The Hell Within
Jim rolled over with a moan, becoming conscious of the fact he was
lying on cold cement in a dark room. His head pounded violently, resisting even
the elevation from the hard floor, but instinct pushed past the pain. Swallowing
against sudden fear, he raised his head and looked around, seeing only cement
walls, a chair, a heavy door with one small, barred window, and a drain in the
floor. The living room, soft couches, and quiet music were gone. It took effort
and several seconds before he managed a sitting position. The pain between his
eyes was lessening with each minute, but the familiar feeling of dread remained,
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.
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
"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?"
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
"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."
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
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.
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."
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."
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
"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.
what did he want with Blair?! And how was he going to get him?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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, 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."
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
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
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.
is really something." Blair was positively brimming with excitement, hardly
touching his meal as they sat in the hotel's restaurant.
"It was impressive,
"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."
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
"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
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.