Due to length, this story has been split into five parts.
by Jack Reuben Darcy
Author's disclaimer: Usual stuff: I don't own them, someone else does, I'm not making any money from this - but I am having a lot of fun ...
When I started writing this story, I had no idea how long it would take me to finish - nor how difficult it would be. Some characters have no idea how important it is that they behave - and certain tussels of will ensued. However, I did have wonderful help from Tex, Rie and Kadru. Thanks guys - you gave me more work to do but the story is stronger for your efforts and I appreciate it.
No condom use.
Feedback welcomed. Flames will be ignored, so don't even bother.
Prison - Part one
By Jack Reuben Darcy
The melting voice through mazes running
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony
The Raffles Hotel
The heat was oppressive.
A force of invisible quantity, unbreakable and unending, thick and heavy in the air. Stealing strength from him, curtailing his natural movements, making him slow down. On every covered part of his body, Jim could feel sweat forming, sliding along his skin, soaking into his clothes, seeping into his mind. These days, insanity seemed far too close.
He needed to concentrate but that wasn't so easy. He needed to move, and that was more difficult. Much simpler to stand here, leaning against a rough concrete pillar and let his gaze wander over the Raffles guests having dinner in the courtyard, The Palm Garden.
Voices floated to him, jumbled, insistent, full of laughter and concern. Words about the situation in Europe, Hitler, crime in the streets here, share prices and social events both past and future. Familiar strains of music provided a permanent undercurrent; the sax player catching the flavour of a famous Jimmy Dorsey solo, the orchestra more than drowning out the sounds of the city beyond the walls of the hotel.
What was he doing here?
He let his back rest against the pillar, feeling his sweat-soaked jacket grip the rough texture, let it hold him up a little. He was tired, needed some sleep. The last three nights, Rukit's youngest had kept him awake, crying. He'd tried walking through the kampong, hoping to exhaust himself, but when dawn's light hit him each day, filtered through the slatted timber walls, he rose, still unrested. Cursed, even within the generosity of his friends.
Rukit had told him to come here. That this place might hold some hope.
Hope. A twisted thread of something invisible, something he could only hold onto during his waking hours, when daylight made anything seem possible. At night, when he tried to sleep, hope was something he couldn't believe in, something which couldn't exist. Not for him. Certainly not strong enough to override the fear he lived with each day, fear which flooded his nightmares.
He turned his head, watching the elegant and wealthy enjoy their evening, sipping gin slings and swapping stories about the gangs of Chinese who roamed the city, robbing and murdering, how the Governor seemed to do nothing about it. There was talk about the war in Spain and whether Franco would win. And of course, the situation in Germany. Most of them were British, the accents clinging to the air, the very essence of humidity. So far from home and yet, still so connected to it, they seemed to both take Hitler very seriously - and think of him as some kind of joke.
Laughter came to him over the gentle tinkle of glass against glass and Jim let go of the pillar long enough to look further across the courtyard. This place was certainly worth seeing at least once. A little Roman, a little Georgian in style, this small square was surrounded on all four sides by three floors of pillars, white and clean. Filling the courtyard were perhaps twenty tables, covered in stiff, white cloth, shining with polished silver and expensive china. Men and women sat around them, equally stiff in their dinner suits, evening gowns, hair slicked back, jewellery glittering. Beyond the tables was a small dance floor and beyond that, the orchestra. A few couples were already dancing - though the night was still relatively young. Waiters, both Chinese and Malay, brought plates and bottles out to the tables, their sharp uniforms a flash of red and black amongst the other colours. Potted palms completed the picture, cast along the pillars, bringing the flavour of the east into this very western establishment.
The Raffles Hotel was legendary within the British Empire - and apparently the only place to go when visiting Singapore. As with all colonials, Raffles had tried to re-establish that which he'd left behind, reforming and remaking it in the image of all that he'd missed most from home. This hotel was an exemplary combination of all those elements. A huge white building with a Chinese red tile roof, standing near the docks. Rich and sumptuous rooms led from the balconies above, reaching into a distance Jim could only guess at.
A corner of civilization, built by those who could not live without it. Exclusive.
He shouldn't have come here. Not tonight. He should have come during the day, when it would have been quieter, when there weren't so many people around.
He felt the odd gaze drift over him, heard the occasional word mentioned about him. He knew none of them, but even if he'd heard nothing and seen nothing - everyone in this room seemed to know he was an outsider.
Outsider, certainly - but Rukit had mentioned the word hope and Jim had been awake, in the frame of mind where that frail thing still seemed to exist. And while it did, he would make the most of it. He would turn his back on the trail of failures littering his past, ignore the threat of fear and allow it to be pushed into the recesses of his mind by the bright lights and melodic music. There was a certain calm to be obtained by being around so many people, being so close to the edges of normality. He would make one more attempt to end the torture because a friend had asked him to try. A friend who knew nothing but understood so much.
Gathering himself, Jim straightened up and headed for the other side of the courtyard, where he could see the Long Bar tucked into a corner beyond a pair of frosted glass doors. Carefully avoiding a collision with a waiter, he pulled on the cuffs of his borrowed jacket, tried not to loosen his tie, tried to relax and look as if he did belong here. He'd been native for far too long, the comfort of little more than a sarong now seeming totally at odds with these clothes and the behaviour his own culture demanded of him.
The bar was more crowded and hotter than outside. Huge weighty fans spun from the ceiling, slowly, doing little more than moving the smoky air around. Instantly, his eyes began to sting, but he pressed forward, resisting the urge to put his hands over his ears.
The bar was crowded. And deafening. No tables, but clutches of men standing around, smoking cigars, downing drinks, all laughing and talking at the tops of their voices. Germany. Gangs. Crime. Cricket scores. Labour problems. Noise and more noise. Thick drapes over the windows and plush carpet seemed to have little effect on the volume. Gritting his teeth, Jim continued on until he finally reached the bar.
It took a few minutes before he could squeeze himself between two ex-soldiers and finally speak to the barman; another Chinese who raised patient eyebrows at him, prepared to help regardless of how strange the question might seem.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"I'm looking for someone." Jim replied, trying not to shout over the noise. "I was told I would find him here."
"Is he a guest at the Raffles?"
"I ... don't know. I was just told he can be found here, in the Long Bar."
"What is the gentleman's name?"
Instantly, the man's face lit up in a smile, "Ah, the Professor! Of course, yes, sir, he is indeed here." Without pausing, the barman straightened up and took a quick look around the room. After a moment, he frowned, shaking his head a little. He turned, fired off a question in Mandarin to his nearest colleague then turned back. "I'm sorry, sir, I believe the Professor is not actually in the bar at the moment. However, I do believe you will find him in the Card Room."
"How do I find it?"
The man pointed, "Through that door there, up the stairs and on the right."
"Thanks ... Er, what does he look like?"
The barman smiled again, "Just ask anyone up there, sir. All my colleagues know the Professor."
"Right," Jim nodded, raising a hand. "Thanks."
Now that he had a perfect excuse to leave the stultifying atmosphere of the bar, he made his escape quickly, easing through the door in record time. Instantly the noise level dropped, though the orchestra was still swinging away in the background outside. A huge, wide wooden staircase led him to the second floor and a neat sign indicating the Card Room.
Peace descended on him as he entered. The air here was also thick with smoke, but the noise was almost non-existent in comparison. Lights hung low from the ceiling, illuminating dark red walls and a dozen small tables scattered about the room. At every one, at least four men sat, focussed on their game, ignoring just about everything else. A number of other men stood about, simply watching, served by the usual quota of discrete Chinese waiters, silver trays almost an adjunct to their uniforms.
He stopped just inside the door and waited for his ears to adjust to the quiet, allowing his gaze to roam across the people before him. English, American, German, a couple of French and Italians. Everybody spoke English in Singapore, everybody. But the conversations here were quiet, subtle, directed towards the game and only the game.
So, which one was Sandburg? That big guy by the opposite wall, face red with the heat, handlebar moustache almost dripping with sweat? Or the one by the bar, tall, thin and far too pasty for this climate?
Slowly now, he scanned the faces, ignoring those whose age would deny them the title of professor. One by one he looked and saw nothing he could immediately place trust in.
Stupid idea, coming here in the first place. Why would Rukit think some European professor would be able to help him? Surely all he needed was the right kind of doctor ...
Jim shivered. The last time he'd spoken to a doctor, the man had tried to stick needles in him, tried to dose him up on morphine to dull the constant noise beating in his ears, to control his behaviour, to make him conform.
Right, so no doctors.
Frustrated, hot and tired, he finally caught the eye of a waiter and ordered a tonic water. As the man brought it back to him, he asked his question, keeping his voice low.
"Where I can find Professor Sandburg?"
Another smile greeted his question, much as the one downstairs had. Jim found it oddly unsettling. "Ah, Professor Sandburg." The waiter refrained from pointing but instead turned and nodded towards the far side of the room, to a table mostly obscured by others. "You will find the Professor over there, his back to the window. He is the only one wearing glasses."
Containing his relief, he thanked the man and took a mouthful of his tonic. The bitter fluid eased his thirst and he headed towards the window, frowning as he found the table.
Four men sat there, each holding a hand of cards. By the look of it, the game was poker. Another six or so stood around, silent, simply watching the tension drift from one player to another. A pile of cash sat on the green felt table between them, added to as each man placed a new bet. The worst off seemed to be the man closest to him, a slight, nervous looking Italian, fanning himself with a large red handkerchief. Opposite him sat another man, fortyish, cold blue eyes, a face like a stunned mackerel. He sipped from a glass of whisky and didn't remove his gaze from his own cards. Between them a man of around sixty threatened to crush the chair beneath him with his weight. Wrapped in a huge white suit, thinning hair streaked across his pink pate, he fingered long sideburns which joined together at his chin, a smile on his face as he watched his opponent.
He had to move a little to see the fourth man - and nearly turned and headed back to the kampong.
Rukit must be mad! This man was little more than a kid! Couldn't be more than twenty! Alright, twenty-one if he was allowed in this place - but really! How could this be Professor Sandburg?
But the waiter had pointed him out - and yes, the young man was wearing glasses. They sat perched upon a straight nose, on a face clear of any lines. Long hair was slicked back, tied up behind. The full mouth was pursed in concentration, one set of fingers tapping lightly on the table, the other holding his cards. He wore an elegant dinner suit and crisp white shirt, black tie immaculate. He appeared to be the only man in the room unaffected by the heat.
"Well, Professor?" the old man urged, his grin widening. "What's the verdict? Care to dazzle us again - or has your luck finally thinned out, eh?"
The young man simply shook his head, placed some notes on the pile and motioned with his hand. The Italian immediately threw his cards down and stood up. The old man laid down his hand, a pair of tens and a pair of jacks. The whisky drinker shook his head, drained his glass and planted three fours on the table.
The young man smiled, glancing up at both of them, looking about sixteen. He took his glasses off, put them in his pocket without saying a word. He just placed his cards down one at a time. Four sixes.
The whisky drinker didn't like that much. He stood, "Once again, Professor, I thank you for relieving me of my money. I fear the favour may never be returned at this rate." With that, he left them, shaking his head.
The old man, however, just laughed. "Go on, boy, it's all yours. Buy yourself a haircut, will you?" He levered himself out of his chair and ambled towards the bar, making a level-voiced announcement as to the Professor's continued winning streak.
Sandburg's gaze followed him for a moment and he chuckled. He shook his head and began collecting his winnings together. The crowd had already broken up, leaving Jim standing alone slightly to one side, watching. Should he say something? Should he actually go through with this?
Damn Rukit for caring!
"Excuse me? Are you Professor Sandburg?" The words were out before he could stop them.
"Yes? What can I do for you?" The man replied without looking up. He was piling his money together, folding bills and putting them into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Jim watched the action and frowned, despite himself. "Are you going to just walk out of here with all that?"
"Why?" The young man finally looked up - and paused, his mouth opening but saying nothing for a moment. "Do I know you?"
A clear, dark blue gaze raked over Jim, making him suddenly uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than the heat and noise and smoke could ever make him. Shaking himself internally, he held out his hand, "James Ellison."
The professor got to his feet, taking his hand, "Blair Sandburg."
The hand in his was remarkably cool, but he could feel a hardness there, the echo of a scar, callouses on the fingers. This kid was nowhere near as soft as his face implied. Taken aback a little, Jim frowned, "You're American."
"So are you." A warm grin split the man's face, and Jim's discomfort faded a little. But when he said nothing else, Jim began to feel the heat again and shifted from one foot to the other. An odd sense of foreboding drifted across his eyes, and he glanced around the room. No danger, here. Just a bunch of men playing cards. He and Sandburg were alone by the window.
"So?" Sandburg finally spoke, his hands moving as he did so. "Were you looking for me?"
Was he? Looking for this man? Rukit had sent him here, assuring him that this professor would be able to help him - but ...
No! He trusted Rukit. There was no way the old Malay would send him on a fool's errand. On the other hand, there was no way Jim was just going to blurt out the problem. He needed to know a few things first.
"I ... er ... I wanted to talk to you, if you have the time."
"Oh, sure." Sandburg frowned a little. "What about? Why me?"
"A friend gave me your name. Is there somewhere we could talk? Where it isn't so hot?"
"In Singapore?" Sandburg laughed. "Not until the monsoon. But look, my room's just down the hallway. We can talk there if you like?"
For a second, Jim was tempted to decline - then harshly suppressed the temptation. More than that, he was angry for needing to. After all, this man posed no threat to him. Why should he be afraid?
"Sure," was all he could manage.
"This way." Sandburg led him back through the Card Room, out into the hallway and past the stairs. Keeping to the second floor, the young man talked, his voice easily heard over the noise in the courtyard below. "It really does get a little cooler when the monsoon season starts. Should be some time in the next few weeks. Of course, it also gets a lot wetter. And the humidity in the afternoons is almost unbearable. The worse it is, the more rain we get. Comes at the same time each day. You can almost set your watch by it. Just don't get caught out in it. You'll never catch a cab and you'll be soaked to the skin in minutes. I ruined my best pair of shoes my first day here. What part of the States are you from?"
Jim only recognized the last as a question because Sandburg had finally stopped before a door, key in hand and was facing him. "Uh, north west."
"No, Washington, near Seattle. A place called Cascade."
"Really? That's amazing! I spent a summer there when I was a kid. Nice place." Turning, Sandburg opened his door and led Jim into a room which was noticeably cooler than outside. "I always get a room on the east side of the hotel. Keeps it from heating up too much in the afternoon. Now, can I get you something to drink?"
Jim came to a halt and looked around the room. Rich and sumptuous were the first words which came to him. A large double bed took up most of the left wall, draped in a brocade cover. An ornate teak closet stood against the wall by the door next to the bathroom while a plush green rug welcomed his feet. To his right sat a huge oak desk and a black portable typewriter, both strewn with papers and books. Opposite him, two French windows led out onto a small balcony where a cane table and chairs soaked up the moonlight.
Sandburg had stopped in front of him, his constant chatter halted for a moment. Open, friendly, warm. Normal.
"Jim. Call me, Jim." And for a long minute, there was something inside him which wished he hadn't said that, wished he could take it back, wished he could return this to normal formality.
But it was too late. Those blue eyes were staring at him, warm again and interesting and he forced his gaze away, to the balcony, the furniture, something neutral.
Why now? Hell, why?
Damn it, Ellison, this is important! Forget what the kid looks like, forget that he ...
"I have some vodka," Sandburg continued, noticing nothing unusual in Jim's behaviour.
"No, I ... don't drink." Urgent necessity drove Jim out onto the balcony, away from that gaze, away from the sudden desire to take that face between his hands and ...
Stop it! Stop thinking about it!
"Will tonic do you? I have some I keep in cold water in the bath. Saves having to order ice every hour. By the way," Sandburg appeared at his elbow, a glass held out, "call me Blair."
Jim looked down at the glass - not at the man. He took it, careful not to let his hand touch that skin.
"Now, take a seat and let's get down to business." Sandburg pulled out a cane chair, letting it scrape across the floor. He sank down into it, waiting for Jim to sit before he continued. "You said somebody suggested you talk to me? Somebody I know?"
"Not personally, no," Jim swallowed tonic water again, forcing himself to concentrate on something other than the physical presence facing him. Instead, he let his gaze roam out towards the street below, let his ears absorb the quiet noises of the city, the clatter of horses and hum of cars. Beyond, he could hear the harbour, smell the sea drifting on the heavy night air, salty and sweet, dripping with possibilities.
Blair. His name was Blair. And his voice was soft honey, lingering over everything else, leaving a trail for him to follow. Breadcrumbs scattered across a laden night, bright and dark, hard and easy.
His name was Blair.
He started when he felt the hand on his arm. Blinking suddenly, that face too close to him, he almost jumped out of his chair - but harsh prudence forced him to calm a little. He could only bear to look into those eyes for a moment. "Sorry, I was just thinking about something."
Blair waited a second, then regained his seat, the small frown appearing once again, "Must have been something pretty important - you were gone a full minute there."
"Sorry." This was ridiculous! How could he do this? How many times had he told himself that this ... this was unnatural? To have these feelings for ... another man was ... a perversion he had to rid himself of. Hadn't he succeeded before? Hadn't he managed to banish this from his life? God, how long had it been since he'd felt this way?
Had he ever felt this way before? About any man? This quickly?
"What?" Sandburg sat forward, placing his glass on the table. "No, what?"
Jim bit his lip hard, dug his fingers into his thigh, away from where Sandburg could see. He took in the bitter pain, held it, used it to focus, the only way he knew how. He waited another heartbeat and once more forced himself forward.
A little more in control, he turned back, allowing himself to meet that gaze without flinching, suppressing the shiver he knew was trembling inside him. "Look, I'm sorry, Professor, I'm not trying to be rude. It's just that, I've been away from all this for the last couple of years," he waved his hand to indicate the city in explanation, "and I'm still getting used to civilization."
Sandburg raised his eyebrows a little, giving Jim a casual smile, again relaxing him. "That's okay. How long have you been in Singapore?"
"Six days. I haven't spent much time in the city yet."
"Where were you before?"
"Burma. I... er... worked in a village there."
"I see," and the young man managed to put enough into his tone to make it sound like he did see, did understand and once more, Jim found the tight knots in his stomach unwind a little. "So, who is this person who suggested you talk to me?"
"Rukit Lapor. He lives in Katong. I'm staying with him at the moment."
"In a kampong? With the locals?"
"That's right. Why?"
Sandburg just smiled and waved a hand, "No reason except that most westerners wouldn't be seen dead in one unless they're looking to buy opium - and they can do a better deal on the streets here, though I suppose the gangs put most people off. Kampongs are way too... dirty, yes, that's what they say."
"There's nothing dirty about a kampong." Jim's objection was out before he could stop it. "Those villages are cleaner than these streets, I can tell you!"
"Hey, it's okay," Sandburg held up his hands, laughing a little. "I've spent enough time in kampongs to agree wholeheartedly with you. Let me see, Rukit Lapor, no, I don't think I know him. How does he know me?"
"He said he had a cousin in Malaya who worked with you last year." Jim kept his gaze on Sandburg this time. He needed to see the reaction, had to know if there was any hope for him here at all.
"Oh, I was all over Malaya last year. Did he give you a name for this cousin?"
"Er ... no."
"Okay." Sandburg sat back, folding his fingers together and keeping a steady gaze on Jim. "So what did you want to talk to me about?"
"What about it?"
Good question. Rukit hadn't actually said anything about what this man did. Damn! "This is going to sound really stupid - but could you bear with me? Would you tell me exactly what it is that you do?"
"Exactly?" Sandburg laughed again, something he appeared to do quite easily. Shaking his head, he stood and disappeared into the room, coming back a moment later with the bottle of tonic water. He topped up Jim's glass and put the bottle on the table. He didn't go back to his seat however. Instead, he leaned back against the balcony rail and folded his arms. "Well, I'm not sure I can describe it exactly. I'm an anthropologist. I spend a lot of time in Malaya. I'm studying the effects of the Chinese population here on the Malay culture across the Straits. There are so many differing cultural influences in Singapore. Indian, Burmese - not to mention just about every European nation and every other country in the world who can send ships through this port. It's even harder with this being a colony. Is that what you wanted to know?"
Jim closed his eyes a moment, biting back his disappointment. So, Rukit had been wrong, this man couldn't help him. "No ... or rather, yes, I suppose it was. Look, Professor ..."
And again, Jim was caught in that gaze, snared as though he were a fly in a spider's web, every move he made entangling him further. He could say nothing, move not a muscle ...
Was it possible ... in that gaze ... was there ... an ... - oh, god - an invitation?
And then he heard it, above his own violently beating heart, that of the other man, hard and steady, faster than it should be. And a scent ... was it arousal? Something ...
Despair drove him to his feet. He couldn't do this. Just couldn't. No matter how he might want to. It was wrong, wrong! Christ, he'd only just met the man! How could he want ...
His glass found its way to the table, he was already turning before the hand caught his arm.
"Jim? What's wrong? Did I say something?"
The voice stopped him. Concern, genuine and real. Making him feel like a fool. Hell, he was reading his own hidden desires into this man's looks, his words. There was no interest there, no invitation. How could he have been so blind!
"No, Chief, I'm sorry. Look, pay no attention to me. I think I'd better be going."
Jim had almost torn himself free of the young man's grip when this word came out, rich and warm. Despite his trepidation, his gut-wrenching fear and his all-consuming dread, Jim turned back and saw the wide open smile spread across a face too beautiful for its own good.
In his mind's eye, he saw himself live within that smile, meet those eyes of sunset blue, saw his face come down and take those lips with his own, tasting the moist tongue which tempted him, wrap his arms around the compact body standing so close.
The smile faded but the warmth did not. The hand stayed where it was and Jim made no move to leave. Again he could hear the shift in the young man's heartbeat, tried not to, tried to think of something else, anything that would drag his attention away.
But then he ... Blair spoke, in little more than a whisper, "Don't leave."
>From somewhere, Jim found words, some kind of response, "You ... don't understand. I have to."
Blair shook his head, "No. You don't." Fingers tightened around his arm, eyes grew darker, voice grew husky. "Stay."
Desperate now, Jim shook his head, "You have no idea what you're talking about, what you're doing. I'm sorry, I do have to go."
"Yes. No." Wrapped up in a tangle of confusion, Jim finally managed to move, prying those fingers from his arm until he was free. He took a step back - and realized only belatedly that he still held that hand in his own.
Letting go felt worse.
"Look," he shook his head, "I am sorry. I think I ... well, I shouldn't have bothered you. Just forget about me, okay? I won't come back so you don't have to ..." He was already turning and heading into the room again when once more that voice reached him.
"You're a sentinel!"
As the door slammed behind the man, Blair stood where he was, unable to move as the shock ran through him, a maelstrom of heady desire and awestruck amazement.
He had to be. No doubt about it.
His feet began to move, taking him to the door, belatedly. He pulled it open, glanced both ways down the corridor - but Jim was gone.
He didn't notice he'd returned to his room until he was actually sitting on the bed. Idly, his gaze dropped to his hand, the hand that had tried to stay Jim's retreat.
"What an idiot!"
Collapsing his muscles, he fell back on the bed, shoving his hands under his head to watch the ceiling fan wind around and around.
How could he have acted like such a fool? Hadn't he gone way past the point at which he allowed his body to make decisions for him? It had been years since he'd last allowed a physical attraction outweigh his good sense - and he'd paid mightily for it that time, too. So, Jim was one of the most beautiful men he'd ever seen - so what? Didn't mean he had to scare the poor man away, making a pass at him like that.
But if he'd stayed ... "Oh, god!" Blair moaned aloud, closing his eyes tightly. He could still feel the tingle of anticipation rattle through his body, desire co-mingling with shame that he had done something so gauche as to offer himself to a man clearly not interested.
And what kind of impression had he made, doing such a juvenile thing? What would Jim think of him? A true sentinel might at least have heightened hearing, enough to notice his accelerated heartbeat, perhaps even scent his arousal.
"Stop acting like a teenager, Sandburg. The man's not interested in men. Leave him be."
A sentinel? A real, live sentinel?
Sunlight flickered through the palm leaves above as he picked up another strip of rattan and plied it to the end of the last. Carefully, Jim held the dried fibre between his fingers and wound it around the end of the stick, tying in the bound cane spears. He finally got to the end, tucked it in as Rukit had shown him - then let go. For a single heartbeat, it held - then, without so much as an excuse, it slowly unwound itself until the whole thing fell apart.
With a grunt of frustration, Jim gave the thing a kick. The cane scattered across the swept dirt of the kampong, colliding with the house wall. Instantly ashamed, he glanced around to make sure Rukit wasn't watching. Then he quickly gathered up his tools and began again, placing one bamboo spear next to the other, as he'd been taught.
Why couldn't he get this right? It was the simplest of things, making a cane broom. Children of five managed to do it - why couldn't he? Especially when his eyes could pick up so many of the imperfections no other child or adult would ever see. It simply couldn't be this hard. How was he ever going to find something to do with his life if he couldn't get something this simple right?
The children had left him alone this morning. Normally they would follow him everywhere until their parents would chase them off, sending them to collect water or round up chickens. But he could hear them, by the stream, laughing and splashing each other, their innocent noises drifting towards him, a reminder of simpler things than even this broom. Important things.
Rukit had asked him about his meeting with Sandburg. Had shown great sorrow that the man had been unable to help Jim, had even asked questions, just to be sure. Of course, Jim had said nothing about the ... other things he'd seen - or thought he'd seen. Now, a week later, he was no longer sure he'd seen anything other than compassion and understanding in those deep blue eyes.
That's what Sandburg had called him. A sentinel. What was that supposed to mean? The same as that rubbish the simple Burmese had called him? A guardian? He'd never been too sure of the translation, but every attempt he'd made to clear it up, using pictures, examples and every other linguistic tool at his disposal, the meaning returned inexorably back to the original. Sandburg had simply given it another name, one he wasn't sure he liked any better. Especially since it implied that his problem couldn't be fixed.
Shrieks of excitement from the children made him look up from his work. Still sprinkled with water, they were running through the kampong towards him, yelling to him. A gaggle of chattering, noisy laughter he always smiled at. The oldest was no more than five, the rest long since sent to work.
He couldn't make out anything they were saying but he stood as they reached him, grabbing his hands, hauling him forwards. He nearly tripped over a couple of stray chickens and the neighbour's dog which darted off between two huts in an attempted escape Jim was a little jealous of. It was only when he came around the side of Rukit's house that he saw what the noise was about.
Surrounded by his own collection of excited little geese, Professor Blair Sandburg caught sight of him, smiled and waved a hand.
Stunned for a moment, Jim could only stare as Sandburg approached. He wore a white shirt, open at the collar, the cuffs folded up to his elbows. Tan trousers and worn brown shoes completed the casual elegance. Even the hair was different, no longer slicked by cream, it was pulled back as before, but softer now, a single strand falling at the side of his cheek.
Involuntarily, Jim took a step back.
"God, James Ellison, you are a tough man to track down!" Sandburg laughed in greeting, splitting his attention between Jim and the children. He rattled something off to them in swift, perfect Malay then turned back to Jim. "I've walked the length and breadth of every kampong in the whole of Katong looking for you. I knew I had the right one today when I mentioned a tall American and these kids nearly went crazy."
"You looked for me?" Jim got the words out through clenched teeth, his whole body reacting to what he saw and how much he wanted it. This was insane! Had his life been so torn apart by his curse that he could no longer even talk to an attractive man without feeling this threat to his self-control? What the hell was happening to him?
He had to find some way to get rid of this devil. He would be fine if this man would just leave him alone. Sandburg couldn't help him - and anything else was ... impossible. Jim would make sure of that. He'd cured himself of his attraction to men once before. He had to be able to do it again. Simply had to!
"Of course I looked for you." Sandburg tilted his head slightly. "I really wish you hadn't run off like that. I know you wanted ..." The children were jumping up and down now, demanding his attention. With a glance of patience towards Jim, Sandburg knelt down, and spoke quietly and carefully to them, getting them eventually to nod. Without another word, they all turned and ran, laughing again.
Finally alone, Sandburg straightened up, ran a hand over his hair. "Look, we really need to talk."
"No, we don't." Turning, Jim headed back around the house, began picking up his tools once more.
"Yes, we do."
The sound was no more than a whisper - but Jim heard it clearly. He whirled around to find himself alone. Suddenly panicked, he stormed back around the house to find Sandburg where he'd left him, his face clear of expression.
"What ..." But Jim knew it was already too late to pretend. He stopped in his tracks and closed his eyes, his shoulders sagging in defeat. Yeah, this was impossible.
Coming towards him slowly, Sandburg said, "We do need to talk, Jim. You need some help - and I think I can give it to you."
Jim's eyes snapped open at that, looking for whatever meaning those words had. But Sandburg's gaze was absent of anything other than a clear intent, a desire to be of assistance. The sharp retort ready on his lips slowly died. No, he had been wrong about this man. Very wrong. Sandburg had tracked him down simply because he wanted to help - nothing more. It was only Jim's internal confusion that made it seem more, a confusion he could quell if there was some way the professor could help him.
Swallowing, feeling a little reassured, Jim murmured, "I don't see how you can help me. You don't even know what the problem is."
"Oh?" Sandburg offered a light smile, "So why did you run from my room the moment I mentioned the word sentinel?"
Jim had to look away, to stop his face from colouring. He took a deep breath and let it out, as the Burmese shaman had taught him. As before, it did little to ease the tension in his body.
"Listen, Jim, those kids will be back in a minute. Why don't we walk down to the beach? The wind coming off the sea keeps the humidity down a little. What do you say?"
Listen? To that voice? The man was actually asking him if he wanted to listen to liquid gold?
Jim nodded, half of him at war, the other half, at peace. There was little to fear at the moment. Out here, in the open, he was unlikely to do something he would regret - especially when the young man's interests lay so obviously in the sentinel question. "Let's go this way."
He led Sandburg between neat wooden huts and juvenile palms until they reached the road. Pausing only for a donkey and cart to go by, Jim took him across to where huge coconut palms rooted deep into sand, couch grass holding on tentatively to the shifting ground. Beyond, sparkling in the morning sunshine, lay the sea.
They were not alone even here. Further along the beach, men worked on a fishing boat, painting it bright blue. Jim turned left, away from them and headed towards a rocky outcrop, where gentle waves splashed against hard stone. He knew Sandburg walked beside him, but he didn't look at the young man.
"Why did you call me a sentinel?"
Jim came to a halt when there was no answer. Sandburg paid no attention to him and instead, stepped onto the rocks. There he squatted down and dipped his hand into a rock pool, more of his hair falling free.
"Have you ever heard of Sir Richard Burton?" Sandburg finally replied, in a conversational manner.
"That's him. He was probably the first real anthropologist, a great man in many respects. He wrote a number of books, some about weapons and swordsmanship." Sandburg paused as he lifted a shell out of the water to take a look at it. "He was also responsible for translating the Karma Sutra and bringing it to the notice of the western world. Some people have never forgiven him for that."
Jim climbed onto the rocks and stopped alongside the distracted man. "What about him?"
"Well, he wrote a few other things, between looking for the source of the Nile and sleeping out with the Bedouin. He also wrote a monograph that's pretty much ignored today. He could have written more - but his wife burned a lot of his work after he died and nothing more survives."
This was so much easier to do when the younger man had his focus somewhere else. Jim coaxed his body to relax a little, felt the tight balls of muscle in his shoulders loosen. What harm would it do to listen?
He found a nearby rock and sat, resting his arms on his thighs, his gaze still on the professor. "And what about this monograph?"
"Well, that's the thing that started me on it but, but I've also picked up other references over the years. It's a bit of a hobby of mine, pretty much since I was a kid. Hey, look at this." Sandburg picked up a sea-anemone and held it up with a child-like grin splashed across his face. Jim smiled in return and shook his head. It was still impossible to believe this young man could be old enough to be a professor.
"Oh, yeah ... um," putting the thing back down, Sandburg shifted to another pool a little closer to Jim and sat, keeping his hand trailing through the water. There was something about the way he spoke which suggested enormous energy only barely contained. "Well, Burton stated that in all tribal cultures, every village had what he named a sentinel, somebody who patrolled the borders."
The excitement in the young man's eyes was easy to see.
"Like a scout?"
"No, no, no, more like a watchman. See, the sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, changes in the weather, movement of game. Tribal survival depended on it. The sentinel was chosen because of a sensory awareness developed beyond that of normal humans."
Jim stood abruptly, all his disquiet rolled up into one ball sitting like acid in the pit of his stomach. "What?"
Sandburg scrambled to his feet, his hands moving rapidly. "Look, I know it seems a little crazy - but it's true. I have dozens of documented examples of one or two heightened senses, usually taste and smell but as far as I can tell ..."
"How old are you?" Jim demanded, anger threatening his fragile control.
"Twenty-six. Why?" Sandburg watched him warily, his eyes huge.
"How the hell do you get to be a professor at twenty-six, eh? You don't know what the hell you're talking about! Heightened senses be damned!"
"Look, I'm not actually a professor - "
And that was all Jim needed to hear. He turned and would have walked away if Sandburg hadn't grabbed his arm, much as he'd done last week. This time, Jim shook him off. He couldn't afford to let this ... man touch him again.
"Jim!" Sandburg snapped, "Listen to me!"
"What?" Jim stood over him, making no progress in his war with himself, the half that wanted to shake the life out of this charlatan and the other half, the part which wanted desperately to touch, caress, hold and keep.
How had this happened? So quickly?
But there was nothing of that in those eyes today. Nothing at all but a clear and bright intelligence, an energy that hung about him like a halo, adding to the angel's face. "You came to me because you had a problem. Now, you might think I'm crazy but you are having trouble with one of your senses, aren't you?"
When Jim didn't answer, Sandburg grabbed his arm again, "Well? Do you want my help or not?"
"How the hell can you possibly help me?" Jim was desperately trying to ignore that cool hand on his arm, still moist from the sea water, skin against skin.
"Jesus, Jim, how would I know? And I won't know if you don't tell me what the problem is. Your friend told you to talk to me - if you don't trust me, can't you at least trust him? I've been working with these people for almost three years. They know me. Your friend knew enough about me to tell you I could help you. I think I can - but you've got to tell me which sense you're having trouble with."
Skin against skin, that's what he felt. Just skin - and so much more. A warmth, the warmth of another human being was being transmuted to him, something of care and determination wrapped inside it.
He needed help.
And Sandburg was offering it.
Could he afford to turn away now, just because he felt this ... unnatural desire to ...
Filling his lungs with air, Jim let it out slowly, doing nothing about the touch, letting it link him to something, someone, perhaps even quell the fear. Then, in a small voice, he released the secret. "All of them."
Sandburg's eyes widened, his mouth opened in surprise - quickly translated to a smile, wider than the sea behind him. "Are you serious? All five senses? Wow! I mean, that's ... incredible!" Dropping his hand, the young man stepped back, "I ... don't know what to say. I mean, I always wondered but ... Hell! A real sentinel!"
The words came out in a way that, under other circumstances, would have made Jim's skin crawl - but there was something so hopelessly innocent in the kid's wonder, Jim found himself loosening a little, at least enough to manage something of a smile. "Careful, Chief, I wouldn't want you to go cracking something you might need later."
At his comment, Sandburg burst out laughing. "Hell! You are ... " Shaking his head, he sank onto a convenient rock. "Okay, okay, let me have a think about this. Um ... yeah, okay. All five senses? Right."
"Look, Sandburg ..."
"Blair. I told you before."
Jim let out a short laugh, returning to his own seat a few feet away. This was getting ridiculous - and dangerous. Anger one minute, laughter the next. Too little sleep, too many senses he had no control over. There was more than his sanity under threat here.
Taking another calming breath, he kept his voice level, empty of all the things he was so forced to suppress. "Look, Chief, I don't expect any miracles, here, you know. I've had this problem for a long time. I don't expect you to come up with a cure overnight."
"A cure?" Blair glanced up, total confusion filling his face. "What do you mean, cure? Your senses are heightened naturally, Jim. I can't cure them back to normal. Nobody can. Not unless you're prepared to lose them completely - as in being blind and deaf."
Jim stared at him, despair grinding away inside him like a millstone, "Then, I guess..." his voice caught, "I guess you really can't help me."
He wanted to walk away then, gather his things from Rukit's house and find the first ship out - but for the moment, he didn't even have the energy to look away from Blair. If this was all he was ever going to allow himself, he would hold it for as long as he could.
And within the two halves of him, something began to hurt. Badly.
He didn't even realize Blair had approached him until he stopped only inches from Jim's knees. A steady hand came out to his shoulder, and Jim had to look up to see into those eyes which seemed to hold so much for him.
This was daytime - and this looked like hope should look. It was there, in those blue eyes.
"Jim," Blair began, his voice low, "what you feel is natural. You were born this way. Why would you want to be cured? Wouldn't it be better to embrace what you are, learn to live with it? That's what I can do. That's how I can help. Sure, I don't have a lot of answers for you right now, but give me a little time, a chance to do some tests. You have to tell me what kind of problems you're having and maybe I can find a way for you to deal with them."
And once again, his mind's eye lifted an image off a blank page, of Blair laid out beside him, naked, sweating in the eastern heat, his skin velvet and steel, soft moans filling the air as Jim touched him, kissed him ...
"Please, Jim," Blair added in a whisper. "I want to help you."
And in those words, Jim found an answer he wasn't expecting, knew, as surely as he was sitting there that if he moved, reached out and pulled this beautiful man towards him, Blair would come to him, offer up his mouth to be kissed. Would find some way for that mind's image to become a reality.
The temptation tantalized as it horrified him. Sweet ecstasy and daylight terror twisted inside him, exciting and emptying him all in one second.
And for that one second, he was tempted to do just that. To reach out, to hold, to ... feel ... something he'd never felt before ... To feel ... real.
"I can't," he forced the words out, forced air in, forced himself to sit up, to stand up, forced his body to conform to his will because if he didn't, he'd be lost, so very lost and he'd never, ever for the rest of his life, find himself again.
He simply couldn't do that to this man. Couldn't immerse him in a perversion he understood nothing about. He was an innocent and didn't need Jim to corrupt him.
"You can." Blair let his hand drop but only stepped back a little, his gaze never leaving Jim's face. "You have to."
"Jim!" Blair's eyes flashed, a hard glint in the sunlight. "You don't have a choice! If you've already had enough problems that you're prepared to go to a complete stranger for help, then I'm guessing things are pretty bad. If you don't do something about this soon, you could end up dead! All I'm asking is for you to give me a week. That's all, just one week. Let me work with you, do some research. If I can't find at least one answer for you in that time, I promise, you'll never see me again. I promise, Jim. But, please, just give me a chance."
And there was nothing he could say to that. Nothing that could communicate all that warring confusion, no words from either of his halves to claim the moment. Inside, he was silent at that plea, so he did the only thing he could do, reaching for the thread of hope with a hand stained with despair.
"Okay." He swallowed, easing the words out, "One week."
Blair's smile came slowly, but blossomed in full. "Yeah? That's great, Jim! Great!" He pulled out his pocket watch, gave it a quick glance, frowned and appeared to think for a moment. "Look, I have an appointment back at the hotel in an hour. Why don't you come in this afternoon? We can talk, I can take some notes, you know, make a start. Or do you have plans for this afternoon?"
"No plans." Jim replied, almost mechanically. He couldn't look too deep inside right now, Blair was so mesmerizing to watch. Recriminations could come later. "Only, I'd rather not meet in the bar."
"Oh, right, sorry. Um, how about ... there's a lounge on the second floor, above where the orchestra plays. It's called the Tiffin Room. Can you find it? At say, three?"
"Fine. I'll be there."
Blair turned - then paused. He glanced back, an eyebrow raised half in question, half in doubt, "Promise?"
And the halves clanged together again, echoing throughout his sanity. Jim smiled, "Sure. I'll be there. Promise. Now go, or you'll be late."
With a grin, the young man was walking away, heading for the road. Jim watched him hail the taxi which appeared to be waiting for him, watched him climb in, watched him drive away.
What was he doing? Who was he calling crazy? Was he really going to let this man get close enough to learn about his problems? Did he dare risk it? And what if he couldn't control himself, what if, some time in the next week, he reached out and actually touched ...
"Damn, it, Ellison - just don't think about it! He's a man; it's not natural! Now just let him do his thing, find out he can't help you and then leave him alone. Don't even think about anything else. Corrupting him is the very last thing you want to do!"
And with that, he turned and headed back to the kampong. He had a broom to make and he had to finish it before lunch.
Blair hadn't ordered the second pot of tea but was rather grateful when the tray was placed on the table before him. He looked up from the papers on his lap, smiled at the waiter and nodded for him to pour. Crimpton, apparently comfortable in his armchair, simply watched the entire process, the sweat glistening on his forehead the only concession he made to the heat.
"I hope you find everything in order?" The lawyer said evenly as the waiter disappeared.
"So far," Blair replied, glancing around the lounge, looking for Jim. It wasn't three o'clock yet, but that didn't stop him hoping the man might turn up early. But there was somebody there, walking past the door, a man who looked a lot like Carl ...
No, it couldn't be him. He would know better than to ...
Blair turned his attention away from imagination, back to looking for Jim and when he caught no sight of the big American, he turned back to the papers, lifted the last page up to indicate a paragraph. "This section here? Is this my grandfather's doing?"
"I believe your mother had a similar clause in her trust deed. Her father insisted upon it, wanting to make sure that the man she married was at least suitable to her status. I'm sure your grandfather only wishes to ensure you are not the target of any ... fortune hunting women."
Blair was tempted to smile at the plain, uncomfortable man before him forming words that were clearly distasteful to him. Crimpton was the epitome of servile respect, extending to Blair the courtesies due his position. Probably not a bad person inside, but would he be so nice if he understood the reasoning behind this meeting, these papers Blair was supposed to sign? No, he was civil simply because he took Blair at face value, saw the money, saw the name. Nothing else.
With a smile, Blair lifted another page, covered in handwriting, "That's fine - except that she doesn't actually say in her letter what kind of woman would be suitable. I would have thought that if she really expected me to find a wife out here, she could at least have given me a hint as to what she would find preferable."
"Mr Sandburg, your mother made no mention to me of whether she expected you to find a wife while you were here. And as to the suitability of such a ..." Crimpton paused, his brows drawing together as a thought framed itself. "Am I to understand you have already entered into such an understanding with a young lady?"
"Well, I ..."
>From nowhere, a scented presence wafted towards him, all chiffon ruffles and elegant coiffure. Blair came to his feet as Annabelle reached him, giving her the kiss on the cheek she always insisted upon.
"Am I disturbing you, darling?" Annabelle as usual, paid no attention to whatever answer he might have given, taking a seat next to him on the sofa, tossing a casual glance in Crimpton's direction, just to make sure he was not somebody she needed to know and be polite to. "Whatever is all this? Not business, I hope. Don't tell me you're going off on one of your awful expeditions again! Honestly, sweetie, I don't know how you can manage to live with those natives. No bath, no champagne and no decent food. However do you manage it? You must be a saint." Annabelle ran a long-nailed finger down Blair's cheek, a dangerous caress that made him laugh. "And such an angel's face to go with it. I certainly hope those people appreciate what you do for them, poor helpless things."
Still laughing, Blair gathered his papers together. "I'm sure they do, Anna. And they're always so polite about it, too. Never interrupting me when I'm busy."
"Oh, you horrible child, you," Annabelle pouted, all mock distress. Within a second however, her dimples reappeared, bold red lipstick bright as the sun. "Listen, darling, a bunch of us are heading out on Sammy's boat this afternoon. Come and join us, do. Helen is coming along, now that Daddy's gone back to London. And Susie will be there. You like Susie, don't you? And Rafe and Harry - no, wait, I think Harry's still courting that awful woman from New Jersey. Anyway, there's a whole bunch of us going. Please, say you'll be there?"
Blair stacked his papers together and pulled a pen from his pocket. Leaning down on the coffee table, he signed three times and handed the rest back to Crimpton. "When do you head back to the States?"
"It will take my office here another three days to finalize things, then I'll be leaving. I'll drop the documents in to you before I go, if that is satisfactory?"
"Sure, that'll be fine." Crimpton got to his feet - but Blair was denied any chance of speaking to him again.
"Blair, darling," Annabelle demanded his attention by taking his chin and forcing it around to face her. "You're not listening to me. A romantic evening on board Sammy's boat? Music? Dancing? He swears he has a dozen crates of the best French. Nobody can turn down an offer like that, can they?"
Blair took her hand from his face, giving it a quick squeeze. "Anna, don't think I don't want to go - but I really do have a lot of work to do. I'd love to come but - "
He broke off with a movement in the corner of his eye. He didn't even need to look to know who it was. His heart began to thud hard in his chest - and he really wished it wouldn't because that tall man over there was a real live sentinel and he would certainly - well, almost certainly - be able to hear it.
Switching his attention back to Annabelle, Blair gave her the best smile he could manage considering all his facial muscles appeared to have frozen in their places, uncaring of the afternoon heat. "Anna, please believe me, I'd love to go - but you know, duty calls and all that. But you go and have a lovely time. Tell the others I'll see them day after tomorrow. At Barney's picnic?"
Annabelle let out an enormous sigh, batted her eyelashes a little then got to her feet. "I was right, darling, you are a martyr to your work. Very well, I'll let you off this once - but no excuses on Saturday. Barney is setting up the badminton net and if you don't help me beat Susie and Tom, I shall never speak to you again." With that, she leaned down and gave him a deliberate kiss, full on the lips, knowing she was shocking everybody else in the lounge. As she moved away, she gave him a devilish smile and then was gone, the essence of her fragrance drifting behind her like the wake of a sailing ship.
Blair snapped around to find Jim standing before him, pale blue shirt neatly pressed, white trousers and white jacket perfectly casual. The man was a model for the concept of beauty - and most likely didn't know it. "Hi. Sit down. Like some tea?"
"Yeah, coffee would be good. Can't remember the last time I tasted good coffee."
Blair smiled, suddenly light-headed. Jim had come after all. He'd come all the way into the city, just to talk to Blair.
Barely controlling his excitement, he waved a waiter over, got him to collect the tea tray and ordered some coffee for them both. That done, he turned his attention to the man seated at right angles to him, legs crossed, hands folded neatly on his lap, grey/blue eyes taking in the opulence of the Tiffin Room.
This morning, Jim had appeared to be a man under some stress, his bearing, his words entirely at odds with the simple clothing of a long sarong and faded blue shirt; clothes which outlined a strong and powerful body Blair had done his best to ignore. Now Jim seemed different, more relaxed somehow, as though the last few hours had seen some kind of internal struggle won - or lost. Not that anything showed on Jim's face however. No, Blair had noticed that right from the start. The face displayed little beyond the odd jaw-clench. It was the eyes that told him what he needed to know - the eyes, and his own instincts.
Jim Ellison was afraid.
But exactly what he was afraid of remained for Blair to discover. But whatever he did, he had vowed not to make the same mistake he'd made a week ago, foolishly showing his interest to a man who was patently dismayed by the suggestion. No, he would have to shelve all such thoughts about this incredible man - especially if he honestly expected to find some way to help him.
"So, you have to tell me," Blair began, keeping his tone light, something of a smile on his face - not hard to do when sitting next to probably the world's only living sentinel. Christ, Burton would have killed to be here in his place! "I have to know how you can manage to look so neat while living in a kampong without running water or electricity."
It was the right way to start. Jim chuckled, glanced down at his hands and picked a piece of imaginary lint from his trousers. "I have an ex-navy friend who has been kind enough to lend me some wardrobe items - along with a bath and a houseboy who irons pretty well."
"You were in the navy?"
"My friend is ex-navy. I was in the army."
"Eight years. Just long enough to want to get out."
"And before that?"
Jim shrugged, looking away again. "I joined the police in Cascade."
It wasn't hard to read the man's reactions, "Until you began to have difficulties?"
"That's right." The jaw clenched for the first time that afternoon - so Blair pulled his notebook from where he'd wedged it between the cushion of the sofa and the arm. He opened it to a new page and looked up again.
"How long ago was that?"
"And what did you do?"
"Yeah. I mean, did you go and see a doctor or something?"
A hard glint flashed into those eyes, pinning Blair to his seat. "Not voluntarily. My Captain ordered it. They ... locked me away, thought I was insane. I kept seeing ..."
Jim broke off as the waiter brought coffee. He said nothing else until the man left.
"You kept seeing?"
"Things. I kept seeing things."
Blair heard the irritation in the voice and paused in his questions long enough to pour coffee, hand a cup to Jim. Then he sat back again. "Just sight?"
"No, hell, it was everything, alright?" Jim sat forward, obviously trying to hide his discomfort at having to talk about this. His voice dropped - though nobody was even remotely close enough to hear what they said. There were barely ten people in the lounge and all of them were at the other end of the room. "Clothes would burn my skin. I ended up with blisters at one point. One day I could barely hear a thing - the next, I was deafened, couldn't switch it off. Food tasted metallic all the time, I could hardly keep anything down."
"What did the doctors say?"
"Not much. Put me in a straight jacket and fed me morphine."
Jim glanced up, appeared to calm a little at the expression on Blair's face. "Yeah, well, I didn't stick around long enough for them to do any real damage. I broke out after a week, when they were transferring me to a hospital for the criminally insane."
"But why?" Blair left his notes for a moment. "You didn't hurt anybody, did you?"
"No, but I came close. Wanted to strangle the doctor with the morphine needles. I guess they were just afraid, you know?"
Blair said nothing for a few minutes, allowing Jim to drink his coffee in silence.
It was odd, but he'd never thought about this moment, never really envisaged finding a real sentinel - and this morning he'd felt like he'd won the jackpot. But now, sitting here, watching the pain be so successfully suppressed from that handsome face, he began to wonder if this was such a good idea. Sure, he could write a book about this, something to rival even Burton's greatest texts - but was that all he was seeing?
Would he find the sentinel only to lose the man inside?
"Hey, wanna get out of here?"
"What? And go where?"
"A chance to do a few tests. Nothing too difficult." Blair signed the bill and left it on the tray. "Ever been to Orchard Road Market?"
"That's great, Jim, just absolutely amazing." Blair scribbled one more note and stepped to one side to let a man pushing a cart to go by. The chaos of the market spread out around them, a thousand noises and smells, sights and colours - and so many this incredible sentinel could catalogue without even trying.
For two hours, Jim had let him ask questions, test a few wild theories, play a few tricks - and over that time, Blair had developed a good feel for what he needed to do next. However, the big man never once mentioned the actual troubles he was having. These little exercises, while testing, weren't really that difficult. After all, he was surrounded by input - how hard could it be?
No, the real test would be for him to pick out something invisible to the normal senses, in an environment that gave little or nothing away for free. So, that would be tomorrow's plan. Get Jim somewhere on his own, make him work at it.
Sure, Blair was making this up as he went along, but the challenge was too great for him to toss away without at least a very good effort on his part.
Blair indicated a lane they could turn down. Orchard Market was probably his favourite. Always full of new things he wanted to see, handcrafts and foods, intricate baskets hanging from hooks, handmade wooden bowls and implements. A treasure trove he never tired of whenever he came back to Singapore.
Jim walked at his side, continually shifting to make room for throngs of shoppers, people with baskets and those towing live pigs behind them.
"Okay," Blair continued, "Let's try something different. What's a scent you know really well?"
"I'm not good with names. I wouldn't know where to start."
"Well, the name doesn't matter at this stage. Just picture it in your head and see if you can find it somewhere here. Something nothing to do with food would be useful. A spice would be too easy."
Jim nodded, his head up, his feet moving him forward. Blair just watched him for a moment, his thoughts drifting as he gazed at the square shoulders encased in blue cotton and not for the first time that afternoon, a part of him mourned the fact that Jim was indeed a sentinel - and that Blair had offered to help him. Given enough time, he could, he knew that, believed it.
But he also knew that, given enough time, he could have something very special with this man. If he was interested. Pity he wasn't.
The very first time he'd seen the man, a week ago, the same thought had struck him. Jim standing over the card table, tentative, hesitant, asking his name. Blair had looked up, and looked - and nearly blown the chance of his career.
Jim hadn't run away that night because he'd been called a sentinel. He'd run because he believed Blair was making a pass at him - and he was repelled. Possibly even revolted.
And that thought burned in his gut, making him determined never to make another move on the poor man - especially since he had in fact made said pass quite deliberately. Standing on his balcony that night, his hand on Jim's arm, all he'd wanted in that moment was to take the man to his bed.
They'd only just met.
No more than half an hour in his company.
But Blair had seen enough to know. He'd seen the fear in those eyes, the pain lurking behind, suppressed, ignored just to go on living. Somebody had hurt this man, and hurt him bad. And Blair, god help him, wanted to be the one to heal that hurt, to make it better.
Wanted to get close enough to try. Wanted this man to like him. To respect him. Even if he had to hide the greater part of himself to do it. Hell, it wouldn't be the first time he'd had to make that sacrifice.
And he was supposed to be the clever one in the family. Huh!
Jim had stopped at the end of the lane. He turned to face Blair, a crooked smile lighting his features, making Blair smile in return. That was such a nice smile, so full of sunshine, so genuine. But the man didn't smile often enough.
Moving forward, Blair caught up with him. "Well? Find what you were looking for?"
"Yeah, I guess - but I'm not sure it'll be any help."
"Well... I..." Jim struggled to keep the smile but it began to fray at the edges. "What kind of soap do you use?"
"Soap? Um, sandalwood, I think. Why?"
In reply, Jim leaned towards him a little, sniffed slightly then stepped back. "It's you, then."
"Yeah." Jim shrugged, glancing at his feet. "I thought of a scent and went looking for it, like you said. I guess I was just ... looking for ... "
Blair supplied the answer, "Me?"
Jim's gaze shot to him, hot and searing a moment - before being shut down, hard, behind a wall of normality. "Yeah."
Blair couldn't take his eyes away, a shiver running down his spine he had no control over ...
Not interested? Jim?
So much for being the clever one! Yeah, Jim was interested. Very interested. Perhaps a little too interested considering how public they were right now.
Words came to him, overriding panic, "Look, Jim, why don't we finish for today, huh? Why don't we ... " He caught himself in time, bit back the words offering Jim a drink in his room. He couldn't do it. This man was terrified of these abilities and had come to him for help. Blair couldn't take advantage of him like that. "Why don't we call it a day, huh? You're probably tired and everything and I don't want to push it too hard, make you have some kind of reaction or something. We could start again tomorrow morning. Hey, we could take a walk around the city. That would work. Have you seen much of it yet?"
"What do you say? Meet me in the Palm Gardens at the Raffles at say, eleven?"
Jim's gaze narrowed a little and for a fleeting moment, Blair was sure the man was going to refuse. But then Jim nodded. "Okay."
Blair let out an inaudible sigh of relief and shepherded Jim out of the market.
The ringing wouldn't stop. On and on it went, crying and bleeding through everything, tossing and turning his black memories, tearing things apart. Images kept coming towards him, half-shadowed, nasty and vicious. People he knew, yelling at him, words impossible to understand, all he felt was their hatred, their blind self-absorbed hatred, clinging to him, sticking like mud, like leaches, bleeding him dry.
He was adrift between them, no anchor to support him, no home to run to.
His skin caught fire, numbed and burning, itching. Hands clawed at him, words clawed at him, light clawed and stripped him bare, brazen and aching inside. Trembling he fell, down and down, further into the darkness, further into the blindness ...
A cold hand on his shoulder snapped him back, woke him, had him half out of bed and ready to attack before he could stop himself. Wildly, he searched the night for a face - and found it. Rukit was leaning over him, concern etched on his brown features.
"Jim? You okay? More dream?"
"Oh shit!" Jim hauled in air, raising his hands in apology, shaking his head. "Hell, Rukit, I'm sorry. Did I wake anyone else?"
"No. I up to stoke fire. Heard you. You okay now?"
Okay? When his skin still felt on fire? At least the noises had dropped down so he could cope. Hell! Another night like this and he really would go insane. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine."
"Sleep again, Jim?"
"No, I don't think so."
"You need sleep. Try."
"No. I'd better go down to the stream. I need to cool off."
"Okay. Be careful."
Rukit stepped back and moved into the other room. Jim rolled off his sleeping mat and stuck his feet into his sandals. He grabbed the small towel he travelled with and ducked out of the house. It was still dark outside and for once, his sight was behaving. He found the path to the water with no trouble at all. Once there, he waded into it, leaving his trousers on. There were real leeches in this water and he had no desire to be any more bled than he already was.
The water was cool and glided over his flaming skin like the greatest balm imaginable. He let out a long contented sigh as he sank down into it. His hands smoothed over his shoulders and arms. The fire went out under such attention.
Damn it! How many nights now? How many times had he woken from something like that? Too many to count. Though at least this time, he'd not hit anyone, broken anything nor woken the entire household. And he'd come to very quickly, snapped back to reality much better than before.
One small blessing amid the curse.
He floated back into the water, keeping his feet on the muddy bottom. His eyes drifted upwards and took in the pre-dawn sky where lumpy clouds skittered past, already fringed with a warning glow.
Was it possible the anthropologist could help him? Was it really? Would these terrible nightmares, these outraged senses actually stop torturing him before they killed him? Or worse, before he killed someone else?
Sandburg believed he could help. He was an intelligent, well-educated man, sharp and observant with a keen interest in the story about the sentinel. Did it matter whether Jim was really one or not?
Sentinel? Crazy idea. Simply crazy. But the offer of help was there - and Christ knew he needed it.
Jim came to his feet and waded out of the stream. He had work to do, people to feed, a head to get back in order before he faced Sandburg later on - and Rukit would be worried.
Same curse, different day.
Blair made a point of taking Jim to the most famous sights first, while he was interested, keeping the testing and such for later in the day. They wandered in and out of the Empress Place Museum, St Andrew's Cathedral and the Thian Hock Keng Temple and Jim took it all in, seeming to listen to Blair's explanations and history - even occasionally asking him a question or two.
Not that Blair allowed himself to chatter incessantly all day. No, he talked when it was important; the rest of the time he asked his own questions, observing the man, deliberately engaging Jim in real conversation, about any subject that had nothing to do with senses and sentinels.
Of course, he did his best to ignore the casual touches they exchanged during the day. Nothing more than a brush here, a pat there to gain attention, to indicate something. Jim was a very tactile person - he also touched walls and statues, inhaled deeply of incense burning outside of temples. A man with heightened senses, after all, would engage them on a normal basis, wouldn't he?
Jim's knowledge of world events was pretty good considering the man had just spent two years in Burma. But of course, knowledge was one thing - intelligence another thing entirely - and Jim displayed more than his fair share in the way he responded, in how he viewed things. His ability to understand and summarize a complex situation without diminishing its impact, had Blair shaking his head in amazement on more than one occasion. And sometimes his questions had such a wonderful simplicity to them, they made Blair laugh in delight.
After lunch, they wandered through Chinatown, picking their way through streets lined with butchers' shops, fortune tellers and calligraphers. Jim was even drawn into a couple of Shenist temples where he behaved with perfect courtesy while playing the tourist.
It was difficult, faced with Jim's evident interest in this place, to force him to concentrate on tests. He never brought the subject up himself, and after a while, Blair found himself less willing to start. There was something extremely nice about this kind of wandering, especially with somebody he was beginning to like a lot. Somebody who was interesting in his own right, able to make Blair laugh with his deadpan humour and neatly eloquent asides. Jim was the kind of company Blair really missed.
Truth was, he was enjoying himself. So too, it seemed, was Jim. Why ruin a good thing?
By mid afternoon, Blair was thirsty and ready to sit down for a while and by the looks of it, so was Jim. Steering him to the nearest market, Blair saw what he was looking for and glanced aside at Jim.
"Have you ever tried starfruit?"
"Do stars have fruit?"
The easy response made Blair chuckle. "Ah, one of the mysteries of Singapore. This way."
There were tables and chairs on the outskirts of the market, close by a busy road filled with rickshaws and overburdened lorries, handcarts and people. There weren't many westerners around but that didn't appear to bother Jim.
"You spend much time in Singapore?" Jim asked, sipping his starfruit juice like a man asked to drink poison.
"Quite a bit. I do three month stints in Malaya, then come back here, use the library, write up my notes, do a little more research on the Chinese culture and then go across the Straits again. I guess I've probably spent about a quarter of my time here, in the city."
"Do you like it?"
"Singapore?" Blair raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, I guess I do. It's really very interesting when you get to scratch beneath the surface. Multicultural influences abound. I should really do a follow up comparative study on how the Chinese culture here has adapted and changed from that in China." He would have gone on but Jim was smiling at him. "What?"
"You don't stop working, do you, Chief? This anthropology really has you in its jaws."
"Uh, I guess so," Blair shrugged. He couldn't tell whether Jim was laughing at him or not. It wasn't the first time people had raised their eyebrows at his knowledge or interests. It also wasn't the first time it had annoyed him. But he hid it, as he always did. After all, what was the point in arguing? "Sorry, I guess you must be pretty bored hearing me spout all this stuff at you."
"No, not at all." Jim's headshake and expression were entirely genuine. "It's like having my own private tour guide."
Blair brightened a little at that. "Well, if you want to see something really interesting, you should make sure you're in the city for Thaipusam."
"This amazing Hindu festival." Blair leaned forward, putting his arms on the small table. "Devotees do all these incredible things to honour Lord Subramaniam and you just have to see it to believe it. They pierce their bodies with things that look like fish hooks, looped into the skin. These are attached to bicycle spokes which in turn are attached to this huge contraption that sits on them like the frame of a dome, covered in peacock feathers. It's called, Carrying the Kavardi. They then march in a procession from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road to the Chettiar Temple on Tank Road - and not a drop of blood is spilled on the way."
Jim was grimacing long before he finished.
"I've even seen some guys spear this long bamboo pole through one cheek, through the tongue and out the other cheek. I don't know how they do it, but some of them do it every single year of their adult lives. It's some kind of religious rite of passage."
"And when does this happen?"
"Oh, I can't remember at the moment. The date is like Easter, based on the lunar calendar. Why?"
"So I can make sure I miss it."
Blair grinned, "And you used to be in the army. Didn't know soldiers could be squeamish."
"Then you obviously haven't been in the army yourself."
"No way!" Blair laughed and sat back, "Sorry. I guess I should have left out a few of the details."
"Actually, Chief," Jim pinned him with a level gaze, the frame of a smile sitting around his eyes, "it's not so much hearing the details - but the relish with which you describe them."
"It's the scientist in me."
"Oh yes?" But Jim laughed at that, and Blair laughed with him.
It was hard to keep his eyes from Jim, hard not to sit there and study him openly. For all his easy manner today, there was still an underlying discomfort, a thread of buried fear tangling his gaze when he wasn't paying attention. Jim was a man walled up within his own world, his errant senses the only thing leaching out to confront others, touching a reality he didn't really want to know about.
Short cropped hair, a lean tanned face, square jaw and piercing blue eyes. Tall and powerful, tough and strong, Jim Ellison saw his heightened senses as a weakness, wanted to be rid of them, probably even hated them.
Yeah, hard to steal his attention away, hard to make himself forget the fact that he was very strongly attracted to this man, with or without the heightened senses. And that scared him. A lot.
He could fall in love with this man, without any trouble at all. Simply fall and never be able to get up. Odd, considering that he'd never really been in love before, how he could just know something like that. And dangerous, with a man who might be interested but was obviously afraid to acknowledge it.
Blair was almost ready for another drink when Jim tossed him a question.
"Why do they call you professor if you aren't one?"
Surprised, Blair looked up. "I don't know. I guess because I'm here studying. Anybody with a few degrees has to be a professor, you know how it goes."
"How many degrees?"
"I'm working on my doctoral thesis at the moment."
"How long have you been here?"
"Three years almost."
"And you live at the Raffles?"
"Off and on. When I'm here."
"On some kind of study grant?"
"In a way."
Blair played with his glass for a moment, "My grandfather was an amateur historian. When I entered college to study anthropology, he offered me some money to study in the field - as long as I did it outside the States."
The image of Crimpton instantly flashed into Blair's head, along with the reasons for his visit. With a mental shake, he dismissed it. Taking a brief glance at the other man, Blair chose a sideways answer, "Oh, that's a long story. Not that I mind. It's much more interesting here than at home." No, that was one subject he didn't want to get into. And why should he? Why should he have to remember? Didn't he have to live with it every day?
Jim nodded, absorbing the answer, seeing that it was an evasion. But he didn't push it - fortunately. Instead, he kept his gaze on Blair, his entire body perfectly still. "How did you know?"
"About my ... you know, my senses."
Blair raised his eyebrows. He finished his juice and set the glass down. "I don't think I did - not at first. But then you told me about your friend. I didn't recognize his name but last year, I met an old Shaman, near Malacca, on the west coast of Malaya. I only stayed there a couple of days but I learned a great deal from him. In the process, I told him what I knew of sentinels. He didn't have any similar stories to tell me and I suppose I'd forgotten all about it. It's possible this man could be your friend's cousin. It was the only reason I could think of why anybody would send you to talk to me about my work. I take it your friend knows about your senses?"
"Rukit? Yes, I suppose he must - not that we've talked about it. But he has had to ..."
Jim frowned and shifted in his seat, forcing his gaze back over the market. "I ... I'm not sure this is such a good idea. This has been ... going on for so long now. I don't think I want to face the disappointment again when we find out you can't help me. I would still rather you found me a cure." His voice dropped so low Blair could hardly hear it. "I hate being like this."
"Well," Blair took in a breath, forming his words carefully. "Perhaps the reason why you hate it so much is because you're having trouble. If we can find a way around that ..."
"You don't understand what it's like!" Jim hissed, his gaze dropping to his hands. "It's just not normal. I want to be normal, like everybody else. I want to be able to go to sleep at night and not hear the blood rushing through my own veins. Have you any idea what it feels like to have such an intimate knowledge of the workings of your own body? To have them plague you, day in day out? The reason why people don't have heightened senses is because you really don't want to know about that stuff, you don't need to hear it because if you do, it will send you insane!"
Blair blinked at the harsh tone, not taking his eyes from the other man. Yeah, there was a lot of pain here, some of it buried so deep, it was unlikely he would ever even get close to it.
So he didn't try. "Jim, I know I don't really understand. How can I? This is a first for me, okay? Jim? Look at me?" He waited until the man looked up before continuing in a firm but gentle voice, "But let's take this one day at a time. You said you'd give me a chance. Just try to relax. If it turns out I can't help you, then maybe ... maybe I can find a Chinese doctor who has a herbal draught he can give you, to help you sleep or something."
"Herbs?" An ironic smile lit half of Jim's face. "Have you any idea how that stuff smells to me?"
Blair allowed himself to smile, "No - but I know how it smells to an ordinary nose - and I wouldn't put a curse like that onto my best friend. All the more reason to let me try. Please, Jim. If it turns out I can't help, what have you lost, eh? You'll have plenty of time after this week to be as disappointed as you like. In the meantime, just try to relax."
"Relax?" Jim shook his head slowly. "Sure. That's easy. And how exactly do you propose I do that?"
"Well," Blair pondered for a moment. "I know a place where you can get a great massage. The guy used to be a wrestler. I don't go anywhere near as often as I'd like to. Then, we could go somewhere nice and quiet, down by the waterfront. There are a few restaurants down there which do great seafood. I could meet you there after your massage and we could talk some more, maybe you could tell me about the problems you've been having."
Jim was watching him, something akin to a smile playing about his eyes. Blair continued, barely pausing long enough to take a breath. "And then tomorrow morning, we could go back to your beach at Katong and do a few distance tests. I need to gather as much information as possible before I can formulate any theories. And then, in the afternoon, for relaxation, you can come with me to Barney's picnic."
Giving him half a laugh, Jim shook his head again, "Who's Barney?"
"Huh? Oh, Barney Goldman - he's Annabelle's cousin."
Now Jim actually smiled. "And - who is Annabelle?"
"Oh, sorry," Blair chuckled, "she's the woman you said was beautiful. In the Tiffin Room yesterday? Her cousin Barney is a member of the country club on the southwest coast of the island. A few of us are having a picnic there for lunch tomorrow."
"The idle rich?" If Jim was mocking him, he was doing it very gently.
"Some of them are idle, some less so. So? What do you say?" Blair knew he was pushing, knew he probably shouldn't - but simply couldn't help himself. He simply couldn't bring himself to let go of this. Of this man.
Jim took in a long breath, but let it out without a sigh, "Well, the massage sounds good. So does dinner - but I can't say I'm thrilled about the interrogation. The beach is a good place to work, I suppose. But the picnic? Well, I don't know these friends of yours and to be honest, I just don't have the wardrobe to go socializing. Simon would kill me."
"Well, if that's all you're worried about, I can fix that without a problem."
"You're not going to lend me your clothes are you?" Jim replied with a grin. "Chief, I hate to say it but we're not exactly the same size here, you know?"
"I did notice that - but Singapore is famous for one thing above all else - its tailors. Come on, I know a man who can put together a suit for you before the picnic tomorrow. We can go see him right now. Then I'll send you off for your massage while I do a few hours in the library. You'll be ready for dinner by the time you're done." Blair got to his feet, barely containing his excitement.
But Jim didn't move, his eyes going dark. "Look, this is a great plan, Chief, but I'm not exactly loaded. I can't afford a massage, dinner and a suit."
"You may not be loaded, Jim, but I am. More money than I know what to do with."
Blair knew what was coming - but decided to cut through it all before the breeze could gust into a storm. He stepped around the table and pulled up a chair close to Jim, letting his voice cover his own agitation. "Jim, listen to me. This is a two-way street, here. Yeah, I'm trying to help you - but I'm also going to study you. I know you don't want to hear this, but you are different, unique, very special. I'm an anthropologist, trained to study people just like you. You know when Carter discovered Tutankamen's tomb at Luxor? Well, you rank right up there with him. Now, I'll never make any money from this, never use your name or anything, but I want to do the work, okay? Need to. This is exactly why I got into this stuff. I can write a couple of papers that will set the academic world on its ear - and nobody will know it was you I was talking about. As far as I'm concerned, that's worth a massage, dinner and a suit. A hell of a lot more, too, since you ask. I just suggested all this because I was trying to get you to relax, to feel comfortable about doing this work - but I can just as easily leave the Raffles behind and go stay in your kampong if that's what you want. And even if I never write a word about this, I do want to help you. Okay?"
He hadn't realized he was talking with his hands until Jim caught them with his own. His heart skipped a beat then continued on as though nothing had happened.
Eventually, Jim let him go and nodded, "Yeah, okay. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for." Blair managed, forcing himself to stand up. That brief touch had rattled something fundamental inside him. "So, what's it to be?"
Jim climbed to his feet, a slightly amazed and slightly dazed look on his face. "Hell, Chief, when you get going, there's no stopping you, is there?"
"I hope not."
That made the man laugh and Blair relaxed inside. It was going to be just fine.
"Yeah, okay, okay, Chief. Suit, massage, dinner, beach and picnic. In that order."
"Great." Blair grinned. "Let's go."