DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.

Rock and a Hard Place by Eddie


Act II

Nettleson Research Group's Camp, Main Cabin

"Hello," he said as he walked through the cabin's main bedroom doorway, staring at the two women. He'd always loved redheads. The shorter had light, almost strawberry blonde hair in a long braid. The taller woman had darker, auburn hair kept short and somewhat wispy about her face. If he'd come across either of them anywhere else, he'd have been half tempted...

"Well," the doctor said rather slowly. "I take it you're the party responsible for all the fireworks." Her soft English accent made her words sound more polite than she intended.

Great, one with a sense of humor, the man thought. "You are very correct."

"What can I do for you?" Dr. Mesgar asked quietly.

"We've come for you, Dr. Mesgar," he said, then smiled at the pair before continuing. "Oh, and your assistant can come as well."

Naomi stepped forward, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders. "What if we don't want to go with you?"

"Don't be foolish." Pulling his gun, he pointed it at the woman, surprised when she didn't step back from the threat. "There is only one other alternative."

Mesgar looked the man up and down, assessing the terrorist before commenting. "You wouldn't do that."

"Now is not the time to argue the finer points of kidnapping," he said with a laugh. "With or without her, I still get paid." To emphasize his point, he cocked the pistol, still holding it on the slender redhead. "All I need do is deliver one Doctor E. Mesgar. That is you, correct?"

"But without my assistant, I wouldn't be able to work. And face it, whomever your client is, he, she, or it, is going to want me to work. Now, what do you think your client will do with your money when they find out I cannot do as they wish because you killed my research assistant?"

"My, that IQ is large, isn't it."

"Matches your ego," the doctor quipped back, watching as the man shook his head and laughed.

"I guess that's why I get the big bucks, eh, doctor?" He motioned with the pistol, even though it was little threat to them, they stepped back from the man. "Oh, don't forget your coats. It's going to be chilly tonight. And doctor?"

Mesgar looked up at the man, then saw a taller man holding a machine gun step through the doorway. "Yes?"

"Remind me to keep you away from my client while I'm renegotiating my fees."

Grabbing their coats, the pair were prodded through the bedroom door and across the great room. As they exited the small hallway, they noticed the entire research team had been brought into the cabin and were being held there by armed guards on either side of the front door. All eyes were on them as they were taken out onto the porch and led to a Jeep parked just off the porch. They watched the man who held them hostage. He wasn't dressed any better than any of the other men with machine guns who had been running around the camp. They all wore tan slacks and green flight jackets. The jackets were fully zipped up, so there was no hint of the shirts underneath. And except for the leader, each of the kidnappers wore a stocking mask. Identification would be extremely hard should they manage to escape.

Mesgar stopped in front of the Jeep. "I've forgotten my briefcase. It's in my room, under my bed."

"And your point?" The leader asked sarcastically, staring down at blank, brown eyes. He motioned to one of the men, who stepped forward immediately. "Get the doctor's briefcase. You heard where it is." With a nod, the man was gone and the leader assisted Mesgar into the Jeep before securing both hostages with handcuffs.

When the lead kidnapper had exited with the hostages, the group members watched through the windows as the additional thugs also retreated, loading up in a pair of military-style Jeeps similar to the park service vehicles. Danni figured she'd wait until the men had left, then sneak to her truck and get the emergency radio from it. Suddenly, though, one of the masked men was coming back into the cabin. He still had his gun, but his focus was on something else. The ranger watched him head to the bedroom and return with a large, black case. She knew she had to at least try. Just before the man reached the door, she lunged for him, her hand snagging his jacket and something else. It turned out to be the strap to his machine gun, which promptly snapped, causing the weapon to fall to the floor. Stepping over the gun, he turned to the woman and backhanded her across the face, but she refused to let go. She tripped him up, but instead of falling back, they fell forward, through the cabin door and into the sight of two more masked thugs. Even though she'd landed on the man's feet, knocking much of the air from her lungs, Thompkins found herself on her feet first, but by then the other masked men were coming up behind her and she found her arms pinned behind her back. As the man with the briefcase came at her, she kicked, her large booted foot catching him squarely in the groin. He let out a yelp, and dropped the briefcase. Danni was almost certain she felt the other two men cringe in sympathy for their fellow terrorist, but she never got a chance to take advantage of that.

"Danielle!!" Naomi cried out.

"Move it out, now!" the man said, sitting as his driver started the engine and slammed it into reverse.

A gun came down on the side of her head, sending Danni into darkness.

Dropping her body to the ground, the three men jumped into the other waiting Jeep and followed the first vehicle.

Naomi looked over at the doctor, who was staring back at the camp. "Are you okay?"

"I'm so sorry, Naomi. I'm so very sorry..."

They made their way down the path from the ridge and into the camp from the west end, briefly surveying the cabins as they went. The doors were all closed, keeping Jim from seeing inside. It didn't deter his senses though, as he swept over the area, pausing for even the slightest problem. The terrorists had gone, but it was uncertain what they had left behind. Almost every cabin had multiple heartbeats -- slightly accelerated and nervous, but steady none the less. As the partners made their way toward the front of the camp, Jim spotted Danni and headed directly for her. As they approached, Jim saw she was starting to rouse and he moved towards her to help. Still running on defense mode, though, a sudden movement and noise in the doorway made the detective aim his weapon there.

"Come out with your hands up," Ellison called toward the doorway, watching as a couple of the camp residents exited the cabin slowly.

Blair shook his head, settled a hand on his partner's shoulder, and walked slowly toward the cabin. Knowing what they needed was safety, Blair pulled his badge and raised his hands above his head in a non-threatening sign. "It's okay. I'm an officer. My partner and I are just trying to help. Right now, we just want to see if Ranger Thompkins is okay."

The pair of women breathed a couple relieved sighs and backed up through the doorway.

Knowing Danni was coming around, Jim knelt next to her and removed his pack.

"Stay still and let me see," he said, smiling down at her. Looking up at his partner, Jim lifted the woman in his arms and carried her to the porch, settling her on the steps. "Ranger Thompkins? Danielle?" She winced and moaned a little. "Danni?" he asked softly, smiling a bit as she opened her eyes.

Not believing her eyes, Danielle closed them for a second or two, then opened them again, smiling slightly at the caring blue eyes that greeted her. "Oh, am I glad to see you."

"They headed out that way," he said, indicating the direction the two vehicles had gone. "But do you know if they turned left or right?"

She shook her head, then stopped abruptly, bracing one hand on either temple to possibly stop the vibrations.

"Sandburg, stay with her."

"Where are you going?" Blair asked rather loudly, immediately sorry for the action when he heard Danni groan in pain. "Hold up, man. What are you doing?"

"I'm just gonna get a look at the road -- see which way they went, then I'll be right back." That said, Ellison ran up the slight incline toward the main road, such as it was. More like a main trail. Stones covered the road, a fresh layer of dust settled on top of that. Looking to either side, he smiled. With his extended sight, Jim could make out the dust pattern and the faint tire marks that lead left out of the camp -- and deeper into the park. Wherever they were heading, it wasn't out. They could do any number of things -- hide the women and ransom them, camp out in any of the numerous caves until searchers gave up, or just hide the women and take them out another way... Or just hide the women where their bodies wouldn't be found... None of the ideas were heartening.

Glancing down the road, Jim knew he'd be able to follow the trail easily. So long as it doesn't rain. Hope we didn't bring any of Cascade's weather with us. he thought. Looking back at the camp road, he decided it was best not to leave his partner for too long. As he made the turn and came into sight of the camp, he surveyed the most visible damage. What vehicles there were had been completely ruined. Danni's Jeep had four flat tires and several bullet holes in the radiator. A large van sat next to Naomi's Volvo Wagon, both in the same condition as Danni's vehicle. As he came up towards the main cabin, Jim saw Blair had settled Danni on the porch, the kid's balled up sweater under her head. "Things are pretty messed up. They certainly didn't want to be followed," Jim said, his senses on the verge from the smells and sounds assaulting him. "Is there anyone else missing?"

Danni looked up and sighed. "Emily. I can't believe they took Emily..."

"The woman with Naomi," he confirmed with Danni's nod. "And this doctor, Mesgar is it? I heard them yell for him."

"Emily," She started, then suddenly stopped as she realized what Ellison had revealed. There was a bit of hate in Danni's eyes, tinged with more than a little confusion. "You heard? You were here when this happened and you didn't do anything? You didn't help? Why the hell not?"

Blair stepped up next to his partner. "It wasn't that simple. We weren't in a position to do anything."

"But you're police officers!" she said rather excitedly. "You let them take those women -- "

Before Ellison could even respond that it had been his decision to wait, Sandburg had stepped towards the woman. "We" he started, just a notch too loud, "didn't let them take anyone."

"You certainly didn't not let them," she tried to continue, but the dangerous spark in the young detective's eyes made her think twice and stop there.

"First -- we were up on the ridge when the assault started and wouldn't have arrived in time. And we weren't really a threat from that distance," Blair replied heatedly, his one hand gesturing furiously. "Second -- even if we had been here, resistance wouldn't have helped. You found that out for yourself!" His finger in her face emphasized his point rather nicely, he felt. "And last -well," Blair stopped, taking a very necessary deep breath to help soften the edges of his anger. "Just don't assume that I would ever let anything happen to Naomi!" Stepping past her, he tried to calm himself more fully. His ire was beginning to control the situation and that wasn't good. He needed to stop his escalating fear, which would in turn keep his anger checked. And stepping away from the accusations seemed to help.

Danni didn't really mean what she'd said. Sandburg knew that. He also knew it wasn't something the ranger could control. He and Jim were just the convenient recipients of her anger at the situation. That, he could understand -- at least he wanted to. Still, part of him agreed with Danielle. Blair had failed. He'd gone through the academy, all that training, and when he could really have put it to good use, he just couldn't do anything. If it hadn't been for the shots, Blair knew he wouldn't have known what was happening. Probably would've walked right into the camp, completely unknowing.

If Jim hadn't stopped him.

"If," he mumbled, his pursed lips the only thing holding back the venom from his voice. Taking another long, slow, deep breath, Blair concentrated on the actions and felt his stomach flip-flop once or twice. After that, it seemed better, as if he had actually quelled the anxiety gnawing at his stomach lining. It didn't stop the flip-flopping of his mind, though, and he wrapped his arms tightly around his body. "If we'd pushed the trail yesterday and arrived last night, we would've been in the camp, and maybe stopped this," he thought out loud.

"Or gotten hurt in the process and still not rescued Naomi."

Blair turned around quickly, finding his partner glaring down at him.

"All right." Blair nodded his agreement with the statement, then continued the idea. "If I hadn't let you sleep late this morning, we would have been here."

Once more, the large man answered. "Again, one of us could've gotten hurt. We seem to do that a lot."

"We should have stayed at the front of the park last night and arrived with Ranger Thompkins today," came Blair's last plea.

"You're pushing it, Sandburg," Ellison refuted. "Look what happened to her, Chief. We're better off right now, being able to go after them..."

Blair sighed, shaking his head at the futile conversation. "So? What do we do now?"

"We see what other information we can get, then we go after them," Jim said, standing up straight and crossing his arms over his chest. "And we get your mom back." The look on Blair's face at the words reassured Jim that his partner was going to make it. When the younger man had walked away, there had been a look of despair on his face. The slight smile wasn't up to the normal Sandburg wattage, but it was better than nothing. Glancing over his shoulder, he noted Danni move to the porch steps. She looked ragged all of a sudden, the bruise on her cheek more purple -- or her skin suddenly pale. "C'mon, Chief. I need you with me on this one. Can you do that for me? Pull yourself together?"

"Yeah," he said half-heartedly, then reaffirmed more emphatically. "Yeah. I can do that for you."

"Not just for me, Sandburg," Jim said, placing a hand on his partner's shoulder. "For Naomi."

The partners turned and went immediately to Danielle, leading her into the cabin to get cleaned up. She leaned mostly on Ellison, mainly because she was just a bit taller than Sandburg and winced if she had to lean over. The Sentinel knew the hitch in her breath and the tenderness under his fingertips meant bruised ribs -- maybe fractured, but he'd have to do a more thorough inspection, which wasn't in the present schedule. Passing through the great room to the cabin's one open bedroom, Jim settled Danni on a bed, then sent Blair for the first aid kit.

"Relax. Sandburg will be back in a second or two." Leveling the woman down, he placed a hand behind her head as he shifted a pillow for her. The smile she gave him stayed on her face as she shut her eyes and settled back.

He looked around the room, realizing as he took a single deep breath that Naomi Sandburg had been in that room. She'd been there only an hour or so before... One of her cases was still open on a small blanket chest at the end of the twin bed. Several articles of clothing lay across the end of the bed and one of her gauzy wraps lay pooled on the floor. A small incense tray held some ashes -- Not Sage, thankfully, he thought as he sniffed the air. But the smell he encountered, Naomi's perfume, caused a sudden smile to spread over his lips. Nothing in the world was quite as naturally intoxicating as Naomi Sandburg. He picked up her discarded shawl and examined it with his senses.

It struck him, then. He had unconsciously catalogued the woman in his memory. And if her smell was that recognizable, then he'd have no problem tracking her through the forest. Knowing that a fresh imprint would be more helpful -- especially given the variables of the woods and cabin -- the Sentinel took a deeper breath, allowing some cached voice to guide his actions. Deep breath. Recognition of sample. Overlay... he heard in his mind. Doing just that, Jim's senses began to break down Naomi's essence and file it away. But something was different about the sample. Something absolutely minute...

"Hey, Jim," Blair started as he walked through the doorway. He immediately fixed on the large figure standing by the window with a filmy article in his hands. "Jim?" The question was more of a test to see if his partner had zoned, but the slow smile that greeted him let Sandburg know there was more going on than could be explained in words. Seeing that Danni had closed her eyes and settled back on the bed, Blair crossed to the window and his friend. "So? What's with the shawl? You got something?"

Jim explained his theory on tracking the women, smiling widely as Blair nodded approval. When he mentioned the variant smell, though, Blair was immediately in research mode.

"Okay. You wanna try for it now? It could mean the difference in time, man." Seeing the slight nod, Blair told his partner to close his eyes and filter out the layers to Naomi's smell. "Strip it away a piece at a time if you have to, but you'll find it."

Following directions, the Sentinel did as he was told until there was nothing left but a small smell. Something like crushed flowers... flowers... Oh, no.


"Bless you, man," Blair said, examining the front of his shirt. "Warn me, next time."

"Ahgh -- Yeah," Jim sniffled. "It's some sort of flower. Probably wild. And it's mixed with dirt, like it was crushed."

Considering the description, Blair pointed to the floor. "Like it was stepped on, maybe?"

Examining the floorboards, Ellison smiled. "Good point, Chief." There in the doorway, was a spot of dirt something like the toe of a boot. Another spot of tread appeared about three feet in front of that, only a foot away from the bed. Looking more closely, Jim knelt, but found only the one boot's markings. "It's only on the right foot, Chief. And there's a hint of nicotine..."

"Smoker," They said together, a hint of bounce returning to Blair's body.

As Jim stood, something in the light caught his eye. Further examination of the floor revealed a partial tread print, something had caught the edge of it -- obviously taking the rest of the print with it when it had been...PICKED UP! His eyes went immediately to the glittering red/gold shawl that Blair held. "Hey, Chief... Hold that open for me." As the material was unfolded, the light filtered it from behind, shadowing the corner of the boot mark so even Sandburg could see it slightly. But to Jim, it was as plain as the decoration on the scarf itself. "Heavy tread -- hiking boot definitely. And it's got the same composition as the ones on the floor."

Seeing his partner smile, Blair readily returned the sentiment. "Way to go. Think I'll just call you Big Dog."

"Whatever, Chief," he said, finally standing. "At least we've got something to start with. Now. Let's get something more."

"I'm with you on that." They turned their attention to Danni, who had turned over on her side.

"Danni," Jim started, finding her still very unaware. "Danielle?"

Her eyes opened slightly, pain rimming the edges.

"I need to ask you about Dr. Mesgar."

"You mean Emily?" She said in a hushed voice. "What about her?"

"Well, that answers question number one," Ellison commented with a touch of sarcasm, watching Danni's face to see if she understood his words. He waited a second or two until she indicated understanding, then continued. "Question number two -- why Dr. Mesgar? What kind of doctor is she? And please don't say Anthropology." It was a light attempt to humor himself, to waylay the dread he felt at the current situation. The thought was obviously wasted on Thompkins as he saw the look of confusion pass over her face.

Blair, on the other hand, tagged his friend on the shoulder at the dig, then tried to move in to nurse Danni's cuts and bruises.

Through a haze of thoughts, Thompkins focused on the necessary information and responded. "Agronomist. Dr. Emily Mesgar, Ph.D. in Agronomy -- UCLA, Berkley," She told the detectives, a sudden pain in her cheek causing her to turn toward the offending hand. It was only Blair, but the quick movement caused pain to explode in her head. The second touch of the swab to the cut on her head didn't seem to hurt as much, but she really couldn't say much more.

"Agronomy? What area?" Sandburg asked, immediately intrigued.

"Crop production -- seed engineering," Thompkins answered, her eyelids drooping more seriously than before.

The partners briefly locked gazes as Jim spoke softly. "They came here for Mesgar. I heard them ask for the doctor specifically." Turning back to the ranger, Ellison set a hand on her shoulder, the back of his hand barely touching her unbruised cheek. "Danni." He was rewarded with a slight smile from the woman. "What's this retreat for? Were you supposed to do something in particular with them? Survival skills? What? Wasn't one of those 'Team Building' exercises, was it?"

Even listening was a chore. The sound of his voice, as pleasant as it had been, was suddenly pounding into her brain. Her cheek was tightening up as the lump swelled and throbbed. If she could feel it, she wondered why Ellison couldn't see it and leave her alone. She was beginning to revise her initial opinion of the handsome man. Cute -- oh, yeah. Caring -- probably some other day. Insane? Just her luck...

His hand detected the first shivers in her body, so Jim pulled Danni up off the bed, fighting the jacket off of her. She really didn't resist, but the jacket was difficult to remove without her assistance. "Okay, Danni. You rest." Laying her back down, Ellison pulled a blanket over her and then turned to his partner. "C'mon, Chief."

The pair left the room, returning to the cabin's great room and finding it nearly full of group members. The noise level was irritating the Sentinel. Each group member was murmuring, keeping a low tone that virtually eliminated half the range of Ellison's hearing. He couldn't re-calibrate and had to turn a silent plea to his partner.

Motioning to his head, Blair waited until his partner had protected his ears, then let go a shrill whistle.

Not only did it gain the group's attention, but their immediate dislike as well. Sour faces turned towards the young man and his tall companion, some recognizing them as the two who had helped the ranger.

"Now that I have your attention," he started. "My name is Blair Sandburg, this is my partner, Jim Ellison. We're here to help, but we need some answers first." His voice had started to break about mid-sentence, but Blair had pooled his resolve and continued. Wetting his lips, he asked a primary question. (Although not the question he wanted answered.) "What was the main purpose of this retreat? Was this a research trip? Professional conference? What?"

A petite woman in jeans and an oversized plaid shirt stepped forward, adjusting glasses that seemed just as oversized as her shirt. "We were just here for fun. Dr. Mesgar arranged the camp for us as a kind of thank you. We're her research team."

"So you weren't here working?" Jim watched the woman shake her head.

Blair rubbed his chin and asked another question. "And this was just vacation -- no secret testing or anything? No experiments. Right?"

The confused look on her face turned from one man to the other as if to question their investigative skills.

Even Jim had to look at his partner for a minute.

Blair caught the gaze and shrugged. "Hey, man. I just needed to know." With a gentle lift of his eyebrows, he continued. "With our luck? I needed to be sure." His hands went up in a gesture of "back off."

Jim shook his head and stifled his immediate sarcastic reply, offering instead the only crumb of levity he could. "I hear that." Seeing his partner smile slightly, Jim turned back to the group and started another question. "We're just trying to get a feeling as to why they chose Dr. Mesgar and Ms. Sandburg. Did they attempt to take anyone else? Is there anyone missing that we don't know about?"

There was a sudden stunned silence, emotionally empty faces all around the room.

The woman in the plaid shirt cleared her throat and motioned for the two men to come closer to her.

"You have something to say?" Jim asked.

She nodded. "Look, Dr. Mesgar doesn't leave her lab all that often. And when she does, she's usually at a conference."

Blair nodded. "She's reclusive?"

Again, she nodded. "Very. This is actually the first time in years that she's been out in the open."

"That's why they chose now," Jim confirmed with his partner.

"Must be," the woman said, then turned away. "Not like you find a Nobel Prize Nominee just wandering around the woods every day of the year," came her comment as she returned to her colleagues.

They once again exchanged a silent, knowing look. Jim cocked his head sideways, suddenly, as the low murmurs started again.

"What's the buzz, man?" Blair asked his partner.

But the hearing had gone beyond the voices. Something had caught the Sentinel's ear and was drawing it in. He motioned to his partner to follow, then walked towards a large chair off in the corner. Set away from the conversation area, but still close to the fireplace, the chair faced a writing desk directly under a window. Ragged breathing, escalated heart rate, heavy perspiration -- all earmarks of a nervous, and often guilty, person. But the Sentinel detected something else. Sobbing. Light heaving noises like someone trying to cry silently.

As they approached the chair, Blair maneuvered to one side while Jim took the other.

The huddled figure was wrapped in a couple of blankets, feet tucked up under her as she sat there crying. The box of tissues on her lap was empty, and had been for a few minutes as the full trash can in front of her -- and her sniffling -- seemed to indicate.

"Miss?" Blair queried in a soothing voice as he reached towards her. "Miss?" he repeated, this time a little louder, his hand making contact with a shoulder-shaped area of the blankets.

At the unfamiliar touch, she jumped a foot in the chair and screamed, swatting at the two men who were standing at either side of her. She jumped from the chair, squeezing into a small space between the desk and the fireplace. She refused to move until the woman in the plaid shirt stepped up quickly and gestured to her. Seeing her friend, she calmed down and took her seat once again.

"You'll have to forgive Lauren. She doesn't know you. I explained that everything is all right. Well, as right as can be expected at the moment." That said, the woman walked back to the crowd, which was now very silent, watching every move the detectives made.

Moving around in front of the chair, Jim waved his hand to get the woman's attention. He smiled, first, then knelt so she wouldn't have to crane her neck just to see him. With deliberate and precise enunciation, the detective introduced himself and his partner again, knowing she hadn't heard them the first time. With a couple slow movements, he apologized for scaring her and then inquired about her general condition. Assured she was fine -- other than an allergy attack -- Jim asked why she was crying.

Blair watched the silent conversation, awed and humbled by the rather fluid movements his partner made. Once or twice, Jim had to say the word instead of finger-spelling it, but they were unusual words that Blair figured didn't have corresponding signs -- and Jim's spelling left a lot to be desired. Observing Lauren's reactions, Blair realized by the changing emotions on the woman's face, Jim had described their current situation and was asking her what she knew. The woman's hands had started flying until Jim had grabbed for them and motioned her to slow down. After that, there were a couple minutes of sign language volleys, then Jim set a hand on the woman's shoulder and thanked her.

Realizing they needed some privacy, Ellison excused them both and led Sandburg out to the cabin's front porch. Before Blair could ask questions, Jim held up his hand. "First, I learned some sign language in the Rangers -- we used it for silent communications while on missions. But I learned a lot more for Carolyn's youngest sister. Meningitis when she was six left her with major hearing loss in both ears." He smiled as he remembered how he'd used it mostly to tease the young woman, than to communicate with her. "Second, Lauren made me promise to give you her apology before I said anything else."

"Apology? What for?"

"For not being the one taken." Ellison let that sink in before explaining the rest of his conversation with Lauren Plessy, Dr. Mesgar's Research Assistant. According to Lauren, she'd been battling an allergy attack for a couple of days and had changed the sleeping arrangements in order not to bother anyone. She and Naomi had switched rooms, which was how Naomi had been mistaken for Emily's research assistant. When the terrorists had entered the cabin, Lauren had felt the heavy vibrations in the floor and opened her door to check the situation. Two men, one in a mask, had brandished their weapons and headed for the bedrooms. Lauren had shut and locked her door, then shoved the dresser in front of it and slipped out the cabin window. She was about to knock on the other bedroom window, when she saw the men enter. Naomi and Emily were talking one minute, and grabbing their coats the next as they were pushed out the door. Moving around the side of the cabin, she'd seen the men load Mesgar and Naomi into the jeep. Once the men had left the camp, Lauren had gone back into the cabin, but not through her window -- it was too high for her to get back into. Feeling completely useless, she'd cocooned herself in the blankets and settled into the chair to process things.

Blair took in every bit of information, knowing any or all of it could help them later. "Did she tell you anything else?"

Jim shook his head, even though he knew it wasn't true. Lauren had also described how Danni had gotten injured. Something Jim hadn't really wanted to know. It was bad enough she was hurt and he'd heard some of it -- blended with the general sounds of confusion as he'd tracked the assault on the camp. He decided not to tell Blair all the details, mainly because there wasn't time and because there was nothing they could do about it then.


"Huh? Oh. Lauren also said she was amazed that no one else was trying to do anything," Jim said with a shake of his head. "I'm kind of amazed at that myself. There's a dozen people here, Chief, but not a one of them seems to be able to function without Mesgar. I'm familiar with group shock, but this is weird. The department wasn't like this when Simon was out."

"But we're talking about a different type of group, Jim." The academic in him had picked up on the tone of his partner's comment and felt compelled to point out that not all groups were as functional as the police. "True, Mesgar's team is set to function around her direction in a lab, but even out here, in an uncontrolled setting, they're not certain what methods to take in order to solve their problem -- namely to get the women back. And as far as Major Crimes going into shock when Simon's not around -- well, that's just because even when the man's not there he's still a threat."

"I'm gonna tell him you said that."

Sandburg nodded. "I'm sure you will, man. I'm sure you will."

They smiled winsomely at each other, then fell silent.

But Jim knew his partner's mind was far from still. "Look, Chief," Jim said quietly. "As long as we know they wanted to take Naomi, she's as good as alive. Lauren said she saw Mesgar refer to Naomi as her research assistant -- so we know we've got the woman's cooperation. She probably knows the situation."

"But what if they find out mom isn't the right person?"

Jim didn't want to think about that, and he especially didn't want his partner to worry about that right now. "We'll go on the idea that Emily is protecting Naomi's identity -- and we'll rely on the fact that your mom's a pretty resourceful woman."

There was a brief smile on the younger Sandburg's face. "That she is." His smile faded, though, as his mind latched onto a horrible realization. "They took my mom by mistake."

Ellison nodded solemnly.

"Dumb luck." Blair stared out at the other couple cabins, hands gripping the porch railing. "Wrong place at the wrong time." He sighed and bowed his head, eyes closed as the nausea crept back up on him. A couple of quick, deep breaths fought it, but didn't stop the ache in his chest.

"Chief -" Jim started, setting his hands on the railing and leaning closer to his partner. "Blair. I..." But he couldn't finish the sentence. He had a damn good idea what Blair was feeling -- anger, guilt, hate, despair. Hope was in there somewhere, buried under a mountain of insecurity. Hell, hadn't he been through it enough when his best friend, his Sandburg, had been abducted? Now it was happening to the other Sandburg. Must run in the family -- backwards, of course. He knew what was a primary constant in his own situations, but he wasn't sure if Blair worked the same way. Shaking his head, he tried to put words to his thoughts. "I can't help you with the fear," he finally said. "I can't just tell you it'll all be fine tomorrow. And I wouldn't even if I could."

Blair blinked and stared straight at the ground, nodding slightly as his friend's honest words reached in and registered.

"You know how I work. You wrote -- " Jim stopped and swallowed hard. "You wrote that fear was a big motivator in my life." The Sentinel gripped the railing harder, watching his knuckles whiten as he did so. "You've gotta know that I'm working on that right now. I'm going on instinct, Chief. I'm going on that fear."

They stared at each other.

"You've gotta work on it, too. You've gotta take that and make it find you a solution -- make an answer. Plot a course of action. Do something with it, but don't let it eat you alive inside."

Standing straight, Blair shoved a few curls away from his face and wrapped his arms protectively around his body. "That's how you work, Jim. How's that gonna work for me? You're the Sentinel, man. Not me."

"Doesn't mean you're not capable. And it doesn't mean you're any less important!" Jim said quickly. He leaned close to his partner and continued. "So what if it's how I work. Doesn't mean it won't work for you."

"But it's your instinct. Your way."

Arms crossing over his chest, Jim stood up straight and pointed at his partner's chest. "And how many times did I go on your instinct?"

Sandburg shrugged, bit his lip, then finally looked up at his friend.

"Oh, I seem to remember the phrase 'I'm clueless' came up quite a bit. More than once, buddy." The gentle tone teased at what seemed long-ago memories.

Jim took a deep breath and settled his left hand onto his hip while motioning in the air with the right. "All I'm saying is -- maybe we can go on my instincts for right now."

Blair let the idea sink in for a minute, trying to release the stranglehold he had on his insecurities and push them into any action other than nauseating him. It seemed to work, and he smiled. "Okay. Where do we go from here?"

"I'm clueless?" Jim quipped, rewarded with a bigger smile than the one before. Looking around the camp, he made the decision for them to split up for a while. "I'm gonna head out of camp, follow the trail and see if I can get a bead on where they're headed. You round everyone up, get a head count, damage report, and scrounge supplies. I wanna know what we've got to work with, MacGyver."

His partner's gentle reminder of his survival abilities seemed to bolster Blair's nerve and he nodded more emphatically. "I don't think I have any ballpoint pens on me, though, Jim."

"Well, let's just hope we don't need any."

"I'm with you there, my brother." Huffing out the last of his immediate anxiety, Blair walked over to the area of the porch where they'd left their packs. He knew he had a direction, a course of action into which he could funnel his energy. Unfolding his arms from their straightjacket hold on his chest, Blair picked up his pack and searched for his cell phone. A random thought caught hold as he stood up. "Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"If I'm MacGyver," he started, "who does that make you?"

Chuckling, Jim made his way towards the steps. "I'm thinking Pete Thornton."

Blair nodded and followed his partner for a few feet, stopping at the door to the cabin. "I could see that. Military background, Covert Ops, secret spy stuff. That works."

Checking the battery on his own cell phone, Jim found it fully charged, but the signal wouldn't confirm. "I noticed earlier that the phone lines into the camp have been cut. I'll see what more I can find out, then I'll head for higher ground and some clearance -- see if I can get a signal. If I can, I'll contact the ranger station, let them know our situation and have them send out help ASAP." As he headed down the steps, Ellison turned to his friend. "And, Chief?"

"Yeah. I know. Stay outta trouble."

"I was gonna say see if you can get Lauren back into her room." Blue eyes smiled. "But do that, too." He turned and headed down the last couple steps then walked towards the edge of camp, following the dusty tire marks.

Blair watched after the man, heading inside only after Jim had left his sight. "Right, Pete." He chuckled and shut the door behind him.

Continue on to Act III...

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This page last updated 2/2/01.