Written for PetFly by Peter Lance
internal thought in * *
~~~~~ Prologue ~~~~~The man stared at the photograph gripped tightly in his shaking hands. Sweat poured down his face, dripping into the dark moustache and trickling down his temples. "You should not have done this, Carita." His soft voice rose in a violent crescendo as he stared at the photograph. "I gave you my love…my money…my protection…and this is how you repay me? You will live to regret the day you betrayed me!"
The framed photograph flew across the room to land in the huge tiled fireplace. The glass shattered into countless sharp shards, and the edges of the photo began to curl, withering in the heat of the flames. Unblinking, the man stared down into the contained inferno, watching as the delicate features of the young, blonde woman turned to ashes.
Under his breath, the man whispered, "You shall pay, Carita. Oh, how dearly you shall pay."~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~Two days later…
Against the menacing black of the gathering storm clouds, the small red and yellow plane appeared little more than a brightly colored fishing cork, bobbing up and down on the currents of air. Jim Ellison stared down into the churning waters beneath the plane and fought against the queasiness rising in his gut. He leaned his head against the seat back and focused on taking deep, calming breaths, the way Sandburg had shown him. Land had disappeared almost thirty minutes before, and ever since, Jim had been intent on keeping his discomfort under control. *I can handle this,* he assured himself. *I know why I have this phobia now, and I don’t have to surrender to it any more.*
What his mind accepted, somehow, the rest of his body seemed determined to ignore. Jim looked down at the dark waters. At the sight of the waves, unbroken by any sign of terra firma, Jim’s breathing quickened as a cold chill crept through his body.
"Jim? You okay, man?"
Jim averted his eyes from the sea to look at the face of his partner. The book Blair had been reading lay open in his lap, but the younger man had removed his glasses and was now regarding Jim with obvious concern in his blue eyes. Jim nodded quickly. "I’m okay."
Reaching over, Blair laid a warm palm across the sentinel’s forehead. "Well, you don’t feel okay to me. You’re chilled, man. Clammy, almost." Setting his book on the seat beside him, Blair turned to face his friend. "Close your eyes," he ordered gently.
Ellison obeyed even as he protested. "This won’t work, Chief. I’ve already tried the deep breathing. I know we’re all right. The plane isn’t going to crash into that water, but still…" His words trailed away as images of the black, churning water took over his imagination.
Blair’s voice was soft and low. "I know. It’s not easy, Jim. Overcoming a phobia is a long process, and it really hasn’t been that long since you got a handle on exactly why you’re afraid of open water. Each time you confront the fear, it’s a step forward. I mean, look how great you did out on the Cyclops rig. This is just one more step toward living with what happened to you as a kid and dealing with the effect it had on your psyche."
Jim didn’t reply as the calming voice murmured on. "Take deep breaths … in … out … slow and easy." Long minutes later, Jim began to relax.
Finally, without changing intonation, Blair added, "Tell me about your cousin Rucker."
Jim released his breath, concentrating on the feeling of relaxation as it spread through his body. "Ruck’s a couple of years older than I am. Actually, we’re second cousins. Our dad’s are first cousins, but they never had much in common. Ruck’s dad was a great guy. They had the kind of home where the door was always open, and there was always a gang of kids hanging around. I stayed over there as much as I could. His dad died when Ruck and I were in our twenties." Jim took another deep breath and let it ease out slowly. "I really miss him, Chief. In many ways, he was more of a dad to me than my own father ever knew how to be."
"I’m sorry, man," Blair said quietly. "What about Rucker? How’d he end up in the Coast Guard?"
Jim chuckled, his eyes still closed. "Rucker and I followed similar paths, I guess. College, then the military. He was in the Navy where I chose the Army, but we both liked the military life. He stayed until last year when he joined the Guard." Jim considered the paths he and his cousin had chosen. "I don’t know why we haven’t seen each other more. Ruck and I were like brothers when we were younger, a lot closer than Steven and I have ever been."
"So you guys spent a lot of time together when you were growing up?"
Knowing intuitively where his partner was going, Jim nodded. "You’re wondering if he picked up on my senses?" He thought back, reaching into the recesses of memory, then he said thoughtfully, "Maybe. I remember one summer in particular. We had gone fishing together – Ruck, his dad, and me. Rucker and I had gone for a hike in the woods. It was really windy that day, and the trees were blowing, making a lot of noise. I wasn’t really focusing on anything. Hell, at that time, I had no clue how to focus my senses anyway." Jim glanced over at Blair and smiled. He allowed his eyelids to close again as he took another deep, relaxing breath. "I heard the rattle over the whistling of the wind and shouted at Rucker to freeze just as he was about to step over an old, rotting tree. Ruck backed off quietly and slowly, then we circled wide to see the snake. It was coiled directly on the other side, right where his foot would have landed. Western rattler." Jim chuckled at the memory. "Ruck never understood how I knew that snake was there."
"So you saved his life."
"I guess. He asked a few times how I heard the rattle over that wind. I just made up some line about having really good hearing. Guess he bought it because he stopped asking."
"That’s no line," Blair pointed out dryly. "You think he suspected that something was up with you?"
"Maybe. With Ruck, it’s hard to tell. He plays his cards pretty close to the vest." Jim let the conversation die, turning his concentration again to his breathing exercises. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he felt Blair’s gentle squeeze on his biceps.
"Hey, Jim," Blair said quietly. "I think we’re here."
Jim opened his eyes and peered warily out the window. The plane was approaching a small island, the majority of which was covered with evergreens. Churning waves crashed against its rocky shore, their frothy foam splattering wildly on the dark boulders. To the west, a lighthouse stood in stark contrast to the gray rocks and green trees. Its cheery red cap crowned a tower painted white.
The plane gradually lost altitude, dropping closer and closer to the water. A surge of the old panic tightened Jim’s chest, and he leaned his head back again, shutting his eyes against the vision of the approaching water. Beside him, Blair counseled quietly, "Just keep your eyes shut, Jim. We’re almost down. Breathe…nice and slow…that’s the way."
The landing was fairly rough. Tossing on the waves, the plane maneuvered up to the shore and the dock that projected into the water. The pilot, Eddie, hopped onto the pier, securing both ends of the plane with lines attached to metal rings.
Gratefully, Jim crawled out next, his duffel clenched tightly in his hand. Dropping the bag to the pier, he immediately turned away from the sight of all that water. "Oh, man," he muttered, scrubbing his hand across his face as he took a deep breath of fresh air.
"You okay there, Jim?" Eddie came up behind him. "I brought her down as smoothly as I could, given those waves."
Jim nodded quickly. "Yeah, I know. It wasn’t your landing, Eddie. Just…those miles of open water." Blair came up and stood at his side, and he looked over at his friend, smiling weakly. "I got this…slight phobia."
"I suppose that’s why you chose the Army over the Navy, right?" Blair teased gently. A moment later, as Eddie checked the mooring on the plane, he whispered, "You okay, man?"
The sentinel nodded and forced a smile, grateful for the concern in the blue eyes. "I’m fine, Chief."
"Good thing you boys brought your tackle boxes," Eddie pointed out as he straightened up from checking the plane. "The fishing’s awfully good in these waters. You’ve got plenty of time for a good, fresh catch fried up nice and brown. Mmmm…mmm!" He eyed the storm clouds again. "If the weather lets up, that is."
Jim turned a shade paler even as he chided himself inwardly for his reaction to the mention of fish. "Could we back off the seafood chitchat?" he suggested.
Smiling at his partner, Blair said, "Come on, Jim, buck up. You know, ‘the time a man spends fishing is not deducted from his life.’ "
Eddie’s face lit up with a broad grin. "Isaac Walton, *The Compleat Angler*. He wrote that back in, uh…"
Blair jumped in to supply the missing information. "1633. That’s great, man. So, theoretically, if you fish every day, you’re going to live forever."
"Sounds good to me," Eddie agreed enthusiastically.
"Yeah," Jim muttered, "well, Sir Isaac must have run out of bait, ’cause last time I checked, he was still dead."
"Cute, Jim. Really cute," Blair commented with a wry grin. "Hey, is that your cousin Rucker?"
Jogging down the steps from the hillside above was a man outfitted in yellow coat with a blue Coast Guard cap. Not quite as tall as Jim, Rucker Ellison wore a broad smile as he waved at the new arrivals.
"Hey, cuz," Jim greeted him. "How you doing?"
The two men embraced then Rucker pulled back. "You didn’t have to do this, Jimmy. It’s not like you could just drop by for a beer and pizza, y’know."
Jim smiled at his cousin. Rucker had never been one for big celebrations or anything else that might call attention to himself. *Maybe that’s why we always got along so well,* Jim mused. *Neither of us like being in the spotlight.* "I couldn’t let you watch another birthday pass by on the rock alone, Ruck. Oh, I brought you some fresh company. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg."
Sticking out his hand, Blair greeted Jim’s cousin. "Happy birthday! How you doing?"
"Good. It’s good to meet you." His eyes shifted back to Jim. "I…uh…I thought you were coming alone." As if realizing he might have offended Blair, Rucker added quickly, "Not that you’re not welcome, Blair. It’s just a surprise, that’s all. We don’t get much company out here, y’know."
Jim nodded toward the tower standing above them. "With Andy gone, I figured you could use a couple of extra hands to blow out the candles."
"Who’s Andy?" Blair inquired, glancing from Rucker to Jim.
Rucker’s reply was brief and to the point as he assisted Eddie with the bags. "My first mate. Father took sick over in Cascade. Be back next week."
"That’s too bad," Blair sympathized. "Must be tough being short-handed around here. So it’s gonna be just the four of us then?"
Eddie shook his head. "You’ll have to carry on without me. I’ve got to head up to the res at Taholah and drop off some medicine. I’ll swing back down and pick you guys up tomorrow afternoon as long as that storm blows over. No way we’re going to make it across this channel in a 40-knot gale." Looking at Rucker, Eddie added, "Hey, buddy…Happy birthday, man." He tossed Rucker a small package.
Rucker reached up and snagged the box. "Thanks, Eddie. Plain brown wrapper, huh?"
Grinning, Eddie turned back toward his plane. "It’s not what you think. I’ll catch you later."
"Take care, Eddie," Rucker cautioned. He looked out over the water at the heavy, black storm clouds that continued to roll in. The wind had picked up considerably during their time on the pier. "South-southeast," he muttered under his breath.
"Think it’s gonna be a big one?" Blair asked.
Jim elbowed Blair in the ribs before bending to retrieve his duffel. "They don’t call this Storm Island for nothing, Chief."
"Ooh…" Blair replied with a nervous glance at the threatening clouds, blowing in quickly now on the breath of the strong winds.
Laughing, the three men turned toward the Coast Guard station perched above them on the hill. Following Rucker, Jim and Blair began the climb up the wooden steps.
By mid-afternoon, the storm’s intentions were clear. Storm Island was going to live up to its name. On the small Coast Guard station and dwelling, the shutters banged wildly in the wind. Tree branches whipped furiously as the waves pounded the gray rocks below with increasing intensity.
Closing one of the windows around the main room of the station, Rucker commented, "This thing came up on us fast. The last time I checked, the weather service had it blowing a hundred miles south. That’s the thing with these storms, though. They’re mighty unpredictable."
Jim focused his hearing on the sound of the waves beating against the rocks. "Think your launch is okay out there?"
Blair looked out the last open window at the launch bobbing on its mooring. "I hope it’s okay. I sure wouldn’t want to be marooned out here if that launch goes under." He stepped aside as Rucker came to close the window.
His cousin nodded as he shut the final window. "She’s on a hurricane anchorage. I’m more worried about the power in here." Gesturing vaguely in the direction of the lighthouse, he continued, "They gave the lighthouse a systems upgrade a couple of years back, but the Coast Guard, in its infinite wisdom, hasn’t put this place on its priority list yet." Grimacing at Jim, he added, "You know the government, Jim. Common sense isn’t exactly their forte."
"Oh, yeah, I know the type," Jim agreed, bending down to pull a wrapped package from his duffel. "Well, here’s something for your troubles, Ruck. For the man who has everything. It‘s from me and Sandburg." Sitting down on the couch, Jim opened a back-issue of National Geographic and began flipping through it. An ironic smile touched his face at the first article he saw – *’The Threatened Rainforests of Borneo.’* He’d have to hide that one from Sandburg. Might give the kid second thoughts about what he’d passed up.
Rucker laughed as he took his gift. "An Extendo-Flexo Mini-Fishing Rod. Thank you."
"Isn’t that great?" Blair exclaimed enthusiastically. "You know, like, ‘as seen on TV.’"
"Which reminds me," Jim interrupted, "if we’re cooped up here all weekend without being able to fish, where is your television? There’s a World War II movie marathon starting late this afternoon that sounded good. We could pop some corn, and…" His words trailed off at the look on his cousin’s face.
"We don’t have one," Rucker stated flatly, shaking his head.
Jim felt the same cut-off from civilization feeling he’d had at St. Sebastian’s Monastery. No cell phone. No TV. No fishing. It wasn’t that he hadn’t managed to survive without the comforts of a modern lifestyle before. The jungles of Peru weren’t exactly a technological Mecca. But now, he didn’t *have* to go without watching the Jags or his favorite movies, and Jim preferred to keep it that way. He tried to look at the bright side for Rucker’s sake. At least they were going home on Sunday. His cousin lived this life 24/7.
Blair moved over to the computer. "That’s okay, Jim. I’ve been meaning to show you this cool site on Peru I found last week. You’ve got an Internet link on this computer here, don’t you?" He looked at Jim’s cousin hopefully.
Rucker began opening the plain brown paper on Eddie’s gift. "This is a working U.S. Coast Guard substation, kid. We pull twelve-hour staggered shifts, search and rescue, and we don’t get HBO or the world wide web. Wouldn’t be much time for it if we did." He looked at the package and smiles broadly. "Oh, all right. Books on tape. The short stories of Jack London…David Copperfield…"
"See, Jim," Blair said, taking one of the tapes from Rucker. "We can listen to the classics, man." He hesitated, his smile fading as he looked at Jim’s cousin. "But…this is in Chinese."
Rucker nodded. "Yeah, Andy and I are learning Mandarin. We’re hoping to make a trip to China one day." He grinned wryly. "When our ship comes in, pardon the pun."
Jim caught the startled look in Sandburg’s eyes and grinned.
"You and Andy, huh?" Blair asked, one eyebrow arching upward. "You two must be really close. Of course, I guess you’d have to get to know someone pretty well, living out here on an island, right?" He handed the tape back to Rucker. "Hey," Blair said, pointing to a tattoo on Rucker’s arm. "Who’s Jennifer?"
Rucker shrugged. "Big mistake. I don’t know what I was doing with that one." Pointing at Blair with a warning finger, he added, "But that’s not why I live here, all right?"
Blair raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. "Sure, man. Your love life’s none of my business. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve done time in some isolated places myself – but how in the world did you pull a duty like this?"
Jumping in to rescue his friend before his cousin reminded Blair of the Ellison penchant for privacy, Jim said, "He asked for it. Ruck’s always been kind of a loner."
Blair grinned at Jim. "Must run in the family, huh?"
"I’m no loner, Sandburg. I tolerate you, don’t I?" Jim softened the words with a quick grin at his friend. "Hey, Ruck, why don’t we get down to business and play a little poker so I can relieve you of some of your hard-earned government money?"
"You’re on. I’ll get the deck," Rucker agreed, disappearing for a moment into the small room off the main living area.
Blair dropped down on the couch beside Jim. "Your cousin’s sure a character, man. I mean, he lives out here in the middle of nowhere with this Andy, and trust me, Jim, I do not pick up on mere platonic vibes between the two of them. He’s way too ready for his first mate to get back on this island, if you know what I mean. Yet, he’s got this Jennifer’s name tattooed on his arm." Sandburg shook his head and grinned. "You Ellison’s sure aren’t easy to figure out, man, you know that?"
Jim warned, "Just drop it, Chief. Rucker’s a private guy. You really don’t know what you’re talking about, so just leave it…"
Rucker reentered the room and stopped at the radar display set, his eyes focused intently on the screen. "This guy’s gotta be doing 40 knots."
Jim dropped the National Geographic on the table, cover down, and he and Blair joined Rucker in front of the radar. "Go to more detail," Jim suggested as he studied the quickly moving blip on the scope.
Blair peered around his shoulder. "What is it?"
"Definitely a muscle machine. Maybe a cigarette boat." Straightening up, Rucker went to the storage closet and pulled out his rain gear.
Blair took his place in front of the display. "Look at that thing. That bleep is all over the place. Why on earth would someone pilot a boat like that? Especially in this weather."
"Could be pilot error or a damaged craft," Jim suggested.
Rucker headed toward the door. "Either way, we better pull her in before the storm hits. Visibility is gonna be zip. If that boat slams into the rocks at that speed…" He handed extra sets of rain gear and life vests to Jim and Blair. "C’mon. We don’t have much time to catch up with that boat before the storm moves in."
The sound of rolling thunder in the distance confirmed Rucker’s assessment. They didn’t have time to waste.
The rain was coming down in sheets, blowing nearly horizontally against the choppy water. Blair pulled his raincoat tighter around his throat, hoping to shield himself from becoming totally drenched. Why was it so many of his adventures since teaming up with Jim involved being wet, cold, and miserable? "I really hate being cold," he muttered to no one in particular. He stared at the choppy waters ahead from his vantage point between Rucker, who was piloting the launch, and Jim, standing in the passenger‘s area.
Turning halfway around, Jim shot him a quick look of sympathy before returning his attention to the water ahead. "I think she’s headed for the other side of Long Point," he shouted above the roar of the boat’s engine.
"Yeah, we should get a visual as soon as we make the turn," Rucker replied. Picking up a microphone, he flipped a switch, turning the radio into a bullhorn. "This is the Coast Guard calling the unknown craft. You are traveling on an unsafe course at an unsafe speed. Heave to immediately. Repeat, heave to."
Blair caught the telltale look of concentration on Jim’s face that indicated the sentinel was focusing his senses. Leaning forward, Blair casually rested one hand lightly on Jim’s back. A moment later, Jim said, "It’s a Sea Ray running at full tilt and zigzagging like hell. There’s nobody at the helm."
Rucker cut his eyes at his cousin for a moment. "How can you tell that without glasses?"
Blair increased the pressure on Jim’s back, biting back a hasty reply. He needn’t have worried; Jim covered smoothly.
"Just a guess." Handing Rucker the binoculars, he added, "See what you think."
"Nice job, Jim," Blair muttered under his breath, knowing the sentinel would hear.
Holding the glasses up to his eyes, Rucker scanned the vessel running at full throttle ahead of them. "Damn…you’re right. Then, you‘ve always had great hearing, right? Why not vision, too?" Picking up the microphone, he announced, "This is the Coast Guard. Do you read? Repeat, do you read?"
Suddenly, the boat ahead of them swerved sharply to the right. Directly ahead lay the rocky shore of Long Point.
"She’s made a turn for the shore," Rucker shouted. "We’ve got to intercept before she racks up on the rocks. There’s no way anyone inside would survive a crash at that speed."
Jim’s gaze never left the boat ahead as it hurtled toward shore. "All right! Pull up next to her, Ruck! Get as close as you can."
Glancing over at Jim, Rucker cautioned, "You be careful."
Blair felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and it wasn’t from the motion of the waves. "Jim! What are you going to do?"
His eyes locked on the speeding craft, Jim said flatly, "I’m gonna board her."
Blair had to shout to be heard above the roar of the wind, the boat’s motor, and the crashing waves. He grabbed his partner‘s arms and turned Jim around to face him. "What! Jim, on a calm day, yeah, maybe, but it’s like a washboard out there! Not to mention the wind’s tearing like a bat out of hell. You hit the water at this speed, and…"
Jim’s expression was calm and determined. "And if I don’t try, whoever’s on that boat is as good as dead, Chief. You know I can’t let that happen."
Their eyes locked, until, at last, Blair nodded his understanding. One day, the sentinel’s instincts to protect were going to give his guide an ulcer. Reaching out, Blair tugged at the belt on Jim’s life vest, testing to be certain it was secure. "You be careful, okay?"
Jim flashed a quick smile. "When am I not careful, Chief?" Turning, he headed toward the front of the boat.
"You want the complete list?" Blair muttered, knowing full well his friend heard him clearly.
Blair watched anxiously as Jim leaned over the side of the boat. "Pull over to her, Ruck! Come up a little closer!" He tried reaching out, but the distance was too great.
The two crafts slammed heavily over the waves as the powerful winds whipped around them. A flash of lightning illuminated the dark skies for an instant, but if there was thunder, Blair couldn’t hear it for the wind and the boats. Looking ahead, Blair could see the rocky shore drawing closer, its boulders being pounded mercilessly by the waves. "Jim! We don’t have much time!"
Jim called, "Bring it up, Ruck! Bring me closer!"
Fighting to keep his balance, Blair watched as their boat pulled dangerously close to the runaway vessel. Suddenly, the sentinel leapt from the safety of Ruck’s launch toward the other boat. For an instant, he seemed suspended in mid-air, then Jim hurtled down, missing the speeding boat by inches.
"Jim!" Blair grabbed Rucker’s arm, but Jim’s cousin ignored him completely as he veered away from the unpredictable boat.
Jim was hanging over the side, his arms wrapped over the Sea Ray, his legs bouncing violently off the rock-hard water. Blair didn’t want to think what that pounding felt like to the sentinel. He held his breath and watched.
Slowly, little by little, Jim began pulling himself upward. "C’mon, Jim," Blair chanted, barely realizing he was speaking out loud. "C’mon, man!"
With a final burst of strength, Jim heaved himself up and over the side of the boat, disappearing on the other side.
Rucker hauled the wheel to the left, bringing the launch alongside the Sea Ray, now slowing to a stop in the water. Pulling up, Blair scanned the deck for his friend. "Jim! Jim!"
Ellison emerged from below, an unconscious woman draped limply in his arms. Blair stared at them in surprise. "Man, is she all right?"
Moving toward Rucker’s launch, Jim answered, "I don’t know. Let’s bring her to the station and get out of this weather."
Working together, they safely transported the young woman from the Sea Ray to the launch. Rucker hopped easily into the other boat. "I’ll bring this one in, Jim. You and Blair take the launch. I’ll meet you back on the island."
The warmth of the small Coast Guard station was a welcome change from the storm. With Rucker standing beside him, Jim studied the young woman wrapped in blankets and huddled on the couch. Blair brought over a cup of steaming coffee and handed it to her.
"How are you feeling?" Sandburg asked, his blue eyes warm with concern.
The young woman smiled up gratefully at him. "Better, thanks."
"What’s your name?" Blair’s smile seemed to put the woman at ease, Jim noticed, and she answered readily.
Jim asked, "Monique, what were you doing out in the middle of nowhere?"
Jim recognized the curiosity in Blair’s tone. "What were you running away from exactly?"
"My boyfriend." Monique added hesitantly, "He’s a powerful man."
Jim felt a warning tickle at the back of his neck. "And what’s his name?" There was definitely something about this whole situation that he didn’t like.
There was a long pause before Monique looked up at Jim. "Enrique…Enrique Mendez. He’s…an investment banker." Her eyes dropped again to her coffee.
Pressing further, Jim asked, "So why were you running away from him? Pretty nasty day for anyone to go for a boat ride."
"Because today he started drinking, and he said he was going to get a gun. Then he passed out. So, I slipped out a window and ran down the docks to his boat." She glanced up at Blair with large, sad eyes, and Sandburg smiled encouragingly.
"Where were you going to go?" Jim kept his voice neutral. The young woman would clam up in a heartbeat if she didn’t trust them.
Monique shrugged slightly and shook her head, then took another sip of coffee. "Anywhere. I don’t really know. I saw the lighthouse, so I figured…well, I’ll head that way, but then…I don’t know. I hadn’t slept or eaten, so I guess I just…I guess I just passed out."
Jim concentrated on Monique’s physical reactions during her story. Her heart rate was definitely too fast, and her breathing too rapid. Of course, that wasn’t necessarily a sign she was lying. If she had been as frightened as she claimed, both could be normal reactions to her experiences with Enrique and on the boat during the storm.
Monique pulled out an empty pack of cigarettes with a slightly shaky hand. "Out of cigarettes. Great, just great. Guess I’ll be quitting after all."
Blair jumped in with a comforting smile. "I can teach you some meditation tips. Helped my mom out big time." Monique smiled up at him and nodded her acceptance.
Something hot and dangerous flared in Jim at Sandburg’s offer. *Watch yourself, Chief. I don’t have a good feeling about this one.*
Before Jim could comment, however, the lights quickly flickered twice, then blinked out completely, leaving the small room in gray darkness.
Rucker shook his head. "Oh, great. The power’s down. We got propane lanterns for the light. Going to have to do without everything else."
Power they could live without. "What about communications?" Jim asked quickly.
Rucker nodded. "Radio link’s protected with a separate system coming down from the tower." Reaching for the wooden coat rack, he began pulling on a heavy coat. "With a little sweat, we could probably jury-rig something for our power down here, but not until this weather breaks. We’re just going to have to ride her out a while. I’m going to go double up on the moorings on those boats. You better finish dogging this place down, Jimmy." Rucker opened the door, letting in a blast of cold, wet air, then he was gone.
"I’m so cold," Monique complained from her nest of blankets.
Jim realized he didn’t have much time to complete the storm preparations at the station as his cousin suggested. At the rate they were going, it was going to be a long weekend. "Sandburg, why don’t you rustle her up some dry clothes?" With a quick smile at Blair, he added, "I hope you like flannel."
Rucker was finally satisfied with the safety of the Coast Guard launch. By the time he’d finished looking the boat over, the rain was pouring down in sheets whipped by the powerful wind. He had seen waves higher during his service on Storm Island, but at that moment, he couldn’t remember exactly when.
Rucker moved toward the Sea Ray. Nice craft, he thought appreciatively, as he moved down to the small galley, checking cabinet doors and drawers to be sure all was secure. It was amazing what a mess could result during the pitching and rolling of a big storm. The girl seemed nice enough. He’d hate for her to have a gigantic cleaning job on her hands on top of everything else.
Rucker spotted an open cabinet door. A briefcase lay inside. He half turned away, then faced the briefcase again, frowning. Something was not quite right. Monique had told them she had no luggage, that in her terror, she had not taken time to gather any of her belongings before fleeing. So, what was an expensive leather briefcase doing here?
Giving in to his curiosity, Rucker carried the case to the table and popped open the lid. He bit back a gasp as he stared wide-eyed at the contents. Quickly closing the case and heading for the dock, Rucker sent up a quick prayer of thanks that Jim had picked this weekend to pay a visit.
A barefoot Monique emerged from the curtained sleeping area in dry jeans and plaid flannel shirt, unbuttoned over a white, thin strap t-shirt, rubbing her long hair with a towel. Blair’s clothes hung slightly large on her small frame, but they fit well enough for hand-me-downs.
Blair smiled approvingly. "Oh, hey, all right. Grunge looks pretty good on you." He looked over at Jim and started to comment to him about the improvement in Monique’s appearance, but he stopped short when he saw his friend’s face.
Jim was looking at Monique, all right, but the look on his face was far from approving. The sentinel’s blue eyes were cold steel as he regarded the young woman dressed in his guide’s clothing. When Jim didn’t acknowledge Blair’s comment, the oppressive silence in the room grew even heavier.
Blair looked from Jim to Monique, then back again. Definitely some bad vibes at work. Trying to smooth the waters, he picked up a pair of heavily beaded leather boots and handed them to Monique. "Oh, here. I got these up in Alaska. Might be a little big, but they should fit okay."
Jim asked in a flat, emotionless voice, "Didn’t the chief of the Dene give those to you as a special gift when you worked with the tribe? You sure you want some stranger wearing them?"
Blair stared at his friend, trying to figure out where this sudden antagonism was coming from. It was almost a territorial reaction – the sentinel defending his turf. Every time he made a move of welcome or friendship toward Monique, Jim seemed to jump into this over-protective mode. What sort of threat could Monique be to him?
Uneasily, Blair said, "It’s okay, man. Really. I’m sure she’ll take good care of them." Monique nodded silently as she laced up the boots.
"She’d better," Jim muttered, moving to open the door for his cousin as the sound of running footsteps reached the front porch.
Blair was glad to see Rucker’s return. Maybe his presence would help diffuse the situation. "Hey, Rucker, how you doing?"
Dripping wet, Rucker shed his rain gear, then went across the room to Jim. Setting the briefcase down on the table, he opened it for Jim’s inspection.
Blair turned his attention back to Monique. She was lacing the last strap and looked at him with a smile. "The Dene Indians, they swear by these things." Glancing over at Jim, he added softly, "Hey, don’t mind Jim, okay? He’s a cop, y’know. Not exactly the most trusting sort."
Monique smiled warmly. "It’s okay. I hear it’s beautiful up in Alaska. I’ve never been anywhere. Well, Mexico. What’s it like?"
"Oh, it’s beautiful, just beautiful. I spent a couple of months in an igloo, and…"
The sound of heavy footsteps broke his train of thought, and Blair looked up to find Jim and Rucker standing over them. The look on Jim’s face warned that Ellison was definitely in ‘cop mode.’
"Get away from her, Sandburg."
The look in the cold blue eyes was enough to end Blair’s argument before it began. He got up from the couch and moved to stand beside Jim. "What’s going on, man?"
Ignoring him, Jim asked curtly, "What is your full name?"
Monique looked puzzled. "St. James. Monique St. James."
Jim nodded. "Monique St. James, you are under arrest." Reaching behind, he pulled out his cuffs and moved toward the couch.
"What are you doing?" Blair protested.
Rucker spoke up, holding out the open briefcase. "She came in with a little package." In it were two wrapped packages.
"Heroin," Jim added coldly. "Mexican brown. Get up." Blair’s heart sank. If there was a single, sure-fire way to get on Jim’s blacklist, it was to be caught with drugs.
Monique rose unsteadily to her feet. "No…no." She shook her head in denial. "I swear. That’s not mine!"
Reaching out to slap on the cuffs, Jim remarked, "I didn’t see anybody else on that boat."~~~~ ACT II ~~~~~The storm had arrived in full force. Jim stood at the window, looking through the gloom at the rotating beacon of light from the tower perched high on the rocky hill nearby. To normal eyes, the light would scarcely have penetrated the heavy rain. Jim could see the beacon clearly, and he opened his sight even further to check on the boats moored below. As he was studying the boats bobbing on the waves, a sudden flash of lightning stabbed through his head as sharply as a knife. Jim’s hands flew to his eyes in a gesture of protection that was already too late. He bit back the small moan forming at the back of his throat.
A reassuring presence materialized at his side, bringing with it a warm hand on his shoulder. "It’s all right. Ride through the pain, man. Use the dial to bring it down a little. One notch at a time…easy, now…not too fast." The comforting murmur continued as little by little, Jim brought the sudden pain under his control.
When the blinding light and pain had subsided, Jim opened his eyes.
"You okay, man?" Blair asked quietly.
"Yeah. Stupid thing to do, reaching out with my sight during a storm like this. I thought I could pick up on the electricity in the air and know when a bolt was coming." Jim added ruefully, "Guess my technique needs more work."
"I’d say so." Blair cocked his head. "You mean you can sense the electrical charges in the air when there’s lightning? Oh, man, that is so cool! We’re going to have to…"
Jim silenced him with a shake of his head and a hand on Blair’s shoulder. "Now’s not the time or place, Chief." He jerked his head toward Monique and Rucker, both waiting in the main living area. "Besides, I want to find out more information about that heroin."
Blair protested, "You can’t really think she…"
"I don’t know what to think yet, Chief." Jim maneuvered Blair so they were both facing the window with their backs to the living area and continued in a whisper. "I just know that something about this whole situation hasn’t added up from the get-go. Whatever she is, she had a stash of heroin with her, and that alone is enough for me to doubt anything she says. So don’t go trying to convince me that Monique is just another lost soul, okay, Chief? ‘Cause I ain‘t buying it." At the hurt look in Blair’s eyes, Jim softened a bit, his voice warm with concern. "Just watch yourself, okay? We don’t know what kind of situation we have on our hands, and I want you to be careful."
"I’ll be careful, but I still think you’re wrong, man. There’s gotta be an explanation."
"Maybe." Jim watched another flash of lightning, this time with no pain. "I intend to find out." He walked across the darkened room to the couch where Monique waited.
Watching her intently, he asked, "Tell me about the heroin."
"I don’t know anything about that," Monique said flatly. "I don’t know…maybe Enrique…"
"Enrique what? He just had it lying around for some of his investment clients?"
Monique closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply. "Look…I’m tired, and I’m scared. Enrique threatened to kill me! I ran to save my life! God…!"
Shaking his head, Jim turned away from Monique, followed by Rucker and Blair. Before he could speak, Sandburg jumped in. "Look, Jim, I know this looks pretty bad, but maybe we should cut her some slack."
"And why is that?"
"I know you have great cop instincts, but I think I know people. If we give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe we’ll get to the truth, you know? So why don’t you let me talk to her?"
Jim’s first instinct was to say no, quickly and firmly. Sandburg was getting way too involved with this young woman, and the last thing he needed was a partner bucking him on every call, thanks to a case of lust or love or whatever the hell Sandburg was feeling right now. On the other hand, Blair had proven many times that he could indeed coax information from a suspect when Jim’s tougher tactics failed to produce results. Reluctantly, Jim nodded. "See what you can get."
Blair knelt beside Monique. "Hey. I know you’re scared, but I mean, come on, you’ve got to admit all this looks pretty weird, right?" When there was no response, he added, "Like I said before, Jim’s not a bad guy, but he is a cop."
Monique’s reply was unmistakably bitter. "Oh, and you’re not?"
"No, actually, I’m an anthropologist. I’m serious. I’m strictly a consultant. No badge, no gun, nothing."
A tiny smile turned up the corners of Monique’s lips. "Joe Friday from Alaska, huh?"
Remembering when he’d used the ‘Joe Friday’ line, Blair smiled. It seemed so long ago now. "Yeah, I guess. Monique, we’re not going to get anywhere on this unless you start with the truth."
"Okay, but don’t ask me about the heroin. Enrique would kill me if he thought I’d talked." She hesitated, then added softly, "His real name’s not Mendez. It’s Guzman."
At those words, Jim strode over to the couch. "Guzman? Enrique Guzman?" He nudged Blair away from Monique.
Blair stared first at Jim, then at Monique. What the hell was going on here? "Hey, Jim? What are you doing?" He didn’t really expect a direct answer, and he didn’t get one. Jim was zeroing in on his prey like a shark drawn to bloody waters.
"Your boyfriend is the Mexican heroin czar?"
Monique’s eyes were wide, her voice filled with fear. "Yes! Yes! Enrique Guzman! I’m his mistress, and he threatened to kill me! But I swear to God, I don’t know anything about any dope! Why can’t you believe me?"
"Because you lied to us once before," Jim pointed out.
"To protect myself!" Monique protested. "I haven’t exactly had the best luck with men lately. I like the money and the boats, yeah. I’ll admit that, okay? By the time I found out the truth, it was too late. I couldn’t get away." She stood up and faced Jim, defiance blazing in her eyes. "Would you like to see what a belt buckle does to a woman’s back? Maybe that would convince you!" She began unbuttoning her shirt.
"No," Jim interrupted her. "That won’t be necessary. Enrique Guzman works out of Guadalajara. What’s he doing in Washington?"
Blair watched Monique’s face as she explained. If she wasn’t afraid, she was a damned good actress.
"He had paid off some Mexican judges, and they wanted a bigger cut, so…he had them killed. The federales he’d bought off couldn’t protect him any more, so he had to move his operation to the states. About a week ago, he heard that the DEA was closing in, so…he freaked. When he beat me, I just knew I had to get out…somehow." She wrapped her arms around herself in a protective gesture as the hint of tears glistened in her eyes.
Jim glanced at his cousin. "What do you think?"
Rucker shrugged. "Well…that case was the only thing I found on board the Sea Ray. The tank was almost empty."
Blair quickly confirmed Rucker‘s comment. "Doesn’t sound like a well-planned trip, Jim." He held Jim’s gaze for a long moment, hoping his friend could somehow sense his own confidence in the young woman’s character. Blair could actually pinpoint the instant when Jim caved in, and he grinned broadly.
Turning, Jim walked back to Monique. "I hope you understand why we had to do this. We’ll see that you’re well taken care of." He removed the cuffs.
"I’ve heard that before."
The entire station shook on its foundation as a bolt of lightning and a tremendous clap of thunder erupted simultaneously. Blair caught Jim’s eyes as the sentinel passed by to light another Coleman lantern. "I hope you’re right about this one, Chief," he said softly.
By the next morning, the storm had blown through, and the sky had partially cleared. Jim peered out the window and commented, "Well, it looks like it wants to clear off."
"Don’t count on it," Rucker cautioned. "Weather around here can be pretty unpredictable."
Jim motioned restlessly toward the water. "I’m going to take a look at that Sea Ray."
"I don’t think I missed anything, Jim." Rucker wondered if Jim was second-guessing his judgment, then he thought better of it. Jim was a naturally cautious man, and Rucker figured following up was just part of being a detective.
"Probably not," Jim agreed. "But just the same, I’d feel better if I check it out myself."
Rucker nodded. "All right. I’ll see what I can dig up in the mess."
After Jim had departed, Rucker walked across the room to join Blair as Monique emerged from the curtained-off bedroom.
"Good morning," Blair greeted her.
"Is it?" Monique inquired.
Rucker smiled broadly. Might as well try to get the day off to a good start, but it might be difficult, given the scowl on the young woman’s face. "Sure it is. We’ve got dry Froot Loops for breakfast."
Blair and Monique wandered into the main room, leaving Rucker digging out cereal bowls from the kitchen cabinet. Blair looked out the window and smiled. "Looks like the storm’s almost over. Then we’ll get in touch with Cascade PD and get you out of here."
Monique shook her head. "You don’t know Enrique. You know, one time one of his men stole a single balloon of dope. Cost maybe $5,000. Enrique hunted him down. That cost him about $100,000 to do — about a dozen men. But he found him." A visible shiver shook her frame. "I won’t tell you what Enrique did to that man."
Blair took a deep breath, releasing it slowly as the images formed unbidden in his mind. "That’s good. I definitely don’t need to know all the details." Pushing his over-active imagination aside, he tried to reassure her. "Don’t worry, okay? Jim knows what he’s doing. We’ll make it back to Cascade just fine."
Jim approached the Sea Ray and scanned it carefully. Nothing seemed amiss. He boarded the vessel and looked around, first on the deck, then inside the tiny cabin below. Seagulls screeched hungrily outside, and waves lapped gently against the hull. Jim inspected the cabinets and storage areas, then he turned to leave. He stopped at the stairs as a noise caught his attention.
Remembering Blair’s lessons, he purposefully ignored his other senses, focusing on his sense of hearing. There…he heard it again. Muffled and very high-pitched. Jim doubted that anyone with normal hearing would have heard it at all. He followed the sound to a hidden hatch and pulled out a black, rectangular device with a short antenna.
An instant later, he realized the significance of the device in his hands. "Damn it!" Jim scaled the ladder and took off at a full run toward the Coast Guard station.
"Look," Rucker pointed out, "I don’t see how Guzman can track you down. You’re on an island at a Coast Guard station."
Blair nodded in agreement. "And if you testify, you can enter the witness protection program and start a whole new life." He smiled at Monique reassuringly, then he looked toward the door as Jim entered. "Hey, man. Did you find…?" The rest of the sentence was cut off as Jim tossed a black box down on the desk beside them. Blair picked it up and examined it. "What’s this?"
"I found it on the Sea Ray. Some kind of transmitter."
Rucker took the device from Blair’s hand. "This is an electronic beacon." Looking over at Monique, Rucker asked, "Did you activate this thing?"
Monique shook her head emphatically. "I didn’t even know it was there."
Rucker swore softly as he exchanged worried looks with Jim. "Damn. A remote command then."
Monique shook her head. "Wait! I don’t get it. What’s wrong?"
Jim answered flatly, "It gives an exact fix of the Sea Ray."
"Which means Guzman knows she’s here," Blair added, thinking of the implications for them all.
"Oh, God," Monique whispered. She appeared to be in shock, her eyes wide and staring at Jim’s face.
Jim looked at his watch. "All right. It’s 6:30. Why don’t we get the launch and head for the mainland. We’ll make contact with the Coast Guard and headquarters en route. All right?"
Rucker nodded agreement. "We can leave right now." He stood up.
Jim turned toward the door, then paused, his head slightly tilted. Blair moved quickly to stand beside him. *This is definitely not good,* he thought with a sudden feeling of dread.
Jim’s next words affirmed his sense of foreboding. "It’s too late."
Rucker was pulling on his coat. "What do you mean?"
At that moment, all eyes looked toward the ceiling as the unmistakable sound of a helicopter roared overhead. Monique’s quick intake of breath was followed by her desperate cry. "Oh, no! Enrique’s here!"
The boat was already tied up at the pier, and several men were climbing toward the lighthouse and nearby station. One was in the process of setting a blasting charge on the tall metal framework of the communications tower. Above, the helicopter gently sat down on a cleared area of grass. Two men emerged from the chopper.
"Revisa la lancha," Guzman commanded with an air of one accustomed to being quickly obeyed without question. "Cubre la estacion. La quiero viva."
His companion, Raoul, asked, "What about the Coast Guard?"
Guzman sneered at the station. "What about the Coast Guard?" He turned to shout to the pilot, "Get out of here!"
Lifting gracefully, the helicopter rose from the earth and soared out over the water, leaving its passengers behind.
Jim brought his cousin over to a private corner of the station. "How much firepower you got around here?" he asked quietly.
Rucker replied, "Well, we got two M-16s and a few mags. Plus, we got a flare gun in the kit."
Jim nodded as he considered the situation. "I’ve got a mag and a half. How many ways in or out of here?"
"There’s a front door and back door. There’s a trap door down to the…crawl space, really."
Rucker glanced over at Blair and Monique on the far side of the room. "Jimmy?" he asked in a hesitant voice. "This may be none of my business, but under our present circumstances, maybe it is."
Jim looked at his cousin carefully. "What is it, Ruck?"
Turning so his face wasn’t visible to the room’s other occupants, Rucker asked quietly, "This Sandburg…how the hell did you get teamed up with him anyway? I mean, face it, he’s not exactly the type I’d pick for your partner, if you know what I mean."
Jim smiled softly. "No, I guess you would see it that way. You met Jack, didn’t you? They’re nothing alike."
Rucker took a drink of water from a bottle resting on the countertop. "He’s not even a cop, is he? So why’s he your partner?"
"He’s a grad student and departmental observer working on his dissertation. At least, that’s how this whole thing started. By now…" Jim paused, trying to find the right words to explain his relationship with Blair to his favorite cousin. He failed miserably. Without revealing information about his senses, he knew their unorthodox partnership must look completely illogical to an outsider. Even to an outsider who was family. "By now, he’s a lot more, Ruck. The partnership works. For both of us, I hope."
Both men were silent for a long minute. Soft laughter from the two young people assured Jim that at least Sandburg had calmed Monique down for the moment. He was caught off-guard when Rucker asked, "Does it have something to do with your being…different?"
Jim didn’t have to ask his cousin to clarify. Rucker had always been an observant man, and Jim knew without a doubt that he’d picked up on some of the early incidents involving his enhanced senses. The incident earlier in the launch had only confirmed what he’d already witnessed.
When Jim didn’t answer right away, Rucker said, "Come on, Jimmy. We both know you’re not exactly like the rest of us. I don’t care about all that, and you know I’d never mention it to a soul. You’re about the only family I got left."
At last, Jim answered softly, "Yeah. Sandburg…helps me." He turned to look at his cousin. "You want the truth, Ruck?" When Rucker nodded, Jim explained, "Blair’s about all that’s stood between me and the loony bin for the past couple of years. He’s family, too, y’know?"
Rucker looked over at Blair for a moment, then he nodded. "Got it. I don’t know all the details here, and I don’t need to know them. If the kid rates that highly in your opinion, Jimmy, then he’s square with me." He paused for a moment, then locked eyes with Jim. "One more thing. Can we count on Blair when the shooting starts?"
Jim considered that question, remembering all the close calls he and Sandburg had faced. Lash…that vat of oil out on the rig…Brackett. "Yeah, we can count on him, Ruck. Sandburg’s not a cop, but he’s got great instincts, you know? I trust him."
"Good enough for me, Jimmy."
Jim nodded and turned back to the situation at hand. "Start locking down those entrances. Put whatever you can in front of the doors." Calling to his partner, Jim said, "Sandburg, give Ruck a hand." He moved over to the com-link system. "I’m going to send out a distress call. Get some backup out here."
He never got the chance. Outside, a tremendous explosion shook the windows of the station. Monique screamed, covering her head. "What was that?"
Moving carefully to the window, Rucker looked outside. "Jim! They blew the com-link! We’re cut off."~~~~~ ACT III ~~~~~"You see him?" Blair asked, squeezed in next to Jim at the window closest to the pier. He peered through the blinds to where a cluster of men was gathered on the dock.
Jim answered quietly, "Yeah. I recognize him from his mug shots."
Rucker moved up behind the two men. "Jim, how many guns?"
Blair looked behind him in surprise. He started to cover for his friend and deny Jim’s ability to make out weapons from their distant vantage point, but Jim’s hand descended on his shoulder.
"It’s all right, Chief. Ruck’s okay with this."
Their eyes locked as silent understanding passed between sentinel and guide. Blair nodded his acceptance. He wasn’t sure how much Rucker knew about his cousin’s abilities, but if Jim trusted Rucker, that was enough for Blair.
Looking back out the window, Jim replied, "I make six. Plus Guzman and some other tough guy."
Monique whispered, "That’s Raoul. He’s the worst of them."
<"Coast Guard! We have your island! You are surrounded. If you send out the woman, we let you live. You have two minutes.">
Her voice shaking, Monique suggested, "You better let me go." She began to move toward the door.
"What do you mean?" Blair protested. "What are you doing? Are you crazy? That guy’s going to kill you. No! Hey, Jim, what are our options here?"
Rucker handed Jim an M-16. "Well, we could make a break for the launch and set up the deck gun."
"We got eight guys on full auto between us and the water," Jim pointed out calmly.
*He sounds like he’s discussing tonight’s TV line-up,* Blair thought wildly. *We’ve got men out there with guns who want to kill us, and Jim and Rucker are talking like nothing’s wrong. What is it with these Ellison’s?!*
Jim continued calmly, "What about that trap? Any way to get through the crawl space?"
"Yeah, we could kick out a vent screen," replied Rucker thoughtfully. "That would make us come out under the north side of the station."
<"Coast Guard! Your time is up. Senor Guzman wants you to look out the window.">
Everyone moved to peer through the blinds. A man came up to Guzman and handed him some kind of device. A moment later, Rucker’s launch exploded in a blast of flames.
"Son of a bitch!" Rucker shouted, pounding the windowsill with his fist.
Blair stared at the burning remains of what had been their best hope for escape from the island. "Well, so much for Plan A," he muttered.
"There’s got to be some way we can get an SOS out," Jim stated flatly.
Rucker looked at his cousin thoughtfully. "There’s no phones with the power still out. We’re way out of cellular range." He paused, then glanced up toward the lighthouse tower. "The lighthouse still has power. There’s a radio there in the shed. I’ll have to take the back trail up and around through the woods."
Jim shook his head. "I should be the one to go. I’ve had more training in Covert Ops, and I can get up there without being spotted."
"I know the territory, Jimmy, and don‘t forget, I’m military, too. It’s my turf. My responsibility."
Blair raised his voice in frustration. "Would you two macho types please cut it out? It doesn’t matter who goes, guys, just so one of you reaches that radio!" Turning to Jim, Blair pointed out in a reasonable tone, "C’mon, Jim. Rucker’s got a point, man. He knows the turf here. Let him go. You’d be better off dealing with Guzman anyway, right? Rucker‘s got no experience in negotiations."
Jim spread his hands in surrender. "All right. Maybe we can create a diversion somehow."
Monique asked, "What can we do?"
The clock on the wall relentlessly marked the seconds ticking away.
Down on the pier, Guzman and his men waited behind stacks of crates. "Their time is up," Guzman growled. "Raoul, take your men, and…"
"Look, jefe!" Raoul pointed to the station window and smiled broadly. A sheet hung out bearing the words, ‘Drugs for Monique’. He glanced over at Guzman who granted permission with a barely discernable nod.
Raoul murmured, "Jefe, mira…" Raising the bullhorn, he announced, "The jefe says he’ll talk to anyone with the cajones to come out here and face him."
Impatient eyes focused on the Coast Guard station as they waited.
Rucker nodded to Jim. "Big cajones, huh? That’d be you, boss."
"Got that right," Jim agreed with a grin that quickly faded. "I’ll hold him off as long as I can. You get to that radio. Call Captain Simon Banks at Cascade PD, then get hold of the Coast Guard, all right?"
"Roger that," Rucker acknowledged. He quickly moved into the crawlspace and disappeared.
Jim turned to Blair, holding out the M-16. Sandburg held out his hands and backed up a step, shaking his head. "I don’t know about this, Jim."
Jim’s frustration flared. He knew full well of Sandburg’s aversion to guns, but he didn’t have time for a discussion of principles. Running his fingers through his hair, Jim struggled to keep his temper under control. "Look, Chief. I’m about to walk out that door unarmed to face a major drug lord who doesn’t give a damn about killing anyone – anywhere, anytime! He’s got us outnumbered, outgunned, and to this point, outmaneuvered."
Blair was looking up at him with eyes filled with doubt and more than a trace of fear. A part of Jim hated playing his trump card, but it was necessary. His time was quickly running out. "I know you hate the thought of using a gun, Sandburg, but are you going to let your personal beliefs get us all killed? If not for me, then think about Rucker and Monique. Putting my life on the line’s part of my job, but…"
"Okay," Blair interrupted, his hands raised, palms up, in surrender. "I’ll do it. Give me the gun."
Their eyes held for a long moment, and in that brief space of time, Jim knew exactly why Blair had agreed. Slowly, he nodded. "Thanks, Chief." Clearing his throat, he added, "It’s time you learned how to use this thing."
"Yeah, right. Show me how to use the gun." Rolling his eyes, Blair smiled a bit sickly as he added, "Damn. Never thought I’d say those words."
Jim nodded. "I know, and I wouldn’t ask if we had any choice." He saw the glint of gratitude in the younger man’s eyes. As long as they understood each other. Demonstrating, Jim explained, "All you got to do is rack the slide…hold down the trigger and point. You probably won’t even have to fire." He added, only half jokingly, "At least I hope you don’t. I’d like to avoid landing in the middle of a firestorm." He held out the gun to Sandburg.
Blair took a long breath and nodded, staring at the M-16 in his hands as if it were a snake. "All right."
Jim turned to go.
The sentinel turned around. Blair was looking at him, his wide blue eyes filled with worry. "Be careful, man. Okay?"
With a last look at his partner and friend, Jim nodded, then he left the station to meet Enrique Guzman.
Jim could feel the eyes upon him as he descended the hill – the eyes of Guzman and his men from below, and those of Blair and Monique watching from above. As he approached, Raoul ordered, "Stop there. Where is your uniform?"
"I’m not in the Coast Guard. I’m a cop." Jim tried his bluff. "Right now, half of Cascade PD is on its way out here."
He knew immediately he’d failed as Raoul laughed heartily. "How do you call them? We knocked your radio tower down."
Guzman stepped forward. "I want Monique. Bring her to me."
Jim bristled and demanded, "So you can beat her again? Maybe break her legs so she can’t run away this time?"
A quick motion from Guzman brought Raoul’s gun down hard on Jim’s head. The sentinel felt a blinding flash of pain and quickly fought to remain standing. He staggered forward, but kept his feet. For a second, his senses spiked almost out of control, as he heard Blair’s worried voice from the station, <"It’s all right. He’s going to be okay.">
*I sure hope you’re right, Chief,* Jim thought dizzily.
Guzman’s reply was indignant. "Beat her? I loved her. I gave her everything, but she’s a whore, a liar, and a thief!"
Jim straightened painfully. "You got the dope. Why don’t you just let her go?"
Guzman picked up the briefcase and slammed it into the water. "I do not care about the dope! I want my book!"
Jim was totally confused. "What book?"
Guzman spat, "Ask Monique! Ask the whore! If you do not bring her out here with my book, I burn this whole place down to the waterline!"
Jim stalked inside the station. He was definitely tired of this woman’s little games. Blair greeted him anxiously at the door.
"Hey, Jim. How are you doing? What did they say?"
Jim ignored Sandburg’s questions, focused instead on finding the truth. He grabbed Monique’s small backpack, dumped the contents on the table, and began searching through them.
"What are you doing?" Monique’s voice rose in anger. "What the hell do you think you’re doing?"
Jim flipped through her passport quickly. No book. He strode over to her coat and patted it down. Nothing.
"Where’s the book?" Jim angrily asked.
"Raise your hands," he ordered sternly.
Blair protested, "Hey, Jim…"
"Give it a rest, Chief. Come on, let’s go. Bring them up." Carefully, he patted her down but found nothing. "All right." Monique slowly lowered her arms.
"Jim, what the hell is going on here?" Blair was quieter now, looking at Jim with wide eyes.
"Guzman accused her of stealing some book." Looking back at Monique, Jim added, "If you know anything about this, you gotta say something. Now."
Monique hesitated. "Enrique doesn’t believe in computers. He puts everything in little books…"
Blair interrupted her. "What do you mean – ‘everything’? Like what?"
"Um…he left one open once. It had numbers and names…stuff…I don’t…"
Suddenly, the picture was becoming all too clear. Jim demanded, "Phone numbers? Accounts? What?"
Monique’s voice quivered. "I don’t know. I didn’t understand it."
"Whatever it is," Jim said quietly, "he thinks we have this information."
Blair pointed out, "That might not be a bad thing, right, Jim? We can use it as a bargaining chip. Buy us a little more time?"
Jim considered his friend’s idea. "Maybe." Seeing the worried look on Blair’s face, he added, "It’ll be all right. Once Rucker gets to the lighthouse, help’ll be on its way. In the meantime, stay away from the windows and doors."
Rucker had made it to the hill just below the tower. He’d been crawling most of the way, staying low to avoid detection. All that remained was to make it the final few yards to the tower door. He pulled out his binoculars to get a fix on Guzman’s men and their positions.
As he raised the lenses, the sun emerged from behind the lingering clouds. Rucker knew immediately what had happened and his heart sank. Below, on the docks, Guzman’s men began scurrying like ants at a picnic. Three men started up the hill toward the light.
"Damn!" Rucker slammed down the binoculars and scrambled up the hill toward the tower.
He made it inside and bolted the door behind him. Running to the radio, he began searching for a channel. "C’mon!" he muttered as his fingers flew across the dials. "C’mon!"
Finally, he heard a clear channel just as Guzman‘s men began pounding on the door. "Mayday! This is Coast Guard substation tango, bravo, delta on Storm Island to all open police channels. We are under attack from a heavily armed drug gang. Repeat, we are under attack…"
The door gave way and two men barged in. They lifted their weapons and began firing. Rucker ran low across the room and spotted the open window. With a quick prayer, he dove through and disappeared.
It was time to prepare for the attack. Jim handed the M-16 back to Blair.
"I don’t know, man. The idea of actually killing somebody…"
Jim tried to control his impatience. "All you got to do is spray a burst over their heads. Anything to keep ‘em back, okay?" Once more, he played his ace. "I’m counting on you, Chief."
Blair nodded, still staring at the gun in his hands.
Jim called to Monique. "Come over here. Anybody gets inside this door, you shoot them with the flare gun. Can you handle that?"
"I think so."
Guzman’s voice shouted, "Monique!"
Their time was up.
A blizzard of shots sprayed across the small station, breaking windows, splintering wood, and destroying everything in sight. Jim and Blair ducked low, while Monique dove behind the couch.
Jim glanced over at Blair, crouched beside him. The young anthropologist quipped, "Hey, Jim! I just want you to know that this doesn’t change my opinion on gun control!"
Smiling tightly, Jim replied, "I’ll keep that in mind! Now, fire, Sandburg!"
They began firing out the window toward the men on the docks. Jim counted several men go down. The return fire from the docks ceased, and Jim and Blair quickly pulled back inside.
"Jim! I’m out of ammo, man!"
Checking his own weapon, Jim answered grimly, "Me, too." He slumped back against the wall.~~~~~ ACT IV ~~~~~Guzman followed his men into the station. As he walked slowly around, Raoul and the others searched every room. The drug lord’s right-hand man returned, shaking his head. "Jefe…?"
Another man pointed toward the open hatch door. "Que paso?"
Gesturing around at the bullet-ridden room, Raoul pointed out, "No one could have survived this!"
Guzman angrily spat out, "Then where are the bodies? Where is Monique?"
No one had an answer for him.
The rain had set in once more. Jim was at point, ahead of Blair and Monique, scouting the area for danger before signaling them in. The woods were dense, and Blair was grateful for his sentinel’s senses. It was have been almost impossible to spot Guzman’s men otherwise.
Jim whistled quietly, and Blair and Monique emerged from their cover. Monique cradled one arm carefully.
"Are you okay? Oh, hey, Jim, she got hit!" Blair stared at the growing stain of blood on the young woman’s shirt.
Jim came over to inspect the injury. "Looks like a surface wound."
Monique nodded. "It’s okay. I’m just…" She wavered on her feet, and Blair grabbed her arm.
"Uh-oh. Come on."
Jim supported Monique’s other arm, and they led her carefully to a tree to sit down.
"Ow!" Monique protested as Jim probed the injury.
"All right, take it easy," Jim reassured her.
Blair pointed out, "We need to bind that and stop the bleeding."
"I’ve got a bandana in my day pack," Monique suggested with a low moan of pain.
Jim stood up. "Let me have the pack. Take her jacket off and cover her up. Keep her warm. Keep taking deep breaths." He removed the bandana from the pack and handed it to Blair. "Here you go. I’m going to make sure we weren’t followed. You stay with her."
After Jim had disappeared into the woods, Blair dressed the wound. "Why in the world didn’t you tell us you were shot?"
Monique bit back a cry. "What would you do, stop and give me first aid? Oh, God…"
Blair grimaced at her pain. "Don’t worry. Don’t worry, okay? We’re going to get out of this."
A small smile broke through the pain on Monique’s face. "Thank you. Not just for today, but…" She hesitated, then added, "You were the one who wanted to believe me all along. It’s funny."
"Well, here we are on what is really a very beautiful little island, and…I just keep wondering when I’m going to get one of those little drinks with the umbrellas in it."
Blair chuckled, then turned his head to see Jim returning.
"We’ve got to move," Jim ordered, "and get to the lighthouse. We’ll go through the brush to avoid the chopper. If he made it, we’ll hook up with Rucker."
"What if he didn’t make it?" Blair questioned. He immediately caught his mistake. *Stupid, Sandburg. Really stupid. The guy’s Jim’s cousin!* After a moment’s silence, he looked up at Jim apologetically and added, "Sorry, man. He made it. Rucker’s a lot like you – a real survivor."
Jim acknowledged the apology with a slight smile, then he looked at Monique. "Think you can keep moving?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"All right," Jim said. "Let’s go." Helping Monique to her feet, he added, "Watch it now. Here we go."
"Thank you," Monique said softly, and she moved on out ahead of the two men.
Jim caught Blair’s arm. "Just watch yourself around her, Chief."
Blair couldn’t believe his ears. "What? Oh, come on! You still think she’s trying to scam us, Jim?" He tried to get a read on Jim’s emotions, but the sentinel’s face remained set and unreadable.
"Wouldn’t be the first time one of us got hung with a good line, Junior," Jim pointed out. "Let’s move."
Jim scanned the area in front of the lighthouse carefully. There were two guards posted, but he didn’t see them as much of a threat. Motioning to Blair and Monique to follow, he began to creep closer. He could hear the men talking, unaware of his presence.
Moving slowly, with absolute silence, Jim crept up behind them, then he struck like a viper. Grasping both men on the back of the neck, he slammed their heads together. They sank unconscious to the ground and were still.
Blair popped up at the edge of the walkway, a huge grin plastered across his face. "Where’d you learn that move? The Rangers?"
Jim returned his friend’s broad grin. "Hope and Crosby," he quipped. "Get up here, Chief."
Blair clambered over the railing. "It was a thing of beauty, man."
Jim began collecting the guns from the unconscious men. From beside him, Blair warned, "Jim! Look out!"
Another Mexican had appeared, holding a gun. Jim rose slowly, eyeing the new intruder. Before he could act, Monique appeared from behind, holding the flare gun at the man’s neck.
"Drop it, Hernando, or you’re dead."
Hernando froze, and Jim quickly confiscated his gun. Blair moved to Monique’s side, speaking softly as her breathing grew rapid. "It’s okay. Take deep breaths, now."
Blair whispered in a voice only a sentinel could hear, "See? She’s okay, Jim. Relax."
Jim didn‘t reply, but he cast a cautionary look at his guide. *Not yet, Chief. Not until this whole fiasco is over."
In the station, Raoul shouted into his radio, his patience at an end. "Jorge! Ramiro! Do you copy?" No reply. "Hernando!" Turning to Guzman, he could read the storm clouds of anger building on the older man’s dark face. "No one answers, Jefe," Raoul said softly.
"Then we ourselves we find them!" Guzman shouted. "I will track down that bitch and kill her myself!"
The climb to the lighthouse over, Jim stepped inside and quickly checked it out. His heart sank at the sight of the blasted radio. "All clear," he called to Blair and Monique.
"Where’s Rucker?" Blair questioned, looking around.
Jim shook his head, then extended his hearing. He followed a faint sound to a broken window and listened. Heavy breathing…a heartbeat.
He led the way down the rocky slope to the edge of a large rock. Just on the other side lay Rucker, obviously injured and huddled out of sight.
"Damn!" Rucker said quietly. "Took you long enough. Tried to get a message off, but I don’t know if it got through." He grinned up at Jim. "Not as bad as it looks, right?"
Monique wandered farther off, the flare gun held down at her side. Blair and Jim knelt beside Rucker. Jim commented with a grin, "Well, you’re probably going to walk a little bit funny, but you’ll be all right. We’ve got to get you out of here, though."
Before Rucker could reply, there was a loud blast nearby and an orange flame shot into the sky. Jim glared at Monique, who held the smoking flare gun, a look of panic on her face.
"What the hell did you do that for?"
Monique stammered, "I…I’m sorry! I…I was scared, and it…just went off!"
Jim helped Rucker to his feet, ignoring his cousin‘s painful grunts. "Come on! Let’s go!"
They took off to the cover of the forest just as the helicopter circled overhead, guns blazing at their heels.
Jim wasn’t sure how long they’d run through the forest, but he knew Rucker needed a break. "Over here, Ruck. Take a load off your feet for a second." He helped his cousin ease down on the soft ground.
Monique was still distraught. "I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I never meant for any of this to happen."
Jim had had enough. Turning slowly to face her, he asked coldly, "Is that so?"
Blair confronted him immediately. "Come on, Jim! Give it a rest, man. I mean, she was running for her life. She didn’t ask to come to this island, right?"
"She sure as hell ain’t helping us get off of it, Chief!" Jim rubbed his face in exasperation.
"Why won’t he believe me?" Monique moaned.
Blair looked at Jim with the same question in his expressive eyes. Jim turned away and barked sharply, "Let’s get moving!"
In the helicopter, Guzman was running out of patience. No woman could humiliate him and live. "Get this thing down!" he ordered. "We’ll take them on foot."
"Roger that," the pilot acknowledged.
Once the copter touched down, Guzman and Raoul sprang out. Signaling to his pilot, Guzman called, "Get out of here! Go on!" When the aircraft had lifted into the skies, he turned to Raoul. "Come on. We stay 50 meters apart. Now, go!"
Raoul nodded. "Yes, Jefe." As he turned and headed into the forest, Raoul smiled. Surely, this nightmare would soon be at an end.
Their progress was slow. Jim could tell that Rucker’s pain was growing by the minute. "Hang in there, Ruck. Hang in there." He inspected the wound carefully. "That’s bleeding pretty badly," he acknowledged at last. "We can’t keep walking on this any longer. Sit down by that log over there." He helped his cousin sit down. Rucker was breathing heavily, and his face was pale and covered in a sheen of sweat.
"I’m…only going to slow you down," Rucker panted. "There’s thicker forest north a ways."
"Easy," Jim cautioned.
Blair knelt beside Jim. "Come on, what are you talking about? We can’t leave you here!"
Rucker smiled weakly up at Jim’s partner. "You have to, kid."
Jim spoke calmly. "He’s a military officer, Sandburg. He knows it gives us our best chance to survive."
"Jim!" Blair’s face reflected pure disbelief. "You’d leave your own cousin?" His voice turned bitter. "I suppose you’d leave me, too, then, right?"
"Come on, Chief!" Jim was tired and frustrated and Sandburg wasn’t helping matters any. "It’s not…"
Monique interrupted. "We should stay here with him."
His patience evaporated at the young woman’s words. "Oh, that’s a great idea," Jim said sarcastically. "Just sit here and wait until they find us and shoot us to pieces! Why the hell are you trying to stop us from getting rescued?"
Blair jumped in to defend Monique. "Hey! Lay off, Jim! Where’s all this coming from, man?" He moved to stand closer to the injured woman.
Jim stood up and faced his partner and Monique. He’d held off long enough. It was time to force the truth. "Oh, lots of places, Chief. Try Rome…Athens…Bangkok."
Blair’s eyes widened. "What?"
"Those places are stamped on her passport."
"Her passport?" He stared at Monique. "I thought you said the only place you’d ever been was Mexico." Turning to Jim, he asked, "What else?"
Jim pressed on with what he’d learned. "Guzman looked surprised when I accused him of smacking her around. He even denied it."
Monique cried, "And you believed him?"
"Maybe now is a good time to show us those bruises on your back," Jim suggested pointedly.
Blair turned to face her and demanded, "Yeah. Why not?"
"Come on," Jim pushed.
Monique shouted, "Go to hell! All of you!"
"You know," Jim said, "your friend was no choirboy, but he nailed you on two things. Being a thief and a liar."
"Look," Monique protested, "I already told you. I don’t have his damn book!"
"Of course you don’t," Jim agreed amiably. He smiled quickly at Blair as he held up an audio tape. "Because you transferred it onto this. I got it out of your Walkman."
"What’s on it, Jimmy?" asked Rucker from his position on the ground.
"Haven’t played it yet, Ruck," Jim responded smoothly.
In once swift motion, Monique picked up the gun Jim had placed on the ground near Rucker. She moved quickly behind Blair and pointed the gun at his head. "Hand it over!" she demanded.
Blair’s wide eyes fixed on Jim. "Oh, man…"
"Do it!" Monique shouted, "or I blow him away right now!"
Jim tossed the tape easily to Monique. "You know, there’s other pieces to the puzzle. I just haven’t been able to put it all together." He kept his eyes trained on the gun.
"You just weren’t smart enough to figure it all out, were you?"
"Smart enough to get you to show your true colors." Jim took three quick steps toward Monique, and she screamed.
Her face contorted in rage, Monique pulled the trigger, and Blair flinched backward, his eyes squeezed shut. Nothing happened.
Jim grinned as Blair opened his eyes to stare at his partner. "Smart enough to put a blank clip into that Tec-9," he drawled calmly.
Monique screeched in frustration and hurled the gun at Jim. She took off into the woods. Blair moved to follow, but Jim reached out an arm to stop him. He’d heard the sound of guns cocking. "Freeze, Chief," he warned. "They’re here." He bent to pick up a gun, but he never got the chance.
Raoul emerged from behind a tree, his gun aimed directly at Jim. "I wouldn’t do that."
Jim backed up, easing Blair behind him, as Raoul came at them with his gun. Guzman entered the clearing with Monique. He spoke into his radio as he shoved Monique down to her knees on the ground. "We have them. Robert, come on and take the chopper down to the beach and wait for us." He glared at Monique. "Did you really think I would not find you, Carita? Why did you take my book? Blackmail? Extortion? Insurance? No matter. Now you will tell me. Where is it?" He placed the sharp edge of a knife at her throat.
A gunshot rolled off the hillside, and Guzman crumpled to the ground, his eyes shocked and staring. Raoul turned the gun on Jim and Blair as Monique ran to his side. She lifted her head, and they kissed.
"We did it, my love," Raoul said softly.
"You did what?" Blair asked, still staring at the dead body of Guzman.
"You don’t get it, huh, Chief? Monique gets tired of the old jefe and throws in with Raoul. She takes off with the boat, heads to a remote island where she can kill a very heavily protected man. Figures there can’t be any cops around. Just a couple of Coast Guardsmen that won’t be a problem to take down. Guzman tracks her with the hidden transponder. She probably was going to drop him soon as the helicopter lands, only we showed up."
Blair looked up at Jim. "What about Guzman’s book?"
Monique smiled smugly. "Can’t take over a man’s business without his contact lists. You’ve got dealers, informants, bribed officials, delivery routes, drop-off points…very complicated." She tilted her head up at Raoul. "I’m about tired of this backwoods stuff, baby. Let’s get this over with and get the hell out of here."
Jim smiled as he heard the sounds of an approaching helicopter. Definitely not Guzman’s. A few moments later, he looked up to see a Coast Guard chopper flying over. Taking advantage of Raoul’s distraction, Jim charged forward, knocking his gun up and out of the way. Rucker scrambled painfully to his feet and moved to help Jim fight Raoul.
Monique took off at a full run through the woods, and Blair rushed after her. As she looked back hurriedly over her shoulder, Monique tripped over a fallen log and fell hard to the ground. Quickly, Blair pinned her to the ground, but Monique continued to struggle hard. From the corner of his eye, Blair spotted the tape and tried to grab for it with one hand, losing his grip on Monique’s shoulder.
"No!" the desperate woman cried. Pulling back her right arm, she caught Blair in the nose with her fist. Sandburg rolled away, holding his face and moaning as the blood flowed through his fingers.
Monique grabbed the tape, then seized a large rock. Hurrying to stand over Blair, she raised the rock high above her head. Blair rolled over, his eyes growing large at the sight of Monique looming above him. Seizing a stick, he brought it hard against the back of Monique’s knees. She fell, dropping the rock, and Blair rolled safely away. Immediately, he sprang back toward the woman, pinning her once more to the ground.
Blair didn’t realize Jim had arrived until he heard his friend’s voice. "You okay, Chief?"
Blair looked up and smiled as the blood dripped down his face. "Yeah…Yeah, I got everything under control, partner. Give me a hand here."
At last, it was over. The Coast Guard arrived to escort the surviving members of Guzman’s gang back to shore. The bodies of the drug lord and those who had fallen to Jim’s gun on the dock were in body bags awaiting transport as well. Monique averted her eyes as Guzman’s bag was lifted past her.
Jim and Blair strolled down the dock. Blair held a white cloth to his nose, which was already swollen and bruised.
"How’s the nose?" Jim asked.
"Oh, it’s all right. Hey, by the way…" He handed Jim the tape.
Jim looked at the tape, then at Blair. As Monique walked by on her way to the Coast Guard boat, he dropped it in her hand. "Here you go. Happy listening." As the Coast Guardsmen passed, he added, "Thanks, guys."
Blair stared at Jim. "What the hell did you do that for?"
Jim grinned knowingly. "Relax. She never had the real one. I switched them." The grin broadened. "I hope she likes David Copperfield. In Chinese." Blair’s delighted expression made him chuckle.
A Coast Guardsman came over and handed Rucker a radio. "Rucker, it’s the mainland relay. Your first mate."
Blair shot Jim a knowing look, but Jim chose to ignore it. Let the kid hang himself, he thought with a hidden smile. "Let me see that nose," Jim commanded, reaching to inspect the injury. Sandburg batted his hand away.
"Andy, how’s your dad?" Rucker asked.
A voice made tinny from the radio transmission replied, "He’s fine. Out of ICU."
Rucker smiled. "Good."
The voice asked, "What happened out there? Are you okay?"
"I’m fine. It’s the station that’s a mess. I miss you, too. Can’t wait to see you. I love you. Bye."
"I love you, too. Bye."
Rucker returned the radio to the Coast Guardsman.
Blair snickered behind the cloth he still held to his nose. "Now that explains a lot."
Rucker approached him, stopping only inches away. "Sandburg, Andy is my fiancée. Short for Andrea." He held out a photo of an attractive brunette.
His eyes twinkling, Jim tapped Blair lightly on the head. "Gotcha, Chief."
"I knew that!" Blair protested. "I did! I knew that. Come on, guys!"
Laughing, Rucker headed back toward the station. Still grinning at his friend’s discomfort, Jim patted Blair on the stomach as the younger man turned.
"Hey, Jimmy," Rucker called back. "What about my birthday present? You about ready to try out that reel?"
"Any time, Cuz. Any time. Oh, and next time we celebrate your birthday, how about you come over to Cascade? This place is way too dangerous."
Eddie’s plane was due to arrive at any time. Jim and Blair sat by the water, their bags already at the pier, waiting for his arrival. Rucker was in the station, completing the last of the clean-up chores. All signs of the storm were over; the day was bright and clear.
"It’s been quite a trip, hasn’t it?" Blair said quietly.
Jim welcomed the statement. Blair had been subdued ever since the Coast Guard had departed with Monique and Raoul, and quietness was normally not a Sandburg trait. As much as Blair’s chatter sometimes irritated him, the young man’s quietness bothered him more. Jim had a pretty good hunch what was eating at his friend. "You did good up there, Sandburg," Jim said, not looking at his partner, but keeping his eyes on the water instead. The waves were calmer now. Peaceful.
Jim felt Blair watching him, and his words were hesitant. "I don’t know, man. I never thought I’d have to…you know…actually fire a gun. At people." Blair fell silent, and several minutes passed before he spoke again. Jim waited patiently, knowing there was more that needed to be said.
"What bothers me is…" Blair took a small rock and tossed it into the water. "I would have killed them, Jim. If they’d come up to the station, I knew at that moment that I would have lowered my aim and…" He didn’t finish the sentence.
Blair stared at Jim as if he‘d spoken in Greek. "Why, what? Why would I have killed them?"
"Yeah. Why do you think you would have been willing to shoot one or more of Guzman’s men if they’d made it close to the station?"
"Because," Blair explained impatiently, "they would have killed us, man! It was obvious they didn’t care who they killed to get at Monique."
"So," Jim pointed out calmly, "you were protecting yourself. Protecting me. Do you have a problem with knowing that you’d be willing to kill to protect yourself and your best friend?" He waited for Blair’s delayed response patiently, tossing a rock of his own into the peaceful water and watching the ripples spread out in concentric circles.
After a long minute, Blair chuckled softly. "You really have a way of cutting to the chase, don’t you, Jim? No, I can live with that." Tossing another rock, he added, "Thanks, man."
The nearly inaudible sound of a plane’s engine drew Jim’s attention. "Eddie’s almost here," Jim said, rising to his feet. Reaching down, he extended his hand to Blair. "Let’s go home, partner."
Blair grasped the offered hand and let Jim help hoist him up. "Any butterflies fluttering in your stomach at the thought of the flight home?" He dusted off his jeans and watched the red and yellow plane as it touched down on the water.
Jim smiled down at Blair. "What we’ve been through makes dealing with a phobia seem like a walk in the park, Chief." They turned and headed toward the seaplane, now taxing in to the pier where Rucker waited.
Blair nodded. "Good. Just let me know if you get nervous, though. We’ll try another meditation technique." A frown knitted small wrinkles between his eyebrows, and Blair caught Jim’s arm, holding him back. "I’m sorry," he said softly.
Jim cocked his head as he looked at his friend. "For what?"
"I totally misjudged Monique, man. I let her play me from start to finish, and…" Blair’s voice faltered. "It…almost got us all killed." He shook his head. "You tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen."
Jim dropped an arm across the younger man’s shoulders as they walked slowly toward the waiting plane. "It’s okay. She fooled me at times, too. I told you once about checking your feelings at the door, but I’m not sure that’s such good advice, Chief. Just keep doing what you’re doing, okay? You’re doing fine."
Rucker waved to them as they approached. Jim took a last look over his shoulder at the lighthouse, standing sentinel high above them. It was time to go home.The EndPlease remember to send feedback to our authors. Feedback can be sent to: [email protected]Next week’s episode: Red Ice by JET and Lory