Acknowledgments: Many thanks go to debraC and Keerah for betaing this puppy for me, and to the Lurkers for their encouragement.
"Blair Sandburg's office."
"Yeah, it's all been taken care of."
"Not that I doubt you, man, but--"
"Backup, home, personal and network, even checked all of his email accounts."
"Thank God. Thank God. Thank God."
"I personally guarantee that it doesn't exist anymore, anywhere."
"Did you look--?"
"No. I won't say I wasn't tempted, but we didn't. Everything is irretrievably destroyed."
"Man, I owe you. I owe you everything. Anything you want, man, name it and it's yours."
"No friggin' way."
"Beej, I've waited ten years, ten long years, a friggin' decade, to pay you back. As far as I'm concerned, I still owe you one."
"Nonsense. I was only--"
"You want to know the other reason I still owe you, and will, no doubt, continue to owe you for the rest of my natural life?"
"The rest of your life? Bobby, what are you talking about? All I did was tell the truth."
"And that, baby brother, is exactly why... because you don't expect anything."
"I expected you to fix this."
"Why the sigh, partner? You came to your big brother for help. I would've been upset if you hadn't have come to me."
"I just didn't know where else to turn, Bobby. You're the only one I could trust with this."
"See, that's why I love you, because you're the only one on the face of the planet who sees me and not Francisco Panetti's little boy."
"Aw, Bobby, is it getting bad again?"
"Naw, no worse than usual."
"You need a vacation."
"Don't I know it."
"Hey, why don't you come out to Cascade? I know this sweet little fishing spot where the trout practically jump in the boat begging to be cooked."
"Yeah. Look, after this fiasco, I need a break. Why don't you come out say... at the end of the month and we'll spend a week roughing it."
"How rough is rough?"
"You're such a city boy."
"Well, we can't all be globetrotting anthropologists, you know? C'mon, give. You wouldn't make me sleep in a tent, would you?"
"It would build character."
"Bite me, Beej."
"Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. I have a professor who's offered to let me use his cabin for a week."
"Now that's more like it. How isolated is this place?"
"Boonies, man. I'm telling you, not a living soul for miles."
"I like the sound of that. When did you say you wanted to do this?"
"I'm thinking around June 1st. That'll give me enough time to finish grading the final projects and post my grades."
"What about your roomie?"
"Jim? What about him?"
"Is he going to mind my coming out?"
"I don't see why he should."
"I love you, kid."
"You're such a goof. Anyway, as soon as school is--"
"Are you ever going to get out of school, Beej?"
"Why, you offering a job?"
"Would you take one if I did?"
"What in the heck would you do with a cultural anthropologist?"
"Who the hell knows? But if you ever need a job, you see me. I mean it, Beej. We're family and family looks out for each other."
"I know, bro, and that means a lot to me... but... I've sort of put down roots here."
"I know. Ain't that a kick?"
"So what are you going to do after you publish?"
"Well, I'd love to get a job teaching, you know, do the occasional expedition, get hired on at least part-time, as a consultant to the PD out here."
"Naomi must be livid."
"Well, after her little stunt..."
"I hear you, bro. But still... the cops. Wow! Are you two going to be okay?"
"I don't know. She took off... again. Big surprise there. But this time, she didn't even say goodbye. But in all fairness, I don't know if I'm ready to accept her apologies just yet. She just never listens to me, ya know?"
"I'm sorry, who were you talking to again?"
"Aw, Bobby. I'm sorry. Of course, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Is it getting any better between you two?"
"We have our moments. He's mellowing some."
"No, but I keep hoping by telling myself that, it'll eventually happen. What was it you called that thing?"
"You're so weird."
"Weird? Weird! For that, bro, expect a dunking."
"You gotta catch me first. So does that mean you're coming out?"
"Yeah, I think I will. Let me rearrange my schedule a little and I'll get back to you."
"All right. I'm telling you, Bobby, you won't regret it."
"As long as I'm not sleeping on the ground with the bears, I think this may be just what I need. You gonna do that trout dish again?"
"Only if you catch a trout, city boy."
"That sounds like a challenge."
"It is. What's more, I'm upping it to a double dog dare."
"A double dog dare, huh?"
"You man enough to face it, Bob-by, or are ya yel-low?"
"Oh, man, that takes me back. All right, punk. You supply the poles and I'll catch the biggest damn trout you've ever laid eyes on."
"I don't know, Bobby. I've seen some pretty big trout."
"Well, they won't be nothing compared to what I'll be pulling out of the stream!"
"We'll see, man. We'll see. Call me as soon as you got the details. I'm basically good to go anytime you get here. Do you mind if I invite Jim? I don't know if he can get the time off, but...."
"Sure. I don't mind. I want to meet the man who's been keeping you out of trouble."
"What do you mean me out of trouble?"
"Beej, I read the papers."
"Well... well... it's all circumstantial."
"That's what Pop's been saying for years."
"You're killing me here, Bobby."
"By the way, the old man asks after you from time to time."
"You made quite an impression on him."
"Yeah, but does he still blame me for setting your feet on the path?"
"Of course, but that's why he's impressed. Hell, once about a year ago, he actually said if he had met you when he was younger--"
"You're shitting me?"
"I shit you not."
"That's what I said."
"There may be hope for him yet."
"To choose another path. No. But to wish me well on mine? Maybe."
"Okay. Well I gotta go. People to see, enemies to whack."
"Oh, shit. We're being recorded, aren't we?"
"Probably. They've wired everything I own."
"You just gave them a reason to keep doing it, you know?"
"Yeah, well, it amuses me."
"You're so evil, man."
"Picture it: you, me, your roomie, an isolated cabin in the wilderness, with a half-dozen Feds in the woods trying to fend off bears."
"I'm not going to laugh."
"Yeah, well, I'm not going to encourage you."
"Hey, seriously, I won't get you in trouble with that comment, will I? You working for the white hats and all?"
"I mean, it's one thing for me to play with them, but I'd never..."
"Bobby, relax. We're good."
"It's just... you mean so much to me, kid."
"I know. Right back at ya."
"Anything you need. Anytime. Anywhere."
"I appreciate that; but, right now, the only thing I need is you in Cascade, entertaining me with your pathetic attempts at fishing."
"Okay, boy-o, now you're asking for it."
"God, I feel like I'm fifteen. How do you do that?"
"Make me forget about all my troubles."
"Yeah, kid, that must be it. Okay. I gotta go."
"You're going to make me hang up, aren't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'm hanging up now."
"So hang up."
"Say goodbye, Beej."
"I knew you were going to say that."
"Yeah? So did I."
"Bye, Bobby. "
"So, detective," Agent Gerald Raney said in tone bordering on condescending as he snapped the tape recorder off, "do you have any idea with whom your roommate was speaking?" The agent made the word 'roommate' sound like the most disgusting word he could possibly utter.
Jim took a deep breath and released it, trying not to let his temper flare. "Well, from listening to the tape, I'd have to say Bobby Panetti."
"Do you have any idea who Bobby Panetti is?" Agent Raney asked, leaning forward and placing his elbows on Simon's conference table.
"Do you mean do I have any idea of who he is to Sandburg or who he is to you?"
"No, you look, Raney," Simon butted in, his voice overriding the agent's. "You're obviously on a fishing expedition. Fine. We have no problem answering your questions; but you'll get more cooperation if you ask in a civil tone."
"My apologies, Captain," the agent said, clearly not liking to have to make the apology, but apparently realizing he didn't have much choice. "Detective?"
"My understanding is that Bobby Panetti was almost Sandburg's brother. Bobby's father and Naomi were together for almost a year. When Naomi left Panetti she went to New Mexico to experience Navajo spiritualism. I think Blair was about eleven during his time in New York."
"Do you have any idea who Bobby Panetti is?" the agent asked in a calmer tone of voice.
Jim stretched his neck, sighing briefly when the bones popped. "No. Other than your tape tells me he's the son of Francisco Panetti."
"Francisco Panetti is one of the biggest crime bosses in New York."
"Never heard of him."
"It's because he's good. We've never been able to pin anything substantial on him."
"Okay, so what's that got to do with Sandburg?"
The agent frowned. "Surely, you aren't that naive, detective."
"What exactly are you looking for, Raney?" Jim asked, rubbing his eyebrows with one hand.
"I want to know what favor your roommate asked Bobby Panetti to do for him."
"Are you implying it was illegal?" Jim asked, frowning.
The agent sank back in his chair and shrugged nonchalantly. "You tell me."
Jim opened his mouth to speak, but shut it again without saying a word.
"Look, detective," Raney said, leaning forward in his chair again. "Ten years ago, Blair Sandburg visited Roberto Panetti while he was at Harvard. During this same time period, Francisco Panetti was having a turf war with Vincent Roselli. One of Roselli's men was whacked while on the Harvard campus. There were no other Panetti men on campus, which means Roberto Panetti had to have been the one to take out daddy's competition. However, your Mr. Sandburg gave Panetti an airtight alibi, one that couldn't be shaken."
"Are you saying Sandburg lied to protect Panetti?"
"I understand your Mr. Sandburg isn't beyond telling a white lie when the mood arises."
"Just what are you trying so hard not to say, Raney?" Jim growled.
"I'm going to lay all my cards on the table, detective. Five days ago, Blair Sandburg contacted Roberto Panetti and called in a favor, the nature of which we aren't clear about. Apparently, there was some sort of malfunction with our equipment, although it was probably sabotage as the line cleared up immediately after the call. Four days ago, Panetti and six of his 'associates' visited Sid Graham at Berkshire Publishing. After two hours in Graham's office they were given complete and total control of the company's computer network. When they were done, Panetti and his men escorted Graham to his home."
"Was Graham injured?" Jim asked quietly.
"No, and he refuses to talk about what transpired between them. Even the threat of jail time couldn't get him to crack." Raney pulled the small tape recorder closer to him. "Three days ago, this phone call was placed."
Simon leaned forward in his chair. "You never answered Detective Ellison's question. Are you saying that Sandburg asked Panetti to do something illegal?"
The agent shrugged. "We don't know, but we want to find out."
"What was the second thing he did?" Jim asked into the silence that had descended.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Panetti said there was another thing for which he owed Sandburg."
The agent waved his hand dismissively. "Apparently, he helped Roberto pass a summer statistics course. If he hadn't passed, he would have gone home in disgrace to daddy and believe me, you don't want to disappoint Francisco Panetti."
Jim leaned forward in his chair and rubbed both hands over his face. "I'm not going to grill my partner, Raney."
"I'm not asking you too. Just keep your eyes and ears open," Raney said with ingratiating smoothness.
"And report the findings back to you?"
"If he has nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about."
Jim gritted his teeth, but Simon laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "We'll get back to you if we have anything to report," the captain said in a voice that clearly dismissed the agent.
Raney looked unhappy as he gathered his micro-cassette player, but stood and nodded to each of them. "Gentlemen." He moved to the door. "You have my numbers if you need to get a hold of me."
Jim exploded out of his chair as soon as Raney closed the door, and paced back and forth along side the conference table. Simon was wise enough to remain silent while Jim wrestled with his demons.
Finally, Jim stopped and faced his captain. "Sandburg wouldn't lie about a murder."
"I know, Jim," Simon said softly. "Remember the tape. He said all he did was tell the truth."
Jim nodded and walked over to the Captain's window and stared down at the city below.
Simon leaned back in his chair. "So what happened five days ago?"
"I'm not sure. Naomi was here on one of her out-of-the-blue visits. Blair left her at the loft and joined me at the rally." Jim began pacing again. "He got a call here at the station later in the evening. Remember? Rafe came and pulled him out of the meeting."
Simon nodded. "I remember. He looked kind of pale afterward."
"When we went home, he wanted to talk to Naomi so I turned down my dials."
"I was listening to some music with the headphones on when I became aware of them shouting at each other."
"Well, Sandburg was yelling," Jim said, coming to an abrupt stop, realizing the implications of his statement. "Naomi was in tears, apologizing; she kept saying how sorry she was. Sandburg was angry, saying she had gone too far this time," Jim said each word slowly, trying to reconstruct the scene in his head. "Finally, he stormed out of the loft. While he was gone, she gathered her things, gave me a kiss and left. Sandburg didn't come back until almost midnight."
"Did you ask him about it?" Simon asked, leaning forward slightly.
"I was going to, but we got called in to protect Barkley. Ever since we caught Zeller at the rally, Sandburg's been spending every waking moment at the university working on some project. I haven't seen much of him for the last two days."
"Have he and Naomi fought before?"
Jim shook his head and walked back to the table. "Not that I'm aware of."
"Could Naomi have done something bad enough that Sandburg thought he had to bring in the mob to straighten it out?"
Jim flopped back into his chair. "I suppose it's possible. But what could she have done to upset him that much? Sandburg's always been a pretty easy going guy."
"Obviously, it was big enough that Blair felt like he needed to pull out the big guns to fix it. And from the tape, it sounds like it had something to do with computers with all that talk about backup, email and such."
Jim nodded in agreement.
"Can you prod him... gently?" Simon asked, raising his hand as his detective opened his mouth to protest. "You sometimes have a heavy hand where the kid is concerned. I'm just saying, he's not a suspect, there's no reason to interrogate him."
"I'll see what I can do," Jim said as he stood. "I'll let you know, sir."
Jim sniffed the air appreciatively as he ascended the steps to the loft. Steak? And shrimp?
He unlocked the door, dropped his keys in the wicker basket and looked over into the kitchen. Blair was dancing in front of the island, putting the finishing touches on a salad.
"What's the celebration, Chief?"
Blair looked up, startled, then gave Jim a brilliant grin which practically burned the sentinel with its intensity. "I'm done."
"Well, not completely done, I mean, I still have to turn it in and defend it and everything, but it's completely and finally done!" Blair carried the salad bowls to the already set table.
"Your thesis?" Jim asked, uncertain how he should feel about the news.
"You got it. Tonight, we celebrate! Then while I'm doing the dishes, you can start reading it. I figure you can start telling me how brilliant I am around nine tonight." Blair closed the distance between them and guided Jim to the table. "Start on your salad, man. I'll be right back."
Jim blinked at the greens before him as he sat down. Sandburg had finished his thesis. What did that mean?
Blair was singing quietly under his breath when he came back with the beef and shrimp. "Hey, you're not eating." He frowned as he put the plate on the table. "What's up with that? I expect you to dig in. I mean, this meal set me back a pretty penny, let me tell you."
"You finished your thesis today?"
Blair sat in his seat and began to attack his salad with gusto. "No, actually, I finished it about two weeks ago. I've just been revising it, tweaking it, that sort of thing. Anyway, I'm dying for you to read it."
"Why didn't you tell me before?" Jim asked quietly.
Blair looked up in surprise. "What? That I was working on my thesis? You're kidding, right?"
Jim dropped his gaze to his salad bowl, pushing aside some spinach leaves, but not preparing to take a bite.
"What's going on, Jim?"
Jim shook his head and shrugged a little as he raised his gaze to meet his roommate's. "I just wasn't expecting you to be done so soon."
"So soon? Jim, I've been riding with you for over three years. My dissertation committee has been screaming for results for the last year. This hasn't been a sudden sequence of events."
"I know." Jim closed his eyes remembering the scathing words of Sandburg's first chapter. Fear-based responses. Lack of intimacy. Each observation driving a stake further into his heart.
"I thought... I thought you'd be happy for me," Blair said quietly, breaking through Jim's chaotic emotions.
"I am, Chief. I am. I guess... I wish you had given me some warning though. It's a hell of a thing to be hit with, first thing, when you come home from a long day of work."
"I wanted it to be a surprise."
"Oh, it was a surprise all right," Jim snapped.
Blair sighed. "Can we fight after we eat? I mean, this meal set me back a bit. I was sort of hoping to enjoy it."
"What do you mean 'set you back'? Hell, Chief, you have more money than my old man."
Blair blinked, a profound look of sadness sweeping over his face. He pushed the salad back and stood. He moved into the front room, picked up a notebook and walked back to the table and placed it beside Jim before he left the loft.
Jim closed his eyes, his hands ghosting over the three-ringed binder that held his fate. He should have had some warning, shouldn't he? Time to prepare? Time to steel himself for the unblinking look into his soul?
Sighing, he flipped the cover open.
It was a little after seven in the morning when Blair dropped his keys into the wicker basket. The lights in the loft were off and Blair thanked whatever gods watched over wayward anthropologists. He didn't think he had the energy for a confrontation with Jim. He was exhausted. At first, he had raged at all the injustices of the world, and more specifically, the abuse he had taken from his roommate for the last three years. But then, he quit feeling sorry for himself and tried to examine his announcement from Jim's point of view. If he were honest with himself, and despite what others might think about him he was always honest with himself, Blair realized that surprising Jim with his finished thesis might not have been the smartest move.
"You missed the nine o'clock tribute to your brilliance," a voice said from the darkness of the loft.
Blair closed his eyes and leaned back against the door. He heard a click and was aware of a light flicking on beyond his eyelids. He opened his eyes and looked at Jim who was sitting in the stuffed chair by the couch.
"It was fascinating reading."
"Thanks," Blair said quietly.
"You really have a way of taking raw empirical data and translating it into interesting reading."
Blair continued his deep breathing, knowing the storm was just about to reach the shore.
"Of course, I was a little surprised by the topic."
"I can imagine."
"I thought it was impossible to get a dissertation subject changed."
"Not impossible, but close," Blair responded quietly; opening his eyes, pushing himself off the door and moving into the kitchen. Despite the hour, if this conversation was going to continue, he was going to need a beer.
"How'd you manage to swing it?"
Blair opened the door and pulled out a cold bottle. He lifted one up and cocked an eyebrow at Jim, but the sentinel shook his head. Blair shut the door, even as he twisted off the lid. "Well, being murdered by one of your research subjects goes a long way in convincing a committee that it might be practical to switch topics."
"Jesus, Sandburg," Jim whispered harshly.
Blair took a long swallow of beer. "Look, once upon a time, I told you that I had enough research material for ten dissertations. That wasn't too far off base. After discussing certain ramifications of my original research, my committee granted me the change."
"But what about--?"
"I take it you haven't been upstairs."
Jim looked slightly confused. "No. Not since I've been home."
"Ah." Blair took another swallow of beer.
"Now what happens?" Jim asked, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
"Now, I defend the thesis. Well, not now, but in about two months."
Blair swallowed hard. "I don't know, Jim. I was hoping we might be able to discuss it."
"You want to get a job teaching? Maybe go on occasional expedition? Get hired on as a consultant at the PD?"
Blair frowned at him. "Yeah, all those sound pretty good."
"And what about us?"
"What about us?"
"Where do we go from here?"
Blair blinked in sudden understanding. "I'm not leaving you, Jim. I'm your guide."
"You should have talked to me about this," Jim said, pointing to the notebook on the coffee table.
"Your work was about us, Sandburg. Shouldn't we have made the decision together?"
Blair gently set his bottle on the kitchen counter. "No, Jim. Our work was about us. The thesis was about me. Just as deciding whether or not to accept your sentinel senses was about you, not us. Look, we've both known since Brackett that sharing the sentinel information with the public wasn't a good idea. I kept thinking I could find a way to protect you, to somehow make you anonymous, but I was only lying to myself."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying it's too dangerous to tell people who you are. If the information somehow got leaked... the consequences... the consequences would be too awful to bear."
"What aren't you telling me, Sandburg?" Jim cocked his head, then pushed himself out of the chair. "Your heart rate just went through the roof."
Blair shook his head, picked up the bottle and finished the contents in one long swallow. When he was done, he turned and rinsed out the bottle before placing it in the recycling container. He turned back toward Jim, but stopped when he saw the look of horror on his friend's face.
"Don't worry," Blair said quietly, heading for his room, but Jim blocked his path. "I've taken care of it."
Jim let out a shuddering breath. "What did Naomi do?"
Blair spun around. "What do you mean 'what did Naomi do'?"
"I'm not an idiot, Sandburg," Jim said, grabbing Blair's upper arms. "Something happened last week. You got a call at the precinct and lost all color. You practically raced home, only to have a fight with your mother, a fight which had her leaving here in tears."
"Let go, Jim."
"Not until you tell me what happened."
Blair took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then looked Jim in the eyes. "While I finished my dissertation a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to finish my sentinel one as well, as a gift to you. Naomi came in just as I finished printing the last couple of pages."
Jim released him and staggered back a few steps. "And?"
"She thought it was my thesis. I didn't want to get into it with her because you had just called asking for my help at the rally."
"She emailed it to a friend of hers. She thought I was being self-depreciating and wanted to give me some ego strokes, so she sent it to a publisher for a critique."
Jim's hand unconsciously rose to cover his heart. "The phone call."
Blair looked away and whispered, "Was Sid. He wanted to publish my sentinel thesis. But, Jim," he said quietly, as his sentinel turned and staggered to the dining room table. "Don't worry. I've taken care of everything. All the copies have been destroyed and Sid will never say another word about it."
"That's why you sent Roberto Panetti to Berkshire Publishing."
"How did you know about that?" Blair asked, turning toward his friend.
"You sent the mob after your thesis?"
"Bobby's not part of the mob! He can't help who his father is." Blair ran both hands back through his hair. "If he hadn't gone in and gotten everything, your name would've already been splashed across every newspaper in Cascade."
"So instead of the public knowing about my abilities, only the mob knows. That's great. That's just great," Jim shouted.
"Bobby didn't open the files. He just destroyed them. He destroyed everything that had anything to do with my thesis," Blair shouted back.
"How do you know? How in the hell do you know that?" Jim asked, shoving himself to his feet and closing the distance between them.
"Because I trust him," the student said quietly. "He's family."
"He's family? Is there something you're not telling me, Sandburg?"
"No," Blair said, slipping past Jim and moving into the front room.
"Are you some kind of west coast mole for the Panetti family?"
"What?" Blair shouted. "How in the hell can you ask me something like that? Bobby is like an older brother to me. He's always looked after me. Bobby said he destroyed everything and I believe him."
"Well, excuse me, if I don't. Why in the hell didn't you tell me about this?"
"Because I knew you would freak out, man. I mean, shit, look at you, at how you're reacting now."
"I thought we were partners," Jim said quietly.
"We are," Blair said softly, his heart dropping to his stomach.
"No, we're not. Partners trust each other. I've got to have a partner I can trust."
"Jim, you can trust me," Blair said, hating the pleading tone in his voice.
"Was my name in your thesis?"
"Yes, of course, it was. I told you that. I hadn't figured out a way to take it out without invalidating the results, which is why I wrote an alternative thesis."
Jim walked toward him. "And it was on your laptop, with no encryption code or password? Just sitting there so your mother could read it?"
"Mom didn't read it, Jim. She just emailed it to Sid."
"Is that suppose to make me feel better, Beej?"
Blair's gaze shot to Jim's face. "Don't you dare run an interrogation on me. I'm not some punk you can grill. I told you I've taken care of everything. There's no trace of my sentinel thesis anywhere, except up in your room." Blair pointed toward Jim's bedroom. "I've destroyed everything else. Your secret's safe. Don't you get that, man? No one's ever going to find out."
Jim closed his eyes. "I've got to get to work."
"Later, Sandburg." And with that, he was gone.
"So, you think this Bobby took a look at Blair's thesis before he destroyed it?" Simon asked, steepling his fingers in front of his face and resting his elbows on the desk.
"Wouldn't you, sir?" Jim asked, pacing in front of his captain's desk.
Simon sighed. "I'd like to think I wouldn't. I don't know. He seemed pretty sincere on the tape."
"What are we going to tell Raney?"
"Nothing." Simon lowered both hands to the desk. "We're not going to tell him a goddamn thing." Simon noticed the relieved slump to his detective's shoulders. "So what do you want to do about this, Jim?"
Jim stopped and released a deep breath. "I'd like to go back to the way things were before Sandburg, when I worked alone."
Simon sighed. "Aren't you overreacting a tad? We don't know that Panetti looked at the thesis. Have you talked to Blair about this?"
Jim raised his hands angrily, then let them drop. "It's not his call, Captain. This is my decision. Just as writing his dissertation on the department was his. Just as his not telling me what Naomi did was his. As far as I'm concerned, his ride is over. I want to go back to being a regular cop, you know? I'm sick and damn tired of this sentinel thing overshadowing everything I do. I just want out!"
Simon stood and walked around his desk. "Look, Jim. Right now, you're hurt and you're upset." He raised his hands to cut off the detective's protests. "I'm not saying you don't have a right to be. But let's not make any rash decisions, okay? The kid has been a valuable asset to you over the years. Don't just discard him without giving it some serious thought."
"Uh. Uh. Uh," Simon cut him off. "I've been elected to represent the Northwest in an interdepartmental conference in Chicago. I was thinking about taking Sandburg with me. I know he would've gotten a kick out of it, but now I think I'd like you to come instead."
"No, 'buts' about it. You both need some time away from each other. He can do his fishing thing with Panetti, and you can keep me from falling asleep and drooling all over myself during the seminars. No life-changing decisions will be made until everyone goes to their separate corners and cools off. Deal?"
"Deal?" Simon growled.
"Deal," Jim answered quietly.
Blair paced back and forth across the loft, trying to relax, but only managed to work himself up even more. How in the world had things gotten so out of control -- especially now when everything had been fixed?
Jim had gone to Chicago with Simon the day before. Blair felt guilty because a large part of him was glad for the peace. Not that there hadn't been silence for the week before Jim's departure, but this was a more restful quiet than the tentative detente he and Jim had struggled to achieve.
Blair kept replaying recent and past events in his head. Looking back, he decided, for Jim's safety, he probably should have left after Brackett had put everything together. It was just too easy to put the scattered pieces of his life together and come up with Jim as his holy grail. However, Jim had been so vulnerable at the time, had been so buffeted by his senses that Blair could've no more left him than he could have sawed off his own arm.
He should have destroyed his sentinel thesis immediately after Jim had read the first chapter. Blair knew then that Jim hadn't understood the scientific viewpoint, that he had seen the chapter as a breach of the trust between them. While they had achieved some level of normalcy after that, they had never been the same again. Alex had been able to play on their weaknesses; and he had been too blind to see her machinations, so excited at the thought of being able to use what he had learned from Jim to help another.
Getting the committee to agree to an alternate thesis, especially with the fallout over the Ventriss matter, had not been easy. So why had he continued with his original thesis? Because he truly wanted to gift it to Jim, to give him the background for the brief synopsis he had read, to help him understand that Blair didn't see Jim's self-perceived weaknesses as flaws, but as the impetus for why the sentinel acted and reacted to things the way he did.
He shook his head. Wasn't it ironic that now that everything was okay and Jim was completely safe, they had totally fallen apart?
Detach with love. Wasn't that what his mother always said? Maybe it was time to go. Jim had complete control of his senses now and had made it abundantly clear that he no longer needed a guide he couldn't trust.
Maybe it was for the best.
A knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts. He spun on his heels and opened the door, only to find himself totally engulfed in a bear hug.
"Bobby? What are you doing here? I thought you weren't coming until Sunday?" Blair laughed, returning the hug.
The big Italian released him, but reached out to steady him when he wobbled at the sudden lack of support. "I decided to play hooky."
"All right! Now I can show you the campus before our trip. Oh, and there's a restaurant you've got to try. I swear, Bobby, you'll think that Mama Casanov herself was cooking. Then we'll have to go to the Museum of Natural History, you wouldn't believe the exhibition they got down there at the moment. Oh, and the Lyric is doing a rendition of 'Gotterdammerung' from Wagner's 'The Ring of the Nibelungen'. And...."
Bobby threw his head back and laughed heartily. "BJ. Beej, take a breath."
Blair blushed. "I'm sorry, Bobby. I'm just so happy to see you." He threw his arms around the man he always thought of as a brother.
"Hey, squirt, what's going on?" Bobby asked softly, returning the hug.
But before he could answer, the phone rang. Blair quickly disengaged himself from his brother and answered.
"Blair, have you heard from Jim?" Joel Taggert asked from the other end of the line.
"No, but then again, I wasn't really expecting to hear from him either. Why?"
Silence answered him.
"What's going on, Joel?" he whispered, almost afraid to hear what his friend had to say.
"Turn on the news, Blair."
Blair carried the portable phone into the front room, picked up the remote control and pointed it at the television. He flipped the channel to CNN. A picture of a large hotel sat squarely in the center of the picture, the bottom right hand corner said 'Chicago'.
"To recap, a large group of terrorists have stormed the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. Their apparent goal, a law enforcement convention. While almost three hundred people escaped during the initial siege, it is believed there may still be over two hundred people still in the building. Just an hour ago, one of the terrorists gave a list of demands over the phone."
A graphic showing a telephone popped up, saying "Recorded earlier." "Our demands are simple, we want documentary proof of who shot Kennedy, we want to know where the government is hiding Elvis, we want to know where the sound stage for the Apollo moonwalks is located, we want a concert by Dakota Jones and we want the Japanese to admit they killed Amelia Earhart."
"No demand for money has been made, neither have there been any requests for transportation. Obviously, the demands are nonsensical, leaving officials to speculate as to the true reason behind the siege."
"Blair? Blair, are you there?" Joel asked softly through the phone line.
"Yeah, Joel, I'm here."
"I thought you should know."
"I have to get to Chicago," Blair mumbled, almost to himself.
"You can't do any good there, Blair. Stay where you are."
"You don't understand. I can help."
"Now listen to me, son. I know you and Jim have pulled off some pretty amazing rescues in the past, but there is nothing you can do by yourself."
"Nothing Blair Sandburg can do."
Joel hesitated for a moment. "That's right. Why don't you come down to the station, Blair. I don't want you home by yourself."
Blair blinked at the images dancing across television screen. "I'm not by myself, Joel. My brother is here."
Blair was no longer listening. He continued to stare at the television as he hung up the phone.
"What's going on, Beej?" Bobby asked quietly, closing the distance between them.
Blair pointed numbly at the television screen. "Jim's there. So is Simon."
"I... I gotta go to Chicago, Bobby."
"And just what do you think you can do in Chicago?"
Blair swallowed hard, turning to face the Italian. "I can help."
Bobby opened his mouth to protest, but stopped when he looked into Blair's face. "How?" he whispered.
"I know where Dakota Jones is."
"What do you mean 'you know where Dakota Jones is'?" Bobby Panetti asked softly. "Nobody knows where he is. He's like Hoffa -- gone in every way but name."
The gentle smile his brother graced him with made Bobby incredibly nervous. "Talk to me, Beej."
"Let me give you directions to Professor Harrell's cabin. There's no reason for you not to enjoy the cabin." Blair turned and opened a drawer, removing a pen and a piece of paper.
Bobby moved quickly to the young man's side and put his hand over his brother's wrist. "Talk to me," he pleaded in a whisper.
Blair gulped once, then looked toward the windows. "So how many agents actually followed you from New York?"
Bobby frowned, not sure where this ubiquitous line of questioning was going. "Two."
"Think they have directional mics?"
"Do you know the two following you?"
"Yeah, Wilson and Romano."
Bobby nodded. "They're respectful, unlike some of the agents I've dealt with over the years. I've looked into their records. They seem like good people... for Feds, that is."
Blair nodded quietly, then walked to the patio door and out onto the balcony. "Agent Wilson, Agent Romano, I know this is highly unusual, but I really need you to come up here for a few minutes."
Bobby frowned. "They're never going to come up. We're not even supposed to know they're down there."
Blair smiled at him. "They know that we know. They can continue their charade if they want, but if they come up here I'd be willing to let them know why I called you two weeks ago and how I messed up their phone lines."
"Blackmail is such an ugly word. I prefer to say that I'm willing to satisfy their curiosity."
"Maybe it's a good thing Naomi moved on when she did," Bobby said quietly. "I'm suddenly very frightened to think what would have happened if Pop ever got his hooks in you."
Blair blinked at him once, then ran his hands back through his hair. He pulled a strand in front of his face and smiled wistfully as he played with the tips.
Bobby was about to speak when a short rap on the front door resounded around the loft. "I'll be damned," he swore softly under his breath.
His brother grinned at him and waggled his eyebrows before he sobered and headed for the door. Bobby stood inches behind him. While he might not be active in the mob, he was going to give the agents the definite impression that no one messed around with his family.
"Agents Wilson and Romano, I presume?" Blair greeted politely as he opened the door to reveal two men impeccably dressed in tailor made dark suits.
The taller man sighed as he looked at the Italian behind Blair. "I don't suppose you want to share with us how you got our names?"
"I'm not sure you really want to know," Bobby said from behind him.
"You're probably right," the shorter man said with a smile. "Wilson," he said, holding out his hand.
Blair shook it and with his other hand waved them in.
Both men reluctantly stepped into the loft. The taller agent, Romano, had the same dark Italian features that Bobby had, except he had vibrant blue eyes, whereas Bobby's were more a jade green, and short hair, while Bobby wore his in a ponytail. Wilson, the smaller of the two, appeared to be average; average built, average weight, brown hair, brown eyes. Blair guessed that most people would be hard pressed to describe the agent as there was nothing extraordinary about his features, that is until they looked into his eyes. A sharp intelligence and humor peered back at him.
"Please, have a seat, gentlemen," Blair said quietly once both agents were inside. He lifted his hand and indicated the kitchen table.
The agents surveyed the loft before they did as requested.
Blair gently smacked his brother's forearm and indicated that he, too, should take a seat at the table.
"I appreciate you two coming up here," Blair said quietly, sitting in the chair opposite Romano.
"Well, I must admit, you've intrigued us," Romano said, shrugging his shoulders noncommittally.
"Okay, my end of the deal first," Blair said quietly, but found himself silenced by a large hand pressed over his. He looked up and blinked at his brother.
"No. We'll hold off on that for the moment. First, we'll tell them about the university."
"Bobby, that's old history."
"No, they want the truth and they can have it. I'm tired of playing games and if we end up needing their help, I want all our cards on the table," the green-eyed Italian said quietly.
Neither agent spoke, but Blair could practically feel the tension thrum through the loft.
"I'm going to start back at the beginning..." his brother started.
"Bobby, we don't have time-"
"Hush," Bobby said gently, cutting off his protest. "This won't take long." The Mafioso heir looked at the two agents and smiled. "When I was fifteen, my father came home one day and told me he had met the most amazing woman and that she and her son would be moving into our home. I was understandably upset as my mother had been dead for less than a year, but Pop wasn't asking for permission. He was telling me the way it was going to be. You know how he is."
The other three men at the table nodded.
"So I decided that while I might not be able to stop him from bringing these interlopers in, I could make her boy's life hell and maybe force this tramp right back out the door." Bobby paused. "However, I couldn't find the little home invader."
Blair snorted in amusement beside him.
"Pissed me the hell off, let me tell you. It took me... what... two weeks to find you?"
Blair grinned at his brother. "Twelve days."
"It probably would've been longer than that, except you fell asleep in the big chair in the library." He smiled at the younger man, then looked back at the agents. "I won't bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say, one look at the sleeping curly haired waif and my heart was stolen. I finally had someone to protect, someone who looked up to me, someone who wasn't impressed or intimidated by who my father was." Bobby reached across the corner of the table and playfully ruffled Blair's hair.
"Blair and his mother were only with us for a year, but in that time Blair changed my world views. He convinced me that I didn't have to follow in my father's footsteps, that I could be my own man. Pretty amazing stuff for an eleven year old."
Roberto stood up from the table and began to pace. "The pressure to follow in my old man's footsteps was intense, but every time I even considered taking over the family business, I would remember Beej's face and I knew I couldn't bear to see the look of disappointment in those eyes. So I threw myself into my school work and decided to go for a business degree. Pop and I made an agreement. He would pay for Harvard, but if I ever brought home anything less than a 4.0, I would have to come home and work in the business."
Bobby stopped and looked at the two agents. "This was my life we were talking about. You can be darn sure I threw everything I had into my studies. But there was one class that was guaranteed to be a ball-buster, one class that had ruined many a 4.0..."
"Statistics," Wilson interjected quietly.
"Exactly. I was close to despair. I knew I could put it off until my senior year, but if I failed to get anything other than a 4.0 I would be working side-by-side with my old man. That's when Blair came to the rescue. "
"How's that?" Romano asked. His eyes got big as if he had surprised himself by asking the question.
Bobby smiled at him. "Beej was already attending Rainier and volunteered to take the class during the spring semester. We then decided I would take it during the summer, so he could fly out and tutor me."
"Aren't summer classes more intense?" Wilson asked quietly.
"Yes, but as a general rule, they're also graded a little more leniently for that exact reason." Bobby returned to his chair. "We didn't tell my old man about Blair because... well, because he gets all weird whenever Naomi is mentioned."
"I think he truly loved her," Blair said quietly.
Bobby shrugged. "Anyway, the statistics course was only three weeks long. Blair audited the class. We formed a study group with six other students and we lived and breathed the stuff. The closest I can figure is that Pop was trying to hedge his bets by having DiFano whacked on campus the day of the final. He probably figured one of two things would happen; either I would be questioned beforehand and blow my final or that I would be arrested and he would ride in on his white horse and save me from the law. Either way, I expect he thought I would be going into business with him."
"Do you have proof that your father had DiFano killed?" Wilson asked intently.
Bobby shook his head. "If I did, you would've had the evidence years ago. As it was, my alibi was airtight. Beej was, thankfully, playing the little dictator, otherwise I'd probably be doing time because of circumstantial evidence."
"Hey, I resemble that remark," Blair protested half-heartedly.
"How so?" asked Romano, staring at the green-eyed Italian.
"Katie, a member of our study group, mentioned that she was terrified that after all of her hard work she'd sleep through the alarm and miss the final. So Blair made us all spend the night together. We rented a hotel suite with two king size beds and had a last minute cram session, then he made us all go to bed. In the morning, he fed us a light breakfast, then made us all meditate for a half-hour before we took the exam. I was always in full sight of seven people, including Beej." Bobby looked at each of the agents, then said quietly, "The long and the short of it, gentlemen, is that not only did my brother unknowingly give me an air-tight alibi, he also helped me pass statistics with a 4.0 which allowed me to live my own life. He saved my life twice that day."
"No, Beej, it's true." Roberto turned to face Blair. "He was eighteen years old, gentlemen. Eighteen. And never once wavered under the unblinking eye of the law."
Blair protested, "All I did was tell the truth, Bobby."
"And in the entire time I've known you, you've never treated me like I was a freak or a criminal. You never treated me like Francisco Panetti's little boy. Being 'just Bobby' to you has changed my life. You set my feet on the path, bro." Roberto looked over at the two agents. "I didn't whack DiFano. As I said, I suspect my old man did, but I have no proof. I figure he probably realized that if he ever confessed I would be out of his life forever. He'd rather live with the possibility that I might change my mind than live in silence."
"Family's very important," Romano said quietly.
Bobby nodded. "And in his own way, I think he wishes me well."
Blair smiled at his brother, his heart swelling, yet breaking at the same time. "I guess it's time for my story now."
All three men looked expectantly at him, but Blair only had eyes for his brother. "I never meant to lie to you, Bobby."
"You could never lie to me."
"Lie of omission then."
"Not the same thing, kid. Not even close."
Blair nodded and swallowed hard. "You've heard about Chicago?" he asked the agents, while pointing to the now mute television set.
"Yes," Wilson answered. "We have friends attending that convention."
"Then you know about their demands?"
Both men nodded.
"They're utter nonsense," Romano said, frustration ringing clearly in his voice.
"Exactly." Blair nodded. "Which means the terrorists have some other agenda."
"Granted," Wilson said quietly.
"But in order to find out what their agenda is, we have to find a way to get into the hotel then, hopefully, find a way to muck up the works. Right?" Blair asked, prompting the men at the table.
"Okay, setting aside the fact that walking into the hotel at this point would be suicide, why would they let us in and not any of the other thousand or so law enforcement officials currently on site?" Wilson asked, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table.
Blair grinned at the agent. "Because we're going to publicly give them one of their demands."
"And which one are you suggesting we grant?" Romano asked, frowning.
"We're going to give them Dakota Jones."
Romano shook his head angrily. "Why don't we give them Elvis, too, while we're at it."
Blair smiled in understanding. "Because Elvis is dead, man, but Dakota Jones isn't, at least, not to the point where he can't be resurrected."
Bobby sat back down in his chair and the three men stared at Blair in stunned silence.
"I earned my bachelor's in anthropology in May 1988, the year after I helped Bobby. I basically obtained it in three years and was seriously burned out. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was nineteen. No one was going to hire me because, let's face it, I was just a kid, degreed or not. I didn't have enough money to get into the master's program. Hell, I wasn't even sure I wanted to further my education. So, I decided to go on walkabout."
"Oh my God," Wilson whispered. "So it's true?"
"What's true?" Bobby asked, frowning.
Wilson pushed his chair back from the table, as if trying to absorb the enormity of what was being told to them. "You lied at the press conference."
"What press conference?" Bobby asked, looking back and forth between the agent and his brother.
"I didn't exactly lie." Blair shrugged. "Dakota Jones isn't a real person. I like to think of him as a role, a costume if you will."
"Would someone explain what in the hell is going on?" Roberto Panetti roared, slapping the table with two open hands.
Romano shook his head and laughed. "Your brother is Dakota Jones."
"What? Has everyone gone insane?"
"It's true, Bobby," Blair said quietly.
The older man frowned. "No."
Blair could only nod.
"What press conference are they talking about?" Bobby asked, obviously trying to get a handle on what he was being told.
"About eighteen months ago, I made the mistake of singing some songs at a karaoke bar during a sting operation. The members of the band put two and two together and went to the press. I... uh... gave a press conference to deny the allegations."
"Where in the hell was I?"
"Milan, I think."
"Okay," Romano said quietly, pushing himself away from the table and standing. "Okay. Let's say we believe you. Even if we go to the people in charge, they're never going to let you enter the hotel."
"True," Blair said, leaning back in his chair. "But then again, I wasn't really going to ask their permission."
"And how were you planning on getting into the hotel then?" Wilson asked quietly, his voice filled with quiet amusement.
Blair grinned at him. "Either of you know how to fly a helicopter?"
"That's insane!" Romano protested.
"Look." Blair stood and moved in front of the tall agent. "It's only a matter of time before they start killing hostages. If we openly give them what they want, it will look to the public like the Feds are trying to deal with the terrorists, which means we kink up their timetable at least for a little while. Hopefully, giving us enough time to put a wrench in their plans."
"Shit," Wilson said, shaking his head. "This could actually work."
"If we do this Matt, even if we're successful, we'll be crucified," Romano said, turning toward his partner.
"I know." His partner sighed. "Hell, Tony, we're probably going to get killed anyway. So why worry about the consequences? I mean, who wants to live forever?"
"I do, damn it!" the tall Italian said, throwing up his arms and pacing into the front room.
"Ben and Bernie are at that convention," Matt said to his partner's back.
"I know," was the quiet response.
The men in the loft watched the tall Italian shake his head for several moments, then drop his chin to his chest in defeat.
"So, what's the plan?" he finally whispered.
Blair grinned brilliantly. "Do either of you play a musical instrument?"
Jim Ellison plastered himself against the cold cement basement wall and held up a hand of warning to the small group of people behind him. He filtered out their ragged breaths of fear and concentrated on the slow footsteps ahead of him.
He lifted his hand over his head so that Simon could see and raised five fingers, one for each intruder.
"We have nowhere to go, Jim," Simon whispered from the back of the group.
The sentinel closed his eyes in frustration -- to get so close to freedom only to be caught.
No! He opened his eyes again, determination burning within them. They had fifteen civilians with them and he would get them out of the hotel if it was the last thing he ever did.
He twisted slightly and gently pressed the small Mexican woman, who had been acting as his guide through the labyrinth of hallways below the hotel, to the wall, silently indicating she should stay where she was. She nodded, her brown eyes bright with fear.
He moved to the opposite side of the hallway and raised his gun, waiting for the footsteps to get a bit closer. He took a deep breath, then stepped around the corner, prepared to fire... but hesitated as he came face-to-face with the man in front of him.
"Captain? Captain Ellison?" the tall green eyed man gasped.
"Jonathan?" he blurted out, then immediately shook his head, knowing that Jonathan Sarris had perished in the helicopter crash in Peru.
"No. Benjamin. You remember me, right? Benny."
"Jon's little brother."
The tall man broke into a brilliant grin. "Yes." The smile faded as their situation came slamming back. "What in the hell are you doing here, sir?"
"Trying to get some civilians out of the hot zone."
Benjamin's smile returned as he stepped away from the wall and motioned his group forward. "Me too. Alejandro, here, says there's a service exit not too far away that the crew uses to take breaks from time to time. There's not supposed to be any cameras on it and it doesn't show up on the schematics. I was hoping to get these guys out of here or at least to a safe place to hole up."
"You're a sight for sore eyes, Sarris." Jim stepped forward and gave the younger man a quick slap on the shoulder. "Come on, let's get these people out of here."
He motioned Sarris' group around the corner. There were quiet gasps of surprise and joy as the two groups melded together and friends reached out to touch friends.
"Maria," Jim asked quietly, "can you lead us the rest of the way?"
The tiny woman nodded and started forward, the rest of the group following at her heels. She led them down several more corridors and into a tiny room. It took a bit of jostling, but they got everyone inside and shut the door.
"Donde?" Jim whispered, after looking around the room and seeing nothing apparent.
Maria pointed to a half-door in the middle of the side wall, and Jim found himself smiling. He doubted if anyone would see anything besides a storage closet. He gently pushed his way through the workers and opened the door. The smell of mildew, wet cement and stale cigarettes greeted him.
He looked back over at Simon. "It apparently connects to the sewers."
"So what's the plan, Captain?" Benjamin asked Jim quietly from the opposite side of the room.
Both Simon and Jim opened their mouths to speak at the same time, then smiled ruefully at each other.
Jim looked back at the younger man who reminded him so much of the man he lost in Peru that his heart ached. "One of us needs to lead these folks to safety. I suggest you travel south several blocks, away from the main complex before you go topside. We don't want to chance any news crews seeing them pop up. They'll have it plastered over the airwaves in seconds and we won't be able to get anyone else out. You'll need to get word to whoever's in charge and let them know about this entrance, then come back and see if there's anyone else to take up. We'll try to get as many people down here as we can in the meantime."
"I hope you're not looking at me to do this, sir," Benjamin protested. "My partner's still in the main auditorium. There's no way I'm leaving him behind."
"Sarris." Jim growled, then shut his eyes briefly to center himself. He moved back through the quiet crowd until he was face-to-face with the younger man. "Please understand," he said softly, "I can't lose you. I lost Jonathan--"
"That wasn't your fault, Captain," Benjamin immediately protested.
"Please," Jim begged in a near whisper. "I can't go to your mother again. Do you understand? I can't."
Serious green eyes blinked back at him. "I'm an FBI agent, sir."
Benjamin looked at the sea of frightened faces surrounding them. "Okay," he agreed reluctantly.
"You're by no means in a safe position, kid. I'm sending you into an unknown situation with a bunch of unarmed civilians. If you get caught--"
"I won't get caught and I'll be back here in less than an hour ready for another batch. Hopefully, with reinforcements."
"Good man." Jim patted the younger man on the shoulders. "Let's get moving."
They waded once again through the tightly packed bodies. Jim held his hand over the agent's head as the smaller man stepped up on a small wooden box and maneuvered himself through the door. "What's your partner's name?" he whispered when Benjamin turned to look back at him.
"Bernie. Bernard Jones."
Jim nodded. One by one he and Simon helped the employees through the opening. Maria, when on the wooden box, turned and kissed Jim on the cheek. "Viyo con Dios."
"Y tu," he whispered back then protected her head while she climbed through. When all the employees were on the other side, he called out, "Ben?"
"When this is over, you, me, a quiet bar and a raunchy toast to your brother."
Benjamin grinned brightly at him. "Deal."
Jim stood by the opening until the group on the other side disappeared from sight. Simon tapped him on the shoulder as if checking to make sure he hadn't zoned. He nodded, then closed the door as softly as he could.
"We should wait here a minute or two in case we get caught," Jim said, barely above a whisper. "I want to give them as much of a head start as we can."
Simon nodded, then removed his glasses and rubbed his face for several moments before replacing them. "You know," he said with some amusement, "I used to think Sandburg was the trouble magnet. Now, I'm beginning to think the kid simply got sucked into your backwash."
Jim huffed quietly in laughter. "Don't you believe it. He's gotten into his own share of messes just fine without me."
"I would surmise then that two trouble magnets working in such close proximity to each other tend to attract an exponential amount of trouble," Simon observed, giving him a tired smile.
"True. Think how bad it could've been if Sandburg had accompanied us today," Jim said, moving to the door and listening to the hallway beyond.
Simon frowned at him, but remained quiet.
"It's clear." Jim opened the door, looked over at his boss, smiled encouragingly, then slipped out of the room.
Bobby saw the agents to the door. The plan was for the agents to get their things from the hotel, rent a violin for Agent Wilson and see if they could manage a chopper in Chicago.
After the Feds were gone, he walked to the doorway of his brother's bedroom and watched Blair pull a small shoebox out of his bottom desk drawer.
Blair set the box on top of the desk, his hands shaking as they skimmed over the lid.
"You don't have to do this, you know?" Bobby said quietly.
"I'm afraid I do. I wish I could explain the whys to you, but I can't. Not just yet. But you don't have to--"
Bobby held up his hand, cutting off his brother's train of thought. "You and me, like glue."
Blair gave him a weak smile, but nodded. He lifted the lid off the box and pulled a cell phone from it. He twisted slightly in his chair and pulled a battery off the charger and slipped it into the back of the phone.
Taking a deep breath, Blair punched in several numbers. For reasons unknown, Bobby found himself holding his breath.
"Paul?" Blair asked quietly. "Blair. Yeah." He laughed quietly. "It has been a long time... I need a favor... You're going to Chicago, right?... This afternoon? Fantastic... Any chance you could give me and a few of my friends a lift? Cascade...Yeah, I did see CNN... Yeah, I am crazy... Friends... Uh-huh." Blair stopped and looked at his watch. "We'll be there. What do I owe you now?... I told you before..." Blair laughed conspiratorially. "Okay... In two... Bye."
Blair shut the phone and looked over at Bobby. "They'll pick us up in two hours. We need to be at the airport by then."
"Who were you talking to?"
"Can we trust him?"
"Yes. Besides, it's only a ride to Chicago."
"Is this going to cost you?"
Blair seemed to hesitate for a moment. "The ride? No, man, of course not."
Bobby closed the distance between them and knelt beside his brother. "No. I mean becoming Dakota again."
His brother tried to maintain eye contact, but dropped his gaze to his lap. "No. In fact, it's actually going to help clarify a few things I've been debating about for a little while."
"Such as?" Bobby asked.
Blair bit his lower lip. "Bobby, I'm... begging here..."
Blair lifted one hand, took a deep breath then looked him in the face, steel burning in his eyes. "I'm calling in my second marker, bro."
"What?" Bobby asked, stunned.
"I'm asking you to let this go."
Bobby stood in one fluid motion, rubbing a hand over his face. "You're kidding, right?" But looking down into his brother's eyes, he knew the younger man wasn't. Whatever this was, it was huge. "Keep your marker, Beej. I'll keep my mouth shut."
For now, he thought.
Simon stopped the moment Jim raised his hand. He watched Jim cock his head slightly to the side, a stance Simon recognize as Jim focusing on a sound in the distance. Without thought, he put his hand on Jim's back, between the detective's shoulder blades. He felt the sentinel relax minutely and gave a silent word of thanks to the hyperactive graduate student who had spent hours giving him tips and suggestions of what to do around Jim when he couldn't be by his partner's side.
"Shit!" Jim hissed.
Simon was stunned by the look of horror on his detective's face. "What?" he mouthed.
Jim shook his head and indicated they should move back to their last place of safety. Simon's heart was beating in his throat by the time they moved into the cleaning closet.
"What?" he asked again.
"I heard a television in the distance. One of our terrorists is apparently watching CNN. He was chuckling over the demands they gave the media," Jim said quietly.
"They want to know who really shot Kennedy, where the government is hiding Elvis, where the sound stage of the Apollo moonwalks is located, and they want the Japanese to admit they killed Amelia Earhart."
"What? That's nonsense," Simon sputtered in disbelief.
The sentinel nodded. "I know."
"What aren't you telling me here, Jim?"
Simon watched his detective swallowed hard. "They also want a concert by Dakota Jones."
Simon opened his mouth, but closed it again when he saw the horror return to his friend's eyes. Understanding dawned instantly. "But he said--"
"I know what he said."
"Oh, shit." Simon closed his eyes. "Maybe he's already left on his trip."
"Panetti wasn't due until Sunday."
"You don't think--"
"Sir--" Jim cut him off with a tone of chiding disbelief.
"Fuck," Simon swore harshly. "Of course he will." He looked helplessly at his friend. "What are we going to do?"
"We've got to figure out the terrorists' agenda before he gets here."
"Why don't we come up with a solution for peace in the Middle East while we're at it?" Simon snapped.
"Well, if you think we have the time, sir." Jim smiled, but it didn't go anywhere near his eyes.
"You know the only thing worse than you two getting in trouble together is having you two separated and trying to get to each other."
Simon looked at the confusion in his detective's eyes and shook his head. The man simply didn't have a clue.
Blair Sandburg braced himself against the walls of the tiny bathroom as the plane hit a small pocket of turbulence. Once it leveled off, he closed his eyes and ran his hands back through his short cropped hair. When he opened them again he saw the man he thought he had put behind him almost a decade before.
"Hello, Dakota," he greeted the man who look curiously back at him.
Dakota Jones. Singer. Songwriter. Messiah of the Pop Generation. Wasn't that what "Rolling Stone" had called him and Bono? He snorted in amusement.
Quite a difference from Blair Sandburg. Graduate Student. Teaching Fellow. Doctorial Candidate. Police Observer. Shaman. Guide.
Dakota and Blair were as different as night and day, neither one a bad person. They just wanted totally different things from life, although both wanted to contribute to society, they just went about it in different ways.
Blair thought back briefly over his roles, knowing he could give most of them up without too much regret; although, he was sorry to realize that he wasn't going to be able to explore more of his shaman side. Blair knew that certain police captains informally sent officers on the ragged edge to him before they sent them to the department shrink -- hoping to keep their records clean. He was also aware that officers and detectives alike sought him out when dealing with traumatized victims, knowing he could often reach frightened souls when others couldn't. It meant a lot to him that those around him had seen his gifts and accepted them. His grandfather would have been proud of all he had accomplished as Blair, would have been proud of the fact that he had taken the first steps toward becoming a spiritual healer.
However, before Jim left he had made it abundantly clear he didn't need a guide any longer.
Yes, meet Blair Sandburg, the man who single-handedly destroyed a sentinel's need for a permanent guide. The figure in the mirror shook his head.
When he had been researching sentinels for his master thesis, he had been convinced that Burton's observations were God's proclamations sent down to him, a mere mortal, to be used in his prophecies about sentinels. Blair huffed in laughter. However, after three years of riding with Jim, he realized that Burton was nothing more than a tour guide. 'Hey, look what I found while I was in Paraguay.'
Jim had achieved more in three years than Burton could ever have imagined. Blair also realized that the sentinel's companion, his guide as Brackett had named him, was nothing more than the guy who whacked his sentinel upside the head whenever he got caught up looking at a pretty butterfly three hundred yards away. Primitive guides basically kept their sentinels in the here and now, but Blair had taught Jim how to keep himself in the present. Blair had gotten a base line of Jim's abilities, had tested the limits, and had not only come up with new and creative ways for Jim to use them, but had taught Jim how to ground himself because Blair had been terrified of what would happen to the detective if he wasn't around.
The truth of the matter was Jim really didn't need a guide anymore in order to be a sentinel. In fact, was growing more resentful of his guide's presence in his life, as if Blair was somehow a constant reminder of the time when he had no control over his senses.
They worked well as partners and a part of him had hoped that maybe they could continue working together after he received his dissertation, but he realized now that was not meant to be. And he couldn't blame Jim. Honestly. A teacher should impart his knowledge and ideas, then let his students fly on their own. A teacher who couldn't let go did his students no good, and would only hinder their growth.
So where did that leave him?
He had found his Holy Grail and had actually accomplished what he set out to do.
"I just thought there would be more to it, Grandfather. Did I misunderstand?" the man in the mirror asked him in a whisper.
A soft knock on the door interrupted his musings.
He turned and opened the door.
"Sorry, I got lost in thought."
Dave looked him in the face then smiled, almost sadly. "Hello, Dakota. Long time, no see."
"Edge," Dakota acknowledged.
The guitarist looked at his newly shorn hair. "Blond, right?"
"To start off with. We'll see where life takes us before we make any other major decisions."
The Edge moved out of the way and guided him to a chair he had waiting. "Your violinist isn't too bad. If you're not careful, someone's gonna snatch him away from you."
"It's a gig by gig deal at the moment. If we survive this, we'll talk to him about making it permanent. He's indicated that he might be leaving his old job."
"He could do worse. Life with you is guaranteed to be an adventure." The Irishman laughed and ruffled his hair.
Bobby Panetti tried to relax as he listened to Matt practice BJ's songs. The agent had shocked everyone on the plane by how talented he was. At least that part of the plan seemed to be well on its way.
Bobby's big body practically melted into the soft leather sofa beneath him. With his eyes closed, he could almost pretend....
He sighed deeply. No he couldn't. He couldn't pretend anything. They were on their way to Chicago to take on a hotel of madmen.
But before his chaotic feelings could take him any further, a soft Irish brogue intruded on his thoughts. "He's very good."
Bobby opened his eyes and stared up at the short, dark headed man standing beside the couch.
"Would ya like a water?"
"Sure," Bobby said, sitting up straighter in his chair.
The Irishman handed him a cold bottle of water then sat on the sofa beside him. "Blair tells me you're his brother."
"Yes. No. I mean...."
"In every way that counts," his companion finished for him.
Bobby nodded, glad he didn't have to explain. "Yes. In every way that counts."
"Blair calls me Paul," the singer said as he reached out his hand.
Bobby shook the hand and smiled. "And you call him Blair instead of Dakota."
"Yeah. We Messiahs have to stick together."
"Ya really didn't know, did ya?" the Irishman asked with a gentle smile, no judgment in his tone. "About him being Dakota Jones, that is."
Bobby opened his bottle and took a long swig. Recapping it, he looked at the other man and said, "No. I didn't know."
"He was always convinced his fame was a fluke. I think he kept his lives separate because he was convinced this one would dry up one day and he wanted something of himself to go back to when it happened."
"That sounds like something Beej would do."
The men sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to Matt play a quicker melody.
"He's walking away from his other life now, isn't he?" Paul asked quietly, returning his attention to Bobby.
Bobby nodded. "Yes, I think he is."
"Then he didn't find his Holy Grail?"
Bobby started to answer but then stopped as the answer hit him smack between the eyes. "Oh my God."
Bobby shook his head, trying to clear the chaotic thoughts from his mind. "No. I... I think he did find it... he's just letting it go, letting him go."
"I... I don't know, but I think the answer is in that hotel in Chicago."
The Irishman looked at him and asked quietly, "You're going to walk into hell with him, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I am," Bobby responded just as quietly. "But not until we talk about a few things first." Bobby stood up. "If you'll pardon me?"
Bobby turned to move to the back of the plane, when the curtain opened and a blond, buffed, blue-eyed young man stepped forward. Bobby Panetti swallowed hard as he realized he wouldn't be having the talk with his brother after all.
Dakota Jones looked at him and smiled, but with none of the warmth he had come to expect from his brother. Blair Sandburg was gone. Long live Dakota Jones.
Dakota put his duffel bag down on the tarmac then hugged his friends tight. "Thanks for the ride."
"Anytime," The Edge said quietly.
"When everything is... over, give us a call. We're in desperate need of an opening act," Paul said, slapping his friend's back several times.
Dakota smiled. "Deal. Give me a week or so, okay?"
"You got it. Stay safe."
"I'm going to do my best."
"Dakota," Romano said urgently. "We need to get out of here. The press is already taking pictures with long-range cameras."
Dakota smiled at the agent. "That, Tony, is exactly what we want." Turning toward the glass windows of the airport, Dakota took off his Rayban sunglasses and stood still for several minutes. He didn't have to be a sentinel to hear the excited pounding on the glass windows. Of course, it was, in all likelihood, for his friends, but hopefully someone recognized him. "So, where is this chopper of yours?"
"Come on," Wilson said as he grabbed his elbow and pulled him away from the jet.
Bobby picked up his duffel bag and followed behind the small group, shaking his head as they began the next leg of their journey toward hell.
Jim let loose a long, deep sigh of relief as he handed off the last member of their fifth group of hostages to the agent on the other side of the door. "That's it for this round."
"How many more hostages do you think are outside the main conference suite area?" Agent Timothy O'Rourke asked from the sewer, leaning on the ledge leading into the storage room.
"I think we have most of them off the main bottom floors, basically everywhere we could get without using the elevators. They have men in the stairwells to catch stragglers. I believe the terrorists rounded everyone from the upper floors and took them to the conference rooms. I estimate there to be about two hundred and fifty people under their control."
O'Rourke sighed. "That's too damn many."
"I know," Jim agreed. "Listening to the guards on patrol here in the basement, I've been able to ascertain that they check in every ten minutes. I've already given Smithers the responses to each check request. While every ten minutes check is different, they repeat the cycle every hour. Each guard is the same, no variance in call backs. Once we start taking them out, that'll help tremendously."
"I suppose it would be pretty damn insulting to suggest that you and your Captain let us take over from here." O'Rourke snorted in amusement, indicating he already knew what the answer would be.
"What's the plan, sir?" Jim asked, totally ignoring the question, while Simon rolled his gaze toward the ceiling.
"We've been pulling in all the SWAT teams, both local and federal, within a hundred mile radius, and are suiting them up. We'll be good to go within," the agent stopped and looked at his watch, "a half-hour. I figure we'll begin funneling them in here soon so you can start hiding them around the conference rooms. Do you have places in mind?"
Jim nodded. "Yes, sir. You do realize, however, that the hostages probably aren't the terrorists' main objective?"
"Yeah, I know. We're already running the guest lists through our computers to see what we can come up with. Right now, what we really need is a distraction?"
"How big of a distraction do you need?" Simon asked
Before the agent could answer, another agent behind him began to swear loudly. O'Rourke turned around and backhanded the agent's arm for silence.
"Sorry, sir, but we just got a report that a helicopter landed on the roof."
"What? I thought we had birds in the air to prevent this sort of thing from happening," O'Rourke said angrily.
"We do; three of them. But you don't understand, sir, it's one of ours."
"Fuck," Jim whispered, rubbing a hand over his eyebrows.
O'Rourke turned back and frowned at him. "Do you have any idea what's going on, Detective?"
Jim nodded. "Start bringing your men down now."
"You said you wanted a diversion. Believe me when I say you just got what you wanted, but we need to move fast. There's no telling how these psychos might react."
O'Rourke nodded and pushed himself off the door frame, already talking into his microphone and making arrangements.
"When you said psychos, Jim, were you talking about Sandburg or the terrorists?" Simon said, desperately trying to inject a little humor into the situation.
"Both, actually." Jim closed his eyes, then whispered, "I'm going to kill him."
"Only if he survives," Simon said softly, placing his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Only if he survives."
"Okay, as soon as we land this puppy, head for the stairwell," Romano yelled over the thumping beat of the rotors overhead. "They'll probably have someone either on the roof itself or at the top of the stairwell. We have to be in a position to explain ourselves before they decide to shoot. Does everyone understand?"
The agent looked around and watched everyone nod their head.
"Miguel, remember, touch and go. We don't want to give them another hostage or an avenue to escape. No matter what happens to us, you take off."
"If questioned, I forced you into this."
"No, buts. Just stick to the fucking plan."
"Yes, sir," the pilot responded, clearly not happy.
"Jones, as soon as you get off, you take off your glasses and face the north building. We probably have a dozen snipers on the roof of the adjacent high rise. I want them trying to figure out who you are as quickly as possible."
"Matt," the Italian agent said with a sigh. "I don't like going in without any weapons."
"And if they find one, Tone?"
"I know. I just... Be safe, okay?"
Matt reached forward and grabbed his friend's shoulder. "Hey, you're the one who's in the most danger here. If they feel like they don't need another Fed as a hostage, they're going to take you out."
Romano smiled at his friend, then turned to Bobby. "Panetti, you stick to Jones like glue."
"Don't have to tell me twice, boss." The green eyed Italian abruptly laughed.
"What?" Romano asked annoyed.
"I bet when you woke up this morning, you never thought this was how your day would end." Bobby laughed unrepentantly. "I'm guessing that bears in the wilderness are starting to look pretty good right about now."
The five men in the helicopter grinned at each other.
"We must be insane," Romano agreed.
"Yeah, but insanity is a legal defense," Dakota said with a smile, then dodged the beefy hand of his brother intent on whacking the back of his head.
"We're here," Miguel shouted.
"Express elevator to hell descending," Bobby called out as he removed his seatbelt.
Dakota grabbed his guitar case. "Show time."
As soon as his feet touched the paved surface of the helicopter tarmac, Dakota took off his glasses, strapped his guitar to his back and faced the building across the way. His brother immediately came up behind him and turned him forty-five degrees.
"Let's go," Wilson said as he grabbed Dakota's arm and headed for the stairwell.
The helicopter jumped back into the air. Romano led the small group toward the building's entrance, with Panetti bringing up the rear. The roof's metal door slammed open and two men with machine guns came racing out, their guns trained on the entourage. As one, the group came to a halt.
"Give me one good reason why we shouldn't just blow your fucking heads off right here, right now," the larger of the two terrorists demanded as he closed the distance between them and firmly pressed the tip of his gun under Romano's chin.
"I don't think that would make your boss very happy," Dakota said, stepping around the pinned agent.
"And why the fuck is that?" the smaller thug asked.
Dakota took off his glasses. "Because I was invited, man."
"Is it?" Simon asked, reaching out and touching his detective after the younger man stopped abruptly, bringing their small column to an immediate halt.
"Is he safe?"
"For the moment."
Simon patted Jim's shoulder twice. "Then let's get these guys situated and go back for another group because with Sandburg involved we're definitely going to need all the help we can get."
"Aerie One to Alpha Leader. Aerie One to Alpha Leader," the smaller terrorist said into the walkie-talkie.
"Alpha Leader. Report."
"Alpha Leader, demand four has been met."
"Repeat?" the voice demanded in surprised.
"Demand four has been met."
The men on the roof waited in silence as a full minute passed.
"How many are with him?" Alpha Leader finally asked.
"Three, sir. Total of four."
"Send them down Express One."
"Yes, sir. Aerie One out."
The four men waited patiently as their guards patted each one down for weapons and looked in each piece of baggage they carried.
"You heard the man," the larger terrorist shouted when they had finished their search. "Let's move it."
The group entered the building, slowing slightly to give their eyes time to adjust.
"Shit," Dakota barely breathed as he followed Wilson down the metal stairs. "Is 'Die Hard' a required movie for terrorists or what?"
Having hung out with an ex-bomb squad captain in his former life, Dakota knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, as he looked at the beams supporting the roof that they were seriously screwed.
Despite the misnomer of being called an express elevator, the trip to the second floor seemed to take forever. The four remained silent. Only his brother's hand on the small of his back kept Dakota from filling in the silence with chatter.
When the elevator dinged, everyone in the elevator automatically looked up at the floor display. Dakota took a deep breath and released it slowly, waiting for their guard to lead the way. The group followed single file through the twists and turns of various corridors, until the living presence of the law enforcement hostages became almost a physical force.
Their guard took them down another small hallway, through an innocuous door and up a small set of stairs which led them onto a curtained stage.
"Stay here," he commanded, then walked to the wall, picked up a microphone and gave it to Dakota before he left.
Dakota looked at his brother, smiled nervously and mouthed, "Show time."
Bobby put down his two bags, reached over and wrapped his arm around Dakota's upper chest, pulling him back until the guitar nestled snugly between them. The green-eye Italian was about to speak when the curtains slowly opened, revealing a large crowd.
Bright stage lights shone directly on them, making it impossible to see anyone clearly. Except for a row of people at the base of the stage, the crowd appeared to be nothing more than vague dark shapes.
"Dakota Jones?" a microphone-enhanced voice asked.
Dakota cleared his throat, raised the mic and stepped forward. "Yes, sir."
"Sir?" The voice was almost mocking, but then seemed almost pleased. "I like that. It shows that you are treating this situation with the proper gravity, but then again you were always known as the politest man in the music industry."
"At least MTV seemed to think so," Dakota said with a slight smile.
"So, you'd have us believe that you are the Dakota Jones?"
"I see. And just why are you here Mr. Jones?"
Dakota took another step toward the lights. "I think you know why."
"Care to enlighten the crowd?" the voice asked in amusement.
Dakota closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "May I be frank, sir?"
The voice seemed surprised. "By all means."
Dakota took several more breaths before he spoke. "Everyone knows your demands are nonsense."
Dakota heard three shocked gasps behind him, heard his brother whisper under his breath, "What in the hell are you doing?"
"Nonsense?" the voice asked, once again amused.
"And because they're nonsense, the police outside can't possibly grant them, thus giving you an excuse to start killing your hostages."
"You're very perceptive, Mr. Jones," the voice said in grudging admiration.
"I... I couldn't let you do that, not when I had the power to slow you down a little."
"I could still kill some of the hostages," the voice taunted.
"You could, but the only thing keeping the forces outside at bay at the moment is that they're trying to figure out your game. You start killing people and you give them a valid reason to storm the hotel in the hopes of getting at least a few people out alive."
"Shit," Simon barely breathed the word as he listened to the voices echoing down the corridor. "I always knew the kid had balls, but damn it all." The captain looked at his detective and noticed the sentinel's pale face. "Come on, Jim. Let's go get the next batch so we can figure out a way to save his ass."
"Why do I think you're not with the Keystone Cops outside?"
"Because I'm not."
"So you just flew to my roof on your own?"
"Yes and no."
"Yes and no?"
"I came to Chicago on my own with my family."
"The gentlemen behind you?"
"Please, make the introductions."
Dakota turned to the other members of his group, noticing their wide eyes. He smiled at them with a reassurance he didn't quite feel.
"This big guy is Bobby," Dakota said as he patted the taller man on the back. "He's my half-brother. To his left is Matt; he's a cousin on my father's side as opposed to Bobby's father's side. And to his left is Tony, who is my mother's uncle's son, which makes him my second or third cousin. I can never remember. I just know he's blood; and with Italians blood is everything."
"So which one is the Fed?" the voice asked in a deceptively soft tone.
"Tony," Dakota answered simply.
"Well, now. I wasn't expecting that much truth."
Dakota shrugged. "We never would have gotten into the hotel's airspace without an agent. Tone's been with the Bureau, what ten years?"
"Twelve," Romano said from behind him. "Soon to be unemployed."
The voice laughed heartily. "I like you guys. You're much more entertaining than the rest of my guests." The voice was silent for several heartbeats. "How do I know you're the real Dakota Jones?"
"You don't," Dakota said frankly. "At the moment you have nothing but my word."
"So what have you been doing with yourself for the last decade, Mr. Jones? Did you ever find your holy grail?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
"Care to share with the group?"
Dakota smiled sadly. "Actually, no, but given the circumstances, I guess I really don't have much of a choice."
The voice was silent for a moment. "How about just the highlights?"
Dakota ran one hand back through his short hair. "In 1990 as I was coming off my last tour, I found the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, a woman who loved me for me."
"Not someone who was taking all you had to give?"
Dakota smiled. "Now you're being perceptive."
"So what happened to Ms. Wonderful?"
Dakota dropped his chin to his chest for a moment, then looked up into the crowd. "She died giving birth to my second child, a daughter."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Did your daughter survive?"
Dakota shook his head.
Again the voice was silent for a moment, then asked, "Why didn't you come forward when the young man on the West Coast was being harassed about being you?"
"Ironically, I was in Milan. Bobby invited us on a business trip. I thought it'd be a wonderful opportunity to expose my son to his heritage. By the time I got back the whole incident had already blown over."
"What did your son think of Italy?"
"He thought the streets were too narrow, the food not as good as his grandmother's and he hated their television. On the other hand, he liked their women."
Several people in the crowd chuckled, despite the situation.
"What's your boy's name?"
The smile fell from Dakota's face and he shook his head.
"What's your boy's name?" the voice asked again.
"I'm here to perform," Dakota said flatly. "My boy doesn't even know the name Dakota Jones. When I don't come back, he'll be told that I died in a car wreck. Simple as that."
The voice was quiet for several moments. "You said 'when' as opposed to 'if'."
"So I did."
The voice chuckled again. "I like you, Mr. Jones. How much time do you need to set up?"
"Five minutes max. Could we have some chairs?"
"Make it so," the voice answered.
"Is it any wonder your reports just sailed through the system?" Simon asked quietly as they moved quickly through the basement hallways for the last batch of officers. "He doesn't actually have a kid, does he?"
Jim smiled wanly. "No, sir. Not that I'm aware of. He's just trying to build a rapport with the terrorist leader, to get him to see the hostages as humans with families, basically putting his psychology degree to good use."
"Any idea who Tony or Matt are?"
"No, sir. Although if I were to guess, I'd say Federal agents. Sandburg told me once that if you're going to obfuscate to try and keep the gray as close to the truth as possible."
"How in God's name did they find him?" Simon asked, opening the door and signaling for the next group to follow them.
"I have no idea, but I'm sure as hell going to find out."
While his companions set up the amplifiers that Bobby had been carrying and the rest of the chairs, Dakota sat and started to fine-tune his guitar. He dropped his chin to his chest, presenting the picture of complete concentration.
"Jim, I know you're out there 'cause there's no possible way these clowns caught you unaware. You need to know that the roof of this building is rigged to blow like something out of a damn 'Die Hard' movie. I can probably delay these guys a half-hour, maybe an hour, but I'm not holding my breath for anything longer than that. At that point, I have no doubt I'll cease to be amusing and they'll continue on with their original plans." Dakota ran through a couple of riffs, then spoke again, "It's been a great ride, man. I just wish we could have ended it as friends. Be well, sentinel."
Jim stopped and turned. "Simon, the roof is rigged with explosives."
The big man rubbed his hands under his glasses. "Great. That's just great. Could this day get any fricken better?"
"Sandburg thinks he can keep them occupied for a half-hour to an hour. Given that he's just put a major kink in their plans, we might have a bit more time, but I wouldn't count on it."
Simon sighed. "Anything else?"
Jim shook his head, refusing to speak for a moment. "We just need to get him out of there as quickly as possible," he finally rasped out.
"Agreed, my friend. Agreed." Simon looked down at his detective and noticed his agitated state. "Look, I'll go back and coordinate with command; you go keep an eye on the kid. Okay?"
Jim nodded, then moved down the corridor.
Dakota had had many surreal moments in his life, both in his singing life and his other life, but nothing came close to topping singing for terrorists in a building rigged to be blown sky high.
"Any requests?" he asked, leaning forward slightly toward the mic.
"You mentioned a tour earlier," the microphone enhanced-voice commented casually. "Why don't you sing the same songs you did then?"
Dakota nodded. "Just a caveat," he said with a half-grin. "I haven't sung in nearly ten years, unless you count in the shower and to my son. Just don't expect me to sound like my records, okay?"
Dakota looked over at Wilson. "Eyes," he said softly.
When the agent nodded, Dakota's fingers began to dance over the strings of his guitar then he opened his mouth and began to sing.
Jim looked down into the conference room through the small slot in the wall. The closet he was standing in was incredibly tiny; and he still couldn't figure out why the hotel would have such a room. Perhaps for videotaping or decorating?
He peered through the opening again when Blair's mellow voice filled the small room. For a moment, he did nothing but watch his friend sing. There was no doubt about it; Blair Sandburg was Dakota Jones, although Jim admitted to himself that he would've been hard pressed to recognize his partner if he hadn't already known about his alter ego. Who would have guessed that changing his hair style and color could so drastically alter Sandburg's appearance?
Jim closed his eyes briefly and let the soothing sounds of his guide wash over him. The kid had talent. Jim had to give him that point. However, something niggled at the back of his brain, a feeling that things weren't quite right, but no matter how hard he tried to isolate the feeling it eluded him.
Shaking his head, Jim gazed around the conference room below and whispered the position of the terrorists into his mic; nodding in satisfaction when he got O'Rourke's equally quiet acknowledgment.
It wasn't hard to pinpoint the man in charge of the operation. He held himself like a professional mercenary, although Jim noted that the man seemed fascinated by the performance happening in front of him. Jim guessed the man never dreamed that one of his demands might be met or that he would suddenly find himself within the Sandburg Zone.
The leader whispered into his own mic, even though his eyes never left the stage. "Merchandise status?"
"Four, fifth and sixth floors secure. Only the twelfth floor remains," a voice answered.
The mercenary nodded in satisfaction. "Everything's on schedule. Inform me when reconnaissance and retrieval are complete."
Jim took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Command," he whispered into his own mic.
"I've overheard a conversation. The terrorists have been going through rooms on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors. They're currently heading toward twelve. Have someone run the records and see who's staying on the those floors. Might go a long way toward motive."
"Can we get people up to twelve?"
"Working on it. For now, stay put."
"Copy," Jim said quietly.
As the notes of the song faded into silence, the leader of the terrorists asked, "So have you written anything recently, Mr. Jones?"
Jim watched his guide squint in the general direction of the voice.
"I haven't written anything for a number of years, although I did just scribble some thoughts down about a week ago," Sandburg answered quietly as he continued to strum his guitar in a soothing riff.
"Something you want to share with us?"
"Why not? Since I'm here and everything." Blair smirked. "It's a little rough and hasn't been titled yet."
"I don't think anyone here will object," the voice said in a laughing voice.
Blair shrugged, then raised a finger to his companion playing the violin indicating that he didn't need to accompany him on the song. Taking a deep breath and leaning slightly forward in his chair, Blair started playing a much harder, angrier tune.
Can you hear me?
Can you feel me?
What will it take
For you to see me?
Watched as I
Breathe you in?
Such a sin?
Your silence drowns
All my screams.
There's nothing left
Of my self-esteem.
Your coldness saps
All my power
You take and take
Until all's devoured.
Can you hear me?
Can you feel me?
What will it take
For you to see me?
Can you hear me?
Can you feel me?
What will it take
For you to see me?
"That seems like a rather angry song," the terrorist commented quietly as the song drew to a close.
"I suppose it is."
"Sounds like someone didn't understand what was standing in front of them."
Jim watched in fascination as the sweat from Blair's brow ran into his eyes. "Or simply didn't want it."
"That's hard to imagine."
"Oh? How so?"
"Without a guitar and my music, I'm just a guy like any other guy. Nothing overtly special about me."
"You have a very pragmatic way of looking at things, Mr. Jones."
"I'm not into self-deceit."
"So this person took all you had to give?"
Blair shrugged then started strumming his guitar, nodding at his companion to accompany him, and refusing to answer the question by singing his song 'Taking All I Have to Give.'
Jim swallowed hard and leaned his forehead against the cool cement wall. The niggling at the back of his neck came screaming to the fore; and as he watched his partner sing, he realized that Blair Sandburg had no intention of ever going home again -- no matter what the outcome of the hostage situation was.
"Alpha Leader, the final package has been located." Jim could hear the triumphant proclamation practically scream from the leader's headpiece. He watched as the man sighed, almost in resignation, while his eyes drifted to Sandburg on stage; and Jim realized they were out of time.
"Very well," the leader said. "Commence withdrawal."
"O'Rourke," Jim hissed into his mic, "whatever you're going to do, do it now! We have no time left. No time!"
"Bomb squad, report!" the agent's strained voice shouted through the mic, causing Jim to rip the earpiece from his head.
"We don't have all of them yet, sir."
"Get out then! Fall back!" O'Rourke shouted. "All teams deploy! Deploy!"
As the SWAT teams burst into the room, Jim's eyes never left the leader's form. Shouts rang out as the snipers demanded that everyone lower their weapons and the terrorists refused, shouting back their own demands. The leader spun, but even as his hand moved to his breast pocket, Jim fired, his bullet killing the man instantly as it entered his brain. Officers, who had moments before been hostages, fell on the body, hoping to prevent any twitching from setting off the detonator.
Guns stuttered and hostages dove under their tables as the terrorist guards attempted to escape. Jim's eyes zeroed in on the stage in time to see Panetti grab the violin-playing agent by the back of the shirt and shove him behind his large frame. Panetti spread his arms behind him and backed slowly away from the chaos, trying not to draw attention to himself and providing a living shield for the men stumbling behind him.
Confident of Sandburg's safety, Jim turned to join the melee.
"We're sitting ducks on this stage," Bobby gritted out between clenched teeth, never stopping his backward movement until he heard Romano's grunt indicating the agent had hit the back wall.
"Corner," Tony suggested quietly.
"Shouldn't we try to get out of here?" Bobby asked, moving the group to his right.
"Too much chaos," Matt answered. "We don't need to be grabbed as hostages or shot as terrorists. It's best to sit tight and let the agents come to us."
"Beej?" Bobby asked, shooting a concerned glance over his shoulder.
Once they reached the corner, Romano placed the singer against the two walls. "You holding up okay, kid?"
"Would you believe me if I told you this was just a day in the life?"
Wilson awkwardly positioned Panetti in the corner beside his brother and stood in front of the much taller man. "Probably."
The men stood rigidly for several minutes, listening to the din from the main room.
"Do you think we helped?" Dakota asked, his fingers drummed nervously against his brother's thigh.
"I don't think we hurt," Romano answered.
"You're still going to lose your jobs though, aren't you?" the singer asked, his dark blue eyes troubled.
Wilson looked over his shoulder and smiled reassuringly at him. "Don't worry about us, kid. We knew the stakes coming in."
Dakota cleared his throat. "I... uh... I'd like to offer you guys a job," he said softly, then smiled as the two agents turned and gaped at him in disbelief. "I mean if you're going to be unemployed anyway, I could really use a violinist. We really played well together, Matt. And Tony, the way you put everything together was awesome. I'm going to need a road manager and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have in the position."
The blue-eyed Italian blinked in confusion. "You're not kidding, are you?"
"No, of course not."
"What about your life in Cascade?" Matt asked, frowning.
"Believe it or not, that sort of dried up a few days ago, before this whole thing went south, or east as the case may be." Dakota chuckled. "This incident has basically gotten me off my ass and given me a pretty good idea of what direction I should probably head."
Bobby nudged his brother with his elbow. "What about Ellison?"
"Who's Ellison?" Tony asked, looking back and forth between the two civilians.
"My roommate." Dakota shrugged. "We had essentially parted ways before you arrived," the singer said, looking up at his brother.
Panetti stared unhappily at the smaller man for several moments. "What about your degree?"
"Singers really don't need doctorates, Bobby. But if something can be easily arranged, I might go ahead and defend since it's written and everything."
"And just where do I fit in this new life of yours?"
Dakota frowned. "You're always going to be my brother. Nothing can change that."
"Well, I call dibs on being your manager."
"You heard me."
"But, you got a life and--"
The big man gently pressed his hand to his brother's lips. "Look, I have a corporate job. A good job, no doubt. But I'm tired of the New York financial scene, I'm tired of everyone combing through everything I put my hands on looking for evidence of foul play, and I'm tired of the Feds following me around all the time. No offense guys."
"None taken." Matt grinned, while Tony rolled his eyes.
"You gotta admit that someone needs to look after you, someone you trust; and you sure as hell aren't going to find anyone out there as good with finances as I am. Besides, if Ellison is off-sides now, you're going to need a keeper. Let's face it, kid, your first day back on the scene and you're already in the middle of a firefight in a building rigged to explode with nothing more than a guitar in your hands. There's no way I'm sitting on the sidelines and letting you have all the fun."
The agents chuckled, despite their situation. "He's got a point, kid," Tony said.
Dakota looked at the men in front of him then smiled. "Does this mean you guys are in?"
Romano looked down at his smaller partner, who simply nodded. "We're in. But it's going to take a while to get untangled from this mess."
"Understood." Dakota minutely shook his head back and forth, overwhelmed by their acceptance. "My guess is that the next few days are going to be a bit on the wild side"
Bobby laughed. "You have a serious talent for understatement, bro."
Dakota put his hand in the middle of the group and waited until each man put a hand on top of his. "All right, then. Let's do it."
Two SWAT members climbed on stage and converged on their position. "HANDS IN THE AIR!" one of the officers yelled.
"Hey, man, we're just the band," Dakota called out with a laugh as the group raised their hands as one.
"Simon, have you seen Sandburg?" Jim called out in a loud voice, pushing his way through the various agents and hostages toward his boss.
"You mean he's not with you?" Simon shouted in exasperation.
"He was on stage last time I saw him."
"Jones and his family were whisked out of here as soon as the outside agents entered the premises," a woman volunteered, just before she was jostled into Jim by the crowd.
"Were any of them hurt?" Jim asked intently, while he helped steady her.
"They didn't appear to be."
"Ellison," a voice called over the P.A. system.
Jim looked up and saw O'Rourke waving him over to the edge of the small stage. Looking back at his boss, he sighed, knowing he wasn't going to be able to find Sandburg anytime soon. Together, he and Simon waded through the crowd toward the agent.
Simon took a sip of coffee from his Styrofoam cup. "So the fourth floor basically held a group of jewelers?"
O'Rourke nodded. "A conservative estimate is that they had approximately six million dollars in uncut jewels between the ten of them."
Simon grimaced as the lukewarm coffee hit his taste buds and set the cup on the formica-topped table. "And two Saudi bearer bondsmen were on five?"
"With nearly one billion dollars worth of bonds between them. Six had a diplomat with sensitive documents concerning the Middle East, documents which would have brought in a substantial amount of money if sold to the highest bidder."
Jim rubbed both hands over his face then set his elbows on the table. "So what was on twelve?"
O'Rourke looked uncomfortable for a moment, like he was debating whether or not to share that particular information, but then simply shrugged. "One of our top nuclear scientists. He was on a layover, visiting a friend on his way to Washington to brief one of the Senate subcommittees on his team's latest findings. The damage to our nuclear program would have been devastating if they'd gotten their hands on either him or his plans. There are countries that would have paid astronomical sums just to have photocopies of his research. While the scientist escaped during the initial takeover, all of his documents were in his room."
"So in the end, it was just about greed?" Jim sighed and leaned back in his chair.
"Yes. This group, however, was a little more inventive than most. Misdirecting the reasons for the siege, combining the thefts and destroying the building to cover their tracks... it would have taken us years to sort it all out." O'Rourke patted his shirt pocket, looking for cigarettes. "If you two hadn't found a way to get the hostages out of the building and us in, I don't even want to think about what the body count could have been."
"We're happy we could be of service," Simon said, taking the lid off his cigar holder and holding it out to the agent.
The agent smiled his thanks and slowly withdrew a cigar from the case. "You two are going to be touted as heroes; expect commendations out the whazoo. Also, every news station in the country is going to want to talk to you about your experience. Be prepared for your life to be turned into a three-ring circus for the next couple of weeks."
"I don't suppose we can keep our names out of this?" Jim asked with a hopeful smile.
"Sorry. My director has, no doubt, already sung your praises during the first press conference which was," O'Rourke looked at his wristwatch, "approximately eight hours ago."
"Well, at least one good thing has come out of having to write a report -- it kept us out of the spotlight for a while." Jim shared a smile with Simon then pushed a small stack of papers toward the agent. "All signed, sealed and delivered."
"When can we pick up our other man?" Simon asked, putting the lid back on his case, tucking it into his jacket pocket, and giving the agent his stack of paperwork as well.
O'Rourke blinked in confusion. "Other man?"
"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg. He was there as Dakota Jones with, we think, two of your agents," Simon said, his frown growing as understanding didn't appear to be dawning on the agent's face.
"You mean he wasn't Dakota Jones?"
"No, he was... is." Simon sighed. "It's... complicated."
"Mr. Jones has already been briefed by other agents. From statements taken from hostages in the conference room, things were starting to get rather ugly before his group showed up. He may very well have saved dozens of lives."
"What about the agents who were with him?" Jim asked, leaning forward in his chair.
O'Rourke opened a leather notebook and sifted through several sheets of paper. "Yes, Romano and Wilson. They've been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation." The agent scanned the report. "Apparently, Jones has made the statement that he went to them and asked for help. They were originally assigned to tail his brother who is suspected of having mob ties. He told the interviewing agent that he would have made the attempt on his own had they not agreed to help him." O'Rourke looked up at Jim and shook his head. "Poor guys were basically caught between a rock and a hard place. Damned if they did, and damned if they didn't. They'll probably get off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist though. The agency isn't going to cut off its nose to punish them for bringing civilians into a bad situation, not when they probably saved a number of hostages with their delaying tactics. We'd be crucified by the media and public alike."
Jim shut his eyes for a moment, but struggled to open them a moment later, fighting his body's urge to sleep for a week. "Where's Sand... I mean, Jones now?"
O'Rourke looked at his papers. "He was briefed and released four hours ago."
Simon leaned forward in his chair. "Any idea where he went?"
"No. Do you want me to find out?"
"Yes, we'd appreciate it," Simon said in a tired voice. Pushing himself to his feet, he pointed a finger at Jim and swung it toward the door. "Come on, Jim. Let's get some sleep."
"Jim, O'Rourke will contact us as soon as he's located Sandburg. Right now, we both need some sleep before we collapse. Besides, talking to the kid while you're on the brink of exhaustion is guaranteed to be a recipe for disaster." Simon turned his attention back to the Fed. "O'Rourke, you'll arrange for someone to take us to a hotel?"
The agent's hands moved to the phone. "Of course."
Jim took a deep breath and released it slowly, then nodded. Pushing himself to his feet, he silently followed his captain out of the room.
"Has O'Rourke called?" Simon asked with a yawn and a stretch as he practically stumbled from his bedroom into the suite portion of their room.
Jim muted the television set. "It wasn't necessary."
Jim pointed at the television. The screen flashed a picture of a female reporter standing in front of the Chase Hotel. A 'Dakota Jones alive and well' graphic sat in the corner of the frame.
The captain sat on the couch next to his detective. "Did you get any sleep?"
"Yeah, about ten hours worth," Jim acknowledged. "I got up about twenty minutes ago."
"So how are we going to get the kid out of there with no one seeing him?" Simon asked, looking back at the television.
Jim stood and walked to the center of the room. He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped, and began pacing back and forth in front of the coffee table.
"Talk to me, Jim."
"He's not coming back."
"He's not... at the hotel he said..."
"You talked to him at the hotel?"
"No. He talked to me under his breath before he started singing."
"I see." Simon rubbed his eyebrows with one hand while resting his head on the back of the couch. "And he said something that led you to believe he wouldn't be coming back to Cascade?"
Simon raised his head and looked at his distressed friend. "Not to bust your chops here, Jim, but isn't that what you wanted?"
"I thought it was, sir."
"I can't leave it like this between us."
Surprised eyes blinked at the captain. "What do you mean 'why not'?"
"Remember why you're on this trip in the first place, detective? You wanted to go back to a time before Sandburg, to a time when you worked on your own. You felt like you couldn't trust him anymore. You thought he sold you out to the mob. So pardon my asking, but what's changed?"
Jim stopped his pacing, his voice becoming ice. "He didn't sell me out to the mob, sir."
Simon smiled gently at his detective. "I'm glad you realize that now, but it doesn't really change the question."
Jim dropped his chin to his chest. "I... I didn't know."
The captain closed his eyes, not sure if he really wanted to have this conversation with his friend. "Didn't you?" the question was asked gently after nearly a full minute of silence.
"Thought you'd have time to get used to the idea? Thought that as long as he toed the party line, everything would work out? Thought if you didn't speak the words out loud, you wouldn't have to face how you felt, what he meant to you? That if you didn't acknowledge the feelings, it wouldn't hurt when he left?"
Jim swallowed hard, his eyes raising to meet his captain's. "Am I really that much of a bastard?"
Simon shook his head and smiled gently at his friend. "No. Not really. Hard-nosed, pig-headed -- yes. A bastard -- no. Truth be told, I'm not sure what I'd do in your position?"
"I'm not even going to try to pretend to understand your bond with Sandburg, other than to say that I know a bond exists, exists on levels that most people could never even imagine. I watched Sandburg's enthusiasm over finding his sentinel morph from hero worship to friendship to a deep and abiding love to an almost soul-wrenching fear. I've watched him struggle with concepts completely foreign to him, trying to figure out a way to balance them in his life with you, and then watched him as he gave them up."
"Because he thought I'd reject him?"
"Jim, I'm not here to condemn you. You also know there isn't anyone on the planet who understands you better than Sandburg. I think if the dissertation fiasco hadn't happened he would have toed the party line, stuffed all his feelings down deep and been content just to be a part of your life."
Simon closed his eyes and sighed softly. "And now, he's decided to let you go, so that you can be happy. You have your life as a cop and he has his... whatever you want to call it." Simon gestured toward the television.
Jim turned and stared at the television set. "What if I don't want to be a cop anymore without him?"
"I can't answer that for you, Jim. Only you can."
"I'm sorry, sir, but I am under strict orders. I can neither confirm nor deny that Mr. Jones is in this hotel," the flustered desk clerk apologized.
"Look, Miss. My name is Detective James Ellison." Jim flipped his badge onto the counter. "I may be from Cascade, but I'm still a--"
"James Ellison?" the woman repeated in surprise.
"Yes," Jim said slowly, startled by the look on the woman's face.
"My brother Mark works at the Hilton. He said you found him and took him to safety," the woman whispered, her eyes brimming with tears.
The woman glanced quickly over her shoulder to the office behind her. "I can't tell you the room number, sir, or I'll lose my job, but I can let them know that you're here."
"Thank you. That would be much appreciated."
"No, it's the least I can do to thank you for my brother's life.
Jim paced nervously around the small office, not understanding why he had been requested to wait on the ground floor instead of being allowed up to the penthouse. The door handle jiggled and he turned, expectantly. A large man slid around the door and shut it deliberately behind him. Jim blinked once in surprise but said nothing.
"You must be Ellison," the man said, holding out his hand in greeting.
"I am." Jim shook the hand perfunctorily.
"I'm Roberto Panetti."
"We meet at last."
The bigger man chuckled at Jim's droll tone. "I wish it was under better circumstances."
"Oh? How so?"
Panetti ran a hand over the top of his head and down his ponytail. "He's not going to come down, Jim."
"He wants you two to have a clean break."
"He does, does he? I see."
Jim started for the door, but Bobby raised his hands, placatingly. "No. You don't."
"You want to explain it to me then?" Jim asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Bobby fell back lightly against the door. "I didn't read his dissertation."
Jim opened his mouth to protest, but Panetti cut him off.
"I wish to God, now, I had." When Jim started physically, Bobby laughed. "I feel like I'm in a play, but someone forgot to give me the second act. It seems like everything I try to say to make him feel better doesn't make any sense because I don't know what he's been through. All I know is that Naomi screwed up, big time. But you know Naomi, so that shouldn't be too big of a surprise." Bobby pushed himself off the door and walked to the other side of the tiny room. "I also know that you know who I am or at least who my father is. We both know that the files I destroyed had something to do with you. I also know that you don't have a single good reason to trust me or believe me when I say that I didn't look at the files."
Jim sighed heavily, but said nothing.
"But I didn't. I'm not my old man. But I also know I have no way to prove that to you, and at this point, quite frankly, I'm sick of trying to convince everyone that I'm not my father's son... if you know what I mean. There's only one man on this planet who knows where I come from and trusts me implicitly. I would move mountains for that man. If need be, I'd kill for him. But you have no way of ascertaining that for yourself, no reason to believe me. And, to tell you the truth, I respect that position. Trust must be earned and we don't even know each other."
Bobby walked back to the door then turned to face Jim. "But you know him. And knowing him, you should realize that he would never knowingly betray you."
Panetti took a deep breath and released it very slowly. "Look, I know you're his holy grail. I don't know what that means, I just know what it means to him. He's at a crossroads at the moment. He feels like a failure, like he's let you down somehow. He's terrified out of his mind at the moment. Oh, not that anyone else besides you and me would ever realize it, but he is. For the first time in his life, he's without direction, without purpose. He's hurting and vulnerable. And until you know what it is you want, I'm not letting you anywhere near him."
Bobby brought both hands up in front of his face and released another breath over them. "I'm sorry, Jim. God, I can't tell you how sorry I am." Bobby looked like he wanted to say more, but then simply shook his head and slipped back out of the room leaving Jim standing in bewilderment.
TWO MONTHS LATER:
"Take one more step and I'll drop you where you stand."
Dakota blinked his eyes open and listened to the darkness. Was he still dreaming? The cocking of a gun convinced him that he wasn't.
"Matt?" he called out quietly.
"Stay put, Dakota," the agent hissed.
"Blair," another voice called out quietly, almost in a whisper.
"Okay, everyone, I'm going to turn on a light," Dakota said in warning, fumbling with the lamp beside his bed, and hoping that the sentinel would remember to turn down his vision.
The scene which unfolded before him would have been funny if it was happening to anyone else but him. Jim Ellison stood statue still just inside his balcony door, while Matt hovered beside his bed and Tony filled the doorway.
"It's okay, guys. Stand down." Tony lowered his automatic, but Matt kept his weapon trained on the intruder. "Matthew," he whispered, patting the agent's leg. "It's okay. Really."
Reluctantly, Matt lowered his weapon.
"Why don't you guys give us a few minutes," Dakota suggested when no one in the room moved. "I'm safe. Really."
The two agents frowned, reluctance stiffening their movements, but finally they acquiesced to his request.
"We'll be outside if you need us," Matt said quietly before he left the room, deliberately leaving the door open.
Dakota turned to face his intruder and waited patiently for the man to speak.
"My icebreaker about your needing better security obviously isn't going to work as well as I'd hoped," Jim finally said.
Dakota smiled, then pushed up so that he was sitting with his back against the headboard of his bed. "It's one of the advantages of having former agents as bodyguards, I suppose."
Jim nodded, but said nothing.
"So... Jim... what brings you to Oceanside at," Dakota looked at the digital clock beside his bed, "two o'clock in the morning?"
Jim smirked, his posture softening when he heard the humor in his friend's voice. The smile faded though when he began to speak. "I wanted to talk to you."
"You couldn't have called?"
"I have called; several times, in fact."
Dakota opened his mouth to speak, then sighed. "Bobby?"
Jim nodded, leaning back against the frame of the balcony door.
"That's my fault. I told him I couldn't talk to you in Chicago. I didn't think he'd take that to mean forever."
Both men fell silent again.
"I'm sorry," Jim said after several moments of silence.
"It was a knee-jerk reaction."
Dakota smiled without condescension. "It always was."
"I do trust you."
"To a point."
Dakota sighed. "It means you always expected me to be like everyone else. You were convinced that I'd eventually betray or leave you."
"Didn't you? Leave me, that is."
Dakota smiled sadly. "I didn't leave you; you left me." Jim opened his mouth to speak, but Dakota cut him off. "I'm not interested in a debate on semantics. You're fully aware of what I mean."
They remained silent for nearly a minute.
"So why are you here, Jim?"
The sentinel opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
"Let me tell you a story, okay?" Dakota smiled gently at his friend and patted the bed beside him. "You ever wonder about Blair's fascination with sentinels?"
Jim sat where he was told, then frowned for a moment, but nodded.
"After Naomi left Bobby's father, she began wandering again, eventually ending up in New Mexico. They lived on a Navajo reservation for a couple of years, where they were accepted and taken into the tribe. Blair thought... hoped really... that Thomas would be the one to finally capture Naomi's heart, but it wasn't meant to be. Be that as it may be, Thomas' father was the tribe's shaman. He felt himself useless, tied too deeply to the old ways during a time when the members of his tribe were beginning to embrace more modern ways and technology. Blair also felt himself useless, adrift in the world with no home to call his own. Together, each found what they were searching for in the other."
Dakota drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "The shaman realized as he was dying that the boy needed purpose in his life, something to help him through the grief of finding himself adrift again, and so he told him about sentinels. He told Blair that he had been destined to teach one, to show him the joys of his gifts. I don't know if he really thought Blair would find one or if he was simply giving him a holy grail to work toward. I only know that it gave the boy a reason."
"To live. He would find his sentinel and make his grandfather proud."
Dakota edged to the side of the bed and stood up, pacing to the dresser and back for nearly a minute before he continued his story. "But what Blair forgot was that once a lesson has been imparted, the teacher must step back and let his student fly. To hold on is to add weight to the student, preventing him from becoming what he was destined to be."
"Why are you talking about yourself in third person?"
Dakota smiled sadly. "Blair was a teacher. He accomplished what he set out to do. I'm not a teacher, man; at least, not in the same capacity. I thought it best to shed the old ways and embrace the new. Even teachers must evolve."
"You once told me that Dakota wasn't real."
"He wasn't. While the teacher existed, there was no room for Dakota, no purpose."
"So there was only one student for this teacher?"
"You make it sound like it's a bad thing."
"I'm sorry, Blair. I'm so sorry."
Dakota stopped his pacing and frowned. "Why are you sorry, man? I'm the one who should be sorry for holding you back for so long. I was just scared to let go, was afraid to develop into something else, sort of like the caterpillar who was afraid to change into the butterfly."
"But what of the sentinel's guide, his companion through all things?"
"Blair's mistake, Jim, was that he didn't take evolution into account. Warriors live with a certain tribe mentality. Everyone has their specific place within the tribe. A guide's job was to keep the sentinel in the here and now, to keep him from feeling completely isolated from the tribe, to act as a liaison between the tribe and the sentinel. However, a modern sentinel isn't kept isolated from the people he protects; he now works within the tribe. You excelled in your lessons and became more than Burton ever dreamed possible. You don't need a guide, just a hand from time to time when things become overwhelming, something anyone in the department can handle."
"I see," Jim said frostily.
"No, you don't, but that's okay. You will someday."
"Are you sure it's not the guide who doesn't need the sentinel anymore?"
Dakota squatted before the older man and asked patiently, "What did you tell Blair just before you left for Chicago?"
Jim dropped his gaze to his hands. "I was angry."
Patting Jim's hands, Dakota stood and began to pace again. "Of course you were. You'd been betrayed."
"What did you say, Jim?"
The older man swallowed hard. "I said it was time for me to fly solo."
Dakota stopped and turned toward Jim. "You were right, you know? It was time. It's scary to go off into the world on one's own, but Blair knew you could do it or he'd never have left."
"So the sentinel doesn't need a guide anymore?"
"No. He's his own man."
"But what if Jim still needs Blair?"
Dakota blinked. "What?"
Jim stood then closed the distance between them. Looking down into Dakota's face, he asked again, "What if Jim still needs Blair?"
"I... uh... that is... we'll always be... friends."
"What if I don't want to be friends with Dakota Jones? What if I only want to be friends with Blair Sandburg?"
Dakota placed a hand on Jim's chest and gently, but firmly, pressed the older man back, putting space between them. "This is who I am now, Jim. You either deal with it or don't, but it's not my problem."
"So that's the way it is now?"
Dakota laughed harshly. "That's just rich. What am I supposed to do, man? Just drop everything? Do you really think I can go back to Cascade, finish my dissertation and ride along with you from time-to-time? Get real."
"Like the fame, do you?"
"You son of a bitch," Dakota shouted. "Even if I wanted to go back, I couldn't and you know it. People have given up their lives for me. Am I just supposed to tell Tony and Matt, 'Gee, thanks for the sacrifice guys, but I'm going to pretend none of this happened?' What about my brother?" Dakota spun and stormed to the balcony door. "Do you think that news crews aren't going to be following me around 24/7? What of the tribe's safety? Do you think I'm ever going to get any peace as Blair Sandburg? Do you think students would ever listen to him again, hear what I... he has to impart as opposed to seeing the trappings surrounding him."
"Blair's dead, Jim. He died the moment the helicopter landed on the Hyatt's roof. He gave his life in the hopes of saving just a few of those hostages, in the hopes of maybe saving you."
"Well, wasn't that just fucking noble of him?"
Dakota dropped his chin to his chest and whispered, "I think you need to leave now."
"DAKOTA, damn you!"
Jim raised his hands beseechingly. "I'm sorry... Dakota. This wasn't why I came."
The singer took a deep breath and released it slowly, centering himself. "I know, Jim. I'm sorry, too. I just wasn't expecting it to be this... hard."
"What are we going to do?"
Dakota turned and looked outside. "We're going to say good-bye."
"I don't want that," Jim whispered.
Dakota leaned his forehead against the door frame. "I know. But as you said, Jim, you don't want to be friends with Dakota Jones, and, quite frankly, I don't know that you two would have much in common. I think this is for the best."
Jim stood in silence for several minutes, then moved slowly toward the hall. He stopped once he reached the doorway. "Blair Sandburg saved my life years before he stepped onto the roof of the Hyatt. He taught me not only what it meant to be a sentinel, but a human being as well. He taught me how to be part of the tribe when I thought myself isolated. I am a far richer person for having known him."
Dakota listened to his former partner move out into the hallway, but didn't turn to see him leave, knowing it would destroy him.
"D?" Matt called from the doorway, but didn't enter the room.
The singer lifted his hand to indicate that he was okay, but didn't turn. He heard the former agent whisper to the others but they left him alone.
"Grandfather," the former teacher croaked to the heavens in grief. "Why did you send him back to me when you know I can't be with him? I did everything you said I should. I taught him everything I knew about sentinels. God knows I stayed by his side longer than I should have." Blair collapsed to his knees and wrapped his arms around his middle. "Was it so wrong to want to stay? Am I being punished for thinking I could walk beside him on the path? Please," he sobbed quietly. "Please forgive my arrogance, for failing you, and for not understanding what I'm supposed to do."
ONE MONTH LATER:
"Topping today's entertainment news, Dakota Jones, after over a decade away from the music scene and currently number one on the Billboard charts with his platinum number one smash hit, 'Can You Hear Me?', found himself in the middle of a terrifying kidnapping attempt. If not for the quick thinking of several of his management people, Jones would in all likelihood be dead. A search of the kidnapper's car trunk revealed chains, a sedative commonly used on horses and a six inch serrated hunting knife. Jones is currently in seclusion and the music world waits to see if this incident is enough to push the musician back out of the limelight for another ten year hiatus."
TWO WEEKS LATER:
"The security consultant I was telling you about is here."
Dakota slowly drew his gaze away from the picture window and looked toward his brother, who was standing just inside his room. "I'm sorry, Bobby. I just can't deal with this right now. Do you and Tony or Matt mind taking care of the interview? I trust you all to know what's best."
The large Italian closed the distance between them, knelt beside his brother's chair, and gently cupped the younger man's chin in his hand. "We've already taken care of the interview, kid. All three of us are in agreement; this is the guy we want. He's got military and police experience out the yingyang, he has several physical qualifications which make him uniquely well suited for this job and his rates are incredibly reasonable."
"He sounds great. Sign him up."
"We already have."
Dakota smiled sweetly at him and tried to turn back to the window, but his brother's grip on his chin made movement impossible.
"Was there something else?" the singer asked quietly.
"I miss you, Beej."
Bobby slid his thumb over his brother's lips. "I miss your laughter and the joy in your eyes."
Dakota blinked sadly at him.
"The guys and I have decided it's time to take steps to remedy the situation."
The big man nodded. "I want you to meet with this security consultant and listen to everything he has to say."
Dakota sighed. "Okay," he mouthed.
"He's downstairs. You just stay here and I'll send him up. Okay?"
"Good boy." Bobby dropped his hands to the arms of the chair and pushed himself to his feet. Leaning over, he brushed his lips over the singer's forehead. "I predict that things are going to get better very soon."
"From your lips, man." Dakota smiled at his brother.
"They will, trust me."
"You know I do."
Dakota turned back to stare out the window. The ocean view was magnificent, very relaxing. In another life, he might have sat on the beach and meditated. But now, he was content to sit and lose himself in thought.
Dakota blinked, then slowly turned to face the familiar tenor voice. He blinked again as he took in the man with the expensive, black, tailored suit standing in front of his chair.
"Jim?" he asked in confusion.
"That's right. James Ellison, Sentinel Security Consulting."
"I... I don't understand."
"I've been hired by your brother and your managers to oversee all aspects of your safety. They are, understandably, upset by the kidnap attempt last week."
"But what, sir?"
"You're a cop."
"Not any longer. I retired a few weeks ago after I decided I wanted to strike out on my own."
"But what about Cascade? Your tribe? Simon?"
The consultant studied him for a moment. "I see that it's going to be necessary to fill you in a little on my background."
"I beg your pardon?"
"This will go a lot easier if you don't interrupt, sir," Jim said as he moved to the chair beside Dakota's and sat down.
"I'm about to share some personal information with you and I'd appreciate your not sharing it with anyone other than your brother, your road manager and your agent, who I'm told also plays the violin in your band. I've already told them this information, but for your safety, sir, I would rather it wasn't bandied about with anyone else. My business partners know, of course, but we believe I would seriously lose my edge if this information were to become public."
"I'm sorry. Shutting up now."
Jim took a deep breath. "I have heightened senses."
"What?" Dakota laughed incredulously.
"It means I can see better, hear farther, feel--"
"I know what it means, Jim!"
"Then you know that people like me are called sentinels?"
"Of course." Dakota shook his head in confusion. "Have I just made a right hand turn into the Twilight Zone?"
"I don't think so, sir. Anyway, I was blessed with a teacher, a man who knew what I was, and taught me to not only understand my gifts, but appreciate them as well."
Dakota smiled gently at the earnest man before him.
"However, as brilliant as Blair Sandburg was, he made one critical error in his studies."
Dakota leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Yes. Blair believed, and quite frankly, he had scads of primary research to back up his beliefs so it really wasn't his fault that he didn't extrapolate his theory farther, that sentinels were meant to protect the tribe."
"And they're not?"
"Well, yes and no."
"Care to explain?"
Jim grinned brilliantly at him. "I'd love to. You see, Blair believed that sentinels had evolved to a point where they didn't need guides because sentinels were no longer isolated on the borders, and almost anyone could help prevent a sentinel from zoning or being overwhelmed by his senses if they knew what to look for."
Jim sat back and steepled his fingers in front of his chest. "But, what he failed to realize, and I personally think it was because he was so focused on his sentinel studies, was that while guides were essential in integrating the sentinels back into the tribe, their roles within the tribe evolved as well. I postulate that given the evolutionary growth of these pairs and the fact that tribes now face different types of danger, it's become the sentinel's job, given his unique abilities, to protect the guide, who in turned serves the tribe."
Dakota blinked slowly as he absorbed what he was being told. "Interesting theory," he said finally.
"Isn't it though?" Jim moved to the edge of his seat. "Blair was told by his grandfather that he was destined to find a sentinel who had lost his way. Blair assumed that he was to teach this wayward sentinel, which he did, admirably. But what he failed to realize was that it was not his destiny to stand by his sentinel, but his sentinel's destiny to stand by him, to protect him while he made his way through the world, thereby making the world their tribe."
Dakota shook his head. "No, he said that Blair's place was beside one specific individual and, in turn, his tribe. He didn't say that the sentinel was supposed to stand by him."
"You're arguing semantics here, sir. If two men are standing next to each other, is one man standing closer than the other?"
"But your tribe?"
"What? The world can't be our tribe?"
"But Blair's gone. Dakota--"
"In the Navajo culture, isn't Coyote notorious for coming to shaman in different forms to teach them?" Jim interrupted.
"So therefore it would stand to reason that a shaman would take on different forms to teach as well, wouldn't it?"
"So while his teaching persona might be well known, the teacher himself might only choose to reveal his true face to a select few."
Dakota grinned widely at him. "Yeah, I could see that."
"And in his travels around the world, a guide, his sentinel and various tribe members might even take on completely different personas to help people in need, if the occasion should arise."
Dakota frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean what if the FBI didn't exactly fire certain agents for their unorthodox behavior in a crisis situation? What if they were, in fact, pleased by their agents' ability to think outside the box? And what if these agents, while no longer officially on the payroll, had expressed a willingness to take on certain assignments given the wonderful cover they now have?" Jim asked in a slower tone, an eyebrow raising on his forehead.
"They'd still be protecting the tribe," Dakota whispered.
Jim nodded, apparently pleased with his student's deductive reasoning.
"And these business partners of yours?"
"Former associates, who like the idea of thinking outside the box."
Dakota smiled. "Perhaps a certain Captain from a large metropolitan police department?"
"Yes, but probably not the one you would expect."
"My previous supervisor has made the decision to go into politics. However, a mutual friend of ours has decided that being a detective isn't that much less stressful than being on the bomb squad. He's decided he'd like to explore the realm of private security."
"Really. There's also an amateur guitar player with delusions of grandeur."
"About the delusions? No."
Dakota chuckled. "Anyone else?"
"Yes, two others; one of whom is determined to instruct you in the ways of wardrobe. Apparently, guides have appalling tastes in fashion."
"I am not taking fashion advice from Megan!"
"That's what Rafe said as well, although he does agree with her assessment."
"No offense was intended, sir. I'm only repeating what I've been told."
Dakota's smile faded and he swallowed hard. "Why?"
"Why do you need fashion advice?
Blair shook his head. "Why are they doing this?"
Jim shrugged. "Sex and rock and roll?"
"You forgot drugs."
"With this crowd? I think not."
Dakota chuckled, but quickly sobered. "Jim, this is insane. Are you telling me that our friends are willing to give up their way of life to follow me?"
"Who says they're giving up their lives? They're all single. They want to see the world, to live life to the fullest, to live outside of the box for a change."
"I don't understand.
"It's not that difficult, sir. Blair Sandburg touched a lot of people in the short amount of time he was a guide. By example, he showed that there was more than one way to protect the tribe."
Dakota dropped his gaze to his hands and cleared his throat. He chewed on his lower lip for several moments, trying to keep his emotions in check. Raising his eyes, he finally asked, "Can I afford to have this many people on my staff?"
"I think you better start praying that you aren't a one-hit wonder, singing boy." Jim laughed, then slapped a hand on his thigh and stood.
"Where... where are you going?"
"I've got to make arrangements to move your new staff onto the premises. I mean, you have enough room. You don't have a problem with that, do you?"
"Of course not. I just thought... that is to say..."
"When I come back this evening, I'd really like to see my guide. You know, for old time's sake?" Jim walked to the door, then turned to face his employer. "See, I don't think he really died on that rooftop. I think he just felt it best to fade into the woodwork, sort of like you did ten years ago. Do you think you can arrange a meeting?"
Dakota nodded. "Yeah, Jim. I think I can."
"Good. I'll see you later then, sir." And with that, the new security consultant left.
Blair Sandburg paced nervously back and forth in front of his picturesque ceiling to floor windows. The afternoon had been spent opening the west wing of his mansion and directing movers who swarmed through his house like ants.
He had greeted old friends, people he thought he'd never see again, and was surprised by the warmth of their response. Several times he had to leave the bustle of activity and find a quiet spot in order to maintain some semblance of emotional balance.
Dinner had been a riotous affair with lots of laughing and shouting. The only drawback to the event had been Jim's conspicuous absence.
Blair had also been aware of the incredibly smug smile gracing his brother's face during the entire evening and vowed to get him alone at the first possible opportunity so that he could properly thank the man.
Arrangements had been made for a formal lunch meeting the next day, but instead of lingering around to talk, everyone made their apologies, saying they wanted to settle in a bit before bedtime, and disappeared.
Finding himself alone, Blair wandered back up to his room. The pacing began soon after.
A quiet rap on his door around midnight startled him and froze him in place.
"Come," he finally managed to whisper.
The door opened to reveal his missing partner.
Nervously, Blair ran his fingers through his short, curly, blond hair. "Hello, Jim."
"Sandburg," Jim acknowledged quietly as he shut the door and dropped a duffel bag in front of it.
"Everyone's settled," Blair told him, playing with the hem of his flannel shirt.
"Good." Jim closed the distance between them. "Has the organizational meeting been set up for tomorrow?"
Blair fidgeted nervously. "Yeah. Noon."
Without another word, Jim wrapped his arms around his partner and held him tight. "I've missed you so much," he finally whispered after several minutes of silence.
"God, Jim, I missed you, too."
"I'm never letting you out of my sight again."
Blair chuckled, even as he tightened his arms around his sentinel. "Okay."
"From now on, we walk the path together."
Blair nodded, refusing to let go of his friend. "Works for me."
FIVE YEARS LATER:
"Thank you for allowing us to explore your beautiful home, Dakota. I understand you're in the midst of prepping for your next world tour?"
"That's right. We'll be spending the next nine months on the road, starting here in the States, then flying over to Japan, and hitting Australia, South Africa, and Europe, before heading home again."
"Promoting your latest album, 'Holy Grail'?"
"It's already shooting up the charts. Do you think it'll do as well as your albums 'One Tribe' and 'Love Found, At Last'?"
"That would certainly be nice, but I don't really worry about things like that. I just sing what I enjoy and let everything else fall into place."
"So the fact that you're up for three Grammy's doesn't do anything for you?"
"You're putting words in my mouth, Katie. Of course, I like the recognition from my peers, but it's not my be all, end all. I'll still be singing even if I never win another award."
"Sandy, where's the... Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we still had guests."
"No, problem, Megs. Katie, this is my sister-in-law. Megan Panetti."
"I'm sorry to interrupt, love, but Tony's having a fit. He hasn't locked down security in Athens yet and if he doesn't get the package soon he's going to start playing his opera and you know how that drives me crazy."
"Talk to Jim. I think he's in Operations."
"Okay, thanks, love. Sorry again about interrupting."
"So that was--"
"Goddamn it, D. You know... er... I'm sorry. I didn't realize the camera crew was still here."
"Um, is there something you need, Matt?"
"It can wait. I'll talk to you later... but rest assured we are going to talk."
"So, Katie, any chance you can spend the night?"
"Do you think it'll get you out of 'the talk'?"
"I wish, but no, not really."
"You seem to have quite a tribe here."
"I do. I've been truly blessed in that regard."
"So does that make you the chief?"
"Hell, no. You couldn't pay me enough to take on those responsibilities."
"Well, if you're not the chief, then who is?"
"Jim Ellison. He's the head honcho around here. He's got organizational skills that most CEOs would kill for."
"So you're second in command?"
"No, I'm just the singer."
"Just the singer?"
"Yeah. Joel's in charge of charities, Tony oversees security, Matt manages my career, H is in charge of touring, Bobby does finances, Rafe acts as liaison with the public, and Megan basically takes care of all of us."
"Rafe was certainly busy on your last tour. Your organization's humanitarian efforts have become practically legendary. How do you do it?"
"When we see a problem, we get involved. We can't just turn a blind eye when people are in need or in trouble. If we were to simply walk past them, we would ultimately damage ourselves as well as our spirits."
"We're going to have to cut this short, Tony has a situation he needs us to review."
"And this is?"
"Ah, the CEO of your organization. So what exactly do you do, Jim?"
"I take care of Dakota."
"A job that millions would like to have."
"Ah, but only one can do it right, Katie."
"Well said, Dakota. Do you mind one last question before we go?"
"Not at all. Shoot."
"You once told me that you were looking for your holy grail. Your new album suggests that you might have found it. Did you?"
"Yes. Found it, lost it and got it back again, bigger and better than ever."
"Well, thank you, Dakota, for spending time with us when I know you've got a million other things to do."
"No problem, Katie. Bobby, do you mind showing Ms. Couric and her crew out?"
"Not at all, bro. This way, ma'am."
"I meant to ask you earlier how the interview went this afternoon?" Jim asked, looking up from his book as his guide slipped into the study. As they did every night, they waited for Dakota to collapse and transform himself back into one slightly rumpled, ex-anthropology student.
"Better than I expected. Thank God Barbara retired, otherwise I probably would have blubbered like an idiot again." Blair sat on the end of the couch and put a foot in his friend's lap, giving Jim a pleading look. He grinned brilliantly when his sentinel gave him a much put-upon sigh, but reached for the foot anyway. "She actually asked me several questions about the meaning of my songs instead of rehashing the fact that my brother was once suspected of having mob ties or asking me if I was going to run away from the spotlight again."
Jim massaged the foot in his lap for several moments. "You know we've been at this for a while now."
"What do you mean, you just started."
Jim rolled his eyes and affectionately squeezed the foot in his hands. "You know what I mean."
Blair grinned at him. "Yeah, I do."
"So are you happy with your life now, teacher?"
Blair met his sentinel's gaze and smiled. "Yes, very. I used to worry about what you gave up for me, but then I remembered what you said about two men standing next to each other."
"Your grandfather would be so proud of everything you've accomplished."
"Everything we've accomplished, Jim."
"You've put a lot of feet on the path over the years."
"Yeah, but there's only one person I want to walk it with."
"You know, you have a certain way with words, Chief."
Blair snuggled down into the couch as he lifted his other foot into Jim's lap. "Well, that's good to know; since I'm a singer after all."
~*~ finis ~*~
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