Thank you to Angela and Cindy for their amazing help. Any lingering typos or tiny inconsistencies are my own fault. Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Aguas Caliente, the Quechua Indians and the Sendero Luminoso are all real; so is the embassy siege of December 1996. Feedback gratefully received & more fanfic available at www.sandramcdonald.com
Eliso Village West of Aguas Caliente, Peru December, 1996
Seventeen-year-old Arturo Vega struggled out of dreams of his dead father and dressed quietly in the stillness of his family's shack. The early morning sky, still dark, stretched overhead through a hole in the roof with no sign of stars. His mother lay curled up on her mat with his youngest siblings wedged beside her, the three of them breathing softly. Arturo put on his tight boots, slung his rifle knapsack over his shoulder and left as quietly as possible, waiting until he was on the narrow road before working the sleep-cramps out of his neck and shoulders.
Only three other boys met him outside the jail, two of them younger than Arturo. Aside from the rough old Sergeant, all the other rebels had gone down the mountain to raid a government ammunition post and make hostage demands. They were overdue in returning, and Arturo feared the worst. He also wished someone other than the Sergeant had stayed behind. Every day he threatened to shoot the prisoners, and once had gone so far as to line them up in the dry dust of the yard with their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolds over their faces. Arturo had watched from the sidelines, angry at the childish game, afraid the Sergeant might actually go through with his threat. Arturo had never seen a man killed, and had no desire to.
"You're late," the Sergeant said when they appeared in their ragged, pieced-together uniforms. His eyes looked red in the growing light of dawn, and he carried on him the stench of too much beer. He made them line up in the road for inspection and took a swipe at Jorge, knocking the cap from his head. "There's no discipline in any of you! No pride."
Shy, weak-minded Jorge didn't dare answer. Arturo thought privately that the Sergeant was the one lacking discipline and pride, but he didn't say anything either. The Sergeant complained for several more minutes. He rambled on about the boys' appalling military preparedness, growled about a fly caught in his ear, and finally sent Jorge and Carlos to retrieve breakfast for the prisoners.
Arturo and Emilio delivered the food, what little there was of it. As the tallest and strongest boys, they would be able to block any chance of escape. Not that any of the Americans were capable of getting far. The oldest of them, Professor Green, did nothing but sit in the corner all day. The religious one, Kinnon, prayed for hours on end and wept at night for his wife and children. Only Blair Sandburg, Arturo's favorite of the three, had perhaps enough courage to try to escape - but he'd been sick for several days now, and every day grew weaker.
"Breakfast!" Emilio called out as they entered the tiny jail, which had been built of mud and bamboo. Each of the Americans had his own tiny room behind a locked door with a gap at the bottom. Emilio banged on the wood, taking fiendish delight in waking the men from whatever rest they'd managed to find. He shoved food beneath the doors of Kinnon and the professor - thin yellowish gruel, shriveled beans, moldy bread. Arturo knelt beside Blair's door and eased the plate through, careful not to spill any.
"Blair?" he asked through the cracks in the thin wood. "Are you awake?"
"Hey," a weak voice said, followed by resounding coughs. "Arturo. How's it going?"
Of the three of the Americans, only Blair spoke Arturo's eastern dialect of Quechua mixed with Spanish. He didn't speak it well, but he at least made the attempt.
"Here's your breakfast," Arturo said. Breakfast, lunch, maybe even dinner, depending on the Sergeant's mood.
"Great," Blair replied. "Bacon, eggs, ham and waffles. Just what I ordered."
Arturo wondered if the American was delirious. He sounded ill and feverish. The Sergeant hadn't let them out of their cells for fresh air for three days, and the stench of waste burned Arturo's nose.
"Have you seen my friend?" Blair asked unexpectedly.
"Jim. He's coming for me."
The American was very definitely delirious. No one in the outside world knew the location of the prisoners. The nearest town, Aguas Caliente, lay fifty miles away. No single American, no matter how determined, could penetrate the dense Peruvian mountains and cross rebel lines to Arturo's village. He felt sad that Blair believed such a foolish notion.
"Blair, chew the leaves," he said in a low voice. "Do you hear me? They'll help. They're under the plate."
On a half-dozen occasions Arturo had managed to slip Blair some cocoa leaves, which suppressed hunger and pain and helped with stamina. He didn't know if Blair used them or not, but he felt marginally better each time he tried to help the friendly American.
"Come on," Emilio said, grabbing hold of Arturo's collar and lifting him to his feet. "We've got work to do."
"What work?" Arturo almost asked in annoyance, but he held back. The day would be like any other - dull, boring, hot. If they were very lucky, the Sergeant would fall into a drunken stupor for several hours, leaving the boys to their card games and shared dirty magazines. Sparing a quick, compassionate glance toward Blair's door, he followed Emilio out of the jail and into the growing pink of dawn.
The sun came up. Blair hated that. His cell had a small barred hole in the wall that faced east, and every new day - seventeen of them so far - reminded him that he was far, far from home. During the long, cold nights he was able to cling to the hope that Jim would rescue him. If he listened closely to the symphony of insects and night animals, he could almost hear twigs snapping beneath Jim's boots, a whole army of rescuers moving quietly through the jungle. But each new morning sent hope scurrying away like roaches, leaving him empty and depressed. At the beginning of their imprisonment he'd been able to keep up a positive attitude, but the sickness that had moved into his head and back and limbs ate at him every day until he was weak and listless and sure of his own impending death.
A cough worked out of his chest, disturbing his gloomy thoughts. He really wanted a glass of water - clean, fresh, delicious water. Blair eyed the grim-looking breakfast on the chipped blue plate and pushed it aside with a fumble of his hand. He knew Jim would tell him to eat, to keep up his strength, but Jim had left him to rot in the jungle and Blair was currently not on speaking terms with him.
"Oh, man," he breathed out, rubbing at his gritty eyes with a dirty hand. "I'm losing it."
Jim had not abandoned him - the Sentinel probably had no idea where the rebels had taken their hostage Americans. It certainly wasn't Jim's fault Blair had jumped at the opportunity to chaperone Rainier University undergraduates on a trip to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru. Neither could the Sentinel have predicted three of the group - Blair and two other faculty members - would be captured by Sendero Luminoso guerrillas. If his partner miraculously appeared Blair would be more than happy to talk to him - he would be ecstatic. He would pour out a thousand words of gratitude for rescue. If Jim thought he'd been verbose before... well, Jim would quickly learn just how talkative Blair could be, given a sympathetic friend and that nice glass of water.
A fly landed on Blair's nose. He brushed it aside in irritation. It settled on his leg. He swatted it but missed. Trying for it again seemed like too much of an effort to make. Blair let the insect stay in place. Where his body didn't ache, it itched from the layers of grime that had built up on his skin. Right after that glass of water - no, several gallons of fresh water - he wanted a hot shower and a bar of extra-strength soap. Plus something to deaden his killer headache. Some peppermint tea would be nice too... maybe Jim would bring it to him in his bedroom, so Blair wouldn't have to stir from his old futon mattress and comfortable sheets...
Blair might have drifted off for a few minutes, pulled down into rest by the comforting images. Faced with day after day of boredom, he'd tried dozens of mental tricks - remembering every college course he'd ever taken, the names of his instructors, even the numbers and locations of the classrooms; sifting through the hardest criminal cases he'd helped Jim solve, as well as the easiest ones; even trying to recall every book he'd ever read. In the latter category he'd counted as far as four hundred forty three before losing complete track, and he hadn't the heart to start all over again. He tried meditation, but the bottomless hunger in his aching stomach ruled out intense concentration. Far and away he found the most diversion and gained the greatest comfort from visualization - imagining himself back home in the loft.
Not just home, but home on The Most Perfect Day Ever. On The Most Perfect Day Ever, Blair wouldn't have any classes, any cases, no reason whatsoever to get up early. He would sleep in as late as he wanted and wake to thunderstorms. He supposed other people's perfect days had sunshine as a prerequisite, but he liked the opposite. Once, out in the Nevada desert when he'd been just a little kid, he'd wandered away from Naomi and the other adults on the ranch during a powerful storm. He stood out under the vast open sky, awed by the immense flashes of hot white and booms of answering thunder. The adults found him, drenched and shivering, an hour later. He had a cold for two weeks afterward, but the beauty of the storm had never left him.
Besides, rainy days provided ample justification not to go out, do errands, be busy. A lazy mode automatically kicked in and freed him from the urge to be out in the world. So on The Most Perfect Day Ever, he'd sleep late and wake to rain. Jim would already be cooking breakfast for him as he rolled out of bed. Bacon, eggs, waffles, ham, pancakes, potatoes, onion bagels, juice, coffee - anything he wanted. Jim would be in an exceptionally good mood. The newspaper would be as fat as the Sunday edition, and Blair would stretch out on the sofa to leisurely read every section he wanted. Jim would amuse himself cleaning out the fridge or doing pull-ups on the new bar he'd installed upstairs. When Blair decided to take a shower, there would be enough hot water to wash away a city; when he decided to put on his favorite pair of sweatpants, they'd be clean and soft, warm from just coming out of the dryer.
He and Jim might watch TV together, arguing amiably over the merits of "Die Hard" versus "My Life As A Dog." Maybe play Scrabble - Blair always won, and he enjoyed his victories immensely. Or, better yet, they would just kick back, watch raindrops slide down the glass of the patio doors and talk about all things Sentinel. Jim would confide in Blair all of the little secrets he still held back about his senses. He would talk about what it meant to be not just a Sentinel but a cop, too, and how his experiences had uniquely shaped him for both jobs. He would hold nothing back. And Blair would listen, rapt, warmed by Jim's trust, grateful and awed for the confidence Jim showed in him.
Blair had no definite end for The Most Perfect Day Ever. Sometimes the guys from the office came over to play poker - Simon with his bad poker face, Rafe with a few tricks up his sleeve, Brown with a quick grin whenever he had a winning hand. Sometimes Jim would leave the loft and Cindy Crawford would come over, feed him dinner, and jump into his bed. More often than not, the images faded with the late afternoon dimness, a six- pack of beer and great conversation, but Blair figured that was because he didn't want the day to end at all. Who would?
Something crawled over his bare left foot, bringing him back to dazed wakefulness. Blair shook his leg and a large spider scurried off. He tried to sink back into images but the stench of urine and waste burned up his nose and into his chest. Chills shook him, which seemed ludicrous given the heat this time of day. What time was it, anyway? Eight a.m.? Ten? He wanted his watch back. His watch, his boots, his friends, his freedom, his life. "Wherever you are, Jim Ellison," he mumbled, in his hot and rank cell, "hurry up, okay?"
"I think we should move out now."
"No," Eddie said, laying his hand on Jim's shoulder. "It's too dangerous now that it's light. We're going to have to wait until nightfall." Jim Ellison cut off the urge to growl at his friend as they lay in the deep brush. Their private chopper had been horribly delayed leaving Cuzco, and the sun had come up before they reached the drop-off point five miles south of the village. The early morning raid had been ruined before it even began. But they'd been too close to Blair for Jim to cancel all plans. Plan B had been invoked - drop off the would-be rescuers, come back for them two hours after sunset.
Every bit of training he'd ever had as an Army Ranger told him Eddie Kubbitz was right. A raid in full daylight, against who knew how many guerrilla soldiers, could only end badly. Better to wait until nightfall. Jim's instincts, though, screamed at him to go rescue Blair immediately. It had been seventeen days since his Guide's disappearance - seventeen days of impatience, nightmares, false leads, bureaucratic quagmires, and dashed hopes. Jim had been in Cascade when the news came. He caught the next plane out to Lima. Six days after his arrival, a group of Tupac Amuru rebels seized the Japanese embassy and took over a hundred ambassadors and guests hostage. The world press and Peruvian government had turned their attention to the embassy siege, with no resources to spare for the captive trio of university scientists.
"Talk to us, Jimmy," Mike Muller said from where he crouched beyond Eddie's shoulder. Their camouflage clothing and paint blended with the foliage almost perfectly. Both men had been in the Rangers with Jim. City-born Eddie had left the military for a successful career as a mercenary. Mike, sick of the U.S. government, had married and settled down on a mountainside ranch on the Bolivian side of the Andes. Both men had come to Jim's aid when called, helping him in his quest for Blair and his fellow hostages.
Jim pushed down his instinctive side. "We wait," he agreed in a low voice, and the three men settled in the thick plants and grass for a long wait through the day.
The sun climbed up higher in the sky, bringing more heat and light to scorch down on them. So much for the rainy season. Jim dialed down his sense of sight to block the rays from his sensitive eyes. The thin air, stretched at an altitude of over ten thousand feet, made his chest itch. The sounds of a million insects gnawed on his nerves, kept tolerable only by the memory of Blair's voice telling him to focus, concentrate, ignore the extra stuff. Jim focused his hearing on the village a half-mile away. He easily picked up the sounds of women talking, a few children playing. Not many men's voices came to him, and those that did sounded old and faltering.
The rumors he'd chased down through a maze of ex-soldiers, government spies, drunken reporters and greedy prostitutes had led, finally, to a remote band of guerrillas west of the slopes of the Urubamba Gorge. He had called in old markers from men like Mike and Eddie, and financed supplies and equipment out of his own bank account when the money Rainier University clandestinely gave him ran out. If his information was false, if this rescue effort failed, he had nothing else to fall back on. Blair would remain lost to him, another victim of senseless violence in Peru.
Jim sank deeper into concentration, careful not to zone out. No young men in the village. He stretched his hearing further, past the village. There. A faint scrap of a voice. An answer to it. Too far to make out the individual words, but voices nonetheless. The guerrilla camp, another half-mile north of the village. At least his intelligence data had been correct. Jim wondered how to brief that information to Eddie and Michael without betraying his Sentinel abilities.
He'd had little sleep in the last few days while trying to pull together the weapons, ammunition, chopper, fuel, food, bribes and medical supplies they needed to launch the rescue. Determined to be at his best when the time for action came, Jim allowed himself to fall into a very light doze. He remained aware of sound, of the burning sun, of the sweat pooling between his shoulderblades, but his conscious thoughts drifted off into a gray area of random images and disjointed ideas.
A picture of Blair as he'd last seen him at the Cascade Airport floated into his mind. The younger man had been practically bouncing up and down with excitement as Jim walked him to his gate. He claimed it was an honor to be invited at the last minute to Machu Picchu. Jim thought that not inviting Blair in the first place was some kind of Rainier University snub, and once a professor had canceled they'd turned to a second choice.
Although he knew anthropologists by their very nature visited odd corners of the world, Jim didn't like the idea of Blair wandering around the Andes without him. Peru held too many mixed memories, and he had very valid concerns about any American's safety in that South American country.
"I remember," Blair had said when Jim reminded him of Peru's terrorism, crime, human rights violations, drug trafficking and political unrest. "It's not the safest place in the world. I found that out the last time, when we went to rescue Simon and Daryl. But hell, Jim, you can get hit by a bus crossing Piccadilly Circus. You can get shot by hijackers on a Mediterranean cruise ship. Need I even begin to list the dangers here in beautiful, scenic Cascade?"
Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Maybe I can get some time off and go- "
Blair shook his head. "Absolutely not. Jim, it's only a ten-day trip. I'll be back before you even know I'm gone. Just don't eat all the Christmas candy without me."
At the airport, Jim hadn't been able to quell his worries about the trip. When the boarding announcement came he said, "Remember to call when you get there. Above everything else, be careful."
"Yes, Mom," Blair grinned, his overstuffed backpack sliding down his shoulder, unruly hair falling into his eyes.
Blair did, in fact, call from the hotel in Lima. The connection had been bad, with static and other voices bleeding into the line. He sounded tired but excited. Then, on December 14, just two days before the Rainier University group was due to return, an Associated Press reporter ambushed Jim on the steps of the police precinct to ask him about the three Rainier staff members taken hostage in Peru.
Jim had dodged the reporter, confirmed the report, and made his plane reservation with a chunk of ice in his chest. Even in the heat of the jungle that ice remained lodged between his ribs and lungs, and he knew it wouldn't melt away until Blair was safe at home again.
Just what is it with this damned country, anyway? he wondered, and blinked his eyes open.
The sun hung higher in the sky, radiating intense heat. Eddie and Michael hadn't moved from beside him, and each kept a watchful eye on the surrounding jungle. Jim sipped sparingly at his water. Not too much - he wanted to save what he had for Blair, and he didn't plan on any bathroom breaks until sunset. He lifted his head a fraction of an inch and tried to focus again on the settlement beyond the village. The mild breeze had shifted in his favor. He caught clearer intonations, a few stray words in the native dialect. Nothing, though, that would lead him to his partner. He focused on his sense of smell and picked out gun oil, ammunition, human waste, spoiled food.
Too many smells. His nose twisted in revolt. Jim sucked in a deep breath, trying to cleanse his sinus passages.
"What is it?" Eddie asked.
Jim shook his head fractionally. Guerrilla groups carried guns, of course. He hadn't expected anything less. But the smell of gunpowder stayed in his head like a warning signal, and his worry over his partner doubled.
Just hold on, Chief, Jim thought, again and again. Hold tight and don't let go. Help is on the way.
Hours had passed since the sun had risen. Blair couldn't begin to guess how many. At some point he'd curled up in the dirt, hoping to find some comfort that way, but his whole body seemed intent on revolting against him. Shivers worked up and down his spine, jarring him with their ferocity. His head swam. He wanted to throw up, but he had nothing in his stomach to expel. Dehydration and illness made him weak, unable to concentrate, unable to hold on to any thought for more than a few seconds.
Should have stayed in Cascade, a little voice said.
Should have stayed with Jim.
Want to go home.
Wish Cindy Crawford was here.
Loud voices cut through the door behind him. Blair thought he recognized Arturo's. He liked Arturo. The kid had brains. He was still young, unwise to the ways of the world, a child carrying a gun. But he'd been kind toward Blair and seemed eager to learn more about the world outside the rain forest, to maybe move into it someday.
The cell door opened. Blair blinked up at Arturo's face. He couldn't decipher the expression on it. Behind him, another boy brandished a gun.
"Up, up," the second boy ordered. "Out to the yard."
Blair's stomach lurched wildly at the thought of standing up, but the sight of the gun persuaded him to try. He rolled to his side and tried to get his legs beneath him. The slightest effort wiped out the last of his energy. He sagged back toward the dirt. The second boy hit him in the arm, then grabbed it roughly and yanked upward with a twisting strength that nearly snapped the bone.
"No faking! I know you're not sick."
Blair's vision grayed. The boy's fierce grip sent pain radiating down to his fingers and up to his shoulder. He fell toward unconsciousness but didn't make it all the way. Hands pulled at him, dragged him through the dirt. He couldn't lift his head. His body had gained at least a thousand pounds. Thrown down against something hard, he tried to rest, but burning light and heavy boots and angry voices sent fear pounding into his chest.
He squinted up at his fellow hostages, the boy-soldiers, and the drunken man Arturo referred to as the Sergeant. The sunlit jungle spun in circles around him. He wondered if he had malaria. The possibility seemed remote, unreal, trivial.
"You're all too much trouble," the Sergeant said, lifting his rifle.
The muzzle of the weapon, a tiny black hole, expanded swiftly into a field of darkness. Blair thought he saw Jim, thought he saw his mother - then the sharp crack of dislodging bullet rang as clear and loud as thunder, and he fell away from all awareness.
The afternoon had gone badly, in Arturo's opinion. After his afternoon doze, the Sergeant had rounded himself up another bottle of liquor. Alternately buoyant and depressed, ranting with spittle on his chin, reeking of urine and alcohol, the man had finally started arguing with invisible spirits. The voices in his head told him to kill the Americans. He hefted his gun and ordered Arturo and the others to drag the prisoners outside.
"It's time we held an execution," the Sergeant growled.
Arturo knew that wasn't the plan. Their leader, the Sergeant's brother, had been specific in his instructions when he left. Keep the Americans captive but unharmed.
"Maybe we should keep them alive," he suggested timidly, and was rewarded with a cuff to the head.
"I'm in charge!" the Sergeant yelled. "Bring them out here. They're too much trouble to keep alive anymore."
Emilio obeyed instantly, his face betraying a quick flash of delight. Even when they'd been children, he'd delighted in kicking dogs and throwing rocks at birds. Jorge and Carlos looked at Arturo, their faces pale in the late afternoon light. He had no answers for their silent questions, no orders to countermand the Sergeant. His stomach twisted into knots.
"Let's drink some more beer," Arturo suggested to the Sergeant. "I'm sure there's another bottle around here somewhere."
The Sergeant waved him off. "I have a job to do."
"Roberto wanted them alive," Arturo said. "Remember?"
"Roberto is not here," the Sergeant said sharply. He waved the rifle in mid-air, not exactly aiming at Arturo but not avoiding him either. "I'm in charge. Get the prisoners."
Arturo hoped that this was another bluff, like the one before. With a heavy heart and cold hands he followed Emilio. He wedged Blair's door open and found the friendly American curled on the ground, too sick to immediately comprehend what was going on.
"Up, up," Emilio ordered from behind Arturo. "Out to the yard."
Blair tried, but obviously he had no strength. Emilio grabbed him and hauled him upward, berating him for pretending to be sick.
"He is sick," Arturo insisted, but Emilio either didn't hear him or didn't care.
They got all three Americans outside and pushed them up against the wall of the shack. Kinnon crossed himself and began to pray fervently in English. Professor Green said nothing, but lifted his chin defiantly and kept one hand on the top of Blair's shoulder. Blair, too weak to stand, sat trembling against the Professor's leg, barely conscious. His eyes looked wide and terrified in the clearing light.
Arturo tried one more time to distract the Sergeant from his goal. "Aren't you hungry? It's almost dinnertime."
The Sergeant ignored him. "You're all too much trouble," he said to the Americans.
He lifted his rifle and fired.
Arturo closed his eyes.
The explosion of gunshot and shell thundered through the forest as metal ripped into wood. Arturo opened his eyes and saw a neat hole in the shack a few inches above Professor Green's head. The elderly American looked terrified, but he hadn't moved. Blair, slumped against his leg, had fainted.
"Missed," the Sergeant burped. "Let me try again."
The next shot went off toward the sky but prompted Kinnon to let out a high cry and bolt into the forest. The Sergeant swung his rifle and fired again, but the bullet went wild. A fourth shot jammed the rusty weapon.
"Get him!" the Sergeant yelled, and Emilio immediately started after their escaping prisoner. Carlos and Jorge followed. Arturo took the opportunity to slip the rifle from the Sergeant's grip.
"This is broken," he said. "Let me fix it for you."
The Sergeant rubbed his runny nose against his sleeve. "I have to piss," he announced, and without a backward look went stumbling into the bushes.
Arturo gingerly handled the rifle, afraid of a sudden discharge. He felt a gaze boring into the back of his skull and turned his head to see Professor Green watching him intently. The American said something in English, but Arturo didn't understand the question and felt a sudden, irrational anger toward the captives for being so much trouble in the first place.
"Get back inside," he said roughly. A small part of him considered letting them run into the rain forest and attempt their own escape, but Blair wouldn't last very long and Green didn't look like he knew the first thing about how to survive in the wilderness. Besides, Arturo had no intention of bringing the Sergeant's wrath down on him or his family.
"Inside!" Arturo ordered, motioning for Green to get Blair back into the shack. The professor finally understood. He hooked his arms under his sick companion's shoulders and half-carried, half-dragged him inside the shack. Arturo followed with a drawn pistol and locked both of them in the same cell, too weary to go the trouble of separating them.
He went outside. The Sergeant had not yet returned. The shouts of boys and a few rifle shots told Arturo that Emilio and the others had caught up with Kinnon. Shaken by the events of the afternoon, Arturo settled down in the dirt beside the jammed rifle and wondered how much longer the madness would go on.
Even without his Sentinel hearing, Jim picked out the sound of gunfire an hour or so before sunset. He jerked from his half-doze, his fingers automatically reached for his gun. Eddie and Mike heard the shots as well.
"Maybe it's just target practice," Eddie said.
"But who's the target?" Jim demanded, rising from the tall grass.
"Jim!" Mike exclaimed, reaching for him, but Jim had already started zigzagging north. His legs protested the sudden exertion after so many hours of inactivity, but he pushed the pins-and- needles sensation aside. The gunfire had triggered a deep, nearly primal response in him - Blair in danger, go save Blair. He couldn't have stopped himself from running toward the guerrilla camp even if he tried.
Only dimly aware of Eddie and Mike following him - and painfully aware of the foolishness of breaking cover in open daylight - Jim kept his course true toward the north. Running through the thick vegetation of the forest reminded him of his time with the Chopec - the rush of adrenaline in his blood, the thundering of his heart, the clear impulse of his instincts. For a moment the years blurred, tumbling him back to the eighteen-month period he'd spent stranded in a high mountain pass on the other side of the Andes.
No, he thought savagely, pushing the memories aside. This is 1996. There are no Chopec here. Find Blair and get the hell out of here.
Jim found it hard to weave through the tangled rain forest with Mike and Eddie on his heels and still keep his hearing wide open. The effort was rewarded with a jumble of teenage voices jabbering in the local dialect. He understood only part of it, but it sounded like the boys were chasing someone. Scattered gunshot echoes hammered against his eardrums, giving him the start of a killer headache, but he dialed the pain down and concentrated on the guerrilla camp ahead.
The reddish-gold sun had slipped into the trees when he held up his hand and made Eddie and Mike stop. Through the brush he could see a cluster of shacks, a campfire pit, a small clearing. The boys had caught their prey and dragged him back to captivity. Jim had never met Dave Kinnon, but he'd seen his picture in the papers and vaguely recalled seeing him once or twice on the Rainier campus. The anthropologist stood with his hands tied behind his back, bleeding from a gash on the forehead, looking weepy and filthy and at the edge of a nervous collapse. "If you're going to kill me, go ahead and kill me!" he yelled in English, the words carrying through the trees.
A guerrilla in his late fifties or early sixties slapped the man. Four teenage boys stood in a circle and watched the spectacle, one with a smile on his face and the other three as silent as stones.
"That man is drunk," Jim said, able to pick out the reek of alcohol from a hundred feet away.
"How do you know?" Eddie whispered.
Mike shook his head. "Forget that. How many more of them do you think there are?"
Jim picked out two heartbeats from the shack, one faster than the other, along with the smell of sickness and filth and other assorted foul odors. He had his hearing and vision stretched in all directions, risking a zone-out but unable to risk going in without all pertinent information. "None," he said decisively. "Let's go."
"Wait a minute -" Eddie said.
"Trust me!" Jim snapped. Every nerve in his neck and along his spine vibrated with the nearness of Blair. He felt like a walking magnet pulled to an irresistible source. "Let's go."
The drunken Sergeant had started to raise his pistol when Jim stepped into the camp and snapped, in the local language. "Put your weapon down!"
The Sergeant whirled. His gun discharged immediately, sending a shot toward the trees. At the very last split-second Jim shifted his sight from shooting the man in the chest to shooting over his head.
"I said drop it!" Jim shouted.
The appearance of Eddie and Mike on the other side of the small camp helped persuade the ragtag group of guerrillas to obey. The boys dropped to the dirt. The old man cursed and wept and curled into a ball on the ground. Jim stayed only long enough to watch Mike and Eddie check them for weapons.
"Thank you," Kinnon kept saying, over and over. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. You're American, right?"
"We're not Peruvian," Mike said.
Eddie spat in the dust. "An old man and four kids. For this we baked all day in the sun? It's almost an insult."
Jim tore the door from the shack. He only meant to open it, but it felt like cardboard in his grip and parted easily from the frame. A godawful stench hit him like a kick to the sinuses, and he shut his sense of smell off completely. Door number one - nothing. Door number two - nothing. Door number three - oh, God, Blair.
He stood frozen for a moment, shocked to the core at the sight of Blair's thin, dirty body cradled in Professor Green's lap. His partner looked awful. He looked worse than awful. The young anthropologist trembled and shook with sickness, and heat poured in waves from the taut skin, and beneath a scraggly beard and bruised face he seemed gone, so very far away, so helpless and hurt and ill-
"Detective Ellison?" Professor Green asked, his voice steady but high.
Jim blinked at him.
"Elias Green," the old man said. "We met at a faculty dinner once."
The words "faculty dinner" made no sense to Jim. He dropped to his knees and touched Blair's forehead, his chest, his bite-infected arms, the bony knob of his left hip beneath thin khaki trousers.
"I'm very happy to see you," Green said, continuing on as if making polite cocktail talk. "Blair will be, too."
Blair had no obvious injuries - no bleeding wounds, no bones sticking out of skin, no awkwardly hanging limbs. But his eyes had a sunken look to them, his skin had lost most of its elasticity, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to diagnose dehydration as one huge problem. Jim cupped his partner's face and looked up to meet Professor Green's tired gaze.
"He's been sick for several days," Green confirmed sadly. "But he's a fighter. Blair's always been a fighter."
Jim slipped his canteen from his hip and dashed some water against a rag. He saw Professor Green's yearning look and gave the elderly professor the water. Jim pressed the wet cloth against Blair's forehead and neck, and his partner stirred weakly in the dim light. Blue eyes opened fractionally, mere slits.
Jim's blood surged in his veins. "Blair? Wake up. Come on, Chief, open your eyes."
The order must have been hard to understand or follow, because Blair took so very long to obey. Jim continued to cool his cheeks and cracked lips and the hollow of his throat. He pressed a corner of the cloth into Blair's mouth, and his partner licked at it weakly while staring at Jim with squinting, glassy eyes.
"How is he?" Eddie asked from behind Jim. Jim hadn't even heard him approach.
"Sick," Jim said tersely.
Blair's right hand rose shakily, and his dirty fingers fumbled for the edge of Jim's camouflage jacket. He gripped it with the strength of a baby. Jim asked, "Ready for some real water, Chief?" and got a slight nod as an answer.
"Help him up a little bit," Jim said to Green, and the professor lifted Blair's torso as much as he could. Jim held the canteen to his Guide's mouth and watched him sip once, twice, three times. Blair tried to turn his head away, obviously exhausted from the effort. Jim cajoled him into swallowing a few more times. When Blair slumped back, too weary to continue, Jim gave him a cursory examination and spied a rash on his chest.
"That's typhus for you," Eddie said. "Rash, fever, chills. Probably got a killer headache too. He's going to need more than just water."
The mercenary stripped open the extensive first aid pack they'd brought with them. Out came three foiled containers that looked like something NASA might use. "Oral rehydration juice - all gunk a body needs. Water, salt, sugar, potassium, you name it. We've got some tetracycline in here, too - let me dig it out."
Professor Green accepted one gratefully. Jim jammed a straw through the side of another and urged Blair to drink. The alternative to the juice was a large bore IV, and although they had the saline, Jim wanted to get back to the helicopter pick-up point before more guerrillas appeared. He could always transfuse Blair in the air. Blair made a face at the taste of the juice, but at Jim's urging drank as much as he could. Jim heard Blair's stomach twist and cramp, and he put his hand on his Guide's forehead.
"You're not going to throw up, Chief," Jim said firmly. "Deep breaths. In and out. You're the expert on breathing, aren't you?"
The corner of Blair's mouth turned up, a ghost of an almost-smile. He closed his eyes and shivered so hard that Professor Green almost lost hold of him. Jim gently disengaged Blair's grip on his jacket and shrugged out of it, converting it into a blanket for his Guide. Eddie handed over an antibiotic tablet and, once the pill went down, asked, "Is he going to be able to walk out of here, or do you want me to build the litter?" He'd brought just such an item, two screw-together rods with a nylon slipcover.
"I'll carry him," Jim said, without pausing for thought.
"Walk," Blair protested, the first word he'd managed to utter. His eyes opened and he focused on Jim. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself," Jim said. He offered the best smile he could. "How you feeling?"
"Horrible. No more... field trips."
"I might actually hold you to that promise, Junior," Jim said. Just hearing Blair's weak, strained voice made him feel watery with relief. "Any pain anywhere?"
Blair shook his head slightly. His gaze shifted to Green, who still held him. "How you doing, Elias?"
Green actually laughed. "I'm fine, Blair. You smell bad, though."
Jim didn't want to mention it, but even with his sense of smell dialed down, his sinuses burned like acid. He imagined neither of them smelled very good. "Let's get you two some fresh air, how's that sound?"
Green walked out on his own. Jim was prepared to carry Blair, but the younger man managed to walk with his arms slung over Jim and Eddie's shoulders. Sunset had come, shading the rain forest into gloom. Mike had tied up the prisoners and stood watch over them. Green and Kinnon sat on rocks, sucking on the rehydration juice and devouring nutrition bars. Jim and Eddie eased Blair to the ground, leaving him half-leaning against Jim.
"See if you can find their passports," Jim told Eddie. "Blair's glasses, too, and anything else that might be around."
"How far do we have to go?" Blair asked, clutching at Jim's green T-shirt. Still very ill, he obviously had no intention of letting Jim out of his reach. Jim didn't mind at all. After weeks of walking around like a half-person, he felt whole again.
"Not very far," Jim reassured him. He helped Blair slip his arms into the jacket and buttoned it up for his partner. "You want to try eating something?"
Blair shook his head. "More to drink?" he asked hopefully.
"Can do," Jim said, and he found another one of the juice packets. Just as he held it up for Blair to drink, a far-distant sound triggered his sense of hearing. He turned his head west, concentrating on the source, fear prickling up his spine.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
"We're going to have company," Jim said softly. Men, at least a half dozen of them, all wearing boots and making no effort to conceal their approach. More guerrillas. Only a mile or so away. He looked down at Blair and saw the fear written in his Guide's expression, heard the increase in his respiration.
"Don't you worry, Chief," Jim said with more confidence than he felt. "We're going to be just fine."
Blair tried desperately to hold onto his scattering thoughts. Despite the stuff Jim had made him drink, the pills he'd swallowed, he still felt horrible. Simultaneously hot and cold all over, wracked with stomach spasms, his own pulse a hammer against the inside of his skull, he feared he was dying. Hanging over Jim's shoulder and being jostled up and down dozens of times a minute didn't help much, either.
He could barely see in the darkness, and had no idea how far they had yet to go, but in just a few more seconds he was going to vomit like he'd never vomited before.
"Jim," he groaned, "we gotta stop."
Jim patted his leg. "Just a little further, Chief. We're almost there."
The reassurance didn't help one little bit. Blair felt himself begin to heave. The world turned upside down, a strong arm cradled his head, a gentle voice in his ear, choking pain as what little left in his stomach came up through his nose and mouth. He glimpsed Jim's grease-painted face just a few inches from his own, and tried to turn away in embarrassment.
"It's all right, Chief," Jim said, holding him still. "We can rest for a moment."
By moonlight and starlight Blair could see the infrared goggles hanging uselessly around Jim's neck. Green and Kinnon stood nearby, obviously exhausted, their own limited stamina already stretched to the maximum. Blair felt bad that he was getting all the attention, when they had suffered through the same ordeal for the same amount of time. Dave Kinnon had a wife and two sons, after all.
Jim, who perhaps counted as Blair's family, pressed something wet against his forehead and gave him some water to sip. "Easy, easy," he urged.
Blair reached for Jim's shirt. He needed the contact to prove this wasn't some crazy dream of rescue. "What about the kid?"
"Arturo... " Blair coughed. "One of the rebels."
He had seen Arturo lying on the ground with the other boys. Jim and his friends hadn't killed them. Or had they? His recent memory was spotty, and he couldn't really be sure of anything. Arturo had been kind to him over the previous weeks, though, and Blair appreciated even the small kindnesses.
"We left them all behind," Jim replied. "But their friends are back, and hot on our heels. Dave and Mike are trying to lead them off. You ready to travel some more?"
Blair felt absolutely unready, and wanted nothing more than to die exactly where he was. But he couldn't tell Jim that. He managed a nod, and Jim carefully hefted him up over his shoulder. The ground dangled just a few feet from Blair's head, and he squeezed his eyes shut against a wave of dizziness.
He might have blacked out, because the next thing he knew he was in Jim's lap again. They had stopped, but he didn't know where. The full moon hung heavy over the trees, making it easier for the enemy to spot them. It looked so pretty, though, that Blair couldn't be mad at it. He couldn't be mad at anything anymore - not the moon, nor the guerrillas, or even the illness that had reduced him to such weakness. The silvery light felt like a cool ocean wave, sweeping him up and over himself, tumbling on the waves, far at sea. Only his fingers, anchored in Jim's shirt, kept him linked to land.
"You with me, Chief?" Jim asked, his voice echoing in the depths.
Blair smiled. Jim had come for him. Across the world and into the mountains, all for him. His faith had been justified. The Most Perfect Day Ever had changed shape and description, but it had come for him, too.
Jim's concerned expression turned inexplicably angry. "Don't smile like that, Chief," he said sharply. "You stay with me, you hear?"
A wind kicked up along the sea floor, rippling all the dark plants from their tops to their stems. Blair heard a thumping sound, the call of some immense approaching creature. Gunfire rattled in his ears and threatened to drown him with a sudden flood of fear. Instead of drowning he clung to Jim's warmth and sank into the murky depths and succumbed, finally, to the inky darkness that had been waiting for him all along.
Jim kept Green and Kinnon hustling toward the rendezvous site while he carried Blair's semi-conscious form over his shoulder. He knew the two men were tired and weak. They couldn't see as well as he could in the darkness. They had no reason to believe this mess would end happily. At the same time, though, he wished they would just hurry the hell up. Progress through the trees and foliage was slow, though, and Jim let them take a break when Blair vomited. The young anthropologist's fever and chills hadn't abated in the slightest, and Jim didn't like the too-fast beat of his heart.
"Where are we going?" Kinnon whined. "Are you sure this is the way?"
"Quiet," Jim warned. In a low voice he said, "Yes, this is the way."
He tracked Dave and Eddie, who had gone off to distract the guerrillas by putting down a false track. By the time he reached the meadow, though, Jim knew they hadn't been successful. A dozen men were converging from the north, and they reeked of gunpowder.
Mike and Eddie appeared in the brush, each breathing heavily in the oxygen-scarce air. "The chopper is due any minute," Mike said.
Jim gently put Blair down in the grass. "It better be on time," he said curtly. "They're gaining on us."
Eddie shook his head. "No, we lost 'em."
"Just trust me on this," Jim said. Blair stirred in his lap, and he turned his attention toward his partner. He looked ghastly in the moonlight, and the shaking in his fingers as he clutched Jim's shirt was unmistakable.
"Hang on, Blair," Jim said. No response. "You with me, Chief?"
Blair smiled at him. Jim had seen smiles like that before, on cops and soldiers and cancer patients, on people who had seen the mystery on the other side of life and were ready to travel that way unimpeded.
Panic struck him in the chest like a fist. "Don't smile like that, Chief! You stay with me, you hear?"
Blair's eyes closed. The smile fell away. Jim couldn't hear his partner's pulse anymore. The loud beat-beat-beat of the chopper blades overwhelmed him. When had that arrived? He pulled Blair to his chest, trying to feel his body warmth and respiration, but before he could be certain of anything, Mike's hand was on his shoulder.
"Get onboard!" he shouted. "Go, go, go!"
Jim gathered Blair in his arms and dashed to the helicopter's open side door. He pushed Blair's limp body inside and climbed up after him. Green and Kinnon followed him as Eddie laid down a covering round of ammunition. Mike pulled a grenade from his hip, yanked the safety pin and sent the explosive sailing in the air. The concussion of the blast hit Jim like a warm breeze, and fire lit up the eastern edge of the meadow.
Eddie jumped on board, Mike at his heels, both of them shouting for the pilot to lift off. The chopper rose sharply, tilted, recovered. Jim wrapped his arm around a safety belt and locked another belt around Blair. Kinnon and Green held each other, terrified. Mike hung out the side door, firing a last round at the guerrillas, while Eddie climbed into the co-pilot's seat.
The helicopter climbed steadily into the sky.
"We did it!" Mike yelled ebulliently. "Say sayonora and hasta la vista!"
Jim peered over the helicopter's edge. He could see scattered bodies below, some felled by bullet holes, others by the grenade blast. A large patch of grass burned merrily, a red-orange bonfire. He rolled back into the chopper, allowing himself a very brief moment of relief. They had done it. They had pulled it off. Someone's warm body pressed up against his side, and he lifted his head to see Blair blinking at him in the dark.
"Hey," Blair responded. It wasn't much, just a syllable, but the vise locked around Jim's heart lessened just a bit.
Jim had only one bad moment after that, when the chopper cleared the hills west of Cuzco and began to descend toward the airport. Explosions lit up the far edge of the sky and bright lights seared Jim's eyes. He threw himself instinctively over Blair, an effort to protect him from bullets or shrapnel. His partner squeaked under the sudden weight.
"They're shooting at us with missiles!" Kinnon yelled.
"Those ain't missiles, they're fireworks," Eddie called back. "Happy New Year, boys."
The Catholics nuns of St. Teresa's order saved them both. Their small hospital, just down the street from Cuzco's Plaza de Armas, was not the most well-known medical institution in Peru. In Jim's opinion, though, it had to be the cleanest, nicest and most discreet. Sister Aline, the ward nurse for the second floor, fussed over Blair as if he was her own son. Sister Tomasina, tall and solemn, sat with him late at night during the two weeks his typhus ran its course. Sister Carolina made him cookies and brownies. The sisters adopted Jim as well, making sure he ate hot meals and didn't spend every waking minute in the hospital.
"Fresh air for you," Sister Benedict would say, shooing him out the door. Although only five-foot-two, she was more persuasive than even the burliest orderlies back in Cascade. "Go to the market. Go see the cathedral."
Jim stayed in a small hotel directly across from the hospital. His room had a huge bed, tiled floors and a small balcony. It only cost him seventeen dollars a day, and the best part about it was that he could hear Blair across the narrow street. Each night he anchored himself to his Guide's soft snores before he went to sleep. The hotel had a restaurant, and the giggling twin daughters of the chef had made their infatuation with him well known. If they hadn't been only fourteen years old, he might well have been tempted.
Every morning he ate a breakfast of strong coffee, eggs and ham. At nine o'clock he would walk across the street and visit Blair. Depending on his Guide's mood - a sick Blair was a somewhat petulant Blair, and his ordeal had left him prone to mood swings - Jim would either read to him from the "International Herald" or recount new details from his daily trips around the city. Sister Tomasina dug up a well-worn backgammon set from the children's ward, which Blair would play only half-heartedly. Until Jim unearthed a pile of old "Reader's Digests" in the back of a bookstore, nothing held the young anthropologist's attention for long. The magazines smelled mildewy and dated from the late 1970's, but at least they were in English.
As his health improved, the sisters found it hard to keep Blair resting in bed. One morning Jim found his partner down in the children's ward, entertaining Quechua Indian toddlers with sock puppets. Jim stood in the back of the room and watched. Blair still looked thin and tired, but his eyes held a spark that had been missing for too long.
"Punch and Judy, man," Blair said as Jim took him back to bed. "They're universal."
"Whatever you say, Chief." Jim dropped in the chair next to Blair's bed and stretched out his long legs. "I talked to Simon last night. He said the crime rate in Cascade has skyrocketed since we left and we'd better get our lazy butts back soon."
"Nice to be missed," Blair grumbled. He groped on his bedside stand, nearly knocking his glasses aside, and came up with an airmail envelope. "Look - Elias got all my students to sign a get- well card."
Professor Green and Dave Kinnon had returned to the States just twenty-four hours after their rescue. The students who'd been with them on the ill-fated trip to Machu Picchu met them at the airport with balloons and posters. Eddie had hired on to guard some Middle East sheik and zoomed off on a jet plane. Mike was back in Brazil, herding sheep and raising babies. The last remaining chapter of the book was getting Blair back safely to Cascade, and Jim had already booked their flight for Sunday morning.
"Mr. Jim!" Sister Carolina said in her sing-sing voice. All the nuns called him 'Mr. Jim' for some reason. "How are you today?"
"I'm fine, thank you. Tell me, do you need more sheets or blankets?"
Blair's hospital care only cost twenty-five dollars a day. In gratitude for the sisters' care and their diligence in shielding Blair from reporters, Jim had spent a few hundred dollars of his own money on new blankets, sheets and pillows that the hospital desperately needed.
Sister Carolina's warm hand squeezed Jim's shoulder. "You have been more than generous already."
Jim doubted that. Cotton and wool couldn't begin to express his gratitude for how well the nuns had taken care of Blair and him during the previous two weeks. After the nun moved on, Jim found Blair staring at him, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"What's up, Chief?"
Blair said, "Have I told you that you've been really great about all this? You didn't want me to come here in the first place, as I recall."
"That's true," Jim said. "But it wasn't your fault you got kidnapped by terrorists."
"What's that?" Jim asked, leaning forward. "You're not blaming yourself in that warped, feverish mind of yours, are you?"
"My fever's all gone," Blair protested.
"And the blaming?"
Blair shifted his gaze past Jim to the nuns helping an elderly man down the aisle. The breeze sucked at the curtains over the large arched windows, and a ceiling fan rotated noisily from its spot on the ceiling. A woman visiting a man three beds away burst into sudden tears, and Sister Carolina went to comfort her.
"Squarely on the shoulders of the men who did it," Blair finally said. "Not my fault. I just wish things had worked out differently, you know?"
"I know. And I wish so, too. I wish you'd never been locked up like that, Chief - that you'd never gotten sick - that this last month was anything but a huge bad memory for you."
Blair blinked several times. "Yeah, well," he said hoarsely, picking at the lint on his blanket, "me too. But you know - I still would like to visit Machu Picchu in depth some day."
Jim rolled his eyes.
"No, really," Blair insisted. "Did you know Hiram Bingham found it by accident - "
"Sandburg," Jim interrupted, "let's get you safely out of Peru before we start talking about you ever coming back."
Blair blinked. "Okay," he said, with a small smile. His fingers plucked more lint from the blanket. "But when I come back, I'd like to check on Arturo. You remember? I told you about him. He was a pretty good kid."
"Anyone who helps my partner sounds like a pretty good kid," Jim agreed. He didn't tell Blair what the anthropologist already knew. The poverty, illness and violence throughout Peru could lead to a very short lifespan for many, and Arturo had hooked up with some dangerous people. Still, Jim wished him luck. The kid would need it.
Blair leaned back on his pillows, and the conversation lapsed into companionable silence. Jim knew that once they returned to Cascade, Blair might be more willing to talk about what had happened to him. Right now the memories were too raw, too close. Although Jim didn't look forward to the long plane flights home, the fierce urge to be back in the loft made his breastbone ache. Blair's bad memories weren't the only ones that needed to be exorcised.
"Did I tell you that when you were delirious you kept rambling about Cindy Crawford and Scrabble?"
Blair's gaze narrowed. "You're lying."
Jim held up his hand. "Swear to God."
"Oh." Blair curled up comfortably on his side. Sunlight through the windows framed a warm yellow patch on his legs. "That was a game I kept playing in my head to keep from going nuts. 'The Most Perfect Day Ever.'"
"Supermodels and board games, huh? That all?"
Blair grinned. "No. There was lots of beer, too. Chicken wings in fiery hot sauce. My Ph.D. hanging on the wall, and a grunge band playing in the corner - you know, one of the bands you hate - and did I mention Cindy brought some friends, too? We're talking supermodels with no clothes on, Jim."
Jim leaned back in his chair. "Sounds pretty good so far, Chief. Tell me more."
An explosion in his ears, over and over again. He screamed at the pain ripping through his body and struggled as a heavy weight, the Sergeant's dead body, slammed into him and pinned him to the ground. The earth opened up and tried to swallow him-
"Arturo!" His mother's voice, sharp in his ears. "Wake up!"
Arutro Vega woke with a start. Sweat drenched his body, his clothes and the putrid bandages around the stump of his right arm. His younger brothers and sisters stared at him from the corner, huddled against the wild thrashes that had driven them from the mat. Rain pounded on the roof of their hut, a steady throbbing beat in synch with the pounding in his head.
"It was a dream," his mother soothed. "Just a dream."
No, it was not just a dream. In a dream he would still have his arm. He had followed the Americans to the meadow because it was his duty, because Roberto and the others expected him to, because he secretly wanted to see Blair and his friends escape. He hadn't even fired on the helicopter or its men. In return for his kindnesses he'd been maimed for the rest of his life.
"Drink this," his mother said, holding a cup to his mouth.
He shoved it aside. The water splashed to the ground. His younger sister began to cry.
"Leave me alone," Arturo said. Agony lanced through his heart and up his phantom arm. He turned away from them bitterly, consumed with pain.
He was seventeen years old. He would never cup a woman's breasts with both hands, never cradle his own child. His future in the poor hinterlands of Peru had been dismal enough when he could accomplish the same amount of daily labor as any other man in the village. He had thrown his fortune in with the Sendero Luminoso not out of any real choice in the matter, but from the desperate need to feed his mother and siblings. The guerillas continued to count him as one of their own, but what he saw in their eyes was pity, not respect. What he could expect from them was meager charity, the scraps no one else wanted, the tasks any child could perform.
The Americans had done this to him. Blair Sandburg's friends. When Arturo closed his eyes, day or night, he could still see the white-hot explosion of the grenade, the fire in the meadow. He hadn't agreed with the taking of hostages in the first place, but was their rescue worth the death of three men and the loss of Arturo's right arm?
At night, when pain kept him awake and bitterness soured his stomach, he would stare up at the thatched roof and think the answer had to be no.
And one day, if he ever met Blair Sandburg again, he would ask him the very same question.
Back to The Loft