Disclaimer: I don't own them - which is a lucky thing since I doubt I would share them if I did.
Thanks to Stargazer for being a very encouraging beta reader, and to Starfox for allowing me on her wonderful page. You are both very helpful and made this very enjoyable!
by Sue Pokorny
Detective Jim Ellison looked up as something very large and heavy was unceremoniously dropped onto his desk. He grabbed quickly at the stack of papers that threatened to float away from the air displacement and turned an angry glare on whomever had dared to enter into his space.
Jim stifled his string of retorts as his mind registered the identity of his visitor.
"Class, sir," he mumbled as he replaced the stack of papers in what he hoped was the correct order. His jaw twitched in frustration, his mind screaming obscenities at the captain that his mouth was intelligent enough not to verbalize. "He'll be in around noon."
Simon nodded and Jim noted the suppressed anger on his dark features. "Would you please remind your partner that while we appreciate his assistance with the departmental case load, Major Crimes is not to be confused with the U.S. Postal service!" His voice had started out soft and controlled, but had risen to a forceful crescendo. "He has an office at the university, please tell him to use it!"
With that said, he turned on his heel and marched stiffly back to his office, slamming the door behind him.
Jim sat, his jaw clenched, staring at the closed door for a moment before sighing and shaking his head. "Good morning to you, too, Simon," he muttered as he turned towards the rest of the open room. The other detectives occupying the bullpen had stopped to watch the captain and detective, now returned to their tasks with sudden enthusiasm under the detective's smoldering glare. Jim stared long enough to be sure that everyone had returned to work before turning his attention to the package on his desk. It was approximately 2' x 3', wrapped in brown paper and was addressed to Blair Sandburg, care of Cascade Police Department. There was no return address. but the accompanying voucher was stamped Lima, Peru. This revelation forced the detective's eyebrows to furrow as he pondered who would be sending his partner a package all the way from Peru. And why would it be addressed to the station and not the Anthropology Department at Rainier where Blair was a teaching fellow? Slowly, he forced himself to push the package aside and return his attention to the paperwork at hand, wishing fervently that his partner was there to expedite the bothersome red tape. Blair had a knack for clearing the paperwork in the time it would take Jim to figure out where to begin. Jim supposed it was because Blair was a student and a researcher. He was able to tread water in the sea of paperwork that followed every case whereas Jim would probably drown.
Looking at the clock, Jim sighed.
He rubbed his hand over his short cropped hair and took a few deep breaths. Less than two hours. He could handle it. Who knows - he might actually accomplish something if he put his mind to it. Putting the mysterious package out of sight and mind, he took one more deep breath and dove in.
He became aware of his partner's heartbeat the minute the young man stepped off the elevator onto the seventh floor. He sighed in relief as he looked up at the clock, noting that, as usual, Blair was late. The young man strode to Ellison's desk, waving and smiling at the greetings from the other detectives.
"I know, I know. I'm late," he said holding up one hand to stifle his friend's expected lecture while using the other to toss his worn leather backpack onto the ground behind the chair. "I got hung up with a student and I couldn't just throw her out."
Jim's eyebrows raised a bit. "Her?"
Sandburg gave him a pained look while pushing a stray lock of curly hair behind his ear and sitting heavily in the chair next to the desk. "Give me a break here, Jim. She's a student, I'm a teacher..." he let the sentence drift off.
"And it's against school policy to fraternize with the students," Jim finished for him, receiving a reluctant nod from the younger man. "Was she cute?"
"A knockout!" Sandburg's smile was infectious. "5'5", long blonde hair, gorgeous green eyes." He moved his hands down in an hourglass shape, his eyebrows arching up and down.
Jim shook his head, smiling in spite of himself. "Table leg, Chief."
Blair merely shrugged, his smile widening a bit. "Hey, we're both adults. Besides, she won't be a student forever."
"Ha ha. Funny, Jim. I'm an anthropologist - a student of human nature. It's part of my job description."
Jim sat back, feeling himself relaxing for the first time that day. "You just keep telling yourself that, Junior. Someday you might actually believe it."
"Remind me again why I come here? I know it's not to be insulted and abused - I can get that at home."
Jim jumped up from his chair and motioned grandly for his friend to replace him. "You are here, oh reverent one, because I hate doing all this paper work and you used up all the hot water again this morning so you feel obligated to take over."
"Ah!" said Blair sliding gracefully into the seat vacated by the larger man. "I knew it was something like that."
As soon as Jim made himself comfortable in the other chair, he remembered the package and Simon's rather loud request.
"Hey, Chief. Were you expecting anything from Peru?"
Blair looked up at him, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Um, no." He shook his head slightly. "Not that I know of, why?"
Jim lifted the package from where he had placed it on the floor under his desk and placed it in front of the grad student. "Because this came for you this morning."
"Cool!" Blair's face lit up like a three year old at Christmas. "Who's it from?"
"Don't know," Jim responded watching as his friend pulled his glasses from his inside coat pocket and put them on. "There was no name or return address. But the shipping tag read Lima, Peru..."
"Why would it come here instead of the University?"
Jim shrugged. "That's what Simon wanted to know." At the frightened expression on his guide's face, Jim smiled and waved his hand in the air. "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of Simon."
Blair smiled in relief. "Thanks, man."
Jim simply nodded at the package. "Aren't you going to open it?" He had been wondering what was inside since Simon had dropped it on his desk and frankly his curiosity was starting to get the better of him.
Blair grinned and tore the heavy brown paper off, revealing a small wooden crate. After a few moments, he was able to pry the lid of with the aid of his small Swiss army knife. Setting the lid aside, he pushed the packing material towards the edges and stopped cold.
Ellison, sensing the abrupt change in his partner's heartbeat and breathing was instantly on alert.
"Sandburg?" he asked cautiously. "What is it?"
Blair swallowed hard and slowly he pulled the object from the crate.
Jim's eyes widened in surprise. "Wow!" he said simply.
Blair placed the gold mask gently on the desktop, brushed the remaining packing material off and stepped back as his partner leaned forward, running his sensitive fingers over the cold metal. "It's an Incan treasure mask," Blair said, still staring at the golden object.
The mask was nearly 1-1/2 feet by 1 foot wide, rounded slightly on both sides. The top was flat across with three triangles of varying sizes expertly molded into the golden finish. Below was a space for the eyes which rested above an ornate scene of an Incan Goddess surrounded by what appeared to be a crescent moon. At the bottom of the mask a three inch section protruded into a crude shape that resembled a cross. A pair of clasping hands adorned the cross from edge to edge.
"This isn't exactly my field of study, but from what I remember, the Incans sometimes used masks like this to indicate the location of their treasures."
"You mean it's like a map or something?"
Blair looked over at the sound of the voice, surprised to see that Rafe, Brown and half the Major Crimes division had wandered over towards them.
"Yeah," he nodded quickly. "It was sort of an insurance policy against the treasures being found and taken by anyone other than the tribe it belonged to. The mask was generally given to the one appointed as a caretaker of the treasure. Only a few of these masks are in existence, but, as far as I know, no treasures have ever been found."
Jim had also noticed the audience that had assembled to marvel at the artifact. "So how much is something like this worth?" he asked.
Blair shrugged. "If it's real, it would be priceless for the historical value alone, not to mention the gold." He moved back around to Jim's desk and grabbed the phone. "I think I might have an idea who would have sent this to me," he said as he punched the numbers on the dial. "An old professor of mine is supposed to be on an expedition somewhere in South America. If he did find an Incan treasure it would be one hell of a ...Hi, Janey. This is Blair Sandburg." The young man sat down, turning his attention to the person on the other end of the line. "I'm fine and you? " A pause. "Good, Hey Janey, I need a favor. I'm trying to track down Professor Zalesky. I know he's on an expedition in South America but I was wondering ..."
Jim focused his attention on his friend as the young man's heart suddenly jumped and all the color drained from his face.
"What?" his voice had become hoarse and shaky. "When?"
Jim opened his hearing until he could hear the female voice on the phone.
"We don't have many details, Blair," the tinny voice answered. "All we know is that they were killed somewhere outside of Lima. The local military isn't releasing any information except the names of the victims. I'm sorry, Blair. I wish I could tell you more."
"Thanks, Janey." he replaced the phone and stared at it, lost in thought.
"Chief?" Jim had moved around to crouch beside his friend. "You okay?"
It was more than a moment before the anthropologist raised his head in acknowledgment. He turned his stinging eyes towards his friend, his shock and pain clearly outlined on his face. "You heard?" At Jim's slight nod, he looked at the mask which was still sitting on Jim's desk. "It must have happened right after he sent this to me."
Jim felt his heart clutch at the emotion choking his friend's voice. "How well did you know him?"
Blair returned a shell-shocked gaze to his friend, opening his mouth to speak, but suddenly closing it. He abruptly stood and pushed his way past the detectives who were still admiring the mask.
"Blair!" Jim called after him. He let his hearing track his young friend into the hallway and through the doors of the men's room before turning to the captain.
"What's wrong with Sandburg?" the tall, black man asked with concern. He had read the stricken look on the observer's face which had mirrored the one he was seeing on Jim's now.
"It seems the man who sent this to him was killed soon after sending the mask to Blair." Jim said running his hand over his short, cropped hair. "He must have known him pretty well for him to be taking this so hard." He kept his eyes on the hallway, his hearing tuned to the sounds coming from the restroom.
Simon seemed to understand, knowing that Jim was monitoring his partner's distress. "Do you think it was a coincidence?"
Jim turned his eyes back to the captain.
"The mask." Simon waved a hand towards the artifact. "A man sends this to Sandburg care of the Cascade P.D. then is suddenly killed. Maybe I'm getting a bit pessimistic in my old age, but this is the Sandburg Zone we're talking about. Was this just a coincidence? Or was it sent here for a reason?"
Jim's eyes lost focus as he contemplated the captain's words. He had a point. Maybe by sending the mask here instead of the university, the professor was trying to tell them something. Maybe he had been afraid of something and had sent the mask to someone he trusted. Someone who would know what to do. Someone who would have the means or connections to protect it. But protect it from what? From whom? If Blair was right and the mask was indeed priceless, there was the threat of the black market. But if the mask was a map and did lead to a forgotten Incan treasure then every treasure hunter in the known world would fit into the equation - not to mention the Peruvian government itself. Jim felt a surge of anger at the professor for involving Sandburg in something that could be potentially dangerous, but the anger was quickly replaced by remorse. Whoever this professor had been, it was obvious that he had thought quite highly of Jim's young partner to entrust him with something so important.
He shook his head. He needed to talk to Blair. He looked back at Banks and shrugged. "I don't know, sir," he responded. "I'll talk to him."
The Captain nodded, watching as Jim lowered his head and headed out of the bullpen. "Okay, everybody," he shouted. "Let's get back to work. We do have crimes to solve, do we not?"
He watched as the detectives nodded their agreement and shuffled back to their respective tasks. Taking a deep breath, he glanced once more towards the hallway before turning and entering his office.
Jim paused in front of the door to the men's room, his hearing picking up Sandburg's familiar heartbeat. The soft sobs had given way to slow, shuddering breaths as the young man had fought to regain control of his emotions. Jim took a deep breath and pushed through the door. Zeroing in on the heartbeat, Jim found his partner on the far side of the room. Blair was squeezed into the corner against the wall and the outside of the far stall, sitting lotus-style on the cold floor, his arms wrapped protectively around his torso. He rocked slightly, his face hidden by the long curls which hung from his bowed head.
There was no answer, but the rocking motion halted.
"Blair?" Jim continued crossing the room and sliding down the wall to sit beside his friend.
Jim nodded. "You want to talk about it?"
Blair took a deep breath and leaned back against the wall next to Jim. "He was my friend," the young man began in a soft voice. "He was the first professor to take an interest in me when I came to the university." He smiled a little at the memory. "I was 16 years old and scared shitless even though I acted like I had it all together. Professor Zalesky saw right through the act and kind of took me under his wing." He looked suddenly at Jim, his eyes bright with emotion. "Did you know that he was partially responsible for introducing me to Burton's Sentinel theory?"
Jim shook his head, letting his partner continue.
"He was an archeologist, but he had an avid interest in the cultures of South America, not just the artifacts. He let me help him with some research on some of the aboriginal tribes, that's when I ran across the reference to Burton and his theories. He took me to see Dr. Stoddard and then helped me track down the Monograph. Most of the other students thought I was nuts, but Professor Zalesky told me that anything that could instill such a passion had to be followed up on." He grew quiet as the memories filled his head.
"Sounds like a good man." Jim acknowledged.
They sat for a few minutes, each man caught up in his thoughts. It was Blair who finally broke the silence.
"Why do you think he sent me the mask?" he asked, his voice soft.
Jim shrugged. "Maybe he trusted you to know what to do with it."
Blair nodded slowly. Finally, he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "You think the mask is what he was killed for?"
"Could be," Jim answered, mimicking his partner's pose. "But there's a lot of political unrest in that part of the world," he continued. "They could have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Then why send it here, instead of to the university?" Blair shook his head. "No, I think Professor Zalesky was trying to tell me something." He looked at his friend weighing his next words carefully. "I have to find out, Jim."
Ellison sighed and opened his eyes, meeting his partner's gaze. "We will, Chief. We will."
Hours later they still had very little information. Jim had tracked down some of his connections in the military while Blair had gone the university route. Neither had come up with much more than the fact that Professor Zalesky's dig had been a newly discovered Incan site near the ancient city of Cuzco on the Apurimac River in southern Peru, about 50 miles east of Lima. The team had been found on an open bluff nearly 20 miles from the dig site. According to Ellison's information, the professor and his team had been shot to death by what the Peruvian government claimed were rebel guerillas living in the mountain regions near the river. Although Blair could not get an official count of how many students were on the professor's team, he had estimated that nearly half of the 14 who had been found dead were Rainier students who had accompanied the professor to gain experience in field work.
Jim looked over at his partner, noting the slump of his shoulders and the fine lines around his red rimmed eyes. Standing, he placed his hands on the golden artifact which had captured the younger man's attention for the last hour and carefully replaced it in its crate. After closing the crate he motioned for Brown, the only other inhabitant of the bullpen, over and asked him to take the crate downstairs where, he decided, it would be reasonably safe locked up in the police department evidence room. As soon as the black detective agreed and left the bullpen on his mission, Jim turned to Sandburg. Jim could sense the turmoil of emotions that were running through the young man's mind and watched as the anthropologist ran shaking hands through his hair, clenching it tightly in a white knuckled fist. Blair's eyes were shut tightly and he breathed through his nose, no doubt trying to find his "center".
"Time to call it a night, Chief," he said grabbing their coats off the rack.
"It's not fair, Jim," Blair said. His voice was soft but controlled and his now open eyes expressed a hint of anger. "The Professor, all those students... it just isn't fair."
Jim placed his hand on his friend's shoulder and squeezed gently. "I know, Chief. There's just nothing you can do about it. You have to let it go."
Blair jumped from the chair, twisting out of Jim's grip. "Let it go?" he asked incredulously. "14 people, some of them friends of mine, are viciously murdered and I'm just supposed to let it go?" He started to back away from his partner, his face suddenly flushed in anger, his hands quickly clenching and unclenching. Jim could hear the younger man's heartbeat speed up and saw the emotion charged rage that now burned in his eyes.
"Sandburg," Jim cautioned. His peripheral vision picked up the dark form of the captain in the open doorway to his office and he lifted a hand to halt Banks' progress. "I know you're upset, Chief, but you have to calm down." He took a cautious step towards his partner reminding himself that Sandburg wasn't really angry at him but at a tragic event that he was powerless to change or control. He was surprised that the anthropologist had remained as calm as he had throughout the afternoon given the situation. After the episode earlier in the men's room, Blair had managed to lock his emotions away, focusing instead on trying to find any information about what had happened. The frustration at not having been able to ascertain any real leads was overwhelming the young man now and Jim had hoped to get him home safely before reality hit. Luckily, the bullpen was nearly empty at this late hour and it looked like the eruption of Mt. Sandburg was imminent. All Jim could hope to do now was some quick damage control.
Blair closed his eyes tightly, obviously trying to get a handle on his sudden rage. The anger and frustration that had been building hit a crescendo and Jim watched in horror as his partner turned and threw his fist into the large pane of glass next to the open doorway. The reaction was ear shattering as the glass exploded into a thousand tiny pieces, raining down around the anthropologist in a glittery cascade of light.
"Shit!" screamed both policemen in unison as they rushed towards the smaller man, now covered in small pieces of glass. Brushing the shards from his partner's shoulders and hair, Jim quickly pulled Blair around, putting his hands on the young man's head and forcing his face up. The look in the dark blue eyes was glassy and distant. "Blair? Chief? You with me?"
Simon joined them, concern overriding his anger as soon as he saw the anthropologist's face. "Is he okay?" he asked, grabbing a Cascade PD t-shirt from a nearby cabinet drawer and wrapping it around the young man's bleeding hand.
"I think he's in shock," Jim answered, not taking his eyes from his partner. "Blair?" he said a bit more forcefully, shaking him just a bit. "Blair, damnit, answer me, buddy. You're scaring me here."
Sandburg blinked a few times and focused his eyes on the detective. "Jim? What's..." he hissed as the pain in his damaged hand made itself known. "What the hell?" He grabbed his wrist with his left hand and tried to pull it away from Simon's crushing grip.
Jim led him to a chair and pushed him down before kneeling beside him.
"What happened?" Blair managed to gasp as he watched his friend carefully unwrap his hand. His eyes widened for a moment when he saw the damage before he squeezed them shut against the pain.
"I think we could say you exploded." Jim said before the Captain could respond. He shook his head slightly at the older man letting him know that he could handle this before returning his attentions to his partner. "Feel better now?"
Blair's eyes were still glassy, but dulled slightly by the pain. He looked at his partner, his eyes travelling quickly to the destruction behind him, then refocused tightly on his shoes. "No," he whispered.
Jim rewrapped the hand and stood to face the captain. "I'll take care of the window, sir," he stated moving protectively in front of his partner. "Right now I think I should get him to the emergency room."
Simon sighed, knowing that Ellison's protective stance was one he did not want to mess with. If the truth be told, he was glad the kid had finally reacted the way he did. Kind of made him seem a little closer to normal. "Go," he said waving his hand towards the door. "Don't worry about the glass, I'll have maintenance take care of it."
Jim breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Simon." He patted the larger man's arm and turned to collect his shell-shocked partner.
"Just get him taken care of before he bleeds all over the paperwork."
Jim draped Sandburg's jacket over his shoulders before sliding into his own. "Come on, Chief. Let's get that hand taken care of."
Blair stood quietly and started for the door before turning around to face the captain.
"I'm sorry, Simon," he said softly, his eyes not quite able to make contact.
"It's okay, kid. That window needed washing anyway."
Jim unlocked the door to the loft and stepped aside, waiting for his partner to shuffle in before him. Tossing his keys into the basket on the small table next to the door, he slipped out of his jacket, watching as the younger man slowly made his way to the couch and sank tiredly into it.
"You hungry?" he asked looking at the clock and wincing at the late hour. They had spent nearly 3 hours in the ER - half of it waiting in the cold, stark exam room. Sandburg hadn't been very talkative, only answering direct questions put to him by the medical personnel. They had stitched up his hand, wrapping it tightly in gauze from the tips of his fingers to just past his wrist before giving him a prescription for a mild pain killer and sending them home. He now sat, head back against the cushion, his right arm cradled by his left close to his stomach.
"Chief," Jim said with a bit more volume. "You need to eat something before you take a pill."
Blair just sighed, pulling his arm in a little tighter. "I'm not hungry, Jim."
Ellison, expecting the reply, had already crossed to the refrigerator and was now peering into it. "You still have to eat," he said matter of factly. He pulled out a loaf of bread and some lunch meat, deciding that a sandwich would do the trick. He quickly made two sandwiches, placed them on plates and set them on the table. Grabbing a glass, he poured some juice for Blair and grabbed a beer for himself.
"Come on, Chief," he called. "Get your butt over here and eat."
After a few moments, Blair decided it wouldn't be worth the argument and slowly rose, careful not to jostle his throbbing hand. Making his way to the table, he sat in the chair Jim had pulled out and stared at the plate in front of him. The thought of eating anything at the moment made his stomach turn, but one look at the Sentinel's face made him take a small bite.
"Good boy," Jim smiled as he sat across the table. He took a larger bite of his own sandwich, washing it down with the beer.
They ate in silence, both men running over the days events in their minds. Blair managed to eat the entire sandwich before he pushed the plate away and sat back.
"Feel better?" Jim asked.
Blair nodded, surprised that he did feel better even though his hand was really starting to hurt. "I'm just tired," he responded softly. "I think I'll go to bed."
Jim rose and crossed to the counter, grabbing the prescription bottle he had filled at the hospital pharmacy. He shook out two of the small blue pills.
"Here," he said holding them out in front of his partner.
Blair looked up and stared at the pills, unsure for a moment whether he wanted them or not. The throbbing in his hand that beat in time with the ache in his head made the decision for him. He took the pills, placed them in his mouth and downed them with a drink of juice.
Jim was pleased to see the anthropologist take the medicine without protest, all the while knowing that the pain must have been pretty bad for the young man to have acquiesced so quickly. It was also likely that he just hadn't had the will or energy to argue. Blair had been out of sorts and unusually quiet since the incident at the station. He was probably a bit embarrassed as well as confused, not quite knowing how to cope with the death of his friend and his own conflicting emotions of despair and anger.
"Come on, Junior," Jim said softly pulling his friend up and pushing him towards the door of his bedroom. "Let's get you in bed."
"Ah, Jim, you're so romantic."
Jim smiled, glad to see a hint of the old Blair shining in the sad eyes. "Hey, I did make you dinner. What more do you want?"
Blair shrugged, stopping at the door to the bedroom. "I don't know, candlelight, music, flowers..." He smiled tiredly, meeting the detective's eyes for the first time. "I'm sorry about what happened at the station, Jim. I don't know what got into me."
Jim placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "It was understandable," he answered. "A little over the top, but nobody has ever accused you of doing things halfway."
"No," Blair said shaking his head. "I like to give it my all."
Jim chuckled, relieved to see the young man in better spirits. "Go on. Get some sleep before you pass out. Things will look a whole lot different in the morning."
Blair shook his head and stifled a yawn. "Thanks, Jim. Goodnight."
Jim felt a weight he hadn't been aware of lift from his heart as the young man smiled once more and entered his room. He quickly cleared the table and washed the plates and glass. The Sentinel secured the loft and focused his hearing on the small bedroom as he crossed to the stairs. He took comfort in the sounds of the familiar heartbeat and slow, even breathing that emanated from the sleeping man inside. "Sleep well, Chief," he whispered. Slowly he climbed the stairs and fell into his bed, not caring that he was still dressed in his jeans and T-shirt. Rolling over, he focused on his friend's heartbeat, letting the familiar rhythm lull him to sleep.
The smell of dark, rich coffee teased his senses, pulling him from the warm cocoon of sleep. He stretched, slowly becoming aware of the dull throbbing emanating from his right hand. He opened his eyes, blinking against the harsh daylight, and focused on the cause of his discomfort.
A low moan escaped from his throat as he remembered the events of the previous evening. He covered his eyes with his left hand, wishing he could escape back into his world of dark oblivion. Jim must be pissed - not to mention Simon. Another moan filled his throat and he felt his face flush with embarrassment. How was he going to face them today?
Before he could formulate another thought, he heard the door to his room open and slow footsteps enter, stopping next to the bed.
"Looks like your memory is working fine."
Blair moved his hand, squinting up into the stoic face of Jim Ellison.
"Unfortunately," he mumbled.
Jim sat on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle the injured hand. "How's the hand?" he asked.
"Hurts," Blair replied truthfully, letting his voice advertise how pathetic he felt. There was really no sense trying to hide his pain and embarrassment. It didn't take a Sentinel to see the blood rise in his face and Jim could most definitely hear the increased pounding of Blair's heart as well as the quickening of his breathing. Maybe he could score a few sympathy points - he could use all the help he could get.
Jim laid a hand on his partner's shoulder.
"Come on, Junior," he said, a hint of a smile in his voice. "Breakfast is ready."
Blair allowed the older man to drag him from the warmth of his bed and seat him at the table. He watched as Jim placed a plate of eggs and toast in front of him as well as a large glass of juice.
"Eat," the detective ordered taking a seat across the table and sipping on his coffee.
Blair dimly recalled being in a similar situation the night before and tried to hide a grin.
"What's so funny?"
Blair looked up guiltily. "Nothing, man. Just kind of got a feeling of deja vu." He quickly looked away, but not before seeing the slight grin light up his partner's face. "Food must be your answer to everything."
Before Jim could respond, his attention turned towards the door, his head tilted at a familiar angle.
Blair knew he was listening to something and remained quiet so as not to interfere. He watched as the detective rose and moved towards the door moments before he heard the soft knock.
Jim opened the door revealing a pretty, but startled woman of about 35 years of age. She stood about 5'8", had short, dark hair and large hazel eyes. She was dressed in a jade green business suit and carried a black leather briefcase. She quickly regained her composure and looked up at the big detective. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I was looking for a Blair Sandburg. The university gave me this address..."
Jim watched as the woman leaned forward to find the source of the voice. Her expression warmed as she caught sight of the anthropologist. "Blair?" she asked moving past Jim into the loft. She rushed over to the young man and hugged him. "God, Blair..."
Blair held onto the woman for a moment before noticing his partner watching in amusement. Slowly he pulled back and turned to face Jim.
"Uh, Jim, this is Melanie Zalesky."
Jim's eyes widened at the last name and he shot his friend a questioning look.
Blair continued. "Melanie, this is my partner, Jim Ellison."
Melanie held out her hand. "It's nice to finally meet you, Mr. Ellison. Blair's told me lot about you."
Jim took the hand and smiled warmly. "Thank you, Ms. Zalesky. And it's Jim."
"Melanie," she returned the smile.
"I'm sorry about your dad," Blair continued the conversation as soon as they had seated themselves in the living room.
Melanie nodded. "It was quite a shock. I just wish I had been able to see him again. I had so much I wanted to tell him..." her voice trailed off as her eyes lost focus.
Jim and Blair exchanged an uneasy look, not knowing how to comfort this woman.
"I'm sorry," she said before either had a chance to speak. "I didn't mean to - "
"No," Blair interrupted, placing a hand over hers. "It's okay."
Jim cleared his throat. "Pardon me for being so blunt, Ms. Zalesky - um, Melanie. But why did you want to see Blair?"
Melanie took a deep breath and returned the detective's gaze. "About two months ago I got a very strange letter from my father." She pulled large manila envelope from her briefcase and handed it to the younger man. "In it he told me that if anything happened to him to give this envelope to Blair. He didn't explain why." She smiled suddenly. "My father could be rather cryptic at times and I had learned over the years to not ask a lot of questions. My father's expedition was being partially funded by the foundation I work for. He had seemed so excited, telling us that he was really on to something. Then the University contacted me to tell me about the...the shooting..." her voice cracked and she took a deep breath to compose herself.
Jim noticed his partner's attention lost in the papers he had pulled from the envelope and divided his own between his guide and the woman. "Do you know what your father was working on?" he asked carefully.
Melanie shrugged. "Just that he had found something important. He was always getting excited about some new lead on a lost Incan treasure. He'd been searching most of his life. He actually found a few very valuable artifacts which are now in museums, but I didn't think he ever expected to find real Incan treasure."
"I think that's exactly what he found."
Both Jim and Melanie watched as Blair rushed into his room and returned with his glasses. He reread part of one of the papers, then looked excitedly up at the others. "I think he might have actually been on to something," he said, his eyes bright behind the small round lenses. "The papers in this envelope are copies of his notes. He has coordinates that pinpoint exactly where he found the mask and his research into how the symbols on the mask could be deciphered to lead to the treasure."
"Mask?" Melanie asked looking from one man to the other. "What mask?"
Blair stood up and started to pace behind the couch. "Professor Zalesky sent a package to me yesterday in care of the Cascade PD. In it was what looked like an Incan treasure mask. Did the authorities give you any information? Anything to indicate what had happened in Peru?"
Melanie shook her head. "They said it was some sort of rebel attack. The government was looking into it but they didn't have much hope of finding whoever was responsible. Why?"
Blair took a deep breath and looked at Jim who nodded slightly. "I think that your father found an actual Incan treasure mask. These notes contain information on how to read the mask to ascertain where the treasure could have been buried."
"You mean he actually found it?" Melanie's eyes grew wide as she absorbed what the young man was telling her.
Blair nodded. "I think it's possible."
"And you think he was killed for this information?" she directed the next statement towards the detective.
"We don't know that for sure," he answered carefully.
"But it is a possibility?"
Jim reluctantly nodded.
Melanie sat back for a moment, lost in thought. "You have to find out," she said, suddenly focusing her attention on Blair. She continued before the anthropologist could speak. "Dad sent you the mask and the notes. He must have trusted you enough to finish what he started." Her expression was pleading. "Please, Blair. If Dad was really on to something, you owe it to him to find out."
Jim decided he did not like the direction the conversation was leading. "Now, just a minute - "
"She's right, Jim." Blair turned his expressive blue eyes towards his partner. "This was his life's work. If I can help make it a reality, then I want to do it. I have to do it."
"Chief," Jim began carefully. "I know you want to help. But remember, 14 people were killed. The government in Peru is blaming the rebels, there's a lot of political unrest in that part of the world. It's too dangerous to just go barging into a situation - "
"Barging in? Is that what you think I'm going to do?" Blair's voice held a hint of recrimination. "I've been on expeditions before, Jim. I know how to deal with political red tape and I can take care of myself."
Jim quickly changed tactics. "I know that, Sandburg. I wasn't trying to say you couldn't handle yourself. All I'm trying to say is that we should get all the information we can before we make a move into what is obviously a hostile and dangerous situation."
The use of the word we was not lost on the anthropologist. He nodded his head as his anger disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced.
Melanie spoke up after a few moments of tense silence. "I'd like to help in whatever way I can," she offered. "Like I said before, the foundation I work for helped fund the expedition. I'm sure I can extend that funding to help with the expense of any investigation."
Jim thanked her and led her towards the door, promising her that they would be in touch as soon as they formulated a plan.
After Melanie had left, Jim returned to the living room and sat down beside his still quiet friend.
It was a few minutes before Blair spoke up.
"I seem to be apologizing alot for my behavior lately," he said in a soft voice.
"I've noticed," Jim responded. He turned towards his friend, one hand draped over the back of the couch, the other cupping the younger man's chin, forcing the dark blue eyes up to meet his own. "I know this is hitting pretty close to home, Chief, but you have to trust me. We'll figure it out."
"I trust you, Jim."
"Good," Jim said patting his friend's cheek. "Then go finish your breakfast. We've got a lot of work to do."
By late afternoon, Ellison had exhausted most of his avenues of information trying to track down any information as to what had happened to the professor's party in Peru. A call, returned from one of his old Special Ops buddies who was still stationed in South America, had finally given him some insight into the situation. According to his buddy, the rebels in that area were not the type to needlessly slaughter innocents. They were fighting what they considered a corrupt government and had kept the violence focused mainly on the local army and militia. There had been a few incidents involving civilians in the area, but the rebels had denied any involvement, as they were doing with Professor Zalesky's group. Jim trusted the information considering the source.
"But if it wasn't the guerillas, then who could have done something like that?" Blair had demanded.
"I don't know, Chief," Jim responded. "Maybe the local militia is trying to cover up something. Or maybe they just don't know and are blaming the rebels because it's convenient. All I know is that Matt has been down there for 10 years, he knows the people and he knows his stuff. If he says it wasn't the rebels, I have a mind to believe him."
Blair nodded and sank back in the chair next to Jim's desk. He pursed his lips, his mind moving a mile a minute and took a deep breath.
"Okay," he said looking at his partner with intense blue eyes. "Now what?"
Jim rubbed his hand over his face. He knew that Blair would not give this up no matter how hard he tried to persuade him.
"Now," Jim stated with a sigh. " I need to know how important this is to you." He returned his partner's gaze. "How far do you want to take this?"
Blair stared hard at his friend, hoping that some of the conviction he was feeling would come through. Professor Zalesky had trusted him with this. He couldn't let the man down. "Whatever it takes, Jim.
A call to Melanie Zalesky had secured them airfare to Lima and hotel and vehicle accommodations. She had issued them credit for whatever supplies they may need once they arrived at the dig site and had made them promise to contact her regularly for updates.
After they had explained the situation to Simon, the Captain had reluctantly allowed Jim to take some unused vacation time, also making them agree to keep in touch. The University had agreed wholeheartedly to the operation, hoping to get some answers for the families of the students and faculty involved. They agreed to cover Blair's classes for as long as was necessary for the grad student to piece together the puzzle of Dr. Zalesky's death.
Arriving in Lima, both men were exhausted from the long flight, and were glad to see a driver standing with a sign reading "B. Sandburg" next to a small beige sedan. After introducing himself, Blair motioned for Jim to join him and they placed their bags in the trunk of the sedan.
"I am Carlos," the driver said in choppy English. "I will take you to your hotel."
Jim just smiled and motioned for Blair to proceed him into the back of the car. He had been forced to turn his senses down for most of the trip and was now fighting a pounding headache. Looking at his partner, he noted the dull pain in his eyes.
"You okay?" he asked indicating the still wrapped hand.
"Yeah," Blair nodded, leaning his head back against the seat. "Nothing a shower and about a week's worth of sleep wouldn't cure." He closed his eyes and pulled his right arm close to his body, wincing slightly at the movement.
Jim's attention was pulled away by the sudden stopping of the car. He braced himself against the back of the seat with one arm, throwing the other across his partner to stop him from being thrown over the seat and through the windshield.
"What the hell..." Jim's voice trailed off, his eyes watching intently as five men slowly approached the vehicle. They were all obviously Latin, dressed in military style clothing and wore cheap bandanas over the lower parts of their faces. Jim could not distinguish their ages, but did not miss the semi-automatic guns leveled at the occupants of the car.
"Step out of the car," one of the men, obviously the leader, ordered.
"Jim?" Blair's voice shook as he whispered.
"It's okay. Just do what they say." Jim pushed open the door of the vehicle, stepping out and forward to shield his partner as he exited behind him.
The men moved in closer, surrounding the Americans. The leader motioned to one of the larger men who rounded the car and pulled the driver from behind the wheel. There was little traffic on the road, and the people who were on foot hurried by, making an obvious effort to not get involved. The driver was forced towards the back of the car and told to open the trunk. Jim and Blair quietly watched as two of their captors pulled their duffel bags from the car and quickly rifled through them. Not finding what they wanted they turned to the leader and shook their heads.
The leader grunted and returned his attention to the two Americans. "Where is it?"
Jim gave him his best innocent expression. "Where is what?"
One of the men responded by shoving the butt of his rifle into the detective's stomach.
"Hey!" Blair yelled and jumped forward only to be met by the butt of another rifle. He fell to his knees, his arms clasped tightly around his middle, trying desperately to breathe. A hand grabbed his hair and cruelly yanked him back to his feet.
"Stop it!" Jim managed to scream. The leader moved to stand in front of Ellison who raised himself to his full height to look down his nose at the smaller man.
"I hope we do not have to play these games, Señor Ellison." At the detectives startled look the man continued. "Yes, we know who you are. We also know why you are here. We want the mask. You will tell us where it is."
"Go to hell," Blair spat at him and was rewarded with another shot to his gut. He tried to double over, but the hand in his hair held him painfully upright. The butt of the gun connected with his head and stars exploded before his eyes. The hand holding his hair suddenly let go and he crumpled to the ground.
"Enough!" yelled Ellison stopping the men from further injuring his friend. He refocused his attention on the leader. "We don't have it," he said calmly. "But I can get it."
"Fine. We'll return your friend to you when I see the mask."
"No deal," Jim said, his eyes cold. "He stays with me."
The smaller man laughed. "You are in no position to bargain."
Before the man could say another word, the sound of gunfire filled the air behind them. Reflexively ducking for cover, Jim grabbed his barely conscious partner and hauled him over towards the car. Their attackers returned the gunfire and dashed for their vehicles, quickly accelerating away from the scene.
Jim looked up, expecting to have to fight his way to safety, and was relieved to see the familiar face of Matt Lowery.
"Nice timing," he smiled at his friend grasping his hand in both of his.
"One of my better qualities," the other man returned the grin.
A low moan from behind him brought Jim's attention back into focus. Kneeling down next to his partner, Jim gently moved the grad student's hair back from the wound on his head.
"He okay?" Matt asked kneeling down beside the detective.
"Maybe they knocked some sense into him," Jim responded without looking up. "Come on, Chief. Talk to me, buddy."
Blair opened his eyes. Blinking against the light he waited until the face in front of him stopped moving in and out of focus. "I'm okay," he said, his voice shaking. His head hurt like hell and his stomach was now throbbing in time with his hand.
Jim just grunted and sat back against his heels.
"We'd better get out of here before your friends decide to come back," Matt stated. He scanned the street for any other signs of danger, finding none, but staying on alert.
Jim nodded his agreement and stood, offering his hand to pull Blair into a semi-standing position. The pain in his stomach wouldn't let the young man stand completely upright, and he wobbled a bit unsteadily as a wave of dizziness threatened to steal his last thread of consciousness.
"Easy there," Matt said, taking the younger man's other arm to help steady him. "You took quite a hit." He motioned towards a jeep behind them. "Why don't you guys come with me. I'll take you someplace safe."
In no mood to argue, Blair allowed himself to be led to the Jeep and helped into the passenger seat. Somehow, he managed to drift off during the incredibly bumpy ride, a testament to his extreme exhaustion. He was vaguely aware of Jim's voice telling him to move once the vehicle had stopped. He felt hands help him from the Jeep and lead him somewhere where he was told to lay down. He gratefully complied and let the darkness take over.
"The kid means a lot to you," Matt observed as he studied his old Captain. Jim had led the younger man to one of the cots in the corner of the main room of the compound as soon as they had arrived. He had watched silently as Ellison had gently probed the cut on the kid's hairline and cleaned the trickle of blood that had run down his forehead and cheek. He checked Sandburg's pupils finding them equal and responsive. Satisfied that the cut was not going to start to bleed again any time soon, Ellison had carefully lifted his friend's shirt and checked his abdomen and ribs with a touch much softer than Matt had ever thought the tough military man was capable. He had then unwrapped the young man's already bandaged right hand, cleaned the myriad of cuts and abrasions and rewrapped it with bandages provided by their medic. After finishing, he covered the sleeping young man with a course blanket and stood, staring at his partner for a moment.
The closeness of Matt's voice made him jump. He hadn't heard his old friend approach, his entire focus having been on his guide.
He looked away for a moment considering Matt's comment, then returned his gaze to his sleeping partner, a slight smile on his tired features. "Yeah," he answered softly. "I guess he does."
Matt placed a hand on his old friend's shoulder, turning him towards the outer room. "Come on, Captain. Let's get you something to eat."
Jim was still tired, but the food had made him feel much better. He leaned back in the chair and watched as his old friend poured whiskey into two small glasses. Handing one to Jim, Matt raised his glass.
"To the good old days," he said, a smile teasing his brown eyes.
"They weren't that good," Jim responded raising his own glass towards his friend.
"No," Matt shrugged. "But at least we're here to lie about 'em."
"So," Matt continued as he refilled the glasses. "I assume that your welcoming committee wanted whatever is in that crate you shipped to me."
It was more of a statement than a question but Jim answered anyway. "Yeah. It arrived allright?"
Matt stood up and disappeared behind a curtain, returning momentarily with the small crate. "Safe and sound," he said placing it on the floor between their chairs. "Mickey delivered it himself yesterday." He looked through squinted eyes at his former Captain. "You must have something good on him to make him deliver this personally."
Jim just shrugged and smiled, remembering the old chopper pilot he had pulled out of a bar fight years ago. "Let's just say he owes me one."
"Yeah," Matt said laughing, also remembering the tough old sergeant that had delivered the crate after transporting it from the states to Lima. The old coot didn't do favors for anyone, as far as Matt had ever known. Ellison must have had something pretty good on the old man.
Matt sat down and gestured towards the crate. "So, you gonna tell me what's in there? It must be pretty important for you to go to all this trouble."
Jim nodded, taking a quick look at the cot in the corner. Blair hadn't moved since they had arrived and his heartbeat and breathing remained steady. Leaning forward, Jim quickly filled Lowery in about the mask and Blair's intent to finish what the professor had started.
Matt sat back, sipping the whiskey, trying to wrap his mind around what the captain had just told him. "And the kid thinks he can find this treasure?" he asked. He kept his voice pitched low. He trusted most of his men, but the possibility of finding a fortune in lost gold was enough to tempt even the most honest man.
"The professor meant alot to him," Jim said. "He kind of feels that he owes it to him."
"And what if he does find it? What about the treasure?"
"It'll go into a museum or whatever they do with stuff like that," Jim responded absently.
Matt looked hard at his friend, finding that he was not really surprised at what he saw. "You don't give a damn about the gold, do you?"
Jim shook his head and looked back at his sleeping partner. "No. This has nothing to do with the gold," he said quietly. He smiled as he thought of a time years ago when his partner had tried to explain it to him. He finally understood. "It's about friendship."
Blair awoke with a moan, his entire body protesting the slightest movement. He hoped that someone got the license plate of the truck that had hit him he mused as the assorted aches and pains made themselves known. Slowly he opened his eyes and squinted against the brightness. He waited a moment for his vision to clear, then slowly assessed his surroundings.
He obviously was not in the loft. Vaguely he recalled the flight to Peru, the attack by the bandits and the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. Looking down he realized that his hands and feet were not bound, his right hand had been rewrapped and he was covered with a dark green blanket. Okay, I'm not a prisoner. Then where the hell was he? And where was Jim?
The smell of strong, hot coffee assaulted him and made his stomach rumble. Sitting up slowly, the rumble was replaced by a dull ache that seemed to make his way around and up his torso to his ribs. Another moan escaped his throat as he placed his feet on the floor and leaned forward to ease some of the pressure on his stomach. He was aware of a person walking towards him and sitting on the cot opposite him. Slowly he raised his throbbing head and squinted across the short distance.
"About time you woke up. How are you feeling, Chief?"
Blair was relieved to see the smiling face of his partner.
"Like I was run over by a truck," he answered, his voice a little testy. "How the hell do you think I feel?"
Jim chuckled. "Hopefully, not as bad as you look."
Blair merely glared at him.
The look merely made Jim grin more. "You got pretty bruised up but nothing's broken. You'll probably be pretty sore for a while though."
Blair didn't feel the need to acknowledge the obvious.
"Hungry?" Jim asked, standing and taking a step closer to Blair's cot.
At Blair's nod, Jim reached down and helped him slowly rise, steadying him as he adjusted to his new vertical position.
"Where are we?" the anthropologist asked as he was led to a table across the room and eased into a straight backed wooden chair. Jim explained the events of the previous day finishing with their arrival at the Lowery's compound.
"Jesus, Jim," Blair's voice was barely above a whisper. "You mean we're putting ourselves in the hands of a bunch of mercenaries?"
"No," the older man answered in a measured tone, taking a seat across the table. "We're getting some much needed assistance from an old friend."
"You trust this guy?"
Jim nodded. "Matt's a good man."
Blair remained silent. He trusted his partner's judgement, just wasn't sure if this type of man was someone he wanted to entrust with a secret such as theirs. "What about the rest of them?"
"The rest of them do what I tell them to."
Blair jumped and turned at the voice from behind him, wincing as his ribs protested the sudden movement. Something about the stocky, military-looking man behind him made him regret his earlier doubts.
"Sorry," he said casting his eyes back down to the table. "I was just - "
"Being careful," Lowery finished for him. He stepped forward, extending his hand. "I'm Matt Lowery."
Blair reflexively offered his own right hand, then remembered the bandages and shrugged. "Sorry," he said pulling the arm back. "Blair Sandburg."
Matt smiled and clapped the younger man on the shoulder. "Pleased to meet you, Blair. Any partner of Jim's has my admiration and undying sympathy." His eyes held a hint of mirth as he looked sideways towards Ellison. He leaned in closer as his voice lowered to a conspiratory whisper. "Frankly, I'm surprised a man of your obvious intelligence is still willing to hang around with a Neanderthal like him."
Blair found himself liking this man. "Well, he does come in kind of handy when the bullets start to fly."
Jim had had enough. "Okay, okay. If you two are finished bonding, maybe we can get down to business."
Matt squeezed Blair's shoulder and laughed. "Still working on the sense of humor, I see."
Blair nodded, grinning at his partner. "We're getting there."
Jim rolled his eyes as Matt pulled up another chair and motioned for one of the men to bring in some food. As soon as each man had a steaming bowl of what looked and smelled remotely like oatmeal in front of him, Matt became serious.
"So where do you want to start?"
Jim thought for a moment before responding. "We should probably check in with the local police."
Matt shook his head slightly. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Captain. The local law enforcement here isn't exactly on the up and up. They're connected with the military but they have their own agenda." At Jim's look of interest, he continued. "The local militia is headed by a guy named Sanchez. He's a mean little prick who has most of the people scared to death. Anybody who has stood up to him and his men has mysteriously disappeared. No bodies are ever found so there is never any proof of what happened to them. If you want my opinion, your friends from the street yesterday were probably connected to Sanchez."
"Well, what about the rebels?" Blair asked. "Couldn't it have been them?"
I doubt it," said Lowery, shaking his head. "The rebels around here are mostly just ordinary people from the villages who finally got fed up with Sanchez' hold over them. They have weapons and such, but wouldn't use them to instigate a fight with someone they didn't know. They are just people fighting to save their way of life and the lives of their children."
Blair nodded and looked into his bowl. "You seem to know a lot about them," he said cautiously.
Matt gave Jim a quick grin. Ellison was right, the kid was pretty perceptive. "Yeah," he admitted. "I do. As a matter of fact you're in the rebel camp right now."
The former covert-ops men tried to hide their grins as Sandburg's eyebrows shot up in alarm.
"Whoa, Chief," said Ellison, holding up a hand to placate his partner. "There's nothing to worry about. We're perfectly safe here."
Blair was torn between the obvious trust Jim had in his old military buddy and his own irrational fear. His trust in the Sentinel won out.
"Okay," he said evenly, hoping his heartbeat wasn't drumming as loudly in Jim's ears as it was in his own. "Then I guess that means you're convinced the rebels had nothing to do with Professor Zalesky's death." He directed the statement to his partner.
"Like Matt said, that's not what they're fighting for."
Blair sighed and pushed the bowl away. "Okay, then. Where do we go from here?"
Jim directed his attention back to Lowery. "Do you know where the bodies were found?"
Matt nodded. "Sure. It's about half a day's hike from here. Why?"
"Maybe something there can give us some kind of clue about what happened."
Lowery looked from one of the men to the other, doubt clouding his features. "Come on, Jim. It was over two weeks ago. You can't possibly think you're going to find something that can help tell you who killed those people?"
"Maybe not," Jim shrugged. "But why would the Professor be so far from the actual dig site? You said they were found on a mesa near the mountains, right?"
"So, why were they there?" This time it was Blair who asked the question catching on to the detective's train of thought. "You think maybe they were killed somewhere else and placed there?"
Jim shook his head. "Not all 14 of them. I doubt it. They were there for a reason. From what you've told me about Professor Zalesky, he was a seasoned veteran. He wouldn't have tried to pitch a camp on a open mesa - too unprotected. So there had to be another reason they were there."
"The mask!" Blair exclaimed suddenly. "The directions on the mask!"
Lowery, who had been sitting silently watching the byplay between the two partners, spoke up. "What about the mask?"
"The mask Professor Zalesky sent me was carved with symbols," Blair explained. "According to his notes, he believed the symbols were a set of directions that would show where the treasure had been buried."
"Yeah. Only there was no indication on where to start. He had been researching the Incan treasure masks most of his life. What if he figured it out? What if he found out where the trail started?"
Jim listened intently to his partner's speech, silently agreeing but not wanting to get the young man's hopes up. "Let's not jump to any conclusions, Chief."
"You have to admit it is a possibility, Jim."
The excitement that had replaced the pain and exhaustion in the anthropologist's eyes was a welcome sight to the Sentinel.
"Yeah," he agreed reluctantly. He wasn't quite able to suppress a grin at his young friend's look of triumph. Glancing over at Lowery, he was surprised to see the rebel grinning, too.
"He always this excitable?" Lowery asked shaking his head at Sandburg's enthusiasm.
Jim sighed and nodded. "You kidding? You've caught him on an off day."
Lowery laughed. "Now I understand how you got yourself roped into this."
It was Blair's turn to roll his eyes. "Come on, guys, be serious here, okay?"
"Sorry, Blair," Matt said, the smile not quite leaving his face. "I suppose you two want to head out to the mesa as soon as possible."
Jim nodded then looked towards his partner. He looked better, but Jim knew he was still hurting from the beating he had taken. "You sure you're up to this, Chief?"
"I'm fine," Blair assured him. " Just a little sore. A good hike should work out most of the kinks."
Jim knew he was lying. He also knew that the younger man would not accept being left behind. He would either argue until Jim caved in or just pretend to give in and follow them. Either way, he was bound and determined to come along and Jim would feel better having his friend close by where he could keep an eye on him.
"Okay," he agreed, not missing the radiant smile his guide shot his way. "Let's get moving."
About four hours into the eight hour hike to the mesa, Blair started to rethink his plan about coming along. His head was starting to throb again and his hand and stomach had resumed their aching, making it harder and harder to focus on the rough terrain. Determined not to slow down the others, Blair grit his teeth and focused all of his attention on putting one foot in front of the other. He forced his mind to contemplate Professor Zalesky's research, turning the information over in his brain, trying to latch onto any piece of information that could help him find the ancient trail that the professor had obviously discovered. He kept up, marching mechanically behind his partner until a hand on his arm pulled him to an abrupt halt.
"Whoa, Chief," Jim said pulling his friend towards him. "Time to take a break."
"I'm fine, Jim," Blair lied. "We can keep going."
Jim smiled tolerantly. "I'm sure you are, but the rest of us are a little tired. We're just stopping for a few minutes to rest and get our bearings."
Blair nodded and allowed Jim to pull the backpack from his shoulders. The Sentinel had not allowed him to carry anything heavy. He had packed Professor Zalesky's journals, an extra shirt and some trail mix into his pack, agreeing to let Jim and Matt take turns carrying the heavy mask. He sat down against a large rock and leaned back, closing his eyes. It felt sooo good to stop moving. He was vaguely aware of Jim and Matt discussing their route with the other man who had come with them from the camp. He was a native by the name of Diaz. Matt said he was trustworthy and Jim was satisfied with his friend's opinion.
He watched them through half closed eyes, losing his fight against the sudden drowsiness that had overtaken him. He could really use a power nap right now. Just 10 or 15 minutes and he would be good to go. It was a talent he had learned to survive in grad school during finals.
He was vaguely aware of his partner shaking him and calling out his name.
"What?" He jumped and was immediately rewarded with an increased pounding in his skull.
"Take it easy, Chief. We're ready to move out. How are you doing?"
Blair looked up into his friend's eyes, seeing nothing but concern.
"I'm okay," he said squeezing his eyes closed in an attempt to alleviate the headache.
"Doing that power nap thing again?" Jim asked him, a touch of humor in his voice.
"Yeah," Blair replied. "How long was I out?"
Jim shrugged. "About an hour or so."
Blair looked at him in surprise. When they had stopped, Jim had told him it was only for a few minutes. Blair felt his cheeks begin to redden as he realized that his partner had held up the others because of him, but before he could complain, the older man shrugged and held out his hand. "You needed the rest," he said simply.
Blair bit back his comment and merely nodded. Jim was right. He had been exhausted and he certainly felt better even though the headache was threatening to erupt again. He just wished that Jim hadn't had to hold up the entire expedition because of him.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Chief," Jim said as if reading his mind. He stood and reached out a hand to pull his friend up. He helped the younger man on with the backpack and then lifted the heavier pack containing the mask.
"Ready?" Matt asked as he and Diaz joined them. He helped Jim secure his pack then turned to look at Blair. "We've got about three or four hours left to hike, but the worst of the terrain is behind us. There's a trail that leads up the hillside to the mesa. It's not very steep but it's a bit tricky in spots. Don't push yourself. If you need to stop, let us know."
Blair nodded sheepishly. Just what he needed, two baby-sitters. Like one wasn't bad enough!
"You're just like Jim," he mumbled.
"Not exactly," Matt chuckled. "I'm much better looking."
The rest of the trip was uneventful, the four men stopping only one more time to rest. The trail was not well traveled sometimes causing them to detour around large rocks and overgrown vegetation. By the time they got to the mesa it was late afternoon. The jungle growth had suddenly opened up into a wide, flat area that was surrounded on two sides by rock and one side by dense jungle growth. The wind was blowing strongly across the open area causing a high pitched whistling . The irritating sound caused Jim to unconsciously turn the dial down on his hearing.
"You were right about the Professor not camping here," Matt said as he joined his friend at the edge of the mesa. "Too windy for a campfire or tents. They must have been here for some other reason." He smiled as Ellison's young partner took a tentative step closer to the precipice, peered nervously over and hastily withdrew to a comfortable distance. He turned back to his former captain, seeing a similar smile on his face as he too watched the anthropologist.
"He's not too fond of heights," Jim explained, turning back to look out over the drop off.
"Then what's he doing up here?" Matt asked, puzzled.
"He's even less fond of his friends getting killed."
Matt nodded in understanding. He looked back at the young man whom his old friend seemed to consider family. With his long hair and intellectual mind, Sandburg was definitely not the type of person the Jim Ellison he had known would have given the time of day to, let alone his trust and friendship. But, that was obviously what had happened. Ellison seemed to regard this kid as someone vitally important. He had been able to tell that there was more to it, but neither Ellison or Sandburg seemed inclined to talk about it. They just seemed to naturally form an easy partnership, each one instinctively in tune with the other. Ellison had kept an eye on the younger man, concerned about this health and stopping them when his friend had needed to rest. It had held them up a little, but Matt had not minded, happy to see the change that had taken place in his formerly cold, emotionless captain. Ellison was a better man, and, it seemed, a better soldier - if that was possible. Somehow the kid kept Ellison focused on what was going on around them simply by being near. Matt had vowed to watch the two, hoping to uncover whatever it was that made them tick.
Both men turned quickly to locate the source of the voice. Blair was standing off to their left, a couple of yards behind them, staring intently into the distant mountain range.
Jim and Matt exchanged confused looks and walked the short distance to where the anthropologist stood.
"Sandburg?" Jim asked. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Blair responded in a clipped tone. His hands motioned excitedly towards the pack on Jim's back, his eyes never leaving the mountain peaks looming in the distance. "The mask, man. I need to see the mask."
Matt looked at Jim questioningly to which Ellison shook his head and shrugged out of the backpack. Pulling the golden artifact carefully from the packing material, Jim handed it to his young friend. Blair grabbed the mask and briefly glanced at it, before holding it up to the two men. "Look at this!" he said, his eyes nearly glowing with excitement. He pointed at the top of the mask where the three triangles were molded into the gold.
"Three triangles," Jim observed. "What about them?"
Blair took a deep breath, barely able to contain his growing excitement. "Take a look at them," he said. "A real good look. See the different sizes and the pattern they form?" At the confused nods from the other two, he continued pointing out towards the mountains. "Now take a look at the mountain peaks." He waited a moment while they focused in the direction he pointed. "What do you see?"
"Mountains," Matt shrugged not getting what the younger man saw.
"Yeah," Blair continued undeterred. "But what about the mountains?"
Jim was looking from the mountains to the mask and back again as his partner's discovery became clear. "Those peaks," he said in awe. "They form the same design as the three triangle on the mask."
He looked at Blair who beamed back proudly.
"Oh my god!" Matt breathed finally seeing the pattern. "You're right! But what the hell does that mean?"
"That Professor Zalesky figured out where to start," Blair answered. "This is the beginning of the map. The rest of the symbols, some of which the professor had already transcribed should lead us to where the lost treasure was buried!"
Before either of the other two men could comment, the sound of gunfire filled the air and they instinctively hit the ground, covering their heads. Jim recovered first, pulling Blair off the ground and pushing him towards the cover of the rocks. "Move it!" he yelled scooping up the mask and starting towards the anthropologist. He made it only a few steps before he felt the sting of the bullet as it entered his shoulder and slammed him into the hard, rocky surface.
He twisted from his prone position to see Blair running back towards him. Lowery had taken up position behind a large collection of boulders and was returning fire blindly into the surrounding vegetation. Scanning the mesa quickly, Jim found Diaz pinned behind another boulder. Blair slid down next to him as another round of bullets hit nearby.
"Jim!" Blair looked at the growing crimson stain on his friend's shirt with alarm. "Oh, God Jim, you're bleeding!"
"It's okay, Sandburg. Get behind some cover!"
Blair ignored him. He pulled Jim to his feet and allowed the larger man to lean his weight on his smaller frame. With no time to argue, Jim let his friend drag him to the boulders that Matt crouched behind. Blair deposited Jim into the relative safety the boulders provided and moved back out around his friend.
"Sandburg!" Jim called. "Get back here!"
"The mask!" Blair called back. "I have to get the mask!"
Blair shook his head and dashed back into the open area, heedless of his own safety.
"Cover him!" Jim yelled at Matt who instantly began laying down fire in the general direction of the jungle. Jim watched in horror as his young friend ran to the mask, hefted it up into his arms then suddenly jerked forward and collapsed.
He tried to move, but was brought down by a force on his back.
"No!" Matt yelled. "You'll get yourself killed!"
Jim struggled to throw the weight off him to get to his partner. He could feel his strength quickly flowing from his body and he made one last effort to break free of the iron grip that held him. "Blair!" he called as the blackness that had been hiding at the edge of his vision suddenly took hold and he fell into it.
The sounds of the jungle filled his head with an overwhelming cacophony of sensory input causing a low moan to escape from his throat as he struggle to find the dial. Finally he was able to bring this hearing down to an acceptable level. Once accomplished, he became aware of the ache in his shoulder and forced himself to open his eyes. The darkness of the night jungle welcomed him and he looked looked to his right where the dim light of a fire threw a ghostly glow over the dense jungle foliage.
"Sandburg?" he called, trying to force his mind to think around the marching band that seemed to have taken up residence in his head.
"Welcome back, Captain. You had me kind of worried there for a while."
Jim blinked his eyes and focused on the face above him. "Matt," he said as he recognized his friend. "Where's Blair?"
Matt didn't answer and Jim sat up in alarm, barely aware of the pain in his shoulder. "Where's Sandburg?" he demanded, his eyes searching his friend's face for an answer. He did not like what he saw.
"I'm sorry, Jim." Matt said softly.
Jim's chest tightened as his memory replayed the events on the mesa. "God, no ..." He was beginning to find it hard to breathe, his mind filling with the realization of Blair's possible fate.
"Hey, man, take it easy," Matt coaxed, not quite knowing how to help. "We'll find him. I sent Diaz back to get help. They should be here by morning."
Jim struggled to make sense of what his friend was saying. "What do you mean, find him? Where's his body? What happened?"
"Body?" Lowery looked at him in confusion before breaking into an apologetic smile. "Oh, God, no! Jim, the kid's alive. It was Sanchez' men who ambushed us up on the mesa. They must have been waiting for us, knowing we would head there. They took Blair and the mask."
"But I saw him go down," Jim reasoned. "They shot him."
Matt nodded. "Yeah, they hit him in the leg. They took him while I was trying to keep you under control."
Jim's eyes flared as he remembered being held back, not able to go to his partner's aid.
"Whoa, there, Captain," Lowery held his hands up in a defensive gesture. "There were at least 15 men to our three. There was no way I was going to let them get you both. It would have been suicide for you to go back out there." He softened his voice, hoping to get through to the angry man in front of him. "Besides, you would have been no good to the kid dead."
The words had their intended effect on the detective and he slowly felt the anger at his old friend abate. The knot of fear in his stomach remained, however, and forced him to his feet.
"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" Matt asked. He stood along with Ellison, holding out a hand to steady him as he swayed slightly.
Jim took a moment to gain his bearings. The injury to his shoulder was annoying but tolerable. If he turned down the pain dial it was hardly noticeable. He focused on the pain, turning it up just a bit as he reached out with his hearing. Focus on the individual sounds, Jim. He could almost hear his guide's calming voice in his head. Identify each sound then filter them out one by one until you get to the one you're searching for. Using the pain in his shoulder to ground him, he followed his guide's instructions, categorizing each distinct sound that he heard and filtering them out as he identified them. Finally he was rewarded with the sound he had been searching for. He zeroed in on the precious sound of the familiar heartbeat - slightly elevated, but steady and strong - letting it fill him with a feeling of relief.
"Jim! Ellison! Answer me, damnit! Come on Captain!"
A fiery pain in his shoulder snapped Jim back to awareness and he pulled himself out of the other man's grip. "Shit!" he said softly as he leaned forward, struggling to turn down the dial. Why was control so much easier to achieve with Blair calmly directing him? He wished desperately for his friend now. You have to relax, Jim. Just relax and breathe. Now find the dial and slowly turn it down...
Slowly, Ellison was able to stand as the pain once again became tolerable. He turned to find Matt staring at him cautiously.
"It's okay," he assured his friend. "I'm okay."
"What the hell was that?" Lowery asked eyeing Jim suspiciously. When the former captain made no attempt to answer, Matt pushed a little harder. "Come on, man. You were completely gone there. It's almost like you were listening for something... or someone?"
Jim turned to him, his face a mask of stone, his eyes devoid of any emotion. He wanted to trust Matt - hell he did trust him. Just not with this.
"Okay," Matt said holding his hands up again in defeat. "Okay. Whatever's going on with you is none of my business. But just tell me one thing. Does it concern the kid?"
After a few moments, Ellison nodded stiffly. "He's a part of it."
"Okay then. We'd better find him."
Jim breathed in relief and nodded his head, letting a small smile of gratitude warm his handsome features. "Thanks, Matt."
"No problem, Captain. Which way?"
"What about your men?"
"They can track us."
Jim nodded again, thankful for his old buddy's assistance. Grabbing the rifle and light backpack that Lowery handed him, he looked off towards the west, focusing easily this time on his guide's heartbeat. "That way." He said and headed off into the jungle.
Blair limped along, trying to ignore the various parts of his body that painfully vied for his attention. He had not been able to sleep much last night, even though his body craved it tremendously. His captors had set up camp soon after nightfall and had bound him to a tree near the edge of the camp. The night had been dark, filled with strange sounds floating from the depths of the jungle. The noise, and his own fear, had kept him from getting any real sleep although he had managed to nod off a couple of times, despite his uncomfortable position. The exhaustion coupled with yesterday's hike through the jungle terrain had taken its toll on the already weakened grad student. He wished fervently to lie down in a nice warm bed and sleep for a week. A shove from behind brought him back to reality as the small group trudged its way through the early morning light. At least he had gotten Jim to safety. At first he had been alarmed at the amount of blood on his friend's shirt, but the wound had been high on Jim's back, towards his left shoulder. Blair didn't think it was serious - unless Lowery hadn't been able to help him, then he might have bled to death.
No. He would not allow himself to even consider that. Jim was alive. He was fine, and, he was at this moment, hot on their heels, hell bent on finding the men who had taken his partner and making them pay. Blair smiled as a picture of a very pissed off Sentinel waling on a few of his current traveling companions suddenly popped into his head.
His soft chuckle was rewarded with a hard slap to the back of his head.
"Something funny, gringo?"
Shaking his head to clear the sudden spots that had appeared before his eyes, Blair squinted up at the large, swarthy man who had been appointed his guard. He had recognized the man from the incident the other day on the street as the one with the rifle who had taken such a liking to the sport of Blair-bashing.
"I ask you question," the man shouted in broken English drawing his hand back to strike the anthropologist again.
Blair reflexively cringed away from the expected blow. The man had made a new game out of hitting his captive and had been enjoying it tremendously. Blair's constant headache had become bearable during the night but the pounding had been increasing dramatically in the last few hours due to his exhaustion and lack of food and water, not to mention his guard's new found taste for anthropologists. He didn't think he could handle another blow to that area right now. He had been concentrating on moving forward to avoid the hard shoves that his guard seemed to favor whenever the smaller man was moving too slow for his liking. The pain in his thigh where the bullet had creased him had leveled off to a dull but constant ache. The bleeding had stopped and Blair figured it would be allright as long as it didn't become infected. The dressing on his hand was filthy and he had entertained some concerns about infection there also, but ultimately had decided that there was nothing he could do about it considering his present predicament and had pushed the thought from his mind.
"No!" he rasped, trying to keep the fear from his voice as he fought to remember the question. "Nothing's funny."
He ducked, unsuccessfully trying to avoid the large hand that swung down to connect with the top of his head, snapping his neck forward and dropping him to the ground. He squeezed his eyes shut, and curled into a tight ball to make himself a smaller target as well as to protect his stomach and ribs.
Blair looked up to see the leader of the group standing between him and his attacker, holding back the larger man with a fierce look. "We need him to find the treasure," he said harshly in Spanish. "He cannot do that if he is dead."
The leader turned towards Blair and kneeled down beside him. "My apologies, Señor Sandburg," he said, his voice dripping with false concern. He held out a canteen as the American slowly sat up, wincing at the pain in his head and leg. "Drink, please."
The words were more like an order than a request and Blair accepted the canteen, not wanting to upset this man who seemed to at least want to keep him alive - even if it was only for his own selfish reasons. Besides, he was thirsty. He took a small drink from the canteen, nearly choking on the warm, brackish water. He kept a wary eye on the other man, certain that the water would be snatched away before he could take another swallow. When no move was made to take the canteen, Blair took another, longer drink, before handing it back to he man.
The man uttered a few words in a local dialect that Blair did not quite understand.
"Si, General Sanchez," one of the soldiers replied before moving off towards the supplies.
Blair stared at Sanchez, remembering what Matt had told them about the man. Blair had to agree, he certainly looked dangerous. Sanchez turned his attention back to Sandburg, seemingly amused to find recognition in the anthropologist's eyes. "We will allow you to tend to your wounds," he said nodding towards the blood soaked leg of Blair's jeans. The young soldier that Sanchez had spoken to returned and handed the general a knapsack with a red cross which was, in turn, placed on the ground in front of the nervous anthropologist.
"Why?" Blair asked.
Sanchez simply smiled coldly and stood. "You have ten minutes."
Blair closed his eyes, shivering at the predatory look he had seen in Sanchez hard eyes.
"Please, Jim," he whispered as he pulled open the knapsack and withdrew a roll of bandages. "Hurry!"
Jim held his hand up to stop the man behind him and focused his hearing on the band ahead of them. They had been trailing Sanchez' men for nearly two hours and had made good progress. They had taken Blair to lead them to the treasure, and the anthropologist was doing his best to slow them down, giving the two ex-rangers a chance to close the distance between them. They had caught up with the kidnappers soon after Sanchez' men had broken camp and had followed them, the jungle providing ample cover for the two experienced trackers.
Now he listened to his partner's whispered words, forcing himself not to react to the pain and fear he heard in the familiar voice. Instead, he focused on Sanchez, listening to the general's strategy session with his lieutenant before turning his attention back to Matt.
"He's sending some of his men to the south to try to draw away anyone tracking them. Blair has them headed west, towards the mountains."
"Do you think he's leading them to the treasure?"
"I don't know. I don't even know if he can figure out where it is. But he's keeping himself alive for the moment. We just have to find an opening before they realize he's leading them on a wild goose chase."
Matt nodded his agreement and was about to comment further when Ellison's hand shot up to silence him. He watched the captain as his ice blue eyes darted through the surrounding foliage, stopping suddenly. He rose from his knees and said a few words in a dialect that Lowery had never heard.
After a few moments, the rebel took a few steps closer to Ellison, surprised to see close to a dozen natives step from the camouflage of the jungle into view. Ellison did not move, but simply stood staring at the new arrivals.
"Where the hell did they come from?" Matt whispered after a few moments. The men were all armed with a variety of arrows and spears and were dressed in native hunting attire, their faces painted in various shades of reds and blues.
"They've been with us since last night," Jim answered calmly. "They're Chopec. They're here to help us."
"Chopec?" Matt asked his eyes wide. "Isn't that who you lived with after you crashed?"
Jim nodded. "This isn't the same tribe, they live farther north. But they are Chopec." Jim waited as one of the natives crossed to them. The tribesman looked Jim over then grasped his arm in a traditional welcome.
"Enqueri," he acknowledged using Ellison's Chopec name.
Jim nodded and returned the greeting. He quickly explained the situation and was relieved when the warrior nodded. They would indeed help.
"What did he say?" Matt asked as he watched the warriors disappear back into the jungle.
"They'll be there when we need them," Jim answered, turning to focus on his target.
"You trust 'em?"
Jim simply nodded and took off into the jungle. Matt hurried to follow.
Blair stumbled again and was hauled roughly back to his feet by his guard. He wasn't really in as much pain as he was pretending to be, and he hoped that Sanchez was buying the act. The more he could hold them up, the better chance of Jim reaching him before they found the treasure site. Although the cop's partner half of him was deliberately trying to delay his captors, the anthropologist in him was more than a bit excited to find the long lost treasure. He was sure that Professor Zalesky's notes would lead them to the Incan site. The professor had been looking for a long time and was very thorough in his research. Blair was certain that his translations of the mask were accurate and knew that they were getting very close to the site that he had determined was the treasure stronghold.
His eagerness to find the lost treasure and prove his old friend's theories warred with his need to give Jim a chance to find him and get the mask away from these thugs. As he stepped from the jungle into a clearing, he noticed the rest of the group standing motionless, staring straight ahead. Turning his head, his heart nearly stopped at the sight he beheld.
About 100 yards ahead of them lay what looked like the remains of some kind of temple. The stone stairs were partially collapsed as was the structure itself. The jungle had invaded the site, winding its way up and around the deteriorating structure giving the entire place a ghostly, dead look.
He felt a hard shove in the small of his back and stumbled forward. A large hand grabbed his upper arm and pulled him roughly over to where Sanchez stood gazing at the ruins. A cold smile parted the man's lips and Blair involuntarily shuddered as the dark eyes met his.
"You have found it, Señor Sandburg. I am pleased."
"Great," Blair responded, trying to control the shaking of his voice. "I did what you asked. Now how about letting me go?"
Sanchez smile increased, showing yellowed teeth. Blair shrunk back at the predatory gleam he saw in the man's eyes.
"You have found the ruins," Sanchez said pleasantly. "Now you will find the treasure."
Blair shook his head. "I can't. Professor Zalesky's notes end here. There's no mention of where exactly the treasure was hidden. You killed him before he could figure it out." The anthropologist let his hatred and anger fill his voice as he shrugged out of his guard's grasp and returned Sanchez' level gaze.
"Perhaps I did miscalculate," Sanchez agreed. "I hope I do not have to make the same mistake again." He paused a moment to let the threat sink in. "Now, Señor Sandburg. You will find the treasure." Sanchez moved closer until Blair could feel his hot breath on his cheek. "Do not make me convince you."
At Sanchez' slight nod, the larger man who had taken such pleasure out of torturing his smaller captive, grabbed Blair and roughly turned him around. Before the American could protect himself, the man's hard fist found its way into the soft flesh of Blair's belly, knocking the younger man's breath from his body. Two more quick blows forced him to the ground, gasping desperately for air.
"Now, Señor," Sanchez said evenly. "I hope no further demonstrations will be necessary."
Blair shook his head weakly, only slightly aware of Sanchez' words. His lungs were beginning to burn as his abused abdominal muscles strained to force air into his body. The fire that was rapidly spreading across his middle was making it hard for him to concentrate on anything other than breathing. The suddenly loud sound of voices and running feet cut through his consciousness causing him to open his eyes to a dangerously swaying scene. Clamping his eyes closed tightly, he fought the nausea which had enveloped him and tried to focus on the sounds around him. The screaming voices had been joined by rounds of gunfire and Blair could distinguish the sounds of falling bodies all around him. There were more shouts and hurried footsteps which faded quickly and soon all was silent.
He knew that voice. He recognized the touch on his shoulder.
"Yeah, buddy. It's okay. You're safe."
Blair breathed a sigh of relief, wincing at the pain it reawakened in his stomach.
"Come on, Chief," the hand at his shoulder pressed, encouraging him to roll onto his back. "Let me check you out."
Blair started to comply, but moaned painfully as his abdominal muscles refused to cooperate.
"Oh, God," he whispered as he curled back into a tight ball, his arms protectively wrapped around his middle.
"Shh," Ellison's concerned voice broke through the haze of pain. "Just take it easy, Blair. Breathe."
He felt hands pulling his arm away and gently probing his stomach.
"Is he okay?" Lowery's voice filtered through.
"I think he's just badly bruised," Jim responded. He removed his hands and placed one on his partner's forehead. "Come on, buddy. Open your eyes."
Blair complied slowly, squinting up at the face hovering over him. "Jim?'
Ellison smiled, his eyes taking in the anthropologist's other injuries. "How you doing?" he asked, glancing at the bandage on Blair's blood soaked leg.
"Much better now," Blair responded. "Are you okay?" He motioned towards the dried blood on Jim's shoulder.
"Bullet went straight through," Jim explained. "Matt patched me up. I've got the dial down so it's okay for now."
Blair nodded and closed his eyes.
"Dead," Matt responded. "The rest of his men took off into the jungle. I doubt if they'll be back anytime soon."
Blair nodded again. The pain in his stomach was beginning to level out and he tentatively took a deeper breath. Satisfied that he wasn't going to embarrass himself by passing out, he opened his eyes and allowed Jim to help him into a reclining position against the smooth stone that made up part of the stairway into the temple. He looked around at the bodies surrounding them and fought down a wave of nausea.
"Shallow breaths, Sandburg," Jim coaxed. He positioned himself in front of the younger man, effectively blocking his view of most of the bodies.
"I'm okay," Blair said after a few moments. "Spears?" he asked as his mind's eye reviewed the scene his partner had so casually tried to block. He squinted back up at Jim. "You brought spears?"
Jim just smiled patiently. "No. We had a little help." He moved slightly allowing Sandburg to see the Chopec warriors standing at the edge of the clearing.
"Oh," Blair commented. He opened his mouth to continue but found he didn't exactly know what to say.
"I think the kid's speechless," Matt said giving Ellison a wink.
"That," Jim smiled, "would definitely be a first."
Blair gave both men a pained look and held out his hand. "You two are just a riot. Help me up."
As soon as he was on his feet and the world decided to stay at a normal angle, he scanned the ground quickly. Finding the backpack containing the mask, he wandered over to it, leaned over to pick it up, and regretted the action almost instantly.
"Will you just take it easy?" Jim admonished as he supported the younger man until the wave of dizziness passed. Shaking his head in annoyance, he leaned over and, unzipping the pack, pulled the mask from the protective layers.
"Thanks," Blair said sheepishly as he accepted the mask from his partner. The weight pulled slightly at his abdominal muscles and he winced.
"I'll hold it," Jim offered, retrieving the artifact and holding it out for the grad student to study. Blair wrapped his arms around his middle and smiled his thanks again.
"Do you think you can find the treasure?" Matt asked as he joined the others.
Blair squinted at the carvings on the mask, wishing desperately for his glasses. "I don't know," he admitted. "Professor Zalesky only got as far as the site of the ruins before he was killed. Maybe I can use his notes to determine what the rest of these marks on the mask mean. Hopefully they correspond to some..."
Blair stopped, moving slowly around the two larger men to a small carving in the base of the stone stairway of the temple. Running his hand across the stone, he looked back at his partner. "Jim, bring the mask over here."
Jim and Matt exchanged shrugs and joined the younger man who was kneeling carefully next to the stairway wall. "Run your fingers over this area here," Blair said indicating the rough carving in the stone. "What can you make out?"
Jim concentrated on the rough feel of the stone, letting the change in textures make the carving paint itself in his mind. After a few moments, he opened his eyes and looked at his friend in amazement. "It's the same goddess that is carved on the mask."
Blair's excitement shone in his eyes. "Yes!" He stood quickly and moved back allowing Jim closer access to the wall. "Look around, man. See if you can see anything that looks like it could be a door or opening." He kept his arm around his stomach, but the excitement of the discovery was overshadowing any hint of pain.
Jim focused his sight on the stone, quickly discovering a minute crack that seemed to follow a somewhat straight line up the wall, across and back down. "I think you're right, Chief. I think there is a doorway here." He pushed experimentally against the stone and was rewarded with a faint sound of movement. "Matt," he said scooting over and motioning for the other man to join him. "Give me a hand."
Between the two of them, they managed to move the stone inward a few feet. By the time the opening was wide enough for a person to pass through both men were red faced and breathing heavily.
Blair eagerly rushed towards the opening, but was brought up short by a strong hand on his shoulder. "Not so fast, Sandburg," Jim admonished. He rummaged through his nearby pack, pulling a flashlight from it and clicking it on. Moving to the opening he turned back and pointed sternly at the younger man. "Stay behind me," he ordered. "And be careful."
Lowery stifled a laugh as he followed the two through the doorway.
The dark passage led through a maze deep under the temple. The flashlight gave enough light so that the Sentinel could make out the turns far enough ahead to mark their way for the return trip. The hallway continued in a pattern of turns, finally coming to an abrupt dead end.
"This is nice," Matt said, his voice very close in the narrow passage. They had taken to travelling single file, Jim in the lead, one arm helping to lead his guide through the twists and turns. Lowery followed, keeping close to the two partners.
"There has to be another doorway here," Blair said squinting in the dim light..
Blair joined his partner who was staring at a faint image that was painted onto the wall. The painting was of the same Moon Goddess that was carved onto the mask.
"I'm not exactly an expert on Incan deities, but I think that this represents the wife of Bochica.". At the confused looks from his companions he continued. "Bochica was the name given to the sun god by a people known as the Chibchas. There's really not much known about them except that they were skilled in working most precious metals including gold. When they were conquered by the Spaniards, they were rumored to have thrown most of their treasures into the Lake of Quatavita although very little has ever been found." He pointed towards the symbols which adorned the painting. "These are the symbols of a tribal chief. The Chibchas had two leaders," He closed his eyes and tapped himself on the forehead in an effort to remember. "One of them was called the Zippa. When he died, his body was placed in a wooden coffin with sheets of gold for ornamentation. The tomb has never been discovered."
"You think that this is the tomb?"
Blair shrugged. When he spoke his voice held an air of awe. "I don't know, man. It could be. According to legends, everything the Zippa owned was buried with him - weapons, garments, everything they used on a day to day basis. Man this could be the find of the century!"
Jim smiled at his friend's enthusiasm, his own excitement threatening to get the better of him. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves here, Chief. We're kind of at a dead end."
"No," Blair said staring at the painting. "There's gotta be some kind of clue here. We just have to look for it."
Matt, who had been watching the two and listening shook his head in wonder. "Man," he whispered to Jim. "Is there anything that kid doesn't know?"
"Kind of scary, huh?" Jim replied throwing an affectionate look towards his guide who appeared to be totally absorbed in the painting. "But he is rather convenient to have around."
"As long as I can still duck behind you when the bullets start to fly," retorted Blair.
Jim smiled and shook his head. Obviously his partner's lightning quick mind could multi-task enough to concentrate on the painting and the conversation going on behind him.
"You just worry about the painting," the Sentinel shot back. "We'll worry about the bullets."
Blair nodded, his expression thoughtful. "Uh, Jim. Since there's nobody here to shoot at us, do you think maybe you could give me a hand?" He pointed to the central area of the painting. "See if you can find anything here that might indicate some kind of a locking mechanism..." At Ellison's confused look he motioned towards the mask. "Call it a hunch, but I think the mask must have something to do with the tomb - if it is a tomb."
"What, like a key or something?"
Blair nodded again, brushing a strand of hair behind his ear. "Something like that," he responded still squinting at the painting but moving back so that the older man could step closer.
Jim reached out and placed his hands on the smooth wall. Concentrating on the texture, he could feel the difference from color to color by the thickness, as if they had been laid on top of one another all those centuries ago. Losing himself in the feel of the stone on his fingertips, he suddenly jerked as his sensitive touch registered a slight crack in the wall. Opening his sight, he was able to detect a small slit, in the figure of the Moon Goddess herself, hidden at the base of her long dress. It was undetectable by normal eyes, as it was well hidden in the design of the painting.
"Here," he said softly, indicating where he had detected the opening. "There's a very narrow three inch opening right here."
"That's great!" Blair pushed a bit closer. "Grab the mask."
Matt bent to retrieve the mask, handing it to Jim.
"Take a look at the cross at the bottom of the mask," Blair instructed. Even in the dim light, his expressive eyes shone with excitement. "See if it will fit in the opening."
Jim nodded, turned the mask, and slipped the golden cross into the slit in the wall until he heard a quiet click. A grating sound echoed in the narrow passage as the wall at the end slowly began to move down, disappearing into the floor and leaving a four foot high opening.
The three men stood transfixed, staring at the opening for a few moments. Blair regained his composure first. "I think that's our cue," he said softly.
Carefully, Jim pulled the mask from the wall and, grabbing the flashlight, slowly ducked down and through the opening. Blair and Matt followed closely behind.
"I can't see a thing," Matt whispered. His soft voice echoed in the large, dark room they had entered.
"Hold on a second," Jim's voice was a bit louder, not quite a whisper but still slightly hushed. "There are some torches along the wall. Stay here." Handing the flashlight to Blair, he moved away into the darkness, his Sentinel sight compensating enough to target the torches on the far wall. Lighting a match, he quickly turned his sight down before lighting the torch. As soon as he had three of the torches lit, he turned to find his companions.
Matt was still crouched near the doorway, a look of complete awe etched into his face. Blair stood near the center of the room staring straight ahead. "Oh, wow, Jim. This is like so cool!!"
Ellison followed his gaze to the ornate display in the front of the large tomb. Two sets of stone steps led up both sides to a raised platform on which sat what could only be described as a gold coffin. Urns and gleaming statues of gold and bronze littered the platform surrounding the coffin, covered by centuries of dust and debris.
Matt had collected himself and moved to the other side of the chamber where he had lit the remaining torches, bathing the room in a warm fiery glow.
"This is it, man," Blair said breathlessly, still standing in the center of the room. "This is the lost tomb."
Matt had made his way towards the steps at the other end of the room. "What are we waiting for?" he asked excitedly. "Look at all this. It's worth a fortune!" He started up the stairs, pausing when he reached the platform. "Come on, " he motioned for his companions to join him. "We're rich!" He turned back towards the coffin without waiting for a response.
Jim moved towards the other set of stairs, mesmerized by the magnitude of their find.
The soft voice of his guide broke through his consciousness and Jim stopped at the base of the stairs, looking quickly back in Blair's direction.
"Matt!" Blair called, still not moving from the spot in the center of the room. "Don't go near the coffin! We're not supposed to - "
Jim heard the cracking of the ceiling only moments before the stone structure crumbled, raining thousands of rocks down on the platform in a thunder of sound.
"Get down!" Jim yelled as he threw himself at Blair, throwing the younger man to the ground and covering him with his own body. The barrage lasted only a few seconds and Jim lifted his head cautiously as the rocks settled to the ground. Coughing as the dust filled his lungs, he squinted through the dim haze towards the front of the chamber. All he saw was a wall of rocks and debris.
"Matt!" he called out. He focused his hearing, filtering out the shifting sounds of the rocks and the pattering as smaller stones continued to rain down from above. He pushed past the sounds, searching, searching...
"Jim! Oh man, come on, Not now! Jim!"
The sound of his guide's frantic voice cut through the near zone out.
He blinked once, shaking his head before focusing his attention on his partner.
"Jim, man, you with me here?"
"Yeah," Jim rolling off the smaller man. He quickly ran his eyes over the dusty face of his guide, searching his eyes and finding the pupils dilated but equal. "You okay?" He leaned back and ran his hands quickly over his friends arms and legs.
"Yeah," Blair replied. "I think so." He didn't move, but allowed the Sentinel to finish his exam. As soon as Jim was satisfied that there were no new injuries, the detective stood and held out his hand, helping his wobbly partner to his feet.
"Ow," Blair gritted his teeth as he attempted to stand upright and was rewarded with a twinge of pain from his abused abdominal muscles. Looking up his own discomfort was forgotten as he noticed a dark wetness on his partner's shoulder. "Jim, you're bleeding."
"So are you," Jim said. He motioned down towards Blair's leg.
"Okay, so we're a mess." Blair looked around, suddenly remembering something. "Where's Matt?" He looked towards the last place he could remember seeing Lowery, but was met by only a wall of rubble. "Jim..." He felt his breath catch as his mind filled in the horrible details. "Oh, God, Jim..."
"Come on, buddy," Ellison said turning him towards the back of the chamber. "We have to get out of here before the whole thing goes."
Blair nodded silently and allowed his partner to steer him towards the low opening. Placing a hand on the smooth stone wall, he stopped abruptly, frantically looking around the destruction until his eyes came to rest on the golden mask. "The mask, Jim! We have to get the mask! Professor Zalesky worked his whole life for this, we have to take it back!"
Jim heard the desperation in his friend's voice and quickly nodded. He hurried back across the chamber and pulled the mask from the debris. His Sentinel hearing picked up the low grating sound coming from above.
"Move it, Sandburg!" he ordered as he dashed for the opening. Blair, alarmed by the force of the detective's cry, did as he was told. Heedless of his injuries, he dove head-first through the opening with Ellison close on his heels as the entire room was filled with a deafening thunder of heavy stone crashing to the ground. Quickly Ellison lead them back through the tunnels, the cascade of tumbling rock and debris pushing them forward as the tunnels began to crumble inward. As soon as they burst through the outer door, they felt strong hands grab them and drag them quickly away from the collapsing structure.
Turning back, they watched as the once mighty temple collapsed into a pile of rubble burying the ancient tomb under a thousands of tons of earth and rock. Looking at his partner, Jim breathed a sigh of relief that they had both escaped relatively unscathed. The Chopec warriors, who had waited outside the temple and had pulled them to safety, now faded back into the jungle leaving the two men alone.
"I'm sorry about Matt," Blair's soft voice carried over the shifting rubble before them.
"Me, too, Chief," he replied. He placed a hand on his partner's shoulder and gazed into the ruins. "Me, too."
Blair hung up the phone and joined his partner out on the patio.
"What did Melanie say?" Jim asked handing his friend a beer.
Blair accepted the bottle and sat down next to his friend, wincing slightly as his stomach muscles protested. "She said that she would work out the details with the Peruvian government and the Chopec to get permission to excavate the sight. It'll cost them a lot of money and they're in for a hell of a fight with the government, but they should be able to cut through the red tape seeing as how it was a government official who was directly responsible for the Professor's death and the deaths of those students."
Jim nodded, taking a long draw of the beer and savoring the cool smoothness of the brew. "At least the Professor will get the credit he deserves." Blair had convinced Melanie to give full credit for the find to her father. It was his life's work that had enabled them to discover the location of the hidden tomb and Blair had decided that he owed his old friend at least that.
"Jim, about Matt ..." Blair said softly. They hadn't mentioned the rebel since the day at the ruins, but Blair had been thinking about the man who had died trying to help them. If Blair hadn't been so eager to go into the temple, if he hadn't insisted on finishing the professor's work, Matt Lowery would be alive today.
"It wasn't your fault, Chief."
Blair laughed nervously at his partner's apparent ability to read his mind.
"You developing an enhanced sixth sense on me, big guy?"
"No," Jim answered with a sad smile. "I just know you. Matt was there because he wanted to help. That's just who he was. Just like you were trying to help Zalesky." He continued encouraged that his young friend was at least listening. "Matt lived his life day to day, Blair. He always knew that there might not be a tomorrow. He died the way he expected to - fighting for something he believed in." He looked over, satisfied to see his young friend nodding in acceptance.
"But he could've waited for back-up. You said the rest of his men were on the way."
Jim leaned forward and turned fully towards his guide.
"He knew what you meant to me, and he wanted to make sure you were safe. That's what kind of a friend he was."
"He was a lot like a certain detective I know."
Jim smiled, this time with only a hint of sadness. "Maybe, " he said softly. "Or like a certain anthropologist?"
"Yeah," said Blair, returning the grin. "But he was much better looking."
He held up his bottle. "To Matt."
Jim grinned, glad that his partner was beside him, safe and sound. Thank you, Matt.
"To Matt," he agreed. "And Professor Zalesky."
The bottles clinked together, the melodic sound echoing in the crisp night air.
******************** The End
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