Paula & Robin
edited by: Zerena and Bonnie
Never had the expression "tension so thick you could cut it with a knife" been more true, mused Detective James Ellison, shifting uncomfortably on the hard courtroom bench. The trial so far had been a back and forth sparring between the defense and the prosecution. Each man calling witness after witness to determine innocence or guilt. Snorting in disgust, he leaned forward to relieve the strain on his back. Innocence or guilt. What more proof did a jury need? They had an eyewitness. They had motive. Opportunity. Forensic findings. They had the bastard dead to rights.
Serena Chang and Dan Wolf had each had a turn on the stand to face the defence's challenges. They had both been raked over the coals as their ability to be objective witnesses was questioned. After all, had sneered Frederick Sykes, didn't they work for the same police precinct as the detectives who were involved in the allegations against his client? In addition, autopsy and forensic reports had been picked apart by Sykes in an attempt to discredit the findings. He wasn't going to go down without a fight. But then, Ellison thought, this was just the kind of case the lawyer went after. High profile, big money clients were his specialty. It wouldn't really matter if he won or lost. His face was being plastered on the front page of newspapers and he'd collect his very generous fee.
Sighing, the detective sat back, his elbow bumping against his partner's arm. Stealing a quick look at Sandburg, his train of thought switched tracks. What about the victims? Nyajiru's body had been sent back to Botswana to be attended to by his few remaining family and friends. He was at peace at least, Jim thought. But Nya hadn't been the only victim in Brooks' quest for power. Billy McGregor had been poisoned, almost fatally, because he stood in Brooks' way. There had been nothing malicious in the attack, nothing personal. McGregor had been an annoyance for Brooks, to be swatted away like some insect.
And Blair. That day had been the realization of one of the sentinel's nightmares. To know for certain that his friend was in danger, maybe dying, and he not being there had been one of the worst moments since he and Blair had become friends. When he had heard the phone drop from Blair's fingers as the poison Brooks had fed him took effect, it was almost more than he could stand. The detective knew that he had come very close to killing that day. He could have easily ended the African shaman's life in a blind rage. If it hadn't been for Simon's frantic call, he would have done it.
This wasn't only a case for murder, but attempted murder. Jim remembered almost going through the roof when Murdoch had seemed reluctant to include the second charge. "Too weak to try," he had claimed. But Ellison had fought to have attempted murder remain as one of the indictments against the African national. Brooks had to pay for what he had done to Billy McGregor and Blair. Knowing that the man would spend extra time in prison for trying to kill his partner would be the only conclusion that the sentinel could accept. And Jack Murdoch had finally been persuaded to see it his way.
Being so caught up in his campaign, Ellison almost hadn't noticed Sandburg's reluctance. At first he couldn't understand how Blair wouldn't be determined to have some retribution for what he had gone through. He had assumed that his friend would have needed that as much as he did. But Blair had held back. It wasn't until he had cornered Sandburg that he had discovered why. The dissertation fiasco had raised its ugly head once again. Blair was worried that his very public infamy would be used against him and ultimately hurt the entire case against Brooks. After ranting and raving that he was being overly sensitive, Jim had to agree, if only slightly, that his partner might have had a valid point. So the two of them had gone to Murdoch to see what could be done. The prosecutor had been less than pleased with the development, especially after having been almost strong-armed by Ellison to try Brooks for attempted murder. After a few days of thinking it over he had called the detectives and announced that the charges would remain the same and that he would not call Blair as a witness, letting the medical reports and Simon's testimony carry the weight of his attack. That his partner had even had to worry about any of it had Jim swearing under his breath.
"Everything okay?" The sentinel-soft whisper was accompanied by a hand on Ellison's arm.
Jim smiled down at Sandburg. "Yeah, fine," he whispered back. "Just got a little caught up in some memories."
Blair searched his partner's face for a few seconds, looking for any signs that he had just been given a line. Ellison could obfuscate with the best of them. Seeing none, he gave his friend a knowing nod. "I hear ya, Jim. It'll be good to just get past this." His eyes strayed from the sentinel's face to the witness stand. Graham Brooks was seated there, looking serene and not bothered by the fact that he was on trial for murder. It all seemed like some kind of game to the shaman, as if he was too far removed to be concerned about what was going on around him. The man had made Sandburg uncomfortable almost from day one. Now he just gave him the creeps.
"Surely, with all the evidence presented and the sworn testimony of reliable witnesses, you cannot expect this court to believe that you are not guilty of murder!" Prosecuting Attorney Jack Murdoch exclaimed, his distaste and disgust for the defendant evident in his voice. He propped a hip on a corner of the prosecution table, crossed his arms and pinned the defendant with a cold stare.
The defense attorney was out of his chair before the D.A. had finished his last word. "Your honour! I object! Is Mr. Murdoch seriously asking my client to comment on the proceedings of this trial and what the court will and will not believe?! I object to this badgering of my client. "
Judge Walter Hancock leaned forward, sending a pointed look in the prosecutor's direction. "Mr. Murdoch's last statement to the witness will be stricken from the record." Sighing, the judge sat back in his chair and directed his comments to both attorneys. "Let's remember that witnesses are questioned, not instructed to guess at the mood of a jury or a courtroom."
Leaning back in his chair, the subject of Murdoch's ire listened disinterestedly to the on-going exchange. With a small grin, he nonchalantly crossed his legs, picked at a non-existent bit of lint and smoothed the crease in his impeccably pressed slacks. Finally he raised disdain-filled, dark brown eyes to meet the glare of the district attorney. Ignoring the judge's instruction, Brooks chose to answer Murdoch's implied question. "I expect nothing from this court," he stated contemptuously. "Justice will be served. I am certain of that." Smiling malevolently, he dismissed the seething attorney and turned his attention to the visitors' gallery. His gaze fell upon Ellison and Blair Sandburg.
Blair felt as if he were being pinned by the unwavering glare. He stared back at Brooks, hoping his expression didn't betray his racing heart, shortness of breath, or jumbled thoughts. The man literally radiated evil, Sandburg thought. Why hadn't he realized that before? Because he had still been searching for a teacher, someone who could point him down the path of shamanism. Blair silently berated himself, never allowing his gaze to waver as he and Brooks wordlessly waged their war of wills. How many times did he have to screw up before he learned to simply trust his own instincts and go where his path led him, instead of looking for someone to show him the way? Brooks had deviously convinced him that he was incapable of being a shaman and guide to Jim and he had blindly allowed himself to be duped. Once again fear had ruled his decision. Hadn't he learned anything from Nya? Upon reflection, it was pretty ironic that he had so objectively labeled Jim as possessing fear-based responses without recognizing the same traits in himself.
Brooks' gaze slid from the Cascade detectives to a row farther back in the courtroom. Blair knew he hadn't won the unspoken battle with the African shaman; rather he'd been dismissed as an insignificant momentary distraction. He clenched his teeth and shifted slightly, his body language unconsciously reflecting his turbulent thoughts.
Next to him, Jim felt the anger and uncertainty radiating from his partner. Deliberately maintaining an outwardly unconcerned air, Jim surreptitiously placed a hand on his partner's knee and gently squeezed, silently communicating his support. Blair immediately relaxed at his sentinel's touch and regained his emotional equilibrium. He turned to see who had captured Brooks' attention and met the seething glare of Billy McGregor. The security guard was regarding the self-assured African shaman with outright loathing. As if feeling Blair's scrutiny, McGregor turned to face the young detective. Sandburg smiled slightly to convey his sympathy for the ordeal the man had suffered. Billy nodded his head to acknowledge Blair's commiseration and then turned his attention back to the proceedings. Scanning the rest of the faces in the gallery, Blair noted that, with few exceptions, the trial observers regarded the man on the witness stand with a singular distaste. With Jack Murdoch suddenly leaping from his chair, Blair realized that things were once again heating up. He directed his attention back to the front of the courtroom as the prosecutor voiced his objection to Brooks' haughty response. "Your Honor!" Murdoch protested loudly, "I move that Mr. Brooks' statement be stricken from the record."
Before the judge could rule, Sykes spoke up. "Your Honor," he drawled in obvious amusement, "I believe the prosecution is suffering from a bit of sour grapes. If you won't let him ask the question, then he doesn't want my client to answer it."
Murdoch was obviously incensed by the defense attorney's tactics, but was unable to retort before Judge Hancock slammed his gavel against the wooden block on his bench. "Gentlemen! I will not tolerate this type of behavior in my courtroom. This is a court of law, not a daycare. I suggest you both keep that in mind and limit your comments to appropriate courtroom behavior." He directed a strong look at both attorneys then turned his attention to the members of the jury. "The jury will disregard the defendant's response and the statement will be stricken from the record."
He impatiently motioned for Murdoch to continue and leaned back in his chair once more. Reining in his temper, Murdoch quickly stated, "No more questions, your Honor."
"Mr. Sykes, redirect?"
"No more questions, your Honor."
Judge Hancock glanced at the clock that hung at the back of the courtroom, then stated, "Court will recess for one hour, upon which time, both sides will present their closing arguments." He struck the gavel sharply against the block, then rose and made his way out of the courtroom and into his chambers.
Throughout the proceedings a solitary figure in the first row of the visitors' gallery had regarded the players in the courtroom drama with open hostility. All of the players but one Graham Brooks.
The banging of dishes and cutlery echoed down the long hall, accompanied by the less than pleasant aroma of overcooked vegetables. Wrinkling his nose at the odour, Jim Ellison wondered if there was some city by-law that demanded that all cafeterias had to smell this way. The small coffee shop, which occupied the basement level of the courthouse, was surprisingly busy for the late afternoon. Artificial lighting bounced off the white walls, causing the sentinel to almost wince against the glare. Whoever had been hired to decorate the eatery must have been a fan of the 'garish is great' period. There was nothing pleasing or welcoming about the place.
Jim sighed as he stuffed bills and coins into his pocket. It was turning into one very long day. Picking up his food, he followed Sandburg to a nearby table. "That's it?" Peering over the smaller man's shoulder, Ellison looked at the skimpy sandwich and carton of milk on his partner's tray. "That's all you're going to have?"
Shrugging, Blair dropped into the hard plastic chair. "Not hungry, I guess." He picked up the milk, giving it a solid shake before squeezing the spout open. "What kind of feeling did you get? You think Murdoch's going to win this one?" He started to peel the layers of plastic wrap that surrounded the sandwich. "Sykes really went at Dan and Serena. I can't believe the stuff he implied. They're both the best at what they do."
"It didn't look like Robert was too worried about the cross-examination," the detective answered. Reaching across to the table next to them, he snagged the once bright yellow squeeze bottle and added some mustard to his corned beef and rye. "And Dan and Serena... They've been through this too many times for it to bother them." He frowned at his partner's downcast expression. "What's bothering you, Chief?"
Sandburg took in a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. "Brooks. Seeing him almost every day for the last week. Knowing what he did. What he tried to do. It's just... it's just hard. You know?"
"It's almost over, Blair," Ellison said gently. He wasn't surprised by his friend's confession. He hadn't missed the tension that radiated from the man as soon as they stepped into the courtroom. And Brooks was still playing with them. Every chance he got he would make eye contact, giving them both that insanely serene smile. That same smile Brooks had given him in the interrogation room when he said that it wasn't over. Brooks had called him naive that day.
Laughing softly, the young shaman picked up the carton of milk. "Just as long as we hear 'guilty' at the end of it all, I'll be a very happy man." He put the straw to his lips and took a short sip of the cool drink. "We've had that guy hanging over our heads for too long, Jim."
"There's too much evidence against him, Sandburg. Brooks'll be going away for a long time." The detective raised his sandwich to his mouth, but stopped. He had spotted Billy McGregor sitting across the room. And he wasn't alone. "Blair? You recognize that guy?" He pointed with his chin in McGregor's direction. "The one talking to Billy?"
Twisting around in his chair, the younger detective slowly nodded. He had seen the man a few times in the past week. At first he had assumed that the oddly dressed man was only one of the nameless street people who made their homes in the alleys and abandoned buildings of Cascade. Someone who had wandered into the courtroom, looking for shelter from the cold, wet weather. What kept drawing his attention back to the man was the almost reverent expression that he had every time he looked at Graham Brooks. "Yeah, he's been in court every day. Right?"
"And he's sat behind Brooks every day." Taking a bite from his sandwich, Ellison chewed thoughtfully.
"Can you hear what's going on over there?" Blair asked. He had seen McGregor's face grow a little paler as his conversation with the stranger continued. Turning back to his friend, he saw that his question had been unnecessary. Jim was already listening in.
"...Just think about that," was all the sentinel could hear before a woman with a young child walked by his table. A very upset young child. With a hiss, Ellison clapped his hands over his ears at the first high-pitched wail. "Damn."
Wincing in sympathy, Blair focused his attention across the room. He might not be able to hear what was being said, but he still considered himself a first rate observer. McGregor was leaning back in his chair now, as the other man shoved a bony finger in his face. The stranger's snarl seemed to become fiercer and Billy's colour a bit more sallow. Not willing to sit and witness the intimidation go on any longer, Sandburg rose from his chair and strode purposefully over to the two men.
The stranger, catching sight of the movement, quickly glanced over and favoured Sandburg with an equally intense glare. Donning a lunatic smile, he turned his attention back to McGregor, crouching lower until their faces were only an inch or two apart. With arms and hands now extended to each side of the airport security guard's chair, he had literally trapped the man where he sat.
Blair quickened his pace, dodging around the tables and their occupants. The man's demeanor had gone from intimidating to threatening. He reached the two of them in time to hear the words "don't forget" hissed into McGregor's very ashen face. Taking time to give Sandburg one more glare, the stranger straightened up and stalked away.
"Billy?" Blair had reached the security guard's side with Jim just a step behind him. "Everything okay?"
Dragging his eyes away from the retreating figure, McGregor gazed up at the two detectives. "That guy, he, uh, he was just some nutcase. He was going on about Brooks." He gave a quick, nervous laugh. "Told me that I had better be careful. Reminded me how easily Brooks had poisoned me." Noticing Ellison reach for his cell phone, his eyes widened. "What're you doing?"
"The man threatened you, Billy. I'm going to see about having him stopped before he has a chance to leave the building."
"No." Reaching up to grab Ellison's arm, McGregor stopped him. "Look, the guy's obviously not playing with a full deck. Just let it go." Billy stood up to leave. "I can take care of myself. I don't want to get into anything else. I did what I was supposed to do. I came in and testified, now I just want it to be over."
"But..." Jim started.
"No, detective." The security guard was adamant. "Brooks has been haunting my dreams. I don't want this to go on any longer than it has to."
Sandburg saw the look of determination on both his partner's and McGregor's faces. Neither man was going to give. "Look, Billy, we can't force you to file charges against this guy..."
"That's right, you can't." McGregor opened his mouth to speak again then closed it. Letting out a shaky breath, his expression relaxed. "I know you're trying to help, but I'm not going to worry about this guy. I'm sure that when the trial's over he's going to disappear back to wherever he came from." Looking down at his watch, he made a move to leave. "If I have any trouble, I'll call ya. I promise. I gotta get going. My ride's probably here."
"He's making a mistake," Jim snapped when McGregor was out of earshot.
Sighing, Blair leaned back against a chair. "Yeah, I think he is too."
"Hey, Chief, did you notice the smell that was on the guy?" He smiled at his friend's look of exasperation. "No, huh? It was faint with all the other food in here. He smelled kinda like smoke. Not cigars, not like Simon. Something different."
"Ah, the joys of having a bloodhound for a partner," Blair grinned, ducking at the expected swat. "Let's go, Rin Tin Tin."
The lawyers had finished their summations and the jury had entered the jury room to begin their deliberations. The witnesses and visitors had gone home and the judge had retired to his chambers. Graham Brooks sat, alone in a holding cell, awaiting the jury's pronouncement of his fate. A supposed jury of his peers. Brooks snorted softly at that thought. None of those people were his peers! Not one person in that courtroom was equal to him in any way. What gave them the right to decide his guilt or innocence for a crime they could not possibly understand? Only one person had the capacity to understand the depths of Brooks' brilliance. Blair Sandburg. But the fledgling shaman was still so caught up in the notion of goodness and right that he failed to see his budding prowess as a shaman for what it was... a source of enormous power to use for his own gain. Sandburg was sort of a longhaired cross between the cartoon character Superman and the very real man Billy Graham. Truth, justice, the American way and all men are brothers in the sight of God. Endearing concept, Brooks allowed, but painfully wrong. Graham Brooks was brother to no man.
Brooks broke off his musings at the sound of footsteps approaching his cell. Officer Baldwin, his assigned watchdog during the trial, paused outside his cell and shifted nervously from foot to foot. Brooks regarded him silently. Throwing a nervous glance over each shoulder, Baldwin then shoved a small envelope between the iron bars. Brooks didn't move. Baldwin waved the paper sharply and hissed, "Take it, damn it!"
"As I recall," Brooks said smoothly, rising to stand near the bars, "I'm not allowed to receive unapproved communications. So I can only assume that you came by this by nefarious means?"
"I said, take it!" Baldwin snarled, tossing the missive at Brooks' feet. "And don't worry about how I got it!" Casting another nervous glance around the area, Baldwin quickly scuttled away.
Brooks waited until the guard had left before he reached down to retrieve the envelope, which was small and unadorned. The guard had held it in his bare hand, so it was doubtful the envelope itself presented a threat. Being a man of herbs and potions, he knew how easy it would be for someone with a grudge and the appropriate knowledge to coat the envelope with a fast-acting poison. Envelope in hand, Brooks retreated to the back of his cell and settled on his bunk, his back to the cell door. Sliding his thumb under the flap, he quietly broke the seal, and then used the corner of his pillowcase as a makeshift glove to cautiously slide the folded paper from the envelope. Still using the pillowcase for protection, he opened the typewritten note and began to read:
The note was unsigned. Brooks was intrigued. Obviously the person had gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that the note reached its intended recipient. The guard had to have been bribed to risk exposure and punishment to break a rule. "Interesting," he whispered, slipping the note back into the envelope and secreting it within his county-issue inmate jumpsuit. "Very interesting."
One day later
Hopping out of the old Ford, Sandburg could hardly contain his impatience. "C'mon, man. You have got to see this car! It's incredible."
Jim sat behind the wheel a few moments longer, watching his partner disappear into the sales office of the car lot. Blair had been telling him for days about a car he had spotted during his searches and Ellison had shared that enthusiasm until he found out a few more details about the car. He was still feeling guilty about the Volvo. It had been Sandburg's pride and joy. Even if those feelings had been tarnished from time to time by the car's frequent bouts of temperament. So when Blair had walked in one night and announced that he had just seen the car of his dreams, Jim had been almost as excited as his friend.
"It's a classic, Jim. The body needs some work, but it's still beautiful. Blue. Rally stripes. A convertible. The interior is spotless and the engine... man, it's clean enough to eat off of, " Blair had rambled as he poked through the meager offerings of the fridge. "Hey! Whose week was it to do the shopping? Anyway..." He closed the door to the refrigerator, an apple in hand. "It's probably more than I can afford. There wasn't any price tag on it. But a friend of my mom had one when I was a kid. We had some great times in that car. I remember swinging on the roll bar and giving Mom a heart attack or two. If I can find some way to buy it, I'm going to do it."
Ellison had watched as the younger man's face beamed at the memories. "It sounds great, Sandburg. But..." Blair had grabbed his jacket from the chair and was headed for his room. "You didn't say what kind of car it is."
Laughing, Ellison's partner stopped at the door to his bedroom. "Oh yeah, I guess that'd help. It's a Mustang Cobra, Jim."
"A Cobra?" The sentinel's enthusiasm sank. "Great," he sighed at the closed door.
Now, as he sat in his truck, he tried his best to fight down some memories of his own. Old and painful memories. The Cobra had been the beginning of an end for him. He could still see his father's face and hear the barely controlled rage in his voice. It had been that day that he had finally admitted to himself that things would never really change between them. He was never gonna have a dad that would do the things with him that fathers and sons were supposed to do. Or what a young James Ellison thought they should do and longed for them to do.
Jim could still remember it like it was yesterday.
William Ellison stood beside the sleek '65 Mustang Cobra. The bright cherry colour of the car paled in comparison to his flushed expression. Jim had heard his father calling for him in "that" tone of voice and had reluctantly followed him into the garage. At first he couldn't see what had his father so upset. The car, the car he hoped to own someday, was there, gleaming in the overhead lights. Without realizing what he was doing, he ran an appreciative hand along the trunk, savouring the feel of the cool metal. The few times his father had allowed him to actually drive the car he had felt the power of it and had enjoyed that feeling. He always felt free when he was behind the wheel.
His father's snarl made his head snap up. "Sir?" He felt himself shrink under the man's glare. "What I was doing?"
Grabbing his son's arm, he dragged him closer and pointed to the front fender and headlight. "Explain this!"
Jim's mouth dropped open when he saw the smashed glass and dented steel and chrome. "I... I didn't have anything to do with this, Pops!" He turned plaintive eyes on the older man when the grip on his arm became tighter and he was given a good shake. "You've got to believe me."
"All I believe, young man, is that you won't be accompanying me on my business trip. You can use the time at home to consider your actions and the consequences of those actions." A tight-lipped frown crossed the man's features. "You obviously need a more disciplined life than you're getting here, Jimmy. Maybe this is my fault since I'm not at home enough. I had hoped that you would at least take responsibility for what you've done."
"But I..." Jim Ellison rubbed at the spot where his father had held him. The look the older Ellison fixed on him told him that any explanation would go unheard. And what could he possibly say? He wasn't going to rat on his little brother. So with his silence he had been tried, found guilty and now could only wait to discover what the sentence would be. "May I go now, sir?"
"Yes, go ahead. And Jimmy?" William waited for his son to turn to look at him before continuing. "I'm sorry that it had to come to this."
With a sigh that seemed to have been called up from the bottom of his soul, Jim walked the long path down to the street, not really sure where he was headed. "Why'd you do it, Stevie?" he whispered. "Did you know he'd come after me?"
Shaking himself, Jim got out of the truck to follow his friend. "Grow up, Ellison. Time to move on and just let it go." The Ellison men had since closed up some of the distance that had developed between them. The sentinel was probably closer to his father and brother than he had ever been. Or could ever remember being. But the old hurts, no matter how deep they were buried, would still surface every now and then. He was, however, determined to not let his past interfere with his partner's excitement. As he started for the sales office he spotted Blair standing in the doorway, watching him with an inscrutable expression. Forcing a smile that he didn't really feel, the sentinel gently nudged his friend back into the room. "Well, c'mon, Sandburg, let's see this classic you've been gushing about."
"Gushing? I haven't been gushing, I've been... effusive." Seeing his friend's raised eyebrow, Blair laughed. "Okay, okay, so there's no difference." He punched Ellison in the arm. "But Jim, wait'll you see it. It's out back. I think I've got the guy convinced that we can take it out for a test drive without him escorting us."
"Oh, and how did you manage that?"
Blushing slightly, Blair looked away. "I showed him my badge."
Shaking his head in mock dismay, Ellison couldn't suppress a grin. "Sandburg, Sandburg, Sandburg. Who would have thought it." Enjoying watching his friend squirm, and ready to continue his teasing, he had to hold onto his next jibe as the salesman approached them.
"Ah, there you are, Detective Sandburg!" Carl Abbot called. He introduced himself to Jim, shaking his hand with enough enthusiasm to almost make him wince. "And Detective Ellison. Are we ready to see what this car's got? I've had them move the car to the lot and hang some temporary plates so we can take it out on the road." He waved at the men to follow him.
The smile that Blair turned on his friend reminded Jim of a kid on his birthday, getting ready to open the box he knows holds the gift he's been waiting for. And it was that smile that pushed away the reservations he had about seeing the Cobra. "I'm right behind you, Chief."
The car sat in the far corner of the lot, nearly hidden by the SUVs and vans that seemed to populate many of the used, or, as they were being called these days, the "previously owned" lots. The top of the convertible was down, showing off the cloth interior and outdated instrument panel. The sentinel had never seen anything so lovely. Blair hadn't exaggerated.
Ellison emitted a low whistle as he got closer. "It's a beauty, Sandburg."
"What did I tell ya, Jim?" The younger detective circled the car, admiring the fast lines and the whole look of it. "It needs some work on the body." He shot a pointed look at the car salesman.
Abbot just rocked on his feet and smiled the stereotypical slick smile of a salesman. "Oh, I'm sure we can work something out, Detective."
Sliding into the driver's seat, Blair popped open the hood. "Take a look at the engine, Jim. It's absolutely solid." He followed his partner to the front of the car, watching as the sentinel inspected the motor. For some reason it was important that his friend approve of the car as much as he did. He held his breath as Jim looked at the block. When he saw Ellison's nod, and the slow grin that came to his face, he felt his excitement go up another notch. "They don't know the whole history of the car, but Mr. Abbot assures me that it's never been in an accident. I thought that maybe you could really look at it for me."
The sentinel didn't miss his shaman's slight stressing of the word "look". A hyper sense of touch would be able to find any places that the car might have been welded after any serious damage to the body. "Sure, Sandburg, I can do that." Giving his partner a knowing grin, he started his examination of the classic. "This a '69, Carl?"
"You know your Mustangs, Detective. That's what it is. It's rare to find one in this great shape not going through a collector." Abbot followed Ellison as he checked the body. "You're not going to find any flaws."
"Well, so far, you're right." He looked up at Blair from where he was crouched down by the rear wheel well. "Chief?" Sandburg looked almost ill. "What?"
Swallowing, Blair turned to Carl Abbot. "I'm sorry, Carl, but I don't think I can buy this car."
The salesman laughed a slightly nervous laugh. "Now, now, Blair, we haven't even talked price yet. You don't want to be too hasty."
The sentinel had slowly straightened and was staring at his partner, trying to guess what had caused his abrupt turnabout. It didn't take long for him to light on a possible reason. Putting a hand on Abbot's shoulder, he gently steered the man towards the showroom. "Why don't you let me do a little arm twisting here, Carl?" He gave him a wide grin and watched as a very confused salesman headed back to his office. "Okay, Blair, what's this all about? I thought you loved the car?"
Sandburg turned a wide-eyed stare at his friend. "But Jim, I can't buy this car. I am so sorry, man. I didn't even think." He started to pace back and forth in front of the Mustang, his hands flying in his exasperation. "Oh man, the last thing you probably want to be looking at every day is that car."
Ellison leaned against the convertible, his arms folded across his chest, tracking his partner's movements as if he were watching a tennis match. "What makes you think that I don't want you to buy this car, Darwin?"
Blair stopped dead in his tracks, slowly pivoting to look at his friend. "I just thought that after all the stuff that happened with your dad and Steven that it would be a reminder. That was a pretty ugly time for you, Jim. I don't want to do something that's going to be almost rubbing your nose in it."
"I'm going to be honest with you, Chief," Ellison spoke as he stepped away from the car. "When you said it was a Mustang I was a little less than thrilled, but I'm okay with it now." He took another step closer to his friend, and resting his hands on his shoulders, gave him an earnest look. "Buy the car, Blair."
"But," Sandburg began.
"No buts. You said it yourself. The car needs some work. Right?" Ellison smiled at his partner's confused look. "That's the kind of thing a guy might have done with his brother or his best buddy when he was growing up. I never got that chance when I was a kid, Blair. I was thinking that maybe I might now. That's if you want my help. So whaddya say?"
After a few seconds consideration, the corner of the young detective's mouth lifted into a crooked smile. "I'd say I just bought me a car, Ellison," he drawled. Catching sight of Abbot, with his nose almost pressed against the showroom window, Blair laughed and waved the man out. "Let's take this thing out on the road."
Red-faced and breathless, Abbot ran up to the two men, keys in hand. "I'm glad to see that you've reconsidered, Blair." He tossed the keys into the detective's open and waiting hand. "If you don't mind, I think I'd like to come along with you for the ride. I have a very strong feeling that this will be the last chance I get to ride in this car." The salesman smiled expectantly at Sandburg and Ellison.
Going to the Cobra, Jim opened the passenger door and threw the front seat forward. With a wave of his hand, he ushered the man in. "After you, Carl." Once the salesman had climbed into the back, he took the passenger seat, mildly amazed that the old thrill and anticipation of sitting in a Mustang was back.
Sandburg jumped in behind the wheel, taking a deep breath before slipping the key into the ignition. He gave his friend a sideways glance. "You're sure?"
"Positive, Sandburg." Jim settled back against the seat and door, laying an arm across the seatbacks. "Let's go." Chuckling, Ellison watched as his longhaired partner slipped on a pair of sunglasses and adjusted the rear-view mirror.
The roar of the car's engine was drowned out by the sound of screaming tires. All three men in the Cobra spun around in their seats to see a souped-up Trans Am convertible, complete with Mag Wheels. Its top was down, revealing two teenagers in the front seat. The car cut across the lot and disappeared onto the street within a matter of seconds. Abbot's gasp from the back seat confirmed what both Ellison and Sandburg had been thinking. "I can't believe it. They're stealing the car in broad daylight!"
A wicked grin crossed Jim Ellison's face. "Think you can take 'em, Chief?"
"Take them?!" Carl Abbot's panicked shriek died as the Mustang hit the street. Frantically reaching for his seatbelt, the salesman quickly buckled himself in and hunkered down into the seat. "Oh dear."
"Ya see them, Sandburg?" The detective had spotted the cream coloured Trans Am four cars in front of them.
Concentrating on the traffic ahead of him, Blair gave a quick nod. "Yeah, I can just make out the back end. What do you think? Do I have room to move up?" The thought that a police siren would have come in handy quickly flitted through his mind.
Jim leaned out, trying to gauge the distance and cars between them and the thieves. "Nah." He couldn't keep the disgust from his voice as he yelled into the wind. "Traffic's too tight. Wait a minute..." With a triumphant grin, he looked at his partner. "They're going to turn, Chief. Saw one of them just point to a street up ahead." He paused as he watched the stolen car make a hard right. "Yeah, yeah, we got 'em. You're going to do a right. There's a Starbucks on the corner."
The sentinel had barely finished his sentence when the coffee shop's sign loomed up ahead. Blair pressed down on the gas, ever so slightly, as he expertly responded to the coaxing of the engine. With a gentle touch, he shifted gears and worked the clutch. The Cobra held the tight corner, gliding through the turn.
"Nice, Sandburg." Jim nodded his approval as he pulled his cell phone from his jacket. "I guess I had better call this in."
Still grinning from his friend's words of praise, Blair pushed the car a little more. The street they were on was deserted except for the Mustang and the Trans Am and Sandburg was fairly sure it was headed towards the harbour. If they had any hope of stopping the thieves it would have to be before they got into the labyrinth of warehouses that lined the docks. "Jim?" His partner had just finished relaying the information to dispatch.
"I know," Ellison shouted over the sound of the car. "There's only one way we're going to be able to do it." He twisted around to regard Carl Abbot. "How you doin' back there, Carl?" At the man's thumb's up gesture the sentinel laughed. "Great. Now how about moving over to the other side, behind Blair." At first he wasn't sure if the salesman had understood him. The man seemed rooted to his spot, but after a shaky nod he unfastened his seatbelt. Satisfied, Jim focused his sight on the car ahead of them.
"Okay," Blair shouted. "What do you have planned, partner?"
He leaned across to talk into Sandburg's ear. "I want you to get up alongside them, Chief. Just keep pace with them."
"Got it. Then what?" But Ellison had already moved back to his spot and had released his seatbelt. From the corner of his eye, it looked to Blair as if Jim was starting to climb into the back. Risking a quick glance, he saw that that was exactly what his friend was doing. "Jim?!"
"Just keep steady once you get up there, Sandburg." The detective grabbed hold of the roll bar and swung himself onto the back seat. Wrapping his arm around the bar, he pulled his gun from its holster. "Okay, Sandburg! Move up!"
Blair's eyes nearly popped out of his head as he caught sight of his partner in the rear view. "Ellison! What do you think you're doing?!" Oh man, why ask? You know exactly what he's going to do. Pulling up alongside the stolen car, Blair swore that his friend had watched his last action movie or western. This was just too way over the top. Even for Jim!
The Cobra slowly edged up on the speeding Trans Am. Ellison had no doubt that Sandburg would keep pace. Now he just had to have as much faith in himself that the short leap to the other car was "do-able". Edging over, he put one foot on the door, his legs tensing as he mentally prepared himself for the hurdle. He could feel the adrenaline pumping, spurring him on. The two cars were side by side, only inches apart. That partner of his was one hell of a driver. Drawing in a deep breath, he knew it was now or never. He jumped. For one precarious moment he thought he wasn't going to make it, but a second later he found himself sitting in the back seat of the Trans Am. The Mustang fell back to tail the other car once again.
"Hello, boys," Ellison growled as he leaned across the seats, putting his gun in clear view. "What say we pull this over?"
A half-hour later both teens were sitting comfortably in the rear of a squad car on their way to Cascade PD.
"Carl, are you sure that you're okay to drive the Trans Am back to the dealership?" Jim wasn't really sure he liked the flushed complexion of the man. "I can take it back and you can ride with Blair."
Abbot laughed. "No, no, I can do it." He looked at both detectives and one by one shook their hands. "Gentlemen, that was one of the most exciting things to ever happen to me! I can't wait to get back to tell the rest of the team." He got into the car, a huge smile on his lips. "No one is going to believe this." He started the car. "Blair, I'm sure that we can come to an agreement that should be mutually satisfactory." He chuckled as he shook his head. "I still can't believe you did that, Jim. I thought cops only did that in Lethal Weapon movies. Well, I'll see you both back at the lot." With that he gave them a wave and sped off down the street, tires squealing.
Ellison and Sandburg stood next to the Cobra, watching the Trans Am.
"So, tell me, Jim," Sandburg started mildly. "Are you completely out of your mind?!" His voice had risen to a quiet shout.
Still riding high on the adrenaline rush, Ellison clapped his friend on the back and got into the passenger seat. "Maybe I am, Chief," he chuckled. "No more out of my mind than someone who took on terrorists with a vending machine and a flare gun. And then there was the hot dog vendor's cart. A baseball..."
With mock exasperation, Blair got into the car. "All right, all right, I get your point. But if you think I'm going to let you drive this car once I've bought it then you really are out of your mind. But you know," he grinned at his friend. "Carl was right. That was definitely something."
The small elevator rode quietly up the three floors to the loft. Jim Ellison leaned against the metal handrail that circled the elevator car, grinning at his partner. Sandburg hadn't stopped smiling since they left the Retro Ride Classic Autos dealership. After signing the appropriate papers, and having his hand vigorously shaken by Carl Abbot, Blair Sandburg was now the proud owner of a 1969 Mustang Cobra... and a car loan.
"So how does it feel, Chief?"
"Good," Blair nodded and after a little consideration, his smiled widened. "Great, in fact." Shoving his hands into his pockets, he leaned against the opposite wall. "But, I have to tell you, I nearly panicked when it came time to sign the papers. I need another loan payment like I need a hole in the head."
Laughing, Jim preceded his shaman from the elevator. "I thought I noticed your hand shake a little bit, there." He waited for Blair to exit the car, allowing him the lead. "But I think it was a sound deal. You sure gave the car a workout for a test drive."
"Well, you know, Jim, it's a big investment, right? You have to know what you're paying for. Is the car sound? Is the body in good shape? How is it going to handle in a high-speed car chase with your partner suddenly losing his mind and pulling a crazy stunt? Things like that." With a smirk, he turned to wink at his friend. "I don't think that this is a sale that Carl's going to soon forget." Sandburg fished his keys from his pocket. "And yeah, the car really handled well." He was just about to swing the door open when Ellison pulled him back.
Jim held a finger to his lips. "Company" was the quiet explanation. "No heartbeat, but let's take it slow," he whispered. Holding his gun at chest level, he gestured for Blair to push the door wider. With catlike stealth, the detective slipped into the loft, quickly taking his position behind the kitchen's island for cover. Looking back to the door, he saw Sandburg crouched and ready to move in. His young partner had his gun drawn, set to provide backup. The sentinel shook his head "no" and signaled for Blair to stay where he was.
The apartment was covered in deep shadows with the sun hidden behind the neighbouring buildings. Edging to the side of the cabinet, Jim was able to get a clear view of the entire area. His vision easily cut through the gloom of the separate areas. Nothing moved. Concentrating on his hearing, he filtered out the sound of his friend's breathing and heart, surprised and vaguely proud to find that Sandburg, while understandably tensing for whatever might present itself, was calm. The young man had become a first-rate cop in a very short time. Hearing revealed the same as sight. Nothing. The loft was empty. Letting out a breath, he relaxed and returned his weapon to its holster.
"Clear?" Blair had moved into the apartment. He took a survey of the rooms and could see nothing amiss. "Well, if we had a visitor, he was awfully neat." Hanging his jacket by the door, he looked at his friend questioningly. "What tipped you off?"
"What was it you said before, Sandburg? About having a bloodhound for a partner?" Jim's face was still grim as he moved into the living room area. He tapped his nose. "I smelled that same smoky smell. The one I noticed when that guy was bothering Billy McGregor." Doing a three hundred and sixty-degree turn, he stopped facing the stairs that led up to his bedroom. "That guy was definitely in here. He must be one hell of a break-and-enter expert. I didn't notice any damage to the lock on the door, did you?"
"No," Blair admitted. "But then, I wasn't really looking for any." Going back to the front door, he checked around the lock and handle for any signs of it being forced. "Not even a scratch on it, Jim." He was talking to empty air. Ellison had gone upstairs and was standing by his bed. "You find something?"
"Oh yeah." The sentinel's answer came through a clenched jaw. He went to the railing. "Heads up," he called before he tossed the intruder's calling card over the side and down to his partner.
Puzzled, Blair easily caught it. "Oh no." A long rubber snake, the kind found in a joke shop or in stores around Halloween, hung limply from his fingers.
"Has the jury reached a verdict?"
The jury foreman stood and responded, his voice sure and strong. "Yes, your Honor, we have." He then handed the bailiff the slip of paper on which he had written the jury's unanimous decision. The bailiff crossed to Judge Hancock's bench and handed him the verdict. Hancock silently read the verdict then raised his eyes to solemnly regard the defendant in his latest high profile case. After a moment he returned the paper to the bailiff. With a curt nod, the bailiff returned the document to the jury foreman.
"The defendant will rise," he intoned. Brooks rose confidently to his feet and turned to squarely face the twelve individuals who now controlled his fate, his expression cold.
Hancock also turned to face the jurors. "How do you find Graham Brooks?"
Taking a deep breath, the foreman read the verdict aloud. "We, the jury, find the defendant, Graham Brooks, guilty of the murder of Nyajiru. We find him not guilty of the attempted murders of Blair Sandburg and Billy McGregor."
Almost immediately, pandemonium reigned. The entire visitors' gallery began to buzz as everyone voiced their opinion of the jury's decision. Simon Banks shouted his surprise and disappointment at the verdict. Ellison's mouth dropped open in shock and he angrily pushed to his feet, flinging off his partner's calming hand. Judge Hancock banged his gavel, attempting to regain control of his courtroom. In the middle of it all, Brooks calmly turned to regard the irate sentinel and then smiled that insane smile that the detective had come to detest. Blair stood and grabbed for his partner, afraid he might attack the arrogant African shaman. "Jim!" he hissed, clenching Ellison's forearm in a vise-like grip. "It doesn't matter! He was found guilty of murder, Jim! We've won. It's over." He literally whispered the last phrase, which captured his Sentinel's attention more surely than any outburst would have.
Tearing his glare from Brooks, Jim turned to Blair and took in the weariness in his guide's eyes. As he opened his mouth to reassure his friend, all hell broke loose in the back of the room. Ellison spun to find that the man who had threatened Billy McGregor the previous day had leapt to his feet and was furiously pushing his way through the visitors' gallery toward his partner and him.
Pushing Blair behind him with one hand, Jim deftly slid his weapon from the holster at the small of his back with the other. The man roughly shoved a startled middle-aged woman out of his way, ignoring everyone except the two men in his sights Ellison and Sandburg. Coming face to face with Jim's Sig Sauer stopped him in his tracks, but did nothing to stem the ensuing tirade. "Your fault!" he screamed, pointing a shaking fingering at the detectives. "This is all your fault! It's a conspiracy to ruin a great man and you're in on it! Both of you! You'll pay for this! You have to pay for this!" He stiffened as courthouse security personnel grabbed him and he tried to wrench his arms from their insistent grip. "You'll pay for this, Ellison! You have to pay!"
"Get him out of here!" Simon Banks snapped, coming to stand beside his detectives. "Stand down, detective," he instructed Ellison quietly. Ellison complied only because the threat had been neutralized, not because his superior officer had ordered it. Returning the weapon to its customary place in its holster, he turned to speak to Simon but was interrupted by yet another disturbance, this time coming from the hallway. "What now?!" he barked rhetorically, shoving the courtroom doors open to enter a hallway awash with mayhem. The two security guards were sprawled on the floor, a tangle of arms and legs with several other men and women, all trying to extricate themselves and succeeding only in confusing the issue further. Several by-standers were trying to assist them and everyone was talking excitedly. There was no sign of the incensed courtroom observer.
"Damn," Jim breathed, turning to his partner and captain with a pained expression. "He's long gone."
"We got Brooks, Jim," Blair offered as consolation. He moved around his partner to offer his assistance to the tangled mass of humanity on the floor. "He's going away for a long, long time. Everything else is just an annoyance, man."
Ellison closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. "Yeah," he finally agreed. "Just an annoyance. C'mon, Chief, let's get out of here."
In the courtroom, Brooks' housekeeper, Emily Webster, wiped a tear from her eye and then slipped out of the now deserted courthouse, unnoticed.
Graham Brooks was escorted down the long line of chairs to the last stall in the visitors' area. In standard prison dress, he carried himself with elegance and pride. Even after a week of prison life he remained haughty, looking down at the inmates and guards. He smiled smugly as he saw many heads, fellow prisoners and visitors alike, turn to watch him. His smile widened, almost becoming genuine, as he caught sight of his visitor. Behind the Plexiglas window sat his little friend, Frederick Herrington.
Herrington's eyes seemed to glaze over as he watched the shaman's approach. He felt that same awe and twinge of fear that always preceded his talks with Graham Brooks. The man exuded power and Herrington wondered that anyone could be immune to its affect. Rising out of his chair, he waited patiently for the African to take his seat and settle himself. Receiving the near imperceptible nod that he was ready, Herrington sat and lifted the phone to his ear.
"Ah, Ricky," Brooks crooned. "I am very pleased to see you. Have you been busy?"
The small man nodded his head and smiled. "Everything that we talked about is coming to pass." His hand curled into a fist. "It is happening just like you said it would."
"Why, you sound surprised, Mr. Herrington." The shaman's smile was chilling. "You have not started to doubt me, have you?"
Herrington's expression froze. "No! I could never doubt you!" He leaned forward and clutched a hand to his heart. "You've shown me the way. Now all I want to do is make those that have hurt you pay." He looked furtively over his shoulder. "I'm ready to do more. Tell me what it is that you want me to do."
"Listen closely, Ricky," Brooks whispered into the receiver. "I think that our two friends, and that worm at the airport, need to be reminded that they are not free of me just yet." He gripped the handset tightly. "I will leave the details to you. Don't forget, the one that I have chosen is not to be seriously damaged. Bruised," he sneered. "That is acceptable, but I have my own plans for the detective."
"What about his partner?" Herrington's eyes lit up. "He should pay for the humiliation he's caused you. He should be taught a lesson for rejecting you."
The shaman's eyes narrowed. "He will learn that he has been a fool to turn away from me. Scare him, Ricky, but don't harm him. I want him to be there at the end. I want him to realize all that he has lost." His voice became a growl. "He should never have tried to keep from me that which should have been mine. His partner will finally acknowledge my power and accept my guidance as his shaman. As it should have been from the start."
"And the other one?" Herrington's excited breath came through the phone. His mouth twitching as he waited for instructions.
"The other?" Graham Brooks waved a well-manicured hand in the air. "He is nothing." His smile was like ice and he chuckled when he saw his follower cringe from it. "Have fun with him."
"You know that I'll do as you ask. You can count on me." Ricky Herrington returned the handset to its cradle and stood. Giving his mentor a slight bow, he backed away from the stall.
Graham Brooks waited until Herrington had disappeared into another room before mentally preparing himself to return to his cell. He wanted to enjoy his few moments of freedom from his small confines. At least he had not been forced to share his cell with another. Yet. Hearing the soft-soled footsteps of the guard coming to escort him back to the cellblock, Brooks closed his eyes. Even the pungent aroma of smoke from Ricky's Turkish cheroots was preferable to the smell of too many human beings forced to inhabit their confined space. Shrugging off the guard's hand from his shoulder, the shaman stood. "Please, do not touch me." He stared down his nose at the man, holding his gaze until the other looked away. Smiling, he brushed past him. "I am now ready to return."
Three Weeks Later, Starkville Prison
It was good to have a murderous reputation, Brooks decided as he regarded the vial in his hand. It had really taken ridiculously little persuasion to convince one of the orderlies in the infirmary to "misplace" a few very special items in the drug cabinet. It had been easy to convince the man that Brooks had acquaintances on the outside that could be a threat to his family if he didn't follow Brooks' instructions. It would have been easier to steal it himself, however, the warden, in a moment of startling clarity, had refused the shaman access to the infirmary. Inconvenient, Brooks admitted to himself, but not insurmountable. After having been given the appropriate incentive, Margrave had followed his instructions to the letter, mixing the ingredients into a single, powerful potion and transferring it to Brooks in the mess hall line.
Brooks uncapped the vial and, with an enigmatic smile, downed the contents. He quickly filled the glass tube with water and flushed it down the utilitarian toilet. Then he made himself as comfortable as possible on the hard prison bunk and waited for the potion to take effect.
Jim Ellison replaced the telephone receiver in its cradle and swore sharply. His partner interrupted his intense scrutiny of the report on his computer screen to regard the detective in concern. "What's the matter, Jim?" he asked, barely remembering to click 'Save' before rising and crossing to Ellison's desk.
Ellison pushed his chair back and heaved a large sigh. He definitely did not want to pass this information along to his partner. Things had just started to settle down for them and now it looked as if the disruptions were to begin again. "They've just taken Graham Brooks to the hospital. A guard found him unconscious in his cell about an hour ago. The prison doctors haven't been able to revive him, so they've transferred him to Cascade General."
"Do they have any idea what happened?" Blair was doing a good job of masking his surprise and dismay. Under guard Brooks might be, but he was still out of prison and that made him a danger.
"Not so far." Ellison rubbed at his forehead and met his partner's eyes. "Blair..." he began, only to be interrupted by his partner grabbing his coat and tossing it in his direction while pulling his own off the coat rack.
"Let's go find out what the hell's going on," Blair said grimly as he turned and stalked toward the elevator. Jim hurried to follow, his anger at the situation continuing to build. When were they ever going to catch a break?
The elevator ride down to the parking garage was slow and silent, the car stopping at virtually every floor below Major Crime. Blair was disinclined to talk and his expression remained unreadable as he stared at a spot on the soiled carpeting that covered the floor. Passengers flowed on and off the elevator at each stop, their conversations brief and mundane. A casual greeting here, a "how's the family" there, and the typical complaints about workloads swirled around the silent partners. It was as if life were tossing them an emotional lifeline to reassure them that the world was, indeed, still functioning normally despite the new evidence to the contrary.
"It's too convenient," Sandburg finally mused aloud as they made their way across town. He was staring pensively out the window of Jim's "sweetheart", his elbow propped on the window ledge, thumb and forefinger worrying his bottom lip.
"I agree," Ellison nodded, keeping his eyes on the traffic-filled road ahead of him. They slowed to a stop at a signal light and Jim turned to regard his partner. "It's just too convenient for Brooks to fall ill so soon after being convicted..."
"Unless it wasn't of his own doing."
The sentinel frowned, his forehead creased in confusion. "What? You're losing me here, Chief. Wasn't it you that just said it was too convenient? Now you've suddenly decided that this is someone's idea of revenge?"
"I'm just playing devil's advocate, Jim, trying to see all the angles. Doesn't mean I believe one any more readily than another. It just means there might be another possibility, that's all."
"No," Ellison shook his head as he shifted his foot from the brake to the accelerator and moved forward with the flow of traffic. "He's up to something. I can feel it in my gut."
"Or maybe it's the double cheese Wonder Burger and chili fries you had for lunch?"
"You're killin' me, Sandburg," Jim growled in mock annoyance as he made the turn into the Cascade General parking lot. He pulled into a No Parking zone, slid the gearshift into Park and tossed a Cascade PD identification card on the dash.
"It's not me, Jim, it's all that grease you eat that's killing you," his guide retorted before he pushed open his passenger door and stepped to the pavement. "I can almost hear your arteries hardening, man!" He grinned as he joined his partner by the driver's door.
"Nah, that's not my arteries you hear hardening, Darwin, it's the sound of all those synapses in your brain frying as they fire all at once. You gotta stop thinking so hard, Chief." Jim playfully shoved his partner across the hospital driveway, glad to see that the morose mood had seemingly passed. Halfway across the drive, Jim patted his jacket pocket only to discover that he had left his cell phone in the truck. Remembering how often he used to have to admonish his partner about the same offense, he decided discretion was the better part of valor and called out, "I left my cell phone in the truck. You go on and I'll catch up in a minute."
Blair grinned at Jim's uncharacteristic lapse, gave him a thumbs-up gesture to acknowledge the instruction, then continued to cross the street that fronted the main entrance to the hospital. Upon reaching the curb, he turned to gauge his partner's progress -- just in time to catch a glimpse of a blue streak from the corner of his eye. It was a car, headed directly for his partner, who was casually strolling across the drive toward him.
"Jim!" Blair shouted the warning at the same time that the sentinel picked up the out-of-place roar of an engine and scream of spinning tires. Jim spun to catch sight of the car hurtling across the parking lot toward him, and then instinctively launched himself back towards the pick-up truck he had just vacated. He hit the ground hard and rolled under his truck as the speeding car fishtailed past him. The high-pitched sound of rending metal sent a spike of pain through his head and he temporarily lost himself in a sensory overload. When he literally returned to his senses, it was to find himself still huddled beneath his truck, his hands covering his abused ears. He felt a pressure on his forearm and shifted his gaze to discover Blair stretched out on his stomach next to the truck, his expression clearly bordering on near panic. Blair's mouth was moving, but Jim heard no sounds. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and mentally grasped the dials as Blair had taught him to do so long ago. After he had cranked the hearing dial back a few notches, Blair's voice filled his head.
"Jim? Jim, are you okay, man? C'mon, Jim. You're scaring me here. Jim?"
"I'm okay, Chief," Jim managed to grind out as he began to wriggle out from under the truck.
Blair, realizing what his friend was doing, reached out a hand and helped pull the detective into the open. "Thank God, man!" Blair prattled in relief. "You had me scared to death, Jim! Are you okay? Did he hit you? Do you need an ambulance?"
Jim had to smile at that last question and he waved a hand vaguely toward the hospital entrance, where a crowd had quickly gathered following the incident. "Considering our location, I think an ambulance is hardly necessary," he teased softly. Then he swiftly added, "And I'm fine, Blair, really." He presented his arms and head for inspection. Beyond a few rips in his favorite shirt, he was clearly unscathed. "See?" he assured his partner. "Hardly a scratch on me."
Blair wasn't completely convinced. "So what was with that little zone out thing?" he prodded, glancing around quickly to make sure no one was within earshot. "You were out of it for almost a full minute, man!"
"My hearing went off the scale," Jim reluctantly admitted. "I wasn't prepared for it and I sort of, I dunno, overloaded I guess." When Blair's brow furrowed in thought, Ellison could tell the former anthropologist was ready to go into full sentinel research scientist mode, so he quickly changed the subject. There were more important things to cover at the moment, although Jim strongly suspected that Sandburg would disagree with him, given the opportunity. "Did you see the car? Did you see where it went after it missed me?"
Sandburg nodded, motioning with his chin in the direction the car had gone. "Didn't get very far," he responded, rising to his feet and pulling his partner with up with him. "Lost traction trying to swerve to hit you when you rolled. It ended up taking out a light post instead." Ellison saw the deformed wreckage of the vehicle, its passenger side almost totally encircling the base of a parking lot light standard. The driver's door was open and the vehicle was obviously empty.
"The driver?" Jim demanded, gently shaking off his partner's well intentioned, but unnecessary, attempts to support him. He strode towards the wreckage. "I'm fine, Blair," he assured his upset partner as he leaned into the driver's compartment. After only a cursory examination and a deep breath, Ellison turned to his partner. "It's him."
"Who, Jim?" Blair was scrutinizing the interior of the car as well. He knew he couldn't hope to see a fraction of what the sentinel saw, but it made him feel better to be doing something besides standing there looking as shaken up as he actually was by his partner's close call.
"Our loft visitor. This car is filled with the same scent I detected at the loft. Get forensics down here, Chief. I want to know who this guy is. I'm starting to take this personally."
Emily Webster strode confidently through the corridors of Cascade General. She was professionally attired in a crisply starched nurse's uniform, her cap perched jauntily atop the brown wig she wore. Heavy glasses disguised her eyes. She had learned long ago that the secret to successfully infiltrating any situation was to act as if you belonged there, so she boldly rounded the corner of the vacant nurses' station and pulled a patient chart from the revolving holder. As she pretended to read the information on the chart, she surreptitiously scanned the hallway to her right. Three doors down from the nurses' station was Graham Brooks' room, closely guarded by a formidable-looking uniformed officer. She glanced at her watch. It was almost time. She performed a mental countdown, keeping an eye on the policeman down the hall and fingering the syringe in her pocket.
When her countdown reached 'zero', the officer, as if on cue, leapt to his feet and pushed open the door to Brooks' room. Emily could hear the "distressed" cries of her employer as he awakened from his drug-induced unconsciousness. She smiled slightly as the shaman increased the intensity of his wails. He was certainly putting on a good show. If he wasn't careful, he was going to attract the attention of the other nurses on the floor, which would make her job that much harder. Killing the smile, Emily returned to character and dashed down the hall to enter the hospital room to find the police officer struggling to hold a supposedly disoriented Brooks in bed. "What happened?" 'Nurse' Webster demanded as she bent to check the patient's vital signs.
"I don't know!" the flustered officer responded, gasping for breath in his efforts to contain the patient. "He just woke up and started screaming!"
"I'll have to sedate him," Emily stated, raising her voice to overpower the anguished cries of her employer. "I'll need you to hold him securely while I give him the injection."
"Just hurry!" the officer begged, totally discomfited by the actions of the previously unconscious man. He leaned heavily over Brooks in an effort to hold him still so the nurse could sedate him.
Suddenly the agitated patient stopped struggling and, in a move the officer would never quite be able to describe, wrapped him in an unbreakable hold. Emily quickly moved in and injected the drug she'd intimated was intended for Brooks into the incapacitated officer's jugular vein. Within seconds the officer was unconscious, sprawled across Brooks' bed.
As he extricated himself from the unconscious policeman's weight, Brooks fondly greeted his housekeeper with a smile and a "Nice to see you, my dear."
Emily returned her employer's smile, then turned her back as he quickly dressed in the clothing she'd earlier bribed an orderly into smuggling into the room. "I'm glad you got my messages. I wasn't sure you'd know who they were from and I wasn't at all sure they would reach you. I was having to use some fairly unreliable avenues of communication."
"You did wonderfully, my dear, although I admit it did take me a bit to realize it was you who was sending the supportive messages."
"I was afraid to sign my name for fear that they would catch me and I wouldn't be able to help you get away. I could only hope you'd figure it out."
Slipping his feet into his favorite Italian leather loafers, Brooks assured his housekeeper, "Your ingenuity was most impressive, Emily. I cannot tell you how touched I am by your loyalty." He rose to his feet and laid a hand on his blushing housekeeper's shoulder. "Now, shall we depart this appallingly depressing place?"
Emily nodded and quickly crossed to the door. Opening it just a crack, she cast a glance up and down the hallway. Determining that nothing and no one posed a threat, she hurried to the nurses' station to procure a wheelchair. Upon her return to the room, Brooks settled himself in the chair and grasped the duffel bag and a large vase of flowers Emily "borrowed" from an adjoining room. He now looked like any other departing patient as the housekeeper/nurse cheerfully pushed him through the hallways of Cascade General, chatting about how glad he must be to be going home.
She pushed him out the front entrance of the hospital to a waiting car, solicitously helped him into the passenger side of the vehicle and then pushed the wheelchair out of the way. Only then abandoning the nurse ruse, Emily quickly slid into the driver's side of the car, yanking the nurse's cap from her head and smiling gleefully at the escaped inmate riding beside her. As they sped away from the hospital, they noticed a crowd had gathered around what appeared to be a traffic accident in the parking lot. "I wonder what that's all about?" Emily questioned aloud. Brooks merely shrugged and smiled slightly.
Dom Cantelmi handed his phone to the young security guard. "You sure it was him, Billy?" McGregor had just rushed into his office, breathless. He had spotted the same man who had threatened him in the courthouse cafeteria. "Sit down, kid. Catch your breath." The airport chief of security's father instinct had suddenly kicked in. The young man sitting in front of him had already been through too much because of one Botswanan's visit to the States.
"I'm okay, Dom." Billy's face was flushed and his breathing came in quick pants. He had sprinted back to the offices when he had lost sight of the stranger from the cafeteria. Calling Ellison at his work number, he had been told that the detective was not at his desk. His frustration at not being able to reach the detective hadn't lasted long. He remembered seeing Ellison's cell phone number tacked to the bulletin board in his boss' office. "I need to get in touch with Ellison and Sandburg. I didn't think that crazy guy would actually show up here." A strand of blond hair fell into his eyes as he dialled and he pushed it back out of the way.
Cantelmi paced the length of his office. "We've got everyone on the lookout for the guy. I'm sure someone'll spot him." He stood over McGregor. "Any answer yet?" At the younger man's shake of the head he threw his arms up in the air in exasperation. "What kinda detective doesn't answer his cell phone?" At Billy's chuckle, he scowled. "What? You think this is funny, McGregor?" His expression softened to let his friend know that he was kidding. "I just don't like the idea of somebody who's threatened you running around loose, here. You are not, you hear me, not leaving my sight until Ellison and Sandburg get here."
"Yes, sir." Billy's smile faded when he heard someone answer the phone. "Detective Ellison! Jim! This is Bill McGregor. That guy from the trial. He's here." He listened intently, nodding, until Cantelmi leaned down and whispered that, as good a detective as Ellison was, he wasn't going to be able to detect his nods. Rolling his eyes at his supervisor, Billy listened again. "Okay, Jim. I'll stay put until you get here. How long do you think that'll be?" He mouthed twenty minutes at Cantelmi. "Okay, Dom's office. Sure."
"He's on his way?" Cantelmi's hand rested on the younger man's shoulder. "Good. Now you do like you promised and stay put until the police get here."
"But, boss!" Billy began his protest. He stopped at Cantelmi's look. "Okay, okay. I'll stay."
"Dom?" A tinny-sounding voice came from the speaker on the security chief's desk. "The guy we're looking for is on Departures level. I saw him heading for Gate 23B. You want me to stop him?"
"No!" Dom had hit the reply button. "We don't know how dangerous he is. I don't want you going after him alone. Just keep him in sight. The police are on their way. They should be here in about 15 minutes. Keep us updated, Frank." He turned to see how McGregor was reacting to the news. The chair Billy had been sitting in was empty. Slamming his fist down on his desk, he pressed in a code on the radio and waited for Frank to call in.
"Yeah, Dom? What's up?"
Sighing, Dom Cantelmi told his man to keep an eye out for Billy. "He's on his way down there, Frank. Make sure he stays safe."
Ricky Herrington melted into the shadows when he saw the airport security guard. He had systematically searched each area of the huge airport, knowing that his path would eventually cross McGregor's. And he hadn't had to wait very long for his quarry to make an appearance. The blond guard had come skidding around a corner, heading almost directly for him. A slow, sick smile tugged at Ricky's mouth. Brooks had told him that he would be successful if he continued to believe that the shaman guided him towards greatness. And Herrington certainly believed. Everything that Graham had told him during the days of the trial had come to pass. Now it was time for the student to help the master. Stepping into the light, he waited just long enough for McGregor to see him. Turning on his heel, he ran for the cargo service area and safety. He wanted to laugh out loud when he heard the security guard follow him. Could things have worked out any better?
"Frank! Frank!" Cantelmi's impatience was clearly broadcast through the handi-talkie. "Have you found Billy yet?"
"No, boss." The aging guard had begun to double back, sure that he had missed McGregor. "If he was heading my way I shoulda seen him by now. You sure he was coming this way?"
Dominic's voice lost its impatience as the worry he felt took over. "I'm sure, Frank. This isn't good. Keep looking."
Billy McGregor couldn't believe what he was seeing. The man from the trial stood out in the open, smiling at him! Billy knew he was being taunted, but he had finally had enough. He was tired of being told to leave it to others to handle. The creep was standing there, right in front of him. There was no way that he was going to stand back and wait for the police.
As if reading the security guard's mind, knowing that McGregor was ready to take up the pursuit, the stranger turned and ran into a restricted area. Cursing softly under his breath, Billy ran after him. A small voice in the back of his mind told him to cool down and think about what he was doing. It cautioned him to wait for the police. He quickly shut down that voice. He was well trained in how to handle situations involving problem passengers. He had taken on his fair share of angry or hysterical people. He had no doubt that he could handle one little man on his own.
The corridor that led to the cargo areas was poorly lit and lined with doors on each side. There was no way that he was going to be able to search them all before the stalker disappeared. Reaching for his radio, he intended to call Cantelmi and have him arrange for some of the other guards to help him. But all he found was air where his handi-talkie should be. Groaning to himself, he remembered putting it down on the filing cabinet in Dom's office. He hadn't bothered to pick it up when he ran out of the room.
"Just great," Billy berated himself. "Now what?" In the answering silence he thought he heard the soft swoosh of a door closing at the end of the hall. Smiling, he trotted to the last door and pushed it open. A small security light shone in a far corner, bathing the room in its red glow. Stepping further into the room, and letting the door close behind him, McGregor had only seconds to realize he had made a mistake. A sinewy arm snaked out and around his neck, dragging him backward and onto his knees. Thrown off-balance, he landed solidly against his attacker. Knowing that he was fighting for his life, he wrapped his hands around the other man's wrists, and tried to struggle against the iron grip. With each inch McGregor thought he had won, the choking hold around his neck only became tighter, closing off his windpipe. Panicking, he attempted to drag in some much-needed oxygen. As the edges of his vision began to blur, he managed to jab an elbow back and into the man's stomach. He heard the painful gasp that followed and waited for the vise around his throat to loosen.
"You shouldn't have testified. I warned you that if he went to prison you would pay." Hearing those words as if in a tunnel, McGregor made one last desperate try to break free of the strangling grip. He threw himself back against the other man, hoping to stun him under his weight as they hit the floor, but his attacker managed to turn with the fall, still maintaining his death grip. "Too late, Billy. It's time to pay up."
The security guard felt one arm around his neck go impossibly tighter while the other arm released its hold. His attacker brought his palm up against his temple and slowly pushed. What little air had been able to seep through was now cut off completely and McGregor knew that he had lost. His oxygen-starved brain mercifully shut down seconds before a muffled crack echoed in the room.
Ellison, Sandburg and Cantelmi ran for the general area of Gate 23B. Frank had reported in, and while he hadn't found Billy, he had spotted the other man running for the private airstrips.
"Which way was he headed?" Ellison's question came out as a sharp demand when he reached Frank.
The security guard, responding to the tone, quickly pointed to the blacktop outside the panoramic windows. "He went out that door and headed for Hangar 12." He watched the detective disappear through the door and then turned tortured eyes on his boss. "I can't find Billy anywhere, Dom. I was just going to check down there." He nodded at the hallway that led to the cargo storage area.
Staying back to help find McGregor, Sandburg led the two men down the gloomy corridor. "We're going to search these rooms together," he said mostly for Cantelmi's benefit. The chief of security had looked ready to start checking the rooms on his own. "We don't know if that guy was working alone." Blair prayed that the stranger from the trial was indeed working alone. If he wasn't, it was very possible that his partner was heading for more trouble than he bargained for. "We'll start with the last room and work our way back. If Billy was chasing the man who threatened him, it makes sense that the guy'd try to put as much distance between them as possible."
Reaching the door at the far end of the hall, Blair opened it. He had his weapon in one hand, motioning for the two men to remain outside. One quick glance inside told him all he needed to know. The blond security guard's body lay motionless on the far side of the storage room. He moved to kneel next to the body, feeling for a pulse. Even before his fingers had touched the cooling skin he knew it was a futile gesture. McGregor's head lay at an odd angle. Billy's neck had been snapped.
"Oh dear Mother of God," Dom Cantelmi's anguished gasp came from behind the detective. "He was just a kid."
Jim Ellison burst through the double doors and onto the tarmac. Breaking into a run, he started in the direction Frank had pointed out. Hangar 12 was easy enough to spot. Large yellow letters stood out on black paint. As he ran he noticed that out of all the buildings located in this particular area of the airport, Hangar 12 was the only one that seemed open. Their courtroom stalker had either been very lucky or had been planning his visit to Cascade International for some time. But this fact could also play into the detective's hands, Jim realized. With this one building being the only place someone could hide, it was going to make his job that much easier to find him.
Coming to a halt just outside the hangar door, the sentinel paused. Using any of his hyper senses, with the exception of sight, was going to be impossible. The jets' high-pitched whines were almost constant. He didn't want to take the chance on listening for breathing or a heartbeat. Trying to use smell would have been a waste of time with the fumes of fuel and burning rubber hanging in the air. Sight would be his only edge. Using the darkness of the hangar as a shield, the detective slipped into the large shed. He let his eyes adjust from the bright afternoon sun to the artificial night in the building before trying to use his hyper-sight. The place echoed with the strangely comforting rumble of jets taking off. It sounded like distant thunder. Inch by inch, his vision burrowed deeper into the dark recesses of the hangar, looking for any signs of movement or the flash of colour from clothing in the blackness. Equipment was scattered across the floor and suspended from the ceiling. Crates were stacked against walls and piled in the centre of the hangar. Nothing seemed out of place at first glance. Slowly edging around the perimetre of the building, Jim checked every possible hiding spot. There weren't all that many. The man had disappeared. The detective had probably run right by their stalker if he had doubled back. With a frustrated sigh he started back for the airport to see if McGregor had been located.
Any hopes that the security guard had been found, safe and sound, were dashed when Jim saw his partner walking towards him across the blacktop. Sandburg's body language always told the story even before he started to speak. His friend was hurting, that was obvious by the downcast eyes and the slump of his shoulders. He knew he was going to hear the worst.
"Chief?" Ellison had reached his friend's side.
Looking up, Blair shook his head. "McGregor's dead, Jim." His mouth twisted into a frown. "We found his body in a room in a restricted area. His neck was broken." Sandburg looked away to gaze across the airfield. "Cantelmi's posted a guard at the door to the room. He's professional enough to know he's got to preserve the integrity of the scene until the coroner gets here, but man, he's really broken up about this."
"Damn." The word was gritted out. "This didn't have to happen, Sandburg. Why didn't he wait for us? All he had to do was wait."
The Major Crime division of the Cascade Police Department was, as usual, bustling with activity. It seemed crime never took a break; so neither did the detectives who had sworn to uphold the law and apprehend those who chose to ignore it and prey upon others. The anthropologist in Blair Sandburg never failed to be fascinated by the hustle and bustle of the Major Crime bullpen and the dynamics of the personal interactions between detectives, witnesses and suspects. The detective in him fought to tune out the distractions and focus on the computer screen before him, but the unsettling murder at the airport had his mind trying to go off in all directions. His assigned task was to complete the report on the bizarre series of activities at the hospital, but he was also trying to trace the identity of the stranger they believed responsible for the death of Billy McGregor. While he struggled to concentrate and remain diligent, his partner was out following a fresh lead on the disappearance of Graham Brooks. Instinct told him that they would probably find the answer to both questions if they were able to locate Brooks or their mystery man. Blair had not been pleased with the instruction to remain at the station to update their captain on the murder and complete the report, but Jim had literally pulled rank on him and gone to follow the lead on his own. They would certainly have a conversation about that when they were off duty and Jim was no longer his superior officer.
Despite his ire, and concern for his friend's safety, Blair smiled. Their sentinel/guide relationship was another interesting Major Crime dynamic. Although Jim always treated him as an equal at the station, it was still an unspoken agreement that Jim was the senior officer and, therefore, "in charge" when they were on duty. Blair never failed to give Jim his fair share of grief over their many points of contention, but he still demonstrated the respect Jim deserved. But at home, all bets were off. They'd certainly had a few "discussions" about activities at the station and Blair had always felt free to state his mind. They often cleared the air over station issues at home, where they were truly equals. This would be one of those times, Blair vowed to himself. Jim had narrowly escaped being run down by the same person who had violated their home and left an extremely unpleasant calling card. And now he was insisting on going back out on the streets alone with a vindictive nut still on the loose. Oh yes, they were going to discuss it all right.
Sandburg had known Jim long enough to guess that some, probably most, of the sentinel's motivation stemmed from his need to protect. It was an instinct that Blair had long since decided was an integral part of a sentinel's make up. Billy's death, coupled with the disappearance of Graham Brooks, had set both him and Jim on edge. So his partner had pulled rank and kept him where Jim felt he was the safest.
A shadow fell across Blair's screen and he raised his eyes to find a slightly familiar looking, middle-aged, blond woman standing by his desk. She looked distressed and not a little uncomfortable as she quickly sidestepped an irate suspect who was vehemently protesting his innocence to the unimpressed detective attempting to maneuver him to an interrogation room.
"Ms. Webster?" Blair exclaimed in surprise, suddenly recognizing Graham Brooks' housekeeper, Emily Webster. He rose to his feet and came around the desk to face her. "What are you doing here? Is there something I can help you with?" An insane hope sprang to his mind and he asked, "Has Brooks contacted you?"
Emily looked shocked for a moment, and then the shock became horror. "No!" she vowed. Then she asked, "Why would he? He's in prison..."
Hating the news he had to share, Blair quickly explained. "He supposedly became ill earlier today and was taken to Cascade General. He managed to escape with the aid of an accomplice."
Emily was clearly frightened. "You don't think he'll try to contact me, do you? Oh my God, I had no idea!" Webster's eyes filled with tears. "I just... I needed to... Oh, I don't know!" A tear slid down her cheek and Blair realized she was about to break down. Casting a glance into Simon's office and seeing it occupied, he gently took her by the elbow and guided her out of Major Crime. "Let's go somewhere where we can talk," he said softly as he led her through the double doors that marked the entrance to the busy department. Blair led her to the only place he could think of where they would be able to have a quiet conversation -- the break room. He'd briefly considered an interrogation room, but had rejected it in favor of a locale that was less intimidating.
"Would you like some coffee?" he offered as a prelude to their conversation. "It's relatively fresh, so I don't think it can be considered a lethal weapon." As he intended, the distraught woman smiled slightly and nodded her acceptance of the offering.
"Cream? Sugar?" Blair queried, motioning to the items in question.
"Black, thank you," Emily responded, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. "I'm sorry to be such a bother..."
"No bother," Blair quickly assured her, setting the coffee by her hand and then settling into a seat across from her. "I'll admit I'm a little puzzled by your appearance, but you saved me from the perils of a police report and for that I'm extremely grateful." He flashed her his trademark Sandburg smile to help put her at ease. "Now, what can I do to help you, Ms. Webster?"
"Please, call me Emily," the attractive housekeeper requested as she gently swirled the contents of her coffee cup. She took a hesitant sip, then a larger one as she realized that the coffee was, indeed, palatable. "I don't know what came over me, really, Detective Sandburg..."
"Now that's not fair," Blair protested. As she looked up at the young detective in confusion, he quickly explained. "If I'm supposed to call you Emily, then you have to call me Blair," he instructed with a grin.
"Oh, okay, Blair." She smiled softly, then dropped her eyes again. "Well, I was sitting at home... Mr. Brooks' house, actually, since I am... was his live-in housekeeper. I'm obviously going to have to find another place to live. Well, anyway, it just all suddenly came crashing down around me. I mean, I've thought about everything that happened at least a hundred times since Mr. Brooks' arrest, but this time it was different. I guess maybe it was hearing all the details that came out in the trial, but I started thinking about the horrible things he did to you and to that security guard at the airport. And how frightened that poor old man, Nya, must have been. And how I'd been so blissfully unaware of what was going on, so sure that Mr. Brooks was an honorable man." Emily began to cry softly again. "I just feel like such a fool for being so taken in by him!" she declared tearfully, never raising her eyes from her cup.
Blair reached out to lay a comforting hand on her arm. "Emily," he prodded when she failed to acknowledge his actions, "there's nothing to be ashamed of."
At that, Emily did raise her eyes to regard Blair seriously. "But..." she began only to be interrupted by the compassionate detective.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," Blair repeated, his sympathetic gaze never wavering. "Brooks duped a lot of people, including me, into thinking he was something he wasn't." Blair wasn't willing to expound any further on that particular topic, so he pressed on. "You wanted to believe he was a decent man and you had no reason to think otherwise until the facts came out."
"But how could I not see the truth?" she queried softly, her misery clearly displayed in her eyes.
"Sometimes we don't see the things we don't want to see," Blair responded, averting his own eyes for a second. "Just because you couldn't see what Brooks was doing doesn't make you a bad person, Emily. You're a victim here -- as much as any of us he actually attacked."
Emily's eyes shone with tears once more, however they were now tears of relief rather than tears of pain. "Thank you, Blair," she sighed, taking his hand in hers and squeezing it tightly. "You've made me feel much better. Perhaps in time I'll be able to put this behind me."
"I'm sure you will, Emily," Blair assured her. "And if you need to talk about it again, you know who to call. And if he should happen to contact you, definitely call me... any time, day or night." Blair dug his cardholder from his shirt pocket, extracted a card and handed it to the housekeeper.
Emily rose to give Blair a hug, which he returned in kind. "I do know who to call," she whispered as she slid out of his embrace with a quick peck on the cheek. "Thank you, Blair." She turned to leave and then, almost as an afterthought, reached into her oversized handbag to pull out an item wrapped in colored plastic. "It seems a little silly now, but I brought this for you. I meant it as sort of a peace offering, I suppose, an insignificant way to express my sorrow at everything that's happened to you. You see, I like to bake when I get upset and I was very upset this afternoon." She smiled at Blair to emphasize that she had turned the corner on her guilty feelings. "I made one of my favorite comfort foods and decided to share it with you." She handed the packet to Blair with an embarrassed shrug. "It's chocolate almond biscotti -- very good for dipping in coffee."
Blair took the gift and grinned at the grieving former housekeeper. "This is great! Thank you, Emily. I love biscotti. And," he added conspiratorially, "it will go a long way toward making the sludge I usually get out of this pot drinkable. It was very thoughtful of you to think of me like this. Now, I want you to go home and relax and don't give that guilt-trip another moment of your life. But, if Brooks does try to get in touch with you, you're going to call me immediately, right?"
Emily nodded, her distress at the thought of the convicted murderer contacting her evident. "I promise, Blair."
Blair walked Emily to the elevator and gave her another quick hug. "It's going to be all right, Emily," he promised as the doors opened to admit her.
"Yes," she replied with an enigmatic smile. She stepped inside and finished her thought as the doors blocked her view of the sympathetic young man. "It is."
Ellison had just turned up the road to Starkville Prison when his cell phone chirped beside him. Expecting to hear his partner's voice, his heart dropped into his stomach when he realized who it was on the other end.
"Detective Ellison." Graham Brooks could barely keep the gloating from his voice. "I'm told that you are looking for me."
Jim's grip tightened on both the steering wheel and the small phone. "Your games are getting a little tiring, Brooks." He kept his tone dry. "Don't you think that it's about time you gave up the cat and mouse?" He didn't even try to hide his contempt for the shaman.
"Soon, very soon." The sentinel could hear the smile in the other man's response and had to bite down on his anger. He refused to give the shaman any satisfaction. "Have you talked to young Detective Sandburg lately?"
If Ellison's heart had skipped when he first heard Brooks' voice, it was beating out an erratic rhythm now. "Just a few minutes ago, Brooks. Why?"
"Oh, I wonder if he mentioned his visitor to you? Ms. Emily Webster. Lovely woman, Ms Webster is, and fiercely devoted to me." The sentinel had read the phrase "obscene chuckle" in many books, but he was certain he had never really heard one until he had met Graham Brooks.
"Go on," the detective ordered. "I'm sure there's a point to your story."
"There is, of course. You see, Emily, feeling so guilty about everything that has happened, decided to bake a surprise for your partner. And what a surprise it will be." The lilting quality of the African's voice suddenly disappeared and became like ice. "I think it's time for the three of us to meet once again. I know this is obvious, but let me stress that I want to see only you and your partner."
"No problem, Brooks, I've been looking forward to the chance to see you. But we're going to leave Sandburg out of it."
"I'm afraid that wouldn't be in Blair's best interest. I have something that he will desperately need in the next few hours." Ellison could hear a muffled voice coming from Brooks' end. Try as he might he couldn't tell if it was a man or woman or what they were saying. "I must say good- bye, Detective Ellison. I will see you soon."
"Wait!" Jim shouted into the phone. "Where? When?"
"Why don't we meet where Nya started his journey to the spirits. It's a lovely spot by the lake. One of my favourites, in fact. As for when? As soon as you can get here, Detective. From what my sources say, you are at Starkville Prison so you're more than halfway there."
The line went dead. Yanking hard on the wheel, Ellison pulled over to the roadside. It wasn't hard to figure out what Brooks had meant. Slamming his fist against the steering wheel, he allowed his anger and fear to the surface. Sandburg was supposed to be safe at the station. The sentinel had read a quotation somewhere that had always stuck with him. "Revenge is a wild kind of justice." He had used it to remind himself that he was a police officer and not a vigilante and that there was no place for vigilante ethics in his work. Now, he let the words roll around in his head, sending him a different message. He would have his justice.
He quickly dialled Cascade PD and Sandburg's direct extension.
Jim let out a pent-up breath. His partner at least sounded fine. "Hi, Chief. Everything okay? Anything strange going on?"
"Yeah, fine, Jim. You'll never guess who was here about an hour ago. Emily Webster."
Oh God. "Sandburg, did she bring anything with her?" Ellison could almost hear the wheels turning on the other end.
"What's wrong, Jim? This is a very weird conversation we're having here. Why are you calling me here to see if everything's okay? Why wouldn't it be? Maybe I should be asking you if everything is okay. Did you hear from Brooks?"
"Can't hide anything from you, can I, Blair?" Ellison laughed and it sounded strained even to his ears. "Just tell me, did that woman give you anything?"
"Biscotti, Jim. She baked biscotti. It was really good..." Sandburg's voice trailed off as he realized what his friend's questions could only mean. "Tell me what's happened."
"I don't have time to explain it all, Chief. I want you to meet me where they found Nya's body. Brooks is waiting there for us. I'm at Starkville now so it's going to take me about ten minutes to get there."
"Okay, I'll find someone to back us up and meet you there in about a half-hour."
"No!" Ellison had to make a conscious effort to not yell into the phone. "It's gotta be just the two of us, Chief. You have to trust me on this."
"Shit, it's bad, isn't it?"
"I don't know, buddy, Brooks is playing his games again. I just don't want to take any chances by scaring him off." Please, Blair, go along with me on this.
"I'll meet you there in about 30 minutes. Maybe a little less if I can really open up the Mustang on the highway. Jim?"
"Yeah, Chief?" Ellison had pulled back out onto the road and was starting for the foothills where they had found the Botswanan's body.
"Don't do anything until I get there. I don't want you facing him alone."
"I'm not going to promise, Sandburg." The sentinel couldn't lie. "But I will try. I'll see you in thirty."
The blue Mustang sped off the exit ramp and made its way onto the open highway. At any other time, the spectacular view that spread out before him would have had Blair Sandburg appreciating the wonders of living on the West Coast. This trip, though, was anything but a trek back to nature. His mind kept conjuring up scenes of Jim ignoring his request and challenging Brooks.
Jim Ellison could hold his own against anyone. Blair had seen him prove it time and time again. It wasn't just the heightened senses that gave him an edge, though, and if anyone who knew about Jim's abilities thought that was the case, they were very seriously mistaken. Sandburg knew better. He had been allowed to witness the sentinel's strength of spirit help him survive physical and emotional attacks. Jim would never just give up. Blair wondered if his friend even knew how. But this was different. There was something about Graham Brooks that truly scared him. He wasn't sure he could even identify what that something was. He didn't have any doubt that Brooks was insane, but this wouldn't be something that they hadn't encountered before. Delusions of grandeur seemed to be fairly common among the more flamboyant criminals of Cascade. No, this was different.
Without warning Blair's mind flashed back to something that had happened months ago. He had been standing at the bathroom sink in the loft...
The sound of a loud and angry hiss made his head snap up to look into the mirror. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Instead of seeing the reflection of the bathroom, he was looking into the depths of a jungle. He watched, transfixed, as a large snake slithered through the spiked leaves of the jungle brush and into sight, rising up as if to attack. The snake had its back to him, directing its attention deep into the blackness of trees and vines. Blair's breath caught in his throat as the jungle wall parted and a black jaguar slowly emerged. The big cat's head was lowered. Its lips were pulled back in a menacing snarl, showing razor sharp teeth. Rather than launching its attack, the panther paced back and forth, keeping just out of the snake's reach. Blair could sense that it was waiting for something, but he couldn't fathom what it could be. A rustling noise came from behind the cat and Sandburg tensed, fearing that the snake wasn't alone. At the sound, the jaguar stopped its pacing and directed its unblinking, green-eyed gaze at the viper. Its rippling muscles began to bunch under the velvety fur, readying for an attack. The snapping of branches and the thudding of something travelling across the jungle floor began to get louder. The panther lowered its front half to the ground; the sinewy muscles in its legs and haunches coiling for the charge. The dense growth in back of the cat parted once more with a flash of silver and white and a low growl joined the snarl of the jungle cat. A large wolf emerged from behind the jaguar and took its place at its right shoulder. Acknowledging the presence of its companion, the panther screamed its battle cry before launching itself at the snake. The wolf followed close on its heels.
The vision hit him again with the same vividness as before. It had scared him then, and it terrified the young shaman now. Sandburg had managed to shove what he had seen to the dark corners of his mind, convincing himself that it had been some waking dream or nightmare and not a true vision. Jim had visions. Not him! All he knew was that his destiny and Jim's were entwined. That the wolf would always stand with the panther. He had considered it a vague message, not some prophetic dream. The snake had symbolized the evil that the sentinel had been chosen to fight.
"Oh God, how could I have been so wrong?" Blair's foot pressed the gas pedal to the floor. The snake hadn't been a symbol. He had seen what would happen between Ellison and Brooks. His uneasiness wasn't because of some physical threat that Brooks might pose. Sandburg had to admit that he hadn't been entrusted with only his friend's physical and emotional well being. If he were going to take on the role of shaman, as it seemed he should do, he would have to accept responsibility for the sentinel's soul as well. A sentinel needed his guide, and with heart-wrenching clarity, Blair knew that he had to be there. Not just against Brooks, but for as long as he was needed.
"Wait for me, Jim. Please. Just wait for me to get there."
"Where's Sandburg?" Graham Brooks stood in the clearing, scowling at Ellison. He made sure that he kept a safe distance between them. "I thought I told you that he needed to be here."
Jim pulled the black baseball cap down lower over his eyes. The air in the mountains was a lot cooler than the city, but the gesture was more to deflect his anger than to protect himself against the penetrating winds. "He's on his way. You know he's going to be here." Extending his hearing, the sentinel searched for sounds that his partner had arrived. "Do you want to tell me what this is all about? Why all the melodrama?"
"Melodrama?" Brooks' looked surprised. "Didn't you call your partner to see if he indeed had had a visitor?
"All right," Jim admitted. "He said that your housekeeper had stopped by to see him. And yes, she had brought him something." He started to pace back and forth to keep warm and to use up some of his nervous energy. "But he was fine. You made it sound like she had poisoned him." You've done it, Brooks, haven't you. You son-of-a-bitch, you're playing with his life again. The sentinel's thoughts were in turmoil. Just play stupid. Stall for time until Blair gets here. You promised you'd try.
"Oh, but she has, detective." The shaman's response was so matter-of-fact that it stopped Ellison in his tracks. "The special ingredients in the biscotti she delivered are now releasing chemicals into your friend's bloodstream to interact with the body's naturally-produced properties. It should become unpleasant for Detective Sandburg in the next hour or so."
"Why?" There was no pretense of emotion in his simple question. The fact that Graham Brooks had used his best friend again as a pawn tore at him.
"Oh please, Jim." Brooks' look of scorn vanished almost as soon as it had appeared, to be replaced by his usual serene smile. "We've been through all this, have we not? You both have something that I want." The shaman's eyes grew hard. "But, once again, I think that I was a little too hasty in trying to kill Sandburg. Perhaps there is another way to get what I want."
"Refresh my memory, what is it again that you think we have?" Ellison had folded his arms across his chest, a wry frown on his face.
"Power, of course." Brooks had now started to pace. "And by the way, detective, sarcasm doesn't become you." He stopped to stare at Jim. "You will accept me as your mentor and shaman. As will your partner. I will control the power that you possess."
"For argument's sake, say that for some reason Blair and I decide that we will do what you want. What does it get you?" This was the one piece of the puzzle that he had yet to figure out. "You seem to think that you can take this power from Blair. He doesn't even believe it exists."
"It exists. Your partner is a fool to deny it." The shaman's snarl mellowed into a frown. "But I have decided that it will be enough to direct that power if I can't possess it. As I will with you."
"Simple as that."
"Yes, detective, as simple as that." Brooks snapped out the words. "I'm tired of waiting. Where is he?" His annoyance faded as he noticed the sudden distant expression of the sentinel, and the way his head tilted to one side. He was listening to something. "Good, he's coming."
Jim turned in the direction of the sound. He had heard his friend call to him, telling him to wait for him. The snapping of twigs and the thud of shoes against the hard packed earth became louder until finally Blair broke free of the dense brush to stand next to him.
"Hey, Chief, glad you could make it." He put a protective hand on the smaller man's shoulder. Sandburg had given him a quick glance and then directed his gaze at Brooks.
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world, Jim."
"And a wise move that was, Blair," the shaman cooed. "Would you like to tell him why, Ellison?"
The sentinel could feel his guide's eyes on him. Pulling in a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh, he brought himself to stand between Blair and the African. Gently taking his partner's face in his hands, he looked down into his friend's troubled eyes. "He says that he's poisoned you, Chief. That he sent Webster to see you." He saw Sandburg shake his head no. "Listen to me, Blair, he said that you wouldn't feel anything now, that it would take awhile for it to build in your system."
"That's crazy, Jim." Blair's voice was a tense whisper. "I feel fine. I don't care what he said."
Holding on tighter when he felt his friend try to pull away, Ellison urged Sandburg to hear what he was saying. "He's holding all the cards right now. We don't have any choice but to hear him out."
"Ellison..." the shaman's voice came from behind him.
Angrily looking over his shoulder, the sentinel warned Brooks to be quiet. "Blair." He turned back to see the fear, and something he couldn't identify, written across his friend's face. Pulling his friend into a strong hug, he tried to take away some of that fear. "It's going to be okay, Chief."
"Ellison," Brooks tried again. This time his voice was more insistent. "The longer you delay in giving him the drug to counteract the poison, the harder his body will have to fight to survive."
Moving to stand beside Sandburg, Ellison's face was a mask of surprise. "I don't get it. You poison him, make him come all this way, to just turn around and give him the antidote? Why?"
"To remind you what a fragile thing life is." Brooks took a step closer. "To show you how I could take that life at anytime I choose." He took another step. "To convince you that the only way you will remain safe is to do as I ask."
"You're insane." Blair's angry shout wiped the smile from the shaman's face. "How long do you think that you can hold one of us hostage against the other? Your grand plan is a little flawed."
"Do you think it wise," the African sneered, "to anger the one who holds your life in his hands?" He carefully pulled a syringe from his pocket. "You are lucky that I am so forgiving and that you hold some worth for me." He thrust the needle at the sentinel. "Here, inject him with this."
"Me?" Ellison took the syringe in shaking hands and sent his partner a panicked look.
"Don't worry, Jim. There's no way I'm going to let anyone stick me with that thing." Sandburg sent an angry glare at Brooks. "You think we're going to believe you after all you've done?"
"If you don't believe me, then let this persuade you." A small gun was clutched in the shaman's hands. He took careful aim at Sandburg and drew back the hammer.
"You're not going to get anything if you kill him, Brooks." The sentinel began to move himself in between his partner and the gun.
"That's very true, detective, but then neither will you. I wonder how many qualified shamans there are in the city that possess experience with sentinels. Not many I would imagine." His finger tightened slowly on the trigger. "Now do it or I will put a bullet into him and I won't care if I have to go through you to do it. I'm tiring of this game very quickly." His eyes narrowed. "Are you going to do as I say or shall we end it right here?"
Ellison held up both hands in front of him in a placating gesture. "All right, all right. Blair," he said, never taking his eyes off Brooks. "We're going to have to trust him. Take off your coat, Chief."
Sandburg couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Are you crazy? Trust him?" He took a step backwards. "No way, man."
"Blair, please." Jim made a move as if to stop his friend. He slowly pivoted around. Without warning, his leg shot out in a kick that would have earned him high scores in any martial arts competition. His foot connected solidly with the shaman's wrist and sentinel hearing picked up the sound of bone snapping. Thinking that Brooks would offer no resistance, he was surprised by the man's lunge at him and they both toppled to the ground.
The syringe flew from the sentinel's hand to land in the grass just out of reach. Both he and Brooks got to their knees, making a desperate grab for the needle.
"Stop, Brooks!" Sandburg's angry snarl stopped both men. Ellison looked to see his partner standing over them, gun held firmly in both hands. "It's over."
With a grunt, the sentinel sat back on his knees and reached for his handcuffs. "Hands behind your back." He reached for the shaman, but only grabbed air.
Sandburg's warning of "Look out!" came as Graham Brooks threw himself forward the few inches he needed to grab the syringe. All in one fluid motion, his dark fingers closed around it and he turned with the intention of thrusting it into the sentinel. Blair watched as the shaman suddenly went stiff. His eyes bulged and his mouth moved as if to speak. Then, just as suddenly, he collapsed into a motionless heap. In his fury, Brooks had crushed the glass syringe, sending its contents onto his bare skin.
Neither Sandburg nor Ellison said anything as they stared at the body. Finally, Blair broke the silence. "He's dead?"
"Oh yeah." Nodding, Jim nudged the hand that held the poison with his boot. "Judging from the scent, I'd say that was probably a cyanide compound. I guess he was lying to us after all." The sentinel shot his friend a wicked grin.
Blair's mouth dropped open. "You knew all along, didn't you? And you let me sweat it out?"
"I wasn't really sure of anything, Sandburg, until he insisted that I be the one to inject you. His heartbeat went off the scale for a minute." Staring at the body, Jim draped an arm across his friend's shoulders. "That sick bastard wanted me to be the one who killed you." He felt small tremors start under his hand. "Blair?"
Swallowing hard, Sandburg laid a hand on the sentinel's. It had been so very close. If Brooks had tricked his partner into injecting him with that poison he still would have lost his chance to be Ellison's shaman. Grief and guilt would have destroyed the sentinel. "Let's get out of here, Jim."
Blair sat perched on the corner of Jim's desk, watching as his partner put the finishing touches on the report he'd been working on all morning. As the lunch hour drew closer, Blair had begun exhorting Jim to complete his task. He'd begun taunting him with phrases such as "How about you dictate the report to me and I'll type it so we can actually finish in time for lunch?" and "Jim, man, let spell checker fix your mistakes when you're done. It's faster!" And Jim's personal favorite, "You know, I'll bet if you used the other eight fingers you could finish that report sometime today."
Little did Blair realize that the more impatient he became, the more deliberately Jim worked. He was actually enjoying watching Blair fidget, but he covered his amusement with a growl. "Sandburg, don't you have something else you need to be doing?"
It was all he could do not to laugh when his partner immediately responded, "Yeah, man, going to lunch! I'm starving!"
It was good to see Blair smile, Jim thought. Smiles had been difficult to come by since Billy McGregor had been killed. His death had been pointless and senseless, and senselessness disturbed Blair. Although still saddened by McGregor's death, Blair was recovering his emotional equilibrium.
Jim was feeling pretty good himself. The Brooks matter was finally behind them. Brooks was dead and Emily Webster was behind bars, awaiting trial for her participation in Brooks' prison/hospital escape. The hapless police officer that had been drugged at the hospital had provided a very good description of the nurse once he had awakened. Between the officer's description and Brooks' admission that Emily had proven herself very loyal, Ellison and Sandburg had been pretty confident they had their accomplice. After the sketch artist had modified the suspect's likeness by removing the heavy eyeglasses and coloring the brown hair blonde, it became obvious that the nurse was, in reality, Emily Webster. The loyal housekeeper had been apprehended attempting to board a plane for Rio de Janeiro. Shortly after being taken into custody, she'd confessed to aiding the African shaman in his escape.
However, she had no knowledge of the attempt on Jim's life or the loft break-in. That remained a mystery for which they had not a single clue.
Blair had taken a deep breath, preparatory to launching another taunt, when Simon stalked into the bullpen, file folder in hand. He moved to Jim's desk and tossed the file onto the stack that already consumed the better portion of the detective's desk. "I thought you might find this interesting." He shook his head, obviously amazed at the information the report contained.
Blair moved to pick up the manila folder, but Jim snatched it out from under his hand with an indulgent growl. "This is still my desk, Sandburg, so I get first crack at reading the reports." He scanned the opening paragraph of the report then raised his eyes in question at his superior. "I don't understand, sir."
"Keep reading, Jim," Simon instructed. "It gets more interesting."
After another few moments of reading, Jim's eyebrows shot up and he turned to his partner and shook his head in disbelief.
"What is it, Jim? Man, you're killing me here!" Sandburg was literally bouncing on Jim's desk, alternating between casting curious glances between his partner and his captain and trying to read the report over Jim's shoulder.
Still shaking his head, Jim handed Blair the file and questioned his captain. "How did you figure all this out?"
"It wasn't me, Jim. The guy's mother found a suicide note beside the body. If she hadn't found it, I don't think we'd ever have found out he was the one harassing you. The uniforms on the scene recognized Brooks' name and figured we'd be interested."
"Went beyond harassing," Blair muttered under his breath as he continued to read the coroner's report on the man who had so effectively clouded the Brooks investigation.
"What was that, detective?" Simon snapped, fixing his newest detective with a stony glare.
As usual, Blair ignored the look and pressed on. "I was just saying that trying to run Jim down with a car went way beyond harassment." He flipped a page in the report and blanched as he stared at the Forensics photo of the body. His expression changed to shock as he realized, "This is the guy who threatened Billy at Brooks' trial!" The pain of that episode still shone clearly on Blair's face.
"In his note he confessed to killing McGregor," Simon confirmed, "because he had testified against Brooks. A psych evaluation would have shown the man--"
"Frederick (Ricky) Herrington," Blair supplied, reading the name from the file.
"Thank you, Sandburg," Banks said dryly. "Anyway, it seems Herrington had something of a Graham Brooks fixation and blamed the three of you for Brooks' difficulties. He was intent on punishing you all, but Brooks would only allow him to kill McGregor. Apparently he had other, larger plans for the two of you."
"So he said," Blair declared hotly, tossing the file back on the desk. "And Billy died for nothing!" He pushed his hair behind his ear then crossed his arms across his chest. "Man, Herrington complicated everything. Here we were trying to get a handle on Brooks and there he was, clouding the issue with his interference."
"Exactly as Brooks intended," Jim agreed. "While we were busily chasing after our decoy, Brooks was making good on his escape. The nature of the incidents made it difficult to see the connection."
"Well, I could have gone on quite nicely without you finding that snake in your bed -- even if it wasn't real!" Blair's companions barely managed to hide their smiles at his melodramatic shiver.
Jim turned back to his computer for a moment, clicked 'Save' and then 'Print'. "Speaking of connected," he said in satisfaction, "I'm finally done with my report, no thanks to your constant nagging, Sandburg. I think I've dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts."
"Does this mean we can finally go get something to eat?" Blair asked, sliding off Jim's desk and darting over to retrieve his jacket.
Jim grinned and turned to his captain. "You up for lunch, sir? Sandburg's been whining about food for over an hour, but he thinks I don't know he wants to go to that vegetarian deli down the street. I'm feeling more Wonder Burger-ish myself. You know, real food. So I think I'm going to need your reinforcement."
"I never fail to respond to an Officer Needs Help call, Jim. Let me get my coat."
"Oh, you two are so not funny!" Blair retorted in mock indignation. "Just for that, you're buying, Jim!"
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