The attack went as planned. The car was successfully forced from the road, wrecking as it slammed into a very large tree. The three occupants, stunned and bleeding, were dragged from the sedan to be kicked and beaten into unconsciousness. When the assault would have continued, a man stepped from the sports utility vehicle where he had been observing the proceedings.
"Enough," he said softly and the men froze. He walked around two of the victims and bent over the third. "You were too hard on this on this one. I told you he was to be spared."
"You were watching," one the men dared to accuse. "You saw how hard he fought."
Cold eyes skimmed him from head to toe and he knew he had overstepped the bounds his leader had drawn. He waited for his punishment. It came swiftly, an arm around his neck, a knife slicing through his skin, blood spilling as he slumped to the ground.
"Gather our prize and let's get out of here," the leader said, turning from the scene.
"What about the others?" his lieutenant asked.
"Leave them. Let them die in the mud where they belong."
"And our brother?"
"Leave him also. As a reminder to those who find him that we allow no weaknesses."
Five minutes later, silence echoed in the small clearing as the scent of blood called out to hiding, but vigilant, scavengers.
"Take it easy, sir," the doctor said as Captain Simon Banks, head of Cascade, Washington's Major Crimes squad, struggled toward consciousness. "You're alive and I plan on keeping you that way."
"What happened?" he asked, wincing as even the minimum motion of talking caused waves of pain to wrack his body.
"There was a car accident," the doctor began.
"No accident," Simon mumbled as he began to remember. He, Detective Jim Ellison, and Police Observer Blair Sandburg had been coming back from a conference in Seattle. The Chief of Police had ordered him to go and take two of his men with him. The subject matter, The Policeman's Role As the Millennium Nears, was so boring no one volunteered. So he chose the team he had the most leverage on; he'd known that letting them have long weekends to go camping would pay off one day. Sandburg had bitched that he wasn't even a cop, but Simon had told him he couldn't have it both ways: he would either be treated as a cop or he would be treated as a civilian at all times, which meant no accompanying Jim on his cases. Because both men had griped so much, he'd even made them drive to Seattle in his car to make sure they stayed for the entire three days.
They were both still whining on the way home when a car had attempted to pass only to turn into them. The only choice Simon had was to steer off the road and a tree had been in the way. Before the collision he thought he'd heard Jim on the cell phone calling in a Code 30-- Officer needs help, emergency.
Then Simon remembered hands pulling them from the car and that was when the real pain began and the memories stopped. "Ellison and Sandburg. Are they okay?" he asked the doctor urgently.
"I don't know," the man replied.
"Well, find me somebody who does!" Simon ordered, no longer caring about his own pain. The doctor scuttled out of the room.
"I heard you bellowing out in the hall," Captain Joel Taggert said, sticking his head through the door in the doctor's wake. "I guess that means you're on your way to recovering."
"Ellison and Sandburg?" Simon asked as one of his oldest friends made his way to his bedside. Joel was head of the Bomb Squad.
"Sandburg's down the hall. He hasn't regained consciousness yet, but his doctor's pretty hopeful. Since I knew how hard your head was, I figured you'd wake up first," Joel said, with a smile that failed to reach his eyes.
Simon took a deep breath, preparing himself for what he thought he saw in Joel's face. "And Jim?" Simon hated the thought of losing one of his men, but it would be harder facing Jim's death. Ellison and he had been friends for years and were probably closer than a captain and his officer should be. But the job couldn't dictate every aspect of their lives.
"Jim's condition is unknown, Simon," Joel said quickly, knowing that while the news wasn't the worst, it certainly wasn't good either. "He's being held hostage."
At least there was hope, Simon thought, expelling the breath he'd held. "By who?"
Simon closed his eyes in despair. Take Back America was "an organization dedicated to returning America to her rightful owners, the White men who had discovered her, settled her, and fought for her." Well, that explained why he and Sandburg were left behind. In the minds of TBA, they weren't even considered human. Sons of bitches. Simon fought back the anger and concentrated on the matter at hand. Joel said Jim was being held hostage. "Have they made a demand?"
"A note was forwarded to the FBI. They're willing to exchange Jim for Abner Greene."
"Terry Greene's brother?" Terry Greene was the leader of TBA. Borderline genius, certified psychopath. It was rumored he ruled with an iron glove, killing those who opposed him even the slightest. Yet, despite the threats, he had quite a following of men and their families. "The feds arrested him six months ago on a murder charge, right?"
Joel nodded. "He beat up an undercover agent. The man lived long enough to finger Abner."
So Terry wanted his baby brother back. But why target the Cascade P.D.? TBA was clearly a federal matter. "Why Jim? Why not a fed?"
"According to the note, Greene figured the Bureau would basically ignore the situation if one of their agents was kidnapped. By making it cross-jurisdictional, he was hoping for a reaction."
"That must have been one hell of a note," Simon commented. Joel's eyes grew haunted. "What?"
"The note was written in blood, Simon. They had it analyzed. It was Jim's."
Before Simon could react, there was a tap at the door and an uniformed officer stepped in. "Captain Banks, it's good to see you up, sir. Captain Taggert, you wanted to be informed when Sandburg woke up."
"Thanks, Matheson." Joel dismissed the officer and turned to see his friend sliding his legs out of bed. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Simon?"
"Coming with you. Sandburg's going to need us both."
"It is not the FBI's policy to negotiate with terrorists."
The CNN reporter looked at his audience, then back at his interviewee. "So in essence, you're saying, Assistant Deputy Director Miller, that Cascade detective Jim Ellison is on his own. You don't care if he lives or dies?"
Miller longed for the glory days of the Bureau. Before Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians. Back when the Bureau said "boo"and everyone cowered. Now all they did was hurl accusations and file lawsuits. J. Edgar Hoover was surely spinning in his grave on a regular basis. "No, that's not what I'm saying," he tried to explain.
Yes, it is, you bastard. Blair glared at the television screen above his hospital bed as he waited for Simon to pick him up. That was how the Bureau typically reacted when a citizen was put in jeopardy. But the Cascade P.D. was going to make sure they didn't cover their asses so neatly on this one. Actually it had been Blair's suggestion to go to the media when the Bureau completely ignored the request to release Abner Greene. He understood their non-compliance with terrorists rule, but at least they could fake it until Jim could somehow save himself.
Blair was certain if there was a man who could escape from TBA, his friend and roommate was that man. Jim was a Sentinel, a person with enhanced senses, which would give him an edge over his captives. But even more importantly in this instance Jim was a warrior, trained for survival by the government itself. He knew what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. All he needed was time and if putting the feds on the hotseat would give him that, Blair and the Cascade P.D. didn't care who in the government got burned.
"Is it true TBA left one of their own men dead at the abduction site to signify the strength of their threat?" the reporter inquired.
"We are not assigning any significance to the body found with the injured policemen. Since Detective Ellison managed to transmit a call for help before the accident, perhaps when TBA heard the approaching sirens they forgot about their fallen comrade."
"The slain man's throat was cut. Isn't that Terry Greene's signature?"
The assistant deputy director was uncertain how to answer. Everyone knew Terry Greene slit the throats of those he believed were guilty of betrayal. If he denied that, he would look like an incompetent fool. On the other hand, if he admitted to the knowledge, he would be saying the Bureau knew Greene was a murderer and hadn't done anything about it. Oh, well. Retirement was only a few months down the road anyway. "If the dead man was a message, Mr. Greene needs to understand that kind of talking will get him nowhere. We are only open to verbal dialog."
"So you are willing to listen to TBA?" the reporter clarified.
"Of course. Attorney Reno has sent her personal assurance that we will do whatever necessary to ensure Detective Ellison is returned to us unharmed."
Bullshit. Jim was already harmed. Blair had nearly cried when he saw the video TBA had sent to the Bureau early this morning. Jim's face had been a mass of bruises and swellings and dried blood which, except for the blood, was quite similar to his own. But whereas he was clean and comfortable in a hospital room, Jim had been strapped to a chair, his hands tied in front of him, propping up the day's newspaper to show that he was still alive. Then the camera had zoomed closely on his face and he had flinched as a bright light was aimed directly at him. Blair had watched attentively as the eyes adjusted to the light, the pupils contracting to near pinpoints.
Seconds later, the camera pulled back to reveal Terry Greene at Jim's side, his hand resting possessively on the Sentinel's shoulder. He started spouting off the organization's usual rhetoric and Blair had focused mainly on Jim, trying to determine his condition. He looked terrible but the quick reaction of his pupils and the brief flicker of disgust when Greene touched him made Blair wonder if Jim wasn't pretending some of his obvious weakness.
He'd passed on his thoughts to the rest of Major Crimes and that had prompted them to agree to buy time for Jim. No one objected to leaking a few details to the reporters in hopes of making the feds squirm before killing the deal. And it seemed to be working.
"Since you've decided to dialog with TBA, I know you'll be happy to see our next guest," the reporter was saying. "This is Thomas Day, TBA's second-in-command. Mr. Greene has authorized him to negotiate with the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Mr. Day, welcome."
"You ready, Sandburg?" Simon burst through the door, leaning heavily on a cane. He had only been released that morning and should have been at home recuperating. Instead, he'd spent the hours at the station and volunteered to take Sandburg home.
"We got trouble, Simon," Blair called, motioning for him to look at the television. Miller had paled to the point of looking ghostly while Day laid out the plans for the exchange of Abner Greene and Jim. All of a sudden, the assistant deputy director threw his hands up in defeat.
"This isn't going to work," Miller said to the camera, maybe speaking to his bosses back in D.C. or maybe to the American people in general. "Mr. Day, we are not going to return Abner Greene to you. We can't because Abner committed suicide yesterday. I guess he didn't think much of your rescue plans."
Day bowed his head, obviously in prayer. Then he looked up and nodded. "We are not surprised to hear that. TBA's goal all along has been for us to become martyrs to this cause, to show how much America means to us, to give our brethren who will follow us more leverage in this ongoing war." He stood and drew a pistol from his pocket. The camera jerked and swayed as if its operator had either "hit the dirt" or "hit the road" at the sight of the gun. Eventually the picture began to stabilize, wobbling until the viewers saw Day from the waist down, the pistol clearly showing in his hand. "For every White man in America!" he yelled, the audio apparently not affected by the camera angle.
The gun disappeared from view as Day raised his arm. There was a loud noise, followed by Day's body going limp and dropping almost in slow motion to the studio floor. Horrified viewers saw red before the screen went black.
"Shit!" Simon yelled, tapping down the hall with his cane, Blair right behind him.
They saw the smoke miles before they reached the dirt road that led to the TBA encampment. Seeing Joel Taggert and his men there, dressed in their most protective gear, only increased their fear.
"What happened?" Simon asked, even before the car stopped.
"They blew the whole compound," Joel answered, his eyes on Blair in sympathy. The kid had helped him conquer a debilitating fear a while back and they had become good friends. But their friendship was nothing compared to Blair's relationship with Jim Ellison. It was more of a brother thing, deeply rooted to survive any weather. And, man, had they gone through some big storms. But maybe this one had been too big.
"There were kids in there," Blair said, not ready to think about Jim just yet. What had the reporter said at the beginning of the interview? Yeah, there were eleven children, three of them belonging to Greene himself. Blair shivered at the cruelty.
"Damn fools," Simon muttered angrily. "Anybody been in yet?"
"No, Simon. My men are getting ready to go in now. We have to be sure all the explosives have been detonated before we can..."
"Retrieve the bodies," Blair finished bitterly. He was really get sick of all this wondering who was dead crap. If he wasn't worrying, Jim was worrying and basically it just added up to one sick relationship. Fine. If Jim was dead, it would all be over. If Jim had managed to pull off one more miracle, they were going to have to have a long talk about both their penchants for getting into dangerous situations. This couldn't go on forever. He couldn't.
"Hang in there, Sandburg," Simon said patiently.
Blair eyed the two cops who were watching him closely and realized he wasn't alone in his worry. And for them it had to be much worse. All he had to worry about was Jim. As captains, they each had a squad of men and women to lose sleep over. How did they manage to stay sane under the daily pressure? What was it about cops that made them so much stronger than say, anthropologists? Surely a few lousy months at the police academy didn't imbue them with the ability to handle constant crisis. No. If that were the case, there wouldn't be so many cops who burnt out or took their own lives. It was these cops who were special, not just cops in general.
Blair watched Joel take off with his team and Simon settle against the car beside him and knew he was lucky to have them as friends. Which never would have happened if they hadn't had Jim in common. He was the connector for all of them. The strong choosing the strong. The history of man had shown that often the strongest or Alpha male surrounded himself with the strongest of the tribe. That was how you could tell a real Alpha as opposed to a mere bully or tyrant who chose the most easily led as companions. So it made sense that Jim, Simon and Joel would hang together. But what he didn't get was where he fit in. Why had Jim chosen him? Oh, he had been the one pressing the Sentinel study, but in the end, it had been Jim's choice, not his. The strong choosing the strong. Did that mean...?
Simon's radio crackled. "Simon, you and Blair have to see this," Joel said excitedly.
Limping as fast as they could, the two men started on the road to the compound, stopping only when they saw what Joel had seen. Coming down the road, the dissipating smoke making it seem as if they were walking through clouds, was Jim with-- Blair counted quickly-- all eleven children.
"I'll be damned," Simon mumbled with a certain combination of awe and pride. Blair could only nod in agreement.
Suddenly they were surrounded by medical personnel taking the children and media staff shooting pictures and poking microphones in everyone's faces. That lasted as long as it took Simon to get over his astonishment and start barking orders.
"Thanks, Simon," Jim said, grateful to be alone with his friends. He knew the peace wouldn't last long; there were questions to be answered, government and public alike. But a minute was all he needed. He hadn't known whether Blair or Simon were alive and he just needed to absorb that fact before going on. "You both look like hell," he observed with a grin.
"Wait until you look into a mirror," Simon retorted. "I tell you, Jim, I'm never going anywhere with you or Sandburg again."
"Yeah, that's what you said after that reunion of yours. How many near-death experiences was that ago?"
"So I'm hard-headed. Turned out to be convenient this time." He looked at Jim who was looking at Blair, who had yet to say anything. He may be hard-headed, but he wasn't dense. "Uh, I'll go see if I can't buy you a few more moments before they give you the hero's welcome, okay?"
Jim nodded, then turned to his roommate. "Hey, Chief." Blair just smiled. "You know you make me nervous when you aren't talking," Jim said worriedly.
"I'm not speechless often, Jim, so if I were you, I'd savor the moment," Blair advised smartly, before voicing the question uppermost in his mind. "How in hell did you manage to pull this one off?"
Jim shrugged. "A little luck, a little enhanced hearing, and a lot of pleading with mothers who cared for their children." He'd overheard Greene making plans to blow up the compound. After he freed himself from his restraints, he'd made his way to the building that housed the women and children. Although he couldn't convince the women to come with him, they had given him the children and not turned him in. It was less than he hoped for, but more than he expected.
Blair nodded. He had expected Jim to be modest, hell, even feel guilty for not saving everyone. Looking at his partner he made a decision not to discuss the "danger" issue. Jim valued life too much, felt too much responsibility, not to head into danger if someone was at risk. And somehow those same values had oozed into his own consciousness, leading Blair into stepping into danger as well. Simon was always saying how the younger man had changed the older. But below the surface, the changes really went the other way. So he was just going to have to be strong like the rest of Jim's friends and learn to worry privately. "Well, your public awaits. Simon has his hands full," he said, turning to face the crowd.
Jim frowned, touching Blair's shoulder to get his attention. "What's wrong, Chief? I sense a distance in you."
"Nothing, Jim. Just trying to be strong, like you expect me to be."
"Your strength lies in you being you, Blair. That's all I've ever expected of you."
"Then, you scared me to death and boy, am I glad to see you, Jim," he said, throwing his arms around the taller man for just a fraction of a second, but long enough to reassure both of them of the other's presence. "Now," Blair said, pulling back, but not away, "I need way more detail from you, man. When you say you were lucky, did you really mean lucky, or did your senses come into play? Exactly what did you tell the women to get them to let you take the children? How badly are you hurt? We better have you checked out thoroughly before the feds whisk you away. Oh, look. There's that reporter from CNN. I don't know if we should be grateful to him or have him escorted away. That's right. You don't know about that do you? Well, it started..."
Jim smiled and draped his arm across his friend's shoulder, careful of Blair's injuries as well as his own, as his partner continued talking. Used to the chatter, he focused mainly on the waiting crowd. He knew the media was prepared to deify him, hype his exploits from the time he joined the military until now. A "happy" news story always brought in better ratings than the depressing ones so he was resigned to having his face and life story batted around the dial for a few evenings.
Of course, he would be embarrassed but it was something he could handle because he knew it wouldn't last long. Eventually something new, perhaps even scandalous, would occur and everyone would say, "Jim who?" And then his life would return to normal-- occasionally respected by the criminal element, sometimes kidded by friends, and always shared with Blair.
Truth be told, that was the only hero's welcome he ever needed.