"How'd you get past the noise?" Brackett was looking at Jim, but kept the gun pointed at Blair.
"Simple." Jim replied, looking from Brackett to Blair. "Your little toys aren't as fool proof as you might think."
Brackett nodded, moving closer to Blair. "I should have guessed you'd figure it out sooner or later."
"What I haven't figured out, is why this game? What's this all about, Brackett?"
Blair was watching Jim, trying to ignore the gun that was now inches from his face. Was the game over now? This was it? Just shoot them and walk away?
"Like I said, Retribution. You see, I used to like my job. I liked covert Ops, staging the game, baiting the trap, watching the victim trying to figure out your next move. You and your friend here took that away from me." Blair tensed as Brackett placed a hand on his shoulder. He looked over at Jim, trying to discern what his partner was thinking, planning. "When I got out, I decided what better way to get back into the game, than to play it with the two men who took me out?"
"But the game's over now." Jim said.
The hand on Blair's shoulder became a fist, gathering up a handful of his shirt. He tensed, waiting for the explosion of the gun pointed at his ear.
"Yep, the game's over."
Blair was ready for the explosion, at least he thought he was. He had been leaning away from the weapon, as best he could, but it went off right beside his head. The sudden flash, followed by an intense burning in his right eye sent him reeling to the ground. For an instant, he assumed he'd just been shot in the head. Then he heard Jim cry out, and even as he fell, he thought he saw his partner fall as well. Oh God, no! He hit the ground, landing on his knees, and brought both hands up to his eye, waiting for the second shot that would finish him off. Instead of a shot, a hand reached down and pulled him back up to his feet.
"Come on Junior, you're coming with me." Brackett pulled Blair up, shoving him back against a tree.
Blair was struggling to see through the pain in his eye, trying to focus, to find Jim. He blinked violently to clear at least one eye, and saw his partner on the ground, unconscious. "Jim!"
"It's just you and me know, kid." Brackett was saying. He put the gun back up where Blair could see it.
"You son of a bitch!" Blair shouted. He didn't care anymore. Jim was dead, Brackett was about to kill him. Nothing mattered anymore. He was ready. "You killed him! Damn you!"
Blair was struggling to go to Jim. Brackett pressed the gun into his chest and reached down for his left hand. He unlocked the shackle and let it fall to the ground, then pulled out a set of handcuffs. "You and me, are going to take a little walk." He slapped the cuffs around Blair's left wrist and he cried out a little, pulling back.
"Why? You're just going to kill me. Do it. Just do it here and get it over with!" Blair tried to resist Brackett as he pulled his right hand away from his eye and slapped the other end of the cuffs around his wrist, securing his hands in front of him.
"It's all part of the game." He put the gun in his belt and pushed Blair forward. "Now, I'm betting you have enough of a sense of self preservation not to do anything too stupid."
Blair tried to turn, to see Jim, but Brackett shoved him forward, and his right eye was burning so badly, he could barely see the ground in front of him. God, it had all gone wrong. Not that there was anything right about this whole mess. But they had just found a way to get out. A way to get Brackett, and it had backfired. It was all Blair's fault, this whole mess. He should have found a way to warn Jim back at the loft. He'd had three hours to come up with something. Three hours! And then getting sick, making Jim stay in that cabin when he could have gone after Brackett. And now....now Jim was dead. It was all over. Soon he'd be dead too. Self preservation! He didn't any more. How could he go back now, back to Cascade? What would he say to Simon? How could he possibly go back to his life, after this? What was his life after this?
Brackett was pushing him along, following close enough behind to keep a hand on his back. Blair could barely see where they were going. His right eye was completely blurred from the flash burn of the gun. His left wrist hurt as the handcuffs rubbed into the raw flesh there. But none of it mattered. He felt numb, even through the pain. He hadn't seen Jim go down clearly. Hadn't seen where he was hit. He just knew he was dead.
"So tell me, how did he figure it out?"
Blair barely heard the question, and didn't care.
"I thought you two were finished before we even began when that bear spotted you."
Blair looked around as best he could, hearing something in the distance. The sun was poking through the clouds now, but he still couldn't see well.
"You past right by several of my little traps. You be amazed at how many I had to set, hoping you'd come across a few on the way down."
The sound was getting louder and Blair realized they were approaching a river.
"I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when it took Jim this long to decide to come after me, instead of running. I thought he'd find a way to ditch you sooner."
Blair heard the rapids as they approached, but he still couldn't see far enough ahead.
"All in all, I'd have to say the two of you were really quiet a pair."
He knew it was now or never. There was nothing left to lose. Jim was dead, and he soon would be. The only thing he could do now, was take control of his own death. He could feel the spray of water, and through the water in his eyes, could see the river just ahead. Turning quickly, he reached out, swinging both hands, and struck an unsuspecting Brackett in the face. As he reeled backwards from the blow, Blair turned and ran towards the river, praying he could jump before Brackett got off a shot.
He froze just as he reached the rock, poised to leap into the raging river. Something inside told him that hadn't been Brackett, and that something made him stop just before going over. He turned, and saw two blurred figures, struggling together just behind him.
"Jim!" Oh God, he was alive! Blair started back, but he couldn't see which figure was which. He rubbed at his eyes violently, trying to clear them. The right eye hurt so much, but he should be able to focus the left. He was blinking away the pain, and caught a brief view of Jim as he and Brackett struggled over the gun in Brackett's hand. Jim was pushing him back, moving towards the rock Blair was perched on. He tried to get out of the way, and block them at the same time, reaching out to grab Jim as they neared the edge.
"Jim, look out!" Brackett was at the edge now, and he took a step backwards, falling off the damp rock, and pulling Jim with him. Blair had reached out for Jim's shirt and caught it just in time to go over the edge with the two men.
They hit the water and Blair went under immediately, losing his grip on Jim's shirt. He came up coughing, trying to see where either man was. The raging water swept them all downstream so quickly, Blair hadn't even glimpsed Jim. Each time he tried to shout his mouth filled with water. It was deep where they went in, but the large rocks sent waves crashing all around. Blair struggled to stay above the water, to breathe. After several minutes of struggling against the drag that threatened to pull him down, he stopped trying to find Jim and concentrated on staying alive. After one particularly long submersion, Blair spotted a log stretched out across the river just within reach of his outstretched hands. He snagged it and held on tightly, trying to find footing against the current on the slippery rocks just below. After an eternity of forcing his legs downward, against the water, and a couple of gallons going down his throat, he was able to start pulling himself towards the bank. He was sure, he had to be sure, Jim had found a way out already. He was probably waiting for him, just down the bank. He'd pull himself out, and Jim would find him there.
Blair reached the bank and fell, shaking, to the ground. He was seized by a coughing fit for several minutes as he spat out water and fought the chill from the ice cold mountain river. Each time he took a breath to call for Jim, another fit would seize his lungs. He was shaking from more than the cold when he was finally able to sit up and look around. His left eye was clearer now, but the right one burned even more. The cuffs were still on, and his left wrist was bleeding freely. But these were just cuffs. He dug his knife from his pocket and began to work the lock. It worked once before on standard cuffs...and it worked again. He tossed the cuffs he was now free of away and put the knife back. Gingerly he put his hand into the river, letting the water wash away some of the blood. When the cold water stopped the bleeding, he splashed some into his right eye, crying out with the pain that caused. After two more rinses, and several choice exclamations, he thought he was able to see a little more clearly.
"Jim!" He shouted as best he could, but his voice cracked with exhaustion. "Jim!" He had to be there somewhere. Jim was an excellent swimmer. If Blair was able to pull himself from that river, then Jim most certainly could. But, how badly had he been hurt? Brackett had shot him. "Jim!" Blair stood, shakily, and looked back up the river bank, then down. Which way? He hadn't spotted Jim since falling into the water. Would he have been in front of him, or behind him? Could he be on the opposite bank? God, he's hurt. Which way do I go? "Jim!"
Blair tried to listen above the roaring of the water, but he couldn't hear a thing. Why didn't he have Jim's hearing? "Okay Sandburg, you have to make a decision here." He glanced once again back up the river. It was fifty-fifty. But Jim's life could be at stake. It was bad enough he had gotten them into this, but for it to hinge on Blair's decision? "God Jim, how do you do this every day?" He gritted his teeth and made his choice. Jim had entered the water just ahead of him, and was probably still struggling with Brackett. There was a good chance he was farther down, hopefully still on the same side, but probably farther down. He set off, following the river as closely as the terrain would allow. Often times he had to re-enter the water at the calmer edge to get around clumps of rocks or trees. All the while keeping an eye on the opposite bank for any sign of his partner.
"Jim!" He no longer thought of Brackett, or if he would hear. He assumed the river took him. The thundering was getting louder, and Blair realized there was a waterfall up ahead. Jim had to be here, close by. He wouldn't go over. Jim was better than that. "Jim!" It felt as though he had been walking for miles. His clothes were beginning to dry in what was turning out to be a sunny afternoon. Twice he had to stop to rest, and re-apply cold water to his wrist and eye. He could feel last night's fever coming back but he ignored it. Jim had to be close now, could he have missed him? "Jim!" He wasn't seeing too clearly. Jim could be unconscious somewhere. Maybe he pulled himself out of the water and back a few yards, into the trees? If he was on the opposite bank, Blair would have to find a way across the water. But if there were falls ahead, he would have to back-track to find an area he could cross. "Dammit Jim, answer me!"
He sat down on a boulder, defeat creeping in on him. Thoughts of Peru flashed across his mind. Thoughts of standing beside a river, talking to Jim. That was when his friend finally opened up to him about seeing the panther. Until then, until Jim started confiding in him, he had thought their partnership was over. He knew mentioning the trip to Borneo was a mistake right after he did it. Then he spent the rest of the trip trying his damnedest to get back into Jim's good graces, to prove himself worthy of Jim's friendship. He was failing miserably. Like now.
"Jim!" His voice cracked again, but his time not from the cold. "Damn you Jim." He didn't know what to do. He'd have to go back and find the body. He couldn't leave Jim up here, but he had no will to force himself off that rock. It was easier to just stay there, staring at the raging water. Maybe he'd catch pneumonia sitting there and die himself. That would be easier than going back to Cascade. He'd tried to jump into the water just hours ago to end it before Brackett got the pleasure. Why couldn't he do it now?
Blair didn't realize that voice had been behind him, not inside his head. It took several seconds for reality to register. "Jim! God, you're alive!" He turned to see Jim walking up the bank ahead of him. "Where's Brackett?" He remembered then the reason they were up there.
Jim shook his head and let himself fall down to the ground on his knees. "He went over."
"God, you're bleeding." Blair had moved from his rock to the ground, and now tried to pull the shirt away from Jim's left shoulder, to peer at the bullet wound there.
"I'm okay, it was just a graze." Jim winced and forced Blair's hands away.
"You're bleeding, Jim. Hold still." Blair examined the wound. "We need to get you to a doctor."
"We both need to get to a doctor." Jim reached out and touch Blair's head, above the eye.
He winced and pulled back, "Then what are we waiting for?" He stood slowly and helped Jim to his feet. "Can you make it?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Jim looked back down the river, towards the falls that were just out of sight. "Let's get away from here, and head down. I saw a road just over there." He pointed away from the water, into the woods.
"You said Brackett went over?" Blair took one last look at the river as Jim led the way. "So, it's over then?"
"Yeah Chief, it's over." Jim was holding his hand over the wound on his shoulder, shaking his head. "We were together most of the way. Then he let go, and I grabbed a rock, pulled myself out. I tried to catch him, but he kept going."
Blair just followed, listening. He didn't understand why Jim would try and save a man who had tried so hard, and so elaborately, to kill them both. But that was Jim. He still had a lot to learn. Jim still had a lot to teach him. "God, Jim..I thought you were dead back there. I didn't think Brackett would leave you without making sure. I just assumed..."
"Never assume anything, Chief." Jim stopped as they reached the paved road that cut through the trees. "I think it was just more of his games. He's too good a shot to miss."
"Listen, Jim....about this whole mess, I just wanted..."
"Hang on, I can hear a car." Jim held up a hand, listening. "I think we're on our way home, partner.
Blair turned to look down the road. After several seconds, a car could be seen traveling towards them. A police car. "Man, you're good."
"About the car, or the cop?"
They waved the patrol car over, which wasn't difficult, considering how they both looked standing there, soaking wet, bleeding from various areas, looking as if they had just spent several of the worst days of their lives.