by Kristine Williams
The cloth Robert had used to gag Blair was still clean, so Jim soaked it in the cold water, wringing it out several times to clean the sweat and blood from Blair's head and face. When he was done, he soaked the cloth again and brought it to his friend. Sitting down again next to Blair, Jim began to clean him thoroughly. Twenty four hours of sweat, blood and anger took a while to clean off. Blair remained unconscious through it all, occasionally moving or pulling away in an anxious dream, settling down again only when Jim stopped what he was doing and spoke to him.
The only thing that kept Jim from losing it, was the vision of the scar-faced guard's body jumping from the bullet's impact. Sitting in that chair, chained down and locked in, forced to listen while Blair was beaten and tormented, had nearly sent Jim over the edge of sanity. He felt as if he had projected himself down that corridor and into the room, and yet couldn't stop what was happening. He'd never felt so helpless in all his life.
And Robert! Jim couldn't fathom what had made him look up this old army buddy, who had never been a close friend. He should have just come with Blair and stayed with him inside that museum. Maybe he would have learned something, or even found it interesting. He sure as hell found Blair more interesting than any old friend from way back. He could watch that kid at work any day and not be bored. The way Blair threw himself so completely into whatever he was doing gave Jim quite a bit of amusement, and more than a small amount of pride.
All right, Ellison, move past this already. They weren't out of danger yet. Neither one of them had a passport, or transportation. Both were seriously wounded, and wanted by the local police as well as probably the Secret Service, unless they'd found some way of explaining the dead man and the sniper's rifle. Then there were the people Robert was involved with.
No, they'd have to get over the border, into...into... Their choices weren't very good. Nepal would be too far to the East, but Pakistan? Jim sighed, finishing his task of cleaning Blair off. After a quick return trip to the river for more water, he sat back down and eased himself back under his friend's shoulders, resting Blair's head on his lap. He leaned against the boulder behind him, and placed the soaked cloth on a patch of grass.
Great. Their best route would take them into Pakistan. And that was only if they could walk that far, or find transportation and not be stopped. This wasn't Cascade, where he could find a phone and call for backup. His instincts would have to take over again. Instincts that had so far kept him, and Blair, alive.
Jim closed his eyes and let his head rest against the large rock. They'd be fine. It might take some time, and it wouldn't be easy, but now that they were together, they'd be fine. Robert's plan had been a foolish one. Jim knew he'd intended to kill him on the roof right after he shot the Congressman, then claim to have been duped by a visiting friend from the U.S. Probably meant to sell Blair into slavery as well, make double his money on the whole deal. Only he had to leave Blair out here in case something went wrong. Couldn't risk the Secret Service searching his building, and couldn't risk Blair being found alive the next day if something didn't work out.
Thank God for bad planning. Or instinct, or sheer dumb luck. Whatever it was, Blair was alive, he was alive, and Robert would surface somewhere near the Arabian Sea, if Jim had his wish.
The pain in his arm was finally being held in check, and Blair's pain eased off, leaving him resting quietly against Jim's legs. After scanning their surroundings one last time, Jim allowed himself to drift into a light doze. When he woke, it was dark. Stars sparkled brightly in a clear night sky above, and somewhere in the trees an owl called out. Jim glanced around, then set his Sentinel senses out to scan the area. Aside from several species of nocturnal animals, they were still alone.
As if in response to Jim's waking, Blair stirred, moaning slightly before coming awake. Jim's eyes met his as they opened.
"It's okay, you slept for a few hours, Chief. We both did." Jim kept his right arm over Blair's chest, making sure he didn't try to sit up again.
"Where are we?" Blair's voice cracked with dryness.
"God knows." Jim reached around for the water soaked cloth, glad to find it still relatively wet. "Here. It isn't much, but it'll help." He brought the cloth around and balled it in one fist.
Blair opened his mouth and reached up to take the cloth, but Jim held on, squeezing the water into his parched throat. He swallowed, then coughed a few times and nodded. "Thanks."
"If you can let me up, I'll get some more."
"No, I'm fine. What do we do now?"
"We get as much rest as we can, then try and get out of here." Jim unraveled the damp cloth and folded it into a compress he could rest on Blair's forehead. The heat of India's sun still lingered, heavy in the night air. "We'll have to travel at night, at least until we can find a jeep or something. Get over the border and maybe find a U.S. consulate."
"We can't go back to New Delhi?"
Jim shook his head, looking down at Blair. "Robert tried to use me to assassinate a United States Congressman. Our passports are gone. The Indian police and Secret Service probably have them and are looking for us."
"God, Jim." Slowly, and with Jim's help, Blair got himself into a sitting position. "What else is going to happen on this trip?"
"Don't worry, Chief. We've been in worse."
"Worse? Jim, we're in India. No passports, and wanted by the police."
Jim looked into Blair's eyes. "Sandburg, trust me. We'll be fine."
"Right. We'll be fine. Only, what now?"
Jim wanted to get farther away from the river while it was still dark, but he needed his friend to get as much rest as he could before they started traveling. Blair was still too uncomfortable to get any decent rest. So, Jim decided the best thing for them both would be getting out of there as soon as possible. Out of there, and home.
God willing, that wouldn't be too long in coming. He judged they had four hours of darkness left in the night, but they had to take it slowly. Blair was in a lot of pain and couldn't move quickly, while Jim's left throbbed painfully if he stopped concentrating on that damned internal dial.
By sunrise, they were both exhausted. Jim had just found a large grouping of boulders he thought they could safely use as a rest area when he heard voices in the distance, coming closer.
"Get down!" They ducked behind the largest of the rocks while Jim listened, trying to calculate the distance.
Three men were walking up the hill, slowly, as if searching for something. They spoke English. Jim focused on one voice, trying to pick out exactly what was being said.
"Looks like one of them is still bleeding."
"Hang on, look up there."
"He could be armed, you know. This whole rescue could blow up in our faces."
Jim swallowed, coming back to the boulders and Blair, hunched down beside him.
"What is it?"
"I'm not sure, Chief." Rescue? Who, and how?
shot back around. The men could be seen in the tall brown grass, three of them,
wearing civilian clothes. Only one man carried a rifle. Jim focused on the weapon,
then pulled back to see the man holding it. "My God."
Jim held the canteen for Blair to drink from. "Not too much, Chief." His body was shielding Blair from the man who had given him the canteen. That man was standing several feet away, waiting for the return of his two companions.
Blair tried not to swallow too quickly or too much, but the coolness on his parched throat was such a relief he wanted more. After the second swallow, he started to cough and Jim removed the canteen.
"Take it slow." Jim's hand rested on Blair's shoulder until he stopped coughing.
"Yeah." He nodded, wincing against the throbbing in his abdomen. When he looked up at Jim, his partner took a drink and returned the canteen to their visitor. He didn't know this man or his partners, but Jim seemed to. Still, he could sense his friend was being wary, and that kept Blair uneasy as well.
"You look like hell, Ellison." The stranger glanced at Blair, then back to Jim.
"You found us pretty quick, Parker." Jim turned slightly to face the man, but kept his body between Blair and him.
"We were right behind you until the river. You lost us in the hills pretty damn well." Parker screwed the cap back onto the canteen. "This must be your partner. Sandburg, is it?"
Jim didn't step aside, but he turned slightly to look at Blair. His eyes softened, but still held a note of caution. "This is Phillip Parker, Army Intelligence."
Blair glanced at Parker, meeting a friendly enough face and concerned eyes, but he still had to fight the urge to bolt and pull Jim along with him. "Army Intelligence? You guys are everywhere." And hardly ever where they should be.
"Jim, I take full responsibility for this." Parker looked back at Jim, shouldering the canteen. "I'm the one who told you Robert was safe, I encouraged you to contact him out here." He shook his head and shot an apologetic look at Blair. "I had no idea he'd turned."
"He didn't turn, Phil. He's been doing his own work from the start." Jim glanced back at Blair. "We just never saw through him before."
"Which is amazing, considering what a fool he was." Parker glanced down the hill at the truck coming up to meet them. "I found out just yesterday that Robert was in the trade business. Young men, pretty women. Assassinations weren't his area. I'm sorry, Jim. I should have checked him out better before getting back to you. I just never suspected."
Blair's heart skipped a beat, recalling Scarface, and then Robert's plans for him after Jim was dead. "Jim."
"I know, Chief." Jim turned to him, bending down slightly. "Don't worry, you're not getting out of my sight again."
You got that right! Blair not only stayed close to Jim, he made sure he was within easy reach the entire drive. They rode in the back of a utility truck with Parker, who explained how he had been given reason to distrust Jim's friend only yesterday, realizing too late that Jim could be walking into a dangerous situation. The fact that they had suspected Robert and his associates of trading in kidnapped Westerners for several years hadn't been widely known until then either.
"I got there in time to see some huge, ugly man smack the pavement," Parker explained. "It took some doing, getting around the Secret Service in order to divert their attention."
"Which you must have done."
"Let me tell you, Jim, it wasn't as easy as it used to be. But, I did manage to get your passports, so they don't have an ID on either of you. They're checking out all departures at the airport and train station for a man fitting your description, though. By now, they might even have information from the hotel you were staying in, so we'll have to find a way to get you home discreetly and handle the rest on this end."
"Where are we going?"
"I have a place 50 miles out of Delhi, you'll be safe there."
"He needs a doctor."
"We both do." Blair looked at Jim, nodding toward his injured arm. No matter how hard his friend had tried to hide the pain, Blair knew he wasn't blocking it all.
"Don't worry, I've got you covered." Parker checked his watch then looked at Jim. "We should be there in another hour."
It took just over an hour and a half of rough roads and back alleys before they reached the safe house. By the time the truck pulled into the old garage and the doors were closed, it was midafternoon and Blair was exhausted. Parker opened the back of the truck and stepped out, followed by Jim, who turned and gave Blair his right arm for support.
And he needed it. Shaking and moving slowly, Blair eased himself out of the truck. His entire body hurt, sometimes so badly it caught his breath in his throat. The back of the utility truck had been sweltering and uncomfortable. Adding to that discomfort was his sense of Jim's wariness. They didn't know if they were being led to safety, or back into another trap. And if it was anything like the one they'd narrowly escaped...
"This way." Parker motioned for them to follow him through a door at the far end of the big garage.
Blair followed Parker down the flight of stairs and into a large room at the end of a short hallway. It was well lit, with a couch, and three large chairs. Blair didn't protest when Jim led him straight to the couch and insisted he sit down.
Blair looked up and saw Parker handing Jim a gun.
"I'll head upstairs and see about the doctor. Don't worry, he's on our side." He glanced at Blair. "I don't expect you two to be very trusting after what happened, but believe me, you're safe now."
Jim popped the clip and checked the gun, then put it back together and stuffed it into the back of his jeans. "I'll mail you a card, after we get home."
Parker nodded, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
"Jim." Blair watched the man go, then looked at his partner. "Do you trust this guy?"
"Right now, Chief, I don't trust anyone." Jim stepped over and sat on the bed next to Blair. "But that's what will keep us alive."
"Yeah, I'm beginning to think paranoia is a good way to think." Blair looked around the room, wishing for the first time in his academic career he'd been passed over for a research project.
A knock on their door announced the doctor, an elderly man with a British accent and an old, worn black bag. Blair was examined first, at Jim's insistence, and pronounced bruised but otherwise unhurt. Still, he was given a shot of morphine to give him some comfort from the constant heavy throbbing in his gut and side. Jim's arm was cleaned and bandaged, but he passed on the painkillers, insisting he was fine. After the doctor left, Jim locked the door and checked the gun one more time before sitting down next to the couch Blair had reclined on.
The next few hours came in waves. Blair kept trying to fight falling asleep, but at the same time he was so exhausted he wanted to drift away and wake up safe at home.
Hands kept touching him. He was lying in the Buddha's coffin, trapped and unable to climb out. And hands were reaching in to grab him, stroke him, hold him by the throat and force the life out of him. There were voices sometimes, whispering in his ear, telling him Jim was gone. That he was dead and Blair would be touched by many more hands with no one to stop them. Once, they showed him Jim's body, torn and bloody. The hands were holding him, showing him Jim's body in the coffin decorated with burial gems and artifacts.
Finally, the worst of the exhaustion abated, and he woke slowly in relative comfort. The basement they were in had no windows; several lamps were spread around the room, all on. It took Blair a few minutes to remember where he was and why. Jim was at the far end of the room, washing his face in a large utility sink. A quick glance around showed them to be alone. The only door leading in or out was shut and locked with a heavy dead-bolt on the inside.
Blair sighed and relaxed against the arm of the couch. They must be safe enough here. If this Parker guy was going to do anything, he would have done it by now. He looked at Jim again, taking note of the hand gun still tucked into his pants. His left arm was heavily bandaged and he seemed to be trying not to use it.
Jim turned, drying his face on a towel and walking back toward the bed. "Hey, Chief. How are you feeling?"
"Better, I think." Blair cleared his throat, then slowly eased himself up to a sitting position. The pain stayed manageable. He nodded at Jim's arm. "What about you?"
"I'll live." Jim shrugged and glanced at the bandaged arm. "There's a bathroom behind that curtain." He nodded toward the sink. "Are you hungry? Parker will be down in a bit with breakfast."
"Yeah, I think so." With one arm protecting his bruised side, he got himself to the side of the bed. "What time is it?"
"Just after nine." Jim reached out and took Blair's right arm, helping him stand. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up, huh?" With his right arm draped over Blair's shoulders, they walked slowly to the sink. Jim reached out and pulled back a heavy blanket curtaining off the small cubby hole that was the bathroom, and Blair stepped through. "Parker has our passports, and he's getting us a flight out of here tonight." Jim remained on the other side of the curtain and had to call through the heavy blanket.
"Back to the US?"
"That's right, Chief."
He finished, then came back out to the sink to wash up. The pain in his side was a constant throbbing, but it was starting to ease off. Jim handed him a towel when he was all cleaned up, then they both returned to the chairs and sat down.
"By this time tomorrow, we'll be explaining it all to Simon." Jim removed the gun from his pants and set it on the arm of his chair.
The knock on the door that followed Jim's statement nearly caused Blair to jump out of his skin, but Jim simply picked up the gun and walked to the door, unbolting it with a nod to Blair.
"Good morning." Parker came inside, carrying a large tray that smelled of eggs. "I've got a flight all lined up for this evening, and the Secret Service has been taken care of."
"You mean they aren't looking for us anymore?" Blair looked from Jim to Parker, and back again.
"The local police are still looking for you." Parker set the tray down. "We only managed to take care of the guys on our side. There's still two dead Indian men to account for."
Blair was watching Jim while Parker spoke, and didn't miss the sudden clenching of his jaw and sharp look he directed to the agent.
"As soon as it all calms down, they'll be happy to have Robert's little skin-trade stopped. Or at least slowed down. Listen, I'll leave you two to breakfast. I've got some cars to arrange and a few more people to pay off. We'll have you home in no time."
Parker left, followed to the door by Jim, who made sure it was locked before he returned.
"You don't trust him, do you?"
"No, Chief, I don't." Jim sat down and picked up a fork, examining the food before him. "I don't trust anyone anymore. These people are in the business of distrust."
"Yeah." Blair glanced at the food, almost afraid to eat it. "I used to think it was pretty fascinating. Now I wish I didn't know as much as I do."
"You and me both, partner." Jim stabbed some eggs and nodded. "You and me both."
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