and dirty warehouse. One man was on his back, his forehead had a massive hole in it where the bullet had exited and his half-opened eyes were staring up at the ceiling. The other was half on his side showing the small hole in the back of his head. Flies were buzzing about them and in the heat the smell of urine, faeces and blood was overpowering.

Jim moved closer and for a moment dialled back his smell. Focussing closely, he carefully went over every inch of the bodies. He paid close attention to the boots and finger nails where dirt could be seen. First he smelt it, rubbed it between his fingers then put a small amount on his tongue. Inspecting it closely with his eyes he could see tiny flecks of some type of shiny stone. Standing up he dialled up his smell and tried to filter out all the odours that he knew to expect at the scene. Unfortunately, he was finding it difficult and his eyes watered as his nose was assaulted.

Simon saw what was happening and moved over to put his hand on his arm. “Jim, do you need to take a break?” he asked quietly.

“Just wait a second.” Taking a few shallow breaths he nodded at his captain and breathed in deeply again.

Patton, standing a few metres away was avidly watching the proceedings. Much to the disgust of the local PD and the FBI’s forensics team, he’d cleared everyone out of the warehouse. He was fascinated by what Ellison could do and couldn’t understand why the man wanted to keep his talents secret. He was imagining how such advantages could help any law-enforcing agency. Suddenly, the detective reared back with a groan. Banks jerked him back and turned him away from the bodies. Patton was surprised to see tears streaming down Ellison’s face. “What’s up? What’s happened?”

“One second,” Banks brusquely brushed him off. “Jim, dial it down. Remember what Sandburg taught you.”

The man was gasping for breath and rubbing his eyes with his left forearm. Patton took a step forward, but Banks waved him off again. “Jim, Jim, listen to me, feel my hand on your arm. Feel its warmth, feel how the breeze coming though those doors is blowing across your face and listen to my voice.” He kept up his litany until the other man sighed and turned his reddened eyes towards him.

“Thanks, Simon. That was a doozy.”

“How are you feeling now?”

“Better thanks.”

“Did you get anything?”

“I think so. I need to process it first though.”

Simon didn’t fail to notice the words he used, but didn’t mention it to Jim. It wouldn’t help at this to remind him of the person they were desperately trying to find. “Okay, go and get some water. We’ll be out in a minute.” He watched as the man walked out of the warehouse and then when he was certain he was out of Sentinel hearing turned to Patton. “What just happened is why we don’t want Jim’s abilities to be public knowledge,” he said quietly.

“What DID just happen?”

“He can get lost in one sense. It can overwhelm him and he needs help to bring it back under control by focussing on something else.”

“And every criminal would be playing on that and his life as a cop would be over, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“How has he managed to survive so long?”

“Sandburg. He taught him to control them pretty much. Had he been here, Jim would’ve been out of that zone much quicker than I managed. Hell, he wouldn’t have been allowed to zone in the first place. Sandburg’s got a way of talking that Jim just seems hardwired to obey.”

“So that’s why Sandburg was offered a detective’s badge?”

“No.” They both turned round as Jim walked back in followed by Rafe and H. “Blair was offered a badge because he was a fucking good detective. Something we seemed to have forgotten.” He took a long swallow out of the bottle of water he was holding. Deliberately, he changed the subject. “This is what I discovered; there are traces of a stone or mineral that has a distinctive texture and colour. I can also smell a plant. I think it’s a flower and has an oily feel to it. They’ve both been riding horses and recently too. Simmons had been in a bar, probably last night, where he’d drunk a large quantity of beer and had eaten barbecued chicken wings.

“Brown had sex last night. With a woman who wears a floral/spicy perfume and whom I think has a baby. I could smell faint traces of baby formula. And both of them had been in contact with Blair fairly recently. Simmons has…” he drew in a breath, “Simmons has traces of blood on his pants. Not much, fortunately. But I think it’s Blair’s. That’s all.” He took another swallow from the bottle.

Patton realised his mouth was hanging open and closed it with an audible snap. “That’s all?” he finally managed to gasp. He shook his head. “Who needs forensics when you’re around?”

Jim grimaced as he heard the echoes of an excited young man wearing a multi-coloured waistcoat. “Yeah, but it can’t be used in evidence.”

Simon broke in before Patton could say more. “Rafe, Brown, what you got?”

Brown pulled out his notebook. “No vehicle in the vicinity non-accounted for. No witnesses, nothing.”

The FBI agent shook himself out his speculations and brought his mind back to present business. “Okay, let’s take this outside.”

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“Didn’t you now, didn’t you?” Blair’s raspy singing echoed round the bare space. “Well, Jesus…” he broke off as a round of coughing wracked his body. “Uhhhh,” he groaned once he’d got his breath back. He wrapped his arms round his chest trying to ease the deep ache there the coughing had aggravated. He shivered as sweat ran down his face and into his eyes making them sting. He could feel the lung infection taking hold and his temperature rising.

Propping himself shakily on one elbow he searched around for the bottle of water. Finding it he tried to calm his trembling enough to prise off the top. He took two large gulps and sighed as the water cooled his raw throat. Blearily he peered at the bottle; just over half remained. Looking up to see where the light from the hole in the roof was he attempted calculating how long since he’d been brought back, but his brain wouldn’t co-operate. All he knew was that he’d been singing until his throat ached. He didn’t want to stop though; a sore throat was a million times better than the silence and all that represented.

Clutching the bottle to his chest he lay back down. “It's a long, long, *cough, cough* long road *cough, cough*, And I don't *cough, cough* know which way to go *cough, cough*…”


Chapter ten

Jim looked around himself; another room full of computers, phones and cops. If he closed his eyes he could almost think that he was back in Major Crimes in Cascade. He lifted his cup of coffee to his mouth and took a sip. Almost gagging he slammed the cup back onto the table spilling some of the cold liquid. Simon looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. Brown passed the detective a paper tissue and a sympathetic smile. Jim nodded his thanks and sending an apologetic grimace in Banks’ direction mopped up the spilt liquid.

After examining the warehouse and its environs the team had followed Sheriff Black to Sheridan PD. There, they’d gone over the evidence collected by forensics and were brought up to date with the search for Brown and Simmons’ movements. The police had a good lead on who the woman Brown had slept with and an FBI agent was out with a cop hunting her up. More police officers and agents were trolling the bars trying to find where the Simmons had drunk and eaten. They were now waiting for a couple of park rangers to arrive.

Sandburg had said that he was somewhere in the mountains. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of ground in this mountainous state. After examining a detailed map, Jim was certain that with the information he’d been able to pick up on the bodies and with the help of the rangers he’d be able to narrow down the area to be searched. He thought that unless they’d been out riding for pleasure, where the kidnappers had hidden Blair was probably in the park where mechanised vehicles were forbidden. For him though, he knew it was going to be difficult trying to get the information he needed without giving away how he’d got his.

Just then a man and woman dressed in the dark green uniforms of the Park Service walked in. Patton, who’d been talking with one of his agents, went to greet them. “SAC Patton, Caspar FBI office. Thanks for coming.” They all shook hands.

“Senior Ranger Jane Bristows and this is Ranger Robert Pascal.” Bristows was a tall, gangly woman with a fair smattering of grey in her brown hair while the man was younger and stockier with thinning dark blond curls. They both had the tanned, windblown look of people who spent a lot of time outdoors. Jim could smell pine, horses and car exhaust on them.

“Jane, Robert. Glad you could make it.” Sheriff Black bustled up with a pile of folders in his arms. “Now that everyone’s here we can move to the squad room where we’ve set up an incident base. Sorry it took so long, but we’re not used to all this action.”

A large table had been brought into the windowless room and chairs placed around it. It was flanked by two whiteboards and a paperboard and in the corner the ubiquitous coffee machine gurgled. The edges of the table were covered with papers and files while trays of sandwiches and pastries filled the centre.

Black placed the files he was carrying on top of another set on the table and gestured for everyone to take a seat. “Please help yourself to whatever you want. There’s coffee over there and hot water if you prefer tea and cold drinks are in the fridge below. So, without further ado I’ll hand the reins over to you, Agent Patton.”

“Sheriff, you’ve done us proud. We really appreciate all that you’ve done.” The FBI agent stepped up to one of the whiteboards on which was basically a reproduction of the boards in the airport hotel. He pointed to the five photos that were arrayed along the top and spoke to the two rangers. “This is the kidnap victim, Blair Sandburg. You’ll find information on him in the file before you, so I won’t go into too much detail now. These two are known to be Escobar’s cohorts and flew out here from Cascade, Washington two days ago. These are local men, Brown and Simmons, who were apparently hired by these two. Their bodies were discovered this afternoon in an abandoned unit on the Blue Thunder Industrial Estate. We need to know where they could have hidden Sandburg. The victim managed to tell us that they were in the mountains, but here…”

Jim winced hearing Blair described as a victim, but knew that, unfortunately, that was exactly what he was. ‘Not for much longer, “ he vowed to himself.

Pascal stood up and unfolded a map of the park. Sheriff Black helped him fix it with magnets to the second board. “As you can see there’s a hell of a lot of ground to search and not a lot of people around. There are a number of caves and old cabins that could possibly be where the victim’s hidden, but most of these are either visited by the public, are in really remote areas or are in bad condition. Presumably, they’d need somewhere where they could take someone without being seen, but also with reasonable access. Which leads us to the old mines.”

“What was mined here?” Simon asked.

“Mostly coal and some gold. The area still has a large number of coal and coke mines, but the gold mines were a catastrophe. There was a small gold rush in the late1800s but the finds were few and far between. Most of the abandoned mines are up here.” He pointed to an isolated area of the park. “However, there’re about fifteen and it would take ages to scout them all out.”

“We need something to narrow the search down.” Patton avoided looking at Ellison. He also was wondering how to introduce the information Jim had without revealing the man’s heightened senses.

“Are all these areas the same?” Simon directed his question at the two rangers.

“What do you mean?” The female ranger responded.

“I mean any plants, rocks etc. that are specific to particular areas. If there is anything that, for example, is found only in one place we could differentiate each area in advance. Then once forensics comes back with their results on the traces found on the bodies we’ll be ready to go.”

‘God bless you, Simon,’ thought Jim.

“Oh, I see what you mean.” She got up to join her colleague at the board. “Well, there’s not a lot we can tell you as most of the mines are in a small area with similar flora and geology. However, there are a few particularities that could help. For example, at Mine 65 fossils of prehistoric animals were found, here at Bucko’s Bluff a seam of lead was mined at the same time as the gold and at this one,” she pointed at a point on the map, “over 30 miners died of the Spanish flu and are buried in the mine.”

Neither Simon nor Patton had missed how Jim had stiffened at the mention of lead.

“What about plants?” Patton continued.

Ranger Pascal looked up at the map. “That’s harder as the plant life is pretty uniform over the whole area. It’s true that different plants grow at different altitudes. Cockscomb pine grows no lower than this line here, for example.”

“I was thinking more of a flower.”

“Flower? Bristows questioned. “What sort of flower?” She turned to look at Jim when he replied.

“Um, something oily, quite strong smelling. Sweet.”

Thankfully, neither of the Rangers seemed ready to question him on where he was getting his information, but he noticed some of the agents and cops looking at him curiously.

“What do you think?” Pascal looked at his boss. “Spruce Bloom?”

“Possibly. What colour is it?”

“Sorry. Couldn’t tell you.”

“Well, Spruce Bloom does flower this time of year and is found mainly under spruces; hence the name. It’s quite rare and does have a strong smell.”

“Excuse me,” Sheriff Black called from the back of the room. Everyone turned to look at him. “Sorry to interrupt, but I just got an urgent message from one of my men out at the airport. Seems that two men loosely answering to the descriptions of Escobar’s men flew out on a flight to Oklahoma this morning.”

“And we’re only hearing about this now, because… ?” Patton barked.

“An elderly gentleman in the airport had a heart attack and in the kafuffle no-one paid too much attention to people boarding the plane. It was only as the gate person came back on duty this afternoon that they put two and two together.”

“Damn,” said H.

“Perfect,” Banks looked at Patton. “We need to…”

“On it.” The other man was already on his phone asking to be put through to the Oklahoma FBI office.

“Sheriff, do we know what time the plane landed?” Simon called out.

“Couple of hours ago.”

“So they’ll be long gone.”

“I guess. I asked the airport to send us their surveillance films.”

“Two field agents out of Oklahoma City are going to question staff there,” Patton interjected.

They all avoided looking at Ellison who was sitting at the table with his head in his hands. Feeling his eyes on them he looked up. They were surprised to see steely determination in his eyes instead of the despair they expected.

“We’ll find him,” he stated firmly. “If we can’t find Escobar’s men, we’ll do it the hard way, but believe me, failure’s not an option.” He stood up and went to join the two Rangers at the map.

“Close are they,” Asked Black, ‘him and his partner?”

Simon looked at him sharply to see if there was any innuendo hidden in his bland question. The Sheriff looked back at him neutrally.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

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“Why don’t you go and get Jim?” Blair stared at the black panther sitting in the corner of the cave to his right. “What’s the point *cough, cough* of being a spirit guide if you’re not going to do anything to help?” He was so hot, but he wasn’t sweating due to his increasing dehydration. He gulped down another mouthful of water. He had to force himself to stop drinking and placed the bottle carefully on the floor. “What, cat got your tongue?” He chuckled at his lame humour and coughed again. “You know, I must be dying. Why else are you here? Seems I only see you when I’m dying. Or dead.” He looked at the cat. “Am I dead?” The cat lay down and started cleaning its paws totally ignoring him.

The light was fading and Blair was becoming weaker as his illness progressed. He was half propped up against the metal door and hadn’t moved all day. His head fell on his chest and then jerked up again when he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. “Whoa, Incacha. Hey, man.”

The Chopec shaman that had helped Jim when he’d been stranded in Peru and who had later died in the loft while trying to protect his tribe sat cross-legged next to the panther. He eyed the sick man, but said nothing.

“Incacha, am I dead?”

“You have met and conquered death once before.”

“Huh?” Blair’s brow furrowed. “Does that man I’m going to conquer death again?” He grinned. “Cool!”

“A true shaman seeks enlightenment and follows the right path.”

“Umm, I don’t quite get you *cough, cough*. Sorry, I’m not really up to philosophy at the moment. Couldn’t YOU go and get Jim for me? You know, contact him like at the fountain?”

“Use the power of your spirit guides and all shall be revealed.”

“Incacha, I don’t know how to use their power. Jim’s the one with all the powers. If you *cough, cough* can’t get Jim, help me reach him somehow on the spirit plane.” He looked hopefully at the ghost, spirit or whatever, but the man merely looked back at him.

“The power of the spirits is strong.”

“I hear you, man. Really, I hear you. Though I’d rather have *cough, cough* Jim or even a key for this door. Or how about a phone?”

“What’s up, Chief?”

Blair almost hit his head on the door jerking it round at the voice. He saw the Sentinel sitting in the corner he’d designated as his toilet. The smell didn’t seem to be bothering either the man or the grey wolf that lay beside him. Probably had his senses turned right down.

“Hey, Jim. Great to see you, man. Glad you found me.”

“You know, you were a really good friend and a great cop.”

“Uh, thanks, I think. Don’t you think we should be getting out of here? Wait a minute, ‘were’? You trying to tell me something?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t treat you right, but you know I can’t trust you.”

“What?“ *cough, cough*

“I need someone I can trust. You really should try to drink more.”

“I don’t understand. You said… you apologised… huh?” He was finding it difficult to follow the conversation.

“It’s over.”

Blair stared at the man who was caressing the wolf in slow, light strokes still seeming oblivious of where he was sitting. “What’s over? What’s going on? *cough, cough* Jim, come on, let’s get out of here.”

“You sure he can really help you?”

“What the fu- *cough, cough*.” Blair gripped his hair with both hands and shook his head. “Oh man, oh man,” he groaned.

Jim turned and looked at Simon who was puffing on a cigar squatting in front of Blair and looking at him appraisingly. “Don’t worry, Simon. Once I’ve got control of my senses I’ll cut him loose.”

“You know he’s not a cop, just an observer?”

“The way of the shaman leads to greatness.”

Both Jim and Simon ignored Incacha though the panther yawned exposing its ferocious teeth.

“You’re not really here, are you?” Blair whispered the words holding a shaking hand over his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Chief, but I think you should find someone else to help you. Come on Simon, Incacha, let’s go.”

Incacha stood in one fluid moment and brushed a tender hand over Blair’s curls. His eyes were full of regret, but just before turning away, he winked at the perplexed man. Blair gaped at him with his breath wheezing in and out of his open mouth.

“Incacha, do you like fishing? I heard there’s a really good river not far from here where the fish are this big.” Banks stood up next to the native man and before Blair’s eyes the three men faded out leaving him alone with the two spirit animals.

“Oh, God, oh… oh *cough, cough*. Someone help me, please.” The distraught man slid down the door until he was lying uncomfortably on his side. The panther padded over to where the wolf was stretched out on the floor. It was then that Blair noticed that his spirit animal was thin and ragged looking. Its fur was patchy and dirty and its breath came out in short pants, but it thumped its tail tiredly on the floor when the panther started licking its ears. It looked over at Blair and he could see the pain in its eyes. The animals then began to fade as well until they’d disappeared entirely. He was once again, alone.

Blair began to shake as tears ran down his face. His shakes increased in intensity, but by then he’d lost consciousness and didn’t notice. He also didn’t notice when his jerking body up-ended the bottle of water that in his fevered state he’d forgotten to close. The water ran across the stone floor soaking into his hair and mingling with his tears.

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“I’m off to bed.” Megan yawned and pulled herself out of the armchair in Brown and Rafe’s bedroom. “It’s going to be a long day tomorrow and it’s been a long while since I’ve ridden a horse. I NEED to be rested.”

Taggart stood as well. “I’m not riding any horses, but you’re right, it’s going to be a long day.” They walked out of the room together.

Simon, Rafe and H looked over at the hunched figure sitting at the end of H’s bed elbows on knees. Jim looked out of it, but they could see the muscle jumping in his jaw as he ground his teeth.

“Come on, Jim, Connor’s right. Time for bed.” Simon stood and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You’ll want to be fresh for tomorrow.” He knew, and understood, that Ellison was chafing at the bit. He’d wanted to hare off to the park that evening, but although for him night was no obstacle to his vision, it would have been sheer madness to expect the others to follow him.

Jim looked up at Simon and opened his mouth to reply. Changing his mind he shook his head and heaved himself off the bed. He was tired and tomorrow looked as if it was going to be longer than today. He’d talked at length with the rangers and had narrowed the list of mines down to four possible sites where Blair could be. Unfortunately, two were far from the others and all four were in the park where no motorised vehicles were allowed. Sheridan PD had agreed to go with some of the Rangers and look at the two outlying sites while Bristows and Pascal were taking the Cascade group to see the two others. Jim had high hopes for one of the sites. Every time he thought about it the itch between his shoulder blades intensified.

Not everyone could ride horses though, so Taggart and Brown were staying at the hotel and would be helping the search for Escobar’s men. Connor had ridden many times in Australia and, surprisingly, Rafe was an accomplished rider if a bit rusty. Ellison had ridden as a youth. It was one of the accomplishments that his father thought that someone of his social standing should have. He’d also done some riding as an Army Ranger. Simon had ridden a few times when younger and had even been on a few riding holidays with his ex-wife. He knew though, that he was the person with the least experience and the most likely to hold them back. He was determined to not let that happen.

“Don’t forget, Rafe. 5am alarm. We don’t want to lose anymore light than necessary.”

The younger man groaned. “Thanks, Captain.” He looked at the pinched look on Jim’s face. “Don’t worry. I’ll be up and raring to go. Just don’t forget the thermos of very strong coffee. I think I’m going to need it.”

Twenty minutes later silence reigned in their bedrooms. Jim lay on his back with his hands under his head as sleep pulled him under. His last thoughts were of his former partner, ‘Hold on, Chief, I’m coming. Just hold on.’


Chapter eleven

“Damn it!” Simon cursed at his mobile phone as its strident ring woke him up. He turned on his bedside lamp and felt around for his glasses. Blearily he looked at the time on the phone and cursed again: 4:38. Flipping it open, he barked into the offending machine, “Yes, what is it?” The tinny voice at the other end blew the last cobwebs from his tired brain as what was being said sunk in. “Yeah, okay. Thanks for that. Keep me informed.” He closed the phone and for a few seconds leant his head back against the wall. Maybe he was getting too old for this.

Five minutes later he was out in the corridor hastily dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Standing up from tying his trainers he saw a door further down the corridor open and a dishevelled Patton step out. They walked towards each other similar expressions on their faces.

“Smith called you, too?” Simon didn’t bother keeping his voice down; everyone needed to get up now anyway.

“Patel actually, but yeah, I got the news. Explains a few things doesn’t it?”

Simon didn’t bother answering taking it for the rhetorical question it was. Patton started banging on doors. “Okay, everyone. Wakey, wakey! Time to get up. I want you down in the conference room in five minutes.”

Simon turned to the rooms containing his colleagues. It was going to be a very looooong day. He needed coffee, and fast.

Taggart closed the door behind him and sat in the chair next to the dresser. A rumpled looking Megan handed him a mug and he sipped the hot liquid gratefully. It wasn’t brilliant as coffees went, but it was full of caffeine. He looked at his watch. Had it only been five hours since they’d left this same room to get some much-needed sleep? Mentally shaking himself he concentrated on what Simon was saying.

“… called Patton and I with some disturbing news. Apparently, Berger’s started an all out turf war back in Cascade. Funnily enough, his first target was Escobar’s headquarters.”

“But, I thought they were allies?” Rafe sounded perplexed.

“All a ruse. As were the threats against us.”

“He wanted us out the way,” said Megan with growing comprehension. “We’re the ones who know his organisation the best, so with us gone he had a better chance of implementing his plan undetected and unopposed.”

“What about casualties?” asked H who was making himself another cup of coffee from the supplies placed in each room.

“Information’s still a bit sketchy, but there are reports of dozens of dead all over the city. This is going to have major repercussions in the crime world.” Simon was satisfied that so many criminals were now out of the picture especially as they’d done it to themselves. However, he also knew that probably amongst them were innocents who’d been caught up in the crossfire. “Okay, Patton’s called a meeting. We should go join him.”

“What about Blair?” The voice was quiet, but nevertheless, everyone in the room heard it.

“Nothing changes, Jim,” answered Banks. “We’re still going to find him.”

“Don’t worry. Sandy’ll be back with us by this evening.”

The others murmured their agreement with this statement.

“Okay,” Ellison nodded. He doubted that it was going to be easy, but he appreciated the sentiment. He followed the captain out the door.

The conference room was a shadow of how it had been the night before after the kidnappers had phoned Jim. Sleepy agents were nursing cups of coffee sitting round the large table, but instead of the lively discussions that they’d engaged in then, there seemed now, to be an expectant hush. Patton was on the telephone talking, or rather arguing, with someone on the other end. Jim listened in for a moment to both sides of the conversation, but dismissed it as nothing to do with the case. Heading straight for the coffee the Cascade detectives served themselves and then joined the FBI agents at the table.

Just at that moment Park Rangers Bristows and Pascal followed by another two Rangers entered. Seeing Patton somewhat occupied Bristows spotted Banks and made a beeline for him. “Captain Banks, morning. Is everyone ready?”

Simon stood. “Rangers Bristows, Pascal. Good morning. There’s been a bit of delay as we’ve had some important news from Cascade.”

“Oh. Good or bad?”

“A bit of both really. Why don’t you all get some coffee? I don’t know how long we’ll be.”

“Not to worry.” She beckoned the Rangers to follow her and they went off to raid the coffee machine and the boxes of plastic-wrapped pastries that someone had rustled up from somewhere.

“Sir,” Megan watched the Rangers for a moment and then turned towards the captain, “we don’t all need to be here do we? As we’re up anyway we could head off.”

Simon was about to reply when he noticed that Patton had finished. “Hold that thought.”

“Sir, sir,” Agent Goodson hung up the phone he’d been quietly speaking into and jumped up from the table unknowingly cutting Banks off just as he was about to speak to the SAC.

Patton glanced up from where he was looking at some papers and raised an eyebrow at the man.

“That was Sheridan General Hopsital. Blood tests on the man who had the heart attack have come back positive for Dofetilide. It’s a heart medicine that can cause shortness of breath, a pounding heart and chest pain.”

“Just like the symptoms of a heart attack,” he mused. “And I take it that the gentleman in question hadn’t been prescribed it for any reason?”

“Got it in one, boss.”

“So how did he manage to get it in his system?” Someone in the group asked.

“Well,” Goodson looked down at his notes, “it can come in powder form that dissolves really quickly in water. Apparently, the victim, a Mr. Hilton, had a sandwich and a coffee at the bar. His wife says that the place was crowded and people were brushing past them all the time.”

“Interesting,” Taggart murmured.

“Good,” continued the SAC, “get down to the airport and see if you can find anyone who saw anything.” Goodson nodded and headed for the door. “Garcia, go with him.”

Banks looked over at Jim and noticed the clenched jaw and the stiff hands lying on the table. He could understand; all this was interesting, but it wasn’t getting them any closer to finding Sandburg. Just at that moment his phone rang. “Banks,” he barked. “Chief Parks, good morning. What can I do for you?” He winced as the strident voice of Cascade’s Chief of Police blasted into his ear. “Um, yeah. No, it’s not…” he looked over at the others who were showing an obvious interest in the conversation. Nodding at his officers he beat a hasty retreat out of the conference room. They all followed him.

“I beg to differ, sir,” he continued. “Blair Sandburg was a detective with us and also a personal friend…” He sighed as he listened further. “May I make a suggestion, sir? No, I realise that the situation in Cascade is critical, but… Yes, sir. No, sir. My suggestion, sir?” He rolled his eyes and took a large gulp from his coffee. He had the sinking feeling that he was going to need all the fortification he could get. “I’ll send Taggart and Brown back on the next flight. No, I don’t think Ellison would be willing to come back with them.”

He looked at Jim who was emphatically shaking his head.

“With all due respect, sir… Okay, I’ll send Rafe as well, but I don’t think forcing Ellison to come back is the right way to go…. Yes, sir. Um, Connor’s taking a week of leave and I’m requesting a week as well…. I know she’s a cop as well, but ultimately she’s not under our authority.” Everyone could hear the shouting and Banks held the phone away from his ear.

Jim grabbed it from Simon and started talking over the Chief, “Sorry for interrupting, sir, but if I don’t get my week’s leave my resignation will be on your desk tomorrow.”

“And mine.”

“Mine, too.”

He looked around in surprise as the others spoke loudly enough to be heard by the irate man on the other end. He smiled at them gratefully. “Yes, sir. Thank you. I’ll, um, hand you back to the Captain.”

Simon listened for a moment. “Thank you, sir. I’ll keep you informed of our progress and I assure you we’ll be back in Cascade as soon as we’ve found him.” He let out a long breath as he hung up. “That is one pissed off Chief of Police.” Pointing his telephone at Jim he glared at him. “You’re lucky you’ve been Cop of the Year so many times that he thinks the sun shines out of every orifice. When we get back you’d better keep out of his way for a while.”

Jim shrugged. Whatever.

“Okay. You all heard what’s going on. Sorry, Joel, Brown, Rafe. I couldn’t persuade him to let you stay. Also, it seems that the situation back in Cascade’s a bit volatile.”

“Not to worry, Simon,” Taggart put his hand on his shoulder. “I have every confidence that you’ll find Blair. And then you’ll bring him home, won’t you, Jim?”

“I’ll do my damned best.”

“Shove him in your suitcase if necessary. Come on you two, let’s get packed and on our way.”

H and Rafe both slapped Jim on the back and laid a hand on Megan’s arm.

“Good luck.”

“Tell Hairboy to get his skinny butt back to Cascade. The PD ain’t the same without him.”

They disappeared into the lifts.

“Right.” Simon rubbed a hand over his head. “I’ll let Patton know we’re leaving and give the Rangers a head’s up. You two go and get ready. Meet back down here in fifteen minutes.”

The sun was beating down as they climbed into the two off-road vehicles parked in front of the hotel. Simon sat in the passenger seat of Bristows’ car clutching a backpack holding water, cereal bars and a waterproof jacket. Megan allowed Jim and his longer legs the front seat of the vehicle where Pascal was waiting for them and climbed into the back. Without further ado they set off to the ranch where the Rangers kept their horses.

It took a while to get everyone fixed up with the right horse and Jim found himself getting irritable with the delay. He knew it was necessary, but the itch between his shoulder blades was getting stronger. What’s more, he was getting glimpses of something black out of the corner of his eye. No matter how quickly he turned to look he could never get more than a fleeting glimpse. The others, sensing his increasing frustration, gave him a wide berth. Simon seemed to be the only one brave enough to try and get more than monosyllabic replies to his comments.

Eventually, the horses were ready and the horse trailers were hitched to the vehicles. The small convoy set off for the Tongue River Ranger Station high up in the hills. They slowly climbed up into the park through meadows full of flowers, rocky escarpments and dramatic scenery. The river itself tumbled down through gorges and forested plateaus and seemed perfect for fishing. Simon idly wondered whether, once they’d found Blair, they’d have the opportunity to try out its fish. Jim gave it a cursory glance his mind obviously elsewhere.

They arrived at the Ranger Station mid-morning. It was small, but had impressive views overlooking the Tongue River Gorge. The two rangers carefully parked the cars and trailers and led the horses out and tied them to the hitching posts in front. They loaded them with saddlebags of food and water, a first aid kit and emergency equipment

“Gather round everyone, please,“ Bristows called out. Once they were standing before her she held up three radios. “Presumably you know how to use these. They’re on the right frequency, so you won’t need to fiddle with them. We’re sticking together so you shouldn’t need to use them either, but in case of emergencies they’ll work where phones won’t.” She looked at them sternly. “And we ARE sticking together. We’ll be going into some quite wild country where really only very experienced hikers or riders go. Apart from the obvious problems of snakes, bears and wolves there are hidden cliffs and mine shafts. If you don’t know where you’re going you could find them in the worst possible way. Okay?”

Simon, Jim and Megan nodded. Simon was beginning to doubt the wisdom of him being part of this expedition. His lack of riding experience could be a severe disadvantage. No, he owed it to Sandburg and Ellison was a good friend. Looking at the man’s face he vowed to not be the one that held them back.

“Right. One last saddle and equipment check and then we’re out of here. We’ll ride in the following order: I’ll lead followed by Ellison, Connor and Banks. Bob will be bringing up the rear. Let’s get to it.”

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The mouse crept out of the tiny hole and sniffed the air its snout twitching. The large beast that had been making strange noises had finally quieted and stopped moving. Cautiously, the little animal scuttled closer and inspected the slumbering behemoth. It reeked; an acrid odour of sickness, blood and urine that made the mouse wrinkle its nose. A susurration of air from the beast’s snout caused it to freeze and it waited until its heart had stopped racing. Edging forward again it sniffed at an outlying paw; salt! Eagerly it licked at the little grains and snuffled round looking for more.

A small puddle lying in an indentation in the rocky floor gave it some welcome water and after drinking it spent a moment washing its whiskers. Suddenly, it spotted the beast’s pelt. Edging closer to the head it buried its nose into the matted mass. The brown strands smelt of sweat and dirt, which didn’t worry the little animal, as it was also soft and warm. It was perfect for lining its nest. Carefully, with its sharp little teeth it grabbed and pulled - nothing. No reaction from the beast. Encouraged, it pulled again and with a mouthful of soft fur it ran back to its nest.

On its third run, just as it was approaching the beast’s head again, the behemoth moved. The mouse froze. Was it waking up? Fearfully, the tiny animal ran back to its hole and observed what was going on. Strangely, the beast didn’t rise, but lay on the ground making strange, jerking movements and little grunts. The movements got faster and more violent until the beast’s back was arching off the floor and its paws were beating out a tattoo on the rock. After several minutes the convulsions lessened and then stopped. All that could be heard was the beast’s harsh breathing.

The mouse decided that it was too dangerous to risk taking any more of the fur. Turning, it scurried back into the hole leaving the beast alone in its lair.

JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB

Simon wriggled around in the saddle again. He was pretty certain that he was going to be suffering for days and that soft cushions were going to be playing a very important part in his immediate future. Fortunately, the riding hadn’t been too difficult up ‘til now and if he’d not been worried about Sandburg he could almost imagine he was on holiday. Jim’s silence also contributed to his concerns. Generally, he wasn’t a talkative person, but even so he wasn’t initiating any conversation and was responding to questions with only one-word answers or grunts.

They’d reached the first mine after riding for about two hours. Jim hadn’t even wanted to get off his horse saying that Blair wasn’t there. Bristows and Pascal had looked at him strangely and Bristows had started to argue. Simon had shaken his head at her and then suggested that they stop for some lunch. Bristows had shrugged and had pulled off one of the packs from her horse. Jim had tried to protest saying that they didn’t have the time to waste. That Blair didn’t have the time. They’d all pointed out to him that becoming exhausted and pushing themselves beyond their limits was risking the search more. He’d begrudgingly eaten a few sandwiches and drunk some water before urging them back on their horses.

They were now on their way to the second mine and they were all watching Jim with growing worry. The two Rangers were beginning to think that the Cascade detective had something seriously wrong with him and couldn’t understand why everyone and especially the captain, was taking heed of what he said. Simon and Megan could only assume that Jim was using his senses. However, the way he kept looking around them and then whip his head round with a calculating glance wasn’t how he usually acted.

Connor turned in her saddle once more and raised an eyebrow at Simon after Jim had almost fallen off his horse staring at a point amongst the trees lining the trail.

Simon nodded in reply and spoke up, “Uh, could we take a short breather? I need a bathroom break. Drank a bit too much at lunch. Sorry.”

Bristows twisted round and after a searching look at Ellison held up her hand to stop the convoy. The two Rangers swung off their horses as limber as when they’d started out that morning. Megan got off and thrust her arms above her head with a groan and stretched out her back. Simon gratefully put feet to ground and mostly managed to stifle the moan that escaped his lips. ‘I really am getting too old for this shit,’ he thought to himself.

“Come on, Jim. Let’s find a nice bush to piss against.”

“I don’t need to…”

“Have someone hold your hand. I know. But we can keep an eye out for snakes together.”

“But…”

“Humour me,” Banks whispered.

Jim sighed and tying his horse to a tree on the side of the trail followed his boss into the brush. When they were far enough away from the group Simon stopped and put a hand on his arm. “Jim, what’s up? Apart from worrying about Sandburg, of course.”

“What d’you mean?” His face was turned away, his look distant.

“Don’t give me that. You’ve been distracted and jumpy as hell since we started out. Even before. Tell me.”

“Simon,” Jim blew out a frustrated breath and then looked straight into Simon’s eyes, “I keep seeing… something.” He stopped.

“What?” What are you seeing?”

“Nothing.”

“Ellison!”

“A panther! A black panther.”

“Black panther. But there aren’t any…”

“Of course not! It’s my… my spirit animal.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” Jim replied bitterly, “remember all that?”

“I’ve never understood ‘all that’. What does it mean?”

“I think it’s leading me to Sandburg.”

“How?”

“At that mine. I kept seeing it walking away from there. And now it seems to be urging me to go faster. Simon… I think we’re running out of time.”

“Sandburg?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell you. I can… just… feel it.”

Silence reigned for a few seconds.

“Okay. Then let’s hurry.”

Chapter twelve

The sun was beginning to set when the horse convoy finally approached the second mine. Bristows was riding with stiff shoulders showing her displeasure at the situation. Ellison had been constantly urging her to ride faster and she’d had to pull out the big guns and threaten to call the whole search off if he didn’t calm down. Banks had played peacemaker and had managed to soothe rustled feathers and keep Ellison from going off the deep end – and the path. So, it was with enormous relief when her horse rounded a large rock and the gaping entrance of the mine came into view.

The path had wound round the side of the mountain and had sometimes narrowed to a heart-stopping width. The view of the valley with its rocky escarpments and pine forests was magnificent, but no one paid it any attention. Tired and anxious their thoughts were on what they were going to find inside. Jim sent out his senses, but could neither hear nor see anything or anyone in the immediate area. The panther appeared in front of the entrance, roared massively and then bounded into the dark.

The path widened out onto a plateau enclosed by rocks and stubby trees. They could go no further. Suddenly, Bristows was overtaken as Ellison urged his horse forward at a canter. He was out of the saddle and running for the entrance even before the horse had come to a stop.

“Ellison!” Simon bellowed. “Wait! There could be…”

“I can only hear one person,” Jim shouted back before disappearing into the mine his voice echoing across the valley.

‘Hear only one person?’ Bristows tried to make sense of Ellison’s answer. ‘What the hell does that mean?’ She turned round in her saddle. “Banks…?”

“Later. I’ll explain later. Connor, grab the first aid kit and follow him. And be careful!” Simon knew that the long hours in the saddle had played havoc with his muscles. Getting down would be a study in pain and the younger woman would be much quicker than he. Carefully, he eased himself out off the horse and gratefully felt solid ground under his feet. He looked up when someone grabbed the reins and he gazed directly into Pascal’s sympathetic eyes.

“It’s okay, Captain. We’ll look after the horses.”

“Thanks. Stay here until we say otherwise.” Hitching a saddlebag holding water and food over one shoulder he switched on a torch and hobbled into the mine. Although he was in pain he wouldn’t allow it to slow him down. Stopping a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dark he shone his torch over the rocky walls. The entrance narrowed almost immediately into a tunnel that led away in front of him. He was just about to call out to Jim and Megan when he heard a gun shot. He let the bag slide to the floor and pulled out his gun. Listening carefully he could faintly hear two voices. Following the tunnel to the left he drew his gun up as the torch caught a figure running towards him.

“Halt! Police!”

“Don’t shoot, Captain!” The person skidded to a stop. “It’s me, Megan!”

“Connor, I heard a gun shot.”

“Quick, we need water.” She tried to dodge past the tall man but he clutched her arm.

“In the bag. I’ll get it. Who shot at whom?”

“We found Sandy. Well, Jimbo did. In a locked room. We had to shoot the padlock off.” She looked up at him, suddenly still. “He’s bad. I’m going to get Bristows to call for a medevac.”

“Okay, go. Wait!”

Connor turned as she darted past. “What?” Impatience was written on her face.

“Where are they?”

“Not far.” Her words echoed as she disappeared round the corner. “Just keep going. You’ll find them easily enough.”

Going back and picking up the bag he continued down the corridor as fast as he could and eventually came to an opening flanked by a large, rusty metal door leading to a small room lit by torchlight. Jim was leaning over a figure sprawled on the floor. He suddenly wished he could dial down his smell like the Sentinel as the rank odour of sweat, urine, blood and sickness reached his nose. Joining him on the floor he propped up his torch against the wall so that it gave a bit more illumination.

He looked more closely at Blair and winced. The man looked dead and it was only the slow, hitching breaths that indicated he was still alive. Under the blood from a nasty cut over his left eyebrow, the dirt and the dark bruises that peppered his face, the skin was starkly white except for two patches of red on his cheeks. Even from a metre away he could feel the heat pouring off the body. The man looked gaunt and somehow diminished and obviously completely unconscious. But what made his heart ache was the evidence of tear tracks that had left clean trails through the dirt and grime. Jim was gently easing off Blair’s shirt, handling him as if he was made of fragile porcelain all the while whispering a litany of comforting words and sounds.

“What do you want me to do?”

The Sentinel didn’t stop what he was doing, but brushed an unruly curl off a bloody forehead. “We need to cool him down. His temp’s over 104°. Get his shoes and pants off. We also need to get him out of this place. Away from this stink.”

“Okay. How bad is he?” Simon didn’t take umbrage at how Jim was giving him, the Captain, orders. It was obvious the man was holding onto his calm through sheer determination. At first he thought he wasn’t going to get an answer and was about to repeat his question when Jim spoke again.

“No broken bones as far as I can tell. He’s got that nasty cut and a few bruises here and there. It’s his lungs. They’re heavily congested and his breathing’s compromised. His fever’s too high. I… I could hear him convulsing through the door.” He’d finally managed to get the damp t-shirt off and he threw it into a corner. Tearing a sleeve off Blair’s shirt he poured water from his canteen over it. Gently he started wiping the dirt off his battered face murmuring soft encouragements. The sick man didn’t move or react at all to his ministrations.

Simon was having a rough time trying to undo the tangled laces on Blair’s dirty boots. In frustration he pulled out a penknife from his jeans pocket and slashed them. He mumbled an apology as he undid the button and zip on the filthy jeans and started easing them off the slim hips. His breath caught as he pulled the jeans down Blair’s thighs.

“Oh, god,” his voice broke through Jim’s concentration.

Jim froze as he saw what had upset the other man. Blair’s left thigh was marred by a mess of raised, angry looking scars loosely spelling out the word ‘liar’. He said nothing, but Simon read the smouldering anger and the promise that he’d get those responsible written clearly on his face. Just then Megan burst back into the room closely followed by Bristows. The Ranger wrinkled her nose at the smell and stayed by the door. The room was small and with four people in it already she would only be in the way.

“Jim,” Megan sounded harried, “the helicopter can’t make it now.” She dropped to her knees next to him and blanched when she saw what they were looking at. “Oh, Sandy.” Her fingers hovered over the scars as if she could brush them away.

“What d’you mean?” Jim glared at her.

“It’ll be too dark.” Bristows voice came from behind and Jim swung round to face her.

“What?”

“By the time they get here it’ll be after sunset. They won’t be able to land.”

“They don’t have to. They can send down a basket.” Both his and Simon thoughts flashed back to the mess with Quinn and Sandburg’s reaction to being airlifted out. Somehow, Simon thought, they wouldn’t get the same reaction this time.

“They can’t fly here after dark. There are too many peaks and the air currents in the gorges make it too dangerous.”

Simon grabbed his arm as Jim started to surge up in anger. “Stop it. Just calm down a moment.” The man subsided. “What do you suggest?” he asked the woman.

“We keep him alive until they can get here.”

“You…”

“Jim, she’s right. A little brusque perhaps, but right.” He relaxed a bit when Ellison subsided and turned back to Blair.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound unfeeling. I was just… anyway... I’ve brought more medical stuff, antibiotics and intravenous saline… And I’ve found the place where the kidnappers obviously were living. They’re cots, a camping stove, sleeping bags…”

“Show me.” Simon jumped up and almost bundled the woman out the door.

Megan put her hand on Jim’s arm. She waited until he’d turned and looked at her. She bit her lips as she saw the pain in his eyes. “We’ll do whatever’s necessary. He’s strong…”

“Strong? Just look at him. He’s barely hanging on.”

“He’s got something to live for again. He’s got you back and us and if my womanly intuition hasn’t failed me, I’m pretty certain he and that Felicia are more than ‘good friends’.” She raised her hands to make quote marks when she said the last two words.

Jim’s lips twitched as he looked fondly back at the man who he’d considered, and still considered, his best friend. “Ah Chief, trust you. What is it with you and women? How many does that make now?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Megan snapped, eyes flashing. “He’s a good looking, red-blooded, single male. As long as he doesn’t hurt them, why can’t he have a string of girlfriends?”

“Wha.. whe…” Jim raised his hands. “Where the hell did that come from?”

“Why do you always have to put him down?”

“I wasn’t. I was just… Look. I wasn’t criticising him. It’s a joke between us.”

“Well, it didn’t sound like one.”

“I don’t think it’s your place to decide what we joke about,” he snapped back.

Megan was about to reply when Simon came back into the room. “It’s good…” he stopped as he noticed the angry looks on Megan and Jim’s faces. “What’s going on here?”

“Nothing.”

“Just a misunderstanding. Right, Connor?”

Megan didn’t say anything and then letting out a sigh, nodded.

“Okay. So, we can use the place Bristows found?” Jim’s voice held none of the anger that had filled it only seconds before.

Banks glared at them both and wished he had a cigar to chomp on, but unfortunately he’d left them in the other saddlebag that as far as he knew was still on his horse. His gaze then fell to the suffering man on the floor and his face softened. “It’s much better than here and there’s a bit of equipment we can use. Can we move him?”

“Nothing’s broken, so I think he’ll be okay. Let’s do it now so we can get him settled and treated as soon as possible.” He shifted so that he was crouching above Blair’s head. “You take his legs.”

Together, and with infinite care they lifted the younger man up. Jim could feel the fever burning into his hands and the sweat was making his grip slip. Fortunately, the other room wasn’t far and they made it without dropping their precious cargo. Bristows had been joined by Pascal and the two of them had been busy. They’d turned on a large battery run lamp and had prepared a cot with a sleeping bag while using another rolled up as a pillow. Antiseptic wipes, gauze, IVs and other medical supplies were placed on opened saddlebags that had been laid on the floor. Gently placing Blair on the cot, Jim adjusted the folded sleeping bag so that his upper body was slightly raised in an effort to ease his breathing.

Standing up he looked over at the two Rangers. “Thank you. You’ve done great.”

“About earlier…” Bristows started.

“It’s nothing.”

“No, listen. What I wanted to say is that before coming a Ranger I was an EMT. I can help.”

“Thank you. Thank you, very much.” He turned back to Blair. “As far as I can tell he has no broken bones. However, I’m very concerned about his lungs and fever. Last year he drowned and since then he’s been prone to infections. We need to get fluids and antibiotics into him.”

“And get his temperature down, I imagine. I’ve got saline and intravenous antibiotics here. Rob,” she turned to her colleague, “go and cut a straight branch about a metre and a half long. Make sure it finishes in a vee.”

“Clever.” Ellison looked up from where he was examining the medical supplies with an appreciative grin.

“What’s that for?” questioned Megan.

“We’re going to tie it to the cot so we can hang the drips from it,” Bristows replied.

“Oh.” She turned to the male Ranger. “Would you like me to help? I can hold the torch or something.”

Pascal smiled at the pretty Australian. “That’d be great.”

“Okay, what do you want me to do?” Banks asked as they walked out.

For the next hour the five people worked calmly to try and reduce Sandburg’s raging fever. Jim and Bristows had fixed Blair up with saline and antibiotic drips. They’d disinfected and taped up the cut on his forehead and with Megan they were now wiping his body with water-soaked cloths. They’d dressed him in clean boxers and had cleaned him up as best they could. Their attempts at getting him to ingest some water had failed, so were relying totally on the drip to rehydrate him. They took heart that at least he’d not convulsed again, but unfortunately, he still remained unresponsive. As far as Jim could tell his temperature hadn’t increased, but it wasn’t falling either.

Banks and Pascal were boiling water for coffee and arranging trail mix and power bars out as an evening meal. Apart from softly spoken words here and there, no one spoke and Blair’s raspy breathing filled the space. So, when Bristows’ radio squawked everyone jumped.

*…istows… come in… tton, here…*

“Bristows. Say again.”

*Age… tton. …oo hear..*

“Hold on a moment. I’m moving to get a better signal.”

*…don?”*

“Hold on.” Her voice faded as she walked towards the entrance of the mine.

“Jim.”

Ellison looked up as a tin mug appeared in front of his face held in a brown hand. He grasped it in two hands as he sniffed the coffee fumes with a look of bliss on his face. “Simon, you’ve just saved my life.”

“How is he?”

“No better. No worse.”

“Connor, go and get something to eat. I’ll take over.”

Megan stood up and stretched her back listening to the vertebra crack. She trailed the back of her hand across Blair’s bruised cheek. “I’m just going to get something to eat,” she whispered. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t go away.”

Jim stood up from where he’d been sitting on the cold floor taking his coffee with him. He wandered over to where the food had been laid out and then wandered away again. Although he was hungry he knew he couldn’t eat. There was a cold ball of ice sitting in his stomach that the coffee was doing nothing to melt. His eyes were drawn again and again to the man on the cot fighting for his life. He gripped his coffee mug tightly. He wanted to rail against the injustice of it all; wanted to throw his mug against the wall and get his hands on the bastards who had done this. Instead, he gritted his teeth and silently prayed.

Simon sat on the floor and picked up the cloth the Australian Inspector had been using and wetting it from a water bottle he wiped it over Blair’s chest and then down his arms. Even through the damp cloth he could feel the heat of his fever. He took the chance to really study the man and tried to reconcile the figure before him with the lively, noisy, kind-hearted grad student that had taken the PD by storm all those years ago. God, he’d seemed so young and innocent. Little by little though, the light had dimmed in his eyes as he’d endured psychos, being shot, poisoned, beaten up, been killed and then the ultimate insult, betrayed by his best friend and his boss. Because although he wanted to believe otherwise, he HAD betrayed the man.

His musings were interrupted as Bristows walked back into the room. “The helicopter will be here first thing in the morning. They’ll take off at dawn, so should be here around 6:30. Thank you.” She took the cup of coffee that Pascal handed her. “I also spoke to a doctor who said to carry on with what we’re doing, but he’ll be available all night if anything changes. And finally, Patton told me to tell you that, and I quote, ‘Berger’s dead and Escobar’s on the run.’ Hope that means something to you.”

Jim and Simon looked at each other satisfaction on their faces warring with anger.

“He can run, but he can’t hide,” growled Jim.

“You came back.”

Megan looked at the three men wondering who had spoken.

“Did you catch any fish?”

“Sandy!” Megan’s shout cut through the silence.

Jim jerked round dropping the tin cup with a clang. Within seconds he was kneeling next to his friend. “Hey, Chief,” he almost crooned, “how you doing?”

Blair turned his head and looked at Jim out of half-lidded eyes. The older man was concerned to see the usually brilliant blue faded and lacklustre. “Jim?” Suddenly, his breath caught and his body curled forward in a paroxysm of coughing. It was so violent he almost came off the cot and it was only Jim’s quick reflexes that caught him. Everyone could hear the man struggling for breath as he clutched at Jim’s shirt.


Chapter thirteen

“Shh, shh. I got you,” Jim whispered as he rubbed Sandburg’s back. After a few, excruciating minutes the coughing subsided and everyone could hear the whooping breaths as the sick man tried to get oxygen back into his lungs.

“Here.” Bristows squatted next to the cot and held out a water bottle. Jim shifted bringing Blair up so that he was leaning sideways against his chest. It was awkward as he was kneeling on the cold floor, but he wasn’t going to let go of him now. He continued rubbing the bony back feeling the heat from the fever burn into his body. With his other hand he tipped up Blair’s chin until his head was against his shoulder. Gently, almost tenderly, the woman brought the bottle up to the panting mouth. “Just a bit. It should ease your throat.”

Blair looked at the figure in front of him with watering eyes. His chest felt tight and his lungs laboured to bring him enough oxygen. He was burning up, his head was muggy and he felt somehow disconnected. He wasn’t sure whether what he was seeing and experiencing was real, but spotting the bottle he decided that if he could his slake his raging thirst he really didn’t care. He lifted a hand to take it and realised that he was shaking so much that he’d spill most of it before it got anywhere near his mouth. However, the woman on seeing his problem simply put the bottle to his mouth and let a few drops past his lips.

Paradise! The water was warm and tasted of plastic, but it was better than anything else he’d ever tasted in his life. His mouth eagerly sought out more and he tried to tip the bottle closer with his shaky hands. He felt a sharp tug in the back of one of them and blearily looked down at the plastic tubes attached to it.

“Slow down,” Jim’s voice rumbled in the ear that was pressed up against the detective’s jaw. He was comforted by the familiar sound that he could also feel vibrate through his body. “Take it easy or you’ll be sick.”

A few more sips later and the bottle was removed. Feeling a bit better, which wasn’t all that difficult considering just how shitty he’d felt a moment before, he took stock of where he was. He was obviously lying against Jim and he was surprised at how right that felt. For the moment all the pain and despair that he’d been feeling were pushed aside and he revelled in simply being cared for again. He’d deal with the rest later when he felt better. The unknown woman had stood up and was talking to an unknown man. The way they were dressed led him to believe that they were park rangers. ‘Way to go, Blair. Brilliant powers of deduction there!’

A face swam into view and he recognised Megan’s smile. “How you feeling?” She cupped his burning cheek with her hand and he leaned into its coolness.

“Megan,” he whispered, his voice nearly just a breath. “You here, too?”

“Yeah.” She moved her hand to lay it on his forehead. “I’m glad you’re back with us. You had us worried for a while.”

He tipped his head up as he heard the sound of a throat clearing above him. “Feeling better, Sandburg?”

In the gloom he recognised Simon looking down at him. He couldn’t be certain, but it almost seemed as if the captain was concerned. “D’you get any fish?”

“What?”

“Fish, S’mn. Catch any?” He could feel his eyes getting heavy again and his head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool. Suddenly, his body was moving as Jim lowered him back down to the cot.

“Okay, Chief, I think you need to sleep some more.”

“D’n’t go.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” The others looked on as the big detective carefully arranged the sleeping bag so that Blair’s upper body was raised. He laid his hand on his forehead to gauge his temperature. Was it his imagination or had it finally fallen? If yes, it had reduced by only a few points. Nevertheless, this, coupled with Blair’s return to consciousness, confused though he was, could only be a step in the right direction. “Ranger Bristows,” he called out to the woman.

She walked over from where she’d been rummaging amongst the cereal bars looking for one that could tempt her to eat it. “Jane. Call me Jane.”

“Okay. And I’m Jim.” He ran a hand through his short hair. He gestured at the sick man. “His temp’s dropped a bit and it’s getting cooler in here. I don’t know whether to cover him. All we’ve got are the sleeping bags and I think they’re just too warm.”

The Ranger looked down at the sorry looking figure on the cot. Dressed in only a pair of too-big boxers, she could see evidence of the fever in the flushed skin and the sweat that plastered the curls to his head. “Maybe we can dress him in a t-shirt? I agree using a sleeping bag would only increase his temperature.”

“Does anyone have a spare t-shirt?” Jim raised his voice so the others could hear him.

“I’ve got one,” replied Megan, “but I don’t think it’s your colour.”

“It’s not for me, Connor. It’s for Blair.”

“Oh.” She walked over to the cot. “I don’t think it’ll be big enough even with all the weight he’s lost.”

“Um, I’ve got something,” Pascal spoke up. He opened his saddlebag and pulled out a dark green t-shirt. He shook it out and handed it to Jim. “It’s old, but clean.”

“Thanks.” Together with Megan he managed to get Blair into it without disturbing him too much although they’d had a fun time threading the drips through one of the sleeves. If the situation weren’t so serious Megan would have laughed at the contortions they’d put themselves through. With his short curls Blair looked like a boy wearing his big brother’s clothes. Pascal’s t-shirt came down to his knees and the shoulders almost reached his elbows. Damp spots were already showing on the dark cloth and Jim could see small tremors run through his body.

As Simon re-hooked the plastic bags back onto the branch he noticed that the antibiotics bag was almost empty. “Hey, Jim. Got another one of these?”

“Damn, no.”

“Tablets?”

“A few, but he needs to be awake to be able to take them.”

Simon looked at his watch. “It’s gone ten. Why don’t you get some sleep?” He held up his hand when it looked as if Jim was going to object. “I’ll sit with him. And I’ll call you if he wakes. Go on, just for a couple of hours. Okay?”

“Well…”

“Bristows will stay awake with me.”

Jim looked at his sleeping friend and let his senses roam over him. He could hear the congested lungs, the heart beating sluggishly, but strong and see the sweat beading on the flushed face.

“Jim. Jim!”

He jerked at the hand on his arm to find Simon staring at him worriedly. “What?”

“You were zoning.”

“I wasn’t. I was just examining him. Okay, I’ll rest for a while. Thanks.” He turned to find a place where he could sleep and noticed Megan settling herself in a corner her head propped up on a saddlebag. Bristows and Pascal were quietly talking while sipping coffee. And suddenly, he felt exhausted. Exhausted in body and soul. Almost stumbling he made his way to where a few cardboard boxes lay against a wall. Copying Megan, he laid his head on a saddlebag. As he relaxed tensed muscles he could hear Simon softly singing while he wiped Blair’s face and arms with a wet cloth. The song followed him down into his dreams.

“Mmmm, mmmmm, something, something
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You made your ultimatum too big to ignore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

Mmm, something your excuses, turned away and shut the door.
The world's mmmm, mmmm, and you wanted to explore.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your hand again I'd have to walk away…”

JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB

Jim stretched his back and stood up. He brushed the leaves and moss that had stuck to his body and took in a deep breath. The smell of leaf mould, rain and sweet flowers filled his nose; he froze. What the…? He looked around at the blue-tinted jungle and then at himself. He was dressed exactly as he’d been during his stint with the Chopec even to the bow strapped to his back. Ahh, he was dreaming. But, God, everything felt so real. He put out a hand and fingered a large, white flower that hung from a tree. He could feel the tiny striations along the petals, smell the rich, cloying perfume, he brought his hand up to his mouth and tasted the bitter oil that coated his fingers. He’d never had a dream this vivid before.

A roar from a large cat sounded to his left. Turning, he caught sight of his spirit guide standing on a rocky outcrop visible through the trees. It roared again while staring directly into his eyes and then with a switch of its tail it jumped down from the rock. Staring again into the man’s eyes it loped off between the trees. Jim hesitated then ran after the animal. Dodging trees, bushes, hanging vines and jumping over odd stream they ran for at least ten minutes. The panther slowed and disappeared from view behind a particularly large and thick bush.

Following, Jim skidded to a halt at the image before him. A large grey wolf lay on its side panting with its eyes closed. The panther was leaning over it licking at its muzzle and whining deep in its throat. The big cat glanced up at his human counterpart and Jim could see the pleading in its eyes. The wolf wasn’t moving apart from the rapid rise and fall of its chest. Cautiously, Jim approached the two animals and knelt down next to the wolf. He put out a hand and softly stroked the top of its head. The panther stopped what it was doing, lay back on the ground and watched him without blinking.

“Hey, buddy,” he whispered, “how you doing? Whoa!” He jerked back when the fur under his hand turned into long, curly hair and he found himself stroking the head of a very naked Blair. Unfortunately, he seemed to be just as sick as the wolf and his breathing sounded rough. He carried out a quick survey with his senses and noticed that this Blair, although exhibiting the symptoms of a respiratory infection, carried no other wounds or scars. In fact he looked exactly as he had when Jim had first met him almost six years ago.

“Unnngh,” Blair moved under his hand and rolled onto his back. His eyes fluttered open and he stared up Jim. “Jim? Where…? What… ?” He curled over to his side as he erupted into a spate of violent coughing. He felt Jim rubbing his back and keeping his hair off his face. After a few painful minutes he stopped. “I don’t believe this. Even in an effing dream I’m sick!” He rasped out then looked down at himself. “And naked.” He took in a shaky breath. “How come you’re dressed and I’m naked? It’s my dream for Pete’s sake.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation waiting for him when he awoke Jim couldn’t stop his lips twitching in amusement. “Actually, it’s my dream, Darwin.”

“And you’re dreaming of me naked? Uh, should I be worried here? Ow!” he rubbed the back of his head where Jim had gently swiped him. “Okay. Why did it hurt? Probably because I expected this, so I created the pain.”

“Uh? Sorry, you’ve lost me there.”

“So, if I’m lucid dreaming I should be able to control this.” He looked down at his body, closed his eyes and stilled.

After a minute Jim spoke, “Chief, what you doing?”

“Shhh.” He watched as Blair, opened his eyes, squinted and frowned while making flowing movements over his body with his hands. “Well, that’s just put a spanner in the works.” He stared up at Jim who was still kneeling next to him and pointed a finger at him. “Naked, now.”

“Sandburg! I’m not undressing for you. I’ve never been naked in any of my dreams and I’m not starting now!”

The other man sat up, looked at him intently then his shoulders slumped and he crossed his arms across his chest. “Why isn’t he naked?” He mumbled. “He should be naked.”

Jim was beginning to get peeved. “Will you tell me why you’re so desperate to get my clothes off?” Then his eyes opened wide as he thought of something. “Oh God, if this is my dream why am I dreaming you asking me to get naked?” He jumped up and backed away from Blair. “Oh, I need to wake up now. Ow.” He’d pinched himself, but all that changed was he now had a red mark on his arm.

“No, no.” Blair scrambled up and then bent over as coughing again wracked his body. Jim darted forward and grabbed his arm when it looked as if he was going to fall.

“Slow down. Sit.”

“No, wait. Don’t you see? We’re not dreaming. This is a vision.” His face lit up in a face-splitting grin. “Oh man, I’m having a vision. *cough* I don’t believe it. At last.”

“Okay, okay. Calm down a minute. Sit, before you fall and we’ll talk about this.” He helped his excited friend back to the ground.

“A vision, yeah!”

“All right. You’re having a vision. Know why?”

“Hunh?”

“Any idea why we’re having this vision?”

“Ummm, no. Hey, you’re the expert.”

“A couple of visions do not an expert make. You’re the one who studied all of this.” He winced at his use of the past tense, but thankfully Blair hadn’t noticed.

“Right, right. I hear you.” Blair ran his hand through his hair and froze. “I’ve got long hair.” He felt his face. “And I’m not hurt.”

“And the scar on your thigh’s missing.” Jim gestured at the limb in question.

“But I’ve still got this cough.”

“So, what does it mean?”

“No idea.” He started muttering under his breath using his hands to punctuate certain thoughts.

Jim tried to listen, but after catching words such as ‘shamanistic practices’, ‘autohypnotic’ and ‘entheogens’ he stopped and was content to simply watch. He realised with a pang that this was a Blair he’d not seen for a long time and that he’d missed him. Missed that unbridled enthusiasm for knowledge and comprehension. When had that light been extinguished? He compared the Blair sitting next to him to the brittle and defensive Blair that he’d spoken to at the Sheridan hotel. He wasn’t naive enough to think that riding around with him hadn’t changed the anthropologist. He’d experienced a lot during those years and in some ways he’d grown up. But at what cost? Certainly, the business with Alex had had a large part to play in the transformation. But he had a feeling that it had been only one link in a long chain of disasters starting when he’d read the dissertation chapter and culminating in the situation that led to Blair becoming a cop. And he was uncomfortably aware that he’d been a principal contributor.

He shifted on the moss-covered ground. That wasn’t to say that Sandburg had been some paragon of virtue or innocent victim. Far from it! His lack of forethought, emotional insecurity and desire to be accepted had created circumstances that Jim had been ill equipped to handle and he’d resorted to pushing him and his needs away. Looking back on it now he understood that although they’d become friends, they’d become friends on his terms. And Blair had gone along with that. He’d turned down career-enhancing opportunities, given up any chance of ever becoming Dr Sandburg and had endured months of hell at the police academy to be his friend.

And what had he done as Blair’s friend? Rented out a small room under his stairs to him. Big deal. Blair had paid him every month for that, but he’d still thrown him out of that room with no warning. Saved his life several times. So what? Blair had done the same for him on numerous occasions. Got him a job as a cop. Look how that had turned out. And how had he thought that Blair could ever be a cop? Oh he was good at the detective work, brilliant even. But the sticking to rules and, more importantly, carrying and using a gun, just wasn’t who he was.

He’d been so happy when Sandburg had said yes after Simon had thrown his friend the detective shield. They’d be able to work together full time and he’d be able to use that vast intellect and innate understanding to help him police Cascade. So, he’d ignored the subtle and not so subtle nasty comments made to Blair by officers that had not been in the know. Had ignored the fact the DA had said that IA had to sign off on all ‘Detective Sandburg’s reports until further notice to make sure that no ‘irregularities’ occurred’. Had failed to see that his partner had been hurting, insecure and depressed and then compounded it all by going undercover and keeping him out of the loop. Because through it all, it was important that he’d been the one in control.

Well, this had to stop. His need to be in control had led them to this and it was time to let go some of it and place it in the hands of the one person he knew that would never abuse it. Slowly, he undressed.

“Chief.”

“Ummm.”

“Blair. I’m naked.”

“What?” Blair turned his head and his eyes widened at the sight of Jim sitting naked as the day he was born with an enormous grin on his face. He glanced at the pile of clothes on the ground and then back up to his face.

“I’m giving you control and I’ve realised that the water really is fine.”

“Water? Control of what? This vision? Because I’m telling you now, I can’t control anything here. I’ve tried and perhaps…”

Jim interrupted him with a hand. “No, control over me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, listen. I’ve worked it out. Where we went wrong. I’ve got to give up some of my control to you and you, you’ve got to take it.”

“Sorry, you’ve lost me.”

Jim told him what he’d worked out while looking straight into his friend’s eyes trying to convince him of his sincerity. He held nothing back being brutally honest about how he’d failed Blair and how Blair had let him. He ended up with an apology and a promise that he’d never take him for granted again and would do anything to restore his friend’s reputation. Hope made his heart race and brought sweat out on his brow. For once though, he couldn’t read what the other man was thinking on his, normally very expressive, face. Coming to an end he stopped and waited. And waited. Blair said nothing. He watched, as eventually the other man turned away and stared into the distance his shoulders slumped.

“Blair?” He asked hesitantly. He lifted a hand wanting to lay it on his shoulder, but aborted the movement uncertain of how it would be received. He caught his breath when Blair turned round to face him tears swimming in his eyes. Oh, God, had he messed up, again? Had he said too much? Had it been too little, too late? “Chief, I’m… ,“ he swallowed. “Ummmf.” He suddenly found his arms full of a naked Blair who’d thrown his arms around him and had burrowed his head under his chin.

“Thank you. Thank you.” Blair felt as if his heart was exploding with joy. He drew himself back and placing his hands on his shoulders he looked Jim in his blue eyes. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. I’ve been hurting for so long and I just didn’t know what to do. I thought… I thought I’d failed you. That you didn’t trust me. Had never trusted me… I’m sorry, so sorry…”

Jim put a hand over Blair’s mouth silencing him. Blair rolled his eyes, but Jim didn’t miss the glint of humour in their depths. “Enough. Are we good?” In answer Blair once again hugged his Sentinel. Jim hugged him back revelling in the contact his senses absorbing Blair’s essence like a sponge.

They both remembered at the same moment that they were naked and Blair was almost sitting in Jim’s lap. They jumped apart studiously avoiding each other’s eyes. “You breathe a word of this to the others and I’ll… ” Jim growled with a smile on his face.

“Don’t worry, man. I want to be able to continue to date women and word of this would seriously cramp my style. Besides there’s no way I want to fuel the rumours about us at the PD.”

Jim’s smile faded. “I… I’m so sorry for what happened to you. I should’ve been… “

“Jim, leave it. I’ve accepted your apology. You’ve accepted mine and we’re now on the right track again. Let’s just leave it at that for now. We’ll deal with the rest when we get back to Cascade.”

Jim didn’t fail to miss the ‘we’ in the last sentence nor the fact that Blair’s lungs sounded clear and his temperature was normal. He finally felt at peace. He took in a deep breath and settled his head deeper onto the saddlebag…? He sat up with a jerk and looked around the dark room. Megan was still sleeping in the corner and Pascal was sitting propped up against a wall with his head on his chest. Simon and Bristows were still on either side of Blair’s cot trying to cool him down. And Blair… Blair’s breathing was still wheezy and even from where he was Jim could sense that his fever had increased.


Chapter fourteen

Jim’s good feeling from his vision/dream/whatever faded as the long night slowly bled towards dawn. They spent hours battling Blair’s fever with what they had to hand. They soon ran out of water and had resorted to using cardboard torn from the boxes as fans. Sandburg became more and more restless and seemed to settle only when Jim stroked his face and spoke quietly into his ear. They’d tried crushing the remaining antibiotics into some water in an effort to get them into him, but it met with limited success as most of it dribbled down his chin. So, it was with a collective feeling of relief when Bristows’ radio crackled and they could hear Patton’s disjointed voice. The helicopter had taken off and was on its way.

Covering him with a sleeping bag they carefully carried the sick man on his cot out of the tunnels and into the fresh air. As the helicopter approached Jim pulled the cover over the curl head and he and Simon held it down to protect him from the debris churned up by the downdraught from the blades. All too soon Blair had been strapped down and winched up into the aircraft. Within minutes it had disappeared round the bend in the valley. Unfortunately, there’d been no room for Jim in the basket with Blair and he didn’t want to delay the flight while the basket was lowered again. For a moment everyone stood staring up at the sky in silence until Jim shook himself out of his stupor and made a run for his horse. Within minutes the horses were saddled and everyone was ready to leave. And then it was a nightmare dash back down the mountain.

Fortunately, Banks had organised transport to be waiting for them when they got back to where they’d left the vehicles. Bristows and Pascal urged them to leave straight away saying that they would take care of the horses. Five hours after they’d left the mine dirty, hot, thirsty, exhausted and anxious for news Jim, Simon and Megan swept into the entrance of Sheridan General Hospital. Agent Goodson leapt up from a chair where he’d been reading a newspaper and intercepted them before they’d reached the reception desk.

“Captain Banks! Detective Ellison!”

Like flocking birds, the three detectives turned and impaled him with their eyes.

“Agent Goodson, we don’t have time…”

“No, wait. I’m here to take you to Mr Sandburg.”

“Where?” Jim almost barked the word.

“Third floor. Critical Care.”

“How is he?” Ellison called as he headed across the foyer to the bank of lifts on the left weaving his way through the people dotted about the space.

“Um,” Goodson scurried to catch up with him, “they won’t tell me much. Just that he’s stable.” They piled into one of the lifts as soon as the doors opened. A man ran up and was about to follow them in when he took a second look at the dirty and smelly trio and the man who was obviously a Fed. He beat a rapid and strategic retreat. “It’s a Dr Petersen who’s treating him,” continued the agent as the lift rose. Jim impatiently watched the numbers on the panel indicating the lift’s position.

The doors opened again on the third floor. Opposite them was a pair of imposing doors that were closed. A large sign of black and red letters was attached to the front: “Authorised Access Only. Press for admittance.” An arrow pointed to a button on the right next to a metallic speaker grill. Jim pressed it without hesitation.

After a moment’s wait a crackly voice issued out, “Yes?”

“Detective Ellison to see Blair Sandburg.”

“Oh, right. Bear with me a moment.”

After a tense wait Jim was just about to press the bell again when a voice from behind made everyone swing round.

“Detective Ellison?” A thin, almost cadaverous, tall man in his 50s with blond hair dressed in a white coat and holding a file was looking questioningly at the group.

“Uh, yes. That’s me.”

The man held out his hand. “Dr Petersen. I’m Mr Sandburg’s primary physician.”

“Captain Banks, Inspector Connor and Agent Goodson,” Jim introduced the others. “How is he?”

“I think it would be a good idea if we spoke for a minute first. If you’d like to…”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s sleeping at the moment. If you’re in a position to do so I really need information on Mr Sandburg’s medical antecedents and previous health history.”

“I just want to see him.”

“Jim,” Simon put a hand on his arm, “let’s go and see what the doctor has to say and give him the information he needs. I’m sure if there were any urgency he’d have said so. No?” He looked pointedly at the tall doctor.

“Of course,” Petersen covered his mouth with a hand as he yawned. “Excuse me. I’ve been on call for 32 hours and it’s catching up with me. Mr Sandburg isn’t in any danger and I really need as much information as possible so I can give him the best treatment possible.”

Jim nodded, but Goodson stopped them before anyone could move. “Uh, Captain?”

“Yes.”

“I just need to tell you that Patton’s clearing out of the hotel. Now that Sandburg’s been found and Escobar’s men have gone the task force’s been wound up. I don’t need to stay here. The hotel’s kept your rooms for you and when you need to get there call me,” he handed Banks a card, “and I’ll take you back.”

“Thank you. And thank Patton for me. For everything.”

“No problem. Patton would like to see you before you head back to Washington.” With that he turned and pushed through the door leading to the stairs.

Minutes later they were seated in Petersen’s office gratefully sipping on hot coffee provided by an orderly. The doctor took a large swallow from his mug and opened the file on his desk before him. “Right. SAC Patton has filled me in on what happened to Mr Sandburg and I’ve put him on some broad-spectrum antibiotics to combat the infection, Ringer’s Lactate for the dehydration and he’s on a respirator. It only kicks in when his respirations are depressed. I’m a bit worried about his lungs. There’s considerable scarring, which is compromising his breathing slightly. Do you know how the scarring occurred?”

No one said anything until Jim, studiously avoiding looking at anyone in the eyes, spoke up. “About two years ago he drowned. Was dead, but we managed to revive him.” He stopped not wanting to relive one of the most painful events of his life.

“Uh huh. Did he actually stop breathing for any length of time?” The doctor obviously thought the detective was exaggerating.

Again, silence.

This time Megan answered, “Doc, the EMTs declared him dead. For at least twenty minutes.”

Petersen opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again as he saw the looks on their faces. He made a note in the file.

“Has he woken up?” Asked Simon.

“Not really. He’s been semi-coherent a few times, but the good news is that his temperature’s finally beginning to fall. He has a mild concussion and we’ve stitched the cut on his face. Fortunately, apart from severe dehydration and the lung infection there’s nothing much else wrong with him. Except…” he looked down at the file before him, “there’s a nasty scar on his left leg…?” He looked up when again his question was followed by silence. What was it with these people? There were more undercurrents flowing around them than in the Baring Straits. All the staff treating Sandburg had seen the word carved into his leg and speculation had been rife. These people (his friends?) obviously knew more than they were saying and were uncomfortable with the subject.

Simon glanced first at Jim who was gazing out of the window his jaw clenched then at Megan who was glaring at Jim. He sighed and told the doctor the bare facts of how Blair had been chased out of Cascade.

“He was a cop?” Petersen asked with a noticeable show of surprise.

“What’s wrong with that?” Jim barked half rising out of his seat. “He was a bloody good detective and had earned his place...”

Petersen was taken aback with the vehemence of his statement. “I’m sure he was. I wasn’t casting aspersions on his career choice. It’s just that with the state of his lungs I’m surprised he passed the physical.”

“Yeah, well,” Simon shifted uncomfortably on his chair, “he was a special case.”

Petersen opened his mouth, but was interrupted before he could speak.

“Can we see him now?” Jim had reached the end of his patience. They waited while the doctor thought over what he’d seen and heard.

“With some provisos,” he eventually said. He stood and picked up the file cradling it to his chest. “Mr Sandburg’s sleeping at the moment and he needs his rest. I’ll allow you access, but can’t allow you in to see him the way you are.” He held up a hand and continued before they could verbalise an objection. “You’re filthy and quite frankly you stink. As you are, you’re a health hazard and won’t be allowed into the unit dirty. You need to clean up and you look like you could do with a decent meal. Do that and I’ll allow you in. Agreed?”

As much as they wanted to argue they acknowledged that the doctor’s points were valid. Jim’s shoulders slumped realising that he wouldn’t be seeing Blair in the immediate future. They would have to get back to the hotel, shower, change then get back again. It would all take AGES!

“Look, I understand your impatience. There’s a shower in the doctors’ lounge that you can use. I’ll bring you some scrubs. How does that sound to you?”

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Jim, Simon and Megan stood anxiously once more before the closed Critical Care entrance having rung the bell again. They were clean, had had a quick sandwich and were now dressed in blue and green scrubs and thin cotton slippers. They each took a step back as one of the double doors swung open and a diminutive, 40-ish female in white tunic and trousers poked her head out.

“Come in.” They followed her into a sort of vestibule/waiting room holding a padded, faux leather bench and a small table covered in dog-eared magazines. The walls carried bright posters stating ‘Healthy Hand Washing’ and ‘Fight Congenital Heart Disease’ or offering services for stroke and cancer victims. Before going through the next set of doors the nurse stopped and turned toward them. “Good afternoon. My name’s Aurora Carter and I’m the Critical Care senior nurse for this shift. I need to explain a few things and ask you some questions before you go in. Are any of you suffering from a contagious disease or do you have any sort of infected wound?”

She watched them carefully as they shook their heads. “Good. This isn’t intensive care so the visiting hours are slightly more relaxed. You can stay with Mr Sandburg from 10 am to 8 pm, but you’ll be asked to leave when we have to treat him or when we consider he needs to rest. There’s limited room around the beds, so I’m afraid it’s only two people at any time. Please turn off your phones. Although you can use them in the general parts of the hospital, in here there’s simply too much sensitive equipment. Also, as you’ll see it’s quiet in there, so please keep your voices down. You’re not allowed to bring in any food or drink or flowers, but you can bring cards. Each time you enter you must disinfect your hands using the gel in the distributer there.” She indicated a plastic box fixed to the wall on the right of the second set of doors.

“Please don’t touch any of the medical equipment. I know that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised what some people do. That’s about it. Everything’s here in this pamphlet, which I urge you to read.” She handed each of them a folded sheet of paper. “Any questions? Or is there anything you need to tell me?”

The trio blinked at the nurse trying to get their tired brains to sort through all the information they’d just been given.

Simon was the first to get his head round the question. He looked down at the paper in his hand. “I think we’re okay, for now.” The others nodded in agreement when she looked at them.

“Fine. Who’s going first?” She didn’t need to be a mind reader to know that the male, blue-eyed detective was going to be the first through the doors.

“You go with him, sir” Megan spoke up. “I’ll go later. I’m going to use the wait to decompress a bit.” She sat down on the bench with a grateful sigh, leant her head against the wall and closed her eyes.

Jim and Simon followed the nurse into the hushed and dimly lit room. There was a central island consisting of a large counter surrounded by various screens and other equipment at which a female nurse was writing. The space was filled with the sounds of heart monitors beeping, respirators and automatic blood pressure cuffs. There were eight beds positioned against the walls six of which were occupied by patients in various states of awareness. A male nurse was quietly talking to an elderly man who, quite frankly, looked more dead than alive. Before anyone could say anything Jim unerringly headed for the second bed on the right and stood at its foot. For a moment he just stood examining the figure that lay on it.

He was pleased to notice that Blair’s colour was better and even through the noises of the beeping heart monitor and automatic cuff pressure he could tell that his lungs were clearer. Various tubes ran in and out of his body pumping fluids and medication in and draining waste away. The fever was still present if somewhat reduced, but it was obvious he was unconscious and not just sleeping. A small towel covered him from his stomach to mid-thigh exposing most of the awful scar on his thigh. He felt Simon looking over his shoulder and saw the small nurse lay a gentle hand on her patient’s forehead.

“Mr Sandburg, you’ve got some visitors.” She said softly and brushed a curl out of his eyes. “A Captain Banks and a Detective Ellison are here and an Inspector Connor’s waiting to see you as well.”

“Blair,” murmured Jim.

“Sorry?”

“If he was awake he’d tell you to call him Blair, not Mr Sandburg.”

“Blair it is, then. I’ll leave you to it.” And with a final glance at the equipment arrayed around him, she left.

Jim took the chair on the left and pulled it up to the bed before sitting down on it. He picked up Blair’s hand cradling it in both of his and cleared his throat. “Hello, Chief. We got here as fast as we could. You’re getting good treatment so I want you to concentrate on getting better as soon as possible. Then we go back to Cascade…”

Simon tuned out the monologue and stood leaning against the bed’s footboard letting his eyes roam over Sandburg’s still form. He made a silent vow that he would use everything within his power to get him back the life that he’d given up in order to protect his friend.

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“Jim, you’ve been here all afternoon without a break. The nurse said that Sandy’s not going to wake up before tomorrow morning at least and he’ll need you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed then. And you can’t be too comfortable in those scrubs. I know I need to get back into some real clothes. Come back with me. The Captain left ages ago. We’ll eat, go to bed early and be back here first thing tomorrow morning. They’ve got your phone number and know to call you straight away if there’s any change.” Megan leant over Blair’s bed to look Jim directly in the eye all the while stroking the younger man’s arm.

Jim didn’t appear to be listening as he wiped Blair’s face with a dampened face cloth. Megan pulled back and sighed.

“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?” Jim looked up at her a quizzical smile on his face. “Is that a technical term? And how do you know what my tail’s like in the morning?”

“Jimbo!” She hissed at him keeping her voice down. However, she was pleased to see the humour in her colleague’s eyes again.

“Chief, we’re leaving now to get some food and a bit of rest. And really, green scrubs aren’t my thing, you know? We’ll be back tomorrow morning. I expect to see your baby blues then. Okay?” He brushed the back of his hand across his friend’s cheek and stood rolling his aching shoulders. He’d been sitting hunched up over Blair’s bed for too many hours, but hadn’t wanted to leave in case he woke up. With one last fond look he headed for the doors.

Megan bent over the man in the bed and put both hands round his face. “Get better, Sandy. Jim’s been like a bear with a sore head since you left Cascade. See you tomorrow.” She kissed him on the forehead and followed her colleague out of the room.

“I heard that, Connor.”

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The jungle was quiet as the setting sun sank below the treetops. The grey wolf and black panther loped together into the clearing and drank from the stream running through it. The hunting had been good that day and they were both tired, but sated. Finding a pile of fragrant leaves the wolf lay down with its head on its paws. It watched as the panther padded round it twice then lay down curling its body around the smaller animal. Giving the wolf’s ears a couple of swipes with its tongue the large cat laid its head onto the fur-covered back. As night fell the two animals slept.


Chapter fifteen

Simon looked up from his cholesterol-laden breakfast as Jim stumbled into the hotel dining room. Although he'd shaved and was wearing clean clothes he looked rather the worse for wear. The captain raised his eyebrows as the man sat down in front of him with a mug of coffee and a sorry looking walnut muffin on a plate.

"Is that all you're having?" He shovelled another mouthful of bacon into his mouth and followed it with a gulp from his second coffee of the morning.

"Not hungry."

Oh oh, short answers. Not a good sign. "What's the matter? Didn't sleep well?"

"Yes, no… some of the time." He pushed his muffin around the plate. "I slept, but my dreams were… vivid."

"Well, I'm not surprised. This last week has been… eventful. But look at the bright side. We've got Sandburg back. He's going to be okay and then he'll be back with us in Cascade."

"And then what, Simon? What's he going to do? You heard the doctor. He shouldn't have been a cop in the first place with the state his lungs are in. I'm sure that this little episode hasn't helped. And do you think he'll want to be a cop again?" He looked at his boss disgustedly. "Look what happened to him when he was a cop. We created the opportunity and then failed to give him the support he needed and deserved. I then abandoned him. Me, his 'blessed protector',” his voice was rich in self-disgust. “And if he's not going to be a cop, what else can he do? His academic reputation's shot.” He took a deep breath. “God, what a mess."

"Whoa, Mr Negative. Okay, enough of the guilt trip and negativity. Yes, we let him down. But we tried to make something good out of a difficult situation. Sandburg didn't help by not telling us how he really felt or how bad he was really having it at the PD. So, now we've acknowledged that, we need to move on. The question should be how are we going to make it up to him?"

Jim nodded slowly. He did have a tendency to feel guilty for a lot of things; even for those he wasn't responsible. He could also acknowledge, however, it was just wasting energy rueing what you couldn't change. The best thing was to learn from past mistakes and get on with the present. "First, we sue the fuck out of Berkshire Publishing. Get them to admit that they published the diss without his permission. Then we get that bitch, Edwards. At no point did Sandburg tell them that it was his dissertation. I want him to be able to finally get those three letters after his name. He deserves it."

Simon smiled to himself as Jim became more animated and watched him wolf down his muffin. "So, we need a good lawyer,” he commented. “Any idea of who we can use? Let's face it, we don't usually deal with the sort of lawyer that we need."

"Hold on a minute." Jim got up and came back with another coffee and a plate piled high with sausages and fried eggs. "I'll give my dad a call. He has a number of lawyers on speed dial."

"And Beverly Sanchez. She might know someone."

"Good idea. And Kelso. He could be a good source. I'm sure he'll be able to help with the Rainier side."

"Sandburg's agreed to this?" Although he felt like he was possibly raining on Jim's parade, he didn't want him taking over the other man's life. Lack of communication throughout their time together both before and after Blair had become a detective had ultimately led to the friendship falling apart.

"Well, when I brought it up the other evening he didn't say no. At least let's see what's possible and then he can decide. I think he needs to have options."

"Fair enough."

Silence reigned for a few minutes as the two men ate and mulled over possible solutions to the 'Sandburg Dilemma'. Both of them vowed to themselves that 'this time' they would not let the man down. Simon wiped his mouth with his napkin and placed it on his plate before standing up.

Jim stood up with him. "I've arranged for a rental car so that I can get to the hospital easily. Do you want to come with me?"

"Can't. I'm flying back to Cascade later this morning. I'd love to stay, but I've been ordered back. And I mean 'ordered'. Strongly ordered."

"I see. But I'm staying and if the 'powers that be' don't like it my resignation'll be on their desks before…"

"Jim, it's okay. You've got another week. Four days unpaid unfortunately, but it's the best I could do. You'll also have to pay for your room from tonight."

They entered the lift together and Banks pressed the button for their floor.

"Understand. Thanks. I appreciate it. And thanks for… well, everything you've done."

They exited the lift and walked along the corridor stopping in front of Simon's room. The captain opened his door and turned to Jim before entering. "Keep me updated with Sandburg and tell him I expect him to… to get his skinny, know-all ass better and back to Cascade."

"I don't think his ass is the problem, Simon."

"Funny, Jim. Really funny," he replied dryly. "Don't give up your day job. And make sure you get back ASAP or you won't have a day job."

"Ha ha."

"Okay, I'll get the ball rolling in Cascade. I'll call as soon as I have anything."

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There was a woodpecker hammering in his head while punching in a number on a phone. It was obviously an international number because the beeping was going on and on and on and… "Will you just finish already?" He called out. God, what was that awful noise? It sounded like a lovesick cow mooing to an indifferent bull. No! That noise was coming from him. He couldn't breathe. His chest was on fire. He wanted to cough, but couldn't. There was something in his mouth - down his throat! He was choking! God, help! What was going on?

"Hey, Blair. Shh, shh. Calm down. It's okay. It's okay."

He latched onto the soft, female voice and the hand that was rubbing up and down his arm. He turned his head slightly and felt something pulling at his mouth.

"It’s okay. Don't worry. Nurse! He's waking up."

He tried opening his eyes, but the bright light only increased the agony in his head. "Nghh."

"Mr Sandburg. Glad to see you awake.” Another female voice intruded on his pain and he moaned.

"Don't panic, you've got a tube in your mouth to help you breathe. Can you open your eyes?" A cool hand gripping his arm replaced the rubbing.

He heard more steps working their way up to where he was lying. Another cool hand caught his wrist and he opened his eyes a slit. All he could see was a blurry expanse of white and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Panic was keeping away the black edges that wanted to intrude on his consciousness.

"Mr. Sandburg, I know you're frightened, but please calm down. You're safe and you're in Sheridan General Hospital. I'm Doctor Petersen." The voice turned away from him. "Nurse, take the visitor out and bring a cup of ice-chips, please."

"Yes, doctor."

The hand tightened on his wrist, but rather than hurting it seemed as if it was anchoring him to reality.

"Mr Sandburg, you have a tube down your throat which has been helping you to breathe. We're going to take it out now, but I really need to you to calm down for that. Can you do that, Mr Sandburg?"

Concentrating on the hand holding his wrist he tried to bring his chaotic thoughts under control. Opening his eyes a few millimetres more he found himself looking into concerned, light blue eyes that crinkled into a smile.

"Hello, there. Glad to see you awake. As soon as the nurse… ah, here she is..."

Within minutes he was sucking on ice-chips letting the cool liquid soothe his aching throat. He couldn't help it when tears of relief ran down the sides of his face into his hair. The removal of the tube had been unpleasant and painful, but he felt so much better without the feeling that he was choking. However, his chest still felt tight and heavy and his head was pounding. A cool cloth was wiped across his hot face and he looked up gratefully at the nurse.

"Mr Sandburg," the doctor softly called to him.

He turned towards the voice. "Blair. Please… call… me…" his voiced rasped and burnt his throat.

"Mr Sa… Blair. Please, try not to talk. You'll only aggravate your oesophagus. I need to ask you some questions and all I want you to do is nod or shake your head. Do you understand?"

"Yes…"
"Ah, ah. Nod or shake, all right?" He smiled when his patient gave a small, rueful grin and nodded. "Good. Do you know what happened to you?"

And so the torturous question and answer session went on. Blair learnt where he was and how he'd got there and his body was going to be sore from the convulsions the high fever had caused. The doctor learnt that fortunately, it seemed as if they hadn't had any adverse effects on his patient other than that and that with proper treatment and a reasonable length of time he should recover. However, he also knew that even with all the treatments available to him the young man would be left with a permanent limp. The nasty wound on his left thigh had at some stage become infected and had badly damaged the muscles. He held off from telling him for the moment as he deemed that it could wait until the sick man was stronger.

He could see that the session had exhausted the patient. Quickly, he explained what course of therapy he was going to follow and urged him to drink lots once his throat allowed him to do so. "If all goes to plan we'll have you in a standard room tomorrow and home again by next weekend." If he hadn't been looking closely at his charge’s face he would have missed the fleeting glimpse of panic that filled the tired looking eyes. "Well, we're finished here and I can see you're tired. I'll let your friend back in, but only for a few minutes. You need your rest. Okay? Do you need something for your headache?" The exhausted man nodded. "Right. Nurse, 25mg of Meperidine. Every four hours if needed."

Blair dragged opene eyes that had drifted shut again as he felt a cool hand on his arm.

"Blair, I just wanted to see you before I left. The doctor said to let you rest. I'll try and get back this afternoon. Okay? I'm so glad… Thank God, you're all right."

He wanted to reply, but he felt his body giving in to the exhaustion and drugs that were pulling him under. His eyes closed again.

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The lift door opened and Jim stepped out avoiding the woman waiting to board. She looked vaguely familiar, but most of his consciousness was taken up with wondering how Sandburg was.

"Detective Ellison?"

He turned, impatient. All he wanted to do was get into Critical Care. The woman was standing in front of him and the lift doors had closed again. "Yes?"

"Do you remember me? I'm Felicia."

For a moment Jim's mind was blank. "Oh, yes, Felicia. Blair's friend from the fair."

A smile lit up her face. "I just wanted to say thank you for finding him and sorry for the way I acted at the hotel."

"Don't worry. You only had Blair's well being at heart. Um, have you been in to see… ?"

"Oh, yes. I wanted to come yesterday evening, but I was working and Agent Patton said that it probably wasn't a good time. He told the hospital that I should be allowed to visit. So, I came as early as possible this morning. He woke up and they took the respirator out."

"What? He woke up?" Jim blinked trying to keep up with the rushed explanation.

"Only for a while. He's sleeping again, so I left."

Jim felt annoyed that he'd not been present. He'd stopped off at a shopping mall to get some toiletries and other stuff for Blair and hadn't got to the hospital as early as he'd wanted. He let out a long breath to calm himself down. The important thing was that Sandburg had not woken up alone. Someone had been there for him. "How is he?"

"As I said, they took the tube out, but he can't talk very well. They won't tell me much I'm afraid. He does look good though."

"Good," Jim repeated the word and glanced at the double doors leading to the Critical Care Unit.

Felicia noticed. "I'm sorry. I'm keeping you."

"No, no. It's all right." Jim brought his attention back to the woman.

"I've got to go anyway." She pressed the button for the lift. "Please tell him that I'll try and get to see him this afternoon."

"I will. And thanks for being there for him."

The lift doors opened and she stepped in. "Not a problem. He's special."

The doors closed and Jim was alone. 'You're right,' he thought to himself. 'He IS special.' Not wasting any more time he strode across the corridor and pressed the buzzer on the intercom.

After speaking with the nurses regarding Blair's progress he made his way over to his bed. Before seating himself he looked down at the face of his sleeping friend. Thankfully the man seemed a bit better and he didn’t even need all the medical equipment to tell him as he used his senses. He'd not really paid attention before despite the fact that he'd been there for hours yesterday, but now he realised that someone had cleaned Blair up. His face was dirt free and he'd been shaved. Good thing too as the thought of all the tape that had been holding the breathing tube in place being pulled off made him wince. In fact he could still see a bit of white sticking to a corner of his mouth.

Gently, he pulled it off and found himself looking down into sleepy, blue eyes. "Hey," he said quietly, "how are you doing?"

"You're not naked."

He blinked at the comment and then dismissed it with a grin. The voice was rough and weak, but it was music to his ears. "Shh, the nurses said you shouldn't talk. I've got some ice chips here. Would you like some?" The other man nodded and taking a spoon he carefully eased a few past his lips. "Better?" He chuckled as Blair opened his mouth again like a baby bird waiting to be fed. "Okay, just a few more. They said I shouldn't give you too much at first."

He put the cup and spoon on the bedside table and leaned over to look at him again. "I'm so pleased you're awake. You had us all worried there for a moment."

"Where's…?"

"No talking. I know that's hard for you to do, but you're just going to have to suck it up, buddy." Blair rolled his eyes and he felt the cold curl of fear in his gut unwind. Although the nurse had told him that it appeared that he'd not suffered any brain damage from the convulsions, he'd needed to see it for himself.
The next few hours passed quickly enough even though Blair spent most of the time sleeping. Gradually, his periods of sleep lessened and his bouts of coughing were shorter and more infrequent. Jim read to him and helped the nurses care for him carrying out minor tasks; feeding him ice chips, washing his body and hair, rubbing unscented cream into his skin… He spoke to him about what had happened in Cascade since he'd left and what he hoped their future would be. Mid-afternoon Felicia and Maria Parisi turned up for a short visit. Jim took the opportunity to leave for a while telling Blair he'd be back that evening.

The evening visit followed the same pattern.

He was eating breakfast at the hotel the next morning when the hospital called him to tell him that Blair was being moved to a normal room later and wouldn't be available for visiting until lunch time. So, just before lunch Jim entered room 1143 in the general medicine unit. Blair was sleeping in one of the room's two beds dressed in the pyjamas that Jim had bought for him the previous day. He still had a number of drips and a nasal cannula giving him oxygen, but the heart monitor was gone. He'd also lost the flushed look that the high fever had given him. However, he was obviously still sick and underweight.

Jim sat in the chair next to the bed and looked around. The other bed was unoccupied, but it looked as if there was a patient using it, as there were cards and a bunch of flowers on the bedside table. Sun was streaming through the large windows and Jim realised that it was hitting Blair directly in the face. He got up and lowered the blind so that the light was more diffused. The change in light made Blair wake up.

"Jim?"

"Morning, sleepy head."

"What time is it?" Although still rough, Blair's voice was much better. The strong antibiotics had obviously been working hard.

"Almost twelve. How you feeling?" Jim saw him looking for something, feeling about with his hands. "What're you looking for?"

"The bed controls."

"Here." He handed Blair the lost box and arranged the pillows while the bed raised Blair's upper body up until he was sitting up slightly. The movement made him cough, so Jim poured out a glass of water from the jug on the bedside table and handed it to him when the coughs had subsided.

"Thanks." Blair drank the whole glass down grimacing when his abused throat made itself known. "I'm hungry," he said as he gave the glass back.

Jim beamed. The hunger was a great sign of returning good health. Lunch was a bland soup, boiled rice and stewed apple. Blair ate the whole lot and even asked for more apple when the nurse came back to take the tray away. The other patient ("Call me, Bob.") had come back from where ever he'd been. He was a man in his early 50s who was in for some tests due to stomach problems. His presence meant that they were limited with what they could talk about. Nevertheless, Jim felt that they were closer than they had been for a long time and that their friendship had a real future.

Early evening came and he could see Blair spending more time asleep than awake. So, promising to be back as soon as visiting hours allowed in the morning, he headed back to the hotel. He spent the evening on the phone to his father, Banks and Jack Kelso. Satisfied with the progress he was making he eventually staggered to bed and had the best night's sleep he'd had in ages.

Half past nine the following morning found him poking his head round Blair's door. "Okay if I come in?"

"Jim, good morning. Come on in," Bob spoke from his bed, which was closest to the door.

"Morning. How are you this morning?" Jim entered and made his way into the room. He frowned as he saw his friend lying with his back to the door and seemingly oblivious to his entrance. His heart, however, told the Sentinel that he knew he was there.

"Much the same thanks. Uh, Jim?" Bob's voice lowered to a whisper making Jim turn towards him. "Don't know what happened, but Blair's been downright upset over something."

He nodded to the man and walked round to the other side of his friend's bed. He crouched down so he could see his face. He rubbed the pyjama-clad shoulder urging him to open his eyes. "What's the matter, Chief? Had a bad night?"

His breath caught as Blair opened his eyes. Despair and shame stared back at him.


Chapter sixteen

Blair struggled to sit up and Jim helped him with a hand on his upper arm. The sick man kept his eyes down and brushed through his hair with the hand not pierced with a drip. "Hi," his voice, although better than yesterday, was still rough sounding.

"How you doing?"

"Better, thanks." Sandburg rubbed his chest absently. "Chest's not so tight." The nasal cannula was gone and only one plastic bag was dripping liquid antibiotics into his veins.

Jim put his hand on his forehead. "Your temp's down as well. Almost normal." He was concerned that Blair still hadn't looked at him directly. He knew that pushing him was not the way to get answers. "How was breakfast?"

"Okay."

"Did you sleep okay?"

"Fine."

This was hard going! "Do you know when you're getting out of here?" He stiffened when Blair took in a quick breath and his heart started beating faster. "Blair, what's the matter?"

"I'm tired. I need to sleep." The younger man started sliding down the bed still not looking at the detective. He laid his head on the pillow, and half turning away, closed his eyes.

Jim wasn't fooled for a minute. It was time to bring out the big guns. "I know I haven't been a good friend up until now. Please let me make up for it and let me help you."

Blair turned his head slightly and stared up at him, eyebrows raised and a look of complete amazement on his face. If he hadn't obviously been distressed over something Jim would have found the image he presented highly amusing. "Whaa..?"

"Chief, something's upset you," Jim spoke quietly and without inflection. A sigh was his only answer and Blair's eyes shifted away from him again. "Please." He took a hand and rubbed a thumb over the knuckles. He had to dial up his hearing when Blair, after a moment's silence, began to speak.

"I can't pay."

"Can't pay for what?"

"For the hospital. Oh, God. Jim, what'm I going to do?" The distraught man looked up and the despair was back in his eyes. "I'm hardly making my student loan payments as it is and now that I'm sick I'm so behind. Do you know how much one day in Critical Care costs? Much more than I can afford. And the helicopter? I've got no work, no assets, no possibility of getting work in the near future. I've got nothing! The hospital suggested I declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy 'cos they c-can't see any way that I can pay them. I owe so much money. And Rainier's talking about suing me for some of my grants. Oh, God, oh, God…" His voice rose and his breathing became shallower and faster as his distress increased. He was now sitting up his mouth wide open and leaning forward trying to get oxygen into his lungs his hands clenching and unclenching in front of his chest.

Jim leapt up onto the bed and started rubbing his back with slow circular movements. "Breathe, Sandburg, breathe. It's okay. Don't worry." He was answered with a bout of coughing. And the rubbing became strong pats as he continued his soothing litany trying to ground Blair as the other man had done the same for him so many times. Gradually the coughing subsided. He poured out a glass of water and waved it in front of Blair's face. A shaky hand took it and tried to bring it to a gasping mouth. Seeing a wet accident in the making he steadied the grip and helped his friend to drink.

The 'thank you' that followed was subdued and tremulous. Moving round so that he was facing the other man, Jim cupped his face with his two hands and looked straight into the anguished eyes. "We'll work something out."

"I've got to leave. Can you bring me some clothes from my tent? My tent’s still there, isn’t it? I'll have to leave. I can't stay…"

"Shhh. You're not leaving until the doctor says you're well enough."

"But…"

"No buts. I'm sure we can work something out. Once we've taken care of the publisher and Rainier money won't be a problem. Until then I'll be your guarantor."

"I can't…"

"Chief, I know how independent you are, but this time please let me help. I'm not doing this out of guilt or payback, but because you're my friend. I'll speak to the administration and we'll work out a five-year plan or something. And I'm sure there's some sort of victims' support scheme here. That'll give us time to get you work while we're communing with your lawyer. Just get better first and we'll deal with the rest later."

"I don't know…" Blair shook his head slowly and Jim dropped his hands to his forearms.

"Look, you can't get better if you're worrying about money. Will you allow me to deal with this for you, for now? Once you're back on your feet you can decide how you want to handle it. As soon as you're up and running again you'll be able to deal with things thing more clearly." He gave the other man a sharp look as his heartbeat spiked again.

Blair lay back against the pillows. He was simply too exhausted to resist. He'd spent the night trying to not panic as he contemplated his future. He'd felt so alone for so long - long before he'd become a cop or even before the mess with Alex. And now, how tempting it was to be able to let someone else shoulder some of his burdens, just for a while. However, if Jim was going to be supporting him financially he had a right to know the whole situation.

Legal action took time and meanwhile, his reputation was still shot meaning that looking for work anywhere near Cascade was out of the question. He also knew that he couldn't be a cop again; knew in fact that he shouldn't have been a cop in the first place. However, his desire to be Jim's official partner had blinded him to all the reasons why it wouldn't work, and why it hadn't worked. Stubbornness and depression had kept him there even when he'd realised what a dreadful mistake he'd made.

"Blair?"

He'd been quiet too long and he assumed that Jim could hear his racing heart. "It's going to be difficult for me to get work in Cascade. My reputation… No," he held up a hand as Jim started to object. "Until we've sorted out Rainier and Sid we can't do anything to change that. But it's not only that. The doctor told me…" He blew out a breath and took a sip of water from the glass Jim held out to him again. "He told me that I'll always have problems with my lungs. They're heavily scarred from my dr - drowning and this episode hasn't helped them any. I'll have to be careful with infections and colds and things."

He turned to look out of the window. "And my leg. The muscles are damaged and the leg'll always be weak. I'm a mess, man." This was said almost as a whisper. "I won't be able to be your partner again."

Jim froze. Guilt and shame burned through him. He then mentally took himself by the scruff of his neck and shook hard. This wasn't about him; this was about getting Blair back to Cascade and giving him back the life and reputation that he'd lost. It then sunk in exactly what he'd said, 'I won't be able to be your partner again' – 'your partner'. His friend was thinking about their partnership, thinking about them working together again. He felt something melt in his heart – something that he hadn't realised had been sitting there hard and cold for a long time. He had to choose his words carefully and not let his expectations of betrayal colour his friendship with this man any more. He KNEW that Blair had never - and would never - betray him.

"Chief, Blair." He took one of Blair's hands in his and examined it closely. It was broad and square with long fingers and if he concentrated he could see the whorls on the tips like valleys across a landscape. He traced the lines on the palm with his index finger and noticed that the lifeline was long, but that there was also a break in it. He didn't want to know if that signified anything in particular so turned the hand over and laced their fingers together. "You're my partner and you'll always be my partner. It doesn't matter how you achieve that role. On two legs, on hands and knees, in a wheelchair or with a Zimmer frame. We'll deal with. Together."

Blair stared at the head bent over his hand and absently noticed Jim had started to lose hair from the crown. Awkwardly, he leant over and stroked the patch with the hand that had the drip. He felt the warmth from the skull bleed into his palm and the short hair tickled. Jim jerked his head up and twisted round to see what Blair was doing.

"You're losing your hair form here as well, man."

"What?"

"Soon you'll have to wear a hat on sunny days or you'll get burnt. And there're quite a few grey hairs." He touched the hairs at his temple.

Jim was completely lost until he saw the small smile on the other man's lips. "Hey, at the moment you're looking pretty thin on top yourself, you know? And you're no longer the right side of thirty." He pretended to inspect Blair's curls for grey hairs.

"Yeah, but mine will grow back. And I'm still younger than you. You're a lost cause."

For a moment the two men just grinned at each other, in sync again.

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"Simon, how's it going?" Jim took a sip of his coffee and looked out of his hotel window. However, concentrating on his phone conversation he ignored the magnificent view of green fields, majestic mountains and blue sky. Music played on the television and vaguely heard the song over the conversation.

“Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You made your ultimatum too big to ignore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So you worked out your excuses, turned away and shut the door.
The world's too vast for us now, and you wanted to explore.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your hand again I'd have to walk away…”


"You should've seen your dad's lawyer's face when I told him what we wanted," Simon chortled down the phone. Jim could hear him puffing complacently on a cigar and the Jag's game playing on the television in the background. "Apparently, Edwards has a certain reputation for ignoring protocol when money's involved."

"Why does that not surprise me?"

"He's contacting a colleague who had a run in with her a few years ago when she sacked a TA for 'not respecting university policy'."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Well, for example there's an incident when a student member of the university basketball didn't like the grade he was getting in one of his courses. He asked the TA to review his grading policy. The TA said he would be happy to do so if said student would actually complete the required course work. The student complained. The TA was let go and when he protested, three students came forward saying that they'd had problems with him missing courses and not being present for office hours.

"Unfortunately, the TA'd had a sick mother, who later died, and he'd taken time off to help her. He'd made sure that all his lectures and other commitments were covered. He claimed that these students had never appeared for any office hours or approached him for any help at all. Surprisingly, all three students were on sports scholarships. Edwards said he'd have to take the university to the industrial tribunal if he wanted to contest the dismissal. Meanwhile, all his research material for his dissertation would be confiscated."

"Damn, that sounds familiar. Does the lawyer think Sandburg's got a chance?" He moved to the bed and sat down with his back against the headboard. The remains of the Chinese take away he'd brought back with him after his evening trip to the hospital looked unappealing. He'd have to throw the cartons into a bin somewhere else in the hotel or he wouldn't get any sleep that night.

"Let's put it this way. He thinks Berkshire Publishing doesn't have a leg to stand on and the pay out would be enough to convince Rainier that Sandburg would have enough money to fight them in the courts and meanwhile drag their name into the limelight again. Sandburg's reputation's already ruined," Jim winced at that, "so he's got nothing more to lose. He'd be negotiating from a position of strength."

"I'll let you know tomorrow what he says."

"How's he doing? He still coming out the day after tomorrow?"

"As long as he's a good boy and eats all he's given and promises to take all his medication."

"Hah! Good luck."

"You just have to know which buttons to push." Truth to say, Blair was being a model patient. Since he'd been moved to the general room two days ago he'd followed all treatments and therapies the doctors had prescribed. He knew that he was being compliant so that he'd get better quickly and could leave the hospital as soon as possible to keep costs down for Jim.

"I also had an interesting conversation with Captain Rogers from Vice."

"Yeah?" He stirred the congealed rice with a chopstick.

"One of his men said he saw a lock of long curly hair hanging from the rear-view mirror of Officer Gibson's patrol car. He commented on it wondering whether it was his daughter's. Gibson laughed and said, and I quote, 'No, that's hair from a genuine liar'."

"Is Gibson around 50, balding and with a gut that must have cost a fortune?"

"That's the one." Simon was convinced that he could feel Ellison's anger pouring down the phone line. "Don't worry, Jim. We're on it."

There was silence for a moment. "Thanks. To everyone."

"I did a little administrative research. Actually, Rhonda did it. Anyway, if we can prove that Sandburg's aggression happened when and how he said it happened, the PD'll have to pick up any resulting medical bills. It won't cover all his present costs, but it should pay some of what Vics' Support won't touch. Especially for his leg."

"Umm, has anyone actually been doing any crime solving in Major Crimes lately?"

"You casting aspersions on the way I run my department, detective?"

"Sir, no, sir!"

"Wise ass." He could hear Simon drinking something and assumed it was a beer from the sound. "Last bit of news. Daniels is doing a refresher course at the academy after which he'll spent a statutory three years in uniform before he can apply for detective again."

"Simon…"

"He's a good cop that totally misread Sandburg's state of mind and let ambition blind him to a lot of things. He says he's sorry and has learnt his lesson and I believe him. Many others would have resigned in shame and left the force with their tale between their legs, but he's taking his punishment and is learning from it. Everyone deserves a second chance."

Jim heard the gentle rebuke and thanked God that he had a friend that had given him a second, third, sixth chance. "I hear you, Simon."

"Tell Sandburg we're looking forward to having him back and Connor's building up a collection of, um, 'unusual' hair ties."

"God."

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"Blair?"

Blair dragged himself up out of the after-lunch doze he'd been enjoying. He opened his eyes wide when he saw his visitor. He smiled. "Fel."

"Sorry to wake you…"

"No, no, don't worry. I wasn't sleeping. Just being slothful after having stuffed myself with a surprisingly tasty vegetarian lasagne." He raised the head of his bed and hitched himself up on his pillows. "I really should be walking a bit. Hey, fancy accompanying me in a romantic stroll down the corridor?" Fortunately, Jim had brought him some pyjamas so at least he wasn't going to be exposing private parts of his anatomy to all.

She nodded and handed him the dressing gown lying over the back of the chair next to his bed. She examined him as he slid his feet into his slippers and belted the gown round his waist. The bruise around the stitches on his head was turning from a dark purple to a mix of greens and blues. The drips were gone and his colour was improving. However, the greatest change was to his eyes. Instead of the shadowed pain they'd exhibited before, they now glowed with an inner peace.

He took her arm and they slowly headed down the corridor. After a moment's comfortable silence Felicia spoke, "How are you feeling?"

"Much better, thanks. My lungs are still a bit congested, but at least I'm down to oral antibiotics only now."

"That's good. When are you being let out?"

"Hopefully day after tomorrow."

"Are you going back to Cascade?"

For a few seconds Blair said nothing but the hand holding hers on his arm tightened slightly. "Yeah. I… I have a few things to sort out and a chance to get my life back on track."

"I'm pleased for you," she said quietly. "I'm…"

"I think…"

They chuckled as they spoke together.

"You first," Blair bowed and made a flowery 'continue' gesture with his free arm.

"Thank you, kind sir." She made a short curtsey. "We're leaving tomorrow."

"Oh." Blair stopped and led them to a bank of chairs standing against a row of windows. They sat down and he took her hand in his. "Where are you heading?"

"Glenwood Springs, Colorado." There was a painful silence. "Can I… can I call you? To see how you're doing?"

"Oh, yeah!" Blair's famous smile appeared lighting up his whole face. "I'll give you Jim's number. I don't know where I'll be or what I'll be doing, but you can always leave a message and I'll get back to you."

They stood up and started on the walk back to his room.

"Umm," he continued, "do you work with the fair all year?"

"No. I take a few months off in winter to build up my stock."

"Oh. And where do you live when you're not on the road?"

"Pendleton, Oregon."

"That's not far."

She didn't reply, but she ducked her head to hide the small smile that was breaking out on her face. They entered his room and she helped him back to his bed. He was obviously tired, but gamely trying to hide it. He let out a small sigh as he lay back against the pillows.

"Do you have any clients in Cascade?" He asked as he scrabbled in the drawer of his bedside table and pulled out a notepad and pen. He wrote down Jim's home and mobile phone numbers on it, tore out the sheet and handed it to her.

"I'm always looking for new markets." She could see that he was losing the battle to stay awake. "I have to go now. And you need to rest." With that she kissed him long on the lips tangling her hands in his curls.

"Wow," he said once he'd got his breath back. Looking into her eyes he pulled her into his arms and returned the kiss.

After a while they broke off, panting slightly.

"Blair," she said regretfully tracing his lips with a finger. "I really do have to go. But don't worry, I WILL be in touch." With that, she slipped out of his arms and disappeared out the door.

The nurse bringing in Blair's dinner found him asleep on the bed with a smile on his face.

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Alejandro Escobar stared out of the plane window as the miles were eaten up. He was not a happy man. His power base in Cascade had been severely compromised and he'd lost status. Many of his men had been either killed by Berger's gang or arrested and some of his properties and bank accounts seized by the FBI. He'd had to make a strategic withdrawal with whatever assets he'd been able to rustle up at short notice and was now on his way to his cousin's estate in New Mexico. As he watched the sun sinking below the horizon he felt cold anger in his heart. He would be back.

To be continued…

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starfishyeti

May 2014

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