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NICK OF TIME

BY: Lyn

EMAIL: Lyn

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel are the property of others, who should really get off their butts and put the show on DVD. This story was written for my own and others' enjoyment and I'm not making a cent out of it.

RATING: PG (A little violence)

SUMMARY: Never pick up hitchhikers. Based on a true story.

Set before Cypher.

Blair hummed cheerfully along with the radio as he drove toward the station. Rain lashed his window, reminding him to pick up new wiper blades on the way home, and the wind seeped through the space on the driver's side door where it didn't quite fit to the body.

It was a great day, he decided, following on from a great, brilliant, phenomenal, pretty good night spent with Christine at her place. They'd shared a cozy dinner for two - man, the girl could cook - a bottle of wine and some lazy cuddling on the rug in front of the fire before heading upstairs to get to know each other a little better. She'd kissed him good-bye this morning, promising to take him up on his offer of a reciprocal dinner at the loft on Saturday. Blair knew Jim was working late that night and they wouldn't be disturbed.

He frowned and slowed a little as a figure came into view, standing on the side of the road. The man was bedraggled and soaked to the skin. He stamped his feet as he hugged a square box to his chest and tried to balance a loaded backpack on his back.

Blair groaned. Jim would kill him, he knew. "Never pick up hitchhikers, Chief," the detective had intoned on more than one occasion when Blair had drawn Jim's attention to some poor, down on their luck person, standing by the side of the road. "You just never know who you might let in."

Yes or no. Blair's mind was made up as he glanced in his rear view mirror and saw the man drenched by the backwash from a speeding car. He slowed down, then pulled over to the side of the road and tooted his horn. The man squinted through the rain at him then gave Blair a thumbs up and trotted toward the car.

Blair wound down his window as the man drew near. "Where are you headed?" he asked.

"Airport," the man replied in a heavy accent.

"I can't take you that far," Blair replied, "but I can get you to a bus that goes there."

The man nodded. "Thank you. You are very kind." He was heavy-set and middle-aged with pock-marked skin, and a bulbous fleshy nose stuck out above a bushy moustache and beard that all but hid his lower face.

Blair waved a hand toward the back seat. "Stow your gear in the back and climb in."

The stranger did as Blair suggested and within minutes, they were on the road, with Blair mentally cheering that his old classic hadn't decided to give up the ghost in the winter weather.

"My name is Sam," the stranger said suddenly.

Blair turned off the radio and gave his passenger a smile. "Blair. Blair Sandburg." The man nodded and turned his gaze to the window. "You going away?" Blair asked, trying to fill the void in the awkward lull in conversation.

Sam nodded. "Eventually, yes, but I think perhaps you can help me get what I need before I go."

"I don't understand-" Blair turned to look at the other man and froze, his heart beginning to pound. Sam held a gun aimed at his stomach. Blair stiffened and slammed on the brakes, both men thrown forward with the momentum. "Whoa, man! What's going on? What do you want?" He gave the rear view window a furtive glance. If he could signal someone…

"Quiet!" Sam ordered, digging the muzzle of the weapon into Blair's ribs. "Keep driving. Turn left at the next corner and then turn into the alley."

"Oh, man." Blair groaned. Jim, what the hell do I do now? If you get me out of this, I *swear* no more hitchhikers." He tried his most persuasive tone. "Look, Sam, you don't want to do this. If it's money you need, I've got a little on me. You can even have my credit card." He took a breath then made the ultimate sacrifice. "Take the car, man."

Sam's face was an emotionless mask. He dug Blair in the ribs again. "Drive."

~o0o~

Blair turned off the ignition and waited, staring straight ahead at the end of the alley through the windscreen, not willing to face his assailant. *Now what?* he thought to himself. *Is this where he shoots me, leaves me here in the alley for someone to find, for Jim to see…?* Hot tears suddenly stung his eyes. He turned back to Sam. "Please…"

He didn't see the gun swing up, only felt the pain as it slammed into the side of his head, causing his vision to gray out. He felt his body falling sideways, abruptly stopped by strong arms.

By the time he regained his senses, 'Sam' or whoever the hell he was, was just finishing snapping a padlock onto a chain around Blair's chest. Blair looked down muzzily. The chain was not heavy duty, but he doubted he could snap it. It wrapped around his neck, crossed at the front then twined around his body to meet again at the front. A small square box was linked to the chain by metal loops, resting against his chest. "W'azzthis?" he muttered, blinking rapidly to try and bring the object into view.

Sam cupped Blair's chin, forcing his head up and gave him a kindly smile. "This is a bomb, Blair and it is going to convince you to do something for me."

The look in the man's eyes was calm and open. Blair panicked at the words, throwing himself sideways, uncaring of the pain in his shoulder as he hit the door.

"Easy, easy," Sam soothed. "We're pretty sure it won't go off from movement but then again…" He shrugged.

Blair froze. "We?" he croaked. "Who's we?"

"My associates." Sam opened his door and walked around to the driver's side. He pulled the door open and ushered Blair out. "I have a little job for you to do and then you can be on your way."

Blair stood, shaking from more than just the cold, his eyes widening as Sam told him what he wanted him to do.

"What?" Blair shook his head. "No way, man! Are you nuts?" His head snapped back and he tasted blood. Lifting a trembling hand, he wiped at his mouth. "You want me to go rob a bank? Take a bomb in with me?" He set his jaw. "What if I don't? What if I just get in there and call the cops? How do I know this bomb is real-" *Oh, boy, I really wish I hadn't asked that last question.*

"How do you know it is not?" Sam asked equably. "As to your other questions. If you don't, I shall walk away, securing you inside your car first, of course. When I am a safe distance away, my colleagues will detonate both bombs. If I suspect you have called the police…" He broke off and imitated a huge explosion with his hands. "So…?"

"You kill me and you won't get what you want," Blair said defiantly. If he could keep the guy talking, maybe someone would happen along…. His eyes darted to the mouth of the alley but he could see no one. Did this guy really have accomplices or was he bluffing? Blair glanced down at the box on his chest. It was quite small, really, how come it felt so damn heavy? "Okay," he whispered. "What do I do?"

~o0o~

The street was fairly deserted when Sam led Blair up to the door of the bank. The rain was keeping most people inside. Patting Blair's shoulder then fussing with the zipper on the waterproof jacket he'd insisted Blair put on before they left the alley, Sam gave him a smile. "Relax, Blair. It will be over before you know it." He pressed a piece of paper into Blair's hand. "Just give this to the manager, wait for the money and leave. Leave this inside." He handed Blair another box, considerably larger than the one he wore on his chest. "It will encourage them not to call the police. I'm going back to get your car. I'll leave it here." He motioned to the curb. "When you come out, there will be further instructions on the front seat, explaining how to get yourself out of this - predicament. My colleagues are watching. If you are not out in fifteen minutes…." He left the rest unsaid and Blair was grateful.

On unsteady legs, Blair made his way inside the bank. The security guard at the door gave him a frown and Blair was suddenly aware of something trickling down his face. Pressing his fingers to the wetness, he swallowed when they came away smeared with blood. "Fell crossing the road," he said to the guard.

The guard nodded sympathetically. "Are you all right, sir? Do you need help?"

*You bet I do,* Blair thought. He shook his head. "No, I'm fine. It's just a scratch."

"Here." Blair looked up in surprise as the officer held out a handkerchief.

"Than… thank you." Pressing the cloth to his head, Blair made his way shakily toward the service counter. The booth at the far end was free and Blair walked up, lowering his eyes when the girl gave him a bright smile.

"Good morning, sir. What can I do for you?"

"I need to see the manager," Blair husked out.

The clerk frowned. "Are you all right, sir? Do you need-"

Blair's composure frittered away. "I'm fine!" he ground out. "I need to see the manager now!"

The girl looked startled, backing away a little and glancing anxiously toward the security guard. "She - she's busy with a customer," she stuttered. "If you'd like to take a seat-"

"Damn it!" Blair pounded a fist on the counter, causing the girl to gasp in fright. She was so young. Just a kid. He forced his voice to steady. "Where's the manager?"

"Is there a problem here?" a woman asked from behind him.

Blair spun and faced a middle-aged woman, dressed in a black pantsuit. He thrust out the letter, shaking it when she didn't immediately take it from his hand.

Sighing, she accepted it and began to read. Halfway through, her eyes widened and she stared back at Blair. "Is this some kind of joke?"

Blair gave a strangled half-laugh, half-sob. "I wish." He glanced at the clock. "Time's running out. Please. As soon as I leave, you can call the police. I don't have any ID, he took it but my name is Sandburg. Blair Sandburg. Ask for Detective Jim Ellison or Captain Simon Banks."

The manager studied him for a moment longer then gestured at the box Blair had gingerly set on the counter. "Are you… are you sure it's a bomb?"

"No," Blair replied. "But do you want to take the chance?"

The woman gazed around the bank; at the customers lining up now that the rain had eased, at her staff working unaware behind their respective counters. "No," she whispered. "No, I don't. Fred," she gestured to the security guard, "Come with me."

Blair sagged in relief. Maybe it would be okay. Maybe this guy would just take his money and leave. His hand brushed against the box on his chest and Blair tensed, stifling a sob of defeat. Right.

Five minutes later, the manager placed the briefcase loaded with cash into Blair's hand. Blair nodded his thanks and turned to go. A little girl peeked out at him from behind her mother's legs and smiled at him shyly. With shaking but resolute hands, Blair picked up the bomb from the counter and tucked it under his arm before walking out of the bank.

~o0o~

As Sam had promised, Blair's car was at the curb. He looked around warily as he made his way to the vehicle but could see no one taking particular attention of him. Of course, he knew they could be some distance away and using binoculars to keep tabs on him. Opening his door, he saw a sheet of paper lying on the front seat and picked it up. Scanning the contents, he swallowed dryly and impulsively turned back toward the bank. The manager stood behind the glass door, with the security guard at her side. "Oh, man."

He turned back to the car, placed the bomb he carried under his arm on the back seat, alongside the briefcase full of money. He had a brief moment of hysterical hilarity, realizing they may not know he'd brought the bomb out with him and could very well blow up their ill-gotten gains. *And me,* he suddenly thought, and sobered instantly.

Climbing into the car, he turned on the ignition and read the note again.

Place the money on the back seat and drive to the Thrifty Hardware five blocks away. Park in the parking lot and leave your keys on the front driver's side tire. Walk two blocks to the public phone booth and wait. In ten minutes, you will get a call telling you how to disarm the bomb.

Thank you Blair.

He snorted. "Thank you, Blair? Like it's some kind of friendly transaction?" He wiped wetness from his cheeks and steered his car into the traffic. It was dismal outside, and raining again, adding to his somber, frightened mood. Turning into the Thrifty Hardware parking lot, he chose a space as far away from any other car as he could manage and climbed out, leaving the key as instructed on the tire.

Walking like an automaton, not feeling the icy rain that quickly drenched him, he walked on leaden legs to the phone booth… And waited.

He had no idea how much time passed before the realization seeped into his fatigued, aching brain that no phone call was coming. He was beyond fear now, just exhausted and numb. Turning, he began to stagger back the way he had come. His legs gave out before he had gone more than a few yards and he stumbled, skinning his hands as he held them out to break his fall, terror returning anew, his heart pounding as he waited for the explosion. He slumped to the ground when nothing happened.

Deciding he could go no further, he shifted to sit on the curb and stared off into space. Time disappeared as did Blair's thoughts and he welcomed the oblivion.

~o0o~

"Sandburg? Blair? Thank God."

The welcome voice filtered into his subconscious, dragging him from his stupor. He forced his bleary gaze to focus on the familiar face in front of him. "J… Jim?"

Jim smiled at him. "Yeah, Chief, it's me. Let's take a look at you." He took a step forward and Blair reacted in panic, scooting back on his butt, one scraped hand held up in protest.

"No! Don't come near me, Jim. You have to leave! He… he put a bomb on me."

Jim's voice was gentle and he continued to creep closer, even as Blair continued to move back. "We know, buddy. I brought Joel and the guys with me. They're gonna have you out of that thing in no time."

"No!" Blair shouted, shaking his head. "It's got a remote. If they see you, they'll trigger it, and if I have to die because I was st… stupid, fine, but I don't want you or anybody else getting hurt."

Jim stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Joel, can you tell if there's a remote on that thing from here."

Blair heard Joel's voice but didn't take his eyes off Jim's face. "Can't tell, Jim, besides, it could be inside the housing."

"Okay," Jim turned back to Blair. "Look, Chief, I'm pretty sure they're long gone. I had a good look around when we arrived," he tapped his eye with one finger and Blair nodded, understanding the code for Jim's heightened senses, "and I couldn't see anybody loitering. They've got what they wanted. They're not going to hang around."

"That's why they didn't call," Blair whispered. He head dropped and he let out a sigh of resignation. "I'm gonna die, aren't I?"

There was a rustle of movement and suddenly Jim's arms were around him, cradling him close. "Not if I can help it. Let's go, Joel. Get this damn thing off him."

~o0o~

Blair scuttled forward the moment he felt the chains fall away. The release was like a weight off his soul. Jim caught him as he fell forward.

"Easy, Chief," he soothed. "I've got you."

Blair let his aching head rest against Jim's chest, the steady beat of Jim's heart a reassuring balm to his frazzled nerves. "I need…" he muttered, only half - cognizant of being lifted to his feet, his weight all but supported by Jim. "Can we go home now?"

"Soon," Jim replied. "Let's get you checked out first."

Blair was only vaguely aware of stumbling alongside Jim before being lifted and settled on something soft. "Jim!" His hand reached out in panic and was quickly enveloped in Jim's warm one.

"Still here, buddy. Just gonna let the paramedics take a look at you, and I need to go talk to Joel. Be right back."

Blair stiffened as Jim's comforting presence disappeared, his eyes snapping open to take in the interior of an ambulance and the kindly gaze of a middle-aged man in a dark blue uniform.

"Just relax," the man said. "Everything's fine."

Feeling exhausted both in body and spirit, Blair closed his eyes and drifted off. Everything was all right now. Jim would take care of everything.

~o0o~

A… a fake?" Unintentional tears filled Blair's eyes and dripped down his cheeks. He wiped at them impatiently with his hand. He was seated now on the gurney in the back of the ambulance, the gash on his head cleaned and bandaged, his scraped hands still stinging from the antiseptic wiped over them. His head pounded fiercely, keeping time with his heart. He was cold, bone-achingly cold and the entire situation felt surreal and dream-like. He was having trouble focusing on Jim's words. They kept floating away, just out of reach of comprehension."

Jim nodded, making Blair feel nauseous. "The one on you was a fake; the other one wasn't."

Blair released a shaky breath. "Thank God I didn't leave it in the bank. I couldn't, Jim. Just the thought of those innocent people…"

"You did great, Chief." Jim patted Blair's hand.

Blair flinched at the muffled sound of an explosion and Jim squeezed his hand comfortingly. "How is he?" He wasn't looking at Blair, so Blair assumed he was talking to the paramedic.

"In shock," the paramedic replied. "He's cold and diaphoretic, his blood pressure's a little low. All signs of shock. We can run him in, get him checked out by the doctor but they'll pretty much do what you can do at home, and I think he'll be a lot less stressed there."

"All right, Chief." Jim smiled at him. "You ready to come home?"

Blair smiled back. It was tremulous and far from confident but it felt good on his face. "More than you know, man. I gave…" Blair yawned widely. "Gave H a description while I was waiting for you."

"If you're up to it, you can do an ID tomorrow." Jim helped Blair stand and placed his own PD jacket around Blair's shoulders. Blair had refused to don the waterproof jacket again, despite the chill. He never wanted to see it again. "We got him, Chief. Couple of people at the hardware store noticed a guy standing by a white van, peeling off a fake moustache and beard and body padding. They thought he looked suspicious and called us. Thomson and Emery caught the guy about to hightail it out of the parking lot. They found the money in the back of the van."

Blair couldn't help the stifled sob of relief that bubbled up, and was grateful for the feel of Jim's arm about his shoulders. "So he can't hurt anyone else."

"No way, thanks to you."

Jim had to pretty much haul him up into the truck and buckle him in. Blair's legs were still non-existent and his hands still trembled violently. "S'been a long day, Jim," Blair muttered as he hunched up in the corner of the cab.

"That it has. You can tell me all about it on the way home…" Jim's smiling face was the last thing Blair saw before his eyes drifted closed. "Or maybe tomorrow." Jim's hand stretched out and squeezed Blair's lax one gently. "Glad you're okay, Chief."

END

Extra Note: In the real case, the man was never caught, though he was spotted by a couple, stripping off a fake beard, moustache and belly while standing beside a white van. The real victim in this case was a taxi driver.

17th March 2004

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