HIJACKED!

By

D.L. Witherspoon

~PROLOGUE~

Elmendorf Air Force Base

"Permission to speak freely, sir?"

Sergeant Roger Melton smiled and shook his head at the airman. It took a while for the new ones to realize that protocol was often brushed aside at the Alaskan base. With so few chances for speaking with actual civilians, civilian-speak had crept into the base so that family members could understand them when they went home. "What is it, Williams?"

Airman Marcus Williams shrugged. "Shouldn't this be going by military aircraft?" He indicated the package the supply sergeant was wrapping.

"Budget cuts, son. Do you know how much it costs each time one of our planes go up? Now, if we could wait until we had a craft heading to Colorado then cost wouldn't be a factor. But they want this at Cheyenne Mountain A.S.A.P. That means we take advantage of the commercial airlines."

Williams sighed, confused. Elmendorf was the regional headquarters for NORAD-- North American Aerospace Defense Command. It was a joint U.S. and Canada entity that monitored man-made objects in space and warned of attacks against North America by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles. It also provided surveillance and control of Canadian and American airspace. Cheyenne Mountain Air Station was the central collection and coordination facility for NORAD. Therefore it made sense that whatever one of the regional headquarters discovered would be shipped to Cheyenne Mountain--especially since the Commander in Chief of NORAD was quartered at Peterson Air Force Base which was just a stone's throw away from the Mountain. What didn't make sense was why NORAD was interested in the package in the first place. The two-kilo container had been retrieved from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. What did that have to do with air defense?

"We don't even know what it is," Williams said aloud.

"Don't know. Don't care to know. Trust me. You'll go farther in the ranks by how much you don't know."

"It could be something dangerous." It didn't look particularly dangerous, but by the time it had reached Elmendorf and the mailroom, it had been placed in a sealed carrier.

"Probably is. That's why we're gonna wrap this gaily colored tape around the outside to label it as hazardous material. Then you're gonna carefully drive it to the airport, and hand it off to the cargo handlers, and save Uncle Sam several thousand dollars."

"Yes, sir."

Melton sighed. "You know, Williams, you're gonna have to learn not to sweat the small stuff."

"Yes, sir."

The sergeant shook his head and continued to wrap.

~CHAPTER ONE~

Cascade International Airport

Blair Sandburg watched the people who occupied the terminal of Cascade International with all the intensity of the anthropologist he was. He really couldn't understand people who didn't think people were interesting. They had rituals, like the couple who were sharing a brief kiss as the husband's row was called for boarding. They had strength, like the woman who was waving goodbye to her two children walking hand in hand with a stewardess. They had dignity, like the older gentleman who was walking with two canes but held his head up proudly.

"Achoo! Damn. Did she have to douse herself in CK?"

And then there were people like his partner. "Are you really disgusted by her perfume, or is this just a subtle dig about the test we did at the mall the other day?"

Jim Ellison fished a tissue out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly. "What do you think? I can now name each scent that drives me nuts. How useful is that?"

"Jim, you were nuts long before you started smelling stuff."

"Ha ha."

"You two planning on taking this act on the road?"

Jim glared at the man sitting next to him. "Bauer, I am not in a good mood, so I advise you to keep your mouth shut. And if you don't stop tugging on the cuffs, you're gonna find something else wrapped around you a lot tighter and a lot higher than your wrist."

Blair watched Bobby Bauer, master forger and all-around bad guy, slump dejectedly in his seat. He would feel sorry for him--being handcuffed to a pissed off Jim was a unique torture--but Bauer had bilked a lot of senior citizens out of their pensions, so the jerk didn't deserve any pity.

"I'm doing this for you."

"I know, Jim," Blair said patiently.

"You're the one who wanted to go to Chicago to see some traveling exhibit."

"I know."

"Why else would I volunteer to take this piece of crap to the Chicago authorities? Don't know why the Chicago people couldn't come for him themselves like they were supposed to. Imminent police strike. I don't even want to think about it. But that's Chicago for you. No one in Cascade ever strikes."

"Too busy dodging bullets," Blair mumbled.

"What was that, Chief?"

He knew Jim had heard every word clearly. "I said that's what makes Cascade such a lovely place to live."

"That's what I thought you said. Remember the last time we had someone in our custody?"

"Yeah, you decided to take the scenic route hanging from the bottom of the train. Just remember: planes are supposed to be ridden from the inside."

"Bauer's right, you should take this act on the road. Far away from me."

Blair sighed and checked his backpack to make sure it was securely closed. "You gonna bitch the whole way?"

"Probably."

"Cool. Forewarned is forearmed, you know."

"Speaking of armed, I am."

"Yeah, watch me quake in my boots."

"You tell him, Sandburg," Bauer said.

Blair shook his head. "The one thing you don't want to do, Bauer, is tick this man off. I can cook, and I know his favorite recipes; I have some use. You, on the other hand, are going to prison; your pain won't affect his future happiness at all. C'mon, guys. They're calling our row."

He felt the two men follow, and smiled. He'd been telling the truth when he said Jim's bitching was cool with him. He understood where it was coming from, and why Jim thought it was necessary. It was an anthropological sorta thing, and since he was an anthropological scholar, it made perfectly good sense to him. In a society where men didn't give other men gifts out of the blue, Jim had given him a gift. A fully paid trip to Chicago to see an exhibit he'd been dying to see. Since he'd done something that men didn't generally do, Jim had to make it appear that what he'd done had been a "noble" sacrifice. Hence, the loud and obvious bitching. It said, "Yes, I did the unusual and now I'm suffering for it. Pity me." And actually, it had garnered him some pity at the station. "You're a good man, Ellison," one of the detectives in the Homicide Unit had said, when he thought Blair's attention was elsewhere. "I know the kid's been through some tough shit, and you're hoping this will make up for some of that, aren't you? But that's what makes us decent cops; able to sacrifice big time for our partners."

Jim had just nodded, a smug look of suffering on his face. Damn, studying cops was fascinating, and it was no hardship at all to keep notes about the bogus diss on cops as a subculture. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if that shouldn't be his real diss. There were a lot less inherent problems with it. Jim wouldn't be exposed. It wouldn't be as hard a sell to his dissertation committee. Jim wouldn't be exposed. His faculty advisor could stop taking Prozac. Jim wouldn't be exposed. See? There were all kinds of advantages to changing his topic. He'd already hesitated on writing the paper. A year's worth of observing Jim had given him more than enough material for his diss. A year's-- Whoa. It had been a year, hadn't it? A full year tomorrow, in fact. He wondered if Jim was aware of the date.

How utterly naive he'd been just twelve months ago. "Sure, I'd love to be your partner, Jim." He'd been so eager and so cocksure and so far in over his head so fast. Bam! He was on a bus with a bomber. Bam! He was toppling over drink machines onto gun-totin' terrorists. Bam! Lash was strapping him to a chair and force-feeding him a sedative. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! His heart pounded and he quickly looked back at Jim, who stood in line behind him. No response. Good. He'd told Jim to turn everything down, especially his hearing.

Get a grip, Sandburg. An airport is not the place for a panic attack.

He'd surprised himself after the incident. Aside from a few nightmares, he'd come through pretty much unscathed. That was due to his "blessed protector." He smiled. He'd been teasing Jim when he'd called him that, but only someone who felt responsible for him would have been there like Jim. A soft "Chief" dragged him from his more vivid nightmares, and memories of Jim's appearance in the warehouse relieved the milder versions--the ones that didn't leave him shaking and drenched in sweat.

Too much television. That was where he'd gone wrong. He'd watched Starsky & Hutch, The Rookies, and S.W.A.T., and he'd thought he knew what working with a cop would be like. He'd thought it would be tamer because everyone knew Hollywood lied and exaggerated and made everything more spectacular than real life. But someone had forgotten to tell Jim that. He apparently believed in the Hollywood hype. He hung from helicopters, and swung from trains, and basically defied the laws of nature to "get his man." And as his partner, nerdy but cute, Blair Sandburg could do no less. Smiling at the stewardess as she took his ticket, he felt rather proud of himself. He'd been Jim's partner for a year, and neither Jim nor the bad guys had gotten rid of him. There weren't many who could say that.

"Great, a crowd."

Blair looked up at Jim's quiet gripe and saw that the single-aisle plane was pushing capacity. Some women's group apparently, because ninety-percent of the females were wearing some kind of badge. They were all ages, from older teens to grandmothers or great-grandmothers. There just had to be a story there. He couldn't wait to hear it.

Jim stood back to let him enter their row first. It was understood that Bauer would be between them. It was also understood that Jim would take the aisle seat. It was not only a protective measure--like taking the bed closest to the door in a hotel--but it was also very practical. Jim had a--problem--with flying. His body didn't react well to the pressure changes. By the time the plane reached cruising altitude, Jim's bladder would be screaming to him, and he was always careful about judging when they were about to descend, making a preemptive potty run in order not to rush off the plane in search of a restroom. Jim was mortified by the whole situation, and Blair did his best not to call attention to his partner's predicament. But it would definitely make an interesting chapter in his diss.

Blair sat down, then pulled down the arm rests so that Jim would have a place to attach Bauer's cuffs. While his partner secured the prisoner, he turned to the women sitting behind them. "Hi, my name is Blair Sandburg," he said with his best "I'm harmless" smile. "I could be rude and stare, or I could be horribly nosy and just ask."

The women smiled back. One took off her badge and handed it to him. Women of the Chicago Diocese.

"I'm Agnes, as you can read," the one who'd given him her badge said. She looked to be of grandmother age. "We're not a real group, but we had to come up with a name. Travel agencies think that's cute."

"Oh, hush, Ags," the woman next to her said. "I'm April, Agnes' sister, and from the way she's talking, you'd think we don't appreciate this trip, but we do. You see, a man in our neighborhood has this big company that gives out a lot of donations. Several months ago, he found out he'd been donating to one of those all-men groups who don't think much of women. Well, being a good Catholic boy and knowing just how important Mary is in the scheme of things, he felt ashamed that he'd been funding these people. So he decided to do something for the women in his neighborhood."

"He arranged an Alaskan cruise for any woman who wanted to go," Agnes butted in when April paused to take a breath. "April didn't want to go, said it was too far to fly, but I talked her into it. Both of us are widows, all of our children are out on their own. There was no reason why we shouldn't go."

"How many of you are there?" Blair asked eagerly. He sat on his knees and leaned against the back of his seat.

"Sixty-three. The youngest is Joyce. She's sitting over there near the back. She's nineteen. And the oldest is Miss Odessa. She's--how old is Miss Odessa, Libby?"

The third woman in the row looked up from her novel when she heard her name called. "Ninety-two." She turned a page and went back to reading.

"Ninety-two?" Blair was impressed.

"Yeah, and she outran all of us," Agnes said with a grin. "From the early breakfast to the midnight buffet, Miss Odessa was there. The tour guides tried to stay away from her because she asked so many questions."

April laughed. "Somebody told her she was gonna kill herself running around like that. Miss Odessa said that was okay by her. If she had to die, she'd rather it be while she was doing something she enjoyed." April scooted forward and lowered her voice. "Said if she'd died while having marital relations with her husband, now that would have been a damn shame."

Blair and the women hooted in delight.

*****

Jim just shook his head. Leave it to Sandburg to have older women sharing risqué tales with him within ten minutes of making his acquaintance. He listened to the honest joy in his partner's laugh and smiled. After a rather harrowing year, it was good to know the kid still had that. Hell, that they both were alive and capable of interacting sociably, and unmedicated, with the general public was a miracle in itself. There had been long, dark moments when he'd wondered about Blair's future--and there had been deeper, darker hours when he'd debated his own future--whether he'd have one or not.

What he'd experienced after the stakeout of the Switchman had seriously rocked his barely stable world. Painful lights, agonizing smells, peculiar tastes that had him accusing restaurants of trying to poison him. Simon thought he was whining because of the long hours, and Carolyn thought it was stress. And what had he thought? At first that it was just a simple case of stress, perhaps even a prelude to a more serious burnout. The bomber, after all, was targeting him, making it very personal by playing upon his biggest failure. A whole unit lost in Peru. Fuck. Not your fault, the Army shrinks had told him, and obediently he'd nodded in agreement, all the while knowing that it was just--wrong--that he was alive and everyone else was dead. If it wasn't his fault, if it wasn't the commander's fault, then whose was it? His superior officers certainly weren't taking responsibility, and the chaplain had clearly stated that God wasn't to blame. So that left only one. Captain James Joseph Ellison, who'd apparently saved his own ass at the expense of his men's. How? He had no idea. There was a whine, a flash of light, and he'd awakened to a nightmare of blood and burns and body parts. Had they told the families? That some of the remains weren't exactly intact? He'd tried to fit the puzzle pieces together, but his head had been pounding as he dug the graves, and his vision had blurred at odd moments. He just wasn't sure if….

Pain. He looked down to see his nails cutting into his palms. Back off, Ellison. You're heading into dangerous territory. He took a deep breath and tried to remember what he was supposed to be thinking of. Yes. Being stressed out tracking the bomber. One part of him had figured that after a few days of downtime he'd be good to go. Another part of him had been signing up for a battery of neurological exams. That was what the good shrinks would call a schism, right?

Oh sure, he could sort of laugh it off now, but back then he'd been terrified. He glanced at his animated partner. Did the kid realize just how badly frightened he'd been sitting in that examining room, wondering if he was going insane? Such a diagnosis would have been the end for him. When he'd been recovered from Peru, he'd had to spend time in the psych ward under observation. Those had been three of the most chilling days of his life. There was no way he was going to spend the rest of his life in his pajamas, wandering institutional beige halls in a drugged haze.

And there had also been a gnawing sensation that what he was experiencing--the sights, sounds, goddamned voices in his head--wasn't as unfamiliar as it should have been. He'd tried to figure out why, and that was when he'd discovered the dark patches in his past, parts of his childhood that just weren't there. He'd read the articles, seen the movies, hell, even cleaned up the aftermath of people who blanked out instances in their past. Uh uh. Before Jim Ellison went postal and shot up a lot of people, he'd just calmly turn his gun on himself.

Those had been his thoughts when Dr. McCoy/McKay came into the room and changed everything. Hope in run-down tennis shoes. Then he'd found the "good doctor" in a supply closet at Rainier University, bastion of the liberal arts, and the hope started to fade. Ten minutes of babble about ancient watchmen and pre-civilized throwbacks, and hope died. Frustrated and broken, he'd nailed the charlatan to the wall, then left. A frisbee had sailed overhead and the next thing he knew, he was lying in the middle of the street with Blair on his back and a garbage truck just beyond. Hope returned.

"What the hell's the hold up?" Bauer muttered.

"Eager to get to that cell in Chicago, huh? What? Your boyfriend's waiting?" Jim questioned dryly. Then he realized they had been on the tarmac for a while. He turned up his hearing, zooming in on one of the few male voices on the plane.

"Senator McCain, welcome aboard. I'm Captain Alan Pierce."

The voices came from the other side of the divider separating First Class from Economy. So that's why I pay taxes.

"Sorry about the delay, Captain. Senators get caught in traffic jams too."

"Of course they do. How else would any highway construction bills get passed?" the captain joked, obviously at ease with having a "celebrity" aboard his plane. "As soon as you're settled, we'll be taxi-ing out. Have a good flight, sir."

Jim drew his hearing back. A senator. Good. Probably meant they'd miss a lot of the "unavoidable" turbulence they usually ran into. He turned to tell Blair what he'd heard, but saw that his roommate was still chatting away, his hands full of snapshots. At this rate, the women were going to remember him with as much fondness as their vacation. There was this sweet young man on the plane who kept us so entertained on the way back that we barely remember being in the air.

Jim grinned, then sobered. So many things had gone wrong this past year, so many things that could have ended badly. The Switchman. The police department being taken over by terrorists. An exploding drug lab. A crazed serial killer. That was when he realized Sandburg wasn't playing with a full deck. Because any sane person would have been insane after being kidnapped and drugged by the very killer he'd been tracking. Blair knew every step Lash would take, knew the exact route his death would take--from drugged to drowned--and knew that Lash would keep "trophies" of him to add to his collection. Damnit! The fucker deserved more than the five bullets he'd pumped into him. If he'd had a choice in the matter he'd have taken Lash to the duck pond and tied a fucking yellow scarf around his neck.

And what the hell is wrong with you, Ellison?

Jim shook his head, trying to figure out why he was suddenly obsessing over past fears. Why this sudden review? It was like he was staring death in the face and-- A shiver ran along his spine.

Okay. You've been living with the kid too long. Sometimes a cigar's just a cigar. And sometimes the universe really is out to get you.

He debated whether banging his head against the seat in front of him would be too dramatic and was saved from having to make the difficult decision by the sound of the PA system being clicked on.

"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please? On behalf of Western Air, I'd like to welcome you aboard Flight 919. My name is Linda, and I'd like to point out some of our safety regulations."

Blair, having turned around and settled in his seat when the attendant began to speak, noted that Jim seemed to be listening to her intently--too intently. "What's up, man?" he whispered so softly that even Bauer couldn't hear him. But of course Jim did.

"Nothing, Sandburg."

Bauer looked back and forth between them, confused.

"You aren't getting ready to freak on me, are you?" Blair asked worriedly. Jim was one of the most "unfreakable" people he knew, but if something was happening with his senses--well, Jim still wasn't rational when it came to his gifts. He used them, but Blair saw his reluctance in the stiffness of his shoulders and the jut of his jaw. There was a story there, something in Jim's background that was making him fight his talents so fiercely. There were cops who would love to have special advantages like Jim. There were cops who would use those special advantages zealously to increase their closure rate. There were cops who'd use those special advantages to take advantage. Maybe Jim's reluctance stemmed from that. Maybe he'd witnessed abuses of power and--

"Ah, whatsa matter, Detective Jim? Are we afwaid of flying?" Bauer said mockingly.

Blair shook his head. The stupidity of the average crook never failed to amaze him. "Man, the only reason the captain authorized my coming along was to keep Ellison from accidentally bouncing your skull against the floor. Keep it up, and I might just close my eyes and let him have his way with you. So zip the lip. Now, Jim, tell me what's happening."

"I'm not freaking," Jim said, glaring around Bauer.

"Then what is it?"

"Just someone walking across my grave."

Walking across-- "Are you having some kind of premonition?" Blair asked excitedly.

"No."

"You are! This is so cool. Let me get out my notebook and--"

"Bauer's isn't the only skull I can bounce."

Blair held up his hands. He'd forgotten his eagerness had a tendency to push Jim's buttons. Of course, Jim's buttons rivaled grains of sand in number. "I hear you, man. See me backing off."

Bauer opened his mouth. Blair shook his head. Bauer slumped back against the seat.

A premonition. Proof that more than five of Jim's senses were heightened? Or just pre-flight anxiety? He glanced nervously around the plane, trying to see if he could figure out what had activated the sentinel's early warning system. As he expected, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him. Except Jim: tense, alert, a dog on point.

Suppressing a shiver, Blair checked his seatbelt.

~CHAPTER TWO~

Flight 919

Jim gave a silent groan as the plane gained speed down the runway. How could he have been so stupid? The kid wasn't going to leave this alone now. There would be questions, or worse, there would be looks and supposedly surreptitious glances throughout the flight. Hell, it wasn't like he wasn't used to playing his hunches. It'd saved his life both in the Army and on the streets of Cascade. But Sandburg wasn't going to think of it as a hunch. No, he'd called it a premonition, as in a sixth sense--as in another heightened sense. Weren't five of them enough for the intrepid boy researcher?

He closed his eyes as the plane lifted into the air. Hadn't the five screwed up his life enough? There had been a time when a plane trip wasn't a big deal, when he could have read or slept or talked through a takeoff without knowing the exact number of feet the plane was in the air or how much thrust the engines--

Stop, Ellison. It's a bad sign when you start lying to yourself.

Fine. It was true that all his aviation knowledge didn't come from being a sentinel. It came from being in a helicopter crash and a need for control of his environment. So yes, he had the schematics of every military chopper memorized. And he knew that at the moment he was aboard a Boeing 737-series 500 jet with General Electric CF 56-3 engines which had a maximum thrust of 22,000 pounds. The plane's maximum range was 2,730 statue miles, its fuel capacity was 5,311 gallons, and the typical cruising speed was 495 mph or 0.745 Mach. And yes, he was borderline obsessive-compulsive when it came to aircraft, thank you very much.

But it was only because he'd lost so much of the precious commodity called control. After years of independence, he now needed someone to hold his hand when he crossed the street, for Christ's sake. How pathetic was that? Jim Ellison, Special Forces soldier, liaison to the CIA, black ops specialist--a man who can't be trusted to live alone. The kid was supposed to stay a week and here it was closing in on a year, and he was still there. Why? It certainly wasn't out of convenience. Blair hadn't said anything, but Jim knew it had to be cramping his style, not having a place where he could get "comfortable" with his date without someone coming home early from a stakeout. And God knew, living with a sentinel wasn't easy. The idea of privacy was a social lie to make the situation tolerable. So why was Blair there? For the same reason Simon hadn't commented on the anthropologist's place in his life. No "When is the kid moving out?" or even a teasing "He's lasted longer than Carolyn." Simon knew what they all were avoiding saying. Jim needed a babysitter.

Like he didn't know. Like he hadn't consciously redrawn his personal borders so the kid would feel comfortable. Like he hadn't changed his whole life around so Blair wouldn't leave, because if he was honest with himself, he'd admit that no one was more scared than he. Not for his life, but for the innocent lives that he could put in danger if his senses went to hell on him. He could zone and burn his apartment building down. Sunlight glinting off a car could cause him to crash. A loud sound could keep him from stopping some crazed gunman. And the only thing standing between him and these tragedies was a man who wanted to study him, put his life down in black and white and analyze every nuance. From American hero to lab rat.

The plane leveled out, the seatbelt light blinked off, and Jim headed toward the back. Another damn something he couldn't control. If it wasn't so pathetic it'd be funny. Blair said it didn't have to be a permanent dysfunction, that he could manage it like he was managing the senses. He was still wondering how Sandburg kept a straight face when he said that. Because everyone "in the know" knew senses management was under the direct aegis of one Blair "No Middle Name" Sandburg.

Jim sighed, figuring if he couldn't be honest with himself while slinking towards (he really didn't want anyone noticing he couldn't hold his water five minutes) a public bathroom, well then, when could he be honest, huh?

So glad you cleared that up, Jimmy.

You're welcome.

Blair had saved both his sanity and his life by helping him cope in a world that was too detailed. Take, for instance, a lovely, harshly disinfected public bathroom. He opened the door. Without Blair, he wouldn't have been able to take it. The smell alone would knock him out cold, and then he'd wake up to find himself face to face with stuff only he could see, and he'd pass out again. But thanks to Blair and his patient teachings--and the fact that he was the first person to use it after it'd been cleaned at the airport--he could do his business and get out while remaining completely upright. All he smelled was a hint of disinfectant and-- He frowned and sniffed again. What was that? Careful not to go too far, he cranked up his sense of smell and-- Damn. Gun oil. Heavyweight gun oil. An automatic weapon. Possibly an assault rifle. On an airplane. With a U.S. senator.

He wasn't traveling with anyone in handcuffs again.

*****

Blair worriedly watched Jim make his way to the restrooms at the back of the plane. By the jut of his jaw, there was something serious weighing on his mind. Was it the premonition or just the same old bitch about the senses? If Jim spent half the time working on his senses that he did worrying about them, he wouldn't have anything to worry about.

And then he wouldn't need you.

He knew that Jim didn't give a damn about his dissertation, that the entire reason he put up with having a "partner" was because he was scared. In a way he felt guilty about that because Jim was getting too dependent on him. It was true that sentinels had companions in the bush, but Jim wasn't in the bush. There were enough distractions in the modern world to keep him from focusing too much. He should be teaching Jim to split his attention when he concentrated on one sense instead of pulling him out of zones. He should-- Hell, should he be teaching Jim anything at all? That in itself assured that his dissertation was going to be flawed. A researcher never did anything to affect the outcome of his work. But here he was, telling Jim, showing Jim, pulling and pushing Jim. You're screwed, Sandburg. You need distance from this man. For both your sakes.

He thought back to the flyer he'd found in his campus mailbox. Dr. Stoddard was getting together an expedition to Borneo. Maybe that was something he should consider. He definitely needed to get a perspective on this whole sentinel thing, because he'd lost all objectivity. He was going native, and that wasn't good. A year or so in Borneo would remind him of what he was supposed to do, how he was supposed to handle his subjects, how he was supposed to observe but not participate.

"Blair, I guess it's our turn to be nosy," a voice called out behind him.

He smiled and turned around in his seat again. "Yeah, Agnes?"

"First, is your friend okay?"

"Jim? Yeah. Just a nervous flyer." Oh, boy. Jim was going to thank him for that one--not. Agnes must have overheard some of their conversation.

"Are you a police officer?"

"No, ma'am. I'm just a grad student. I'm doing my dissertation on sub-tribal communities in a supposedly tribeless modern world. That sorta translates into I'm writing a paper on cops, and Detective Ellison, Jim, allows me to ride along with him, seeing the police community from the inside."

"Your dissertation? That means you're going for your doctorate?" April asked, leaning forward.

"No, he does not want to meet your granddaughter," Agnes said before Blair could answer her sister. "Melanie's an airhead, just like her mother. How you ever let your son marry that--"

"She might be a piece of fluff, but she's sweet. So is Melanie, by the way," April added, smiling at Blair.

"And she would bore you to tears in five minutes, Blair," Agnes counseled. "Melanie needs to find herself a nice accountant or banker, who's even more boring than she is. You, on the other hand, Blair, need someone who'll intrigue you, someone who'll make you think, and keep on thinking."

Got one of those already--and he's a handful. "Thanks for the advice, Agnes. I'll keep that in mind." Actually she was describing Maya to a tee, but Maya…. Quite frankly, he'd rather think about Lash than Maya. "So how many grandkids do you have, April?"

Blair listened to the women bicker about their children and grandchildren, and he laughed inside, their love and closeness so tangible. He hoped that if he'd been fortunate enough to have a sibling, that they would have been like that. Best friends. Like Jim was becoming. But Jim was just a research project--

"Sandburg." Blair turned his head toward Jim standing in the aisle. "If you would excuse us, ladies," the detective said politely, motioning for Blair to climb over Bauer.

"What's up, man?"

Jim handed him a credit card. "Get Simon on the horn. Tell him there are weapons aboard and Senator McCain."

Blair's eyes widened. "Damn. Another twenty bucks lost."

"Told you you'd be better off betting on the ponies than on our not getting into trouble on this trip. Remember our last vacation?"

"That's why I thought the odds would be in our favor this time." Surely a mob assassination attempt at a monastery couldn't be topped.

"That's what's wrong with you scientist types: you actually believe in odds. Call from the phonebank in the back. Less chance of being overheard. I'm going to see if I can sniff out the suspects."

"Careful, man."

"You too."

Blair moved to the back and followed the instructions for the Airfone.

"Banks."

"It's me, Simon."

"Why? Shouldn't you be halfway to Chicago with my prisoner by now, Sandburg?"

"That's why I'm calling." He heard a heavy sigh.

"What's gone wrong?"

"We're 35,000 feet in the air. Jim smells weapons. And Senator McCain's onboard."

A curse. "Where's Jim now?"

"Canvassing."

"Canvassing. That's just great. Don't hang up. I'm going to use the other line to contact the airport. Ah. I knew I had your flight information on the desk. Who else is on the plane?"

"A bunch of Catholic women."

"Please don't tell me they're nuns."

"They're not nuns, but one of them is ninety-two years old."

"Mother Theresa. A senator. And you and Jim. This was just a tragedy waiting to happen, you know that, don't you? Next damn time you two go somewhere, I'm going to make sure you're surrounded by mimes. Nothing ever happens to mimes, even though it should. Hang on, Sandburg."

Blair scanned the rows of seats as he waited for Simon to get back to him. He saw Jim up near the First Class section, seemingly chatting up the stewardess. Had he told her his suspicions? Had she believed him? He had no proof, nothing to back him up at all, except his badge, and that was something Jim wouldn't want to be flashing around. Blair saw the stewardess stiffen and glance around warily. Of course she had believed him. Jim had one of those faces that said, "Trust me." Well, so did he. But they were two different kinds of "Trust me"s. Jim's said, "Trust me. I will protect you." His said, "Trust me. Does this look like a face that would lie to you?" A whole different vibe.

"Sandburg, you still there?"

"Yeah, Captain."

"The airport's trying to contact the pilots. Hopefully, we can get the plane on the ground before the people aboard are any the wiser."

"Okay. Listen, Jim's on his way back. I'll let him talk to you."

Jim grabbed the phone. "Simon, I count at least two suspects in Economy. And I'm pretty sure there's more in First Class. But I'm afraid of tipping my hand if I go up there to look around. The two I have are Mitsuo Ishimaru--I-T-S-U-O--yeah, and Kunishige--K-U-N-I-S-H-I-G-E--Ogawa. Yeah, just the way it sounds. Both Asians--Japanese, I think. No, I don't know if that means anything. What? Simon? Simon? Damn."

Blair paled when Jim hung up the phone. "What, man?"

"They've cut the connection. Let's get back to our seats. And from this moment on, we're strangers."

Blair frowned, then realized what Jim was saying. If something happened and Jim got exposed as a cop, it wouldn't do them any good if Blair's connection to the police came to light. That would be their secret weapon. Damn. Jim was making contingency plans.

He looked at his friend. "This is going to go down, isn't it?"

No hesitation in the sentinel's assessment. "Yeah, Chief, it looks that way."

Blair nodded and kept walking, mentally erasing all doubts about Jim's premonitions.

Gift number six, man. Gift number six.

Cascade Police Department

Captain Simon Banks slammed the phone back in its cradle and yelled for two of his detectives. Henri Brown and Brian Rafe practically ran across the squad room.

"Captain?" Rafe asked, looking down to make sure he hadn't scuffed his shoes.

"Ellison and Sandburg," Simon began.

"Traffic accident on the way to the airport?" Brown asked.

"Mad bomber at the toll booth?" Rafe inquired.

Then the two detectives looked at each other and said simultaneously, "Hostage situation!"

Simon lifted his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "How about a hijacking?"

"Car?"

"Plane."

"Damn," Brown murmured. "On the ground or in the air?"

"What do you think?"

Rafe shook his head. "Has the airport been alerted?"

"Yes, but I want someone out there to make sure they keep on this. They seemed a little hesitant to just take my word for it that there was a problem."

"But it's Ellison and Sandburg," Rafe protested.

"Yeah, well, they haven't dealt with them like we have. After this is over, they'll understand. But until then, I want to make sure they don't drop the ball. And the Feds will be called in, so be careful of stepping on toes." He held out the flight information he had.

"The FAA?"

"And others. A U.S. senator's onboard."

"Who?"

"McCain."

"Damn. It would have to be one I voted for," Brown mused. "We're on it, Captain. And don't worry. Rafe here will fit right in with the Feds." He grinned at his suited partner. He, of course, was in his usual floral print shirt and jeans.

"And you'll stand out like a pineapple. Why do you insist on dressing like an extra on Hawaii Five-O?"

"Hey, we can't all be McGarrett," Brown said as he followed his partner out of the office. "Aloha, good people," he called as they crossed through the bullpen.

Simon sighed and hesitantly eyed his Rolodex. He really didn't want to do this. And he was way overstepping the bounds of his authority. But his duty was to provide backup for his men, even if that meant dealing with the devil. He flipped through the cards, took a deep breath, and dialed.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Seattle Office. If you know the extension number of the agent you would like to speak to, please enter those digits now. If not, please choose from the following options: to report a narcotics deal, please press 1; an arson contract or a potential bombing, press 2; the possible location of a serial killer--"

Simon dialed the four digits on the card before he talked himself out of it.

"Jefferson."

Simon cleared his throat. "Hello, Sarah. It's Simon."

Silence. "Simon who?"

"The man you left standing at the altar--Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade P.D."

"Captain Banks. What can I do for you, sir?"

"Actually, Agent Jefferson, it's what I can do for you."

"Simon, if this call wasn't being monitored, I'd tell you exactly what you could do for me."

"Which is probably the reason why you're stuck in a basement office in Seattle and going nowhere fast." How dare she cop an attitude. She'd been the one to leave him! "And if you know what's good for you, you won't hang up this phone."

"What is it? Cascade's in the middle of a crime wave? Everyone knows that already, but it's not a federal matter."

"But a U.S. senator aboard a hijacked plane is."

"What?"

Simon smiled in satisfaction when he heard her gasp. "Senator Robert McCain is aboard Western Air Flight 919, originating out of Anchorage, Alaska, and en route to Chicago, Illinois. Also aboard the flight are two of my officers, and at least two men carrying assault weapons."

"How do you know this?"

"One of my men called from the plane."

"Have any demands been made?"

"The actual hijacking hadn't occurred when I was speaking with them, but then we were cut off."

"What do you mean, 'the actual hijacking hadn't occurred?' What are you pulling on me, Banks?"

"Listen. I trust these men. If they say a hijacking is about to happen, you can bet your ass, Agent Jefferson, that a hijacking is imminent. Now, you can sit around and wait until this spirals out of control and Washington sends in real agents, or you can contact the airport, and show them there's already an agent in charge."

"Simon, I know we hurt each other pretty badly when we split, but don't--"

"Sarah, this has nothing to do with us. I have two men on that plane, and they are going to need help."

A grunt of acceptance. "Okay. Tell me what you know."

~CHAPTER THREE~

Flight 919

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Pierce. I'm afraid that we've had to turn off all extraneous communication devices, and I'm going to have to ask you all to return to your seats." The words flowed from the intercom, quieting the whole plane.

Seconds later, nervous chattering began as people waited for more information. Were they flying into a storm? Was there an engine or power problem? Were they going to have to make an emergency landing? And where the heck had the flight attendants disappeared to?

"Ladies and gentlemen," the intercom came to life again. "This is Benjamin Kuroda, and I am your hijacker. Actually, one of your hijackers. Show yourselves, gentlemen."

Two men stood, both with automatic weapons in their hands. Blair looked at Jim and the detective nodded. Yes, those were the suspects he'd named. Movement ahead revealed four men being prodded from First Class by another gunman. Three of the men were shoved into empty seats. The fourth remained upright with a gun muzzle against his temple.

Another man appeared with a microphone in his hand. Blair figured this was Kuroda.

"Now, you may be wondering why you are our prisoners. This man, for those of you who are neither from Washington State nor students of politics--or maybe you are from Washington and just never gave a damn about your representatives--is U.S. Senator Robert McCain. He sits on the Commerce Committee, a committee which is currently pushing the Pacific Rim International Commercial Exchange Agreement. It is my opinion--and I think that you will all agree that my opinion is very important at the moment--that PRICE comes with a hefty 'price' tag. It will basically limit the trade partners of the Pacific Rim countries to the U.S. and whoever she deems worthy. Now, don't believe that we in Japan aren't grateful that you didn't nuke all of us, but we of Asian descent are tired of being led around by the U.S. We have tried to discuss this peacefully and in a civilized manner, but the cry of the American dollar is far louder than our pitiful voices, so we are forced to show, rather than to speak, our displeasure."

"What do you want from us?" a man asked.

"From you, absolutely nothing. From the American public, outrage and disgust, and a chance to share our views. Even as we speak, air traffic controllers are trying to contact this plane. We are both off course and unresponsive. News of this will make the wires and soon everyone will be asking why this is happening. That will be the time that people will listen."

Blair groaned. Political fanatics were second only to religious ones on the nut scale--and not by much. "We are so screwed," he whispered.

"Where's your observer ID?" Jim asked urgently.

"In the bottom of my backpack."

Jim nodded. "Good. They shouldn't search you too closely. Just stay calm and passive."

"Hey, man, I was born passive." Blair glanced across Bauer to look at his partner. Not an iota of anxiety showed, even though he had to know his whole body screamed "authority figure". If anything drew the hijackers' attention to him, he was going to be busted in a flash.

"We'll be okay as long as there are no heroics," Jim warned softly. "This isn't some loud-mouthed drunk or a kid high on something. Grabbing and subduing these professionals is out of the question."

"You're preaching to the choir, man. But is the preacher himself listening?"

"I'm outnumbered at least four to one, Sandburg."

"And I'm to take that as being indicative of what?"

"That I'm smart enough to wait for reinforcements. I'm sure the captain is gathering the necessary ground forces."

"The captain?" Bauer's eyes went from one to the other. "You knew this was going to happen? You brought me on this plane knowing that--"

"Don't get your panties in a wad, Bauer," Jim snarled. "We didn't know before we took off."

"But you knew it later, right? And you didn't bother to tell me?"

"Bauer, you're no better than they are. Why would I tell you jack?"

Bauer's eyes narrowed. "I'm no better than they are? Fine." He raised his free hand. "Hey, Chink! You got a cop sitting back here!"

Blair and Jim both reached out to cover Bauer's mouth, but it was too late. Jim shook his head and Blair sat back in his seat, scared that Bauer had just signed Jim's death warrant.

Kuroda walked back to them, one of the machine gun-toting men with him. "Someone here requested my attention?"

"Yeah, you stupid people didn't even think to check who else was going to be on the plane, didja? Well, you have a bona fide Passenger 57 right here in your midst--Detective Jim Ellison and--urk!--and he told me he was gonna kick your ass."

Blair watched Jim's hand move back to his part of the seat and wondered what his partner had done to keep Bauer from naming him.

Kuroda gestured and the muzzle of the automatic pressed against Jim's temple. "Put your hands on your head, Detective, and stand very slowly."

Jim obediently put his hands up, but then gave a wry smile. "I have on my seat restraint."

Kuroda lifted a mocking eyebrow. "Do you always follow orders so well, Detective?" He reached down and unsnapped the wide fabric band.

Jim stood. "When they are to my benefit."

"Please step into the aisle."

The detective submitted to the thorough search without a flinch. Both the gun in his back holster and the one at his ankle were discovered and handed to Kuroda.

Kuroda caressed the pistol in his hand, and smiled. He brought it to bear on Bauer. The con man blanched, and pressed back into his seat.

Kuroda fired. Blair flinched, scrambling back against the side of the plane. He squeezed his eyes shut and tensed in anticipation, sure he was next. He could hear nothing but the pounding of his own heart, and a ringing in his ears. When nothing happened after a few frantic heartbeats, he opened his eyes and looked around. He could see people screaming, and their eyes full of panic. He couldn't hear them. Blair's gaze drifted to Bauer.

A hole marred the man's forehead. Dark, unseeing eyes stared at the ceiling. Blair shuddered and tore his eyes away, only to spy the headrest behind Bauer. He gulped. Ah. So that's where all the blood and gore had gone. Except that the headrest hadn't caught everything. He stared at the spray that covered his left shoulder. So close. The ringing in his ears stopped; the thunderous roar of his heartbeat didn't. Fearfully, he glanced at Kuroda.

But Kuroda only had eyes for Jim. "You're the only one who wasn't surprised, Detective," he said wonderingly.

"A betrayer is not an ally."

Kuroda nodded. "Once he betrays, he will do so again. You are a fellow student?"

"A warrior is always learning."

"You know the Way?"

"I seek the Way."

Blair saw a spark of hope in the situation. Jim was bonding, creating a relationship with the leader like a professional negotiator. Which Jim might very well be for all he knew. Even after a year, he didn't know the man--Jim Ellison without the badge or the senses--very well. One would think that due to all the life and death crap they'd been through together, not to mention living together, they would know everything about each other. But while Jim was open with his affection and even his trust, he was close-mouthed about his past. Of all the tests and demands he'd made on the man, getting him to discuss his past was the one ordeal Jim balked at. He didn't even know if Jim had any family still living.

Movement from Kuroda made Blair leave his musings, and he watched in horror as Kuroda sighted the gun again. He gasped when a bullet buried itself in Jim's thigh. Jim gave a stifled grunt and sank to the carpeted floor.

Kuroda stared at Jim in rapt fascination. "You weren't surprised again."

"Ken No Sen," Jim hissed. He leaned against the seat arm and peeked at Blair, warning him against a personal reaction. "Forestall the enemy by attacking."

"The Way of Strategy. Ni Ten Ichi Ryu. Not an easy path, fellow Warrior."

"But a worthy one."

"This is true, my friend," Kuroda said with a smile.

Blair shivered. If Kuroda could so coldly shoot someone he considered a friend….

"You will join me and the good senator in the cockpit," Kuroda told Jim. "We shall discuss the necessity of wielding the long sword properly and how to know when we are approaching the Void, while we wait for those on the ground to react and advance."

Jim grimaced, and gripped the seat arms on either side of him to brace himself as he rose. He stood unsteadily and Blair winced sympathetically.

"Wait," Blair called as Jim limped toward Kuroda. "Can't we at least keep him from bleeding to death?" he asked carefully.

"And you are?"

"Blair Sandburg. I'm a grad student."

"And a caretaker of your fellow man," Kuroda praised. "By all means, bind his wound, Mr. Sandburg."

"Here, Blair." Agnes tossed him a T-shirt that read "My Grandma went to Alaska and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt (I Don't Think I Want To Know What's In Her Will)."

Blair shrugged out of his jacket and his topmost flannel shirt, climbed over Bauer's body and knelt in front of Jim. The wound was bleeding profusely, and even worse, there was no exit hole. He didn't want to consider what additional damage was going to occur from Jim moving around with a bullet inside. Not meeting Jim's gaze, he folded the T-shirt, ripped the sleeve out of his worn flannel shirt, and tied the wadding over the wound.

"There you go, man," he said, still keeping his eyes averted. Just one look and Kuroda would know he wasn't just a random, concerned humanitarian.

"Thanks, Chief. That should hold me."

Chief. Blair moved into the seat Jim had vacated and watched Jim limp up the aisle behind Kuroda, the gunman following. Christ, this was quickly becoming his worst nightmare. And given his life of late, that was a very big deal.

"You okay, Blair?"

"Yeah, April." He took a deep breath, and did what Jim expected him to do--take care of the immediate tribe. "How're you doing?" He sat up on his knees and leaned over the back of the seat like he'd done before takeoff, ignoring the remaining gunmen. "Everyone okay?"

"We're a sturdy bunch," Agnes answered. "I think Libby here is trying to decide what she's going to wear when we go on Oprah. Isn't that right, Libby?"

Libby looked up from the book she'd picked back up when Kuroda left. "Doesn't matter. As long as you don't wear that lime-green thing you wore to Mary Louise's wedding."

Agnes grinned. "That'll be perfect. Maybe I'll even wear it on the back of the book we co-write about this experience."

Libby rolled her eyes and went back to reading.

"You know, I sort of feel bad, Ags," April said, and Blair thought he was going to hear the true feelings of these courageous women. Then April winked and he knew their spirit had no boundaries. "I haven't listened to Father Michael's sermons for the past six months. Think that means I'm going to go to Hell?"

"Father Michael's sermons are Hell, Ape. And as soon as we're on the ground, I plan on telling him. Maybe he'll have one of those apoplectic fits and the diocese will send us a new priest. One of those young ones, with all the muscles and cute smiles."

"Why? So Miss Odessa can have a reason for drooling other than poorly fitting dentures?"

Laughter sprang out around them, and Blair could hear the joke spread from row to row. He lowered his head to the top of the seat. If it weren't for these ladies, he would be insane by now.

Blair Sandburg, secret weapon.

He wasn't ready for this.

Cascade Police Department

"Mitsuo Ishimaru is a fugitive from Japan," Sarah Jefferson said without preamble when Simon answered his phone. "He's wanted there for suspicion of conspiracy to bomb a U.S. Naval Base."

Simon snapped a pencil. No, a pen, he corrected as he tugged at a box of tissues to clean up the sticky mess. "And Ogawa?"

"Kunishige Ogawa is a mercenary whose grandparents are a couple of those shadows burned into Hiroshima buildings."

"Uh, I take it there's no love lost for the U.S.?"

"Got it in one. I'm heading to the airport right now. You want in?"

Simon grabbed his jacket. "Yes. I have two men already there. I would appreciate it if you'd let them stay as well."

"As long as this stays in my hands, it's fine. But I have a feeling this is going to be big. I might get replaced."

Simon snorted. "Don't forget I know you, Jefferson. You'll only be moved if you want to be moved."

"See you at the airport, Banks."

Simon smiled and hung up. He went out to talk to his P.A. "Rhonda, I'm going to be at the airport if anything comes up."

She gave a quick nod, her eyes damp. "Bring them home, Captain."

He squeezed her shoulder. "I'll do my best."

"Hey, Simon. You heading out?" Captain Joel Taggert asked, ambling into the bullpen.

He nodded at his good friend, not surprised that the whole station--or at least those who were familiar with Ellison and Sandburg--seemed to know what was going on. "Yeah, Joel. You want to come?" The captain of the Bomb Squad had a soft spot for Sandburg. Something to do with the two of them being held hostage by the Sunrise Patriots. Simon shuddered, remembering that his son shared the same bond.

"Sure, but the Feds are probably going to kick us out."

"It's Sarah, Joel."

Joel's eyes widened. "Then I know she's going to kick us out."

"We're not two crazy college kids anymore. We're mature enough to work together without our past getting in the way."

Joel didn't say anything as he followed Simon into the elevator. As the floors passed by, he commented, "How did she get the case? I thought she handled--"

"Lightweight stuff? Yeah, but we both know she can do more."

A raised eyebrow. "You called and gave her a heads up. Why?"

Simon shrugged. "I needed someone I could trust on this. Besides, I'm less bitter now that I'm divorced. It means Sarah was right all along: I'm not husband material."

"Either that or you have lousy taste in women."

"We can't all find the perfect woman like your Anna."

"That's true," Joel said smugly. "So what's the full situation? Brown and Rafe were a little vague on details."

"That's because the details are vague. Jim suspects there are weapons aboard his flight. Given that the two men he fingered have been identified as bad asses with well-documented grudges against the U.S., I'm pretty sure the situation is going to deteriorate rapidly." He reached for his ringing cell phone. "Banks. Wait a minute, Brown. I'm in an elevator. What is it?" he asked as he and Joel stepped into the parking garage. "Got it. There's a federal agent heading your way. Don't deliberately piss her off and there's a chance you can stay. Captain Taggert and I are on our way too. If the situation changes, give us a call."

"What's happening?" Joel asked as Simon stuck the phone back in his jacket.

"Air traffic control can't get the pilots to acknowledge them, and the flight's off-course."

"Is it losing altitude or flying erratically?"

"No. She's quite steady."

"Well, that's something."

"Damn little if you ask me," Simon grumbled as he maneuvered his sedan into traffic.

"Little is more than none. Besides, Sandburg's a scrappy fella and Jim's one of your best men. If there's a way out of this, they'll find it."

"Have that on good authority, do you?"

"Oh, yeah."

The sedan took the onramp and headed toward the airport.

Somewhere Along The I-5

Sarah Jefferson eyed the sign and moved to the right lane: Cascade Airport--Exit 2 Miles. Granted Cascade was a fairly large city, but the amount of serious and/or international crime that occurred there was getting ridiculous. A terrorist group taking over police headquarters. A serial killer who masqueraded as an FBI profiler. A rogue CIA agent trying to steal a top-secret plane. Damn. Maybe the Bureau should open a branch office in Cascade. No. It'd be just her luck that they would send her there, and because it seemed that the Major Crime Unit was always in the middle of the biggest messes, her bosses would tell her to make Captain Simon Banks her best friend--and it was much too late to go back to being Simon's best friend. It'd been too late the moment she'd decided she couldn't marry him.

They had been very much alike, she and Simon--both ambitious, goal-oriented, intelligent, responsible persons. It was those similarities which had attracted them to each other. They had both been Criminal Justice majors, both driven to show the world that blacks (well before the term African-American became vogue) were equally as effective at law and order as they were at anarchy and disorder. Ah, the idealism of youth. The only thing they had disagreed on was which was the better arena for their talents. She had pushed for the FBI, saying that a bigger difference could be made at a national level. He argued that being a cop made more sense because of the direct access to people.

But if she were honest with herself, none of that had anything to do with leaving Simon at the altar. No, she'd refused to marry him because--because she thought he'd hold her back. God, she was a fool. She had it completely backwards. Here he was, captain of an elite unit and here she was, the federal officer you called to find out if Albert Nustermeier could be trusted to sort mail or when you needed a really fast typist to transcribe a wire-tap. Mere grunt work. Not that she was paid a grunt's salary. Oh, no, they had promoted her faithfully, giving her all the benefits her years at the Bureau demanded. No reason at all to accuse them of racial or sexual bias. Yep, she had all the benefits--and no responsibility. Some would consider that the ideal job. She considered it a reason not to look at herself too closely in a mirror.

Face it, Jefferson, Simon wasn't the only one you screwed that day. You might have left him stranded at the Justice of Peace's office, but you also stranded yourself. And what's his reaction to your selfishness? He hands you the case of a lifetime, giving you a chance to pull yourself out of the mire. Fuck this up and you might as well go shoot yourself in the head--or teach elementary school like your mama.

God, that bullet was gonna hurt.

Sarah shook her head at her foolishness and reached for her ringing cell phone. "Jefferson. Yes, A.D. Richards? Yes, sir, I'm on my way there now. No, sir, I don't think this is a hoax or a scam. Captain Banks assures me that his men are not the type to overreact or leap to unjustified conclusions, and considering the backgrounds on the two potential gunmen-- I understand that this could rapidly become a significant international event, but to ignore such evidence--fine, sir, to ignore such speculation just doesn't seem prudent. No, sir, I don't plan on alerting the media or panicking the public for no apparent reason. Yes, sir, if I find myself getting in over my head, I will certainly call for supporting agency resources. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." She clicked the phone off, and tossed it onto the passenger's seat.

Well, Banks, I just sold my soul on your word. I guess I've grown over the years, 'cause if that ain't commitment, honey, I don't know what is.

~CHAPTER FOUR~

Ennis, Montana

Zechariah McHattie fiddled with the knobs on his shortwave radio. He wasn't expecting to pick up anything exciting. This time of the year there weren't that many hikers or campers in any of the various nearby national forests. But as a retired search and rescuer, he couldn't help but keep his "ears" on. Just two years ago his diligence had paid off when a group of college students got lost in Gallatin. That had almost made retirement worth it. Almost.

"Flight 919. This is Cascade Tower. Please respond."

Zechariah looked up from his roast beef sandwich. The message was repeated, and he was sure there was a healthy dose of desperation involved. A missing plane? Cascade. Wasn't that up there just south of Great Falls? The county was called that too, wasn't it? He put his lunch aside and reached for his road atlas. Yep. There it was. On the I-15 between Helena and Great Falls. Didn't look like it was big enough to have an airport. Probably just a private airstrip or something.

"Western Air 919, please come in."

Western Air? That was a major airline. What the-- He picked up the phone and dialed. "Son, it's Dad."

*****

Philip McHattie pinched his nose, only then realizing he'd been staring at the computer screen too long. Running a small television station was more about number juggling than creativity. Wait a minute. That was creativity, wasn't it? "Hey, Dad. What's up?" he asked, smiling at himself. Way too much time in front of the computer.

"You heard anything about a missing plane?"

"No. Why?"

"I picked up a call on the radio."

"A distress signal?"

"No. It was Cascade Tower trying to contact a Flight 919--a Western Air Flight 919."

Philip blinked. Western Air? His fingers flew across the keyboard, bringing up the latest wire reports. Nothing. "I don't even think Western Air can fly into our Cascade, Dad. Let me check…. Damn--um, sorry, Dad."

"That was your mother's rule, Phil. Now that she's gone, you can curse in front of me."

"And have Sheila jump all over me? No thanks. I'd rather watch my tongue." His wife refused to let him swear, saying that not only was it un-Christian, but it made him sound like street trash.

"So what made you risk the wrath of Sheila?" Zechariah asked with a chuckle.

"I typed in Cascade to search the archives. There are a number of cities and towns with that name, but one seems rather prominent--a Cascade, Washington. Seems in the past year they've had a militia group take over the police station, a serial killer who liked to tie scarves around his victims' necks, and an ex-CIA agent who stole the Ebola virus from a university there."

"Sounds like if anybody's got a missing plane, they would be the ones."

"Yep. Listen, Dad, I need to make some calls."

"Okay. You'll let me know, right?"

"Uh huh. And you'll do the same if you hear anything else?"

"Will do."

"And, Dad? Thanks."

"Anytime, son."

Philip broke the connection, flipped through his Rolodex, and dialed.

"KCDE. How may I direct your call?"

"Yes, I'd like to speak to Don Haas."

Flight 919

Blair turned around and slid down into his seat. A spot on the aisle runner caught his attention and he felt sick. Jim's blood. If Bauer wasn't already dead…. His gaze went automatically to the corpse and he knew if he had to look at the wide-eyed, slack-jawed visage one more minute, he was going to start screaming and never stop.

Had it only been a few months since he'd followed Jim into the house to find Susan Frasier in her bathtub with a yellow scarf wrapped around her neck? The sight had been horrifying, and had haunted him until Lash decided to make the nightmare even more real to him. But that had been several bodies ago and now, he was sitting calmly--well, reasonably calmly--beside a dead body, trying to figure out where he could stash it before rigor mortis set in. It wasn't like forensics evidence or anything was needed. Cause of death: bullet to the forehead. Perpetrator: one fucked up guy who'd pulled the trigger without any warning. Same fucked up guy who'd put a similar bullet in Jim's leg. God, he really needed to get Bauer out of sight.

"Hey, man!" he called out to the gunman. It didn't matter which one answered, just so one of them did. "Is there someplace I can stow my seatmate?"

One of the men sauntered back to him, the weapon aimed confidently. "Getting ripe, is he?"

Blair nodded. Decay hadn't set in yet, but death caused muscles to relax and when they did, certain bodily functions occurred. Wonder why that never comes up in the movies?

"I was gonna tell you to dump him in the galley in the back, but he's handcuffed to the seat. Guess he stays."

Blair fumbled in his pocket and came up with a key. He quickly opened the 'cuffs. He looked up to ask the gunman if he was gonna help and found himself staring straight into the barrel of the gun.

"Why did you have a key for the 'cuffs?" the man questioned warily.

Shit. He always had a spare key because Jim said it was asking too much of fate to allow him around handcuffs and not expect some sort of "cuff accident". Blair remembered giving Jim the finger in reply, but he'd faithfully taken the key. "The cop palmed it to me when I was working on his leg."

"Oh."

Blair breathed, slipped on his jacket and buttoned it up. It was already bloodstained; no use in getting anything else all gory. "Gonna help me?" he asked as he stood and grabbed Bauer's shoulders. The ruined head flopped against his jacket. At least it wasn't his leather one.

"Nah." The gunman patted his weapon. "I got my hands full."

"I'll help."

Blair looked around the gunman and saw one of the few male passengers stand. He had gray hair at his temples, but looked fit. "Okay, you grab his feet after I pull him into the aisle."

The man nodded, then did what he was told. "I'm Harry."

"I'm Blair." The gunman walked ahead of them, probably to make sure there were no weapons in the galley. Yep, he was probably worried they might fork him to death.

"It was good what you did for that detective."

Good? For all he knew Jim could be bleeding to death in the cockpit. "I just want all this over with, man." He stopped and shifted his grip. Damn. He now knew where the term "dead weight" came from.

"I hear you. I was so excited about getting back to Chicago that I never even considered…."

Never even considered you wouldn't make it back. "Yeah, I know what you mean. You get on in Cascade or Anchorage?"

"Anchorage. I'm a salesman for a hardware company. About once a year, we send someone up to Alaska for a few weeks. We make contacts, hand out our website information. Alaskans order a lot off the Internet, and seeing an actual representative --even if only once a year--gives them confidence about using our company. Alaskans need lots of tools."

"I bet." They stepped into the galley alcove and awkwardly dropped the body. Even though Bauer was scum, Blair hadn't meant to drop him. But the muscles in his arms were burning from effort.

"Wonder where the attendants are?" Harry asked, eyeing the items in the galley.

"Probably under guard up in First Class." He didn't care what the gunman standing in the doorway thought. He grabbed a stack of napkins and wiped at the blood on his hands and jacket.

"So that means there are five of them?"

Blair tossed the soiled paper in the trash. "More likely six. Gotta be another one in the cockpit with the pilots."

"You ladies about through?"

Blair rolled his eyes and headed back to his seat. The other gunman called out something in Japanese, and to Blair's surprise, the terrorist behind him replied in kind. After the exchanges he'd had with the man, Blair had figured the only thing Japanese about the guy was his features.

Blair turned his head a little, and saw that the gunman was staying at the back of the plane. Must have been what they were deciding. So there was one at the front, one at the back, potentially one in First Class, one in the cockpit, Kuroda, and Kuroda's bodyguard.

Six terrorists versus one detective and one police observer. Didn't have to be a mathematician to know those odds sucked.

*****

Jim was grateful for the pain in his thigh. It gave him something to focus on other than the bodies of the flight attendants that were tossed about the First Class cabin. As they passed through the area, he saw no outward display of how they had died, but his senses left him no doubt that they were still slightly warm, but all the way dead.

And that meant this was a whole 'nother ball game than he'd thought was going to be played. People looking to negotiate didn't start off murdering their hostages. Neither did people who were planning on walking away after their caper. No, this had all the makings of a suicide mission. At 35,000 feet. Yo, Jimmy, you couldn't have had the premonition earlier, like *before* you got to the airport?

His expectations sank even lower when he saw the dead pilots in the cockpit.

A quick glance at the control panel showed the autopilot was working--well, the autopilot light was on and they weren't plummeting to the ground, so he assumed it was functioning. That was a plus, but as far as he knew, even the most sophisticated auotpiloting systems couldn't manage human-free landings. Maybe Kuroda or one of his men was a pilot. Or else they were completely screwed.

Which one do you think, Ellison?

Kuroda motioned for the ape with the automatic to dump the bodies out of the cramped cockpit, then indicated that Jim should sit. The senator was forced to keep standing aft, his back against the door and the gunman pressed close, as Kuroda took the other seat and put on a pair of headphones.

"So, you are a detective. But that was not always so. You stand too straight. You study the Way, the Book of Five Rings. You were a soldier?" Kuroda asked conversationally.

Maybe it was time to get rid of the crewcut, Jim thought dryly as he listened to the voice coming from the headphones. Cascade Tower was starting to sound desperate. Roger that, Cascade Tower. "Yes. U.S. Army Special Forces." The only thing denying it would do was cause Kuroda to distrust him, and trust was one of the few things he had going in his favor.

"You left your brothers-in-arms. Why?"

"Politics." Kuroda looked at him questioningly and Jim decided to play along. Buying time was the only plan he could come up with. "I survived a helicopter crash which killed everyone else onboard. I lived with a native tribe in South America for eighteen months before the Army suspected that someone had survived. I learned a simplicity of life when I was with the natives and back stateside, I had trouble adjusting."

"You walked through to the other side of death, and found you weren't the same."

Jim nodded. "I couldn't blindly follow anymore. I couldn't sit back and let someone else make decisions for me. In the jungle, my life was in my hands. I couldn't let go of it again. I got out, but…." He shook his head.

"You were still a warrior."

"Yes. I could have done anything--gone back to school, gone into business with my father, or even sat back and survived on some investments I'd made earlier. But, and sometimes it shames me to admit it, I am happiest when I have a weapon at my disposal." A little confession should seal the bond.

"Don't be ashamed," Kuroda counseled, leaning back in the first officer's chair. "We are always, at the core, who we were meant to be."

"And you were meant to be a terrorist?" Jim asked.

McCain gasped at his boldness. Kuroda smiled.

"You have shocked the poor senator, Detective. He thought you were playing with me, deliberately working your way beneath my defenses. He does not understand that we merely talk as equals. He does not understand that if I was not sure of that, you would have been dead five seconds after your unfortunate prisoner."

"I don't have the patience to be a negotiator," Jim said. At least that's what one of his Army instructors had told him.

"But patience is part of being a warrior."

"There is a difference between waiting to act and merely waiting."

"And are you now waiting to act?"

"Yes."

Kuroda laughed. "Your truthful answers are going to give the senator a heart attack, I fear. His kind are so mired in their lies that the truth is something to be feared and hidden. What do you hide, Detective?"

"Nothing."

"What do you fear?"

"Everything. But a warrior knows which fears to indulge and which fears should be overcome."

"And do you know?"

Jim smiled and gave a small shrug. "I'm working on it."

"A good warrior is constantly in the state of becoming," Kuroda agreed. "To answer your question, I don't see myself as a terrorist."

"Then look beyond the veil you've placed over your eyes. According to the dictionary, terrorism is the deliberate use of terror to influence someone. You have everyone up here terrified. As soon as those on the ground, families and officials, learn of this, they will be terrified too. And according to the law, terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social goals."

"Something you had to memorize to become a member of Special Forces?" Kuroda asked. "Doesn't quite have the same lyrical quality as 'you can win by making the best use of the enemy's frightened rhythm.'"

"The flaw in that is that those you are frightening are not your enemy. I am not your enemy--at least I wasn't until you put me and others in danger. For all you know, I don't even support your enemy's politics."

"America gains economically from PRICE."

"Money is not everyone's goal. Economically-speaking, slavery was a good thing. But that didn't stop people from fighting against it--even those who would lose what they had. Face it, Kuroda. This has nothing to do with the Way of Strategy. You are merely a terrorist."

The Asian sighed. "You're not going to cut me any slack, are you?"

"I have the responsibility of approximately a hundred lives. I can't afford to give you any slack."

"They aren't your responsibility. They are McCain's and the other politicians'."

"No. They're mine. And yours," Jim argued, not flinching at the steely glance Kuroda gave him. "We are the warriors. How we wield our weapons will determine the outcome of this. Everything else exists on the periphery of the battlefield."

"Damn. You wouldn't happen to know my grandfather, would you? Your arguments are similar."

"You discussed this with your grandfather?" McCain asked in amazement.

"Of course. I sought a greater wisdom."

"But did not heed it," Jim said softly. Thank you, Kuroda, for giving me something to exploit.

"I was already committed before I consulted him. I was merely looking for a second opinion."

"Why are you doing this, Kuroda? If you don't see yourself as a terrorist, what do you see in the mirror?"

"A sacrifice for the greater good."

"Explain," Jim demanded, just as he figured Kuroda's grandfather had done.

"It's hard for Westerners to understand, especially Americans. Your culture has no heritage, no history. It's just a mongrelization of other cultures and pasts."

"Woof," Jim retorted.

"Detective!" McCain chided.

Kuroda laughed. "Aptly put, Detective. I apologize for the insult." He frowned at the man standing behind him. "And, Senator, I grow tired of your constant need for political correctness. Or are you just seeking to appease me? Which is it, Senator? Are you merely monitoring your soundbites carefully, or are you trying to make nice to the crazy Asian? Maybe I should have Ashimori here escort you to First Class whose current occupants you can't bore to death."

Jim tensed as he heard the anger in Kuroda's voice, and his thigh responded with angry throbs of its own. Damn McCain. If he wasn't careful, he was going to set Kuroda off and no one would have a chance of getting out of this alive. False civility aside, Kuroda was a terrorist, and Jim was beginning to suspect he was also mentally unstable. The callous reference to the dead flight attendants didn't jibe with the man's earlier statements. You've dealt with enough nutcases to know the signs of mental unraveling.

"So what is it that a mutt like me can't understand?" Jim asked, hoping to distract the man's focus from McCain. The one thing all nutcases seemed to have in common was the need to talk. He'd often wondered if the bad guys knew just how much plotting time they gave the good guys by meticulously explaining what they were doing and why they were doing it. He'd finally concluded that the bad guys were just too far gone to care.

"You can't understand how it felt for me to go to Japan and find myself. Who I am. Where I came from."

"Your grandfather?"

"Yes. He showed me my heritage and I reveled in it. I thought never to leave Japan."

"But?"

"But soon I was seeing the erosion of Japan as the United States constantly ran over us. You cannot know what this was like."

Jim flashed to a story he'd overheard Incacha telling the Chopec children. "It is told that there once was a child who watched what time did to his older friends and relatives. He thought: these are not the familiar people I have known; they change, and I will change. He was so frightened by that idea that he begged the gods to make him into stone so that he could remain forever who he was. The gods were amused by the wish, so they granted it. The boy became stone and his parents lovingly placed him on the edge of the tribe's territory so he could watch over the tribe. With mixed emotions, he looked on as his contemporaries grew old and weak while he remained strong. He was saddened by their deaths, but gleeful about his own unchanged existence.

"Many generations later, he still felt smug--until the day one of his stone fingers cracked and fell to the earth. This cannot be, he cried to the gods. I am stone. I must stay the same. The gods laughed and pointed at the mountains surrounding the boy. They too are stone, they told him. But once they were higher and steeper, and full of sharp, jagged edges. Time alters all, boy, not just flesh. Then change me back, the child requested. If I am to change, let me do it with the swiftness of mortal flesh. The gods ignored him, and it took many generations of crumbling before the boy found peace with his ancestors."

"Speaking of the gods, I think they had a bit of folly putting your soul in a gaijin body," Kuroda said admiringly.

"Trust me, the gods were rolling in the aisles by the time they got through creating me," Jim replied dryly. "In fact, I suspect that every so often they still look to me for their amusement. I mean, they must be laughing their asses off just about now."

"Warriors are often tested."

"Is this what this is for you? A test?"

Kuroda sighed. "No. I've already failed that."

Jim straightened in the chair, not liking the sound of that. He truly and deeply hated suicidal nutcases. Shit. What was he supposed to say now? Sandburg was the psych minor, not him. "Are you sure? That you failed the test? Maybe the failure itself is part of the test," he babbled helplessly. He glared at McCain who apparently now had nothing to say. Jerk. He couldn't remember if he'd voted for him or not, but he knew whose name to avoid in the next election.

"Hmm. I never thought about it that way, Detective. Perhaps you have a point."

Jim blinked at Kuroda. Damn. He had bought that line of b.s.? Score one for living with Sandburg. The man kept him constantly on his mental toes.

"Flight 919. This is Federal Agent Sarah Jefferson. Please respond."

The female voice startled both of them, and Jim hoped Kuroda didn't notice that he, too, could hear the radio.

Apparently not, because Kuroda just grinned and swiveled the microphone into place. "Well, gentlemen, sounds like it's show time!"

~CHAPTER FIVE~

Cascade International Airport

Sarah flashed her badge at one of the airport's security officers and asked to be escorted to the control tower. As she marched beside him, her sensible heels clicking as they crossed the tiled floor, she went over proper procedure in her mind. Altitude aside, this was a basic hostage situation, something she'd studied extensively at the Academy because one of her instructors thought her voice had a "motherly" pitch. Guess that was about as close to being a mother as she was going to get. Not that she was too old. There had been a seventy-something woman in The Enquirer, right? No, what she was missing was a husband. Not for his sperm, of course; she could get that anywhere. But what she needed was someone who would raise the kid because there was no way in hell she could picture herself as a housewife, just as she couldn't picture herself leaving a helpless infant in the care of a nanny. Not after all the reports she'd fielded about babysitters and day care centers.

She wondered about Simon's wife. There had to be one because she'd read about his son being one of the people being held when the police station was taken over. God, he must have been frantic when that happened. And his wife probably gave him a good cussing out when he got home. Putting her baby in danger. The nerve of the man!

"Right in here, Agent."

She nodded to the security officer and stepped inside the busy air traffic control tower. One of the occupants hurried toward her. Two others, one in a suit and the other in a very loud, floral shirt, stayed back, but stared. She wondered if they could be the officers Simon had mentioned.

"Agent Jefferson?" the approaching man asked. She nodded. "Lee Forrester, tower supervisor."

She shook the offered hand, already liking Forrester. Some men didn't know whether to extend a hand to a woman or not. "What do we have so far?" she asked, and he led her to the banks of machinery that ringed the room.

"Flight 919 is not responding to calls and is currently off-course. The good news is that we have it on radar."

"Erratically off-course?"

"No, she's flying steady, so it's a definite course change."

"Any idea of the destination?"

"Too many points along that heading."

"What about the transponder? Have the pilots signaled a 7500?" All pilots knew that setting their transponder to 7500 or radioing "Squawk seven-five-zero-zero" meant a hijacking.

"No, ma'am. We still don't have a confirmation that it's been hijacked."

"But in your expert opinion?"

Forrester ran his fingers through his thinning blond hair. "If it was just that the pilots weren't answering, I'd say there could be a radio malfunction. But with the heading change…." He shook his head.

She pursed her lips, and made a decision. "Okay. From this point on, we will all operate under the assumption that this is indeed a hijacking." She looked at the two men standing quietly in the background. "You the gentlemen Captain Banks sent?" They nodded. "Here's what I need: information on how much fuel was loaded onto the plane and how soon will it run out; a confirmed passenger list; and embarkation points for Ishimaru and Owaga."

Flowered-Shirt answered. "We're on it, ma'am."

As they left, she turned toward Forrester. "I want to try my hand at making contact. This could be a power play, waiting until someone with authority makes the call." She looked around the busy room. "Is there somewhere we could get some privacy for this?"

"Yes, ma'am. I can transfer all connections to 919 to my office."

Sarah followed him into a smaller version of the room they'd just left. He typed commands into a computer, then motioned her into a seat. "Just press here and talk, ma'am," Forrester instructed.

She ignored the tremble in her hand as she obeyed him. "Flight 919. This is Federal Agent Sarah Jefferson. Please respond."

"Federal Agent Sarah Jefferson, this is Flight 919."

"With whom am I speaking?"

"Benjamin Kuroda."

She looked at Forrester and he shook his head. Quickly, he handed her a clipboard, the names of the pilots circled. "May I speak to Captain Pierce or Captain Randall?"

"No."

"Then may I assume you have taken command of the airplane?"

"A reasonable assumption, Agent."

"Mr. Kuroda, I'm legally bound to advise you that your actions are in violation of U.S. Federal Law--"

"Yes, yes. I've already been informed of your definition of a terrorist and I confess--I am one."

"Informed?"

"I have a walking, talking conscience right here beside me, Agent Jefferson. I assure you, he's doing an excellent job. Might have done some good if he'd been around earlier. But now it's too late."

"Too late for what, Mr. Kuroda?"

"Never mind. By the way, I am a political terrorist. Wouldn't want you running around trying to find some obscure religious cult in my background. I'm Baptist by birth and agnostic by reality."

Sarah rubbed a thumb across her forehead. "Is there some political faction that you represent, Mr. Kuroda, or are you freelancing?"

"In other words, 'what is my agenda?'"

"If that's the way you'd like it phrased."

"You know what the biggest problem is in most relationships, Agent? Lack of communication."

"There is someone you'd like to communicate with?"

"Yes, the American people."

"And what would you like to say to them?"

"That some things are priceless. Of course, there are other things that can be bought for a song, or a vote."

"I'm sure there is a clue in that, Mr. Kuroda, but if you could be clearer?"

"She wants to know who we are. Any suggestions, gentlemen?" Kuroda's voice sounded distant, as if he'd turned away from the microphone. Other indistinct voices sounded then laughter. "My conscience says we should be called the 'Price Is Not Right' gang. The American media should like that one. Please give my apologies to Bob Barker."

"When you say 'we', Mr. Kuroda, to whom are you referring?"

"The whole gang, of course."

"May I have their names? They, too, may have something they want to communicate." Thanks to the Major Crime report, she had two other names. Could there be more?

"No. They just came along for the thrill of playing with weapons."

"Weapons?"

"You don't think the pilots gave up the aircraft just because we asked, do you?"

"Has anyone been injured, Mr. Kuroda?"

A long silence.

"Depends on your definition of injured. Well, actually, my conscience counts, doesn't he?"

"Has anyone been harmed?" Sarah corrected. Another long, tense period of silence.

"I have a special guest who'd like to say hello to you. Senator?"

Sarah recognized the subtle raising of stakes. This Kuroda wasn't a fool. Nor did he sound like an indoctrinated pimply-faced kid brainwashed by some obscure faction. What the hell was this?

Act surprised, Sarah. "You have a senator with you?"

"Say hello, Senator McCain."

"He--hello, Agent Jefferson."

"Are you all right, Senator?"

"I'm uninjured. However--"

Transmission was cut abruptly.

"Senator McCain? Flight 919? Mr. Kuroda, please come in," she requested urgently.

Static, then, "Sorry about that, Agent. Just a glitch in the system, I suppose," Kuroda said.

"Then may I continue speaking to the senator?"

"No. The senator is taking a--time-out. And I think we all need one. We can speak again in twenty minutes. Flight 919 out."

"No. Mr. Kuroda--" The radio went silent.

Sarah's eyes darted to the radar console. The blip remained steady. With a sigh, she pulled out her cell phone. Perfectly manicured nails tapped as she waited for the voice she dreaded hearing.

"Richards."

"Sir, I have confirmation."

*****

Simon parked in the "Police Only" space in front of the airport terminal. "Well, I'm thinking about taking him with me to that conference in South America," he said to Joel, continuing their conversation as they got out of the car. "I think we need to get out of Cascade, find some common ground. The divorce has been hard on Daryl. Now, not only is he the son of a police captain, but he has the stigma of having divorced parents. The boy's got a lot to carry on those thin shoulders."

"That sounds like a good idea, Simon. I didn't have the opportunity to visit another country until it was on Uncle Sam's tab."

"And he even provided you with a useful trade."

"Yeah. Never thought I'd be defusing bombs 'cause I wanted to. And I'm starting to think the 'wanting to' part is wearing thin."

"Major Crime, my friend. Anytime you're ready."

"I'll keep that in mind." Joel squinted across the street. The sun was nearly blinding. But sunglasses weren't something you just kept with you in Cascade. "Isn't that the news guy who was all over that serial killer case a few months ago?"

"Don Haas." Simon scanned the curb and saw the familiar KCDE logo on the side of a car, not a van. Good. Whatever had brought Haas out wasn't worthy of a live report. Still…. "Let's hope he doesn't recognize us."

"Too late."

With a muttered curse, Simon tugged on the bottom of his vest and glanced down to see if his tie was straight as the reporter and his cameraman came toward them.

"Captain Banks, can you tell us the current status of Flight 919?"

Simon froze. How the--? Damn, the last time Haas showed up he was being fed information by the suspect. That couldn't happen twice, could it? "Haas, if you don't want your own arrest on film, I suggest you tell your man there to take a break."

Haas nodded to the cameraman, then turned to face Simon. "No need for the threats, Captain."

"What the hell do you know about Flight 919?" Simon demanded.

Haas looked taken aback his vehemence. "C'mon, Captain, you know how much I respect your unit," he began.

"The question wasn't a rhetorical one, Haas."

"Just that air traffic control has lost communication with it."

"And how do you know that?"

"You know I can't reveal my sour--" Haas put up a trembling hand as Simon advanced on him. "A ham operator picked up the calls to the plane."

Simon sighed. Fate was just not going to give them a break today. "How widely known is this?"

"I don't know. A sister affiliate in Montana called it in. For all I know, the network could have been informed as well." Haas adjusted his tie nervously. "You and I both know that this can't be kept under wraps for very long, Captain. All I'm asking for is honest information to help squelch the rumors that will inevitably be started. We don't want the public misled."

"And your ratings don't have a thing to do with this," Simon said dryly.

"Quid pro quo, Captain Banks. I can act as a buffer between you and the rest of the hounds when they come sniffing around."

"I'd love to make a deal with you, Haas, but it's not my show."

"Federal? I understand, but you could put in a good word for me, couldn't you?"

Simon shrugged. Knowing Ellison and Sandburg's penchant for "big" events, it was almost guaranteed this was going to have the networks circling like blood-lusting sharks. Maybe a shark of their own wasn't a bad idea. "Why don't you hang around for a while, and I'll see what I can arrange."

"You wouldn't just be humoring me, would you?" Haas asked suspiciously.

"No, I'm not. And I'll expect you to hold up your end of the bargain. You'll run interference?"

"My word, Captain."

"Think that was smart?" Joel asked as he and Simon walked away. Haas was chatting animatedly into his cell phone.

"It buys us time, Joel." Simon moved toward one of the security guards and flashed his badge.

"You going to the tower, sir?" Simon nodded. "I just escorted a federal agent there," the guard said. "Is there something my supervisor should know about?"

"I'm sure Agent Jefferson will be contacting your office shortly. At the moment, I'd appreciate it if you would keep on alert for the press. Keep them outside as much as possible. Except for that man and his people over there." He pointed to Haas.

"This is something big, huh?" the young guard said as he led them toward an escalator.

"Yeah, son. Something big."

Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

"What about the object, Major?"

Major Barry Soren stood at rest before Colonel Wentworth's desk. "Retrieval was successful, sir. The object is currently en route."

"ETA?"

"Approximately 1700 hours, sir."

"Approximately?"

"It's being delivered by civilian air, sir."

"Goddamn budget cuts! How are we supposed to get our work done when everyone's scared to death that if they go over budget their base is going to close?"

"I don't know, sir."

"I hate politicians."

"Yes, sir."

"Is the lab ready?"

"Yes, sir."

"Inform me when it arrives."

"Yes, sir." When the colonel didn't make another comment, Soren took that as a dismissal and left the office.

"Here."

Soren looked gratefully at the steaming mug held by his officemate, Captain Lola Fairchild. "Thanks."

"Figured you needed it after all those 'yes, sir's. He always asks for you when he needs them."

"That's because he knows he won't get them from you. Why did I get to be the resident ass-kisser?"

"Because you want general stars, and I just want my pension. So what's he pouting about today?"

"His new toy hasn't arrived yet."

"Another Arctic special?" Soren nodded. Fairchild shivered. "Some things should be left alone."

"It's his life's work. He's never going to leave it alone."

Fairchild nodded and sat down in front of her computer. "He's obsessed. That's dangerous in its own right. But I'm afraid the object of his obsession will prove to be even more dangerous."

Soren wanted to scoff at her fears, except they were also his. "So far it's been contained."

"But what happens if--?"

"Let's just worry about that when it happens."

The captain rolled her eyes.

Soren sighed. "It's going to be a long day, isn't it?"

Fairchild grinned impishly. "Yes, sir."

~CHAPTER SIX~

Flight 919

"That was uncalled for."

Kuroda frowned. "You talking to me or him?" He tapped the groaning man kneeling at his feet for emphasis. McCain flinched as the gun made contact with his head again.

"Both of you," Jim said, frustrated by his inability to do anything. He'd watched Kuroda urge McCain toward the mike, stretching out one of the ear cups so that the senator could hear the agent. Then he'd watched the gun come up and strike the senator. And all he could do was sit there and bitch like a harried housewife. "If you were afraid he was going to say something you didn't want him to say, you shouldn't have let him speak. And you, Senator, could have at least pretended to have a brain in your head and spoken for a while with the agent before spilling whatever you were going to spill."

"Sorry I'm not living up to your expectations, Detective," Kuroda said, and he actually sounded like he meant it.

"I don't have any expectations. I just think that if you have people where you want them, it's stupid to rock the boat. You were talking to a federal agent. She was probably willing to give you your fifteen minutes of fame or whatever the hell you want. You didn't have to hit the senator. Now she's going to be wondering if negotiating with you is worth it."

"What other alternative does she have?" Kuroda asked curiously.

"They can blow us the hell up and blame you."

Kuroda looked at him wide-eyed. "Your government wouldn't do something like that."

Jim laughed. "You're talking to someone who worked for the bastards."

"Hmm. Maybe I was a bit too-- Should I call and apologize?"

Jim was beginning to wonder if he'd stumbled through a looking glass or something; this was becoming way too bizarre. Where was Sandburg when you needed him as a tour guide through his world? His hearing went out automatically, seeking his partner, but the hum of the plane was too overpowering. "An apology would be a nice touch, but first you need to know what you want. You're not an idiot, Kuroda, nor are you as insane as you'd like us all to believe."

"I hit the senator."

"And I'm still trying to figure out why."

"Because he's annoying and I'm short on patience these days."

"Why?"

"Because--" Kuroda stopped and stared at Jim admiringly. "You really are good. But it's too early in our relationship for such secrets. Ashimori, help the senator to his feet."

Jim studied the other Asian. Another part of the puzzle he wasn't getting. Where did the other three men fit into the scenario? He'd studied them as Kuroda ranted back in the economy cabin. They hadn't reacted one way or another. PRICE wasn't their motivation. What was? Why were they allowing Kuroda to lead them into whatever this was?

You know what it is, Ellison. Murder.

Okay, there was that, and that, as Sandburg might say, was a biggie. You didn't just kill four people--five, counting Bauer--and expect to walk away from it. And while he could buy Kuroda might be on a suicide kick, it didn't track that he just happened to find three other people with the same intention. He also didn't believe that bull about them just coming along to play with guns. The entire operation was too detailed for any one of them not to be fully committed to whatever the end goal was.

"Patience or not, this is not the place for a fight." Jim looked at the panels of buttons and levers and lights crammed in front, beside, and above him. "Whatever your intentions are, I'm sure they don't include crashing before you deliver your message."

"It really is quite crowded in here, isn't it? Ashimori, you and the senator have a seat out with the flight crew."

"What about him?" Ashimori asked, waving his gun in Jim's direction.

"If the plane makes any sudden heading change, shoot the senator. That's enough incentive to keep you from doing something foolish, isn't it, Detective?"

"You might be overestimating my regard for the senator."

"But not your regard for the public you've sworn to protect. The problem with honor is that it provides your enemies with hostages against you."

"Advantages and disadvantages. The Way is about balance." How fucking long was he going to have to spout this stuff? His leg hurt, he was getting claustrophobic, and he had no idea what was happening with Sandburg.

Patience, Grasshopper.

He gave a silent, frustrated groan, and focused on the game he had to continue to play.

*****

"So is this, like, a regular gig for you?" Blair asked the Asian he was standing beside at the back of the plane. Some of the women needed to use the rest rooms and felt better with him standing guard. As if he could do something to stop the large man next to him.

"Hijacking's usually a one-time appearance," the man replied.

"So why are you doing it?"

"You heard the boss. We're protesting PRICE."

"I don't think so," Blair mused aloud.

The man shrugged. "Don't sweat it, Little Professor. Nothing major is gonna happen. The boss is gonna have his say, then we'll land and that'll be it."

Blair stared at him unblinkingly. "Your story would be more believable if I hadn't been sitting next to the man you blew away."

"A con. I'm sure no one on the ground is shedding a tear over the loss."

"The courts won't care who the victim was." A snort interrupted the statement. "Well, they're not supposed to care. And it doesn't matter that you're not the one who pulled the trigger, you know. The felony murder rule says that if you're part of a felony and someone gets killed, you're just as responsible as the person who did the actual killing. Well, that's the state law, anyway. Considering hijacking is a federal crime, there's a possibility that there's an even stronger law, and--"

"You sure you want to be leading me down this particular path, Little Professor?"

Blair considered what he'd been rambling on about, and concluded he was giving the guy ample enough reason to slaughter every person on the plane--after all, you could only be executed once. He really needed to work on his negotiation skills. "My roommate says that my mouth gets ahead of my brain on occasion. So why do you sound more American than I do?"

"Southern California born and bred."

"Your Japanese is impressive."

"Spoke it at home. My mother never learned English."

"That had to be rough on her. Very isolating."

"Dad liked it like that. Liked the fact that she died in an E.R. surrounded by people she couldn't understand."

Blair paled. Insert foot #2, Sandburg. "I'm sorry, man. How old were you when all this was happening?"

"Fourteen. My grandparents came and took me to live with them in Japan. I came back here when I was eighteen and went to USC. Mathematics major."

"And now you're a--" Blair paused, not sure if he could come up with a polite term.

"A terrorist," the man said with a grin. "'Look, Ma! I'm on top of the world!'"

Blair flinched, startled by the Cagney quote. Wasn't the character killed right after that in the movie?

"Don't worry. It's all good, Little Professor," the man said soothingly.

For some reason, Blair didn't believe him.

Cascade International Airport

Simon and Joel stepped into the air traffic control tower, badges in hand. One of the men in the room looked up and pointed them toward an office near the back.

"What's your ETA?" Sarah was saying into a phone as they entered. "Good. I need an analysis as soon as possible." She hung up the phone and faced them. "Captain Banks, it's good to see you."

Simon shook her hand, rolling his eyes at her formality. Sarah was--still Sarah: a stickler for protocol, and beautiful. "Nice to see you as well, Agent Jefferson. This is Captain Joel Taggert, head of the Cascade Bomb Unit."

She stiffened. "Something else I should know?"

"No, he's just here as support staff. He knows the two men aboard. Any updates on the situation?"

"I just finished talking to one of the hijackers."

"Ishimaru or Ogawa?"

"Kuroda."

Simon bit back a curse. "So there are at least three of them."

Sarah nodded. "I have a negotiation team on the way, the FAA is en route, and your men are out gathering information for me. Thank you for that."

Simon graciously inclined his head. "You're going to have to go public with this quicker than I suspect you expected. Apparently some of the calls to the plane have been picked up by ham operators."

"Mr. Forrester, did you hear that?"

The other person in the office nodded. "I'm switching frequencies now, Agent."

Sarah turned back to Simon. "You want to assist with the press debriefing? Your town; you know the players better than I do."

"Just give me the word."

"I'm setting up a conference call now with the airport managers in Anchorage and Chicago. Give them a five minute start on their end, then go public."

The door opened and Brown and Rafe entered.

"Captains," Rafe acknowledged. "Agent Jefferson, here's the information you requested. Ishimaru and Ogawa got on here in Cascade."

"Do you remember seeing the name Kuroda?"

"No, ma'am," Brown said, grabbing the list from his partner. He scanned it and shook his head. "Either he got on in Alaska or he's traveling under an alias."

"According to your men aboard, Ishimaru and Ogawa are armed. I want to know how they got weapons."

"Yes, ma'am."

Brown and Rafe jogged out of the room, almost bumping into a man entering.

"Aaron Hurst, Airport Manager," he said, looking around curiously, not knowing who was in charge.

"Jefferson with the Bureau, Mr. Hurst," Sarah said, stretching out her hand. "These are Captains Banks and Taggert with the Cascade Police Department."

"Ah, Captain Banks, glad to meet you in person."

Simon shook the hand of the man he'd spoken to on the phone. "Sorry to spring something so big on you without definite proof."

"Well, I've learned my lesson, sir. The next time I get a call from Major Crime, I'm going to act first, and react later."

"Hopefully there won't be a next time, Mr. Hurst."

They both turned their attention back to Sarah who waited impatiently.

"Have you managed to contact the other two airports?" she asked.

While she discussed the situation with Hurst, Simon edged over to Joel. "Do me a favor and go tell Haas if he wants the biggest scoop of his life, he needs to be prepared to go live as soon as possible."

"Got it."

Simon leaned back against the wall, listening to the conference call between the three airports and watching the first woman he'd ever loved. And he meant that in every sense. He'd waited until college to have sex, his father having warned him over and over again about getting trapped with an unwanted pregnancy. That would have destroyed any chances of going to college and getting out of Rossburg. Not that it was such a bad town. He'd liked working in the hotel. But it was Rossburg, for Pete's sake, and he knew he could do better. He laughed, wondering what his fellow campus radical, Peggy Anderson, would say if she knew that much of his protesting nature was due to sexual frustration. Only Sarah's being on the pill and her matching or even greater desire not to get pregnant allowed him to explore intimacy with her--and even then, he never went without a condom. Hell, it took him six months to stop using them after he was married. Then he'd gone back to using them because Joan said Daryl was going to be it--she wasn't "birthin' no mo' babies!" He hadn't minded. He had a beautiful son, a challenging career on the upswing, and a house in the suburbs.

And less than fifteen years later, it was all gone.

No, not all. He still had Daryl and despite the problems the divorce had caused, he was sure he could get through to his son and regain the friendship they'd had prior to his moving out. He still had his career, which was getting more and more challenging thanks to a certain pair. And he still had his memories--of Joan and Sarah. God, had he really been that young? And had he really sported an Afro?

He grinned at the image and concentrated on the meeting being held before him. A little under three hours of fuel left. Motive still largely unknown. Destination unclear. Number of terrorists at three or better. He raised his brow at the next: a possibly injured senator. Oh yeah. Definitely time to take a vacation with his boy. Ellison and Sandburg could do their damnedest and he and Daryl would be out of harm's way in South America. Now that was a plan.

"Thank you, gentlemen. There are already agents en route to your facilities to assist you in dealing with the public and the press. We will attempt to keep the manifest contained until all family members are contacted, but to be honest, with an event this size, keeping anything under wraps is going to be difficult. If something comes up, please don't hesitate to call."

The connections were broken and Hurst left to prepare his facility for an onslaught.

"So you have no idea what these people are after?" Simon asked as Sarah scribbled something down.

"Just that their motive is political and some cryptic saying about 'my conscience says we should be called the "Price Is Not Right" gang.' I'm not sure about Kuroda's sanity. He seems disassociated with his conscience."

"The 'Price Is Not Right' gang?" Simon frowned.

"Yes. Why? Does that mean anything to you? I played the tape for the negotiation team, but they haven't gotten back to me yet. It's going to take them about forty-five minutes to get here from the main office in Spokane. Our Seattle office is more of a satellite facility. Just me and a couple of others."

Simon smiled. "You're enough."

"Thanks, I think. So, you getting anything from Kuroda's remark?"

"Isn't there an agreement or treaty or something that the government's thinking about passing called PRICE?"

Sarah muttered a word that working agents shouldn't say on the job. "And they wonder why we're the butt of so many 'how many agents does it take to screw in a light bulb' jokes." She stabbed numbers into her cell phone and Simon backed off, allowing her to lambaste her fellow agents in private.

"Is that the plane?" he asked the man who was sitting in front of the radar screen.

"Yes, sir. Lee Forrester, tower supervisor." He held out his hand.

"Captain Banks, as you've probably already heard. She still flying steady?"

"Too steady. The autopilot must be engaged."

"You think the pilots have been incapacitated?"

"Probably. The guy wouldn't let Agent Jefferson speak to either of the pilots."

"But they'll need the pilots to land, right?"

"Unless the hijackers are pilots."

"Captain Banks, ready to go tackle the press with me?"

Simon gave Sarah a grim smile. "Ready as I'll ever be." They walked out into the hallway. "Any idea of how many hijackers we're talking about?"

"We're going over all the manifests, looking for Japanese-sounding names."

"Racial profiling?" Simon asked distastefully.

"Look, I know how awful that sounds, but we're pushed for time here. We need to know who we're dealing with so that this situation can be resolved and ninety-eight people can walk off that plane under their own steam. Three of the known hijackers have Japanese names. They are protesting a measure that affects Japanese economy. It's not that much of a stretch to assume that their co-conspirators are also Japanese."

"Fine. But I suggest you leave that out of your press conference."

Sarah stopped and put a restraining hold on his arm. "Do I look stupid to you? If you have such little confidence in me, then why did you involve me in the first place?"

"On the contrary, I have enormous faith in you, Sarah. I was just pointing out that we all have to watch what we say," Simon explained.

"I'm not a rookie. I've been on this job just as long as you've been on yours."

But you're carrying a much bigger chip on your shoulder. "Sarah--"

"Agent Jefferson."

"Still as pig-headed as ever," Simon muttered. "You never did know the difference between condescension and support."

"Support or extra weight?"

"Support. I've learned to graciously accept help, Sarah. You need to learn the same."

"If you owe what you have to someone else, then you have nothing," she argued as they continued to walk.

He shook his head. "That crap might have sounded good in the seventies and the eighties, but it's old now, and still just as untrue. Why do you think I'm here? Why do you think Joel Taggert and the others are here? Because two of us, of our people--a group so diverse that we could be poster models for those rainbow families; hell, we've become a rainbow family--are in trouble and need our support."

"And you actually believe if it was you up there, they'd be here for you too?"

"I don't just believe it--I know it, Sarah."

"Please don't ell me you've been visiting some New Age guru."

"Actually, I think the term used was neo-hippie witchdoctor," Simon said with a fond smile. "Now we just call him the police observer."

She dramatically looked all the way to the top of his head. "I knew the air would eventually thin up there, Simon. A little bit of oxygen should--"

"Agent Jefferson!"

She turned around to see Forrester racing down the hall. "What's happening?"

"Kuroda's back on the radio, asking for you."

"Damn it!" She gazed up at Simon. "About that support?"

"Go. I'll handle the press release," he said grudgingly.

Sarah handed him the sheaf of papers in her hand and hurried away with Forrester at her side.

"Simon," Joel called when he saw his friend approaching. "Where's Agent Jefferson?"

"Kuroda called back. Guess I'm going to be handling the report." He held up the papers in his hand as evidence.

"Better let me straighten that tie if that's the case. Can't have you going national looking like a bum."

"National?"

"By the time I got back down here, Haas had already requested the live-report van and contacted the network. You're going live across the country, my man."

"I should have known. It's all their fault."

"Of course it is, Simon. Jim and Blair live to make your life miserable." Joel patted the tie in place.

"Just wait until I get them both on the ground," Simon muttered.

"Yeah, you can deck them. After I get my hugs in, okay?"

Simon grinned sheepishly at his friend. "Yeah, I hear you, Joel."

"Captain Banks, are you doing the honors?" Haas asked. "Good, good. You have a nice television persona. Dickie, get him miked up."

As Dickie, the tech, pinned a microphone to his lapel, Simon sighed and knew that he'd do this and more if it meant helping Jim and Blair. Family, he'd called them.

Family.

~CHAPTER SEVEN~

Elmendorf Air Force Base

"This is Geoffrey Hume-Graham. FBN has just received word of late-breaking news from Cascade, Washington. Western Air Flight 919, which originated in Anchorage, Alaska, made a stop in Cascade, and was supposed to proceed to Chicago, has been hijacked. Don Haas, a reporter at our local affiliate, KCDE, is reporting live from Cascade International Airport. Don, what can you tell us?"

Airman Marcus Williams sat open-mouthed, staring at the television in the base cafeteria. No, that wasn't--that couldn't be--oh, God.

"You breathin' over there, Williams?" one of his friends asked. "What's the matter, bro? You know someone on that plane?"

Williams shook his head. No, he didn't know anyone on the plane, but he knew what was on it, and he was pretty sure his superiors weren't going to be happy when they found out about the hijacking. And guess who had the joy of telling them. "Sometimes it doesn't pay to get up in the mornings," he mumbled, wrapping up the sandwich he'd just opened.

"I bet them poor bastards never thought they'd get hijacked."

"Yeah, I feel for them too. See you later, Mac."

"You didn't eat."

Williams shrugged. "Suddenly I'm not hungry anymore."

"You okay, man? There's sweat on your forehead and we're in the middle of Alaska."

"Gotta go see my C.O. Then maybe I'll check in at the infirmary."

"Hope it's nothin' catchin'."

"Me too," Williams muttered as he left the cafeteria. Hopefully, it was nothing catching. But then he didn't know what it was.

No one did.

Flight 919

"Do you believe in life after death?"

Blair was startled by the question and it took him a few seconds to respond . And then he didn't have an answer. "You mean, like, heaven and hell?"

Agnes shrugged. "I'm no religious scholar, but there are other forms, right? Reincarnation, Valhalla, Casper the Friendly Ghost…. Do you believe?"

Blair's eyes widened. "I have no idea. Really. Being an anthropologist, I've studied religion extensively. I mean, if you want to get to know a people, start off with their god, right? But I don't think I've ever sat down and decided for myself what my beliefs are concerning death. Which is strange, considering the kind of year I've had." He rested his chin on the back of his seat. It seemed like he'd spent ninety-nine percent of this trip riding backward. Good thing the pilots were skilled at avoiding turbulence. "Um, I know I have a problem with the concept of hell."

"You don't believe in punishment for sins?"

"It's the definition of sin that bugs me. How can murder and lying carry the same weight? How can having sex before you're married be as bad as, say, cheating on the person you're married to? Then there's the whole forgiveness thing where every sin can be 'cleansed' equally. It just seems to me that gaining forgiveness for kidnapping a person, drugging him against his will, and drowning him in a duck pond should be a lot harder than gaining forgiveness for a parking ticket." April stared at him. "What?"

"For some reason, I thought you'd be more liberal."

He flushed. What the hell was going on? He was more liberal, wasn't he? He was against the death penalty, believed in rehabilitation, believed in giving former convicts a chance after their imprisonment. In fact, up until the past year, he'd had misgivings about the use of prisons at all. How could any good come from locking someone up with others who were just as bad or worse? Then he'd started working with Jim and he'd realized that some people needed to be locked away to protect the public, that some had to…die. He'd tried to be angry that Jim had killed Lash--after he'd gotten over the joy and relief that Jim had done so. Lash was a prime example of a victim of society. His mother had abused him. His father had hated him. And no one had saved him from their "tender care." Not their neighbors. Not his teachers. Not the state. If he was twisted, he was made that way, and Blair knew if the case had been just something he'd read about in the Cascade Times, he would have been muttering about excessive force and trigger-happy cops.

But it hadn't been just a story he'd read in the newspaper. And he knew that Jim neither used excessive force nor was a trigger-happy cop. Jim had killed Lash because there had been no other answer, no other resolution to a problem that was so old that it couldn't be stopped any other way. Society had failed Lash long before he and Jim entered the picture. All Jim could do was add the final coda. And if Blair was honest with himself, he would admit to hoping that there was a hell--and that Lash was burning there for eternity. Shit. Naomi would have puppies if she knew what he was thinking.

Oh, Mom, I really don't think you want to read my aura these days.

"I know what I thought I believed in. I thought I believed that there were no bad people, only bad choices; that our court system was barbaric; and that the police were just one step above SS troops. But if one year of seeing from a different viewpoint has made me change my mind on all that, then I never really believed at all, did I? Because belief--faith--is much stronger than that. So, I can't answer your question on whether I believe in life after death, because I can't be trusted to know what I believe in."

Agnes smiled. "Do you always tie yourself up in knots like this over simple questions?"

"It's not a simple question."

"Yes, it is, Blair. Do you believe in life after death? Yes or no?" she ordered.

"Yes." He closed his eyes and realized the answer sat well in his soul. "But I'd rather not find out if I'm right or wrong anytime soon," he added with a limp smile.

April nodded. "I thought I was ready to die. I'm an old lady. My husband has gone on. I thought--" She grasped her sister's hand. "I don't want to die, Agnes. I've seen what happens with plane crashes. I've seen the reporters flock in and the people combing the area for bodies with luggage spread out everywhere. They find some kind of hangar or something and lay all the bodies out in long rows. It's all very sad and I get mad at the reporters for showing stuff like that because I know those bodies have family members and they're watching it and--and that could be our family, Ags."

"Look, no one's going to die," Blair said quickly. "I was talking to the goon at the back of the plane and he seems to think it's only a matter of them getting to say what they want to say, and poof, we're on the ground and safe at home."

"You really believe that?" Agnes asked sternly.

"I believe that wherever Jim is, he's working on a plan to make that a reality."

"You have a lot of faith in him."

"I've watched him play hero too often not to have faith."

"And what does he have faith in?"

Hmm. Something else he didn't know about the man he'd been living with for nearly a year. Maybe they needed couple's counseling or something, he thought with a private grin. "Jim believes in his abilities." Well, some of them anyway. "And in his training. He was a U.S. Army Ranger before becoming a cop. He also believes in team cooperation. Before the takeover, we alerted our captain. So we know there's at least one person on the ground who's trying to get us to safety and doesn't care about the political ramifications. Actually, we know there's a whole group of people who are focused on making sure we all get out of this safely."

"You sound surprised by that," April commented.

Blair shrugged. "I've spent a lot of my life alone. It was always just Mom and me, and once I got older, mainly just me. I was raised not to get attached to things, to people. So before I became a police observer, I was what a sociologist friend of mine called a 'social loner.' I was surrounded by people, but I wasn't a part of them, I wasn't attached to them. Jim's just the opposite. Jim appears to be a loner, but he's attached. What happens to the people around him, his tribe if you want to call it that, matters very much to him. Now I'm part of that tribe, and it's daunting to find that even if I don't attach myself to the others, they've attached themselves to me. I've become part of something bigger, and sometimes I don't like it--and sometimes it feels so good that I could cry."

"I think you've always been a part of something bigger, young man, only you refused to see it," Agnes said. "You're too generous with your spirit to be the loner you claim to be."

Blair snorted uncomfortably. "What about you, Agnes? Do you believe in an afterlife?"

"Yes." She coughed. "Sorry, but I find the air terribly dry on planes."

Blair gave a quick nod. "I'll be right back."

The Asian smiled as he approached. Gee, Jim, seems like I have a buddy, too. "Hey, man, the recycled air is getting to people. Think it'll be okay to get one of the attendants to pass out water or soda?"

"The attendants are busy, Little Professor, but if you want to do it…." He waved his arm toward the galley.

Blair wondered what the attendants were busy doing as he discovered a fully loaded cart in the galley. Playing hostage as Kuroda made his demands? Maybe-- No. Surely Kuroda wouldn't let his men rape the women. He seemed--well, they all seemed--rather civilized to be extremists.

He filled the cooler on the bottom of the cart with ice and tried to push the cart. When it wouldn't move, he examined it and found the little brakes on the wheels. Cool. He rolled it out, offered a drink to his Asian, then went to serve the passengers.

All I need is Jim's apron, he thought with a grin. At first, he'd been surprised to see how comfortable the man had been in an apron, but after just a month of living with Jim, he realized Jim had very few gender issues. Women cops were just cops. Women crooks--after he'd dated them a time or two--were just crooks. Nope. Not a hint of gender-bias in Jim. Still, Blair was smart enough not to remark that Jim, dressed in an apron and yellow rubber gloves with a dish brush in his hands, reminded him of an old Playtex Living Gloves commercial.

In honor of that "retro-mercial" flashback, Blair couldn't help but ask the next passenger, "Coffee, tea, or--"

"A flick of your Bic?" the woman said with him, eliciting smiles all around them.

Tribe's doing okay, Jim. Hope you are, too.

*****

Jim absently rubbed his throbbing thigh, the constant pain keeping him from zoning as he watched the non-changing scenery out the flightdeck window. Except for an obscuring cloud or two, it was a monotonous view, but less monotonous than whatever Kuroda was currently spouting into the microphone. He didn't listen to the rhetoric because he knew that was all it was. There was something else going on that had nothing to do with PRICE, but he still hadn't identified it.

Wish you were up here with me, Chief. Bet you'd have him analyzed in five minutes.

Jim sighed. This was supposed to have been some downtime for the kid, a present of sorts for having put up with a stubborn sentinel and grouchy cop for a year. Blair had been a good partner and a decent roommate. Jim always laughed when people assumed he had trouble taking in a roommate. He could count on one hand the number of years he'd lived alone. After his family, there had been roommates in college, bunkmates in the Army, trailmates in the jungle, and finally, a wife. Living with someone else just wasn't a problem.

It's the tribal instinct in you.

Yeah, right, Sandburg.

Jim wasn't sure if he bought into the whole sentinel package that Blair was selling. The senses were a given, but all this tribal protector mumbo-jumbo seemed over the top. He happened to be a cop; protecting was part of the job description. He'd become a cop because it just made sense after being in the Army. He'd become a soldier because…because it'd pissed his dad off. Destiny, fate, whatever, had nothing to do with it. Just plain ol' teen rebellion. He could have just as easily gone to fashion design school or the Peace Corps. Anything to blow off the plans his father had for him. Going into business with the old man. Wasn't gonna happen.

How's that for tribal instincts, Chief? Abandoning the tribe because of "daddy" issues.

But you came back to the tribe eventually, Jim.

I came back because the Cascade P.D. offered me a job.

And to what other departments did you apply? Chicago, L.A., Portland?

Shut up, Sandburg.

Despite all the rational thinking processes, deep down man is still just an instinctive creature. Nature always wins.

Blow it out your ear.

"Detective?"

"Yes?"

"Just checking to make sure I hadn't lost you."

"Would it have mattered if you had? I'm not getting my role in this. I thought perhaps you were going to use me as a spokesperson, but you've talked to the Feds twice and I've only been mentioned as your 'conscience.' And it that's my role, then I don't understand why you're keeping me around. Do you want me to talk you out of this stupid plan? Or is this how you're punishing yourself for going through with this insane plot? You've decided to flog yourself and I'm the whip?"

"Would you like to talk during the news conference?"

What news conference? He filtered back through the words he'd heard but hadn't listened to. A handy technique he'd learned trying to keep up with Blair's actions. "I don't think you want the world to hear what I have to say," Jim replied, finally recalling a deal with the Fed to have CNN and the major networks broadcast Kuroda world-wide.

"Your choice, Detective."

"What am I to you, Kuroda? A good luck charm? A snub at the police? You have one of America's finest sitting beside you and he's not able to stop you. Are you getting off on the power play?"

"You'd be amazed at the many things you are to me, Detective. But foremost, you are my only regret."

"Regret? Why? Because you didn't shoot to kill? Nah. That can't be it because that can be resolved easily enough. How can I be a re--" Jim stopped as a possibility crept up along his spine until it hit brain tissue and exploded. "You son of a bitch! You have no intention of landing this plane, do you? What you are regretting is my death!"

Kuroda gave a small shrug. "Men like you should live a long time, Detective. You would have been a master of the Way. I see that in you."

"Why? If I'm going to die, I deserve to know why. And don't give me that PRICE shit. I want the truth," Jim demanded.

"The truth is that we are all dying, Detective, only some of us faster than others." Kuroda spread his hands expansively. "Welcome to my suicide."

Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

"I never understood that song, 'Whiter Shade Of Pale', until now," Captain Fairchild said, staring worriedly at Soren, who'd just hung up the extension on his desk. "What's wrong, Major? You look like you've been dipped in Clorox."

"The plane," he whispered. "It's been hijacked."

"Plane?" She tried to figure out what he was talking about. She couldn't remember him saying anything about someone coming for a visit. The only thing they'd discussed had been-- SHIT! "No, Major," she gasped. "Not the--"

He nodded. "I have to tell the Colonel."

He stood and she watched him forcibly lock his knees. This was bad. Soren was basically unflappable, which was why he'd been assigned to the moody Colonel Wentworth.

"But it's only a hijacking, right? I mean, they usually end peacefully, diplomatically," she babbled.

"Usually."

"And if that's the case, we have nothing to worry about, right? The package is safe if it remains undisturbed?" She didn't know much about the packages, other than every so often the colonel would communicate with Elmendorf, then something would arrive and be whisked into one of the Level 4 labs inside the Mountain. Her two superiors would leave the office for a couple of weeks and when they returned they would be excited and conference with each other all the time, while she answered the phone and kept the office up and running. Wentworth had a doctorate in Astrophysics and Soren had a doctorate in Chemistry. She had a Bachelor's in Military History--was it any wonder she'd never inquired too deeply about their project?

"Elmendorf made sure the package was secure. Especially since it was being transported via civilian service."

She frowned. He hadn't answered the question. "But what if it is disturbed? What happens if--"

"We hope that it's a really fiery explosion."

Fairchild gasped softly. "And if it isn't? I've never asked, sir, because I've never had any desire to ever know, but--"

"What's in the package?" She nodded. "No one knows. Each one has contained something different."

"But benign?"

"I have to tell the Colonel," Soren repeated.

"Major?"

Sad green eyes looked at her and she had her answer.

She watched him disappear into the colonel's office. With a shaking hand, she dialed the phone.

"Hi, Mom, it's me, Lola."

~CHAPTER EIGHT~

Cascade International Airport

Simon listened to the babble of voices and wondered if this was how the bullpen seemed to an outsider. While Sarah talked to Kuroda, the negotiation team had arrived and spread out equipment everywhere. Then the FAA rep, Roger Newkirk had come in and the tiny room had been about to explode with people. One of the Feds, a fellow who looked to be no more than twenty, had approached, looking as if he was going to ask the two captains to leave, but Simon had glared, Joel had smiled, and the Fed had turned around. Simon had looked at his friend and winked. Round one to the old guys.

After that, they had been ignored. Sarah had continued talking to the terrorist, conceding to his request for an international audience. Haas had been brought in by one of the Feds, and the reporter had nodded in their direction. Well, that was one reporter Major Crime wasn't going to have to worry about. They should be getting decent press from him and his station for years to come.

Kuroda had eventually signed off, ignoring Sarah's request that he continue talking to her while they set up the international broadcast. The terrorist had muttered something about losing his conscience and broken off the connection. Now the negotiation team was trying to figure out if Kuroda was sane, or if this manifestation of his conscience as a separate entity was proof that he was unstable. Simon sort of figured the hijacking itself was proof that Kuroda wasn't operating on all cylinders, but what did he know? He was just a cop.

"Do you think they know what they're doing?" Joel whispered.

"I think they know what they're doing but they have no idea why they're doing it," Simon whispered back. "It's all so--rote. Fill in Survey A. Match it with Characteristic Chart B. Analyze the data and voila, here's a profile of your hijacker. I don't like it. The people I know rarely fit into designated roles."

"Talking about the criminals or your co-workers?" Joel asked with a slight grin.

"Let them run Ellison or Sandburg through those tests," Simon challenged with a laugh. "I guarantee every one of those Feds would be tearing around the room plucking himself bald."

"Aw, c'mon, Simon. Are you saying Jim and Blair are abnormal?"

"Abnormal is an understatement, Joel, and you know it."

"But they work well together."

"Just adds to the abnormality in my opinion. Those two should not be partners. I know the whole 'opposites attract' theory, but that opposite? Except, of course, when it comes to trouble. Then, they're like Siamese twins."

"Conjoined."

"What?"

"Blair says the correct term is 'conjoined twins.' Siamese twins is not only a racial slur, but--"

"Joel, do you really want to watch me pluck myself bald?"

Joel grinned. "Maybe Agent Jefferson would like you bald."

"Let's not go there."

"Why not? She's still an attractive lady."

Simon nodded. "I knew she would be. Classic beauty always ages well."

"I bet you two made a striking couple."

"If you mean like in striking a match, I'd have to agree. I should have known we wouldn't make it for the long haul. Neither of us had an ounce of 'bend' in us. We were full of ourselves and as long as we were both full of the same thing, we were fine. But when we disagreed…. Maybe Jim and Blair have the right of things with their yin-yang approach."

"You seem to be working pretty well with her today."

"That's because we're working the same agenda."

"And you're both older and wiser?"

Simon snorted. "At least 'older'. Who knows, Joel? When this is all over maybe I'll buy her a cup of coffee. But for now, I just want Ellison and Sandburg safely on the ground."

"This sounds like the side of the room I should be on," Newkirk said as he joined them. "All I want is my plane on the ground and the terrorists in custody. I don't care if they're insane. I don't care if he fits some profile designed by some Feebie freak years ago--"

"You do know you're a Feebie yourself, being a federal employee," Simon pointed out to the slightly plump man tugging at his collar.

"Yeah, but I'm not one of those Feebs," he replied with a grin.

"What's the FAA's take on this?" Joel asked.

"The skies have been cleared. Wherever this baby's heading, she's got smooth sailing ahead. We're also relaying the radio transmission back to here. The guy's got a dialogue going with the agent; we don't want to screw with that. What really bothers me is that we haven't talked to either pilot."

"You think they've been hurt? That's Forrester's concern as well," Simon said.

Newkirk shrugged. "I guess we're especially concerned about our personnel like you're worried about yours. You have to have considered the possibility that the terrorists have discovered your men are on board."

Simon gave a grim nod. "It's more than just a possibility. Ellison was armed, so his occupation was noted on the passenger manifest. He was also escorting a handcuffed prisoner. If that wasn't a giveaway…."

"That didn't matter," Joel said quickly, hearing guilt in Simon's voice. "Jim himself is the real giveaway. He looks so--"

"Military," Simon agreed. "He was probably tagged from the beginning."

"What about your other man? There's two, right?" Newkirk asked, confusion coloring the questions.

"Nobody would ever peg Sandburg as a cop," Simon said confidently. "Curly hair past his shoulders. Lots of flannel."

"Your undercover man?"

Simon looked at Joel. "Something like that." No use in advertising that Sandburg wasn't actually a cop. Every cop present considered him to be one anyway.

"Either one of them have piloting skills?"

Simon started to shake his head, then stopped. He had no idea about what Blair knew how to do. "I don't know," he answered instead. "I'm hoping we don't have to find out."

"Captain Banks!"

Simon looked toward the direction of the hissed summons and saw his detectives standing beyond the open door currently blocked by a Federal agent. Territorial jerk. He gave a small grin as he walked to the door. The thought brought Jim to his mind. "What do you have?" he asked his men.

"How the guns were smuggled into the plane and who did it," Brown said bluntly.

"And you've told--?"

"No one. They won't let us in," Rafe replied, his eyes flicking disdainfully at the suited men and women in the room.

"Don't worry, man. You're still the best dressed," Brown told him soothingly.

"Not to mention better mannered," Rafe added.

Simon shook his head at their antics, knowing it was their way of keeping their tempers. They were just detectives; the agents were their superiors. But he was a captain. "Agent Jefferson!"

Sarah's head jerked up from the papers scattered in front of her. "Yes, Captain Banks?" Her annoyance was clearly evident.

"My men have information that you need to hear--if they have permission to enter the room?"

Sarah looked flustered, as if she hadn't been aware that her people had been acting as bouncers. "Of course. Come in, gentlemen. These are Detectives--" She glanced at Simon for assistance.

"Brown and Rafe," he supplied.

"Yes, they've been invaluable help to me. What do you have, gentlemen?"

Simon nodded as he listened to their report. One of men on the airport maintenance crew had a cousin who'd been killed by the Junos--a pair of twin assassins that the Major Crime Unit had put out of business. He'd told the detectives things he'd "forgotten" to tell the agents. Five minutes later, the room was almost empty as agents went to collect Kuroda's accomplice.

"I'm sorry that happened, Captain Banks," Sarah said softly as she approached Simon who'd taken up his customary place against the wall beside Joel.

"We know this is a federal operation, Agent Jefferson, but as you said, this is our town. Sometimes familiarity comes in handy."

"Too true. I promise you that your men will have complete access to command from now on, and that you and Captain Taggert won't be hassled about being in here."

Simon smiled. "Don't worry about me and Joel here. We have our own way of staying where we want to."

"Like a tree planted by the waters, huh, Simon?" Sarah questioned, with a smile of her own. "And if either of you gentlemen have a suggestion you'd like to make at any time, just speak up."

"Will do, Sarah." He watched her walk away.

"Sarah and Simon sitting in a tree," Joel sang softly, his eyes dancing.

Simon just rolled his eyes and snorted fondly.

Flight 919

"You're not a warrior, but a coward," Jim said, not trying to hide his disgust.

Kuroda flinched. "Why? Because I choose the time I die?"

"No, because you're choosing my time to die and everyone else's on this flight. You want to die? Fine. Give me back my weapon and I'll make your fondest wish come true."

Kuroda shook his head. "It's a matter of honor."

"You don't give a fuck about honor, Kuroda. You're just on some damn power trip and you're dragging along unwilling victims. Tell me, do your co-conspirators know about this? Or do they believe the political bullshit you've been preaching?" Jim didn't know whether he was more angry at Kuroda, or himself for being so shocked. He'd known from the beginning that this was what the man had planned. The murdered crew was a dead giveaway--and yes, damn it, the pun was intended! But the difference between suspecting what was going on and having it confirmed was like being doused with cold water--from the River Denial, no doubt.

"I am an economist. Ashimori is a ticket agent for BART--San Francisco's transit system. Ishimaru is a mathematician. Ogawa-- well, before he made a career out of being a mercenary--was a bailiff for Los Angeles County. A strange combination, yes?"

Jim shrugged. He lived with an Anthropology grad student, worked comfortably with his ex-wife, and some of his best friends were brown-skinned men who lived in the Amazonian jungle and carried spears. Then there were the friends who spent their days designing the downfalls of whole governments…. Hell, he certainly couldn't judge anyone by the company they kept. "So how did you meet?" he asked obediently.

"We have the same oncologist."

Shit. So that was the missing info he'd been seeking. "I take it you're all terminal?"

"Very. We were all referred to the same oncologist because we have a rare, aggressive strain of the disease, a form that has only appeared in second generation atomic bomb survivors. Our parents survived tumor free--and now we are paying the price."

"So fighting PRICE is a play on words. I understand you being angry. I would be too. The war, the bomb…you didn't have anything to do with either of them, yet you're dying because of both. And you want the U.S. to also have to pay a price too, right? A hundred of her people for a hundred of yours?"

"Rather poetic, don't you think? But, uh, we were too drunk at the time to be that witty, Detective. I think we were going for a romantic theme as opposed to one of righteous vengeance."

"Let me guess: you got together over a few drinks to drown your sorrows and came up with this lovely way of going out in a literal blaze of glory," Jim concluded sarcastically. "It's so wonderful that you bonded."

"This decision did not come easily."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better? I'm going to die because you and your buddies decided you want to play tragic Shakespearean heroes. You're dying; get over it already."

Kuroda raised the gun and aimed at a spot between Jim's eyes. "Why don't you get over it?"

"Go for it, cowboy," Jim snarled.

Black eyes engaged blue ones and held for a long minute. With a sigh, Kuroda lowered the gun. "How I wish you were not aboard this plane."

"That makes two of us," Jim muttered, his heart pounding in his chest. Getting yourself killed is not going to help anyone, big mouth. Apparently his instructor was right; diplomacy wasn't his strong suit. "Talk to me. Help me understand," he said with a calm that was completely pretend. He was running out of options. He had to get inside the man to access his weaknesses. He could do it--the Army had loved that about him, and had even loaned him to the CIA--but he didn't want to do it. Every time he got inside someone, it felt as if he left a chunk of his soul behind. That was why he'd said he couldn't do it anymore. His superiors had said, "Fine, we understand," then they'd sent him to Peru as punishment. They'd figured he'd get tired of mucking around in a sweltering jungle, and would beg to have his old job back. But the punishment had turned out to be far greater than they'd expected and instead of begging for his old job, he'd begged out of the service completely.

"You don't want to understand."

"Yes, I do, because I'm confused, and I hate that. You're an obviously intelligent man. What did you think this stunt was going to accomplish? That the Japanese people would remember you in reverence? That your name would live on after you?" God, the things men did just to avoid dying in anonymity.

"Is it so awful that I want to be remembered? I have no family left, no sons or daughters to carry on my name. I want to be more than just a line on a headstone."

"Most people donate money to a good cause; they don't kill a hundred people." Okay, some did, but they were supposed to be in the minority.

"'The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones….'"

"'So let it be with Caesar,'" Jim completed the quote, noting that Kuroda certainly liked to flaunt his education. He should have left money for a scholarship or something.

"So let it not be with Benjamin Kuroda. I am not Caesar. And now I don't have time to be. I know it's my fault that I have done nothing to leave my mark on this world. I could have amassed a fortune, left behind a scholarship or a building. But really, does anyone ever care or notice what name is on a scholarship or on some stupid plaque?"

Jim's mouth quirked as he realized Kuroda's thoughts were paralleling his own--or vice versa. That was the way the game was played. "Lewis H. Wicker--the name on the scholarship that got me through college."

Kuroda sighed. "You have no pity for me, do you?"

"None. You're dying; I'm sorry. You're going to be forgotten; so what? I have no children, no fortune, no family to speak of. If you crash this plane like you plan, I'm going to be forgotten. My fellow officers will hold a funeral or memorial and that'll be it. Does that bother me? No."

"You are a Warrior grounded in the Way. Your honor will serve as your memorial."

"And your dishonor will serve as yours. Call this off, Kuroda. Surrender and find someone who can land this thing, either one of your guys or maybe a passenger. You're all probably on strong medication. A good lawyer can make the time you have left tolerable. You've already had your fifteen minutes of fame. Let it go." Accept the out I'm giving you. I know you can see the logic in what I'm saying.

Kuroda gave a small smile. "You argue well, my Conscience. But it's too late. None of us know how to fly, and I promised the others that there would be no reneging. I gave my word, and at that time it meant something. Alea jacta est: The die is cast. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.'"

"Just because I mentioned Shakespeare doesn't mean we have to quote every play. Besides, a well-educated murderer is still a murderer," Jim said bitterly. Kuroda had pledged his honor to the others, and there was no time to dissuade his co-conspirators. The only way out of this now was through violence. Along with a hell of a lot of luck. "So what's the plan? You disengage the autopilot and put the plane into a nosedive? Or do we just run out of fuel and go splat?"

Kuroda grimaced at the imagery, then shrugged apologetically. "On our present course, our engines should go somewhere over Washington, D.C."

"How Hollywood of you, Cecil B. Worked out all the angles, didn't you? I suppose it's only fitting that good drama end spectacularly."

"We're just trying to make a point."

"No, you're just trying to make a headline."

"I've lost all your respect, haven't I?"

"Do the right thing, Kuroda. End this now while there's still time to save these people."

"I--I've pledged allegiance to my comrades. I can't just--" Kuroda focused on the bank of clouds swirling outside the windshield. "We were at a bar a block from the clinic. Ashimori said something about walking out in front of one of his transit buses would be less painful than the treatments--especially since there was little hope that they would work. From there we formed a suicide pact. Thought about piling up into a car and driving in front of a train. Ishimaru said statistically he wasn't sure all of us would be killed. Ogawa mentioned that there weren't usually survivors in a plane crash. We thought about renting a private charter, but I thought if we turned it into a political statement--"

"It wouldn't be just a coward's way out," Jim interjected.

"Are you saying you wouldn't contemplate suicide in my position?"

"I'm saying I wouldn't put innocent lives at risk to do so. That's where you're wrong. That's where you are a coward."

"Perhaps. But I've given my word to the others, and that's the only thing I have left now."

"Don't do this."

"Would you accept an apology if I gave you one?" Jim gave glared. "I thought as much. So are you going to spill our plans to the authorities before I get my international audience?"

Jim ground his teeth for a minute, then shook his head. "If I did that, then all of this would be completely for nothing. But I can't sit here and listen. My leg hurts too much and frankly, I'm tired of your company." He slowly climbed to his feet, careful not to hit any of the myriad of switches surrounding him. There was even a panel of them on the ceiling.

Kuroda nodded, giving permission even when it hadn't been asked. "Send in the senator, would you? I think he and I can make an interesting point and counter-point argument for our audience."

Jim shrugged. "Whatever." He limped toward the cockpit door, bracing himself against it when his leg threatened to give away.

"You okay?"

Jim nodded, almost laughing at Kuroda's ironic concern. Yeah, I'll be okay--as soon as I figure out how to gain control of this plane before you kill all of us. "A couple of aspirin would be nice."

"I'll have Ashimori get you some from the first aid kit as soon as he delivers the senator."

"Thank you." The response was automatic, but Kuroda beamed gratefully at Jim.

Definitely Wonderland around here, he thought as he moved slowly out the door.

*****

Blair warily eyed the gun-toting Asian at the front of the "cheap seats". He didn't look like the friendly sort, but he didn't seem all that scary despite the automatic weapon. In fact, mainly he just looked tired…and sick. "Hey, man, you doing okay?" he asked, approaching him carefully.

"What's it to you?"

"I was going to offer you a bottle of water or something."

The man shrugged. "Guess I could use some water."

Blair fished a cold bottle out of the ice. "Here you go."

The man took it and nodded, his face saying clearly that any conversation was over. Blair started back down the aisle with his cart, smiling confidently at the passengers.

"Excuse me, young man?"

"Yes, ma'am?" he asked the gray-haired lady sitting next to the infamous Miss Odessa.

"Do you know what time we're going to land in Chicago?"

"Uh--"

"We've been hijacked, Edna," the tiny woman next to her said. "That boy don't know any more than we do. For all any of us knows, we're not going to Chicago."

"Not going? But I have a birthday cake to bake for my son."

"Let him get a store-bought one."

"But I've always made him one," Edna sputtered.

A gnarled hand patted the slightly less wrinkled one beside her. "Not this year, Edna." Miss Odessa looked up at Blair. "You go ahead and do what you're doing, son. I'll take care of Edna here."

"Can I get you something to drink or--"

Miss Odessa smiled. "Just how many pairs of Depends do you think I'm wearing?"

Blair turned bright red. Miss Odessa cackled, and even Edna chortled, forgetting her worries.

Miss Odessa's hand reached out to encircle Blair's wrist. "Do your best to get old, son. It's a hell of a lot of fun."

Blair's laughter joined the women's. "Thank you for the words of wisdom, Miss Odessa." He moved on toward the back.

"Is it true?" a guy who looked like a stockbroker or something asked. Blair pegged him to be around Jim's age. "We aren't going to Chicago?"

"I don't know."

"But you've been talking to--to them," the man said, sounding faintly accusing.

"Just small talk, man."

The man glared at him. "I don't want to die up here."

"Neither do I. That's why we've got to be cool and not rock the boat--plane."

"Yeah, but they've already killed that one guy and shot the cop. Who's to say they won't start picking us off one by one?"

Blair sighed as he saw that the passengers around them had overheard. At this rate, the man was going to start a panic. "Look, they haven't said a thing about killing anybody. Bauer had a big mouth and the cop--well, he's a cop. They had to do something about him, right? Until I hear or see otherwise, I'm going to assume that they're gonna have their political say and then we're getting out of here."

"But--"

"But what, man? You wanna start something with those two big guns they got? Don't go borrowing trouble. We already have enough."

"I just think we should be doing something," the man huffed, although Blair could see he was ready to back down.

"We are doing something," Blair said quietly as he prepared to push the cart along. "We're surviving."

~CHAPTER NINE~

Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

"What's happening, Major?" Captain Fairchild asked as Soren exited the colonel's office.

"We have a meet with the CINC in thirty minutes," he explained, grabbing his jacket. He shrugged into it and began securing the buttons.

Fairchild's heart raced. A meeting with the Commander in Chief of NORAD was a serious matter. Appointed by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada, the CINC answered to both powerful nations. "Are the governments going to be notified?"

"The meeting's going to focus on risk assessment. The CINC will make his decision after our report. Do I look presentable?"

She nodded distractedly. "How's he taking it?" She nodded toward the closed door of the office.

"Not well. He doesn't like having his project under the spotlight like this."

"How much does the CINC know about the project?"

"As little as possible," Soren muttered. "It's not totally the colonel's doing though. The CINC knows a gray area when he sees one. He chose to accept the whitewashed monthly reports."

Fairchild frowned accusingly. "You're gonna cover for him, aren't you? You're already preparing the excuses."

"It's my job, Captain."

She perched on the edge of the desk and studied him. "It's more than that, isn't it? I've never wanted to--hell, but it's just gonna be one more thing I'm going to have to forget when I become a civilian--but what's so important about these things? I know the colonel's been scooping them off the bottom of the Arctic Ocean for the past twenty years, but where did they come from originally?"

"Up there," Soren said softly.

"You mean they're extraterrestrial artifacts?" Her voice was a hushed whisper.

"That's the consensus for this decade. When they were first discovered it was assumed that they were something Russia had lobbed over here for some nasty purpose. Then one was found during an excavation of the ocean floor and it was lodged with debris that dated back several centuries."

"And from that you deduced it was from outer space?" Fairchild asked skeptically.

"No, they didn't come up with that conclusion until NORAD tracked one's descent."

"What about Russia? Shouldn't their people have tracked it too?"

"It was only by luck that we did. They usually arrive when sunspot activity is high. There are all sorts of bogeys on the screen then."

"And their origin?"

Soren shrugged. "The sunspots screw up our sensors as well."

"But what about Hubble?" The space telescope was supposed to give a clearer picture of what was happening in the universe.

"It hasn't helped. For some strange reason, we can only track them once they've entered Earth's atmosphere. That in itself has a dozen astrophysicists puzzled. "

"And?" she prompted.

"And?"

"What are these things? Threats? Messages? Gifts?"

Another shrug. "Any of the above. Other suggestions have included spaced trash or a supply drop."

"For what? The inevitable invasion?" the captain joked nervously.

"We have nothing but speculation at this point. For all we know, it is just junk and the race that generated it has no idea that it's landing here on Earth."

"Are the contents of the packages dangerous?"

"They are always opened in a safe environment."

"Not what I asked, Barry."

He sighed and nervously tapped a pencil against his desk. "You know how miners would use a canary to check out shafts? The Project uses mice. A little cage of them are placed into the room before a package is opened. Sometimes nothing happens to them."

"And other times?"

"If we could only tell from the outside what the package contains…."

"Other times?"

"Sometimes they die, Lola. Sometimes they die."

"And this--" she cleared a suddenly clogged throat-- "this doesn't terrify you?"

His haunted eyes told her more than she wanted to know.

Flight 919

The two men looked up when Jim entered the cabin. "Senator, Kuroda wants you in the cockpit." He smelled the fear coming off the man in waves. "He's arranged for an international press conference and thinks the two of you can put on an entertaining show. I don't think he'll risk any on-air violence." He limped heavily toward a seat.

"You don't look so good, Detective," McCain observed.

"I don't feel so good either. Ashimori, Kuroda said you might be kind enough to get me some aspirin after you escort the senator inside. I would appreciate it." He sank weakly against the upholstery.

He watched them walk into the cockpit and plotted out what he had to do. It was simple if he didn't stop to think about it too long. A straightforward "get" list. Get Ashimori out of the way. Get Ogawa and Ishimaru out of the way. Get Kuroda out of the way. Get the plane safely on the ground. Get back to Cascade. Get to the loft and lock the door for, say, the next ten to twenty years. Simple.

When Ashimori returned, Jim's eyes were closed. But a glint of blue appeared when the Asian turned his back to him to reach up into the alcove holding the first aid kit. The automatic weapon had been carelessly dropped into a seat. In a heartbeat, Jim was on his feet and his arms were snaking around Ashimori's head and neck. Before the man could utter a protest, there was a loud--to Jim--snap and Ashimori became a heavy weight in his arms. Because he couldn't allow Ashimori to crash to the floor and perhaps attract attention, Jim held on and sank to the floor with him.

His injured thigh protested the motion, and he felt a burning ripping sensation that brought tears to his eyes. He sat on the flat carpeting, panting, his arms still cradling the man he'd killed. Killed with his bare hands. The gunshot wound left him at a physical disadvantage. He couldn't risk a fight. Ashimori had to become a permanent non-threat.

It had been too easy, he thought, resting to regain his strength. The killing. It had come too naturally for a skill he hadn't used in nearly a decade. His hands and arms had just fallen into position…. He withdrew them in disgust and Ashimori slumped over. He was a cop now. He shouldn't kill except with his gun, but he couldn't risk a gun going off in a plane. It was all a matter of risk assessment, right?

Bullshit. Look how easily you slipped into thought patterns with Kuroda. Look how easily you made the decision to kill Ashimori. Look how easily you actually killed the man. If you were honest with yourself, you'd admit that this post-killing angst is something you're concocting to make you feel better about yourself. What did you feel when you were applying the pressure to his neck? What did you feel when you felt the bone give way and heard that satisfying crack? You were pleased, weren't you? Granted, it wasn't the actual killing you got off on, but you're smugly satisfied that item one has been checked off your list with little complication. And as soon as you quit playing this maudlin game, you can get on to item two. Accept that you're a natural born killer if it suits your plans, Jimmy boy, and let's get the hell off of this plane.

Jim shoved Ashimori's body between a row of seats and shakily climbed to his feet. He looked down and saw that the edges of the makeshift bandage wrapped around his thigh were stained. Bleeding again. His conscience was right: it was time for him to accept who he was and get the hell off of this plane.

*****

Blair dug his watch out of his pocket. If they were going to land in Chicago, the landing gear would be down and they'd have dropped in altitude. So, what was the new plan? Stay up in the air until all the rhetoric had been spouted, then maybe land at some secured landing strip where the bad guys had their backup waiting to whisk them away? Land at a designated airport and be met by the authorities? As long as the word "land" was involved, he really didn't care.

What's happening, Jim?

Blair reloaded the cart and headed out of the galley. He was just starting down the aisle when he felt it: a brush against his brain, a creepy-crawly along his spine. What the-- Then he realized he'd felt it before. Acting as if one of the cart's wheels had gotten stuck, he knelt down and surreptitiously looked toward the front of the plane. Just as he thought. A pair of piercing blue eyes glinted from the divider curtain. Only Jim's eyes boring into him had that particular creepy-crawly effect on him. But it didn't just work on him; he'd seen the other guys at the station react the same way, and criminals had tried to melt into the walls when Jim looked their way. No wonder the Chopec hadn't written him off as another soon-to-be-dead white man when he crashed in on them. Too busy praying for their mortal souls, no doubt.

Jim's eyes were now talking and even as Blair considered the incongruity of that, he was nodding his understanding. Jim wanted him to--Sure, I can take out the man at the back. Yes, Jim, I'll be careful. No, Jim, I won't forget to duck if he starts shooting. The silent conversation ended with a final threatening glare from Jim that said, "If you get yourself killed, I'm going to follow you into the afterlife and strangle you to death." Yeah, I care about you too, Jim.

Okay, Secret Agent Man, you need a weapon. He eagerly eyed the contents of the cart. The ice tongs weren't heavy enough. The pretzels were stale, but not particularly harmful. The pop cans weren't even standard size--not that the modern aluminum cans were much of a threat. Oh, what he wouldn't give for a Louisville slugger or a 2X4. But all he had was a cart loaded with-- He almost slapped himself for being so dense. His weapon was right in front of him.

He set a brake partially on one of the wheels and started pushing it back toward the galley. "There's a pin coming loose on one of these wheels or something," he explained when the Asian looked at him. "Just gonna go get the other cart." The hijacker nodded.

Blair made a show of shoving hard against the cart; it barely moved. He set his shoulders and legs and shoved again, this time releasing the brake with a well-placed toe. The cart shot forward, catching the hijacker in the gut. The weapon tumbled to the floor. Blair raced around the cart to pick it up, then brandished it at the hijacker who was bent over and gasping.

"I could use some help here," Blair called calmly.

Hands appeared and Blair gave them the handcuffs he'd removed from Bauer.

"What about--?"

Everyone looked toward the front. The other terrorist was missing.

Jim!

Blair raced up the aisle and tore back the curtain.

Jim lay in the aisle, the missing terrorist on top of him.

Neither man was moving.

Cascade International Airport

"They certainly like to hear themselves talk."

Simon nodded in agreement with Joel's comment. Both Kuroda and McCain were just yakking away about the promises and perils of PRICE. Maybe economists all over the world were being held enthralled at the moment, but he was sick of listening to them. "I should be downstairs at the interrogation."

"The Feds can handle that. You need to be here for Jim and Blair."

"Why? I'm not doing anything useful. Hell, they don't even know I'm here."

"Yes, they do."

Simon shrugged. Yeah, they knew. For some reason they trusted him, had even confided in him the mother of all secrets. It was flattering, but a huge responsibility because they didn't have sense enough to have normal secrets. No hidden juvenile records. No wife in an insane asylum. No children running around in another state or country. No "I'm a cross-dressing transsexual who likes manly-men with dark skin and glasses." All of that would have been too easy, you see. There were regulations and precedents that he could quote with secrets like that. But what the hell could he say or do about Jim being some kind of super-human? Five heightened senses. Jesus Christ!

At first, he'd thought it was all a load of bullshit, and he hadn't known whether to pity Jim for falling for the grad student's spiel or call the bunco squad to arrest Sandburg for running the scam in the first place. But he couldn't deny what he'd seen Jim do during the takeover of the station. The man had smelled things, heard things….

All in all, it was damn scary. Sandburg tried to play it off as a natural, genetic trait. But he would have been more comfortable with it being something the Army had done to Jim. He'd grown up in the sci-fi age. The Hulk had been belted by gamma rays. Wolverine had been implanted with those metal things. The Fantastic Four had taken that ride in an unshielded space shuttle. And everyone knew what happened to poor Peter Parker.

Yes, he could have sympathized with Jim if that had been the case with him--if he'd been a victim. But Jim was like Wonder Woman: naturally-born to be a defender against evil or something. It smacked too much of divine intervention, or of--go ahead and say it, Banks--Hitler's eugenics plan for a master race. Not that Jim was a racist. Despite the off-the-scale demographics of Cascade, Jim hadn't ticked off a single group. Individuals in the groups, well, that was a different matter. His detective didn't have a high tolerance for fools or crooks, and Lord help you if you were both.

And he couldn't get further from the Aryan ideal than the man he'd accepted as his partner. Simon smiled. Every superhero had a sidekick, right?

"You're getting giddy. I'm going to go get us something to eat," Joel said.

"Any excuse, Taggert."

Joel patted his extra-large tummy. "You don't see me staring off into space with a stupid grin on my face, do you? Fat comes in handy during a crisis."

"Been taking rationalizing lessons from Sandburg?"

"I'll take that as a compliment," Joel said, easing his bulk out of the room.

Simon shook his head and continued his musing. Just because Jim wasn't a racist didn't mean he couldn't be used for a racist agenda. Brackett had shown them that the government had enough on Jim to come up with its own conclusion, and even though Brackett claimed he was the only one who'd figured it out, he probably wouldn't be the last. And they wouldn't need much of Jim anyway. Hadn't they cloned that sheep with just a few cells? How far behind could human cloning be? And what would the world be like with an army of Jims running around spying and prying, policing according to their own standards and rules? It would give a whole new meaning to "Big Brother is watching." He already found himself monitoring what he did in his office, often peeking out to see if Jim was reacting to some comment--or sound--he'd made.

Getting paranoid, Banks?

You bet your ass.

Not that he thought Jim would intentionally spy on him, but it seemed Jim didn't have much control over what he did. And what little control he had was somehow linked to Sandburg. So would they have to clone Sandburgs as well? What an image.

"Is there a problem?" Sarah asked, her head tilted toward the spot Joel had occupied.

"No, Joel's just going on a food run. Shouldn't you be over there listening to all the free-flowing rhetoric?"

"The crisis team is listening and analyzing. They'll let me know what I need to know."

"How's the telecast going?"

"CNN says it looks like their numbers are going to go through the roof. An American crisis is always a worldwide hit."

"Watching the mighty suffer has always been good entertainment for the masses. Any idea of what's going to happen when the broadcast is over?"

She shook her head. "I couldn't pin down Kuroda on any definite plan, and I didn't want to risk whatever progress we've made by making it part of the broadcast deal. The team backed me up on that so I'm on solid ground."

"I wish they were," Simon murmured.

"You really do care for these men. Beyond the work arena, I mean. You were starting to tell me that they were like family before we were interrupted."

"Not like family--are family. To me, anyway. They helped me save my boy."

"During the infamous takeover by the Sunrise Patriots?"

He looked at her sheepishly. "Heard about that, did you?"

"We at the Bureau hear a lot about Cascade. Great little city you have here."

"I'll put our crime solve rate up against the Bureau's any day," he challenged. "The criminals come, then the criminals are put away. The Cascade P.D. has nothing to be ashamed of."

"Especially Major Crime?"

"The detective up on that plane is a candidate for Officer of the Year. So, yeah, you want to ask me if I think Major Crime is good? Damn good."

"I'm glad your life has worked out so well, Simon. A wife, a son--"

"Ex-wife."

Her eyes widened. "Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't know."

He shrugged.

"Well, at least you tried. And you have a son, and a job you obviously love. Trust me,you're ahead of the pack."

"Have the years been that rough?" Simon asked with honest concern.

"Not really. I'm just not at the point I thought I would be. Remember the hours we used to spend out on the college green--"

"Planning every minute of our lives? Where we'd be in five years, ten….?" He gave a small smile. "Where did all that time go?"

"Into building a life that you're proud of. I can see it in your eyes, Simon. Despite the divorce, you're happy."

"But you're not."

"You're the one who said I was in a Seattle basement office going nowhere fast."

Simon flinched as his words were thrown back at him. "I'm sorry about that, Sarah. I needed to get your attention."

"So you told the truth. Don't apologize. It's something I've been aware of for a while. I'm in a rut and I want out."

"Of the Bureau?"

"Only if that's the only way out. But preferably I just want out of my current assignment."

"And move to?"

"Missing Children. I think I'd be good there, especially since I don't have any children of my own. No problem keeping my head straight that way. I've decided that if this situation ends well, I'm going to put in for a transfer."

"And if you don't get it?"

She gave him a wry grin. "Well, I've heard there are a couple of cities out there who have Bureau-sized problems. Maybe one of those can use my help."

Simon gave her an answering smile. "Maybe."

~CHAPTER TEN~

Flight 919

"Jim?" Blair called softly, not wanting to alert any other hijackers if they were around. No answer. Leading with the gun he'd taken from the guy in the back, he approached the two still bodies. "Jim, man, speak to me."

He poked the body on top, then knelt and hesitantly put a hand out to the neck. No pulse. His heart beating rapidly, he shoved and pushed until he could get to Jim. It didn't look good. One side of Jim's face was covered in blood. There was also blood on the thigh bandage. His hand quivering, he reached toward Jim's neck. A pulse. A beautiful pulse that was speeding up even as he measured it. Blair clasped Jim's shoulders as he regained consciousness.

"Easy, Jim. It's just me."

The tense body relaxed. "Chief. What? The hijacker in the back?"

"The other passengers have him tied up. The one you went after is dead. How many more, Jim?"

"Four."

"Four more?"

Jim shook his head and Blair watched him grimace with pain. "Four in all. Two dead. One restrained. Just Kuroda left. He's on the flightdeck with the senator."

"Flightdeck?"

"Cockpit."

"Jim, are you sure about the number? What about someone watching the flight attendants?"

"Dead. Whole flight crew--pilots included."

Blair swore as he looked around. He'd been so focused on Jim he hadn't seen the bodies slumped in the seats. "What'll we do now, man?"

"Move your hands and let me up."

Blair sat back, then leaned forward when Jim threatened to topple back over. "I think you have a concussion," he warned.

"No shit," Jim growled, frowning at the blood that appeared on his hand when he touched his head. "Bastard pulled a knife on me."

"What?"

"I grabbed him, but my leg gave out. I fell back and hit my head on one of the seat arms. He pulled out a knife and started toward me. I remember kicking out…and little else. Where's the knife?" Jim patted the area around him.

Blair looked thoughtful for a moment, then reached out and turned over the body in the floor next to Jim. "Here it is." The hilt stuck out of the man's chest.

Jim's hands blindly patted the arms of the seats near him. "Gotta get up. Get to Kuroda."

"Jim, you're just a heartbeat away from passing out."

"I'll be fine, Sandburg." Jim stood and swayed. "Damn."

"Is there any chance Kuroda's going to walk back here in the next two minutes?" Jim shook his head, then groaned. "Let me check you out. Please."

Jim lowered himself into a seat. "There's a first aid kit near the front."

"Jim?" Blair asked as he opened an antiseptic cleansing pad. The number of bodies had disturbed him.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Who's flying the plane?"

"It's on autopilot."

"Good ol' Otto."

"Huh?"

Blair smiled. "Don't tell me you've never seen Airplane! Oh, it's a classic. Spoofs all those Airport movies--Airport, Airport '75, Airport '79…. Boy, disaster movies were in that decade. Anyhow, at the end of Airplane!, Otto the Autopilot inflates himself and a girl autopilot and they fly off together. It was a hoot. We'll have to rent it when we get back to Cascade."

"Ouch!"

"Sorry." Blair frowned as he wiped the blood away. "That's quite a gash you have. But I think it's stopped bleeding."

"Good. Let's--"

"I want to check your leg, too."

"Sandburg--"

"Bleeding to death is going to help us how?"

With a snarl, Jim positioned his leg out along the seat.

"Are you managing the pain?"

"Yeah."

"Liar."

Jim sighed. "Do what you gotta and let's get a move on, Chief."

"Kuroda know how to fly?"

"No."

"You know how to fly?"

"No."

Blair carefully peeled back the bandage. "I don't know either, in case you were wondering."

"Maybe one of the passengers does," Jim suggested.

"And if they don't?" Blair didn't like the looks of the ugly wound. He also didn't like the heat pouring from it. "I think it's infected."

Jim hissed as Blair palpated the flesh around the gunshot. "Yeah, yeah. If none of the passengers know how to fly, then you're just gonna have to do it, Chief."

"Me! Why not you?"

"Maybe because I have a concussion and an infected gunshot wound?"

"When has that ever stopped you?"

"Funny. Look, Chief. It's nothing to worry about. You're a quick learner."

"Now who's being funny? I'm going to get you some water so you can down a couple of these pills. Should at least take the edge off the pain."

"I remember when I could swallow them dry. Damn senses barely let me take them with water these days."

"Jim, I know I told you it was fine to bitch when we started out today, but the offer has been rescinded."

"Fine." He snatched the paper cup out of Blair's hand and downed the pills. "Now can we continue this operation, Mother Blair?"

"If you can stand without keeling over, you have my permission."

Jim rolled his eyes and slowly rose to his feet. He grew so pale that Blair reached out to grab him, but he shrugged away and took a cautious step forward. Then another. "Coming, Sandburg?" he called, limping toward the cockpit.

"Hardheaded piece of--"

"Wanna hand me Ashimori's automatic?"

Blair leaned over and picked up the weapon. "That was his name?"

"Yeah." Jim looked at him closely. "Either them or us, Chief. I won't apologize for choosing us."

Blair sighed and took a deep breath, gripping his own weapon. "I understand, Jim. How do you want to do this? You go high and I go low?"

Jim's mouth quirked. "Why don't we just go in?" He pulled open the flightdeck door.

Under better circumstances Blair would have laughed at the triple-takes done by the two men in the cockpit. Both looked back when the door opened. Then they looked again when they realized it was Jim standing in the doorway. A third glance and they noticed the weapon in his hand.

Kuroda did laugh--eventually. He reached out and turned off the microphones. "Time to act, Detective?"

"I warned you."

"Yes, you did. Tai No Sen?"

Jim nodded. "Feign weakness, then attack strongly."

"You are indeed a Master. But you have forgotten that I am armed."

"No, I haven't."

"I could shoot the senator."

"I've given my opinion on that."

"I could shoot the grad student, who, I think, is no grad student."

"Actually, he is. But he's also my partner."

Kuroda nodded. "I can't surrender. Honor dictates--"

"Those to whom you pledged your honor are no longer factors."

"Still--"

Jim took a step forward and held out a hand for his gun. "Enough, Kuroda."

The man surrendered the gun and Jim stuck it in the waistband of his pants. "Come out, both of you."

"Can you handle one of these, Senator?" Jim gestured with the automatic.

McCain nodded. "Vietnam."

Jim gave him the weapon. "While we get Mr. Kuroda situated, Chief, why don't you go back to your friends and see if any of them know how to fly a plane?"

"Well, that's going to be a conversation starter. Any thoughts on how to avoid a panic?"

"All those lessons in obfuscation are about to come in handy," Jim replied dryly.

Blair flipped him the bird and went through the curtain. Nearly a hundred apprehensive faces turned toward him. He gave them a reassuring smile.

"I'm happy to report that all the hijackers have been apprehended."

A cheer rose up.

"Now, I need to ask if any of you have piloting skills."

A return of the apprehensive faces.

"The pilots--" one scared soul braved.

"Aren't capable of flying at the moment." Or ever. "But there's no cause for alarm. Detective Ellison is a former Army Ranger. He was just looking for a co-pilot. Well, actually he told me I was going to get to play pilot with him and I was just trying to get out of it." He gave them a sheepish smile and everyone relaxed.

"So we'll be landing soon?" a hopeful voice called out.

"We're going to have to wait for instructions from air traffic controllers. I'm not certain of our location so there may not be an airport nearby--at least not one big enough for a jetliner to land. I know you probably have lots of questions, but Detective Ellison is waiting for me. Uh, it may be a good idea to keep strapped in just in case we run into turbulence. How's our prisoner, by the way?"

"Don't worry about him, Blair," Harry said from the back. "He ain't going nowhere."

"Thanks. I'm going to go up to the cockpit now. Oh, and we need you to stay in the Economy section, please. We have the other hijackers in First Class. I'll let you know when we hear from the air traffic people, okay?"

Blair hurried back through the curtain. Senator McCain had a gun trained on Kuroda, whose hands and feet were bound by leather belts. Jim was nowhere in sight.

"He's already up front?"

McCain nodded. "No pilots?"

"Nah. But me and Jim can handle it. The air traffic controllers will talk us right through it."

"Tell the detective I said good luck," Kuroda said.

Blair hadn't understood most of what Jim and Kuroda had said earlier, but it was obvious Kuroda respected Jim. "I'll tell him."

He entered the cockpit and climbed into the unoccupied seat. "Okay, man. It's me and you."

Jim shrugged. "I'm not surprised. You can do this."

"No, we can."

"We can," Jim agreed. "First things first. Put on the headset." He donned his own, then reached out and touched a button.

Blair heard a frantic, "Flight 919, please respond! This is Cascade Tower." He looked at Jim, who nodded.

Swinging the mike around, Blair replied, "Cascade Tower, this is Flight 919."

Cascade International Airport

"Thanks."

Simon turned when he heard Joel's voice, and saw his friend enter the room with his hands so full that one of the agents had to open the door for him. "What the--? Joel, two words: Weight Watchers."

Joel rolled his eyes and set down his loot. "I got this for everybody. Here, Agent Jefferson, have a pastry and coffee. And if anyone else wants something, feel free to take it--everybody except Captain Banks."

"Thank you, Captain Taggert," Sarah said, grabbing one of the coffees squeezed into a cardboard box. "You're very kind."

"Well, it's not because of the company I keep," he replied.

"Joel--"

"Some of us were raised to be civilized, while others apparently grew up in the wild--"

"Joel--"

"--raised by wolves."

"I'm sorry, Joel. My comment was uncalled for," Simon said earnestly.

Joel smiled. "In that case, have an éclair. They're delicious."

"What's Anna gonna say when you get home?" Simon chided, knowing Joel's wife was trying to get him to cut back on his sugar intake a little.

"Honey, I hope you didn't work too hard today?" Joel hazarded with a chuckle.

Simon grinned. "I don't think that's quite it."

Joel shrugged. "It happens to be my luck that she loves me just the way I am--on most days." He returned Simon's grin.

"Agent Jefferson!"

Sarah hurried to the console, where the negotiation team was monitoring the broadcast. "What's wrong?"

"The transmission has been cut from the plane!"

She flicked a switch. "Flight 919, this is Agent Jefferson, please respond. Mr. Kuroda?" She turned to her agents. "What happened?"

"We don't know," one of the women said, shaking her head. "One minute they were talking and the next--nothing."

"Radar?"

"It's still flying steady," Forrester assured them. There was a general sigh of relief around the room.

"Was there a sudden escalation in their discussion?"

"No raised voices or indications of increased frustration."

"A technical problem?" Sarah looked at one of the engineers provided by the television station.

"No, ma'am. There's nothing wrong with the feed. I think they just cut the switch at the plane."

She frowned. "We're missing something. Rewind the tape and let's listen to the last couple of minutes."

"I'll keep trying to hail the plane," Forrester volunteered.

Sarah nodded. "Captain Banks, Captain Taggert, please join us. We need every opinion we can get."

"Nothing warrants an abrupt action on Kuroda's part," she said minutes later. "What's happening on that plane?"

"Agent Jefferson!"

They all turned toward Forrester, who spoke into the microphone, "This is Cascade Tower. Please repeat the message."

"Cascade Tower, this is Flight 919."

"Who--?"

Before Sarah could finish her question, Simon was leaning over Forrester. "Sandburg, is that you?"

"Simon! Hey, Jim, it's Simon!"

"Like I couldn't figure that out myself. Hi, Captain."

"Jim! What's going on? Does this mean--?"

"The hijackers have been neutralized, sir. The plane is secure."

Simon felt Joel's hand land on his shoulder. "Thank God! What's your situation?"

"We need to talk to the pilots," Forrester whispered before Jim could reply.

"Jim, they want to speak to the pilots."

A brief hesitation. "Sorry, sir."

"Both of them?" Forrester questioned.

"As well as the flight attendants," Jim confirmed. "It was done at the beginning of the takeover. Don't touch that, Sandburg."

"Who's flying this baby, Jim?"

"Otto. And he says don't touch."

"Right, man."

"Ellison!" Simon yelled.

"Yes, sir?"

"The two of you are flying the plane?"

"Uh, we're in the pilots' seats, sir, but we're on autopilot."

"Ask them--" Forrester began, then finished himself when Simon moved over. "Do either of you have any flight experience?"

"That would be a negative."

"Agent Jefferson, could you have one of your people go over the passenger manifest and see if--"

"We've already asked, man," Blair's voice came over the radio. "Nada. It's Ellison/Sandburg Air or bust."

"Sandburg/Ellison. You're the pilot, remember?" Jim said.

"Um, that's not what the passengers believe."

"What?"

"You told me to obfuscate if they panicked."

"I didn't tell you to tell them I was 'driving' this thing."

"Geez, man, you'd already single-handedly saved them from the terrorists. Who else were they going to put their faith in?"

"It wasn't single-handed. Of all the-- You beat all, you know that?"

"Those pain pills aren't doing a thing for you, are they?"

"This isn't about--"

"This isn't your normal crankiness, man. This is the it-hurts-like-hell-but-I'm-the-strong-silent-type crankiness."

"What hurts?" Simon interjected.

"Nothing, sir."

"Kuroda shot him, and he hit his head when he was taking out-- You know I never did know which one was Ogawa and which was Ishimaru. I just called them my Asian and the other one."

"Your Asian?"

"Yeah, man, the two of us were bonding like you and Kuroda. Of course he probably wouldn't have handed over his gun to me like Kuroda did to you. But Kuroda is like gone on you, Jim. He even said to tell you good luck when I told the senator you were going to fly the plane."

"You told the senator? Sandburg, how--"

"Gentlemen," Simon tried to interrupt.

"It's okay, Simon," Sarah said. "Anxiety manifests itself in different ways."

"You think--" He and Joel shared a short laugh. "This is not anxiety, Sarah. This is what passes for normal with these men. Gentlemen, knock it off. You're scaring the federal officers."

"So what else is new?" Blair retorted. "Ouch!"

"We're sorry, sir. We'll be on our best behavior from now on. Won't we, Sandburg?"

"Sure, if that means you'll stop with the head slaps."

Simon sighed. "Detective, there are officials here who need a report."

"Yes, sir. As I stated, the crew are all deceased. As is Bauer."

"You lost your prisoner?"

"The s.o.b. ratted Jim out, and Jim's new best friend wasn't happy about that."

"He's not-- There were initially four hijackers--Ogawa, Ishimaru, Ashimori, and Kuroda."

Simon glanced at Joel. "How many are still among the living?"

"Ishimaru and Kuroda."

"So Ishimaru--?" Blair asked.

"Is your buddy."

"Did you know he was a--"

"Mathematician? Yes. Kuroda told me all about them. They'd all been diagnosed with terminal cancer."

"I thought Ogawa looked sick. Kuroda told you everything, huh?"

"You're the one who said it, Chief--we bonded. Sir, you think we'll be landing anytime soon?"

"I'm going to put Mr. Forrester back on the line. He's an air traffic controller. But before I put you into his hands, tell me--you're both okay?"

"We're okay, sir."

"Sandburg?"

"If I can keep him inside the plane, I think he'll be fine, Captain."

"Stay inside the plane, Detective. That's an order." Simon shook his head at the look the federal officers gave him. So innocent in the ways of dedicated sentinels. "Here's Mr. Forrester. Listen to him."

"Okay, gentlemen, I'm going to need you to read some gauges for me so I can figure out where you're headed and--"

"Washington, D.C., sir."

"Kuroda tell you that?"

"Yeah, Sandburg. Is this going to be a problem?"

"We'll talk later. What do you need to know, Mr. Forrester?"

"First, drop the mister. Now, tell me…."

Simon shook his head and stepped out of the room for some air.

"Can I say 'I told you so'?" Joel asked quietly.

"I don't think I've ever been as grateful to hear those words, Joel. Now, we just have to get them safely on the ground."

"And keep Jim inside the plane," Joel teased.

"Ever see the man take a helicopter or train ride?" Simon removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "They test my patience so much."

"And maybe your heart even more?"

Simon put his glasses back on and straightened his shoulders. "Let's get back inside. Knowing those two, they'll drive Forrester out of his mind if I don't ride herd on them."

"Time to 'pony up'?"

Simon rolled his eyes. "As soon as Sandburg is on the ground, I'm not letting you within two feet of him. Honestly, Joel…."

~CHAPTER ELEVEN~

Flight 919

"Okay, gentlemen, what's going to happen now is that I'm going to pass this information on to--"

"Roger Newkirk, FAA Regional Supervisor. How you guys doing?"

"Just sitting here reading buttons, Roger." Blair turned to Jim and mouthed, "What a schmoozer." Jim nodded in agreement.

"That's good to hear. Listen, I'm going to take the excellent information you've provided, and me and the office are going to find you a nice, safe place to land, okay?"

Blair grinned wickedly at Jim. "Uh, Roger, man, is that safe as in for the public or safe as in for us aboard?"

"The FAA and I assure you that we have everyone's interest at heart."

Jim made a kissing sound and Blair nodded. Yeah, good ol' Roger was definitely kissing their butts. Blair briefly wondered if it was because they had several million dollars of machinery in their hands or that Roger genuinely cared about the people aboard. Nah. He didn't really wonder. "You got everything you need, Roger, or was there something else?"

"Just hang in there, fellas. I'll have some good news for you soon."

Blair put his hand over his mike. "Jerk. Tell me again why we want to land and be surrounded by people like that?"

"Because we're going to eventually run out of fuel?"

"Good answer."

"Flight 919?"

Blair removed his hand. "We're here, Cascade Tower. What happens now?"

"Someone's bringing me a primer on flying and landing and I'm going to talk you through it, okay? Make sure we know the basics before we get to the specifics."

"Sounds good to me. I guess this isn't the best time to tell you that I flunked Driver's Ed, huh?"

"You didn't," Jim said.

"I did. I had to go to one of those driving schools to get the paperwork for a permit."

"Flunking Driver's Ed is like flunking P.E., Chief. Virtually impossible."

"About P.E…."

"You guys seem perfectly capable of amusing yourselves, so I'm going to go silent for a minute or two while I get things prepared around here. Is that okay?" Forrester asked.

"Tired of his babbling already, Forrester? Good for you," Jim called.

"It takes two to babble, Jim."

"Take a break, Forrester. You're going to need it."

"Roger that, Flight 919."

"You can take off the headset if you want to, Chief," Jim said, removing his own. "I'll be able to hear him when he returns."

Blair removed the headset and absently rubbed an ear.

"What's the mood among the passengers? Is everyone doing okay?" Jim asked, shifting some pressure off his thigh.

"Everyone's coping. The women seem to be keeping everyone's spirits high. Agnes, April, Miss Odessa--they're all great."

"You doing okay?"

"I'm not the one with a bullet in my leg and major head truama."

"Answer the question."

"I'm fine, Jim. Reasonably fine anyway. Hey, remember when I asked you if the takeover at the station was, like, a typical day for you, and you just laughed? I thought you were pulling my leg, man. But you weren't. Hanging around you has been one major rush after another. Not that that's a bad thing, but different from what I was used to, you know? Academia can be cutthroat, but in your world the word's not an adjective, it's a verb."

"I'm sorry."

"For what? You can't control your destiny."

"To always be in the middle of danger?"

Blair shrugged. "It's you, Jim. That's who you are."

"Because I'm a sentinel?"

"I can't say. Too little empirical data. A sample size of one sorta limits big pronouncements. But I think a lot of it has to do with Jim Ellison--his experiences, beliefs, motivations. Your past has molded you into what you are."

"If you say one word about breast-feeding, Sigmund, I will hurt you."

Blair laughed. "Poor Freud. I wonder what he'd have to say about being the butt of so many jokes."

Blue eyes skewered him. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Sandburg. This conversation was, and still is, about you."

"I'm fine, Jim. I've come a long way since Lash."

"I know."

"I can't deny it, being in your life has changed me more than I thought possible. But I don't regret the changes. And neither should you."

Jim gave a tight nod that neither agreed nor disagreed. Sound crackled from the headsets. "We're up, Sandburg."

"Flight 919, this is Cascade Tower."

"Cascade Tower, this is Flight 919," Blair replied. It was starting to sound startlingly natural.

"Okay, fellas, I have a couple of books about flying that even an elementary school student could understand."

"That seems about right," Jim quipped. "Professor Sandburg, you don't mind if Professor Forrester takes over for the rest of the class, do you?"

"I don't think this is what they meant when they coined the phrase 'teleclasses'," Blair said dryly. "Lay on, Professor Forrester. You have two students eager for passing grades. I hear there's one hell of a final exam."

"I haven't lost a student yet," Forrester replied. "Now, we'll start with page one…."

Cascade International Airport

Simon leaned back against the wall and listened to Forrester read the manual to Jim and Blair. He'd decided to stay in the background, giving his men the chance to focus totally on Forrester. The joking had stopped and now he was only hearing a matching discipline in their voices as they made the appropriate replies to Forrester. Listening to them, it was easy to understand how both men had excelled in their chosen professions.

He looked to the just-opened door. Sarah. She and the negotiation--now crisis--team had holed up in a private office down the hall, no doubt trying to put a positive spin on the whole mess. "How's it going, Sarah?"

"We still can't figure out the motivation behind the hijacking, and some are concerned that this might be an effort of a larger group, possibly to be repeated at some future point."

"Ask Detective Ellison. Apparently, this Kuroda guy spilled his guts to him."

"You don't sound surprised."

"Ellison's good in an interrogation room."

"And what about Sandburg?"

"Not bad, but he's a bit too easygoing."

"And he's not a cop."

Simon crossed his arms. The deception had lasted longer than he'd anticipated. "So you found out?"

Sarah's eyes tightened in the corners. "I told you at the beginning if you were pulling some kind of scam--"

"Not a scam. Sandburg is one of my men in all the ways that count."

"He's a grad student!" she said in a harsh whisper.

"Who has survived crap that has taken more than one cop out of the game. Maybe he started out as just a police observer, but now he's Ellison partner and is treated as such. Besides, what difference does it make? There's nothing you would have done differently if you'd known."

"I hate being lied to."

"I didn't lie."

"Neither did you tell the complete truth."

"It wasn't intentional and it wasn't personal, Sarah. I, we all--Joel, Brown, Rafe--we consider Blair to be one of us."

"Fine. Anything else non-intentional and non-personal that you've forgotten to share with me, Captain Banks?"

Well, there's the business about Detective Ellison being a sentinel. "No, nothing else, Agent Jefferson."

She gave a tight, jerky nod. "The families of the crew are being notified as we speak, so we're going to be breaking the information to the public soon."

"I can assure you Ellison and Sandburg would have done everything possible to save those lives. They make a formidable team."

"That much is obvious. Let's see if the detective can shed some light on our terrorists' motives."

Simon followed her to the console. She motioned for Forrester to cut off the mike, then talked to him for a second. He gave a quick nod and rolled his stool out of the way.

"I'm sorry for interrupting you, but I have some questions for Detective Ellison," Sarah said into the microphone.

"That's quite all right, Agent Jefferson," Jim's voice replied.

Her eyes widened in surprise. "You know who I am?"

"I was on the flightdeck with Kuroda for most of your conversations with him."

Her lips pursed for a second, then she nodded. "You were the conscience he spoke of, weren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"So did he confess the motivations behind the hijacking?"

"As I stated earlier, all four men were terminal. They got together with a couple of bottles and decided the hijacking would make a great epitaph."

"So they aren't part of some larger, anti-American faction?"

"No. This was just an elaborately planned suicide."

"Can you tell us the condition of Senator McCain? I was talking with him earlier and there was an abrupt break in our conversation. He sounded well during the debate with Kuroda, but we're all still understandably concerned."

"The Senator is fine. He's currently guarding Kuroda."

"Thank you for the information, Detective. The officials at O'Hare asked if there is anything you can tell us about the passengers. They have been inundated with requests from family members."

"You better field this one, Chief."

"Hi, Agent Jefferson."

"Hello, Mr. Sandburg. You have news of the passengers?"

"Yeah, they're doing well. Their spirits are good. No one's been injured or is ill."

"I'll pass on the information, Mr. Sandburg." Sarah turned at the sound of footsteps. "Mr. Newkirk is here, hopefully with some instructions for you."

Newkirk took her place. "Listen, guys, you're about to get some company. We're sending up an escort for you."

"Military?"

"Yes, but that doesn't mean anything."

"We were hijacked in U.S. skies by people of Asian descent, and a military escort doesn't mean anything? How dumb does he think we are, Jim?"

"I don't know, Chief. But since the mike's live, you just asked him so why don't we wait for his answer."

"Of--of course this is a matter of international con--concern," Newkirk stuttered. "But the military escort is simply a convenience. No other agency could have a flight up and running so quickly."

"Give the man a break and just listen to him," Simon called out. Newkirk gave him a grateful look.

"Sorry, sir. I think Sandburg's seen one too many conspiracy movies. Go ahead with your plan, Newkirk."

"You'll play follow-the-leader with the escort, who'll guide you to Port Columbus International Airport."

"That's Columbus, Ohio?"

"Yes, Detective Sandburg. We're currently rerouting all traffic from the airport and have put emergency personnel on alert."

"That sounds promising."

"Stow it, Chief."

"Sorry, Jim. And as long as part of that emergency personnel is reserved for you, I'm not going to complain. You don't look so good."

"Keep your hand to yourself, Sandburg. I'm fine."

"You're not fine; you're burning up."

"Sandburg!" Simon shouted.

"I'm all right," Jim reassured him. "A little fever, that's all."

"Yeah, I'll believe that when I hear it from your partner. Sandburg?"

"He's going to need medical help soon. The bullet--it didn't come out."

"Soon is a relative term, Chief. If we don't land soon, my injuries are not really going to be much of a concern. Kuroda said we'd run out of fuel over D.C. If we're already over Ohio…."

"We have plenty of time," Newkirk said hastily. "And we'll make sure there's an ambulance reserved for Detective Ellison."

"Can we get back to our lessons?" Forrester asked. "I want them ready to lower the landing gear as soon as the escort is in position."

"No!"

The room turned to see Brown and Rafe barrel in.

"No what, Brown?" Simon asked quickly.

"They can't put the landing gear down."

"What?"

"The landing gear has been sabotaged," Brown said directly to his captain. "They can't land."

Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

"Captain Fairchild?"

She entered the conference room nervously. Waltzing uninvited into a meeting between the CINC, a colonel, and a major wasn't exactly a career-securing move, but as she was probably the only other person on the base who knew what the meeting was about, she felt it her duty to keep them up to date. "I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but I thought this was something you needed to see." She turned on the television located in the console at the front of the room. The three watched her so closely that her hand trembled on the remote control. With a sigh of relief, she keyed in the correct station and stepped out of the way.

"So it's been confirmed that the plane, Flight 919, has been secured?" Geoffrey Hume-Graham asked.

"Yes. Apparently Detective Jim Ellison of the Cascade Police Department is aboard. The detective managed to disarm the hijackers and retake the plane."

"They must take their officer training very seriously in Cascade," Geoffrey remarked slightly facetiously.

"I don't know about every officer, but Detective Ellison has been a hero more than once here in Cascade. Earlier in the broadcast, you mentioned some of the surprisingly huge stories that have been reported in Cascade. Most if not all of them involved Detective Ellison. They all ended with the assailant or assailants safely off the streets. Also, possibly if you can think back a few years, you might recognize the detective as Captain Ellison, a highly decorated U. S. Army Ranger. He gained national fame when he was the sole survivor of a helicopter crash in Peru. For eighteen months, he survived the Amazon jungle on his own."

"Sounds as if this fellow has had more than his share of close calls, Don. But what of Senator McCain? Have we heard any more from him or about him?"

"Indeed. I-- Just a minute." Don Haas tapped the receiver in his ear. "Geoffrey, we've just received word that the entire flight crew was assassinated soon after the hijackers took control of the plane."

"This is confirmed?"

"Yes. A federal spokesperson will be holding a press conference within the next few minutes."

"All right. While we wait for the official report, the question foremost in my mind, and I'm sure in most of our viewers' as well--who's flying the plane?"

"That's a reasonable question, Geoffrey, and I'm sure the FBI will be able to shed some light on that matter."

The CINC motioned for Fairchild to turn down the volume. "So, gentlemen, it seems that our crisis has been averted. Just make sure we have someone there to secure the package as soon as the plane touches down."

"I'm not disagreeing, sir, that we are in a better position than we were minutes ago," Colonel Wentworth said, "but I don't think we're out of the woods yet, considering the pilots are dead. A controlled crash landing could even be more detrimental in that our package is damaged rather than destroyed."

"I'll make a few calls and arrange for a hazmat team to be onsite."

"General, I'm not sure you understand--"

"What don't I understand, Colonel? That this 'package' of yours may or may not be a threat? That it may or may not be extraterrestrial? That it may or may not be worth the lives of a hundred brave people who have already bucked the odds? What you don't seem to understand, sir, is that there is nothing more we can do. This is not a military matter. This is civilian, and unless you have a suggestion that will be acceptable to the public and the President, not to mention the entire world, who are watching via CNN, I consider the matter settled." The colonel dropped his eyes. "I thought so. Dismissed."

Fairchild followed the others back to their office, keeping silent until the colonel had slammed into his private chambers.

"Was I wrong in bringing this to your attention?" she asked Soren hesitantly.

He slumped into his chair. "No. The CINC was already reluctant to take action. And he's right: what action can we take? That plane's coming down and we just have to keep our fingers crossed that someone aboard her can get her down safely."

"Or?"

"You don't have any relatives in Ohio, do you?"

She shook her head and started another pot of coffee.

~CHAPTER TWELVE~

Cascade International Airport

"The whole story, right now," Simon ordered, staring at his detective.

"The accomplice," Brown began, then stopped as a cell phone trilled.

Sarah reached into her pocket and yanked out the phone. "Jefferson…So I've been informed--by someone other than…Yes, I'm sure you were. Well, the detectives are getting ready to make their report so I think I'll just listen to theirs." She angrily punched a button, tossed the phone aside, and focused on Brown and Rafe.

"The accomplice confessed not only to hiding the weapons aboard the plane, but also to sabotaging the landing gear. He disconnected something in the wheel well."

"Nose gear or the main landing gear?" Newkirk asked.

"Nose," Rafe replied.

"It is possible for a plane to land without its nose gear," the FAA representative murmured.

"Possible for an experienced pilot," Forrester countered.

"We lay down a bed of foam--"

"You were already planning that, weren't you?" Forrester asked.

"We double the amount."

"Uh, I don't think that's the major problem," Brown interrupted. "According to the suspect, what he did--if the landing gear button is hit, it's gonna short-circuit the plane's entire electrical system."

The room fell silent, except for the radio.

Forrester guiltily turned back to the console. "Flight 919, there's a problem."

"I know," Jim said tersely. "Put Brown and Rafe on the line."

"Jim! Good to hear ya, bud," Brown said, leaning into the mike.

"Yeah, same here, H. Listen, I need you to tell me everything the suspect said he did."

"You aren't planning to--"

"What do you think, Chief? The whole electrical system is going to fry if the problem isn't repaired."

"But--"

"It's going to be cold and dark in the well. Who's better suited?" Two seconds of silence. "Go ahead, guys. Tell me what you can."

"Simon, how did he--" The cell phone rang again. Sarah scooped it up with a growl. "Jefferson. Yes, Director?" She rolled her eyes at Simon and with a meaningful sigh, walked away for privacy.

Thank you, Director. Explaining how Jim had heard the whole conversation wouldn't have been easy. He focused his attention on the conversation his three detectives were having. Every so often, Newkirk would chime in with a suggestion or an observation. Simon was surprised; he hadn't expected Newkirk to be particularly helpful. His reaction must have shown on his face.

"I was in avionics before I went corporate," Newkirk explained after Brown and Rafe finished talking to Jim.

"The repair sounded fairly simple."

"It is. It's like what Scotty said in one of the Star Trek movies: the more complicated a machine is, the easier it is to sabotage it. One missing bolt, one broken circuit and poof, the whole trillion dollar supervessel is just a hunk of junk."

"So the repair isn't dangerous?"

"On the ground, no. Just stick Wire A into Connector B, and so on, then flick a switch."

"They aren't on the ground."

Newkirk nodded and frowned. "It'll be a bit trickier. At their altitude, the wheel well is going to be freezing. There'll probably be a thin layer of frost over most surfaces. The air will be thin too. He's gonna have to get in there, do the repair, and get out."

"But it can be done?" Simon hated asking, but he wanted to know the truth.

"Captain, after what your men have already done, my answer has to be yes."

Simon nodded, and took up his place against the wall again--to wait.

Flight 919

If Jim could have his way, it would be a very long time before he had to put weight on his leg. But he was so used to the concept of not having his way, he didn't even murmur a protest as he stood from the co-pilot's seat.

"Jim--"

"Just keep on with the flying lessons, Chief. I'll be back before you realize I'm gone."

"Be careful."

Jim snorted. "Who taught you to be such a worrywart?"

"You did."

"All my excellent virtues, and that's the one you chose to pick up?" Jim carefully tested his thigh, easing his weight onto it. He sighed. It would hold--for a while.

"Oh, yeah. I was up to my ears in choices."

"If I was a lesser man, I'd think you were mocking me, Sandburg." He limped toward the door. It was getting better, he told himself. Just a little stiff.

"Me? Mock you? I shudder at the thought, man."

Jim put his hand on the door.

"Just be careful, Jim."

"I will."

The senator and Kuroda looked at him as he entered the cabin. The senator had done some straightening up: the bodies were now strapped in seats, looking like passengers who'd just nodded off. Jim shuddered, but didn't say anything. Instead, he just lowered himself to the floor and pulled up the carpet to reveal a hatch.

"Detective?"

"A minor mechanical problem, Senator. The same man who so helpfully supplied the weapons also sabotaged the nose gear." He gave the hatch a half-turn, then let its internal system complete the opening.

"Sabotage? I didn't-- Sabotaging the plane wasn't in our plans," Kuroda said.

"Then either you weren't let in on the whole plan or this guy was working on his own. Which do you think?" Jim shook his head at Kuroda's shocked expression. "Guess honor among thieves is another debunked wives' tale, huh?"

He eased his body into the dark pit, relying more on his upper body strength than his legs. This level was an avionics alcove, full of removable panels that shielded the multitude of cables and wires that made riding in a plane as comfortable as possible. There was a button to light the area, but he ignored it and just adjusted his sight until he could see. There. He removed a panel and found the toolbox just where Newkirk said it would be. Who would've thought the man could be so useful? He stuffed the kit beneath his arm and looked around for the hatch that led to the wheel well.

Cold air rushed up as the hatch opened. Just as cold and thin as Newkirk had predicted. No deep breaths for a while. High-pitched whistling alerted him to the fact that the bay doors weren't perfectly sealed, and that just beyond the metal panels was the sky. And several thousand feet below that was the hard ground.

Suck it up, soldier, and get the job done.

He almost lost his grip as his hands contacted the biting cold metal of the ladder. Once again, he forced his body to adjust. The shivering that started at the first bite of cold air stopped by the time his feet hit the lowest rung. Everything was covered in a light layer of frost.

Water and electricity don't mix.

Gee, any more pieces of wisdom you want to share?

The floor might be--

Jim felt his foot slip and had to put all his weight on his injured leg to keep from landing on his ass.

--slick. Ice on all surfaces, remember?

Jim leaned against the huge hydraulic tank and fought to stay conscious. Finally the dark spots stopped floating before him.

If you're gonna keep bothering me, you can be a little quicker with the need-to-know information.

Fine. On a need-to-know basis, you don't have much time down here before you pass out from too little oxygen. Get to work.

Jim located the panel the accomplice had described and found the band of cut wires. Cold fingers fumbled with the tool kit, and he began connecting the wires--red to red, white to white, etc. It was tedious work, and he'd have been hampered if he'd had to try to hold a flashlight and do the connections at the same time.

Maybe you'll stop bitching about those senses of yours now.

I've admitted they come in handy on occasion.

You ever tell Blair that? You ever thank him for totally disrupting his own life just to help you gain a little control?

I gave him a place to live. Isn't that enough?

He lives with you because you can't be trusted to live alone. Remember that?

I show him every day that I'm grateful for his help.

He's a man of words. Maybe he'd like to hear some.

I've changed as much as I'm capable of. I charge him just enough rent that it doesn't look like charity. I feed him when he's low on cash. I try to keep him safe--

Wouldn't have to do that if he wasn't so tangled up in your life.

I don't *do* words, okay? Words are nothing but air. They mean nothing.

Depends on who's saying them.

Doesn't matter. You can't trust words. You can only trust actions.

You're pretty fucked up for a guy not yet forty.

Yeah, well, I've always been advanced for my age.

They can write that on your headstone after you zone because Blair has left your ass just like Carolyn did.

Blair's not going to leave--at least not until the paper's done.

The paper may not be enough of an incentive to endure your life. Hell, the only reason you're enduring it is because you don't have the guts to end it.

I would've--if Blair hadn't found me at the hospital.

Another reason you should say thank you.

Words. Blair won't leave; we have a deal.

Jim gave a grim smile; he was almost finished. Good. He was cold, his head pounded, and if his leg managed to get him back to the ladder, he'd be grateful, but surprised. Just one more set. He'd checked for dampness when he started and found none. But condensation had collected while he worked and when he brought the last pair of wires together, the water acted as a conduit. Electricity leapt out to brighten the darkness and sear everything in its direct path.

Blinded by the sudden flash and jolted by the electricity, Jim cried out and fell, his hand leaving a smear of blood along the wall as he sank.

*****

"I think something's happened to the detective."

Blair didn't wait for an explanation before reaching to unlatch his safety harness. "Where is he?"

"Down in the wheel well. I was listening at the hatch and I think I heard him cry out." The senator stood in the doorway, his attention constantly on Kuroda. "I called out to him, but there was no answer. I would've gone to check on him, but I don't think the prisoner should be left alone."

"Blair?" Forrester's tinny voice sounded from the headset.

"Jim's in trouble. Gotta go." He yanked off the headphones and followed McCain into the First Class cabin. He knelt beside the dark hole. "Jim!"

Silence. He positioned himself to go down the ladder, then looked up when McCain poked at him. A flashlight was in his hand.

"I used this to try to see him."

Blair grabbed the flashlight and descended. "Jim?" He played the light around. "Jim, answer me!" He found another black hole. The air coming up from it was smoking. Damn cold. "Jim, you down there?"

A cough, a groan, and then a "Stay where you are, Sandburg. I'll be up in a sec. And keep that flashlight to yourself. I'm blind enough as it is."

"What do you mean 'blind enough'? Jim?"

"I'm trying to concentrate."

A continuous string of muttered curses assured him that Jim was alive and functioning. He angled the flashlight beam down and away when he heard Jim move toward the ladder. Even in the resulting gloom he could tell Jim was in a bad way.

"What happened?" he asked, helping Jim settle on the lip of the hatch. His sentinel was cradling an arm against his chest.

"Water and electricity don't mix," Jim said dryly.

"From the cold?" Jim nodded. "How bad?" A hand slowly extended his way. "Watch your eyes," he warned as he brought the light to bear on the wound. "Shit. You said something about your sight?"

"Wasn't prepared for the flash."

"I need to get you upstairs."

Jim scooted backward. "Close the hatch." He talked him through the sealing process.

"Can you get up the next ladder?"

"No problem, Chief. I still have one leg and one arm operational."

Blair stood behind him, prepared to catch him if he slipped, but somehow Jim made it up into the cabin. "Senator, get me a blanket and the first aid kit," Blair ordered, taking Jim's elbow and guiding him into the only unoccupied seat--beside Kuroda.

Jim sank into the seat and threw his uninjured arm across his face.

"No. I need to see if there was any physical injury done, Jim." The arm was reluctantly lowered. Blair cupped one of his hands across the furrowed brow. "Open them just a little, Jim. I need to make sure a spark didn't…."

"Hurts."

"The light? I know. Where are your shades?"

"I don't know."

"I have a pair in my pocket," Kuroda said, pointing his chin at the top pocket of his jacket. "Ray-Bans okay?"

Blair plucked them out of the pocket and onto Jim's face. "Better?"

"Better."

Taking the blanket from the senator, he wrapped it around Jim's shoulders. "Good. Now let's see about that hand." Blair shook his head and opened an antiseptic wipe. "This is gonna hurt, man, but I have to clean it."

"I know."

"Take a deep breath, Detective. Then let it out slowly," Kuroda coached.

"You," Blair said pointing with the wipe, "be quiet. You shot him; you don't get to be a sympathetic voice. Comprendé?" He ignored the man as he tended to Jim's hand. The burn was deep, second degree at the very least. Bloody fluid welled up in patches of bared flesh. Blair carefully spread on the burn ointment he'd found in the kit, and secured a sterile pad over it with gauze.

"That it, Chief?"

"Maybe I should give you something more for the pain."

"Two words--cold medicine," Jim reminded him.

"I know, but I don't want you…doing what you sometimes do when you're over-stimulated."

"I don't think that's going to be a problem. The pain's too widespread for me to get really focused. My head hurts, my eyes, my hand, my leg, my chest--"

"Your chest? What's wrong with your chest?" Blair asked in alarm. An electrical shock could cause heart problems.

"Nothing serious. Just breathing in all that cold air in the wheel well. It was a bitch down there."

Blair nodded. "Got that impression from your shivers. Got a handy excuse for the beads of sweat on your lip?" He reached out to swipe at the perspiration and Jim jerked back.

"I'm fine."

"You're feverish."

"I think it's time we head back up front and see if my repairs worked."

"Maybe you should stay back here and rest," Blair said cautiously.

Jim figured that didn't even rate a reply, so he got up and hobbled back to the cockpit--blanket firmly in place.

"Got company, Chief."

Blair looked out the side window and saw a plane flying close to them. "Our escort, huh?"

"Yeah, and a bunch of anxious people on the radio. What did you tell them?"

"That you were in trouble. Which you were."

Jim reached for the headset. "Cascade Tower, this is Flight 919. All are present and accounted for."

"Thank God, Jim. Sandburg had us worried."

"False alarm, Captain. I reattached the wires. Forrester?"

"Is there a green light above the gear deployment switch?" the air traffic controller asked.

"Yes."

"Good. Guess we'll give it a try."

Jim nodded for Blair to trip the switch. There was a slight jar and Blair looked out to the see the other pilot put up his thumb. "It worked, Jim!"

"I heard, Sandburg."

"It worked, Cascade Tower. Our new friend just gave us the thumbs-up."

"That's Captain Paul Saunders. Say hi, Captain Saunders."

"Hello, Flight 919. I'm going to act as your wingman for a while, then when we're near the airport, I'll pull ahead and you can just follow me down. Do you copy?"

"Copy, Captain Saunders. Just tell me how to get Otto to follow your orders," Blair answered.

"Otto's going to take a break, Blair," Forrester said. "It's time to disengage the autopilot."

Blair froze. "Um, that seems a little hasty."

"No, it's not, Blair. You're ready."

"I really did flunk Driver's Ed. I was protesting the use of gas guzzlers and--"

"Sandburg."

Blair looked at Jim, and pleaded silently with him. Jim understood him. Jim knew he had a thing about heights. Jim--

"It's okay, Sandburg. We can let Otto fly us into the Washington Monument, or--I know what--I'll do it. So what if I'm one-handed and blind? This is America: I'm challenged, not handicapped."

--Wasn't going to let him get away with an unnecessary wimp out. "Bastard," he muttered fondly.

Jim just grinned.

"One-handed and blind? What are you talking about, Jim?" Simon asked.

"Water and electricity don't mix."

"What?"

"Yeah, it was a shock to me too," Jim replied straight-faced.

"That's it," Blair said, straightening in his seat. "Tell me what to do, Forrester. Jim's in dire need of medical attention if he's making puns like that."

"Everyone's a critic."

"You know, if anyone ever hijacks a plane I'm on, I want you two with me," Forrester said over the radio.

"Be careful what you wish for," Simon warned.

"We'll talk when you get down, guys. Okay, Blair, you need to be aware that you're going to feel a hell of a jerk on the steering column once the autopilot is disengaged. The trick here is to keep it steady despite the jerk."

"Don't even go there, Sandburg."

Blair tried to affect a "Moi?" attitude, but only succeeded in a satisfied smirk. Jim groaned loudly. The smirk turned into a smile. He knew exactly what Jim was doing and he was grateful. "I'm ready, Forrester."

"Wait," Jim said quickly. Blair looked at him in confusion, then nodded his understanding as Jim nudged on the internal PA system.

"Listen up! This is Detective Ellison. Everyone sit down and strap yourselves in. The plane's going to buck slightly, then we'll start our descent into Port Columbus Airport." He turned the intercom off.

"Very authoritative," Blair said dryly.

"What? I told them what they needed to know, right?"

"T-A-C-T, Jim. Man, we have to work on that when we get you home. Any words of wisdom, Forrester?"

"You know what to do."

Blair took a deep breath, and disengaged the autopilot.

~CHAPTER THIRTEEN~

Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

Major Soren stared at the television, alternately rooting for the valiant people aboard Flight 919, and…. No. He had never wished anyone dead--other than his best friend, Mitchell, when he found out whose "tighty whities" had been flying at half-mast at graduation. He'd switched to boxers the next day and had thanked Mitchell for the change. They were a lot less binding.

Mitchell had just laughed and said, "Soren, you have got to be the only person in the world who tells the truth no matter what. That'll either take you far or leave you in the gutter."

Truth.

He didn't regret that the plane was going to land, and perhaps expose one of NORAD's biggest secrets. But he did regret that the exposure might come with a devastating body count. Of course, the odds were that even if the package was compromised, nothing would happen. That was the problem. The odds just weren't great enough for the CINC to open NORAD up to public scrutiny and fear. It was best that they just all sit back and hold their breaths until either the worst happened or nothing happened. Right?

He looked up, surprised, as Colonel Wentworth came out of his office. He'd figured his commanding officer would sulk privately until the incident was over.

"Something you need, sir?"

"Just decided to call it a day a little early, Major."

Soren frowned. "You're not--"

"Going to stay and watch this travesty? No. Got better things to do. Where's Captain Fairchild?"

"Taking some correspondence to the mail center."

"Business as usual. I knew I liked that gal."

Soren coughed, knowing how Fairchild would respond to being called a "gal". "Do you want me to contact you if--"

Colonel Wentworth patted his shoulder and continued out the door. "You worry too much, Major. Things will work out. You'll see."

Soren shivered at the colonel's tone.

Flight 919

The plane flew steady. Except for a slight dip that possibly only Jim felt, there was very little change between machine control and human.

"I'm flying, Jim! I'm really flying!"

Jim nodded. "Never doubted you for a minute, buddy."

"I know. That's why I could do it."

The words hit Jim low in the stomach and spread a warmth through him that rivaled the fever. Maybe there was a use for words after all.

Freak.

Jim shuddered, the word coming unbidden to his thoughts. From where? And why now? Because he was beginning to trust in words and he needed to be reminded that words--even a single short one--could destroy as easily as they lifted?

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a pilot," Forrester announced enthusiastically. Jim could hear tinny applause coming through the headset. "How is she feeling, Captain Sandburg?"

"I think I'm in love. Hey, Forrester, does this mean I get to wear a pair of those little wings on my shirt? Cool."

"I'll have a pair waiting for you when you get back to Cascade. Is Captain Saunders in front of you?"

"Yes."

"You having any trouble following him?"

"No. All the controls work just the way you said they would."

"Good. It's been an experience flying with you, Blair. And you too, Ellison."

"Sounds like a farewell," Blair said, glancing at Jim worriedly.

"It is. I need to switch you over to Port Columbus Tower. They'll guide you the rest of the way."

"Dinner on us when we get back to Cascade," Jim offered.

"Sounds like a winner. There will be a couple minutes delay before you hear from Port Columbus. Just continue to follow Captain Saunders."

"Thanks, Forrester."

"Behave!" Simon called out.

"I think the captain's experiencing separation anxiety, Jim."

"Probably just concerned we're going to be a little late coming in on Monday. Don't worry, sir, I'm sure Chief Warren will accept my excuse."

"Give it a rest, Ellison. I mean it: do everything Captain Saunders and the Tower tell you to do. And no lip."

"Yes, sir. We won't be taking any chances, Simon. See you soon."

"Take care, guys," Forrester said. "This is Cascade Tower signing off."

"Geez, I feel like an aerialist in the circus who just found out someone's taken away his safety net. No Otto. No Cascade Tower," Blair said softly into the suddenly too quiet cockpit.

Jim nodded, knowing exactly what Blair was feeling. Abandonment. He could relate. And maybe he could also help Blair through it. "Want to know what I've learned in a lifetime of flying without a net?"

"What's that, Jim?"

"You don't need a net--when you have a partner."

The smile he received was worth the risk of saying the words.

Cascade International Airport

"That's it?" Sarah asked, not quite believing it.

"From our end, anyway," Forrester said, clicking the mike off. "Port Columbus has been monitoring ever since it was decided 919 would land there. They are totally aware of the situation, and I'm confident everyone's in good hands."

"You said Port Columbus monitored us," Sarah said. "Is there any way for us to monitor them?"

Forrester nodded. "Give me a sec."

"Don't want to miss the end, huh?" Simon asked.

"I think we earned it, don't you?"

He nodded. "You did an excellent job, Agent."

"Sarah. I'm tired of just being Agent Jefferson."

"You're quitting the Bureau?"

She shook her head. "No, I think for the first time, I'm going to join it."

"Huh?" Exasperation showed on his face.

"Sarah Jefferson is joining the FBI. Agent Jefferson is retiring."

Simon still stared in puzzlement. Then the fog lifted. "Oh. It's about time."

She smiled. "Thank you for showing me the way, for remembering Sarah."

Simon took a step backward. "I haven't done anything."

"No. Just showed me what the job is about: teamwork, respect, trust. Today I put in a day's work--real work. Thanks for the ass-kicking."

He frowned. "I don't remember any ass-kicking."

"Simon, you challenged everything I did. Almost like old times." Her smile was bittersweet.

"Sarah, if you thought that was ass-kicking, then it has been too long. The Bureau has spoiled you."

"Or maybe I spoiled the Bureau by being too complacent. I have a lot of thinking to do after today."

Joel tapped Simon on the sleeve. "Want me to go make you a reservation on the next flight to Ohio?"

"That won't be necessary," Newkirk said, pocketing a cell phone. "You can just hitch a ride with me. I have a flight waiting on the tarmac."

"Thank you, Newkirk. Can you delay leaving until they're safely on the ground?"

"Was planning on it. You're invited as well, Agent Jefferson."

"Thank you, Mr. Newkirk. I accept your offer. I'm eager to sit in on the questioning of the hijackers."

Simon drew his keys out of his pocket. "I have a bag packed in my trunk--"

"Let me get it for you," Brown said, holding out his hand. "I'm no good at waiting around quietly. Besides, the press won't recognize me when I go out there."

"Thanks, Brown." Simon tossed him the keys, and watched him and Rafe leave. He turned to Sarah. "I suppose your people have a team waiting at the airport?"

Sarah gave him a small smile. "Don't worry, Simon. The Bureau will look after your boys, make sure they aren't crowded by the press, etcetera."

"Am I that obvious?" he asked, properly abashed.

"It stands to reason that you'd be worried about not being there to shield them yourself. I've noticed how quick you are to defend them."

"Habit."

"One I plan on acquiring."

"What? Defending your colleagues? Well, you certainly picked the right crowd."

"And I was thinking that maybe we could sit down and bond over a cup of coffee later. Pity, Banks. I've learned to make a pretty good cup of coffee over the years."

He gave her a double-take and she winked suggestively.

"You still like your coffee the same way?"

"Strong and dark--with just a hint of sugar."

Simon laughed. "It's good to have my Sarah back."

She grinned. It was good to be back.

"I have that link to Port Columbus," Forrester called. "Just the tower part of the conversation, though." He boosted the sound.

"Flight 919, just follow the coordinates and you'll do fine."

"Roger, Flight 919. You are cleared to land."

"Flight 919, you are not on course! What are you doing? Flight 919, what's--Shit! What was that? Oh, man! Are they hit? Are they hit?"

The feed was abruptly cut.

Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

"This is Geoffrey Hume-Graham. We have a breaking report coming in from Port Columbus Airport in Ohio. Tony, what's happening?" The television screen went from the familiar studio backdrop of the anchor desk to an outdoor shot full of scrambling people and loud talking. The camera keyed in on a man with a microphone. He held one hand to his ear, adjusting his receiver.

"Geoffrey, I'm not sure if I can describe it all. We were all standing outside, waiting for Flight 919 to arrive. The two planes came in sight, the first one being the military plane assigned as Flight 919's escort. The military plane lands and Flight 919 heads in right behind it. Then all of a sudden, Flight 919 is climbing again. Just as it thunders overhead, there's a streak of light and right where Flight 919 should have been, there's this huge explosion."

"What kind of explosion?"

"The kind I witnessed while covering Desert Storm."

"Are you saying that someone intentionally tried to blow up Flight 919?"

"I'm just telling you what I saw. The authorities are scrambling at the moment, trying to find out the origin of the missile. As soon as they have something concrete, I'll pass on the information."

"You all must be in shock."

"I tell you, Geoffrey, I haven't seen this many gaping faces since the Challenger explosion. If Flight 919 hadn't veered…." Tony was visibly shaken.

"Okay, Tony, we're going to let you go and catch your breath for a few minutes." The television screen showed the studio again. "To reiterate for those of you who may have stepped away from the television for a short while, there has been an attempt to blow up Flight 919. Eyewitnesses saw what appeared to be some sort of projectile streak through the sky toward the plane which, at the last minute, veered off course and out of the way. Let's talk to our expert in terrorism, Dr. Paul Sutter. Dr. Sutter, are you still on the line?"

"Yes, Geoffrey. What I think--"

Major Barry Soren turned off the television--and picked up the phone.

~CHAPTER FOURTEEN~

Flight 919

To Blair, it all happened in a blink of an eye:

He'd been listening carefully to the instructions coming from Port Columbus Tower. The man didn't sound as caring as Forrester, but how could you compare a ten-minute relationship to a ninety-minute one? Anyway, between the tower and Saunders, he'd been doing good. Trim this, lower that--he was getting fluent in pilot-speak.

And in Jim-slump. He couldn't be sure because of the shades, but he thought Jim might be asleep or unconscious. He hadn't said a word since Port Columbus had taken over, and although Jim had a possible concussion, he'd decided not to disturb him. No, the best thing would be to get the plane on the ground so Jim could get medical help. So he listened to his instructors, had the runway in sight and was aiming straight for it when:

Jim sat up and ripped off his headset. "Pull up! Now!"

It was Jim's "get down!" voice, not to be responded to by anything other than the requested action. Blair pulled back on the steering column and Flight 919 headed back toward the sky.

*****

To Jim, it all happened in slow motion:

He'd sat back, quietly listening to the instructions Blair was being given. He'd figured his partner didn't need any distractions. And despite his earlier words, he still believed more in action than in talk, so he figured he'd show how much faith he had in Blair by showing he was confident in his abilities.

The plane descended smoothly, the engines were being cut back. And then he heard something. Or at least he thought he heard something. And what he thought he heard scared him in places he'd forgotten he had. He ripped off the headset:

And the sound was confirmed. A high-pitched tone that indicated something had acquired lock on a target--and that target was them.

"Pull up! Now!"

Blair didn't hesitate. The plane shot back up.

A whine, then an explosion off the starboard side rocked the plane. Blair struggled for control. The plane vibrated ominously. Their airspeed was too slow. Jim reached out and adjusted the throttle. In less than a minute, the plane was cruising normally. Headed toward where? Neither of them cared.

"What the fuck was that?" Blair finally asked, his grip white on the steering column.

"An anti-aircraft missile."

Blair's knuckles grew whiter. "You have to give it to Kuroda and his people: they're certainly thorough," he hissed through clenched teeth.

"No."

"No?"

Jim shook his head. "There's no way in hell they could have anticipated the plane would attempt a landing at that particular airport."

"So it wasn't something Kuroda or one of the others set up?"

"No."

"Then that means…."

"Yes."

"Shit, Jim. How many people are trying to kill us?"

"Apparently more than we thought."

Blair took a deep breath. "What'll we do now?"

"Talk to those idiots jabbering on the radio, I suppose." Both of them had ignored the calls while they fought to stabilize the plane.

"Why would I want to talk to them? They almost got us blown up!"

Jim shivered. "Yeah, I know." Fire, blood, death.

Blair reached out and touched his arm. "We're not in Peru, man. Your team is safe, thanks to you."

"Close." Where's the foot? Can't bury a man without his foot. Where's the boot he was wearing? Just a blood-stained sock. Never get it clean. Never….

"Jim."

He forced himself to leave the past where it belonged. "I'm here, Chief."

"Good. I need you here, okay?"

"Got it."

Blair spoke into his microphone. "Port Columbus Tower, this is Flight 919. Do you treat all your visitors that way, or are we just special?"

"Flight 919, are you okay? What happened?"

"That's what the fu--" Blair forcibly blew out air through his mouth. "That's what we'd like to know, Port Columbus. You just happen to have anti-aircraft weaponry near your airport? How convenient."

"We're not sure exactly what that explosion was."

"Well, we are!"

"Tell them to switch us back to Cascade Tower, Chief. I can't take their bullshit anymore, and there's no way in hell we're going to be landing there."

"Port Columbus Tower, this is Flight 919. Requesting a transfer back to Cascade Tower control. My co-pilot and I are tired of your bullshit."

"Flight 919--"

"Switch us back, goddamnit!" Jim rubbed his temples; the outburst hadn't helped his head. Or anything else for that matter. "Sorry about losing it like that, Chief."

"That was so not losing it, Jim. Losing it would involve telling me to buzz the tower and flipping them the bird. And even if you did lose it, you wouldn't need to apologize. I know this is all too real for you."

Jim turned away from the sympathetic look. "It's the not knowing. It's been almost a decade and I still don't know why we were shot down--why they had to die. The rebels shouldn't have known our position."

"Just like now," Blair said softly.

"Yeah, just like now."

"You're not alone."

Jim's smile was more like a grimace. "I have my team with me."

"Flight 919. This is Cascade Tower."

"And a team rooting for you back home, man. Eighteen months…. The Army has a lot to answer for, in my opinion."

Jim shrugged. "And we're going to have a lot to answer for if we don't reply soon."

Blair adjusted his mike. "Cascade Tower, you don't know how good it is to hear your voice."

Cascade International Airport

"It's good to hear you too, Flight 919," Forrester said, grinning from ear to ear.

"Ellison, Sandburg, what's going on up there?" Simon asked gruffly. It felt like he'd aged ten years in the time it took for Port Columbus to finally tell them what had happened. Then there was another ten years lost while waiting to hear Blair and Jim's voices.

"Someone shot a missile at us."

"Are you serious, Sandburg?"

"Dead serious, sir," Jim replied.

Simon closed his eyes. If anyone knew what a missile strike was like at close-range, it was Jim. "The plane's okay? We have you on radar again."

"Jim got us out of the way in time, Simon. The plane wasn't damaged."

"And you?"

"Shaken, but okay."

"Got any idea why someone would want to kill a plane full of people? And please, don't all answer at once," Jim said acridly.

Simon could tell his friend was almost at the end of his tether. "Have you talked to your buddy, Kuroda?"

"Jim doesn't think he's involved, Captain."

"I can answer for myself, Sandburg."

"You need to conserve your strength. You're as pale as a ghost, except for those two bright red patches on your cheeks. And don't bother to glare at me; the Ray-Bans nullify the effect. So, Simon, as I was saying, Jim figures Kuroda and his people couldn't have set up a secondary system because they wouldn't know where we'd be landing."

"So you're saying it has to be somebody on the outside?"

"Yes, sir. Launchers are easily portable these days. Barring the time to gather the ordnance and transport to the site, a trained agent could target and destroy a plane in a matter of minutes. Was the Port Columbus location widely known?"

Simon heard the strain in Jim's voice and knew Blair was correct; Jim needed to conserve his strength. "This is being covered all over the world. Listen to your partner, Jim. Let us get to the bottom of this."

"When? We're sorta running out of options. Not to mention fuel."

"Detective Ellison, how did you anticipate the attack?" Sarah asked.

"Are you implying something, Agent Jefferson?" Simon growled defensively.

Sarah jumped slightly. "No. I just wanted to know what gave the launcher away."

"It's okay, Captain. I'll answer her question," Jim said. "I'm a former soldier, Agent Jefferson. Scanning approaching territory becomes sort of a habit. When the launcher was shifted, for better aiming I suppose, it caught the sun. I saw the glint, and told Sandburg to get out of the way."

Smooth, Ellison. Simon flicked an irritated glance at his former girlfriend. "Good enough, Agent?"

"For now."

Newkirk, who had been consulting with some sort of mini-computer--a PDA, Blair called them--rushed between them. "Mr. Sandburg, I need you to correct your heading to--" A list of numbers rolled off of Newkirk's lips.

"And where are we going to end up?" Blair asked suspiciously.

"I'd rather not say, in case we're being monitored. It would take somebody with experience to decipher the coordinates."

"Which would help finger the culprit if something happens at this site," Simon murmured approvingly. "Good call, Newkirk."

"This is not some kind of conspiracy," Sarah chided.

"Tell that to the nearly one hundred people aboard that plane, Agent," Simon retorted. "The one hundred people who thought they were going to be safely on the ground at this point. Missiles don't target planes by themselves."

"It could be just some random copycat, Captain Banks, wanting exactly what Kuroda and the others wanted--fifteen minutes of fame."

"Or it could be someone afraid of what the two surviving hijackers have to say," Joel pointed out.

"Or a faction that is intent on truly making this an international incident," Simon said, noticing Forrester was ignoring the conversation, talking quietly with the plane. Good. Distract Jim for me. He doesn't need to hear this shit--at least, not until it's worked out.

"A terrorist organization taking advantage of Kuroda's lame ass operation?" Newkirk mused. "I could buy into that."

"All this speculation is getting us nowhere, gentlemen. I assure you, the Bureau is on top of the situation in Ohio," Sarah interjected in a reasonable tone.

"Like they were when the missile launcher was being set up?" Simon snarled. "Sorry, Agent Jefferson, but I'm more inclined to go along with the FAA than the Bureau at the moment."

"This could have happened on anyone's watch, Captain Banks," Sarah replied.

"Very true," Simon admitted. He sighed and adjusted his glasses. "I apologize if it sounded like I was blaming the Bureau. In fact, the only person or persons we should be blaming are the ones responsible. We just have to identify who that is."

"I assure you that the area around Port Columbus Airport has been locked down tight." Sarah's cell phone rang. "Probably Ohio now." She walked off for privacy.

Simon drifted back to Forrester. The controller smiled and shifted when he saw the captain.

"Jim?"

"Sir?"

Simon took a second to figure out how to phrase the question properly. Maybe he and Jim should sit down one day and come up with a set of codes for situations like this. "Uh, any speculations you'd like to make about who shot the missile?" Did your sentinel senses catch anything you can't tell me about with so many people listening?

"No, sir. Everything happened suddenly. I just wanted to make sure we got out of there in time."

"Understood. The Bureau is tearing apart Ohio, looking for our shooter. We'll soon find out who's behind this."

"Good," Blair called out. "It's bad enough when people are trying to kill you and you know why."

"Let it go, Chief."

Sarah hurried to the panel. "The Bureau has the shooter, gentlemen. His name is Charles Porter. A former Marine. Does he sound familiar to anyone?" A chorus of no's.

"Any clue as to why?" Simon asked.

"They haven't gotten around to the questioning yet."

"When the hell are they going to?" Simon shouted.

"Processing him takes time."

"Time my people don't have! Of all the-- Listen, guys. The shooter is in custody. So just follow Forrester and Newkirk's instructions and we'll have answers for you when you land."

"Okay, Simon. We'll leave the investigating to you for now. Right, Jim?"

"Sure, Chief."

Simon didn't like the resignation he heard in his detective's voice. Jim never quit; that was what made him so good, and yet, so dangerous. "Jim, we mere mortals can handle this one. I promise you," he teased warmly. He frowned as Sarah's phone rang again.

"Cute, Captain, and I'm going to hold you to it. The only thing I'm going to do is sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride."

"You do that, Detective." Simon stepped back from the mike. "He needs to be in the hospital, damn it," he muttered. "How much longer until their next landing attempt?"

"Approximately thirty minutes," Newkirk answered.

"And how much fuel do they have left?"

"Approximately ten minutes longer than that."

"Whew! That's cutting it close, isn't it?" Joel asked.

Newkirk gave a grim nod. "Close actually counts in horseshoes--and plane landings."

"Something you learned from the FAA?"

"No, Captain Banks. From the NTSB."

The National Transportation Safety Board--who investigated accidents, crashes…deaths. "They're onsite, aren't they?"

"As well as every emergency vehicle that can be spared."

Simon nodded. "That offer still hold for the plane ride?"

"Oh, yeah. They touch down, we take off. Guaranteed, Captain Banks."

"What?"

Everyone turned to look at Sarah, whose loud exclamation was directed into her cell phone.

"You can't be serious. Okay, give me the particulars. Yeah. Is there a chance that…. Yes. Well, I think that should be discussed with Captain Banks. He would know better than…Yes, I think it would be best. Uh-huh. Yes, sir. I'll call when the decision has been made."

"What decision?" Simon asked as she hung up.

"The Bureau got an interesting call from NORAD. It seems that one of their scientists, an Air Force colonel, is responsible for putting a 'hit' out on Flight 919."

"NORAD? What? He thinks the plane has escaped from Area 51 or something?"

Her lips thinned in a tight grimace. "Something like that, Detective Brown. It seems that there's a 'package' aboard Flight 919. The colonel thinks that it could possibly be damaged in a hard landing."

"And?"

"And there could possibly be a chance of contamination."

"By what? What's in this package?" Simon demanded.

"NORAD is careful not to say--only to assure us that the possibility of contamination is so small that command considers it negligible."

"But one of the scientists who works with it disagrees?" Simon didn't like the sound of it. "What decision am I supposed to make?"

"Whether to tell Ellison and Sandburg about the potential threat they have on board."

"Why wouldn't we?"

"Because it puts extra pressure on them in making the landing."

"So you say just let them land and mention it to them later. 'Oh, gentlemen, a funny thing about the cargo on that plane of yours?'"

"That's not what I'm saying, it's the Assistant Director."

"Well, you can tell your Assistant Director that Captain Banks disagreed heartily. Excuse me while I go give my men the latest update."

He walked to the panel. "Ellison, Sandburg?"

"Yeah, Simon?"

"We know why the plane was targeted. It was because of a package that you're carrying."

"What kind of package?"

"A military one. It was eventually scheduled for delivery to a NORAD facility."

"What's in the package?"

"NORAD's not saying, but the colonel who arranged the hit on your plane seems to think it contains some kind of contaminant. He was afraid that if the package was damaged during your landing, it could--"

"Infect the area?"

"Something like that, Sandburg. We don't have any details, but officials high in NORAD don't consider the package a threat."

A moment of silence, then, "You gonna make it, man?"

"Don't have much of a choice, do I?"

"Forrester, how much longer until we're scheduled to land?"

"Twenty-five minutes."

"Twenty minutes, Jim. Then I need you back here to help me…."

"Twenty minutes, Chief."

"Sandburg, what's going on?" Simon called out.

"Jim's gone to see if he can find the package, Captain."

Newkirk shook his head. "You know how many packages ship every flight? There'll be thousands of boxes in the cargo hold--and he doesn't even know what he's looking for."

"What's with the twenty minute time limit?" No reply. "Answer me, Sandburg."

"If Jim doesn't find the package and make sure it's secure, we're going to have to decide what to do."

"What do you mean, 'what to do'? You land the plane and you get away from the site as quickly as possible."

"Simon, if that colonel was so scared about what's in that package getting out that he risked blowing up a planeload of people on national TV, then I don't think he's worried about something that will just cause a bad rash."

"Pure speculation," Simon scoffed, ignoring the fact that the same thought had entered his own mind. "NORAD officials--"

"NORAD officials are trying to cover their own asses, Captain."

"I'm sure there's going to be hazardous material agents on hand when you land."

"Forrester, could you…could you work up the coordinates for getting us out over the Atlantic?"

"Sandburg!"

"It's--it's only a backup plan, Simon. You know Jim. He couldn't live with this if the colonel's right."

"But it's not just Jim's life on the line. It's yours and the others onboard."

"And the entire Eastern Seaboard."

"And how can you be sure you're protecting people by ditching in the ocean?"

"If we head in nose first, the plane shouldn't break apart too much."

"Stop this nonsense, Sandburg."

"Forrester, you might want to put in a call to the Coast Guard. There might be a chance to rescue some of us." Blair's voice dropped to a near-whisper.

"Blair?"

"Oh, hi, Joel. Jim told me you were there."

"You and Jim…do what you think you have to do. And know you have the support of your friends."

"Thanks, Joel. That means a lot. I--I have a couple of things I want done, but we'll talk about that later if we have to, okay?"

"Sandburg, you and Jim didn't even discuss this," Simon argued. "Unless you have some really weird conversations at the loft."

"Some things don't have to be discussed when you know what's right. Forrester, you have those coordinates?"

"I'll give them to you right before I switch you over to Dulles Tower."

"Dulles? That's where we're headed? But we don't want to switch to Dulles Tower. We want you to guide us in, man."

"I'm a few thousand miles away."

"Doesn't matter. You're the only one we trust."

"Thanks for the sentiment, but--"

"Tell him you'll do it," Newkirk urged.

Forrester turned away from the mike. "How?"

"We'll patch you into Dulles, and you can pass the instructions on to them."

"Do it." Forrester turned back to the panel. "Okay, Blair, we're going to do it your way. Give us a minute to set it up."

"You can have seventeen minutes if you want."

"Just a couple will do. Cascade Tower out."

~CHAPTER FIFTEEN~

Flight 919

"Detective, was that--?" McCain asked when Jim came through the door.

"Yes, it was, Senator." He limped down the aisle.

"Why?"

"Too long a story. Ask later." Jim disappeared through the separating curtain.

"Detective! What is the meaning of…."

"Detective, I thought you were flying…."

"Excuse me, but I was under the impression…."

"Why on earth are you wearing sunglasses?"

"Detective, tell these idiots that wasn't a…."

"Detective, is Blair okay?"

Jim stopped and turned to Agnes. "Blair is fine, ladies. Just a bit busy at the moment."

"Like you are. Thank you for answering."

"You're welcome." Jim continued his uneven gait toward the rear of the plane.

"Need some help, Detective?" the man sitting next to Ishimaru asked. The hijacker was sporting handcuffs and was further bound by various fabric ties. Looked like the Chicago Diocese women had been busy.

Jim started to say no, but realized he had no time for pride. "Come with me," he said gruffly.

"Name's Harry."

"Harry, I have to get something out of the cargo hold."

"Okay."

Thankful for having memorized the plane's schematics, Jim led Harry to the access hatch in the galley. While he guided the man in how to open it, he glanced at his watch. Damn it. It'd taken twice as long as he'd figured to get from the flightdeck to the galley. Suck it up, and get your ass in gear, Ellison.

"What now, Detective?"

Jim stared into the dark hole and shivered from the cold air coming from it. "I go down and find what I'm looking for."

"Can I help? Hold a flashlight, if nothing else?"

He still had the shades; the light shouldn't be too bad. "Sure, Harry. There should be a flashlight in the last overhead compartment."

Harry disappeared and Jim lowered himself into the cargo hold, glad Harry wasn't around to hear the grunts of pain he couldn't avoid making. Neither his upper nor his lower body was reliable; he had to find an uneasy balance to make it down the ladder without just dropping.

He stared at the thousands of packages crammed into the hold. Shit. One fucking break. That was all he'd asked for. Apparently he'd managed to piss off whoever was in charge of the universe in a big way. Typical.

"What are we looking for, Detective?" Harry stood behind him, waving the flashlight around.

"Hell if I know, Harry."

"Any particular place we should start?"

Jim was starting to like Harry's ability not to ask stupid questions, like "why are we looking for something we don't know we're looking for?"

"Give me a minute to get the lay of the land."

Harry silently aimed the flashlight.

Jim tried to play the "If I was an important package, where would I be?" game, but since he'd sucked at such imagery games as a child, he was destined to suck at it now.

You're a sentinel. Play the hand you've been dealt.

Sight isn't going to help much. Most of the packages are hidden behind the others. Too bad it's not a bomb; I could just key in on the ticking. Touch is out as well as taste. Smell? Maybe if I knew what was in the package. Wait. I don't know what's in it, but I know where it was packed up. A military base. I know what a base smells like. Army, Navy, Air Force--they all smell alike. Part locker room, part dry cleaners, part Clorox-y, like a mess hall.

Find the scent, Jim.

Shut up and fly the plane, Blair.

The scent was faint and Jim worried he was making it up, an olfactory hallucination due to extreme desperation. But it was the only lead he had. "This way, Harry."

Even with Harry's help, Jim knew it was taking too long. If I don't make it back up there, you know what to do, Chief. And oddly enough, Blair did. Just as Jim was getting into the swing of using words, they hadn't needed them. Simon had mentioned the colonel's fears and he and Blair had looked at each other--and instantly known what had to be done. Blair hadn't even tried to stop him from looking for the package. Hmm. He could get used to having a partner.

Jim shuffled boxes until his body was drenched with sweat and his head was threatening to explode. The bandage around his hand had been shredded by all the handling, and Jim hoped people wouldn't be too upset to see a bloody handprint on their goods. He was clean--had the medical report to prove it--and besides, germs had an exposed shelf life of what? Maybe a couple of minutes.

Sweat poured into his eyes and he had to remove the shades to wipe at them. But even sweat-free, his vision was blurry. That was why he didn't trust it when he saw the box wrapped in hazardous material tape.

Deliver to: Cheyenne Mountain Air Station.

Jim didn't realize he'd grabbed it until Harry came up beside him and touched his shoulder.

"Is that it, Detective?"

"Yes, Harry. Goddamn it, yes."

Cascade International Airport

As he waited for word from the plane, Simon leaned back against the wall. The spot was oddly comforting. Sandburg would probably run on and on about the psychological significance of the familiar, and what the wall represented. Blah, blah, blah.

But if the worst happened, then he wouldn't ever have to worry about Sandburg talking him to death again. Hell, he'd never have to worry about Ellison and Sandburg again. No early gray hairs, no excessive wrinkles, no creative lies to his superior officers, or judicious writing of reports….

"You look like you could use a hug from an old friend."

He smiled. "You're on duty, Agent Jefferson."

"If the Assistant Director has his way, I'm not."

"He wasn't happy that I told my men the truth? Hell, neither am I. But it had to be done. I'm sorry if you got in trouble because of it."

"Actually, it feels good to be in trouble. Like that old saying about the squeaky wheel, it's a relief to finally be noticed. Blending into the woodwork was never my strong point."

"Yet you've done it all these years."

"But no more."

Simon looked as happy about that as she did. "You coming with me and Newkirk to Dulles, or are you still heading to Ohio?"

"I thought I'd go with you and Newkirk. Someone's going to have to interview your men and I am familiar--to you and to them."

"So, you're of the opinion that they'll be around to talk to," he said, latching onto her hope.

She nodded. "Ellison will find the package and Sandburg will land the plane. I have faith in that. Want to know why?"

"Why?"

"Because of your faith. You've been expecting miracles all day, Simon. Don't lower your expectations now. Not when they need your faith more than ever."

Simon thought back to Blair holding his own with Lash and Kincaid. And Ellison took on every moving object he ever met; why should an airplane be any different? The man was a menace to the transportation industry. His eyes lit up with humor. "I think I'd like that hug now, Agent Jefferson, if the offer still stands?"

She smiled and held out her arms.

Flight 919

Blair looked at his watch, then out to the sky beyond. Jim would either find the package or he wouldn't, he thought philosophically.

Cut the bullshit, Blair. You haven't come this far to "go gently into the good night."

I can't--I won't--be responsible for the deaths of thousands.

Could just be the ravings of a mad scientist.

I've always been a conspiracy theorist, remember? I stood on the grassy knoll in Dallas. I visited the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. I analyzed moon rocks just to make sure they weren't dug up in someone's backyard. If the man was scared enough to try to shoot down a plane in front of a live television audience, I tend to think he had a real reason to be frightened.

Doesn't mean that landing the plane will damage the whatchamacallit.

Excuse me? Seen our track record lately?

I think you've been around you-know-who too long.

Yep. I concur. Just another reason for me to leave.

It'll hurt him if you leave.

Staying is hurting him. He's grown dependent. Hell, I've grown dependent. What kind of paper can I objectively write when I've been intimately involved in every one of his cases? He uses a sense and I'm there giving him hints and suggestions. He gets frustrated and I'm the one who's encouraging and supportive. If I'm going to write about him, I need distance. And even then, I'm not sure I'll be able to be objective.

But he needs you. Where would he be if you weren't here?

In Cascade because this whole Chicago trip was for me.

He doesn't make friends easily--and he's given you his friendship.

I know. But this was always a business relationship. It isn't my fault he's turned it into something else.

It isn't?

"Chief."

Blair turned to watch Jim basically fall into the cockpit. In the hand not holding on to whatever could support his weight was a cardboard box.

"You got it?"

"I got it."

Shakily, Jim scrambled into his seat, Blair having to reach over and help him before he bumped into the instrument panel.

"Easy, man. Be a shame for you to crash us just when I was getting ready to ask for permission to land," Blair chided gently.

"Ask already, Sandburg."

"Cascade Tower, this is Flight 919 requesting permission to land at Dulles Airport."

"This is Cascade Tower, relaying permission from Dulles Tower. Correct your approach to…."

The runway loomed large, and seemed to be coming up much too fast. Blair took a deep, steadying breath, and took a firmer grip on the stick.

The landing ended up being way too uneventful considering the eventfulness leading up to it. Blair obediently followed Forrester's relayed commands. Throttle. Altitude. Throttle. Brake. The plane bounced onto the tarmac. Another set of hasty commands. Brakes. Throttle all the way down. The brakes squealed, the bed of foam covering the runway not providing much traction. A slide to the right.

Complete stop.

Strobing lights coming toward him made Blair breathe again. Words were being shouted into his head. Oh, the headset.

"I did it," he whispered in wonder.

"Flight 919?"

"I did it," he said louder. "Plane. Ground. One piece."

"Congratulations, Flight 919. Please be advised that everyone is to remain seated until the rescue personnel arrive."

"Why? We aren't on fire or anything, are we?" Blair asked in a rush.

"That's a negative, Flight 919. Just a standard precaution."

"Okay. 'Cause I really wouldn't have liked getting this far--you know, like, on the ground--only to turn the plane into an inferno on the runway. Guess that'd be like combining an Airport movie with Towering Inferno."

"Flight 919. Blair?" Forrester gently intruded.

"Um, yeah?"

"What about the package?"

Blair looked at Jim and found him unconscious, held up only by the seat restraints. But cradled safely in his arms was the package.

Way to protect the tribe, man.

"Package is secure." Blair took a deep breath and swung his gaze back to the panoramic view provided by the windshield. Blacktop. Trees. Approaching emergency vehicles. Oh. Right.

He hit the internal PA system. "Welcome to Dulles International Airport, just outside Washington, D.C. Please stay in your seats until we are boarded by officials who will help you disembark safely. And thank you for flying Ellison-Sandburg Air," he added with a grin.

Forrester's voice caught his attention again.

"Flight 919. This is Cascade Tower signing off. I'll bring the champagne for dinner."

"Sounds good, man. This is Flight 919 signing off." He took off the headset and hung it reverently on the steering column. It had been a lifeline.

He stayed in his seat like he'd been told to do and reached over to feel Jim's forehead. It was hot, but no more than before. Jim would be fine. He just knew it. "We did it, Jim. You and me. Again. What d'ya say we skip Chicago this time? I'll go in the gift shop and get us a D.C. tour guide, and we'll do the district in style, okay?"

Yeah, they'd just do D.C. for their anniversary. It would be their city.

~CHAPTER SIXTEEN~

Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.

"Sandburg."

Blair looked up in surprise. He had been "sequestered" in the hospital library for security reasons. One of the reasons Jim had been airlifted to Walter Reed was because of the amount of press clamoring around the Dulles area. The military facility was better prepared to rebuff the intrepid and daring reporters who would stop at nothing to get an interview with anyone who'd been on Flight 919. But even Walter Reed's security wasn't perfect. Hence the banishment to the library.

Blair put down the medical text he was reading. It had given him several ideas about additional tests for Jim. "Simon, what are you doing here, man?"

Simon harrumphed and lowered his long body into a chair. "Don't ask stupid questions. How's your partner?"

"He just came out of surgery. His surgeon said Jim must be the luckiest person he knows to survive not only the hijacking, but also that the bullet didn't do any more damage than it did. The thigh's a mess and the infection got a good hold, but he predicts Jim's going to make a full recovery."

Simon gave a sigh of relief. "How about you?"

"I wasn't injured." Simon just stared at him. "I'm doing okay, Captain. But I'll be a lot better after they let me see Jim. Hopefully, that should be soon."

"You guys did a hell of a job today."

Blair shrugged. "Gee, Captain, was today any different from any other day I've spent as an observer for the CPD?" His eyes twinkled mischievously.

"Come to think of it, you're right. It was just a typical day for you and your partner, wasn't it?"

"Just higher up and farther away," Blair agreed. "So how long are you going to be around?"

"Only a couple of days. We all can't be slackers, lying around hospitals, getting sympathetic smiles from nurses. Some of us actually have to do important stuff--like fill out reports in triplicate and attend budget meetings."

Blair smiled. "Tell you what, Simon. Next time you take the hijacked plane and I'll attend the budget meeting."

"It's a deal. You've never been to a budget meeting, Sandburg. Trust me, it can get brutal."

"Well, we both know which one Jim would pick."

They both grinned. "The hijackers!"

*****

A soft sigh made Blair sit up from the lounger placed next to Jim's bed. "You waking up, Jim?"

"Should I?" Jim's eyes remained closed.

"I told them absolutely no green Jello."

"Jello. Means I'm in a hospital. Which one?"

"Walter Reed. You had the credentials, and they have the big dogs that like to eat reporters for dinner."

"The plane?"

"Just had to miss my near-perfect landing, didn't you?"

"Nobody hurt?"

"Only you."

"The package?"

"Wrestled away from you by men in environmental suits. My money was on you until your temperature spiked." Worry leaked into his deliberately light tone.

Jim's eyes opened and locked with Blair's. "I'm fine."

"Except for the infected leg wound and hand wound. You have a concussion, but we know nothing can permanently damage that hard head of yours."

"Hey, I did as I was told. I stayed inside the plane."

Blair snorted. "And your body is less one bullet."

"What time is it? How long have I been out?"

"Not long. That has the doctors worried, by the way. You're not responding to their medicines the way you're supposed to. I'm thinking it has something to do with your enhanced sensibilities."

"Doesn't everything," Jim sighed. "Kuroda and Ishimaru?"

"In federal custody."

"The other passengers? Your Chicago friends?"

"Amtrak gave them their own coach. The FBI decided they could ask their questions just as easily on the train as they could here in Washington."

"With a lot less reporters."

"That too. So how did you find the package so fast?" It was a question he'd been dying to ask ever since Jim stumbled into the cockpit.

"Smell."

"You smelled it? Did it have a chemical-y odor?"

"Smelled like the military."

"Like the mil--? The military has a peculiar smell?"

Jim nodded--well, started to nod then looked as if he had second thoughts about it, and instead said, "Yeah."

"And you remember that smell? Enough that you could pick it out under trying circumstances, what, five, six years later? Hmm. Maybe we should do some tests on your memory sense."

"I would probably ask you to explain that, except I don't want to know."

Blair gave an evil chuckle.

"How are you?"

"Fine, Jim. Oh, you want to hear something funny? Simon told me that somehow Senator McCain has become the hero of Flight 919."

"Better him than us, trust me. You talked to Simon?"

"Simon's here, in D.C. He rode out with Newkirk and Agent Jefferson."

"Oh."

"What does 'oh' mean?"

"Just don't be too flattered that Simon flew all the way out here, Chief. Agent Jefferson is one of his old flames."

Blair grinned. "Yeah? Cool. I need some new material on Simon."

"Down, boy. She stood him up at the altar back in their college days."

"Bummer. And we're not planning anything evil?"

Jim tried to laugh, but it turned into a yawn. "No. Maybe she's grown wiser with age."

"Yeah, right. You know, I know you and Simon are friends, but I can't believe he just up and told you all of this. I know if I had something like that in my background, I probably wouldn't ever say a word."

"You would if you couldn't hold your liquor. For a big man, he has nearly zero alcohol tolerance. Haven't you noticed he nurses a single beer all night long when we play poker?"

Blair looked at him wide-eyed. "So he got drunk and just spilled his guts? Or did he have a little help from his friends?"

Jim gave a rueful shrug. "What did you say about needing new material on Simon?"

"Jim, I'm shocked!" Blair said, then grinned. "And I'm never drinking in your presence again."

"What? Got skeletons in your closet, Sandburg?"

"Don't you, man?"

"No." Blair looked at him pointedly. "I'm telling you the truth; too many for a closet--they sublet one of the warehouses on the dock."

"Aha. So you're the noisy neighbor my skeletons have complained about." Blair smiled as Jim yawned again. "Get some sleep. You've earned it."

"You too."

Blair slid back and made himself comfortable in the lounger. "Goodnight, Jim."

"Happy Anniversary, Chief."

Blair's eyes lit up. "You remembered!"

"Couldn't very well forget--" a yawn that couldn't be ignored-- "the most important day of my life."

Blair laid a hand atop Jim's arm. "Same here, man."

*****

"Don't just stand in the hallway blocking traffic," Jim called.

Simon came through the door scowling. "Trying to give yourself away, Ellison?"

"Not my fault you always have a cigar on you. Guess security blankets come in all forms." Jim grinned, then waved his hand toward the door. "Don't worry about it. The nursing staff is avoiding this room anyway."

"Why? What have you done?"

"They kept wanting to stick holes in me."

"This is a hospital, Detective. They need blood to--"

"Feed their young. I tell you, Simon, I swear I heard wings beating during the night. The nest must be nearby."

Simon rolled his eyes. "Where's your partner? Oddly enough, he's the only one who can talk sense into you when you're like this."

"He's gone to claim our belongings. It's just amazing that you can have an absolutely normal flight and it takes two weeks for your luggage to show up. But have a hijacking, and poof--instant baggage handling. Wonder what would happen if someone held up the IRS? Instant tax returns?"

"Just what kind of medications are you on, Jim?"

"Good ones." Jim gave a goofy smile. "Bitch enough and the nurses give you a special treat."

"And Sandburg left you alone?" Simon pulled up a chair, preparing to keep watch.

"My pusher showed up after he left."

"Your push-- You didn't say that to your nurse, did you?"

Jim nodded brightly. "Told her if she ever wanted to leave her current coven there was work in Cascade. Blood-sucking, drug-pushing, demon-breeders are always welcome in our beautiful, caffeine-laden city."

"And this was before you got the happy-shot?"

"Why I got the happy shot."

"You aren't safe to be left on your own," Simon tsked, trying not to laugh.

"I know that, sir. That's why poor Blair is stuck as my babysitter. I'm a walking, talking, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting safety hazard, who has to be tucked into bed at night in case he falls out," Jim said with a pathetic sniff.

"Sandburg tucks you in at night?"

Jim glared at him balefully.

"Come on, Jim. You know this won't last forever. As soon as you learn to control--"

"Can't."

"Can't what?"

"Can't control these things." He waved his hands until Simon caught them and gently lowered them to Jim's stomach before the IVs were dislodged. "Only Blair can control them."

"That's not true, Jim. A few more weeks and--"

"Been a year already, Simon."

A year! "And look how far you've come. Pretty soon Blair will have his paper and you'll be on your own again."

"Yay me," Jim said dejectedly.

Simon smiled indulgently. "Gotten used to him, have you?"

"'Course not. Can't wait to have everything back the way it was. Know Blair'll be happy 'bout it too."

"He say something?"

Jim shook his head. "I just know he should be tired of me. I'm tired of me."

Before Simon could come up with a response, a nurse popped her head through the door. "You doing okay, Detective Ellison?"

"Attila! Come in and meet my captain. Captain Banks, meet Attila the nurse--jabs a needle like a javelin."

"Jim!"

The nurse laughed. "It's okay, Captain Banks. This is a military hospital. I've been called worse. Besides, the detective is so cute when he's grumpy." She pursed her lips in Jim's direction.

"Now you know why I hate the military," Jim said plaintively. "Attila, I think I need another hit. I'm starting to feel again."

"No can do. You go through my best stuff too fast. But just for you, I'll put in a call to your doctor."

Jim looked at her suspiciously. "You're trying to act like you're human to fool my captain, aren't you? You're trying to discredit me."

"Attila" just laughed. "Enjoy your visit, Captain. When the meds wear off, he's not going to be as much fun."

"Did you know I can feel the antibiotics killing the biotics in my blood?" Jim warbled. "All the little dead bugs swimming in my blood."

Simon shot his head around and saw that the nurse was still standing in the doorway. "Is he okay?" He gave her his most bewildered look.

"He'll be fine. Most of the other patients just see flying hippos. I'll be back to check your vitals in an hour, okay?"

"Bye, Attila."

Simon looked at Jim, who lay grinning on the bed. "You're now blacklisted by hospitals on both coasts. Are you proud of yourself?"

Jim nodded. "Where's Agent Jefferson?"

"At her headquarters. She'll be here this afternoon to interview you and Sandburg."

"She still beautiful?"

"Yes." Simon frowned. "What do you know about Agent Jefferson?"

Jim just smiled and said, "I'm sleepy."

"You're full of it." A vague memory of spilling his guts in a drunken haze crawled to the fore of his thoughts.

"Blair's here."

Simon turned toward the door before he remembered that when Jim said someone was there, it might take a while for them to actually appear. He grinned. A medicated haze was just as good as a drunken one. "You're glad Blair is here, aren't you?"

"He's my partner."

"And you're going to miss him when he's gone?"

Jim nodded emphatically. "But you can't tell him that."

Simon grin grew wider. "Of course not, Jim. It'll be our little secret."

"You're a good friend, Simon."

"Of course I am, Jim." The door finally opened.

"Simon, hi!" Blair said, his familiar backpack on his shoulder.

"Don't 'hi' me, Sandburg. You need to be more careful when you leave your partner."

Blair looked at Jim in concern. Jim just grinned back at him. "What happened? He's been drugged, hasn't he? What did they give him?"

"I don't know. But he likes it an awful lot. The nurse says it's wearing off too fast, though."

"All his meds have done that. A problem with the senses, I think."

"I didn't have to pee!"

The exclamation drew their attention to the bed. "Jim, what are you going on about?"

"No more pee! We went up and down and I didn't go," Jim explained with an earnest look.

Simon watched Blair's face as he deciphered the comment, and knew the moment the anthropologist understood.

"That's right, Jim! We changed altitudes and your bladder just went along with the program. Way to go, man!"

"Way not to go," Jim corrected. "I hear music."

Simon strained to hear something, but Blair didn't even try.

"Good music or bad music, Jim?"

"Good."

"Listen to the good music while I talk to Simon, okay?"

"'Kay," Jim said happily.

"Completely fried, isn't he?" Blair said fondly.

"He started out making sense, and went downhill from there. He was even talking about feeling the antibiotics in his blood--while a nurse was in the room," Simon warned.

"Yeah, he has these medicine 'spikes'. One minute the stuff is doing nothing for him, and the next he's floating in the stratosphere. I've noticed that a couple of times at home. He'll be fine eventually."

"You really understand him, don't you?"

"A year of working with someone can be enlightening."

"He mentioned something about a year. Hmm. You've already beaten Carolyn's record, by the way. I think she moved out a couple of months or so before they reached that milestone of cohabitation."

Blair looked sad and anxious.

Simon thought that maybe the past day was finally catching up to him. "I think the music has put him out. Why don't you join him? You look like you could use a nap."

"And what are you going to be doing while we're in dreamland, Simon? Having lunch with a certain agent?"

Simon stood. "When Sleeping Beauty wakes tell him that drugs are just as useful as whiskey."

"I take it he'll know what you mean?"

Simon smiled and headed for the door. "Oh, he'll definitely figure it out, Sandburg. After all, he's a detective!"

National Airport, Washington D.C.

"You sure you want to do this?" Simon asked as he used his P.D. credit card to secure a rental car for Jim and Blair. "It's a long drive back to Cascade."

"I doubt we'll make it that far," Blair said, scribbling his name in the appropriate space. "By the time we reach Chicago, see the exhibit, and visit with our friends, Jim should be able to handle another plane ride."

"Jim or you?"

Blair smiled ruefully. "Both of us."

"Hear about the big bash Senator McCain is going to throw when he gets back to Cascade? He said to tell you both to be on the lookout for your invitation."

"Really? Even though Jim kicked the photographers out of his room when the senator visited?"

"Jim kicked them out? I could have sworn it was you whispering in the senator's ear that Jim was armed and dangerous."

Blair tried to look innocent but failed. "They wanted to move his bed for 'more natural lighting.'"

"You both are dangerous. And I better not find out Jim was armed."

"Come on, Simon. You know Jim's weapons were confiscated by the FBI."

"Uh-huh."

Blair decided to change the topic. He had no idea of how Jim had acquired the gun he had under his pillow anyway. "So, are you going to be escorting the lovely Agent Jefferson to the senator's soiree?"

"Depends on if she's left Seattle by then."

"Left?"

"Her superiors were impressed with her actions and are going to give her a transfer to the Missing Children's Bureau."

"Sorry about that, man."

Simon shrugged. "It's a good move for her." He looked at his watch. "Damn. I better get a move on before I miss my flight. So you guys heading out tomorrow morning?"

"Right after I take Jim to see Kuroda."

"I don't know if I like that."

Blair crossed his arms. "I know I don't. But Jim sees something in the man that's worth the effort."

"You're a fine one to talk. I heard you give Ishimaru your email address."

"But I'm the quirky grad student; I'm supposed to do stuff like that."

Simon laughed. "Yeah, I guess you are. Take care of yourselves, Sandburg. I'll see you and Jim in Cascade in a week or so."

"We'll be there, Simon."

~EPILOGUE~

Somewhere Along The Washington Coastline

Blair hung back as Jim climbed out on the precipice and tossed Kuroda's ashes into the sea. He watched his partner bow his head for a moment, then scramble down off the rock.

"Why?" Blair asked softly, now that the deed was done.

"Because I don't know how insane I'd become if I found out I had a fatal disease so soon after losing someone special in my life. His grandfather was his touchstone. Without him, he was lost. You know, all the time he was talking about his grandfather, I didn't know the man was dead. He made him sound so alive."

"Family was all mixed up in the whole thing. Ishimaru didn't give a damn about PRICE, and he wasn't protesting his death sentence. He just wanted to piss his father off for the way the man treated his mother. And the naval base he bombed? His father is an officer there."

"How is he?"

"His last email wasn't too encouraging. The disease is very aggressive." They started down the path toward the Expedition. "I wasn't asking why you agreed to carry out Kuroda's final wishes."

"Not curious?" Jim asked, surprised.

"Not about that. I know you well enough to know if someone asks you to do something, you're going to do your best to see that it gets done. But I am curious about Kuroda's motive."

"That's a simple one, Chief. He asked me to spread his ashes for the same reason he hijacked the plane, and the same reason he quietly handed me the gun on the flightdeck: he just wanted to be remembered by someone."

"Oh." Blair reached for the truck's door. "Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"That's something you never have to worry about."

"You either, Chief."

The sea crashed in the distance as they drove away.

THE END