Warning: Not worried over with my usual compulsion. It's a minor bit of back-and-forth fluff that mutated into a pointless, plotless h/c extravaganza. If you're looking for depth and inspiration, this is not the place to be. But if you want action, pain, angst, a little humor and a touch of smarm, please read on....

Some Days Are Better Than Others
-- by Shellie and -- by Mackie/

Blair Sandburg stuffed his hands deeper into the pockets of his parka and peered out of the truck's window at the huge warehouse in the near distance. Although the weather was far from the promised arctic-like temperatures forecast for later in the week, it was still cold by his standards, and he didn't relish a long stakeout in Jim's old Ford.

At least he was safely out of the wind. A heavy, on-shore breeze was blowing sand and trash across the asphalt parking lot; the grains rattled against the sides of the old truck, while the wind rocked it so much, it was difficult to believe they were actually parked.

He turned to his silent partner "I don't get it, Jim, why are we here? I mean, Clawson's supposed to be a powerful man, and this dumpy warehouse -- " He waved one hand toward the view through the window. "It hardly fits into the image of a wealthy businessman."

Jim Ellison glanced over at his partner, then shifted his gaze back to the subject of denigration. "Don't forget the 'wealthy businessman' image is all a façade. Clawson's money comes from his illegal operations, and this place is perfect for a sleaze bag like him."

"I guess," Blair admitted. "You sounded doubtful about your informant, though."

Jim sighed and leaned back in his seat. "Yeah. Tommy. He usually calls me at the precinct. This time, he sent an e-mail."

"But he used his code name, right?" Blair persisted, starting to feel a little anxious. If Jim was worried....

"Yeah, no problem there."

Blair settled down again. "Good. OK, so tell me why we're suddenly focusing all of our energies on Eddie Clawson instead of one of the thousands of other crooks begging for a bit of your time?"

Jim grimaced with distaste. "He's developed a cheap, new source for high-powered weapons and military surplus ordnance. He's selling it to anyone with a couple of bucks and a yen for violence. Like street gangs."

"Oh, man, like those guys need any help killing one another," Blair muttered.

"Just last night, a couple of kids decided to use a grenade to blow open a safe in a convenience store." Although Blair had been at the university until late, Jim had seen the carnage caused by the explosion, and he winced at the memory.

"Did it work?"

"Both kids were blinded by shrapnel, and the store owner was killed."

Blair made a soft sound, but kept his comments to himself. While he knew the robbers had been in the wrong and that their recklessness had cost a man his life, he still felt frustrated that such violence seemed to be unconquerable. Softly, he asked, "And you think Tommy's your key to nailing this guy?"

"He's just a kid," Jim admitted, "and his journey down the straight and narrow has involved some pretty heavy detours, but he's seen what these weapons are doing on the street. I think this time, he's ready to do the right thing."

"Except you're not certain he sent you the message," Blair finished.

Jim looked at his partner, then opened the door of the truck and climbed out. "Yeah, except for that," he said grimly. "Let's check it out."

They crossed the wide expanse of fractured asphalt quickly, then halted at a small metal door set in the wall of the old, wooden structure. Cautiously, Jim tested the door. As he'd expected, it was locked, but the deft application of a lock pick made short work of opening it. He turned the doorknob slowly with his left hand and pulled his pistol from its holster with his right.

Motioning Blair to keep to one side, he opened the door and lunged into the dimness beyond. It was deserted. The door opened directly into a narrow hallway that ran about six feet and ended at another doorway. There were no side passages and no other doors, which niggled briefly at Jim's mind before he dismissed it to concentrate on the task at hand.

With Blair close behind him, he moved to the inner door and cracked it open. The warehouse beyond looked dark and deserted. Drafts of air rattled the metal roof. Chains dangling from overhead hoists clanked and creaked rhythmically as the huge building swayed in the wind.

As they moved into the cavernous space, Blair could make out great pyramids of containers rising toward the ceiling. Most of the warehouse, however, appeared to be empty, and the sound of their footsteps echoed eerily, like alien heartbeats, as they crossed the concrete floor.

"Are these weapons?" Blair whispered, indicating the stacks of crates.

Jim shook his head. "No. They're covered with dust and cobwebs. They've been here too long to be part of Clawson's arsenal. Let's keep looking."

"What--" Blair's next question was cut off by a loud click, and lights pulsed on throughout the building with the connection of the circuit.

Jim gasped in surprise, hands moving to cover his eyes.

Blair immediately stepped to his side. "Are you all right?" He paused as the tension left Ellison's face, and his hands eventually fell back to his sides.

"Yeah, just caught me off guard." Jim opened his eyes, squinting at first, then he blinked a few times. "Uh-oh," he murmured, his gun hand snapping up.

Blair's head whipped around to see what had caught his partner's attention. Five very large men stepped into the open. They looked like walking advertisements for steroids, with muscles bulging from their arms, legs, and chests. Tank tops stretched across their chests, material straining at the seams. They carried weapons, but it wasn't until they'd moved closer that Blair could tell what they were: Chains, steel pipes, a couple of knives, and a wide leather belt that looked like a razor strop. All five had brass knuckles on at least one hand.

"Oh, man. What are we gonna do?" Blair whispered.

"Stick close, partner." Jim pointed his weapon unerringly at the man in the center of the group walking towards them. "Stop right there!"

They stopped less than fifteen feet away, their expressions unconcerned, their eyes unnaturally bright.

Jim's breathing rate increased with tension, and Blair quickly understood why. Clearly, their adversaries were on drugs that rendered them immune to reason or threats. Jim's gun might as well have been a water pistol for all the menace it telegraphed to the thugs' addled minds.

"What are you gonna do, cop, shoot all of us?" One of the men sneered, and Jim adjusted his aim toward the speaker. "I don't think so. We'll get to you and your skinny friend long before you can kill all of us."

"Which one of you is willing to die so the others can get to us?" Jim asked, subtly moving his gun to aim at each man. None of them flinched; this was definitely a bad sign.

The one who spoke first looked around, eyeing his companions. "It doesn't matter to us. We've been paid to do a job, and we're gonna do it. Dying is just one more risk."

Behind Jim, Blair shivered. He could think of few things he'd be willing to die for. One of them was standing right in front of him. He reached out to lightly touch his friend's shoulder. Calmly, Jim inched back toward him; he seemed to have decided retreat was the wisest course of action, and Blair agreed with him wholeheartedly.

Abruptly, the five men rushed them. Ellison's gun barked through the empty warehouse twice before a chain whipped around to ensnare his gun hand and jerk the gun away. Still, the bullets had lessened the odds: two of the hired muscle lay sprawled on the cold floor, blood pooling beneath their still bodies.

Two down, three to go.

"Stay behind me, Sandburg!" Jim shouted desperately, then boldly tackled two men who were rushing at him shoulder to shoulder. All three went down in a tangled heap, arms and legs getting in the way of coordinated movements.

The third man managed to sidestep the melee, and he started toward Blair with a single-minded intensity that was almost unnerving.

Sandburg stood frozen for a bare second, then tore his eyes away from the lumbering menace bearing down on him and tried to make sense of the tangle of bodies before him. He couldn't tell if Jim was giving more than he was receiving. Frantically searching the floor for Jim's gun, he looked up just as the third man reached for him.

Ducking under the arm that stretched out for his neck, he shifted around the man and spotted Jim's fallen weapon. Desperately, he lunged for it and swung around, trying not to question his own judgement. He'd never taken another life, and he certainly didn't want to start now, but he knew he'd do anything to save Jim.

The possibility never presented itself. Just as he swung around with the gun, a chain wrapped itself around his ribs, banging violently against the fragile bones. Air left him in a whoosh. His arms flung out against the pain and the gun flew from his grasp. The big man behind him pulled the chain tight, clenching it around Blair's ribs harder. His constricted lungs ceased working, and he struggled to draw air into his body. Sandburg fell to his knees, hands clawing uselessly at the metal links around his chest.

Suddenly, the pressure was released, and he collapsed forward onto his hands. Arms shaky with weakness, Blair supported himself carefully, finally tilting his head up to look at his attacker.

"Come on, kid. I'm gonna give you a chance. It'd be too easy just to kill you and let the fun be over with to soon. Get up." The evil gleam in the man's eyes looked feral. He stood with confidence, feet apart, knees slightly bent, body turned toward Blair at an angle. He gestured with one hand for Sandburg to get off the floor, holding the chain with the other hand, letting it dangle through his fingers.

With a groan, Blair stood up. One hand rubbed at his side, where it felt like he'd been whipped. It was sore and tender, but there didn't seem to be any broken ribs, thankfully.

He stayed hunched over, protecting his left side, and peered up sideways at his adversary.

"Ah, this is too easy," the man said with a confident sneer. Almost in slow motion, his arm drew back to swing the chain again.

Blair tucked his shoulder and charged, putting maximum effort in getting traction with the soles of his athletic shoes on the rough concrete floor. With the image of Mean Joe Green locked firmly in his brain, he slammed into his adversary with every ounce of force he could muster.

It felt as if he'd collided with a brick wall, but he hit his target perfectly just below the breastbone and was rewarded with a mighty whoosh of pain from his opponent as they both toppled to the floor. Blair tried to scramble free, but the force of his assault knocked him momentarily senseless. With a roar of rage, his assailant thrust him off as a rhino would dislodge a fly, and Blair once again found himself airborne.

He landed with a mighty thud, and this time, he felt something give in his left elbow, which took most of the force. A sharp pain rocketed out from his left hip as he struck the concrete floor, and the agony almost spiraled him down into unconsciousness. Stunned, he felt his fingers close around a length of discarded 2x4 and swung it convulsively at the hulking figure grasping for him. The board connected solidly, and the man went down for the count.

Although only seconds had passed since Blair had battled against his personal Goliath, it seemed like much longer. Desperately trying to draw air into apparently unresponsive lungs, he looked around for his partner.

The skill and surprise of his unexpected offensive against two of the attackers had momentarily given Jim the upper hand, but his opponents were armed with brutal weapons designed to maim and disable. After the initial advantage that dropped all three to the cement, a vicious blow across his back from a length of steel pipe sent him sprawling. Stunned and helpless, he was no match for the rough hands that hauled him upright and held him tightly from behind.

The second foe drove his fist hard into Jim's unprotected gut, his arm thrusting with the force of a pile driver, the brass knuckles gleaming from his fingers assuring maximum damage. Although Jim tried to twist away from the blow, he didn't entirely succeed, and he went down again, hard.

The arms holding him captive released him with disdain. They could finish him off at their leisure.

Blair pounced on Jim's fallen weapon and pulled the trigger without even lifting it from the floor. The shot roared loudly in the vast, empty spaces of the warehouse, and everyone automatically ducked.

Then Blair had the pistol in his hands. He rolled into a sitting position and started firing, deliberately aiming high since he figured he had just as good a chance of hitting his partner as anyone else. But the two men threatening Jim didn't know this, so they scrambled away toward cover, belatedly grabbing up their unconscious compatriot during their retreat.

Of the two men Jim had shot earlier, one lay unmoving, while the second moaned and rocked softly, clutching a shattered shoulder.

Blair ignored the dead or wounded and tried to get up. Deciding it was not a good idea at the moment, he settled for scrambling across the cold concrete to reach his partner's side. "Jim!" he shouted urgently. "Jim -- are you all right?"

Jim had his legs drawn up and his arms crossed protectively over his abdomen. His face was alabaster white in the bright lights of the warehouse, and a thin sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead. "We're too out in the open," he muttered through clenched teeth without answering Blair's query. "We gotta move."

With a grunt of effort, he managed to roll into a sitting position. Blair used his good arm to help his partner gain his feet, and the two men managed an unsteady stagger to the meager cover of a stack of crates. Bullets slammed noisily into the wood just moments after they'd gained shelter.

Jim slumped immediately with a groan, once again grasping his stomach as a wave of pain washed over him. His own aches and pains momentarily forgotten, Blair felt absolutely helpless; he'd seen the blow that had taken Jim down, and he was certain it had caused some real damage.

"Man, we've go to get out of here," he said, desperation making his voice hoarse.

Jim shook his head slightly. "I caught a glimpse of the door where we came in," he answered, each word forced out with difficulty. "They've padlocked it. They'll be waiting for us there."

Blair gave a muttered curse. "Then we find another way out." He leaned back against a crate and fought to catch his breath. The adrenaline that had kept him moving was starting to wear off, leaving only an enervating fear behind. "Do you think Tommy betrayed you?"

Jim shook his head slightly. "No. I'm guessing Clawson figured out he had a snitch in his organization. Maybe he ran across the code word by accident." He took a tentative, deep breath, and let it out slowly. "I figure he set us up so he can find out who it is."

"Oh, man, this is not good," Blair observed unnecessarily, his thoughts too frantic to be useful.

"You didn't happen to leave me any bullets, did you?" Jim asked, gently removing the forgotten weapon from his partner's grip.

Blair grimaced. "Sorry."

Jim actually managed a smile. "It's OK. You did good."

The praise brought a warm smile to Blair's lips, but it fled quickly in the midst of his worry. "Don't you have extra clips?" Even in the middle of this mess, Jim started to correct him, but Blair caught himself and automatically amended wryly, "Magazines. I meant magazines. Heaven forbid I get killed with a mistake like that weighing on my conscience."

Jim tried to chuckle, but failed miserably as more pain stabbed at his belly. When it had passed, he said, "I only had two spares, and they fell out of my pocket sometime during the fight. I lost my cell phone, too."

Blair cursed himself for a fool. "Cell phone," he repeated dumbly, reaching into his jacket pocket. Left hip. Ah-ha...that's why it had hurt when he'd hit the concrete. He pulled out his phone. It was badly dented and a bit twisted, but still in one piece.

Speed dialing 9-1-1, he groaned when he didn't hear the comforting audio beeps of the call going through. On the brink of tossing the phone to the ground, he suddenly heard a tinny voice issue from the receiver:

"Nine-one-one operator, what is your emergency?" It sounded as if it came from the bottom of galvanized bucket filled with water, but Blair nearly whooped with joy. "I have a police emergency -- " he started to say quietly into the phone.

"Nine-one-one operator," the voice repeated annoyingly, "what is your emergency?"

Blair stared at the phone in horror. She couldn't hear his voice! He looked despairingly at his partner. "Jim-- "

Jim closed his eyes tightly, in pain or concentration, Blair didn't know. "The call worked," he mumbled. "It got through." Abruptly, he opened his eyes. "Do you know the Morse code for SOS?"

"Three shorts, three longs, three shorts," Blair answered promptly.

Jim nodded. "Use the star key."

Blair did, and he heard the pulses break up the sound of the operator's voice. Surely, if she had any wits about her, she'd recognize the pattern! Somehow, they could trace the phone and send help. It was just a matter of time....

"We have to keep moving," Jim said, struggling to rise. "They'll come looking for us when we don't try for the door."

Since his left arm was essentially useless, Blair stuck that hand in his jacket pocket with the cell phone and concentrated on continuing the SOS transmissions. With his right arm, he tried to help his partner. "Stay low," he whispered softly, and Jim winced with the effort to stay hunched below the rim of the crates.

As they moved deeper into the sheltering maze of crates, Blair tried to work out a plan. Estimating their numerous injuries, he figured they could assemble one functional person between them, not a very reassuring prospect. Getting out of this warehouse was not going to be an easy chore, not with three hulking brutes stalking them with single-minded purpose.

They hadn't traveled far when Jim folded without a sound, his body slumping to the concrete. Crouching beside him, Blair sought a pulse. It was fast and thready, sure signs of shock. With gentle fingers, he probed his partner's abdomen and thought it felt unnaturally rigid beneath his touch.

Was Jim was bleeding internally? The possibility created a whole new set of problems, all of them urgent.

The SOS transmission forgotten, Blair sat down abruptly on the icy concrete and struggled to focus his thoughts. He could hide Jim and try to get out of the warehouse by himself to find help, but it went against his nature to abandon his partner. He could try to hide them both, and hope help arrived in time in response to the cell phone trace, an "iffy" proposition at best. Or he could hide Jim and go on the offensive against three heavily armed giants.

None of the options met with his approval, but he also knew he couldn't just sit by and do nothing. There wasn't much time.

As he struggled with his thoughts, he heard stealthy footsteps approaching. Suddenly panicky with indecision, Blair grabbed Jim's arms and dragged him across the floor, maneuvering him behind a debris pile in a corner formed by a stack of crates and the warehouse wall. Shrugging out of his jacket, he draped it over the recumbent figure, then glanced around for anything he could use as a weapon.

He spotted a small door in the side wall. Hope seared through him for the first time since they'd stepped into the warehouse. He made sure Jim was hidden from view, then went to the door. Not caring how much noise he made, since it would only aid his plan, he shoved his shoulder hard against it. The harsh squeal of metal shrieked through the building. He pushed again, ignoring the pounding of approaching footsteps, until the opening was wide enough for him to squeeze through. Then he turned back into the warehouse and dove for cover, purposely picking a hiding place as far from Jim as he could get and still remain in the same trash filled corner.

"All right, Mr. Sandburg, I know you're back there. Don't make me come after you."

Heaving a loud sigh, Blair stood up and stepped from his hiding place, holding his right hand up in a gesture of surrender. His eyes fell on the three men who'd attacked them earlier, and Eddie Clawson, the reason for this whole mess. Clawson held a gun, which he pointed at the young anthropologist.

"Oh, hey, no need for guns, Mr. Clawson. I'm unarmed. Really, I'm one armed, since the other arm seems to be broken."

"Where's your partner?" Undaunted by Blair's casual air, Clawson's eyes shifted to scan the area, though he made no move to perform a more thorough search himself. He'd encountered Ellison before, and he had no desire to do so again.

"He went for help. Made it out the door just as you walked up. I'd get out of here, if I were you. I'm sure back-up will be here any minute." Blair shut his mouth quickly, afraid his babbling would give his plan away.

"Is that so? Baker, Kendall, search that corner." Clawson's eyes never left Blair as he issued his order. Two of the men behind him moved forward, heading toward Jim's hiding place.

Desperately, Blair darted to one side and made a mad dash across the open warehouse floor. Trying to ignore the pain in his hip, he hadn't gotten far when he was hit from behind. Unable to stop his momentum, he tumbled forward and rolled across the floor. Stunned, he felt hands roughly grab his shirt and jerk him up, then he was dragged to the middle of the warehouse, where he was dumped unceremoniously to the floor. He lay unmoving for a few moments, trying to gather his wits.

"How did you and your partner know where to find me, Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair craned his neck to look up at Clawson. "The yellow pages. We looked under 'Scumbags and Sleazeballs' and found your name listed at the top of every page."

His sarcasm was cut off by a foot to the gut. He curled around the pain, holding his stomach with his good arm.

"I know you have an informant who must be very close to my operation," Clawson said with feigned mildness. "I suppose you want to do this the hard way. I'm sure we can oblige."

Looking up, Blair saw Clawson nod to his hired muscle. Then he was grabbed and hauled forcibly over to a thick metal pole, one of many supports throughout the building. They pushed him face first against the pole, bringing his arms around it to capture his wrists in restraints. He cried out with the pain of moving his injured elbow. Hands grasped the back of his collar, and he grunted as his shirt was ripped down the back. The material was left to hang in tatters around his waist. Cold air wafted across his skin and he shivered.

"Once again, Mr. Sandburg. Tell me the name of the informant."

Blair pressed his cheek against the cool metal, breathing deeply to strengthen his resolve, determined to buy time until help could arrive. "I told you, Clawson, we looked in the yel--"

The first blow from the razor strop ripped across his back, surprising a yelp of pain from him. Anger burned hotter than the heat of the lash, and he twisted his head to look behind him.

"Who the hell do you think you are? This is the real world, man, you can't do stuff like this and get away with it!"

"Oh, I fully intend to get away with it, Mr. Sandburg." Clawson nodded, and his bidding was done once again.

The strop was pulled back, and Blair ducked his head in an effort to protect his face. The thick leather slashed across his back again, but this time, he didn't cry out. Anger numbed him to the pain at first, and he clung to it desperately, shouting invectives at Clawson. He was struck again, over and over, till his back and shoulders burned raw, and he imagined his skin hung in strips from his bones. When there was a pause in the whipping, Blair felt as if he'd received a stay of execution. His back tingled with white-hot agony. With a hoarse groan, he sank to his knees, pressing his body against the pole to stay upright. His sides heaved with the effort to breathe; he'd held his breath to keep from screaming during his ordeal.

"Are you more willing to talk now, Mr. Sandburg?" Clawson stepped up beside him, as casually as if they were meeting on a street corner. "I want to know from whom you and your partner get your information."

Shivering with the cold and the tickling feel of sweat -- or perhaps something worse -- running down his sides, Blair wrapped his arms around the pole and pulled himself to his feet. How long's it take to trace a call, anyway? The thought sprang to mind, but he pushed the hope of rescue aside, concentrating his resolve on staying alive.

He wondered how Jim was doing, and if he'd regained consciousness yet. He was worried about his friend, but there was nothing he could about it for the moment.

"What good would it do, Clawson?" he gasped. "Would you let me go if I told you what you want to know?"

The man stared at him, then blinked once. "Leave him for awhile," he said, although he continued to gaze at Blair with predatory anticipation. "Let the pain talk to him, convince him to give me what I want. We'll let him sit in the dark for an hour or so, then come back and see what he has to say."

As their footsteps retreated, Blair figured he was alone. He slumped back to the floor and leaned heavily against the pole. A minute later, he jumped violently and hissed with pain when a hand came down softly on his shoulder.

The sudden movement caused a hundred fiery streaks of pain to sear across his lacerated back. Gritting his teeth against the agony, he twisted to see who was there, his hopes lifting for one brief moment that perhaps Jim had regained consciousness and come to his rescue.

Only it wasn't Jim. It took him a few seconds to equate the pasty-white, sweat-bathed face that met his gaze with one of the men who'd originally attacked them. He didn't know the man's name, but judging from his blood-soaked sleeve and shirtfront, and the uselessly dangling right arm, this was the man Jim had shot in the shoulder.

"Hi, there," the man murmured from inches away, his breath foul in Blair's nostrils. His eyes were glazed with shock or fever, but they were also filled with hate.

Blair didn't say anything. He just waited in morbid anticipation for what would happen next.

"Just hanging around I see," the man continued, his voice weak but still coherent. "You're Ellison's bud, right?"

Just call me Rose, Blair thought wildly, but still he didn't answer.

The man studied the ravaged flesh across the captive's back, then traced one of the welts with a dirty, sweaty fingertip. The salt from the sweat awoke new burning, and Blair couldn't help but flinch away from the agonizing touch.

"The other guy -- the one Ellison killed -- do you know who he was?"

Numbly, Blair shook his head, but he suspected he wasn't going to like the answer.

"My brother." The man's voice rose in a snarl. "Ellison killed my brother." He looked down at all the blood on his shirtfront. "Hell, he probably killed me, too, I just ain't figured out I'm dead yet."

Blair found his voice, and was surprised to hear it sounded reasonable and calm. "There's still time to get you to a hospital. You could -- " His words died as the man took a knife out of his pocket and flicked open the blade.

"I figured I'd get a little Bible justice first, y'know? An eye for an eye -- ain't that how it goes?"

"I think Clawson wants me alive for now," Blair protested feebly.

The man snorted. "Clawson. The bastard left me on the floor to die. Now him and his buds are out in the car enjoying a smoke. I reckon that gives us a few minutes alone, huh?"

Blair's only response was to grab the pole his hands were tethered to and thrust out with both feet. It was hard getting any leverage from his position on the ground, but his kick sent his adversary sprawling backward to land hard on the concrete. The knife went flying.

Desperately, Blair scrambled to his feet and yanked futilely at the restraints. The leather buckles held firm, and all he accomplished was to renew the throbbing ache in his elbow. Cursing in frustration, he abandoned his efforts and tried to reach the knife, which lay tantalizingly just out of reach of his right foot.

The man staggered to his feet and swayed alarmingly, on the brink of collapse. Fresh blood flowed down his shirtfront, attesting that he couldn't last much longer. But the pistol in his left hand was proof he didn't need much time to complete his final task.

Oh good, Blair thought stupidly, we need bullets. Directly atop this observation came a saner realization: the man was going to kill him.

"I got no objection if you'd rather take a bullet," the man said, his words slurring as his life poured from his wound.

"Actually, can we rethink the whole knife option?" Blair pleaded frantically, his eyes focused on the gun barrel, his panicked thoughts wondering if he'd see the muzzle flash before the bullet struck him.

The gun wavered as the man lifted it to aim, and he felt a surge of hope that his opponent would be unable to hold it steady enough to fire a fatal shot. But after a moment, the barrel stilled and pointed unerringly toward the center of Blair's chest.

He closed his eyes.

The expected bullet never came. A loud *crack* of sound was followed by a dull thud, and Blair opened his eyes.

Instead of the gunman swaying before him, he saw the miraculous sight of Jim swaying before him. The shooter was sprawled at Jim's feet, dead or close to it; a scrap of 2x4 lying across his back was evidence of the object used to fell him.

"Jim!" Blair exclaimed, almost giddy with relief.

Jim staggered to him and almost fell, his hands automatically clutching his Guide for support, his weight dragging down on Blair's injured arm.

Crying out in pain, Blair buried his face in Jim's shirt, and the two men huddled together for a long minute as they tried to come to grips with the numerous agonies assailing their bodies.

"Sorry," Jim murmured at last, finally gathering the strength to stand on his own. His hand brushed the raw wounds crisscrossing Blair's back, but this time the young man was able to restrain a cry. Jim stared at the angry, suppurating welts, and his jaw tightened. "The bastards whipped you?" he said hoarsely.

"Is it bad?" Blair asked anxiously. "My back feels like a bloody pulp."

"No, there's hardly any blood," Jim assured him. "You lost some skin, though, so it probably burns like hell."

"Like a thousand bee stings," Blair agreed. "Can you get these damned straps off my wrists?"

Jim fumbled with the buckles, his movements awkward and slow. Finally, after what felt like hours, the leather restraints fell away.

Blair flexed his shoulders gratefully and winced at the sharp pain across his back. "Come on, Clawson will be back any minute."

"Clawson?" Jim echoed, sounding tired and confused.

Blair put a palm against his partner's forehead. "You're starting a fever," he observed anxiously. "We've got to get you to a hospital."

Jim was feeling amiable. "OK." The little matter of first escaping from the warehouse apparently hadn't occurred to him.

Blair went to the dead man and steeled himself for the repugnant task he needed to perform. Taking the weapon from the man's grip was easy, but searching through his jacket pockets for spare bullets was repulsive. He stuck what ammo he could find in the pockets of his jeans, then thrust the handgun into his waistband. As an afterthought, he retrieved the knife as well. Blair Rambo he thought idly, feeling ridiculous.

Abruptly, he realized he was shivering in the damp cold of the warehouse and remembered his jacket. The cell phone was in the pocket. Although the battery was probably either low or dead, he didn't want to leave it.

Taking his partner's arm, he said, "Come on, Jim, I need to go get my jacket."

Still feeling a bit disconnected, Jim went obediently. "You stuck me in the trash," he complained unexpectedly.

Blair almost laughed. "No, I concealed you under the available cover," he corrected patiently.

"Oh. Good thinking."

"I thought so."

They reached the corner of the warehouse where Blair had originally hidden his injured friend. Picking up his jacket, he was surprised when he couldn't find the cell phone in the pocket where he'd left it. Shrugging into the warmth of the coat, he barely flinched when the fabric touched the raw flesh on his back; he hated the cold more than the pain.

Casting around through the pile of junk, he finally found his phone. The low battery light was flickering, but it hadn't gone out altogether yet.

Jim smiled. "Simon gave me a wake-up call."

For a moment, Blair thought his partner was delirious. Then he realized what must have happened. "Jim, Simon talked to you on the cell phone?"

"Yeah. We had a nice conversation."

"Except he couldn't hear you," Blair pointed out, wondering if the conversation had really taken place or if Jim had simply imagined it in a fit of feverish delusion.

"Doesn't matter," Jim insisted. "He knows we're in trouble. He's trying to find us."

Reassured, Blair thought about their next course of action. The small metal door he'd opened in an effort to distract their stalkers still stood partway open. It obviously didn't lead outside, because he could see only blackness beyond it. "Jim, I want to go back and get your cell phone, the one you lost during the fight," he said, thinking out loud. "Even if it's broken, we'll need the battery."

Jim's attention shifted outward. "Too late," he answered. "They're back."

Once again, Blair looked toward the metal door and the Stygian depths on the other side. Making up his mind, he steering his partner toward the opening. "You're gonna have to be my eyes, Jim," he said quietly, amazed at his calmness. "We're gonna find out what's behind door number two."

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

They slipped quietly through the opening. A couple of steps forward, the relative brightness of the warehouse was left behind, and they were immediately enveloped in darkness. Blair blinked hard a few times, absurdly hoping he'd suddenly be able to see. Sound shrunk with the space around them. Stretching out to the sides with both arms, Blair banged his wrists against metal. They were in a corridor of some kind.

Jim stumbled. Unable to stop in time, Blair bumped into him and he felt Ellison flinch.

"Jim? What is it?"

He felt movement as Jim reached around and rubbed a hand across his back.

"Sore. Got hit with a pipe, remember?"

"Oh yeah. Sorry." With a sympathetic grimace Jim couldn't see to appreciate, Blair backed up a little, maintaining contact with only a light touch of his fingertips on Ellison's arm.

They shuffled forward for what felt like hours when Jim hissed, "Corner," and Blair sensed the change in direction.

"Have they figured out where we are yet?" he whispered.

Ellison paused and Blair pictured the familiar head tilt as the Sentinel focused his hearing. "No. They're arguing over what to do."

Anxious to get as much distance as possible between themselves and the enemy, they started forward again. The darkness was nearly complete. No matter how wide he opened his eyes, Blair couldn't make out a thing beyond vague shifts in the shades of black. He resisted the urge to reach up and rub at his eyes in an effort to clear them of the oppressive blindness.

Finally, the space opened up around them. Blair thought he could see diffused light along the ceiling's edge, but it wasn't nearly bright enough to see by.

They'd moved a short distance from the corridor before Blair spoke. "Can you see anything Jim?"

"I -- " Ellison moaned and toppled forward. Sandburg caught him by the arm and supported his friend to the floor. He knelt beside him.

"Jim?" Groping blindly, he found Ellison's throat and pressed his fingers against the artery. He judged the pulse to be weaker. Panic tried to set in, but he stubbornly pushed it away. Now was not the time to give in to weakness, not when his friend needed him so badly.

Blair knelt silently by Ellison's side for a long moment, one hand resting protectively on Jim's shoulder. He needed to explore their surroundings and look for a way out, but the thought of venturing into the dark space alone made his scalp prickle with fear.

Cell phone.

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the nearly useless device. "Never leave home without it," he mumbled, elated to see lights still blinking on the open panel. He placed it on the floor, propping it on its side so he'd have a clear view of the winking lights. Then he stood up and moved a few feet away, keeping his eyes on the tiny lights, which flickered like fireflies in the darkness.

"That'll work," he said confidently to himself, continuing to walk slowly backwards, his arms reaching out behind him.

The lights shrank to alarmingly miniscule proportions before he finally touched a wall. Twisting around, he placed both palms on the flat surface and followed it, walking sideways so he could keep the phone in view. The wall seemed endless, unbroken by either windows or doors. Muttering to himself In disgust, he turned once to glare at the wall, then turned back toward his beacon.

He froze. The room was completely dark.

"Jim?" he whispered, then cleared his throat and tried again a little louder. "Jim!"

There was no answering groan to lead him back. Nothing but inky, inescapable darkness surrounded him.

"Okay, don't panic. You can do this." Even though Blair knew there was nothing in front of him, he reached out with his arms, spreading his fingers wide and ignoring the pain in his elbow. He took one step away from the wall and stopped, thinking he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Adrenaline spiked, and his heartbeat thudded in his ears.

"Don't do this, man." Blair shut his eyes and breathed deeply, repeating a calming mantra to himself. When his heart rate slowed, he took another step forward.

He pictured Jim in his mind, lying in the middle of the floor. Walking carefully toward his vision, he tried to keep his steps straight. When he judged he should be standing in front of his friend, he slowed his steps, dragging his feet carefully across the floor. Just as he was beginning to believe he'd overshot his goal, the side of his foot brushed against something.

Blair knelt down and felt along the floor. His fingers touched something hard, and after a moment he recognized the shape of Jim's shoe. His world tilted alarmingly for a second as he readjusted his inner vision of the room. He'd been expecting to reach Jim's head first.

Ellison moaned.

"Oh man, Jim, I'm sorry. Pretty silly for a man my age to be afraid of the dark, huh?" Blair whispered, reluctant to disturb the opaque quiet around them. He shifted forward, lifting Jim's head gently to scoot under him, offering his thigh for a pillow.

"Fumbling anthropologist strikes again," he muttered.

"Do you mind? I'm trying to sleep here," Jim's voice was weak and tremulous, but Blair chuckled anyway.

"Welcome back. Trying to lighten the mood?"

Jim stiffened under his hands as a rasping squeal sounded from somewhere far behind them. The noise was familiar. It was the sound of a door opening; the door that would lead their pursuers straight to their hiding place.

"They're coming." Jim's announcement was unnecessary. Blair was already well on his way to panic.

He started to scramble to his feet, but stilled when Jim's hand touched his arm.

"Wait a sec."

The younger man froze obediently, the thud of his own heartbeat in his ears as loud as a timpani as his ears tried to accomplish with sound what his eyes could not achieve with sight.

"They've split up," Jim whispered finally. "Two went the other way, two are coming along the corridor toward us."

Far back the way they had come, around the bend in the corridor, Blair could just see the faint bobbing of a flashlight beam.

"Can you see any place where we can hide?" he asked, keeping his voice low. As much as he craved light, the approaching beacon only promised danger.

Jim looked around, but even with his enhanced vision, he had difficulty picking out any details in the near-absence of illumination to draw upon. He frowned. "Where are we?" he asked quietly, finally taking in his surroundings for the first time.

"I don't know. It's like we're between the walls of the warehouse or something." It really didn't make any sense to Blair. "Maybe the builders needed less floor space, and just built a new warehouse inside the old one -- maybe it was cheaper than lighting and heating the whole place."

"This place smells like an old timber mill," Jim commented finally. "There's a lot of sawdust."

"That's great, Jim," Blair answered in a voice that said he was less than enthusiastic with Jim's sensory acumen, "but they're getting closer." He'd never taken his eyes off the strengthening glow of the approaching flashlight.

Jim didn't sound unduly worried; his growing fever was making him a bit light-headed. "Hell, we've got knives, we've got guns, we've got bullets."

"Guns and bullets are noisy," Blair replied calmly, helping Jim up and steering him further into the room, trusting him to navigate them past any obstructions. "You're in no condition to take them on with the knife. We need a plan."

"Oh. Sorry." Jim struggled to focus his thoughts and realized the truth behind his partner's words. "Think you're up to playing bait?"

Blair wasn't pleased with the thought. "I don't know. How are you doing?"

"I'm not sure," Jim admitted. "I don't know if they ruptured anything with those brass knuckles, but if they did, it can't be bleeding very seriously. Hurts like hell, though. Cramps hard now and again. Right now, I'm OK."

With a sigh, Blair said, "OK, then I guess I'm up to playing bait."

A few moments later, he shivered against the cold floor and hoped his trembling wouldn't alert their stalkers to the fact that he was fully conscious. Watching their approach with half-veiled eyes, he managed to restrain a twitch as the flashlight beam swept over him.

"There's one," a voice said needlessly.

"So let's shoot him and find the other one," his companion suggested.

Blair's mind suddenly shifted into overdrive, and he revised Jim's hastily devised plan. With a groan he really didn't need to feign, he opened his eyes wider and shielded them with his good hand.

"Hey, he's conscious," the first man said. "Clawson wanted one of them alive."

Cautiously, Blair sat up and peered around as if dazed. "OK," he murmured resignedly. "You got me...I surrender...whatever."

The number two man chuckled. "Then, I guess you'll tell Mr. Clawson who ratted him out, won't you?"

"Might as well," Blair admitted, peering into the bright light. "It was your pal there."

"What!" exclaimed the second man.

His outburst was overridden by the first voice, which protested vehemently, "That's a damn lie!"

Blair smiled without mirth. "I never saw your face, but I'd recognize those three-hundred dollar Italian hiking boots anywhere."

Automatically, the flashlight swept downward to illuminate the distinctive footwear.

Blair, who thought he was becoming quite adept at swinging the odd scrap of building material, aimed for his adversaries' knees. As the wood connected, he lost his grip as his injured arm protested the violent movement.

Lunging from behind, Jim felled one man with a savage blow from the barrel of his empty pistol. Blair's distracting patter had enabled him to move in close without fear of being detected, and his opponent went down without so much as a murmur, the flashlight falling from nerveless fingers and shattering.

The other man, the one with the expensive boots that had caused Blair to improvise, was a little too quick for Jim's impaired reflexes. Even as he took the blow to his knees from Blair's length of wood, he managed to grab Jim and drag the detective down with him. Jim landed hard, his bruised or ruptured abdomen unable to help control his fall. He was unconscious almost instantly as the back of his head cracked solidly against the concrete floor.

In the frozen after-image as the flashlight extinguished, Blair unerringly tackled the remaining opponent just as the man started to rise to finish off what he'd begun with Jim. Battering at each other recklessly in the darkness, Blair's only concern was to get the man away from his fallen partner. Thoughts of being lost in the cavernous void didn't even sweep across his mind until the moment he felt his opponent start to break free.

Suddenly, the sound beneath the man's boots went from the dull deadness of concrete to a reverberating bass note of wood. A moment later, the sound amplified, became the splitting and tearing of fracturing boards.

And then they were falling.

Blair's final thought as he plummeted downward was that hell was not ablaze with fiery pyres; no, hell was a bottomless pit of black emptiness.

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

They landed on a hard but somewhat pliable surface that cushioned their fall a bit. Falling debris from the shattered floor above only added to the chaos. The floor sloped downward slightly, but even this minor incline was enough to keep them tumbling.

Reaching out frantically, searching for anything to hold onto, Blair's hands clutched only air. The rolling kept him disoriented, he had no idea which way was up or down.

He heard a painful grunt as the man who had fallen with him was stopped suddenly by some obstruction in the tunnel. The man's body cushioned the impact somewhat as Blair thumped up against the same obstacle.

Thankful for small favors, Blair wheezed desperately, dragging air into starving lungs.

He scrambled off the man onto his knees, ignoring the new twinges of pain he felt all over his aching body. His opponent still hadn't moved, and Blair breathed a sigh of relief. A twinge of guilt surfaced, and wrestling against a feeling of revulsion, he reached out in the dark to check for a pulse. His questing fingers touched flesh, the man's chest. Blair trailed his hand up, intending to find a pulse point, when his fingers brushed against something sharp.

"What--?"

Blair pulled his hand away in confusion. He rubbed his fingertips together and discovered they were wet.

A shaft of light suddenly illuminated the tunnel from above and revealed the grisly body in front of him. The man had been impaled by a steel rod thrust through his chest. His eyes were wide, his mouth open in a scream that would never be heard.

Bile rose in his throat as Blair scrambled frantically backwards, desperate to put more space between himself and the grisly death in front of him. In the beam of the light, he realized he had fallen atop some sort of old conveyor belt, a wide, sturdy mechanism that had probably carried logs into the mill from the river.

"Mr. Sandburg." A disembodied voice shouted down at him and he turned toward the sound, anxious to escape this hellish place, even if it meant rejoining his tormentors. "We're sending a rope down. I suggest you use it, unless you'd rather stay with your friend."

"I see a ladder to my left," Blair said, resigned to his recapture. "I don't think I can manage a rope."

The flashlight moved obligingly and pinpointed the metal ladder Blair had glimpsed. It was fastened to the wall at a point where a claw hoist had once lifted logs from the tunnel into the sawmill overhead.

"Very well. Don't take your time." Clawson chuckled at his own humor. "We eagerly await your arrival."

'He's a stuffy villain,' Blair thought uncharitably as he took a grim hold on the ladder and began the arduous climb back toward the room above.

By the time he reached the top, he was sweating, his muscles trembling from overuse, and his back burning. A hand reached down to pull him up and over the edge. Feeling as if he could use some serious vacation time, he bent over, bracing his hands on his knees. He was allowed to rest for a moment and catch his breath.

"Where's Ellison, Mr. Sandburg?"

Well, at least he knew they didn't have Jim. Blair straightened up cautiously, mindful of protesting muscles and joints. "I told you, Clawson, he left to get help."

"Then who let you out of the restraints?"

"One of your men." Blair didn't even pause. "I'm sure you found him. You know, the guy with the big red stain on his shoulder?"

Clawson chuckled. "Well, that just leaves you then, doesn't it." He nodded to one of his men. "Bring him."

Blair's arms were pulled roughly behind his back by one of the henchmen. The other one, Baker, was still a bit groggy after being clobbered earlier by Jim.

"Hey man, take it easy. It's not like I'm going anywhere, y'know."

Ignoring the comment, the man led him out of the room and back through the corridor.

"You guys notice that minions are dropping like flies around here?" Blair asked his escort. "If I were you, I'd be looking for another boss." His comments seemed to fall on deaf ears, as neither of the henchmen showed any reaction.

They left the corridor and walked back into the cavernous space of the warehouse. He was jerked to a stop and roughly manhandled around to face Clawson.

"Now, Mr. Sandburg. Despite our little detour, we seem to be back on the right track. I'd like some information from you, and I can be very inventive when it comes to getting what I want. I'm sure you can appreciate my position, and how important it is for me to keep certain things about my operation secret."

"The only thing I'm sure of is death and taxes, Clawson."

"Funny you should mention death." At a gesture from the man, Blair's arms were grabbed by Baker and the other hired muscle. He jerked half heartedly, just to let them know he didn't appreciate the grip, but he barely moved an inch under their iron strength.

"My shipments are extremely valuable," Clawson continued. "You and your partner have cost me a lot of time, money and manpower. I find it hard to believe that one detective and a new-age hippie could foil my plans so neatly, but your interference ends here. All that remains is the matter of a little information -- I want the name of the informant within my organization." He moved in close and reached out to touch Blair's face in a parody of tenderness. "I can keep you alive as long as I have to," the crime boss practically crooned. He gripped Blair's chin tightly when the young man tried to pull away. "You'll just wish you were dead."

Blair swallowed hard, visions of unspeakable torture screaming in his mind. How the hell was he going to get out of this? And where was Jim?

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

Experimentally, Jim cracked open one eye just enough to realize he was surrounded by darkness. Since the exercise did not add measurably to the pounding inside his skull, he tentatively opened the other eye a bit and then blinked both.

Well, that hadn't been too bad.

Sitting up was another matter altogether. First, he rolled over, groaning as his stomach muscles protested the movement. Face down on the cold cement, he reached one hand behind his head to explore the bump rising there. Extremely tender to the touch, he was at least thankful there was no blood. He'd taken a good whack to the head, though; of that much he was certain.

Belatedly, he realized that was the only thing of which he was certain.

Where the hell was he?

Bracing his arms, he cautiously pushed himself to his knees, then had to pause until a wave of dizziness subsided. Reassured after a few moments, he started to climb to his feet, but his left hand brushed against a cloth-covered softness. He drew back in alarm, but when there was no response to his touch, he reached out again and felt the body. In the dimness, he could just make out the figure sprawled beside him: male, mid-thirties, sports clothes...and still alive, despite a massive contusion at the back of his skull.

OK, this was information. Useless information at the moment, but still information. He had no clue as to the identity of the man, how he had come to be unconscious, or even whether he was friend or foe.

"Great, just great," he murmured, irritated with himself for not remembering. Resolutely, he climbed stiffly to his feet. The pain in his abdomen increased to a cramping spasm that nearly bent him double, but then it subsided to a more tolerable level.

Got an injury there, he mused, thinking it felt serious but not immediately critical. Good, at least he could still function somewhat. Now for the really big question: Who am I?

His answering thoughts mocked him: I am not a happy camper. It's dark, it's cold, and I don't know where I am or what I'm doing here. OK, so what do you know? I know I'm hurt, and there's an unconscious man on the floor beside me. Whoopie...BFD.

He saw a flickering light some distance off, and it seemed to be coming toward him. Again, this begged the question: friend or foe? Deciding to opt for caution, he moved quietly to a pile of rusty equipment and crouched behind it. A waft of sawdust from the floor made him stifle a sneeze.

Two men, one of them a natty dresser in an elegantly tailored suit and hundred-dollar tie, the other obviously a minion, stopped by the unconscious man. The minion crouched and checked for a pulse.

"Is he dead?" the suit asked.

"No," the minion answered, none-too-gently slapping the unconscious man's face and rousing him. "Hey, Baker, what the hell happened?"

Good question, Jim thought approvingly, waiting for the answer.

"Dunno," the man answered groggily, sitting up with a moan of pain and reaching a hand to his head. "Someone clobbered me from behind."

Me too, Jim thought, wondering if he and the man on the floor were friends or associates.

"Where's Kendall?"

"Dunno," the man repeated. Jim scowled; he was not getting his questions answered.

The suit shone his flashlight across the littered floor and finally spotted a hole in the wood planking. "Looks like something fell through."

The minion helped Baker to his feet, and the three went to explore the opening. The flashlight beam penetrated the blackness below.

"Mr. Sandburg," the suit called. "We're sending a rope down. I suggest you use it, unless you'd rather stay with your friend."

Jim figured it was a good time to ease back a bit until he could figure out the dynamics of his situation. The suit didn't sound particularly friendly toward the man stuck in the hole, but that didn't mean anything to Jim; the man didn't sound particularly friendly toward anyone. He couldn't hear the reply from the man -- Sandburg, the suit had called him -- trapped in the hole, but the sounds of his conversation with the man and his subsequent climb up the ladder helped mask Jim's retreat deeper into the dark chasm of the old sawmill.

Confident he'd found good cover near a wall piled high with discarded equipment, he sat down again to take stock of things. A search of his pockets revealed two pistols -- one of them empty, the other a revolver with four bullets left in the cylinder. No bullets, no spare magazines, nothing the least bit useful except -- ah-ha, a wallet.

Pulling it out, he squinted in the darkness in an effort to make out the details of his driver's license. Useless. At least he found some money and a couple of credit cards, so he wasn't an indigent. Small comfort there. Sticking the wallet back where he'd found it, he felt another bi-fold case in his other back pocket and pulled it out. Something metallic glinted in the dim light as he opened it, and he touched the shiny surface -- a badge. Tilting the case every which way in the scant illumination, he could just make out the accompanying ID card. The picture showed a face he instinctively knew was his, but he couldn't read any of the information printed beside it.

So he was some sort of cop. Terrific. If the three men he'd seen and the fourth in the hole were the criminals he was after, he'd certainly done a lousy job of capturing them.

He looked back toward the little pool of light and saw the man called Sandburg had been pulled successfully from whatever he'd fallen into. Sandburg was a somewhat short man with long hair, and from the rough way he was manhandled by the minions, he was not part of that group. His voice came to Jim very faintly over the distance: "Hey man, take it easy. It's not like I'm going anywhere, y'know."

The little group headed back the way they'd originally come, and the young man spoke again, his words brave but his voice betraying an undercurrent of fear. "You guys notice that minions are dropping like flies around here?"

Jim realized he felt a little sad as the voice finally receded and he was left alone in the darkness, a darkness that seemed to reach into his very soul. A moment later, he shook himself out of his lethargic state and felt determined to find a way out of this cold, dark building. Stepping carefully around the equipment he'd concealed himself behind, he walked cautiously out onto the wide swath of floor. Fumbling around for several minutes, cursing when he barked his shins against a low pile of discarded pallets, he searched for a door. If it just wasn't so damn dark!

A metallic squeal snapped his head around. A dim rectangle of light, its edges a sharp contrast to the surrounding darkness, patched the floor further down what appeared to be a long, narrow corridor. The suit and his minions had apparently taken the only way out. He's just have to follow and wait for them to leave, then sneak out the same way. The decision firmly planted in his mind, he made his way across the room and down the corridor toward the dim beacon of light.

Realizing he'd be in full view of anyone who decided to look back down the narrow corridor toward him, he proceeded cautiously, concentrating on the low buzz of voices he heard echoing in the room ahead. Almost as an afterthought, he pulled the revolver out of his pocket, keeping it by his side. Hoping cop instincts would come to the fore if he had to use the weapon, he grasped its grip firmly.

The light grew in intensity as he moved forward, until he was standing at the entrance to a huge warehouse, seemingly empty from this view. Well, mostly empty. There was a pile of garbage -- crates, more pallets, old equipment -- in this corner, which doubled nicely as cover for him. He hunched down low, holding his protesting stomach with one hand, as he worked his way deeper into the corner, curious about what the suit was about to do to with his prisoner. Jim knelt on one knee, placing his hand on the cold cement for support. Abruptly, he jerked his hand back in disgust, wrinkling his nose at the smear of grease and dirt on the floor where he'd inadvertently put his hand. Looks like someone forgot to put out the trash, he thought, then froze when a half-remembered conversation came to him.

"You stuck me in the trash." The voice seemed to be his, but as soon as he focused on the memory, it slipped from his grasp vaporous-like, refusing to be caught. Shaking his head in frustration, he looked around for something to wipe the grime away with, and brought his head up just in time to see the suit step close to his captive. The threat was obvious. Although he didn't know what was going on, Jim was fairly certain the suit and Sandburg were not cohorts. Unless, of course, Sandburg had somehow betrayed the suit.

Jim scowled. This lack of information was really starting to irritate him. With a soft sigh, he settled down to see what would happen next.

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

Clawson let go of Blair's chin and reached for his shoulder instead.

"Come on, Clawson, I don't know anything." Blair swallowed hard, trying to muster the courage to sound confident, but a quiver crept into his voice despite his efforts. "Ellison has his informants, and I don't know who they are. It wouldn't do you any good to torture me, I can't tell you anything." He twitched his shoulder, flinching away from Clawson's slimy touch, but he was powerless to dislodge the man's hand.

"You'd be amazed at what the mind picks up, Mr. Sandburg. I'm sure you were present when the good detective received his information. Surely you overheard something." His hand slid almost caressingly along Blair's arm and tightened around his hand. He pulled the resisting hand toward him, clasping the fingers to his chest.

Blair frowned, a feeling of contempt sweeping through him as he tried to pull his hand away.

"All you have to tell me is what you heard. That's all, nothing more." As he spoke, Clawson's other hand joined the first. Still holding tightly to the imprisoned limb, he slowly pulled back on Blair's index finger.

Frantically, Blair protested, "I didn't hear anything, Clawson, I -- " Sharp pain cramped through his palm and radiated through his elbow. He slumped immediately in shock, aware of the hands still gripping his arms. Trying to find some relief from the strain, he struggled to speak. A soft grunt gusted from his mouth and he panted out, "Man, I don't know anything!"

"Why don't I believe you?" A dull, wet pop signaled the breaking of the bone, and Blair cried out in distress. "How many of your bones are you willing to sacrifice until I learn the truth?" Clawson gripped another finger, bending it painfully.

"No! God, no more!" Blair shouted hoarsely, weak with pain. Where had his courage fled? Just a moment ago, he'd been filled with resolve to withstand whatever Clawson threw at him, but now nausea swam in his stomach, and the throbbing pain in his hand crushed any reserves of bravery he'd stockpiled, leaving him empty of everything but a need to end the torment. Part of him had hoped -- no, believed -- Jim would show up and rescue him at the last minute, before it had gone this far.

From his vantage point behind the crates, Jim seethed at the scene in front of him. He had to do something, whether Sandburg was a criminal or not. The sharp cries of pain coming from the young man seemed to cut through to his soul, leaving him with a breathless ache. Before he could move, another desperate shout echoed through the warehouse, and he watched as Sandburg was allowed to collapse to the floor and cradle his injured hand close to his body.

"You're a very stubborn young man, Mr. Sandburg, but every man has his limits. I believe today we will find out what yours are. Pity Ellison isn't here to join in the fun."

"I don't know anything, damnit." The response from the crumpled form was weak but determined, and Jim decided it was time to make his move.

He was concentrating heavily, trying to peer through the dimness, when a bright flash of light cut across his vision like a laser. He barely managed to stifle a cry of pain, but he could not suppress the hiss of agony that passed his lips. Squeezing his eyes tightly closed for a long moment, he opened them again cautiously, thinking his head injury must have been worse than he'd first suspected if it could cause his eyesight to do such screwy things.

At least the bad guys -- or he assumed they were the bad guys, damnit; he couldn't be absolutely certain -- hadn't heard him. He hoped that Sandburg guy was on his side, because he really admired the young man's spunk. Deciding it didn't really matter, because he couldn't bear to see anyone tortured, he used the clear line of fire he had while the victim huddled on the floor.

His first two shots took out the two minions, dropping them immediately. Surprised by the accuracy of his own marksmanship, his third shot missed altogether, and the suit -- Clawson, Sandburg had called him -- didn't wait around to offer another opportunity. He fled at a speed Jim wouldn't have thought possible in someone so obviously soft and out of shape.

He hurried to the figure crouching on the concrete. "Hey, kid, are you OK?" Stupid question, really, but he didn't have a clue what else to say.

Tears of pain coursed down the young man's cheeks, but his expression almost glowed with relief as he looked up. "Man, am I glad to see you."

"Good," Jim answered, helping the injured man stand up, "then maybe you can tell me what the hell is going on."

Sandburg looked at him very strangely. "Uh, Jim, are you OK?"

"Probably not. I took one helluva thump on the head, my eyes keep doing funny things, and beyond the fact that you just called me 'Jim' -- " He looked a little lost, and finally just shrugged.

Sandburg's eyes were wide. "Oh, man!" With his good hand, he reached up to touch the back of Jim's head, his gentle fingers finding the swelling. "You've got amnesia?"

Jim winced despite the tenderness of the touch. "Guess so."

"We have got to get out of here and get you to a hospital," Sandburg said, peering into Jim's eyes. The pupils looked equal, a good sign, but it was hard to be certain in the dim light. "How's your stomach?"

"I feel like I've been run over by a truck. How about you?"

"Same truck," Sandburg confessed. Carefully, he tucked his injured hand into his jacket pocket, wincing at the pain. He shivered, both from shock and cold.

"You always run around without a shirt?" Jim asked.

"Not usually." Sandburg fumbled with the buttons of his jacket for a moment. "Uh, Jim -- ?"

"Sure," Jim obliged, sticking the revolver in his belt and using both hands to fasten the coat. "Now what?"

Blair looked down at the two men Jim had shot. All of the minions were accounted for. "Let's get out of here."

They found the exit. Jim had a niggling memory of wondering about the short hall that led from the warehouse to the door. Now, he understood why it had been designed this way -- one warehouse had been built inside a second, much larger building, leaving lots of space between the walls. Pleased to have one mystery solved, Jim cautiously cracked open the door. Peering outside, he didn't see anyone. "I'm a cop, right?"

"You remember?"

"No, I found a badge in my pocket."

Sandburg's expression fell with disappointment. "You're Detective Jim Ellison."

"OK, that explains me a bit. Who are you?"

"Blair Sandburg." God, it felt weird explaining all this stuff.

"Which makes you -- ?" Jim prompted.

"Your partner, friend and roommate," Blair answered.

Jim frowned. "Funny. You don't look like my type."

"Your type of what?" Blair countered warily.

"Partner, friend, roommate."

Blair made a sour face filled with exasperation. "Like athlete's foot, I grew on you."

Jim smiled slightly, then returned his attention outside. "I don't see anything but an old Ford pickup."

"Great, let's go."

As they left the warehouse -- it was still daylight, Blair noticed; that seemed weird, because he felt as if they'd been trapped inside for hours -- Jim added, "Please tell me that hunk of junk belongs to you."

Blair grinned. "Sorry, big guy, but you bought that 'hunk of junk' with your eyes wide open."

Jim grunted doubtfully, then dug in his pockets for the keys. Finding them, he unlocked the passenger door.

Sore in every muscle, Blair climbed inside with awkward slowness. He leaned back tentatively, then changed his mind as fire coursed through his lacerated back. Wincing as the movement awakened aches gained during his topple into the underground tunnel, he managed to pull the door closed.

Jim had difficulty climbing into the truck; his stomach muscles didn't want to work. Fighting nausea and dizziness, he leaned his head against the steering wheel for a minute.

"You OK to drive?" Blair asked anxiously.

"Probably more OK than you with those broken fingers," Jim replied, finally turning the key and starting the engine. "Blair."

"What?"

"Nothing," Jim confessed. "I was just trying it out. Feels funny."

Heaving a sigh, Blair explained, "You usually call me 'Sandburg' or 'Chief'."

"Chief? Because of the hair?"

Blair looked startled. "I don't know. I never thought to ask you about it."

"Well, ask me when I get my memory back," Jim told him seriously. "I'd like to know."

Blair couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of that statement. "At least you haven't lost your sense of humor."

Jim smiled and put the truck in gear. "Which way -- Chief?"

Blair cocked a thumb over his shoulder. "Thataway."

Obediently, Jim pulled a U-turn and headed along the wide stretch of asphalt dividing the rows of decrepit warehouses.

Suddenly, three sport utility vehicles appeared ahead and moved to intercept them.

"Can you tell who it is?" Blair asked anxiously.

"I have no idea," Jim admitted, swinging the truck around again, "but I get the feeling they aren't the cavalry." As he sped off with the other trucks in pursuit, he asked, "What's down this way?"

"I don't know. At a guess, the Pacific Ocean."

"Lovely," Jim sighed.

They reached the end of the pavement all too quickly, and he angled right to keep the wheels on solid ground. The warehouse they'd escaped from was on their right, the ocean sparkled distantly on their left across a broad expanse of beach, and ahead, the paved area narrowed to become a road. Heartened for a moment, his optimism faded quickly as the road terminated at a wooden dock, high and dry now after decades of sandy deposits from the river.

Moving too fast to stop, the pickup truck roared onto the rickety pier, traveled its short length, and then became airborne.

"Hang on!" Jim yelled uselessly, clutching the wheel and desperately hoping the old vehicle would stay upright and level.

They slammed into the ground a little awkwardly, and then the wheels launched into the air again as the truck's momentum kept them moving. Touching down again, Jim managed to keep his wits and touch the accelerator lightly in an effort to keep the wheels turning in the soft soil. Their forward motion was enough to keep them from bogging down, and the truck rocketed through brush, grass and sandy hillocks for a short distance.

Their luck ran out as they topped a low dune and plunged down the other side. It was the muddy delta formed by the ebb and flow of river current and ocean tide. Within seconds, the truck was buried halfway up its hubcaps in mud. The engine died in the same instant.

The sudden stop almost threw Blair through the windshield, and he automatically braced his hands against the dash, crying out as his broken fingers took their share of the force.

Jim smacked against the steering wheel hard enough to knock the wind out of him for a moment. Gasping, he finally straightened and turned to look behind them. He couldn't see a thing -- the truck was surrounded by tall reeds and bushes, but he knew their pursuers would see the tire tracks. They might even risk following them in their four-wheel-drive sport utilities. "Come on," he said grimly, "we've got to move."

He opened his door, wincing as the hinges squealed. The whole truck frame must have been tweaked out of alignment. His feet sank almost to the tops of his shoes, and the dark mud clung to the leather, weighing him down. Grunting with effort, he trudged around to the passenger side and helped Blair wrench open the door.

When they were both huddled miserably on semi-solid ground, Jim checked out their surroundings. "I hear sirens," he commented after a moment.

"Me, too," Blair confirmed, smiling with relief. "That must be Simon."

"Simon?"

Blair kept forgetting about his partner's amnesia. "Captain Simon Banks, our backup. He must have traced us to the warehouse."

"Except we're not at the warehouse," Jim pointed out. "We're about a half-mile away, with an undetermined number of bad guys between us and it." He stepped to a tiny oasis of grass and stomped the mud from his shoes, then sat down abruptly as a cramp shot through his belly.

"Jim!" Blair cried in alarm, crouching beside his friend.

Bullets whined through the space he had been occupying only moments before, and he automatically ducked to make as small a target as possible.

Their adversaries were firing blinding into the reeds in the general vicinity of the tire tracks.

"Oh, good," Jim breathed, fighting the pain. "I was going to suggest firing a shot to signal the cops. Looks like the bad guys did it for us."

"Come on, man, we've got to find some cover," Blair urged, pulling Jim into an upright crouch.

"This feels familiar," Jim said, groaning against the renewed ache. "We've done a bit of this already today, haven't we?"

"Entirely too much crouching and creeping," Blair agreed. He could hear thrashing in the undergrowth, and knew several men were following the deep tire tracks left by the truck. "Let's get out of here."

The sounds of pursuit were left behind as they moved deeper into the tall grass. They kept their heads down, bodies bent low, using the overgrown reeds for cover. An occasional groan breathed softly out of Jim from the discomfort in his belly, but he voiced no complaints. The ground underfoot was alternately sandy or muddy, and it shifted under the weight of their steps. Walking around a rather large dune, Blair dropped to the ground, pulling Jim with him. They rested on their knees in the middle of the turfs of grass as they tried to catch their breath.

"Can you hear anything?"

"What do you mean?" Jim glanced at the young man in confusion. "What do you hear?"

"Oh man, we could really use your senses right about now." Blair moaned in frustration, leaning forward to peer back around the dune.

"What are you talking about?"

"Nothing, I don't have time to give you a crash course in Sentinel 101 right now. Can you keep going?"

Pushing away his curiosity for the moment, Jim nodded. "Yeah, how're you doing?"

"Okay. Maybe Simon's corralling the bad guys now and we have nothing to worry about." As if to belie his words, a gunshot rang out close by. Ducking instinctively, Blair mumbled, "Then again, maybe not," and grabbed Jim's arm, helping him to his feet.

Another shot popped out and caution was abandoned as they desperately pushed themselves forward. The tall, whispering grass provided a maze of shelter, and they gained distance from their pursuers.

Dusk was settling in, aiding in their escape as the semi-darkness washed away details and shrouded the landscape in a foggy mist. Breathing a prayer of thankfulness for the moist sea air that provided the fog, Blair spotted a pile of driftwood in the near distance.

"I think I see something," he hissed, glancing back at Jim. "Just a little further."

Jim simply nodded, too spent to voice his thoughts. He followed Blair as the young man led the way to the snag of old wood, and sank gratefully to the ground behind it.

The debris was snared by a knobby rise in the land. Grass and weeds clung to it like barnacles, a testimony to how long the haphazard jumble of ancient wood had laid at this spot, creating a haven for numerous small animals. The natural barricade was crescent shaped, and the two men rested on the inside curve. Blair rose to his knees and peered through the tangled limbs. He was able to make out three heads bobbing in the distance through the sea of grass as their pursuers searched the area for them. Thankfully, the criminals were headed in the wrong direction, and Blair sank back to the ground with relief.

"We can rest here a minute," he gasped, closing his eyes in weariness. "It looks like they're heading away from us." His broken fingers throbbed with his heartbeat, sending flutters of pain up his arm. Leaning forward, he was careful not to put any weight on his back. The lashes from his earlier beating were raw from rubbing against the lining of his jacket.

"What did you mean back there?" Jim panted, unwilling to drop their earlier conversation. "What's Sentinel 101?"

Jim's question whispered through the gathering darkness, and Blair snatched it, willing the distraction to help him forget the discomfort of his body.

"A sentinel is a person with heightened senses. He can hear, smell, taste, feel, and see far better than the average human."

"What's that got to do with me?" Jim leaned back slowly until he rested against the pile of wood, keeping one hand on his sore abdomen. He bent his legs, drawing his knees up closer. As soon as his stomach muscles relaxed, some of the cramping faded. He noticed the way Blair cradled his injured hand to his body and gestured for the young man to move closer. "Let's see what we can do for those fingers, Sandburg."

He took the offered hand and studied the bruises evident on the bloated fingers. Tugging his T-shirt out of his pants, he ripped a few strips from the material. Then he carefully began wrapping the broken fingers, binding them to uninjured ones. Blair trembled under his ministrations, but the young man never complained. When he was finished, he leaned back against the pile of driftwood again. "Better?"

"Yeah, thanks Jim," Blair breathed shakily, then looked up at his friend. "You sure you should get that close to the driftwood? There's no telling what's living in there, man. Snakes, rats, spiders."

"You're avoiding the subject, Junior. What do sentinels have to do with me?"

Blair smiled at the nickname, wondering if some of Jim's memory was returning.

"Well . . . have you remembered anything else yet?" Sandburg shifted closer, keeping his voice down. He hoped the rustling of the surrounding grass would act as a motion detector and let them know if their enemies were closing in. Besides, along with darkness came the chill of the evening and he was desperately hoping Jim would allow him to sit closer. He'd started shivering, the friction of flayed skin against material renewing his agony.

"Snatches of stuff keep flashing through my mind. I think I remember Simon."

Blair bit his lip, trying to stifle a moan.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Jim sat up in alarm.

"I'm cold. This situation really sucks, Jim. I'm ready to be rescued so we can go home to a safe, warm loft."

Jim wasn't exactly sympathetic. "Yeah, sounds good. Tell me about sentinels."

The gathering darkness seemed safe, as if it were protecting them within its turbid fog, so Blair felt confident to continue the conversation despite their dangerous situation.

"These senses were developed and honed in the wild as a necessity to survival. The tribe depended on their sentinel, not just to let them know when an enemy was near, but also to alert them to changes in the weather, or allow them to know where the nearest game could be found. It's a gift, actually, to help mankind."

"So, is that what I am? A sentinel?"

The total acceptance in the statement surprised Blair. "Yeah."

"And what are you? The trusty sidekick?"

Blair chucked. "I'm an anthropologist, just a researcher who happened to be writing my dissertation on sentinels. You and I hooked up and, like I said, I'm your partner, friend, and roommate."

"Which came first?"

"Huh?"

"Partner, friend or roommate. Which came first?"

"Oh, uh, partner, I guess. I became your roommate when the warehouse I was living in blew up not long after we started working together."

"We don't have a happy history with warehouses, do we?" Jim muttered rhetorically. "And then we became friends?"

"Yeah."

"How do I use my senses?"

A little disoriented with the abrupt change of subject, Blair stumbled with his thoughts for a moment. "Well, they come in real handy as a cop. You're a human crime lab. You use your sight during surveillance a lot. Oh, and you can pretty much tell whenever someone's lying."

"Really? How?"

"They perspire more, their heart rate jumps, temperature spikes, that sort of thing. Why don't you try it now? Concentrate on your hearing."

Ellison shrugged in self-conscious embarrassment. "What do I do?"

"Just concentrate. Try and focus on the warehouse. See if you can hear what's going on. Ignore the other sounds around you and listen for Simon's voice."

Jim squeezed his eyes shut.

"Don't try so hard, Jim. Just breathe in and out and relax."

He released the frown, smoothing the lines from his face. His head tilted sideways and his lips parted slightly in a pose as familiar to Blair as his own face.

Ellison's expression changed when he heard Simon's voice clearly from half a mile away. He heard the gruff voice as it issued orders, sending uniforms out to search the warehouse and surrounding area for his missing men.

"It's working!" As if using his senses completed a circuit, more memories drifted through his mind. "Blair! I remember--" His revelation was cut off as a painful clattering assaulted his ears, echoing jarringly through his skull. He pressed his hands to his ears, struggling to dampen the noise, his body huddling over until his forehead brushed the ground.

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

Blair scrambled immediately to his partner's side, covering Jim's hands with his own to further reduce the assault on his hearing. "Turn it down, Jim," he said, surprised by the calm tone of his voice.

Jim's gasp was filled with agony. "How?"

Ah, man! Blair thought fleetingly, realizing he'd messed up big time by not continuing what he'd humorously referred to as 'Sentinel 101'. "Picture dials in your head," he replied softly. "Find the one labeled 'volume', and turn it down. You've done it a hundred times. Just follow your instincts."

After a few moments, Jim relaxed and tentatively uncovered his ears. "Let's not do that again, OK?"

"I'm sorry," Blair said, his anguish evident. "I should have given you better instructions."

Jim managed an embarrassed grimace. "It's OK. This all probably feels pretty routine to you."

Now, Blair's smile was genuine. "Not hardly. I still marvel at what you can do." He glanced down the riverbed but couldn't see anything in the gathering dusk. "What did you hear?"

"A don't know. A loud clattering sound."

"Like a chopper?"

Jim shook his head. "No, not an engine sound." His head came up as he heard something, and he looked toward the mouth of the delta. "I think our friends found a way down to the beach with their 4x4's."

Blair looked again, and now he could see movement in the distance, off where the grassy delta merged with the beach. "We have to get off this streambed and find a place where they can't follow us in their trucks." He figured the noise Jim had heard must have been the heavy tires racing over the wobbly planks of the short dock.

Supporting each other, the two men managed to climb stiffly to their feet. Gasping from the surprising amount of effort this required, they suddenly grinned at each other.

"Don't we make a wretched pair?" Blair chuckled, accurately reading his partner's thoughts.

"I was going to ask if we're actually any good at crime busting," Jim admitted with a wry smile.

They started toward the sandy bank on the opposite side of the narrow trickle of water. "Some days are better than others," Blair replied. "And before you ask, this is definitely not one of the better days."

"Good, otherwise I might have to consider another line of work."

They scrambled up the bank on hands and knees, and once at the top, neither felt inclined to get up again. Only the sight of the approaching vehicles, their headlights off to maintain anonymity, spurred them to the necessary effort.

More grass and taller brush blanketed the sandy soil on this higher portion of the river delta. Deposited during the slower water flow of summer, the area was being constantly eroded into new channels by each spring's runoff. The delta was a jigsaw of gullies and ridges, and this gave the fleeing men an advantage over their pursuers.

It was doubtful the 4x4's could traverse all of the obstacles, and the trucks would have to find alternate paths around the deeper washes. It wasn't so much the steepness of the inclines, but rather the instability of the sandy banks, that would prove treacherous to the heavy vehicles.

"Do you think Simon will call in a chopper?" Blair asked as they limped along.

"Maybe," Jim admitted, trying to control his breathing to avoid adding pressure to the ache in his gut. "A chopper with a searchlight probably won't have much luck locating us in this mess, and we don't have a way to signal it." He stopped suddenly and faced the younger man. "That is, unless you tell me one of us is a smoker and happens to have a lighter or matchbook?"

"Sorry, no," Blair answered, pausing gratefully to catch his breath. The exertion had raised a sweat, which seeped into the lacerations on his back and created a new pain to add to his other miseries. He figured his jacket was permanently adhered to the wounds, and he was not looking forward to the time when he would have to try to remove it.

Jim glanced to his left. "Let's go this way," he suggested, leading the way.

It was almost fully dark by the time they'd reached his goal: a thick stand of stunted trees, their limbs creating a tangled, nearly impenetrable maze.

"They'll never be able to follow us in there."

Blair nodded doubtfully. "No kidding. It'll be dark in a minute, and it's already black as pitch in that thicket. I won't be able to see a thing."

Jim frowned. "Can you help me use my eyesight?" He sounded nervous, a little afraid after his disastrous exploration with his hearing.

Blair smiled confidently. "Of course." He began coaching at the same rudimentary level he'd first used almost three years ago to help his partner control his senses.

Finally, Jim nodded, his fear gone. "Take hold of my jacket and keep close," he instructed, leading them into the trees.

It was difficult going, even with Jim's enhanced sight. He kept Blair practically tucked under his arm, shielding his partner's head and eyes from the branches. They moved slowly, Blair following instructions to "bend low" or "step over". Although he tried to use his arms to feel his way, he gave the idea up and stifled a yelp as his broken fingers struck a limb. After that, he just pretended he was a remora attached to Jim's side and allowed himself to be led blindly through the dense grove.

As they traveled, Blair could feel how much the effort was costing his partner. Every time they ducked under or climbed over an obstacle, it put strain on his injuries, until Jim's breathing had become hoarse with barely suppressed pain.

"Jim, I can't go any further," he murmured at last, not telling a lie because it tore at him to listen to his friend's suffering. "Please, we've got to stop."

"OK," Jim agreed a little too readily, stopping and easing Blair to the ground. "It's tight in here, but I think we're sheltered." He slumped down gratefully and drew his knees up to ease the pain in his abdomen.

Now that they were stopped, Blair felt the damp cold seeping into his bones, aided by the sweat of his previous exertion. He drew his legs in close and hugged his knees, willing the aches and pains to subside enough to permit a little rest. It looked as if they would have to spend the night in the thicket. "Any sign of our pursuers?"

"A saw some flashlights awhile ago," Jim said, "but they were a long way off. I don't know if they were our guys or the bad guys."

"I never realized how much I'd come to depend on my cell phone," Blair murmured. "Even if I do usually forget to turn it on or keep the battery charged."

"You're shivering," Jim observed. "I can hear it in your voice."

"Yeah, I never was much good in the cold."

Jim was silent for several minutes, then he said hesitantly, "We could...um...maybe -- "

"Share a little bodily warmth?" Blair concluded, smiling in the darkness as he felt Jim's embarrassment.

"Yeah, but I can't turn very well, so you're either gonna have to lean back against my chest, or I'm gonna have to lean back against yours."

It seemed a little silly to Blair that Jim was sounding so uncertain, but he had to remind himself that his partner had amnesia and probably had no idea how his suggestion would be received. "Do you have a preference?" he asked calmly.

"Well, yeah, kinda," Jim answered awkwardly. "I mean, I'm pretty comfortable here against this tree."

Blair nodded, not certain if Jim could see him or not. He figured Jim was looking out for him -- Blair didn't know if his back was up to leaning against a rough tree trunk all night long with Jim's weight against his chest -- and he was grateful for the concern. "OK," he agreed, "let me scoot in."

He touched Jim's knee in the blackness and maneuvered around it, shifting back until he was enveloped in the warmth of his partner's thighs and arms. "Does that hurt your stomach?" he asked, leaning back slowly to test how his weight was received.

Jim sounded faintly surprised. "Actually, it's OK," he said. "I think anything that will help keep me from shivering has to be a good thing right about now."

"Yeah," Blair agreed. "Hey, do you hear that?"

"Helicopter," Jim confirmed, burying his face in Blair's shoulder as a powerful searchlight suddenly glared down from above. "Don't move -- if we try to signal it, we'll give away our position to our pursuers."

"The chopper probably wouldn't be able to see us in here anyway," Blair agreed, wincing as the harsh glare washed across them. He wished the police chopper would find them, but he knew it was a fairly remote possibility, although the night search was evidence of Simon's concern for their welfare. He knew the hunters would have taken cover to avoid the probing sweep of light, but they wouldn't be able to hide their trucks as well.

A few minutes later his suspicions were confirmed as he heard the chopper move off a distance and then hover. "I think the chopper spotted the 4x4's."

"Good," Jim said quietly, his breath warm on the back of Blair's neck. "It'll move the search away from the warehouse area. Maybe Simon will find us in the morning." The stresses of the day were catching up to him, and he sounded on the brink of dozing off.

Blair found a comfortable way to cradle his broken fingers, and leaned his head back into Jim's shoulder. "Good night, Jim."

"Good night, Chief."

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

"Hey, Chief?"

Blair groaned in protest at being pulled from sleep back into a world filled with aches and pains, stiffness and cold. "What is it?"

Jim sounded confused. "Why are we cuddling in the bushes when the last thing I remember is being lost inside an old lumber mill?"

Blair's eyes popped open. "Jim, is your amnesia gone?"

He realized how stupid the question sounded when he heard the reply: "How is a person supposed to remember if he had amnesia?" A moment later, Jim groaned. "Ah, man, I am permanently fused in this position. Tell me this is all just a nightmare."

"Sorry, but it's for real," Blair responded, very slowly inching his way clear. Damn, but everything hurt! In the dim, gray light of early dawn, the thicket looked impenetrable in every direction. It was a miracle they'd managed to get this far.

"Where are we in relation to the warehouse?" Jim asked finally, taking stock of their surroundings. Blair just gave him a caustic look. "All right, you don't have a clue. Sorry I asked." He noticed how pale and tired his partner looked, and paused to take inventory of their injuries. "Let me see those fingers," he said with sudden concern. "I think I remember -- it was Clawson, wasn't it?"

Obediently, Blair extended his hand and nodded in answer to the question. "He called up reinforcements. We've been on the run from them since yesterday afternoon."

"Your fingers are warm," Jim observed. "That's good. Can you feel them when I touch them?"

"Yeah."

"That's good, too." Gently, Jim unwrapped the tee shirt binding. With a touch soft as a feather, he explored the injuries. "The swelling's gone down a bit, I think. The doctor will probably have to reset the bones and apply a splint, but as long as the circulation stays good, I don't think there'll be any permanent damage." Tearing fresh strips of cloth from his tee shirt, he reapplied the bandage to secure the broken fingers to their uninjured neighbors.

"How's your stomach?" Blair asked softly.

"Better -- I don't think anything was ruptured, just really badly bruised." He winced as his stomach rumbled. "I think I could kill for a Wonder Burger with the works, a large cup of coffee, and a warm fire."

"Yeah, I must be hungry, too, if that sounds good," Blair answered, working up a smile. "Can you hear anyone moving around out there?"

Jim concentrated for a minute, then just shook his head. "No cops, no bad guys, no nothing."

"Maybe there'll all still asleep," Blair suggested lightly.

Jim snorted softly. "Didn't you fall into something yesterday?"

"Yeah -- some sort of underground tunnel, I'm guessing the conveyor belt they used to bring logs into the mill from the docks."

"Let's see if we can find the outside entrance to it," Jim suggested. "We might be able to sneak back into the warehouse without our hunters seeing us."

"What if Simon's moved the search out this way?"

"He probably has, and we'll find him if we can, but he'll also have kept cops posted at the warehouse. Whatever we end up doing, we still need to move out of here, so we might as well get going."

Reluctantly, Blair climbed to his feet, immediately tangling his hair in the dense branches. Muttering quiet curses, he extricated himself, and by then Jim was on his feet as well.

"Let's go," Jim said, unsympathetic to Blair's plight.

Tucking the ends of his hair inside his jacket collar in an effort to corral them, Blair hunched over and began the arduous task of getting out of the thicket.

Progress was slow and difficult, and without the aid of Jim's protection, Blair fought the branches that seemed to reach out for his hair. His partner led the way, choosing what he considered to be the easiest path, making his way around trees that had grown so close together it was hard to tell where one ended and another began.

After a string of particularly violent curses grumbled behind him, Jim turned to the struggling young man without slowing his pace. "I think I see a break up ahead, Sandburg. We're almost through this thing. You gonna make it?"

Deciding to nod instead of expending energy in a reply, Blair trudged on, gesturing with his good hand for Jim to continue.

They came out of the thicket onto the muddy river bed, vast in it's emptiness. The ponderous expanse of the ocean in the distance and the solid mass of growth at their backs added to the feeling of intimate loneliness. Blair looked around in confusion, lost beyond hope. "See any landmarks or anything?" he asked his companion.

Jim spotted a large half rotten stump and climbed up with a grimace, careful not to strain his sore abdominal muscles. He gratefully steadied himself with a hand on Blair's head when the young man stepped to his side. Blair reached up and gripped his wrist, helping him balance. Turning slowly, Jim scrutinized the landscape, then paused to focus his gaze on a dark rooftop more than a mile away.

"I think I see the warehouse, a little south of us."

"See any cops?"

"I can't see the ground, Sandburg, just the roof."

"Oh."

Continuing his survey, Ellison was able to pick out a dark smudge, further along the edge of the riverbed. "I think I see a way back to the warehouse, though."

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure, but it could be the entrance to that tunnel you fell into yesterday." He stepped lightly down from the stump and swayed, aware of Blair reaching out to steady him.

"Whoa, Jim, take it easy, man." Reaching up to press the back of his hand to his partner's brow, he announced, "I think your fever's coming back. How do you feel?"

Jim shook off the hand, then gestured ahead. "I'm fine. This way, Chief, let's go."

Realizing it would be futile to try and get Ellison to rest, Blair tried another approach. "Sure you don't want to circle back around and see if we run into Simon?"

"We'd also chance running into Clawson, and some of his reinforcements. No, I think we should head this way, see if we can get back into the warehouse. I want to check out that room we were in, anyway. Now that I've got my memory back, and I'm more than half way coherent, I'd like to give it another shot."

Moving by Jim's side as he started walking along the muddy bank, Blair asked, "You think there was some evidence we could use against Clawson in that room?"

"Maybe. I get the feeling he knew the tunnel was there, too. Could be he's been using it to move his merchandise out. That's one reason we never could catch him, because he'd have the stuff out before we could get to him."

"So maybe he'd been using the old tunnel to haul his merchandise in from boats?"

"Could be. That would explain a lot; all our efforts were concentrated on land, we never thought to check the sea."

Saving their breath for the trek, both men fell silent, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Hunger was starting to wear them both down, and the discomfort from their injuries made them weak and vulnerable.

"Here."

Blair stopped and looked up; he'd been following blindly behind his partner, trusting the Sentinel to lead them safely around any obstacle in their path. Feeling a little guilty for letting Jim do all the work, he studied the structure in front of them. Concrete moldings surrounded double wooden doors, half again as tall as Jim, and at least 15 feet wide. He felt drawfed, as if he'd suddenly stepped into the land of the giants. The doors angled back against the hill, following the natural curve of the land. Blair looked behind him.

"How hard do you think it would be for something to be dragged here from the water?"

Jim turned and studied the distant shore, squinting his eyes in thought. "Not too bad. Depends on how heavy it is, how muddy the ground is. A lot can be done under the cover of night that would stand out like a sore thumb in daylight."

"Doesn't look as old as I thought it would." Blair reached forward and touched one of the hinges on the old wooden door. The metal sparkled brightly in the morning light.

Jim studied the hinges closely. "You're right, they've recently been replaced. I can still see the imprint from the old hinge. And there's new wood here, too. These doors have been reinforced."

"Think you can pick this lock?" Blair hefted the huge, round padlock in his palm, turning it over to find the key hole in the back.

"Yeah. Hand me your pocket knife."

Blair did so, and Jim made quick work of the lock.

"You would have made a good thief, Jim," Blair commented as he tucked the knife back into his pocket.

Ellison gave that comment the scowl it deserved, then grabbed one of the door's handles, intending to yank it open. It proved to be heavier than he'd estimated, and a surprised grunt clued Blair into the fact his partner needed help. Adding his hands to the task, the young man leaned his back into it, keeping his broken fingers straight, avoiding contact with the door.

Wood squeaked against wood, a wet, tearing sound that made Jim cringe, then the door yielded and opened, giving them a view of the yawning black mouth of the tunnel. The morning's diffused light pushed back the corridor's darkness a few feet, revealing a short section of the tunnel. Remnants of the old conveyer belt littered the area; rubber scraps rotten and curled into hard chips lay among cinnamon colored rust, decorating the floor like confetti from a long forgotten party. Here and there the age dusted ground was smudged with footprints.

"You were right. Looks like this is where Clawson's been delivering and receiving." Blair ran the toe of his shoe through the dirt, disturbing one of the prints.

Once inside the tunnel, the two men pulled the big doors closed again. Jim found there were gaps big enough to reach through so he could secure the hasp and padlock, although he did not lock it. Unless someone examined it closely, the door would appear not to have been disturbed.

Without daylight streaming through, the tunnel became dark within a few yards.

"Ready to do a little exploring, Chief?"

"I'm not gonna be able to see a thing in there."

Jim looked back at him, eyebrows lifted in question. "That's what I'm here for, remember? Just stick close, partner. I promise I won't let you fall into any holes, okay?"

Nodding in agreement, Blair reached out to lightly clench the back of his friend's jacket, then stumbled forward as Jim moved.

Blair felt his eyes trying to adjust to the blackness, but even with his pupils dilated to their fullest, they could not gather enough light to see by. "Man, I really hate this," he murmured, only his tenuous grip on Jim's jacket giving him any sense of stability. Almost immediately, he bumped into something heavy and metal, but Jim diverted him just in time, or he might have collided even harder with whatever it was.

"Sorry," Jim whispered.

"That's OK, I think I still have my kneecaps," Blair replied calmly.

"Very droll, Chief."

They continued forward for several minutes, Blair trying to stay close without trodding on his partner's heels, when Jim stopped abruptly. "I smell blood."

"Oh, yeah," Blair said. "We must be near where the tunnel slopes up. A guy fell through the floor with me and got impaled on a spike of some kind."

"Ugh," Jim agreed, hearing the revulsion in his partner's voice. "OK, it gets really narrow here."

Narrow hardly described it. The walkway they had been following, which bordered the wide conveyer belt, almost vanished. Jim had to squeeze between the tunnel wall and the heavy metalworks of the conveyer system, and then he guided Blair through carefully.

"It's a bit lighter here," he commented softly. "I think there's some light coming through the hole in the floor."

"It would be the ceiling from down here," Blair corrected logically.

"You really are in a mood, aren't you?" Jim countered mildly. He saw Blair grimace in the darkness.

"Sorry. I guess not being able to see has made me a little testy." Still clinging to Jim's jacket, Blair tried to see through the dimness, but he was still essentially blind. "How are we gonna get out of here?"

"There's a metal ladder attached to the wall."

"Yeah, that's how I got out of here the first time."

Jim picked his way through the clutter of old machinery. "Wait a minute," he said suddenly. "I see a doorway."

"You want to check it out?"

"Yeah. The wood looks pretty new."

Jim led the way to the door and tested the handle. Locked.

"Chief, I could use that penknife of yours again."

Obligingly, Blair handed it over.

Unlike the noisy outer door, this one swung inward with the merest whisper of sound. Jim felt along the wall just inside the entry. "There's a light switch. Cover your eyes. I'm gonna flip it on."

The room was suddenly bathed in harsh white light. Blair squinted against the brightness and saw tall stacks of boxes filling almost every inch of floor space. "Wow. Are those all guns?"

"No," Jim answered grimly, making a quick survey through the room. "There are land mines, grenades, boxes of ammo, and even a Stinger missile or two."

"Looks like we found where Clawson stashes his merchandise," Blair commented, surprised by the sheer volume of deadly weapons. "Do you think -- ?"

With a suddenness that was disconcerting, the room plunged back into blackness. Behind him, Blair heard the door slam shut. As the sound echoed in the confines of the storage area, he heard another, stranger sound -- as if a ball bearing was rolling around on the floor.

"Sandburg, drop and cover!" Jim shouted desperately, scrambling to reach the spot where he had last seen his partner.

The warning came too late as a brilliant flash of light, followed immediately by a concussion wave, slammed Blair helplessly into the nearest stack of crates. Stunned momentarily, his eyes and ears rendered useless by the force of the blast, he barely had time to register the explosion before the crates shifted and fell, smashing him to the floor.

Another explosion followed, this one an inner white-hot flash of pain that seemed to radiate through his entire body, and then blessed unconsciousness overtook him.

Clamping down desperately on all his senses, Jim was rocked off his feet by the explosion and thrown across the room. He landed hard and rolled, tumbling in an ungainly ball of arms and legs, until he thumped to a stop against an unyielding wall. Disoriented in the darkness, the ground seemed to tilt as he fought for equilibrium. He'd caught a glimpse of the object as it was thrown into the room and recognized the egg-shape immediately as a grenade. Hoping Clawson wouldn't destroy his own merchandise, he guessed it was a stun grenade instead of a fragmentation grenade, which could have killed them and probably started a chain reaction with the stored ammo, consuming the building in the resulting explosion.

Blair! Visions of his partner, hurt or dying across the room galvanized him into action. He rolled to his side, bracing one palm against the ground to anchor himself, and cautiously opened his hearing. A ringing vibrated in his inner ear and he resisted the urge to shake his head to rid himself of the irritating noise.

"Blair?" He called softly to his partner, opening his hearing more to listen for an answering groan or heartbeat, anything to reassure him that Sandburg had survived the blast. Focusing his hearing only caused the ringing to increase, so he dialed the sense back down. Hoping the effect was temporary like the amnesia he'd experienced earlier, he shifted to his knees. The movement brought a feeling of sickness and he held still, squeezing his eyes shut against the unpleasant sensation of dangling over an abyss, with nothing but empty space beneath his feet.

After a moment the nausea passed, and he opened his eyes to darkness. He concentrated on his sight, allowing his pupils to widen, searching for any hint of illumination to draw from. When nothing happened, he wasn't sure if he couldn't see because there really was no light in the room, or if he'd been blinded by the blast. Shoving that problem aside, he crawled across the floor, heading for the spot where he'd last seen his partner.

Trying not to jump to the worst conclusion, he patted the floor carefully as he neared the other side of the room. His hand finally closed around flesh -- Sandburg's hand. Grasping the wrist, he felt for a pulse and let out the breath he'd been holding when a steady beat vibrated against his fingers. Thank god! Feeling around in the dark, he discovered two crates lying across Blair's back. Thankfully, none of the heavy boxes had landed on his head. The others had fallen to the floor and smashed open, spilling their contents and packing in spreading fans across the ground.

Moving around to get a good grip on one of the crate's corners, Jim lifted carefully, intending to shove the wooden box to the side. When his muscles clenched with the effort, burning pain ripped through his gut and his grip faltered, but with a determined grunt, he cast the crate off his friend, then sank weakly to his knees.

"Oh man," he groaned, pressing a hand to his sore stomach. "If we get out of this alive, Sandburg, you and I have a long vacation ahead of us." He rested for another minute, alarmed when the searing burn faded but the aching pain remained to throb in his belly. Knowing someone would come soon to check on them, he concentrated on getting the other crate off Blair, deliberately ignoring his own discomforts.

He pushed his shoulder against the box that rested on his partner's legs, wincing in sympathy as the rough wood dragged across the young man before thumping to the floor.

Moving quickly to Sandburg's head, he leaned down to feel the young man's breath against his cheek, then ran his fingers over the unconscious man's scalp. There was a gash across his temple, probably where one of the crates had caught him as they fell. He dialed his sense of touch up, and felt along Blair's back, down the ridges of his backbone, searching carefully for breaks or dislocated bones. Although the heat of bruising warmed his fingertips, there were no breaks to disrupt the regular bumps of the spine. Sighing in relief, he slid both palms down his friend's sides and around the curve of his ribs, feeling slight irregularities in a couple of the bones. A few of his ribs were cracked, but none were broken.

Cautiously, with one hand resting lightly on Blair's back, he focused on his hearing. The irritating buzz was still there, but above it, he could hear the hum of voices in the distance, and the comforting thump of his partner's heartbeat beneath his hand. Using his roommate's pulse as an anchor, he sent his hearing out, concentrating on the men's voices. He heard the monotone drone of Clawson and focused on his words.

". . . . no, not yet. They're not going anywhere. I want you to keep an eye on the policemen out front. Hopefully, they'll start getting bored soon and leave, since they haven't been able to find us or the merchandise. I want you to . . . "

The buzz rose in volume and drowned out the voices and Jim shook his head in frustration. "They're not coming for us yet," he mumbled to himself. Turning back to Blair, he gently grasped his partner's shoulder and pulled the young man toward him, rolling him to his back. He needed to get them up and moving, so they could get out of the room before Clawson's men came back.

Sliding one hand under Blair's neck, he supported his head gently while tapping on his cheek with the other hand.

"Chief! Blair, can you hear me? Come on, time to wake up, buddy."

The head cradled in his hands moved, turned to the side. A groan rumbled through Blair's throat as he began to wake up.

"That's it, Chief, come back. Blair? It's Jim, can you hear me?"

Cool fingers reached up and touched his face, moving gently over his eyes and traced along his cheekbones.

"Jim?" Blair's voice was quiet, hesitant. "Jim, I can't see . . . I'm blind."

Hearing the panic in the young man's voice, Ellison hastened to reassure him. "No you're not, the room's dark. I can't see either." Deciding not to mention the fact that they might both be blind, Jim carefully removed his hand from Blair's neck and slid his arm around the young man's back.

"What happened?" Blair brought one hand down to press against his forehead where the headache seemed to be worse. Pain thrummed just behind his eyeballs, and he squeezed them shut against the unwelcome sensation.

"Stun grenade. You fell back against the crates, and a couple of 'em landed on you. You've got a couple of fractured ribs, and a possible concussion."

"God, how many bones am I gonna break for this case?" Blair mumbled, not really expecting an answer. "How 'bout you? Are you all right?"

"Yeah, at least I didn't have any boxes fall on me. We need to get out of here, though. Think you can move?"

"Um, yeah, I think so. Give me a hand . . . " Blair placed his hand on Jim's arm and traced his way to his shoulder. Grabbing a fist full of the other man's shirt, he pulled himself up with Ellison's help. Pain shocked a grunt out of him when his ribs protested the movement. As soon as they stood up, Blair doubled over, overcome with nausea. "Oh god, I think I'm gonna throw up."

Knowing the feeling, Jim held him patiently, ready to help if the nausea turned into something worse. He heard Blair taking slow shallow breaths in the dark, as much as his injured ribs would allow. After a moment, the young man straightened, leaning against Jim.

"Sorry."

"No need. Same thing happened to me first time I moved."

"Yeah?" Blair's voice sounded weary as the word slurred out of him.

Jim moved forward, stretching out one arm as he searched for the wall. Blair remained silently at his side, clinging to his shirt for balance. When his hand touched the wall he shuffled sideways, trying to remember the layout of the room in his mind's eye. He found the light switch and tried it, but someone had pulled the circuit breaker outside the room. The door should have been about two feet . . . there! A crease dipped under his questing fingers and he traced the line to the latch.

Gently, so as not to make any noise, he tried the handle. It gave easily under his hand, but the door would not open. As he'd suspected, it had been secured from the outside with a padlock.

Blair was clutching Jim's jacket again to keep himself centered in the darkness. "You need my knife again?" he asked softly.

"It's padlocked on the outside," Jim explained quietly. "Stay with me; I'm going to scout the room." First, however, he knelt by the door and felt along its base. A band of weather stripping stretched across the width of the door, and he pulled at it experimentally. It came free without resistance, and soon a narrow strip of light appeared between the wood and the floor. "Can you see that?"

"Barely," his partner admitted. "The room is still like pitch. How about you -- is it enough for you to see by?"

"Bright as day," Jim assured him, exaggerating just a bit because he figured they could both use a boost to their morale right about then.

He scanned the room in the dim light, playing close attention to the ceiling. "There's a trapdoor," he said at last, "and some sort of ventilator shaft. The shaft is too narrow to crawl through, but the trapdoor looks promising."

"How are you going to climb up to it?" Blair asked practically.

"Built a staircase," Jim answered simply, moving toward the crates. He groaned as he pushed the first one into position. "Damn, I don't know if I'll be able to do it."

"Then let me do it," Blair reasoned patiently. "You just guide my hands, and let me to the lifting."

"Damnit, you've got two busted fingers, a sprained elbow, a couple of cracked ribs, a gash in your temple, and enough bruises and contusions to keep an emergency room busy for hours," Jim grumbled darkly. "You can't go heaving boxes around."

Blair could hear the frustration in his partner's voice and put a calming hand on Jim's sleeve. "Together, Jim, OK? We can do this together."

"Maybe there's another way," Jim insisted. "There's enough explosives in here to start a war. Maybe I can blow the door."

"Even if you didn't blow us up in the process, what about the men outside?" Blair returned reasonably. "There were three trucks, so that means at least Clawson and three drivers. I'll bet there are even more. You can't take on that many men, even with a room full of heavy firepower."

Jim sighed. "You're right. OK, stairway it is." He guided Blair to the next crate, then helped him lift it and put it in place. Although his body protested the exertion, he ignored it, concentrating instead on the catch he heard in Blair's breathing as the younger man struggled not to make a sound as old pains reawakened to join new ones.

At one point, as he lifted a box and twisted wrong, putting too much strain on his fractured ribs, Blair gasped and nearly dropped his burden. With a resolute grunt, he managed to put it down before collapsing atop it.

Jim immediately crouched beside him, his hand clutching Blair's good arm in support. "You OK? You look ready to pass out."

"I'll be OK," Blair whispered past clenched teeth. "I just need to rest a minute, OK?"

"Sure," Jim agreed readily. "We can both use a breather." He sat down on the crate and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Sorry I flaked out." Blair sounded bitter with failure.

Jim actually chuckled. "Are you nuts? We've gone more than twenty-four hours without food or water, been banged up with enough assorted injuries to serve as first aid models for paramedic training, and spent the night in the cold. I think we deserve a little time off after this is over, don't you?"

Blair smiled at the thought. "Someplace luxurious, with a warm fire and a soft bed."

"Except for the 'luxurious' part, I think we can manage that in the loft."

"Sounds good to me," Blair agreed. "No packing, and it already has our brand of beer in the fridge." He stood up with determination. "OK, you've motivated me. Let's build."

Although they worked slowly and carefully, both were weak and sweating by the time the crates were piled high enough to reach the trapdoor. Jim climbed up the makeshift stairs and tentatively pushed at the cover. With a loud creak, it pushed up under the urging of his fingers. As Jim worked to slide it aside, a cascade of dust drifted down and coated his head and face. He managed to harness a violent sneeze just in time.

Light filtered in from above. With luck, it indicated there was a way out. He paused to extend his hearing to locate Clawson and his men. They were still in the tunnel, patiently waiting out the police search going on above them in the warehouse and outside along the riverbank. "Chief, come on up here," he urged quietly.

Using Jim's guiding hand for stability, Blair carefully felt his way up the crates. "Hey, I think I can actually see," he murmured when he finally reached the top.

"Good," Jim said. "Anchor me for a minute, will you? I want to find out where the police are, and I'm afraid I might lose my balance or something on top of this box."

"Sure," Blair agreed readily. He could just reach the edge of the trapdoor with his good arm, and he braced himself as well as he could. Very carefully, he wrapped his injured arm around Jim's waist. "Man, don't zone, OK? There's no way I can hold you if you start to fall."

"OK," Jim answered. It was a very tight space with the two of them jammed together on the top of their shaky stairway. He put a hand up against the ceiling to help steady himself, then slowly began to breathe in the focusing technique his Guide had taught him so long ago. As extraneous sensations slipped away, he fixed on the arm wrapped around him, anchoring him in time and place, then sent his hearing outward, past the heartbeats in the tunnel -- Blair had been right, he realized; there were at least seven men out there -- and up to the warehouse level.

The police hadn't found the hidden spaces of the old sawmill. They were monitoring the exits to the warehouse that had been erected inside the older building. Others were in concealment near the sport utilities the bad guys had abandoned on the riverbed.

Satisfied the police were well clear of any possible harm, Jim smiled slightly and drew himself back to the comforting presence of his Guide. "If we find a way out of here, I'm gonna blow this room," he whispered. "The blast will take out Clawson and his men, but all the cops should be out of danger." He felt Blair's body tense against the idea, but the younger man didn't voice an objection.

Normally preferring a non-violent solution, even Blair realized they were running out of options as they ran out of strength. "OK," he said reluctantly, then peered at the opening above them. "Can you pull yourself through there?"

"I don't think so," Jim admitted. "I'll have to boost you up, and then you can help haul me through." He didn't sound pleased with the idea, since he usually scouted the way before permitting his Guide to follow. But this time, he didn't have any choice. "Be careful. Whatever's up there is at ground level, but you've already fallen through the floor once, and I don't want you doing it again."

"Believe me, every inch of my body remembers that little adventure," Blair replied with a shaky laugh. "I have no intention of a repeat performance."

Jim made a convenient stirrup of his hands. "By the way, it really stinks up there."

Blair winced. "Great. If I run into a colony of skunks, I may have to rethink our partnership."

Jim chuckled. "Trust me, if you run into a colony of skunks, the partnership is over."

"Always knew I could count on you," Blair murmured jokingly in response, then scrambled through the opening with Jim's assisting heave. A moment later, he gasped a frightened, "Ah, shit -- !"

-- and then all hell broke loose.

It started with a wild cacophony, a rolling thunder as loud as a standing ovation on the opening night of a hit play. Jim winced against the noise, then covered his ears and doubled over in pain as a high-pitched squeal assaulted his hearing, the disorienting shriek almost toppling him off the crates.

He knew he couldn't give into the impulse to remain huddled over. His partner was up there in the midst of that chaos, and Jim felt no greater imperative than to protect him. In the next instant, he grabbed the edge of the opening and pulled himself up, grunting in agony as his abdominal muscles protested. He felt something tear, and the pain nearly drove him down into darkness, but he fought against it, just as he fought against the almost overwhelming stench that assailed his nostrils as he flopped face down on the floor, his legs still dangling through the trapdoor.

Another heave, and he was completely through the opening. Scrambling desperately to his hands and knees, he resisted a panic-stricken response to flail at the frightened bats swirling around his head. He found Blair only inches away, crouched in a ball of terror as he shielded his face and head from the onslaught, and he used his own body as a shield to further protect him.

"It's just bats," he said gently, hiding his face in the fabric of Blair's jacket. "They'll clear out in a minute."

"I know," Blair answered, his voice tight with barely restrained panic as he huddled motionless and let the rampaging colony flow around him. "Except I've got one stuck in my hair."

Instinctively, Jim started to reach for it.

"Don't, Jim," Blair implored. "It may have rabies."

The swirling storm of wings had decreased considerably as the disturbed bats fled from the sanctuary of their "cave" and flew into the unaccustomed daylight beyond the walls. Jim looked at the little bat, a baby from all appearances, which seemed bemused but not alarmed by the unusual nest surrounding him. He managed a slight chuckle. "It's no wonder he likes his new bed," he commented softly. "The top of your head looks like a tree exploded in your hair."

"Oh, thank you very much," Blair murmured in peeved response. He trembled as the little mammal shifted and tried to work itself free of the encumbrance. "Oh, man," he moaned, fighting to stay calm. "How's it doing?"

"It's almost free," Jim assured him, raising himself up now that the rest of the bats were gone. "The stench is about to knock me out, though."

Carefully, Blair uncurled himself and sat up, desperately ignoring the unwelcome passenger atop his head. They were in a narrow wall space between the two structures. It was crisscrossed with large beams, and the walls towered upward into the gloom. He could barely see the roof some forty feet overhead. The interior wall, part of the newer warehouse, was metal siding, but the outer wall of the old lumber mill was wood, the boards warped and splintered.

Together, they managed to help each other up, and Jim peered at the top of Blair's head. "Actually, your new headgear is kind of cute."

"You are so not funny, Jim," Blair retorted, but there was laughter in his voice. "If that thing bites me and I have to get rabies shots, you get to do all the laundry and cooking for the rest of the year."

Jim and the bat appraised one another for a moment, each finally deciding the other didn't pose a threat. "I think he's settling down for a nap."

"Just get us out of here, OK?" Blair urged. "The bat won't like the sunlight, so he'll fly off." After a moment, he added, "I hope."

Jim tested the rotted boards, and they gave easily. When he had a space big enough for them to get through, he pulled something from his pocket and held it up for Blair to see. "Incendiary grenade," he explained calmly. "We'll have about four seconds once I toss this thing through the trapdoor."

Blair looked reluctant. "You're sure about this, Jim?"

"Would you rather I find Simon and get him to barricade the warehouse? Clawson has enough firepower down there to stand off an army. I'm not willing to risk the lives of other cops on the off-chance Clawson can be taken alive."

After a minute of contemplation, Blair nodded. "OK. How big will the explosion be?"

"Very big," Jim admitted.

"You're sure the cops are clear of the blast?"

"Yeah. The only ones I'm worried about are us." Jim gripped the pin of the grenade. "Get going."

Blair went only far enough to slip through the opening to the outside. "We're going together," he returned calmly.

Jim grimaced at his partner's stubbornness, then nodded. He really hadn't expected any less. Taking a deep breath, he released the safety and lobbed the grenade perfectly through the trapdoor into the munitions storage room. In the same moment, he heard the door below open, and Clawson's triumphant voice sneer, "I hope you've enjoyed your little rest, gentlemen, but it's time -- "

Jim didn't catch the rest, because he was lunging through the opening after his partner. Without hesitation, the two men sprinted away from the warehouse, putting as much distance between themselves and the coming explosion as they could. Fervently, Jim hoped the bulk of the destruction would be contained within the underground tunnel, with the rest of the force going straight up through the warehouse above. But he wasn't going to stop and test his theory.

It wasn't until his mental timer had counted to 'three' that he realized what they were running toward. Before he could shout a warning, the warehouse erupted in a firestorm of sound, heat and flame. The two men were thrown forward, unable to save themselves from what lay ahead.

Jim thought the bat, at least, showed good judgement by fleeing the tangle of Blair's head before catastrophe stuck yet again.

And then he thought nothing at all.

<*>>>(*)<<<*>

Blair really didn't want to open his eyes. For one thing, he was certain he wouldn't like the view. For another, he was equally certain opening his eyes would prove the past two days had not been some twisted nightmare.

He opened his eyes.

He found himself looking down at rocks that formed part of a sloping wall. The rocks had been tumbled in haphazardly and covered with cement and chain link fencing to create a barrier of sorts against erosion when the river ran high at snowmelt. He was dangling about midway between the top and base of the wall.

Dangling?

Ah, shit, he was in a tree.

With this realization came a flood of memory -- the explosion, the concussion lifting him helplessly into the air and propelling him forward, off the edge of the riverbank. Stunned by the force of the blast, he'd felt himself falling, only to be cushioned by a thousand soft fingers that drew him into a caressing embrace.

Oh, yeah. Tree branches. So much for soft fingers. At least the tree was a sapling, its branches thin and pliable. They really had cushioned his fall, eventually stopping him altogether some eight feet above the water trickling downstream.

Except he'd lost Jim somewhere along the way. Twisting his head awakened new and old aches across every inch of his body, but at least nothing new appeared to be broken. In fact, the worst pain came from his broken fingers, which throbbed relentlessly as blood pounded into his dangling hand. Wincing, he pulled his hand up and rested his elbow on a branch to elevate the fingers and help reduce the swelling.

The movement was enough to dislodge him, and with a cry of protest, he fell through the rest of the branches and landed hard on the sandy ground. The trickling water soaked his jeans, chilling him instantly.

Resolutely, he struggled to his feet and looked dazedly around for his friend.

Jim was a few yards away, sprawled face up in the riverbed, the moisture and sand clinging to his face and shirtfront ample testimony that he'd managed to turn himself over at some point after falling.

With frustrating slowness, his legs stubbornly refusing to move more quickly, Blair staggered to Jim's side and fell to his knees. "Jim?" he called anxiously, searching for a pulse.

"Go away," Jim murmured.

Blair almost laughed with relief. "I can't. You're gonna freeze to death if you keep lying here."

Jim opened his eyes and squinted up at his partner. "You know," he said conversationally, "I don't think there's a square inch of my body that doesn't have a bruise."

"Yeah, me too," Blair admitted, starting to shiver. "Come on, man, if nothing's broken, we gotta get out of this riverbed."

Groaning, Jim tried to sit up. When that didn't work, he rolled onto his stomach again and used his arms to push himself to hands and knees. "I've done this before," he recalled, but he was unable to recollect the exact circumstances. It had been recently, though. Then he was able to straighten up and sit on his heels. He dredged up a memory. "The warehouse blew up, right?"

"Right," Blair agreed. "You tossed a grenade."

Jim's forehead furrowed in concentration. "Sirens -- I hear sirens," he said. "And voices. Simon's."

"Cool," Blair approved. "What say we get up and find him?"

"As you would say, I'm down with that," Jim agreed, but he still sounded dazed. "Exactly how are we supposed to do that?"

The problem required a lot of hard concentration, and Blair worried at it for awhile. "Well, we should probably stand up first," he suggested at last.

"OK," Jim concurred. With a great deal of wincing and groaning, the two men managed to drag each other up until they stood swaying together. "Great. Now what?"

"Uh, we have to get out of this gully," Blair commented, looking at the sloping wall that loomed in front of them.

Jim eyed it suspiciously. "I don't think we can climb that even on a good day."

Blair looked left and right. "It can't extend all that far, can it?" he speculated. "I mean, we climbed the riverbank where we found the tunnel mouth. That wasn't very far from the warehouse, was it?"

It took too much effort to remember. "Let's check," Jim said, hobbling downstream in what he figured was the right direction. Well, it had to be the right direction -- they'd been closer to the ocean before, hadn't they, and wouldn't that mean they had to go downstream to find the spot again?

Blair limped along beside him, and they made slow progress along the sandy riverbed. They skirted piles of driftwood and hillocks covered with tall grasses before reaching the end of the retaining wall. It ended gradually, chainlink and cement stopping long before the dense piles of rock, which gradually dwindled until the riverbed widened again and the natural erosion process continued.

They found a place to scramble up the bank, although 'scrambled' was not really an apt description of the slow hands-and-knees crawl they had to use. Topside once again -- Jim figured he'd crawled up far too many riverbanks lately, and it was always the same damn one -- they achieved verticalness once again and headed toward the warehouse.

Or rather, they headed toward the huge, smoldering pile of what used to be the warehouse. Thick clouds of smoke poured skyward from the ruins, while here and there, flames still licked hungrily at ancient wood. Many of the walls remained standing, giving the structure a rather skeletal look. Firefighters tackled numerous small blazes, the growl of the pumpers loud in the cold, still air.

Irrelevantly, Blair was rather glad they'd spooked the bats into leaving before the explosion. "Uh, Jim?" he suddenly asked nervously. "Any sign of my nesting houseguest?"

Jim ruffled the windblown snarl of his partner's hair. "Gone but not soon to be forgotten," he replied.

Blair sighed with relief. "Good." He realized they'd stopped sometime during their trek. "Jim, shouldn't we be moving?"

Jim nodded. "Yep, that's the idea."

Still, neither man took a step forward.

"I don't want to spend another night out here," Blair murmured.

"No," Jim agreed.

They remained motionless.

"Maybe Simon will see us," Blair suggested.

Jim sounded hopeful. "You think?"

"Probably not."

Jim sighed. "Motivation."

"Yeah." Blair thought for a moment. "Hot shower."

They took a step.

"Soft mattress," Jim offered.

They took another.

"A hot bowl of -- anything."

"A Jags game on the tube."

Blair made an instant association. "Popcorn," he proclaimed proudly.

"And beer."

They were nearly to the closest fire engine when Simon finally spotted them. The Captain hurried over and halted in amazement at the sight of the filthy apparitions swaying before him. "Jim! Blair! We've been looking all over for you!" he exclaimed, astounded by the sight. "Where have you been?"

Jim pondered the question. "Oh, over there," he answered, using his chin to gesture to his left.

"And over there," Blair added, using his thumb to point back over his shoulder.

Jim looked toward the demolished warehouse. "And in there a time or two."

"Under it a couple of times," Blair pointed out.

"Right," Jim agreed. He smiled brightly at his captain. "Just kind of here, there, and everywhere."

"You're both delirious," Simon observed a little anxiously. Since the pumpers were still making a lot of noise, he used his cell phone to reach the paramedics standing by further along the pavement.

A moment later, the bright red truck pulled up beside them, and the paramedics climbed out to tend to the injured. They urged their patients to sit down while they wrapped them in blankets and listened to the incredible litany of their injuries.

Finally, one of the paramedics said, "I think the best thing we can do for them is get a set of vitals, keep them warm, and get them to the hospital."

"No!" Jim and Blair protested in unison.

"No hospital," Blair finished.

"Right -- warm bed, hot food, Jags game," Jim insisted.

The paramedic was not deterred. "Maybe they won't keep you overnight, but they'll at least need some x-rays of your broken fingers," he said to Blair. Turning to Jim, he added, "And the doctor'll want to find out if you've got a pulled muscle or if you've possibly ruptured your spleen. Even a small rupture could be causing you to bleed internally."

The patients remained stubbornly opposed to the notion.

"I'll make it an order if you prefer," Simon said sweetly, taking advantage of his position.

"That's very rank of you, sir," Jim retorted bitterly.

"I'll ignore that remark, Detective," Simon responded blithely.

"OK," Blair bargained, "we'll go to the hospital -- but only for a couple of hours. No overnight stay."

"Unless the doctor insists," Simon countered.

"Semi-private room," Blair shot back, "just Jim and me -- and takeout food from Mosconi's, no cafeteria chow."

"Italian?" Jim murmured, debating other options.

"Good, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs pasta," Blair pointed out reasonably.

Jim nodded. "OK, as long as I can get some french fries, too."

Blair looked back at Simon. "And french fries."

Simon threw up his hands in frustration. "And french fries!" he agreed in exasperation. "You two must be out of your minds, and I must be out of my mind to be debating this with you." He spotted the ambulance approaching. "OK, gentlemen, your ride's here. End of discussion."

Jim leaned into Blair. "Did we win?" he whispered.

As Jim's shoulder came within comfortable pillow distance, Blair's head dropped and he was asleep before he even heard the question.

Jim rested his cheek against the tangle of chestnut hair. "Yeah, we won," he answered himself, dozing off as the ambulance pulled to a stop.

THE END

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