Disclamier. These characters aren't mine. This is just for fun. No profit is being made.


  False Pretenses

He looked down at the page of a homicide police report signed by a Detective Jim Ellison. The word "LASH" was scrawled in red ink in the center of the paper. He folded the sheet and placed it in his the pocket of his navy blue blazer. He had no idea what the word "LASH" referred to, but he hoped to discover its meaning soon.

He looked up, taking in the atmosphere of the police bullpen for the first time. Two plain-clothed officers sat at desks in opposite corners. One typed furiously on a computer keyboard while the other dutifully skimmed the morning newspaper. With a curious tilt of his head and a small smile, he walked to the door of Captain Simon Banks and knocked firmly.

"Come in," a deep voice yelled.

He opened the door and walked into the office, closing the door behind him. Captain Simon Banks, a large black man with glasses, sat behind the desk. Two other men, one large with short hair and the other somewhat smaller with long hair and an earring, stood in front of Banks' desk. All three men gazed at him expectantly.

He walked up to the desk and extended his hand to Captain Banks.

"Hello, Sir. I'm Doctor Jarod Simmons, the interim department psychologist," he said.

Banks stood and shook Jarod's hand. "Nice to meet you. So, uh, where's Doctor --"

"On vacation, Sir. She'll be back in two weeks. In the meantime, it looks like you're stuck with me," he said.

The long-haired man smiled and extended a hand to Jarod. "Hey. I'm Blair Sandburg. This here's Detective Jim Ellison," he said, indicating the larger man with a wave of his hand.

Jarod shook Blair's hand and smiled warmly. "I'm pleased to meet both of you."



 
 Jim took the two hotdogs handed to him by the street vendor and briefly looked them over. His own monstrosity was drenched with ketchup and mustard and piled high with relish and onion. Blair's hotodog was topped only with moderate amounts of mustard and ketchup. With a grunt, Jim handed Blair the lighter of the two.

Blair flashed Jim a quick smile as he took his hotdog and grabbed a couple of napkins from the vender's cart. He looked up at the man dishing out the hotdogs. "Where's Bill?"

The man shrugged. "Sick today. I'm his brother."

Jim nodded and mumbled a "pleased to meet you" as he glanced down at his snack.

Blair eyed Jim's edible monstrosity. "It's amazing you can still catch the bad guys with what you eat."

Jim responded with a grimace, and said, "Watch it, Junior, or you'll be wearing that hotdog."

Blair chuckled as he and Jim turned to walk to the small park across the street. The two men sat on a bench and quietly munched on their evening snacks, letting the stresses of another work day ease out of their systems. Jim closed his eyes momentarily, feeling the gentle breeze tickle his face. Then he felt something cold and wet on his hand and he jumped, looking down into the fawn-colored face of a pit bull. The dog sniffed his hotdog and placed his large head in Jim's lap, staring up at him with large, sad eyes. Blair chucked and patted the dog on the head.

"Figures a pit bull would like YOU," Blair said. "You have SOOO much in common with the breed."

Jim cast a narrowed glance at Blair and looked back at the dog, giving him a piece of meat. "Just how many strays hang around this park?"

Blair shrugged. "Don't know, but they can obviously spot a sucker a mile away... a survival trait no doubt selected for in this urban environment."

Jim tore off another small piece of the hotdog and threw it as far away as he could, watching the dog gallop happily after it. He knew the dog would probably just return as soon as the tasty treat was devoured, but he figured he could scarf down the rest of his hotdog by that time.

Jim was two bites away from finishing his hotdog when he heard footsteps approaching from behind. Casually, he turned to look over his shoulder as a familiar face smiled down at him.

"Well, hello, Detective. Do you visit this park often," Jarod asked as he sat down on the bench next to Jim.

Blair seemed momentarily startled by Jarod's arrival, but he recovered quickly and grinned warmly. "Hey, man, how's it going?"

"Just fine," Jarod replied.

"What brings you here," Jim asked, his expression flat. He didn't particularly like spending his down time with the department psychologist. This was his time to relax, not to deal with some head-shrinking yuppie trying to gain insight into his psyche.

Jarod shrugged and shifted on the bench to turn his attention to a group of teeneagers playing frisbee in the center of the park. "Oh, I like to take walks now and then... breathe the open air." He glanced back at Jim. "And you?"

Jim shrugged. "Same."

Jarod turned his attention back to the energetic teenagers and allowed a wistful smile to play at the edge of his lips. After a few seconds, he looked back at Ellison.

"You know, I've been wanting to speak with you two about one of your previous cases... if that's okay with you, of course," Jarod said.

Jim's expression remained stoic and he said, "Which one would that be?"

A small squeel pierced the air and Jim's eyes searched for the source of the noise. He saw a small child being licked to death by the dog as a frantic mother pulled her away from the stray canine.

"The one having to do with Lash," Jarod replied coversationally, bringing Jim's attention back to the conversation.

Jim heard Blair's heart rate shoot up alarmingly. He spared a glance at Blair, whose face looked alarmingly pale. He flashed Blair a small, reassuring smile and looked back at Jarod. Thanks for spoiling our evening, Doc.

"What's your interest in Lash," Jim asked, his voice cold.

Jarod's tone turned more serious. "I'm writing a review for the Journal of Neuropsychology and would like to incorporate that case into the paper."

"Lash was a demented psycho who killed a lot of people. End of Story," Jim said, then finished his hot dog.

Jarod sighed. "Ah. I see. So this... serial killer... Lash... would you mind telling me a bit about him?"

Blair spoke up, his voice soft but strained. "He became his victims... took over their lives."

Jim heard the sudden increase in Jarod's heartbeat and fixed a hard gaze on the doctor, immediately suspicious.

Jarod looked at Blair. "What do you mean he 'became' his victims?"

Blair swallowed, setting his half-eaten hotdog next to him on the bench. "Just what it sounds like. He... uh... took over their lives, became them.... Immersed himself in their way of life, their habits."

Jim heard another jump in Jarod's already accelerated heart rate.

"Exactly what is this paper of yours about," Jim asked, his voice low.

"Uh, a family of personality disorders that include multiple personality disorder, and other similar personality abnormalities whereby those afflicted take on various personalities," Jarod explained.

Jim fixed a hard, piercing gaze on Jarod for several long seconds. "Sorry," he said finally. "I can't help you. You want to know about Lash, read the report."

Jarod stiffened, almost imperceptibly, and nodded. "Thank you, detective. I will. Sorry to bother to you."

Jarod stood and walked back to a dark sedan parked across the street. Jim turned to Blair, who sat with hunched shoulders, staring at the blades of grass beneath his feet. Jim put a hand on his friend's shoulder and forced a tiny smile.

"Hey, Chief, you okay?"

Blair didn't respond, and Jim noticed that his guide's heart rate had only decreased marginally.

"Chief?" Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder gently.

Blair's head shot up, as though he'd been pulled from a light trance. "Huh? What did you say?"

"You okay?"

Blair managed a smile that was obviously forced. "Yeah, sure, Jim."

Uh-huh, I'm not buying it for a second, kid. Jim looked at the discarded hot dog next to Blair. "You gonna finish that," he asked, giving a jab of his chin toward the hot dog.

Blair looked down at the hot dog. "Oh. Uh, no, I'm not that hungry."

Anymore, Jim finished silently. Sorry, Chief, I know that jack-ass just spoiled your dinner... yours and mine both, actually.

Jim nodded and patted Blair's shoulder. "Okay, Chief, why don't we head back home?"



 
Jim and Blair sat on the couch watching the evening news, though their minds were elsewhere. Blair yawned and sunk further into the couch, casting a glance at Jim.

"Jim?"

Jim looked over at Blair. "Yeah, Chief?"

Blair didn't speak immediately. Instead, he kept his gaze fixed on the television. After several seconds, he said, "Weird, today, huh? What was up with that?"

Jim shrugged. "Just another head shrinker looking to make a name for himself."

Blair managed a small smile. "Gee, kinda like some neo-hippie-witch-doctor punk?"

Jim frowned. "No, Chief, nothing at all like that."

Blair raised his eyebrows, but remained silent. After a few seconds, Jim clicked off the television and rose from the couch.

"He doesn't have the hair for it," Jim added, breaking into a grin as he headed into the kitchen.

Blair's retort was interrupted by the phone ringing. Jim rushed over and picked up the receiver. "Ellison," he said.

Ellison listened silently for a few seconds, then said, "I'm on my way, Sir." He hung the phone up and turned to Blair. "I'll be back, Chief.... got some business to take care of down at the station."

Blair rose from the couch and walked over to Jim. "Hey, I'll come with you."

Jim's face hardened and he shook his head. "No, you'd better stay here."

Blair's eyes narrowed as he gazed at Jim. "Why?"

Jim sighed. "Trust me on this one, Chief. It'd be better if you just stayed here."

Blair tiltled his head and gazed at Jim. "Yeah, right. Something's up and you won't even tell me what it is."

Jim threw his hands into the air and snapped, "Jesus, Sandburg, just stay here. For once, do something I tell you without putting up a fuss."

Blair's face fell and he lowered his gaze to the floor. "Sure. No problem." He turned and sat back down on the couch, grabbing the remote control to turn on the television.

Jim sighed and opened his mouth to say something. He thought better of it and clamped his jaw shut as he grabbed his keys and headed out of the loft.


Jim stared at the yellow scarf that rested on top of his desk. He swallowed, his jaw clenched. This isn't some damn coincidence, he thought. Doctor Simmons asking about Lash, and now this... on the same day... nope, definitely not a coincidence.

Jim looked up at Simon, who stood just outside his office talking to Brown in a low voice. Jim didn't bother to listen into their conversation. Right now, he was focused on the silky yellow scarf at his desk. Simon had told him that he spotted it about an hour ago, but that no one -- absolutely no one -- had seen anybody strange near his desk.


Blair suppressed another yawn. Damn, it was only 7:00 and he was already tired. He kicked off his shoes and brought his legs up onto the couch, sinking back against the arm cushions. He didn't know why he was so tired. He'd actually gotten some good sleep last night.... maybe he was just getting old. He managed a small grin before falling into a peaceful sleep.

The phone rang, jarring him from his slumber. He jumped off the couch and looked at his watch. 7:30. He sighed and walked over to the phone. A thirty minute nap wasn't so bad, he mused, but, for some reason, he still felt tired. He yanked the phone off it's base and stifled another yawn. Damn, his eyelids felt heavy... way too heavy.

"Yeah," he mumbled into the receiver.

"Hey, Chief, what took you so long?"

"Huh?"

"Five rings.... anyway, I just called to tell you I'll be home in a couple of hours... " Jim's voice trailed off.

Blair immediately perked up, noting the strange quality in his partner's voice. "Is something wrong, Jim?"

He heard a soft splash of water in the bathroom and immediately spun around to look at the closed bathroom door.

"No, everything's fine, Blair. Just make sure you lock the loft up good before going to bed. Actually, knowing how you are, you'd better do it now."

Blair took a few hesitant steps toward the bathroom.

"Chief?"

Oh, c'mon, he told himself, you're acting like a kid afraid of the boogeyman. He forced his legs to walk toward the bathroom. Quickly, he reached out and turned the handle, pushing the door open and....

.... releasing a stifled scream as he dropped the phone. It bounced twice, clattering against the tile floor of the bathroom.

His body felt numb, and his legs buckled, sending him crashing to the floor. Quickly, he scrambled out of the bathroom and pushed himself into a corner. He closed his eyes, his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. God, no, this can't be happening.... this can't be happening....

A soft but frantic voice broke through his panic and he realized Jim was still on the phone.

"Blair! Chief, answer me! Blair!" The words were barely audible as they emanated from the discarded cordless phone.

With shaking hands, Blair reached for the phone. He kept his gaze on the ground, unable to look at the bloody sight in the bathroom. His hands closed around the phone and he brought it up to his face.

"Get over here, Jim," he said, his voice low.

"I'm on my way, Chief. Just hang on... what happened? Are you okay," Jim asked, his voice on the verge of panic.

Blair nodded, then realized he'd have to speak. "Y-Yes. I'm fine. Just get here fast, man," he struggled desperately to keep his voice steady, but he knew he sounded on the verge of hysterics.

"Okay, I'm on my way. Hang up the phone, Chief, and I'll call you back on the cell... okay?"

Blair closed his eyes.

"Chief? Did you hear me?"

Blair hung up the phone, not realizing that he hadn't even provided Jim with a verbal response.

His chest felt tight, and he found himself suddenly unable to breath. Gasping, he tried to fill his lungs with air, but he couldn't manage more than shallow, quick breaths. I'm hyperventilating, he realized. Dear God, let me get a grip... get a grip... calm down... breathe, just breathe...

The phone rang... then again... Blair looked at it for a second, realizing that he was still clutching it in his hand. Another ring... He pressed the TALK button and lifted the phone to his ear.

"I'm here," Blair gasped, still struggling to control his breathing.

"I'm on my way, Chief," Jim told him.

Blair suddenly realized why he was having such difficulty breathing, and his stomach revolted. Blood, god the smell... how could I have miss it? He gagged, vomiting the partially-digested hotdog he had eaten earlier.

"Chief?!"

Blair crawled away from the mess on the floor as the room spun around him.

"Damnit! Blair, answer me!"

Blair dropped the phone and crawled over to the couch. He reached up and grabbed onto the back of the couch, pulling himself up. I've gotta get out here... god, the smell... so much blood... how did I miss it before? Dimly, he realized that he was probably amplifying the smell psychologically. That didn't matter, he knew he had to get out of the loft. God, anywhere but the loft. He stumbled to the door, turned the deadlock, and opened the door. Shaking, he took a step into the hallway. He closed the door behind him and released a sobbing sigh as he slid down the wall.



Jim's truck skidded to a halt in front of his building, with two police cars right behind it. Jim leapt out of the car, leaving the door open, and barreled up the three flights of stairs to his loft. He exploded onto the third floor with his gun in his hand, and his heart jumped into his throat when he saw Blair crumpled against the wall outside the loft. The coppery stench of blood assaulted his nostrils, causing him to gasp involuntarily. Mentally, he turned down the dial on his sense of smell.

"Blair?" He ran over to his unconscious partner and knelt beside him.

Simon, Rafe, and Brown emerged from the stairway and walked up behind him. Rafe and Brown had their guns drawn, and they each flattened themselves against the wall next to the door. Rafe reached out and turned the handle, pushing the door open. The loft was silent. Rafe mouthed a count to three, glancing at Brown. The two men crouched and leapt into the apartment.

Blair's face was alarmingly pale, and his breathing shallow.  Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder.

"How is he," Simon asked, standing over Jim's shoulder.

"Asleep, I think," Jim said. "His heart rate is slow but steady."

Gently, Jim shook Blair's shoulder. "Chief? C'mon, wake up."

Rafe's voice filtered into the hallway. "Jesus Christ!"

Simon dashed into the loft as Jim gave Blair another shake.

Blair's eyes fluttered open. He looked up at Jim, his eyes peaceful. A small smile played at his lips. Then, suddenly, his brow furrowed and he gasped, leaping to his feet.

"The bathroom," he stuttered. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Oh God...."

Jim heard his friend's hear pounding fiercely. He placed an arm around Blair's shoulder and said, "Easy, Chief. What happened?"

Jim heard Simon's voice inside the loft, "My God, not again."

Jim wanted to go into the loft and see what was going on, but he didn't want to leave Blair alone in the hall.

Blair raised a shaky hand and pointed inside the loft, keeping his gaze on Jim. "In the bathroom," he repeated.

Jim nodded. Cautiously, he stepped into the loft. He spared a glance back at Blair and said, "I'll be right back."

Blair nodded and closed his eyes again as he slumped, standing, against the wall.

Jim saw Rafe and Brown standing outside his bathroom door. He heard Simon's voice inside the bathroom. "God, doesn't this nightmare ever end," his Captain's voice lamented.

Jim couldn't stand it anymore. He sprang toward the bathroom and flew threw the doorway. His breath caught in his chest at the site before him.

"My God," he muttered.

Dr. Sarah Jennings, the regular department psychologist, laid nude in the bathtub, emersed in red water up to her shoulders. A yellow scarf was tied around her mouth. On the wall above the bathtub, a message was written in blood: Who am I now?

"Fuck," Jim hissed, his jaw clenched.

He caught site of something white inside the woman's mouth. He dashed into the kitchen and retreived a pair of latex gloves from beneath the sink before returning to the bathroom. Placing the gloves on his hands, he walked over to the corpse and pulled the scarf out of her mouth. Swallowing, he reached into her mouth and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Simon, Rafe, and Brown stared at him, too stunned to speak.

Jim carefully unfolded the piece of paper. In blue ink, a note was scribbled: There are pretenders among you.

Mechanically, he handed the note to Simon, who grabbed it gingerly by the corner. "Find Doctor Jarod Simmons." He felt his face growing hot with rage. "NOW!"

Rafe and Brown jumped at his outburst, and Rafe swiftly pulled out his cell phone as he turned to walk away from the bathroom.

Jim followed Rafe into the living room, listening distantly as his fellow officer called the station to inquire about Simmons. Jim walked past him, heading out to the hall. Blair remained slumped against the wall, his eyes closed.

Softly, Jim asked, "What happened here, Chief?"

Blair opened his eyes and gazed at Jim solemnly, his blue eyes wet. "I... I fell asleep on the couch. Your phone call woke me up." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes again. "I heard a sound in the bathroom... like water splashing... I, uh, went in to see what... that's what... " Blair's voice caught. "Oh God..." he muttered, sliding down the wall again.

Jim knelt down and put a firm hand on Blair's shoulder. The spalshing sound must have been the body shifting, he mused. "Did you see anyone, Chief? Did you hear anything else?"

Blair shook his head, keeping his eyes clamped tightly shut.

"Listen, Blair, there was nothing there when I left. Nothing. We both used the bathroom when we got home, and we were both in the loft up until I left... did you stay in the loft after I left? The whole time?"

Blair nodded.

Jim tightened his grip on Blair's shoulder. "So this happened while you were asleep? This happened and you didn't wake up? Someone put a body in the bathtub with you right in the living room?"

Blair's eyes shot open and he looked in horror at Jim. "I --"

Jim immediately regretted his words, and loosened his grip on Blair's shoulder. "God, I'm sorry, Chief. I didn't mean it like that." Brilliant, Ellison, blame the kid.

Blair brought his knees up to his chest and wrapped his hands around his legs. "Lash is dead, Jim. Isn't he?"

Jim brought his hand up to squeeze the back of Blair's neck. "Yes. He's dead. There's no way this is him, Blair."


Twenty minutes later the forensics team arrived to scour Jim's apartment. Five minutes after their arrival, two uniformed officers escorted Doctor Jarod Simmons to the scene. Jim and Blair stood in the hallway to give the forensics team room inside. The elevator doors opened to reveal Jarod Simmons with two officers on either side of him.

Jim glared at the man a full two seconds before hurling himself at him. He grabbed Simmons collar and slammed him against the wall. The two officers stood nervously behind him, apparently ready to interfere should Jim decide to end the man's life.

"Who are you," Jim growled, shaking him roughly. "Who the hell are you?!"

Jim smiled coldly as he heard Simmons heart pounding frantically. However, the man met Jim's fierce gaze with steady eyes. "My name is Jarod --"

Jim slammed him against the wall again. "Don't fuck with me. I'm not an idiot. You arrive as a temporary psychologist and start asking questions about Lash. Then, on the same day, I find a yellow scarf on my desk and a body in my bathtub." Jim felt himself shaking with rage and he tightened his grip on the mans collar. "Who are you really?"

"I had nothing to do with the murder," Jarod stated flatly.

With difficulty, Jim released his hold on Jarod. "You'd better start answering my questions."

"I received this," Jarod began, reaching into his jacket pocket.

Jim tensed, and Jarod hesitated, apparently noticing the reaction. "It's a piece of paper, detective," Jarod explained.

Jim slapped Jarod's hand away from his pocket and reached in with his own hand. He pulled out a folded piece of paper and opened it. It was the last page of his police report on Lash, and the word "Lash" had been scribbled with red ink in the center of the paper.

"Who gave this to you," Jim asked, his voice low.

Jarod's gaze and voice remained steady, though his heart rate was still accelerated. "I'm not sure."

Jim's hand shot up and he grabbed Jarod by the throat. The man gasped in surprise, and his body went rigid. "I really don't know, detective," he gasped.

One of the officers placed their hand on Jim's shoulder. "Uh... detective... I think you should let go of him."

Jim shot the young officer a deadly glare, then returned his attention to Jarod. "I had a background check done on you right after the scarf turned up at my desk. There is no record of a Jarod Simmons. Now our own Dr. Jennings is found dead, and you're in her place... just like Lash. You wanna explain that, or should I just save the taxpayers the court costs right now?"

Blair's soft voice broke through Jim's anger. "Hey, Jim, ease up. We've got him. He's not going anywhere."

Jim turned to look at Blair, whose face now looked a shade less pale. Jim listened to his guide's heart and respiration, glad to hear a more normal rhythm for each. Reluctantly, Jim released his hold on Jarod's neck, and the man immediately relaxed, bringing one hand up to rub his neck.

Jim looked at the young officer to his right and said, "Tell someone in there to bring out the note."

The man nodded and disappeared into the loft. Jarod cleared his throat and Jim turned his attention back to the fake psychologist.

"What note," Jarod asked.

Jim glared at him silently. A few seconds later, the officer emerged with a plastic baggie that contained a flattened piece of white paper. Jim snatched the item out of the officer's hand and held it in front of Jarod's face.

"Look familiar?" Jim's voice was low and strained.

Jarod peered at the writing on the paper, and his face immediately paled. He looked back at Jim and said, "You found this here?"

"Yeah, Sherlock," Jim snapped.

Jarod took a deep breath. "We'd better talk."

Jim flung the baggie back to the officer and grabbed hold of Jarod's collar again. "No, you sick bastard, you'd better talk... and now."

Jarod swallowed. "This will be somewhat difficult to explain.... and you won't believe me."

"Try me."

Jarod glanced at Blair, then at the two officers. Finally, he returned his gaze to Jim Ellison. "I am a pretender," he stated.


Jarod sat in the interrogation room, at a large brown table, with one irate Jim Ellison towering over him.

"How did you come to be Dr. Jennings' replacement," Jim asked, leaning forward as he pressed his hands down on the table. He intended his posture to intimidate, but he noted with annoyance that Jarod's heart rate remained calm and steady.

Jarod gazed up at him with amiable brown eyes. "You'd be surprised what money can buy," he stated.

Jim scowled. "Fake id's, tampering with police records, murder... and the list goes on. You're going away for a very long time."

"Just as soon as you find out who I am. Right?" A small smile played at the edges of Jarods lips.

Jim slammed a hand down on the table. "It would go a lot easier on you if you'd cooperate."

Jarod released a small sigh. "I am trying, detective. I didn't kill Doctor Jennings and I had nothing to do with placing the scarf at your desk."

Jim leaned closer to Jarod. "Of course not. I forgot. You're a pretender." He took a deep breath and peered at the man with cold eyes. "You want to explain that?"

Jarod's heart rate finally increased, but just slightly. His face took on a somber expression, and his eyes suddenly betrayed a mixture of emotion: anger and sorrow. "I wish I could, but you'd find it hard to believe... and I'd be putting your life jeopardy."

Jim yanked a chair away from the table and sat down. "I'm a big boy who can take care of himself. Now spill it."

Jarod stared at Jim for a full three seconds, then slowly shook his head. "Not here. Not on the record. I'll explain it to you, but privately."

Jim chuckled. "Yeah, that'll work. Maybe I haven't made the procedure clear--"

"Then you'll get nothing except another dead body," Jarod interrupted.


Jim and Blair sat opposite of Simon at his desk as the Captain sipped the morning's first cup of coffee.

"You want to tell me how something like this could happen, Sir," Ellison asked, his hands clenched on the arms of the chair.

Simon shook his head and removed his glasses. He rubbed his eyes and said, "They had high-level government identification and removed him from custody."

"Just like that?" Blair looked back and forth between Jim and Simon. "How can they do that? What about the murder? Are they going to prosecute him?"

Simon shot Sandburg an annoyed glance and replied, "I have no idea. They're not releasing any information, and I can't even verfiy which government agency they work for. Couple that with the fact that we have no evidence on him thanks to a spic-and-span crime scene, and we don't have anything to fight with. The government wants him, they get him."

Jim opened his mouth, but was cut off by the the ringing telephone on the desk. With a scowl, Simon picked up the receiver.

"Banks here." He listened quietly, his brow furrowing deeper with each passing seconds. "Did you find a note?"

Jim resisted the temptation to listen into Simon's conversation, but his knuckles turned white as he tightened his grip on the arms of the chair. A note? If he's asking about a note, that must mean another body has turned up.... Damn....

Simon slammed the phone down onto the base and looked up at Jim. "Another body. 818 Avenue B. Let's go."

All three men rushed out of the precinct. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the scene. Jim dashed out of the truck and walked quickly to the open door of the small brick house that had just become a crime scene. Blair followed closely behind, glancing at a small, teary-eyed woman on the sidewalk who was talking to two uniformed officers. As Jim and Blair entered the living room, Jim stopped and turned around, fixing a stern gaze on Blair.

"Wait right here," Jim said.

Blair nodded and gazed at the scene in the living room: members of the forensics team busied themselves dusting for fingerprints and searching the carpet for strands of hair or drops of blood. Jim headed off toward the an open door that lead, he assumed, to the bathroom. A uniformed officer emerged from the bathroom and nodded at Ellison on his way out. Blair watched the young officer rush toward the front door, his face pale. I know just how you feel, buddy. He took a certain amount of pleasure in seeing an actual cop loose his composure in the face of death. So, it's not just me. That's a relief.

Blair stayed as far away from the bathroom as possible, trying to keep himself calm. Remarkably, he was doing a pretty good job of it... this was just another crime scene... forensics people scouring the room... no body... no blood... not as long as he didn't see it.

He swallowed. Jim was in there. Jim was seeing it.... and what if he started to zone out? Blair knew the sentinel would be using his senses in an attempt to pick up evidence the forensics team might miss, and that, combined with what most probably was a very gruesome and foul-smelling atmosphere, might be a bit too much for him. Maybe he should go in there and check on Jim. He took a step toward the bathroom, then froze. Heck, Jim could hear him, so there really was no need for him to go in there.

"Jim," Blair yelled. "Things going okay in there?" Of course, he hadn't needed to raise his voice, but he figured he'd get a few strange looks from the forensics folks if he looked like he was carrying on a conversation with himself.

After a few seconds, Jim's voice replied, "Yeah, Chief. No problem. Stay out there."

Not a problem, Blair thought.

A few minutes later, Jim came out of the bathroom and walked stiffly up to Blair.

"You okay, big guy," Blair asked.

Jim nodded. "Same as the others," he said.

"Man or woman?"

"A man," Jim replied curtly.

Blair swallowed. "Anyone we know?"

Jim shook his head. "No one I know. The woman outside, his wife, reported the body. His name is Dr. Steve Acosta--"

Blair's face paled, stopping Jim in mid-sentence.

"What is it, Chief? You know him?"

Blair swallowed, then nodded. Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "How?"

Blair ran one hand over his eyes, rubbing his face. "I... uh... he's a professor at Rainier." His mouth suddenly felt dry. "I taught one of his classes last year."
 
Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder and said, "I'm sorry, Chief."

Blair nodded and turned toward the front door. "Yeah. If you don't mind, I'm gonna--"

"Sure, no problem. Go right ahead," Jim said, keeping a concerned gaze on the back of his retreating friend.

Blair stepped outside and took a deep breath. He wrapped his arms around his chest in an attempt to quell the shivers running up and down his body. He glanced briefly at the grief-stricken widow still standing outside, now with a different officer. With a sad sigh, he headed off on a walk down the block. He had to put a little bit of distance between himself and the house... not far enough to worry Jim... but he needed a little bit of space to clear his head. He turned the corner, wanting to put himself out of visual range of the house, but still close enough for Jim to find him.

He'd walked three blocks, lost in thought, before the screaching of rubber against pavement brought him to awareness. He looked up to see a gray sedan on the curb directly in front of him. The driver side door opened and a medium-built man with dark hair and fair, smooth skin leaped out of the car. Before Blair could react, the man raised a syringe and plunged it into the base of his neck, just above his left shoulder. Blair stumbled back, opening his mouth to yell for help, but he found himself falling face-first to the pavement with the words still clutched in his throat as darkness enveloped him.


Jim finished inspecting the living room, using his senses to probe for fingerprints, blood, hair, or any other minute scraps of evidence. Remarkably, the place was completely clean. They'd found the victim in the bathtub again, with another scarf tied around his mouth. There was also another note stuffed in his mouth, but its message was too cryptic for Jim to make any sense of: Red File #4.

Red File? What the hell is that, Jim wondered. With a small shake of his head, he decided to step outside and check on his partner. Maybe Blair could offer some insight as to why his professor had become the killer's latest victim.

As he stepped onto the sidewalk, he noticed immediately that Blair was nowhere to be seen. A few officers roamed the premises outside, searching the front yard for clues. Another officer stood with the widow, offering comfort and taking down the last of her statement.

With a frown, Jim focused his hearing, attempting to pick up the sound of Blair's voice, steps, or, at least, heartbeat. He filtered out the widow's voice and, one by one, the hushed words of the officers at the crime scene. He picked up the sound of a gasp, followed by a heavy thud.

Damn. Knowing Blair's penchant for trouble, that was probably him. He took off in a run, focusing his hearing further -- risking a zone out -- until he could hear Blair's heart beat. Got it! He rounded the corner, but caught only a brief glimpse of a grey car turning the corner a few blocks up ahead.


The first sensation that registered in Blair's semi-conscious mind was pain: seering, throbbing pain behind his eyes. He released a low groan and opened his eyes. He immediately regretted the action when a sharp stab of light sent a bolt of agony through his skull. He clenched his eyes shut. He took two deep breaths and decided to try moving other parts of his body, though his arms and legs felt like lead. He wiggled the fingers on his right hand, then his left. At least something's working. He tried to lift his right arm, but it wouldn't budge. One by one, he tried the same thing with each of his other three limbs, but found that he couldn't move any of them. Why can't I move? Where am I? What happened.... oh.... oh yeah... glimpses of memory flashed in his brain. A grey car. A man. A needle. I was kidnapped? Yeah, that was it, someone had abducted him. But who? And Why?

He attempted to swallow, but realized he had no saliva in his mouth, or at least, not enough to swallow. The onset of that sensation brought with it an intense desire for water, but he knew he wasn't likely to be getting anything to drink soon. With the implications of that realization, his chest became tight. God, what's going to happen to me? Does Jim even have a clue where I am? He felt the pounding of his heart through his entire body, from his toes to his fingers, and he could have sworn his body rocked slightly with each intense beat.

"It's about time you woke up," a male voice said.

Blair turned his head to the right, toward the source of the voice. He opened his mouth, but the dryness of his mouth and throat prevented the formation of words.

"I suppose you're wondering the usual. Where are you? Who am I? Why did I kidnap you? What am I going to do with you?" He paused. "Well, I'll tell you. No secret. My name is Garret and you're currently in my custody, and at the moment we're in a nice little secluded cabin on the outskirts of Cascade. Oh, don't worry, no one's gonna find us. Now, why did I kidnap you? That's pretty simple. You see, I'm engaged in a little project... call it a pet project, if you will. I won't get into the details, it's a bit hard to believe. Suffice it to say, you were one of Lash's victims, but, fortunately for me, you have the distinction of being the only living victim." The man paused, and Blair heard the agonizing sound of him sipping liquid.

"That's quite an honor, by the way," he continued. "At any rate, Lash and I have.. or had... something in common. Do you want to know what that is?" A pause. "Of course you do... don't worry about not being able to talk, the effects of the drug will wear off shortly. Anyway, Lash was a pretender. So am I. The only difference is that, while Lash was bagged, tagged, and released, I was bagged, tagged, and kept captive. You see, there's a group of people out there trying to find and duplicate pretenders, people with the ability to become anyone. Unfortunately, David was just a bit too unusable for the center, so they apparently decided to use him as a control. You know, see how he'd develop outside in the real world. Me and a few others, we were kept in the center. There have only been very few legitmate pretenders, and the Center is very eager to hold onto the ones that exist."

The voice paused as the man took another sip of water. Blair found himself unable to concentrate on anything but the incredible dryness in his mouth and throat. And he knows just what he's doing to me, Blair thought.

"Anyway, where were we? Oh, I suppose you now want to know what all this has to do with you and why I've kidnapped you? Well, you see, let's just put it this way. Thanks to the Center, my neurons have been scrambled. Yep, the simple answer is: I'm a psycho -- just like Lash. Okay, I'm one pissed off psycho. You see, by copy-catting Lash, at least to a degree, I get the attention of the Center... oh, yeah, I escaped... guess I forgot to mention that. Anyway, uh, where was I...? Um... copycatting, right... okay, so I get the attention of the Center and of one highly-sought-after project known as Jarod. Jarod, who you've met, is also a pretender... a natural pretender whose brain the center never had to mess with.. at least not biochemically, anyway, though, between you and me, the guy has issues... major issues... then again, who wouldn't raised by a bunch of suit-paper-pushing psychos."

The man chuckled and took long sip of his drink. "Aaah. This is soooo refreshing. It's rasberry ice tea, just the right amount of sweetness, very cold. Well, anyway, I'm getting off the subject. So, back to you and me and the Center. Now, like I said, I want to get the attention of both Jarod and the Center. Why? Well, let's say that, one, I'm looking for a little pay-back and this is the absolutely perfect way for me to work through my anger and expose the center. You see, serial killers get big press, and Lash got an awful lot of press. So, once the cameras start rolling, I'll start leaving more notes... only this time it'll be with the press. You know, sort of like the Unabomber's Manifesto. I'll let the world in on the Center's little secret. How they kidnap children, brainwash them, use them, destroy them. That's a very un-pc thing to do these days, don't you know? I'm sure a lot of people will be upset. Don't you? Oh, but then I kinda need proof, don't I? Well, that brings me to point number two, which is..... uh.... damn, what the hell was my point number two.... let me think, for a second....." He took another long sip of his drink.

"Aaaah. Yes. Point number two. You see, for proof, I need someone whose brain isn't scrambled. That would be Jarod. He's not exactly buddy-buddy with the Center, either, so I'm sure he won't mind backing me up on the story. Okay, so that may or may not interfere with his oh-so-heart-wrenching quest for mommy and daddy, but, hey, life's a bitch, ain't it? Anyway, once I have Jarod in on this, and I combine that with the rest of the evidence I've managed to gather... you know, photos, tapes, names, that sort of thing... I think I'll have enough to raise a few eyebrows. What do you think?"

Blair still couldn't talk, and, even if he could, he wasn't about to offer any suggestions. Not like he could offer any suggestions, even if he had a clue about what this psycho was talking about.

"Confused," the man asked. "Hell, don't worry. It's all very confusing. Anyway, like I said, all you have to really know is I'm angry, I'm insane, and I'm looking for a little revenge. So, okay, maybe my methods aren't the most effective, but, like I said, I've got a bit of anger to work through and, well, quite frankly, killing people and doing this Lash thing is kind of fun. It's what the Center made me, anyway, so don't even try pinning this on me. I was a fairly normal kid before they got ahold of me. At any rate, now we're back to you... you see, you are the only living witness to how Lash worked... I mean really worked. You had a very intimate relationship with him... you know... victim to psycho kinda thing. So, I thought I'd get the low-down from you and, at the same time, pick up where he left off. Having your body turn up will be sure to get the media in a frenzy. Can you see the headlines: Lash's only living victim killed by copy-cat killer. I know, this isn't exactly good news for you... and, God knows, this serial killer thing has been done to death. You know, I've read up on you... all those police reports. Let's see, you've been kidnapped, drugged, shot, stuck in an elevator, had your apartment blown up... God, kid, I mean, what did you do? Piss off some ancient deity? At any rate, I've decided that, in honor of your death, I shall bestow upon you the "It sucks to be me" award. I even had a little plaque made up, and I'll be sure they find it with your body. How does that sound?"

Again, Blair remained silent, not even attempting to speak. Now, if the guy would just give him a sip of that ice tea, maybe he could manage to croak out a "fuck you," but he wasn't going to hold his breath. He did, however, want to get a look at this nutcase. Slowly, he opened his eyes, bracing himself against the piercing pain caused by the light in the room. Fortunately, the pain was less severe than it had been the first time, and he was able to see that the source of the light was a dim lightbulb hanging nakedly from the ceiling. He shifted his gaze and saw a blurry image of his captor: a medium-built man with dark hair. Blair blinked, trying to clear his vision. Slowly, the man's face came into focus. He had fair, smooth skin and green eyes. He looked to be in his late twenties, but his eyes possessed a child-like quality.

The man smiled. "Ah, I see you can open your eyes now. That's pretty--"

His voice was cut off by a loud crash. The noise sent a streak of pain through his head, and he clenched his eyes again, releasing a groan.

"What the--?" the man started, but his words were cut off by another crash, followed by a thud.

Blair took in the sounds of what he now recognized as a struggle. He breathed a sigh of relief. Jim! Oh, thank you! I swear I'll never complain about your colored tupperware again!

The struggle continued for several minutes, punctuated by grunts, curses, and an occasional scream. Blair listened intently, wanting desparately to hear Jim's voice, but his head still pounded and the only voice that reached his ears was that of his captor uttering sproradic profanities. Another loud crash sounded, and he heard two bodies hit the ground. The sound was immediately followed by another thud, then a gasp, and, finally, running footsteps that faded away gradually as one of the men made a hasty retreat. Blair's heart skipped a beat. Was Jim hurt? Had his captor killed him and took off in panic? Blair knew there was no way Jim would turn tail and run, so that meant his captor had to be the one fleeing, which meant the thud had probably been Jim going down. God, oh God, let him be okay. Blair opened his mouth, trying to call Jim's name, but his throat was still too dry and he only managed an intelligible croak.

"Easy, there, it's okay," a semi-familiar voice soothed -- not his captor, but not Jim.

Blair's stomach clenched into a knot, and he opened his eyes. Where's Jim, he wondered. The face of Jarod Simmons swirled into view. The man looked down at him with concerned eyes, his lips pursed in an anxious smile.

"You're going to be okay, Mr. Sandburg," Jarod said.

Blair felt something tug at his right wrist, and he looked down, just then realizing that he was strapped to a table. Jarod's hands worked quickly to unbuckle the leather straps. Within seconds, Blair's right hand was free. A minute later, all the straps were undone.

Jarod put a hand on Blair's shoulder and offered a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Mr. Sandburg, help is already on the way," he explained. Then, without another word, he turned and ran out of the building.


Jim slammed his fist down on his desk. "Damnit!"

Rafe, who was on his way back to his own desk, almost jumped out of his shoes at the outburst. He turned and walked over to Jim.

"Ellison, you're driving yourself crazy," Rafe said. "We'll find the kid. There are half a dozen officers scouring the neighborhood, talking to people. Something'll turn up soon."

Ellison shot Rafe a cold glare, then his expression softened when he saw the anxious look on the officer's face. Jim shook his head. "Sorry, Rafe... it's just that... Damnit, I saw him. If I'd been a few seconds earlier, I could've prevented it. It's bad enough that I lost that son of a bitch when I had him in my sights..." He plopped down in his chair and rubbed his face.

"C'mon, Ellison, we don't even know if that car had Sandburg--" Rafe cut himself off when Jim shot him another deadly glance.

"It did," Jim stated, his voice flat. "I know it did. There was no other sign of Sandburg."

He didn't tell Rafe that his sentinel vision had picked up an otherwise invisible speck of blood on the sidewalk near the location that he'd seen the car. The drop was too small for him to tell for sure if it was Sandburg's blood, at least, not without his partner present to guide his senses. Still, his instincts told him that the blood belonged to Sandburg and that the car had carried Sandburg away from the scene.

The door to Simon's office flew open and he dashed into the bullpen, his eyes fixed on Jim. "I just got an anonymous phone call saying Sandburg's at 2103 Crick Hollow Road."

Jim's heart practically leaped into his throat, and he jumped out of the chair, running behind Simon as the two of them dashed out of bullpen.

Once outside, Simon ordered Jim to ride with him. Jim opened his mouth to protest, but Simon raised his hand, cutting him off.

"If you want to come, you're with me. There's no way I'm letting you drive in your condition. Now, move," Simon bellowed.

Jim shut his mouth and flung himself into the passenger seat as Simon slammed his door and started the engine.

"What did the caller say," Jim asked.

"Just that we could find Sandburg at that address," Simon responded. "Then he hung up."

"Did he say if.... if he was alive?"

Simon shook his head. "No, sorry, Jim. That's all the guy said. An ambulance is on it's way, though."

Jim's jaw clenched, and he turned turned to look out the window. "How far?"

"About thirty minutes," Simon replied.

"Go faster, Simon... please," Jim pleaded, sparing his Captain a pleading glance.

Simon swallowed and pushed the accelerator, his siren lights pulsing obnoxiously as the car barreled down the highway.

Twenty minutes later, Simon screeched to a halt outside of a small cabin on a rural road. The numbers 2103 were painted on a cedar mailbox a few yards away from the house, just off the road. Jim leaped out of the car even before it came to a complete stop.

Simon jumped out of the car. "Jim! Damnit, wait for backup!"

Jim ignored him, and, with gun in hand, dashed into the cabin. His sensitive ears picked up the faint sound of a heartbeat. He listened more closely, searching for another heartbeat, but the cabin was otherwise silent. With his own heart pounding in his chest, he ran toward that single sound. He came to a door, half-open, at the end of a small hallway. Cautiously, he moved into the room, gasping when he caught site of Sandburg laying unconscious on a rectangular table in the center of the room. Stacks of papers were strewn all over the place, and the broken remains of a chair littered the floor, indicating a struggle.

Jim holstered his gun and walked over to Blair, placing a hand on his guide's shoulder. He leaned close to Blair, looking at the unbuckled straps, and swallowed, grinding his teeth. He heard footsteps in the hall, and, two seconds later, Simon rushed into the room.

"Damnit, Jim--" his jaw fell open and he stared at Blair. "Is he... ?"

Jim looked at Simon. "He's alive. His pulse is steady."

Simon sighed. "Thank God."

Jim turned his attention back to Blair. "Hey, Chief," he said, shaking his parnter's shoulder gently. "C'mon, buddy, wake up."

Blair stirred and groaned.

"It's Jim. I'm right here. C'mon, wake up, Blair," Jim said, his voice low and soothing.

Blair's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at Jim. His brow furrowed and he blinked, apparently trying to clear his vision. He opened his mouth and his lips moved, but it took Sentinel hearing to pick up the almost inaudible word that escaped Blair's throat. "Jim?"
 
Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder. "It's okay, buddy. I'm right here." He heard sirens in the distance. "You'll be out of here in no time, Chief."


Jim sat on an uncomfortable vinyl chair next to Blair's hospital bed. He had the television turned low as he watched the last twenty minutes of the evening news. A soft moan reached his ears and he hit the mute button as he turned to Blair.

"Hey, Chief, you waking up?"

Blair produced another soft moan.

"C'mon, partner, you've gotta get your lazy butt outta bed sometime," Jim teased.

Blair's eyelids lifted, revealing sparkling blue eyes. Jim smiled and reached out to grab Blair's hand. The younger man stared at Jim for a few seconds, then his fingers clasped around Jim's hand.

"Hey," Blair croaked.

"It's about time!" Jim smiled, squeezing Blair's hand.

Blair managed a small, brief smile. Then his eyes narrowed. "What.... happened?"

"It's okay, buddy. Don't worry about that now," Jim told him.

Blair's brow furrowed and his breathing quickened. Jim heard the steady beeping of the heartmonitor speed up, and he knew the most likely cause of Blair's distress was the return of unpleasant memories.

"Easy, Chief," Jim said, placing his free hand on Blair's shoulder.

"How long," Blair croaked.

"Have you been out?"

Blair nodded. "Uh-huh. And since he got me."

"You were abducted this morning. We found you about four hours later at a cabin outside of the city. That was about five hours ago, buddy," Jim explained.

"What did he give me," Blair asked, his voice soft and drowsy.

"Don't worry. It was just a sedative, Chief. He dosed you up pretty good, though," Jim said, failing to mention that the dosage had almost been too high.

Blair tried to sit up, but he'd only managed to lift himself a few inches before he groaned and fell back against the bed. "Oh man," he sighed.

Jim smiled. "And let that be a lesson to you."

"Stop ganging up on me," Blair muttered.

"Huh?"

"All three of you, man," Blair explained.

Jim chuckled and patted Blair on the shoulder. "Look on the bright side, at least now you have three subjects for your dissertation."

Blair smiled and closed his eyes. "One is more than enough, thank you." He swallowed and brought his hand up to his throat. "Could I have some water?"

Jim stood from his chair and turned to walk into the bathroom, but Blair's grip on his hand remained surprisingly firm. He stopped and turned back to Blair, covering the young man's hand with his own.

"I'm just going to get water, buddy. You're going to have to let go for me to do that," Jim said in his most reassuring voice.

Blair's grip immediately relaxed, but his eyes remained closed.  Jim slipped his hand out and headed toward the bathroom, energing a few seconds later with a cup of water and straw. He gently lifted Blair's head and placed the straw on his lips. Blair opened his eyes and took three greedy sips of water, then turned his head away.

"Thanks, Jim."

"No problem, Chief," Jim said, as he put the cup down on the table next to the bed.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"I think Jarod Simmons was there."

Jim straightened. "He's not getting away, Blair, I promise you."

"No, no... I mean, Jarod took out the guy who kidnapped me. I remember a struggle... I thought it was you... Then he was standing over me telling me everything was going to be okay. He said help was on the way." Blair's breathing became labored, the semi-lengthy explanation obviously putting him out of breath.

Jim gave Blair's shoulder another reassuring pat. "Take it easy, Chief. We'll talk about this later."

Blair's story didn't make much sense, but he was still under the effects of the drug. Furthermore, he had been heavily sedated at the cabin. His memories could hardly be considered reliable under the circumstances.

Blair shook his head, his breathing more controlled, but still ragged. "No, it it was Jarod. You don't believe me?" He fixed tired, pleading eyes on his partner.

"Just go back to sleep, Chief," Jim said. Now was not the time to get into an argument.

Blair closed his eyes and swallowed. "How did you find me," he asked, his voice soft and scratchy.

Jim frowned. The kid just wouldn't give up. "An anonymous tip."

Blair smiled and opened his eyes slowly. "Jarod."

Jim took a deep breath. "If you say so."

"I saw the ki--" Blair's voice trailed off as his eyes fluttered shut.

"Later, kid," Jim sighed as he plopped back down in the chair.

Jim turned the volume back up on the television, still keeping it so low that only his sensitive ears could pick up the sound clearly. He watched the last few minutes of the news mindlessly, seeing the images and hearing the words, but failing to register any of it. Within a few moments, he was snoring softly in his chair, his head hanging forward with his chin against his chest.


Simon took a puff of his cigar as he grabbed the plain manila envelope off his desk and opened it. He pulled out a single piece of paper and slowly took the cigar out of his mouth, his eyes transfixed on the image before him. Sketched in colored pencil was the face of a man, in his mid to late twenties, with green eyes and dark hair. A post-it note was stuck to the top right corner of the drawing, and, scribbled in black ink, were the words: The Killer.

Damn. Simon had no idea who had left the envelope. Apparently, it had been left in his box in the mail room with his name scrawled on the front. He picked up his phone and called down to the mailroom, intent on questioning everyone on duty, hoping he'd get lucky and find someone who'd seen the mysterious messenger.


Jim's cell phone rang, jarring him from a fitful slumber. He straightened and winced. His neck, shoulders, and back felt painfully stiff, and the second ring of the phone echoed painfully in his skull. Swiftly, he grabbed the phone and pressed the TALK button.

"Ellison," he said.

Simon's voice sounded urgently in his ear. "You won't believe this, but it looks like either or killer is playing games, or we have a mysterious ally."

"What happened," Jim asked, keeping his voice low to avoid waking Blair.

"I received an envelope on my desk about 20 minutes ago. Inside was a sketch of our supposed killer. Someone left this in the mailroom, but there's only one gal down there now working late." He sighed. "I'd forgotten how late it was, so I guess this will have to wait til tomorrow."

"I take it the gal on duty doesn't know who left it?"

"Nope," Simon replied. "Anyway, I'm on my way out. How's Sandburg?"

"Just fine, Sir. Sleeping like a baby," Jim said.

"Has he come to yet?"

"Yes, sir. Briefly. That's one powerful sedative he was given."

"Not the same one Lash used," Simon observed.

"No. Apparently the killer needed or wanted him out longer," Jim speculated.

"Did he manage to say if he saw the guy? The face I have here isn't Jarod Simmons."

Jim sighed. "I don't know how seriously to take what he said, Sir, given his condition, but he claims that Simmons rescued him."

Silence met him on the other end. After a few seconds, Simon grunted. "This is getting weird." Jim heard Simon take a puff on his cigar. "Well, I'll get the handwriting on the envelope and note compared to Simmons' first thing tomorrow."

"Very good, Sir," Ellison sighed, rubbing the back of his neck in an attempt to work out a cramp.

"Ellison," Simon said. "Go home and get some sleep. I'll send a uniform over to guard Sandburg."

Jim shook his head, even though the gesture was lost on Simon. "Not necessary, Simon. The doc said Sandburg could be released in a couple of hours, so I'll be staying here til then."

"Okay, Ellison, but you two sleep in tomorrow. I don't want to see either of your ugly faces in here tomorrow," Simon ordered.

"But the drawing--"

"I'll let you know what the handwriting results are. Until then, you stay home with Sandburg. Got that?"

Jim clenched his jaw. He didn't want to leave Sandburg at the loft tomorrow, even with a guard, but he also didn't want to just sit on his rump while that psycho was still on the loose. Still, he knew the kid would need him tomorrow. God knows having this Lash re-run wasn't going to help his emotional stability any.

"Yes, Sir," Jim said finally.

"Good. Goodnight, Jim," Simon said, his voice taking on a gentle quality.

"Goodnight, Simon."



 
The woman at the lonely pharmacy window looked up to see a young man with gorgeous green eyes staring at her. She flushed instantly and smiled. "Uh... can I help you, Sir," she stammered.

His face broke into a warm smile and he handed her a piece of paper. "I'm here to pick up a prescription, Ma'am," he said.

She glanced down at the paper he held out to her and reached out to grab it. That was when she felt a tiny stab of pain in her arm, followed by darkness.


Jim opened the door to the loft and moved aside to let Blair enter ahead of him. The younger man shuffled inside, and headed straight for the couch. With a tired sigh, he plopped down on the cushins and closed his eyes.

"Man, I'm wiped," he said.

Jim walked in and closed the door, tossing his keys in the basket. "You should be. Now go to bed."

Blair looked over his shoulder and cast a smile at Jim. "Let me just watch some t.v. I'm tired, but I feel like I've been sleeping for decades."

"How's your stomach. Want some tea?"

Blair shook his head, grabbing the remote and flicking on the television. "No tea, thanks. My stomach's still a bit queesy."

Jim took off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack. He reached into the jacket pocket and retrieved a small bottle of prescription pills. He opened the top and spilled two pills into his palm.

"No, way, Jim. I definitely do not need more drugs in my system right now," Blair protested.

"The doc said to take these to settle your stomach and combat the lingering effects of the sedative," Jim insisted, "and that's what you're going to do."

"A little upset stomach never killed anybody, big guy," Blair insisted. "Lay off the mother hen act."

Jim dropped the pills back into the bottle, closed the lid, and set the bottle on the kitchen table. He walked over to Blair, snatched the remote control, and turned off the television.

"Then off to bed you go, Junior," Jim insisted.

Blair threw Jim an evil look, then studiously began to exam the couch around him. He patted each of the pillows, stuck his hand down the back of the cushion, and then leaned over to scan the floor.

Jim's brow furrowed and he peered over to look at the floor. "What are you looking for, Chief?"

Blair released a frustrated sigh. "My pacifier man, I seem to have dropped it." He punctuated his sarcastic tone with another glance back at Jim.

That earned him a cuff on the head. "Smartass," Jim muttered.


Blair awoke early the next morning to smell of bacon and a grumbling stomach. He inhaled a deep breath, savoring the tempting smell. Okay, so it's greasy and unhealthy, but it sure smells good... and I can't even remember when I ate last.

He yawned and slid out of bed. Still a bit groggy, he slipped his feet into some slippers and shuffled into the kitchen in his sweats and T-shirt. Jim looked up and smiled.

"Well, you're up early," he observed.

Blair smiled and stifled another yawn. "God knows why. I'm still tired, but I guess my hunger overrode my fatigue."

Jim tilted his head and wiggled his eyebrows, mimicking the gesture his young friend so often made. "Just can't resist my scrumptious, unhealthy cookin', eh Chief?"

Blair snickered. "Just shut up and serve me a plate."

"Watch it or you'll get it in your face instead of your mouth," Jim warned, his eyes sparkling.

Blair stuck his tongue out and plopped himself down at the kitchen table. Another yawn escaped him, and he covered his mouth.

"How are you feeling today," Jim inquired.

Blair shrugged. "Still a bit drowsly. Damn, what the hell was that sedative? It wasn't the same thing Lash used on me. It felt different."

Jim's face grew serious, and he stared studiously at the bacon as he plopped two pieces on a plate. "Nothing to worry about now, Chief."

"There's something you're not telling me, Jim," Blair observed.

Jim looked up at Blair, studying the young man silently for several seconds. Finally, he sighed and placed the plate of bacon and eggs in front of Blair. "Listen, Chief, I just wanted to make sure you were out of the woods before telling you."

"What?"

"You came within a hair's inch of dying from that drug. The doctors said your system was so full of it, you were on the verge of cardiac arrest."

Blair swallowed and looked down at his plate. He shrugged as he stabbed a piece of bacon with the fork. "Well, I suppose that would have been a blessing, under the circumstances... but --" he looked up at Jim, "I didn't die, and I'm fine, so you can stop giving yourself an ulcer."

Jim looked unconvinced, but he sat down at the table with his own plate. "Too late for that," he said. "Since I've known you, my stomach's developed so many holes it could water the lawn."

"Really bad joke, Jim. We've got to work on your sense of humor," Blair teased, trying to lighten the mood.

Jim smiled. "I've got the overactive senses, you've got the overactive attitude," Jim responded.

Blair smiled and looked over at the fridge. "Gee, nothing to drink with this," he complained. "Man, it's hard to get good help these days. Some nurse-hen you are!"

Jim rose from his chair with a smirk. He grabbed two cups and placed them on the table. Quickly, he walked past Blair, tugged one of his curls, and opened the fridge.

"Ow! No beating up on the recently hospitalized," Blair complained.

"Keep up the lip, Junior, and you'll find yourself with a buzz-cut."

Jim pulled the orange juice out of the fridge and filled the two cups. He replaced the juice, closed the door, and sat back down at the table, carefully avoiding Blair's indignant gaze.

Blair took a sip of his juice as he studied Jim. He certainly didn't want to dampen the mood, but he was itching to get through the inevitable. With an inward sigh, he cleared his throat.

"Uh, so, when are we going to the station to give my statement," he asked.

Jim looked up at him. "Simon doesn't want to see us today, but he called earlier this morning and said he'd be dropping by to take care of that and...." his voice trailed off.

Blair's eyes narrowed and he leaned closer to Jim. "And what?"

Jim took a sip of his juice. "He's going to show you a picture of the man suspected in the killings."

"Don't you guys still think Simmons did it?"

Jim shrugged. "I do. Simon does, but this puts a twist in things... and..."

"And what I said last night," Blair finished. "I meant it, Jim. It wasn't the drugs. Simmons fought the guy, then unbuckled me. He's the one who tipped you off to my location."

Jim sighed. "That makes no sense."

"None of this makes any sense!" Blair threw his hands in the air and glanced up at the ceiling. "This man is a maniac. He doesn't follow any kind of logic. He's in his own world."

"What do you remember," Jim asked.

Blair stood up and walked toward the couch. "Not much." He began pacing. "Not much at all. I went for a walk after...well, I had to get away from that house," he explained. "I didn't mean to go very far, but I got kinda lost in thought. A car drove up and some guy jumped out." He stopped pacing and rubbed his temple. "I... The, uh, the next thing I remember is waking up thirsty. Some guy was talking to me, but I can't remember a word he said... no.... wait... he mentioned Lash... and.... something about a center." Blair shook his head. "The next thing I know, there's a loud noise.... sounds of a struggle... then Jarod's standing over me undoing the straps and telling me that I'm going to be fine... helps on its way."

"Jarod? You're on a first-name basis now," Jim observed, his tone clipped.

Blair looked up at Jim, his brow furrowed. "No... uh... that's... wait!" he punched the back of the couch. "That's what the guy kept calling him. Jarod. He kept saying something about Jarod and the center."

"What about this 'center,'" Jim prodded.

Blair sighed and shook his head. "I don't know man," he sighed. "I can't remember. I'm sorry."
 
"Don't be, Chief," Jim said. "With the amount of sedative he dosed you with, it's amazing you remember anything."

Blair nodded absently, then plopped down on the couch. He rested his head back against the cushion and sighed. "Yeah, but tell that to the family of his next victim. If only I could... I don't know... "

Blair was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. Since he was closest to it, he reached over and grabbed the receiver.

"Hello?"

A familiar voice emanated from the receiver. "How are you feeling, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Simmons?"

Jim stiffened and tuned his ears to the conversation.

"Jarod. As you know by now, Simmons is just an alias."

"What do you want," Blair asked, his voice steady.

"I think I know who the next victim's going to be."

Blair swallowed. "Who?"

"One of your students. Timothy Robbins."

Blair suddenly felt light-headed. "How do you know? And why tell me instead of Captain Banks or another officer?"

"Because I saved your life. I'm hoping you'll believe me."

"It doesn't matter, man. Even if Banks doesn't believe you, he'll have to act on it as a precaution," Blair reasoned.

"Yes, I know, whether he still believes me to be the killer or not... but there's another reason I'm telling you," Jarod said.

Blair straightened. "What's that?"

"He's still targeting you. Professor Acosta -- you worked with him. Now he's going after one of your students. He'll make another attempt on your life soon, I'm sure of it."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure. Did he say anything to you while he had you?" Jarod sounded genuinely concerned.

Blair shrugged, realizing the gesture was enacted in vain. "I can't remember much. He mentioned something about a 'center'. He also... he said something about trying to... uh..." Blair's brow furrowed as he tried to recall the details of Garret's monologue. "It's fuzzy, but I think he was trying to work against the center... expose it... something about using children."

Blair heard Jarod take a deep, slow breath. "We need to talk."

Blair looked at Jim, seeking direction from the older man. Should he agree to meet Jarod? Jim would use the meeting as a set-up to bring Jarod into custody, but Blair didn't think that was the best course of action. Jarod had saved Blair from Garret, and he was therefore inclined to believe in the man's sincerity.

Jim nodded, holding Blair's gaze. Blair bit his lower lip, feeling uncertain about the right course of action. Finally, he turned away from Jim and spoke into the receiver. "Where do you want to meet?"

"The park near that hotdog stand you frequent... there's something I'd like to show you. One hour."

Blair glanced back at Jim, lowering the receiver and covering the mouthpiece with his hand.

"Jim," Blair whispered. "I don't want to do this if you're going to take him in."

Jim's jaw clenched and he stared at Blair in disbelief. "Listen, Chief, I don't know what this guy has you believing, but whether he's a murderer or not, he needs to be brought in for questioning."

Blair shook his head. "Something tells me that wouldn't be right, man."

Jim sighed and threw a glance toward the ceiling. "Just agree to meet him, Sandburg."

Blair swallowed and raised the phone back to his face. "Okay."

"Good." The connection terminated.

Jim immediately grabbed the phone and dialed Simon.


Thirty minutes later, Blair and Jim arrived at the park and sat down on the bench they had occupied the other day. Jim looked over his shoulder at the vacant street corner.

"Strange. Bill's had that cart there every day for the past two years," Jim observed.

Blair glanced back at the street corner and opened his mouth to respond. A memory assaulted him, and his mouth remained open as he stared at the corner across the street. His breath caught in his throat as he stared vacantly ahead, his eyes apparently focused on something that wasn't there.

Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "What is it, Chief?"

That small physical contact broke the spell, and Blair closed his mouth, turning his head to look at Jim.

"Garret," he said.

"What?"

"The man at the hotdog stand the other day. That was the guy who kidnapped me," Blair stated, his voice hollow.

Jim turned his head to look at the imaginary hotdog stand and asked, "You sure, Chief?"

Blair nodded, closing his eyes to solidify the memory of Garret's face. "Yeah, I'm sure."

Jim grimaced and looked over Blair's shoulder at one of the unmarked police cars parked on the street. Rafe sat in the driver's seat, occasionally glancing over at Jim and Blair.

Jim looked back at Blair and said, "If that's true, what was he up to? And what happened to Bill, the regular guy?"

Blair shrugged.

"Excuse me?"

Jim turned to see a young man peering down at them. Jim shot up from the bench, startling the man, who quickly took a step back.

"Are... Are you Ellison or Sandburg?"

Jim glared at the man. "Who are you?"

The young man swallowed. "Uh, name's John... some guy gave me fifty bucks to tell you that he knows you brought friends along. He wants to talk to you alone. He'll be in touch."

"Where did you talk to this guy?"

John turned and pointed to a distant building across the street from the other side of the park. "At a cafe over there."

Jim pulled a photo of Jarod from his jacket pocket and showed it to the man. "Is this him?"

John nodded.

Ellison turned to Rafe and waved him over. Rafe exited the car and jogged over to the three men.

"This guy spoke with Jarod... could you take his statement while Sandburg and I check out the area?"

Rafe nodded and gestured for the young man to follow him back to the car. Blair stood up and followed Jim across the park to the small cafe, knowing that Jarod was long gone.


Two hours later, Jim and Blair returned to the loft.

As Jim hung his coat up, Blair plopped himself down on the floor in front of the couch and rested his head on the seat cushion. "We have to get in touch with Tim," he muttered

"I know, Chief. Brown and Rafe will keep trying to reach him."

Blair nodded. They had spent the last fourty minutes on the phone trying to track down Timothy Robbins, but he wasn't home and his roomate had no idea where he'd gone. Blair only hoped it wasn't too late. He chest felt tight. He desparately hoped he didn't find Tim's body in a bathtub full of blood....

Blood. He closed his eyes. Why so much blood? Lash hadn't cut his victims. He'd drowned them, but otherwise kept them untouched. So why was Garret so violent? To top it off, forensics hadn't found any sedatives in the bodies, so they could have all been wide awake while Garret tortured them.

Blair shivered. "God, I almost wish we were dealing with Lash," he muttered.

Jim walked over and sat down on the couch next to Blair. "We'll find Robbins, Chief. Since there's nothing you can do right now, why don't you go get some sleep?"

Blair opened his eyes and looked at Jim as a small chuckle escaped his throat. "Yeah, right. Like I'll be able to do that anytime soon." He sighed and lifted his head, rubbing a hand over his face. "I still don't know how you do it, Jim. It's like, no matter what you see, you come home, grab a bite to eat, maybe watch some t.v. and then zonk out upstairs."

"Blair...."

"Yeah, I know," Blair interrupted. "Leave your humanity at the door. Not my style, man. Sorry." His voice sounded harsher than he'd intended, and he winced inwardly.
 
Jim clenched his jaw and looked out the balcony window. "Listen, Chief, I'm not going to tell you to shut down your feelings, because I know that'd be like asking Simon to stop smoking cigars, but just try not to think about it so much. You'll drive yourself crazy... " he smiled and looked at Blair. "Well, crazier than you already are, at any rate."

Blair managed a small, tired smile and tilted his head in apology. "I know, Jim. I'm sorry I snapped at you. I didn't mean it the way it came out."
 
Jim patted him on the shoulder and stood up, returning to the kitchen. "Hey, Chief, how 'bout turkey burgers for dinner. That healthy enough for ya?"

Blair nodded and glanced back at Jim. "You're learning," he said. "Maybe I'll actually housebreak you."

"Ha. Ha."

Thirty minutes later, the two men scarfed down their burgers in front of the television, enjoying the quiet of the night.


Blair sat at his desk in his office and finished grading the last of the exams when a knock sounded at his door. He looked up just as Jarod walked into his office, closing the door behind him.

Blair straightened in his chair. "Jarod."

Jarod sat down in the chair opposite of Blair and said, "Sorry to come in unannounced, but this is important, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair swallowed. "Go on."

"Have you contacted Timothy Robbins yet," Jarod asked.

Blair shook his head. "No. No one's seen him." And maybe no one will. Maybe it's already too late.

Jarod frowned. "I hope it's not too late," he said.

Blair took a deep breath. "Me too."

Jarod fixed Blair with a steady gaze and continued. "I'm going to tell you about The Center, and about the Pretender project."

"Okay," Blair said, waiting for Jarod to continue.

"When I was a child, I was taken from my parents... stolen by The Center. The Center is powerful, highly secret organization that is interested in creating Pretenders, people like myself. Pretenders have an ability to literally become anyone, a doctor, a test pilot, a soldier, not just by acting the part, but by learning it. I think that Lash was one of The Center's pretenders, but he was unstable. Unfortunately, The Center has a habit of taking otherwise stable people and destroying them mentally and emotionally. They experiment on children... trial and error, and most of it is all error. They destroy lives." Jarod's gaze hardened, and he seemed to stare right through Blair. "I have a contact at the Center, and, from what I've been told, Garret is also one of The Center's products. Garret obviously escaped the Center, just like I did, but not before they destroyed his mind... turned him into a monster." His voice trailed off, and his gaze drifted to the window.

"So why aren't you like the others," Blair asked.

Jarod looked back at Blair. "I suppose because I am what they call a 'natural' Pretender. Believe me, they did their best to turn me into one of their machines, but they never altered my neuro-chemistry, like they've done to others. They've been trying to 'reproduce' me, and they don't care who they hurt in the process. Life means nothing to them. I spent virtually my entire life in the Center, and one day I escaped. I've been on the run ever since... trying to find out where I come from, who... who my parents are." He sighed. "And that's why I can't let Ellison take me into custody. You know they can get to me, they walked into the Cascade jail and checked me out a few days ago. Fortunately, I got away."

Blair stared at Jarod silently for several seconds before responding. "This all sounds...."

"Unbelievable?" Jarod smiled. "Like a man with five heightened senses?"

Blair stiffened as he felt the blood drain from his face. "How... How do you know about that?"

"I wondered what an anthropology student was doing working with the Cascade PD, and, specifically with Jim Ellison. I did some research and read one of the papers you wrote a while back on Sentinels. I also read about Ellison's experience in Peru. I did a bit more digging and found out about his 'problems' during the Switchman case.. that's the same time you entered the picture. It wasn't that hard to figure out," Jarod explained, a mischievous glint in his eyes.

Blair rubbed his temples.

"Don't worry, Mr. Sandburg, the secret is safe with me. I know how much damage could be done if the wrong people found out about Ellison... people like those at The Center," Jarod said.

Blair peered critically at Jarod for a moment, then his expression softened. "Okay. I believe you." He sighed and leaned forward on his desk. "So Lash was taken by The Center when he was a child?"

Jarod nodded. "I believe so, but I don't have access to that information. I have asked my contact to look into it, but I haven't heard anything yet. I came here because someone sent me a page from the police report on Lash, so I know he had something to do with The Center. I heard a little bit of what Garret said to you, and I know he escaped from the Center. If the Center did to him what they did to... to others... he's not responsible."

Blair put his face in his hands, closing tired eyes. "Why is he so much more violent than Lash," he mumbled.

"I don't know. There's no way to know what The Center did to him. It could be that he was already unstable to begin with, like I suspect Lash was. Or, he might have been a perfectly normal child, except for a peculiar ability, who the Center systematically turned into a violent madman in a gray, dark room with machines and syringes."

Blair's head shot up and his eyes widened. A shiver slashed through his body and he shook his head. "How could anyone do that to a child?"

"How could anyone do that to anyone," Jarod muttered. "These people hardly qualify as human."

Jarod stood up. "I have to be going now, Mr. Sandburg. Please try to find Mr. Robbins. I'll be in touch." He turned to leave, then looked back over his shoulder at Blair. "Oh, and Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair looked at him expectantly.

"Be careful," Jarod finished.

Blair nodded, wondering why the room suddenly felt very cold.


It was almost midnight by the time Blair finished his work at the University. Stifling a yawn, he threw his backpack into the backseat of his Volvo and slid behind the wheel, momentarily resting his heavy head on the steering wheel.

I should have called Jim earlier and let him know I was staying late. He lifted his head and started the car, grimacing at the thought of the lecture he'd probably get tomorrow morning.

About five minutes later, the engine of his car stuttered and, finally, stalled. With a silent curse, he coasted the car into a parking space on the deserted street. He sighed and looked at his dashboard. Out of gas? Impossible... it was almost full this morning.

"Great. Just great," he muttered, looking around. He realized his car had managed to die near the park, and, while he didn't relish being stuck in this part of town so late at night, he was at least thankful for the 24 hour gas station he knew was located at the east end of the park.

He got out of the car, patted his jacket pocket to make sure he had his wallet on him, and then locked the door and walked around to the trunk. He retrieved the empty gas can and headed off across the park toward the gas station.

He froze when he heard a soft crunch a few feet behind him. Taking a deep breath, he whirled around. The dark park looked deserted, and he saw nothing that revealed the source of the sound he'd heard.

Probably just one of the strays, he thought, and resumed his walk. Less than half a minute later, he was thrown off his feet as something barreled into him. He hit the ground with a surprised yelp, his breath exploding out of his lungs as a crushing weight slammed him into the dirt. He tried to turn over onto his back, but his assailant kept him pinned to the ground. He caught a glimpse of a yellow scarf just before he felt the suffocating pressure around his windpipe. Fueled by panic, he found the strength to lift himself up, throwing his assailant to the side. However, the scarf remained tightly wrapped around his neck, and he brought his hands up, clawing at taught fabric.

God, no, not again. Jim... oh Jim... I'm sorry...

His last thought as he heard the faint snarl that followed him into darkness was that he hoped Jim didn't find his bloody body in the loft's bathtub.


Jim glanced at the clock as he slammed the phone down. 1 a.m. Blair wasn't at his office and wasn't answering the cell phone. Maybe he'd fallen asleep at his desk and was too out of it to hear the phone? Maybe he'd fallen asleep at the wheel... Maybe that psycho had....

He sprinted toward the door, grabbed his jacket, and flew out of the loft.

Jim sat behind the wheel of the truck, every muscle in his body clenched, as he pondered what he would do to Blair if it turned out the kid was alright. He would try not to loose his temper. He knew Blair had been working hard lately, and probably just lost track of time. So what else is new? The kid works himself ragged. If he found Blair sleeping soundly at his desk, he would gently wake him up, steer him into the truck, tuck him into his bed at the loft, and then rip out his heart tomorrow morning and grind it into a fine powder to fertilize his plants with.

He stopped at the light at the corner of the park, and caught the familiar site of Blair's Volvo. His heart fell to his stomach as he pulled the truck alongside Blair's car and jumped out of the truck. Peering inside the Volvo, he saw Blair's backpack in the back seat. He turned around, scanning the area, and spotted the stray dog at the east end of the park near a clump of trees. His vision zoomed into the crumpled figure of his guide on the ground next to the stray pit bull, and the resulting surge of adrenaline catapulted him across the park.

He skidded to a halt and dropped down next to Blair. The pit bull had its head rested on Blair's shoulder, and raised it to look up at Jim. A small whimper escaped the dog, and he licked the side of Blair's face briefly before closing his eyes and curling into a ball.

Jim listened for a pulse, and found two: Blair's and the dog's. He released a relieved sigh and inspected Blair for injuries. Other than the obvious bruises around his neck and the small gash on his forehead, Blair seemed otherwise uninjured. However, his pulse was too slow and his breathing ragged. He whipped out his cell phone and dialed 911. He debated taking Blair to the hospital himself, but he didn't want to risk aggravating any hidden injuries, and he didn't think his guide was in any imminent danger. Just keep breathing, buddy.

When he finished with the 911 operator, he lifted Blair gently and placed the young man's head on his lap. "Hang in their, Chief. You're going to be okay."

He looked over at the dog, using his Sentinel vision to cut through the darkness. That was when he noticed the pool of blood beneath the dog. He spotted the small bullet-wound in the dog's side. Keeping his ears tuned to his guide's breathing, he gently lowered Blair's head to the ground and moved over toward the dog. The situation suddenly began to make sense to him. Blair had been attacked and the stray pit bull must have attacked the assailant. The assailant shot the dog, then took off. Jim scanned the ground with his eyes, and found a sporadic trail of blood leading to the street and ending in a pool on the pavement. The assailant had probably been injured by the dog and made his way to a car parked  where the pool of blood now rested.

He pulled his cell phone out and dialed the number of Dr. Stacy Lovan, a veterinarian he had dated a couple of times last year.

"Hello," the sleepy male voice said.

"Uh? Is Doctor Lovan there?"

"Just a sec..." a moment later... "Hello? This is Dr. Lovan, who's this?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Doctor. This is Detective James Ellison..."

"Jim? What's up," she suddenly sounded more awake.

"I have an emergency down at the park," he said. He told her the details as he removed his shirt and wrapped the dog's ribcage, keeping pressure on the wound in an attempt to slow the bleeding.

Dr. Lovan agreed to meet him at the park and take the dog back to her clinic. He thanked her profusely, then hung up just as he heard the faint sounds of the sirens.

Next, he called Simon and asked him to meet them at the hospital. A minute later, the ambulance pulled up, and Jim ran over to the paremedics, leading them back to Blair. The two EMTs dropped down beside Blair and immediately set to work, checking his vitals before they fastened an oxygen mask over his head. Gently, they lifted him onto the stretcher and wheeled him back to the ambulance. Jim followed alongside the stretcher, keeping his hand on Blair's shoulder and his ears tuned to Blair's breathing and heartbeat. As the EMTs lifted the stretcher into the ambulance, Jim looked back at the still figure of the dog. Torn between going with Blair and staying with the dying dog, he hesitated. He promised Dr. Lovan he'd meet her at the park, and he knew that, if there was a chance of saving the dog, Blair would want him to take it. That pit bull had saved his partner's life, taking a bullet for him, and Jim owed it to both of them to try to save the dog's life. Reluctantly, he told the parametics he'd meet them at the hospital as he turned to jog back toward the dog.

He kept up the pressure on the dog's wound for ten minutes before Dr. Lovan finally arrived. He helped her lift the fifty-pound dog into her Ford Explorer, and thanked her again before she took off to her clinic. Then he dashed to his truck and sped off toward the hospital.


"What happened? And what took you so long?" Simon rushed up to Jim as he ran up to the hospital's front desk.

"Blair was attacked," he told Simon. "Where is he?"

"They're still working on him, so they haven't told me anything yet. Now, what exactly happened... and where have you been?"

Jim told him the details, explaining about the dog that had detained him.

Simon almost swallowed his cigar. "You're telling me a pit bull saved Sandburg's life?"

Jim nodded. "It looks that way."

Simon shook his head. "That kid has some kind of luck," he muttered. "Hunted by psychos and protected by the urban wildlife."

Jim smiled sadly. "Some blessed protector I am. I've been shown up by a dog."

Simon grunted. "Now don't you start with this, Jim. It wasn't your fault. You can't possibly be with the kid twenty-four-seven." He sighed, and one side of his mouth lifted in a lopsided grin. "Besides you have a lot in common with a pit bull."

Jim chuckled. "That's exactly what Sandburg said." His smile immediately faded at the mention of his partner, and he released a frustrated sigh. "What's taking them so long," he muttered, walking up to the front desk.

The nurse looked up at him and smiled.

"I'd like to know what's happening with Blair Sandburg," he said. "He was brought in about fifteen minutes ago... "

"The strangulation victim," she asked.

Jim clenched his jaw and nodded.

"Sir, they're still working on him. The doctor will be out just as soon as he can."

Jim's nostrils flared, but he kept his temper in check. He felt Simon's hand on his shoulder and turned to look at the concerned face of his Captain.

"Come sit down, Jim. You can't do anything but get in the way," Simon said.

Jim swallowed and followed Simon to the vinyl chairs against the wall. He cocked his head, searching the myriad of sounds in the hospital for the familiar beat of Blair's heart. He filtered through the sounds of babies crying, a doctor barking orders, a boy and a girl fighting over a blue crayon, sirens in the distance, ringing telephones....

...heartbeats.... all around him.... hundreds of them.... some fast, some slow....

"Jim?"

He felt a hand on his shoulder and shook himself out of the near-trance.

"Were you zoning out," Simon asked.

Jim tilted his head in a brief nod. "Thanks, Simon."

Simon sighed. "No problem, Jim. Just don't make it a habit.... Were you trying to find him?"

Jim nodded again, rubbing a hand over his face. "There are just too many sounds... I can't filter them all out."

Simon opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by an approaching physician. "Are you here for Blair Sandburg," the greying, middle-aged doctor asked.

"Yes!" Jim shot up out of the chair. "How is he?"

The doctor extended his hand. "I'm Doctor Gerald."

Simon stood up and shook the doctor's hand as Jim stood with his hands clenched stiffly at his sides.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade PD. Mr. Sandburg is one of my men.... how is he?"

"He's going to be fine. His larynx is severely bruised, and he has a minor concussion, so he'll be bed-ridden for a few days. He won't get his voice back to normal for awhile, maybe a little over a week."

Both Jim and Simon smiled with relief.

"That's a damn shame... Sandburg not talking for a week... how will you manage, Jim," Simon asked, grinning broadly.

Jim chuckled. "I'm sure he'll make up for it and then some once he gets his voice back."

"Like Mount St. Helens," Simon added.

The doctor chuckled. "I take it he's talkative?"

"You don't know the half of it, Doctor," Simon explained.


Jim found himself once again sitting at Blair's bedside, waiting for him to awaken. He looked at the sleeping figure of his guide, the bruises just now starting to show around his neck. He gripped the arm of his chair, his knuckles white.

The start of all your bad luck, Chief, began the very first day you started working with me... getting on that bus with the Switchman... then going to personnel at the station and walking into a the middle of a terrorist raid... then Lash... it's one thing after another, and all because you work with me.

His cell phone rang, and he snatched it out of his pocket.

"Ellison."

"Hello, Jim. This is Stacey Lovan."

"Oh, hello Stacey. How is the hero?"

"He's lost a lot of blood, but he's being remarkably stubborn about dying. I think he just might pull through. We've given him some blood and replenished his fluids, stitched him up, and put him on antibiotics. The bullet went straight through, tore up some muscle and grazed one of his ribs, but, if he makes it through the next few hours, he stands a good chance of making a full recovery."

Jim grinned. This was really good news! "Thank you, Stacey.... just let me know how much I owe you."

"This one's at cost, Jim."

"Thanks again. My partner will be glad to hear it."

"I hope the media picks this one up. It's not often you see pit bulls make positive news," Stacey remarked.

Blair turned his head, releasing a whispery croak.

"I think my partner's waking up, Stacey. I'll call you back."

"Sure thing, Jim. I hope he's up and around soon," she said.

"Thanks," Jim replied, then hung up the phone and returned it to his pocket.

Blair's eyes fluttered open, and he rested an unfocused gaze on the ceiling.

"Hey, Chief."

Slowly, Blair turned his head. His eyes focused on Jim, and he blinked. He opened his mouth, then winced.

"Don't try to talk. Your windpipe is bruised, and the doc says you're going to be taking a vow of silence for the next week or so."

Blair managed an almost-imperceptible smile. He raised his hand, opening and closing his fist.

"What is it, Chief?"

Blair made a writing motion in mid-air.

"You want a pen and paper?"

Blair nodded.

Jim rolled his eyes and smiled. "Five seconds after waking up, and you've already found a way to make your 'voice' heard."

Jim grabbed a pen and notebook from his jacket pocket, and handed the items to Blair. Blair took them and brought up one knee, resting the pad on his thigh as he scribbled on the small notepaper. Jim watched the pen move sporadically over the smooth, lined paper.

WHAT HAPPENED?

"You were attacked in the park. I got worried when you didn't call home, and I couldn't reach you by phone. I was on my way to your office when I spotted your car at the park. I found you unconscious at the East end of the park. That stray pit bull we ran into the other day was by your side."

Blair's brow furrowed, and he resumed his scribbling.

DOG?

"Yeah, Chief. You don't remember anything?"

REMEMBER BEING STRANGLED. YELLOW SCARF.

"Why were you at the park, Chief?"

RAN OUT OF GAS. WAS 3/4 FULL THIS MORNING.

"Did you see who attacked you?" Like there was any doubt.

Blair shook his head, but turned the page and continued to write on the pad.

NO, BUT YELLOW SCARF. GARRET.

"Yeah, I know, Chief, but a positive ID would have been nice."

SORRY.

Jim patted him on the shoulder. "Not your fault, Chief. Don't worry about it."

WHERE'S DOG?

Jim sighed. "At the vets. He was shot."

Blair's eyes widened.

HE HAD A GUN?

Jim nodded. "Apparently... but I just spoke with the vet, and she's pretty confident that the dog's gonna pull through."

Blair smiled.

GOOD. MUST BUY HIM A HOT DOG.

Jim chuckled.

JAROD CAME TO SEE ME.

Jim straightened. "When?"

Blair turned the page again. TODAY. OFFICE. TOLD ME ABOUT THE CENTER.

"The Center?"

Blair closed his eyes, swallowing with a sharp grimace.

He opened his eyes and wrote on the pad: THROAT HURTS BAD.

Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder. "I know, Chief. Maybe, now that you're awake, the doctor can give you something.... now, what about Jarod?"

CENTER STEALS CHILDREN. EXPERIMENTS. MAKES PRETENDERS.

"Pretenders? That was on the note."

Blair nodded, then turned the page again.

PEOPLE WHO ASSUME IDENTITIES. DON'T UNDERSTAND IT ALL. LASH/GARRET = PRETENDERS. JAROD = PRETENDER. JAROD KIDNAPPED BY CENTER AS A CHILD. ESCAPED. GOOD GUY. KNOWS ABOUT YOUR SENSES.

"What? What do you mean, he was kidnapped? What is this center? How does he know about my senses?"

Blair frowned, looking troubled.

I DIDN'T TELL HIM. HE FIGURED IT OUT. WILL KEEP SECRET.

"Well, we'll deal with that later... what's this center?"

Blair inhaled a deep, ragged breath, and winced. His eyes widened as he cast a fearful glance up at Jim.

GET DOCTOR.

Jim wasted no time. He dashed to the door and opened it. "Someone get a doctor in here NOW!"

He hurried back over to Blair's bedside. Blair brought a hand to his throat, wheezing painfully. Doctor Gerald hurried into the room.

"What's the matter," Gerald asked.

Blair wrote furiously.

CAN'T BREATH. HURTS.

"Your throat? Your head? Chest?"

THROAT.

Doctor Gerald stepped in front of Jim and tilted Blair's head back.

"Open your mouth, please," he instructed.

Blair obeyed, and Gerald removed a tongue depressor from his pocket, tearing off the packaging and placing the stick in Blair's mouth. He removed a scope from the same pocket and looked down Blair's throat. Blair kept his eyes clenched, remaining absolutely still as the doctor finished his examination.

Finally, the doctor tossed the tongue depressor in the trash and returned the scope to his pocket. "You're throat is a bit swollen, Mr. Sandburg, which is constricting your airway. However, your esophagus is still open, so I don't see the need for a breathing tube... and I'd prefer not to use one given the existing injury to your windpipe.... unless it becomes necessary, of course. However, I don't foresee the swelling getting any worse. We've got you on anti-inflammatories, and I can give you an ice pack for your neck, if you like."

Blair shook his head.

"What about a topical anesthetic for his throat," Jim asked.

The doctor shrugged and looked at Jim. "I can give him something to swallow, but it will be very painful for him to swallow, and it's benefit will be minimal and short-lived." He turned his attention back to Blair. "Is that what you'd...."

He stopped in mid-sentence when he noticed he'd lost half his audience. Blair was sound asleep, the pen still half-propped in his hand.

The doctor turned back to Jim. "We're keeping an eye on his concussion, though it's pretty minor... we'll wake him every hour for the next few hours, but after that he should get as much sleep as he likes."

Jim nodded. "When can he come home?"

"I'd like to keep him under observation for at least 12 hours. If all goes well, he can go home tomorrow evening."
 
   

Jim opened the door to the loft and, with one hand on Blair's arm, steered his guide over to the couch. Blair eased himself down onto the sofa as Jim walked back to shut the door.

"Thanks," Blair croaked.

"No problem, and no talking," Jim said, walking over to the refrigerator. "You want something? Juice? Water? Soup?"

He glanced back at Blair in time to see the young man shake his head.

"Okay."

He knew Blair's throat was still pretty soar, and the doctor had informed him that Blair would probably refuse all offers of food or drink for a few days. However, the kid needed liquids, and the doctor had instructed him to make sure Blair got enough nourishment, else he'd want to check him back into the hospital.

Jim grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked back over to the couch, sitting down next to Blair. Blair looked over at him, raised his hands, and made a typing motion in mid-air.

"You want your laptop," Jim asked.

Blair smiled and nodded.

"Okay, Chief, I'll get it."

Jim rose from the couch, walked into Blair's room, and emerged a minute later with the compact laptop under his arm. He set the machine down on the table in front of Blair, lifted the cover, and turned on the power. The computer hummed to life as it booted up. Once Windows finished booting, Blair leaned over, opened the wordpad program, and starting typing furiously. When he finished, he looked up at Jim and pointed to the screen. Jim read the words on the white screen in front of him.

'How's the dog?'

Jim smiled. "Doing good. The doc says he'll be just fine."

'Good. Who's paying the bill?'

"Doctor Lovan is doing it at cost. I'm picking up the tab. The mutt deserves it," he said, grinning.

'Expensive?'

"Don't worry about it."

Okay for now. Want to talk more about Jarod now that I can type?

Jim took a deep breath. Jarod. Just how did he factor into this case? Blair insisted he wasn't the killer, and Jim was becoming more inclined to believe his guide. So, was he involved? Teamed up with Garret, perhaps? Blair seemed to trust Jarod, but why? What had the guy said to him, and why would Blair believe a man he hardly knew? The answer to his question presented itself immediately. Jarod had saved Blair's life, or so Blair claimed. If that was true, then Jim owed Jarod a great deal. If, on the other hand, Jarod was dirty, Jim would make sure the man got what he deserved.

'Jim?'

The sound of Blair's typing grabbed Jim's attention, and it was then that he realized he hadn't answered Blair.

"Yeah, Chief, I think we should talk about it now. Can you tell me exactly what happened in your office. What did he tell you?"

'He told me about this organization called the Center. They take children, steal them, I think, and try to make them into pretenders.'

Pretenders, Jim thought. That word again. Just what the hell are pretenders?

'Pretenders, I guess, are people who assume other identities. I don't know why this is such a big deal to the Center, but Jarod says they are trying to make more pretenders.

Jarod is supposedly a natural pretender, but the center is trying to find a way to make pretenders by experimenting on children. I think they did that to Lash, and to Garret. Jarod isn't sure, but he thinks Lash wasunstable to begin with. I remember a bit from my conversation with Garret, and he said something about the center releasing Lash back into the "environment". Maybe as a control.

Jarod seems to think the Center messed with Garret's mind - turned him into the monster he is now.'

"He's responsible for his own actions, Chief," Jim said. "Don't even start feeling sorry for this maniac. He carved those people up like a turkey dinner and dragged one of them in here for you to find."

Jim immediately regretted his actions the moment he saw the color drain from Sandburg's face.

"Hey, Chief. I'm sorry. I didn't mean.... I shouldn't have said it like that," Jim apologized.

Blair turned pained eyes back to the computer screen and resumed his typing.

'And what about Tim Robbins?'

Damnit, Ellison, Jim chastised himself. You just had to go remind the kid that this maniac could 'carve up' one of his students like a 'turkey dinner'. Next time he'd think before opening his mouth.

"Still no word. No one has seen him since yesterday," Jim said.

Blair's face fell, and Jim put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "We have an APB out on Robbins and all units are on alert for anyone matching Garret's description."

The phone rang, and Jim walked over to pick up the receiver. "Ellison," he said.

"Hey, Jim. This is Stacey."

"Oh, hi Stacey. How's the dog?"

"I'm glad to say he's pretty much out of the woods. There's no sign of infection, and he's even kept down a bit of dry kibble. He's got a lot of personality.... His tail wags whenever anyone enters the room, and he tries to get up and play whenever we open his kennel... it's almost as if he hadn't been shot... he seems totally oblivious to the pain."

Jim chuckled. "Let me see.. full of energy... doesn't like to stay put, even when injured.... playful... hard to housetrain.... gee, sounds just like my partner."

Blair whipped his head around to fix Jim with a deadly stare.

"Would you like to see him sometime," Stacey asked.

Jim glanced at Blair, who had turned back to his laptop and was now typing furiously on the keyboard. Jim smiled as he watched Blair's hand fly with lightning speed over the keys. If the kid couldn't talk a mile a minute, he'd type a mile a minute.

"Yes, I would like to see him, and I think Blair would, too," Jim finally responded.

"Well, just let me know when you'd like to drop by," Stacey said.

"Uh, how 'bout tomorrow morning," Jim asked.

"That's fine with me."

"Good, let me just confirm with my partner."

Blair raised a hand in the air, giving Jim a thumbs up.

"Okay," Jim said into the phone. "That'll be fine."

Jim hung up the phone and walked back over to Blair, peering over his guide's shoulder to look at the computer screen.

'How is the dog? He's doing okay?
No fair making cracks when you know I can't say anything back.
So who's going to take care of the dog after he heals? We can't put him back in the park, and I don't think the shelter adopts out pit bulls... they'll just put him to sleep... which is SO not cool.'

Jim chuckled. "You make a point to type like you talk, eh?"

Blair smiled and nodded. 'Like totally, man.'

Jim patted Blair on the shoulder. "Well, don't worry about the dog. I'm not going to let him go to the shelter."

'You're not going to take him in are you? Not that that wouldn't be great, but you freaked out about the monkey... and I just don't see a neat freak like you with a dog.'

"If you weren't recovering from a concussion, Chief, I'd pop you in the head," Jim warned, narrowing his eyes in a mock-threat.

Blair shrugged. 'Hey, playing the patient definitely has its rewards... besides, it's true.'

"Well, you're right. No I'm not going to adopt a dog... not that having a pit bull in the loft wouldn't go a long way toward improving the security around here... plus I might be able to train him to keep you pinned to your room when I leave..." Jim grinned broadly at the thought... "Yeah, definitely some pluses... but, nope, housebreaking, shedding, fleas, medical bills... I've already got all that with you, except for the fleas... and, of course, your insurance takes care of the medical bills."

You're cruel, man. Blair scowled at Jim, doing a very good job of looking genuinely insulted.

"Yeah, yeah.... anyway, I think we should be able to find a nice home for our four-legged friend. After all, he's a hero," Jim remarked.

Blair cocked his head as if a thought just occured to him. He bent eagerly over the keyboard.

'So, like, he saved my life... does that mean I have two blessed protectors, now? Two pit bulls... one with hair... the other-- '

"Watch it, Chief," Jim said, slapping Blair's hand away from the typewriter before he could complete the sentence. "It's not too late for me to wrap you up and cart you back to the hospital."

The phone rang again, and Jim sighed as he turned to pick up the phone again. "Hello. Ellison here."

"Tell Mr. Sandburg I hope he likes the get-well present."

"Who is this," Jim asked, his voice tense.

The connection ended just as Blair turned his head to look inquiringly at Jim.

'Who was it,' Blair typed.

Jim shrugged. "Did anyone give you a get well present?" He tried to keep his tone light.

Blair raised his eyebrows. 'Nope. Gee, thanks for pointing that out, though.'

Jim managed a smile. With your frequency of hospital visits, if everyone gave you a present everytime you ended up in one, not only would we need a bigger place, all our friends would be broke.

Blair turned back to his keyboard and sighed, bringing a hand over his stomach.

"Something wrong," Jim asked, taking a few long strides over to his guide.

Blair shook his head. 'Just a little upset stomach.'

"Hey, you want your prescriptions from your last hospital stay? There were some anti-nauseau pills there that you never took."

Blair shook his head. 'Swallowing is not an attractive prospect right now.'

Jim clenched his jaw and shook his head. "Sandburg, you are going to have to swallow some liquids pretty soon... it's either that or go back to the hospital so they can hook you up to an IV."

Blair scrunched his face and glared at Jim. 'No way man', he typed, keeping his eyes on Jim.

"Then I'm going to get you some water and an one of your pills... It only has to go down once, and the pills will help to make sure it doesn't come back up... that wouldn't do well with your throat."

'You don't say?'

"Smartass," Jim muttered as he walked into the kitchen and filled a glass with water, retrieving the pills from one of the cabinets.

Jim handed the glass of water and one pill to Blair as he looked over his young charge's shoulder at the computer screen, but Blair hadn't typed anything.

Blair took the glass and the pill, looking at them skeptically for a few seconds as Jim hovered just behind him.

"Bottoms up, Chief."

Blair put the pill in his mouth, raised the glass slowly to his lips, and took a small sip, keeping the liquid in his mouth and letting the pill dissolve. His face contorted in a grimace, and then, quickly, he swallowed. He shook his head, then rubbed his throat.

"Good boy," Jim teased. "Now drink the rest of the water."

Blair set the glass on the table and typed another sentence on computer.

Pill tastes bad. Hurts too much to swallow.

"Too bad, Chief. You know as well as I do that you can't go without water for very long. It's either you swallow it here or..." Jim's voice trailed off as he watched Blair grab the glass and glance up at him.

Blair raised the glass to his lips and took two small sips, wincing each time he swallowed.

"This sucks," Blair croaked, his voice low and hoarse.

Jim raised his eyebrows, suppressing a grin. "Uh-uh. No talking, Chief."

Blair scowled and turned back to the keyboard. 'The doctor said to take it easy with my throat. I think you're embellishing his orders for personal gain, man. Not cool.'

Jim grinned broadly. "C'mon, Chief. Would I do something like that?"

Blair glared at him in response. Jim chuckled and raised his hands in defense.

"Okay, Chief, but you're restricted to one word answers," Jim conceded. "If you're a good little boy and drink your fluids."

Blair's eyes narrowed. 'Pain in the ass,' he typed.

 


About fifteen minutes later, both men sat quietly on the couch and watched Lethal Weapon on the television. Jim felt exhausted, and he could barely keep his eyes open during the movie. Ocassionally, he glanced over at Blair, who seemed perfectly awake, his eyes wide and fixed unwaveringly on the television.

Jim's eyes fluttered shut as he drifted off into a light sleep. He had no concept of the passage of time, but he could have sworn he'd just closed his eyes when he heard Blair gasp. Jim's eyes shot open, and he slammed into awareness as his eyes settled on Blair, who was standing in the center of the living room, batting his legs and torso furiously.

Jim shot off the couch a leapt over to Blair, putting a hand on the anthropologist's shoulder. "Blair? What's wrong?"

Blair's head shot up, and he batted Jim's hand away, taking a step back. He stared at Jim with panicked eyes, his face corpse-white. Jim was stunned, and he took an involuntary step back.

Slowly, Jim raised his hands in what he hoped was a non-threatening gesture. "Blair, buddy, what's wrong?"

Tears welled in Blair's eyes, and he turned his gaze back to his legs. A hoarse squeel escaped his throat and he frantically resumed his assault on his legs, slapping his thighs with swift, hard strokes.

"Spiders," he croaked. "Spiders! Get them off!" His voice rose in volume, but the words sounded painfully strained.

Jim's heart dropped to his feet. "Blair, there aren't any spiders. There's nothing there."

"Get them off! They're--" his voice cracked, and his face contorted in pain. He began to hyperventilate, continuing his barrage against the imaginary spiders. "... deadly," he finished. "Poison! Help me!"

Jim realized with sudden dread that Blair was having a flashback to his ordeal with Alec and the deadly arachnids. What the hell had triggered the hallucination? Was Blair's concussion more serious than the doctors realized?

Acting swiftly, Jim grabbed Blair's arm and dragged him into the bathroom. Blair continued to slap at imaginary spiders, his voice rising painfully as he screamed in terror, calling for Jim. The sound of terror in his guide's voice broke Jim's heart, but he could do nothing now but get Blair into the shower. In reality, Blair had used water to combat the spiders by turning on the lab shower and forcing the spiders off his body. Jim hoped he could use that memory to make Blair believe the imaginary spiders were gone.

Jim lifted his panicked guide over the side of the tub and turned the two knobs on the shower head. He hoped the water didn't come out stark cold, but he didn't want to waste any time waiting for the water to warm up. Besides, maybe a little cold water would pull his partner from the flashback.

Blair screamed as the water hit him, and he went into near-convulsions as his arms whirled around his body, slapping his legs, arms, chest, and abdomen. "They're biting me! Jim they're biting me! God! Oh God!"

"No, Blair. The water's washing them off.. See.. they're gone, buddy," Jim soothed.

Blair began sobbing as he slapped at the imaginary bugs. "No, No... look at them. They're biting me! I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die, Jim!"

Jim clenched his jaw, his heart pounding furiously in his chest. He didn't know what else to do. He listened to Blair's out-of-control heartbeat and a spike of fear shot down his spine with the thought that the ferocity of Blair's terror might send the otherwise young and healthy anthropologist into cardiac arrest.

Jesus Christ! What the hell's wrong with him? He was fine until... The blood drained from his face as realization dawned on him. My God... the pill...

Jim grabbed his screaming, soaking partner and dragged him into the living. He held Blair in a bear hug with his chest against Blair's back. "Hang in there, buddy. It's okay. It's okay."

"God... no... you see them... you think they're dead... ashes... but they're not..." Blair's voice faded to a hoarse wheezing, but his lips continued to move.

Ashes? Was Blair now flashing back to the Golden incident?

Jim was torn. He didn't want to release his hold on Blair, but he needed to dial for help. If he released Blair, there's no telling what the kid would do. Might he even jump off the balcony in his confusion and terror? Jim swallowed. No, he wasn't going to let go of Blair, but ne needed to call an ambulance.

Clenching his jaw, he shifted his right arm more tightly around Blair's chest, and grabbed the back of the couch with his left hand, pulling himself and Blair up off the floor. Blair's silent screams died to hacking, heart-wrenching sobs, and Jim felt a piercing heat flare in his chest as he held onto this sobbing friend.

He stumbled backwards toward the kitchen phone, and yanked the receiver off the hook. Letting the phone dangle, he punched in 9-1-1. Blair went limp in his arms, taking Jim by surprise and pulling the larger man down with him. Jim caught himself just in time, softening the fall with his free arm while he held Blair firmly in his other arm. On the floor, Jim pulled Blair closer to him, cradling Blair's head against his chest.

"Emergency Dispatch. What is the nature of your emergency," the female voice on the phone asked.

Jim picked up the receiver and brought it to his face. "My name's Detective James Ellison. I'm at 852 Prospect, number 307. I need an ambulance hear here NOW!"

 


Jesus. Oh God. How the hell can this be happening?How the FUCKING hell can this be happening? Jim paced the small confines of Blair's hospital room, his jaw clenching and unclenching in frustration as his partner, friend, and guide laid unconscious on bed. Jim kept his ears tuned to the steady breathing of Blair's heart, and the rhythmic pattern of his shallow breathing.

The door opened and a petite woman in a white lab coat entered the room, gently closing the door behind her. She glanced at Blair's sleeping form, then looked at Jim, offering a sympathetic smile. She extended her hand to Jim, who grasped it firmly in a hand-shake.

"I'm Doctor Perkins," she said. "Are you the young man's roommate?"

"I'm Detective James Ellison, Sandburg's roommate and partner," he said. And his woefully inadequate Blessed Protector, he added silently.

Doctor Perkins nodded. "It's nice to meet you, Detective." She walked over to Blair, pulled a penlight from her pocket, and quickly checked his pupils. Satisfied, she turned back to Jim. "The pill that Mr. Sandburg ingested contained a potent combination of LSD and amphetamine, along with a third, as-of-yet unidentified, toxin."

Jim unconsciously clenched both fists at his side. "How did that happen, Doctor? I picked up that prescription from the pharmacy on the second floor of this hospital." His voice was tight, a subtle indication of the fury raging just beneath the surface.

Doctor Perkins shifted her gaze away from Ellison, settling on Blair's still figure. When she spoke, her voice was soft and strained. "Sir, there's only one thing I can think of. The night you picked up the prescription, our pharmacist, Miss Secums, was seen by Doctor Anderson after she complained of having a fainting spell at the desk. We checked her out and sent her home." She swallowed. "I spoke with her a few minutes ago, right after we got the results of the tests. She claims not to remember passing out. She vaguely remembers waiting on a customer, then waking up in the back of the room. We didn't do a tox screen at the time because she swore she hadn't ingested anything, and we aren't in the habit of performing medical tests against a person's will. Dr. Anderson's report indicated her pupils were dialated and her heart rate was a bit slow, so they kept her here for a couple of hours. She was then sent home."

"I want to speak with her, and with Doctor Anderson," Jim stated, his voice flat.

Doctor Perkins nodded. "Of course. At any rate, either Miss Secums deliberately tampered with Sandburg's prescription -- which I highly doubt, she's been with us for five years -- or someone knocked her out, probably drugged her based on her recorded symptoms, and filled Sandburg's prescription with the LSD combo."

Dear Lord, and I forced him to take that pill. Jim closed his eyes, his arms held rigidly at his sides and his spine stiff. Not only had he failed miserably as Blair's Blessed Protector, he'd practically rammed 'Death' down his guide's throat. After taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and met Perkins' concerned gaze.

"Do you have a security camera in the pharmacy," he asked.

Perkins shook her head. "I'm sorry, Detective, we don't. We will as of this week, though, I promise you."

A lot of good that does Blair, he thought. Damnit! Son of a Bitch, when I get my hands on you...

Jim didn't voice his thoughts, instead, he simply nodded.

"There's another thing I'd like to speak with you about, Detective Ellison," Perkins remarked.

What now? There couldn't possibly be more bad news, could there? "What is it," he asked.

Doctor Perkins took a deep breath. "Mr. Sandburg has been admitted to this hospital three times within the past week. Twice he's been drugged, he's had his larynx bruised and a concussion. Previous to that, he's been treated for a variety of injuries, including another drug overdose and a gunshot wound. Now, I've been informed that Mr. Sandburg is not a police officer, so I'm somewhat curious as to why he finds his way in here so often."

Jim's expression seemed set in stone. "He's a police consultant and observer."

Dr. Perkins raised an eyebrow. "I see. Well, Detective, might I suggest that Mr. Sandburg take it easy in the future. The human body can only take so much abuse, after all. In addition, chronic pain often leads to depression. Since Mr. Sandburg has been getting injury after injury, I'd expect him to start showing signs of depression. I can't very well keep the guy on pain killers and anti-depressants for the rest of his life, so something's gotta change."

Jim clenched his jaw. "Thanks for your concern, Doctor."

Doctor Perkins looked skeptically at Ellison, than nodded her head. "I'll be back to check on him in a little while." She turned to walk out of the room.

"Oh, Doctor?"

Perkins looked back at Jim. "Yes?"

"I'd like to go over to the pharmacy and take a look around," Jim said.

"Certainly, Detective. Now?"

Jim glanced back at Blair. He wanted to be here when the kid woke up, but he also wanted to inspect the probable crime scene before too much more time passed. As it was, with the days that had passed, he'd be lucky to find any evidence.   He looked back at Doctor Perkins. He wouldn't do Blair any good unless he caught the son-of-a-bitch psycho after him

"Yes, now, Doctor," Jim decided.

 


Blair stood on the edge of sanity. He itched all over - itching and crawling sensations assaulted his body from his feet to his scalp. They were all over him, between his toes and in his hair. They squirmed around in his ears, wiggled in his nose, and slipped between his lips and crawled down his throat. The large, hairy ones crawled up his abdomen, toward his chest and throat. The smaller ones found their way into the tiny crevices of his body -- and all of them, every single horrifying one of them -- stuck their poison into him. Infinitesimal stabs of pain pricked him over and over again. His body was on fire. Fire! They were all over him and he was on fire!

He felt them crawling over and under his tongue, down his throat, gagging him.... He opened his mouth and released a deep, agonizing scream.

 


Jim walked rigidly back to Blair's room. He'd found nothing useful at the pharmacy. Sure, he'd found a few strands of hair and several prints, and he would run them all through, but he was pretty sure they all belonged to the employees. His sentinel vision had been able to isolate four sets of fingerprints, the exact number of employees who regularly worked the pharmacy.

The ear-shattering scream made his blood run cold. Blair. He didn't know how he knew that horrible sound came from his partner, because it sure as hell didn't sound anything like Blair, but the wrenching pang in his gut sent him into action. He propelled himself down the hall toward Blair's room, vaguely aware of frantic footsteps following him. He crashed through the door, all of his senses on alert, prepared to rip the heart out of whoever or whatever was causing his guide to make that terrifying sound.

What he saw made him freeze momentarily. Blair was out of his bed, crouched in a corner, screaming incoherently. His hands pounded the walls, and the floors, and even his own body. Then they rose to the long curls on top of his head and contorted into rigid claws as he scratched at his scalp.

Jim was knocked out of his stoic stance as an orderly slammed into him. The room suddenly became alive with activity. Two orderlies, a nurse, and Doctor Perkins surrounded Blair, trying to get close to him as he flailed around. He seemed aware of their approach, because he used his legs to ward them off, kicking furiously.

"No! Get away! They're all around! Can't you see 'em?"

"STAND BACK!" Ellison's voice bellowed through the room, grabbing the attention of everyone except Blair.

"GOD! Oh God! They're biting me all over. They're fire," Blair continued to scream, pounding his fists against the floor.

Doctor Perkins signalled the team to move away from Blair, and Jim shot her a brief glance, nodding his thanks. Then he turned his attention to Blair. He crouched down, holding his hands out toward his partner. Slowly, he crept closer to his panicked friend.

"Blair? It's me. Jim. Chief?"

Blair began to shake violently, and his screams once again descended into incoherent pleas.

Jim crouched two feet away from Blair, almost close enough to touch him. Slowly, he crept another foot closer, mumbling reassurances that seemed to have no affect on the delusions of his guide. C'mon, buddy, listen to my voice. Hear me.

"Blair, it's okay. You're safe. I'm here. Listen to me? Can you listen to me?"

Blair curled himself into a ball in the corner, rocking back and forth as sobs wracked his body.  Jim sprung forward and grabbed Blair, pulling the young man into a fierce embrace. Blair bucked wildly, but Jim held him firmly in steel arms as he whispered in his ear.

"Shhh... It's Jim. I'm right here, buddy. I've got you. Nothing... NOTHING is going to hurt you."

Blair stopped struggling and sagged limply against Jim. He sobbed quietly, hot tears streaking down his face and falling onto Jim's arms.

"Shhh... It's okay, Chief. I've got you. I've got you."

"Sorry," Blair mumbled.

Jim closed his eyes briefly, then gently pulled back the strands of curls that hid Blair's face. "It's okay, Blair. Not your fault."

Jim looked up at Doctor Perkins and nodded, mouthing 'okay'. Slowly, Doctor Perkins knelt next to Blair.

"Mr. Sandburg, can you hear me?"

Blair kept his head turned down, gazing desolately at the floor, but he nodded.

"That's good. We're going to put you back in your bed now. Okay?"

Blair nodded again.

One of the orderlies stepped forward and carefully grabbed Blair's arm, helping to lift him as Jim pulled him up. Once Jim was steady on his feet, the orderly released Blair and took a step back. Jim flashed the man a reassuring smile, then guided Blair over to the bed. The young anthropologist yielded like putty under Jim's direction, with his arms limp at his sides and his shoulders hunched. Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder, and pushed him into a sitting position onto the bed. Blair continued to stare at the floor, obviously avoiding the several pairs of eyes levelled on him.

Jim scrutinized the dejected figure of his young friend, then looked back up at Doctor Perkins. "Could you leave us alone for a few minutes," he asked.

Doctor Perkins glanced at Blair, then said, "Sure. We'll give you five minutes, then I'll be back."

"Thank you, Doctor," Jim said.

The medical team left the room, and Jim turned back to Blair. Gently, he took Blair's chin in his hand and forced his friend to meet his gaze.

"Are you okay, Chief?"

Blair pulled back, avoiding Jim's touch as he turned his head away. "What happened to me," he asked, his voice low and still quite hoarse.

Jim swallowed. With all the screaming the kid had done over the past few hours, his throat must be on fire. He'd have to ask the doctor to give Blair that topical anesthetic for his throat. However, at the moment, he needed to find a way to tell Blair, gently, that his prescription had been tampered with.

Jim released a long sigh and put his hands on Blair's shoulder. "I want you to know that this isn't your fault. That pill I gave you... well... we found out your prescription had been tampered with. Instead of an anti-naseau pill, you ingested a hallucinatory drug combination. There was LSD and amphetamines in it, along with another drug they haven't identified yet."

Blair's head shot up, his blue eyes blazing. "What?" He swallowed. "How...?  How could that happen?"

Jim inhaled a slow, deep breath. "I'm guessing Garret pretended to be a pharmacist."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "You being sarcastic, man? You don't believe me, do you? You think this whole thing with Jarod is a joke? That I'm being suckered? C'mon, man, give me some credit."

Jim raised his hands. "Whoa, Chief, I didn't say that. I'm just.... Well," he looked away for a moment, staring at the diamond pattern of the tile floor, "I'm angry and frustrated, that's all. I should have smelled something, I should have..." realization suddenly dawned on him, and he slapped his palm against his forehead. "Shit!"

Blair jumped. "What? What is it?"

Jim fixed his blue eyes on Blair and said, "Damnit! I picked up that damn prescription. I saw the guy... you're right, Chief, now I remember. I was tired at the time and wasn't really paying attention... but, damnit, he was the same guy at the hotdog stand...." Shit! Shit! Shit! The hotdog stand! So what happened to the regular guy? Like you don't know, Ellison. And what was the purpose of Garret taking over the.... Oh, goddamnit... "Chief, I think I know how our murderer got that body into the bathtub without you waking up."

Blair cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"

"I'm willing to bet you were drugged... Garret put a mickey in your hotdog. It obviously wasn't very strong, probably just a mild sedative... and don't ask me how he knew we frequented the place... or how he timed it... or how he even knew we were going home afterwards... or why any of this doesn't seem to make any sense whatsoever... but, damnit, Chief, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I've been such a stupid moron these past few days. I didn't smell either of the drugs, I've been letting you waltz around like you're in Disneyland, knowing that maniac is out there. Hell, if Jarod could walk right into your office, that maniac Garret can just as easily... I'm--"

Blair put a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Wait just a minute, big guy... you're stealing my lines. I'm the one who's supposed to be apologizing for playing the fool." He smiled, his blue eyes fixing Jim with a compassionate gaze. "None of this is your fault. It's Garret's fault. He's to blame. Not you. Never you, Jim."

Jim's eyes flared with anger and his chin shot up. "And what about all your hospital stays? Doctor Perkins told me that something has to change here, and I agree with her. One of these days you're going to check into this place and... and... " He felt his eyes grow hot and pushed back the emotion that threaten to rise to the surface. "Well, some things are going to change here, Chief."

Blair's eyes grew wide. "Man, please... please... don't go there. Don't start this. Not now." Blair tightened his grip on Jim's shoulder. "No one tells you you can't be a cop because it's too dangerous. Treat me with just a tiny bit of respect, man. I make my own decisions, and this... this thing with Garret isn't your fault. I got into plenty of trouble before I ever met you. Don't go flattering yourself."

Jim shook his head. "I do respect you, Sandburg, I just don't want to be... to be giving a eulogy. When I agreed to this partnership, I never intended for you to get so involved with--"

Blair shot off the bed and stormed to the small closet, flinging it open. The anger evident by Blair's stiff body language startled Jim, and he tuned his ears into his guides frantic heartbeat and irregular breathing.

"Blair?"

"Where are my clothes, Jim?"

Jim blinked. Clothes? He can't be serious. If he thinks he's checking out of here, he's going to get a rude awakening. "What the hell are you doing?"

Blair threw Jim an angry glare. "Getting the hell out of here, man. I'm not going to listen to this. You think you need to protect me twenty-four-seven, well, get a clue, man. I'm an adult, I make my own decisions. If you're going to start saying that you want me to back off as your guide or your partner in the field, then... " his voice cracked... "then, well..." he looked away.. "damnit! then you might as well have just LEFT ME WITH GARRET!!!"

Jim felt the rage behind Blair's words as though he's been slapped in the face. He'd expected an argument from Blair, but was totally unprepared for the sheer raw fury that now assaulted him. He'd never seen Sandburg so... so... hurt? furious? What the hell is this all about? There's got to be more going on here.

Jim walked over to Blair as the young man slammed the closet door and started rummaging through the drawers on the small table next to his bed. Jim placed a heavy hand on Blair's shoulder and turned the young man to face him. Blair locked eyes with Jim, blue fire against blue ice. Finally, Jim's gaze softened, and he brought his hand up to squeeze the back of Blair's neck.

"Hey, buddy, I wasn't going to say you couldn't be my partner or guide anymore," Jim reassured him.

"What then?" Blair stood rigidly in front of Jim, his eyes wet and angry.

Jim sighed. The only possible explanation for the intensity of Blair's emotions was the effects of the drugs. They needed to work out of his system, and that would take more than a few hours. In the meantime, he wasn't going to argue with the kid.

"I only meant that, well, that I'd like us both to be more careful in the future. I need you, Chief, you know that. I can't handle these senses on my own, and I definitely don't want to try it. I like having you around," he said, then smiled, "despite your weird herbal concoctions and questionable taste in music." He was rewarded by a tiny smile from Blair. "And, well, it's because I want to keep you around that we're even having this conversation." The smile left Jim's face, and his eyes grew serious. "I don't know how to keep you any safer, but well, maybe you can cut back..." Blair's eyes hardened and Jim raised his hands... "just a little, Chief," he added quickly. "You're working two jobs. You need more rest. Cut back on the paperwork at the office, get more sleep, that kind of thing. Okay?"

Blair stared at Jim skeptically for a few seconds, then, when he apparently decided that Jim was sincere, he smiled and nodded. "Okay, Jim. Maybe we could both use a vacation."

Jim grinned and slapped Blair gently on the back. "That's a great idea, Sandburg. I'll talk to Simon about it.. just as soon as this.. uh... case..."

Blair raised his hand. "Yeah, I know, just as soon as we get this latest psycho behind bars."

Or six feet under, Jim added silently. Instead of voicing his thought, he simply nodded. "Right. Once we get this case wrapped up, we'll head out of here... nothing but fresh air and a lake full of fish."

Blair smiled and, for a moment, his eyes sparkled with their usual mirth. "Sounds great, Jim."

Seeing the sparkle in his partner's eyes wiped away 24 hours worth of stress, and Jim felt himself relaxing. His grin widened and he pushed Blair over to the bed.

"Now get your ass in bed, Chief, and don't give the doctor a hard time," Jim said.

Blair raised his eyebrows in mock-consternation, but let himself be shoved into the bed.

"Oh, and how's your throat," Jim asked, just as the door opened behind him.

Blair shrugged. "It actually feels better."

"Don't let that fool you, Mr. Sandburg," a familiar voice said.

Both men turned to look at Doctor Perkins as she walked up to the bed.

"With the drugs and endorphins in your system right now, your brain's a bit dulled to pain. Tomorrow, on the other hand, you'll be paying for your... uh... little operetta," she said.

Blair blushed, glancing away. Doctor Perkins patted him on the knee. "Hey, don't worry. Those kind of hallucinations are to be expected with the LSD. You might even have a flashback or two even after the drugs been out of your system for awhile."

Blair's face paled. "I... uh... I don't want to go through that again."

"I know, Mr. Sandburg. You might not ever have an episode again, but just be on alert for the next couple of weeks. Also, until our lab identifies the third chemical, I'd like to keep you here for observation for the next twenty-four hours."

Blair frowned. "Why? Can't I rest at home the same way I can here."

Doctor Perkins tilted her head. "Sure, you can rest, but here we can keep an eye on you."

Blair pursed his lips and looked up at Doctor Perkins. "You mean in case I wig out again."

Perkins smiled. "Well, yes, that too. Those drugs are still in your system. You seem fine.. and perfectly coherent now, but I don't want you feeling a false sense of security. It'll take a quite a few more hours before you're safely out of the woods."

"Tomorrow's Saturday," Jim said. "I'm off duty tomorrow, so I can stay with him... if you think he can be released."

Jim suppressed the urge to shake his head. He wanted Sandburg in the hospital, and just a few seconds ago he was prepared to forcibly keep him here, but seeing the embarrassed, pained expression on his fragile guide's face made him want to leap to his defense. If Sandburg wanted to go home, he'd let him come home. It was, afterall, the least he could do after giving him that tainted pill.

Perkins looked at Jim, regarding him critically for a full five seconds before apparently reaching a decision. She nodded. "Okay, Detective, I'll let him go home tonight. I'll write up some instructions for you and... " she swallowed, "I'll forego anymore prescriptions for the time being... Unless," She looked at Blair, "you want something for your throat. I expect your throat to be pretty sore tomorrow."

Blair shrugged. "I have some tea at home I can try."

She raised an eyebrow. "What kind of tea."

"Just some herbal teas," he answered.

She shook her head. "Actually, I think it would be a good idea for you to stay away from any natural remedies for the next 36 hours. Those natural products are chemicals, just like mainstream medicines, and, since we don't know what the third drug is, I don't want to see you back in here for some weird drug interaction."

Blair opened his mouth to object, but she cut him off. "Mushrooms are natural, too, Mr. Sandburg, but I wouldn't go picking wild ones to use in a stew."

Blair clamped his mouth shut, looking defeated. "Okay, Okay," he conceded. "I'll stick it out for the next 36 hours."

Doctor Perkins smiled victoriously. "Okay, then, but if I see you back here anytime soon, I'll make sure to put you on Nurse Helga's watch... and the name says it all."

Jim suppressed a chuckle as Blair raised his hands in mock-fear. "Hey, I'll be good."

She pointed a finger at him. "You'd better. And go easy on that throat of yours. Stop talking so much--"

A chuckle exploded from Jim, and he quickly turned his head away as Blair fixed him with a threatening glare.

"And," Doctor Perkins continued, "you're on a liquid diet for the next 48 hours, unless your throat starts to feel better before then. Drink plenty of juices, and stick to soups, pudding, and apple sauce for the next couple of days. If you try solid food too soon, with the swelling and pain, you could conceivably choke. I'm not going to prescribe anti-inflammatories, mainly because of the drugs in your system and that unknown. Right now, your throat looks okay, so I don't think the swelling will be too much of a problem.. however, if you start to notice a change for the worst, let me know ASAP. Okay?"

Blair nodded and raised his hand in a salute.

Doctor Perkins grinned. "Good. You're following orders already. I do want to see you briefly for a follow-up in two days.... or you can go to the doctor of your choice, just let me know which you prefer."

"Here will be fine," Blair said.

"Alright, you can make the appointment at the front desk."

"Thank you, Doctor," Jim said.

 


Jim helped Blair into the truck, then reached over to fasten the seatbelt over him. Once Blair was securely fastened, Jim closed the door and went over to the driver's side, hopping in.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said.

Jim flashed a grin. "Hey, no problem, Chief. How're you doing?"

Blair smiled. "Just fine. It's kind of weird how fast that... uh... hallucination ended."

Jim shrugged. "Well, it was probably a remnant of your dream. You know, what do they call those... waking dreams? When you're not fully awake and you hallucinate images from your dream?"

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Hey, all of a sudden you're Sigmund Freud?"

"A man of many trades, Chief."

Blair chuckled. "And oh so modest."

Jim shook his finger at Blair. "Uh-uh. No talking. Doctor's orders."

Blair grimaced and turned to look out the window.

"Good boy," Jim teased.

Blair threw a glare over his shoulder.

They arrived at the loft fifteen minutes later. Jim opened the passenger door for Blair, who hopped out eagerly. The two men made their way to the elevator, and Blair bounced on his toes the whole way up. Jim studies his partner carefully, then shook his head. I'll be damned, but I don't know how the kid does it.

When the elevator doors opened, Blair dashed out into the hallway and practically skipped over to the loft door. Blair stood outside the door, bouncing eagerly, as he waited for Jim to catch up.

"Hey, old man, hurry it up," Blair teased.

"Watch it, Junior," Jim growled, "Or I'll drive you right back to the hospital."

Blair chuckled, continuing to bounce energetically. Jim opened the loft door, then watched as Blair dashed into the loft. The kid vaulted over the back of the couch, and grabbed the remote, flicking on the television. He managed to sit still for three whole seconds before jumping off of the couch and running into the kitchen.

Jim had had enough. He caught Blair's arm and spun him around. "Easy there, Chief. Slow down."

Blair's arms gestured wildly. "Hey, man. I feel great. Totally wired, in fact."

Jim nodded. "Uh-huh."

He wondered about the cause of Blair's sudden spurt of energy. Amphetamines?But it's been hours....

"It's so weird, man. I mean, I guess I should feel pretty lousy. I mean, just a little bit ago I was freaking out... totally seeing all these spiders and things... very scary," he pretended to shiver, then yanked himself out of Jim's grasp as he bolted for the refrigerator.

"Blair," Jim began.

"Yeah? Hey man, you want a beer," he asked, grabbing two beers from the refrigerator.

Jim walked over to Blair, took the two beers, returned them to the refrigerator, and then grabbed Blair's elbow.

"Hey, Jim, cut it out," Blair protested as Jim led him toward the bedroom.

"Sandburg, I  don't quite know what's up with you, but you're going to bed."

"No man, I'm not tired. Not at all. I couldn't sleep if I tried. C'mon, I slept plenty at the hospital."

Jim sighed, releasing his hold on Blair. He walked over to the closet, grabbed the mop and threw it to Blair. The young man caught the handle in mid-air and looked curiously at the stick he held in his hand.

"What's this?"

"It's a mop, Sandburg. You've got all this energy, clean the kitchen."

Blair's face fell. "Oh, man come on. The doctor said I needed to rest."

"Which I told you to do. Now either get your butt in bed, or start mopping," Jim ordered.

Blair scowled, then stomped over to the kitchen sink. He opened the cabinet below the sink and pulled out a bucket, then proceeded to fill it with pinesol and water.

"This really stinks, man. It's, like, what after midnight? 2 am? Hell, I don't know," Blair muttered.

Jim watched Blair fill the bucket, then walked quietly upstairs to his bedroom. He grabbed the phone and dialed the hospital. When the front desk picked up, he asked to speak with Doctor Perkins. Fortunately, he only had to wait a couple of minutes to reach her.

"Hello, Perkins here," she said.

"Yes, Doctor, this is Jim Ellison," he began.

"What's wrong? You just left here... don't tell me he had another flashback."

Jim shook his head, even though the gesture was wasted on the doctor, "No, no," he said, keeping his voice low. "It's just that, all of a sudden, he's bouncing off the walls. He says he can't sleep, and he can't seem to sit still for more than a few seconds."

"Hmmnn... well, he did get a hefty dose of amphetamines, but those shouldn't be affecting him now... at least, not so strongly."

"That's what I figured... so what do you think?"

"I'm not sure. The levels in his blood were high, but he's well out of danger now. Of course, his behavior could be due to the third drug, but we won't know til we get something concrete back. It could be some new designer drug, but, really, I'm only guessing. On the other hand, his reaction could be perfectly normal... a reaction to the stress and the hospital stay. Maybe he's still pumped from the adrenaline rush he got during the flashback... "

"Yeah, yeah, maybe..." Jim muttered.

"Just keep an eye on him. If you start to notice extreme mood swings, dizziness, or abnormal memory loss, let me know... day or night, anytime. Call the hospital and, if I'm not here, they'll page me at home... I'll leave your name at the front desk."

"Thank you, Doctor," Jim said.

"No problem. Take care of him."

"I will," he said, then hung up the phone.

He trotted down the stairs and came to an abrupt stop at the bottom as he peered into the kitchen. Blair stood slouched against the refrigerator, leaning on the mop handle, virtually asleep on his feet. Jim smiled and walked softly up to his friend. Carefully, he grabbed Blair by the waste, set the mop aside, and steered his semi-conscious friend into the bedroom.

"Huh? Jim, check her out," Blair mumbled, his eyes closed.

Jim smiled as he pulled back the covers on the bed. Dreaming about a lady, eh Chief? He put a hand on Blair's shoulder and pushed him onto the bed. Slowly, he pushed Blair backward, forcing the young man to lie down. Then he grabbed his legs and brought them up onto the bed. Taking care not to wake his sleeping guide, he removed Blair's shoes and socks, and, finally, pulled the covers up to his chin.

"There you go, Chief, all tucked in," he said quietly, then sneaked out of the bedroom and walked into the kitchen. He dumped the bucket of water into the sink, checked the locks, turned out the lights, then made his way upstairs to his own room.

 


Blair grimaced, silently cursing Doctor Perkins, even though, rationally, he knew she wasn't to blame. However, she had been right, much to Blair's dismay -- his throat did hurt.... actually, it more than hurt.... it was on fire. His mouth felt heavy with saliva, but he didn't dare swallow. Instead, he got out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom in the clothes he'd fallen asleep in, jeans and a t-shirt.

Once in the bathroom, he relieved himself, than went to the sink. He leaned over and spit into the basin, then grabbed a toothbrush and set to work getting the foul, sticky taste out of his mouth. Five minutes later, he rinsed his mouth out and headed into the kitchen, stifling a yawn. He didn't think his throat could handle a yawn just yet.

"Hey, Chief, how're you feeling," Jim asked as he stood by the stove over a pan of scrambled eggs.

Blair forced a smile. In truth, he felt like shit. In addition to his aching throat, his head was starting to pound with the beginnings of what was sure to be a whopper headache. Blair raised his hand and tapped his wrist, a silent question.

"It's almost eleven, Chief. I called Doctor Lovan a few hours ago and cancelled our appointment. Our canine friend is still doing marvelously."

Blair nodded and mouthed 'Good' as he sat down at the kitchen table.

"I'll make some tea for you just as soon as I finish my eggs," Jim said. "Regular tea, of course... maybe some of that rasberry stuff that's been in the cabinet since last christmas."

Blair shook his head.

Jim ignored Blair. "I've also got some watery oatmeal covered and waiting for you in the microwave. I'll heat it up for you."

Blair shook his head again as Jim walked over to the microwave, opened the door, shifted the lid off of the tupperware container housing the oatmeal, and set the microwave to a 1 minute heat cycle. Then Jim returned to the pan of eggs and turned off the burner. Humming softly, he grabbed a plate and dumped the eggs onto it as he turned to sit down at the table.

"Yours'll be ready soon."

Blair glared at him. He raised his hands and rubbed his throat, then shook his head.

"Sorry, Chief, but the doctor said you needed to get something in your stomach... and you can't go without fluids for very long."

Blair sighed.

Jim looked at him, his head tilted slightly. "Your throat that bad this morning?"

Blair nodded solemnly. Jim grinned and stretched his arms above his head, producing a long, drawn-out sigh.

"Well, at least I'll have some peace and quiet," he said.

Blair stuck his tongue out, then rose from the table and walked over to his laptop. He plopped himself down on the couch and switched on the power. Okay, so Jim's living this up. Two can play at this game, he mused.

When the machine finished booting, Blair started up the WordPad program, then changed his mind and exited it. He started up Microsoft Word and set the preferences to voice mode. He'd forgotten all about that feature, which was possible due to a program he'd downloaded about a month ago, but never used.

With his back to Jim, he allowed himself a small grin, then bent over the computer and typed, "I have a headache." He hit the ENTER key and the machine spewed out the sentence in a semi-coherent, mechanical tone.

"Hey, why didn't you do that yesterday," Jim asked from the table.

"I forgot about it," Blair typed, and the machine spoke.

Jim grunted. "I knew this was too good to last." He sighed. "Uh... I don't know if we should give you anything for that headache, Chief."

"I know. It's okay," Blair responded through the computer. "But, maybe you could get some of my meditation music... the cd with the blue cover... and light some of the aromatherapy candles." Blair's grin widened.   "That might help the headache... cause it's getting really bad." If he wants to mother me, so be it.... maybe I can wear him out and he'll stop hovering so much.

Jim's fork scraped against his plate just as the microwave beeped to signal the end of its cycle. Blair turned his head to see Jim rise from the table and retrieve the oatmeal from the microwave. The anthropologist didn't want to push his luck with Jim's good graces to the limit, so he rose and headed back to the kitchen table as Jim set the oatmeal in front of him and then poured him a glass of orange juice.

"Drink. Eat. Be Merry," Jim chimed.

Blair took a moment to rub his temples, both because his headache was genuinely increasing in intensity, and to remind Jim of his distress. After all, since he couldn't talk and, therefore, pretty much had to take Jim's orders without complaint, he might as well try to enjoy himself. Maybe he could milk this for as much as it was worth, and Jim would get exasperated enough to go out for awhile. Not that Blair didn't want Jim in the loft, it was just that he could use a bit of time to meditate quietly, and Jim definitely needed some time off from worrying about him.

"No stalling, Sandburg," Jim growled.

Blair put on his best expression of shocked innocence, then raised the glass of orange juice. Gingerly, he took a small sip, and winced as the cold liquid sliced its way down his throat.

"That's better," Jim said as he sat back down at the table.

Their breakfast was interrupted by a knocking. Jim stood and walked over to the door, cocking his head slightly as he often did when using his sentinel ears.

"Who is it," he asked, as he unlocked the chain.

"UPS," the man answered.

Jim unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door. The somewhat stout UPS man held out a small, brown package, which Jim accepted and set on the floor so he could sign for the delivery.

"Have a nice day," the delivery man said as he turned to leave.

"You too," Jim muttered, locking the door.

Jim picked up the package and glanced at the label. Shrugging, he walked over to Blair and set the square box down in front of his partner. Then he walked over to the sink and poured some water into the tea kettle. He set the teapot on the back burner and set the flame to medium.

Blair raised his eyebrows and peered at the label on the package. It was addressed to him with a return addresss from Stanford University. Blair's brow furrowed, and he glanced back at Jim with a shrug. He wasn't expecting any deliveries, and any university business would have been sent to Ranier. Still, he couldn't leave the packaged unopened for long... nope, that just wouldn't be proper. He smiled as he grabbed the butter knife next to Jim's plate and sliced through the tape at the top of the small box. His curiousity threatened to overwhelm him, so, with eager fingers, he pulled open the lid and peered inside....

His breath caught in his throat as the blood drained from his face.

Jim was at his side immediately. He grabbed the box and peered inside. "Damnit! Aww... Chief..."

Blair stood from the table and stumbled backwards toward the bathroom. The room spun, and he turned around and flung himself through the door, barely making it to the toilet in time. He vomitted the meager contents of his stomach into the toilet, but most of the regurgitated matter consisted of bile, which aggravated his already firey throat.

He didn't realize Jim had been right behind him, but he felt the larger man's hand on his shoulder, and was immensely grateful when Jim pulled his hair out of his face as he continued to retch dry heaves. God, stop it! Stop it! His wretching was agony on his throat, and the remnants of the acidic bile felt like torture.

"Easy, Chief. Just take your time," Jim soothed.

Blair closed his eyes as his wretching subsided. Certain that his stomach had finished its revolt, he leaned back, falling against Jim's chest.

"God," he sighed.

Jim wrapped his arms around Blair's chest and pulled him up. "C'mon, let's get you to your room."

Blair shook his head. "Sink," he rasped.

"Okay." Jim guided Blair over to the sink, keeping a hand on the younger man's arm as he washed out his mouth.

When Blair finished, he leaned over and placed his head against the edge of the cool porcelain, his curls hiding his face from Jim's concerned gaze.

"You okay," Jim asked.

Blair managed a restrained nod, his forehead rocking slowly against the edge of the sink.

"C'mon, now," Jim said, tugging gently on Blair's arm. "To your room now. I'll deal with the... package."

Blair swallowed and forced himself to straighten. He let Jim lead him to his bedroom, and then fell into his bed, burying his face in the pillow. God, what kind of sick mind could do such a thing, and why do these psychos always gravitate toward me? Oh God... Tim... the only reason you died was because you knew me... I'm so sorry... so sorry... He squeezed his eyes shut, trying desperately to block out the images that had assaulted him when he'd peered into the box... Tims green eyes, both of them, packed in a jar full of clear liquid... a polaroid... Tim strapped to a table, very much like the one Garret had strapped Blair to less than a week ago.... his eyes cut out... blood all over his face.... his chest... his clothes torn and filthy.... mouth open in a silent scream. He pressed his face harder into the pillow, 'til he couldn't breathe, and allowed a muffled sob to erupt from his chest.

 


In the living room, Jim listened to Blair's soft sob, and the sound hit him in the chest like a knife. With his hands clenched into tight fists, he walked over to the table and looked into the open box, his sentinel sight searching for that which would not be obvious to the casual observer. Inside, a small jar housed two small floating green orbs -- Robbins' eyes, he guessed. Styrofoam pieces kept the jar cushioned, but visible. Taped to the top of the jar was polaroid shot of a young man, apparently in his early twenties, with dark hair and fair skin. Two dark red blotches marred the sockets that used to house his eyes. Jim closed his eyes briefly, trying not to think about the torture the man must have endured, evident by the frozen expression of horror on his face... the open mouth, stretched to an almost-impossible diameter.

Jim opened his eyes again and resumed his scrutiny. A yellow scarf rested on top of the styrofoam balls. He zoomed in on the cloth, seeing the individual silk fibers that wove together to create the whole.... soft and yellow...

He blinked and pulled back, taking a deep breath. He'd almost zoned out on the scarf. With a sigh, he abandoned his examination of the box's contents. He walked over to the phone and dialed Simon's home number. Being Saturday, he figured Simon would be home, probably enjoying a visit with Darryl. He hated to interrupt his Captain's weekend, but he was sure Simon would want to know about the delivery ASAP. Jim could very well call the station and have forensics over to the loft within the hour, without disturbing Simon, but, truth be told, he needed to hear Simon's voice right now. Next to Sandburg, his Captain was his closest friend, and Jim hoped his friend could temper his flaring emotions. The last thing Blair needed was for Jim to loose himself in an angry rage.... and that is exactly what he felt like doing... grabbing every cup, plate, and breakable in the loft and hurling them, one by one, against the walls...

"Hello," Simon's deep voice answered.

"Captain, it's Jim."

"What's wrong, Jim? You don't sound too good."

"Sandburg got a package delivered via UPS a few minutes ago..."

"And you wouldn't be calling me if it was some obscure artifact from South America, would you?"

"No, sir. Two human eyes in a jar, a gruesome polaroid of Robbins, and a yellow scarf."

Simon inhaled sharply. "Jesus. How's the kid?"

"Not good, Sir."

"I'll be right over... just as soon as I make a call down to forensics. You're at the loft?"

"Yes, Sir... Thank you."

 


Two hours later, the box was gone, taken down to the lab with the two-person forensics team. Simon leaned against the back of the couch, his arms crossed over his chest, as he gazed at Ellison with dark, concerned eyes.

"He hasn't made a peep," the Captain said.

Ellison sighed, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. "I know. He's awake... His heartrate's steady, his breathing's a little ragged," he explained, keeping his voice low so that Sandburg wouldn't overhear the conversation.   "He took it pretty hard, poor kid. I'm sure he's laying on a lot of that famous Sandburg guilt on himself. Tim was his student, and Garret killed him because of that. You know Sandburg, he's a gentle soul. He feels things more deeply than you or I."

Simon sighed. "Yeah, I know." He lowered his glasses on the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. "You think he'd be willing to meet with the department shrink?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know, Sir. I'll talk to him about it. I think it's a good idea, though."

Simon nodded. "Okay, let me know.... do you, uh, want me to stick around here for awhile?"

Jim smiled, but shook his head. "Go home, Sir. Isn't Darryl visiting?"

Simon nodded. "Yep. He's home playing video games.... neighbors keeping an eye out on him."

Jim sighed. "I'm sorry to have dragged you down here, Sir."

Simon raised his hands. "Not a problem, Jim. I would have kicked your ass come Monday if you hadn't."

Jim managed a small chuckle as he followed Simon to the door. "Goodnight, Simon."

"G'night, Jim. Take care of the kid."

Jim nodded. "Of course."

He closed the door behind Simon, then leaned against it and lowered his head, trying to massage the tension out of his neck and shoulders. After a few seconds of working the knot out of the base of his neck, he inhaled a deep breath, straightened, and walked to Sandburg's door.

He knocked twice. "Chief?"

"Come in, Jim."

He opened the door and walked in. Sandburg laid on his back on the bed, hands behind his head, staring blankly up at the ceiling, his eyes red.

So what am I supposed to say? Don't worry, Chief, it'll be okay? We'll catch this psycho? None of this is your fault? He winced inwardly. All those words... well, they sounded stale, cheap. He'd spoken them a thousand times before.   Well, then, forget about words, he told himself. No words could comfort his tormented guide, not now. He walked over to Blair's bed and sat down on the edge. Blair turned his tired, red eyes toward Jim, his expression flat. Jim reached out and grabbed Blair's hand, holding it firmly in his own.

"I'm not even sure how old he was," Blair whispered, wincing slightly as the words formed in his throat. "Nineteen, twenty maybe. He was just a student... my student... one among 70 or so."

"If it wasn't him, it would have been somebody else, Chief. I know you don't belive this right now, but this has absolutely nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with Garret and and his fixation with Lash. Lash chose you as one of his victims, and now Garret has focused on you... none of this is your fault. You can blame yourself all you want, but it won't change the truth. You are NOT to blame," Jim said.

Blair nodded. "That's what my head says, but there's still the fact that Tim would be alive right now if he hadn't taken my class... if he never knew me," his voice cracked, and he turned his gaze back to the ceiling.

A knock at the door spared Jim from responding. With a pat on Blair's knee, he stood up and headed out to the living room.

"Who is it," he asked cautiously when he reached the front door.

"Jarod." One word, spoken plainly. It sent a spike through Jim's chest.

Jim dashed upstairs and retrieved his gun. Holding the firearm at his side, he trotted down the stairs and approached the front door. Stepping to the side of the door, his shoulder to the wall, he unlocked the door and grabbed the knob. His hand clenched around the handle of the gun and he raised it in front of him as he swung the door open.

Jarod stood calmly in the hallway, wearing a crisp, black leather jacket, and gazed curiously at the gun in Jim's hand. "Hello, Detective. Are you going to shoot me, or shall we talk?"

Jim clenched his jaw, grabbed Jarod by the collar, and yanked him inside. He slammed the door shut, keeping his gaze and gun focused on Jarod.

"Talk," he said. "Then I'll take you downtown."

Blair's raspy voice emanated from the bedroom, and Jim heard his guide's footsteps scuffle against the wood floor. "Jim?"

"Stay in your room, Sandburg!"

Jarod glanced in the direction of Blair's room. "Mr. Sandburg," he yelled. "It's Jarod."

Blair peeked his head into the living room. His brow crinkled anxiously when he spotted the gun in Jim's hand. "Hey, Jim, put that down."

"I can't do that, Chief."

"He's on our side."

Jim didn't take his eyes off Jarod. "Neither of us can be sure of that, Chief."

"He saved my life man. He came to my office... he could have taken me out both of those times, but he didn't... Trust me, man. If he was a killer, I'd be dead," Blair reasoned.

Jim ground his back molars together. "He impersonated a department psychologist... forged papers..."

"I told you about the Center, Jim. C'mon, you gotta understand how someone with... uh... special abilities could want to hide from the less-than-ethical factions of our government."

Jim finally turned his gaze on Blair. His partner stood in the doorway of the bedroom, leaning on the frame, blue eyes wide, radiating one desperate plea: Trust me. Jim swallowed, then turned his gaze back to Jarod. Slowly, he lowered the gun. Jarod released an almost imperceptible sigh.

"Okay, we can talk," Jim said, tucking the gun in the waistband of his pants.

"Do you want to stop these killings, Detective," Jarod asked.

"Of course I do," Jim growled. "Cut to the chase."

Jarod nodded slightly. "Garret, as I told Mr. Sandburg, is a pretender... I'm also a pretender, and I'm trying to help you catch him. I want these murders to stop just as much as you do."

"Go on," Jim prodded, standing stiffly in front of Jarod.

"I want to warn you, though... you're getting involved with things you don't understand... there are ruthless people after me... and Garret, I assume, who won't hesitate to kill to get what they want."

Jim glanced at Blair, who was still leaning against the doorframe, silently observing the conversation.

"I can take care of myself," Jim said, but wondered if he could do the same for Blair.

"I know." He turned and walked over to the couch, leaning casually against the back. "I caught up with Garret... after Blair was freed. He wants me to help him expose the Center. However, he's unstable, violent... quite insane... a product of the Center," Jarod said, his eyes turning hard. "I'm not working with him, and I have no intention of working with him, but I can help you catch him. You're after him, the center's after him, and, meanwhile, he keeps on killing. Now, if you arrest him, the Center will most likely still get him... just like they checked me out. If the Center gets him, they'll probably perform more of their tests on him... perhaps try to turn him back into an operative. Believe me, they have plenty of homicidal maniacs working for them already."

Jim stared at Jarod with a blank expression. "Assuming I believe even a fraction of this, why are you helping us to catch him... according to your story, the Center will just get him, anyway."

Jarod nodded. "I know. I'm not talking to you as Detective James Ellison. I'm talking to you as a former Covert Ops Army Ranger and a Sentinel."

Jim raised his eyebrows.

"Garret will continue to go after Sandburg, until and unless he's caught. The Center doesn't care about Sandburg. You do... you're the only one who can protect him... and, I was hoping that you might be able to help me."

"How," Jim asked.

Jarod swallowed. "General Peter Cartwright. Remember him?"

Jim straightened visibly. "Yes. I saved his son's life about 8 years ago..."

"You took a bullet for him."

Jim nodded.

"General Cartwright was involved with an operation about three years ago that involved the Center. I don't know the details, but I do know that he's involved, at least peripherally, with the Center. Sidney, my contact, told me that he received information that may link Cartwright to my parents... either he knew them, or he knows who they are... though I don't know if he's aware of the Pretender project. However, if he did know them, then he knew they had a son... a son that was taken from them, or one that they gave up... I'm not sure. However, if you could ask Cartwright about it, I'm guessing he'd be inclined to tell you," Jarod said.

"So you're doing all this just to find your parents... all you want from me is to ask an old friend a question?"

Jarod nodded. "It may or may not give me the answers I've been looking for, but maybe it'll point me in the right direction."

Jim shook his head, his expression softening.

"So, will you help him, Jim," Blair asked.

Jim looked over at Blair and held the younger man's gaze for a few seconds. He nodded. "Yes, I'll talk to Cartwright. If he knows anything, I'm pretty sure he'll play it straight with me. He'll either tell me he can't say anything, or he'll tell me what he knows. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't lie to me... and, if he is involved with the center, I can assure you he'd have nothing to do with the kidnapping of children."

Jarod nodded. "Thank you."

"Now, how can you help me find Garret," Jim asked.

Jarod cocked his head. "Simple. He's agreed to tell me the location of his next victim, before he kills him or her, if I'll help him take control of the cameras at KBTX for the six O'Clock news show airing this Monday."

"What?" Blair finally pushed himself off the doorframe and scuffled into the living room.

Jarod looked at Blair, a small smile playing on his lips. "I told you. He wants to expose the Center... he wants media attention... fame... He's got hold of some Center tapes that document the psychological and neurological experiments they performed on children."

That got Jim's attention. "Do you have some of these tapes."

Jarod nodded.

"Can you show them to us?"

"Yes, I can... but only if you agree to view them... nothing more," Jarod responded.

"We promise," Blair said, ignoring the glare Jim threw his way.

"Now?"

Jim glanced at Blair, who nodded.

"One question, though," Blair began. Both Jarod and Jim gazed at him curiously, so he continued. "Won't Garret be suspicious of you? After all, you rescued me... and, if he's after me, he's likely to know you've met with me... he could have followed you to my office, or here. He has to figure you'll use the station thing to turn him in."

Jarod nodded somberly. "Of course he does. However, he's already kidnapped his next victim. He knows you and I won't jeopardize that person's life. He says he'll provide us with his or her location AFTER he gets his airtime."

Blair closed his eyes.

"You believe him" Jim asked.

Jarod shrugged.

"So how's he planning on getting away afterwards," Blair asked.

"Well, once he goes public with his evidence, things will change. The Center will be on the defensive. There'll be, what is the expression... major damage control," Jarod explained.

"And, with the fall-out, he stands to gain," Jim finished. "Play the victim... probably even get whisked up by other goverment factions."

Jarod nodded.

"But it's not going to work that way," Jim muttered. "He's not getting away."

"No." Jarod smiled. "Because I know where his victim is... right now."

Blair's jaw dropped open and Jim took a hasty step toward Jarod.

"Where," Jim demanded.

"The same place Lash took Mr. Sandburg," Jarod answered, glancing at Blair.

Blair's face paled, and he reached out to grab the kitchen counter as his knees buckled. Jim sprung to his side and caught him just in time, wrapping a strong arm around his waist.

Jarod took a step closer to Blair, then stopped, looking momentarily uncertain. He watched Jim guide Blair over to the couch, then lower him onto the cushions with infinite care.

"You okay," Jim asked.

Blair leaned forward and hung his head between his knees. "Who?"

Jarod lowered his head. "I don't know who the latest victim is."

Jim spun around and Jarod with a steel gaze. "Than how the hell do you know where they are?"

With a tilt of his head, Jarod replied, "I don't know for sure. It makes sense, though.... but, I was hoping you could confirm it."

Jim narrowed his gaze, the tendons of his neck popping out out he clenched his jaw. He looked as though he could kill Jarod right there. "How exactly am I supposed to do that? I'm getting damn tired of these games you're playing."

Jarod met Ellison's icey blue glare with his own cool, dark gaze. "He sent you a photo, didn't he?"

A flicker of emotion touched Jim's face, then he nodded.

"Of coure," Blair interrupted. "Jim, try to focus on the background of the photo."

Jim looked down at Blair. The young man's color had returned, and his eyes held a shadow of their usual sparkle. Jim shook his head. One thought about helping me with my senses, and the kid puts everything else aside.

Jim nodded, not daring to argue with his guide... not now, anyway. It didn't matter that he barely remembered the photo... he hadn't looked that closely at it... just the face... that poor, tormented face. He'd nearly zoned trying to find traces of evidence in the box, so he hadn't gotten around to focusing on the photo. He sighed, putting his doubt on hold. Sandburg wanted him to try, and so he'd try... without argument this time.

He closed his eyes and focused his mind's eye on the image of the polaroid.

"Good, Jim," Blair said, "Now, remember the photo.... There's Robbins on the table... but put that aside, forget about that image. Focus instead on the background. It's dark, but you can make out. It's there, in your mind.... What's behind Timothy Robbins?"

Jim felt himself falling into a light trance... drifting deeper and deeper until it seemed as though he were actually falling into the picture itself. Then it happened - suddenly - and he nearly gasped. The clarity slammed into him, and he stopped breathing... didn't dare to breath for fear of disturbing the image. It wasn't much.. just an old staircase with a broken step... barely discernible in the photo... not enough light for the camera... but it was there, a little bit, anyway... just enough for him to make out... or make up, depending. Was it really there, or was he imagining it? The power of suggestion? He crinkled his brow and tried to put aside the suggestion.

"Just focus on the picture, Jim... nothing else.... what's in the picture," Blair's soft voice prodded.

Got it! Jim's eyes shot open, and he stared at Blair. "He was there," he stated firmly.

 


The night erupted into a kaleidescope of blue and red lights as half a dozen police cruisers descended onto the abandoned warehouse.

Jim leapt out of his truck, and sprinted toward Simon, who stood on the street outside bellowing out orders. Jarod and Blair followed closely behind.

Simon turned to look at the trio, and he nearly swallowed his cigar when he saw Jarod. "What the hell is he doing here? You didn't mention anything about him..." he reached for his gun, but Jim put a hand on his elbow.

"It's okay, Sir, he's the one who led us here," Jim explained.

Simon remained tense, looking skeptically at Jarod. Finally he dropped his hand and looked back at Ellison. "Okay, we'll go over it later," he said, then looked back at Jarod, adding, "You can count on it."

Jarod nodded, but his attention was fixed on the chaotic scene before him. "Do you know if he's here," he asked.

Jim tilted his head, searching with his ears as he filtered out the individual sounds of chaos.

"That's it, Jim, filter it out," Blair began. "Each sound, one by one.. the voice of the officers, the radios, the cars... now go to the warehouse... send you hearing inside... to that window... what do you hear?"

"Well, damnit, it looks like he found me. Maybe this was a bit too predictable, after all... come to think of it, yes, it was. Still, there's something to be said for tradition. It wouldn't have been the same if I'd chosen a different location. It doesn't matter, they're only cops. I got away from the Center, I'll get away from them."

... a muffled sob...

Jim shook his head. "He's here, with a woman, I think. He thinks he can escape."

"He thinks wrong," Simon snapped.

Jim raised his hand, listening.

"Damnit, the cops!" A female voice.

"We've got it covered." A male voice, not Garret's.

"Oh really, Einstein? I don't see what's so important about this psycho, anyway... might as well put a bullet in him."

"Orders. Raines wants him alive."

"Of course, whatver Raines says..."

Jim tore his attention away from the conversation. "There's at least two more people in their besides Garret and his victim: a woman and a man."

"Parker," Jarod whispered.

All three pairs of eyes turned to Jarod.

"Who," Simon asked.

Jarod looked at Jim. "The Center," he said.

"What? Would someone mind explaining this to me," Simon bellowed.

"No time," Jarod said, shaking his head.

"Damn!" Jim ran to one of the members of the SWAT team and yanked him aside. "I'm going in... give me your gear."

"Excuse me," the man responded, glancing at Captain Banks.

Banks grimaced, then nodded. "Just do it, Kapler."

 


Blair watched anxiously as Jim disappeared into the warehouse, leading in a team of four men. He wore a headset, listening to Jim give orders.

"Jeffrey, you go that way. Taylor, take the right.. seal the exits. I'm taking the stairs. Barker, you're with me."

"Can you still hear him, Jim?" Blair kept his gaze on the warehouse as he spoke into his headset.

"Yes," Jim said quietly. "He hasn't moved."

"Be careful," Blair mumbled, mindful to keep his voice soft.

"Shhh..." Jim hissed.

Just trying to keep you centered, buddy, Blair thought. Just don't zone in there, man. So who was Parker, anyway? And how had the Center figured out Garret's location?

Blair lowered the mouthpiece on his headset, and turned to Jarod to voice his questions.... but his mouth hung open silently when he realized Jarod had disappeared. He clamped his mouth shut and glanced over at Simon, who stood near the SWAT van, barking orders into his own headset.

Blair wandered away from the scene, searching the streets for any sign of Jarod. He reached up and switched the mic off on the headset, scanning the area with his eyes. He caught a glimpse of movement a few yards down the street as something dashed into an alley between two neighboring brick buildings.

Blair broke into a run. "Jarod? Jarod!"

"No sign of him."

"Stay alert, we're heading down the stairs now."

Blair listened into the conversation, half his mind focused on Jim's voice, the other half wondering what Jarod was up to? Had the Center caught up with him? Was he running from them, or captured by them?

"No sign of him here."

"Keep it quiet."

A crash. "Damnit! Okay here."

"Damnit, I told you to keep quiet, Kapler," Jim ordered. A pause, then, "I've got the woman! She's okay."

Blair rounded the corner and skidded to a halt in front of four people: Jarod, Garret, a white-haired man, and a very attractive woman with cold blue eyes. His eyes immediately focused on the gun in the woman's hand, even as the white-haired man raised his own gun to Blair.

"NO!" Jarod stepped in front of Blair, blocking the man's aim.

"Who the hell is he," the woman asked.

Garret turned to look at Blair, his expression one of amusement. "This ain't your day, kid, is it?"

"Leave him out of this, Miss Parker," Jarod said, then turned to look at Blair. "Go, Blair. Walk away."

Blair swallowed, his heart pounding in his chest. Hiding behind Jarod, he reached up and switched the mic back on.

"Who are you guys, anyway, and what's with the guns? What do the two of you want to do with Garret and Jarod here? I mean, we're a couple of blocks away from an entire squadron of police cars...."

Parker raised her gun and fired into the air. "Do you think I'm an idiot, you neo-hippie reject? Take off the damn headset."

"Let's go!" the white haired man said. "I'm sure they're on their way."

Parker waved her gun at Jarod while the white haired man covered Garret.

"Two pretenders for the price of one," Parker said. "Not bad."

Blair swallowed as Parker sprang forward and yanked his headset off. She dropped it to the ground and stepped on it, crushing the mic into the blacktop.

"The roof," she said, waving her gun upwards as she pushed Jarod Blair forward.

Anytime, Jim. Anytime, Blair pleaded silently.

 


Jim's heart skipped a beat when he heard the gunshot. Holding his breath, he listened to the woman tell Blair to take off the headset, and it was only then that he released the air in his lungs. That, at least meant his guide was alive... injured maybe, God he hoped not... but alive.

"We have Garret and two perpetrators in the alley a couple of blocks down!" Jim's voice boomed through the network of headsets in the area. "The woman's being escorted outside with Barker. She appears uninjured."

Jim didn't waist time listening to the voices on the other end of the headset. Instead, he lowered the headset, letting it hang around his neck, as he tilted his head. He searched the surrounding area for the sound of Blair's voice... even his heartbeat. The first thing he heard, outside of the myriad chatterings and radio cackles, was the sound of a chopper. The second thing he heard was the heart-warming sound of Blair's voice.

"Why are we going to the roof?."

"Shut up!"

"So you're up to murdering innocent people, now, Miss Parker," Jarod said.

"Move it, Jarod. Stop the chattering."

"Helicopter's on the way, I'm sure," Garret said.

"Where are we going," Blair asked. "There's nothing in this old brownstone building."

Another shot, Jim flinched.

"I said SHUT UP!" The woman's voice.

Jim shook the voices off and bolted into a run. He'd managed to fix on Blair's location, his instincts solidified by Blair's description. The old UPS building, he realized, hurrying his pace.

He flew through the doors of the warehouse, emerging into the cool night air, and immediately bolted past Simon.

"There at the old UPS building with Blair and Garret!"

Simon dropped his cigar and ran after Jim. "This way! All Units. Surround the area."

Jim looked up, using his enhanced vision to spot Blair, Jarod, Garret, and two others on top of the roof. The chopper was just visible in the distance. Jim rounded the corner and flung himself onto the fire escape. Waisting not a moment, he scrambled upward in record time. When he reached the time, he spared a glance down at the Simon and the handful of uniforms below him. He raised his hand, signalling the men below to wait there. He pulled the gun out of his waistband and peeked his head over the side of the building.

The noise of the helicopter was louder now, and it was moving in on the building. The group on the roof gazed upward, the woman's hair flying around her face. Jarod stood next to Blair, his hands hanging limply at his sides, his eyes watchful. Jim nodded in approval. He was pretty sure he could count on Jarod to act quickly once he made his move. He already knew Blair would be ready... the kid knew he was coming. And I'm not going to let you down, Chief. Just hang on.

The helicopter touched down and Jim raised his gun, aiming at gun in the white-haired man's hand. He fired. The man flew back, clutching his injured hand, as Parker turned her gun on a poised Jarod, firing just over his shoulder.

Jarod froze. "You won't shoot me."

"Think again," she said.

Jarod took a step back. Parker shifted her aim and let off three shots in Jim's direction.

"NO!" Blair sprung forward and slammed into Miss Parker.

They went down in a tangle of arms and legs, the gun flying from her hand. Jarod dashed for the weapon, but it spun to a halt in front of Garret, who lunged for and rolled onto his knees, the gun cocked and raised.

Jim rose onto the rooftop, his gun aimed on Garret. "PUT IT DOWN!"

Garret reached out and yanked Blair off of Miss Parker, using the young anthropologist as a shield. However, he kept the gun aimed at Jarod. "Go ahead, Ellison! I've got both of them covered. Who do you want to risk?"

Garret shifted his arm, bringing it around Blair's neck. Blair's eyes widened, his hands going up to his already bruised neck. He locked eyes with Jim, conveying a whirlwind of sensations: pain, fear, apology... and trust.

Jim held that reassuring gaze for a few seconds, then stared into Garret's wild, amused face. "You hurt either of them, you're dead."

"Isn't that what the hero always says," Garret mocked. He tightened his grip on Blair, producing a low strangled gasp from the young man.

"What's the matter, Blair, throat hurt," Garret asked, chuckling. "Damn pit bull... funny how the most random factors can destroy the finest laid plan."

Parker stood up slowly, glancing at the helicopter pilot. The man locked eyes with her, then nodded. Jim kept the exchange visible in his peripheral vision, but didn't shift his eyes. He didn't want to alert Garret to the exchange.

The pilot reached to his side, his hand emerging with a small handgun. He aimed it at Garret, his finger firm on the trigger.

Jim swallowed. Garret cocked his gun, keeping it aimed at Jarod. It won't work, Jim realized. If the pilot shot Garret, Garret would shoot Jarod... the slightest flinch on Garret's part would jar the trigger and send a bullet flying into Jarod's chest.

"Shoot!" Parker screamed angrily at the pilot, the worst thing she could have done.

Jim couldn't believe what was happening. How could anyone be so stupid? Garret spun around, keeping his grip on Blair as he shifted his gun toward Jim and pulled the trigger. Jim felt a searing flare of pain in his shoulder, and flew backwards, nearly toppling off the roof.

"JIM!"

Jim laid on the edge, gasping for breath, as the world erupted into chaos around him.  Two more shots, two different sounds... from two guns. Glass breaking. A scream. A thud.

Jim groaned and rolled over, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder. Mentally, he pictured the dial and turned it down, thankful when the pain diminished. Rising to his feet, he realized he still held the gun in his hand. He took stock of the situation. The pilot laid dead outside of the helicopter, sprawled on the floor, the side window of the chopper shattered. Pieces of sparkling glass littered the man's body. Garret maintained his hold on Blair, but the gun was now pointed at Blair's head as he forced Blair toward the chopper.

"Move it," Garret ordered Blair.

No one spoke. No one even breathed. Jim zoomed in on Blair's face.... a mask of horror. He saw Blair's eyes flick in his direction... just briefly. I'm okay, Chief. Just stay calm. Don't do anything stupid. Had Blair thought he'd been critically injured? Probably.

Jim smiled when he heard Blair utter his name... so soft... barely audible even to his Sentinel ears....

"Jim.....?"

I'm right here, Blair. Don't worry, I've got it all covered... yeah, right... that's the lie of the century. Garret shoved Blair into the helicopter. Jim's jaw clenched, his muscles stone. If Garret took off with Blair, that was it... His Guide would be dead. Jim vowed not to let that happen.

As Blair stumbled into the chopper, Garret reached up to lift himself into the chopper... and his gun shifted momentarily away from Blair as he hopped into the seat. Blair glanced at Jim as he flung himself out of the chopper, landing with a thud on the rooftop. Jim didn't hesitated. He fired two shots, and Garret's chest erupted into a spray of red. He fell forward, the gun falling from his hand, and toppled out of the helicopter. His body landed on top of the deceased helicopter pilot.

It was then that the warehouse two blocks away blew up.

 


Blair sat by Jim's hospital bed, slouched uncomfortably in the stiff chair. Jim laid motionless, his left shoulder bandaged, the heartmonitor beeping steadily.

The door opened and closed again. "How's he doing?"

Blair looked up at Simon and managed a small, tired smile. "Oh fine. He's sleeping."

"Not anymore."

Blair and Simon looked at Jim, who now gazed in mock annoyance at his young partner. "Didn't I tell you to go home, Sandburg."

Blair shrugged. "Did you? Nope. Must have been that pain medication they gave you. I don't think you said any such thing. Besides, there's nothing that I'd be doing at the loft that I'm not doing here... and If I'm not here, who's going to make sure they go easy on your meds? Who's going to notice if your senses start going out of whack because they've got you too doped up? What if... "

Jim raised a hand to silence Sandburg, then reached over and pressed the button to raise his bed. Once he was comfortably situated in a near-sit, he looked at Simon and said, "You should have dragged him out of here, Sir."

Simon grinned and raised his hands. "He can be as stubborn as you sometimes, Jim. I'm too old to deal with it."

Jim scowled and turned his gaze onto Blair. "You need to be resting, Chief."

Blair nodded. "I am. It's not like I'm doing jumping jacks, or anything."

"Sandburg, shouldn't you be keeping quiet," Simon asked, his eyebrows raised as he focused a severe gaze on the young anthropologist.

Blair shook his head. "The doc gave me something to swallow... my throat's pretty numb."

"Just because you don't feel the pain, doesn't mean your throat's back to normal," Jim said.

Blair raised his hands in mock-surrender. "Okay... but you guys are just doing this to shut me up. Don't think I don't know it. Gee, you two ever hear of the first amendment?"

Simon shook his head. "Don't you ever get larengitis, Sandburg."

Blair smiled. "Nope."

Jim chuckled, shaking his head.

"Anyway," Simon said, "I came here not only to see how you're doing, but to let you know that Garret's latest victim, Miss Jennings, has cleared with a clean bill of health."

"Thanks, Simon," Blair said, his face taking on a more somber expression. He picked at a stray strand of denim on his worn jeans. "Another one of my students who just happened to be a convenient target."

Jim reached over and placed a hand on Blair's elbow. "Listen, Chief. She's fine... A little shaken up, I'm sure... but this isn't your fault, and I don't want to keep repeating myself on this."

Blair looked up at Jim. "I didn't say it was my fault. Sure, yeah, I feel... well, maybe I do feel like I'm at fault a little, but that's just how I feel. I can't help that. My brain knows what you're telling me is right, Jim." He shrugged. "But I'm minus one student... and I have to go to a funeral next week." He sighed. "A funeral that wouldn't be happening if Timothy had decided to take a different course to fulfill his social sciences requirement."

Jim released his hold on Blair's elbow and let his hand drop to the bed. He gazed worriedly up at Simon. The Captain placed a large hand on Sandburg's slumped shoulder and sighed.

"Listen, kid, why don't I take you down to the cafeteria for some coffee," he said.

Blair glanced up at Simon and smiled sadly. "Sure. I guess."

Blair rose from the chair and headed out the door with Simon.

"Oh Simon?"

"Go on ahead, Blair, I'll catch up," Simon turned back to Jim as Blair headed out the door. "Yeah?"

"Anything on Jarod or the others?"

Simon shook his head. "No, all three have them have disappeared. We couldn't track the chopper, and no one knows if Jarod was in that chopper with Parker and her man, or if he made a ground escape during all the commotion."

Jim frowned. "I should have sensed that bomb, Simon."

"Oh?" Simon raised his eyebrows. "And here all this time I thought you were just human."

Jim sank back into the bed, offering a tired smile. "Don't tell Sandburg. It'll ruin my image."

Simon grinned. "I won't, just as long as you don't spoil my future fun with the kid by letting him know I actually like him."

 


"Hey there, buddy," Blair knelt in front of the wiggling pit bull and turned his face away as the dog's tongue flew over his cheek. With a giggle, he patted the dog on the back of the head. "Ah, if only you were a petite brunette with nice legs and a...."

"Sandburg!" Jim smacked Blair on the back of the head. "Behave yourself."

Doctor Lovan laughed as she watched the pit bull, still sporting bandages around his torso, lavish kisses upon the young man's life he saved. She raised the camera and snapped a picture.

"This'll be great hanging up in the office," she said.

Blair stood up, but the dog remained seated on the floor, his body wiggling excitedly as if he couldn't stand to sit still... even though his injuries demanded it.

"So you're adopting him, huh," Blair asked.

Dr. Lovan grinned and nodded. "It's not often you come across a dog like Sandi."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "Sandi?"

Jim chuckled. Doctor lovan nodded and said, "Yep, short for Sandburg. If it wasn't for you, after all, he'd still be a stray at the park."

Blair turned to Jim. "And how did she come to figure that Sandi was short for Sandburg?"

Jim shrugged. "I might have mentioned the little nickname Megan bestowed upon you... I mean, I don't see Blair as a good name for a dog... and, well, Darwin just didn't fit him."

"He said you didn't like the name, but Sandi here seems to like it just fine... Right, Sandi?"

The dog barked, wagging his tail.

Blair raised his eyebrows, grinning childishly. "Hey, he talks!"

Dr. Lovan laughed. "Well, that and I taught him how to 'speak', but I used the command 'right' instead. That way I can do this little trick and impress people."

Jim smiled and tilted his head. He raised his hand to his chin, looking lost in thought. "Hmmmnn.... maybe I can hire you to housetrain the other Sandi here."

Blair shot Jim a deadly glare. "Just you wait til you need a beer bottle opened, big guy," indicating Jim's sling with a wave of his hand.

"What I miss?" Simon walked through the door of the vet clinic and walked up to Jim.

"Oh, nothing much Simon... I take it you brought it?"

"Right here!" Taggard strolled through the door, followed by Rafe and Brown. In his hand, he held up a bronze shield, encased in a black, velvet case with a glass cover.

Taggart handed the shield to Simon, who, with a silly smile plastered across his face, held the shield out to Doctor Lovan. "The Cascade PD would like to bestow this shield upon the city's shortest hero."

The doors to the vet office opened again, and a man and a woman walked in. The woman, a short brunette with green eyes and a round face, held a large camera in her hand. Her companion, a middle-aged, worn-looking man, followed close behind, carrying a notepad.

"I'm from the Cascade Tribune," she said, extending her hand to Captain Banks, who shook it firmly.

"What can I do for you, ma'am" he asked, his voice somewhat suspicious.

The reporter smiled graciously and said, "We'd like to take a photo of you handing the dog the shield, if that's alright with you. We'd also like to interview..." she looked down at the notepad her partner held, "Mr. Sandburg and Detective Ellison." She looked back up at Simon, then scanned the rest of the faces. "It's not every day you here about a heroic pit bull."

"Well, I don't mind," Blair said, glancing at Sandi. "How 'bout you, Sandi?"

The dog tilted its head and looked up at Blair with curious eyes.

"Nope. You don't mind. Right, Sandi," Blair asked, his eyes sparkling.

Sandi barked, emphasizing the sentiment with a wag of his tail.

 


Two weeks later....

Jim picked up the phone on the second ring. "Ellison."

"Hello, Detective."

"Jarod?"

"How are you and Sandburg?"

"Fine. I spoke with General Cartwright. I'm sorry, but he couldn't provide me with any information."

Jim's sensitive ears picked up Jarod's soft sigh.

"Thank you for trying."

"I'm sorry. He doesn't know anything."

"Give my regards to your partner."

"I will. Take care. If you find yourself in need of help..."

"Thanks, Detective. Goodbye."

"Goodbye, Jarod."

The End