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Don't blame me for this one—my sister made me do it! I make an innocent comment while watching Indiana Jones and before I know it I have this thing forced on me...
Warning: Do not read this if you have a strong aversion to Blair being put through agony for absolutely no good reason.
DISCLAIMER: Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg, et al belong solely to me—and if you believe that I have a lovely bridge over the Hudson I can get you for a very reasonable price...
"Simon, I need your help." The voice at the other end of the line was ragged, almost to the point of being unrecognizable. Simon Banks knew it, however. He heard that broken tone a few times before, and hated what it foretold.
"Jim? Where are you? What's wrong?" Though he suspected he already knew.
"I need—come to 117 Vale. Please..." He hesitated, too long. Jim Ellison rarely doubted his words or his actions. But now—"Simon, this—I might...I might break the law. You might—but I need your help."
He wasn't talking about traffic misdemeanors, Simon knew. A detective admitting planned criminal activities to his own captain...and asking him to participate. Begging him. If Jim was exhibiting concern this wouldn't be something small. They could conceivably both lose their jobs over this, ruin their careers...
"I'll be there." And he hung up the phone, wondering what the hell had happened now.
Jim heard them first. Jerked awake and ripped away the mask blocking enough light to allow sleep. One sharp clatter on the balcony outside, a misstep. He grabbed his gun from its holster by his bed, pulled on jeans. As he made his way down the staircase he picked up more footsteps. A whispered voice. And that was outside the door.
With catlike quiet he made his way to Blair's door, risked rapping his knuckles against it once before entering. Commanded his roommate in a sharp whisper, "Sandburg! Get up!"
Blair's eyes were already wide, reflecting moonlight. Through the darkness Jim saw his mouth open, his gaze shift to one side and back, but the Sentinel didn't catch the silent signals fast enough. He heard the breathing, the second heartbeat, at the same time he felt the cold metal brush against his neck. "Drop it," murmured an icy voice. Helpless, he obeyed.
A sharp crack indicated the door giving way; the balcony window shattered immediately after. The man behind Jim lead him to the living room; another came in to escort Blair. Neither struggled, not with guns to their partner's head and the odds so much against them in terms of numbers.
The light switched on. Jim blinked against its glare, allowed his eyes to adjust. There was a man seated on their couch, five more ranged around the room, including the ones behind him and Blair. All were armed, small handguns, carried with the ease of experience. Jim recognized a man from a drug bust several years previous, another charged with dealing but never convicted.
"What do you want?" he demanded, masking both his anger and his fear.
"Your help." The man settled deeper into the couch cushions. He held his weapon loosely in his left hand, not even a finger on the trigger. Something odd about the muzzle; Jim frowned at it, tried to examine it visually as he took the offered bait, "Help with what?"
"There's something I want. And I think you can get it for me, Detective Ellison. Or Captain Ellison, rather—you were an Army Ranger, I believe?"
"Yes," Jim confirmed. Staying calm, at least until he knew what this was about.
"From what I've heard, your abilities should be up to the task."
An imperceptible increase in his roommate's pulse. Jim glanced at Blair. His partner's attention was focused on the stranger occupying their couch, barely concerned with the gunman behind him. Sensing Jim's regard he met his eyes for an instant, tilted his head the slightest degree in the man's direction. Did he know? he was asking. Do you think he knows?
Typical, Jim mused for an instant. Blair's life was in danger and his main concern was for his Sentinel and the secret he kept. It never ceased to amaze him, Blair's devotion to that ideal. In any situation it was his foremost thought, even over self-preservation, it seemed at times. Jim might have found it flattering if it wasn't so maddeningly worrying.
Now he shook his head slightly, a small negative. No, he didn't know. At least, Jim saw no sign that he did. Hoping that Blair would now pay heed to more important matters. Such as staying alive. He returned most of his attention to the man. "You haven't told me the task yet."
"We're coming to that," the man admonished him. Adjusting his seating to a more comfortable position he went on, "It's not a big job, but you're cheaper than a professional burglar and probably more effective. And I think you cops would know all about these high-tech security systems. I don't fool with them myself, and I wouldn't be interested in this if the rewards weren't worth it.
"Gettering Pharmaceuticals has been working on some rather...interesting substances. On the side, of course, and only in one lab. In particular they've developed a...medicine, shall we say. And I have a client—a patient, very interested in this medicine. Willing to pay quite extravagant prices for its healing powers. Soothes the mind as well as the body, you see...but Gettering's not selling and is being most obstinate about making other sorts of arrangements."
"You want me to procure a drug for you?" Jim asked, not even trying to keep the disgust out of his voice.
The man raised one thick eyebrow. "I've brought you a boon, detective; I'm telling you where to find one of the principle manufacturers in the city. If you shut down Gettering—at least its illicit side—you'd be sealing a major pipeline, not just on Cascade's streets but across the Coast." He paused delicately. "Of course, they haven't survived this long without being careful—the moment they receive wind of a police investigation they'll have closed this shop and relocated elsewhere. And they often hear of the police before most of the officers involved do. It pays to have contacts—and Gettering pays well."
From his smile, Jim could tell the man knew how much this information he was giving, if accurate, was worth. Corruption in the upper ranks of the force—and in a major pharmaceutical corporation with a good reputation. Some of his restlessness must have shown, because the man's smirk widened. "I'm speaking honestly. But you see the problem—since I've told you this, we'll need to move quickly. I need you to get this chemical tonight. Before it's gone."
"You want him to break into a lab and steal some drug for you? Right now?" Blair spoke suddenly.
The man's other eyebrow rose as he turned to the younger man. "Right now is the ideal time," he answered the question patiently. "They're planning a move as it is; they rarely stay in one place for long. They won't have many of their guards around, though I believe the legitimate ones of Gettering receive a bonus. Enough that they would delay the police until there was time to clean up and clear out the crucial material." Like the drug he desired. "So you see, I'm afraid burglary is the only solution."
"But why Jim?" pushed Blair, bold despite the gun trained on the back of his head. "If he can't just wave his badge and expect to be let through, why bother with a cop instead of a professional?"
"Other than issues of cost—the detective was at Gettering a few weeks ago, looking into a simple security breach. He knows the basic layout and, more importantly, the security systems of the laboratory. Combined with his army training, he's perfect for the job. And you will be rewarded, I assure you. You have a high percentage for making a clean run—one slip and you'll alert them, and the chances will be lost. But you won't slip."
"You plotted this out pretty well," Jim growled, narrowing his eyes. Blair hadn't even been on that security investigation; it had taken all of two hours, though he had been walked through the security systems pretty thoroughly in that time. He hadn't figured out the reason for the break-in; apparently there had been no reason—other than to bring him over. "There's just one flaw in your plan."
"I won't do it."
Jim knew better than to expect any anger from this one. The man barely shifted in his seat; the flat refusal would be no more—or less—than he would have expected. "I thought you'd say something like that," he admitted. Casually he tightened his grip on his gun, aimed it at Jim. The muzzle was thicker than it should be, as Jim had noticed before. Not a silencer...
At any rate, he had been so targeted too many times for the threat to have much effect. "If you shoot me, who's going to get your drug?" Jim challenged.
The man cocked his head, considering this. "An excellent point, detective." With one fluid motion he twisted his arm around and fired at Blair.
Jim didn't even recall ripping away from a man holding the gun on him, didn't realize he slammed Blair's guard into the wall, any more than he noticed the odd sound of the man's gun, not a shot but something much softer, a hiss of air. These events caught up with him later; at first all he knew was catching his partner's body as he collapsed, lowering him to the floor.
The blue eyes were still open, still conscious. Blair swallowed, "I'm all right, Jim," but faintly, far too weak.
Jim's eyes searched him over, looking for the blood he knew must be flowing, but all he saw was a small patch of brilliant red. Not the scarlet of life but a fluffy dyed feather. He wrenched it free, stared at the small dart in his hand, the previous few moments beginning to register.
Under his hands Blair suddenly jerked, choking back a groan as he curled around his stomach. Jim could feel his pulse accelerate, his temperature already begin to climb. "Easy, Chief, easy, Blair," he murmured unconsciously, holding him still.
Blair clamped his teeth together, through them hissed, "God, this hurts, this hurts, it burns—" he squeezed his eyes shut, only to snap them open again, searching and finding Jim's gaze. Fighting to keep his jaw locked he tried to speak, "What—what the hell—"
"It's a poison," the man explained calmly. He had stood, stepped away from the couch and toward them, his dartgun now in a shoulder holster. "I'm sure you know that already, though. Based on snake venom, cobra I think, though I'm not especially well-versed in the details. At any rate it's quite fast-acting, as you also know. It is lethal, in approximately two to four hours," and he made a show of glancing at his watch. "Given Mr. Sandburg's body weight, I'd say closer to two."
"If—" Jim swallowed, fought back the rage boiling inside, tried to clear the red miasma filling his vision and obscuring the man and the guns pointed at him, "if you think I'll do anything for you now—" Beneath his grip Blair convulsed again, this time unable to prevent a moan from escaping. His breath was beginning to become harsh—two hours? Would it even be that long? Then he saw the defiance still burning in the wide blue eyes and knew it would take far more than this to extinguish it.
"There is an antidote," remarked the man, almost off-handedly. Jim lifted his head to pin him with a glare so vicious he actually stepped back, both eyebrows up. "I agree, this would be a futile exercise without it. By an interesting coincidence, the cure for this ailment is the same medicine I'm seeking. If you'd be so kind as to get it for me..."
"Jim—" Blair gasped, trying to reach out one hand, shaking. Jim grabbed it, pressed it tightly, his other hand futilely laid on his shoulder, offering moral support since physical was impossible. "Jim, this is nuts—this guy—"
"I think he's on the level. At least about this." He had to be.
"Jim, there—" Blair struggled for enough free breath to speak. "There's—no way—that he's telling..." He couldn't articulate what he meant, squinted his eyes shut as another wave of agony coursed through his body.
"Listen, Chief," and now Jim made a concerted effort to keep his tone soothing, relaxed, "I don't think I have much choice in this—"
"Yes, you do—" There was an odd desperation in his eyes, a fear that was never for himself, always for others, no matter how dire his own straits may be.
"No," Jim corrected him softly, "I don't." Squeezing Blair's shoulder one more time, wincing in sympathetic pain, he climbed to his feet, faced the man resolutely. There might be other options, but he didn't have the time for them, couldn't risk it when this solution had a chance of success. "Let's get started," he said, tightening his jaw, and refused to meet the man's satisfied gaze.
Simon pulled up in front of the address, frowned at the wide squat building shadowed beyond the chainlink fence. Gettering, Inc. read the lit sign outside. Across the street a dark van was parked. No sign of Jim.
Readying his gun, he locked his doors and cautiously headed toward the van. When he reached the middle of the street the back opened and a man stepped out. Silhouetted in the dim street light, he barely made out Ellison's features, looking drawn and pale, even accounting for the bad lighting.
"Jim?" he whispered, knowing the Sentinel could easily hear him from this distance. "What should I do?"
He expected a nonverbal gesture, something to indicate just how Jim's hand was being forced. Instead the detective called quietly, "Come here, Simon, it's safe."
The captain continued to the van. His frown deepened when he saw the men in the front seats; neither were recognizable and both were armed, unlike Jim, as far as he could tell. "Jim," he muttered under his breath, "what the hell's going on?"
"Thanks for coming," was the only response he got upon reaching his man. Up close Ellison looked like death warmed over, jaw clenched so tightly it caused a tic in his cheek, brows and mouth drawn into straight grim lines. In contrast with the stone-cold hardness of his face his eyes almost glowed with blue fire, fury battling fear.
A third unknown man suddenly jumped from the back of the van, pointed his gun at the captain, his meaning clear. "Give him your gun, Simon," Jim instructed. Not threatening but wearily, almost apologetic. "Please, we don't have much time..."
With another glance at his detective, Simon sighed, surrendered his piece. The man claimed it without comment and stepped aside. Without a word Jim pulled himself into the dark back of the van; the captain followed with great trepidation. What in hell was going on here; why was Jim working with these thugs, under no visible threat—
His questioned vanished when someone snapped on the van's internal lamp. Jim crouched by a thin cot on the floor, put his arms around the shoulders of the man lying there. Blair Sandburg, shivering in the warm summer night even under a blanket, his dark curls falling limp and damp around his white face, lips pulled back from clamped teeth but an occasional soft moan still escaped. His blue eyes were open, and, Simon realized, completely lucid, beyond the pain reflecting the same anger shining in Jim's.
"Thanks—for coming—" he managed to get out, echoing his partner's greeting.
Simon was barely listening. "Good god," he whispered, "what happened?"
"Poison—" Blair gasped, but Jim put a gentle hand on his forehead, silencing him. Eyes never leaving his partner's tortured face he explained the situation in brief, unemotional terms. The man who had made the offer was not present but close at hand; the other five were all in the van. Guarding, making sure that Jim tried nothing, and to prevent him from giving Blair the needed dosage until he delivered the rest of the product.
"I'm sorry I couldn't have warned you," Jim muttered, "there wasn't—we don't have time to negotiate..."
"So you're going to do this." Statement, not a question, and he didn't bother waiting for Jim's confirmation. "What do you need me to do?"
"Keep watch outside. I'd like backup inside..." his scrutiny fell on his partner; Blair had lost the thread of the conversation, wracked with the agony of the poison, but he met Jim's eyes, expression pleading. Jim shook his head. "No, two of us would be twice as easy to catch."
He reached under a seat and brought out a case, removed the two headsets inside and gave one to Simon. "You can tell me if anyone shows up. They would have done it but I didn't trust them..." and he glanced to the men sitting in the front of the van, at the two in the back, all watching them coldly, guns at ready.
"I'll watch," Simon agreed quietly, accepting the unspoken as well as the verbalized request. Jim didn't trust them, not to keep an eye out for trouble, but to guard the fading life of his partner.
Jim nodded, then knelt again by the cot. "Hey, Chief," and he brushed a few damp strands of hair out of his partner's eyes, "Blair, I'm leaving now, I'll be back before you know it, get this thing over with, how does that suit you?"
Sandburg drew a quick, pained breath, "Sounds—good to me. Good luck—"
Smiling, or trying to, Jim stood. "Wait—" Blair protested, struggling to sit up, grab his partner's arm. Jim obediently stopped, took the reaching hand in his own and waited. "Be careful," Blair instructed, somehow forcing his voice to be steady, almost commanding. "Use them but don't push yourself into a zone, always—always watch your back, but you can afford to let your guard down once in a while..."
This wasn't caution for this one expedition, Simon realized; it was more reaching than that, more universal. In its way a good-bye...
Jim must have heard it too, because he attempted a pale, shadowy grin and said, "I'll follow your advice this once, but don't expect it to become a habit." Amazing how calm his voice sounded, especially after Simon witnessed his look when he turned away. Warring emotions flashed in swift sequence across his face, and the control he finally achieved was hard-won.
Simon touched his arm as he passed, told him, "Good luck," in a tone more suited to orders than well-wishing. Then the captain bent down next to the cot, placed one large hand on Blair's shaking shoulder. "Hey, kid. I'm—I'm here." Not sure what else to say.
Blair nodded jerkily, then raised his head, gazing past Simon out of the van. Jim stood outside, watching. The captain met his eyes, saw gratitude spark in them, and then something unreadable dropped down inside, shuttering emotion behind a wall of blue ice. Now focused entirely on his desperate mission, the Sentinel slipped away into the darkness.
There was no guard at the back gate they had parked by, but no way through it either. Closed and padlocked. Instead he clawed his way up the chainlink fence, pausing at the top to examine the van. The two men in the front seats were watching him, their eyes glittering in the glow of the moon sliver in the sky. In the back he saw Simon climb out, peering for him, anxiety creasing his brow. A good man, Captain Banks. A good friend. There were few others he could entrust with his Guide's life.
Thought of Blair's condition spurred him on. It was easy to lever his body over the electrified wire at the top; not hot enough to hurt him but if contacted an alarm would start to ring and all would be over. Even if he hadn't known it was there he could smell the faint burnt ozone surrounding it.
For a moment he balanced halfway over the fence; then he pushed free and dropped the eight feet to the ground, bent knees absorbing the impact with catlike silence. Quick jog over to the shadowed hulk of the main building; his black jeans and sweatshirt blended in well with the dark grounds. Only his pale face would be visible, and he was bound to see any night watchman long before they saw him. Even if they didn't have flashlights.
But there was no one, in sight or in hearing distance. Pressing the mike's button he asked, "Am I coming through?"
Simon's whisper hissed in his ear, "Reading you loud and clear. I can't see you anymore. Doesn't seem like anyone noticed your entrance."
"Good. I'm at a back door." He switched off the speaker and examined the lock. Nothing fancy, a simple bolt with a keyhole in the knob. Taking out a basic lockpick he inserted it, wiggled until he heard the lock's distinctive click. Then he turned the doorknob and let himself in.
A flashing red light summoned him to a number pad mounted on the wall. One minute to enter the correct code before an alarm went off. A standard four-digit sequence...focusing closer on the keys, he saw three of them were darker than the rest, smudged with oil from many fingertips. 1, 6, 9. But which one came first, which was doubled? Would wrong codes simply be canceled or would they set off alarms? How many combinations could one make out of three numbers—he never had been that accomplished at math, but more than he could enter in one minute, he was sure. Fifty seconds, now.
Jim took a deep breath. Tried to think back to the week before, when he had been investigating, the stout plant manager prattling on as he showed the detective around. He had surely punched in the code, but Jim hadn't been paying full attention, it hardly had seemed to be a matter of life and death at the time.
Something the man had said surfaced. He practically hadn't stopped speaking for the entire time Jim had been there, if not about their mysterious intruder then about the plant, the company, how respected a pharmaceutical corporation it was, how he the manager had started working for it almost right after it began, nearly thirty years ago—That was it, he had raved of some time about their next year's thirtieth anniversary. Considering how scatter-brained the man had seemed to be, he surely would want a code easy to remember—
And Jim had wasted nearly forty seconds mentally reviewing his garble. Twelve, flashed the keypad, eleven, ten—
He punched in sequence 1, 9, 6, 9. For a moment the light glowed unblinking, a tiny scarlet eye in the dark hall. Then it winked out, replaced by a steady green LED.
For a moment longer he stood there, holding his breath, straining his ears for signs of people. Distinctive tap of heels against tile, but they were distant, echoing down many corridors. Nowhere near him and not approaching. If any alarm had been set off it was completely silent. He exhaled slowly and started down the hall, sneakers beating a muffled tempo on the floor.
Soon enough he reached a cross roads, three doors. Which would lead to his destination, one, two, three? For that matter, where precisely was his destination? The labs, or the storage facilities—no, the labs. One lab in particular, the center of Gettering's illicit activities.
He needed a map. Though for all he knew the various labs were scattered over the several buildings on the property. Hopefully they were connected regardless; he doubted they would all have the same entrance code and he might not guess so well a second time.
Before he trusted chance again he had to find some hint. The man ordering this had spoken as if Gettering's criminals guarded their production. Day and night. For that matter, it would make more sense if they did work at night—it would be an easy way to get away with it, a few scientists working late on a project, with little supervision. Jim doubted that the entire company could be part of the crime, Gettering was too respected. Only a part, and they would want to remain safely undiscovered by their superiors...
Not many people would be in the laboratories legitimately this late—or early, as the case was. All he need do was find the concentration. They'd be walking, working, possibly talking, certainly breathing—even in this sprawling structure they should be within his hearing distance. Jim braced himself against the wall, closed his eyes and concentrated. Couldn't afford to zone, not here; he used the smooth painted surface to hold his attention, keep him present with touch while he extended his hearing.
A low buzz, with a beat—a radio, or perhaps a television, and the slow breaths of someone watching, seated, perhaps asleep. That would be a watchman, as would be the rap of footsteps several halls from that, accompanied by a jangle of keys. It occurred to him that such keys might prove useful, if not necessary—if he could acquire a set...
Later; he pushed his hearing past the guard, past another one. Further on, to his left, two pairs of footsteps in close proximity. Not the sharp click of hard soles but a soft patter, an occasional squeak. Sneakers. As he listened they marched a circuit through halls, passed each other and kept going.
Given their footwear and the lightness of their steps, he would have almost suspected them of being intruders like himself. But they had no destination; instead they circled steadily, stealthily, around a particular area, never making an attempt to depart or enter.
It was on that area that he turned his attention. Thick walls, one of the laboratory rooms, but sounds still penetrated. Distant; he strained and finally caught them, made out the muffled steps inside. Clinking and tapping, bottle glass and computer keyboards. And low voices, "We can't do this for much longer."
"No, but it's still safe for now, and we need all the time we can get, if we want to get this done on time. Do you know how many orders they have already?"
"They can wait. The law might not know where we are, but I was listening on the street, and Drake's been promising what he doesn't have. He must know where to get it—"
"Jim!" a thin voice crackled in his ear. He jerked as if he'd been shot, winced and ripped the tiny speaker away instinctively. Blinking his eyes, the dark hall swum back into focus as the distant voices faded. He realized he was leaning heavily against the wall and pulled himself upright as he returned the speaker to its clip by his ear. The voice was still murmuring his name urgently.
"I'm here, keep it down," he hissed, and then recognized the voice, "Blair?"
There was a muffled clatter on the other end, then a muttered "Dammit!" he identified as Simon. The captain's words sharpened and raised in volume as he brought the microphone closer to his mouth. "Thank God, Jim, you weren't answering—"
"Why was Sandburg on? Where'd he go? Is he feeling better?" Jim demanded in an urgent whisper.
"He's doing worse," Simon corrected in a grim tone. "He's not in any shape to talk to you, the only reason he spoke at all was because you've been ignoring us for almost ten minutes. What the hell—"
"I must have zoned."
"Don't do that again, you almost gave me a heart attack. And Blair—" The captain broke off. "Go as fast as you can, Jim. But be careful. These guys have been so determined about keeping their business secret, I imagine they wouldn't have any qualms about killing to preserve it. Especially if it's a cop—and you don't have back-up," Simon reminded him unhappily.
"I've got you. I'll be as cautious as I can." Though they both knew there was little time for it. "I think I know where they are, I'm heading there now." Taking a breath, he started in the direction of the room and the guards that didn't belong, hugging the wall.
He encountered two sets of locked doors, easily picked. More worrisome were the cameras. He could barely make them out, little red eyes blinking in the ceiling corners of some of the halls, or an almost imperceptibly soft whirring. Once noted, he could duck under the scope of observation for some. Others he moved as they turned. A few he had to risk one brief run past, playing the odds that no one would be watching the monitor for that instant. With his face covered by his gloved hands, even if they were staring at it they wouldn't see anything concrete, just a dark blur. The lights were off or much dimmed in every hall, at least.
He had to take one detour to avoid the legitimate watchman marching the halls, switching lights on and off as he went. Few places to hide in the empty halls, so Jim simply made sure he wasn't in the same one as the guard. Easy enough to track his loud, measured pace and avoid it.
Then he heard the jangle of keys and hesitated. Thus far he hadn't had troubles with the locks, but peering through the glass into one of the deserted labs he had noticed the padlocks on the drug cabinets. Those wouldn't be half as easy to circumvent, he imagined. Not without a key...
He tested all the doors in the hall. A storage closet proved to be the quietest, as well as the most easily accessible and the least likely to be checked. He ducked inside just as the guard stepped into the hallway, flicking on the light. Jim couldn't see it, shut as he was in the closet, but he could hear the distinctive hum of the florescent bulbs.
Steady steps grew louder as they neared, then right in front, and then passing—Jim cracked the door, saw the keys glittering at the man's belt. Then he had grabbed them and the man had walked by, unaware of the burglary. He waited until the guard was two halls past before emerging and continuing in his own direction.
The next guard he encountered was not lighting his way. Dressed all in black down to his ebony Nikes, he might have caught Jim had the Sentinel not been able to hear him from several corridors away. The man walked with an easy confidence, scanning the dimly lit hallway, but he missed Jim's quick glance around the corner. Obviously he was not expecting anyone in particular, only performing his rounds.
The round, Jim saw, was composed of the four hallways surrounding a central lab. The two guards circled it in opposite directions. Not the most exciting way to spend a night; their paychecks must make it worthwhile.
Not easy but certainly possible to slip past them in the scant moments when the halls were empty. The larger problem would be inside the lab, trying to stay hidden from the two scientists while he located the chemical. He had its name and registration number memorized; but how well labeled would an illegal drug be?
Crouched at the other end of the hall, he observed the second guard's passage. The same entirely black gear, and a gleam by the head, not the eye...metal. A microphone. His hand crept to the miniature speaker at his ear.
Both the scientists were employees of Gettering, unlike the guards. It was more than likely that these pursuits were secondary to their legitimate jobs. How well would they know their watchmen?
Activating his own mike, "Simon?"
He replied instantly, "Here, Jim."
How's he doing, he wanted to ask, needed to, but every whispered word could be overheard, and worry or fear wouldn't help him do what was necessary. "I have a plan, I'm going to keep it on so you can listen, but don't talk or expect an answer..."
Simon didn't even ask, except to say, "It's dangerous." Statement, not question, and after a soft sigh he went on, "Good luck." Then, providing the answer to the unasked demand, "He's leveling out, can't talk but he's not out of the picture yet, Jim. You're gonna make it." And there was no doubt in the captain's voice. "This will work." Without even knowing what, he understood that there was only one acceptable, only one possible, outcome to this.
Jim thanked him, not aloud, but Simon would get the message regardless. Then the Sentinel crept down the hall. He timed his move carefully; when both guards were the farthest away they got, he dodged through the opening. Unlocked the door with the key—fortunately only the third he tried—and slipped inside, a scant second before a guard reached the hall.
Two men looked up from a computer monitor at his entrance. Judging by their white coats and furtive, almost guilty expressions, they were the scientists he had heard in conversation before. They relaxed upon observing his dark clothes; then tensed again as the taller asked, "What do you want? Is someone coming?"
Jim shook his head. Irritated, the scientist bent back over the keyboard. "Then get back out there, we have another hour at least."
"How far are you along with that?" He tried to sound bored. "What are you doing now?"
The other man spared him a glance, allowing his colleague to type. "We're virtually testing compound XD-1310. It should be ready to synthesize within a couple of days." He exchanged a quick look with the other scientist. "We're going to need at least another week, can you tell your boss that?"
At Jim's nod of agreement the two men both sighed, unobtrusively but the Sentinel heard them, easily saw the relief that flashed through their eyes. Obviously "his" boss was not someone they enjoyed dealing with personally. Or perhaps not at all; he had assumed that they were in this game for the money but as easily they might be being coerced. Even as he was.
"The boss wants something, though," he said, and had the instant attention of both scientists, neither looking especially pleased. "I need a sample of this drug..." He made a show of furrowing his brow while trying to remember the name, stuttered on the long array of syllables instead of rattling it off. Someone in his assumed career wouldn't likely know the scientific terminology; besides, it wouldn't hurt to give the scientists a feeling of superiority. Superior men less commonly suspected they were being tricked by their inferiors.
Both scientists nodded in recognition of the name. "Why does he want it?" asked the taller, expressionless.
Jim shrugged with all the nonchalance he could manage. "You think I'm told anything? He gives me a word and I ask for it. For all I know it's his new salad dressing."
The shorter man snorted. "Hardly. This stuff makes amphetamines look like green tea." At his colleague's frown, "Hey, what's he going to do, take it himself? He hires them better than that, we found that out. Come on." Leading Jim over to the wall of cabinets, he quickly scanned the labels, found what he sought in the lower corner. The drawer's tag, the Sentinel noted, in no way matched the name he had given.
Since the man didn't give any physical indication of lying, Jim could only assume that the mislabeling was on purpose. Reasonable, considering the nature of the actual drug it contained. Sliding open the drawer, the man removed the small vial of cloudy amber liquid and handed it to Jim. "Careful with that," he warned, "it's the only sample we got—"
Focused as he was on the tiny glass bottle and the power of the chemical it contained, the Sentinel missed the sounds outside until it was too late. He turned in time to see the door open and one of the black-garbed guards enter.
Before he could look away the man's dark eyes were boring holes through his line of sight. "Who is that?" he rasped.
"He's one—" the scientist next to Jim began, but the Sentinel cut him off, "I'm a gopher. Messenger, delivery boy for the boss." He smiled coolly while tensing his body for action. Of what sort, he was unsure, given the distance between them and the gun prominent on the guard's hip, his hand hovering an inch away. But there must be something—
"Why did you come? When'd you get in here?" demanded the guard.
"Just fetching some chemical," while his hand behind his back held the vial tightly. "I walked in a couple minutes ago."
"And what's your name?" His hand hadn't moved, either toward or away from the gun butt.
"Ellison," Jim admitted, not seeing anything else to say.
The man's eyes narrowed and his hand went to beneath his mouth. Activating the microphone, and Jim could hear him begin to ask, "What did you hear about an Ellison making a pick-up—"
"Well, Mr. Ellison, you don't want your delivery to be late," the scientist next to him said brightly, taking his elbow. "You better be on your way—" Jim found himself guided to a door, not the main exit but a side one stuck in an alcove. He heard the buzz of a reply to the guard's query, then he was shoved through and the door slammed shut behind him.
At first he thought he was trapped in a storage closet; then the glimmer of light coming under the door outlined the second exit. He charged over to it, tried his keys. Pelting footsteps heralded the second guard joining his companion, both men now shouting, and a loud thud rattled the door behind him, accompanied by, "Open this now!"
"Of course," mumbled a voice he identified as the shorter scientist, "Just need to find the key, it's in this drawer somewhere—"
The fifth key clicked into the lock; Jim wrenched it out as he threw the door open, dashed down the hall without looking back. His treads nearly lost traction twice on the waxed floors; the third time he fell, but caught himself with his arms and pushed up and back on his way without barely a pause.
He stopped after navigating a bewildering amount of turning corners, listened both to orient himself and to evaluate his pursuers. They had split up, in the halls and searching for him. And one was whispering into his microphone, "Get some guys stationed outside, if you don't want this to get into Drake's hands. Can't send backup inside but it shouldn't be too hard to snag him on the way out."
Jim swore silently, continuing down the halls at a slower rate. He would have to circle around, exit where he had broken in, where the van awaited him. Or else get the van to come to him. If he couldn't reach them the moment he jumped the fence, the other side would certainly grab him, and he knew they wouldn't let him have even the small dosage he—Blair—so desperately required.
His best bet would be to find a way outside. Any way. But he had the two criminal guards at his tail, and he still needed to avoid the legitimate watch as well. Couldn't risk bringing the authorities in on this, or they would leave. With Blair, without the antidote.
As his mind chased the facts in circles, the speaker in his ear crackled to life, "Jim?"
"Here," and he switched the mike back on. "You're gonna need to convince them to change the rendezvous site. I got the drug but I ran into some trouble—"
"Jim," Simon interrupted tersely, "You better be able to handle it fast. Blair needs that antidote now."
The Sentinel didn't miss the emphasis on the final word. He stopped dead in his tracks, then forced himself to walk, steadily and stealthily, slinking instead of running as his legs wanted to. As fast as was safe, not as fast as he could move... "What's happened..."
"I don't know." More than a little desperation in the captain's voice. "Just the poison progressing, I think—Jim, he lost consciousness a couple minutes ago, and he's so hot I can feel it before my hand even touches his forehead. At first he was moaning but now he's silent—" not a condition ever normal for Sandburg, and clearly it scared Simon, "he's not responding to touch or voice, and neither are these men, all five of them, they're watching like vultures but they won't tell me a damn thing—" There was an unnatural stress in his friend's tone; Simon was about as close to breaking as Jim had ever heard him.
Jim was surprised by his own voice, cold and untouched. He had already broken, he supposed, at least it felt that way, something inside was squeezed so tightly that it didn't even hurt now, didn't feel like anything. He was almost as surprised to hear his heart still beating as he was to hear himself saying, "I'm coming, I'll be at the opposite side, near the front gates. According to what Drake said about the poison I have at least an hour."
"Drake?" Simon questioned.
"That's who's behind this, it sounds like." Not that he had ever heard the name before tonight. But as he was the enemy of the guards' boss it only made sense. "Simon, when you've pulled around front get outside and see how many cars shouldn't belong—they've called in backup to get me, I need to know where they're stationed to avoid them."
"Yes. I'll get us moving now." Simon switched off his end to speak with the five vultures.
Get moving. A mantra for he himself to follow. Keep moving. Though inside he felt shriveled—Simon's report, expected as it had been, still felt like a sharp punch to the gut. Hard to breath around the anticipated pain. Success, which had seemed so assured, suddenly appeared impossible—
With an almost-verbal growl he shoved the premonition of failure aside. It wasn't over yet, not by a long shot. The guards were hurrying but they hadn't reached him yet; if he could stay ahead of them—difficult to run, keeping his eyes on the dark halls and cameras and his ears on the footsteps approaching from behind.
He wasn't moving all that fast, certainly not as quickly as he wanted to. All the same he practically bowled over the watchman who stepped into his path. The man blinked, then gaped, one hand dropping to his pistol and the other raising the walkie-talkie to his mouth—
Jim slugged him without a second thought, knocking the man to the floor and out for the count with one swift blow. Then he was gone, still running, rubbing his bruised knuckles absently. He couldn't summon even a hair of guilt. Not with Simon's voice in his ear, "Jim, I'm not sure how much longer..."
And then he was at the double doors of the main entrance. A night guard sat watch in a lit office next to them.
Too late to turn around; three sets of steps in the halls behind him, and two were sneakers. He held the vial still, fingers wrapped protectively around the thin tube of glass. All they need do was find it, take it, smash it, and everything would be over.
Listening, he heard the buzz of television static. Focusing closer he made out slow, even breaths. The guard, sitting upright, but were his eyes open or closed? Either way he had to risk it.
Ducking low, he charged forward, pushed through both sets of doors. Somewhere an alarm started to clang; he heard more footsteps, the gasp as the guard jerked into wakefulness. He dodged off the walkway into the bushes lining the building's front, spoke into the mike, "Simon, I'm out, where are you, where are they?"
"If you're by the front gate," Simon murmured back, "then the van's right in front of you. There's a dark car on either end of the street; they're ignoring us for now but I think they're watching us pretty closely. And I'm outside the van." That last was offhand, but Jim read what he wasn't saying aloud in the admission.
"I have to move now," he said, and bursting from the shrubs he headed to the fence. The van was in the shadows between the pools of light cast by the streetlamps, but Jim had little difficulty seeing it with his enhanced vision.
Just as he had no trouble hearing the cars at either end of the street roar to life. They must have had night-vision goggles to spot him so soon. Not time for that now. He thrust the vial into his pocket as he threw himself at the fence, pulled himself to the top and flipped over, ignoring the electrified wire. He landed moving, dodging the car that squealed and spun in an effort to block him off. The back of the van was open and he launched himself inside as the motor revved up. The vehicle accelerated as he and Simon slammed the back doors shut, taking off down the street with the two automobiles in pursuit. While the driver displayed his skills, the other four watched their antics in stoic silence.
On the swaying van floor Jim crawled to the cot, flung his arms protectively over Blair to hold him in place while they took corners at forty-five degree angles. Even through his clothing his skin burned under the Sentinel's touch, and his breathing was far too shallow.
His pulse also was slow, uneven. For a moment it thundered in Jim's ears, filled his mind with its unsteady, too wrong rhythm. Simon's hand on his arm brought him back, and he fumbled in his pocket, withdrew the intact vial.
Before he could ask for the appropriate instruments to administer it, the bottle was plucked from his hand. Jim rocketed to his feet, looming over the man now holding it, but he only leaned back against the van's side. One hand held the vial loosely; the other aimed his gun at Jim's torso. "Sit back down," he commanded coldly.
Simon pulled him back down, but it was his whispered words that forced Jim to sit quietly, "We can't risk it now."
Nodding, the Sentinel turned his attention back to his Guide, pressed a cool hand to his damp forehead. "We got it, you're going to be fine," wondering if he was convincing Blair or himself.
Once their pursuers had been lost, the van came to a stop. When the doors were opened they were at the Cascade docks. The man Drake stood before them, watching calmly, though he arched an eyebrow questioningly at Simon's presence. He didn't seem too disturbed, at least in part because of the two new men flanking him, armed as well as the rest. "So you did get it, I heard," he said.
"I had it." Jim glared at the man now in possession.
Drake extended a hand in his man's direction and was handed the vial. He held it up to the glow of the floodlights, pursed his lips. "It looks right—good work, detective. Thank you." He started to turn away.
It took three of his men to halt Jim's lunge. "We had a bargain!" he shouted, not caring who might overhear them. In less than an hour nothing was going to matter as it was—
Blinking, Drake approached him. "Oh yes, that's right. How's Mr. Sandburg faring?" Peeking inside the van, he shook his head. "Not too well, I see." At the snap of his thick fingers another of his men offered him a plastic case. From it he removed a medical needle, plunged it into the vial and filled it with the liquid. "Here."
Jim snatched the needle from his hand, roughly enough that the other man yanked back, shaking his arm. He was about to climb into the van when Simon blocked his path. "Hold on," he said, glancing at Drake. "How can you trust him?"
Drake shrugged under captain's and detective's glares. "You don't have much time to decide," he pointed out. Then, "Think about it. Do I seem stupid to you? I know what I've gotten into. If that," he indicated the needle, "kills your partner, what chance will I have against you? You already proved yourself willing to break the law for the sake of his life; I believe you wouldn't have any legal qualms about taking action for the sake of his death. On the other hand, if I've proved my good faith, the distraction should buy me enough time to escape. I am right, of course, am I not?"
"I won't go after you. Not right away," Jim agreed thickly. "So long as it works."
"Good. Don't worry too much, though; I've got some insurance." With a nod of farewell, he strode to a waiting dark sedan, climbed into the back seat. As the car drove away, the men in the van climbed out. Under the instructions of their guns, Simon and Jim carried Blair's cot to an empty shed in the shipyard. They were patted down once more, their radio sets removed and Simon's cell phone confiscated. Then the door was shut, a padlock snapped into place, and they heard the van rumble away.
Simon kicked the door, but the wood was thicker and sturdier than it looked. Jim didn't even registered the captain's attempts. On his knees by Blair's cot, his world had been reduced to the scope of his friend, to the ever-slowing rise and fall of his chest, the increasingly labored efforts of his heart to keep his blood moving.
Perhaps the jarring of being moved had roused him, or maybe Jim's tight grip on his arm; at any rate Blair's eyes suddenly opened, glassy and unable to focus but they searched for Jim's own and somehow found them. "So...how we...doing?"
Simon saw his lips move, but only the Sentinel could make out the thin breath of words. He forced his mouth to curve, to smile reassuringly, "I'm here, I got it..." He showed his friend the needle, pushed up the sleeve of Blair's shirt.
The captain grabbed his wrist; Jim ripped away angrily, but he couldn't escape Simon's question, "Are you sure about this?"
"Simon, we have no choice," Jim insisted, for the final time.
"Do it," and the captain stared in shock down at Blair, disbelieving that paralyzed as he was he could still put such force in his voice. But it drained him enough that even Jim had difficulty making out his next sentence, "It can't get any worse..."
"Chief—Blair, I—" The Sentinel's own broken phrases were scarcely louder.
"You did...everything you could. I know that, man. Of course." And beneath the pain was faint teasing. "Just...get on...with it..."
His eyes were gray, clouding over like the sky readying for a storm. Swallowing, Jim tore away from that fading gaze. Running his fingers over the arm, he selected a vein. With steady hands he injected the needle into the skin, pushed the plunger down and watched the amber liquid flow into the body of his dying Guide.
Simon watched from where he stood. Saw Blair's eyes roll back, his breathing change from the muted but audible gasps to something too quiet for regular ears. Or perhaps to nothing at all. He wanted to approach, see for himself which way the tide had turned, but he couldn't move, somehow frozen by the still tableau of Sentinel and Guide. Neither seemed to move or breath; they might have been statues, trying to hold one moment eternally in time.
Then Jim jerked up and broke the spell. "What?" the captain demanded.
"I—it stopped, I thought, but now—" Blair's eyes suddenly snapped open, bright blue even in the yellowish light from the bare bulb overhead. He struggled to push himself upright. Jim slipped an arm around his shoulder, helped him to sit. "How are you doing?"
"Better." Blair wiped his forehead, blinked as if curious of the moisture he felt there. "Much better," though he leaned gratefully into his partner's support.
The Sentinel nodded distractedly. He was listening to the strong thud in his partner's chest, his heart beating once more at its accustomed tempo.
Then, over it, a growing sound. Sirens, nearing them. Through the small high window he saw the blue strobes. Footsteps, and then a deafening gunshot. Wincing, he lowered his hearing.
Blair's elbow nudged him in the ribs. "You okay? Who's out there?"
Before Jim could answer the shed door swung open. "All right," said a familiar voice, "don't—" Rafe entered, gun first. He broke off upon seeing them, returned his piece to its holster. "Here you are. Blair, you're all right?"
"Fine." With Jim's assistance he shakily climbed to his feet, looked around at the two detectives and captain. "Hey, I was a little out of it there, but when did you call in the cavalry?"
"I had a minute outside when Jim was jumping the fence," Simon explained.
Rafe rolled his eyes emphatically. "3 AM Joel gets a call saying Blair's in trouble, thus Jim is in trouble, thus follow the Cap's cell phone until he turns it off. End of message, but it was enough to gather some officers, some cruisers—"
"So did you get anyone?"
"Other than you?" Rafe shrugged. "We picked up a van and a sedan of some very unhappy men with big guns. They're all being held at the station under all the charges we could find. What's the actual crime?"
"Drugs, breaking an entering, threat, extortion—" Simon began listing.
Jim interrupted him, "Get some people over to Gettering Pharmaceuticals, now. Call them first, tell them to investigate lab 6-A. There's illegal substance manufacturing going on there now." Practically dragging Blair along he started out the door. "And take us to the station. I want to know if you got the head of this. Need to know if Drake made it away."
"Charlie Drake?" Rafe asked. "In the sedan? Brown got him." At the other's inquiring looks, "We put in a report to Vice, turns out he's been under suspicion there for years. This could be the break they needed. They're gonna be thrilled."
"Not half as thrilled as I will be to see him pay," Jim growled, tightening his arm just slightly around his partner. Feeling his reassuringly solid shoulder, warm but not hot, and heart and breath normal, alive as his bright eyes.
Because that end was being dealt with, and because Blair argued convincingly against Jim confronting Drake so soon after, they proceeded instead to Gettering. The two guards had fled by the time security had been alerted, taking with them most of "samples", but there was enough there to close down the operation and probably get a lead on their future. Since Blair had convinced the Sentinel of his renewed health, and neither of them were anywhere near ready for sleep, they initiated the investigation on the spot.
Perhaps it surprised the head of security, especially after the entire difficulty with the alarms a short time earlier, that Jim obviously already knew the way through the halls to the lab. But he said nothing, not even when Jim stopped by a guard standing by the front office with an ice pack held to his cheek.
"Sorry about that," the detective mumbled, indicating the bruise. The watchman frowned, but Jim had already strode past.
"Hey, hold it," the man began.
The Sentinel turned. "Oh, almost forgot, these are yours." He pitched over a small glittering object, which the man automatically dropped his ice to catch.
After retrieving the pack, he stared at his key ring in confusion. "Hey—" but by the time he had a question formed the policemen had turned the corner.
Blair's sharply curious glance was harder to walk away from, but there would be time to explain later. Right now Jim preferred to bask in his success, and see that it was total.
The two scientists were in the center of the lab speaking with a uniformed officer, their computer monitor dark behind them. They blinked when Jim entered, and then heaved a simultaneous sigh when he displayed his badge.
He went to the shorter man, pulled him aside. "You're in trouble—" he began.
"I know." The man seemed more resigned than upset. Possibly even a little relieved it was over.
"It won't go too hard on you, though," Jim continued.
The scientist cocked his head. "Oh?"
"You've already cooperated. If you can tell us more—"
"Oh, I will. Don't doubt that." He sighed. "I was being blackmailed, you know. Professional fraud, old history. Of course I'm losing my license and everything either way, but..."
"I'll do what I can." Jim hesitated. "Doctor, thank you," he said finally. "For your help. If it helps to know, you saved a life."
The scientist followed Jim's line of sight to Blair. Pale, but standing on his own, still-damp hair pulled back and out of his face. Bright eyes met Jim's gaze, grinned a little.
And the scientist actually smiled. "It does help to know that. You're welcome. Glad I could be of service." He wasn't lying.
Jim shook his hand sincerely, vowed to speak to the appropriate authorities on the man's behalf. Then he returned to Blair's side. His partner was eyeing him thoughtfully. "Tough-cop Ellison getting cozy with criminals? Not something I see every night—"
Jim punched him lightly on the arm. "Hey, it's late, and besides, I owe that man."
"Oh?" There was a hint of the serious beneath Blair's teasing look.
"He gave me something priceless," Jim murmured. Not quite audibly, but Blair somehow heard even without Sentinel ears. Said nothing, only nodded his head slowly before gifting his partner with his brilliant smile.
"I'll have to tell you this tomorrow, when I've gotten enough sleep to make sense—but Jim, thanks. For everything. Tonight, and every other time..."
"No problem, Chief." Jim smiled back, without effort, though it was hard to keep his voice light. "You're welcome. Any time."
And he meant it. He would always be worth it. Every time.
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