Just one of those Days
Written for Sentinel Thursday - Challenge 113: Forty Things That Only Happen In Movies,
"...use them any way you wish. Pick one, pick several, twist them or not."
Number of cliches 'sort of' used: 23
Word count: 6764********************
"Oh, man," Sandburg groaned, swallowing hard and wishing his hands would stop trembling. "How do I get myself into these things?"
He'd been tagged by his Departmental Chairman to courier a rare and valuable Chinese artifact to New York City for a weekend symposium. Sure, it was an honor, and a weekend in NYC wasn't to be sneezed at, not when all expenses there and back were paid. But the artifact seemed determined to fail to live up to its promise of good luck. The last time he'd had it in his possession, he'd been responsible for arranging its authentication and valuation by experts in the Wilkinson Tower. That time, he'd been trapped in a small box with four other terrified people and a bomb, and they'd been dropped time after time by the maniac hoping to rob the Exchange.
This time, he was in a much larger box with a whole lot more people, but this box was still going down - a lot farther down that twenty or thirty floors.
Try thirty-five thousand feet.
"Flight Three-oh-one, we have you on our radar."
"Okay, great," Blair replied through the microphone on the headset that flattened his hair. "Now what?"
The calm voice coming over the air waves asked him to check his altitude and airspeed, and had him adjust direction, guiding him through the process of banking the 747 into a slow turn that would take them farther out over the Pacific prior to turning back to line up with the runway that the voice said he'd be landing on.
Jaw clamped tight, hands shaking, he put the huge craft into another direction change, just as he had when they'd directed him to turn off the autopilot to fly away from the crowded Los Angeles air space, and steer clear of the equally crowded skies over San Francisco and Seattle by paralleling the coast toward his home skies. Cascade only had one runway that handled international flights, mostly to Mexico, but it was long enough to give enough room for the huge jumbo jet to land.
And if they crashed, well, at least the odds were that they wouldn't hit anybody else on the way down or take out part of the city, as the airport was out on the end of town, right on the edge of the water.
Shaking his head, blowing a long shuddering breath, he leveled off on the new heading and reported that to the distant voice who kept reassuring him that things were going to be fine. Somehow, he figured if things were going to be so fine, the guy on the other end wouldn't feel the need to keep reassuring him.
"Did, uh, anybody call Detective Ellison at Cascade PD to, um, tell him ...."
"Yes, sir. Detective Ellison has been notified that you will be landing in Cascade momentarily, and is on his way to the airport."
"Thanks," Blair murmured shakily, wishing he had Jim's senses as he stared out the glass around and above him, wondering what his friend would be able to see, how far - maybe all the way to Cascade and the long, lonely runway he was going to have to drop onto, hopefully without winding up a fireball.
The flight had left at 5:30 AM, which meant he'd had to be at the airport at 4:30 AM - after only about three hours sleep. The idea of eating anything, let alone the tasteless yellow stuff purported to be scrambled eggs or the even less appealing, soggy eggwich that had been offered, had spared him from the poisoning that had afflicted almost all the passengers and everyone on the crew, except for one stewardess who was allergic to eggs and had also passed on the breakfast offerings. So far, it was hard to tell if it was food poisoning or something more insidious, not that it mattered. Virtually everyone on the massive craft was so sick they wished they were dead.
Bleakly, Blair wondered if they were about to get their wish.
So instead of vomiting his guts out or already unconscious, he was sitting in the pilot seat, his empty gut twisted in knots, his palms sweating and his throat parched with fear.
Another course correction and he was banking back toward land. Above him, the sky was crystal clear, and he squinted against the rising sun. Beneath him, the deep, indigo Pacific rolled toward shore. Ahead, he could see the snowcapped Cascades rising strong and sure behind the city that was just coming into view. Looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. A line from an old movie, Little Big Man, flashed through his mind: A good day to die.
Blinking, licking his lips, he told himself to stop with the negative thoughts. He could do this. All he had to do was follow instructions. It was just like driving a really big bus along a three dimensional highway and it would soon be time to pull in and park. People did it thousands and thousands of times every single day all around the world. Really. How hard could it be?
He laughed hysterically, and then gritted his teeth. An adventure. It was one more adventure.
Something for his memoirs.
He just had to live to write them.
Just had to get the other more than three hundred people behind him down to the parade of ambulances and medical personnel that would be ready and waiting.
Just had to land this baby.
The voice started up again, crisp but not cold. Calm, unhurried, walking him through what 'they' were going to do. Right, 'they'. Blair nodded unconsciously, repeated the instructions to confirm he'd heard, his gaze raking the confusing bank of instruments and gauges, ignoring most of them, focusing on those that mattered. The altimeter. Air speed. Course heading.
He could see the runway now. Toggling the microphone, he winced at the piercing feedback and then advised passengers and crew to prepare for landing. He didn't envy the young, pretty stewardess, Amy, the job of trying to ensure all the passengers were properly braced in crash position. Most weren't and that was just the way it was. But, maybe, unconscious was the best way to be - they wouldn't be tense and might just survive.
If they didn't crash and burn.
He pulled back on the steering column to reduce speed, watched the altimeter, could feel the ground rushing up - they were going too fast. He did his best to slow more, adjusting flaps, cutting back on fuel flow. Not that there was much fuel left. Part of the circle out over the ocean had been for the purpose of burning off the excess that remained in the tanks. Watching the gauges, he knew he was going in on fumes. Not that the voice had told him that but, hey, it was standard procedure, right? When directing a civilian who hadn't flown a kite in over fifteen years let alone any kind of aircraft into an emergency landing - well, if they crashed maybe, at least, they wouldn't burn.
A hopeful thought to hold onto.
Instructions came to lower the landing gear and lock it in place. He could feel the instantaneous drag and found himself breathing through his mouth, as if he couldn't get enough air.
Was Jim there yet? Was he watching the big jet coming in, wobbly, too fast, but coming in just the same?
He was aware of fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles lining the approach and, again, he swallowed hard, hoping he wouldn't wipe them all out on the way in. He wanted, desperately, to look for a blue and white truck, but he couldn't take the time, had to watch the approach, the gauges.
Things began happening too fast to worry anymore. There was only time to act. To hold the craft as steady as possible so the massive wings wouldn't clip the ground, to adjust the flaps, to lower closer and closer ... and ....
THUMP! Thump, thump. And he was down, speeding toward the end of the tarmac like a runaway train, braking for all he was worth, flaps full down to cut speed, doing his best to hold the craft straight so it wouldn't skid out of control.
Until it finally slowed.
They were all still alive.
And in one piece.
Closing his eyes, Blair sagged against the seat, shaking so bad he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to stop.
Sirens of fire trucks and ambulances, a confusion of rescue workers like ants, so far below, swarming around the jet. Mobile steps driven closer to the front and rear exits.
Behind him, the door to the passenger section opened and Amy, the stewardess, poked her head inside, his backpack in her hand. "You did good, Blair," she told him. "Real good. C'mon. You can leave now."
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he unclipped the seat belt and stood, scarcely able to believe he'd done it. She handed him his pack, heavy with the precious artifact inside, and said with a slow, seductive smile, "You'll have to come over to my place, maybe this weekend. Meet my cat, Hickory." Nodding, he smiled shakily and moved past her. The passengers who were still conscious enough to know what was going on gave him a smattering of applause and a few ragged cheers. In a daze, he went through the forward hatch and down the steps. Looking around halfway down to get his bearings, he spotted Jim standing by the truck and he thought he'd never seen a more beautiful sight in his life.
Jim strode across the pavement to meet him, looping an arm around his shoulders before giving him a quick slap on the back. "Good job getting a plane routed to Cascade, Chief," Ellison said approvingly. "Didn't think you'd be back in time to go on stakeout with me. Took a chance on driving straight out here to pick you up. We don't have a lot of time to lose."
"Stakeout, Chief. Looks like it could go down anytime."
"Jim - Jim! I just landed that seven-forty-seven!" Blair expostulated, waving back at the behemoth that loomed over them.
Pausing as he opened the truck door, Jim looked up at the cockpit high above, and then at his partner, certain Blair was pulling his chain. "They talked you in, right?" he deadpanned, playing along, knowing from the plethora of emergency vehicles on the tarmac that there'd been something wrong with the plane, but not unduly concerned since the pilot had gotten it down safely.
Shrugging, Ellison grinned. "Piece o'cake, kid. C'mon." Gazing at the ambulances, he observed, "Looks like you had some sick people on board."
"Yeah, yeah - nearly everyone, actually," Sandburg told him.
Shrugging, Jim climbed into the truck. "Let's get out of here before the reporters show up."
Blair's brows arched and he smiled bemusedly. Piece of cake? Well, yeah, maybe. "I guess," he murmured as he climbed inside and barely had the seatbelt clipped before Jim put pedal to the metal. The truck's wheels squealed as he made a tight half circle back toward the terminal and the way off the airfield.
They'd only hit the airport circle, though, before Ellison pulled into the gas station.
"Got to gas 'er up," Jim told him, leaping out to fill the tank. "Just in case there's a pursuit later."
"Good planning," Sandburg congratulated him vaguely, glancing at the clock on the dash. It was 7:43 AM and he'd been on the go already for more than six hours. Giving himself a shake, focusing on the here and now, not wanting to dwell too long on what might have been, he asked through the open window, "So, um, where's the stakeout?"
"Warehouse. Down at the docks."
An aging gas station attendant wandered out, pulling a dangling red handkerchief from his back pocket to blow his nose. Sniffing, sticking the rag back into his jeans, he called with a middle-American twang, "Want yer oil checked, son?"
Jim shook his head. Reaching into his wallet, he pulled out several bills without looking and handed him the exact amount of cash needed to pay for the gas.
By the time Jim climbed back behind the wheel, the adrenaline rush had worn off and Blair was feeling about as ambitious as a ragged and washed out dishcloth that had seen much better days. Leaning his head back, he'd barely slipped into a doze when the long, loud blast of a semi's air horn split the air, making him jump and look around, his heart pounding in momentary terror. "What the -"
"Just a guy blowin' his own horn, Junior," his friend drawled. "No need to get excited."
"Right," Blair blinked and yawned. "Jim," he observed with a frown. "This isn't the way to the docks."
Nodding, Ellison told him, "We gotta make a stop first. Check out a possible witness."
A few minutes later, along the busy strip of airport hotels, fast food joints, and various and sundry businesses - some sordid, some not - Jim wheeled into a parking slot directly in front of a twenty-four hour strip club. Perking up, Blair slid out of the truck to follow the detective inside.
The music was raucous, and the air stank of stale smoke and beer. "Check your dials, man," Sandburg cautioned automatically, his attention straying to the athletic gyrations up on the stage. Assessing her performance, he thought it a shame that there were so few patrons at that hour to appreciate her enthusiasm and, er, talent.
Jim summarily grabbed his arm and pulled him along, past the bar and through a curtained doorway into the grungy back hallway.
"I'm looking for Daisy Dancer," he said to the pert young gum-chewing ingénue in a g-string, waiting in the wings for her turn to step into the spotlight.
"She's in the dressing room in the back, last door on the left," the lady with lavender hair told him, straightening to better display her impressive, er, mammary glands, and eying him lasciviously.
Ellison didn't seem to notice. All business, his expression stern, he forged ahead. Blair, though, glanced back over his shoulder and smiled winningly.
After rapping on the door and shouldering it open, Jim flashed his badge and said briskly, "I'm Detective Ellison, and I have a few questions about your boyfriend, Billy Balens."
"That wacko is no boyfriend of mine," the gorgeous redhead pouted into the mirror, more interested in applying her mascara than in her visitors. "Cheap, lousy creep. Puts all his money into building the most bizarre shit. Calls them man-traps, you know, like mouse traps only bigger. Mazes with obstacles and ...." She shivered theatrically. "The jerk is bananas. All he ever talks about is 'getting even'. Never says with who. Maybe it doesn't matter."
"When did you last see Billy?" Jim pushed impatiently, looking at his watch, thinking that her information didn't match that of the anonymous caller the evening before who'd given him a tip that Balens had a stockpile of illegal arms he was getting ready to move.
"Last night," she shrugged. "He was in here just after midnight, bragging as usual. Said he had a game planned for this morning. Giggled a lot. Guy's a fruitcake."
"He say where this game was going to happen?"
Sighing, she looked up at him and then slowly stood to her impressive six feet three inches with heels. Seductively drawing a boa under her flowing mane and around her impressive shoulders to frame her dazzling assets, she replied with a bored tone, "Where else? At his warehouse on the docks. Where he has his man-traps." Looking Jim up and down before meeting his eyes, she drawled, "He gives me the creeps. I hope you kill him."
His tongue in his cheek, Ellison rolled his eyes sardonically, and then turned to push Sandburg back out the door into the hallway. Shaking his head as he followed Jim back to the truck, Blair began to wonder if he was still asleep in the hotel back east and locked in some bizarre dream, or if maybe he had crashed the plane and this was some kind of purgatory where he could look at whatever he wanted but wasn't allowed to touch anything.
"What's this case all about anyway?" he asked as they walked across the sidewalk to the truck.
Jim threw his hands in the air as he walked around the hood. "According to an anonymous tip I got last evening, Balens has a stock of illegal arms that he plans to move today or tonight." Pausing, he shook his head. "Doesn't make sense, though, you know?" Scratching his cheek, he explained, "He was a two-bit hustler who thought he'd be the next Al Capone. I nailed him for possession a few years ago and he got out of prison last month. Not enough time to set up major contracts in illegal arms trading, unless he made some pretty impressive connections inside."
Opening the truck door, Sandburg gazed in his direction, though his eyes were slightly out of focus. Frowning, he looked back over his shoulder and then at the ground, murmuring, "Anonymous?"
"What?" Jim demanded, climbing into the cab. "You thinking there's a sudden similarity between a stockpile of illegal weapons and a chunk of cheese?"
"Yeah," Blair replied, appearing concerned as he studied his friend. "That's exactly what I'm thinking."
Perturbed, worrying about Jim's safety and whether he was heading toward some kind of trap, he got in the truck and closed the door. But then he reminded himself that Jim was a professional; he wouldn't do anything stupid.
Somehow, though, when he'd crawled out of the hotel bed that morning, he hadn't expected the day to go exactly like this. Or anything like this, for that matter. Who gets out of bed figuring they're going to land a 747 and then stop by a strip club before breakfast - well, who besides pilots, maybe?
Life was an adventure and you just had to roll with it, right?
However, even dashing young adventurers needed breakfast. "I'm starving man - can we get some food before we head across town? Or even coffee?"
"Didn't you eat on the plane?" Jim asked, surprised.
"Poisoned food, remember, Jim?" Blair replied sarcastically. "If I'd eaten, I wouldn't be here."
"That's a little dramatic, doncha think? Probably just a nasty case of indigestion," Ellison chided.
"Yeah, right," Sandburg drawled, shaking his head, and then got back to the point. "I'm hungry. Let's pull into one of these places and pick up something we can eat on the way."
"Sure, Junior, why not?" Jim agreed, wheeling into the drive-thru lane of the next donut shop. Blair fiddled with the radio to get the eight o'clock news while Ellison ordered.
"Early this morning, a West-Am seven-forty-seven, en route from New York City to Los Angeles, made an emergency landing in Cascade after the pilot, crew and the majority of passengers were stricken with a disabling malady that may have been food poisoning, though lab results are still pending. The jumbo jet was landed by -"
Jim flipped the volume down to hear the amount owing and pulled bills blindly out of his wallet, once again unerringly handing over the exact amount requested.
"Jim, they were talking about my flight!" Sandburg exclaimed, aggrieved.
Passing him a medium coffee and then the bag of donuts, Jim drawled, "Not everything is about you, Sandburg."
Blair gaped at him. "Well, no," he allowed. There had been other people on that plane. But still. Blowing over the hot beverage to cool it, he wondered what Jim had been told when someone from the airport had called him that morning, to say Blair was landing in Cascade.
Apparently not much; which made sense as no one at the airport would want to raise any panic. Deciding he didn't want to talk about it right then, anyway, Blair let the subject slide.
A moment later, once again back on the road, Ellison set his coffee on the dash to free a hand to take the buttermilk donut Sandburg had pulled out of the bag for him.
Glancing casually at the black sedan pulling up on the outside, Ellison noticed the passenger window sliding down and then went cold when he saw the barrel of an automatic weapon slide out. "Get down!" he shouted, hitting the brake and jerking the wheel to the left to ram their attackers. Scalding hot coffee slopped out of the tumbling paper cup, and splashed out of cup in Blair's grip, splattering everything and stinging them both with dark, hot drops. Jim cursed, and Blair yelped as bullets sprayed just over the hood.
The black sedan took off, leaping ahead like a frightened hare desperate to evade a hungry fox, and Jim flipped on his siren and roared after them in close pursuit.
"Who are those guys?" Sandburg demanded, wide-eyed, as he clung to the door frame with one hand and braced himself on the dash with the other.
"Looked like Billy's buddies, the German brothers, Hans and Ruettger. Quiet. Let me see if I can pick up what they're saying," Jim replied tightly, squinting with his effort to keep his senses in line.
Reaching over to lightly touch his leg to ground him, Blair wondered softly, "If they're German, won't they be talking in German?"
"Nah, just with German accents," Jim assured him confidently as he careened around slower moving vehicles without the sense to get out of the way of a screaming siren, dodging briefly into the approaching lane of vehicles before lurching back to safety.
Clenching his teeth, unconsciously gripping Jim's leg hard enough to hurt, pressing back against the seat, scrunching his eyes closed, Blair grated, "You picking up anything?"
"Just a lot of cursing about how Billy's gonna have their balls for missing me," Jim replied flatly. "You wanna ease up on the deathgrip, Chief? You can feel me up some other time."
"Oh, right, sorry," Blair gabbled, pulling his hand back, the better to hold onto the dash for dear life.
The car up ahead swerved off the broad, four-lane road onto a narrow side street. Jim hauled the truck after them on the tight, fast turn, and the Ford pickup rocked dangerously before slamming down, the wheels once more gripping pavement. Blair gasped and winced but forbore to comment. Hell, he'd landed a 747 that morning - no way was he destined to die that day, and certainly not in something as ordinary as a car crash.
The black sedan inadvertently ended up in a dead-end alley and slammed to a stop. The driver and passenger tumbled out, hauling automatic weapons with them and began spraying the air in an attempt to stop the truck in its tracks. But though they managed to ping the metal a time or two, either they needed glasses or they'd never learned how to properly handle the armament, for most of their bullets went wild.
Jim drew his pistol. "Stay down," he snapped. Rolling the steering wheel, he slammed the truck into a sideways skid while aiming out the side window. He focused, pulled the trigger once, hit the gas tank, and the black sedan exploded into a maelstrom of fire - the shock of the blast sending their attackers flying to land stunned several feet away. "Call for backup!" he ordered, sliding out of the truck and racing toward them, getting them both cuffed before either assailant was quite conscious.
"So, who are we relieving?" Blair asked, and smothered another yawn when they finally turned into the wide service lane leading to the docks.
"Sanderson and Lawson," Jim told him as they drew near Balens' warehouse.
"I thought they were done," Sandburg replied, turning to look at his partner.
"It's their last shift," Ellison said with a fond smile. "Came out of the Academy together, been partnered every day for thirty years. Married each others' sisters." Shaking his head, he went on, "I heard them talking about buying matching motor homes. After the big retirement shindig tonight, they plan to hit the road in their own little convoy and see the country at their leisure." Pulling the truck to the curb, he chuckled as he added, "They were showing off photos of the mansions on wheels the other day. You'd think they were pictures of their sweethearts. One way to spend retirement, I guess."
"Whatever makes them happy, man," Blair replied with a grin, trying to picture Ellison hauling a forty-foot motor home around the country and shaking his head at the incongruous image. "They've sure earned it."
"That they have," Jim agreed warmly, getting out of the vehicle to go let his two colleagues know they were relieved and could go on home - only to freeze, suddenly fully alert.
"What's wrong?" Blair murmured, stiffening as he glanced around.
Jim shook his head tightly as he held up his hand for quiet. Cautiously, he approached the corner of the alley where Sanderson and Lawson had parked to maintain surveillance on the large, two story brick building across the road. Very quietly, Blair got out of the truck to follow him.
They found the unmarked car empty. On the windshield was a hand-scrawled note: Welcome to the game.
"Damn," Ellison cursed, turning a laser-like glare on Balens' warehouse. "Call for backup, Chief," he directed, his tone harsh with anger and concern for his colleagues, as he edged along the wall of another warehouse to the corner, keeping to the shadows.
Pale, Sandburg nodded and pulled out his cell-phone. While following warily in his friend's wake, he punched the speed dial for Dispatch and, as soon as he was connected, he began, "Zebra Six calling for -" only to grimace when it seemed he was arbitrarily cut off. Shaking the phone, punching the 'call' button again, he restored the connection and urgently told Dispatch, "Officer needs assistance." He quickly gave the location, summarized the brief facts, and asked how long before assistance arrived. He disconnected as soon as he'd gotten the response of seven minutes, knowing Jim had heard the answer as quickly as he had, and assuming they probably couldn't wait that long before going in.
"Jim!" he whispered, laying a light hand on his friend's back. "What do you hear from inside?"
Rubbing his mouth, Ellison scowled and slowly shook his head. "There're several people in there - three for sure - more toward the back, on the ground floor. I hear machinery of some sort, all on the same floor."
"You think they're watching?"
"Bet on it, Chief," he muttered, looking up at the rooftops, and finally spotting a lone camera on one corner of the Balens' warehouse, overlooking the entrance. "I need to get in from the back, come down from the roof," he mused. Hesitating for a moment, he thought about telling Sandburg to stay with the truck, but then he gazed at the empty unmarked vehicle. Blair was safer with him than being left on his own. "C'mon," he ordered, heading back down the alley at a fast clip, aiming to come around the warehouse across the street on its blind side.
Less than three minutes later, they'd climbed the fire escape at the back of the building next to Balens' warehouse. Space was at a premium at the docks and an air shaft less than five feet wide was all that separated the two roofs. Jim jumped across first, landing lightly and then turned to hold out a hand toward Blair. Sandburg swallowed hard, made a definite point of not looking down and leapt across, stumbling as he landed and being steadied by Ellison.
Moving swiftly, the detective led the way across the roof to another fire escape and they climbed down to the second floor. Though the door was locked, Jim pulled out a credit card and jimmied the lock. Blair looked around, nervously keeping watch on the alley below. Probable cause, he thought. Not breaking and entering.
Once inside, they crouched in the shadows and checked out the empty second floor. The place was dilapidated, long beyond the stage of being useful to store anything, the floor rotten in places with narrow gaps between the wooden floorboards and some sizable holes. Opening his sight as he scanned through narrow slits and broken areas, Jim's lips thinned and he shook his head.
"It's a maze-like obstacle course," he murmured into Blair's ear. "Leading from the front door to the back. There are slicing blades and whirling metal wheels and fans that could cut a man to shreds. Just past the centre, it looks like a trap door over what sounds like a tank with water lapping at the sides - something's swimming around in it."
"You see Sanderson or Lawson?" Sandburg whispered back.
"They're hanging by their wrists over a stockpile of explosives," Jim rasped tightly. "I donít hear their hearts beating. They're dead, Chief."
"Ah, shit," Blair sighed, bowing his head, sagging at the news. "Maybe we should just go back outside and wait for backup," he suggested, now that there was no urgent need to rescue men beyond saving.
But Jim shook his head. "There's a bomb below them. It's set to go off in less than ten minutes. On a stack of explosives like what's down there, it could blow up everything for a two block radius. I've got to try to disarm it."
Blair blinked and swallowed hard. "How many guys has Balen got with him?"
"How do you want to do this?"
"I want you to go back to the truck and wait for backup. Tell them to cover the back exit - Balen and his muscle will take off before the bomb blows."
"Jim, I ...."
"Just go, Chief. If I haven't given an all-clear inside of eight minutes," he went on, forcing the Ford's keys into Sandburg's hand, "you take off - you hear me?"
"Yeah," Sandburg sighed, his jaw tight, his expression rebellious, but he nodded. "I hear you, man."
Jim was already moving away silently, sticking close to the wall, as he headed for the access grid into an air duct that he'd spotted. Moving through it would carry him over the hazards below, and position him directly above the cop-killers. Blair watched him for a second, then forced himself to go back the way they'd come.
Ellison crawled through the tight duct as quickly as he could, his nose twitching against the need to sneeze at the accumulation of decades of grit and dust. Even so, he knew it had taken the better part of five minutes to get into position over a grate directly above his targets. Pulling out his pistol, he kicked hard at the loose, rusted grating, causing it to fall with a clatter that startled the men waiting below. Dropping feet first, he landed hard but rolled swiftly up onto his feet, whirling in a kick that landed sharply against the side of one opponent's head and the goon fell like a rock. Then, still in continuous motion, Jim dropped quickly and rolled behind the cover of a crate, while he exchanged fire with another who, startled, couldn't seem to hit the broad side of a barn, let alone a man in furious motion. The second opponent dropped.
Balens giggled as he scrambled toward the exit. "You choose, Detective Ellison. Save your colleagues or come after me!" he shouted, and then ran.
While the truck idled, Blair pounded the steering wheel, wondering where the backup was and what was taking them so long. He'd called in, warned them about the bomb and told them to head toward the back of the warehouse, but he wasn't sure they were going to make it in time to be of any help.
Watching the minutes trip over on the digital clock on the dash, he felt anxiety build in his chest. When he heard the sound of muffled shots, not willing to wait a second longer, Sandburg put the Ford in gear. Gunning the engine, he sped down the lane but, instead of driving out of the area as ordered, he swung around the next turn, and then the next, coming up in the alley behind the warehouse just as Balens made his break through the back door toward a sedan parked nearby.
Balens dove into the vehicle, but the ignition failed on his first try. Sandburg swung the truck sideways, to block the way out from his direction and ducked as the murderer shot at him through the car's side window.
The bomb was ticking down through its last few seconds before exploding. Jim heard the shots outside as he studied the electronic timer and the wires leading to and from it to the detonator. He could also hear sirens, but they weren't yet close enough to be drawing fire. Worried, he figured he had a pretty fair idea who Balen might be shooting at. His breath was tight in his chest as he yanked the red wire, leaving less than five seconds on the countdown. Then, his own weapon being out of bullets, not having time to reload, he grabbed one of the revolvers dropped by the unconscious goons and raced toward the door.
Finally, the getaway car started and Balens began to back hastily down the alley in the other direction, only to be stymied by two patrol cars that skidded into sight from around the corner at the far end, blocking his escape. Cursing, but having figured out that nobody was shooting at him from the vehicle ahead, he reversed direction. Drawing up close to the truck, he scrambled out of the car, his weapon leveled at Sandburg who was caught between watching him and the minutes inexorably slipping past on the clock on the dashboard.
Belatedly realizing Balens was coming at him, he hastily slid out of the truck, taking the keys with him. Using the vehicle as a shield, he kept low and searched the alley behind him. But there was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. As soon as Balens came around the tailgate, he would be in real trouble.
Just as Billy Balens was ducking around the end of the truck, anxious to put space between himself and the patrol cars zooming down the lane, Jim burst out of the warehouse. Leveling his weapon, he yelled, "Police. Drop it!"
Balens let off a shot and dropped from view. Jim lunged for the truck, leaping up onto the hood and rolling over it to drop down on the far side. Grabbing Sandburg, he hauled his partner behind him. "You're surrounded!" he shouted, leveling his pistol. "Give it up!"
The patrol cars slid to a stop, popped open. Police officers hastily took up position behind the open doors, their weapons leveled.
Balens, who was crazy but far from stupid, realized he had nowhere to go. Not wanting to die, he dropped his gun and raised his hands over his head.
Jim moved cautiously forward to kick the weapon out of the way. "Face the truck," he ordered. "Hands behind your back." Once he had the felon cuffed, he roughly shoved him toward one of the uniforms. "Read him his rights," he ordered grimly. "There are two more inside. And call the coroner. Sanderson and Lawson didn't make it."
Then, turning back to Sandburg, he made a show of looking at his watch. "I thought I told you to be several blocks away by now," he growled.
"Yeah, well, you know I don't wear a watch," Blair replied, still shaken by how close it had been and too relieved to know Jim was alright to be worried about getting chewed out. "Guess you stopped the bomb, huh?"
"Guess I did," Jim replied flatly, but then a smile crooked the corner of his mouth. "You heard the shots, didn't you?"
Blair looked away and nodded.
Shaking his head, Jim mutely drew him into a brief, hard hug. Then he pulled away to head back into the warehouse, Blair trailing behind. Inside, Sandburg shook his head sorrowfully when he saw the two dead detectives, and thinned his lips against the nausea that threatened. "Can't you cut them down?" he asked, his voice low, strained.
"Not yet, Chief," Jim replied wearily, the muscle in his jaw twitching. "It's a crime scene." Looping an arm over Blair's shoulders, turning him away from the devastating vision of their two dead colleagues, he murmured, "It's okay. They, uh, they'd understand."
From where they stood, they could both see through the clear sides of the water tank, to the shark that swam with casual malevolence, forever seeking prey.
"Daisy was right," Blair muttered with a shudder. "This guy is seriously nuts."
"Yep," Jim agreed.
An hour and a half later, they finally made it back downtown. Their colleagues were all solemn, having already heard the bad news about Sanderson and Lawson.
When Simon saw them come in, he left his office to join them by Jim's desk.
"What happened? How'd they ...?"
"I don't know," Ellison sighed, sliding his palm hand over his head to knead the taut muscles of his neck. "No witnesses. The three we brought in aren't talking. We might never know." He paused, remembering the wounds, then added, "If it's any consolation, I don't think they suffered. Death would have been quick."
"Not much," Banks rumbled, "but better than thinking they went slow and hard."
He was turning back to his office when he stopped to look squarely at Sandburg. "How're you doing?" he asked. "With everything else that's happened, it slipped my mind for a minute. That was some deal you pulled off this morning. The press has been trying to track you down for hours, to get your story."
Blair rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Believe me, Simon, I hope they never find me."
"What deal?" Jim asked, looking from one to the other.
"What do you mean, 'what deal'? Don't you know your partner is a regular hero?" Simon asked, puzzled by Jim's question.
"Ah, no, not me - the guy in the tower, now he's a hero," Sandburg interjected to assert feelingly. Raking his hair back from his forehead, he added, "Wish I had the man's name. I'd like to thank him."
"Will one of you tell me what you're talking about?" Jim demanded, scowling.
"I did tell you," Blair replied swiftly. "When you picked me up this morning at the airport."
"When most of the passengers and virtually all of the crew were hit by what looks like a bad case of botulism, Sandburg landed the jet," Simon answered, almost as quickly.
Jim blinked, and he gaped at his partner. "You landed ...? You mean you weren't just kidding around?"
"No, I definitely wasn't kidding, man."
Staring at Sandburg, Ellison's face paled and he sank down onto his chair. "I thought ...." His voice faded and he blinked again as he rubbed a hand over his mouth and swallowed hard. "That plane could have crashed."
His gaze dropping, a ripple of memory shivering through his body, Blair nodded. "Yeah."
"My God," Jim rasped. "That news bulletin; I was wrong - it was all about you, wasn't it!"
"Well, not all about me," Blair shrugged, his voice quaking with remembered terror. "There were a few hundred other people who had a vested interest in that jet landing safely this morning."
Banks' brow cocked as he studied them both, seeing the pallor of shock on both their faces. "Okay, that's it. Soon as the paperwork for the Balen booking is completed, the two of you go on home. You've both had enough excitement for one day."
After Simon had walked away, there was a long moment of silence between them, while Blair studied the floor and Jim stared at his partner. When he thought he could trust his voice again, Jim raged hoarsely, "It's that damned good luck statue. Every time you take it some place -"
"I come back alive," Blair cut in, looking up into his best friend's eyes. "Against the odds, we both come back alive."
Jim closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Took a deep breath and nodded.
Standing, he moved around the desk. Pulling Blair into a fierce hug, he murmured into the riotous curls, "They've got enough from the crime scene and what we've already given Booking to hold these bastards 'til Hell freezes over. Let's go home, Chief."
"I'm down with that, man," Blair rasped huskily as he hugged Jim right back, holding on tightly. "I am like so down with that."
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