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Jim's phone rang and Blair picked it up. "Jim Ellison's desk, can I help you?"

"Uh… hello.  I'm trying to find Guide Sandburg."

"This is Blair Sandburg.  Can I help you?"

"I'm afraid I've got some bad news.  Eli Stoddard is unconscious and in the hospital."

"Oh, my god.  What happened?"

"No one knows for sure.  He was found outside the Institute early this morning.  The EMTs said that he's got a bruise on the side of his head and probably has a hematoma.  His wife is at Cascade General waiting for word.  It looks as if they're going to do surgery.  I called you because Dr. Stoddard has you in his Rolodex and I wanted to let his friends and associates know what's going on."

Blair blew out a breath.  "Thank you… I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

"It's Lori… Lori Swanson.  And you're welcome." Blair could hear Lori holding back tears, apparently trying to get through the litany who knows how many times.

"Okay, Lori.  I'm going to the hospital now.  I'll make sure you're kept up to date."

"Thank you, Sentinel Sandburg."

"It's Blair, and thank you again.  I can't imagine how many times you've had to do this, but I appreciate that you called me.  Bye."

Just then, Jim came through the door to the bullpen.  He hadn't heard the conversation, but he'd caught Blair's tone.  "What's wrong?"

"Eli's in the hospital, unconscious."  Blair looked around. "Do you have anything pressing?  There's something weird about the situation."

"Let me lock up the files." He looked into Simon's office, but it was empty.  "I'll call Simon on the way." He locked his desk. "Let's go."

In the truck, Blair related what he knew.  "Lori said he had a bruise on the side of his head.  Unless he slipped sideways, I don't understand how that could happen."

"Pretty improbable," Jim agreed.  "I'm not sure how much I'll be able to detect from inspecting Eli himself, though.  If he's in surgery, they've already cleaned and prepped him.  Maybe I can get something off his clothes.  It might be better to start where they found him."

Blair was anxious to see Eli, but knew Jim was right.  "It was outside the Institute.  I can show you what door he uses to get to his car.  If we need more information, we can see Lori."

They approached the entrance that Eli typically used and Jim immediately stopped Blair.  "Look there," he said, pointing. "The ground is disturbed and there's obviously been a scuffle."  He approached closer.  "At least four sets of footprints. Here's where Eli lay.  I can smell his blood."

"How long ago?" Blair asked, and Jim made a mental note. Blair was already thinking like a cop.  

"At least five hours."  Jim pulled out his cell. "Martin?... Jim Ellison. Listen, Eli Stoddard of the Sentinel Guide Institute was found unconscious outside the building.  I'm here and it looks like this might be a crime scene.… Yeah.… Okay, great.  I'm going to have Campus Security wait for the officers here.  We're going to Cascade General.  I'm hoping to get something from Stoddard himself.… Thanks again, Marty." Jim disconnected then dialed again.  "Campus Security?  This is Sentinel Detective James Ellison from Cascade PD.  Were you informed of an incident with Eli Stoddard that happened sometime this morning?  No? Perhaps they thought it was an accident.  I have reason to believe he was attacked based on what I'm seeing here…. Yes, if you could send someone here to the West Entrance of the Institute.… Thanks.  I've already contacted Cascade PD and they're on their way.  If you have a sentinel?...  That would be great; that way I can go to Cascade General and question Dr. Stoddard.… Thank you very much, I'll see her soon."  Jim turned to Blair. "They're sending a sentinel. Do you know Suzanne Tomaki?" At Blair's nod, he continued. "She's the sentinel they're sending."

"I met her during an incident when a former student was bitten by an exotic spider that escaped the Biology Lab.  She's the Chief of Security.  Very friendly and very efficient."

A Cascade PD unit was just pulling up as Jim finished briefing Suzanne.  Jim waved at the officers as they left.

 

*****



Rebecca Stoddard was sitting in the surgery waiting room, her hands clasped tightly.  She rose when she saw Blair and went into his opened arms.  "Oh, Blair," she said, "how could this have happened? He's always so careful when he walks.  I don't understand it."

Blair looked questioning at Jim, even as he comforted Rebecca. "Has Eli come out of surgery yet?"

"No," she said, looking at the clock on the wall. "But it should be soon. They're removing a hematoma and then the doctor believes he'll regain consciousness."

"Mrs. Stoddard," Jim spoke up, showing his badge as she turned to face him.  "I'm Detective Ellison.  I'm sorry to be blunt, but do you know anyone who might want to do your husband any harm?"

Rebecca's eyes widened. "No, I can't think of anyone who would want to hurt Eli." She turned to Blair. "What's going on?"

Blair ushered her to a chair and sat beside her, taking her hand.  "The description of his injuries seemed inconsistent with a simple fall.  I asked Jim to examine the place where he was found. It looks as if he might have been attacked." Rebecca took a sharp intake of breath. "We don't know whether it was a random attack or purposefully done.  Did Eli say anything?"

She shook her head.  "No, he was unconscious when they brought him in and he…," Rebecca's eyes filled with tears, "he hasn't woken up."

At that point, the doors to the surgery opened and a doctor emerged, going directly to Rebecca. "Mrs. Stoddard, the surgery went well.  We've got him in post-op until the effects of the anesthesia have worn off, then he'll be moved to ICU.  We're encouraged by his movements and expect he'll wake up without any problems."

"Can I see him?"

"Just for a few minutes. Once he's in ICU you can stay for the normal hours."

"Thank you so much, Doctor."  He nodded to her and left.

Rebecca turned toward Jim and Blair.  "I've got to go."

"Before you leave, do you have the things that were on him, his wallet, keys, briefcase, clothes?" asked Jim.  

She looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"Becca," said Blair gently.  "Remember, we think this might be a crime.   We're looking for clues here until we can question Eli.  Jim's a sentinel," he added.

"Oh, of course!" She went to the chair she'd been sitting in and took a white plastic bag with the hospital logo on it.  "This is everything they gave me.  I didn't check what was in it, but that's all of it."

"Thank you, Mrs. Stoddard," Jim said.  "We'll return everything as soon as we can."

"Please, call me Becca.  Now, I've got to go."

 Jim put on a pair of gloves and had Blair do the same.  He opened the bag slowly, smelling first.  "I can make out Eli's scent and two, maybe three others."  He brought it over to the table and lay out the clothes.  "I can see hair and some fibers; perhaps from gloves." He put the clothes back in and closed it.  "That's all we need for now.  I'll go over them more carefully at Forensics. Let's see how Eli's doing." Blair nodded, removing his gloves and pocketing them.

They walked to ICU and looked through the window.  When a nurse approached, Jim pulled out his badge and she nodded and left.  They watched as Rebecca held Eli's hand, obviously talking to him, although Blair couldn't hear.  Jim stared at the bed.  "I'd like to listen to his vitals, but the machines are interfering."  

Blair nodded and laid his hand on Jim's back. "You know the drill.  Just keep cataloguing and dismissing the sounds you don't want."

Jim frowned in concentration.  "He's starting to come out of it, but slowly.  Why don't we get a cup of coffee and come back?  No sense scaring the nurses by hovering," he said drily.

 

*****



When they arrived back at ICU, Eli was awake and talking with Rebecca. They walked in and he acknowledged them with a weak wave.  

"Eli, how are you feeling." Blair said.

"Like I'm too old to get whacked on the head and left on the cold ground for who knows how long." Eli smiled.  "On the other hand, I'm grateful to wake up to aches and pains."  He turned to Jim.  "Ah, Jim, or should it be Detective, since you're on the job now?"

Jim smiled at the remembered conversation.  "Well, I'm not here to arrest you, so it's still Jim.  Do you remember what happened, Eli?"

"I was just leaving work and going to my car.  A man approached me and asked for directions to Hargrove Hall.  I was just getting ready to point, when I heard someone coming up behind me.  I was hit on the side of the head.  I'm afraid that's all I remember until I woke up just a little while ago."

"Were there any other people around?"

"No, it was quite late."

"Did you notice anything else?  Something that might have been out of place, like a strange car?"

"No, nothing.  However, the man who was asking directions called me by name, or, rather, by my title.  That surprised me."

"Why is that?"

"He was older, not a student who might know who I was.  Also, if he knew who I was, he should have been familiar with Rainier's layout.  Why would he need directions to Hargrove?  In any case, I didn't have time to ponder or to ask him, because I was attacked." He frowned.  "I'm sorry I can't be of more help."

"You're doing fine.  One more question.  I have a bag with your clothes.  Did you have anything else on you?  Keys? Wallet?"

"Oh, my, yes.  And my briefcase as well."

"Was your computer in it?"

"No, I don't believe in hauling around a laptop as so many young people do.  I'd never stop working if I had one of those at home.  I have a desktop computer at work, and that's enough for me." Eli sighed.  "So, everything's missing?  I suppose it was a mugging, then."

"It's too early to make that determination--"  Just then, Jim's phone rang, earning him a dirty look from the ICU nurse. "Excuse me."  He left for the waiting room.  

He returned a short time later.  "Eli, your wallet, keys and briefcase were found in a nearby dumpster.  We'll be going over them for fingerprints.  I'm afraid any cash and credit cards you had are gone.  Your driver's license, some pictures and business cards are all that's in it."

"I only have one American Express card.  Rebecca will cancel it."  

"Okay, I think we'll let you rest now.  If you can think of anything else, no matter how small, please call me." Jim handed Eli his card.  Blair hugged Rebecca, murmuring support, and squeezed Eli's hand. Then they left.

 

*****



A week had passed, and Jim was no further along in the investigation of Eli's assault.  Eli had confirmed that nothing was missing from his briefcase and the keys they found in the dumpster were his.  American Express had reported no activity on the stolen card and it had been promptly cancelled.  

No fingerprints were found on the briefcase or keys; even Jim's enhanced sight could find nothing helpful. The woven-cloth wallet might have held a whiff of the attackers' smells, but a night in the dumpster had obliterated them.  Jim reluctantly put the file aside until something new appeared and began working on other cases.

 

*****



Two weeks later, Eli called.  "There's something disturbing on my desk.  I think you should inspect it."

Jim checked his watch.  "We'll be right over." He threw out his hearing to find Blair, who was in the break room talking with Henri.  He grabbed both their coats and headed there.  "Chief," he said with a cock of his head, "We need to get over to SGI.  Eli called."  Blair said a quick goodbye and they headed for Jim's truck.

It was a plain piece of paper that you could buy in any stationery store.  What was scrawled on it was chilling.


 
           You have been warned. Meet our demands, or more sentinels will pay the price. -- The SG

 

"Who's the SG?" Blair asked.

Jim shook his head.  "I haven’t heard the name."  He inspected the entire room, searching for fingerprints not only on the paper but anywhere in the room.  The room was clean, extraordinarily clean, as if they knew a sentinel would be inspecting.  Any smell had been obliterated by a plug-in room freshener, pine-scented.  It made Jim's nose wrinkle up in distaste.  "Whoever it is knows how to thwart sentinel senses.  There's nothing here I can latch onto."

"When you're done with the note, would you mind if I borrowed it?" Blair asked. "There's something off about the handwriting.  I'd like to have it analyzed by an expert."  Jim nodded.  He bagged it and gave it to Blair. "What do you suppose the note means, 'more sentinels will pay the price'?  And what are their demands?"

Eli spoke up.  "I'm afraid I might be able to shed light on that score.  We've been hearing reports of people with hyper-active senses being hospitalized.  They're not all sentinels-- some have only one or two enhanced senses.  But in each case, the hospitalization was because the senses were attacked.  A head chef collapsed after tasting a soup.  They found later someone had slipped something called a ghost pepper into the broth, apparently one of the hottest peppers on record.  Her taste buds just overloaded."  He looked at another paper.  "Here's another report.  A sniper was at a practice range.  He was heading for the target to get his score when someone threw a flash-bang at him.  It overloaded his eyesight and he went temporarily blind."  

Eli sighed.  "These reports have been coming in over the past week, but no one put it together until yesterday that these people were being specifically targeted because of their senses.  I'm afraid this might be my fault."

"You think this is related to your attack," Jim said.

Eli nodded. "Perhaps it was designed to look like a mugging.  My briefcase didn't have any information that could be used, but my keys unlock everything in the Institute and, for that matter, several buildings at Rainier proper. Yet nothing unusual was reported there.  Someone could have gotten in and stolen all the pertinent information on our clients."

"Can I see your keys?" Jim asked.  When he looked carefully at them, he shook his head in disgust. "I was trying to find fingerprints on these, but I see now there's a trace bit of clay.  They probably took impressions of your keys and had duplicates made.  Then they threw them away close by, so you would recover them." He shook his head in disgust.  "I looked these over when they were found, but I was focusing on fingerprints.

Eli nodded.  "Since I got the keys back, I didn't go through the trouble of changing the locks, didn't see any need. And we don't keep anything of high security here, so no cameras to see if anyone broke in later."  He looked at Jim.  "It's the only thing that makes sense.  Every one of these people who were attacked came to us for guides, so we'd have all their profiles here.  I'm so sorry."

"But who are the SG, and what are their demands?" Blair asked.

Eli shook his head.  "I don't know but I expect we'll find out."

Jim said, "I think the best thing you can do now is up your security around the institute.  And change those locks."

 

*****


Blair had been contacting sentinels all morning, a tedious job.  He'd explained that they could be targets and how to be on the alert.  He scrubbed his hand through his hair; this would take days.  His cell phone rang.  "This is Blair Sandburg," he greeted.

"Blair, this is Simon Banks. Jim has been attacked. He's unconscious and on his way to Cascade General's sentinel ward."

"I'll be right there, Simon. Do they know what hit him?"

"No, we'll try to find out while you're en route."

"Okay," he said and disconnected, taking a deep calming breath.  He went into Eli's office to let him know.  "Eli, Jim's been hit--" He looked up to see Eli sitting in a chair surrounded by men with guns.  A short, sandy-haired man came up to him, pointing a gun and indicating he should move into the room.

"Who are you and what do you want?" Blair asked.  "Dr. Stoddard can't hurt you."

"Oh, he already has.  He and the SGI have hurt thousands of sentinels with their barbaric methods." He smirked. "As to who we are, I'd hate to be impolite, so I'll introduce myself.  I'm Garrett Kincaid and I head the Sunrise Guardians."

Blair drew in a breath. "The SG.  What are your demands and what did you use to attack Jim Ellison?"

"Who the hell are you and why should I answer your questions, instead of just shooting you?"

"I'm Dr. Blair Sandburg. I run the SGI with Dr. Stoddard. As you can see, he's a bit long in the tooth and needs some help running things.  You can deal with me directly." Blair flicked his eyes toward Eli, who obviously understood what he was trying to do and stayed quiet.

Kincaid pulled Blair toward him by the collar and shoved his gun under Blair's chin. "I guess I could use a man like you," he sneered.

"Well, I won't be of much use to you if I'm dead," Blair replied.

"A brave answer, but I can hear your heart hammering," Kincaid said.  

Blair realized that Kincaid must be a sentinel.  He wondered how many of his senses were enhanced. He gave silent thanks to his mother for all those meditation and bio-feedback sessions.  He slowed his heartrate. "Only a fool wouldn't be scared with a gun pointed at him.  You have the upper hand here; we're surrounded by your goons.  Why don't you point the gun away and tell me what you want."

Kincaid looked at Blair a moment longer, then turned the gun away. He held onto his collar, though. "We want the SGI dismantled and all sentinels to go free," he replied.  "A simple request for emancipation."

 

 

Kincaid and Blair



Blair looked at Kincaid in confusion.  "What do you mean?  Sentinels aren't slaves.  They're free to do whatever they want and go wherever they want."

"But not to have what they want.  They're assigned guides--sometimes the wrong guides.  All because the SGI hierarchy calls the shots."

Blair frowned. "They don't call the shots.  They're really like a dating service.  They put sentinels and guides together."

"They put them together based on what the SGI wants.  They control all the files, they make the decisions on who should meet who. And who shouldn't meet who.  Their system is rigged."

Blair looked at him thoughtfully.  "Is that what happened to you?  You haven't been able to find a guide and you blame the SGI?"

"We're not talking about me," Kincaid snarled, pushing Blair away and indicating he should sit in the chair next to Eli.  "The system is rigged. That's all you need to know.  You're part of the system, so you don't even recognize it.  Well, the Sunrise Guardians are gonna change that. It's a new day, bucko, and our cause is going to shed light and heat on the crooks."

"What are you going to do?"

"We're going to dismantle the unjust system.  Starting right now," Kincaid said, pointing his gun at Eli, "You're gonna destroy all the files, fire all the SGI personnel and then you're going to send out a call to all sentinels, telling them they are no longer chained to their guides.  They are free to choose who they want. All guides will report to our new HQ, where they will be claimed by any sentinels who want them."

"And, of course, you'll get first pick?" Blair said drily.

"As head of the New Order, I need the best tools at my disposal, including, of course, the best guide."

"Let everyone go.  I volunteer to be your guide."

"And why should I want you when I could have anyone?"

Blair huffed in frustration.  He stomped over to the file cabinet and rifled through the files, pulling one out.  He threw it down on the table in front of Kincaid and pointed to it.  "Look, that's me.  You'll see that I've got a high guide index.  I can guide virtually anybody."  As Kincaid read through the file, Blair took a breath and drew his fingers through his hair.  "You let me take care of Ellison and… and I'll go with you.  I'll be your guide willingly.  Eli has already agreed to dismantle the SGI.  You'll get everything you want.  Just let me help Ellison and you'll have it all."

Kincaid looked at him calculatingly. "Why is Ellison so important to you?"

"I have an obligation to him.  I am his guide.  If I know what's been done to him I can tell the doctors what to do to help him recover.  After that, my obligation to him is finished," Blair said flatly, holding his heart rate steady. "

Kincaid looked hard for another minute, then nodded. "What did we hit Ellison with?" he asked one of the men.

"Dog whistle."

Blair scowled at the answer, but pulled out his phone, trying not to hurry, trying for casual.  "Simon?... How is he?... Listen, he's been hit with a dog whistle.… Yeah, so it's a sensory overload, not too hateful.  What you need to do is make sure he's in a very quiet room.  Try stimulating one of his other senses.  You can try putting something under his nose, nothing too abrasive, but something to catch his attention.  If that doesn't work, try taste, maybe slipping a lozenge in his mouth.… Yeah, just keep working on it.  He'll come out of it eventually.… No, I'm not going to be able to get there.… If you need help, call Cassie. She worked with him last and knows his likes and dislikes.… No, I can't.… I can't explain.… When Jim wakes up, tell him I'm sorry.… Goodbye, Simon." Blair hung up then looked at Kincaid.  "Okay, you've got what you wanted. Let's go."

"Not so fast, guide," Kincaid said.  "We'll go when I say we go." He smirked at the murmurs of approval from the men around him.  "First, we need to finish something."  He looked at one of the men. "McBride, call in the press."

Blair watched as the man hesitated, then nodded. "Yes, sir."

 

*****



Cassie slipped into the room where Jim Ellison lay quiescent.  Simon Banks and a man in a doctor's jacket stood next to the bed.  "Any change?" she asked.

Simon shook his head.  "We tried the things that Blair told us.  I've put flowers and antiseptic under his nose with no change.  I slipped a cough lozenge inside his mouth, but all it did was make him drool."

Cassie came up and touched Jim lightly, checking his temperature and pulse as she thought.  "Do you have anything of Blair's here?"

"Yes," Simon replied.  "Jim was going to pick Blair up at the Institute when he stopped at Wonderburger for lunch.  That was where he was attacked. He had Blair's backpack and jacket in the truck."  Simon stepped outside the room to talk with the officer outside the door.  In a matter of minutes, the officer came back with Blair's things.

Cassie rummaged in the backpack and removed a knit cap.  "The hair oil should be strong enough." She put it under Jim's nose and waited.  In less than a minute, Jim's pulse changed and his nose wrinkled.  His eyes fluttered open.  He immediately groaned and held his head.

Cassie spoke soothingly. "Is it a headache?" At Jim's nod, she said, "If you'll allow me, I'll use acupressure to ease it."  When he nodded again, she applied pressure to a point at the web between his thumb and first finger.  She watched as the wrinkles on his forehead eased, then let go and patted his hand.

"Where's Blair?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"I smelled him."

Cassie held up the cap. "I used it to get you out of a zone.  What do you remember?"

Jim thought back.  "I was going to the Institute to pick Blair up from Eli's.  I stopped for a Wonderburger.  I heard something…" He shook his head. "That's all."

Simon came into his view.  "When you collapsed, a server at Wonderburger who knew who you were called 911.  The paramedics brought you here.  I called Blair to let him know.  He called back and said you'd been hit by a dog whistle.  He suggested ways to get you out of it.  He told us to call Cassie."

"But I don't understand. How did he know what happened? Why didn't he come himself?"  Simon shook his head.  Just then, the door opened and the officer poked his head in.  "Captain, you'd better turn on the news.  Something's happening at the Institute."

The doctor turned on the TV and they watched as Don Hass, a reporter both Jim and Simon were familiar with, stood in front of the camera.

"This is Don Hass of KCDE with breaking news.  It has just been announced that Dr. Eli Stoddard will hold a news conference about the Sentinel Guide Institute.  Although the topic is unknown, we've learned that it might have something to do with a series of mysterious attacks on sentinels throughout the region. If you remember, Dr. Stoddard was attacked himself several weeks ago, allegedly by muggers.  However, this might not be the case… Okay, it looks like we're ready to go.  Let's turn to the head of the SGI…. "

Cassie gasped as the camera turned toward where Eli, looking frail, was being helped to a podium by Blair.  A man shoved a piece of paper toward them. Blair took it and lay it in front of Eli, who put on his glasses to read:

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the press and to everyone in the Northwest Corridor.  We at the SGI, after careful consideration, have come to the conclusion that what the SGI is doing to bring sentinels and guides together is harmful, especially to sentinels.  Therefore, we are immediately dismantling the SGI and negating all contracts between sentinels and guides.  Sentinels, you are no longer bound to the guides assigned to you and are free to pick the guide of your choice.  There will be further information very soon.  I will not be taking any questions. Thank you." With that, he was helped down by Blair, who was frowning at something off-screen.

A slight sandy-haired man replaced Stoddard at the podium. "I'm Garrett Kincaid, leader of the Sunrise Guardians and liberator of all sentinels.  My brothers and sisters, you are free!  We're leaving now, but we'll be communicating our manifesto in the next few days. It's a new day!" He raised his gun and shot up in the air, causing everyone in the room to scream and scatter.  The camera man, braver than smart, continued to focus on Kincaid, who said something to his followers that was lost in the din.  He then grabbed Blair by the arm and pulled him out of the room.

Simon immediately got on the phone, trying to find the status of the grounds around the SGI. Apparently, the whole of Campus Security and Cascade PD were caught flat-footed, because no one was there.  The camera turned back to Don Hass, who was following a group of Guardians--at a discreet distance--hoping for more to the story.  The Guardians, in military-style jump suits and berets, were waving guns around, adding to the chaos. Kincaid and Blair were nowhere in view.  "Apparently, Mr. Kincaid is leaving via helicopter, since we see one on the roof and he hasn't exited the building on the ground," Hass reported. The camera turned to the roof, where a helicopter with a big SG logo waited with rotors idling. "We'll be following this breaking story as we receive further information, but for now…"

Jim got on the phone, talking with someone, describing the helicopter and its location.  He hung up and repeated it three more times.  Then he got off the phone and asked Simon "Where's my truck?"

"Outside.  What are you going to do?"

"What else?  Get my guide back and take down that maniac. I've just called some local sentinels--we've got a network.  They'll contact others.  They're going to track that copter and let us know where it's going."

Cassie asked, "Why does he have Blair?  Is he a hostage?"

Jim nodded.  "Yes, but a very specific one.  If they wanted a high-value hostage, they would have taken Eli.  My guess, based on what I saw of Kincaid, is that he's a sentinel.  He wants Blair for himself.  Now that we're not legally bound, he's not breaking any law by taking him.  Not that breaking the law seems to be his main concern." He took his gun from Simon and put it in his holster.  "Let's go."

Cassie said, "How can we help?"

Jim wrote down a number. "Call this person. He'll tell you what to do to help keep order and communicate.  We'll be in touch."

 

*****



Blair looked around the camp, impressed despite himself at how organized and sophisticated it was.  Apparently, it was an abandoned military camp, so far in the National forest as to not be worth even keeping a cursory guard on it.  Someone in the Guardians knew how to work off the grid; they'd set up solar panels for electricity and cleaned out the water towers to collect rain water.  The water purification system was first-rate.  The vegetable gardens and chicken coops would have put the communes he stayed in as a kid to shame.  The freezers were stocked with game hunted by the members. Everything else was apparently bought on an occasional Costco run.  One big purchase was beer, which the brethren were currently consuming in celebration.

The celebrators also decided not to cook.  Someone had stopped on their way out of town and loaded up on barbecue from a local joint.  The tables in the barracks held platters of ribs, hot links, brisket, chicken, as well as pulled pork sandwiches and burgers.  A mountain of fries and onion rings completed the feast.  

Since women were apparently not part of the inner circle, Blair took on the female, submissive role of serving and placating.  It made him, as the outsider, non-threatening, and it gave him an excuse to talk.  He knew if Jim could find where the headquarters was located, he would find Blair.  And Blair planned to make it easy by keeping up a constant stream of babble.  He didn't do a lot of it at first; he knew it would take Jim a while to get there.  But their fledgling bond, an almost mystical link, would tell him when the time was right to amp up the chatter.

He introduced himself, asking the men innocent questions about where they'd grown up and favorite beer brands, always aware of Kincaid watching him.  He was friendly, but not too friendly, and he avoided touching as much as possible.  He worked his way back regularly to Kincaid's side, standing quietly, accepting his touches, until Kincaid gave him the nod to continue his circuit.  He was pretty sure that, while many of the men had an enhanced sense or two, Kincaid was the only one with all five senses.  It was logical--he wouldn't want competition from the others.

The only remotely hostile member was McBride, apparently Kincaid's second-in-command.  Blair wondered if McBride was worried that a guide would take his place.  With sudden insight, Blair realized McBride wanted to be Kincaid's guide, not his 2iC.  It explained the hostility and the feeling of danger.  He sent up a little prayer that Jim would find him soon.

 

*****



Jim's sentinel network was worth its weight in gold.  Within hours of the SGI siege, sentinels and guides had gathered with a mountain of specialized equipment.  Spotters had used enhanced sight and hearing to track the copter, so they knew where the abandoned military site was located.  The next step was planning how to capture the Guardian members and, most importantly, rescue Blair.  Everyone was aware that there was at least one sentinel among the group. Each member of the assault team would wear a Kevlar vest impregnated with white noise generators.  It would surround them in bubbles of silence; something a good sentinel could pierce, but only if he was aware of it.  They wore hypersensitive goggles and headgear, allowing them to communicate on an almost-sub-vocal level. Jim took point, as he had military experience and was the sentinel of the missing guide.  He would use his knowledge of Blair's voice and other cues to help him pinpoint Blair's location and when it was safe to attack.  

Jim had never believed in the bonding fables, until he'd met Blair.  Although they'd been together only a short time, something just clicked for them.  They hadn't fully committed to each other as life mates, but there was no denying the invisible strand growing between them.  He would use that now.   

They waited until 2 a.m. to launch the assault.  Jim had listened for hours as the partying had gone on, then as, one by one, the revelers drifted to sleep.  There were no more than four or five people awake and sober, but those were the most dangerous.  Jim could almost feel the jittering of Kincaid as he surveyed his kingdom. He was awake and alert.  Two men stood guard at the only entrance to the compound.  Blair had kept up conversations with anyone who would talk to him and many who wouldn't; Jim knew his hope was that Jim would be out there listening.  Two hours previously, Jim centered himself and sent what he hoped was a clear message: We're here.  Be ready.  He felt a pulse and Blair had immediately quieted.  Jim triangulated on Blair's heartbeat and followed it as he made his way to the kitchen area.  Jim nodded in approval.  It would be a good place to hide out if things got crazy--lots of stainless steel to offer protection from bullets, and a wide assortment of knives to use as weapons.  

Kincaid came into the kitchen once on his rounds, noting his guide.  "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Making a few brews," Blair answered casually.  "Some miso soup to help you relax and recover after the day's activities.  Some herbal teas to help you focus and refine your senses."

"I didn't ask for any of that shit," he snarled suspiciously.

Blair sighed.  "I thought you wanted a guide who could be an asset.  Do you want me to be a support to you, or just window dressing?"

"I want you to check with me first."

"Okay, I get it.  I'm checking with you now."  He stopped the preparations and waited as if he had all the time in the world. "Do you want me to continue?"  

"Go ahead," Kincaid answered, a bit stiffly.  "I'll check back in a few hours."  He took a sniff. "Smells good," he said with a touch of surprise.

Blair grinned.  "Glad you approve.  See you soon."

No sooner had Kincaid left than McBride slipped into the room.  "What are you up to?" he asked, his unpleasant tone accentuated by the AK47 he held casually in his hand.

"Shit! Don't sneak up on me like that, man.  I'm making some things for Garrett, as I expect you heard."

"You'll address him as Commander."

"I'll address him however he wants me to address him. He has many titles and I'm still learning them all."  Blair went back to chopping vegetables.  "What do you want?"

McBride stared at him for a few moments.  "I want a beer."

Blair pointed to the large refrigerator.  "Help yourself."

"No, I want you to get me a beer."

Blair sighed and put down the knife.  He went to the fridge and pulled out a can, holding it up for inspection.  When McBride nodded, he brought it to him.  McBride opened it and took a long swallow.


"Is that all you want?" Blair asked softly.

"What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously.

"Have you ever told him… you know… that you wanted to be his guide--"

McBride backhanded Blair across the face.  "Shut up! Don't you talk to me like that! Don't you ever say that!"

"Okay, okay, maybe I read things wrong, no reason to get bent out of shape."  He wiped a trickle of blood from his mouth.  "Just don't damage Kincaid's property, okay?  He won't appreciate it."

McBride's eyes widened as he realized what he'd done.  He scowled and then fled the kitchen.  Blair looked around to make sure he was alone, then took a boning knife from one of the drawers and slipped it into his jacket. He went back to chopping vegetables.  

 

*****



The mission was going well.  The two sentries had been disabled by choke holds and were trussed like turkeys for roasting.  One barracks room contained ten men, still in drunken stupors, who'd been disarmed, handcuffed and gagged.  The second room had six more and three commandos were currently disarming them.  It would have gone without a hitch except for the unexpected appearance of McBride.  He'd been nursing a bottle of bourbon and decided he wanted company. When he caught the scene, he immediately realized he was outnumbered.  He ducked out the door and used his gun to raise the alarm, hoping the rest of the Guardians would come to his aid.

Kincaid, reading reports in his office, heard the gunfire and immediately headed for the kitchen.  He found Blair where he'd left him, except that he was looking out the window, trying to figure out where the gunfire was coming from. He grabbed Blair by the arm.  "C'mon, Guide, let's vamoose!" he said with some urgency.  Blair turned to look at Kincaid's hand on him, then pulled out the boning knife and immediately slashed the bare forearm, hoping it would overload Kincaid's sense of touch.  

It worked like a charm.  Kincaid let him go and immediately doubled over, holding his bleeding arm.  Blair picked up the wooden chopping board and smacked Kincaid on the back of the head.  He dropped like a stone. He dragged Kincaid over to the walk-in refrigerator, opened it and rolled him in.  Blair closed the door and put the handle of a wooden spoon through the lock loop.  He slowed his breath, then said in a normal volume, "Jim, I'm in the kitchen."

"Jim isn't going to help you," McBride snarled, causing Blair to whirl to face him. "I should have killed you the first chance I had."
 
"That would have made me very, very unhappy," Jim said, his gun pressed against the back of McBride's head.  "If you want to live more than another second, drop that gun and get down flat on your stomach.  

McBride might have been an asshole, but he wasn't stupid.  He carefully set the gun down and lay prone. Jim holstered his gun and handcuffed McBride, then searched him for additional weapons.  He checked with the rest of the force, satisfied that the underlings were all in hand.  The only missing Guardian was Kincaid.  

He came over to Blair. "Do you know where Kincaid is?" he asked urgently.  "We haven't found him yet."

Blair looked up at his sentinel and smiled. "Yeah," he said and pointed to the cooler.  

Jim raised an eyebrow, removed the wooden spoon and opened the door. And whistled.  "Remind me never to get on your bad side," he said with a smirk.  He pulled out the unconscious man and handcuffed him.  The bleeding had stopped, so he didn't worry about bandaging the wound, nor did he care about the chance of infection. "Is he zoned?"

"Nah, just unconscious in the normal way," Blair replied.  "I clocked him with a chopping board." He looked around and then down at Kincaid.  "Thanks for coming to save me, Jim."

Jim put his arm around Blair's shoulders, pulling him in for a hug. "You saved me first. Cassie tried to revive me with all the usual techniques.  When she pulled out your hat and shoved it under my nose, that did the trick.  Who knows how long I would have been under?"

"Yeah?" Blair asked delightedly. "My smell got you out of a zone?  How cool is that?"

Jim laughed.  "You can add it to your list of cool things you've discovered since being my guide.  Now, let's get out of here. One thing I'd like not to smell is Kincaid on you. We'll get you fed, then into a shower and clean clothes."

Blair shivered.  "Shower first.  I can't wait to wash him off of me."

 

*****



Blair was pulling a tray of dinner rolls out of the oven.  He checked various pots on the stove.  The baked beans were bubbling nicely in the slow cooker. A big pot of salted water sat on the stove. It was waiting for the corn on the cob, which was shucked and would be cooked right before they sat down to eat.  The mushrooms were sautéed in wine and a hint of garlic, ready to top the steaks, which would be charcoal-grilled on the balcony.  He checked the beer and soda supply in the fridge, as well as the contents of two large bowls, one with potato salad and the other tossed greens dressed with vinaigrette.

Just then, Jim walked in the door. "Something smells good," he said.

"It's the baked beans. Slowed-cooked all day." He picked up a spoonful and offered it to Jim.

Jim closed his eyes as he tasted them. "Onions, ketchup, bacon, maple syrup and… just a touch of mustard. Really good."

Blair laughed.  "Are you sure you want to continue being a cop? You could make a fortune reverse-engineering proprietary recipes, like the eleven herbs and spices in KFC or Wonderburger's secret sauce."    

Jim made a face.  "So, where are we in this feast?"

"Everything's ready for when our guests arrive.  Beer, soda and bottled water in the fridge, wine on the counter.  I've got hors d'oeuvres for them to snack on while we take their steak orders.  The coals are in the chimney on the grill.  Oh, and I've got salmon for those who don't want steak." He looked around at the tables and chairs they'd set up in the living room to accommodate the twenty or so people who'd they'd invited."

"Dessert?" Jim asked hopefully.

"Of course.  Fruit salad tossed with a little Chardonnay."  At Jim's face, he added, "Or peach cobbler with ice cream."

Jim grinned and then sobered. "You know, you didn't have to do all this."

"You're joking, right?  These guys put their lives on the line to save me, and who knows how many others, from Kincaid and his crazies.  If that doesn't deserve a meal in appreciation, I don't know what does.  Besides, I don't often get a chance to see a sentinel clan in action."

"We're not a clan--"

"I'm just teasing, man," Blair said, rubbing his hand soothingly on Jim's arm. "But it's pretty astounding what you all did on the spur of the moment. I'm glad you're on the side of good."

Jim smiled, then went into the kitchen and pulled out two beers, opening the bottles and handing one to Blair.  "Have you heard from Eli?"

Blair nodded.  "He's recovered from the siege, at least physically.  But he's at a crossroads as what to do about the SGI."

"He's not going to actually disband it, is he?"

"Well, it's not up to him alone to make that decision.  But he's really disturbed at how the SGI's gathering of information on sentinels and guides led to people being hurt. He thinks they should re-think some of their methods."

Jim looked thoughtful.  "I never found the SGI intrusive, and we wouldn't have met without those methods."

Blair shrugged. "Or we might have met in some other way." He took a drink and walked over to the balcony windows. Jim stood beside him.  "So, what's the word on the Guardians?"

"Between your testimony where they admitted what they did to me, the papers that they found at the compound about which sentinels they attacked or were planning to, and the TV footage of the SGI siege, the counts against them are stacking up. Forensics is checking DNA of all the Guardians to see if we can match anyone to the original attack on Eli. Everyone at the camp is being held without bail and some of them are starting to sing, hoping for lesser sentences.  We also found a list of supporters and we're rounding them up for questioning and possible arrests.  As far as we can tell, Kincaid is a local boy and his backing doesn't spread much beyond Cascade proper.  The only concern with the broadcast is it might incite copycats."

Blair let out a sigh.  "Thank god they've got enough to lock them up.  I'd hate to think what he'd do if he got out.  I'm sure he thinks I'm a traitor to the cause and to him personally." He shuddered at the thought. "Oh, hey. What are they going to do with the compound?  They made quite a few improvements there.  It'd be a shame to abandon it."

Jim smiled.  "One of the crew said the same thing.  We contacted the Air Force and they're not interested in re-opening it; budget cuts.  But they are willing to make a deal.  If someone knows something about how to run a place like that, off the grid without any drag on military resources, maybe someone who has experience in running a commune or something…?"

Blair's eyes widened. "You mean someone like Mom?"

Jim grinned.  "I mentioned her name.  She'd have to get liability insurance and file all necessary paperwork on personnel and what not, but they'll lease it for a dollar a year for as long as she wants it."

Blair's eyes softened and he drew Jim's head down to give him a long, lingering kiss.  "I'll contact her right away; I think she's in Big Sur.  I can't believe it--she'll be close by and doing some great work.  I'm sure the first thing she'll do is burn a ton of sage to cleanse the place of the Guardians' bad karma." He kissed Jim again.  "Thank you."

Jim held him in his arms, not too tightly; he didn't want to scare Blair with his own fears and insecurities.  "When I think of you in there, with how close--"

"I know," Blair said and returned the embrace. "Everything's happened so quickly, we haven't had a chance to talk about it, to process it.  But we will, we have to…"

"But not now," Jim agreed and gave him another kiss.  "I can hear our first guests and some of them can hear us.  Let's get ready to celebrate."

 

~~the end~~