The Sentinel belongs to Pet Fly and Paramount. The Crow: Stairway to Heaven is from Rysher Entertainment. The X-Files is Chris Carter Productions. Early Edition is owned by CBS.

Note: This is primarily a Sentinel/Crow: Stairway to Heaven crossover. Mulder and Scully have only minor roles to play, while Early Edition plays an even smaller part. I thought I'd warn you so you can stop reading here if I've given short shrift to your particular favorite.

If you're into timelines, this story occurs prior to the Crow's "The People v. Eric Draven" and before the resurrection of the X-Files following its shutdown by mysterious forces. Yes, this story has been in work for a long time.

Thanks to my beta readers, Susan Williams and Shellie. With 7 main characters all talking at once, this was a POV-challenged writer's nightmare! Rate PG-13 for violence and a bit of bad language. May 2000.

Episodes of Synchronicity
-- by Mackie/

Part One

The harsh crack of splintering wood echoed through the winter-shrouded neighborhood, rousing sleepy residents and setting up a chorus of furious barking from a multitude of suburban dogs.

The assault team followed immediately upon the battering ram, their weapons snouting before them. A dozen Kevlar-clad agents stormed through the derelict house, their litany of shouts sounding remarkably like a counterpoint to the dogs outside.

"FBI!"

"Kitchen clear!"

"FBI!"

"Bedroom clear!"

"FBI!"

"Back bedroom clear!"

The agents in suits arrived more leisurely, but their Kevlar vests testified to the fact that they were taking the situation seriously.

Special Agent Dana Scully was bundled in a sweater and overcoat atop her protective vest; she knew from experience just how bitterly cold the Chicago winter could be. Out of consideration for any militant types who might have been looking for a handy target, she wore a fabric vest with the letters FBI stenciled boldly across the back. She often thought no bulls-eye could be more inviting.

In the kitchen, she held her hand over the bacon and its accompanying grease just starting to congeal in a frying pan on the stovetop. "We didn't miss them by much."

Fox Mulder cautiously picked his way through the litter on the floor. "I wonder why I've never met a compulsively neat militiaman." He thrust his hands in his coat pockets and looked around the room with idle detachment. Since his work with the X-Files had been officially suspended, the Bureau had been shifting him around, trying to find a niche to occupy their embarrassingly eccentric agent until such time as they could shuffle him out the door permanently.

His current gig with a Terrorist Interdiction Task Force was the most recent of the wide-ranging assignments he'd endured over the past few months.

It was all unutterably boring for the brilliant, well-educated student of the paranormal, the weird, and the just plain unexplained.

Dana Scully, a medical doctor who'd chosen the FBI over more lucrative careers, had been tainted by the same broadly stroked brush wielded by as yet unknown men who sought to keep Mulder from learning the Truth. If the Truth really was "Out There," the behind-the-scenes manipulators were doing one hell of a fine job keeping it hidden from him. Although she was currently assigned to the Forensics Science division of the Bureau, she'd wrangled an opportunity to join Mulder on his trip to Chicago. Although she'd never thought she would admit it, peering into microscopes was becoming something of a drag.

She followed Mulder into the living room of the dismal hovel. It was as depressing as the rest of what she'd seen thus far -- threadbare rugs covering splintered wood floors, a badly sprung sofa with split cushions, a scarred table, and several mismatched wooden chairs.

Special Agent Reynolds, the senior agent in the Chicago office, sighed with disappointment when they joined him. "Do you think someone tipped them off that we were coming?"

"More like some *thing*," Mulder opined, watching all the activity. Part of his assignment had been to demonstrate to the field agents the latest cyber-hunting techniques for tracking terrorists via the Internet. Unfortunately, the demonstration had unearthed a genuine lead, but the FBI hadn't been able to mobilize in time to act. "We probably left a footprint while we were stomping around in cyberspace."

The head of the assault team came up to them. "No sign of booby traps. We've found something back here you might want to see."

"Back here" proved to be a rear bedroom set up as an office. Although the furniture was as shabby as everything else that graced this old house, the state-of-the-art computer system was incongruously high tech. Maps of the West Coast of the United States were pinned to the wall, sharing space with pinups of improbably endowed sultry females apparently achieving equally improbable heights of sexual gratification. Three black-and-white, 8x10 photos were totally out of place. They were blurry blowups of smaller photos, their subjects captured unaware. Large, red crosshairs had been inked across the foreheads of each subject.

Mulder tapped the picture of the older man, whose crew cut and no-nonsense expression gave him an air of military competence. "I know this man."

Scully peered at the photo. Good-looking man. "Who is he?"

Mulder sifted through his multitude of memories. "Ellsworth -- Ellroy -- no, Ellison!" Memory apparently failed, and he grimaced. "Somebody -- Ellison. He was the lone survivor of a covert mission to Peru, took on the rebel forces and held them off with the help of a native militia for more than a year."

Scully examined the other photos. "This picture of the younger man, the one with long hair, is a blowup from the same photo taken of Ellison."

"What about the third guy?" Special Agent Reynolds asked curiously.

The visiting agents looked at him pityingly.

The assault-team leader cleared his throat, sounding embarrassed for his boss. "That's Boy Curtis, the Chicago gay-rights activist." He didn't have to add that the words "Chicago", "gay rights", and "activist" should have implanted Curtis firmly in the senior agent's memory banks long ago.

Apparently, Reynolds thought so too. "Sorry." He frowned, making an unpleasant mental connection. "I think my son has a poster of him on his bedroom wall."

Mulder's eyebrows went up, and Scully turned away to hide a smile.

Reynolds coughed and tried to recover from his discomfort. "Well, it's pretty obvious our suspects have moved on. I need to put the investigation in motion to track them down. Agent Mulder, Agent Scully, thank you for coming to Chicago to brief my team, but I think you should probably return to Washington now."

Surprisingly, Mulder offered no objections. "Good idea." He politely shook hands with the resident agent, bade farewell to the leader of the assault team, and herded a bemused Scully out the front door and down the sidewalk.

"Mulder, what's with the bum's rush?" she demanded, climbing into their rental sedan and fastening her seatbelt. "Without our help, I don't think Agent Reynolds has a hope of tracking down these terrorists."

"You're absolutely right, Scully," Mulder agreed, starting the engine. "They're heading for Cascade."

"Where?"

"Cascade, Washington -- State of."

Scully rapidly tired of Mulder's penchant for unhelpful brevity. "And why are you certain they're on their way to Cascade, Washington, State of?"

Mulder smiled as he fastened his seatbelt. "Because Detective James Ellison and a police observer named Sandburg are the ones who nailed Garrett Kincaid a couple of years ago."

Scully recalled the cross-hairs defacing the photos. "And you think the Sunrise Patriots are going after them to avenge the capture of their leader?"

"Kincaid got a retrial. I read about it last week in one of the countless update bulletins the Bureau circulates. That's why I remember the case. Right now, he's out of the Federal penitentiary and sitting comfortably in Cascade's central lockup."

It didn't take a rocket scientist to reach the logical conclusion, and Scully was smarter than the average physicist. "They're going to break Kincaid out of jail."

"Two birds and all that," Mulder agreed, putting the car in gear. "Break out Kincaid and take care of the men who caught him in the first place. The plan makes good use of their frequent-flyer miles, don't you think?"

Part Two

Eric Draven didn't need to sleep any more. He didn't need to eat. Neither of these things was particularly surprising: he'd been dead for more than a year.

What was surprising, however, was that Eric Draven still walked and talked. And he wasn't a ghost, either, not in any conventional definition of ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists or spirits. Nope, he was a solid flesh and blood -- well, okay, not blood, but something equally real.

He was real. Unique, perhaps (or perhaps not) in the world of mundane mortal concerns, but still as real as the cherished guitar he strummed when he was feeling melancholy, and as real as the heavy-metal nightclub where he worked to earn an honest wage so he could address the ordinary subject of the rent money.

Rent money was as vital to him as eating was to the living, because he would not leave this apartment, not ever. Or at least not until he finally crossed to the other side and could be reunited with the love of his life -- the love of his eternity -- Shelly.

They'd lived together in this apartment, made love together in this apartment, made plans for the future here...been murdered together here.

They'd crossed over to the Other Side. Frankly, Eric was more than a little amazed to discover there was an "other side," but he hadn't minded if it meant an eternal afterlife with Shelly.

Only fate decreed other plans for him.

He'd been returned to the realm of the living.

Confused, uncertain, frightened, and more than a little pissed off, he'd been thrown back like some fish that hadn't measured up. Up until then, he'd pretty much figured death was the only prerequisite for leaving life behind.

Apparently, he'd been wrong.

His young friend, Sarah Mohr, had figured it out. She'd accepted his rebirth as a walking dead guy with hardly a flicker of surprise. But then, Sarah was an unusual adolescent; she'd grown up much faster than her years should have required. The streets were her school of choice; society's outcasts, oddballs, and nutcases were her chosen playmates. Home was a cheap tenement where, until recently, her lush of a mother, Darla, had entertained her scumbag boyfriends.

Something had happened to Darla to make her want to turn her life around. She'd been sober for a while now, and she had a decent job on the reception desk at the local police precinct.

Sarah, a devout pessimist, had observed this transformation with the notion that it would be transitory, something to be enjoyed for as long as it lasted, but never meant to be permanent. She didn't know what had caused the positive changes in Darla, but she suspected it had something to do with Eric.

He and Shelly had been among Sarah's offbeat circle of friends. As a dead guy, Eric's status in that elite little group had risen considerably.

Sarah had helped him. She'd done research -- at the library, no less -- and learned the legend of the Crow. The story, as she told it, said that when a person dies, a crow carries the soul to heaven. But sometimes a great sadness is carried with it, and the crow can bring the soul back to earth to set things right.

She'd explained it all to him in bits and pieces, partly because she became bored with research quite easily, and partly because Eric sometimes had the attention span of a goldfish.

So here he was, making like some caped crusader (without the cape, of course) to set things right and earn enough Brownie points to score the big prize, a chance to join Shelly in the Great Beyond, whatever and wherever it was.

Death could be a bitch sometimes.

Occasionally, just for a moment, he could feel Shelly, see her, even speak to her, through a portal between the worlds. It was difficult, impossible sometimes, and depressingly rare, but he wouldn't trade those moments for anything. The portal existed here, in the apartment, which was why he'd do anything to continue living -- or rather staying -- here.

A knock at the door interrupted Eric's idle musings.

"Who is it?" he called, not really interested.

"It's your local newspaper delivery service." Sarah's voice sounded just as bored as Eric felt.

He opened the door, and Sarah held a newspaper up for his inspection: El Train Collision Injures 20.

He glanced at the banner: Chicago Sun-Times.

"Expanding your current-events horizon?" Sarah deadpanned.

"What do you mean?" Eric stepped aside to let her enter. Her school bag was slung over one shoulder, but she believed in flexible attendance. School, for someone as brightly off-center as Sarah, held no interest.

"I mean it is so un-Eric to get a paper delivered." She plopped down on the raised platform that had once defined the border between the dining and living rooms. Or perhaps the dais, with its enormous circular window, broken since the murders, was supposed to display a grand piano. Whatever, it now served as a convenient seat.

Eric sat down beside her. "I don't get a paper delivered."

"It was at your front door."

Eric shrugged. "A mistake."

Sarah was impressed. "A newspaper delivery guy came up sixteen floors to deliver a paper to the wrong door? Wow. I'll bet he does lousy at the track."

"And even if I did get a newspaper, it wouldn't be one from Chicago," Eric said. "That's extending my current-events horizon just a little too far."

Sarah noticed the banner for the first time. "Hey, you're right. Chicago." The medium-sized city of Port Columbia that she called home was definitely left coast of Chicago. Then she noticed something else that shattered her carefully cultivated aplomb. "Eric, look! It's got tomorrow's date on it!"

Still not interested, Eric looked. "So? It's still a mistake."

Sarah sighed at his thick-headedness. "Do you really think anything that's happened to you since you've come back is a mistake?"

Eric fidgeted. "Odds say now and again, yeah." But he was frowning. "Whatever -- I'm not going to Chicago." He didn't have the money for a plane ticket, not if he hoped to pay the rent, and riding his motorcycle that far would take too much time. If fate had plans for him in Chicago, then fate had better rethink her options.

But Sarah was ignoring him as she scanned through the main news section of the paper.

Absently, Eric fingered the sports section. Okay, if the newspaper wasn't a mistake, and he knew the outcome of tomorrow's sporting events before they occurred....

Visions of several months' worth of rent money suddenly danced before his eyes.

Nothing major, of course. Nothing that would attract attention. Besides, dead people didn't need a lot of material things. He was content to have his guitar, his motorcycle, and this apartment. It wouldn't take much cash to see him through the next few months, and maybe by then, he'd have passed muster with the cadaver police and would be allowed to reunite with Shelly.

Sarah had found something. "How about this?"

She held the page up so he could read an article on Page 7: Boy Curtis, Outspoken Gay-Rights Activist, Dead in Double Murder and Suicide in Washington State.

Well, Washington was a big state, but all of it was considerably closer than Chicago. Suspecting Sarah might be right, he read the first paragraph of the story: In an apparent lover's triangle, noted Chicago showman and gay-rights activist Curtis de Young, better known as Boy Curtis, was shot and killed in Cascade, Washington, by a Rainier University professor, Blair Sandburg, in what authorities believe was a lover's triangle. The nude body of Curtis, twenty-six, was found in bed next to the similarly unclothed body of Sandburg's alleged lover, James Ellison, a detective with the Major Crime division of the Cascade Police Department. The bodies were discovered in Ellison's apartment, where Sandburg has been living for the past three years. Both men had been shot numerous times in the upper body. After committing the murders, Sandburg apparently shot himself out of remorse. Investigations are continuing....

Cascade was just a short distance up the coast. Eric scowled. "You think I'm supposed to do something to stop this from happening?" he asked, somewhat bemused.

Sarah rolled her eyes. "No, I think you got the paper so you could break the bank with a half-dozen bookies." She could be more than a bit blunt at times.

Eric smiled slightly. To her, he was often too transparent for his own comfort.

"Look," she went on more reasonably, "you got the paper for a reason. This article about Cascade is the only one that sounds like you can do something about it. What do you think?"

Eric sighed. "A gay professor at Rainier University."

"Yeah."

"And his lover, a cop."

"Yeah."

"Great. I'll just tell this Sandburg fellow that sometimes even the best relationships have problems, and just because his lover is fu -- screw -- making time with some visiting celebrity, that's no reason to go off the deep end." Eric grinned disarmingly. "Think he'll buy it?"

Sarah wasn't to be outdone in the sarcasm department. "Sure, right after he accepts that you're a dead guy who got his information from an issue of tomorrow's newspaper." She smiled sweetly. "And you can say 'fuck' -- I hear it enough times."

"Not from me, you don't," Eric retorted sternly. "And I don't want to hear you saying it, either, dammit. Is that understood?"

"Sheesh. All right already. You're starting to sound as bad as Daryl." She brightened. "Hey, what about Daryl?"

"What about what about Daryl?" Eric asked, confused that the topic had switched to his own reluctant quasi-partner, Detective Daryl Albrecht of the Port Columbia Police. They'd formed an uneasy alliance based on their potential mutual benefit to one another.

To Sarah, it was obvious. "He's a cop. Ellison's a cop. Brothers behind the badge, that sort of thing."

Again, she had a point. At least it would save Eric the trouble of dealing with the Cascade Police. "Okay, I'll talk to him."

"Great, when do we leave?"

Eric stood up. "We don't," he answered firmly. "You go to school."

Sarah stuck the newspaper inside her book bag and hefted it to her shoulder. "Yeah, yeah. How did I know you were gonna say that?"

Eric swatted her lightly on the back of the head as he ushered her ahead of him out the door.

Part Three

"Hurry up, Sandburg, or we're going to be late!"

Jim Ellison trotted down the steps from his upstairs bedroom, his mind already focusing on the hundred-and-one unpleasant tasks he had to perform that day. He had a couple of cases in the final phase of investigation, and he wanted to confirm the last few facts that would nail his suspects. But he was being forced to push those cases aside in order to spend the entire morning with the DA and a couple of hotshot defense attorneys for Garrett Kincaid.

Kincaid and the Sunrise Patriots were old news to Ellison. He'd caught them, and the State had convicted them. If one could just keep the lawyers out of the equation, the whole thing would have been over and done with. But no, some greedy, liberal, bottom-feeding attorney for the Sunrise Patriots had filed hundreds of motions and finally gotten an equally softhearted judge to order a retrial. Something to do with Ellison not reading the suspect his rights when he'd taken Kincaid "into custody." That said "custody" had involved Kincaid hanging from Ellison's leg while both men had dangled from a helicopter a thousand feet above Puget Sound was the point of contention, and a new hearing had been ordered to see if there was sufficient cause to get a re-trial.

If the cop-killing son of a bitch was granted a retrial, Jim was going to give serious thought to putting a bullet between the man's eyes himself. At least the pleasant imagery would help get him through the day.

Blair dashed out of the bathroom and into his room, emerging in less than a minute fumbling with the buttons on his shirt and jeans. "Man, you are one big, exposed nerve ending this morning."

"It's after eight already. If we don't get a move on, I won't have time to stop by the precinct before I'm due at the DA's office."

Blair detoured into the kitchen to pour himself a quick cup of coffee and snare some cold toast. Somehow, his coordination failed him, and he dropped the toast -- buttered side down, of course -- onto the front of his shirt. "Ah, man!"

Ellison's meager patience snapped. "I'm outta here. Will that Volvo of yours run?"

Blair was distracted by the greasy mess on the front of his shirt. "Probably, unless it rains too much." Damp played havoc with his car for some inexplicable reason. He'd already replaced the battery, the battery cables, the starter, and the distributor over the past few months, all to no avail. His mechanic was on a first-name basis with him and smiled with predatory anticipation every time Blair limped the old car into the shop.

"Okay, then I'll see you this afternoon, right?" Jim snagged his jacket off the coat rack by the door, but paused in the act of shrugging into it. "Chief? I really need you there this afternoon."

"I know, I know." Although frequently irritated by Jim's cajoling him into doing the bulk of the paperwork -- a flagrant abuse of their partnership -- he figured this time it was justified. The Kincaid matter had descended on them out of the blue and added to an already heavy caseload. Blair's organizational and typing skills kept the paperwork flowing smoothly. "I'll be there right after my last class."

He headed for his room to change his shirt without another glance at Jim, who had accepted his assurances and finished buttoning his jacket before charging out the door.

Part Four

Detective Daryl Albrecht was not having a good morning. First, he'd been late for work, a practice frowned upon by his Captain, who found the detective's less than orthodox but suspiciously successful investigative techniques a trial to his patience. Next, he'd spilled coffee down the front of his white shirt, scalding himself and creating a dark stain that one of his more callous colleagues had laughingly described as skin pigment bleeding through the fabric.

Oh, yeah, a laugh riot, that one. Even the man's partner had been embarrassed.

But Albrecht had just smiled tolerantly. After all, he'd grown up surrounded by prejudice, and he knew the real thing when he saw it. The other cop had been trying to be funny, and he would have been shocked to think his insensitive remark had been racist.

In fact, Albrecht was surprisingly content with his current assignment. Despite the usual tensions that went along with a high-stress job, his coworkers were remarkably free of bigotry and ill will. The department had come a long way since he'd been a rookie patrol officer, and although he wasn't popular by any means, it was because of his solitary work habits and not because of the color of his skin.

He managed to rinse most of the coffee stain from his shirt and changed into the clean tee and shirt he always kept in his locker before returning to the squad room. His day abruptly got worse when he saw Eric Draven strolling toward him.

Now, it was one thing for Daryl to know that Eric was dead. It was altogether a different matter to have the man actually walk through the squad room. Too many detectives knew about Eric's murder or had worked the case. Furthermore, Eric never bothered to fabricate a story for himself. Whenever anyone asked, Eric simply told the truth. Of course, most people didn't believe him. But if he was recognized....

Grabbing Eric's arm, he steered the young man into the nearest interrogation room.

"I wish you wouldn't keep showing up here," he hissed angrily.

"Good to see you, too, Albrecht." Eric slouched into one of the wooden chairs and leaned it back to balance precariously on two legs.

Albrecht took a deep breath and calmed himself. Although he wouldn't admit it, especially to Eric, he rather liked the guy. "I just don't want to have to try and explain you to my captain," he said, hitching a leg over a corner of the table. "What can I do for you?"

"You can drive up to Cascade with me and prevent a double murder and suicide," Eric answered simply.

Although he always expected the unexpected where Eric was concerned, this still took the detective by surprise. "Can you add a few more sentences to that request?"

"A gay cop, Jim Ellison, is going to cheat on his partner, a professor named Sandburg. Sandburg catches the cop in bed with the guy, shoots 'em both, then kills himself."

Albrecht frowned. The story was simple enough, but it had left out some important details. "And you say this hasn't happened yet?"

"Right. It's gonna happen tonight, at the cop's apartment."

"Just how did you come by this information?" Albrecht persisted, trying to use normal cop methods to dissect something totally beyond his comprehension. He remembered the crow, Eric's supernatural eyes and ears. "Did a little bird tell you?"

Eric smiled. "Not this time. Even I don't believe how I found out. So can we just be skeptics together while we drive up there and check it out?"

"Why do you need me?"

"Ellison's a cop. I figured you'd have an easier time gaining his confidence," Eric admitted, spreading his arms to indicate his own long hair and black slicker. "I doubt I'm his type."

Albrecht frowned. "I'd better not be his type, either." He thought a moment longer, then reached a decision. "Okay, I'll go with you. I have a vague recollection of this Ellison. He was a soldier or something, made the cover of News Update."

"Good, you can ask him for his autograph," Eric said dryly. He thumped the chair back to the floor and got up. "You gonna need a permission slip from your captain?"

"I'll handle my captain," Albrecht retorted. "Just meet me down at my car."

Eric smiled. "Bring a raincoat. It's pouring out there."

Albrecht nodded. "I knew there was a reason you didn't want to ride your bike."

Part Five

Blair was a bit distracted during his Intro to Cultural Anthropology class. He'd been late because his car had refused to start at first, then he'd been further delayed by a traffic snarl-up due to the pouring rain. Finally, he'd managed to drop his lecture notes dead center in a large puddle right outside the entrance to Hargrove Hall. Without time to dry his clothes or his notes, he'd dashed into the classroom with seconds to spare, his thoughts sufficiently muddled to get him off to a shaky start.

And then there was the young man sitting high up in the back row. He wasn't a member of Blair's class, although he could have been a student. However, he looked too utterly bored to be auditing the class for possible enrollment. And the way he just sat up there, motionless yet watchful, like some predatory bird, was distracting.

Mercifully, the class ended at last, and Blair began gathering up his soggy notes as the students filed out. He was not surprised when the young man was the last one out of the seats, or that he paused by the door to wait until Blair was ready to leave.

Blair took a moment to look more closely, and saw a slender man with long, straight, dark hair, clean but unstyled. He had an exotically handsome face, a harmonious blending of several Asian and European ethnicities. There was something moody and mysterious behind the dark brown eyes that a lot of women would probably find irresistible. The young man looked vaguely familiar, but Blair couldn't quite grasp the memory.

"Can I help you?" he asked, finally abandoning any hope of salvaging his notes. He dumped the sodden mess into the waste bin.

"I was wondering if I could catch a ride downtown with you," the young man said simply.

Blair was startled by the presumption. "Downtown?"

"Yeah, this was your last class, right? And you usually go downtown to the police station, don't you?"

"Except when I have office hours," Blair admitted, wondering how his visitor knew about his work with the police.

"I can wait," the man assured him confidently, as if the ride already had been offered and agreed to.

"No, that's okay." Blair was a bit bemused by how easily he'd been manipulated. "I'm leaving just as soon as I dump these books in my office."

The man nodded and held the door open for Blair to precede him from the room. "By the way, my name's Eric."

"Blair Sandburg," Blair said automatically, wondering if there was any graceful way to get out of this situation. Jim had taught him to be suspicious of the unexpected, and there was something decidedly dangerous about his unwanted hitchhiker. He pondered his options. He could call campus security, but if the young man were innocent of any sinister motives, it would just embarrass everybody. He could call Jim, but that would be even worse, because the cop would come rushing out to the University in full protective mode and cause all sorts of trouble.

"Are you a student here?"

"No, I was just doing some work in your library," Eric said. Blair noticed he didn't have a notebook or book bag anywhere in evidence. "A friend of mine, Daryl Albrecht, is a cop with the Port Columbia Police. He dropped me off and went downtown to meet with a cop named Ellison. You know him?"

"Albrecht, no, Ellison, yes. How did you find out about me?"

"Simple: Ellison told Albrecht," Eric said smoothly. "I told him I'd try to catch a ride with you and save Daryl the trip to pick me up."

It had a ring of plausibility, but Blair still wasn't convinced. He unlocked the door to his office and ushered Eric inside. "Okay, I'm a bit early, so I'll just call Jim to let him know I'm on my way."

Unconcerned, Eric sprawled in the visitor's chair and stretched. His water-repellent slicker rustled with the movement, and Blair caught a glimpse of jeans and a T-shirt that was scant defense against the chilly weather.

He picked up the phone and dialed Jim's number, then sighed in relief when the detective answered. "Hi, Jim, it's me."

"Yes, I'd probably recognize that voice anywhere," Jim admitted dryly. "You heading in?"

"Yeah, just leaving." Casually, Blair added, "Has Detective Albrecht showed up yet?"

Jim sounded surprised. "I just escorted him up from downstairs. How did you know?"

"His friend, Eric, is with me. We were going to drive in together."

"Yeah, Albrecht told me his friend might hook up with you. That all right with you?"

Blair sighed with relief. "Yeah, fine. We should be there in a few. Bye." The call had relieved any anxiety he felt over Eric's presence. He replaced the receiver and reached for his parka and backpack. "Okay, let's go."

Eric waited while Blair locked up the office, then sprinted with him through the downpour to an old Volvo. Bundling inside, Blair murmured a quiet prayer before turning the key.

The engine fired to life.

Eric grinned with amusement. "Do you always say a prayer before you start the car?"

Blair shook his head. "Only if it's raining. The car has a mind of its own when it's wet."

He put the car in gear, turned on the heater and the windshield wipers, and pulled cautiously out of the parking lot.

They'd traveled about a mile when a sport utility flew past them and sent up a huge sheet of water that drenched the car and obscured the windshield. In the next moment, the larger vehicle braked, slewing sideways to block the road.

Blair slammed on the Volvo's brakes and just managed to maintain control as the car rocked to a halt, its engine stalling.

"Oh, man, this is not good," he murmured, reaching for his cell phone. He'd barely flipped it open before four men piled out of the truck and descended on them with guns drawn.

One stopped at the driver's window and lightly tapped the glass with the barrel of his pistol. Obligingly, Blair dropped the cell phone and raised his hands. His door was jerked open, and strong hands pulled him out into the rain.

Eric climbed out a bit more nonchalantly, ignoring the pistols as if they were toys, although two of the gunmen had him covered.

"Shit, Dalton, there wasn't supposed to be a witness!" one of the men grumbled, yanking Eric by his collar around the car to stand beside Blair. Both men were getting soaked, their hair flattening and dripping rainwater down their necks.

The gunmen wore caps, but then, they'd known they were going to be standing in the rain.

"Who are you?" the one called Dalton demanded of Eric.

"Name's Eric," the young man supplied helpfully, glancing up and down the road. There was no traffic in their lane, and the divided highway had too wide a center median for oncoming traffic to see what was going on. Everyone was in too big a hurry to get out of the weather.

"What's your connection to Sandburg?" Dalton snarled, sounding irritated that the man didn't show any hint of fear.

"Look, leave him out of this," Blair urged, trembling with both fear and cold. "I was just giving him a lift. We don't even know each other."

Dalton tut-tutted with feigned regret. "Sorry, kid, but you picked the wrong taxi."

With no more regard than he'd show an annoying bug, he put his revolver against Eric's chest and pulled the trigger.

"No!" Blair shouted desperately, lunging forward to push Eric aside. Strong arms jerked him backwards and slammed him into the side of the Volvo, momentarily winding him.

Eric fell backwards onto the hood, his body limp in death. Slowly, he rolled off the front of the car and hit the cold, wet pavement. For good measure, Dalton pumped two more rounds into the still figure.

"Haul him out of sight," he ordered, turning back toward Blair.

As Eric's body was dragged off the road, one of the men remarked, "Dalton, that was the gun you were supposed to use on Sandburg."

Dalton grimaced in anger. "Shit!"

"Now what do we do?" the other man demanded. "That's Ellison's backup piece. What are the cops gonna think when his slugs turn up in this Eric kid as well?"

"I'll work it out!" Dalton growled unconvincingly. He advanced on Blair and jammed the pistol under his jaw. "You've still got your role to play," he said with a sneer. "You're gonna kill your fag lover and then shoot yourself when you realize the horrible deed you've done."

"You're out of your mind!" Blair retorted defiantly. "Even if you succeed in killing us, nobody will believe it. The cops'll hunt you down."

Dalton just snorted. "Bring him!" he ordered the men holding Blair.

No one moved. Blair and the men who held him were staring over Dalton's shoulder at an apparition risen from the dead.

The ghostly face was the stuff of nightmares. Stark white skin was accented by black lines that ringed dark eyes and formed black tears, while black lips curled in a parody of a smile. "Didn't your mother teach you it's dangerous to play with guns?" the figure asked conversationally, his mouth an inch from Dalton's right ear.

There was no sign of the man who had pulled the apparently lifeless corpse of Eric Draven to the side of the road, and Dalton whirled around in panic to confront this new, unexpected danger. His two cohorts forgot about Blair as they fired point blank at the ghastly figure.

The figure that minutes before had appeared to be a normal man now moved with lightning speed, twirling like a wild dervish, the long tails of his slicker windmilling like giant wings. With unerring precision, he launched a kick that knocked the pistol from Dalton's trembling hand. There was no evidence the bullets had touched him. A second kick knocked the gunman backwards into his cronies.

Blair went down in the tangle, and he suddenly felt himself hauled up and propelled helplessly toward the center of the roadway.

A horn blared angrily, and he caught his balance just in time to see a large tractor-trailer rig bearing down on him.

Eric abandoned his adversaries and leaped forward, snatching Blair back from danger. The rig missed them by inches. The hot draft of the trailer's passage swirled around them, drenching them with dirty rain and debris whipped up by the wheels.

They closed their eyes against the onslaught, and fell against the Volvo before hitting the pavement.

Their attackers, using the respite, gathered up their unconscious compatriot from the side of the road and tumbled back into the truck. Within a few moments, only the retreating red of their taillights could be seen, fading rapidly in the rain's gloom.

"Are you all right?" Eric asked calmly, helping Blair stand up.

Blair nodded and stared at his savior. The face that looked back at him was completely normal now. "I -- " he began, then halted, not certain where to begin. He leaned against the Volvo to recover his breath and his strength.

Eric picked up the pistol Dalton had dropped. "He said this belonged to your partner."

Blair looked at it as he tried to recover his voice. "I don't really know. It might."

"Are you up to driving?" Eric asked. "I'd really like to get out of this rain."

"Yeah, I can drive." He climbed behind the wheel and gratefully closed the door against the wet and the cold. He leaned back in his seat for a moment, closing his eyes against the memories of the men who had tried to kidnap him.

Eric climbed in beside him and dropped the pistol to the floor. "Do you know who those guys were?"

Numbly, Blair shook his head. "No idea. You're Eric Draven, aren't you?"

The question caused Eric to hesitate a long moment before nodding.

"I took a date down to Port Columbia to see your band." Blair's voice was quiet and devoid of emotion. "That was almost two years ago."

"Small world." Eric's expression said he knew there was more coming.

"You were murdered." The words were whispered.

The young man nodded. "Yeah. It kind of put a damper on my music career."

Blair turned the key, but his hands were trembling too much for him to trust himself to drive, so he just sat there while he put his muddled thoughts into some sort of order. The windshield wipers and car heater, neither turned off when the engine had stalled, came obligingly back to life.

Back to life.

"The crow," he murmured softly. "I remember the legend of the crow." He looked at Eric, who was fidgeting a little uncomfortably. "There's a story that says when someone dies, a crow carries his soul to heaven. But sometimes, the crow can bring the person back. Is that what happened? You came back to set things right?"

"That's how it was supposed to go." Eric sounded frustrated. "Only I've taken care of the people who murdered me, and I'm still here, still setting things right."

Blair smiled slightly. Here he was, confronting the reality of something that had been only the stuff of myth, and Eric was bitching about the unfairness of it all. The sheer normality of the conversation served to steady his nerves, and he put the Volvo in gear. "I'd really like to talk to you about your experiences," he said. "Maybe I can help you figure out why you're still here."

"Okay, but first let's figure out why those guys want to murder you and your lover."

Blair frowned. "My lover?"

"Ellison. He's your lover, right?"

"Uh, I think that was part of Dalton's scenario. It doesn't have any basis in fact."

Eric's eyebrows rose fractionally. "And you've never seen Dalton before?"

"Never. Maybe Jim knows something. Or your partner -- Albrecht, was it? And maybe you can explain how you knew this was going to happen. That's why you came to my class, right? You knew something was going to happen."

Eric slouched low in the passenger seat. "This is too weird even for me, and I already give new meaning to the word."

Blair smiled and pulled out onto the nearly deserted highway.

Part Six

Blair was a hyperactive, bouncing bundle of adrenaline-charged energy when he surged through the doors of the bullpen. He immediately noticed Jim and another man, presumably Daryl Albrecht, eyeing each other suspiciously.

"Jim, you won't believe what happened!" he began, shedding his drenched jacket and backpack and spraying a fine mist of rain over Jim and the contents of his desk.

"Your car stalled and you had to walk in the rain," Jim guessed, pushing his chair away from the spattering droplets.

"No, less predictable," Blair shot back easily, plopping his backpack on the desk and holding out a hand to Daryl. "Hi. Blair Sandburg. You're Detective Albrecht, right?"

Albrecht stood up to return the handshake. "Right. Pleasure to meet you." He cast a glance at Eric, who was standing beside the desk, his arms crossed comfortably as he ignored the water dripping down his neck from his sodden hair.

Blair pulled out a pistol and handed it to his partner. "Is this yours?"

Jim took it quickly and checked it over. "Yeah, it's my backup piece." He dug a key out of his pocket and unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk, even though he knew the pistol he held was the one that should have been safely locked away there. "What the hell?" he murmured, gazing into the empty place where the gun was supposed to be. "What happened?"

"Four guys in a sport utility ran us off the road and tried to kidnap me -- us," his partner explained quickly. "One of them had that gun."

Jim opened the cylinder. "Only three rounds left."

"Maybe he practiced with it." Blair knew it would take some major-league persuasion to get Jim to accept the legend of the Crow, and now wasn't the time for lengthy discourse.

Jim looked doubtful. "Someone came into the bullpen, broke into my desk and stole my backup weapon to use to kidnap you?"

Blair shook his head. "To kill me. And you. If it hadn't been for Eric.... " The excitement had worn off, and now he grasped the full impact of what had happened during the last hour. He'd been run off the road, threatened, shot at, and thrown in front of a speeding tractor-trailer. And he'd been saved by a dead man. "Oh, man."

Daryl quickly offered the visitor's chair. "Here, sit down."

"Thanks." Blair sank gratefully into the seat.

Jim touched his arm in concern. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Blair knew his partner could hear his increased heartbeat and breathing. "It just all caught up with me at once, that's all."

Jim scowled but accepted the assurance. He looked at Eric. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"Sure," Eric said obligingly. "It went down like he said. The guy who had your gun, Dalton, had some sort of plan to make it look like you and Sandburg were lovers, that he'd caught you in bed with someone else and killed both of you before turning the gun on himself."

"Dalton." Jim tested the name, but apparently found no memories associated with it.

Daryl glanced at Eric. "Make it look...?"

Eric just shrugged.

Daryl looked back at Jim. "So you two aren't lovers?"

Jim frowned. "No. What made you think so?"

Daryl's expression went blank, but Eric said, "Because it involves a potential third victim, a man named Boy Curtis."

Jim's frown deepened. "Never heard of him either." He looked at his partner. "He sounds more in your social circle anyway."

"Oh, thanks," Blair returned dryly, but then he admitted, "Boy Curtis is a gay rights activist, a stand-up comedian who uses humor to teach tolerance and acceptance. He's performing at the University for the next few days." He brightened and reached for his backpack again. "Someone sent us tickets," he added, rooting around in the mysterious depths of the bag until he found an envelope. "I found these tucked into my office door this morning."

Jim opened the envelope. Inside were six tickets, two for each night of the comedian's act at the University. "Okay, we'll question him. Setting up a triple murder to look like a lover's triangle is a complicated and dangerous plan. Just getting their hands on my backup weapon took an enormous amount of risk."

"So you're thinking they don't just want you dead," Daryl said. "They want to ruin your reputations as well."

Eric reached the obvious conclusion. "Sounds like revenge to me."

"Yeah, it does," Jim agreed, a bit chagrined as he looked at the evidence he'd so badly mishandled. How many sets of fingerprints might have been found on his pistol until he and Blair had thoughtlessly obliterated anything useful? But there were still the tickets and the envelope. Before he could destroy any further clues, he grabbed a plastic evidence bag from his desk and nudged the items into it.

"Oh," Blair murmured, apparently realizing the truth at the same time. "Sorry."

Jim just shook his head, annoyed with himself. "Not your fault. You were getting over almost being killed. I've been sitting here at my desk like a useless lump, so I'm still working on my excuse." He hated making obvious mistakes, and he was embarrassed that he'd made one in front of a visiting cop. He looked at Albrecht. "I'm still trying to figure out what your connection is to all this."

"Curtis," Daryl said, his voice infused with confidence. "He did a few shows in Port Columbia, where he started receiving death threats. I decided to follow him up here to see if I could get an angle on who's responsible."

Jim knew the Port Columbia cop was lying, and his gaze shifted to Eric, who didn't even twitch under the hard scrutiny. He was troubled by something about the young man. It wasn't his long hair or casual clothes, or even the air of disrespect he wore like a badge of honor. There was something entirely too cool about Albrecht's companion, something remote and untouchable, as if nothing in this world really mattered to him.

"Good thing we did, too," Eric said calmly. "Looks like the hit's gonna happen here in Cascade."

"Yeah," Jim agreed after he'd finished his assessment of the man. "It's a complicated set-up."

"Maybe we can shed some light on it," said a new voice.

All eyes turned toward the speaker, who stood just inside the bullpen entrance nearest Jim's desk. Intelligent green eyes belied the man's lazy tone.

Jim looked at the new arrival, who was accompanied by a red-haired woman in a tailored suit and a confused-looking Simon Banks.

"Jim, these are Special Agents Mulder and Scully," the Captain said, looking at the strangers around Jim's desk with the same curiosity Jim was giving Simon's entourage. "They may have some answers to your questions."

Part Seven

It took a few minutes to get everyone settled around the table in the briefing room, and Simon played a less-than-gracious host as he summoned coffee and saw to the shedding and disposition of overcoats. Like the rest of them, he was eager to hear the tale -- a tale about which he knew nothing except a word uttered by Agent Mulder upon his arrival at the precinct: Kincaid.

Mulder splayed a handful of photographs across the table.

Blair pounced on one like a cat on vermin. "That's Dalton."

Wisely, Simon avoided the questions battering at his mind; like any good leader, he knew when to let the scene play out. But he had to wonder: Who the hell was Dalton, and how did Sandburg know about him?

Mulder's tone indicated he was wondering the same things. "Yes, that's Albert Dalton, leader of a small group of terrorists that until this morning was based about an hour outside of Chicago." He tapped the photographs. "Recognize any of the others?"

Unerringly, both Blair and Eric pointed to three other mug shots.

"These are the rest of the men who tried to kill Eric and kidnap me earlier today," Blair said with assurance. He gazed at another photo, and his face paled. "Kincaid."

"That's what this is about?" Simon said. "The Sunrise Patriots?"

"We think so," Scully answered cautiously. She seemed the more guarded of the two agents, not the type to ascribe to a theory too quickly. She looked at Blair. "Tell us about this morning."

Blair repeated his encounter with Dalton and his followers on the road, although his explanation of his escape sounded suspiciously vague to Simon. He knew the observer was not the sort to leave out pertinent details without good reason.

Simon looked over the three black and white photos marked with red cross-hairs. "Who's this third guy?"

"That's Boy Curtis," Mulder said. "Sandburg's account probably explains why Curtis was included."

"We heard a rumor Curtis was going to be kidnapped," Daryl said, shifting uncomfortably. "You think he's just a pawn to add authenticity to the gay murder-suicide scenario?"

"Yes." Mulder's eyes shifted toward Eric, who stared back with equal aplomb.

The FBI agent broke the silence first. "And you, Mr. Draven? What are you doing in Cascade?"

Eric tilted his head briefly toward Daryl. "I'm a bouncer in a nightclub and overheard some of the planning. Detective Albrecht is an acquaintance of mine, so I told him what I knew."

Mulder's smile was tight. "So he brought you along out of friendship?"

Eric's calm expression never faltered. "The club doesn't open until after dark. I had some free time." If thinly veiled insolence were an art form, the young man would have been a master.

Simon quickly tired of the two posturing males vying for dominance. "So the whole gay angle with the lover's triangle and murder-suicide scenario was a plot to eliminate Ellison and Sandburg?"

"They managed to get their hands on my backup weapon," Jim said bitterly. "We'll have to check the visitors' logs for the last few weeks to find out who could have had access."

Simon sighed. "That'll be a chore." He picked up the phone and ordered Rafe and Brown to track down Boy Curtis. He ended with a warning: "Remember you're dealing with the Sunrise Patriots. If they still want Curtis, they'll strike with military precision and come heavily armed. Be ready for them."

He hung up the phone. "I still don't get the gay angle."

Scully picked up the explanation. "For a man like Garrett Kincaid, the homosexual lifestyle could represent the most depraved element of our society. Creating a scenario based on his perceptions might seem a fitting vengeance on the men who brought about his downfall. He'd not only kill them but destroy their reputations posthumously and taint their memories."

Mulder smiled slightly. "Perceptions...or fantasies."

Scully waved aside the observation. "Kincaid could very well be a latent homosexual, but that wouldn't necessarily change the motivation behind his scheme."

Eric had been silent for most of the conversation, but now he spoke up. "Why today?"

"That's easy," Jim said flatly. "Kincaid will make his first appearance back in court since his conviction almost a year ago."

Daryl nodded as he worked through the possibilities. "Breaking their leader out of jail --whether it's the city jail or a courthouse holding cell -- has to be easier than breaking him out of the federal penitentiary."

"Dammit," Simon muttered, aggrieved to have Kincaid back in his world. "I'll notify the Marshals Service to tighten security at the courthouse and get our people over there as backup." Still mumbling, he reached for the telephone again.

There was a light knock on the door. It opened, and Joel stuck his head inside the room. "Sorry, Captain, but there's a phone call at Jim's desk for someone named Eric? It's from a very vocal and insistent young girl."

Banks looked at Eric. "Someone you know?"

Eric stood up, obviously grateful to escape the awkwardness of the meeting. "Yeah. I'd better talk to her." He followed Taggart to the bullpen.

Joel gestured to the phone on Jim's desk. "Just punch the blinking button."

"Thanks." Eric sprawled in Jim's chair and leaned his elbows on the desk. Aware that a lot of curious eyes were watching him, he picked up the receiver. "Sarah?"

She jumped right in to the purpose behind her call. "Eric, the headline's changed."

It was so nonsensical, he didn't really grasp the information. "What?"

"The newspaper." She sounded exasperated with his apparent dull-wittedness. "The headline that said 'El Train Collision Injures Twenty.'"

Eric's interest was mildly piqued. "Yeah? What does it say now?"

"Something about the current space shuttle mission." She spoke rapidly, dismissing the information as irrelevant. "So I checked the article about your gay guys in Cascade."

My gay guys in Cascade. Nicely put, Sarah. "And?"

"And now it's on page two." She sounded excited by her news, and Eric began to pay attention. It took a lot to get Sarah excited about anything. "Terrorist helicopter crashes into ferry. That's the big print. The smaller print says, Dozens of children killed or injured. Tragedy in Washington State has links to Chicago terrorist cell."

Eric grimaced. Talk about an unexpected development. "Read me the whole article."

She did. It had all the elements of high drama: a gun battle in the streets, an escaped terrorist leader, a gallant last-ditch shot by Detective James Ellison to bring down the fleeing helicopter, and victory turning to tragedy when the plunging chopper crashed into a ferry carrying dozens of grade-school kids on a field trip.

Ellison again. "What the hell is he, a trouble magnet?" Eric mumbled ungraciously.

"Who?" Sarah demanded.

"Ellison." Eric sighed. "Okay, I'll do what I can."

"Keep in touch," Sarah ordered. "This damn newspaper has a mind of its own."

Eric had no idea how to deal with this new twist. Hanging up the receiver, he climbed to his feet and was just heading back toward the briefing room when the door opened and everyone began to file out.

Albrecht still looked faintly uncomfortable, as if he knew he really didn't belong with the rest of them but wasn't sure how to make a graceful exit. He stepped up beside Eric and whispered, "Can we go home now?"

Mulder's gaze held a perplexed certainty that he was overlooking something important. Eric didn't want to be around when the man decided to satisfy his curiosity.

Simon gestured toward the two visitors from Port Columbia. "Jim, I'm still not clear about how these two figure into the case?"

Blair spoke up promptly. "They're with me." As Simon's eyes widened in disbelief, he added hastily, "And Jim."

Jim's expression shifted between irritation and skepticism. But the beseeching expression on his partner's face swayed his answer. "We still need to follow up on the Port Columbia angle."

Simon didn't look convinced. "All right. I'll arrange for more security at the courthouse. You two get over there."

"Yes, sir," Jim said quickly, grateful to have the matter settled so easily. He steered Blair toward his desk and spoke to the visitors. "Thanks for your help. We can take it from here."

Daryl looked relieved. "Good. I guess we'll be heading back."

"Let's go, Chief." Jim grabbed his coat and turned toward the door, then stopped when he saw Eric touch Blair on the arm to hold him back. "Sandburg?"

Blair's gaze shifted between Jim and Eric for a few moments. "Yeah, Jim, I'm right behind you. I'll meet you at the truck."

Jim scowled, clearly not happy with the situation. "Okay. Just don't take too long." He headed toward the elevator.

Daryl sighed. "Why do I think we're not leaving?"

Eric ignored him, his attention focused on Blair. "The Sunrise Patriots are going to spring their boss en route to the courthouse."

Blair felt his stomach lurch toward his throat. "Where?"

"Near the east entrance to Baypoint Park." Eric obviously wasn't familiar with Cascade geography. "Island View Parkway? They're going to escape by helicopter. Whatever happens, you can't let Ellison shoot it down."

Blair's eyes widened. "You're sure?"

"Yeah."

"The same way you knew the Sunrise Patriots were going to kill Jim and me?"

Eric shrugged. "Yeah."

Blair nodded. "Okay. I'll get Jim there."

Ever the cop, Daryl said, "He'll need backup."

Blair frowned. He knew he would never convince anyone to divert security from the courthouse based on his say-so or the word of a Port Columbia rock singer. "Then you'll have to be it." He rummaged quickly through Jim's desk and found a street map and highlighting marker. "Pull your car around to the Third Street side of the station. That's where the garage exit is located. If you can, follow Jim's truck. It's a '69, blue-and-white Ford. Otherwise -- " He finished tracing a route on the map. " -- here's the quickest way to Island View Parkway and Bayside Park."

Not waiting to see if Daryl and Eric understood his instructions, he snatched his jacket off the coat rack and dashed out the door toward the elevator.

Part Eight

Jim already had the truck running and in gear when Blair tumbled into the seat beside him. Not waiting for his partner to fully close the door or find his seat belt, he accelerated up the ramp toward the street. "Dammit, Sandburg, what was so important that it couldn't wait? Everyone else has already left."

Blair felt slightly breathless with nervousness. "Don't worry, Jim, you'll be in on all the action."

Jim shot him an exasperated glance. "What?"

With the visor-mounted blue police lights clearing the road ahead of traffic, the blocks were passing quickly, so Blair didn't have much time to make his point. "Jim, you believed Mulder and Scully when they told us about the Sunrise Patriots and their plan to spring Kincaid, right?"

"Right." Jim sounded impatient with Blair's cautious buildup.

"But you knew some of their plan already because Eric and Detective Albrecht told you. In fact, Eric saved my life and screwed up the terrorists' plans to discredit and murder us."

Jim nodded grimly. "I intend to investigate both of them."

"Jim, if you believe they knew the facts even before the FBI came to us, then believe them when they say Kincaid's escape is going to happen at the east entrance to Bayside Park."

Baffled, Jim let his confusion express itself with anger. "You're crazy! The whole stretch is nothing but high-priced hotels fronting the inlet...." He trailed off.

"You've thought of something," Blair said. "What is it?"

"The heliport. It's right outside the gate to the park."

Having found a grain of credibility, Blair pressed onward. "Okay, so take that route. Even if I'm wrong, you'll only lose a minute or two on the way to the courthouse."

Jim took a hard left that sent the lightweight rear end of the truck into a sideways skid. He corrected it effortlessly. "It's not the most direct route from central lockup to the courthouse, but maybe that's why the transport would go that way."

"Avoid the obvious, yeah," Blair agreed. "Except the helipad is perfectly situated to be part of Kincaid's plan."

They raced over one of the many bridges that linked Cascade across the fingers of ocean that comprised the sprawling northern end of the enormous Puget Sound. At the end of the bridge, Jim made another hard turn, this one left down a steep, narrow street that joined with the wide, landscaped swath of boulevard known as Island View Parkway. To their right rose elegant hotels rated no fewer than four stars by the agencies that took interest in such matters. All Blair knew was that they commanded a hefty price for the view of the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the inlet. Located almost midway across the inlet was Sanctuary Island, a tree-covered mound of earth that was a protected home for thousands of birds and other wildlife. The scenic attraction gave Island View Parkway its name.

At the far end of the gently curving boulevard was the ferry landing, where several short- and long-haul boats carried tourists, cargo, and commuters to various ports from Vancouver to the north to Seattle in the south and the sprawl of islands in between. At this end, at the intersection where the narrow connector road Jim had taken joined Island View, was the junction that led to the finger of land known as Bayside Park. Located just outside the gate was a paved, fenced area with a half-dozen large landing circles painted in bright yellow: Bayside Heliport.

Right now, the pad was occupied by three choppers: a Coast Guard Sikorsky, its huge size dwarfing its companions, and two Bell Jet Rangers, one of them brightly painted with the logo of a local tourist company. The second Bell didn't have any distinguishing features except for a registration number stenciled on its plain, black surface.

"Looks like you were right," Jim observed calmly a moment after he'd passed the entrance to the heliport.

Blair looked up the street and saw a plain white van approaching them. It was the vehicle of choice for transporting prisoners from the Central Jail to the courthouse.

In almost the same moment, he saw the van's front tires blow. The driver lost control, and the van rocked sideways. The next minute was chaos, the terrorists' friend. A flash of fire from the right signaled a grenade launch. The device exploded against the front end of the shadow car that had been trailing the van. The sedan's engine blew up, the deputies inside either dead or incapacitated.

Another grenade went through the front window of the van, but it was a smoke grenade that instantly overcame the two police officers inside.

Men in black military garb and ski masks darted toward the disabled van from the bushes landscaping the hotel side of the road; others appeared from behind the barricade of boulders that formed the low breakwater on the inlet side. The men deployed with precision, some brandishing or firing automatic weapons to scare off panic-stricken tourists and pedestrians who had been taking advantage of the clear, crisp day. Others used explosives to blow the back door of the van and release the prisoner shackled inside.

Jim swung the pickup sideways. The road was too wide to create an effective barricade, but the truck's profile would serve as cover. "Call it in!" he snapped, opening his door and bailing out, his weapon already drawn.

"Call it in, call it in," Blair parroted, ducking low in the seat and reaching for the police radio. He realized the various players in this drama formed an almost equilateral triangle: Jim's truck, the police van, and the unmarked helicopter he could hear warming up on the helipad.

After alerting Dispatch to the breakout, he scrambled across the seat and tumbled out the driver's door to land at Jim's side. At almost the same moment, Daryl Albrecht's car skidded to a halt beside them, adding to the protective barrier. He and Eric scrambled out and took cover beside the rear fender.

It wasn't much of a contest. Two handguns against numerous automatic weapons didn't make for even odds.

Although the broad boulevard had only light traffic at this time of day, the rattle of machine gun fire caused total panic. One car rammed into the boulders of the breakwater. The rocks tore open the undercarriage, and within moments the vehicle was engulfed in flame. The driver of another car was luckier: he swerved into the landscaping, plowing through dense hedges before nosing into the soft front lawn of a hotel.

Pedestrians were screaming and scattering in all directions, adding to the confusion. Others crouched low to the ground hoping to avoid a bullet.

The terrorists didn't care. They were only intent on creating pandemonium while they freed their leader from the rear of the van. With that goal accomplished, they turned their attention to the only real threat: the two cops with handguns who were trying to thwart their escape.

Jim fired with unerring accuracy, bringing down two of the attackers within the first thirty seconds of the assault.

Daryl, one of the few cops Jim had seen who still carried a standard-issue .38, was only able to provide distracting fire since his weapon lacked the range to be accurate over such a distance.

There was a soft popping sound, and Jim slammed Blair flat onto the street. A grenade from a launcher sailed through the open windows of the truck, miraculously not hitting anything until it was well clear of its target. Still, the explosion was too close for comfort.

Kincaid, Dalton, and the last three terrorists used the distraction to rush toward the heliport. Their weapons kept up a steady barrage of cover fire that effectively pinned Jim and Daryl behind the safety of their vehicles. The wail of sirens in the distance announced that help was on its way, but it would arrive too late to prevent Kincaid's escape.

There would be only one minute of vulnerability: when they boarded the helicopter for takeoff.

Part Nine

Jim holstered his weapon and took off at a dead run, Blair and the others right behind him. As the chopper lifted off, he lunged for the skid, but missed it by inches. Hitting the asphalt hard, he rolled to his feet, drawing his 9mm and taking aim in one fluid motion.

"Jim, no!" Blair screamed, wondering if he was going to regret his impulsive decision to heed Eric's warning.

Jim's aim faltered a moment, then steadied once again on his target. As his finger squeezed the trigger, he was appalled when Eric hurtled directly into his line of fire.

He must have diverted his aim at the last possible moment, because Eric leaped back to his feet with casual grace, apparently unscathed by the bullet Jim knew he had fired.

Only...it wasn't Eric, but rather some clownish parody wearing Eric's clothes.

"You should listen to your partner," the apparition said, opening its hand and casually dropping the bullet it had snatched out of the air.

Jim froze, his weapon still raised, his eyes wide as he tried to comprehend what was happening.

"Jim." Blair's voice was urgent, demanding attention.

Jim glanced at him, then back at the nightmare vision, which in a single eye blink had become Eric again. "What -- ?"

"Jim, listen to me!"

This time, he ignored his partner completely. "What the hell are you?"

Blair grabbed his arm, finally gaining his attention. "Jim, I don't know how he knows, but Eric couldn't let you shoot down that chopper."

He was too bewildered to grasp what his partner was saying. Eric's transformation into someone -- some thing -- that could palm a bullet out of the air had pretty much overpowered his grip on reality.

"You would have brought the chopper down in the bay." Eric gestured languidly. "Right about there."

Jim followed the pointing finger and immediately saw the ferry. His vision focused on the dozens of young children laughing and playing on the deck. The implication hit him hard, and he felt a momentary wash of weakness travel through his body.

Blair spoke softly. "Come on, Jim. Kincaid's getting away."

Resolve renewed his strength. "No, he's not." Quickly dismissing the strange arrival of Eric Draven and Daryl Albrecht into his life, he looked for options.

The Coast Guard Sikorsky was still warming up on the nearby helipad, the pilot crouched down beside it. Jim headed for it at a run. Flashing his badge at the startled pilot, he scrambled on board. "Can you follow that Bell?" he shouted above the roar of the huge rotors.

The pilot reacted quickly and jumped into the front seat. "You bet. Strap in and hang on!"

Blair tumbled into the back beside Jim without thinking. As he struggled to secure himself in the seat, he suddenly realized what he'd done. "Ah, jeez, not another helicopter!"

His complaint was lost as the heavy helicopter lifted off the pad and gave chase to the fleeing Bell.

Jim got his headphones turned on and in place. "Get above it. They'll try to lose us in the coves along the coast."

The powerful blades chewed up the distance even as the pilot sought altitude. The smaller craft they were pursuing blended well with the dark waters and tumbled boulders of the coastline. "I can't see them from up here!"

Jim pointed. "I've got them in sight."

The pilot caught a glimpse of sunlight reflecting off the main rotor and nodded acknowledgement. A moment later, he relayed his position to his base to help coordinate the ground pursuit.

The low-flying Bell disappeared around a rocky headland.

"Go over the top," Jim ordered. "Stay above them."

"All right."

The Sikorsky swept over the jutting finger of land. Blair concentrated seriously on keeping his last meal in his belly where it belonged.

"They're hugging the shore. Can you come down on top of them?"

"No problem." The huge Sikorsky dropped, dogging the smaller helicopter from above and not allowing it to maneuver.

"They'll have to give up now!" Blair shouted.

Muzzle flashes from automatic weapons answered his faulty assessment.

Needlessly, the pilot yelled, "They're shooting at us!"

Jim nodded. "Can you knock them down?"

The powerful chopper dropped lower, the strong wash from its twin rotors slamming into the smaller craft and sending it careening helplessly sideways. The pilot of the Bell tried to land, but it was too late. The main rotor hit the side of the cliff, and in the next instant the chopper slammed into the rocks and exploded.

The Coast Guard pilot furiously worked the controls in an effort to escape the danger. Jim felt the searing heat of the hungry flames billowing toward them from the downed Bell. A moment before it seemed they, too, would be engulfed, the Sikorsky arced clear.

The violent maneuvering scrambled sea and sky for several stomach-clenching seconds before the pilot once again had the helicopter flying level.

Jim quickly scanned the crash site. "Damn, Kincaid must have jumped clear." He pointed toward a figure scrambling up the embankment.

"He won't get far," the pilot promised. He gained altitude to look for a landing spot.

Blair pointed across the grassland of the flat peninsula. "Looks like he has a car and some men waiting for him."

Once again, the pilot had to veer off as heavy gunfire rattled against the cockpit.

Jim unbuckled his safety harness. "Set down behind Kincaid. His men won't risk catching him in a crossfire."

He was jumping to earth even before the landing gear touched the ground. Determined not to be left behind, Blair jumped also, then realized jumping a half-dozen feet onto hard dirt felt a whole lot different than jumping two feet into a lake. Neither was an experience he cared to repeat.

Scrambling to his feet, he took off after Jim, aware that Kincaid was swerving from side to side to give his cohorts a clear shot at them. "Jim, dammit, be careful!"

Almost on top of his words, Jim threw himself flat on the ground and opened up on the two men by the car. His first bullets flattened the nearest front tire and blew up the radiator, which hissed a stream of water onto the ground. Blair fell beside him, but Jim was already up again and going after Kincaid, his focus so intense that he failed to hear sirens wailing closer.

Blair saw a parade of cop cars bouncing over the rough terrain toward them, but the imminent arrival of reinforcements didn't stop him from charging after his partner again.

The two gunmen quickly abandoned any thoughts of covering their leader. They took off on foot, heading for the tree line several hundred yards away.

Jim dropped to one knee and raised his weapon. "Hold it, Kincaid!"

Caught midway between Jim and the disabled getaway car, Kincaid apparently realized the futility of his position. He stopped and turned, raising his hands in surrender. His great gasps for air couldn't mask the venom in his tone. "Damn you, Ellison! I swear this isn't over."

Jim approached Kincaid cautiously. "Yeah, yeah, we've heard that speech before." He grabbed the felon and threw him to the ground, using a knee to hold him down as he secured the man with handcuffs.

He looked startled as the cavalry arrived in the form of two patrol units. Three other squad cars continued after the fleeing occupants of the getaway car. As he turned Kincaid over to the uniforms, he looked around for his partner and grinned as Blair staggered up breathlessly beside him. "You okay?'

Blair gasped for air. "Yeah. You?"

"Yeah."

They watched as the leader of the Sunrise Patriots was bundled into the rear of a patrol car. The fleeing gunmen had been captured and were being secured.

Jim headed at a leisurely pace for the Sikorsky. "Feel up to another helicopter ride?"

"Sure, if we can do this one without swooping up and down."

Jim smiled. "We'll ask the pilot for the granny ride."

"Then that's okay." Reaction was setting in. He was feeling oddly exhilarated after all the excitement. Once again, they'd defeated Kincaid, and he'd seen Jim Ellison at his best--determined and unstoppable. The man simply didn't know when to quit, and that made Blair proud to be his partner.

Jim's thoughts had obviously gone elsewhere. "You going to tell me about Draven?"

"Yeah, but you probably won't believe me."

"After what I saw him do--what I saw him turn into--I don't think that will be a problem."

"Okay, there's a legend that says when a person dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead...."

Epilogue

It took two days of debriefing and paperwork before all the involved agencies were satisfied. It had been almost more grueling than the actual shoot-out with the Sunrise Patriots.

Simon drove Mulder and Scully to the airport and walked with them into the terminal. A few minutes later, he wished he hadn't. Mulder was looking at him oddly. "What is it, Agent Mulder?"

"Your man, Ellison," Mulder began. "Have you noticed anything odd about him?"

"Odd?" Simon echoed in surprise, then schooled his tone into innocent bemusement. "No. No, I haven't."

He knew Mulder didn't believe him.

"You don't find it odd that he accidentally stumbled into the terrorist attack on the transport van, even when the route the van was taking was a closely guarded secret?"

Scully demurred. "It couldn't have been a closely guarded secret, Mulder. The Sunrise Patriots obviously got hold of the information."

Mulder shrugged this off as unimportant. "Yeah, and they got to Ellison's backup weapon. Obviously, they're more entrenched in the system than we'd like to believe. But, all that aside, Ellison claims he didn't know the route the van was taking."

"Traffic," Simon speculated quickly. "Island View Parkway isn't heavily traveled at that time of the day. He probably figured it was the fastest route to the courthouse under the circumstances."

Mulder didn't look satisfied. "So it was all coincidence? Coincidence that Ellison just happened to take the same route as the transport van? Coincidence that two men from Port Columbia were on hand to foil the terrorists' plan to kidnap Sandburg?"

"No more of a coincidence than you arriving from Chicago with evidence that the Sunrise Patriots were planning to spring Kincaid." Simon felt he had scored a three-pointer with that one. Still, Mulder had a point about Albrecht and that weird rock singer, Eric Draven. But he'd keep his questions to himself. Why risk arousing Mulder's curiosity about Jim even further?

Mulder's probing gaze finally relaxed with a friendly smile. "Touche, Captain Banks." He looked at his partner. "Well, Scully, I guess it's time to find our departure gate."

Scully was looking at him oddly. "Yes." She turned to Simon and held out her hand. "Captain Banks, it was a pleasure to meet you."

Good-byes were performed with a minimum of ceremony, and then Simon made his own escape.

"What's wrong, Mulder?" Scully asked.

Mulder sighed. "Did you know that Eric Draven, a small-town rocker with a promising music career ahead of him, was murdered last year?"

Scully's eyes opened wide with surprise. "A mistake, surely."

"Of course it was a mistake. Apparently, being tossed through a window sixteen floors above the ground was just a case of bad police reporting. Draven disappeared, ostensibly to recover from his grief over losing his girlfriend that same night. She was killed by the same men who had supposedly killed him."

"Were they ever captured?"

"They were killed." Mulder smiled slightly. "Their murders were never solved." He picked up his bag and started toward the check-in line, Scully by his side. "And Sandburg did his Master's thesis on sentinels, a bit of primitive myth concerning tribal watchmen who possess five incredibly heightened senses which enable them to perform at inhuman levels of skill."

"Why does he interest you?" Scully asked, fishing in her purse for her airline ticket.

"He's still working on the subject for his Ph.D. while somehow having wrangled a position for himself as an observer in the Major Crime unit of the Cascade PD. He's never before shown any academic interest in police work."

Ticket in hand, Scully approached the counter. "Do you think there's something significant in all of that? Something to do with the X-files?"

Mulder stepped up and laid his ticket beside hers with finality. "I think," he said unhappily, "that I've somehow become the butt of some huge cosmic joke. I just wish I understood what it was."

THE END