Thanks Besterette for the villian. Thanks Kato for the Beta.

I don't own anyone, and I sure don't make any money writing about them.


THE KEY



Crowswork






"She's the third woman found strangled this month." Simon handed the file to his best team of detectives.

There was a photo of the latest victim on top on top of the folder. "Homicide has run into a brick wall on this one. All women were in their thirties, strangled with those key chain things."

"They aren't really chains." Detective Blair Sandburg had heard rumors about the 'Keychain Killer'.

"They're lanyards or..." He stopped as he put on his glasses and saw the photograph of the murdered woman. "Karen!"

"You know her, Chief?" Jim Ellison took the picture and studied it. So far the press hadn't tied the killings together and the case hadn't gotten much coverage. "She doesn't look familiar to me."

"She works at the Herbal Emporium. She's always on the lookout for medicinal teas and suffusions for me."

The woman in the picture wore no make-up and had a fresh scrubbed prettiness that had appealed to Blair. "Poor Karen! She never had a harsh word to say about anyone. Who would do something so... so sick?" He reluctantly opened the file, a feeling of dread weighing heavy under his ribs.

"Sandburg?" Simon was frowning as he watched the young man lose what little color remained in his face.

"Sarah... Oh my God! And Lil..." Blair stared in shock first at the blown-up D.O.T license photos then at the crime scene shots, wincing at the distorted features of the victims. Seeing the puzzled looks on his friends faces, he fought down the nausea that threatened and explained as he laid the file on the desk.

"Lillian Zachary was in one of my classes at Rainier. She was returning to college after a divorce." The elegant and brilliant Lil had been a bright spot in Blair's freshman class.

"Sarah... Oh God!" Sarah Blaine had been a prostitute. Blair had met her on one of the early cases he'd worked with Jim. She had hated the 'life' and wanted out, and he'd helped her. "Sarah works in the office of Eddy's garage. We went to dinner a few weeks ago. Celebrated her graduation from business school."

Simon sighed and looked at Jim, who understood the implication of his partners statement. When Blair finally noticed the silence and gave them a confused look, Jim spoke up. "Chief, no one in homicide could find any connection between the victims."

Simon pointed to the files, now laying spread across his desk. "A socialite, a new-age herbalist and a former hooker turned office manager in a used car lot. They couldn't find a single connection between these women."

"They were friends of mine... acquaintances really." Blair fought the urge to deny any involvement in the case. Stupid, he berated himself. Coincidence, it had to be. "I hadn't seen Lil for a couple of years until we met at the museum and went for a cup of coffee. That was almost a month ago."

"Sandburg, she was the first." Jim reopened the file and scanned the report. "Killed on May second."

"The day after I met her?" Blair whispered, knowing it was true, but hating the idea that the beautiful woman had died hours after meeting him. "How did I miss the story in the papers and on the news?"

He read over Jim's shoulder and saw that she had been listed as Lillian Caruthers. Of course, Zachary was her married name and she must have changed it back eventually. She hadn't mentioned it during their brief meeting.

Sarah Blaine had apparently died the night he'd taken her to dinner. Her body hadn't been found for days, and the case hadn't made much of a splash. The neighborhood she lived in and her former profession had caused her case to be put on the backburner.

Only when Karen Komai had been found with a ribbon style, happy face, key holder around her neck had the three different investigating officers in three different precincts finally tied the cases together.

"She was killed in the backroom of the shop." Blair blinked and checked the date. "I was there that morning. She gave me some tea and we were laughing about... oh yeah, she found Jim some hypoallergenic hair mousse."

He mentally shook himself, remembering how Karen always found new products for his ultra- allergic roommate whom she had never met. He'd described the closely sheared and hair- challenged Ellison and they'd enjoyed the joke at his absent partner's expense.

"It was just two days ago. We've been on stakeout pretty much around the clock." Jim could see how guilty Blair felt that he hadn't heard of her death. They had been on the waterfront for hours, only going home long enough to fall into their beds for a few hours before returning to the chilly docks and the suspected smugglers. Jim had found the hidden cargo of Chinese immigrants before they could be injured or killed, and the Coyotes were facing some heavy time.

"You and I haven't seen a paper or newscast for days."

"I know... but still..."

"Still nothing. You were on stakeout with me when she was killed." Jim gave Simon a pointed look. "May second, we were in court all day."

"Simon, you don't think I had anything to do with this?" Blair caught the undercurrents flowing between the two veteran cops.

"No, Sandburg." Simon sighed and took back the file. "But I'll have to give this case to someone else. You have a conflict here that I can't overlook."

"I can do this Simon." Blair looked to Jim for help. "I need to do something... to solve this. I know a lot of people, it has to be a fluke."

"Blair..." Simon started.

"Oh man." You think someone killed them because of me.

"We'll know more after the reports on the DNA comes in. They found traces of semen on Caruthers and Komai."

"They were raped?" Blair cringed. This case just got more horrible as it went on.

"No sign of penetration. Maybe the perp got worked up over the murder." Simon chose his words carefully, remembering that these women were friends of Sandburg's. "There was such a small amount in each case that it made the DNA match more difficult."

"I've got to do something to help, Simon." Blair looked at the case file. "They were my friends."

"We'll need your help, Chief." Jim's tone was unusually gentle. "The dates are just too coincidental. It almost has to be connected to you in some way." The killer could have been stalking Blair for weeks. Jim suddenly pictured a shadowy figure, lurking near his guide, looking for a new victim. If someone was killing Blair's friends, might they come after Jim himself eventually? He almost hoped they would.


Rafe and Henri took the case.

As the evidence piled up, things quickly became much worse.

The DNA came back proving that the same person killed both women. The other physical evidence was tested and only one other match was found. Forensics had found a hair caught on a splinter in the doorway of the herb shop. There was enough follicle still attached to prove that the hair came from the killer. It was from a man. A man with long, very curly hair. Rafe and Henri talked to Simon, and the three of them talked to Jim.

"I'm sorry, man." Henri looked like he had that day at the fountain. Jim felt that way himself as a cold hand seemed to wrap around his heart and close slowly. "I KNOW Sandburg couldn't do something like this."

"We both do, Jim." Rafe looked like he wanted to cry. "I'd bet my life on it."

Jim looked at his friends. Simon looked like he was in pain. Rafe and Henri looked ashamed, as if they had committed some vile offense simply by reporting the facts.

Blair Sandburg was the gentlest man he knew. He was extremely considerate toward women, probably the result of being raised by a single mother. Detective Ellison might recognize the evidence as damning, but Jim refused to consider the possibility. His blue eyes narrowed and turned to ice as his jaw muscles flexed.

NEVER!

Never again would he doubt Blair. He trusted him unconditionally, and would die before he let him down again.

"I told you that he was with me when at least two of the women were murdered."

"Jim. You're his best friend... his partner. The District Attorney won't let DNA evidence slide on your word alone." Simon slumped in his chair. "You know he'll be able to pick apart both alibis."

"Are you bringing Blair in for questioning?" Anyone not knowing him might think him calm.

"We have to, Jim. We'll ask him to voluntarily submit a blood sample. If it matches... we'll take it to the DA."

"Let me tell him. OK?" Jim felt the desperation of the last few days overwhelm him. He stalked out of the office to the stairwell. Blair was down in evidence on some errand and he always used the stairs.

Jim's hearing picked up a muffled scream, the sound of someone falling, and his partner's shout echoing from three floors below. Plunging recklessly down the stairs he arrived to find Blair kneeling over Megan's body on the landing between the second and third floor. He heard her heartbeat and saw the flutter of a pulse in her throat. He also saw the coarsely woven circle of ribbon, looped around her neck, with its incongruous happy faces and it's empty key ring.

He sounded the alarm and requested an ambulance. An officer was down and her attacker was probably still in the building. Blair had covered Megan with his jacket and was trying to get her to wake up. Jim heard people on the stairs above and below. He knelt next to his friend and whispered urgently. "Go along with whatever I say... it's life or death. Just agree with me... PLEASE!"

"Jim?"

"Connor!" Simon's voice boomed from above them. "Ellison, What happened here?"

"I had just found Blair. We were talking when we heard Connor scream. We found her like this." Jim made this report sound like any other, with just the right touch of concern for his fellow officer. "I think she was attacked by the strangler and fell down the stairs during the ensuing struggle." Jim caught his friend's glance and tried to convey his desperation.

Blair was at a loss. Jim was lying about Megan's attack. He had never seen his partner so panicked about anything. You better have a great explanation buddy, he thought as he spoke. "Yeah, that's what happened."

They moved away as the paramedics worked on Megan. Jim already knew that she had a broken wrist and a major bump on her head. Please let her wake up and remember who tried to kill her, he prayed. "Simon, someone's trying to frame Blair and they came into headquarters to do it."

A woman in uniform left through the garage, pausing as she drove out onto the street to shake out her long dark hair and giggle at the close call. Who knew that Australian bitch could fight so well. And Blair... he'd been so close. It was just too perfect. He'd broken her rules and he had to be punished.

Blair would hate prison, The dark woman laughed as she thought about it. But the men who lived there would love him. For as long as he lived.


"How the hell can someone just walk in here and try to murder a police officer?" Simon raged, his voice echoing inside the conference room. "I thought we'd plugged every hole in security after Kincade and Zeller."

"It had to be someone with inside knowledge." Jim growled, as he slapped another tape into the VCR. They had been watching the tapes from the security cameras that were everywhere in the station.

The tapes could have destroyed him. He had already seen himself entering the seventh floor stairwell, and Blair starting up seconds later. The camera on the third floor had been bumped and no longer faced the door and the ones in the stairwell had stopped running. It could have happened the way he'd said. If Blair had run up the stairs. It was just possible, for him to have been with Jim when Megan was attacked.

He was painfully aware of his partner's reproach filled gaze.

He had told the others that Blair had met him on the stairs between the fifth and sixth floors.

He had lied.

He didn't care.

The only things that interested him now were the tapes. Cascade Police Headquarters was probably the most secure building in the city. There were video cameras everywhere. One of them had to have captured the killer.

He watched and imprinted to memory each unfamiliar figure. No one stood out and he finally surrendered to the headache that was threatening. "I'm going to Cascade General. I want to see if Megan's come to."

"Yeah, I'd like to see her." Blair stood up and started toward the door, only to be stopped by Simon's hand on his arm.

"Sandburg. Stay away from Megan for a while. I don't want you anywhere near her."

"What?" Blair looked at Jim, then at his captain. "Why can't I see Megan?"

"It's for your own good, Sandburg. You're the only link in these killings. If Jim hadn't been with you when Connor was attacked... well, you might be in custody right now."

Blair gaped at Simon then turned to Jim, overwhelmed by the magnitude of his friend's act. Jim had known that he was under suspicion. He'd lied to Simon to protect his partner. "You thought that I had something to do with these... these..."

"NO!" Simon interrupted him vehemently. "But there was evidence, the DNA that was found on the bodies. It matched a hair found in the herb shop."

"I never slept with any of those women." Blair recoiled as he remembered the details of the case. "Oh, yeah. There was no penetration. I must have jerked off after I strangled them. Is that what you think?"

"Calm down, Chief!" Jim caught his arms and shook him once. "No one believes that."

"He's right kid." Simon growled as he sat behind his desk. "Henri and Rafe are with Connor. With any luck she'll ID the perp."


Megan floated, borne aloft on a cloud of insensibility. Slowly the world intruded, beeps and tinny public address voices and a low murmur of familiar voices. She tried to move and groaned as her battered body objected.

"CONNOR?"

Someone was calling her, loudly. She opened her eyes and tried to focus on the blurred faces above her. "Henri... Rafe?"

"It's us Connor." Rafe reassured her.

"You awake?" Henri asked as her eyes fluttered.

"I'm awake... what happened?"

"You were attacked in the stairwell. We think it was that Keychain creep."

Megan closed her eyes. She wasn't working the case, but she knew some of the details. Sandy was right in the middle of this thing and the evidence was mounting against him. But it wasn't Sandy who had attacked her. She knew it. "My height... small... no... slender hands." She remembered clutching at the hands holding the lanyard. "I slammed my elbow hard into her stomach."

"Her?" Rafe leaned closer. "Are you sure?"

"The belly, it was round and solid. I didn't hurt her... it should have hurt her."

"What, Connor?"

"Her stomach. It should have hurt more when I hit her in the stomach." Megan struggled to make herself understood. "It was like she was pregnant... but it should have hurt her... it should have..." Megan drifted off into sleep after giving the detectives their first break in the case.


Blair and Jim were still in Simon's office when Rafe returned and related what Megan had said.

"A woman?" Simon was startled by the report. "A pregnant woman?"

"A pregnant woman who can take an elbow to the gut and brush it off." Jim looked thoughtfully at his partner. "Someone as tall as Megan."

Blair started to ask about the DNA, then thought better of it. "Let's look at those tapes again."

It took most of the day, two pots of coffee, and half a bottle of aspirin but they watched all the tapes. Every pregnant woman was accounted for but one. A tall woman in a maternity dress uniform could be seen in several shots. She had short, straight blond hair styled in, what Jim thought of as a bowl-cut. It was all they could see because she somehow kept her face turned away from every camera.

"She knows where the cameras are!" Jim snapped angrily as they watched the very pregnant figure retreat into the garage. She climbed into a compact car and drove out of the frame.

"You're right." Blair had been watching closely. "It would be almost impossible to walk through that gauntlet of cameras and avoid showing your face."

"I don't think I could do it." Simon chewed his unlit cigar thoughtfully. "Let me see that last shot again."

As he watched the woman walk away and get into her car, he gave a low, humorless chuckle. "That explains it. When I see Connor I'll have to tell her she isn't losing her punch."

"You want to share, Simon." Jim asked impatiently.

"That woman isn't pregnant." Simon pointed at the screen. "When Joan was that far gone, I'd have to help her into a low car seat. She certainly didn't hop in that gracefully."

"Padding!" Blair was amazed he hadn't seen it. "She's wearing padding."

"I'll run the plates on the car." Jim had a feeling that it would lead them nowhere. This killer was too smart. She had to know the car was being photographed. "So... We have a woman who apparently has it in for Sandburg. Someone who really knows her way around headquarters."

Blair was watching the woman walk away, rerunning that piece of tape over and over. "Oh no! It can't be." He let his head fall forward onto the table. "Simon, if you test my blood against the sem... DNA found on the victims, I'm afraid it'll match."

"What the hell are you saying, Chief."

"Sam."

"What?" Both men asked the question simultaneously. Blair had broken up with the former forensic technician shortly before she moved to Seattle.

"She's been gone for over a year." Simon didn't mention that she had resigned rather than be fired. Serena Chang, the Chief of Forensics had been unimpressed with the young woman's attitude. Sam's fondness for cruel pranks and her penchant for lying made her less than popular within the closed society of the Police Department.

Jim had recognized her for the spoiled brat she was, but Blair had fallen hard for her. He'd let her run roughshod over him and his feelings. Jim watched as his partner banged his forehead on the table. "Chief! Quit that before you give yourself a concussion. Come on, tell us what Samantha the Bad Witch has to do with all this."

"That was her." Blair looked up at the blank screen and sighed. "I know... we couldn't see her face. But, I'd know that ass anywhere."

"Hardly something that will stand up in court, Sandburg." Simon sighed and rewound the tape. "We'll check every pregnant officer. Prove it was none of them. With what Connor said..."

"I'm in the clear?" Blair asked hopefully.

"Well, I'm still not clear on how your semen got on those women." Jim was in interrogation mode. "You want to explain that Chief?"

"Well... a few months back Sam came to Cascade. She called. We went out. Had drinks in her hotel room..." Blair was making odd little gestures with his hands. "...and we sort of had sex."

"And of course, being health conscious, you used a condom." Simon found the picture becoming depressingly clear.

"Which at some point, she collected?" Jim finished his captain's thought.

"She started acting weird after... when I started to leave. She said I had to stay. That SHE was the one who said when things were over." Blair looked embarrassed. "She got kinda scary."

"How?" Jim was aggravated that Blair hadn't told him about this.

"She grabbed my hair and slammed my head into the doorframe. Slapped me a few times. She was pretty strong."

"And of course, you didn't defend yourself." Jim knew his friend too well. It had bothered him when he hit Veronica Sarris and she was threatening to blow up a busload of people.

"No! I got the hell out of there and never looked back."

"Could she be crazy enough to do this?" Simon was still in shock. "Kill innocent women, just to get at you?"

"All I know is that it all fits." Blair looked at his friends. "If it wasn't me... then it had to be her. Even the Keychain thing. I'd forgotten all about it. When we first met, she lost her keys. I jokingly bought her a smiley face key chain, teased her about wearing it around her neck. She got mad that I gave her such a cheap, tacky gift."


A few calls to Seattle told them that Sam had been fired for 'erratic behavior' and refusal to see the department shrink. She'd abandoned her condo and drawn all her money from the bank. She had come from a wealthy family and had numerous resources to draw from. They could find no trace of her presence in Cascade.

Blair and Jim worked far into the night, sifting through every record and file they could find on the woman. The Forensics Chief in Seattle put them in touch with a young woman who had assisted Sam during her tenure there.

Stacy Cummings was happy to share what she knew, making it obvious that she had borne the brunt of Sam's abuse. "Yeah, she went sorta nuts toward the end. She had some problem with a guy. Some rich guy she was dating dumped her around Valentine's Day."

"Do you know his name?" Blair asked her over the speaker phone.

"Davis... Clay-something. Claiborne... no Clayton." The young woman rambled on vaguely. "He's a real golden boy type. Big, blond, football player type."

Jim looked at his partner, and shook his head. "Thank you Miss. We'll contact you if we need any further information."

He broke the connection. "I take it that your last fling with Sam took place after Valentine's Day."

"The week after."

Jim just shook his head and dialed the Seattle PD.

Davis Harrow Clayton III told them only that Sam was a crazy bitch. She'd made his life hell for three months. He suspected her of vandalizing his condo and car, but couldn't prove it. When he'd tried to break up with her she'd claimed to be pregnant. When he insisted she prove it, she'd attacked him physically.

"Oh crap, Jim!" Blair sighed as the connection was broken. "What's wrong with me? Why do I seem to attract psychos?"

"You're a good person, Chief." Jim rifled through the files in front of him, embarrassed. "Troubled people can see that empathy and..."

"Kidnap me? Frame me? Torture me?"

"I said troubled." Jim pushed half the records to his partner. "Let see if we can find her, huh, Darwin."

At 3 AM, they finally decided to give it up and head home. In the privacy of the truck Blair turned to Jim. "NOW we talk!"

""Chief... I'm real tired here..."

"You lied to Simon! Did you think I'd forget about it!" Blair released the anger that had been simmering all day. "Don't think I didn't see you sweat out watching those tapes. You could be in jail right now. Giving a false report! Your career would be over."

"I'd do it again." Jim's voice was so quiet Blair almost missed it.

"What!" Blair lost his momentum for a few seconds. "You lied to Simon. What if I'd been arrested anyway? Would you lie under oath?"

"Yes." The Sentinel tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "Because I know you could never hurt someone. I KNOW!"

"Jim." Blair's voice took on his guide tone. "I don't..."

"No, damn it!" Jim bit out the words. "I will never doubt you again."

"Not even when there's DNA evidence?" The guide voice faltered. "We both know, I left the truck for an hour when we were on stakeout. That day... I could have slipped out while you were in court testifying. I could have been guilty."

"No you couldn't." The stubborn jaw was pushed out even more as they arrived on Prospect. "And no amount of evidence would ever convince me of it."

Blair was still arguing when they entered the building. "Just because you doubted me before..."

"I accused you of betraying me, for God's sake." Jim slammed his fist on the third button as they entered the elevator. "I... What's that?" He focused on a small metal box in the corner. There was a strong smell of chemicals and he started to choke. Blair yanked the front of his tee-shirt over his nose and tried to push Jim away from the box.

When the doors opened they were barely conscious. Jim felt strong hands pull him away from Blair and the sting of a needle in his shoulder. "Blair..." he gasped, then there was only darkness.


"Jim... Jim, wake up big guy." The familiar voice was a whisper. "You here with me?"

"Yeah, Chief." Jim could just make out his friend crouching over him. He looked around, seeing only featureless metal walls. "Where are we?"

"I can't see a thing in here. I think we're in a truck of some kind." He lifted his hands and rattled the cuffs on them. "We're both hooked to a chain. It's looped through a ring on the floor."

Jim stood and walked toward the doors at the back. The chain clattered through the ring and before he got close he was stopped. Glancing back, he noted his Guides disgruntled expression as he knelt next to the ring, his hands pinned tight.

Jim moved and gave him some slack.

"Hey Jim. Warn a guy before you start charging around."

"Sorry." He studied Sandburg's face, beard stubbled and pale behind the tangle of hair. "We're in the container of a truck."

"The trailer. I thought so." Blair had recognized it from his truck driving days. "There seems to be air, at least."

"Not much." Jim checked his watch. "Ten A.M., It's gonna get hot in here soon."

"I never thought I'd wish for rain."

"We might not be in Cascade anymore." Jim sniffed at the air that trickled in around the doors. "We aren't in the city. Trees and water near-by. I hear birds."

"Water sounds good right now. Let's get these cuffs off. Damn, they took my belt." He'd been hoping to use the prong part of the buckle to pick the locks. "My glasses, too."

"Me too, they took every thing." They had nothing to use to pick the locks. "Let's work on that ring in the floor."


Simon Banks was in a rage. He'd been called before dawn and informed that his best team of detectives had been kidnapped. Neighbors had reported seeing them loaded into a dark van. Ten hours and no trace of them had been found.

Megan Connor, looking pale, sat at her desk fielding calls. Henri and Rafe were out checking every piece of property owned by Samantha Cage's family. There was an all points on the young woman and every cop in the state was on the look out for her.

Still, Simon had a bad feeling about this. He wondered if he'd ever see his friends again.


"Wake up, Jim." A soft feminine voice called to him. Cool water was carefully dripped into his mouth. He tried to remember how he'd gotten here.


He remembered using his shirt to cover and cushion the chains, then he and Blair, pulling in tandem to try to loosen the ring. The plate was bolted through the plywood floor and the metal bed of the truck.

In the heat of the day they'd slept, then returned to trying to escape.

Blair had dismantled Jim's new hiking boots and came up with two strips of metal that Jim hadn't known were there. "The arch supports," Blair had said proudly, offering them blindly to his friend. "Sorry about the shoes."

"This is payback for those Nike's you lost to Sneaks."

"You replaced those, Jim." Blair grinned at his friend. "Did you ever get reimbursed from the snitch fund?"

Jim shook his head as he studied the rectangles of thin flexible steel.

"Well did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Get reimbursed?"

"Oh yeah," he lied. "With interest." Jim had to remind himself that Blair couldn't see anything, as his own vision adjusted to the infinitesimal amount of light coming in around the doors.

He wrapped the ends of the metal strips in cloth and gave Blair one. He directed him to the ring, bolted to the plywood sheet covering the floor. Working from each side they dug at the layers of wood and glue until they hit metal.

Then it was just a matter of rocking the floor plate back and forth until the bolts stretched and widened the holes in the metal floor. "God bless, metal fatigue!" Blair had cried as the plate came free.

Of course the doors were locked, but the hinges were on the inside. Jim used his metal strip to lift the pins out of the hinges while Blair tried to repair his hiking boots.

They were going to have to make a run for it. The people who put them here were out there somewhere. Jim looked at the heavy loop of chain that still joined them. With their hands cuffed in front of them, weighed down by a ten foot circle of chain still fastened to the ring plate, running was going to be hell.

After loosening the last hinge, Jim sat and pulled on his shoes. A bit lumpy inside but they'd do. He swiped at the sweat dripping in his eyes and looked at this friend.

Blair was wearing a black tee shirt that, like his hair, was soaked with sweat. He took his friends hands and studied the cuffs. The one on the right was as tightly clasped as his own. The one circling the left wrist was a bit loose.

"Run your left hand through your hair," he ordered.

Blair did so, his trusting, unseeing blue eyes fixed on Jim. His hair was dripping and greasy and for once he didn't mind. "Not exactly crude oil, but pretty gross, just the same." His smile was strained, and it was obvious he knew what Jim planned.

Jim had hoped they could free themselves from the chain, but the bolts were stripped and locked. He slicked his hands through his own short, wet hair and steeled himself for what was coming. Blair stood a better chance of escaping if he were uncuffed.

Taking his partner's hand he held it in his, he studied the square, strong palm. "This is going to hurt," he said unnecessarily. The cuff wasn't that loose. He closed one strong hand, and felt the fine bones move and the tendons stretch under his sensitive fingers. With the other hand he pulled on the cuff, twisting it over the wet skin.

Finally there was one last obstacle. Jim clenched his jaw and pushed Blair's thumb inward, both men gasping when it made a popping sound as the cuff was pulled free.

"Oh God, Chief." Jim's hands were gentle as he traced each line of Blair's fingers. In one quick movement he straightened the thumb and checked the already hot and swollen joint. "I'm sorry."

"It's OK... Jim." The Guide's voice was shaking and tears filled his eyes as Jim wrapped his hand tightly with strips of his shirt. "Let's get going."

Jim stood and went to the door. "We hit the ground running. I don't hear anyone out there, but we head for cover just the same."

"Dial everything back, sight especially."

"I hear you." Jim stepped back from the door and dialed his senses back to below normal. Blind now, he charged forward and slammed into the door, shoving it open and dropping to the grass in one movement. Blair was at his side in an instant and they ran for the line of trees to their right.

Jim scanned the area as they moved, noting that they were in the forest near a lake. There was a large cabin on the hill and he could hear a buzzing sound and angry voices inside. The door of the trailer must have been wired with an alarm. His hands being cuffed and the heavy loop of chain he carried slowed him down. "Keep running, Chief. If we get separated, go to ground. I'll find you."

They emerged from the trees to find themselves on a ridge overlooking the lake. The voices were getting closer. Using his enhanced vision he could see a small marina on the other side of the lake. It was several miles away, but it was their best shot.

He led his partner back into the trees. "Keep the lake on your right and stay in the woods. There's a marina over there. Get us help, Chief."

"Jim?"

"I'm going to lay a false trail. I'll catch up. NOW RUN!"

Blair stood for the barest fraction of a second then took off like a rabbit. Jim watched until he disappeared from view, amazed as always just how fast, those short legs could move when properly inspired. Then he waited until the pursuers got close and ran noisily in the opposite direction.

It wasn't hard to make noise. The chain jangled and banged as he held it in front of him as he ran. After taking the lead, he ducked behind a fallen tree. Two men with rifles ran past crashing through the dense underbrush.

Jim debated taking one of them out, and getting his weapon. Even if he could, the rifle would be awkward to use with his hands cuffed. Instead he turned back to the lake and headed toward his partner.

He could hear water rushing and his partners labored breathing in the distance. The trees thinned as he approached a wide stream, that cascaded over huge rocks to the lake below. His partner was downstream, in the middle of the cataract, leaping from boulder to boulder as the water rushed around his feet.

Using his Sentinel vision he could see the concentration in Blair's face as he judged what rock to jump to next. He was watching him gather himself for the next leap when the young detective jerked, pain twisting his gentle features. His hand went to his chest and Jim could see the bright scarlet blood pulse between his fingers.

The Sentinel began to run toward his partner, their pursuers forgotten for now. He followed the bank of the stream without taking his eyes off Blair. The slight figure swayed and collapsed, slipping off the rock and into the swirling white water.

As he got closer, Jim saw a hand, still wrapped with the fabric from his shirt, reach out of the deafening torrent of water. The fingers clawed at a low tree limb and Jim raced forward, desperate to help.

"Blair!" he shouted as the hand disappeared. Scanning the stream he saw a flash of black shirt as the figure was swept over the edge. He threw himself down in a last frantic attempt to catch his friend. "Oh no. Not again. Oh, God no, please."

That was how they found him. Lying flat on his belly. Staring down at white, seething water, as it hit the dark, glassy blue lake far below. His eyes were dilated, fixed on some point below the surface of the deep water. He didn't move as the men lifted him and carried him back to the cabin, and they wondered about it.

It was like he was already dead.


Simon smiled grimly as he hung up the phone. One of Rafe and Henri's informants remembered a young woman who was searching for hired muscle. She also wanted an eighteen wheeler, and a driver.

It wasn't much, but at this point he was grateful for anything. They had a description of the truck and there was a state wide search for it.

His detectives had been missing for over three days and with every hour that passed his hope of finding them decreased. Still, if anyone could survive, it was them. Between them, Ellison and Sandburg had an awesome array of knowledge and talents. They also had their share of weaknesses.

Though he couldn't understand it, the bond between them was the source of both strength and vulnerability. It was as if there was nothing they couldn't accomplish by working together. But, Simon feared that if something happened to one of them, the other would simply stop. Stop caring, stop trying, and eventually stop living.

Damn it! The tall captain shook off the feeling of dread. I refuse to believe they're gone until I see their bodies.


Blair Sandburg winced as needlelike drops of cold water slapped his face and slithered up his nose. Jim is going to be so pissed that I used all the hot water. He struggled toward consciousness, part of his mind screaming that there was something he had to do.

Opening his eyes he saw a vertical wall of white water rushing by, inches from his face. He was caught on something, hanging almost upside down in a muddy, debris clogged furrow. He was behind the waterfall. He clutched at the roots around him and struggled to pull himself sideways. Whatever was holding his tee shirt was also digging into his back.

A wrenching spasm of pain in his chest made him halt his efforts. Oh man, I've been shot. His fingers searched his upper chest and found the bloody crease left by a bullet. Not too bad. Blood loss would be the biggest problem.

It scares me that I know so much about bullet wounds.

Blair grabbed at the roots again, and managed to slither around until he was right side up. Don't pass out, don't pass out, don't pass out. He braced himself on a thick root, until the black spots stopped dancing before his eyes, then started to edge to the right.

"Get to the marina." He muttered to himself, trying to stay conscious. "Call Simon. And the State Police. And the local cops. And the FBI, the Army, the Navy... maybe the National Guard."

Cool it Sandburg, losing that blood has made you goofy.

He had to get help. Jim had set him free, and covered his escape. "Jim trusted you to get help, and you had to go and get shot instead."

Struggling past the tree limbs and the whip like briar bushes, he moved away from the wall of water. "OK," he mumbled. "Sheer drop of ten feet or so to the lake. Or you can climb twenty- five... thirty feet back up to where whoever it is that shot you is waiting." Blair's fingers tightened on the jagged briars. It was the devil or the deep blue sea. He smiled grimly. Deep blue lake anyway.

"Well, Naomi didn't raise no stupid child." Clumsy, accident prone, and hairy, yeah. "But not stupid." He let go and slid down the embankment into the cool water.

The shock of the water hitting his over-heated body almost took his breath as he passed from the warm sunshine to the depths of the chill mountain lake. Kicking hard, he shot to the surface. Fueled by terror induced adrenaline, he swam to the shore, such as it was.

Blair looked up at the steep wall of trees and sighed. Even on a good day, it would be a hard climb. Holding on to a low-hanging limb, he scanned the lake and saw the marina far away. The only way to walk there was on he ridge above. "I can't just fall into any lake. No, I have to fall into a fucking extinct ancient volcano." Behind him lay the cabin built at the base of a towering mountain, its top still white with snow.

"Have to go forward."

Spying a limb, half torn from a tree by some natural event, he swam along the rim of the lake. He pulled the limb into the water and was pleased that it floated quite well. The leaves on the smaller side branches covered most of his head and shoulders, obscuring him from the view of anyone above.

Aiming for the distant marina, he began to kick steadily. He couldn't make it, he told himself. He was hurt and the water was cold and he was exhausted.

You have to make it, Jim's counting on you.


"Wake up Jim." The voice crooned softly.

Samantha. He tried to move and felt the restraints that held his arms and legs to the bed. Cool air brushed over his body and he knew he was wearing only his boxers.

"You are so pretty, Jim. It's a shame I have to do this."

Giving up his pretence of sleep, he looked at the woman. Her long dark hair swung forward sleekly and she smelled of expensive cologne. She looked like she was ready for work. She looked normal.

She was completely insane though. One glance at her black eyes convinced him, even if the events of the previous days hadn't. "Jim, I thought you were never going to wake up."

The room was bright and airy, with white walls and gauzy curtains that fluttered in the cool breeze. Balcony doors were open allowing a stunning view of the mountains. It would be a pretty place to die.

"What do you want, Sam?"

"I wanted you."

"What?" He'd never had anything but a professional relationship with her.

"When I first met you, I knew you were perfect. You had the right background and breeding. You reminded me of my daddy. All stern and cold, but I knew I could make you love me. I just had to wait until you noticed me."

Her eyes glittered as she leaned over him. "But, you only saw that bitch Caroline. So, I had my uncle in San Francisco pull a few strings and get her that nice new job."

"But you and Blair?"

"Blair! Then he had to show up. Your 'little shadow', always at your side. But I saw how competitive you two were. I remembered the gossip about your last partner and I wanted you to be jealous. Seducing him was not a hardship, believe me." She pressed her lips against Jim's ear. "I killed the man who shot him."

Blair was dead. The memories escaped from the box where he'd hidden them. A broken hand clutching desperately... a flash of panicked blue eyes... his Guide swept away to drown in the deep, cold of the lake. No reclaiming him this time. No miracles. Grief made it hard to breathe.

Nothing left to do now but see this through to the end.

Sam brushed her lips over his cheek as she spoke. "He was so good, I almost changed my mind. I had to keep him at arm's length or I might have fallen in love with him."

"You crazy bitch, you never loved anyone." Good Jim, he could almost hear his partner's exasperated voice. Engage her sympathy. Use psychology. Make her think you are going along with her.

"Everyone, including me, wondered why he put up with you as long as he did."

"You laughed when I played that prank with the fire," she insisted petulantly. "You laughed!"

"Until someone -- a woman, reminded me how dangerous it was for someone with long hair." He felt the need to explain himself, even to this madwoman. Had he ever explained it to Blair? Had he said he was sorry.

"That cow Serena, you mean. I know she was plotting against me." Her voice went soft again, "I would have been a perfect wife for you. I would have seen to it that you were forgiven by your father. Taken into the family business. We would have been so happy."

Jim was awed by the depth of her delusion. "You are totally nuts." She'd caused his friend's death and he wanted only one thing before he died. "And if I ever get loose, I'll kill you with my bare hands."

"I know, that's why I have to get rid of you." She stepped back and looked at him sadly. "If only you hadn't lied. Blair would be in prison, you would be in agony, knowing your friend was locked up for something he didn't do." Sam started to become more agitated. "He would be punished for breaking my rules. You would be punished for thinking of me as a FRIEND! Friends? Men and Women can't be friends. You both had to pay!"

"One thing Sam. I was NEVER your friend either."

She opened the door and motioned two men inside. "Hurt him!" She sighed, the words like a caress.


Blair could see the boats bobbing at the dock and the people on the wooden walkways. Just a bit more, he told his legs. A few more kicks and you'll be warm and dry and safe and you'll call Simon and get help for Jim and we'll go home.

"help me." The words were barely audible even to his own ears. "please... help."

A yellow lab ran to the edge of the dock and started barking furiously.

"Brandy! Come away!" An annoyed female voice called. "It's just an old log."

There was a splash and in moments he felt a warm weight bump into him. The broad head nudged under his arm and lifted it slightly. He locked his fingers into the nylon collar and let the log slip away. He relaxed and rolled onto his back, letting the dog take him to the dock. Vaguely he heard a woman shouting and men running. Many hands hauled him onto the rough wood and a warm blanket was pulled over him.

"Cascade Police... Major Crime... Captain Banks." Blair's vision dimmed as he spoke.

The words of the others swirled around him. The big dog stretched out beside him, her head a comforting weight on his chest.

"He's got handcuffs on."

"Well he ain't gonna make a break for it, is he?"

"Call the State cops, tell them what he said."

"Brandy, get away from him."

"Leave her be."

"Get some blankets and call 911."

He had to tell them about Jim. "My partner. Cabin. Across the lake. Jim needs help."

"I hear ya, boy. Jim needs help. I'll tell em."

Knowing he'd done all he could, Blair slipped into the beckoning darkness at last.


Jim was in hell.

Blair was right, it was cold and wet. That whole hell fire thing was a myth.

He was also blind, but his ears heard every drip of water as it echoed around the mysterious, closed space. His own heartbeat was deafening.

Heartbeat?

Can't have a heartbeat if you're dead. He tried to move and cringed as his moan of pain echoed in the tomb. He was sitting propped up against the wall, in water up to his waist. The cold water made his legs numb and he couldn't make them move.

He remembered the explosion of agony as one of Sam's goons struck his shins with the butt of his rifle. Broken. His arms were sore but they'd been close to his sides, protected from the worst of the abuse. Protected by his ribs, several of which were broken.

Touching his face, he cringed at the swollen, broken flesh. His eyes were open. He could feel the brush of lashes on his fingertips when he blinked. Then he explored the curve of the smooth, slimy stone wall behind him.

Using his hearing he could ascertain that he was in a tank of some sort. About eight feet high. Thick, solid stone above and below. Stone all around. A tomb.

"Stand up, Ellison." Blair's voice taunted him.

"Sorry, Chief. No can do." Just moving his legs made him want to scream. "If I pass out, or zone, I'll drown."

In two feet of water.

"Like... but I brought you back that time didn't I?"

Not this time though. This time it's really over. This time there's nothing to do but wait. Jim pondered just giving in to the sleep that threatened. Just sliding down into the silky cold of the water and joining his friend.

If there is a heaven AND if I get to go there. "I did some bad shit in my time, Chief." Jim's words were choked with tears. You got the express trip I'm sure. Not me. Maybe this is my purgatory, huh? I have to spend a bit more time in hell. "OK then. I'll wait."


Simon sat in the hard chair and held his detective's cold hand between his. The doctors had told him that the young detective's injuries weren't life threatening. The nasty gash left when a bullet ripped through the pectoral muscle was ugly and bloody, but not lethal. Blood loss and dehydration were remedied by the IV's in each arm. The heart monitor was beeping in a reassuringly strong rhythm, and some of the color had returned to the whiskered cheeks.

Knowing that no one was watching, Simon stroked the soft beard with two long fingers. Damn, the kid was furry as a bear. Well... Teddy bear maybe. Christ! Blair didn't deserve this crap. He was one of the truly good people in this miserable stinking world.

And the worst was yet to come.

Simon had to tell the kid that Jim was missing and presumed dead. And he was afraid that when he did, he would lose another friend. He was afraid that, whatever it was that made the young man keep going, would vanish.

Without Jim... oh God, that was a horrible thought... without Jim, Blair's world would shatter.

Simon thought back over the last 24 hours.

After getting the call from the State Police, he'd hurried through the bullpen, pausing only to shout the news at Taggart, and leave him in charge of the almost deserted Major Crime.

Megan was waiting at the elevator. She'd been at her desk, answering the phones, instead of at home where she belonged.

"I'll find them, Connor," he assured her as he got on the elevator.

"I'm coming too." She saw his stubborn expression and met it with one of her own, as she joined him.

His only response was to take the duffel bag out of her hand. "What's in here?"

"I, ah...packed it the other day at the loft. An outfit for each of them. Shoes, socks... some other things." She was close to tears and Simon was afraid he might join her.

"Good idea, Connor. Knowing Sandburg, he'll be running around in a hospital gown, mooning the locals into submission."

She gave him a watery smile as they got in his car. "Give me time for one good look before you hand him the bag, OK?"

"Connor!"

The lighter mood didn't last long and the two hour trip to the mountains was made in silence.

The local police Chief, Dan Abrams, wasn't looking forward to his meeting with Captain Banks. He didn't have much positive information to pass along.

So far they'd only had one lucky break.

A bunch of college students had arrived two days ago and were doing some sort of survey on acid rain and the fish in the lake. They were camped at the foot of the hill, next to the private road that led to the luxurious cabins.

The students swore no one had driven past them since they set up camp.

"Any news?"

"Your man, Sandburg, is still in with the doctors. They say he'll pull through." The man looked at their faces and added quickly, "Why don't you two sit for a minute."

"Ellison?" Simon paced as Connor dropped wearily to the vinyl sofa.

"We searched the cabin across the lake. Turns out it belonged to the mother of Samantha Cage's father's second wife. She's handicapped and never uses the place." Abrams took a breath and continued. "Cage is missing. As far as we can tell, she didn't leave the area."

"What did you find at the cabin?" Simon knew when someone was reluctant to say something.

"Three bodies, all male, none of them Ellison." He added the last four words in a rush. "They were all killed by a single shot to the head."

"And?" Simon knew there was more.

"Ellison's clothes, we think. They looked like they were cut off. And a hospital style bed in the master bed room, with heavy duty restraints. They're testing the blood they found there."

"Jim." Megan's voice was just a whisper. "Where's Jim?"

"We searched the house, and the two empty vacation homes on either side of it. Cage spent a lot of time here as a kid. She would know where to go to ground, where to hide something... someone."

"She just left the others, why would she hide Jim's body?" Megan spoke up. "He's alive. She has him, somewhere."

"We searched Miss."

"INSPECTOR Connor, here, is right." Simon's tone was too harsh and he knew it. "Jim Ellison is a hard man to kill. If there's any chance at all, he'll make it."

"Yes, sir. We have men combing the woods, searching the lake shore. We'll find him, sir."

"I'm sorry Abrams. It's just, well, they're my friends."

"Understood." Abrams said as he answered his cell phone. He listened for a moment, then snapped, "Wait for me!" Flipping the small device closed, he turned to Simon. "They found the Cage woman."

"I'm with you." Simon was already following the man out of the waiting room. "Connor... stay here with Sandburg."


The path that led to Samantha's hiding place was winding and muddy. Simon slid the last few feet and found himself on the shore of a very placid blue lake. The young woman sat on a rock, under an umbrella of dense overhanging tree limbs. There were old, children's books scattered around her, and she held a large automatic pistol in one slim hand.

He walked forward before anyone could stop him. "Hello Sam." Simon tried to sound normal. "What's going on here?"

"Simon." The young woman smiled brightly. "How good of you to come."

"Sam... Where's Jim Ellison?"

"Jim and his sha-dow." Her sing-song voice was childlike. "Shadows are hard to hold on to, you know."

Simon gestured for the others to stay back. "Give me the gun Sam."

"NO! MINE!" She brandished it for a moment, then touched it lovingly. "It was Jim's. Jim understood a fine weapon, just like my daddy."

"Understood? Is Jim dead, Sam?"

"Oh yes." She looked around the shadowed grove. "I used to come here to hide. My safe place."

"Jim? Tell me where Jim is?" Simon fought the urge to rush her, to choke the truth out of her.

"Underground. Sleeping alone in the dark, cool forever-place," she sighed wistfully.

"Where?"

"Blair's in the lake. Poor humpty dumpty. Falling... drowning, eggheads can't float." Sam giggled at her little joke and Simon didn't bother to tell her Blair was still alive.

"Where did you put Jim?"

"Simple Simon, met a pie man..."

"SAM! Please? Tell me?"

"Simon says, The Magic Word."

"Tell me, please."

"Where, oh where, has my little dog gone?

"Please?"

Ding dong bell..." she started giggling again. "Oh dear, that's not appropriate."

"Sam... please?"

"Sorry Simon," her voice was still amused. Sam... says... what's an S word for goodbye?" She tipped the gun back until the barrel was under her chin.

"No don't..." Simon started forward but the explosion of sound stopped him. As he looked up, a flock of birds rose like a dark cloud and swooped away over the lake.

"Oh, God help us now," he bit back a sob as the last, best chance for finding his friend died with Samantha.


Simon joined the search until it got too dark to see, then returned to the hospital. Blair was in a double room, with Connor napping on the second bed. With her black eye and bruised throat, she looked almost as bad as the young man.

He almost smiled as he saw that Blair was covered with his furry Marvin the Martian blanket. It had been Connor's gift for his last birthday. He rubbed at his eyes and sat next to the bed and waited for Sandburg to wake up. He was going to have to tell him about Jim.

The worst was yet to come.

The first, gray light of dawn awoke Simon and he checked his charges. Connor was still sleeping. Blair stirred when Simon touched his shoulder. "Hey Kid. How you doing?"

"simnnnn?"

"Yeah, it's Simon."

"Jim?"

Simon sat back down. He couldn't do it. Not now.

"Where's Jim?" Blair woke up completely, and pulled himself together. He was in a hospital. He hurt, but it didn't seem serious. Simon just sat there, looking at the floor.

Come on, Simon. This is where you tell me Jim's out looking for the guy who shot me.

Or maybe, Jim's down the hall getting coffee.

Even, Jim's a patient in another room, bitching at the nurses for keeping him away from his guide.

Work with me here, Boss, cause you're starting to freak me out.

"Simon?"

"We think he's dead, kid."

"No!"

"They haven't found his body yet, but..."

"Then he's not dead."

"Blair, the locals have searched every inch of this area."

"He's not dead till I see him dead, with my own eyes." Blair sat up and punched the call button. "Did you bring me some clothes?"

"Sandburg! You were shot, you had a transfusion."

"But I'm better now." Blair gave him a stubborn glare that Jim would envy as he stood up unsteadily. "Do I get some clothes, or do I start searching in this get-up?"

"Nice view." A female voice sounded behind him.

"Hey, Megan." Blair didn't take his eyes of his Captain. "Do you think, you could find me some clothes?"

"I packed you a bag, Sandy."

Blair clamped the remaining IV and carefully removed it from his hand. When Megan sat the duffel on the bed, he pulled the hospital gown over his head and started to dress. Megan made a yipping noise and turned away quickly.

Blair rooted through the bag, trying not to notice Jim's things mixed with his. He retrieved his boxers, tee shirt and sweats.

His braced thumb, made his left hand rather useless and Simon was forced to help him dress, zipping the hooded sweatshirt, tying his sneakers for him.

By the time the doctor arrived, he was dressed and ready to go.

There was no arguing with him and they left the hospital within ten minutes.

Blair insisted he be taken directly to the cabin. He walked through the empty house, missing nothing. The sight of the bed, with its restraints, would have made him vomit if he's had any food in his stomach.

With Megan on one side and Simon on the other, he explored the grounds. Chief Abrams also followed the weary young man and kept his thoughts to himself.

Where are you Jim? Blair checked every spot a man could conceivably be hidden. "There," he pointed at a metal tank. "What's that?"

"It's a water tank. These houses sit on solid rock and have to have water trucked in. And before you ask, we checked the water receptacles at each house."

"These three houses are the only ones?"

"Yeah, since the Rothman's old place burned down last year." He pointed up an overgrown path.

"Was that house here when Sam was growing up?"

Abrams nodded. "It was the first house built up here."

"Let's go check it." Blair was already marching up the path. "Sam may have been hinting at a location, maybe we'll recognize something."

Simon had filled him in on the details, on the drive from the hospital. He made the older man repeat Samantha's nonsense words over and over.

"There's no house there anymore, Mr. Sandburg." Abrams said in a kind but firm voice.

Blair ignored him and trudged up the tangled path. His put his right hand in the pocket of the sweatshirt to ease the ache of the heavily bandaged bullet wound. His vision blurred and his breathing was labored. He was running out of time and of energy.

The local chief was right, the house was gone. Where once, a handsome, rustic cottage stood, only a shallow stone cellar remained, a rusting furnace and pump its only occupants.

There was a beautiful stone patio with carved stone benches and planters. The stones were laid in a semi circular sweep up the hill, like a giant staircase.

Now, most of it was covered with the wild tangle of vines and tree seedlings. In a few years, the work of this master stone cutter would be overgrown, and disappear.

With all his strength gone, Blair slumped onto a bench. "Jim, we need a sign."

"Rest for a while, Sandy." Megan sat next to him.

Blair breathed deeply, and tried to use the power of his animal spirit.

The others faded as he looked around this place. It reminded him of the temple, somewhat. Deep in the green darkness, he could see the panther, lying motionless. The black fur was soaked and rippling with deep tremors, and its golden eyes were opaque and staring blindly. But it was alive.

"Jim's alive! He's around here, somewhere." Something in the strong, even voice made even Chief Abrams believe him.

"I'll have the search parties come back here."

"And an ambulance?" Blair knew it would be needed.

"Yes, Detective." Abram's grinned slightly as he made the calls without protest. The big city detective might look like a college kid, but he'd been through hell, and come out fighting.

Blair looked into the basement, at the pump. "Did they have spring water here? Is there a spring house?"

"No. No springs in this area, We're standing on damn near solid rock here, plus a couple feet of topsoil.

"Where's the water tank?"

"Probably carted off or sold."

Blair found the steps and made his way to the basement. The water pipe ran from the pump to the back wall and disappeared into the stone. He touched the copper, smashed and bent when the rubble was cleared. The water line had run under the old patio.

"OH, MY GOD! "He almost fell up the stairs as he raced back to his friends. Sam's twisted nursery rhyme was more accurate than she knew.

"Not a well, Simon! A CISTERN!" Blair was crawling over the stones, tapping on them with a rock. "And a very well disguised one, too." He stood with a look of triumph, and went to the massive stone planter. Against all reason, it moved slightly when he pushed it. "Some help, here?"

Gently, shifting Blair into Megan's arms, Banks and Abrams pushed the stone planter aside.

"Well I'll be damned!" Abrams muttered as a square opening appeared under the broad stone base.

A wavering, unsteady cry came from the blackness below. Blair gestured to the others to be silent, then sat on the edge of the hole, trying to maneuver himself into the stone basin. Simon and Abrams lowered him as carefully as possible.

Blair approached his friend and swallowed the groan that threatened. He could see the signs of a vicious beating, even in the dim light.

His partner sat sprawled in about a foot of water, wearing only boxers and a ribbon style key holder around his neck. "Jim," he whispered, very softly.

"Talk to me some more, Chief." Jim wasn't really looking at him. "It helps me to stay awake."

"Jim?'

"Can't go to sleep, I'll drown." The big man was shaking with cold. "I'm sorry. I let you drown, again."

"You're safe now. " Blair knelt in the cold water and leaned close. "I'm here. I didn't drown. Listen. My heart's still beating. Smell." He ran his fingers through his hair, shaking the soft curls near Jim's face.

"Chief? You here for real? Alive?"

"Yeah, Jim. So you've got to hang on, OK?" Blair fought back tears of fear and guilt. Fear that his friend was close to death, and guilt that this was done because of him.

"Can I go to sleep now?" Jim's voice was plaintive.

"It would probably be best if you turned all the dials down for a while. Can you do that?

"Sure, Chief." Jim raised a shaking hand and buried his fingers in the curly hair. With the other hand he traced the familiar features, ruffling the short, new whiskers. "OK. I guess -- maybe -- you're real. You're here." Then he slumpeed forward, into his guide's arms and oblivion.

Blair was scarcely aware when two paramedics dropped down beside him. The EMT's worked rapidly as they strapped Jim onto a backboard, and prepared to lift him from the impromptu tomb.

Blair insisted they cover his partner's eyes before they lifted him into the sun. Then he stood alone in the eerie, echoing circular space for a moment before Simon joined him.

"Here Kid, let me give you a boost. I don't want you to pop your stitches," he bent and offered his linked hands.

"Thanks Simon."

When Blair tentatively put his wet sneaker in the captain's hands, he was effortlessly lifted out of the cold wet prison that would have been his Sentinel's tomb.

Blair went to where his partner was already being loaded in the ambulance. "Please, be as quiet as possible," he asked. "His hearing is... well... touchy."

Helplessly he stood to one side, he couldn't even ride in the back with Jim. He listened as the paramedics prepared to leave the scene.

"The doctors already called for Medevac." The female medic reported. "We'll get him stabilized and meet the chopper at the foot of the mountain. They'll probably fly him to the trauma center in Cascade."

"Simon?" Blair turned to his captain. "Can we get a chopper to fly us there, too?"

"I'll call Cascade PD." The kid WANTED to fly in a helicopter, Simon frowned. It must be important. "I'll see if we can get us a ride."

"Can we follow them, please?" Blair swayed as he watched the ambulance race silently away.

Simon looked down at the pale, sodden man then at Connor. Shrugging, they each took an arm, and half carried him to the car.


Blair had never been so glad to see Cascade General.

The doctors here understood Jim's many drug sensitivities, and his need to have his partner nearby.

For now though, Blair was consigned to the waiting room outside the trauma center. The small, slender man -- dressed in sweatpants and Jim's too large Cascade PD sweatshirt -- sat between Megan and Simon.

To the other people in the waiting room, the tall couple seemed to be shielding the haggard young man.

The imposing and authoritative black man, would, almost absently, rub the slumped shoulders as he whispered soft words of encouragement

The beautiful young woman stroked his wild, curly hair and let him rest his head in the curve of her shoulder.

If any of the strangers wondered at the oddly familial scene, they were surely baffled, when, a nurse asked for James Ellison's next of kin, and all three answered, "here."


"You heard them, Sandburg!" Simon ordered gruffly. "Five minutes, every hour."

"But..."

"But nothing! He's out of it, right now, and if he were awake, he'd tell you to get some rest, too."

"But..."

"And you eat every bite of that food." Megan pointed to the tray on the low table in front of the couch. "You almost passed out. If the doctor had seen it, you would be in a bed on some other floor of the hospital right now."

Blair started to protest. He wanted to be with Jim. His friend was still in critical condition and needed him.

But he needs you healthy, the logical part of his mind insisted. The pain in his chest and hand throbbed in time to his heartbeat, and his eyelids seemed to weigh a ton each.

It's tempting to keep going a little while longer. Then, when you collapse, they'll tuck you into a nice comfy bed and take care of you. His mind supplied the sarcastic answer to this thought. Bag the self-pity and start taking care of your self.

"I am kind of hungry." Blair dropped to the sofa and picked up a sandwich.

"They had home-made chicken noodle soup, too." Megan opened the pint-sized container.

"Sssgood." He nodded, his mouth full of the most delicious grilled cheese sandwich in the history of the universe. How long had it been since he'd eaten anything? He tried to slow down, fearing his stomach's reaction, if he wolfed down the food too fast.

The steaming, rich broth and the sweet warmth of the cup of chamomile tea satisfied and comforted him. His head nodded and would have ended up face down, in his food if Megan hadn't grabbed his shoulders.

She eased him toward her until his head lay on her lap. "Sleep, Sandy."

"Wake me. Promise."

"I'll wake you." She didn't have to ask for what. She brushed the hair off his forehead, her touch almost a caress.

When she was sure he slept, she looked at Simon. "What happens if Jim doesn't make it?"

"Jim's going to be fine." Simon insisted sternly. "The doctor said his legs would heal. They were simple fractures, same as the ribs. He even said there wouldn't be much scarring from the cuts." Simon wouldn't mention the pneumonia. The opportunistic bacterium had taken hold in Jim's lungs and it was killing the weakened man.

The doctors had placed Jim in ICU, and were monitoring his condition closely, while pumping him full of antibiotics. They had acknowledged their inability to do more. Jim had to overcome one last obstacle. He had to fight.

Simon watched as Megan fought to stay awake. She looked almost as fatigued as Sandburg did. At least, she'd eaten something, and gotten the kid to eat, too.

When the time for the next visit came, Simon stood silently and went to visit his detective. He fought a twinge of guilt as he glanced back at the two young people, sleeping with the abandon of sheer exhaustion. He hadn't promised anything.

He paused as he approached Jim's bed. It frightened him to see the invulnerable Ellison looking so frail. He was sleeping almost sitting up, an oxygen tube hissing slightly under his nostrils. An IV delivered fluids and medications.

"Jim?" he whispered. Sandburg had told him of the Sentinel's sensory spikes, caused by the extreme isolation. "Jim, can you hear me?"

The figure on the bed moved restlessly and the bruised face turned toward him.

"I'll take that as a Yes." Simon leaned closer and kept his voice low. "Jim... Sandburg is alive... you know that, right? He's out there, right now, sleeping with his head in Connor's lap." Simon almost smiled as he imagined Jim teasing his partner about that.

"He's in a bad way, Jim. He blames himself for all this. Those women being murdered. You, getting hurt. He told me he should have seen that Sam had problems."

"Can you imagine that? HE should have seen. Not all of us supposed detectives; no, this was all his fault." The big captain rubbed his forehead tiredly. "Mr. Minor in Psychology, Blair Sandburg, thinks that he should have known this would happen."

Jim turned his head away and groaned.

"Listen up, Detective. I know that the thought of dying doesn't frighten you. But what about Sandburg? That kid will die if you don't pull through. I honestly think he'll die. If you don't want to fight for yourself, you have to fight for him." Simon's words had an edge to them, even as he whispered.

"My time's up, here, and that nurse is giving me the evil eye. I'll make sure the kid comes in next time. Just you remember to be waiting for him, OK? That's an order"

Simon didn't notice the barely opened, blue eyes following his movements. Jim watched as his captain left, and focused all his senses on the man. The captain's footsteps stopped a short distance away and Jim easily found his guide's heartbeat.

Weighted down by grief, he had been falling, slipping away from this life. So soul crushingly weary, and cold that it was as though he were already dead.

He had been in some sort of hell. A purgatory where he had been all alone. Where his senses were useless and pain ruled supreme.

And Blair was dead.

That had made his hell a most exquisite agony. The anguish only eased when his beloved guide came to him one last time. He offered deliverance from that well of darkness and Jim held fast to the pure spirit that was his friend. He'd believed that spirit was all that remained of his friend.

Now he knew it was real.

Blair WAS alive. Tears stole through his swollen eyelids as he thought about what Simon said. How could the kid blame himself? Samantha had been a master of hiding her delusions. He'd never dreamed she had feelings for him.

You have to hold on. You have to tell the kid the truth. Blair had somehow found him in hell and dragged him back. The least he could do was live.

He recognized his surroundings and wondered how he had ended up in Cascade General. Feels like you got run over by a truck? His legs were immobilized and there were far too many tubes in and around his body. It was hard to breathe and he could hear the congestion in his lungs.

I must be pretty bad off if Simon is yelling at me. Using Blair to guilt me into surviving. Of course it's working.

He might still fall into the beckoning radiance, but he would be kicking and fighting every inch of the way.

Jim closed his eyes and waited for his guide's next visit.


"The doctors are amazed." Megan told Rafe and Henri. "One minute they were discussing life support, the next, he's being moved to a regular room."

"That's Old Iron Man Ellison." Rafe chuckled.

Megan knew the best treatment for Jim was being with Blair. The Sentinel was in a private room and his Guide was sleeping on a cot at his side.

The hand that was unencumbered by IV's stretched out and circled the right wrist of his partner. If, anyone questioned the propriety of this arrangement, they only had to witness the unbelievable upswing in the condition of the patient.

The detectives of Major Crime took turns protecting them. For once, Guardian and Guide rested; and left the watch to others.


"I don't care if you don't like peeing in a bottle." Blair Sandburg's voice carried to the hall outside Jim's hospital room. Simon Banks stood and listened with a happy grin on his face. "You heard that nurse. If you try to get up, you'll be peeing through a tube again."

"But I can use crutches."

"With broken ribs? Oh, I don't think so."

"But Chief."

"Don't 'But Chief' me. The doctor said that as soon as your lungs were clear, you could go home... in a wheelchair."

"Wheelchair? There are steps to my room. And the bathroom..." Jim's tone was petulant, and Simon grinned wider.

"The guys went over and put rails up next to the toilet. A home nurse will come over and help you bathe and do therapy." Blair paused, then added cheekily, "Of course, we could swap rooms. Or we can put your hospital bed out in the living room."

"Hospital bed?" Jim was groaning as Simon entered the room.

"It's already been delivered, Detective." The captain's deep utterance made them both look up.

"You too, Simon?" Jim looked over the head of his harried partner. "They want me to have a home care nurse." He made it sound as if he were being handed over to a free-lance torturer.

"You'll survive." Blair grumped and gave the captain a resigned look.

"Give the kid a break, Jim. He's still pretty banged up himself." Simon's words had an immediate effect on both men.

Blair looked annoyed and muttered, "I'm OK."

Jim looked stricken as he peered at his friend. "Aww, Chief. I'm sorry. I don't mind having a nurse come in. Sally offered to come over and cook and clean until you're on your feet."

Simon shook his head in amazement. Jim's feelings for the kid made him so vulnerable. And yet, he honestly believed Jim's survival was due to his concern for his friend. It was a terrible power to have over someone, and it amazed him that the kid didn't use it for his own advantage.

"I came here because I have news for you. They searched the mountain cabin, and came up with some journals and papers belonging to Sam."

"Simon, we don't need to hear this." Jim looked at his pale, young friend. He'd told Blair what Sam had said. That he had simply been a pawn in a twisted game that was played out in the young woman's mind.

"Tell us." Blair sat down and visibly prepared himself to hear what the captain had to say.

"Samantha Cage's mother died when she was three. She lived with her father until he married Angela Collins. She was eight, her new stepmother was seventeen."

"He married a seventeen year old girl?" Blair winced as he spoke.

"From what Sam's journal said, he liked them young. They left her with Mrs. Collins, the mother-in-law. Apparently, she was happy there for the first time in her life."

"Her safe place?" Blair repeated Samantha's words at the lake.

"Yes." Simon wondered how much of this to tell the sensitive young man. "James Sanderson Cage and Angela Cage were divorced when Sam was twelve. She returned to his home and lived there until his suicide. Self inflicted gunshot wound. He did it the day she left for college."

"He molested her, didn't he?" Jim's expression turned bleak as he reached for his friend.

"As a young child, I don't know... but after his divorce. Sam wrote, that she lived with him as if she were his wife."

"That prick!" Blair growled angrily. That rotten..." He searched for a word awful enough to convey his feelings.

Simon opened the envelope he carried. He slid out an old news clipping, and handed it to Jim. A man and his daughter stood proudly at a school function. The girl was thin and dark, with a serious mien. The man was tall and handsome. He had fair coloring, with stern features and a receding hairline. He could have been Jim's older brother.

Jim fought the nausea that threatened him. This man had, years ago, sewed the seeds of madness. A madness, that had killed three innocent women, and almost destroyed his partner.

And Samantha said I reminded her of her father. Was it just the looks, or did she see something similar in the coldness and distrust that were part of his make-up?

"Don't you go there, Jim!" Blair's voice was close and almost painfully loud. "You are nothing like this creep." His guide had apparently added mind reading to his resume."

"But, I should have noticed there was something wrong with her."

Blair jumped up and turned on his friend. "YOU told ME, that I couldn't have known she was insane. I was sleeping with her, you barely talked to her, Oh great Sentinel."

"You both were the victims here. Remember, Samantha passed department psych reviews, in Cascade and Seattle." Simon was getting exasperated with this guilt-fest. "Anyway, she left you something."

"What?" Jim asked, perplexed.

"Who?" Blair looked at Simon quizzically.

"Samantha's step grandmother died, in a nursing home, two weeks ago. She left that cabin and the property it sits on to Sam. Sam left it to you two."

"WHAT?" Both men shouted at once.

"Samantha had no living relatives and left the bulk of her estate to different charities. Except for that place in the mountains, now it belongs to the two of you." Simon shrugged, then tried to repeat the lawyer's words. "Sam left a codicil in her will, that the two of you would inherit that house, and that whichever of you survived, should use the key she gave you."

"What key?" Jim's curiosity came to the fore.

"The key she hung around your neck when she left you to die." Simon took the lanyard out of the envelope and handed it to Jim.

It was covered with happy faces, the same as the ones she'd used to kill the women. But, this time it wasn't empty. This time, the ring held one key.

Jim studied the small, brass key. It was very worn, with no markings that his fingertips could find. Still, there was something about this key. "Not the front door key, I'll bet?"

"Jim... we aren't taking this? You can't want this place after what happened there."

"You stay in the loft, after all the crap that's happened there."

"But... taking it from her? After what she did?"

"We'll sell it, Chief. That place could pay off your school loans. We'll donate the rest to charity in your friends' names."

"You don't care about the money. You're curious about that damn key!" Blair knew his friend too well.

"Well yes... but hey, I can't work for a while. Maybe we could go up there and snoop around."

"Snoop! Did you hear that Simon? He actually used the word SNOOP."

"Beats sitting around the loft with my thumb up my a..."

"I can't believe you want to go to that creepy isolated mountain cabin and SNOOP."

"Think of it as therapy, Chief."

"THERAPY!" Blair was sputtering as Simon stole from the room. "You can't even walk."

A low chuckle rumbled through the sterile hall as Simon left his friends.

Sentinel and Guide were alive and bitching at each other.

There was a mystery to be solved.

All was -- for the moment -- right with his world.

The end


Back to The Loft