edited by: Toni Rae and Jo Ann
"Well, gentlemen. Are you ready to head to Alabama?" Banks smirked behind his cigar, imagining his two best detectives, and the trouble they could seem to find wherever they went. "National Guard notified? What about the State Police, do they have the riot team standing by?"
"Funny, Simon, real funny. Why do I even have to go? It was Sandburg's bust, all they need is his testimony." Ellison put on his best pitiful face, slouched in the chair across from Banks. "We could drop him off at the airport and go to the Jags game. You've got a couple of tickets, right?" Jim would never forget the amazed looks of the FBI agents when his rookie partner arrested Raul Newport after a botched attack in retaliation for Sandburg's earlier arrest of his brother, Paul Newport.
"Sorry, man, they asked for both of us, so both of us is what they get. Besides, I bet Simon is taking his new lady to the game." Blair was perched on the corner of the large desk and turned to watch their captain squirm.
Jim perked up at his partner's comment. "New lady, sir?" The sputtering and denials of the older man drowned out the rest of his words.
Sandburg's grin grew wider as he leaned forward to pluck a hair off Simon's shoulder. "If you want to keep it a secret that you're dating a blond, Simon, then you really should go back to the tan overcoat. Things really show up on black wool, man."
Banks swatted at the playful figure dodging him. "Very observant, Detective, now why didn't your eagle-eyed partner notice it?"
The question sobered the Guide immediately. "He's tired, Simon. That's why we need this trip."
The man in question pinched the bridge of his nose as he asked for the hundredth time, "How is a cross-country, red-eye flight and a day in a strange courtroom going to help me?"
"It will, you'll see." Sandburg flashed his winning smile at his Sentinel. "Trust me."
Ellison opened his mouth to comment, but thought better of it and closed it with a tight smile.
"Come on, Sandburg, shake a leg!" Ellison took the stairs two at a time as he came down from his bedroom, overnight bag in one hand, phone in the other. "There's a big backup on the freeway, it's going to take us an hour just to get to the airport."
"Was that Simon on the phone?" Blair's voice was slightly muffled behind his bedroom door.
Ellison leaned impatiently against the kitchen counter. "Yeah, he's about three blocks away, we're going to meet him downstairs. You ready?"
The noise brought the Sentinel's attention to the closed French doors. A moment later, they opened to reveal Sandburg staggering out with two of the biggest suitcases he had ever seen.
"How long do you plan to testify, Chief?"
"What?" Blair put on his best 'surprised' face. "What are you talking about, Jim?" Mentally he counted to three, as if he were thinking, then smiled. "Oh, you mean the extra suitcase. I'm taking some reference books to a friend at the University of Alabama. We get to take two pieces of luggage on the plane, so I didn't see the point of shipping them."
"Okay, but you're the one carrying them, not me." Jim picked up his one small bag and headed for the door. "Have you seen my hiking boots?"
"Your boots?" Thinking fast, Sandburg took a deep breath and dropped one of the suitcases on his foot. "Oww!!"
"What? Are you all right?" Concerned, the Sentinel didn't question the elevated heart rate of his partner. "That's a great way to break a toe, Sandburg, but you've got to come up with something better than that if you want to get out of testifying."
"I'm fine, let's go." Blair managed to herd his partner out into the hall without ever answering the missing boots question. As Sandburg was locking the deadbolt, Jim cocked his head, listening to Simon pull up outside. The Guide recognized the pose and smiled. "Simon here?"
Jim smiled back at his friend as they entered the elevator. "I think so. He took his car in for a new muffler yesterday, but I think that's him."
"You were the only one that ever noticed the rattle. I can't believe Simon spent two hundred bucks to soothe a Sentinel's hearing."
Reaching the ground floor, Ellison was the first one out of the elevator. Halfway to the exterior door, he turned and looked over his shoulder. "But I'm worth it."
Blair was still grinning as they reached Simon's car, but he waited to say anything until Simon was in earshot. "You dye your hair blond, and I'm moving in with Simon."
There was dead silence as Banks glared at his newest detective before turning his attention to Ellison. "Do I want to know what's going on?"
"No sir, but I still want to know what happened to my boots."
"Boots?" Simon blinked in surprise. Someday I'm going to get in on the beginning of a conversation with these two.
Sandburg opened the car door and shoved his partner towards it. "Will you forget about the damn boots? We don't have time for them now, anyway. Let's go!"
As he pulled the car out into early-evening traffic, Banks managed to wink at the younger of the two men in his car without the other one noticing.
Cascade International Airport
"This is ridiculous. We're in the air for a whopping twenty-three minutes, and then we sit in Seattle for a three-hour layover. Why didn't we just drive to Seattle?"
Blair took a deep, calming breath before answering his grumpy partner. "Simon couldn't drive us all the way to Seattle and still have made it to the game, and I know how you feel about leaving your truck in long term parking, man. Besides, we can use the time to get a nice dinner."
"We could have eaten here in Cascade."
"Ellison," Simon was out of breath as he set down the smaller of Sandburg's two suitcases, "with your luck the restaurant would have been robbed and you would have missed the flight doing the arrest report. At least when the restaurant in Seattle gets robbed because you two are eating there, you'll just be another witness." Banks no longer limped, but his stamina had not returned yet.
Not giving Ellison a chance to respond, he turned to the shorter half of the partnership. "I hope your friend appreciates all these books you're lugging down there." Banks carefully kept his back to Ellison as he smiled.
"Yes sir, I think he'll be pleasantly surprised when he opens the suitcase." Since Sandburg was facing his friend, he kept his expression carefully schooled.
After checking in the bags, the three men walked to gate 43. The tallest of the three glared at the other two. "Couldn't you have gotten a gate a little closer?" To emphasize his disappointment, he shoved his unlit cigar back in his mouth.
"You really didn't have to walk us to the plane, Simon." In fact, Ellison could not remember ever being escorted to his flight by his captain and it was making him a bit nervous.
A deliberately neutral face slowly turned towards Ellison. "Jim, I have been your captain long enough to know that if I want you safely on that plane and out of town, I'm going to have to put you on it myself." Barely missing a beat, his attention turned to Sandburg. "You two planning on seeing any of the sights while you're there?"
Blair had researched the area of Alabama they would be in. "Well, the trial's in Tuscaloosa, but I thought we'd drive up to Tuscumbia, or maybe Tuskegee if we get a few hours before we have to leave."
Banks looked down at the shorter man. "Tuscaloosa... Tuscumbia... Tuskegee... what's with all the tusks? Do these people have a walrus complex?"
"Walrus complex?" Sandburg stared at Banks, stunned. He turned to his partner and asked in a loud whisper, "did Simon just crack a joke? Cause if he did, then we need to be alerting the media or something."
The announcement that flight 713 to Seattle was now boarding saved Ellison from having to answer the question. Instead, he playfully shoved Sandburg towards the gate. "We are doing something, Shecky. We're getting the hell out of Dodge."
Stopping just inside the gate, Blair asked one more question, just loud enough to be heard by Banks, "Are all his jokes that bad?"
Seattle International Airport
"You've got to admit that was a pretty good dinner, Jim."
"Yeah, it was." Ellison snagged the last two mints from the counter top basket as they headed for the door. "I just hate the idea of flying all night, then you spending the next day testifying in court."
Blair caught the mint that Ellison tossed at him. "Well, just don't start snoring in the courtroom, okay? Reminds me too much of my freshman Anthro lectures."
That stopped Jim in his tracks. "How can you joke about that?"
"I'm where I want to be, Jim. Don't ever forget that." The words were Sentinel soft, but loud as a bell to the man they were aimed at. His volume increased as the subject changed. "Our flight leaves in 45 minutes, we'd better head over there-- umm, where is our gate?"
"The northern most end of the airport." Jim waited for the response as they resumed walking.
"Aren't we at the southern most end of the airport now?"
"Great." Sandburg began walking backwards, studying his friend.
"Is that all you're gonna say to me?"
"Well then-- what?"
"Yeah, tree." Ellison's smirk gave it away, and Blair stopped just short of stepping back into the tall potted plant.
Blair only gave the tree a cursory glance before sidestepping it to catch up with his long legged partner. "You're a real laugh a minute, man."
"I won't be laughing after our two-hour layover in Dallas. Do you realize that by the time we get to Tuscaloosa we'll have been travelling over 15 hours?"
"Don't think about it like that, man. This is not the time to stop and look at the big picture."
"What if we get stuck next to a screaming kid?"
"We're not going to get stuck next to a screaming kid, Jim."
5:20 AM Friday
Sandburg slowly walked off the plane, followed by Ellison, a pained expression on the Sentinel's face.
Ellison pinched the bridge of his nose. "I thought you said we weren't going to sit next to a screaming kid, Chief."
"We didn't sit next to one screaming kid, Jim. We sat next to two screaming kids. Do we have time for a beer before our next flight?"
"We've got two and a half hours before we board again, but you can't have a beer at this time of the morning."
"It's still yesterday, man."
Jim turned to stare at his friend. "How do you figure that?"
"It was yesterday when we got on the plane, right? We haven't been to bed yet, so we haven't moved to the next day. It's still yesterday until it's today. Of course if we get two chances at sleep, it could become tomorrow before we're ready. Grad student logic, man. It works great on those all-night stakeouts too." Sandburg's grin was infectious and Ellison couldn't help but smile back.
"Don't tell Simon, but you're beginning to make sense."
"Beginning?" Sandburg was on a roll. "What do you mean, beginning? I'll have you know that I always make sense. Just because you with your plebian thoughts..."
"Ooooo, so many big words, so early in the morning. Am I suppose to run out and get a dictionary?"
"Nah, it's in the pocket of your overnight bag." Sandburg ducked in anticipation of the swat to the back of his head, and was rewarded with the sound of laughter.
"Thanks, Chief, I needed that. Come on, I'll buy you a bloody Mary."
"I don't want a bloody Mary, but thanks for offering to buy. I'll take a Belgian waffle with strawberries." Laughing, Blair ducked into the restaurant across from their gate.
Speaking to no one in particular, Ellison voiced his complaint. "He always cons me into buying. How does he do that?" Still shaking his head, a much more relaxed Ellison followed his partner into the diner. Thanks, Buddy.
Two exhausted men leaned against each other as they waited at baggage claim. Blair was the first to speak, his voice gravelly with fatigue. "Man, what are the chances that the same woman with the same two screaming kids would be on the same connecting flight. You must have some really bad karma, Jim."
A bleary blue eye peered down at him. "My karma? Why are they my punishment? They kept you awake, too."
"No, you kept me awake. Who would have guessed an ex-army, special-ops trained killer would be such a wimp when it comes to crying kids?"
"Chief, the Terminator couldn't have taken those kids." Any other comment he wanted to make was stopped by the soft voice of his Guide.
"Don't look now, but it's Frick and Frack."
Jim followed Sandburg's line of sight and found himself looking at Abels and Trenton, the two FBI agents who had come to Cascade in pursuit of Raul Newport. He forced a tight smile onto his face. "Great, now my day's really complete. Can't we just rent a car and follow them to Tuscaloosa. Spending a couple of hours cooped up in a car with them won't do much for my karma, if you get my drift."
Any rebuttal Blair wanted to make was stopped dead when the two agents moved into earshot. Instead, he directed his comments to them. "Frank, Norbert, how are you guys doing? It's been a while."
"Detective Ellison, you're looking well. I see Detective Sandburg didn't have time to visit the barber before coming down here, or perhaps you're preparing for a narcotics assignment?" As usual, Trenton's tact was non-existent.
"Hello gentlemen. Welcome to our little piece of heaven." Abels had a bit more tact, but he unwittingly asked some loaded questions. "Did you have a nice flight? Are you rested? Blair's testimony has been moved up a few hours, so we'll have to go directly to the courthouse. Hope you don't mind."
"Why should we mind?" Ellison's words were laced with sarcasm. "By the way, who do we thank for our lovely travel arrangements?" He grunted as he lifted Sandburg's heavy bags off the conveyor belt.
One look at the pile of luggage sent Trenton on a search for a cart while Abels just laughed. "Around here trials usually don't last that long. Looks like you boys have enough to stay a month; Norbert only booked your room for one night."
Ellison raised one eyebrow. "Trenton made the arrangements?"
"Don't start anything Jim." Only the Sentinel could hear his Guide's words and he bit back what he wanted to say. Blair was right; it wasn't worth the bother.
They silently followed the two agents out to the waiting sedan and loaded the bags in the trunk. As Abels started the car and Trenton returned the luggage cart, Ellison gripped his partner's arm and asked, " why does your suitcase smell like my hiking boots?"
"Would you quit harping on those boots?" Sandburg hissed before climbing into the back seat.
Tuscaloosa County Courthouse
Sandburg leaned back in the witness stand, satisfied with his testimony. It had taken over two hours, but every detail of the investigation and arrest of both Paul and Raul Newport was now on record. The only thing left was the cross-examination, and then he could implement his plans for Jim.
He watched as the Public Defender for Raul Newport slowly stood up and gathered his notes into a stack. First glance at Walter Butler would not have impressed many people, but Blair looked past the ill-fitting, wrinkled suit and scuffed shoes to see a sharpness to his expression that convinced Sandburg the man was much more aware than he let on.
Butler stepped up to the witness stand and leaned against it, his lopsided grin never reaching his eyes. "So, you're the great wonder cop everybody's so impressed with?"
Already Sandburg was uncomfortable. "No, I'm just a cop doing my job."
"And how long had you been doing that job? On the day of my client's arrest, how long had you been a police officer?"
"Only a few weeks." Sandburg looked over at Ellison, not knowing where the line of questioning was headed.
"In fact, isn't it true that my client was your first arrest?"
Blair decided to take the offensive. "Was my earlier testimony unclear? Would you like the court recorder to read it back to you, or would you like me to explain it to you again, instead? Perhaps if I went slower this time?"
A ripple of soft laughter went through the courtroom. Smiling himself, the Judge banged his gavel to quiet the room, but allowed Butler to continue his line of questioning.
"Are you suggesting that we in the south are slower than you northerners?" Butler looked back and forth between the jury and Sandburg.
Anthropology had taught Blair how to understand people. It was one of the many things that made him a good cop, giving him an insight far beyond the experience of more veteran officers. Knowing exactly how to answer the question and diffuse the situation Butler was creating caused the younger man to smile as he spoke. "Not at all. Your jury seems most thoughtful and intelligent. The Judge is obviously well respected, and rightfully so. The District Attorney has assembled a well thought out case, and obviously understands the events leading up to the arrest of Raul Newport and the earlier arrest of his brother." Sandburg leaned closer to the obnoxious lawyer. "But if you're having trouble with any of this, I'm more than willing to review it again for you."
This time the laughter was loud and raucous and the Judge addressed the attorney. "Mr. Butler, the court has no problems with Detective Sandburg's limited experience as an officer of the law. He made the arrest; the arrest was valid. Either move on or release the witness."
"Yes, your Honor." Several people laughed again at the obvious annoyance in Butler's voice. Butler turned back to Sandburg. "What made you personally suspicious of Raul Newport?"
"Well, he tried to run me down with a stolen truck."
"You didn't consider him a suspect in the bank robberies?"
Sandburg had debated in the classroom too many times to be rattled by this rank amateur. "We were assisting the FBI with their surveillance when it was believed that Raul Newport would try to make contact with his brother in Cascade. He was the FBI's suspect up until he tried to turn me into road kill. As to why the FBI considered him a suspect in the robberies in question, you'll have to ask them.
"In Cascade he was arrested for the attempted murder of two police officers, for resisting arrest, and for grand theft auto. While searching him, we found money that could be traced back to the last bank robbery that Mr. Newport has been charged with."
"Mr. Butler," the Judge's words startled the Public Defender and he turned around to face the man. "I've heard this testimony several times now, as has the jury. This is the last time I'm going to tell you to either move to new questions or release the witness."
Butler nodded, but didn't verbally acknowledge the Judge's request. Instead he jumped back into his cross-examination of Sandburg. "Are regulations more lax in Washington?"
"Well, look at you. I just can't see you in a uniform, at least not here in Alabama. That's why I'm wondering just how strict the regulations are out there."
Sandburg reviewed several responses before deciding on one. His patience with the annoying man was gone, and he could see that no one in the courtroom was taking the questions seriously any longer. He turned wide eyes to the Public Defender. "You mean that your detectives still have to wear uniforms? Doesn't it make it kinda hard to do undercover work? Of course, maybe that's why your clients keep getting arrested. I've found most perps don't try to buy drugs from an officer in uniform with a regulation haircut. At least in my limited experience."
After this line of questioning failed to discredit the rookie detective, Butler gave up. Throwing his hands up in the air, he returned to the defendant's table. "No further questions, your Honor."
In the back of the courtroom, Ellison grinned at the muttered "it's about damn time" he heard from the Judge. Increasing his volume, the Judge spoke to the court. "The witness may step down, court is recessed until Monday morning. Court dismissed!" The bang of the gavel was barely heard over the exodus of tired spectators from the room.
Sandburg stopped in front of the District Attorney. "I'm sorry, I lost my temper a little. I hope it didn't hurt your case."
The DA just smiled. "We've been listening to that blowhard spout off for three weeks now. He doesn't have a leg to stand on with this case, so he's trying to bore the jury to death. You're the highlight of the whole darn trial, kid."
After saying his good-byes to the DA, Blair moved to Ellison's side. "Let's get out of here, man. I am so ready to eat."
"Near as I could tell, the best place to eat around here is a place called the Cypress Inn. It's only a couple of blocks from here, so we can walk."
"Wow, great. Who told you about it?" Sandburg stretched and twisted his back, feeling the tiny little pops as it relaxed.
"Umm, well it wasn't just..." The taller man blushed slightly.
Sandburg moved close so he wouldn't be overheard. "You were using your senses to scope out a restaurant rather than listen to my testimony?"
"I thought you were hungry?" The hurt look Ellison was going for was spoiled by the grin he couldn't keep off his face.
Economy Inn, Room 27
Ellison stared at the large box that had just been delivered to their room. Without looking up he asked, "more stuff for your friend?"
Sandburg was digging through his smaller suitcase and just answered with an affirmative grunt. Peering through his hair, he watched his friend circle the box that followed them from Cascade.
Puzzled, Ellison continued his questions. "Why didn't you just have it delivered to your friend? Now we've got to lug it to him along with the stuff you brought down on the airplane. You're not thinking things through, Chief."
"I'll have you know that I spent a great deal of time thinking this through, Jim." Sandburg found the sweats he was looking for and headed for the bathroom. "I'm gonna take a quick shower, open that up for me, will ya?"
"What..." Ellison's question died off as he realized he was speaking to a closed door. Complaining about nutty partners, he grabbed Sandburg's Swiss army knife off the dresser and began to open the box. Recognizing the contents, he sank down on the bed waiting for Sandburg to come out of the bathroom.
Blair emerged from the bathroom clad in his favorite sweats with a towel draped over his shoulders. He didn't say anything, just plopped down on the other bed and waited. When Jim looked up at him with a questioning face, he grinned and tilted his head towards the unopened suitcase.
Ellison retrieved the large case and swung it onto the bed. With one more glance at his grinning partner, he opened it up.
"These are my clothes." If possible, Jim looked even more puzzled.
Blair tucked his feet up under him, settling cross-legged on the bed. "Merry Christmas, man."
The light was not dawning for the Cop of the Year. "You're giving me my clothes for Christmas? Gee, thanks, and it's even early."
"You know, you're really hard to buy for."
"What, so you're recycling now?" Ellison knew that his partner was going somewhere with all this, but so far he hadn't a clue as to where.
"What happened the last time we tried to go camping?"
Jim didn't have to think hard for the answer. "We got called in on a case."
"And the time before that?"
"They moved the date on a trial, and I had to go testify." Ellison was beginning to see where his partner was headed. "You're right, we haven't actually made it to a camping trip in a long time, but... camping... here?"
"Some of the most beautiful campgrounds in the country are right here."
Ellison began to grin, the smile taking years off his face. "Simon knows? He gave us a few extra days?"
"How about two weeks?"
"Two weeks! What about our cases?"
"The truck insurance is due next week."
"Paid in full."
"Paid, so is the cable bill."
"Wow, you did all this for me? What about the mail?"
"Simon will pick it up, along with the paper. He's going to water the plants too."
Sandburg was grinning from ear to ear. "You said that already."
"Yeah, I did." Jim shook his head in amazement. "Chief, no one, and I mean no one, has ever done anything like this for me before. I don't know what to say."
Blair tossed Jim his coat. "Say that you're buying dinner, 'cause paying for your insurance premium just about broke me."
Ellison laughed as he caught his coat and followed Blair to the door. Before Sandburg could open the door, Jim reached out and clasped his shoulder.
The younger man didn't need to hear the words with his ears. As he looked into the eyes of his best friend, he heard them with his heart. Nodding, he reached up and squeezed the hand still on his shoulder.
"Yeah, man. Me too."
Back at the Cypress Inn
The waitress had brought them each a slice of peach pie before their conversation moved back to the camping trip. Ellison leaned back with his coffee and began to ask his questions.
"All right, Chief, where are we going, and how do we get there?"
"I rented us a SUV for the two weeks; we're going to drive up to Lake Lurleen State Park. We've got a camp spot reserved right next to the river. Man it's going to be great! We park on one side of the river, then we just have to hike across a footbridge to the camping area on the other side. There's a lake with boat rentals, miles of hiking trails, even a horseshoe pit. It's only a couple of miles to a store and we can rent bikes there if we want. There's a bike path clear around the lake."
"It sounds perfect, but it's the middle of winter. Aren't you going to be freezing?" No matter how wonderful this vacation seemed, if his best friend was miserable, then Jim wouldn't be able to enjoy it.
"You didn't take the tent out of the box, did you?" Sandburg was almost bouncing in his seat.
Jim took another sip of coffee before answering. "No, I just saw the tent and our sleeping bags in it. I never pulled anything out. Why?"
"Because underneath it is our Christmas present from Simon; a brand-new, top of the line camp stove. Guaranteed to keep us toasty and warm, no matter how cold it gets here."
"And while we're here, we can work on your vocabulary skills."
Jim threw a wadded up napkin across the table at him. "Very funny, Sandburg. When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow's Saturday, they've promised to deliver the SUV by mid-morning. We can leave as soon as we're packed. We're booked on a flight back to Cascade on the 23rd, so we've got lots of time to relax and enjoy ourselves.
Ellison waited until his partner was looking up at him before continuing.
"Thank you. This is the best present anyone has ever given me. I may not say the words as often as I should, but... thank you."
Not quite trusting himself to speak, Blair nodded instead.
"Good morning, sleepyhead." Blair's greeting was cheerful to the other man as he stumbled out of the tent, still in the heavy sweats he slept in.
Ellison stood next to the tent and rubbed the palms of his hands on his cheeks, his vision followed sound to track the figure sitting by the fire. "Morning, Sandburg. What time is it?"
Refusing to even look at a watch while he was on vacation, Blair studied the sun overhead. Although it was bitterly frigid at night, and there were small patches of snow on the ground, the days were clear and cold. "I'd say it's almost ten in the morning. That was quite a long sleep, man."
"Ten? That's not so bad. I kinda expected to sleep 'til at least noon." He frowned as his campmate began to laugh. "What's so funny?"
"It's Monday, Jim." Still laughing, Blair poured himself another cup of coffee, then one for Ellison, reaching up with the second cup. Jim accepted the cup, frowning at his partner's words.
"What happened to Sunday?"
"Let's just say that you really needed the sleep."
Jim downed half of the coffee in two good gulps. "Yeah, I must have. What did you do while I pulled my Sleeping Beauty act?"
"Not much." Blair stood up and stretched. "Read, caught up on my journal. I sure didn't have to worry about any wild animals coming into camp; not with that buzz saw of yours going in the tent all day." As he spoke, Blair opened the cooler and began pulling out the makings for breakfast.
"I'll have you know that I do not snore." Jim finished the last of his coffee and disappeared back into the tent to retrieve his shaving bag.
Sandburg waited until he came out of the tent to hold up a small metal object. Jim blanched slightly when he recognized the personal recorder he had given Sandburg for his birthday last year. "Well, when we get back to Cascade, I'll just have Serena analyze this tape. Maybe she can identify the strange animal making these noises."
"Funny, Chief, real funny." Jim set down his cup next to the fire pit. "I'm gonna get cleaned up, what's for breakfast?"
"I bought a couple of steaks yesterday while you were sleeping. Thought I'd fry them with some eggs. How does that sound?"
Ellison was halfway out of the camp, but he turned around and grinned at his partner. "Sounds like heaven."
As Jim hurried down the path to the camp shower and restroom, a truck pulled in next to their rented SUV, parked on the other side of the river. Dialing up his sight slightly, he identified it as one of the local law enforcement vehicles and continued on his way, keeping one ear open for any problem that might occur.
"You Ellison or Sandburg?" Intent on cooking, Blair didn't hear anything until his visitor spoke. Startled, he looked up.
"I'm Sandburg, Blair Sandburg. Is there a problem?" Blair stood up, wiping his hands before reaching out to offer one.
"So, you're the damn hotshot."
"Excuse me?" Sandburg sized up his visitor. The man stood a good six-foot, and was almost as wide as he was tall. A thick, unruly mop of hair rested on his head, a slightly darker shade of gray than his handlebar mustache. Before Blair could decide how much trouble he was in, the older man began to laugh.
"Heard you got old Walter's goat. I'd have loved to have seen it." Still laughing, he slapped Sandburg on the back. "That man's been a thorn in my side for a lot of years, glad to see somebody take him down a notch or two."
Sandburg smiled back at his visitor. "Glad to have been of service, Mr..."
"Tucker, Sheriff James Tucker, but everybody just calls me Tuck. Sorry about that boy, sometimes I forget there are folks in the world that don't know who I am.
Up in the camp shower, Ellison relaxed and tuned out the rest of the conversation as he heard Sandburg offer their guest a cup of coffee.
By the time Ellison returned to the camp, Sandburg was alone. "Where'd the sheriff go?"
Sandburg gave a knowing smile. "How much did you listen to?"
With a sheepish look on his face, Jim shrugged his shoulders. "Just enough to tell that there wasn't a problem. Did he drive out here just to see the witness that deflated Butler?"
Blair picked up a plate and started piling food on it. "Nah, his grandson's eighth birthday is today, and the family is having a big party at the picnic area. He invited us to join them, but I told them we already had plans for the day."
"Thanks, Buddy. Kids are fine, but I don't want to spend the day with a bunch of them today." He accepted the plate from his friend and leaned back, eyes closed, savoring the aroma. One eye popped open. "Do we have plans for today?"
Sandburg paused while filling his own plate. "Actually we do, I rented us a boat for the day. There's no fishing this time of the year, but the lake is gorgeous. There's a wildlife refuge on the far side, and the deer come right down to the water."
"Sounds great." The two men ate in companionable silence. When they finished, Ellison reached out for Blair's plate. "You cooked, I'll clean up. Why don't you grab whatever gear we'll need for today, and then we'll get going."
By the time Jim had the dishes cleaned and the fire banked, Blair had the rest of the camp secured and two packs of supplies ready to go. Leaning next to the packs were two pairs of chest-waders. Ellison raised an eyebrow at his always-cold partner. "You're planning to get in the water in this temperature?"
"With our luck, I'm not taking any chances." He picked up his share of the gear and waited for Jim. Ellison swung his pack onto his shoulders and started down the trail marked 'lake'.
"We're not that bad." Ellison grinned even as he said it.
"Oh, yes we are." The reply was Sentinel soft from behind him.
Somewhere on Lake Lurleen
The twelve-foot aluminum boat was just the right size for two men and the electric engine made maneuvering around the lake efficient while gentle on Sentinel senses. Sandburg sat in the middle of the boat, having shut down the engine, now using the oars to maintain their position. Ellison was in the bow of the boat, eyes closed, following his Guide's meditative lessons.
"That's it, Jim. Let the last of the tension flow out of your body, feel it dripping off your fingertips and into the lake. The ripples of the water are carrying it far away, so far that you can't feel it anymore. Let your senses expand to replace your tension. Use them to feel the peace around you. Taste the calmness in the air. Hear the peacefulness around you. Smell the tranquility in the water. Touch the serenity around you. Do you have it, Jim?"
A quiet nod and a soft smile were his only answer.
"Good, that's very good." Blair's voice dropped even lower. "Now, pull all that together, and open your eyes to see what you were sensing before."
Blue eyes opened and slowly focused. Jim's smile grew wider and almost child-like.
Blair suppressed a chuckle. "You've been saying that a lot lately. Tell me what you see."
There was a long moment of silence as Jim tried to find the words to express what he was seeing. When he finally spoke, his voice was rough with emotion. "Every day I use my senses to see the ugliness in the world, I'd forgotten just how beautiful it could be. This is the best Christmas present I've ever gotten. Thank you."
A silent nod showed that his best friend understood what it truly meant. Eventually, Sandburg did speak. "By the time we leave, I want this place, this day, firmly implanted in your sensory memory. That way, whenever things get to you, you can come back here in your mind and re-experience what you're feeling right now."
A contented twinkle showed in the older man's eye. "The gift that keeps on giving?"
This time Blair did laugh. "Yeah, man, something like that. Let's explore what your senses are showing you. You point and I'll drive." The two men spent the rest of the day like that, meandering from one end of the lake to the other, as the scenery caught the Sentinel's attention.
Eventually they ended up near the wildlife refuge, where the big man's attention focused on a mother doe with twin fawns. Curious as to what his partner was so intent on, Sandburg brought the binoculars out of his pack. Far enough away to remain unnoticed by the family, they watched mother and children frolic at the water's edge for almost an hour. Without warning, the bank gave way, tumbling one of the young fawns into the icy water.
"Jim, he won't be able to get out, we've got to do something!" Alarmed, Sandburg started the boat engine.
"Get me close to the edge." Ellison was already pulling on his waders. When the boat was about forty feet from the shore, Blair cut the engine and let their momentum carry them the rest of the way, as not to frighten the young animal.
Blair steadied the craft the best he could as Ellison prepared to enter the water. "Dial down touch as far as you dare so the cold water doesn't send you into shock. Be careful, Jim."
Ellison took a deep breath and slid into the water. He had been able to see the bottom of the lake, but wasn't fully relaxed until his feet were firmly on it and the water was still several inches from the top of his waders. He exhaled and began moving towards the struggling fawn. Jim reached it just as exhaustion overtook the creature and it went limp.
Cradling the limp form in his arms, he moved to where the shoreline was more stable, laid it down on the frozen, mossy ground, then backed up. The mother deer nuzzled and encouraged her child until it stood on shaky legs and moved back into the underbrush with her, while Jim stood, mesmerized in the chest deep water. Before he moved away, she returned and stood in front of him. Jim kept perfectly still as the large doe studied him. Slowly, she moved closer to him until finally she dropped her head and ran her muzzle along the side of his face as if in thanks before returning to her fawns.
Blair moved the boat as close to the shore as he could; grabbing an overhead branch to steady it while Jim climbed in. "That was incredible, man."
Jim slumped back against the seat, exhausted, yet invigorated. "Yeah, it was." Nothing more was said as they made their way back across the lake.
Park picnic grounds
Sandburg expertly brought the small vessel alongside the dock, as the Sentinel focused on the buzz of activity in the picnic area. "Can you tell what's going on?"
A pained expression crossed the other man's face. "It sounds like a lost child. They're getting ready to send out search parties. I can hear the mom crying."
"Oh, man, Sheriff Tucker's family is here having a party for his grandson. You don't suppose it's..." Blair's words trailed off as he realized that chances were the kindly sheriff's family was more than likely involved in this potential tragedy.
"There's only one way to find out, Sandburg. Besides, they are probably going to need all the help they can get. It's going to be dark in a few hours."
Sandburg walked towards the sheriff without hesitation, but a young woman in a deputy sheriff's uniform blocked his path. "Excuse me, but we'd like to speak to the sheriff."
"Sheriff Tucker is occupied. Perhaps I can be of some assistance?" Although her words were friendly, Blair got the feeling he was being talked down to and it irked him. He bit his tongue and tried a different approach.
"It looks like you have a search starting, we'd like to help. We're..."
She never gave him a chance to finish. "Look, I'm sure you mean well, but search and rescue operations are not something tourists can handle. You're just going to get in the way, and we don't have time for that. Move back please."
"If you give us a chance to explain..." Sandburg fumbled under his jacket for the badge tucked in his shirt pocket. Before he saw it coming, a nightstick connected with his arm.
"OWW!" His training took over and he deflected the second blow before it could make contact. An angry Sentinel stopped her third attempt cold.
"Get your hands off my partner!" Ellison had time to retrieve his badge and ID and he shoved it in the hostile deputy's face.
Sheriff Tucker entered the foray. "Deputy Worley, back off! These men are here to help find Andy!"
"I mean it Laura, calm down. These are the detectives who came down to testify in the Newport case." Tucker's voice dropped in volume as his deputy calmed down. "Now go and check on my daughter, she could use a friendly face right about now."
She gave a terse nod and moved away, stopping only a few feet away and turning back to the men. "You fit the profile. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions." That said, she continued on her path.
"Fit the profile? What did she mean by that?" Sandburg unconsciously rubbed at the rapidly developing bruise on his arm.
The sheriff gestured towards the makeshift command post in the center of the picnic area and the three men strode towards it. "Laura, I mean Deputy Worley, has taken several psychology classes at the university. She's the closest thing we have to a profiler around here."
"And her professional opinion is what?" Ellison was more than a little angry at how his partner had been treated by the woman in question.
"She feels that this may be more than my grandson wandering off; that he may have been abducted. If that's the case, then she feels that the suspect may come back to gloat, even to try and help with the search."
"It's all right, I understand." Sandburg smiled his acceptance at the sheriff. "We're trained for this and would like to help, but we realize that might make you feel uncomfortable.
Sheriff Tucker looked back and forth between the two partners. "I can use all the help I can get. Andy's my only grandchild..." The big man's voice broke before he could finish.
Ellison moved closer to his partner to provide a united front, but deferred the questioning to him. Blair didn't waste any time. "What makes you think there's more here than Andy just getting lost?"
"What eight year old wanders off and forgets to open his presents?" Tucker pointed to the ruined birthday party on a table at the far side of the picnic grounds. A stack of brightly wrapped presents shone like a beacon that should have brought any child in the area in a dead run.
Ellison nodded his understanding, while Sandburg explained their preferred method of operation to the sheriff.
"Jim is an experienced tracker. Rather than join one of your established search parties, we'd like to examine the perimeter of the area, then follow whatever lead looks promising."
"Thank you. If you need anything, let me or Laura know. Here's a description of what he was wearing." He handed the men a hastily run-off flyer. Tucker pointed to a grouping of trees just to the north of the picnic shelter. "Andy's... his coat was found over there by those trees, but he knows he's not suppose to leave any of the marked trails."
"We'll start there, then." Jim checked that the park maps were in his pack and pulled off his waders, leaving them on the ground. Grabbing a few extra water bottles from one of the volunteers he started out, Sandburg scrambling to keep up.
"Tuck?" The young deputy's voice brought him over to her patrol car.
"How's my daughter?" He leaned against the hood of the car.
Worley leaned next to him. "I convinced Annie to go home in case Andy finds a phone and tries to call. The out of town cops, what search party did you assign them to?"
Tucker rubbed his forehead as he answered her. "I didn't. The older one is an experienced tracker. They're going to run an independent search."
"Is that wise?" An upturned hand stalled any further questions.
"Laura, stranger does not mean suspect; not until it has a reason to. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir." She waited until the sheriff was out of earshot, before climbing in her car and picking up the radio.
"Dispatch, this is Worley. I want you to run a background check for me."
"Have you got anything yet, Jim?"
Frustrated, Ellison turned at the sound of his partner's voice. "There's not enough here. If this is where he dropped his jacket then I should be picking up more than I am. If he was playing here, the ground should be more trampled. If he was kidnapped from here, then I should be finding some signs of a struggle. There's nothing!"
"Maybe the search parties caused enough disturbance that..."
"No, that's not it. They did a good job preserving the scene. It's like the coat was just dropped here." He waited as his partner circled, obviously thinking.
"Okay, okay, think about it for a minute. The jacket was either tossed here to try and throw off the search, or it was accidentally dropped along the way, right? Either way it got here with someone. There's no sign of any type of vehicle in the woods here. We're too far away from the lake or the river for someone to throw it from a boat. You'd have heard a plane or a helicopter. It had to be somebody on foot, either Andy or his kidnapper."
"So somewhere they had to leave a trail, and all we have to do is find it."
"Exactly, Jim." Sandburg stepped behind his partner, placing his hand on the other man's back. "Use this as ground zero, and cast a sensory net around you. Find what's out of place. Dial up one sense at a time, use the rest of them to ground you so you don't zone."
Ellison knew the routine as well as his partner, but it was easier when the younger man guided him through it. It took only a few minutes before a smell tickled his sensitive nose.
"Got something." He began to move out, heading to the northeast.
Sandburg followed, not sure what the Sentinel had found, keeping his instructions vague. "Focus on what you found, refine the search for it, but don't let your other senses slip away from you, just keep them dialed down to normal." When Ellison stopped in front of a scruffy looking bush, Blair bent down to take a better look.
"No, don't touch it." Ellison used a broken branch to move part of the bush aside to reveal a juice box, covered in a design of purple grapes, tucked underneath it. "It can't have been here too long, the animals haven't gotten to it yet."
"Here." Sandburg opened his pack and pulled out crime scene gloves and an evidence bag. When his partner raised an eyebrow at him, he just smiled. "Hey, with our track record, I never leave home without them."
"Your dates must think you're kinky." A quick smile touched Ellison's face then he was all business again as he handed the filled plastic bag to Sandburg. "One of the search parties is just to the west of us, have one of them run this back and see if the kid's fingerprints are on it."
By the time Sandburg returned, Ellison had tracked a small scrap of fabric, matching Andy Marrow's shirt, snagged on the trunk of a tree. A closer examination showed a purple stain on it. Ellison's sensitive nose confirmed is was a grape-flavored juice, the same as the drink box found earlier. The next sensory sweep gave them the remains of a peanut butter sandwich, each item in the same northeasterly direction, following what appeared to be an old deer trail. By now, they were out of the identified search area and into pretty rough terrain.
"This far out, we're on our own. Maybe we should get a radio from one of the other groups before we go much further."
Ellison opened his mouth to agree, but then the faintest of sounds caught his ears. He quickly raised his hand to quiet his partner, cocking his head to hear better. It was brief, but Ellison recognized the sound of a frightened child crying. "There's no time, I hear him!" He took off running, his Guide in hot pursuit.
Twenty minutes later, they burst into a clearing, only to find it empty. Sandburg leaned against a tree, trying to catch his breath while Ellison prowled around the open area.
"He was here, I heard Him." Ellison opened a water bottle from his pack and gulped down about half of it. "We've got to keep moving if we're going to catch up with his kidnappers."
"But where? Do you hear anything now?"
"No, wait... yes! I've got it again." Without waiting to see if his partner was behind him, Ellison was running again, still following the same direction, and becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the searchers.
Back at the park picnic grounds
"Tuck?" The big man jumped at the sound of his name.
She sat down on the bench across from him and squeezed his hand. "We just got the lab report back; they found Andy's fingerprints on the juice box those two detectives found."
"Then they're onto something." He started to stand up, but her grip on his hand kept him down.
"There's something else, something about them. Sandburg got kicked out of college on charges of fraud before he became a cop. He was trying to claim that Ellison was some kind of super-hero. Now they're miles out of the search pattern, claiming to be tracking down Andy."
"Laura, what are you saying?"
"We can't verify where they were before Andy disappeared. They rented a boat, but what kind of person spends an entire day out on the lake this time of the year?" She stared at the picnic table, tracing the wood grain with her fingernail. "What if they set all this up to make themselves heroes again?"
"You can't be serious." Even as he said it, the sheriff began to have doubts. "The search choppers will be here in a few minutes. There'll be just enough time for them to do one or two sweeps before it gets dark. I'm having one of them drop me off close to Sandburg and Ellison's last reported position. If they're really tracking Andy, then I want to be there. If they're not, well there are ways to deal with that too."
"I'm going with you."
"No, my dear, you're not."
"No, I need you here. If those two men have done something to my grandson to make themselves look better... I'll take them down any way I have to. That's my family they're messing with. You keep the official search going, in case we're wrong. Give me everything you've dug up on them." Reluctantly, she handed him a file bulging with faxed copies of articles from several Washington newspapers.
Tucker flipped through the file and nodded. "This is good; by the time I catch up with them, I want to know everything there is to know about those two men.
Northeastern corner of Lake Lurleen State Park
"Jim, stop." Sandburg dropped down on the frozen mud and waited for his partner to join him.
"Sandburg, we're too close, we can't stop now!" He paced angrily back and forth, waiting for Blair to get back up and continue.
"Have we gained on them in the last three hours?"
"No, but it's getting dark, they'll have to slow down. I can still see."
"But I can't."
"No, Jim, you listen. How close was the juice box to where the jacket was found?"
Ellison sat down next to his partner. "Not far, maybe a hundred yards. Why?"
"Stay with me on this, okay?" When Ellison nodded, he continued. "We found it in an area that the search parties had gone through an hour earlier. How come they didn't find it? They're no sentinels, but they've been pretty thorough. Was it there when they searched that area?
"What are you suggesting?" Jim turned to face his friend.
Sandburg picked up a brown leaf and crumbled it in his fingers. "I don't know, but something about this just hits me wrong. Then there's that piece of his shirt that we found."
"What about it?"
"How high was it on the tree?"
Ellison stood up and held his hand at mid-chest level. "About here I guess. Why?"
"The kid's not that tall."
He thought about it for a moment. "Maybe the kidnapper was carrying him."
Sandburg climbed to his feet and began to pace in front of the taller man. "Then we've got a really short kidnapper. Think about it Jim. If you were going to carry somebody through miles of forest, how would you do it?"
"Fireman's carry." Ellison answered automatically, then paused as he started to see where Sandburg was headed.
"Exactly, so how did a chunk of the front of the kid's shirt end up stuck to the tree?"
Still fighting what Sandburg was saying, Ellison argued. "How can you be sure it was from the front of his shirt?"
The younger man bounced on his toes with anxious humor. "Not even an eight-year-old spills juice down his back, Jim."
Sandburg reached into his pack and pulled out the plastic bag with the fabric piece in it. "Jim, I want you to try something. I want you to go past the obvious and see if you can pick up anything else, something that doesn't fit."
Ellison didn't say anything as he took the bag and opened it. Focusing, he moved past the juice, past the woodsy smells, past the bubble-gum scented bubble bath to something darker, more sinister, something familiar..."
"Jim... Jim... can you hear me?"
"What?" The Sentinel blinked rapidly as reality made itself known. "What happened?"
"You were zoned for almost twenty minutes. I couldn't bring you out of it! What's going on? You haven't done that in ages." Nervous hands kept tucking the curls behind the ears, even though they weren't quite long enough to stay there.
"I couldn't place it. There was something familiar, but I couldn't identify it. I don't like this, Chief. I don't like this one damn bit."
"Okay, let's look at this objectively. Just concentrate on what we know for sure right now. First we had the jacket, then the juice box. They were about 100 yards apart, right?"
"Now think about the shirt, and where we found that. Was it closer, or further away than the distance between the juice box and the jacket?"
"A little further away." Ellison thought for a minute. "Each one's been further away. It's like we're being teased with just enough to keep us going. What in the hell is going on, Chief?
"I don't know, but I don't like it."
"Neither do I." Tucker stepped out of the dusky shadows. Sandburg turned to find himself with a gun barrel against his face. "What have you done to get my grandson kidnapped?"
"We haven't done anything. We're as much in the dark as you are." Ellison mentally kicked himself for not tracking what was happening behind them. He thought frantically about how to diffuse the situation without hurting the older sheriff or letting him hurt Sandburg.
"In the dark? I highly doubt it." If Tucker saw the calculating look on Ellison's face he didn't acknowledge it as he studied the Sentinel. "Or... are you trying to use my boy to save the reputation of this fraud here?" While arguing with Ellison, Tucker let the gun drop slightly and it was all Sandburg needed. In a move that would have made his self-defense instructor proud, he knocked the gun safely away and pinned the sheriff's arm behind his back.
"I really don't like having guns shoved in my face." Sandburg used the bigger man's own size to keep him in place. "Are you gonna to listen to us now?"
"Damn, it's been a long time since anybody's gotten the drop on me." Tucker gave a deep sigh as he turned his face to Ellison. "Why shouldn't I believe that you boys didn't have anything to do with this? It's real hard when it's pretty obvious that there is something else going on."
Jim repeated Sandburg's earlier question. "Are you ready to listen to us?" When the sheriff nodded, Blair released him and the three of them sat down on a fallen log.
Sandburg was the first to speak. "So I don't have to backtrack much, tell us just how much you know about us."
"Deputy Worley got copies of the newspaper articles from when you were kicked out of college." Tucker studied Sandburg's face, trying to read his reaction.
The words hurt Blair, and by reflection Jim, but neither man allowed it to interfere with what needed to be done. Blair continued, "So you know what the reporters claimed Jim could do. We think that someone is testing Jim to see if it's true."
"We don't know." Sandburg could only hope that his sincerity was apparent to the other man.
"Using my grandson? Never mind, I don't think I want to know the answer to that." Tucker thought for a minute. "So, you think the clues that have lead you out here were planted for you to follow?"
"By someone who is trying to prove the stories about you?"
The Guide looked for guidance from his Sentinel. When Jim nodded, he answered. "It's beginning to look like that's the case. Each thing we've found is just a little further away, and no matter how hard we try, we aren't making any progress. We're the same distance away from whatever we're tracking."
"And you expect me to believe this fairy tale?
Ellison rubbed his forehead. "You're the only one who can answer that."
"Let's assume for a minute that I do believe you. How are you going to figure out if you're tracking Andy or if it's a trap?"
The two men didn't have an answer. Jim suddenly straightened up, "I've got something." Again he took off into the underbrush, assuming that he would be followed. When they caught up with him, he was standing next to a tall tree, staring at a sandwich bag caught in its roots.
"How did you know it was there!" The sheriff lunged at Ellison. Ellison didn't move away, instead he just grabbed the hands that tried to wrap around his neck and held on. "How did you know?" The second time, Tucker's words were quieter, the third time; it was just a whisper. "How?"
Sandburg could have sworn the two men stood like that for hours. Eventually, Jim pulled the sheriff's hands down and whispered his answer as he acknowledged his true self to a total stranger. "I saw it."
"The moonlight was hitting it, I saw the reflection. When I focused on it, I could smell traces of peanut butter. We found a piece of a sandwich earlier." As he spoke, Ellison released Tucker and began moving in a circular search pattern, senses on alert. On his third spiral outward, Ellison stopped.
"Jim, what did you find?" Sandburg stepped closer to him, while this time, the sheriff instinctively held back.
"Someone was here." Ellison bent down, holding his hand only inches from the frozen ground. "I can still feel their body heat on the ground."
Sandburg didn't answer right away; instead he looked over Ellison's shoulder to the shocked man standing in back of them. Tucker stared in shock at the kneeling man. Not even the best Indian tracker his own great-grandfather had known could tell such a thing. The worry and the question were evident on the youngest man's face as he turned to Tucker.
Tucker didn't know what to say to him, so instead he turned to the Sentinel. "What you just did, it's not humanly possible. It can't be."
At first, Blair thought about explaining about Sentinel's and what they could really do, but this was neither the time nor the place. Sandburg turned back to the task at hand "We're going to work back through everything you've heard to see if we can pick anything else up, okay?"
To the casual observer, they would have made quite a sight, Ellison sitting on a tree stump; Sandburg crouched down in front of him, while the county sheriff circled around them, keeping watch. Eventually, Ellison straightened up.
Sandburg didn't say anything, just held his hand up to keep the sheriff quiet.
"It's a recording. I've been following a damn recording."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." As he answered his Guide's question, Ellison let his chin drop to his chest. "Every time I hear him crying, it's exactly the same, even the background noise. It's almost like an echo in the background."
"You mean that Andy's not here? We're not following him? Where is he?" For the first time since the ordeal had begun, fear showed in the sheriff's face.
"I don't know." Ellison sunk down into himself, exhausted. "I honestly don't know."
"Now what do we do?" Blair pulled him to his feet. "Do we keep going and try to find who's doing this, or do we go back."
"Finding Andy is the most important thing. Whoever is setting us up knows what happened to him, so we go on." Ellison turned to Tucker. "We're not leaving until he's been found, I give you my word on that."
As they prepared to move out, the sheriff's radio crackled to life.
"Base to Sheriff Tucker. Base to Sheriff Tucker."
Jumping slightly, Tucker grabbed his walkie-talkie. "Tucker here, is there any word?" The static-filled voice of a woman came over the unit.
"Tuck, it's Laura. We found him, he's alive."
The older man would have fallen if Ellison had not been there to support him.
"Tuck... Sheriff Tucker, did you hear me? Andy's all right. Are you okay?"
"Yes... yes I'm fine. I'm just so... are you sure he's okay? Where was he?" Tucker pressed the hand held radio to his forehead as he waited for the answer.
"He was found locked in the basement of the old gristmill. He doesn't know how he got there. He seems to be all right, but we're taking him to the community hospital to get checked out."
"I'll be there as soon as I can. Tucker out." The sheriff heaved a sigh of relief as he signed off of the radio. "That solves my problem, but what about yours?"
"My answers are out there. You coming, Chief?" Ellison picked up his pack and prepared to move out. "Either someone's got a real strange sense of humor, or they're trying to find out more about me than they have a right to know, and I intend to find out, either way."
He made it about three steps when an ear-piercing whistle rang out, dropping Ellison to his knees. Instinctively, Blair grabbed his Sentinel's head, protecting his ears as best he could.
Sheriff Tucker stared at the radio in his hand, horrified that the damaging sound had come from it. Slowly, he raised his head to look at the crouched pair. The apology was etched on his face as Sandburg looked at him. Before he could say anything, the familiar static filled the air.
"Sorry about that Tuck. Didn't mean to blow your ears out. The chopper pilot says that he can pick you up in the north meadow by the bend in the creek if you hurry. There should be enough moonlight to land."
"We'll be there, Tucker out." This time, he turned the volume all the way down as he addressed Sandburg. "I'm sorry, is he all right?"
Blair was talking to Ellison, helping him dial down from the sensory assault. When he was convinced there was no permanent damage, he answered the sheriff. "He will be, but we're sure not going to be able to track anything else tonight. How much does she know about Jim?"
"As much as I do. She gave me everything she had found out about him."
"Are you sure?" Blair rubbed Jim's back, speaking to him in soothing tones as the sheriff thought about what he had been asked. What reason would his most trusted deputy have to hold back valuable information?
Sandburg turned back to the older man as they walked back to the meadow and the waiting chopper. "At this moment, do you trust her?"
Did he? For the first time in thirty-seven years in law enforcement, Sheriff James Tucker didn't have an answer. Shaking his head, he led the two Cascade detectives to the waiting chopper.
Back at the campsite
Early dawn slowly crept over the two figures crouched next to the dying embers in the fire pit. Upon returning from the search the night before, they had started a small fire to warm themselves, then found they were unwilling to face sleep and the questioning dreams that would accompany it. Neither man was surprised when Sheriff Tucker walked into their camp.
Ellison rose to his feet, Sandburg only a few seconds behind him. "How's your grandson?"
Tucker shook Ellison's proffered hand. "Wondering why we didn't bring his presents to the hospital for him."
Ellison relaxed at the vision of a typical kid. "That's good, that's very good." Before he could inquire further, Sandburg jumped in.
"Does he remember anything about what happened? Can he describe who grabbed him?"
Shaking his head, Tucker answered him. "Unfortunately, no. Whoever it was came up from behind. Andy never saw a face. He remembers a sweet smelling cloth, then he woke up in the gristmill basement."
Sandburg wasn't ready to give up on tracking whoever was interested in his partner. "Could I speak to him? Maybe if I help him..."
"No." Ellison's words bode for no argument. "That boy's been through enough because of me."
"Detective Ellison," Tucker's face showed a grudging respect. "I don't really understand what you are, or what you can do, but I do know one thing. You're a good, honest man. I saw that while you were searching for our Andy. It's not your fault if someone tries to use that for their own means." Tucker straightened up and turned to face them both. "Whatever you gentlemen are, your secret is safe with me.
After the sheriff left, Sandburg stoked the fire and put on a pot of coffee. "What are we gonna do, man? What if somebody figured it out? What are we gonna do?"
Ellison studied his partner, his friend, before turning his gaze to the sunrise coming up behind the hills. "We wait."
"There's nothing else we can do. I can't wonder about every case, every rescue. I refuse to hold back from helping somebody because we think someone could be tracking my abilities."
"I'm not suggesting that you hold back." Sandburg poured two steaming cups before continuing. "I'm just asking you to be careful."
A hint of a smile graced the older man's face. "Aren't I always?"