Disclaimer: I make no money from this, just a lot of dead brain cells.
Notes: Well, it's about time.... right? I know, it's been over a year. This one just didn't want to be written. Actually, it wanted to be rewritten over and over. If it was a monster in length it would be explainable, but it's not, so I have no excuse. There's only one more to go and it's not vital to the rest of the series, so even if it doesn't get written for a decade, you won't be left hanging. There's quite a bit of violence in this one. It's not my normal style. (Which is one reason it took me forever to write.)
Thanks: Special thanks to Paula for keeping me plugging along and pointing out several inconsistencies. Also to Cindy for beta'ing this at the last minute. Any remaining mistakes are mine. A few of you have emailed me on occasion to ask if I ever planned on finishing. I think I can honestly say without those pushes I'd still be stuck rewriting the first section. *g*
Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Rivanna Michaels
"A person does not choose his fate; he only fulfills it. He is bound by his fate as long as he accepts the values that determine it." ...Alexander Lowen, M.D.
Consciousness can be a very tricky thing. Sometimes it can be hard to determine if you are really aware of your surroundings or if it is all an elaborate illusion designed to confuse and torture. Jim Ellison currently found himself an unwilling participant in the search for that answer. He didn't know where he was, how he had gotten there, or even why he was there. His body refused to cooperate with the signals he was sure his brain was sending. At the same time, however, he did have a certain sense of awareness. He could hear a wide variety of sounds: the persistent howling of monkeys, the whistling of the wind through the trees, the steady roaring of a nearby waterfall, the humming of several generators, and the quiet breathing of a body somewhere in close proximity to his own. After all, he decided to focus on the last sound. It did have the potential to be the greatest threat.
Frustrated with his body's previous refusal to join his mind's will, he stopped requesting and ordered his brain to send the appropriate response that would open his eyes. Sometimes it paid to have a strict military background. His body was conditioned to follow given commands. Message received, his lids fluttered once, then twice, before parting so he could peer out from their shelter.
"Jim! You're awake."
Startled by the sudden noise, the ranger cringed and immediately squeezed his eyes shut at the unexpected onslaught. The temporary retreat of hearing and sight was quickly covered by the unanticipated bravado of smell. The musty, stale odor of dirt teased Ellison's awareness in an attempt to pull him fully from the sensory chaos in which he had been drifting. The obtrusive odor worked its way up his nostrils and then slowly down into this lungs, making his stomach roll with its pungence. Trying to ignore the disturbing scent proved to be impossible, and he finally shifted his head to one side in an attempt to avoid the assault. Unfortunately, the aroma washed over him with even more strength. His nose wrinkled with disgust as he fought down his automatic gag response.
A warm palm suddenly cupped his neck and he jerked at the unanticipated touch. The simple contact was almost unbearable, sending spikes of burning pain down his arms in rhythm to the continuous pounding in his head. His body stiffened, not knowing if the touch was from friend or foe. His lungs seized up as they tried to gasp for air that wasn't permeated by the offensive dirt cloud that seemed to be hanging over his head with maniacal glee.
"It's okay, Jim. You're all right," a soft voice penetrated through the oppressive fog. "But you really need to come back to the land of the living now." There was a long pause as Jim felt a firm thigh ease beneath his head while supporting his neck. "Jim, you with me?"
Groaning at the prospect of opening his eyes again, he battled for his senses to rally to the fore. Hoping the A.W.O.L. senses were again standing at attention, he cracked his eyes open to acknowledge the voice beside him. The blurry mass of disheveled hair and dark blue eyes staring down at him with naked concern weren't exactly what he had been expecting. The soft movement of the lips above him grabbed his attention and he concentrated on the subtle shapes they were forming. There was no sound. The wind, the monkeys, the waterfall -- they were all gone. Furrowing his brow in confusion, he kept staring as the lips seemed to move more urgently. Finally the sound of his name penetrated the haze and the face above him took on a distinct shape. Memory snapped back and the ranger shook off the hands holding him. Quickly climbing to his feet, he managed to stay standing for only a second before he slid back down to rest against the wall. Although the shooting pain in his head was gone, it still throbbed in rhythm to his heartbeat. However, more disconcerting were arms and legs that felt as heavy as lead -- the sensation numbing his body's ability to obey even the simplest of commands.
Flying on automatic, his eyes quickly swept over the man before him. A set of darkening bruises encircled the student's neck in a grotesque semblance of a necklace. It was accompanied by a jagged, bloodied cut that ran across his right cheek, producing a thin trail of dried blood that led down the dust-covered jaw before disappearing underneath the collar of his shirt.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I think so," Jim muttered, wincing as he shifted to a better sitting position. The throbbing in his head shouted that 'okay' was a stretch. However, he knew he could get his body to ignore the ruthless pounding. It was the betrayal of his arms and legs that worried him. Flexing his fingers against his thigh, he felt the first twinge of panic when he couldn't grasp the rough material of his pants with the numbed pads.
He heard a soft sigh and then felt a firm hand press down against his arm. Frowning, Ellison placed his own hand on top of his arm next to Blair's. Nothing. 'Twilight Zone' music had to be playing somewhere. While Blair's hand tingled against his flesh, his own produced no sensation. Pinching the flesh on the side of his thigh, his leg jumped from the painful stimulus, intensifying the disconnected feeling when he couldn't feel the pressure against his fingertips
"I know you're hurting, man. I want to try something." Blair waited until Jim made eye contact. The confusion drifting in the intense gaze stole his breath and he fought down the curiosity that almost made him question its existence. The tiny strain lines that crinkled the corners of the ranger's eyes shouted that the pain had to take precedence over his desire to know exactly what was happening with his friend's new found senses. It was time for some creative thinking, not to mention fast talking. He needed something Jim could relate to, something easy to control and visualize. His fingers snapped as his mind conjured up a feasible scenario. It had worked before, maybe it would again. "Just picture a knob... like on a... a radio. Think about the pain, realize that you can control your body's reaction to it, and then slowly start to turn the knob down."
Blair smiled and nodded his head slightly as Jim rolled his eyes and then closed them. He mentally patted himself on the back. However, the praise didn't last long. The lack of sensation from Jim's extremities had clouded the ranger's mind. Five seconds later, the obstinate lids popped open. "Didn't work."
"Man, you have the attention span of a gerbil!" Blair threw his hands up in the air with defeat. They were captives in the middle of the jungle, captured by who knew whom, for who knew what purpose. He refused to let his mind think of boiling vats of oil. He had heard horror stories of primitive tribes that still practiced cannibalism. Course, he had to admit that the odds that their captors were cannibals, or even tribal, were very low. Regardless, pig-headedness or not, Jim Ellison was going to have to cooperate if they wanted to get free. "Okay." Blair took a deep breath to steady his nerves as his hand traveled back down to rest across the back of Ellison's fingers. They could do this. "Come on, close your eyes and concentrate."
Again, Jim let his lids slide close as he tried to picture an imaginary dial connected to his pain receptors. As he concentrated on the visual image, he felt a tingle start in his fingers. The sensation was uncomfortable, yet pleasing at the same time. After several minutes, a small grin crept its way across his face. "Yeah... yeah, I think it's working." His eyes flew open. The pain, although still there, was greatly diminished. But more importantly, for some reason, as the pain had decreased, the feeling in his hands had increased. The renewed control over his body did wonders for his confidence in their ability to escape.
Blair grinned and slapped Ellison's knee. "That's great! Do you know the possibilities... what this could mean?"
"Whoa, whoa," Jim stopped him. "Let's just concentrate on one thing at a time... like getting out of here." Standing up on legs that were finally cooperating, Jim quickly took notice of their accommodations, if their prison could be called that.
Thick bamboo stalks were woven together to form an effective set of bars. It was a rough, primitive cage only seven feet high and five feet across -- a very small area, especially when shared by two individuals. Jim tugged at the sturdy cage hoping there would be some give in the bindings. He was disappointed to find there wasn't. Then again, it didn't really matter. The bars themselves weren't the sole problem. They were underground. The cage was sunk within a pit dug in the earth's floor.
Jim reached out through the bamboo structure to run his hand along the dirt wall. The dirty, moldy scent that had plagued his waking assaulted him again. Letting his hand fall down to rest on a stalk of bamboo, he gazed upward to try and figure out an entrance or, more importantly for their purposes, an exit. A roughly designed lid was tied to the frame by a matrix of vines and twine. It would be easy enough to get through except for one small problem. Just beyond the opening of the hole, two layers of barbed wire formed a crisscrossed pattern, making it impossible to even get a hand through to the surface without slicing it to ribbons on the sharp spikes. It was one hell of a mess they were in. The well-protected top of the cage was obviously the only way in and out, unless you were a dirt-digging rodent, and although Ellison considered himself many things, a rat or mole he was not.
"Have they said anything? Made any indication of what they want?" Jim asked in frustration.
Blair shook his head, his own anxiety spiking as he realized Jim still had no idea where they were or who had taken them. He had studied their surroundings thoroughly while the ranger had been unconscious. He had found no means of escape, however, he had still held some hope that the captain would see a way out. Maybe wave his magical Kabar and away they'd go. It didn't look like his wishful thinking was going to pay off. "No. After they knocked you out, they brought us here. Sorry, man. We must have traveled for about an hour before they tossed us down here. I never saw anyone except for the two goons that jumped us. One was white, the other black, and they both wore camouflage. That's about it." Blair rubbed absently at his wrists.
"No hair color, distinguishing marks... nothing?" Jim asked in bewilderment.
Blair could tell the older man was not pleased with his lack of details on their abduction. With a wince of trepidation, he slowly shook his head. "No, I didn't see... They..." his voice trailed off when Ellison started in with another barrage of question.
"Which way did they take us? Did we pass any significant landmarks?" the captain pressed, anger rising in the cadence of his voice. He took a step forward into Blair's personal space. "Look, Chief, I know you have a lousy sense of direction, but you had to have seen something. Anything that might tell me where we are or who is behind this. Come on, think!"
Sandburg's eyes darted to the corner of the cage before swinging back to Jim, a spark of anger making them glisten in the pale light of the moon and the glow from the torches that seeped into their prison. "Sorry, man. I couldn't see anything! Maybe next time you should stay conscious long enough to figure out who, what, where, when and why on your own. I'd hate not to live up to your high expectations again."
Taken aback by the sudden change in the younger man's mood, Jim's eyes tracked to the corner the anthropologist's gaze had shifted to earlier. Shadowed in the dark recesses of the cell where the dim light couldn't reach was a small heap of black cloth with several small strips of twine intermingled within the folds of the fabric. Walking over and picking the material up, Jim sighed at his own impatience. The kid had been bound and blindfolded, and by the looks of it, Jim had been too. One day he would have to learn not to jump to conclusions without first knowing all the facts, but until then he would work on smoothing over his brusqueness. "How did you get loose?" he asked, throwing the bindings aside in disgust.
Blair grinned, the anger gone as quickly as it had surfaced. "I've had some time to work on it. We've been here for several hours. I just made good use of the tools I had." He chomped his teeth and held his hands out, demonstrating the method he had used to untie the twine from his wrists.
Noticing the student's wrists for the first time, Jim grasped Blair's lower arms and studied the raw flesh for signs of serious damage. The skin was irritated and reddened in several spots. It looked painful, but not bad enough to worry about infection. "Pretty slick there."
"Yeah, well, after I got my hands free the rest was easy. I'm just glad they didn't tie them behind my back. I'm not that flexible. Course, I gotta tell you, the landing wasn't the most pleasant experience I've ever had." Blair gestured to the seven foot drop and shuddered, thinking about the blind plummet that had sent his heart into his throat.
Jim cringed, finally recognizing some of the pains he hadn't been able to account for earlier. He wasn't sorry he had missed their entrance into the prison. There was nothing like being tossed into a giant void when you had no perception of how deep you were going to fall or on what you were going to land. Thankfully, it had been hard dirt. Not a feather bed by any means, but there were certainly worse things to catch your fall. "Yeah, I imagine so." As Blair moved back to lean against the wall, Ellison noticed he wasn't very steady on his feet. "Is that when that happened?" He gestured to Blair's face.
His hand shooting up to his cheek, Blair grimaced as he ran his fingers against the dried blood. "Not exactly."
Stepping forward once again, the ranger lifted Blair's chin and tilted his head to the left so he could inspect the wound and the darkened bruises around his neck. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"Nah, man. I'm okay." Blair dismissed the concern and pulled his chin free. "I just wish we knew what was going on! This mysterious cloak and dagger stuff is starting to wear thin." Jim was still standing directly in front of him and Blair had to look up at an awkward angle to see his eyes. "You know what I mean?"
"Yeah," Jim agreed. "Maybe..."
A loud snap from above interrupted before Jim could finish and his attention was immediately focused on the lid as a string of barbed wire suddenly flew back from the opening. It was quickly followed by another, and then another, until the bamboo door was clear of the nasty barbs. A black figure loomed over the opening as the top was cut loose and flung to the side.
Squinting at the darkened shape, Ellison focused on the facial features, a sense of deja vu finally slamming him back in time. "Crisp?"
A slow, twisted smile snaked across the eerily familiar black face. "That's right, Captain. Guess you didn't expect to ever see me again."
"Steven Crisp," Jim said in disgust. "I never expect anything, you should know that."
Blair watched the two men anxiously. The tense frames and stony expressions reminded him of two lions vying for dominance. He shuddered at the raw energy that suddenly cascaded through the air. He had a feeling their questions were about to be answered, he just wasn't sure he still wanted to know the answers. Almost swallowing his tongue, he forced his mouth to open. "Wha-What's going on, Jim?"
"An old friend," Jim emphasized the last word with a sneer, his eyes never leaving his quarry. "I thought you were dead."
"I could say the same about you," Crisp laughed, delighted by the expression on his commander's face. He knew the look well. It was meant to intimidate and conquer. "What is it that they say? The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Not breaking eye contact, he gestured at Ellison's hands. "I see you've managed to free yourself. I'm not surprised. I would expect nothing less." Crisp pulled away from the hole in order to motion to someone behind him.
The soft tread of boots approaching their location could be heard, and a minute later another man joined Crisp at the opening. Kneeling at the edge of the pit, the new arrival extended his arm into the cage, his face a blank screen of emotion.
Recognizing the second man, the carefully constructed mask Jim had built finally slipped. "Sam? Sam Holland?" Crisp he could understand, but Holland? Holland had been a friend... a buddy. "What's going on here?"
"We'll be the ones asking the questions, Captain. Just come on up here. Someone wants to see you. It's time for a little reunion." Aiming his weapon at Blair, Crisp chuckled hollowly. "Oh, by the way, one wrong move and I'll have no problem wasting this mouse you've somehow managed to pick up. It'd be a shame, but after all, he's just an added bonus. Bonuses are expendable. I believe you taught me that."
Jim's jaw locked at the all too familiar look in Crisp's eyes. He would have to wait for the right moment to make his move. Now was not the right time. With a final look at Blair, he grasped Holland's arm. "Hang tight. I'll be back."
Before Blair could respond, Jim had pulled himself up and had disappeared into the night. The anthropologist shivered as the lid slammed shut with a dull thud, reinforcing the feeling of loneliness. As he watched the barbed wire being swiftly restrung, he realized just how calming the ranger's presence had been, even while he had been unconscious. Now there was nothing he could do but wait.
Ellison provided no resistance as he was led across the encampment toward a small wooden shack. Although the outside walls were lined by a copse of trees, a faint light could be seen through the shaded window near the door. The soft lilt of a Beethoven symphony drifted from the opening, its soothing melody a stark contrast to the roughness of the hands on his upper body. The captain's mind was immediately transported back to another time, another place, where Beethoven had always played in the background.
A hard tug on his arm jarred him from the memory before he could place it. Looking at the men on either side of him, he smiled at the irony. It was almost comical to think that Holland and Crisp thought they could hold him against his will. Although he had taught his fellow teammates most of what they knew, he hadn't taught them everything he knew. The urge to show them why he had been their captain was strong, but the burning desire to find out who was behind his abduction, not to mention the coy memory of Beethoven and his new friend's current predicament, kept the screaming impulse at bay.
The squeak of the old door announced their entrance into the small cabin and before Jim could focus on the interior, he was promptly delivered into a hard-backed step ladder chair. The ranger wasn't surprised when his head was grasped and held firmly in place from behind. Thick black straps, which had been dangling innocently from the arms and front legs of the seat, were suddenly put in motion as Holland cinched them around the ranger's limbs, pinching the hardened skin beneath.
"Comfortable?" Crisp leered as he released his handful of cropped hair and lightly patted the top of Ellison's head.
With a harsh jerk, Jim fisted his hands, testing the bonds that held them fast. "What do you want, Crisp?" He glared daggers as his captor circled the chair once, then twice, before coming to a stop directly behind Jim. No longer able to make eye contact with the man behind him, Ellison shifted his gaze to the only other occupant of the room -- Holland. The tall blond sergeant was standing nervously next to another door in the rear of the building. It was apparent he was waiting on something... or someone. "Is there a point to all this?"
The tone of his previous captain's voice caused Holland's eyes to immediately drop to the floor in submission. Crisp chuckled. "Damn, Ellison, I think he's intimidated by you -- even if you are pretty much... Well, let's face it, helpless." Crisp's hand once again moved to the trapped man's head, his fingers running through Ellison's crewcut.
Shaking the hand off, Jim growled from deep within his throat. Crisp's reputation of 'welcoming' new recruits had been well known. Numerous stories had flowed between officers about young men who had been taken under the seasoned ranger's wing. These same 'lucky' recruits would later turn up drunk or stoned with no recollection of what had happened to them.
However, the repulsive caress didn't instill fear in Ellison; it prompted anger. Crisp had gotten off time after time no matter how much evidence had turned up. It had been obvious someone had been covering for him.... someone important... and Jim thought he now knew who that someone was. Young men looking for a career in the army couldn't afford to step forward and stand against a well-known officer and Crisp had used that advantage to take whatever he wanted without regret or fear of reprisal. It was obvious he still felt he could get away with it. It was a notion that Ellison intended to rectify.
As Crisp's hand drifted down to splay across Ellison's chest, his eyes glistening with merriment, Ellison's muscles bunched in preparation. If he could throw his weight just right, he could knock his chair into Crisp and pin him to the ground. In the long run it wouldn't do him any good, but it would go a long way in satisfying Jim's need to put the other man in his place. Before he could act, the snaking black hand made a swift retreat as both Crisp and Holland abruptly snapped to attention. Looking up, Ellison noticed the back door was open, revealing the person the captain had already assumed to be the man in charge -- Colonel Norman Oliver.
"Hello, Colonel. I wish I could say it was a surprise to see you, but I figured if Crisp was in on this, you wouldn't be far behind. Besides," he gestured his head toward the small CD player in the corner, "your taste in music hasn't changed."
"Ellison," Oliver greeted. "I'm glad to see you've made yourself at home."
Jim pulled at his bonds again. "With all the hospitality, it was kind of hard not to." He watched, his jaw clenching as his commander moved across the floor to stand directly in front of him.
The height of his stance required Oliver to have to look down at his prisoner. A position he enjoyed immensely. "I see you still have a sense of humor." A menacing smile enveloped Oliver's face. "We'll soon take care of that." Turning his back on his captive, the colonel stood erect as he always did when he addressed his soldiers. "I'm really not asking for much, Captain. You were supposed to have been a casualty of war along with the rest of your men. But for whatever reason, you managed to survive, crawl out, and live with the local savages. I don't hold that against you. You always were a top-notch soldier. However, I've worked too damned hard to get where I am and I want my goods back."
"Goods?" Ellison's eyes widened. Suddenly everything made sense. Pieces of a puzzle he hadn't even known existed were swiftly up-righted and interlocked. "You've set up a pipeline. What is it? Cocaine? Heroin?"
"What it is doesn't matter. The question is where it is, and you're going to tell me."
Ellison couldn't believe that at one time he had admired the man standing before him. He'd never really liked him, but Oliver had been his commander, the person he had reported to, the person he had trusted to watch his back, just like he was supposed to do for the men under his own command. "I hate to disappoint you, but I don't know what you are talking about, sir. I've been here for eighteen months, burying my men and waiting for my relief. I certainly haven't had time, or the inclination, to track down your pipeline."
"Come on, Ellison." The colonel turned back around, his eyes boring into Jim's. "You know me better than that... and I know you. You couldn't have missed it. I know the type of soldier you are. You'd have turned over every inch of that downed craft for survival items. I know you found it." A quick, short nod from Oliver to Crisp, and a glancing blow was dealt to the back of Jim's shoulders, knocking him forward in the seat. "Did you bury it, or did you share it with your new-found savage friends?"
Struggling back up in his seat, the ranger pulled unconsciously against the restraints that held him. "I didn't find any drugs. Only thing onboard were the bodies of seven good men. My men." He blinked against the black dots that spotted his vision.
"Too bad there weren't eight like I planned." With an exaggerated grunt, the colonel moved to sit down across from Jim and prop his feet upon the scraggly desk. "I've got all day, Ellison. Seris was bringing a shipment to me.... a rather large shipment. One that I can't afford to lose. "
Seris. Jim shook his head in denial as the name echoed in his ears. Another friend, another person who had betrayed him. The last minutes of the crash as the helicopter had gone suddenly out of control swept through Jim's mind -- the shouts, the screams, the buckling of metal. The faces of his men spun in his head until they finally stopped on Seris. It wasn't possible. Seris had been a good man -- a team player, the model soldier. Anger surged as Jim wondered how Oliver had gotten to yet another of his team. Somehow he had misjudged Holland and Seris completely. He wouldn't make that mistake again. There was no way he was going to let Oliver beat him. If nothing else, he would teach his two traitorous team members one last lesson. The lesson of loyalty -- loyalty to one's country, to one's team, and most importantly to one's self. "Even if I knew what you were talking about, I wouldn't tell you," Ellison hissed.
Flicking open a lighter, Oliver sighed as he watched the flame dance in the air. "I knew you were going to be fun to crack, Ellison. It's good to see you aren't going to let me down." As the lighter flickered against the end of a cigar, Ellison's view was suddenly blocked by a black form moving into his line of sight. The eager look on the dark face looming down at him spoke volumes to the man's intent. With a crack of the burly knuckles, the first of many blows launched Crisp's attack.
Blair hunkered quietly in the hole, hugging himself against the cold of the dank night air and the fear of the unknown. The grunts and groans that could only be the result of a brutal beating carried through the stillness of the night. Their frequency made the student shudder in sympathy for the one bearing the blows, and he was sure he knew who that recipient was -- Jim.
A sudden loud "Fuck You" rained down upon him and Blair recoiled at the pain behind the two words. He felt useless. The fact that he was not able to help his friend was tearing large wounds through his soul. I'm sorry, Jim. He clasped his arms harder against his chest, willing the tormenting sounds to end.
A few seconds later he realized someone must have been listening to him because the pitiful groans and angry shouts suddenly stopped. However, instead of the anticipated relief, fear grabbed Blair's stomach. The disheartening noises had at least verified that Jim was still alive. The silence could confirm nothing. Lost in his own morbid thoughts, he didn't realize he was no longer alone until he heard a faint snicker. Launching himself to his feet, he studied the figure towering above him. It was too dark to make out the features as they shadowed the available light, but his heart leapt with hope. "Jim?"
"Not quite." Another low chuckle accompanied the snapping of the barbed wire, as the door was once again flipped open. "You're up, Mouse," the deep voice practically purred. "Your audience awaits."
The bullet wound was quick becoming a throbbing mass of agony as Oliver's hand dealt out its steady, unrelenting punishment. The intense pressure sought satisfaction against the bandage wound around Ellison's arm. It strived to hear the sound of suffering, the sound of submission. However, after an hour of constant interrogation, the army captain was bound and determined not to give his past commander the satisfaction of seeing him crack. The fact that he didn't know anything to tell was irrelevant. It boiled down to a matter of principle and pride. There was nothing that his commander could do to him that would make him betray himself or his country. His men, long since dead and buried, were counting on him to remain strong in the hands of the enemy. He could not dishonor them. And Seris...
The determined palm pressed harder against his ravaged flesh and Jim, blanking his mind against the painful stimuli, cast his mind back on Seris's family -- a wonderful wife and a beautiful young daughter, Veronica. She had the prettiest smile, the softest eyes.... Seris had been a great soldier... a good friend. It was hard to believe that he could have been involved with Oliver's trade. As captain, Ellison had kept a certain aloofness from his men, but somehow Seris became the closest friend he had had since leaving Cascade. He wanted to believe in that friendship, but there was no reason for Oliver to lie about his involvement. It would serve no purpose. The notion of betrayal set up a small barricade in his mind and slowly started advancing forward as it blocked, one by one, all the good times the two of them had shared. As his defenses weakened, Jim felt his doubt start to grow. Maybe all his team had been in on it; maybe it had all been a carefully laid facade.
The battle between what he knew now and what he had known before was overrun as the sound of a distant shuffle, followed by a familiar, if indignant but scared voice, drifted in from outside the small shack. Ellison tried to pry his swollen eyes open so he could scope out the situation, but the heavy lids refused to cooperate.
The pressure on his arm suddenly eased as fowl breath billowed over his nose and mouth. "Ellison, I admire your stamina, but I grow tired of this game. I do have clients waiting." Stepping away from the chair, Oliver motioned Holland forward to take his abandoned place at Ellison's side. "I think we'll try something else, change our tactics, so to speak."
A low squeak, followed by a swift current of air, announced a new arrival in the room. Ellison's hearing kicked in and picked up two additional heartbeats several feet away. They were both beating rapidly, a discordant melody. Although he already knew the answer, he needed to see who was in the room. He needed to know the game plan. Focusing all his concentration on the swollen masses of flesh that covered his eyes, his lids fluttered from a spasm before they managed to crack open into thin slits. Jim's gut clenched. Blair, hands bound behind him and a black blindfold firmly wrapped around his eyes, was standing in front of Crisp. "He has nothing to do with this."
"Jim?" A small, hesitant voice questioned from across the room.
Before Ellison could respond to the uncertainty in Blair's voice, Oliver shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. "That may be, but for some reason, you seem to have picked him up. Seeing that he's still with you, it makes me wonder if you might care about him somehow. Or maybe you just feel some untold duty to protect an American citizen in a land of savages? Who knows?" Oliver slammed the front legs of the chair back to the floor and rose to move across the room to where he towered over Blair. Placing a hand under the student's chin, he raised it upward to catch the light from above. "Course, he is a little young, and like you said, he is an innocent in all this, but I'm sure Crisp won't mind. As a matter of fact, I'd say he's probably pleased with the turn of events."
Crisp's rough hand confirmed the statement by stroking his captive's chest from behind. As the fingers nipped a piece of skin at his ribcage, Blair flinched before once again seeking reassurance that he wasn't alone. "Jim?"
Jim jerked at the restraints, his voice flooded with the savageness of his efforts. "I'm here, Sandburg." He watched as some of the tension seemed to melt out of Blair's frame at the sound of his voice. It was an unconscious gesture and Jim prayed that the simple show of trust wasn't misplaced.
"Yes, Mr. Sandburg. Captain Ellison is a valued guest in my camp. See," the colonel sighed as he walked back toward the seated man, "Ellison has some information that I want. Information I want very much. But for some reason, he doesn't seem to want to help me out. Name, rank and serial number. Over and over. With a colorful word or two thrown in here and there for effect, of course." Oliver turned to face Blair. "Now, I ask you, is that any way to treat a commanding officer?"
"You're a disgrace to the uniform," Jim seethed.
Oliver nodded. "Maybe. But I'm not the one strapped to a chair." Letting loose a punch that caught the ranger's cheek with a vicious blow, Oliver stepped back in satisfaction to study the resulting trickle of red that seeped down the corner of Jim's mouth. "Now, I'm going to give you one more chance. Where's my shipment?"
"Go to Hell!" Ellison spat out, the force behind the words splattering a spray of blood across the colonel's shirt.
"We'll see who gets there first. Crisp," Oliver ordered with a nod.
The black man eyed Jim closely, wanting to savor the captain's reaction to what he was about to do. "I think I'll try and find out why you keep this one around." A rough shake of Blair's arm punctuated the fury behind the words. Not releasing his firm grip, Crisp's other hand ripped swiftly at the front of the student's shirt, rendering the material useless as it shredded under the force. The body he held leapt with its first true tremor of terror and a malicious laugh erupted from Crisp's throat. Burying his hand in the soft chest hairs, he toyed with amusement at the silver hoop that pierced Blair's left nipple. "Well, lookee here."
A look of disgust crossed Blair's face as he tried to shy away from the invading touch, but Jim could tell the grip on the young man's arm was holding firm. As Blair continued to twist and squirm against the fondling fingers, the amusement in Crisp's eyes slowly started to turn to anger. Before Jim could call out a warning, the questing hand shot up and deftly tore the looped ring from its nestled bed. The resulting sharp cry that pierced the small shack split through Jim's skull, sending him deeper into his own personal hell.
"Stay still," Crisp directed with another shake of Blair's arm, his amusement returning at the reaction he had gotten from both prisoners. Running his finger around the rim of the small, bloodied ring, he chuckled and tossed it on Jim's lap. "A souvenir. Just in case you want something to remember this by."
Recovering from the initial pain and the unexpected shock to his body, Blair again started to struggle against his captor. "Shit, man." He could feel the blood trailing down his chest, and with no way to see the damage that had been done, his mind was supplying a hundred different scenarios.... none of them good.
The constant tug against his arm erased the smirk from Crisp's face. As a deep growl erupted from within his throat, a vicious strike landed on the side of Blair's head. "Be still!" The blow caused the man in his grasp to wobble, but due to the crushing hold he had on his arm, Sandburg managed to keep his feet under him.
"Son of a--"
Blair's curse was interrupted by Jim's voice from across the room. "Leave him alone, Crisp, or I'll--"
"You'll what, Ellison? Glare at me harder and shout obscene phrases?" he taunted. "For some reason, you're just not very persuasive at the moment." A crooked grin spread across Crisp's face as he released the anthropologist and moved to stand behind the younger man.
Although Crisp wasn't touching his captive, Jim could see the closeness of his breath as it stirred the loose tendrils of hair by Blair's ear. Wondering what the corrupt ranger had in mind next, Jim let his eyes sweep over his friend. Blair stood stiffly against the unknown, the slight trembling of his muscles the only indication that he was scared. The student was putting on a good front. The lines of his face were steeled against showing emotion and Ellison cursed the blindfold that prevented him from seeing the dark blue eyes that were hidden beneath it. He wanted to be able to read the uncertainty there and reassure his companion that they would get out of their current situation. Hell, maybe he was the one looking for reassurances. One thing was for sure, he knew they would be getting out, together. One way or another.
The sudden, sharp sound of Crisp's voice from behind Blair caused both captives, lost in their own thoughts, to jump. "Woo-hoo! Did you see that? Almost jumped right out of his skin." Crisp laughed as he began to circle his prey. "I believe he's scared, Ellison." He stopped in front of the student. "As he should be." A hand darted up in what Ellison thought was going to be a blow, but the motion slowed and the rough fingers traced a path from Blair's chin up to his cheek. Using his other hand to grasp Blair's chin and force his head upward, he slid the roving hand beneath the darkened material next to his ear. "The eyes are the windows to the soul," he said poetically. "Let's see what your soul is made of."
The blinding cloth was suddenly jerked free and Blair hesitated for a brief second before opening his eyes. He wasn't sure what to expect. He was a college student, not G.I. Joe, and he felt way out of his league. The flitting idea that being blindfolded might not have been so bad crossed his mind, but before it could take root, he felt his eyelids blink open anyway. He had to face it. Reality might not be a ray of sunshine, but not knowing had to be worse, especially when faced with an over-active imagination. Bright blue orbs finally adjusted to their surroundings and the student let them shift around the room in search of Jim. He needed to find something he could focus on, something that was solid, something he could use to slow the triple-time beating of his heart. After a minute, he realized why he wasn't able to find the ranger. Jim was there. He knew that, but Crisp had been purposely standing in one spot, deliberately blocking his view of one small section of the room, the section where Jim had to be. "Jim?"
Reassured by the familiar voice, Blair stopped searching, steeled his resolve, and let his eyes meet the gaze of the large man in front of him with contempt. College student or not, there was no way he was going to let some 'bully' intimidate him. But as Crisp sneered, Blair felt a little of his gusto slip away. The man looked as predatory as he sounded.
"Ah, he has spunk. I like that. Not many men will stare me in the eye for more than a minute. I applaud your gumption." Crisp gave Blair's shoulder a slight shove.
Blair pushed his hands apart, trying to force some give in the bonds, but all he managed to do was cause the skin on his wrists to peel against the coarse rope. He had to think of something. Maybe cause a distraction.... He could jump up and down, spitting out obscenities in a primitive dialect. Or better yet, he could flop on the ground and fake convulsions as he spoke in 'tongues'. He again searched for Jim, hoping to gage whether or not a distraction was what they needed. However his eyes never made a full circuit of the room. Instead they locked on a small metallic blotch of red on a table behind Crisp. His Swiss Army Knife. He licked his dry lips nervously. The Bar Mitzvah gift was finally going to come in handy for something besides popping soda caps.
Crisp reached out again, placing his hand on Blair's upper chest before dragging it around his shoulder and down his back where it came to rest on the bound wrists. The action was lost on Blair. Crisp's movement had revealed the sight the black man had been hiding behind him. Jim was tied in a chair. His clothes ripped and stained with blood, his face swollen, bloody and discolored with bruises. Blair gasped at the horrific sight, but it was the ranger's eyes that held his attention. Despite the obvious abuse done to the ranger's body and the restraints that held him firm, Ellison's eyes were alert, his body held straight and taut at attention. The piercing blue in their depths told a hundred different stories, but there was only one Jim was interested in sharing. Ellison was ready to act, he just needed a break, an advantage. A distraction.
Blair's attention quickly shifted back to Crisp as his captor grew frustrated with the lack of attention he was receiving. The anthropologist's shoulders cracked as his arms were yanked upward and out by the rope wrapped around his wrists. He stifled a cry while he tried to twist around to ease the ruthless pressure, but Crisp countered the motion by clipping him on the side of the head with his gun. His arms released, Blair stumbled and shook his head wondering how he had managed to stay on his feet under the impact of the blow. His freedom was short lived as a beefy hand wrapped itself in his curls causing Blair to wince as he was jerked back against Crisp's body.
"Don't touch him!"
Crisp stopped, shrugging at Ellison. "Why, do you want him for yourself?" No sooner were the words out of his mouth before Blair was pushed violently toward Jim. Blair tried to stop his decent, tried to reverse his momentum, but it was impossible. He caught a glimpse of his knife on the table next to Jim's chair and decided if he was going to fall, he was going to get something out of it. As he landed haphazardly across the older man's lap, he wrapped his foot around the table leg. The chair holding Ellison tipped under the combined weight thrown against it and Ellison, Sandburg, table and chair crashed to the floor in a heap of limbs and legs.
The weight on top of him was crushing his bruised ribs. Jim struggled under the pressure trying to ease some of the discomfort, but it was no use. From the corner of his eye he saw Holland approaching the tangle of flesh and wood and he tried fighting his bound wrists again. Unfortunately, the chair had held firm. He would have given anything for one of the legs or one of the armrests to have succumbed to the force that had driven him to the ground.
Holland reached down to right Jim and the tipped chair while Crisp ruthlessly dug his fingers into Blair's arms to pull him away. Jim felt the anthropologist's fingers briefly brush against his own and then a small smooth piece of metal was firmly tucked within the folds of his clenched hand. Jim palmed the object until his roaming fingers identified it as a pocketknife. He wasn't sure how Blair had done it, but the small comfortable weight made him sure he'd get the chance to thank him later.
Looking up as the front legs of his chair were returned to the floor, Ellison thought he saw a flicker of regret dance across Holland's face. He searched the eyes above him looking for an emotion he could play off of, but Oliver must have known the weaknesses of his men, too. The colonel suddenly appeared behind Holland, a hand clasped firmly on the man's shoulder. The repentance vanished as Holland's face became a blank mask... back to the perfect soldier.
A loud thump drew Jim's attention away from the men beside him. Crisp was pulling Sandburg to his feet. It was hard to tell if Blair had been pushed or had tripped. When Blair was flung down for a second time, his head connecting loudly with the dirt-packed floor, he got his answer. As Blair struggled to get his feet under him, Oliver and Holland lost interest in their immobile prisoner, instead deciding to watch the scene in front of them. Although Holland's face retained it's stoic expression, Oliver grinned with a hint of the devil in his eyes. Ellison felt his stomach twist again at the predicament that he had gotten the college student into. He had learned long ago not to let anyone slip beneath his radar. Those that did always ended up betraying him or getting hurt. Somehow Blair had wiggled past his defenses.
Flipping the small blade of the knife open with his stiff fingers proved to be more difficult than Jim had imagined. The ranger fought to keep from dropping the tool as he hurriedly tried to free his right wrist. He had to get loose before Oliver or Holland got bored with the show Crisp was providing and noticed his attempt to free his wrist.
Determination caused Jim's hand to vigorously work on his escape, but he kept his eyes on Blair as Crisp continued to torment the young man -- pushing him down, pulling him up, turning him left then right, never letting him get his feet under him until the student could no longer find his balance on his own. It was like watching a cat play with a mouse, wearing it down for the kill. When Crisp's hands suddenly released their prey, Blair crumpled to the ground, his head reeling from the sudden inertia.
Jim sawed relentlessly, his own eyes still locked on the stage Crisp had set. Blair scrambled across the floor, trying to shirk away from Crisp, but his mind was dazed and before he knew it he was sprawled on the cool dirt, his forehead pressed into the hard surface as Crisp covered his body with his own. "Going somewhere?" Crisp whispered loudly in his ear. "But the fun's just getting started."
"Screw you!" Blair bucked against the weight on top of him.
Gritting his teeth, Ellison finally felt the black strap around his right wrist give. As he reached across to cut the strap on his other arm a harsh hand clinched around his wrist. It was Holland. Jim struggled against the hold but with only one hand free in his weakened condition, he was little match for the other ranger.
"Tsk, tsk, Ellison. No one said you were excused either." Oliver chuckled, as he used the opportunity to deliver a resounding slap to the ranger's cheek. "Care to tell me where my shipment is?"
Frustration welled up inside as Ellison pulled on his left wrist. He glanced back in time to see Crisp flip Blair over, the black hand raised for another strike. There was nothing Jim could do but wait for the blow to fall.
But it didn't.
Crisp's body shuddered then dropped to the ground beside Blair. His hands darted down to grasp his right thigh. "Shit!"
Everyone in the room was memorized as they gawked in fascination at the red and black arrow that was firmly embedded through the fleshy part of Crisp's thigh. Jim was the first to realize the significance of the protruding arrow and, seizing the opportunity, he shook off Holland's grasp and swiftly sliced through the strap trapping his left wrist. Once his arms were free he quickly cut the bindings that held his ankles to the chair.
Since Crisp was curled up in pain and preoccupied with his own problems, Jim turned his attention to Oliver. But the colonel was going nowhere. Five Chopec warriors entered and surrounded the inside of the building, their bows drawn tight in silent direction for everyone to stay put. An unspoken question in his eyes, Ellison approached his ex-commanding officer.
As with Holland, Oliver knew Ellison as well. Interpreting the silent question with ease, Oliver accepted the challenge with a grin and shrug. "Why not?" Stepping into the middle of the room, he faced his opponent. "I'm going to enjoy this. Just make sure your devoted savages don't scalp me when my back is turned."
The first move was swift, Oliver lunged forward, striking out at Ellison's cheek with his right fist. The punch landed with a sound thud, jerking the Ranger's head back. However, Jim quickly countered with an uppercut that knocked the colonel to his knees.
Oliver, enraged by the pain in his jaw and the power the beaten captain still possessed, charged at the arrogant man before him. Catching Jim at the waist, he pushed him back two steps before he found himself sprawled on the ground, his gut twisting from the blow to his abdomen delivered by Jim's knee. Shifting his position, the captain struck out again, this time with his legs, as he tried to sweep the captain from his feet.
The move worked. Losing his balance, Jim crashed to the ground. Scuffling, the two downed men exchanged a few blows, but it was only seconds later before Jim had Oliver pinned, the colonel's head locked in the crook of his elbow. "Give me a reason." The faces of his dead men flashed through his mind for the hundredth time in the past few hours. It would be so easy to snap the sweaty neck, to seek justice for the lives Oliver had ruined, the ones he was still trying to destroy.
A light touch on his shoulder caused Jim to jerk his arm tighter around his prisoner's neck. "Jim? Let him go. Come on, man. I'm sure he deserves it, but you don't. Besides," he looked down at the bloodied bandage around Jim's biceps, "you're messing up my wonderful doctoring."
Ellison pushed Oliver away from him and looked up toward the voice. The battered student stood above him, his right eye blackened, his nose and lip bleeding, and a bloody gash across his temple, all added to the cuts and bruises already marring his face and throat. His hair was tangled and sticking out in a thousand different directions. His clothes rumpled and shredded from his struggle with Crisp. The kid was a mess.
Jim tore his eyes away and swept the interior of the room. Crisp was curled against the wall, his hands clenched tightly around his thigh and his eyes closed in concentration. Holland was helping Oliver to his feet, a look of sorrow and guilt transforming his features to that of a small child instead of the capable ranger Jim knew him to be. And Oliver... Oliver leaned against the support Holland offered, his hands rubbing the throat Jim had held, his face a bloody ensemble of bruised parts. They were all covered by the five warriors who still held their weapons at the ready.
Pushing himself up, Jim retrieved several small strips of cloth to bind the three rangers' hands behind their backs. He went to Oliver first. The colonel glared at Ellison, his hands clenching, his face twitching. "If you didn't have these... 'savages' to shoot me in the back, I'd show you what the Army does to insubordinates."
"You should be glad they're here. Maybe these 'savages' will let you live. If it wasn't for them, you'd probably already be dead." With that, he pushed Oliver toward where Holland stood, his head down.
Assured that the two men were well-guarded, Ellison deftly unbound Blair's wrists and handed him some of the bindings before moving back to where he had left Crisp. However, the space was empty, a trail of blood leading to the opened door. "Shit!"
Jim started to pursue the blood trail, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Enqueri."
"Incacha." Jim smiled as he gave the Chopec warrior a hug. "It's good to see you. I'll be right back."
As Ellison started to leave again, Incacha tightened his grip and nodded toward Blair. "Manaraq.1 Huq p'unchaukama.2"
Jim noticed that Blair was anxiously watching all the people gathered in the room as he rubbed his wrists to restore the circulation. It was clear he was unsure who was friend and who was foe. The confused eyes drifted toward him and Jim took a step toward the younger man. There would be time later to deal with Crisp. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, man." Blair dusted off the bottom of his pants as he weakly tried to straighten the remains of his shirt. "Who are...?" he gestured shakily at the natives circling Oliver and Holland.
"Blair, meet the Chopec. And this," Jim introduced, clasping a hand on Incacha's shoulder as the native slipped up beside him, "is Incacha. Incacha... Blair."
Incacha nodded in greeting. "Amaut'a.3"
"Huh?" Blair glanced at Jim for a translation, but the older man just shrugged. "This is great!" He grinned in awe as he extended his hand and Incacha gently grasped his forearm in acknowledgment. "Nice to meet you."
Incacha looked deep into the younger man's eyes until Blair started to feel slightly uncomfortable. As Blair looked nervously up at Jim, the Chopec reached out with his other hand and wiped a small amount of blood from the corner of Blair's mouth. With the hand Incacha used to clasp Blair's arm, he held the trembling palm open and smeared a red streak across its surface. He then took Jim's right hand and studied the bloody knuckles before firmly latching Blair's palm over the top of the bruised fist. "Yawar wauqe.4" He gave the combined hands a firm shake. "Enqueri. Apurimac.5 Wauqe."
As Incacha turned away the two men stared after him, their hands still fastened together.
...Concluded in 'The Wings Of Fate'
1manaraq = not yet
2huq p'unchaukama. = until another day.
3Amaut'a = teacher
4yawar wauqe = blood brother
5Apurimac = the great speaker
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