This is the second story in the Huntress series, in which a former Army helicopter pilot named Jill Alison becomes the Sentinel.
In which Jill finds a partner, Blair finds his holy grail, and the Switchman isn't who you'd expect.
implied f/f relationship
Thanks go to Suisan for her support and shameless begging for another part.
Detective Jill Alison bent over the small camp stove, pouring water into a pan, then setting it on the flame to boil. Sitting back on her heels to wait, she frowned at the inside of her small, camouflaged shelter, then at the rain steadily falling outside in the old growth forest. She picked up her notebook.
0800 hours, fourth day of surveillance. Still no sign of suspect
she wrote in her neat, block print. "I'm beginning to think this whole thing is a bust," she said out loud with a sigh. Sniffing, she sighed again. She was getting pretty ripe. Twenty-four more hours and she was going to pack it in. There were other leads that needed her attention, not to mention other cases.
Flipping through her notebook, she refreshed her memory of the current case. It had started six months ago with a bomb detonated in a post office in Tacoma. She had received the first email a couple of hours later. The next month it was a bridge on the Snohomish, then a ferry in Puget Sound. Eight people were dead, twenty-one injured, and all she had to go on were those damn taunting emails, all signed "The Switchman." And even they hadn't provided much of a clue. She had been chasing her tail until one of her informants had come up with this place as a possible hideout, an abandoned lumber mill deep within the Cascade forest.
The loud rumble of the water boiling interrupted her thoughts. Loud? Before she could figure out that puzzle, the noise of a car approaching reached her ears. Picking up her radio, she flicked it on. "Huntress to base. I've got something."
There was a crackle of static, then the voice of the SWAT team's Captain Williams came back. "What have you got, Al?"
"Vehicle approaching." She squinted as what looked like a red Jeep Wrangler with a motorcycle mounted on the back bounced up the rutted logging road and came to a stop in front of the mill. Raising a pair of field glasses to her eyes, she could make out a figure in a heavy dark jacket and watch cap opening the doors, driving the truck inside, then closing the doors behind him. "Confirmed, base. Red Jeep drove inside, only one occupant. How long will it take you to get here?"
"About thirty minutes, we're at the staging area. And Al? Hold for backup on this. Banks will have your hide if you try and take this guy without us. Got it?"
Jill sighed. "Yeah, yeah, I got it. Will advise if suspect leaves the building." She turned the radio down and began getting into her gear. By the time she'd gotten into her vest, her radio, and strapped on her weapons, she could hear the approaching whup-whup of the police chopper. Leaving her hiding place, she headed down the hill toward the old wood frame mill. When she got the signal the team was in place, she approached the building, easing along the side until she was next to the doors the suspect had driven through, her gun drawn.
"This is the Cascade Police. Exit the building on the north side with your hands behind your head," she yelled. Nothing happened.
"He's not coming out," came over her radio.
Fine. This game had gone long enough. She held down the switch on her shoulder mike. "Smoke 'em." Jill pulled a gas mask over her face as the SWAT team lobbed gas canisters into the building. Several long minutes passed without an appearance by their suspect, and Williams gave the order to enter.
Jill led the team into the building, but they found no sign of the person who had driven the Jeep. It was parked just inside the doors, but the motorcycle was missing. Before she had a chance to search for it, her radio squawked. "Alison, the building's empty."
She shook her head. "I saw him go in."
"He left something for you."
Damn it, now what? She headed deeper into the mill, finding the captain and several men standing around a small table. On top of it lay a copy of News magazine, the caption reading Beyond the Call: Army Pilot Survives Jungle Ordeal. The cover photo was one of her in her flight jumpsuit; a smaller inset photo showed her in dress uniform. She frowned. Who was this joker?
"Looks like somebody's got your number, Alison."
"Yeah, I know." She wrinkled her nose, then glanced around the room. "You smell that?"
Her frown became a scowl. "Gas. How can you not smell that?" Brushing past him, she headed out of the room they were in and through the mill, past piles of rotting wood and down some stairs, peripherally aware the team was following her.
"You guys smell anything?" she heard the captain ask behind her. A chorus of no's came from the team.
Coming to a stop, Jill said, "It's stronger in here."
Captain Williams' tone was patronizing, "Jill, I'm not picking anything up."
"What the hell's wrong with you?" She bent over a hole in the floor, silently cursing the darkness. She was about to ask for a flashlight, when suddenly she could see everything clearly. A timer was attached to a gas pipe, the LED counter flashing as it ticked down. "Bomb! Get everyone out! Go, go, go!"
The team ran for the exit. As they cleared the building, they could see the vehicles pulling back, the helicopter taking to the air. Jill was about 80 feet out when the mill exploded behind her, the force knocking her to the ground. She lay face down in the mud, her hands covering her head as debris rained down around her. When she finally rolled over to take a look at the damage, there was nothing of the building left standing.
Damn! Getting to her feet, she was heading toward the team vehicles when the noise of a motorcycle starting up reached her ears. Pausing, she looked for the source of the sound. The earth exploded open at her feet, and the motorcycle she'd seen lashed to the back of the Jeep appeared from an underground chamber.
Without thinking, Jill threw herself at the bike, grabbing onto the back and pulling herself aboard as the driver accelerated, trying to throw her off. She was reaching for his jacket, intending to drag him off with her, when he turned his head toward her. She caught a glimpse of her distorted reflection in his mirrored visor, then the world spun round in a dizzying kaleidoscope. Losing her balance, Jill tumbled off the bike and down a grassy hill to land once again in the mud. She pounded her fist on the ground in frustration as she heard the motorcycle roar off.
Simon Banks' secretary, Rhonda, buzzed the captain when Jill Alison arrived. He finished up his conversation with technical support chief Carolyn Plummer, and she exited, taunting him about last night's basketball game. Plummer bumped into Jill as she was entering. She made a face at the detective's disheveled appearance. "Whoa, Jill, stakeout all night in a dumpster?"
Jill didn't bother to reply, and Carolyn went on her way with a shrug of her shoulders. Simon shook his head at the exchange between the two women. Figures they would be on the outs again, just when he needed their teamwork the most.
Entering Simon's office, Jill dropped into a chair in front of Banks' desk. He glanced toward the dark-haired woman as he poured two cups of coffee from the pot on the credenza behind his desk. "My cousin sent me the new roast from his shop. Something about Guatamalan-Mocha-Turkish-Dark, whatever the hell it was. It all tastes like Maxwell House to me. Here."
Walking around his desk, he held out a cup to Jill. When she didn't take it, didn't even raise her eyes to meet his, Banks set it on the desk, then perched himself on the edge. "All right, Jill, what's going on?"
"I need a leave of absence, sir."
Simon gaped at her. "Are you nuts?"
Biting her lip, Jill finally looked up at him. "Maybe. I don't know. I ran a blood test to see if I'd been drugged, but I'm clean."
Suddenly concerned, Banks said gently, "Hey, slow down. What drugs?"
Jill's hands clenched into fists in her lap. "How else can I explain what happened to me out there, Captain? I fell off the back of that bike because I was seeing things."
"Look, you were stressed, okay? You heard something. You smelled some fumes. You got dizzy. You fell off the bike. What, now you want a vacation? Come on. Is this the woman who toughed it out in the jungle for a year and a half? Take a shower, get some aspirin, and go back to work. 'Cause right now the only thing I want more than my divorce papers is an arrest." Great, Banks, that's really being sympathetic and reassuring.
The detective's eyes flashed angrily. "Hey, this isn't a joke. I lost the prime suspect, sir, and I don't even know how."
Simon shook his head. "Guilt's a good motivater, but don't take more than your share. Air support lost him in the trees. The roadblock didn't snag him either." Jill turned her head to look out the window, her expression blank. "All right, look, you can take the afternoon off. See a couple of specialists if that'll make you feel any better. But that's all the slack I can cut you, Jill."
She was silent for a moment, then replied, "Well, that's not enough. I'm losing control of my senses, Captain. I don't know how else to describe it. It's scaring the hell out of me."
Simon dropped the kid gloves. "All right, so let me get this straight. This is all about you being scared?"
Her expression became even blanker, if that were possible. "Yep."
Jill's sudden apathy disturbed him. Banks tried to make her angry, to put some fight back in her. "So the Switchman psyched you out. He's gonna make you fold."
Jill shook her head, then stood up. "All I know is I can't do my job this way. So either you grant me a leave or I'll take one." Before he could reply, she stalked out of his office.
Shit. What in the hell was going on with his detective?
Jill took a sip of her scotch and stared out the restaurant window at the rain coming down outside, one ear vaguely tuned in to what Carolyn was saying about her sister's wedding. "Julie's getting married again this week, so of course my mother is making the wedding impossible. My dad is practically living on his boat just to escape the madness. He's already filled every freezer on the block and Julie says if she has to gut one more salmon, the wedding is off." She paused. "What?"
Feeling the other woman's eyes on her, Jill asked, "Why are we here?"
"Dinner. And yours is getting cold."
She set her glass down on the table. "We haven't had dinner in three months, Carolyn. Your decision, not mine."
"I know. I just thought we should catch up." She evaded Jill's curious gaze.
Jill shook her head. "Look, I liked your sister okay. God knows she was the only member of your family who approved of me, but right now I could give a rat's ass about the Plummer family newsletter." Carolyn winced, and Jill sighed. "Shit, Carolyn, I'm sorry. But I've asked you out before and you've always turned me down. Why now? Did Simon put you up to this? Are you supposed to get me to go back to work?"
"No!" But her eyes gave her away. After a pause, she said, "Yes."
"It's not going to work."
"I know. That's what I told him."
"So don't even bother."
"I won't. Can I try your squash?" Jill pushed her untouched plate toward the other woman, and Carolyn stuck a fork in a yellow sliver of squash. Taking a bite, she said, "This is really good. You should try it."
In spite of herself, Jill felt a slight smile tugging at her lips. Carolyn had always been after her to try new recipes. Jill had always been more of a meat and potatoes kind of girl.
Carolyn then made the mistake of changing the subject. "You know, Jill, you're not the first cop who's ever lost a suspect."
She squeezed her eyes shut. Why couldn't they leave her alone? "I don't want to talk about it." She felt Carolyn's hand close around hers.
"But if you did talk about it, maybe I could help you."
Jill pulled her hand away. "Just drop it."
Carolyn threw her napkin down on the table. "Sure. Why should I expect anything to be different?"
Glancing up at the sharp words, Jill asked, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Light's out, no one home. Or if there is, how would I know?" Her dark eyes held Jill's light ones for a long moment. "I give up."
"Good," Jill answered sarcastically. "Can I have my plate back? I'd like to eat my dinner now." Carolyn rose to her feet as Jill popped a bit of squash in her mouth. "Where are you going?"
"Home. I can get more out of my toaster."
Jill's mouth was suddenly on fire. Coughing and choking, she grabbed a glass of wine and gulped it down, but it didn't help. Carolyn slapped her on the back, but that only made it worse. She snatched a glass of water off another table and swallowed greedily, the burning finally fading.
"Jill, what's wrong? Can you breathe?"
She nodded as Carolyn fussed over her, finally managing to croak out, "Food...too spicy...hot..."
The other woman leaned in, spearing a piece of squash with a fork then tasting it. "Jill--"
"What?" she asked between swallows of water.
"There's nothing wrong with your food."
She closed her eyes, feeling her heart racing in her chest. What is wrong with me? She felt Carolyn's hand on her shoulder. "I don't know what's going on with you, Jill. Just take care of yourself, okay?" The pressure on her shoulder eased, and Jill knew Carolyn was gone. Resting her elbows on the table, she leaned her head in her hands for a few moments, then got to her feet. Throwing some bills on the table, she left the restaurant.
Dashing out the door, Jill glanced in both directions, spying Carolyn half a block away, walking under an umbrella. "Carolyn! Wait!"
The other woman paused under a slight overhang and waited for her to catch up. Jill ducked under the umbrella, her hands going to Carolyn's shoulders. "I'm sorry." She leaned in closer, inhaling her perfume. "I'm really sorry..." she breathed, her lips brushing against Carolyn's, her hands cupping her cheeks. Carolyn tilted her head back as Jill's mouth met hers, lightly nipping at first, then fiercely passionate, tongues entangling, breaths mingling.
The umbrella dropped to the ground as Carolyn's arms tightened around her. Jill pressed her against the building, her hands in Carolyn's hair, lost in the feeling, in the taste of her former lover's soft mouth. Slowly she pulled back, loosening her grip, kissing away the tear sliding down Carolyn's cheek. "I'm sorry...."
Carolyn's fingers traced over Jill's suddenly tender lips. "Shut up, Jill. You're only allowed one apology a night." She kissed Jill's forehead gently. Stepping back, Jill picked up the umbrella, handing it to Carolyn, who said huskily, "Maybe if you'd kissed me like that before, we'd still be together."
Jill watched her leave, blinking away the rain in her eyes, but unable to do anything about the regret in her heart.
Blair Sandburg trotted down the hall of Cascade General hospital, borrowed lab coat flaring out behind him. He skidded to a stop in front of the men's room and ducked inside, washing his hands quickly in the sink. He'd been up to his armpits in dirty pottery when the anthropology department secretary had called him about the fax, and he'd come straight to the hospital from the university. Taking a quick glance at himself in the mirror, he jumped back. Man, that was scary. He looked like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket. Digging a rubber band out of his jeans pocket, he pulled his unruly chestnut curls back in a tight ponytail, using a bit of water to get the flyaways to lay down. Better, better, but he still didn't look like a doctor. Wait! He grabbed his glasses out of his shirt pocket and slid them on. Oh, man, smooth! Sharpest intern on the ward! He practiced a few serious faces in the mirror, then stepped back out into the hallway.
Let's see, Nancy had said this cop was in exam room 10. Locating the correct room, Blair took a peek at the chart in the folder hanging outside the door. J. Alison. Vision, hearing, smell and taste complaints. Okay, this was the place. Showtime.
Blair stepped into the room just as a tall, attractive brunette was pulling a T-shirt over her head. The only indication his presence had startled her was one coolly raised eyebrow. "Uh, uh, um...sorry! Wrong room!" Blair beat a hasty retreat to the hallway and leaned against the wall, his face hot. Oh shit! She's a woman! Nancy must still be pissed at him for forgetting her birthday.
Okay, okay, he was flexible. Flexible was his middle name. He could deal with this. Taking a few deep breaths to calm himself, he knocked on the door, then entered again. The woman was sitting on the edge of the exam table, and her blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "You must be really lost. This is the second time you've been here."
Her comment threw him off stride, and Blair blinked at her, his lines completely forgotten. He looked down at the clipboard in his hand, and her name jumped out at him. "Ahem, sorry about that, Detective Alison. You weren't quite what I was expecting. Nancy didn't warn me--"
"Warn you? About what? My results?"
"Ah, um, now, uh what results?" This was so not going well.
She pursed her lips. "My tests?"
"Forget the tests. You don't need medicine. You need information." Okay, that was better. Sort of.
She slid off the table and glared at him. Blair noticed she had to look down to glare at him. "Look, whoever you are, Joe Intern or whatever, could you just get me a *real* doctor?"
"Now just wait a second. Hear me out here. Loud noises that shouldn't be loud. Smelling things that no one else can smell. Weird visuals. Tastebuds off the map, right?"
She folded her arms over her chest. "That's all in my chart."
"Yeah, but I'll bet I can add one more thing. A hyperactive tactile sense."
Blair grinned. "Extra sensitive touchy-feely lately."
Detective Alison turned an attractive scarlet. "That's none of your damn business." Grabbing her jacket from the room's chair, she took a step toward the door. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
Swallowing nervously--his great discovery was about to walk out the door, pissed at him, no less-- Blair dug in his pocket, producing a business card. "Me, I'm no one. But this man, he is." He gave Alison the card. "He's the only one who can truly help you. You're too far ahead of the curve for any of this techno trash. You're a cop. See the man." With those parting words, Blair made his escape.
Disposing of the lab coat in a laundry cart, Blair headed out of the hospital, tearing the band from his hair, angrily berating himself. "That sucked! That so sucked!" He climbed into his car and slapped the dashboard. The chances of him ever seeing Detective Alison again were about a billion to one. He leaned his forehead against the steering wheel for a few minutes then started the car and headed back to the university. He'd done all he could for the moment. The rest was up to her.
Jill paused in the middle of Rainier University's campus to get her bearings. Hargrove Hall, Hargrove Hall. There, right in front of her, in fact. Entering the building, she took a flight of stairs down.
This guy is in the basement? He's probably another crackpot like that weirdo at the hospital. What in the hell am I doing here? Nothing else has worked, Alison. You might as well check this person out.
The sound of loud percussion music reached her ears, and she winced.
Pulling out the business card the man at the hospital had given her, she checked the name against the hand-made sign on a door marked "Artifact Storage Room 3". Blair Sandburg. It did nothing to boost her confidence that the loud music was emanating from there. Here goes nothing...
Jill pushed the door open to find a small, cluttered room, filled with shelves holding books and various artifacts. Well, that's what the door said, Jill, what did you expect? What she hadn't expected to find was the young man from the hospital, his hair loose over his shoulders now, wearing a multi-colored vest over a white shirt and ripped blue jeans, his body swaying in his chair to the beat.
Spinning the chair around he caught sight of her. "Oh, hey. Notice how the war chant of the Yanomamo headhunters finds its echo in the cellars of Seattle. I'm sure your dad used to say that stuff all the time about the Stones. 'Hey, hey, turn that jungle music down.'"
Jill covered her ears with her hands. "Actually, I was into the BeeGees. Stones were a little before my time. And yes, he did. And so do I. Do you mind?"
His eyes widened as if he'd just realized he'd made a grave faux paux, and he leapt up to shut the music off. "Sorry, sorry, I wasn't thinking."
She lowered her hands and said, "So, look, um..."
"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg. You can call me Blair." He gave her a grin.
"So, Sandburg, what's with all this bullshit?"
"Oh, hey, look I'm really sorry about all that Shakespeare stuff at the hospital. But I just had to find some way to get you into my area here to talk."
She crossed her arms in front of her, knowing the hostile body language wouldn't be lost on him. "So talk."
"Okay. Uh, here, please take a seat here. Um..." He looked around the room nervously, then picked a pile of papers off a chair and dumped them on the floor.
Jill sat down and continued to apply the Alison glare.
He leaned against the front of his desk and took a deep breath. "You see, there's this nurse I've been--" He seemed to think better of what he was about to say. "You know--tutoring at the med center. She saw your chart and she faxed it over to me. And when I read that thing, man, it was like -- Bang! Holy Grail time!" He punctuated his words with a punch of his hand into the air.
"You're losing me, Ace." What was this guy, the poster child for Ritalin?
He began to pace, his hair flying. "Okay, um...my name is Blair Sandburg. Uh, I already said that, didn't I? And I'm working on my doctorate in Anthropology and you just may be the living embodiment of my field of study. If I'm correct, Detective Alison, you're a behavioral throwback to a pre-civilized breed of man."
There was no possible response to that statement, so Jill simply stared at him. Then she got to her feet and headed toward the door.
"Detective! Wait!" Blair lunged after her, grabbing her arm. She looked down at his hand, then up at his face. He got the message and slowly, carefully, let go. "Please, Detective Alison, just hear me out. I know this sounds crazy, but it's not any crazier than what I know you must be going through right now. Please, just give me a little longer to explain."
Jill studied his features, looking deep into his dark blue eyes and finding only an anxious sincerity there. "Okay, I'll listen. But I'm expecting you to start making sense sometime soon."
He gestured toward the chair, and she took a seat again. "After I left the hospital, I looked you up on the internet. Now, I know about your time spent in Peru. And what happened to you there has got to be connected to what is happening to you now." Walking over to his desk, Blair picked up an obviously old and valuable book from the way he handled it reverently. He turned toward her, the book open in his hands. "Let me just show you something here. This is a monograph by Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, not the actor. It's over a hundred years old." He handed the book to her, and Jill found herself looking at an old photograph of some kind of native warrior. "Anyway, the idea goes something like this -- in all tribal cultures every village had what Burton named a Sentinel. Now, this was someone who patrolled the border."
He shook his head. "No, no, no, more like a watchman. You see, this Sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, change in the weather, movement of game. Tribe survival depended on it."
She sighed. "And this has what to do with me?"
"A Sentinel is chosen because of a genetic advantage, a sensory awareness that can be developed beyond normal humans. These senses are honed by solitary time spent in the wild. At first Burton's monograph was disputed, and now it's basically forgotten. I mean, there are certain manifestations today of maybe one or two hyperactive senses, like taste and smell, people who work for coffee and perfume companies. Oh, and in Vietnam, the Army long-range recon units that had to-"
Jill interrupted him, "-- change their diet to fish and rice because a Cong scout could smell a Westerner by his waste. Yeah, yeah, I learned that at West Point."
"Right, right, exactly. I've got hundreds and hundreds of documented cases over here of one or two hyperactive senses, but not one single subject with all five. You could be the real thing." The expression on his face was so eager, so hopeful, that she hated to disappoint him.
"I'm sorry, Sandburg, but I really don't remember much about my time in Peru."
He gave her that disarming smile again. "A year and a half spent in the bush? The sole survivor of your unit? I mean, I'm no psychiatrist, but that sounds pretty damn traumatic to me. And trauma tends to get repressed."
Jill got to her feet again. "Okay, say I believe you. Say I'm one of these 'Sentinels'. Why is this happening to me now?"
Blair shook his head. "I don't know. But you need someone to help you, someone who understands your condition."
"And what do you get in return for helping me figure this thing out?"
"My doctorate. I want to write about you. You're my thesis." Once again the look in his eyes almost, almost, did her in.
"Look, I need some time, okay? I have to think this over." She walked out the door and headed for the stairs.
Lost in thought, Jill didn't hear Blair's final words to her. "Oh, wait, there's one other thing I gotta warn you about..."
Pushing open the door to Hargrove Hall, Jill stepped out into a beautiful fall day in Cascade, but her mind was too busy trying to process what she'd learned from Blair Sandburg to really notice it. If she was a Sentinel, if she did have all five senses heightened, then didn't that make her some kind of freak, of mutation?
Like you're not different enough, Alison.
Maybe she could just get them to go away, and she could go back to being a garden-variety freak, not one all lit up in neon. Still, she could see the advantages to having super senses. It sure as hell would be a boon to her detective work. Not that she wasn't good already, but every little advantage helped.
Her thoughts turned to the excitable grad student. Sandburg. He might be a problem. It's not like she hated the guy, but he grated on her nerves. He was so--hyper, so--enthusiastic, so--*free*. So different from the men you're used to, you mean. She'd grown up in a military family, and spent most of her life on army bases, dealing with men who were disciplined soldiers. When she'd finally left home, it had been to attend West Point, immersing her even deeper into the military life. It was only natural that when she'd left the Army after Peru, she'd gone into police work. It had been the closest thing to the life she 'd been leading before. That hadn't made the transition any easier; she was still a woman in a man's world, and she'd had to prove herself all over again. At least they couldn't throw her off the police force for her sexual preferences. Good thing she hadn't started dating women until she'd been discharged from the service.
Rehashing that ground wasn't going to get her anywhere, and invariably it was going to bring up some really bad memories. Too late. Thomas' face, contorted in jealous rage, flashed across her mind's eye, and she instinctively flinched, even though she knew it wasn't real. Jesus! She had enough problems without reliving that horrible time in her life.
Stepping off the curb into the street, Jill began to cross when she saw something red out of the corner of her eye. All of a sudden, the bright color was her entire world. It overwhelmed her vision, filling all her senses, and she felt like she was falling into it, drowning in a crimson sea.
And then she really was falling, her body impacting with the hard asphalt, a weight on her legs pinning her there. She sensed something huge and hot passing over her, then it was gone, as was the pressure holding her down. A familiar voice was shouting, "Wow! That *really* sucked, man!"
Jill got to her feet slowly, still not sure what had occurred. "What happened?" she asked.
Blair Sandburg reached out a hand to help her up. "It was that thing I was trying to warn you about--the zone-out factor."
For the first time, she noticed the giant garbage truck behind them, and realized Blair had just kept her from becoming a stain on the road. Her knees suddenly felt like water, and she found herself clutching his arm for support.
The truck driver jumped down from the cab. "God Almighty! You all right? You just stepped right out in front of me!"
Blair answered for them. "Yeah, we're okay, man. We're all right." He guided Jill out of the street and onto the grassy commons. "You okay?" he asked her. At Jill's nod, he replied, "Good." Then his legs promptly buckled and he dropped to the grass, dragging her down with him.
With a start, Jill realized he was shaking as badly as she was. "You okay, Ace?" she asked gently.
Blair nodded. "Yeah, just let me get my heart out of my throat and back in my chest, okay?" He leaned forward, resting his forehead on his knees.
Kneeling beside him, she hesitated for a moment, then laid a hand on his shoulder. "Just breathe, Ace. The adrenaline surge will wear off in a minute or two." Then she took her own advice, closing her eyes and concentrating on breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. When she could no longer feel her heart pounding, she opened her eyes to find him regarding her curiously, a question in his eyes, one she was sure she really didn't want him to ask.
Getting to her feet, she brushed the dirt from her jeans. "Come on, let's get out of here before people start asking questions."
Blair bounced up, his face beaming. "Let's? As in we? Oh, great, I've got some really specific ideas on how we can proceed here. Come on, let's go!"
He trotted a little ways ahead of her. Jill followed more slowly, wondering if she was doing the right thing in agreeing to let him help her. She couldn't deny Sandburg had a hell of a lot of guts, though. She cast one last look over her shoulder at the garbage truck, and shuddered. He'd saved her life; she couldn't begrudge him one afternoon, could she? And maybe he really did know what he was talking about.
Even with her long legs, Jill found it difficult to keep up with Blair Sandburg when he had a destination in mind. So she felt a sense of relief when he finally came to a stop in the midst of Cascade's pier-side flower and produce market, allowing her to ask the question that had been bothering her. "What happened to me back there, with the truck? What did you call it?"
Blair turned from his perusal of their surroundings, his face lighting up at her interest. "The zone-out factor. Burton suggests in his research that when a Sentinel is working his deal, he gets oblivious to the outside world. Sorta like the blinders are on. Usually he had a partner along, someone to watch his back."
"You mean like you?" she asked. The look of delight in his eyes increased ten-fold.
"Oh, yeah! Beautiful idea, I'd love to!" Then he seemed to remember he was supposed to be the serious scientist here. "Now, you ready for a little research?"
Taking a deep breath, Jill nodded, trying to push her doubts down. What if she couldn't do it on command? What if she couldn't learn to control it? What if she was doomed to be shoved under trucks the rest of her life? She realized Blair was speaking again.
"It's all about concentration. Let's try a little test here. A couple aisles over there's a flower seller. See if you can smell the roses."
"I feel silly," she complained.
"Using your senses is a skill just like using your gun. You have to practice in order to get better at it. Now come on, this is a scent you should easily identify."
Sighing, Jill closed her eyes and inhaled, trying to pick out the smell of flowers, any flowers really, from the pervading scent of ocean and fish. She could hear Blair talking to someone in the background.
"Hi, Blair," a young woman's voice said.
"Oh, hey, Wendy, how you doing?"
"I missed you at the meeting on Wednesday."
"Yeah. You'll let me share your notes?" Jesus, he was flirting with her!
"Maybe. Call me." The woman's footsteps faded as the scent of roses filled Jill's nose.
"Hey! It's working!" She opened her eyes to find Blair gazing after a petite blond as she walked away.
"Oh, what? Eighty-six that, eighty-six that." He pointed toward the girl. "See that blond over there? See if you can hear what she's saying about me."
"Look, Sandburg, we're not here to get you a date. Besides, isn't she a little young for you?"
"She's a TA, man. I'm clean. Now let's go. Radar up!"
Well, at least he believed she could do it. Jill rolled her eyes. There had to be a better use for her senses than picking up women. On the other hand....A grin crossed her face as she listened for the voice she'd heard before.
"Would you go out with him?"
"Yeah, I'd go out with him. He's adorable. But he's never asked me," Wendy said in response to her friend's question.
Blair tugged on her sleeve to get her attention. "Well?"
Jill managed to keep a straight face as she said, "She thinks you're a dork."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. Blair's face fell, his eyes showing his pain as he said, "A dork?" softly. Damn it, Jill felt like she'd just kicked a puppy. Maybe she wasn't the only one who had trouble fitting into their world.
Unfortunately, Jill didn't see any way to take back her comment without hurting him worse. She'd just have to figure out how to make it up to him. More tests, maybe. But not here. She began to walk toward the exit, Blair behind her, still repeating "A dork?" under his breath.
Simon Banks leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temple. The Switchman had struck again that afternoon, blowing up the train station, after the bomb squad had been through the building, removed one bomb, and were about to declare the building clear. Thank god, they hadn't allowed anyone back in yet. As it was, several of his men outside the building had been injured by falling debris. He, Carolyn Plummer, and Captain Joel Taggart of the bomb squad had barely escaped injury themselves. Now the three of them were huddled in his office, and had been trying for hours to figure out how to stop this maniac. It was nearly midnight now, and they were no closer to a solution than they had been earlier. As infuriating as she could be, Simon fervently wished Jill Alison was back on the case.
Carolyn shook her head, pouring over the data from the bombing site. "I don't get it. The sound sweep should have picked up the second bomb as well."
Leaning back in his chair, Taggart ran a hand over his face. "That's the point. The second timer wasn't the same type. He hardwired it right into the station's lobby clock."
The door to Simon's office was flung open at that moment, and Jill Alison flew into the room, her gaze darting around until it lit on Carolyn.
"Jill!" Carolyn said, surprised.
The detective crossed the room in two strides, bending over Carolyn's chair. "I've been looking for you all over the building." Her voice dropped to just above a whisper. "You okay?"
Carolyn reached out to squeeze Jill's hand. "Just winged me."
Their eyes met, and there was no telling how long they would have spent just staring at each other, until Simon interrupted their silent communication. "I'm all right, too. Thanks for asking."
Flushing slightly, Jill straightened up and tossed a sheet of paper on Simon's desk. "I think the station was just a warm-up. I found this in my email folder."
Picking up the paper, Simon read the note aloud. "Dear Detective Alison: Today I bought my ticket, tomorrow I ride to the end of the line. The Switchman."
"The end of the line," Carolyn repeated. "Tomorrow?"
Simon looked up at Alison, his expression serious. "Look, Jill, I need you back at work."
Jill's response was a nod.
Blair hung onto the door as Jill's red Range Rover bounced down the rutted logging road, heading for the remains of the lumber mill. "Tell me again, why are we here?"
Jill kept her eyes on the road as she replied, "Because this was where we came closest to catching this bastard. I actually had my hands on him. If it hadn't been for my damn senses, I would have caught him."
Blair sighed. She seemed to be running hot and cold on the Sentinel thing. One moment she was interested in his theories, and the next she was frustrated because she couldn't make her senses do what she wanted. "You don't know that, Detective Alison. Any number of other things could have gone wrong to keep you from catching him. From what you told me last night, it sounds like he had this thing planned down to the last detail, that he planned on being there while the bomb went off, then gloating over your body. I know that sounds sick, but it's a very basic tenet of warrior life, a verification of a warrior's prowess if you will, to spit on his enemy's grave."
This time she did look at him. "You have a lot of stuff jammed in that head of yours, don't you? And please, Sandburg, since we're going to be working together, call me Al, or Jill."
Al? She didn't look like an Al to him, and for some reason it seemed kind of blasphemous for him to contribute to her immersion in the pig society. Cop! Cop society! He sighed. There were some things he was going to have to unlearn if he was going to work with her. He finally got around to answering her question. "Yeah, there's a lot of stuff up there. I find most of it to be useful--Jill." He smiled, liking the way her name felt on his tongue.
They hit a particularly bad bump, and Blair decided talking should be saved for later, when there wasn't quite as much danger of biting *through* his tongue. Instead, he took another look at his Sentinel, silently cataloging her features. For some reason, when he had imagined discovering a Sentinel, he hadn't expected it to come in such an attractive, and female, package. Jill was a few inches taller than he was, lean and well muscled, evidenced by the glimpse he'd gotten of her with her shirt off at the hospital. Her dark brown hair barely brushed her shoulders, and most of the time she had it pulled back in a ponytail, like now. She didn't seem too concerned with her appearance, wearing little or no makeup, and once again she was dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and a T-shirt, over which she wore a worn leather jacket.
He glanced out the windshield at a huge pile of lumber as Jill brought the Rover to a stop. "Oh, wow! That's all that's left of the place?"
Nodding, Jill shut off the engine and climbed out of the truck, Blair following quickly after her, grabbing his backpack from the floorboard. He paused once he was out, taking in the tall trees, the silence only broken by occasional birdcalls. "How long did you say you were on stakeout here?"
Jill glanced back at him. "Four days."
Blair chewed his lip, considering. "Maybe that's why."
He felt her eyes on him. "Why what?"
He gave her a grin. "The forest, the isolation, the danger of the hunt. That could have kicked the Sentinel thing back up on you."
She seemed to consider that for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, maybe." She stared at the wreckage. "I don't know what I'm expecting to find here. The bomb squad and forensics have already been over this place. I haven't a clue as to how to begin. Right now, it just seems impossible." She closed her eyes, running a hand over her face.
For the first time it really hit home to Blair the kind of pressure she was under. People were going to die, unless she could find some kind of lead to who this guy was, or what he was planning. Think, Blair, think! You're the *expert*. Tell her what to do! "Okay, let's try something here. Close your eyes and hold out your hands."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "What?"
"Come on, just humor me, okay?" With a resigned sounding sigh, she did as he asked. Looking around the site, Blair scooped up some of the ashes, putting a sample in each of her hands. "Okay. Now what's in your hands?"
Jill frowned. "I don't--ashes...some kind of ashes."
Blair bounced on his toes, grinning. "Good, good. Now what kind of ashes?"
Her brow furrowed in concentration. "The right one's dry--wood? And the left one's greasy, oily..."
"It's from plastic." Opening her eyes, she stared at him. "I never could have told the difference. And a lab analysis, that takes time. You could be rolling on instinct here. I'll bet with a little practice, you could even tell what kind of wood."
Seemingly inspired, Jill turned her attention back to the debris. Blair pulled a small video camera from his backpack and began taping. She glanced at him over her shoulder, and when she saw the camera, she turned to face him, her hands on her hips. He filmed a couple more seconds, then got the message. Flipping the camera off, he stowed it away. "Sorry. I should have asked."
She gave him a little smile. "Let's just get through today, okay? Then we can discuss video rights." She went back to sorting through the junk. Blair took a seat on the bumper of the truck and watched, jotting down notes.
An hour later she crawled out of the building, dirty, sweaty, and from the expression on her face, pissed. "I don't know what I was thinking! This was a stupid, stupid idea! I'm just wasting time here!"
Blair hopped off his perch and walked over to her side. "Hey, hey, Jill, take it easy, okay? You're not gonna get it all right away. It's going to take some time and lots of practice."
She threw her hands up in frustration. "I don't *have* time! I have to get this now! I--" Breaking off mid rant, Jill turned her head, her gaze darting around the clearing, then stopping at a large tree about twenty feet away.
"What? What is it?"
"How good are you at climbing trees?"
A few minutes later, Blair found himself halfway up a pine. Jill had spotted a bird flying away from the wreckage, a shiny object clutched in its beak. "It's right there, right in that little hollow," Jill directed from the ground.
Making a face, Blair stuck his hand in the crevice. "Man, I am so not in the mood to have my skull ventilated by some pissed off magpie." His fingers closed around something small and metallic. "Got it! Heads up, I'm coming down." He slid down the trunk and made an ungainly landing on his ass.
Jill gave him a hand up. "You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, fine. Here." He dropped the metal into her hand. "What do you think it is?"
"It's pretty scorched and melted by the fire, but it sort of looks like an army dog tag." She turned it over and over in her fingers.
"Yeah, it does kinda. Can you read what it says?" She shook her head. "Hey, they stamp those things don't they? Maybe you could use your sense of touch, read it like a blind person reads Braille."
Holding the small metal tag in her hand, Jill ran her forefinger over it. "S...E..." She stopped, and Blair could see a light go on in her eyes.
"What? Is it a sense thing?"
She shook her head, her fingers closing so tightly around the metal the blood drained from her knuckles. "No," she answered, her voice husky with emotion, "it's a memory thing."
Simon looked up from the report he was reading as Jill Alison burst into his office without knocking. She threw a folder down on his desk. "That's our Switchman."
The captain looked at her skeptically, but he opened the folder and read the first page. "You can't be serious, Alison. This man's an upstanding member of the community."
"Whose brother went down with me in Peru."
"So he blames you and blows the hell out of Cascade to make you look bad?"
"One of the businesses his family owns is a demolition company. I checked. He believes in having hands on experience. He's helped blow up quite a few buildings over the past couple years, and been handsomely paid by the city for it." Jill took a seat on the edge of the conference table, one leg swinging.
Taking off his glasses, Simon rubbed the bridge of his nose. "All right, Jill. Say this is the guy. What do you want me to do about it?"
"Give me a warrant for his arrest, of course."
"On what evidence? This says a name on what might be an army dog tag found at the mill blast. But I don't see any forensics report confirming this." He tossed the report down on his desk. "Care to explain?"
For the first time since she'd entered his office, Jill looked nervous. "Carolyn's still working on that. But that's what the tag says, Captain. I sent them to his brother myself, with a note, after I was rescued."
Banks sighed. "All right, you'll have your warrant. But not until forensics confirms this."
Jill hopped off the table, her gaze angry. "But that could take hours!"
Simon rose to his feet. "We do this by the book, Detective! If this is thrown out of court because you jumped the gun--"
"Okay, okay, I get the picture. Just call me when you have the warrant." She headed for the door.
"Where do you think you're going?" Banks snapped.
Two glittering chips of ice met his eyes as she looked back. "To cool off, sir. If that's all right with you?"
He nodded curtly. "Fine, take the rest of the afternoon off. If we need you, I'll have you paged."
She strode out, slamming the door behind her. Simon sat back down and opened the file again. Jesus, Alison. If you're wrong about this, you're going to find yourself in a heap of trouble.
Blair jumped as the door to the police station opened violently, slamming against the brick. It didn't surprise him in the least that it was Jill who thundered down the steps and appeared on the sidewalk next to him.
"Come on," she told him tersely as she trotted toward her truck.
Blair ran to catch up. "Where are we going?"
"On a little train trip. I called our suspect's office. His secretary said he's taking the four fifteen commuter to Seattle. Simon wouldn't give me the warrant, not until he confirmed what we found on the dog tag." She slapped the palm of her hand on the steering wheel. "I know he's there, I know that's where he'll strike. Buckle up."
Blair barely had time to fasten his seatbelt before she shot into traffic, her lights flashing but siren off. "How can he be taking the train if he blew the station up yesterday?"
"Pacific Rail's diverted all their stops to the station on route 35, in the county. That's where our boy will be--the end of the line." She took a left on red, tires squealing. Blair decided he'd save any further questions for later.
Twenty minutes later, they pulled up in front of the Blackwood Train Station. "Damn it. It's 4:05. Come on, two of us can cover more ground." Getting out of the SUV, Jill ran toward the station, Blair following. Once inside, she began to scan the crowd of people.
"The train to Seattle's on track 3," Blair told her, reading the departures board.
"And we don't know whether he intends to bomb the train or the station." Reaching into her pocket she pulled out a cell phone and handed it to him. "If something starts to go down, you call for backup. You look for him on that side of the station and I'll take the other. We'll meet at the entrance to the train." She disappeared into the crowd.
Blair was halfway across the room when he spotted the suspect heading through the door to track 3. He pushed past people and managed to step out onto the platform in time to see the blond man in a dark suit and raincoat board the train, a briefcase in his hand. That had to be the bomb!
He glanced back through the doorway into the station. Where in the hell was Jill? The whistle blew just as he caught sight of her, fighting her way through a crush of commuters. There was no way she would make it on time. Blair made a quick decision, sprinting across the platform and hopping on board just before the door closed. He stared out the small window set in the door, seeing Jill appear on the platform from the station. Somehow her eyes found his, and he saw she recognized what Blair being on the train meant. The train jerked as it started, throwing him against the wall. When Blair looked back out the window, he could see Jill running for the train. He lost sight of her as the car he was on cleared the edge of the platform.
Blair slumped against the wall. Damn it! What in the hell had he been thinking? What was he going to do? For a second, he considered pulling the emergency brake, but quickly realized that would tip the Switchman off, possibly causing him to set off the bomb. Definitely did not want to do that. Find him. That was the first priority. Find him, keep an eye on him, and wait for Jill. Blair just hoped she found *him* in time.
Jill brushed by a woman dragging two toddlers with her. "'Scuse me, pardon me." Skidding to a stop as she exited the station, she glanced around frantically for Blair. She'd caught a glimpse of his distinctive curls ducking through this door. Where the hell was he? Her gaze swept over the passenger cars in front of her. There! Her eyesight zoomed in on his pale, worried face, and she realized Blair was on the train. With the Switchman.
Her heart pounding, she began to run, picking up speed as the train began to pull out of the station. Come on, come on, come on! Run, Alison, run! She was going to run out of room--
Reaching the end of the platform, Jill leapt into space, propelling herself forward like a long jumper, her hands reaching for the railing on the end of the last car. Her effort slammed her into the metal bar, knocking the air from her lungs. For a moment, Jill thought her desperate move would end in failure as her sight dimmed and she fought against blacking out. Her fingers were curled securely around the railing though, and she managed to pull herself over it, falling to a heap on the narrow step between the rail and the car.
Jill lay there for several excruciating seconds, her arms wrapped around her stomach. This is not good, Alison. Get up, get up, gotta get up! Pulling herself to her feet, she fumbled with the latch on the car door. Finally getting it open, she stumbled inside and went in search of Blair.
Blair entered the train car and began walking slowly up the aisle, trying to get a good look at everyone's faces without bringing attention to himself. The Switchman was seated near the front of the car, in a seat where he could see both entrances. Unfortunately, Blair realized the only seat available was just two rows away from the suspect.
Dropping into it, he looked out the window. The station was far behind them now, and he crossed his fingers, hoping Jill would find some way to stop the train before the bomb went off. Speaking of the bomb, where was it? He glanced around. Not under the suspect's seat, or in the overhead rack. In fact, he couldn't see any cases that looked like the one Switchman had been carrying. He could have left it anywhere on the train between the car he got on at and this one. Things had just gone from bad to worse.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, Blair pulled out the cell phone Jill had given him. The beep as he turned it on seemed incredibly loud to his ears, but when he glanced up, no one was looking at him. With shaking fingers, he dialed 9-1-1. The connection wasn't too good, but when the operator answered, he said in a low voice, "I need to talk to Captain Simon Banks."
Jill made her way slowly through the train cars, looking at people's faces, listening to conversations, trying to pinpoint Blair. As she entered the fourth car, she finally tuned in to his loud whisper, clearly hearing the fear in his voice.
"Banks, Captain Banks. No, no don't put me on hold! My name? Blair Sandburg, I'm with Detective Alison. On the 4:15 train to Seattle. With the Switchman. Now can I talk to Captain Banks?"
Another voice, louder, interrupted the conversation. "Who are you talking to? The police? Give me that!"
"Sure, sure, no problem. Can you point that thing somewhere else? Hey!" There was the sound of something solid hitting flesh, followed by people screaming, and Jill began to run up the aisle, squeezing past passengers. "You didn't have to do that, man. I gave you the phone. Okay, okay, I'm shutting up."
The Switchman began to speak as Jill came to a stop outside the car door. Peering through the window, she could see him standing in the middle of the aisle, the phone in one hand, a gun in the other. "Shut up and sit down, all of you!"
The passengers complied, and Jill could finally make out Blair sitting in one of the seats next to the suspect, one hand to his head.
The bomber put the cell phone to his ear. "I want to talk to Alison. This is the Switchman. I want to talk to the bitch who couldn't catch me!"
Jill figured that was as good an opening as any and, pushing the door aside, she stepped through, her gun drawn and pointed at his chest. "Say what you want to say to my face, Ellison! I'm right here!"
Steven Ellison dropped the phone, his gun hand swinging to cover her as he grabbed Blair by the arm and yanked him in front of him.
Fuck. This was bad.
"Put the gun down, Ellison!" Jill's gun was rock steady. Unfortunately, it was trained on Blair.
"No. Remember my message? I want to die. This is the end of the line." Blair squirmed in his hold, and Ellison's arm tightened around his neck.
"Shoot him." What the hell? It was Blair's voice, whispering to her. Her sight kicked in and she could see his lips moving. "Shoot him. I trust you, Jill. Shoot him."
Oh god. If she got this wrong--she sighted down the barrel of her automatic and squeezed the trigger. The bullet struck Ellison's gun, sending it flying behind him. Blair whirled as Steven staggered back, smashing his elbow into his face, sending him to the floor.
Jill was there then, yanking Ellison up. "Where is it, Steven? Where's the bomb?"
"Find it." He was grinning at her.
She shook him. "Tell me!"
"You let them die. You let them all die!"
Jill shook her head, forcing the memories back. She didn't need this now. They came anyway. The explosion. The utter silence as the chopper plunged to the ground. Waking up covered in blood. Everyone dead; everyone but Jim. "No."
"You left me alone. Now I can never fix things, can never make things right."
She swallowed past the rock in her throat. "Your brother was my best friend! I never hurt him. I tried to help him, tried to save him. You have to believe me, Steven. You have to tell me where the bomb is."
His eyes were flat and cold. "Tick....Tick...."
"Please, Steven, you know Jim wouldn't want this."
Reaching behind her back, Jill pulled out her handcuffs and snapped them on Ellison, threading one end through the arm of a seat before closing it on his wrist. Then she turned to Blair. "Help me look for it."
"Don't look, Jill. Listen."
She tried, but her hearing kept cutting in and out. "I can't. It's not working!"
Blair laid his hand on her shoulder. "You can do this, Jill. Close your eyes, concentrate like you did before."
She did as he instructed, searching for anything that didn't belong. "I think I have it!" Running up the aisle with Blair behind her, she entered the next car, walking slowly through it. Stopping in front of an empty seat and dropping to her knees, she reached underneath, pulling out a briefcase. This was it. She knew it; she could feel it. Jill glanced out the window. The train was rolling through downtown Cascade; she couldn't toss it.
Praying the cover wasn't wired, Jill opened the lid and found herself staring down at enough plastic explosive to take out a city block. The clock showed 59 seconds. "Oh, crap," was Blair's comment from behind her.
"Get out of here," she ordered, then turned her attention back to the bomb, desperately trying to dredge up her memories of her turn through demolition in the army. Which wire? They were all the same color, and she suspected half of them were fake. "Shit, shit, shit."
She felt the warm pressure of Blair's hand on her shoulder again. "Use your sense of touch. See if you can feel which wire is live."
What did she have to lose? She ran her fingers over the wires, touching the connections. That one. It had to be that one. Jill pulled it loose. The timer stopped, the display reading 5 seconds.
Jill looked up at Blair. His eyes were squeezed shut, and his fingers had a death grip on her shoulder. "It's okay, Ace. We did it." He let go of her slowly, collapsing into a seat. The sound of sirens reached her ears, and she could feel the train beginning to slow down.
Setting the bomb aside carefully, Jill took a good look at his face. "You're going to have a hell of a bruise there, buddy." She touched the rapidly purpling skin, and he flinched. "Easy, easy. It's okay now."
Blair laughed weakly, and held out his shaking hand. "Tell that to my adrenal gland."
Clasping his hand between her own, Jill looked up into his face, blue-green eyes meeting dark blue. "Thanks, Ace. I could not have done this without you, partner."
A slow grin spread across his face. "Partners?"
"Yeah, if today hasn't made you determined to crawl in a hole and pull it in after you."
He shook his head. "It's been...enlightening. I'd be honored."
The train came to a stop and police began to flood the car. "We'll talk later, okay?"
Blair nodded, and Jill went to meet Simon.
Leaning against the side of the train car, Jill watched as a couple of uniforms led Steven Ellison from the train and put him in a squad car. All those people dead, and for what? To punish her for making it out of the jungle? She ran a hand through her hair, tugging the tie holding it in a ponytail loose. She shook her head. Didn't he know she had to live with that every day, to know she'd done everything she could, and it still hadn't been enough? Her friends, her teammates, died because she'd failed.
The tall form of Simon Banks filled her vision. "Good work, Jill. To tell you the truth, I've been worried about you the past couple of days. Glad you finally came to your senses." He walked off to speak with Joel Taggart.
Jill sighed. Came to her senses. Good one, Simon. She guessed she'd better go check up on Sandburg. She'd sent him with the EMTs to have the bruise on his temple looked at.
Turning around, she saw Carolyn striding toward her. A smile crossed her face as she watched the other woman negotiate the rough ground next to the train in high heels. Some things would never change, Carolyn's choice in footwear being one of them. "You okay, Jill?"
"Fine, now that this whole Switchman thing is over with." A thought struck her, and her smile grew wider. "You doing anything for dinner tonight?"
Carolyn shook her head. "No, why?"
"Just thought I'd make up for that last disastrous dinner. I've got some chicken in the fridge and a nice bottle of wine...."
Carolyn laughed. "Dinner might have been a disaster, but I remember the dessert was amazing. You plan on serving it again?"
Jill shrugged, but her smile turned seductive. "I might if I get enough requests for it. Eight o'clock okay?"
"Sure. See you then." Jill reached out and gave Carolyn's hand a gentle squeeze as she walked past, then headed in search of Blair.
She found him sitting in the back of an ambulance, a blue gel pack held to the left side of his face. "You ready to go, Ace? I'll see if we can catch a ride back to the train station with a patrol car."
"Yeah, I think so." Hopping out of the van, Blair caught up to her. "Did you mean what you said earlier, about us being partners?"
"Sure. You said every sentinel needs one, right? And I thought we worked pretty well together, for a cop and an anthropologist. I'll have to clear it with Captain Banks, but I don't think he'll be much of a problem."
Blair seemed to be turning that over in his mind, then he said, "You're not going to make me go to the police academy, are you? Because I'm *not* cutting my hair."
Jill paused to look at him. His expression was indignant. Finally she laughed and tugged on one of his curls, as well as a strand of her hair. "That would hardly be fair, now would it?" She slapped him on the back. "You have nothing to worry about from me. Come on, let's get out of here."
The smile on his face matched the brilliance of the setting sun.
Jill pulled her Range Rover to a stop in front of Hargrove Hall, then looked over at her passenger. "You sure you want me to drop you off here?"
Blair nodded as he unfastened his seatbelt. "Yeah, I have to pick up some stuff from my office, and my car's here. We're on for tomorrow, right?"
"Ten am, my place, tests. Check. And we'll go over what all my being your research subject entails."
"Right. See you tomorrow!" He jumped out of the truck and headed for the building, giving her a wave as he opened the door, then disappeared inside.
Jill was about to drive away, when she caught sight of a remembered face in her rear view mirror. Turning the car off, she got out and headed across the grassy commons. As she caught up to the blond student, she called out, "Wendy, wait!"
The girl stopped and waited for her. "Do I know you?"
Jill shook her head. "No, not really. I was at the open-air market yesterday and I saw you there. I'm Jill Alison." She stuck out her hand, and the young woman shook it tentatively. "I'm a friend of Blair Sandburg's, and I couldn't help but overhear you talking to your friend yesterday...."
Blair got off the elevator and consulted a piece of paper he pulled out of his jeans pocket. 307. There it was, on the left. He stopped in front of the door, composing himself. He hoped Jill wasn't pissed to see him 14 hours early, but when he'd finished up at his office and headed home, he realized he still had her cell phone.
His somewhat tentative knock on the door was answered by Jill. For moment, he thought she was wearing nothing but a blue flowered apron. Then he noticed the tank top and the running shorts as she stepped back, allowing him to enter.
"Hey, Blair, I thought I was going to see you in the morning. Ten am, not pm, remember?" But she was smiling as she said it.
"Oh, I, uh, yeah, I know, it's like only 8:30, but I still had this." Jesus, Sandburg. Talk much? He dug in the front pocket of his backpack and pulled out her cell phone. "I thought you might need this." He sniffed. Something smelled really good.
She took it from him, still smiling. "Thanks. I forgot you had it." She seemed about to say something else, when the chirping tones of a pager going off interrupted her.
A new voice echoed in the loft. "Damn it! That was mine, wasn't it?" A tall, slender woman with short dark auburn hair appeared from a hallway to the left of the kitchen. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise as she caught sight of Blair. "Oh, I didn't know you had company."
"Yeah. Blair was just dropping off my cell phone. Carolyn, this is Blair Sandburg. He's an anthropologist over at Rainier."
"Uh, actually, I'm a doctoral student and teaching fellow," he corrected, not wanting her to think he was a professor.
"Blair, this is Carolyn Plummer, head of forensics for the Cascade PD."
They politely shook hands, then Carolyn grabbed a purse off the back of a kitchen chair, removed a pager and, picking up the portable phone sitting on the counter, walked into the living area. The timer on the oven dinged, and Jill said, "Hang on, I'll be right back."
Blair spent the next few minutes just looking around, noting the high ceiling and wide-open spaces of Jill's apartment. It had a kind of South-Western feel to it, with rough wood and leather furniture, a colorful throw rug in the center of the living area, some Native American wall hangings and a Navajo pattern blanket thrown over the back of one of the couches.
Jill walked back over to where he stood. "Okay, the chicken's turned, for all the good it's going to do me." Her gaze slid to where Carolyn was clicking the off button on the phone as she approached the two of them.
"I'm sorry. Duty calls."
"They need me?" Jill asked.
Carolyn shook her head. "No. Open and shut homicide, caught the suspect at the scene. They just need forensics to make the charges stick." She walked back into the kitchen to get her purse, Jill following.
"Will I see you later?" she asked.
The other woman shrugged into a jacket. "It'll be late. Probably be better if we did this another time. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Okay." And then Jill did something Blair totally did not expect. She hooked an arm around Carolyn's neck and pulled her in for a kiss. With feeling. On the lips.
He spent the few seconds while Jill was letting Carolyn out trying to wrap his mind around what had just happened. By the time the door closed behind her, he was composed, he was dealing, and he was actually thinking this was a good thing. At least he wouldn't be tempted now to hit on Jill.
He felt her gaze on him. "I probably should be going, too." The look in her eyes changed, and he realized he had just been given a test, and was about to fail. "Or not. Carolyn seems really nice. So, how long have you been a couple?" he smiled as he said it, trying to let her know it didn't matter, that it didn't make any difference, that he still thought she was the Holy Grail.
The sparkle returned to Jill's eyes, and she answered, "Were a couple. She's my ex, though I think she's having second thoughts. You like rosemary chicken?" She entered the kitchen and Blair took that as an invitation to follow.
Shedding his coat, he hung it on a hook by the door and set his backpack on the floor underneath. "I love rosemary chicken. And I understand what you're saying about relationships. Sometimes things work out better the second time around." He leaned against the counter, staying out of the way as she stirred vegetables on the range. "Oh, hey, you remember that girl from the market? The one you said thought I was a dork? She stopped by my office tonight and asked me out." He grinned.
Jill grinned back. "What can I say? I'm still getting used to this sentinel thing. Maybe I misunderstood her. Adorable kind of sounds like a dork."
Blair laughed. This was going to be the start of a great relationship. He could feel it.
Four hours later, Jill looked up at the clock over the TV. One am! Where had the time gone? She glanced at the empty wine bottle and two glasses on the coffee table. And the wine?
She had invited Blair to stay for dinner, and he had readily agreed, seeing the opportunity to discuss his dissertation in more detail. She'd let him, finding him an eloquent and enthusiastic speaker, the subject matter fascinating, though frightening in the idea that he was talking about *her*, not some nameless, faceless test subject. He'd brought along a copy of his Masters thesis and let her read it, which gave her a better of idea of what exactly he was going to do with his observations of her.
She also pressed him to go over the controls and procedures in place to protect her several times. She'd explained to him that due to her line of work, confidentiality of the information gathered was of the utmost importance to her, and she was satisfied by his promise to keep her identity secret. But now her eyes were starting to close, and she stifled a yawn. "I'm sorry, Blair. This is fascinating, really, but I think I've reached my saturation point for the evening, morning, whatever."
Blair began to gather up the papers and notes covering the coffee table and the couch he was sitting on. She had been amazed at how much stuff he'd pulled out of his backpack. "No, no, I'm the one who should apologize. I should have been keeping better track of the time. I'll just head on home and let you get some rest." He started to rise.
Getting to her feet also, Jill shook her head. "I don't think so, Ace. We drank a whole bottle of wine between us, and neither of us is safe to hit the road. Let me get a blanket and a pillow and you can crash on the sofa."
He hesitated for a moment, then agreed. "One question, where's the bathroom?"
"Down the hall and to the right, just past the kitchen." While he was gone, Jill went up to her room, retrieving sheets, pillow, and blanket, then returned downstairs and made up the couch. When Blair came back, his tired eyes showed her he was finally feeling the effects of the wine and their exhausting day.
After brushing her teeth, Jill took a turn around the loft, making sure the door was locked and everything was secure. Turning out the lights, she walked past Blair's makeshift bed on the way to the staircase. She paused, looking down at him. He was already asleep. Taking a seat on the edge of the coffee table, she watched him for a few minutes, trying to figure out what was going on with her, why she was letting this man, this bundle of bouncing energy, into her life. He was as far from the men she had known all her life, from the military mindset she felt familiar with, as night from day. She worked alone; she had for a long time. Why him, and why now?
The Sentinel thing, of course, was the easy answer. But she sensed it ran deeper than that. He was as brave or braver than any soldier she'd ever served with. He'd risked his life for her twice in the past two days, once by shoving her under that truck, and again that afternoon on the train, when she'd told him to leave and he'd stayed by her side, helping her defuse the bomb.
The amount of trust he had in her was overwhelming. She could still hear his voice, the barest whisper in her ears. Shoot him. I trust you, Jill. Shoot him. . Pulling her knees up, she hugged them to her chest. That was an awesome responsibility, one she wasn't sure she could live up to. But she owed it to him to try.
Uncurling from her position, Jill got to her feet, automatically tugging the blanket higher on the sleeping anthropologist's shoulder, then climbed the stairs to bed.
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