edited by: Jon Gabriel and Net4
A string of green plastic beads swung from the door handle as Alan Lane opened the door to his school bus with a huff and a grunt. He'd gotten them in New Orleans, at Mardi Gras the year he'd met his wife. She'd been wearing them that night, and he carried them on his bus route as a talisman of their twenty-three years of married life. No matter how crazy the kids got, or rambunctious, Alan had only to look at the old strand of cheap beads and recall his wife's smiling face, and he could handle it.
Today was a fairly typical Thursday. A storm front was headed inland, but it served no threat to his afternoon rounds. He'd picked up a full load at Cascade Middle School, chattering and laughing and horsing around, almost ready for the weekend, but not quite at the level of hyperactive-where's-the-Ritalin Friday buzz. As the number of kids dwindled, the noise level went down accordingly, so Alan could hear only a muted murmur over the bus' idling engine.
Lucy Small skipped off the bus, her brown braids bouncing. She waved goodbye to her friends, hefted her backpack and disappeared behind the rhododendron that shielded the sight of her front door from the street. Alan waited until she was out of sight before closing the door and driving on. Lucy was twelve, and already a latch-key kid, like most of his passengers.
The yellow bus rumbled as it made its way up a steep hill and around a corner. The problem with the new subdivisions, Alan thought, was that they were so damn hard to navigate. Every house was isolated, and the long bus barely fit around some of the curves.
The bus picked up speed going down the short hill, and Alan slowed gently as he neared the next blind turn. Then he saw a silver van parked across the narrow residential road. The bus' brakes screeched their complaint, and the murmur of the children in the back rose to a sharp point as they voiced theirs.
Alan just stared. Standing in front of the van was a man with a black ski mask and dark black gun in his hand. Two more men stepped from the side of the road, both masked and armed. Alan sat there, disbelieving, as the three men approached the bus and the first tapped on the door. Who would hijack a school bus?
The masked man tapped again. "Would you please open the door?"
Alan paused, then reached over, wrapped the green beads around his wrist and opened the door. He sat there fiddling with the beads, still stunned as the first man entered and motioned him to the back. "Please move to the rear and keep the children quiet."
Alan nodded and moved back. The second gunman followed the first inside and sat at the wheel. The first started moving children back, packing them two to a seat and counting. The muzzle of the gun pointed at each child in turn. The bus lurched forward with a rumble, and in his peripheral vision, Alan saw the silver van pull to the side and then follow behind them.
Alan ran his fingers over the beads in his hands, at a loss to do anything but pray. This was a school bus, not an airplane. Men with guns held up banks, not school children! He was no action hero, to save the day and win the girl. So Alan sat there, surrounded by similarly stunned children, and fingered his beads, and prayed.
Major Crimes, Thursday Evening
Simon Banks slammed his phone down with considerable force and sat there for a moment, glaring at it. The steam rising from his coffee cup could have risen from his ears. His moment of irked reverie was brought short by Jim Ellison's annoyed comment from the doorway.
The detective pushed the glassed door open fully and leaned in to address his captain. "What's going on here, Simon?"
Blair Sandburg gently but firmly pushed his partner out of the doorway and into Simon's office. "Yeah, man. We'd just gotten home when we got the call. What's up?"
Simon pushed himself away from his desk and rose, straightening his tie. "Busload of kids disappeared this afternoon in the middle of the route home from school. We got the call from the superintendent an hour and a half ago. They just found the bus. You," he looked pointedly at Ellison, "get to go take a look at it while I," he grunted in distaste, "I get to deal with the FBI."
"They've called in the Feds already, sir?" Ellison managed to look only a little pissed at the announcement.
"They just announced concurrent jurisdiction over the case three minutes ago." Simon reached for his jacket and paused to smirk. "As a consolation, at least they're keeping the media at bay."
"Oh, man, I can just imagine." Blair preceded Simon out the door, only to turn around and start walking backwards. "Who's at the scene right now?" He deftly sidestepped a desk and switched subjects. "Jim, you think we can grab dinner on the way? I know this great little Mexican place, and I am starved, man."
Jim stood there, eyes wide. Simon turned at Jim's sudden halt.
"Jim, Jim, man, now's so not the time." Blair was right beside him, his voice echoing Simon's silent concern.
Jim blinked and shook his head. "It's nothing, Sandburg, let's go." At the door leading into Major Crimes, Jim paused and looked back. A large hawk stared at him from the back of an office chair. Its eyes glowed golden, and the hawk bated suddenly. Sparkles of golden light flicked from its wingtips, and it cried out. The harsh screech echoed in the room, and Jim blinked and shook his head.
The room was empty of both bird and sound. Jim turned and followed Blair to the truck.
Cascade patrol cars circled a small cul-de-sac with their headlights and flashers hazing in the gathering grey mist. The undeveloped side street had obviously been recently cleared and home sites marked with surveyor's stakes. Piles of brush surrounded each site and blocked the sight of the nearby forest and hills.
The sky above was dark grey, heavy clouds lit from below by the lights of the city. It's cold. It's cold. It's cold. Blair thought to himself. He shivered in his jacket and walked back alongside the tire tracks in the dirt. Half-hidden behind one of the brushpiles, almost underneath the trees, the bus sat empty.
Serena crouched behind the back wheel of the bus, the tail of her lab coat flashing white around her feet. As he passed the forensics technician, she pulled her heavy jacket closer around herself and bent again to study the hard ground beneath the beam of her flashlight.
It's cold. It's cold. He pulled his jacket closer around himself and continued his mental litany. Behind the bus, Jim stood, slowly scanning the dark shadows under the trees. He didn't turn his eyes from the shadows, but spoke up as Blair got within comfortable earshot. "Cold there, Chief?"
Blair shivered again, convulsively, and jerked his collar up around his ears. "It's still summer in Australia, I think. Feel like a vacation, Jim?" Blair shifted from one foot to another, shoes sinking into the soft ground as he watched his partner and tried to think warm thoughts. "Lots of sun, lots of sand, lots of topless beaches..."
"A country full of people who think like Megan. Thanks, but I'll take my weirdness in small doses, thanks." Jim stretched his senses, letting his eyes close as he tuned out the chatter of the forensics techs, the smell of gasoline and motor oil from the cars.
"Oh, come on Jim. It's not all that weird when you just think in the context of their culture and its origins. They're English speakers, which means they follow sort of the same language paradigm, unlike, say, Peruvians, or Brazillians, which come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, both colonial and native."
Jim half-listened to Blair, not truly tuning out his voice, but not paying much attention to the context of the lecture on colonial goals of European powers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their impacts on the current socio-political climates of the colonized countries of the New World. A timid breeze brushed past them, and while Blair buried his nose in his coat, Jim broke from his still posture and headed for the blackness of the trees.
Blair broke off his quasi-lecture and followed. They wove through the reaching branches, ducking the soft green needles. The sound of their footsteps sunk into the deep cover of fallen needles littering the ground. Blair's foot sunk a little too deep into the undergrowth, and he tripped on an exposed tree root. "Hey, slow down, man," he muttered and then proceeded to plow into Jim from behind.
"Easy there, Sandburg." Jim steadied him before he stooped beneath the closest tree. As he brushed away the thin covering of soft dirt and pine detritus at its base, he revealed a plastic bag with a pair of syringes and small packet of brown powder. "Damn."
Blair echoed Jim's soft pronouncement. "This isn't good."
"No shit, Sandburg." Jim fisted his hands on the legs of his jeans and considered the ground around them. "I don't think it's the kidnappers, though, but I have to report it."
"Does the cold freeze your brain? The brass'll send us off on some wild goose chase, after some stupid junkie kid, and we'll never get anywhere near the real kidnappers."
Blair shrugged, the motion lost in his shivering. His voice managed to convey the mischief in his next suggestion, however. "So send Vice after it. Better yet, when the Feds get here, send them."
"Get here? Aren't there enough in Cascade?"
"Didn't you hear? Serena told me before she started poking around in the mud. They've pulled like, half the San Francisco office up here. Megan's supposed to meet them at the airport and bring them back to Central."
Simon Banks didn't look much happier than he had been two hours earlier, but then, dealing with any Federal agency usually made him short-tempered and irritable. He also didn't look any better than Jim Ellison felt.
"I told you, Simon, there was nothing there other than a few footprints, and those were all new boots, with no wear patterns." Jim plucked at his rainsoaked shirt with distaste.
"He's right, sir." Serena confirmed from the doorway. "We've finished canvassing the area, and those are the only footprints surrounding the bus. There's no sign of the children."
"What about the drugs?"
"Not enough to be a dealer's stash, Simon. It's just a coincidence."
"Can you be sure, Jim? The rain's not exactly preserving the scene."
"We've gotten casts of the footprints, and there was nothing else around the area where Jim found the drugs." She spread her hands. "I still have to write up the report on the scene, but the information won't change."
"Manomanoman." Blair ducked past Serena and deposited himself in the nearest chair. "The Feds are like, swarming downstairs. I nearly got mauled just trying to get my coffee." He brandished a huge, lumpy, brown mug covered with scratched names, then curled himself around it, inhaling the steam. "So did you find anything else?"
Serena shook her head mutely. "No, and we're not likely to with the rain."
She acknowledged Simon's thanks and dismissal with a small smile, and started to leave by the open door. Her abrupt pause caused them all to turn their attention to the queue of dark suits pouring into the Major Crimes bullpen. Serena cast a wary eye at Simon's glower, and made a strategic retreat through the other door.
The irritability that had been building for the past two hours came to a head with a piercing pain to Jim's temples, and a piercing hawk's cry to his ears. The faces of the Feds blurred, and his vision, no, the vision, he now realized, sharpened and focused on a figure hidden behind the Feds. A flash of wing and golden feathers superimposed itself over the simple act of someone throwing a coat over her shoulder.
The vision passed, and Jim found himself glaring at a medium-tall woman in slacks and a turtleneck. Her brown coat, (not gold, he noted,) had a faint feather-pattern ot its fabric. Her hair, though, trying to escape from under an FBI ballcap, was definitely blonde.
Introductions were underway before he knew it, and he found himself shaking hands with Agent Valerie Andersen. Her hand was small in his, callused and cool. Her eyes met his and slid off without challenging. Then she turned to Blair, and Jim watched a recognition dawn in her eyes.
"Sandburg? As in Blair Sandburg who did his Master's thesis on heightened senses in tribal guardians?" She reached for Blair's hand with a broad smile, though Jim noticed her eyes flickered left to the other agents.
Blair smiled in return. "That was a while ago, but yeah. You're an anthropologist?"
One of the men, a redhead of medium height named Lloyd Clark, snorted. "Not hardly. Val's been trying to convince us for years now that she's got these, whaddya call 'em -- 'heightened senses.'" His snort of disbelief informed them all of his opinion of that.
Valerie's voice chilled noticeably. "I've been collecting articles on enhanced senses for years now, just to prove to skeptics like Agent Clark here that we're not freaks of nature." The other female agent, a dark haired woman named Victoria Prince, frowned frostily and laid a hand on Valerie's arm to check her movement toward Clark. Clark merely sneered in return.
"On your own time, ladies and gentlemen." The weariness in their superior's voice told Jim that this was a long-standing dispute. George Simmons ran a hand through thinning silver hair and turned to Simon. "Captain Banks, I spoke with our local office on the way from the airport, and apparently our office does not have the capacity to handle the personnel we feel is necessary for the hunt for the kidnappers and the children. I'd like to set up a hotline for citizens to call and--" Valerie cleared her throat. "--and Agent Andersen has requested she see the school bus, now that it has been found."
Jim saw Blair's quick glance at him out of the corner of his eye, and turned, as did Valerie, to Simon. "Detective Ellison has already been to the scene, and I'm sure he'd be happy to show you around." Jim recognized the tone of voice, the one that told him he'd better make a good show of pretending happy cooperation.
He complied, pasted on a half-smile and gestured to the door.
Somehow, this time, Blair had managed to dig up an old umbrella from somewhere at the station, and they stood under it, watching the federal agent poke around in the mud. The scent of gasoline from the police cars at the scene earlier had faded, replaced with the clean smell of rain, mud and wet woods. Jim and Blair remained silent and still as she walked toward the bus alongside the puddled remains of the footprints they'd found earlier, slowly scanning from side to side.
She disappeared behind the bus, and Blair spoke, his suppressed curiosity bursting forth in two words. "Is she?"
Valerie had remained fairly closed-mouthed about the subject, citing articles that Blair had been familiar with, but not embellishing her own experiences with the phenomena of enhanced senses.
Jim shrugged, his motion tilting the umbrella just enough to let a trickle of rain slide down his neck. He reached for the back of his neck with his free hand, trying to rub down the hair that seemed to want to stand on end. "I saw a hawk."
"In the bullpen."
"Whoa! So she's got a spirit animal? Like, uh..." Blair trailed off, his memories of the same set of events sobering him as well. The incident with the only other Sentinel they'd met, tall, blonde and psychotic, had not been particularly pleasant for either of them. And though it had occurred over a year ago, it was still an area where they both trod carefully.
"Last I checked, spirit animals were not the exclusive domain of Sentinels." Jim informed him. "You've got one."
"And how many other people do you know with a spirit animal you can see? It could be a manifestation of a potential threat situation or maybe..."
"Sandburg..." Jim tried to rein back his exasperation in order to attempt to put into words something he didn't really understand and tried not to think too much about anyway. "It's not about threat. You're not a threat. Incacha wasn't a threat. It's about..." He groped for the words.
"Guidance? Maybe showing you more about a person?"
Jim thought that over. "Maybe."
"Whoa, don't go overboard on the endorsements."
"It's not like there's a textbook on spirit animals, Chief." He snorted at the thought. "It'd probably be in Quecha if there was one."
They were silent for a breath more before Jim announced, "She's found something."
A few quick steps in synchronization, and they found her crouched by the door of the bus. The rain pattered off the bill of her cap, and she seemed oblivious to the ring of mud clinging to the cuffs of her pants. She held something small and green in her hand: a bead of some sort.
She didn't look up as they approached, didn't even move.
"What's that?" Blair asked the obvious question.
Valerie jumped up and whirled, her hand to her chest. Jim heard her heartbeat spike in surprise, and then slowly subside to a more regular rhythm as she took several deep breaths. "Sweet Christ, don't do that, detective!"
Blair backed off placatingly. "Sorry, man." He gestured towards her clenched fist. "What did you find?"
She held it out. "Just a cheap little plastic bead."
Jim nodded. "Forensics found a few more of those inside. Probably one of the kid's."
Valerie seemed about to say something, then closed her mouth and nodded. "I think I've seen enough here."
By a quarter to three in the morning, the bullpen was still divided, the agents from San Francisco on one side of the room, Blair and Jim at their desks across the corridor that led to Simon's office. Simon had long since gone, taking the agent in charge, George Simmons, with him to the FBI's Cascade office.
Their desks were piled high with papers - names, addresses, potential leads phoned in, maps of Cascade, King County and Washington; their phones had stopped ringing off the hook, but the residue of the callers remained. Everyone from well-meaning citizens, to crackpots looking for sensation, to bored teenagers trying to thumb their noses at authority, had called and given their input. As the hours passed, types of callers had started to lean more towards the latter.
Agent Clark crumpled up a piece of paper and tossed it across the room. "I swear, if one more of those dumb kids comes up with a new nickname for the FBI, I'm gonna hunt down the whole lot of 'em and strangle 'em!"
His partner was a tad shorter and a bit more even-tempered; Derek Lewis peered at the tally sheet of calls they had started on a bulletin board. "Jeez, Lloyd, that's fifty-three of them, wouldn't you get tired?"
"Lewis, he's not going to strangle anyone." The agent who'd restrained Valerie earlier stepped in again, leveling her attention on Lewis and Clark. She cast a wary glance at Jim and Blair and then lowered her voice. "Just keep him out of trouble like you're supposed to."
Even Clark didn't want to stand up to Prince's displeasure, and backed down with an inaudible mutter. The bullpen subsided into a strained silence, with the FBI agents painfully not looking at the two Cascade detectives.
Jim stood finally, shoving back his chair with a loud screech. "C'mon Sandburg." He looked around the bullpen slowly as Blair blinked blearily up at him, then scrambled for his coat.
By the elevator, Blair leaned his head back against the wall as they waited. "Thirty-three kids, I can't imagine what they must be going through."
Jim shook his head and motioned Blair to silence, ears trained on the slow rise of conversation from the Feds they'd left behind. "Lay off already, Andersen! Why the hell are you peddling all that senses crap around the locals anyway?" Clark's voice was a muttered hiss to Jim's ears.
"Well, unlike some of us, those 'senses' get results."
"It's all a bunch of crap -"
"Stuff it, Clark." The whip-crack voice belonged to Prince, who then turned it on her colleague. "Just quit provoking him, Andersen."
"Fine." A slam of heavy paper on a desk echoed briefly, and Jim nearly missed the rest of her statement between that and the opening door. "I'll see you in the morning."
Jim pulled Blair into the elevator, and they saw Valerie stalk out of the bullpen as the doors closed in front of them.
The next morning saw Jim and Blair stumble into the bullpen a few minutes shy of ten o'clock. The presence of the FBI agents was muted by the added support of the entire staff of Major Crimes, and the tension of the previous evening had mostly dissipated.
Jim hung up his jacket and headed straight for Simon's office without a side-glance, but Blair trailed a bit behind him, waving at Megan and Rafe before ducking into the office.
Simon looked up from his desk, which was now overflowing with reports. "You're here. Good." He tossed a folder at Jim. "We need to start covering the leads that the hotline keeps churning in."
Jim glanced in the folder, then up. "Silver vans, sir?"
"That's the most consistent lead we've got - there have been reports of a van in the neighborhood covering most of yesterday afternoon, and even a few days prior. We've got a half a dozen partial plates... unfortunately most of them don't match, so you get to track it down."
Jim handed the file into Blair's outstretched hand. "Is there anything else you want us to cover?"
"Yes." Simon leaned back in his chair, but was interrupted by the door swinging open.
"Sir?" Valerie Andersen leaned in. "I've just got a tip I want to follow..." She stopped and looked around. "Uh, sir, wasn't Special Agent Simmons in here?"
"He headed downstairs ten minutes ago."
"Oh. Never mind then." She smiled brightly and began to retreat.
"But you should probably take Ellison and Sandburg with you when you check out your lead."
"Oh." Her face fell. "Right." She glanced at the two men and then waved her hand. "Fine. Whatever. Your territory. Your car, Your lead...." She closed the door behind her, but the murmured commentary on proprietary policing continued in Jim's ears.
"So why are we going with her, Simon?" Blair asked. "I mean, Jim doesn't exactly 'play well with others' when it comes to the Feds."
"Because I wasn't about to inflict you on a pair of federal agents, Sandburg. Be glad I'm not sending you with Lewis and Clark hunting down the UFO sightings."
Valerie was waiting by the elevator doors for them, head bowed over a Washington state map. The doors opened, and she stepped in without looking up, her finger tracing a line on the map. She looked up as the doors closed. "So which one of you is driving?"
"I am." Jim said. "So which lead, exactly, are we following."
"Thomas Ray. Called in about an hour ago about two silver vans going over the pass on Highway 2 last night." Her eyes narrowed. "That's probably how they kept getting conflicting plate numbers in the reports."
Blair opened up the file Simon had given him. "Thomas Ray? He lives... You want us to go all the way to Skykomish?"
Valerie shrugged, her voice then level and sure. "If that's where the trail leads." The elevator doors opened on the wide expanse of the lobby, and they headed silently to the garage.
She took one look at the blue and white truck sitting in the garage and turned on her heel. "Forget it, I'm driving." She brushed past Blair and Jim and walked to a large black Grand Cherokee. "Coming?"
Jim scowled, but followed, and Blair tried to deflect a little of the insult to the truck. "You gotta admit man, this'll handle the snow on the pass a lot better."
Valerie froze in the middle of unlocking the driver's side door. "Snow?" She turned. "Snow on a pass? As in mountains?"
"Yeah, that's where Ray called from. He drives a snow plow." Blair said.
"Oh." She tossed the keys to Jim. "Forget it. You're driving, detective. I don't do snow."
Past Skykomish, the pass was a bit clearer than Ray had surmised. Snow was still piled up on either side of the road - the layers of white were interspersed with brown and speckled with black exhaust. Despite the plow driver's dire predictions, the roads were not slushy - merely damp. As they approached the mile marker where the chain control station had been established, the snow alongside the road was spotted occasionally with antifreeze and oil, and dirty, muddy footprints surrounded each spot.
Jim and Valerie were silent, each scanning the sides of the road as they slowly crept along the highway. Blair watched both of them, dividing his attention fairly equally. Where Jim's eyes were intensely alert, Valerie's fluttered blankly every once in awhile, as if they were trying to close when she wasn't staring at one specific thing.
It was familiar, but not Sentinel-familiar, and not a recent memory. Blair wracked his brain trying to remember. The eyes had been brown, not grey, but the motion, a half-closing flicker of seeing-not-seeing, was something he'd seen before.
He'd returned his attention to watching Jim, when Valerie shook herself, a convulsive shudder from her neck all along her spine, and flung herself out the car door. She stumbled in the snow, and Jim braked to an immediate halt, the car crunching swiftly to a halt in the roadside slush.
She scrambled for the side of the snow bank, slipping a little in the acid green stain of leaked antifreeze, and started digging in the grit and snow. By the time Blair and Jim had reached her side, she had pulled a small broken strand of green beads from its prison of ice and dirt.
Jim frowned as Valerie's eyes fluttered closed, and she stroked the small strand almost reverently. He looked over at Blair and then turned his attention on the side of the road.
Jim narrowed his vision on the span of snow near the spot she'd pulled the beads from, and picked out a little flash of bright red from the snow. He strode over and brushed away the light covering of snow to uncover a red and blue Cascade Middle School basketball jersey.
"They were here." Valerie's voice was sure, and Jim turned with the jersey in his hand.
"I'll say." Valerie's eyes widened as she saw the shirt. "We're on the right track then," Blair continued.
"And almost out of King County, too."
"Not to worry, detective," Valerie assured him dryly. "My jurisdiction extends at least past the county border." She paused. "Just what is beyond the county border, anyway?"
"We head into a different national forest, but not much else until you hit Wenatchee." Blair considered. "We're still following the railroad, but we switch rivers."
"Next town's Leavenworth, Chief." Jim reminded him. "Might as well stop there for lunch."
Valerie nodded agreement. "If we can find a place that doesn't serve tofu, I'll let the Bureau pay for it."
Jim laughed at that. "That's pretty much a sure bet there, Andersen."
She grinned up at him. "I know. It's so nice to be out of California -- the tofu doesn't grow on trees up here." She turned back to the car.
Jim started to follow, then paused and stooped by the antifreeze stain. He touched a finger to the green liquid, and sniffed it.
He shook his head at his partner's question and followed the FBI agent to the car.
"Wonderburger." Blair's voice was flatly disbelieving, but he was smiling as they pulled up to the front of the fast food place. The small lot was empty save for two other cars, and three men sat in the front window, slurping cokes and wrangling over a round of cards. "I can't believe that of all the restaurants, you choose Wonderburger."
"What?" Valerie asked. "I need my USRDA of cholesterol and grease."
Blair just rolled his eyes and sat back in his seat. Jim snorted and smiled. "He didn't pay enough attention in the academy to the requirements for red meat consumed by law enforcement officers."
"Ah." Valerie glanced back at Blair as she undid her seatbelt. "I've been meaning to ask, if it's not too intrusive - how did you get into police work? I had gotten the impression from your master's thesis and a couple of your other articles that you were pretty much a career anthropologist."
Blair reached up and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, just under the curls that were finally getting to what he considered a reasonable length. He smiled ruefully. "I am and I'm not." He flicked a glance at Jim. "I was studying the police as a closed society, and then I went native. Being a cop doesn't mean I'm not an anthropologist. It just, it..." His hand came away from his neck to grasp at the air. "It takes away my status as an academic." He grinned then, "I traded in my birkenstocks for jackboots and I got this nice shiny badge, too."
"Don't let it fool you, Andersen. He's still got his Master's degree framed and mounted prominently on the wall." Jim opened the car door. "Now can we eat?"
As they exited the car, both Valerie and Jim grew intent. They brushed by each other, heading in separate directions. Blair threw a helpless glance at Valerie, but followed Jim instead, to a gritty pool of melt water, tinged green with antifreeze.
"It smells piney," Jim was sniffing the tips of his fingers, "not like regular antifreeze. It's the same as the stuff on the pass."
"So they stopped here - maybe someone can identify them?" Blair turned and headed for the door. Jim remained crouched over the pool, staring, but not zoning, and Valerie seemed to be trying to pry up some loose asphalt with her fingernails. Sentinels. Blair shook his head and went inside.
The interior of the Wonderburger held no dirt to sully the clash of the blue and orange decor. The smell of grease and ketchup and salt was heavy in the air, and there was a faint snap-hiss sound of the grills overlying the murmur of conversation from the front window. The three men had turned from their game to stare at the two people poking around in the parking lot.
A young woman with an enthusiastic smile and an even more enthusiastic application of makeup on her face chirped out, "Can I help you sir?"
"Yes, please." He flipped out his badge with a smile. "Is there anyone who was here last night that I could speak to?"
"Oh, sure," she turned and bellowed, "'Manda!"
A short, portly woman with equally short, blond curls framing her face emerged from an office in the back, trailed by an almost skeletal young man. "Can I help you?"
"Yes," Blair smiled again, and proffered his badge again. "I'm Detective Sandburg with the Cascade Police. Did you or any of your employees see two silver vans here last night."
"Oh, yeah, they almost cleaned us out of Wondermeals. It was right at closing time, they parked outside, and one guy came in to order two, three dozen meals, something like that. Kept dancing around the whole time we were making them, threw down his money and ran back outside when he had them."
"Did you get a good look at the license plates?"
"Nope. But I've seen the guy before. Came through a couple of times last month, though I couldn't swear as to when."
"Did you see which way they left?"
"Not really. They tore up the parking lot a bit when they did go - I almost tripped over a chunk of asphalt going out to my car after closing last night. Anyway, that exit leads to Motteler Road, back up into the mountains."
"About what time did they leave?"
"Like I said, closing time, right about eleven."
"Can you describe the man for me? Or anyone else in one of the vans?"
"Young, not quite 30, tall," She eyed Sandburg, "tall like you, not tall like stick-boy here." She gestured to the silent youth who was now puttering over the fry baskets. "Dark hair, dark eyes - I think, I didn't really look, I mean, he wasn't cute or anything, and he was really nervous."
"Thanks." Blair flipped his notebook closed and glanced back at the parking lot. Jim seemed to be shaking Valerie out of some sort of zone. "Three Wondermeals to go, please." Fed Sentinels were happy Sentinels.
Valerie bit sullenly into her burger and stared pointedly out the window as she chewed. The car continued bumping over the two-lane road, winding through the rapidly melting slush of the spring snow storm. The sun filtered through the trees, leaving odd patterns of melted and unmelted snow in the dappled shadows. The FBI agent remained stubbornly unmoved by the natural beauty surrounding them.
"You didn't have to shake me so damn hard," she muttered.
Jim looked coolly over at her, then returned his attention to the road.
"C'mon, you were zoning big time. You were lucky he recognized what was happening."
"I doubt that." She bit into her burger and chewed, then continued with her mouth half full. "Whas sis sonin', amyvay?"
"Oh man, you've been dealing with your senses for this long, and you've never zoned? Man, that is amazing!" Blair shifted forward on the back seat, leaning in between the two front seats. "A zone is what happens when a Sentinel concentrates too hard on one sense."
Valerie turned all the way around in her seat to face him. "I've never run into any information on zones."
"Not if you were just looking for info on heightened senses." Blair nearly hit Jim with his gesturing. "Most authorities are only looking for the modern application - perfumers, wine tasters, ah... anyway, mostly people with only one or two heightened senses. It takes all five senses, a true Sentinel, to get the overload on the other senses that contributes to the zone. Burton mentioned it," he paused to breathe, "the explorer, not the actor..."
"There's an actor named Burton?" Valerie's lips tugged up in a semblance of a smile. "Look, Sandburg, I know this was your field of study, but I'm not a shabby researcher myself, and I think that I've had just a wee bit more hands on experience at this than you have." She turned back to the window.
Blair turned to Jim and shrugged, hands wide - 'What now?' he mouthed. Jim just shook his head, and continued driving, eyes intent on the road.
The car had been quiet for an hour and the trio had forsaken watching the sinking sun in favor of studying the road. They'd passed countless dirt roads and paths, but the green trail of anti-freeze, a single drop every hundred yards, still led onwards. Jim was driving slowly now, but they'd only been passed by three other cars, none of the drivers of which had matched the description of one of the suspects.
He could hear Blair in the back seat, heartbeat slowing and breathing evening out. It was calming, listening to his partner beginning to fall asleep, and certainly better than trying not to listen to the FBI agent in the seat next to him. He'd just spied the next droplet of antifreeze when he was startled out of his reverie by two things.
Valerie's sudden, "Stop! Turn here!" was accompanied by the sudden stoop of a golden hawk, flashing down on the hood of the car. The hawk hunched on the black hood, wings outspread, hissing and then launched itself skyward. Jim stamped on the brake belatedly, then sat shaken, after the car lurched to a stop. Valerie darted out of the car and across the road in front of the Jeep.
"Jim! What the hell was that?" Blair lurched forward from the back seat.
"The hawk..." Jim shook his head and wrenched open the car door. "Later."
Blair almost fell out his own door trying to open it. "The things I do..." he muttered as he followed Jim across the road, setting his feet firmly in the wet slush of the road.
Jim paused by the junction of the side road to let him catch up. The air was crisp, cooling as the sun disappeared, and their exhalations were starting to become visible. He stared into the overshadowing trees, beyond Valerie, who was crouched in the middle of the turnoff. He focused past limit of normal sight, to the short pine that hid the curve of the side road as it turned and disappeared, through the intervening branches that reached out to grab his attention, and finally zeroed in on a single scrape of virulent green antifreeze, stained in a patch of snow.
A single touch of Blair's hand on his arm brought him back into himself, staving off the incipient zone. "Back that way, Chief," Jim turned for the car.
Valerie rocked back on her heels, eyes wide, and pupils almost blackening her irises. Resting neglected in her palm was a single mud-grimed bead. Her voice was a bare thread of sound as it left her. "Can you hear grass grow? Or the wool on sheep?"
Jim's shoulders tightened, and he muttered, "Come on," as he passed her without looking down. His feet crunched in the ice, slush and grit of the road.
At the car, he paused, hand on the door handle. "You couldn't see that bead from the road - it was covered with mud. The beads don't have a distinctive smell, they don't make any noise just lying there, and you can't taste or touch them until you're actually holding them."
Valerie blinked, her eyes shifting back to normal. She rose and strode up to him, poking one finger into the center of his chest. "You have no idea what I see. Drop it, detective." She turned on her heel.
"I can see a whole lot more than you give me credit for."
"Jim..." Blair warned.
Valerie froze for a moment, then rounded the hood of the car and opened her door. "There are thirty-three children and a bus driver waiting for us at the end of that road. We'll discuss this later."
The road in question was fairly straight past the first bend, a series of ruts driven into the soft earth beneath the trees, and left to gather scrub and brush over the years. It stretched on in silence, and each bump and squeak of the suspension echoed in the silence of the car.
The road opened into a large clearing flanked by two long, low buildings. Both were faded grey, the weathered wood fading into the gathering twilight. The scattered grass and low bushes of the clearing were flattened and grooved by recent tire tracks, two sets of which led up to the door of one of the buildings. Jim stopped the Jeep and slowly backed it out of sight of the doors.
"There's no one else here." Valerie stated condescendingly.
"We've got at least two, possibly more kidnappers running around, and you're willing to bet the lives of those kids on your hunch?" Blair rolled his eyes.
Valerie closed her eyes and nodded, pursing her lips. "Right. Procedure. Let's get this over with."
They circled the building, guns drawn. The high windows of the first floor were closed, boarded over with sheets of plywood from the outside. The single door leading inside was chained shut, the lock and chain shiny and bright.
Valerie reached for the lock, then jerked her hand away. Blair pulled out a pair of gloves from his pocket and asked, "Don't suppose you've got a pair of bolt cutters in your car."
"It's a rental - I left the lockpicks in Frisco, too." She started feeling up around the top of the doorframe. "I'll bet they left the key here, though."
Jim stooped and picked up a rock by the door, turning it to reveal the slot on the bottom of the fake rock key-hider. "Good guess."
She met his eyes. "I don't guess, detective. I know."
"Hello?" The plaintive question was muffled by the door. "Is anyone there?"
"FBI! We'll get you out in a moment!" Valerie shouted, then nodded to the lock Blair held. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
The door swung open on a cavernous, cold room. Metal bunkbed frames were pushed up against the walls, and several of the thin mattresses from the stacks in the corner had been dragged over to the frames. Children stared up at the three officers from shivering clusters by the beds and the floor. Traces of grime and exhaustion haunted their faces, and an older, portly man moved in front of the youngest group.
"FBI?" He asked warily, looking past them.
"And Cascade police." Blair and Jim pulled out their badges in reassurance. "We'll get you home."
An hour later, the clearing between the two buildings was humming with activity. Two huge helicopters belonging to the Air National Guard hovered briefly overhead before turning back to Cascade and the waiting parents and media storm that would greet them. A trio of other, small 'copters were still on the ground, their occupants almost literally crawling over the crime site, hunting for evidence before more of it vanished under the thin falling drizzle.
Over to the side of the clearing, by the Cascade PD helicopter, Simon took a puff of his cigar and exhaled. The smoke caught the light of several of the bright spotlights illuminating the two buildings and their surroundings, and then dissipated into the cold air. "That was pretty good timing, Jim. We'd just gotten the ransom demand faxed in a half hour before you called, so the governor was still in her office. She called in the air support."
The vibrating beat of the rotors of the retreating helicopters faded. "There are some very relieved parents in Cascade tonight. Now we can worry about catching the idiots who did this."
He paused, noting that he'd lost the attention of Jim and Blair, then gestured towards the FBI helicopter nearby, where Agent Simmons and Valerie stood talking. "So what's the deal with the Fed?"
Blair sighed and studied his toes a moment, then looked up. "I don't know, Simon. Could be a Sentinel thing." He looked at Jim, who was intent on the conversation across the clearing. "Could be something else." He considered it a moment. "At least she's not a..." He bit off his last few words.
Simon stared at Blair for a moment, then turned as well to watch the blond woman across the way. "A what, Sandburg?" he asked testily.
"Alex Barnes." Blair shrugged, shivered. "Tall, blond, good with a gun."
"She's a federal agent, Sandburg. Not a murdering psychopath."
"She's staying." Jim's voice was a little hesitant. "FBI's pulling out tomorrow, going back to California, but she's asked to stay."
They watched Valerie turn and walk back towards the building that had held the children, currently swarming with forensics technicians. Simmons stared after her a moment, then turned to round up the other agents on site.
"You going to be ok, Jim?"
Jim nodded, then slapped Sandburg on the back. "C'mon, let's see if we can't catch what Forensics is missing."
The full, pale moon was near to setting before Jim and Blair quit the clearing with the last of the forensics team from Cascade. They hadn't seen any of the Feds or locals in a few hours, so it was somewhat of a surprise to find the black Jeep still parked at the mouth of the rutted road back to town.
The car looked empty, but Jim could hear the shallow breathing of a sleeper. Valerie was curled up in the back seat, and didn't stir when Blair took the keys from Jim and slipped into the driver's seat. She mumbled and sighed when Jim sat heavily in the passenger's chair.
They sat quietly for a moment, resting dark-strained eyes, then Blair started the car. Valerie still didn't wake, remaining dead to the world until they were about a mile short of Leavenworth. She groaned, pulling herself upright, and the sound made Jim open his eyes and turn to regard her.
"Les Chateaux Motor Lodge," she said, sniffing and rubbing her eyes, "Simmons left me the keys before he took off." She settled back against the seat, and pulled her legs into a half-lotus. "Tomorrow we can continue from there." She closed her eyes. "With the case, at least."
Jim regarded her for a moment, then turned his attention to his partner. Blair made no sound, eyes fixed on the illuminated section of road in front of them.
The Leavenworth motor lodge, despite its French name, was decidedly American, and of a vintage almost thirty years gone. It was painfully clean, the worn spots on the carpet and fixtures shiny with use and abuse, unconcealed by any coating of grime. The beds were small and old and lumpy, covered with thin sheets and thinner blankets.
Jim sat on the edge of one of the beds, turning over in his hands the razor that the FBI had provided in a simple shaving kit they'd left with the keys. He and Blair hadn't had much sleep, but it was enough for the hunt. Blair was still in the closet that passed as a bathroom, trying to towel his hair dry. Outside the thin door, he could hear Valerie pacing, three steps past the door, a pause as she turned with near military precision, the sides of her shoes slapping together at the end of the turn, then six paces to the other side of the door, another military turn and brief pause.
Blair came out of the bathroom and tossed the towel on the bed. "Not great, but unless they gave us a blowdrier, it's not going to get better." He looked at Jim, the razor, and then at the door that Jim was very carefully not watching. "What's up?"
"She's pacing. Outside."
Blair rolled his eyes and took the two short steps to the door. He opened it from under the fist Valerie had raised finally to knock.
"Are you two ready yet?" She asked, eyes skittering away from meeting theirs directly.
"Sure. What's this place got for breakfast?"
Valerie turned at Blair's question, heading abruptly for the door, then turned and addressed the silent question. "Ok, no, I'm not a Sentinel, I don't have a clue what having enhanced senses might be about, and maybe you do, but people have a hell of a lot easier time accepting something scientifically provable. There's already one FBI agent nick-named Spooky."
She spun around and left, and even Blair could hear her comment regarding morning coffee and discussions. They followed her to the lodge's cafe.
Their discussion never came. Instead, the shrill ring of a cell phone broke through the pre-coffee silence, and after a breakfast of watery eggs, flaky, buttery biscuits and gravy that looked like library paste, the three found themselves on the road to Yakima, to find the owner of a set of fingerprints that forensics had managed to lift from the buildings in the clearing.
"Where's Yakima, anyway?" Valerie had relegated herself to the backseat, and sat in the middle, one leg drawn up to her chest, foot propped on the seat.
"South. We'll meet the local PD there with the warrants."
"What do we have on the suspect?"
Blair flipped open his notebook and squinted at the scribbles inside. "Jeffrey Conway, twenty-seven, arrested once in eighty-eight for grand theft auto..."
"Took his daddy's car for a spin, didn't tell dad." Jim broke in. "All the charges were dropped, naturally."
"Naturally. He hasn't had a speeding ticket since."
Valerie nodded. "Any known associates?"
"Maybe a girlfriend, Yakima PD's helping us with the background check."
"No." Valerie pronounced. "Not likely. The abductors were male. Accessory at most..." She shook her head. "No, it doesn't taste right."
Blair met her eyes. "Why choose a Sentinel as a cover?"
Valerie dropped her forehead to her knee. "I was already at Quantico before I realized that I couldn't not use my gift. I'd done a paper in college on enhanced senses - I've got a fairly good sense of smell, though nothing really on the level you described in your thesis - it was... let me think, something about the credibility of witness testimony with regards to extra-normal sensitivity..." She sat back in the seat, glancing briefly at Jim. "It seemed like a good idea at the time, give my superiors a mountain of scientifically gathered and proven data to support a false, though reasonable explanation," her tone shifted, becoming pained. "Or tell them I was some sort of hippie flake flower child psychic wandering around predicting the future with crystals and cards and beads.
"The Bureau isn't exactly a fountain of warmth and support when it comes to the paranormal."
Blair stifled a chuckle that came out as a snort.
"So you're a psychic." Jim was watching her in the rear view mirror.
She avoided his gaze, and watched the trees whip by. "I'm a seer. I think that's the closest translation of voelva - what my great-grandmother was."
"'Voelva?' What tradition is that?"
"Norse, Viking, I'm not quite sure. I see things that way - Ellison here has rainbows under his feet." She grinned.
"Rainbows?" Jim didn't seem exactly pleased.
Blair's eyes unfocused. "Rainbows... the Bifrost bridge?"
She nodded, "Heimdall was the guardian of Valhalla, he could see a thousand miles, hear grass growing." She finally met Jim's eyes in the mirror, and he looked away.
"That's a little beyond the realm of possibility." Blair sounded skeptical, but Valerie just shook her head.
"Heimdall was a god. And you don't exactly have Hunin and Munin sitting on your shoulders." She looked back out the window. "Maybe we should call Yakima again, and find out more about Conway."
Jeffrey Conway's house was a small white house on the end of his street with a somewhat shaggy yard and an old green Buick in the driveway. A black and white sat at the mouth of the long cul-de-sac, the logo on its doors blocked by the low boxwood which served for fences. Accompanied by the two local uniformed cops, they approached the front door cautiously.
Halfway up the walk, both Jim and Valerie froze. Jim's nostril's flared. "Around the back!" Drawing his gun, he jumped the low hedge and ran in a half crouch to the corner of the house. Blair followed him, while Valerie broke for the other side of the house, gesturing for the locals to follow her.
Jim paused at the corner. "He hasn't gotten rid of the van yet. He's calling his buddies." The sound of a car starting filled even Blair's ears, and they popped around the corner, sidling along the windowless wall until they could see the corner of a silver van. Jim halted again, putting a cautionary hand on Blair's shoulder.
"FBI! Freeze!" Plastic hit concrete with an odd crackle, and then the slap of running feet hit Jim's ears. Jim stepped out around the corner, gun leveled, and a tall, thin youth skidded to a stop. The barrel of the gun pressed against his forehead, and the young man's eyes crossed and widened as he slowly spread out his hands.
Jim reached out and turned him against the wall as Blair covered him. A semi-automatic was stuck in the waistband of the suspect's jeans, and Jim holstered his own gun and removed it. The clip slid out, empty, and when he racked the slide, the chamber too, was empty.
"Nice work, detective." Valerie, still trailed by the two cops, raised her eyebrows at the sight of the empty gun Jim held up. "I hope the others are as easy."
Blair started the litany with a smile. "You have the right to remain silent..."
The silver van sat in the alley behind the small white house, a spreading pool of nuclear-chartreuse anti-freeze in the gravel below it, and a horde of Yakima forensics technicians in and around it. Jeff Conway sat silent and sullen in a black and white while Jim and Blair watched the techs. Valerie stood talking on the phone a few feet away.
"Something's bugging me about the trail we followed." Jim's eyes were fixed on the pool as it crept minutely in the dusty gravel. The scent of it clung to his nostrils.
"The anti-freeze?" Blair snapped his eyes back from a pretty brunette checking out the driver's side door. "What about it seems so special? How is it different?"
"Smells more like the woods, not quite so chemically as the regular stuff."
"Could be a special brand, maybe that pet-safe stuff we saw at the hardware store last month."
"That was a promotional thing..." Jim trailed off. "No, you're right, that's exactly what it was. I remember - the guy had a dog lick the stuff."
Blair frowned. "Right. The little Lab mix. That was just the stores in Cascade, though, wasn't it?"
"We're going back to Cascade," Valerie announced on the heels of Blair's question. "I've arranged for Mr. Conway to join us later, but the number he called was an apartment on Green Street." She dangled the keys to the car. "And I think the roads are clear enough for even me to drive."
A cluster of flashing lights greeted them at the entrance to Green Street, and the trail of police vehicles continued around the four-story apartment house, completely encircling it. The light show glanced off the dull windows, and glowed sickly on the building's faded orange sides. Megan Connor and Joel Taggart seemed to be riding herd on the group of officers, which oddly, included FBI agents Clark and Lewis.
Megan led them inside. "Sandy, Jim. Heard you'd been doing walkabout in the bush."
"Something like that." Jim answered. "Who's in there?" He nodded toward the open apartment door as they paused in front of it.
Joel joined them. "Serena's checking it out, but there's no sign of Eddie Baugh. Get this, though, his roommate is Thomas Conway, your guy's brother. But no one's seen him since Wednesday."
Valerie ducked past them into the apartment, heading straight for a battered desk by the shaggy, sagging couch. She passed her hands over the bare spot on it, past the dangling power cord, and then picked up a blank pad of paper next to it.
Blair moved into the doorway as Jim brushed past him, forestalling the other two FBI agents from entering the quickly filling apartment.
"He was sitting here when he got the call," Valerie's voice was almost a whisper, "and he wrote something, closed up his laptop, and left."
Jim tested the surface of the desk. "Not too long ago - the wood's still warm." She offered him the paper, and he skimmed the tips of his fingers over the blank white page. It was a light impression, from a felt-tip pen, but the chemicals from the ink had seeped through, and his fingers tingled.
"Vancouver. He's meeting Conway at a post office tonight." Jim turned and strode for the door. "C'mon Chief."
"Whoa, hang on there. Vancouver?" Blair laid a hand on Jim's chest before he could barge through the crowd in the hallway. "Call your Mountie friend - let them pick him up. We don't exactly have jurisdiction in Canada."
The interior of the small Vancouver post office was clean and spare, the dull finish of the metal mailboxes almost shining in the cool lighting. A few customers drifted in and out, checking their boxes or waiting only briefly in the small line at the counter. In one corner of the post office was a short wooden bench, where a young man sat waiting, reading a thin paperback book.
The spine of the book was broken, and the edges of the pages were tattered and yellowed. The young man turned the pages unseeing, pausing sometimes minutes between pages, other times turning two pages at once. He kept a wary eye on the door, glancing up every once in a while, and shifted uncomfortably when he noticed the clerk at the counter looking at him.
A woman in jeans and a sheepskin coat stepped through the glass doors and walked to the counter without a side glance. She leaned over the counter and spoke to the clerk. She nodded once and moved to the bench. "May I sit, please?"
The man on the bench hid his face back in his book, but slid over. He glanced up again, as two more men came in and moved toward the counter. The woman next to him spoke softly, and he turned toward her, puzzled.
"Huh? Scuse me, what did you say?"
"Are you waiting for someone?"
"Um, yeah." He turned back to his book.
"Edward Baugh, perhaps?"
He turned toward her, startled. "Yeah... no - who?"
She nodded, smiling. "Thomas Conway?"
"Uh..." He nodded, stunned.
"Your friend was arrested a few hours ago, trying to enter the Dominion of Canada illegally. We've returned him to the custody of the American FBI." She gently closed his book, removed it from his frozen hands, and then proffered a badge.
"If you would please accompany me, Mr. Conway." Constable Kinsey of the RCMP asked.
Conway stood obediently with her, and the two men at the counter moved to flank them. "Uh..."
"Thank you kindly, sir." They escorted him from the post office.
Jim leaned back in his chair, stretching out the kinks in his back. The bullpen was finally quiet after the insane commotion of the past few days, but the welter of paperwork was just beginning. The soft tap of keys from Blair's furious typing was soothing, so when it paused, Jim sat up and turned.
Valerie stood there, coat over her arm, and a sheaf of reports in her hand. She set them carefully on a small patch of open desk space. She stood there quietly for a moment, then looked up with a half-smile. "It was good working with you two. I never would have imagined how nice it is to share a secret."
"You going to share with your bosses?" Blair asked.
"No." She shrugged. "Not everyone else is quite so... at ease with the concept of being different. Maybe someday, but not soon."
Jim nodded, glancing at Blair. "Maybe."
"Well, have fun with the paperwork, gentlemen. Next time we meet, I hope it's not under quite so serious circumstances." She shifted her coat, and swept it on as she left the bullpen.
Jim cocked his head, watching the coat change and glow gold, feathers flaring in a wide sweep. The hawk launched from where Valerie had stood, and cried out, and with a final click, the elevator doors slid shut. The cry echoed faintly, lingering.
"Jim, Jim, you with us?" Blair leaned over and nudged him.
"Yeah, yeah, Chief, chained down with paperwork." Jim sat up and turned back to the desk.
"Hah. Like you even do half your fair share."
Jim tossed him the stack of papers Valerie had left. A few pages escaped and fluttered before Blair caught them. "One report is my share, anything more is above and beyond the call of duty."
"Bet you got a medal for that, even."
"Sure thing. Commendation for most paperwork pawned off on unsuspecting partners." Jim ducked the ensuing flurry of papers that Blair flung at him.
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