"It's called a graphic novel, Jim."
Jim shrugged. "It looks like a comic to me, Chief." Jim flipped through the magazine Blair had handed him, not really paying attention. "The artwork's nice, if a little edgy. Not my cup of tea," he said, as he handed it back.
"Look closer, man," Blair hissed. "Look at the content, at the characters. Hell, look at the goddamn title."
Blair's tone got Jim's attention and he looked at the cover page. "The Watchman," he read. It immediately triggered his memory to the conversation they'd had at Blair's office the second time they'd met:
// "Anyway, the idea goes something like this -- in all tribal cultures every village had what Burton named a Sentinel. Now this was someone who patrolled the border."
"You mean a scout."
" No, no, no, more like a watchman. You see, this Sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, change in the weather, movement of game. Tribe survival depended on it." //
Jim became unaccountably alarmed. He opened the comic and thumbed through it. What he saw sent a chill through him. Two characters were talking. One was a large blond man, dressed in jeans and a tight t-shirt, with a shoulder holster holding what looked like a Luger. His impressive arms were crossed over his massive chest. The other was a beautiful woman with curly red hair. Her wire-rimmed glasses only accentuated her clear blue eyes. Jim read their conversation bubbles, noting the weird emphasis on certain words through bold printing, apparently a hallmark of this type of book:
[I saw him kill that woman in cold blood. And
I'm gonna to make sure he pays.]
[Johnny, I know you saw him, but anyone else
would think it's impossible. He was at least
two hundred yards away, and in the dark. No
jury would convict him.]
[Then there won't be a jury.]
[You're a cop, for god's sake!
You can't lie under oath.]
[I'm not going to lie. If I can't get him on evidence,
it'll never come to trial. I only became a cop to get
inside information on scum like that, to bring them
to justice. If I can do it legally, all well and good. If
[So, Barbara, are you with me on this?]
[You know I am. I'll always be in your corner.
What do we do next?]
[We're gonna stop by the house and get some
[Wiretapping? That's illegal without a warrant.]
[I told you, I'm getting this scum. Are you
in or out?]
"Sandburg, what the hell is this? This reads like the Juno case, only twisted." Jim's tone radiated anger, hurt and confusion.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you. And this is only the latest Watchman graphic. One of my students showed them to me--there's two others. One is about Kincaid's takeover of the PD, only Johnny drops him out of the 'copter. The other is about… Lash."
"Shit. Whoever's writing this has access to our files. And look what he's done to me--I'm a vigilante buffoon!"
"A powerful vigilante buffoon. He turned me into a sycophantic Lois Lane! Shit, another issue or two and they'll end up in bed together."
Jim stared at Blair. Not hard, more like he was contemplating that last sentence. Then he shook his head, as if to clear it.
"That's not all, Jim," Blair continued, lowering his voice even further. "Johnny doesn't just have good eyesight." He stared meaningfully at Jim.
"Who's doing this? Let's start by finding out who wrote it."
"Already tried an online search. The writer is 'T. Cole'. The artist is C. Russell. I couldn't find anything, not even if they're men or women."
Blair and Jim spent the next hour going through every search engine they knew. Blair suggested they might be pseudonyms, perhaps anagrams. But no amount of twisting the names produced anything. Jim broke down and finally let Blair put the names in the Criminal Justice Database, thinking perhaps one or the other might have a record. There was an immediate ping. "What is it?" Jim asked, as he walked back with two coffees.
Blair blanched. "It's blocked. There's something there, but it says I don't have the authority to view it."
Coffee forgotten, Jim came around to look over Blair's shoulder. His jaw started twitching. "Not 'authority'. It says we don't have 'clearance'. Better shut it down, Chief."
Blair shut down the program. "Shit. What's going on, Jim?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out. I can't do it here." He got their jackets and pushed Blair toward the stairs."
They drove out of town for about half an hour, when Jim pulled into a small hospital's parking lot. He got out with Blair close behind. Blair was about to ask, when he recognized what Jim was doing--going someplace where he was sure there was a working pay phone. Before picking up a phone to call, Jim did a perimeter scan. Satisfied, he dropped in some change. "Paul?... Yeah, it's me.… I'm going to send you something in the usual way.… ASAP, buddy.… Thanks, I owe you."
Next, they went to the nearest Radio Shack and picked up a pager with a pre-paid card. They ordered sandwiches from a local deli, then sat in a nearby park. Jim typed in a lot of numbers that looked like gibberish to Blair, but he knew it had to be some type of coded communication. By the time they were finished eating, Jim was ready to go.
"Nothing more we can do until we hear back. Just watch your back, Chief. Let's try to stay together as much as possible, but keep alert."
Blair nodded. They got in the truck and headed home.
Jim was cooking spaghetti sauce, not as much because he wanted it as to have something to do. When they got home, Blair had gone straight to his room and had been shuffling around in there for over an hour. "Dinner will be ready in twenty, Chief," Jim called. When Blair didn't respond, Jim knocked on the door. At Blair's answer, Jim entered and looked around the room. The scene was a study in controlled chaos. Blair seemed to have every piece of paper in his possession in piles all over his bed and desk.
"Blair, what's going on?"
"I'm trying to find everything I have on sentinels, sensory testing and you in particular. I'm going to put everything under lock and key."
"Why? Why? Isn't it obvious? Someone knows about you, about us, and they're playing with us. I want to make sure there's no raw material here that they might get their hands on. God, Jim, what if it's the NSA?" Blair asked, anxiously.
Jim could see he was close to having a panic attack. He walked up to Blair and put his hands on Blair's shoulders. "Blair, listen to me. Whatever they have, whoever they are, we'll find out. It's good that you're taking preventive measures. We'll talk about the best way to secure them--maybe rent a bank safe deposit box. But you've got to calm down. We can't face this if we're not thinking straight." He suddenly pulled Blair into his arms and held him, waiting, listening, feeling the cues that would tell him Blair was back with him. When Blair finally relaxed, Jim gave him one more squeeze and let go. He looked in Blair's eyes. "Okay? You with me?"
Blair nodded. "Yeah," he said, a little breathlessly. He stood there a moment longer, then shook himself like a dog shaking off water. "Okay. Let's eat."
It was Blair's turn to cook and he was making a stir-fry. He'd finished chopping the vegetables and he was just starting to slice the chicken when Jim walked in the door. He watched as Jim did what was now part of his "coming home" routine--sweeping the loft for listening devices. Blair kept up a conversation, just in case someone really was listening. "Hey, Jim, how was your day? Dinner will be in fifteen."
Jim continued the chatter as he moved around the room. "Good. I missed lunch and I'm hungry. We got a new case today. If you have time tomorrow, I want you to look at some things we found at the scene."
"Sure. I can be there by eleven."
Jim came back in the room and gave Blair a thumbs-up. Blair sagged in relief, then finished slicing the chicken and washed his hands. "Anything new?" he asked.
"Yeah, you're not going to believe it." Jim looked angry, and his jaw was jumping. "It's Lee Brackett."
"Brackett! How the hell did that happen?"
"Apparently, he's been a model prisoner. They let him take some classes, including art classes. I guess he has a flair for illustration. He made a deal with the warden--he has to teach other prisoners in exchange for being allowed to send his material to the publisher. And the warden gets a cut, purely as a courtesy, of course."
Blair snorted. "So, he's C. Russell. Who's the author?"
"Brackett. I found out he used both of those names during various undercover operations. That's why they were classified."
"Shit. So, he probably accessed your cases since the Switchman before coming here. That's why he's only written about the cases in the months before he contacted you." Blair let out a breath. "So, in prison he wouldn't have access to either your cases or my new information. Still… is there anything we can do to stop this?"
"No, we can't un-ring the bell--the books are already out there. Anything that we might try to do legally, like an injunction, would only bring attention to us. Fortunately, Cascade isn't a major city. I don't think anyone is going to connect the dots, especially if there aren't any more novels published."
Blair's eyes widened. "How're you going to do that?"
"Already done. I still have friends in the community. One of them froze the bank account where royalties from The Watchman are being funneled. The money will still get deposited, but Brackett won't be able to touch it. Another went to visit him and explain the new reality. No more novels, no more cute little hints that might shine any light on us. In exchange, the money will be waiting for him when and if he gets out."
"What did he say to that?"
"Apparently, not much. Paul said that he was his usual smug self, but realized the jig was up. He asked only that the warden continue to get his cut, so he could enjoy his privileges. Paul said he would think about it, depending on how Brackett behaves himself from now on."
"So, the sweep for bugs?" Blair asked, indicating the equipment.
"Habit, mostly. And I just wanted to make sure he hadn't twigged anyone who might be smart enough to put two and two together. I think we can stand down from Red Alert, Scotty."
"That's great. Hey, Jim," Blair asked, "Do you think we should keep an eye on the publisher? In case they get something down the road?"
Jim nodded. "It couldn't hurt." He picked up one of the books. "It's Berkshire Publishing. Ever heard of them?"
"Uh, uh," Blair answered. I'll put a permanent search on their site to see what books are coming out. Probably a good idea to do it with other publishers who print GNs." He wrote himself a note. "Now, why don't you grab a shower? By the time you're done, dinner will be ready."
"Sounds good," Jim said, as he headed up to his room to grab some clean sweats.
One month later:
Jim walked in the loft door with a smile on his face. He could smell Blair's meatloaf all the way down to the street. It didn't matter that he made it out of ostrich--he knew that Blair was just looking out for his health. "Honey, I'm hoooome!" he called.
Blair came down the stairs, smiling. "Good timing, I just made up the bed. Want to go for a roll in the hay?"
Jim grinned. "Anytime, Farmer Boy. But man does not live by love alone. I'm starving, and that meatloaf smells great."
Blair gave a dramatic sigh. "Okay, I can see the honeymoon's over. Set the table and we'll eat first. But you're on the menu for dessert, buster."
Jim laughed and gave Blair a quick buss, which turned into a longer, more passionate kiss. They broke and got ready for dinner.
Later, after making love and taking a shower together, they settled in to watch a Jags game. Blair had already changed into sweats and was setting up popcorn and beers; Jim was going through the mail. "Hey, what's this?" Jim asked, holding up a plain linen envelope.
Blair looked over at what he was holding and shrugged. "I don't know. It was addressed to you. I'm not quite ready for us to start opening each other's mail, so I left it."
Jim didn't recognize the neat handwriting and gave it a quick sentinel scan. Nothing seemed amiss, so he slit the envelope open with a knife. Inside was a cream-colored note card of high quality--he remembered something similar in his father's desk drawer. He flipped it open and his jaw immediately clenched as he read:
I heard that Johnny and Barbara are a couple now. I can only think that I played some small part in that. Wish them my best and tell them I expect an invitation to the wedding.
He brought it over and handed it to Blair, who read it and snorted. "God, he's an egotistical asshole. If I never see him again, it'll be too soon." He handed the note back to Jim. "Still, he has a point. Put him on the invite list for if it ever becomes legal," he said with a smirk. "Now, how about those Jags?"
Jim tossed the note on the table and sat down next to Blair, pulling him close with one arm, and grabbing the popcorn bowl with the other.