by Kristine Williams
Dammit! Why hadn't he recognized that taste sooner? By the time he realized he was tasting something oddly familiar over the tang of the dark beer, it was too late. And Robert, so much the master of his own reactions, Jim hadn't seen any telltale signs of increased heart rate, sweating, dilation. Absolutely nothing to alert Jim to his former friend's intentions.
And what were those intentions?
The pounding in his skull was reduced to a dull throbbing, so he stood slowly and moved to the door. The window was two feet wide and about two feet high, barred with black iron, revealing a long, darkened hallway. Jim focused down the corridor and found nothing helpful. Two lights hung lifeless from the ceiling. Two more doors similar to his stood closed on the left wall, while the right wall was uninterrupted cement. Something was hanging along the expanse, but it was paper thin and at an angle even Jim's eyesight couldn't make out.
"All right, Robert, what's your game?" Jim turned to look around his small room again. Nothing on the walls, no window or cot, just the chair. A closer inspection of the seat revealed a chain threaded through the slats of the back, snaking down to a large hook set into the cement floor, with heavy manacles hanging down near the seat.
"Ellison, good to see you up and about again."
Jim turned, finding the face of a man he no longer knew staring back at him through the bars. Lights had come on in the corridor behind his door, illuminating the blond man grinning at him.
"I take it this isn't payback for stealing your girl nine years ago?"
"Ah, Jim, ever the brave one, eh?" Robert looked away and Jim heard the clang of keys and a gun safety clicking back. "Why don't you just have a seat there, and we'll talk?"
Jim's senses were on the alert, instinct taking over as he sized up the situation. He was God-knew-where, unarmed, facing any number of men on the other side of that door judging by the multiple heartbeats he could hear, and in a country whose language he didn't speak. He didn't even have to check to know his passport was gone. At least Blair was safe.
"Come on, Ellison, for old times' sake." Robert's face filled the window, smiling at Jim from the safety of the hallway. His dull brown eyes held no humor.
Maintaining his calm, Jim moved to the chair and sat. His own eyes fell into perfect sync with the steady breathing and casual air he'd been trained for, revealing nothing to the enemy.
"Now, why don't you try on the jewelry? I'm sure you'll find the bracelets fit." Robert slid a key into the lock, but held it there without turning. "I would have set you up when they carried you down, but I didn't think sleeping in that chair looked all that comfortable. And you've been napping now for five hours."
Five hours? Where would Blair be now, if he was already two hours late meeting him? Wordlessly, Jim reached his hands behind his back and slipped the manacles over each wrist, securing them loosely, all the while maintaining eye contact with Robert. When he finished, he raised one eyebrow, calmly waiting for his captor to make the next move.
The key in the lock turned, and slowly the door pushed inward, allowing two armed men inside the room. With guns trained on Jim's head, the men stepped aside, allowing Robert to step between them and walk around to check the bonds.
"Oh, Jim, you're tough. I think these can get a little tighter."
A clenched jaw was Jim's only reaction when the manacles were roughly tightened. Robert pulled the chain down, securing his prisoner to the floor hook by removing all slack in the chain. He finished with a final tug on the restraints.
"There, that's much better." Robert moved around to face Jim, waving the two armed men out of the room.
"You gonna tell me what this is all about, or do I have to guess?" The slight nervousness of his captor was clear now, as were his attempts to hide it. Jim allowed himself the small pleasure of knowing what effect his attitude was having on Robert's nerves.
"It's about providence, Jim. I have a problem, and as luck would have it, you being here has provided me with the perfect solution." Robert paced in front of Jim. "It really was nice of you to happen by just when I needed you most."
Jim's eyes never wavered, maintaining a steady bead on Robert as he paced left and right, trying to avoid Jim's stare. Using the pain in both wrists as a focus, he concentrated his distaste directly on the man before him.
"You know, Robert, this covert shit wasn't even fun nine years ago."
Robert stopped, laughing shortly. "Ah, yes, cut to the chase, eh?"
"That would be nice."
"All in good time, Jim." He walked to the door and placed a hand on the knob. Turning back to Jim with a smile. "All in good time."
Jim watched the man leave, closing the door and locking it with a clang of heavy metal keys. Through the window, he could see two faces in silhouette, Robert and one of his armed guards.
"Have you located him yet?"
The reply was in Hindi, but one name was unmistakable: Sandburg.
Jim's blood ran cold and his face began to burn. Robert glanced in, and he had the extreme satisfaction of seeing the man flinch. He could only pray his own features hid the panic in his gut.
"Let me know when you have him." Robert nodded to the Hindu guard, then turned back to Jim. "This will all make sense when we have your friend, Jim. Shouldn't take long."
The clenching of his jaw was hard to mask, but Jim forced everything else down. This was the old days again. This was covert ops. This was hell. "I doubt it." There, he'd kept his calm, letting instinct and years of training hold back the hatred he felt. Kept hidden the need to tear Robert's lungs out before Blair could be touched.
Dammit, what did he want with Blair?! And how was he going to get him?
"I'll try not to keep you in suspense for long." Robert smiled again, showing teeth yellowing from a lack of Western dentistry, then turned and walked away.
Jim listened, following the footsteps as they proceeded down the long corridor, through a door, up a flight of stone stairs, and through another door, then faded off in the distance on carpet. The hallway outside his room was plunged back into darkness, then the small cell he was in followed suit, leaving him alone in pitch blackness. When he could no longer hear Robert's footsteps, or anyone else's heartbeats or even breathing, the sound of his own rage roared through his ears. One pull on the chains proved his captivity complete. A surge of adrenaline was suppressed with great difficulty, leaving an aching in his chest.
"Take control." Jim inhaled through his nose, willing his instincts to explain what was happening to his confused mind. Just take control. He inhaled again, but the twisting in the pit of his stomach remained. First step, understand the situation. Robert still held all the cards, and Jim was helpless to understand them until he had more facts. Apparently that meant Robert having Blair. The fear surged up again, and Jim had to force it down. This isn't helping.
Nothing was going to make sense until he was given more information. And that was in Robert's hands. As was he. But God willing, he'd never find Blair.
"How in the
hell did we end up here, Chief?" Jim whispered with a sigh, closing his eyes.
"Tell me that."
"It's simple, Jim." Blair's enthusiasm was bubbling over, making it hard for him to even take a breath while he explained the two airline tickets in his hand. A hand that never stopped moving as he spoke. "The University needs someone to fly out to New Delhi and examine some second century Buddhist relics that were just discovered last week." He inhaled, oblivious of the fact that he was winding himself with his excitement. "There's a dig at Kotturu village, and they discovered a casket containing a bone of the Buddha and flowers made of gold and silver and precious stones used in a holy burial ceremony. This find is too incredible to allow out of the country, so everyone's sending people in to study it and take pictures." He stopped again for breath and smiled proudly. "And they've asked me."
Jim laughed, shaking his head, and reached into the fridge for a beer. He pulled out two, handing one to his partner, who stood beside him, waiting for Jim to realize the significance of what he'd just so hastily said.
"Okay, Chief, one more time, a lot slower, and out there." Jim pointed with the bottle toward the balcony, where he'd been trying to get to ever since Blair burst through the front door in a rush of hair and excitement.
"Oh, right." The top came off Blair's bottle in one quick twist and somehow made it into the trash. The first swallow seemed to bring the kid back to earth, and he waited until they were both standing on the balcony, bathed in the warm glow of a crisp fall sunset. "Okay, there was this discovery in India last week, a major find. Professor Kinyon is doing an intensive study right now on India and the significance of the Buddha on that region's growth. They need someone to go over there and examine this new piece, and since she can't get away, they've asked me to head over there and take a look."
Jim nodded, then took a drink as he gazed out over the city. The sun was sinking quickly now, bringing on the change. He loved this time of night, and took every opportunity to watch the transformation as Cascade turned its back on the day, embracing the night to let out the other half of its soul.
"So you're telling me you'll be gone for a few days, flying out to India for a look at this thing?" Jim smiled as he caught Blair's face out of the corner of his eye. The change in light hadn't gone unnoticed by his partner, who also seemed to enjoy watching the surreal transformation.
"Well, not exactly, Jim." Blair's voice hadn't lost any enthusiasm, but his tone had calmed, reflecting the almost serene view they were being treated to.
The sun vanished in a rush of orange and purple, and was replaced almost immediately by the twinkling of both stars and lights as the other side of the city woke from its daily slumber. With a sigh, he turned to Blair. "Well, what, exactly?"
Blue eyes lit up, reflecting the starlight above. "See, the University gave me two tickets, since Professor Kinyon would have gone with her assistant, but I'm going instead, and I thought maybe you'd like to come along."
Jim let one eyebrow arch as he gazed down at Blair. Both of his were raised expectantly. His face was tilted slightly to the side and his voice had ended on an upbeat. All designed to evoke an affirmative.
"You want me to be your assistant?"
"No, no, not at all."
Blair's backpedaling made Jim grin, forcing him to hide the reaction behind another pull on the beer.
"I just thought while I was looking at this casket, you could...I don't know, hang out, relax, something."
"Hang out? In Delhi? And you think Simon's going to let me take the time off just to fly out there and back again?"
"Well..." Blair shrugged, unwilling to give up. "I guess I could go alone. I mean, I've done it before. And I speak enough Hindi to get around. I just thought you'd like to come out for a little adventure, you know?"
"Relax, Chief." Jim set the beer down on the table between the chairs and sat down. "I'll come along. That Phillips case doesn't go to trial for another two weeks, I think I can spare a few days."
"Great!" Blair set his beer down and turned back toward the living room. "I need to make a few phone calls."
Jim watched him bound through the living room to the kitchen counter where the phone sat, then into his room. He shook his head at the kid's excitement and picked up his beer again, gazing out over the night sky. There was that old acquaintance from his army days, stationed as a contact in Delhi. He could look him up for old times' sake. They had both left the service the same year, but for some reason Robert had been so taken with India, he'd stayed there to live. Jim always did wonder what he'd found to do there. Or who.
He finished the beer and leaned back, enjoying the cool night air. In another week or two it would be too cold at night to sit out here in just a long sleeved shirt. India would be blazing hot, then they'd return to Cascade in fall. That was a cold in the making. He didn't have to go, of course, but the thought of Blair flying out that far to stay in a country still in the middle of cold war memories, alone, just to view some old coffin, wasn't something Jim wanted to consider.
Sure, Blair had done this time and time again, before Jim knew him. Gone on expeditions to strange lands, alone, living in the trees with headhunting natives who would have killed him on sight if it hadn't been for Sandburg's typical blind luck. With no one around to worry, fret, or care. Naomi might be free spirited enough to let her son traipse around the planet alone in dangerous situations without a care in the world. But Jim wasn't.
Of course, the payment for his concern was a five hour, butt-numbing flight from Cascade to New York, where his prayers for a layover were dashed when their connecting flight was early and boarding already. They were rewarded for their near-miss by being bumped up to First Class on the overbooked plane, a reward Blair enjoyed immensely. For the first hour. The other eleven were spent sleeping soundly.
Jim sighed, adjusting his position for the millionth time. He'd made an art form out of shifting his butt and back while keeping his shoulder in place, a shoulder his partner had been using as a pillow for the past three hours. Jim managed to doze now and again, but he wasn't able to achieve the complete, dream-filled slumber Blair was enjoying.
Just as well. He was still going over his own plans while Blair would be examining the coffin. Finding Robert Edwards again hadn't been hard. As Jim suspected, he was still living in New Delhi, and still maintaining a few shared friends via email and the occasional phone call. Within three hours of starting, using his own network of friends and email, Jim was able to reach him and announce his unplanned visit. Robert's reaction had been enthusiastic, almost more than their acquaintance should have called for, but Jim took that to be a reaction to so many years living out of the country.
When the plane came in for its final approach, Jim began to have second thoughts about his reunion. He and Robert were never what anyone could call friends. Jim had never really enjoyed the covert work Robert took to. Work that left him alone in India to assist operatives in and out of the country. Jim hated deceptions and mistrust. He preferred an all out fight to all the sneaking around.
But Blair's enthusiasm had spilled over somehow, and left Jim with an almost unconscious desire to do something he normally wouldn't have bothered with. Well, what harm could come from a simple afternoon talking about the old days with an old co-worker?
They landed late the next morning, India time, found their hotel, and both agreed they couldn't sit down one more minute. Blair was well rested and Jim had a kink in his shoulder, but the four blocks from the hotel to the government building housing the relic made for a pleasant walk. After two hours of paperwork and checking University credentials, they were allowed in for a preview of the coffin. Jim would have waited in the cafe across the street, but Blair wanted so much to share this wondrous find with his partner, Jim couldn't refuse.
By the end of the long day, when Jim insisted they go relax and eat, it was Blair who couldn't refuse.
"That is really something." Blair was positively brimming with excitement, hardly touching his meal as they sat in the hotel's restaurant.
"It was impressive, all right."
"Oh, man, impressive isn't even close. It's...it's..."
"It's really something." Jim arched an eyebrow, then pointed to Blair's plate. "You gonna eat that mushroom?"
"Listen, Jim, are you sure you'll be okay hanging out here tomorrow?" Blair stabbed the mushroom with his fork and handed it over. "I'll be all day."
"I know, Chief. I'll be fine."
"And you can find the cafe? You'll meet me there at five?"
"I'll meet you there at five. You gonna eat that other one?"
"Here." Blair handed over his plate and shoved all the mushrooms onto Jim's. "You can handle yourself around here, then?"
"Sandburg, stop worrying." Jim scooped up several mushrooms. "I
can handle myself."
"Handle yourself right into trouble." Jim sighed, pulling again on the chains holding him in place. If he could just keep Blair out of this, whatever the hell it was, then he could handle it. But right now, even Blair's safety was out of his control. He'd be worried by now, no doubt, wondering where Jim was. In Cascade, he'd go to Simon for help. But they weren't in Cascade. Blair knew the language, enough to get around, he said. What did that mean? Enough to find the bathroom, order a meal, and get slapped in the face?
And why did Robert need him? God, he should have seen this coming! Why had he talked so much about his new partner? Why didn't Robert's questions set off more alarms? Find a weakness and exploit it. Well, Jim had presented his only weakness with tales of Blair and their unusual partnership, stopping short of any real details, and handed it over to a man he thought was a friend. Mistake number one.
Mistake number two had been that beer. Jim didn't like dark ales, so he didn't taste the drug until it was too late. Now all he could do was wait. Wait for a chance to get out, wait for Robert to explain what was going on, and pray Blair could keep one step ahead of them until he got out of this.
The lights in the corridor suddenly came on, blinding Jim for a moment. He heard footsteps near the door, two sets, and something dragging along the cement floor. A door was opened followed by several shouts he didn't understand, then the door slammed shut and keys rattled in the lock. One set of footsteps left, slamming the large outer door shut behind them, while the other set remained. From the muffled tone of the sounds, Jim judged them to be inside the room at the end of the hall. He could make out two separate breathing patterns. One ragged from years of smoking, one shallow and muted. Jim swallowed back the fear, trying to force the raging of his own blood to quiet enough for him to focus more clearly. Two heartbeats came into range then, one thumping with a slight irregularity. The other...
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