Beta Read by Nikki, Sherrylou and Cougar Pryde
Written for PetFly by Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson
~~~~~~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~~~~~~
Jim couldn’t help but feel happy. He had a family in the Army. The Army was the mother that would never leave you, the father that was always there for you, the brother that caught you when you fell, and the grandfather that showed you how to survive in the real world.
Laughing at their off-key harmony, eight men bellowed the next line of the song, "In the warriors’ code there’s no surrender. Though his body says stop, his spirit cries never."
Jim sang along with his men as loudly as he could, to be heard over the whirring sound coming from the helicopter blades. Strapped in, Jim and his men were on their way to their next mission. They were to contact the local tribes and organize a militia to stop rebel activity in the Chopec Pass.
Hitting a shift in air currents, the chopper shimmied and shook now and again. The ride wasn’t anything unusual. Jim was about to sing the last line of the song, when the pilot, Lt. Moritz, called out, "Captain!" The sound of alarms accompanied the pilot’s cry.
A sudden dip and a hard left was the only other warning they got before the sounds of gunfire filled the cabin of the chopper. Lt. Moritz tried to outmaneuver the gunfire coming from the jungle canopy. Weaving and bobbing, the chopper moved in fluid motion as bullets flew through the air like demented fireflies. A bullet managed to hit a hydraulic line for the blades, making maneuvering difficult.
"Cobra to Snake Charmer! This is Cobra 279. We are under fire. Come in, Snake Charmer," Moritz yelled over the radio.
A shot hit the engines causing the controls to lock up.
"Shit! Captain, I need a hand up here." Moritz fought the flight stick trying to get it to respond.
Jim worked on freeing himself from the harness as he yelled to Moritz, "Lieutenant! Try to keep her steady until I get up there."
"I’m trying, Captain, but the controls aren’t responding. I’m going to try something that may free them up a bit, but we have got to land, sir."
Getting free, Jim held onto the roof of the cabin with one hand. His other hand on Devine’s shoulder helped to stabilize him as the chopper suddenly shifted to the right.
"Yes! I’ve got some of the control back, Captain. Hang on," Moritz said as he struggled to right the chopper.
Jim let go and inched closer to the pilot. More lights and sirens went off as a bullet hit the back fuel line causing a leak. Moritz got back on the radio. "Mayday! Mayday! This is Cobra 279. We are going down, I repeat we are going down hard and fast. Snake Charmer, please re–"
The sound of glass shattering interrupted Lt. Moritz’s call. Though it was the bullet that shattered the window, it was the glass that slit his throat and shot through his eye to his brain that silenced him forever. Jim lunged for the flight stick, but the Lieutenant’s body slumped over it causing the chopper into a hard left turn. Jim desperately tried to hold on to something but was thrown and began falling out of the chopper.
Jim realized he was going to die when he cleared the skid. His only consolation was that he would be joining his mother soon. In a split second, Jim had accepted his fate, only to realize in the next that he shouldn’t have given up so quickly. Something snagged his arm, giving Jim a second chance he didn’t realize he so desperately wanted. Jim looked up and realized he was hanging hundreds of feet above the jungle locked in Sgt. Tony Sarris’ grip, his best friend and fellow soldier looking down from the skid.
"Hey, Captain! It’s not time to leave this party yet," Tony said as he grinned wickedly down at Jim.
"Let me go, Sarris! That’s an order, damn it!"
"Sorry, Captain. Not going to happen."
"Sarris, I’m pulling you over with me, now let go!" The chopper rocked drunkenly again, dropping steadily.
"Negative, Captain. Not until this bird goes down a few more feet. Devine’s on the stick, but she’s fighting…" Hooking his feet around a bracing pole, Tony tried to get a better hold on his captain. "Grab my other hand sir."
"Let go. You’ll get us both killed," Jim yelled over the noise.
"Grab my hand, damn it! I’m not going to let you go until its safe to drop. Got it?" Tony yelled back.
"Sarris, you’re a pain in the ass. You know that don’t you?" Jim couldn’t help but smile up.
"Yes, sir. I pride myself on it, sir."
While the chopper descended into the dense forest, Jim could see a clearing. The chopper’s speed was almost nerve-racking. However, true to his word, the sergeant didn’t let go until they were close enough to the ground and the clearing for Jim to drop safely. Jim landed hard, his head striking the ground, dazing him. As his head cleared, Jim looked up to see the chopper smash into a tree. The impact that followed rocked the earth. One of the chopper blades came loose, flying end over end toward him. Eyes wide, a scream frozen in his throat, Jim watched as it embedded itself in the ground at one end and sliced him on the thigh just enough to break the skin with the other. Day turned to night in Jim’s mind as he passed out to the screams of his men dying.
"Eight days ago, we launched the ASCSAT14 satellite. We picked this up on the third orbit. This is over Peru." General Lyles watched his subordinate as he spoke; his gravelly voice the only sound in the room. The younger man watched the wall-sized screen, his men arrayed behind him.
Captain Joshua Mathis watched the infrared image on the large screen beside him dutifully. "Looks like a downed Huey, sir."
"She was carrying a crew from Seventh Troop on an anti-insurgence op, commanded by Captain James Ellison. Their Huey disappeared en route to the landing zone."
"Did we send in a second team, sir?"
"No, we were subsequently advised that all rebel activity had ceased in that area. The chopper crew and the team members — eight men in all — were reported as MIA." The General directed his attention to the screen. "They were presumed dead until we saw this."
The slide projector clicked and a new image shone on the screen.
"Seven graves. There was a survivor?"
"We don’t know. Mathis, I want you to take your team, recover the bodies, and ascertain the status of the eighth man."
"Yes, sir." Mathis nodded once, firmly.
"One word of caution. The locals claim that for the past 18 months no one who’s gone into that jungle has ever come back out again."
‘What the hell did he just order us into?’ Joshua wondered, drawing himself up and hoping his wariness and suspicion didn’t show on his face.
"Damn it to hell!"
"Yell a little louder, Eades. I don’t think the ENTIRE jungle heard you," Captain Mathis said to his lieutenant.
"Sir, I’m all for rescuing and such, but did they have to land in such a godforsaken place?" Lt. Eades complained.
"I’m sure at the time they were crashing and losing their lives, pissing you off was at the top of their to-do list, Lieutenant. Now shut it before I shut it for you," Mathis ordered. ‘How did this idiot ever make lieutenant?’
Captain Mathis and his men arrived at the crash site shortly after. Looking at the damage, Josh whistled at the destruction. It saddened him to think that these men had died; he only hoped their deaths were swift and merciful. Ordering his men to begin, the captain moved farther down the embankment to where the seven graves lay. Looking around, Josh could feel the hair on his arms stand up… Someone or something was watching them. Josh opened his mouth to order his men to be on the lookout when something whizzed by his ear to hit a nearby tree. Arrows. Lots of arrows. He and his men took cover, several firing blindly into the thick vegetation, only to realize they were surrounded.
Mathis called out to the others, "CEASE FIRE! CEASE! STOP!"
Looking around, Josh continued, "Hold your fire. Nobody move. They could have killed us already if they wanted to."
A signal among the surrounding natives clued Josh into the fact that someone important was arriving. Looking around, his eyes widened at what he saw approaching him. Inhaling sharply, Josh watched a man in fatigues make his way lithely down the hill.
The man extended his hand and shook Josh’s. "Captain James Ellison. O.D.A. 731. You my relief?" the man asked.
"Your relief?" Josh looked at Ellison, clearly confused by the man’s actions.
Nodding, Ellison elaborated, "We were ordered to contact the local tribes and organize a militia. These men and I have held the Chopec Pass for eighteen months. And quite frankly, Captain, I’m kind of tired."
Josh could easily see this man had been through hell and that this soldier was more than ready to go home. Mathis started to tell the Captain exactly what he was there for. Ellison’s head snapped up, his stance transforming from that of a tired man to one of a pure predator in less than a heartbeat. Going on alert himself, Josh looked up trying to spot what had put the other man on alert. At first Josh saw nothing, but then a flock of birds flew overhead and Ellison was signaling his men to aim. Arrows flew. Five out of the eight birds fell to the ground, and as Josh watched, wide-eyed, he was surprised as the Captain motioned for a spear. It had no sooner gotten into Ellison’s hand that he was aiming and throwing it with deadly force into the thick forest. A cut-off piercing scream was heard, followed by a thump. Following Ellison and his men, they located the source. There, lying face up was a very dead sniper.
Shocked, Josh looked at the man in front of him. As blue eyes met brown, Josh understood true fear. Knowing what he saw was a man turned predator in order to survive this jungle didn’t lessen his fear that this man could and would kill him and his men without remorse if he needed to. Josh tried to hide his feelings deep down, his face reflecting none of what he thought or felt. He didn’t even flinch when Ellison paused as he passed by him. The other man’s nostrils flared, his stare now directed his way, Josh nearly swallowed his tongue when Ellison stated, "You’re afraid of me," matter-of-factly, as if there was no doubt in his mind, "You should be…I’m afraid of me." Eyes clashed and Josh again witnessed the change from predator to tired soldier that just wanted a normal life again.
"Don’t sweat it, Captain. You’ll be home soon, and this will be just one thing you’ll file away to forget about." Josh tried to sound comforting and convincing though he wasn’t so sure he completely believed it himself.
Ellison just nodded and moved on, heading back for the tribesmen. It wasn’t far to the Chopec village; Ellison had insisted on going there before he went home. Josh supposed that after a few months with the people, Ellison thought of them as a home, too. There was time before the choppers would pick them up.
Once they arrived, Josh sat Ellison down and explained enough of the situation as to get the other man to understand what he’d be facing once he returned home. He watched closely as the Captain said his good-byes, the children gathering around him, looking up with saddened eyes – never speaking, just looking. Ellison reached out and hugged each in turn, giving every one of them a warm smile, hesitant though the facial expression may be. Gathering his things, Ellison followed Josh and his men to the rendezvous site never speaking. Soon, everyone and everything was loaded. The bodies of the seven men who had died eighteen months earlier were being loaded onto a second chopper as they lifted off. Josh almost wished he could take Ellison’s place, pitying the man who had lost so much and would have so much to face when he got home.
~~~~~~~~~~ Act II ~~~~~~~~~~
It was a sunny day, the sky clear and blinding blue, and Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department was trapped inside, briefing imported personnel on a case the Feds should have taken over months earlier.
He stood beside a whiteboard, photos of the Switchman’s targets posted on it, the destruction seemingly random and appalling, and looked at the serious faced group. "Six months, six targets. Eight dead, twenty-one injured. A post office in Tacoma. A bridge on the Snohomish. A ferry in the middle of Puget Sound."
The idle thought cruised through his mind that anyone who took a ferry around Cascade anymore was the type of person who liked taking their life in their own hands. One ferry gone to the Switchman and another bombed in the name of the Sunrise Patriots.
He continued, not letting his disbelief color his voice. "The three others all centralized to the city. And there’s no reason to think he won’t hit us again. As a matter of fact, we’re overdue. We have to collar this guy before we lose another life. And that’s why I’ve asked your cities to loan us investigators."
He crossed his office, moving toward the large windows with their teasing sunlight as he spoke. Plummer moved to join him, waiting for her introduction and standing with her arms crossed over her chest as folders were handed out to the visitors. "So, welcome to Cascade. We have seven kinds of rain and forty-two different ways of ordering coffee." His lame almost-joke didn’t get a laugh, but he wasn’t really expecting it to. "This is Lt. Carolyn Plummer. She heads our Technical Support Division. The team’s been working with Major Crimes on the case. Lt. Plummer will be able to provide you with any computers, electronics, or advanced forensic equipment you might require."
"Any suspects, Captain?" a round-faced man asked, serious and earnest.
Simon put his hands on his hips. "We’ve had a few nut cases claim to be our man, but we’re not biting."
Simon crossed his arms over his chest, watching both her and the assembled investigators. Lieutenant Plummer stepped in front of him, her voice crisply professional. "You’ll find copies of the genuine article’s correspondence in your folders. It’s email, always signed ‘The Switchman,’ but we can’t be certain we’re dealing with only one suspect. None of this has been released to the media."
A woman in a beige suit, sitting toward the rear, flipped through her folder, looked up at Simon, and inquired, "Why are all these letters addressed to a James Ellison?"
"He’s our lead investigator on the case. The bomber seems to get some sort of perverse kick out of taunting him," Simon replied, moving forward to stand beside Lt. Plummer again.
"Well, can we talk to Ellison?" the woman persisted quite reasonably.
In many ways Simon was glad he could only answer negatively. Ellison, for the most part, had been against bringing in outsiders, confident that he could nail the bomber with only the support of Cascade personnel and insisting to Simon that he was getting closer every day. "Jim’s following a lead in some woods outside of Auburn. An old lumber mill. He’s been on stakeout since last week."
The man who’d asked about suspects looked up, his Asian features registering his surprise. "Last week? How often does he come in?"
Lt. Plummer pursed her lips for a moment before replying. "He doesn’t. Jim works in his own way. He won’t be in until he thinks it’s over."
Jim ran his hand through his hair as he stared down at the lab reports on his desk. Clean. He was clean. Not the tiniest hint of any sort of drug that could explain the dizziness that seeing his own reflection in the Switchman’s helmet had caused. Nothing to explain why water boiling a couple feet away sounded like he’d had his head in the pan. Nothing to explain the overwhelming reek of gas that no one else could smell.
And there was definitely nothing there to explain just why he was now hearing the conversation Carolyn and Simon were having in Simon’s office.
"…that’s left. But we’ve assisted Forensics in pulling a few things of interest. Fingerprints aren’t likely, but we’ll laser scan whatever debris looks promising. There was a clean impression from the bike’s tire. It’s being run through right now for a maker’s I.D. We also have a paint chip from the bike’s fender."
Carolyn. Jim shook his head. In spite of being a department head, she still insisted on getting her hands dirty. He should be in there giving his captain the information she was.
"What about the explosives?" Simon’s voice inquired.
"Same chemical signature as the previous blasts and Ellison’s description of the timer fits as well. And this is the most intriguing piece of evidence because it’s personal."
Jim heard the rustle of plastic. He knew, just knew, she was handing him the remains of the issue of NEWS they had discovered propped in the mill.
"I don’t get it. Why does the bomber have such a hard on for Ellison?"
Jim slammed the file closed, coming to a decision. ‘Wish I knew that, too,’ Simon, he thought angrily. ‘If I knew that I’d know who it was and…’ He stopped that train of thought immediately; he’d been dwelling on it since the beginning and it was getting him nowhere. He got to his feet slowly, making his way towards the Captain’s door, trying to silence Carolyn and Simon’s voices in his head. He could still hear them while he waited for Rhonda, the captain’s secretary, to get off the phone.
"Look, I still think our best bet is tracing the bike. How long for that paint chip analysis?"
"Couldn’t get a make here. It’s gone to DC to check against the FBI’s files. Three days."
"Plummer, your department is sitting on over $6 million worth of state-of-the-art equipment, financed by some of the biggest corporations in the country, and we’re still shipping to the Feds? Their local boys can’t do it? After they’ve denied us the manpower for a case that they should be handling?"
Rhonda finished her call, and still listening to the pair in the office, Jim asked to see the captain.
"That’s right. And unless some genius walks in here with an instant matter-transmitting device, it’s still gonna take three days."
"All right. Good work."
Simon’s phone rang. Before he picked it up, Jim heard him say, "That’s probably the Mayor wanting an update. Go on. Get out of here, Plummer. I don’t like having an audience when I tap dance."
Rhonda looked Jim up and down sort of disapprovingly while she announced him. While he waited, he rubbed his eyes then moved his hand down to massage his unshaven jaw. He shrugged inwardly, supposing that, yeah, he probably didn’t look so hot after a week’s stakeout and a very long sleepless night. After a moment, Rhonda nodded. "Go on in," she said. He thanked her, heading for the door.
"Oh, by the way, did I hear the Sonics got pounded last night?" Carolyn’s voice carried through the wood, getting closer.
"Well, why don’t we just let it ride until the next time they play the Jags? Double or nothing?"
The doorknob twisted under his palm, and Jim stepped in as Carolyn opened the door, not bothering to excuse himself.
"Whoa! Stakeout in a Dumpster all night, Jimmy?" Carolyn asked snidely as she made to leave.
Simon looked thunderous, but Jim found that he just didn’t care what Carolyn thought. His ex-wife’s opinion on his appearance was irrelevant. He took a seat without waiting for the captain to offer it, trying to organize his thoughts.
"Sorry," Carolyn muttered and left.
His hearing, at least, seemed back to normal, he thought with some relief. The closing of the door had muffled the sounds from the bullpen like it usually did.
"My cousin sent me this new roast from his shop. Something about Guatemala-Mocha-Turkish-Dark, whatever the hell that is. It all tastes like Maxwell House to me."
Before Simon mentioned the coffee that he was now extending to Jim, Jim hadn’t noticed the smell. Now it was overwhelming and unpalatable. He ignored the cup, watching as Simon set it down and perched on the edge of his desk.
"All right, Jim, what’s going on?"
He took a deep breath. "I need a leave of absence."
The response he got was the one he was expecting, the very question he’d been asking himself. "Are you nuts?"
"I don’t know. Maybe." That was harder to say aloud than he’d thought it would be. "I ran a blood test to see if I’d been drugged, but I’m clean."
"Hey, slow down! What drugs?"
"How else can I explain what happened to me out there, Simon? I fell off the back of that bike because I was seeing things."
"Look, you were stressed, okay? You heard something. You smelled some fumes. You got dizzy. You fell off the bike. You got out of a trap that bastard led you and our SWAT team into alive. What? Now you want a vacation?" His voice reflected his disbelief and what had to be anger. Anger like that of a coach whose star player wanted to quit halfway though the final period while the team was winning. "Is this the guy who toughed it out in the jungle for a year and a half? Take a shower, get some aspirin, and get back to work. ‘Cause right now the only thing I want more than my divorce papers, is an arrest."
"Hey, this isn’t a joke, and I’m not hung-over. I lost the prime suspect, Simon, and I don’t even know how. Believe me, I’ve been trying to figure out how."
"Guilt’s a good motivator, but don’t take more than your share. Air support lost him in the trees; the roadblock didn’t snag him either." Simon paused. "All right, you can take the afternoon off. See a couple specialists if that’ll make you feel any better, but that’s all the slack I can cut you, Jim."
"Well, that’s not enough. I’m losing control of my senses, Simon. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s scaring the hell out of me."
"All right, so let me get this straight. This is all about you being scared?"
"Yep." Jim nodded.
"So the Switchman psyched you out. He’s gonna make you fold."
Jim stood up, heading towards the door. "All I know is I can’t do my job this way. So either you grant me a leave, or I’ll take one." He met Simon’s eyes as he made his ultimatum, waiting. After several long moments, Simon nodded.
Jim exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and left without noticing that Simon was reaching for his phone.
It was raining steadily as Jim finally found a parking place not too far from the restaurant where he was meeting Carolyn for an unexpected, but not unwelcome, dinner. He checked his watch, nearly half an hour late. Making his doctors’ appointments hadn’t taken too much of his afternoon; trying to find and get rid of a persistently foul smell in his refrigerator and finding a suit that didn’t make his skin crawl took most of it. He sighed, sticking his hand under the passenger seat and scrabbling for the umbrella he could have sworn was there. It wasn’t. "Great," he muttered. "I’m going insane, and now I get to do it wet."
He shook his head, trying to shake off the slight ringing in his ears after he’d slammed the truck door. The rain spattered his suit, his hair, his face, as he darted toward the awning sheltering the restaurant’s entrance. He was halfway there when the door opened and, putting up her umbrella, Carolyn glanced his way for one moment before turning and striding away.
"Carolyn! Wait." He caught up with her quickly, ducking under her umbrella, blocking her path. "I’m sorry. I’m really sorry."
She just looked at him for another long moment before sighing audibly. "Jim…"
She smelled wonderful, he thought, looked wonderful. Leaning in, holding his breath, falling back into the apology habits of their marriage, he kissed her. Her umbrella fell, hitting a puddle.
"I’m sorry," he murmured again.
"Shut up, Jim. You’re only allowed one apology a night."
Jim picked up the umbrella for her.
"Maybe if you’d kissed me like that before, we’d still be married," she said reflectively, with perhaps, he thought, a bit of sadness. She walked away – toward the restaurant.
They were seated quickly, and once their orders had been taken, Carolyn started to chatter. He listened without really listening, nursing his wine, wondering how long it would take her to notice that she wasn’t getting a response to her rambling gossip. He was waiting as long as he could before asking the question that had been preying on him since she’d called and invited him. He doubted, more with every word she spoke, he’d like the answer. Their entrees arrived, not halting the verbal flow. He just watched and waited.
"Wendy’s getting married again this week, so of course my mother is making the wedding impossible. My dad is practically living on his boat just to escape the madness. He’s already filled every freezer on the block and Wendy says if she has to gut one more salmon, the wedding is off." She looked up from her plate, finally noticing that Jim hadn’t responded to a word she’d said. "What?"
"Why are we here?"
"Dinner. And yours is getting cold."
"We haven’t had dinner together since last July."
"I know. I just thought we should catch up."
"Look, I liked your sister okay, but right now I could give a rat’s ass about the Plummer family newsletter." He paused. "I’m sorry. I’ve asked you out, you always turned me down. Why tonight? Simon put you up to this? Are you supposed to get me to go back to work? Is that it?"
He cocked his head to one side; mentally counting the seconds it would take her to break down. He got to four before she answered again.
"It won’t work."
"So don’t bother."
"Can I try your squash?" Without waiting for his reply, she dug her fork into his squash, picking up his plate and moving it to her side of the table.
‘Some things never change,’ he thought. Jim flagged a passing waiter, not caring if it was their waiter or not. "Hey, could you get me another one of these, please?"
"Thank you," Jim said, deliberately and politely.
Carolyn was watching him speculatively while she made inroads on his vegetables. "You know, Jim, you’re not the first cop who’s ever lost a suspect."
"I don’t want to talk about it…"
"But if you did talk about it, maybe I could help you," she persisted, interrupting him.
Jim continued his sentence, ignoring the interruption, "…so let’s just drop it."
"Sure, why should I expect anything to be different?"
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Light’s out, no one’s home. Or if there is, how would I know?"
‘Oh, great,’ he thought bitterly. ‘Bring our marriage into a conversation that has nothing to do with it. You never knew when to just not push, did you, Carolyn?’
"I give up."
More than a little surprised and pleased, but still a bit pissed, he said, "Good. Can I have my plate back?" He reached for it while she watched him. "I’d like to eat my dinner now."
With an almost silent snort, Carolyn stood up.
Stabbing a chunk of salmon, he asked, "Where are you going?" Expecting her to say she was heading to the powder room, her usual escape when frustrated by him, he started to chew the bite, intending to relish it like he was relishing his minor victory over Carolyn, the flavor bursting on his tongue as he started chewing.
"Home. I can get more out of my toaster," she replied.
And suddenly fiery heat, an overwhelming pungent, bitter taste, and the acrid flavor of char hit him as he started to swallow the mouthful. He started to cough, his throat muscles locking, swallowing made impossible to a body that wanted those sensations as far from him as possible. He grabbed his wineglass, downing it in a single gulp, standing and grabbing another glass from in front of the woman at the next table. Anything to quench the foul fire in his mouth.
Carolyn was standing and watching him, looking stunned and stupid. Couldn’t she tell there was something wrong?
He took another glass from another table, and she finally got a clue. "Jim," she put her hand on his arm, then turned and announced to the room, "He’s choking!" before turning back to him. "What’s wrong?"
He shook off her hand, finally feeling like he could breathe again, wanting to lash out at someone for the problem he still hoped and prayed had an external source. The waiter who’d refilled his wineglass came running, anxious and flustered and probably wanting to give Jim the Heimlich. A perfect target.
"What the hell is in this?" Jim snarled, pointing an accusing finger at his salmon.
"Just some herbs, ordinary herbs, and the red flecks are paprika, I think. Do you have a food allergy?" The waiter wasn’t cowed at all.
"No! Maybe this is your cook’s idea of a joke."
"Look, I am a police officer. I will have this place closed down, dammit. Now you get me the manager."
"Yes, sir, right away, sir." The waiter headed for the back, his attitude changed and very obviously wanting to pass this difficult customer on to a higher power.
Jim watched, still angry at absolutely everything, and unwilling to admit, even to himself, that he was the problem.
"Jim," said Carolyn quietly, setting down his fork on his plate.
He snapped at her. "What?"
"There’s nothing in your food."
He met her gaze impassively, knowing she was right, that he’d made an utter ass of himself.
She sighed quietly. "I don’t know what’s going on with you. Just take care of yourself. Okay?"
He sat back down exhaustedly as she left. Trying to ignore the curious gazes of the other patrons, he tried to work out just how he’d get out of the restaurant with anything approaching dignity after the scene he’d made. He ran his hand over his eyes, sighing, hoping that his appointment at the hospital in the morning would go a long way in helping him get his control back and make the fear go away.
~~~~~~~~~~ Act III ~~~~~~~~~~
Weaving in and out of traffic, a Corvair made its way through the main stream at a frightening pace – fast but not reckless, music blaring from its rolled down windows. Tapping his hands on the steering wheel in time to the beat and bouncing in his seat to the rhythm, Blair Sandburg sped up just in time to miss another red light.
He was late, as usual, for a meeting with one of his students. Blair’s time was in high demand at Rainier University with the staff as well as its students. Blair usually survived on a diet of algae shakes, healthy food, and enough coffee to support a small Latin American country’s economy – that is, when he remembered to eat. Of course, that was when Miss Aldrich wasn’t trying force-feed him with what was a science experiment disguised as a lasagna. Blair mentally shivered. So, when one of his students offered a working lunch – chock full of the sort of empty calories he hated spending his own money on, their treat, Blair wasn’t about to pass it up, especially when the student in question was someone that would make a supermodel green with envy.
Seeing the restaurant that they where supposed to meet up at, Blair whipped into the parking lot. Performing a 180-degree turn, he slid into the parking space just barely missing the car next to his now-parked vehicle. Looking at his reflection in the rearview mirror, he untied his hair, shaking out his mane of unruly shoulder length hair, its natural curl framing his face. Dancing blue eyes looked back at him as he laughed at himself checking his own appearance. Grabbing his backpack Blair headed inside to a waving Sara.
Sliding into the seat opposite the young lady at the booth, allowing his million-dollar smile to show, he said, "Hi, Sara."
"Hello, Professor Sandburg."
"I’m sorry I’m…" Blair was cut off as his beeper went off. "Excuse me for a second, Sara, I have to take this."
"Sure no problem." Sara’s smile was an amused one.
Blair walked to the payphone at the back of the restaurant and dialed the number on his pager. "What’s the 911, Jack?"
Jack was a fellow student at the University and an old friend who worked over at the hospital’s radiology department as an assistant technician.
"Dude, dude, dude. You are so not going to believe this, man! You know that stuff you were telling me about for your thesis?"
"Yeah. What about it, Jack?"
"Well, there is this guy who is like so here and he has been telling the doctor his senses have like so been going off the charts."
Excitedly Blair questioned. "Which senses, Jack?"
"Sight, hearing, taste, and smell. That is what you’re looking for right, dude?"
"What about touch, Jack?"
"Hasn’t said anything about it, but I didn’t get to hear everything he was telling the doctors."
"Okay, man, which floor is he on?" Blair pulled out his pen.
"He’s on the fifth floor now but he’ll be back to the third floor in about 15 minutes. The name on my list says James Ellison."
"Thanks, man. I so owe you for this!" exclaimed Blair as he jotted down the info onto his hand for lack of easy access to paper. Blair practically ran back to the booth. "Sara, I’m so sorry about this, but I’ve got to book. It’s an emergency."
"Is everything okay, Professor?" Sara looked worriedly at the man before her.
Blair started backing away as he spoke, "I really don’t have time to explain, but if I hurry everything could be. Listen, just call me later and we’ll reschedule. Okay?"
"Sure. Just take care."
Flashing a smile in her direction, Blair called over his shoulder, "Will do."
He didn’t even remember getting into his car much less the drive to the hospital, however, he was pretty sure he broke more than one law doing it. Exiting the Corvair at neck-breaking speed, Blair’s brain went into overdrive as he worked on a plan to meet the man who could be his version of the missing link.
Taking the elevator to the third floor and exiting, he moved swiftly to the end of the corridor to the doctor’s lounge. Sneaking into the room, Blair grabbed the first coat within reach. Tying his hair back, he checked his appearance in a mirror that hung on the door. ‘Close enough’ he thought to himself. Sliding the door open and checking to see if the coast was clear, he exited into the hall and shrugged on the white coat as he started back toward the nurse’s station by the elevators. Something skittered a few inches across the floor as his foot struck it; bending over to investigate, he discovered a doctor’s nametag. ‘Perfect!’ He pinned the tag in place on the lab coat, continuing on his way.
Leaning against the counter, Blair gave a weary smile to the nurse as she returned to her post at the desk. "I need James Ellison’s file," he said as he pretend to rub away a headache instead of reading the name off his palm.
"Yes, Doctor." the distracted nurse said as she began to hunt down the requested folder. Looking up, Nurse Shelby Capri chuckled as she handed the file over. "Um, Doctor?"
"Hmmm?" Blair replied distractedly while trying to find what he did with his glasses.
"Doctor," she said, amusement evident in her voice.
Looking up, Blair asked, "Yes?"
"You have an ink smudge on your forehead," Shelby choked out, her lips quivering as she fought her laughter.
"Huh?" Blair looked at his ink-smeared hand and groaned at the realization of what he’d done. "Awww, man!"
Unable to resist any longer, Shelby burst out laughing. Shaking her head, she stated teasingly, "You doctors! You have notepads everywhere and still you write stuff on your hands when in a hurry." Reaching into a drawer Shelby pulled out an alcohol pad, opened it, and proceeded to remove ink from Blair’s forehead and palm. "I’m Shelby."
"Blair." A sigh escaped his lips. "It’s been a long day," he gave as way of an explanation.
Smiling in sympathy, Shelby chuckled, "I can tell. Your shift ending soon?"
"Just this case and I’m out of here."
She inquired, "You’re new to the floor, aren’t you? ‘Cause I’d remember if I’d seen you before."
"Yeah, my first day here actually. I’m here assisting a colleague of mine," Blair lied smoothly. "Kind of got a crash course on things around here, and I still don’t know where the cafeteria is, yet," he added jokingly.
"So you’re here only for today?"
Smirking he replied, "In a official capacity, yes. Unofficially…." he let his sentence trail off as he winked.
Leaning closer to Blair from across the counter, Shelby made an offer. "Tell you what… finish this up and I’ll show you the cafeteria myself. We could celebrate your survival of this place, my treat."
He chuckled, "You’re on."
Flashing his best 1000-watt smile, Blair headed off down the hall. Stopping, he turned back and started to ask something, but Shelby was one step ahead of him.
"Examining room 7. Down the hall and to your right," she stated.
"You’re an angel, and I’m buying dessert." Blair heard Shelby’s laughter follow him down the hallway.
Turning the corner, he put his glasses on and read the file, memorizing it as he went. Reaching Exam Room 7, Blair pulled the clipboard from the door and compared it to the info in the file. ‘Shit, the guy’s a cop! Before that he was in the Army. Wait a minute. Something could have happened to him in either situation to kick his senses online!’
Whipping off his glasses, he headed back to the nurses’ station excitedly, walking up to Shelby. "This could be it. I mean, I’ve been looking for a case like this forever but, I have to make sure my information matches. Could I use your fax machine to send this to my office?"
Shelby smiled, "Sure. Let me do that for you."
"You’re sure? I don’t want to get you in any trouble or anything."
"No problem, Doctor."
"Thanks!" Blair handed her back the file. "I should be ready for the tour in a few minutes," he said, taking the clipboard and turning back to room 7.
Stopping outside the door, Blair sent a small prayer heavenward, and put his glasses back on. The man inside had four out of five senses recorded on his chart, just like Jack had said. All that was left was finding out if he had what Blair needed him to have. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door. The man within was just putting his shirt back onto his muscular 6-ft frame.
"Detective Ellison. I’m Dr. McCoy," Blair stated as he tried to keep the nervousness out of his voice.
"You have the results?"
"Forget the tests. You don’t need medicine. What you need is information."
The older man rolled his eyes. "What are you, an intern? Go get the doctor for me, will you, please?"
Panic set in quickly. He had to get this man to listen to him. "Now just wait a second. Hear me out." Blair pushed on cutting the other man off before he lost his chance to voice his thoughts. "Loud noises that shouldn’t be loud. Smelling things that no one else can smell. Weird visuals. Taste buds off the map, right?" Blair held off using his ace in the hole to see if the man would take the bait.
"That’s all in my chart."
‘Gotcha!’ Blair went in for the kill. "Yeah, but I bet I can add one more thing: a hyperactive tactile response."
"A what?" Confusion streaked the detective’s face.
"In layman’s terms… you’re extra sensitive touchy-feely lately."
If the indignant look on the detective’s face wasn’t enough of a clue he’d hit a nerve, his response sure was. "That’s none of your business. And who the hell are you, anyway?"
He was running out of time and he needed to get this guy on his home field for the battle ahead. "Me, I’m no one. But this man, he is." Blair pulled out a business card and handed it to the detective. "He’s the only one who can truly help you. You’re too far ahead of the curve for any of this techno trash. You’re a cop. See the man."
Exiting the room, Blair bumped into the real doctor. Keeping his head low, he quickly apologized and headed over to where Nurse Shelby Capri waited for him. Now all he had to do was wait for his destiny to find him.
Flipping the business card over in his fingers, Jim watched the gray-haired, lab-coat wearing man that fit his mental definition of ‘doctor’ flip through a chart. As the doctor came closer, Jim noticed two holes in his lab coat, right where there should be… ‘Hang on a minute…’
"Good afternoon, Detective," the man said. "I have to tell you I’ve scheduled some additional tests, but based on the results we have so far there doesn’t seem to be any medical foundation for your complaints."
Jim hardly heard him. "You’ve lost your nametag," he commented.
The older man glanced down, his hand brushing over where it should have been. "Oh, so I did. I’m Dr. McCoy."
"Dear Detective Ellison," the Switchman typed, eyes flicking to the wax-encased bomb beside the keyboard, the earthy scent of the wax rich in the air. "Do you know which track I’m on? Today I’m buying my ticket."
Why he’d listened to the kid and come to see this professor was beyond him, Jim thought to himself.
‘Maybe, because you’re desperate and the thought of living the rest of your life like this has you contemplating eating a bullet,’ a little voice inside his head quipped sarcastically back at him.
Jim told the voice to shut up.
Feeling the sun beat down upon his shoulders, Jim stood before the steps of Hargrove Hall at Rainier University. A feeling of something from his past needled at him from the back of his mind when he laid eyes upon the water fountain to his right. He closed his eyes for a moment, mind slipping back in time…
Rushing water from the waterfall beckoned him to come forward. He looked at its mirrored base. Its crystal reflection, its beauty. A hand drifted in the water palm down. A small, fragile body floated into view. Lifeless eyes staring up at the world. He found himself reaching out, plucking the child from the water’s embrace.
He was on the banks now, surrounded by others. He didn’t see them. Didn’t hear them, though he sensed their presence. No, it was the body in his arms that held his attention. He lay his head upon her chest. There, faint though it was, beat the girl’s heart.
Clearing her airway, he breathed air into tiny lungs several times. He stopped when the convulsions began, rolling her over to the side. She began to cough, to fight for her right to live. Eyes once lifeless now shown bright with life and tears as water spewed forth from her mouth. Gasping between fits of heavy coughing, she tried to reach out. He crooned softly, rubbing her back, riding out each wave that hit her petite form.
He helped her sit up slowly, urging her to lean against him for support. Tiny arms wrapped themselves around his neck as sobs of fear and shock escaped. He stood with the child as she burrowed her face against his neck. Using his body as a shield, her body hugged tightly to his, he faced the crowd. Seeing the natives for the first time…
Shaking his head viciously and opening his eyes, Jim walked hurriedly past the fountain, fighting memories and the sunshine that was suddenly too bright. Sighing with relief at the building’s softer lighting, Jim pulled the business card he’d been given from his jacket pocket. Looking at it, it seemed so average in appearance, but this piece of paper represented the man who, hopefully, held the solution to his problem senses.
Stopping to ask directions from a few students, Jim walked the crowded halls. Finding the office wasn’t hard. Although the door read ‘Artifact Storage Room 3’ there was a hand written sign that said ‘Blair Sandburg.’ Smirking, Jim mentally chuckled. It would seem the University was as bad about office space as the bureaucrats at work. His smirk turned into a grimace as the pounding music from behind the door began to grate his nerves as it attacked his eardrums. He knew he was overreacting, but he couldn’t help the fact that the music made him feel like bashing someone’s head in.
Opening the door savagely, Jim walked inside to see a man dancing to the music. Loose shoulder length hair bounced with the man’s every move. Jim’s eyes traveled lower to look at a white shirt covered by a multi-colored vest, torn well-worn jeans, and sneakers. ‘This isn’t a good sign,’ Jim thought as he cleared his throat. When the dancing man turned around, Jim’s sinking feeling grew. It was the kid from the hospital.
"Oh, hey. Notice how the war chant of the Yahomamo headhunters finds its echo in the cellars of Seattle. I’m sure your dad used to say that stuff about the Stones. ‘Turn down that jungle music!’"
Anger rolled through Jim like waves with every beat of the drum. He couldn’t think straight. He watched the young man he now assumed was Sandburg and the urge to kill something intensified. Mainly the desire to kill a certain professor who was playing mind games. He knew he had to get this guy to shut off that music before his problems at work had less to do with his out of control senses and more to do with homicide charges. Jim knew he came off as harsh, but would worry about everything when the music was off. "Yeah, he did. So do I. You mind?"
Jim practically sighed out loud when the music stopped. Blessed silence. Better, except the urge to kill something was still there. "Why are you in my face?" he growled. He knew it was silly, but he really felt he should sniff the air for some strange reason.
The young man had the grace at least to look sorry as he said, "Oh, hey, look I’m really sorry about all that Shakespeare stuff at the hospital. But I just had to find some way to get you to my area here to talk."
"So talk." Odd, but the more the young man talked the more Jim found himself starting to relax; he had a soothing voice.
"Okay. Um, here, please take a seat. Um…" He watched Sandburg pick up a pile of stuff off a seat and drop it on the floor. "Have a seat."
‘That didn’t help my head any and you’re on thin ice already, Chief,’ Jim thought to himself.
Jim sat down hoping this guy got to the point quickly. He had a bottle of Excedrin at home that had his name written on it…
Okay, okay… Blair thought fast. Somehow he didn’t think that this guy would like to hear that a half-stoned Radiology tech was passing out medical records, and Jack would never forgive him if he told… ‘Time for one more little obfuscation… with just enough truth…’
"You see, there’s this nurse I’ve been… you know… tutoring at the med. center. She saw your chart and she faxed it over to me. And when I read that thing, man, it was like…BANG…Holy Grail time," Blair said.
‘There. That’s enough. Neither Jack nor Shelby will be in trouble.’
"You’re losing me, Chief." Jim could just tell Sandburg wasn’t telling him everything and what he had didn’t make sense.
"Okay, my name is Blair Sandburg and I’m working on my doctorate in Anthropology and you just may be the living embodiment of my field of study."
That was IT? He’d been a guinea pig for the army after Peru; he sure as hell wasn’t going to let some punk kid do it to him too. "Are you out of your mind? You dragged me all the way over here to tell me you want me to be your science project. BE YOUR GUINEA PIG!" Jim knew he was overreacting, but the thought of someone poking into his head again scared the hell out of him.
Jim watched as the young man tried to back-pedal after his outburst. "Well, maybe I was a little out of line to assume you’d just go along, but I mean…"
‘To hell with this!’ Jim let his famous Ellison temper flare to life in a full-blown episode as he slammed Sandburg against the wall. "Listen to me you neo-hippie punk. I’m not letting some witch-doctor wannabe poke around in my life. I should arrest you! Just for starters, I could slap you right now with larceny and false impersonation of a doctor. And you’re heading real quick into harassment of a police officer. Hell, I should shake this place down from top to bottom for narcotics. Your behavior gives me more than probable cause to do it," Jim growled into the young man’s face.
"Look, you mess with me, man, and you’re never going to figure out what’s up with you," Blair growled back.
The corners of Jim’s mouth twitched. Releasing the kid, Jim stepped back and walked away a bit. He had to give the kid credit; he didn’t rattle easily and he didn’t take shit either. That knocked Sandburg’s ranking in his book up a notch or two. He’d give the guy one more chance to explain. If he didn’t like what the man had to say, he could leave with a clear conscience.
"Now, I know about your time spent in Peru. It has got to be the connection to what is happening to you now. Just let me show you something." Jim watched as Sandburg pulled a large book out of the mess and opened it with practiced ease to the right page. "This is a monograph by Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, not the actor. It’s over a hundred years old."
Jim could see the care and the hesitation in Blair’s actions as he handed the book over to him. His handling the book with reverence, like the kid did, seemed to ease the kid’s mind that he wouldn’t destroy it. No matter how pissed he might get at what he heard.
"Anyway, the idea goes like this…" Blair took a deep breath and continued, "In all tribal cultures every village had what Burton names as a Sentinel; this was someone who patrolled the border."
"You mean like a scout?" Jim inquired.
"No, but close, man. More like a watchman. You see, this sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, change in the weather, movements of game. The tribe’s survival depended on it!" Blair said, clearly excited that he had gotten Jim’s attention.
Jim tried to be patient, "So, what has this got to do with me?"
As if sensing the question was a prompt to hurry up, Blair launched into an explanation. "You see, a sentinel is chosen because of a genetic advantage. A sensory awareness that can be developed beyond normal humans. Now, these senses are honed by solitary time spent in the wild. At first Burton’s monograph was disputed and now it’s basically forgotten. I mean there are a few manifestations today here and there with maybe one or two hyperactive senses. Like taste and smell. People who work for coffee and perfume companies. Oh, and in Vietnam, the Army long-range recon units had to…"
Cutting in Jim finished the thought, "…change their diet to fish and rice because the Cong scouts could smell a Westerner by his waste." He put the book down on the desk gently and waited for the man to continue.
"Exactly. I’ve got hundreds of documented cases over here of one or two hyperactive senses but not one single subject with all five. You could be the real thing!" The excitement rang louder than a church bell in the curly-haired man’s voice.
"Truth is I don’t remember much of anything about the jungle." Jim didn’t elaborate what he did remember because that was the stuff his worst nightmares were based on.
Blair snorted. "A year and a half spent in the bush? The sole survivor of your unit? No offence, but that would fuck up anyone’s head. I mean I’m no psychiatrist, but that sounds pretty traumatic to me and people tend to repress trauma."
"Let’s say I buy into this. Why the hell is it coming back now?" He met Sandburg’s eyes. ‘Please let this guy have the answers,’ Jim silently begged.
"I don’t know. But you need someone who understands your condition."
‘Damn’. Jim’s suspicion caught up with him. "What’s the payoff?"
"My doctorate. I want to write about you. You’re my thesis."
‘Translation. His lab-rat.’ He’d heard enough. "I’ve had enough." Jim headed for the door.
"Well, just think about it okay?"
Jim paused. He didn’t want it, but he needed this man’s help. What he had been told had made a lot of sense in a way, but it was just too much to absorb all at once. Yeah, he needed to think. He looked back at the man who seemed to have so many answers to his roller coaster senses and nodded.
Blair was going to lose him; he had to say something and fast, but he couldn’t think of the right words. Fear raced though Blair as the man walked right out of his office. Relief swiftly took fear’s place as he watched the older man pause at the door. They made eye contact, and Blair tried to let the man see what he couldn’t say, ‘TRUST ME.’ Ellison nodded and left. Releasing a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, Blair breathed in deeply. He still had a chance with the man. To convince him of what he needed to survive. ‘SURVIVE! Shit!’ He’d forgotten to tell the older man one of the most important things.
Running out into the hall to try to catch him, Blair called to the retreating back, "Wait! There’s one other thing I gotta warn you about!"
Damn it! He hadn’t heard him. Running after him was his only choice. He had to tell him before it was too late!
Blair took off at a flat out run, tearing out the door and down the sunlit steps, taking them three at a time. Blair panicked when he realized the man he hoped to write his thesis about was standing in the middle of the street. A garbage truck was bearing down on Ellison, blasting its horn, and the man just stood there frozen. ‘FUCK! This is what I was afraid of!’
Not giving himself time to think about his actions Blair tackled the larger man to the ground just in time to avoid being street pizza. He felt the heat of the pavement under him and the sound of screeching tires echoed in his ears. ‘We’re alive?’ Thanking whatever deity was watching over Ellison and himself, Blair jumped up. His only thoughts were, ‘That so sucked’ and ‘We have to get out of here now!’ and he said so, too.
The sounds of the water just off the pier had always been a comfort to Jim when he had to go to the outside market. It allowed him the illusion that it wasn’t as crowded as it was and the sounds weren’t as intense. Walking alongside Blair was also a comfort. The man had saved his life; he didn’t have to but he had anyway. Okay, so the kid was a little out there, but he was highly intelligent, that was for sure. God, he was still shaken from snapping back to reality to find himself and Sandburg face down on the pavement. He could still feel the heat of the engine as it went over them, the sound of screeching tires, and the screams of the crowd standing in the quad. It had scared him far worse than anything he’d experienced in the Rangers. From what Sandburg was telling him, his little senses problem had taken a turn for the worse. He had to know how to stop this runaway train of a living hell.
"That thing that happened with the truck? What did you call it?" he questioned.
"The zone-out factor?" Blair inquired.
He wanted and needed to know what was in store for him. "Yeah, what is it and why is it happening to me?"
The comforting smile Sandburg sent his way eased some of his fears. "You see, um… Can I call you Jim?"
Nodding, Blair continued, "Well, it’s like this, Jim. Burton’s research suggested that when a sentinel is working his deal, he gets oblivious to the outside world. Sorta like the blinders are on, and the only sense that works is the one in use. The other senses just kind of shut down to the point that the sentinel kind of blanks out. It’s really natural, if you think about it, man; happens to everybody sometimes. You know, getting absorbed in something like that. I mean, the times my mom had to physically take a book away from -" He got back to his point as he caught the look in Jim’s eyes. "Well, for a sentinel, it’s just the same… only more so. Usually he had someone to watch his back. The word for them wasn’t really translatable into English; Burton called them ‘guides’. Guides helped their sentinels on many levels, not just with their senses. It’s a symbiotic deal, you know? Two halves of the whole, so to speak. Sentinel depends on guide for survival of the mind and spirit; guide depends on sentinel for protection both physical and spiritual."
With every word the younger man spoke, Jim realized that it felt right. What he needed was a guide until he could get rid of these senses. "So they were partners."
"Exactly, man," Blair said quietly, speaking more to himself than to Jim. "What you need is a guide. Somebody who knows how to deal with your senses and help you through your zone-outs."
"You mean like you?"
"Oh, yeah! Great idea man! I’d love to!" Blair smiled like a kid with a new puppy. "Now, you ready for a little research?"
Sighing, Jim looked at his new guide. "No. Why did I let you drag me down here? I want to get rid of it, not figure out how it works!"
Blair shot Jim an indulgent look. "For one, your abilities which were once latent and then suppressed have been dredged up. Translation: you’re back online, man, and I haven’t got a clue how to turn it off."
‘Great. Just great,’ Jim thought in disgust.
Ignoring Jim’s dark look, Blair continued, "And for another thing, you’re a detective with hyperactive senses. Jim, you’re a human crime lab with organic surveillance equipment! What more could you want, for crying out loud?"
‘Well, duh, Darwin,’ Jim thought. "Control."
"That’s what we’re here for." Placing his hand on Jim’s shoulder, he continued. "It’s all about concentration. Let’s try a little test here." Making sure Jim was paying attention, his guide began the exercise. "In the aisle behind us, there’s a flower seller. See if you can smell the roses."
Rolling his eyes, Jim muttered, "This is stupid."
Growling playfully, Blair said, "Aw, now c’mon, big tough detective like you can’t stop for a second to smell the roses?" After being flipped the bird, Blair tried a different track. "This is a scent you should easily identify. Now just give it a shot."
"I feel like an idiot," Jim grumbled but did what he was told.
That’s how they spent their first day together as Sentinel and Guide. Blair would tell Jim to do something, Jim would tell him it was stupid, Blair would tell him to do it anyway, and Jim would end up doing it after a lot of grumbling. Then Blair would scribble line after line in a notebook. They did a lot of trial and error work that day. Touch and taste seemed to be the senses Jim had the most control over when he tried. They’d tried sight, but that ended in a near zone-out. They decided to move on to smell next, and then, if Jim was up to it, maybe even hearing after that. He complained a lot, but Jim tried his best to follow Blair’s teachings. He worked hard, but he wasn’t without a sense of humor as Blair found out quickly when he asked Jim to listen in on two girls from the U for him.
"See that blonde over there? See if you can hear what she’s saying about me."
Huffy, Jim stated, "I’m not helping you troll for coeds."
"She’s a TA, for your information. I’m clean. Now, c’mon! Let’s go! Radar up!"
Rolling his eyes heavenward, he thought, ‘Great. I got a horn dog as a guide. Just my luck. Probably humps table legs in his spare time.’ Sighing, Jim focused on the two women by the stand across the way. Jim inhaled in surprise as their conversation came to him as if he was standing with them.
The blonde with the longer hair asked the other, "Would you go out with him?"
The green-eyed woman with shorter blonde hair replied with a sigh, "Yeah. I’d go out with him. He’s adorable, but he’s never asked me out."
Blair questioned impatiently, "Well?"
Hiding his smile, Jim answered. "She thinks we make a great couple." Jim shrugged and walked off, laughing at his stunned guide’s face.
"That was so not funny, man!" But at seeing the merriment in Jim’s eyes, Blair had to join the laughter. They fell in step with each other companionably, and grudgingly had to admit, at least to themselves, that this Sentinel/Guide business might have a chance to work between them.
~~~~~~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~~~~~~
Simon glanced around him as he walked inside the station. He could see that most of the crews were packing up, another ten minutes or so and they could let the public in again. Rush hour would be starting in half an hour, and he wanted all the police vehicles out of the way by then.
He concentrated as Carolyn started to report.
"The Switchman sent us a warning about two hours ago. Disposal had a problem locating the bomb. We did a sound sweep and matched the audio signal of the timer identical to the one the Switchman uses. The explosive was hidden in a pedestal ashtray."
Simon shook his head and watched as Joel approached carrying the notes from the on-site Forensics team. Joel’s face was creased with a deep frown, and as he passed the reports over Simon could sense the tension in him and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"He put the charge in a wax casing, Captain."
Carolyn looked up from the report with an exclamation of astonishment, "What’s that? Patchouli oil?"
Joel nodded solemnly, "Something like that. No wonder the dogs missed it. He’s a clever son of a bitch. There’s something else." Joel paused for a moment before he looked up and met Simon’s eyes. "I think the ante’s been upped here. This charge is anti-personnel, like an IRA nail bomb. It was mean to frag people. And a lot of them."
The unease Simon had been feeling since he arrived at the scene kicked into overdrive. The Switchman was going that one step further every incident; maybe next time there would be no warning. He had seen footage of the devastating injuries that had occurred in the United Kingdom when bombs like that exploded in a confined space packed with people. But this time they’d won. "That’s a good job, Taggart."
Joel shook his head, "You should thank Lt. Plummer. Her team found the bomb."
As Simon began to turn for Carolyn’s response, a second bomb exploded. Simon felt himself flung around as if he were a rag doll. He hit the ground with a gut-wrenching thud that drove the breath from his body. Spots danced before his eyes, screwed shut against the battering of scorching light, and his ears rang from the force of the sound that assaulted his ears. The rain of debris stopped and he lifted his head cautiously, turning to see Carolyn beside him doing the same. She was on her feet as fast as he was.
"Sir, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I’m okay. Taggart?"
Joel appeared from between two cars and slumped heavily against one of them. "I’m all right. I’m all right."
As they moved over towards Joel, Carolyn was massaging her arm, just above the left elbow. Simon stopped, "Problem, Plummer?"
Carolyn gave a short laugh, "Just bruised I think. Could have been a lot worse."
Simon’s eyes swept the area. There were no windows left in the station, and its walls were blackened, gouges torn from them by flying shards of glass and metal fragments. The perimeter of damage was some 15 to 20 yards from the station front; a car rocked precariously on its side.
Shaken officers were getting to their feet all around him. The paramedics called out for the original alert were moving calmly through the area, checking people out, but there didn’t seem to be any serious injuries.
He took a deep breath, "Oh yeah. A lot worse."
Hours later, Simon was reviewing the station bombing with Carolyn and Joel. He poured himself yet another cup of fancy coffee and turned back to their discussion.
"I don’t understand it," Carolyn said. "The sound sweep should have picked up the second timer, as well."
Joel shook his head, tapping his report. "No, it shouldn’t have. That’s the point. The second timer wasn’t the same type. He hardwired it right into the station’s lobby clock."
His door was thrown open, and they all looked as Jim entered the office.
"Jim," Carolyn greeted him, turning, Simon noticed, so the sling on her left arm was very obvious. Simon shook his head, thinking about Joan for a moment, how similar her passive-aggressive behavior was to Carolyn’s.
"I’ve been looking for you all over the building. You okay?" Jim asked.
"Just winged me." With his attention focused on her, she almost preened her injury at him.
Mildly disgusted by his friends’ behavior and hoping Jim would get to the reason for his visit, he said pointedly, "I’m all right too. Thanks for asking."
"I think the station was just a warm-up. This was in my email folder." Jim’s face was set in angry and serious lines now as he handed Simon a piece of paper.
Simon read it aloud. "Dear Detective Ellison: Today I bought my ticket. Tomorrow I ride to the end of the line. The Switchman."
"The end of the line. Tomorrow?" Carolyn’s face reflected both shock at the short time and frustration at the puzzle presented to them.
Simon frowned. Cards on the table time. "Look, Jim, I need you back at work."
Jim simply nodded.
Blair looked out the restaurant window at the early morning light that was breaking through the overcast from last night’s rain. As he waited on Jim to pick him up, he thought back to their earlier conversation. Jim had called him late last night from the precinct, asking for help, saying he didn’t want to take the chance of another zone-out. Blair, of course, had stressed that he thought it was too soon for Jim to go back into the field; Jim had countered that lives depended on him to stop this madman before more people were hurt, or worse – died. With an argument like that, Blair had no other choice but to agree to help as best he could. He just hoped it was enough…
Riding in companionable silence in the red Jeep Jim had borrowed while his truck was in the shop, the two men got lost in their own thoughts about how to work this new development. They arrived at what was left of the old lumber mill around 6 a.m. Grabbing his backpack as he exited the Jeep, he and Jim walked through the muck and mud to stand before the jumbled mess left by the explosion days before.
Looking around at the secluded forest and watching the taller man, an idea needled away at Blair. "How long were you here on stakeout, man?"
Distractedly, Jim replied, "Four days."
"Well, maybe that’s why."
"Why what?" The confusion clearly showed on Jim’s face.
Waving his hand at the living scene around them, Blair explained, "The forest. The isolation. Maybe even the danger of the hunt? It could be what kicked the sentinel thing back up on you. Kind of like a default system on a computer."
"Yeah, maybe…" Jim looked around. "Okay, Sandburg, both Forensics and Explosives technicians have already been through this place. What could I possibly find that they didn’t in this mess?"
‘Trying to be patient with this guy isn’t going to be easy,’ Blair told himself. "Try to concentrate. You’ve got to learn to turn things on and off." Stepping back a bit, Blair softened his voice. "Now, I’m going to shut up and let you feel it out. If you feel yourself zoning out, call out, and I’ll be by your side in a flash."
"I can’t see or hear anything that happened days ago."
"Put your hands behind your back." When Jim just looked at him like he’d lost his mind, he said a little more forcefully, "Put your hands behind your back."
Jim slowly turned his back to him, and Blair smiled to himself as he placed ashes in the man’s hands. Jim was beginning to trust him. He knew it was hard for the older man to do so. He could see the haunted look in his eyes. That look reminded him of an old quote by Lisa Blackstone he’d read once as a child…
‘It amazes me sometimes how life can change everything you’ve ever known in just a moment. One instant you’re talking and laughing with someone, and the next your life shatters, leaving you with nothing more than jagged little pieces to try and put it together. No instruction manual, no glue, just some mysterious, faceless entity that shoves the pieces into your hands, the edges piercing your palms, leaving you bloody, in pain, and no clue of what to do next.’
Blair had only read it once before his mother had taken the book away from him, but it was something he’d never forgotten. It was the first clue to his child’s mind that not all who were hurting showed it. Jim was like that. He didn’t know the man long, but he could see the pain. It was a constant shadow that eclipsed the man and his actions.
Snapping out of his reverie, Blair asked, "Okay, what’s in your hands?"
"I don’t know." Blair was about to tell him to just try, when the Sentinel said questioningly, "Ashes?"
‘Yes! He’s giving it a go! He’s really trying!’ Blair mentally high-fived himself. "Right, right, but from what?" He had to push Jim to see how far the man could get without help.
"The right is kind of dry. Like wood, maybe. And the other is different. Oily." The concentration he was putting into the effort echoed in Jim’s voice.
"It’s from plastic. I never could have told the difference. And a lab analysis, that takes time, man. This is great, Jim, but you’re rolling on instinct, here. If we practiced, you could probably learn to tell what type of wood it is you’re holding."
Jim stayed silent for a minute, then turned away and glared at the wreckage of the building. He nodded finally, a tacit admission that practice would be useful.
Blair masked a grin by rubbing his nose. He gestured to the building. "What the hell happened here anyway?"
Jim looked at him impassively. "I lost the Switchman," he said quietly. "It was a trap, and if I hadn’t smelled the gas…" He shook his head. "We’d have lost a SWAT team and a bunch of backup personnel. It would have been my fault."
"Your fault? Why?"
"Because I led them in there. The Switchman drove into the mill; we followed." Jim’s face was solemn as he tried to explain. "In one of the offices, we found a copy of NEWS – the issue I was in after Peru. I smelled gas. Lots of gas."
"Gas or gasoline?"
"Gas. The Switchman had cracked the gas line."
Blair shook his head with a low whistle. "Sheesh."
"Yeah, Chief. Thing is, though, instead of just clearing the building right away… I traced the smell."
"But you all got out in time, right?"
"Barely. Our suspect had planted C4 with a timer directly under the broken pipe. Any evidence left in this building is destroyed, and I lost our suspect."
Blair considered this. "All the cops around here and you lost the suspect? Wouldn’t it be, like, the whole group lost the suspect?"
Simon had said the same thing. Jim had to admit they were right, but he had lost the Switchman first, had had his hands on the guy’s motorbike. "Okay, so we all lost the suspect. But if I hadn’t gotten so damned dizzy when I saw my reflection on the son of a bitch’s helmet that I fell off the back of his bike, we’d have had him. Hell, if I hadn’t spent hours listening to the sound of water boiling, I’d have checked the clearing where he had his secret exit. I’d been through the building twice and never had a clue." He met Blair’s eyes. "This was my operation, and I blew it because my damned senses were acting up."
Trying to inject a little humor into the tense moment, Blair grinned and pointed to the rubble. "Looks like the Switchman blew it, not you." Jim frowned, and Blair let his smile fade. "Sorry. Hey, you’re just one guy… You did your best. And we’re going to get your senses working for you rather than against you. You’ll see, man!"
"I just… Never mind." Jim walked away and started sorting through more of the debris, not sure what he was really looking for. An address book with "The Switchman" embossed on the front would be ideal.
Pulling out his video camera, Blair took a few shots of what Jim was doing, before the Sentinel rounded on him all of a sudden.
"What are you doing?" Jim demanded.
"I’m documenting." Blair was confused by the man’s question. It should have been obvious.
"No!" Jim called out as he put his hand over the lens, blocking its view.
Blair saw something in the detective’s eyes. It was that shadow again, stronger than ever before. The haunted look was as sharp as a blade now. This man had seen hell and lived, but Blair didn’t think he’d told anyone about it. ‘Looks like your demons have come back for you, my friend,’ Blair thought. He put away the camera without another word.
An hour later, Jim was ranting and raving. "I don’t know what I expected to find."
"Hey, man, yesterday you were all but begging a doctor for a cure, and today you’re complaining because you can’t make it work? I tried to warn you. You have to practice to control switching them on and off at will." Blair tried to remind him gently, but he was sure he came off more like a child sing-songing ‘I told you so.’
"Yeah, I know. I know. It’s just…" Jim’s sentence trailed off as something caught his attention.
"What? What is it?"
"How good are you at climbing trees?" Jim asked, looking at him with a predator’s look.
‘Uh-oh. I think I’m in trouble here,’ Blair thought as he took an involuntary step backward. Looking up at the trees, then back on the man slowly advancing on him, his decision was quickly made. He hated heights, but the look in Jim’s eyes made him feel like he’d be safer climbing the tree than remaining on the ground for another second with this man.
Climbing quickly up the tree, Blair followed Jim’s verbal directions.
"It’s right there in the crook of the limb."
Blair snapped at the man below, "Man, I’m so not in the mood to have my skull ventilated by some pissed off magpie!"
Blair reached out and plucked the nest from the tree, yelling down, "Hey, heads up!" repeating it a little louder when he didn’t get the Sentinel’s attention immediately. "HEADS UP!" He tossed the nest down to Jim’s waiting hands at Jim’s nod, amazed that such large hands didn’t destroy something so fragile. Shaking his head, Blair scrambled back down the tree; glad the man’s predatory look was focused on something besides him.
Jim pulled out a blue thread from the nest and inspected it carefully. "The bomber was wearing a blue watch cap when he went into the mill." He started sniffing at the fabric.
"So maybe the hat was inside when the place blew, and the bird found the pickings up in the beams where Forensics missed them. I mean, the nest isn’t finished, which would definitely suggest that the time frame would work there," Blair replied.
At Jim’s surprised look between sniffs, Blair offendedly stated, "What? Part of your job is walking into a place and trying to figure out what happened there. So is mine. Granted, mine are usually a few thousand years vacant." Forgetting his train of thought at the face Jim was making, he asked, "What? What is it? You got something?" He grinned. ‘Man, this guy’s gonna be unstoppable once he gets a hold of his senses! Criminals look out!’
"Yeah, it’s shampoo, or uh…"
"After-shave maybe?" Blair added in helpfully.
"No, it’s more… complicated. It smells like, uh…"
Worriedly, at Jim’s glaze-eyed look, Blair jumped in, "What?!?"
"Jungle plants." The absolute sureness of Jim’s tone sent chills down his spine. Jim had practically growled out the answer. It was primitive and dangerous. Blair was never so glad to have someone on his side than this man. He’d hate to see what he did to someone who wasn’t.
Jim looked at Blair in admiration. The kid was giving one hundred and ten percent. His mind was sharp and his humor sharper. Jim realized early on that Blair wasn’t afraid to go toe to toe with him. Not many people would try, much less succeed in winning against his stubborn streak.
Blair was a force of nature you didn’t want to go up against. He would keep at you if he thought he was right. Which was often, in his opinion. Jim liked the kid. He made him laugh, even when he was tough, but gave Jim his space when he needed it. Like at the mill. His demand about no cameras had been stupid, but he’d felt trapped. Blair hadn’t said a word, just nodded and put it away. Like he’d sensed what was wrong and understood. He didn’t judge. Amazing.
Hours later, they figured out it was a cologne Jim had been smelling. Doing a little brainstorming, Blair had called a friend at the university and got the names of all the boutiques that specialized in designer fragrances.
Seven in all. Not bad. They should be done in no time. Or so he thought until Blair informed him to get ready for all the smells. He’d worried that Jim would have a sensory spike triggered by all the fragrances.
The first three stores were a bust. Their designers were located out of state and had their perfumes flown in. After all that trouble, they’d gotten no farther ahead, and he was getting a headache.
At the fourth shop, they hit pay dirt. Sort of. There were over four hundred essential oils and extracts arrayed in a rack. After sniffing over half of them, Jim felt light-headed, but he kept at it. Half an hour later, Jim realized his mistake in assuming it was just one they were looking for. "Sandburg," he said, getting Blair’s attention. Blair had given up on his incessant note taking after the first few minutes, and had been amusing himself by poking around the store and chatting up the salesladies.
"You got it?"
"Not exactly. It’s this one, but with this one and this one all mixed together," Jim said as he indicated each bottle in turn.
"Cinnamon bark? Tropical Rain? Purple Orchid?" Blair looked at him questioningly.
"Yeah, I know. It doesn’t seem like anything a man would wear, does it?"
"No." Blair eyed the bottles carefully.
Turning to the woman behind the counter, Jim asked, "Do you have a client list?"
"Yes, it’s on the computer," she replied. "If you give me the combination, I could look it up and get you a printout of the customers who have that special blend."
Blair rattled off the extracts, and the woman went to work. A minute later, she walked over to them and handed him the list. "Please, Detective, don’t tell my boss I did this. I could get fired if he finds out."
"You have my word and thank you," Jim assured her.
"Yeah, thanks, " Blair chimed in.
Jim looked at the printout, reading the list. When he got to the bottom, he saw what he was looking for. His head snapped up and his gut felt like someone had just sucker punched him with a Mack truck.
"What is it Jim? Another sensory thing?"
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Jim mumbled, "No, it’s uh… a memory thing." He turned away from the counter, away from Blair, walking blindly toward the door. ‘Yeah, a fucking nightmare is more like it. And this all makes sense now…’
"Where are we going now?" Blair’s voice sounded from right behind him.
"Station. All I have to do now is convince my boss I’m right. He’s gonna think I’m nuts."
Simon eyed Jim’s earnestly convinced face incredulously. "Our task force has found nothing. You’ve worked on this case for months. Same results. We’re expecting another bombing today – God knows where or when – and now you come in here, telling me you know who the Switchman is because you smelled her perfume?"
"Veronica Sarris. Her father served with me in my Special Forces unit. He died in Peru."
"So she blames you and blows the hell out of Cascade just to make you look bad?" Simon knew his skepticism was blatant. It was quite a stretch. He looked down at the file Jim had handed him.
"She had demolition experience in the Navy. She was discharged due to mental instability. She left Washington State Psychiatric Hospital eight months ago. She’s employed now as a tour guide. I’ve got an address."
"So what am I supposed to do here?" Simon shrugged.
"Well, give me a warrant. What else?" Jim’s voice may not have said, "You’re an idiot," but his eyes did.
His own eyes could say the same thing. He made sure they did. "On what evidence? Because a detective smelled something on a piece of yarn he pulled out of a bird’s nest? You know, Jim, I think you should take some time off."
Shaking his head, Jim walked out the front door of the station. It hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped, but not as badly as he’d thought it would, either. Sandburg was waiting for him, leaning against the side of the red Jeep.
"Well?" Blair asked impatiently.
"He said I need a vacation." Jim pulled his cell phone from his pocket, and, after consulting his notes, he dialed.
"Well, you’re not going to do that, are you?"
"No, but I am going to do some sightseeing." Ignoring Blair’s mystified look, he spoke into the phone. "Is this Cascade Harbor Tours? Yes, I need to locate one of your tour guides. Veronica Sarris."
~~~~~~~~~~ Act V ~~~~~~~~~~
Jim pulled to a screeching halt in front of the Cascade Panorama Tower, slammed the Jeep into park, and opened the door.
Blair climbed out as well. "Hey, attaboy, Kojak, you parked in a no parking zone."
"You wait here."
"What? And miss all the action?"
"You’re supposed to be my back-up."
"I am, but – "
Jim slapped the cell phone into Blair’s extended hand and cut off his protest firmly. "But nothing. You just wait here. If I’m not down here in ten minutes, you call 911. If you see her, you call 911."
"I guess this means no video. Come on!" Blair yelled after him as he walked quickly to the door, making his way through the milling tourists, but stayed with the Jeep.
The picture from Veronica’s file firmly in his mind’s eye, Jim waited impatiently for the elevator that would take him to the top of the tower. It came quickly, and once at the top, he scanned the area quickly. Spotting a woman in a dark blue blazer with a nametag attached, he approached her. "Are you with Cascade Harbor Tours?"
"I’m looking for Veronica Sarris."
"Veronica’s with the other group. They just went down to the bus."
Moving to the enormous plate glass windows that provided the tower with its spectacular view, Jim looked down, catching a glimpse of another young woman herding a group of tourists onto a clearly labeled bus. She turned to talk to the driver, and Jim watched, flabbergasted, as another ‘tourist’ joined the group, sneaking on behind her. "Sandburg. Shit!"
He pulled out his badge, running for the elevator. Several people were waiting for the car that arrived, and he pressed through them as the doors opened, brandishing his badge like a shield. "Everybody out of the way. Let’s go. Thanks for your cooperation, folks."
The humans were cooperating, but the vehicles weren’t. Jim made it outside just in time to see the bus pulling away from the curb… and his loaner Jeep being towed. He looked around; time for some quick thinking. Commandeering a civilian vehicle was only an option in the movies, wasn’t it? Maybe not. ‘Here goes nothing,’ he thought. Across the street, a taxi had just disgorged its passengers, and Jim ran across the street, yelling to the driver. "Hey, taxi! Cascade PD. I need your car!" The driver got out, and Jim pushed by him, getting in. "Thanks, buddy."
Ignoring the cabby’s frantic questions, he pulled a fast U-turn, hitting two parked cars as he did so. "This thing steers like a cow," he muttered under his breath, heading after the bus, trying to think of what its route might be to whichever landmark was next on the tour. He had to get on that bus somehow.
As if on the wind, a woman’s voice carried to his ears while he concentrated on the bus. "Take the Green Street bridge," he heard.
Of course. That made sense. The bridge was closed for repairs. Mentally mapping the area, he took a quick left, hoping he’d make it to the overpass over Green Street at Lewis before the bus passed under it. Disregarding all the traffic laws he could without killing someone else or himself he sped up, the ancient engine of the cab protesting as he pushed it to its limits. He made it to the overpass, jumped out of the cab, and looked over the edge. It was going to be close, but he could make it.
‘I’m getting way too old for this shit,’ he thought, and leapt.
Blair looked up at the loud thud that came from the roof of the bus. When he looked back down, he nearly swallowed his tongue. There, at the front of the bus, was the tour guide with a drawn gun. ‘Aw, shit, man… not good.’
"No one move," Veronica yelled.
Blair waited until she was looking back at the driver again, and when he was sure she wouldn’t see him, he rummaged around in his backpack for Jim’s cell phone. He gripped the handle on the back of the seat in front of him as the bus burst through barricades blocking the bridge. Sliding down in his seat, making himself as small and unnoticeable as possible, he dialed even as he felt the bus coming to a stop. He had to hurry before she…
"Hello. You’ve got to help."
"State the nature of your call, sir," the operator monotoned.
"I need to talk to Captain Banks in Major Crimes," Blair whispered.
"Yes, sir, please hold," she droned in the same monotone.
"No! No, don’t put me on hold," he whispered, panic lacing his voice.
Noticing the panic, the operator asked, "Is this an emergency, sir?"
"Yeah, this is an emergency! Get me Captain Simon Banks. I’m on the Green Street bridge with the Switchman…" His voice trailed off as a gun pressed against his side. He relinquished the phone to her, watching her warily.
‘We’re going to die,’ was the only thought that went through his head as he stared into the eyes of a madwoman with no soul.
"This is the Switchman," she spoke into the phone as she returned to the front of the bus.
Simon stood at the conference table in his office bracing his hands on the table as he leaned over the speakerphone. Carolyn stood next to him, her arms crossed over her chest, radiating tension.
"Captain Banks, I’m patching the suspect through to you now. Go ahead."
The nasal voice of the operator gave way to another female voice. "I want to talk to the officer in charge."
"This is Captain Banks."
"No, I want the one who couldn’t catch me. Detective Ellison."
He muted the phone and hissed angrily to Carolyn, "Where the hell is Ellison?"
"I don’t know."
Joel entered the room, his face tense. "Captain, SWAT’s rolling and I’ve got a bomb disposal unit on the way to the bridge now."
Simon took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose with one hand. With his other, he pressed the button to take the phone off mute again. "Uh, can you just hold on for a moment? Detective Ellison will be with you in a minute."
‘It’s now or never.’ Jim took a deep breath and swung down, crashing through the back window of the bus. He tucked and rolled through the glass, coming up in a squat, his gun drawn and trained on the woman who was the daughter of one of the best men that had ever drawn breath.
‘Okay, nice and easy now.’ He stood up slowly, his gun never wavering from his target. "Okay! First the gun! Put it down, Veronica."
"No. Remember my message? This is the end of the line. I want to die," Veronica stated coldly.
Her words ripped through his heart faster than any knife ever could. He had to stop this before it got out of hand. "And I want an arrest." Praying it would work, Jim concentrated his sight down the barrel of Veronica’s gun and fired. He silently cheered as the gun was knocked out of her hands. Running forward, he grabbed her, shaking her hard as he did.
Noticing the camera in Blair’s hands, Jim yelled at him to put the damned thing away. Geesh, the kid had the worst timing with that thing. Turning his attention back to the problem at hand, he asked, "Where’s the bomb, Veronica?"
"Find it," she challenged.
"TELL ME!" He shook her harder this time.
She laughed in his face, a brittle wounded laugh, full of anger. "You let him die. Left me all alone," she hissed. "You let them all die!"
Memories came crashing in on him like wave after wave assaulting him. No. No! "NO! Your father was my best friend! I tried to save his life. My God, Veronica, you’ve got to believe that." Jim pleaded with his eyes as well as his voice. "Where’s the bomb?"
She smiled up at him, an insane look in her eyes. "Tick… tick…."
"Please," he begged.
She chuckled. "Time’s up!"
She wasn’t going to help; she truly wanted to die. Jim frantically looked around and spotted his Guide. "Help me look for it."
Blair shot him a sharp look. "Don’t look, Jim. LISTEN."
‘Listen? Was he mad? How could…?’ Jim mentally slapped himself. ‘Duh!’ Okay. He could do this.
Taking a deep breath, he pulled Blair forward, telling him to keep an eye on Veronica, passing him the gun as he did so. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the driver heading for the door. "Don’t! The door could be wired." Turning back to the passengers, Jim spoke as calmly and authoritatively as possible. "Okay, everybody, just relax and don’t move. We’re going to get out of here safely."
‘I can do this. Just breathe and concentrate. Just like Sandburg showed you.’ Jim extended his hearing and listened. Slowly he walked toward the back of the bus. The sound of hearts rapidly beating was almost enough to bring him to his knees. ‘Too much! Okay, don’t panic. Concentrate.’ His hearing corrected itself.
That’s when he heard it.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Like a bloodhound after a scent, Jim zeroed in on the sound and followed it to the very back of the bus. There, under the last seat, was the bomb. Reading the timer, Jim freaked. ‘FIVE FUCKING SECONDS!’ Throwing it as hard as he could out the back window, he yelled, "Everybody get down!"
Jim started to run for the front of the bus. The explosion rocked the bridge, and he felt himself being thrown forward, his feet leaving the floor. He was flying through the air as glass from the windows burst into fine shards. Heat from the explosion fried the nerves of his back. His head hit the top of the bus, and then he was falling. Falling. Time slowed and sped up all at once. He was in Peru, but he wasn’t. He was a man, but he was a predator. He landed on one of the passengers. The world went quiet. Darkness, smoke, and crying filled his senses. Past and present clashed.
He opened his eyes and looked at the only real thing left to him… Blair.
The scene bustled with what, to an outsider, would look like barely controlled chaos. Simon, Jim, and Carolyn watched as Veronica, cuffed and sullen, was assisted into the back of a patrol car to be whisked off to jail. Feeling half sad and half smug, Jim shook his head and turned away from her.
"Well, I’d say the city is in for more than a little repaving here. Good work, Jim." Simon clapped his big hand onto Jim’s shoulder. "I’ve been worried about you the past couple of days. Glad you finally came to your senses." One of the Forensics technicians called his name, and without a backward glance, Simon walked away.
"So… can I make you dinner?"
Carolyn’s question caught Jim off guard, and he turned to look at her in surprise. "You don’t cook."
"I do now."
"Um…oh, damn, my watch fell off — again."
After watching bemusedly while she dug through her purse looking for it, he cocked his head and listened for a much quieter and less threatening ticking than he had only a short time earlier. "It’s on the rear floorboard of your car."
Carolyn turned, looking at her dark blue sedan parked in the clumping of vehicles at the end of the bridge. "How could you possibly…?"
He grinned. "Actually, if I could get a rain check on dinner, that would be great. Tonight I just want to go home and crash. It’s been a rough week."
Still mystified, Carolyn simply nodded as he walked away.
Chuckling under his breath, he headed for another source of sound he’d picked up on his hunt for Carolyn’s watch. Taggart was having some trouble with Sandburg, who was getting his knuckles patched up from punching Veronica while Jim looked for the bomb. He listened in on their conversation as he approached.
"Come on, Sandburg, give me the tape. It’ll make my job a lot easier. Come on, we can subpoena it for evidence anyway."
"All right, but you gotta promise me you’re gonna give me it back."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Jim grinned as he rounded the ambulance door, snatched the tape from Blair’s hand and gave it to Joel. "He’ll promise, he’ll promise. You’ll get your tape back, Sandburg."
"Wait a minute. You know this guy?" Joel looked between them, confused.
"Yeah. My new partner," Jim said, walking toward the collection of vehicles and wondering who he could talk into driving him home.
"Partner?" Blair picked up his backpack, following him closely. "Are you serious? You’re not too pissed at me for getting on the bus to work with me?"
"Guide, whatever. Every, uh, what’s it called, sentinel needs one. Isn’t that what the book said? You’re not a cop, but you’ll have to do."
"Oh. Excellent. I thought this was gonna be a thesis paper. But I think we’re talking best seller here." Blair’s excitement wasn’t dulled by Jim’s apparently tepid reaction to working with him in an actually dangerous situation.
Jim spun, grabbing Blair’s shoulders. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, just hold on, Darwin, just slow down. You’re not publishing anything for a while, okay?"
"Why not?" Honest bewilderment painted Blair’s features.
"Because I don’t want every lowlife in town knowing I’ve got an edge, especially one I can barely control. You just keep this between us. You got it?"
Blair nodded, momentarily subdued, then perked up again. "Hey, do I get a badge?"
"First, I gotta find a way to clear it with the captain. Then you’re gonna have to go through the Academy just like every other cadet." He lightly punched Blair on the shoulder and walked off.
"Cadet? Cadet? Wait a minute, man. I am not cutting my hair!" he heard from behind him.
‘Too easy,’ Jim thought, laughing aloud.
~ The End ~
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