Elmendorf Air Force Base
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Sergeant Roger Melton smiled and shook his head at the airman. It took a while for the new ones to realize that protocol was often brushed aside at the Alaskan base. With so few chances for speaking with actual civilians, civilian-speak had crept into the base so that family members could understand them when they went home. "What is it, Williams?"
Airman Marcus Williams shrugged. "Shouldn't this be going by military aircraft?" He indicated the package the supply sergeant was wrapping.
"Budget cuts, son. Do you know how much it costs each time one of our planes go up? Now, if we could wait until we had a craft heading to Colorado then cost wouldn't be a factor. But NORAD wants this a.s.a.p. That means we take advantage of the commercial airlines."
"But we don't even know what it is," Williams protested. The two-kilo container had been found on the bottom of the Arctic Sea.
"Don't know. Don't care to know. Trust me. You'll go further in the ranks by how much you don't know."
"It could be something dangerous."
"Probably is. That's why we're gonna wrap this gayly colored tape around the outside to label it as hazardous material. Then you're gonna carefully drive it to the airport, and hand it off to the cargo handlers, and save Uncle Sam several thousand dollars."
Melton sighed. "You know, Williams, you're gonna have to learn not to sweat the small stuff."
The sergeant shook his head and continued to wrap.
Cascade International Airport
Blair Sandburg watched the people who occupied the terminal of Cascade International with all the intensity of the anthropologist he was. He really couldn't understand people who didn't think people were interesting. They had rituals, like the couple who were sharing a brief kiss as the husband's row was called for boarding. They had strength, like the woman who was waving goodbye to her two children walking hand in hand with a stewardess. They had dignity, like the older gentleman who was walking with two canes but held his head up proudly.
"Achoo! Damn. Did she have to douse herself in CK?"
And then there were people like his partner. "Are you really disgusted by her perfume, or is this just a subtle dig about the test we did at the mall the other day?"
Jim Ellison fished a tissue out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly. "What do you think? I can now name each scent that drives me nuts. How useful is that?"
"Jim, you were nuts long before you started smelling stuff."
"You two planning on taking this act on the road?"
Jim glared at the man sitting next to him. "Bauer, I am not in a good mood so I advise you to keep your mouth shut. And if you don't stop tugging on the cuffs, you're gonna find something else wrapped around you a lot tighter and a lot higher than your wrist."
Blair watched Bobby Bauer, master forger and all-around bad guy, slump dejectedly in his seat. He would feel sorry for himbeing handcuffed to a pissed off Jim was a unique torturebut Bauer had bilked a lot of senior citizens out of their pensions, so the jerk didn't deserve any pity.
"I'm doing this for you."
"I know, Jim," Blair said patiently.
"You're the one who wanted to go to Chicago to see some traveling exhibit."
"Why else would I volunteer to take this piece of crap to the Chicago authorities? Don't know why the Chicago people couldn't come for him themselves like they were supposed to. Imminent police strike. I don't even want to think about it. But that's Chicago for you. No one in Cascade ever strikes."
"Too busy dodging bullets," Blair mumbled.
"What was that, Chief?"
He knew Jim had heard every word clearly. "I said that's what makes Cascade such a lovely place to live."
"That's what I thought you said. Remember the last time we did a prisoner exchange?"
"Yeah, you decided to take the scenic route hanging from the bottom of the train. Just remember: planes are supposed to be ridden from the inside."
"Bauer's right; you should take this act on the road. Far away from me."
Blair sighed and checked his backpack to make sure it was securely closed. "You gonna bitch the whole way?"
"Cool. Forewarned is forearmed, you know."
"Speaking of armed, I am."
"Yeah, watch me quake in my boots."
"You tell him, Sandburg," Bauer said.
Blair shook his head. "The one thing you don't want to do, Bauer, is tick this man off. I can cook, and I know his favorite recipes; I have some use. You, on the other hand, are going to prison; your pain won't affect his future happiness at all. C'mon, guys. They're calling our row."
He felt the two men follow and smiled. He'd been telling the truth when he said Jim's bitching was cool with him. He understood where it was coming from, and why Jim thought it was necessary. It was an anthropological sorta thing, and since he was an anthropological scholar, it made perfectly good sense to him. In a society where men didn't give other men gifts out of the blue, Jim had given him a gift. A fully paid trip to Chicago to see an exhibit he'd been dying to see. Since he'd done something that men didn't generally do, Jim had to make it appear that what he'd done had been a "noble" sacrifice. Hence, the loud and obvious bitching. It said, "Yes, I did the unusual and now I'm suffering for it. Pity me." And actually, it had garnered him some pity at the station. "You're a good man, Ellison," one of the detectives in the Homicide Unit had said, when he thought Blair's attention was elsewhere. "I know the kid's been through some tough shit, and you're hoping this will make up for some of that, aren't you? But that's what makes us decent cops; able to sacrifice big time for our partners."
Jim had just nodded, a smug look of suffering on his face. Damn, studying cops was fascinating, and it was no hardship at all to keep notes about the bogus diss on cops as a subculture. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if that shouldn't be his real diss. There were a lot less inherent problems with it. Jim wouldn't be exposed. It wouldn't be as hard a sell to his dissertation committee. Jim wouldn't be exposed. His faculty advisor could stop taking Prozac. Jim wouldn't be exposed. See? There were all kinds of advantages to changing his topic. He'd already hesitated on writing the paper. A year's worth of observing Jim had given him more than enough material for his diss. A year's Whoa. It had been a year, hadn't it? A full year tomorrow, in fact. He wondered if Jim was aware of the date.
How utterly naïve he'd been just twelve months ago. "Sure, I'd love to be your partner, Jim." He'd been so eager and so cocksure and so far in over his head so fast. Bam! He was on a bus with a bomber. Bam! He was toppling over drink machines onto gun-totin' terrorists. Bam! Lash was strapping him to a chair and force-feeding him a sedative. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! His heart pounded and he quickly looked back at Jim, standing in line behind him. No response. Good. He'd told Jim to turn everything down, especially his hearing.
Get a grip, Sandburg. An airport is not the place for a panic attack. He'd surprised himself after the incident. Aside from a few nightmares, he'd come through pretty much unscathed. That was due to his "blessed protector." He smiled. He'd been teasing Jim when he'd called him that, but only someone who felt responsible for him would have been there like Jim. A soft "Chief" dragged him from his more vivid nightmares, and memories of Jim's appearance in the warehouse relieved the milder versionsthe ones that didn't leave him shaking and drenched in sweat.
Too much television. That was where he'd gone wrong. He'd watched Starsky & Hutch, The Rookies, and S.W.A.T., and he'd thought he knew what working with a cop would be like. He thought it would be tamer because everyone knew Hollywood lied and exaggerated and made everything more spectacular than real life. But someone had forgotten to tell Jim that. He apparently believed in the Hollywood hype. He hung from helicopters, and swung from trains, and basically defied the laws of nature to "get his man". And as his partner, nerdy, but cute, Blair Sandburg could do no less. Smiling at the stewardess as she took his ticket, he felt rather proud of himself. He'd been Jim's partner for a year, and neither Jim nor the bad guys had gotten rid of him. There weren't many who could say that.
"Great, a crowd."
Blair looked up at Jim's quiet gripe and saw that the single-aisle plane was pushing capacity. Some women's group apparently, because ninety-percent of the females were wearing some kind of badge. They were all agesfrom older teens to grandmothers or great-grandmothers. There just had to be a story there. He couldn't wait to hear it.
Jim stood back to let him enter their row first. It was understood that Bauer would be between them. It was also understood that Jim would take the aisle seat. It was not only a protective measurelike taking the bed closest to the door in a hotelbut it was also very practical. Jim had aproblemwith flying. His body didn't react well to the pressure changes. By the time the plane reached cruising altitude, Jim's bladder would be screaming to him, and he was always careful about judging when they were about to descend, making a preemptive potty run in order not to rush off the plane in search of a restroom. Jim was mortified by the whole situation, and Blair did his best not to call attention to his partner's predicament. But it would definitely make an interesting chapter in his diss.
Blair climbed into his seat, then pulled down the arm rests so that Jim would have a place to attach Bauer's cuffs. While his partner secured the prisoner, he turned to the women sitting behind them. "Hi, my name is Blair Sandburg," he said with his best "I'm harmless" smile. "I could be rude and stare, or I could be horribly nosy and just ask."
The women smiled back. One took off her badge and handed it to him. Women of the Chicago Diocese.
"I'm Agnes, as you can read," the one who'd given him her badge said. She looked to be of grandmother age. "We're not a real group, but we had to come up with a name. Travel agencies think that's cute."
"Oh, hush, Ags," the woman next to her said. "I'm April, Agnes' sister, and from the way she's talking, you'd think we don't appreciate this trip, but we do. You see, a man in our neighborhood has this big company that gives out a lot of donations. Several months ago, he found out he'd been donating to one of those all-men groups who don't think much of women. Well, being a good Catholic boy and knowing just how important Mary is in the scheme of things, he felt ashamed that he'd been funding these people. So he decided to do something for the women in his neighborhood."
"He arranged an Alaskan cruise for any woman who wanted to go," Agnes butted in when April paused to take a breath. "April didn't want to go, said it was too far to fly, but I talked her into it. Both of us are widows, all of our children are out on their own. There was no reason why we shouldn't go."
"How many of you are there?" Blair asked eagerly. He sat on his knees and leaned against the back of his seat.
"Sixty-three. The youngest is Joyce. She's sitting over there near the back. She's nineteen. And the oldest is Miss Odessa. She'show old is Miss Odessa, Libby?"
The third woman in the row looked up from her novel when she heard her name called. "Ninety-two." She turned a page and went back to reading.
"Ninety-two?" Blair was impressed.
"Yeah, and she outran all of us," Agnes said with a grin. "From the early breakfast to the midnight buffet, Miss Odessa was there. The tour guides we had tried to stay away from her because she asked so many questions."
April laughed. "Somebody told her she was gonna kill herself running around like that. Miss Odessa said that was okay by her. If she had to die, she'd rather it be while she was doing something she enjoyed." April scooted forward and lowered her voice. "Said if she'd died while having marital relations with her husband, now that would have been a damn shame."
Blair and the women hooted in delight.
Jim just shook his head. Leave it to Sandburg to have older women sharing risqué tales with himall within ten minutes of making his acquaintance. He listened to the honest joy in his partner's laugh and smiled. It was good to know the kid still had that after a rather harrowing year. Hell, that they both were alive and capable of interacting sociably, and unmedicated, with the general public was a miracle itself. There had been long, dark moments when he'd wondered about Blair's futureand there had been deeper, more pitch hours when he'd debated his own futurewhether he'd have one or not.
What he'd experienced after the stakeout of the Switchman had seriously rocked his barely stable world. Painful lights, agonizing smells, peculiar tastes that had him accusing restaurants of trying to poison him . Simon had just thought he was whining because of the long hours, and Carolyn thought it was stress. And what had he thought? At first that it was just a simple case of stress, perhaps even a prelude to a more serious burnout. The bomber, after all, was targeting him, making it very personal by playing upon his biggest failure. A whole unit lost in Peru. Fuck. Not your fault, the Army shrinks had told him, and obediently he'd nodded in agreement, all the while knowing that it was justwrongthat he was alive and everyone else was dead. If it wasn't his fault, if it wasn't the commander's fault, then whose was it? His superior officers certainly weren't taking the responsibility, and the chaplain had clearly stated that God wasn't to blame. So that left only one. Captain James Joseph Ellison, who'd apparently saved his own ass at the expense of his men's. How? He had no idea. There was a whine, a flash of light, and he'd awakened to a nightmare of blood and burns and body parts. Had they told the families? That some of the remains weren't exactly intact? He'd tried to fit the puzzle pieces together, but his head had been pounding as he dug the graves, and his vision had blurred at odd moments. He just wasn't sure if .
Pain. He looked down to see his nails cutting into his palms. Back off, Ellison. You're heading into dangerous territory. He took a deep breath and tried to remember what he was supposed to be thinking of. Yes. Being stressed out tracking the bomber. One part of him figured that after a few days of downtime he'd be good to go. Another part of him was signing up for a battery of neurological exams. That was what the good shrinks would call a schism, right?
Oh sure, he could sort of laugh it off now, but back then he'd been terrified. He glanced at his animated partner. Did the kid realize just how badly frightened he'd been sitting in that examining room, wondering if he was going insane? Such a diagnosis would have been the end for him. When he'd been recovered from Peru, he'd had to spend time in the psych ward under observation. Those had been three of the most chilling days of his life. There was no way he was going to spend the rest of his life in his pajamas, wandering institutional beige halls in a drugged haze.
And there had also been a gnawing sensation that what he was experiencingthe sights, sounds, goddamned voices in his headwasn't as unfamiliar as it should have been. He'd tried to figure out why, and that was when he'd discovered the dark patches in his past, parts of his childhood that just weren't there. He'd read the articles, seen the movies, hell, even cleaned up the aftermath of people who blanked out instances in their past. Uh uh. Before Jim Ellison went postal and shot up a lot of people, he'd just calmly turn his gun on himself.
Those had been his thoughts when Dr. "McCoy McKay" came into the room and changed everything. Hope in run-over tennis shoes. Then he'd found the "good doctor" in a supply closet at Rainier University, bastion of the liberal arts, and the hope started to fade. Ten minutes of babble about ancient watchmen and pre-civilized throwbacksand hope died. Frustrated and broken, he'd nailed the charlatan to the wall, then left. A frisbee had sailed overhead and the next thing he knew, he was lying in the middle of the street with Blair on his back and a garbage truck just beyond. Hope returned.
"What the hell's the hold up?" Bauer muttered.
"Eager to get to that cell in Chicago, huh? What? Your boyfriend's waiting?" Jim questioned dryly. Then he realized they had been on the tarmac for a while. He turned up his hearing, zooming in on one of the few male voices on the plane.
"Senator McCain, welcome aboard. I'm Captain Alan Pierce."
The voices came from the other side of the divider separating First Class from Economy.
"Sorry about the delay, Captain. Senators get caught in traffic jams too."
"Of course they do. How else would any highway construction bills get passed?" the captain joked, obviously at ease with having a "celebrity" aboard his plane. "As soon as you're settled, we'll be taxi-ing out. Have a good flight, sir."
Jim drew his hearing back. A senator. Good. Probably meant they'd miss a lot of the "unavoidable" turbulence they usually ran into. He turned to tell Blair what he'd heard, but saw that his roommate was still chatting away, his hands full of snapshots. At this rate, the women were going to remember him with as much fondness as their vacation. There was this sweet young man on the plane who kept us so entertained on the way back that we barely remember being in the air.
Jim grinned, then sobered. So many things had gone wrong this past year, so many things that could have ended badly. The Switchman. The police department being taken over by terrorists. An exploding drug lab. A crazed serial killer. That was when he realized Sandburg wasn't playing with a full deck. Because any sane person would have been insane after being kidnapped and drugged by the very killer he'd been tracking. Blair knew every step Lash would make, knew the exact route his death would take, knew that Lash would keep "trophies" of him to add to his collection. Damnit! The fucker deserved more than the five bullets he'd pumped into him. If he'd had a choice in the matter he'd have taken Lash to the duck pond and tied a fucking yellow ribbon around his neck.
And what the hell is wrong with you, Ellison? Jim shook his head, trying to figure out why he was suddenly obsessing over past fears. Why this sudden review? It was like he was staring death in the face and A shiver ran along his spine. Okay. You've been living with the kid too long. Sometimes a cigar's just a cigarand sometimes the universe really is out to get you. He debated whether banging his head against the seat in front of him would be too dramatic.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. On behalf of Western Air, I'd like to welcome you aboard Flight 919. My name is Linda, and I'd like to point out some of our safety regulations."
Blair, having turned around and settled in his seat when the attendant began to speak, noted that Jim seemed to be listening to her intentlytoo intently. "What's up, man?" he whispered so softly that even Bauer couldn't hear him. But of course Jim did.
Bauer looked back and forth between them, confused.
"You aren't getting ready to freak on me, are you?" Blair asked worriedly. Jim was one of the most "unfreakable" people he knew, but if something was happening with his senseswell, Jim still wasn't rational when it came to his gifts. He used them, but Blair saw his reluctance in the stiffness of his shoulders and the jut of his jaw. There was a story there, something in Jim's background that was making him fight his talents so fiercely. There were cops who would love to have special advantages like Jim. There were cops who would use those special advantages zealously to increase their closure rate. There were cops who'd use those special advantages to take advantage. Maybe Jim's reluctance stemmed from that. Maybe he'd witnessed abuses of power and
"Ah, whatsa matter, Detective Jim? Are we afwaid of flying?" Bauer said mockingly.
Blair shook his head. The stupidity of the average crook never failed to amaze him. "Man, the only reason the captain authorized my coming along was to keep Ellison from accidentally bouncing your skull against the floor. Keep it up, and I might just close my eyes and let him have his way with you. So shut up. Now, Jim, tell me what's happening."
"I'm not freaking," Jim said, glaring around Bauer.
"Then what is it?"
"Just someone walking across my grave."
Walking across "Are you having some kind of premonition?" Blair asked excitedly.
"You are! This is so cool. Let me get out my notebook and"
"Bauer's not the only skull I can bounce."
Blair held up his hands. He'd forgotten his eagerness had a tendency to push Jim's buttons. Of course, Jim's buttons rivaled grains of sand in number. "I hear you, man. See me backing off."
Bauer opened his mouth. Blair shook his head. Bauer slumped back against the seat.
A premonition. Proof that more than five of Jim's senses were heightened? Or just pre-flight anxiety? He glanced nervously around the plane, trying to see if he could figure out what had activated the Sentinel's early warning system. As he expected, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to himexcept Jim. Tense, alert, a dog on point.
Suppressing a shiver, Blair checked his seatbelt.