"Avoid large, heavy objects traveling at a high rate of speed." Fortune cookie reading.
I feel like road kill, like a casualty spun aside by speeding wheels and left to die by the side of the road. A mirthless chuckle seeps past my battered lips at the thought. That's exactly what I am. I nod to myself, wincing as pain shoots up my neck and down my arms at the movement. 'Blair Sandburg, casualty of misadventure'. Shit!
I realize I'm a sitting duck for speeding vehicles where I am and manage to crawl to the side of the road then hunker down once I get there, sitting on my butt, my knees pulled up, arms wrapped around them to keep what residual warmth is still left in my shivering, hurt body from escaping. I wish I'd taken a jacket with me when I'd left, but as usual my hot head precluded any forward planning on my part. Ironic really since it was exactly that lack of thought that had brought me to this pass in the first place.
TWO HOURS EARLIER "Sandburg, who told you to volunteer as 'hostage of the week'?" Simon sounds pissed and I can't really blame him, but hey, I was just trying to help Jim after all, and my blood boils righteously at the implied criticism in his words.
"Look, I'm sorry. I know I should have hung back a little longer but Jim was zoned to the max, Simon-"
"He's right, I was." Jim walks up to stand next to us, a wad of bandage held over the cut on his forehead where Herman the hostage-taker had beaned him when Jim tried to stop him grabbing me.
"Oh man, Jim, are you okay?" I pull the bandage away and wince at the small laceration. "Sorry."
"I'm fine." Jim pulls away from my hand and plants the cloth firmly back in place, grimacing. "As I was saying," he goes on, frowning at me, "I was zoned not to the max, but definitely getting close."
I turn to Simon and manage, just barely, not to poke my tongue out at him. "There! See!" I say.
"You gonna let me finish a sentence here, Chief?" Jim sighs then repeats himself for the selectively deaf among us, meaning me. "I was zoned. However, that doesn't mean you come rampaging into the middle of the action, Rambo. You are not-"
"A cop," I echo him. "Well, what was I supposed to do? Wait till Herman the Hostage Taker beaned you and carried you off?"
"He did bean me, thanks to you scaring the crap out of him," Jim says and he points at Herman as he's frog-marched past us to a patrol car. "I seriously doubt he could've carried me off."
"Yeah, okay, he's small but he was mad," I say in my defense, "and anger can lend people superhuman strength " I trail off as Simon and Jim glare at me in unison. "You want me to drive you to the hospital?"
"The medic said I'm okay to go home," Jim replies. "I need to go back to the station and question your buddy, Herman, and write up a report first."
"Fine. If you don't need me here, I'll just head off home then," I put in, still steaming over the injustice of being blamed for trying to be what I'm supposed to be - Jim's backup.
They've already walked away from me so I pull my car keys out of my pocket, flash a salute at their retreating backs, and head for my car. I pause momentarily as I remember Jim had come with me (his truck was in the shop as usual and the Corvair was doing double duty as grad student transport and undercover cop car) then mentally flip him the bird as I climb in. He can catch a ride with Simon. It had been well past midnight when we'd caught sight of Herman the putative Hostage-taker breaking into the 7-11 on our way home from the game and I had a date with my bed. There was a six AM start on my horizon.
I'm two blocks from the loft when a guy staggers in front of my car. My instincts are sharp as a tack thanks to the adrenaline still coursing through my bloodstream and I manage to plant my foot on the brake and bring the car to a screaming slide inches from where he'd dropped to the ground in front of me.
"Crap!" I fumble with my seatbelt and finally get it undone then I'm out the door and on my knees next to the guy. "Hey, you okay?" I do the ABC Doctor routine with him and he doesn't move so I stand up to go back to my car to get my phone and call for an ambulance.
"Don't bother," a gravelly voice behind me says at the same time something hard and round is planted against the back of my neck.
"What? He needs an ambulance."
The guy on the ground gives the lie to my words by bouncing athletically to his feet and high-fiveing the guy holding a gun on me. "I don't need an ambulance," he says. "We do need a car."
"Fine." I hold my hands out to my side and try to move out from the gun's chilly presence on my neck but I'm pushed back and held in place by the guy I'd almost hit. "Look, take the car," I say. "Nobody needs to get hurt here."
"You got a phone?" perp number two asks, digging the gun barrel deeper into my neck.
I obviously hesitate a second too long thinking about whether I should tell the truth or not because the guy in front hammers a piledriver of a punch into my mid-section that doubles me over and leaves me whooping for breath. "Yeah," I manage to finally whisper as I lay on the ground at their feet, my hands gripped tightly around my abused abdomen, "in my backpack."
"Get it, Joe."
Joe trots off to the Corvair and comes back swinging my backpack from his hand. He opens it when he reaches me, pulls out the phone and I groan sub-vocally as he digs deeper and comes up with my observer's pass that I'd taken off and slung into my bag when I'd left the scene ten minutes before. "Got us a cop wannabe, Jeff," he says, slinging the bag onto the ground.
"Yeah. That right? Guess we shouldn't just leave him here then," Jeff observes. His hand tangles in my hair, yanking me up to my knees then pulling my head back so he can lean over and put his face inches from mine. Garlic breath wafts into my nostrils and I choke back a gag. "Wanna take a ride, cop?"
"I'm not a-"
Joe whacks me across the face, effectively silencing my protest.
"Sure," I grit out once I'm hauled up to my knees again. "Love to. Let's."
Inside I'm wishing Jim's Sentinel abilities extended this far but I seriously doubt it, much as I know his senses are awesomely enhanced. Part of me wants to start whispering for him to find me but the scientist in me, the guide who's worked with the sentinel for the past few months knows it's pointless, so instead I let myself be pulled to my feet and dragged over to my car where I'm shoved into the front passenger seat after Joe climbs in behind me. The gun's immediately in place at my neck the minute we're all settled in and I give up on the idea of bundling out the door when I feel the metallic nudge of it. "So... why do you need me?" I ask. "You can take the car." Part of me doesn't mean that as willingly as it sounds. I mean, I'm a guy. I love my car. I love living more though, and when the gun threatens to gouge a hole in my neck, I decide silence just might be the better part of valor and shut up.
We've driven to the outskirts of the city when Jeff pulls up on the side of the highway, leans across me and opens the door. "End of the line, cop," he says.
I feel my mouth gape open a little in surprise. To be honest, I'd expected to wake up in an shallow grave deep in the Cascade Mountains, not be ushered out the door almost politely.
"Well..." Joe prods me with the gun and I climb out. Joe gets out too and just stands there for a minute, the weapon aimed steadily at my head. He orders me to turn around and pulls off the bandanna he's wearing around his neck. Just as I'm thinking that shallow grave is starting to edge up on my list of possible futures, he ties the bandanna around my eyes then I hear him climb back in the car. "Don't take the bandanna off till you hear us drive away," he snarls.
I nod in hurried agreement. "No problem, man." I wish they'd just go already so I can begin to believe there might actually be an end to this awful night, the ending that has me safely tucked up in bed at the loft.
I hear the engine rev and the crunch of the gravel beneath the wheels as the car begins to pull away then the tone of the engine noise changes, sounding too close for comfort, and almost too late, I realize what they're going to do. Not even bothering to waste time pulling off the bandanna, I twist to the side and pump my knees, pushing down as hard as I can then up, throwing myself as far from the car as I can. There's a bump against my hip, hard enough to cause pain to flash down my leg then I'm in freefall. I seem to fall forever till my head thumps into something hard enough to send me into instant oblivion.
Consciousness is hard-won and comes slowly. First I see only gray shadows above me that gradually merge into the dark night sky. I blink a few times till my sight settles then check myself out, a limb at a time. Nothing seems broken, though I'm aching all over and my head seems to have acquired an entire marching band, banging out a chorus just above my left eyebrow. A shaky hand to that area comes away wet with blood, my lips and cheeks feel like I've been on the wrong end of a cheese grater but I'm awake and thinking, ergo, I'm alive, so I give thanks for small mercies and lever myself cautiously upright and peer around. There's no sign of my car or my kidnappers and I heave a heartfelt sigh of relief at that. I'll miss the car but frankly I wouldn't care if I never saw Jeff and Joe again this side of hell. All of which brings me back to where I began this little saga of misadventure...
I shiver violently with the cold of my exposed position and push myself unsteadily to my feet, looking up and down the highway in the hope of seeing a car heading my way, but the road is devoid of traffic and I set my jaw and begin the long trek homeward.
"Hey, Jim, you know where your partner is?"
I squint tiredly up at Rafe who's standing in front of my desk, his forehead creased with a frown. "If he's got any sense at all, he's home in bed." I rub at the cut on my head, wincing at the bruising.
Rafe's shaking his head. "Uh uh, his car was just pulled over on the Cascade Highway."
"What?" That brings me to my feet and I'm grabbing for my jacket even as I start to pepper Rafe with questions. "Where is he? What was he pulled over for? What the hell was he doing all the way out there?"
Rafe puts a hand up to block the questions. "No idea. The car was pulled over for speeding and reckless driving. Driver said he was a friend of Blair's and that he'd lent them the car but the arresting officer found Blair's backpack, ID and phone in the car-"
"Shit!" I scrub a hand through my hair, my headache thundering now as worry brings it to new life. "Okay, tell Captain Banks I'm down in holding questioning the guys they brought in, will you, Rafe?"
He's already walking toward Banks' office. "You want me to come with you?" he asks.
I shake my head. I might need to use my senses to find Blair, and for that I need someone who knows I'm a Sentinel. "It'll be fine. Ask the Captain to meet me down there, though," I say, already out the door.
"Sure. I hope Blair's okay," he calls after me, knocking on the office door. "Let me know if you want me to round up a search party... whatever you need," he says.
As I'm in the elevator heading down, it occurs to me what an impact Blair's made on my colleagues. They consider him one of us.
There's a lost-looking figure stumbling alongside the highway, and without even using my Sentinel sight I know it's Blair. I mean, who else is gonna be out here, in the cold, looking like he's about to stumble into the path of an oncoming vehicle? I plant my foot to the floor and pull up alongside him, hearing Simon curse as he's slammed forward into the dash, seatbelt notwithstanding. I tune him out, fling open my door and step out and in front of my stray Guide. "Hey, Chief, you okay?"
He looks through me rather than at me and nods distractedly as he keeps walking past me. "I keep telling you, Jim. I'm fine. Just stop talking to me and let me walk, okay?"
All right, even for Blair, that's odd. I grab his arm and pull him to a halt. His skin is like ice beneath his shirt and his eyes are unfocused, or rather, they're focused on something beyond me. He's limping and blood covers his chin and lips. He groans at the sudden stop and wraps his arms around his ribs protectively.
"You want me to call an ambulance?"
I look around in surprise to find Simon standing next to me, his own eyes filled with worry.
"No, it'll be quicker if we take him. Hey, Chief. Blair!" I give his arm a little shake, glad to see recognition in his eyes when he looks at me this time. "Yeah, it's me, Jim. Wanna go home?"
He nods but doesn't say a word, just lets Simon usher him into the car as I climb back into the driver's seat. I start the engine and turn the heater on flat-out. He's shivering minutely, a good thing. At least he's not too hypothermic.
Simon pulls off his own jacket and wraps it around Blair's shoulders then pulls him close against his side protectively. "What?" he barks when he sees me watching him. "Sharing body heat. Learned it in the army. You gonna drive?"
I can't resist reaching out and giving Blair's shoulder a reassuring pat. He looks over at me then and I can see the exhaustion shadowing his eyes.
He just nods again and then he pillows his head on Simon's shoulder and he's out, sleeping or unconscious. Either way it's enough to make me step on the gas, and less than thirty minutes later, I'm pulling up outside Cascade General.
"A badly bruised hip and ribs, fortunately no fractures, gravel rash on his chest and abdomen, a lacerated lip that took a few stitches, mild hypothermia but no concussion, luckily, though he does have some soft tissue damage to his neck with perhaps some nerve involvement. We'll keep him in a soft cervical collar for a week or so, give him some anti-inflammatories. I've given him some morphine for now, more to let him rest after such a traumatic experience than anything else. Sedatives are fine but they don't do much for the pain from extensive bruising." The doctor, a gray-haired man who looks to be close to retirement age, ticks off Blair's injuries like a shopping list of hurt on his fingers.
"You sure there's no concussion?" I ask. "He seemed really out of it when we picked him up."
"Getting carjacked will do that to you," the doctor replies. "So will coming within an inch of being run down and killed."
I can't help but nod terse acknowledgment of that. Blair's tough as nails but just thinking of what could have happened to him tonight is enough to make me blanch, ex- Ranger or not.
"Would you like to see him? He's been asking for you."
I'm a little surprised at the doctor's offer. Every other time Blair's been hurt, which has been way too often since he started working me for my peace of my mind, it seems I've spent the first couple of hours after he's been admitted cooling my heels in the waiting room.
The doctor grins at me. "I find a little TLC from friends and family makes my job easier, gets me home to the wife earlier than might otherwise be the case."
"Thank you." I shake his hand and turn to Simon. "You want to come in, sir?"
"I'm just gonna go let the guys know that Sandburg dodged a bullet again," he replies. I get a slap on the back as I walk away from him. "Tell the kid to look after himself. I'll call in and see him tomorrow."
"You got a ride, sir?" I ask, belatedly remembering he'd come to the hospital in my truck.
"Yeah, yeah." He waves me off, fingers already plucking impatiently at the cigar he keeps in his breast pocket. "Taggart's on his way. Go. Check on the kid then go home and get some sleep. It's been one hell of a long night."
"It has that. Thanks, Simon."
Blair's curled on his side on the bed, his eyes fixed drowsily on the door when I get to his room. "Hey," he says.
"Hey yourself." I walk across and touch a hand to his shoulder, giving it just a small pat, enough to reassure myself that he's warmer than he'd been when we found him.
He rolls onto his back, grimacing, in obvious pain and I ask him if he wants me to call a nurse but he shakes his head and tells me the morphine's still good. It only hurts when he moves or laughs.
"How did you find me?" he asks, once he's settled and I've adjusted the head of the bed for him so he's more upright.
I tell him about the perps getting caught speeding in his car and assure him the car's fine. I make him laugh when I describe doing the good cop/bad cop thing with Simon and I don't tell him that the bad cop part I'd used on the men who'd done this to him wasn't acting on my part, that I would have found some way to beat his whereabouts out of them if I'd had to.
"I'm sorry," he says around a yawn.
"Taking off the way I did. You and Simon were right. I'm not a cop-"
"You're my partner."
He looks over at me, surprise in his eyes.
"If you'd been in my position tonight, would you have expected me to just stay in the truck an wait and see what happened?" I ask him.
He laughs then winces and grabs for his ribs and I get a spare pillow off the other chair and place it across his chest. "Press down against the pillow. It helps."
"Voice of experience?"
I nod and grimace at the memory of too many bruised ribs in my past.
"No," he replies at last. "You wouldn't have waited."
"I shouldn't have been surprised you didn't either," I tell him. "Doesn't mean I want you barreling in like that though."
"So what do I do?" he asks.
I reach out and give him a gentle noogie. "Watch my back, be my partner, but above all, stay safe," I tell him. "I had backup there tonight, Chief."
"I know. I just... reacted, I guess."
"Next time think before you react." I touch the cut on my head to give him a visual reminder and he nods agreement. "And next time you stop for an accident victim, make sure they really are an accident victim before you get out of the car."
"How was I supposed to know-" He stops as he realizes I'm yanking his chain and grins at me. "Smartass," he says.
"That's my middle name," I reply as I stand up. "You get some rest. I'll be back to pick you up in the morning."
He turns back onto his side again, with a helping hand from me and grasps the pillow to his chest like a life preserver. "Thanks, man."
"You're welcome, Chief. Thanks for helping me with Herman."
A soft snore greets my words and I sneak out the door and head for home.
When I get there, I stand in the doorway of his room and think of what he's endured today and thank God he had strength enough to make it through.