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by Kristine Williams

Part 6

They reached the deck just as the cruiser's engines reversed, bringing them alongside the victims. Three Coast Guardsmen tossed life rings out, while one leapt into the water to assist the young children. Jim and Blair moved forward to stand at the bow, ready to help if needed. There was little evidence of two boats left floating. Clothing, bits and pieces of wood and fiberglass swirled and bobbed on the waves. The sun reflected sharply off the water, making it almost impossible to see through.

"Jim, do you see anyone else?"

"I can't see through the glare." Jim squinted, shaking his head even as he tried again.

"Filter out the light, Jim. Look into the water, not on it."

He strained once more, then suddenly his focus broke through the glaring surface and four figures swimming desperately to the surface became clear. "There! Four more!"

More life rings were thrown over the side as the four survivors broke the surface, choking and gasping for air. One crewman jumped in to assist the new victims, but Jim could see they weren't going to make it. He quickly pulled off the sweatshirt.

"Stay here and help them aboard." One glance at Blair to make sure he heard, and Jim dove over the side.

"Help me!"

He surfaced next to a woman who was going under. Her floor-length evening gown dragged her back down with more force than she could kick against. Jim grabbed her by the arm as she sank, pulling her back to the surface. A flotation ring was thrown to him and he hooked it with one arm, wrapping the other around her waist as they were pulled toward the cruiser. One other woman, as well as two men, were being pulled to safety. When Jim and the woman reached the side, they were the last ones pulled up.

"Jim." Blair reached down after the woman was securely onboard and took Jim's hand, pulling him up and onto the ladder dangling down the side. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." He climbed over the side, then accepted the blanket Blair wrapped over his shoulders. "Is that everyone?" The young couple and their three children were huddled next to each other, while crewmen wrapped them in blankets and checked them over.

"Yeah, that's everyone. The young couple over there were out for a holiday with the kids. Their first time. They're okay, though." Blair handed him a towel, then pointed to the other four survivors. "Those are the same people who sank us, aren't they, Jim?"

"I expect so." Captain Ellsworth stepped up to Jim. "Mr. Collins and company have been cited several times already this summer for recklessness."

Jim looked from Collins, standing with one deck hand who was offering him another blanket, to the young man sitting with his wife and frightened children. The young man looked up at Captain Ellsworth.

"He came out of nowhere. We were just having breakfast and he came out of nowhere, never turned or even acted like he saw us." He shook his head and glanced down at his children. "There was nothing we could have done to get out of his way."

"Honey, it wasn't your fault. The kids are okay, that's what's important." The young woman hugged her children close, then shot Mr. Collins a quick look before turning back to her kids and husband. The children were crying and clinging to their mother, who was shaking so badly she was having trouble holding the blanket over her shoulders.

"I'm sorry, folks, doesn't look like there's anything to salvage." Captain Ellsworth shook his head sadly as he addressed the young couple. "You have insurance, I hope?"

"Yes, yes we do." The young man's face paled and he looked around, trying to find something that wasn't there.

"Good. We'll get you all in to port and get you taken care of."

"What about him?"

The captain glanced at the rest of the survivors. "They'll be taken care of as well, I assure you. Now come on inside." He ushered the young couple and their kids into the ship with a passing nod to Jim.

After they entered the hatchway, the other survivors began to file past. Jim watched them, each dressed in fancy evening clothes and still reeking of alcohol. Last to pass them was Mr. Collins, who stopped and wavered slightly as he looked at Blair and then Jim. He was a tall man, with thin lips and a pointed nose. The clothes he wore spoke of wealth, matching the gold bracelet and watch on his left wrist. Seaweed clung to his pant leg and there was something brown and slimy poking out from under his collar.

"It wasn't my fault, you see." Mr. Collins' voice was thick and slurred, his brown eyes drooping.

"How do you figure that, Mr. Collins?" Jim's voice was barely contained and his jaw flexed quickly.

"I simply didn't see them, you understand." Mr. Collins pushed water from his forehead, then suddenly discovered the length of kelp in his shirt and pulled it out with a flourish.

"And I suppose you didn't see us yesterday morning, either?" Jim had moved between Mr. Collins and the hatchway with one step and he glanced at Blair before looking for his answer.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Yesterday we were miles up the Strait. Had a lovely little party off the point the other night, actually." He sighed heavily and looked at Jim. "Honestly, I don't know what all the fuss is about. We're all insured, aren't we? No harm done."

"No harm done?" Jim felt his anger rise. He'd seen this so many times before, but on the water, so many people thought drinking and driving didn't apply. "You nearly killed my partner and me yesterday morning. We'd have drowned by now if someone hadn't found us out there. Then you smash into this young family no more than a day later. You could have killed them. You could have killed yourself."

"Nonsense." Mr. Collins shook his head, and nearly lost his balance. "I was in complete control of my vessel at all times." The slurring of his voice made that sentence very difficult. "Besides, if they can't get out of the way, they have no business being out here. The bigger boat has the right-of-way. That's what I've always felt."

Jim shook his head and looked at Blair. His partner was watching Mr. Collins, a look of disgust clearly showing on his expressive face. He glanced up at Jim for a moment and shook his head, dismissing the man completely.

"Now, if you'll kindly remove yourself from the doorway, I should like to go inside and get warm. My insurance agent will just love hearing from me, I'm sure." He huffed and brought his blanket farther up over both shoulders. "At least he respects me."

"You know, Mr. Collins, I've always felt the best way to deal with a person like you is to use the direct approach." Jim handed Blair the blanket he'd left hanging over one shoulder.

"Oh please, whoever you are, I'm in no mood for any lectures from the likes of you." Mr. Collins waved one hand in dismissal and turned away.

It was over in an instant. One punch from Jim's right fist, connecting with Mr. Collins' left cheek, sent the man to the deck. He was unconscious even before he landed.

"No lecture, Mr. Collins. I'm not the teacher here." Jim looked at Blair, who was holding the blanket.

Blair's eyebrows arched for a moment as he looked down at the unconscious man. After a moment, he shook his head and looked back up at Jim. "Thanks, man. That felt pretty good."

Jim smiled slightly. "Had to be done, Chief."

Two Coast Guardsmen rushed out on deck to assist the recovering Mr. Collins. Neither man said a word, but Jim was sure they'd seen what happened.

"Come on, let's go see if we can get anything out of Captain Ellsworth about Simon before we get back to Cascade."

Blair laughed, then followed Jim through the hatchway and up the stairs to the pilot house. "Hey Jim, maybe if we just hide behind him, Simon won't see us."

Blair knew they'd have to face Simon. He also knew the MarySue's sinking was in no way his or Jim's fault, and that Jim would handle the captain and anything that came from this little weekend fiasco. But the sight of Simon Banks storming down the dock, cigar in hand and wearing one of his sternest expressions, sent Blair a half-step back and ever so slightly behind Jim.

"Ellison! What the hell happened out there?!" Simon's hard pace down the dock sent the planks bouncing over the shallow water.

Jim stopped so Blair did likewise, keeping himself just slightly hidden behind his partner. Their reply had to wait while the other rescued boaters were led from the cruiser. They were followed by four very well dressed, slightly damp individuals, one of whom stepped wide around Jim as he passed.

When they had all reached shore, Jim turned his attention back to Simon. "We're fine, thanks for asking." Blair nodded slightly, trying his best to keep a look of scared relief on his face. "The boat was rammed by a drunk driver, Simon. We barely got out with our lives."

"That was yesterday morning, Jim. Captain Ellsworth radioed me after picking you two up." Simon looked from Jim to Blair and back again. "What happened between the accident and you being picked up? Where were you?"

"In the water, Simon." Jim reached around and put a hand on Blair's shoulder, then ushered him down the pier toward shore. "We were picked up by a couple in a sailboat late last night."

"Just in time, too," Blair added as they passed the captain.

The afternoon sun baked down on them as they made their way to the Coast Guard offices. Once inside, Jim was offered dry clothes and a shower, which he accepted gratefully. Not wanting to be left in the office alone with Simon, Blair decided a shower to remove the dried salt and sweat was a good idea. He took his time, scrubbing the seawater from every inch of his skin and hair, twice. The jellyfish burn on his left palm had been reduced to a thin red line that only hurt when hot water hit it. The stiffness in legs, arms, shoulders and back were slowly working out. When he stepped out of the shower and toweled off, he hoped enough time had passed. Not that he should be hiding in here, letting Jim explain what happened without backup. No, that wasn't right.

Guilt forced Blair to dress quickly, back into the borrowed Coast Guard sweats, then hurry out to the offices where Jim was explaining to Simon what had happened. When he approached Jim, Simon was shoving a cigar back into his mouth. He gave Blair a quick nod, then turned to look through the office window to the waiting area beyond it.

"Well, Jim, I'm just glad the two of you are all right. I'll handle this from here. At least my uncle had that old MarySue insured."

"I'm really sorry she sank, Simon." Blair shook his head sadly, recalling the old wooden vessel. "That boat was a classic."

Simon shook his head with a chuckle and removed his unlit cigar. "Classic? That old tub? The MarySue's been around longer than I have. Between you and me, I'd been hoping old Uncle Joe would trade her in for something sleeker."

"Oh, come on, Simon. People would kill for an old classic like that. They just don't make them anymore."

"Yeah, Sandburg, and there's a reason for that."

Blair shook his head in defeat. Sometimes he was sure if his words had been spoken by Jim, the captain would agree without hesitation. But that was okay, Blair was getting used to it.

"Listen, Simon, I'm pretty exhausted. I think Blair and I will head on home. We'll see you in the morning, and I'll be happy to talk to your uncle if you need me to." Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder and gave him a gentle shove toward the door.

"Fine, Jim. I'll handle Joe. He's insured, anyway. And with the Coast Guard's report to back him up, I can't see anything coming up that the insurance can't take care of. Are you sure you two are okay?"

"Sure, Simon, we're fine. Just tired, and a little stiff."

"Yeah." Blair led the way out of the office and into the larger waiting area. A little stiff still felt like an understatement, but he was beginning to think with a good night's sleep and maybe some BenGay, he'd feel better.

"Jim, are you going to need a ride home?"

Blair stopped beside his friend, only then realizing they had lost everything they'd come onboard with themselves. Jim was holding their jeans, presumably retrieved from the Coast Guard, although Blair didn't remember seeing them again after Mrs. Warder had insisted he get out of the soggy pants and into the sweats she was offering.

"Got 'em." Jim produced a set of keys from the pocket of his jeans. "I didn't come onboard with more than my wallet and a change of clothes. What about you, Chief?"

Blair reached out for his pants, then felt the wallet there. "Got lucky. Not that there's much there to lose."

Simon chuckled and Jim shook his head. "Come on, Sandburg. I have a sudden urge to get away from the water. Far away."

"Yeah." Blair followed Jim out of the office complex toward the car waiting to take them back to the marina where Jim had left the truck. "But hey, look at the bright side."

"The bright side, Chief?" Jim got in the back of the waiting sedan and slid over, making room for Blair. "What would that be?"

"I don't know, Jim." Blair got in and shut the door. "I was hoping you would."

The rain woke him. It was blowing in through the open window, along with a breeze that sent chills up Blair's spine. When he came fully awake, the temperature of the room hit him like a slap on the face. They'd gotten home late that afternoon, and after eating dinner, both he and Jim had gone straight to bed, exhausted from their watery ordeal. But it had been hot when he took off all but his boxers and plopped tiredly onto the bed, shoving all the blankets off. Now, Blair was freezing.

He forced himself off the bed, trying not to exclaim too loudly when his aching muscles protested the movement. The hardwood floor was ice to his bare feet, and there was cold rain covering the windowsill and the floor directly below. Blair shoved the window down, grimacing as it slammed shut with a loud thud. He paused for a moment, listening for the inevitable shout to keep quiet, but it didn't come. Jim must have been sound asleep, or just too tired to yell. Even that short time at the window gave Blair enough of a chill to set his teeth chattering.

"Oh, man." He searched the floor for the sweats he'd discarded before getting into bed. They were nowhere to be found. Great, Jim. He must have snatched them up and stuffed them into the hamper while Blair was in the bathroom. A quick run to the dresser was rewarded by a pair of unmatched socks and Jim's old Cascade PD sweatshirt that Blair kept meaning to return. He donned the shirt and socks, then hooked a finger around the blankets and pulled them up as he hurried back into bed. The sheets had taken on the chill of the night air, and the sudden rain outside had dampened the air, dropping the temperature of the entire room.

Blair scrambled under the covers and pulled them up to his chin, then tucked both legs up close and pushed his face into the pillow. This was a far cry from just the other night, sleeping in nothing but his shorts, dreaming of a nice, cooling waterfall. The weather had done what the Northwest weather was famous for, changed overnight without warning. Blair sighed deeply, exhaling into the blankets in an effort to warm the end of his nose. All thoughts of air-conditioning the loft, cool green moss, and clear, inviting ponds were banished from his mind. Even the sound of the rain outside was giving him chills. And adding to the sensation of still being out on the water.

Blair's mind and body were at odds, each trying to convince the other that they weren't where they thought they were. Every time he closed his eyes, his body told him they were still on the water, still moving back and forth, up and down. But his mind had other thoughts. His mind was convinced they were on solid ground once again. That Blair was in his bed, in the loft, and they simply couldn't be rocking back and forth no matter who said what.

His body wasn't convinced. When he opened his eyes, Blair's mind got the upper hand. But when he closed his eyes, his body started making a valid point. The addition of the cold air and water splashing around on the balcony outside wasn't helping. He shivered again, wishing his body heat would catch up and warm the spot he was occupying. For a fleeting moment, Blair thought he might have a fever, and was experiencing the beginning chills of illness. But that wasn't too likely. He didn't feel ill, and a quick hand to his forehead proved nothing amiss. He sighed and shoved his hand back under the blankets. At least if he was getting sick, he no longer lived alone. It helped to know there was someone you could send to the store or pharmacy for you. Someone to complain that if you gave them what you had, they'd hate you forever.

But he wasn't getting sick. He was just cold. It was the middle of summer, and a freak change in the weather had caught him unsuspecting, sleeping on top of the bed in nothing but his shorts while the temperature dropped. The blankets, socks and sweatshirt finally worked their magic and the shivering stopped. But his body and mind still fought over who was right. Frustrated, Blair rolled over, punching a fist into the pillow. There had to be a way to stop this sensation of still being out on the water. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes again. Immediately he felt as if the bed and the room were gently rolling over waves.

"Come on, Sandburg, you can get past this. Just take control." Yeah, that's it, try visualization. It worked the other night to cool you off. Now just change the setting and get yourself settled.

First it was a matter of relaxing. Now that the room's chill had worn off, and he was warmer and comfortable, Blair could let his muscles relax out of their shivering tension. He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, forcing all thoughts of boats, water, and drowning to leave his mind. When he inhaled again, he pictured something as far away from the water as he could think of. The tree homes of the Kombai where he'd spent those three months living high above the ground. He pictured the bamboo flooring, the warm jungle breezes that swayed the trees slowly back and forth. The wind was like waves, making his bamboo raft rock and creak. The ground was so far below, like the bottom of the sea.

"Great, this is working." Blair shook the vision from his head and sighed, trying again.

Rock. That's what he needed. Something solid, firm, not inclined to roll or move. And a mountain, hundreds of feet above sea level. The canyon was orange and purple, and as the sun moved across the sky, the colors changed and muted. The rock he was sitting on was hard and covered in dust which he didn't bother to wipe away. Thick jeans protected his legs against the sharp corners of the boulders surrounding him. Heavy hiking boots made his feet sweat, but he knew better than to take them off. An eagle soared high overhead, screeching down to protest his intrusion. The air there was thin, but warm.

Blair looked around at the dry rocks, wondering what secrets the ancient stones held. The area he was in now had once been a river, but hundreds of years had turned it from a living waterway to a dry creek bed, harboring a different kind of life. It reminded him of a rock garden he'd seen once at a Zen temple. The monks could sit for hours gazing at the rocks, meditating about what they saw, interpreting the images that changed with the moving sun. Blair had also sat for hours one day, watching the monks as they watched the rocks. They were so vigilant in their quest for understanding, and so patient in their wait for its revelation. Sitting there, as solid as the rocks they watched, each man attained peace in the knowledge that the answers he sought would come to him in time.

Blair looked out over the dry river bed and watched a lizard scurry by. The sun warmed him as it climbed over the sky, casting different shadows over the face of the canyon walls. At first glance the area looked lifeless and void, but he knew, hundreds of years ago, there were native tribes here that flourished in a different environment. Once this river carried water instead of sand. The canyons grew trees instead of dust. And the rock he was sitting on now saw fish swim by, instead of lizards. Blair tried to picture the area back then, back when the water flowed and the trees grew tall. He pictured water filling the canyon, raining down from the clouds to drift slowly and gently down the canyon, into the valley farther on.

Listening carefully, Blair could pick out the sounds of children playing by the river's edge while their mothers and aunts washed clothes and pounded animal skins against the river rocks. Dogs barked, and men were discussing the day's hunt. Idly he wondered what tribe this would be. Blair wasn't sure if his canyon was in North America, or South. He understood the language the natives used, but he knew just enough of so many he could get by in several regions. But as he listened more intently, another sound intruded. A sharper, piercing squeal that sent a shiver down Blair's spine. It was almost as if...

Blair looked up suddenly. Water! A surge of water was barreling down on him from the far end of the dry river bed. It was as if someone had opened a flood gate, and there he was sitting in the middle of a river with a wall of water bearing down on him. There was no way out, no place he could possibly run in time! He braced himself, ready for the body-slam that was fast approaching. There'd be no time to think, and no room to swim. If he was lucky, the impact would kill him, saving him from a slow drowning.

It hit hard, sending Blair straight up in bed with a gasp.

"Oh, man!" With one hand over his pounding heart, Blair sat on the bed, listening to the shower shut off with a squeak. A minute later, Jim came out of the bathroom with one towel wrapped around his waist and another in his hand.

"Jim, we gotta get that cold water handle fixed." His heart was slowing back down to normal. Jim paused at his door.

"Sorry, Chief. Were you back in nirvana again?"

Blair shook his head, then swung both legs out from under the covers. His socks were half off his feet and Jim glanced at them, chuckling. "Not exactly." Tiredly, he pushed the hair from his face and stood up. "More like an Irwin Allen movie."

Jim laughed and shook his head while he walked through the living room toward the stairs. "Just so long as I wasn't in it. Come on, let's get a move on. I don't want to be late, Gilligan."

Blair stopped in the middle of his bedroom doorway. "Gilligan?"

Jim flipped on the coffee pot, then turned and flicked his towel at Blair as he walked back out of the kitchen. "Yeah."

"Jim, I was piloting that boat. Remember?" His friend just laughed as he walked to the stairs. Blair shook his head and started toward the bathroom. "The least I should get is Skipper." He stepped inside and shut the door. "Or the Professor."

"That would make me Maryann, Chief!"

Blair burst into laughter as he reached for the toothpaste. It took the better part of that morning to get the vision of Jim Ellison, and a pair of coconuts, out of his mind.



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Monday May 10 2010