edited by: Zerena and Urban Angel
Whistling softly, the tall black man hefted his gym bag onto one shoulder and stepped off the curb into the dimly lit parking lot. Only a few cars remained in the lot this late; most of the police personnel who frequented the gym had either gone home for the night or were on duty. A faint, steady din of freeway noise blanketed the area, making even the persistent calls of the crickets that occasionally flew out of the man's path inaudible to ordinary human ears.
The watcher could hear all the sounds clearly, though, even the faint rustle of the nylon bag against the black man's leather jacket. Far more important at the moment was what he couldn't hear: any sign that the lot would soon be inhabited by anyone other than himself and the black man. The watcher had planned his timing around that factor. The watcher didn't underestimate his prey's fighting capabilities, particularly given the watcher's own recently acquired physical limitations. More vital for the watcher's objective, though, was the element of surprise. If his attack on the black man were noticed too early, his carefully laid plan would come to naught.
The black man had almost reached his car. His steps dragged, as if he were tired from a long day and a strenuous workout. No doubt he was thinking of a quiet evening at home with some sports program or another and one of those noxious concoctions referred to as "TV dinners". This had been his routine for two of the three days his wife had been away visiting her mother.
The watcher had based his plan on the assumption that the black man would follow the same routine as the past few nights--work, gym, home--and it looked as if tonight the watcher would not be disappointed. No one would miss the black man until morning at the earliest. This was exactly as the watcher wanted it.
The black man stopped at his car, lowering his gym bag to dig through it for his keys. The movement left the back of his neck exposed and invitingly vulnerable. Allowing himself a small smile, the watcher raised a tiny gun to eye level, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger.
"Get your butt in gear, Sandburg, we're going to be late." Jim opened the door of the loft in the vain hope that Blair might accidentally walk out it as he wandered around gathering his things.
Blair didn't seem to notice the door or Jim's impatient and pointed glance at his watch. The younger man's attention was focused on the struggle to get all his curls pulled back into a ponytail.
"Chill out, man," Blair mumbled around the hairtie he had clenched in his teeth. "You say that every morning. When are we ever late?"
"Last week," Jim answered without even having to think about it. Giving up on Blair ever leaving the loft under his own power, Jim grabbed a handful of his partner's jacket and pulled him out the door. "Twice, if I remember correctly. And once the week before that."
"Hey, at least one of those times wasn't my fault. How was I to know there'd be a line at the Java Palace long enough to rival the line into a playoff game?" Blair protested. He followed Jim calmly enough to the elevator, most of his attention still focused on the daily battle of the hair.
As much as Jim didn't want to admit it--and never would, at least not to Blair--he was kind of relieved to see his partner's hair almost back to its "normal" length. They'd had too many changes in their lives in the past year. Somehow having Blair's hair back to its pre-academy length was a tangible sign that Blair, in spite of everything he'd been through, was still fundamentally the same. Even better, the curls were finally at a length where Blair could tie them back and reasonably expect them to stay. Jim hadn't had to fight the urge to glue errant strands to his partner's head in nearly a week now.
Jim jerked his eyes away from Blair's hair, startled out of his thoughts by the half-concerned, half-amused question.
"You're staring at my head like I grew horns. I know my hair's frizzing this morning, but there's nothing I can do about it unless you know some magic incantation to make this drizzle stop."
Jim shook his head as the elevator stopped, reaching out to hold the door as Blair preceded him into the lobby. "All that mumbo-jumbo's your territory."
"Says the man with heightened senses."
"Don't get smart, Junior." Jim took a deep breath as they stepped outside, liking the ocean smell of the damp air and the tantalizing scent of pastries coming from the bakeries and restaurants nearby. Rob at The Pastrie Shoppe two blocks over had made his melt-in-your-mouth croissants again. Jim would have to convince Blair to get his morning espresso there, even if they didn't carry the exact Columbian blend Blair swore by.
A cold drizzle had just passed over, leaving behind a mist that tingled across Jim's face like thousands of tiny pinpricks. He took a deep breath of it, liking the salt tang. The sky was grey, but the morning felt fresh and clean. Grinning for no good reason, Jim clapped Blair on the shoulder and directed him toward the truck.
"Shake a leg, Sandburg, I can hear Simon yelling from here."
"Really?" Blair's voice sharpened with exaggerated interest.
Jim swatted at the back of his head. "Just get in the truck."
He stared into the darkness, trying to hear if he was alone. The silence threatened to suffocate him, but he couldn't hear any signs of life other than his own harsh breathing. He thought maybe that was a good thing.
Or not. Being alone might mean he wasn't in immediate danger, but it also might mean he was stuck here... wherever here might be. He was tied to a chair. Whatever had knocked him out had left his brain so foggy he'd strained against the ropes for long enough to leave his arms sore before he'd figured out why he couldn't stand up. Nothing he'd tried since had loosened the ropes or budged the chair, and he was trying very hard not to think about how long a man as healthy as he was could last without food or water.
He just had to believe that they'd find him before it was too late. Not that he intended to sit around and wait for them, but he knew the feel of well-made rope when it was wrapped around him. Unless his captor returned and gave him an opening to escape, his best chance lay in rescue by his friends.
His eyes burned from the strain of staring into the darkness. He closed them, letting his head drop to his chest. The knockout drug his captor had used had left him groggy and tired even now, and it was all too tempting just to let himself drift off to sleep. He owed it to his friends to stay alert, though. Any information he could pick up, any clue to the identity of his captor, could be the key to catching and convicting the bastard when this was all over.
Besides, the guys would give him hell if they found out he'd slept through his own kidnapping. For that matter, they were probably going to give him hell for letting himself be kidnapped in the first place. His partner, in particular, would never let him forget it. Rafe was definitely going to make him pay for every time he'd ever called the younger man "GQ" or tried to mess up what he called Rafe's "destructo-hair".
He'd accept the razzing, though, if it would get him out of here. He'd never liked dark places. Didn't much like not knowing if he was going to come out of this alive, either, and he hated the hell he knew his partner would be going through when Rafe realized he was missing.
He just hoped they had the sense not to call Lori. She was due to be out of town for at least the rest of the week, and he intended to be home, safe and sound and waiting for her when she arrived. She didn't need to suffer through the worrying and waiting until he was freed. He just had to trust that Rafe would know how he felt about that and would make sure no one called her.
He smiled, letting the image of the reunion he wanted to have with his wife flood his mind. If he focused on it hard enough, he could almost smell her perfume and feel the soft touch of her skin, the gentle lilt of her voice as she spoke his name...
He caught himself just as he was about to drift into sleep. Shaking his head, he set himself to keep a better watch.
Simon stood in the doorway of his office as Jim and Blair arrived, preventing any chance that they might sneak in. He didn't yell, but he did raise a sardonic eyebrow and glance pointedly at the clock, then at Connor and Taggart working at their desks, as Jim followed his partner into the bullpen. Jim forestalled any comments with a preemptive strike in the form of a bakery bag full of croissants. Blair's idea, but Jim was the senior partner, so he got to deliver the goods and reap the rewards.
Simon took the bag, opening it to inhale the scent of fresh bread.
"You're late," he said mildly.
"Never happen again," Blair said with a cheerful insincerity that had Jim biting back a grin. The croissants might appease Simon, but it wasn't smart to appear too smug.
"I want that in writing, Sandburg, and signed by witnesses." Biting into the croissant, Simon sighed with pleasure. "But I think I just might forgive you this time."
Jim hung his jacket on the coat rack by his desk and sat down, reaching out absently to turn on the computer. Blair, his coat already off, reached for a stack of files.
"Anything major on the agenda today, Simon?"
"Sandburg, do you think there's any chance I'll ever get you to call me 'Captain' on a consistent basis?"
Blair looked up from his files, his expression serious but his eyes amused. "About as much chance as there is you'll start calling me 'Blair'."
"I heard we might get the Morrison-Wong case?" Jim interrupted, not willing to waste his morning with another episode of the Blair-Banks show. The bullpen had been so much quieter in the days when Blair thought Simon was going to bite his head off and Simon was convinced Blair was a spaced-out hippie wannabe.
Distracted, Simon turned away from Blair and crossed over to settle down on the corner of Jim's desk. "Homicide turned it over to us this morning, before you got here."
"Why'd we end up with it?" Blair asked.
"Morrison's Mafia ties and the fact that Wong was Councilman Jarvis's assistant." Simon nodded at the files Blair was still holding. "Homicide's preliminary work should be in there somewhere. I want you two to get on it first thing this morning. You shouldn't have anything else pressing to do, do you?"
Jim shook his head. "No, just some background work on that blackmail situation, and I need to go over my report on the Carmichael case for the Grand Jury on Friday, but that's about it."
"And I've got a few reports to finish up, but I can get that done while Jim's in court," Blair added.
"Good. I know I don't need to tell you the chief wants a quick resolution on this one, and preferably one that doesn't end up embarrassing Councilman Jarvis. He's been one of the main supporters of increases in the PD budget." Simon grimaced as if he'd bitten into something sour. "This is a political one. Practice your diplomacy, okay?"
Jim grinned. "Don't we always, sir?"
"Just remember to let Sandburg do all the talking." Simon stood up and headed back to his office before Jim could think of a suitable reply, leaving him with a snickering partner and a distinct feeling that he'd been ganged up on.
Blair thumbed through a file, set it aside, and started on the next one in the pile.
"Here it is, Morrison-Wong. Looks like Homicide got a pretty good start." He hooked a nearby chair with his foot and pulled it over to sit in it, spreading the file out on Jim's desk. He didn't seem to notice that doing so effectively took up more than his fair share of the space.
Jim had learned over the years to ignore his loss of personal space, though, and just reached across Blair to pick the case summary. He didn't pay much attention to the opening of the elevator door except to note absently that Rafe was the only person who got off.
"Morning, Sandburg, Ellison." Rafe paused at Jim's desk long enough to drop off an envelope before heading toward the break room. "The mailroom asked me to deliver that to you, Ellison. Said it was marked 'urgent'."
Jim picked up the envelope, frowning as a faintly familiar scent teased his nose. The envelope was a plain brown mailer, with no distinguishing marks other than a laser-printed label addressed to "Detective Jim Ellison, Major Crime, Cascade PD."
"Got a secret admirer, Jim?" Blair's grin faded as he looked at Jim's expression, and Jim could feel a subtle tension entering his partner's body that matched his own. "Jim? Something wrong?"
Jim shook his head. He didn't know exactly what had his hackles up about this envelope. Whatever he'd smelled when he first picked it up--if there had been anything at all--had already faded past recall. He tried to tune out the murmur of Connor's voice as she spoke on the phone, the sound of Taggart's fingers tapping on his keyboard, the slosh of coffee as Rafe poured himself a cup in the break room, the squeak of Simon's chair in his office...
"Jim." Blair's hand rested on his shoulder, squeezing firmly. "What's going on? You think it might be wired?"
"Quiet for a minute, okay?" Jim took a deep breath and tried again, Blair's hand enough of a distracter that he didn't lose himself as he blocked out the bullpen noises and focused exclusively on the envelope. He couldn't hear anything that might be a problem, though. No telltale ticking, no soft whir of electronics. "Nothing. I just have this bad feeling..."
"You want me to get Forensics up here?"
Without answering, Jim ran his fingers lightly over the envelope. Whatever was inside it was square, about three inches by four and maybe half an inch thick. Jim could feel a rough texture through the paper, tiny ridges and valleys that nagged at him with their familiarity. He inhaled deeply, trying to recapture that elusive scent, and instead got a noseful of a smell he knew well. But why would someone be sending him leather in the mail?
"Sandburg, did you lose your wallet again?" he asked, sliding a finger under the sealed flap of the envelope and cautiously working it loose.
"No." Blair sounded indignant.
Jim had his eyes focused on the envelope, but he could feel Blair wiggle as he tried unobtrusively to feel if his wallet was in his back pocket.
Using the tip of a pen, Jim pulled the envelope open and peered inside. Frowning, he picked it up and dumped out the contents. A leather case fell out, one that looked exactly like the ones Jim and all the other detectives used to carry their shields and I.D.
And Jim, with the suddenness of a punch to the gut, was scared. Not just suspicious, as he had been when he got the envelope, but bone-deep scared. Whether it was premonition or logical deduction, he knew what he'd find when he opened the case. Not who, although his mind was already flashing through the faces he'd seen this morning and only coming up with a few absentees, but there was no doubt in his mind what was going on.
"Um, Jim? You still with me?" Blair's voice had an edge of worry to it, not very well masked by his joking tone. "This is getting repetitive, man. Did you not get enough coffee this morning?"
Jim looked up at him, and Blair's eyes widened as all amusement drained from his face. Glancing down at the case in Jim's hands, Blair reached over and flipped it open, jerking his hand back as if he expected to be bitten.
Henri Brown's face stared up at them from the police I.D. on one side of the case. Tucked in behind it was a small square of folded white paper. Jim pulled it out and unfolded it, reading it quickly before handing it to Blair. The message was simple, inscribed in the same laser-printed font as the address label: "812 Coleridge Avenue, 10:00 a.m."
Blair scanned the note. "It's almost 9:30 now, Jim. Coleridge Avenue's in the warehouse district. It'll take us at least half an hour just to get there."
"Go get Rafe and meet me in Simon's office," Jim said quietly, taking the note back from Blair and picking up Brown's shield from his desk. "And, Chief? Keep this quiet until we know how Simon wants to play it."
Blair nodded and went over to Rafe's desk, leaning over to speak softly to the young detective. Jim walked over to Simon's office and went in without knocking.
Simon, interrupted in mid-sip of his coffee, raised an eyebrow at the intrusion. "Something you need, Detective?"
Jim stepped out of the way so that Blair and Rafe could follow him in, handing Simon the note and shield. "This came from the mailroom, sir, in an envelope addressed to me. Rafe hasn't seen it yet, but I thought he had a right to know."
"Know what?" Rafe asked uneasily. He took a step forward, accepting the note and shield as Simon held them out to him.
Simon's expression was grim. "You're sure this isn't a hoax?"
"I just got it, so I haven't checked it out yet. But I've got a feeling it isn't. Henri hasn't checked in yet, has he?"
"Not yet." Simon glanced up at Rafe, who was staring at Brown's shield with an unreadable expression. "Rafe, see if you can't get a hold of your partner. Check with his wife and make sure he left home all right this morning."
"Lori's out of town," Rafe said absently, then shook himself. "Can I use your phone, sir?"
"Go right ahead. Sandburg, I want you to take these down to Forensics and see if there are any useful fingerprints left on them, and check with the mailroom to see if they can give you any details on where the package came from." Simon stood up, clenching his coffee cup in one fist. As Blair left and Rafe picked up the phone, Simon continued, "Ellison, you said it was addressed to you. Any thoughts on where it came from?"
Jim ran a hand over his face, trying to gather his thoughts and ignore the ominous, unanswered ringing on the phone line. "It looks like a challenge, sir. Classic hostage situation, trade Brown for me. That implies either something personal, meaning someone I know and have pissed off is behind it, or a strategic maneuver, trading a less valuable hostage for a more valuable one. Maybe someone needs something I know or..." his voice trailed off as another possibility occurred to him, "something I can do."
His eyes met Simon's, and he could tell they were thinking of the same thing: Lee Brackett, holding an entire city hostage to coerce the use of Jim's sentinel abilities.
Before either of them could say anything, Rafe gestured for them to listen. "I think I've got him on his cell." Turning his attention back to the phone, Rafe said quickly, "H, I'm glad I caught you. You'll..."
His voice trailed off. Jim focused his hearing on the speaker at the other end of the line in time to hear a mechanical, distorted voice.
"Tell Detective Ellison this is no joke. He has twenty-nine minutes."
Then the line went dead, leaving a suddenly pale Rafe staring at Jim.
"I heard," Jim answered shortly. "Simon, this is for real. I want to take Sandburg and get over to that address as quickly as possible. Backup can catch up when it gets there."
"I'm going with you." Rafe belatedly set the phone down, squaring his shoulders as if he expected an argument. "Captain, I need..."
"Just get going, Jim. Rafe, you're with me."
Jim didn't wait for anything more. He headed for his desk, grabbed his phone, and dialed the number for Forensics, leaving a message for Blair to meet him in the parking garage immediately.
Being several floors closer, Blair almost beat him to the truck. Jim had just gotten in as he arrived.
"What's going on?" the younger man asked, climbing into the truck and pulling on his seatbelt.
"We're going to check out that address. Whoever wrote that note has H's cell phone and probably has H, too." Jim reached down to start the truck, glancing at Blair and seeing his own worry mirrored in his partner's eyes. "Rafe tried to call H on his cell and ended up talking to the kidnapper. He was using some kind of voice distortion that was blocking out background sounds, so I couldn't hear anything more than what he was saying."
"Did he say what he wanted?"
Jim shook his head. "Just said we had twenty-nine minutes to get to the address."
Blair glanced at his watch. "Twenty-three, now."
Jaw clenched so tight it ached, Jim backed out of his parking space and drove as quickly as he dared out of the garage. His thoughts ran in furious circles, trying to come up with a logical explanation for this bizarre situation.
"It doesn't add up," he said finally, breaking the heavy silence that had settled over the truck.
Blair glanced over at him. "What?"
"This whole thing. Why Henri? Who's behind it, and what are they trying to gain?"
"Prisoner exchange, maybe? Someone with a grudge against you who wants to trade H for you?"
Jim shot a quick look to either side, then rounded a corner fast enough to make the tires squeal. Dodging a station wagon, he answered, "Could be. Or someone like Lee Bracket."
"After your senses, you mean?" Blair's voice hardened. "You think that's what it is?"
"I don't know." Jim shook his head in frustration. "We both know I've made some enemies being a cop, and there might still be one or two from the Army hanging around, too. But ever since this whole sentinel thing was made public..."
"You've been waiting for the other shoe to drop," Blair finished quietly. "Me too, man, me too."
Jim shot his partner a look, not liking the dark expression in his eyes but not having the time to deal with it right then. The dissertation still wasn't an easy topic between them and probably never would be; for the moment, Henri needed them focused on him, not on the past.
They made it in twenty minutes, and for once Blair didn't complain about Jim's driving, although Jim couldn't help but notice the white-knuckled grip his partner had on the door handle. Simon and Rafe pulled up behind him, followed by a couple of patrol cars.
Jim scanned the surrounding rooftops and alleys with both eyes and ears, noting with absent approval that Blair had his gun out and was performing his own visual inspection. The kid constantly proved himself to be a partner Jim could rely on. The inspection yielded nothing more dangerous than a flock of pigeons on the roof directly across from the building they'd been directed to, but Jim couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched.
"Keep your eyes open, Chief," he said softly as he and Blair moved to join the other officers. "No telling what we're walking into here."
"Don't worry, man, this situation has my undivided attention." Blair's calm tone didn't match his tense expression. Jim bumped him lightly on the shoulder with his fist, coaxing a weak grin out of Blair.
"Taggart and Connor are following as soon as they get a copy of the building plans and find out who it belongs to," Simon said as they gathered beside his car. "They're also going to make a quick run by Brown's house to see if they can find anything useful there. I've also got a couple of people looking into any recently released perps who might have a grudge against Ellison or Brown. In the meantime, we'll just have to proceed with caution and maintain radio contact as much as possible to avoid duplicating our efforts while we search the building."
Jim looked up at the building. As Blair had said, it was located in the warehouse district, just on the edge between the abandoned areas and the section still in use. With a touch of unease, Jim realized that they were only a few blocks from the warehouse where Lash had held Blair hostage.
This building was designed to hold offices rather than goods, obviously. Four stories high, it had boarded up windows that indicated it wasn't being used. The painted trim around the front door still looked in reasonably good repair, though, and the ornamental shrubbery lining the front of the building was still healthy and neatly pruned. Apparently the building hadn't been abandoned long.
"Keep in mind as we go in that we don't know what we'll find. Detective Brown is probably in there somewhere, though, so watch yourselves and don't get trigger-happy." Simon concluded his briefing with a searching glance around the circle of men surrounding him, checking for readiness.
Jim gave him a brief nod. "I'd like to take point, sir, if that's all right?"
"Be my guest, Detective."
Jim moved cautiously away from the safety of the cars, Blair and Rafe only a step behind him. Jim could hear Rafe's heart pounding, but they were almost at the building, and Jim didn't have time to say anything to him. They fanned out, Jim and Blair on one side of the boarded up glass doors and Rafe and Simon on the other. Blair, who was closest to the handle, waited for Simon's nod before gingerly reaching out to test if the door was unlocked.
The door slid open easily, but before anyone could move, a piece of white paper fluttered down from where it had apparently been attached to the inside of the door. With a sigh that was almost resigned, Blair reached down and picked it up, handing it wordlessly to Jim.
The now familiar laser printing stood out starkly against the white of the paper. Jim had to force his eyes to focus past the contrasting colors to see the message.
"'Ellison and his partner only. You have one hour until Detective Brown dies.'" Jim read the words aloud, then handed the note to Simon. "Damn it, he's playing games with us."
"We don't have much choice but to go along," Blair said quietly. "He's got us over a barrel here. I'd be happier if we knew what he wanted."
"I'd be happier if I had him alone in a room for ten minutes," Simon growled. "Hell, make it five."
"I'm going in with you."
Jim looked up, catching the tight, stubborn look on Rafe's face. He felt a flash of sympathy, followed almost immediately by impatience. Too much was at stake here for anyone to indulge in pointless grandstanding.
"Bad idea," he said as gently as he could. "We don't know who we're up against here or what he'll do if we don't go along with his little game. I think the best we can do is play along until we have an idea what we're facing."
"Agreed," Simon said. "If we're only working with an hour, we won't be able to cover the building and find Brown in time, even if we call in the S.W.A.T. guys. We can't afford to set this wacko off." He squeezed Rafe's shoulder. "Ellison and Sandburg aren't going to let us down, son."
Rafe looked away, his jaw clenching. "You think I'm not good enough to find my own partner?"
"Rafe," Blair protested.
"This is not the time, Detective," Simon snapped at the same time.
"If it was Sandburg, Ellison wouldn't be staying behind." Rafe brought his gaze back to meet Jim's. "If it was your partner, you wouldn't let anyone go after him but you. Do you think I'm not as good a cop as you?"
Jim felt Blair stiffen beside him, and Simon's eyebrows lowered dangerously. Jim, on the verge of anger, saw the expression in Rafe's eyes, and his anger was gone. He knew the desperation he saw there intimately.
"I think H is caught up in something that has more to do with me than with him. I plan to make sure he gets out of this in one piece. Isn't that more important than worrying about who saves him?"
"I can't just sit back and wait for that asshole to kill him."
"You can and will." Simon's voice was stern, but softened as he continued, "Ellison and Sandburg will go in and get the lay of the land. They've both got their cells, so if they need us, they can call. We'll be right out here, ready to go in if necessary."
"That's not enough," Rafe said helplessly.
"It'll have to be." Simon turned back to Jim. "I want you to call in every thirty minutes, understood?"
Jim nodded, looking at his watch. "We're wasting time. Sandburg, let's go."
The laptop's LCD screen lit the tiny room with a dim glow, casting bizarre shadows on the face of the man watching the scene playing out across it. Two men had just entered the room shown on the video display. One, the older of the two, rubbed his forehead in obvious discomfort. The younger man put a hand on his arm and said something that had the older one shaking his head in either denial or frustration.
Curious, the watcher adjusted the volume. He'd turned it down earlier, not wanting to double the discordant thudding that permeated the building. Five different heartbeats, all pumping at different rhythms, played on a continuous loop. Hopefully, the recordings provided a bit of a distraction for the older of the pair he was watching. If not, the watcher had a few other possibilities up his sleeve, but for now, this one seemed to be doing the job. Funny how such a soothing sound could set one's teeth on edge when the steady tempo became disrupted.
"...can block it out," the younger man was saying. "Just isolate one of the beats and forget about it, then take the next one and the next one until you can ignore them all."
"Easy for you to say," the older one growled, but his shoulders almost immediately relaxed as he closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply.
The watcher smiled faintly. "So you can control it, can you, Ellison? Interesting."
"Yeah, a little."
The younger of the two looked around the room they were in. At one time, it had served as the lobby. Fragments of tastefully understated, graffiti-covered wallpaper still hung from the walls even though the carpeting had been stripped out. Florescent lights, newly replaced when the watcher had turned on and rewired the electricity, lit the room.
Other than the cacophonous heartbeats playing through the PA system, the room remained free of stimuli. In this first step, the watcher had only wanted to prevent any chance of Ellison zeroing in on Brown's voice, heart, or respiration. While it would be interesting to find out for certain if Ellison had the capability of hearing such sounds through the concrete floors, it was too soon for the watcher to lose his edge. If things went as planned, Ellison would be farther away, near the top of the building, when the watcher turned off the tape. Should Ellison be able to hear Brown's vital functions from that distance... such an outcome would prove as fascinating as it was problematic.
"Electricity's on, PA's working. I think we were expected," Sandburg said dryly. "I guess this answers the question why our nutcase is after you. I don't think one of your collars would be using a heartbeat soundtrack against you."
Ellison took another deep breath, opening his eyes. "Okay, it's under control, but now I don't stand a chance of hearing H, either."
"Then you'll just have to use one of your other senses, or else we can just do it the old- fashioned way, one room at a time." Sandburg patted Ellison's arm as he took his hand away. "What do you smell?"
Ellison concentrated, inhaling deeply, then sneezed. "Dust."
Sandburg sighed. "Besides that. Anything to do with H?"
Ellison inhaled again. "Wait a minute. There's something... that paint thinner Henri wears."
Sandburg chuckled. "Guess I know what cologne not to buy you for Christmas. Where is it?"
"Up. That way." Ellison nodded toward the stairwell.
As the two men started off, the watcher smiled. Things were going exactly as he'd planned.
Turning his attention away from the screen, the watcher stood painfully. He stretching the kinks out of his back before reaching down to pick up the infrared goggles and tape recorder he'd be needing. Walking as silently as he could, he went down the hall to the other room, the one where the detective sat in drowsy, drugged defiance.
The watcher had developed a small measure of respect for his captive. Many men would have succumbed complacently to the effects of the drug, which were said to be reasonably pleasant, not unlike a mild dose of laudanum. Detective Brown, however, had struggled against it, refusing to give in to either the sedative lure of the drug or the gentle probing of the watcher.
He was a strong man, was Detective Brown. The watcher would regret killing him, should it prove necessary to do so.
Entering the room, the watcher approached the detective. Brown shifted, seeming to sense his presence.
"'s there?" Brown mumbled, the drug affecting his speech almost beyond understanding. "Whasha wan'?"
The watcher spoke softly through his voice distorter. "I have some questions for you, Detective Brown. Why don't we start with your friend, Detective Ellison."
Jim waited until Blair was in position before reaching out cautiously to pull the handle. As before, the door slid open without even a squeak. Light spilled from the lobby up the dark stairway. A fine layer of dust covered the concrete stairs and drifted off the metal railing, stirred by opening of the door. Jim had to fight not to sneeze again.
"Look at the dust on the stairs," he whispered loudly over the thumping coming from the P.A., gesturing at the stairs with his gun. "It's been scuffed up, like someone's dragged something through here."
"Or tried to cover up their footprints," Blair suggested, his voice raised as well.
"Why do that? It's obvious someone went through here." Jim rubbed at his nose, both to try to relieve the itch and to ward off the headache that was forming from the combined assault of noise and sinuses. "Unless they were trying to cover up how many people went up the stairs? Or there's something unusual about the way they walk."
"Shall we go up and find out?"
"See if you can find a light switch first."
Blair started his search as Jim pushed the door back to the wall and stepped into the stairwell. He took a deep, careful breath. If he ignored the dust, difficult as that was, he could still smell Henri's cologne. Getting a definite direction on it, other than a very generic "up," was harder. Smells were harder to pinpoint than sounds, anyway, because of their tendency to diffuse. He normally had to be pretty close to the source of the scent before he could be sure where it was coming from. Even so, he could usually get an idea of the location.
All he was getting now, though, was up. No matter which way he turned, the strength of the scent was the same. He didn't know if it meant Henri was still too far away to pinpoint or if maybe the smell--and Henri?--was in the airshafts.
Or, a cynical part of him couldn't help but think, the cologne was a trap or test, set to lure him up the stairs and into revealing his abilities.
He sighed, coughing a little as dust drifted into his mouth and settled on his tongue in tiny pieces of bitterness. It wasn't like he had any choice about following the trail that had been left for him. Whoever was behind this insane scavenger hunt was too on top of things not to mean his threat to kill Henri, and Jim didn't dare take the chance that he might not mean it.
"Nothing. They must be controlled from some central station." Blair's voice broke into Jim's thoughts.
"The lights. No switch." Blair frowned at him. "Jim, what's going on, man? You're acting kind of distracted today. Are you picking up on something?"
Jim shook his head, but either the question or the movement triggered something. Abruptly he was picking up on something, a scent almost too subtle to register.
"Wait." Jim dropped a hand on Blair's shoulder to forestall any questions, trying to track down the scent. "There's something. I smelled it back at the station, too, but I can't place it."
"What does it smell like?"
"I don't know." Frustrated, Jim ran his hand over his face, trying to wipe the smell away from his nose. "It doesn't really smell like anything, but it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up." He sighed. "We need to get moving. What time is it?"
Shoving his suspicions to the back of his mind, Jim started up the stairs. His shoes rang out against the concrete, followed by the softer thud of Blair's sneakers. Jim realized suddenly that his footsteps were trying to fall into the rhythm of the heartbeats playing through the P.A., but there were too many rhythms and he kept getting out of sync. He would swear the noise was getting louder, too.
"I've been thinking..."
Jim waited a second, but Blair didn't continue. "What?"
"I was thinking about the tests I gave you when we were first trying to find out how your senses worked." Blair paused.
Jim looked back at him, noting absently that the light from the door had grown dimmer to the point that Blair had to squint.
"I could be wrong, but... this thing with the heart beating? That's more like the tests where we worked on blocking out stimuli than like the ones where we were just trying to measure your abilities."
Jim waited again, but whatever connection Blair was trying to get him to see wasn't revealing itself.
Blair sighed. "We worked on filtering things after we had some idea of your abilities. After we knew for sure that you had heightened senses and more or less what they amounted to."
Jim felt his stomach tighten. "So you're saying this guy knows about me?"
"Maybe. Probably." Blair's voice was tight with worry or misery, Jim couldn't tell which. "It's not exactly a huge leap of logic, after all that press with my dissertation."
"I thought we agreed to put that behind us," Jim said, forcing his voice to stay even so Blair wouldn't mistake his anger at the situation for anger at Blair. They'd worked out a lot of things in the months after Blair's press conference, but somehow the whole mess kept popping up when he least expected it.
As if reading his mind, Blair asked bitterly, "Then why does it keep jumping up and biting us in the ass?"
Before Jim could think of a suitable answer, the stairwell abruptly faded into total darkness.
"Jim?" Blair reached up and grabbed the back of Jim's jacket. "I'm guessing you didn't prop the door open with anything?"
"You were the last one in," Jim pointed out. "We've got to keep moving. I don't think we were that far from the top. You game to keep going?"
"Can you see anything?"
Jim blinked, letting his eyes relax to take in as much light as possible. "Not really. I don't suppose you've got anything like a flashlight on you?"
"Nope. We could go back for one."
"That would waste too much time. I think we can make it. It should be a straight shot. Just don't let go of my jacket, and I'll see if I can't get us there in one piece."
"Blind leading the blind, huh?" Blair sounded amused. "Lead on, MacDuff."
"You're enjoying this way too much, Chief."
"Just whistling in the dark, man."
"Funny, Sandburg. If there were any light, you could see me holding in the laughter."
Jim waited until Blair had joined him on his stair, then set off again, moving slowly to accommodate their steps. In this close proximity, Blair's breathing served as a steady counterpoint to the constant thumping, giving Jim something to focus on so he could filter out the noise from the P.A.
"Anyway, I was thinking," Blair continued as if he'd never left off, "if this whacko knows about your senses and really is trying to find out your limitations..."
"We're probably going to get more sensory attacks." Jim nodded even though Blair couldn't see him. "Well, if they're about the same level as this one, it won't be anything I can't handle."
"I just think we should be prepared. This might just be the first phase, and he could be intensifying with each step."
Jim frowned uneasily. "You really think..."
The whisper of electrical surge was the only warning he had. A second later, a rainbow of lights danced with disco intensity off the walls, advancing and receding, sparkling across his face, pulling him up toward them through air that was suddenly solid colors...
"Jim? Come on, man, this is really a bad time for this."
The voice--Sandburg, a fuzzy part of his mind supplied--wove its way into the mosaic of color, gently slicing through the rays of the rainbow and leading him through.
"You gotta focus somewhere else, Jim. You know the drill. Listen to my... no, probably a bad idea with that soundtrack playing. Sorry, man, I wasn't thinking."
Jim felt a gentle pat on his shoulder.
"Try focusing on my hand, okay? You can feel it on your arm, right? Focus on that and forget about the lights. They're nothing, not even there. Just focus on my hand."
His eyes were so dry it hurt to blink. He realized that the dark form blocking most of the light display was Blair, leaning over him. A second later, he placed the warm lumps underneath him as Blair's legs and realized he was lying on the stairs and almost in Blair's lap. Blair had an arm hooked under his to keep him from sliding down and was rubbing Jim's other arm with his free hand.
"Hey, you back with me, man?" Blair squeezed his arm one last time before shifting to help him sit up. "God, I thought we were both going to end up at the bottom of the stairs."
"How long have I..."
"Cover your eyes or something, okay? Maybe five minutes."
Jim closed his eyes against the allure of the lights, trying to shove down the fear that shot through him. He stood, pulling Blair up with him.
"That makes it 10:20, 10:25, right? We're running out of time here, Chief." Jim cracked an eye open but had to shut it immediately. "Feel up to leading the way this time?"
"Sure. We're almost at the top anyway."
Jim put his hand on Blair's shoulder and kept his eyes clenched shut as he followed his partner upwards.
"Okay, we're here. And what do you know, the door's not locked."
Jim could hear the faint rub of the hinges as Blair pulled the door open. He reached out to feel for the doorframe, but before he could touch it, the flashing lights shut down and the stairwell sank into total darkness again.
Opening his eyes, Jim saw that the next room--or hall, or whatever it was--had no lights, either. While it was a definite improvement over the disco rainbow they'd been subjected to a few minutes ago, Jim couldn't help but wonder what "surprises" were waiting for them in the blackness.
Inhaling carefully, Jim caught the scent of Henri's cologne again, but he couldn't come any closer to pinpointing it than before. If anything, it smelled like it was coming from the entire floor.
"I'm not getting anything specific on the cologne. Looks like we'll have to check the entire floor. You go right, I'll go left, and we'll see what we find," Jim said as he stepped through the door. "Looks like your "thinking" was right, Chief."
"The tests? Yeah, that was a pretty blatant sensory overload, wasn't it?"
"He knows just what buttons to push. I'm getting a little tired of it, too."
Jim reached out to touch the wall by the doorway, feeling along it to the corner and then following it down to a door frame. "I'm guessing we're in a hallway. You finding doors?"
"Good guess." Blair's voice drifted through the darkness. "Mine are all locked. How about you?"
"Same here." Jim stopped, reaching up to rub his nose as the dust started to get to him again. The sneeze hit him so suddenly he couldn't stop it, and he realized his fingers were covered with dust as well.
"Bless you. It's going to take a whole lot longer than thirty minutes to check all these rooms."
"Maybe." Jim rubbed his hand against his jeans. "Maybe there's a way to narrow this down a little. The dust on the stairs had footprints in it..."
"But you can't see any prints in the dark, man. Even your eyes aren't that good."
"No, but I can feel them. Not the prints themselves, but the doorknobs. Whichever doors have been opened lately shouldn't have dust on the knobs."
Jim could picture Blair's frown as he thought it through.
"That could work. Can you really tell the difference?"
Jim's nose twitched, and he couldn't help sniffing. "Believe me, I can tell."
The watcher reached down to push a button on his laptop, then hesitated. While he could see the two men fairly clearly, thanks to an infrared camera, it was obvious that neither Ellison nor Sandburg could see anything. As curious as he was to see Ellison's reaction to his next test, he also wanted to know if Ellison could accurately identify the door he'd gone through without the aid of sight. The watcher hadn't specifically thought of that trial; he'd intended to rely on his second soundtrack to lure the two men upwards.
The watcher made a mental note not to forget Ellison's ingenuity again. The man was more than a collection of hyper-senses. He was a well-trained and intelligent nemesis, and his partner was proving formidable as well. In fact, the watcher was beginning to wonder if perhaps he shouldn't separate the two and see if Ellison could function as well without Sandburg as with him.
While he pondered that possibility, the watcher returned to his observations, deciding to put off the next test until he saw the outcome of Ellison's plan. Overall, the watcher was very pleased with the way things were going. He had managed to confirm that Ellison's olfactory and tactile senses were enhanced; in addition, he had seen further evidence of the enhancement of Ellison's sight and hearing, the two senses he'd tested previously. Most importantly, the watcher now knew two methods of neutralizing Ellison, whether it be partially or fully. With luck, by the end of the day, he'd know several more.
Realizing that the two men were talking again, the watcher adjusted the volume of the video display slightly and sat back to enjoy the show.
"Hey, Jim, I've been thinking."
"Does it strike you as strange that our whacko picked Henri to use as bait? I mean, if he was looking for another cop, I'd think I'd be a better choice, or Simon, maybe. And there's your brother and your father, if the cop thing wasn't important to him. Henri's your friend, but he's not the first person I'd pick to blackmail you with."
Ellison was silent for a moment, as if thinking about the question. "If you were just picking someone to be the best candidate, H wouldn't be the best choice, but that might not have been the way the kidnapper was looking at it. Think about it: you were with me last night, Daryl's been staying at Simon's all week, Rafe's got David at home, Taggart's married, Connor was raving about her hot date last night..." he paused. "Rafe said earlier that Lori was out of town. Henri was the only one of all of us going home to an empty house, with no one to miss him till morning. Anyone willing to do his homework could have found that out."
"Very good, Ellison," the watcher murmured.
"Yeah, I guess you're right." Sandburg said. "Speaking of Simon, isn't it about time to call in?"
"Yeah, pretty close, anyway. You want to do that while I work on these doors?"
Sandburg pulled out his phone and fumbled with it, finally managing to hit the right buttons to place his call.
"Simon? Nothing to report yet. How're things on your end?" Sandburg listened. "You mean he's been here all night? Damn." He was silent again. "Okay, you'll know something as soon as we do."
Ellison had stopped to listen to the conversation. As Sandburg put his phone up, Ellison asked, "What did Simon tell you?"
"Taggart and Connor went to Henri's house. They didn't see any signs that he made it home last night. Paper still in the front yard, mail still in the box, and his car wasn't in the drive."
Ellison traced his hand along the wall toward the next door. "So he was probably picked up on his way home. Maybe he stopped at a store, or maybe he went to the gym like he usually does. Which means..."
"Wherever he was picked up, he probably hadn't just taken a shower."
"What's your point?"
"If this guy picked H up when he'd just got done at the gym, or even when he'd just got home, what're the odds Henri's going to be wearing cologne?"
"So we're on a wild goose chase." Sandburg sounded almost thoughtful. "Jim, it's pretty obvious you're being led through a bunch of hoops here just to see how well you can jump. What if the prize you think is at the end is really somewhere else? Like, not even in this building?"
"Sandburg, we don't have time to search every room in this building. How are we supposed to find H if we don't use whatever clues we get?"
"I'm not saying don't use your senses. I'm saying, use them on the right things. Think about it. You've been in the gym with Henri enough times. You know what he smells like when he's hot and sweaty. See if you can pick up on that, instead of the cologne."
"You've got a kinky mind, Chief." Ellison's voice held a note of amusement.
The watcher noted, however, that Ellison didn't dismiss his partner's idea out of hand. Ellison's face took on that focused look that he got when concentrating one of his senses on something. Sandburg waited, tapping one foot in a nervous rhythm and switching his grip on Ellison's jacket periodically to a quick pat on the back.
Without warning, Ellison was off, walking unerringly toward the staircase they'd recently ascended. Sandburg stumbled after him, obviously caught off-guard by the abrupt movement.
"You pick up on something?" Sandburg asked breathlessly.
"Downstairs, not very close so it's probably the basement," Ellison reported in clipped tones. "I'd know those sweaty socks anywhere, let alone that medicated foot powder H dumped in my gym bag last month."
"What, you mean the time you poured out his Gatorade and replaced it with lemon juice?"
"I can't believe I missed this before," Ellison said. "It was right there all the time."
"Yeah, but under the dust and the cologne. Don't be so hard on yourself, Jim. We've still got plenty of time to get back downstairs."
"If we don't run into any more traps."
With a resigned sigh, the watcher turned the volume back down and sat back to think. Obviously, he wasn't going to get a chance to run Ellison through the final tests on the top two floors. He regretted that, but he'd achieved a minimum of what he'd set out to accomplish today, so he could accept the curtailing of his plan philosophically.
He still had one more test he wanted to run before the two men arrived at their objective. It seemed logical, however, to wait a few minutes, until Ellison and Sandburg were focused completely on their quarry and had let their guard down a bit. If Ellison were expecting a test, the results would inevitably be biased.
A tiny box flashed on his screen, reminding him it was time once again to take his pills. Grimacing, he reached into his pocket for the holder, shook out two, and swallowed them dry. He had Ellison to thank for those, and he wouldn't--couldn't--forget it.
"Jim? Shouldn't we be getting close?" Blair asked, following Jim down the dark stairs with one hand on the other man's jacket for guidance.
"The next landing, I think. I'm expecting another attack when we get closer, so stay on your toes, okay?"
"Got it. You still smelling Henri's socks?"
Jim couldn't hold back a grin. "Yeah. We're definitely getting closer."
"You know, Jim, maybe when this is all over, we shouldn't tell H we found him because his feet were sweaty."
"Oh, I don't know, it'd make a hell of a story. Besides, my clothes are still coming out of my gym bag looking like they've been snowed on."
The floor under Jim's feet changed suddenly, flattening out to a smooth surface.
"Landing," Jim warned. "This should be the bottom level. Start feeling around for a door."
Jim could hear, under the omnipresent thudding, Blair's fingers rasping against the concrete walls. The sound was almost like a whisper. He found himself absent-mindedly trying to distinguish words as he felt along the wall for the door.
...she's outta town...
"Jim, I've got the door."
Blair's voice broke through his daze, and Jim turned toward the sound of his voice.
"Keep talking so I can find you."
"Never thought I'd hear you tell me to keep talking." Blair chuckled. "That's one for the records, man."
Jim focused in on his partner's voice, trying to ignore the other noises and hear only the words Blair was saying.
"In fact, I think I want it in writing. This is a red letter day, you know?"
...m'partner. Sa good man, good frien'. Why you askin' about 'im...
Jim jerked back to attention, realizing he'd followed the barely audible whisper to the point that he'd almost lost Blair's voice. The sound was too soft to be certain, but it had sounded like Henri's voice, slurred as is if he were drunk... or drugged.
"Sandburg? You hear that?"
Blair's confused voice came from right in front of Jim. Reaching out to grasp Blair's shoulder to keep from losing him again, Jim tried to listen for the whisper.
"I thought I heard H's voice."
"You sure? Where was it coming from?"
The sound, if it had actually been there in the first place, was gone now. Jim shook his head in frustration.
"I don't know. It didn't really have a direction. I don't even know for sure that I heard it. Maybe I'm starting to imagine things."
"More likely, our friendly neighborhood whacko is just playing with your mind again. Hopefully, that means we're getting close."
Jim sighed. "Hopefully. We've got to be almost out of time by now."
Blair reached out to pat Jim's arm. "Then let's get going. Tell me if you hear it again, okay?"
"You got it, Chief."
They went through the door quickly, still cautious but not really expecting anything to happen as they entered the basement. Jim kept his hand on Blair's shoulder to anchor himself as he tried to focus all his senses. He could still smell the dust and cologne, although the cologne had grown fainter as the smell of Henri's socks grew stronger. Underneath all that, the hauntingly familiar odor he'd first picked up back at the station still teased at his mind.
Sound was more important to him than smell at the moment, though. Under the steady heartbeat and the sound of their breathing and footsteps, Jim was almost positive he could hear a whisper. For the moment, it wasn't even loud enough to distinguish words, if there were any to distinguish. Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder to stop him, trying to follow the sound to figure out where it came from. Blair stopped without argument, waiting with only a little bit of impatient shifting for Jim to get finished.
Jim steadied his breathing, carefully blocking out the sounds of his own body and of Blair's, then the discordant heartbeats. The building itself had its own sounds, creaking and groaning that had to be ignored as well. But softer than all that, a slurred, familiar voice murmured on.
...m'wife's outta town. Wen' with 'er mama and daddy and good ol' Grampa...
He almost had it. The whisper echoed strangely, seeming to come from all directions at once. Even so, Jim thought he could follow it if he just focused a little tighter...
...Rafe? He's m'partner. S'a good man, good frien'. Why you askin' about 'im? He doesn' have an'thin to do with this...
...he could slide into the words and trace them back to their origin...
He had almost reached it when the lights flared on, burning into his eyes like a hot poker. Blair jerked and swore softly, then reached out to steady Jim.
Wiping streaming eyes, Jim tried to take in their surroundings and narrow down where he thought the whisper had been coming from. The narrow room they were in was walled in grey concrete, with florescent lights overhead and large metal cooling units lining the walls. At the far end was a door marked "Storage," and an identical door sat in the middle of the wall to their left. The whisper hadn't come from either one, though.
"The P.A. Damn it, he's playing a tape over the P.A."
Blair frowned. "You mean it's not Henri?"
"It's Henri, but it's a tape. Another trap."
"So Henri might not even be in this building?" Blair ran a hand through his hair. "We might be chasing around here for nothing?"
Jim shrugged as they started walking toward the storage rooms. "I don't know, Chief. I hope not. We don't have much to go on if he's not here."
"Don't have much to go on if he is here, either," Blair muttered.
Jim bopped his head gently but didn't argue. "So what do you think, Sandburg, door number one or door number two?"
"You're the one with the super-sensitive nose, man. Lead the way."
Inhaling deeply, Jim located the smell he wanted and headed toward it. He was close enough now that he could pinpoint a reasonably specific direction--the door at the back of the room.
He drew his gun and waited for Blair to draw his and indicate that he was ready. When Blair nodded, Jim pulled the door open. Knowing Blair was covering him, Jim went in fast and flattened himself against the wall, surveying the room for any threat.
He didn't see an immediate threat, but he did see Henri. The room itself was large and almost empty, only a few old crates and several support columns scattered around. Henri sat in a foldout chair, tied to one of the columns. His head was hanging, as if he were asleep or dead.
Jim felt a moment's gut-wrenching fear as he tried to hear Henri's heartbeat and only heard the soundtrack. Then he saw the steady rise and fall of the younger detective's chest and sighed in relief. They weren't too late.
A moment later, Blair joined him on the wall, hissing under his breath as he saw Henri.
"He's alive," Jim answered Blair's unspoken question. "Stay here and cover me. I'm going to get him."
Jim made his way cautiously across the room, half expecting some kind of attack. He reached Henri without anything happening, though, and knelt down in front of the chair to test the knots in the rope tying Henri to the column.
"Hey, H." Jim said gently. "You want to wake up and get out of here?"
Henri stirred, then opened his eyes and blinked at Jim blearily. "Hey, Jimbo. Sonvabitch get you, too?"
Jim grinned. "Nope. We came to get you out of here. You hurt anywhere?"
Henri frowned as if the question were difficult. "Dunno. Stuck me with som'thin."
"Stuck you? You mean a needle?" Jim's stomach clenched, and he tugged harder at the knot he was working on. "Did he inject you with something? Come on, talk to me, Henri."
"Dunno." Henri closed his eyes, frowning peevishly. "Lefta note."
"Note?" Jim looked around, spotting familiar white paper taped to the column above Henri's head. Swearing under his breath, he stood up and ripped the paper off the column and unfolded it.
"Jim? Everything okay?" Sandburg called from the door. "You need any help?"
"No, stay there and guard the door. I'll have Henri free in a minute. Listen, call Simon and tell him we'll be out of here in a few. Tell him to have an ambulance ready."
"Ambulance?" Sandburg's voice sharpened.
Jim looked down at Henri's slack face. "Just in case."
"I'm on it."
Jim turned back to the note in his hands, reading it quickly as his stomach clenched tighter.
"Should Detective Brown still be alive when you find this note, time will no doubt be of the essence. You have until 11:00 a.m. to save his life. He has been injected with a progressively degenerative poison. The effects of the poison are totally reversible up to an hour after injection; after an hour, the poison is irreversible.
"You will find the antidote on a shelf on the west wall. The entire contents of the glass vial are necessary to reverse the poison. You will also find a diluted version of the contents of each vial in front of the vial. The correct antidote is odorless but has a faint taste of orange. Lest you be concerned, the antidote has no effect if the poison has not been administered, and the other substances are harmless."
Jim's watch read 10:52. "Shit."
He patted Henri on the shoulder as he dropped the note to the floor, then ran for the west wall. As the message had said, several glass vials were sitting on a metal shelf against the wall, and in front of each vial was a plastic cup containing a clear liquid.
The smart thing to do would have been to get a lab analysis to find the antidote. Tasting the liquids was absolutely insane; for all he knew, they could each be a different kind of poison. For that matter, Henri might have just been injected with a harmless sedative. But with seven minutes until the deadline, Jim didn't dare take any chances.
None of the liquids looked or smelled like anything more powerful than water. In fact, the first two tasted exactly like Cascade tap water, with the exact same mix of chemicals Jim tasted every time he brushed his teeth. The third tasted of distillation and plastic, as if it had been bottled. The fourth tasted of oranges.
Jim grabbed the fourth vial and raced back to Henri's side. The younger detective had drifted back to sleep, his breathing slightly more labored than before. Jim checked the time. Four minutes.
He had to take a deep breath before he could trust himself to speak calmly.
"H, I need you to wake up, okay? I need you to drink something for me."
Henri mumbled something but didn't open his eyes. Jim patted his cheek, then shook him when Henri didn't respond.
"Henri, this is important. You've got to wake up."
Henri's response was so slurred Jim could barely understand it. "Tired."
"I know, buddy, but I need you to drink this for me. It'll make you feel better."
Henri obediently opened his mouth, and Jim held the vial to his lips. Henri swallowed with difficulty, as if his throat didn't quite want to work right, but he got the entire contents of the vial down.
Jim sat back on his heels and rubbed a hand over his face, hoping he'd been in time... and hoping he hadn't just killed his friend. It hadn't escaped him that the whole taste test could have been an elaborate ruse to get him to administer the poison to himself and to Henri. Jim had gambled that the final instructions he'd received had been as accurate as the first two, but he wouldn't know until Henri showed signs of improvement if he'd been right.
As Jim started to work on the knots again, he heard Blair hang up the phone and start toward him.
"Simon says to get Henri out of here. He said SWAT could do a sweep of the building, but he wants us clear first." Blair squatted down in front of Henri, smiling as Henri opened his eyes. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty, how you doing?"
Henri blinked and tugged lightly at the rope Jim was untying. "'M okay. That stuff Jim gave me helped."
"Good." Jim gave the knot a final tug to unravel it. He kept his face turned away, not wanting either of his friends to know how relieved he was to see how quickly Henri was bouncing back. Jim might tell Blair later how close they'd come to disaster, but he didn't think Henri would be any worse off for not knowing. "Feel up to getting out of here, then?"
"Lead the way, man."
With Jim and Blair's help, Henri stood, closing his eyes queasily as his knees tried to buckle. Jim started to set him back down to rest a few more minutes, but then smelled something that made the question moot.
"Fire," he said quickly, steering Henri and Blair toward the door. "We need to get out of here now."
Rafe shifted around in the seat of Simon's car, trying to spot some sign of his friends emerging from the building. Simon had only hung up with Sandburg a few minutes before, so they weren't likely to make it out for several more minutes, at the very least. Rafe wasn't sure he could wait that long. Not when he knew his partner needed him, had been needing him for hours now, and Rafe hadn't done a damn thing to help him.
At least Rafe now knew that Henri was alive. Simon hadn't sounded too worried when he was talking to Sandburg about Henri's condition, either, which Rafe chose to take as a good sign.
He just hated having to sit back and wait. He trusted Ellison and Sandburg to do a good job and to get Henri out in one piece if anyone could, but it wasn't the same thing as going in himself. He didn't like being so helpless.
Before he could brood about it any more, one of the uniforms lined up around the front of the building shouted something that Rafe couldn't understand. Curious, he got out of the car to hear better.
"Fire! There's smoke coming out the windows!"
The words sent a cold chill down Rafe's spine. He started toward the building, not really noticing when Simon grabbed him and held him back. His attention had fixed on the front door, and for an endless moment, all he could see were the nightmares of charred bodies that had plagued him after his parents' deaths. He'd lost them to fire, but he wasn't going to lose anyone else. He'd go in there and find his friends himself if he had to.
"Rafe. Damn it, Rafe, I said stop!" Simon bellowed in his ear,
The words had no meaning to him. He just knew that he had to get inside.
And then three figures stumbled from the front door, coughing violently. Ellison and Sandburg each had one of Henri's arms over their shoulders, and it was obvious they were the only things keeping him on his feet.
The paramedics converged on the three men. Rafe twisted away from Simon and pushed through the crowd, his heart pounding so loudly in his ears that he couldn't have heard Simon call him back even if Simon had been foolish enough to waste the breath.
Ignoring the paramedic who was trying to replace Ellison in supporting Henri, Rafe grabbed his partner's arm and claimed the spot for his own. A quick glance showed that Sandburg was already recovering his breath and stood with one hand on Ellison's arm, steadying the older man as he gasped for air.
Rafe's attention was more for Henri, though. The black detective was leaning heavily on Rafe but walking under his own power in the direction of the ambulance that the paramedics were steering them toward.
He didn't really have a chance to do more than stand nearby and offer the occasional sympathetic look as the paramedics poked and prodded at his partner. It wasn't until they were finished that there was a spare minute to say anything, and then he wasn't real sure what to say.
Henri, as usual, rescued him. "Hey, GQ, you keep that long face, and I'm going to think you're not happy to see me."
Rafe's throat tightened, and suddenly it was more than just lack of words keeping him from talking. Finally he just sat down beside Henri on the tail of the ambulance and reached out to squeeze his partner's shoulder. Henri dropped a fist on his knee and left it there.
Neither of them needed to say anything else.
By the time Jim caught his breath, Simon had made his way over to them and was grilling Blair.
"So you can't say for sure the kidnapper actually was in the building?"
Blair shook his head. "Not for sure, but he must have had some sort of remote control over the lights and some way of keeping track of where we were if he wasn't in the building. The timing was just too precise."
"He was in there," Jim said hoarsely. "I'm sure of it."
"The SWAT guys and the uniforms haven't reported any signs of anyone trying to get out of the building, and it's burning pretty good by now," Simon said. "If he was in there, he may not have had time to make it out."
Jim looked at the building, wincing at the heat as flames shot out the upper story windows. "I don't think so, sir. Like Sandburg said, it was all too precise. He knew exactly what he was doing."
"Then I want you to figure out who 'he' was. If he's that good, I don't like the idea of him running around loose in my city."
"Me either, sir."
But as Jim watched the building burn, he didn't think they'd be finding the kidnapper any time soon.
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