The Brackett Racket
A large, tear-shaped drop snaked down Blair's neck as he struggled to keep himself from spiraling into full-blown panic. He swallowed hard, though his mouth was dry. His eyes swept across the dim, empty warehouse, and he took a deep breath, then looked at Jim. Jim's angry, blue eyes bore into his own, but beneath the anger, Blair could see a hint of fear.
*Come on, think!* Blair told himself, his gaze flickering quickly to the blade held firmly against the jugular vein of Jim's neck. Ropes bound Jim to a chair, effectively immobilizing him.
"Five seconds left, Mr. Sandburg." Brackett's calm voice scraped across the silence like fingernails on a chalkboard. "Four... Three..." He tightened his grip on the knife.
"Don't, Sandburg," Jim ordered.
"Okay." Blair closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. "Okay." His voice shook, and he felt seconds away from throwing up his breakfast.
Brackett smiled. "I knew you'd see it my way. Really, this won't take long. In about fifteen minutes, you and Detective Ellison will be free to go...as long as you do your job right." He gestured to the beefy man standing at the window. "Go on."
Nodding shakily, Blair took a step toward the stranger. "Are you sure his senses are heightened enough for this? Have you even tested him?"
"They are, Mr. Sandburg, and yes, I have. Of course, I would have preferred to utilize Ellison's developed skills, but considering our last encounter, I knew that would probably not go over too well. Here, at least, I have a cooperative associate with two heightened senses. Isn't that right, Mr. Bailey?"
The large man at the window turned his head slightly, revealing a square face and hard, dark eyes. He scowled at Brackett, his nostrils flaring. "As long as you give me my cut."
"Of course," Brackett nodded accommodatingly. "Now, get on with it, you two."
"I'll try, man." Blair took a few hesitant steps forward. "I haven't had any time to work with him, though. I can't do miracles."
"Just do whatever it is you do with Ellison. As it stands, you're the world's leading authority on people with heightened senses."
Blair frowned and stopped half a foot away from Bailey. *Great,* he thought, casting a glance back at Brackett, *I finally get some recognition, and this is the kind it ends up being.* His eyes fell to Jim, who remained still and rigid, his eyes brimming with helplessness and anger.
*I can do this.* Blair tore his gaze away from Jim and looked to Bailey. "Okay, man, first, use your sight to locate the target."
Bailey nodded, staring out the window. He remained motionless and silent for several seconds, then said, "Got him."
"Great. Now, use your ears. Let your sight guide your hearing. Piggyback one on the other, and listen."
Bailey didn't acknowledge the direction, but he seemed to focus harder. More seconds passed, then he winced and dropped his chin to his chest, his face lined with pain. "Damn. Damn. Damnit!"
"What?" Blair almost swallowed his tongue as he glanced quickly back at Jim.
"Things are too loud. I can't do this. Fuck it," he turned away from the window.
"No!" Blair placed his palm hard on Bailey's chest. "You can do this. Look, you just have to filter out the distractions. Focus on the target."
Bailey ignored Blair and looked at Brackett. "For this, I want an extra five percent. I'm the heart of this operation, anyway. With their security and anti-tech measures, you'd never be able do this without me."
Brackett nodded, looking unsurprised by the request. "Do this right, and I'll make it an extra ten percent."
Surprise washed over Bailey's face, but he recovered quickly and nodded, turning back to the window. His shoulders slumped, and he leaned forward until he touched the glass.
"Okay," Blair began again, "Do you have them in your line of sight?"
"Yeah. They're just about to go inside."
"Good. Good." Blair shifted on his feet. "Now, piggyback your hearing onto your sight. Let your eyes guide your ears."
Bailey nodded, his forehead crinkling with concentration. "Okay, got it.... They just went inside."
"Keep tracking them with your hearing."
Bailey remained silent, his head tilted.
"Let me know when they're in position," Brackett ordered, his voice suddenly tense.
Blair looked back at Brackett. "Why do you need to make sure they're in position? What are you going to do?"
Brackett's eyes remained fixed on Bailey. "That's not your concern, Mr. Sandburg."
"Will you two shut up?" Bailey growled. "The timing on this has to be precise."
Brackett dutifully went quiet. He used his free hand to reach into his jacket pocket.
Blair suddenly felt sicker. He wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but he had a bad feeling someone was going to die. He looked at Jim and read the same concern in his eyes. Blair's chest tightened, and he found it increasingly hard to breathe.
He couldn't help kill someone. He couldn't be an accomplice to murder.
*Oh God, Jim.* Blair fought his rising panic. *Help me out, here.*
Jim didn't respond to the unspoken plea. Blair didn't expect him to. He was on his own. Swallowing the pasty taste in his mouth, he turned his attention back to Bailey and inhaled a slow, deep breath.
"Okay, man, you still hear them?" Blair whispered.
"Good, keep your focus. I'm going to shut up now, so you can extend your hearing even further. Try to find at least one of their heartbeats. It'll anchor you to their location."
"What?" Bailey glanced back at him.
"Trust me. It's an instinctual thing. It works wonders with Jim."
Bailey rolled his eyes but looked back at the window. "I think I got it." His voice was low and laced with skepticism.
"Good," Blair whispered.
He waited several seconds in silence, watching Bailey closely. A couple of times, he glanced back at Brackett, noting the suspicious bulge in the man's jacket pocket. Was he fingering a remote detonator? Did he plan to blow something or someone up? But why do it this way? Surely, there were easier ways of killing someone than kidnapping two people and using a pseudo-sentinel.
Or maybe not. Whoever these "targets," were, they were obviously big-shots. Bailey had mentioned anti-techno measures. Maybe Brackett needed a low-tech means of intelligence? A sentinel would definitely fit that bill.
But why not just use a sniper and hit them out in the open?
Turning back to Bailey, Blair pushed the thoughts from his mind. He wasn't going to figure out what Brackett had planned, but he did know it was something very bad. No matter, he couldn't help the man succeed.
Eyeing Bailey, Blair breathed a quiet, relieved sigh when he noticed that the man was in deep concentration, no doubt focusing exclusively on his hearing.
It was now or never.
Sending a silent prayer to whoever was listening, Blair leaned forward, his mouth inches from Bailey's ear, and let loose with the loudest, highest-pitched scream he could muster. It tore from his throat so hard it hurt. Bailey reacted violently, flinging himself away from the window and crashing to the floor with a yell, his hands coming up to his ears.
"What the hell...?"
Blair rushed Brackett, who brought the knife up defensively. Jim made his move, toppling his chair backward and crashing into Brackett. As the two men collided to the floor, the knife clattered uselessly out of Brackett's grip.
"You little shit!"
Blair felt a mass slam into him from behind, and he hit the floor hard, his chin knocking painfully against the wood. For a moment, he saw bright lights dancing across his vision, and his ears rang, sending vibrations into his jaw.
"I'm gonna kill you, you fuck!"
Hands grabbed Blair, flinging him onto his back. A fist slammed into his stomach, knocking the breath from him. He curled with the sheer force of the assault, but Bailey's weight pushed him flat. Hands wrapped around his neck, cutting off his gasps for air. He brought his own hands up and pulled desperately at the fingers around his neck, but the pressure remained firm. His eyes felt as though they would burst from their sockets. He kicked hard, but hit nothing. He struggled, his back arching as his lungs fought to take in air. Red dots crowded his vision, and his nails dug into his palms, evoking a warm wetness.
Suddenly, the pressure vanished, and he rolled violently onto his side, sucking in deep, painful gulps of blessed oxygen. The room went dark, and his head spun. He curled into a fetal position, gasping painfully, and felt himself drifting toward oblivion when another set of hands grabbed him.
He tensed and lashed out, but the hands wrapped around his wrists. "Easy, Chief. It's me."
*Jim?* Blair relaxed, blinking, and the darkness gave way to dimness. A familiar face loomed above him, blue eyes pinched with concern.
"You're gonna be okay. Just relax. And breathe. Slow and easy, Sandburg."
*Slow and easy.* Blair closed his eyes and nodded. It was over. Jim would take care of the rest. With a relieved shudder, he let the darkness claim him.
Jim scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed heavily, then dropped his chin to his chest and let the steady rocking of the ambulance soothe him. His head throbbed, and a hot bump pulsed in the back of his skull, a souvenir from his collision with the floor when he'd toppled the chair.
Blair groaned, and Jim looked up to see a man in a blue jumpsuit hovering over Sandburg. Blair lay strapped to a stretcher, his face pale and his throat puffy and red. His arms rested limply over the straps, and gauze covered his hands from where he'd dug his nails into his palms.
Anger blossomed in Jim's chest, and he swallowed hard. Damn that Brackett. Why the hell was he on the loose, anyway? Shaking his head, Jim looked down at his own slightly red wrists. At least Brackett wasn't a complete asshole. A coward, yes, but he'd had the good grace to cut Jim loose when things had gone sour. Then, before Jim could even blink, Brackett had disappeared, damn well knowing Jim wouldn't be able to follow him, not when Bailey was in the process of strangling Blair.
More than likely, however, Brackett's *graciousness* in cutting Jim's bindings was more out of self-interest. The jerk probably figured Jim and Blair were of more potential use to him alive than dead.
No way in hell. Jim would be on the alert now. If Brackett got within half a mile of him, Jim would be all over him.
Blair gasped suddenly and made an aborted attempt to sit, restrained by straps. His eyes were open now, widened with fear and glazed with confusion.
"Mr. Sandburg, it's okay," the paramedic soothed.
Jim rose in the crowded compartment and gently pushed past the man. "Easy, partner." He placed a palm on Blair's chest and smiled reassuringly. "You're in an ambulance. Everything's okay."
Blair's eyes focused on Jim, then he relaxed against the stretcher and nodded weakly. He swallowed, and he face twisted with pain. Jim winced in sympathy.
"What..." Blair's started, his voice hoarse and whisper-soft.
"Brackett cut me loose when things went bad, then bailed. I took care of Bailey and called in the cavalry."
"Brackett?" Blair winced hard.
Blair closed his eyes in resignation. One hand came up to his throat, and his fingers brushed lightly over the inflamed, red marks.
"Don't." Jim grabbed Blair's hand gently and lowered it back to the stretcher. "It's a little red and swollen, but you're going to be okay." He smiled softly. "You're just not going to be giving any lectures for a while. On the bright side, the loft's going to be peaceful and quiet for the next few days."
Blair cracked an eye at Jim, then raised one hand and prominently displayed his middle finger.
The paramedic barked with laughter, and Jim raised his eyebrows, the smile hovering on his lips. "My, my. Such language, Chief. I'm shocked."