Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters are the sole creative property of Paramount and Pet Fly Productions. I'm simply bowing in homage and creating a little extra fiction for those of us who can't get enough of the show.

Warning: This story contains scenes of physical and psychological torture. It also contains dialog describing scenes of explicit sexual torture, although the characters are spared the actual experience of these indignities (or else I'd have to rate this X, and I don't put porn on the net). Be warned: This story is rated R for violence and verbal content.

Assurance: This is the most perverted of the series, I promise, but it's probably still advisable to read them in order, as subsequent stories follow the same timeline. Believe me, this story is only a pale image of what it started out to be (I was hormonally demented when I first wrote it!)

Remote Control

-- by Mackie/

Part One

"Hi ya, Jim," said a voice on the video tape Detective James Ellison had just slipped into his VCR. It had come with the day's post, but a long workday, as usual, meant he sometimes didn't get to see his mail until late evening. He slumped into the sofa, grateful for its comfort after an all-night stakeout sandwiched between two full shifts.

The video camera had been focused on a room-sized portion of what appeared to be a much larger area, perhaps even a warehouse. Large cloth padded rectangles made up the walls defining the room. Beyond them was darkness. Furniture was sparse - a sturdy table, a high-backed metal chair, an IV stand, an ice chest, and a large suitcase. Ropes and chains dangled from invisible anchorage overhead. Harsh light illuminated every corner of the created space, and the picture quality was crisp but flat, without the nuance of contrasting shadow.

"Just wanted to let you know I was back," the voice continued conversationally. "Like the setup? Wanted to be sure this tape and the rest of your exclusive video series had good picture and sound. Wouldn't like to disappoint."

Ellison scowled. He didn't like puzzles, and the maker of this bizarre video seemed determined to give him one.

Blair Sandburg plopped down beside him on the sofa. "Hot water heater's still on the fritz," he grumbled, drying his hands on his shirttail.

Jim shushed him, intent on the video picture, waiting for something to happen.

Sandburg looked at the TV. "Jim, it's a picture of an empty room."

"That someone took a lot of time and effort to set up and video for me," Ellison replied.

"Weird," Blair agreed, now giving the TV screen his full attention.

"Consider this tape Volume One," the voice continued. "A teaser, if you will. The action will heat up in future volumes, I promise. I'll even give you some clues along the way, just to keep the playing field more level, as is pc these days. Bye for now."

The picture remained. Jim fast-forwarded intermittently, but the room remained static. Not even a stray shadow interrupted the absolute stillness of the picture. As near as he could tell without watching the whole two hours of tape at normal speed, the voice never returned. The lab team would have the honor of that little chore.

"That's one strange video," Blair commented when the tape finally ended and rewound. "Where did you get it?"

"It was in today's mail," Ellison replied, ejecting the tape carefully from the VCR and slipping it into a plastic bag he'd retrieved from the kitchen. He added the tape case and brown mailing wrapper as well. Probably no hope of useable prints, but precautions had to be taken.

"Do you know what it's about?" Blair asked.

Jim shook his head. "Not a clue, yet. But the voice was familiar." He reached for his parka. "I'm going to run this down to the lab and then hit my old case files. Maybe something will jog a memory."

"Jim, it's after ten," Blair protested. "You've hardly slept for two days. Can't it wait until tomorrow?"

"I'll just spend the night worrying about it," Jim answered. "I won't be long."

The lab tech was sorry he couldn't be more helpful. He worked the night shift, and was grateful for the company and the distraction. "The camera is mounted on a tripod. I'll guess it's a professional set up with a large light attachment. You can see the lack of well-defined shadows in the room, and the table and chair would definitely cast heavier shadows on the floor if the only light source was overhead."

"What about those portable wall units?" Ellison asked, pointing to the beige rectangles defining the limits of the room.

"Sound baffles, another professional touch," the tech explained. "You're right about this area being part of a much bigger room like a warehouse, or maybe a sound stage. Sound becomes distorted bouncing around in such a large space, so the baffles help deaden background noise and enable a cleaner sound recording."

"Anything else?" Ellison asked, not encouraged by the information he was getting.

"The camera is probably AC or DC powered. There's no evidence he changed batteries during the recording. I can't be sure without examining all the footage, but I don't think he stopped the tape at all from beginning to end. Does that help?"

"Not really," Ellison replied.

"You want me to do a frame by frame?"

"Not yet. I don't even know if there's a case here, but thanks for the help."

"No problem. I'll let you know if we pull any prints off the case and mailer, but I'm betting they'll both be as clean as the cassette."

"Thanks." Ellison left the lab more confused than when he had gone in. Someone had gone to a lot of expense and trouble to send him a video of an empty room...except it wasn't an empty room, he knew. It was a stage set awaiting the actors to bring it to life. If the voice on the tape was speaking the truth, future tapes would show the script being performed there.

He felt a chill that wasn't from the damp Cascade night. It didn't take a detective to figure out the play was not going to be some light, romantic comedy; no, this drama had been written and would be directed by a madman.

He flipped open his cellular and speed-dialed his home number. It rang several times before the answering machine picked up, but it was a stranger's voice that spoke the recorded message. "Sorry, Jim, but Blair can't come to the phone right now. He's starring in Volume Two of your video series, which you'll be receiving very soon. Bye now."

Jim was already running for his truck as he jabbed the disconnect on his cell and dialed police dispatch. He identified himself. "I need the nearest patrol unit at my place now," he nearly shouted, throwing himself behind the wheel and firing the engine. "Armed suspects may be inside. Approach with caution."

The acknowledgment was lost as he burned rubber for home, cursing himself for not recognizing the danger sooner.

He heard the radio call when he was still several blocks from home. "We're at the address. There's no one here. The door's open; a chair's been turned over, but there aren't any other signs of a struggle. We're securing the scene and awaiting instructions."

Jim squealed into a U-turn and headed for the police station, then called for a crime lab unit on his cell. Finally, he called Simon at home, waking his captain, and briefly outlined the situation.

"I'm on my way in," Simon promised.

"Captain, I'd also like the department psychologist to meet us in your office."

"Psychologist," Simon echoed.

Jim's voice was grim. "Just a really bad feeling I've got."

 

Part Two

It was just past midnight when Jim reached the station. The squad room was deserted, since investigators were assigned officially only to two shifts, which tended to blend into one another and stretch into long periods of unauthorized overtime - crime, and the investigation of it, couldn't be regulated by a time clock. The hours between midnight and start of first shift were covered by an on-call rotation. Striding quickly to his desk, he typed some commands into his computer terminal and waited impatiently for a response.

Simon arrived a few minutes later. "What are you looking for?"

"Recent parolees, someone with a grudge," Jim explained, scanning the list of names that scrolled across the monitor screen. Nothing jumped right out at him. He'd have to dig deeper. With a scowl, he realized that was exactly what his unknown adversary wanted him to do.

"Come into my office and give me a full report," Simon said. "I'll make a fresh pot of coffee." He almost never took a cup from the bullpen's communal coffee maker; he preferred to use the personal machine in his office, where he could control the type and richness of the brew. He kept a selection of various flavored coffees in his desk, although usually he claimed they all tasted the same to him. Still, it was a small affectation, and no one begrudged him a little eccentricity.

Two more people arrived then. The first was a tall, handsome woman in her forties, impeccably and professionally dressed in a black linen suit and matching overcoat. Her hair was pulled tightly back in a french roll, lending to her appearance of severity. The young man behind her was decidedly more rumpled in tee, flannel top shirt and baggy Dockers. He was slightly breathless from pushing a large, wheeled trunk through the halls, and he paused gratefully to catch his breath. His wire-rimmed glasses had slipped down his nose, and he used one finger to push them back into place. The lenses made his eyes look large and guileless.

"Captain Banks, I presume?" the woman asked, extending her hand to Simon. "I'm Doctor Sylvia McMahon, the psychologist you requested. The young man panting at my side is my associate, CB." She held out a wallet holding her credentials; Simon glanced at it briefly, but Jim took the wallet and examined it more thoroughly, suspicious of everything out of the ordinary where this strange case was concerned.

The young man smiled wanly. "Pleasure," he murmured shyly.

"Where's Doctor Ebersole, the department shrink?" Jim asked, returning her wallet.

"On vacation," McMahon answered a little impatiently. "I'm part of a rotation handling his emergency work. Tonight's my turn. Is there a problem, Detective?"

"Not yet," Jim answered calmly, ignoring the challenge in her tone.

"CB?" Simon asked, sensing the sudden tension between his detective and the doctor.

"Short for computer boy," McMahon explained briefly without a smile. "It's part of a silly game we play when it looks as if a case will be particularly messy."

The jab hit home; Jim suddenly felt vulnerable and defensive. "And this one looks messy?" he asked harshly.

She looked at him again, her eyes narrowing angrily, and Simon hastened to perform introductions. Her expression softened. "Sorry, but yes, judging from the scanty information I've been given."

"I was just about to get a full briefing," Simon told her.

"Fine. Is there some place private where we could set up? If our evidence will consist of videos, I'd like to start protecting the dignity of the victims right from the start."

"Victim," Jim corrected. "Blair Sandburg."

She looked at him oddly. "No, detective. Victims."

"My office," Simon said hastily.

"OK, here's the drill. Only the four of us will view the video or videos. When we find evidence we can act on, we'll give it to the other detectives to follow up." She looked around the squad room. "Where are the other detectives?"

"I've called in a few of the day shift," Simon assured her. "They'll be here soon. I'll call in others when it becomes necessary."

"Good." She swept past him imperiously, CB pushing the trunk behind her. They disappeared into Simon's office.

"Who the hell is in charge here?" Jim demanded bitterly.

"Jim, until we find out what we're up against," Simon replied with a sigh, "I suggest she is. Besides, you're the one who requested a psychologist."

"I know; I guess I just expected it to be Doc Ebersole," Jim muttered. "And what's with the trunk?" He and Simon shrugged simultaneously and headed toward the office.

Within a few minutes, the office was crowded with a large TV monitor faced discreetly away from the door, two VCR's, CB's own computer terminal and printer, all taken from the large trunk, and enough chairs for the four of them.

The first video was inserted and began to play. "Hi ya, Jim," the voice began again. "Just wanted to let you know I was back."

"Do you recognize the voice, Detective?" McMahon asked.

"No, but I feel like I should," Jim admitted.

"It may come to you in time," she said. "In the meantime, the obvious course of action is to review your past cases."

"I've been doing that," he said a little defensively.

"Have you handled any sex crimes?"

Jim felt a stab of dismay. Sex crimes? "A few."

"Got 'em here," CB said, reading the data from his terminal. Jim was a little surprised he could access specific cases so quickly; he was never that quick around a computer. "Two rapes involving grammar school kids - snatch 'n' go, both females, both released afterward. Gangbang of a college coed three years ago; that one was never prosecuted for lack of evidence. One stalk and rape of an adult female; another snatch 'n' go, also female. Two perps still serving time, the kiddy rapist paroled into psychiatric care and living out of state." He looked at Ellison with respect. "Not a bad solve rate."

"OK," McMahon said with a sigh. "None of those profiles fit this." She gestured to the TV screen, its picture unchanged since the tape had started to run. "Like the man said, this is the teaser. He's setting the stage for you, Detective. He's told you that all the action will take place within the boundaries of this screen. What else does the picture tell us?"

"I don't know," Jim almost snarled, annoyed that he wasn't out searching for his best friend instead of being cooped up in Simon's office. "He's working with a small budget?"

McMahon chose to ignore the remark. "Everything is precisely lined up - table squarely in the center of the room, chair facing the camera exactly in the middle of the picture, IV stand, trunk, various other props lined up in a neat row along one side. It's a very organized crime scene - or in this case, a crime stage."

Jim ran a hand over his tired face. "This is stupid. I should be out there-," He waved vaguely in the direction of outside.

"Running in circles?" McMahon countered softly. "Right now, it's his game, Detective," she went on, indicating the static image on the TV. "For the moment, we have to play by his rules, at least until we can grab onto something and turn the tables on him."

"I can't just sit here - ," Jim protested.

"You have to. He's promised to give you clues, perhaps clues only you would recognize. He's forcing you to watch, maybe more than once. Make no mistake, Detective, the purpose of his game is not to harm your friend - it's to torture you."

"So what are we supposed to do while we're waiting for the next installment of this sick bastard's epic?" Simon demanded angrily, feeling as helpless and frustrated as his detective.

There was a polite knock at the door before it opened and Detective Lewis stuck his head in. "Captain, most of the squad is here."

"OK, I'll be right out," Simon answered. "Thanks."

Lewis looked curiously at the people and clutter in the office, but withdrew without a question.

"We should all be there," McMahon said. "Two strangers closeted in your office with all this gear will only fuel speculation."

"All right."

They all trooped into the squad room, and Simon introduced McMahon and CB as consultants to the department. "Blair Sandburg has been kidnapped," he explained. "We think it's motivated by revenge against Jim."

"Do we have anything so far?" Lewis asked. He liked Sandburg; he was the only bullpen regular who was close to his own age. They shared some of the same cultural references the older detectives just didn't get.

"We'll be examining some evidence," McMahon explained. "Because of its nature we'll be using Captain Banks' office. Whatever pertinent information we learn will be passed on to you for further action."

This unusual procedure grabbed everyone's attention, but no one questioned it.

"For the moment, there is something you can do," Simon continued. "Contact video and movie equipment rental houses in Cascade and surrounding cities. Because it's so damned late - ," He looked at his watch. "- or rather early, you'll probably have to track down people at home. Get 'em out of bed if you have to. We want a list of anyone who has rented video equipment, sound baffles, perhaps even a sound stage. Concentrate on the names of customers who haven't returned their rentals yet. We'll cross check them against Jim's arrests over the past several years." He sighed. "Maybe we'll get lucky." He didn't sound as if he believed it.

Jim had remained quiet throughout the briefing. He was tired, his eyes gritty from strain and lack of sleep. Most of the others probably felt just as tired. His stomach rumbled quietly to remind him he hadn't eaten since dinner the night before, and caffeine caused his nerves to jump. He hated being confined to the office; he hated knowing his slow comprehension had led to Blair's kidnapping. Mostly, he hated knowing they were both at the mercy of a madman whose game had just begun.

A late arrival hurried into the bullpen then and tossed a brown paper-wrapped package toward Jim. "Hey, Ellison, this came for you. Bomb squad cleared it. They said it's some kind of video."

Jim caught it, held it as if it might actually explode. The man who had delivered it noticed the strange reaction from everyone in the room. "What?" he asked defensively.

 

Part Three

The tape had not been rewound, so while Jim waited impatiently for the VCR to do its duty, he paced the crowded confines of Simon's office. "It's only been a few hours. He couldn't have made another tape so fast, especially if he made a copy of it first."

"What makes you think he made a copy?" McMahon asked.

"I don't know. It just seems like something this sick bastard would do."

"High-speed dubbing equipment," CB murmured. "Expensive, but possible."

"We should check out video labs," Jim agreed. "They probably work all night."

"Settle down, Jim," Simon advised. "I'll get some of the men on it." He left the office just as the tape finished rewinding.

Jim sat down in front of the monitor and hunched forward, his entire concentration on the large picture screen. CB hit the play button.

"Son of a bitch," Jim muttered angrily.

The picture was of the inside of the loft. The view angled upward from a foot or so off the floor, and showed most of the lower level - the front door, kitchen, table, sofa and the very edge of the TV. Blair opened the door and walked in, oblivious to the camera. He tossed the day's mail on the table (There's the package with the first video, Jim realized with a start), dumped his book bag and coat on the floor by the sofa, switched on the TV to local news, and headed for the kitchen. Humming to himself, he fished around in the refrigerator, took out the makings for the night's dinner and went about preparing the meal. When he heard a key in the lock, he picked up the remote and turned down the volume on the TV (I never realized he did that.) Jim walked in, shedding his coat and hanging it up. (Damn Mister Neat, that's me, he berated himself for no good reason.) "That smells suspiciously like leftovers." "Well, I hate wasting it, and since we don't have a cat - ," "All right, I'll fix something to go with it." "Great." Relieved of kitchen duty, Blair flung himself onto the sofa and rooted through his book bag until he found a stash of papers. "Grade tests? Is that all you do?" "No, sometimes I even give the tests." "Lucky you." "So, anything exciting happen today while I was stuck in the ivy-covered halls of academia?"

And so it went - casual, inane conversation between two men whose workdays really hadn't amounted to much. Jim read the evening paper standing at the counter while Blair explained about one of his students who was doing a "really cool" research project next summer someplace in Guatemala. Jim listened with only partial attention, used to Blair's enthusiastic ramblings about one thing or another. (God, we're so damned domestic, Jim thought. He's telling me about something important to him, and I'm standing there like a lump with my nose buried in the paper!)

And then Jim tried to remember if they'd talked about Jim's heightened senses...

"Fast forward," he said.

"You should watch the whole thing," McMahon said.

"We're making dinner," Jim said coolly. "I was there. I know what happened. Fast forward."

"Just do it," Simon instructed from behind. Jim had been so wrapped up in the video, he hadn't heard the Captain return.

CB fast-scanned through the tape - dinner preparations finished, meal eaten, Jim going through the mail, Blair cleaning off the table and putting the dirty dishes in the sink, Jim slipping the video cassette into the VCR...

CB took the machine off scan.

"Hi ya, Jim," said a voice on the video tape (more tinny now because the TV's audio was aimed away from the hidden camera.) "Just wanted to let you know I was back. Like the setup?"... Sandburg plopped down beside him on the sofa. "Hot water heater's still on the fritz," he grumbled, drying his hands on his shirttail. Jim shushed him. "Jim, it's a picture of an empty room" "That someone took a lot of time and trouble to set up and video for me." "Weird."

Jim saw himself watching the video, scanning back and forth in confusion at the image of the empty room, watched himself pop the tape and tell Sandburg he was going back to the station...(God, we really do sound like an old married couple sometimes!)

Blair was alone in the loft. In the kitchen, the kettle whistled. The young anthropologist made himself a cup of tea and returned to the sofa. For several minutes, he just sat quietly, sipping tea and grading papers. He'd opted for a music channel on the TV, but he'd kept the volume low. There was a knock at the door.

Jim tensed in his chair, stupidly willing Blair not to answer the door, knowing he would, knowing this action was from last night.

Blair glanced at the clock. "Being late does not earn you points with me, Steve-o," he murmured absently, getting up and going to the door. He opened it, then lurched back with a shout of pain, clawing at his eyes as two men entered, one of them stowing a can of mace. Blinded, Blair stumbled into the table and fell over a chair, landing hard on the floor. The bigger of the two men hauled him roughly to his feet, while the second shoved a black bag over Blair's head.

Shouting and cursing, Blair tried to fight, tried to reach his burning, streaming eyes, but the shorter of the men grabbed him in a choke hold and held on tightly until his captive stopped resisting. The larger man spoke. "Just concentrate on breathing, Kid," he said. "It's all you can do right now." (That's the voice on the first tape, Jim realized.) The two men were dressed bizarrely. The smaller man wore black leather combat boots, an absurdly tight pair of leather shorts cut to the crotch, a leather vest over his shirtless chest, and a leather face mask that covered most of his head. His exposed legs and torso were solid with muscle; a real body builder. The bigger man was more conventional, having settled for biker leathers with the addition of a facemask. Both of them wore heavy gloves - black, naturally.

Absurdly, Jim suddenly felt himself thrust inside the video (impossible, his mind told him). But he was there, damn it, swirling around the three men, his essence less substantial that a breath of air. He saw the loft in full three-dimensional reality, even where the video camera was not pointing. Angry, helpless in this ethereal state, he could only follow the taller man around the loft as he opened the front door and picked up two overcoats lying in the hallway (ha! I knew there was no way you two went up the elevator dressed like that! Jim thought irrelevantly.) He continued to follow the man after he came back inside, watched him remove the outgoing message tape on the answering machine and replace it with his own. Then the man went to the artificial greenery in the corner and removed a video camera from the basket. Jim watched the man hold the camera up close to his face, leering into the lens. "Hi ya, Jim. Hope you didn't play with yourself or scratch your pits or kiss your boyfriend here. That would be really embarrassing, wouldn't it?" (I'll show you embarrassing, Jim raged.) He tried to throw a punch but discovered he didn't seem to have any arms. Damn, just when he needed to be solid and real, his body decided to take a vacation. ( I must be going crazy!)

The man in the motorcycle leathers went back to Blair and cupped the helpless man's chin in his palm. "You breathing OK?" he asked, rocking Blair's head up and down. "Sure you are - I can see your chest moving."

Blair's voice behind the heavy hood was muffled, hoarse from choking. "Who are you?"

Either the man didn't hear or he chose not to answer. "I can't hear you 'round that choke hold, but no matter. All you have to do is keep breathing for now." He stroked Blair's cheek through the thick cloth. Blair tried to jerk away, gasped as the arm around his neck tightened.

"Get away from him, you bastard!" Jim threatened, circling the three figures. With every ounce of his will, he tried to help, but he couldn't even get their attention. He could feel the evil permeating the air around them, but he was helpless to combat it, helpless to save Blair.

"It'll get more interesting later, I promise," the taller one continued. "Come on, we'll take him down the back stairs."

"No!" Jim muttered desperately, trying to block their exit. They wafted him aside as if he were no more than a half-felt draft. "You need to take his coat!" he said despairingly as a cold breeze blew through the open stairwell door. "It's freezing outside..."

Everything suddenly shattered around him, a billion atoms of rainbow brilliance dissolving him, devouring him alive -- !

"Jim! Snap out of it!"

Jim felt himself jerk back to self-awareness. It was a sensation similar to that moment between consciousness and sleep when the body feels itself falling and yanks itself awake in panic. Only this was a hundred times worse. He imagined he could actually feel the various cells of his body realign themselves back into the entity called James Ellison. He gasped, doubling over, clutching his belly as if determined to keep everything safely inside. DO NOT beam me up, Scotty, screamed a voice inside his mind.

"Does he need a doctor?" He heard CB ask anxiously.

"No, he'll be OK," Simon replied without any note of assurance. "Jim, you OK?"

Jim raised his head, nodded. He remembered where he was, the TV, the video, his audience. "Yeah, Simon, I'm fine. I just kind of - zoned out - for a minute."

"No kidding. You scared the hell out of me. I think you stopped breathing for a minute. Jesus!" Simon looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Jim almost smiled. The Captain wasn't as used to these weird episodes as Sandburg.

Sandburg.

Jim heard a rapidly beating heart, snapped his gaze around and looked at its source. Just for a moment, Doctor McMahon looked like the hooded man in the motorcycle leathers, but it was just a trick of shadow. Her expression was concerned. "Detective, do you have these episodes often?"

Jim shook his head. "Just concentrating too hard," he answered briefly. He could feel a vicious headache building behind his eyes. He looked back at Simon. "Did I say anything?"

"You mumbled sometime like 'get away' and 'freezing', but nothing else made any sense," Simon told him. "Man, you're white as a ghost. You need to lie down or something."

Jim shook his head, a wave of weakness engulfing him and passing in the same moment. "I'm fine, Simon," he said for what seemed like the hundredth time. "I just need to get out of here for a few minutes."

"Perhaps we could all use a break," McMahon agreed. "We'll need clear heads to examine the details of the video."

Jim felt as if she had slapped him, her scorn was so evident. But he knew she was right. He didn't want to see the video - or any of the other videos - ever. So he just nodded and stood up carefully, staying on his feet only by concentrating.

"OK," Simon agreed gratefully. "We'll take a break." He looked at Jim with concern. "You'll be OK?"

"Yes, Simon," Jim assured him gently. "I'm just going to walk around a bit, work out the kinks."

On legs that felt disconnected and brittle, he left the office. As he crossed the nearly deserted bullpen, Brown looked at him anxiously. "Jim - ,"

"I - am - fine," Jim reiterated firmly, his eyes never leaving the double-doored exit to the hallway.

He made it all the way to the locker room before his legs gave out and he dropped onto one of the hard wooden benches. Every muscle in his body trembled with weakness, and he was grateful the room was deserted.

God, he had zoned out big time.

How could he have believed it had gone inside the video image? It had been so spooky, seeing in full three-dimension everything that was taking place in the two-dimensional playback of pixels and lines of resolution. It had felt so real. Of course, you know the loft. You knew what you'd see even if the camera didn't show it. But he had felt the evil -

Resolutely, he closed his eyes and took a deep, centering breath, settling into a relaxation technique Blair had taught him. A minute later, he was firmly back in control of his tumbling thoughts. He'd even managed to shrug off the horrible sensation of his entire body exploding into its myriad atoms as he was trapped in the video when the picture ended and turned to snow. Now that had been weird, real loony bin time. Thank goodness Simon had dragged him back to reality or who knew where his piggybacked senses might have taken him - la-la land, the great Kingdom of the White Noise.

Stop it.

He roused himself and stretched, stiffened muscles protesting. God, he hurt all over, just from sitting tensely for so damned long. He went to his locker, stripped down, grabbed his towel, and walked into the showers.

The hot water felt good flowing over his body, so he lathered a wash cloth and automatically scrubbed down. Moments later, the skin on his arms and thighs began to hurt, and he stopped with a frown. His scrubbing had become far more vigorous than a simple effort to wash away any dirt or sweat; no, he'd been trying to get at something much deeper, something much more invasive. He'd been trying to erase the scenes on the tape, wash away the contamination, the violation, the evil. If he felt this bad just watching, what must Blair be feeling, helpless in that madman's clutches?

He turned off the water, welcomed the cool air that soothed his hot, reddened skin. Then he toweled off, changed into the fresh clothes he always kept in his locker, and went back upstairs determined not to lose it again in front of McMahon.

He stopped at his desk long enough to retrieve the bottle of aspirin he kept there, popped three tablets, and went into Simon's office. He sat down in his chair in front of the monitor, took the remote from CB, and rewound the tape. Where was the point where he had zoned out?

The taller man moved around the loft, retrieving two long coats from outside the front door, popping the out-going message tape on the answering machine and replacing it with his own, then walking up to the video camera and lifting it from its concealment. He leered into the lens, his face distorted and out of focus. "Hi ya, Jim. Hope you didn't play with yourself or scratch your pits or kiss your boyfriend here. That would be really embarrassing, wouldn't it?" With a laugh, he took the camera with him. The picture became jumpy and haphazard because the camera wasn't being aimed at anything specific, but the man had left it on to pick up the audio. "You breathing OK, Kid?...Sure, I can see your chest working. I can't hear you 'round that choke hold, but no matter. All you have to do is keep breathing for now. It'll get more interesting later, I promise. Come on, we'll take him down the back stairs."

The video turned to snow.

Jim started fast-scanning back through the tape.

"I can't believe the bastard hid a camera in your loft," Simon muttered angrily. "And who's Steve?"

"One of the students Sandburg is tutoring," Jim answered. "I can't believe I didn't hear the camera running."

"TV noise, conversation, most of the activity in the kitchen," McMahon said. "No reason you should have heard it."

"Maybe," Jim admitted, not about to tell her he most certainly should have heard it. Tired after many long, non-productive hours at work, he'd felt safe in the loft. It was his haven. There'd been no need for alertness, and even if his acute hearing had picked up the sound of the video camera, it was so close to the TV, he probably would have dismissed it as television noise. Excuses.

He found the place in the tape he wanted and put the machine in play. It was the minute before Blair answered the door.

"What are you hoping - ," McMahon began.

"Quiet," Jim and Simon said in unison.

The minute played, from Blair grading papers, the knock on the door, the mace.

"Anything?" Simon asked when Jim finally stopped the tape. He knew they had to be cautious talking about Jim's special senses, but Jim just shook his head in defeat. Yes, there were voices on the tape, voices speaking quietly in the hall outside the door, voices that felt safe from eavesdroppers. But the audio portion of the tape had picked up only the faintest of sounds, and they were totally unintelligible, no matter how much Jim turned up his own hearing. The voices were just noise. What good was super-sensitive hearing under those conditions?

He sat back in frustration.

"OK, at least we've seen our suspects." Simon tried to sound positive.

"The taller one's in charge," Jim said quietly. "He's older, a lot older than the other one, and in really good physical shape for his age."

"How did you determine that?" McMahon asked, interested.

"He's obviously well built, keeps in shape, moves like an athlete," Jim explained.

"But his age?"

"The skin around his throat - that's about all I could see with that face mask - that and the lines around his eyes. The guy's got to be at least sixty."

McMahon was impressed. "I'll bet you're a very good detective," she complimented him.

"Any guesses about who this guy is?" Simon pressed.

Jim shrugged. "I've busted a couple of older perps, but no one who'd be likely to do something like this."

"The shorter guy looked kind of familiar," CB said abruptly.

"You think you know him?" Jim asked in surprise.

"I might have seen him around some of the clubs."

"What clubs?" Simon asked.

Jim almost smiled. "The S-and-M clubs, Simon. The guy wasn't dressed for a cotillion."

Simon sniffed in embarrassment, and glared at CB. "You go to those clubs?"

"Hey, everyone to his own perversion," CB retorted without shame. "Besides, it's all grist for the old knowledge mill. I'm into abnormal psych, remember?"

"Most of the shrinks I know are more neurotic than their patients," Jim commented injudiciously. Off McMahon's cool glance, he added, "Present company excepted." Maybe.

McMahon shrugged, either at the professional slur or the apology, Jim didn't know. "Detective, what the man on the tape said about you and Mister Sandburg. Is that likely to affect your objectivity?"

Jim scowled, then realized what she meant. "Sandburg and I are roommates, not lovers," he said flatly. "But he's also my partner and best friend. You bet my objectivity's affected." He stood up. "Simon, I've got to do something."

"What?"

"Anything!" The detective angrily ran a hand through his short hair. "Sitting here is going to drive me nuts."

"The man said - ,"

"I know what the man said, Simon!" Jim almost snapped in irritation. "He's going to give me clues. I watched this tape carefully. There weren't any clues beyond S-and-M leather, their ages, and general physical descriptions. I'm going back to the loft. Maybe the lab crew missed something."

Simon waved him off. "So go."

"I don't think that's wise," McMahon objected.

"Until I find something concrete or another video arrives, that's how it's going to be," Jim retorted. He took a deep breath. However much he disliked this woman, he needed her right now. "Look, I'm sorry. It's just - it's just that it's my partner who's in danger, and I don't have one goddamned solid lead to go on."

Her gaze softened. Damn! He didn't want her sympathy. "I'm sorry, Detective. I can be a little too clinical at times. You do what you feel you must, and CB and I will attempt to come up with a profile on this man. Perhaps something will jog your memory."

"Will you listen a minute!" CB demanded suddenly, exasperated at being ignored. "I think the short guy with the buff muscles will be relatively easy to trace."

"Easy? How?" Jim asked.

"CB, there must be hundreds of S-and-M disciples in the city - ," McMahon began.

"Yeah, and most of them are scrawny, pale guys without much self-esteem," CB insisted. "Now, with the gay crowd, it's different. All those gorgeous, beautiful bodies - ," he blushed. "Well, a lot of them, anyway. But an obvious physical fitness nut who's also into the bondage scene - that's got to be a rare animal."

"Are you certain, or are you guessing?" Simon demanded.

"He's guessing," McMahon answered, practically glaring down her assistant.

CB flinched under the hardness of her gaze. "OK, it's a guess, but it's a valid, scientific guess all the same," he insisted. "I think the numbers would be workable."

Probably just because he couldn't stand to agree with McMahon, Jim said, "It's a long-shot, but it's certainly worth an effort."

"OK," Simon agreed. "I'll assign a couple of men to it. Good work, Kid." CB practically beamed under the praise. Simon turned back to Jim. "Now, you go and do whatever it is you think you need to do. We'll hold things down on this end."

"Thanks," Jim murmured, and practically fled from the office.

Outside, the air was chill and crisp. After the stuffiness of Simon's office, Jim welcomed the cold against his skin as he sprinted for his truck. Naturally, he'd forgotten his coat back in the bullpen, but he wouldn't need it. Almost absently, he noticed it was daylight. Funny, but he hadn't noticed the transition from dark to light. The milky sunlight filtering through the overcast only reminded him how many hours Blair had been gone. Just over eight hours. Not long by investigative standards; a lifetime by his personal clock. Videos. The asshole was making videos. You made videos to sell - legally on the open market or illegally underground. Jim had seen some of the perverted, hard-core torture videos legally available (all participants of legal age and willing, even eager, to take part, or so the disclaimers read). But it was the illegal stuff - the non-consensual, underground tapes that ran the gamut from under-age rape and torture to the epitome of perversion, the snuff film - which made Jim shiver with anger and fear. The bastard would not have gone to such huge expense merely to torment Jim; he could have done that with a cheap, hand-held camera and a utility light. No, he was making something he eventually planned to market, and the most lucrative market for underground tapes was snuff. And if death wasn't enough, the scenes leading up to that final insult were almost always of sexual torture; after all, viewers of these debase videos got off on the violence. If death was the payoff, the coin in this realm was sex.

Jim had seen only a part of one confiscated snuff film, back in his early days with Major Crimes. The images had left him physically ill, and he'd had nightmares for a week. The thought of Blair -

He slammed on his brakes in front of his building and sat for a long minute, trying to calm the uncontrollable shaking of his limbs. He couldn't even remember the drive to the loft. He was no good to anyone like this.

The wave of helpless anger finally passed, and he climbed out of the truck.

The lab crew was still inside, going over every inch of the place. One of the investigators, a young man named Sean, came over to him. "Detective Ellison," he greeted. "We haven't found much - fibers in the hall, mostly wool, but maybe some synthetic. Hair. Dried mud from the tread of what looks like a combat boot, more fibers, a chemical trace on the door - ."

"Mace," Jim said.

"Yeah, my guess, too," Sean confirmed. "Captain Banks had us search your potted plant. Said there was a video camera concealed there. It's gone now, no trace evidence beyond a few bent leaves - "

Jim continued to listen to the catalog of forensic findings as he scanned the room. He saw the over-turned chair, where Blair had fallen, saw the scuff marks on the floor where he had struggled briefly against the choke-hold, saw the scattered test papers and pen by the sofa, as if they were awaiting the quick return of their user, the half-empty cup of tea now cold beside them. VH-1 still played quietly on the TV. It was disconcerting - it looked just like the video, only now Jim was in the middle of it for real this time and Blair was gone. It felt like some weird, twisted deja vu.

Looking further, Jim saw the trail where Blair had been led to the back stairs. He followed, careful not to step on any evidence, although what he saw were only hair and fibers and the faint footprints from two pair of thick-soled boots. "Any chance you can enhance these footprints?" he asked.

Sean scowled. "Footprints?"

"Two sets - combat boots and maybe motorcycle boots." Jim pointed out the area he wanted scanned.

"We can try," the forensics tech assured him. He didn't want to have to go back to the lab and face Samantha without having done everything possible to help find Blair Sandburg. Uh-uh, that just wouldn't play for the woman whose on-again, off-again relationship with the young anthropologist kept the lab's rumor-mill primed with speculation.

Jim continued on to the back door. "Prints?"

"Nothing," Sean confirmed. "We've dusted everywhere."

"Yeah, they wore gloves," Jim said, wishing one of them had gotten careless and removed one - just one! -- before leaving. He stepped onto the landing and looked down the back stairs. He'd have to do something about the lighting back here; it was too dim, and in an emergency, it might be crucial...

He thrust aside the idle thoughts and scanned the stairs. More fibers, some more mud. He pointed these out to Sean, then stepped carefully over the meager evidence and went down the steps. The door opened onto a service alley. Dumpsters, a few old crates, a bit of discarded trash; surprisingly, not bad for an alley. A small oil slick - was it fresh or had it been there awhile? Jim touched a finger to it and sniffed. Definitely old, and drops of rainwater beaded its surface were further proof; as cold and overcast as it had been lately, it hadn't rained for two days.

"Something?" Sean asked.

Jim shook his head. The oil slick was nothing. But a little further toward the mouth of the alley he found a tire track left where a passenger vehicle, either a car, van or truck, had run over a piece of discarded melon. He looked for a second track opposite the first - an axle width might have given them a more specific idea of the type of vehicle, but there was nothing else to be seen. He pointed out the tread mark to Sean. It was iffy at best - the rear wheel had also run over the melon, mixing with the front tread and confusing the impression. It might not be related to the case at all. Still, it was something.

What the hell was he thinking - it was nothing! It was all nothing, and while he ran in circles, who knew what was happening to Blair?!

His cell phone rang, cutting off his negative thoughts. He answered it curtly. "Ellison." He listened a moment. "OK, on my way." He ended the call, but looked reluctant to leave.

Sean looked worried. "Jim, bad news?"

Jim didn't appear to hear him, his gaze downcast and focused on nothing. Then he glanced up and shook his head slightly. "No, I've just got to get back."

The madman had delivered another video.

 

Part Four

Blair was shoved into a chair, and the cloth hood covering his head was jerked off. He blinked and tried to reach for his tearing eyes.

"Don't touch," admonished a woman's voice. His hands were pushed aside. "Sorry about the mace, but it'll only hurt worse if you rub at it." The speaker began to wash his face gently with a cloth. Blair flinched away, then realized what she was doing and sat quietly. He was finally able to focus. She was a tall, slender apparition in black latex from her facemask to her shiny black boots. Bewildered and bemused, he looked around and finally recognized where he was. His eyes widened in surprise.

"Ah, I see you've looked at the first video," she purred approvingly. "I'll bet you never thought you'd be a star."

"Who are you?" Blair asked in disbelief.

A vicious slap snapped his head sideways, and he abruptly knew this was not some weird practical joke. "You don't ask questions, bug," the woman spat. "I ask the questions. You provide the answers. Got it?"

Blair nodded cautiously and received another face-numbing blow. "Verbally, bug! This is the era of motion picture sound! Got it?"

"Yes!" Blair snapped back, only to be rocked by another blow that tumbled him from the chair. The woman snapped her fingers, and a man stepped forward to pick him up. When Blair recovered his senses, his arms had been stretched painfully over the high back of the metal chair and his wrists handcuffed to a large metal ring driven into the back of the seat to keep him in position. He was slouched uncomfortably in the seat, his legs sprawled forward and out, his ankles tied to more rings in the cement floor so he could not straighten up from his awkward position.

"Answer in complete sentences, bug," the woman snarled. "Got it?"

"Yes, I've got it," Blair stammered, automatically flinching away from a blow that did not come.

"Good little bug; now you understand." She cupped his chin in her hand. Angrily, he tried to jerk away, but she dug in her fingers viciously and made him face forward. She leaned down until they were cheek to cheek, and her teeth flashed whitely in a brilliant smile against the black hood. "OK, bug, let's get the dull stuff out of the way. You know this is being taped for later viewing by the one and only Detective James Ellison, so let's tell him everything we can." Her voice became simpering. "Hi, Jim, this is Blair. Two masked men knocked on the door and squirted me with mace when I answered it. Now, I'm handcuffed in a very large room, a warehouse maybe, but it's all dark beyond this little area. There's a big video camera in front of me, and I can just make out the figure of a man behind the bright light. He's tall and well built; I can't see anything else. There's also a guy in a black mask and latex hot pants, who handcuffed me in this very uncomfortable position, but I guess you saw all that. I'm being interrogated by a gorgeous vixen in a latex body suit, but you can see that, too. I guess that's all," she concluded, relaxing her grip on his chin and straightening up. "That about cover it, bug?" she asked in her normal voice.

Blair frowned as he reluctantly admitted, "Not the words I would have chosen, but, yeah, that about covers it."

"Good bug. You don't realize it, of course, but he already knows all that." She snapped her fingers and the man in shorts placed a chair in front of her. She straddled it back wards and leaned her arms on the backrest. "Ready for your questions?"

Blair was too slow to answer. A quick snap of her fingers brought the man back on stage. He slammed his fist into Blair's vulnerable abdomen and quickly stepped back out of frame. Blair whooped in pain and struggled to catch his breath. He couldn't double forward in his restraints, but he arched back, fighting for air. The chair didn't budge; it was bolted firmly to the floor.

"Are you ready for your questions?" she repeated.

"Yes, yes, I'm ready," Blair gasped desperately, anxious to avoid more punishment.

A long session of inane questions followed concerning Blair's background and life. He lied with every answer, but apparently his impertinence was less important than the simple fact that he obeyed instructions and answered in full sentences.

Finally, she murmured, "Ever rent a dirty movie?"

"A few times, back when I was an undergrad, a couple of buddies and I rented some films," Blair admitted, surprised he'd told the truth, but too weary and confused to ponder why.

"Ever rent S-and-M?"

"No, I've never rented S-and-M."

"Know what it means?"

"It means sado-masochism, the kinky stuff."

"Never had the urge to explore the dark corners of your fantasies?"

"I don't think I have any dark corners in my fantasies," he said haltingly, worn down by the interminable questions but still careful to construct a full sentence. What was all this leading up to?

"Never rented any B-and-D?"

Blair frowned. "I don't know what that is."

She slapped him hard across his face. "Then say you're sorry."

"I'm sorry, I don't know what that is," Blair stammered, face smarting from the blow.

"It means bondage and domination," she said, leaning in close to examine the red outline of her palm on his cheek. "It's what I do. It's what we're doing now. Like it?"

"No, I don't like it," Blair said with conviction.

"Tough, that's the whole point." He flinched away as she stroked the growing bruises on his cheek. "This film is for the private viewing of James Ellison," she said. "Of course, he's bound to share it with others. Does that thought embarrass you?"

"He'll do whatever he thinks is best," Blair answered numbly. "I trust him."

"Good for you. He'll be desperate to find you, you know. Desperate to save you. But he won't succeed, will he?"

"He'll find me."

She ignored his answer. "All the pain and torment you'll endure means nothing to me, bug. It's only a way to make him suffer. He's responsible for all the agony you're going to endure."

Blair shook his head defiantly. "You're responsible for whatever I'm going to endure."

She slapped him again, harder, opening a cut beneath his eye. "That wasn't a question, bug," she explained gently, smearing the blood down his cheek. "Must keep you obedient." She reached for his crotch and began to unzip his trousers.

Horrified, Blair instinctively tried to squirm away, but he didn't plead for her to stop. He knew it was useless. She opened his fly and reached into his briefs. Blair blushed in mortification.

"Ready for your starring role, bug?" she purred.

 

"It's going to get worse, isn't it?" Jim murmured hopelessly as the video finished. This third installment had been left anonymously at the main desk. No one had seen who had delivered it.

"Very likely," McMahon agreed sympathetically.

Jim hung his head and tried to ease the tension between his shoulders, which ached and burned with stiffness. Nothing could have prepared him for this - being a voyeur to the torment of his best friend.

McMahon tried to get him to focus. "OK, what have we got?"

"Two men and a woman," Simon said.

"The guy in the latex is a submissive," McMahon said.

"A slave," Jim agreed, "jumping whenever she snaps her fingers. He's insignificant. The guy in charge is behind the camera. It's the guy in the motorcycle leathers."

"We don't know about the guy behind the camera," McMahon contradicted, "but the dominatrix is interesting. I don't think she's a first timer. She acts like a pro."

"Ah -- !" CB interrupted suddenly. His eyes were screwed up in concentration, and his fingers wiggled in the air as if he were tapping a cosmic keyboard. "Mistress Lacroix, the Leather Dungeon. She named herself after that bad vampire dude on TV. The latex jumpsuit is her uniform of choice."

"You know her?" McMahon asked in surprise.

CB smiled coyly. "Research. Knowledge is power."

"You have unplumbed depths, my boy," she observed sarcastically.

"All right, CB," Jim interrupted, then angrily demanded, "What the hell is your real name, anyway?"

"Uh - Russell," the startled young man replied.

"All right, Russell, do you know this Mistress Lacroix's real name?"

Again, fingers typed against the ether. "I - I - "

"You what?" Jim demanded.

CB beamed. "Iola Cruz. Corrupting the morals of a minor, six months probation. Happened about three years ago."

Jim shook his head. "I don't know her."

"We'll run all known associates," Simon said. "Let's get someone over to the Leather Dungeon and find out everything we can about Mistress Whoever." CB jumped to obey and scurried from the office.

"She's probably hired help," McMahon said.

"Why do you say that?" Simon asked.

"Because the voice on the first tape was a man," Jim pointed out. "Either she knows him and is willing to help him, or else he's hired her to give a performance, in which case he's likely to kill her when he's through."

"Either you're making wild speculations, or you know this man," McMahon said quietly. "You've tuned into him in some way."

Jim frowned. "I guess I have. I only wish I could put a name to the gut feelings I get about him."

"You will," McMahon assured him. "In the meantime, how are you holding up?"

Jim just shook his head, too sickened by what he'd seen on the video to describe his feelings. Besides, he hadn't lost sight of who she was, what she was. He didn't want this woman analyzing him; he needed her analyzing the tapes.

Like he'd said, it was only going to get worse.

 

Part Five

It was just past noon when the squad gathered in the bullpen for an update.

Detective Brown had organized everyone's notes and acted as spokesman. "We had to enlist some of the uniforms to cover ground quickly, and I'd say they've been pretty thorough. The local video equipment rental companies gave us a ton of names, but nothing has correlated yet with any of Jim's current or old cases. The video labs have cranked out hundreds of duplicates overnight, but it all looks legit on the surface. None of the orders has been for just one or a few dupes. Rachel's going around to them with Blair's picture anyway, just in case."

Jim sat slouched behind his desk, feeling worn out and useless. A half-eaten slice of pizza congealed on a napkin in front of him, alongside a scum-topped cup of old coffee. He'd started out hungry, back when the pizza was still hot, but a few bites had convinced him of the futility of trying to eat. He was just too wound up. Automatically, he reached for the bottle of antacids he kept in his desk drawer. Once upon a time he'd popped a lot of the tablets, well on his way to an ulcer, his emotions reined in too tightly. But Blair Sandburg, and to a lesser degree Simon Banks, had made him more comfortable with expressing his feelings, and after awhile, the tablets had become unnecessary. Now he chewed on a couple, along with a couple of aspirin to fend off the headache throbbing behind his eyes.

"We went a little farther afield, though, and Susan came up with something." Brown nodded to the tall African-American uniformed cop waiting patiently beside him.

She seemed startled to be addressed directly, probably figuring Brown would include her report with the others. Uncomfortable, she began awkwardly, "I asked around about new film companies, the small, independent kind, you know?" Off Brown's encouraging nod, she gained more confidence. "Anyway, there's one that's only been around for a month or so. Called 'Blue Night Videos'."

She paused, thinking this significant, and Jim realized he was completely baffled. "Blue Night?"

"Yeah, kind of a takeoff on knight, as 'in shining armor'," she explained eagerly. "You know, the Joe Wambaugh book."

Of course. Jim felt stupid. "Good work, Officer." What a long shot. What other kind did they have? "Do we know anything about the company?"

Lewis was just hanging up the phone. "A legit business license issued last month," he said. "The company is owned by Iola Cruz, business address same as her home address."

Bingo. "Did you check out her place earlier?" While I was sitting here watching my partner get abused by a bitch in a body suit?

"Yeah, nothing, but Sean and his crew are there now. They're bound to find some prints."

If our guy visited her at her home. "OK. Brown, you and - Susan, is it? -- check on Blue Night Videos. Find out if anyone can give you a description of who picked up their video equipment. What's the word from the Leather Dungeon?"

Brown didn't have to consult his notes. "The manager confirmed Iola's employment, says she hasn't been around for a few days. Someone apparently hired her for an independent gig, no names, no description, but we'll send some officers in tonight to question the regulars. Maybe they saw her talking to someone."

"And her submissive?"

"Eric Holder, twenty-one, goes by the name of Gauntlet, don't ask why. No police record, rumored to be a runaway who tied up with Cruz a couple of years ago, no pun intended. We checked out his address. No one's seen him for a couple of days, no one saw him talking to anyone, no one saw one damn thing." He sounded bitter. The dead ends were working on everyone's nerves, not just Jim's.

The meeting broke up on this downer, and the detectives resolutely went about their business.

"Not much to go on," McMahon commented quietly. She was standing by Jim's desk, and he looked up at her, refusing to be intimidated by her hovering presence. "We gather information," he said blandly. "We put it together. It gets results."

"Perhaps if we study the videos again - "

Jim shook his head. He couldn't stand to watch another minute. "It's all in here," he said, tapping his temple.

"OK, I'll be in the Captain's office," she said. "How are you doing?"

"Fine," he said shortly. She sighed at his coldness, but left him alone.

A minute later, CB came over with fresh coffee and a sandwich, which he put on the desk in front of Jim. "Hope you like turkey and swiss," he commented. "Got it from the deli up the street. Better than the vending machine."

Jim looked at him oddly, and CB shrugged. "It was your Captain's idea."

"Thanks." Jim took the lid off the coffee cup, and the fragrant aroma of pure kona beans actually awakened his taste buds. He took a sip. It went down like velvet. "Tell me about your boss."

"McMahon?" CB paused to gather his thoughts. "She's a good teacher, tends to be impatient when she's lecturing a class, but OK as an academic advisor. I've been her assistant for a semester, long enough to realize she doesn't suffer fools lightly."

"But this abnormal psych stuff," Jim went on. "Is she really into it?" He had sensed her increased breathing and heart rate while the last video had played. She had really gotten off watching Blair suffer.

CB fidgeted. "I don't know if I should - "

"I like to know who I'm working with," Jim said. "Nothing's on the record."

The young computer whiz nodded. "Yeah, she's kind of into it - not the heavy stuff, at least I don't think so. Around me, she's just - ," he searched for a word.

"Toying?"

CB blushed. "Yeah. It's OK, though. It's kind of scary and kind of fun at the same time."

"It's sexual harassment."

"Probably, but I need the grade, and she's really good at what she does." CB nodded, as if confirming something to himself. "And that's what it comes down to, isn't it? She's really good. She can get inside the head of some pervert and really figure out what makes him tick. If she can do that because she's a little kinky herself, then what the hell? It works."

"Maybe," Jim agreed reluctantly. Like he'd said, most of the shrinks he knew were as neurotic as their patients - present company included. He ate a bit of the sandwich, but although it was good, it settled just as uncomfortably as the pizza. He put it down. "How does she do her research?"

"She does a lot of work at the jails," CB said. "Also, she corresponds with prisons all around the country. When she gets a lead on an interesting case, she corresponds directly with the prisoner. If she finds someone willing to take part in her study, she travels to the prison to meet with the volunteer. It just takes a couple of days to complete the evaluations, and then she comes home to plug all the information into the database. There's a lot of boring technical stuff, but I can tell you if you'd like."

"That's OK. So she's pretty organized?"

"Meticulous. With the amount of data she compiles, she has too break down all the components and keep everything in its place. Her software programs are pretty amazing." CB enthusiastically began to explain how the program worked ...

Abruptly, Jim realized he'd been asleep when Simon tapped his shoulder. "Sorry, Jim."

He sat up straighter in his chair and tried to clear the sleep from his mind. CB had gone, the remaining kona coffee was cold in the cup. He couldn't believe he'd dozed off at his desk, in the middle of the bullpen, people coming and going, voices speaking and telephones ringing all around. Confused, he mumbled, "Simon, what's happened?"

"We got another video," Simon said gently.

"Christ. OK, I'm coming." Jim climbed stiffly to his feet, muscles aching from his awkward sleep in his chair. "Just let me get some coffee."

"You all right? You look like hell," Simon observed.

I've been up for most of three days, Jim thought to himself. What am I supposed to look like? But he knew his anger was misdirected. Simon was only concerned. "I'm fine," he murmured. "I'll be all right." He poured his umpteenth cup of coffee with hands that felt surprisingly weak, then followed Simon into his office and closed the door. As he sat down, he knew the tension he felt in every cell of his body only added to his exhaustion, but he was unable to dispel it. He wouldn't let it cloud his thinking...or his ability to view the upcoming video with anything but absolute clarity. Clenching his jaws until they ached, he nodded to CB to start the tape.

 

It started right where the previous one had left off. The dominatrix still had her hand down Blair's pants, and he was sitting absolutely rigid in embarrassment. "Like it?" she crooned.

"No, I don't like it," Blair shot back angrily.

She straddled his outstretched thighs, and there was a glimpse of pain as her weight dropped onto him before her back blocked his features. "Come on, you know you want it - I can give you what you want. All you have to do is beg for it."

"Then I'm begging you to get the fuck away from me!" Blair shouted.

The woman stood up abruptly and faced the camera. "What's going on?" she demanded. "Is this some sick joke? You told me it was a surprise for Ellison's birthday, that they'd both get a kick out of it - " Her voice rose to a shriek. "What the fuck are you doing?!"

The red hole blossomed in her forehead before the tape recorded the roar of the shot. The bullet blew out the back of her head, spraying bone and brains ahead of it. Her body flew backwards from the impact and slammed to the floor in a lifeless twist. Bound helpless in the metal chair, Blair's expression went from incredulous horror to shocked realization, but no sounds came out as he tried to form words.

There was a shout of fear off camera, the pounding of feet, another shot, a falling body: The devoted slave, following his mistress into whatever afterlife awaited them.

Blair's breathing was fast and shallow, his whole body quivering with adrenaline and fear.

He tried to squirm away as the shooter, the big man in biker gear, entered the frame and crouched down beside the chair. He still wore the leather mask to hide his face. "God, she was pathetic," he said conversationally, stroking the side of Blair's stricken face. "This isn't about liking it, is it? We both know that. This is about control - total control and utter domination, the breaking of the will and the spirit until the human being no longer exists...until there is only pain and the absolute acceptance of death as the only release from that pain."

Blair was practically hyperventilating now, his body trembling so violently he seemed almost to be convulsing. His eyes stared wildly around as if seeking escape, but really because he couldn't bear to look into the eyes of his tormentor. If he looked into those eyes, he would know the hell awaiting him.

"That silly bitch didn't feel any pain, did she?" the man continued, running his fingers through Blair's hair, pausing at the base of his captive's neck, stroking and rubbing the rigid muscles. "Neither did that cowardly jackass who followed her around. No," he said, suddenly gripping the back of Blair's neck hard enough to make him wince, "pain will be your role in my little feature film. It's the starring role - you should be proud. As for myself, I have a smaller but more pivotal role as the pain giver." The men leaned forward until his lips were almost touching Blair's cheek.

"Rewind a bit," Jim ordered abruptly.

CB complied, then put the VCR back in play mode. Jim closed his eyes against the images, listening intently. He nodded.

"What is it, Jim?" Simon asked.

"A jumbo jet, taking off from north to south."

They all listened to the portion of tape again. "OK," McMahon conceded, "I can just about hear the noise of a jet engine - "

"So the warehouse is somewhere near the airport," Simon continued as if he hadn't heard her.

"Somewhere south of the airport," Jim corrected.

"Whoa!" CB protested. "How do you figure that?"

"The engine noise moves from the right of the screen to the left, and the main airport's main runway runs from north to south. The sound is quieter on the right, because the jet is moving toward the warehouse. It gets louder as it passes overhead, fainter as it gains altitude."

"I'll get us maps of the area." Simon hastened from the office.

CB remained unconvinced. "OK, I understand the Doppler effect and all, maybe I'll even buy that you can hear the change in loudness, but how do you know the plane is taking off and not landing? If it's landing, then the warehouse is to the north, right?"

"The engines are accelerating, not decelerating," Jim assured him.

Simon came in with a AAA map of the city and spread it on the desk, covering half of CB's computer in the process. He indicated the airport. "How close?"

"Not right next door, but probably less than a mile from the outer marker," Jim told him. "That's assuming the jet is making a normal takeoff."

Simon circled an area. "That's still a large search area, but it's a whole lot smaller than the entire city," he commented.

Glancing at the area enclosed by the circle, Jim felt a tug at his memory, but it was gone so quickly, he barely had time to register it. Frowning, he concentrated on the map, but the feeling, whatever it had been, was gone. "Shit." Maybe it was just a memory of Lash; his hideout had been within the circle Simon had traced.

"What is it?"

"Nothing," Jim replied. Damn all nothing! He sat down again. "Turn on the video."

"...I have a smaller but more pivotal role as the pain giver. It's a role I relish. What do you think of that?"

"I - think - you're - totally - demented," Blair managed to say. "I don't know you; why are you doing this?"

The man sat up in mock horror. "Oh, my, you don't know me!" he echoed. "Is that a clue for Detective Jim? Are you trying to tell him his association with me predates his association with you? My, aren't you a clever fellow." He pondered a moment. "As for why I'm doing this - it's nothing personal, Kid, really. It's just payback for Ellison. You're just the vehicle, nothing more." The man suddenly stood up and moved behind Blair, so they were both facing the camera. He placed his hands on Blair's shoulders, uncomfortably close to his neck, and leaned down again. "So, what do you and Ellison get up to in the dark? Which one of you is the bitch? You, I'll bet. Which position do you prefer - on your knees like a dog, or rolled back on your shoulders with your legs in the air?"

Blair's eyes widened in shock, but he only sputtered incoherently, unable to form a single cohesive thought.

The man laughed and unfastened Blair's hands from the back of the chair. "Go ahead and sit up. That position can't be comfortable."

Blair hunched forward on the edge of the seat. He tried to work the kinks from his shoulders and the numbness from his hands as the man came around and undid the ankle restraints. "There you go. Free as a bird. Aren't you going to try and get away?" The man grabbed him under the arms and shoved him firmly back against the chair. "Guess everything isn't working just yet, huh?" he continued, picking up a wide leather belt and passing it low across Blair's chest, under his arms, and through the chair back, where he fastened it securely. "There, now you have a little mobility. You might be able to squirm out of that in time, but I don't intend to leave you alone that long." He stepped back and admired his handiwork. "Aren't you a rumpled mess. Go ahead and zip up your fly. I won't be using what's in there for awhile."

Blair just hung his head, his arms clutched protectively across his abdomen. He tried to shut out the man and the sounds of whatever he was doing, but the loud scrape of the table being moved up beside him jerked him upright in surprise.

"Almost ready," the man assured him. He began taking things out of the suitcase and putting them in a neat row on the table - behind Blair, just beyond reach. By turning his head as far as he could, Blair could see an array of dental and surgical tools, knives, razors, a gun, a riding crop, glass bottles filled with colorless fluid, a hammer and nails... Resolutely, he faced forward.

When the man had arranged the tools to his satisfaction, he straddled the metal chair recently used by the dead dominatrix. "OK, here's the drill," he said conversationally. "You're not just the victim here, OK? That would be way too simple." He slapped Blair hard across the face. "There was a question in there, moron. Don't you remember the rules?"

"Yes, I remember the rules," Blair mumbled numbly, trying to distance himself, to protect some part of his psyche.

He received another slap, then a tremendous shock that roared up his arm and seemed to explode out the top of his head. He shrieked in pain, fully back in the present and the horrors it offered. The man was holding a cattle prod. "Like it?"

"Jesus, no!" Blair moaned, but received another shock, this one to his thigh. His whole leg jumped involuntarily as the current blasted along his neural pathways all the way to his brain.

"Damn it, remember the rules!" the man commanded sternly.

"I remember the rules!" Blair shouted desperately.

"Good," the man said approvingly. "That was good. Just keep speaking loudly enough for the camera. Complete sentences and adequate volume, those are the keys to obedience." He reached behind Blair and picked up a little hourglass, which he placed on the edge of the table. "Pick it up." With trembling hands, Blair complied. "Now, turn it over and put it back down." Blair did as he was told. Within a few seconds, the sand had run into the bottom. "A ten-second timer. Your job is to turn that little gizmo over every time I ask you a question. If you haven't answered the question by the time the sand runs down - well, let's just say you won't like it, shall we?" Blair was either too stunned or too slow to realize he'd been asked a question, but a jab in the shoulder from the cattle prod soon regained his attention. "Damn it, moron, you've got to learn to follow instructions! I said you wouldn't like it, didn't I?"

Blair fumbled with the timer and turned it over, stuttering, "Yes, you said I wouldn't like it." God, he felt so damned helpless, so damned complaisant, but he couldn't stand another jolt from the cattle prod.

"OK, as I started to explain, just making you the victim doesn't have any visceral appeal. Hell, I could torture a rabbit if I just wanted to inflict pain on some helpless creature. No, I want you to be an active participant. You'll define the nature of your own torture. It's all about response time. It's about evaluating your options in a split second, even when you don't have all the facts. It's about choices and taking responsibility for your choices. What do you think?"

Blair obediently turned over the timer. "I think I'd like a hot Jacuzzi, a drink with one of those little umbrellas in it...and you gone."

"Glad to see you have some spirit," the man said. He leaned close again, but Blair did not flinch away. "I'll soon strip you of that," he promised. "Along with your will, your sanity, and your manhood." He jumped up. "But first, I've got to take out the trash." He moved toward the body of Iola Cruz.

Blair hung his head. "God, Jim," he whispered so quietly only a Sentinel could hear. "Find me soon...please."

 

Rage erupted in Ellison's head, and he shot to his feet, unable to contain it. The office was too confining, so he slammed open the office door hard enough to crack the glass and stalked into the squad room. He felt surprised gazes on him, but he kept moving quickly, into the hall, down the steps to the parking level, all the time aware of Simon behind him, urging him to stop but unable to obey even if he'd wanted to.

He entered the garage and turned right: Ten paces to the corner, then turn and start back. Simon waited for him. "Jim, you've got to calm down. You're not doing anybody any good like this!"

Jim Ellison out of control was like a force of nature - an avalanche or a lava flow. It didn't happen often, but when it did, the smart thing anyone could do was just get out of his way. Simon stood his ground, wondering bleakly if Jim even saw or heard him.

"I don't want to calm down!" Ellison snapped finally, slamming his fist into the wall hard enough to make Simon wince. Jim paced back along the wall again, his angry shouts echoing hollowly through the garage. "I want to rip the bastard's heart out and ram it down his throat!" He reached the far wall and stopped suddenly, leaning forward on his hands, head drooping.

Simon hurried to him, afraid Jim was going to be sick or pass out. He laid a concerned hand on his friend's shoulder. "Jim?"

Jim turned around and leaned back again the cold, damp concrete wall, but he couldn't stop fidgeting, shifting back and forth, fists tapping an uneven rhythm against the cement. He was pale, but didn't look on the edge of passing out.

"I just feel so damned helpless," he said, staring off into the distant shadows but focused on the hidden darkness in his mind. "Cooped up in your office, watching Blair being tortured by some degenerate animal-"

"It's rough on me, too," Simon admitted, "and especially on you. But without your special abilities, we wouldn't have a hope in hell of finding Sandburg in time."

"Without my special abilities, Sandburg wouldn't be in this mess - "

"Cut the guilt crap!" Simon shot back angrily. "If you two had never met, a lot of good would have gone undone, and you know it." Jim looked at Simon for the first time, his eyes bloodshot and puffy from the strain of too many hours in front of the TV screen. "You need to get some rest."

Jim shook his head stubbornly and looked down at his feet. He started rocking back and forth against the wall again.

"Look, Jim, the clues you've picked up so far have been good. The age of the suspect was a good one. The location near the airport is a vital one. The squad is going through all your old cases - "

"They're looking in the wrong place," Jim murmured absently.

"What?" Simon barked. "Why?"

Jim looked up, a little dazed from tiredness and spent anger. "Why what?" It would have sounded comical if the circumstances hadn't been so grim.

"Why did you say looking through your old cases was looking in the wrong place?"

Jim frowned. "I - don't know," he admitted, confused and frustrated.

Simon pressed a hand firmly against Ellison's shoulder to make him stop rocking. "Jim, look at me." When he had Jim's full attention, he asked, "What do you want us to do?"

The answer came back with conviction. "I want a list of all the prisoners McMahon has corresponded with."

"You think she's mixed up in this?" Simon asked skeptically.

Jim shrugged. "I don't know. For a second there, I just had this gut feeling - "

"Then that's what we'll go with," Simon returned firmly. "I've learned to trust your instincts."

The stairwell door opened and one of the squad peered into the garage, apparently wanting to see if it was safe to enter.

"What is it, Lewis?" Banks asked.

The young detective, newest member of Major Crimes, came over and handed him a message slip. "Two bodies, Captain. Sounds like they match the ones we want. Also, we got a description of the guy who picked up the equipment for Blue Night Videos. It sounds like Eric Holder, but he signed the receipt as Kinky Sargent. We're running the name, but it's sure as hell an alias."

Simon glanced at Jim. "We'll check out the bodies," he said. He threw an arm around Lewis' shoulder and steered him back toward the stairs. "In the meantime, there's something else I want you to do, Lewis- "

 

Part Six

The yellow crime-scene tape, the only color in a bleak landscape, fluttered in a stiff onshore breeze blowing in across a narrow inlet. A jetty of gray boulders cut a dry swath into the calm water. The surrounding area was just as colorless and foreboding - gravel, dirt and fractured asphalt, weed-infested lots filled with decaying, tired monuments to a once-thriving fishing industry, warehouses and processing plants decaying into rust and ruin. All in all, a depressing place in which to be found dead.

Simon parked beside two squad cars and the ME's unmarked sedan. With Jim moving impatiently ahead, they crunched across gravel, stepped over the tape, and climbed over the large rocks of the breakwater before climbing carefully down to the water's edge. Two bodies lay covered in black plastic sheets. Four uniformed officers were clustered a short distance away, awaiting instructions, and the ME was just closing her bag.

"What have we got, Serena?" Jim asked.

"Male and female victims, dumped here rather than brought in by the tide," the ME reported crisply. "Kinky stuff. Take a look."

Jim knelt beside her as the ME pulled back the sheet covering the woman. The victim was older than Jim had guessed - mid-thirties maybe, skinny and bony, only her full breasts revealing any curve. The ME had unzipped the front of the latex jumpsuit, and Jim was appalled by the rings and tattoos adorning the victim's torso.

"As you can see, the lady was heavily into self-mutilation," the ME continued, her distaste evident, "and she was well on her way to spiking every inch of her body." Jim could see the bumps evenly spaced around each ringed nipple - the trendy new "body art" technique where small beads were inserted under the skin. It was grotesque; Jim couldn't begin to comprehend why anyone would deform and abuse themselves so badly.

"I'll take any odds we'll find her genitals equally mutilated," Serena went on. "I can check now if you like, but I didn't want to expose - " she faltered. "Stupid of me."

Jim covered the shattered face gently with the sheet. "No, it's OK, Serena. She didn't have any dignity in life; you were right to want to give her a little in death." He stood up and turned away from the body.

Serena stood up beside him, her professional demeanor firmly back in place. "Cause of death was a - "

"Single gunshot to the face," Jim said. "I know. I saw. Same with the man?"

"To the back of the head, in his case," she answered. "Maybe he was trying to get away."

"He was," Jim confirmed, and didn't respond to her odd look. In a way, Jim had been a witness to the killing: the shout of fear, the running feet, the gunshot, the body falling - all vividly recorded "off camera" by the video. And, of course, the visual of Iola Cruz's shocked incomprehension as the gun was turned on her, the bullet exploding on impact, destroying half her face, blood, bone and brain spewing outward - he shut his eyes tightly to drive back the images, then opened them again. "She's what - mid-thirties?"

"Probably no more than twenty-eight or -nine," Serena corrected. "She's led a hard life."

"Some of her tattoos look old."

"Yeah. I'd guess she got into the body art/mutilation game pretty early, say mid teens."

"Fifteen years, maybe," Jim mused. He stared off across the sound to a cluster of old barracks, hangars and other buildings. As he watched, a jumbo jet rose above the deserted buildings, taking off from the north to follow the coastline until it gained altitude and assumed its assigned flight path to wherever.

"What is it, Jim?" Simon asked.

"He's there, Simon," Jim said, nodding toward the abandoned naval base.

Simon's voice dropped to a whisper. "Can you see him?"

"No, but he's watching us, probably filming us."

They turned their backs to the base and looked south. "So you've figured out who is he," Simon said.

"Gunnery Sergeant Malcolm Hicks, United States Marine Corps," Jim replied with certainty. "Seeing the woman's body here, so close to the old base, brought it all back to me."

"Kinky Sargent," Simon murmured. "The name on the equipment receipt."

"My unit was on a cold-water survival course taught at the Naval Air Station. We were a mixed bag of Navy and Army specialists; Hicks was one of our instructors. He was brutal, a real sadist." Jim started up the embankment toward the car, Simon at his heels. "One night he snapped and beat a soldier to death with his bare hands. I was a witness at his court-martial. I also convinced his daughter to testify against him. She was sixteen, already into tattoos as part of some strange ritual to defy her father, knowing he would beat her senseless every time she got a new one. He used to strip her naked to search for them. It was perverse."

"Iola Cruz?" Simon asked in amazement. "He killed his own daughter?"

"Her name was Iona when I knew her," Jim said, climbing behind the wheel and firing the engine. Simon scrambled into the passenger seat. "With our combined testimony, there was no way Hicks could prove self defense. They gave him twenty years. Looks like even military prisons give time off for good behavior."

"Jim, I know you're certain, but can you convince me?" Simon went on. "Did you recognize Iola Cruz as Iona Hicks?"

"I recognized one of the tattoos," Jim admitted, forcing himself to drive at a sedate pace away from the scene, beyond the range of prying eyes. He turned left behind the warehouses and picked a circuitous route toward the old base, hoping to avoid detection. "Simon, it fits. When the military police searched his quarters, they found a huge stash of porn films and literature, some of it the illegal, underground stuff." His hands gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white under the strain.

Simon understood. "Snuff films?"

Jim nodded, and when he spoke, his voice cracked with barely contained emotion. "They could never prove it, but they thought Hicks took part in making some of the films. What if the only way he could look normal during the day was to film the torture and rape of innocent victims at night?"

Simon felt a chill from the back of his neck all the way to the base of his spine. "You think this film he's making now is a way of getting back into business while getting even with you." He shook his head. "No, there's still something missing."

"My co-starring role?" Jim asked bitterly. "Have the television in your office checked over. I'll bet there's a hidden mini-cam that filmed every moment of my reactions."

Simon looked stunned for a moment. "Easy enough to check," he returned, reaching for his cell. He phoned the bullpen and gave instructions to have Doctor McMahon detained without access to a phone while her equipment was searched. He listened for a long moment, then disconnected. "She's already gone, Jim. Apparently, she split in a hurry. Young Russell is still sitting at my desk with a rather dazed expression on his face. Do you think he's involved?"

Jim shook his head. "I think he's just what he says he is, one of her students. I think her kinkiness excited and frightened him at the same time, so she kept him around, alternating the whip and the carrot to keep him in line."

His chosen route through the abandoned warehouses finally brought him to the edge of the abandoned naval base, where he parked out of sight. Simon's phone rang, and he answered it. After a bit, he said to Jim, "You were right. There's a camera in place of one of the speakers in the TV." He nodded toward the base. "You want backup?"

Jim was climbing out of the car. "No, just the two of us, Simon. Any more and we'll be spotted for sure. Get a team to standby here. They're to move in if they hear shots or after thirty minutes, whichever comes first."

Simon got back on the phone to issue instructions, then snapped as Jim started off, "Jim, wait for me, damn it!" He finished on the phone, grabbed two vests from the trunk, and hurried to join his impatient detective, who was already burrowing under the fence, ignoring the signs that warned FEDERAL PROPERTY - KEEP OUT. Simon handed him a vest. "Put it on; don't argue," he ordered, strapping on his own. Jim didn't waste time complaining. He paused just long enough to remove his jacket, slip the vest over his head, and replace the jacket. Then, they dashed across an open expanse and crouched in the shelter of a barracks, where he fastened the last of the Velcro straps on the protective clothing. He led the way quickly along the outside wall to the next corner, then across the intervening space to the next barracks.

"Jim, do you know where he is?" Simon asked, keeping his voice low.

"Yeah," Jim said, pointing off. "About half a mile that way, probably one of the old aircraft hangars."

"You can hear him?"

Jim looked at Simon with sick, angry eyes. "I can hear Sandburg," he whispered in a voice so dead Simon felt a chill bore right through him.

 

Part Seven

Blair flinched as the man straddled the metal chair again. In a weird dichotomy, he felt exhausted to his very core, and yet he was too terrified to keep still. Every movement by the man, however innocent, made him cringe. "God, these new telephoto lenses are great," he commented. "Got some great shots of your buddy, Ellison."

Blair felt hope surge. "Where?" he asked automatically, then figured he'd get smacked for his question.

"Too far away to help you," the man assured him. "He's running in circles; he doesn't have a clue." He tapped Blair lightly on the cheek before continuing. "Now it's back to you. I got the next tape running. It's rough being both actor and director, but hell, if Costner can do it - right?"

Almost against his will, Blair reached for the timer, turned it over, and answered, "If Costner can do it, so can you."

"Yeah, that's what I figured," the man agreed with a chuckle. "OK, you already know most of the rules. There's only one more. The questions I'm going to ask you will be in two parts. You have to pick one of the options within the allotted time, or I get to pick for you. Got it?"

They were getting down to the crunch now, Blair realized. This was where all the previous torment had been leading him. He could give in and comply, or he could try to go out with a little style. Deliberately, he picked up the timer - and dropped it to the floor, where it shattered. Then he sat unmoving, staring straight ahead, waiting for the inevitable outburst.

"Ooh, tough guy," the man murmured appreciatively, moving in close again, teasing Blair with his words. "Those things cost about a buck sixty-nine. I bought a dozen. I guarantee you'll break long before the rest of them." He ran a hand across Blair's shoulder and down his arm. He took Blair's hand in his own and held it almost gently until Blair tried to pull away. Suddenly, Blair screamed and arched as a terrible pain seared through his hand and radiated throughout his body. The man had found some sort of pressure point, some nerve cluster, and he was squeezing mercilessly. Blair tried to pry his hand loose with his other hand, uselessly battering and pawing at the fingers causing him such unbearable agony. He cried and screamed, hunched over, his entire being focused on freeing himself. Then he heard himself begging for the pain to stop. When it did, he threw up on his shoes.

Still holding Blair's hand, but gently now, the man used his other hand to massage Blair's back. "There, there," he said soothingly. "That part's over. See what a little commando training can do? I'll bet your buddy Jim knows some of these little tricks, too."

"Please," Blair moaned, hunched over against the strap binding him to the chair, his body trying to curl into a fetal position.

"Please what?" asked the man.

"Please don't - " Blair forced himself to stop by exerting all his will. He knew begging wouldn't help...why humiliate himself by doing it?

"Please don't hurt you?" the man finished. "But that's the whole purpose of what we're doing. I have to hurt you in order to hurt Ellison. Before I kill him. I thought you understood that."

"I understand," Blair whispered. "And no matter what you do to me, Jim will find you. It's only a matter of time."

"Yeah, but it's time you don't have," the man chuckled, slapping Blair on the back and straightening him up.

Blair was numb both mentally and emotionally. The cold was robbing his body of strength; the madman was robbing his mind of strength. He took a deep breath, tried to center his thinking. A twinge of anger was reassurance that he hadn't lost his grip yet, at least not totally. You want me to be an active participant? he thought. What do you think I've been all this time? He knew Jim would find him; he had to take whatever this madman did to him and survive it, somehow. He had to give Jim time to do what needed to be done. Not for a second did he think it would be easy - already, he'd succumbed once to the urge to bait his tormentor by deliberately breaking the timer. He'd firmly expected - perhaps even hoped - the man would kill him in a fit of rage. No, Blair wouldn't weaken again. He might scream - most certainly would scream - or beg, or cry, or shit his pants...but he would survive it. And if it finally became unbearable, if he finally made the choice to end it, then he'd figure out a way to provoke this madman into ending it.

It sounded simple in his head, but he knew he was facing the greatest physical and emotional challenge of his life. Would there come a point where he would no longer want to be saved? How would he feel as his captor dragged him ever deeper into his demented fantasy, when Blair was stripped of his clothing and his dignity, snared into the leather harnesses and chains of total bondage, exposed to the impersonal eye of the camera, to be raped, tortured and mutilated for the future entertainment of others as depraved as his tormentor? At what point would be unable to look at himself, or Jim, or anyone else ever again without feeling abject humiliation? At what point would he be too much of an emotional cripple or physical wreck to want to continue living?

He thrust his growing terror aside, tried to find his center again. Jim will find you in time. Jim is your Blessed Protector. Just give him the time...

Another timer was placed on the table within easy reach. Blair looked at it, resigned to its purpose. He began to rock against the chest restraint, and was ashamed to feel tears spilling down his face. "Hey, come on now," the man said almost gently. "You've got to play. If you don't play, I'll have to hold your hand again. You don't want that, do you?"

"No," Blair mumbled, obediently turning over the timer, "I don't want that." Hang on to the center...

"OK, first question: which would you rather do," the man began, spinning the cylinder on a pistol, "play Russian roulette against your temple, or take a definite shot in the arm?"

Blair almost smiled as he turned over the timer. It was perverse, he knew. "I'd rather play Russian roulette," he answered calmly.

Even knowing what would happen, he still cringed when the cold barrel was placed against his head and the trigger pulled. The hammer fell on an empty chamber. "See?" said the man. "That was an easy one. You knew I wouldn't kill you this early in the game, didn't you?"

"Yes, I knew," Blair admitted, remembering to turn over the timer again. Memories of the cattle prod and the agony to his hand made him concentrate very hard on turning the timer when required.

"Damn, I'm proud of you, kid," the man said. "I really think you've got it. Can you imagine how Ellison's gonna freak when he sees this tape?"

"He won't freak," Blair answered, turning the timer. But he could imagine it, much as he didn't want to. He didn't know how many tapes had been made or been delivered; but he knew if Jim had managed to watch even one, it had to have been emotional agony for him. The cop in him would be unable to separate their friendship from the equation; if he became too emotionally embroiled, he would be unable to do his job, unable to focus on what needed to be done. Silently, Blair forgave his best friend and partner, wished he hadn't murmured his quiet plea to Sentinel ears. If Jim failed, it would destroy him. Blair would be partly responsible, because he'd asked too much. He'd asked Jim to do the impossible, to find him before it was too late. His moment of weakness would cost his friend a lifetime of guilt. Blair tried to speak, heard his voice crack. "He's doing his best to find me," he managed at last. "If he fails, I forgive him because I know he's doing everything possible."

"Hmm, you forgive him? How sweet," the man said. "But then, I guess you were talking for Ellison's benefit, not mine. You sure the two of you aren't lovers?"

Blair forgot about the timer. "We aren't lovers," he replied softly. The man moved in close again, using his weight and height to intimidate. As he crouched by the chair, he put one arm around Blair's shoulders, almost hugging him. With his other hand, he began to run his fingers over Blair's jaw and down his neck. Blair tensed, remembering what those fingers could do. He began to tremble again.

"Now, I'm actually glad you two aren't lovers," the man continued, tracing a path down to the first button on Blair's shirt. Casually, he undid it. "That means your little ass is going to be all tight and virgin just for me."

Despite himself, Blair tried to jerk away, then impulsively swung a fist at the man's head. It connected, but not solidly enough to do any damage. The man grabbed Blair's hand and held it firmly, fingers massaging the tender nerve area deeply enough to awaken the memory of the pain without actually inducing it again. Blair froze in anticipation of renewed agony. "You know what kind of film I'm making?"

Again, Blair forgot to rotate the timer. "I know," he said.

The man seemed willing to overlook Blair's mistake. "Then tell me, what kind of film is this?"

"It's - it's a snuff film," Blair managed to say, feeling nausea try to rise again.

"Yeah, that's right. A snuff film. But we've got a long way to go before the final act," the man continued gently. "First, there's the tried and true old repertoire that gets all the old perverts to wank off in their britches. Know what the first thing is?"

Blair shook his head, unable to think. Panic was rising in him as surely as vomit in his throat. He knew he was on the brink of losing it.

The fingers pressed into his hand a little more firmly. "Come on, try. Just one thing."

Blair cringed. "Rape?" he murmured.

The man laughed. "Hell, kid, fucking you is going to be the easy part for both of us." He began ticking points off by tapping his fingers against Blair's hand, every touch sending a jolt of anticipation up his arm. "There's the ever-popular enema scene, the genital torture, the spanking - I've never figured out why so many stupid men get off on spanking - the anal probes, the fisting. Hell, I probably forgot a few things, but I have a script around here somewhere. I've had years to work on it. And, of course, I've come up with a few original touches all my own. I did research in prison. I know what the perverts want to see."

Blair was ashamed to realize he was crying again, sobbing almost soundlessly in utter despair. The hands left him, and he heard the man say, "Look at me."

With difficulty, Blair raised his head and looked at the man. He held two glass bottles, one of them quite a bit larger than the other. He grinned at Blair, delighted to have his attention. "Time to make another choice. Which would you prefer - twelve ounces of acid poured down your chest, or two ounces in the face?"

Blair cracked. He began to scream in total panic, tearing at his chest restraint, trying to rock the chair free from its bolts. He forgot the timer, forgot the rules, forgot everything in his frenzy to escape from this nightmare.

"Don't worry," the man continued. "I have a watch. I'm counting your ten seconds."

Blair didn't hear him as he continued to flail helplessly, his screams hoarse and incoherent, beyond pleading, beyond sanity. Somewhere in the midst of his struggles, his bladder let loose, but he didn't notice.

"Ten."

Blair heard that, heard the horrible finality in that single word, raised his arms to cover his head, screamed anew as the cattle prod touched his hands, making him expose his face, the liquid splashing into his eyes, burning, burning...

He collapsed against the restraint, every nerve in his body spent. Sobbing quietly, he didn't even have the strength to lift his hand to wipe at the liquid burning his eyes. Lemon juice, his nose told him. The bastard had used lemon juice.

"Well, hell, it's an acid!" the man crowed. "You poor, dumb son of a bitch, you got all worked up over lemonade!" He made a show of sniffing the air. "Smells like you did a no-no in your pants," he chided. "I've got just the thing."

A moment later, Blair felt an ice cold burst of water against his head and shoulders as he slumped over in the chair. The flow was powerful, pummeling at him, forcing itself up his nose and down his throat. He tried to twist away, gagging, but the hose was relentless, the stream moving over every inch of his body, soaking and chilling him. When it finally stopped, the insipid cold of the room crept in with renewed vigor. He barely had the strength to hug himself in an effort to ward off the shivers assailing his body, chills so severe they caused his muscles to cramp.

Then the man was beside him again, lifting his head. "I think that'll do it for this video, but we need to end it on a high note, a climactic note, to make sure the viewers stay tuned for the next act. What say we finish up with an enema?" He chuckled as he left Blair's side and went back to the suitcase for the necessary implements.

 

Part Eight

Jim and Simon halted on either side of a small door inset into a larger hangar door. There was a hasp, but no padlock, and Jim could see through a gap that the door didn't appear to be fastened on the inside.

Simon could hear Blair's screams now. "Jesus, Jim, is that what you've been following?" He made a grab for the door, but Jim shoved him back, searching with every sense for signs of an alarm or booby trap. He didn't find one.

The screaming stopped, but he could still hear a voice. He waited tensely as another jumbo jet climbed into the evening sky, and slid the metal door open under cover of its roaring engines. He stepped into the dimness, Simon right behind him.

They paused in the gloom, but Simon knew Jim could see into every shadow with absolute clarity. To the rear of the large, empty hangar bay, they could see bright lights where Hicks had created his sound stage. Two cars looked small and insignificant parked in the vast space. Jim recognized the license plate issued to Iola Cruz. The other car probably belonged to Hicks.

Water gushed powerfully; someone gagged and retched. Surprisingly, most of the noise was muffled by the sound baffles and did not echo inside the giant, empty space.

Jim could hear Hicks clearly, heard his immediate plans for Blair, and started forward almost as quickly and silently as his animal guide, the black panther. As Simon followed, he realized at some point Jim had ceased to be a cop. He was a commando now, a well-trained infiltrator who was going to surprise his target and eliminate it. There would be no announcement of his presence, no command to surrender, no arrest. Jim was going to take Hicks down any way he could.

Simon knew he should do or say something to prevent it, but he'd been stunned by Sandburg's screams of torment, knew how much longer Jim had been listening to them as they had raced across the base. He wouldn't stop Jim now even if he thought he could. Hell, he figured he might even help.

The hangar was not quiet to Jim, but he no longer heard voices. The sound of Blair's breathing was shallow and ragged, his heart racing furiously. Hicks was nearby, doing something that made only small, unidentifiable noises.

Jim suddenly gestured for Simon to stop and pointed to his left. "Motion detector," he whispered. "Hicks knows we're here. Let's split up."

Simon nodded, moved off to his right to circle around the exterior of the artificial room Hicks had constructed. Jim went straight ahead, following the sound of his adversary's quickened breathing. Yes, Hicks knew someone was here.

Even with his acute hearing, Jim was taken by surprise when one of the tall sound baffles toppled onto him. He staggered under its weight, losing his weapon, and barely had a moment to lunge partly out of the way before the heavy unit crashed down, pinning him to the concrete.

With a roar of pure hate, Hicks came at him, rushing over the fallen baffle to prevent Jim from crawling free. A huge machete, its long blade glinting dully in the light, flashed in his fist.

Without hesitation, Jim grabbed the edge of the baffle with both hands and heaved with all his strength. The weight shifted, causing Hicks to lose his balance. As his attacked toppled off, Jim quickly dragged himself free and rolled to his feet in one smooth motion.

Hicks was just as quick, back on his feet in an instant, a savage grin contorting his face beneath the leather mask. The machete swung in a vicious arc. Instead of jumping back, Jim ducked under it, swung a hard blow into his adversary's gut, then pivoted to catch the arm holding the weapon. Using both hands, he smashed his opponent's wrist onto his upraised knee. Hicks lost his grip on the machete, and it clattered to the floor.

But the move had turned Jim away from his attacker, placing him at a disadvantage. Hicks snaked his other arm around Jim's neck from behind, jerking him backwards. Jim went with the motion, slamming backward with his head and catching Hicks in the face. There was a satisfying crunch of bone, a howl of pain and anger. Jim followed up with an elbow to the ribs, and the two men fell apart.

They circled warily, seeking an opening.

"I've waited a long time for this, Ellison," Hicks said quietly, heedless of the blood streaming from his nose and flowing across his lips.

You're long overdue, Jim agreed silently, his icy stare never leaving his adversary.

Simon stepped out of the shadows, his gun aimed toward Hicks. "Police!" Simon yelled. "Hold it right there!"

With a roar of defiance, Hicks charged, and Jim lunged forward to meet him. There was no way he was going to let Simon take down the man he had sworn to himself he would kill.

Simon hesitated, unable to get a clear shot as the two men grappled, wrestling and trading blows, locked together as they staggered across the hangar floor.

Jim had age on his side, but the long hours without sleep had dulled his reactions a bit. Hicks was considerably older, but he matched Jim in weight and size, had kept himself in shape during his years in prison. All in all, they were equal adversaries, both trained in the fine art of hand-to-hand combat, neither willing to give an inch as blow after blow went home with savage accuracy, pummeling muscle, drawing blood, bruising flesh and bone.

And then Jim slipped in a small patch of oil and lost his footing, going down. Hicks was on him in an instant, hauling Jim up with both powerful forearms locked around his neck, this time rendering him helpless to snap his head back into his opponent's face. A gray film settled over Jim's vision as blood to his brain was cut off.

"Let him go!" Simon ordered, his gun aimed unerringly at Hicks' head.

"Not hardly," Hicks sneered, applying more pressure. "He's ruined my little game; now, he's my ticket out of here."

Jim was determined not to pass out, but he knew he had only a second before he would be helpless in the other man's grip. He used his elbow to smash back into Hicks' already bruised ribs, drove his heel down hard into the man's instep. The grip around his throat loosened a little, and Jim twisted free, swinging around and levering the tip of his stiffened hand solidly into Hicks' throat. The man's larynx fractured under the impact, and he went down hard, choking and gagging. Jim stood over him for a moment, his face expressionless as he watched the death throes of the man who had caused him so much anguish.

Simon came over to stand beside him. "You OK, Jim?"

Jim struggled to catch his breath. "Yeah." He had to brace his hands on his knees to keep from falling as his starving lungs heaved for air. "Guess maybe you should call an ambulance."

"Guess so," Simon agreed casually. "I think I can find my cell phone here someplace. It may take awhile. Go look after the kid."

Nodding in understanding, Jim straightened and walked back across the hangar floor, over the fallen baffle and into the rear of the brightly lit set. Ignoring the faint odors of vomit and urine still permeating the space, he approached the still figure slumped in the chair, reached out to touch him, and stopped uncertainly. "Blair?"

"Umm?" came a mumble.

"Hey, Chief, you with me?" Jim demanded more loudly, moving around to stand in front of him.

Blair sat up abruptly, eyes wild, as he remembered where he was. "Jim?" he asked incredulously, voice hoarse from strain.

"I'm here." Jim tried to keep his voice reassuring and not let any of his own emotion creep in. "You're OK now."

Blair struggled against the strap holding him in the chair. "Damn, get this thing off me!"

"OK, OK, take it easy," Jim urged, moving behind the chair to reach the fastener. He had to fight with it for a moment before it came free. Blair practically lunged from the chair, losing his balance and toppling forward. Jim was barely quick enough to break part of his fall, and they both went to their knees on the water-soaked concrete. "Whoa, Chief. Take a minute to get your legs back."

He tried to hold his partner still, but Blair alternated between trying to push him away and clutching at him desperately. "Jim - "

"What?"

"The tape. Get the tape." Blair's voice was a whispered plea. "Please."

Jim looked up, saw the video camera. With only the barest hesitation, he thrust his cop instincts aside - he knew what Blair wanted -- and got up to do as he was bidden. He popped the tape from the camera and held it up for Blair to see. "Here it is."

Blair looked up from his kneeling position. "Destroy it?"

Without a pause, Jim smashed it to the concrete and ground it under his heel. For added measure, he found a metal trash can, dumped the broken remains of the cassette inside and set them alight with an entire book of matches he snagged off the table. As acrid smoke rose from the container, Blair finally lost the haunted look in his eyes and started to fall forward.

Jim caught him. "You still with me, Sandburg?" Awkwardly holding Blair in one arm, he shrugged out of his parka and wrapped it around his trembling partner. It was hot with his own body heat, and Blair clutched it gratefully to his wet, shivering body.

"Kind of."

"Can you walk?"

"If it means getting out of here, I can fly." Actually, he could barely stand, but he managed by leaning heavily on Jim. His grip on Jim's sleeve was weak but tenacious, but Jim sensed an underlying reluctance to accept the help. Remembering the obscene intimacy on the videos, he understood why and kept his own grip as impersonal as he could, difficult since he had to hold on tightly to keep Blair upright. They left the brightness of the set and entered the dimness of the large hangar space.

Simon moved out of the shadows. "Jim, Blair - you two OK?"

"We're fine," Jim said shortly, shaking his head to keep Simon at a distance. What Blair certainly didn't want at this point was more help, much as it was needed.

Simon understood. "There's an ambulance on the way," he said. The little group continued slowly toward the exit, their progress dictated by Blair's weakness. "Too late for Hicks."

"No ambulance," Blair murmured.

"Yes, ambulance," Jim insisted. "You're in shock and probably on the brink of pneumonia."

"OK," Blair agreed miserably, his voice hoarse with strain. "But no hospital."

"I don't think I'll have much to say about it, but I promise I'll do what I can."

"Hospital's too cold," Blair whispered weakly. "Don't want strangers - touching me."

Jim ached inside, but kept his voice level. "Think pretty nurses. Think phone numbers."

"No." That one word, choked with desperation, broke Jim's heart.

He spoke gently. "I'm sorry, Chief, but I can't take care of you by myself."

"Don't want - anyone -- " and then he finally collapsed. Jim caught him and lowered him to the floor, supporting as much of the dead weight as he could to keep his partner off the cold concrete.

Simon took off his overcoat and draped it over the two figures. "I'll see what's keeping the ambulance," he said, wanting to do something useful.

Jim just nodded his thanks and held Blair more closely against his chest, using his own body heat to warm his friend. "You're going to be all right, Chief," he whispered. "You're going to be all right..."

 

Part Nine

The doctor was reluctant to release Blair. "Detective, although his physical injuries are minor, I can't begin to evaluate the extent of his emotional trauma. He's verbally unresponsive, and he won't submit to an examination. From what you've told me, he's been subjected to some very intense psychological torture reminiscent of that suffered by many of our POW's. I'm not trained to determine his level of fitness, and I'd like an opportunity to call in someone more fully qualified."

Jim ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I appreciate that, Doctor, but won't keeping him here against his will cause even more damage?"

"Yes, of course," she agreed. "And unless I see evidence that he's a danger to himself or others, I can't force him to stay. But I'm asking you to talk to him; he trusts you. Maybe you can convince."

Jim pondered the option for a moment, then nodded. "OK, I'll talk to him. If he says no, that's it." He glanced at his watch. "Give me ten minutes alone with him, then come in."

"Thank you."

Jim opened the door to Blair's room and went inside. It was a private room; Jim had insisted on it, and Simon had used his authority to back him up. The young anthropologist was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, an ignored hospital gown on the blanket beside him. He was still wearing his damp clothes, and clutched Jim's coat tightly around his shivering body as a shield against more than just the cold. Staring sullenly at the floor, he didn't look up as Jim came in.

"Hey, Chief," Jim said quietly, "you trying to zone out on me?"

Blair still didn't look at him. "Did you bring some dry clothes?"

"Simon's getting them."

"Simon?"

"Yeah, I needed to stay here and talk to you." He walked over and leaned against the edge of the bed, close enough to touch if needed, but not close enough to appear threatening. "You know the doctor wants to check you in for observation."

Blair shook his head. "Don't want to."

"I know."

Blair looked at him, accusation in his eyes. "You promised."

Jim nodded. "I'll keep my promise, but I'd like to know what it would take to make you change your mind."

"Nothing." Blair shook his head.

"What if I stayed with you the whole time?"

"It's not - " Blair searched for words. "It's not that I'm afraid to."

"I know," Jim said softly.

"I just want to be alone for awhile, take a hot shower, sleep in my own bed -- I just want to be left alone," he repeated numbly.

"All the hot water and scrubbing in the world won't take away the dirtiness you're feeling," Jim persisted quietly. "It's inside you, and being alone will only amplify the feelings. Trust me, I've been there."

Blair stood up and went to a chair by the window. He sat down and drew up his knees, wrapping the coat and his arms around them. There was silence between them for a long time, then Blair raised his gaze again. "I felt so - helpless," he murmured. "Have you ever felt helpless?"

"All day today," Jim replied, and received a startled look. "We were both manipulated by experts, Blair. This whole sick game was crafted carefully." He walked over and leaned against the wall near the window. Leaning against something or lying down - he figured he didn't have enough energy left to do much else. "It was ugly and perverted, and the memories won't fade for a long, long time. But we'll get through it the way we always get through it."

Blair frowned, even more mentally fuzzy than his partner. "One day at a time?" he asked.

Jim smiled. "Together. It's what we do best."

Blair nearly returned the smile, settled for a yawn instead. "One night," he relented. "You don't have to stay."

"I don't know," Jim returned. "That chair's starting to look mighty comfortable."

Blair got slowly to his feet. "It's not, trust me." He went to the bed, picked up the hospital gown, looked at it in distaste, and headed for the small bathroom. "Guess I should dress - or rather undress - for the occasion."

He shut the door, and Jim plopped into the chair. Frowning to himself, he knew Blair was putting on a brave front. His senses could detect the still too-rapid heartbeat, the fearful desperation beneath the words.

A few minutes later, the door opened and the doctor came in. Jim nodded toward the bathroom door. "He's changing."

"Good," the doctor said. "I'm a little worried about his temperature; the prolonged exposure to cold and the emotional stress could make him susceptible to illness."

Blair opened the bathroom door and stood there, looking extremely vulnerable in the absurd knee-length hospital gown. He grinned self-consciously. "Hi."

"Hi," the doctor replied. "Are there any ground rules I should know about?"

Blair looked confused. "Uh - " He looked at Jim for help.

"Yeah, there are. No one takes his temperature, or his blood pressure, or anything else without asking his permission first. If the answer is no, that's it, no questions asked." Jim spoke a little gruffly, too tired to brook an argument. "If he decides to leave, he leaves."

"OK, I can live with that," the doctor said. "Is that what you want, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Blair answered, feeling grateful that Jim had taken such firm control of the situation but wondering why he seemed so aggressive about it. Probably just being over-protective, he thought, and remembered a few hours ago he'd tried to push Jim away, not wanting his help; now he welcomed it.

"Would you like something to help you sleep?" the doctor continued.

"No, I'm so tired, I think I could sleep for a week."

"That's physical tiredness," she explained. "How about your mind?"

Blair thought about it. True, his thinking was muddled and fuzzy, but the same images kept replaying over and over, like a badly scratched LP stuck in a single groove. "OK, I'll take something."

"I'll have a nurse bring it," the doctor said. "Why don't you climb into bed and get comfortable. Will you be staying awhile, Mr. Ellison?"

"Until he checks out," Jim confirmed with a look that dared her to object.

She only smiled. "I'll send in some extra blankets and a cot."

After she'd left, and Blair had gathered the covers around him, Jim moved the chair closer to the bed. "Why do they keep hospitals so damned cold?" he objected, his own damp slacks doing little to keep him warm.

"To kill off the sick and infirm," Blair told him. "Your coat's on the hook behind the bathroom door."

"Thanks," Jim murmured. "Kill off the sick and infirm? Isn't this supposed to be a place to get well?" He figured he was long past the point of exhaustion - he was starting to let his thoughts dwell on irrelevancies.

"They do it to keep infection down, I think," Blair said. "Germs don't spread as fast in cold, dry air." He seemed to welcome the idle small talk, so Jim kept asking stupid questions until a nurse brought a sleeping pill and the promised blanket.

"You OK, Chief?" he asked after the nurse departed.

"Yeah, but I think the pill was overkill," Blair mumbled, snuggling down into his pillow.

There was a light tap at the door, and Simon stuck his head in. "The doctor told me he decided to spend the night."

Jim waved him inside. "Come in, Simon. He's still awake, I think."

"Hi, Simon," Blair greeted woozily.

"Hi, Sandburg." He had a paper shopping bag with him, which he placed on the floor at the foot of the bed. "Clean clothes for both of you," he explained. "Jim, maybe it would be better if we talked outside, let the kid get some rest."

I made a promise. "Tell you the truth, Simon, I'm too damned tired to get out of this chair. What's up?"

"We caught Doctor McMahon. She was in her office, attempting to destroy evidence connecting her to Hicks."

Jim nodded. "Good."

"Doctor who?" Blair murmured, starting to slip away.

"She's part of my side of this whole thing," Jim explained. "I'll tell you about her in the morning." He looked at Simon, who took the hint and waved a goodbye before tiptoeing from the room.

"Who's Hicks?" Blair persisted groggily.

"The guy who - " kidnapped you, tortured you? "The guy in the warehouse."

"Oh." Blair's voice was fading quickly. "Is he a dead guy?"

"He's a very dead guy," Jim agreed.

"That's OK then."

A moment passed, and Jim thought Blair finally had gone to sleep, but he heard a whisper struggle past the haze. "Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"I knew you'd find me." Blair began to snore softly.

"So did I," Jim murmured, trying to get comfortable in the chair and pulling the blanket around himself. I just didn't know if I'd find you in time.

And then he wept.

 

Part Ten

Jim knew something was wrong and struggled desperately back toward wakefulness. Blankets hindered his progress, and he thrust them aside as he tried to sit up. For a minute, he didn't know where he was. Then, like fragments from a dream, he vaguely recalled an orderly delivering a folding bed and some more blankets, remembered falling toward the pillow, and then nothing at all.

A hospital room. He was in a hospital room. Filtered dawn light through the window blinds cast faint horizontal shadows against the wall. He couldn't remember the room light being turned off. Still groggy, his eyes puffy from his earlier tears and an uneasy sleep, he tried to identify the source of his sudden panic, then picked up the rapid, shallow breathing and racing heart from the bed. Jumping up, he nearly lost his balance, but grabbed the side of the bed and reached for his friend.

"Blair?"

Sandburg was thrashing around, caught in the grip of a nightmare. He moaned from somewhere deep in a pit of despair.

"Come on, Chief, wake up," Jim said insistently, gripping his shoulder, giving him a little shake.

"Can't," came a tormented mumble. "Jim - help - "

"Come on!" Jim practically shouted, sitting him up and shaking him more firmly. "Wake up!"

Blair gasped and shot back to consciousness with a barely stifled cry. "God, what happened?"

"Take it easy, catch your breath," Jim said soothingly, holding onto Blair but keeping his hands still, much as he wanted to massage his friend's neck and shoulders. He knew the ministrations mimicked scenes on the videos and would be painful reminders. "You were having a nightmare."

"I couldn't wake up," Blair said fearfully. He peered dazedly around the room. "What time is it?"

"Around six a.m.," Jim answered.

"Why does everything hurt?" Blair's voice was soft, confused, but he seemed to know where he was and why.

"Too much tension, frazzled nerves, a major adrenaline overdose," Jim conjectured. "Bound to make you feel like you've just been sacked by the Seahawks' defensive line."

Blair got a good look at him for the first time. "God, Jim, you look awful."

"I'm never at my best early in the morning," Jim returned calmly. "I'm OK."

Blair accepted this doubtfully, but he didn't pursue it. "Any idea when I ate last?"

"Uh, night before last," Jim figured out after a moment. God, he was tired. "Let's see, twenty-four hours to eight p.m. last night, plus four more to midnight, plus - hell, I don't have enough fingers and toes to figure it out right now."

Blair actually managed a chuckle. "Not exactly a couple of mental giants right now, are we?"

"I don't even qualify as a mental midget at the moment," Jim admitted.

A nurse opened the door softly and peered in. "Everything all right?" she asked.

"We're fine, I think," Jim said.

"Mr. Sandburg, I can get you something to help you get back to sleep - "

Jim felt his partner stiffen beneath his hands. "That won't be necessary, thanks," he told her, nodding for her to leave.

Blair relaxed again. "Thanks, Jim," he whispered. "No more drugs. I have to be able to wake up when I - I just have to be able to wake up."

"I know," Jim agreed. "Besides, you'll be checking out in a couple of hours."

Blair nodded. "Good." He didn't seem inclined to lie back down. After a minute, he said, "I'm hungry, are you?"

Jim thought about all the coffee, the half-eaten donuts and pizza. No wonder he felt so weak. "Starving. Want me to see if the hospital cafeteria is open?"

"You mind?"

"No. Scrambled eggs OK? Even a hospital cook shouldn't be able to mangle those too badly."

"Sounds good," Blair admitted.

"You OK for awhile?"

Blair nodded uncertainly. "As long as I don't dream."

Jim stood up and fussed with Blair's pillow, getting him comfortable. "I'll be back in a minute," he promised. Blair was already dozing off again.

Jim started for the door, made a quick detour to the bathroom and grabbed his parka. Returning to the bedside, he draped it over the sleeping figure. Blair clutched it automatically and drew it up around his face without waking. Satisfied he'd left a sort of surrogate presence, Jim ventured into the hall, blinking hard against the harsh lighting, and went to find the cafeteria.

Even though he'd changed into the clean clothes Simon had brought, he knew he was a mess with his wrinkled shirttail trailing from his slacks, hair standing up all over, eyes bleary. Although his cuts had been cleaned and bandaged in the emergency room the night before, his tender bruises must have turned several lovely neon shades. He figured he looked a bit like that comedy star - who was it, Kramer? -- after a mugging. Ah, well, it didn't matter.

A half-hour later, he returned with four orders of bacon and scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice, and tea. Blair sat up at the aroma. "That actually smells good," he said, blinking away sleep as Jim pushed the bed tray into position and set down his offerings. "Are we really going to eat all that?"

"I'm going to try," Jim answered, combining the four plates into two and handing Blair a fork. "Dig in."

Blair took a tentative bite, found his stomach didn't rebel, and finally launched in with relish. Not for the first time, Jim wondered why someone as fascinated with ancient customs and rituals as Blair didn't follow the rituals of his own heritage. Still, he was grateful Blair wasn't a kosher Jew - life in the loft would be just too complicated. Within minutes, the plates were clean. Jim rolled the tray to one side and settled back in the chair. "Now, a hot shower and a month's sleep should just about do it," he observed, rolling his shoulders in an effort to work out the kinks.

The doctor came in and sniffed the air appreciatively. "Is that bacon and eggs I smell?"

"Yeah," Jim admitted, feeling absurdly guilty.

"I guess you couldn't wait for the breakfast cart," she said dryly.

"Can I go home now?" Blair asked.

"Of course. I'll sign the release order. How are you feeling - any fever?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm fine."

"Sleep OK?"

Again, Blair nodded, but his gaze faltered. "Yeah, I slept fine," he said, looking at Jim to see if he would contradict.

But Jim was reaching for the paper sack of clothing at the foot of the bed. He tossed it to his partner. "Get dressed. I'm going to talk to the doctor for a minute, OK?"

Blair climbed out of bed, trailing Jim's jacket behind him like a security blanket as he headed for the bathroom. "Sure."

When the door had closed and Jim heard the sound of water running in the sink, he looked at the Doctor. "Why did you insist he stay here overnight? You didn't do anything."

She smiled. "He slept, he ate, he spoke," she explained, "three things he refused to do last night. If he'd been as out of it this morning, I would have insisted he stay longer, but it appears he's connected with the world again."

"Then you think he'll be OK?"

"I think there will be a long recovery period for both of you. There will be good days and bad ones, days when he'll hate you or you'll hate him, or you'll just hate the world in general. Time really is the best healer, Mr. Ellison, if you have the patience to let it work." She touched his arm in an unexpected display of compassion. "You both might seek professional help as well, although I can certainly understand any reluctance you may feel to do so. And, please, if you think Mr. Sandburg has become a danger to himself, or if you just have any questions concerning changes in behavior or temperament, call me."

"Thanks, I'll do that."

"Are you sure you're up to taking care of him? You're looking a little ragged yourself."

Jim nodded. "We went through this thing together. We'll get over it the same way."

Blair came out of the bathroom in the clean clothes Simon had delivered, and also wearing Jim's heavy down jacket. He looked small in the large, thick coat, but showed no inclination to give it up or even awareness that he had it on. "I'm ready."

"Then we're out of here," Jim said. "Thanks again, Doctor. Just point us toward the paperwork gauntlet."

She laughed. "I'll have to sign his chart and send for a wheelchair before he can leave the room. It's procedure, I'm afraid. Goodbye, Mr. Sandburg, Mr. Ellison. Please don't hesitate to call if you have any questions or concerns."

"Thanks," Blair said quietly as she left. He stared around the room for a minute, then paced it slowly. He looked at the cot and the rumple of blankets. "Did you get any sleep?"

"I must have, because I can't remember," Jim said.

Blair nodded as if this made perfect sense. "You heard what was on the last video, didn't you?" he asked, not turning around.

Jim debated on how much of the truth to tell, finally decided on all of it. "Yeah, I followed the sounds to where Hicks was holding you."

"I really - ," Blair's voice tightened. "I really fell apart, didn't I?"

"I don't think so," Jim countered softly. "Under the circumstances, I'd say you did all right." He rubbed his sleep-robbed eyes. "We're both whacked out right now," he said, "but if you want to talk about it now, we will."

Blair shook his head. "Later's fine." He turned around and looked at Jim. "Am I going to be OK?"

"Yeah, you're going to be OK," Jim said. "Like I said before, we'll get through it together. It'll just take some time."

"OK," Blair agreed, accepting Jim's assurances even though he felt he'd never be quite the same again. But maybe that was all right, too. "Can we get out of here now?"

"Damn the wheelchair, feet don't fail us now," Jim replied agreeably, flinging open the door.

Freedom.

THE END

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