I'm taking a nap when someone peels my eyelid back and shines a floodlight
into my eye. "Hey
" I mutter, swiping at the light. "I'm
" Whoever it is lets go, and I start to settle back into my
comfortable rest, when my other eye is tortured the same way. "Come on, Jim
The light goes away, but now there're voices keeping me awake. One of them is Jim's. " gonna be okay?"
Someone answers him. " knock on the head x-ray observation " The sound keeps fading in and out, like bad reception on a radio. Finally it stops, and I sigh in relief--until someone starts asking me questions. "Do I know my name?" "What day is it?" "Who's the President?"
Apparently I answer to their satisfaction, because they stop pestering me. But now my head hurts so badly I can't seem to go back to sleep. Opening my eyes a tiny bit, I peer around the room. I recognize the surroundings as a hospital room at Cascade General. The thought strikes me that I spend way too much time here.
Slowly, I turn my head from the right to the left. "Augh!" I yell. Jim's standing there, staring at me. "Don't do that, man!"
"Sorry, Chief." He's dirty with soot and an odor of smoke seems to be coming from him. "How you feeling?"
I touch the bandage on my forehead gingerly. "Like I got hit by a a a door?" He nods. "Megan! Is Megan okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine. Pissed as hell, but fine. She's back at the apartment building, waiting for the fire department to declare it okay to go back in."
I don't say anything for a long moment, trying to fit the pieces of what happened together in my mind. "What was it? A bomb?"
Jim nods, rubbing the back of his neck wearily. "Plastique, probably with some kind of vibration detection trigger."
I shiver under the hospital-issue blanket. "Do you think Alex planted it?" It just doesn't feel right to me, don't know why, maybe because I still can't picture a sentinel harming someone. Which doesn't make sense, because ancient sentinels were warriors, fighters, they wouldn't have thought twice about killing to protect their tribe. Only Alex doesn't have a tribe, does she? I'm making my head hurt worse.
"Look, Chief," Jim is saying, "even though your x-rays checked out okay, the doc wants to keep you here overnight." His gaze moves slightly to the right, and I know he's checking the time on the wall clock.
He's itching to get back to the hunt, and part of me can't blame him. This sentinel overdrive he's in isn't going to stop until Alex is behind bars or dead. "Go ahead, Jim. I've been through this before. I'll be fine."
"Okay, thanks," he says, then gives me an uncertain look, as if he's torn.
I don't have any doubts. I know exactly where he wants to be. "Go, hurry up and catch her so things can get back to normal around here."
"Right. I'll stop by later, Chief." He leaves the room, and the tension level drops measurably.
Despite my flippant words about normalcy, I wonder if things really will get better once this is all over. All this thinking is making my skull throb. Closing my eyes, I try to rest.
Someone is stroking my hair tenderly. It's a gentle, soothing caress, and I lean into it, too tired to open my eyes, welcoming it after all the pain and angst I've been through lately. After what seems like a long time, the fingertips trace lightly over my forehead, across my eyebrow, and slowly down my cheek. It's still nice and warm wherever it is I am, and the soft touch makes me feel calm and safe. A thumb ghosts across my lower lip, and a kiss is pressed to my temple.
A silken strand of hair brushes my cheek as a whisper fills my ear. " I'm so sorry, Blair if I'd known you'd get hurt I would have stopped him I don't ever want you to be hurt "
I fight to open my eyes, but the room is dark and I can't make out anything more than a shadowy form. But I know that voice "Alex?"
The hair stroking resumes, and my eyes slip shut again in pleasure. "That's it, close your eyes and rest, Blair. I'll watch over you, keep you safe I won't let anyone hurt you I'll take care of things, you'll see. I'll take care of you, I promise."
I feel sleep pulling me under again, and my body doesn't resist.
Heart pounding against my ribcage, I come awake with a gasp. Oh god oh god what in the hell was that? Was I dreaming? I had to be dreaming. It was a dream, a nightmare. Alex couldn't get in here, could she?
I roll onto my back, turning on the light above the bed, running a shaking hand over my face. Looking around the hospital room, I can't see any evidence that anyone's been here since Jim left. I rub my face again, then stare at my fingers. Something shimmery and pink stains the tips. Cautiously I touch my tongue to it. It's lipstick.
So was it real, or was it a dream? And if it was real, what did Alex mean, that she would take care of things? Am I so sure that this is real, and not the dream?
Tired, god, I'm so tired. I close my eyes, embracing sleep.
It's not until the next morning that the fire department deems it safe to
enter Alex Barnes' apartment. Sandburg insists on being here, even though he looks like
death warmed over. Simon's seeing the wreckage for the first time, shaking his head.
"She knew we were onto her," I tell him. "Probably figured if we got a search warrant, we'd find something incriminating."
Blair chews his lip, like he's considering making a comment. Finally he says, "There could be another reason."
The captain turns toward him. "Like what?"
Again the uncertain look, like he's hiding something. "Like he's a sentinel, she's a sentinel. This could be some kind of challenge."
Simon's scowl deepens. "What are you talking about, Sandburg? Some sort of duel?"
He nods slowly. "Exactly, and there's only one way to end it."
Before I can ask him what in the hell he means by that, Megan calls, "Captain Banks."
Banks walks over to where she's examining the melted remains of a computer. "Yeah?"
She holds up a part. "It's what's left of a portable hard drive with a removable data disk." She yanks on the disk for a few seconds, and it pops out.
"May I see that?" I ask, holding out my hand. Giving me a strange look, Connor hands it to me. I run my fingers over the disk. Even though the label is blackened from the heat, I can feel the impressions made by the pen when someone wrote on it.
Evidently feeling I've had it long enough, Connor snatches it back from me. "Let's get it to the forensics van." She leaves the apartment.
Simon gives me a look that says, "Well?"
"I could make out like an "o-b-e-r." It was on the label."
The captain nods. "Oberon."
Sandburg doesn't say anything, his expression unreadable.
Our next stop is Oberon's security office. Their head of security, a man named Reiger, pops the zip disk into a drive and brings up its solitary file on his computer. "Looks like our security design for the HazMat Research Unit at Rainier University.
Connor is confused. "What's that?"
Blair gives me a look then answers, "A lab where they do research on hazardous materials. Two years ago, after a canister of plague virus was stolen, the Regents put in a state-of-the-art security system."
I thank Reiger for his time, then say, "Come on. Next stop, Rainier."
But we're too late. The thief was there in the wee hours of the morning. A campus security guard walks us through the lab, shaking his head. "He was gone before we knew what happened. Somehow he was able to override our security systems on level one to four, and he used some kind of laser on level five."
Probably the one Barnes stole two nights ago. Damn it. The bomb at the apartment was a diversion, to keep us busy while she broke in here. "What's missing?" I ask.
"Two canisters of VX nerve gas."
"How dangerous is it?" Connor asks.
The guard looks grim. "Each canister could kill everyone in Cascade five times over."
Sandburg pales, but doesn't say a word. I hang back with him while Connor heads out of the building ahead of us. "So you believe she's guilty now? Alex Barnes is our thief. You can't deny it any longer."
Swallowing nervously, Blair nods. "Yeah, sure, whatever you say, Jim. She played me." He looks away, across the campus toward the rose gardens, his eyes narrowing, as if in pain. He's silent the whole ride to the PD.
I won. I got Sandburg to admit he was wrong about Barnes. So why do I feel like such a shit?
Once we're back at the PD, Jim, Megan and I reconvene in Simon's office.
He's on the phone. "Great. Keep me posted." Hanging up, he swivels his chair
around to face the three of us. "Looks like we caught a break here, guys. A woman
matching Alex Barnes' description was seen boarding a plane for Bogota this morning."
I let out the breath I've been holding. If Alex was pulling the heist at the university last night and got on a plane immediately afterwards, then she couldn't have been in my hospital room. But what about the lipstick, the voice in my head whispers. What about her promise to take care of things? To take care of me?
Megan's voice interrupts my thoughts. "Did they stop her?"
Simon shakes his head. "No. They didn't want to take a chance on her releasing the gas. They'll meet the plane at the airport. Colombian military is standing by."
"You really think the Feds have this under control?" I ask.
Shrugging, he replies, "Well, I'll certainly feel better when she's in custody, but for now, that's all we can do. You guys go home. I'll keep you posted if anything comes up."
Jim doesn't say anything, just leaves the office, crossing the deserted bullpen and reaching for his jacket on the coat rack.
I follow, my feet dragging. God, how I dread this, but we have to talk. This this nothing between us is killing me. I have to try to explain, to make him see that I didn't set out to deliberately hurt him, that I was following procedure, trying to keep both him and Alex safe.
Megan pauses on her way out the door. "You two up to a late supper or early breakfast?"
Jim starts to respond, but I cut him off. "No thanks. There's stuff we've got to go over."
He looks surprised. "There is?"
Megan looks back and forth between us, then says, "Right. See you tomorrow, then." She leaves.
Jim and I are alone.
Now that the moment's here, I don't know where to begin, or what to say to try and make things right. Guess I should start by telling him what he wants to hear. "Look, Jim, I just wanted you to know I realize I was wrong for not telling you about Alex. I was only thinking about myself and about my work and somewhere along the line, I lost track of my friend."
He just looks at me for a moment, then says, "Well, Chief, I don't know what you want me to say. I don't know if I can get past this. To me, it was a real breach of trust, and that struck really deep with me."
Breach of trust? Where did that come from? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? "Gimme a break here. How was I supposed to know she was a criminal?"
Shaking his head, Jim answers, "I've got to have a partner I can trust. Have you ever stopped to think what good all this research is doing anyway?"
What kind of question is that? The research with Jim enabled me to help Alex, to help someone else experiencing problems dealing with their heightened senses. "Yeah, Jim. I think about it every day. For one thing, it's helped you find out who you are."
A wave of his hand stops me from saying anything else. "Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. I know who I am, okay? I don't need you or anybody else to help me define that. Is that clear?" He's raised his voice for that last bit, and now he pauses. When he speaks again, his tone is softer, resigned. "Maybe it's just better if you finish your dissertation or doctorate writing about somebody else."
Like I give a shit about the dissertation at this moment in time. "That's crazy. I know I made a mistake, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get past this--" His gaze is ice-cold. "--but if you've got to hang on to it " I give him an opening, but Jim doesn't take it. "You know where to find me."
Leaving the bullpen, I don't look back. There's nothing else I can do. I apologized for hurting him, though I'm still not certain exactly what it was I did, other than be too quick to trust.
Exiting the station, I stand on the sidewalk uncertainly. Even though I told Jim he knows where to find me, I don't know where I belong anymore. The loft is no longer my home, and the idea of spending another night in my crappy motel room depresses me. Where do I go from here?
"What's going on?" Simon asks, walking up to me as Sandburg
leaves. His gaze follows Blair out the door. "Weren't you a little hard on the
"I mean, I'm the first one to admit Sandburg has his faults, but, uh Do you think you can handle this sentinel thing on your own?"
"I handled it for eighteen months in Peru. I think I can handle it now." Of course I can handle it on my own. That's what Blair and I have been working toward all along. " I should have given him his walking papers long before this; he's just been holding me back. "Goodnight, sir."
Putting on my coat, I stalk out of the bullpen, feeling the captain's gaze on my back, wondering if he bought my BS.
The phone is answered on the second ring. <Ellison.>
"Hello, Jim," I purr into my cell phone. "Surprised to hear from me? I couldn't just leave without saying good-bye."
<Alex. You never got on that plane to Bogota.> His voice is flat and cold, but not surprised.
I glance around the warehouse I'm in before I answer. "I've got unfinished business here. Want to guess what it is? I'll give you a clue. Here, kitty, kitty."
He doesn't seem to want to play along. <Cut the crap, Alex. What do you want?>
"A little contest to see who's the top sentinel in town. You up for the challenge, Jim?"
<Why don't you drop by so we can discuss it?>
"Uh-uh. Doesn't work that way. There's no sport in that. I know where you live. How about you come and find me?" Leaving the line open, I set the phone down on a table and walk away. I've got a few last minute things to take care of before he arrives.
"Alex? Alex?" Damn it, she's gone. I listen intently for a few
moments. I can hear machinery, and what sounds like a train in the background. Hanging up
the phone, I grab my jacket and race out the door.
I'm in the truck speeding toward her location when my cell phone rings. I punch it on. "Yeah."
<It's Simon. Jim, that plane landed in Bogota. The woman on board wasn't Alex Barnes.>
"I know," I answer tersely. "I think she's at the old foundry on Third near the freeway off-ramp and the train yards. I'm on my way now."
There's silence for a moment, then Simon says, <Jim, let me get you some backup-->
Pushing the off button, I toss the phone on the seat, feeling the hair on the back of my neck rise. "Sorry, Captain," I say aloud, "but this is between Alex and me."
When Ellison's truck screeches to a halt outside the warehouse, I'm ready
for him. He enters, gun drawn, but doesn't see me. I watch as he pauses, turning his head
from side to side, listening for me. Slipping on a set of noise protection headphones, I
throw the switch on a piece of heavy machinery.
It roars to life, and Ellison flinches. Smiling, I head deeper in to the factory, confident that he will follow.
He does. I pull off the scarf I'm wearing and drop it down the empty freight elevator shaft, then hide behind a packing crate, wrapping my hand around the rope trigger of my trap.
Jim enters the semi-circle of boxes I've set up, his nose wrinkling. I dosed the scarf earlier with a heavy shot of perfume, and if I'm right, that's what he's been trailing, rather than my actual scent. I hold my breath, resting my left hand on the butt of my gun. It would be so easy just to--
Ellison moves, taking a step forward, peering into the yawning pit. I yank on the cord, sending the wooden grille that normally covers the shaft crashing down on him. Jim's gun goes flying and better yet, he does too, falling to land at the bottom of the shaft with a thud.
Creeping out of my hiding place, I gaze into the hole. He's lying motionless at the bottom. I bare my teeth in a grin. "Guess I win," I tell him. His eyes open, and he winces. "Ta-ta, Jim."
The sharp sound of a shot cuts through the noise of the factory. I duck, sensing the bullet fly past my ear and embed in the wall. What was that about best-laid plans? Time to improvise.
Rolling to the side, I come up next to the wall, punching the activation button for the elevator. With a clank and a groan, it begins to descend.
"Cascade PD! Freeze!" Inspector Connor. No mistaking that accent.
Another shot splats into the plaster above my head. I return fire, then yell, "Better forget about me if you don't want Ellison to become a cop pancake!"
She hesitates long enough for me to wind through the maze of machinery and make a break for the exit. No sense in me sticking around. I've got a stop to make before I head out of town.
Groaning, I roll over, blinking, trying to clear my head. I look up to
find the bottom of the elevator slowly getting closer and closer. Staggering to my feet, I
stretch toward the top of the shaft. My fingers fall several inches short of the lip.
A hand appears above my head, followed by Megan Connor's face. "Jim, give me your hand!" Leaping, I grasp it, and she pulls me up. I roll over the lip of the shaft just as the elevator reaches it.
She helps me to my feet. "That was close. I got the call for backup."
"I'm glad you're here." I glance around but there's no sign of Alex. "Where is she?"
Connor shakes her head. "It was either her or you, mate. I chose you."
I nod. "Thanks. Where could Alex be headed?" As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I remember my nightmare. I'm in the jungle again, firing the crossbow, watching the dead wolf morph into Blair.
Dread grips me. "We've got to find Sandburg," I tell Connor. "Come on." She gives me a confused look, but dashes out of the warehouse on my heels.
Yawning, I rub my hand over my bleary eyes. After driving around Cascade
for a while, I finally ended up at my office at the university. Nowhere else to go,
really, and plenty of paperwork to catch up on. I enter the last grade into my computer
and save the file.
I push my chair away from my desk and slump further down in it. Judging by the lightening of the sky outside my window, it'll be dawn soon, and no Jim. I don' t know what I expected, for him to come chasing after me, telling me he forgave me, that everything would be fine?
I snort. The mental image of Jim groveling at my feet is so far out of character it's funny. God, I need sleep, and my head is pounding. I close my eyes, rubbing my temples gingerly with my fingertips. For a brief moment, I flash back to the hospital, and the gentle hand stroking my hair. Why can't my life be like that? I think. Why does it always have to be explosions and pain, harsh words and hurt feelings?
I open my eyes. Alex is standing just inside the doorway, a gun in her hand. "Alex " I breathe.
She smiles at me, and there's no maliciousness there. Her gaze is warm and tender, and it sends a shiver down my spine. "Blair, it's time to go."
For some reason that surprises me. "What?"
"Time to go," she urges gently. "I can't leave you here alive, so you have a choice. You come with me, you be my guide, or you stay here." There's an ominous click as she chambers a round in her automatic, then points it at my head. "Of course, staying here means you'll be dead."
Swallowing hard, I raise my hands, then get slowly to my feet. "Guess I'm going with you, then," I say.
She smiles at me again. "Good answer." She gestures with the gun for me to lead the way out of my office. As I pass her, she falls in next to me, sliding the hand with the gun inside my jacket and behind my back. "See? All nice and normal."
As we exit the building, I start talking. "Look, Alex, you really don't want to do this. I mean, I'm just going to slow you down. I know you want me to be your guide and all, but I'm Jim's guide."
"Oh really?" The pressure of the gun against my back directs me across the street in front of Hargrove Hall, toward the fountain. "If you're Jim's guide, then why isn't he here? Why did he pack all your things in boxes and toss you out of your home?"
I blink back the tears that spring suddenly to my eyes. I don't have an answer for that.
"You can't tell me that didn't hurt you, Blair. I could hear it in your voice when you told me about it. He hurt you. And I can see in your eyes he hurt you again tonight. What did he do? Tell you it was all over? Tell you he couldn't trust you?"
Biting my lip, I look away. She comes to a stop next to the fountain, grabbing my arm and forcing me to face her. "I was at the station, Blair, waiting outside, listening. I heard every word. I heard you apologize, I heard him reject you--again. Why do you want to stay with him?" Her fingers dig into my bicep. "Do you like being hurt? Is that what you want? Because I can do that, Blair, I can make it hurt." Her grip loosens slightly, and her tone becomes softer. "But I really don't want to do that. I want to protect you, I want to keep you safe. I want to care for you and make sure no one ever hurts you again. That's not so bad, is it?"
Oh god, oh god, please make her shut up, make her stop talking! My heart is pounding, I can barely breathe, and all I can hear is my blood roaring in my ears. Panic attack! I'm having a panic attack. I've got to get away from here, away from her. I've got to!
Throwing myself backwards, I wrench my arm loose and turn to run. But the fountain's right there, and the grass is wet, and I slip. Then I'm tumbling over the low wall surrounding the fountain, falling into the water. My head strikes something, pain turning my vision red with sparkles around the edges and--
"Damn it, Blair! Get out of the water!" I yell. He doesn't move,
and suddenly I'm very afraid. I plunge into the water, grabbing him under the arms,
turning him over, lifting his head up. He's not breathing! God, no! He's not breathing!
Out, gotta get him out, perform CPR---
Sirens in the distance, coming closer, coming for me. I can't leave him. "Blair, come on! Help me here!" I drag him to the side of the fountain, my arms hooked under his, trying to lift him out. But he's wet and heavy and as I stagger backwards over the rim of the pool he slips from my grasp. I fall on my ass as the water drags him back.
"No! No! This is not happening!" I scream, vaulting into the fountain again. "This is not how it's supposed to be!" Again I turn him on his back, wrap my arms around his chest, the sirens wailing louder and louder. "Come on, come on!"
I heave as hard as I can, but I only succeed in slipping on the slime covering the bottom of the pool. With a splash, I join Blair in the water, clutching him to me, keeping his head up. "Please, please, no Blair " I cradle his face in my hands, feeling the warmth leaving it, straining to hear even the faintest echo of a heartbeat. But there's nothing, only silence and the damn sirens.
I can't leave him! I can't leave him! I hear engines now, and squealing tires, and I know I can't stay. It's too late, too late, he's already gone. I kiss his forehead gently, then with a sob, I release him.
Getting to my feet, I climb out of the fountain and run, knowing if I hesitate, if I look back, I'll never make it.
Screeching to a halt in front of Hargrove Hall, I'm leaping out of the
truck and running up the stairs. I'm nearly at the top when something makes me turn
around. "Oh my god!" He's in the fountain. I stumble down the stairs and across
the lawn, splashing into the water, yelling for H to give me a hand.
We each grab an arm and a leg and haul him out of the pool, laying him face up on the grass. I'm on automatic pilot now, yelling "Sandburg! Sandburg!" as I check for a pulse.
Simon bends over his still form, pressing his ear to Blair's chest. "I don't hear a heartbeat. Do you? Do you hear a heartbeat? Jim! Jim!"
I shake my head. "No, nothing." Nothing.
The captain snaps out orders. "Get an ambulance! Jim, get his airway open. All right, here we go."
I breathe for Sandburg, feeling the resistance, knowing his lungs are full of water. Simon does five chest compressions and I breathe for him again. "Come on, Chief."
More chest compressions, more breathing, more swearing. "Breathe, damn you!"
Then someone's pushing me to the side. Two EMT's are bent over him now, ripping open his shirt, charging the defibrillator, placing the paddles on his chest. "Clear!" Blair's body arches in the air, then flops back. "Again!" the tech calls, and electricity courses through his body for a second time.
"This can't be happening. This can't be happening. Come on, Sandburg. Come on, Chief." Please, please no, god, no.
Again and again they try to shock his heart into beating, but it's no use. One of the medics looks up at me and shakes his head.
"No! No! He's alive!" I yell, shoving EMT out of the way, doing the chest compressions myself.
Simon grabs me and pulls me back. "He's gone!"
Something inside me tears then. "No! He can't be gone, he can't!" A sob erupts in my chest. "No oh, god, no."
I look at the faces, at the friends hovering over Sandburg. Rafe and H are silent, their expressions stricken. Megan's making little whimpering sounds around the hand over her mouth. And Simon--Simon's eyes are filled with tears.
In that moment, I truly realize what I've lost.
TO BE CONTINUED ...