"What is it Janice? I told you I was …"
"Theodore Samuel Timberlake?"
Dean Timberlake looked up in surprise when he heard the unfamiliar voice. His eyes were first drawn to the two uniformed officers taking up positions to either side of his office door but he quickly focused on the man standing directly in front of his desk holding up an FBI badge. "Wha… what is this?" Breaking out in a cold sweat, Timberlake's mind began to race as a feeling of panic set in.
"Are you Theodore Samuel Timberlake; the dean of Thornton School for Gifted Guides?"
"I… yes, but…."
"Sir, you're under arrest."
"What?! On what charge?!"
"Aiding and abetting an escaped prisoner, a knowing accomplice to the kidnapping of one Ezra P. Standish and falsifying medical documents in regards to one Ella Gaines. Officer Dickson, please read him his rights."
"Originally Maude Standish Hampton was just looking for a place that she could leave Ezra indefinitely; she wasn't planning on using him as a surrogate Guide in her place." David sat forward in his chair at the small cafe table located outside the school cafeteria. The bright, noon-day sun kept the temperature mild even with the slight breeze that rustled through the autumn leaves. To his right was his Sentinel and across from them sat Jason and Henry. At the center of the table there was another one of Ezra's white-noise generators insuring that their conversation remained private. "Thornton was one of Hampton's investments and it was brought to Maude's attention because it was hemorrhaging money and in danger of closing. Timberlake was desperate to keep his job and willing to do just about anything to support his lavish lifestyle. Toss in a pair of Senior Primes that had… issues, and it became the perfect set up. "
"So he knew about her plans as Ella Gaines and was her backup in case something went wrong?" Jason frowned in dismay. He hated the fact that he and Henry had been working for someone like that even if it would have been almost impossible for them to know.
"Exactly. He arranged the transfer to Sheffield Haven in which Hampton was also a major investor. And he was also able to provide Maude with daily updates on Ezra's progress and activities."
Henry was leaned back in his chair, slowing picking away at the edge of his foam coffee cup as he listened to David's explanation. "So, you've probably got employees there at the hospital that are on her private payroll as well."
"Oh believe me, there has been a large scale investigation launched and quite a few supporters are now crying either blackmail or total ignorance. Not that that's going to save them." Gary smiled with wicked delight as he remembered some of the more prominent names he'd seen on the subpoenas. "Like rats leaving a sinking ship."
"Speaking of rats, you explained how she planned to use Ezra as a Guide in her place, but why was she trying to kidnap Blair as well?" Without looking, Jason reached over and rescued the abused cup from his partner's hands and placed it on the table. "How did he fit into all of this?"
David scratched self-consciously at a place on the back of his head. "Ah, that actually goes back to when I was hit by a ricochet in March."
"I remember that. Weren't you in a coma for a couple of weeks?"
"Thirteen days." The words were softly spoken but David had no problem hearing them or feeling the emotion behind them. He gave his Sentinel's wrist a quick squeeze as he explained what had happened.
"Right and I was completely offline. Not only that, but the stay in the hospital also interfered with my scent and my heartbeat. There was nothing there for Gary to set his baselines against. And he couldn't make even a very low level Working Bond with a substitute Guide so he kept slipping into Zones. Even though he had never actually done it before, Blair was able to force Gary and Carlene Fancher to Bond just enough to keep him stable without interfering with our Bond. And when I woke up and was strong enough to be off dampeners, he was able to go in and remove the temporary Bond without doing any damage."
"Didn't I also hear that Carlene's abilities increased? Isn't she now a Prime as well?"
"Yes, and Bonded to a Sentinel up in New York in the Lynx Clan."
Henry frowned as he suddenly made the connection. "So Maude was planning on using Blair to force a Bond between Ezra and Chris."
"Exactly. And if she knew about Blair's ability to force a Bond, she might have also heard about Carlene's increase in strength and could have been hoping to have her own abilities restored."
Both Sentinels shuddered at the thought of Ella Gaines/Maude Standish being a Guide and Gary pointed out, "So in a way, Blair did exactly what she wanted, it's just that Vin happened to get there first. That's why she tried to kill Vin. With him out of the Bond, it would have been just Chris and Ezra."
Jason snorted. "Totally ignoring the fact that Primes seldom outlive their Bond partners. Of course, Chris being an Alpha and Ezra a future Shaman, I guess they might have stood a chance."
David shook his head. "Maybe. But if she has succeeded, it is very possible that we would have lost both the only known Feral and Alpha Sentinels. And who knows how long it will be before others show up?"
There was no way to answer David's question. The thought that one, selfish, crazy, wanna-be Guide had almost caused such a horrible tragedy was the stuff that nightmares were made of. It was Henry that broke the moment of silence with, of all things, a laugh.
"No wonder that kid was such a terror with that tree branch. And here I thought I was losing my edge, being taken out by a scrawny-assed, street rat. And that probably explains how he could wreck holy havoc on those richey Guide brats."
"Which actually brings us to the real reason we wanted to talk with you today." David reached into the backpack sitting at his feet and brought out a thick manila folder. "I suppose by now you've figured out that this school will be closing down."
"Yeah, looks like we'll be out of work soon."
"Maybe. Thornton isn't the only for-profit school teaching outdated or 'politically correct' Sentinel and Guide information. Blair and Jim have been in touch with other Clans that have experienced similar issues with poorly regulated institutions."
"Similar issues?" Jason glanced up briefly from the stack of papers that was handed to him.
"Not kidnapping of course, but poorly trained Guides and Sentinels that misuse their abilities. Or gifted young people that allow themselves to be taken advantage of because they just don't know any better. So far, eleven other clans from across the country have agreed to form an Independent Review Clan. Each of the established Clans that choose to participate will contribute two or more Bonded pairs whose job will be to go into other territories to look for problems or serious issues that need to be addressed."
Henry looked skeptical as he flipped through lists of cities and schools. "And you think we could do something like that?"
Gary nodded. "Definitely. You've just had firsthand experience with what can happen when quality testing and training take a back seat to profit. You know what kind of warning signs to look for. And more importantly, you actually care. We think you're perfect for the job."
Jason looked at his Sentinel and gave a tentative smile. "Well, I've always liked to travel."
"Eh... I guess it would be better than sniffing for drugs at the airport."
David grinned at their new recruits. Oh, they might be hesitant to give a definite answer right now, but he knew they were the right ones for the job. Like Gary had said, they were perfect.
"Oh, and did I mention the cool uniforms?"
"That was Ellison's idea. Each Clan's representatives will have a distinctive uniform that they will wear while working. Everything is going to be above board and out in the open."
Jason shook his head doubtfully. "But, won't that make the students afraid to approach us? And tip off the guilty ones that have something to hide?"
"When criminals get scared, they tend to make mistakes. And research shows that statistically, those in need will seek you out as figures of authority and well, kind of like heroes to the rescue."
"Heroes? Do we get to wear capes?"
"No capes. But the uniforms will definitely be designed to appeal to younger people." David reached out to collect the white-noise generator and return it to his backpack. "Give it some careful thought before you agree. Not only will you be the Panther Clan's representatives in other territories, you'll also be in the media spotlight and constantly under close scrutiny for any slip ups."
"So, heroes with great big targets on our backs. Nice." Henry sighed and glanced over at his partner. They would definitely talk it over in private, but he could already tell by the gleam in his Guide's eyes that the question wasn't 'if' they wanted the job; it was more like 'when' could they start?
It felt like he'd been running for hours. His lungs were burning and sweat poured down his face, making his eyes burn and his vision blurry. Not that there was much to see; just an endless trail through a dark, indigo jungle. A jungle filled with angry snarls and growls and red, flashing eyes. He never saw the creatures that hounded him at every pounding foot fall but sometimes, he thought that he could feel a warm breath on the nape of his neck or a tug on the leg of his pants. Lester didn't know how he had gotten here or even where 'here' was, but he desperately wanted to leave. Would do anything to get back to the squalid jail cell where he'd gone to sleep while waiting for bail to be set.
Suddenly his foot caught on an exposed tree root and he fell sprawling onto the leaf covered ground. As he struggled to his knees, wheezing and gasping for air, he saw that he had arrived in a small clearing. At first it seemed completely empty, but then he spotted a large, gray wolf slowly emerging from the underbrush. It was followed closely by several others, all with glowing eyes and bared fangs.
"No. Please, no. Nononononononono!."
Lester climbed to his feet and held his hands outstretched as if to hold back the wild animals by will power alone.
The wolves circled closer, their snarls and growls growing louder.
"Help me! Please! Someone! Help!"
"What will you give to save your life?"
"Wha...?" Lester spun so fast to find the source of the commanding voice that he staggered and fell once more to his knees and cried out as his new position suddenly put him on eye level with the angry pack.
"Who's there? Where are you? Help me, please!"
"What will you give to save your life?"
"Anything! You can have anything you want."
An opening appeared in the circle of wolves and through it, Lester saw a gray haired man dressed in a Japanese style robe. His right hand gripped the hilt of a long sword; the blade shining brightly despite the gloom of the jungle.
"What will you give to save your life?"
Giddy with relief, Lester braced himself with his hands against the ground. "Everything. You can have everything I own, just please, help me."
Striding forward, the swordsman raised his blade high into the air. Lester lifted his head to follow the movement and realized too late that the strike was not aimed at the animals surrounding him. Screaming in horror, he collapsed to the ground, throwing his arms over his head in a futile attempt to shield himself from certain death.
"Hey! Hold it down in there, I'm trying to get some sleep."
Lester sat bolt upright, the scream dying on his lips. His heart still beat frantically in his chest and he was covered in a cold sweat. A shudder ran down his spine as he replayed the last moments of what must have been a dream. No, a nightmare. The worst he'd ever had. Even now he could feel the cold kiss of metal where it had come in contact with the back of his neck. Reaching up a trembling hand, Lester felt the nape of his neck and sucked in a breath of horror when he felt a warm, sticky line of blood.
"No. It was a … a dream. Just a … crazy dream."
A satiny whisper of movement drew his attention to the door of his cell and in the gloomy darkness he saw the figure of a man standing just beyond the bars. At his side stood a wolf with glowing, red eyes.
"You will need to find a new line of work."
Lester couldn't stop the cowardly whimper that escaped his lips or the wracking shivers of fear that coursed through his body. Burying his head in his arms, he curled up into a pitiful lump on his cot and sobbed in despair.
"Wow! Look at that!" JD pointed excitedly out the airport terminal window to the sleek jet that sat waiting just for them. "Man, whatever strings you pulled, they must have been spun out of gold."
Ellison gave a small shrug as he tried to downplay his accomplishment. "Let's just say they were happy to help the Panther Clan and leave it at that." No way was he going to let on that the jet actually belonged to one of his father's companies. He could well imagine the kind of questions and comments Larabee's men would be making if they learned that juicy bit of information.
"I can't wait to see the inside. How soon can we board? Does it have a theater system? It's got to have a galley. Hey, should I buy some snacks? Does anybody else want anything?"
"Yeah, the inside is pretty nice. About 30 minutes. Yes. Yes. If you want to but the galley is stocked with a pretty good selection.
"Sorry Buck, no stewardesses."
The self-proclaimed ladies man gave a disappointed sigh but his wandering gaze was quickly snagged by a young red-head making her way to the Starbucks counter. "Thirty minutes you said? I'll be back in twenty-five."
"I will leave your ass. That plane will take off on time, with or without you." Chris stood next to Ellison and while his words definitely held a growl of irritation, it was also pretty obvious that he was happy to be going home at last. At Nathan's insistence, Chris had allowed himself to be checked over one more time and except for the still painful wound on his shoulder blade, he was in excellent health. In fact, Nathan had been amazed at the improvement in his captain's blood pressure readings. Even without Sentinel enhanced vision, Nathan could see how more relaxed Chris was while waiting for the signal to board the plane.
At that moment, as if sensing the medic's thoughts, Chris made eye contact and gave a small nod. Recognizing his cue, Nathan gave Josiah a tug on a jacket sleeve and together the two of them walked over to where Vin and Ezra also stood looking out at the plane.
"Vin, how are you feeling?"
The young Sentinel looked up and gave a tentative smile and a small shrug. "Fine, I guess. Still a little nervous about flying; 'bout all them things you said to look out for."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to make you worry; I just thought it would be better if you knew what 'could' happen so you wouldn't be caught off guard."
Ezra turned to face Nathan and Josiah and made no attempt to hide his irritation. "I assure you that Vin will be fine. Honestly, you sounded exactly like one of those drug commercials on television where they list each and every possible side effect. By the time the commercial is over, the ailment sounds better than the cure."
Josiah laughed and patted the team medic on the shoulder. "TMI brother, TMI."
"Yes, well better safe than sorry. Speaking of which, here's that white-noise generator I promised."
Vin looked at the little box with curiosity as Nathan passed it over to Ezra. "Noise generator? How exactly is that supposed to help? Won't the plane be noisy enough?"
"Actually, judging by the make of that particular craft, I'm sure we will find the cabin well insulated." Ezra flipped a small switch on the side of the box and as he did so, Vin reacted with a jerk and put a hand up to his head.
"What is it doing. It feels like my ears need to pop."
"I'm afraid I cannot explain in great detail exactly how the electronics work, only that the machine registers the sound vibrations in the air around it and then emits a counter vibration that cancels out those sound waves. Close up like this you can still hear us just fine, but anyone trying to listen in to our conversation would have difficulty. Likewise, it will effect the sound waves coming in from other areas so those sounds are muffled to a certain extent." Ezra smiled and indicated a special sensor on the bottom of the generator. "This particular model is state-of-the-art. By holding it against my wrist, the sensor detects my heartbeat and creates a specific sound wave to mask it as well."
Vin tilted his head to one side to better focus his hearing on his Guide. He instinctively took Ezra's information as a challenge and began testing the abilities of the odd little machine.
Seeing the two boys occupied, Nathan looked over and once again met Chris' stare and gave him a quick nod to indicate that he was clear to have his conversation with Ellison and Sandburg.
Sandburg hunched his shoulders and stepped around so that his body was positioned between the two Sentinels and Nathan's small group.
"Buck was right again and I have to say, I would really love to run some test on this ability he has when it comes to recognizing women's..."
"So Maude Standish is not...?"
"Nope. Blood types don't match at all. Patrick Standish is actually the name of her second husband, but everything we've turned up so far shows that he never had a son and is not listed on Ezra's birth certificate."
"So who is?"
"Damn. Any other relatives?"
"Just through marriage so technically, none at all." Blair handed a thumb drive to Larabee. "You can pass this on to JD and he can look through it some more; maybe find something we missed. We'll of course keep the investigation open here. There is also information for you regarding Ezra's financial status. Of course most of the Standish/Hampton estate is going to be tied up in the court system for years but he does have a personal investment portfolio and some CDs that are his free and clear."
Chris looked thoughtful as he accepted the drive and the information. "So, what are we talking about here; enough for college?"
Blair laughed and bounced on his toes. "Oh, way more than what he's going to need for college. Let's just say that while Maude Standish might have been crazy, she was not stupid, especially when it came to finances. And she must have really cared for Ezra because financially, he is set."
"Hmph. Well, I guess that's at least one less worry off my plate."
"Still quite a feast though, isn't it?" Ellison grinned at the evil glare his comment garnered but at the firm nudge from his partner, he did his best to tone it down to a smirk.
"You're one to talk, some of this pile started out as yours."
"Hey, what can I say? I'm a generous kind of guy. At least I'm helping you out by hanging on to Lester. And we've got a strong lead on Hayden."
"So, uhm yeah, looks like it's about time for you guys to leave." For the first time Blair seemed a little hesitant and unsure of himself as he tucked a few strands of loose hair behind one ear. "Hopefully the flight will be uneventful and Vin and Ezra will settle in pretty quickly. Of course there will be some minor problems, like school and such but really I don't see..."
"Hey, I know man, you'll need time to get settled..."
"Vin's the only..."
Chris put two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle to call his Pack together.
"Just think of ..."
"Nope." Chris adjusted his sling then grabbed his duffel bag and headed for the door. Buck came jogging back from the coffee shop with a big grin on his face as he tucked a small piece of paper into his shirt pocket. JD tossed him his bag as they joined Nathan and Josiah. Vin picked up his backpack and after a brief exchange with Ezra, he hurried over to Blair and Jim.
"Hey, looks like it's time for us to leave. I just wanted to say bye and uh, thanks. For everything."
"You're welcome." Jim smiled and shook the teen's hand. "For everything. Here, this is from David and Gary."
Vin accepted the plastic bag and broke into a huge grin when he saw the contents. "Wow. There must be like a dozen different candy bars in here. Tell them I appreciate it. And I promise to keep the dials locked down."
"Just listen to your Guide and you'll be fine."
"Yeah, now there's a prime example of 'do as I say, not as I do'." Blair rolled his eyes as he handed Vin a couple of business cards. "Listen, if you need anything, anything at all, day or night, don't hesitate, OK? And whatever it is, if we can't fix it over the phone, we'll come to you. The same goes for Ezra."
"Thanks, I'll be sure and hang on to these." Vin shoved the cards in his jeans pocket and then paused and glanced over to his Guide who was waiting at the door. The two Sentinels suddenly laughed and Vin gave a small wave good-bye as he turned and hurried to catch up to the others.
"OK man, so, come on, share, what was the joke?"
"Joke? There wasn't a joke." Jim walked over to the windows to watch the young Sentinel and Guide board the plane.
Blair followed him but his attention was divided. "Alright, no joke but Ezra must have said something funny; what was it? Jim?"
The plane began taxiing to the runway and Jim waited until it was in line to take off before finally turning to his partner and throwing an arm around his shoulders. "Ezra just passed on a message from Chris. He said there was no point in a long good-bye since we'd probably show up on their doorstep before Christmas, invited or not."
"What is it with Sentinels and tests? Don't you want to know what your limits are? Aren't you the least bit interested in knowing how far you can go?"
"Sentinels don't need tests to know the answer to that question Chief." Jim smiled and his arm tightened for just moment as he gave Blair a one armed hug. "If our Guides need us, there are no limits and we will go as far as we need to."
"Wow, Jim. That's really..."
"Way over the top. You've been watching late night Samurai movies again, haven't you? I'm telling you man, just a couple of hours, that's all I need to... Jim? Jim! Wait up man! Jim!"