The Devil You Know: Part 6

Jim flipped his cell phone open. Okay, so he'd already called the loft four times today; he might as well let Blair and Steve know he was on his way home. From what neither of them had said, he knew they weren't getting along. Connelly would be glad to get out of there, and Blair would be just as glad to get rid of him.

His own voice came across on the answering machine. Damn! Jim flipped the light on, and floored the accelerator, weaving through traffic like a madman, narrowly missing half a dozen civilian vehicles. If Simon found out about this, he'd be in it, but he didn't care, not now. Dammit, he should've known one uniform wouldn't be enough. It wouldn't be enough to stop him, why had he thought it would stop another Sentinel?

The truck screeched to a halt in front of the apartment building. Jim leaped out and through the door. Gun drawn, he crept up the stairs, trying to focus as Blair had taught him, to extend his hearing as far as the loft. There was nothing, no sound at all. The door was open. He could see Connelly lying just beyond, hear his heartbeat, his breathing. Nothing else. There was no one else in the loft. No one alive.

Not-quite trusting, Jim kicked the door open all the way, and flattened himself against the wall. Nothing happened. He surveyed the room before entering, following procedure despite what his senses told him. There was coffee all over the kitchen floor, the coffeepot and a mug smashed. Coffee footprints led toward the back door: two sets, one small--Blair's--the other larger, about his own size. They didn't get as far as the door. About six feet away, they jumbled together, then the larger prints went back, fading as the coffee dried. There was no sign of the smaller prints.

Jim searched the rest of the loft because he had to, because he had to make absolutely sure that Blair's--that Blair wasn't here. He came out of Blair's room, and black streaked across his vision. He blinked, and shook his head. God, don't let it happen. Don't let his senses go out on him now, when Blair needed him. He had to find the kid before his nightmares came true. But how? Where could he look? This guy could have taken Blair anywhere, even out of Cascade. Sentinel abilities were useless in a situation like this. Dammit, what was he supposed to do?

Black again, the gleam of a sleek coat, the flash of a golden eye. Then it was gone. He waited, but it didn't reappear.

"Listen," Jim said aloud. "Listen, I did what you wanted. I made the choice, I took that step. I'm going on with this thing. But I can't do it alone. I need a Guide. I need Blair Sandburg. Help me find him." Nothing. "If he dies, this is over. You hear me? Whatever you want--I won't do it anymore! Damn you, help me!"

A black tail disappeared through the door. Connelly stirred, moaning. Jim helped him to sit up. "You okay, Steve?"

"Yeah." He rubbed the back of his head. "I mean, yes, sir."

"What happened?"

Connelly thought about it, and frowned. "I think maybe I got hit harder than I thought, sir."

"Just tell me, Connelly."

"It--it was you, sir. You came in, and Sandburg freaked. He said it wasn't you. Then something hit me. That's all I remember. Sorry, sir."

"Get to the phone. Call Captain Banks and tell him what happened. Tell him the double's got Sandburg."

"Yes, sir. Where are you going, sir?"

Jim glanced into the hall. The panther paced, tail switching impatiently. "I'm--following a hunch. Tell the Captain I'll call him if it pans out."





Blair woke with a deep breath, and wished he hadn't. He coughed, and his ribs knifed him, and his throat felt like someone had lit a torch in it.

"Here," a familiar voice said. Jim's voice. "Water."

He felt a plastic cup against his lips, and obediently opened his mouth. Water slid down his throat, soothing some of the burn. Some of it spilled down his chin, and he started to wipe it off, but pain shot through his arms when he tried to move, pain that reached to his cracked ribs and squeezed the air from his lungs.

"Take it easy, Chief."

Jim wiped the water from his face. His fingers trailed over Blair's lips. No! Blair jerked his head aside and opened his eyes, stared into a blue gaze lighter than his own, one he knew and didn't know. Fear twisted inside him.

"Good boy," the double said. "Just in time."

"For what?" Blair croaked, barely audible to anyone but a Sentinel.

Jim's lips stretched in a smile. "To die."

Oh God. Blair looked around him, the movement straining muscles in his neck. He was naked; even the bandage around his ribs was gone. His arms were stretched overhead, tied with some kind of cord that looped over a beam in the ceiling. His feet weren't touching the floor. He couldn't feel his hands, but the least movement sent red-hot wires through his arms directly to his ribs, making it hard to breathe. He couldn't tell where they were. It was just an empty room, with a low ceiling and a wooden floor. He could see stairs at one end, going down. An attic, maybe?

The double stood right in front of him, his eyes on a level with Blair's. "Seen enough, Chief? I'd give you a tour, but there isn't time."

Anger mixed with the fear. "Stop calling me that! I know you're not Jim Ellison. Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

"Questions. Always questions." The double spread his fingers on Blair's chest and pushed. Blair swung back and forth, clenching his jaw against the pain, fighting to breathe, until the double gripped his waist and jerked him to a stop. He couldn't suppress a cry, and the double smiled. "Your curiosity got you into this, Chief. Are you sure you want the answers?"

He had to stall, give Jim time to find him. If Jim could find him. God, please let Jim find him. The panther's eyes gave him courage. Are you afraid of a wizard with no power?

"What's the matter?" Blair sneered. "Afraid to tell me?"

Fingers knotted in his hair and yanked his head back. Jim's face pushed close to his. "Attitude? From the boy whose ass I fucked four days ago?" Jim's features melted, and Blair stared at his own face, heard his own voice begging. "Don't! Please, Jim." Jim's eyes bored into his again. "Where was your attitude then, Chief?"

Blair's voice was a whisper. "You're a shapeshifter."

"Right the first time." The double let go of his hair and patted his cheek. "I knew you were a smart boy."

"But--how?"

"There's a lot you don't know about Sentinels, Chief." The double smiled. "Guess you never will."

The pat turned into a caress. Blair tried to twist away, but he couldn't escape the hand on his face. The double traced his jaw, ran a thumb over his lips.

"Pretty boy," the double whispered. "I wanted to keep you alive. I tried, but you wouldn't follow the plan."

Blair swallowed bile. He was not going to be sick in front of this psycho. "What plan?"

"My plan. You were supposed to leave, abandon Ellison and your research."

"Why?"

"Let's just say I don't like competition. Or notoriety."

"Competition? You mean Jim? This whole thing is about him? It has nothing to do with me?"

"It has everything to do with you, boy. Without you as his Guide, Ellison's nothing. Easily taken care of."

"So you're trying to eliminate every other Sentinel in the world?"

"Not all of them. Whatever's left in the jungle--they can have. But this is mine."

"This? How big is your territory? Cascade? All of Washington? Just how much do you think is yours?"

The double's hand crushed Blair's jaw. "I don't 'think' it's mine, boy. It is mine. All of it. 'From sea to shining sea.' It's all my hunting ground. And you and your kind are my prey."

The second it came out of his mouth, he knew he was going to regret it. "You are one sick bastard, you know that?"

A fist smashed across his face, set him swinging. He couldn't breathe. Blood filled his mouth, and he spat it out, straining to draw air into his lungs. His vision went black, but he fought to stay conscious, terrified of what would happen if he didn't. Jim, God, Jim, hurry up. Please.

The swinging stopped. When Blair's vision cleared, the double had moved. He stood behind a camcorder mounted on a tripod, fiddling with something.

"What are you doing?"

"Oh, come on, now, Chief, that's obvious," the double replied. "I'm going to record your death."

"Why?"

He grinned. "I knew you'd ask. Curious right to the end. It's so the whole world will know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you were murdered by Lieutenant James Ellison of the Cascade PD."

Blair shook his head. "They won't believe it. They know you're not Jim."

"Who knows? Banks? Ellison himself? Who'll believe the murderer and his long-time friend when they've seen the tape? No one. No, once they've seen this, seen with their own eyes the way Ellison butchered you, the public will want his head. And they'll get it. Believe me."

There was a small table next to the tripod, covered by a white cloth. Knives of various sizes were laid out neatly on the cloth, along with other instruments Blair didn't want to think about. The double picked up the biggest knife, its blade a foot long, reflecting the light of the bare bulbs overhead. Taking a red scarf from his pocket, he walked toward Blair, twisting it into a narrow rope.

"I'm afraid this is going to make it harder to breathe, Chief, but I can't have you telling people I'm not the real thing, can I? I'll take it off later, when you can't do anything but scream."

The blade slashed across his throat, and he saw his own blood spatter the Ogre-King's face. Stall, Blair, stall. You're supposed to be good at talking, say something before he gets that gag on.

"Wait!"

The double paused, the same half-smile on his face that Jim used when the older man was humoring him. "What is it, Chief?"

Show me your true face. Blair bit his lip. Let this work. Please let this work. "Let me see your face. Your real face."

"Why?"

This called for a shrug, but he couldn't manage that. "Curious right to the end. Come on, who am I going to tell?"

The double studied him for a minute, then shook his head. "Sorry." He lifted the gag toward Blair's mouth.

"Fine," Blair said hastily. "Forget it. I've already seen it anyway."

The double laughed. "Sure you have, Chief."

The gag touched his face. He twisted away from it. "Brown-eyes-black-hair-in-a-ponytail," he said in a rush. "Sound familiar?"

The gag dropped to the floor. Metal gleamed, and the knife pricked Blair's throat. "Who told you?" the double demanded. "Who?"

Blair tried not to swallow. "The panther showed me."

The double looked around in alarm. The knife turned, the edge of the blade slicing into Blair's skin. "When?"

Blood trickled down his neck. "Just before you showed up."

"No! No, dammit! He can't be here!" The blade cut deeper. "You're lying!"

"I'm not! I swear! How else would I know what you look like?"

The pressure of the knife eased. Blair remembered how to breathe. The double walked away from him, and came back, wearing his own face. His eyes dark with the joy of death. Oh shit. Oh no. Jim, please--

"This changes things," the double said. "No time to play now, Chief."

The knife flashed toward his throat. Blair closed his eyes.

"Hold it!"

"Jim!"

Jim stood on the top step, gun out, aimed at the double. The double shook his head.

"Impossible. I didn't hear you coming."

"I had help," Jim said. "Drop the knife. Now."

The double ducked behind Blair. One arm wrapped around his waist, the other pressed the knife to his throat. "I don't think so, Ellison. You wouldn't want to lose your little Guide here, would you? Drop your gun and kick it over here." Jim hesitated. The knife bit, and Blair tried not to flinch. "He's already bleeding, Ellison. Do you want to watch him die?"

"Jim, no--"

Jim's gun hit the floor. He moved his foot, and Blair heard the gun scrape across the boards. No. God, no.

"Come up here," the double ordered.

Jim stepped off the stairs, moving closer.

"That's far enough."

Jim stopped. "Let him go. You've got no place to run."

"Let him go?" the double echoed. "So you can have him? Of course, you've never really 'had' him, have you, Ellison? Living with him all these months, and you never once fucked his tight little ass. I had to do it for you."

Blair closed his eyes. Oh God. Oh God, just let him die, right now, so he'd never have to face Jim again.

"Let him go!"

"Did he tell you all about it, Ellison? How I fucked him, and he thought it was you? Did it make you jealous? Or did it give you a hard-on just thinking about it? Too bad you missed your chance."

A muscle twitched in Jim's jaw, the only visible sign of his anger. "Backup'll be here in a minute. You can't get away."

The double laughed. "Sure I can, Ellison. They'll think I'm you."

Jim shook his head. "Not without Blair, they won't. You'd better take him with you."

"Jim," Blair gasped. "What are you doing?"

"He's trying to save your life," the double stage-whispered. "Won't work, though. I can't let you or your guide live, Ellison. Boy goes first. Say good-bye."

Darkness leaped from the shadows. Blair glimpsed white claws, white fangs in a red mouth. The double shrieked, and fell back, releasing his hold on Blair. The knife flew from his hand, skittered across the floor. Blair craned his neck, but he couldn't see the double or the panther. Something heavy slammed into his legs, and his body swung forward until he thought his arms had been torn from their sockets. Pain crushed his ribs, and he cried out.

The double dove past him, going for the knife. Jim lunged to stop him, caught his leg, and dragged him back, but he was too late. The double twisted up and landed a punch on Jim's jaw. Jim rocked back, and the double jumped him. The knife plunged toward Jim's chest. Jim grabbed his wrist, straining to keep the blade away. They rolled, struggling for control of the knife, hit the stairs together and went over, crashing down to the level below.

Blair swung, helpless, fighting to breathe, to stay conscious. His vision kept going in and out, and his heart was hammering so hard that it hurt. He could hear the sounds of fighting below, but he couldn't see anything. Jim would win. Jim had to win. God, please, let Jim win.

A cry chilled him. Jim. Oh God, it was Jim. There was nothing else, no sound but his own shaky breathing. Then footsteps on the stairs. Blair fixed his gaze on the stairs, praying. Jim. Jim. Oh please, it had to be Jim.

Jim's head came into view. He climbed the last stairs, bloody knife in hand, and stepped out onto the floor. Blair nearly fainted with relief.

"It's okay, Blair," Jim said. "It's me. The real me. Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he managed, ashamed of the way his voice shook. "Just get me down, okay?"

"You got it."

Jim swung the knife like a machete, slicing through the cord. Blair dropped, but Jim caught him, steadying him until he could stand on his own. Jim cut the cords that bound Blair's hands, and stuck the knife into his belt. Blair's arms fell to his sides. It hurt like hell, but he was determined not to make a sound. Tingling feeling began to return to his hands, and he knew that would hurt in a minute, too. At least it was easier to breathe.

Jim grabbed one of his hands and started rubbing it, trying to restore the circulation faster. Fear pulsed through him, and Blair almost pulled his hand away, but he forced himself to leave it in Jim's grasp, to let him help. Jim was his friend. Jim had just saved his life.

"Thanks for coming, man. I was--I was afraid you wouldn't make it."

Jim shook his head. "You kids today. No faith."

"Um, what about the--the other guy?"

"He won't be bothering us anymore."

"You killed him?"

Jim glanced up. "You got a problem with that?"

"No."

"Good." Jim let go of his hand, and caught the other one, giving it the same treatment. "He was right about one thing, though."

"What?"

Jim smiled. "Fucking you, Chief. I do get a hard-on just thinking about it."

Oh my God. Oh my God, no! Blair wrenched his hand out of the bigger man's grip, backing away. He stepped on something hard, and fell. Jim's gun! Blair scrabbled for it, snatched it up in shaking hands that could barely feel. He rose to his knees, trying to keep the gun steady.

"What'd you do to Jim?"

"Ellison's dead."

"No!"

The double slid the knife from his belt. "Come on, now, Chief, you don't have to die. You can be my Guide."

"Get away from me! I'll kill you, you son of a bitch!"

"You? Little Blair Sandburg, boy-anthropologist? You couldn't kill anyone. Give me the gun, Chief, before I have to hurt you."

Blair shook his head. The double lunged at him. Blair threw himself back, his finger squeezing the trigger. The gun went off. The double flew back, and slammed to the floor. Blair dragged himself up to sit with his back against the wall, watching him, the gun still in his hands. The double didn't move.

"Blair?"

Jim came up the stairs, one hand clamped to his side. His shirt was soaked with blood. Blair watched him come, afraid to speak, afraid he'd somehow been wrong, that he'd been out of his head and shot the real Jim, and this man was the double.

"Blair, are you okay? Dammit, Sandburg, answer me!"

"I shot him." Blair couldn't think. "He said you were dead, and I shot him."

Jim knelt, and put a bloody hand to the man's neck. "He's alive. Backup's here, with an ambulance. You didn't kill him, Blair. You did what you had to do, to stop him. If you hadn't, he would've killed us both."

Jim held out his hand. "You can let go of the gun, now."

Blair just stared at him, afraid.

"It's okay, Blair. I'm the real thing. Look." Jim backed up, and pulled up the unconscious man's head. It wore the face he'd seen in his dream, the face the panther had shown him. "He can't hold it when he's unconscious. You shot the right man, Blair. It's over. He can't hurt you anymore." Jim dropped the double's head, and moved toward Blair, hand outstretched. "Come on, Blair, give me the gun."

Blair couldn't move. Jim reached out and took the gun from his hands. A massive shudder shook Blair's body, then turned to trembling that wouldn't stop. His teeth chattered, and he was afraid he'd be sick, and he didn't want to do that, not here, not in front of Jim. His eyes closed, and he sank back against the wall, holding his ribs. He was so cold, and he hurt so much. He felt a touch, and stiffened, but he was too tired to fight anymore, too tired even to open his eyes. Arms went around him and pulled him away from the wall, against a body that was warm and solid. He feared pain, but none came. The arms held him, warming him, and fear dissolved. Blair relaxed, feeling safe for the first time in what seemed like years.

"It's okay, kid," a voice said softly. "It's okay."

He was vaguely aware of other people, and movement. The arms wrapped a blanket around him, but he didn't know where it had come from. After a while, the shaking stopped, and the arms let him go. Blair roused enough to open his eyes, looked around for Jim, and found him close.

"Jim. You're hurt, man. You need a doctor."

"I'm fine, Blair."

"But you're bleeding."

"Not much. A couple stitches will take care of it. There'll be another ambulance here in a minute, for us."

"What happened to the first one?" An image flickered in his mind, of the double lying unmoving on the floor. "Oh."

"You did good, kid. You saved both our lives."

"Who, me? Blair Sandburg, boy-anthropologist?"

"Nope. Blair Sandburg, my partner."

Blair digested this for a moment. "So, you could say I'm an invaluable asset to the department, huh?"

Muscles twitched while Jim worked to keep a straight face. "Sandburg."

"Yeah, Jim?"

"Don't push it."

 

End Part 6

Part 7