By Sherrylou with LindaS
Written for PetFly by:
Teleplay by: Harv Zimmel and Gale Morgan Hickman
Story by: Harv Zimmel
PG-13 for language
internal thought in * *
~~~~ Act I ~~~~Cyclops Oil – Northstar 5; Rig 18; 40 miles off the coast of Washington
Clattering down the metal staircase to ‘C’ deck, Jack Buchanan hustled over to the dive system tank; the eerie silence and lack of supporting personnel indicative of the earliness of the hour. The last dive the day before had been a real bitch and his body still trembled from exhaustion. "Just get the job done," he mumbled to himself, as he scrubbed a hand over his wearied eyes and across his whiskered chin. He just wanted to get back to his quarters and crash on his bunk. With no scheduled dives until later in the morning, he was looking forward to the downtime. And why did this job always fall to him? Why couldn’t Billings handle the system’s check? It wasn’t like he was doing anything at the moment.
Satisfied that everything appeared normal, he quickly made mental notations of the outside instrument settings. The ringing of the phone interrupted his concentration. "Buchanan," he answered absent-mindedly. Recognizing the caller, he lowered his voice. "Yeah, I’m checking the dive system now." He paused, listening intently. Looking around surreptitiously, he hunched over the phone and hissed softly, "Look, I know the situation. I told you how I feel. So, we contact the authorities and let them handle it. Plain and simple. Could we talk about this later? I’ve got a job to do."
Hanging up, his fingers lingered on the receiver. Damn! What a mess. What a fucking mess! He didn’t want to get involved. No way, man. Sometimes it was better to turn a blind eye … but he already knew too much.
He finished up the outside checks and then opened the hatch and entered the small chamber. Waving around the analyzer wand, he cursed when the small instrument began to click more rapidly. A sudden slamming of the metal hatch drew his attention away from the detector, and he spun around in time to see the door latch shut. Dropping the instrument, he rushed to the door and twisted the hatch’s handle. Why wouldn’t it budge? Confused, he tried again, and then a horrific realization began to sink in. Trapped! My god, he was trapped! As he pounded against the door, his heart rate quickened with each cry for help.
What to do? What *was* he going to do? Someone had to be out there, the door just didn’t close by itself. Moving over to a side porthole, he peered through the tiny window and rapped frantically against the glass. "Hey! What the hell you doing? Hey! Hey!" He continued his shouting as a shadowy figure disappeared from his view. "Let me out. Let me out. Hey!"
As high-pitched beeping resounded throughout the small chamber, his eyes flew to the dials and widened in panic at the rising gauges. A choked sob escaped his lips, and he began to flip switches to no avail. Returning to the door’s porthole, he continued his plaintive cries, both fists thumping against the heavy metal door. God, his whole head felt like it was going to explode. "Get me out!" he screamed one final time before raising both hands to clutch his throbbing head. A warm wetness oozed through his fingers. His vision dimmed, and he made one last attempt, reaching out for help, reaching for salvation, as his bloody palm splayed against the tiny window. God! No, no, no…..
Jim grabbed another box as he started clearing the area by the sofa. All this stuff just lying around, cluttering up the room, claiming new territory, messing with his senses, had to go. He didn’t care if Sandburg had an authentic skull of the missing link or a map to the lost world, Atlantis, hidden around here; the ungodly mess was soon to be history … gone … out of here.
Finding an unrecognizable food-like substance cemented to a plate halfway under the couch, he held the offending object away from his body. "I’m not even going to hazard a guess what this is — or was," he griped and tossed it along with the plate into a box he’d mentally labeled as ‘dumpster bound.’
Pleased with the headway he’d made so far, the sound of approaching footsteps drew his attention toward the door. Ah-ha. So, the perpetrator was returning to the scene of the crime. Jim arched an eyebrow as he looked at the remaining ‘evidence’ littering the living area. Time to remind a certain messy anthropologist the law of the land — or loft, so to speak. Oh, yeah, Sandburg. He focused tightly on the opening door. Court was now in session, and Ellison’s Rules of Order were first on the docket.
Reaching for the doorknob of the loft, Blair paused as he felt a tiny, persistent ache sweeping through his chest. His hand dropped from the knob and lightly skirted across his newly healed ribs. The bruises had faded, but the memory of being shot was still quite vivid. Shot! God, he could hardly believe it. Thank goodness for Kevlar … and that Zeller had aimed for his chest and not his head. He shuddered at that thought and inserted the key into the lock.
With a twist of the knob, Blair opened the door and entered. Stunned, his eyes scanned the sight before him as his mind hurried to understand what he was actually seeing. Scattered around the living area were boxes filled with stuff — his stuff! Two sat on the floor near the couch and another on the coffee table. What the hell was going on? Momentary panic seized his chest and the thought of the one-week promise from so long ago filled his mind. *Okay. Calm down. Keep it nice and light,* he told himself, even as his brain raced for a possible explanation.
Hoping to keep his voice from shaking with confused emotion, Blair dropped his keys into the basket, took a deep, centering breath, and then spoke, "Hey, uh, Jim. What’s going on, man? You got a hot date tonight or something?"
"Time to get organized, Chief. This mess here is starting to drive me crazy."
Oh. Blair didn’t like the sound of his roommate’s voice, flat and emotionless. This was so not good. He slipped out of his jacket and casually tossed it onto the couch. Glancing at the untidy condition of the room, he crossed over to Jim and asked innocently, "What mess?"
Before he knew it, a plate was pushed into his hand and Jim was spouting something about a science experiment and even the sprouts having sprouts. He looked up from the plate in time to see his partner manhandling one of his artifacts into a box.
"Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Time out, Jim." Blair set the plate down and carefully removed the large mask from the box. "This is a rare devil mask from the Onkatu tribe in Kenya. It’s on loan from the university."
"Well, why is it lying around?"
"It’s not lying around." Even Blair cringed at the untruth of that remark. He listened as his roommate’s voice rose slightly, ranting about papers — his papers — on the TV.
"That’s how I work. You know, I go back and forth with things as the muse strikes." There. Jim had to see the reasoning in that.
With a handful of papers, Jim gestured toward Blair’s room. "You’ve got your own bedroom there, Chief. *Muse* it up all you want." Never stopping once, he continued around the room picking up books and papers.
"Yuk, yuk, yuk. Good one, Jim." Carrying the mask to his room, Blair called over his shoulder, "Don’t you think you’re getting a little territorial?"
Uh-oh. There was that cold, distant tone of voice again. "Yeah. Territorial," he reiterated. Emerging from the small room, Blair decided to lay all his cards on the table. "Okay. Let’s take the refrigerator for example," he said as he gestured toward the fridge and then proceeded to rattle off his points one by one. "You’ve got the leftovers color-coded. You’ve got yours in the blue, mine in the red. Oh, and let’s talk about your house rules a little. I can’t flush the toilet after ten o’clock. I can’t play music that you can hear in the living room." Exasperated, Blair flung his arms out from his body. "Who can live like that?"
He raised his eyebrows, as if to question Jim again, and then watched in amazement as Ellison replied without missing a beat while at the same time continuing his ‘search and clean’ mission.
"I can live like that."
Before Blair had a chance to respond to his partner’s statement, the phone rang and both men reached for the receiver nearly bumping heads. Backing off, he allowed Jim to answer and began picking up some of his notes and books. The place didn’t look that bad, not compared to his days back in the warehouse. After all, a little clutter was good for the soul. Concentrating on what he was going to say next and mulling over several approaches to counteract Jim’s stringent set of rules, Blair was surprised when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Get your coat, Chief. Simon needs us down at the station."
Blair hastily set down the papers and grabbed his jacket from the back of the couch. Slipping it on, he then hurried to follow Jim out the door. The discussion was tabled for now, but knowing his roommate, it would be revisited as soon as they got back.
Oblivious to the impressive view of Cascade’s skyline, Simon paced in front of the large window, momentarily gathering his thoughts before finally turning to face the two men in his office. Gerry McMullen, a long time friend and captain with the Coast Guard, had asked for his help, and now he needed to ask his two friends for their help. Ellison stood at a relaxed parade rest, a remnant of his military training, eyes keen with interest, waiting patiently, while Sandburg casually rested his hip against the conference table, cradling a mug of coffee. *His* coffee, Banks noted.
Noticing the expectant looks on both their faces, the captain proceeded to fill his men in on the problem. "About an hour ago, the Coast Guard received a call from an off-shore oil production rig. There’s been a death."
Ellison’s eyebrows scrunched in confusion. "Wouldn’t that be the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction?"
Conceding to the point with a shrug of the shoulder, Simon explained, "Normally. However, there are a few questions here that they need some answers to." He shifted uneasily, hesitating slightly before revealing the real reason behind the request. "Besides, the captain’s a buddy, and I told him we’d help. There’s a storm alert along the coast, and they’re strapped for manpower."
Jim remained unexpectedly quiet while Blair, setting aside the coffee cup on the table, not surprisingly piped up, "Who got killed?"
"Details are sketchy," Simon continued quickly now that Ellison had made no objection. "You’ll have to fill in the blanks. The rig is the Northstar 5, owned by Cyclops Oil. A company chopper is standing by at their corporate airfield to take you there."
"Exactly how far out are we talking?"
Simon paused before answering. Was there a hint of wariness in Jim’s voice? "I don’t know — forty, fifty miles."
"All right! Nutty." Blair’s voice vibrated with excitement as his hand excitedly pumped the air.
"Yeah. Nutty," Jim agreed with a less than enthusiastic response.
"Jim, you and Sandburg are going to be on your own out there." Looking directly at his detective and knowing that detective’s propensity for often pushing the limit in regards to procedure, Simon toughened his voice. "I expect regular reports. You’re a long way off from any back-up."
Ellison acknowledged the request with a, "Will do, Captain," then straightened up and turned to his partner. "Ready, Chief?"
The young man nodded and followed the detective, calling out a last minute farewell to the captain. "Later, Simon."
"Be careful," Simon added, almost as an afterthought as the two men headed out of the office. A nod and a wave were his only responses to his admonition. Crossing over to the coffee pot, he glanced out through the opened blinds, catching one last sight of Ellison and Sandburg as they exited the bullpen. Jim had seemed unusually subdued, and that puzzled him. However, it was just another routine assignment; one his detective should handle easily. After all, what could happen within the context of a few hours? With that final thought, he poured himself a cup of coffee and then set about clearing out the in-box on his desk.
Arriving at the airfield and spying the corporate helicopter, Blair’s throat tightened, and he swallowed nervously. Squaring his shoulders, he internally steeled himself for the upcoming ride. *Buck up, Sandburg. Swimming is *not* an option. Simon did say chopper, though a boat ride would’ve been nice.*
An approaching mechanic called out to the pair, "You guys from the police?"
"Yeah," Jim answered back.
"You’ll find all-weather gear in the shack." The mechanic jerked his thumb over toward a small building. "Better hurry up. With the approaching storm, the pilot’s anxious to get back to the Northstar 5."
Swiftly slipping into the bright orange jumpsuits, the two men quickened their pace toward the waiting chopper. However, as Blair neared the helicopter, his steps began to slow. Jim was halfway there when he stopped, apparently noticing the younger man lagging behind. "Something wrong, Chief?"
"Uh, no … no, everything’s fine." Blair offered Jim a weak smile as his partner came to stand beside him. *That’s it. Talk it up. Keep your mind off of the several hundred feet of air between you and solid ground once the chopper takes off.* "Just thinking about the trip out. Hey, did you know that the Chinese recorded the first concept of rotary wing aviation in the fourth Century A.D? It’s in a book called ‘Pao Phu Tau,’ about a Master who–"
Jim chuckled, cutting off the impromptu aviation history lesson, and gave Blair a friendly push. "Enough with the lecture, Orville. Get in the bird."
Using one finger, Blair playfully tossed an ‘up yours’ expression over his shoulder as he ducked his head and hurried toward the small door. Jerking it open, he climbed in, got situated in his seat, and then wiped away the dust caused by the backwash of the blades from his face and eyes. As Blair pushed back a few loose strands of hair from face, he watched Jim settle quickly in next to him, slip on the headset and then give him a ‘thumbs-up’ signal.
The whine of the engine grew along with the roiling he felt in his stomach, and his fingers dug deeply into the edge of the seat. Oh, god. He swallowed back the rising bile as he felt the slight jerk of the helicopter lifting off, and the landscape swirled before his eyes dizzily. As a distraction, past Anthro 101 lectures came to mind, and he recited them silently, by rote; the speed of the words increasing as solid ground faded from sight.
"Would you look at that ocean? It’s so raw … so primal."
Ten minutes into the flight and already Sandburg’s excited nattering filled the small confines of the cabin and showed no signs of stopping. God, did someone wind him up before the trip? Maybe it was Simon’s blend of Kenyan coffee. Jim smiled slightly and allowed his eyes to wander to the aforementioned view. "So deep," he whispered uneasily. He shuddered as an unpleasant sensation crept over him.
Resting his head against the cool window, he continued to stare at the water. With eyes fixed to the vastness of the sight below, Jim tuned out the voices droning around him. Whatever Sandburg and the pilot were talking about held no interest. Instead, he watched the sunlight shimmer across the ocean’s surface as tiny whitecaps leaped among the liquid jewels. The mesmerizing water dance drew him in, and he felt his eyelids grow heavy.
*~ Flash ~*
An uncontainable sense of overwhelming fear — breath-stealing terror!
*~ Flash ~*
Chattering teeth — flailing arms — muscles burning with each kick!
*~ Flash ~*
A wet, choking darkness, surrounding him, pulling downward … tugging … tugging…
Blinking several times, he jerked upright, now wide-awake. What the hell was that? Scrubbing a hand over his face as if to wipe away the confusing images and terrifying feelings, Jim cast a sidelong look at his partner. Blair was still regaling the pilot on the finer points of man versus nature. Just now noticing the pilot’s long, red hair, he chuckled to himself. Figured — even forty miles out at sea, Sandburg would find a woman to hit on. Glancing out the window at the glittering water below, he scanned the horizon and tightened his sight. There, off in the distance, loomed the rig, a small metallic island surrounded by miles and miles of ocean.
The pilot’s voice broke through his mental haze. "Look, we’ll be on the rig in five minutes, but that storm front’s moving in fast. It’s going to get kind of bumpy. So, strap in that tight little butt of yours, okay, Lamb Chop?"
Jim grinned at the nickname for his partner and couldn’t help adding his own dig. "Need any help there, Lamb Chop?
"You, too, Beef Stick."
Beef Stick, huh? And who’d she think she was? Shari Lewis? Well, the hair coloring was right and she did have the same little beady eyes and pointy nose, Jim observed. The chopper bounced as a sudden downdraft caught the rotors, and an uneasy quiet settled within the cabin. Once again, his attention was focused on the rising swells, the churning ocean wild and angry, as the winds continued to buffet the small craft, signaling that the impending storm was not far off.
Enduring several more minutes of rough flying, they safely reached the rig, and the landing was accomplished without much difficulty. Climbing out of the copter, Jim stretched his legs, glad to be out of the confining enclosure, and took a better look at the pilot. Tall, not bad to look at, well built but sturdy, and he noted a slight toughness in her demeanor. Extending his hand, Jim flashed the young woman a smile "Thanks for the lift."
"Glad to be of service. I’m Maggie Bryce. Basically, I’m the taxi service for this tin can." She accepted the proffered hand and gave it a firm shake and then another gentle squeeze.
"Detective Jim Ellison and my partner, Blair Sandburg." Reclaiming his hand, he watched wryly as she ran an appraising eye over his partner before returning her focus back to him.
"I’ve got to tend my bird. You boys head to the mess hall. It’s through the first door, third floor from the deck. Yo, Beef Stick," she called out, giving a little seductive wink. "If I were you I’d wrap up my business fast. It’s gonna be dark soon, and that storm front’s moving in pretty quick."
"Right." Jim shook his head in amusement at the obvious flirtation. She must not get out much, he thought as he walked up a ramp, taking a casual look over the railing. The expanse of the tumultuous sea stretched out in all directions, seemingly endless even to his sentinel eyes. The rolling waves caught his attention, and the same gut-wrenching fear as earlier took up residence within the pit of his stomach, holding him frozen in place until a gentle hand and a concerned voice breeched his inward captivation.
"Jim. Jim, you okay? What is it?"
Jim shook off the sudden chill he felt. God, what was happening to him? He gruffly brushed aside Blair’s quiet inquiry. "Nothing. Nothing, Sandburg. Come on, let’s get inside."
Worried, Blair chewed on his bottom lip as he stared at Jim’s retreating back, frustrated at the response or — really — lack of it. Something was just not right here. What had happened wasn’t a normal zone out, but for a moment there, Jim had been mentally someplace other than on the rig. Still puzzling over the incident, he continued after his sentinel and stepped through the portal. Surprised to find that his partner had already slipped out of the jumpsuit and was leaving through another door, Blair quickly unzipped the outer garment and stripped it off, hanging it up on a nearby hook.
Hastening to catch up to his partner, he hurried down the stairs, the tinny sound of his feet clanging on the metal steps echoed noisily in the stairwell. Blair made it down one flight when he caught up to Jim and, latching a firm hand onto the older man’s bicep, took the opportunity to muscle him into the corner of the landing. Concerned, he hissed out, "Come on, Jim. Talk to me. That was not ‘nothing.’ What is it? Your senses?"
"I’m fine. Let’s just leave it at that and get this over with. The sooner we’re off this oil rig the better."
Feeling the tense muscle underneath his fingertips and seeing Jim’s eyes shift away from his — a classic Ellison avoidance maneuver — Blair was not buying Jim’s line. Something was definitely wrong. He edged closer, now chest-to-chest, getting in Ellison’s face. "Why don’t I believe you? Convince me."
A scowl crossed Jim’s face. "Sandburg." He lowered his voice, adding a threatening tone. "Drop it."
Forcibly shrugging out of Blair’s grasp, the detective continued on his way, once again leaving Blair behind. Blair shook his head in complete exasperation and then, at a slower pace, followed Jim the rest of the way down the stairs and into the mess hall. With each step, his determination to find out what was bothering Jim increased. *Go ahead, Jim. Run all you want. But sooner or later, we *are* going to talk.*
As Blair entered the dim room, conversation stopped, and he saw numerous eyes glance toward him then quickly turn away. Whoa! Tough crowd, he thought as he approached his partner’s side. Blair quirked an eyebrow and stifled his amusement at Jim’s futile throat clearing attempt for attention. In a hushed tone, he offered, "Uh, maybe there’s some kind of protocol involved here. There are certain tribes in the Amazon where newcomers have to strip down — "
Jim stepped further into the mess hall, interrupting Blair’s comments, and flipped open his badge. "I’m Detective Ellison, Cascade Police Department. Who’d be in charge here?"
A tall man, spiked graying hair, craggy face, nonchalantly took a sip of coffee before setting the cup aside. Getting up, he moved toward the detective. "I am. Ben Crilly, rig foreman."
With a friendly exchange of handshakes, Jim continued, "Hi, Ben. There’s been a death reported?"
Crilly paused, and what appeared to be a look of irritation flashed across his face. "It was an accident. I don’t understand why the police are involved."
Standing off to the side, Blair observed what looked to be an interesting match-up. *Better watch out, Jim,* he warned silently, as his eyes flickered back and forth between the two men. The large foreman took another step closer to the detective, invading his personal space. Now they were head-to-head, two alpha-males squaring off.
"We’ve been requested to investigate."
"Investigate what?" The voice now was more brusque and colder.
Jim smiled and replied calmly, "I’m sure you’re just as anxious to get us out of here as we are to leave."
*Ooh, smooth, Jim. That’s it. Work the man.* Blair’s eyes twinkled with appreciative delight as the detective held his ground.
Crilly stepped back, rubbing a hand over his weary face, and his voice softened. "Yeah. Sorry, uh, it’s just that it’s tough on the crew when you lose a guy. How can we help?"
"We need to see the medic’s report and the body."
"That’d be in the infirmary, ‘C’ Deck — Medic’s name is Weaver. You’ll have to show yourselves around. We’ve been setting risers on the wellhead around the clock, and we’re short-handed as it is." Turning away from the detective, Crilly called out loudly to his crew, "All roustabouts; rotary table in three minutes. I want that 30-inch casing at the ready." The earlier cooperation vanished and the foreman stepped around the two men with a gruff, "Excuse me, gentlemen."
Blair backed away from the door and watched as the crewmen headed off to their various jobs. Eyes wide at how quickly the room emptied, he shrugged his shoulders and walked back over to his partner. "Uh, I guess we gotta go find ‘C’ deck?"
Jim didn’t answer Blair’s question, but turned his attention to the two remaining crewman in the mess hall. "Either of you gentlemen direct us towards ‘C’ deck?"
Coughing, a man from the back of the room answered, "Two levels d-down. Infirmary’s off the m-main corridor."
"Thanks. You okay, partner?" The detective approached the speaker who was huddled under a blanket and hunched over a steaming cup of coffee.
Following Jim to the back of the mess hall, Blair took a good look and cringed. Aw, man, what was the poor guy doing up and about? The shivering was noticeable even from where he stood, and the man’s face exuded a sickly pallor.
"I will b-be." The man barely sputtered out the response, his voice trembling uncontrollably. Taking a deep breath, he continued, "H-hot water to my suit crapped out d-during a dive this morning. Damn b-body loses heat quick when you’re breathing helium-oxygen in 40-degree water." With shaky hands, he raised the coffee mug to his lips and sipped the hot brew.
"Yeah. You’re the rig diver?"
The man set the cup down and looked up at the pair warily. "Yeah. The only w-water man out here n-now that Buchanan’s g-gone. Name’s Lacey Billings."
Jumping into the conversation, Blair asked gently, "How you doing? Buchanan. Is that the guy who died in the accident?"
*Well, that tells us a lot,* Blair snorted quietly to himself. He listened closely as Jim continued to question Billings and got answers that basically amounted to one or two-word responses and revealed no information at all.
"You know who called the Coast Guard?" Said firmly, frustration now shaded Jim’s voice.
Billings paled even more, if possible, and Blair realized that Jim’s last question must have hit a nerve because the conversation ended abruptly. Billings got up quickly, saying something about a hot shower, and then sidled his way past the two men. Looking around the room, Blair noted that the other crewman had made a hasty exit, and they were by themselves. With the mess hall now empty, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked to Jim. "’C’ Deck?"
Jim nodded. "’C’ Deck."
Information was at an all-time low. Jim was ready to strangle the next person that said, "I don’t know." Weaver had been no help at all, copping out with the fact that he was just a medic and not privy to the day-to-day operation on the rig. Damn! Thirteen men on this tin bucket, and nobody knew what had happened. Well, Buchanan certainly hadn’t done it to himself, that much was obvious.
Guiltily he looked over at Blair. Shit, the kid was still green and shaky looking. How had Sandburg put it — Buchanan had blown up? An apt description of the body. Weaver had tried to warn them and had been right. Seeing the results of the sudden reduction of pressure in the dive system to a human body had not been a good idea. For a moment he thought he’d have to scrape Sandburg off the floor. It was almost more than Jim himself could stomach.
Done ramming his head against a brick wall — that said wall for the moment being the medic — he decided to continue his investigation at the site of the ‘so-called’ accident, and they headed toward the dive system tank. Walking down the corridor, Jim asked, "You ever feel so unwelcome in a place?"
Expressive hands fluttered as Blair explained, "We’re invading their territory, Jim. These guys work out here for weeks at a time. They develop their own society."
Yep. He knew Sandburg would have an answer to that question. But he wasn’t buying that line. "Chief, if you ask me there’s something a lot bigger than resentment going on here."
He paused by the dive system tank, looking over the equipment. Grasping the wheel that opened the door, Jim jerked his hands away from the tank’s hatch. The skin on his hands tingled, heat flaring from his palms to the very end of his fingertips. "Whoa! Man, that’s weird!" he said, as he shook off the feeling, rubbing his thumbs across his fingers.
Jim motioned Blair over to the door. "Check it out. My fingers are burning and itching."
Cautiously, Blair touched the wheel and then, shaking his head, ran his hands along the rim.
"You don’t feel it?" Jim asked, slightly surprised. He knew that it hadn’t been his imagination; he could still feel the annoying tingling deep below the skin’s surface. However, whatever the residue was, it wasn’t discernable to the normal touch. Unwilling to touch the wheel again, Jim nodded toward the hatch. "Open it up."
Blair spun the wheel and pulled the door open. Walking inside, Jim checked out the interior of the tank. "For Buchanan to die in here, this hatch would have to be closed and all the pressure would have to be pumped out of here."
Stepping into the tank and taking a seat on the bench, Blair asked, "What are you getting at?"
"Well, for one thing, he could adjust the pressure anytime he wanted to with this — this release valve." He flipped the switch back and forth easily.
"Looks like it works just fine."
"And, even if it didn’t, all he’d have to do is unseal the hatch." Jim stepped out of the tank, and Blair followed.
"Freak accidents happen."
Unconvinced, Jim shook his head. "Sure, they do." *Right, Sandburg, and if you believe that, I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.* Walking away from the tank, his eyes scanned the area, looking for something — anything odd, out of place. A tool left lying haphazardly in the far right corner among a collection of pipes and valves caught his attention. Maybe. Just, maybe…
Crossing the open area, he picked up the long wrench and ran his fingers along the edge, feeling the slight indentations. He walked with it back to Sandburg. "I think we hit the jackpot here. You see this mark?"
Blair looked to where Jim’s finger was pointing. "Mm-hmm."
"And this one here?" He closed the hatch, and Blair sealed the door. Carefully, Jim threaded the wrench through the wheel, locking the door with the wedged tool. The marks on the tool matched the wheel’s rim. "I think we just blew the accident theory right out of the water."
Grabbing the wheel, Blair yanked hard a couple of times, but the jammed wheel refused to turn.
"Time to get Forensics out here, Chief." Satisfied at having discovered the ‘how,’ now all he needed was the ‘who’ and ‘why.’~~~~ Act II ~~~The howling wind could be heard whipping violently around the outside of the small communications booth, an impressive demonstration of the storm’s fury. Inside, Jim waited quietly as Ridley, the radioman, attempted to make the connection to the mainland. When he’d first entered, Maggie had been finishing up a call, and then after a few words, mumbled something about being needed elsewhere.
What had Maggie said to him before leaving? Something about being cut off from the mainland and that nobody on this rig was going anywhere. Jim rubbed the back of his neck, attempting to relieve some of the mounting tension. Damn! The crime scene was old enough when they’d first gotten here, and now with this new delay, the trail was only getting colder. Well, at least all the suspects were contained on the rig; however, that also meant the murderer was still running around loose.
"Excuse me, Detective. I’ve got your captain on the horn."
"Thanks." Jim accepted the handset from the crewman. "Captain, your Coast Guard buddy had every right to be suspicious about Buchanan’s death. It was definitely no accident. We need to get Forensics out here as soon as possible."
<"Okay, Jim, but from our end, it’ll be awhile. Storm’s hitting the coast hard. You and Sandburg are going to be stuck there for now.">
"Any timeline for when the storm’s going to blow over?"
<"Hard to say. Last report was that it’s a slow-moving system. As soon as it’s safe, I’ll send out a crime unit. In the meantime, you and Sandburg watch your backs.">
"Don’t we always?" Jim smiled slightly, imagining Simon’s face on the other end — a picture of stern exasperation. Quickly, he relayed a few more pertinent details and then wrapped up the conversation, anxious once again to get back to the investigation.
Blair felt alive as the salty spray pelted his face. He had been only too happy to volunteer their assistance in securing the helicopter. The excitement of being outside, with the storm whirling around him, invigorated him. He likened the thrilling feeling to that of the tornado chasers and others who were fascinated with the almost living attributes of storms.
Squatting down, he glanced over at Maggie as she worked at the other end of the copter busily fastening down a line while calling out instructions to them. Blair nodded and held his line taut against a sudden gust, as Jim secured the rope on the opposite side of the tail.
The raging wind tugged at his long hair; even though Blair had it pulled back, forcing him to push aside a few loose strands that teased his face. Not bothered one bit with the wayward curls, he continued tightening the winch. Seeing that Jim had finished up with his end, Blair called over to his partner, shouting the only option. "Hey, Jim, give me the wrench!"
Exhilarated, Blair’s face beamed as he looked up at Jim and accepted the tool. "Whoo! Whoo-hoo! This is really something, isn’t it?" A blank face greeted him. Blair’s smile dropped, and his gut clenched at Jim’s unexpected reaction. He watched in confusion as the reticent man walked away from the work area toward the deck’s edge, stumbling slightly.
Noticing that Jim had been unusually quiet since they had come up on deck, Blair’s mind spun to find an explanation. As a rule, Jim tended to be more focused when on a case, but these mini periods of spacing out were not the norm. Twisting the wrench a few more turns, Blair then stood, wondering how to approach his partner. Was there something on the rig affecting Jim? Was it sense related? The darkness of the ocean surrounded the platform, the swell’s white frothy tips barely visible, and seemed to hold Jim almost trancelike.
"Jim! Jim, are you okay?" The wind whipped his cry from his lips.
There was no answer. Instead, as Blair took several steps toward Jim, his outstretched hand reaching for his partner’s shoulder, Jim turned abruptly and darted from the deck.
Confused, Blair let his hand drop slowly to grasp the cold, hard metal of the wrench, and stared down at the dark, rolling water. He grasped the tool tighter, the heavy weight grounding him as he walked away from the railing. The din of the storm seemed to settle into the background, its existence no longer important.
So wrapped up in Jim’s strange behavior, even Maggie’s presence didn’t register to Blair until she spoke, "What’s wrong with him?"
Without thought, Blair handed her the wrench, concerned eyes following his partner’s retreating movement. "I … I don’t know." *But I’m going to find out,* he added silently, as he stalked off in search of his partner.
Once inside, he found Jim slumped against the wall, face pale and eyes closed. "Jim, what’s going on?"
"Water," came the choked response.
"I’ve never told you this. Hell, I never told anybody this. Seeing all this water’s been bringing it back to me. I have this fear — open water, deep water — but I never connected it to anything."
Blair’s mind raced to keep up with the revelation. "What? Like a phobia? But you were in Special Forces. Covert ops. You had to parachute over water and stuff like that."
"Yeah, but that was different. I was always in sight of land. Out here, with all this water, that’s all I can see. It, uh, it’s just starting to get to me a little bit."
"All right, take it easy," Blair reassured Jim as he assisted his partner up. "We’ll figure this out." They slipped out of their all-weather gear, then Blair grabbed onto Jim’s arm and began guiding him down the several flights of stairs that would lead to the mess hall. *Figure this out? Oh, man, where do I go from here?* He could see that Jim was still shaken and was now looking at him as if he had all the answers. Walking down the corridor with his sentinel by his side, Blair fervently hoped that this time his ‘flying by the seat of his pants’ advice would end with his rear end still intact.
Clearly still distraught, Jim collapsed onto the nearest chair, leaning his head into both hands and closing his eyes to what he didn’t want to see. The images each time he was up on deck — near the water — wouldn’t go away. Shuddering as he took a breath, he couldn’t understand the crushing fear that clenched his heart, he only knew that it was something deeply rooted, something from long ago. He scrunched his eyes tighter, as if that could keep the memory away.
Trapped — his arms pinned to his side as water swirled around him — unable to breathe!
Breaking free — then nothing — nothing but water, dark and deep.
A warm hand brushed across his back.
"Jim?" The soft voice encompassed compassion, curiosity and concern. For a moment, Jim considered ignoring the presence standing beside him, but he raised his head to the figure.
He took the cup offered to him in both hands, trying hard to steady the shaky feelings within. A slight smile crossed his lips as he sipped the warm brew, wondering at his friend’s self-imposed restraint on questioning him.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Well, so much for the restraint, Jim thought as he took another sip, avoiding Blair’s piercing eyes and question.
Blair dropped into the chair across from Jim. "Listen, I just think that it would help if you brought this thing with the water out in the open. Kinda like purging the soul."
"Who appointed you Dr. Freud?" Jim groused, trying to hide the panic he felt about discussing his fear — and that was what it was: fear. "Isn’t it enough that you get to screw around with my senses, now you want to mess with my head?"
Jim could see the flicker of hurt that crossed Sandburg’s face. "I’m sorry," he mumbled as he looked down into his cup, swirling the dark liquid. For a moment he felt lost; a pulling down into the whirling darkness tugged at him as the light in the room dimmed and the sounds faded away.
"Jim … JIM!" The voice caught his attention, pulling him back from the abyss he’d nearly fallen into. He looked sheepishly at Sandburg and then sighed.
"It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it … it’s just that I don’t know. I don’t remember. It’s just pictures, images, and feelings of something that happened a long time ago. It’s always beyond my reach."
"I know some techniques that might help recall the memory," Blair offered.
"No, Chief. I’m not into hypnosis or that new age stuff."
"It’s not hypnosis. It’s a method using relaxation, kinda the same thing you did when you needed to remember that answering machine message from Jack."
"I don’t know."
"Come on. What’ll it hurt to try?"
What *would* it hurt? Jim really didn’t even want to go there. He still felt it was best to leave the forgotten memories buried in the past, but eventually he gave in to his partner’s request and nodded his acquiescence. Perhaps it would help, and it certainly pleased the kid. He watched as Blair’s face lit up with a smile before turning serious.
"Now, Jim, I want you to close your eyes and relax."
Jim smirked at the request but settled down after a warning glance from Blair.
"See if you can latch onto the image. Use your other senses to aid you."
Well, that was easy. Jim, without trying very hard, could smell the ocean breeze. He added that to an image of dark water and suddenly found himself gasping for air. He would have fallen from his chair if it were not for the two firm hands grasping his shoulders.
"It’s all right, Jim. Nothing can hurt you here. Try to go back, beyond that feeling, try to recall what happened."
Jim let the soothing voice of his guide wash over him. He slowed his breathing and soon found the calm voice along with the salty sea air carrying him off.The young boy stared off at the setting sun as the light bounced across the waves. He turned back to look at the cabin. The men were down there still talking business. They were supposed to be fishing but in the last eight hours, his father and business partners had only put out their lines twice before going back to their drinks and discussions. Looking back at the coastline, he realized there was nothing to see now. The undeveloped beach full of scrub pines had vanished from view an hour ago.
"Yes, Dad." The boy looked up through his light brown bangs with expectation.
"I just wanted to let you know that there are sandwiches below. We’re going to be discussing the plans for the development for another hour or so. I expect you to be quiet and make sure that you keep your life vest on while you’re up here on deck."
His dad ruffled his hair and gave him a quick pat on the cheek. Jimmy watched longingly as his father left him and climbed up the steps to see the captain before returning below to the cabin. Sighing, he listened in on the men’s discussion.
<"So, is everything all right topside?">
<"Yes. I spoke to the captain. We’re going to be changing course shortly to head further down the coast.">
<"How’s your kid doing?">
<"Jimmy? He’s doing fine, but for the life of me I don’t know what I was thinking. I never should have brought him along.">
Jimmy tried to prevent the tears. He knew that his father would be mad if he saw them, but it was just so unfair! When his father had told him he was taking him along to Florida for a fishing trip, he’d been thrilled. He had visions of him and his dad fishing and talking and just having a good old time. Doing things that he watched his other friends do with their dads. He had been sorely disappointed to find out that the fishing trip was more of a business trip, and the only reason he had been brought along was so that he could play with the son of the other person his father was meeting. Only that other boy had unfortunately taken ill right before the trip. So now, here he was, left on his own.
Wiping his hand across his eyes, he took some deep breaths in order to calm down. The life vest pulled at each deep breath, feeling more like a straight jacket. Tugging at the top of the vest, he loosened the fastening. He wasn’t a little kid anymore; he was eight and could swim across the pool at home without stopping. He didn’t see why his father made him wear one when no one else had to.
Turning his attention back to the water, he sat on the edge of the boat. Once again he followed with his eyes the dimming light dancing across the waves. If he stared hard enough, he could see the light penetrating the surface of the water until it bounced off the back of a fish. Earlier, when he had pointed that out to his dad, his father had laughed at him and told him not to act crazy. Now he watched as a school of fish swam underneath the boat. Excitedly, he ran to the other side of the boat and climbed up, balancing on his knees while holding onto the small metal railing. Not able to see them, he leaned over the side.
Unprepared when the boat suddenly turned, Jimmy lost his grip and went headfirst overboard.
The force of the fall knocked his life vest down off his shoulders, pinning his arms to his sides. Panicking, the boy tossed and turned in the water; sure he was going to drown. It was only luck that he managed to break through the surface. Gulping in some air, he wriggled in his life vest until he was able to free his arms. Frantically, he glanced around and then watched in terror as the boat grew smaller.
"Help, help!" Jimmy screamed until a wave caught him in the mouth, and he was choking on the salt water. Screaming some more, he was puzzled why they couldn’t hear him. He listened and could clearly hear the conversation on the boat.
<"Listen, Bill, there are all sorts of opportunities on the west coast of Florida. What Flagler did in St. Augustine, you can do here.">
<"It does look good, though I do have concerns about being so far away from my investment. Cascade is clear across the country.">
<"Oh, you can hire people to take care of the details. Here, let’s have another drink, and then we can go over the prospectus again.">
"Dad … Dad, help me," Jimmy cried out, noting that as the sun had set, the water around him had grown dark — dark and deep.The rest of the memory hit him hard and fast. Jim jumped up from the table, spilling his remaining coffee. Feeling trapped, he paced around the small room.
"Hey, easy, Jim." Blair stood in Jim’s way, placing both hands on his partner’s chest. "Settle down, it’s over."
But was it over? Jim didn’t think so. The memory did nothing to relieve his fear of deep water. It only brought up an incident he’d rather have stayed forgotten. Jim shared with Blair most of what he’d remembered about the experience, but left out the details. He wasn’t sure how much had actually happened and how much had been embellished by his young mind. Had he really heard those voices?
"What happened next?"
Jim studied the man who lightly restrained him, reading patience and understanding in those dark blue eyes, and then looked away. "A boat found me early the next morning, and I was rescued."
There it was — short and succinct — end of the story. He knew that Blair would leave it alone for now. Enough had been revealed. He wasn’t ready to relive the hours in the dark, the storm that had happened that night, or how long he had floated in the water, thirsty and exhausted. Confused and delirious, it had been in the early morning hours that he listened to a conversation carried on by a father and son in a nearby boat. The man had been so excited when the son pulled in a fish. He remembered hearing the pride the boy’s father expressed. It had appeared so vivid that he had thought he was on the boat, too. It was only when he had called out to his father that he’d been heard and found.
Jim moved around Blair and grabbed a towel. Crossing over to the table, he began to wipe up the spilled coffee. He felt a mixture of shame and anger as he scrubbed at the spill. He definitely didn’t want to mention to Blair his father’s attitude. Sure, the old man had portrayed a caring and concerned father at the hospital. But, on the plane ride home, his father made sure that Jim was well aware of his displeasure at having the business trip interrupted.
"Uh, Jim … I think the table’s clean enough."
The towel in his hand stilled, and Jim sat back down, slightly embarrassed, unsure of what to say next. He was saved from any more questions with the appearance of Maggie, and his shoulders sagged in relief. She crossed by the two men and helped herself to the coffee.
"You okay there, Beef Stick?" she asked, gesturing toward Jim with her cup.
"Yeah, fine." And he was feeling better. Just understanding where his fear was coming from had acted as a catharsis. It was still there, but perhaps there was a way to move forward, past the fear, and maybe even conquer it.
Further conversation stopped as a loud, metallic groaning resounded throughout the room. Grating his teeth at the high-pitched creaking, Jim looked up to see his partner glancing nervously around the room.
"That’s just from the storm," Maggie reassured them. "The rig can handle it — just gets a little noisy sometimes though."
Enough of just sitting around, Jim thought as he pushed himself away from the table and stood. After all, there was a crime to investigate. "All right, let’s move out. I’m not waiting for the Forensics team to show. It’ll give the killer too much time to cover his trail."
"Uh, where do we start?"
"Buchanan was the lead diver. I’d like to take a look at the divers’ ready room."
Maggie looked at the two men in disbelief. "Why would anybody kill Buchanan? I mean, I work with some of these guys. I’m not saying they’re saints, but I don’t see them committing murder."
Realizing that she was one of the few people he hadn’t questioned, Jim hoped for a helpful response as he asked, "Any idea who found the body or called the Coast Guard?"
"No, when it happened I was on a supply run to the mainland."
Well, no surprise there — just one more of the many no’s to add to the collection. And it was getting to be an awful big collection.
"What doesn’t make sense to me is why would someone call the Coast Guard and not leave a name?" Blair’s voice mirrored Jim’s own frustration.
"A lot about this case doesn’t make any sense, Chief. I mean, that’s why I was thinking that…" Jim paused, sniffing. There was an acrid scent to the air, thicker than usual, burning his nasal passages.
"What is it?"
He sniffed again, eyes darting around the room. "I smell smoke."
Leaving Blair behind to explain away his keen sense of smell to Maggie, Jim hurried out of the mess hall and down the corridor toward the pungent odor, his eyes tearing slightly as he neared the cause.
Smoke had led him to the divers’ ready room and the attempt to destroy the divers’ suits. For what purpose, it remained unclear. However, the fire had been quickly contained, and a can of solvent left behind indicated arson. The blaze had drawn the attention of the crew, and Jim noticed the group milling around the outside of the room, some curious, others frightened by the recent events. And now he had Crilly growling in his face again.
"That’s nuts. Why would anybody want to burn this stuff?"
"You tell me, Crilly. It’s your rig." For a moment, Jim locked eyes with the rig foreman and waited for an answer he knew he wasn’t going to get. Crilly broke contact first, eyes shifting to the floor. Turning away, Jim walked over to the crew. "Anybody see anything?"
He received a consensus of negative answers. "Of course not," Jim muttered, as he drew one hand across his face. What did he expect? It was par for the course.
Crilly pushed past him, then shouted to his men, "Everybody, back to work. Come on."
The small group of men broke up and followed their foreman down the corridor. Jim stepped outside the ready room and noticed one man lagging behind, nervously glancing over his shoulder. That face. He’d seen it before. But where? Turning to Maggie, he asked, "Who the hell is that?"
The soft vinyl chair felt good to his tired body, and Jim momentarily closed his eyes. The room, Maggie’s operations room, was nicer than the mess hall, and the coffee was certainly better. He could hear Sandburg talking to Maggie about her collection of books, and he smiled as he listened to the soft exchange. *Go get her, Tiger.*
Enjoying the relaxing moment, though the storm still raged outside, Jim mused over his earlier conversation with the man that had held his attention. When Maggie had said that the crewman was Truck Brower, all the pieces clicked into place. Several years ago, Jim had put away the big, hulking black man, who had once worked as a knee-breaker for a loan shark named Eddie Coogan. Brower was a con, or ex-con, since Brower had informed him that he’d been out of the joint for a couple of months now.
Jim also learned that Brower had been working as a roustabout for the past three months on the rig and appeared to be keeping his nose clean. The ex-con claimed he knew nothing about Buchanan’s death or the fire in the ready room. Why did that *not* surprise Jim? Yeah, right, Sandburg, the crew had their own society — a society of Sergeants Schultzes. Jim sank back further in the chair, pinching the bridge of his nose, as an imaginary chorus of "I know nothing, nothing!" rang in his ears.
However, he knew that the ex-con was covering up something. He remembered how little beads of perspiration broke out across Brower’s forehead and the man’s pulse rate sped up as he questioned the ex-con. Hot. Jim snorted. Not likely! Brower had claimed it had been hot on the rig, an attempt to explain away his sweating, even though Jim knew it couldn’t be more than 60 degrees.
A high-pitched squeal drew his attention over to Maggie and Blair, and he saw the woman raise the radio to her mouth.
"This is Bryce," she responded.
<"Hey, Maggie, it’s Ridley over in the radio room. I’m looking for that detective. You seen him?">
Maggie handed the radio over to Jim. "Yeah, I’m right here," he answered.
<"Your captain wants to talk to you — says it’s important.">
"All right, I’m on my way."
Handing the radio back to Maggie, Jim left the two of them and made his way to the radio room.
"Rain, and more rain," Simon grumbled to himself, listening to the torrential downpour pounding against the windows of his office. If the weather was hitting Cascade this hard, he wondered what it was like forty miles out at sea. His thoughts turned to his two men stranded on the rig. Supposedly, the assignment was to have been a quick in and out — a few hours at the most — not an all-day and possibly all-night affair.
Now feeling unsettled about the situation, Simon sighed and shook his head. Why was nothing ever simple for those two? Wearily, he set his glasses aside and leaned back in his chair, taking a momentary break. It had been a long day, and it looked like he was going to have to ask Rhonda to stay late if he had any hope of finishing the never-ending pile of paperwork. A soft rap on the door roused him from his short respite.
Acknowledging the knock, he called, "Enter," then straightened up as the door opened and his administrative assistant approached the desk.
"Here’s the information you requested from Cyclops Oil on their employees stationed on Northstar 5. Detective Brown ran the names through the database." Rhonda set the folder down on the desk and then glanced toward the window. "Wow. It’s really coming down out there."
Scooting up to his desk and reclaiming his glasses, Simon nodded absently to the slender blonde assistant as he opened the folder and scanned over the list of names.
"Will that be all?"
"Yes … er, wait a moment." The captain looked over the names again, silently cursing to himself as one in particular caught his eye. He pulled out the corresponding report and then glanced up at the waiting secretary. "Rhonda, place a call to the Northstar 5. I need to speak to Detective Ellison."
"Yes, Sir." Picking up several folders from the ‘out’ basket, Rhonda left the office to carry out the requested task.
Frowning, the captain read through the file, slapping the folder shut when finished.
No. It couldn’t be. But, there it was in black and white, in the arrest report that Brown had included. Truck Brower. A two-bit muscle for a loan shark — in and out of trouble most of his life. And at the bottom of the report was the signature of the arresting officer: Detective James Ellison.
Shit. Ellison and Sandburg were stuck out in the middle of the ocean with a convicted felon. One who was intimately familiar with the detective. What had he sent his men into? The buzzing of the intercom interrupted his thoughts. "Yes, Rhonda."
<"Northstar 5 on line 3.">
"Thank you." He found himself anxiously picking up the phone, and then he spoke with the Northstar 5’s radioman. Placed on hold, waiting to speak with his detective, it was a short time later when a crackle came over the line and he heard a faint, but familiar voice.
<"Captain? Si …">
"Jim … Jim, you there?" Nothing. Nothing but dead air greeted him. Anxiety now swelled to a burning concern. Hanging up the phone, Simon pressed the intercom button and paged his administrative assistant. "Rhonda, get me Captain Gerald McMullen of the Coast Guard."
Not one to normally sit back, Simon decided that he wasn’t going to waste time waiting around for a call back from the rig. He’d leave the information with Brown with the order to keep trying to make contact with the Northstar 5. Storm or no storm, somehow he was going to get to that rig tonight even if he had to swim out to it.
Holding the handset, Jim heard heavy static on the line along with a weak spark of connection.
"Captain? Simon … are you there?" he asked, and then realized that the line had gone totally dead. Turning, he looked questioningly at Ridley.
The radioman flipped a few switches, attempting to reconnect the lost call. "I had him a minute ago. Damn it! The wind must have disconnected the external antenna. It’s happened before."
"All right, we’ll check it out. You keep trying to raise him."
Jim left the radio room and retrieved his partner. Explaining the situation to Blair, they both suited up once again in the all-weather gear and wound their way up several levels to the upper deck.
Worriedly, Blair glanced over his shoulder at Jim. The whole matter of Jim’s fear had never been resolved. What could he say? What would help his partner focus on the task at hand and not the miles of churning water surrounding the rig? Pushing the door open, Blair was surprised as he was hit full front with a blast of gale force wind that pushed him back into his partner. A pair of strong arms steadied him.
"Easy there, Chief."
Wow! If he had thought the storm was fierce before, Blair now was amazed at the increase in its intensity. Sheets of rain angrily pounded the deck, creating a rumbling drumbeat, and along with the shrilling blare of the wind, made the sound almost deafening. As he regained his footing, he turned back to Jim and shouted over the howling wind, "This time, don’t look at the sea! Don’t look down."
What kind of help was that? Don’t look down? Disgusted, Blair shook his head, feeling a torrent of water stream down his face and drip off the tip of his nose. Shivering as the cold rain slithered down the back of his neck, he quickly pulled up his hood. The rain was punishing, hard-hitting, and coming at him almost horizontally. He raised his hand against the driving wetness and continued to walk forward. "I can’t see a thing!"
From behind, a hand landed on his shoulder and an arm pointed the way. "It’s up there."
Blair nodded his understanding and rounded the corner toward the antenna. Shakily, the tall metal tower wobbled back and forth, its entire length buffeted by the wind. In the lead, Blair approached the transmitter. He heard a loud snap, a crack, and a shrieking groan over the noise of the wind, and then without anymore warning, the antenna toppled toward him. Raising his hands in a feeble attempt to ward off the falling tower, Blair felt the first contact impact brutally against his chest; the weight heavy against his newly healed ribs.
He gasped as the antenna’s momentum forced the air right out of his lungs and propelled him backwards onto the hard deck. Unable to stop his fall, the back of his head struck the deck just as the metallic frame collided with his temple.
A cry of "Sandburg!" rang out, and then Blair felt the crushing mass being lifted off his body. Groggily, he raised a hand to his forehead, touching the warm stickiness that mingled with the cold rain. Oh, god, his head hurt — really, really hurt — and he let loose a low moan. Hands touched him carefully, running skillfully over his chest, up his neck, and around his head. Then he felt himself shifted slightly as supporting arms wrapped around him and he heard Jim’s voice encourage softly, "Hang in there, buddy."
The rain whirled dizzily before his eyes, and his vision dimmed. Blinking away the swirling wetness, he tried again to focus on his surroundings, but it was becoming too difficult. It was easier to close his eyes and shut away the pain. The sound of the storm now seemed far away, muffled, and darkness clutched at him, pulling him toward a pain-free void that he willingly followed.
Kneeling beside the prostrate body of his partner, Jim couldn’t believe what had happened. He glanced around for help — any kind of help — anxious to get Sandburg out of the driving rain, and then chided himself for such an asinine thought. Who’d be out on the deck in this monsoon? A snapped cable from the antenna lay by his feet and he fingered it lightly, feeling the smoothness of the break. Huh? Break? More like cleanly sheared. Warily, he looked around as he answered his earlier question. Who’d be around? Well, just maybe the person responsible for cutting the cable.
A soft groan drew his attention back to his partner, who seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, and he gently squeezed Blair’s shoulder. "Take it easy, Chief. You’re going to be all right."
Damn! He ran a hand over his face, attempting to wipe away the excess wetness. The rain continued to pound furiously against his hunched back and course off the top of his hood. He needed to get Blair out of the torrential rain and down to the infirmary. As he moved to lift his injured friend, through the heavy sheets of rain an orange-clad figure caught his eye. The hooded form knelt down beside him and then looked up to speak. Jim felt a gamut of emotions — surprise, anger and suspicion — as he peered at the dark face of Truck Brower.
"You need some help?"
"What’re you doing out here?"
"Crilly had sent me out to check the narrow gantry crane, and I saw the antenna go down," Brower responded matter-of-factly.
Eyeing the man suspiciously, Jim ground out, "So help me, if you’re involved in this, Brower, you’re going down."
Anger flashed through Brower’s eyes. "I said it once before. I’m clean. Look, do you want my help or not?"
Realizing that he had no proof of Brower’s complicity, Jim nodded. He still suspected that the ex-con was hiding something, but right now getting Blair down to the infirmary took priority.
"There’s emergency first aid gear stowed nearby. I’ll be right back."
Jim glanced back down at Blair and noticed that he was once again unconscious. He hadn’t detected any serious injuries, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. Relieved that Brower returned shortly with a Stokes basket, Jim worked quickly with the ex-con to secure the injured man to the stretcher. Then together they carefully lifted and maneuvered Sandburg out of the inclement weather and down several levels to the infirmary.~~~~ Act III ~~~Blinking several times, bright light pierced Blair’s eyes and splayed out into all regions of his brain. Quickly, he closed his eyes against the luminous assault. The dark was friendlier and comforting, and right now he felt it was a good place to stay. Off to his right, an unfamiliar voice spoke, "You got a nasty gash on your head, but I don’t think you’ll need stitches."
No stitches. That was a good thing, he thought as he tried to remember where he was. A hand touched his shoulder and the soft words, "You had me worried there, Chief," spoken with warmth and concern convinced him to try again to connect with reality.
Blair opened his eyes more slowly this time and, as his eyes adjusted to the light, the intensity of the throbbing in his head decreased. He saw Jim standing by his bedside with Weaver and Maggie nearby. Reaching up to touch his forehead, Blair fingered the bandage. "Ow. What happened?"
"The guy wires on the radio antenna must have snapped," Maggie offered.
A serious expression crossed Jim’s face as he countered Maggie’s words. "They didn’t snap. I got a good look at one of the wires out there, and it’d been cut."
"What?" Blair jerked up, attempting to sit, and then realized his mistake as he gasped at the tight pain squeezing his chest. Carefully lying back down, through clenched teeth he rasped out, "Someone meant for that antenna to fall on us?" As he regained his breath, Blair wrapped one arm protectively around his side and struggled to sit up again.
Placing a restricting hand on Blair’s shoulder, Jim cautioned, "Best to take it slow."
"Your chest took the brunt of the impact and probably saved you from a serious head injury," Weaver added. "Nothing’s broken, however, you’re going to have some spectacular bruising."
Great! Just great, Blair thought as he recalled the familiar feeling of bruised ribs.
"It’s clear somebody doesn’t want us to get through to Simon." Jim turned to face the copter pilot. "Maggie, is there another radio on the rig?"
She nodded, but her face didn’t look encouraging. "The only other radio is on my chopper. However, it’s been trashed. While you were out checking the antenna, I went out to the helideck and made the discovery. Someone ripped the guts out of the radio. There’s no way right now to contact the mainland. We’re on our own."
Now back in Maggie’s operations room, Jim looked over at Blair slouched in the chair, pale and still somewhat shaky. He wished that Blair had remained back in the infirmary, but his obstinate partner had been steadfast that the two of them should stay together. Safety in numbers, Blair had used as reasoning. Fool kid, Jim thought, but was touched just the same at Sandburg’s determination.
He figured that it was time to regroup and plan their next step. First thing up was to talk to the rig foreman, and he didn’t have long to wait as the expected man made an appearance.
Crilly strode into the room forcefully, with a dour look on his face. He paused in front of the detective, crossed his arms, and asked gruffly, "You wanted to see me?"
"Yeah. Somebody killed Buchanan, and it seems as if somebody’s trying to kill my partner and me." Jim jerked a thumb over toward his injured friend.
Crilly glanced briefly at Sandburg and then faced Ellison. "You’re crazy! I know my crew; they’re not killers."
"What about Truck Brower?"
"He punched out a couple of guys. That doesn’t make him a murderer. He’s a good man; they all are."
"Yeah, so good that you got one man dead, and someone else fearful enough to make an anonymous call to the Coast Guard? As of this moment, I’m ordering you to shut this rig down until further notice."
The rig foreman widened his stance, firmly planting himself in front of Jim. His eyes narrowed as he spat out, "Who the hell are you to give me orders?"
Unmoved by Crilly’s macho posturing, Jim responded, "I’m a police officer in charge of a crime scene. That’s who I am."
"We’re forty miles off-shore, mister, and your authority stops at the mainland. The only voice I answer to is Cyclops Oil. Until they tell me different, this rig keeps pumping, right on schedule. When the storm is over, you and your pal are out of here." Crilly didn’t wait for a reply. He spun around and stormed out of the room.
Maggie, who had remained quiet in the background, walked over to the two men, hands outstretched in a plea for understanding. "Guys, I know Ben Crilly. He can be hard-headed sometimes, but basically he’s a decent guy. Maybe if I talk to him –"
"It’s a waste of time," Jim cut in. He was familiar with that type of man, he often exhibited some of the same traits, and talking was not the answer.
"But what do we do?" Blair asked, looking at his partner for an answer.
"Just keep digging."
"Look, I’m just a pilot, but it seems to me the smartest thing to do would be to lay low until the storm’s over and then bring in more cops. Just you and your friend trying to handle this by yourselves could get real dangerous."
Nodding, Blair agreed. "She makes a lot of sense, Jim."
"We give this guy too much time, he’ll cover his tracks permanently. Now I’m going to the divers’ ready room. There’s probably something there that we missed. This fire was set for a reason. You stay put, Chief. You took a nasty one to the head and ribs. I want you to lay low." Jim pointed a finger at him to emphasize his statement. "And that’s an order."
"At least take a radio," Blair suggested, sounding frustrated at not being able to accompany his partner.
"All right." Walking over to a workstation, Jim picked up two radios and handed one of the communication devices to his partner. "Satisfied?"
Blair grinned happily as he switched his radio on.
Chuckling at the action, Jim reiterated, "Remember, no unauthorized field trips."
Moving toward the divers’ ready room, Jim opened his senses. The sharp crackle of the radio in his hand caused him to pause as his partner’s voice broke the silence.
<"Jim, you there?">
"Yeah, I’m here."
<"I was checking to see if the radio worked.">
"It does." Jim smirked. *Yeah, right, Sandburg — checking on the radio or me?* He knew the kid wasn’t too pleased to be left behind again. How many times had he told Blair to stay in the truck, trying to keep him safe? Safe? Jim grimaced at the thought. The rig’s antenna had nearly snapped off Blair’s head. And now he left him behind when they were stranded on an oil rig in the middle of nowhere with a murderer onboard and a plot line you would only find in an Agatha Christie novel.
Jim picked up his pace as a strange, but recognizable odor drifted down the hallway. *Not another one.* Ignoring Blair’s continuing remarks, Jim replied that he would call him back and then turned off the radio. He paused in front of the storage room door, knowing what to expect even before his eyes zoomed onto the lifeless body of Billings.
A blur passed by Jim, startling him to alertness. For once there was a possibility of some fresh information and not a clue over hours old. Chasing the figure down the corridor, he reported to Sandburg the diver’s death. "I’m following who might be the killer." His statement was met with static. "Damn radio," he muttered as he followed the sound of footsteps down the stairs onto a deck above the oil containers. Crossing onto a bridged area, he extended his senses. *Not going to lose you, not now.*
A loud squelching sound of machinery pierced the silence and his ears. Dropping the radio, Jim clutched uselessly at his ears and staggered, scarcely aware of the shove that sent him plunging over the railing.
The sense of falling lasted only briefly. Jim barely saw the edge of the vat before pitching headfirst into the oil. The thick black goo quickly closed over him, soaking his clothes and dragging him down further into the vat. Thrusting about, panic seized the man as he could no longer tell up from down.
*~ Flash ~*
An uncontainable sense of overwhelming fear — breath-stealing terror!
*~ Flash ~*
Chattering teeth — flailing arms — muscles burning with each kick!
*~ Flash ~*
A wet, choking darkness, surrounding him, pulling downward … tugging … tugging…
No … it wasn’t going to end this way. Kicking furiously, Jim finally managed to break the surface of the oil. Wiping a hand across the face did little to remove the oil. It was everywhere, his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth.
"Sandburg! Help!" Jim spluttered, barely able to keep his head above the liquid. Bringing an arm up, he slapped his hand against the side, trying to get a purchase, a handhold, anything to keep him from slipping under. The smooth metal, made slicker by a coating of oil, provided no hope of escape.
"Help!" Jim coughed as he tried to keep from sinking. It was difficult to keep treading as the liquid made his clothes heavy, pulling him downward. *Chief, I need you.* He needed Sandburg — here and now. But Jim realized that want was unrealistic. Sandburg was back with Maggie in the operations room. His mind chided him. *You told him to stay. You said: "You stay put, Chief." No one is coming — no one can hear you.*
Desperately Jim tried to claw at the side of the vat. As he slipped once again beneath the oil a faint sound reached his ear. Did someone call out "Jim"?
Blair, gripped by both fear and anger, ran down the corridor calling out for his friend. Damn fool sentinel! Who did he think he was — chasing after some killer by himself? Like anyone else on this rig would probably help him if he got into trouble — not!
Sliding down the stairs, Blair found himself on an open deck surrounding a massive oil operation. Enormous vats of oil met his eyes, but no human figure. Pausing to catch his breath, he hunched over and clutched at his side, willing the pain to ebb. His head seemed to beat an angry tempo in time with his tender ribs. *No stopping now. Got to keep going.* Pushing aside the pain, he took a calming breath, then slowly straightened up and continued down the walkway.
"Jim!" His voice sounded hollow in the vast chamber as his footsteps clanged on the metal walkway. *Jim, man, where are you?* He stopped on the catwalk above the vats, scanning the area once again. Turning to leave, it was only by chance that he noticed the radio on the walkway. Crossing to the railing, panic seized his throat as he looked over into the vat below. "Jim," he barely whispered.
Staring intently into the dark pool, Blair was caught off guard as an oil-clad figure broke the surface.
"Get me out of here!" the man cried.
*Oh, my God!* "Hang on, man. Hang on!" Blair shouted frantically as he watched his friend struggle below. Climbing over the railing and hanging tightly onto the top rail, he extended his arm toward Jim, ignoring the pulling ache in his side. "I got you. I got you. Give me your hand. Come on, give me your hand."
"I can’t! It’s too slippery."
"You can reach me." Blair stretched as far as possible and wrapped his hand around Jim’s. Straining, he tried to pull the struggling detective from the vat, but the heavy oil-laden clothes combined with the slickness of the lubricated hands made the rescue fruitless. Blair felt Jim’s hand slip from his and watched in horror as his friend disappeared beneath the dark liquid.
"Jim! Jim! Jim, come on." Blair slapped his hand against the side of the vat. "Jim!"
He shouted the name one last time, then ran an oily hand through his hair and stared at his surroundings. *No, no, no! It can’t end like this.* Refusing to give up, he bent down again and pounded on the vat. Blair let go of his breath as he watched Jim’s face rise once more. "Give me your hand! Come on!" he shouted desperately.
"I can’t get up!"
"Come on, Jim, don’t quit! Try! Jim, come on." Blair tried to keep his voice encouraging. He could tell that the man was tiring. How long could one tread oil? This time when Blair grabbed his friend’s hand, he could feel Jim’s strength leaving him as he slipped from his grasp.
"Won’t work." Jim barely was able to say before choking on a mouthful of oil.
"Jim, Jim!" Blair didn’t know what to do. There had to be a way.
"Up there!" Jim pointed toward a large hook.
"Right." Realization dawned as Sandburg climbed back onto the walkway and moved over to the control panel of the crane-like machinery. He stared at the buttons and levers. How difficult could it be to operate? Not much different than long hauling a truck, right? He switched the machine on. Hearing his name, he looked over into the vat. Jim had disappeared again. *Oh God, please don’t let me be too late.* Manning the controls, Blair lowered the hook into the vat. He reversed the switch and watched as the hook slowly rose to the surface. *Jim, come on! Jim.*
"Jim!" Blair cried and then whispered the name again, more softly, through trembling lips. Gulping, his throat closed with emotion as he stared at the vat’s oily surface. Then, with relief, Blair watched as his friend appeared. There was Jim, hanging with his arm wrapped around the hook, dripping with oil. Cautiously, he maneuvered the machine until Jim was back on the platform. He watched as Jim leaned heavily against the railing and flashed him an exhausted, but heartfelt smile.
"No problem," Blair replied as he stepped down from the controls on shaky legs. He felt like he’d just run the Boston Marathon and won. Weary but happy, Blair paused in front of his friend and studied the man’s filthy appearance. "Just, uh, don’t touch me," he jested as he held his hands up and took a step away.
Grinning, the detective straightened up and took a stumbling step away from the railing. Without a thought, the young man was at his side, wrapping a supporting arm around his friend.
With shaky hands, Jim fumbled with the buttons, struggling in vain to slip the little discs back through the holes, but the black gooey substance made it almost impossible. Relieved when he felt Blair push his hands gently aside and begin to unbutton the shirt, he stood quietly and allowed his friend to continue to undress him.
"Hold on just a minute. Let’s get you out of these oily clothes and into a hot shower. And I want you to scrub yourself down, really scrub. God, you’re a mess!" A weak chuckle followed the remark.
Blair’s voice sounded more high-pitched than usual and held a wavering timbre. Jim glanced at the hands providing the ministration and saw that they were almost as shaky as his. God, it had been close. Too close! Taking a stuttering breath, a thick, caustic odor filled his nostrils, and a slimy film coated his tongue. The pungent smell and taste became overwhelming, and he tried to choke back the sludgy bile, but his stomach had other ideas as the cramping increased. Lunging for the toilet, Jim heaved what little there was in his stomach and then sank heavily down onto the floor.
"Aw, Jim," Blair mumbled sympathetically as he filled a glass with water.
Running the back of his hand across his mouth, Jim felt the rim of a glass pressed to his lips. "Swish and spit," came the order, to which he readily complied. After a few more sips, he croaked out, "I’m okay, I’m okay," and with Blair’s aid, pushed himself up from the bathroom floor. Moving to the toilet seat, he allowed Blair to remove his shoes and socks.
With everything off except for the jeans that were now unsnapped and unzipped, Blair paused. "Uh, I guess you can take it from here."
Jim nodded and slid down the pants and boxers in one motion, stumbling only slightly when it came to stepping out of the pants. With a trembling hand, he turned on the water and adjusted the temperature. Stepping into the shower, hot water — blessed hot water — coursed down his back, washing away the oily film. He rested his head against the back of the shower wall, pushing away the memory of the dark, thick oil and allowing the soothing heat of the water to wrap around his aching muscles. He stood there, unmoving, for how long he didn’t know, until he heard Sandburg call to him.
"Hey, Jim? You okay in there?"
"Yeah, I’m fine." *Just fine, thanks to you,* Jim mentally added as he grabbed a bar of soap and started to roughly scrub his skin. The oil seemed like it was everywhere; he could feel the irritating chemical on the top layer of his skin and deeper — clogging his pores. There was a general itchiness surrounding his whole body, and he worked furiously at removing the oil until he realized that he was scraping his skin raw. Easing up, Jim continued the washing.
After two hot showers, Sandburg having sent him right back in for another after the first one, Jim had to admit that he was feeling better. Grabbing a towel and rubbing briskly, he filled Blair in as he dried off. "I was following somebody and trying to track them with my hearing." He moved into the doorway, leaning against the frame, and ran the towel across his chest. "The next thing I know, this machine kicks in, totally blows me out and then, boom — lights out."
Blair’s eyes held a glimmer of ‘I told you so’ as he patiently explained, "That’s why you need me to back you up. Did you see the guy who hit you?"
"No, but I got a good look at the body of that diver, Billings. His face and hands were covered with these lesions and burns."
"What could cause that?"
Jim shrugged. "I don’t know. I saw something like that in the military — chemical warfare weapons."
"What? How could he come in contact with that out here on an oil rig?"
"Maybe he wasn’t on the rig. I mean, think about it. Billings was a diver, right?"
Comprehension filled Blair’s voice as he snapped his fingers. "Yeah. Something he found at the bottom of the ocean."
Nodding, Jim wrapped the towel around his waist. "Maybe a classified dumping site or an old wreck, some kind of a military transport that was carrying chemical weapons." Stepping out of the bathroom, he continued, "That’s probably why I had that weird sensation on my fingers in the dive chamber."
"But if it was chemical weapons, why try to hide it?"
"Are you kidding me? You know how many countries would love to get their hands on that sort of thing?"
"Okay, so Billings goes down, finds the stuff, then somehow gets exposed to it."
*That’s it. Gotta love that analytical mind.* Jim took the theory one step further. "Maybe one of the containers was leaking. That’s probably why they had tried to burn the dive suits. Most likely, they were covered with the stuff."
Blair shook his head, unconvinced. "Fine. But why kill Buchanan?"
Jim clapped his hands together. *Come on, Sandburg. Think. Number one reason.* He paused, looking at Blair encouragingly, before answering, "Maybe he didn’t go along with the plan."
Both men jerked their heads toward the room’s entrance as a figure strolled in. Maggie smiled slightly as she pointed the gun at them. "And I thought cops were supposed to be dumb, but you’re smart, Beef Stick — too damn smart. You, too, Lamb Chop."
"So, it was a ship," Jim confirmed.
"Buchanan found it during a bottom survey. Best we can figure, she went down in ’71 in a big storm, headed for Vietnam. Guess it was one of those secret CIA things — your tax dollars at work." While keeping the gun aimed at the two men, Maggie removed the radio from her belt and brought it up to her mouth. "Ben, you there? It’s Bryce."
"I got our friends," she reported smugly.
<"Meet me down in the ready room.">
"Well, you heard the man. Better put on some clothes." Grabbing a jumpsuit from a nearby chair, Maggie tossed it to the detective.
With jumpsuit in hand, Jim eyed the woman coolly as he loosened the towel from his waist, and then paused.
"Go on," she said brazenly, gesturing with her gun for Jim to continue. "I got two brothers, don’t be shy."
Indifferent, Jim raised an eyebrow and then, while all the time watching Maggie, handed the towel to Blair.
Taking a deep breath, Maggie ran her eyes appreciatively over the hard body. "I got to get off this rig and get me a boyfriend." Her eyes shifted to meet Blair’s. "I’m sorry about this, Lamb Chop. I guess we’re not going to have that coffee after all. I’ve always had bad timing when it comes to men."
"You don’t have to do this."
Maggie chuckled. "You mean give it all up and go straight for you? You’re cute, honey, but you’re not that cute." Jerking her gun over in Jim’s direction, she asked, "You done over there, yet?"
Slipping into the jumpsuit, Jim could sense Blair’s nervousness. Damn it all! He’d never suspected Bryce and Crilly. He’d been totally focused on Brower and the possibility of a crime committed in the heat of the moment. However, the murder and cover-up was only the tip of the iceberg. With chemical weapons in play, this was a lot bigger operation than he’d anticipated.
Jim placed a hand on Blair’s shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze, and was rewarded with a tentative smile. *Hang in there, buddy.* They’d been in dangerous situations before; all they had to do was keep their cool, and just maybe they’d make it off the rig alive.
Following the direction pointed out by Maggie’s gun, Jim led the way out of the room and down the corridor. Yeah, just keep their cool and wait for the right opportunity — and hopefully that opportunity would present itself very soon.~~~~ Act IV ~~~Yanking again at the handcuffs, Blair longed to lower his arms. The awkward position, with his hands stretched high and handcuffed over a pipe, caused uncomfortable pressure on his ribs. Resting his head against his one arm, Blair closed his eyes and wished he could start the day over. A messy loft was the least of his worries, not with a torrential rainstorm, two dead bodies, a falling antenna, Jim’s swim in the vat, and now chemical weapons all vying for top honors. This day was definitely one for the books!
He sighed and then in frustration rattled the cuffs against the metal pipe. Useless! Damn useless!
"Easy there, Chief. You’re going to rub your skin raw."
"We got to do something, Jim."
"We will. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that patience is a virtue?"
"Yeah, and she also said that all good things come to those who wait, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit around on my hands."
Both men looked up at their manacled hands. Jim snickered, and Blair joined him. He couldn’t believe that he was in this position again. How many times since he’d met Jim had he found himself cuffed? Maybe he should start keeping a spare set of keys on his body or learn how Houdini managed to get out of them. The guy was probably double-jointed or something.
And there was Jim, cuffed and hanging from the pipe next to him as cool as a cucumber. At least that was how he appeared, though Blair was sure that Jim was busily plotting something. They had come close earlier — they had almost overtaken Maggie and Crilly. As they were led into the generator room, out of nowhere, lights went out and Brower popped up. Between Jim and Brower, the situation had quickly changed to their advantage. That was until Crilly’s business partners showed up with M-16’s, rebels from some third world country with their own political agenda. Outgunned, there was nothing they could do but surrender. Brower had been carted away and locked up with the rest of the crew, and the two of them were left hanging — literally.
Tugging again, Blair pulled at the cuffs. He wondered if he should be worried? Maggie had said that they would probably be found after the storm was over, but he had seen how Jim’s eyes narrowed at that remark. How many times did bad guys really let their hostages go unharmed? Like the U.S. would look the other way once informed of the missing chemicals and not try to track them down. All the chemicals and all that money could only equal no witnesses.
Blair scanned the room. There had to be a way out. Noticing a pool of liquid on the floor, he looked up and spied steady dripping from the pipe he was fastened to.
"Oil," Blair murmured softly. Sliding his hands along the pipe, he stretched his fingers, gathering up the slippery substance and smearing it on his wrists.
"Sandburg, what’re you doing?" Jim asked as he gave a yank to the pipe.
"Maggie didn’t fasten these handcuffs too tight." He grunted as he twisted his wrist. Maybe he could do magic with a little help from the oil. "And I just wanted to see if I could, uh … ow, ow, ow!" Blair bit his lip as he concentrated on getting his wrist free. The cuff dug into his skin, kind of like squeezing a square peg through a round hole, and then suddenly his hand slipped out.
"Whoa," Jim remarked, surprised. "Pull a Houdini."
"Yes!" Yanking the other cuff off his wrist, Blair rubbed both his joints while moaning. His wrists would probably be sore in the morning. Great, he mentally shrugged. Just one more damaged body part to add to his mounting list of injuries.
"Hey, Sandburg. Let me have a little bit on my wrists."
Blair complied, generously spreading a slippery film on Jim’s hands. He watched as his partner, with determination, jerked his hands free.
"Let’s get the hell out of here," Jim spoke as he nodded his head toward the exit.
Blair was only too happy to follow. He was looking forward to seeing the expression on Maggie’s face when they took her down. He couldn’t believe he’d flirted with her. Lamb Chop, she had called him. Well, she wouldn’t be calling him that any more. At least she was right about one thing — she did have bad timing when it came to men.
Crilly stood on the dock, watching the men load the chemicals onto the raft. Soon they’d be on their way, away from the rig and million of dollars richer. He smiled at that thought until Maggie’s pushy voice interrupted his pleasant reflection, and then he frowned.
"How long did you set the timer for?"
"Twenty minutes." He could read Maggie like a book, and right now her expression showed exactly how she felt about blowing up the rig. He softened his voice. "Maggie, it’s the only way. When that explosion hits this rig and sends it to the bottom, they’ll figure we’re dead too. You want to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? Huh?"
Maggie reluctantly shrugged her acceptance.
"Good girl." Crilly grinned. Women were so easy to manipulate. "Come on."
He helped her into the motorized raft. Anticipation swirled in the pit of his stomach, and an exhilarating feeling filled his head as he realized that soon his plan would reach completion. Several hundred feet away sat a ship — a ship that would take them to their new lives and riches.
Damn. Jim couldn’t believe that they had missed Crilly and Bryce. By the time they had made it up to the top deck, their suspects were gone along with the chemicals. A nearby ship pointed to Crilly and the rebels’ whereabouts.
Standing on the docking platform, Jim carefully zippered up his diving suit. After the fire in the divers’ ready room, he was fortunate that he was able to salvage a suit, especially one not contaminated with the chemicals, or a swim in the icy cold ocean water would be impossible.
"If I can get to that ship before they get underway, maybe I can stop them," he told Blair.
He glanced across the vast expanse between the rig and the ship. Even though the storm was dissipating, the sky remained cloud-covered and the ocean was choppy, filled with small whitecaps. Jim shuddered as another memory hit him full force. He hadn’t told Blair how he had struggled the night he fell overboard. A storm had blown in, and he had found himself riding the swells, pelted by the rain. At one point, the straps on his life vest had loosened, and he had almost slipped out of it. Staring across the dark seascape, Jim’s breath quicken as he stepped backward, bumping into Blair.
"Whoa there, big guy."
He felt two hands steadying his body and saw two eyes filled with concern.
"Uh, I’m a pretty good swimmer. Maybe I should go with you."
Jim understood what Blair was offering. The foolish kid would follow him with blind trust if he thought he could help Jim, even to his own detriment. He knew that Blair was nearly spent and he didn’t think swimming with bruised ribs was a good idea, but he had to convince Blair of that.
"Yeah, maybe, Sandburg. But first touch your toes."
The detective watched the puzzled expression on his partner’s face.
"Jim, what does –"
"Just do it," Jim cut him off, knowing that no explanations would be needed once Blair complied with his request.
"Okay," Blair replied, followed by a low moan as he bent his body toward his toes.
Jim watched as Blair wrapped an arm around his chest. "Now do you think you should go with me?"
Blair shook his head.
"Look." Jim laid a hand on Blair’s shoulder. "I want you to stay here and try to get that radio working and get some help out here. Even with that antenna down, it’s possible to reach a Coast Guard ship in the area."
Moving away, Jim sat down on the edge, checking the zippers on his boots, as he mentally prepared for the swim. The water lapped at the platform almost taunting him.
From behind him, he heard a soft voice ask, "You sure you want to do this?"
"No," Jim whispered, staring straight ahead, out at the dark water. No, he didn’t want to do this. Given a choice, he’d prefer to stay with Blair. Understanding where his fear of deep water stemmed from didn’t automatically translate to conquering the fear. It was still there. But the police officer in him, the soldier in him, knew what his duty was, and it was preventing the chemicals from getting into the wrong hands. He rose from the platform.
An awkward silence extended between the two men before being broken by Blair. "I got an idea … you know the zone-out factor where you’re so focused on one sense you block all others out?"
"Yeah," Jim replied hesitantly.
"I think you can use that to your advantage here. If you use your sense of sight to focus in on that ship, you’ll block out all your other senses. You won’t be so aware of the sea."
Jim looked at the ship and zoomed in on the bridge. Maybe it would work but …
"Jim, it’s worth a try."
"But what if I zone?" He didn’t like the idea of being out in the middle of the ocean zoned. Would he drown first?
Blair paced across the platform before returning to Jim. "Well, maybe you could turn up your sense of touch — just enough to feel the coldness of the water. That should keep you from zoning."
Jim nodded. Maybe it would work. He took one last look at Blair before diving into the water.
With his sense of touch turned up, the coldness penetrated his wetsuit and nearly took his breath away. Shivering, he flexed his unprotected hands as the icy water numbed the digits. Adjusting it so he still felt the cold, but not so severely, he started his swim toward the ship. The ship, which before had seemed so far away, appeared no further away than a lap in a pool.
Slicing through the water with strong strokes, Jim kept the ship in view as he reminded himself that he was no longer that young boy struggling in the warm waters off the Floridian coast — he was a man swimming in the chilly Pacific Ocean. Chilly was right! He concentrated on his objective, each stroke bringing him nearer to the ship. He was so focused on the ship that it was with surprise as his hand brushed against the haul. Swimming quickly to the anchor line, he hoisted himself up, wrapping his legs around the chain. Then hand over hand, Jim pulled himself up the side of the vessel.
Listening, he paused and when all was clear, Jim climbed over the railing and dropped silently onto the deck. Crossing the deck, he halted briefly, hidden in the shadows, as Crilly and Maggie walked nearby.
"How much longer?" Maggie asked anxiously.
"Four minutes and nineteen seconds." Crilly smiled as he looked over toward the rig. "Northstar 5 is gonna go sky high. Those oil drums are going to give us some real fireworks."
*Four minutes and nineteen seconds!* Jim glanced at his watch and then at the rig. Blair was back there — back there with another goddamned bomb. Listening, he located the ship’s communications room. He had to get to Blair; he had to get him off of that rig before it blew.
Entering the room and using the skills taught to him in covert-ops, he subdued the radio operator with a chokehold. Jim turned with surprise toward the radio as Blair’s voice grabbed his attention.
<"Coast Guard, Coast Guard, this is the oil rig Northstar 5. We have an emergency.">
Seizing the mike, Jim had to restrain himself from shouting. "Northstar 5, do you read me?"
<"Jim, is that you?">
"Sandburg, listen to me. There’s a bomb on the rig."
"You got to get out of there right now." Jim spoke with urgency; he had to convince Blair of the danger.
<"What about the rest of the crew? They’re still locked up.">
Jim checked his watch and frowned. "It’s set to go off in three minutes!"
<"Do you know where it is?">
"Crilly said something about … uh, an oil drum."
<"’C’ deck. I’m on my way.">
"Sandburg … Sandburg!" Jim slammed the mike down. Why did that kid never listen to him, after all it was for his own good? Scrubbing his hand across his face, he sat down and switched the radio frequency. Maybe he could get in touch with the Coast Guard for all the good it was going to do now.
"Oh, god!" Blair tore down the stairs and several sets of ladders, racing toward ‘C’ deck. Nothing mattered right now except finding the bomb and saving the trapped men. Jim wanted him to get off the oil rig. Abandon the rig? How could he live with himself, knowing that he did nothing — that he let all those men die?
Gasping, he reached ‘C’ deck. As he struggled to catch his breath, he looked around. Jim had said the bomb was somewhere near oil drums. Oil drums? The whole freaking place was filled with oil drums!
"Oh, great. Which oil drum?" He wove in and out, searching for anything that resembled a bomb.
Around several more drums, hidden in the darkness of a corner, he spied the bomb taped to a large container. The LED timer glowed brightly, the numbers slowly ticking down. His eyes widened at the red number now displayed, and he gulped back his fear. Six seconds? Did it really say six seconds?
Fiddling with a switch, Jim spun around in surprise when he heard the click of a rifle.
"Move," came the command.
With hands held up as in a gesture of surrender, Jim stepped through the communications room’s hatch and onto the open deck. Pivoting sharply to the right, he clenched his left fist and connected solidly with his captor’s jaw. Immediately, he threw another punch with his right. Jim was rewarded with the clattering sound of a dropped weapon.
An unexpected kick to his mid-section knocked him backwards, and Jim stumbled as a fist smashed into his mouth. Shaking off the attack, from a crouched position, the detective whipped out his right leg and zinged a direct hit to the stomach.
Now Jim had the man on the defense, right where he wanted him. He quickly threw one more kick, then grabbed the man’s shoulders and forcefully propelled him into the ship’s outer wall. Jim watched in satisfaction as his ex-captor slumped onto the deck, definitely down for the count.
From his position on the upper level, Jim glanced anxiously at his watch. Forty seconds. *Damn it, Sandburg. Where are you?* His eyes scanned the dark waters surrounding the rig for a swimmer. Nothing.
He stared at the rig, willing himself to see Blair, at the docking platform, on deck, anywhere. "Twenty seconds." Below him, he spied Bryce and Crilly, and heard Crilly’s voice mirroring his own countdown.
<"Ten … nine …">
"Seven seconds. Six." He swallowed convulsively, his throat knotted with emotion. No time left. There was no time left.
<"Five … four … three …">
"Two." The number fell from his lips, almost silently. Holding his breath, he waited.
"Which wire? Which wire?" *How does Joel do this? No time to think — just pick one!* With shaking hands, Blair grabbed a wire, not caring what color it was, and pulled. He watched as the LED timer blinked from two seconds to one, and then stopped. Releasing the wire — was it black? — Blair collapsed onto the floor and clutched at his side, panting, as he watched the ceiling spin dizzily above.
"Oh, god," he whispered. A prayer? Perhaps. He was alive and thankful for that. Scenes of his life had not passed before him. All he had felt was heart-stopping terror. He closed his eyes and slowly steadied his breathing. A small chuckle escaped as an absurd thought crossed Blair’s mind. *Hey, Jim, guess what I just did?*
Jim stared at the rig in disbelief and then released the breath he’d been holding. No explosion. Nothing. Whatever had happened — and he was sure Sandburg had a hand in it — the critical moment had passed. With that worry aside, he scurried down a ladder to the main deck.
He needed to take control of the situation — and fast! Circling around the deck, Jim snuck cautiously past Crilly and Bryce, listening to the rig foreman’s complaint about the bomb’s failure, before making his way toward a machine gun turret.
Ah — just what he needed to make a statement. Silently creeping up to the crewmate manning the weapon, Jim from behind grabbed the man’s collar, flipping him onto his back. Knocking the man out with one strong punch, he took over control of the gun.
Damn it! What the hell had gone wrong? Maggie glanced at him questioningly, and Crilly searched for an answer as he explained, "The rig should have blown! I don’t know what happened." He walked over to the ship’s captain. "The explosives didn’t go off."
The captain, unmoved by Crilly’s revelation, spoke, a heavy foreign accent coloring his words, "Then we better get underway."
Flabbergasted, Crilly gestured toward the oil rig. "We can’t leave the rig standing. We’ve got to reset the explosives."
"I’m not waiting for the American Coast Guard. We are leaving."
"If those guys on that rig tell the Coast Guard, they’ll send out for the Navy."
"I’ll take that chance," the captain replied coolly as he started to walk away.
Now anger worked its way into his voice, and Crilly grabbed the captain’s arm, spinning him back around. "Hey, look, Dimitri, you and I had a deal."
The argument was interrupted as a hail of bullets flew by their heads. Crilly dove for Maggie, pushing her down as he searched for the source. Locking onto a figure, he blinked his eyes. No. It couldn’t be! The voice, however, confirmed his suspicion.
"Throw down your weapons! I’m taking command of this ship!" Crilly saw Ellison manning a machine gun and when two shipmates failed to comply with the order, Ellison let loose another round. He heard the detective shout again, "Throw down your weapons!"
Crilly snarled. How the hell had Ellison gotten off the rig? That detective had been a thorn in his side from the beginning. Now what? How was he going to get out of this mess? The roar of whirling rotors filled the sky, and bright lights shone from above. Looking up, Crilly saw two Coast Guard helicopters circling the ship.
*"Ahoy, freighter, this is the US Coast Guard. Lay down your weapons immediately and prepare to be boarded. This is your final warning. Put your weapons down now."*
Defeated, Crilly helped Maggie to stand and then they both raised their hands in surrender. Gone was the dream of the good life — riches, dames, and exotic locales. He hung his head, now seeing his dream splinter into a dark, wretched nightmare.
With Jim to his one side, and Blair on the other, Simon watched in satisfaction as the Coast Guard led Crilly, Bryce and the rebels away. Once again Ellison had seemed to come out on top. "When I couldn’t raise you on the radio, I got worried and decided to call in the Coast Guard."
Jim crossed his arms and leaned back against the railing. "Your timing is impeccable as always, sir."
Simon leaned back, joining his detective, and grinned. "Of course." He was relieved that the case was over and his men were relatively in one piece. There had been some tense moments, but just as the storm had passed, so had those. Seeing a large black man approaching Ellison, he raised a suspicious eyebrow.
"Ellison … somebody said you wanted to see me."
Jim straightened up. "I guess I owe you an apology."
"I guess you do," Brower snapped.
"Hey," Blair interjected, "You must have been the one who called the Coast Guard about Buchanan."
"Yep. I knew there was something squirrelly going on around here, but I didn’t know what."
"Again, I’m sorry," Jim stated sincerely, hold out his hand. "I hope you accept it."
Brower paused, eyeing the offered hand coolly as he seemed to consider the apology, and then grasped Jim’s hand firmly.
"All right, now, Brower," Simon said as he placed a guiding hand on Brower’s shoulder. "Why don’t we step over here and you tell me your version of what went down here tonight, huh?"
Blair watched the two men leave and then sidled over to Jim. "So, uh, you must be feeling pretty good. I mean, you did it."
"You conquered your fear of water." Blair was practically vibrating with excitement.
"Oh, yeah, I guess I did," Jim replied nonchalantly, avoiding eye contact.
"Yeah," Blair agreed, happily.
"Now I’m ready for the really big challenge."
Puzzled, Blair scrunched his eyebrows. A bigger challenge? What could be bigger than Jim’s fear of deep water? "What’s that?"
Jim chuckled. "Housebreaking you. We got a couple of rules around the house that we’re going to attend to."
*Lay them on me, man.* Blair grinned. "Oh, like what?"
"Well, first of all, there’s not gonna be any shoes allowed in the apartment or on the premises." Together they headed up a ramp. "They’re going to be kept at the door like they do in Japan.
"Oh, come on –" This was just plain silly. Jim was toying with him, wasn’t he?
"Next, there’s not gonna be any of those smelly foods that you have from foreign countries that aren’t even on the map. And then there’s your hair."
"My hair?" Blair squeaked.
Jim continued walking up the ramp.
"Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too far?" Blair called after him. "Hey, wait, man. Isn’t this up for negotiation?" He found himself talking to air as the distance between the two men grew.
"Blair," a loud voice called.
The young man turned to find Simon walking toward him.
"Make sure you and Jim stop at the Coast Guard Headquarters first," the captain ordered.
"First?" Blair didn’t like the sound of that word.
"Given the magnitude of the crime, Sandburg, you don’t think that they’re the only ones who’ll want to talk to you?"
Blair watched Simon walk away chuckling. Man, if this was anything like the interrogation when Kincaid took over the police station, he wouldn’t be seeing the loft anytime soon. *Well, Jim, it looks like your new rules will just have to wait a bit longer.*
Jim took pleasure in his moment of solitude. Leaning against the railing, he stared out at his foe. What had Blair said — that he had conquered his fear of water? The kid had been so happy, how could he tell him otherwise. It was easier to just agree and then change the subject. He might have some control over his fear, but it was in no way conquered. If Blair thought the problem was solved, it could remain so. It wasn’t that hard to lock away that memory — it could remain buried for all he cared. Buried with the rest of his childhood memories.
He sighed as he caught the tail end of Simon’s conversation with Blair. Great! He would have taken a beer, a hot shower and bed in no particular order right now. But he knew that those items weren’t in his cards yet, there were proper procedures to be followed.
Taking a military stance, he moaned softly. Probably picked up a few bruises from one of his fights. Squaring his shoulders and schooling his face, he turned to join Blair. The sooner the questioning began, the sooner it would be over.
The late afternoon sun danced on the loft’s walls as the two men stumbled through the door.
Jim sighed with relief as the keys tossed toward the basket flipped up the side before falling safely back into its center. He didn’t think his weary bones could have been convinced to bend down and retrieve the keys if they had fallen to the floor. Man, if he was this drained, what about Blair?
This time there had been no quick helicopter ride home. After being up all day and night, they both had to be debriefed — first by the Coast Guard, then by the Feds and finally by Major Crimes. The adrenaline high and friendly bantering they both experienced after the arrests had dissipated as they were dragged from one authority to the next. He was used to the many debriefings along with the repetitive questioning, but as exhausted as he was, the kid had to be out on his feet.
The detective watched in amazement as Blair lurched across the loft toward one of the boxes he had been packing up yesterday. Was it only a day ago?
Moving next to Blair, Jim placed his hand on his roommate’s. "Leave it."
Blair, apparently not listening, pulled his hands away and stepped back. Shakily tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear, the young man glanced around the room before crossing to another box.
"I … I’ll finish packing all this stuff up and get it out of your way," Blair stammered.
Jim crossed to Blair and took the box from him. "I said leave it, Sandburg. Can’t you listen to anything I say?" He knew he spoke too sharply, but he was tired and still a bit upset about Blair defusing the bomb. He had a hard time believing it when he had heard Blair’s side of the story. One second — only one second. In a blink of an eye, Blair could have been killed, gone with nothing left, and this — this mess wasn’t important. It could wait for another day.
"I do listen to you. Didn’t you say, ‘Time to get organized, Chief. This mess here is starting to drive me crazy’?" Blair moved to collect some papers from the table.
"I also said, ‘There’s a bomb on the rig. You got to get out of there right now.’ Did you listen to me then?"
"So, I have selective listening. I couldn’t just leave those men to die!"
"I know, Blair, and as much I hate to say it, I do understand why you couldn’t leave. It’s just that I wanted you to be safe."
Blair grinned. "Kinda like you telling me to stay in the truck."
"Yeah, just like that and since you don’t listen to me about that, use your selective listening and forget about the mess. We’re both exhausted and it can wait."
Any further discussion was suspended by the ringing of the phone. Jim walked over to the kitchen to answer the call.
Listening to Jim’s quiet murmuring, Blair dropped the papers and flopped down on the couch. Staring out the window, he watched the dimming light. In another hour the sun would set, another day would be done. He knew that Jim was right; they both were tired. It was just that he wanted to keep busy — not to think about it, any of it. He winced as he rubbed his hand across his bruised ribs and then fingered the new bandage on his head courtesy of the Coast Guard medic. Yesterday, his worst problem had been the mess in the loft. A few dirty dishes, books, papers to be graded, some artifacts. That was yesterday.
Then there was the trip out to the oil rig. He had thought it would be a lark, an adventure flying out to the rig. There was murder, mayhem, and a beautiful dame — a mystery novel in the making. But then there was Jim disappearing in the vat of oil. For a moment — a moment, which had seemed like an eternity — Blair had thought Jim was gone. The tears he had strongly suppressed at that time now stung his eyes. And when he’d let Jim swim across to the ship alone — what had he been thinking? The man could have zoned out there. Blair shook his head. Didn’t Jim know that he didn’t know what he was doing? That he was only making things up as he went along. His friend placed so much trust in him.
Blair schooled his face as he felt a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t need Jim to think he was some kind of wimp. He didn’t look at Jim when the man sat down next to him on the couch.
"That was Simon. He had some questions about paperwork and also wanted to let me know that his friend at the Coast Guard was grateful for our help." Jim paused, as if to collect his thoughts, then continued, "You did good out there. Now it’s time to let it go and get some rest."
"Just let it go?" How could one let it go, Blair thought, but he was so tired perhaps that was a better way. And yet there were so many questions.
"Jim, you never did tell me about your swim to the ship."
"Not now, there’ll be time later."
Yeah, later sounded good, though Blair knew at least deep down inside later would never come. They each would internalize and lock away their own secrets. How many secrets could a man keep — as many as the stars? He stared out at the changing colors of the sky knowing that Jim, sitting next to him, was doing the same thing.
Breaking the silence, Blair spoke softly, "I read somewhere once that ‘the soul of man is larger than the sky, deeper than the ocean, or the abysmal dark of the unfathomed center.’" He could believe that, especially with Jim. That man was an enigma. There was so much he knew about him and, yet, so little.
Contented, they both sat together until the stars lit up the sky.THE ENDPlease remember to send feedback to our authors. Feedback can be sent to: [email protected]Next week’s episode: Spare Parts by Renegade