Whenever I heard the song, Hotel California, by the Eagles, I would always envision either a horror story or a strange mystery. I heard it again very recently and I immediately put our boys into the mystery. The opening to the song doesn't quite fit into chilly, wet Cascade (since the song's Hotel California is in a desert), but since we use our imagination on everything else

I would say Hotel California is a PG13 song and story. It stems from the drug culture of the 70s and contains suggested violence and drug references.

As always, many thanks to Tonya for beta reading and for storing my stories at her site.
The Elves are welcome to do their thing and archive.
Standard disclaimers apply. The characters of Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, Rafe, and Brown are the property of Pet Fly and I am just borrowing them for a few short pages.

Story synopsis:
Hotel California finds Blair and Rafe out on a dark and stormy night where they stumble across a hotel that, at first, seems a haven from the storm; but, in reality, they would be better off with the tornado.


Marlene Becker

James Ellison sat at his dining room table calmly sipping a steaming cup of black coffee. Unconsciously, his heightened senses followed the frantic movements of his partner, Blair Sandburg, as the young man literally ran around the loft.

"I told you to pack last night, Chief," Ellison murmured softly into his coffee mug.

"I know, I know," Sandburg grumbled, running long fingers through unruly long curls as he stared at a small mound of assorted camping gear by the front door.

"You're only going for one night," Ellison continued after another lingering swallow of caffeine that he used his extended sense of taste to thoroughly enjoy.

"I know, I know." The young man now knelt by the mound and began rapidly moving items into another mound.

"You can't carry a whole lot on a dirt bike, you know." Ellison placed his empty mug on the table and allowed a corner of his mouth to twitch upward.


"Rafe is here," Ellison stated calmly as his Sentinel hearing registered the soft footsteps and low murmurings accompanying the exit of Major Crimes youngest detective from the elevator.

"I kn NOW?!" Sandburg jumped to his feet and lunged for his empty backpack. "He can't be! I'm not ready!"

"I know." After moving his spent coffee mug to the sink, Ellison strode to the front door, and with a sideways glance at his frantic roommate, flung it wide open just as Rafe raised his knuckled fist to knock.

"Good morning," Rafe beamed happily and peered around the imposing frame of Jim Ellison, looking for Sandburg. "Blair ready?"

Sandburg waved at his partner's coworker. "Just waiting for you," he grinned, hefting his backpack onto his shoulders.

"Great! I've got the bikes on the trailer and we're ready to go."

"Sandburg, Rafe " Ellison began, trying not to glare at the two young men, but desperately wanting to impress upon them a few rules of survival. However, all that came out as he looked at their happy, expectant faces was, "Be careful, okay? I mean, enjoy yourselves and all, but just be careful."

"Don't worry, Jim. I've been camping lots of times," Rafe attempted to reassure the ex-ranger.

"I'll just bet you were a boy scout, weren't you?" Sandburg grinned.

Rafe looked at him proudly. "Eagle scout."

"I knew it." Sandburg slapped Ellison on the shoulder in farewell, and in a voice so low only a Sentinel could hear said, "Don't worry, I'll take care of him."

Ellison stood in the doorway and watched until the elevator doors slid shut, hiding his Guide from view. "Yeah, Chief, but who's going to take care of you?"

Late Saturday morning activity was starting to thin out in the bullpen of Major Crimes when Jim Ellison entered and marched toward his desk. Doing paperwork was not his most favorite thing, but since his roommate had just gone biking in the woods, he had little else to occupy his time. And, unfortunately, this was one batch of forms that had to be processed first thing Monday morning. With a heavy sigh, he lowered himself into his chair and fidgeted until he got as close to comfortable as he was going to.

He noticed that Henri Brown, Rafe's partner, was in this Saturday morning as well. Also doing paperwork, Ellison noted with a smile. Now he didn't feel quite so alone, after all, misery loves company.

Shortly after lunch, two members from Missing Persons entered the department with their arms full of folders. Passing by Brown's desk on their way to Bank's office, one of them stopped and greeted him warmly, inquiring as to the whereabouts of his younger partner.

Brown signed off on another form, placed it in the finished stack and sighed. "He and Sandburg have this weekend off. They went on an overnight trail biking trip."

"Rafe and Sandburg? The yuppie and the hippie?" Peterson shook her head of gray curls in annoyance. "They went off camping when either one of them could have had me for the weekend?"

Masters nudged his partner toward the captain's office. "You taken a look at yourself in the mirror lately, Lisa?"

"So what if I'm 61? Age has nothing to do with it, Billy," she muttered goodnaturedly as she turned away from Brown's desk with a smile of farewell.

"I ain't talking age here, darlin'," her partner continued as they passed by Ellison's desk. "But you're as round as you are tall."

"Just more to love, sweetie," she stated, entering Bank's office.

Grinning, Ellison tackled the forms with a brighter outlook. The morning's gentle banter of the two long-time partners eased a little of the loneliness that he felt whenever his Guide was physically distant from him.

Originally, they had planned for Brown and Ellison to go along, but a court date had been unexpectedly moved up and paperwork had to be completed. Since it was not necessary for either Rafe or Sandburg to spend their weekend uselessly sitting around, Ellison curbed his possessive streak and urged the two young men to continue with the camping plans.

"Eagle scout," Ellison muttered to himself. "Oh well, it's only for one night. They surely can't get into too much trouble in only one night."

Three in the afternoon. The storm-laden atmosphere snapped with subdued lightening as billowing gray clouds swallowed the daylight, creating an artificial dusk.

Glancing worriedly at the quickly-gathering storm clouds, Sandburg shook his head. "Looks like a bad one. Maybe we'd better go back to the Jeep and wait it out."

"We'd be soaked before we got halfway there. We've been riding for five hours. Damn! This wasn't supposed to hit til Monday."

"Oh man. You're saying this is part of that front that was sitting off the coast all week?"

"I'll bet it is." Rafe looked at his companion. "I checked the weather report this morning, too."

"That was close to eight hours ago. A lot can happen in eight hours."

Rafe wiped at a raindrop that fell on his forehead. "Looks like it has." Dismounting, he opened one of his saddlebags and began pulling at the rain gear stowed there.

Sandburg stared at him. "Man, you do come prepared."

Tugging on bright yellow rain pants, he grinned. "Boy scouts, remember?"

"Got a tent in there?" Sandburg turned on his seat and pulled a lightweight plastic poncho out of his saddlebag.

"It's too little. It'd blow away." Rafe buckled the jacket securely in place and consulted the compass he had strapped to his wrist and pointed to his left. "Parking lot is that way as the crow flys. It'll be shorter if we cut straight across instead of going back the way we came."

"There is a certain logic in that," Sandburg admitted, tightening the poncho as best he could against the cold rain that was beginning to fall.

They'd set their bikes to face the new direction when a mind-chilling, low rumbling filled the air from all sides.

Wide-eyed, Rafe turned frantically to stare in all directions. "Oh god, Blair. Do you hear that?"

"I hear it." Sandburg had to shout against the cacophony of thunder and beating rain that was being overshadowed with the ominous sound of an approaching freight train. "Drop the bikes and head for that depression over there."

"Where's a cave when you need one?" Rafe muttered as they both dived for the lowest area of the depression. "It's wet down here."

Suddenly, the roar became deafening as storm-induced night enveloped them. Quickly, they lowered their heads and melted into the ground as best they could while the unchecked fury of tornado-driven winds raged close by. Leaves, twigs, and good-sized branches joined with frozen rain and pummeled their backs for what seemed an eternity. There was a momentary pause, then the elements continued the assault when the winds abruptly changed direction as the tornado passed by much too closely.

"Are we having fun yet?" Sandburg grumbled into his facefull of leaves. "Be sure and let me know when we do."

"Oh, man. JIM!!" Brown called out loudly, not knowing that Jim Ellison was a Sentinel and was able to hear him whisper just as easily as shout.

Ellison was walking back to his desk with a steaming cup of fresh coffee and detoured. "No need to shout H. What's up?"

Brown pointed at the television screen on the wall that was easily visible from his area. "Bad storm, bro. Right where our boys are."

Ellison stared at the screen, digesting the information of bright reds, oranges, and yellows that digitally marched across a map of their corner of the state. "Well, it looks as if they'll be cutting the camping trip short."

"Think they'll be all right?"

"I'm sure they're fine." Am I this much of a mother hen where Sandburg is concerned? Ellison looked into the worried face of Rafe's partner and knew it mirrored his own. yep. "I'll just bet we'll be getting a call from them shortly, telling us that they're home and looking like drowned rats."

Brown pasted on a smile of reassurance. "Yeah. Yeah, sure. You're right, bro. Just a few hours from now."

After the deafening roar faded to a dull, constant barrage of nature's explosions, Sandburg and Rafe slowly raised their heads, blinked and surveyed their surroundings.

"Well, that was intense," Rafe said, carefully placing his feet under him and standing. "You okay?"

"Yeah. I would strongly suggest that we get the hell out of here." Sandburg scrabbled up the side of the depression using small trees and brush to help him maintain footing on the rain-slicked ground.

"Second that motion," Rafe agreed, following close behind.

There were a few moments of panic when they couldn't find the bikes; but after tossing aside considerable debris they were able to locate them, relatively unharmed.

Sandburg threw a leg over his bike and breathed a sigh of relief when the motor kicked alive. "All right. What direction did you say?"

Consulting his compass again, Rafe pointed straight ahead and then silently stared.

"Rafe?" Sandburg looked over at his companion, followed the direction of his outstretched arm and slumped back onto his seat. "Shit!"

"It's all changed!" Rafe breathed softly, surveying the downed and twisted trees thrown aimlessly about like a giant game of Pick-up-Sticks.' "We can't get the bikes through there!"

Twisting in his saddle, Sandburg frowned through the driving rain at the two-story piles of kindling that covered the trail they'd rode up. "Well, we can't go back the way we came, either."

Coming to a decision, Rafe squared his shoulders, adjusted his rainhood and nodded toward the only halfway clear direction available. "We'll just have to go southwest for awhile until we can double back. We may be camping out tonight after all."

"I hate to admit it, but you're right." Sandburg turned to Rafe and forced a grin. "Oh well, it's an adventure. At least we haven't driven off a cliff."

"Sandburg " The young detective glared at the grad student, so close to his own age, so different in life. "Don't even think of going there." "Sheesh, you sound just like Jim." "Yeah?" Rafe beamed proudly. "Must be a cop thing," he said, firing his engine and carefully navigating around fallen trees on his way off the ridge.

Sandburg's cobalt blue eyes glanced heavenward for a moment before following. "Please God, protect him from growing up into an anal-retentive hard ass."

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head too heavy and my cycle down. I had to stop for the night.

There she stood in the doorway. I heard the mission bell,
and I was thinking to myself, this could be heaven or this could be hell.

They had been riding in storm-induced darkness for so long, it took some time before they realized that night had actually overtaken them. Surrounded by blackness and horizontal trees, they were exhausted trying to keep the bikes and themselves upright.

Rafe stopped and leaned toward Sandburg to be heard above the sound of the engines and distant thunder. "I can't see anymore," he shouted. "We need to stop before we drive into a ravine."

Sandburg nodded. He was drenched, starved, on the verge of collapse, and couldn't see his own handlebars. Not for the first time that day, he wished his big partner were along. Ellison's sentinel vision would have been able to pick out a trail easily, even in the blackness.

Both men quieted their engines and dismounted. Rafe had begun to dig in his saddlebags for the small tent, when Sandburg gripped his forearm.

"Do you hear something?"

"Thunder," Rafe responded immediately.

"No. Something out of place like ."

Faintly, barely discernible above the cacophony of nature, were the varied sounds of bells.

"Church bells?" Rafe frowned and cocked his head trying to determine the direction.

"Over there," Sandburg shouted and bounced as he pointed off to their side. A pinpoint of lamplight shimmered in the distance.

The two men turned and smiled broadly at each other. "Civilization!!" they shouted, then reawakened their silent engines.

"Uh, Rafe," Sandburg began. "Let's proceed with caution, okay? I mean, we don't know who or what's out here."

"We're probably closer to the edge of the forest than we realized, but you're right; we should be careful until we know for sure who these people are." He grinned again. "Let's find out, shall we?"

Then she lift up the candle, and she showed me the way.
There were voices down the corridor. I thought I heard them say,
"Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a lovely place. Such a lovely place.
Such a lovely face.
Plenty of room at the Hotel California any time of year, you can find it here."

It was actually a short ride to the source of the light -- a propane-powered lamppost standing guard outside a three-story structure that actually resembled a hotel. It was very boxy, showing no imagination whatsoever in its d‚cor on the outside. Closer inspection would reveal its exterior paint job of green and rust, presumably to blend into the surrounding forest. A hand-lettered sign was nailed between two short posts proclaiming it to be Hotel California.' There were no lights on inside, however, and both men wondered if the building was occupied.

"We're a long way from California," Sandburg muttered as they approached the front entrance.

"We're a long way from being dry and warm, too," Rafe grumbled. "Open the door, will you?"

Sandburg shook his head. "Locked. So much for this being a real hotel."

Suddenly, the door creaked wide open and a woman stood in the doorway holding a candle protected by a glass cover.

"Dear me," she said, smiling at Sandburg, then Rafe. "Come in, come in. Whatever are you two boys doing out on a night like this? There's a terrible storm right over us."

"So we discovered," Rafe smiled back.

"We were caught unprepared. Is this an actual hotel? Would you have two rooms available?" Sandburg stopped for a breath only because he had to.

"Of course, of course." She ushered them inside, then closed and bolted the door. "We cater to hikers and birdwatchers and the like. That's why the hotel was designed to blend into the surrounding woods."

"We? You have a staff?" Rafe began to unbutton his rain jacket.

"The Captain is attending to the lights right now. Our generator picked the high point of the storm to quit."

"Oh, I almost forgot -- our bikes." Rafe began to refashion his jacket.

"Don't worry about it. The Captain will put them in the garage behind the house. That's where all my friends store their bikes. Why don't you take those wet coats off here, I'll hang them in the laundry room to dry."

"Gee, thanks." Sandburg peeled off his plastic poncho, but he was just as soaked underneath as if he'd worn no raincoat at all. His shoes squished, his clothes dripped and his long curls clung to his head in wet ringlets.

Rafe carefully stepped out of his rain pants and placed them into the woman's outstretched hand where they joined his jacket. Although damp, he was by no means soaked. Unconsciously, he dragged both hands over his short hair in case any strands had gotten out of place.

Sandburg glared at him. "I hate you," he muttered.

Hands stopped halfway down to his sides as Rafe looked at him wide-eyed in surprise.

"Weren't we both laying in a ditch? I know I was lying in a ditch. I look like I was lying in a ditch. Why do you look like you took a taxi here?"

"Um "

The woman chuckled and raised her candle higher as she turned down a corridor. "This way, gentlemen. If you have saddlebags, the Captain will bring them to your rooms."

Sandburg squished ahead of Rafe as he hurrmfed his way after the woman. He really wasn't mad at the detective. After all, the man couldn't help it if he always looked like he stepped out of a magazine ad.

Even while chasing and being chased by an alligator, Sandburg sighed. And I'd look like I just stepped out of Goodwill even if I wore Armani.

He stopped his musings as he heard voices and singing down another corridor. "A party?" he asked the woman ahead of him.

"An ongoing one," she half-turned and smiled at both of them. "Perhaps you would join us later? There's always plenty of room."

"Ah, no. Thanks." Sandburg shook his head. For some unknown reason, he was suddenly very uncomfortable. "I think I'll just take a nice hot shower and crash. I'm exhausted. What about you, Rafe?"

"Right now, I'm with you on the hot shower plan. After that, well, we'll see."

The woman nodded a smile as she nimbly began to ascend a winding, narrow staircase at the end of the hallway. "I hope you boys don't mind a little climb, but the rooms below are taken."

"As long as it has a bed, I don't care," Rafe muttered. "Right, Sandburg?"

"Oh, it has a bed, no problem there," she answered softly behind her cryptic, constant smile.

Sandburg repressed a shutter. Whether from the cold or from vibes, he couldn't tell. He knew only that he was becoming increasingly uneasy. Maybe it's a shaman thing, he wondered as he realized his companion was oblivious to the signals being sent.

They were at the third floor landing when the lights flickered on and held.

"Ah, good." She looked around appreciatively at her two guests, seeing them for the first time in strong light. "The Captain has earned his keep for today." Continuing halfway down the corridor, she stopped before a door marked 322, unlocked it, and held out the key. "Mr. Rafe? Your room."

"Thanks." As he held out his hand for the key, she deliberately pressed it slowly into the palm of his hand, lingering there for a heartbeat. Rafe, clueless, turned to Sandburg, "See you after we've cleaned up."

"Yeah," Sandburg waved limply at the closing door as the woman unlocked the door to the neighboring room.

"Mr. Sandburg," she held the key out in front of her as if it had grown mold. "Enjoy your stay," she smiled again, but with no meaning of friendship behind it.

Sandburg took it between two fingers and glanced at the number in the center of his room's door. "333." He looked at the woman. "Easy enough to remember."

"Yes." She turned to leave. "I'll have your bags sent up shortly." Then added as an afterthought, "Along with a glass of wine. On the house. You boys are chilled through."

Her man slipped and he twisted. She got the Mercedes Bendez.
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends.

"Madam?" A tall, properly attired gentleman stood at the bottom of the stairs as the woman descended. "New guests?"

"Yes, Captain. Rooms 322 and 333. Please see that their saddlebags reach them quickly. They are both very tired and soaked. Well, one is soaked."

"Complementary wine, Madam?"

She paused. "Chablis for Room 322."

"And Room 333?"

She sighed and gazed upward. "He has such beautiful eyes, Captain!"

"I hear a but' Madam."

"I don't think he's even 5' 10"! And he has hair down to his shoulders!"

"Oh my, Madam."

She looked up at the tuxedoed-attired man before her. Every strand of his short, dark hair carefully in place; his back, ram-rod straight; his eyes, deliberately half-lidded in short, the picture of the perfect gentleman.

"I suppose you could cut his hair?"

"I cannot do anything about vertical impairment, Madam."

"No, Captain. I suppose not. Amaretto it is then." She sighed wishfully, then brightened. "But Mr. Rafe will be such a good friend."

"If you say so, Madam."

"Oh, I do. He's so different from Mr. Sandburg. I just know we're going to become very close."

"Close it is, Madam." He executed a short, quick bow. "With your permission, I'll retrieve the luggage now."

"Ellison!" Captain Banks bellowed into the half-empty bullpen of Major Crimes. "My office, now."

James Ellison sighed and welcomed an excuse to walk away from the annoying pile of paperwork that still determinedly adhered to the top of his desk. Arching his back, he strode into his captain's office.

"Sir? You wanted to see me?"

Banks glanced up, switched his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other, and motioned for his detective to sit. "Where's your shadow?" he asked absentmindedly.

"Weekend off. What's up, sir?"

"Hum." Banks tossed a folder across his desk within easy reach of Ellison. "Homicide."

Ellison opened the folder to reveal a professional photograph of a dark-haired young lady, shyly smiling for the camera between long curls. He repressed an urge to feel sadness and assumed his official police demeanor.

"What happened?"

"Her body was found last week "

"Last week?" Ellison was dumbfounded. "Why so long?"

Banks held up a restraining hand. "Long story. Seems she, her boyfriend and her brother went camping almost three weeks ago. They were listed as missing when they didn't return on time. Ellie Peterson, there, was found on the edge of Croom Forest and presumed to have died of exposure."

Ellison felt his stomach begin to churn. "But "

"She didn't undergo an autopsy immediately -- there was quite a backup, and since she showed no signs of foul play, she was tucked away, so to speak." Banks sighed. "The autopsy showed that she was poisoned."

"I don't like this, Simon." Ellison murmured to the photograph.

"You're going to like this even less." Banks motioned to several stacks of files.

Ellison recognized them as the ones Masters and his chubby partner, Lisa, had brought in after lunch. "More missing persons?"

"All in the Croom Forest sector. Dating back ten months."

"We need Brown in here." Ellison rose and headed for the door.

Banks waggled his cigar at his best detective. "Whoa, Jim. What's going on? Why do we need Brown? Sandburg'll be back Monday, won't he?"

Ellison turned and leaned on his captain's desk, the intense blue of his eyes burning like beacons. "Rafe and Sandburg went cross country biking in the Croom sector this morning. Brown and I thought we would've heard from them by now, what with the storm and all, we figured they'd pack up and head for home as soon as it hit."

"But you haven't heard from them?"

"No, sir. And frankly, we're both a little worried."

"Get Brown in here."

Thirty minutes later, James Ellison had a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, matched only by the equally bad feeling in Henri Brown's.

The pictures from ten months of missing persons in the Croom Forest lined the walls of Banks' office. Dozens of happy young people smiled down at the officers while Ellison slowly began to piece together a pattern. A pattern that he decidedly hated.

Suddenly Ellison jumped up, slammed his fist on Banks' desk and stalked into a pace, his jaw clenching in frustration.

"Jim?" Brown looked up at his coworker in concern. Ellison had obviously seen something he had missed.

"Damn it!" Ellison nearly shouted.

"What is it, Jim?" Simon Banks asked softly, trying to instill a small amount of calm in his friend.

"The pattern! Look at the pattern!" He waved a hand at the photos.

"Why don't you tell us about it?" The captain knew that, given time, he would also see whatever his detective had discovered, but now

Giant strides had Ellison in front of the photos in a heartbeat. "In ten months time, we've got over two dozen people missing. Seven have surfaced -- presumably dead from exposure -- but was it exposure? Ellie Peterson's body hadn't decomposed enough for a toxicology test to be invalid, but what about the other six? I'll bet they were all poisoned."

"Why?" Banks stared at the wall, trying to follow Ellison's reasoning.

"Look at them, Simon!" Ellison waved his hand at the smiling faces. "The ones who are still missing -- look at them -- all young men, around six feet, same build - looks like they work out, short hair, clean-cut, snappy dressers "

"They're all cut from the same magazine ad " Brown added softly.

Ellison nodded briefly, then continued. "Look who's surfaced dead: the girlfriends, the sisters, the young men who were short, chubby "

" or long hair." Banks murmured. "Anyone who didn't fit the magazine ad' profile."

Ellison fell into his chair, rubbing his forehead. "The yuppie and the hippie," he murmured softly. "Keep one, discard the other."

Banks stared first at the wall of photos, then at Ellison. "My god, Jim you don't think?"

He looked tiredly at his captain. "I don't want to take that chance. Do you?"

Numbly, Brown shook his head. "What the hell could they be doing with the yuppies? None of them have been found yet. But Sandburg! Jim, Hairboy fits the discard profile!"

Ellison nodded silently and gazed upon the smiling face of a long-haired young man found dead six months ago at the bottom of a ravine and tried desperately not to see the face of his Guide.

How much trouble could they possibly get into for just one night? Ellison's foreboding thoughts returned as he tried to ignore a monster headache that was rapidly building behind his temples.

Blair Sandburg silently thanked the saddlebag gods for designing them so roomy and waterproof. He had packed only one change of clothes, and he was very grateful, as he tugged them clear of the leather, to find that they were still relatively dry. Too bad he had only one pair of shoes. Oh well, at least the socks were dry.

He glanced over at the glass of ligueur on the nightstand. The Captain had brought it along with his saddlebags. He sighed. Amaretto was not exactly his kind of drink. Why the hell couldn't he have brought me a beer? Sandburg thought as he tucked his shirttail inside his jeans. I don't drink that stuff.

One quick knock on the door captured his attention.

"Blair?" Rafe's voice filtered through the solid wood door. "You decent?"

"Matter of opinion." Sandburg opened the door and padded back to the saddlebags to dig out a pair of socks. "What's up?"

"Going to check out the party?" Curious, Rafe wandered around the room, a mirror image of his own.

"Naw. I'm too spent." He tugged on his socks and immediately felt warmer, which, in turn, made him much happier. He looked over at his friend. "You?"

"I think I'll just crash. It's been a long day." Rafe stopped by the nightstand. "What'd the stiff shirt bring you?"

"Some kind of liqueur. Not my style though. You can have it if you want."

Rafe picked up the small glass and sniffed. "Um-m-m. Amaretto." He turned to Sandburg. "Sure you don't want this?"

Sandburg shook his head and waved it away. "It's yours. Enjoy."

Setting it back on the small tray, which he picked up carefully so as not to spill any of the liquid, Rafe smiled and headed for the door. "It'll make a nice nightcap. I know I'll really sleep soundly tonight."

"Yeah. We need to get an early start tomorrow. No telling how long it'll take to get back to the Jeep."

"Ugh. You had to bring that up, didn't you?"

"Sorry, but I'm sure Jim and H will be worried what with the storm and all."

"Right. I asked the Captain if they had a phone here, but he politely told me no."

Sandburg stopped and looked at Rafe. "You didn't believe him?"

Rafe shrugged. "Let's just say that's a hell of a way to run a hotel without a phone of any kind."

"That is strange. And, come to think of it, our hotel manager didn't ask us to sign any forms or take any money."

"Curiouser and curiouser." Rafe smiled and left for his own room.

How they dance in the courtyard sweet summer's sweat.
Some dance to remember. Some dance to forget.

So I called up the captain, "Please bring me my wine."
He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since 1969."

And still those voices are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night, just to hear them say,
"Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a lovely place. Such a lovely place.
Such a lovely face."

Stretching out on the top of the bed to relax, Sandburg found that he could not. Images of tornado-wipped trees and demented landladies filled his mind. Faint murmurings of the downstairs' voices were just annoying enough to keep him awake. Man, a nice, cold beer would really be good right about now.

Swinging cotton-clad feet off the bed, he sought his damp shoes with his toes. By morning, these should be just about dry, he mused, quickly doing a temporary lace just to keep them from clomping as he walked. Maybe they'll have beer downstairs at the party, he considered, opening the door.

He spotted the Captain striding purposefully down the corridor toward him. Never thought I'd see anybody look more military than Jim.

"Excuse me," Sandburg approached the six-foot plus man politely. "Would you happen to have room service? I'd like a beer."

The Captain shook his head once. "I'm sorry sir. That beverage is unavailable."

Sandburg dragged a hand through damp curls. "All right. How about a glass of wine?"

Raising himself to his full height, the Captain stared down his uptipped nose at the anthropology student. "I'm sorry, sir," he monotoned as if to an unruly child. "That spirit has been unavailable for quite some time."

"What do you have?" he asked in exasperation.

A corner of the Captain's mouth flicked upward. "We have some very nice Amaretto. Would you like a refill?"

Sandburg sighed and shook his head.

"Will there be anything else, sir?"


"Very good, sir. Sleep well, sir." The Captain didn't stir, only stood and watched the young man as if monitoring his movements.

Feeling very uncomfortable, Sandburg turned and went back inside his room, closing and bolting the door behind him. After counting to ten, he opened the door a sliver and peered out, searching for the Captain. Seeing that the corridor was now empty, he slipped out and headed for the stairway. I get the feeling that there's something here the warden doesn't want me to see. Quickly and quietly, he danced down the stairs to the first floor, keeping a wary eye out for either the woman or the Captain. That means I've got to find out what it is.

Reaching the first floor landing, Sandburg followed the sound of music and voices. Keeping to the side of the walls, he crept along until he could see inside the grand ballroom. The room was huge, seemingly taking up most of the ground floor. It was designed to resemble a courtyard, with potted trees and shrubbery placed attractively so guests would think they were outside even in the winter.

Sandburg stopped short of entering the room. Everyone looked as if they were having fun. What aren't I supposed to see?

Then he looked closer.

The only female present was the woman. Save for the Captain, all the guests were male, between 20 and 30, approximately six foot tall and well-built with almost identical facial features.

Strange. It looks like a GQ convention. Sandburg frowned and blended into the wallpaper. Watching.

He watched as the woman traveled from guest to guest, caressing a cheek here, planting a kiss there, and occasionally dragging a well-manicured hand down a neckline to linger in the center of a young man's chest.

He watched as she danced with one dark-haired guest, then pulled in another, and another

Orgy-time. The anthropology student took a deep breath and closed his eyes momentarily. Don't think I really want to see this.


At the sound of the Captain's voice, Sandburg's eyes popped open and he focused on the speaker on the far side of the room.

"Yes?" The woman continued to sway in the arms of two of her guests.

"It seems Mr. Carpenter has checked out."

Pausing, the woman turned and saw the sprawled form of one of her guests with his top half laying face down on a couch and his legs draped gracelessly over the edge while his polished shoes crumpled the edge of an expensive Persian rug.

"Oh, dear. Are you sure?"

Attempting to lift an arm, the Captain almost grunted against the stiffening rigormortis already setting in. "Quite sure, Madam," he said, straightening.

"Oh my," she pouted. "I did so like Mr. Carpenter, too."

"Shall I set one less for breakfast?"

Sandburg stared at the exchange from his hiding place and fought to keep from being sick. He swallowed rapidly, trying to keep stomach fluids where they belonged and he was having only marginal success. He was backing away when he heard her mention Rafe's name.

"No," the woman brightened and smiled happily, resuming her dance with her nearly identical partners. "Mr. Rafe will be joining us for breakfast."

"Very good, Madam. As it will be his first time, I will escort him personally."

"Oh, would you be so kind? I know he would appreciate it." She left her guests dancing with each other, picked up a glass of champagne and toasted to the very dead Mr. Carpenter. "Good bye, Mr. Carpenter." Then, caressing the face of another comatose guest, she gushed, "Mr. Rafe is joining our little group soon. He'll be such a good friend."

Pressing his hand against his mouth to keep from gagging, Sandburg quickly backed away from the ballroom. Drugs! All those guys are stoned out of their freakin' minds. I should've seen it in their faces. Once again in the corridor, he dragged in deep, cleansing breaths to keep from passing out, then, knowing that his legs would support him, ran for the staircase.

The liquor!! They must put it in the complementary liquor. He sucked in lungsful of air and raced up two flights of stairs as quickly as he could, heading for his friend's room.

Skidding to a halt in front of 322, he fought the urge to pound on the door, least it alert either the woman or the Captain. Instead, he knocked normally and called out softly, but urgently, "Rafe! I need you to open the door now! Please Rafe, this is important."


Sandburg waited an eternity for Rafe to open the door and leapt inside as soon as the latch was thrown, locking the door again behind him.

"Man, we GOTTA get out of here," Sandburg began, arms waving -- then stopped -- and stared at the half empty glass of Amaretto liqueur in the detective's hand. "Did you drink that?" He pointed a shaking hand at the glass.

Rafe nodded. "You did say it wasn't your "

Without warning, Sandburg slapped the glass out of Rafe's hand, sending thick, golden droplets flying across the room, while the delicate glass splintered against the wall.


Spinning his friend around, Sandburg propelled him toward the bathroom. "Time to act like a runway model, Rafe."

"I'm going after them, Simon."

"Jim," Captain Banks stood and used his cigar as an extension of his hand while making a point, "It's the middle of the night. There's a raging storm out there -- and we don't even know if they're in any trouble."

Ellison fixed his captain with a stare of hard, blue ice.

Banks sighed. "Okay. There's a better than 50/50 chance that they're in trouble."

Henri Brown rose and walked to Ellison's side. "I'm going with you."

The Sentinel shook his head but before he could say a word, Brown raised a hand to silence him.

"Rafe's my partner," he said simply. "I'm going."

"You'll have to keep up." Ellison rose and strode toward the door. "I'm not slowing down for anyone."

"Don't worry. I'll be right on your ass," Brown said, following close behind the detective.

"Well, maybe you can back off just a little."

"Go down to impound. I think there's a couple bikes in there. Keep in touch," Banks yelled at their retreating forms. "I don't want to have to send out a search party for you, too," he muttered.

Turning back to the wall of smiling faces, Captain Banks' gaze wandered over the ones who were different. Sighing, his fingers felt along his desktop and quickly closed around a lighter. Bringing it into play, he dragged long and hard on his cherished cigar, allowing it to calm his frazzled nerves, before slowing exhaling. He watched through tired eyes as the smoke drifted over the line of keepers.'

"What the hell is going on here, guys?" Banks glared at the photos as if they would suddenly animate and solve the mystery for him. "Where are you hiding?"

Sandburg drowned a bleached washcloth under the cold water, barely wrung it out and handed it to Rafe.


Shaking hands clutched at the dripping cloth and doused a fevered face. "I don't know what kind of drugs she's peddling, but she needs a new supplier. This is a definite downer."

Laying a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder, Sandburg sat beside him on the edge of the bed. "Since you'd just swallowed the drug, hopefully you were able to purge enough of it so it won't affect your system too badly."

Rafe stared at a trembling hand as if he didn't believe it belonged to him. "Unless it's absorbed into the bloodstream immediately."

Sandburg shivered involuntarily and hoped Rafe didn't notice. The memory of his own close encounter with the Golden drug surfaced and tugged at his sanity. He'd only eaten one slice of tainted pizza, but it had been enough to spiral him immediately into a nightmare of surreal images and almost kill him. Realizing his breathing was becoming ragged, he shook the memories from the present and deeply breathed in and out several times. Come on, man. Get it together. You can't help anyone if you get strung out on memories.

He looked closely at the detective. Whatever drugs she was using, it wasn't on a par with Golden. Rafe was feverish, shaky, and growing weak. He was not hallucinating.

At least not yet.

I've got to get him out of here before he starts to lose it. Sandburg stood in front of him and gripped his shoulders. "Rafe, listen. Get your jacket, put on your cycle boots. We're getting out."

Rafe allowed his head to fall forward once, twice. Then he rose, stumbled, and, using the furniture for support, made his way to the closet.

Damn! We'll be lucky if he makes it downstairs. Sandburg dashed over to the window and threw back the drapes. After a few useless attempts to open the latch, he examined it more closely. At first, it resembled a normal window, but the panes of glass were expertly set within steel bars. The room was a prison. There would be no escape from the windows of either of their rooms. Damn, again!! He dragged a hand through his long curls in frustration. I gotta stop swearing. It's getting to be a habit.

The sickening sound of a body striking the floor spun him around. Oh man, this really sucks!

Quickly navigating around the bed, Sandburg knelt by Rafe's side and was greatly relieved to find him conscious.

"I've fallen," Rafe murmured softly.

Sandburg forced a smile. "And I'll just bet that you can't get up."

In all seriousness, Rafe stared at him intently, "Yeah. How'd you know?"

"Educated guess." Sandburg stood up and grasped Rafe's right hand in his, braced himself, and pulled.

Rafe lurched to his feet on wobbly legs and quickly angled himself to half-fall, half-sit onto the bed. "I'm getting worse, Blair. I don't think I can stand."

"Well, don't think for a minute that I'm leaving you here. No way. We'll get out of this together."

Noticing that his friend's boots weren't buckled, he decided he'd better fasten them before Rafe fell on his face. Turning so as to face him, Sandburg's eyes fell on a different glass of golden liquid by his nightstand.

"Rafe, what's in that glass?" Sandburg pointed and made sure Rafe knew which glass he was referring to.

"Oh, some bad Chablis." Feeling a slow incoming tide of nausea, he clutched at his stomach and closed his eyes against the urge. "Don't like Chablis. Color wrong anyway."

Quickly, Sandburg tightened the buckles, occasionally glaring at the offending liquid. What was it the Captain said, they hadn't had any wine here for quite some time? So why did Rafe get white wine, while stiff shirt insisted on bringing me Amaretto?

"Did you drink any of the wine?"

Rafe slowly shook his head. "Color wrong," he insisted.

Nodding, Sandburg rose and patted his friend on the shoulder. "Just a minute. I'm going to check for incoming butlers." He knew he had a few more pieces to the puzzle, but he was too busy at the moment to figure out where they fit to complete the picture.

Practically tiptoeing to the door, Sandburg cracked it open just enough to see the hallway. Finding it clear, he opened it wider and stepped out. There was no sign of the Captain.

"Let's go. Coast is clear."

Rafe didn't move. "Blair, you can move faster without me."

"I can move faster if you get off that bed." Sandburg walked back and, grabbing a hand, jerked the detective to his feet. "Now, come on." Positioning himself as support on the taller man's right side, Sandburg staggered momentarily as he figured out how best to accept the added weight. "It's a good thing you don't weigh as much as Jim, or you'd be on your own," he grunted softly.

Cautiously moving to the stairway, Sandburg edged Rafe to the wall side of the stairs and used it to help brace him.

Rafe stared at the steepness of the stairs and wondered why they hadn't seemed so vertical before. He gripped the handrail that was securely bolted to the wall, with a sweaty, shaking hand as if his life depended on it and tried to keep his body weight back so he wouldn't topple headfirst down the staircase. He agonized over the slowness of their descent, but he couldn't trust his wobbly legs to support him if he went any faster. With his heart pounding as if it would burst through his chest, he found himself just concentrating on breathing. And as the blackness threatened to expand past the edges of his vision, he blinked the stinging sweat out of his eyes.

He knew Sandburg was casting concerned looks at him, but he couldn't allow himself the luxury of a lie and tell him that he was all right. Besides, Sandburg wouldn't believe him.

Besides, he wasn't all right.

An eternity later, they made it to the second floor landing.

Rafe leaned into the corner, breathing deeply, trying to quell a shaking body. He was hot now, but still not enough to override bone-numbing chills. Idly, he wondered when the hallucinations were going to start.

Maybe they already had.

Maybe this entire hotel was a hallucination.

Maybe he would wake up and Sandburg would tell him that he'd been hit on the head during the tornado.

Maybe even Sandburg was a hallucination.

Wide-eyed with doubt and suspicion, he stared at his small friend. Sandburg's mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. There was no sound --- ANYWHERE! Needing some sort of noise to ensure his sanity, Rafe threw back his head and began to scream

"Oh god!" Sandburg leapt at his friend, covering his mouth with both hands in an attempt to silence the cry before either the woman or the Captain came to investigate. Immediately, Rafe crumpled, unconscious, into a tangled dead weight of arms and legs.

Even through the storm, Ellison and Brown had arrived at the parking lot of the Croom Recreation area in record time. There was only one vehicle there, sitting unharmed by the fallen debris surrounding it, in the center of the lot.

Brown stared at it through his rain-spattered window, trying to make out the color. "It's like the one Rafe was driving. Can't be sure though, without taking a closer look."

Ellison tossed Brown a yellow slicker as he pulled on an identical one. "Let's check it out."

Minutes later, both detectives peered inside the Jeep through distorting sheets of rain. Watching quietly, Brown considered that Ellison resembled a bloodhound on a trail and idly wondered what he could possibly be finding that hadn't been washed away in the storm.

When Ellison's jaw began to clench, Brown didn't need to see under the peaked hood to know his lively blue eyes had hardened into granite.

"What is it, Jim?"

"Sandburg's backpack. He must have transferred his camping gear from it into saddlebags."

"Well, that's it, then." Brown shrugged deeper into his rain gear as he gazed off into the dark, uninviting woods. "They're in trouble."

"Yeah," Ellison muttered softly as he strode quickly toward the bikes tethered securely in his truck's bed.

"Jim, how are we going to find them in this weather?" Brown moved to help with the bikes, but couldn't help wondering. "There's no trail."

Placing the last bike on the ground, Ellison stood erect and slowly turned in all directions. Abruptly, he stopped and stared off into the distance, sometimes cocking his head ever so slightly, sometimes sniffing. Then, he turned and mounted his bike. Looking at Brown, he asked simply, "Coming?" then fired the bike alive.

Brown scrambled to start his bike before the big detective disappeared into the darkness. "Damn," he muttered into his handlebars, "I hate it when he does that. How does Sandburg put up with it all the time?"

Mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne on ice.
And she said, "We are all just prisoners here, of our own device."

In the master's chambers, they gathered for the feast.
They stab'ed it with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beast.

"I want you to rest here for a few minutes, okay? I just want to check out our escape route."

Blair Sandburg had neatly tucked his friend into a large, walk-in storage closet on the second floor. The exertion of walking down the stairs from the third floor had momentarily rendered Rafe unconscious, causing Sandburg a few gray hairs.

Rafe shook his head, "Sandburg "

The grad student wagged a finger at him in annoyance. "Don't start." He smiled reassuringly. "All I need to do is find the front door, that's all. Then I'll be back. Just rest."

As Rafe leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, Sandburg quietly closed the door, leaned his forehead against it -- and sighed. All right, Jim. Any time now would make for a great rescue. Just any old time is fine with me.

He spun around quickly upon hearing a loud noise, but realizing that it came from downstairs, he remembered to breathe again and continued down the flight of stairs to the first floor.

Man, they're really going at it now. Just listen to all that yelling and singing. Well, I guess to some folks that yelling is singing.

He carefully skirted around the entrance to the ballroom and continued on his quest to find the way out. Sandburg hadn't gotten very far, however, when he heard the Captain offer to go procure more wine.


Finding no dark corner to hide in, he quickly started twisting doorknobs, hoping to find one that would open into an unoccupied room.

The rhythmic beat of the Captain's walk thundered in Sandburg's ears as he drew closer, and the grad student idly wondered if fear intensified sound or the man actually clomped like an elephant. Deep blue eyes wide with alarm stared at the emptiness that would soon be filled with the imposing butler as Sandburg practically ran down the hall, his ever-active hands flying from doorknob to doorknob.

Terror! Panic!

Jim Ellison felt it as surely as he felt the rain pelting his face. But this fear wasn't his it belonged to his soulmate, his Guide. If Ellison had any doubt that the two young men were in trouble, he had none now.

Squinting into the darkness, he allowed his Sentinel vision to pick out the smoothest, fastest path and trusted that Brown would follow unquestioningly. In truth, he didn't care if the other detective was behind him or not. For now, his only intent, his only focus, was to reach the side of his Guide.

Just as the musty odor surrounding the Captain began to reach Sandburg's nostrils, a door gave way. He quickly bounced inside and locked it behind him as he listened for the Captain's retreating footsteps. Only after he was sure he was momentarily safe, did he turn around and survey the room.

Sandburg had stumbled into what was obviously the woman's' bedroom. He stared at the gaudy trappings in disbelief. The walls were lined with white furniture lavishly splattered with gold paint. Predominately displayed in the center of the room was a king-sized four-poster bed, arrayed with red satin covers. Next to the bed was a standing ice bucket sporting a chilled bottle of pink champagne. He looked up at the ceiling and gaped at the gold-flecked mirrors secured there. I don't believe this. I've stepped into a 70s porno flick. Not that I've seen any of course. he assured his image that accosted him from a wall-sized dresser mirror.

I gotta get out of here, he reminded himself, then cracked the door just enough to see if anyone was in the corridor. Quickly stepping outside, he looked both ways and scurried along the wall.

Only to discover himself back at the entrance to the ballroom.

Nervously, he tugged a stray lock of curls back behind his ear. This is so not good.

A loud crash followed by animalistic screaming snapped his head toward the far corner. A banquet table had been set up for dinner, laden with roast turkey, vegetables and charming floral arrangements. Unfortunately, a few of the guests seemed to have taken offense at the decorations and were gamely trying to stab the marigolds to death or anything or anyone else who happened to be sucked into their hallucination.

The Captain, who had completed his previous mission, was calmly and efficiently approaching the melee armed with a stun gun in hand.

I really need to get out of here. Sandburg spun around and ran from the ballroom.

Last thing I remember, I was running for the door.
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.

"Relax," said the night man, "We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

I know the front door is around here somewhere. After all, we came in through a door. Sandburg stopped running and attempted to get his bearings. The ballroom was on the same level as the entrance, he was sure; but no matter where he turned or in which direction he ran -- he was always going in circles. Frustrated, he ran shaking fingers through long, unruly curls.

"Relax, man," a soft, unidentified voice sounded behind him.

Sandburg jumped in surprise and fear, plastering himself against the wall as he stared wide-eyed at the young man who was standing quietly behind him.

"Geeze, you scared me!" Sandburg muttered as he tried to find his breath. Then, after his lungs were functioning again, he realized that he'd heard two coherent words from someone other than himself or Rafe.

"Do you know the way out of here?" Sandburg asked softly. "Is there another corridor leading to the lobby?"

The young man rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. "Don't you newbies ever learn?" He stepped forward until he had to look down his nose at Sandburg. "There - is - no - lobby," he stated slowly and distinctly. "You'll - never - leave - here."

"There has to be a way out. Don't you see? There has to be a door."

"Oh there is a way out." Suddenly, the young man's eyes burned far too brightly. A long steak knife, which had been hidden behind his back, appeared in the air above Sandburg's head. "You can check out anytime!" he screamed, arching the knife downward.

Jim Ellison stopped his bike in a small clearing and closed his eyes against the violent headache that'd been pounding against his temples for the better part of an hour. The need to find his roommate and Guide was fueled by intermittent spikes of unreasonable panic-driven intensity.

He'd just experienced another, and he didn't feel that he was any closer to finding Sandburg than he'd been when he started from the parking lot hours ago.

Slowly, he became aware that Henri Brown had pulled alongside him and was shouting over the din of soft rain and loud motors. Had he zoned? How long had he stayed in one position while his sixth sense registered the emotional force of his Guide? Ellison shook his head in a vain attempt to clear a few cobwebs then focused on Brown, figuring that the helmet could explain away the zone-out.

"Didn't hear you," Ellison shouted, pointing at his ears hidden under the well-padded helmet.

Brown nodded, then pointed into the distance directly ahead of them.

Ellison stared at a faint light, shimmering tiredly through the now softly falling rain. Sentinel vision enabled him to distinguish a lamp and, barely discernible even with heightened senses, a building directly behind it. Instinct fixed the position in his brain as he gunned his bike and headed for it as straight as he could through the trees.

Backed up against the wall, Sandburg dove to his right, neatly avoiding the weapon as it lodged harmlessly in the center of a garish rose belonging to the hallway wallpaper. Without missing a beat, he scooped up a nearby vase and lobbed it in the direction of his assailant. A satisfying crash, followed by a soft groan, gave him only momentary satisfaction for he knew the noise would bring the Captain immediately.

There was only one door he knew would open -- the door to the woman's bedroom. Quickly, he turned the knob and slid inside, remaining by the door to hear what was happening.

Very shortly the soft, soothing tones of the Captain's voice filtered in. "My, my, Mr. Knight, have we gotten into a little mischief?"

An unintelligible response was followed by the sound of pottery shards hitting the floor.

"Here, let me help you up. I'd say we are ready to turn in early tonight."

Two sets of footsteps echoed into the distance as Sandburg heaved a sigh of relief. When he opened the door to leave, his gaze fell upon another room that opened onto the bedroom. Curious, he shut the door and went to investigate.

This room appeared to be her living quarters. It contained several chairs, upholstered in an ungodly floral print, and a matching couch in the middle, while the components of an office -- desk, computer, file cabinets -- were positioned around a large picture window. Hardly daring to breathe, Sandburg approached the window. Quickly, he scanned for any wires that might set off an alarm. After finding none, he searched for a latch that would enable him to open it.

He found, instead, that the window had been nailed to the frame. Without a hammer or crowbar, there would be no way for it to open. Sandburg looked at the wooden dividers holding the glass panes in place -- and smiled. They were all wood! There were no hidden iron bars creating a prison.

Finally! I'll have to bring Rafe here and be ready to run when I break the glass. The noise will bring the two wardens for sure.

With spirits buoyed for the first time since he'd discovered the sinister secret of the hotel, Sandburg carefully crept out of the room and quietly ran up the stairs to the closet where he'd hidden Rafe.

Quickly, he looked to his left and right before opening the door just to be sure and securely closed it before turning on the light.

"Rafe?" Sandburg whispered, approaching the young detective. "Rafe? Wake up."

Even in the dim light of a 40 Watt bulb, Sandburg could see how much paler his friend was. Uttering an oath under his breath, he knelt beside him and clearly saw the rivulets of perspiration coursing down his face. Gently laying a hand on Rafe's forehead, he noticed the clammy feel to his skin, the excessive warmth of a fever, and the slight tremors of his body.

"Com'on, pal," Sandburg grasped a shoulder in each hand and gently shook Rafe to consciousness. "Time to hit the road." We need to get you to a doctor, man. You are not checking out.

"Hey Blair." Darkly clouded eyes vainly tried to focus.

"Hey yourself," Sandburg forced a smile of reassurance. "Ready to go home? I know I am."

"Let's go," Rafe murmured, dropping a hand to the floor and attempting to push off, but a rubbery arm offered no support and he quickly fell back.

"Whoa, easy there." Sandburg slipped an arm under Rafe's left shoulder. "Let me help."

"Three greatest words in English language," Rafe wheezed as he struggled to his feet.

"Right now, I'd vote for, Jim is here,'" Sandburg said as he leaned Rafe against the wall while he opened the door slightly to check the corridor.

"All right," Sandburg whispered, helping Rafe navigate the hallway. "We're going down the stairs just like we did before."

Rafe just nodded, he had no energy for words. He tried dragging in a deep breath but a sharp pain in his chest caused him to clutch at the handrail while he waited for the intense white light that'd taken over his blurry vision to fade.

"You okay?" Sandburg was worried, but he knew he couldn't do anything to help his friend until they were safely away from the hotel.

"No." Rafe turned to the grad student and offered a weak smile.

Sandburg tightened his grip around his friend and squeezed his arm in reassurance. "Guess that was a stupid question." Poised on the top step, he tried again. "Ready?"

Rafe turned and gazed down the flight of stairs, which now looked so imposing. "Guess so."

Step by laborious step, they inched their way to the first floor. Rafe's breathing became more difficult with each minute that passed and the tremors that wracked his body threatened to knock him off his feet and send him spiraling down the stairs. If not for Sandburg's assistance, he knew that he would never have made it to the first floor.

"That's it!" Sandburg whispered enthusiastically. "No more stairs. Just a few more feet straight down the hall."

"Can't " The pain in his chest was constant now and each breath bit like a knife in his lungs. The blackness that had been building in his peripheral vision threatened to blot out his vision totally. He desperately wanted nothing more than to slide down the wall to the floor and let the soft darkness enfold him.

"Can't quit!" Sandburg hissed in Rafe's ear. "We're so close and I'm not leaving here without you."

"Jewish mother guilt trip?" Rafe wheezed.

"Whatever works." Sandburg grinned and readjusted his grip around the young detective's middle. "Let's go."

He was so focused on traversing the few yards to the woman's living quarters he failed to notice that the ongoing sounds of raucous festivities from the ballroom were fading. No sooner had the grad student laid his hand on the doorknob than an inhuman shriek filled the corridor and caused him to spin around.

"Shit!" Blue eyes wide with fear, Sandburg spun the knob and thrust Rafe inside. Quickly, he glanced at the woman running toward him, then ducked through the door, locking it after him. Half supporting, half dragging Rafe, Sandburg ran to the window.

"Turn around, I'm going to break the glass," Sandburg ordered. Ignoring the cries of the woman and the pounding on the door, he lifted a nearby chair and tested its weight.

Leaning heavily against the edge of the desk, Rafe turned his back to the window and, in so doing, noticed a half-opened drawer. Bracing himself, he edged closer and gave the drawer an extra nudge. A .357 lay unguarded on top a stack of papers. Without further consideration, and as quickly as he could manage, he slipped the weapon in his waistband. Lifting a handful of the papers for possible evidence, he folded and stuffed them in his back pocket.

The shattering of glass startled him and he nearly slipped to the floor before he caught himself. The all-too-quick motion brought on another wave of nausea and chest pain. He gasped and fought against the blackness that threatened.

Can't pass out now. Not now! Too close to getting out of here. Must help Blair, somehow Rafe blinked the world back into existence and turned to see Sandburg brushing the shards of glass off the windowsill.

"Come on," Sandburg stepped over to Rafe and grasped his elbow in support. "You're out of here."

"What about you?" Rafe weaved as he approached the broken window.

"Be right after you." Sandburg cringed at a particularly loud series of blows on the door. He glanced down at the outside grounds just a few feet below and then at the pale, sweat-beaded face of his friend. "Listen. There's a row of bushes just to the right of the window. After I help you out, you hide in there. I'll draw them away."

"But " Rafe sat on the sill, then Sandburg lifted his legs up and over to the outside.

"No buts," Sandburg held a finger to his lips. "You gotta be quiet for this to work -- okay?"

Reluctantly, Rafe nodded.

"Don't worry. I was taught by one of the best," Sandburg grinned reassuringly as he gently helped Rafe out of the window.

Suddenly, the door crashed open, splintering wooden framework, as the Captain and the woman burst into the room.

"RUN, RAFE!" Sandburg screamed into the night as Rafe crawled into the bushes. "Head for the woods!"

"I'll head him off, Madam," the Captain stated and spun on his heels.

"You you ," the woman sputtered, enraged. "You drove my new friend away! I hate you! I hate you!" She cocked her head and glared at Sandburg. "Why didn't you drink your nice Amaretto like I wanted you to? The Amaretto was yours. Why are you still here?"

"I'm not." Sandburg said calmly, swinging a leg over the sill. Quickly, he swung his other leg over and dropped lightly to the ground outside. Careful not to glance in Rafe's direction, he jumped to his feet and sprinted for the woods.

"NO-O-O-O-O!!" the woman screamed, running for the window. Seeing the Captain stride around the corner of the hotel, she yelled, "KILL HIM!! KILL HIM!!"

"Yes, Madam," the Captain acknowledged, raising a .22 to his shoulder and sighting along the barrel.

From his hiding place in bushes, Rafe struggled to brace himself on an elbow, as one hand crept toward the gun tucked away in the small of his back. Only time for one shot. Must make it count. One trembling hand joined with the other in an effort to steady the weapon as he inched himself into a sitting position with his back braced against the side of the building. One hand wrapped around the stock of the .357 and then rested in the palm of his other hand for balance. With both hands braced on one knee, he sighted, took as deep a breath as he could without passing out, held it, and fired.

The .22 flew from the Captain's hands when the round caught him squarely in the back, twisting him into an ill-defined tangle of arms and legs on the wet, muddy ground.

Sandburg dived and rolled as the crack of the gun filled his world.

Having expended his last ounce of energy, Rafe allowed the weapon to slip from his hands as he drifted into the soft gray cotton that he'd been fighting for so long.

Wailing, the woman clambered out of the window and, slipping and scrambling on the wet grass, ran to the Captain's side.

GUNSHOT! Jim Ellison felt an icy hand clutch at his heart and he fought down every unreasonable urge he felt. None of them would be more helpful to his partner, right now, than his quick arrival.

He could see the lamp in the front of the hotel, but instinct drove him further to the far side where Ellison knew his young Guide would be.

"YOU'VE KILLED HIM!!" the woman screamed. Irrational, blind rage consumed her as she pawed the ground for the rifle, clumsily shouldered it and aimed it at Rafe's unconscious form, now only half-hidden in the bushes. "You're not my friend any more," she growled.

Cautiously, Sandburg raised his head, unsure as to who was shooting at whom. "Shit," he muttered, assessing the situation immediately. She can't miss at that distance. He quickly scrambled to find a baseball-sized rock.

He heard the cock of the rifle just as his fingers closed around the perfect stone. In one fluid motion, he stood, sighted, and launched the projectile. The rock struck hand and rifle stock just as the weapon discharged, sending it flying.

She cried out in pain and frustration as she single-mindedly dived after the rifle, intent on destroying the helpless detective.

Realizing that she was not giving up so easily and filled with concern that his friend may have been shot, Sandburg ran toward her. As she again brought the rifle to her shoulder, she was caught in a full tackle and crashed hard to the wet ground. Sandburg fought for control of the weapon as she screamed and kicked at him.

The first few rays of dawn illuminated the battleground as Ellison and Brown sped up to the hotel. Spying his Guide locked in hand-to-hand combat with a crazed woman clutching a rifle, filled the Sentinel with both relief and fear. Relief that his soulmate was alive but fearful that it may not last.

Suddenly, Sentinel hearing picked up a whispered threat by the woman, "I should've seen to you immediately. I knew you'd be trouble. You don't fit in." Then, just as abruptly, Sandburg hauled back and belted her. Panting, he pushed the long, damp curls out of his face as he stared toward the hotel.

The low rumble of a motorcycle engine had gotten increasingly louder, but Sandburg's tired brain really hadn't registered it until the woman relinquished her hold on the rifle. Drawing in air and attempting to calm his shaking, the grad student knew he had to see if Rafe had been hit by the wild shot. He also knew the cycle had to be mean his Sentinel's arrival.

Glancing over his shoulder, he gave voice to the three greatest words in the English language, "Jim is here," he murmured softly and couldn't help but smile. Struggling to his feet, he aimed a weak wave at the big man, "Jim! Am I glad to see you."

Ellison dropped his bike and tore off his helmet as he ran to his Guide.

"Cuff her," Sandburg suddenly ordered, pointed at the woman and ran off toward the hotel.

Stopping in mid-stride, Ellison stared at his small partner's back, his jaw slack with surprise. Then, he saw the reason for his Guide's concern.

"Brown!" Ellison pointed in the direction of the bushes with one hand while the other freed the ever-present handcuffs from their hiding place. "It's Rafe! He's hurt!" He didn't need heightened senses to tell him that much; unfortunately, he couldn't concentrate enough to determine how badly.

Henri Brown rode his bike up to the building and jumped off before the engine had stopped. The stillness of his partner frightened him, as did Sandburg's actions. He watched as the grad student knelt beside Rafe and gently cradled his head while he appeared to be searching for wounds.

"Rafe, com'on man. Don't do this to me. You gotta wake up here, okay? We got the bad guys -- you and me. We did it. It's gonna be okay now. The cavalry's here: Jim and H."

"Blair," Brown interrupted the young man's running monologue, "What happened to him?"

Moist eyes focused on the senior detective, and Sandburg swallowed past a growing lump forming in his throat. "Poisoned, I think." A restless hand waved helplessly in the air, then continued to pluck gently at Rafe's clothes, feeling for blood. "I'm pretty sure, anyway. He's been getting worse."

"Damn!" Brown turned to Ellison and stood up. "Jim "

"Medivac's on the way," Ellison called out, as he snapped shut his cell phone. Dragging a now subdued woman alongside him, he approached his friends. "Chief, think you can handle her? H and I need to get Rafe inside, out of this weather."

Silently, Sandburg nodded, then he gazed up into his Sentinel's light blue eyes. "Jim?"

It was an unasked litany of questions. How's his heartrate? What's his temperature? Will he make it?

Ellison glanced at his roommate. He knew they were the same questions Brown was asking in his own heart. Hell, they were the same questions he was asking himself. "I, uh, can do a better examination inside, but I was only a medic, remember, not a doctor." Before lifting the young detective, Ellison's gentle hands quickly felt the thready pulse and Sentinel senses registered the increase in temperature. Since Brown was not aware of his heightened senses, he had to add a qualifier to quell any suspicions. "I do know Rafe has a high fever, he's shocky, and his heartbeat's weak."

Brown sighed as he helped pick up his partner. It was not good. He'd never had to worry about Rafe before. This was a new feeling and he hated it. "Jim?" he asked his own litany.

"I really don't know any more, H. I wish I did, but it all depends on whatever poison she used." He glanced over at his Guide. For once, sporting only a few bruises that he'd gotten in the fight over the rifle with the woman. For once unhurt.

It was a relief to the entire Major Crimes Division when Detective Rafe was moved out of ICU and into a regular room. For the few precious minutes out of each hour when visitors were allowed, a different member of Major Crimes had sat with him. However, coordinating the number of personnel with the few time slots had tempers short, since Henri Brown and Blair Sandburg both thought they should be spending the most time by Rafe's bedside.

The first day of normal visiting hours had a parade of people marching in and out of room 416 and the nurses about ready to set up a medical roadblock.

Ellison and Sandburg strode into Rafe's room in the middle of the afternoon to find Captain Banks and Henri Brown already in residence.

"Hey, party time," Sandburg crowed happily, seeing all the smiling faces.

"How're you feeling today?" Ellison asked, handing the young detective a handful of magazines.

"A lot better, thanks," Rafe answered, smiling broadly as he examined the titles.

"I was just about to fill him in on the results of the case, gentlemen," Banks stated, eyeing Brown as he went into mother hen mode, straightening Rafe's pillows and carefully placing the magazines within arm's reach on a nearby table.

"Don't let us stop you, sir." Ellison automatically smoothed the wrinkled bedsheet by Rafe's legs.

"Yes, well " Banks tore his gaze away from the unconscious ministrations of the two detectives and spoke to everyone in the room as he punctuated his sentences with an unlit cigar. "It was just as Sandburg suspected -- the poison was in the Amaretto and the drug was in the wine. The people who didn't fit in the woman's perfect world were poisoned and dumped somewhere in the forest. Her friends she kept drugged to the gills. Forensics found three different hallucinogenics in the hotel and they're not through searching. We also found three shallow graves behind the garage containing young men who'd ODed and there's more sites we haven't dug up yet."

Both Rafe and Sandburg shuddered. A reaction that did not go unnoticed by the Sentinel. Automatically, Ellison stepped back to stand protectively by his Guide.

"The doctors think that a few of the young men who were still alive in the hotel will make a full recovery," Banks continued. "Unfortunately, most will have some kind of permanent damage. It all depends on how long they'd been imprisoned."

"Who is she?" Rafe's voice sounded strangely weak, even to his own ears.

Banks shook his head. "She's been totally unresponsive ever since you boys brought her in. She just sits and stares. We haven't gotten a match on her fingerprints as of this morning, either. For now, she's Jane Doe."

"What about the Captain?" Sandburg asked.

"Fingerprints and dental have gone international." Banks shrugged. "Interpol has gotten into the act. Somehow, I get the impression that they're just happy to find out he'd died. I don't think we'll be getting a lot of information from them." He turned to his youngest detective, still barely showing color against the whiteness of the sheets, and smiled. "One of those papers you pulled out of the drawer was a list of names. It'll be real helpful in identifying the bodies. It's an up-to-date list because both yours and Sandburg's names were on it -- in different columns."

"Oh, man," Sandburg paled and moved closer to his Sentinel. It would be a while before he stopped being haunted by visions of crazed butlers and demonic women who wanted him dead.

Rafe swallowed quickly and tried not to think of his own 'fate worse than death' that had been planned for him, when Brown gently laid a comfortingly hand on his shoulder. He looked up at his partner's smiling face, then over at Sandburg. "Blair, I didn't get a chance to thank you. The doctor told me that purging the poison so quickly after I'd swallowed it saved my life."

Sandburg shuffled uncomfortably at the praise. "Well, you were a little preoccupied with just breathing at the time and, anyway, you returned the favor. After all, if you hadn't shot that manic butler, he would've killed me for sure."

Ellison's blue eyes twinkled with mischief. He decided the two young men'd had enough gloom and doom for the day. He calculated a make believe tally on his fingers and in all seriousness announced, "Well, by my figuring, that makes Sandburg two for one, Rafe."

Confused, Rafe looked from Ellison to Sandburg. "You mean, I've still got Blair as my Blessed Protector?"

Smiling, Sandburg enthusiastically bounced. "Cool! I didn't know you studied Oriental philosophy."

"Fact is," Ellison continued, content that he'd started something, "After you shot the butler, your lady friend was about to shoot you when Sandburg tackled her like a fullback from the Los Angeles Rams."

"Oh no," Rafe fell back on his pillows. "I'm doomed!"

"I wouldn't worry about it, son," Captain Banks gently patted the young detective's shoulder. "I'm sure you'll have plenty of opportunities to even the score."

"Simon," Sandburg wailed, "That's so not fair."

"Don't call me Simon," Banks admonished, wagging an unlit cigar at him.

Ellison just smiled, folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall. It was going to be a good day.

* * * * * * finis * * * * * * *

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