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Summary: A conspiracy comes to light.

Author's Note: This is the fourth story in The Dawn to Dark Series.






The Darkest Night
By Fluterbev

January 2004




Blair had just put the key in the truck door to unlock it when a shadow fell across him. He turned to encounter the formidable sun-blocking properties of Simon Banks.

"Sandburg," Banks greeted, as though he came to Rainier every day to meet Blair.

Blair smiled. "Hey, Simon. What are you doing here?"

"I was passing, thought I'd see if I could catch you before you started work. You got time for coffee?"

Blair was mildly surprised. He and Simon never just 'went for coffee'. They had become good friends over the years, of course, but in the particular context that had become their common ground - the PD, the sentinel phenomena, and their mutual friend James Ellison. Rainier was Blair's world; and Simon had never before seemed to have the time or the inclination for the casual meeting behavior typified by Blair and his acquaintances on the university campus.

Nevertheless, if Simon had made the effort to intercept him, the least Blair could do would be to go along. It had been a while since they had seen each other, and Blair was fully aware that Simon too was grieving for the loss of their mutual friend Jim three months before. "Sure, man, just let me lock up again. There's a student coffee bar at the back of Hargrove. It looks a bit rough, but the coffee's fine."

They made their way over, and Blair bought the coffees while Simon sat gingerly at a table in the corner. It was quiet here at this time in the morning, classes having just started; but just after the hour it would be teeming with students.

Simon was pulling a face and wiping his hand on a handkerchief as Blair came and sat down. "Is there some universal law," he growled, "that under every table on a university campus there is someone else's gum?"

Blair grinned. "Except for when it's your own." He pushed a cup of coffee towards Simon. "Here you go."

"Thanks." Banks took a sip. He toasted Blair with it. "Not bad."

"Most students live off it, especially at exam time, so if it wasn't half-decent it could get ugly. You don't want to see students revolting, man!"

Simon grinned ferally. "Students are always revolting, Sandburg."

Blair affected hurt. "Aren't you supposed to say 'present company excepted'?"

Simon's grin got wider. "Present circumstances excepted, Sandburg."

They both sipped their coffee, making small talk; Simon listening as Blair updated him on the latest developments since his recent return to work.

The lawsuit Simon and Jim had encouraged Blair to file against Rainier had resulted in him being reinstated to his teaching fellowship, as well as winning compensation for unfair dismissal and loss of earnings. A side-effect of the whole matter had been (as Jim had always believed would happen), that Chancellor Edwards's incompetence had been brought into sharp relief, and she had been forced into early retirement.

The return to Rainier had not been the smoothest of rides, however, and Blair's graduate student status was still in the balance. Despite not officially having turned in his dissertation on sentinels, he had, in the eyes of the university, spent the four years he should have been working on his PhD effectively writing a novel - using university resources, grants and time to facilitate his own personal project.

The consequences were that he had been brought before the University Disciplinary Committee (a procedure that the former Chancellor Edwards should have initiated instead of summarily expelling him). The UDC had had no alternative but to find him guilty of a major breach of the student code of conduct.

His job had not been affected, but his position as a student had. The penalty had been suspension from his graduate studies for the remainder of the current academic year. When re-registered in several months time, he would have to choose a new thesis topic, and engage in it under the strict supervision of an advisor. He had also been ordered to repay the student loans he had accrued, and would not be eligible for any further financial aid in the form of grants or scholarships.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the whole thing was that Blair's reputation for honesty and integrity had been compromised. And Blair was well aware that the cloud was likely to persist over his future academic career - the anthropology community in U.S. universities being deceptively small, and cursed with a long memory.

He was determined, however, to see it through, however difficult. He was, as he had once explained to Jim, an anthropologist at heart. Given this second chance to be what he had always wanted to be, he had grasped it firmly. He was confident that eventually his dedication and ability would see him through, despite this (admittedly rather major) glitch in his career.

A more positive outcome of the entire legal mess had been that Berkshire Publishing, which had leaked his dissertation to the press against his express wishes, had agreed a hefty financial settlement. That, along with the loft and the money Jim had left to him, meant that Blair was now extremely financially secure; so he had already managed to repay his student loans in full, and would have no trouble supporting himself financially for the remainder of his studies.

Funny, though. He had spent a large portion of his life constantly worrying about making ends meet. Now that was no longer an issue, he found himself unable to take any real satisfaction in it.

Finally allowing his curiosity to get the better of him, Blair took advantage of a pause in his easy banter with Banks to ask, "So, What's on your mind, Simon? Not that I'm not pleased to see you. It's just you don't make a habit of dropping by Rainier."

Banks snorted, never one to pussyfoot around an issue when given an opening. "What, like you still always drop by the bullpen?" at Blair's puzzled expression, he went on, "I got the impression you were avoiding me lately. You've become a pretty hard man to get in touch with, and it's been months since anyone else at the PD has heard from you. I was worried, so I came to see how you were doing."

Blair shook his head, touched by Simon's concern. "You didn't have to do that. I'm fine. And I've not been avoiding you; I wouldn't do that man! I've just been busy, really. You know, now that I'm back at work." He affected a nonchalance that didn't fool Simon one bit. Despite maintaining a certain amount of contact with Simon when pushed, Blair had effectively cut himself off from contact with Jim's former co-workers since his friend's death; Simon assumed to avoid stirring painful memories.

But Banks also understood the power of memory. "Yeah, well, forgive me for giving a damn. In case you hadn't noticed, I lost a friend too. But I still make the effort."

Hurt and chagrined, Blair said, "Simon, I know man. I know. I'm sorry. It's just..." He waved a hand vaguely, "It just seemed easier to immerse myself in this. It's hard, you know, seeing the people Jim worked with, coming up to the PD, knowing that..."

"That he's not there any more," Simon continued. He nodded. "Tell me about it. I live with that every day I walk past his desk into my office. So does Joel."

Feeling really bad now, Blair groaned. "Oh man. He's not still blaming himself? I mean, it was a freak accident. There's no way he was responsible."

Simon took another swallow of coffee. "He was Acting Captain. He figures he sent a wounded man out in the field. It's not logical, but it eats at him. He's put in for early retirement."

"God. I'll have to talk to him. He knows I don't blame him, right?"

"I think he needs to hear you say that."

Blair ran both hands through his hair, grimacing. What the hell was wrong with him? He had spent the last three months feeling sorry for himself, and was now immersing his time and energy into Rainier, while his friends were slowly falling apart. "Simon, I'm sorry. I'll come down and see him. Will he be there later on?"

Banks shook his head. "He's taken sick leave. Stress. It's unlikely he'll be back before his retirement comes through."

Blair felt awful – why the hell hadn’t he made an effort to even lift the phone once in a while?

Into his unhappy silence, Simon went on, “Blair, we all know what you and Jim had was closer than most partnerships. You were practically family to each other, so I know it's been difficult for you since he's gone. But please, don't shut the rest of us out. You know as well as I, hell you've researched it, that police departments have a strong sense of brotherhood. We lost one of our own. We don't want to lose you too. We all feel bad enough as it is. And I," he paused, "I don't want to lose another friend."

Blair was speechless; incredibly moved by Banks's rare declaration of friendship, and to hear that Simon considered him a part of the Major Crimes 'brotherhood'. He had always assumed himself to be simply the observer, the outsider, even during the heyday of his ride with Jim. He tried to marshal his thoughts for a suitable reply, but kept coming up blank.

But Simon fortunately headed him off at the pass, obviously having reached his limit of touchy-feeliness. "So, Sandburg, tell me about this new Chancellor. He's got to be an improvement on Edwards."

The intensity passed as simply as that, and it was with some relief on both sides that the conversation moved on.

But as they walked back together to the Hargrove Hall parking lot and made their farewells, Blair said to Simon, "I'll call Joel, Captain. And I'll come in sometime this week to see everyone else."

Simon nodded. "Good." And with that they parted.

***

The rest of the day went by much like any other since his return, with Blair immersing himself as much as possible in his work. Not at present officially pursuing his own study (although still reading anthropology texts voraciously, and keeping up-to-date with the latest developments in the field), he had developed the habit of giving his all to his teaching and his students, spending long hours each day on campus.

Despite the disciplinary issue, which had given him the reputation of fecklessness with many of his more senior colleagues, there were still those in the Faculty of Social Science in general - and the Department of Anthropology in particular - who both liked and respected Blair Sandburg BA, MA, ABD.

He had, in any case, been part of the university for thirteen years, from sixteen-year-old prodigy to Teaching Fellow, and was regarded by many of the long-standing members of the faculty as one of their own. He may have screwed up, but here he was, back at work; having faced the music and paid the piper. That had to be worth some respect.

While Blair filled his days with anthropology, he generally avoided going home to the empty loft in the evenings by reactivating a social life similar to that he had pursued as a young grad student, before stakeouts and Major Crime poker nights had immersed him in a whole new world. He joined the foreign film club. He participated in campus debates and discussions about the environment, rediscovering a side of himself that had once been a major part of his identity, during the heady days of protests with his (late) friend Janet. He played basketball.

And he dated, like always. Although since Jim's death he had hardly ever gone out with the same woman more than once.

He had overheard his last date, a leggy TA called Janelle, complaining sarcastically to one of the Department secretaries about him. "You'd think he'd been married to that friend of his. Half the time he talked about what a great guy Jim was, the rest he stared off into space, and I swear he had tears in his eyes." She tossed back her shoulder length blond hair, and adopted a pained expression. "I might as well not have been there for all the attention he paid me."

He had, indeed, confided in Janelle about the fact he was still grieving for his friend. In fact, it had been the first time since Jim's death he had felt able to unload his grief on anyone apart from Simon. She had encouraged him, and even seemed sympathetic at the time. Since overhearing her scathing opinion about him, Blair hadn't felt like asking her or anyone else out again.

Tonight he was heading over to watch a Bollywood extravaganza at the campus cinema. He was meeting a few of the film society first in an Indian restaurant nearby, where they had decided to go to get them in the mood. Oddly enough, it was the same balti house the bad guys had shot up the first time he and Jim had worked with Megan. He vividly remembered Jim loudly reaming Megan out afterwards, and being really relieved it hadn't been him who had invoked his friend's wrath by doing something stupid.

As he walked out of Hargrove Hall and across the parking lot to the truck, hoisting his backpack over his shoulder and jingling the keys in his hand, the hair on his neck prickled suddenly, and he had the strangest and most vivid sensation that he was being watched.

Years of riding with Ellison had taught him not to give himself away, so he accidentally-on-purpose dropped the keys on the ground. Bending down to retrieve them, he peered surreptitiously through his hair around the parking lot. He couldn't see anyone around, the car-park being reasonably empty of vehicles.

Blair retrieved the keys, trying to shake himself out of his paranoia. He got into the truck, and took some deep breaths, forcing his heart to slow to its normal rhythm. "Calm down, man," he told himself sternly as he started the ignition, and headed out towards the restaurant.

But later that night as he entered 852 Prospect, full of vindaloo and humming a bhangra melody under his breath, he failed to notice the black sedan car with dark tinted windows which had followed him home.

***

When Blair arrived at his office the next morning, he found an email waiting for him from Jack Kelso, simply asking Blair to call. He got through on the first ring. "Hey, Jack, this is Blair Sandburg."

“Blair, I have something here you might be interested in. Remember the research you were doing when we first met?”

Blair thought back. He had been working on his Masters’ degree, writing a thesis on tribal sentinels; but he had never discussed it with Kelso as far as he remembered. With his doctoral dissertation becoming public though, maybe Jack had put two-and-two together, despite Blair's profession of its in-authenticity. It was the kind of thing his colleague in Political Science had a knack of finding out. "Yes?" said Blair cautiously.

“This is extremely relevant to it. I think it might re-engage your interest. Can you meet me now? Here?”

Blair looked at his watch. He was teaching a class in half-an-hour. "I have a bit of time. I'll be there in five."

“Fine.” Jack hung up, and Blair reached again for his jacket.

***

A few minutes later, Blair was being ushered into Jack Kelso's office. Jack pushed the door shut. "Sit down Blair. I have some news you need to hear."

Blair remained standing. "I can't stay long, Jack, so I'll forego the chair. What's the urgency, man?"

"I'll come straight to the point." Kelso looked grim. "I've just discovered that Lee Brackett escaped from custody six months ago."

"Oh man." Blair sank into the chair anyway. Then, at a thought, "Hey, hang on a minute; Captain Banks would have been notified, right? Neither he nor Jim said anything to me." Six months ago, Jim had still been alive; surely if he had known about Brackett's escape he would have told Blair? It had been the two of them together, after all, who had taken the rogue CIA agent down.

Jack was shaking his head. "They wouldn't have known, Blair. Because of his security clearance, Brackett was being held in a secret facility. Effectively he would have disappeared from regular judicial radar as soon as he was processed through the system."

"Oh." That sounded distinctly 'big brother' to Blair.

"There's more. I'll come straight to the point, Blair. I know about Jim Ellison being a sentinel. I know you sacrificed yourself to protect him, so don't even try to deny it."

Blair kept his expression carefully schooled to neutrality, although his heart was suddenly pounding furiously. "Jack..." he began, but Kelso interrupted.

"Don't, Blair. Just listen, please." Blair nodded reluctantly, so he carried on. "My contacts told me that when Brackett was in jail, he vigorously pursued an interest in academic study. Anthropology, to be precise.

"He studied sentinels, Blair. He read everything he could get his hands on, which with his contacts, even in prison, was a lot. Apparently he was obsessed by it. When your work was leaked to the press, I believe he managed to get a copy of that as well. Shortly afterwards, he escaped. It seems he had help from the outside - extremely competent help. There were rumors of something big he had gotten involved in."

Kelso continued more quietly, causing Blair to lean closer to hear what he was saying. "Then he disappeared. None of my contacts know of his movements since January. Effectively, since your friend Jim died."

Blair couldn't understand the connection. "Jack, what are you saying? Jim's death was an accident. Are you telling me that Brackett had something to do with it? That he killed him?"

Kelso's voice was suddenly gentle. "No, Blair. I'm trying to tell you I believe that Jim Ellison is still alive. And that Brackett has him."

***

That Blair managed to deliver his lecture at all was a miracle in itself. Shocked by Kelso's pronouncement, his first reaction had been vigorous denial; and after explosively rebutting the ex-CIA man's claim he had fled, heading straight to the lecture hall where he had recited his prepared notes in a stunned monotone.

Now, back in his own office, sitting with his head in his hands, he didn't know what to think.

Many, many times in the last three months he had desperately longed for Jim to be still alive. Sometimes he even dreamt that he was; surreal dreams set within a blurred, mingled landscape of the city and the jungle, in which Blair and Jim, accompanied by their animal spirits, walked side-by-side. Afterwards he would wake, drained, into an empty reality within which Jim Ellison no longer existed. At those achingly low moments he had more than once contemplated joining his friend in death.

He had often pondered the depth of his despair after Jim's death. He had studied psychology as an undergraduate, and as an enthusiastic proponent of alternative therapies, had experimented with different therapeutic approaches (some of which he had even used successfully on Jim). He had an academic appreciation therefore, of the mechanics of the grieving process.

He had come to the conclusion that his reaction, though extreme, was at least understandable, as his life and Jim's had been profoundly and inextricably linked in so many essential areas.

As well as Jim being the focus of a study which Blair had been undertaking in some form for much of his adult life - the study of sentinels - the relationship between Jim and Blair had been typical of the interdependency of many police partners: an intense trust born of surviving so many life-threatening situations together.

If that had been all, it would have been enough to explain Blair's reaction to the pain of Jim's death. But it wasn't all. Not by a long shot.

Blair had honestly loved Jim, and he knew with deep conviction that the sentiment had been returned. Jim had endowed Blair with his sincere friendship; a truly precious gift from a man who had lost so many people he had cared about in his life, as well having been betrayed by so many others he had allowed to get close to him. Jim had even welcomed Blair into his home, providing a stable and secure backdrop to his often chaotic life.

Never having had an actual brother, Blair didn't know if what they had shared emotionally was anything like the closeness of true siblings. But brotherhood was the closest analogy Blair had been able to come up with. In essence, therefore, apart from Naomi, Jim had been the closest thing to true family that Blair had ever had.

Sure, things had not always gone smoothly between them. At times, misunderstandings and errors of judgment on both their parts had given rise to tensions and stresses that had almost sent them their separate ways. But despite everything that had happened, all the bumps in their road, Blair and Jim had ultimately stood by each other through thick and thin. They had developed a profound sense of loyalty to each other despite their differences, broadly similar to that exhibited by family groupings Blair had observed during his work as an anthropologist, and as a lay student of humanity in general.

So Blair had forgiven himself for feeling so bad for so long, and he had carried on, despite the pain. He had, in any case, once made Ellison a promise that he wouldn't give up, that he would fight to clear his name of the taint of 'fraud'. He had gone a long way towards achieving that goal; in fact, was here, back at work, soon to be enrolled as a doctoral candidate once more. His life was just starting to get back on track, and despite constant reminders of Jim and periodic low moments, there were beginning to be intervals each day where the pain didn't cut so deep.

But now? He didn't know what was worse - the thought of Jim being dead, or helpless for the last three months in the hands of Brackett.

Whatever the truth, Blair had to face it, no matter how painful. He had to know for sure if Jim was alive or dead. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself decisively to his feet, mustered some spirit, and went to demand answers from Jack Kelso.

***

Five young faces turned to look at Blair as he barged without knocking into Jack Kelso's office. Kelso was unfazed as he immediately wound up the tutorial and dismissed them. "Something urgent has come up, and I need to talk privately to Mr. Sandburg here. I think we've covered everything for now..."

Blair tuned out as Kelso gave reading instructions to his students before they left, more than one of them glancing at Sandburg uncomfortably as they passed. Blair had never been good at hiding his anger, and after winding himself up on the way over, boy was he angry right now.

As soon as the last of them had left and closed the door behind them, he exploded. "What proof? What proof do you have that Jim is alive? Because I swear, if this is just supposition I'll..."

Kelso had wheeled swiftly over to him. For a moment, the formidable ex-CIA operative took the place of the mild-mannered academic. "Keep your voice down!" his quiet air of menace halted Blair's tirade. "I have anti-surveillance equipment installed, but anyone listening in the next room could hear you through the wall at that volume!"

Blair shut up, suddenly feeling absurdly as though he had stepped into a Bond movie. Kelso carried on calmly. "I understand that you are upset right now, Mr. Sandburg, but I don't appreciate the way you pushed your way into my class. The least you can do now is to calm down so we can discuss this like the mature, professional people we both are. Is that clear?"

Blair held up both hands in surrender. "Yes. It's clear." His anger still simmered, but he suddenly felt a little ashamed of his loss of control. And, in any case, this man had the answers, and Blair needed to hear them. Alienating him was not an option. He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

Kelso softened his stance a little. "Accepted." He turned the wheelchair around. "Now, come and sit down, and I'll brief you on what I know."

Kelso wheeled over to the desk, and Blair sat on one of the chairs vacated by the students. "You wanted proof." Kelso reached under his desk, and a faint click could be heard. He withdrew a brown foolscap envelope from somewhere beneath, and handed it to Blair. "Here," he said. "Open it."

Almost afraid to comply, feeling as though he were about to leap off a precipice, Blair opened the flap and withdrew the contents.

A photograph. Black and white, grainy, obviously taken from a long distance away using a telephoto lens.

Four figures, probably men; a white van with the back doors open.

A fifth man, unconscious or dead, being carried by two of the others, either about to be put in the back of the van or in the process of being taken out of it.

Blair squinted at the prone man. It was impossible to clearly make out his features from this photo, unless, Sandburg thought ironically, you were a sentinel. But Blair didn't need to look that closely. He knew those broad shoulders, those long legs. The faint suggestion of short hair with a slightly receding hairline.

It was Jim. Undoubtedly.

"Oh my god," he said faintly. "When was this taken?" His voice seemed to well up out of a deep hole, the photograph encompassing his entire vision.

"It was taken later the same day that Ellison supposedly died. This photo shows the last known sighting of Brackett before he went to ground." Belatedly, Blair recognized something in the stance of the man by the drivers door of the van; the rogue CIA agent Lee Brackett. Sandburg would never forget him.

He tore his gaze from the photo to stare intently at Jack Kelso. "Why? I mean, the CIA, or whoever took this, they were watching Brackett; why didn't they arrest him when this was taken? Why didn't they help Jim?"

Kelso met Blair's gaze grimly. "I'm sure you can work that out, Blair. Think of your police experience."

Blair licked dry lips. "Surveillance," he rasped. "They wanted to expose his entire operation."

Kelso nodded. "There's every indication that capturing Ellison was just the initial phase of Brackett's plan."

Blair was livid. "That's sick, man! Jim was a kidnap victim! Those guys are supposed to be on the side of, you know, truth and justice? Upholding the law? They should have helped him."

Kelso shook his head. "You and I are on the same side, here, Blair. But you know as well as I that the Agency operates its own agenda. The prize of catching Brackett's employers would have been deemed far greater than one man's life. You've been around," Kelso allowed himself a tight smile, "You've even read my book. This kind of thing shouldn't come as a surprise to you."

It didn't, sad to say. Blair's already healthy cynicism about government agencies had increased tenfold during the time he had worked with Jim. He waved a hand dismissively. "Okay. Forget it. So," he changed the subject to the real issue at stake, "Where's Brackett now?"

"Unfortunately, it appears he was on to the surveillance, and he managed to disappear. My contacts tell me that there has been no information regarding his current whereabouts, and there have been no sightings of him since this was taken."

Blair looked back down at the photo. His finger ran the length of Jim's image; tenderly, reverently. Three months ago. Jim had been in the hands of that maniac for three months. Hardly daring to voice his fear, he breathed, "Do you think he's still alive?"

A hand landed on Blair's arm. Kelso had wheeled over next to Sandburg. "Blair," he said gently, "Brackett went to a lot of trouble to capture Ellison, while making sure that everyone believed he was dead. I'm sure he wouldn't do all that, and then kill him. I'm certain he's still alive."

"Oh my god." Connections were beginning to form in Blair's mind, and he didn't like where they were leading one bit. He lifted anguished eyes to Kelso. "Brackett - he's been studying sentinels. And you said he had my dissertation."

Kelso nodded.

"My dissertation is about Jim. The results of all the tests we did, finding out his limits. All his strengths and weaknesses." Blair swallowed, horrified, before completing the thought. "Brackett has gotten himself a sentinel." His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "With an instruction manual."

***

The first thing Blair did when he got back to his own office was to call Berkshire Publishing. If Brackett had gotten hold of his dissertation, there was only one place he could have obtained it. "Hello, this is Blair Sandburg. I'd like to speak to Sid Graham, please."

“One moment sir.” A click, and bland piano music indicated he had been put on hold.

Then a male voice. “Hello?”

"Mr. Graham?"

“No, this is Saul Francis. Who is this?"

"My name is Blair Sandburg. I need to speak to Mr. Graham. Is he available?"

A pause. Then, “Mr. Sandburg? I'm sorry, I'm afraid Mr. Graham passed away nearly three months ago. I have taken over his files. Can I help you?”

Three months? Not liking the picture forming in his head, Blair said, "Uh, no, thanks. But if you wouldn't mind," he paused, "Could you tell me how he died?"

An audible swallow. “Were you acquainted with Mr. Graham?”

Blair coughed, clearing his throat uncomfortably. "You, uh, could say that."

“I'm sorry. Mr., uh, Sandburg, did you say?”

"Yes. Blair Sandburg."

Sympathy crept into Francis's voice. “Mr. Sandburg, I'm afraid it was a terrible accident. He was in a house fire - burnt to death. An awful tragedy.”

Oh god.

“Hello? Hello, Mr. Sandburg, are you there? Hello?”

Blair put down the phone, and put his head in his hands.

***

Sandburg had been Ellison's partner for long enough that Jim's regular snitches had forgotten he wasn't actually a cop. Sitting in a greasy diner half-way across town, Blair recalled many similar such meetings, back in the days when he and Ellison had been together. Then, as now, it had been his footwear rather than Jim's that had usually been in jeopardy.

Sneaks, hyper as usual, was bouncing in his seat. "Man, oh man. Those are a nice pair. A nice pair. And am I going to earn my bonus today. Oh boy!"

Blair smiled at Jim's favorite snitch. "Okay, man, settle down. There's more where these came from, if you help me out here."

Sneaks stole another look under the table, and rolled his eyes happily in anticipation. "So, man," he asked, slapping the table with the palm of his hand, "What d’ya wanna know?"

Blair looked down for a second at his own hands, wrapped tightly around a coffee mug, then back across at Sneaks. "I need you to tell me who Ellison was meeting the day he died. All I know is that it was one of his snitches."

"Man, that's easy!" Sneaks allowed himself another covetous look under the table, knowing his bonus was in the bag. "It was Bill, man! Old Vetman Bill."

"Vetman?" Blair didn't remember that one. He must have been one of Ellison's less regular informants.

"Yeah, Vetman. You know, he was a vet!"

Blair frowned in puzzlement. "A vet? As in animal doctor?"

Sneaks threw back his head and chuckled. "No, man. A veteran! As in Vietnam! Big old guy, liked to keep himself in shape. Doing good for his age, if you know what I mean."

Blair considered this for a moment, then said "Was? You said he was a vet."

"Yeah, man!" Sneaks was rubbing his hands together, seeing his prize in sight. "He's gone. Disappeared. Not been seen since Ellison bought it. Everyone figured he died in that explosion, too. Only the newspapers just mentioned Ellison's body being found. I guess old Vetman wasn't important enough to make the news. So," he clapped his hands together, looking expectantly at Blair, "Do I get my bonus now, or what?!"

Blair absently unlaced his sneakers and handed them over, hardly registering Sneaks's delight over his acquisition.

And he found himself pondering one question as the snitch sashayed gleefully away.

Whose body had actually been found after that fire?

***

Blair hadn't seen Naomi since about a month after Jim's funeral.

Following the offer of a detective's badge in the bullpen that day months ago, his mom had disappeared off on some spiritual journey to process what she believed to be her son's life-changing decision to be a cop; unaware that Blair had also actually fled Cascade the same day.

Then, while Blair was just beginning to put his life back together after his best friend's death, she had casually breezed back into his life like she always did, letting herself into the loft with the key Blair had given her. The first he had known of her presence was the aroma of tongue cooking as he fitted his key in the door.

She had turned from her place at the stove as she heard him come in, her expression a mixture of wariness and fondness; unsure of her welcome. He had stood transfixed as she embraced him. Then she had held him at arm's length, looking past him to the still open door. "Is Jim with you, sweetie?"

"Ma," he had whispered. "Jim's dead." It had been the first time he could remember saying those actual words out loud. A terrible emptiness in the pit of his stomach at that moment had finally convinced him it was true. Dry-eyed and unutterably sad, he had related the tale of Jim's death to Naomi, then shored himself up to weather the storm of his mother's shocked grief.

Later, as they sat side-by-side on the couch, Naomi had protested, "But sweetie, his things are all still here. That's not healthy. You need to let them go; to let him go, and move on. We could do it together. I can help you make it part of a ritual. I'm sure it will help."

He had shaken his head. "Not yet, Naomi. It's too soon." She had protested, but he had stood firm, as he had so often needed to against his mother's contrary wishes. So Jim's bedroom had remained untouched, and his possessions still in place around the loft (although Blair's belongings had gradually crept out of his room to join them, to a degree Ellison would never have tolerated were he here).

Now, as he ascended the three floors to apartment 307 in the elevator, he felt a grim satisfaction in his reluctance to let go. Jim was not dead. Jim would return to find all as he had left it.

Approaching the door to the loft, Blair suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of déja vu. Maybe it was because of what he had been thinking about on the way up, he supposed; but he had the strongest impression that someone was inside. He unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Ma?" he called. "Naomi?"

No-one answered. He closed the door behind him and glanced around, then looked in all the rooms, to see everything just as he had left it this morning. But the odd prickle along the hairs on his arms told him intuitively that someone had been here, even though he could find no visible sign.

Impulsively, he went to the door and set the bolts Jim had installed after one-too-many invasions of their home; then checked the extra locks on the fire-escape in his room, and the skylight and windows. As he did, a memory of another time he had been sure he was being followed assailed him.

He hadn't been paranoid that time. Lash had kidnapped and almost killed him.

That night, Blair lay fully dressed on the couch, unable to sleep, Jim's hunting rifle lying loaded by his side.

***

Kelso had warned him to be careful; not to rush blithely around telling everyone that Jim was still alive. Blair's growing suspicion that he was being watched only added to his caution.

As the next few days progressed, he began to accumulate more and more clues that he was under surveillance. His mail at work and at home began arriving later than usual, as though it had been intercepted on the way. Annoying clicks and whirring noises marred his phone conversations, both at the office and at the loft, making him suspect they were being tapped.

Sandburg had, however, learned a few tricks from Jim, the ex-black-ops ranger. Accordingly he set traps at the loft, to alert him - but not an intruder - to anyone entering when he was not there. A simple thing; some of his own long hairs, each strung between two points, on the skylight, windows and two external doors to the loft. The hairs would break if any of them were opened.

The hairs on the fire exit in his bedroom were all snapped while he was out at the university three days later; confirming his suspicion of a periodic intruder in his home. No other visible sign could be found, and nothing appeared to have been taken. If there were bugs placed in the apartment, a thorough search did not find them.

The big question, of course, was who was watching him? Was it Brackett, making sure that his fabrication of Jim's death was still holding water? Or the CIA, or some other shady government agency? If the latter; then why?

Terrified that a wrong move on his part could result in repercussions for Jim, it was only after taking his own covert investigation of Ellison's kidnapping as-opposed-to death as far as he could without help, that he finally approached Simon Banks for help.

Sandburg had discovered through cautious inquiry that all of the witnesses to Jim Ellison's supposed death by explosion were either dead or out of reach. 'Vetman' Bill was missing, and discrete inquiries had shown that of the two uniformed cops who had been at the scene, one had died of a heart attack shortly afterwards, and the other had taken a transfer out of state.

The child who Jim had gone into the building to rescue had been taken into foster care, and Blair did not have the resources to determine her whereabouts. It was doubtful, in any case, that a traumatized five-year-old girl would be of much help in finding out where Jim had been taken.

Added to that the death of Sid Graham, who had reputedly supplied Brackett with a copy of Blair's dissertation, had resulted in Sandburg's inner conspiracy theorist working overtime.

The clincher to his certainty of his friend's continued existence came when he went for coffee one morning with Dan Wolf, the ME who had autopsied the body which had been found in the fire. Subtle prompting had elicited the information that several distinctive amalgam fillings in the body's molars and pre-molars had positively confirmed the body to be Ellison's.

But Blair knew with absolute certainty that Jim's sparse metal fillings had all been replaced with alginate, when his sensitive taste buds had been irritated by the constant mercury flavor in his mouth. In view of Jim's often adverse reaction to drugs, Blair had found him a dentist who used hypnosis to control anxiety and pain in her patients, and he had been with Jim while the dental work was being done, helping him control the dials.

Whoever the dental records had pertained to, therefore, they were definitely not Jim's. Blair had a sneaking suspicion they would prove to be those of a certain Vietnam veteran and sometime snitch.

Believing that the PD was probably the venue most impervious to surveillance equipment that he knew of (Jack Kelso's office notwithstanding), Blair went to talk to Simon Banks there. As he knocked and entered the Captain's office, Banks looked up from his paperwork, fixing Sandburg with an uncompromising stare over the top of his glasses.

Blair paused in the doorway, his hand still on the handle, instantly attuned to the frostiness of the greeting. "What did I do?" he asked nervously.

Banks put his pen down and straightened up. "Come in, Sandburg. Close the door." He motioned Blair to a seat, into which the younger man sank cautiously.

After a few tense moments, Simon said, "I spoke to Joel yesterday."

Sandburg slapped his forehead in self-exasperation, catching on quick to the reason for Simon's bad mood. "Oh man! I was gonna call him. How's he doing?" His meeting with Simon on the campus, when he had promised to talk to Joel, had been nearly a week ago.

Simon took a breath and let it out. "How do you think he's doing?" He folded his arms across his chest. "Maybe, Sandburg, when you can find time in your busy schedule," he sarcastically went on, "Perhaps you would be so good as to remember the people who supported you in your hour of need. Or doesn't it go both ways with you?"

Chagrined, Blair said, "Of course it does, Simon. I'm sorry. I admit I forgot. But I had something on my mind."

Coldly, Banks said, "What's her name?"

"Jeez, man!" Blair stood, suddenly angry. "I'm not that shallow! If you'll listen for two seconds, I'll tell you what's been going on. It's why I'm here!"

Simon hadn't thawed one bit. "Silly me," he growled. "And here I thought you had come to show your friends in the PD that you hadn't forgotten them, like you promised me you would."

Blair threw both his hands up in the air. "I don't want to argue with you, man, not now!" He lowered his voice, his expression earnest. "This is too important. Please, sir, hear me out."

Maybe Blair's rare use of the honorific gave Banks pause, or perhaps it was something in Sandburg's tone; because the Captain's eyes narrowed speculatively, and he stood, going over to the coffee maker. "Coffee?" he asked. "I have a feeling we're both going to need it."

With a relieved sigh, Blair deflated, the tension eased. "Yeah, man. Thanks." He sat back down, and accepted the steaming cup that Simon handed him. He took a sip, then stared down fixedly at its contents, working out how he was going to say what he had to.

After a moment, Blair looked up. Banks had perched now on the edge of his desk.

Blue eyes met brown. "Jim's alive," Blair stated simply.

Banks's reaction was a testament to the weirdness they had both been a part of for the past several years. Instead of a knee-jerk rebuttal, or a declaration that Blair was clearly delusional, Banks simply looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked, "How do you know?"

Blair told him. The meeting with Kelso, Brackett's escape, the information and evidence he had gathered since.

Banks listened without comment, and when Blair had finished, the Captain raised his hand to his face, his finger and thumb rubbing his eyes for a moment under his glasses. Then he lowered his hand and looked back at Blair.

"Why the hell is nothing ever simple with you two?" he demanded gruffly, masking whatever emotion he felt by falling back on familiar grouchiness. "You can't even die like everybody else!"

Blair incongruously started to laugh as something wonderfully familiar clicked into place, and after a second or two Banks joined in. It was already beginning to feel suspiciously to both of them like old times.

***

Meanwhile, in a secure facility in a secret location, Lee Brackett walked into a white sterile room, lit by blinding fluorescent light. He smiled in satisfaction.

Once he had gotten past the initial resistance, his test subject had largely exceeded the parameters that had been documented. Brackett was pleased with himself. He was obviously more than capable of 'guiding'.

At a signal, the light dimmed, and Brackett laid his hand on the arm of the man strapped to the table. Ignoring the flinch in the muscles under his hand, he whispered, "You can dial it back up now."

Brackett raised a hand toward one of the featureless walls, and a door opened admitting two orderlies. He motioned towards his charge. "Put him back in his cell. Clean him up; let him rest." They moved to comply, removing the implements that had kept the man's eyes open and at the mercy of the light.

Brackett left them to it, whistling happily to himself as he walked away down the corridor. Phase one had gone very well. Now it was time to put phase two into operation.

***

Two days later, meeting once again in the Captain's office, Sandburg and Banks were no closer to discovering their friend's whereabouts.

Simon stopped pacing to hiss at Sandburg: "Hell, Blair, if the CIA don't even know where Brackett is, how do you expect us to find out?"

The two of them had each pondered that question several times and in a myriad of ways, as they had waited for the results of various careful inquiries Banks had set in motion.

Because of the suspected surveillance of Blair's movements, Banks had proceeded with caution; following up personally all information he received, while trying not to draw attention to himself in case he was being watched too. This current meeting had been preceded by Blair conspicuously visiting with Jim's former colleagues in the bullpen first, in an attempt to misdirect any watchers about his motives for being here.

Blair shrugged, frustrated. "I was kinda hoping you could tell me what to do next. I'm not a cop, remember?"

Simon was about to growl a scathing response to Blair's turning of the familiar taunt back on himself, when his desk phone rang. "Banks," he barked. Then his eyes widened as he listened.

Blair waited impatiently as Simon dealt with the caller, then raised his eyebrows expectantly as the Captain hung up. "What?"

Banks's face was gradually being suffused by a satisfied smirk. "Hope you don't have anything planned for the rest of this morning. We're heading out. Looks like we've gotten ourselves a break!"

***

Ciaran Reilly, the second of the two uniformed officers who had been called to the scene of James Ellison's apparent death, had seemingly never arrived at NYPD, to where the personnel records indicated he had transferred.

As luck would have it, it now turned out that Reilly was the son of a close friend of Captain Simon Banks; a fact that Simon had only now been appraised of. The former Detective Mike Reilly and Banks had, in fact, attended the police academy together, many moons ago. Mike was now off the force due to ill health, and was living a few miles up the coast from Cascade.

Banks and Reilly senior had been out of touch for a number of years. Simon had not known that Mike's son had joined Cascade PD, and had not therefore made the connection between Officer Ciaran Reilly and Mike when he received the initial report on Ellison's death. Now, Simon was going to pay his old friend a visit.

Mike and Maire Reilly lived in a housing complex which had been purpose built for the convenience of people with disabilities. Mike had contracted multiple sclerosis six years ago, and the specialist design of the house he lived in enabled wheelchair users like him to live a comfortable life where the chair ceased to be an issue.

As Banks drew up outside and turned off the engine, he put a hand on Blair's arm for a moment to halt him from getting out. "There's no indication that Ciaran Reilly will be here. You know that, right? This is just the best I can come up with."

Blair looked down a moment, then up at Banks. "I know," he said quietly. "But it's all we've got, man."

Banks nodded. "Just don't get your hopes up too far. This might tell us nothing."

Blair nodded grimly. Then set his resolve. "Let's just do it, okay?" and Banks let him go. They both got out.

Maire Reilly was a petite Irish woman in her mid-forties. Remembering Simon from years before, she ushered them into her home, and proceeded to shower them with hospitality. "Mike should be back in a while," she told them, while plying them with tea and sandwiches. "He'll be so pleased to see you, Simon. It's been too long."

Ever the anthropologist, Blair was in his element, the circumstances notwithstanding. He soon had Maire eating out of his hand, encouraging her to talk about her home country, and impressing her with his own knowledge of it. He had once visited Ireland during his undergraduate days; had, in fact, hitched around for a whole summer, camping and staying in youth hostels. Simon just watched his tap-dance with a bemused smile on his face.

The sound of a noisy engine outside announced Mike's return. Maire stood. "That's the minibus dropping Mike off. I'll go and tell him you're here. He's always a little tired after a morning at the day-center, but I know he'll be so happy to talk to you, Simon. He misses the PD so much."

When she had gone, Blair looked at the expression on Simon's face. "What?" he asked impatiently.

Banks shook his head, grinning. "Sandburg, you slay me."

Blair frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Simon mimicked Blair's voice. "Oh Maire, tell me about Glenwatchamacaulit again. She's a married woman, Sandburg."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Oh, c'mon, man. Give me a break. And it's Glencolmcille. In County Donegal."

"Is there anything you don't know, Sandburg?"

"Yeah," Blair said ruefully. "Where Jim is."

Banks sobered. "Touché," he said.

***

In the end, their visit to Mike and Maire Reilly's house told them nothing of any substance, proving to be simply the pleasant diversion that Maire's warm welcome had made it.

Mike was, as Maire had predicted, happy to see Simon again, and delighted to have a chance to catch up with news of the PD. But he could tell them nothing about Ciaran's whereabouts.

"Between you and me, Simon, and you understand," he included them both in his gaze, "that this can't go any further?" When they both nodded, he carried on, "Ciaran is deep undercover. The transfer to New York was a blind. I know nothing more than that. Hell, I shouldn't even tell you that much."

Blair frowned. "Isn't that a little unusual? I mean, he's practically a rookie. He's not even a detective."

Mike shrugged. "Maybe he had what they needed. How should I know? I don't even know who his liaison is at the PD. We were warned to expect not to hear from him for months, and sure enough we haven't. Of course we worry, but what can we do? Being a cop is all he ever wanted."

Simon was nodding in sympathy. His own son Daryl planned to be a cop too, and it scared the hell out of him. "One more thing, Mike. What date did you last hear from Ciaran?"

"Let me see. It was January. Wait a minute." Reilly wheeled over to a chest of drawers and opened it, withdrawing a date book. He thumbed through it. "Yep," he said. January the sixteenth. He called me, told me about the cover. He was pretty excited."

Blair and Simon looked at each other, their grim expressions mirrors for each other.

January sixteenth was the day after Jim's supposed death.

***

Blair was silent for much of the journey back to Cascade, watching the freeway zoom past the window with sad eyes. Eventually Simon couldn't take it any longer. "Sandburg, what is going on in your head? I get nervous when you're this quiet."

Blair shrugged. "I'm okay, man."

He patently wasn't. "Sandburg," Simon growled, correctly interpreting his mood, "We can do this. We'll find him. You have to stay positive, Blair, because it is going to take the two of us to get him back. Hey, you listening to me?"

Blair nodded. "I know, Simon. It's just…" he sighed, "I was hoping to get a bit more out of Mike Reilly, you know? I mean, this is the only information we've actually been able to follow up, and it told us nothing we could use." His voice quieted to almost a whisper. "We still have no idea where Jim is."

Banks reached into his top pocket, pulling out a cigar. "What about your friend Kelso?" he asked. "Are you sure he can't tell us anything else, anything at all?" He put the cigar in his mouth, reaching for the lighter.

Blair shook his head. "He told me all he knew. He promised he'd contact me if anything else came up. All we can do is wait."

They traveled in silence again for a while, and Simon was reaching forward to turn on the radio when Blair's voice stopped him mid movement. "I can't stop thinking about what Jim might be going through. All this time, we thought he was dead. Even I gave up on him. But that sick bastard has him - has had him - all this time."

Simon understood that; those thoughts had been going through his head too. But neither of them could afford to waste energy on it - they had a job to do. "I know, Blair. But you have to put your personal feelings aside as much as you can. I know you care about Jim; hell I care about him too. But I need you to keep yourself together. No-one else can do this, only you and I. We bring anyone else in, we risk drawing the wrong sort of attention."

"I know that, Simon. I remember talking about this before, with Jim. I know you have to switch off, check in your humanity, whatever. But this is different, man!" His voice rose, and he hit his thigh in frustration with his closed fist. "This isn't about some faceless kidnap victim I don't know. This is about Jim. And Simon," he added, "Brackett scares me, I admit it. That time he made Jim and me go with him? He has no remorse, man, no conscience. He's a killer, and he likes hurting people, I saw it, saw it in his face, in the way he pushed us around. So what the hell has he been doing to Jim all this time?"

Shaking his head, Banks's tone was firm. "I have no easy answers, Blair. All I know is you'll drive yourself crazy down that road. You can't let yourself dwell on what Jim is going through. In all probability, he's alive. All we can do is hold to that." He glanced at Sandburg, and smiled wryly. "We've been here before, you and I."

Blair nodded sadly. "I know."

"It worked out then." The conviction in Simon's voice was firm. "It'll work out now. Ellison is one tough son of a bitch."

***

Sandburg eventually dozed off for a short while, but woke abruptly when the car turned sharply to the right. "Whoa," he said, "Are we nearly home?" They were no longer on the freeway.

Simon was looking intently at his rear-view mirror. "We've picked up a tail."

"What? Where?" he turned his head to look, until Simon's arm pushed him back to face forwards.

"Will you settle down!" Simon hissed. "You might as well put up a sign saying 'we see ya'."

"Right, right. Sorry. Not quite awake yet. So," Blair was vibrating with the effort not to turn and look, "who is it, man?"

Simon shook his head. "I don't know. There's been a black car behind us for the last few miles. It followed us off the freeway. I think I remember seeing it parked down the street from Reilly's."

"Oh man." The possibilities of who it might be were surging through Blair. "What are we gonna do?"

"This," said Simon. They were just entering the outskirts of Cascade, and Simon made a sudden left turn down a road into an industrial park. After a moment, he confirmed, "He's still with us."

Simon made another turn to the left, and after checking that the car was still behind, turned once more, this time to the right. "What are you doing?" Blair asked.

Simon grinned. "I know this part of town. A long time ago I worked a beat here, back in my uniform days." He glanced at Blair, then back in his rear mirror in satisfaction. "I do believe we are leading this rat into a trap. Ready for some action, Sandburg?"

Blair nodded determinedly, the light back in his eyes. "You bet, man."

***

The driver of the black sedan watched the car up ahead turn right again. Where the hell was Banks going? This place was a maze.

Trying not to fall too far behind - but remain unnoticed - wasn't easy in a place like this. But he had to stick with his target. He turned the car to the right through a pair of metal gates, peering around for Banks's car. Ah, there it was over there, parked; the occupants not in sight.

He pulled up his own vehicle within sight of the police captain's car, but not too close, and sat in to wait, taking note of the signs on the buildings nearby. Which one had Sandburg and Banks gone in to? He was so busy speculating, that he didn't see the pony-tailed figure closing the gate behind him at the entrance.

He jumped, therefore, when Blair Sandburg suddenly appeared beside his car, and knocked on the passenger side window.

Then the driver door was wrenched open, and a gun was in his face. "Would you be so kind," said Simon Banks, "As to get out of the car?"

***

Now the guy was cuffed, his back against the wall; and seeing him helpless Blair's simmering frustrations reached boiling point. He grabbed the guy by the scruff of the neck. "Where the hell is Jim?" he snarled.

"I have no idea who you mean." Their prisoner appealed to Banks. "Get him off me."

Banks just grinned. A little venting on this slimeball would do the kid good.

Blair got right up in his stalker's face. "Why are you following us? Why have you been watching me? Who the hell are you?"

Once he had gotten past his initial surprise at being made, the man proved to be a cool customer, even with a hundred and sixty pounds of snarling anthropologist breathing his air. "I'm a P.I." He said calmly. "My I.D. is in my top pocket."

Blair glared at him some more, then reached in to the guy's pocket and pulled out a wallet. He glanced at it, then handed it to Simon. Banks studied it a moment, then passed it back to Blair. "It seems to be genuine," Simon said, as Sandburg gave it his further attention. "So, Mr. Zane, who hired you? And why are you investigating Sandburg?"

"My name is pronounced Zahn-er. And that's privileged information."

"Privileged my ass," Simon snarled. "You'd damn well better start talking, Mister Zahn-er, before I haul your ass downtown. We got illegal wiretaps, stalking and harassment for starters. Oh, and interfering with a police investigation - let's not forget that."

"William Ellison."

Both Blair and Banks did a double take. "What?" Asked Blair incredulously.

"My employer is William Ellison. You'll need to take your grievance up with him. And I'm not impressed by your threats. I've done nothing illegal. I have a license to practice, and all the necessary permits."

Blair was astonished. "Why the hell would William Ellison have me watched?"

Zane looked at him coldly, then at Banks. "You'll need to ask him. Now, either arrest me or let me go. And I'm not saying another word to you without my lawyer present."

***

Blair and Simon reluctantly let the guy go, having no real evidence to detain him on, and went straight back to the precinct. They had no leads, no clue as how to proceed from here, and dispiritedly they parted, agreeing to meet again in a couple of days unless something came up in the meantime.

Blair got into the truck and drove home to the loft, still puzzled over the fact that Jim's dad had put a private investigator on his case.

He knew that Ellison senior didn't like him. William had, in fact, threatened to sue Blair for the loft just after the funeral; but Blair had believed it so much hot air, born out of Ellison's grief over Jim's death. Not one to hold a grudge himself, Blair found it difficult to comprehend the extent of William Ellison's ill-will towards him.

At least he felt he could relax his vigilance somewhat, now that he knew his secret watcher had been unrelated to Jim's current situation altogether. It was a relief not to have to worry about surveillance to the same extent.

He slept fitfully that night, and his dreams were bizarre; full of large jungle cats and a prickly tension which spilled over into his waking moments. When morning finally dawned, he had a painful crick in his neck and his joints ached, testimony to the unrelaxing nature of his slumber.

He found himself simply going through the motions at work, unable to concentrate, his heart not in it. The extreme see-saw of emotions he had experienced since Jack told him of Jim's capture now combined to leave him tense and exhausted. He realized he was suffering the after-effects of a major adrenaline let-down, created of his thwarted need to rush to Jim's rescue. The mundane commitments of his daily life just served to frustrate him further.

As he slouched at his desk in his office that afternoon, tiredly grading essays, the phone rang. "Blair Sandburg," he answered absently, taking the pen out of his mouth he had been chewing.

“Sandburg, it's me.”

He sat up. "Simon?"

“Yeah. Listen, Blair, this is unrelated to our other issue, but I thought you should know. I just got a message from Conover to tell me that Alex Barnes died two days ago.”

This had come out of left field. Stunned, Blair said, "Oh man. What happened?"

“I don't have all the details, but it seems she went into a coma and never woke up. They're saying it was some sort of stroke.” Simon laughed shortly, without humor. “This might sound heartless, Sandburg, but it's one less psycho to worry about."

"Yeah." Blair swallowed, trying to muster some sympathy for the female sentinel. Unbidden, his eyes strayed out of the window towards the fountain.

After a moment, Simon's voice came again. “Are you all right, Blair?”

"Yeah, man. I'm fine. So," he tore his gaze away from the cascading water. "Any other news? You know, about the other thing?"

“No. You?”

"No." He paused. "Look, man I gotta go. Thanks for telling me."

“No problem. Take care, Blair.”

"You too." But as he put the phone down, something formless needled at him, and he was plagued for the rest of the day by the uncomfortable feeling that he had overlooked something important.

***

The keening wail of the black jaguar pierced the air, and the great beast bit in vain at the chain shackling his rear leg to the tree. Thwarted, he prowled, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, his yellow-eyed stare returning time and time again to the blackness between the trees. A mantra repeated over and over: she is here.

Blair's eyes snapped open to pitch-blackness. For a second he lay there paralyzed, breathing heavily, his heart thumping loudly in his ears. Then he reached out, his hand clumsy with sleep and the aftermath of the dream, to switch on the lamp.

As light infused his small room, he sat up, his preternaturally alert mind automatically clicking in despite the residue of panic, to analyze the disturbingly vivid nature of what he had just seen.

And as his respiration and heartbeat gradually slowed to normal levels, he asked himself one question - had it been a nightmare, or a vision?

The only other time he was sure he had actually seen Jim's black jaguar spirit, had been when he and Jim had shared their incredible spirit walk at the fountain, when his friend, his sentinel, had brought Blair back from the dead.

When he'd been dead - at the hands of Alex Barnes.

With the clarity of epiphany, Blair suddenly realised what had been bugging him all day, ever since Simon's phone call.

James Ellison was not the only sentinel Sandburg had written about in his dissertation. The whole Alex Barnes episode was detailed in there as well - including the nature of the intense turf war between the two sentinels, and the primal mating behavior they had exhibited toward each other.

And now, Brackett had not only Ellison in his possession, but also the dissertation, and all the information that it contained.

Oh god. Did he now have a second sentinel as well?

Whether what Blair had just experienced was simply his subconscious making connections while he slept, or a true vision emanating from the same psychic realm that sentinels tapped into; one thing was clear.

Brackett had faked the death of one sentinel. There was no reason why he couldn't fake the death of another.

More afraid for Jim than he had been at any time since finding out that he was still alive, Blair rose, and made his way up to Ellison's loft bedroom; feeling an overwhelming need to be close to his friend right now. Climbing under the comforter, he curled up in the big empty bed.

But sleep eluded him for the rest of the night.

***

Early the next morning Sandburg picked up the phone and dialed Conover. It was a little after seven o'clock, the start of a new shift at the secure mental hospital, and Dr. Burke had just come on duty.

Reluctant to discuss his exact query over the phone, despite Zane having been warned off from further surveillance, Blair arranged to meet Burke there in person in one hour. Then he swiftly showered and dressed.

Before leaving the loft, he dialed Simon's cell phone, then Banks's home number when he found the cell switched off. There was no answer, and a further call established that Simon had not yet arrived at the PD. Assuming the Captain was on route to work, Blair left a message with Rhonda that he would call later, then headed down to the truck.

Although the traffic was reasonably light this time in the morning, Blair found himself getting more and more wound up, as he sometimes did, by the holdups caused by roadworks. He was not feeling, in any case, at his most patient this morning.

It was with some relief, therefore, that he turned off the slow-moving main drag to take the turning onto the quieter road towards Conover. But a few miles along, he groaned anew at the diversion sign directing him to the left. "Oh man, not again!" He glanced at his watch. At this rate, he would be late for his meeting with Dr. Burke. Sighing in resignation, he made the turn.

This road twisted and turned a bit. Taking yet another bend, Blair suddenly slammed his foot on the brake. "What the hell?" A barrier completely blocked his path, and a sign proclaimed that the road was closed.

Muttering imprecations about clueless city planning bureaucrats and dumb road crews, he was just reaching for the gear lever to put the truck in reverse, when a movement in the rear view mirror caught his eye.

A black sedan, followed by a white van, drove up and stopped behind the truck, almost close enough to touch the bumper; leaving him no space to turn. The windows of both vehicles were made of tinted glass.

Blair froze, as four doors opened simultaneously, and four identical looking men in suits got out of the car. He sat hardly breathing as they moved to flank the truck, one of them tapping on the driver side window. He rolled it down.

"Get out of the truck." The man's tone was uncompromising. None of them were conspicuously armed, but Blair was in no doubt that the lack of obvious firearms made them any the less dangerous.

He opened the door and complied, his heart thundering rapidly. Two of the men moved to take his arms, not in obvious restraint, but not giving him the option to refuse either. He offered no resistance as they led him towards the van. The back doors opened, and he was suddenly struck with a vivid memory of Jim and a van just like this, on a grainy black-and-white photo.

It was enough to fire him into action.

In a move impulsive enough not to be anticipated by his captors, Sandburg's elbow jerked sharply, forcing the air out of the man on the right as he jabbed him hard in the gut. The guy doubled over, and Blair pushed him into the second man, knocking that one off balance. The instant transformation of their prey from passivity to resistance was enough of a distraction for Blair to make a run for it.

He didn't get far, though, even inspired by fear and desperation as he was. His abductors were just too capable, and there were too many of them. A flying tackle felled him from behind, his head hitting something hard as he slammed to the ground, and for a moment he saw stars. As he lay face down, other hands on him pulled his arms behind him and snapped on restraints, and a moment later a gag was forced between his teeth. He panicked when a hood was placed over his head, cutting off his vision, but his captors ignored his frenzied struggles, hauling him upright.

Breathing harshly and frantically through his nose inside the claustrophobic blackness of the hood, he froze when a voice spoke next to his ear. "I suggest you calm down, Mr. Sandburg, unless you want to hurt yourself." He felt himself hauled along and up, presumably into the back of the van.

The doors closed with an ominous clang.

Back on the road, Blair's truck did a three-point turn, and disappeared back the way it had come. The barrier and 'road-closed' sign were packed up with ruthless efficiency. Then the sedan and the white van disappeared up the road.

No trace of what had occurred was left behind.

***

“What is the current status of the operation?” The voice was heavily accented.

Brackett allowed himself to sound as satisfied as he felt. "I have initiated phase two. There have been no problems so far. In fact, everything is going extremely smoothly."

“Good. Keep me updated.” A click indicated that the connection had been terminated. Men like him had no need for niceties.

Brackett smiled to himself. Then picking up Sandburg's dissertation, he sat back to once again read the chapter on sentinel mating behavior.



The End



The fifth and final story in The Dawn to Dark Series can be found here: The Darkness Will Flee from the Light




Comments are welcome, but absolutely not necessary - all of my stories are offered freely and without obligation. If you do wish to comment below please sign your name/pseudonym if you are not logged-in to Dreamwidth or Open ID, or alternatively you can email me at fluterbev@gmail.com



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Date: 2007-08-01 06:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
How can you end it here? Argh! I hope you finish this soon. :)
You are a fantastic writer. I am in awe. Simply fantastic.

Date: 2007-08-01 06:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
LOL Don't worry! It was finished a long time ago :-). I'm just in the middle of formatting the last part ready to post. It's about three times as long as this part, so it's taking a while, but it will be up fairly soon. Watch this space! :-)

I'm so happy you're enjoying it!

Date: 2007-08-01 06:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
Ah. Thank goodness. :) I'll try to be patient. 0:)

Date: 2007-08-01 07:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Okay, it's up now! it's long, so it's split into 4 parts. The first part is here: The Darkness Will Flee from the Light (http://fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com/9173.html).

Date: 2007-08-01 08:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
Woo Hoo! I'll read after dinner. :)

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