Chapter 5

Disaster

Sam's spine stiffened, and he saw the Sarge's posture change, even across the intervening distance.

"You selfish dog," Thomas snarled at Dougan.

"Wait, wait, Thomas, you were doing so well!" Sam cajoled. "Keep going buddy, keep showing mercy! Didn't it feel good? Aren't you glad you did it? Come on, buddy!"

"Sam, I want to see you. Face to face."

"All right, I'm coming." He began trotting toward the front of the building.

"Negative, Sam, I can't let you do that," Sergeant Parker broke in emphatically. "He's too unstable. This emotional whiplash he's experiencing might throw him further off the wrong end than he was to begin with!"

Sam temporarily switched over to channel one, so that he could both hear and speak to the team without being overheard by Thomas. "I think I can help him, Sarge! We have a connection!"

"And he's got C4."

"You let Ed and Jules go in."

"Out of his line of sight. We're not even sure if he knows they're there."

By this time Sam had reached the front left corner of the building, where Sarge already stood. "Please, Sarge, didn't you see what was happening? It was fantastic!"

"Yes, and then he got ugly again. I don't like it, Sam. I'm afraid he's not impressed with the results he got, and this Dougan is going to take the brunt of it. And you might, too."

"Sam, he's wondering why he can't hear you," Ed whispered.

Sam switched channels. "I'm sorry, Thomas, I just had to talk things over with my boss. He's a little worried because your mood seems a little less positive towards Mr. Dougan. He's concerned that it might not be safe for me to go in there."

"Ah, so that's how it is. You don't trust me. After all the nice stuff you said, and after I did all of your therapy, you still don't trust me."

"Hey, we just got a little concerned because you got mad at Dougan. Let him go, and I'm sure we'll be fine."

"You're sure of that, are you?"

"Yes, I am. Come on, I was listening to you while you were letting the others go. I could tell you were starting to loosen up with it, starting to feel good about it. Weren't you?"

"Yeah, yeah. I really was. But when it came time to let Dougan go, and I felt angry with him, I knew I hadn't really changed. I wanted to kill him."

"No, buddy, you have changed. This is just a deeper point of decision, that's all. Make the right decision here, and it will go deeper for your good than all of the others put together."

"You think so?"

"I'm sure of it."

"All right. Dougan. I'm sorry for what I put you through. You're free to go." He sounded wooden again, even angry.

Ed received Dougan so quickly that Sam was sure the former hostage must have run as fast as he could.

"Thanks for the shot of hope, Sam. It did feel good. But I don't trust it. It won't last. Have a good life."

"NO, WAIT!"

A single gunshot rang out.

Sarge's hand clamped down on Sam's shoulder and held him fast.

No point in even asking to go in. Sam felt so shocky that he doubted he would have done so anyway.

"Boss, I'm going in!" Ed called out, no longer whispering.

"Negative, it could be a trap, he could detonate his bomb. Send the bone cam instead."

"Copy that."

"And vacate the building, both of you. Camera only. Everybody move to a safe distance."

"Copy."

Sam stumbled along with the others, blindly.

Sarge's hand never left his shoulder.

Spike kept telling them to go further until he felt it was safe. Then he turned his focus back to his camera, remotely steering it without appearing to worry about stealth.

I know what he'll find.

It's not a trap.

He's dead.

I failed.

"I see him, boss," Spike said softly. His gentle tones said it all. Sam looked up at him and saw compassion in his eyes. He's spoken to the sarge, but he was looking straight at Sam.

"I'm sorry, Sam," Spike added. Then he checked his watch and reported the official time that the subject's suicide had been confirmed.

Sam sank down to squat on his haunches. He felt inexplicably dizzy.

His team gathered around him. He heard encouraging words, but they seemed to bounce off of him.

Sarge squatted beside him, keeping his supportive hand in place.

"We had a connection," he murmured, his voice sounding oddly distant in his own ears.

Without letting go of Sam, Sarge spoke to Spike. "Go in and render the scene harmless for the uni's, Spike."

"Copy that. Lew, you're with me."

Sam tuned out the subdued action around him, though he comforted himself with the promise that he could have risen to action if the boss had given him any orders.

"Ok, Boss," Spike's voice came over their headsets after what must have been a longer time that Sam felt pass. "I've dealt with the C4, and Lew has swept the area. No other threats to the uni's."

"Thanks, Spike. Meet us back here." Sarge turned his attention now to Sam. "Come on, buddy. Uni's are taking care of the scene from here on out. Let's get you back to the station and debrief."

Debriefing. Sam's mouth went dry. I'm going to get torn to shreds for this one.

And I'll deserve it.

Sarge had told Sam to ride with him, so he sat now as he had stood throughout the whole ordeal: beside the man who negotiated better than anyone on the planet.

The guy who trusted me, when he could have done it better himself.

And I let him down.

As was the case after most hard calls, chatter was at a minimum.

Sarge kept shooting glances at Sam, and he looked concerned. At one point he even reached over and put his hand back on Sam's shoulder. "Hey, Sam, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I'm going to say it anyway. Don't sweat this. You're not going to your execution, okay?"

Sam worked up a small smile of appreciation for Sarge's kindness, but then sank back into his own personal darkness.

The hand patted his shoulder and then returned to the wheel.

###

Perhaps out of kindness toward him, the rest of the team spent the first part of their debriefing discussing their tactical choices, which pretty much left Sam out. He only half-listened, mostly just tuning in when the discussion got heated. Which it did fairly often.

Nobody liked situations in which they'd remained basically helpless throughout.

Ed brought that part of the discussion to a close in his usual, intensely concise way. "Look, the C4 was the game changer. There's nothing anybody can say that can change what those wired-up white globs meant. Our hands were truly tied. We hate it, but we have to accept it. And that's why we aren't just SWAT, right? We're SRU because we're not limited to tactical options."

Sam's stomach sank even further when he realized that his contribution to the fiasco was now taking center stage.

"We have the best negotiating skills in the department, by far," Ed continued, "and those skills got all six hostages out alive."

Sam felt a wave of relief. In all my grief over Thomas, I forgot that I saved six people today.

He sat up straighter and looked Sarge in the eyes for the first time since that one, fateful shot.

Sarge offered him a gentle smile, and he accepted it with a nod.

"All right," Sarge began, "Nobody's happy with the way this ended for Sergeant Dwayne Thomas."

Was that his name? I missed that part of the discussion, somehow. I'm sorry, Dwayne. Somehow, it felt good to call him by his first name at last. I'm humanizing him a little more.

Sarge called Sam's attention back by putting a hand on his arm. "Now, Sam, I want you to understand something very important. Yes, you did make some mistakes, but you corrected them quickly, and...this is the most important part...those mistakes did not lead to Thomas' ultimate decision. They did not. The direction that you took him in...that 'moment of decision' thing you introduced that got him to do the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life...a subject apologizing to his hostages, one-by-one, by name, and sending them on their way with a smile...Sam, that was utterly amazing!"

Everybody nodded, smiling.

Sam's heart swelled. A lump formed in his throat which made him glad he wasn't expected to speak right now.

"I never would have thought of that, Sam. I never could have led him where you led him. And if there's anything I want you to carry away from this experience, it's the understanding that you gave him the very best chance he could have had. A better chance than anyone else, including me, could have given him."

Sarge leaned forward until he caught Sam's gaze, and he held eye contact with him as he spoke slow, clear, healing words.

"It's not your fault he chose not to accept the incredible gift you gave him today, Sam. It is not your fault." He patted Sam's arm, and then straightened back in his seat.

"We're going to go ahead and discuss Sam's mistakes...and his excellent choices...so that we can all learn from them. But remember, I make mistakes in my negotiating, too. Everyone does, now and again, even the best negotiators. And as of today, I count Sam among the best our city has to offer."

"Hear, hear!" Spike chimed in. Everyone else nodded and smiled.

Sam heard his own voice at last, though he hadn't intended to speak, and hardly knew what he was saying.

"I really appreciate it, guys. It means the world to me. But Boss...I've got to tell you...it's going to be a while before I feel ready to negotiate again. This has really taken it out of me."

Sarge nodded with an expression of complete understanding. "I hope I have the luxury of giving you time to recover from this before I put you on the spot again. But the day's going to come, sooner or later, when I'm going to look at you and say, 'Sam, I'm going to let you do this.' And when I say that, it won't mean that I'm ready to put you on trial. It will mean I know you're ready."

Sam swallowed another lump in his throat and then managed a smile.

And then he looked at Jules, almost shocked to realize he hadn't looked at her until now.

Her sweet smile fed something in his soul, and he realized why he hadn't looked at her before.

As much as the guys' opinions of me matter, hers matters more.

I was so afraid she'd be disappointed in me!

He smiled back at her, and felt a huge knot untie in his midsection. Then he sat up straighter, ready to learn from his mistakes...and to celebrate his successes, with the people who meant more to him than anyone in the world.