By: Lyn Townsend
Beta read by Sherrylou and Dotty
Written for PetFly by Rick Husky
internal thought in italics
Seated in Captain Simon Bank's office, Blair tried to concentrate on the computer set up on the desk in front of him and not on the overbearing presence that loomed over his shoulder, squinting at the screen.
"Great. Conventional memory I have plenty of," Simon grumbled through a wreath of cigar smoke. "What do they mean by conventional memory?"
Blair scooted his chair back slightly and gazed up at the ceiling as he tried to couch his explanation in layman's terms. "Sir, think of it as your computer's living room. It's where you keep the things that you'll use every day. Now upper memory is like the attic where you keep information you use but not continuously as opposed to expanded memory, which is..."
Sandburg brought his gaze to bear on the captain. "Yeah?"
"Just make it work."
"If I don't get my tax files out of this computer by midnight tonight, I'll be standing in line at the post office like all those other poor schmoes who are trying to avoid paying late fees." Simon pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
Like me, Blair thought but wisely chose not to mention. "Right. Sir, this is a memory manager." He held up a floppy disc. "It'll only take two minutes to set up and you'll be just cherry."
Simon grunted noncommittally and waved Blair back to the computer.
"Lounging around in the adult chat room, boys?"
Both men looked over their shoulders at hearing Jim's comment. The detective stood in the doorway of Simon's office, a slight smile on his face. Blair thought he looked tired.
"Ah... Blair's cleaning out my living room," Simon explained, indicating the computer. "What do you need?"
"Well, Captain, if it's not a problem, I was wondering if I could take a week off."
Blair stopped typing instantly and turned to stare at Jim, his Guide alarm bells ringing. "What's wrong?"
Simon however was waving Jim away distractedly. "No, no, no problem. Go ahead." As Jim turned to leave though, Simon's brain seemed to catch up with his ears and he straightened and called Jim back. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Jim...a week?"
Blair turned fully in his chair now, seeing the lines of tension that creased Jim's forehead, the shadowed eyes that spoke of little sleep. He stood and moved over to stand in front of his partner. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Jim's stance became unconsciously belligerent. "Why does something have to be wrong?"
"Well, I personally can't remember a time you asked for a day off, much less a week," Simon put in.
"That's just it, Captain. I haven't had any time off. I'm a little burnt. I need time to smell the flowers, the fresh air...cool out a little bit."
"Easy, easy, you're preaching to the choir, Reverend," Simon chuckled. "Take as much time as you need."
"Thank you." Jim turned to go again but Blair stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"Are you sure everything's all right? I mean your senses "
"Not everything is about my senses, Sandburg," Jim flared. He placed his hand on Blair's shoulder as the grad student turned away. "Sorry. Like I said, I'm burnt out. I just need a change of pace."
"Lila?" Blair asked softly.
Jim sighed. "That too."
"You got a spot in mind?" Simon asked, walking over to his desk and picking up his cigar.
"Yeah... a little place that I go to in the summer. It's up by the Canadian border, you know? Sweet little spot tucked away in the middle of nowhere. Trout are just waiting to be bugged," Jim chuckled.
"Dig it, dig it, yeah," Blair cut in, getting excited, remembering the last fishing trip the three had taken together. It had been great fun until they'd chanced upon the poachers. Maybe they'd have better luck this time. "I'll get to try out my new tackle and didn't you make a new fly with big orange eyes and hair on the legs?" he asked, turning his attention to Simon.
Jim rolled his eyes. "It sounds like some of your dates, Chief."
"No, no, no." Simon held up a spindly contraption with bulging orange eyes. "This here...this baby will have those fish lining up for the pan like a magnet."
"Sir, this is not a group activity."
Blair's eyes swiveled from the fly dangling in Simon's hand back to Jim. "What are you talking about? You want to be alone?"
"That's the plan, yeah."
Simon crossed his arms over his chest and became serious. "All right. What's going on?"
"Come on, why don't we take this in the interrogation room?"
Blair held up a defensive hand. "Hey, hey, no reason to get all snippy..." Jim was even more short-tempered today than usual. Perhaps he really did need some time out. He looked over his shoulder as the computer belched and beeped. Momentarily distracted from his concern about Jim, he sat back down and studied the PC. "Uh-oh."
Simon strode quickly back and leaned over his shoulder, studying the flashing screen in consternation. "Uh-oh? What's uh-oh?"
Blair slid back into the chair and tried a few prompts, to no avail. "Uh, it's crashing, sir. I don't suppose that you have a boot disk, do you?"
"Sandburg, I'm going to boot your disk from here to Seattle. Get up!" Simon ordered, manhandling Blair from his seat and lowering himself into it.
Blair watched the screen for a moment, the sinking sensation in his stomach making him feel distinctly nauseous. He picked up the phone and punched in a number.
"Uh, I'll be back Wednesday." Jim waved and walked away.
"Jim, wait up," Blair called.
"No, no, no, hang on, Jim. I'll be right with you," Simon added, his attention firmly fixed on his PC.
Blair gave up on Jim, figuring he'd talk to him later. Maybe all he really did need was a couple of days off. God only knew he could do with a few too. He turned to Simon, one hand over the receiver as he waited for his call to be answered. "Sir, just relax. Don't worry about it. I'm calling the technical support line."
Blair watched as Simon's mouth opened and closed a few times, not unlike the fish Jim was off to catch. "Sandburg? It says it's deleting files. Why is it deleting files?" The captain began hammering frantically at the keys. "Where did you get this program?"
Blair groaned inwardly. He'd really hoped he wouldn't have to divulge this piece of information. He wondered if he was too late to catch up with Jim. "I got it off the Internet."
Simon swiveled his chair around to glare at him, and Blair could feel his skin almost blister under the captain's fiery gaze. "The 'net? Why didn't you just call Virus 'R' Us?"
Jim steered the truck into the Clayton Falls gas station with a sigh of relief. He was more tired than he realized, the stresses of the last few days finally making themselves known as the adrenaline wore off and he finally had a chance to just sit and think.
He sighed. He'd been trying not to do too much of that, keeping himself busy at work. He had even agreed to tests on his senses, something that puzzled, yet pleased Sandburg. Anything to avoid having to replay Lila's death in his mind. Now perhaps, here alone, he could grieve for Lila and what might have been away from prying eyes.
Sandburg meant well, Jim knew but some things were just too private to share. Not everyone was designed to share their innermost thoughts. He had to give his partner credit where it was due though. The night after Jim had held a dying Lila in his arms, Blair had simply let Jim know that he was there, should he want to talk, and left it at that. Problem was, that just made Jim feel guilty, wondering if he was wrong to want to keep this most personal loss to himself.
Jim sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. He was exhausted, stressed and hungry for the pleasure of standing hip-deep in an icy river, casting for trout and thinking or not.
Feeling more relaxed already, Jim pulled up in front of the gas pump. Climbing out of the cab, he stretched the kinks from his back, then reached for the hose and began to fill the tank. He nodded a greeting to the attendant that approached. "Hey there. How you doing?"
"I'm doing good," the man said with a smile. "Name's Sam. I'm the owner."
"What's going on up here?" Jim asked, looking around curiously. "Last time I was in these parts, I remember a lot more activity in town. Where is everybody?"
"Oh, a couple of years back, some bureaucrat decided this part of the forest ought to be ecologically protected. Good for the trees, bad for the town."
"Well, I guess they've got to strike a balance somewhere, huh?"
Sam shrugged. "Yeah."
"Used to be a mill up here, right?" Jim replaced the hose in its holder and pulled his wallet and a bottle of water from the cab.
"Oh, yes, sir. Sure was." Sam nodded enthusiastically. "I used to be a double-shift man myself. Yep. Now we got the station, we got the diner, got the old inn, and we got a few cabins back in the woods me and a few others who ought to know better keep trying to hang onto." He shook his head. "Yeah. Hard to shake off old roots, I guess. Now this town is just a crossroads to nowhere."
Jim nodded and took a welcome drink of his water, then extracted his credit card and held it out.
"You won't be needing that." Sam pointed at the bottle. "We've got natural spring water right out of the tap."
"Just an old habit." He'd been drinking bottled water whenever he went camping, a throwback to his Army days when you could never be sure you were drinking fresh water.
"Bring your own fish, too?"
Jim chuckled, enjoying the welcome, laid-back camaraderie. They chatted for a few moments longer, then Jim retrieved his card and drove out, heading toward the Clayton Falls Inn. Pulling into the deserted parking lot and making his way into the dimly lit lobby, he could see the front desk was deserted. Reaching out, he tapped on the old-fashioned bell.
"Be with you in just a minute," a voice echoed from the back.
Jim heard a toilet flush and then a heavyset man with receding ginger hair stepped out. He smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Been waiting long?"
"No, no, I just stepped inside," Jim assured him. He looked around the sparse interior. "Place sure hasn't changed much."
"Been here before?"
"A long time ago, yeah."
"I just bought the place a couple of months back," the owner said. He stuck out a meaty hand and Jim shook it. "Wilton Fisker."
Fisker waved a hand at the lobby. "It's a little run-down now, but I'm trying to preserve the best of what's been. I hope there'll be enough warm-weather business to pay for groceries."
"Yeah, let's hope so. I just need a room for the night. I'll be heading out in the morning."
The other man shook his head. "I'm sorry, son. I've got her stripped down to the bone. Uh, the beds are broken down and the rooms are a mess. There's a Value Lodge in Greenville."
"No, that's back where I came from."
Fisker hesitated a moment. "Well, look, if you don't mind the dust, you can sleep on one of those couches tonight." He indicated a couple of lumpy, brocade-covered sofas in the adjoining room.
"No, I don't mind at all, sir. In fact, I can pay you."
The man held up a hand. "Just come back when I reopen, and bring friends."
"Be happy to do that. What about the store? Is it open for some supplies?"
"Well, the hippie that runs it sleeps in back. Just bang loud enough in the morning and he'll open up."
"Very good. Thanks."
Walking outside, Jim paused a moment to get his bearings, then headed for the small group of buildings just up the road. He stopped in his tracks as the single light in the café was switched off and someone hurried out the door, locking it behind them. "Ah, great," Jim sighed. "There goes dinner."
Shrugging philosophically, he turned back to his truck and pulled his overnight bag from the back of the truck. Pulling a piece of jerky from the front pocket, he munched on it as he made his way back into the hotel.
Blair watched from the safety of the office doorway as the computer technician switched on Simon's computer and then packed up his briefcase. "You're all set, Captain. Next time you have a problem, call us first."
"That's my motto from now on. Thanks, Charlie." Simon turned his attention to the screen as Charlie left, shaking an admonishing finger at Blair as he passed.
Blair chanced a step into the office and cleared his throat. "Is everything okay now?"
Simon didn't spare him a glance, merely holding up one hand. "Just stay over there. You're a walking computer virus."
Blair felt like a naughty school child sent up to the principal's office. "Hey, Simon, I'm really sorry about that. I didn't..."
Simon straightened and waved him in. "Aw, forget it. You know, Blair, we have another problem."
"Our friend, Jim. Do you really buy this time alone bit? I think he's trying to snake us."
"What do you mean, snake us?"
Simon walked to his desk and picked up the fly he'd fashioned so carefully. "This whole fishing spot of his I think he wants to keep it a secret. I bet it's a place where the trout are practically leaping into the net."
"What, do you think he's holding out on us?"
"I know he's holding out on us." Simon hitched his hip onto the edge of his desk. "Now, I say we take an expedition up there, bust into his one-man operation, and claim our fair share of the haul."
Blair nodded thoughtfully. He was worried about Jim and this would give him a perfect excuse to check up, make sure that he really was just burnt out, but a disquieting thought still niggled at his conscience. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm down with that. Yeah, good... But, uh...but what if he does want to be alone? I mean, he did look tired and all that stuff with Lila I tried to get him to talk about it, you know, but he kept saying it was off-limits." Blair frowned. Jim had never been one for talking about what was bothering him.
"If he doesn't want to talk about his problems, don't push him, Sandburg. That's just not Jim's way, and if he really wants to be alone," Simon shrugged, "we'll fish the other side of the lake."
"Okay." Blair walked to the door. "I'll go pack. You want me to drive?"
"Are you kidding?" Simon snorted as he picked up his phone. "I want to get there before the week's out. I'll pick you up in an hour."
Blair had a sudden thought. "How are we going to find him?"
"I'm a cop, Sandburg. Leave it to me."
Old habits died hard. Never one to sleep in a strange place without having his senses on semi-alert, Jim was dozing on the lumpy couch when the rattle of the doorknob disturbed his restless slumber. Opening one eye, he was startled to see Blair's face appear in the grimy window, with Simon's peeking over his shoulder.
Groaning and muttering dark imprecations, Jim climbed off the couch and staggered to the door, rubbing a hand through his sleep-mussed hair. Unlocking the front door, Jim stepped back and allowed his friends to enter.
Blair smiled at him, somewhat nervously, Jim thought, and said, "Morning."
Simon patted Jim's back, looking not the least bit discomfited. "How you doing, Sunshine?"
Blair looked around the room slowly. "What's the matter, you too cheap to afford a room?"
Jim felt his anger begin a slow simmer. He planted his hands on his hips and glared at his unexpected guests. "What the hell are you guys doing here? How did you even find me?"
"Yes, it's nice to see you, too," Blair answered, a tinge of offense creeping into his voice.
"What do you mean how did we find you? I tracked you down like I would any escapee...credit cards, gas receipts, restaurant just followed the paper trail." Simon looked proud of himself.
Simon shook his head sadly. "Did you really think we were going to let you empty a lake of trout all by yourself?"
Blair nodded in agreement. "Yeah, we wanted to surprise you." Then he looked uncertainly at Jim. "You're not mad, are you?"
Of course I'm mad! See? This is my mad face. Jim took a slow, deep breath, just like Sandburg had taught him. "Let me put this another way without offending you. You know there was a time when I lived alone. I worked on my own for years."
Sudden awareness lit Blair's face. "So, what are you saying? You want me to move out?" He held up both hands, nodding vigorously, though Jim could see the frown deepening on his forehead. "I've got no problem with that. Actually there's a room's opening up right below us unless that's too close to you, too, and I'll be infringing on..."
Jim groaned inwardly. Only Sandburg could do guilt this well. "Don't pull the Felix Unger trip on me, okay, Chief? You've made this sentinel thing work and I appreciate that. I wouldn't change a minute of it, but you're always there in my face, observing."
Simon pulled off his hat and whacked Blair soundly on the arm with it. "I told you to stop treating him like a lab rat," he growled, scowling at Blair, but Jim pulled on his arm, turning Simon around to look at him.
"Simon, Simon, this is no different from being your full-time pit bull."
Blair gave Simon an 'I told you so' glare and hit him back. Jim scrubbed a hand over his face. It was turning into a Three Stooges routine and the sun was just barely up.
Jim opened his eyes at the captain's affronted tone. "Every time some bad-ass blows into Cascade, I get the assignment."
"Jim, I thought you wanted those assignments."
"It's not about that." He tried a different approach. "It's just seven days a week, 365 days a year gets a little bit much. I need a break."
Simon shrugged and pushed Blair toward the door. "Great."
Blair went but not without a concerned backward glance at his partner. That look did it every time. Jim grabbed both men by their arms. "Come on, now, listen..." but Simon was backing away, shaking his head, hands up in a classic fending off pose.
"No, no, no, wait, wait..." Simon refused to budge.
"Look, get your tails out from between your legs, huh?" Jim cajoled. "I love you. I don't want you to go away mad. Let's go have a bite to eat and we'll talk about it and then you can hit the road, okay?"
Simon sighed and nodded, jamming his hat back on his head. "Yeah, whatever."
Jim picked up his overnight bag and headed for the bathroom. He could do this, a little breakfast, a little chat. An hour tops and he'd be on his own again. "There's a little place down the road. I'm just going to change."
Blair looked flabbergasted. "What are you talking about? The place that says, 'country cooking'?" He looked at Simon. "What are we going to have? Possum on a stick?" He chuckled but the sound died quickly as Simon glared at him.
"What's the matter with that? My mother made possum."
"I got no problem with that; I could eat."
Jim groaned again and went to get changed. A week alone was beginning to look more and more attractive.
Blair and Simon made their way into the little diner and found a vacant booth while they waited for Jim to meet them. The attractive waitress behind the counter gave them a warm smile and a friendly greeting.
"Good morning, boys. Have a seat."
"Thanks." Simon ushered Blair into a seat, then sat opposite him. Jim arrived and settled himself beside his partner as the waitress carried over some glasses.
"Good morning." Jim smiled at her. He was aware of Blair's interested scrutiny of the young woman.
"Morning." She leaned over and placed the water glasses on the table, then smiled back before launching into her spiel. "Okay, so, we have fresh eggs, griddle cakes, oatmeal, ham steak, killer waffles, and the best coffee in the state, but if you ask me for a cappuccino, I will kill you." Her smile took the sting out of her words.
Jim nodded. "Well, I guess we'll start with the coffee, then."
"You got it."
As she walked back to the counter, Jim recognized the attendant from the gas station. Sitting at the counter, head supported on his hands, Sam looked the picture of misery. "Jackie?"
"Mm-hmm?" The waitress stopped and looked at Sam.
"You got any aspirin? I'm not on top of it this morning."
Jackie patted Sam's arm sympathetically. "Yeah, sure, Sam. I'll check."
Back at the table, Simon glared impatiently at Blair's obviously smitten gaze. "Could you be a little more obvious?"
Blair gave the captain a guileless look. "What?"
Jim snorted and dug his partner in the ribs. "He's just observing the indigenous customs before he launches into his own mating cha-cha. You know..." Jim swayed from side to side in the limited space of the booth, pleased when Blair and Simon both laughed, and felt some of the tension dissipate.
Simon frowned again as Blair picked up his glass and drained it, then crunched loudly on the ice. Blair seemed to annoy Simon without even trying. Jim wondered how they'd made it all the way here without Banks killing the observer.
"What are you doing?" Simon asked now.
Blair shrugged. "I'm hungry."
Jackie placed a plate in front of another customer, then made her way over to Jim, Blair and Simon with a pot of coffee. Jim frowned as the young woman poured coffee into Simon's cup and then abruptly set the pot on the table. She wavered slightly on her feet and her face suddenly drained of color.
"What is it?" He reached out a hand toward her but she appeared to stumble as she took a step back, the tray in her hands clattering to the floor with a resounding crash. All three men jumped to their feet and moved toward her as she gave a soft "oh" of surprise and slid to the floor.
Jim crouched beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. Her face was shiny with perspiration and he could feel the heat from a fever on her skin. "Are you all right? What's going on?"
Jackie moaned and doubled up. "My stomach. It hurts."
Jim reached for the young woman's wrist; her pulse was racing as she clutched at her belly. Behind him, he heard Simon gruffly order someone to get a doctor then a man replied. "I'll get Doc Conway."
Jim patted Jackie's shoulder, attempting to reassure her. "What happened to your stomach?"
Jackie shook her head fretfully. "I don't know. It just..."
"Are you all right? Easy, easy." Jim looked up at Simon's words and saw him hurrying over to the slowly collapsing form of Sam from the gas station. The captain gently eased the ailing man to the floor then pressed a hand to his forehead. "Jim, it looks like this guy has the same symptoms."
Jim looked around the room. "Where is this doctor?" As he spoke, a dark-haired woman carrying a bag entered the diner and immediately crouched down at Jackie's side.
"Right here." She gave Jim a quick glance, then turned her attention to her patient. "All right, Jackie, tell me what's wrong."
Jackie moaned again. "I don't know. It just came on sudden."
The doctor lifted the young woman's arm and pressed her fingers to the pulse point with one hand while feeling Jackie's forehead with the other. "You have abdominal pain?"
"It feels like I'm burning up."
"Doctor, this guy has the exact same symptoms," Simon said, as he supported a groaning Sam.
As the doctor pulled a stethoscope from her bag, Wilton Fisker, the innkeeper, stepped into the diner, a worried expression on his face as he took in the two sick people on the floor. "Linda, Andrea Peterson collapsed in her kitchen. She looks as bad as these two. What the hell's going on?"
"It's beyond me. These people need a doctor."
Jim gaped at her. "Aren't you a doctor?"
"I'm a veterinarian."
"Where's the nearest hospital?" Jim asked.
"Gifford County, an hour away."
Simon pulled his cell phone from his pocket. "I'll give them a call."
The vet was already shaking her head. "You're out of cell range here." Jim saw Blair head to the payphone on the wall and lift the receiver. His heart sank as he saw him jiggle the phone a few times and then turn back to them with a frustrated look on his face.
"This phone's dead. I'm not even getting a dial tone." He slammed the receiver back on its cradle in disgust.
"I tried the phone at Andrea's place," Fisker reported. "Hers is dead, too."
"What the hell's going on here?" Jim decided to take charge. He indicated toward Simon and Blair. "We're with the Cascade police department. We're gonna make sure these two get to the hospital. Would you tend to the others?"
The vet nodded her agreement as Jim turned back to Jackie and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Can you stand, miss?" Helping the ill woman to her feet, Jim waited a moment as she clung to him, her eyes closed, then she nodded and tottered toward the door with Jim and Blair supporting her. Simon followed, half-carrying Sam.
Jim got Jackie and Sam settled on the back seat of Simon's car, then directed Blair to sit beside them. He climbed into the passenger seat and popped open the glove compartment. Finding the road map he needed, he studied it as Simon started the car and steered out onto the road leading out of Clayton Falls. "It looks like you hit the interstate on the other side of the lake, and then you look for a junction east after five, six miles."
Simon cast a quick glance at the map and nodded, then turned his attention back to the road. Suddenly he slammed on the brakes, wrenching the steering wheel around as a fleet of Army trucks bore down on them.
Jim anchored his fingers on the dash as the car slid sideways then came to a neck-wrenching halt. Glancing quickly at the back seat, he reassured himself that Blair and the others were all right before climbing out of the car and striding toward the trucks, aware that Blair had exited the car as well and was hurrying to catch up.
Several uniformed men had clambered out of the first truck at the officer's orders, and the officer now turned to Jim and Blair and held out an outstretched hand. "Stop right there. Where are you coming from?"
"Clayton Falls," Jim replied. He stopped a few feet away from the uniformed men. "What's going on here?"
"You have to turn around and go back," the Colonel said firmly.
Blair stepped up beside Jim, then pointed back to Simon's vehicle. "Sir, we've got sick people in the car. We've got to get them to the hospital."
Jim nodded and took a step forward, one hand going to his pocket. "Yeah, uh..." He froze as a soldier standing beside the colonel raised his gun and cocked it.
"I said that's far enough," the colonel ground out.
"Take it easy, cowboy. Just getting some ID. I'm Detective James Ellison with the Cascade PD." He found his badge and held it up. The colonel didn't appear impressed.
"I'm Colonel Garner, United States Army. We've been order to contain an outbreak of a highly contagious disease."
"What sort of outbreak?" Jim asked.
"We have a bug on our hands that could burn right through this area and spread like wildfire. This is a hot zone, gentlemen. Total quarantine and that means you are all under military control."
"Oh, God," Blair whispered and Jim suddenly had the awful feeling that the two people in the car were a lot sicker than anyone had realized. It also occurred to him that he, Simon and Blair had been exposed to the disease.
He looked back as Simon called to him. "Jim? What the hell's going on?"
"I'll explain on the way back to town, Simon." Turning to Blair, Jim patted the grad student's shoulder. "Come on, Chief. Let's get moving."