Disclaimer: The characters depicted within this story do not belong to us, but are the property of Pet Fly, UPN, Paramount and The SciFi Channel. No money has been made from the writing of this story.
Summary: Set in Cascade, with the usual cast of characters, but most would consider it an AU.
Outside These Walls
By Jael Lyn
Written Feb 2002
Revised June 2002
Simon Banks switched off the ignition and gazed up at 852 Prospect. No lights gleamed from the third floor windows, despite the gathering dusk. That alone wasn't a good sign. He'd hoped for a sudden improvement; something, anything, to stave off the inevitable. Reaching into his topcoat, he felt for the envelope. He had postponed this day for as long as he could.
Before locking the car, he retrieved the bags from the trunk. He reviewed their contents as he climbed the stairs. As the months had gone by, his weekly shopping list for Jim was becoming more and more specific, and shorter each time. Fresh vegetables and fruits; organic, and always washed several times before Simon brought them to Jim. Rice, purchased in bulk from a farmers' co-op, since Jim ate so much of it now. A bar of Ivory soap. Another brand of unscented paper towels and tissue, since the last attempt had been a failure. Unsalted soda crackers, chicken broth and bottled water. He'd added a few bars of chocolate on his own, hoping it would encourage Jim's appetite. His friend was looking thinner every week.
The long, narrow staircase irritated Simon, but he never took the elevator to Jim's place. The time spent climbing the stairs was necessary to put on his game face. Allowing his emotions to show would only make the situation worse. With each step he took, Simon reviewed the incidents that had driven his best detective into total retreat. If he'd only realized during the Switchman case how bad things would become, maybe he could have done something differently.
Every member of the Switchman Task Force had been devastated when Veronica Sarris murdered a busload of children with her final bomb. Jim would have taken it hard under any circumstances. In the following days, Simon assumed Jim was just losing it, mentally and emotionally. The turning point came when Jim angrily blurted out during a meeting that his cotton shirt felt like sandpaper. Simon had lost his temper, demanded he remove the shirt and give it to him, planning to confront Jim once and for all with his craziness.
Every inch of his detective's chest had been fiery red. Even the lightest touch brought him near to screaming. From that moment, Simon believed. If Jim said he could taste the chemicals on the produce, or see into the next county, or hear a conversation two floors down, then it was true. They'd tested it crudely, and it was no hoax. Whatever Jim was experiencing, it was real, and totally inexplicable. Every solution they tried failed. Week by week, increasing isolation had brought the only relief. Jim Ellison had slowly slipped away from the outside world.
At the top of the stairway, Simon knocked softly and let himself into the loft, using the key Jim had given him. As expected, the place was dark and silent. He flashed back to his last visit, when he'd found Jim huddled up in a corner, trying to escape some sound no one else could hear. A single candle burned in the kitchen, and Simon searched the shadows, afraid of what he might find.
"Sorry. I tried the lights, but my eyes started watering."
Simon sighed in relief. Wherever Jim was, he sounded fine. "No problem, Jim. We can pretend it's for ambiance."
"Ambiance. Yeah, right."
The voice was above him. Jim must be in the bedroom. Simon waited patiently in the kitchen, passing the time unloading the groceries and other items. Jim would come down as soon as he could. When his friend appeared, he was barefoot, wearing only a pair of boxers. Another bad sign. His skin must be bothering him again.
"I brought you some other clothes to try." Simon took the articles out of the second bag. "I got more silk, since that seemed to bother you the least." Jim had come close enough to the windows, so Simon could see him clearly. He was shrugging his arms into the long sleeve T shirt Simon had found at a specialty shop. The fair skin on his arms and chest looked almost blue. Simon left the groceries and rummaged through the bag. "Here. Why don't you put this one on, too?" he said, handing him a sweater. "It's silk and lambs wool. You look a little cold."
"Thanks." Jim rubbed the soft knit between his fingers. "Wool, huh? My track record with wool is pretty bad, but this feels really soft." He pulled the sweater over his head. "That feels good," he said, stroking the sleeves. "I've been freezing all day." He looked down at his bare legs and feet. "What a fashion statement."
"Why didn't you turn on the heat?"
"I did. The furnace hurt my ears. Sounded like boulders clanking in a tin can."
Simon didn't know what to say to that. What could you say to a man tormented by phantom smells and sounds? Tell him everything would be okay tomorrow? "Shall I build you a fire? You can look at the other clothes I brought." Simon could see the outline of Jim's head nod. As he laid the kindling, Simon could hear Jim rustling through the rest of his offerings, and chose to give Jim some privacy. It was a clear measure of his friend's desperation that he was willing to accept such a shocking level of dependency. Who could have imagined that a former Army officer and successful detective would be reduced to being a virtual recluse in his own home?
The flames were jumping to life when Jim slipped in to sit beside him, occupying one of the two wooden chairs left in what had once been a comfortable living room. The boxers were covered with sweatpants Simon had ordered from a catalog. "Thanks for the sweats. They'd laugh me out of the bullpen if they saw this. I spent half my life in fatigues and now I'm wearing silk sweats. I haven't been able to wear jeans since last weekend," he added plaintively. Jim glanced at the fire for a moment, then quickly looked away. "Too bright," he muttered. He closed his eyes and turned the chair so it was facing away from the fire.
"Is it getting worse?"
"You already know the answer to that. Nothing helps." The momentary flash of discouragement on Jim's face was quickly replaced with perfect composure. "You brought the forms?"
"Yeah. Jim, you've got sick leave left. Isn't it too early?"
"To give up? Dammit, Simon!" The anger flashed, and then disappeared. Jim looked at the floor, then continued in a strained voice. "I'm sorry. I'm grateful that you've stuck by me, but try to understand, Simon. I don't have any other choice. I've given too much blood, sat through too many tests that don't tell anything. I've been to my last doctor. If they can't figure out what's wrong, I'm just going to have to live in a new reality."
"There's got to be an answer. You - we - just have to keep looking. You've only seen doctors in Cascade and Seattle. We could try somewhere else."
"Survival doesn't depend on vain hope." Jim moved out of the chair and curled up on the floor, closer to the fire, with his back to it. "God, that feels good, to be warm at last. I should have thought of a fire. I was just so crazy with the furnace I couldn't think. I damn near ripped the thermostat off the wall." Simon felt uncomfortable seated on the chair, and joined his friend on the floor. They sat quietly, there on the floor, side by side. Finally Jim spoke again, his voice cracking with emotion. "It's time to face reality. I know you want me to come back to work, but I'll never function like this, not even on desk duty."
"I know, Jim. I know." Simon worked hard to keep his voice from breaking. "I have the paperwork in my coat. Full disability from the department, because it started on the Switchman case. All you need to do is sign it."
"Isn't that the final irony? She killed a busload of people because I didn't catch her. My penance is to have my whole body rebel, and the department ends up paying me for it." Jim shook his head in disgust, then stood and turned on the overhead lights. He shielded his eyes for a moment.
"I don't need the light, Jim."
"I do. I made a promise to myself. Give me the papers, and let's get it over with."
Simon got the envelope and stood by Jim's side as he scanned the sheets and added his signature in the appropriate places. It was a horrible moment - to watch one of the best cops he had ever known sign his life away. He looked around the loft. Anything was better than watching Jim seal his fate with ink on paper.
Jim's loft had never been what you would call warm and cozy, but now it was positively stark. He'd helped Jim remove the rugs weeks ago, and anything that wasn't absolutely necessary had gone to the basement earlier. Simon was surprised to see a weight bench and other lifting equipment occupying the space now. In the dark he hadn't noticed.
Jim was folding the sheets when he realized what his boss was staring at. "I had the weights delivered. I can't go to a gym."
"God, I'm so sorry, Jim."
"Time to move on." Jim managed a smile. He sealed the envelope and held it out.
Simon had to force himself to take it, his face twisted with emotion. This was worse than he had ever imagined. "What are you going to do, Jim? What kind of a friend am I, to leave you here, struggling to find something to eat and something to wear?"
Jim looked wistfully out the window, viewing the city that had once commanded his total dedication. "Just like the jungle. Live one day at a time." Jim straightened up and looked Simon square in the eye. "My only job is to live this moment. Tomorrow isn't my problem."
Blair Sandburg sat on the floor. It had been his "chair of choice" for the last twenty minutes. He couldn't remember ever being so tired. If it hadn't been so hard and uncomfortable, he might have fallen asleep. Or maybe not. Besides being uncomfortable, it was too bright. Early afternoon sun reflected off the polished hardwood floors. He'd never noticed that, and he must have been up and down these hallways a thousand times. Maybe it was the perspective. He'd never taken to sitting on the floor before. The comfortable chairs in the Anthro Department Lounge had always been just fine.
Today, or last night, or yesterday - depending on how you looked at it. Perspective again. He was dirty and grubby and smoky, and he would have given the department secretary a heart attack if he'd plunked down in one of the upholstered office chairs to wait for Dr. Stoddard. Blair scrubbed both hands across his face. What did you call five o'clock shadow plus twenty-four? He shook his head, trying to force himself to be more alert. His situation was pretty dire, and he needed to think straight.
He was down to his car, twenty seven dollars in his wallet, a Visa card over the limit, and a life in total chaos. He reran his morning lecture in Anthro 101. Sorry kids, you see, my place blew up because it was next to a drug lab that I didn't know was there, and I spent the night with a Barbary ape, trying to stay out of jail, and everything I own is either burned or wet, including the lecture notes for today. But hey - what do you want to talk about? When he wasn't in lecture, the police or the arson investigators were waiting for him. He'd been forced to sneak off to avoid them and return Larry to the lab. It went without saying that his relationship with the authorities was a bit tenuous at the moment. On that note, it was time to see the bright side. He could be sitting on a floor in jail just as easily. He sure didn't have the cash to post bail.
"Blair?" It was Fran, the department secretary. "Dr. Stoddard is off the phone now, so come on in." To his surprise, she handed him a mug of coffee before he made it past her desk. The shock must have shown clearly on his face. She patted him on the arm. "Everyone's so sorry, Blair. Dr. Stoddard has sent out for some sandwiches, and I'll bring them in as soon as they arrive. Stop by my desk before you go. Linda's boy is bringing some clothes over for you - the two of you are about the same size."
Blair tried to mumble some sort of a thank you. She just shook her head and steered him toward the office.
Eli had chairs pulled up to the work table in his office. Blair was relieved. At least the wood could be wiped down. If the secretaries had found some clothes for him, that would be the best news of the day. He jerked back to reality when he realized that Eli was out of his chair and hugging him.
"My boy! You're lucky to be alive! My God, these drug labs are a menace to society. Sit down. You look absolutely exhausted."
Blair tried to sort through the haze that clouded his brain. "Dr. Stoddard, about class today, it won't happen again. I'll get my lecture notes rewritten and bring them in before the next session."
"Blair, just hold it right there," Stoddard said firmly, taking a seat across from him. "You're acting like you're in trouble."
"Aren't I?" Blair asked, his voice filled with confusion.
"No," Stoddard said, breaking into a smile. "I apologize. Obviously, I should have spoken to you immediately and put your mind at ease. I waited until I had all the details in place. One of the other TA's will take your classes this week."
"But..." Blair started to protest.
"Just listen. The business office has a three hundred dollar voucher for you to be used at the bookstore. Go replace your course materials and any texts for your own classes that you have lost." He pushed a set of house keys across the table. "Dr. Johanson in Sociology is on sabbatical in Minnesota, and I've been watching his home for him. As of right now, you're their live-in caretaker. Don't let the Ficus die, or Marie will have your head."
Blair stared at him. He knew his mouth was hanging open, and couldn't do a thing about it.
"You need a place to live, and more importantly, a place to work. Blair, take this as an omen. It's time for you to finish your dissertation, and as your advisor and your friend, I hope you'll accept this in the spirit that it's being given."
"A place to live? I can't thank you enough! You and Dr. Johanson. But my dissertation? It's not ready."
"Blair, you don't have to find a living sentinel to produce a credible piece of work. We've discussed this before, and in my opinion, it's time to move along. Write it up in context of the ancient cultures. Use your current single-sense cases as evidence that the possibility exists to a diminished extent in the modern world, if you insist. You've done a wonderful job on your research. Pull it together and finish."
Blair realized what was happening. He'd been expecting the ultimatum for months. Prepared his arguments, outlined his reasoning to keep searching for the living sentinel he was certain existed somewhere. He believed it passionately.
But Eli was right, in every practical sense, and Blair knew he respected his work. He was doing this out of kindness. At this moment, Blair couldn't even make the counter argument, much less win it. He was just too overwhelmed with the enormity of the last twenty-four hours.
"Look at it this way." Eli ticked his points off on his fingers. "You passed your comprehensives last spring with flying colors. The research is done, as far as I'm concerned. Your current situation underscores the need financially to move into the paid part of academia. Write it, Blair, and defend it. Getting your doctorate doesn't mean you've given up the search or repudiated your beliefs. I think you could do it in a month, based on what you've already written and completed, if you concentrate on it full time. We'll give you additional assistance with your teaching load for the duration. I've cleared my calendar two afternoons a week, so I can give you my complete support. What do you think?"
"I think you're right," he said slowly. "Thank you, Eli, for everything."
"Good." Eli reached into a drawer and pulled out a file. Blair recognized it - it was where Eli kept his dissertation drafts as he worked on them. "We'll go through this quickly and eat. Then we'll run over to the house and get you settled." He started out of the office, and then stopped by Blair's chair. "I almost forgot about this." He handed Blair another envelope. "You're warmly regarded by your instructors and the support staff. We've taken a little collection, I took the liberty of cashing the checks for you. It should help you get back on your feet while we get you launched in your professional life."
Alone in the empty office, Blair held the envelope hesitantly before daring to open it. It contained crisp fifty dollar bills, more than he dared to count. Tears pricked at his eyes. The kindness of the gesture, and its magnitude, stunned him.
Then why did he feel so empty?
TWO MONTHS LATER
He heard the drop of sweat hit the floor below him. He wasn't prepared, and the sound crashed against his ears. He struggled to keep the heavily loaded bar steady, not even able to spare the energy to wonder why his hearing had gone crazy at that particular moment. The words of his high school football coach ran through his brain for at least the tenth time today. Never lift without a spotter. Well, maybe it would be no great loss if he crushed his own chest.
Jim slowly pushed the bar up, but didn't set it on the rack. He lowered it again. Another rep, then two, then three. His arms were screaming. The bar wobbled from side to side, barely under control. On the fifth time, he let the bar slide back, nearly sobbing in relief. He rolled off the weight bench onto the floor and lay there gasping.
He wanted to sleep. This was the only way he got any rest now, to work himself into a state of exhaustion, too tired to even climb the stairs to his bed. A quilt lay crumpled on the floor nearby. He left it there all the time now, so he could just curl up on the floor and drift away.
He didn't crawl over to the quilt. He could tell he wasn't tired enough. He looked up at the stair climber, already programmed and ready. He could do that again. He pulled himself up to a sit and leaned against the weight bench. It had to be two in the morning.
The sweat was cooling on his skin. He ran his hands up and down his ribcage. Between his restricted diet and the exercise, any body fat had pretty much disappeared. He remembered being this lean in the jungle. He pulled a sweatshirt on. It was old, gray fleece, washed so many times that he could almost always tolerate it.
He ached to go outside. It was such a risk. Noises, smells, people - all waited to ambush him. A passing siren could leave him cringing, or a stray breeze could overwhelm him with an odor from a dumpster or a restaurant. The last time it had been onions cooking on the grill of a sports bar. He kept things under control in the loft. When he stepped outside, it was a whole new ballgame. Still, it was night, in the middle of the week. If he was careful, it could work.
It took him awhile to find shoes, and even longer to get them on. He hadn't been wearing them inside. What did it say when you lost track of shoes in your own house? It took several tries to smooth his socks so the lumps and bumps didn't bother him. When he finally made it to the truck, he sat there for awhile, hoping to make sure that everything seemed safe and under control. He tensed as he turned the key in the ignition, and the engine turned over. It was loud, but to his relief, the sound was manageable.
Any sense of victory he might have enjoyed faded quickly. Thirty minutes earlier a drop of sweat had sounded like an explosion. His life was a minefield, and he had no control. He almost turned back for the safety of the loft. Only a sense of desperation kept him cruising through Cascade.
The streets were deserted. After a few miles, and again briefly flushed with success, Jim rolled the window down and relished the feel of the cool night air blowing across his face. It was wondrous.
He had no plan for driving, and was surprised when the dark expanse of Rainier University loomed before him. He pulled into a parking lot and listened, which was another calculated risk. It was so quiet. Then he remembered - regular session was out. Most of the students were gone, the buildings locked up. The campus would be nearly empty.
Jim was out of the truck before he could stop himself. Fear nearly overruled the impulse. His last tentative journeys outside the loft had been near disasters, and Simon had been with him as a safety precaution. The logical part of his brain lost the argument as soon as his feet hit the grass. He began to walk, staying off the cement paths, heading for the sheltered areas of trees and shrubs.
It was tomorrow. Tomorrow, the long awaited day, he would dress up in his only suit, stand in front of the white board in Hargrove 240, and lay his soul on the line in front of four professors and the university representative. Five people. Five people who held his life in their hands, who would decide if he would be worthy of "Blair J. Sandburg, Ph.D. Anthropology".
What was he doing out here, wandering around at two in the morning? He should be in bed, resting, not prowling around campus. Blair sat down on the edge of the fountain in front of Hargrove. He'd never sleep. He was in a state of near panic. Every time he'd practiced his opening presentation, his brain turned to mush. He couldn't remember anything. A lifetime of work at his fingertips and he was like a stroke victim.
He sat, listening to the water, trying to calm himself. He closed his eyes, and started to speak from memory.
In ancient cultures, when survival of the group depended upon a constant awareness of the environment, certain individuals, with unique abilities, were the tribal guardians. These guardians possessed the rare gift of hypersensitivity. They have been called many things, but Sir Richard Burton called them Sentinels.
What is a Sentinel? We must examine ancient beliefs from many sources...
When Jim glimpsed the man, he seemed frightened. He walked so quickly, seemed so jumpy. Jim had melted into the nearby shrubbery, falling back on his law enforcement instincts. His first thought was that this person was escaping a crime scene, or fleeing for some reason. Jim's brain automatically recorded a description - not tall, five foot eight or nine, slender, mid-twenties or younger, no visible weapon. Then the man unexpectedly dropped to a seat at the fountain.
Jim felt strangely drawn to the scene. Maybe he'd never really stop being a cop. He settled into wait, trying to note every detail. He was shocked when he realized that the man was talking to himself, reciting some kind of a prepared speech. The voice - Jim lost the words. Only the sound of that voice seemed to matter. He was vaguely aware that it was as if the man were sitting next to him, rather than fifty yards away, with a fountain between them.
It is my belief that someday, a modern sentinel, with all five senses will be found. Then we will truly be able to unlock the puzzle of these rare individuals.
He'd done it! It had just flowed out, effortlessly. Blair smiled. Tomorrow would be okay, he was sure of it now. Time at last to sleep. It was cold under the clear, star-studded sky, but he felt warm clear through. His heart felt lighter than it had in months.
It was like waking up from a dream. One moment nothing, the next he was sitting on the ground, cold seeping through his clothes. How long had he been sitting here? He remembered driving, walking across the campus, the fountain.
The man! The man with the voice. Jim searched in every direction, but he was gone. The sun was edging over the horizon when he wearily climbed into the truck and drove back to the loft, still wondering if he should stay and keep searching. Somehow, it seemed very important.
ONE MONTH LATER
Jim was on another midnight drive. He went almost every night now, a plan slowly taking shape in his mind. It had been three months since he'd signed his disability papers. Three months of experimenting, finding his limits, and mastering his fears.
He'd finally accepted that he wasn't going to die, and apparently he wasn't crazy. He'd slowly, but surely, reached some conclusions. If he wasn't going to expire, it was damn well time to start living, even if he had to work around his current situation. He'd always thought of himself as a loner, until his self-enforced isolation. As the months slid by, another reality became clear: Jim Ellison didn't keep his own company well. He realized now that his world had always included a small, well-defined group of companions: sports teams in his youth, his unit in the Rangers, the Chopec in the jungle, work colleagues in Vice or Major Crime. It came as a shock that he needed other people like breathing, and didn't want to live his life alone.
This revelation was complicated by a physical reality. For whatever reason, his senses were unbelievably sensitive, and totally unpredictable. Since he couldn't control his senses, the only alternative was to control the environment. He was gradually learning how, through trial and error, usually more error than trial.
Early mornings and late nights were most reliable for excursions from the loft. Simon often teased him about being part vampire. Soundproofing and a careful diet had all been successful. With proper planning, he wouldn't have to spend his life trapped in the loft. That became his challenge. To bring people and normal activity into his life, and regulate them within tolerable limits once they got there. He wanted a job to do. He wanted people to do it with.
It wasn't all that different than planning a mission. Set the goal, select the equipment and personnel, evaluate the mission environment. Once Jim got a glimpse of the solution, he pursued it systematically. A few cautious visits with friends around the city convinced him that the loft was part of the problem. The building was old, and needed more work than was really practicable. The elevator alone could ruin his day. He would need to build, and build to very specific specifications. He began a search for an architect to work with, and a site within Cascade.
His nightly drives added to the list of requirements. He could tolerate the city if it was buffered. He needed to avoid areas downwind of industrial sites, or businesses that used chemicals. He'd been sabotaged on midnight prowls passing by dry cleaners, gas stations, and a host of other establishments. Shopping areas were deadly - too much noise and traffic. The same was true for freeways. Schools were fine at night, but hell during the day. He kept lists, plotted information on maps. It was a lot like the old days in the Rangers, doing recon. The area that held the most promise came as a shock. Over and over he discarded it as too unlikely, but came back to it, nonetheless. It now seemed time to make a final decision.
Jim pulled the truck to a stop, and rolled down the window. He had surrendered his service weapon when he took disability, but on this night his backup piece was loaded and on the seat beside him. This was a high crime area. He'd found the place almost by accident. Several blocks in the warehouse district had burned to a crisp in a drug lab fire only a few months ago. He'd come along with Simon, who suggested driving by one night, since Major Crime was doing the follow-up investigation. Now it was a flat spread of bulldozed rubble, with a few brave weeds starting to peek through.
It was one of the rare moments when Jim realized he was William Ellison's son. He took one look at the vacant expanse, and saw what everyone else had missed. The neighborhood was neglected, long ago abandoned to the homeless and the criminals. Decent citizens avoided the area. Yet they were less than ten minutes from Cascade's downtown. No one cared about these crumbling buildings, and the land itself was worth almost nothing. Jim saw not what it was, but what it could be.
He checked the zoning laws. He researched the land ownership. He consulted the architect. Now Jim Ellison was ready to do something he would have thought unimaginable six months earlier. He was going to access his trust fund to secure financing. He would purchase nearly eight square blocks of dirt cheap property in the heart of this wasteland.
The trust fund was part of the life he had left behind when he joined the army. His father, his brother, the mother who had deserted him as a child, and a host of painful memories went with that very substantial account. He'd always thought he'd rather live in a cardboard box than touch that poisoned money. He needed to weigh the consequences. Were the entanglements associated with the fund worth the chance of a richer life? Was it worth the financial risk? Jim was so lost in his thoughts he barely noticed when a car, headed in the other direction, pulled up to the opposite curb and coasted to a stop.
Even though he'd known what to expect, the charred black expanse that had once been his home had Blair shaking his head. He hadn't come back here once since the fire, even though the flames and the explosion haunted his dreams. In the rush to defend his dissertation, his former home was one of many unfinished items pushed to the end of the list.
Now, when he was poised on the brink of another great transition in his life, he felt compelled to make this final visit. Tomorrow he was leaving for Borneo. Eli had been grinning from ear to ear when he'd come to the house, just days after his defense, and given him a copy of the grant proposal to review. He could still hear Eli's voice. "My boy, I'm sure you'll have other offers, but the position for dig supervisor is open, and I want you." Blair had accepted immediately. In twelve hours, he'd hand over the Corvair keys to the new owner, and be on a plane to the other side of the world. Two years from now, he'd have publications and field experience to go with his doctorate, and be a prime candidate for an assistant professorship anywhere in the country. It was perfect timing, and Eli's sponsorship would be invaluable. It was the opportunity he'd always dreamed of.
Blair shook his head. So why was he here? In his heart, he knew it was because that crummy, rat-infested warehouse had been his first real residence. Before, it had been moving with Naomi, then the dorms, or a rented room. His life had always been one of shared spaces, with no real ownership. In the warehouse, he'd lived alone, actually owned a futon, and a refrigerator. In the gypsy life of Blair Sandburg, it represented a real home, as opposed to somewhere he was staying. He needed to say goodbye.
He'd done the same thing with his little rabbit-warren office at the university. His soul searching had resulted in a startling realization: that his free spirit life had left him yearning for roots. Naomi would have been crushed, but Blair had no intention of discussing it with her. There would be plenty of time to break the news to his mother, and she'd get over it. The important thing was that he had a better vision of his future. After Borneo, he'd be looking for the white picket fence and stability. It almost made him laugh. He probably wouldn't end up in Cascade, but he would always know this pathetic-looking site was the beginning of an important personal journey.
He felt more ready to go to Borneo than ever.
Jim realized with a start that the car had been parked for quite some time, its occupant making no move to leave. His hand instinctively moved toward his weapon. In this area, it was probably a drug transaction. He should call the station, and get a patrol unit down here, but the cell phone was sitting in the kitchen at the loft. He could drive off and risk drawing attention to himself at the wrong moment. He decided to wait.
He took a good look at the vehicle and its occupant. A Corvair? What kind of a drug dealer drove a Corvair? Jim relaxed and chuckled to himself. This poor guy was probably in more jeopardy than he was. For no apparent reason, the headlights in the other vehicle came on, on the car pulled into the street. As it passed, Jim whipped around, realizing too late that the silhouette of the driver was somehow familiar.
He decided to take it as an omen. Tomorrow he would see the lawyer, open the trust fund, and start a new life.
FOUR YEARS LATER
Sunday morning. Thank you, World, for Sunday morning.
Blair stretched out on the luxurious couch. Ten o'clock and the sun was shining in Cascade. He'd enjoyed a long, hot shower and a great cup of coffee. The University had sent over pastries with the morning paper. When he was a lowly grad student, he had no idea that Rainier had a guest house for visitors and newly hired faculty. He probably would have been appalled and complained, but right now, Dr. Sandburg, newly hired Assistant Professor of Anthropology, was loving it.
It was too good to be true. He had to keep pinching himself. The retiring Eli Stoddard had called him in Michigan and asked him to apply for the vacancy. The call had come in the middle of a Midwest blizzard, and Blair had agreed to come immediately. Even if it was raining, Cascade would still be warmer than where he was. Besides, it was a great excuse to see Eli.
So, he'd done the whole thing. Given the guest lecture, been formally introduced to people he already knew, gone to dinner, had coffee with the current graduate students. It was great fun. He went back to the snow and pushed it out of his mind. Being in Cascade had felt so very "right", but he was convinced it was a vain hope. The other candidates were more experienced, and much better known.
When the head of the search committee had called, no one was more surprised than Blair Sandburg. The offer included tenure track, a moving allowance, an agreement to retire some of his student loans for tuition to Rainier, and the assurance that he had been the committee's unanimous first choice. Through some unbelievable hocus pocus, Eli had managed to insist that his soon-to-be-vacant office go to Blair, instead of someone higher up the pecking order. It was a great office, complete with a window that looked out over the fountain, a state-of-the-art computer system and furniture that was better than the stuff in his rental in Michigan.
So, here he was, teaching summer term, revising his newest article for publication, and looking for a place to live. The Administration had told him to take his time. University House had low usage during the summer. He'd scanned the paper for rentals, and called on a few. He'd almost made up his mind to call a real estate agent, and look for a place to rent that he could later buy.
He grabbed to the business section, and searched for the "At Rainier" column. He cringed. There he was, picture and all, with a little summary of his academic life. He squinted at the image. At least he didn't look like a terrorist or something. It embarrassed him, but Chancellor Edwards showed every indication of trotting him out as the new wonder boy on the faculty. It seemed as though she'd scheduled him as a speaker at every high school visit and community event this summer. Whatever. Eli had reassured him that she was just being savvy. Blair Sandburg was young and cool, and much more attractive than some other old fossil on the staff she could send down to meet Rainier's future student body. Eli's words, of course. He supposed it was preferable to having her breathing down his neck about something she didn't like. Something about that woman made him uneasy.
Mission accomplished, he went back to the front of the section. Cascade seemed to be booming. There were reviews of new restaurants. New housing was everywhere, although personally he wasn't interested in a house in the suburbs. He skimmed the prominent piece on the front page about the grand opening for a shopping/office complex. He was halfway through before he realized where it was. He grinned. His former residence, once the site of drug labs and rat colonies, was now Cascade's hottest investment property. Way cool. Maybe he'd check it out, just for fun.
Rick Strebkin, editor of the Cascade Times, read the lead article and smiled. Yvonne Marks, his newly hired financial writer, had done a great job. He'd sent other reporters to speak with James Ellison, and they'd never gotten in the front door. He glanced at Yvonne's notes - preferred Jim rather than James, born and raised in Cascade, impressive army career he wouldn't talk about, full disability from the Cascade Police Department, which he also wouldn't talk about. Strebkin realized Yvonne had just walked into the deserted newsroom. What great timing. He wanted to pry some more information out of her while the interview was still fresh.
"Marks, join me for a minute," he said. Yvonne turned and smiled, but she didn't cover her initial worry completely. Strebkin was inwardly pleased. Yvonne was very good, and she was just young enough to still be worried about making her reputation and pleasing her boss. "Grab a cup of coffee," he added.
He let her get seated. "Great job on the feature, Yvonne. I know you realize that we've attempted this interview earlier, without success, since Ellison starting building - what - three, four years ago. Tell me the rest. Tell me about the man. Why do you think he was so cooperative this time around?"
"Because I'm charming," she answered, and then shook her head. "I'd love to flatter myself, but I got his cooperation because it suited Ellison, and for no other reason. I got the sense that this is all part of the master plan for him. He's very much in control of the situation."
"Talk, Yvonne. Tell me the stuff that didn't make the article."
"Interesting guy. Very good looking, educated, smart. My research says his father is retired, but was a success in business, too. I thought that would be a good angle, second generation Cascade, but that got squished real quick. I was surprised, and called the father. Turns out they haven't spoken in years. Daddy Ellison asked me more questions than I asked him. He was starved for information. He's thrilled for his son, but completely out of the loop. A younger brother is in Cascade, but it's the same story. No contact."
"I let it go. Jim Ellison was a hard enough interview to get. I didn't want to run the risk of alienating him right off the bat."
"I agree, in this case, at this time. What's the story on his Army days, or the Police Department?" Strebkin asked.
"Fascinating. He's a damn war hero, picture on the cover of Time and Newsweek, but it is a forbidden subject. I did speak with his former commander, a Captain Simon Banks, at Major Crime. He demurred because it was a personnel issue, but off the record he assured me that Ellison's disability was totally legit, and that he'd take him back in a minute it he was capable." She shrugged. "Not that I can figure it out. The guy has the body of a Greek god, even in street clothes." She blushed ever so slightly, and covered it by sipping her coffee.
"I suppose you would expect that, considering that the first thing he built was a health club," Strebkin said, laughing.
"You know, it's weird, but I got the strangest vibes from that."
"Remember what I said about the master plan? The first building was very specific. Weights, a basketball court, a juice bar, TV lounge, and a bunch of other stuff that didn't seem to go together. Sounds like a weird cross between jock and new-age, and it was. Ellison built the thing, and then went out of his way to recruit police officers to join. Gave them a reduced rate, had special perks, ordered food ahead if they called. He even had a gun safe for weapons, and a direct line to the police dispatcher."
"You're kidding. How did he pull that off?"
She shrugged. "Truth is, it was a brilliant move. The place was crawling with drug dealers and crack heads. A steady stream of Cascade's finest through the neighborhood, and they evaporated. Once the neighborhood cleaned up, Ellison started running shuttles from downtown, catering to all the young professionals. You know the power of the buzz. He expanded from there. He's revitalized the whole area, and has people beating a path to his door to invest."
"And he lives there? I found that interesting."
"There's more to that, too. In the original building, he had living quarters. It's still there. Very Spartan, pretty small, but with some really odd details. Just part of the mystery, I suppose."
"He had a music room, with soundproofing like you'd have in a recording studio." She smiled conspiratorially. "Rumor is, he didn't really use it for music. He slept there, basically lived there, even though he still owns a loft over on Prospect."
"Okay, so he likes music."
"That's the joke. According to his friends that would talk to me, his musical tastes begin and end with Santana. I was chatting with the guy who originally ran the juice bar, and he mentioned that Ellison has always been very specific about only stocking organic foods, and his original contract included preparing personal meals."
Strebkin laughed. "Hey, I'm with the guy. I'd rather not eat my own cooking either."
"That's not the point," she persisted. "I had to be a major financial drain in the beginning. That's what I mean. I don't think he made these choices randomly, and you can't chock it up to eccentricity. Everything fits into a plan, I'm just sure of it, but for the life of me, I can't figure it out."
"So, keep it on the back burner. Write me another article when you do figure it out."
"Thank you. I'll hold you to that."
"Fair enough. Next time, though, get a decent picture of the guy. The building shots in the article are fine, but this one..." He gestured to the photo of Ellison, seated outside of his latest addition. "Outside, no close-up, and the man's wearing sunglasses, for God's sake. You can do better than that. It's barely usable."
"Well, thanks for the feedback, boss, but that was his restriction. No flash. Add that quirk to the list, and you tell me. We were lucky to get a real sunny day so we could photograph him outside. Thanks for the coffee."
Before the day was out, Strebkin had a plan. Yvonne was good, but not that good. He'd wait a few days, or maybe a couple of weeks, and pursue the matter himself.
Jim read the article with a calculating eye. All in all, the gamble had paid off. He had enough experience with the press to know it was like playing with fire. He'd been lucky. The tone was favorable, and would be good publicity for the opening, and Yvonne what's-her-name hadn't been able to worm very far into anything he didn't want to talk about.
It was his first weekend in his new residence. He had the blinds open. The controls were still unfamiliar, and it had taken him ten minutes, but he'd gotten them to work. They were set between two panes of glass to cut down on dust, and he could leave them on an automatic setting and they'd adjust themselves. So far, the sun hadn't been too much for his eyes.
His usual weekend breakfast delivery had arrived from Lucas. The poor man must really think he was crazy. Always four different juice blends, always fresh-squeezed, with plain buttermilk doughnuts. He'd never be able to explain that he had four sent because he never knew from day to day what his sense of taste would tolerate. Sometimes orange juice would be bitter enough to make his tongue curl, or the vegetable juice would be too salty. Plenty of times he'd just ended up with bottled water because all four selections failed to pass muster. The doughnuts - well, thank God there were a few foods that he liked that had never thrown his taste buds into a tail spin.
He had reason to be pleased. The private elevator for guests and deliveries was working perfectly. Most of the new residents were moved in on the lower floors, and he really couldn't hear them. The architect had been correct. Putting the storage areas between the residential floors and his living area, along with additional soundproofing, was working. He still had his music room, a euphemism for "shelter of last resort".
With years' worth of experience, he'd honed out a system that worked most of the time, and he'd incorporated everything he'd learned into the new place. Food arrived to very exacting specifications. The same climate control equipment found in sophisticated medical laboratories regulated the temperature and purified the air. He had an office for meetings now, and rarely had to venture into uncertain territory to secure a loan, or approve blueprints. They all came to him, for the most part. Laundry came and went daily. Jim smiled. He was getting good at win-win arrangements. The widow of an officer killed in the line of duty washed his stuff in her home machine. For the grief that it saved him, it was worth any amount of money. He paid her a pittance, at her insistence. Instead, she asked him to establish education accounts for her two children. She certainly didn't know the totals, and that was fine with Jim. The kids would be taken care of, generously, and that's what counted.
It took money, but he was making money. The one-way drain on his trust fund had stopped after the first year. His new home had been paid for with proceeds from "The Projects", as he had come to call them. Turned out, much to his surprise, he was a good businessman. Not the career he had planned on, but satisfying, nonetheless. He was making his life livable, even if things were still difficult.
He stretched. He needed to start getting ready. Beverly Sanchez was coming for brunch.
He enjoyed her visits. They'd met shortly after he'd gone on disability. Even off active duty, he still had court obligations to fulfill. Beverly had been second chair on one of his last high-profile cases. They'd hit it off immediately. Under the circumstances at the time, Jim would have let it drop. Beverly, however, saw it differently. Right after he'd opened his first project, the health club, she'd shown up with Simon. She'd walked in, looked around, and taken him to task for, as she put it, "Running a place with way too much testosterone." It had made him laugh, and he had fired right back, "So you tell me how to get the ladies here, and I'll do it." She took him at his word. It was the best thing Jim had ever done. She went on a tour of the place and told him exactly what she thought. Ms. Sanchez had a great sense of style and was brutally honest. He'd followed her suggestions, and business had flourished.
Their personal relationship had blossomed at the same time, and both of them cheerfully admitted that, "It wasn't going anywhere." They had two failed marriages between them, and neither of them wanted a rerun. Beverly was absorbed in her career, and Jim felt his complicated life precluded a permanent relationship. Jim enjoyed Beverly's biting intelligence and sense of fun. Beverly - well, he wasn't entirely sure what she saw in him, but he wasn't complaining. He thought she was beautiful, she thought he was sexy.
He had to give her credit. They almost always met at his place, especially back in the days when Jim had been too freaked out to set foot outside his own door. Beverly was a bright woman. After a few months, she put the pieces together, and confronted him. Since then, Beverley Sanchez was one of the few people who knew that Jim Ellison suffered from hyper acute senses. His rare forays into public settings were usually escorting her to some civic event. He understood the all-consuming nature of her job, she didn't expect more than he could give. Sometimes she stayed over, sometimes he slept alone. They were both content with the relationship.
She arrived with a bottle of wine and greeted him with a kiss. He took one look at her and started laughing.
"What?" she asked. "Did I put my shoes on backwards?"
"No. You want something. Spill."
She swatted him across the stomach with the back of her hand. "You rat! How do you do that? Couldn't you at least let me seduce you before you grill me like that?"
"Nope," he said, pulling her close. "I prefer my seductions on a full stomach, and you're already about to burst." He squirmed as she tried to tickle him, pretending to be furious. "If we do it your way, you'll have to seduce me, then ask, and we'll eat last. I'll be hungry all afternoon."
Now she was laughing, too. "Oh, you poor baby! Don't you stand there all smug and satisfied. I should walk right out of here."
"Well, that's no fun," he chided. "I'll pour you a glass of wine and you can tell me all about it."
They relaxed comfortably on the couch. "Is your tux pressed?" she asked.
"I don't like the sound of this," he answered.
"The Cascade Children's Foundation is having a fund raising dinner. It's one of your favorite charities, so don't blow any smoke past me."
"You're on the Board of Directors, Bev. You don't need me to go."
"Come on, Jim. I'm a director, but you're a major patron. If you don't take me, every unattached guy in the place hits on me. Apparently being an assistant DA is like honey to the flies. I hate it, but because it's charity, I have to be nice. You wouldn't do that to me, would you?" she wheedled. This was really just a formality. They both already knew he was going.
He sighed dramatically. "Oh, all right. For you, I'll go. What's the date?"
"Two weeks from next Friday. The keynote speaker is some new professor at Rainier. He's supposed to be very entertaining."
Jim groaned. "Oh, joy. Marginal food and a poetry reading. You'll pay for this, Bev."
"You are such a pessimist," she teased, pulling on a shirt button. "Besides, no poetry. He's an anthropologist. He talks about naked people in the jungle, I think." She smirked and wiggled her eyebrows. "How's that for inspirational?"
TWO WEEKS LATER
Why did I agree to do this?
Don't answer that, you already know. Eli asked you, you would never turn him down after everything he's done for you, and it's for children.
Blair pulled despairingly on the shirt cuffs. He'd never mastered doing the cuffs on these things by himself. It was driving him to distraction. He finally gave up and pulled the coat on. Maybe he could find someone to help him out. He was dangerously close to being late as it was. He grabbed his notes, and dashed out of University House. His cab was already waiting.
He tried to read through his notes again during the drive. He wasn't exactly nervous; after all these years in front of a classroom, public speaking wasn't a big deal. Folding the papers, he settled into the back seat and closed his eyes. He reminded himself that being a little frazzled was no big deal, but he was feeling a bit overwhelmed. He still hadn't moved out of University House. In fact, he really hadn't looked seriously for a place for a couple of weeks. There was just so much to do.
He chided himself. It was the start of a weekend. He'd just make house hunting a priority, and start first thing in the morning.
"You're nervous, aren't you?"
"Sorry," Jim whispered, leaning close to Beverly's ear. "I can't help it."
She took his hand, and eased him out of the traffic pattern. The room was already bustling. "Don't apologize. I know it's hard, and I appreciate your coming. I told the other directors we were skipping the receiving line. There's no head table, and we're as off in the corner as I can get by with, well away from the kitchen and the serving area. I've spoken to the chef, and if he screws up, I'll kill him and you'll have to look the other way. We'll just have a good time. Okay?"
"Okay," he answered. He knew Beverly always watched out for him, and was equally confident that if he ended up having to leave, she would understand that, too. They always came in separate vehicles, just as a precaution.
They found their seats. Beverly enjoyed a glass of wine, and Jim had to be content with water. Simon Banks, and his guest, along with Joel Taggart and his wife were supposed to be seated at their table. Jim had already spoken with his former boss and knew Simon and Joel probably wouldn't make it. He'd been looking forward to visiting, but duty called. Simon hadn't given him the details, but trouble was brewing, and Major Crime was apparently in the middle of it.
The room gradually filled up. The salads arrived, and Jim picked at his - the dressing was too sweet. He and Beverly enjoyed their meal, and visited quietly, all alone at their table for six. It wasn't Jim's favorite, but Beverly had requested a vegetarian stir fry with rice for the main course. They'd found it was Jim's most reliable away-from-home meal. At least the company was good.
Between dinner and dessert, the co-chair of the event gave the welcome, and reviewed the projects that would benefit from the evening's fund raiser. Their speaker was introduced: Dr. Blair Sandburg, recently returned from Borneo via Michigan State University. Beverley leaned close and whispered, "Word is he's quite charming. I can see why the unattached ladies are all aflutter."
Jim nodded in agreement. Sandburg looked younger than his thirty years. His long hair was tied back severely, and he was wearing glasses. His formal wear was completed with a sapphire vest, which Jim realized matched his eyes. He also noticed that the young professor's shirt cuffs were unfastened. The thought amused him, and made him uneasy at the same time. He was sure Beverly couldn't see the guy's eyes from this distance, much less whether the cuffs were done up. If his eyesight was going wonky, he should probably leave before it got worse. Still, he hesitated. He hated to leave Beverly in the lurch without it being absolutely necessary.
With a wonderful smile, Sandburg took the podium and organized his notes. He wasted no time. Quickly and skillfully, he pulled his audience in with some engaging anecdotes from Borneo, then moved on to the nurturing of children in different cultures, deftly weaving in references to the Cascade Children's Foundation. He held the audience in rapt attention, except for one far corner of the room, where Beverly Sanchez was surreptitiously, and frantically, trying to get a response from her dinner companion.
Jim Ellison hadn't made it beyond Sandburg's opening sentences before he faded into a world of his own.
Beverley grasped both of Jim's hands firmly in her own. This had happened once before, early in their relationship. Jim had just drifted off. She had thought it was a seizure at the time, or even a stroke. To her horror, when Jim returned to reality, he had apologized, as if he'd purposely done something wrong. When she'd gone home, she'd found herself crying for hours, overwhelmed by the realities of Jim's plight. The episode had marked the first time she completely understood why Jim had left Major Crime, and the obstacles he faced every day.
On that first occasion, Jim had returned to reality as abruptly as he had departed, for no apparent reason. He'd vaguely remembered some kind of a disturbing sound, and was in terrible pain from a sudden migraine. Jim would be mortified by a repeat performance in such a public setting. She inched her chair closer, hoping to shield him from any prying eyes. Since everyone was paying attention to Dr. Sandburg, she could wait, and hope Jim came out of this on his own.
Then the lights went out. The ballroom was pitch black. Even the emergency lighting had failed, which made Beverly very uneasy. There was a rustle from the crowd, and she could hear Dr. Sandburg, sans microphone, telling everyone to stay in their seats. She marveled at his calm, as he joked about getting some candles in. Beverly was trying to picture the nearest exit when the fire alarm shrieked to life.
She could hear the stampede more than see it. Jim let out a cry and pulled out of her grasp. She found him on the floor, rolling in pain, clutching at his ears. She wrapped her arms around his head and held him. Together, they huddled near the wall. The screams and shouts from the crowd, now in total panic, were everywhere. She didn't dare try to steer Jim through this mayhem. Unless she saw smoke or flames, she wasn't moving.
When the fire alarm went off, Blair figured he was off the hook for the remainder of his speech. Instead of rushing forward like everyone else, he backed up until he felt the smooth surface of the wall behind him. From the sound of things, people were being hurt in the panic, and Blair had no desire to join the fray.
He was working his way along the wall in the blind dark. It took a long time, and he still couldn't smell any smoke. The screams and shouting were moving away, and going oddly quiet. Something really weird was going on, and he'd just a soon let someone else figure it out. He'd reached a corner and was working down the far wall when the first shots rang out.
Shots fired! Jim fought through the pain in his ears and surged off the floor. He overturned the nearest table and pulled Beverly behind it, flattening her to the floor with his own body. He cursed his hearing, which had spiraled completely out of control. He couldn't locate the direction of the gunfire, something that should be instinctive from his Ranger days.
A few seconds later, the fire alarm stopped.
"Why won't the lights come on?" Beverly whispered. "There should be emergency lights at least. Something's not right. I don't think there's a fire at all."
Jim didn't answer. He was still groggy, and the inevitable killer headache was beating against his eyes. He cautiously peeked around the edge of the overturned table, realizing he could actually see quite a bit. What he saw through the open double doors at the far end of the ballroom chilled him. Armed men night vision scopes were forcing people to the floor. They were keeping some, and shoving the rest into the lobby and out of the building.
"They're taking hostages," he whispered. He cringed again. The pain was too much. "Get out of here, Beverly. Try the kitchen. Go out the back."
"I'm not leaving you," she said indignantly.
"Well, don't leave me, either," added a new voice, directly behind them. They both jumped. At the same moment, the main lights came on.
Blair Sandburg held up his hands. He'd joined them behind the shelter of the table. "Sorry to scare you, but I'm all for a group escape. Either of you know the way?"
Another volley of shots sent the three of them back to the floor. Jim couldn't stifle his own cry of pain.
"Take the shot!"
Three of Kincaid's men went down. The fourth dropped his weapon and surrendered as officers from Major Crime and SWAT rushed the lobby. It was over almost immediately. Simon Banks began searching frantically for casualties. Other than being completely terrorized, the civilians seemed unharmed. "Get more backup in here," he shouted. "Secure the rest of the building." Followed by a small contingent, he headed for the ballroom.
The place was a wreck from the crush of the crowd, but seemed deserted. They searched carefully, spreading out as they went. One of the uniformed officers grabbed Simon's arm when they saw a small flicker of movement in the front corner. Simon breathed a sigh of relief when he recognized the voice of Beverly Sanchez. Directing the others to carry on, he hurried over.
"Are you all right?" he asked anxiously, and then spotted Jim on the floor. "Is he hit?"
"No," Beverly answered, throwing a worried glance over her shoulder at Sandburg. Simon was "in the know", but Jim guarded the secret of his physical ailments jealously. Her internal debate was cut short when Sandburg brushed past her, and started to help Jim into a sitting position. He was speaking in a soft, low tone that seemed oddly deeper, or more rhythmic than his lecture mode.
"Take it easy. Breathe slow. That's it. I've had migraines, too. Let me do the work, man. Lean back and try to relax."
Simon was in a quandary. They'd been one step behind the Sunshine Patriots for the last twenty four hours. When they'd retrieved the hostage list from the group's computer, Simon had taken a calculated gamble and come here. Between their premature arrival, and the earlier apprehension of some of the conspirators, they'd gained an edge. Fortunately, they'd foiled the attempt, but now he needed to see to the safety of the would-be victims, Jim and Beverly included. Their names had been up near the top of the list of twenty-three prospective hostages.
Simon holstered his weapon. "Beverly, I need to get you and Jim down to the station. You were on Kincaid's hit list. You, the DA, the mayor, and a bunch of prominent community people."
"Kincaid?! He's in prison."
"His foot soldiers aren't. They were going to snatch a group of Cascade's leading citizens and try to trade for Kincaid. We've been on their tails all day long. We were just lucky to get here before they were completely established." He reached down and helped her up. "Come on. Let's get you out of here."
Beverly agreed. "I'll need to be at the station to handle the booking anyway."
It was Jim, shaking his head, even though it was clearly painful to do so. Sandburg was still kneeling beside him. "Can't, Simon. Home."
"Jim, it's for your own safety."
Jim managed to raise his head. The look in his eyes said everything. "Can't," he whispered.
"Jim," she said softly, "you can come with me."
"No," he whispered again.
"Let me take him." It was Sandburg speaking.
"And who are you?" Simon asked, his tone challenging.
"Blair Sandburg. I was the speaker." He looked at both of them, and then back at Jim. "Look, you two obviously know what's going on here, and I don't, but this man can't tolerate being dragged through a police station. Even I can tell that. Send us with an escort if you want to, but get him out of here." He stopped and met their eyes again. "I'll take him home. You can depend on my discretion."
Simon was ready to turn him down flat, when Jim muttered, "Do it." He struggled to his feet, and Sandburg rose with him, supporting him by the elbow.
"I'll send you in a patrol unit, and they'll stand guard until I say otherwise. Jim..."
"Go. You have work to do." To Simon's shock, Jim looked at Sandburg and said, "I'll be fine. He's okay."
When the patrol car pulled into his old neighborhood, Blair finally slid the puzzle pieces into their correct positions. Jim must be James Ellison from the newspaper feature. He was also the guy sitting next to him, head in his hands, battling through what had to be one of the worst migraines of the century. Blair, who'd suffered through some horrible migraines in Borneo without medication, ached for the guy. To be this bad off, he had to have been hurting through his entire talk, and maybe longer. Most people would be heading for the hospital and some serious pain medication. The sooner Blair got him resting in his own bed, the better.
The officer went with them as far as the elevator. Blair brushed off Jim's attempts to send him on his way. He might be home, but Ellison was in no shape to find his own shoe tops, much less get into bed on his own. The taller man rallied enough to enter the code number for the elevator and they were whisked upwards. As they stumbled off the elevator together, Jim dug some keys out of his pocket, and Blair got the two of them through the door.
The apartment was spacious. Blair thought he had the layout, and the direction of the bedroom figured out, when Jim pulled abruptly to the right. He may have mumbled something like, "Music room," but that made no sense at all. Jim careened through a doorway into a darkened room. He lost his hold, and assumed Jim had fallen. Concerned that Jim had hurt himself, he searched by feel along the wall for the light switch.
When the lights came on, Blair did a double-take. There were no overhead lights, and the room was still very dim. Tiny spotlights gleamed palely in each corner. Jim was curled up on a thick mat on the floor nearby.
Blair knelt beside him. "Did you fall?" No answer. "Where do you keep your meds? Do you have something to take?"
"Door. Shut...door." Jim curled in on himself even more.
"Okay," Blair said hesitantly. When the door snicked shut, the room went silent. Totally, eerily, silent.
Blair's mind was spinning.
Dim lighting? Soundproofing, and a lot of it? Couldn't be. Lots of people who get severe migraines are sensitive to light, and sound for that matter.
He went back to kneel next to Ellison. "What about aspirin? Do you take that?" He got what looked like a feeble nod to him. Fair enough. Spotting a thick comforter folded up near by, Blair tucked it around the huddled figure and headed for the kitchen, carefully shutting the door behind him.
He searched both the kitchen and the bathroom. He managed to find some aspirin, but unless he was missing something, Ellison didn't take any other medication, not even a cold tablet. He found bottled water in the fridge, which he noticed was nearly empty. He got some ice cubes and wrapped them in a towel.
He hustled back. Again the silence in the room unnerved him. He sat down on the floor. "Sorry it took so long," he said. Ellison visibly cringed. He seemed really shaky as he sat up to down the tablets. "Easy there," Blair said, this time in a whisper. He reached up and steadied Ellison's grasp around the bottled water. "That's good. Don't you have anything stronger to take?" he asked.
Ellison shook his head. "Not - good with - meds." After a pause, he added, "Thanks. Cab - home?"
"Hey, I'm not taking off yet. Let's at least get you off the floor." He ignored the weak protests. An expensive looking leather chair was just a few feet away. Besides, who wanted to suffer through a migraine in a tux? Blair kept talking in hushed tones, even if it was a one-way conversation. Ellison seemed a little less agitated when he did. "Let's lose the jacket and the hardware. Man, I couldn't do up the studs on my own without the headache." He stripped the vest and shirt off the broad shoulders. "That's better. Now the shoes. Just relax. Okay, how does that chair sound? Beats the floor, man." Ellison gave him sort of a nod, and Blair decided to go with it. "Right. Put your arm around my waist - here we go." They crossed the distance carefully, and he gently lifted the taller man's legs into the lounge. "Cool furniture, by the way. Here, why don't you take another few sips of water."
Jim looked blearily at him. "Thanks - don't have - to stay."
"Trying to kick me out again? I'm going to get a complex. Gonna do one more thing." He picked up the towel. The ice cubes had melted just enough. "Aspirin isn't much to knock out the pain you're in. I brought some ice." He paused for a moment. Something told him Ellison was a very private man. "I'm not trying to be forward, here. You'll let me give you a hand won't you? I can tell you're hurting. You trusted me earlier." Blair was keenly aware of the intense blue eyes that fluttered open. He got another nod, and that was good enough for him.
Twenty minutes later, the aspirin, the ice pack, and a little calm had done their magic. Ellison was mercifully asleep. Blair shut the door to the soundproof room and debated. The socially correct thing would be to leave a note, call Captain Banks, and get a cab. The alternative was to totally violate the man's privacy and do a little scientific investigating.
The scientist won.
The search took far into the wee hours of the morning. His discoveries added to his suspicions. The evidence was all pointing one direction. There were no spices in the kitchen, not even salt. The only staples were white rice, and chicken broth. No tea. No coffee. No sugar.
That wasn't all. No detergents or cleaners anywhere, only pure Ivory soap. Anything else was fragrance free or hypoallergenic. He couldn't bring himself to snoop in Ellison's bedroom, but he found a few articles of clothing scattered around the apartment. They were all either silk or cotton, the least irritating of all fabrics. The man either had pretty severe allergies, or he had all the symptoms of sensory hypersensitivity.
Blair continued to check Ellison through the night. He didn't seem to be in any discomfort, just sleeping deeply. A migraine could do that. From his research, Blair believed a zone out could produce the same result.
He ended up sleeping in one of Ellison's living room chairs. The apartment was filled with morning sun when Blair awakened, searching for a soft chime that was ringing somewhere. It turned out to be the door. The man waiting with the tray and Blair were equally surprised. The newcomer recovered first.
"I'm Lucas, and I have Mr. Ellison's breakfast delivery. I'm sorry, sir, Mr. Ellison usually informs me if he has guests. Can I bring up something for you?"
"Uh, what is Mr. Ellison having?" Blair asked.
"His usual. Fresh juice, and buttermilk doughnuts."
"Can I substitute a bagel? Maybe some coffee?"
"Of course. I'll be back shortly."
Blair thanked him, and went to the kitchen to unload the tray. Four glasses of juice stared at him. Four different flavors. It all fit. He just hoped Ellison wouldn't throw him out when he asked.
Ellison was still sleeping when Blair entered, carrying the tray. He set the tray down, settled on the floor, and tugged gently on the comforter. Ellison stirred. "Hey there," Blair said softly. "You feeling better? I brought your breakfast."
"Breakfast?" Ellison sat up. "You stayed all night? Let me get you a cab."
Blair put a hand on his knee before he could stand up. "I met Lucas. He's bringing me something to eat. Could we just talk for a minute?" Ellison said nothing, but Blair could sense the wariness in the man. He couldn't afford to beat around the bush, but the direct approach might get him tossed out on his ear.
"On of the great things about Anthropology is that there are a million applications. Cultural mores, family structures, you name it. I've never written it up, but when I was in Borneo, when I had the chance to go out with the really isolated groups. I ran into some fascinating stories. Some are pure local folklore. I heard a lot about men with special abilities to hear and see especially well. They were treasured and guarded by their communities." Blair stopped, and watched Ellison closely. For someone who had just woken up out of a dead sleep, he was wound tight. "Guys like you."
"What makes you think that?" Ellison said, clearly on edge.
"Careful observation, and a lifetime of research. Tell me how close I am. You have a sound-proof room because sometimes that's the only way to keep the world out." He gestured toward the tray. "You get four flavors of juice, because your taste buds are off the chart part of the time, maybe most of the time. Lights are too bright. Smells are too strong. How close am I?"
"Get out," Ellison growled. "Get out right now."
"I can help you, if you'll let me."
"Nothing helps. Now leave."
"What if I could teach you how to control them? So you wouldn't need all this." Blair gestured to the room around them. "Mr. Ellison, trust me, please. Not many people believe in Sentinels, much less study them. Give me a chance. Tell me how long you've been like this."
Pain seemed to soften the man's fierce gaze just a bit. "Four years, give or take. What's a Sentinel? And call me Jim."
"Okay. Jim. A full sentinel is an individual with hypersensitivity in all five senses. An explorer named Sir Richard Burton wrote a monograph about sentinels in South America. He's the guy who wrote the Arabian Nights, if you've never heard of him. Anyway, lots of people think Burton was a nut. I don't. My research found plenty of people with one or two hyper senses."
"Were they normal?" Jim asked.
Blair had to admire his directness. "In a sense. I'm assuming you're asking if it interfered with their lives. They were coffee tasters, blended perfumes, things like that. They had to make adjustments. I doubt that someone with a hyperactive sense of taste would eat a lot of chili peppers."
The wariness slipped, replaced by sorrow. "My situation isn't like that."
"Do you have all five?" Blair could hardly contain himself. All five would be incredible.
"Yes," he said slowly. "I'd give anything to make them go away."
"They're a gift, Jim. You are the rarest of the rare, a full sentinel."
"I'm not your research project, Professor," Jim said firmly.
"No, you're not. But I'd like to think you'd give me the chance to be your friend." The chime rang again. Blair grinned. "I think that's my bagel. How about we eat breakfast and go through this again, more slowly?"
Jim's eyes narrowed. Blair felt poised on the knife-edge. He couldn't stop the sigh of relief when Jim finally said, "I can handle that."
Blair expected to do most of the talking. He couldn't have been more wrong. For someone not trained in the scientific method, Jim Ellison had done an admirable job of refining his life through trial and error. Blair found himself taking notes on every scrap of paper he could locate. He quickly isolated the real issue.
Jim could describe in precise detail what situations gave him difficulty. He could go through lists of specific items he avoided. He'd experienced many zone outs, and inherently knew their danger. The one thing he couldn't do was discuss any measure of control, no matter how tiny.
Jim Ellison was totally controlled by his senses, and it was torturing him.
Blair looked at his scraps of papers and shook his head. "Jim, you are absolutely amazing. You've basically designed an entire behavioral study, complete with controls, with no guidance and yourself as the subject." Jim just stared at him blankly. "I've got to make you see how incredible this is."
"Chief, I hate to burst your bubble, but even if that's true, I haven't enjoyed the life of a lab rat."
Blair smiled at the nickname. Jim had used it several times, so he supposed it was official. "Forget the lab rat stuff. Think about the adaptability, the determination, the inventiveness. This is the equivalent of reading an anatomy book and successfully removing your own appendix."
Jim smirked. Blair had noticed he didn't really smile very much. It was probably the result of the constant balancing act. "Did the patient survive?" he asked.
"I think the patient has an excellent prognosis. In fact, I predict a complete recovery." He happened to notice the time. They'd talked well into the afternoon. He looked down at his rumpled tux, with the shirt cuffs still unbuttoned. "You know, those bagels were great, but I'm famished. Why don't we go to my place, I'll change, and we can grab a bite."
Jim's smile faded. "I - I don't eat out much. Maybe you could come back here?" he asked hopefully.
Blair looked at his notes, and realized that he'd missed something very important in Jim's narrative - his level of isolation, and his fear. "Jim, this is your decision, and you don't have to make it right now. I'd really like you to come with me and look at Burton's monograph. I think once you realize that men just like you existed successfully in their own cultures, the more confident you'll feel. Beyond that, I have some ideas of how we could train your senses, so you can enjoy the broader world again. The only catch, is to do it, we have to go out in the world. Outside these walls."
"I'm not sure I believe that."
"And I couldn't blame you. Jim, you've been doing this all alone. You've learned how to shelter yourself. Take the next step." He waited. Jim gave no sign of what he was thinking. "You know, Burton mentioned that a sentinel always had a companion, sort of a backup. I'd be honored to do that, if you'd let me. To use what I know to guide you back to the outside world."
For the first time, Blair Sandburg saw Jim Ellison smile. "Guide to the outside, Chief? I think I like the sound of that. I like it a lot."
When it happened, they should have known it was an omen for their future. They'd gotten off the elevator, Jim freshly changed and Blair still in his bedraggled tux, when they realized neither of them had a car. They both laughed themselves silly while the poor uniformed officer guarding Jim's door stared at them in disbelief.
"Mr. Ellison, we're still on high alert. I can't just let you wander around. Captain Banks will have me busted down to traffic."
Jim understood, and came up with a solution. "Look, drive us downtown and we'll contact Banks from the patrol car. He can decide what to do about the protection. I need my truck, and I'm as safe with you as an escort as anywhere."
Blair began to get an inkling of Jim's special status when he settled into the front seat of the cruiser and contacted dispatch like an old hand. As they were patched through, every person greeted Jim by name. Blair was intrigued. Jim obviously had long-standing relationships with the Cascade PD, and it seemed an odd combination for a successful developer.
A new voice crackled over the radio. Someone named Joel, Blair noted, not quite catching the last name. "Jim, is your truck at the Civic Center?"
"Yeah. We're almost there now."
"Simon is over there with forensics. He'll meet you by the front entrance. He said if you leave without talking to him, he'll put out an APB on the truck."
Jim snorted. "Yeah, right. Sometimes Simon forgets I'm a private citizen. Thanks, Joel. Take care."
When they swung into the parking lot, Banks was actually standing on the curb waiting for them. Blair searched the parking lot for a likely vehicle. Maybe Jim's truck had been stolen. There was a smattering of SUV's and luxury sedans mixed in with the police vehicles, but the only truck Blair could see was a dilapidated blue clunker from God knew what decade.
Jim wasn't even out of the car before Captain Banks was barking at him. Blair slid in behind him, basically unnoticed. "Damn you, Jim. I have enough problems without you running around the city unprotected."
"And why would I still need protection, Simon? What's going on?"
Simon sighed in disgust. "We did a great job last night, and ended up with egg on our faces this morning. The plan was two-fold. Kincaid ran a jail break last night as a back up plan. I guess he figured one way or the other, he'd be out."
"He got out?" Jim said. "He was supposed to be in a high security area. Who screwed up?"
Simon rolled his eyes. "Inside scam. Someone else is working that end of the case. In any event, he's out. Everyone on the list is either in a safe-house or under guard. Which, by the way, is exactly where you're going."
"Would someone tell me who this Kincaid person is?"
It was the first time Simon had noticed Jim had a shadow. "Dr. Sandburg?" he said, throwing a questioning look at Jim.
"He stayed with me last night, Simon." Jim tilted his head slightly toward the patrol officer. "Could we speak privately for a moment?"
Simon got the hint. "Wallace, go back and keep Mr. Ellison's residence secure. I'll send some relief in a couple of hours." They drifted over to a deserted area of the parking lot. Simon wasted no time. "What gives, Jim? Why is he still here? No offense, Dr. Sandburg, it's just..."
"Unusual," Blair finished. "In light of Jim's situation, highly unusual."
"He knows?" Simon asked.
"Yeah, Simon, he knows. In fact, he's studied this stuff. We're going over to the University."
Simon started bellowing again. Jim gave no reaction, so it must be Bank's standard way of operating. Blair was surprised the volume didn't bother Jim's hearing. "Jim, I can't let you do that. Kincaid needs cash to get established somewhere else. He's going to go for a hostage, I just know it."
"I'll take the risk," countered Jim sharply. "It's my life." His tone softened. "Simon, he thinks I can get better."
"Jim, we don't know anything about him." Simon gestured at Sandburg, then glared down at the much shorter academic. "This is a good man, and he's been through a lot. I don't want you messing with his head."
Blair stood his ground. "I think it's his choice, Captain Banks."
Apparently Banks knew he was beat. "I want you in cell phone contact at all times. Where are you going at the University?"
"University House, and then my office in Hargrove Hall," Blair said.
"I'm putting a plainclothes unit on your tail, at least for today." Jim started to argue, and Simon raised a hand to cut him off. "I don't need your permission for that, Jim. Now be a good citizen and don't lose them in traffic. Keep in touch." He was gone before anyone said goodbye.
"Is he always like that?" Blair asked.
"What? People don't yell in academia?"
"Sometimes. Just not as part of casual conversation."
"Nothing about Simon Banks is casual, Chief. When you're Captain of Major Crime, you're a busy man, all the time, and he's a good friend." Jim's voice faltered just a bit. "He was my boss when stuff first started going weird. It says a lot about Simon that he stuck by me and didn't just turn me over to the psych ward."
They were walking across the parking lot, but Blair's attention was focused on Jim. "I didn't realize you were a police officer."
"A detective, actually."
"Maybe you can arrange for me to spend some time with him. That period in your life might be critical to our progress."
"Our progress?" The wariness had returned. Blair sighed inwardly. Old habits would die hard. Jim probably had plenty of reasons to be cautious.
"Our. We're in this together, for as long as you wish it." To Blair's shock, they'd come to a stop in front of the old battered blue truck. "This is it? You own half of Cascade and this is what you drive?"
"There's nothing wrong with it," Jim said defensively, unlocking the door for him. "It's not missing anything important."
Blair stared at the dash. It had a tape deck, for God's sake. "Not missing anything? How about a CD player? Or comfortable seats? Or some fragment of style, for that matter. You bought a new residence. Why didn't you buy a new vehicle?"
Jim pulled into traffic, heading toward the University. "I used to have nice cars, but I was kind of hard on them. It upset the insurance company. When I started having trouble with my senses, I drove my Explorer into a light pole. The insurance people went crazy, I was on leave from the department, and everything was going nuts. I just got something cheap."
"And after that?"
"You know how new cars smell - new? Right now, I can't even go for a test drive."
Blair sat silent. This little admission would have cost Jim dearly. It was to his credit he seemed willing to confront his limitations. He would definitely need to talk with Banks. Jim Ellison had a strong personality. He couldn't imagine the man being so accepting when everything he knew in his life was being swept away. It didn't make sense.
Jim needed a little help to find University House. When they entered, Jim started sneezing violently. He held his nose and squawked out, "Roses." Sure enough, a fresh bouquet of roses was on the table in the entry area. Blair pulled the struggling man out the door and out onto the grassy lawn.
"Okay, just breathe. Clear everything out and don't panic, okay. That's it."
"Go in and change, Chief. I'll wait out here."
"This is a great opportunity," Blair said excitedly.
Jim looked at him like he was crazy. "An opportunity for what? Another migraine? Because that's what will happen if I go back in there."
"Just give this a try, Jim. Don't make any effort, but what do you smell right now?"
Jim hesitated for a moment. "The lawn. Rain in the air."
"Okay. Now concentrate on me, man. Nothing is going to hurt you, 'cause I'm right here. Close your eyes." Jim gave him the 'are you nuts?' look again. "Just do it. Imagine there's a dial in front of you. It's goes from zero to ten, and right now it's set on five. Turn the knob, first to four." He waited a moment. "Now go to three. Tell me what you smell."
A look of wonder came over Jim's face. "I still smell the rain, but it's less. The grass smell is almost gone."
"Great," Blair answered enthusiastically. "Now we're going to be very careful, but inch it back to five. Now to six. Is it stronger?"
"Yeah," Jim said. His voice was calm, but his eyes looked worried.
"Okay! Grass and rain, those are nice smells. If you like them, you can turn them up and enjoy them. If they're too strong, or not nice, you can turn them down. It just takes concentration."
Jim nodded. Then his head tilted slightly to the side, and his eyes went blank. Zone out.
Blair struggled to keep the urgency out of his voice. "Come back to me, Jim. Follow my voice. You went over the edge, just turn the dial and come on back." The eyelids fluttered. Blair laid a hand on Jim's arm, trying to keep him calm. "You had a little zone out. Nothing serious. That's why Burton said the Sentinels always had a companion. For instances just like that, when the Sentinel gets lost in his senses."
"So I need a keeper?" Jim seemed upset, bordering on angry.
"I don't think so. I think in normal settings, the Sentinel operated within his own control. You will, too, when your control improves. Think about it, Jim. You just had your first big success. Now let's try the roses."
"I can't go back in there!" Jim protested.
"Yes, you can. I'm going to open the door, and we're going to approach, step by step. You tell me the first moment you can smell the roses." They were five steps from the door when Jim called a halt.
"Great. Now, they were a little much the first time, so close your eyes and set the dial on four. Three might be even better."
Jim nodded. "Got it."
"Now take another step, and reset the dial."
It took them ten minutes. Jim had beads of sweat popping out on his forehead by the time they were back in the entry, but they made it. Blair had a hand wrapped around Jim's wrist. "Where's the dial?"
"Seven, maybe eight."
"Turn it down."
"You can." He felt Jim's whole body tense. He was working hard, really hard. Then he took a half-step back and all the tension just evaporated.
"Three." Jim looked completely confused. "They don't bother me now."
Blair smiled broadly. "You did it! Fantastic. Now let's go upstairs and I'll change." He pulled Jim toward the stairway in the elegant old home. "If something bugs you, freeze and tell me right away."
"It took me ten minutes to get into a stupid house, Sandburg."
"So what?" Blair answered, practically dancing at the top of the stairs. "You got in. Next time it will go faster."
He was talking non-stop as he disappeared through a doorway. Jim shook his head, and followed along.
Their next step was Hargrove. Blair carefully opened his copy of Burton's monograph, explaining as he went. Jim didn't seem in the mood to ask many questions. Maybe he was just tired. He was turning pages when Jim reached out a hand and stopped him. It was the plate showing the tribal sentinel.
"Incacha," he murmured. His face had a far away, distant look.
"Who's Incacha?" Blair asked gently.
"My friend. When I was in Peru, with the Chopec. He was the shaman."
They'd been standing at his desk, using it as a flat surface to support the fragile book. Blair pushed Jim into a nearby chair. "Jim, that's the traditional way Sentinels are trained. A learned individual in the community, like a shaman, essentially coaches them until they become proficient. When were you in Peru? With the Chopec? That's a very isolated group."
Jim slowly pulled himself back to the present. "I was in the Army. I was stranded for eighteen months."
"Whoa! Back up. You were in the service?"
Jim nodded. "Captain in the Rangers. It was a covert operation, and the chopper crashed. I stayed with the Chopec and completed the mission."
"Shit." The possibilities were enormous. Blair hardly knew what to say first. "Did you have your senses then?"
Jim's head cocked slightly to one side. It was becoming a familiar gesture. "I'm not sure. Maybe I did." He shook his head. "I don't remember a lot about Peru. I don't think my debriefing was considered a success."
"Jim, this is huge. What are the odds that someone with your abilities would wind up in a tribal culture that, as far as I can tell from research, is the essential element in developing a Sentinel? We need to explore this, get your Army records."
"Not going to happen, Chief. Covert Ops doesn't hand over stuff like that."
"Well, you can remember it." Jim started to protest, and Blair persisted. "Obviously, it was traumatic, and you've repressed it. That doesn't mean it's not there. You've never had anyone ask the right questions." He was pacing around the office. "I need to work on this." He looked up, bursting with plans, and thought better of it. They hadn't known each other a full twenty four hours yet. Better not to stick to small things first. "On another day we can try."
"Okay. I guess we can do that." Jim sounded pretty doubtful.
Blair bounced out of his chair. "Well, you've had a chance to rest up since the roses. Had enough of Burton? Let's go to the Market. It's outside, and we can work on your control."
"Are you crazy? There are crowds, and...and smells. It's noisy."
"And I'll be right there with you," Blair said, trying to reassure him. If it's too much, we'll hop in the truck and go back to your place."
"Are you always like this, Chief?" Jim asked as he was led down the stairs.
Despite Jim's apprehensions, the Market was another success. Since they had already worked on smell, so Blair concentrated on sight. Jim was zooming in on license plates ten blocks down the street before they knew it. Then they switched to close vision. They practiced until early evening, and Jim was getting tired. Every once in awhile, Jim would stop and cautiously signal to the officers that were discretely shadowing them. He explained that they were detectives from Major Crime and good friends.
They were sitting on a bench, munching on some apples they had just purchased, when the introductions were made. Brown and Rafe. Blair smirked at Jim and asked, "Is everyone you work with a giant? You guys run a basketball team on the side?"
Henri laughed. The big man certainly didn't look like the image of a tough cop. "Wait till he meets Joel. He'll think we're all a bunch of mutants."
"Joel - that's who you talked to on the radio, isn't it, Jim?"
Jim nodded. "Joel Taggart. Captain of the Bomb Squad, and he helps out with Major Crime when business is slow in explosives."
"Simon is seriously worried about what Kincaid has up his sleeve," Brown said. "He and Joel are on twenty-four hour call. I don't think either of them went home last night. If you guys are ready to call it a day, we'll follow you back to Jim's place, and we'll check in. Can we drop you anywhere, Dr. Sandburg?"
"He's coming to dinner," Jim said quickly, a little too quickly.
Blair had the sense to pick up the ball and run with it. "Right, dinner. Great idea."
When they were back in the truck, Jim apologized. "Look, I can run you back to University House. That was presumptuous."
"It's just fine. I'm glad you aren't sick of me. Tell me what you would usually have for dinner."
"Well, it depends. I usually have white rice. Lucas sends up drinks from the juice bar. There are some restaurants that were added to the Projects in the last couple years, and I can call them to send over some grilled chicken or a steak. That doesn't work out very often."
"That's it. Oh, bananas are usually good, and potatoes. I can usually eat raw vegetables - well, sometimes, but I get kind of sick of them. Carrots are pretty reliable."
Blair was appalled. A diet like that would drive him around the bend in short order. Jim had been doing it for years. "Jim, tell me honestly, what's your favorite food?"
"Now? Rice. I eat it all the time."
"No. Before. Your very favorite."
"I won't. Tell me what you really like. If it's Frosted Flakes or something, I promise not to say anything rude for at least, let's say, two or three minutes."
Jim gave him a sideways glance. "I can see flickers of a real smartass in you, Sandburg. If you must know, I used to love Wonder Burgers, with pickles and onions and cheese. And ketchup on the fries." Jim's voice sounded like he was describing his first love. "Carolyn and Simon always teased me about it."
Blair rubbed his forehead. "Jeeze. Another huge area we need to talk about. All right, let that go. Make a left up here, my man. If memory serves, there's a Wonder Burger on Harrison. Tonight, we celebrate."
Blair was impulsive, but he wasn't about to risk Jim's trust by being overconfident. Dismissing the drive-through window, he went in and ordered at the counter. Jim wondered what took so long, but when they got back, he could see why. Every ingredient to several burgers - the pickles, the onions, the tomato, were all in their individual boxes. Putting the beef, the fries and the bun in the oven to stay warm, Blair sat Jim down, and Blair sliced off tiny bits of each item. They did a taste test on each thing, practicing with the dials. The dill pickles were a serious challenge, but Jim finally got everything turned down to a three.
Blair gleefully reassembled Jim's order, and together they dined on Wonder Burgers, fries and coke. Jim was in heaven. Blair was so moved by the look of ecstasy on this stoic man's face as he ate that he felt incredibly humble, and terrified by the responsibility he had so glibly accepted that morning.
The phone call came as they were disposing of the extra takeout boxes. It was Beverly Sanchez. They hadn't been properly introduced or anything, but Blair discretely excused himself by volunteering to take a walk around his old neighborhood. He was out the door before Jim could catch him. Realizing it was too late, Jim turned his attention back to the phone call.
"Hi, there. I've been worried about you all day, but Simon kept telling me you were checking in. I could tell you were hurting last night. Did you suffer all day?
"Actually, I didn't. Sandburg was a big help. I slept and felt pretty good when I woke up. Did you get any rest?"
"Not hardly. Simon's kept me real busy. They're leaving no stone unturned. We've got active search warrants all over Cascade."
"I was worried about you, too. Are they any closer to catching Kincaid?"
"Simon would know better than I. I guess I'm spending the night in a safe-house, if that's any indication. Did I hear Dr. Sandburg's voice? He's still there?"
"He just went for a walk. It's been - Beverly, I hardly know where to start. Blair - Dr. Sandburg - knows about people like me. They're called Sentinels."
"You're kidding. You are kidding, aren't you?"
"I'm not. I guess I spent the day in Sentinel kindergarten. I can't believe it. I went to the Market, and it was okay. I smelled a bouquet of roses, and it was okay."
"Oh my God. Jim, I don't know what to say. The Market? On a Saturday?"
"Bev, this is the best. I had a Wonder Burger for dinner. With a pickle. Can you believe it? And salt on the fries! Bev? Ahh, Bev, don't do that. I didn't mean to make you cry."
Blair couldn't reconcile what he remembered with the view in front of him. It had been too dark last night, and he hadn't paid attention when they'd taken off earlier in the day. He was standing on the corner where his old warehouse living quarters had stood. It was absolutely amazing.
Knowing what he did about Ellison, he could see a reason for everything. Over much of the area, the streets had been turned into pedestrian malls. The buildings around the perimeter all had underground parking. It would have been an added expense, but virtually eliminated traffic. A very smart decision if traffic noise was a constant irritant. There were areas of grass and trees, no doubt serving as another buffer for the noise sensitive.
The new shopping plazas, along with the restaurants, were clustered in one area, well away from Jim's building. Blair knew his sense of direction wasn't his strength, but he was willing to bet that they were all downwind. When he noted the different establishments, he almost laughed out loud. If Ellison felt he needed something, he figured out a way to build it and have it close.
His stroll gave him time to think. He knew he was impulsive. Out of respect for Jim, he needed to be clear on what he was trying to accomplish here. It wasn't just respect, either. Jim was essentially a human subject, and there were a host of disclosure and consent issues. He couldn't be casual about that kind of stuff. He knew from Jim's comments that the lab rat business was a touchy issue. He'd love to avoid it, but ethical behavior demanded that it be addressed, and soon. What could he offer Jim, and what did Jim really want? He was going to have to ask, consequences be damned.
He found a spot to sit down on the grass, and leaned back, watching the puffs of cloud scud across the darkening sky. Summer in Cascade sure beat winter in Michigan. As he considered more serious issues, he wondered what Jim could see, what he would see, if he were to look. He was lost in thought when Jim's face finally loomed over him.
"I always knew all you academics just stared at the clouds."
"We do not," said Blair, sitting up. "You don't want to know the hours I spend grading. Or better yet, I need to take you to a dig and start you looking for artifacts with a paint brush."
"People pay you to do this?" Jim said with a grin. He joined Blair on the grass.
"They're called grants." Blair changed the subject. "I'm really impressed with this, by the way. I used to live in this neighborhood, you know."
"When?" Jim asked. "It was a burned out wasteland when I bought it. Some drug lab fire wiped out a couple blocks worth. The owners couldn't wait to unload the property."
"I lived next door!" Blair answered, laughing at the coincidence. "That stupid drug lab damn near killed me. I guess I shouldn't complain. When I lost everything I owned, Eli kicked my butt and got me going on my dissertation."
"Now it's my turn to ask. Who's Eli?"
"Dr. Eli Stoddard. He headed the expedition to Borneo, and was my advisor for my Ph.D. He just retired. I was hired to replace him." He sniffed. "Like that is really going to happen."
"From what I can see, they made a good choice. I never asked you. What did you do your dissertation on?"
Blair hesitated, then answered truthfully. "Sentinels. I wanted in the worst way to find a modern sentinel. When my place blew up, Eli got me off the dime, and I defended based on the historical evidence. Like I told you, my research turned up lots of people with one or two hyper senses." Jim seemed to be considering that. Blair wondered if he'd scared him off. "I was thinking you must be tired, and ready for a break. Maybe I should head on home."
"Actually, Simon's coming over. He asked that you wait, if you don't mind."
Blair stood up. "I don't mind at all." He wasn't sure, but he thought Jim seemed relieved.
Simon Banks arrived with his own beer, and collapsed on the couch. From their casual interaction, Blair gathered they were friends of long standing, and bringing the beer along was a regular routine. Banks briefly gave Jim the rundown of the search for Kincaid, sipping his beer. It was hardly a relaxing subject, but Simon seemed relieved to discuss it with his former detective. Blair didn't miss that Jim was looking at the six-pack like a man stranded in the desert seeing a lake.
Blair was sitting in a chair across from the other two men. He pulled a chilled bottle out of the carrier. "This okay with you, Captain?"
Simon looked a little surprised, but nodded. "Sure. Help yourself."
Blair removed the cap and handed it to Jim. "Touch it to your tongue, and check the dials." Jim reached out, and then pulled his hand back. "Go ahead," Blair said. "If you can make it through a pickle and a Wonder Burger, you can handle this. Just concentrate and take it slow." In the background, Blair could hear Simon mutter, "What the hell? Wonder Burger?"
Jim started with a touch, as Blair had advised, then a sip, followed by a swallow. "A beer!" he said. "I'm drinking a beer!" He absolutely beamed.
"What did you do to him?" Simon demanded.
"Just opened the door," Blair answered. "He did the rest all by himself." He patiently explained a shorter version of what he'd told Jim, and what had been accomplished on their first day. Simon was speechless. Jim, who had spent so many years stoically soldiering on, seemed ready to burst.
"I'm glad you're here, Captain Banks. Before we proceed any further, there are some pretty important issues to discuss. I feel more comfortable with Jim having a friend present, who knows his situation with him, to advise him."
The two men gave each other quizzical looks, and then Jim blurted out, "Speak English, Sandburg."
"Jim, I hate to rain on your parade. Right now you're like a kid who hit a home run on his first at bat. If we continue, it's not always going to go this well. It's a lot more likely that it will be frustrating and time consuming."
Jim's look was stormy, like a child who had unjustly been deprived of his favorite toy. "Okay. I appreciate your concern, but I don't think I want to stop."
"Well, there's more. We're essentially moving into an area where you're a human subject, just like a person who volunteers for an experimental drug study. You have rights, and I have obligations. I know you don't like the idea of being a lab rat, but I can't avoid this discussion." Jim's face went blank. Blair might just as well have called in the firing squad.
"Go ahead," he said in a flat voice. "Finish what you have to say."
"I wish I could do this informally, and just say 'I'll just help you as a friend, no strings attached'. Problem is, anyone who knew me, or knew my occupation, would call me on it. The truth is, when you specialize in interaction between social groups, you're kind of studying everything all the time. It would ring hollow if I tried to plead that contact I have with you isn't research related."
"So what does that mean?" Simon asked.
"It means that Jim needs to think, really think, about what he'd like to accomplish. How much time do you want to spend? I won't always know what's going to happen. We might try things that backfire, or place you at risk. You need to be aware of that and give your permission."
"I warned you, Sandburg," Simon growled. "Don't mess with his head." Jim said nothing.
"I'm not talking about being indiscriminate or irresponsible." He watched Jim, waiting to see if he was really comprehending what he was saying. "I won't lie to you, Jim. If we had met five years ago, I don't think I would have been so circumspect. I wanted to find a Sentinel so badly I could taste it. I would have been tempted to leave the sticky things in a gray area, and forge ahead. It would have been wrong."
"What kind of things do I have to decide?"
Blair frowned. This was the tough part, trying to anticipate where this journey might take them. "For example, are you willing to let me test your abilities, if that will help me understand them? Are you willing to let me keep records of your progress? Can I publish my results, with your approval? Do you wish to have your anonymity protected if I do publish? You can also refuse to have any information concerning your experience released, under any circumstances."
"Will you help me if I say 'no'? If I don't want to do tests or have things written down?" Jim asked. Blair's heart twisted.
"Sounds like blackmail to me," Simon added, scowling. Despite his hostile attitude, Blair was really glad he was there. Jim was so desperate that he might have glossed over what Blair was trying to tell him. Simon was going to ask the hard questions.
"Jim, I promise you, and I will put it in writing, that I will accept any constraints you want to place on this, but I won't leave until you ask me to. That includes publishing. That's your right, as the person most directly affected. Your friend Beverly is a lawyer. You should feel free to ask her to review anything we set up." He waited, giving them time to consider what they had heard. "I can leave so you can discuss this, if you like," he volunteered.
"Actually, Dr. Sandburg, I can't allow that," Simon replied. When Blair started to protest, he waved him off. "I'll explain, but let's finish this discussion first. I have a question."
Blair put his objections on hold. "Ask away."
"I don't know a lot about the academia, but I would think being a new professor would be pretty time consuming. Publish or perish, isn't that the phrase? Where is Jim going to fit in?"
"That's a fair question, Captain. Right now, during summer term, my responsibilities aren't as heavy. If Jim agrees, I would suggest we set up a regular schedule to meet, and take advantage of the lighter load while I have it. Again, it goes back to what Jim wants, and what he's willing to do."
"I want my life back," Jim stated adamantly. "I want as much back as I can get."
"Can he be a cop again? Come back to the department?" Simon asked.
"Wow. I don't know," Blair answered honestly. "Just returning to normal daily activities might be a tall order. Being a detective would raise the bar even higher."
"So you don't think it's possible?" Simon asked.
"I didn't say that. I just don't know. We're in uncharted waters as it is. If that's what Jim really wants, then that's what we'll work toward."
"You need to get something out of this," Jim said. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'll agree to testing. That makes sense to me. I'm not very comfortable with publication. I don't want to be treated like a freak."
"I can understand your reservations. In all honesty, Jim, I don't think you'd be any more of a freak than an Olympic athlete. It's a pretty good parallel. You'd be another example of an individual operating at the limits of exceptional performance. No one treats the holder of a world record in the 100 meter dash like a freak, but in a sense, he is. Still, it's your decision."
"I don't like it," Jim stated with a real edge in his voice, staring at his hands. "Being put on parade after Peru was horrible. I never want to go through something like that again. I'd say 'no' to publishing any results in a heartbeat, except for one thing. What if there's someone else out there, suffering? Someone who's slowly going crazy. When this all started, I thought I was going crazy."
Blair nodded. "Not everyone is as resourceful as you are. Telling your story might help someone else. That's always a possibility. I don't think you should try to decide right now. Take some time to think about it." He looked at Simon. "What is this about me not leaving?"
"We located one of the hideouts Kincaid was using right before I came over. We found photos and clippings concerning Dr. Sandburg, along with the other hostage profiles." He looked directly at Blair. "I'm sorry, Dr. Sandburg. Even if they weren't interested in you before, they are now. I need to move you to a safe house. We can't risk doing anything else with Kincaid on the loose."
"I can't do that," Blair said indignantly. "I need to teach on Monday. Why would they care about me, anyway? I think you're overreacting, Captain."
"I might agree," Simon answered. "Brown and Rafe don't"
Jim jumped off the couch. "What do you mean, Simon? They were with us all day. They would have told me if they'd seen something suspicious."
"That's the problem. Look, it took us awhile to track it down, but someone was at, or watching, University House before you guys got there. Brown and Rafe saw him, but the guy split as soon as they got there, and they didn't think much of it at the time. When we found the clippings, we contacted the University. Turns out there was a delivery of roses this morning to University House that no one ordered. Now we think one of Kincaid's men was going to use it as a way in to get in and snatch Sandburg."
"Except he wasn't there, he was here," said Jim.
"It certainly looks that way," agreed Simon.
"Why would they look for me in the first place?" Blair asked.
"Someone followed us last night," Jim said, his voice certain. "Followed us, recognized you from the dinner, and changed plans." He gestured to the room around them. "This place is pretty impossible to break into, and I don't go out much. Today was an enormous exception, and they weren't prepared. They might have hoped they could get to me through you, especially since we left together last night."
"It still doesn't make sense," Blair said.
Simon stood up, behaving as if the decision were made. "Dr. Sandburg, it makes perfect sense once you realize that Kincaid is crazy, and it doesn't have to be logical. Jim worked on the case that originally sent Kincaid to prison, and now he's a wealthy man. He'd be willing to pursue any avenue that would allow a measure of revenge." Simon stood up, looking very official. "I'll take you to the safe house, and we'll take care of any necessities you might have."
"No. Sorry, Captain. You can offer me protection, but I don't have to accept it, and I don't."
"Dr. Sandburg, please reconsider."
Jim cut them both off. "Leave him here, then. He can stay with me, and you can guard my building. Saves on personnel, and I really can't go somewhere else anyway." He whirled to face Blair. "That's okay with you, isn't it, Chief? I have a great guestroom. You'd be the first occupant."
"I suppose we could continue working on your senses," Blair said hesitantly. "If you want to, that is."
"Oh, I definitely want to do that," Jim said. "That's right up at the top of the list, professor."
Things moved quickly after that. Under a heavy police escort, Blair went back to University House and packed his things. He still intended to teach on Monday, which meant a trip to his office at Hargrove Hall was a necessity. Banks was watchful and wary throughout the whole procedure. Blair was actually a little surprised that he was still there. He figured a busy police captain would have other demands on his time. Banks acted like he had nothing better to do.
Blair was riding with Banks as they convoyed back to Jim's building, patrol cars ahead and behind. Banks shifted uneasily, and finally broke the silence. "There are some things you should know about Jim. Things he probably won't tell you himself."
"I'm listening," Blair said. He could tell this man didn't really trust him.
"Jim was the best cop I ever worked with. When he first started having problems, it was agonizing to watch. I think we nearly lost him."
"He has amazing coping skills. I'd like to talk with you about that period in his life, if Jim gives his consent."
"Yeah, I guess. That's not the point at the moment. Look, Sandburg, whatever you work out with Jim, if it gives him back his life, I'm all for it. But if you desert him, I'll track you down myself." Bank's tone was threatening. "Jim's been abandoned too many times in his life. He's strong, but everyone has limits. I won't see him hurt."
"I don't have any intention of hurting him. You mind elaborating on that, Captain?"
"His mother abandoned the family when he was young. He never mentions her. His father and brother live in Cascade, and they're completely estranged. I found out when he was in and out of the hospital a couple of times. I'm his emergency contact. No family, whatsoever. Then there's Peru."
"He mentioned that."
Simon swore softly. "I'll bet he didn't mention that he was the only survivor. The rest of his team died in the chopper crash. He'll never forgive himself, and he believes to this day that they were set up, given faulty intelligence. He spent a year and a half there, living with some tribe, battling the drug dealers. And no, I can't tell you any more. All the records are sealed. I already tried that. Then there was Jack."
"Okay, I'll ask. Who's Jack?"
"Jim came up through the ranks fast after he went through the academy. He worked Vice a couple of years, and transferred to Major Crime with a glowing arrest record and a shitty attitude. He was a major SOB. I put him with an old hand, Jack Pendergrast. Jim really came around. They were friends and partners, pretty much inseparable. Then Jack disappeared. Jim thinks he was murdered; IA thinks he skipped with a fortune."
"Another abandonment. I understand your concern, Captain."
"Well, add in a divorce and MAYBE you understand my concern."
Blair shook is head. "How did he ever survive? Like you said, people have limits."
"You just be real careful with him," Simon said grimly. "He deserves a break." They finished the rest of the trip in silence. Simon said goodnight at the elevator, and promised to check in the next day.
Jim was standing at the elevator doors, waiting to help him unload. He hustled Blair into an area of the apartment that was more private suite than guest room.
"I want you to be comfortable. I don't keep much food around that you would be interested in, but I can send out for anything. I think everything else is here."
"Jim, you need to stop worrying. This is unbelievably generous of you. I'll try to be quiet."
Jim shrugged. "I can always sleep in the music room. That's what it's for. Bev stays over sometimes, and it usually doesn't bother me too much."
Blair grinned. "Somehow, I don't think Ms. Sanchez was in the guest room." Jim looked a little embarrassed. "Relax, Jim, you didn't break curfew or anything. Bathroom?"
"Right in there. We don't have to share. There are towels in the cupboard."
Blair dumped his toiletries off, and tried to decide what to do next. Jim had to be tired, but he seemed very jumpy and uneasy. Blair wouldn't be able to stay here for any length of time if he made Jim's situation more stressful. He had a feeling that if he just went to bed, Jim would be up all night.
"Do you actually play music in your music room?" he asked.
Jim snickered. "Yes, but not everyone would agree with my definition of music."
"Well, I'd like to put some music on. I can tell already that controlling your senses will take a lot of concentration, and drain your energy. We need to work on ways for you to release stress." He dug around in one of his boxes and pulled out a CD.
Jim took it from his hand and examined the label. He gave Blair a doubtful look and handed it back. "I pretty much listen to Santana. Besides, I worked out the stress thing a long time ago. I work out until I'm tired, and then I sleep."
"Well, working out is good." Blair stopped, realizing the implications of what had been said. He re-examined Jim's over-lean physique. "Are we talking about working out to the point of physical exhaustion?"
"Well, yeah. It works," Jim said, a little defensively.
"It might work, but it sounds awful. Come on," Blair said, pulling him out of the room. "I'm going to teach you a mantra. What do you know about meditation?"
One day became one week.
Kincaid wasn't found. Most of the potential hostages went back to their homes with extra security precautions of their own. Blair would have gone back to University House, or started a serious search for a residence, but Jim always found a reason to put off Blair's departure. In terms of Jim's sensory education, it worked out well. They were both busy. Jim had businesses to run, Blair had teaching and other academic responsibilities. When they were living together, they could maximize odd moments as training opportunities.
During breakfast, they concentrated on hearing. Jim's ears were incredibly sensitive, and as he tired through the day, they were the first sense to give him trouble. Early in the morning, when Jim was fresh, was the best time to practice. Utilizing the nice weather, they would be up at dawn, take juice, bagels, Jim's treasured buttermilk doughnuts and eat outside. For as long as they could spare, they would practice listening to soft sounds, or sorting through a group of sounds to find a single one. A nearby factory whistle went off every morning at seven. They used it to hone Jim's ability to react to a loud, threatening sound so it wasn't debilitating. Improvement was slow, but noticeable.
After breakfast, Blair went to the University with a police escort. Jim went to the health club, as he had every day since its construction four years earlier. He worked out, visited as friends came by, and ran his business. He usually insisted that Blair stay on campus, sensing that his new friend might shortchange his University duties, or be working until all hours of the night.
Dinner was Jim's favorite time. They worked on taste and smell. Jim was particularly enthusiastic about these lessons, as he called them, because the payoff was immediate. After years of white rice, bananas and water, reclaiming his taste buds was a joy. Jim ordered ingredients according to lists that Blair prepared for him, and someone else did the shopping and delivery, which saved them both time. Blair did the cooking, carefully reintroducing flavor into Jim's life. A grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup took five minutes of intense concentration, but could have been steak and lobster for all Jim cared. The next night was pasta - first with parmesan, then a cream sauce, then marinara. Including wrestling with the dials and a few setbacks, the meal took nearly two hours, but it was a success.
After dinner, they went out. Every night Blair had a different destination. Jim wondered when Blair had time to plan, because he always had a list of things to accomplish. They went to a park. The next evening consisted of a trip down to the waterfront, and watching the sunset. One night they walked through a fabric store, so Jim could work on his sense of touch.
By eight, they were home. Blair insisted Jim try meditation every night. Then Jim would work out, and Blair would type up his notes. Jim found them rather boring, but Blair always insisted that he read them. "The subject experienced difficulty with blah, blah, blah." Blair was meticulous, and he never let Jim beg off. At nine, Blair would grade or read, while Jim watched the Mariners.
One week became two. The following week, the Cascade PD pulled off the security teams. They couldn't spare the resources forever, and Kincaid seemed to have vanished without a trace. It was never discussed, but Jim worried every time Blair left for the University, and not just about Kincaid. He was sure the day would come, sooner rather than later, when Blair would announce he was moving to his own place.
"Mr. Strebkin, could I have a moment?" Yvonne Marks was standing at his door.
"Sure," he said, motioning her in. "What do you need? Have a hot tip?"
"I don't know. Remember when we talked about James Ellison?
Strebkin pushed back in his chair. "Yeah. Reluctant interview, lots of mystery, isolated life. So?"
"So all of a sudden he's not so isolated. The feature we did was associated with the opening of a shopping complex. Ellison didn't even attend. That was expected, he never does. Now people keep telling me they've seen him, in stores, public places."
"Marks, everyone goes shopping. Big deal."
"No, no no," she said insistently. "Ellison didn't. Something's up, and I can't decide if it's worth pursuing or not."
"To be honest, this doesn't sound like a story. Watch it for awhile. I wouldn't spend any time on it."
She didn't look as though she agreed. "Well, okay, if you think so."
Strebkin gave her a little praise, and sent her on her way. As soon as she was gone, he asked his secretary to bring in some letterhead. With his office door closed, he typed up a formal invitation to Mr. James Ellison to serve on the Citizen's Advisory Board for the Cascade Times, an offer he'd just as soon keep to himself.
Thursday afternoon, and Blair was fidgeting at his desk. He had a late department meeting, but he had other more pressing issues on his mind. Beverly Sanchez was coming for Sunday brunch, and Blair was incredibly nervous.
He'd been staying with Jim for going on a month. He was sure Jim was going to be sick of him any minute, and he was positive Beverly Sanchez would be one of the reasons. Blair was certain his host and the attractive Assistant District Attorney were doing more than shaking hands. They spoke on the phone often, and he gathered from Jim that Sunday brunch was a regular "thing". It didn't take a genius to note that the regular "thing" hadn't happened since he'd moved into Jim's guest room.
On one hand, he was glad she was coming. He and Jim had developed some guidelines for working together, and he wanted her stamp of approval. He was thrilled with Jim's progress, but felt obligated to make sure everything was completely above board. They'd become good friends, and he didn't want anything unforeseen to interfere with the relationship, on a professional or a private level. On the other hand, he couldn't quite figure out how to excuse himself and give the couple some privacy for - whatever. He'd give anything for a crisis that would call him away at the appropriate time.
A soft knock at the door interrupted his brooding. It was Eli Stoddard. Blair hopped to his feet. "Eli! What are you doing here? Forget the knocking stuff. How are you?"
"Just fine. I've decided to do a senior seminar for fall term, so I'm here for the faculty meeting."
Blair ushered the older man to a chair and looked at him fondly. "I suppose it wouldn't have anything to do with me, would it?"
"Not a chance, my boy. Just an old man who's a little bored. Although, if you had a stray grant proposal or research program you wanted me to glance at, I could probably spare a moment." He smiled. "I have complete faith in you, but old hands like me know how hard it is to get everything settled when you move to a new institution."
"Eli, you old fox. Of course I'd like your help." Blair slumped in his chair. "Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning. Chancellor Edwards is always signing me up for outreach stuff, and I need to prepare my courses. What am I going to do when I have a full load of students? Much less do my research and write."
"Well, I'm more than happy to help." He checked his watch. "I'll catch you after the meeting and we'll set up a time. How does Sunday sound?"
Blair was on the phone the moment Eli was out of the office. "Jim? Hi, this is Blair. Look, how would you feel about having an extra guest for brunch? Hey, great, but let me explain first, because you need to approve. It's Dr. Stoddard. He's offered to review my general research program with me, and we were going to discuss our plans with Beverly anyway. I haven't discussed you with him, but if you're comfortable, I'd really value having his insight. That's right, he supervised my early work on Sentinels, so he's versed in the subject. Jim, I trust him completely. His integrity is without question, and he might be able to anticipate problems that I don't have the experience to see. You're sure? This is great, Jim. I can really use his help on the University side of things. See you in a couple of hours."
Blair could have jumped for joy. Not only would he be able to include Eli in their plans, he now had the perfect escape hatch when he needed it.
Jim pushed his chair back. Blair seemed so excited, and he knew Eli Stoddard was a person he depended on. He knew about Sentinels - hell, he'd signed off on Blair's dissertation. The man was no doubt exactly what Blair said he was. So why was he so nervous?
He remembered his panic during the first few months, vacillating between "Am I going crazy?" to "What if someone finds out?" Then he realized that Simon knew, and his colleagues in Major Crime had a pretty good idea. By the time Beverly had confronted him, he'd lost most of the paranoia. He had no desire to be on the cover of a tabloid, but his condition wasn't a total secret, either.
He'd trusted Simon, and Simon had come through, supporting him through the worst. He'd trusted Beverly, and she had contributed essential balance in his life. He trusted Blair. If anything, Blair seemed overprotective, getting his permission for every little thing. His insistence that he review the research notes was only one example.
The more he thought about it, the more certain he was. Eli Stoddard was in. They'd discuss this like adults. There wasn't anything to worry about.
"Hey there, Sandburg! I have a surprise for you!"
"And what might that be?" Blair answered cheerfully, jostling his load of books and his laptop as he came in the door. "Can I make a wish, or do you get to pick?"
"I pick." Jim stood up and held his arms out wide. He seemed truly pleased with himself. "What do you think?"
Blair frowned. "I think it's summer and you're wearing a flannel shirt."
"Exactly," Jim said, turning like a fashion model. "My favorite flannel shirt. Haven't worn it since - before. Felt like I was trying to wear sandpaper. I should have thrown it away, but I really liked it, and I kept it. Put it on today, and it's perfect."
"You mean it doesn't itch? No scratching, no discomfort at all?"
"That's exactly what I mean. I even put on my wool sweater, and other than being hot, I had no problems. I think we should have a beer to celebrate."
Blair broke out into a wide grin. "I couldn't agree more." He accepted the bottle gratefully and dropped onto the couch.
"Are you ready for the second surprise?"
It was all Blair could do not to laugh. "Be still my beating heart."
"I can hear your heart, by the way, but that's not it." Jim pulled a dishcloth off what turned out to be a bowl of tortilla chips. "We're having salsa, and I can eat it. Put that in your notes, Professor." He dug out a glop of salsa and chomped it down.
"Jim, that's fantastic. How spicy is the salsa?" He grabbed a chip and sampled for himself.
"Medium. I'm not that crazy," Jim said, helping himself to another chip.
"This is almost too much for me to process." Blair took another chip and a sip of his beer. "What do you mean, you can hear my heart?"
"Started last week. At first, it was kind of scary. Now I can hear it, and then tune it out."
"That's those filtering skills we've been working on. This is like a huge break-though day for you, man."
"Yeah." Jim frowned. "I thought about that. Why do you suppose things are getting easy all of a sudden?"
"I have a theory." Blair leaned forward, clearly excited. "I think when your senses first came on line, your lack of control made them very sensitive. One sense out of control would aggravate a second. It might have been like having an allergy. You became so sensitized, and your five senses were so interconnected, that the only solution was total sensory deprivation. To your credit, you figured that out on your own, by trial and error."
"Okay, that makes sense. So why am I so much better all of a sudden?"
"I would guess that your control is good enough to keep things from spiraling beyond your limits. Even if one sense gets bad, you can stop the second before you lose control of it, too. They're not cascading on each other, for lack of a better word. This is a big step, Jim." He sat back, sipping his beer.
"Chief, I can see the wheels turning from here."
"We need to refine our program." Blair had a distracted, excited look on his face. "Start stimulating your senses in pairs and triples, working on your control. Like practicing plays instead of just shooting free throws." He jumped up. "I gotta write this down."
He was still talking to himself when he disappeared down the hallway. Jim almost laughed out loud. He took off the flannel shirt and headed for the kitchen. He'd let Blair keep his motor running. He could make dinner for a change.
Eli Stoddard smiled over his coffee. If these young people didn't relax, they were all going to have a heart attack simultaneously. That would be the ultimate irony. The septuagenarian guest would be calling 911 at ten in the morning for a group of thirty-somethings. Blair and the young lady had excused themselves to the kitchen to finish up their meal, something about chopping fruit. He needed to take advantage of having Ellison to himself and try to put him at ease.
"Please call me Jim."
"In return for Eli," he said with a smile. "I can understand why you are apprehensive. Let me assure you that case studies like yours are normal in anthropology. Any reputable researcher will place your well-being above all other concerns. It would be unthinkable for either Blair or I to exploit your position."
"I'll accept that. Blair's always talking about my rights as a human subject." Jim sat his glass of water on the table. Eli had been present when he'd made a brief, unsuccessful attempt at drinking coffee instead. The moment had been very enlightening as far as Eli was concerned.
"As he should. It's part of his responsibility."
"Actually, Dr...Eli, I wanted to ask you about that. You've spent years at the University, so you know the system. Blair works every minute of the day, every day, and school isn't even in session. How is he supposed to do this? I want you to explain to me what he has to do to be successful as a professor at Rainier."
That was not the question Eli was expecting. "I'm sure you realize that the first few years, when Blair will be reviewed for tenure, are critical. Demonstrating a record of scholarly work is essential. He must meet his teaching responsibilities. That's not much of a problem, because Blair is an excellent teacher. He has natural ability in that area, but it is not as important to the University as being published. He will have difficulty restraining his natural enthusiasm and reserving enough time for his research and writing."
"That seems really backwards."
"Many people would agree with you, but that doesn't change the facts. It's a difficult few years, and he will need to write grant proposals as well to generate funding."
"Why is that important? He has a salary, doesn't he?"
"Research is tedious work. The more help you have, the more you can accomplish. Grant money allows you to support graduate students and post-docs, who in turn help you. At the moment, as a new faculty person, Blair will have funding for part of a Research Assistant and maybe some work study students."
"You've looked over his plans concerning me?"
"I have. They are exactly what I would expect from Blair, thorough and extremely inventive. He has an excellent start, although I have some recommendations that we'll discuss later. You are to be commended as well. Your progress with your gifts is astonishing. You should be very proud."
Jim looked thoughtful. "Could Blair publish what he's doing, working with me? I need to rephrase that. Do you think what he's doing with me is scientifically significant?"
"My boy, finding a full Sentinel in a modern setting would bring a great deal of attention. What the two of you are doing together, in a carefully monitored and documented program of research, would make a career."
"Hey, you guys! We're ready to eat," Blair called from the kitchen.
They stood up. As Eli headed for the table, Jim pulled him back gently and said softly, "Thank you for your honesty, Eli. I may need to speak with you again, privately." Without another word, he smiled and escorted his guest to the table.
"Jim, this was wonderful," said Beverly. "The food was great, Blair is fascinating, and Eli is an old charmer."
"I think they kind of bailed out on us, don't you think? I mean, really, who has to work at the University on Sunday afternoon?"
They were sitting on the couch. She pushed at his knee with a stocking foot. "Of course they bailed out on us, you moron. Blair expected us to start tearing each other's clothes off as soon as they got in the elevator."
"He said that?"
"Don't look so mortified, Jim. He didn't SAY it, I'm just good at reading between the lines."
"Oh." Jim quirked an eyebrow. "So he meant it when he said he wouldn't be back until late?"
"Jim, I swear. If you don't call him when I leave, he'll probably be walking around some grocery store at midnight, trying to find something to do. You can't fault his intentions. Too bad I'm not going to take advantage of the opportunity."
"You're not?" Jim frowned. "Did I do something to upset you, Bev? Was it the paperwork Blair had?"
"Now don't YOU go getting all upset. It's just that something's come up, and I need to talk to you about it."
"Okay. I'm listening." Beverly looked terribly serious.
"I've been offered a job with the State Attorney General's Office. It's a big step up."
"It's also in Olympia."
"Congratulations, Jim. Now I know for sure that you passed Washington State History when you were a kid. Of course it's in Olympia."
Jim was silent for a few moments. He reached down and stroked the arch of her foot. "I'll miss you."
Her voice broke just a little. "I'll miss you, too, terribly. I've always loved you dearly, Jim, but I'm not in love with you. And you aren't in love with me."
"Does this have something to do with my senses? This whole deal with Sandburg?"
She grabbed his hand. "What are you thinking? That somehow, if you eventually decide to let Blair publish, that I'm running away from the freak?" His eyes flashed angrily. "I thought so. I'm sorry I said it so harshly, but I knew it would get a reaction. Jim, Blair Sandburg is the best thing that ever happened to you. Personally, it if ever became common knowledge, I'd be the first one in line to tell everyone what an incredible person you are. I'd be proud to stand by your side, under any circumstances."
"But it does have something to do with it, doesn't it?" he asked cautiously.
She tipped her head slightly. "I think - I think I would have felt terribly guilty leaving you before things started to get better. It's going to be hard now, but you're getting your life back. You have other things besides me now. I'll be sad, but I won't feel like a heartless bitch who deserted you when you needed me." A single tear slid down her cheek.
"Come here," he said, and wrapped her in his arms.
It was nearly three o'clock. Beverly had left an hour earlier, and Jim wanted to talk with Blair. He didn't want to wait until Blair wandered back into the apartment. For all he knew, Beverly was right and he'd purposely made himself scarce. He called the office in Hargrove, and got a busy signal. Twenty minutes later, it was still busy.
He settled in to watch a ballgame when the phone rang. He snatched it up. He could hear a faint groan on the other end.
"Hello? Who is this?"
Jim - men. Blair's gone. Blood - on the floor.
"Eli, is that you?" There was no answer, only another weak groan. "Stay right there, Eli. I'm on my way."
Jim grabbed the cell phone and called 911 from the elevator. "I need an ambulance to the third floor of Hargrove Hall. The injured party is Dr. Eli Stoddard. Notify Campus Security.
He was already in the truck and racing toward Rainier by the time he got Simon Banks on the phone.
He beat the paramedics to the building. Campus Security was nowhere to be seen. Jim flew up the wide concrete stairs. He dropped to his knees in horror on the third step. He delicately touched the sticky substance with a finger - blood - a wide, dark smear of it. He threw himself at the big double doors and yanked. They didn't budge. Summer, on a Sunday, of course they'd be locked. He looked around frantically for Security. The campus looked completely empty.
A car screeched to a stop behind his truck. It was Simon. "Bring your tire iron," he shouted. Simon looked blank for a moment and then figured out what was going on. Together they bashed in the one of the windows and sprinted for the third floor. Jim noticed more flecks of blood on the stairs as he took them two at a time.
They found Eli on the floor, barely conscious. He had horrible bruises coloring his cheek and forehead, contrasting sharply with his disheveled white hair. The office was a wreck. Blair was nowhere to be found. Jim turned the older man gently to his back. His eyes fluttered open.
"What happened, Eli?"
"Four men - took Blair. Hurt him - gun - "
"Did they shoot him?" Jim asked anxiously. He looked up at Simon, who was already searching the office. Jim stayed with Eli, trying to make the older man more comfortable. "When, Eli? How long have they been gone?"
Eli didn't, or couldn't answer. Jim looked around in frustration.
"Jim." Simon was holding up a shattered clock. Nearly an hour had passed since it had stopped.
"Shit. They could be anywhere by now."
"Oh, no," Simon groaned. He was holding an envelope by one corner. It had Jim's name scrawled across it. Jim nodded, and Simon carefully opened the envelope. They couldn't afford to destroy what little evidence they had.
It was a ransom demand for one million dollars, signed by the Sunrise Patriots.
"Damn it," shouted Simon, slamming his fist down on the desk. "Kincaid. We were right, all along. He never got out of the country, and he needs the cash." He handed Jim the letter.
"It says I should go to Jackson and Fifth. That's just off campus."
Simon grabbed him by the arm. "Jim, you aren't going anywhere."
They were still arguing when the paramedics and Campus Security finally arrived. Eli didn't look good. As they secured him for transport, he grabbed at Jim's hand. "Don't let them hurt him, Jim. Blair is...special."
"We'll get him back, Eli. I promise we'll get him back."
They found a phone booth at Fifth and Jackson. Neither man was surprised. This was a typical ploy in a kidnapping. Contact, with little risk of being traced. The site had to be watched, and they knew it.
"Simon, you have a tape recorder?"
"Yeah. In the trunk."
"Give it to me, before the call comes in."
They didn't have to wait long. Jim activated the recorder before he answered. They gave him twenty four hours to get the money. They'd call at exactly four o'clock the following afternoon. Jim's demand for voice contact with Sandburg was answered with a busy signal.
They did all the usual things. Contacted the F.B.I., and set up tracing equipment on Jim's phone. Jim started arrangements for the money; there was no question that he would pay if he had to. The agents talked endlessly about how to deliver the money, how to trace it. Jim ignored them and shut himself in the music room. Simon did what he could to keep the feds off his back. Some things never changed, and pushy federal agents were right at the top of the list.
When Jim emerged, he looked exhausted. He ignored the agents and pulled Simon into the music room, firmly shutting the door behind them. "I know where they are," he stated bluntly. "And you're going to help me get there."
"Jim, the feds are in charge. You know that. They'll never let us pursue this on our own."
"Well, I'm a civilian now, and they don't give me orders. I'm sure not taking them along. That bunch of prima donnas cares more about their collar and looking politically correct than they do about Blair. Look." He pointed to a map of Cascade, spread out on the floor. "These are the things I can hear in the background of the tape: organ music, sea gulls, and a golf course calling out tee times. Where would you put that?"
"Gulls - near the harbor. Golf courses - let's see - Harborside, maybe Pine Hills. They're both close to the water." He looked at the map. "Organ music? I have no clue. A church somewhere, I suppose." Simon examined the map. Jim handed him a pencil and he sketched some rough circles, outlining their possible areas. "Nothing jumps out at me, Jim. There are churches dotted all over that area."
Jim grabbed the newspaper. "How about a concert at St. James? Where would that put us?"
Simon drew a square around their target area. "Even if we're right, we don't know where to start."
"Where did you serve warrants the first time around? Any in that area?"
Simon met Jim's eyes and smiled. "I hope you have a way of getting out of here without starting a parade."
Blair woke up with a splitting headache and his face buried in a hardwood floor. He groaned softly as he rolled to his side. He was having trouble focusing his vision, and his head was pounding, most likely from a concussion. Dried blood was caked across the side of his face, and one eye seemed swollen shut. He'd been bleeding when they'd dragged him out of the office, courtesy of a pistol upside the head. The last thing he remembered was being smashed into one of the concrete steps outside of Hargrove Hall. He probably had that to thank for the concussion.
Eli. Would Eli be all right? How could they hit an old man that way?
His vision cleared enough to look around the room. His captors must have left him alone, because he sure didn't see or hear anyone. Tattered curtains were pulled shut over the windows. His hands and feet were bound with duct tape. He squirmed along the floor and managed to wedge himself into a sitting position.
He knew he was drifting off, and fought to stay awake. He was certain Jim would come looking for him. It was consistent with every characteristic he associated with a Sentinel. He considered that thought. Jim Ellison might have retreated from the world, but something like this might just bring him roaring out of his self-imposed exile. These guys had potentially made a huge mistake.
What could he do, or use as a signal? He sure hadn't had time to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. What would Jim recognize, that wouldn't alert the kidnappers?
They were on foot, covering their target area block by block. Other members of Major Crime were working from the opposite direction. Fortunately, they still had plenty of daylight. It was an old residential neighborhood, run down and neglected. Plenty of rentals were available. Just what the Sunrise Patriots needed to set up a temporary headquarters and salt away a hostage. Jim was certain Blair was somewhere nearby, and he wasn't about to give up.
They were two blocks south of St. James when Jim stopped abruptly. "Listen," he whispered. "Can you hear it?"
Simon couldn't believe it. If he concentrated, he could just barely hear the Jacobs party of four being called to the back nine. "You are amazing, my man. We're going to find him."
Another block west, Jim pulled up again. For a moment, Simon thought he was digging rock chips out of the cracked concrete. Jim's prize was actually two black carved beads. Jim rolled them in his palm. "Blair wears a leather bracelet that has beads like this."
"That does it. I'm calling in more units. We'll start a house to house search." Jim didn't seem to be listening. "Jim, are you with me here?"
"Get the backup, Simon, but I can tell you where we're going to start. Second place from the corner. The yellow two-story, with the porch."
Simon gave him a skeptical look, but called the backup in as requested. When he was finished with the radio, he asked, "Mind telling my why you're so sure, just in case someone asks me? It might be a good idea if I knew."
Jim's face was grim, but he smiled thinly. "Someone on the second floor is singing 'Oye Como Va'. Somehow, I don't think the Sunrise Patriots are big Santana fans."
Their backup was getting into position. Simon was wasting no time. When they were almost ready to move, Simon looked critically at Jim. "Pick a fall back position close by, and I'll bring you in as soon as the place is clear."
Jim ignored him. Simon's eyes bugged out when Jim calmly pulled a Glock out of his waistband and checked the clip. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked.
"I'm a civilian. I can do what I want. See you inside, Simon." He hopped over the shrubbery they were crouched behind before Simon could lay a hand on him.
"Ellison!" Simon hissed, furious and unable to yell. "Get back here! Damn you, Jim, that's an order."
Jim crossed the scraggly lawn. Using the porch railing of the old home, he shimmied up the post, and swung himself onto the roof. He was obviously heading for the second floor room where he thought Blair was being held. Simon gave up.
"Move in, all units. Ellison is on the second floor. Don't shoot him." Simon swore under his breath. If the Sunrise Patriots didn't kill Ellison in the assault, he might do it himself.
Jim clambered along the roof, staying low and quiet. The old asphalt shingles were slick, and some of them crumbled under his fingers. Sandburg's voice was coming from the corner room. The window was shut and covered on the inside. None of the other nearby windows was open either.
Jim tensed as he realized that the assault on the main floor was about to begin. He needed to get to Blair. Jim moved back to the corner window. Blair's voice had faltered, and all was quiet. He could be injured. Still, Jim held himself in check, waiting for Simon to make his move. He heard the front door shatter below him. Covered by sounds of shouting from the first floor, Jim smashed the window and forced his way in, gun drawn.
The tiny room was bare of any furniture. Blair was huddled in a corner, bound hand and foot. His eyes were wide open, but the fear drained away when he realized who had just crashed into the room.
"Guards?" Jim asked tersely. He ran his hands quickly over Blair's battered body.
"Door's locked, but they left me alone." Blair squirmed against the tape.
"Take it easy, Chief." Jim went to work, slicing through the tape. Shots were being fired below them.
"Enough of this," Blair said, his voice a little panicky. "Let's get out of here, Jim."
Jim shook his head. He hauled Blair to his feet, but he wasn't steady enough to attempt an escape over the roof. Both men froze as they heard booted feet pounding up a wooden staircase. Jim shoved Blair toward the far corner. "Stay out of the way." He moved behind the door frame, ready to spring.
The door flew open. Jim caught the charging man with a vicious kick just as he cleared the threshold. He went down hard, and his weapon skittered across the floor. He was out of action, but the element of surprise was gone. The second intruder brought his gun up to fire. Jim barely had time to bat the weapon down. Bullets shattered the floor at their feet and the battle was on.
The other man was as tall as Jim, and powerfully built. Jim lunged at him, catching him in the chest. The two men crashed to the floor. Jim pushed off and rolled to the side. The other man was getting to his feet as well when his eyes rolled back in his head, and he went limp. As he slumped to the floor, Jim realized Sandburg was standing behind his opponent with a wide-eyed expression and the automatic weapon in his hands. He'd taken him from behind.
"Hey!" Blair said in a surprised voice. His battered face twisted into a lopsided grin. "I thought that only worked in the movies."
"I thought I told you to stay out of the way!" Jim barked.
"Ellison! Sandburg!" It was Simon.
"In here," Jim yelled. "We're okay."
Simon barreled into the room. "Get cuffs on these scum," he ordered to the men following behind. He finally had a moment to scan the room and realize their kidnap victim was standing over a Sunrise Patriot with an automatic weapon dangling from one hand. "Oh, that's just great," he growled at Jim. "First you do a Dirty Harry on me, and now him! Why can't you two act like civilians?"
"Jim, man, you have got to get me out of here. I can't handle hospitals."
If Blair hadn't looked so pathetic, he might have laughed. "Chief, you have cracked ribs, bruised kidneys, a concussion, and you look like someone beat you with a stick."
"Someone did beat me with a stick," Blair mumbled.
"Then you know it's out of my hands. They're going to keep you overnight, at a minimum. I promise I'll take you home tomorrow if they'll let me." He picked up a glass of water and gently held the straw to Blair's battered mouth. "If you insist, I'll bring you a mirror. Then you'll see why I want you to stay."
"I'm sorry, Jim. I'll call the U, and make arrangements for University House. This is too much to ask. You should go. The hospital smells must be killing you."
"I'm doing okay." Jim offered the straw again. "Want to try some Jell-O?" He settled by the bed, and started mashing the red cubes into smaller pieces before he handed the dish to Blair. "What is that University House shit? You're not going anywhere I can't keep an eye on you. Go on, try a couple bites."
Blair maneuvered the spoon awkwardly between his damaged lips. After a few bites he gave up. "I'm tired."
"Then close your eyes. I hate to tell you, Chief, but even if you sleep they'll be waking you up all night long. Take the winks while you can." Jim retrieved the Jell-O dish as it began to tilt precariously. Blair's eyes fluttered shut.
Jim could tell when he drifted deeply asleep. His heart rate slowed. Maybe he'd tell Blair about the heart rate thing - tomorrow.
The hospital tried to kick him out shortly after nine, but it was nearly ten thirty before he actually left. He left a note tucked into Blair's fingers with the cell phone number, so he could call if he needed anything. On his way out, he slipped in to check on Eli Stoddard, who was being cared for on the second floor. Besides being bruised, he was doing fine, and far more worried about Blair. If he hadn't been in his seventies and living alone, they probably would have sent him home. Jim did his best to reassure him, and promised to stop by the next day.
He'd barely walked in the door of his apartment when the phone was ringing. It was Simon, who sharply announced that he was coming over.
Jim settled down to wait. He could pretty well imagine how this conversation was going to go. Actually, he decided he didn't mind. Simon could yell all he wanted. The feds were out of his apartment, Kincaid was behind bars, and Blair was safe. All in all, things were looking up.
ONE MONTH LATER
Beverly left for Olympia. She called frequently, and they missed each other, but it had been a gentle goodbye.
Set back a bit by his injuries, Blair stayed in the guest room, at Jim's insistence. He was frantically busy with preparations for teaching two courses, and writing another Borneo article with Eli. Jim convinced him that looking for a place and moving before fall term started would just be an added burden. The fact that his university office had sustained serious damage and was undergoing repairs was just great, as far as Jim was concerned. He moved Blair into the office at the apartment, and used the old office at the health club for himself.
Jim managed to blissfully preserve the status quo until the beginning of September. He somehow guessed that the turning point had arrived when Simon called and asked if Jim was ready to try Chinese takeout. Jim enthusiastically agreed, and turned the phone over to Sandburg.
"He'll be here in twenty minutes," Blair said. He was dressed in sweats, and a T shirt, having worked at home all day. "He sounded worried. Do you have any idea why?"
"I can make an educated guess," Jim said, and didn't elaborate.
"You going to leave me hanging here?"
"It's not really your worry, Blair."
Blair sat in the nearest chair. "If it concerns you, it concerns me. I thought we were friends."
"We are. I just don't want you to get distracted with school just around the corner. You spend enough time with me as it is, and I'm not stupid. You're shorting your other work to do it."
"Well, that's just not true." Jim gave him a long piercing look. "Okay, but it's only partially true, but I don't care. Tell me what the problem is."
"Problems, plural. The police commissioner is probably asking Simon some real uncomfortable questions about why a former officer on full disability was in on the Kincaid bust. The defense attorneys and the DA's office are probably asking some difficult questions about why Simon called in a raid on that particular house. My name is going to come up in that discussion, too. The FBI is probably trying to get Simon reprimanded, and definitely wants to know why Simon and I ditched them and went down to that area in the first place. How's that for a start?"
"It sounds awful," Blair answered. "All this is my fault."
"Chief, you amaze me. How can it be your fault that Kincaid is crazy, broke into a University, knocked an old man in his seventies around, and kidnapped you? Don't think that way."
"But I'm supposed to protect you, preserve your anonymity," Blair protested. "I'm ultimately responsible."
"In case you haven't noticed, you didn't do anything to call attention to my status. I did it all by myself. If you're wondering, I'd do it again without a thought. My life is changing, but it's all to the good, and you're the reason. I won't have you thinking anything else." He slapped Blair's knee, trying to lighten the mood. "I'm going to need your help with the Chinese, by the way. I want horseradish sauce with my barbecued pork."
Blair snapped irritably. "Jim, this is a lot more important than experimenting with a new food." He was interrupted by the elevator. Simon had arrived.
They enjoyed the meal. Jim had his barbecued pork. The conversation wasn't as cheery. Jim had it right on all three points.
"I'll come down and talk to them, Simon." Jim said firmly, setting down his chopsticks.
"I don't see how you can," Simon insisted. "We could have covered the tape, if we had taken the time to let forensics listen to it. If we imply that happened, they'll want to talk with the expert that analyzed it, and we can't produce one."
"It wasn't the primary issue at the time," Jim said quietly.
"Couldn't you say that you got an anonymous tip or something?" Blair suggested. "Tell them you had an informant."
Both current and ex police officer looked at him indulgently. "You're not supposed to lie in court, Chief," Jim said patiently. "The judges kind of frown on it."
"Call it an obfuscation."
"I'm afraid that's only a distinction in Anthropology, Sandburg," Simon said, rolling his eyes. Jim almost laughed out loud. The obfuscation discussion had come up before. "The rules are a little more black and white in law enforcement."
"Okay, so what happens if Jim tells them he heard the sounds on a tape, or found my beads on the sidewalk?" Blair asked. "He got lucky. No big deal. You don't have to mention that you heard me singing. Just leave that out."
"They won't be happy, but they'll probably buy it." Simon tossed his napkin on the table. "I can tell the commissioner - I don't know - I'll tell him something. Maybe you could talk to him on the phone and explain you were a little freaked out about your friend being kidnapped. Just went a little over the edge and it won't happen again."
"Yeah," Blair chimed in. "Extenuating circumstances, and all that."
Long after Simon had departed and Blair had gone to bed, Jim sat up far into the night. He thought back to sitting at the table with Blair and Simon, when this had all started. Blair pushing him to identify what he wanted to accomplish. Simon asking if he could ever return to the force.
Even if he was physically capable of being a detective, would they always be coming up with an inventive lie to cover his abilities? How could he secure Blair's help without ruining the man's fledgling career? Blair couldn't spend huge amounts of time on something he couldn't publish. Jim chased his own thoughts for hours.
Maybe there was another way, if he were bold enough. The eastern sky was shaded with pink when Jim reached his decision. It was time to have that private conversation with Eli Stoddard
Rick Strebkin looked around Ellison's office and nodded in approval. It would be nice if his digs were this good. Newspaper offices always looked like they came out of the last depression. He could see why Yvonne Marks had been impressed. When James Ellison walked in, he was mentally comparing her description with the man he saw in front of him. He sure didn't have the look of a recluse today.
"Mr. Strebkin, nice to meet you." Ellison's handshake was firm, but not crushing. "You got some coffee, I see. I hope you don't mind meeting here."
"This is fine," Strebkin answered amicably. "I hope you've considered our invitation to join Citizen's Advisory. The Cascade Times would value your input."
Ellison had seated himself behind the desk. "Actually, I'm not interested at all. I asked you here for another reason entirely."
Strebkin was irritated, and he didn't mind letting it show. He was a busy man, and had no time for wild goose chases. "Since I'm here anyway, I'll listen."
"I want to offer you an exclusive interview, but I have some, you could call them stipulations. I hope we can reach an agreement."
"Excuse me, Mr. Ellison, but journalism doesn't work that way. You know, the independence of the press and all."
"Spare me the lecture," Ellison said sharply. "I dealt with you people when I came back from Peru. I know exactly where your priorities are. If you aren't interested, I'll find someone else to work with me, and you'll regret it later. Your choice. Stay or go."
Ellison was challenging him. It irked Strebkin. He didn't want to walk out with his tail between his legs. "All right, Mr. Ellison. Let's explore the issue. Where would you like to start?"
"First of all, timing is an issue. There are other events I need to coordinate with. You run the story when I say, and not before."
"I can probably live with that."
"Second, I don't intend to tell you what to write, but I won't tolerate sensationalism."
"That sounds like you're telling me what to write," Strebkin shot right back.
"It's still your choice. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You're an editor of a major daily. Surely you can write a good story without it being a tabloid piece."
Strebkin wanted to put Ellison in his place, but something in the icy blue eyes stopped him. Instinct told him this was for real, the once-in-a-lifetime story you only hope for. He took out a notebook and a pencil. "Why don't we go through the preliminaries, off the record. We'll spend ten minutes and see if we have any common ground."
Ellison left his chair on the other side of the desk, and took one opposite him. "The story goes back five years, at least, maybe farther. It's going to be hard for you to believe, but I will convince you, because it's true."
Strebkin walked out of the office two hours later with a glazed look in his eyes. He went back to the Times, pulled down the blinds, and shut and locked the door. He refused all calls.
When he emerged five hours later, he was certain he had a Pulitzer on his hard drive.
Eli Stoddard had been waiting long enough to remember why he'd retired in the first place. University politics always had been the bane of his existence. Baking in the jungle was far preferable to fidgeting in the Chancellor's Office. He watched Ellison, who had given up on the chairs and was staring out the window, no doubt quickly losing patience.
Chancellor Edwards breezed in, acting as though she hadn't kept them waiting far longer than was acceptable. Eli had made the appointment under his name alone. When he introduced Jim, she recognized the name immediately, and fell all over herself. It was all coming back to him why he avoided this particular pillar of higher education. She fussed over them with coffee and such, pleasantries that should have been handled the second they had walked in the door.
"So, Eli, I understand you've returned to handle a senior seminar for us, but I'm sure that's not what you stopped by to discuss."
"It isn't, I'm happy to say. Mr. Ellison contacted me some time ago about making an endowment to the University. He's here to formalize that intention."
"That's extremely generous, Mr. Ellison. The University is, of course, grateful to its patrons. A scholarship, or a direct donation, is always welcome."
"That isn't what I had in mind," Jim said. "I'll let Eli explain."
"Mr. Ellison had chosen to endow an Institute in Anthropology. He's asked me, and I have agreed, to handle the administrative duties for the Institute for the first three years. All the University needs to do is sign the paperwork that has been prepared." Eli placed an impressive looking folio on the desk in front of her. "His only stipulation is that any announcement or information be kept strictly confidential until the day after tomorrow. The offer will be withdrawn if it isn't."
"I see you've come prepared," Chancellor Edwards said evenly. "We're accustomed to handling the financial arrangements in house, and we certainly plan our own press releases. Perhaps you'd be good enough to give me the details."
Eli decided to go straight for the heart. This woman annoyed him, and he was sure she annoyed Jim, who had everything riding on this. "Mr. Ellison has committed half a million as seed money." Edwards couldn't quite cover her gasp. This was serious money, and they both knew it. "Initially, he'll partially support a faculty member and at least two graduate students. We intend to be up and running by the first of the year."
Edwards quickly buried her irritation. "Eli, this is marvelous news. The University will be happy to assist with the selection of the personnel."
"That won't be necessary. We've already selected the faculty member. He'll need to make some adjustments to his teaching schedule to accommodate the research demands of the Institute."
"That's highly unusual, as you are well aware, Eli," Edwards said, with a chill in her voice.
"It's a highly unusual situation," Eli said, allowing a broad smile. "Besides, Mr. Ellison is quite certain about the choice. Dr. Sandburg will be the Research Director for the Sentinel Studies Institute at Rainier University. In fact, you'll be pleased to know that Dr. Sandburg's initial paper, announcing the discovery of a full Sentinel in a modern setting, has already been enthusiastically accepted for publication." He let the old bat stew in her own juice for a moment. This was just too good not to enjoy.
THE FOLLOWING DAY
Blair stared at the headlines again for the twentieth time. He looked across the table at Jim, who seemed amazingly calm. "I still can't believe you pulled this off, Jim."
Jim was reading the sports page. He'd paid almost no attention to the articles about the Sentinel Institute and his own life story. "It was the right thing to do. I was ready to live on the outside again, and I didn't want to have to lie. Did I tell you that Strebkin called?"
"No. What did he want?"
"At the moment, nothing. He wanted me to know they had to run an extra printing of the edition."
Blair smoothed the newspaper again. It made him both uneasy and proud to see Jim's experience spelled out for all the world to see. Jim seemed unfazed. It seemed as long as he had some control over the process, he was apparently okay with it.
"We have that television interview tonight. Do you know what you want to wear?" Jim asked. "I'm a little nervous about the lights."
"We'll work on it before they start. I'm glad Eli will be there. He'll probably have to rescue us both." He sighed. "I feel like I'm asking a lot of Eli. He was happily retired and I've dumped all this on him."
"We've dumped all this on him," Jim corrected. "If you'd seen him with Chancellor Edwards, you wouldn't give it another thought."
Blair picked up the leather case which lay open on the table and shook his head. "I don't believe it; an observer pass for a police department with my name on it. I cannot begin to tell you what my mom is going to say about working with the police. Expect a few comments about jackboots."
Jim smiled, and whipped out a matching badge from his own pocket. He propped it next to Blair's. "Goes with mine, don't you think? Special Consultant for Forensic Investigations isn't a title anyone's heard of either."
"Are you still sure about the compromise? Being in the public eye? Half business, half law-enforcement? "
"Simon said he'd be scared to have me back full time. He claims I'd solve the cases too fast." Jim's mood changed from joking to serious. "As its set up now, they'll call me in when I'm needed, and it won't be overwhelming. You were right, all along. A Sentinel needs a companion. They're flip sides of the same coin. I can't do this without you, and you can't give up your work to run around with me full time, either. It'll work, Chief, and we'll do it together. You do the research, I'll do - whatever it is I do." He smiled at Blair's slightly doubtful look. "Hey, even though I'm not officially a detective, we'll still work out of Major Crime. Simon will keep us both out of trouble."
Blair rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I guess we'll find out, won't we?"
Special thanks to the members of TSL for their encouragement and suggestions. This is a better story because of their willing efforts. JL