Disclaimer: "The Sentinel" universe belongs to Paramount and Pet Fly Productions. I'm just passing through... 

Forewarning: I first encountered the term "Mary Sue story" in the mid-70's in reference to a style of Star Trek fandom. A "Mary Sue" is a story where the author inserts her own fantasy persona to interact with other characters from a known fan universe. Thus, Mary Sue is the Ensign who captures the heart of Captain Kirk, outsmarts the Klingons, and saves the Enterprise, all without mussing her hairdo; or the supercop rookie on the squad who solves the mystery, romances Kelly Garrett and saves the rest of Charlie's Angels from a fate worse than...well, you get the picture. Yes, a Mary Sue can be either gender. This story is unabashedly a Mary Sue. It was never meant to be written down. It was just one of those idle daydreams that help us get through our days. As a daydream, it pre-dates the episode "Brother's Keeper" by several months. I was so disappointed with the episode, however, that I became a victim of writer's compulsion. Anyway, that's why this story is long on chattiness and short on plot (two things I deplore in fanfic and generally avoid wherever possible in my own stories). There are also some references to other shows, other characters, but you don't have to know them to follow the story. I don't make any concessions to information revealed in the episodes; therefore, I'm calling this an alternate universe story. Future stories in this series return the focus and the action where they belong, with Our Heroes, and are written in my more traditional style. Now that I've whined and made my excuses, you can read or not as you choose

Evolution
Chapter 1 - Revelations
- by Mackie

Part One

"Ah, man, I don't believe this!" Blair Sandburg grumbled as he scanned the thin sheaf of papers he'd just pulled from a FedEx envelope.

Jim Ellison came down the steps from his loft bedroom. "Who was that at the door?" he asked curiously, buttoning the last of his shirt buttons, a pullover sweater folded over one arm.

"FedEx," Blair replied absently, automatically pouring a cup of coffee for his roommate.

Jim glanced at his watch. "At seven o'clock in the morning?"

"'Tis the season," Blair explained.

"So 'tis. What did you get - an early present from Santa?"

"More like a sack of coal," Blair groaned in response, the papers tucked under his arm as he delivered the coffee to the table and sat down.

Jim pulled the sweater on over his shirt and sat down across from his partner. "So, are you going to tell me about it?"

Blair sighed. "I've been doing a web search looking for references to 'sentinel'," he explained, nibbling on a piece of toast leftover from their earlier breakfast.

"That can't have given you much," Jim observed, sipping the hot coffee gratefully. The weather had been unseasonably cold, even for winter. Rain had turned to ice, slicking city streets and sidewalks for several nights in a row, a hazard for commuters and a nightmare for city employees who had to cope with all the problems, both minor and major. The power was back on again after a brief outage, but the television cable was still out, which Jim considered a blessing considering some of the stuff his roommate watched in the mornings. Unfortunately, the severe weather seemed to be a precursor to even heavier winter storms to come.

"Are you kidding?" Blair retorted. "There must be five hundred newspapers with 'Sentinel' in their banner, not to mention various consumer watchdog agencies, militia groups, high school football teams, and a couple of porn stories I don't even want to talk about."

"But you read them," Jim observed mildly.

Blair blushed. "Actually, I bookmarked them for later."

"Uh-huh."

"Anyway, I ran across an entry for a journal owned by a maritime museum in Lisbon. It was written by a sailor who was stranded on the coast of Peru in the Sixteenth Century. Probably on one of Pizarro's voyages. He didn't date his stuff or explain what tribe he was with, or how he managed to survive, seeing's how the Spanish and Inca weren't exactly on friendly terms. Anyway, I sent off for a translation of the pages referring to 'sentinel'."

"And that's it?" Jim asked, nodding toward the papers Blair had now scattered across the table.

Blair nodded glumly. "I paid for it out of my own pocket, and what do I get? A lonely sailor's wet dream."

Jim laughed, almost choking on his coffee. "What?" he gasped.

"It reads like a soft-porn fantasy!" Blair insisted, waving one of the offending sheets in the air. He quoted: "'After the Sentinel had saved the tribe from the attacking warriors, he and his companion were taken to a special ceremonial hut at the far edge of the village. Everyone was commanded to be silent on threat of severe punishment. This rule extended even to the children, who were herded to the other end of the village and there entertained quietly by elders, who told stories and had them draw pictures. Under the stern direction of the Companion, the tribal women attended the Sentinel in his hut, fulfilling his every lustful' - it actually says 'lustful'; I wonder who did the translation? - 'lustful desire without question as reward for his bravery in battle. Special drinks normally reserved for royalty were fed to him along with the choicest morsels of food, he was bathed in warm unguents and massaged by dozens of gentle, caressing hands' - whoa, this stuff is getting kinky - 'The only sound within the village comes from dried reeds stroked rhythmically across a hollow log. This makes an annoying susserus that has driven away even the hardiest of jungle creatures. The sexual depravities I witnessed make me pray even harder for God to deliver me from this evil land.' The rest looks like the same sort of crap."

"Sounds like so much white noise to me," Jim commented when Blair finished.

"Sounds like so much bullshit to me," Blair countered.

"No, I meant the reeds on the log."

Blair frowned. "God, you mean there may be something to this?" He stared at the papers with trepidation.

"I'm only saying if they had such strict rules about noise and whatnot, you can bet some outsider like your sailor wasn't permitted close enough to that hut to have any idea what was actually going on inside."

Blair thought about it. "Good point. That's probably why you're the detective."

"And you're falling down on the job." Jim's expression was deadly serious.

"What?"

"Aren't you supposed to pander to my every lustful desire?"

Blair grinned. "Hey, I got you a date, remember?"

"Ouch." Jim remembered all too clearly. "Forget I mentioned it." He drained the last of

his coffee. "Time to go to work, Chief. FedEx isn't the only outfit that needs to get an early start this time of year."

Blair jumped up and stuffed the papers back into the envelope, which he shoved into his backpack. "Ready," he announced at once.

Jim carried the coffee cups to the sink, where he rinsed them and put them aside for washing later. He grabbed two heavy coats from their hooks by the door and tossed one to Blair, who shrugged into it and added a neck scarf and thick gloves for added protection. He really hated the cold, although he almost always refused to wear a hat for reasons Jim could not yet fathom. Although, considering the hat Jim once had seen adorning the head of his partner, he was really rather grateful Blair preferred going hatless.

"Hey, Jim, you made out your Christmas list yet?" Blair asked as they left the loft.

 

Part Two

Jim wished he hadn't arrived early as soon as he stepped into the bullpen. Most of the other detectives weren't in yet, but he could see a cluster of men gathered in the Captain's office. Already, he didn't like it, and he didn't even know what was going on.

Blair dropped his book bag by Jim's desk and watched his partner watch the group. "Jim, what's up?"

"Those men with Simon are a deputy chief and a captain in SWAT," Jim explained quietly.

Blair looked more closely. "Oh, yeah, I didn't recognize Swift without his Rambo gear," he murmured. "Simon doesn't look very happy."

As if on cue, the Captain saw the two at Jim's desk and waved them into his office.

"Jim, I think you know Deputy Chief Silvera and Captain Swift," he said. There were handshakes all around, and then Simon introduced Blair, which led to more handshakes and innocuous greetings. So much politeness...Simon really must be pissed off at someone, Blair thought.

"What's going on, Captain?" Jim asked finally.

Simon frowned, then sighed. "Last night, Chief Goodale was in a traffic accident," he said at last.

"Is he all right, sir?"

"Concussion, busted ribs, a broken arm and leg," Simon answered. "He'll be fine. It's what we found in the car that's the problem."

Drugs? Blair thought. Underage hooker? Pieces of UFO wreckage?

"And what was that, sir?" Jim prompted, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Simon handed him a crumpled sheet of paper. "This."

Jim scanned it. "'Major Crimes and SWAT, nine a.m. Wednesday, 3800 Waterfront, per Willie'," he read aloud, then asked, "Willie?"

"A snitch," Silvera answered. "He's been giving tips to the Chief since Goodale was a beat patrolman thirty-two years ago. He won't talk to anyone else."

"So he must be reliable," Jim observed.

"Very - he's led us to some major drug busts."

"And you think this note means Willie has tipped the Chief to a drug deal going down this morning at 3800 Waterfront." Jim pictured the address in his mind. "That's an abandoned processing plant, a quiet place to conduct illegal business."

Simon sighed even more heavily. "Then you think we ought to move on this, Jim?"

"I didn't say that, sir," Jim countered quietly. "This paper tells us almost nothing. We don't know how many suspects are going to be there, if it's a drug lab or just a buy, whether or not it has anything to do with drugs at all - "

"My thoughts exactly," Simon interrupted with relief. "We know damn all."

"I think it would be prudent to send in a small force to gather the necessary intell," Silvera commented. He was eager to prove he could handle things while his Chief was temporarily out of the picture.

Even Swift didn't look pleased with the Deputy Chief's assessment, and the SWAT Captain was usually eager to jump into action. "It's eight o'clock now," he said. "That doesn't give us much time to mobilize or scout the location."

 

Part Three

As Jim had predicted, the address turned out to be an abandoned fish-processing plant. Rust and corrosion scarred its metal siding, and loose panels creaked in a strong morning breeze. Rain puddles dirtied with mud and oil filled the pot-holed asphalt parking lot. To Jim, it was a wealth of sounds and smells: creaking, grinding, clanking and whistling from all the loose, forgotten bits of a once-thriving business; rot, decay, and a strong odor of rancid fish oil. He grimaced and tried to tune down his sensitivity level with limited success, then checked the clip and safety on his handgun.

The tactical team consisted of four SWAT officers with assault rifles, Simon, and Jim. Swift was with a mobile surveillance van parked out of sight a short distance away. His specialists had already scanned the area electronically and had detected activity in the west corner of the second floor. The assault team wore body armor, the new stuff the department had been trying to get for years, rated to Threat Level III by the National Institute of Justice; already, events in California and elsewhere had shown a need for Level IV protection for law enforcement, but that was for another budget meeting, another bureaucratic bottleneck.

Aware of someone behind him, Jim turned and found Blair fumbling with the Velcro of his vest. "How do you guys get into these things so fast?" his partner complained quietly.

"Just where do you think you're going?" Jim demanded, his lowered voice not lessening the anger in his question.

"With you," Blair answered simply, looking at Simon.

"Like hell." Jim also turned to the Captain. "Sir - "

"What can I say? He caught me at a weak moment," Banks retorted, also keeping his voice down. "Besides, he's been in the thick of it before, usually without this much protection."

Jim glared at his Guide, who shrugged innocently. "All right, but stay behind me."

"Sure, no problem," Blair agreed readily, grateful the confrontation hadn't been as bad as he'd feared.

With one problem solved, Banks made sure everyone had understood their earlier briefing. "OK, intell says there's supposed to be a stairway just inside this door. We go up, then left to the west wall, where the meet is taking place. The area is filled with old crates and boxes, so there should be plenty of cover. Watch your step; the place is probably filled with junk. Let's go."

Cautiously, Jim tested the door. It started to squeak, so he stopped immediately and listened. With all the other noises, the sound of the door opening probably wouldn't draw attention. He pulled it open slowly and slipped into the dim interior of the plant. Dust motes danced on weak shafts of sunlight, which provided the only illumination. Most of the lower level was bathed in darkness. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs as the others joined him. Above, his acute hearing picked up voices coming from right where their earlier covert surveillance said they should be. He led the way up the stairs, pistol gripped in both hands, at the ready. Blair was close behind him, as instructed, and Simon next in line, the four uniforms a little further behind to provide better coverage with their automatic rifles. They all stayed on the inside of the metal staircase, and made hardly a sound as they ascended.

Suddenly, Jim gestured for them to halt. The voices had stopped. Instead, he heard the sounds of a brief scuffle, grunts of surprise and pain, followed by loud thumps that were audible to all. "I think their deal's gone sour," he said. "Come on." He bounded up the stairs and crossed the upper floor swiftly but cautiously, pistol aim following his eyes as he looked all around for signs of danger. His movements had the grace of a long-practiced dance, his whole body coordinated to give him the fastest, widest coverage possible.

At the west wall, three men lay sprawled unconscious by an open briefcase overflowing with currency.

"Cuff 'em," Banks ordered one of the uniforms. To Jim, he asked quietly, "How many more?"

"I can hear one, moving away from us toward the far side of the building," Jim answered, starting forward.

"He must have the drugs with him," Simon said, "'cause I don't see them here."

Once again, Jim led the way, Blair sticking to his footsteps like glue. The young anthropologist never failed to be amazed at the skills demonstrated by well-trained tactical officers, even though he hated violence, especially gun violence. But so far the operation had progressed smoothly, without any shots fired.

Jim led him cautiously through the uneven stacks of old crates cramming the floor space. Simon and the SWAT officers had spread out, picking different paths to trap their quarry, but it was Jim's acute hearing that told him he was accurately following the trail of the retreating suspect.

Startled pigeons spiraled toward the rafters in a frantic flap of wings, and Blair jumped nervously.

"Easy, Chief," Jim said quietly, "he's just up ahead."

He paused by a crate, motioned Blair closer to it for cover. Ahead, he heard a voice speak quietly. "Shit, it's a dead end." Resignation. "Busted."

Jim assumed the man was talking to himself, because he sensed there was no one else nearby.

"This is the Cascade Police!" he shouted. "Put down your weapon and step out with your hands over your head!"

"OK, OK," returned a calm voice. "I'm coming out."

Tensed and ready, Jim stepped into the open, pistol aimed unerringly toward the sound of the voice. First, he saw a raised hand emerge from behind a large crate. A semi-automatic pistol dangled by its trigger guard from one finger. This was soon followed by the rest of the suspect, who stepped cautiously into view, his other arm also raised high. Blair peeked around the corner of the crate he was sheltered behind and saw a man of just over average height, about Blair's own age, clean-cut and good-looking with short-cropped hair. Dressed casually in jeans, white leather athletic shoes, a plaid shirt and a brown leather jacket, he could have been anybody on the street; he certainly didn't look like a drug dealer as he smiled disarmingly at his captor. Something about him, though, was disturbingly familiar to Blair, who felt certain he had seen the young man before, or at least someone very like him.

"The gun's a Browning Hi-Power, my particular favorite. Do you mind if I just set it down?"

"Drop it - " Jim began, and then he froze in shock, all of his senses locking up on one still-frame of time. "Tommy?" he whispered.

The man frowned in surprise, then, "Jim?"

Blair recognized the signs of a "zone out", when Jim's heightened senses went haywire and locked up, rendering him helpless and totally unable to function. It usually happened at the worst possible times, like right now. "Jim," he said urgently. "Come on, man, snap out of it!"

Jim was so focused on the suspect that space itself seemed to contract. The man became the total of the universe; nothing existed beyond the few cubic feet of space he filled. But if space contracted, time elongated into agonizing slow motion, a series of snap shots: first bewilderment in vivid blue eyes, then recognition, then a minute shifting of the gaze to something behind Jim, something dangerous, the eyes hardening, the gun hand rolling the Browning expertly into firing position, the flash from the gun barrel as it fired once...twice, the bullets passing so closely that Jim could feel the air move against his cheek.

It was the sound of the first bullet reaching him that finally snapped him out of his trance.

"NO!" he screamed, flinging himself forward even as a fusillade of shots rang out from all sides - the other officers returning fire. Jim drove on, heedless of the danger as he flung his body into the line of fire, bullets impacting in the kevlar on his back, sending him stumbling into the suspect, who was already slamming back from the impact of multiple slugs. Only vaguely was he aware of Blair screaming his name, screaming for the others to stop shooting. God, don't let him charge in front of the shooters --

Jim scrambled to his knees and gathered the man into his arms. For a moment, he was certain Tommy was dead; but the man finally took a shuddering breath and almost convulsed back to awareness. "Christ, Jim, that hurts!" he gasped, clawing at his chest.

"I know, take it easy," Jim soothed, ripping open the young man's shirt to reveal the kevlar vest beneath. Some of the fear and tension drained from him, but he began to tremble, the aftereffect of shock. "Good thing you were wearing a vest." With one hand, he deftly separated the Velcro and pulled the vest aside. Tommy's chest was an angry, mottled red and would be black and blue by morning, but none of the slugs had penetrated the protective clothing. The younger man chanced a deep breath, grimacing at the ache in his chest.

Jim finally became aware of the other figures gathered around him. "He's OK," he said stupidly, shocked and off-balance by the almost unfathomable events of the last few moments.

Simon was agitated almost beyond coherent speech. "Damn, Jim, he was shooting at a gunman behind you! We didn't see him!"

"I know," Jim murmured.

"We didn't know!"

"It's all right, Simon." Nothing mattered now that disaster had been averted. He could only stare at Tommy, and he said, "You took a big chance, knowing the others would think you were shooting at me."

"Hell, I see my brother for the first time in fifteen years, I'm not gonna let some scum bag blow him away after fifteen seconds!"

Blair crouched down beside them. His complexion was dead white. "You're bleeding," he said shakily to Tommy, and to Jim, "Your brother?" No shit, Sherlock, you've been staring at an older version of that face for over two years...

Jim nodded and checked the wound on Tommy's arm. The bleeding had almost stopped. "It looks minor."

"It is," Tommy confirmed. "One of your men is a lousy shot. Can I get up now?"

Jim helped him up. Tommy winced as one of the cops roughly cuffed his hands behind his back.

"Hey, easy," Jim angrily warned the officer.

"He's under arrest, Jim," Simon said quietly. "You know that." Abruptly, Jim remembered the circumstances of this little family reunion; glumly, he nodded. Simon looked at the cop. "Read him his rights." Blair noticed Jim had yet to release his brother's arm, as if to let go might be to lose him again. It gave him an odd twinge of - jealousy? Don't be stupid, Sandburg...

The officer read the suspect's rights from a card, as he'd been trained to do. Although almost the entire population knew the Miranda warning by heart from watching cop shows on TV, the card was required so some smart defense lawyer couldn't suggest maybe a portion of the statement had been forgotten, thus invalidating anything a suspect might confess. Another uniform started to pat down the prisoner.

Tommy sighed. "I have an ankle gun. Wallet, cigarettes, matches, and a pager. That's it." The cop confirmed this inventory anyway, confiscating the small pistol and the pager.

Another officer came up. "Captain, we've done a preliminary search. No sign of any drugs."

"Call for more men and a drug dog," Simon ordered. "And get the M.E. out here to handle the body."

Tommy snorted. "Drugs? This wasn't about drugs!"

"What then?" Simon demanded.

"I was making a down payment on six ground-to-air missiles stolen from an army arsenal in Seattle last month."

"Missiles," Jim echoed blankly, forgetting for a moment that his long-lost brother had just confessed to something a lot more serious than drug trafficking. "Are they here?"

"No, I was going to be taken to them after I showed them my good faith money."

"Damn," Simon muttered. This whole thing had looked bad from the beginning; now it was worse. He turned to the cop standing beside Tommy. "OK, lock him in your squad car for now. We'll take him over to the hospital and have his arm bandaged. And keep him away from the other three suspects - " He turned back to Tommy. "Will you be claiming you knocked out those three because you knew we were coming and didn't want a shootout?"

"Hey, works for me," Tommy agreed blandly.

Jim started to walk out with him, but Simon stopped him. "Jim, I need you here for a search; in case your brother hasn't been as truthful as he appears." Jim hesitated uncertainly, torn between what he wanted to do and what he was required to do.

"I'll go with him," Blair said. "If that's all right, I mean."

"Sure, why not," Simon grunted. "This whole thing has turned into a farce anyway. Just don't get in the back with him."

"OK," Blair agreed, smiling sympathetically at Jim, then hurrying to catch up with the cop and his prisoner.

After securing the handcuffed suspect in the back of his squad car, the officer went to help his fellow uniforms bring out the other three suspects, who were groggy but on their feet.

Blair slid into the front passenger seat and looked back through the welded security grate separating him from the prisoner. Suddenly, he wasn't sure where to begin. "So," he said nervously, "you're Jim's brother."

"Yep."

"Tommy?"

"Thomas - I haven't been Tommy since I was fourteen. And you are -- ?"

"Sorry, Blair Sandburg."

"Well, Sorry Blair Sandburg, you're obviously not a cop."

"No. I'm a friend of Jim's. We're roommates." He didn't know how Thomas had suddenly taken control of the conversation, but he was willing just to let it go for awhile.

"Roommates as in roommates, or roommates as in significant other?"

Blair had noticed a subtle change in Thomas' tone after Blair had admitted to being Jim's friend and roommate. It was harder, more derisive. "Just friends."

"Jim always bring his friends along on police operations?"

"No, I'm an anthropology grad student at the university. I'm a consultant to the police."

"Yes," Thomas murmured sarcastically, "I can see where the department would need a specialist in primitive cultures and ancient rituals."

Blair laughed self-consciously. "I'm doing my doctorate on the police as a sub-culture in modern society."

Thomas frowned, genuinely puzzled. "I thought that was sociology."

"Cultural anthropology, actually," Blair explained awkwardly. "There's an overlap."

"There's something all right," Thomas agreed. "Mind if I smoke?"

"Uh, no," Blair replied, pretty confident it was a futile question in light of the handcuffs. But Thomas casually reached for his cigarettes and matches, an empty handcuff dangling from his left wrist. He lit up with a sigh of contentment.

"How did you do that?" Blair asked nervously, quickly rolling down the passenger side window. Frightened for a moment, he debated calling over one of the officers to explain the prisoner had gotten loose, but he didn't. After all, the man was safely locked in back of the police car, so what could happen?

Thomas shrugged. "Magic."

Still somewhat disconcerted, Blair was embarrassed to hear himself stammer, "Smoking's bad for you, you know."

"Dying of cancer is not a big concern for someone in my line of work."

Curiosity got the better of his mouth. "What is your line of work?"

Blue eyes appraised him coolly. "I kill people." Spoken as if he'd said he was a bank teller.

Blair felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. How would Jim feel when he learned this little gem about his brother? He tried to stay cool. "You're an assassin?"

"An assassin has a specific target. I'm a little more indiscriminate. I'm a mercenary, under contract at the moment."

"You say it like you're a rock star or a ball player." Blair couldn't hide his shocked disgust. If Thomas had been after a reaction, he'd certainly gotten one.

"Nah," Thomas scoffed lightly, "I get paid more."

Again, Blair couldn't tell if Thomas was deliberately trying to shock him, if he was actively seeking disapproval and condemnation, or if he was really so free of conscience that his cool indifference was natural. The conversation died.

After a long minute, Thomas began to fidget, his knee bouncing nervously as he looked out the side window and appeared to ponder. Finally, he looked back at Blair. "You're Jim's friend," he repeated, this time with a hint of emotion in his voice, the only other indication he was uncomfortable bringing up the subject.

"Yeah - best friends." Blair was surprised to hear defensiveness in his tone, and deliberately took a breath. This was Jim's brother, for crying out loud; he didn't have sound so possessive.

"I thought he seemed glad to see me. You know, in spite of the circumstances."

Blair realized this was the first time Thomas had exposed any vulnerability during the entire conversation. It was a first step. "Except for you nearly getting yourself killed, I'd say he was more than just glad. He was elated."

"Yeah?" Thomas puffed nervously on his cigarette. "I just - " he started, then halted uncertainly.

"You don't know if the two of you will be able to make a connection again," Blair supplied for him.

Thomas grimaced. "Man, I've lived so far out there for so long, I don't know if I can come back into the real world."

"Out where?" Blair asked.

"On the edge, the fringes of society, whatever - a damned subculture you can't begin to imagine." Thomas sounded bitter, with a trace of self-loathing.

"For fifteen years?" Blair said. "That made you what - fourteen, fifteen - when you left home?"

"About that," Thomas replied. Funny, Blair thought he looked a bit older, but he and Thomas were the almost the same age. Maybe it was the hard life that put the extra years on his face.

Thomas suddenly crushed the cigarette under his shoe and resecured the handcuffs behind him. "Nice talking to you," he said blandly.

The officer had returned too soon, leaving too many questions unasked. As the cop climbed behind the wheel, he sniffed the air suspiciously and looked accusingly at Blair. "You been smoking in here?" he demanded.

"Absolutely not!" Blair denied, shaking his head for added emphasis.

The cop glanced back at Thomas, who raised an eyebrow. "Oh, sure, I lit up with my toes."

Blair debated with himself again about whether or not to tell the cop about the handcuff trick, but he let it slide. He had gained the first hint of trust from Thomas, and he wasn't about to blow it now.

The cop fired the engine. "You coming or staying?"

"Staying," Blair answered quickly, bailing out and winding up the window. He glanced back at Thomas. "It'll be all right," he said reassuringly, then slammed the door as the cop put the car in gear. He watched the squad car pull away, then went over to Simon's unmarked, where Jim and the captain were examining the briefcase of money.

"Looks like about two mil in large bills," Simon explained for Blair's benefit.

"A nice down payment for half a dozen missiles," Blair agreed. He looked at his partner. "You find anything else in there?"

Jim shook his head, his thoughts clearly elsewhere. "I only had time for a quick look around, but I didn't see anything like missile crates."

Simon hefted the briefcase into the back of his car and climbed behind the wheel. "I'm heading back. You coming?"

"Yeah, in a minute," Jim promised. He waited until Simon had driven off, and he was alone with Blair. "Did he say anything to you?"

"I don't know where to begin," Blair said uncomfortably.

"Why, what did he say?" Jim's tone was insistent.

"Jim, he very calmly told me he's a hired mercenary who kills people for a living."

Jim winced and rubbed his face in irritation. "So that makes him what? -- a psychopath? Is that what you're saying?"

"Whoa, calm down, Jim," Blair urged. "I'm not saying that at all." He had to make Jim understand. "I am saying that he could be a sociopath, without a conscience as you and I define it."

"He ran away from home when he was fourteen," Jim retorted angrily. "Living on the streets couldn't have been easy. It's no wonder his values are a little skewed."

A little skewed, Blair thought wildly. "Jim, you're not exactly unbiased here - "

"Damn straight!" Jim interrupted harshly. "He's my brother, and the first time in fifteen years I lay eyes on him, I have to bust him. I'm going to cut him all the slack I can." Abruptly, he turned and headed for his truck, leaving Blair to stay or follow as he wanted. At that moment, Jim seemed so wrapped up in his own thoughts, Blair didn't think he realized the truck was the only transportation left, so he hurried to catch up and climbed into the passenger seat as Jim started the engine.

"You want to talk about it?"

For a moment, he didn't think his friend had heard, but then Jim switched off the engine and slammed his hand against the steering wheel.

"That won't help."

Jim sighed, releasing his anger. "You're right. I'm sorry I blew up at you." He looked at Blair and saw only concern. "I don't know where to begin," he said haltingly.

"You were kids," Blair prompted.

"Yeah, and I guess we were about as close as two siblings could be considering our age difference." Jim smiled at a memory. "I was always embarrassed because he'd tag along whenever he could, but after awhile, I got used to having him there, you know?"

"Little boys usually idolize their big brothers," Blair said, thinking, I wonder if that's why he lets me tag along after him...

"Yeah, but it was more than that. Sometimes it really felt like a case of us against them."

"Them? Your parents?"

"Yeah." Jim pondered for a bit. "Dad was OK, quiet, easy-going, unambitious. He worked hard, though, so he wasn't around much. Mom was - I don't know - frustrated, I guess, being stuck at home with two boys. She pretty much ruled us with an iron fist, always screaming that Dad should work harder to provide a better home, that she deserved better than us. She drank a lot, and after Dad left for good, she drank even more. A few years later, she married some asshole named Chuck, a real loser."

"What happened to your dad?" Blair asked.

"Tommy and I thought Mom had killed him and buried him in the backyard," Jim admitted with a chuckle. "We even searched for the body. Several years later, I found out he'd just had enough and moved on to start a whole new family with someone else. I never got in touch."

"Why not?"

Jim shrugged. "He never cared enough to contact us. I figured he just wasn't interested."

"So what happened with Chuck?" Blair continued.

"He didn't have much impact on my life. I was in college by the time he came along, and I promised Tommy I'd find us a place just as soon as I found a part-time job that would support us both. I had no idea how tough it was going to be just to pay my own way, much less earn the money to take in my little brother."

"You were young, in college, and probably broke," Blair said. "Don't be so hard on yourself."

"Except - ," Jim struggled to contain his returning anger. "Except I didn't believe Tommy when he told me Chuck had started to physically abuse him! I thought it was just a ploy to make me feel guilty, to make me try harder to get him out of that house."

"Was Chuck abusing him?"

"I don't know! I just know within a year, Tommy had run away. He didn't even leave a note or try to call me. Mom and I never heard from him."

"What did you do?"

"I left school and spent the next two years looking for him. Man, that was an education in itself, searching out the pimps and pushers and other low-lifes that prey on runaways. I saw a slice of life I'd known only from books and TV. The real thing is much, much worse." Jim closed his eyes against the memories. When he opened them again, his anger was gone. "I was desperate to find him, guilty that I'd let him down. Then, I got angry with him for running away." He sighed. "After that, I just got on with my life."

Blair felt badly for his friend. "Did your mom or step-dad help?"

"No - she said it was better around the house without him, said Tommy was nothing but a liar and a troublemaker."

"And Chuck?"

"He left sometime later. And then Mom got cancer and died."

"God, Jim, I'm sorry."

Jim shrugged it away. "It was all a long time ago. When I couldn't find Tommy, I started to believe he was dead. Or maybe I just wanted to believe it so I could move on."

"That's not true," Blair protested. "A young kid living on the streets - you knew what his chances were. Thinking he was dead was a logical assumption."

"He could have been the victim of any number of human predators or diseases," Jim murmured. "He must really hate me."

Blair was quick to disagree. "No, Jim, you're wrong. When I was talking to him, the only time he showed any real emotion was when he talked about you. I think he's scared to death you don't care about him any more, or approve of him."

"Right now, just the fact that he's alive is enough," Jim said. "I'll deal with the rest somehow."

"In spite of your own strong beliefs about right and wrong, morality and justice?" Blair challenged gently.

Jim started the truck's engine and put it in gear. "Where my brother is concerned, just consider me a bleeding-heart liberal."

"Not in my wildest imagination," Blair retorted with a grin.

Jim smiled in return. "Hey, did you ever get to ask him what you wanted to?"

"And what was that?"

"Whether or not he's a sentinel, too."

Blair shrugged wryly. "Actually, it never came up."

 

Part Four

The mess was in the process of being sorted out by the time they got back to the station. Simon impatiently waved them into his office and shut the door. "Detective Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg, meet Edward Wingate," he said, introducing a middle-aged man whose pin-neat suit and demeanor made Jim mentally bet a fortune that Mr. Wingate was British.

He wasn't disappointed. "Detective Ellison, Mr. Sandburg," the man greeted, shaking hands with both. "Sorry about the cock up this morning. We had coordinated with Chief Goodale, but I understand he's had an accident, which resulted in this morning's unfortunate lack of communication."

"Coordinated what?" Jim asked bluntly, remembering his feeling of helpless fear as bullets pumped into his brother, not to mention the stiffening bruises parading across his own back. He was in no mood to be polite.

"Sorry. I'm with Limestreet Insurance. As you may know, we're an international carrier, insuring a number of high-risk businesses - airlines, cruise ships, oil rigs, film stars, rock groups and the like. Thomas is part of our Major Claims Division, which is our euphemism for our counter-terrorist task force. Part of the group susses out threats to our clients; Thomas is part of the team that goes to work when our best efforts to avoid a costly incident have failed."

Jim felt a surge of relief. For a mercenary, at least Tommy appeared to be working for the right side.

"The attempted missile buy today was one of their operations," Simon continued. "If we'd had the right information, we were supposed to hang back until Tommy - er, Thomas - led us to where the missiles are hidden."

"Tommy?" Wingate inquired politely, sensing something.

Simon shrugged. "Thomas Ellison, Detective James Ellison."

"Ah, yes, I see a pattern emerging," Wingate confessed. "Thomas never mentioned he had a brother. Then again, there are a great many blanks on Thomas' résumé." He shrugged. "No matter. To get back to the operation this morning - ideally, Thomas should have continued in his undercover role and allowed you to make your arrests. Apparently, he decided a couple of the thugs were likely to turn violent upon your arrival, so he took it upon himself to diffuse the situation. Thomas suspected there was a backup gunman somewhere in the building; he was trying to locate the man when you caught up to him and made your arrest."

"So he blew his cover," Jim said. "Do you know the seller?"

"We think it's a man named Del Skelany, a small-time black market arms dealer and a very nasty bit of work. Those who have gone against him in the past have all suffered acute cases of sudden death syndrome. Our Thomas is not in an enviable position, I'm afraid."

The subject of their discussion strolled into the squad room then. Behind him was a short, scruffy looking hardcase in an old fatigue jacket and black watch officer's knit cap.

"Who's that with Tommy?" Jim asked, then mentally tried to correct himself: Thomas. It's Thomas. He's not a kid any more.

"That's Mickey. We borrow him from time to time from his employers, who shall remain nameless. He and Thomas have worked together before; they're a very effective team when a two-man operation is indicated."

Thomas started to pull out a cigarette, felt all eyes in the squad room fall on him, and reluctantly stowed the pack back into his pocket before he and Mickey entered Simon's office.

"How are you?" Jim asked, aware of all the people in the room, feeling awkward because at this moment, he didn't want to be a cop, he just wanted to embrace his brother after all these years and do his best to make everything all right between them.

Thomas looked just as uncomfortable. "Fine." Another flurry of introductions followed, which helped ease the tension.

"Now that your current operation is blown, we need to come up with an alternate plan," Simon commented. "I suggest Mr. Wingate and I put our heads together. The rest of you, take off."

The four men obediently filed out of the office and gathered at Jim's desk. "You hungry?" Jim asked.

"Always," Thomas admitted. "Any good Chinese in this town?"

"Absolutely," Blair replied with enthusiasm. Chinese food was a particular favorite of Jim's.

Jim nodded. "Chinese it is. You coming, Mickey?"

The man shook his head. "I'm gonna check out the local scene a bit, grab a burger somewhere. Besides, I think the brothers Ellison have some catching up to do." With a casual salute, he sauntered out of the squad room.

"That's right, Jim," Blair said, feeling stupid, "the two of you need to hash things out. If you can drop me off at home, I'll pick up my car."

"No," Jim said quickly, "there's no need for that. We can get take-out. That OK, Tom - Thomas?"

"Sure," Thomas replied with a 'what-ever' tone. His defenses were firmly in place, Blair realized. Bridging them was going to be difficult.

They hardly spoke a word as they went down to Jim's truck and climbed in. Blair felt as if he were wedged between two solid blocks of rock, or perhaps ice was a more fitting description of Thomas. The silence was equally thick all the way to the restaurant, where they stopped at the take-out counter. "What do you want?" Jim asked. "I'm buying."

"Anything's fine, just try to get something meatless," Thomas replied.

Blair was surprised. "You're a vegetarian?"

Thomas shrugged. "I'm not obsessive about it, but yeah, when I can," he admitted grudgingly, as if admitting this small fact revealed a weakness.

Jim wasn't quite floored by this admission - he expected a lot more surprises as time went on - so he ordered a variety of ala cart main and side dishes. They had their arms full when they finally reached the loft a half-hour later. The time it took to grab plates, utensils, and glasses was quickly gone, and the awkwardness settled in again.

Jim slouched in his chair. "I guess there's no easy way to do this," he commented softly.

Thomas was intent on pushing some vegetables around on his plate. Then he resolutely put down his fork and met his brother's eyes. "What do you want to know?"

Blair felt uncomfortable being an observer to this difficult reunion, but Jim had wanted him here, so here he'd stay. He realized he'd lost his appetite, and settled for taking a drink from his can of soda.

"Why didn't you call me?" Jim asked abruptly, remembered anger making his voice harsher than he'd intended. "Back then, when I was in college?"

Thomas' voice was a shocked whisper. "I did call you."

Jim felt as if the world had dropped suddenly from under him. "You did?"

"The day I ran away." Thomas looked down at the table, not willing to see the sudden pain and sadness in his brother's eyes. "You were out. Some guy in your dorm said he'd give you the message."

"Oh, God," Jim murmured, realizing fifteen years of hopeless wondering could have been alleviated by delivery of a single phone message.

"I called again a few weeks later, but they said you'd left college and gone home." Thomas' voice was still low, and Blair had to strain to hear him. "When I called home, Mom said neither of you ever wanted to hear from me again."

"Damn!" Jim raged suddenly, lurching to his feet in anger. His chair crashed backward to the floor, but he ignored it, pacing the loft with agitated strides. "Damn her! I didn't go home - I went looking for you. She said you never called." Blair flinched at the intensity of Jim's anger, feeling helpless to offer any solace.

Thomas was abruptly as taut as an over-strung guitar string. "You tried to find me?" he echoed, looking stricken.

"For two years," Jim answered, too upset to stop pacing. "When I couldn't find you, I figured you were either dead or didn't want to be found." Finally, he stopped in the middle of the floor, keeping his distance both physically and emotionally, uncertain what to do next. "All the things that would have been different - "

The silence became oppressive.

"It must have been rough, living on the street," Blair said at last, trying to ease the tension.

"At first," Thomas admitted. "But I was quick and smart, so I got by."

Jim returned to the table and righted his chair to sit down. "I'm sorry." There was a lot of pain in those two words, guilt and regret vying for top honors.

"Not your fault," Thomas countered tightly, still locked into visions of what might have been. "I went to see Mom when she was dying in the hospital," he added softly. "I was in Scotland, but someone told me she was sick."

"What happened?" Jim asked.

"She said I'd ruined her life, her chance at real happiness with Chuck. She spit at me." There was a lot of pain there as well, Blair realized. He couldn't imagine a mother spitting at her son from her deathbed. How many issues had been left unresolved, how many words of reconciliation left unspoken?

"I only went to see her once after she got sick," Jim admitted. "She was bitter and hateful. Part of it may have been the drugs they were giving her, or maybe her alcoholism. I was on a compassionate leave of absence from the Army, but I lied and told her I had to get back on duty. I didn't go home again until the funeral."

"You were in the Army?" Thomas asked in surprise, diverting the subject hastily away from too-painful memories.

"Yeah, why? Were you?"

"No, but once I acquired a sort of legitimacy in my line of work, I took a lot of special training courses through the Army and Navy." This new line of conversation was easier for both of them, and they readily entered a discussion about the various survival and tactical courses they'd taken, how many times their paths had nearly crossed.

Blair was kind of lost, but asked, "So, this anti-terrorist organization you're in, isn't that kind of like police work only with bigger guns?"

Thomas managed a brief laugh, more relaxed then he'd been in hours. "Not hardly. Jim has to worry about victims' rights, property rights, and especially the bad guy's rights. My job is simple - kill the bad guys. We don't take prisoners, we don't worry about paperwork, and we don't answer to a shooting review board every time we fire our weapons."

"But don't you handle a lot of hostage situations?" Blair asked. "Your boss implied you work a lot of hijackings and kidnappings."

"Yeah, but there's still a difference," Thomas tried to explain. "Most terrorists are a funny breed of fanatic; simply put, a lot of them are eager to die for their cause, and they prefer to kill as many as possible along the way. By taking them out, we inevitably save lives and property. Simple."

By and large, Blair thought he much preferred the police department's approach, but he had to admit to ignorance where terrorism was concerned. "Simple," he echoed doubtfully. "Hey, I'm going to nuke my take-out and warm it up. Anyone else still hungry?"

Everyone was, of course, and the meal proceeded on a more relaxed note. Finally, Jim said, "It's still early, I probably should get back to work. Thomas, are you going to stay here tonight?"

"I guess," his brother replied. "I just got into town early this morning for this missile buy, so I haven't made any other plans."

"Good. You got any gear or anything?"

"Mickey has it."

"And we've lost Mickey," Blair said.

"Never happen," Thomas contradicted. He pushed the recall button on the pager he had reattached to his belt and spoke in a normal voice. "You there, buddy?"

Jim didn't hear a reply, but Thomas said, "I'm going to stay with Jim tonight. Can you bring my kit by his place?" Another pause, then, "OK, thanks."

"What is that thing?" Blair asked in amazement.

"It has to be a transmitter and receiver," Jim speculated, "but I can't hear the receiver."

Thomas tapped his ear. "Little thing way down in here. You're not supposed to hear it."

Yeah, but I should have, Jim thought. "So this morning at the packing plant, you weren't talking to yourself when you said you were about to get busted. You were talking to Mickey."

"You must have been closer than I thought," Thomas said. "Yeah, he's my backup. He was across the street on a rooftop, with a clear shot into the west windows on the second floor. He warned me you guys were coming."

"I wondered how you knew that," Blair said with a tinge of regret.

"You thought maybe I was psychic or something?" Thomas countered.

"Or something," Jim agreed with a grin.

"OK, but why is that thing disguised as a pager?" Blair went on curiously.

Jim had a ready answer. "Because everybody, even the bad guys, wear pagers these days. No one even notices them any more."

"Exactly," Thomas agreed. "Except it's more than just a comm unit. This little gizmo happens to be the smallest GPS system on the planet."

Blair hated being ignorant. "What's GPS?"

"Ground Position Satellite," Jim answered. "It calculates your geographic position by sending and receiving transmissions off a grid of satellites in synchronous orbit above the earth. A good one can pinpoint your location to within a foot."

"Wow, and I thought a compass was a handy gadget," Blair approved.

"Ain't technology grand?" Thomas said. "By the way, this little puppy is top secret, so you'll be turned to crispy critters by cosmic death rays or something if you breathe a word about it to anyone."

"You told us about it," Blair pointed out.

"Hell, I was feeling chatty," Thomas replied. Once again, Blair didn't know if the man was kidding or not, so he figured he'd err on the safe side and not tell anyone about the small tracking system. Who'd believe him anyway? Besides, among his circle of friends, who'd care?

"Either of you coming back to the department with me?" Jim asked.

"You got cable?" Thomas countered.

"Of course."

"The Food channel?"

"Uh - I think so." His brother watched the Food channel?

"Then I'll stay here and surf."

"Chief?"

"Might as well stay here - I've got some tutorial notes to organize."

"OK." Jim paused, and looked seriously at his brother. "I'm not trying to sound judgmental or anything, but do you have any warrants out on you?"

Thomas chuckled. "Probably, but most of them would be in countries that don't have extradition treaties with the U.S."

"OK, just checking. I don't want any surprise visits from the FBI at two in the morning." He stood up and started for the door, then abruptly swung back and practically dragged his brother into a tight hug. "I'm glad you're here," he said quietly, then released him and stepped back, embarrassed by his show of emotion.

"Me too," Thomas managed to choke out through a throat that felt suddenly tight. He turned away to hide his emotions. "Now go back to work. Make up a plan to find those missiles."

"Right." Jim left, and Thomas promptly plopped down on the sofa and found the remote for the TV. A minute later, he was channel surfing to his heart's content.

Blair stood awkwardly in the middle of the room for a moment, feeling oddly left out. "OK, I'll just clean up here," he murmured, then started to clean off the table. He was still fussing in the kitchen a few minutes later when there was a knock at the door. "That must be Mickey," he said, reaching for the door handle. "I'll get it."

"Wait a minute - " Thomas started to warn, but Blair already had the door open, only to find himself staring down the barrel of what had to be the world's biggest handgun. Before he could even start to react, the man grabbed him by the shirt and spun him around, taking him a chokehold to use as a shield.

Thomas had rolled off the sofa and risen to one knee, his Browning aimed unerringly at the man holding Blair.

"Don't try it," the man warned, jamming his pistol hard against his captive's temple.

Thomas cocked an eyebrow. "One shot between the eyes, your finger doesn't even convulse on the trigger. Let him go."

Kill the bad guys. Blair remembered Thomas' job description. Right about now, he wished it included a little more concern for the hostage.

A second man appeared at the very edge of the doorframe and leveled a pistol at Thomas, who dove to one aside. The pistol coughed an odd "thwop", and Thomas looked down at his shoulder in amazement. "Son of a bitch," he said wonderingly. Then he fell forward onto his face, the Browning falling from nerveless fingers.

Blair heard the funny pistol fire again, felt a hot sting on his neck, and that was the very last thing he remembered.

 

Part Five

Blair first became conscious of a burning tension across his shoulders, and automatically tried to stretch to ease the muscle tension. When he discovered he couldn't move, he shot back to awareness with a start and stared around wildly until reality merged back into focus. He remembered the two men at the door to the loft, the chokehold, getting shot -

Well, perhaps not getting shot. He realized he'd been drugged, probably from a dart gun. His hands were handcuffed tightly behind him to a rigid metal chair that felt hard and cold beneath him. Looking around more carefully, he saw that he was a prisoner in a large warehouse space. The floor around him was clear for several dozen feet, then there was a table, some chairs, cots and other signs of residency. Six men were sitting on and around the table, some reading magazines, others cleaning automatic weapons, one dozing. They looked hard and tough, like serious militiamen. Blair had the uncomfortable feeling these were the genuine articles, not fantasy-driven weekend warriors.

"Welcome back," said a quiet voice from his left.

Blair looked at Thomas, also bound in a chair. Jim's brother looked as groggy as Blair felt. "How are you?"

Thomas did his best to shrug. "My head feels like it's stuffed with oatmeal. You?"

Blair nodded, wished he hadn't. "Yeah, sluggish."

"God, I hate being drugged," Thomas murmured, closing his eyes tightly for a moment in an effort to drive away the aftereffects.

"Do you know where we are?" Blair asked quietly.

"Yeah - right where our next ingenious plan was supposed to bring us," Thomas said bitterly, nodding toward the gathering.

Blair looked again, and saw what he'd missed before: six rectangular metal boxes stacked near a cluster of regular packing crates just beyond the table. The boxes were stamped "U.S. Army - Live Ordnance," followed by a lengthy part number or serial number. The missiles stolen from the Seattle armory.

"What are we going to do?" Blair wanted to know. He'd been held hostage before, but it still didn't stop him from feeling a cold quiver of fear deep in his gut. Thomas was supposed to be the specialist in these things - he must have come up with an idea. Then he remembered the locator device disguised as a pager, but when he looked at Thomas' belt, he saw the unit was gone. Was it still here in the building? Had it been discovered and deactivated? Or was it back in the loft, next to Thomas' pistol?

"We wait," Thomas replied calmly.

Blair didn't know if this was simply resignation or part of a plan, but he felt his fear diminish under his fellow captive's cool demeanor. "OK, sure." Not that he had a choice, of course... "Why did you try to fake out the guy who had me by the throat? I thought you said your job was to kill the bad guys, and to hell with everything else."

Thomas looked somewhat embarrassed. "Yeah, well, his finger might have twitched. Jim would've been pissed."

I wouldn't have been exactly thrilled either, Blair thought sullenly.

 

Part Six

Back in Simon's office, Jim joined Simon and Edward Wingate to find out what they'd decided to do about the next phase of the case.

"It took some quick talking to the DA," Simon said, "but we've got our three suspects from this morning on a 24-hour incommunicado. No phone calls, no lawyers, no arraignments - nothing."

"Skelany's still going to wonder what happened to them," Jim pointed out.

"Thomas still has a point of contact with Skelany," Wingate explained. "He can try to set up another meeting."

Jim shook his head. "If Skelany is as smart as you say he is, he won't go for it. He's probably already packed up and left town." Then he scowled darkly at the insurance man. "Except you know he won't."

Wingate sighed at Jim's insight. "Sorry, yes. He's a vindictive sort. He'll go after Thomas. It will be our only chance of catching him and finding the missiles."

Disgusted, Jim turned to Simon. "Did you know about this?"

Simon nodded and said without apology, "Jim, your brother does this sort of thing for a living. He knows the odds."

"So Thomas just initiates contact and walks into a trap? What's to stop Skelany from killing him outright, before we have a chance to move in?"

Wingate handed him a thin file folder. "We don't have much on him, not even a photograph, but we do know Skelany likes to gloat." He frowned distastefully and added uncomfortably, "He never hurries when he thinks he has time to do a proper job. Sadly, we do have some of those pictures."

Jim took a deep breath to slow his racing thoughts. "Damn, I don't like it," he muttered, scanning the few printed sheets in the file folder. They confirmed what he suspected - Del Skelany was the worst sort of mercenary, working for the highest bidder, without cause, conscience or regard for anything but money. His only weak point seemed to be his ego, as Wingate had indicated, and the only way to flush him out would be to give him a chance at vengeance.

Rafe knocked at the door and opened it just enough to stick his head inside. "Call at your desk for you, Jim. Guy says he's your brother." Rafe ended the sentence with a question mark, clearly curious.

Jim didn't respond to the invitation to explain. "Thanks. Will you transfer it in here?"

"Guy said it was a personal, private, ears only kind of call."

"OK." A little confused, Jim excused himself and went to his desk, where he picked up the receiver. "Ellison."

"It's Mickey," said Thomas' partner. "I'm just leaving your place - front door's wide open, no one's inside, and Thomas' Browning is on the floor."

Jim felt a sudden fear clench in his gut. Skelany - one step ahead. "Any blood?" he asked calmly.

"No, but Thomas wouldn't leave that Browning behind if he had a choice."

"Do you have a way to track his GPS unit?" He knew Mickey was moving - he'd heard the man go down the stairs and exit the building; now he heard him climb into his vehicle.

"I'm firing it up right now." He rattled off his cell phone number, which Jim jotted down hastily.

"Call me when you're on the road; I should be tracking him by then."

"OK," Jim agreed readily and hung up. He grabbed his coat and left the bullpen without bothering to fill Simon in on what had just happened. There would be time to call for backup when they were closer to finding the location where Thomas and Blair were being held.

Once in his truck, he called Mickey on his cell phone and started following directions. It was weird, trying to rendezvous with another moving vehicle with only compass headings to follow, although Mickey relayed street names when he could spot them. The trail led into an old industrial area scheduled for demolition and re-zoning; for now, it was a maze of old warehouses and run-down factories. As soon as Jim spotted Mickey waiting for him, he disconnected the call and dialed the station, where he requested immediate backup.

Mickey had an old, beat-up Chevrolet Suburban. He lifted the tailgate, opened the compartment that normally housed the spare tire, and indicated an assortment of assault weapons that would have made him the envy of any street gang in Cascade. "Any preference?"

Jim checked his pistol. "Just this, thanks."

"Shopping with you must be a joy," Mickey observed dryly. He picked an AK-47 for himself, and resecured the tailgate.

"I've called for backup."

"You can wait if you like," Mickey answered agreeably. "I'm going in."

Jim had been expecting the response. "Do you have an exact location?"

"Warehouse on the other side of this one, probably two hundred yards. It's open ground, but there aren't any windows facing this way. I didn't spot any guards outside. Skelany's arrogance is his biggest flaw."

Jim nodded. "Then let's go."

Mickey led the way into the first warehouse, a huge floor space littered with broken cardboard boxes and other trash. They crossed to a crack in the far wall, where they could observe their destination without being seen.

"Unless, of course, he found the GPS unit, left it here, and took his prisoners somewhere else," Jim pointed out quietly.

Mickey just shook his head. "It looks and acts just like a pager. No way Skelany can suspect what it is. He's smart, but he's blind where the little things are concerned."

Jim turned up his hearing. There were too many walls between himself and his quarry, but he could hear movement in the warehouse where Skelany was supposed to be hiding out. "OK, let's go."

"One thing," Mickey said, and Jim gave him a questioning look. "Are you going to do the cop thing - you know, the 'freeze, police', 'hands up or I shoot' crap?"

Jim thought about it for all of a second. "Let's not, and say I did."

"Works for me," Mickey agreed amiably.

Jim found an exit to the building and led the way in a quick dash across the weed-infested lot to a small metal door. He crouched down beside it, Mickey directly across from him, and held a finger to his lips.

Mickey just nodded and waited patiently.

Jim listened hard, and now he could hear more clearly. The main cluster of bodies seemed to be further inside, but there were guards posted here, and they would have to be dealt with first. He held up three fingers, then used Special Forces sign language to indicate their location, and that he would take two, leaving Mickey to take the third.

Mickey had no trouble understanding the signals. He nodded, then smiled slightly as he returned a signed question: High or low?

Jim indicated he would go high, and Mickey just sighed resignedly, as if he'd expected the answer. He nodded his readiness.

Jim rose and stepped back, then launched a hard kick at the door handle. It gave with a screech of metal and slammed open, and Mickey launched himself inside toward the floor, Jim a half-second behind him, as if the two had been doing this sort of thing together for years.

Unfortunately, as Mickey had said, it was the little things that got you. There was something heavy behind the door, so it didn't travel as far as it should have; instead, it hit the obstacle and snapped back, catching Jim in the elbow and throwing off his aim even as he lined up his weapon his first target.

The three guards were caught completely unawares, but their response time was quick and their weapons close. In the time it took Jim to recover his balance after being slammed by the door, the first man had his rifle up and pointing toward its target. Jim fired, the sound of his bullet overlapping the sound of the rifle. The slug hit the metal door just to the right of his ear, the noise like cannon fire not distracting him as he desperately swung toward his second target.

Mickey's weapon fired, and a second man went down, his weapon discharging harmlessly toward the ceiling. The third man was quicker, and fired twice before Jim managed to bring him down. It had been only seconds, but Jim could hear more gunfire from deep inside the building. It sounded like a war zone.

Mickey sat up with a groan, his left shoulder bloody, his arm limp. Jim reached down to help him up, his eyes never ceasing to sweep the area. It looked like the office portion of the warehouse - corridors to his right and left, another wider one straight ahead leading to a huge metal door that must have led to the warehouse proper.

The wounded man had also heard the gunfire. "I'm OK. Go on."

Jim nodded tensely and raced ahead toward where he had heard the earlier shooting.

 

Part Seven

Surprised to find he'd been dozing, Blair jerked awake when he heard footsteps approaching. A man, not one from the group still gathered around the table, strolled up to them and examined his prisoners with arrogant disdain. "A goddamned college kid and a two-bit asshole." He spoke with a British accent, coarse and street-tough.

Thomas frowned. "I've never been to college," he corrected blandly, and received a vicious slap across his face for his efforts.

Blair winced. The man was obviously the leader of this group - his attitude was proof of this. So he had to be the arms dealer, Del Skelany: a very nasty bit of work, Blair remembered. Those who have gone against him in the past have all suffered acute cases of sudden death syndrome.

"I can't believe you work for an insurance company now, Ellison," the man said derisively. "Trying to buy my missiles - hell, I saw you coming from miles away!"

Thomas studied the man closely. "I know you," he said quietly. "You didn't go by the name of Skelany."

"That's right, I go by a lot of names," Skelany replied, toying with Thomas' memory. "London, three years ago. Remember that?"

Blair saw Thomas tense. "You were there?" he breathed softly.

"Remember it, boy?" Skelany went on, leaning in close to derive maximum satisfaction. "I was the copper assigned to back you up while you were undercover. I planted the bomb in your car." His voice turned to an oily whisper. "Imagine my surprise when I saw your wife climb behind the wheel instead of you. How did that feel when you saw your lady love blown to bits?"

Thomas shuddered to the very core of his soul as the memories flooded through him. Sick with pent-up anger, he nonetheless stared defiantly back at the man who had taken so much from him. Blair could feel the anger radiating from Thomas, sensed a tension building and spiraling around them, and knew with rising fear they both would die here at the hands of this monster.

Skelany pulled a handgun from his belt and drove it deep into the flesh beneath Thomas' jaw, forcing his head higher. Then abruptly he turned the pistol on Blair, who flinched in helpless anticipation; but Skelany still only had eyes for Thomas. "Which one first, him or you?" he asked calmly. "Him first, then I can take my time with you." He glanced at Blair. "Or maybe I should just kill Ellison and get it over with, what do you say?"

"Skelany." Thomas spoke just the one word, very quietly, drawing the man's attention back to him. Blair saw a flicker in Skelany's eyes, the briefest hint that he saw something in Thomas' gaze that got to him. Whatever it was, it brought Skelany's pistol back to its original target.

The man's brazenness returned when he felt in total control again. "You just can't seem to get a break, can you?" he asked.

It was difficult speaking with a gun jammed into his jaw, but Thomas said, "On the contrary, today's my lucky day."

Skelany laughed. "You figure?"

"Yeah," Thomas returned calmly, "today's the day I get to kill you."

Skelany twitched nervously, but this only angered him further. He leaned in even closer, until he and Thomas were almost nose to nose. "Yeah?" he fairly spat. "And just how do you plan to do that?"

"Simple," Thomas answered, his right hand snapping up and digging savagely into the front of Skelany's throat. The pain and shock caused Skelany to freeze for one fatal instant while Thomas raised his other hand, the empty handcuff dangling from his wrist, calmly took the pistol from unresisting fingers and jabbed the muzzle against his adversary's teeth. "Just like this."

And he pulled the trigger.

Blair didn't even have time to cry out or close his eyes against the horrible image of Skelany's skull blowing out the back of his head, brains and blood and bone arcing outward from the force of a high-velocity slug.

The roar of the shot had barely touched Blair's hearing before Thomas was on the move, slamming past Skelany's still-falling body, shooting the full clip from the pistol toward the table of slowly reacting men. He nailed the one who had been napping, but the others grabbed for their weapons with remarkable speed. Thomas didn't stop even as the first machine pistol came to bear on him. He plowed into the group with the force of a bull, snapping the neck of one man, then using the body as a shield as the first slugs sliced toward him. It was total chaos, men shooting wildly, sometimes shooting each other, the shots punctuated with screams of rage or fear as they tried to take down the madman in their midst.

Blair knew he would never be able to reconstruct each event accurately, it was all happening too quickly. He stared transfixed at a scene that looked as if it had been choreographed by a top Hollywood fight coordinator, each move rehearsed a dozen times -- Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Mortal Kombat all rolled into one. Except this scene hadn't been rehearsed. Thomas seemed to anticipate every move from his opponents and react with lightning skill, meeting gun, knife or martial arts threat with speed and a precision seldom achieved on a movie sound stage.

It was over in seconds. Bodies sprawled in unnatural poses amid the wreckage, everything suddenly unmoving save for spreading pools of blood and gore.

Blair was too stunned to comprehend the carnage, then he began to tremble in shock. He stared as one of the figures stirred and rose.

Thomas paused on one knee, a bloody pistol clutched in his hand. He looked around cautiously, as if dazed, then focused on Blair. "Wow," he murmured, "that sure pegged my fun meter." He stood up and walked unsteadily toward the handcuffed prisoner, then went back to one knee and snapped the pistol toward the warehouse door as it slid open.

Jim stood framed in the doorway, his own pistol at the ready.

"Hi, Jim," Thomas greeted mildly, lowering his weapon gratefully.

The detective stepped into the room and looked around in shocked amazement. "You did this?" he asked quietly.

"Some," Thomas admitted, climbing carefully back to his feet. "Some of them did it to each other."

Jim hurried to Blair and unlocked the handcuffs with his own handcuff key. "You OK, Chief?" he asked in concern as he looked into the shocked, ashen face of his friend. He could feel Blair's trembling as he removed the restraints.

Blair shook his head and tried to stand, nearly falling until Jim steadied him with a helping hand. Jim realized his friend was staring at Thomas with a mixture of disbelief and horror, and turned to look at his brother. "You OK? Is any of that blood yours?"

"I'm not hit," Thomas admitted somewhat dully, walking forward unsteadily to join them.

"I've got backup and an ambulance on the way. Mickey took a slug in the shoulder, but I think he'll be OK." Jim wasn't sure what to do. Blair was clearly in shock after what he had seen, and Thomas looked almost frail in spite of his apparent lack of injury. "What's wrong?"

Thomas closed his eyes briefly and then opened them. "Jim, in about twenty minutes, I'm going to have a major crash and burn."

"We'll get you to a hospital - " Jim started.

"A hospital can't help," Thomas interrupted. "I need to get out of here now."

"Impossible," Jim protested, "there'll be a thousand questions -- "

Blair's voice cut in with quiet insistence, his shock vanishing as he realized what had to be done. "Jim, I know what to do."

"What?" Jim asked, torn between his desire to help and what he knew he should be doing as a cop: Blair and Thomas should stay at the scene, ready to answer questions about what had happened.

"There's no time," Blair answered. "Just give me your keys and some cash, as much as you have." Jim stared at him, surprised by the firm conviction in his friend's voice. "Trust me on this one, Jim."

"OK," Jim relented with barely a moment's hesitation. He quickly handed over his cash and the keys to the truck. "I should stay here, but - "

"It's OK, Jim," Blair said. "Just get us out of here."

"All right." He looked at his brother, who seemed to have mentally strayed. "Can you walk?"

"I can walk," Thomas affirmed, heading sluggishly for the door.

The three of them exited slowly. In the hallway, Mickey was on his feet, leaning against the wall, one hand pressed against his shoulder. Uniformed officers were streaming through the entrance. Jim started speaking, but he never slowed his progress toward the door. He indicated Mickey. "Help this man until the ambulance arrives. He's on our side. Check for survivors in the warehouse." He knew there weren't any survivors, but he wanted to keep the uniforms busy for the moment.

As the officers jumped to obey, they all but ignored Thomas and Blair. Thomas gave Mickey a shaky salute as they passed him, and the wounded man returned a thumbs up. They made it outside.

"Jim, where's your truck?" Blair asked quickly.

Jim pointed toward the other warehouse. "Behind there."

"OK, you two wait here." Without waiting for a response, Blair took off at a run.

Thomas closed his eyes and swayed a little; Jim steadied him. "You need to sit down."

"If I sit down, I won't be getting up again for awhile," Thomas replied without opening his eyes.

"What's wrong with you?" Jim asked in concern, but Thomas just smiled slightly and didn't answer.

Blair rolled the truck to a stop beside them then, and Jim helped Thomas climb into the passenger seat. "You're sure about this?" Jim asked worriedly.

"Yes," Blair answered. "You're needed here, Jim. We'll be OK." Before Jim could protest further, Blair slammed the truck into gear and spun the wheels as he accelerated.

They passed more incoming squad cars, but thankfully no one tried to stop their departure. Once on the road, Blair looked at his passenger. "Does your head hurt?"

"Yeah," Thomas answered, leaning back against the seat and closing his eyes. "Pretty soon, it's going to feel like fifty migraines having a gang war."

"So it's happened before?" Blair asked, then repeated it more loudly when he didn't get a response.

Thomas flinched. "Yeah, a few times."

"What did you do for it?"

"Aspirin and caffeine," Thomas replied absently, drifting again. "Both in large quantities."

"Did they help?"

"Yeah. Enough to keep me sane, anyway."

"Hot or cold?"

"What?"

"Coffee or cola - the caffeine?"

"Oh. Hot, please."

Blair pulled into a parking lot and stopped. "I'll be right back," he assured his passenger as he jumped out and rushed inside. He slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. "What's left of this is yours if you fill my order fast without any questions."

The kids behind the counter looked startled, then one of them nodded. Blair gave his order to the amazed clerk, then waved another twenty. "Who's got aspirin?"

"I do!" called one of the girls, pleased to take part in this maniac's largesse. She rummaged in her purse and handed him a small bottle. He relinquished the twenty without complaint, accepted the large styrofoam travel mug from the clerk who had prepared his order, and hurried back out to the truck.

He climbed in and held the mug toward Thomas. "Can you hold this?"

Thomas opened in eyes, stared at the proffered mug and took it in both hands. He fumbled a bit with the drinking slot in the lid, got it open finally, and took a cautious sip. He grimaced. "God, what is that?"

"The world's largest espresso," Blair answered, popping the lid on the aspirin bottle and shaking some into his palm. "How many of these?"

"Six, seven."

Blair handed them over, waited until Thomas had swallowed them and drunk some more of the caffeine-rich brew, then started the engine. He headed for the loft, keeping one eye on the road and one eye on his passenger.

Before they pulled in to park again, Thomas was looking a little better. "I never thought about espresso," he commented idly.

"It's the biggest dose of caffeine I could think of," Blair admitted. "A cup that size should be enough to wire a regiment."

"Yeah, I think it's helping. Tastes like shit, though."

Blair climbed out and hurried around to the passenger door. Opening it, he helped Thomas get out. The man was too out of it to stand unaided. Under Blair's guidance, he stumbled through the door and into the elevator. The ride up to the loft seemed to take forever, but they reached it at last, and Blair unlocked the door. "What now?" he asked.

Thomas grimaced as he finished the last of the coffee. "About twenty hours of sleep," he mumbled, staggering toward the sofa. He stopped and looked down at his bloody clothing. "Shit," he mumbled, and started to fumble with the buttons.

"Let me help," Blair said, thrusting aside any discomfort he felt at helping a veritable stranger undress. When Thomas was stripped to his shorts, he fell face down into the sofa cushions and was out.

Blair tossed the styrofoam mug into the trash and then went quietly around the loft, drawing all the curtains and unplugging anything that generated noise - clocks, phone, lamp timer. He plugged in the white noise generator he sometimes used when Jim had trouble sleeping. The figure on the sofa stirred and mumbled a bit, then settled down again. Blair grabbed a blanket and gently draped it over the sleeping form without eliciting so much as a twitch.

When he figured he'd done everything he could to help, he slumped into a chair and leaned back, closing his eyes as he tried to recall every detail of the violence he had witnessed. It hadn't dawned on him at first, but now Blair understood exactly what he'd seen. It both intrigued and horrified him.

Several hours later, Blair heard a key turn in the lock and realized he'd fallen asleep in the chair. It was almost dark in the room; afternoon had slipped unnoticed into dusk. He jumped up and opened the door, raising a finger to his lips as Jim started to enter. Jim stared at the motionless figure sprawled on the sofa. "Is he all right?" he whispered.

Blair waved him back into the outer hall and pulled the door shut behind him. "He will be," he replied softly.

"OK, then will you please tell me what the hell is going on?" Jim demanded, automatically keeping his voice low to match Blair. "I got a major chewing out from Simon for letting the two of you leave the scene."

"I know, Jim," Blair said, "but it was necessary." He paused, wondering where to start. "Remember that journal by that Portuguese sailor?"

Jim scowled. "Yeah - the lusty village women serving the Sentinel after he fought for the tribe."

"It wasn't just a story."

"I don't follow."

"Jim, I saw Thomas kill seven heavily armed men today, and I'm convinced he did it with more than just his mercenary training. I think he went to some higher level of sentinel awareness we've never even imagine existed," Blair explained excitedly. "He anticipated their every move. Even bullets didn't touch him!"

Jim was unsettled by this theory. "So what's wrong with him now?"

"At a guess, when he comes down from that heightened state, there are some painful aftereffects: Disorientation, a major headache, unbearable weariness. He becomes essentially helpless. That's whythe women in the village had to take care of their sentinel. He wasn't being rewarded, he was being nursed back to health."

"So he'll be OK?" Jim asked anxiously.

"We're flying a little blind here, Jim, but my guess is - yes - he'll be OK after he sleeps it off."

"Do you think - maybe - I'll reach that level?" Jim continued uncertainly.

"I don't know," Blair admitted truthfully. "Your hyper-active senses came on-line during your eighteen months in Peru; then they were dormant for five years. Relatively speaking, you're probably still a novice at this sentinel thing. Thomas was plunged into another type of jungle when he was fourteen - the streets. He's lived a hard, dangerous life ever since. It would hasten the evolution of his skills." He sighed. "Frankly, Jim, I hope you never get there."

"It was pretty rough, huh?" Jim said sympathetically.

"He wasn't human any more," Blair confessed uncomfortably, aware he was talking about Jim's brother but knowing he had to say it. "He was an independent lethal weapon, an organic killing machine. He took on seven men, and before it was over, I almost felt sorry for them. I knew they didn't stand a chance. And like Thomas said, he doesn't take prisoners. With his skill, he didn't have to kill him, but he did it anyway. Having that kind of power would have to make you a different person, a colder person."

Jim ran a hand through his short hair and slumped against the wall. "Yeah, I don't know how I'd feel --," he murmured. "God, it's frightening and enticing at the same time." He looked nervously at his friend. "Do you think I have a choice?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't know. You were able to cancel your abilities once before through an act of will, although it was at a subconscious level. Maybe you'll be able to define their limits in the same way." Blair paused. "There's something else, Jim."

"What?"

"The first guy he killed - Skelany? -- he confessed to murdering Thomas' wife three years ago."

Jim looked stunned. "Wife?" Thomas had a wife? Information was coming at him too quickly to be absorbed. "You don't like him much, do you?" he asked unexpectedly.

"Jim, I don't want to - "

"I value your judgment."

Blair sighed, wanting to be truthful, embarrassed by what he had to confess. "My judgement might not be worth much," he began awkwardly. "When he stumbled back into your life, and you looked so happy - " He stopped, not really wanting to get into this in the hallway. But he'd already started, so there was no turning back. "I felt jealous."

Jim frowned, not really getting it. "What?"

"Jim, he's your brother - that's a relationship I can only dream about. I suddenly felt like a substitute, someone you allowed to tag along after you the way he had when you were kids. I felt - left out."

Jim looked confused at first, then humbled as he realized what Blair was saying. "I'm sorry, Chief, I never thought about how all this must be affecting you."

"It's all right," Blair answered with a slight smile. "All part of my natural insecurity - one of my least endearing qualities." He shrugged away the feeling. "But to answer your question, no, I don't like him much. He's too - cold. Too closed off. Frankly, he scares me half to death most of the time, and still - "

"Still?"

"I don't know. I feel like I could follow him into hell and he'd bring me out again safely." Blair shrugged a little self-consciously. "I feel like I'm really glad to have him on my side."

"Yeah, I guess I can sense that about him, too," Jim agreed.

Blair gazed at his friend for a long moment. "Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"I feel the same way about you - that's probably why I do some of the stupid things I do. I know you're gonna get me out of it OK."

Jim smiled. "Thanks."

Blair didn't crack a smile. "Except with you, I never have any doubts that you're going to stay on my side." He nodded toward the closed door. "With him, I'm not so sure."

Jim nodded reluctantly, understanding the warning in Blair's words. "I got you, Chief. Can we go inside now?"

"Yeah, but we have to be quiet. He's going to sleep for a long time."

"OK, I could stand a little sleep myself."

"Yeah, what time is it?"

Jim glanced at his wristwatch. "A little after eight."

"I'm so worn out, it feels like four in the morning," Blair admitted, then opened the door. "OK, we can go in, but turn off your cell phone and put your pager in vibrate mode."

Jim did as he was told and went inside. He was startled at the near silence inside the loft; all of the normal ticks and hums he'd become used to hearing were gone. With a last look at his prostrate brother, he headed up the stairs to his bed. Maybe a good sleep would do them all some good.

 

Part Eight

Jim had trouble sleeping, perhaps because of the unusually early hour he'd gone to bed, and he rose the next morning feeling gritty and grumpy. A long, hot shower drove away some of his bad mood, and by the time he ventured downstairs, he felt almost human.

Blair was in the kitchen, almost comical in his efforts to prepare breakfast without making any noise. Jim glanced toward the couch; Thomas didn't appear to have moved at all during the night.

"Good morning," he whispered to Blair.

"Good morning," came an equally quiet reply.

"Good morning," mumbled a voice from the sofa cushions.

"Are you back with us?" Jim asked.

The voice sounded uncertain. "Parts of me, I think."

"Then stir those parts and drag your sorry ass over to the table."

Thomas emerged slowly from the sofa, testing each movement cautiously. He looked decidedly ragged as he shambled to the table bundled in the blanket Blair had used to cover him. He sat down gingerly.

"You look a little fragile," Jim observed with concern. "How do you feel?"

"Like Humpty Dumpty after the King's men tried to put him back together again."

"Ouch," Jim sympathized.

"Not 'ouch' so much as - disconnected," Thomas replied.

"Do you feel up to breakfast?" Blair asked.

"Dry toast and some tea, if you have it."

"Herb tea?"

Thomas grimaced. "Do you feel a need to punish me?"

"Lipton's real deal coming up," Blair chuckled. "Mickey left your bag here. I put it in the bathroom. You want to grab a shower while I get the food?"

"An unsubtle hint if I ever heard one. Which way?" Blair pointed, and Thomas shuffled his way to the bathroom and closed the door. The two friends sat at the table drinking their coffee in silence, suddenly aware that anything they said could be overheard by another sentinel's enhanced hearing. Jim felt a little uncomfortable knowing this, and swore to himself not to eavesdrop quite so often on others' private conversations.

Thomas emerged a few minutes later dressed in threadbare jeans and the baggiest sweatshirt Jim had ever seen. Barefooted, he padded sleepily to the table and dropped back into his chair. "Almost alive," he reported groggily.

Blair served him tea and toast, as requested, then poured more coffee for himself and Jim before sitting down again.

"Feel up to talking?" Jim asked quietly.

"Talking I can do; movement will take a little longer," Thomas agreed, rolling his shoulders to relieve tensed muscles. Jim could hear his joints popping and winced in sympathy. "Where do you want me to start?"

"At the beginning," Blair urged eagerly. "I've got hundreds of cases of one or two hyper-active senses, but until I met Jim, I'd never found a full-blown sentinel with all five." He paused. "You know that's what you are, right?"

"'I'm doing my doctorate on the police as a sub-culture in modern society'," Thomas mimicked Blair's earlier words. "I knew you were full of bullshit. Yeah, I know I'm a sentinel. Will I end up in your thesis?"

"Only if you want to be."

Thomas shook his head. "Strictly off the record."

"OK," Blair agreed, too interested to feel disappointment.

Thomas drank some tea and ate some toast as he gathered his thoughts. "My hyper-active senses appeared within a few weeks of being on the streets. I was scared and confused, at first; I thought I was going crazy, or dying of some brain rotting disease - all the kinds of things a frightened kid can imagine. After awhile, I realized they gave me an advantage over everyone else. They made me smarter and faster. Knowledge gave me power, and I made a life for myself for almost two years as a thief and a numbers runner for a bookie." Thomas paused to drink some more tea, and fell into a different reminiscence. "Aud taught me to like tea," he said quietly. "She used Tetley's. Can't drink a cup of tea without thinking of her."

"Your wife?" Jim asked quietly.

"Yeah." Thomas roused himself with visible effort. "But that's a different part of the story."

"You don't have to go on," Blair said guiltily, but selfishly hoped he would. There was so much to learn!

Thomas shook his head. "It's OK. What else do you want to know?"

"What happened after two years?" Jim prompted.

"I joined a group of mercenaries," Thomas replied. "The real kind, the ones who'll fight anywhere for any cause as long as the money is good. I learned a lot about the dark side of human nature and the fine art of killing in equal doses. The details are pretty ugly, but the upshot was I figured out it wasn't the way I wanted to live my life, even though I didn't have a clue what else to do."

"So what happened?" Jim asked.

Thomas shrugged. "This isn't about the sentinel stuff - "

"I don't care," Jim interrupted. "I'd like to know." You're my brother. I need to know how you spent the fifteen years you were lost to me.

"I got lucky and was taken in by a man who runs a freelance mercenary group out of Scotland. He takes on special jobs for NATO governments and insurance companies, kind of like what I'm doing now. He taught me how to pick the right causes, taught me to be proud of my skills, and trained me to be one top-notch soldier. Along the way, he made sure I got a decent education."

"He sounds like a good mentor," Jim said, giving a silent prayer of thanks to the unknown man.

"He is. Weird guy, though...hates women and loves cats. Go figure."

Blair took this as a good time to break and make more tea and coffee. The side stories sounded fascinating, and he hoped he'd get a chance to ask about them later, if Thomas wanted to talk. When he was settled again, he said, "Go on."

"I worked for him for a long time," Thomas continued, "but I also did some freelance work of my own. Limestreet hired me as part of a group hired to go in and rescue an archaeological team on a dig in South America. They'd been stranded between two opposing forces - government troops and rebels - and the company figured they'd be in danger no matter which side got to them first. I'd just turned twenty-one and wasn't even the team leader, just one of the grunts. But when we walked into this remote little village, everyone started looking at me strangely, as if they knew something about me. Kids brought me flowers; women brought me food, and men brought me tools and other stuff. It was embarrassing! I was totally freaked out. Anyway, we found the archaeologists at their dig a few miles from the village, packed them up and brought them in. The helicopter showed up the next morning right on schedule, and we started to load the scientists."

"But something happened?"

"Yeah - the villagers said they wanted me to escort them clear of the advancing troops. Obviously, there wasn't room on the chopper for all of them, so my team leader refused."

"What did you do?"

"I didn't have a doubt about staying. It was as if I knew that's what I was meant to do. One of the village elders called me a 'sentinel' - I'd never heard the word until then, I didn't know what it meant, but I knew that's what I was."

"Did you have any trouble taking the villagers to safety?" Blair asked.

"Not a bit - word got out they had a sentinel on their team, and both armies just parted like the Red Sea."

"But beyond your hyper-senses, you still didn't know you possessed a higher level of skills?" Blair asked. "I mean, I know your training as a mercenary gives you the knowledge and the moves, but when did you find you had special powers to enhance them?" Then he grimaced. "Never mind. Forget I asked that."

"Why?"

"Because they must have appeared under some really stressful circumstances, like they did last night. I'm sorry." He silently berated himself for an insensitive fool, and covered it by saying, "You describe everything so vividly."

"Mostly Aud's words. We hashed it back and forth so many times, some of her knack for language just kind of rubbed off. I'm not usually so eloquent."

"Aud?" Blair repeated. "Short for Audra?"

"Audrey. She was one of the archaeologists we rescued. When she heard the village elder call me a sentinel, she jumped right back out of the helicopter and stayed with me from then on."

"She became your Guide?" Jim asked.

"Just like she'd been born to it."

Jim nodded. "And you married her?"

"As soon as she said yes."

Jim suddenly realized Blair had gone unnaturally silent, and he looked at his partner. Blair's face was white, his expression stricken. "Chief, what is it?"

It took his friend a moment to find his voice. "You're talking about Audrey Camden," he whispered, his voice tight. "Doctor Audrey Camden?"

Thomas nodded. "You knew her?"

Blair rose shakily to his feet. "Excuse me. I need to - um - " He crossed the room quickly and went out onto the patio.

Jim stood up as well. "I'd better go check on him."

Thomas nodded in agreement, went back to nibbling on his toast. Jim grabbed Blair's jacket from the coat rack and followed his friend onto the patio. "Here," he said, "you may need this if you're going to be awhile."

Silently, Blair accepted the coat and put it on. He stood at the balcony railing, his gaze focused somewhere beyond the gray horizon of sea and sky. Jim waited patiently beside him, lending comfort without a word or touch.

Finally, Blair said, "Thanks."

"You're welcome." Still, Jim waited.

After another minute, Blair said, "I knew her."

"Figured."

"Yeah, I wasn't exactly subtle about it." He sighed at a memory. "She was my faculty advisor, back when I first chose anthropology as a major. She gave me my first monograph on sentinels. She's the one who got my research started - God, Jim, what if she knew?"

"Knew what?" Jim prompted quietly.

"What if she suspected there's a genetic predisposition to being a guide, the same as we believe there is to being a sentinel? What if she sensed something about me and chose me deliberately?"

"Whew!" Jim agreed. "Lots to think about. Were you with her a long time?"

"She left after a few months to do some work in South America. We exchanged a lot of letters for awhile. Whenever I'd get bogged down with undergraduate work, or whenever my interests would bounce off target, she'd always give me another clue to another sentinel reference. She kept me on the path, Jim." He shoved his hands in his coat pockets to warm them, suddenly aware Jim was only wearing his sweater. "You must be freezing."

"What happened?" Jim asked without answering.

"We lost touch. I can't believe - " The grief was evident in his eyes. "I never imagined she'd been killed."

"You really liked her."

Blair nodded, then shook his head. "It was more than that. You know that hopeless crush you get on your sixth grade teacher?"

"I never had a crush on Mr. Watkins, but I know what you mean."

Blair managed a smile at the attempted humor. "This was like that, only more so. She must have been twenty years older than me, but she was so beautiful - exotic, mysterious, sophisticated, intelligent. She made me feel so special. I fell in love with her the way only a teenager can fall in love with the unattainable."

"I take it she didn't return your affections?"

"Not a chance. There wasn't a boy in the entire social sciences building who didn't have a crush on her at one time or another." He almost chuckled at the memory. "She was understanding and gentle, but inside she must have been laughing at all our silliness."

"You were special to her," Jim pointed out.

"Yeah." His expression turned bitter. "All that vibrancy and life - lost because of some idiot with a bomb." He turned up the collar on his coat. "You'd better get back inside."

"You coming?"

"In a few minutes. I just need to think about some things."

"OK," Jim agreed reluctantly, but it was damnably cold on the patio, so he was grateful to get back inside.

"He OK?" Thomas asked from the kitchen, where he was brewing another pot of tea.

"Yeah, he just got a little blind sided."

"Yeah, she had that affect on people," Thomas agreed, returning to the table. He appeared to be recovering quickly from his stiffness. "Does he blame me for her death?"

Jim was startled. "I don't think so." He paused. "Do you blame yourself?"

"Of course." Thomas looked puzzled at the question. "She was my Guide, and I let her get killed."

Jim glanced toward the patio at the figure hunched at the railing, and was surprised to feel tears mist his eyes. "She was your wife too," he protested numbly, not liking where his thoughts were leading him.

"And I loved her like a wife," Thomas agreed. "But she was also much more - she was my Guide and my best friend, and both of those things were more important than the simple fact that we were married. When she died - " his voice trailed off, and Jim turned back to face him, not embarrassed now to reveal the emotion in his face. "When she died, I felt as if my soul had been shredded."

Jim nodded in understanding. Seeing the pain in his brother's eyes only confirmed what he knew he would feel if he lost his own best friend and Guide. His very soul would shred and die as well. It was a realization both wondrous and horrifying.

Thomas shook his head. "You don't have a clue, do you?" he said almost gently.

"I think I'm starting to," Jim admitted.

His brother shook his head. "You're still playing around with five heightened senses. You have no idea what's coming next, or how much you're going to need your Guide."

"The 'higher level' Blair mentioned. After seeing you yesterday, I'm getting the idea."

"No, you can't imagine it; you have to experience it. You have no idea how hard you come down, how unbelievably helpless you become. And it only gets worse if you fight it. You have to surrender to it, 'cause if you don't, you'll end up dead or crazy."

Jim didn't like the thought of such absolute dependence; it wasn't in his nature to surrender. It was something he'd deal with when and if he had to. "OK," he said, accepting Thomas' words even if he didn't altogether believe them. He glanced toward the patio again; Blair still hadn't moved. "What does it feel like?"

Thomas just shrugged. "Like your partner said last night, I turn into a fucking human lethal weapon."

"I'm sorry you heard that. He was a little freaked out by all the violence."

"Yeah, no shit, he had every right to be." Thomas ran a nervous hand through his short hair. "Well, you can't dodge bullets, no matter what Sandburg said about yesterday. The human body isn't designed for faster-than-sound movement, so what the hell does it matter if you see the bullet coming at you? - it's probably going to get you. But if you hear the hammer cocking - hell, you can avoid a bullet like that just with the skills you already have."

Jim nodded, heard Blair finally come in from outside, and turned toward him. His partner looked unhappy but composed; whatever emotions he was feeling were being kept firmly in check. "I think maybe you should hear this, too."

Obligingly, Blair sat down. He still huddled in his jacket, so the cold must have gotten to him. Jim felt a rush of irritation for allowing him to stay on the balcony for so long. Blair nodded for Thomas to continue.

"Jim wants to know what it feels like," Thomas explained for Blair's benefit. "It's like one huge zone out, only it involves all five senses, and you control it. Time seems to slow down; you see everything in slow motion, and it feels like you have all the time in the world to react. You experience everything with absolute clarity - every movement, every sound, every smell; it's all one harmonious action, and you don't have to concentrate on any one sense." Thomas grinned suddenly. "Too bad about the downside of it, though. Just think - if we could call up that state at will, imagine what sex would be like."

Jim almost choked on his sip of coffee, realized Thomas had been timing his story for just that moment, and glared at his brother. Still, it broke the moment and brought Blair out of whatever thoughts were occupying his mind.

"On that note, I think I'm going to take a shower," he commented wryly, getting up. "A hot shower, in case you were wondering." He headed for his bathroom, ignoring the grins that followed him.

"He's OK," Thomas said at last, surprised he'd said it. "I mean, I wasn't so sure when I first met him, but he's good for you. He's so - normal."

"Sandburg? Normal?" Jim chuckled. "Somehow, I don't think I've ever linked those two words together in a sentence."

"Hell, when you consider the closest thing I have to a friend is a stone killer, Sandburg starts to look pretty normal." The lightness in his voice vanished as he realized the absolute truthfulness of what he'd said.

"You don't have to go on with things the way they are," Jim pointed out quietly.

"It's what I do," Thomas answered grimly.

"And if you couldn't do it anymore, then what?"

Thomas thought about it. "I don't know, maybe open a little restaurant."

Jim just shook his head in bemusement. Mercenary to chef; it was a big leap.

"Anyway, it doesn't matter," Thomas concluded. "I'm an adrenaline junkie now. I get high on the action." He finished his tea, shook the pot and heard the satisfying swish of liquid inside. The long morning of introspection and explanation had pretty much wrung him out emotionally. "Look, I need to get some more sleep before I crash again."

"Sure - upstairs, my bed," Jim said. "Is there anything I can do for you first?"

"No. Sleep's the only thing that helps. I don't mean to kick you out of your bed, though."

"It'll be more quiet up there," Jim insisted. "Go on."

"OK." Thomas poured himself another cup of tea and headed up the steps. He paused and looked at Jim. "Thanks."

"For what?"

Thomas shrugged. "I don't know, a lot of things, I guess. Mostly for not judging me."

"Judging you?" Jim echoed. "Why would I? We're the same."

"No we're not," Thomas disagreed quietly. "You still think there's some goodness in the world. You still think you can change things for the better. You still care about what happens to people." Then he turned and continued up the stairs, leaving Jim shocked and speechless at the table.

 

Part Nine

He was still sitting at the table when Blair came out of the bathroom a few minutes later. The younger man looked decidedly warmer after his shower and tossed his jacket in the approximate direction of his room as he came back to the table.

"Did I miss anything?"

Jim just shook his head, staring into the empty depths of his coffee mug.

"So what's wrong?"

Jim looked up and shrugged. "Fifteen years."

Blair sat down across from his friend. "He's turned out OK."

"But he's had such a hard life; you don't even have to read between the lines to know there's a lot he's not telling us, a lot that's none of our business."

"You can't beat yourself up over it," Blair pointed out gently. "If you'd searched for three years, or five years, or ten years, things might not have turned out any differently."

"Maybe," Jim admitted after a long moment. "Doesn't keep me from thinking about it, though."

"No." Blair got up and removed the teapot and empty mugs from the table, carrying the lot into the kitchen. "You want some more coffee?"

"No, thanks."

"You going in to work?"

"I guess."

"Then shake yourself out of it, man, 'cause you'll just get yourself killed if you stay this distracted."

Jim shook his head and stood up. "You're right. Sorry. Will you stay here in case Thomas needs anything?"

Blair looked doubtful. He wasn't comfortable with Jim going to work in his present mood, but he also wasn't comfortable leaving Thomas alone either. "Why don't you stay home today?" he asked finally. It appeared to be an obvious solution.

Jim seemed to understand Blair's conflicting emotions. "Look, I'll just finish clearing this case, OK? There's plenty of routine stuff left to do - lots of paperwork and interviews. I won't get into trouble, I promise." He held up three fingers in a Scout salute, and Blair grimaced, knowing he was being overly protective, something Jim really hated.

"OK," he relented.

Jim grabbed his coat and headed for the door. Pausing, he said, "By the way, all the whispering last night didn't help - he heard every word we said."

Blair thought back over the conversation they'd had in the hallway. "Oh." Oh. Shit.

Jim smiled at his friend's discomfiture and closed the door gently behind himself.

Blair stood in the kitchen for a minute, wondering if he dared do the dishes and finally deciding to leave them until after Thomas woke up. He still had his tutorial notes to finish, but when he settled down on the sofa and started to go through them, he found his heart just wasn't in it. Too much had happened over the past few days, and the news about Audrey Camden's death had thrown him completely off balance. More troubling was this previously unsuspected level of Sentinel abilities, especially the aftermath.

He grabbed up a notebook and started to write, jotting down all the things he'd seen, what Thomas had told him, ideas as they occurred, notes about what references he wanted to consult. He'd organize everything later. Right now, he just wanted to get it down on paper.

Hours later, he became aware of someone watching him and looked up. Thomas was sitting on the bottom step to the bedroom. "Oh, sorry, I didn't hear you come down," he said nervously. "You want some lunch or something?"

"No, I'll fix myself a sandwich or something."

"OK." Blair fidgeted uncomfortably. "Then why are you just sitting there?"

"I was watching you write," Thomas admitted without apology. "You just reminded me of Aud, fingers flying across the page, then tapping impatiently while waiting for the next stroke of brilliance. Too many thoughts, not enough time in the world to get them all down."

Blair nodded. "It feels like that sometimes. Like I'm always playing catch up, or Jim will get into trouble while I just stand there without a clue about what I should be doing."

"You think on your feet," Thomas said calmly. "Just like Aud. You make it up as you go along, and most of the time it works. There isn't a guide to being a guide - or a sentinel for that matter - so we all just stumble forward as best we can. You're going to be all right."

"But she was so much smarter - "

"Doesn't matter," Thomas interrupted. "It's all instinct, and you have good instincts." He got up and headed toward the kitchen. "I'm going to raid your pantry, see what I can whip up for dinner. I can do things with garlic and onions that'll make your mouth water."

"You're making my eyes water just thinking about it," Blair answered, trailing after him.

It turned out to be a surprisingly quiet and companionable afternoon. They had sandwiches and beer for lunch, then Blair went around the loft plugging in all the stuff he'd unplugged earlier, resetting the clocks and timers. Time went by quickly as Blair continued with his notes at the table and Thomas channel surfed from the sofa, sticking mostly with the Food channel. On the stove, a skillet of aromatic pasta sauce simmered next to a large pot of water heating in preparation for the pasta itself.

"Epizote," Thomas muttered. "I don't know if I want to try anything they say tastes the way tires smell."

Blair looked up from his notes with a chuckle. "It's not that bad, but it is an acquired taste."

"I'll take your word for it." He turned off the television and turned toward the table. "Aud had a couple of trunks filled with stuff she'd collected over the years, all her research and journals. She'd probably want you to have them."

Blair put down his pen and considered the generosity of the offer. "Are you sure? There could be a lot of personal stuff - "

"Believe me, I've thought about it. But they're just gathering dust at her parent's house. I'll send them to you. If you find anything you think I should have, you can send it to me, OK?"

Blair still felt uncomfortable, but it presented a wonderful opportunity for knowledge, knowledge that could help save Jim's life in a crisis. "OK. Thanks." He started to pick up his pen again, realized Thomas had more he wanted to say, and waited patiently for the other man to form his thoughts.

"You were wrong about a couple of things you said to Jim last night," Thomas began a little awkwardly.

"I'm sorry," Blair said, "I was being judgmental - "

"No, you were right about most of it," Thomas interrupted. "I'm probably all the things you think I am. It's not about any of that."

"What then?"

"You and I are too different to ever become friends," Thomas said very quietly. "The only thing we have in common is Jim, and even then, my only connection to him is one of blood. I'd like it to be different, but fifteen years is just to long to re-establish the link."

"No, you can't think that way - "

Thomas held up a hand to forestall the argument. "I'm not talking about Jim. I'm talking about you."

Blair was becoming confused and irritated. "What about me?"

"You're his Guide. You mean more to him than a brother, or a wife, or his job, or anything else in this sorry world. You occupy a place in his soul he's just starting to discover, and nothing else will ever fill that space." He turned away, embarrassed by his emotional words. "You can't begin to understand the way it feels to lose someone that - that ... precious."

Blair felt his own throat tighten with emotion. Could he really be that important to Jim? Could he handle being that important to someone? There was so damn much to think about... "I guess I still don't get it," was all he managed to say, because there were things he just couldn't discuss with Thomas. Or maybe even with Jim. The path of his life had taken too many dips and turns these past few days. "You and me, I mean."

Thomas shrugged away his sorrow. "I guess I only meant to say I hope Jim never has to feel that kind of loss. So I'm always going to be on your side, no matter what. It took a long time for me to get to it, but that's what I wanted to say." He picked up the remote again and switched on the TV, closing himself off again as easily as if he'd barricaded a door. "Jim just drove up. You mind tossing the pasta in the water?"

 

Part Ten

Dinner was quiet. Blair dished up some pasta for himself; announcing he had work to do, he retreated to his bedroom and closed the door. Jim didn't understand Blair's unusual reticence, but he accepted it for now. Things hadn't been easy for any of them these past few days, so everyone was entitled to a little quiet time.

Jim and Thomas shared the table and discussed minor, inconsequential things, looking for the first common ground upon which to rebuild a relationship. Thomas had an abysmal lack of knowledge about football, preferring the European version called soccer in America. His main hobby was peak climbing - he'd already reached the summits of four of the tallest Himalayan peaks, although he hadn't managed Everest yet, and he'd "bagged" seven of Colorado's major mountains. He seemed to prefer the ones he could climb alone, without the large support team required for the high-altitude excursions in Tibet. A solitary sport for a solitary man, Jim realized sadly.

Still, they found they had camping in common, although Thomas lacked the patience for fishing.

When they'd finished eating and started on a second beer apiece, Thomas said, "I'll be leaving in a couple of hours."

Jim was floored. "Why?"

"I've got a job to get back to. There's a Longbow training class I'm scheduled to attend."

"Longbow? You're not talking bows and arrows."

Thomas chuckled. "No. It's the new weapons management system for the Apache helicopter. Supposed to line all your ducks in a neat little row so you can maximize your firepower."

So Thomas was a helicopter pilot. "I wish you could stay," Jim said, forcing the words past his normally stubborn pride. "We can't make up fifteen years in just a few days, especially not days like the couple we've had."

"I know." Thomas looked uncomfortable. "But we covered a lot of ground. There's just too much in the air right now - the sentinel thing, the brother thing. We need to sort it out, give it some space." He frowned. "I need to give it some space."

"OK, but it's just a few weeks until Christmas," Jim pointed out. "Do you have plans?"

Thomas looked surprised. "No, I never thought about it."

"Then come back to Cascade. We'll do something." Put up a tree, or go out and get drunk, or both... "Anything you want to do - it doesn't have to be like Christmas, if that bothers you."

Thomas thought about for a moment. "No, that's OK. It sounds nice."

"Good."

An awkward silence descended for a few minutes, and Jim realized they had both gone about as far as they were capable of going for now. Maybe a little distance was in order. "You'll be careful?"

"Yeah, I'll be careful," Thomas promised. "Life is full of too many ironies to risk getting killed now. You be careful, too."

"I will." Jim stood up, cleared off the table just to have something to do. "You need a lift someplace?"

"No. Mickey's picking me up. We've got a military flight out of McChord. Just him, me, and an ugly Suburban filled with illegal weapons."

"Sounds cozy." Jim went to the coat rack and pulled something from the pocket of his jacket. "Here - I found this in the warehouse." It was the GPS unit.

"Thanks," Thomas answered, clipping it to his belt. "I wasn't looking forward to the paperwork explaining how I lost it." Then he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "Private line to the company. The person who answers will know how to get in touch with me. In case you need help or something." He looked embarrassed as he handed it over.

"What if I just want to chat?"

"Chat? Do people still do that?"

"Brothers do." He reached out and hugged his brother. Thomas resisted for a moment, then returned the embrace fiercely. "I was scared to death at the thought of trying to make up for fifteen years," Jim murmured. "I'm not scared any more."

Thomas stepped back, but he was smiling. "Glad one of us isn't," he admitted a little nervously.

"Grab your beer, sit down and watch the Food channel," Jim advised, feeling truly calm and relaxed for the first time since he'd recognized his brother at the end of his gun barrel. "I'm going to do the dishes and then check on Blair. I want to make sure he got the recipe for that pasta sauce you made tonight."

Thomas grinned. "And you thought I was kidding about wanting to open a restaurant."

"Yeah," Jim replied, "but if there's one thing I've learned from Sandburg, it's that life is full of surprises." And most of them good, if you just let it happen...

THE END

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