See notes and disclaimer in Part One
He could feel a pair of eyes boring into his back, but no matter how many times he scanned the surrounding area, his eyes could detect nothing. The scent of the intruder saturated the air, and the only thing he could hear was the sound of the wind moving through the trees. Or was it more than just a simple breeze?
He looked to the branches above, using his keen sight to search for the interloper. Catching a glimpse of buff and black, his paws dug into the earth to run the animal to ground. Reaching the base of the tree, he sat, prepared to wait out the intruder.
The wiry cat stared down at him from her lofty perch, her endlessly black eyes filled with curiosity and her head tilted to observe him on the ground. She was not coming down, and neither could he reach her there, his bulk making it impossible to scale the tree. Her tail unwrapped itself from the limb and switched back and forth, as if to impart confidence in her safety.
From the ground, he was no threat to her, and from the tree her small size made her even less of a threat to him. He tilted his head and stuck his nose in the air to catch the scent of her and imprint it in his brain.
Just then, her rear paws pivoted an impossible degree and she shoved away from the branch, leaping to another tree. He watched in awe, having never before seen such agility and grace; such mastery over the physical self in space and time. When she landed, her tail wrapped around her new branch and her claws dug into the wood. The small cat's head pivoted to look at him with her extraordinarily round eyes, beseeching him to follow.
He decided to take the lead, his paws traveling over the damp earth with stealth and swiftness. Without glancing up, he knew that she kept up with his pace, leaping from branch to branch with unparalleled skill. Her paws never resting on the branches, but rather skipping from one to the other until it seemed that she were soaring through the brush. He slowed to a stop and turned his head to face the sinewy feline. Their eyes met, and she knew that he would not hurt her and that she could not hurt him. Digging her claws into the tree's thick bark, she walked face-first down the trunk. Reaching the ground, her second home, she approached him slowly, keeping constant eye contact.
The ringing of his cell phone startled him from his deep slumber. He reached for it with unerring aim despite his earplugs and the sleep mask that effectively dimmed his sight. Pulling into a sitting position, he flipped open the phone and growled, "Ellison."
"Jim, get your partner out of bed and get your butts in here." Too early in the morning to have Simon Banks yelling at him over the phone. Much too early. He ripped off the mask, noting from the clock that it was four in the morning.
"What's happened, sir?"
"I'll explain when you get here." Jim could tell by the muffled sound that Simon was chewing vigorously on a cigar. "Just double-time it, okay? I'll provide the coffee." Simon disconnected the line, leaving behind a glaring dial tone.
Jim threw back the covers and turned on the reading lamp beside his bed. Mentally dialing down his sight to adjust to the harsh light, he got out of bed and headed downstairs.
"Sandburg," he said, quickly knocking on the French doors before throwing them open. "Sandburg!"
"Wha'?" Blair shot straight up in his bed, his newly opened eyes searching the darkness. "Jim? Wuz wrong?"
"Simon just called. He wants us to get to the Station on the double."
Blair struggled out from under the warm cocoon of his comforter, as he reached for the lamp. "What's going on?" His eyes squinting from the combination of sleep and too much light.
"Simon didn't say; he just said hurry. No time to shower, kid. Up 'n' at 'em. You awake?"
"Awake is a relative term." Sure now that Blair would not fall back into his bed, Jim headed back upstairs to get dressed.
Two minutes later, Jim came downstairs to find a bleary-eyed Blair, emerging from his room with his shirt only half tucked. "I only had five hours of sleep, man!"
"You used to survive on a lot less, Chief."
"I'm not as young as I used to be, Jim." Jim snorted at his roommate's ridiculous remark.
"Don't go there, buddy. Get your keys. You're driving." Jim clipped his holster onto his belt and then proceeded to shrug into his jacket.
"You just want me to drive so you can get some extra sleep," Blair accused.
"Sleep? With you driving? Not likely."
"Oops. Damn." Blair rubbed his fingers across his eyes, letting out a groan.
"What is it?"
"Forgot my weapon, man."
"Well get it, and let's go. No time to dilly-dally." Jim turned the sleepy Blair around and shoved him in the direction of his room. "And try not to shoot yourself in the foot."
Blair shuffled quickly to his room and grabbed his holster from the hook by the door. After donning it, he quickly removed the weapon, checked the chamber and clip, and replaced the gun. He shuffled back into the living room, to see Jim looking at his feet.
"What is it, Jim?" Blair's eyes followed Jim's gaze.
"Shoe's untied, Chief." Not waiting for his words to sink into Blair's sleep- deprived brain, Jim squatted to the ground and reached for his partner's laces. After tying a quick double knot, Jim stood, and placed his hands on Blair's shoulders.
"You okay to drive?" Jim investigated Blair's red-laced eyes.
"I'm good. Lez go." His fingers fumbled as he reached for his keys in the basket.
Outside, they climbed into Blair's 4Runner, taking the time to fasten their seatbelts before Blair turned the keys in the ignition and the truck purred to life. Blair had brought his new baby home just three weeks ago. It was the first time he had ever owned a new car; the kind of car that actually had that new-car smell. Well, 'owned' was kind of a loose term. Just forty-eight more payments to go.
The Volvo had finally bit the dust, once and for all, just a few weeks after he graduated from the Academy. It had taken him nine months to save up for a down payment on a new car, and another four months to decide what he wanted to buy. He shopped around, looking first at the Toyota Rav4. Too small and not enough legroom for his tall partner. The Ford Expedition: great for Jim, but too big for him. The Chevy Blazer: can't corner worth a darn.
Finally, he had settled on the 4Runner. Well, settled was a bad word. Actually, the first time he had driven it, he just knew. During the test drive, he became one with that car. The Toyota 4Runner had everything he needed. It could turn on a dime and stop on one, too. It could take the corners without the slightest hesitation and had shock absorbers that just wouldn't quit. Not to mention, driver and passenger-side airbags. And the piece d'resistance? Dual climate control.
He'd even spent more for a few extras. Tinted glass, so that the sun wouldn't bother Jim too much. He'd gone with black, thinking that it would blend in better when they were on stakeout, but no one ever warned him that black would be so hard to keep clean.
Right after he picked up the truck, he dropped it off with the Department mechanic so that they could do a little 'detailing'. Blair had requisitioned a siren and lights, which the mechanics installed under the 4Runner's grill.
As he directed the truck onto Prospect, he reached up to the dashboard, flipping the switch to turn on the siren. He watched as the red and blue spilled onto the early morning street ahead of him.
The Major Crimes bullpen was eerily silent when Jim and Blair exited the elevator on the seventh floor. They could both see through the Venetian blinds that Simon Banks' office was empty.
"It's a ghost town, Jim. Are you sure Simon called us in? Maybe you were just dreaming."
"I wasn't dreaming." Jim's head tilted and held for a second. "They're in the Operations Room. Let's go."
Unlike the bullpen, the Operations Room was a flurry of activity when Jim maneuvered his partner through the door. A large map of the Southwest United States blanketed the conference table; which was surrounded by Simon Banks, Jason Renshaw from the DA's office, and a few other people that Jim and Blair had never seen before.
"What's the emergency, Simon?" Jim's gravelly morning voice cut through the sound of bustling activity like a blowtorch through a thin sheet of metal.
Simon's head snapped from its bowed position and turned in the direction of his best detective's voice. He launched into his explanation for the early morning summons. "Granados' transport plane went down shortly after takeoff from the Salt Lake City Municipal Airport."
"Survivors?" Blair's previously groggy eyes had suddenly become clear and focused.
"We haven't received word, yet." The voice came from a man standing on the opposite side of the conference table.
"Detectives Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg," Simon began, as though suddenly remembering where he left his manners. "This is Deputy Clive Ballast with the U.S. Marshal Service." Jim and Blair simultaneously reached out to shake the Deputy's hand, which Ballast clasped in turn. Ballast was an older gentleman in his late fifties; his head was lush with thick white hair, and a thin mustache covered his upper lip. He was hefty in an intimidating way, his belly hanging slightly over the waistband of his brown slacks.
"Now, as I was saying," Ballast continued. "There's been no confirmation of wreckage at this time. Search and Rescue has several helicopters in the air trying to locate the plane's debris, but the plane's last known position makes the effort slow going."
"When did this happen?" Jim interrupted.
"The plane's transponder signal disappeared from the radar at 2:06 this morning," Ballast replied.
"Could there have been a malfunction with the transponder?" Blair's voice piped up, holding out hope for a simple explanation.
"Possible, but unlikely. The plane was due to make a landing at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City in an hour. If it lands, we can call off the search, but we can't afford to waste the time waiting. Besides, the pilot should have checked in with Denver Center by now."
"You mentioned the plane's last known position. Where was that?" Jim crossed his arms.
Ballast leaned over the map lying atop the conference table. "Here," he said, pointing to a spot in southern Utah. "The plane went down somewhere in this area. It's the Dixie National Forest, gentleman, and if Granados managed to survive and escape, we're going to have a hell of a hunt on our hands. That's one hundred and seventy square miles of forest and mountains there."
Jim turned to assess his partner's reaction only to find Blair's eyes upon the Deputy and not the map. "What is it, Chief?" Jim kept his voice low so the others wouldn't hear.
"Why was the plane headed this far south, Deputy? Shouldn't it have been going east at this point? Heading towards Denver?"
Ballast's eyes widened, and there was something new in their brown depths -- respect. "Good call, Detective. I forgot to mention that the plane was reported by Salt Lake City tower as altering its course at 1:15 this morning."
"Intentionally?" Blair asked.
"We don't know."
"Simon?" Jim straightened his back and crooked his head in the direction of the door. "Can we speak with you outside?"
Simon nodded and held the door open as Jim and Blair exited the room. Jim continued to glance at the door as he drew Simon far enough away from it to avoid being overhead. "Why does this involve us, Simon? This should be a problem for the states of Utah and Oklahoma."
"In theory, yes, but this isn't a perfect world."
"What the hell does that mean…sir?" Jim managed to hang onto his temper by the skin of his teeth.
"It seems that because the state of Oklahoma didn't get a chance to officially receive Granados, he's still partially our problem."
"Normally our role in this type of situation would be a background one," Simon continued, "but the DA's office has requested we make our presence known. In other words, make your presence known. We're going to be dealing with a lot of agencies on this one, Jim. Utah Search and Rescue, The Forestry Department, National Transportation and Safety Board, and the Marshal Service. Hell, if that plane went down inside of the Dixie National Forest this could be FBI jurisdiction."
"What's your point, sir?"
"Diplomacy, Jim. Dig it up and dust it off. You're going to be needing it."
"Damn. I hate the Feds."
"I'm going to need you both on a plane to Utah in an hour. You'll be accompanying Deputy Ballast, so try to be nice, Jim. And try not to annoy the Deputy, Sandburg." Simon turned on the previously silent detective, causing Blair to take a step backward and tilt his head up to look the taller man in the eye.
"Hey, Simon," Blair shrugged his shoulders with his hands held palms up. "Where's the love, man?"
"It's at home…asleep. Which is where I should be. Enough talk. Get moving."
"You know, sir, when you woke me up this morning you could have told me to pack a bag."
"What? The original Boy Scout is caught unawares? I'm shocked you're not prepared for his type of thing."
"Well, I am." Simon and Jim turned to stare at Blair. Trying not to look smug, Blair qualified, "There are two duffels in the back of my truck, for an eventuality such as this one. Everything we should need for a couple of days."
"I'm impressed," replied Simon.
Blair hooked a thumb in his roommate's direction. "Living with this guy, I've learned it's best to be prepared for anything."
"You're a regular Eagle Scout, Chief."
Just then, Deputy Ballast emerged from the Operations Room, closing the door behind him. "We've just received word that the wreckage may have been located."
"May have been?" Jim asked.
"It was spotted from the air. They have to send a team in on foot to confirm, which doesn't leave us much time. Are we all squared away here?" Ballast's eyes met Jim's.
"Squared away," he confirmed. "You can brief us on the rest of it once we're on the plane."
Ballast nodded, and then checked his watch. "If that's all, I'll meet you at the airport. We'll be leaving from Terminal Four."
"See you there," Blair waved at the retreating Deputy.
Simon waited for Ballast to disappear around the corner before saying. "I've got a bad feeling about this one, Jim. I want you two to go in there fully prepared. You get me? Take anything you think you might need. I'll authorize it." After nodding their heads in confirmation, Jim and Blair turned to go. "Oh, and Jim?"
"That's a lot of wilderness out there. Try not lose your partner in it."
"I'll do my best, sir." Jim placed a protective hand on Sandburg's shoulder, and directed him out of the bullpen. Detectives Ellison and Sandburg had a lot to get done in less than forty-five minutes.
Blair opened the back of the 4Runner, flipping up the door. Jim reached in and grabbed two of the large duffel bags on the floorboard behind the back seat, while Blair grabbed a third bag while tossing his backpack over his shoulder. The bags Jim carried were a standard size, made from green canvas. Blair had probably purchased them at an Army Surplus store. The last bag was smaller with the words 'Cascade Police Department' emblazoned in white letters on royal blue canvas.
The CPD bag was loaded down with two-way headsets, extra ammunition, binoculars, night vision goggles, a Global Positioning Satellite transmitter and locator, and two tactical-ballistics vests.
"Think we got everything we need?" Blair asked.
"Yeah, I think so. Let's go. Don't forget to lock up, Chief."
After buying the 4Runner, Blair had purchased two duffel bags, one for each of them, and began to fill them with everything they might need if called away on an emergency. Inside of Jim's bag were an extra pair of jeans, two t-shirts, a sweater, socks, underwear, an extra pair of boots, and everything he would need to stay clean and sanitary. To stay healthy, Blair had thrown in a first aid kit, and an assortment of the medications that Jim was allowed to ingest.
Blair's bag contained much the same, except that his first aid kit was more fully stocked and there was a whole lot more flannel.
At the entrance to Terminal Four, the detectives were required to show their identification and sign in, before being allowed to board the plane. When asked if they would like to check their baggage they replied that they were opting to carry it on board.
Ellison and Sandburg were directed to the plane and told that Deputy Ballast was not yet aboard, but the pilot was prepared to take off as soon as he arrived. As it turned out, the plane wasn't a plane at all, but rather a jet, which would significantly decrease the flight time to Utah.
The jet was equipped with leather couches rather than airline seats. There was also a projector and projection screen obviously meant to be used for briefing and debriefing on a case. There were no flight attendants present, since this flight was all business.
"I hope you've made yourself comfortable, detectives." Deputy Ballast boarded the plane with a rolled up map underneath one arm and a satchel in the other hand. He tossed the satchel onto one of the couches. "I'll just inform the pilot that we are ready to depart. Take a seat and belt yourself in." Ballast headed to the front of the jet and returned a moment later. Within minutes the jet was taxiing down the runway.
Once the flight reached its cruising altitude, Jim unbuckled his seat belt. "This is quite a setup the Marshal Service has here."
"Yes, there are five of these jets, but they are only used in the strictest of emergencies. Another jet will be bringing the other Marshals in for the search."
"Other Marshals?" Blair asked. "But we don't even know for sure if Granados escaped."
"Detective Sandburg, when it comes to catching escapees, time is always of the essence. We always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. If we waited for an escape to be confirmed before swinging into action, we'd never catch anybody. That's why the call went out as soon Granados' plane disappeared from the radar."
"So the Marshals heading up the search won't be from Utah?" Jim leaned back into his seat and laced his arms across his chest.
"No," Ballast replied. "My superiors decided that in a case like this, taking into account the remote locations, total diversity in types of terrain…that it would be necessary to bring in a specially trained unit for this detail."
"Where are they being flown in from? Will we have to wait for them?" Jim asked.
"They should be arriving at approximately the same time as us. They're being flown in from Houston."
Suddenly the jet hit a pocket of turbulence that caused Blair's stomach to lurch. "Oh, God," he moaned, as his head collapsed into his hands.
"Relax, Chief. It's just turbulence." Jim placed his hand on Blair's back to soothe his Guide.
"It's not the turbulence, Jim," Blair answered him. "Deputy Ballast said they were flying Marshals in from Houston, man." So focused on the case was Jim that it took a moment before the implications of Blair's words truly sunk in.
"Deputy? What can you tell us about the team that's been assigned this case?"
"The Gatekeepers?" Ballast tossed off the nickname in an offhand manner. "Just that they're the best damn retrieval unit in the Service."
At the mention of the Gatekeepers, Blair collapsed back onto the couch, his eyes staring at the ceiling of the jet's fuselage. "I'm a dead man," he whispered to himself. In a silent show of support and protection, Jim reached across and placed his hand, palm down on his Guide's chest. The tempo of Blair's heart decelerated in response to his touch. Blair threw one arm over his eyes and tried to breathe deeply. <<I am relaxed. I am relaxed.>>
"You okay, son?" Ballast asked, worry creasing his brow.
"He's okay. He just hates to fly," Jim covered. "So? The other Marshals…the ones that are being called in…they know we're on this case, right?"
"I'm not really sure," Ballast answered truthfully. "To be honest, everything happened so fast, it's probably all they can do to bring themselves up to date on our fugitive's case file. Don't worry though, we Marshals are experts at working with local law enforcement officers."
Jim smiled noncommittally in response to Ballast's statement.
"Jim?" Blair whispered.
"What is it?" Jim turned to his partner who was still collapsed on the couch.
"Just promise me…" Blair removed his arm from across his face and sat up to face Jim. "Promise that if you start to feel a little…edgy, you'll let me know. 'Cause, if you start to get that claustrophobic feeling again, I want to know about it, man. Okay, Jim?"
Jim could feel the anxiety rolling off Blair's body, so he reached over to make physical contact again. "I promise, Chief," he answered, dropping his voice to a low whisper. Jim wanted to comfort his partner somehow, but he was at a loss as to how he could do it. "Hey, Sandburg. There are going to be a lot of people in on this. We might not even meet them." It was a thin hope, but a hope nonetheless.
"We'll meet them, Jim." Blair's tone was laced with an eerie conviction. "You'll feel her, and she'll feel you. You can't help but meet, man. We were set up from the very beginning."
"Set up? Set up by whom?"
"Fate, God, karma. Take your pick, my friend."
In mid-flight, the call they had all been waiting for came through for Deputy Ballast. The debris of Granados' plane had been located in the southern most part of the Dixie National Forest. The location of the wreckage made it necessary to alter the jet's course from the original destination of Provo to the smaller airport located in Cedar City. From there, they would catch a ride to the Search and Rescue Command Center.
As the were buckling their seatbelts in preparation for their final descent, Ballast turned to Jim and said, "I've just received word from the Command Center. The Retrieval Team's jet had to be diverted to Salt Lake City, which means that we'll probably reach the site at least an hour before they do."
"Any word on survivors?" Blair asked, trying to focus on the case.
"None at first glance, but they're roping off the area and continuing the search at a half mile radius."
"I'll need to get a look at the wreckage," Jim said.
"Why don't you just let the NTSB take care of that investigation," Ballast told Jim.
"Look, Deputy, until we know otherwise, the wreckage is a crime scene, and we're going to treat it just like any other." Blair pinned Ballast's eyes with a fire-blue glare. "Working the scene is one of OUR specialties."
The jet's landing gear touched down smoothly on the runway, and after slowing to a softer pace, began its taxi to the terminal. Blair and Jim were already unbuckling their seatbelts and retrieving their bags before the vehicle had made a complete stop. No time to waste, they were out the door, as soon as the crew had a chance to open it. As they climbed down the staircase, Jim spotted a truck speeding across the tarmac in their direction.
"I believe that's our ride," said Ballast as he brought up the rear of the three-person convoy.
The truck, a shiny new Chevy Tahoe, came screeching to a halt just a few yards from the stairs. A young man in a gray suit jumped down from the driver's seat and ran to the back of the truck, throwing open the rear doors. He entreated the men to deposit their luggage. After securing their luggage in the cargo area of the Tahoe, Jim and Blair climbed into the backseat and buckled their seatbelts. Ballast climbed in the front with the young man, who reclaimed his seat at the wheel and readjusted the rearview mirror so that he could see the men in the back seat.
"I'm Deputy Clark Wyatt," he introduced himself.
Jim squinted. The kid didn't look like he was old enough to be a Marshal. He looked even younger than Sandburg. Jim suppressed the desire to ask the kid when he was due to graduate from high school. "Detective Ellison," he said.
"Detective Sandburg," Blair introduced, and then, "Blair."
Wyatt made eye contact with Blair through the rear view mirror, and nodded in response to his introduction. "The drive to the Command Center is going to take about an hour." Wyatt handed a file over to Deputy Ballast. "These are the aerial shots of the crash site. There was no place to land a chopper. The only way in or out of there is on foot. It's a half hour hike from where we were able to set up Command."
"Thank you, Wyatt." Ballast flipped through the photos and handed them back to Ellison.
Jim took the photos and examined them as Blair looked over his shoulder. Though he had once survived an aircraft collision, he knew next to nothing about the craft in the pictures, so he listened as Wyatt explained what he could.
"As you can see from those photos, the plane was forced to belly land in the trees. They lost their wings along the way, and they carved a landing strip in the forest a half-mile long. Losing the wings kept the fuselage from exploding on impact, but it also caused some rather worrisome ground fires in the surrounding areas."
"So, this was a landing? Were there any mentions of mechanical difficulties?" Blair took one of the photos from Jim, careful not to leave fingerprints on the glossy print paper.
"Salt Lake tower says no, only that it disappeared from radar. Denver Center was due to take the transfer from Salt Lake, but nothing happened."
"Curiouser and curiouser," mumbled Jim. "Perimeter?" He glanced from the photos to the kid behind the wheel.
"We've set up a preliminary perimeter at a two mile radius around the outskirts of the site, and we've got people working the grid."
"Two miles?" Blair asked. "That's not enough, man."
"It's procedure," Wyatt defended good-naturedly. "At least, until we confirm a fugitive in flight. We'll widen the perimeter when we have confirmation."
"Has the wreckage been disturbed since its discovery?" Jim was anxious to know what he could expect when he worked the scene.
"No, sir," answered Wyatt with a vocal salute. "Area's too hot right now. As I said, the crash caused several ground fires to ignite the surrounding brush. The fuselage appears to be intact, but the firefighters have made putting out the fires a priority, in hopes of keeping it that way."
"With all these fires you mentioned, why was this plane so hard to find?" Blair interrupted.
"Well, the plane fell off the radar at 2:06 this morning, and the Search and Rescue choppers were in the air by 2:30. Two choppers with 75 square miles to cover. That's a lot of ground, Blair. If this had happened in daylight, the pilots would have seen the smoke from miles around, but not in darkness. They couldn't see the fires until they were practically on top of them. We were lucky though, if it hadn't been for the fires it could've taken days to locate the wreckage."
"Well, when the paramedics go into the fuselage, I want to go in there with them." Jim stared out the backseat window of the Tahoe, watching the scenery fly by.
Wyatt glanced at his rear view mirror with an expression of confusion on his face. "If we get there on time, sir."
"I want to see Granados' body with my own two eyes."
Command Center was set up in a circle of camper's cabins just outside of the two-mile perimeter. The cabins would allow important personnel to remain close to the site, rather than check into the nearest hotel, twenty miles away. Closed down for the off-season, the cabins had been uninhabited at the time of the crash, but now they were teeming with activity.
A dozen cabins in a circular formation surround a well-kept community bathroom facility. Three of the cabins had been commandeered by different federal agencies: The U.S. Marshal Service, the Forestry Department, and the National Transportation and Safety Board.
"It'll be just like summer camp, Jim." Blair elbowed his friend in the ribs and laughed, finding his first moment of levity in a long time.
"You play any shaving-cream-in-the-hand pranks, and you're a dead man, Chief."
"Like you couldn't hear me coming a mile away," Blair said.
"As you can see," Wyatt came up from behind, "several of the cabins have already been taken. Feel free to take your stuff and stake a claim on one of the others. You better hurry up, though, the medics will be ready to move out to the site in about five minutes.
"Thanks, Clark, we'll be ready." Blair reached into the Tahoe to grab the Cascade PD bag, and slung it over one shoulder."
Five minutes later, Jim and Blair emerged from their cabin prepared for just about any eventuality. Both had donned their tactical-ballistics vests and their Cascade PD caps. Unable to wear his shoulder holster due to the vest, Blair had placed his Glock in his back-up holster which clipped onto his waistband on the back of his jeans.
They found a group of four paramedics and Deputy Clark Wyatt, waiting for them at the entrance to the forest.
"Detectives," Clark said, "these men will take you to the site. I'll be leading our team in there when they arrive, which should be in about half an hour." He handed Jim and Blair a walkie-talkie, and said, "Keep it set to channel four, and let us know if you find anything out there."
"Will do," answered Jim "See you in a bit." Wyatt nodded one last time before turning to go. Without thinking, Jim reached over and gave Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
The herd of medics began the trek through the forest using a trail marked by years of hikers' feet. Once on the trail, Jim dialed up his senses a notch and he could feel the heat from the fires on his sensitive skin. The smell of smoke filled his nostrils, though the air was not yet thick with the stuff. He listened for whatever sounds he could hear up ahead, and the previously unnoticed sound of helicopters filled his ears.
"Yeah." One of the medics turned around. "They're dropping water on the fires. They should clear out soon. They're just making sure a stray spark won't ignite another fire. In a National Forest, you can't afford to leave the scene of fire too soon."
"Gotcha," replied Jim.
Throughout the hike, Jim used his senses to keep track of his partner, who had been unusually quiet since leaving for the crash site. Jim judged it best to just let it lie for the time being.
They could hear and smell the crash site long before they could see it (at least all non- Sentinels). They emerged from the forest canopy into a forced clearing that only yesterday had been lush with greenery. The charter plane had carved the clearing a half- mile long and some two hundred and fifty yards wide.
The area swarmed with people who tried to avoid looking at the plane's fuselage, unwilling to face the knowledge that there were, undoubtedly, dead people inside. Firefighters wore red Nomex jumpsuits, allowing them to walk amongst the hot spots in order to search for potential re-ignition. Search and Rescue, unable to do much rescuing now that the searching was done, stood around in groups, distinguished by their yellow jumpsuits with 'Search and Rescue' stenciled on the back.
The NTSB investigators, dressed in blue jumpsuits, had begun their initial investigation by placing red flags in the ground beside the smaller pieces of debris, which was strewn over the entire field.
'It looks like a garden of red flags,' Blair thought. He could feel his eyes widen, and the saliva in his mouth and throat instantly dried up. He had never seen this kind of carnage, and he briefly thanked God that the plane had not been a commercial airliner full of innocents and even children.
He noticed a few white flags mixed in with the red ones, and with curiosity asked, "What are the white flags for, Jim?" He turned his eyes up to see his partner's clenched jaw.
"You don't want to know, Chief. Stay away from them if you want your breakfast to stay where it is."
Blair gulped, the message received loud and clear. "I didn't eat breakfast, man." His voice trailed off as Jim walked away in the direction of the largest piece of debris. Blair commanded his feet to follow, but they were slow to respond. He closed his eyes for a moment and allowed his brain to accept what his eyes had seen, before opening them again and moving to catch up with Jim.
Careful not to step on any of the smaller pieces of jagged debris, Blair kept his eyes on his anchor -- his partner's back. Jim halted a few yards in front of the plane's body and turned to find his Guide coming up from behind. He looked down into Blair's eyes and knew that this assignment was the kind that would bring his sensitive Guide nightmares for quite a while to come. But despite Blair's overwhelming compassion, which could be a cop's Achilles Heel, Blair knew his job, and was able to put the sights and sounds around them aside long enough to perform it.
"You ready, man?" His eyes always reminded Jim of the ocean during a storm, but never more than when he was trying to suppress his compassion.
Jim nodded and took a deep breath, letting the tainted air in through his nostrils, holding for a brief moment, and then allowing it to escape through his lips. He could hear Blair's voice and registered his Guide's encouraging words.
"That's good, man. Now dial your senses up one at time, starting with your sight, and tell me what you see.
Jim searched the surrounding area, but came up with nothing unusual or remotely suspect. He continued investigating with his senses for a moment before giving up. "There's nothing here. I'm going to have to go in. You stay out here, Sandburg."
"No way, man! I'm not letting you go in there by yourself."
"Blair," Jim dropped his voice to a library tone. "There's no telling what might be inside or what condition…"
"I know, Jim," Blair interrupted. Jim hedged for a second, but Blair repeated, "I know."
Jim nodded, begrudgingly giving in to Blair's plea. Jim approached a giant man-sized tear in the fuselage of the aircraft, and turned for one last look at his partner before stepping through. Blair followed, reaching up to grab onto the torn metal of the entrance. Once inside, the sound of ripping Velcro could be heard in the dark cave of the plane, followed by the appearance of a Maglite beam. Blair folded the Velcroed pocket of his tac vest back into place with perhaps a bit more attentiveness than was necessary.
He could smell the odor of blood, and wondered how Jim could stand it. "Dial down your smell, man," Blair choked. His flashlight beam slowly circled the inside of the plane. The misshapen polyester-covered seats of the plane littered the floor the craft, having been ripped from their moorings by the force of the landing. Jim, using his enhanced sight to maneuver, headed for the back of the cabin, while Blair was drawn to the front.
Blair's light latched onto something buried beneath a pile of chairs. He stepped forward and to the right to attain a better vantage point and saw a pair of long high-heeled legs swathed in shredded pantyhose that were soaked in blood.
"Found one," he choked. His eyes and the beam from his flashlight remained glued to the woman's legs. He started when Jim's hand squeezed his shoulder -- he had not heard him approach. "Who is it, man?"
"Toni Holland," Jim answered with a sigh.
"This really sucks, Jim." Blair looked away from the bloody corpse, glad that her upper body was obscured by the seats lying on top of her. He just knew he would not want to know what the rest of her looked like. "I didn't know Toni was on the flight," he whispered. "She was a nice lady, even if she was a defense attorney. Why was she on the flight, Jim?"
"To ensure that none of Granados' civil rights were violated," Jim answered as his eyes resumed their sweep in the near darkness. "Here's another one." He reached down and pulled back an airplane seat.
The corpse wore jeans, a light blue button-up shirt, and a navy blue windbreaker with the words 'U.S. Marshals' stenciled on the back. Jim located the Marshal's badge and flipped open the ID wallet. "Mark Pearson," he said, his soft words echoing in the tin-can grave.
Blair shined his flashlight towards the back of the plane and stepped over the former Ms. Toni Holland's legs as he moved in that direction.
"Where you going, Sandburg?"
"They would have kept him in the back, don't you think?" Blair answered his question, but Jim got the distinct feeling that his partner's mind was somewhere else. "The less chance of him getting near the cockpit, the better," Blair continued. "Caged criminals, man. They can get pretty desperate…might try to take a few people down with them. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah," Jim answered, as he carefully watched his partner.
"They probably kept him in the back row. Near the bathrooms. Probably took turns guarding him, after all, weaponless in an airplane -- how much of a threat could he be, right? They would have cuffed him in. Imagine. Knowing that your plane is going to crash, but for you there's no hope of escape, because you're chained to your chair."
"Stay here, Chief," Jim ordered, placing a hand on Blair's chest. He had to climb over a barrier of folded metal and shredded carpeting to reach the back of the cabin, but when he got there he had no trouble locating what he was looking for. He surveyed the remains around him with a long, slow look.
"What did you find, Jim? How bad is it, man?" Blair's pitch elevated just a mere notch, but Jim's Sentinel ears could detect the worry.
"It's bad," he answered. Then under his breath, "The worst."
"Tell me, or I'm coming back there." Jim could almost see Blair raised up on his tiptoes, trying to see over the barrier to back of the plane.
"Granados is gone, Chief…and the Marshal's been shot in the face. His gun is missing."
"Okay, I changed my mind. I didn't want to know that." Blair heard the clanking of metal on metal.
"Heads up, Sandburg," Jim warned, as a pile of metal flew over the barrier and landed in front of Blair's feet. Blair tilted his head back as Jim climbed back over the obstruction. "Leg irons," he said. "And it looks like they were removed using the key."
"So we've got an armed and dangerous sociopath out there without any kind of restraints to slow him down. Why is it things just get worse and worse?"
"I don't know, Chief," Jim said, squeezing Blair's shoulder, when he had regained his footing. A moment after making contact with his Guide, Jim's head snapped up and his face turned in the direction of the plane's cockpit. He tilted his head upwards slightly and inhaled a long, slow breath of air.
"What is it, Jim?" Before Blair could complete his question, Jim was tearing debris away from the door of the cockpit, so he stood by the Sentinel's side and did the same.
After clearing the path to the door, Jim turned the knob, but was not surprised to find it locked. He threw his shoulder into it once and then twice, before the door finally popped open on the third attempt. Jim and Blair spilled into the tiny cockpit, where they discovered the pilot and copilot, their bodies crushed against the instrument panels.
"Oh, man," Blair breathed, turning away from the grisly sight and stepping out of the enclosed space to compose himself. "When you came rushing over here, I thought maybe you found someone alive inside."
"It wasn't something I heard, Chief. It was something I smelled." Jim knelt on the crumpled cockpit floor and focused his senses on the odor.
Blair could almost see the moment when Jim piggybacked his sight onto his smell and found what he was looking for. "Don't keep me in suspense, man."
Jim reached his hand up under the smashed console and groped around with his enhanced fingers. Pulling his hand out from under the instrument panel, he brought it to his nose. "Damn!" Jim cursed, rubbing his fingers together. He stood from the floor and faced his partner. "H-6," he said, simply.
"H-6?" Blair's eyes widened. "Refresh my memory."
"It's a non-incendiary explosive composed of TNT and a few other choice chemicals. It creates a small explosive charge. But it's not much, just a trace. Not even enough to be detected in a routine investigation." Jim leaned down again, doing his best to get a good view of the damaged panels. "Looks like the bomb was small enough to take out the plane's communications and directional instruments."
"So, they probably didn't even know they were off course?"
"Yeah. Perfect spot to sabotage a plane, too. Surrounded by mountains, it would have taken a miracle to get this plane down safely. They probably had no idea how far off course they were." Jim's head shot up and he glanced at Blair who had taken a step forward into the cramped cockpit. "Would you mind stepping back, Sandburg? It's a little close in here."
"Oh," he replied, stepping back to the doorway, "sure, man." Turning his attention back to the dilemma at hand, the wheels of Blair's logic began to turn. "It just doesn't make any sense, Jim. Why would anybody wanna sabotage a plane carrying an ordinary spree killer? I mean, sure, Granados got his fair share of publicity, but he wasn't special -- he wasn't even clinically psychotic. Why do I get the feeling this just became more than a simple case of fugitive hunting?"
"Something's definitely going on here. I just wish I knew where to begin." Jim stepped past Blair into the roomier cabin.
"We can begin by finding out which way Granados headed." Blair headed for the provisional exit toward the light from outside. "He can't have gotten far, Jim. I mean, look at this place, man! There's no way he could have survived the crash without a scratch, and if he's got a scratch you can track him." Standing near the rip in the plane's hull, Blair twisted the top of his Maglite to shut it off, before placing it back in the Velcro pocket of his vest. "Let's get out of here, Jim." Blair climbed through the hole and disappeared from Jim's line of sight.
He completed one more visual sweep, before saying, "Yeah, I think I need some air." Climbing out of the plane, he recalled his partner to his side. "Sandburg," he waved Blair over to him.
"Yeah?" Blair kept his voice quiet, sensing that whatever Jim had to say was not meant for others to hear.
"The H-6," Jim began. "Let's keep that between you and me for now. Okay, buddy?"
"Sure, Jim. What're you thinking?"
"Nothing right now. I just want to see how this little drama's going to unfold."
They turned to watch as a team of NTSB investigators climbed into the wreckage to photograph the damage. Once finished, the bodies would be pried from debris, bagged, and sent to a Medical Examiner.
Jim searched the nearby ground for evidence of Granados' escape, but it was hopeless. Too many people had trampled the area in the search for clues. He could make out twelve distinct shoe prints and sizes, but he was unable to tell which, if any, belonged to their suspect.
He stood facing away from the plane and scanned the forest, trying to deduce which way the criminal might have taken. The south looked like the best bet with its simple hiking trail nearly hidden with thick undergrowth.
"Let's check this direction first," he said to his nearly silent partner.
Blair stepped in him front of him to take the lead in a most uncharacteristic manner. He turned to find Jim with his feet planted to the earth and a blank look on his face. "Oh no, Jim. C'mon, man, don't do this to me." Placing his hands on Jim's arms, he was surprised when Jim's eyes turned to meet his.
"I'm not zoning," he said simply.
"Well, it sure looked like a zone to me." Blair lowered his voice, speaking through clenched teeth.
"They're here." Jim's eyes bore into Blair's, communicating the full message, and the Sentinel heard the unmistakable sound of his Guide's breath hitching in his chest.
"Where?" Blair spoke for Sentinel ears.
Jim pivoted around, his eyes searching the distant area where they had first emerged from the woods an hour earlier. Blair watched as the Sentinel's pupils tightened and focused in on two figures three hundred yards away. "There," he said.
"Have they seen you yet?" Blair latched onto Jim's arm, squeezing a little more than he should have.
"No, but they know something is…different."
"How do you feel, Jim?" Blair slid easily into 'scientist mode', knowing that if he could understand it more then he might fear it less. "A little restless? Edgy? C'mon, man, talk to me!"
"No," he answered, his head tilting as he turned away from the newcomers. He did not want to be caught staring. "Just a little on the claustrophobic side. I thought it was because we were in the plane, but the feeling didn't go away when we got outside."
"Okay." Blair's hands began to fidget of their own accord as his brain attempted to formulate theories. "Claustrophobic. Like when you kicked me out of the Loft, and then moved all of the furniture out?"
"Not that bad, Chief. Just a little bit of pressure, like when someone's violating your personal space and you feel the prickling on the back of your neck and down your spine."
"So, Alex violated your territory and you flipped out. This woman is violating your personal space, from three hundred yards away, mind you, and it doesn't bother you that much?"
"I just feel a little…uncomfortable. Unsure."
"Of my place."
"I'm lost, man."
"It's like when you're on a blind date, and you're not really sure if you're supposed to be polite and open the door for her; or if she's the kind of woman who prefers to be self- reliant about everything."
"Okay," he drawled, clearly communicating that the analogy was not explaining it to him.
"Here's one you'll understand, Teach. You're in the middle of giving a speech in front of your peers and you drop your note cards all over the floor."
"Oooh. Gotcha." Blair had vivid memories of a similar experience and the sudden feeling of his listeners' eyes boring into him…waiting. "Do you think that feeling will heighten if you get closer to her?" He hooked his hands on his hips and tilted his head back to look at his partner.
"I don't know, but there's one way to find out."
Before Blair could pull him back, Jim was out of reach, walking in the direction of the newcomers.
"You coming, Chief?" Jim tossed the invitation over his shoulder.
Sometimes in life there are those moments where everything seems to come to a screeching and abrupt halt. Moments where potentially life-altering decisions must be made in a split second. Subconsciously, Blair was aware that this was one of those moments. His vision blurred, and the sounds of nature, clear as a bell just a moment earlier, now sounded garbled as though underwater. Even his breath stopped. Nothing went in and nothing came out. But despite the fact that the world around him and the functions of his own body slowed to an excruciating crawl, his brain continued to tick away at its regular warp speed. He was frozen; a brain trapped inside of a useless body.
Then, just as quickly as it had started, it stopped. The world resumed its normal pace and Blair's lungs sucked in a gulp of desperately needed air. He put one foot in front of the other and said, "Hey, Jim. Shorten that stride, buddy, my legs can only stretch so far, you know."
Jim turned and waited for his partner to catch up.
Noticing a slight smile when Blair glanced at Jim's profile, he asked, "Something funny, man?"
"She's seen us, and I'm guessing that she felt the same things I felt and has made the connection to me."
"And that's something to smile about?"
"They don't know who we are yet, Chief. We knew they would be here, but they didn't know we were on this case."
"So," Blair drawled, his eyes lighting up with sudden comprehension. "We've got all the advantages."
"Right. Not to mention that this is neutral territory."
"And we got here first."
"Would that be the 'Finder's-Keeper's' philosophy of Anthropology?"
"You laugh now, Jim, but the 'possession is nine-tenths of the law' rule was in existence long before there were methods to record history."
Once they were in Blair's field of vision, he had no trouble telling the women apart, despite the fact that Maggie's letters had included no physical descriptions. He knew instinctively which one was Cecilia. The other Sentinel was the picture of the female warrior, standing erect and alert at five feet eleven inches tall. Maggie, who was between five seven and five nine, was just slightly shorter than her partner.
They were dressed for the hunt; both wore jeans, protective vests and all-weather windbreakers, no doubt with the words U.S. Marshals stenciled on the back. Cecilia wore her hair pulled back beneath a cap, perhaps to protect her eyes from the direct and glaring Utah sun. The cap obstructed Blair's view of her face, but he sensed that could he see it, she would be shielding her emotions beneath an ironclad façade.
He turned his attention to Maggie, and was taken aback by just how young she looked. Her skin was a creamy pale with a hint of peaches and betrayed nothing of the stressful life she must lead. Her hair was a fiery red made all the more vibrant by the late morning sun beating down upon it. Maggie's tresses were long, perhaps longer than any regulations might normally allow, and they were tied back in a loose French braid that hung down to the middle of her back. A cap, like her partner's, was attached to one of the belt loops of her light blue denims. On her nose perched a pair of sunglasses, which were more durable than fashionable.
Like Blair and Jim, the Marshals wore similar utility vests. Bullet proofed for safety, they were also designed with several built-in Velcro pouches for carrying standard survival items.
Deputy Wyatt, who had promised to lead 'The Gatekeepers' to the crash site, was nowhere to be seen, and Jim deduced that the women had decided to find the place on their own. The women watched with hooded lids as the unknown men approached them at a brisk pace, and Blair made a mental note as Cecilia stepped closer to Maggie when they came to a stop just a few feet away from them.
For a moment, the four officers stood there, not knowing what to say to each other or even where to begin. Fate had thrown them in each other's paths, but no one quite knew how to take the bull by the horns. The smaller of the women tilted her head and her brow knitted together as if her mind were trying to find its way out of a conundrum. Then the wrinkles disappeared and her youthful face evened out for a moment before a nearly disguised apprehension flashed in her eyes.
"Blair?" Her tentative voice was as smooth as warm chocolate, just as he remembered it from their single phone conversation, except this time it had a slight southern lilt.
"Hi, Maggie," he answered with a sharp nod. "It's nice to finally meet you in person."
"I knew you seemed familiar, but for a minute I couldn't…" she explained her confused expression of a moment ago.
"It's the hair," he interrupted. "My hair was long when I gave the press conference."
"Oh, that's right."
"Care to explain what the hell is going on?" The taller woman's voice cut through the quiet moment.
"You didn't tell her, did you?" Blair asked, his lips tightening as he unconsciously took a step backward.
"I'm sorry, Blair. I never got the chance, and then the call for this case came in and everything got crazy, and I never dreamed in a million years it would come back to haunt me like this." Maggie finally stopped for a breath, not taking her eyes off Sandburg.
"It always comes back, Maggie. Remember that."
"What are you doing here?"
"Granados was our case. I'm on the job, Maggie. It's Detective Sandburg now." Blair raised the bottom of his tac vest to display the gold badge clipped to his belt.
"You're a cop? You didn't mention that over the phone."
"There wasn't time."
"Still NOT getting an explanation, here. You two obviously know each other from somewhere. Will introductions be made anytime soon?" Maggie's partner held her hands up in frustration, making it quite clear how she felt about being left out of the loop.
"I'm sorry, Ceec," said Maggie, turning to her partner. "There's just so much more here than a simple exchange of pleasantries." She glanced at Blair one last time, obviously wishing he did not have to be here for the explanation. "Remember last year, that press conference we saw on CNN with the guy who said his thesis on Sentinels was a fraud?"
"I remember you really wanted to talk to that guy. Wait a minute. This is the guy?" Cecilia pointed at Blair without taking her eyes off Maggie.
"His name is Blair Sandburg," Maggie turned back to Blair. "Blair Sandburg, this is Cecilia Dillon. Cecilia, this is Blair. After I saw him on television," she continued to explain, "I started writing him letters. Letters he never responded to until just a few days ago. I told him all about us, Ceec."
"He's an Anthropologist, Cecilia, and he might be able to help us. He knows all about your gifts…"
"You mean, the curse," she interrupted.
"No. Your gift, Cecilia. It's only a curse because we don't know how to control it."
Cecilia looked over at Blair, while grabbing her partner's arm. 'Excuse us a moment," she said without smiling. Maggie took the hint and followed her partner several yards back into the trees.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier. Blair warned me that you would be very angry, and I understand now that he was right. I should have been honest with you from the beginning."
"Hell, yes, you should have been. How am I supposed to trust you, Mags, if you go behind my back and tell someone we don't even know about my secret?" Cecilia's eyes clearly showed the cost of Maggie's betrayal.
"You've always trusted me, just as I have always trusted you," Maggie pleaded with Cecilia to see her side of the story. "But you need help from someone who's been through this before."
"WHAT are you talking about, Maggie? No one's been through this. Mr. Sandburg said himself that he was a fraud. He lied to his peers and to his friends and he falsified test results. What makes you think he's any more trustworthy now than he was then?"
"Because he didn't lie, Ceec, he didn't lie. The only thing that was a lie was the press conference. The rest was the truth. The thesis, the Subject, the data…everything."
"The Subject?" Cecilia's eyes narrowed, but Maggie could see the tiniest flash of hope.
"Yeah. The Subject… Detective Ellison. Blair did it all to protect him, to keep his secret safe. If we can't trust someone like that, then who can we trust?"
"So, this Ellison…he's…like me?"
"If you mean can I hear a frantically whispered conversation from fifteen yards away, then yes, I am." Jim, who had been forgotten in the excitement, decided to have his say in this little drama, and walked over to where the women stood.
For a moment, Cecilia was taken aback by the knowledge that her argument with Maggie had not been private. Allowing that to sink in, she then became angry at the man's eavesdropping. "You listened to what we said? How could you do that?"
"Let's just say you're not the only one with trust issues. What can I say? Fear-based responses. It's a pretty nifty excuse that comes in handy from time to time." Blair stepped up to join them, but Jim unconsciously stuck his hand out, holding Blair at a distance, still not sure if he could trust the newcomers.
"So you're Detective Ellison?" Cecilia asked, warily.
"Jim," he said, offering his hand. "And you are?" Though he already knew who she was, he felt the proper introductions would go a long way towards establishing a basis for trust. Giving her permission to call him by his first name had been a move calculated with that in mind. Blair would be the first one to tell him that formal introductions between strangers could mean the difference between forming either an ally or an adversary. He wanted an ally.
"Deputy Marshal Cecilia Dillon." She held herself back for a moment before dipping her head. "Cecilia," she finished, softly.
"It's nice to meet you, Cecilia." Then he hit her with the full force of the Ellison smile.
"It's nice to meet you too…Detec…Jim." The smile had done the trick, and Jim had noticed for the first time that her eyes were a shade of brown so dark that her pupils were nearly indistinguishable from the irises.
Maggie smiled and exhaled a breath she had not known she had been holding.
Cecilia offered her hand to Blair, as well, and Jim felt a strange sense of relief when the female Sentinel did not seem to show any interest in him. She was polite, at last, but showed no inclination towards doing his Guide harm.
As Blair watched his partner shake hands with Maggie, his chest swelled with a tiny bit of pride. Jim had somehow known to approach Cecilia first, rather than introduce himself to Maggie, which might have been perceived as a threat by her Sentinel. This was a common tactic in ancient customs, but Blair had not previously been aware that Jim understood the political intricacies of the introduction ritual. 'I guess I've rubbed off a little,' he thought.
"Now," Jim said after the pleasantries were exchanged. "Let's go to work. We've got a fugitive to catch."
"Confirmed?" Maggie's head shot up.
"Five bodies on the plane," Jim answered. "Granados isn't one of them."
"What else?" Cecilia reached up to readjust her cap, as her eyes focused on the wreckage in the distance, and then shifted back to Ellison when his response was not forthcoming. "You're not telling me everything."
"Is that instinct, or did you hear my heart speed up?" Jim crossed his arms and peered at her for a moment, enjoying the expression of determination on her face.
"You can do that?" One side of his mouth quirked up and her skin felt suddenly extra- sensitive. "You're not answering my question, Jim, which just leads to me believe you're hiding something."
"I'm not hiding anything exactly, it's just not the kind of news I like to deliver." He could see the exact moment when Cecilia and Maggie simultaneously prepared themselves to hear the worst of it. "One of the Marshals was shot in the face with his own gun."
"Who?" Maggie asked.
"The deputy's name was Keith Harwin. You know him?"
Both women shook their heads, but the loss of a compatriot was not any easier simply because they had never met. Maggie pulled a walkie-talkie from her belt and thumbed the talk button. "Command Center, this is Deputy Shane. Come back." She removed her thumb from the talk button and waited for response.
"This is Command," answered a crackly voice on the other end.
Recognizing the voice, she said, "We have fugitive confirmation, Bay. Extend the road blocks to a ten mile radius until further notice, and get some choppers in the air."
"I'm on it, Maggie," answered the male voice on the end.
"Thanks, we're going to stick around and see what more we can find out from the crash site. Oh, and Bay? Can you get me some maps of the area? I'm going to need a trail map and a topographic."
"You want fries with that?" The unseen 'Bay' laughed at what was clearly an inside joke.
"No fries, but get the coffee ready, it's gonna be a long night."
"Will do. Chat at you later, Maggie." Bay rang off.
Maggie replaced the talkie on her belt. "Let's have a look at the scene."
"Been there, done that," answered Blair. "Why don't we skip the 'dead bodies' part and get right down to the 'chasing the bad guys' part?"
"We really need to investigate the scene. What if you missed something?" Cecilia wore determination on her face like a badge of honor.
"You must be joking. Miss something? Let me introduce you to my partner again. Cecilia, this is Jim -- The Human Crime Lab. Trust me when I tell you that nothing much gets by him, and what he misses, I usually pick up. Trust me when I tell you that checking out the plane would be a big waste of time. We can tell you anything you want to know."
"Yes, and while we perform this amazing reenactment of a Mexican stand-off, our fugitive isn't getting any closer to a jail cell." Jim reminded them that time was of the essence.
You're right," Cecilia said. "I'm sorry. I'm not used to being the last one at the scene. I feel a little usurped."
"Relax, Dillon, no one's here to usurp your authority. We just want to catch this guy before he hurts anyone else." Blair held his hands up in his most non-threatening position.
Cecilia took a moment to judge Blair's sincerity. "Did ya'll see anything that's going to help us catch this guy?"
"I suspect he headed South," Jim said." Possibly took that trail." He pointed at a distance only he, and perhaps Cecilia, could see. "But I can't tell you for sure. We were just about to check it out when you got here."
"Jim?" Maggie interrupted as a thought suddenly occurred to her. "When you were in the plane did you find the irons?"
"Yeah," he answered, "beside the Marshal's body. They looked like they were removed. Possibly before the crash as an emergency measure. It might explain how he got a hold of Harwin's weapon."
"That's not possible," Cecilia injected. When both men tilted their heads in confusion she continued. "The Marshals on board any ConAir flight don't carry the keys to the irons. It's policy. There's no way he could have been released from the chains by one of those Marshals. Only a Marshal at the drop point can unlock the irons."
"What about if he has to…?"
"They struggle." Maggie anticipated Blair's curiosity. "Do you have any idea how many transfers have used that as an excuse to get their chains unlocked? Beside, they're warned ahead of time, so it's usually a non-issue."
"Well, somebody had those keys," Jim insisted. "This just gets more and more interesting," he mused. They all looked back at the wreckage as body bags were removed and carted off to be hiked back to the Command Center. Not a fun job. "I think this goes much deeper than a simple plane crash resulting in an escaped suspect."
"What makes you think that, Jim?" Cecilia inquired, interested in hearing about his theory.
"Something I found on the plane. Something that probably won't be found in any routine investigation."
"What is it?"
"Well, it's not exactly something I can show you, or even just tell you about. You have to find it for yourself."
"But you already said going back into the plane would be a waste of time."
"You don't need to go back into the plane."
"I'm still not following."
Jim held his hand up close to her face before waving his fingers directly beneath her nose. "What do you smell?"
She looked at him for a moment as though he were making some sort of sick joke, before taking a tentative whiff. "Motor oil," she answered, "dirt and…jet fuel?"
"Those are the obvious odors, Cecilia. Look deeper."
She tried again, but came up with nothing and shook her head. Maggie and Blair ambled up beside Cecilia, both trying not to distract her. Jim glanced at Maggie and then nodded in Cecilia's direction. Maggie's eyebrows hiked up as though asking him what he meant by his gesture.
"Do your thing," he said, nodding again in her Sentinel's direction.
"What thing?" Maggie shrugged, completely unaware that she had a job to perform here.
Blair bounced up on the balls of his feet, his eyes on Maggie, hoping that she would magically take control, but knowing that she did not have the knowledge. Jim's eyes slid over to his partner. "Do her thing, Chief."
Blair's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. "You sure, man?"
"Somebody has to show the junior Guide what to do. I'll help Cecilia, but you've gotta take care of Maggie."
Blair's head jerked up and down as the old excitement and scientific thrill came back. "All right!" Realizing that his boisterousness was probably distracting to the younger Sentinel, Blair composed himself by a quick inhalation and exhalation of air. "Okay, Cecilia…Maggie. You guys ready?"
Both women nodded their heads slowly, unsure of what to expect.
"Okay, Cecilia." Blair moved into her personal space and placed his hand on her lower back. "First off, I want you to concentrate on the feel of my hand on your back. Use it to ground you. You got it?"
Cecilia's eyes met Blair's and she blinked once.
"Good," he said. "Now, I want you to close your eyes and take a deep breath. You need to relax. Relaxation is very important. When you need to let go of that air, just release it, and breathe in another. Find your own rhythm." He watched as she inhaled and exhaled several cycles. "That's good, Cecilia. That's very good." After a few more breaths, he deemed her ready for the next stage. "Now, Cecilia, I want you to listen to me very carefully. I need you to open up your sense of smell. Take a deep breath through your nose and allow the scents from Jim's hands to wash over you. What do you smell?"
She took a breath, her eyes closed. The lines around her eyes become more intense. "Motor oil, dirt, and jet fuel," she said, her body tensing again with frustration.
"Don't tense up on me, Cecilia. You've already identified those scents so let's move on. You can do it. Filter out the smells that you've already identified and block them out of your brain. Now, what do you smell?"
Once again, she inhaled, but this time a gentle smile crossed her face as she had a breakthrough. "Soap," she said. "Ivory soap. Shaving cream. Aftershave."
"Great! That's great. I knew you could do it," he cajoled. "Now, I want you to look for the smell that doesn't belong. Filter out all the others and move past them."
Another breath, and then another. With her eyes closed, her hand came up to touch Jim's fingers, twisting his wrist slightly. Her touch was feather light as she caressed his fingers individually and smelled them one by one. Her eyes shot open to find Jim's electric blues staring right into her. "TNT," she whispered, coming to a conclusion similar to his.
Jim nodded. "Actually, it's H-6. Sound familiar?"
"Sure," Maggie said with a shrug. "We use it to blow deadbolts apart."
"Hmm," Jim agreed. "The flight was sabotaged. By whom? I don't know, but I intend to find out."
"We have to tell the crash investigators." Maggie's eyes scanned the men and women in blue jumpsuits circling the wreckage.
"Tell them what? How do we explain the smell of H-6 in the cockpit without corroborating evidence? We have to keep this quiet until we can find something to back it up." Jim's voice was forceful, but passionate.
"So, where do we start?" Maggie asked.
"We follow the trail, Mags." Cecilia shrugged her shoulders, her brown eyes meeting her partner's. "We do our job, just like always, and hope it leads us to the truth."
The foursome had decided to head back to Command for the maps and to pick up some supplies before heading out on the trail. With several other Marshal teams set up at the perimeter, they could be relatively sure that Granados would not be able escape their net. It was just a matter of locating him within that perimeter. They double-timed it back to the camp, arriving just seven minutes after leaving the crash site.
Once in their cabin, Blair filled the pockets of his tac vest and his backpack with items he felt might come in handy. Knowing that his luck when it came to the Great Outdoors was less than favorable, he wanted to be sure he would be prepared. He strapped to his leg a tactical thigh holster and moved his weapon to the more comfortable position which allowed him to wear his backpack. Taking off his worn ankle boots, he donned two pairs of socks and laced up his sturdier hiking boots.
Jim loaded three extra magazines for his weapon and stowed them in the back pocket of his vest. He also checked the status of his backup piece and replaced it in the holster hidden beneath the ankle of his jeans. As a last measure, Jim turned on the Global Positioning Satellite tracker and handed the transmitter to his partner, who placed it in his vest.
"You ready to go, Chief?"
"Ready as I'll ever be." Blair slapped his partner on the back before heading out the door. He hoped they could wrap this case up and be ready to head home by nightfall.
Jim and Blair attempted to locate Marshals Wyatt and Ballast, to tell them they were heading out and what exactly their plans were. After having no luck in locating the other men, and being unable to raise them on the walkies, they went in search of Dillon and Shane.
The women were waiting for them in the center of the camp. They were similarly attired, wearing tactical vests beneath their windbreakers. Maggie had put her voluminous red hair beneath a USMS cap, and Cecilia had slipped on a pair of sunglasses.
They said little as they moved out of the camp, preferring to concentrate on making up for lost time. They made it back to the crash site in a little over ten minutes and turned immediately towards the south, heading for the trail Jim suspected Granados had used.
Silence hung in the air as the foursome mentally catalogued the sights and sounds around them. Blair, the Guide with no sense of direction, habitually scanned the trail for landmarks -- things he could remember in case he got lost.
It wasn't long before Jim came to a halt, his eyes fixed on a point in the dirt.
"What is it, man?"
Jim crouched down onto his haunches and reached down to touch the hard packed earth. "A shoe print…here," he said. He looked up at his Guide who shook his head, indicating that he could not see a thing. "Someone definitely used this trail recently."
Maggie, who could not see the print either, wasted no time contradicting him. "What you're seeing could be an old print though. It could have been there for days."
Jim rubbed his dirt-filled fingers together. "Doubtful," he said. "By the feel of it, I'd say it rained a few days ago. Two days…three at most. Any prints made before then would have been washed away."
Cecilia knelt beside him and pinched some dirt from the ground. Mimicking the other Sentinel, she rubbed her fingers together.
"Do you feel it, Dills? The moisture still in the dirt? How the beads of water seem to ride on the outside of each grain?"
"It's feels like the grains are plumper than they should be." Her fingers continued to move back and forth against each other.
"Yeah, water has that effect on things." Jim smiled again, trying to coax a smile from her. "Let's go." Jim stood up and turned back to the others. "We're on the right track now. Dills, you take the lead and I'll bring up the rear."
The foursome followed the trail with very little to go on; Cecilia in front keeping her unpredictable senses tuned in to the forest around her, while Jim backed her up with his eyes focused ahead and his ears behind. The forest around them teemed with the sounds of wildlife and a cool mountain breeze blowing through the trees.
The aural input Jim was receiving reminded him of the dream he had the night before. So startled by Simon's demanding phone call, Jim had the put the vision out of his head to focus on the problem at hand. He knew now what the dream had meant. The spirits were foreshadowing his introduction to Cecilia. They had told him that she was no threat to him.
He recalled her animal spirit. Jim had seen one once in his time spent in Peru. The Chopec called her the "Ghost Cat", because she was never where hunters expected her to be. The Margay. A rare creature, on the endangered list, and a cousin to the ocelot, she made her home in the trees, safe from predators in her habitat. Like angel from above, she watched all that went on beneath her. In Peru he had been mesmerized by the graceful beast.
He had spotted her in a tree above him and taken aim with his rifle, but something about her had stayed his hand. Perhaps it was because she looked him in the eye, making it all the more difficult to take her life. Her bottomless black eyes, sad and knowing, had whispered to him her secrets; and he had been unable to pull the trigger. And then, as soon as it had begun the moment was over, and she disappeared through the branches above him. He tracked her for a few minutes until she disappeared from his line of sight completely. Jim had continued with his sentry duties that day, perhaps a bit buoyed by the new friend he had made, and a little bit sad by the loss of that perfect moment in time. He knew that his moment in the forest with the margay would be one he would never forget.
He had not remembered until just now.
"What you did back at the crash site…that was amazing."
"How you helped Cecilia." Maggie had slowed her step a bit to match Blair's pace.
"Oh, that. It's the same technique I used with Jim when he was first learning to control his senses."
"How did you know what to do?"
"You know what they say, 'necessity is the mother of invention'. I learned because I was desperate to. All of the techniques I use with Jim…I didn't know what I was doing. I made it all up as I went along. No one was more surprised than I when they actually worked."
"But Burton's research? It didn't tell you any of that?"
"Burton's research told me next to nothing about what it means to guide a Sentinel. With Jim it started out as research project. I ran tests, Maggie. I played the scientist, which was the only thing I knew how to do at the time. I found out what worked and what didn't the hard way -- trial and error. And believe me, there was a whole lot of error, but the successes made it all worth it, at least to me. Jim could have done without the tests."
"I don't know what I'm doing."
"It's okay. Neither did I. I was with Jim a long time before I realized that by his side was where I was supposed to be. I kept waiting for his real Guide to suddenly appear as if by divine intervention. I always thought of myself as a…I guess the best way to put it is…interim Guide. But all the time I was waiting for the axe to fall."
"Yeah. I was afraid someone would show up and say, 'Thanks for standing in for me. You can be on your way now.' I think Jim was afraid of the same thing."
"The day you met Jim…?" Maggie's voice trailed off as she feared asking the wrong questions, and very aware of the fact that Blair's Sentinel was just a few yards behind them.
"Yeesss?" Blair coaxed, leaning in to give her more privacy. "Don't worry, Jim doesn't make a habit of eavesdropping."
"Have there ever been times when you wish you could take it all back?"
Blair stopped walking, his mouth hanging open.
"I'm sorry if I…."
"No," he interrupted her apology, "it's no problem. The answer is no. Not even in the worst moments, and there have been some bad ones. Jim's the best thing that's ever happened to me. Not just because he's a Sentinel, which was the Holy Grail to me when we met; but because he's Jim. He offered me his friendship, and he offered me a home. The first real home I ever had in my entire life."
"You said over the phone that the Sentinel/Guide is a package deal. What did you mean?"
"A Sentinel and a Guide aren't just two people doing a job, they're more than that. They're two halves of a single unit. I know it sounds cliché, but they're stronger together than they can ever be apart. It took me and Jim a long time to learn that lesson."
"It's a big responsibility. I'm not sure I have what it takes to be her Guide."
"Yes, it is a big responsibility, but you have a choice."
"Yeah, you can choose to walk away and leave your Sentinel defenseless."
"That's no choice."
"I know," he smiled. "And the fact that you know that is what makes you the perfect Guide for her."
Cecilia stopped up ahead, holding up a hand to halt the conversation behind her. The foursome dropped down simultaneously, eight eyes searching the forest around them. Jim made his way to the front, and knelt on one knee beside Cecilia.
"What did you find?"
"Up ahead," she answered in whispered tones. She raised her arm to point. "Do you see it?"
Jim eyes followed in the direction of her pointing finger, his pupils constricting as he focused in on what Cecilia had already seen. "I'm going to check it out." He turned back to Blair. "Stay here, Sandburg."
Blair rolled his eyes and watched as his partner crossed the forest clearing to check out the new development. Jim crouched up ahead as he investigated something hidden from Blair's vision. Jim picked up the article and returned with it to the group.
The others were standing by the time he crossed the clearing. In his hand he held a large strip of cloth -- bloodied cloth.
"It's fresh," he said.
"Let me see, " Blair said, reaching for the cloth. "Fresh is relative with you, man."
Jim handed the strip of cotton over to his partner, who cringed as he felt the wetness of it. "It's fresh all right," he grimaced as he tried to wipe the blood off his fingers. "It's a lot of blood, too. Must have been used as a bandage. How long do you think it's been there, Jim?"
"Not long, " he answered, searching the trail up ahead. "An hour…no more."
"Can you track him from the smell of his blood?" Maggie asked.
"Maybe." Jim glanced at Cecilia to gauge her reaction. "If he's still bleeding."
Blair tossed the bloody rag to Cecilia, who caught it with a single hand. "Take a good whiff, Cecilia, and catalogue the scent." Cecilia followed Blair's instructions, scowling at the overly sweet aroma of fresh blood, and then offered the rag to Jim. Jim shook his head, indicating that the scent was already catalogued.
The clearing broke up into three different trails, and Jim stood for a moment, getting a bead on which trail to take. Taking the lead, he veered off to trail on the far left and quickened his pace while simultaneously dialing his sense of smell up a notch. Blair fell in behind Jim, moving at an even space to conserve his energy. Cecilia brought up the rear, protecting the back of her partner.
"How much ground do you think we've covered?" Blair panted.
"Two and a half miles," answered Maggie with confidence.
Blair tossed a questioning glance back at her.
"When you've been on enough forest retrievals you get a feel for time and distance," she answered Blair's unspoken question with a shrug.
The group continued their quick pace for another fifteen minutes. They were forced to slow down when the trail thinned out, becoming more difficult to navigate. Jim came to an abrupt stop at the front of the caravan.
"More blood," he whispered to Blair's questioning expression. "Over here." Jim stepped off the trail and crouched beside a cluster of prickly brush.
"He must have tripped on this." Cecilia placed her foot on top of a jutting tree root. "Flew right into it." She examined the ground around her and the bush. "The trail leads off this way," she pointed to her left.
"At least we know we're on the right path," Blair commented.
"Right. We're getting close. No time to waste." Jim stood from his crouched position and slipped back into his jogging pace, followed by the others.
Five minutes later the trail ended when they emerged from the forest canopy and found themselves standing at the edge of a plateau cliff.
"Five hundred foot drop." Blair made a weak attempt to cover the queasy expression on his face. "Funny," he half-heartedly chuckled. "All this time, I never realized we were walking up hill."
Jim reached out to grab the neck of Blair's tac vest and pull him away from the edge. "I think it's safe to say our fugitive didn't opt for that direction."
Cecilia hunkered down, searching the ground for signs of their fugitive. "Where did you go?" Cecilia asked the ground, then turned to Jim seeking guidance, her mirrored glasses reflecting his face.
Jim scanned the surrounding terrain, weighing the options. Directly in front of them, to the northwest, was a five hundred-foot sheer drop down a rocky cliff. Due north, to their right, the edge of the plateau continued on, but the trees were rooted near the drop off, which left no stable path to follow.
To the west there was a path, however dangerous. A fifty yard decline leading to a series of five sharp descents of approximately fifty feet each; and then back into a copse of trees from there, leveling off at the valley below.
"This way," Jim said, moving towards the edge.
"No way, man!" Blair stepped in front of his partner to halt his direction. "No way, no how! Do you see that drop, Jim? There's no way Granados could have made that climb."
"I've seen this guy's profile, Blair. He's crazy and desperate enough to do it," Maggie interjected as she peered down to the valley floor.
"'Try' and 'do' are not the same thing, Maggie, especially if you're injured. Do you see a broken body on the valley floor?" Turning back to Jim he continued his rant. "Besides, Jim, you said we were close. No more than an hour, you said. You and I both know that there's no way he could have made that climb in that time. It would take us hours to get down there, man. Only to discover that we'd been chasing our own tails."
"He's right," Cecilia said in an authoritative tone, eliciting a look of surprise from Sandburg. "I admit that from where we're standing that looks like the only way he could have gone, however unlikely. But we should at least spend a few minutes reconnoitering before we rush into anything."
Blair had not expected support from her corner. "Maybe he doubled back, Jim, and took another trail. That's possible, isn't it?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"And more likely than climbing off this rock without equipment," Cecilia added.
"How long have we been on the trail, anyway? What time is it?" Blair searched the pockets of his vest for the watch face he carried with him.
"It's 3:53 and forty-six seconds," Cecilia answered automatically.
Blair's head snapped up at the confidence of her answer, noticing that she had not bothered to check her watch, and then noticing that she did not wear a watch. "How did you do that?"
"What? Oh. The time thing?"
"Yeah, " he shrugged. "The time thing."
"I got a watch one Christmas, just a cheap little thing," she explained. "The Church couldn't afford to give us much. Anyway, the thing 'bout drove me crazy, because I could feel the ticking against my skin. I could feel it every time the hands moved. I can still feel it."
"Long term sense memory," Blair whispered in awe, his eyes turning to Jim.
"Don't look at me, Chief. That's why I went digital."
"Wait a minute. Almost four o'clock?" Maggie spoke up. "We've been on the trail for four hours? Why haven't we heard anything from Command in all this time?" She yanked her silent walkie-talkie from the back of her belt and studied it in her hand.
"You're right, Mags. They've been too quiet."
"No wonder," Maggie said as he studied the device in her hand. "It's set to channel four." She flipped the dial to channel six and depressed the transmission button. "Bay? This is Maggie. You there?" She released her thumb from the transmit button, but her inquiry was met with radio silence and static. "Bay? Respond please." Her thumb released the transmission button again and she waited for the familiar voice of her friend to bounce back. One more time, she pressed the button and brought the walkie up to her mouth. "Ground Team, this is Field Team, please respond."
"I'm getting nothing. This is strange. See if you can raise someone on yours." She pointed to the walkie-talkie on Jim's belt. He pulled it from his belt and began to make similar calls.
"Maybe we're too far out for them to work," Blair suggested.
"On these things? They've got a range of over thirty miles. This is just plain wrong." Maggie made eye contact with her partner.
"I'm getting the same feeling," Jim concurred. "Actually, I've been getting the same feeling since this whole thing started." Jim placed the walkie-talkie back on his belt and shook his head, indicating that he had been unable to raise anyone either. "Is there some reason why they might have been asked to maintain radio silence?"
"No," Cecilia answered. "When we're on an H&C, contact between Ground and Field Teams is priority. They should have checked in with us at regular intervals."
"We should have checked in with them," Maggie lamented.
"Mags, they know it's easy to lose track of time when you're out in the field, that's why the policy is for Ground to contact Field every half hour."
"I don't like the idea of continuing the search without Ground Team contact. If something happens to one of us, we need to know there's someone on the other end of this thing." Maggie placed her hand over her walkie-talkie. "Especially when we're considering making a questionable climb to the valley floor."
"So what do you suggest we do?" Blair interjected. "Go back?"
"No," Cecilia answered. "Even if we left now we wouldn't make it back by sunset, and if we can't raise anybody on the walkies there's no chance of an airlift."
"What about the cell phone, Jim?" Blair wanted to be sure to explore all of their options.
The sound of ripping velcro could be heard as Jim removed his cell phone from his tac vest. "We should be high enough up." He flipped open the phone and held it to his ear. "We've got a dial tone."
"Here." Maggie reached out her hand. "I'll call the Field Office. They should be able to route me through to Command," Maggie dialed the number from memory.
The others waited in silence, but Jim tuned his hearing into the sound of the phone ringing on the other end.
"United States Marshal Service, Utah Field Office," answered a woman's voice on the other end. "How may I direct your call?"
"This is Deputy Marshal Maggie Shane…."
"How can I help you, Deputy?" The operator interrupted before Maggie had a chance to say anything more.
"I'm out in the field on a fugitive retrieval and I am unable to raise the Command Center on my walkie-talkie. Can you route me through to the DIC?"
"Case number, please."
"Case number JMG7629," Maggie answered automatically. Jim could hear the clicking sound of a keyboard as the operator entered the case number in the mainframe.
"One moment please." There were sounds of a muffled voice, as though the operator had covered her end of the phone and was conferring with someone. Maggie's lips pursed tightly together as she waited, the expression on her face clearly indicating that the phone call had taken an unusual turn. "Deputy Shane," the voice returned to the line. "The Utah Field office has no open cases with that designation."
"What?!" Maggie took a breath, her eyes rolling towards the sky. "Check the National Database, please."
The sounds of more clicking computer keys and more muted conferring.
"I'm sorry, Deputy, still nothing. Who's the DIC?"
"The Deputy in Charge is…" Maggie wracked her brain, trying to remember the name of the man she had been introduced to upon her arrival. "Ballast," she answered. "Deputy Clive Ballast."
When Cecilia noted Maggie's tension she tuned in to listen to the conversation from both ends. Their eyes met and Maggie shook her head, indicating the abnormality of the dialogue.
"Deputy? I list no Clive Ballast in our database, perhaps you have the name wrong…"
"Try Wyatt," Maggie suggested desperately. "Clark Wyatt."
"No Clark Wyatt, either." The operator went silent for a moment. "May I have your badge designation please?" The operator's tone became vaguely ominous.
"Deputy Marshal Maggie Shane. Designation K256B23."
"Are you aware that impersonating a U.S. Marshal is a federal offense?"
"Hang up the phone," Jim demanded.
"What the HELL is going on here?" Maggie complied with Jim's demand, slamming the phone shut.
"Looks like you were right after all, Chief."
"What do you mean, Jim?" Blair's blue eyes were suddenly filled with worry.
"We were set up," Jim answered with a sigh. "But Fate had nothing to do with it."
"Care to explain?" Cecilia spoke up.
"I know a Spookscreen when I see one." Jim turned to his fellow Sentinel.
Blair began to frantically scan the surrounding areas. "Do you think they're watching us right now, Jim?"
"No. The terrain's too hard to control. This is just a field test."
"They?" Cecilia's pitch went up a notch. "Who's They?"
"CIA, most likely. On the other hand, it could be the NSA." Jim concluded with a shrug of his shoulders.
"Let's not forget that it could be any number of offshoots from the DOD. Defense Intelligence Agency, Advanced Research Projects Agency, Special Weapons, or Threat Reduction. And then there are the independents: National Reconnaissance Office, for example. Pick your poison, really." Blair's mouth clamped shut when he noticed Jim's silent look of warning. "Shutting up now."
"Are you saying this is all some kind of super-secret, dark government agency shadow conspiracy?" Maggie's tone was incredulous.
Jim shrugged his shoulders and refused to meet her eyes, as if to say 'no comment'.
"Okay," Cecilia held up her hands. "I think I can safely say I'm out of my depth here. What do we do now?"
"We lay low," Jim advised, already visually scouting for a safe area. "At least for tonight. Then we head back to the Command Center." Jim's arms crossed against his chest as though he had just made a decision. "Refuse to play the game."
"So, if this is some kind of government sponsored 'Outward Bound' program -- and I'm not saying I believe it -- what do you think happened to Granados?" Maggie asked Jim, as they retraced their steps back into the forest.
"Dead," he answered simply. "Probably killed in the crash, but that's assuming he was still on the plane when it left Salt Lake City." Jim stopped walking and turned in a circle. "This'll do. We should be able to build a fire here without calling too much attention to ourselves. Chief, let's gather some firewood."
Blair dropped his backpack to the earth, and followed Jim off into the thicket, leaving Maggie and Cecilia alone.
"How are you doing, Maggie?"
"I'm hungry and I'm thirsty, and I'm really pissed off." Maggie sank to the ground on a pile of pine needles and leaned her back against a tree.
"And you're scared."
Maggie glanced sideways at Cecilia. "I hate it that I can't hide anything from you, Ceec."
"Why would you want to?"
"Are you scared?"
"Yeah." Cecilia took a few steps in the direction that Jim and Blair had taken and tried to tune her hearing in to the distance. "This goes way beyond our experience, Maggie. We are not in control here. How does he do it?"
"I don't know. I wish I did."
"Maybe I'm not a Sentinel. Maybe I am just a freak, after all."
"Don't say that, Ceec. I hate it when you say crap like that. Besides, it's not you, it's me. I'm the weak link."
"Blair will teach you. He seems willing."
"Maybe," she sighed. "If we live long enough."
"Jim's amazing." Cecilia shook her head and removed her now-pointless sunglasses. "He has such control. He uses his senses like they're truly a part of him. Not like me."
"You like him."
"I hate it that I can't hide anything from you," Cecilia chuckled, throwing Maggie's words back at her.
"Keeps us on even ground." Maggie focused on brushing the dirt off the worn knees of her jeans. "He likes you, too."
"You think?" One eyebrow went up.
"Yeah," Maggie answered. "I do."
"But what if…?"
"What if?" Maggie leaned forward, her voice coaxing.
"What if we're just intrigued with each other because we're both Sentinels?"
"So what. Say you two decide to…uh…pursue this attraction, and then the novelty wears off. In the end, you've had a nice fling with a really hot guy, who seems to be pretty nice in the bargain. What's wrong with that?"
"You have such a talent for cutting through the bull."
"Well somebody in this partnership has to. If it were left up to you, I'd grow old listening you wax poetic and philosophical about things that just are what they are."
"I think I was just insulted."
"C'mon, Ceec. I've been telling you for years that you need to loosen up and let go. Sometimes I think the Sisters at the Mac raised you a little too well."
"I'm a…good Catholic girl, what's wrong with that?"
"I believe the term you're looking for is 'twenty-seven-year-old virgin'." Maggie chortled as she leaned back up against the tree, crossing her legs beneath her. Cecilia's eyes dropped to study the tips of her boots and her arms crossed at her chest, as though to ward off a non-existent chill. "God, Ceec. I'm sorry."
"S'okay," she mumbled, as she studied the laces on her hiking boots. "You know why, Mags."
"Yeah, I know, she whispered.
"I just didn't want anyone to think I was a freak."
"I know that, Cecilia."
"Whenever they touched me, their hands were so rough against my skin. I couldn't stand the feel of it. It…hurt, so I never let it get any farther." Her fingers went to her lips, remembering distant violations. "And their kisses…. They just didn't understand why I couldn't stand to be kissed. Some of them even called me a dike." Her voice trailed off, lost in past memories.
"You never told me," Maggie whispered in disbelief.
"I was humiliated. I didn't want you to think I was weak."
"I could never think that." Maggie stood from her seated position.
"I know, but I couldn't be like you, Maggie. When we left the Mac, you set out to discover who you really were. You took flight…while I watched from the ground."
"Who do you want to be, Ceec?"
"I want to be like Jim. I want to control my senses instead of letting them control me."
"We'll learn. I promise." Maggie's arms went around Cecilia's shoulders and pulled her into a hug. "If it's the last thing I do. I promise."
"You think we're far enough away, man?"
Jim quietly judged the distance for a moment. "Yeah. Cecilia doesn't have the kind of control I have."
"Hey, what're they saying, Jim?"
"Something about 'cutting through the bull'. Why am I eavesdropping, Sandburg?"
"Because you're as interested as I am."
"Shut up and gather firewood."
"I'll wait 'til we go back, man. Now, talk to me. How much trouble are we in, really?"
"I'm not sure, Chief. The H-6 tipped me off that something strange was going on, but Ballast and Wyatt…I didn't suspect a thing. They're good. Really good."
"I was afraid you were gonna say something like that."
"Obviously, any government agency might have decided to run a few tests of their own after the dissertation got out and after the press conference; but what I don't get is how they found out about Dills."
Blair turned to look in the direction of the women, as if he could actually see them. "You think they're a part of this?" Blair ran his fingers through his hair. "Oh, man! What if those letters were a little too convenient, Jim? What if all this is some ruse, just to get us out in the open?"
"We're always out in the open, Chief," Jim reminded Blair. "It's not like we're recluses or anything. We're out there every day doing our job."
"Right, Jim, but what if when I refused to meet with Maggie and Cecilia they, whoever 'they' are, decided to force our hand?"
"Well," Jim laughed, "look who finally learned NOT to trust."
"You're right, man. When did I get so paranoid?"
"Not a moment too soon, I'd say. Simon would be so proud."
"Shut up, Jim." Blair punched his partner lightly on the arm.
"At any rate, Maggie and Dills don't have anything to do with this. They're more clueless than we are."
"Dills? Where the heck did that come from?" Blair's eyes widened and the irrepressible Sandburg grin exploded across his face. "You LIKE her!"
"What is this, Sandburg? Second grade?"
"C'mon, admit it, man, you like her. You even gave her one of those nicknames, so you could keep her at a distance."
"What are you talking about?"
"You call her 'Dills' so that you don't have to be reminded she's a woman."
"Believe me, Chief, I'm well aware of the fact that she's a woman," he admitted.
"Sandburg, you are cruisin' for a bruisin'."
"Why don't you scare me a little more, man?"
"All right, I admit it, I'm attracted to her! But what does that mean, Sandburg? She's a Sentinel. I'm a Sentinel. What if that's all there is to it?"
"Need I remind you, Jim, that you could be attracted to worse women? Hell, you havebeen attracted to worse women. Hey! As far as I'm concerned, I approve of any woman who isn't trying to kill me."
"At least it's not like…." Jim sighed, and then tried to shake the memory loose from his head.
"Like with Alex? It's okay, Jim, you don't have to tap dance around her name."
"With her it was so out of control. Well, you were there, you remember."
"Yeah, with crystal clear clarity and Dolby Surround Sound," Blair said under his breath. "Well, at the risk of stepping all over your privacy, what is it like this time?"
"I like the way she smells."
"Is that all? Is this a pheromone thing?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I like her smile, too."
"Damn, Jim, you're not gonna write a Haiku, are you?"
"One of these days, Junior." Jim brandished a fist in Sandburg's face, trying to squelch the laughter bubbling up through his chest. "But what if it is just a Sentinel thing?"
"You know, Jim, there were reasons for trying to deny your attraction to Alex. The first one being that she was a thundering loony and the second was that she tried to kill me. Alex was your case, Jim. She was the perp."
"So, you're saying…what? That I'm in the clear here?"
"Jim," Blair sighed as went into explanation mode. "Don't feel like you have to deny your feelings because Cecilia is a Sentinel. There's nothing wrong with it, in fact, it probably couldn't be more right. I wouldn't be surprised if ancient tribal leaders often played Cupid between two Sentinels to ensure the continuation of the genetic strain, man. Moreover, any issue between two Sentinels was most likely a highly prized member of the tribe."
"Whoa, Darwin, that's enough talk about 'issue', so you can stop right there." Jim reached to grab a limb from a tree and tore it away from the trunk. "I don't have any plans to 'issue' anything. Taking care of you is all the responsibility I can handle." Searching for the right size branch he grabbed another and ripped it from the tree.
"You just skipped right over the point, didn't you, Jim? Look, Stud Muffin, all I'm saying is that Cecilia's a nice girl that you've admitted being attracted to, and it seems to me that she's feeling the same thing. And what the HELL are you doing, man?"
"There's a creek about a half-mile from here. I thought maybe I'd catch us some dinner."
"So, is this the all mighty Sandburg blessing I'm getting here?"
"Huh? Oh, about the…?"
"You bet! Go for it, Jim.
"You're really okay with that?" Jim's crow's feet became more pronounced as his eyes squinted with suspicion.
"Hey, man, as long she doesn't try to bite your head off after sex, I'm cool. Just take my advice: wait until we're out of the forest."
"Thanks, Romeo. I'll do that."
Returning to their makeshift campsite, Jim and Blair got the distinct impression that they had just missed walking into a private conversation. One thing about Sentinels: you could never sneak up on their private conversations.
Maggie and Cecilia had managed to locate some decent sized rocks and spent their alone time building a fire pit. Blair dumped an armful of dry wood next to the pit and began rooting around for kindling to start the fire. Bending down, he brushed some pine needles away to expose a sharp piece of rock.
"Hey, look. I found a piece of flint!"
"Use the matches, Sandburg," Jim warned.
"But, Jim, I know how to…."
"USE the matches."
Blair grumbled something that sounded like 'whatever, man', before delving into the pockets of his tac vest for the waterproof matches. He looked over at the Maggie and Cecilia to discover they were both attempting to cover their laughter at Jim and Blair's little exchange, but they were failing miserably. Cecilia covered her smile with her hand while Maggie averted her twinkling green eyes and tried to think of something less funny.
Blair grabbed a handful of dried leaves and pine needles and placed them carefully in the center of the fire pit.
Jim leaned his fishing branches against a tree, and reached into his tac vest to retrieve a sheathed hunting knife. Removing the leather safety sheath, Jim began to efficiently sharpen the ends of the sticks.
He noted the odd looks coming from the women. "There's a creek a little less than a mile away," he explained. "I don't know about you ladies, but Sandburg and I haven't eaten anything since last night. I was going to catch dinner."
"You can actually catch fish with nothing but a sharpened stick?" Cecelia stepped toward him and took one of the sticks from his hand to inspect the tip.
"Eighteen months in Peru taught me a lot."
"Yeah, it's a shame he can't remember most of it," Blair blurted, and then bowed his head, hoping to become invisible.
"Look, I've got two sticks here…." His blue eyes met her brown. "That is…" his voice trailed off.
"I would love to learn how to catch fish this way. If you wouldn't mind trying to teach me, I mean." She seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was trying to figure out a way to ask her to accompany him.
"I thought I said wait until we're out of the forest, man," Blair whispered, turning away from the Sentinels.
"I'd love to," was Jim's only answer.
Blair glanced up at Maggie to see a conspiratorial smile on her face as she watched the two Sentinels with each other. 'This could be interesting', Blair thought as he pivoted on his heels to see what Maggie saw. Just then, Maggie and Blair simultaneously turned their heads to look at one another. They both knew they had been looking at the same thing. Blair suddenly understood what Maggie and Cecilia had been talking about when they had been left alone.
Jim checked the sky through the shelter of trees and sought the slowly sinking sun on the horizon. "We won't be back until after dark, Chief."
"Go," Blair answered, without looking up.
"Keep your eyes and ears open."
"And my weapon at the ready, I know. Go, Jim. Maggie and I will hold down the fort. Oh, Jim?" Blair picked up his discarded backpack and withdrew the nearly empty water bottle he had been sipping from all day. "Can you fill this up for me?"
"Sure," he answered, taking the bottle from Blair's outstretched hand. "Blair?" Jim lifted a finger and poked Blair in the chest. "Don't wander off."
"And don't talk to strangers. Am I gonna have to kick your ass?"
Jim laughed at the ridiculousness of the question. Blair drew his gun from his thigh holster, chambered a round, and replaced it. "Happy now?"
"Just be here when I get back, Sandburg."
"Well, don't bother coming back unless you're laden with fish. I'm starving, man." Blair shooed him in the direction of the river. "Stomach's not getting any fuller with you standing there. Go. Hunt and Gather."
Jim let loose a good-natured growl before turning around and disappearing into the thicket with Cecilia at his heels.
Blair went about his fire-building duties, lighting a match and dropping it on the triangular pile of dry leaves and pine needles. He puffed quick bursts of air on the struggling flame before it exploded into life, engulfing the parched foliage. He quickly threw more leaves on the flames before adding larger kindling. Before long, he had a modest, non-attention- drawing fire going in the pit.
"Expertly done," Maggie complimented.
"Yeah, I guess all those field excursions amongst various natives comes in handy once in a while."
"Protective? Shielding? Noticed that, did you?"
"Hard not to. Does it bother you?"
"Only 'til he saves my life," he laughed. "Then it's kind of hard to take it for granted."
"I guess so."
"Does it bother you?"
"The way we grew up, it just seemed so natural, but now that I've seen you and Jim together…" she trailed off for a brief moment. "The protectiveness? It's a Sentinel thing, isn't it?"
"It's the only thing, Maggie. My theory is that the Guide is an integral part of the Sentinel's life, and thus, the most important part of the Sentinel's duties is to protect the Guide."
"What happens when a Sentinel loses their Guide?"
"I don't know, and I don't want to find out. I have theories, but no way I'd be willing to test them. And Burton's studies were woefully incomplete on the subject of Guides altogether."
"I have a million questions to ask you." Maggie placed her hands on the ground and scooted closer to the fire.
"Only a million?" Blair smiled at her, his eyes twinkling. "I don't have all the answers, Maggie, but whatever I have is yours."
"Thank you." She returned his smile.
"You're welcome. So, shoot."
"You said there had been another Sentinel. What happened?"
The air evacuated from Blair's lungs. "You sure know how to go right for the jugular, don't you?"
"Ceec says the same thing. She prefers to tap dance around every issue. I'm not much on tact, either. Is this one of those things you'd rather not talk about?"
"Yes." He stared straight into her eyes. "But I'm going to tell you anyway, because you should hear it, but forgive me if I gloss over the finer details. The wound goes very deep. Jim and I are still trying to recover."
"It was bad?"
"'Bad' would have been a major improvement. It was devastating."
"I'm sorry," she began. "You really don't have to…"
"Her name was Alex Barnes, or at least, that's what she told me her name was. When we met her senses were way out of control, and they were driving her crazy. Which, as it turned out, was a very short drive. I made the mistake of not telling Jim about her, because my plan was to bring them together under controlled circumstances. I just didn't know what would happen with two Sentinels in the same territory."
Blair took a slow breath to relax his tensing shoulders before continuing with his story.
"When Jim discovered Alex's presence in Cascade, and my knowledge of said presence -- he went ballistic. More territorial than I had ever seen him. As it turned out, Jim knew on a subconscious level that his territory had been violated. He became volatile and unpredictable. He kicked me out of the Loft, and basically gave me my walking papers as far as the Sentinel business was concerned."
"He fired you? Can he do that?"
"No. He left me…lost."
"I ended up floating facedown in a fountain. Killed by Alex Barnes. You see, Alex didn't have a Guide, and she totally lacked the requisite Sentinel instincts. She used her abilities to steal and kill. She was a murderer."
"Whoa, there. Back up." Maggie held up her hand. "Killed by Alex Barnes? Just gonna leave me hangin', were you? You're not exactly pushing up daisies, Blair, so what happened?"
"I wish there was a pat answer for that, but there isn't. I'm not really sure myself. They tried everything they could, mouth-to-mouth, CPR, defibrillator, but nothing worked. Jim wouldn't give up." He sat silently for a moment. "He just wouldn't give up."
"There's something you're not telling me."
"Yeah," he sighed. "I'm not really sure what it means and until I figure it out myself, I'm a little reluctant to talk about it."
"Well, when you're ready, I'd love to hear about it."
"You'll be my second call."
"Thanks," she nodded.
So," he concluded. "After everything that Alex did, can you see why I wasn't exactly gung-ho about meeting Cecilia?"
"Yeah. So what's different this time?"
"It could be any number of variant factors. We're in territory that is neutral to both of them. Cecilia isn't a psychopath out to violate the imperative. They're both following their Sentinel paths to protect. Like I said…variant factors."
Maggie drew her knees up to her chest and rocked back and forth, and took a moment to listen to their darkening surroundings. "You don't seem too worried about our current predicament."
"Did I give you that impression?" Blair placed his hand, palm down, on his chest. "Well, don't let this stone-cold exterior fool you, because I'm shaking like a leaf on the inside. Man, I hate Spooks."
"You sound like you've met your share of them."
"The lion's share," he nodded, removing his cap to run his fingers through his hair. "One Spook is one too many, I always say."
"So, the CIA knows about Jim?"
"We strongly suspect that they strongly suspect, but what I don't get is how they found out about Cecilia."
"Since the release of your thesis and the subsequent press conference, people at the Marshals Service have begun asking questions. Her abilities have not gone unnoticed."
"Are we going to get out of this, Blair?"
"Count on it, Maggie." The conversation had turned to things Blair would have rather not discussed, so he decided to change the subject. "Cecilia's senses are out of control, but she seems to be handling it."
"She's just gotten used to it. Sometimes we can find ways around them."
"Like, white noise generators?"
"She needs to learn control, Maggie, or she'll never reach her full potential. It amazes me every time I watch Jim in action, but still I wonder if he can't be better."
"How did you teach him the control?"
"Now, that is a story. You know, I noticed a wild raspberry patch back in the woods. Why don't we go berry picking and I'll spill my guts?"
"Deal," she said as she scrambled to her feet. "Only one problem."
"It's really not safe to be wandering around in the dark."
"Have no fear," he said. "Maglite is here." Blair reached into his backpack and drew out a much larger version of his small handheld flashlight.
"That's quite a backpack you've got there. What all have you got in that thing?"
"Oh," he chuckled. "Just about everything that today's Guide-on-the-go might need." He twisted the head of the flashlight to spread a wide beam into the forest's thicket and led Maggie into the brush for a raspberry hunt. "Now, where did I see that raspberry bush?"
Jim and Cecilia walked in silence for awhile, and he sensed that she appreciated the quiet, if only for a short time. He tried to remember what it was like to be unable to block out the sounds around him. For the space of a single breath, Jim released his tight hold over his senses and just let them be.
The sound of the rushing creek up ahead became a roaring monsoon. The sound of crunching brush filled his ears and he could feel each tiny irregularity of the ground beneath his feet. The soft cotton shirt against his skin suddenly felt like raw scratchy wool. Reminded of the rush of senses he had once been unable to harness, he quickly reached for the mental dials and gave them a simultaneous mental downshift.
"How do you do it?" Cecilia broke the silence between them.
"How is it you haven't ended up in a loony bin?" He returned her question with one of his own, a habit from spending so many years questioning suspects.
"Maggie," she answered. "She keeps me from totally losing it."
"There's your answer. If it hadn't been for Blair…" he trailed off, searching for the right words. "Well, let's just say I wasn't handling it half so well as you are."
"You haven't always had your senses, have you?"
"I have vague memories of having them as a child."
"So what happened?" They had instinctively lowered their voices for one another, conversing in low, even tones.
"My father was afraid people would think I was some kind of sideshow act, so I must have repressed them. When I was in Peru, they came back, but I repressed them again after I returned to the States."
"I went on a four-day stakeout, in conditions not unlike these, and then…boom, I was losing my mind. What about you? I mean… I know the story about your parents and the 'wild child' in the woods."
"You know about that?" She sidestepped away from him, refusing to look him in the eye.
"Well, Maggie's letters were pretty vague, but she left enough clues for a good detective to work with. So, you've had your senses for as long as you remember?"
"Yeah. I wonder why I didn't repress them like you did."
"Probably because your Guide showed up in the nick of time. My Guide hadn't even been born yet. Fate can have a pretty wicked sense of humor."
"Do you have any control, Dills…Cecilia?"
"It's about like a light switch."
"On and off," he nodded.
"Right, but even the 'off' position is more sensitive than, I assume, normal people feel."
"Well, maybe you'd have better control if you didn't picture a light switch. I picture a dial."
"A dial?" She laughed at the simplicity of it.
"Yeah, like a volume knob. But the key is that you have to stay relaxed. Tension makes it harder to stay in control. Tell me how it feels, Cecilia?"
"Like I feel so much that I can't feel anything at all."
"Total immersion," he nodded, recalling the feeling.
"You said that you could hear heartbeats," she whispered. "When my ears are open, all I can hear is this jumble of noises, and none have any individuality at all."
"Are you 'on' now?"
"If I was on, we wouldn't be able to have this conversation." Cecilia shook her head, her brown eyes filling with sadness.
"One thing I've discovered, Cecilia, is that anything you can identify, you can block out. That goes for everything, sounds, smells…everything. When you turn your ears on, you have to reach for the sounds, not shy away from them. Seek them out and identify them one by one."
"I don't know if I can do that."
"It's hard, and sometimes it's just plain time consuming, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Remember back at the crash site with the H-6? You were doing it then, Cecilia, and you were doing it just fine."
They reached the river, in mid-conversation, and stood on the bank scouting a good position to begin. .
"Let's catch some dinner." Cecilia grinned broadly, as though she had decided to let down her shields, and Jim was caught off guard by the beauty of it. He returned her open smile with one of his own, and turned back to the water.
Beneath the rushing water Jim could see that the creek was teeming with fish, swimming about in lazy schools. "Like candy from a baby," he said, as he stepped gingerly in the water. "Come to papa."
"Well, these socks are just ruined." Maggie laughed as their dire straits were temporarily forgotten in the innocence of their activity.
"Don't worry about it." Blair laughed. "They're Jim's." He plucked a plump wild raspberry from the vine and dropped in the sock he held in one hand. He always packed an extra pair of socks in the backpack for both Jim and himself, just in case they got stuck out in the middle of nowhere with wet feet (which had been known to happen), but tonight the socks were needed for another purpose.
Maggie picked a raspberry and popped it into her mouth, savoring the tart flavor. "You and Jim don't seem anything alike." She was ready to get back to their earlier discussion, but wanted to be sure Blair would have no objections.
"When we first met," Blair began, a slow smile creeping across his face, "Jim had me pegged for a junkie. Threw me up against the wall and threatened to shake me down. You're right, on a lot of levels we're opposites, but it works.
"So, how are you alike?"
"Are you profiling me, Deputy?"
"Just trying to understand you better."
"Give it up, Maggie. I'm an enigma. I don't even understand me. And THAT's how Jim and I are alike. You might try actually putting some of those berries you pick in the sock."
"Sorry," she smiled. "I guess I didn't realize how hungry I was. Do you think they'll be back soon?"
"I think they'll be awhile. But I must be starting to get to know you, Maggie, because it occurs to me that you want to discuss a few things before they get back."
"I'm not usually that transparent."
"It's a gift. Put the berries in the sock. Okay, where to begin?" Blair's mind began to whirl as he mentally organized his thoughts. "First things first: relaxation."
"Relaxation?" Maggie attempted to covertly pop another berry in her mouth.
"It's an accepted scientific fact that the human body works better when in a relaxed state. Thus all the emphasis on stress relief from the medical professions. Sentinels are no different. In fact, it's probably more true for them. Cecilia needs to be able to stay relaxed when using her senses. It's the only way to stay in control. Relaxation is the basis for everything. Without it, a Sentinel is at the mercy of their senses. Of course, you have to keep in mind that when I say 'Sentinel', I mean Jim. Things I teach you may not work for Cecilia. You have to be prepared to use your imagination. Be innovative. You won't know if something works unless you try, but you must try."
"At this point, I'll try anything."
"What are her sensory abilities like?"
"I've heard her refer to them as a light switch."
"All or nothing? Cecilia isn't going to get any better without working at it, Maggie. I get the feeling that you help her control her pain, right?"
"Right, it's one of the few things I can actually help her with."
"Wrong," Blair said. "Help her control her senses, first. Most of the pain will take care of itself. Later, when she has control, if there's still pain, then you can do the Guide thing and help her handle it. If she can stay relaxed, using her senses will be easier, and a whole lot less painful. That's where the pain comes from, Maggie -- the tension."
"Work with her on it. Do a little research on relaxation techniques, and teach her a few drills. Being a Sentinel is like anything else, you have to work at it."
"What's next, Obi-Wan?"
Blair laughed at the 'Star Wars' reference. "When we spoke on the phone, you said that Cecilia doesn't zone out much because she hardly ever uses her senses. Did I hear you right?" When Maggie nodded, Blair continued. "So, she can either use them or not use them -- all or nothing, right?"
"Okay, this might not be as bad as I thought. When I met Jim there wasn't even that much control. His senses were on alert twenty-four seven. Of course, if he'd been able to turn them off, he wouldn't have needed me. Scary thought. " Blair began to gesticulate as his mind worked through the information that bouncing around his head. "Cecilia is either 'on' or 'off', so you need to help her find the levels in between."
"How do I do that?"
"Dials," Blair said, as though that would be enough.
"And those would be…?"
"Sorry," he said with a smile, as he once again realized he was talking to someone who did not have the background information he had. "Dials," he repeated. "Mental dials."
She shook her head, still not quite understanding.
"Not too long after I started to work with Jim, we were working this stalker case, when the person we were trying to protect accidentally shot him. It was just a flesh wound -- didn't even need stitches -- but because his senses had been on full alert when he was shot, he might as well have suffered a major wound, considering the pain he was in."
"So what did you do?"
"I had no idea what to do, Maggie, but one thing a Guide must be able to do is think on their feet. So that's what I did. I came with the dials. See what I mean about being innovative?
"How do they work?" Maggie attempted to covertly pop another berry into her mouth.
"Once I got him relaxed, I told him to picture a dial for his sense of touch. He needed something he could control. I told him to imagine that the dial was turned all the way up and that he needed to visualize turning it down. He did and it worked, and believe me, Maggie, no one was more surprised than I was. "
She smiled, her lips bright red from berry juice. "Tell me about the dials." Maggie looked down at her raspberry sock and Blair did the same.
"Looks like we're finished here. Let's head back." Blair pointed the flashlight into the brush and stepped toward the circle of light it projected.
"The camp's back this way, Blair." She hooked her thumb in behind her, a slight smirk on her face.
"Right," he shrugged. "I knew that."
"Looks like we'll be feasting tonight." Cecilia pointed at the stick with seven well- proportioned fish spitted upon it.
"Well, I might consider that a light meal," Jim spoke as he waded through the water back to the bank.
Cecilia offered him a hand to help tug him back onto the shore. He accepted, tightening his fingers around her wrist as she tugged and he pushed. He noticed her wince as he released her.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No," she answered, but shook out her wrist, giving away her lie.
"Maggie ever tell you you're a terrible liar?"
"All the time." Her mouth quirked up on one corner, but she still refused to look at him, hiding her eyes beneath the bill of her cap.
"How bad is it?"
"Not bad," she answered. "Just par for the course."
"You wanna try something?"
"Just a little exercise in control." Jim could not believe he was suggesting such a thing after all the times he had refused to submit to one of Blair's tests.
"Shouldn't we get back, though?'
"They can wait, besides, if I know Blair, he and Maggie are probably doing something along the same lines we are, right now."
"Okay then," she answered, vaguely. She nodded and reached up to remove her cap, shaking loose her hair.
Jim was taken aback by the mane that had spilled forth. He had been able to tell that she was a blond, but now, the light of the full moon bounced off the golden tresses turning them into a silver waterfall. "Okay," he choked out. "Let's start with your hearing." Jim stepped to stand directly in front of her.
"Okay." She stood up straight, waiting to be told what to do next.
"I want you to close your eyes and try to relax. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth." He watched as her shoulders released a pocket of tension they had been holding all day. Her face became more peaceful with each cycle of breath. "As you relax I want you to listen very carefully to my instructions before you do anything. I want you to open up your hearing and listen for one specific sound. You're going to have to identify and filter out all the other sounds until you find it." He stretched out his own hearing, trying to find a sound that would be easy to identify. He smiled to himself when he made the decision. "Cecilia, I want you to listen for my heartbeat."
"I can't do that, Jim." Her eyes popped open. "Whenever I open up my hearing, I get so overwhelmed by the sound of the outside world. I can't listen for something that's inside you." Her eyes had opened and Jim noted the tell-tale tension in her shoulders.
"You're already hearing it, Cecilia. You just have to get rid of all the other noises until it comes in clear. Just listen to my voice, and tell me what you hear. When you've identified it, filter it out. Got it?"
"I'll try." Cecilia closed her eyes and began her breathing.
"Listen to my voice and open up your hearing," Jim said, when the tension in her shoulders melted away.
Cecilia breathed in and flipped the switch. She winced, as her head was flooded with noise.
"Stay with me, Cecilia. Stay relaxed. Are you listening to my voice?"
She nodded, her face still contorted in pain. His voice floated over the myriad of noises, a distant anchor in the din.
"Good," he said, wincing just a little in sympathy. "Now remember what I said about not shying away? Reach for the sounds. Tell me, what's the first thing you hear, beyond my voice?"
She turned her head to catch the sound better with her ear, latching on to the loudest and allowing the pain of it to wash over her until she could identify it. "The creek," she answered. "It sounds like the Colorado River echoing through the Grand Canyon."
"Now that you've identified the sound, filter it out. You can do it, Cecilia, just like the H- 6." He watched her struggle with the concept for a moment before finally letting it go.
"It's gone," she said. "I can't hear it anymore."
"Now, let's move on. What's the next thing you hear?" Jim noticed that her face had lost some of its painful expression.
"The wind moving through the trees." She recognized the second sound much more quickly than the first, and with much less pain. She discovered that the faster she could isolate a noise, the easier it was to accept the pain and let it go.
"Say good-bye to it and filter it out. Move on to the next sound, but take a relaxing breath if you have to."
She followed his advice, breathing in for a moment and then releasing as her lungs reached capacity. She searched for the next sound, but was unable to immediately identify it, which sent a sharp spike of pain rocketing through her skull. She reached one more time after the initial pain passed. "A family of…squirrels?"
"Let it go, and move on," he prompted. "And remember to relax."
"An owl." The hooting owl had jumped out of her slowly quieting head and it had been a sound even a child could have identified. The easily recognized sounds became clearer and clearer as she sorted through them.
"You're doing great." Jim watched as the lines of pain that had once been etched on her face now decreased with each filtered sound.
Jim smiled as her face continued to change, the expression becoming one of relaxed listening. Their exercise continued for a few minutes with Cecilia identifying sounds, and Jim encouraging her to filter them out of her mind. And then, suddenly, Cecilia's eyes popped open and widened to the limits of human possibility.
"I can hear it." Her eyes remained locked on his chest, refusing to look away for fear of losing the sound. "Thump-thump," she whispered. "Thump-thump." She raised her hand and gingerly placed it in the center of his chest.
Instinctively, he placed his hand over hers, holding it against him. He could feel the pace of his own heart increase at her gentle touch.
Cecilia giggled. "I heard that," she said. And then once more, her voice filled with a mixture of awe and disbelief. "I HEARD that." And then her laughter began again, bouncing off the trees and the rocks, and overpowering the rush of the creek.
For a moment, Jim understood what it felt like to be Blair, when he used to stand in front of a lecture hall full of students. He understood how seeing the light of comprehension in someone's eyes could be so addictive. To see the glow of understanding and recognition in Cecilia's and know that he was responsible for that -- he felt like dancing a jig.
He was seized with the desire to touch her joy -- to reach out and grasp it. He wanted to keep it safe so that one day, in the times ahead when learning would not be so easy, he could draw it out and remind her of how she felt in this moment. But her joy was abstract, hanging in the air around her, unable to be touched by human hands -- so he reached out to her face instead.
Her laughter stopped in that instant. The whole world stopped in that instant.
This time Jim heard the leaping heartbeat, and the ragged urgency of her breath. Cecilia's cheeks were tinged pink with a faint blush, and her tongue slipped out to wet her lips. The blush on her face and her unwillingness to meet his eyes told Jim that Cecilia was playing no lover's game -- this was not an intentional flirtation. Cecilia honestly had no idea how seductive she was.
Jim could not tear his eyes away from her mouth, and his thumb strayed from her cheek to softly stroke her bottom lip. Cecilia's breathing stopped altogether, as they both waited to see who would call the next gambit.
In the bright light of the full moon her lips beckoned to him. He cupped her chin with a hand still cool from the river water and she shivered beneath his touch. An involuntary step brought her closer to him, her hand still on his chest feeling his accelerated heart rate.
In a single heartbeat, their lips were a breath away from each other. She could taste his exhalation of air on her tongue and it left her wanting for more. Cecilia caught her lower lip between her teeth in anticipation. Jim, taken away by her innocent seductiveness, let loose a growl deep within his chest before he bent to take her lips with his.
His lips were gentle on hers, at first, reveling in the taste of her. The captivating flavor of her brought to mind images of wild honey, and a bubbling champagne tickling the edge of his nose.
Cecilia's mind swirled with thoughts of a cognac aged to perfection, as she sampled the essence of his lips. His lips gradually became more insistent upon hers in an even give and take, until her sensitive skin, all the more heightened by her intense emotional state, began to feel raw and punished. She pressed her hand against his chest, pushing him away, her fingers reaching to soothe her rapidly swelling lips.
Without an inkling of warning, their world was filled with the sound of an explosion cracking the silence around them wide open to create a gulf of instant chaos. Cecilia's hands balled into fists and covered her ears as her eyes squeezed shut to ward off the agony inside of her head.
"Maggie? Are you all right?" Blair rushed to Maggie's side, where she stood hunched over, her hands grasping desperately to a tree trunk. They had heard the shot from the creek echoing through the trees. Maggie had hidden in the thicket fifty yards from the camp while Blair had quickly thrown dirt over the fire before joining her.
"Something's wrong," she gasped. Maggie's legs collapsed beneath her and she slid down the trunk of the tree. "Blair?" Her green eyes, brimming with tears, beseeched his for help.
"Get back!" Jim moved as though the air around him had suddenly become molasses, wrapping his arms around the helpless Cecilia and dragging her to the relative safety of a tree. He pushed her up against the tree and used his own body as a shield, one arm circling her head for protection, while the other reached back to draw his gun. She grunted as the echoing of the sniper's gunshot continued to bounce around inside her skull.
Reining in his senses, Jim lifted his head to scan the area around them for the shooter's position. His pupils dilated in the darkness of night to take in all the light the full moon offered, suddenly making the silvery blackness a brilliant day to his vision. The distance of five hundred yards instantly became as close as his own skin as he zoomed in on the sound of rustling tree branches, moved by more than just the wind. The mystery shooter, moving too fast and wearing forest camouflage, was impossible to identify by sight, but Jim identified the weapon as a high powered rifle complete with a laser scope. This was no hunter out for nighttime sport. Why hadn't he seen the laser?
"Come on, Cecilia! We have to move!" Jim made a tardy attempt to lower his voice in its own urgency.
She nodded and opened her eyes, but her balled fists remained against her head to protect her violated ears. She pushed herself away from the tree and began to retrace their original steps through the forest back to the camp. She ran as fast as she could, knowing all the while that Jim ran behind her, his own senses tightly focused to the job of watching their backs.
A few hundred yards before they arrived at the campsite, Cecilia felt Jim grab her arm and pull her to the rocky earth. The ringing in her ears had slowly dissipated, but she continued to massage them in hopes the annoyance would die away completely.
"We can't go rushing in there like bats out of hell, Dills. That shot was heard for miles around, and I have no doubt that my partner and yours are ready to shoot anything that might come crashing through the brush."
"You're right," she panted. "I wasn't thinking."
"Neither was I," was his mysterious response.
Cecilia stumbled as she tried to regain her feet. Jim took one last visual sweep behind them before focusing on the campsite ahead. The pungent stench of a quickly doused fire floated into his nostrils as he crept closer to the camp.
"Maggie?" Blair's heart hammered in his chest and his throat tightened. "Maggie? What is it?"
"I can't feel my legs, Blair."
His mouth worked soundlessly, trying to come up with something comforting to say. Maggie's hands clawed at her useless legs, tears spilling over her eyes.
To all outward appearances the campsite had been hastily deserted, but Jim's other senses sought out the hidden clues.
"Sandburg, it's me. You can come out now."
Blair entered the clearing from behind him with his weapon still drawn.
"We heard the shot, Jim. Are you okay?" Blair rapidly holstered his pistol and rushed to his partner's side.
"I'm fine, but we were lucky. I never heard it coming, Sandburg."
Blair's heart was racing at the news that Jim could have been killed.
"Where's Maggie?" Jim asked as he searched the clearing for her.
"She's back here, Jim." Blair pointed back into the thick brush. "There's something wrong with her, man, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is."
"That's just it, Jim. Nothing happened. One minute she was fine and the next she couldn't feel her legs."
"Couldn't feel her legs?"
"Great. What the hell else can go wrong?"
Just when Jim began to lament the direness of their new circumstances, Maggie stumbled out of the woods into the clearing, to the stunned expressions of her new friends. "Where's Cecilia?" Her voice carried a demand that belied the weakness of her own body.
"Maggie?" Blair could not seem to get over the woman's miraculous recovery.
"What happened?" Maggie searched the clearing for her partner. "Where's Cecilia?" she demanded with urgency, turning her inquiry upon Jim.
Jim spun around. "She was right behind me a minute ago." His senses, still heightened from the rush of adrenaline, searched the nearby forest for her. Jim's hand went to his nose as he was assaulted with the unexpected odor of blood. "Oh, God." He thundered back into the brush without a backward glance, led by the scent of Cecilia's blood. Maggie threw her arms around Blair's shoulders for assistance, and the duo hurried after Jim, trying to keep up.
He piggybacked his sight to find her lying with her back against the trunk of a fallen tree and her legs sprawled out in front of her. Her eyes were open in the sightless stare of death and her flesh had the bluish tint of bloodless skin.
"Oh, God," Blair breathed. "She's dead."
"She's not dead," Maggie insisted, removing her arms from Blair's shoulders and kneeling beside her best friend. "She's been shot."
Jim knelt down beside Cecilia and felt for the pulse at her wrist. "She's right," he responded to Maggie's proclamation. "She has a pulse. It's weak, but steady, and there's a wound in the back of her leg. It's just a flesh wound -- nothing to get upset over." Placing his palm on her cheek he turned Cecilia's head with its blank eyes to face his. "What's going on here? I've never seen anything like this." Jim looked for some sign of life in her eyes, but there was nothing.
"Maggie? What's going on?" Blair knelt to get a closer look, but turned to face Maggie when he felt the chill on Cecilia's skin. "Her skin is like ice."
Maggie sighed. "It's something she's been able to do since we were kids. We were always really good at lucid dreaming. She created this place in her dreams that we call the Garden. After she had her tonsils removed we learned that she could go to the Garden whenever the pain became too much. It places her in kind of a self-induced stasis. She hasn't used it in a long time, she's afraid of becoming too dependent on it."
"Well, what can pull her out of it?" Jim asked.
"How?" Blair demanded.
"I have to go in and get her."
"Go in?" Jim wrapped his hand around Cecilia's to keep her pulse in constant contact.
"I join her there through a meditative state."
"It's a spirit vision, Jim," Blair finished. He spun to face Maggie. "And you can do this at will? Have you always been able to do this?"
"Yes, since we were children. After the first time we shared a dream, we practiced until we became good at it. Lately though, we've begun to notice a change in the pattern."
"There have been other dreams and visions. Lately we've been dreaming of the jungle. Cecilia and I control everything that happens in the Garden, but in the jungle we're being controlled."
"Do you realize what you've been doing?" Blair demanded, making no attempt to hide the excitement in his voice."
"What?" Maggie asked.
"There's a very spiritual side to being a Sentinel. You probably began having the visions because, as children, your minds would have been much more open. When you have the visions do you see any specific animals?"
"We really don't have time for this right now, Sandburg." Blair looked down to see Jim, who had removed his tac vest to tear a strip of cloth from his shirt to bind Cecilia's wound. "Let's not forget that we have a very well-equipped assassin on our tails."
"Right," Blair agreed.
"We have to get somewhere safe."
"Uh…correct me if I'm wrong, Jim, but didn't we already try that?"
"So, what's it to be? Back into the forest to be hunted like game, or down the slope to be picked off one by one like simple target practice?" Maggie's hands went to her hips as she watched Jim pick up her partner.
"You're the one with map, Maggie. Why don't you pull it out and put it to some use."
"Jim? Why did they play their hand so soon?" Blair distracted Jim from his angry position.
"I don't know, Chief. Maybe we did something that forced them to alter their plans. Or maybe this was part of the plan all along."
"Maybe this is just their way of keeping us on our toes," Blair checked out the surrounding forest hoping to catch a glimpse of the assailants.
"That's a lovely thought," Jim said beneath his breath as he tightened the strip of cloth against Cecilia's wound.
"Here," interrupted Maggie. "I think I may have found something on the map."
"What is it?" Jim asked.
"About two miles to the west there's a series of caves. They're not very big, but they should be easy to defend, and they should give us enough security for me to go get Cecilia out."
"Well," Jim sighed, "you know how I hate to be picky." He slung Cecilia up into his arms, with her limp head resting against his shoulder. "We'll go back for our stuff and then we'll head out."
Blair kept a careful eye on his partner with his peripheral vision. The full moon made traveling the path possible without the aid of the flashlight and the lunar light bounced off Jim's pale face like fluorescent off luminol, showing the deepening creases beneath his eyes. He was tiring quickly. The adrenaline rush that had raced through his body back at the creek was dissipating, and carrying the dead weight of Deputy Marshal Cecilia Dillon was not making things easier.
"How bad is the wound, Jim?" Blair noticed Maggie tune in to listen for Jim's answer.
"It's a flesh wound, but she'll need stitches."
"I don't understand why, if it's just a flesh wound, she felt she needed to go to the Garden." Maggie shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around the situation.
"Because her senses were wide open when she was shot--"
"And she doesn't know how to dial it down," Blair interrupted Jim. "Going to the Garden, as you call it, was probably her only defense from the pain."
"Yeah, she was probably in a whole new world of hurt." Jim agreed, looking down at Cecilia, whose eyes were still staring straight ahead. "What about you, Maggie?"
"Yeah, what about you, Maggie? Half an hour ago you were a spontaneous paraplegic, now you're not even so much as stumbling over your feet. Can you explain that?"
"It has to have something to do with Cecilia and her senses, but I don't know what. It was one of the things I wanted to ask you about."
"Has anything like this happened before?" Blair asked.
"Nothing as bad as what happened tonight," she answered.
"C'mon, Maggie, that doesn't answer my question. If you want my help, I need specifics."
"There have been times I felt physical pain when Cecilia has been adversely affected by her senses. The first time was shortly after we hit puberty."
"The sudden activity on the part of the pituitary gland might have had an effect on the bond between you two…." Blair hypothesized more for his benefit than for hers. "Or it could have been the significant increase in estrogen levels."
"So, it's a woman thing?" Jim pulled Blair from his thoughts.
"Well, I hate to say it, man, but women are naturally more psychic than men."
"Gimme a break, Chief."
"You know, there's definitely something behind the whole concept of 'Women's Intuition'." Jim rolled his eyes at Blair's less than scientific hypothesis. "Back at the creek? How did Cecilia react to the gunshot?"
"How do you think she reacted, Sandburg? She was in agony, holding her ears and stumbling around. I practically had to drag her to cover."
"And what about you, man? You couldn't tell she'd been shot? You couldn't smell the blood?"
Jim briefly replayed the scene and shook his head. "I was so focused on locating the shooter that I wouldn't have known if I had been shot."
"Exactly, what?" Maggie had been listening quietly as Blair asked about the shooting at the creek.
"Cecelia's senses were in a state of total immersion. She was being overwhelmed by sensory input, but the most obvious to her at the time was the sound of the gunshot. The combination of the gunshot, which debilitated her hearing, and the rush of adrenaline brought on by the danger, suppressed the knowledge of her injury."
"Is this leading somewhere?" Maggie hoped for a little clarification from Jim.
Ellison cocked his head at Blair, his eyes lighting up with a kernel of understanding. Jim was pretty sure he actually knew where his partner's mental train was headed. "Yeah, I think so."
Blair rolled his eyes in frustration and tried to think of a way to boil it all down for Maggie. "You hear stories all the time about people who suffer serious injuries but they're too high on adrenaline to notice, right?"
"Sure," she shrugged.
"All right, let's assume that if you had been with Cecilia at the creek you probably would have noticed the gunshot wound before she did, given that her sense of hearing was causing her so much trouble."
"It's a likely possibility," she concurred.
"Let's take it a step further and throw in the Sentinel/Guide bond."
"Where does that leave us?"
"Sympathy pains," Jim averred.
"Sympathy pains? Is that what you think that was?" Maggie was quickly reaching her limits of gullibility.
"Well, it's more like empathy pains. I've always thought that the Sentinel/Guide bond had the potential to be an empathic link or even a purely psychic one, but Jim and I have just barely begun to scratch the surface of the spiritual side of the bond. It's seems that while you and Cecilia are way behind on the practical uses of the Sentinel abilities, you're light years ahead of us in terms of spiritual connection."
"So, what happened to me back at the camp?"
"If you think of the bond as a conductor, pain probably passes along the bond much the way electricity does a wire."
"The path of least resistance," Jim provided.
"Right." Blair hands became twin blurs as he talked. "The path to Cecilia was overloaded with sensory stimuli coming in from her ears, so the pain from her wound bypassed her altogether and traveled down the bond to you."
"But my legs weren't in pain, they were just useless."
"Your subconscious probably manifested Cecilia's pain the best way it knew how. Suddenly it occurs to me that an empathic link might not be such a good idea." Blair's eyes rolled over to Jim and then back to Maggie. "I mean, what if you had been with her when this happened? How much good would you have been to your Sentinel with paralyzed legs?"
"We both would have ended up dead," she mused.
"The bond was formed as children, but she never learned how to control her senses because you didn't know how to teach her. In order to help her cope, the bond has taken over most of the work. It's doing things it shouldn't be doing."
"Like when a mind creates multiple personalities to help it deal with trauma." Maggie tried to make a connection with something she could understand.
"It's abuse of the bond, Maggie. Something tells me it was never meant to work this way."
"But you said you thought the Sentinel/Guide link was meant to be psychic."
"If you'd been psychically aware of Cecilia's injury rather than empathically, you would not have been physically affected. You would have been aware of her pain, but not manifesting it."
"How do we fix it?"
"We begin at the beginning. We teach her control. But first, we have to bring her out of this self-induced deep meditative state, if we can.
"I said I can do it."
"I'm not doubting your ability, Maggie, and I'm certainly not questioning the bond. You have to understand that if Cecilia is aware of her injury, even if only on a subconscious level, she may not want to come out. If the Garden is as nice as you've described it, I know I wouldn't, especially if I knew what was waiting for me back here. It may take a little coaxing."
Jim kept one ear open to the subdued conversation going on behind him, and one ear trained to dangers lurking around them. He could feel the deliberate thudding of Cecilia's heart against his skin. His nostrils were filled with the coniferous scents and the familiar aroma of his Guide. As their little caravan trudge through the forest, his visual perspective shifted as the trees cleared to provide him a view.
Jim drew to a halt, causing the conversation behind him to stop as well.
"What is it, Jim?" Blair recognized the expression of wary discovery on the Sentinel's face.
"We're almost there. I can see the caves about four hundred yards up ahead." Jim juggled the incapacitated female in his arms to get a better grip on her.
"Do you need to rest, man?"
"The sooner we get there the sooner I can rest, Sandburg."
The caravan picked up the pace, reaching the outskirts of the cave just a few minutes later. Jim halted once again, his nose lifting, like a bloodhound to catch a scent in the air.
"What do you smell? Filter out the smells of the forest and tell me what doesn't fit."
"I don't know many woodland creatures that wear Blue Velvet, Chief."
"I don't know anybody that wears that Blue Velvet," Blair snorted.
"I think we just found the Dragon's Lair." The tone of Jim's voice had taken on an ominous gravel-like quality, and Blair could see that he was forming a plan.
"Guess who's coming for dinner." Blair knew exactly what Jim was planning. "Our friendly neighborhood operative isn't there now, is he?"
Jim dialed up his hearing for second sense confirmation. "Nope, it's clear."
"Well, you know what they say." Maggie's voice came from the end of the line. "An open door's an invitation."
"And it couldn't get more open," Jim replied with a chuckle as he began moving toward the cave's opening.
Just to be on the safe side, Blair and Maggie drew their weapons and flanked Jim. The Sentinel's eyes were able to adjust to the darkness before Blair was able to retrieve his flashlight from his backpack.
"Well, he obviously wasn't expecting company, Chief. Looks like he forgot to tidy up the place."
Blair twisted the head of the flashlight and focused the beam into the cave. He was unable to believe what his eyes were telling him. Leaning up against the wall of the cave was a veritable arsenal of weaponry. A high powered rifle with a silencer and laser scope. A grenade launcher with two boxes of ammunition. An elephant gun with a complement of tranquilizer darts, and a slew of other weapons that Blair did not have a name for.
"All of this to take down two Sentinels and their unsuspecting Guides," Jim said. "I'm flattered." His lips twisted to match the sarcasm in his tone. He bent down to deposit his precious cargo gently to the ground. Maggie sat Indian style to take Cecilia's head in her lap.
"Hey, Jim," Blair said as a wicked smile crossed his face. "If this guy wants to play a game of hide and seek, whaddya say we give him one?"
"What're you thinking?"
"You know, the Oaxacan Indians believe that if you scatter a warrior's weapons then you scatter his focus. I'm thinking that it's kind of hard to use a weapon, if you can't find it." Blair dropped his backpack and began loading up on firearms. "Hey, Jim, look over here." Blair toed an empty box leaning against the cave wall. "Night vision goggles," he said. "He must be wearing them."
Jim squatted down and flipped the lid from a small wooden crate with the words 'Road Flares' stenciled in black across the top. "Night vision goggles and road flares," Jim mused. "Not a good combination. Here, Chief, put a few of these in your pocket just in case."
Blair found another small crate and clawed the top from it. Examining the contents he let loose a long, low whistle. "Dinner anyone? It's not Emeril Lagassi, but it's edible."
Jim stood over Blair and peered over his partner's shoulder into the box of military issue Meals Ready to Eat. "Well, since our friend made me lose our dinner at the creek, then it's only right he treat us to a meal." Jim studied the contents of the cave one more time, the lines on his face deepening.
"What is it, man?"
"All of this stuff, Chief."
"What do you mean?"
"Take a closer look. What do you see?"
Blair examined each box and weapon individually, dropping the weapons he carried to get a closer look, before he finally saw the same thing Jim had noticed. "The MREs, the grenade launcher, and the grenades -- those are standard U.S. Army issue." Blair picked up an M-16 assault rifle from the ground. "This is marked with the Marine Corps insignia."
"That's not all, Sandburg. The road flares." Jim flipped the top from the box so that it landed bottom up on the ground, making the stenciling visible to Blair's eyes.
"Federal Aviation Authority?"
"Yup. And that rifle with the laser scope. It's got CIA written all over it. And this over here…." Jim knelt to pick up a bulky weapon unlike anything Blair had ever seen before. "I'm not sure the CIA even knows about this."
"What the hell is that thing, Jim?"
"I'm not really sure what it does, and I'm not about to test it, but I think it might be an EMP weapon of some kind."
"Why would someone try to take us out with an Electro Magnetic Pulse?"
"Not us." Maggie's quiet voice came from the corner. "The plane. I've heard that the government has been working on an EMP to use as a soft kill weapon. Something that you can point at an escape vehicle to bring a pursuit quickly to an end, that sort of thing."
"This is no soft kill weapon," Jim announced.
"You're right," Maggie conferred. "But maybe a short concentrated burst from that thing might screw with an aircraft's electrical system long enough to knock it off course."
"Then why bother with the explosives?" Blair stood, crossing his arms.
"Not even a Sentinel can smell an EMP," she said simply enough. "The H-6 was just a breadcrumb, guys."
"And we followed the trail," Jim sighed.
"But wouldn't the EMP have disabled the explosive's detonator?" Blair inquired.
"It would have disabled anything powered by electricity, provided that power was turned on at the time of the burst. Anything with its power off would have been safe. The bomb could have been powered up on a remote just in time to detonate. Or it could have been detonated after the crash itself. Of course," Maggie sighed, "these are just theories."
"This is just way too 'X-Files' for me." Blair rubbed his face with his hands in hopes of wiping away the exhaustion.