Jim slowed his pace as a small sub-vocal groan rumbled from the throat of the man trudging wearily beside him. Snatching a quick glance across, the detective was startled by the ashen pallor of Blair's skin. "Sandburg?"
"Gonna be " Blair suddenly wheeled to the right without finishing the sentence, and Jim went with him, sliding a supporting arm around the anthropologist's waist as he bent double and began to retch.
"You! Get back!"
Jim looked over his shoulder as he heard the unmistakable sound of a weapon being cocked. "He's sick," he ground out as Blair dropped to his knees in the mud. "He's throwing up because of that crap you put in the water."
"Move away from him." Wilton Fisker stepped closer to them, adding the threat of his own handgun to the order. Jim saw Fisker's finger tighten on the trigger as he hesitated. "I'll put him out of his misery if you don't do what I asked." Fisker's weapon swung to aim at Blair's oblivious head as the anthropologist vomited watery bile.
The detective looked up into his captain's serious dark eyes. No words were spoken nor were any necessary. Jim squeezed Blair's shuddering shoulder, then stood and stepped back. While guards kept their weapons trained on Simon and Jim, Fisker leaned over Blair. He patted the miserable man's back in an almost fatherly gesture. "I'm sorry you're feeling so bad, son. If there had been any other way to do this, we would have."
Blair stayed where he was for a moment longer and then surged suddenly to his feet, seemingly heedless of the three gun barrels that swung to cover his movements. Abruptly, he shook Fisker's hand from his shoulder and strode back to Jim and Simon, his back straight and his head up, though Jim could see his pain in the set of his jaw and in the arm that hugged his stomach.
Falling into step alongside Blair, Jim allowed his senses to expand and gauge his partner's condition. Heart-rate high, as was his breathing, temperature still a little elevated but not dangerously so, skin pale and damp with sweat, this last a good sign, indicating at least that Blair was not dehydrated. "You all right, Sandburg?"
Blair turned a tired face toward him and nodded. "Yeah," he lied blatantly.
Jim accepted the obvious evasion of the truth for now. "We're almost there."
Blair slumped into a bench seat inside the diner and surreptitiously massaged his aching stomach muscles. He really did feel somewhat better now that he'd emptied his stomach. He was pretty sure there was nothing left for him to bring up and he was grateful for that at least.
He still felt somewhat shaky and definitely unwell, though he thought that was more from the rush through the woods than a resurgence of the illness that had him in its grip before. As his wandering gaze caught Jim's intense one, he wished he could convince the sentinel of the same thing.
Standing in front of him, Wilton Fisker ran a hand over the surface of the table. "Nice craftsmanship," he said admiringly. He straightened and turned to look at Jim. "You know, at one time I might have actually been happy retiring here."
Jim's eyes narrowed and Blair saw the familiar clench of Jim's jaw that indicated the detective was on the fast track to losing his temper. "Was that before you decided to knock over a Treasury train and assault a couple of federal agents?"
Simon leaned forward in his seat. "Look, Fisker, how did you know the money was on that train?"
"It was my job to know. I used to work for the Treasury Department." The innkeeper smiled smugly, then walked over to the room-sized freezer and opened the door. "Still had access to the computer codes. Found out a shipment of old currency was being sent to Denver to be burned."
"Is that when you decided to sell out your country?" Simon asked grimly.
Fisker chuckled as he poked his head into the interior of the cold room and looked around. "Beats a government pension. As a matter of fact, all of my partners here are ex-government men. Hell, I had to turn recruits away. Clayton Falls was the weak spot on the train route. Cell phone gray zone."
"And it's only six miles from the Canadian border," Blair added softly.
"Right." Fisker turned around and walked back to stand in front of Blair. "A complicated plan, maybe...but some of us, Mr. Sandburg are just a few steps ahead of that common ancestor."
"Let's get on with it, Fisker," Garner urged from the doorway.
"No one was supposed to get hurt, but you people found out more than we wanted you to know," Fisker continued. He looked genuinely remorseful for a moment, but Blair ignored the look of sympathy as an echo of cramp twisted his gut, causing fresh sweat to bead his upper lip.
"Now, Mr. Garner here doesn't want any bloodshed. Mr. Crockett, on the other hand, doesn't share that consideration. I'm going to split the difference." Fisker strode back quickly to the freezer and opened the door. "Put them in the freezer."
Linda stood and grasped Blair's arm, helping him to his feet. "And you think that won't kill us?" she asked as she and Blair walked over.
Fisker shrugged, his earlier sympathetic look replaced by one of cool determination. "Maybe. But someone might find you after we've gone. If not, well, can't say I didn't give you a chance, anyway."
Seeing no way out of the situation, Blair followed Linda to the freezer and stepped inside. He turned back and watched Crockett move over to Jim and Simon, poking Jim with his gun.
The two detectives stood and walked over to the freezer, Jim's darting eyes indicating he was searching for a chance of escape. Blair saw his shoulders slump imperceptibly as the detective realized the futility of that idea then Jim and Simon joined them inside the icy room. The four watched silently as the door closed and the whirring sound of the fan started up. Blair shivered and hunched further into his jacket. Crossing to the corner, he lowered himself to the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. He really, really hated the cold.
Simon was studying their prison carefully. "There's no opening anywhere except for the air vent."
"Great," Linda grumbled.
Jim was not ready to give in. "Well, at least we have air...for now." He strode over to the door and pressed his face to the small glass window, angling his head to get a better view. "They wedged this door with some kind of tool." Walking back to the other side of the freezer, he studied the fan carefully. "We've got to jam this somehow."
Simon could only manage a puzzled "Huh?" and Blair's brain still felt too mushy to fully comprehend what Jim was up to.
Jim held out a hand. "Let me have your coat."
Simon frowned at the detective and pulled his coat more closely about him. "Why don't we use your coat?"
"'Cause you're the captain. You can afford a new coat," Jim reasoned. "Come on, let me have your coat."
Simon finally nodded and pointed to the fan cover. "Get that off."
Jim set to work as Simon unbuttoned his coat, but Linda stepped forward and placed a hand on Jim's arm.
"You're going to cut off all the air," she said fretfully.
Jim patted her hand and turned back to his task. "Just relax. We need what's inside. There's a magnet. Ready?" he asked Simon as the captain held his coat up.
"Go ahead." Simon quickly shoved his coat into the fan motor, smiling as it choked on the thick material and sputtered to a stop.
Jim scrutinized the freezer walls. "Let me find the wires that turn it off."
"Ah, yeah." Locating the correct wires, Jim pulled them free. "You know where I'm going with this?"
Simon nodded. "Yeah. I did okay in my science class. Magnet, right?" He grinned. "After you're finished I've got some wiring in my house you can do."
Blair watched in silence from his hunched position on the floor as Jim pulled the magnet free from the fan housing and carried it over to the freezer door. Placing it against the door, he began to move it upward and Blair had a sudden flash of clarity. Jim was using the magnet to pull up whatever had been jammed into the door lock on the other side.
"Come on," Jim cajoled. Pausing for a moment, the detective took a slow, deep breath then set the magnet against the door again. This time they were rewarded with the sound of something clattering to the floor outside.
Feeling a surge of adrenaline flood through him, rejuvenating his meager energy Blair pushed himself up from the floor and walked slowly to Jim's side as the detective carefully opened the freezer door.
Blair followed Jim over to the wall next to the window and waited while Jim concentrated on the voices outside. After a moment, Jim began to relay the conversation to Blair in a whisper.
Fisker watched from the sidelines as Garner supervised the team loading the trucks in front of the diner.
"What about all this gear?" Garner asked, waving a hand at the piles of pseudo medical and military equipment and tents still strewn about.
"Leave it. What use is it to us now?" Fisker turned to Stone. "The plane arrives in 20 minutes. Convoy the rest of the trucks to the airstrip. Then radio back with an all clear. We'll meet you with the payload."
Stone nodded his agreement then lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth and spoke into it. "Okay, let's roll."
Jim led the way out of the rear exit of the diner then turned onto the main street, ensuring he kept to the cover of the buildings. Reaching the end of the street, he poked his head carefully around the corner.
"That's the last truck. The rest of them are gone," Simon whispered from beside him.
"It's full of money." Jim's nose wrinkled at the pungent odor of ink. "I can smell it." He motioned for the others to follow him, pressing a finger to his lips to indicate they should be silent; his eyes automatically seeking Blair and frowning at the young man's obvious pallor. He was still fighting the effects of the toxin and the run through the woods had probably set his recovery back too.
Extending his hearing as they approached the sole truck, Jim heard someone speaking and recognized the voice as the fake doctor, Stone's.
"Convoy's clear. Deliver the package."
Fisker's voice echoed from the cabin of the truck. "We're on the way."
Jim turned back to Linda and bent to talk close to her ear. "Is that the only road out of here?"
"Simon, we've got to do something here."
Simon nodded, looking thoughtful. "I'll check around, see if they left any communication gear, try to reach backup " He paused when Jim shook his head.
"Why don't you leave that up to Sandburg and Linda." He gave the captain a meaningful look as he inclined his head toward Blair. Simon followed his gaze and frowned. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "How are you holding up, Sandburg?"
"What?" Dazed, weary eyes met the captain's, and Blair swallowed, wincing at the action. "I'm okay."
It wasn't even a good obfuscation, Jim decided. Blair looked out on his feet. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his badge and gave it to Blair. "If you can find a working phone, radio, whatever, tell them to send back up and give them my badge number. All right?"
"All right." He turned to Linda. "You should stay here. There's a lot of people who could use your help, including those federal agents."
Linda nodded and placed a hand on Blair's arm. "We'll be fine," she assured him.
Jim gave Blair a final once over then turned to his captain. "Come on, Simon, you're with me."
"What are we going to do?"
Jim smiled but it held no warmth. "We're going to head them off at the crossroads."
Arriving back at the now deserted train, Jim climbed up into the engine, then reached back a hand to help Simon inside. He made his way quickly over to the train controls, studying them intently. "We've got to get this puppy down the line. Create a roadblock."
Simon stared at him. "Jim, what are you going to do? Have you ever driven a train before?"
Jim nodded. "Sure. Yeah. I had a Lionel set when I was ten."
Simon clapped a hand to his head. "Oh, God."
Jim released the brake and pulled out what he was pretty certain was what passed for the gas lever. Couldn't be any harder than driving a car, surely. "Hang on." He smiled as the engine gave a lurch, sending Simon to the floor, and began to roll down the track, gradually picking up speed.
As the train came level with an Army truck, Jim glanced out the driver's window and saw Stone behind the wheel, Wilton Fisker in the passenger seat beside him. The sentinel opened up his hearing in time to hear Stone's surprised voice.
<What the hell is he doing?>
<Trying to block us at the crossroads,> Fisker replied.
Jim watched him bring a rifle up to aim at them and he pushed Simon to the floor, ducking his own head as gunshots peppered the side of the engine. Jim pushed the train to its limit, a grim smile lighting his features as they pulled ahead of the truck.
"Watch out!" Jim ducked to the side as a man appeared at the rear opening of the truck and opened fire. Simon went back to his knees beside him, trying desperately to keep his head below the level of the front window and still keep an eye on the action. Jim cursed as the truck gained ground and crept ahead of them. Simon's tight grip on his arm stole his concentration and he gave the captain a quick look.
"Jim, we're coming up to a crossing. You've got to slow this thing down."
Jim shook his head vehemently. "Not yet. Hang on. They're going to try to make it across the tracks. I'm going to brake."
Pressing his foot down hard on the brake, Jim closed his eyes briefly as he saw Fisker's truck cross the train tracks right under their noses. The impact threw him and Simon to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, and Jim battled to turn down his hearing as the deafening sound of an explosion battered at his eardrums.
Staggering back to the door of the train, Jim looked out onto a scene of fiery devastation. The truck had been dragged to the side of the tracks by the force of the oncoming train, then burst into flames. As Jim watched, a second smaller explosion lifted the truck's wheels from the ground momentarily and then slammed them back to the earth. Jim sighed. There was no way anyone could have survived the crash.
Linda looked at Blair with puzzlement as he came out of the diner clutching Simon's cell phone. "I thought Fisker said this was a gray zone for cell phones."
Blair nodded and then wished he hadn't as the world around him did a slow roll, reawakening his nausea. He really was feeling much better than he had earlier, but it was slow going and he was sure the adrenaline of the past few hours had stirred up his already sensitive stomach. "I'm going to climb up that hill there and try it from the top."
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Linda asked as she hurried to follow him. "You still don't look too well. The other patients are only beginning to recover now and they haven't been running around the countryside like you have."
"It's the only chance we have," Blair replied as he stopped at the base of the hill and looked up. It was only a small hillock really, why the heck did it tower over him like Everest? "The only other thing would be to drive to the nearest town, but we risk running into Garner and the rest of the gang."
Linda nodded. "All right. Be careful."
Blair smiled, wishing he felt as confident as he looked and slowly made his way up the roughly hewn path worn into the hillside. Fifteen minutes later, he made his way back feeling sweaty and lightheaded but grinning madly. He held the phone above his head. "Success! Backup's on the way. Should be no more than a couple of hours."
Linda grasped his arm as his legs suddenly buckled beneath him and he sank toward the ground. "I think you should come back and lay down in the isolation tent until Jim and Simon get back," she said, looking closely at his face.
Blair struggled back to his feet and shook his head. "I'm okay. Just all caught up with me, that's all. Besides, I won't be able to relax until Jim and Simon come back." His anxious eyes scanned the woods.
"At least come and sit in the diner until they get here." Linda placed a small hand under his arm and Blair leaned into the support gratefully. Truth be known, he was exhausted.
Silently he allowed her to lead him into the café and push him onto one of the bench seats at the back. He nodded gratefully as she handed him a bottle of chilled water. Unscrewing the cap, he swallowed carefully, sighing as the coolness of the liquid soothed his sore throat. Feeling his weariness overwhelm him, Blair laid his head down on his folded arms and closed his eyes. He wished Jim would hurry back. He wanted to go home.
"Where's Sandburg?" Jim increased his pace as he and Simon walked back into Clayton Falls and saw Linda exiting the isolation tent alone.
Linda smiled, easing a little of Jim's concern. "He's resting in the diner. I wanted him to lie down until you got back but he refused. Once he sat down, I guess it all caught up with him." She walked alongside Jim as she explained, "I peeked in a few minutes ago and checked him out. His temperature is down and he hasn't vomited since we've been back. I think he just did too much before he was fully recovered. A couple of days' rest and I'm pretty sure he'll be fine."
Jim smiled and squeezed her hand. "Thanks for looking out for him."
"It was a mutual thing." The vet turned to Simon as Jim pushed open the door to the diner. "Would you mind giving me a hand to organize refreshments for everyone? I don't think the diner staff are up to cooking food for the masses just yet."
Simon graced her with a broad smile. "Glad to help."
Linda smiled as Blair wandered out of the diner, looking rumpled and knuckling the sleep from his eyes. Jim Ellison followed closely behind. His partner already looked much better after his sleep, Jim thought, the relief evident on Blair's face when he had opened his eyes to see Jim crouching at his side.
"Well, the toxin is wearing off and people are up and around wondering what the hell's going on. Although that's your typical day here," Linda chuckled.
"State Patrol captured Fisker's men at the airstrip," Simon reported. He turned to look at Jim, and a glare replaced his smile though the detective was sure it was just for show. "Although the Treasury Department doesn't agree with your methods, Jim, they do thank you for destroying their old bills."
"So it's back to Cascade?" Linda's face showed her disappointment, and Jim had to agree with her. He had hoped to get to know the pretty vet a little better.
Jim gave her a smile, then looked at the others. "Well, actually, I thought we could all do some fishing tomorrow."
Blair frowned and raised one hand to cover his eyes as he groaned softly.
"I'm in. I'll spring for breakfast," Linda offered brightly.
"Great," Jim replied. He turned back to Simon as the captain snorted and shook his head vehemently, backing away.
"No, thank you. I think I prefer the mayhem of the city." He smiled at Linda. "Nice meeting you."
Blair spoke up then, "Uh... I think I'm down with the mayhem." He waved to Linda and turned to follow Simon but stopped when Jim grabbed his arm.
"Give me a minute to pack my gear and you can ride back with me, Sandburg."
"No, it's fine." Blair looked at Linda. "Would you excuse us for just a minute, please?"
The vet nodded. "Of course. I want to go check on Jackie. See how she's doing. It was very nice meeting you, Blair."
Blair smiled back, a wide, sunny grin that lit up his blue eyes. "You, too. Maybe we'll do the fishing thing another time."
"I'll look forward to it."
Jim waited until Linda walked back inside the diner before speaking. "I don't mind, Sandburg. In fact, as sick as you were, I'd kinda like to keep tabs on you for a couple of days. Make sure you don't have a relapse or something."
Blair shook his head. "I'm not going to have a relapse. I feel fine well, almost back to normal. You, on the other hand, look awful," he said, poking a finger into Jim's chest. "Stay, a couple of days at least."
Jim was already shaking his head. "I don't need "
Blair grasped his hand. "Take the time to smell the flowers, the fresh air, catch some fish mourn Lila." He smiled gently. "I'll catch a ride with Simon and we'll see you in a couple of days, all right?"
Jim stared at his partner for a long time, hoping Blair could read the gratitude on his face without him actually having to say the words. He wasn't disappointed.
"You're welcome," Blair said, sketching a salute. Turning to the road, he trotted after Simon, already chattering to the captain about the historical significance of the area.
Jim laughed outright as Simon's voice floated to him. "If you even think you're going to throw up, Sandburg, let me know. My days of riding with car-sick children are long gone."
It would be amazing if the two made it back to Cascade without killing each other.
~~~ FIN ~~~