Silver Cloud, Dark Lining
Kandace Klumper

Chapter One

March 15, Monday

Blair Sandburg, doctoral student in Anthropology, police observer, and Sentinel's Guide, unlocked and entered the loft. Juggling a grocery sack and a handful of mail, he tossed his keys in the basket, gently kicked the door shut and placed his burden on the counter. Quickly shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it on a hook by the door, he picked up the mail and carried it to the table. On top of the stack was an official looking letter from Rainier University, where he was a teaching fellow and student. Ripping open the envelope and pulling out the paper, he quickly scanned the words. Yes! He bounced on his toes as his face lit with a grin. One of his ever-important grants had been approved. Blair set the letter down and picked up the stack of mail again, beginning to sort it into two piles. Those addressed to his loftmate and partner, Jim Ellison, police detective and Sentinel of the Great City, he put in one pile, his went in the other. Bill. Bill. Bill. Dept. of Anthropology, Rainier. He stopped to open this one as well. Another grant approval. The grad student bounced once again.

He continued through the stack. Junk. Junk. Junk. Bill. Bank statement. Junk. Bill. Hello? What's this? Blair looked at the small, white disk mailer with curiosity. It was addressed to Jim. That was strange. Jim left most of the computer work to him. With a lingering glance at the cardboard mailer, Blair returned to the kitchen, put the groceries away and began to work on supper.

About an hour later Blair heard the key in the lock. He looked up as Jim came in. "Hey, Jim," he greeted as the other man tossed his keys in the basket.

"Hey, Chief," was the affable response. "Smells good. Is that salmon?"

"Uh-huh. It's a salmon puff."

"Is that healthy, Chief?"

Blair grinned. "It's certainly healthier than Mr. Tube Steak or Wonder Burger." Jim smiled as he hung up his jacket. "It should be ready in about ten minutes." Blair got a single nod in answer, as the larger man moved to the table.

"What's this?" Jim asked, holding up the disk mailer.

Blair shrugged. "I don't know. It came in the mail." Curious about the package himself, he left the kitchen and came to stand across from his partner. Jim glanced up at him. "You sense anything?"

The Sentinel shook his head. "Although, whatever's in here isn't a disk. It doesn't feel right."

Blair watched as Jim opened the package and dumped the contents into his palm. A large coin fell out. Puzzled, the anthropologist looked up from the coin to Jim, hoping for some enlightenment. He was surprised to see the color drain from his friend's face, and horror reflected in Jim's blue eyes. "Jim?"

His voice broke the mini-zone or whatever it was. Abruptly Ellison dropped the coin as if scalded and headed toward the stairs.

"Jim?" he called again in concern. The other man didn't answer, just continued up the stairs to his room. Blair watched his friend disappear. With one last worried glance up to the bedroom loft, he looked down at the cause of Jim's distress. After a moment, he slipped his glasses on and picked up the coin. On the front, at the top the words "7TH SPECIAL FORCES GROUP (AIRBORNE)" were inscribed. Just below them were the words "1ST SPECIAL FORCES". At the bottom, in a stylized ribbon were the words, "ANYTHING ANYTIME ANYWHERE". In the center a large numeral seven was superimposed over what looked like a global satellite image of Central and South America. Three arrows pointed down on the leg of the numeral. Blair turned the coin over. At the top of the back, in a ribbon, were the words "DE OPPRESSO LIBER." To free the oppressed his mind automatically translated. At the bottom, in another ribbon, were the words "WITH HONOR". In the center, a beret with flash rested atop an open scroll engraved with the name "C. Hickman, SFC." In tiny detail on the flash was a crest with two crossed arrows and a knife bisecting them.

Was it the name, or the coin itself that sent Jim running? Blair's eyes strayed back to the lower inscription. It sounded like a vow. A shiver coursed down his spine as the words etched themselves in his mind. There were probably no better words to describe how his friend conducted his life.

The oven timer dinged, startling him out of his thoughts. Casting another glance up at the bedroom loft, Blair went back to the kitchen. He turned the oven off and opened the oven door slightly so the meal would stay warm for a while. Quietly he finished up the dinner salads he'd been fixing when his partner came home, and set the table. When this activity failed to produce his partner, Blair sighed.

Gazing around the kitchen, he decided everything looked in order. The oven was off. The burners were off. Satisfied, Blair glanced up at the loft again. Pursing his lips as he considered his next move, he decided he'd left Jim alone long enough. He took a deep, calming breath, let it out slowly, and headed toward the stairs.

He ascended them quietly. When his head drew even with the railing, he looked for his partner. He spotted him sitting on the edge of his bed, forearms on knees, gazing intently at something he held in his hands. Blair let out the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, and climbed up the last few steps. "Jim? You okay?" he murmured. He was relieved when he got a slight nod. The Sentinel hadn't zoned at least.

Still moving quietly, Blair crossed the intervening space to the bed, and cautiously sat down beside his friend. He looked at what Jim was holding, not surprised to see it was a coin. Tentatively, he held out his hand, mutely asking permission. After a moment, Jim sighed deeply, and placed the coin in his palm. Blair flashed him an encouraging smile, but the older man was now staring at the floor. He accepted that as he reached for the glasses in his pocket. Once he had them on, he studied the object in his hand. It seemed identical to the one still on their dining room table. He flipped it over. The name engraved on the scroll was "J. Ellison, CPT." He raised his head to look at Jim, and found the other man's focus back on the coin. Jim raised his eyes to meet Blair's. A small, wry smile greeted his questioning gaze.

"Practically every Special Forces unit has a group coin. It's looked at as a way to check and maintain Esprit de Corps. Every soldier carries his with him at all times." Jim chuckled in sad amusement. "If he's caught without it when a coin check is called, he gets to buy a round of drinks for everyone. That's the modern usage." He gently retrieved the coin from Blair's hands.

Blair watched for a moment while his partner fingered the coin, his thoughts obviously a long way away. He laid a hand on Jim's shoulder, squeezing gently. "This is bringing up some stuff, isn't it?" And the anniversary of the crash was yesterday. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Jim swallowed. "Yeah."

Softly. "Will you explain it to me?"

"Explain what?"

"The coin, man. Will you explain what's on it?"

Now Jim's lips twitched, and Blair smiled hopefully. Jim pointed to the inscription on the front. "This is the unit designation. The Seventh Special Forces Group handles missions to Central and South America. Mainly covert. Anti-terrorism, enemy interdiction, native forces training, aiding and protecting indigenous peoples."

"Like what you were doing with the Chopec?" Blair interrupted, amazed. This was the most information he'd ever gotten out of Jim regarding his Army career.

Jim's jaw clenched, and he feared his partner was going to clam up. To his relief, the jaw relaxed, and Jim nodded. "Yeah. We were sent in to protect the Chopec from enemy activities in the area."

Silence fell for a moment, then Jim seemed to shake himself and continued with the explanation. "The Seventh is part of the First Special Forces Division. The number seven over Central and South America symbolizes our sphere of operations and the importance the Seventh has down there. 'Anytime. Anything. Anywhere.' is our group motto. It simply means we're ready anytime to do anything and go anywhere."

"Pretty self-explanatory, huh?" Blair quipped.

Jim grunted in agreement, flipping the coin over. "'De Oppresso Liber'--To Free the Oppressed, is the motto of Special Forces. You can't tell it on the coin, but our beret flash is red with no embellishing. The crest on the flash is the crest of Special Forces. The crossed arrows symbolize the SF's role in unconventional warfare. The knife, used by the American Indian, symbolizes the qualities of an SF soldier--straight, true, silent, and deadly. There's a stylized ribbon that frames it, with the words 'De Oppresso Liber' at the bottom." Jim stopped, staring at the center of the coin. Just when Blair thought to press him, he continued, "The scroll is for the name or specialty of the individual who owns it. 'WITH HONOR' is kind of a personal motto. Kind of an individual reminder."

Blair chuckled softly.

Jim raised an eyebrow questioningly.

"I was thinking downstairs that there were probably no two words that better described how you conduct yourself."

Ellison stiffened for a moment, and Blair wondered what he'd said wrong. Finally, Jim shrugged, nodding acceptance. "There are some who might argue that with you, professor. But I try."

"You do a damn fine job of it, too," Blair said adamantly, determined to make his partner see his self-worth.

Jim's lips twitched, but he didn't quite smile.

"Who's C. Hickman?" When he saw the pain and guilt flash across Jim's face, Blair was sorry he'd asked. He was preparing to apologize, when his friend spoke again.

"Charlie Hickman, Sergeant First Class," came the whispered answer. "He was my communications officer."

Blair inhaled sharply, immediately picking up on what Jim hadn't said. "Peru?"

Jim nodded.

"Oh, man," Blair said contritely, squeezing Jim's shoulder a little tighter. I knew it couldn't be a coincidence.

There was silence for several heartbeats. Finally, Jim raised a hand to cup Blair's neck. "I'm hungry, Chief. Dinner ready?"

Blair grinned, appreciating his partner's effort. "Yeah, Jim. Dinner's ready. Let's eat."

Downstairs, the anthropologist set the food on the table while the detective got them each a beer. They sat down to eat. Blair watched in amusement as Jim gave the salmon the scent test, then cautiously took a bite. This was something his Sentinel always did when he introduced a new recipe. It had been a long time since he'd fixed anything the other man couldn't handle, but he always took the precaution nevertheless. Blair wasn't offended. With his friend's hyper-senses it was always better to be extra cautious with a new food than to regret it later.

"This is pretty good, Chief. Something new to add to the collection," Jim said with a genuine smile.

"Good. I'm glad you like it." Their conversation was light and sporadic, interspersed with companionable silences. At one point, Sandburg's curiosity won out and he asked, "So, how'd that end up here? Any idea?"

"No. The coins would have been placed with their personal effects once the bodies were retrieved." Jim nodded toward the coin on the other end of the table. "That should have gone to Hickman's family."

"Maybe somebody found it, and sent it to you, figuring you could get it back to Hickman's family?" Blair ventured, though he wasn't convinced.

"Whoever sent this must know about my last mission to Peru. Know about what happened. Know that Hickman was one of my men. Know yesterday was the anniversary of the crash."

Blair grimaced at this observation, having hoped Jim wouldn't remember the date. He should have known better. "Jim, I know about your last mission to Peru, remember? Your story was in "News Update" after they rescued you. The article named the men who had died."

The older man nodded, swallowing. "Yeah, but after ten plus years, do you remember their names?" he asked thickly.

"Point," Blair admitted. "Oh, hey, two of my grants have been approved. I received the letters today."

"That's great, Chief." Jim gratefully accepted the change to a lighter topic. "Does that mean you'll be buying the groceries for a while?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Funny, man. You are so not funny."

Ellison chuckled, finishing off his beer.