Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, Simon, et al are not mine -- they belong to Pet Fly Productions so I end up borrowing them and returning them only slightly worse for wear.
Rated R for violence, though there is no explicit descriptions of crimes -- rape and murder -- the forensics discussions are a bit graphic.
Category: Drama, Case Related, H/C, Angst.
Notes: It takes place after "TSP2", but before "TSbyBS". Spoilers for "Cypher" and minor ones for "BMB" and "Attraction".
Acknowledgments: For my wonderful and encouraging beta Kathleen! Thanks!
Wednesday, 5:08 p.m., Cascade Police Gym
Detective Jim Ellison breathed in and out in time with the raising and lowering of the weights as he did his routine bench pressing. The rhythm calmed him and eased the troubled thoughts that skittered through his mind. After two weeks of nightly stakeouts they'd finally caught the perpetrator who had been robbing the upper crust of Cascade's society. Now the mayor would quit breathing down the necks of everyone in Major Crimes and he could take a few days off. Maybe he could talk Blair into going fishing. It had been too long since they'd taken the time to disappear into the mountains for some rest and relaxation.
Blair had looked even more exhausted than Jim early that morning after they'd booked the suspect. He'd insisted he was all right, but Jim knew better. Between the stakeouts and the end of the college semester, his partner was wiped out. The sparkle in his eyes had dimmed and the bounce that usually accompanied his steps had been considerably subdued. When he'd first met Sandburg, he thought the kid's energy was boundless, but he'd learned Blair was made out of flesh and blood like everyone else -- even more so.
He remembered a night a month ago when he'd come home to find Blair half on and half off the couch, sleeping as sound as a child. He'd tried to awaken him, but couldn't and managed to get him settled comfortably on the sofa. Jim had tucked a blanket around him and gently placed a pillow beneath his head after taking off the younger man's glasses. With his hands curled beneath his chin, Blair had appeared innocent and vulnerable, yet Jim knew the kid had a way of coming through in tight spots. Still, Jim's instincts were to protect him -- his guide -- and that instinct had tunneled its way into the very core of what made Jim who and what he was.
Jim couldn't even imagine coming back to the loft without Blair there. His smile faded as he recalled the time he'd thrown his friend out. He'd been afraid for the kid's life, afraid he was going to hurt him. Jim had been so confused, so bombarded by feelings and impressions that he was surprised he hadn't lost his mind completely. It had been Blair who had pulled him from the brink of insanity -- after himself being cradled in the arms of death following his drowning.
He shivered from a soul-deep chill. His very actions had been the cause of Blair's near-death, yet it was the power of his animal spirit, as well as Blair's, that had brought him back. The drowning and rebirth had also strengthened the bond between Sentinel and Guide in a way Jim couldn't fathom. All he knew was that the bond was there -- as tangible and unbending as the iron bar in his hands.
Jim concentrated on his reps and finally finished, lowering the bar back into its resting place. He sat up and grabbed his towel then wiped the sweat from his brow. He thought of Blair back at the loft finishing a term paper and the reassurance of their bond curled through him. He wondered if Blair felt that same connection to him, and had often been tempted to ask; but the words would get caught someplace in his throat and he'd let it go.
He took a deep breath. Today was the last day of the semester and Jim was betting Blair would appreciate a weekend away as much as he would. He'd go into the office tomorrow to finish up the reports and talk Simon into giving he and Blair some deserved time off.
With his decision made, Jim felt some of the pressure slide from his shoulders. He wandered over to the main desk and found Walt going over paperwork.
"Hey, can I get some service here?" Jim demanded.
Walt glanced up, impatience written across his broad features, until he saw who it was. He smiled and stood. "Hey, Jim. The usual?"
Jim grinned. "Yep. Got to work off some leftover stress so I can get some sleep tonight."
"How's Blair doing?"
"He's beat. We've had a rough couple of weeks."
Walt ran a hand over his crew cut and nodded sympathetically. "I heard about it."
Jim wasn't surprised. Walt had been a cop for thirty-one years before managing the Cascade PD gym and knew everybody on the force. He'd also fallen prey to Blair's charm and Jim suspected Walt's paternal instincts extended to the anthropologist.
The older man leaned over and withdrew a pair of red boxing gloves from the shelves below the waist-high counter. He handed them to Jim, then motioned over to the bags. "Got yourself some competition tonight."
Jim glanced over at the area a couple hundred feet away where two punching bags hung from the low ceiling. His eyes widened at the sight of a woman wearing a pair of blue gloves and dancing around the swinging bag as she thrust and feinted. A braid swung back and forth between her shoulder blades. Suddenly she stopped and wrapped her arms around the bag to halt its motion. She turned to meet Jim's eyes as if she sensed his gaze and her expression froze.
He was startled by the deep green of her eyes -- as green as a rain forest and equally impenetrable. An odd sense of familiarity slid through him and he shook it aside. "Who is she?" he asked, turning back to Walt.
The ex-cop shrugged. "Didn't say. Maybe a transfer."
Jim's attention was inexplicably drawn back to her. "Maybe."
"Hey, Romeo, here's your gloves." Walt's eyes twinkled mischievously.
Jim turned and took the pair of red boxing gloves from him. He pulled them on absently. "She's not my type."
"More like Blair's," Walt teased.
Jim rolled his eyes. "If it's a woman, she's Sandburg's type."
Jim smiled. "Could you give me a hand here?"
Walt tightened the laces of his gloves. "Go get her, Rocky."
Jim felt his face grow warm. "I'm not going to challenge her to the ring."
"Why not? I been watching her. She's pretty good."
Jim deliberated a moment, then shook his head at his own foolishness for even considering it. "I won't box with a woman."
"Call me if you need a ref."
Jim sent Walt a glare, then strolled across the gym. The woman didn't pause in her graceful movements and Jim tried to ignore her, too, but his enhanced senses flared at the familiar scent of her sweat. She reminded him of someone, but who? He shook the feeling aside -- she probably just wore the same brand of deodorant as someone he knew.
He started punching at the other bag, tuning his senses to concentrate on the play of muscles in his shoulders, arms, and legs. His mind drifted, thinking how nice it would be to stand in the middle of a stream with a fishing rod in his hands, the water undulating across his hip boots and a light breeze caressing his skin. He imagined Blair talking a mile a minute, his voice a soothing balm over nerves stretched too taut lately. Jim would even agree to some of Sandburg's tests if it made him happy.
Finally, Jim took a break and lifted the bottom of his damp tank top to wipe his sweaty forehead. The woman, too, had paused and drank from a water bottle. She was a few inches taller than his partner and her body appeared muscular, as if she worked out at the gym quite a bit. She was somewhere between his and Blair's age, and though she was a pretty woman, Jim didn't feel any attraction to her.
He smiled and covered the ten feet separating them. "Hi there."
She met his gaze and gave him a wary greeting. "Hello."
"I'm Jim," he introduced.
He heard her breath stumble and her heart trip, but her expression remained collected. "Kelly." She extended a gloved hand.
He bumped his boxing glove against hers in a strange, but fitting handshake. "Come here often?"
"Can't come up with a better line than that?"
Jim flushed hotly. "No, I didn't mean--"
She shrugged. "This is my first time. How about you?"
"I get here as often as I can. Works off the stress, y'know?"
"All too well." A whistle sounded at the other end of the gym and Kelly cringed slightly. She lifted her hands as if to put them against her ears, but stopped at the last moment. Jim frowned -- it wasn't that loud, even for his sentinel senses. She looked over her shoulder at the clock on the wall, and Jim noticed her face was somewhat pale and her heartbeat accelerated. "I have to go. Nice to meet you, Jim."
Long strides carried her away and Jim watched her pensively. It was odd he wasn't attracted to her. Instead, he felt an almost subtle awareness of her presence. It wasn't unlike his awareness of Blair, but on a much weaker resonance level. Why would a virtual stranger have kicked his protective instincts into gear?
Spotting the time, he cursed softly. He'd promised Blair he'd be home by six for supper, and it was already 5:45. Damn.
Wednesday, 6:14 p.m., The Loft
Jim parked his classic Ford truck beside Blair's equally old Volvo, grabbed his gym bag and hurried inside. As he took the stairs two at a time, his heightened senses could pick out the scents of garlic, red pepper, onions, and tomatoes. Lasagna -- one of his favorites. He just hoped Blair had made it with real meat and not tofu.
He unlocked the door and entered to find Blair setting the table. The thoroughly domestic scene would have made him laugh if he didn't appreciate his assistance around the place so much.
Assistance, yeah right, Ellison. Don't you mean friendship and a link that goes deeper than anything you've felt before?
"Hey, man, I was wondering where you were," his roommate and partner called out.
Jim tossed his keys in the basket on the small table and hung his jacket on a coat hook. "Sorry I'm late. Met someone."
His partner paused and grinned. "She must've been pretty."
Jim glanced at his friend, his brow creasing. "I suppose, but she wasn't my type."
Blair chuckled. "Turned you down flat, huh?"
Jim couldn't help but smile at Blair's ebullience. Nothing, not even the dark circles of exhaustion beneath the younger man's eyes, could keep him down for long. "I didn't even ask her. Wanted to give you a chance."
Blair sent him a not-so-subtle obscene gesture and Jim laughed. "Watch it, Chief, you need that finger for typing."
Still chuckling, Jim walked over to the clothes hamper and dumped his sweaty gym clothes then carried the empty bag upstairs to his room. By the time he returned, Blair had the lasagna on the table and red wine poured. With a sigh of contentment, Jim sat down across the table from him. "This looks great, Chief. Thanks." He peered into the lasagna with exaggerated seriousness. "This is real meat, isn't it?"
Blair laughed. "Yes. It was the least I could do, seeing that you've been working for eighteen hours straight." The student gazed at him, trying to hide his concern behind a clinical mask, but Jim could feel it like a warm summer breeze. "How are your senses? Still on line?"
"They haven't gone crazy, if that's what you're wondering." Jim flashed him a half-smile in reassurance. "I'm okay, Chief. Just a little tired. How'd your day go?"
Blair told him about his class and the exam he'd taken earlier while Jim had been doing reports.
"So how'd you do?" Jim asked.
"Do on what?"
Jim smiled tolerantly. Blair was about five pages ahead of him already. "On the exam?"
"Oh, aced it. I think."
"I knew you would."
"And how'd you know that?'
Jim forced a serious expression on his face. "Because I tutored you."
Blair's eyes widened behind his glass lenses. Jim smiled to himself at the familiar reaction. "You tutored me?"
"Yeah, all that time during the stakeout when I quizzed you," Jim said without cracking a smile.
"Well, yeah, I suppose," Blair admitted. He glanced at Jim, who couldn't hold back his grin. The younger man mirrored the expression. "Thanks, Jim. It really did help a lot, even though you kept mixing up indigenous and exigenous."
Jim shrugged and deadpanned, "Never could keep those two straight." He paused. "And you're welcome, Chief. Any time."
Blair shuddered dramatically. "No thanks. Those really wore me out, man."
"Me, too." Jim had hated to take Blair on all night stake-outs, but he needed him. Three years ago when they'd first met, Jim would never have admitted to needing anyone, but now he had come to realize that Blair was the piece of himself that had been missing. He knew Blair felt the same way, though the two of them never spoke the words aloud. It was merely there -- a given -- just like the air that surrounded them.
Jim took a deep breath and pushed back his empty plate. He picked up his wine goblet, twirled the stem between his fingers as he surreptitiously studied his guide. The younger man appeared somewhat pale and when Jim tuned up his hearing, he heard the slightly accelerated beat of Blair's heart. The kid was running on empty -- pure adrenaline. He took a sip of wine, considering how to word his concern without sounding like an overprotective sentinel. "How're you doing with schoolwork?"
Blair brushed a napkin across his mouth. "All I have left is to grade forty-three blue books."
"Think you can get them done tomorrow?"
"Not if I go in to the station with you."
"How about if you stay here at the loft?"
Blair nodded. "Sure, I think so. What's up?"
"I was thinking we deserve a break. I'm going to ask Simon for a few days off. What do you say we drive over to that little lake in the middle of nowhere and do some fishing and camping?"
Blair grinned widely. "I think it sounds great. Better'n great. We could try a few tests out there with nobody else around."
Jim groaned, not because he was upset, but because the reaction was expected. "Do we have to?"
"Oh, come on, Jim. It won't be so bad. I promise I'll do all the cooking."
Jim held up a hand. "Not if you're going to make weird vegetables and algae shakes."
"They're not weird, they're healthy."
"I don't care what you call it. If you don't cook normal food, I won't play guinea pig."
"Maybe I can use your favorite foods as a reward. Kinda like Pavlov's dogs," Blair teased, his blue eyes dancing.
Jim threw his napkin at his friend, hitting him in the face. He chuckled and Blair joined in, the loft filling with the friends' shared laughter, a release after the long, stress-filled days of the past two weeks.
Thursday, 9:23 a.m., Captain Banks' office
"We need this break, Simon. We're both burnt out," Jim said. "Besides, I've got more vacation days stockpiled than anyone else in the unit."
Captain Simon Banks aimed his unlit cigar at Jim. "I'm already short-staffed with Conner flying back home for two weeks and Joel out with the flu."
Jim leaned forward. "C'mon, the kid's tired and so am I. A person can only take so many all-nighters," he argued.
Simon eyed the stack of files on the corner of his desk and sighed. "Ah hell, these'll be here when you get back. You and Sandburg are beginning to look like hell." Though his expression remained stern, his dark eyes twinkled. "And that's not good for morale around here, especially the female contingent's."
Relief flowed through Jim. "Thanks, Simon."
"But I want you and Sandburg back bright and early Monday morning," Simon stated firmly.
"No problem, sir." Jim rose.
"Have you got your reports done from yesterday's arrest?" Simon asked.
"Not yet, but they'll be in your box before I leave."
A knock on the door startled him.
"Come in," Simon called out impatiently.
Rhonda stuck her head in. "There's an FBI agent to see you, Captain."
Simon grimaced, nearly biting the end of his cigar off. "Just what I need," he growled. "Send him in."
"Her," Rhonda corrected. She turned and motioned to someone. The door opened further and a woman wearing brown trousers, a tan t-shirt with a dark green v-neck sweater over it and hiking boots walked inside. She didn't dress like any of the other FBI agents Jim had ever seen. Then he met her gaze.
"We meet again," she said, her expression and voice cool.
"Kelly," Jim said, rising to his feet.
Simon stood and narrowed his eyes. "You two know each other?"
"We met last night at the gym," Jim replied.
She deliberately turned away from him and stepped toward Simon's desk, extending her hand. "Special Agent Kelly McDaniel."
Simon shook her hand. "Captain Simon Banks and you obviously know Detective Jim Ellison."
"I didn't know his last name," Kelly said, then arched an eyebrow. "He didn't tell me he was a detective."
"You didn't tell me you were an FBI agent," Jim shot back.
A slight smile touched her lips. "So I guess we're both even."
"Jim, those reports," Simon reminded.
"Yes, sir. I'm on them." Jim moved to the door. "Nice to see you again, Special Agent McDaniel."
"Same here, Detective Ellison," she said with the same formality.
Jim exited the office and returned to his own desk. He sat down and turned on his computer, but shamelessly tuned up his hearing to listen in on Simon and the FBI agent's conversation.
"Have a seat, Agent McDaniel," Simon was saying.
She sat down, and Jim heard the gentle thwump of a file set on the desk. "I'm here concerning this."
There was a quiet swish of paper and a sudden intake of breath from Simon. Jim frowned, wondering what had upset the seasoned captain.
"Rape and murder victim number eleven," Kelly said. "Found a week ago here in Cascade near the waterfront."
"Number eleven?" Simon demanded.
"Ten other women have been murdered in the exact same manner in two other cities. Four women were killed in Minneapolis two years ago. Last year, six women were killed in Denver -- the last victim was four months ago."
Jim's fingers curled into a fist. A serial killer, who was now in Cascade.
"And you're here because you've been assigned the case?" Simon asked.
"That's right." She paused and Jim heard her inhale deeply. "This isn't about glory or who gets credit, Captain Banks. I just want this person caught and in order to do that, I'm going to need local assistance."
Jim dialed down his hearing. As shorthanded as Simon was, Jim had a strong hunch that he could say sayonara to his and Blair's three-day weekend.
As Jim worked on his report, he kept half of his attention glued to Simon's door, expecting it to open at any moment. Fifteen tedious minutes later, McDaniel stepped out.
"Rafe," Simon bellowed.
The young detective scurried over to the captain. "Sir?"
"This is Special Agent McDaniel. She needs a computer terminal. Get her settled at Conner's desk," Simon ordered.
"And if there's anything she needs, don't hesitate to give it to her."
Rafe nodded, then ushered McDaniel across the room.
"Jim, can I see you in my office a minute?" Simon called out.
Here it comes, Jim thought.
He brushed past his captain as he entered the office, and Simon closed the door behind him. Jim decided to play dumb on this one, hoping his boss didn't suspect him of eavesdropping. "Captain?"
"Don't tell me you didn't listen in."
Busted. Jim smiled wryly. "Would I do that, sir?"
"I won't answer that," Simon grunted as he sat on the edge of his desk. "I'll work with her this weekend, but as soon as you and Sandburg get back, she and the case are yours."
Jim's muscles unknotted. "Thanks. I figured you were going to yank our time off."
The tall man sighed. "I should, but God knows you two need the break. All the hours you've been putting in...." He shook his head. "This is our job, not our life. Sometimes I forget that."
Though relieved to keep his long weekend, Jim felt a sense of unease at his friend's words. Although Jim wasn't the type of man to go on a seek and discover mission with feelings -- his or anybody else's -- he suspected something else was bothering Simon. "Is there something going on with Daryl?" he asked in a low voice.
Simon's head came up sharply and confusion brought a frown to his face. "No, he's fine. Why?"
Jim shrugged, forcing nonchalance in the gesture, and said helplessly. "You just seem kind of down, is all."
Simon pushed himself up and crossed to the window. He stood for a moment, staring out into the gray morning. "Diane gave me the ultimatum."
Shit, this was definitely out of Jim's area of expertise. "Oh?"
The captain sighed and returned to his chair behind the desk, plopping heavily into it. "My job or her. She said I was spending too much time at work and not enough time with her." He poured himself a cup of coffee and took a tentative sip. "Hell, Jim, I can't go through that again. Not after Joan. It was the same damn thing that led to the divorce."
Jim wished he had some words of wisdom to lend to his friend but his well was empty. If Sandburg had been here, he would've found the right thing to say. "I'm sorry, Simon. I thought she understood."
"They always do in the beginning, but then the reality of it hits them." Simon suddenly waved a hand at him. "Don't you have reports to do?"
Jim stood quickly, feeling guilty for feeling relieved. "I wish there was something--"
Simon managed a smile, but to Jim it resembled a grimace. "Comes with the territory."
"Yeah, I suppose it does."
Feeling like a coward, Jim left his office. He glanced at the FBI agent and crossed the room to her borrowed desk. "I guess we'll be working together."
"When you get back," she added, but there was no accusation. McDaniel held out the file. "Want to take a look?"
Jim accepted it from her and opened it to see a female victim staring at him with blank eyes from a color photograph. A diagonal cut between her breasts formed an odd red sash across her chest. He forced down the bile that rose in his throat. He should be accustomed to seeing death in his job, but the fact that he wasn't made him feel a little better.
However, he was concerned about Blair seeing such blatant violence. The pictures of the people Lash had killed still haunted the kid, nearly three years afterwards. Sandburg was too damn sensitive for the evil that filled this earth and Jim instinctively wanted to protect him from it. Only he failed more often than not and each of his failures had taken a piece of Blair's innocence. Thank God Blair still had some wide-eyed naivete left to view the world. How long before Blair would look at the world as Jim did, with suspicion and distrust?
Jim didn't want to consider his bright-eyed partner hardened by witnessing too much of man's most basest nature. Blair's soft heart was one of the things Jim sought to protect with the ferocity of a she-bear and her cub. However, this case looked like he would fail again in his duty to safeguard his guide.
"Victim was drugged and raped before she was killed," she said softly. "The Scarlet Letter."
"What?" Jim asked.
McDaniel clicked her pen with her thumb. "In the book, The Scarlet Letter, an adulteress was forced to wear a sash with the letter A on it."
"There's no sash," Jim said, furrowing his brow.
"Not a cloth one, but look at the cut on her chest. It doesn't look deep enough to kill, but it was very deliberate."
After a moment, Jim nodded. "You could have something there. Was she married?"
She nodded as she stared at the picture. "Just like the previous ten victims."
Jim watched as her gaze lost focus, as if she were seeing something in her mind's eye. "What?"
She started, blinked, and looked at Jim, her green eyes opaque. "Our killer is using these women to punish someone. He feels the need to be judge, jury and executor, after he tests them."
McDaniel planted her elbow on the desk and her chin in her palm. "I'm not sure. The drug in their system..." She shook her head. "I don't know."
Jim watched the play of emotions cross the agent's features -- anger, helplessness, fear, and back to anger.
"I'm going to start by talking to our victim's -- Mary Ellen Hayes' -- husband, friends, co-workers. Find out if she may have been having an affair," she said.
"You said there were ten previous victims. What about them? Were they having affairs?"
"Six were, four weren't, but all were having marital problems." She closed the file and a careful guardedness came into her expression. "So you're taking a three day vacation."
"My partner, Blair Sandburg and I've been working every day for the past two weeks. We need the break," Jim said quietly. "But if you think--"
A corner of her lips tilted upward. "We haven't caught this bastard in two years, I doubt three days will make a difference." Her eyes suddenly twinkled. "By the way, I have a weakness for pan-fried walleye."
Jim smiled. "You got it." He eyed her a moment, wondering why he felt as if he'd met her before. Realizing he was staring, he blinked. "I'd best get back to those reports."
When Jim got back to his desk, he picked up the phone and punched in the loft's number. Four rings later, Blair answered.
"Blair. Jim. Simon gave us the next three days off."
"Have any trouble?"
"No, but when we get back, we'll be working with an FBI agent."
Blair groaned. "Oh, man, that sucks. Those guys are so uptight."
Jim glanced at Kelly who was intent on her computer screen. "Special Agent Kelly McDaniel doesn't strike me as your typical FBI agent."
There was a moment of silence. "A woman, huh? I'm looking forward to meeting her."
Jim chuckled. "So how did you know Kelly was a woman -- table leg radar?"
"Haha! Real funny, Jim," Blair said, though Jim could hear the sheepishness in his tone. "Lucky guess."
"How're the blue books coming?"
"Got fifteen done. Only thirty-two left," he said, some of the exuberance leaving his voice. "But I'll have them done by tomorrow morning so we can head out early. You want me to call the boat rental?"
"That's all right. I'll do it. You just get those tests done, Chief."
"What do you want for supper?"
"How about I pick up Chinese on the way home?"
"No broccoli and chicken, okay? That didn't set well last time."
Jim grimaced. That was an understatement. Blair had kept Jim up all night as he'd vomited every hour on the hour. Not that Jim blamed him -- hell, the kid hadn't chosen to get sick. It was just that the sentinel and guide connection between them made Jim more empathetic toward the younger man and his own gut had cramped up the whole time Blair was sick. He'd finally given up on sleeping and had joined Blair on the sofa to watch an old movie. Five hours later he and his guide had awakened, Blair's head in Jim's lap and Jim's arm stretched protectively over the younger man. Blair had mumbled an embarrassed apology as he scrambled to sit up, although Jim hadn't felt the least bit uncomfortable.
"No broccoli and chicken," Jim repeated. "Gotcha. See ya this evening."
He hung up the phone and glanced up to catch McDaniel's gaze on him, an odd, almost sad smile on her face. She turned her attention back to the papers spread out on her desk.
Deja vu struck again. He searched his memory, seeking a woman named Kelly McDaniel, but came up empty. He was tired. Maybe after a weekend of rest and recreation he'd remember. He made a quick call to a boat rental place he'd used before and had to settle for a sixteen footer with twin twenty horsepower outboards for the weekend. Anything smaller had already been rented.
With a heavy sigh, he opened up the incomplete report on his computer and began two-finger typing.
Thursday, 2:20 p.m., The Bullpen
Jim's stomach growled, reminding him he hadn't eaten anything since the scrambled eggs and ham Blair had made that morning.
Maybe Kelly would like to go grab some lunch. He looked over at her desk and found it empty.
"Hey, H, where'd Agent McDaniel go?"
"She said she was going to go talk to some people. What's she working on?" Brown asked.
"The rape and murder from last week. McDaniel thinks it's the work of a serial killer, a man who's already killed ten women in two different cities."
Brown whistled low. "Damn. Are you and Blair assigned to work with her?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah, but not until Monday. Simon gave us a three day weekend."
Brown studied him a moment, his dark eyes understanding. "Yeah, you two need the break."
"You eat lunch?"
"Two hours ago, but if you want some company..."
"I thought you were supposed to be trying to lose a few pounds."
"Hey, it's what you eat, not how much you eat."
"Right, and the tooth fairy leaves a nickel under your pillow, too." Grinning at H's faked indignation, Jim stood and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. "I'm going to run over to the deli and grab a sandwich." He paused. "You coming?"
H smiled and joined him.
Thursday, 5:05 p.m., The Bullpen
Jim signed the last report and heaved a tired sigh. Finally, the paperwork was done. Now he could go home and pack for the weekend -- after he picked up supper.
He tossed the completed reports into Simon's box, then pulled his mail. Glancing through it, he didn't find anything that needed their immediate attention. The last envelope, however, was addressed to SA McDaniel.
Jim didn't know how important the contents of the manila envelope were, but he had a strong hunch it might be related to the serial murder case. He decided to drop by her hotel and deliver it personally. It would make him a little late, but Blair would understand.
He found the slip of paper where he'd jotted down the name of her hotel and the phone numbers to reach her, then shut down his computer noting how quiet the bullpen was. Everybody had either gone home or were out pursuing the bad guys. It felt strange to be done so early.
Thursday, 5:36 p.m., The Lexington Inn
Jim strode into the hotel's lobby and found the elevator. He rode up to the tenth floor, then found room 1017 and knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" came McDaniel's voice.
A few moments later, he heard stocking feet cross carpet. There was a moment's pause before the chain was slid off and the lock disengaged. The door opened and Kelly stood there, dressed in blue jeans and a baggy flannel shirt that fell to her knees. Papers were clutched in one hand and narrow reading glasses were perched low on her nose.
"What're you doing here?" she asked warily.
"You got something in my mailbox. It looked important."
She took the envelope from Jim's outstretched hand and glanced at the return address. "It is. Thanks." Removing her reading glasses, she stepped back almost reluctantly. "Come on in."
Though Jim knew he was already running late, Kelly McDaniel aroused his curiosity. He entered the modest suite, his nose twitching with the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
"Want some?" she asked, pointing to the pot.
She poured the remaining coffee into a paper cup and handed it to him. "Thanks," he said.
She folded one leg beneath her as she settled on the desk chair and motioned toward the settee a few feet away. "Have a seat."
Jim sat down, not realizing how tired he was until he was leaning back against the cushions. He took a sip of the coffee, and the rich flavor rolled across his tongue with almost sensual titillation. "This is really good. What kind is it?"
"Kona, straight, not a blend. I have a friend in Hawaii who supplies my caffeine fixes." She smiled slightly. "I never leave home without it."
"I'll bet Simon would like it. He's a coffee connoisseur."
"I'll have to take some in for him." She studied him closely, her green eyes narrowed, almost feline. For a moment, her face wavered, replaced by a cat. Jim shook his head. No question about it -- he needed a vacation.
"How's the interviewing coming?" Jim asked.
Kelly shrugged. "All right, but I have several more people to talk to. I checked out the bar where the victim had been the night she was killed. Talked to the owner but he wasn't any help. I'm going back tonight to see the bartender."
Jim frowned. "You should have someone go with you."
"I work alone. Always have, always will," she said flatly.
He tuned up his hearing and heard her heart rate increase. It shouldn't bother him that she worked alone, but it did. Maybe because he knew the feeling all too well -- before Blair Sandburg had bounced into his life, turning it upside down and making Jim stop running long enough to let the gift of friendship turn into a two way street.
Impatiently, she gestured toward the mess of papers strewn across the bed. "I was assigned the case after the seventh victim. I spent three months going over files and evidence and talking with relatives, friends, and acquaintances of the victims. Nothing, nada, zip." Frustration lent her words force.
"How were they killed?"
Kelly's eyes darkened. "In ten victims, there's been nothing definite -- none of the autopsies showed any major trauma, although there was some heart damage, even though the oldest victim was only thirty-nine and the youngest twenty-three."
"Again, nothing conclusive. They found the same substance in all of the victims' blood, but were unable to identify it."
"A drug? Poison?"
"Maybe. I don't know." She raked her fingers through her hair, which was a little longer than Sandburg's, but closer to the color of his own. Her frustration was clear even without his enhanced senses.
Guilt flashed through Jim. "We don't have to go fishing this weekend."
She shook her head and her lips formed a pale imitation of a smile. "This case won't be broken overnight."
Jim couldn't argue with that. "All right." He paused then asked impetuously, "Have you had supper?"
"I hadn't even thought about it."
"Why don't you bring the file and come on over to our place? You can meet Blair and the three of us can eat Chinese and talk about the case."
"My partner and I are roommates." He lifted a hand as if to stave off any comments. "We're friends."
Kelly brushed a hand across her mouth as if wiping away a grin. "I don't care if you're both drag queens. I only care that you two have the best arrest record in the Cascade PD."
Jim laughed. "Well, Sandburg does look pretty good in a strapless gown." He paused. "Supper?"
She appeared tempted, but then shook her head. "You and your partner have to get ready for your fishing trip. We'll get together when you two get back. Maybe I'll have something more by then."
Jim finished his coffee and stood. "I'd better get going." If he knew his young partner as well as he thought he did, Blair would be worrying about him.
"Why don't you call him and let him know you're running late?" Kelly suggested.
"Good idea." He reached into his jacket pocket, but his fingers didn't find his phone. "I must've left my cell phone in the truck."
"Go ahead." She motioned to the phone on the room desk and smiled crookedly. "Local calls are free."
"Thanks." Jim dialed his number and Blair picked up immediately. "I'm headed home now. Could you call the order in and I'll pick it up in about twenty minutes? Thanks."
He put the phone back in its cradle as a thought struck him. How had she known that Blair might be worried?
Kelly stood and opened the door. "Have a good time."
"You sure you don't want me and Blair to stay here and help?"
"For the last time, no. I can handle it." Then she added quietly, "I always do."
Jim heard it, though he doubted he would have if he didn't have his sentinel senses. "If you need any help at all, call Simon or Brown or Rafe. Any one of them will give you a hand."
"I know." She smiled. "Now go."
She closed the door and he heard her slide the bolt into place. He paused in the hall, his brow creased. What was it with Special Agent Kelly McDaniel? Why did he feel as if he knew her? Why did he get the impression she was hiding something from him?
Why did he feel the need to stay close and protect her?
Shaking his head, he listened to her steady heartbeat fade as he continued on to the elevator.
Friday, 7:01 a.m., The Loft
"Don't forget a jacket and a sweatshirt," Jim called down from his bedroom.
"Yes, Mom," Blair replied dutifully.
Jim descended the stairs, dressed in blue jeans and a navy henley beneath a light blue denim shirt with the tails hanging out. His Jags ball cap covered his head and he carried his gym bag filled with the clothes he needed for the weekend. He'd already loaded the pick-up with the bags of groceries and beer he and Blair had picked up after they'd eaten supper last night. The fishing rods, tackle box, landing net, and camping gear had also been stowed in the back of the truck.
"Watch it, Junior, or I'll ground you for the weekend," Jim teased.
Blair grinned as he tossed his backpack over a shoulder and picked up his overnight bag. "This is gonna be great, Jim. Just the two of us with the water spray in our faces, just like Captain Ahab."
"If we run into Moby Dick, I'm outta there," Jim said dryly.
Blair slapped his shoulder. "You mean a little old whale is gonna scare a sentinel?"
"Damn right, especially in Mayhew Lake." Jim glanced around the loft to make sure all the electrical appliances were switched off. "You turn off your light?"
"Yep, and I waited until the toilet quit running after I flushed," Blair said, a grin dancing on the corners of his lips.
Jim shook his head, but his eyes sparkled. "C'mon, Ahab, let's go catch some fish." He wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders and guided him out the door.
Friday, 7:36 a.m., Waterfront pier
Captain Simon Banks was having serious second thoughts about allowing Jim and Blair three days off. A second rape and murder victim was found -- exactly one week after the first.
He drew his car to a stop at the usually deserted pier, now crammed with official cars -- patrol cars, the forensics vehicles, and the coroner's wagon. He spotted Kelly McDaniel in her uncharacteristic FBI attire -- brown jeans, a navy sweater and hiking boots -- stepping out of a black Jeep. He flipped up his coat collar to ward off the rain and headed in her direction as he clamped down on his first cigar of the day.
She saw him approaching and paused so he could join her.
"Welcome to Cascade," Simon said with a grimace.
McDaniel shrugged. "At least it's not snowing."
Simon managed a dry chuckle.
Walking side by side, they headed toward the circle of police personnel. Most of them recognized Simon, but the agent had to hold up her FBI identification before the patrolmen would allow her in the cordoned-off area. Ducking beneath the yellow tape, Simon got his first look of the victim. She was naked like the other Cascade victim and her eyes stared blankly into the rainy mist. A diagonal laceration between her breasts told them she was killed by the same serial murderer who had killed Mary Ellen Hayes and the ten other women. Some contusions and small cuts were scattered across her torso and face.
"Damn," he muttered. He glanced at the coroner who was examining the body closely. "What do you have, Dan?"
"No obvious signs of what killed her," Dr. Dan Black Wolf replied.
"The cut on her chest?" Simon asked.
Dan shook his head. "Not deep enough to kill, just like the other victim, but there's a few more marks on her body, like the killer had less control."
McDaniel nodded. "That makes sense. Our killer is getting bolder, and he'll continue to get more confident with each successive victim." She narrowed her eyes. "Was she raped?"
He nodded. "I've taken semen samples. I'll let you know if they match. I'll also have a DNA test done on it." Dan paused. "I assume you want priority on the autopsy."
Simon glanced at the Fed's clenched jaw. "The sooner the better."
"I'll schedule it for one o'clock."
"Thanks, Dan," Simon said. "I appreciate it."
"Was there bruising around the thighs?" McDaniel asked.
"Hardly any," the ME replied with a frown. "There tends to be at least some bruising there, even if the victim knows her assailant."
Simon narrowed his eyes. "You're saying the victim may have known the killer?"
McDaniel shrugged. "I just think it's strange that there's been so little sign of resistance in all of the victims." Pointing to the woman's left hand where a gold band and diamond were worn, she said softly, "I wonder if she was having an affair."
Simon gnashed his teeth, nearly crushing the end of his cigar. "I hate this. Why did this bastard come to my city?"
McDaniel shook her head, then glanced up at the gunmetal gray clouds, her jaw clenching. "He isn't going to quit until we stop him." She turned her attention back to Simon. "Besides the regular pictures, I want close-ups of those marks on her body."
Simon's stomach churned as he passed the directions on to the official photographer, whose face was somewhat pale. Simon couldn't blame him -- no matter how often they saw death, it still had the capacity to shock them. Thank God.
Curious, he watched the FBI agent work. She stared down at the body for a long moment, her face unreadable, her eyes narrowed. After a minute of studying the body, she pulled on a pair of latex gloves and squatted down. She touched the woman's face lightly and tilted her own head to the side, then closed her eyes.
Simon frowned. What the hell was she doing?
A flicker of something passed across her face. Fear? Surprise? Pain? Her face paled and he hurried over to her, touching her shoulder. "Kelly." Her name slipped out before he could censor himself.
She opened her eyes and they remained unfocused for a long moment, then she finally fixed them on Simon. "Yes?"
A bland curtain hid her thoughts from him. "What're you doing?"
"Just getting a closer look."
"With your eyes closed?" Simon didn't bother to hide his annoyance.
The agent shrugged, seemingly unfazed by his outburst. She straightened and brushed her hands across her thighs. "She hasn't been dead that long, only a few hours."
Simon glanced at the ME, who nodded in surprise. "Time of death looks to be between one and four a.m.," Dan confirmed.
"I'm going to see if there were any witnesses and talk to the person who found the body," Kelly announced.
"I have a meeting this morning with the commissioner. If you need help, call Rafe or Brown," Simon said. "I'll meet you at the morgue at one."
"You're coming to the autopsy?" Kelly asked.
Simon nodded grimly. "I want this son-of-a-bitch caught before he kills any more women in my city or any place else."
He stalked back to his car, chomping furiously on his cigar. Even though he knew Ellison and Sandburg had needed a break, he wished to hell he had them working with Special Agent McDaniel now. Maybe with Jim's senses, they could finally get this sick bastard behind bars where he belonged.
Pausing by his car, his gaze searched for the FBI agent and he found her talking to the patrolman who'd been the first on the scene. She tipped her head to the side in a gesture that uncannily reminded Simon of Jim Ellison.
Suddenly, Kelly McDaniel glanced up and caught his eyes. Heat shimmered through Simon at the contact and he quickly looked away. He settled in his car and gripped the steering wheel with shaking hands.
What the hell had just happened?
Friday, 10:49 a.m., Mayhew Lake, 140 miles east of Cascade
Jim steered off a gravel road with the rented boat hitched to the truck bouncing along behind. The sky was blue, the sun bright -- a perfect early fall day to do nothing but enjoy the rays and cast out a few lines in the middle of a glass-smooth lake.
"Should we pitch the tent first or just head out?" Blair asked, stretching as he got out of the truck.
"Let's grab the cooler and some munchies and head out. We'll come in early enough to set up camp before it gets dark." Jim watched Blair bounce for a moment and a crooked smile tugged at his lips. "That sound okay, Tigger?"
Blair looked puzzled for a moment, then realized what he was doing and laughed. "That was good, Jim. Your sense of humor's improving."
"You're finally admitting I have one?" Jim chuckled and patted Blair's side as he walked past him. They tossed their fishing rods, tackle box, a cooler filled with beer and bottled water, a bag with chips and some granola and nuts into the boat.
After backing the trailer to the edge of the lake, Jim put the truck in park and hopped out. He unclasped the boat from the trailer and handed Blair the rope tied to the bow. "Don't lose it, Chief."
After returning to the truck, Jim continued to back down until the trailer was submerged and the boat floated free. The rope tightened and Blair leaned back to hold it close to shore. Jim gunned the truck motor and pulled the dripping trailer to a higher point on dry land. Parking the truck under the shade of a towering oak, he pulled the keys and tossed them in his pocket.
He inhaled a deep breath of the warm air redolent with green grass, lake water, and damp earth. A hint of exhaust from the truck and his and Blair's scents were the only signs of civilization to his sentinel senses. Even though an inkling of guilt remained for leaving Simon with a hot case and a federal agent, Jim couldn't help but savor the tranquility.
"Hey, I need some help here, man," Blair called out.
Jim glanced over to see the smaller man on his backside as he strained to hold the boat from floating away. Smiling, he ran over to Blair and took hold of the rope. Together, they pulled the boat close enough that Blair could hop in without getting his feet wet. Then Jim gave the boat a shove and jumped in, getting his own boots damp but not caring. The day was warm enough that they'd dry quickly.
Jim started one of the motors, tossed a spare ball cap on Blair's head so his partner wouldn't get a sunburned face, then headed off to the far side of the isolated lake.
Blair clapped a hand to his head to hold the cap in place as Jim sped away. Water droplets struck Blair in the face and he smiled. Glancing back, he looked at his friend, and his smile grew. Jim had pulled the brim of his hat low to shade eyes that saw more than any other human's. The corners of his lips were turned upward and when his striking blue eyes caught Blair's, they twinkled with rare ease.
Contentment filled Blair and on some level he knew Jim shared the same feeling. The link between Sentinel and Guide was one that Blair was still trying to fathom. When Alex had "killed" him, everyone but Jim had given up on him. Jim had somehow linked their animal spirits and had brought Blair back from death.
Since that time, the bond between them had changed, deepened, though oddly enough, Blair merely accepted it instead of trying to dissect its meaning. He knew Jim recognized the change, too, though in many ways Jim was the same man he'd been when Blair had first met him. Detective Jim Ellison wasn't a man to verbalize his feelings; instead he showed it in gestures and touches that had originally made Blair uncomfortable. Now, Blair accepted it as Jim's way of expressing his fondness for those he cared about. And the stoic detective cared deeply, more than he allowed others -- and often times himself -- to see.
Jim slowed the boat as he rounded a point in the lake, then stopped the motor altogether. "Toss out the anchor, matey," he called out.
"Aye, aye, sir." Blair saluted as he followed the order.
Jim looked over the edge of the boat and Blair could tell he was expanding his sense of sight. "Twelve feet and there's a few old tree trunks down there. Looks like it might be a good place for some sunnies and perch."
"Can't you see them?"
Jim smiled crookedly. "That'd be cheating."
"Like you've never done that before," Blair muttered good-naturedly and knowing full well Jim could hear him.
They quickly got their rods ready, placed a leader and float on each of them then dropped them in with a nightcrawler on each hook. Blair sat in the front swivel chair while Jim stayed in the back seat near the motors.
"Did you remember the sunscreen?" Jim asked Blair.
The younger man slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand -- he'd forgotten it even after Jim's one hundred and three reminders to bring it. "Damn, I knew I'd forget something."
"Just keep your arms covered and that cap on. You should be fine."
"But it's hot out here," Blair complained.
"You're going to be a lot hotter if you get burned." Jim removed his denim shirt, leaving him in the short-sleeved henley.
"Hey, what about you?" Blair accused.
"I'm more used to the sun, Chief."
Grumbling, Blair had to admit Jim had a point. However, it didn't help. He was already sweating under his sweatshirt.
Jim tossed him his long-sleeved shirt. "Here, put this on. It's lighter than that thing you're wearing."
Blair tried not to smile, but the corners of his lips lifted. For all his gruffness, Jim was a marshmallow underneath it all. He lifted his sweatshirt off, then slipped his arms into the too-long sleeves of Jim's shirt. Once he had it buttoned, he pushed the cuffs up to his wrists. It was a lot cooler and he flashed Jim a smile of gratitude. "Thanks, man."
"You're welcome." The perfect blue sky paled next to Jim Ellison's twinkling eyes.
They each grabbed a bottle of water instead of beer since it wasn't noon yet and settled back to jiggle their fishing rods and soak up the silence. A pair of grebes skimmed across the water with clumsy dignity to land fifty feet from their boat. Jim could see their crests silhouetted against the clear sky when they settled on the water. The birds began to dive for their lunch, wary but not frightened of the boat and its two occupants. A heron suddenly rose up from a nearby channel and flew along the bank, its neck tucked and its long legs trailing behind the body.
Jim's gaze followed its flight, enjoying the remarkable grace of the ungainly bird in the air. "Notice how the heron flies with its neck tucked and legs extended?"
Blair glanced up, shading his eyes against the sun. "Yeah."
"That's how you tell a heron from a crane -- cranes fly with both neck and legs extended."
"I didn't know you were so into birds," Blair commented.
"There's something about a bird's flight that's always fascinated me." Jim shrugged, almost embarrassed.
"Cultures dating back thousands of years have revered birds for the freedom they represent," Blair began in his professor voice. "They seem to have the ability to break the bonds of the earth and sail above the problems represented by the land-bound creatures."
Jim laughed. "Maybe I just like birds, Chief."
Blair's face flushed, but he chuckled, too. "Resist the urge to expound, right?"
"Some things are just meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed," Jim said, but there was no reproach in his voice.
They sat in companionable silence for a few more minutes, until Jim suddenly straightened in his chair. "I think I got a live one, Chief."
Blair's gaze went to Jim's bobber that was being tugged down in impatient jerks. "Play out the line. Don't lose it."
"I've fished once or twice before, Sandburg," Jim said with affable exasperation. "Get the net."
Blair reached for the landing net and moved to the side of the boat where Jim' s line was.
Jim gave a quick tug to set the hook. "Got it. Must be at least a four pounder." he said triumphantly. "Get the net under it."
As Jim reeled in his line, Blair leaned over the boat and dipped the net in the water. He saw the fish coming up and stretched out to get the net under it. And leaned a little too far.
"Shit!" Blair yelped.
A hand grabbed the collar of his shirt and hauled him back into the boat. Gasping, Blair sat on the floor of the boat, his heart thundering. "Thanks, Jim," he managed to stammer out.
"Did you land my fish?" Jim demanded.
Blair blinked and found he still held the net firmly in his hand. He looked into the mesh and saw a three-inch sunfish staring back at him. It maybe weighed a pound.
"Four pounder, huh?" Blair asked, holding the flopping fish up by the line.
Jim brushed a hand across his mouth to hide his embarrassed grin. "Well, maybe I exaggerated a bit."
Blair shook his head, trying to keep a straight face. "You got one part of this fishing thing down pat."
"The lying part."
Jim snorted and Blair couldn't hold back his laughter. He tossed the fish to Jim who managed to catch it after some juggling.
"You get to clean it," Blair said and sat back down to enjoy the sun, the fishing and the camaraderie.
Friday, 1:02 p.m., Cascade Police Coroner's Office
By the time Simon arrived at the morgue, Special Agent McDaniel was already there talking to Dan.
"Just in time, Captain," Dan said.
Simon didn't like autopsies -- never had and never would. It was the aspect of his job he hated the most.
"The soul's gone, Captain," Kelly said quietly. "She can't feel any more pain."
"I know," Simon admitted after a moment of surprise that she'd read his closed expression so easily. "It's just that murder victims go before their time, taken by some son-of-a-bitch playing God."
"Playing Satan, you mean."
Simon nodded grimly.
Kelly and Simon put on their masks and followed Dan into the room where the body lay on a cold metal gurney.
"September 10, 1999. Autopsy of Jane Doe," the ME spoke into a microphone that hung suspended from the ceiling above the table.
Simon clasped his hands behind his back and tried to keep his features impassive as Dan went through the visible injuries first. Kelly stepped closer to the body, but Simon couldn't make himself move any nearer.
"What's that?" the fed asked, pointing to a barely discernible rash on the woman's belly and thighs.
Dan shook his head. "That's an odd place for a rash."
"Hives?" Simon suggested.
The doctor shrugged. "Could be. I'll take an epidermal sample and send it over to toxicology."
Kelly continued to study the skin outbreak for a moment, then gave her attention back to the autopsy. Simon frowned behind his mask -- what was the federal agent thinking?
Over two hours later, Dan laid the bloody instruments on the tray. "Nothing out of the ordinary with the internal organs, except for the heart."
"What about it?" Simon demanded.
"There was some tissue damage to the right ventricle."
"Same as the other victims," McDaniel said quietly. "Was it enough to kill her?"
"Offhand, I'd say no," Dan replied. "Not unless her heart just stopped."
"Then how did he kill her and the others?" Kelly demanded.
Simon heard her helpless frustration and almost laid a calming hand on her shoulder. Gritting his teeth, he wished he had a cigar and settled for slipping his hands into his trouser pockets.
"She wasn't strangled or suffocated or drowned, and the chest wound wasn't serious enough to kill her. There was a slight amount of fluid in her stomach. I'll send a sample down to the lab to get analyzed."
"What about toxicology?" Simon asked, his stomach a little fluttery.
"Even with a rush priority, it won't be until Monday morning. We should get the DNA results hopefully by Tuesday, maybe Wednesday."
McDaniel handed a card to the coroner. "My cell phone number is there. Call me as soon as you get the results."
Dan nodded. "Will do."
Kelly studied the body for a long moment, then raised her gaze to the doctor. "What do you think killed her?"
"Probably some kind of poison. Hopefully the blood analysis will tell us what kind." Dan shrugged tiredly. "But if it's the same killer, I doubt if anything conclusive will turn up."
"It's the same killer," the agent stated with a cold certainty that sent shivers down Simon's spine. "The son-of-a-bitch is taunting us."
"I'll never get used to this -- people being killed senselessly," Dan said.
Kelly shook her head. "No, not senselessly. The murderer thinks he's doing it very sensibly. We just have to figure out his definition of sensible."
"That's what scares me."
Silently, Simon and the agent left the room, dropping their masks into a HazMat waste disposal container.
"What do you think?" Simon asked as they took the elevator up to Major Crimes.
"I think Cascade has too many rainy days and not enough sunshine," she said wryly.
A grin tugged at Simon's lips. "That wasn't what I meant."
"Do you believe that someone could be scared to death?" she suddenly asked.
"I've seen people terrified, but scared to death? I mean, that's just a saying, isn't it?" He narrowed his eyes.
Kelly shrugged. "It makes as much sense as anything else involved in this case."
The elevator opened and they walked side by side through the Major Crimes doors. Kelly headed directly for Conner's desk and punched some keys on her computer keyboard. Simon watched her for a moment, then walked over to her desk.
"Let me know when you get the lab results," he said. "If you need any back-up, call me. I'm going to be your unofficial partner until Ellison and Sandburg get back."
"I'm honored, Captain," Kelly said, her eyes twinkling with rare warmth.
Simon managed to stifle his smile. "You should be."
He returned to his office and, after one more glance at the baffling woman, he began to tackle the pile of paperwork on his desk.
Friday, 4:04 p.m., Captain Banks' office
Simon eyed Kelly incredulously. "Are you telling me that these women each had a heart attack during the rape and died?"
She stood and crossed her arms in an oddly protective gesture as she paced the floor in front of his desk. "Maybe, I don't know. There's something missing. How can twelve victims all have the same type of internal damage? Maybe it's the drug. I don't know."
For a moment, Simon was reminded of Sandburg's nervous energy in her pacing and rapid sentences.
She came to a stop and clutched the back of the chair she'd just vacated. "Or maybe their attacker frightened them to death."
Simon tossed his pen on his desk and scowled. "In other words, they were scared to death."
"Do you have a better theory, Captain Banks?" The steel edge had returned to her voice and features.
"There's got to be another explanation." Simon swiveled his chair around to stare out the window. The gray sky was bloated, heavy with more rain. He turned back to face the federal agent. "Women are raped every day and while the physical, mental, and emotional damage are horrific, they don't die of fear. Do you have anything to substantiate this theory?"
"Nothing but a gut feeling," she admitted. Her gaze took on a haunted faraway look. "And the terror," she whispered.
Her face paled and Simon leaned forward. "Are you all right?"
He watched as she visibly pulled herself back together. "I'm fine."
Simon had seen that look before -- on Jim's face when he'd zoned. An eerie chill chased down his spine. "We've had two victims in Cascade now, each killed on a Thursday night," he commented. "What night were the other victims killed?"
"Wednesdays in Denver, Tuesdays in Minneapolis." She shook her head grimly before Simon could speak. "And I haven't a clue why our killer chose those days." Her gaze flickered across Simon and settled on the prematurely dark day. "A man reported his wife missing -- description of the latest victim fits. He'll be here in about half an hour. I can take him down to the morgue for the identification, if that's all right with you, sir."
Simon removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "That's fine." He settled his wire rims back in place. "You sure you don't want Brown or Rafe with you?"
"No, sir. If it's his wife, I'll stay with him for a while and see if I can find out anything." She grabbed the file from his desk and headed back to the bullpen. Simon watched her plop down at her borrowed desk.
Strange how the feds usually worked in pairs, especially with a case this big, yet Kelly was here alone. Or maybe they were shorthanded too, and were relying on receiving assistance on a local level. Still, something didn't quite add up.
His mind exhausted, Simon shrugged aside the nagging voice. In this day and age of cutbacks, the criminals were the only winners. And that pissed him off.
Friday, 4:15 p.m., Mayhew Lake
"Pass me the tackle box, would you?" Jim asked Blair.
Blair opened his eyes groggily. "What?"
"The tackle box," Jim repeated.
"Right, the tackle box," Blair muttered, looking around. He shifted and his foot struck what he was searching for. He picked it up and passed it to Jim, who was smiling.
"Have a good nap?" the older man asked.
Blair's face flamed. "I just closed my eyes for a few minutes."
"You were asleep for over an hour, Chief," Jim said with equal parts of amusement and affection.
Blair blinked and glanced at his fishing rod.
"Don't worry. I just saved a scrawny one from sacrificing itself on your hook." Jim's voice was light and relaxed. He opened the tackle box and studied the contents intently. "I'm going to try a new jig."
Blair removed his hat and ran a hand through his long curly hair. "I slept for over an hour? Geez, I'm sorry, Jim."
Jim lifted his puzzled gaze to the younger man. "What for, Chief? The last couple weeks have exhausted you and there's no reason not to catch up on some lost z's while you're on vacation. Isn't that what vacations are for?"
Blair smiled abashedly. "I suppose. I'm just embarrassed that I was out for so long and didn't even know it. I didn't drool, did I?"
"A whole gallon, but don't worry, I hung your head over the side so none of it got in the boat." Jim's eyes danced with mischief.
Blair laughed good-naturedly. It had been a long time since Jim had been in such a carefree mood and Blair found himself merely enjoying his friend's playful teasing.
"Want a beer?" Jim asked.
Jim handed him a bottle of Fat Tire, one of the micro brews Blair had talked him into buying rather than the usual. Blair twisted off the cap and took a sip. "This is pretty good."
"It ain't Bud," Jim shot back. "But it ain't bad."
"I knew you'd like it. You just have to take a chance now and again. Get out of those old habits and taste life."
"This isn't a beer commercial, Chief."
"I don't know. I think I heard some frogs croaking. Bud-why-zer."
Blair was rewarded with another wide grin from his partner.
"Don't give up your day job, Sandburg."
"No way," Blair said quietly, then remembered Jim's sentinel hearing probably picked up his low words.
He glanced up and caught Jim's half-smile. Jim raised his bottle of beer in a silent toast and Blair lifted his own in quiet accord.
Half an hour later, the two men moved the boat to another spot and tried some casting. After only a few half-hearted nibbles, Jim decided to head on in before the sun got too low. He steered the boat across the lake and watched Blair raise his arms like a tribesman worshipping the sun god. His long hair flew back and Jim's shirt, three sizes too big for him, billowed out behind him.
Jim smiled. It felt damned good to see Blair enjoying himself and relaxing. Ever since the overeager graduate student had paired up with him, it seemed that he was either involved in a case with Jim and risking his life or neck deep in his schoolwork and teaching duties. Usually all of the above.
They approached the shore and Jim called out, "Get ready to jump, Chief."
He watched like an overprotective brother as Blair crawled onto the bow then stood. Jim cut the engine and Blair leaped to the shore, the boat's tow rope in hand. Jim stayed in the back end as he tipped up the two motors so the propellers were out of the water and Blair tugged the boat right on to the sandy soil.
"C'mon, Captain Nemo, you've run aground," Blair called out.
Jim grinned. Suddenly, he swatted at a stinging sensation on his arm. He glanced under his hand, but didn't see anything. Probably a mosquito. They ran rampant around here. The stinging eased and he gathered up their rods and tackle box and stuck them in the side compartment of the boat, then latched it shut.
"Here." He handed Blair the cooler, sack of food and the younger man's sweatshirt, then hopped out of the boat.
He glanced at the knot Blair had made when he'd tied off the boat.
"Do I pass my scout test?" Blair asked innocently.
"Yep. Looks like you're now a junior ranger." Jim took the cooler from Blair's hand. "C'mon, Junior. You can earn some more points by helping set up camp."
By the time the sun dipped behind the trees, they had the tent up and had unrolled the sleeping bags inside it. They gathered some dry wood and Blair started a fire, then set to work making supper. The young man stood and pulled his hooded sweatshirt on over Jim's shirt, which hung six inches below the sweatshirt's hem.
Jim, who had donned an old oversized crewneck sweater over his henley, sniffed appreciatively from where he sat on a fallen log. "What're you making, Chief?"
Blair stirred the boiling contents over the fire. "Well, since the great sentinel of the city couldn't get any fish except one which had to be returned to its mom, it looks like campers' stew."
Jim grinned unrepentantly, then glanced at the kettle over the campfire. "What's in it?" he asked suspiciously.
"A little of this, a little of that," Blair replied, deliberately vague.
"C'mon, Chief, 'fess up. You're scaring me."
Blair smiled easily. "You mean I've done what the most cold-hearted of bad guys can't do on the streets of Cascade?"
Jim's warning tone made Blair hold up a hand. "All right, since you're bound and determined to spoil the surprise. It's beef stew."
Jim raised his head and sniffed -- nothing too exotic. "You sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure." Blair glanced away, shrugging. "Well, maybe I added one spice you've never had before. I want to see if you can detect it."
"Just a little one." He grinned. "You have to admit it's making you salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs, isn't it?"
"Don't push it, Chief."
When Jim used that tone of voice with anyone else, it made them cringe. With Blair, the younger man's smile only grew. The kid knew him too well, but that didn't surprise Jim.
Blair filled a plate with the stew and handed it to Jim, then got one for himself and joined Jim on the log. "Well?" he asked.
Jim picked up his fork and sniffed the stew, separating out the scent -- salt, rosemary, carrots, potatoes, beef -- then took a tentative bite. There was a strange flavor, something he'd never tasted before. "It's a little like celery, but tastes more bitter."
"Hey, that's really good, Jim. It's Fenugreek. It's used in a lot of African dishes."
"Fenugreek. Don't worry. It won't hurt you. Besides, it's good for you."
Jim rolled his eyes. "I should've known."
"Oh, c'mon, you have to admit it's pretty good, right?"
"I suppose." Though Jim found himself liking it, he enjoyed teasing Blair too much.
"And it'll help you sleep," Blair added.
"After all this fresh air, I'm sure I'll need it," Jim said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
Blair's eager expression faltered and Jim suddenly felt like a jerk. "It's good, Blair. Honest." The young man's features lit up, warming Jim. "Sorry, Chief."
The firelight flickered across Blair's flushed cheeks. "No, I'm sorry, Jim. You'd think that after nearly three years I'd know better than to take you seriously."
Jim thought about that a moment and wondered if he'd just been slammed.
Blair suddenly laughed, uncannily reading his thoughts. "Quit worrying about it and eat. Tomorrow we have to make up for not catching any fish today."
They finished eating in quiet companionship. A coyote yipped, then another and another. A loon called from the lake, its long warbling note fading away with the slight breeze that soughed through the treetops.
Blair set his empty plate on the ground and leaned back to gaze up at the star-filled sky. "Thanks, Jim."
"For what?" Jim asked, puzzled.
"For suggesting this fishing trip. You were right. We both needed some time away from police work and the world of academia."
Jim nodded absently, his thoughts on Kelly McDaniel and the case he'd left her with.
"What is it?" the younger man asked quietly.
Though Jim accepted the link between himself and his guide, sometimes Blair's perceptiveness startled him. "I was just thinking of that case I told you about."
"The one that federal agent is here for?"
Jim nodded. "She doesn't know the city. I should've stayed."
Blair wrapped his arms around his drawn-up knees and fixed his gaze on Jim. The flickering campfire flames reflected off his glass lenses. "From what you told me, it sounds like she can handle things on her own for a couple days."
Jim remained silent, unable to pinpoint the reason for his agitation.
"What's really bothering you?" Blair prompted with eerie insight.
Jim smiled crookedly. "You ever think about going on the road, Kreskin?"
"Tell me." Blair wasn't going to let him off the hook.
Jim rubbed his eyes and rested his crossed arms on his drawn-up knees. "There's something familiar about her, like I know her."
Blair leaned forward, all eager graduate student once more. "What do you mean? Does it have something to do with your sentinel senses?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Her scent was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it."
Blair's expression faltered, and he appeared almost embarrassed. "It's not like Laura McCarthy, is it?"
"No," Jim answered without hesitation as his own face flamed with humiliation. He could still recall Blair seeing him and Laura lost in pheromones in the coat room. "In fact, there wasn't any attraction like that."
The younger man breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good, right?"
Jim shrugged. "I guess, but it's not because she's not attractive." He tried to tug out something that just lurked on the edge of his memory. "She reminds me of someone."
"An old girlfriend? Carolyn?"
Jim shook his head impatiently. "No, I told you it wasn't a sex thing. It's something else."
Jim blinked and the knot in his memory that refused to be undone, loosened a little. "Maybe. But that doesn't make sense. My father's family was small and I know all of them."
"What about your mother?"
"She's dead. I barely remember her."
"A relative of hers?"
"Dad said she was an only child and her parents were dead."
Blair frowned in frustration. "She could be someone you had contact with when you were both children."
Jim rubbed his forehead. "I don't know, Chief. It's probably my imagination." Blair nodded, but he Jim could see the gears spinning in his head. "Forget I said anything, Sandburg."
A headache began between Jim's eyes. "Let it go, Blair. It's not important."
The younger man nodded reluctantly, recognizing Jim's rising impatience. After they'd had a good night's sleep, he would try to get more information. Whatever was bothering Jim more than likely had something to do with his senses.
It was odd that Jim would have such a strong reaction to a stranger. He didn't talk about his family much and had mentioned his mother rarely. Blair was fairly certain his sentinel senses hadn't come from his father's side, which left his mother. But Jim had said she died not too long after the divorce. His father had told him so...
Blair's mind raced with suspicions and questions, but he kept silent. As close as he and Jim were, the Ellison family tree was a taboo topic between them. He would have to do some research on his own.
"Let's get the dishes cleaned up and stow the pack in the cab of the truck, then hit the sack," Jim suggested, pushing himself to his feet.
A wave of dizziness washed through him and he swayed.
Blair grabbed his arm and steadied him, concern coursing through him. "Are you all right?"
The older man rubbed his brow. "Just tired. I didn't take a nap in the boat today." Jim pulled out of his grasp and picked up their dishes, then headed to the lake. More than a little worried, Blair followed.
After the camp was tidied and the fire doused, the two men crawled into the tent. Blair shivered as he removed his shoes and jeans. He tugged on a pair of sweatpants and left his sweatshirt and socks on as he wriggled into his sleeping bag. He lay on his belly and covered his head but left enough open area that he could watch Jim ready himself for sleep.
The older man grimaced as he pulled off his jacket and hiking boots. Surprisingly, Jim left his jeans, sweater, and socks on. Usually his sentinel senses allowed him to tolerate the cold better than Blair.
"Are you cold?" Blair asked.
"A little," Jim admitted.
"Doesn't that seem strange, considering you're usually hot and have the windows in the loft wide open even when it's freezing outside?"
"Maybe I'm getting old. You know, the blood thins as you get older."
Blair snorted and kept his tone light in spite of his uneasiness. "You probably got sunburned and don't want to admit it."
"You caught me," Jim said as he slid into his sleeping bag. "I guess I should have worn long sleeves, too."
"Oh, man, I'm still wearing your shirt. You want it?"
Jim shook his head. "Just remember to wash it before you give it back." He reached for the Coleman lamp.
"Leave it on. I'm going to read a little first," Blair said. His real motive was to keep an eye on Jim for a little longer, but his friend didn't need to know that.
Jim rolled over to cast Blair a glare. "You didn't bring homework, did you?"
"Not exactly. It's a book on the social structure of an aboriginal tribe of New Guinea."
Jim groaned and closed his eyes. "Good night, Chief."
"Night," Blair said and reached for his backpack.
He pulled the thick book from the bag but didn't open it. Instead, he studied Jim's relaxed features. He'd fallen right to sleep. He knew Jim was tired, but it was barely nine o'clock. Maybe the Fenugreek affected him more because of his senses.
Jim shivered and shifted and Blair tugged Jim's sleeping bag up to his neck. An uneasy foreboding wormed its way into Blair's gut.
Something wasn't right -- he could feel it.
Saturday, 3:01 a.m., Mayhew Lake
Blair woke with a start and lay still for a moment, wondering what had awakened him from a deep sleep. He listened intently and the sound of thunder rumbling overhead gave him his answer. He glanced at Jim, who was in the same position in which he'd fallen asleep.
Worry gnawed at Blair. The thunder should have awakened Jim before it woke him. With his sensitive ears, Jim would've heard the approaching storm when it was still miles away.
Blair turned on his side, propping his elbow on the ground and resting his head on his palm. He watched the steady rise and fall of Jim's chest. It didn't appear to be anything other than a normal sleep pattern, interrupted by the occasional light snore, but something didn't feel right.
Jim would probably "spit the dummy," as Megan would say, but Blair had to make sure his friend was all right. He reached over to touch his shoulder. Jim didn't budge and heat radiated from his skin. Troubled, Blair maneuvered out of his sleeping bag and kneeled over him. He laid his palm on Jim's forehead and was startled by the heat.
"Jim, wake up," Blair said, shaking his shoulder.
Jim grunted and pushed Blair's hand away. The tent lit up with a flash of lightning and a few seconds later, thunder cracked, making Blair jerk.
Jim blearily opened his eyes. "What's goin' on?" he slurred.
"You're sick, Jim," Blair replied, his heart climbing into his throat.
He mumbled something Blair didn't understand and closed his eyes. Blair laid his hands on either side of Jim's stubbled face. "Wake up Jim! C'mon, man, you're scaring me here."
Jim blinked a few times, then finally his eyes cleared though Blair could see he still wasn't with the program.
"What is it?" Jim asked, then frowned. "Why am I so hot?"
He struggled to sit up and Blair wrapped an arm around his shoulders to help him. "Do you have the flu?" the younger man asked.
"I dunno, but I sure as hell don't feel so good," Jim admitted.
Blair sucked in his breath. Even in the dim light, he could see the paleness of Jim's usually healthy complexion. He laid the back of his hand against Jim's forehead and cringed inwardly at the alarming temperature.
"This is worse than when you had that cold," Blair said.
Jim crossed his arms and shivered. "It's freezing in here."
"Turn down the dial, Jim," Blair said slowly. Jim's characteristically short attention span was even shorter. "Listen to me. You have to concentrate and find the dial to turn down the cold. Can you do that?"
"I don't know. I-I can't seem to think straight." He blinked once, then stared into the distance.
Blair grabbed his arm as worry washed over him. "C'mon man, you're zoning on me. You have to listen to my voice and do what I tell you."
He came out of the trance slowly, his eyes focusing only by sheer force of will. "I can't find it, Chief. The dials aren't there anymore."
Blair took deep breaths himself to stave off his growing apprehension. "They're there, Jim. You just have to search a little harder for them."
Blair flattened his palm against Jim's chest and he could feel the rapid fire beat of his heart and his shuddering from the cold. The link between them was weak. What the hell was going on?
"Close your eyes," Blair instructed, his calm voice in direct contrast to the alarm rifling through him. Jim did as he said. "Now breathe in, then out. In, out, slowly. Feel your body relaxing."
Jim's muscles eased beneath Blair's hand and the younger man allowed a small sigh. This could be just the beginning of something far worse for his friend.
"Now you need to follow the cold back to where it begins. Can you do that?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim nodded. "Yeah... yeah, I got it."
"Now find the dial and turn it down."
Blair could tell Jim had succeeded when his shivering ceased. "Good."
Jim opened his eyes and looked at Blair. "You don't look too good."
"You oughta see you," Blair shot back with little of his usual fire. He was too concerned with what was happening.
More lightning flashed and Jim closed his eyes tightly as his hands flew to cover them.
Blair took hold of Jim's wrists, his fear re-surfacing tenfold and he forced himself to speak softly. "Are all your senses going crazy?"
Cringing, Jim nodded. "C-Can't seem to get them under control."
Guilt crushed down on Blair and he kept his voice low so it wouldn't hurt Jim's ears. "It must've been that new spice I tried. Damn, I had no idea it would do this to you. You've never had this reaction before from a new herb."
Jim shook his head and grimaced at the excruciating pain. "I-I don't think it was that."
"Something bit me in the boat when we got back," Jim managed to say. Words were getting more and more difficult to string together through the haze of sensory overload. His muscles trembled and he was glad he was already sitting down or he would've fallen flat on his face.
"What was it?"
"Didn't see it."
"Where did it bite you?" Blair asked.
Jim could hear the fear the younger man was trying to hold in check and he wanted to reassure him, tell him everything would be all right, but even the thought of trying to formulate a sentence made his stomach lurch. "Left arm," he managed to reply.
Blair pushed the sleeve of his sweater up and on the forearm, halfway to the elbow, was a huge swollen reddish circle. He inhaled sharply. "Oh God, Jim. This doesn't look good. We need to get you to a hospital fast."
Suddenly, the heavens opened up and rain pounded on the canvas above them. Jim groaned and pressed his hands to his ears, but he couldn't block the sound out. His brain screamed in agony and his voice followed. He was vaguely aware of Blair's hands on his arms, then shoulders, and finally his face. Jim tried to concentrate on his guide's touch, to block out everything else -- the jackhammering of rain against his eardrums, the explosions of thunder that vibrated down to his bones and the flashes of unspeakable white light that speared his brain.
The smell of damp wood burning filled his nostrils and he gagged from the strong scent. Blair's voice was a low hum in the back of his mind -- he could hear the tone, but couldn't understand the words. Jim's mind and body reeled from the neural input and he knew he couldn't continue or he'd be driven mad.
Lightning struck close and thunder cracked directly above them. Jim's mind cracked with it as he tumbled into a black silent void.
Ten minutes later, the wind tugged at the tent as rain continued to pelt the canvas. Water leaked into the bottom of the tent on Jim's side. Blair had managed to haul the bigger man out of his wet sleeping bag and pull him onto his own, but he didn't know how much longer his sleeping bag would remain dry.
Blair's teeth chattered and his fingers shook so badly it took him four attempts to tie the laces of one shoe. Every few seconds he glanced at his partner who lay as still as death. After Jim had lost consciousness, Blair had tried to revive him, but he was out. His breathing and heartbeat had fallen to a frighteningly low rate. What kind of insect bite would cause Jim to go into such a rapid descent?
He had to get Jim to a hospital and he couldn't wait until the storm lessened. He didn't know how much longer Jim had before his body completely shut down.
"Oh, God, pleasedontlethimdie, pleasedontlethimdie," Blair chanted.
He found the truck keys in Jim's jacket, which lay where the older man had tossed it earlier. Had it only been six hours ago? It felt like a lifetime.
Lightning punctuated by cracking thunder was almost continuous as the storm settled over them. The rain hadn't let up and had even grown heavier since it began.
Blair would go get the pick-up and drive it right up to the tent entrance. He would get Jim into the cab and take him to the nearest hospital, wherever that was. Blair unzipped the inside screen door, then the outer flap. Ice cold raindrops struck the back of his hands -- the temperature must have fallen at least thirty degrees.
He turned to look at Jim one more time and watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest for a few moments just to reassure himself his friend was still with him. Blair reluctantly turned to the door once more and raised the canvas flap. Lightning lit up the night to make it as bright as day and Blair's heart stumbled.
In the white light's brief interlude, Blair had seen a large branch lying across the back of the truck. Had it damaged the vehicle? Rain fell so heavily, it looked like black paint running down a canvas.
Wearing only his sweats and hiking boots, Blair took a deep breath and dashed out of the small doorway. In the short time it took him to re-zip the outer door flap, he was soaked and shivering. Raindrops struck like pebbles against his face and hands. Running to the truck, he slipped once in the mud, falling to his knees. He bit back a groan and pushed himself upright, brushing back wet, stringy hair from his face with a muddy hand.
Stopping at the truck, he stared at the large branch that lay across the back end. Blair breathed a sigh of relief -- it didn't look like it had done much but put a few dents and scratches on the truck. Jim wouldn't be too happy about that, but it could've been worse. Much worse, Blair thought with a shudder.
He climbed into the truck's bed, which had over an inch of standing water already in it. Reaching through the smaller branches to get to the main one, Blair gritted his teeth as the bigger twigs scraped his arms. Using his weight, he managed to push the heavy limb off the truck where it dropped to the ground with a thud he could hear over the storm's fury.
Completely soaked, Blair hopped to the ground and unlocked the driver's side door and slipped inside. For a moment, he just sat, his fingers clutching the steering wheel and his breath coming in harsh gasps. He shook so much he doubted he could find the ignition with the key.
Then he remembered Jim's cellphone. He leaned over and opened the glove compartment, then placed a hand inside. His fingers scraped smooth plastic and he dragged the phone out.
His hands trembling, Blair flipped open the phone, then punched the On button: Out of Service Area. He stared at the message a moment and the impulse to throw the phone out into the rain nearly overwhelmed him. Instead, he shoved it back into the glove box. He raked his fingers through his stringy, tangled hair. Okay, no phone, but at least he had the truck.
So which direction did he go? He hadn't paid too much attention to their route, trusting Jim to find the lake. Jim wasn't the one who'd navigated them forty miles in the wrong direction a couple years ago. Since then, Jim had made it a habit of memorizing a route himself before going anyplace.
He took a deep breath and pictured Jim inside the tent, his face pale and sweating. Jim couldn't navigate this time -- Blair had to do it. He rummaged around in the glove compartment and came up with a Washington state road map. Forcing his muscles to obey his command, he managed to start the truck. He could barely hear the motor running above the pounding of rain on the cab. Blair switched the heat on high, then turned on the dome light to study the map. He found Mayhew Lake, but according to the map, there was no road into it. Obviously there was.
He expanded his map search and spotted the highway. It looked like the nearest hospital was in the town of Wenatchee, about fifty miles away. Unless he could find a ranger station.
He put the truck into drive and guided it up the small incline to where the tent sat, a desolate outpost against nature's onslaught. He parked with the passenger side door within a few feet of the tent entrance.
Blair tossed their food pack on the floor and slid across the seat to slip out the passenger door, back into the bruising rain. His numb fingers fumbled with the zipper on the tent's door.
"C'mon, Sandburg, you can do it," he muttered impatiently to himself.
Finally, he opened it far enough to slip inside. His gaze fell on Jim immediately. The older man lay where Blair had left him, alternately shivering and sweating. His breathing had grown raspy, frightening Blair even further. He scurried over to Jim's side and laid his hand on his shoulder. There was little of the usual energy that flowed between them through their mysterious link.
Panic threatened Blair's hard-fought calm. "Dammit, Jim, don't you die!" He took hold of Jim's shoulders and shook him. "Jim, wake up. C'mon, man, you have to wake up. We have to get you to a hospital."
Jim merely moaned.
Blair shook him harder, praying he wasn't hurting him any more. "C'mon, Jim, I need some help here."
This time his friend seemed to hear his plea and moved his head from side to side.
"Help me, Jim," Blair pleaded, recognizing on some level that Jim was a sentinel, a man born to help others; if nothing else roused him, that instinct to help people, especially his guide, might. "Please, Jim. I need help to get you in the truck."
Jim didn't want to wake up. He just wanted to sleep in darkness where nothing could hurt him -- no noise, no light, no scents -- but something deep inside him wouldn't let him remain cocooned in his safe world. The struggle overwhelmed him and for a moment, he was once more plunging into a raging river. Where was Sandburg? He had dove into the white water with him, in spite of his fear of heights. Damn, the kid was loyal -- Jim didn't deserve that kind of devotion, especially from someone who foolishly entrusted him with his life. Didn't he know Jim was meant to be alone? The helicopter crash in Peru had convinced him of that.
"So, Ellison, you gonna try to drink the bar dry again?" Landon joked above the helicopter's vibrations.
"If he is, I ain't haulin' his ass back to the barracks. He threw up on me last time," Miller growled.
Jim laughed. "Nope. This time I'm going to find me some nice woman to spend the night with. Been a long time."
"Too damn long. I hope Melissa is still waitin' for me," the youngest member of their group said. "Last time I talked to her, she was wonderin' how much longer she had to postpone the wedding."
"I can't believe you had the balls to ask her to marry you right before heading out for a year-long tour," Landon said.
"I can't believe she said yes," Sarris added, exhaling a stream of cigarette smoke.
Jim watched the camaraderie of these men he'd spent weeks and months with, each one trusting the other with his life. Damn, they were a good group. The best a man could ask for.
Then the helicopter had crashed and he'd buried those seven men.
Those seven men who had trusted him with their lives.
"C'mon, Jim, wake up. I need your help."
Jim struggled against the hopelessness of the past and concentrated on the here and now -- his guide, the one he'd silently pledged his own life to protect. Sounds filtered into his mind, at first sounding like blaring speakers and he subconsciously tuned them down. Then the odors of rain, earth, and Blair's familiar scent rising above all of them invaded his nostrils. He latched on to Blair's voice, Blair's scent and risked opening his eyes.
Pain shot to his brain from the overload and he closed his eyes tightly against the assault of impossible color and motion.
"Find the dial, Jim," his guide was intoning in his soothing, smooth voice. "Breathe in, out, in, out, slowly. Find the control and turn it down."
Jim finally found what he sought and turned the dial down as far as he could, then opened his eyes once more. There was still too much light, but at least it wasn't accompanied by agony.
"Chief," he said and was surprised by the weakness of his voice.
Blair's palm settled against his cheek and the rough skin was almost too much to bear, but this was his guide. He wouldn't hurt him. "What--?"
"You're really sick, man. We have to get you to a hospital." There was desperation in Blair's face and voice.
Hospital. Sick. Blair worried. God, what was wrong with him? His thoughts skittered around in aimless circles and he couldn't remember where the hell he was; but if Blair said they had to go to a hospital, then he would.
"'Kay," Jim managed to slur in reply.
He felt Blair's arm slip around his back and he shivered. "Cold, wet."
"Geez, sorry, Jim." The arm moved away and Jim watched through slitted eyes as Blair removed his shirt and pulled on his jacket. Then he was back.
"Let's try this again," Blair said quietly, but Jim knew he was frightened. His heartbeat was so loud it filled Jim's mind, nearly blocking out his words.
"It's 'kay, Chief," Jim tried to reassure him, to make his heart stop pounding like train wheels on a track. He had to take care of his guide -- that was the sentinel's job. "I take... care you."
Something that sounded suspiciously like a sob came from Blair. "I know you will, buddy. But first we have to get you better." His arm settled around Jim's waist. "Okay, come on. You have to help me here, big guy. Try to stand up."
Stand up. How did he do that? He should know how. The tug from his friend gave him a starting point. Bend knees. Balance on feet. Straighten legs.
"That's right. You're doing great, man," Blair said in a too-loud voice.
Jim cringed, closing his eyes tightly.
Blair's hand flattened against his chest, warm and right, giving Jim a center of balance. "Sorry, buddy," he said. The sound of his voice didn't hurt this time.
"'s 'kay." And it was, as long as Blair was beside him.
"Let's go," Blair said in a low voice.
Jim could barely make his legs do what they had to and he found himself leaning on Blair too much. He had to stop that. He had to be strong. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't. A groan of frustration escaped him.
"You all right, Jim?" came Blair's anxious voice.
He managed a nod. Blair guided him through a small opening and things began to buffet him -- small, hard things that sent waves of agony coursing along his skin. He tried not to cry.
Men don't cry. Only women and babies cry.
But the pain was all over, especially his face and hands. Something hot and scorching burned a trail down his cheeks, making the agony even more excruciating.
Disappear. Go to the darkness.
No, Blair needs me.
Suddenly most of the sharp agony disappeared and he felt warm air blowing across him.
"Relax, Jim. It'll be all right," Blair said, his voice husky.
If Blair says it'll be all right, it will be. Trust.
Jim lay on his side and hot air blew across his face. Too hot. He stiffened and a horrible cry tore from his throat.
"Oh, God." Gentle hands -- his guide's hands -- moved across him, lifting him so he leaned against his friend's familiar side. "Everything's off-line, including touch, isn't it?"
He wanted to answer, but Jim didn't know what Blair meant. Arms moved around him and the familiar, soothing scent of Blair surrounded him. He leaned into the secure haven.
"Listen to me, Jim. We're in the truck now and we have to get you to a hospital." He paused and Jim felt an odd lurch in Blair's chest. "I hope I can find it. You know how I am with directions."
Hands eased him to lie down and this time there was no hotness burning him. Instead, one side of his face rested on damp cloth, but there was something calming about it. Then his friend's arm settled on his side, protecting him.
He was safe. The darkness could claim him again.
Blair felt consciousness escape Jim once more and fought the cresting fear. Jim lay on the seat, his head resting on Blair's thigh. Jim's expression was so trusting. All the times Jim had cared for him, Blair couldn't let him down.
He put the truck into gear and eased his foot on the gas. The windshield wipers swished across the glass, trying valiantly to keep it clear, but the rain was so heavy.
With one hand resting on Jim's shoulder to reassure both himself and his sick friend and the other steering the slow-moving truck, Blair settled in for a long, nerve-wracking drive.
Saturday, 7:07 a.m., Cascade Police Department
Simon rode the unusually quiet elevator up to the seventh floor. Though the police department never shut down, there were fewer people working on the weekend than during the week, especially at this early hour. The elevator ground to a halt, opened and Simon walked down the hall through the familiar glass doors into the bullpen. He halted in mid-step when he saw Agent McDaniel -- Kelly -- already sitting at Conner's desk. For a moment, he merely watched her, noting the concentration in her brow and the graceful movement of a hand as she absently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. There was no doubt she was an attractive woman. Simon had noticed that fact the first time he laid eyes on her.
As he watched her, she lifted her gaze and there was no spark of surprise in her eyes. It was as if she'd known he was there all along. A shiver chased down his spine and he chastised himself for his peculiar reaction.
"What're you doing here so early?" he barked, burying his unease behind familiar brashness.
"I was wide awake so came in," she replied, her voice raspy as if she had a sore throat.
There was no sign that his blustering had even fazed her. Maybe if he wasn't wearing blue jeans and a Seattle Seahawks sweatshirt she might be more intimidated by him. He sighed. No, Agent McDaniel wasn't going to be intimidated by anyone.
He studied her face more closely and noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes, the paleness in her cheeks. "You look like hell."
"I didn't sleep very well." She motioned toward the numerous files and papers strewn across the desk. "There's someone out there raping and killing women and I haven't even a clue as to his identity. I don't even know how he kills them."
Simon frowned. She didn't sound like the usual impassive FBI agents he'd dealt with in the past. Hell, she wasn't like anyone he'd ever dealt with before. "He's been out there for a long time. He's not going to be caught overnight."
Kelly shook her head as she stood and walked to the water dispenser. "It wasn't entirely the case." She filled a paper cup, then washed two aspirin down. "I had a nightmare."
Simon crossed his arms and tilted his head slightly. "You want to talk about it?"
She draped an arm over the dispenser and forced a smile. "I dreamt that I was sick, and when I woke up I was feeling lousy. Strange, huh?"
Though she kept her tone light, Simon got the impression something else was bothering her, but he decided not to push her. She wasn't one of his people, though she had slipped into Major Crimes with little rippling among the ranks. "That is odd." He paused. "At least there's one good thing, a third victim hasn't shown up yet."
"If there's going to be a third victim, it'll be Thursday night," Kelly said quietly, her gaze unfocused.
After a moment of hesitation, Simon nodded. He started toward his office, then paused when his cellphone rang. He pulled it from a clip on his belt and punched a button. "Banks."
"Simon, it's Blair. I'm at the hospital in Wenatchee."
"What happened?" Simon demanded.
"Jim's real sick. We think it was an insect bite, but the doctors can't figure it out."
"Does it have to do with--" Simon glanced at Kelly, who seemed to have found something interesting to study on the wall. "--you know?"
"Yeah, I think so. His senses went completely off-line. Couldn't control any of them. The only thing that helped some before was when I talked to him, but there's no reaction anymore." Sandburg paused and Simon could hear his barely controlled grief. "I'm losing him, Simon, and I don't know what to do."
Simon's heart skipped a beat as fear crowded his chest. "Hold on, Sandburg. I'm on my way. I should be there in a couple hours." He broke the connection and closed the phone. He looked at the fed. "I have to go. Ellison's in the hospital in Wenatchee."
"What's wrong with him?" she asked.
"Sandburg doesn't know. Thinks it could be a reaction to an insect bite. I don't know when I'll be back."
The agent grabbed her purse. "I'll go with you."
Simon stared at her a moment, surprised by her concern for a man she'd only met. "Shouldn't you stay here to work on the case?"
"Like you said, it won't be solved overnight." She met Simon's eyes and spoke in a strangely melodious voice. "You need me to go with you."
He blinked. Yes, he did need her. "Let's go. It's a long drive."
Simon led the way out of the bullpen. As they silently rode the elevator down, he thought about Jim and all the dangers he'd survived in the military and the police force -- to be taken down by an insect bite seemed a cruel joke. But Simon had heard the fear in Sandburg's voice and if the student, who knew Jim's senses better than anyone, was scared, then Simon was downright terrified.
Saturday, 8:53 a.m., Highway to Wenatchee
Simon stepped on the gas, easing his way up to ten miles above the speed limit. If he was stopped, he'd just tell the trooper the situation and hope he'd get some professional courtesy.
He glanced at his silent companion. Why had he brought her with him? At the time, it had seemed the right thing to do. But now... She should be back in her room, lying down. Whatever illness she had seemed to be growing worse.
"Kelly," he said quietly.
She continued to stare out the window.
"Kelly," he repeated a little louder.
Her shoulders jerked and she turned to face him. Ashy smudges lay beneath wide eyes that seemed haunted by something only she could see.
"What is it?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Nothing."
"Don't give me that bull," Simon erupted. "Why did you come with me?"
She wiped her forehead with a trembling hand. "You wanted me to."
Had he? He couldn't remember for certain. He gazed at her pale complexion and slightly dilated pupils. "What's wrong with you?"
She shrugged. "Maybe a touch of the flu."
He didn't believe her. This was something different, something worse. "You shouldn't have come into the station this morning."
"I had to."
Her curt answer brought a frown to Simon's face. "Look, Kelly, if there's something you're afraid to tell me, don't be. I'll keep it confidential."
"There's nothing to tell."
Simon took a deep breath, not knowing if he could trust her or not. Jim was a close friend, Sandburg almost as close. FBI Special Agent Kelly McDaniel, however, was a virtual stranger, but there was something about her that made him want to trust her. She was intelligent, compassionate, and professional. He had seen the way she handled the latest victim's grieving husband last evening.
Simon's cellphone rang and he quickly answered it. "Banks."
"How is he?"
"Not so good. His heart and breathing rate are almost nonexistent. They've put him on a respirator and have him hooked up to all these machines." Blair's young voice broke. "They're afraid he's going to die, Simon."
"Calm down, Blair. You know Jim; he's strong. He'll pull through."
"Oh, God, the alarms went off. I have to go, Simon." The connection broke off.
Simon's heart leapt into his throat. Stunned for a moment, he could only stare at the phone. He took a shuddering breath and glanced at his companion. He hadn't thought her face could pale any further, but now it was chalk white. "Jim may be dying."
The woman's eyes closed briefly. "No."
The single word sounded like an invocation.
Saturday, 9:09 a.m., Wenatchee Hospital
Blair stayed in the corner of Jim's ICU room, hoping he wouldn't be noticed as the nurses and doctors went about their business. He watched as they applied CPR, then shocked Jim like he'd seen done on countless medical shows.
Blair concentrated on the small thread that still tied him to his friend, the thin string fraying more with each passing second. Blair's hands were clasped together tightly and prayers from fifteen different religions scurried through his chaotic thoughts. The electric shock they applied to Jim sent a ripple through Blair, too, but the thread continued to unravel.
"Live, Jim. Live!" Blair murmured, staring at his friend's white, perspiration-soaked face.
They shocked Jim again and Blair sucked in a quick breath, but the line stayed flat.
Blair's heart was hammering so hard he thought it would burst out of his chest. Moisture clouded his vision. The CPR continued and Blair wondered if this was how Jim had felt when he'd been drowned. He hoped not -- it was too painful, too soul-searing to bear.
One more shock and Blair jerked, his breath catching in his throat. But this time the thread tightened. He opened his eyes and saw the steady blip of Jim's heartbeat on the monitor. Too weak to stand any longer, Blair slid down the wall to drop onto the floor in the corner, his knees hugged to his chest. He wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his forehead on them, trying to regain some semblance of control of his emotions.
"You shouldn't be in here."
Blair opened his eyes to see a nurse standing above him. Her eyes were kind. "No, I can't leave him. He needs me."
"Are you related to him?"
"I'm listed as his next of kin," Blair murmured. He never thought he'd have to say that.
She glanced back at Jim and Blair followed her gaze. The crash cart had been removed and all the monitoring equipment was being checked over as Doctor Felton examined Jim's pupils. "I'll see if the doctor will allow you to stay."
"Thank you," Blair whispered.
"But right now, I want you to go clean up and get something to eat from the cafeteria. I'll send Doctor Felton down there to talk to you."
"Those are my conditions," she said firmly, but compassionately. She leaned over and helped Blair to his feet. "Your friend is all right."
He could hear her unspoken words -- for now.
Blair nodded mutely and stepped over to Jim's bedside, then laid a gentle hand on his muscled forearm. "I'll be back, Jim. I won't be far, just listen for me," he whispered hoarsely.
He stumbled out of the ICU room, afraid to leave and afraid to stay. It had been so close. He'd almost lost him. And why? Because of some insect bite? In all the times they'd gone camping and fishing, nothing like this had ever happened.
Blair's insides twisted in a knot, his head pounded, and the brackish taste of fear filled his mouth. If Jim lived through this, Blair was not going to let him go camping or fishing ever again.
He wished Simon, Taggert, Brown, Rafe, and Megan were here. He needed them.
I need Jim.
Stumbling around a corner, he found a coffee machine, then realized he only had enough coins left to call Simon one more time unless he went outside to use the cellphone. No, he had to stay close to Jim.
Saturday, 9:21 a.m., Ten miles from Wenatchee
Simon steered around a chunk of black rubber from a blown-out tire, then glanced at his silent companion. Her face had gained some color -- two red spots on her cheeks surrounded by sickly white.
"Are you all right?"
She blinked and turned slowly to Banks. "I'm not sure."
At least she didn't say "fine." Simon couldn't have taken another of those. "You should be home in bed," he said.
She reached out a shaking hand and rested it on Simon's arm. The warmth of her palm spread outward, massaging his tense muscles with the single touch. "I'll be all right. Honest."
Simon let out a sigh of frustration that he planned to follow with a vociferous "bullshit", but his phone interrupted. "Banks."
"Simon, it's Blair." His voice sounded weary. "They brought him back. He crashed, Simon, but they brought him back."
Relief made him almost dizzy. "Thank God." He paused, and asked softly. "How're you doing, Blair?"
A long silence. "I don't know. Okay, I guess. I feel like there's a part of me dying in there with him." The young man's voice was hollow as if he'd had everything sucked out of him.
"He's going to be all right," Simon said firmly. "You know how Jim is, plus he has something else going for him."
"His senses," Blair said dully.
"You," Simon corrected softly. "We're about ten minutes away. You're in ICU?"
"Who's with you?" Sandburg asked.
"Special Agent Kelly McDaniel," Simon replied.
"Oh. I have to go. Dr. Felton is coming," Blair said, his voice fading away.
"We'll see you in a few minutes," Simon said, then punched the off button.
"Ellison's all right?" Kelly asked.
"So far. They brought him back. Blair said he crashed." As soon as the words left his mouth, Simon's mind leapt into overdrive. He stared at the road, though he didn't see it. Instead, he sorted through the facts. Kelly had gotten sicker while Jim had crashed and now she was better, though still far from well. She was only an acquaintance of Jim yet she had wanted -- needed? -- to come with Simon to see him. He glanced at her profile, the delicate nose, the tight lips, the well-defined chin and jawline. He remembered the zoned look on her face when she'd examined the latest victim.
No, that was crazy.
Wenatchee came into view and Simon's outlandish speculations faded. The town was smaller than Cascade, but obviously large enough to have a hospital. Simon followed the blue H sign at an exit and spotted the building a minute later.
Saturday, 9:44 a.m., Wenatchee Hospital
Allergic reaction. Swelling airways. Possible brain damage. Unusual. Coma. Nothing else we can do. Prognosis: poor.
Blair's mind continued to echo the doctor's words after he left. Dr. Felton said it was probably a reaction to a bee sting, but he'd never seen anything like it. Usually the patient had the reaction within a short time of the bite, and though Jim's reaction had come on slowly it was no less grave. In fact, Dr. Felton said it was much more serious. Jim had fallen into a coma and while brain activity remained, it had slowed considerably as if his brain had gone on vacation.
Blair had almost laughed at that one. It sounded like something Jim would say to him.
"Hey, Chief, why don't you give your brain a vacation so we can get some rest around here?"
Blair swallowed the growing lump in his throat, but it still felt tight and thick. Jim dying was heartbreaking enough, but to have his body live and his brain die...
He covered his face, choking back his fear. "Wherever you are, Jim, come back," he murmured.
A hand settled on his shoulder and he jerked, half expecting Jim to be there. Instead, Simon looked down at him, his usually stern face concerned and sympathetic.
"You look like shit, Sandburg," Simon said, his gentle tone softening his words.
Blair had a momentary urge to stand up and give Simon a hug, but the captain could only take so much maudlin sentiment in one morning. He took a deep unsteady breath and tried to smile. "You oughta see the other guy."
Simon suddenly drew Blair into a brief embrace, then stepped back as if embarrassed by his emotional display. "How's Jim?" he asked gruffly.
"The doctor just talked to me. It's not good, Simon." He glanced at the woman a few inches taller than himself. Brown hair with auburn streaks was pulled back in a braid, though some tendrils strayed around her face. He caught her unusual green eyes and the concern in them surprised Blair, as did the sickly pallor of her complexion. This had to be Kelly McDaniel. He forced himself to stand, suddenly aware of how he must look with sweatpants full of drying mud and his hair wild and frizzy from the rain.
"Blair Sandburg," he introduced.
"Special Agent Kelly McDaniel," she said in a husky voice and shook his hand.
The moment their skin touched, Blair felt a small electric tingle. Surprised, he lifted wide eyes to the woman, but she only gave his hand a firm shake then released it.
Simon put an arm around Blair's shoulders. "Let's get you cleaned up, then we'll go down to the cafeteria and talk."
Blair nodded jerkily, though he continued to stare at the federal agent. Jim had said she was familiar and now Blair experienced the same odd sensation. As he and Simon walked away, she dropped into the chair Blair had just vacated.
Once in the restroom, Simon turned on the water faucet, mixing hot and cold until the temperature was just right. "Wash," he ordered the younger man.
Blair smiled at the command, but was grateful for Simon's steadfast presence. Blair filled his cupped hands with water then splashed it across his face. He added soap from the dispenser and scrubbed with his palms. After rinsing, he reached out and Simon handed him a few paper towels.
"Who is she?" Blair asked as he dried his face.
Simon frowned. "She's an FBI agent, here to investigate two serial murders."
Blair shook his head, his curls dancing around his cheeks. "I know that," he said impatiently. "Where'd she come from?"
"Where all feds come from, I guess." Simon narrowed his eyes, the overhead lights glinting off his glass lenses. "What's going on, Sandburg?"
"She's familiar, Simon. Jim told me the same thing last night."
"You've met her before?"
Blair thought hard. "I don't think so. I would've remembered a woman like her."
Simon came close to smiling. "Yeah, she is pretty memorable, isn't she?"
"You have the hots for her, Simon?" Blair asked incredulously.
"Geez, Sandburg, do you have a one track mind?"
Blair shrugged absently. "Not really. It's just that..." He tried to card his fingers through his tangled hair.
Simon handed him a comb. "Here, use this."
Blair worked the comb through the snarls, taking out strands of auburn hair in the battle.
"So Jim thought he knew her?" Simon ventured.
"That's what he said." He stared at his reflection, noting the red lines in his eyes and the puffy bags beneath them. "She looks a little like him, don't you think?" Simon stiffened, catching Blair's full attention. "What?"
"I was thinking the same thing, but that wouldn't explain why you think she's familiar," Simon spoke.
"Yeah, right. It doesn't make sense." He handed Simon his comb. "Thanks. I, for one, am not thinking real straight right about now. Maybe later, when Jim gets better I can look into it."
That's when, not if.
A sudden sense of urgency struck Blair and he headed for the door. "I have to see Jim before we go down to the cafeteria."
Simon nodded without hesitation and Kelly joined them in the corridor. They walked to the end to one of the guarded ICU rooms. Blair walked right in, but Simon and Kelly were stopped by the nurse on duty.
"I'm sorry, only family members are allowed in there," she stated with no room for argument.
"I'm Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department and that man is one of my detectives and a good friend."
The nurse shook her head, but this time there was a hint of compassion in her round face. "I'm sorry. Blair is listed as his next of kin so he's allowed, but nobody else."
Kelly tilted her head in question. "They're not related, are they?" she asked Simon.
He shook his head. "Not in the conventional sense."
Though clearly puzzled, she didn't continue her questioning. Instead, she moved to the window and gazed through the open blinds into the room. Simon turned his attention back to the two men. Jim lay as still as death, his face the color of parchment. Blair stood close to the bed, both of his hands wrapped around Jim's right hand and Simon watched his lips move. Through the open door, he could barely make out Sandburg's words.
"Simon and that FBI agent are here, Jim. I'm going to tell them what the doctor told me, then I'll be back. I won't leave you, I promise. All you have to do is follow our link and you'll know where I am. Please, Jim, come back. We all need you." A tear ran unashamedly and unheeded down the younger man's face. "Especially me. We're sentinel and guide. If you die, I don't know what I'd do."
Simon's throat tightened. Anybody else would have concluded the two men were lovers, but Simon knew the bond between them was friendship and so much more -- something beyond the physical. Something that made Simon uncomfortable every time he dwelled on the odd relationship.
Blair released Jim's hand and Simon could see him shore up his emotions before he came out of the room. McDaniel continued to stare intently at Jim.
"Let's hurry. I don't want to be gone long," Blair said hoarsely.
The agent glanced at them. "I'll join you. I have to stop in the ladies room."
Simon nodded as he and Blair turned toward the cafeteria.
McDaniel joined them in the cafeteria ten minutes later. Simon had drank two cups of coffee while Blair had merely gone through the motions of pretending to eat, hoping to appease Simon with his pitiful attempt.
Blair nodded at the FBI agent, a part of his mind wondering why she had accompanied Simon.
"Come on, Sandburg, you have to eat something. You aren't going to do Jim any good if you get sick," he said.
"Not hungry," Blair mumbled.
"What happened to your friend?" the agent asked quietly.
Blair met her gaze, mystified by her presence and distress. "I don't know. Jim didn't know," he replied. "I thought it was this new seasoning I made him try, but he said it was something that bit him."
"You're not sure?"
"I saw the swollen mark on his arm. The doctor said it was probably a bee sting, too."
"Has he ever had an allergic reaction before?" she asked.
Blair shook his head. "Not like this."
Simon pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. Blair could feel the helplessness and fear emanating from him. For having such a grumpy exterior, Simon Banks was all heart beneath it. He pushed back his chair. "I'll be right back."
Blair watched the captain leave, knowing he needed privacy to brace up his emotions. He scrubbed his face with his palms, then lowered his hands and slumped in his chair.
"When did he start getting sick?" the woman asked.
Blair shrugged tiredly. "Last night when we turned in." Self-reproach filled him. "I should've brought him to the hospital right then. I knew something was wrong, but I just thought he'd get over it. Stupid."
Suddenly, Blair felt a featherlight tug on the bond he shared with Jim. An overwhelming sense of urgency brought him to his feet. "I have to see Jim."
He was vaguely aware of the FBI agent following him as he wended his way back to his friend. He concentrated on the thread between himself and Jim. It was growing weaker again; the soul of James Ellison was already beginning the journey away from him. Blair's stomach lurched and for a moment, he thought he was going to be sick. He had to get to him, touch him, try to strengthen the bond by physical contact.
Blair walked past the ICU nurse who was watching Jim's monitors. He hurried to his friend's side and threaded his fingers between Jim's. The tactile awareness of skin against skin seemed to reinforce the bond only faintly this time. "I'm back," he said quietly, hoping he kept his fear hidden.
Suddenly, the bond between himself and Jim intensified, the thread thickening strand by strand. Until he ran up against a transparent wall -- a mental barrier that threatened to cut the line between them.
He heard a growl and in their collective thoughts, he saw the wolf, his animal spirit, trying to dig under the wall that separated him from the black jaguar, which lay still and silent, except for the labored breathing. The wolf whimpered and howled mournfully. Its paws were raw and bleeding from its attempts to reach the jaguar.
"Jim! Can you hear me? Answer me, Jim!"
For a moment nothing happened, then slowly, the jaguar's eyes slitted open, studying the wolf. Sorrow and regret shadowed the cat's eyes.
"No! You can't leave! Not yet."
Suddenly the wolf stopped and its hackles rose. The animal turned and Blair followed his line of sight. A golden panther moved toward them, its coat healthy and shiny.
Blair's heart stumbled in his chest, then hammered against his ribs. Alex had returned, and now she would kill both of them.
"Don't be afraid. I'm here to help," the animal spirit spoke.
Was this another trick by Alex to make him lower his guard? No, Alex's animal spirit had been a spotted jaguar, not a cougar. How had he known that?
The wolf backed away, as if sensing the cougar meant no harm. The yellow cat padded to the barrier, then lifted a paw and dragged its claws along the wall. A howl of pain broke from the cougar but it continued to rip a jagged opening. The cat panted as it worked feverishly. Finally there was a passageway large enough to step through, but the weakened cougar didn't attempt to enter. It moved aside and gazed at the wolf intently, willing him to move through the opening.
Softly snuffling, the wolf trotted past the cougar to the jaguar's side.
Suddenly Blair was buffeted by Jim's thoughts. The link between them intensified and strengthened and the jaguar morphed into Jim.
"It's time to return, Jim."
"I can't. The lights, the sounds, the pain."
"I'll be beside you the whole way. Together, man. You know we can do it as long as we're together."
"Where are we, Chief?"
"I don't know, but I have a feeling we don't want to come here too often.
Jim chuckled weakly. "I'm with you there, buddy." He gazed at Blair and his blue eyes glowed so brightly, they were almost painful to look at. "You'll be beside me?"
Blair nodded. "Where else would I be? You're my sentinel; I'm your guide. Two halves, one whole, man."
"This isn't a Freudian thing, is it Sandburg?"
Laughter spilled from Blair. "Let's hope not."
Jim disappeared, replaced by the jaguar that struggled to stand as the wolf remained close by its side. Finally, the black cat was on its feet and the wolf nudged it toward the opening the cougar had created. Shuffling, the jaguar emerged from behind the barrier and it stood shoulder to shoulder with the wolf.
The wolf paused to sniff the air and look around, but the cougar was gone.
"Let's go home, Jim."
"You won't get any argument from me, Chief."
The jaguar and wolf faded away, replaced by the fluorescent lights of the hospital and the swish of the respirator.
Dizziness assaulted Blair and he closed his eyes against the vertigo. When he opened them, he found the nurse beside him, a worried expression on her face.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Blair nodded automatically, his attention drawn to Jim. A pink flush tinged the older man's cheeks and his eyes beneath the lids moved.
Ignoring the nurse, Blair leaned close to his friend and whispered, "It's time to come home, Jim. C'mon, buddy. You've been sleeping long enough. Rise and shine."
"His fingers moved," the nurse gasped in surprise as she pointed to Jim's left hand.
Blair gave Jim's right hand a gentle squeeze. "Wake up, Jim. Let me see those baby blues that can turn a woman's head at a hundred paces."
Jim's fingers curled around Blair's hand and elation filled the younger man. Then Jim blinked once, twice, and finally his eyes remained open -- a little confused but aware. Blair's throat tightened and he could barely speak past the thickness. "Welcome back."
Panic fluttered across his face and Blair immediately understood. He rested his other hand on Jim's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "It's all right. They had to intubate you. It's okay, just relax." He turned to the nurse. "Can you take the tube out?"
Amazement lit the woman's features. "I'll get the doctor."
Blair turned back to Jim. "Take it easy, buddy. The doctor's coming."
The detective's blue eyes lost their panicked expression and he managed a slight nod.
"How is he?" came Simon's voice from the doorway.
"Come on in and see for yourself," Blair said, his eyes misting. Embarrassed, he brushed his hand across them before the captain saw the moisture.
Simon entered and crossed the floor to Jim's bedside. A grin lit Banks' face. "Jim, you're back."
Jim blinked, unable to answer for the tube down his throat, but his eyes held a familiar twinkle.
Two nurses, an intern and Dr. Felton rushed into the room.
Blair didn't want to lose the physical connection to Jim, but he knew he had to get out of their way. He leaned close to his friend. "I have to move so the doctor can check you out."
Apprehension flitted through Jim's expressive eyes.
"It'll all right. I'm not leaving the room, even if they threaten to cut my hair." Blair smiled.
Jim seemed to relax and Blair gave his hand one more squeeze before he stepped aside. He and Simon stealthily backed up to the wall, hoping no one noticed them standing there.
"What happened?" Simon asked. "I came back to the cafeteria and you and Kelly were gone, so I came up here. I saw both of you standing over Jim. You both looked like you were zoned out."
Surprised, Blair scrubbed his face with his palms and dragged his fingers through his tangled hair. "I don't remember her being in here. All I remember is a dream and that's fading fast."
Simon crossed his arms, looking for all intents and purposes like he wanted to not ask what he was about to. "Was this a sentinel and guide thing?"
"I think so. At least the part of the dream I remember had our spirit animals in it." He frowned. "And something else..."
"What something else?"
Blair moved his hands around nervously. "I don't know. Something else like we weren't alone."
The cougar... Kelly McDaniel?
This was getting too weird.
Blair turned his attention back to Jim and watched the doctor draw the respirator's tube out of his throat. Blair grimaced in sympathy, knowing full well how uncomfortable it was to have the thing down there and then pulled out. The gag reflex kicked in and all you wanted to do was puke. Then when it was out, the throat was so raw and swollen, it was difficult to talk and damned agonizing to swallow.
Blair shuddered. Oh, yeah, he remembered all too well what that felt like.
Dr. Felton joined Blair and Simon in the corner.
"How is he, Doctor?" Simon asked.
"Better than I could have imagined." He gazed at Blair a moment. "I don't know what you did, Mr. Sandburg, but Mr. Ellison is making a miraculous recovery."
Blair smiled weakly. "It wasn't me. Just the Ellison stubbornness."
"When can we take him back to Cascade?" Simon asked.
"If his recovery continues at such an astonishing rate, he can be released tomorrow," Dr. Felton replied.
Blair wanted to let out a whoop of excitement, but managed to restrain it. He looked past Dr. Felton and met Jim's clear-eyed gaze. "Can I talk to him?"
"I don't see why not. We're going to leave him hooked up for another couple hours. If everything looks fine at that point, I'll have him moved to a regular room."
Blair excused himself while Simon continued to interrogate Dr. Felton. Blair couldn't seem to stop smiling as he approached Jim. "Hey, buddy, looks like you've just been proclaimed a medical miracle."
Jim's forehead furrowed. "What h-happened?" he asked, his voice rough.
"You want some ice?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded. Blair fished some ice chips out of a cup and pressed them past Jim's chapped lips. Jim closed his eyes tightly to swallow past his throat's rawness.
"It'll get better, Jim. Just hang in there."
"Easy... for you to say," Jim groused with a hoarse voice.
Blair's grin returned. "Never thought I'd be happy to be at the receiving end of an Ellison sulk." His smile faltered and he wrapped his fingers around Jim's hand. "We almost lost you, buddy. We figure you had some weird reaction to a bug bite, maybe a bee sting."
Jim's brow furrowed. "Senses?"
Blair understood the one word question. "Yeah, I think so. Whatever that thing injected into your nervous system, it made your sentinel senses go off the board." He paused, unsure of how to explain what happened. "I think your mind couldn't take the overload and it shut down. You were way out, man."
Jim frowned. "Last thing I remember... thunder and rain. Did it... storm?"
"Proverbial buckets. I managed to get you in the truck and drive here."
Jim's eyes widened slightly. "And Simon?"
"I called him. He and Kelly McDaniel drove over here right away."
"The FBI agent," Blair prompted gently.
He managed a slight nod as his eyelids fluttered. "So... tired."
"Go ahead and sleep," Blair said softly. "I'll be right here."
"D-Don't have to." Blair could see the effort it took for Jim to stay awake. "I'll b-be fine."
"I know you will," Blair said. "But I'm still staying here."
"A'right. S-Stubborn." But Jim seemed relieved as he closed his eyes. This time they stayed shut.
Blair smiled fondly. "Look who's calling the kettle black."
Dragging the chair closer to the bed with his foot, Blair settled on the plastic seat without relinquishing his hold on his partner. He concentrated on the bond between sentinel and guide, and felt the energy humming between them, comforting Blair more than any reassuring words a doctor could offer.
Exhaustion struck Blair with the force of a freight train. He lowered the bed rail and crossed his arms on the side of the mattress, still clasping Jim's hand. He laid his head on his arms and the sound of Jim's steady breathing lulled Blair into a deep slumber.
Simon stood outside the window watching his two friends sleep restfully. Relief was like a drug spreading through his system, easing his troubled thoughts. How often had those two pulled each other through a crisis? And how often had he been there to try to hold the other together during the worst of it? More times than Simon wanted to recall.
"How're they doing?"
Startled, Simon turned to see Kelly return. Her face had gained some color and the despair in her eyes had disappeared. He eyed her warily. "You tell me."
A corner of Kelly's lips quirked upward. "You saw us?"
He nodded curtly. "Care to explain how you got past the nurse?"
She gazed at Jim and Blair through the open blinds and shrugged. "I must've caught her at a weak moment."
Suspicion grew. "Let's say I buy that. Next question, why were you holding the hand of a man you hardly know?"
"It seemed the thing to do."
Simon narrowed his eyes to study her for a long moment. "Bull. I could order you to tell me."
"You could, but I don't have to answer. You're local, I'm federal." She turned to him and smiled, the gesture brightening her face and making Simon see her as more than an FBI agent. Much more. "Besides, you really don't care. You're just glad they'll both be all right."
Simon couldn't help but laugh. Damn, but the woman had balls. "Something tells me Major Crimes is going to be a little more interesting while you're around."
She merely shook her head and her gaze again drifted to the two men, both asleep. Her features softened. "I have a feeling with those two around, it's already pretty interesting," she said quietly.
Simon shifted his attention to Jim and Blair and swallowed hard. Interesting was definitely an understatement. Only they could turn a three day weekend fishing trip into a life and death struggle -- a struggle that could've easily ended tragically if Kelly hadn't been here. Simon didn't know how he knew, only that he did.
He rubbed his brow. First this sentinel and guide stuff, now a woman who, for all he knew, could be a faith healer.
"If I can borrow Jim's keys, I'll retrieve their camping and fishing gear," Kelly said.
"Good idea," Simon said. "I'll go with you."
"All right." Kelly turned away, but not before Simon caught a poignancy in her eyes that he knew she was trying to hide. He sighed. There was a helluva lot going on behind those green eyes that he had a feeling nobody would ever know.