Summary: Blair's trip to visit an old friend is interrupted by tragedy and deception. When he finds incriminating evidence against the local police, it's up to Jim to make sure his friend doesn't become gator bait.

Sue would like to thank Shy for needing the help to get this story done (or started or...whatever). It was a blast--as always! Happy Birthday, Bonnie! Now you can't say we never got you anything!!!

Thanks to Sue, my writing buddy. :o) I had this story idea sitting around for over a year (courtesy of Bonnie who really wanted a story with alligators in Florida). Without Sue it wouldn't have been written. And, of course, Happy Birthday, BB. Here's your gift! ~ Shy

Southern Hospitality

Shycat and Sue Pokorny

********************

Donovan Corbitt frantically glanced in the rearview mirror. The cruiser behind him was rapidly accelerating and at its current rate, would soon catch up. The back roads offered little means for escape. The sides of the road were bordered by barbed wire fencing and the occasional oak tree. He could only go straight and hope his Accord could stay ahead of the flashing lights and wailing siren.

He should've known this was going to happen. At least he'd hidden the tape. Once they caught up, though, that really wouldn't matter. His only prayer was that his daughter would be safe. The tape was still in their house, safely tucked away and no one was going to know just where he'd stashed it. Certainly not the people chasing him and definitely not his daughter. If she knew, that would only be placing her life in jeopardy. Should something happen to him, his secret would remain just that... a secret. He only hoped that they didn't search the house or decide Michele knew the tape's whereabouts.

A bullet exploded through the back windshield, shattering glass over the back seat and trunk, spilling shards onto the road. Corbitt flinched and his car swerved. He clenched the wheel tighter, his knuckles whitening from the viselike grip.

The dumb bastards were really going to kill him. His heart and lungs froze with the realization and he almost forgot to breathe. His hands began to tremble on the wheel and he felt cool beads of sweat form along his brow. Another shot rang out and he heard something else shatter, probably the tail light. If he didn't get away, this would be it. He slammed his foot down on the gas pedal, pushing it all the way to the floor. The Accord leaped to one hundred mph then began a gradual ascent in speed.

For a glorious moment, his assailant fell behind. He almost crowed in triumph. Then he glanced in the rearview and blanched. The cruiser had sped up until it was riding his back bumper. Corbitt swallowed as he nervously shot another glance at the rearview mirror. He could see the faces of the driver and passenger--men he thought he'd known. Men he'd once served with and placed his life in the hands of.

His life really was in their hands now. The bad news was, they were likely to crush his life into nonexistence. As long as Michele's life wasn't in their hands....

The cruiser tapped his bumper. He gritted his teeth as his Accord jumped to 120, pushing the vehicle's endurance. The stretch of back road was fast approaching the town limits, which would mean traffic and stop signs, which meant slowing down, which meant he was screwed.

His eyes flew to the rearview again, then widened. Oh shit. Oh shit-oh shit-oh shit.

Scratch that.

He was screwed right now.

The flashing sirens were pulling alongside him, the passenger side window down. A service revolver glistened in the sun and just as Corbitt realized the danger of the weapon, it fired.

Glass sprayed over him as the bullet blazed only inches in front of his face. He jerked the wheel to the right and at the car's ludicrous speed, couldn't maintain control. The car rocketed onto the shoulder of the road. Corbitt's last thought was of his daughter before the Accord barreled into a massive oak tree.

********************

The cruiser squealed to a stop. It did a three-point turn and drove back to where its pursuee was accordioned against the huge oak. Smoke drifted from the crumpled engine compartment obscuring most of the damage. The driver pulled onto the grass beside the totaled car.

"No way he survived that," he muttered.

The younger passenger nodded, staring at the beige wreck through his sunglasses. They got out of the car to inspect the damage up close. The steering column had been shoved back into the body and it was apparent that bones had been shattered. Blood dribbled from the nose and corner of the slightly open lips and the head slumped forward lifelessly. Donovan Corbitt was dead.

"How the hell are we supposed to find the tape in this mess?" The driver gestured in disgust at what had once been a Honda Accord and now looked more like a strange piece of new wave art. He yanked at the crushed back door on the driver's side. It didn't budge. "This is great. This is just great. If he had just pulled over to start with...." He threw a glance at his younger partner. "You shouldn't have shot at him, Jake."

"I thought it might scare him into stopping," Jake replied, calm as always.

The driver rolled his eyes. "Yeah. Well, he stopped all right." He shook his head, as he wondered how things had gone so sour, so fast. The beginnings of a headache throbbed in his temples.

Deputy Jake Daniels stood, arms akimbo, grimly taking in the wreckage. The sun glinted off his dark reflective lenses. "Now what?"

His partner rested a hand on the roof, looking in at the dead man through the cracked window. He thrummed his fingers on the metallic surface. "We're gonna have to call Linden. If that tape isn't in this car, there's only one other place we haven't looked."

"It's risky. You know, if that thing gets out, we're ruined."

Deputy Graham Terrel sighed and closed his eyes, imaging the disaster his life could become. "I know. God do I ever know. Whatever it takes, we're going to find that tape. And I hope to hell no one else gets in our way."

********************

Jim Ellison stepped off the elevator and into the bustle that was the Cascade Police Department. Stepping around a uniformed officer escorting a scantily clad young woman in handcuffs, he made his way down the hallway and through the doors marked Major Crimes.

"Yo, Jim."

Ellison glanced to his left, acknowledging Detective Henri Brown's greeting.

"What's up, H?"

The black detective stood and rounded his desk, a manila file folder in his hand. "Here's the final write up on the Caldwell case. I figured you would want to go over it before we turn it in." He looked behind Jim, his brow furrowing a bit. "Where's your shadow today, man? I figured he'd be here to finish up your paperwork." Henri smiled innocently as he handed the folder to the taller detective.

Jim raised his eyebrows and looked down at Brown. "I'll have you know, Brown, I am capable of doing my own paperwork."

Brown simply shrugged. "I don't doubt that. I just can't figure out why you'd bother when you've got Hairboy to do it for you in half the time. Besides, I know the ladies down in records like his reports a whole lot more than yours."

Jim chuckled at the barb. "Be that as it may, Sandburg has better things to do than hang out with fashion emergencies such as yourself, H."

Henri feigned a wounded expression as he patted his brightly printed shirt and black wool cap. "Well at least I have a style."

Jim smiled. "So that's what you call it, huh?"

He slapped his friend on the shoulder and continued through the bullpen to his desk.

"Nice of you to join us, Detective."

Jim looked up into the familiar face of Captain Simon Banks. "Sorry, Sir. Traffic was a little heavy coming back from the airport."

Simon waved a hand and took a sip of his coffee. "I take it Sandburg's plane took off on schedule?"

Jim took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah. He has a two hour layover in Chicago, then he should be landing in Fort Myers sometime around six tonight. I called ahead and rented him a car so he shouldn't have any problems getting out to Michele's house before dark."

"With Sandburg's sense of direction?"

Jim smiled. "He told me he and Naomi had gone down there almost every summer while he was growing up. He knows the area almost as well as he knows Cascade."

Simon returned the smile. "Jim, this is Sandburg we're talking about."

"I know, Simon, but Blair's a big boy. He can take care of himself." Jim took an appreciative sniff of the aroma emanating from the Captain's cup. "Mmm. Is that a new blend, sir?"

Simon protectively drew his cup close to his chest. "Yes, and no you can't have any."

Jim shrugged a shoulder, trying to hide his disappointment as he pulled out the chair, took a seat and opened the folder.

"Is that the Caldwell file?"

Jim nodded. "Brown just handed it to me. I'll go over it and have it on your desk by noon."

"Good." Simon turned toward his office but stopped suddenly after only a few steps. "Jim, you said you rented Sandburg a car?"

"Yes, Sir."

Simon let out a low chuckle, causing Jim to look up from his desk. "What?"

"Oh, nothing," the captain said innocently. "Just tell me you got the full insurance coverage on it this time."

Jim gave him a reassuring smile. "Simon, this is Sandburg we're talking about."

********************

Blair hadn't been in Caloosa for thirteen years, back when he was fifteen. He and Naomi had come here almost every year, soaking up the small town atmosphere. He'd met plenty of people here, but no one quite like Michele. They'd stayed with Michele and her father, Donovan, when they'd come visiting. It'd been years since he'd seen her last, but they'd never failed to keep in touch--whether it be by phone, letter, or eventually, email. She was younger than him by two years and Blair found himself falling into 'big brother' mode with her, despite knowing she was fully capable of taking care of herself. She'd proven it particularly when she'd enrolled in the police academy--following in her father's footsteps--after deciding college life held no interest for her.

Still, despite her independent nature, there was no way she could handle herself right now. When he had gotten her phone call two days ago, Blair hadn't even hesitated. Michele needed him more than ever. Her father had died in a car wreck and by the way she talked, it sounded like a freak accident. His death hadn't even been in the line of duty. He could only imagine what she must be going through. If he lost Naomi so suddenly, he had no idea how he'd take it. Definitely not very well. He knew Michele and her dad were very close, possibly even more so than he and Naomi.

Blair realized just how bad of shape Michele was in when he told her he was flying out to Florida to see her. She'd protested weakly at best and her voice had wavered. That wasn't the strong, stubborn nature he had come to associate her with and within the hour he had his plane ticket. The next day he called Rainier to have his classes covered and Jim offered to help him pack while Blair regaled him with stories of his childhood in Caloosa.

Caloosa was, as the local newspaper had once put it, a "piece of the Old South in the center of the tourist industry." Michele often kidded about it, usually throwing in references to rednecks, country music, and Stetsons and Wranglers. Big things, she'd said and Blair knew she wasn't joking about that. After all, he'd been there before.

He talked about days of walking the small town, population of 2,000 (last he heard it had increased to 3,000), playing baseball and football in empty cow pastures, fishing in the Caloosahatchee river which bordered the town, sneaking onto orange groves to pick oranges, and stopping in at the local ice cream churn. One great thing about the SouthWest Florida town was that during the summer months, when he and Naomi had usually visited, there was never a single cool day. Luxuries like ice cream floats and sundaes were a regular event as was swimming in the pool at the local YMCA center. It wasn't an eventful town, but for adventurous kids such as Blair and Michele, fun was easily found.

Jim commented that it sounded like the perfect life and Blair had to admit that it really had been. A part of him wished Naomi had stayed in Caloosa--that she and Donovan Corbitt could've developed a relationship that extended beyond friendship. But for a police officer and a person who had spent the 60's in and out of jail, it was nearly impossible. In fact, Blair had learned to start packing up his stuff by what he called his Naomi-Donovan gauge. When they started arguing, it was time to head out.

Jim laughed at that, stating it sounded just like Naomi.

It was very Naomi, Blair agreed. Maybe that wasn't so bad though. He may have never come back to Cascade if she'd ever settled down. In which case he may have never found Jim. He liked his life in the here and now. There wasn't anything he would trade it for.

Jim didn't really say anything to that, just smiled knowingly and folded another one of Blair's shirts to pack into the suitcase.

Blair's reverie was cut short as he came up on a canopied curve. He remembered this sharp curve clearly and how easy it was to run off the road if one drove too fast. Further down, approximately a mile away, was another curve, just past Michele's house. It was a larger, banked stretch that had been dubbed 'SlaughterHouse Curve' due to the slaughterhouse that had once been located on the back road behind it. Michele had told him several stories about SlaughterHouse. People didn't take the curve's angle seriously and had a tendency to fly around it. On one occasion a car had lost control when coming around the bend and had run off the road, ramming into the telephone pole that was just to the side of the lane running back to the Corbitt's house. Several other times, vehicles had run into their mailbox, which was placed just opposite of the lane. Michele had expressed her frustration at this, as her dad was getting sick of buying new mailboxes.

Blair remembered SlaughterHouse very well and just how dangerous it really was. In addition to the angle, there was the fact that the lane to Michele's house was right after the curve. Anyone going to her house from Caloosa would come around SlaughterHouse and have to slow down immediately. But as Michele had recounted at one time, not everyone else understood that a left turn signal meant the driver was getting ready to turn. She had once slowed down to turn with her signal on, and the person behind her had chosen that exact moment to pass. That had been a close call as the other driver had only clipped her bumper and knocked it off. Nothing more serious than that. Still, it showed just what a hazard it was driving in this area.

Less than a minute later he was approaching the turn into the lane leading back to the Corbitt's home and immediately beyond that, SlaughterHouse. He turned right onto the Sabal Palm bordered lane. Donovan had loved plants and over the years had taken the time to plant palm trees around the front of his house and along the side of the 200 foot lane that ran up to and circled an oversized oval-shaped flower garden. The four acre plot of land was littered with oak trees and various types of palms. On the right side of the garden sat the creme-colored one story house, bordered with palms, flowers, and bushy plants.

Blair pulled his dark green Ford Tempo in front of a solitary Cabbage Palm. He turned off the engine and sat in silence, collecting himself for the reunion. Michele was expecting him, but she didn't know exactly what time. She'd told him where he could find the spare key to the house if she wasn't home, but the red Neon sitting on the other side of the Cabbage Palm indicated that she was here. So all he had to do was get out of the car and walk up to the back door (frequent visitors never used the front door) and knock. Theoretically, it was simple, but now that he was here, it seemed daunting somehow.

It had been so long since he'd last seen Michele and now here he was, about to console her for the sudden loss of her father. This went beyond surreal. He sighed and rested his hands on the wheel, mentally collecting himself.

"I can do this, I can do this," he muttered. "Get out of the car and go up there."

So he did. He knocked on the back door, then stood still, listening to the sounds of shuffling inside the house. The door was opened and on the other side stood Michele Corbitt, a pretty twenty-six year old brunette, looking a lot more grown up than Blair remembered. Her brown eyes widened and jaw dropped. He could feel a similar expression on his face when he saw the adult version of his childhood friend.

"Blair! Oh my god!" She opened her arms wide and Blair took her in an enveloping hug. "I can't believe you're really here!"

"Michele," he said, squeezing her for all he was worth. "Man, it's good to see you."

She pulled back and he looked into her eyes. A tentative smile graced her lips, but her eyes were sad, almost on the brink of filling with tears. "I'm so glad you came. The rest of the family won't be here until Saturday and I just couldn't spend two more days by myself. This has been a waking nightmare, Blair."

"I'm here for you," he told her. "You helped me out when we were kids. Let's just call it returning a favor."

She smiled grimly. "Sounds fair to me. Do you need help with your bags?"

He waved off to the side. "Nah. I only brought one suitcase. It should only take a minute to get."

She nodded and he could see a measure of relief wash over her. This was good for her, having something to do so she wouldn't have to think about her father's death yet. "The guest bedroom should be all set up. It's the one you slept in when you and Naomi were visiting."

"Great. Familiar territory. I'll be right back with my stuff." He left her at that, collected his suitcase from the trunk and returned in a total of two minutes.

Michele refreshed his memory, directing him to the guest bedroom and he sat his suitcase on the full sized bed. He turned to find her leaning against the doorframe watching him, a small smile playing on her lips.

"You haven't changed a bit, Blair."

He returned the smile, absently shoving a strand of hair behind his ear. "Neither have you."

There was a moment of awkward silence before Michele pushed herself upright and clapped her hands together.

"I'll bet you're hungry, right? I'll make some sandwiches. How does turkey sound to you?"

"Sounds good." He nodded at her.

Their eyes locked and he almost said something else. He wanted to say something comforting, but kept his mouth shut and turned away instead. He listened to her turn and leave and remained standing in front of his closed suitcase, wondering what he could say to ease her pain. He dropped his head and squeezed his eyes shut. No use standing in here. Might as well give her a hand.

He joined her in the kitchen and together they put together turkey sandwiches and she retrieved two cans of Pepsi from the refrigerator. They sat at the table and ate in companionable silence. It felt almost as if they had not been apart for thirteen years. When they were kids, life had been a big game to them and death was just a curiosity that happened to other people. Only death was now very much a reality, in both of their worlds. Michele's father had been a police officer and now she was following behind, intent on taking up the reins in his place. Blair was a consultant to the department and knew death intimately in its numerous forms. Death wasn't much of a curiosity anymore and life was anything but a game. That was the sad truth Blair had subconsciously known for a long time, but until now, would not admit to himself.

After he'd eaten three-fourths of his sandwich, Blair decided to jump right to the heart of the matter. "How are you doing financially?"

Michele shrugged, staring at her barely eaten sandwich. "Not too bad, I guess. I have an income, meager as it is. Plus dad's life insurance covers all of the funeral costs. The family is going to help me out. One of the perks of making sure you go to all the family reunions." She glanced up at him and gave him a lopsided smile.

Blair smiled back, meaning it as more of a reassurance. His tone softened even more. "How are you doing emotionally?"

The smile fell from her face and she fidgeted with the sandwich, finally setting it down on the paperplate. She propped an elbow on the wooden surface of the table and rested her head in her hand. "I didn't get much sleep last night. Too busy crying. Right now I just feel numb, like there isn't much left for me to feel." She shook her head and her lips trembled. "I don't get it, Blair. He didn't even die in the line of duty. It was just some freak accident. He ran into a tree in the middle of nowhere, for crying out loud. How the hell do you do something like that?"

Her beseeching eyes rose to meet his. Blair immediately sat his sandwich down and rose from his chair. He moved beside her and lowered himself to embrace her. She clung to him fiercely as if he were her only anchor to the world. Her body began to shake and quietly she began to cry, her hot tears seeping through his t-shirt. His chest felt like it had been excavated and where his heart had once been was an aching hollow.

"It's okay," he murmured into her hair. "It'll be all right."

"I miss him so much," she sobbed. "Why did this have to happen? It just can't be real. I'm going to wake up and it'll all be a nightmare. This can't be real."

Blair swallowed and closed his eyes, wishing for all the world he could tell her that it was just a bad dream. His mind flitted to Naomi and Jim and he thought what it would feel like to lose them. He almost jerked when the weight of it settled onto him and he hastily shoved it from his mind. This kind of loss was too close, too real. His grip on her tightened and he willed his strength into her body, anything to help her get through this.

********************

Blair woke up and looked around his surroundings--pale white walls, small dresser, and a night stand with a twenty dollar lamp and a digital alarm clock sitting on it. For several seconds none of it registered. Finally, it sank in. He was in Caloosa, Florida, staying at Michele's house to help her get through her father's funeral. The clock read 8:49, much later than he typically slept, but he and Michele had been up late last night, talking.

It had been cleansing for her and he was sure that when she went to bed she would sleep much better than she had the night before. He rolled out of bed, then browsed through his suitcase, deciding on a pair of jeans and one of his loose wildly patterned button-down shirts that Jim called his "neo-hippie fashion line." He grabbed his travel case and went into the bathroom with his belongings.

Fifteen minutes later he emerged, curls kinked up from the dampness and feeling refreshed. He wandered into the kitchen and noticed a piece of paper on the table that hadn't been there yesterday. He picked it up, eyes scanning over the writing. It was from Michele.

Blair,
Had to run into town to do a few errands. I should be back around noon at the very latest. Help yourself to whatever's in the fridge. You can use the computer to check your mail if you want or watch TV. Just stay out of trouble!

Love, Michele

He fingered the note, affection warming him. How could something so bad happen to such a nice person? It happened all the time, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Maybe he could drop into the local florist a little later on and get her a bouquet of flowers. It might not take away the pain, but it might ease it some. He set the note back on the table and decided to find himself some breakfast.

He spent the next few hours walking around the four-acre yard, admiring the tropical plantlife and the 4,000 square foot garden that came with a greater collection of vegetation than he could ever recall seeing in Cascade alone. He went back inside the house, flipping through channels and checking his email at one point. Constantly, he kept an eye on the wall clock in the living room. It was just after twelve when Blair heard the squeal of tires, followed by the grisly crunch of metal. The sound was distant, as if it had come from the road running perpendicular to the driveway. He ran out the front door from the living room and could immediately see where the lane met the highway. He stopped in his tracks and his breath caught in his throat.

Oh God. It couldn't be possible. Down at the front of the lane, wrapped around a telephone pole, was a red Neon. Michele's red Neon. He stumbled forward, unable to grasp the significance of what he was seeing. 911, he had to call 911. He raced into the house, tripping in his rush to get a phone. He grabbed a cordless and dialed the number as he dashed out of the house and ran the distance of the lane. In a rush of breath, he gave the operator what information he could. It took too long to reach her car and when he did, he staggered back, nausea threatening to overwhelm his stomach. Seeing his friend's mangled body was almost too much for him to bear. His knees nearly gave out on him.

"Michele, no," he whispered hoarsely. "No, no, no. There's no way."

He tugged at the crushed car door. It didn't budge. He futiley yanked at it again and yelled out in frustration, fighting the urge to kick it. Instead, he went to each door, struggling with each one, succeeding in opening none. The frame was too badly damaged. He ran shaky hands through his hair, struggling with his emotions. This was too much, too uncanny. First her father was killed in a car wreck, now she was in one? What were the odds?

As he went over the car, trying to find a way to pull Michele out, he heard the wail of sirens quickly approaching in the distance. He stepped away from the Neon and looked in the direction of SlaughterHouse. A sherrif's department cruiser swooped around the curve, its blue lights flashing. It braked to a quick stop and swerved into the lane, to the right of where Blair was standing beside the demolished car.

Blair watched as the police officers got out of their vehicle, his hands in his hair again. He silently admonished himself to get a grip. He'd have plenty of time to break down later. These men needed him calm and together right now. Calm and together. Yeah. He could do that. Calm and together.

The middle-aged man who had been driving spoke to Blair, but his eyes were on the Neon. "I'm Officer Graham Terrel and this is Officer Jacob Daniels--"

Before Terrel could go further into his spiel, Blair interrupted, nodding his head quickly and gesturing wildly to dismiss everything the officer had just said. He didn't care about formalities. The only thing he cared about right now was his trapped friend. "Michele's still stuck in the car. I tried to get her out, but the doors are all jammed. You've gotta try to get her out. I don't know if she's even alive. She has to be alive. She can't be dead."

Dnaiels and Terrel exchanged looks. Daniels' was hidden by his sunglasses, but Terrel's was oddly uneasy. They approached the battered car, trying to open the doors. Neither had any luck.

He buried his face in his hands, reminding himself to keep calm. However, maintaining self-control had just lost all its appeal for him. Michele's battered body burned in his mind and a quiet moan escaped from his lips. Calm and together, he thought sarcastically. Right.

He recognized Terrel's gruffer voice addressing Daniels. "We could break in the windows, but that wouldn't get us anywhere. There's no way we can remove her body without the ambulance. Looks like all we can do right now is wait."

Blair felt a hand on his shoulder and he lowered his hands. Terrel was giving him a sympathetic look. "Son, there's nothing we can do right now." He turned to his partner. "Daniels, get on the CB. Tell them we need a rescue unit in here. The victim is trapped inside the vehicle."

His younger partner nodded and went back to the car to do as told.

"What's your name, son?" he asked gently. Blair had heard this tone used before on victims. It was used more as a distraction than anything else. Not that it really mattered at this point. His brain felt like it had been injected with novocaine.

"Blair Sandburg. She's my friend." He waved a hand back at the car without looking. He had absolutely no desire to look at that car and see her broken body.

"What's the victim's name?" Terrel asked gently, keeping his hand on Blair's shoulder.

"Michele. Michele Corbitt. She lives in that house back there. I was staying with her." He winced as the irony dawned on him once again. "Her dad was just killed in a car wreck a couple days ago. I came out to help her through the funeral."

The hand dropped from his shoulder and Blair looked up. The officer was looking down at him with steel eyes. "Michele Corbitt? Donovan Corbitt's daughter?"

Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "You know them?" Then his brow furrowed as he thought about it. "Yeah, I guess you would. He's a cop, too. You must've worked with him."

Terrel nodded. "I did. He was a good man, Don was, but...." He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

"What happened?" Blair demanded, hating the fear pooling in his gut, adding to the dread already collected there.

"I guess Michele might've had a suspicion. She was probably really upset." He gazed at the mangled Neon and shook his head sadly. "Poor girl. I knew her. Sweet as could be. She didn't deserve this."

Blair shook his head, bewildered despite himself. He felt like he'd just taken a sudden departure into the Twilight Zone. "I don't understand. What are you talking about? Upset about what?"

"Her daddy." Terrel stepped in closer to Blair and dropped his voice down as if to avoid eavesdroppers. "We have reason to believe he was involved in something illegal."

"Illegal?" Blair felt the world dropping out from beneath him. "Don?"

"We've been trying to nail him for some time, find evidence to convict him, but haven't had any luck."

The blood drained from Blair's face. "That can't be." He shook his head. "Don wasn't like that."

"Mr. Sandburg, he was a really nice man, but he was having financial problems and desperate people do dumb things. Do you know anything about it at all? I know you don't want to smear his name, but this is important. If he has any evidence, it could help us convict anyone else involved."

Blair shook his head numbly. Everything sounded muffled and the world faded into a dull gray. "Michele never said anything. I just got here yesterday."

The ambulance howled around the corner, followed by a rescue unit several seconds later, drawing the attention of the three men standing by the wreck. Both pulled next to the police car and the paramedics and rescue personnel raced out. Blair watched quietly as they worked, attempting to save his friend. After what seemed like an eternity, Michele's body was removed from the car and laid out on the grassy area beside the driveway. The medics worked on her body, performing CPR, careful of the already sustained injuries. It went on for far too long, but before anyone said anything, Blair knew that it was a lost cause. If they couldn't revive her here they didn't stand a chance. The nearest hospital was forty-five minutes away.

One of the medics looked up and met Blair's eyes. He shook his head.

No, Blair thought. Oh God no. Please, not her. She didn't deserve this. He ran a hand along his face, forcing back the tears. He sniffled and wiped at his nose.

"I'm sorry," he apologized to whoever might be listening.

"That's okay, son," Terrel said. "Let's take you back to the house so you can rest."

Blair nodded, too tired to do anymore. He stared dumbly at the phone still held in his hand. He hadn't even realized he'd been holding it the entire time.

"Get in the back of our car and we'll drive you back up so you don't have to walk all that way."

Blair agreed and Terrel and Daniels drove him back to Michele's house. They followed him through the back door into the kitchen and Terrel sat him at the table, while Daniels removed the sunglasses he'd been wearing and tucked them in his pocket. Blair set the cordless down and barely even registered Daniels picking it up and leaving the kitchen. He stared at the table, not seeing its oak surface, but Michele's twisted body, bloody and lifeless, never to cry or smile again.

"I understand what a shock this is for you, son, and I hate to ask you these kind of questions right after this tragedy, but I need you to think. Can you at least try to do that for me?"

"Yeah," Blair agreed roughly, unable to meet Terrel's gaze.

"When did you arrive here?"

"Um, about seven p.m. yesterday. I arrived at the Fort Myers airport around six and already had a car at the rental agency. I drove straight here."

"And she didn't mention there being any kind of trouble at all?"

Blair shook his head, folding his hands on the table. "No. Nothing. All I know is that Mr. Corbitt wrecked out on one of the back roads and it was a freak accident. She didn't mention anything about either one of them being in any kind of trouble."

"Will you be staying in town for an extended period of time?"

Blair shrugged, twiddling his thumbs. "I'll call my friend, I guess. I should at least stay for the funerals and to help the family out when they get here. It's the least I can do."

"That's good of you, son." Terrel retrieved a card from his shirt pocket. and placed it on the table in front of Blair. "This is my desk number at the station in Caloosa. If you think of anything else, don't hesitate to give me a call."

He looked up suddenly to his left and Blair saw him nod slightly. Craning his neck, Blair noticed Daniels standing in the entrance to the kitchen. He quickly placed his dark glasses on his face in a smooth, practiced motion.

"We need to get a move on." Terrel patted Blair's shoulder. "My condolences are with you, Mr. Sandburg."

He moved to the door, Daniels moving behind him, then both of the officers were gone. Just like that. Blair drew in a shivering breath. Now what was he going to do?

********************

It took the increasingly loud rumbling of his stomach to bring Blair back to reality. After the officers had left, he had poured himself a cup of coffee and sat back down at the large oak table in the kitchen. Memories of Michele and their times together filtered through his head, punctuated by the nightmare of blood and twisted metal he had witnessed down the road. God, he missed her.

Even though they hadn't really spent much time together in the last ten years, they had always managed to keep in touch. They had always been a part of each others lives. Now he felt like his heart had been ripped out. Michele had been the closest thing to a sister he had ever had.

He knew he should pull himself together. There were things to do and people to call. Michele had shown him a list of the people whom she had contacted about her father's funeral. He should call her uncle and let him know what had happened. He stared at the dark liquid in the cup, not able to find the energy to move.

Why her? Why Michele? As if losing her father wasn't enough. Blair took a deep breath and raised the cup to his lips. Thinking like that was not going to accomplish anything. He sipped the coffee, surprised to find it tepid and glanced at the clock above the sink.

5:20.

His eyes widened in shock at the amount of time that had passed since the officers had left. It had been barely 1:00 when the squad car had pulled out of the drive. He had been sitting there for nearly four hours.

Pushing the chair back, he rose and crossed to the sink. Pouring the untouched coffee down the drain, he rinsed the cup and placed it in the drainer before turning and making his way to the living room. He stood in the doorway, arms wound tightly around his torso, trying to decide on a course of action.

He should call someone.

Naomi?

When he had attempted to get a hold of her after Michele had called about her father, she had been unreachable. He had left a message, but did not anticipate hearing from her until she returned from her retreat in Big Sur.

Jim?

He checked the clock again, realizing it would be early afternoon on the west coast. Jim was probably out working on a case and Blair had no desire to bother him at the station. He would call him later, after the detective returned home.

That left Michele's uncle.

Moving to the small desk, he sorted through the various papers, looking for the list of names and numbers he knew was there. As he searched, he tried to think of what to tell the man who had just lost his brother and now his niece. The sights and sounds of the accident kept tumbling around inside his head as he attempted to make sense of the tragedy.

"We have reason to believe he was involved in something illegal."

The memory of the deputy's words leaped suddenly into his mind.

"... we've been trying to nail him for some time, find evidence to convict him..."

He shook his head to clear his thoughts. It was ludicrous. Donovan Corbitt a dirty cop? That was no more likely than... Jim being dirty. Don Corbitt had always been an honest man. That was why he had cared so much about him and Naomi. He had always been trying to convince her that not all policemen were--as she put it--pigs. That some really were in it to protect and serve.

Naomi never quite bought into his pitch, but Blair had always trusted the man. Maybe it was the naivete of a child, or maybe it was simple instinct, but Blair knew Donovan Corbitt would never break the laws he so honorably swore to uphold.

He returned his attention to the desktop, his eyes roaming across the clutter of papers and envelopes. His eyes narrowed in suspicion as he took in the mess. Michele had always been such a neat freak. Everything in its proper place. She even rivaled Jim in her need for order and cleanliness. To leave the desktop in such disarray would be completely against her nature. Blair realized the woman had just lost her father, but everything else in the house was immaculate and in its proper place. The magazines on the coffee table were stacked neatly, the dishes were all put away. Even the shoes lining the back entry way were lined up in a neat and orderly row.

Blair took a step back and looked at the haphazard array of items strewn across the desktop. It almost looked as if someone had been hurriedly going through things, searching....

Blair's head came up as his suspicion sharpened. The deputy. What was his name? Daniels! Yes, Daniels. Blair remembered seeing Terrel give him a nod as he came back into the kitchen from the living room. But what would he have been looking for?

"We have reason to believe he was involved in something illegal."

Pieces of a puzzle began to fit together. The deputy had alluded to some sort of evidence. They had probably wanted to search the house, but didn't want to do it in front of Blair. But what could they possibly find? There was no way Donovan Corbitt was dirty. Blair had no doubts about that. Then what the hell could the deputies have been trying to find?

********************

It was nearly two hours later when the answer to that question became apparent. Having worked long enough with Jim to understand when pieces of a puzzle don't quite add up, Blair had decided to conduct a search of his own. At first he felt like a thief, trespassing in the home of his friends, but soon he convinced himself that something was not quite right.

First Don is killed in a freak accident, then Michele just a few days later. The local cops show up minutes after he placed a call to 911 and then they make references to Corbitt being dirty. No. It didn't add up at all.

He started in the kitchen and worked his way to the bedrooms, finally ending his search in the main bathroom. He had watched enough searches conducted at crime scenes to know where to look for hidden evidence, but was still surprised when he removed the lid of the toilet tank and saw the plastic bundle lying at the bottom. Reaching into the cold water, he retrieved the bundle and sat down on the seat to inspect his find.

The item was wrapped in waterproof plastic and covered in duct tape. Underneath that was another plastic bag which, when opened, revealed a black VCR tape. His brow furrowed in confusion. Blair made his way to the living room where the entertainment center was set opposite the plush blue furniture. The tapes on top had also been gone through he noted. Several had been drawn out from where they'd been neatly stacked in a row and were no longer flush with the rest. He pushed the tape into the slot on the VCR. Grabbing the remote from the top of the television, Blair hit the power for the set and took a step back. Pressing play, his eyes became glued to the scene transpiring on the screen.

There were five men present in the video. Two, Blair recognized as the deputies who had responded this afternoon. The man in front of them was also dressed in a uniform with the word "Sheriff" emblazoned on the sleeve. Blair stood transfixed as he watched the obvious exchange of a briefcase full of money and another filled with white plastic packages that could only be drugs. Both of the other men were Hispanic, but Blair did not recognize either of them. His heart stopped as one of the deputies, Daniels, looked straight into the camera for a moment, surprise flittering across his face, before being replaced by obvious anger. After that, the picture suddenly stopped, filling the screen with white snow.

Blair stared at the screen for a few more minutes, trying to put some sense to what he had just seen. The deputies were looking for evidence all right. But not to convict Corbitt. Don must have suspected something and followed them to the drug buy. The surprise on Daniels' face, followed by the look of rage, made the possibility of a sting operation unlikely. The deputy had definitely been angry and the abruptness of the ending indicated that whomever had been filming the scene, had not wanted to be noticed.

But if Donovan had taped this, and Daniels had seen him....

Blair's heart slammed against his ribs as the reality hit home. They had seen him. They knew he had taped the drug buy. His car hitting a tree in the middle of nowhere--it was no accident. And if Don's death hadn't been an accident, then Michele....

Oh, God.

Grabbing the phone he quickly dialed the number, waiting impatiently for the phone to be picked up on the other end.

"Major Crimes, Ellison."

"Jim! Man am I glad you're there."

"Hey, Sandburg. How's life in the Sunshine State?"

"Jim, I think something's going on down here. I don't think Don's death was an accident and now Michele's dead and--"

"Whoa, whoa, Chief. Calm down." Jim interrupted, his voice rising as he attempted to break through his partner's ramblings.

"Jim, man, I don't know what to do here. I think Donovan saw something that got him killed."

"What? Blair, just slow down and tell me what's going on."

Blair took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before explaining. His voice broke as he told Jim about the crash and Michele's death, but the anger seeped back in when he explained about the tape and his suspicions about the accidents.

Jim was silent for a few moments after Blair finished. "Blair, are you sure about all this?"

"Look, Jim. I've been around you long enough to--"

"Blair!" Jim interrupted. "Chief, I believe you. Where are you now?"

"At Michele's."

There was another stretch of silence, before the detective spoke again. "What's that noise?"

Blair listened, but heard nothing except the slight static of the phone line.

"Sandburg. I want you to get out of the house. Go somewhere safe and contact me as soon as you can."

Blair pushed his hair back from his face and walked to the window. He moved the curtains a few inches and peered out into the semidarkness. "Where am I gonna go, man? To the police?" He gave a hollow laugh. "That'd be a good idea. I'm okay here, Jim. I can see anyone approaching the house and--"

"Listen to me, Chief. Get out of the house."

"But, I can't just leave--"

"Sandburg! Move it. Take the tape and get somewhere safe. Call me back as soon as you can." Jim's tone left no room for argument and Blair sighed, realizing that even across an entire country, it was a fight he would not win.

"Okay, okay. I'm gone."

"Good. And Blair?"

Blair paused as the voice became softer. "Yeah?"

"Watch your back, buddy."

Blair swallowed hard and nodded, knowing his partner couldn't see it, but not trusting his voice to speak. He replaced the receiver on the cradle and popped the tape from the VCR, carefully wrapping d it back in the plastic bag. Grabbing his jacket, he stuffed the tape in his pocket and made his way through the kitchen. With a last look around, he slipped out the back door.

********************

"Damn!" Terrel slammed the headphones down, causing the younger deputy to jump.

"What?"

Terrel gave him a disgusted look. "That Sandburg kid found the tape."

Daniels nodded, little emotion showing on his face. "So we get it back from him."

Terrel shook his head. "He called some cop named Ellison. It wasn't local, but the kid spilled everything. He thinks we killed Don to get the tape."

"That was an accident. He should have just pulled over and we could have worked everything out."

Terrel snorted. "But he didn't. And now he's dead. And his daughter is dead, too."

"But we didn't have anything to do with that!"

"Didn't we? According to the reports her brake line failed. Kind of a coincidence that the brakes just failed like that, don't you think?"

Daniels tilted his head toward him. "You think the sheriff had something to do with it?"

Terrel rubbed a hand over his face. "I don't know. This is all getting out of hand. Now we have some kid involved and out of town cops. This is not what I signed up for, Daniels."

"What do you want to do?"

Terrel thought hard for a moment. "Let's go after the kid. Maybe we can talk him into giving the tape up so no one else has to get hurt."

Daniels turned his head and gazed out the window of the cruiser. They had parked around SlaughterHouse Curve, out of sight of the Corbitt house, but still within range of the listening device he had planted in the cordless phone earlier that afternoon. "He knows what's on the tape, Graham. We can't let him talk to anyone else."

Terrel nodded sadly and started the car. He exchanged a long look with his partner before shifting into drive and pulling onto the road.

********************

Blair glanced nervously in the rearview mirror, careful to keep most of his attention on the narrow road. He was approaching the bridge bordering the town when he noticed the set of headlights behind him. The vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed and was closing the distance between itself and the rental car quickly.

Blair swallowed hard, telling himself not to panic. There was a small park just across the river that most of the local drunks used to hang out in. If he could make it there, he could blend in. He would be safe in town in the daylight, but he didn't really want to risk it at night. Caloosa was a quiet town that normally closed up after dark. There were a few bars that remained open, but for the most part the residents kept to themselves and seldom ventured out at night.

Another glance into the mirror showed the vehicle gaining, with no signs of slowing down. Blair unconsciously stepped harder on the gas, shifting his attention between the road and the headlights now glaring in the rear view mirror. Chancing a quick look over his shoulder, Blair was alarmed to see the row of blue lights come alive on top of the vehicle behind him. As his car approached the bridge, he accelerated, hoping to make it across and to the park before the cruiser could catch up with him.

A loud pop was followed immediately by a pull to the right as the steering wheel slipped through Blair's hands. Grabbing at the wheel, he took his foot off the accelerator with every intention of stomping down on the brake.

He never had the chance.

The sickening sound of wood splintering was followed by a hoarse scream as the rental car broke through the wooden side rails of the bridge and plummeted the twenty feet to the dark water below. The loud crash was followed by an incessant ringing in his ears. He felt nothing at first, body and mind still trying to play catch up with reality.

Blair was shocked into awareness as the cold water began to fill the interior of the car. Frantically, he pushed at the driver's door which was already partially submerged and being held shut by the current. He grabbed for the window handle, thanking every deity he could remember that he had actually gotten a model with a crank window instead of the electric kind. As the window wound slowly down, the water began to spill in through the opening, causing the car to sink more rapidly. With a tremendous effort, Blair pulled himself through the window, desperately paddling away from the car as it was sucked under the dark water. The undertow snagged at him like a pair of powerful, invisible hands. He had time for one brief, surprised gasp before he was tugged beneath the chill current. He kicked his legs with an almost inhuman strength, panic and adrenaline his driving source. It seemed like he kicked far too long before his head broke the surface of the water and he drew in a gasping, greatful breath.

He paddled away from the car and when he felt he was safe from any further danger, turned and watched as the last of the rental car disappeared under the water. The bubbles rose in a fury, finally stopping as the car came to a rest on the bottom before all was still. A voice from the bridge above broke through the silence.

"Where is he? Can you see him?"

Blair quickly turned toward the shore. There was a faint amount of light from the moon and his eyes were drawn to a small package bobbing gracefully in the water.

The tape!

Quietly, he swam in the direction of the tape, breathing a sigh of relief as his hand closed around the small package. At least he hadn't lost it. Donovan and Michele had given their lives for this. He was going to get it to someone who would know what to do with it. It was the least he could do for his friends.

A beam of light shot out across the water and Blair instinctively ducked down so only the top of his face and head was visible above the water. He could hear the voices of the two deputies on the bridge arguing where to shine the light. He slowly moved, careful to make as little noise as possible so he did not draw their attention.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a hint of movement in the water. His heart jumped into his throat as a patch of moonlight on the water silhouetted the shape of a large alligator moving gracefully toward him. The gator was still a ways off and Blair was torn between making a mad dash for the shore and trying not to give away his position.

Slowly, he backed up toward the shore, his attention focused warily on the large animal floating toward him. "Nice gator," he whispered. "Just relax. We'll all just relax here."

He tried to recall everything he'd ever read about alligators and one thing that jumped to mind was their natural fear of humans unless provoked. He darted an anxious glance at the bubbles where his rented car went down. Well, there was the provocation. Maybe if he just stayed real still it would decide he wasn't worth the effort.

A second shape moved into view, even larger than the first by a foot. Blair watched, enraptured as it swam silently toward the first gator which remained subbornly focused on him. Its massive jaws hinged open wide, revealing a row of sharp teeth and before Blair could shout out in surprise, it attacked the first gator.

The combatants rolled together, muscular tails slapping the water as they snapped at each other with their powerful jaws. Blair wheeled back, desperate to put distance between himself and the lethal fight. The fierce growls and splashing brought the attention of the deputies who filled the area with light just as the gators slipped beneath the surface once again.

Blair wasted no more time. He quickly swam to shore and pulled himself up onto the muddy bank. Pausing only a moment to catch his breath, he looked back toward the water, only to find the gators both gone and the beam of light playing over the surface where they had been only moments ago.

"Shit, Jake! Do you think they got him?"

"They got something. Let's call it in."

Blair swallowed hard and let himself breathe a sigh of relief. They hadn't seen him. He lowered his head, not bothering to wipe away the drenched curls that clung to his face. He needed to keep moving, but had no idea where to go from here. He had been forced to swim to the opposite bank from the town. Of course he could simply across the river and slip into Caloosa unseen, but another confrontation with the Florida gator population was not high on his agenda at the moment. Raising his head, he forced himself to control his frantic breathing and pushed himself to his knees. He couldn't see much in the darkness, but he knew he had to move before reinforcements arrived.

Clutching the tape close to his chest, he pushed himself onto wobbly legs and, forcing his way between the thick reeds along the bank, dashed into the darkness.

********************

Blair wasn't exactly sure where he was going. He just knew that he had been walking for far too long, was soaking wet, and emotionally and physically drained. He couldn't chance crossing the bridge into Caloosa right now and he didn't have any money or a car. If he could find a phone he could call Jim, but what would he do in the mean time? The tape was folded in his arms as if it were a priceless artwork and shivers wracked him, despite the warm night air. The thickets snagged his clothes and he didn't even want to think about the nocturnal life slinking about.

Raccoons and possums definitely; but Michele had also told him about poisonous snakes. Some of the deadliest, in fact: rattlers, moccasins, and coral snakes. Then there were stray dogs. Large stray dogs, the type he really didn't want to run into, much less in the dark. Then there were the alligators.

At the last thought, his gaze darted around anxiously. He'd had more than his fair share of alligators for the rest of his natural life. He had always wanted to visit one of the numerous gator farms that littered South Florida, but his recent encounter with the Florida native had been just a little too up close and personal for his taste, thank you very much.

Something in the bushes rustled and he froze, clenching the tape harder and praying to his list of deities to protect him. He really didn't want to be eaten alive all alone in the middle of nowhere. Actually, he didn't want to be eaten alive anywhere. The rustling ceased and after a few minutes of bated breaths, he decided it was safe to move again.

He'd been in tight situations like this before, but none had ever left him feeling quite so alienated. He was all the way across the entire country from Jim, in a small town an hour from the nearest city. If he'd at least had his car, the situation wouldn't seem so desperate, but it was lying at the bottom of the Caloosahatchee river.

He wondered how long it would be until the cops figured out that he hadn't been turned into an alligator entree. They couldn't work too well at night, so they'd have to wait until morning to get someone from Fort Myers to pull the car out of the waterway. Going into Caloosa did not sound like a very good idea at the moment, so he'd have to find a place to shack up for the night.

His lungs burned and though his thoughts helped to distract him from the pain, a distant part of his mind acknowledged that his legs were weakening and it wouldn't be long until they collapsed. Nevertheless, he kept pushing, determined to find something that could help him. Anything would do right about now.

Then, like a distorted blessing, he saw it. Not exactly what he'd had in mind, but maybe it would work. Maybe... his heart thumped painfully faster, making his chest hurt. He shuffled towards the dilapidated home and his memories returned. He was a little surprised that he'd forgotten this place. Especially after what had happened all those years ago. He, Michele, and a few of the Caloosa kids had come up here the last summer he had visited. The local kids exchanged stories designed to frighten each other and some of them had crawled under Blair's skin, festering into abstract terror.

Oh yeah. Blair remembered this place all too well.

The Old Tucker Home had plenty of stories to go with it and honestly, Blair didn't have the slightest idea how much of any of them held even the smallest grain of truth. It stood far back from the road, almost completely hidden by overgrown shrubs, reeds, and trees, forlornly overlooking its unkempt plot of land.

Blair took in a deep, steadying breath, reminding himself that everything he'd seen as a kid had just been a cruel joke on the part of the local kids. There weren't any ghosts here, nothing that could hurt him save for the creatures that lurked about outside and the dirty cops that, hopefully, thought he'd been eaten alive.

The others kids had dared him to go into the Old Tucker Home one night and despite Michele insisting to him that it was a very bad idea, his stubbornness prevailed. He wasn't about to let those kids think he was afraid.

A small group had collected to watch him go in and with one last nervous glance at Michele, he had entered the house. At first it hadn't been that bad. It stank like weeks old decay, but that he could get over. It was eerily dark, but that, also, was okay. He stumbled forward, hands reaching out blindly, hoping to connect with a solid wall.

A low moan seemed to seep from the moon-painted walls, filling the entire room. He faltered as his heart did a triple-roll in his chest, picking up a frenzied cadence.

"Blaiiirrr."

Then a hysterical cackling.

"I'll get you my pretty... and your little Michele, too."

Blair's eyes had widened into circles and he remembered bolting from the house. Michele had caught up with him as he raced back to Caloosa, bound and determined to get as far away from that house as possible. Later on that night, back in the safety of Michele's house, she had told him that it was probably just some of the teenage boys. Even though she had reassured him, he spent that night with the sound of that low moaning in his ears and the high-pitched cackle that followed.

Now, as he stood in the doorway to the Old Tucker Home, clothes sopping wet, hair laying in damp tendrils around his face, hands still maintaining a death grip on the video tape, that voice came back to him.

It was just a childish prank, he told himself. But he couldn't take that first step into the dilapidated home. Logic told him he couldn't stay out in the open. If things hadn't changed out in this area, he knew he wouldn't be finding any other houses any time soon. He would either have to cross into Caloosa or head back toward Michele's house to even find a phone.

At the moment, this house was the only logical choice. If not here, then out in the wild, taking his chances with the gators. He exhaled shakily, running a hand through his sodden mass of tangles.

"Just breathe," he told himself. "It was just a stupid prank. There's nothing in here. The danger is outside."

...looking for his remains in the river bordering Caloosa.

He could do this. He had no choice in the matter. He was scared and cold and tired, and his exhaustion was just affecting his mind. There wasn't a single thing to be afraid of in here.

He stepped into the house, the floorboards creaking ominously beneath his feet. No eerie moans greeted him. Nothing but the settling structure and squeaking floorboards. He picked out a corner as far from the door as he could get in the front room and settled down. His eyes remained locked on the door for an indeterminable length of time, then they slipped down as fatigue got the best of him. Even his childhood memories could be bested by the intoxicating pull of sleep. He rested on his side on the dusty floor, still shivering from his wet clothes. Cobwebs tickled his face and he imagined what his clothes and hair would look like in the morning. When this was over with, he was going to take a steaming hot shower for two or three hours.

Despite the long ago fears, the tug of sleep ensnared him and his every thought fell into a blessed blackhole. He slipped into oblivion, hugging the tape like a security blanket.

********************

Jim glanced again at the road map he had picked up at the rental counter and tossed it onto the seat beside him. Reaching for the dash of the Pontiac Grand Am, he cranked the air conditioning as high as it would go, wincing at the ticking sound emanating from the vents. This was not how he had been expecting to spend his weekend.

After Blair's frantic call yesterday afternoon, Jim had waited almost three hours before attempting to locate his partner. He didn't want to overreact and face another of Sandburg's lectures, but the gnawing feeling that the anthropologist had somehow managed to intricate himself into the middle of a drug ring proved too much for the normally calm and collected detective. He had no doubt the slight electrical hum he had detected during Blair's call was a bug. When a return call to the Corbitt residence went unanswered, Jim's second call was to the Caloosa Police Department. Although the officer politely answered his questions about the Corbitts' accidents, he would give him no information on the whereabouts of one long haired, neo-hippie, police observer.

The annoying tingle that had been playing at the edges of Jim's awareness had broken through full force when the deputy's heartbeat increased dramatically as he lied about the unknown status of Blair Sandburg.

What the hell have you gotten yourself into this time, Chief?

Simon had reluctantly given him the weekend, assigning his shift on the McGruder stakeout to a somewhat irritated Henri Brown. Jim definitely owed H a new CD for this. Scratch that. Sandburg owed Brown a new CD for this. Rhonda had made him a reservation on the first plane out of Cascade and had even called ahead to reserve him a car. Sandburg was going to owe a lot of people by the time this was over.

He had managed to get a little sleep on the red-eye flight and had even been able to find a surprisingly good and strong cup of coffee at the Fort Myers airport. The young woman at the Avis counter had been entirely too cheerful for such an early hour, but had been extremely helpful in getting him a map and helping him plot his course to the small town of Caloosa.

The sign on the side of the old two lane highway read 'Caloosa 3 miles'. Jim gripped the steering wheel and tried not to trounce on the accelerator. He chuckled slightly at the thought of finding Sandburg, ensconced in the cool sheets at the local motel, sleeping safe and sound. That would be different.

He slowed the car as he pulled into the small town, surprised to see such a large amount of activity at this early hour. He pulled down Main Street and parked the car next to a battered police cruiser in front of the Caloosa Courthouse. He slowly unfolded his tall frame from the confines of the Grand Am and eyed the cluster of vehicles assembled. There were state patrol cars as well as a few unmarked, but official looking sedans scattered among the local trucks and cars. The bright red Emergency Rescue Vehicle caught his attention and the muscles of his jaw twitched as he clenched his teeth and sighed.

Can't do anything halfway, can you, Sandburg?

He made his way up the cement steps and entered the courthouse, only to be met by a flurry of activity. There were civilians and official personnel bustling around the outer office, the majority of them centered around the large table filled with coffee and danish. Jim's stomach rumbled at the tantalizing scents wafting from the table, but his attention was caught by the bits and pieces of conversations he was picking up.

"Poor fella, probably got tore apart. We'll be finding pieces of him for the next month or so."

"Now we don't know the gators got him, Joe. As soon as they get the equipment set up, they'll drag the river. Sheriff said they were going to pull the car out of the water first thing. Maybe the guy got out and made it to shore."

Joe snorted and took a large bite of a prune danish. "Fat chance. Even if he did, no city boy is gonna be able to survive out there. If he didn't turn up last night, he ain't gonna turn up."

"Can I help you, sir?"

Jim's attention was diverted as a young man in a green deputy's uniform approached him. The kid was probably in his mid twenties with short blonde hair and a tanned face.

"Uh, yes." Jim tore his eyes from the two men who continued to converse about the 'city boy' and pulled out his credentials. "My name is Detective Jim Ellison. I called here earlier about my partner, Blair Sandburg. I spoke to a Deputy Terrel."

The young man's eyes widened at the mention of Sandburg's name and the word "partner". "This Sandburg guy was a cop?"

Jim's eyes narrowed. "Was?"

The young deputy lowered his head. "Oh, um, I'm sorry. I don't really know much about what's going on. I just came on duty a little while ago. The Sheriff and Deputy Terrel are out at the crash site, but they should be back here to coordinate the search in a few minutes." He raised his head, his eyes apologetic. "Can I get you something while you wait, Detective?"

"Some answers," Jim replied bluntly. He didn't want to scare the kid, but something was going on and that something definitely involved his partner.

"I'm sorry, Detective. I just don't know what I can tell you--"

"Then who does?"

"Maybe I can."

Jim turned to find himself face to face with a swarthy, fortyish man, shorter than Jim by two inches at the most and a slightly bulging belly. His gaze was piercing and the set of his thin lips all business. The badge on his chest read Sheriff P. Linden, and Jim automatically focused his senses on the man's heartbeat.

"Sheriff Linden, I'm--"

"I know who you are, Detective. And I would appreciate you not badgering my deputies. I don't know how things work where you're from, but down here, you are nothing more than a tourist."

Jim set his jaw and took a deep breath. He didn't like the tone of the Sheriff's voice, nor did he like the implication that he was not going to be allowed to help find his missing partner. "Sheriff, I would like to know what you and your deputies know about the whereabouts of my partner, Blair Sandburg." He kept his voice even, forcing himself not to react to the Sheriff's indignant tone. Blair had said the local cops were a part of the drug deal. If they had been the ones listening in when Sandburg had called, they already knew Blair had told him about the tape he had found in Donovan Corbitt's house.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ellison, but we don't have any information to give you as of yet."

Jim wasn't about to let up that easily. "Deputy Redmond," Jim quickly read the name tag of the young man who had greeted him first, "said something about a crash. Was Sandburg involved?"

Jim didn't miss the quick look of exasperation the Sheriff threw at the young deputy before he returned his transparent smile to the Cascade detective.

"I'm sorry, Detective, but my deputy spoke out of turn. As of right now, we have found a vehicle in the river just south of town. We can't be sure of the make or model until we are able to pull it from the river. We haven't found any body as of yet, but that isn't surprising considering the gator population in the area around this time of year." He moved around Ellison, followed closely by another, older deputy. "Now, if you would excuse me, I have a search and rescue operation to coordinate." He turned to his young deputy, continuing on before anyone else could argue. "Carter, why don't you escort Mr. Ellison to the hotel and make sure he's comfortable." He turned back to Ellison with a smile, the warning clear in his voice. "I'll inform you as soon as we find anything. Until then, please try to stay out of our way."

Jim repressed his anger as the Sheriff and deputy walked away, disappearing into the small crowd of rescue personnel. If the arrogant son of a bitch thought it was going to be that easy to....

The sound of a throat clearing brought his attention back to the young deputy beside him. "I'm sorry, sir." He pointed hesitantly toward the door. "I think it would be best if you do as the Sheriff says." He stepped back as Ellison narrowed his eyes at him.

"You can tell your Sheriff to go to hell."

Ellison turned abruptly and marched through the doorway. He didn't glance back, not caring whether the Sheriff or the rest of the assembled personnel had heard his reply. The heat was already stifling and he unconsciously dialed down his discomfort as soon as he left the air conditioned confines of the courthouse. If that sorry excuse for a cop thought he could keep Jim from looking for his partner, he was sadly mistaken. Ellison was not familiar with his surroundings, but this wouldn't be the first time he would be on a mission in foreign territory. He was a Sentinel. He would find his friend. He hadn't gotten much information about the car they had found in the river but he had gotten a direction. South. He was certain he would be able to find the area and pick up some trace that would lead him to Sandburg.

"Detective Ellison!"

He turned as the voice broke through his thoughts. His angry glare slowed the young deputy's gait, but did not deter him from approaching the larger detective.

"Um, Detective Ellison," Redmond's voice betrayed his nervousness, but he swallowed once and continued. "I'm sorry about the way the Sheriff was acting, sir. I just wanted to tell you that I want to help you find your partner."

Jim narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Why?"

Redmond glanced nervously back toward the closed doors of the courthouse before responding. "Look, Detective, I may be new around here, but I know there's something going on."

Curious as to what the young man was getting at, Jim prompted him to continue. "What is going on? And what does it have to do with Sandburg?"

Redmond licked his lips nervously and took a small step closer. "I don't know much about what happened to your friend, Detective. But I knew Michele Corbitt and her dad. They were good people. There have been all sorts of rumors flying around about Don being involved in some kind of drug deal, but I know that can't possible be true. I think he knew what was really going on and somehow that got him killed. I don't know what happened with Michele or your friend, but like I said, the Corbitts were my friends, and Michele thought a lot of Mr. Sandburg. I trust her judgment."

Jim was listening to the kid's vitals and they were both a bit elevated, but he could easily read the sincerity in Carter Redmond's voice--and in his eyes.

"Can you get me some information?"

Redmond nodded enthusiastically. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. The Sheriff is about to brief the search crews. I'll find out everything I can. You should go on to the hotel like the Sheriff said. I'll meet you there in an hour."

Jim nodded. It was only an hour. He could use the time to study the map of the area. If Sandburg was some kind of pawn in this game, it wouldn't hurt to know the playing field.

"Okay," he agreed. He glanced at the doors, noting the older deputy exiting and walking toward them. "I'll wait one hour. After that, I'm going after my partner with or without your help."

Redmond followed Jim's gaze to the approaching deputy and stepped back onto the curb. "The hotel is two blocks down Main Street. You can't miss it." He spoke a bit louder than necessary for the other deputy's benefit and waved good-bye.

Jim got into the car, rolling the window down to let the heat escape from the interior of the car. He turned the key in the ignition, watching covertly as Redmond strode to the other deputy and exchanged a few words. He breathed a sigh of relief as the other deputy seemed satisfied and followed his coworker back into the courthouse.

One hour, Chief. Just keep yourself safe for a little longer.

********************

Blair awoke to a stabbing agony that radiated from his temples and pierced his eyes. Cautiously, he cracked open his eyes, taking in the gloom of his surroundings. The boarded over windows only let in thin strands of light, but it was more than enough to get a good look at the Tucker Home during the day. He'd never seen it in the reality of daylight. His eyes darted around the room, then fell on another door that led further back into the house.

He pulled himself to his feet, hanging onto the wall like a life support. He felt like a decrepit old man who needed a walker to get by. His side throbbed in time with his increasing headache and his chest felt tight, making breathing a chore. It crossed his mind that he must've bruised his ribs. Not hard to believe after taking a swan dive into the Caloosahatchee. Discomfort was added by the driving humidity and heat. Being indoors made the heat stagnant, as it was trapped within the house's walls. Sweat dampened the hair resting against his neck and soaked the collar of his shirt. He rested against the wall, collecting himself.

He glanced down at the floor, his eyes slowly focusing on the plastic wrapped tape. He winced. He really didn't want to have to bend down to pick it up. He clenched his teeth as he anticipated the pain to come. Slowly and gingerly, he lowered himself, breathing in little, agonized spurts and finally was close enough to the floor to grab the tape. With as much care as he'd used to crouch, he raised himself, wondering how he was going to manage anything with the way he felt.

His muscles had tightened up over night and he could feel the heat from the bruises where his chest had impacted with the steering wheel. Despite his general disinclination to non-natural remedies, something really strong in whatever form he could get it in sounded really good right about now. Anything would do. Like, say, morphine. Although hospitals had never been on his top ten list of places to visit, he had to admit he wouldn't turn down a nice, quiet hospital bed and whatever pain killers he could find at the moment.

He opened the door off to his right and found himself looking at another dilapidated, empty room. Some of the poorer locals had probably taken out all the furniture at the first opportunity. The only signs that the house had been inhabited were the dingy, gauze curtains and hazardous-looking electrical outlets. The floorboards squeaked and he stopped, thinking. He cautiously stooped down, hand clenching the tape in a death grip in an attempt to ignore the white-hot distress in his side and lungs. He set the tape down, then worked at the floorboard, silently encouraging it to loosen. After several minutes of exertion and nearly giving up, it finally pried back. A soft exclamation of triumph exhaled from his lips, then he peeked into the darkness beyond the flooring. His left hand still holding the board up, he felt around in the space below to determine if he would be able to reach the tape again when he came back for it. His right hand brushed against cool concrete and he smiled. Bingo.

He grabbed the tape and placed it beneath the floor, gently lowering the board back. He pushed it down to make sure it didn't look like it'd been tampered with and nodded to himself, satisfied at the result.

Once again, he went through the agony of picking himself up, wishing for all the world he could check into a hospital or a doctor's office or a clinic, or anything at all. Maybe his ribs were just bruised, but they hurt like hell and with all the walking he'd done last night and he was going to do today, a touch of medical attention would be warmly welcomed.

Okay. Come on, man. Get over it. Just focus on your objective--finding a phone.

He nodded to himself, concentrating on the thought to push him out of the room and to open the front door to the Old Tucker Home. It was hot inside the house, but nothing compared to the heat wave outside. Wasn't it too early in the season to be this hot? He wiped the sweat from his brow and took another step into the outdoor furnace.

He squinted, looking in all directions. He must've hiked about a mile last night to get out here. A little bit further down away from town was the road that turned off and would eventually bring him to the Corbitt's. That was approximately seven miles from town. On that road, perhaps four miles from here was a handy store. If he didn't stop to rest he could make it within the hour. He glanced at his watch. 7:32. He could make it by 8:30. With any luck, he would be able to reach Jim and between the two of them find a way to get the tape--and himself--to the proper authorities.

Great. Now he had a plan. He inhaled as deeply as his aching lungs would allow and without another glance to the house, began his trek south in the blazing heat.

********************

Sheriff Paul Linden stood with Graham Terrel and Jacob Daniels in the park, watching as the search and rescue team worked. Traffic had been rerouted to go back around and approach the town from the west side. A decent-sized crowd had gathered in the park, including one of the city's news crews. This was big news. The Ford Tempo had been hauled from the river, but nothing had been found of the kid, Blair Sandburg. This last was making Linden nervous, but not so nervous as the thought of that tape floating out there somewhere.

It pissed him off that Terrel and Daniels had managed to kill Corbitt and he really hadn't been happy that the wreck he'd set up for his daughter, Michele, had ended up killing her. Not that he would've let either one of them live after he'd gotten a hold of that tape. He'd already had an argument with Terrel about Michele Corbitt last night. Seemed that Graham was getting a bit soft.

How did they know Miss Corbitt knew anything about that tape's whereabouts or that her daddy was in any trouble at all? Terrel had demanded.

Didn't matter, Linden had responded. They couldn't take a chance with the possibility that she did and did Graham really think that if he asked her outright she'd tell the truth? Besides, a little fender bender had seemed like a good way to get her out of the house for a while which would have allowed them to search it for the tape. Of course, this Sandburg kid would've been a surprise, but Linden was sure he could have found some way to deal with it.

Terrel had glowered at him, but didn't respond. Linden was happy about that because he didn't want one of his best men to give him a reason to kill him. Bodies piling up were not a good thing when one was in the spotlight of authority.

The drug ring had been such a good thing for the past couple years. In a town as small as Caloosa, the city cops and state authorities had a tendency to ignore any activity going on. What they didn't realize was just how convenient this ignorance was for drug dealers. Plenty had come out here in the outskirts of town, growing marijuana, and setting up buys with the city dealers.

Graham and Jake had found themselves in a very opportune situation while cracking down on a suspected drug ring. Linden saw the chance for gold and the two deputies were willing to work with him on it. It had been going good for a while there until Don Corbitt had gotten suspicious and had followed them out to a deal.

Hours of hunting had finally led Daniels and Terrel to chase him down, which resulted in Corbitt's death. Linden was convinced Don had stopped at his house to hide the tape and had taken off to head for the city to inform the Fort Myers cops. He'd never made it that far and Linden had centered his attention on the girl. That had been a bust. Now there was a missing kid, all the way from Cascade, Washington, they had to take care of.

Came a long way for this shit, boy.

"They aren't finding him," Terrel muttered, hands stuffed deep in his pockets.

Daniels turned his head to look at Linden. His eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses and his expression was passive. He didn't think he'd ever seen that guy with any other facial expression. It gave him the creeps. "He must've gotten lucky. We saw two gators, fighting. That could've given him a chance to swim to the bank and get out."

"But which side?" Terrel wondered out loud.

Linden pursed his lips, studying the bridge and the large gap in the railing. He didn't even make it halfway across the bridge before he lost control. That would've landed him closer to the southside bank. "Were the gators closer to the southside or the northside bank?"

Terrel waved a hand in a lackadaisical pointing gesture. "Northside."

"So, if the kid was trying to escape from them, he would've swam for the southside bank."

Daniels nodded and after a few seconds of thought, Terrel mimicked the gesture.

"If he has any brains at all in that head of his, he would know he can't come back into town. Too many people looking for him. That means we need to start searching over on the other bank. Any ideas where he could've gone to?"

"Out there?" Terrel said. "Not much. The Tucker place. Further down and on a road to the left there's an old gas station. Several more miles is the Corbitt's home and a trailer park. The Old Tucker Home is about a mile, the gas station about three or four, the Corbitt's and the trailer park must be seven to ten miles."

Linden scratched his belly as his mind roved over the options. "We'll start with the Old Tucker Home. He could've holed up in that over night. Then we'll make our way to the gas station. If he's really desperate he'll try for the Corbitt's or the trailer park, but after his leap into the river, I can't imagine he's doing too well."

"Should be easy then," Daniels added, sunglasses staring out over the shimmering river.

Yep, Linden thought. This was one cat he wasn't letting out of the bag.

********************

The sun slowly rose to its zenith and its pulsing rays baked Blair's skin as it climbed higher into the sky. The humidity was thick enough to drown in, making the heat almost unbearable.

Blair found it humorous in a grim sort of way. When he was a kid, spending the summers in Caloosa, the heat had never bothered him this much. Then again, he also hadn't spent so much time out in it without sunscreen, a dip in the pool, or a quick trip into an air-conditioned building. He also decided that the injuries he'd been dealt last night weren't helping his cause either.

At least the gas station was right up ahead. There was only one car sitting in front of it, probably the attendant's. For maybe the hundredth time since leaving the Old Tucker Home he wiped the sweat from his forehead and trailed his hand along his cheek. His shirt stuck to his skin like an adhesive.

Going to have a hell of a sunburn, he thought dazedly.

Time seemed to slow as he approached the gas station. It grew closer at an agonizingly slow pace and he gritted his teeth, shooting spikes of pain into his jaws, as he willed himself to keep a constant, even pace.

He tried telling himself he'd been in worse situations than this, but at the moment he couldn't think of any and even if he had, he really didn't think it would have helped any. The only thought that brought any relief at all was that calling Jim would somehow solve this situation he'd managed to fall into.

After what felt like an eternity, he reached the handy store. He debated going into the store to ask the employee for help, but figured the person would call the police on him and that was the last thing he needed. The only cop he wanted to deal with right now was Jim. Instead, he turned to the telephone booth. Obscenities and what he guessed were gang names were spray painted all over it and he grimaced when he saw that the receiver had been sprayed a dark red. This was a real reassurance, he mused.

His hands were shaking so much from the sun and exertion that he could barely even hold the phone to his ear. Okay, easy part done. Next part, dialing. Slowly, methodically, his trembling fingers dialed the loft's number. He didn't even realize his mistake in his rattled brain until the operator's voice came over the phone, telling him to insert thirty-five cents. He frowned and tried to place his jumbled thoughts together. Collect. He would have to call collect. Yeah, he could do that. He pressed the zero and again the operator spoke lifelessly over the phone, giving him his options and he pressed the number for collect. Dimly, his mind registered the sound of wheels rolling over the gravel-and-dirt driveway.

"Please dial the number you would like to reach, area code first," said the feminine monotone.

Car doors slammed. Blair's hand tightened on the phone. Something felt very wrong. He turned warily and saw just why it felt so wrong. Two white cruisers had pulled up in the driveway, blocking off a retreat in that direction. Through the haze of dust thrown up by the vehicles approach, Blair could distinguish three men approaching. He recognized all three. Officers Terrel and Daniels were advancing on him, accompanied by the man from the tape, the one with the sheriff insignia. None of them were smiling and the man wearing the sunglasses--Daniels--had his service revolver already in hand, getting ready to raise and aim.

"Oh shit," he breathed.

The phone fell from his hand and he darted into the copse of trees behind the handy. His side awakened under the abuse, but he ignored it, knowing if they caught him the game was up. He heard the shouts, "Freeze! Police!" but also realized no shots had been fired. They needed him alive. He had something they wanted and he wasn't about to give it to them. Ignoring the stitch in his side, he put on a fresh burst of speed.

He was making good headway as he dashed into the cooler shade of the trees. But as the pain overwhelmed him, the sounds of breaking sticks and crunching leaves drew closer all too fast. Suddenly something heavy slammed into his back. He crashed into the ground with a weak "oomph" and lay still, his entire body throbbing and his lungs screaming for air. He clenched his eyes together tightly and he lowered his arms around his aching stomach before they were grabbed and yanked viciously behind his back, jerking him to his feet.

His eyes rose and he looked directly into his own dark reflection. He blinked, realizing his attacker was Daniels. He was hauled roughly around to face the other two men. Both were older and much larger than him. While Terrel was physically fit, the sheriff had a paunch belly, though Blair didn't believe he would be easy to beat in an arm wrestling match.

The sheriff came up to stand in front of him, invading his personal space. Blair tried to back away, but was met with a solid wall from behind and the hands on his arms tightened painfully. He gasped softly.

"You must be the boy giving us all the trouble," the sheriff said. "Mr. Blair Sandburg. So nice to meet you."

Blair mentally collected himself, knowing the only way he was going to stay alive was to play the game. He met the cool gaze with one of his own. "And you must be Sheriff...." He let his voice trail off hoping the man would fill in the blank.

The heavy-faced man was only happy to oblige. "Paul Linden. Elected twice as Caloosa's sheriff. And you, my boy, are going to ruin things for me."

"I really don't know what you're talking about." Blair winced as the hands on his arms tightened even further, threatening to break bones. He wanted to yell at Daneils to lay off, he was proving his point already, but kept his mouth shut. He'd learned some very hard lessons in the past about what not to say to severely pissed off individuals.

Linden clucked his tongue. "Now I don't believe that. You see, my men here know you saw that tape and know what's on it. We want it back."

"How do you know that?" Blair demanded.

"I had my men bug the Corbitt's when Miss Corbitt had her unfortunate 'accident'."

Oh God. Blair closed his eyes. That was why Daniels had picked up the phone when he'd sat it down. He swallowed and opened his eyes, meeting Linden's gaze evenly. "If I tell you where you can find the tape, you'll let me live?"

Linden shrugged. "Maybe I will. What does it matter anyway? Once I have that tape who'll believe who? A renowned and well-loved small town sheriff or some long haired city freak?"

Blair pressed his lips together tightly. "I'm not telling you if you don't give me your word."

The sheriff's eyes widened slightly. He chuckled softly. "All right," he drawled. "I'll give you my word, Mr. Sandburg. You show me where the tape is, I let you go."

"Okay." His mind scrambled for some kind of plan. He didn't believe for a minute that Linden would keep his word, but as long as Linden believed he was in control of the situation, Blair could stay alive and maybe, just maybe, find a way to escape. He took a deep breath and put all his obfuscation talents to work. "I left the tape at the Corbitt's."

********************

Jim paced across the small hotel room again. He didn't need to check his watch. He knew it was only a minute later than the last time he had checked it. He told Redmond he would wait an hour, but his patience was wearing thin. He wanted to find Blair. With the local cops possibly involved in a drug operation, Sandburg would undoubtedly try to find someplace safe and out of the way. But where?

He had tracked men in the military and, with his Sentinel senses on full, had no doubt he would be able to pick up some sign of his friend. A scent. A scrap of clothing. Anything that could lead him to Sandburg before the Sheriff and his crew located him.

He stopped near the window as the sound of a car caught his attention. As soon as he saw the Caloosa Sheriff's Department cruiser come to a stop near the hotel office, he moved to the door and opened it. Stepping out into the oppressive heat, he whistled loudly to get the young deputy's attention and beckoned him into the room.

"Did you find out anything about Sandburg?" Jim pounced on Redmond the moment he stepped into the room.

The young deputy nodded. "From what the Sheriff told the search crews, your partner's car went off the bridge south of town. They brought in a crew from Fort Myers to pull the car from the Caloosahatchee, but they aren't counting on finding your friend inside." He shifted from one foot to the other, clearly uncomfortable.

Jim narrowed his eyes. "Just what are you trying not to say?"

Redmond cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "According to the two deputies who were following Mr. Sandburg, after his car went into the bridge, there was..."

"What?" Jim's patience was paper thin.

"There was some alligator activity spotted in the water near where the car went down."

Jim's eyes widened at the statement.

"Poor fella, probably got torn apart. We'll be finding pieces of him for the next month or so."

"....Maybe the guy got out and made it to shore."

"Fat chance. Even if he did, no city boy is gonna be able to survive out there...."

Shit! shit! shit! They'd been talking about Sandburg! Pressing down his anxiety, Jim turned back to the young deputy. "Have they found anything?"

Redmond shrugged. "They have the search crews checking the surrounding areas."

Jim sat down on the edge of the bed. Could it be possible that he was really...? He shook his head, jaw jerking. He refused to believe that. Sandburg's Law stated that he would get into as much trouble as possible and always manage to come out alive even if not unscathed.

Leave it to Sandburg to get involved in a drug operation involving local cops and alligators. His brow furrowed as he considered the situation. "You said they had crews searching the surrounding area?"

Redmond nodded. "If they thought your friend was dead, they would be sticking closer to the river. But Sheriff Linden radioed in and said he was taking a crew over to the old Tucker house south of town. He said he was going to keep moving south until they got to the Corbitt's place."

Jim studied the young deputy. Redmond seemed sincere in his willingness to help, but Jim hesitated to risk Sandburg's life on that assumption. "Why should I believe you? You could be trying to get me out of the way like your boss ordered."

Redmond shook his head and took a step closer. "Look, Detective. I know you've got no reason to believe me, but I really want to help. Don and Michele were my friends. Don was a hell of a good cop and Michele... well, Michele and I, we went out a few times. She was a great girl. I really thought we could've...." The young man paused for a moment and turned away from Jim. His shoulders sagged momentarily as he took a few deep, shaky breaths. When he turned his gaze back to Jim, the determination on his face was easy to read. "I don't know how to make you believe me, Detective Ellison. But I don't think your friend stands much of a chance if Sheriff Linden catches up to him. I can't prove anything, but I don't think what happened to the Corbitts was an accident."

Jim stared at the young man for a long moment before nodding. "Sandburg called me from the Corbitt's last night. He told me he found something in the house. Something that implicates Sheriff Linden and two of his deputies in a drug buy."

It was Redmond's turn to be surprised. "He's got proof?"

Jim nodded, watching Redmond's reaction. He could find no indication that the young man was anything but shocked.

"If he has proof, and Sheriff Linden knows it..." He looked at Jim, his eyes wide with apprehension. "Then your friend is in deep shit."

Jim couldn't help but grin at the assessment. "Yeah, well unfortunately that happens to be familiar territory for Sandburg." He stood and moved to the door. "You said the Sheriff was heading to the Corbitt's place, right?"

Redmond simply nodded.

"Then I say we meet him there."

********************

Not one of the men said anything on the ride to the Corbitt's residence. The tension was almost tangible, ready to snap at any moment. At least they had the air conditioner on full blast. For the chance to sit in the cool bliss for just a little while, Blair could handle anything they could throw at him right now. Well, almost anything.

But it wouldn't be long until the oppressive heat returned. Blair fidgeted in his seat, earning a suspicious glance from Daniels in the rearview mirror. Terrel, for the most part, had ignored him, not even bothering to meet his eyes since he'd been handcuffed.

Blair leaned back against the seat, flopping his head back. He remembered the store clerk coming out to watch as the three police officers had dragged him, handcuffed, to the sheriff-marked Crown Victoria. Being so far off the beaten path, the clerk probably didn't get to see much action, save for the occasional group of rednecks, but, unfortunately, there had been nothing that would lead him to believe something was totally wrong with this picture.

Blair's mind raced over his options. The sheriff was in his unmarked vehicle, right behind. He had one chance and then things would plummet from there.

If only Jim were here. If only he had known Michele was in danger sooner. If he only he hadn't let himself get caught....

He shook his head violently, awakening the dull throbbing in his head. Negative thinking was not going to help. The cruiser rolled around SlaughterHouse and turned into the driveway that led back to the Corbitt's house. Behind his back, he clenched his hands into fists in silent anticipation. The car pulled up by the house and a quick glance through the rear windshield showed Linden still coming up in the driveway. Terrel brought the car to a stop and Daniels hopped out, turning to Blair's door. Blair readied himself, angling for just the right point.

Terrel shut off the engine as Daniels began to open the rear door. Blair's legs shot out, kicking the door into Daniels and knocking him to the ground. Blair leapt out of the car and took off, running swiftly despite the hindrance of the handcuffs and his aching side.

He heard Linden scream, "Don't shoot him! We need him alive!" and kept running. If he could roll through the barbed wire fence marking off the yard, he could make it into the neighboring orange grove and hide there.

Blood rushed through his ears and he could no longer hear the cops. He ran for all he was worth, excitement surging as the barbed wire fencing, and his freedom, neared. He was going to make it this time, he thought anxiously. He was going to actually make it.

Something snagged the back of his shirt. His momentum came to a sudden halt as he was whipped around, a fist striking him hard across the cheekbone. He toppled to the ground, dazed.

"You'll regret that punk," a chillingly familiar voice snarled in his ear. He looked up to see Daniels, eyes hidden by the dark lenses, grinning at him coldly. Blair wondered if he'd even see a soul in those eyes should Daniels remove his glasses. Somehow, he highly doubted it.

He was yanked, none to gently, to his feet by his shirt sleeves. He stood, swaying, his head spinning. The surrounding noises sounded strangely distant and echoey. Something must've gotten knocked loose, he thought in bleak amusement.

Through what sounded like a funnel, Linden said, "Bring him back. We don't have all day."

He was led back to the house. The backdoor was not locked and Blair silently berated himself for leaving in such a rush that he hadn't even bothered locking the house. That would have at least bought him some time. Bought him some time for what was the question, but then again, Jim had always praised his resourcefulness. Something still might come to him before they decided they couldn't keep him alive any longer.

All four stood in the kitchen. The light outside streamed in through the window over the table and the one over the sink. At least the air condition was on, Blair thought inanely.

The sheriff walked up to Blair, again coming too close for comfort. His belly nearly brushed against Blair who tried moving back but was hindered by Daniels grip behind him. It gave him a trapped feeling he didn't care for much at all.

"Where's the tape?" Linden asked.

"Living room," Blair answered, praising himself for sounding so together.

Linden looked up and behind Blair, possibly to Daniels then to where Terrel stood off to the side, more of a watcher than actual participant. The sheriff nodded at Daniels to lead the way with Blair firmly in hand.

He was marched, none too gently, into the living room and over to the entertainment center. His eyes scanned over the collection of video tapes. He made a show of inspecting them, finally nodding his head at one alone to the right. He met the sheriff's eyes firmly. "This is it. There's not much footage on the tape so you'll have to fast forward through it to find what you want." He shrugged a shoulder. "Okay, I gave you what you want. Now it's your turn to fulfill your bargain. Let me go."

Linden looked down at the unlabeled tape, hefting it in his hand as if he could tell what was on the film by its weight. His lips quirked to the side. His gaze shifted to Blair's. "This was mighty kind of you, Mr. Sandburg. But I don't think I can risk letting you go."

Blair blinked, not surprised in the slightest that the sherrif had never planned on letting him live, but shocked that it was happening so quickly. Wasn't Linden going to even make sure he'd given him the correct tape? He had to stall for time. "You gave me your word! What kind of a sheriff are you?"

Linden laughed dryly. "Boy, you should've known better than that." He turned his attention on his deputies. "Take him out back and shoot him. We'll dump him in the river come night fall. The gator's should get him then and when what's left of his body is eventually found, no one will know the difference."

Blair stared numbly. Daniels raised his gun from where he stood behind Blair and ran it along Blair's cheek in a cold caress. Blair shuddered, the chill metal a bleak reminder that he was fast running out of options and time. He twisted his hands in the biting handcuffs, hating the feel more acutely than he had since they'd first been slapped on his wrists. The presence of the officers was claustrophobic, like a three-sided wall, closing in.

There was nothing left for him to do, he realized bitterly. Was this really it? They were going to kill him and Jim would never know what had happened.

Terrel and Daniels took him out of the house through the backdoor. He was ordered to march out fifteen feet, facing the back door. His mind raced, eyes flitting between both men. Daniels' face was unreadable as he raised his gun. Terrel had not drawn his gun and, in fact, looked nervous and indecisive. Blair focused on the older deputy.

"Officer Terrel, you know this is wrong," he pleaded. "You're a police officer, sworn to uphold the law. You made some mistakes, but think about... this isn't going to help."

"Shut up," Daniels growled, cocking his gun.

Terrel glanced anxiously at his partner, then back to the entreaty in Blair's eyes. He shook his head. "Jake, this isn't right."

"Shut up, Graham," his younger partner snapped.

"It's murder," he argued. "We'll go down for this one. We might get off for the other two."

Daniels glanced sidelong at him, then back to Blair. "It's business," he said coldly.

Blair tensed, squeezing his eyes shut as he waited, his mind's eye seeing Daniels' finger slowly tightening on the trigger. A shot exploded in the air and Blair flinched, waiting for the sear of the bullet ripping through his flesh.

It never happened.

Blair opened his eyes to see the gun in the deputy's hand fall to the ground as he grasped his now bleeding hand and sank to his knees in pain. An all too familiar figure quickly approached, ice blue eyes flashing, gun held steady on the two deputies.

Blair couldn't stop the grin from splitting his face. "Jim! Oh man, am I glad to see you!"

"You're Detective Ellison," Terrel observed. Carefully, showing that he was no threat to the detective, he removed the gun still tucked away in its holster. He handed it to Jim. "I can't apologize enough. This should've never gone so far. I never wanted to see this young man get hurt." He retrieved the keys to Blair's handcuffs and offered those as well.

Jim barely spared the older deputy a glance, but took the keys. He removed the handcuffs quickly and Blair rubbed gratefully at his chafed wrists. Jim stepped protectively in front of his partner, wincing slightly at the haggard appearance and collection of bruises adorning the familiar face.

"You look like you've been having a good time, Chief."

Ignoring his partner's sarcasm, Blair glanced to the ground where Daniels was still hunched over, holding his bleeding hand protectively to his chest. He felt a brief surge of compassion, then reminded himself that this man was probably responsible for Michele's and Don's deaths. This man didn't deserve his pity. He looked at Terrel who looked genuinely sorry.

"Thanks for trying to stop him," Blair said.

Terrel nodded. "I couldn't let him just kill you. I never wanted Don and his daughter to get killed." He licked his lips and glanced toward the backdoor. "I think Linden rigged Michele's car so her brakes would fail."

The backdoor suddenly flew open. Blair, Jim, and Terrel turned, startled, as Linden came blazing out, tape in one hand, gun in the other. The weapon was pointed straight at Blair.

"You lied to me, you little freak!" he shouted, face blazing red. His gun jerked to Jim. "Drop your weapon, Detective Ellison. Now."

Jim hesitated. Linden's weapon swung back to Blair.

"I said now."

Jim dropped his gun.

Linden glanced at Blair. "Tell me where the tape is now or I shoot your friend in the knee caps. For every five seconds you don't tell me I work my way up. One..."

Blair darted an anxious glance to Jim whose eyes were staring straight forward, behind Linden's head.

"Two..."

The door behind Linden opened quietly and Blair's eyes widened as a young man dressed identically to Daniels and Terrel tiptoed out of the house.

"Three..."

Chancing another glance at Jim, Blair was surprised to see the corner of the detective's mouth lift in a slight smile.

"Four...."

Blair held his breath as the young deputy lifted his weapon and pressed it to the back of thr Sheriff's head. "Five."

Linden froze at the familiar voice from behind him.

"Drop the gun, sir."

Linden hesitated for a moment, weighing his option. Another look at the cold smile on Ellison's face and he sighed, dropping his weapon. Jim moved quickly to retrieve it.

"Nice timing, Redmond," the detective commented. He shoved the gun into his waistband and grabbed the Sheriff by the arm. Turning the shorter man roughly, he yanked his arms behind his back, securing them with his own set of handcuffs.

"Thanks, Detective. Just part of the service."

Jim finished with the Sheriff and took another good look at his partner.

"You doing okay, Chief?"

"I am now." Blair sighed, and returned his friend's smile, knowing for the first time in twenty-four hours that he was going to live to see another day.

********************

"So, Jim," the familiar voice on the other end of the line sounded far too distant to the detective at the moment. "Planning on giving up the great northwest for some sun and fun in the tropics?"

Jim chuckled at Simon's teasing tone. "I was thinking of it, sir. There seems to be a sudden opening in local law enforcement here."

Simon let out a low laugh, obviously not the least worried about losing his best detective to the warmer Florida climate. "Maybe I'll apply for the position myself." His voice softened slightly. "So how's the kid doing?"

Jim glanced at the staircase at the mention of his partner. "He's pretty banged up, sir. Bruised ribs and a hell of a headache, but I think he'll live."

Blair had been nearly ready to drop from exhaustion by the time the state authorities had arrived and taken Sheriff Linden and his deputies into custody. He had offered to accompany them back to the old Tucker house to retrieve the taped evidence Don Corbitt had recorded of the drug deal, but Jim had convinced him to let the Florida authorities handle the matter. The local doctor had made a house call--at the summons of Deputy Redmond--and had given the observer a thorough exam, administering a light sedative before ordering his patient into bed for some much needed rest. Jim had opted to stay at the Corbitts, rather than moving Blair to the hotel in town. Daniel Corbitt had been notified of his niece's death and, after learning of the circumstances, had insisted the Cascade visitors stay in the house until Blair was feeling better.

"So what about this tape Sandburg found," Simon's voice continued. "Is it going to be enough to convict the Sheriff of drug trafficking?"

Jim sat back against the couch cushions and sighed. "I don't know, Simon. From what Blair told me, it's pretty incriminating. We've also got Sandburg's and my statements not to mention Deputy Redmond's account of what happened. If nothing else, Linden will go down for kidnapping and attempted murder." A sound from upstairs caught his attention and he leaned forward to see a disheveled anthropologist slowly making his way down the stairs.

"Looks like Sleeping Beauty has awakened," he chuckled. Blair was leaning heavily on the railing, his right arm wrapped tightly around his rib cage. Concentrating on each step, he took a moment to throw the detective an irritated look before continuing his decent down the stairs.

Simon echoed the laugh. "Then you'd better keep an eye on him, Detective. No telling what kind of trouble Sandburg will find on his own."

"I hear that, sir. I'll call in a couple days and let you know when you can expect us back."

Hanging up the phone, he watched in silent sympathy as Blair trudged slowly across the living room and gingerly lowered himself into the recliner across from the couch. The detective raised an eyebrow as his friend leaned his head back against the high cushion of the chair and cracked an eye in his direction. "Aren't you supposed to be resting?" he asked, shaking his head in sympathy.

"I am. I just decided to do it in a different location."

Jim chuckled and simply nodded. Sometimes it just didn't pay to argue with Sandburg logic.

"Was that Simon?"

Jim nodded and stood, walking the few steps to the desk where he replaced the cordless phone in the charger. "Yeah. He told me not to let you out of my sight until we get back to Cascade."

"Nice to know he cares," Blair quipped, a slight smile tugging on his lips.

A knock on the door brought both sets of blue eyes to the front door, and Jim moved to open it. The smiling face of Deputy Carter Redmond was on the other side.

"Detective Ellison," he held out a hand which Jim shook firmly. "Hello, Mr. Sandburg." He stepped into the house, pulling off his cap and waving it in Blair's direction. He wiped his feet on the rug, then stepped into the living room as Jim closed the door and moved back toward his partner.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Sandburg?"

"It's Blair, and I'm feeling better, thanks."

Redmond nodded with a sincere smile. "That's good. We found the tape Don shot and it looks like the State Authorities are going to open a full scale investigation into Sheriff Linden's activities." He looked down at his cap which twirled restlessly in his hands. "I know it doesn't make up for what happened, but it might just make Don and Michele's deaths mean something."

Blair nodded soberly.

Jim placed a hand on his partner's shoulder, his enhanced hearing noting the slight catch in Blair's breath at the mention of his friends.

"Thanks you, Deputy." Jim responded to cover his partner's awkward silence. "We appreciate you coming out here to tell us."

"No problem. Um, I also wanted to thank you. The town is indebted to you both for what you did. Don and Michele Corbitt were well respected in Caloosa. I assume you'll be staying on until the funerals?"

Blair looked up at Jim, the same question in his eyes.

"We'll be here," the detective said. "I've already informed my Captain of the situation."

Blair smiled his thanks. Jim knew the anthropologist was still mourning the loss of his friends, but knowing Linden and his men would pay made it a little easier to accept.

Deputy Redmond was pleased. "That's good. The town council is planning a memorial for the Corbitt's tomorrow evening. We were hoping you'd join us."

"We'll be there." Blair replied for the both of them. He was already looking better after the enforced rest and Jim was sure his resilient friend would be able to handle helping the people of Caloosa pay tribute to the Corbitts.

"Good," Redmond replied. "I hope you both bring your appetites. The ladies on the food committee are making all of Don's favorites. He loved good old southern cooking. I hear Mrs. Bellamy is even making her special alligator stew for the occasion."

Blair's eyes opened wide and Jim had to suppress a laugh at the choked response. "Alligator stew?" Blair's complexion was tinged with green as he whispered the words.

Redmond nodded excitedly. "Yeah, Mabel's stew has won awards at county fairs across the area. She used to make it for Don every year for his birthday."

Jim chuckled and squeezed Blair's shoulder. "How about that, Chief? Some real down home southern hospitality."

Blair swallowed hard and managed a weak smile. "Great, man. Just great."

End

Feedback greatly appreciated! Shycat and Sue Pokorny

PostNote: Believe it or not, more of this story is based on fact than one might think. Caloosa is based very closely on the town I live in--SlaughterHouse Curve and Caloosahatchee River included--and we had an incident with the sheriff and some of his men getting involved in a drug trafficking ring. And the gators, well, let's just say, we've had our share of gator incidents around here. ~ Shy