Jim, Simon and Linda were escorted back to the inn under armed guard. Garner obviously wasn't taking chances that any of them might wander off again. Several local townsfolk, including the innkeeper, Wilton Fisker, were already seated in the small lounge area. The three found a quiet corner and settled in to discuss their options.
"This isn't my field," Linda began in a low voice, "but I found a viral form in the water that shouldn't be there."
"Do you have any idea what it is?" Jim asked as he kept a close eye on the soldiers stationed at the door.
"It looks like a mild toxin."
Jim nodded, feeling his anger and disgust mount again. "Something that mimics a rampant virus."
Simon shook his head, his expression mirroring Jim's. "Not enough to kill. Just enough to immobilize and scare the hell out of everybody?"
"Yeah. There wasn't anything that could be considered lethal."
"So Blair and the others are gonna be all right," Jim added. His relief was tempered with anger at what could have been. His eyes narrowed and a nerve spasmed in his jaw. "Apart from being as sick as a dog and being tricked into believing they were going to die." He paused for a moment as a puzzling thought occurred to him. "Yeah, that's the weird thing, Simon. Why Blair? Why not us?"
Simon looked thoughtful. "It had to be something that he..." He broke off and snapped his fingers. "Ice! He was chewing on ice at breakfast."
"Right, right, right. All right...but the big question is why go through all this trouble? We're out in the middle of nowhere. Why would you want to immobilize a town? There's got to be something real big at stake here, right?"
Simon shrugged and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "I don't know. Must be something."
Hearing vehicles pull up outside, Jim wandered as casually as he could to the window and looked outside. Several uniformed men were loading weapons and ammunition into the trucks.
"Can you see what's going on out there?" Simon asked, coming to stand beside him.
Jim shook his head. "I don't know."
He turned and walked back to Linda, his thoughts returning to his partner, wondering if he was recovering. If the toxin was as mild as Linda said, surely Blair must be showing improvement by now. Suddenly remembering the medicine he'd seen Doctor Stone administering to the patients in the tent, he leaned forward and spoke close to Simon's ear. "We've got to get Blair out of that tent."
"How do we do that and get past the guards?" Simon hissed back. He straightened as Jim nudged him and Fisker approached.
"Is everything all right?" the rotund innkeeper asked, his round face creased into a frown.
Jim nodded, his gaze roaming the room as he replied. He decided to take Fisker into his confidence. The man had helped them try to find a working radio before Blair got sick and being the owner of the inn, chances were that he'd know of a back way out. "Yeah, just looking for a way out of here...other than the front door."
"Maybe it would be best just to sit it out," Fisker suggested. He hooked a thumb toward the window. "That is the US Army out there."
"We're not so sure," Simon answered. "We could use a little help."
"I think you should trust them, Wilton," Linda added.
Fisker regarded Jim and Simon for a brief moment as though he was weighing up their intentions. Leaning in conspiratorially, he said in a low voice, "I'm not too crazy about this lockdown routine myself. Back corridor off the lobby, there's a stairwell in a closet. Goes down to a wine cellar. The cellar has a door that leads to the outside."
Jim nodded. "Let's do it." He placed a hand on Linda's arm as she made to follow. "I think you'd better stay here. If we all go it will draw attention to us."
Linda opened her mouth as though to protest, then snapped it shut and nodded. She grasped Simon's hand and waited until he turned back to her. "Well, what do I tell them if they discover you're missing?"
Simon cracked a small grin. "Tell them we got a better rate somewhere else."
Fisker led Jim and Simon down a narrow corridor toward the back of the inn. None of the soldiers stationed at the front door challenged them. It appeared they considered them no threat as long as they stayed inside. The closet had a false back, which opened onto a set of stairs leading down to the wine cellar.
"Storm door's this way."
"We can find it from here," Jim said. He moved ahead to take the lead but Fisker shook his head.
"No, I'm going with you boys. This is my town. If something's up, I want to know."
Jim nodded. "Okay. Fair enough. Let's go before someone decides to check up on us."
Making their way quickly outside, they kept to the side of the building. Ahead of them a group of soldiers were climbing into the back of one of the trucks. Once they were aboard, one of the men smacked the side, signaling the driver.
"All right. We're ready to roll. Let's go, let's go."
"They're getting ready to meet their shipment," Simon whispered.
Fisker looked puzzled. "What shipment?"
"Let's go find out."
They hadn't had a chance to fill Fisker in on the small amount of information they'd discovered, but Jim's attention was focused on getting to Blair first. He led them over to the isolation tent and they edged along the side. Taking a quick look around the corner, Jim was surprised to see no guard standing sentry at the entrance. Just inside the tent, he spotted a HAZMAT suit and boots. He turned back to Simon and Fisker. "I'm going in."
Simon pointed back over his shoulder. "We'll be in back."
Stepping into the tent, Jim dressed quickly in the HAZMAT suit and made his way past several beds of sleeping people. Jim was relieved to see Blair's curly head poking out from the covers of a stretcher near the back. The anthropologist was asleep, his face still pale.
Bending over the bed, Jim extended his hearing and concentrated for a moment on Blair's heart. It was regular and slow and Jim felt some of his tension dissipate. A hand on Blair's forehead told him his partner still had a fever, though it did not appear to be as high as when he'd first collapsed. Finding what he thought was a shoulder beneath the blankets, Jim shook it gently. He leaned closer as Blair jumped, his eyes opening wide in fright. "Hey, it's me. You all right?"
Blair's eyes seemed a little unfocused and he blinked slowly a few times. Suddenly, he pushed himself upright and grasped Jim's hand. "Jim, they're doing something. They're trying to keep us down or something." His voice sounded scratchy, probably from the forceful vomiting, Jim thought.
Jim placed a supporting arm around Blair's back and helped him to stand. "We're going to get you out of here. Come on."
They waited a moment as Blair wavered on his feet. His eyes closed again and he swallowed convulsively. Jim kept one arm securely around his waist and led him toward the entrance. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Blair nodded carefully. His color had certainly faded since he'd stood up. "I'm fine," he whispered. "Just a little shaky still."
Jim's concern for his partner was interrupted by the arrival of a soldier. He glanced briefly at the two men, then stiffened as he recognized Jim through the clear facemask.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
Attempting to keep a tight grip on Blair, Jim stomped on the pressurized air release as the soldier's gun came up to bear on him, then he followed through with a hard punch to the startled man's jaw. The soldier collapsed without a sound. Jim turned to Blair.
"Can you make it out on your own?"
A quick glance at Blair's white face didn't reassure him, but he pushed the anthropologist through the doorway and bent to lift the unconscious soldier. He laid the man down on Blair's bed, covering him fully with the blanket, then followed Blair back to where Simon and Fisker were waiting, stripping off the HAZMAT suit as he went. He smiled as he saw Simon's face light up as Blair walked slowly toward him.
"Blair, are you all right? How are you feeling?" The captain raised a hand and pressed it to Blair's forehead. Jim thought it was testament to Blair's condition that he withstood the quick examination with just a rolling of his eyes.
"I'm feeling a lot better," Blair assured him. "The sweating's gone, stomach pain's gone, too, but my head still feels like mush." He looked around a little dazedly. "What's going on?"
"The whole thing's some kind of setup," Jim explained. "They neutralized the town so they could get some kind of shipment."
Blair crossed his arms over his chest and shivered. "I heard Garner talking about the ETA of a train and it being a small window of opportunity afterward before the people started to feel better."
"Train wouldn't be coming here," Fisker replied. "Branch line hasn't been used for years ever since the mill closed."
"Branch line," Simon mused. His brow furrowed as he digested the information. "The train would have to slow down at the branch line." He nodded excitedly. "That's where they're meeting the train. Whereabouts is it?"
"Straight north, through the woods." Fisker pointed the way. "I can show you."
Jim patted his shoulder. "We've put you through enough already. We'll take it."
Jim shook his head firmly. There was no way he wanted to risk endangering a civilian's life. "Go back to the inn. We've got it covered. We appreciate all your help."
Fisker glared at him and Jim saw a spark of anger in the innkeeper's eyes, but it faded quickly and he nodded.
"All right. You boys be careful."
Jim watched him go then turned to Blair. "You feel up to this, Chief? Maybe you should go back with Fisker." He studied his partner closely. Blair was still too pale and his flushed cheeks indicated he still had a fever. If Garner's timing was correct, the toxin wasn't expected to begin to wear off for several more hours.
"I'm coming with you," Blair answered. "I'm okay."
Jim hesitated then nodded. "All right, but you get into trouble, you let me know. Got it?"
"I got it."
Carl Edwards was a happy man. The federal agent had been given a cushy assignment riding the rails and he was relieving his partner, Mike of his loose change in a friendly game of poker to while away the time. He smiled at the disgusted look on his buddy's face as he pushed Carl's latest winnings toward him. A loud bang above him froze Carl in the process of picking up the loose change. "You hear that?"
Mike shrugged but as Carl stood up to investigate, something was tossed into the car, shrouding it immediately in thick, choking gas. Carl didn't even feel himself hit the floor.
Jim stopped abruptly as the three men jogged through the woods, causing Blair to run into his back. His head tipped slightly to one side and Blair knew the sentinel had detected something they couldn't.
"I hear the train," Jim said, confirming Blair's thoughts. "It's over here."
They took off again, following Jim's lead. Blair winced at a sudden stitch and pressed a hand to his side. Slowing a little to catch his breath, he allowed Simon to pass him, nodding reassurance at the captain's concerned look. Ahead, Jim was on a mission. Even Simon was having trouble keeping up with him as he powered his way along the path, shoving errant branches aside with a push of his shoulder. In the distance, Blair heard the sound of an explosion and Jim turned back toward them.
"They're hitting the train," the detective said. "Come on."
Turning, he put on a burst of speed and disappeared into the trees. Blair dragged in a ragged breath and forced his cramping legs to move faster. He was relieved to see Jim and Simon stopped just ahead of him, looking down an incline. Slowing his pace gratefully, he trotted up to stand beside Jim and followed the detective's gaze.
Below, a train sat idling on the tracks, smoke billowed from the windows. An Army truck was backed up to one of the carriages, and as the three men watched, two soldiers hauled out a large crate and loaded it into the back of the truck. The atmosphere was one of organized rush as uniformed men hurried to load the shipment. Garner's voice floated up to them.
"Keep it coming. That's the way, boys. We don't have much time."
"What the hell are they unloading?" Simon asked Jim, squinting at the crates that were rapidly disappearing into the rear of the truck.
Jim frowned. "US Treasury money."
Simon gaped with sudden realization. "That's what they've been up to this whole time. This thing is a damn money train."
Jim turned to look behind them and Blair heard the unmistakable, unwelcome sound of a weapon being cocked. Blair realized Jim had probably been so focused on hearing what was going on down at the train, he hadn't even heard Fisker and his men approach. He copied Jim's actions as the detective raised his hands in the air.
Wilton Fisker smiled, satisfaction evident on his round face. "That's right. Money. Best kind, too. Old money. $274 million being transferred to a federal facility to be incinerated. That's the kind of waste I couldn't tolerate." He stepped forward and pushed Blair toward one of the two soldiers accompanying him. "Sorry, boys. Like that train you've come to the end of the line."