Production No. CVT519

written by:

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."

"Thanks, Serena."

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."

"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."

Skip Commercial