Sandburg jerked awake, a smothered shout of warning dying on his lips, his eyes wide with fear. Trembling, he swallowed hard and fought to bring his shallow, panting respirations under control. Rolling to sit on the side of the bed, he covered his face with his hands as he struggled to bring back the images, and to make sense of what he could remember. Wordlessly, Ellison rose to sit beside him, one hand drawing slow, soothing circles of warmth, support and comfort on the chilled bare skin of his back.
“Shit!” Blair growled in frustration, flashing a sidelong look at his partner. “I hate this!”
Still silent, not wanting to distract his partner or interrupt his thoughts while the vision or dream state might still be captured, Jim nodded soberly as he studied Sandburg. Noting the stark pallor and haunted shadows darkening the indigo eyes, the persistent trembling of muscles that had been held too rigidly by something terrifying to behold, he shifted to wrap a strong arm around Blair’s shoulders, drawing him in close to warm him and to lend strength.
For a moment, Blair remained tight and tense, but then he sagged in Jim’s sturdy, sure support. His breathing slowed and the tiny shudders subsided. “I don’t know what any of it means,” he murmured despondently, then continued with renewed frustration, “Why the hell do visions and signs and precognitive episodes have to be so damned cryptic? What good is having these so-called powers if I don’t understand the symbology?”
“What did you see?” Ellison asked quietly then. “What did you hear? Feel?”
Shifting away so that they were again sitting side by side, Blair pushed his hair back and shook his head. “It’s all so vague,” he sighed. Looking up at the skylight, as if the ethereal, silvery light might illuminate his thoughts and bring awareness and understanding, he recalled slowly, “I saw a bright red star, pulsating on the horizon, rising against a black sky. And then…” he bit his lip, frowning, “crimson. Just the color, filling my vision, sweeping over me like a tidal wave. What did I hear? Nothing. Silence. Empty silence. Feel?” His frown deepened and he crossed his arms. “Fear - no, more like absolute panic.” Looking up at Jim, he reached to cup his hand against his lover’s stubbled cheek. “I only feel like that when… when I’m scared sick for you.”
Ellison’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head. “Doesn’t mean there’s anything to be scared of,” he demurred dryly as he combed his fingers through the wild, disheveled curls. “We both know that visions rarely convey anything directly.”
“Tell me about it,” Sandburg groused. Pushing himself up to pace as he thought about the symbols, he was unconscious of how the moonlight bathed his naked body, creating planes of light against dark shadow, an ever-changing luminescence as he prowled and lifted his hands as he spoke, carving invisible meaning into the air. To Jim, he looked like a wild, untamed spirit of the wood, a creation of the night and starlight. Not quite real. Not quite of this world. “Okay,” Sandburg began didactically, drawing on his knowledge. “Red star - could be Mars, named for the God of War. Could mean conflict. Probably does. Rising could mean gaining in power or coming closer, gaining ascendance. Pulsating? Maybe… maybe strength, intentional aggression.” Flinging his hands into the air, he grated, “Dammit. Could mean anything. I don’t know.”
“What about the crimson flooding or filling your vision?” Jim asked, keeping his partner focused.
Blair looked steadily at him, but his gaze didn’t quite connect and Ellison knew Sandburg was turning over possibilities in his mind. “Could be the red star coming so close that it blocks out everything else. Could be life or death, in that crimson is the color of blood. Could be a red haze of some kind, like fog at sunset, signifying a time of day, maybe.” Sighing, he shook his head. “This is… this is worse than… than not knowing. Man, I have got to learn how to use this ability better, how to make sense of these gifts Incacha passed to me. ‘The way of the Shaman’,” he huffed with mingled self-disgust and despair. “I’m not good enough. I’m not able enough or wise enough.” Moving to stand in front of Jim, leaning in close to wrap his arms around the older man and lean his cheek down against Ellison’s head, he whispered, “I’m sorry, man. I should be better at this.”
Encircling Blair within a strong embrace, Jim sighed and closed his eyes, wishing he knew how to help, but the visions had never made much sense to him, had simply unnerved and confused him. All the stuff that Sandburg seemed to come up with spontaneously about possible meanings impressed the hell out of him and he thought the kid was way too hard on himself. Besides, they’d only decided to pursue the shaman thing a few short months before, because Sandburg had never ceased to be haunted by Incacha’s last words. Jim thought what they were learning, and how far and fast Blair had already progressed with their secret studies was incredible. Secret because, like Jim had been about making his senses public, Blair was reluctant to let anyone know what he was learning until he had some idea and better control of the abilities he was discovering within himself. “You’re doing fine,” he replied staunchly. “Better than fine. Great.” Leaning back, he drew Blair down onto his thigh and held him close, cradling the smaller man against his chest and shoulder. “With all that it might mean,” he asked, “what do you feel it means?”
“Danger,” Sandburg said tersely. “Big time, huge, scary danger. Somewhere close, in terms of time or space. Coming at us out of the darkness.” He paused, then added tautly, “But the darkness doesn’t necessarily mean at night or in a dark place. It could mean surprise, something completely unexpected. Some danger we’re ignorant of but that is targeting us.” Swallowing, he clarified, his voice cracking, “Targeting you.” Curling to hug Jim tightly, he grated, “And I don’t know how to protect you. How to make it clearer, so you can protect yourself.”
The muscle in Jim’s jaw flexed as he lifted his head and looked away, uncomfortable with Blair’s words. Never having gotten used to the idea of being someone who needed protection, edgily resentful of being somehow dependent, he swallowed against his reflexive rejection of his partner’s devoted care of him and took a breath before answering. “Forewarned is forearmed, Chief,” he replied with as much soothing calm as he could manage. “We know to be careful. To be alert to the unexpected.”
Very much aware of Ellison’s aversion to the idea of being protected, Sandburg snorted softly. Slipping out of Jim’s embrace, he climbed back into their bed. “And how is that different from any other day in our business?” he demanded, but without rancor. When Jim shrugged before crawling over him to his side of the bed, Blair allowed, “Alright, okay. I know you’re trying to make me feel better about this. But seriously, Jim - these shaman skills, abilities, whatever, they’re frustrating the hell out of me. I know that dream or vision or whatever it was meant something, something important. Maybe beyond important. But what good is it if I can’t make sense of it?”
“Look, you’re working with a shaman, right?” Jim retorted wearily with a glance at his watch. In a few more hours, they had to be up and back on the job, hopefully rested. “You’re learning and you’ll keep learning. It just takes time.”
What if we don’t have time? Blair thought, but bit back on the words, having caught the cue that a lengthy discussion at three in the morning wouldn’t be well received. “Yeah, I’m learning,” he allowed grudgingly. “But even if I’m the quickest study in the world, it takes years to master this stuff. It’s a way of living, of being, of seeing the world and past the world, past what we perceive as reality.” When Jim cocked a brow at him, lips twisting with tired impatience, Blair nodded, pressed his mouth closed and lay down as if in agreement that sleep was the priority.
But while Ellison snored softly beside him, Sandburg stared up at the ceiling, worrying at the problem and wondering what the threat might be. Red star rising… was his last troubled thought an hour later as sleep snuck up and claimed him.
The assassin peered through his binoculars, first sweeping over the whole area to assure himself that all was as he wanted it, and then focusing in on the line of fire. There was nothing to block his view and, more importantly, nothing to be used as impromptu shelter from his attack. Nodding in satisfaction, he lowered the small but expensive field glasses and stowed them away in their case, and then slipped the worn leather pouch into the capacious pocket of his threadbare and grimy duster, the garb of an impoverished wanderer. Anyone looking at him when he’d first scouted this location, or later, when he slipped away, would only see a grizzled, crippled tramp leaning heavily on his cane, if they noticed him at all. Grimacing against the ever-present pain of a body too badly shattered to ever heal properly, he limped awkwardly across the factory roof to the makeshift shelter erected in the lee of the housing of the elevator pulleys. Anyone investigating later would only see a scrap of canvas that was no more than a homeless person’s pathetic attempt to find some protection from the rain, some measure of privacy in a life that accorded little of any such luxury. A ratty blanket and stained naked pillow, an accumulation of old newspapers layered over cold concrete. A few empty bottles that had once contained cheap wine.
And a high-powered precision weapon of death.
The instrument of the long-anticipated kill was the only thing of himself he’d leave behind because he couldn’t afford to take it with him in case he was accosted by the police. But it was a mute, useless bit of evidence that would lead no further. There would be no fingerprints of his on the weapon or on anything in the area, for he always wore gloves, in part to conceal his identity from the searchers who would come, and also to ensure no one noticed the missing two fingers on his left hand, or the twisted ones that remained. The only evidence the investigators would find were the fingerprints of the half-starved indigent male who had created the meager shelter - an elderly, anonymous corpse of no importance in his life but of vast import in his death, for he was the bait. The body was already in place, sprawled in the shadows of the alley below - obviously destitute, equally obviously killed professionally with the garrote still embedded in the bloody flesh of his scrawny neck, bearing a small fortune in cocaine in the cellophane packages strapped around his wasted body under his filthy, ragged clothing. The untraceable phone call had already been made to alert the police to the remains in the deserted canyon of the industrial area of old factories and warehouses, far from the downtown core. It wouldn’t be long before the uniformed police showed up to conduct a preliminary investigation and discovered the mystery of the odd contradictions of the violent death.
A mystery designed to be irresistible to his quarry.
Patiently waiting out the last hour of the night, the assassin carried himself and conducted his affairs with the unconscious discipline of a soldier engaged in a long, weary war, resolved to one last battle. For honor’s sake, he told himself, for professional soldiers had little time for petty or pointless revenge, less time for wounded pride. This would be a last skirmish to prove his cunning and superiority in the final moment, for he’d been bested too many times.
But he consciously thought of himself as a ghost, leaving no trace of his presence, unseen and unsuspected as he’d entered the city and now waited patiently for his trap to be sprung. He’d struggled hard to survive certain death; harder still to best his broken body over the past long, grueling years, to come to this moment, this final confrontation, sustained through the endless suffering only by his fierce commitment to even the score.
A ghost, he thought as dawn edged over the peaks of the Cascade Mountains behind him. Snapping the precision-made, handcrafted pieces of his weapon together, he chuckled softly as he screwed on the silencer, the low sound of his cruel laughter rippling like wind across barren tundra, icy and brittle with contemptuous irony.
And, when the kill was confirmed, he’d disappear like gunsmoke in the crisp morning air.
Grimly stoic, hunched defensively against the chilly damp of the early hour, aching with the residual tiredness of being awakened too soon by the shrill ringing of the phone, Ellison and Sandburg nodded to the cops standing sentry in the mouth of the alley.
“What’ve we got?” Jim asked briskly, in case the officers on the scene had more information than Simon had relayed to them when he’d called shortly after dawn.
“Caucasian male, looks old but that may be only because of his lifestyle, garroted with piano wire from the look of it,” the seasoned cop reported. “The M.E. hasn’t arrived yet to pronounce him, but he looks like he’s been dead for a few hours. The blood around the wound is caked and dry. Wearing cast-off clothing over a fortune in white powder. Looks like he was dumped - no evidence of a struggle or that he died where he’s lying.”
Jim cocked a brow at the last bit of information, the only new element. Chewing on his lip thoughtfully, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, he nodded and led the way down the alley, Sandburg a half-step behind. Out of long habit, his gaze raked the factories looming over them, getting a feel for the location but not expecting to see anything more than the grungy buildings that had been built at least half a century before. As they neared the body, he focused on the ground and then on the corpse, shaking his head at the wanton brutality and he sighed with mute regret that the man who’d obviously led a hard life had met a harder death. Hunkering down, he squinted as he studied the wound, wondering what the old guy had been doing with a load of illegal drugs on his person, and why the murderer hadn’t taken the expensive product. And why it appeared the victim had been killed by a professional as opposed to some other street person or maybe gang member after the drugs.
“Anything?” Blair asked with a sniff against the cold.
“Nope,” Ellison replied. “The area is clean, well, you know what I mean. I don’t see anything that hints at who killed him or why.”
Sandburg gave a short nod, then moved closer to lay a hand on his partner’s shoulder. “Try using your sense of smell, Jim. Maybe you’ll pick up something that doesn’t belong - something distinct to the killer.”
Willing to try, Jim closed his eyes and focused on discerning and distinguishing between the various revolting odors in the alley. Behind him, Blair avoided looking at the pitiful remains and lifted his gaze to the buildings surrounding them and then to the patch of blue sky above.
The words he’d mulled over in the darkness of the preceding night echoed without warning in his mind, and he felt a rush of pure, undiluted terror. He had no time to think. He only knew that Jim was in deadly danger. Twisting forward, he bodily shoved his partner off-balance, carrying Ellison sideways and half onto his back to the ground, his body blanketing Jim’s…
A powerful blow just to the left of his spine drove him forward against Jim’s solidity. Frozen fire lanced straight through him and he heard Jim grunt at the impact of the bullet tearing a deadly path into his chest and out his back. Crimson spurted between and over them as blood sprayed and pumped hotly from their bodies, a flooding river of life that rapidly soaked their clothing and pooled upon the ground beneath them. Not yet feeling pain, only horror, Blair clamped his hands over Jim’s wounds, and blinked at the red tide that oozed between his fingers, staining his skin. Rejecting the horror as a distraction he couldn’t afford and had no time for, knowing he might only have mere seconds to do what must be done, he focused his consciousness and drew upon all the love he carried in his heart and his soul to channel strength back into Jim’s body. He knew he didn’t have the skill to heal the grievous wounds for the damage was too great, but he was desperate to use his nascent power to mitigate the injuries, to buy Jim time for professional care.
Beneath him, Ellison was stunned by the suddenness of the dual assaults while he’d been so completely focused on using his sense of smell - of being shoved hard to the ground and then of the bullet ripping with devastating speed through his body. He looked up with eyes wide with shock at Sandburg’s pale, stricken face and reached weakly to grip Blair’s hand. Though the dislocating events made no sense, he understood instinctively that they were both badly hurt, maybe dying.
And he knew with a surge of overwhelming fear that his partner was using his shaman’s skill, trying to heal him, pouring out his own strength with careless abandon.
“No,” he grated with guttural desperation as he tried to pry Blair’s hand from his chest, more afraid for Sandburg’s life than his own. But Sandburg was poised over him, using the weight of his body to press his hands down hard over the wounds. There was heat in those hands that seeped through the layers of his clothing and traveled with a frisson of energy deep within him, bearing undeniable comfort, a profound force of strength that blunted the now searing pain. Blair looked into his eyes, and Jim could see the passionate commitment of the boundless love and devotion Sandburg felt for him, the resolute, unshakable determination to hold onto his life with Blair’s bare hands, whatever the cost.
But Jim wasn’t prepared to pay that price, not for any purpose, let alone his own life. “Don’t,” he gasped, his eyes pleading with Blair to not do this, not to risk this much. Blair’s gaze softened in understanding and a faint fond smile crooked at the corner of his mouth as he gave a short shake of his head. This was his choice to make, his alone, and he would not be denied.
In the space between one agonized breath and the next, Jim saw those luminous eyes darken with regret so poignant that it found its echo, resonating with the deep, sharp anguish in his heart - regret for what might have been, for what both feared they were losing of the life they’d planned together. Tears glazed Blair’s eyes before the sorrow faded and flattened, the vibrancy seeping away into emptiness just as Sandburg pitched forward. Slumping heavily against him, Blair’s hands finally lost their implacable place over his wounds and fell limply away.
“No,” Jim whispered in protest as he laced his fingers with Blair’s unresponsive hand, helplessly denying the unthinkable belief that mercilessly shredded his soul and filled him with a hollow rush of pain and unendurable loss. “Oh God, no,” he moaned then in abject, wretched grief, convinced that his partner had died saving his life.
As the world darkened around him and the cold rushed in, still gripping the lax fingers of his beloved, he zoned on the hot, salty scents of Blair’s blood and tears.
High above them, the assassin watched with an air of clinical detachment, but inside he was seething with frustration. There’d been a shield after all, one he hadn’t counted on. The power of the shot would have been blunted by having passed through one body before penetrating the other. Crouching low below the lip of concrete around the edge of the roof before dropping momentarily from sight, he saw the patrolmen, who’d watched in consternation when the two detectives had crumpled for no apparent reason, rush down the alley.
One pulled the two fallen men apart while the other scanned the apparently empty rooftops and radioed urgently for ambulance assistance and backup. The assassin would have shot again, to make certain of his kill, but the bodies of the two uniformed cops were now in the way as they rendered what little emergency care they could. Even if he killed them both, he wouldn’t have a clear line of fire to the target. All he could see of Ellison was his hand, still entangled with his partner’s.
But their efforts at life-saving measures alone were enough to telegraph that the target was still alive.
“Chyort vozmi!!” he cursed in his native tongue, livid with frustration. Tossing the rifle aside and leaning heavily upon his cane he bent low to limp painfully toward the stairwell to make his escape before reinforcements showed up to search the area. “You have as many lives as a cat, my friend,” he spat furiously as he hastened down the steps to the elevator. “But this is not over. I will not rest until you are dead.”
Simon leaned back in his chair, laughing at Joel’s description of his version of the opera Taggart’s wife had dragged him to the previous evening. When the phone rang, he set down his coffee mug as he reached for it, holding up a hand to signal Joel to stay.
“Banks,” he replied, joviality resonating in his voice and still glinting in his eyes. But he quickly sobered and stiffened as he listened. “How bad?” he asked as a frown of alarm darkened his brow. His stark gaze lifted to meet Taggart’s look of puzzled concern. “Thanks for letting me know,” he said heavily before hanging up.
“What is it?” Joel demanded as he stood in anticipation of the need to act, assuming there’d been some public disaster that required intervention.
“Jim and Blair,” Simon rumbled as he wiped a shaking hand over his mouth and then pushed himself to his feet. “They’ve both been shot, ambushed by an unknown sniper. It’s bad, Joel.”
Taggart stilled and he tensed unconsciously against the news and the solemn tone that augured worse to come. “How bad?”
“They’re alive, but just barely, I guess,” Banks sighed, his voice thick with worry, as he reached for his coat. “They’re being taken to Cascade General.”
“I’ll go with you,” Joel offered, already striding toward the door.
“No,” Simon demurred, but gently, as if he understood that Taggart wanted to go as badly as he did. “I need you here, holding the fort, until I get more information about… about their chances.” Moving around the desk, he gripped Joel’s shoulder briefly but firmly. “I’ll call as soon as I know anything.”
The older man nodded, his lips clamped tightly against the desire to protest. Bleakly, he watched Banks lope quickly through the outer office and disappear into the stairwell. And then he slowly moved to the windows, to gaze up into the clear sky as he sent a silent but heartfelt prayer that the news would be good - or at least hold out hope.
“Hey, Joel,” Brown called curiously from the doorway behind him. “What’s going down? The Captain just blew out of here like a force four hurricane.”
Taking a breath to steady himself, squaring his shoulders, Taggart turned to the grim but necessary duty of sharing the fearful news with their friends.
Oblivious to the others sitting or standing in the impersonal and dreary Emergency waiting lounge, deaf to the restless grizzling and sharp voices of tired, ill and bored children, as well as to the metallic droning of announcements or summonses over the paging system, Simon anxiously paced the worn floor. From time to time, he glanced up at the prominent, round wall clock, impatiently noting the passing minutes and then hour since he’d arrived shortly behind the ambulance that had transported his friends and subordinates. All he knew from the cop who had followed the vehicle to Cascade General was that Ellison and Sandburg had been wounded by the same high-powered sniper’s bullet that had ploughed through their upper bodies like a hot knife through butter. And that both men had bled copiously and had lost consciousness shortly after being shot.
Once more glancing up at the clock, he shook his head and wiped a hand over his face. Taking a deep breath, he told himself that it was a good thing that it was taking so long, that it meant that his friends were being cared for and were still alive. But the not knowing how bad it really was, not knowing how good or bad their chances of survival were, not knowing what was happening beyond the closed double doors shielding the hallway to the treatment rooms, gnawed at his gut and constricted his chest. How much longer would it be before someone told him what was going on?
Medical staff worked feverishly in two adjoining treatment cubicles to hold onto the lives of the grievously wounded men lying with bloody, bare torsos on the narrow stretchers, oxygen masks covering their faces. Whole blood, plasma and saline dripped through intravenous tubes and needles into their bodies. X-rays were taken to assess the extent and detail of the damage. Dressings were applied and discarded once soaked with sanguineous discharge, and new bandages were pressed upon the wounds. Blood coagulants were injected into the intravenous lines to slow the hemorrhaging. Monitors beeped and hummed, electronically reporting their vital signs.
The physician working on Ellison felt some satisfaction as he noted the readouts and listened to the unconscious man’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. “This one,” he said calmly in the midst of the chaos around him, “is doing amazingly well, considering. Blood pressure is good, heart is going strong.” He flicked a penlight into each sky-blue eye and then frowned at the continued lack of reaction. Given all the other vitals signs, the man shouldn’t be so deeply unconscious.
Ignoring the bright light that beckoned in his mind’s eye, Sandburg found himself standing outside his body. He was startled for a moment by the hectic activity around him - and then he realized they’d been brought to the hospital and the staff was trying to save their lives. Invisible to others in the room, Blair Sandburg’s spirit shifted swiftly to stand at the head of Jim’s stretcher and frowned along with the doctor. Jim sure didn’t look unconscious, not to Sandburg who had seen that expression countless times before when Ellison was staring blindly at nothing. “Aw, c’mon, Jim,” he murmured worriedly, wishing he could touch his partner, “do not tell me you zoned out there. We so do not need that complication right now, you know? You need to get with it, man. You need to be fighting to survive, helping them help you. Listen, Jim. Hear my voice and only my voice. Follow it back….”
He knew Jim, if no one else, could hear him because they’d practiced a few times with this spirit-walking thing to check out how it worked. But Ellison didn’t respond any more to his voice than he reacted to the bright light piercing his eyes. Blair shook his head, increasingly worried and wondering how to bring Ellison out of what looked like a deep zone. He needed to be able to touch his partner. Looking over at the people working on his own body, his lips thinned when he heard the heart monitor flatline. He couldn’t risk being out of his body any longer, not when it was so damaged and weak. Not if he had any hope of surviving. And he sure wasn’t doing Jim any good as an ethereal, insubstantial spirit. “Listen to me, Jim. You have to hold on! I’ll… I’ll be back with you as soon as I can. You have to wait for me. You can’t give up, man. You can’t let go. Okay? You hear me? Oh, God, I hope you hear me.”
Sandburg flashed back into his own body even as a doctor finished intubating him and a nurse began cardiac massage - so he didn’t see the very brief flexing of the muscle in Jim’s jaw. Ellison had heard his voice and had begun to respond but, in the depths of his mind, he’d recognized that it was only a spirit talking to him, not the living, breathing man who shared his life. If Blair had really been there, he’d’ve been touching him. He would have been able to smell and feel him as well as hear him. But all he could smell, stronger than any of the medicinal odors around him, far stronger than the input from his other senses, was the raw salty, metallic scent of Blair’s blood. Behind and over the voice, he heard the distant shrill protest of the monitor that told him that Blair’s heart wasn’t beating. And then that voice, too, disappeared until all that was left was the vague feel of foreign hands prodding at him, holding life in a body that would just as soon let it go, and the sickening smell of Sandburg’s blood. Blair was dead, he knew it. It wasn’t the comfort of the man’s ghost that he wanted, needed in those moments. He craved the empty insensibility of oblivion, so he wouldn’t have to think or feel, wouldn’t have to remember that Blair had died saving him, wouldn’t have to keep smelling Blair’s dying blood. Renewed, unendurable anguish swallowed his semiconscious awareness of the world around him, and Jim sank back into the darkness.
“Captain Banks?” the doctor called from the doorway.
Turning sharply at the sound of his name, Simon saw a thirty-something, dark-haired young man wearing a pristine white lab coat that didn’t quite conceal the dark bloodstains on the green scrubs underneath. Striding quickly toward the physician, he replied, “I’m Simon Banks. How are my men?”
Looking around the waiting room, the doctor paused and then waved Simon into the closed area. “If you’ll just come to my office,” he offered, “I’ll bring you up to date. By the way, I’m Dr. Miles Bennett.”
Made wary by the lack of response to his question, Simon’s eyes narrowed as he studied the man, looking for clues as to whether the news was guarded or just plain bad, but he couldn’t tell. “Dr. Bennett,” he acknowledged, his voice low and tight as he nodded once and then followed the man a short way down the interior hallway and into a cramped office. Sitting down, unconsciously wrapping his coat around himself as if girding himself for protection against anticipated assault, he asked again, “How are my men?”
“They’re both alive,” Bennett began, and Simon heaved a breath, very nearly a sob of relief as he sagged a little in his chair. “But I’d suggest their families should be called.”
Simon’s lips thinned, and then he explained, “Both Jim Ellison’s father and brother are out of the country on business, and Blair Sandburg’s mother… well, I don’t know where to even begin tracing her. For now, I’m the closest thing to family they’ve got in town.”
“I see,” the physician replied neutrally. “Well, then, I suppose you want to know the details of their injuries and prognosis?” When Simon nodded, he continued, “Detective Ellison was sent up to surgery twenty minutes ago. Though showing some preliminary signs of shock, he was much more stable, stronger than Detective Sandburg, so it took less time to get his blood pressure, respirations and heart function up to the levels needed to sustain surgical intervention. From what we can tell from the X-rays, the bullet entered his upper abdomen, ripped through his spleen and one kidney and broke a rib very close to his spine before passing out of his body. Frankly, given the rupture of the spleen, we’re not sure why he didn’t bleed out before he was brought in, but he didn’t and was in relatively good shape considering the massive trauma. The spleen will have to come out, but his kidney can probably be saved. Our only concern in his case is that he appears to be very deeply unconscious and unresponsive to stimuli. He may have hit his head when he fell, though the X-rays don’t reveal any injury, such as a skull fracture or concussion. It may simply be that his level of unconsciousness is his mind’s way of protecting itself from the extreme pain of the wound. I’d say, given a little time to heal, he should be fine.”
Banks’ gaze dropped and he nodded thoughtfully, frowning a little about Jim’s mental state. Had Ellison zoned because of the pain? If so, would he come out of it on his own? There was no way for Simon to know and he could only hope, as the doctor evidently did, that the unusual degree of unconsciousness was a short-term thing. “That’s good news,” he finally replied as he looked back up at the physician. “What about Blair?”
“Well, unlike Detective Ellison, Detective Sandburg was very close to terminal shock when he was brought in. He lost considerably more blood than Detective Ellison, with the result that his blood pressure was dangerously low, and his heartbeat was far too fast and thready - er, not strong enough to survive surgery,” Bennett replied soberly. “In fact, we nearly lost him once when he went into cardiac and respiratory arrest about forty-five minutes ago, but we got him back. It took longer to stabilize his vitals as he needed a more extensive transfusion of blood and plasma, and he’s only just been taken up to surgery. His injuries are similar to Detective Ellison’s. The bullet entered his back with somewhat more power as he was apparently the first one hit. It broke two ribs and tore through one kidney and the lower lobe of his left lung, barely missing his heart and aorta. The lung collapsed, which was what caused the arrest. And the projectile tore a sizable hole in his chest when exiting.”
“His chances?” Simon asked tightly, his muscles tense again after hearing about the arrest.
“Though his condition is more critical, I’m guardedly optimistic,” Bennett said. “He’s young, evidently in good health. The damage is reparable. I think he’ll also be okay.”
Simon closed his eyes in grateful relief to know both his men, his good friends, would probably be just fine. His throat was tight as he stood to express his thanks and to shake the doctor’s hand. Heading directly outside, he lit a cigar before pulling out his cell phone to pass along the pretty good news to Joel and the others. But it rang before he could make his own call. Flipping it open, he answered, “Banks.”
“Captain, it’s H,” Brown reported. “Uh, any word yet, sir?”
“I was just about to call,” Simon replied, glad to have good news. “Both men are badly hurt but the doctor says they should be alright.”
“Oh, man, that’s good news, sir,” Henri gusted, before continuing more seriously. “Rafe and I have just finished checking out the scene with the Forensics crime team. Captain, it looks like a setup from the get-go. The murder victim is still unidentified, but it looks like he had a nest on the top of an old factory overlooking the alley. There’re some empty wine bottles but no evidence of drugs. No way would the old guy have had access to the kind of dope strapped around his body. And, the cops who took the initial call were right - looks like a professional hit. The garrote nearly took his head off. Anyway, he’d’ve accessed the roof easily from the fire escape at the back of the building, so he was probably living in the area and the killer decided to use him as bait. We found a silenced sniper’s rifle up here on the roof and one spent shell casing. From the line of fire and what we learned from one of the uniforms who saw it go down, well… something kinda strange happened.”
“Strange?” Banks rumbled, squinting in concentration as he listened. “What?”
“Well, sir,” Brown replied, sounding almost diffident. “If we’ve got the order of events right and I think we do, Hairboy was standing beside and a little behind Jim when he suddenly, for no apparent reason, shoved Jim off balance to the ground and dropped down over him. The witnesses didn’t hear a shot, and it all happened pretty fast, but only seconds later, Blair collapsed on Jim and they were both already unconscious when the uniforms got to them. Sir, Sandburg had to have pushed Ellison down before the shot was fired. Only, none of us can figure out how Hairboy knew there was any danger. I mean, well, it’s usually Jim, right, that picks up on what’s going on before anybody else hears or sees anything?”
“Sun glinting on the scope maybe?” Simon offered, ignoring the discreet reference to Ellison’s senses.
“Uh, no, not possible. The sun was rising behind the sniper, not to the side or in front of him, so no reflection.”
Shrugging, Banks shook his head. “Well, we’ll just have to ask the kid what happened when he wakes up.”
“Right. Well, there’s something else,” Brown continued. “From the angle of the shot, and where it hit, it looks like Jim was the target. If the killer was after just any cop, he could’ve taken out the uniforms pretty easily either before Ellison and Sandburg arrived or after, when the uniforms were trying to help them, but it looks like he abandoned the scene when his line of fire to Jim was blocked.”
Banks thought about that briefly, but wasn’t surprised. Ellison was more likely to have enemies than Sandburg - Jim had had a lot more time on the job. “Anybody see anyone leaving the scene?” he asked then, wondering if they’d catch a break and get lucky with a description of the marksman.
“Not much,” Henri grumbled. “It’s a pretty quiet, desolate area that time of the morning. The only thing the uniforms have come up with so far is a street cleaner who saw an indigent guy hobbling with a cane along an alley about a block away. He’s not sure of the time, though, so it could have been before the hit.”
Scratching his cheek, Simon grimaced. “Description?”
“Caucasian, lean build, maybe brown hair, bad limp, not positive which leg but probably the right, wearing a scruffy, long coat and a battered fedora. That’s it.”
“Okay, could have been a disguise or could’ve been just what he looked like. Put out an APB,” Banks sighed wearily. “I’ll call to have a watch put on both of our guys at least until we figure out what’s going on. Good work, H.”
The assassin holed up in a cheap motel room for the next two days, watching the television news reports. To his disgust, though the detective remained unconscious, it seemed Ellison was going to survive to fight another day, as would his troublesome partner, for that matter. Staring at the stained, threadbare carpet, he considered going after his quarry in the hospital. But he shook his head - one thing to engage in a battle of wits and set up an elaborate ambush, another to snuff out a man who couldn’t fight back. He didn’t have any compunction about killing, but this was about honor, not an assigned mission like the old days, or even a private contract in the usual sense.
Scratching his grizzled cheek, he decided that he’d simply have to exercise more patience. What were a few more months after all, when he’d been planning this for so long already? The time would come for a final reckoning - but, apparently, that time had not yet arrived. Besides, now that Ellison was alerted to the potential but unknown threat, the next round might be more interesting, more of a challenge. In the meantime, he could amuse himself by imagining Ellison startling at shadows, wondering when the next hit would come.
Resigned, he packed up his meager belongings, checked out and took a taxi to the airport.
“Nnggghh,” Blair moaned softly as he struggled his way back toward consciousness. He had bleary, fractured recollections of having woken before but it was all muddled in his mind - about all he was truly fully aware of was the ripping pain in his chest every time he drew a breath and the low, equally insistent sharp throb in his back. His hand fumbled, weakly reaching out, and he felt someone grip it, but it wasn’t Jim’s hand. Too large to be Jim’s hand.
He forced eyelids that felt sticky and heavy to open and then winced against the glare of light. Stifling another moan, he blinked away the reflexive tears and looked wildly around the room, searching for his partner.
“Easy, son,” Simon murmured as he stood stiffly and reached to lay his other hand on Sandburg’s brow. “Just take it easy. You’re alright.”
“J’m?” Blair croaked, his weak grip tightening on Banks’ hand. “’live?”
“Yes, he’s alive,” Simon reassured him verbally, though Sandburg could see worry deep in the dark brown eyes. But Banks’ weary, crooked smile was a genuine reflection of his relief that at least one of his men had finally awakened and seemed alert.
“Wha’s wron’?” Sandburg demanded breathily, and then swallowed against his parched throat and licked his dry lips.
Reaching for the plastic cup of water on the table by the bed, Simon extricated his hand from Sandburg’s grip and held the cup and straw for Blair to take a sip. “Better?” he asked, when the younger man was finished.
“Yeah,” Blair replied, his voice a bit stronger. “What’s wrong with Jim?” he asked again, as he frowned, trying to remember why he was in hospital and how he knew his partner was in trouble.
Looking away to set down the cup, Simon shrugged. “His surgery went well, and his wounds are healing,” he said slowly, wondering how much to say, not wanting to worry Blair when he’d just woken up and wasn’t in any shape to do anything but sleep a lot more.
“But?” Blair probed, not prepared to be put off with bland reassurances.
Gazing down at the kid, Banks resisted a moment more, and then admitted, “He’s still unconscious. He doesn’t respond to any stimuli, and the doctors can’t figure out why.”
“Zone?” Sandburg husked.
“Probably,” Simon nodded gloomily. After a swift check to ensure no one was in listening distance, lowering his voice, he went on with mingled concern and frustration, “I’ve done everything I can think of to bring him out of it. You know, talk to him, touch him, even pinched him once.” Shrugging again, he shook his head. “He’s either not hearing me or he’s, I don’t know, not listening.”
“Have to see him,” Blair said and tried to push himself up, only to fall back with a gasping grunt at the pain that slammed through his chest.
“Will you stop that!” Banks chastised sharply with a dark frown. “You want to hurt yourself? You’re in no condition to go anywhere right now.”
“How… how long?” Sandburg wheezed through the pain.
“For a few more days, anyway,” Simon told him.
“No, no. Since we were shot?” Blair gritted through clenched teeth, his hands fisted against the pain that seared through him.
“Two days,” Banks replied. “How long can he stay like this?”
Closing his eyes, Blair weakly shook his head. “I don’t know,” he sighed hollowly, focusing on breathing through the pain and letting it flow away. Looking back up at the older man, his voice little more than a rasping whisper and his eyes filled with fear, he finally managed to add, “But… but I’m afraid it’s too long, Simon. I can’t wait another two or three days to help him. He… his body could shut down.”
Simon grimaced as he rubbed his mouth, wondering what Sandburg expected him to do or say. Finally, sighing, he offered, “Okay, look, I understand the problem. You rest, sleep if you can. I’ll tell the staff you’ve awoken and that you’re alert - and I’ll get them to give you something for the pain.”
“No ‘buts’,” he scolded but without any real ire. “Just let me finish. I’ll see if I can get them to move your bed over by his -”
“He’s in here?” Blair exclaimed on a wisp of air, his eyes again darting around the open Intensive Care ward. “Where?”
“Just across the room,” Banks supplied, rolling his eyes as he firmly, if gently, placed a hand on Sandburg’s shoulder to forestall another attempt to sit up. “Dammit, Sandburg, you’ve got to calm down. You were in worse shape than he was when they brought you guys in. They nearly lost you in the ER and again in the operating room. So just settle down, alright? Let me see what I can do.”
Surrendering to his inability to do much more than agree, Blair nodded grudgingly. “’Kay,” he murmured. “Just… I really need to get close to him. I need… need to touch him.”
“I know,” Simon replied with sober understanding. “You close your eyes and get some more rest and let me work a little magic.”
Blair crooked a wan smile and obediently let his eyes drift closed, though he had no intention of sleeping, despite the sense of exhaustion that pulled on him. If he couldn’t physically get to Jim immediately, then it was time for his spirit to take another walk.
While his body lay apparently sleeping, his spirit flitted invisibly around the room, searching for Ellison. When he found his partner, he wasn’t at all happy at what he saw. Jim was deathly pale and his respirations sounded rough and shallow. According to the heart monitor, the old ticker was beating a little too slow for Sandburg’s comfort, and the blood pressure reading was too low.
“Jim? Hey, Jim? Can you hear me?” he called urgently. “C’mon, buddy. It’s way past time you came out of it, you know? What the hell is wrong? Okay, okay, let’s take it slowly, a step at a time. I want you to focus on my voice - just ignore all the other noises around us. And I want you to take a deep breath. Just one, okay, to show me you hear me?” But, despite persisting for several minutes, he got no response. Metaphysically chewing on his lip and crossing his arms, Sandburg studied his partner and tried to figure out what was going on with him.
But the drag of exhaustion made it hard for him to focus, and the energy it took to stay present in spirit form away from his body rapidly began to run dry. Inexorably, he was pulled back to his own body and, by the time he’d sunk back inside, his body was deeply asleep, dreaming troubled dreams that replayed their last conscious moments together over and over and over as his subconscious mind worried through the problem. Until the pain medication a nurse injected into his intravenous line took effect and even his subconscious was forced to give up and rest.
When he woke hours later to the muted light of night in the ward, he found that his bed had been moved next to Jim’s but, if anything, the situation had deteriorated. An oxygen mask now covered Ellison’s face, and his respirations were distinctly labored.
And Blair still wasn’t close enough to reach out and touch his partner. Once again, he tried to push himself up, but the pain knifed through him, stealing his breath away and he had to clench his jaw to keep from crying out. “Damn it,” he grated, feeling utterly helpless and incredibly useless. Forcing himself to take slower, deeper breaths despite the searing fire of each respiration, fighting the panic that was blooming in his chest, he began to murmur desperately, loud enough that he hoped Jim could hear him, but not so loud that he’d attract the attention of the nurses who’d probably drug him back into insensibility. “Jim! Oh, God, please, Jim - you’ve got to hear me! You’re… you’re in trouble, Jim. You’re sinking away from me, man. You have got to come out of that zone! Please, you’ve got to fight; got to wake up and breathe deeply. You’re going to get pneumonia or something if you keep on like this - you hearing me, man? C’mon. Give me a sign. Something. Shit… I… I can’t get to you, Jim. I can’t touch you, man, to help ground you. You have to use my voice, follow it back. Please, please follow my voice.”
But his own strength faltered, and his voice grew hoarse and weak. He wanted to scream at the weakness that kept him bound to the bed, and that prevented him from doing any real good to help his partner. Tears of frustration and fear filled his eyes and slid down the sides of his face. “Jim? Aw, come on, man. Please, Jim. Don’t do this. Don’t….”
The soft, sibilant and increasingly distressed murmur of his Guide’s voice penetrated the heavy fog that engulfed Ellison’s mind and he was irresistibly drawn to listen though everything seemed so distant, so far away. The sound of Blair’s voice pulled at him, insisting he respond, but as he became more aware, the memories flooded back, overwhelming him. But the words kept flowing, urging him, calling him and he couldn’t help but listen to the beloved voice, though he knew it was only a chimera. None of the words he heard changed anything. Sure, Blair wanted him to live. And, yeah, Blair was trying to tell him he’d always be there, if only as a spirit who could no longer touch him. Didn’t the kid understand that that wasn’t enough, not nearly enough? Would never be enough? Jim had lost too many people he’d loved, had lived too long in isolation and didn’t want to go back to being a miserable, embittered loner. He’d had enough, suffered too much anguish, couldn’t keep doing it alone, not anymore, not when he’d know every damned day and lonely night what he’d lost. What his own life had cost. He couldn’t stand that, knowing he was alive only because Blair had used the last strength in his body and heart and soul to save him. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Didn’t want to.
Why wouldn’t they just let him die? His heart was broken - why the hell wouldn’t it stop beating?
He steeled himself against the persistent, desperate pleading. He could still smell the salt of Blair’s blood and he was afraid it was all he’d ever be able to smell for the rest of his life. The salt of Blair’s blood and tears….
Tears? a distant, vague thought challenged, so faintly he was scarcely conscious of it. Can a ghost cry? But memory surfaced again, of the tears glazing Sandburg’s eyes just before the light had faded out of them, and Jim’s desolate spirit retreated once again into the darkness.
The interminable night eased into day, and still Jim hadn’t responded, not so much as a twitching muscle. Blair knew he’d drifted in and out of consciousness in the last hours, but when he was awake he talked and then talked some more until his voice was nothing more than a rough whisper. When Simon arrived in midmorning, Sandburg was distraught but trying hard not to let the nurses know. The last thing he wanted or needed was to be sedated.
“You have to help me!” he blurted, but his voice was so faint Banks could barely hear him.
“What? Help you?” Simon muttered, leaning close to make out the words. “What do you need?” he demanded, thinking Blair’s evident distress was caused by his injuries.
“Have to… God, have to touch him,” Sandburg husked. “Now! He’s… he’s fading. Please. Help me up.”
“Oh, Blair,” Banks sighed with a worried, frowning glance at Ellison, his jaw tightening when he saw the oxygen mask and knew the kid was right. “I don’t know,” he waffled, looking back at Sandburg’s stark white face, listening to the younger man’s own labored breathing.
“Simon,” Blair pleaded. “You have to help me! I can’t do it myself.” Twisting his head to gaze at Jim, tears again stung his eyes. “He’s… h-he’s dying - can’t you see that? There’s no more time.”
Simon shook his head. It was impossible. There was no way he’d dare try to lift Sandburg from the bed. And even if he was willing to risk doing further damage to the kid, as soon as the nurses saw him, they’d stop him and probably throw him out.
Sandburg caught the look Banks flashed at the nurses at the station in the centre of the large open space. His lips tightened and he swallowed hard. “Draw the curtains around our beds,” he ordered, determined to have his way. “If you won’t help me get up, then at least push my bed next to his and move us both as close together as you can.”
Banks gazed somberly from him to Jim and back again and, finally, he nodded mutely. He quietly drew the curtains along the ceiling track until the two beds were shrouded from sight. Then, very carefully, he shifted Ellison’s lax body as close to the edge of his bed as he dared, before doing the same with Sandburg, who winced with pain but remained grimly silent. Once the beds were rolled together, Blair reached out weakly to grip Jim’s wrist as tightly as he could and tilted his head to rest it against Ellison’s shoulder. Banks felt his eyes begin to burn; he blinked rapidly to clear them and he turned away to give at least the illusion of privacy, as he listened to Blair’s desperate pleading.
“I’m here, Jim,” Sandburg rasped. “Right here with you, man. Please, Jim. For me? Fight for me? Come back.” His voice cracked and a tear trickled down his face. “I need you, Jim. I love you. Please, please don’t leave me like this….”
Sandburg’s scared voice once again drew Ellison, who found the distant broken tones irresistibly compelling. When Blair needed him, he had to listen. God, he could even imagine he could feel the kid’s hand on his arm, holding onto him. But it was impossible, an illusion or hallucination born out of need and want. Nothing was real, not even the salty smell that filled his nostrils. What did the kid call it? Sense memory? Couldn’t be real. Blair was dead. If he was alive, he’d smell more than the blood and the tears that had overwhelmed him in their last moments, when his sense of smell had been turned up to full capacity. He’d zoned on that terrible scent of death. Dimly, Jim realized that his olfactory sense was still wide open - he’d never turned the dial back down, hadn’t had the chance. Hadn’t thought about it. It wasn’t important.
But, damn, he could swear he could feel Blair touching him, the kid’s head on his shoulder. He could smell Blair’s hair, the scent of herbal shampoo faint, nearly gone, but still tantalizingly there. He could smell…
His mind jolted, shocked into higher awareness.
He could smell Blair! But that wasn’t possible. He’d never been able to pick up anything but visual and auditory cues when Sandburg did his spirit walking. He’d not been able to smell Molly, the ghost he’d ‘met’ over a year before. What the hell was happening?
Unable to resist, Jim drew a deeper breath, inhaling the unique fragrance of his Guide, his partner, his beloved lover. And another deep breath, reveling in the richness of scents that were more than blood and tears, but warm skin and wild hair, soft breath mingled with acrid medicinal overtones. As he locked onto Sandburg, he consciously brought his other senses back into play, and felt the warmth of the hand encircling his wrist, the weight of the head on his shoulder. He heard the poignant, heart-wrenching words entreating him to come back, to be strong… to live.
And then, at last, he heard the heartbeat that was so distinct, so essential.
“Ch’f?” he husked, scarcely daring to hope but needing so badly to believe that Blair was really there. Blinking heavily, he opened his eyes and squinted against the light. He felt Sandburg’s head twist against his shoulder and he looked down into wide, impossibly blue pools that filled and overflowed with tears as Blair began to weep with exhausted, passionate relief. “Hey,” Jim sighed, nearly undone by the mixed emotions of jubilation to realize that Sandburg was still very much alive and regret to see his partner so distressed. He swallowed against the pain that ricocheted through his body, and fought the stiffness of his muscles to shift his arm and link his fingers with Sandburg’s. Turning his head, he kissed Blair’s brow and murmured, “Don’t, Chief. It’s okay. Shh, Babe, everything’s gonna be okay.”
Simon’s lips trembled and he swiftly covered his mouth with his hand as he slipped out past the curtain. Pressing his eyes closed against the tears of gratitude that threatened, sniffing, he swiped at his face with both hands. And then, taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders, swallowed the lump in his throat and smiled.
The questions about who and why could be answered later. For now, it was enough to know his men, his friends, were going to be just fine.