Blair heard the front door open and the unmistakable sound of Jim's keys landing on the counter where he always tossed them. He came rushing out of his room, nearly slipping on the hardwood floor in his stocking feet.
"Jim, man I'm glad you're home." Blair stopped just before sliding into a stool.
Jim watched his housemate's floor-capades with amused tolerance, then shook his head. "What's with you? I thought you had to get to the University for that lecture you've been dying to hear." Jim walked straight to the fridge and took a long swig from the beer he produced.
"I know, I know." Blair replied, raising his eyebrows in what he hoped would be his best 'please'. "I was hoping I could borrow the truck?"
Jim was taking another drink as he walked around the counter towards the steps leading up to his room in their loft. "Sorry, Chief. I've got plans tonight." he said. "What's wrong with your car?"
Blair slumped into the stool he had run into, dejected. "Well, for starters, it's about a million years old." he replied. He couldn't help feeling like a little brother who wasn't trusted with the big toys. "It's been running pretty bad lately. I broke down twice coming back from the U this afternoon."
Jim continued up the stairs, smiling. "But you made it here?"
"Yeah, I made it here." Blair knew he wasn't going to win. "Barely." But a little guilt couldn't hurt.
Jim paused at the top of the stairs, looking down at his friend. "Look, any other night and I might. But not tonight. Okay?" He waited there, watching Blair, until the younger man looked up and nodded.
"What's so special about tonight, anyway?" Blair asked.
Jim left the railing and walked further into his room, out of sight. He had to raise his voice to reply. "Jenkins, Simon, and I are going out to celebrate."
"Oh..?" Blair was only half interested, having lost his bid for a reliable ride to hear the guest speaker that night. "Celebrating what?"
"Victory." Jim replied, coming back to the balcony rail in a clean shirt. "The jury in the Jackson case came in this morning."
Jackson....Jackson...Blair tried to remember the vaguely familiar name. "Hey, is that the guy who slit his wife's throat--what--nearly a year ago?"
"Yep." Jim came down the stairs with the now empty beer bottle. "His exwife, and her boyfriend. Jenkins and I worked a month on that case. Took six months for the trial, another month for the jury. Simon worked his butt off getting the DA convinced." He tossed the empty bottle into the trash. "I really had my doubts for a while. But the jury came through." He smiled. "That case took more than one month out of my life, Jenkins's life with his brand new bride, and Simon's too. And now," Jim made a point of placing the keys to his truck in his shirt pocket. "We are going to celebrate his life sentence."
"Well, I'm happy for you, Jim. I really am." Blair admitted. "But this speaker...I mean, he's really important to me. I cannot miss this." He tried once again, adding a look he knew Jim hated to see. "How about a ride?"
"Sorry. The University is on the other side of town. With the traffic this time of day, I'd be late picking up the guys. Here," Jim tossed the cell phone over. "take this, and here's some cash, get a cab. I don't need you breaking down in the middle of the night."
Blair caught the phone and twenty that Jim tossed over. "Thanks." he said as he turned back to his room to find shoes. "Thanks for nothin'". His last comment was barely audible.
"I heard that, Sandburg." Jim called back.
"I'm just sure you did." Blair replied, also under his breath, but well within Jim's ability to hear. Blair found his shoes under the bed and pulled them on. He knew he'd better hurry if he was going to break down a few times along the way. He hated cabs, but if he stayed to argue the point he'd be late himself. He dug the keys to the Corvair out of his pack and headed down the hall. Jim was in the bathroom when he passed.
"Hey, Chief." Jim opened the door and stuck his head out. "What time is this lecture over?"
"I dunno, depends." Blair replied, hurrying for the door. "Maybe eleven, eleven thirty. Why?"
"I worry about you, that's all. Those cabs can be dangerous."
"Gee, thanks." Blair heard Jim's laugh as he shut the door and rushed down the stairs. He ran around the building to the side street where he parked, tossed his pack into the back seat and crossed his fingers as he put the keys in the ignition. There was no way he was taking another cab after that last time. He'd just give Jim his twenty back tomorrow...maybe.
"Pleasepleaseplease." He closed his eyes as he turned the keys, hearing the cough of the engine. "Yes!" he couldn't help but feel surprised when the car started and stayed running. Before the corvair had a chance to die, he put it in gear and drove off, mentally picking the quickest route with the fewest stops.
His drive home earlier that day had taken forever. At each stop the car threatened to cough to a halt. Twice it had, and each time took Blair five minutes of coaxing, begging, and cursing to get it going again. Halfway home he wished he had stayed at the University so he wouldn't risk missing this lecture, but he had really hoped Jim would loan him the truck. Well, he had to admit, he hadn't truly expect it, but he had hoped.
It was getting dark already. Blair liked fall with it's change of season and shorter days, but not when he had to take this particular road, with three broken street lights, in a car that was beginning to sound distinctly sick.
"Oh man, oh man, not again." Blair had barely finished his plea when the corvair suddenly died, slowing steadily as he turned the wheel toward the wide dirt shoulder. "Come on...come on..." He crossed his fingers, closed his eyes, turned the key. Nothing. He tried again. Still nothing. Well, maybe Jim hadn't left yet. He picked up the cell phone, flipping the mouthpiece down, and stared unbelievingly at the display.
"Oh this sucks!" he tossed the dead phone down. "Thanks, Jim. Thanks a lot." He tried the ignition once more, then gave up, popped the hood and climbed out. He spent less than a minute staring at the engine. He had no idea what he was looking for, he had never taken shop. But opening the hood seemed like the thing to do.
Blair sighed, pushing his hair back with one hand. "Okay, Sandburg, okay. Just start hoofing." He slammed the hood back down and walked back to open the door for his pack. As he pulled his bag from the back seat, headlights flashed across him and continued down the road. Blair stood, squinting into the oncoming lights. "Come on, please..." He willed the car to pull over, then laughed in surprise when it did. "Yes!"
He stayed at the front of his own car, not wanting to frighten off any good Samaritan that may have just worked up the courage to pull over. The van stopped just in front of his own broken down car, he heard the driver slip the van into park and set the brake, then the driver's side door opened and a man about his own age came out.
"Hey man, you stuck?" The driver asked, good naturedly.
Blair smiled. "Yeah, I am." He glanced down at the offending car. "It's been trouble lately, I guess I just pushed it too far."
"Hey, I know that feeling." The man walked over to stand at the hood. Blair could see something in his hand, but couldn't see well in the dimming light, and didn't pay much attention in his gratitude for help. "Yep, I know all about bein' pushed too far."
Blair had just set his pack on the ground and looked up, but was too late to avoid the tire iron as it came in contact with his head. As he spun around, falling and quickly losing consciousness, he couldn't help but think that Jim, at least, was having a good evening.
Blair stirred, tried to roll over and groggily realized he couldn't move. He had such a headache! But why? He groaned, or tried, but there was something in his mouth he couldn't spit out. He tried to reach up and pull out whatever was stuck there, but he couldn't move his hands. Suddenly it came back, the corvair, the van, the tire iron that he had a very close, if brief, look at as it struck him just above the right eye.
Blair opened his eyes, but couldn't focus for several minutes. He realized then that his right eye was half shut, and his hands were tied tightly behind his back. Panic threatened to overtake him as he slowly understood what had happened. This can't happen twice in one lifetime. He looked around...trying to make sense out of the blurred images. He was lying on the ground. No, not the ground, a metal floor. A very cold metal floor. He moved his head, and the pain threatened to send him back into that dark hole he had just spent God knew how long in. He closed his eyes, waiting for the pain of that unfortunate movement to subside, then opened them again.
His head wouldn't stop pounding. He wanted to speak, to scream, but he couldn't. Couldn't even swallow. This isn't happening, he thought, this can't be happening again. Where was he? Who had brought him here, and why was he alone now? How long had he been there? The questions Blair couldn't answer were beginning to add to the aching in his head. He tried to move his hands, but they were being held together not with rope, as he had first assumed, but with a small-link metal chain, wrapped several times around each wrist and a few times between his fingers which made any movement of either hand impossible.
Blair forced himself to calm down, breathe normally, and looked around more now that his vision seemed to be as normal as it was going to get. The room he was in was lit by a row of bare, low wattage bulbs handing from the ceiling. He was in a large room, metal floors, metal walls, even metal ceiling. At first he imagined it was a large shipping crate, then he spotted the door at the far end, with it's characteristic wheeled handle, and realized he was in what must be the cargo hold of a ship of some kind. He was definitely alone in the room, but with no windows, he had no idea if it was still night, or daylight. Slowly, and with great difficulty, he worked his way into a sitting position, leaning against a wall he had been lying next to. His head was throbbing terribly, and his hands were beginning to hurt. Come on Jim, where are you when I need you? He looked around again, wondering why he was alone, why he was still alive. Was this to be another slow, lingering torment? Was he the victim of some psycho who enjoyed the mental anguish as much as the killing? Why the hell didn't I take a cab? His heart was racing. How did Blair Sandburg, mild-mannered Anthropologist, manage to get into these kinds of messes? Must be the company I keep, he thought.
God, if someone would just come through that door and explain it all, get it over with. Maybe Jim would burst through any minute now, come and rescue him again. Blair held on to that thought as best he could for the next several hours, trying hard not to imagine what else might happen. He had nearly calmed down when he heard the metal clanging of the hatchway opening up.
Blair recognized the younger of the three men who entered as his good Samaritan. The other two were older, and much larger men. He couldn't stop the ice-cold feeling in the pit of his stomach from forming, but he hoped he was doing all right in keeping the fear from his face. Then he realized they were pulling two more behind them. One, a young, pretty woman with a terrified look on her face, hands bound behind her but no gag in her mouth. The other, Blair jumped, was Darryl, Simon's son. They were brought over to where Blair sat and shoved to the floor beside him.
"Well, Frankie, this one woke up." One of the two Blair had never seen before spoke, nudging the younger one. "I guess you didn't hit him too hard, huh?"
Blair's attacker nodded, grinning. The three men had stopped in front of Blair after depositing their other two captives, giving each of them a sweeping glance. Darryl sat still as stone, not speaking. The young woman next to him pulled her legs up in an effort to get farther way from her captors.
Suddenly the largest of the three was on top of Blair, a sinister looking knife in one hand.
Blair tried to pull back, but he was being pinned against the wall, one large hand leaning into his left shoulder, one very large leg pressing on top of his left knee.
Oh man, here it comes. Blair expected the knife to glide across his jugular at any moment. Instead, the man on top of him slipped the blade between his cheek and the cloth gagging him. He froze, seeing the tip of the blade come even with his eye, and tried not to shake.
"Okay, pretty boy. Frankie here gave you quite a headache, and I was thinking maybe that's enough punishment for now." He slowly twisted the knife until the bottom of the blade just began to cut into Blair's jaw. "So, if you promise to be a good boy, I'll take this off, and let you three chat." He smiled, glancing at his other two captives. "After all, you just may be here for awhile." He looked back down at Blair, still sitting motionless on the floor lest the knife cut any deeper. "But I'm warning you, any funny business and..."
Blair winced as the man's full weight was put into the leg that was pressing his knee. Panic took hold for a second and he clenched his jaw against the cloth, unable to cry out. The movement caused the knife to cut deeper and before he could react, the blade moved, flashing past his eye and slicing the gag in one quick motion.
"I think you get my meaning."
Blair coughed to spit out the gag. His throat was so dry it hurt. He wanted to speak, to demand an explanation, but all he could do was swallow hard against the dryness. He was shaking, and prayed it didn't show.
"Okay, now, I'm sure you're all wondering why we've brought you here." The one they called Frankie was speaking now. Blair looked up, and noticed then that the third man was standing further back, holding a video camera on his shoulder.
"Please..." The woman next to Darryl began. "Please don't hurt us."
"Now that'll be up to your husband, lady." Frankie looked from her, to Darryl. "And to your dad." His gaze left the boy and settled on Blair. "And to your friend." He smiled, turning then to face the video camera. "Gentlemen." He said, "My brother Cliff, and my cousin, that'd be Bob holdin' the camera there. We've got a proposition for you." He laughed then, glancing around and motioning with his hands in the air. "Actually, it'd be more of a trade, I guess."
Blair watched as the one he identified as Frankie's brother stepped in front of the camera.
"It's simple, folks. We've got someone you want, you've got someone we want." Cliff turned, marched over to Blair, and grabbed him by the shoulders. Before Blair could react he was lifted to his feet and slammed into the wall. A wave of dizziness hit and he willed it away as Cliff held him pinned to the wall. "You release our brother, Samuel Jackson by ten o'clock tonight. We release your friends." He produced the knife Blair had such a close look at already and held it menacingly against his throat. "You don't release our brother..." The knife Blair was trying not to look at suddenly slid further down, making a quick slice into his left shoulder.
He cried out, more with surprise than pain, then Cliff pushed him roughly back down to the floor. Blair held his breath, wishing he had the gag to bite down on again. So that was it. Hostages. A video taped message delivered to...? Blair knew then that Jim would see this. That's it, Jim. Blair glanced around again, searching in vain for something that might give him a clue as to where they were. Something he could do to help Jim.
"I think you get the picture." Cliff made a cutting motion with his hand and his cousin shut the camera off.
Frankie approached again, "Relax folks. You've got some time to kill, I think." Blair realized he hadn't been listening, and the tape was stopped. Defeated, he watched as the three men left, slamming the metal door behind them. He could hear the wheel spinning, then more metallic clanging, then silence.
"Blair, what did they mean?" Darryl asked, looking over to Blair who now sat, leaning against the wall breathing hard. "What are they gonna do?"
Blair had to clear his throat and swallow a few times before he could answer. His head hurt, his jaw and shoulder were bleeding. "I'm not sure Darryl." he replied, a little hoarse. "But don't worry, your dad and Jim are out there. We'll be fine." He tried to take a look at his shoulder, it burned so much! Judging by the amount of blood, and the fact that he hadn't passed out or anything, he decided it couldn't be too deep. But God he hurt! He only wished he hadn't cried out.
"You're Blair? Blair Sandburg, right? Jim's friend?"
Blair looked passed Darryl at the young woman, "Yeah, although right now I wish I wasn't." He was relieved to see her smile, she had been visibly shaking as bad as his insides were. "And you are...?"
"I'm Sara Jenkins. You're hurt."
"Nice to meet you, Sara." Stress and pain began to take their toll, and he leaned back, resting his head against the wall, willing Jim to come through the door. "I think I'll live." For now. "How did they get you?"
"They grabbed me this morning, on my way to work. I was waiting for the bus, and this van pulled up." Sara replied. "Before I knew it, two men grabbed me and shoved me inside." She nodded towards Darryl sitting beside her. "We drove for a few minutes, then the van stopped, and they pushed Darryl in."
"Got me on the way to school." Darryl finished for her.
"I'm late for work now, will they tell my husband?" Sara sounded as if she would faint, had she not been sitting down.
"Don't worry, we're just hostages, I guess. They want their brother, so I'm betting that tape is on it's way to the precinct. They're gonna figure out where we are and come get us in no time. These hostage things never work." They just end up on the evening news. It was the next day. Blair realized he had been there for at least eight hours. "Jim is going to kill me."
"I'm gonna kill him." Jim mumbled as he reached into Blair's car and grabbed his cell phone from the floor. He had gotten home after 1:00 a.m. that morning, and just assumed Blair was asleep. By 7:00 a.m., when the alarm woke him instead of Blair's failed attempts at being quiet, he knew something was wrong. He checked his housemate's room and found the bed hadn't been slept in. A quick glance out the back window told him Blair had taken the Corvair, instead of a cab. Sandburg, if this is your idea of getting back at me....
By 8:00 that morning, when his friend in the precinct impound yard called to say he had just towed in a car with his cell phone inside, he decided the joke had gone far enough.
Jim checked the phone, noting the dead battery with a shake of his head. He had just turned to storm back upstairs to his office when he spotted the pack in the back seat. He reached in, pulled the pack out and gave it a quick glance. "Find what you're looking for?"
Jim glanced up, "Yes, Alan, thanks." He waved to the yard chief and hoisted the pack over his shoulder.
Back upstairs Jim tossed the pack and phone onto his desk, nodding at Simon as he walked from the coffee pot to his office.
"Man, I forgot what the morning after can feel like." Simon said as he passed.
Jim smiled, "You're not getting any younger."
Simon gave him a dirty look, then glanced around the office. "Hey, where's your trusty sidekick?"
Jim's smile left as he sat down behind the desk, fingering Blair's pack. "I don't know." he replied. "His car broke down last night. It's in the impound right now. I told him to take a cab, even gave him the cash." He glanced at the cell phone, "I gave that to him, but the battery is dead. I'm not sure if he left it on all night in the car or what." He was just taking the back off the phone when the unmistakable odor of leaking battery acid assaulted his nose. Jim looked back at the pack and began to open the clasp. "The battery's bad."
"Hey, wait a minute, Jim. You can't go rifling through his stuff." Simon held out a hand. "He's probably at the University, working on a ride home or something."
Jim shook his head, "No Simon, I checked." He opened the pack and paused, hands poised to begin emptying the contents. "No one saw him in the lecture audience, no one's heard from him. His car got towed in. Something's not right." He had stopped before reaching into the pack, and now just held it open as wide as he could. "At first, I thought he might just be mad at me." He glanced up at Simon, "He wanted the truck last night. But he wouldn't do this. He would have called, at least found a phone and left a message. This isn't him at all." Jim gazed back into the bag, focusing on the contents. Just the usual assortment of books, notebooks, and such. Then, as he was closing it back up with a shake of his head, he spotted something.
"Simon, put out an APB." Jim said matter-of-factly. He stood, picked up the bag, and turned to leave. "There's blood on this."
Simon took a step forward, "Wait a minute, Jim. Are you sure it's blood? It could be old. It could be from any number of things." He was shaking his head skeptically. "He's only been gone a few hours."
"No, Simon, this isn't something Blair would do." Jim continued down the hallway towards the elevator and hit the down button. "I'm taking this down to forensics, see how fresh it really is." He entered the elevator. "Just get that APB, please."
Jim pushed the 'door close' and proceeded down to the lab. On the way down he fingered the blood smear with Sentinel touch, feeling the residual dampness that told him this blood wasn't even 12 hours old. Dammit, Blair, where are you? The elevator was taking forever to descend two floors. Jim tried to think of any other reason why there would be fresh blood on Blair's pack. Other reasons for Blair not coming home, not calling him. There were none. His friend could be a little flighty. He could be an emotional roller coaster at times. But no matter what he was, he was not irresponsible. He would have called. Finally the elevator stopped and he pushed his way through the doors, walking down the short hallway to the lab. He quickly searched for a technician.
"Julie, I need your help with something." He found who he was looking for and set the pack on a counter. "See this, the blood right here?"
Julie put her glasses back on and took a close look at the bag. "Yep, I see it." She looked back up at Jim. "What do you need?"
"I need to know how fresh it is, and make sure it's human." he replied.
"That's it? Just how fresh and what species?" Julie sounded surprised.
Jim furrowed his brow in frustration. "I think it might be Blair's, he's missing." "Oh my God." Julie replied, picking up the bag and walking over to her equipment. "What happened?"
"I don't know." Jim replied, following her. "He didn't come home last night, and they towed his car in this morning, with the pack and my cell phone inside."
Julie stopped what she was doing and looked up. "You know Jim, Blair IS a grown up. Are you sure there's something to worry about here?"
"Can you just check the blood, please?"
"Okay, give me a couple of minutes." Julie replied, returning to her work.
Jim turned to pace the small room, anxiously waiting, and wondered what he expected to find. So what if the blood was human, and fresh? He had no idea Blair's blood type. He was pretty sure the University wouldn't know either, unless Blair had attended a blood drive. He could check with DMV, see if he was an organ donor, maybe they would have that. Jim rubbed tired eyes, reluctant to admit to himself just how little he knew his housemate.
It was always Blair doing the asking. Blair wanting to know facts about Jim and his life. Hell, Blair even knew his PIN number. And he knew next to nothing about Blair. Not that the kid had ever volunteered any information. Opinions yes, but...
"Well, I can tell you it's about 6 or 10 hours old." Julie announced. "And it's definitely human."
Jim nodded, "Anything else?"
"Well, sure. I can type it for you, what's Blair's blood type?"
Jim opened his mouth to answer and heard his named called out. He turned to find Jenkins standing at the entrance to the lab, a concerned look on his face.
"Mike, what is it?" Jim's own blood ran ice cold. Oh God, here it comes.
"Jim, Simon wants us both in his office. He said it was urgent." Mike Jenkins turned back toward the hallway as Jim joined him. "He wouldn't say what, but to get you and get up there now."
Jim nodded. "Stairs." he said, leading the way past the elevator. They both took the steps two at a time. "Any ideas? Is this about Blair?"
Jenkins shook his head, "Blair? No, I don't know. He just said hurry."
They pushed through the doors and walked quickly towards Simon's office. Jim's heart was pounding, but he knew it wasn't from the run up two flights. During the climb, Jim had briefly wondered what he would do, who would guide him if Blair was gone? Then realizing the selfishness of that thought made him more angry.
As they entered the office, both men took note of the look on Simon's face.
"What's wrong, Simon?" Jim asked, bracing himself.
He hung up the phone then waved towards the television set beside his desk. "A messenger brought this in, just after you went downstairs." His voice was shaking, Jim thought. "I just called the Chief, and the FBI."
Jim raised his eyebrows, beginning to feel annoyed with the delay. "What's going on?"
"They've got Darryl." He sat down hard in his chair. "And your wife, Mike."
"What?!" Jenkins exclaimed. "Who does? Who has them?"
Simon reached for the remote control and pressed 'play'. "That's not all." he said.
Jim watched as the tape began. It was out of focus at first and shaking, but then it focused, and Jim focused. "Oh my God." He could see Darryl, Sara Jenkins, and Blair. Each one obviously tied up, sitting on the floor behind the man who stepped in front of the camera.
"Gentlemen." the man began, "My brother Cliff, and my cousin Bob, that'd be him holdin' the camera there, we've got a proposition for you. Actually it'd be more of a trade, I guess."
They saw a second man enter the picture, Jim noticed a large knife in his belt. "It's simple, folks." he said. "We've got someone you want, you've got someone we want."
The man moved and the camera changed focus. Fear gripped him as he watched the second man, with the knife, approach Blair. He grabbed him by the shoulders and heaved him up, slamming him into the wall. As the camera man moved forward, Jim strained to get a closer look at the captives. Blair was bleeding from a cut across his jaw, and there was dried blood covering a gash above his right eye. A knot formed in Jim's stomach as the man who had lifted him up pulled the knife back out of his belt. God, no!
"You release our brother, Samuel Jackson...we release your friends."
Jim started, leaning forward as the knife was brought up against Blair's throat. "You don't release our brother..."
The knife flashed, and Jim held his breath, willing the blade not to move, not to slice across his friend's throat.
Suddenly the knife did move, and Jim heard Blair cry out as the blade cut through not his throat, but his shoulder. He clenched his jaw, feeling helpless with anger, as he watched Blair's attacker shove him back down to the floor.
"I think you get the picture." Frankie continued. "We trade these three, for our brother. 10pm tonight. We'll tell you where next time. Oh, and, if we even smell the Feds, you won't find their bodies for months."
Simon turned off the video.