There's a whole panther/jaguar debate about Jim's spirit guide. In this one, I refer to him as a panther.
Detective James Ellison sat in the passenger's seat of his friend, Frank Mellon's, Jeep and tried to stay awake. It had been a particularly stressful two weeks and he would have preferred spending his weekend sleeping in and getting some good couch time, but he'd promised Frank a month ago that he would go with him to pick up his daughter's birthday present-- Frank's brother's five-year-old Camry. Despite his exhaustion, Jim wasn't going to let his friend down.
Originally, Sandburg was going to drive down with them to keep Jim company on the way back. But the kid was just as exhausted as he was and since it had been his promise, he didn't see why Blair had to suffer. Night after night of tracking a drug shipment from the docks to its distributors had taken its toll on the Major Crimes Unit. Normally, it would have been a Narcotics case but two teens had been killed during a dispute over the previous shipment, so Simon had kept the case and since Jim's enhanced senses made him the best qualified for nighttime stakeouts, he and Sandburg had spent the last ten days catnapping in the cab of his pickup truck.
"You still with me, Ellison?" Frank asked. He was a retired cop, so he had some idea of Jim's suffering, but hadn't been able to find a substitute driver on such short notice.
"I'm here, Frank. In body, if not in mind."
"Stop fighting it so much and get some sleep," Frank ordered. "We're past the halfway point to my brother's place. I can make it without company."
"Positive. I know about that drug cartel you put down. It had to be a tough one."
"Yeah, it was. Wake me if you find yourself drifting, Frank. I don't want to wake up in a ditch," he said with a laugh that turned into a yawn.
"That's probably what it'll take to wake you, Ellison," Frank muttered as his friend slumped in the seat beside him.
Captain Simon Banks almost groaned as he walked into the bullpen and saw a familiar profile squirming around in the chair in front of his desk. At that moment, he knew his day was on a collision course with hell.
"Sandburg, what are you doing here? Not only is it your day off, but it's not even eight o'clock in the morning," Simon said as he stormed into the office.
"Simon, you have to put out an APB for Jim."
"Hold up, Sandburg," he said as he settled in behind his desk to give the anthropologist his full attention. "Tell me everything from the beginning."
"Jim went with Frank Mellon to get a car for his daughter. I was supposed to go but after that drug thing, I was fried, man," he explained apologetically as he brushed back straying curls from his face. "He hasn't called in, captain. That's not like Jim. Something's wrong."
"How long has he been out of touch?"
"They left yesterday afternoon and it should have taken them maybe six or seven hours. Jim was supposed to call at exactly ten last night." Blair had been worrying since 10:01. By midnight, he was angry at Jim for being so irresponsible. By 4:00, he had imagined a plethora of scenarios, all bad. By six, he was dressed and wondering if Simon would kill him if he called. By 7:30, he was on his way to the station.
"So it hasn't even been twenty-four hours?" The captain sighed. This was why you weren't supposed to get friendly with your men. "You need to chill, Sandburg. I think this may be some residual effect from the tension from last week. Jim's just a little late checking in. That doesn't mean something has happened."
Blair leaned toward the desk, hoping to impart the urgency to his captain. "This is Jim we're talking about, Simon. 'Responsible' is his middle name. If he told me he would call at ten, he would have called. If he could."
"He was tired too, you know. Maybe he just fell asleep and forgot."
Blair jumped edgily from the chair and started to pace. How could he make Simon understand? "Maybe Jim would have forgotten to check in with me, but he wouldn't have forgotten to check on me, Simon. You know he doesn't trust me not to get into something while he's away. He would have called just to analyze the subtleties in my voice, to make sure I wasn't covering up some horrible mess I'd managed to get myself into."
Simon frowned. The kid was starting to make sense. When it came to Blair, Ellison could be downright overprotective. Maybe he should just run a few checks to be sure. He picked up the phone. "Okay, Sandburg," he said a few minutes later. "I've ordered a license check on Frank Mellon's car. Red Jeep Cherokee, right?" Blair nodded. "As soon as the number comes through, it'll be sent out. Where were they heading?"
"To Frank's brother's place near the northern Idaho border."
"Damn. That's some rough terrain up that way. We're going to have to involve the State Police then. You know the brother's name?" Blair shook his head. "That's okay. Frank's an ex-cop. His file is still stored downstairs." He grabbed the phone again. There was a knock on the office door and he waved Captain Joel Taggert of the Bomb Unit inside.
"What you need, Joel?" Simon asked as he waited for someone to answer the phone.
"I saw Sandburg and was a little curious. Something going on?"
Simon motioned for Jim's partner to explain as the secretary came on the line. "I think something's happened to Jim," Blair said, then launched into his explanation. Surprisingly, Joel believed him immediately.
"What can I do to help, Blair?"
"Simon's putting out an APB and we're going to try and contact Frank's brother. It's a long drive to the border. They could be anywhere."
Joel looked at his long-haired friend in sympathy. He hadn't even bothered to tie back his hair before coming into the station. That meant he was really worried. "Hey, you had your morning dose of caffeine yet? Come with me to my office. I have a special blend you need to try." Blair looked toward Simon who was still on the phone. "We'll come right back, and we'll even bring Simon a cup, okay?"
Blair nodded and followed his friend out, and Simon gave a sigh of relief before dialing the number of Frank's brother. He was in the middle of authorizing the release of Jim's and Frank's pictures when Sandburg returned. "Get on it ASAP!" he said, slamming the phone down. "I checked with the brother, Sandburg. They didn't make it there, and no one has heard from either of them."
"Damn it! I knew something was wrong. We have to find them, captain," Blair urged.
"That's exactly what we're going to do. Do you know the route they were taking?" Blair sketched it out. "I'm going to call in a couple of favors, see if we can't get a chopper or two in the air. Go home, Sandburg, pack a bag, then meet me back here."
"Bag's already in the truck, sir. Give me your keys and I'll transfer it to your trunk."
"Jim's trained you well. Think I can get him to take Daryl next summer? That kid of mine could use some discipline."
"Daryl's just fine, Simon, and you know it. I'll get out of your way now. I'll be at Jim's desk when you're ready to leave."
Simon nodded and went back to his calls.
Jim ran for his life. Then he ran because he couldn't remember why he was running, but he knew it was important. At some point an awareness triggered his brain and he finally stopped, dragging himself out of the icy stream he'd been plowing through, and collapsing on the shallow damp bank.
Even as his body gave out, his mind was desperately trying to remember what had happened. Why had he been running? What was the significance of the stream? He'd chosen it for a reason; no one ran through ice water for the fun of it. And why if he was running through chilly water, his clothes soaked with it, did he still feel incredibly hot? Furthermore, if he were in trouble, where the hell was Sandburg?
That thought gave him a moment of panic, and following the panic came blessed clarity. He'd been sleeping when the Jeep braked so suddenly that he would have gone through the windshield if he hadn't been buckled in. Frank started yelling something about damn fools, and Jim looked out and saw a battered pick-up truck blocking the narrow mountain road. Three men, dirty and unshaven, headed in the direction of the Jeep.
Frank threw open his door angrily and before Jim could caution him that staying in the car may be best, his friend's feet was hitting the pavement. Then Frank's back was hitting the side of the Jeep as another man emerged from the woods bordering the road, his rifle barrel pressed against Frank's chest. Before Jim could fully comprehend what was happening, his peripheral vision alerted him that still another man was approaching his door.
Thanks to his enhanced hearing, Jim heard a trigger jerk and knew the sound of a shot was imminent. The others weren't forewarned, including the man whose finger had accidently slipped, sending cold metal straight into Frank's heart, and while they reacted, Jim flung open his door and knocked the sawed-off shotgun from the hands of the approaching man. Knowing without a doubt Frank was dead and that he didn't have a chance in hell against five armed men, he took off for the natural camouflage of the woods. Gunshots followed him for a time, then the weapons were silenced and he could hear the conversation behind him.
"Damn it, Allie! You always make the biggest messes! We only wanted their wallets."
"I'm sorry, Tuck. I didn't mean to kill 'im. I barely touched the trigger."
"That's why they call it a hair-trigger. Billy, change weapons with Allie while we're all still alive. Matthew, go get the dogs. We gotta catch that feller and plant him deep."
Jim mentally cataloged the four names for future evidence, wondering about the fifth, and took a quick breather to access his situation. He could hear dogs yapping in the distance, so he knew Matthew didn't have far to go to get them. Okay, so he was going to need something to throw them off his scent. Water was always a good option. But where? You're a Sentinel, he told himself dryly, how difficult could finding water be? He focused his sense of smell, smiling grimly when his nose caught the slightly earthy smell of fresh water. Using the scent as a guide, he sent out his hearing and knew he'd found a flowing stream. Excellent. He'd have to tell Sandburg what he'd done.
The water was cold, apparently originating high in the mountains where the winter snows were just now melting.. He hurried through the water, thankful the stream bed was full of turns which would hide him from the approaching hunters and their pack. He'd focused tightly on the bark of the dogs and he realized, as he lay sprawled on the bank, he must have zoned out. That would account for his loss of memory. Yet, even in a zone out, he'd kept running. Another point to tell Blair. At this rate, Sandburg was going to get a whole notebook out of this incident.
But what had brought him out of the zone? Was it the lack of barking? Then he remembered. The hunters had spoken again.
"We been out here all night and the dogs ain't got nothing. Time to turn in. If he's out there, he's either dead or mighty close to it. We tracked through a lot of blood."
Blood? Jim was too tired to raise his head, so he sent out his "feelers" to determine the state of his body. There was a gash in his arm. Not too deep. In his side were two holes; a bullet's entry and exit points. No injury to vital organs. Blood flow was down to a trickle due to the fact the cold had caused his veins to tightly contract. Okay. Another shot in the right calf. Bullet still lodged inside. So another plus for the zone out-- it had kept him from feeling pain. Well, at least all the damage explained why he was burning up inside.
What else had the men said? "Toby and Billy clean up?"
Aha. The fifth name. "Yeah, anybody find that man and truck, they'll think it was just one of those accidents that happen on crooked roads."
"Good. Come on. We'll let the buzzards find this one's remains and lead us to him."
Buzzards. Jim forced his body to move further into the woods. No use in making it easier for the scavengers to find him. But the effort, now that pain was actually registering, took too much out of him and as the sun rose, darkness claimed him and his last thought was that no matter how much Sandburg complained, their copy of Deliverance was going into the trash.
Simon's cell phone shrilled and Blair handed it to the captain. There were a lot of "uh huhs" and a sharp "where" before the phone was tossed back to him and Simon's foot pressed the accelerator a little harder.
"What's going on?" Blair asked when the larger man remained silent.
"A chopper has spotted what may be the Jeep down an embankment. State Police is sending in a SaR team."
Blair knew the Search and Rescue teams were the best for that kind of mission, but he couldn't help wanting to be there himself. "Where?"
"We'll be there in about an hour."
Before they reached the site, however, another phone call came in. This time, Simon knew better than to hesitate in relaying the message. "The license plate has been confirmed. It and the rear door are about the only parts of the vehicle not destroyed in the fire."
Blair felt his heart skip a beat. "What fire?"
"The car apparently went over the embankment and exploded." Simon took a moment to glance at his passenger. "They've recovered one body."
Simon had to strain to hear the question. "They don't know. The remains are too badly burned to find I.D. on him and Jim and Frank had similar body types. It's going to take someone who knew the men to make a positive I.D."
The rest of the trip was made in silence. Simon pulled over to the side of the road behind the assembly of flashing lights and took a deep breath. "Don't get out of the car, Sandburg." His eyes focused on the black plastic body bag revealed in the open back of an ambulance.
"Simon, I can--"
Blair nodded, grateful to his friend. The identification would be painful, but Simon had trained for such events, and it wouldn't be the first time he'd had to undertake such a grisly task. Still, if Blair had any feeling that the body was Jim, he wouldn't have stayed in the car. However, somewhere deep within, he knew with certainty that Jim was alive. Maybe it was the Sentinel/Guide connection or maybe just the friendship they shared, but something was telling him Jim was not in that body bag.
Simon came over to the car and leaned in through the open window. "It's Frank."
Simon did a doubletake and frowned, but didn't comment. "They're still searching the area. Jim may have been thrown out as the car tumbled."
"He's alive, Simon," Blair said calmly.
"There's a lot of territory to search. His... body... could be anywhere."
Simon frowned. "Don't go all weird on me, Sandburg."
Blair shook his head and looked intently at the captain. "I knew Jim was in trouble."
"Yeah." He didn't want to think about how close two people must be to instantly know when the other was in danger. Granted, it wasn't a longshot to think Sandburg may be up to his ears in hot water, but Jim was as stable as they come.
"I know he's alive."
"You don't listen at all, do you?" Simon complained. He hated it when Ellison and Sandburg started operating in Sentinel mode. The enhanced senses were hard enough to take, but the mumbo jumbo part had to go. Always so sure of each other; knowing when the other was in danger or hurt. And that whole blind thing... Sometimes they truly made his skin crawl.
But despite his opinion of their relationship, Sandburg was usually right on the money when it came to Jim. "Okay, he's alive. But where is he?"
Blair's shoulders slumped. "I'm not the Sentinel, Simon."
"But you are the Guide, isn't that the term you use?"
"Bear with me while I try to figure out this stuff you guys do. If you go looking for Jim, does that mean he is also looking for you, with all his Sentinel antennae waving?"
Blair smiled, following the captain's thoughts. "So if I'm out there, I'm not only aggressively looking for Jim, I'm also passively acting as a lure. Good thinking, Simon."
"Yeah, that's why I get paid the big bucks. Come on and let's tell the Search and Rescue they have a couple extra pairs of eyes."
An unearthly noise that kept growing louder and louder propelled Jim toward consciousness, a place he was very reluctant to go. When he couldn't ignore the noise any more he opened his eyes and stared into the slanted eyes of a black panther. The cat was close, it's breath warm against his jaw. Normally, he would have thought he had Purina written all over him and at least attempted to defend himself. But he'd dealt with this particular feline before. He closed his eyes. "Go away."
The panther growled and Jim realized that was the racket he'd been hearing the past few minutes. Bitching, cat-style, he hazarded. "Every time you show up, you demand something of me and I'm not in a giving mood today." The animal hissed. "Argue all you like, but it's not going to make me move," Jim said, or at least thought he said. He wasn't quite sure if he was actually talking aloud or merely hallucinating the conversation (along with the panther). But it didn't matter either way. He knew what the darn cat wanted but this time he had nothing to give; no extra ten percent, no superhuman edge, no hidden strength to tap. The pain in his body was too great, the fever too sapping.
"I'm sorry. You're going to have to find someone else to save the day or whatever." There was a pleading whine. "I know in the jungle I accepted what I am, a Sentinel, and I committed myself to the role. But these senses don't make me more than flesh and blood and if you look closely, you'll see I'm running short on both. This time I'm the one who needs help."
He could have sworn he felt the silky fur brush against him, a sympathetic purr vibrating from the large cat to him. "Be a nice kitty and go get help, okay? I'll just lie and rest while you're gone." Something licked his ear. "Are you going to get help or are we going to get personal here?"
"So I guess I'm not dealing with Lassie, then? You don't do the 'go for help' thing, right? What do you do, other than annoy the hell out of me?"
The panther let out a shriek that would have curled Jim's hair if he had enough. Despite the pain, he scrambled upward until he was seated against a tree trunk. "Happy now?" he called, glaring at the panther, his ears still ringing from the primal scream. The cat glared back.
A twinge of pain made Jim break eye contact first. He looked around, instinctively calculating the time by the low position of the sun. Wow, he must have slept the entire day. It was a wonder nothing had disturbed him earlier.
"Oh, that's what you've been doing, huh?" Damn cat had protected him all day. Now he had to apologize. "I'm sorry for ruffling your fur. I'm not at my best today."
The panther stalked away, but paused when the Sentinel didn't follow. "I've already told you; I can't go. I've been shot and fever has drained my strength."
The panther brushed past him, its coat as cool as satin against Jim's skin. Instantly, he felt the fever leave his body. Another new and interesting occurrence. Maybe Sandburg would get a second notebook filled. "Can you do something about the pain?" He could see disgust in the feline eyes. "Okay, I know. My Guide taught me how to do that myself." He imagined an old-fashioned radio and turned down the dial, knowing it would work as long as he didn't think about it too much. The cat purred to reward him for his efforts.
"I do listen to my Guide on occasion, you know." Poor Blair. He had to pretty worried by now. And poor Simon. By now Blair must have driven him crazy and to keep from killing the police observer, Simon had probably thrown the kid in his car and started searching for him. Jim grew paler. Blair and Simon in the woods. Meeting up with the five Billygoats Gruff. Film at eleven. Damn.
With an effort which belied his earlier statement about being merely flesh and blood, the Sentinel stood. The world rocked then righted itself.
"You just going to stand there, or are you going to take me to my Guide?"
The cat growled triumphantly.
"Stay behind the trees and head for the car, Sandburg!" Simon yelled, as a bullet screeched overhead. He knew the night was going to end like this. It always did.
The SaR team had already called it a night. They figured if Jim were out there, he was already dead and they wouldn't endanger anyone else by continuing the search in the dark. Sandburg, of course, knew better and he'd stayed with the anthropologist because Jim, dead or alive, would want him to. It hadn't been too bad. He'd doused himself with insect repellent, exchanged his Italian leather loafers for the scruffed up Air Jordans he kept in his trunk for occasions such as this, and mentally prepared himself to deal with Sandburg's constant chatter. Life was as good as it was going to get for a while.
Then out of nowhere, shots were fired. At first, he thought it was hunters, so he called out, letting them know people were in the area. That only brought about a bigger hail of bullets. Thankfully the shots were coming from in front of them which meant the way back to the car was clear. He had to give Sandburg credit; the little guy could haul ass when necessary.
"The tires are flat, Simon," Blair called, reaching the car first, because the cop was laying down cover fire with his service weapon. Apparently, their attackers had sabotaged the car before coming after them.
"We'll deal with that later," Simon said, joining Blair and putting the car between him and the shooters. He pulled out his key and unlocked the door. Reaching beneath the driver's seat, he pulled out a silver case and opened it.
Blair gasped as Simon began to assemble the rifle the case contained. If it didn't have a hand-carved arrow attached, he didn't know much about weapons, but Jim had rented enough action flicks for him to recognize a death machine when he saw one. "Something you want to tell me, Simon?" Like why are you carrying around a broken down assault rifle like an assassin?
"Here, take this." Simon reached beneath the seat again and pulled out another gun. "It's an automatic. Just pull the trigger. Here's an extra clip."
Blair tried again for an explanation. "Do you always carry around so much fire power?"
"Only when I'm with you."
"You pick the strangest times to reveal your sense of humor, man."
"Just shoot in the general direction while I attach the nightscope, Sandburg. Then maybe we'll have some breathing room."
"Sure, captain." Blair hated guns but he was reasonably sure he wouldn't hit anyone. The night was too dark and whoever was shooting at them knew the territory and could get out of the way. So, secure in the knowledge no one would get hurt, he fired until the clip was empty. By that time Simon was aiming his massive weapon.
"What'd you do, Sandburg? Hit all of them?" the cop asked, searching futilely for a target. But the nightscope revealed nothing and no more shots rang out at them.
"I wasn't even aiming anywhere, man," Blair said fretfully.
Both men spun around. "Jim!" Blair called happily, touching Simon's arm to lower the rifle. He tried to spot his friend in the darkness, but it was so damn dark away from city lights. "You took care of them?"
"Yeah, you don't have to worry. There may be a few ecologists ready to kick your butt for the damage to the trees, but that's about it."
"You sure you got them all?" Simon asked.
"All clear, captain."
"I'm going to turn on the light, Jim," Blair warned, fingering the flashlight he'd been using until the first shot. He knew Jim's eyes had to be on "high beam" and the light would be a shock to them.
"I'd appreciate it if you aimed at the ground until I can adjust." He didn't need light, but he knew his friends would be more comfortable with it.
"Jim, you're hurt!" Blair said as he saw the limping Sentinel.
"Just a bit."
Blair and Simon went to help him. "I had the situation under control," Simon declared, indicating the rifle.
"I know," Jim said, not mentioning the man he'd taken down behind them. Billy, he thought. "Glad to see your resourcefulness."
"Yeah, well, with Sandburg around, you can't be too careful, or too heavily armed."
Jim tried to laugh, but the adrenalin was wearing off and the fever had returned. He settled for a tight smile. "Yeah, when I thought about you and Blair in the woods, I experienced a moment of terror myself."
Blair started to complain, but then he noticed the heat coming from Jim's arm. His hand reached up for the forehead. "You're burning up, man. Simon, call for the paramedics!"
"I'm ahead of you, Sandburg," Simon said, whipping out his cell phone with one hand while lowering Jim to the back seat of his car with the other. His orders were direct and abrupt. "How many of them was it, Jim?" he asked as he clicked the phone closed.
"Five. They shot Frank. I think they've been robbing and killing up here for years. Tell the State Police they're going to need a huge forensics team to find the bodies."
"Forget the report, man," Blair chided. "Where are you hurt?"
"Damn," Blair said, seeing Jim lose color. "Hold him up for a moment, Simon." He raced around the car and slid in beside Jim. "Ease back, Jim. I've got you."
Jim smiled. It was weird having his head cradled by Blair. It was usually the other way around. Maybe it was he who wasn't safe in the woods, not his poor, put upon Guide. Simon went to the trunk in search of flares to signal other drivers of a problem. "You know, even with Simon's rifle and all, I'm glad you showed up," he whispered. "How did you find us?"
"Luck, I guess," he said, not wanting to get into the panther and what that meant.
Great, Jim thought, raising his head slightly to stare into the darkness where a dim sleek silhouette stood just beyond the car. Now the darn cat was demanding inclusion in the story. Next thing he'd want would be the cover of the book and a percentage of the movie gross.
This time, despite the pain, he had to laugh. Blair's arm tightened solicitously, thinking the fever was making his friend delirious. "How many empty notebooks do you have on you, Sandburg?" Jim asked, even as he heard the approaching sirens. "Because, man, do I have a story to tell you!"