He took off his spectacles and had a closer look at the grim-faced sex god who had just flung his office door open. Not scary so much as sinister: shades, jeans, a blue sweater and a black leather jacket - the guy's whole appearance screamed "cop" with a capital K.
"Come with me if you want to live," Mr Sexy-but-Sinister said coldly, holding out a hand.
Blair stood up, shrugged on his jacket, and went.
Naomi was going to kill him.
*Half an hour earlier*
Office hours meant exactly that. Office hours. If only he had an office, instead of a disused store-cupboard out of the way of departmental foot traffic in a basement corridor the co-eds referred to as "spider central". Still, it cut down on the number of students interrupting his research just to whinge about their grades. If they made it to his door, they tended to have the kind of problems he'd rather know about than not.
Although the down side was it meant there was little in the way of back up down here when Really Weird Shit started happening.
I mean to say, lightning? You don't get lightning indoors, right? But he hadn't imagined it, any more than he'd imagined that whole "creaking start to a horror movie" noise, and he certainly hadn't imagined the telephone box that had materialised about six feet away from him, in just about the only telephone-box-materialising-out-of-nothing sized space in the whole damned room.
Okaaaaaaaaaay then. A telephone box just materialised in his office. With lightning. Moving swiftly on, and remembering not to go mad...
He stepped out of the booth and gave himself a thumbs up.
At which point Blair Sandburg - the one sitting behind his desk minding his own business, not the one jumping out of telephone boxes - passed out in an ungainly heap.
"What? What? What?"
"Dude! Cool it! It's only me. You. Well, kinda you only not, because we're from, like, this whole alternate reality kinda deal."
"Why don't you let me explain it, Chief?"
This was another guy, maybe ten years older, in jeans and a leather jacket, with something about him that screamed "cop" with a capital K. "Hi Blair," he said gently, taking off a pair of shades to reveal blue, blue eyes. Cold fingers started playing the piano up and down Blair's spine and he had to take a deep breath to prevent the words "hubba hubba" leaking from his mouth.
"My name," the sex god continued "is Jim Ellison and this is my partner, a version of you from another reality. We came to give you a message - um, you haven't gone mad, by the way - but in about half an hour a guy looking like me is going to show up in your office and ask you to go with him. You really, really need to do what he says. OK?"
Visions of what he would like Ellison's double to ask him to do started dancing in front of his eyes and he remembered he was hyperventilating.
OK? Oh OK.
"This must be some new definition of the word 'OK' that only occurs in your reality, right? NO I AM NOT OK AND WHAT'S GOING ON AND WHO ARE YOU GUYS AND..."
"Told ya!" the Other Blair said cheerfully. "Look, Blair - I can call you Blair, right? You're going to be targeted by this psycho, right, and the only thing that can save you is your own personal hero here," Blair looked at himself and decided quickly that he was Ur-Blair and the weirdo in the phone booth was Blair #2 - and was he really that much of a flake? "And you can't have mine," Blair #2 said firmly.
"Can't have your what?" UrBlair said, knowing exactly what he was being warned to keep his hands off. No drooling, he told himself sternly.
"My Jim. Oh, sorry, haven't introduced you. Blair Sandburg (this reality), meet James Jim Ellison (my reality). The one from your reality will show up in about half an hour and rescue you from your own personal psycho killer, OK?"
"But please don't give him a hard time, and make sure you do exactly what he tells you, when he tells you. It's for your own good," Jim Ellison said.
Blair#2 snorted and then said firmly "If you only remember one thing from this conversation, make it this: when this is all over, remember to pay it forward."
The telephone booth beeped.
"Hey, dude, time," Blair #2 said, pointing at his watch.
"Jim, you can't protect us ALL. Let his own Jim turn up in the nick, all right?"
"Yeah, I suppose."
The two of them moved back towards their telephone booth and UrBlair heard Blair #2 say "You know, that conversation made a whole lot more sense, this time around."
More psycho sound effects and a little more lightning, and the telephone box disappeared.
Blair sat down at his desk and opened his journal. He picked up a pen.
And then put it down again.
Some activities you don't record, just in case your psychiatrist ever demands to read your journal and you wind up in the rubber room. And, anyway, if an unknown sex god turned up wanting to save him from psychos, who was he to complain?
He snuck a copy of the latest Harry Potter out from the stack of books on his desk and tried to wait patiently for someone to arrive - his rescuer, or else the men with the white coats.
*An hour later*
"So let me get this straight. You're not psycho. You're not a looney. You're from the future - one possible future - and you're back here to rescue me from an unstoppable killer sent from the future because I'm going to..."
"Discover the philosophies on which our whole society is based, align the planets and create universal harmony, make first contact with alien life forms..."
"And there are future bad guys who don't like living in a future utopia based on my brilliant discoveries, so someone sent an unstoppable killer to stop me making any brilliant discoveries, and someone else sent, er, you, to stop him."
"I did what?"
"Your future self
Blair - UrBlair - sighed deeply and rubbed his eyes. This whole future selves/alternate realities deal made pronouns - and grammar - and pretty much the entire English language, thank you very much - into pretzels. He took a deep, cleansing breath and then said, enunciating clearly, "so you're saying that I, in the future, sent you, from the future, back to now, the present, to save me from an unstoppable killer, also sent from the future, to stop the future that we're talking about from ever happening?"
Ellison smiled as broadly as if he had just invented Blair. "I knew you were a genius, Chief, but I thought it had emerged over time and tribulation: never realised it was there all along. Come on, we need to move."
Ellison was driving, would you believe, an old Ford truck but they had made good mileage in it and were coming up to the city limits. So far so good; no signs of any unstoppable future killers yet.
Only someone - some helpful someone who had seen them high-tailing it out of Rainier as if an unstoppable future killer was after them - must have called the cops on them. Because suddenly there were two cop cars blocking the road, and flashing lights behind them, and lots of men-with-guns-and-kevlar. Ellison just looked grim - grimmer - and put his shades back on.
"Oh gods and goddesses," Blair breathed, "You really are crazy, aren't you?"
"We can't afford to waste time explaining with cops. I don't have any papers, and He won't let cops slow him down. We'd just be putting bodies in his way."
"Earth to Jim: they're cops. It's not optional. Pull up or die, and the only reason I'm in this... antique... with you is because I chose the NOT die option, remember?"
The truck was hemmed in, and people were screaming at them. The world was a cacophony of loaded guns and flashing lights and "out! Out! Out!" And James Jim Ellison was sitting with his mouth open, frozen like a rabbit in the headlights. Blair groaned.
"Oh come on man! This is SO not the time to take a trip into lala land." And then something he'd read, years ago, in one of those anthropological books that had got him interested in the subject years ago, before Rainier, floated back to him...
"Are you a Sentinel, Jim? Is this a zone out? It would make sense, I suppose. If I knew a sentinel, what better person to act as my younger self's blessed protector. Only I forgot about the zones. Hell, I can't remember how Burton said the sentinel can be brought out of a zone... why don't you come with instructions?"
"It's OK, Chief, I'm back."
"What was it..."
But the cops were still screaming at them, and the chances of someone getting trigger happy were increasing exponentially, and Jim produced a big old gun and held it very very carefully by its barrel and yelled "Coming out! Don't shoot!" and then they were both lying on the ground with their hands behind their heads.
Blair found himself sitting in the back of a police car between two big black men. Rather to his surprise, he wasn't handcuffed and he didn't seem to be under arrest or anything. Jim had been dragged off, cuffed and screaming about protection, into the back of a black van, and Blair felt as guilty as if he and Jim had been lifelong friends rather than half an hour's acquaintances. But even so he decided not to mention anything to the cops about magic telephone boxes and identical twins from alternate realities. Naomi Sandburg didn't do hospital visiting.
Particularly not in looney bins.
*Half an hour later*
The big one was called Henri Brown and the dapper one who had driven the car was called Rafe, just Rafe, didn't seem to have a first (or second?) name at all, and the really, really big one was called Captain Simon Banks, head of the Major Crimes Division, Cascade PD.
"But you can call me 'sir'," he told Blair helpfully.
Blair sat on the comfortable sofa in Banks' office and wondered vaguely how he had got himself into this mess. Banks and his men seemed convinced that it was Jim who was the criminal, and Blair had prudently avoided any mention of the unstoppable killer from the future/exact doubles appearing from nowhere in telephone boxes part of the encounter, and instead had managed to give Banks the impression that he had agreed to go with Jim because Jim had persuaded him there was a killer on the loose, targeting Blair. Banks seemed somewhat unpersuaded by Blair's rapid obfuscation that he had encountered Jim in his research into Sentinels, modern day versions of the Neolithic tribal protector, and that it was therefore inherently unlikely if not impossible that it was Jim who was the bad guy here.
Banks handed Blair a cup of coffee and told him to rest in that gentle way that you talk to nervous animals, very small children and non-violent loonies, and Blair discovered he actually was shaking, slightly, who'd a thought it, and sitting still for a while with a hot drink and a blankie wasn't such a bad idea at that.
And then he heard gunfire.
"Stay here," Banks barked, producing an enormous handgun from his desk, "You're perfectly safe here."
"Safe," Blair muttered to himself and to the closed door, "This must be some new definition of the word 'safe' only found in this reality."
His heart was beating nineteen to the dozen and two bursts of what sounded like machine gun fire didn't reassure him at all.
Banks and Rafe burst back into the room.
"Come on," Banks said.
They led him out of the room, through an open plan office area full of shirtsleeved cops shrugging on Kevlar, through a room with coffee making equipment and a half-eaten pizza steaming in its box, and out into a stairwell.
The heavy doors into the stairwell muffled the sound of guns and Banks said "You OK, kid?"
"I'm thirty-two years old," Blair said randomly.
"Up or down," Rafe said.
"Up. Control room. Check out what's happening on the security cameras, get reinforcements, contain the situation. If it looks like we might lose the station, I want you to take Blair here out and head for the eighth street station, but at the moment he's safer here till we know what's going on. Here, Blair, put this on."
Banks slapped a kevlar vest into his hands and Blair tried to put it on and climb the stairs simultaneously. More gunfire. Somehow he was crouching low under some office windows, Banks ahead of him, Rafe behind, and the shooting was close now. There was a glimpse, no more, of an enormous guy in black, body crisscrossed with belts of bullets, eyes covered by black shades, an enormous machine gun in hand. But as the gun turned their way, Rafe hurled him bodily through a doorway and fell in after him as Blair landed on his back and saw Banks, crouched, firing, covering them both from the doorway.
But Banks suddenly went into slow motion; the universe went into slow motion, and Blair heard but didn't hear himself shouting "No!"
And Banks fell backwards slowly in a graceful arc, one way, while bright blood arced brilliantly from his neck and head, scarlet, the other.
Rafe pushed him and the world changed; he was in a dark room hidden under a desk, and Rafe was standing in the doorway.
"Stay here, you'll be safe here."
Rafe closed the door and Blair closed his eyes, covered his ears and panicked, gasping for breath, clawing at his scattered wits.
Gunfire, so close; that smell, that burnt smell - cordite? Blood? Both? The door of the room opened and Blair saw light, shadow; the shadow of the gunmen. He held his breath, tried to still the beating of his loud, loud heart. The door slammed. Darkness. Steps. More gunfire.
Move. Move Chief. Now!
He heard Ellison's voice in his head. I'm hallucinating, he thought. Oh great. I'm in shock, and now I've decided to go mad as well.
He stood up, breathing as quietly as he could. The sound of gunfire had receded. Maybe it was safe.
His legs nearly gave way when he saw what was left of Rafe, outside the door. The machine gun had nearly cut him in half and the blood...
He stepped around the blood as best he could, stepped over Banks, carefully remembering not to look, not to see. The corridor smelled like an old fashioned butcher's shop - flesh, blood... Oh gods, there were more of them, here, there - everywhere.
There was a room with tv monitors - the control room Banks had talked about. He stepped inside, ignored the three bodies on the floor, the splash of blood that made the monitors on the left of him unreadable. He looked at the other monitors. Just a tv, he told himself. Only a movie.
The enormous man was moving methodically through the building killing everyone in his path. The cops were organising, but there wasn't anything they could do. He didn't die, dammit. Why didn't he die? They riddled him with bullets but he kept moving forwards, kept firing.
Blair watched, dispassionately. I'm not here, this isn't real, this isn't happening.
He saw Jim, on one of the monitors, beating himself hysterically against the restraints that held him fast to a chair. He was only down the corridor. Blair turned that way without thinking, picked up the keys that were hanging on the hook outside the door, unchained his wrists, and let Jim drag him along the corridor, down some stairs, into a car.
He found he couldn't stop saying it, couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't see; they were all dead ohgodohgodohgodohgod...
Jim bitchslapped him.
"Chief. Chief! Blair! BLAIR!"
He breathed in and held it.
"I'm sorry. I tried to warn them."
Blair held his breath, trying to let the panic recede.
"But he won't stop. We have to move. Before he tracks you. He can't be stopped, persuaded, argued with, diverted. He'll keep coming till you're dead. So we have to run. You understand? Run fast, and far, and stay out of the way of other people. OK?"
He breathed out, and kept breathing till he had completely emptied his lungs.
"No," he said calmly.
"This is a bad, bad plan."
Jim couldn't settle. He had walked the perimeter twenty seven times so far - Blair had counted. Blair, however, sat in the middle of the warehouse on the most comfortable chair he could find and split his concentration between watching that fine ass prowling and on controlling his own breathing. In... out... in... out...
It was a good plan.
Provided the thing with the telephone booth and the alternate reality versions of him was true and he hadn't actually gone mad. In that case, Jim would be right, and it would be a really bad, bad plan. But he'd be dead in half an hour and it wouldn't really matter, and, to be honest, after the destruction at the police station (Banks, he thought distantly. Rafe!) he would rather be dead than live in this kind of fear for any longer.
But it was all right. He wasn't mad after all, because there was the lightning effect, and there was the psycho movie noise, right on cue, and there was the telephone booth again, and both his other self and the other Jim looked really, really pissed.
But not half as pissed as they looked when Jim - his Jim - threw the gas grenade into the phone booth and jammed the door shut till they were both unconscious. And then dragged them out and tied them up and gagged the second Jim and pulled him back a few feet, so that they were both facing Blair but although Jim #2 could see Blair #2, Blair #2 couldn't see his Jim.
Blair #2 was awake, then. Jim #2 was rocking back and forth in the chair and making inarticulate noises through the gag, but Ur Jim just smiled and shook a warning finger at him and he subsided, meeting his match.
"I told you what to do. You need to do what Jim tells you, right? And, I'm betting, this wasn't Jim's idea, huh?"
"Wow, you really ARE a flake, aren't you? Look, unstoppable killing machine has just killed a whole bunch of cops. How did you let that happen? I mean, if you knew it was going to happen."
"Oh man, I'm sorry, but it's a necessary stage in your development. And trust me, it'll be worth it. You'll develop philosophically as a result, and the end result will be..."
"Screw aligning the planets and music of the spheres. I just saw people - real people - die, and I could have saved them if I'd known. So... we're going to do things differently, in this reality."
"Woah dude! If you go off-script, how am I going to be able to guide you?"
"Did I ask you to guide me, man? Now, you and your Jim can wait there for a few, while Jim and I work out how this thing works..."
Jim kicked the remains of the gas grenade out of the telephone booth and nodded the all-clear. Blair got into the booth with him and they looked, together, at the controls.
Blair #2 struggled in his bonds and yelled "Jim! Do something!!!"
The booth vanished.
"What did you do? WHAT DID YOU DO????
JimandBlair #2 weren't in an abandoned warehouse any more, but in the number 4 interrogation room of the Cascade Police station, down the corridor from Major Crimes.
Jim - UrBlair's Jim - waggled his eyebrows at his double and his partner and stood back to watch the fun. Blair #2 looked like he was going to pop a vein if he didn't chill, but Jim #2 produced a brown paper bag, improbably, from a pocket and made his partner breathe into it till he calmed down a bit.
"Well, it's obviously a machine to move you through realities, but I worked out that if you were moving reality to reality you have to be able to control your entry point... which means you can turn up at different times as well as different locations. What you've got here is a practical time machine! So we nipped out to your dimension, re-entered a few hours before you turned up in the first place, tracked your unstoppable killer guy when he first got here from the future, froze him with a future weapon we stole from, like, 200 years into the future from now along the way, took him with us back to the future, and then got him re-programmed by these guys who were living in the future world I'm going to create with my aligning the planets and creating universal harmony etc etc. Oh, and then we re-inserted him into the timeline where he couldn't possibly do any harm."
And Blair - UrBlair - sat down triumphantly.
Blair #2 looked like someone who has been slapped around the face with a wet herring.
"Wha?" he said.
*Improbable interlude several hundred years into the future*
"What is that godawful NOISE?"
"Hey, calm down. It's probably just future-style music. Hey, maybe it's that music of the spheres my flaky other-me was talking about. Maybe I'm going to invent it!"
"Maybe I'm going to let the Terminator kill you first!"
"Big guy, we have to work on this. Have you thought about using imagery? Like, dials, maybe? You can probably dial it down if you just visualise..."
"What did you just call me?"
"Erm... it's just an expression."
"Big. Guy. That's what you called me?"
"Aw hell, don't kill me, OK? I mean, it just... slipped out."
"You're kind of... Personal bubble, dude. You're..."
"I'm what, Sandburg?"
"Just... kind of close..."
"It's a small phone booth, Chief."
"What? Small enough that you can feel me... breathing?"
"I can... feel... you..."
*Fifteen minutes later (than the scene before the scene before this one, that is, not taking into account any time a person, or, as it might be, two persons, might have decided to spend in a remarkably comfortable and really astonishingly private room several hundred years in the future that wouldn't affect the timeline at all really, so there)*
"I'm going to understand this some time, am I, Sandburg?" Captain Banks said cheerfully, sucking on his cigar.
"Understand what?" Blair said innocently.
"Why there's an exact double of you and Jim sitting in interrogation room 4 watching CNN? And why there appears to be a telephone booth newly installed in the same room?"
"Oh that. Well, they'll be gone in half an hour so in the end you'll probably thank me for NOT explaining, to be honest."
Now that they'd readjusted the timeline so that Banks and Rafe and Henri and Joel and the rest of them didn't get dead, Blair had suggested that Jim use his unexpected lease of life in the twentieth century to get himself embedded in the Cascade Police force. The timeline had kind of healed itself around him - produced a brother and a father and grafted him onto his ancestors' family tree in round about the right place and time. There were some continuity errors, sure - the appearing and disappearing senses for example, the uncertain status of his mother, the loft apartment with no visible means of support - but on the whole it had been a successful graft, and Jim clearly now had a support network of his own in the Major Crimes family - and, surprisingly, Blair found he was right there with him, as Guide to his Sentinel.
Yes, all in all life was good. If in twenty years he was going to develop a philosophy that would promote universal harmony and all that other hippy crap that his double kept going on about then all well and good. But he was more concerned about the happiness quotient in the people he could actually see and hear and talk to in the here and now. And his friends in Major Crimes weren't dead, and Jim wasn't a lone gunman from the future, and the unstoppable gunman was nicely neutralised and, know what? Life was looking pretty damn good, thank you very much, and reaching an understanding with his miraculously appearing Blessed Protector From The Future (only now firmly established in the present) that looked likely to lead to lots of hot sex in the loft apartment with no visible means of support (that apparently they BOTH lived in now, and who bought this 'roommates' story anyway) couldn't hurt. And looked likely to lead to hot monkey sex on frequent occasions. Which was also good. Or had he already thought that? The mind-melting sex would do that to you. Ahem.
One last thing to deal with, and then he could relax.
"OK then; Jim, you laid it out for them?"
"Yeah Chief, we're clear. They go back to their timeline and we go back to ours. And if they ever stray into ours again, we terminate them with extreme prejudice. After all, we reprogrammed the Terminator once, and all we've done is stashed him where he can't do any harm. This JimandBlair understand that, if they start meddling with us again, we'll reprogramme him again."
"Just tell us one thing, man," Blair #2 begged as his Jim dragged him into the phone booth. "What have you done with the Terminator?"
Blair smiled and pointed towards the TV screen, still tuned to CNN, as the phone booth started up its disappearing sequence. The lightning flashed and the psycho noises started, but over them the plaintive voice of Blair #2 could be heard wailing: "you made him *governor of California?????"*