He had his suit for tomorrow, resting on its hanger in the closet in Simon’s spare bedroom. He’d chosen something that he thought of as dark grey, (not charcoal) and cut along conservative lines. There was a blindingly white button-down shirt hanging alongside it, and a discreet tie with a grey base and a deep maroon pattern. Blair suspected that he wouldn’t get a lot of wear out of those things after tomorrow, but you never did know. He rubbed his palm against his face and sighed. You never did know, and that was precisely why the clothes were right for tomorrow.
He took the scissors out of his bag, and stripped them from their packaging. It had been easier to buy a cheap pair of scissors than ask Simon where he kept his and face the dark, assessing gaze that would follow the request. He wanted this to be something secret and completed before he presented it to the world. Standing in front of the mirror, he stared at himself. He didn’t look so different; a little pale, a touch shadowed under his eyes. There had been nights of hard partying in his under-grad days that had left him looking way worse than this. He pulled his hair back into a tail with one hand, and then considered Simon’s carpeted floor. “Bathroom, Sandburg. Let’s do this,” he told his reflection.
Simon’s bathroom had a smaller mirror but a brighter light. Blair stripped down to his undershirt, laying his shirt and sweater carefully over the side of the bath. Then he grabbed his hair with one hand at the back of his head and hacked through the resulting tail with rough slices. It took four cuts before the last of the long strands dropped. He gathered it into a pile, a disregarded rats’ nest on the floor, and then stood to examine his shorn self and grinned. Well, he thought, that can only get better. Starting at the back, he gathered strands between his fingers and, using his knuckles as a rough guide, trimmed his hair to something like a uniform length.
He only cut his knuckles once, when Daryl banged on the door. “Hey, Blair! You going to be much longer in there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I am. Sorry.”
“S’okay. I’ll use Dad’s bathroom.” More hesitantly, Daryl asked, “Hey. Are you okay in there?”
“I’m fine. I am supercalifrajilistic.”
This was apparently not convincing. Daryl’s voice grew careful. “Blair, do you want me to get Dad?”
“I’m fine, dude. Go use your Dad’s john. I’ll be out in a while.”
The bathroom light was uncompromisingly bright on the metal blades as Blair snipped the last few times behind the tops of his ears, and then stopped to examine his work. He’d seen worse haircuts, although Jim would give him beans over it. Would’ve given him beans. Blair saw his face begin to change, and he turned away from the mirror to stoop and kneel and try and clean up the mess. His hands swiped like bulldozer blades across the floor, putting as much hair as possible into one pile. Still, he’d need a brush and pan, and a plastic bag. Not your most organised moment there, Sandburg, he thought, and his eyes burned suddenly. He took a deep breath, and another, and when he figured he could step outside the door without bawling like a little kid, he did so.
Simon stood in the hall outside. His eyes widened in startled surprise, but his voice was level as he said, “This is a new look for you.”
Blair smiled. It felt terribly unconvincing to him, something that he judged by both the effort to move his facial muscles and by Simon’s expression. “I thought it would be better for tomorrow.”
“I don’t think that Jim minded your hair,” Simon said mildly.
Blair knew that. Hell, Jim loved his hair; he’d said it only a couple of weeks ago, a quiet admission in the dark. “It’s something –“ Blair bit his tongue. Simon was an old friend of Jim’s and Blair could see how explaining why he’d cut his hair would sound utterly presumptuous, unless Blair explained everything. Blair wasn’t ready to explain anything. “Anthropological. You know?”
Simon shook his head with slow melancholy. “I don’t believe I do, but it’s your hair.”
“Yeah.” Blair swallowed. “I made kind of a mess of your bathroom. If you can show me where you keep a broom and pan, and I’ll need a bag....”
“Sure,” Simon said, and gestured to Blair to follow him to the laundry room. Simon opened a closet door and placed a brush and pan in Blair’s hands. “Here,” he said. “Go clean up my bathroom. I’ll get you a bag.” He smiled as he said it.
Blair returned and swept up under the bright, harsh light. Simon came back, a plastic Target bag in his hand. “It’s not a bad job, but I could tidy it up for you. If you wanted?” It took Blair a moment to realise that Simon was referring to his self-barbering, rather than his housekeeping.
“Uh...” It shouldn’t be this hard to find the words. ‘Yes, please’, or ‘no, thank you’. He looked at the wavy tufts of brown hair in the dustpan.
“Yeah, sure, thanks, Simon.” He turned to face away from the mirror. “Just a little off the top,” he joked.
“I think I can do that,” Simon said. He carefully tucked a towel around Blair’s neck and shoulders. “You need to put this undershirt through the wash,” Simon said. “You’ll prickle yourself to death with what’s left of all that hair otherwise.” There was a heavy silence, which neither of them broke with any more speech, and Simon began his tidy-up. He seemed to concentrate mainly on Blair’s nape and the strands over his ears, and spent only a few minutes on it. “There you go,” he said, and unwound the towel and shook it gently. “And now you can finish that sweeping.” His voice sounded fierce, but strained.
“Sweeping. I can do that.”
“I’ll put this in the trash for you.” Simon picked up the bag which held the bulk of Blair’s erstwhile hair. “Unless you have some deep and meaningful anthropological fate for it?”
“No, no, thanks, Simon.”
Blair worked until he was satisfied that Simon’s floor was suitably pristine, and then took his pan and brush and the debris that was left through to the laundry room where he knew the trash was. He passed Daryl in the living room along the way.
“Dude....” Daryl pronounced, long and low and awestruck.
“Kind of a change, huh?” Blair grinned. Daryl really did look utterly astonished.
“Yeah, you could say that.”
Blair finished his tidying, and then grabbed a beer from Simon’s fridge. He’d bought it, being a responsible guest and all, and he thought he was entitled to one. Just one beer, before he went to bed and had to face tomorrow.
“Where’s your Dad?”
Daryl shrugged. “Bedroom, I think.” He was trying not to stare, and not succeeding. “Hey, Blair, I know that I’m just some dumb kid, and all that, but if you want to talk to anyone, then I don’t mind if it’s me.” His voice was hesitant, but deep - a man’s voice.
“Thanks. I appreciate that. And you’re not a dumb kid. You’re a bright and considerate young man.” The grief welled up again, along with embarrassment. Was there anything that was going to make Daryl feel more like a kid than Blair calling him a young man? Possibly not, but any energy that Blair might have devoted to thought was drained. He lifted his bottle to Daryl in a sort-of salute. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Daryl said, and watched Blair as he drank his beer and put the empty bottle in the trash to join the other detritus of the day.
“Well,” Blair said. “I guess it’s good night.”
Daryl nodded. He was biting his lip, looking upset suddenly, and Blair stooped to hug Daryl, his arms across Daryl’s skinny shoulders. Would Daryl grow up a big man like his father, Blair wondered. Or was there some slighter forbear that Daryl would take after? Jim had taken after his father in his long-limbed strength, but he’d inherited much of the structure of his face from elsewhere. His mother perhaps. Blair stood, and pondered genetics and potential. “Live a good life” Blair said, his voice unexpectedly thick. “It’s important.”
Daryl nodded, and Blair went to his bedroom and shut the door behind him. He leaned his forehead against the wood, feeling his eyes burn again, his throat tighten. “Keep it together,” he muttered, and stripped, ignoring the last remaining prickle of hair caught against his skin under his clothes. He laid the clothes over a chair, rather than dumping them in the corner the way he would have in the loft. What was it that Jim had said to him? Bitching about Blair’s untidiness, but with a good humour that had made the words sweet? “Just as well I am a sentinel. That way I won’t kill myself when you leave your dirty underwear lying all over the floor.”
“You should invite me upstairs more often,” Blair had told him. “I might be more careful in your space.”
“This is my space,” Jim had growled, settling himself with heavy, pleasurable intent over Blair as he lay in his bed in his little room in Jim’s loft. Blair wished, more than anything he’d ever wanted, that he was back there now but he wasn’t going to lie in that little room while Jim kissed him, ever again. He swallowed, and tasted smoke and ashes. Between the fires at the warehouse and the loft, he’d been left remarkably free. Untethered. He still had his notes, and most of his books at the university, but they were somehow unsubstantial. Unimportant compared to a lost place and time.
Blair hauled up the covers, trying to bury himself in the depths of the bed, dreading tomorrow. He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to do it, but he would. He had to.
His sleep was restless. He woke more than once, dream images spattered across his mind. The worst dream, an out and out nightmare, woke him just before dawn. He was running from one of the fire-people while it doggedly chased him, black as coal and trailing flames. Finally it caught him, its charcoal cracked arms wrapping around him, the flames a searing mantle covering them both; and it spoke his name with Jim’s voice, and looked at him with Jim’s eyes. He awoke with a great flinch and lay there in the dark, his heart pounding and his arms and legs prickling with horror.
Eventually he calmed, and with a sigh turned on the little clock radio by the side of the bed. Whoever had last listened to it favoured a talk-back show and Blair lay there, listening to the insomniac and the lonely have their moment of broadcast fame. At seven, he dragged himself from the bed and showered, distantly fascinated by how different it felt to wash his hair. He hadn’t had it this short in years. The funeral service wasn’t until eleven, so he dressed in last night’s flannel shirt and pants, and walked to the kitchen. Simon was already up, reading a heavy file with a frown creasing his face. Simon waved a hand towards the counters.
Blair poured coffee into a solid, blue mug and sat. “What time do we have to leave?”
Simon lifted his head, and pushed the bridge of his glasses firmly up his nose. “Ten-fifteen. To be on the safe side.”
“Think you’re ready?”
Simon understood this as a reference to the eulogy that he’d be delivering. “No-one is ever ready, but my notes are done, if that’s what you mean.” His hands rearranged the files on the table, before they were carefully placed into the briefcase beside his chair.
Blair nodded, and then devoted his attention to drinking his coffee before saying, “I’m glad that you’re doing it. The eulogy, I mean.”
Simon’s brows rose. “I’m glad that you’re glad, Sandburg.”
“I mean... you knew him. Better than Stephen and his Dad. It counts....” Blair’s voice trailed away. Stephen had asked him if he would like to speak, but Blair had declined.
“They knew him too. Just different parts of him.” Simon sounded gentle.
“Yeah.” Blair thought of what Jim had mentioned about his father – the efforts that they’d been making to mend the old rift. It had been a strain on Jim – spikes and zones had appeared in a way that Blair hadn’t seen since the very early days of their partnership. But Blair had been so sure that the immediate stress was worth it. Family was important, right? And now, Jim was gone, and Blair wondered if it was easier or harder for Jim’s family that Jim had renewed contact. Would it be easier for Blair right now if Jim hadn’t kissed him just one month ago?
The coffee slopped onto Simon’s table. “Oh, damn. Sorry, Simon. Sorry.”
Simon stood, and picked up a dishcloth from the sink. “It’s just a little coffee, Blair. Don’t worry.”
Blair wrapped his hands hard around the sturdy ceramic of the mug. It burned his palms but he didn’t let go, judging the burn less important than not showing his shaking hands.
Simon mopped up the small puddle on the table. “You want any breakfast?”
“No, no.” Blair summoned a smile, like a necromancer calling up a ghost. “No, man, I’m not really a breakfast kind of guy. Coffee is fine.” He lifted the mug to his lips, both hands still curled around it. “Coffee is fine.”
Daryl got up not long after, and made himself eggs and hash browns with starving teenaged determination. It smelled… okay – but Blair wasn’t tempted. Coffee was fine.
He dressed himself in his funeral finery, and at ten-fifteen Blair and the Banks men were on the road. Jim was being buried from St Paul’s on Jermyn Street, which was only the first trial Blair had to face. The last time he’d been inside St Paul’s was for Susan Frasier’s funeral service – but Bill Ellison had insisted. Blair didn’t know why. He couldn’t recall Jim even talking about religion outside of a case. Grace at St Sebastian’s, spirit animals – religion and spirituality were fine for other people, but applied to Jim they were a cause for jaw twitching and stubborn silence. Blair looked up at Simon, who was frowning at the small media cadre off to one side of the road. “Too much to hope for that they’d stay away,” he muttered, and guided Daryl up the steps with a hand under one elbow, Blair trailing in their wake.
The coffin was closed, of course, not like Susan Frasier’s funeral. Blair hoped that Jim hadn’t been frightened the way that Susan must have. He hoped that Jim had died zoned – seeking the source of the crackle of the electrical fault that caused the fire, perhaps. Maybe he’d been captured by the smell of the smoke, distractedly categorising scent and location. Or maybe, Blair thought, sitting and standing with automatic awareness of the rest of the congregation, Jim been felled by a spike in his senses, caught and disabled while Blair had drunk cheap wine and brushed the crumbs of bad canapés from his lapel at the Rainier mixer that he’d judged it politic to attend. Just once; you had to make nice with the rest of the faculty at least some of the time; one night was no big imposition. Jim had said as much with a gentle cuff across Blair’s head.
His eyes burned suddenly, and he started as he realised that Simon was no longer sitting but had moved to the front of the church and was speaking. “Jim was a uniquely gifted man,” Simon said, and Blair barely restrained a mad urge to call out, “Amen, brother!” He turned his head to see how Bill Ellison was taking that turn of phrase, and was discomfited to see Bill staring at him, a thoughtful, weary expression on his haggard face. Blair averted his eyes and bowed his head. Bill Ellison probably thought that Blair was going to show up in tie-dye and jeans with his hair blowing in the breeze. Blair considered the crease of his pants and the white of his shirt cuffs and knew a moment’s panic. Should he have? Was he somehow disrespecting everything that Jim and he had shared by showing up looking like some establishment drone?
Simon finished his eulogy. Blair was sure it was a very fine eulogy, but he couldn’t really say that he heard much of it. The minister said some words, the congregation sang something, and then there was the last ordeal. Six pallbearers: Stephen Ellison and Simon Banks; Blair Sandburg and Carolyn Plummer; Joel Taggart, sombre in his ‘A’ uniform and David Michelli, Jim’s CIA liaison friend, who’d flown back from the East for the funeral. Blair stared at Stephen’s back and clenched his hand around the smooth casket handle; he clenched his jaw against the rough, childish noises that he might otherwise make, playing his part in carrying Jim Ellison’s remains out of St Paul’s to the hearse waiting outside.
Blair took a leave of absence from Rainier for the summer. The university ran courses over the vacation, of course, and Blair should have shouldered the work along with everyone else, but he had enough with his share of the money that Jim left him to play hooky, staying with some old friends who ran an organic farm. He got lean and brown that summer, and grew his hair out into something less stark. It stayed above his collar, though. No-one could call him ‘hippie’ anymore.
He came back to a small apartment that looked more like a cell at St Sebastian’s, and finished his doctorate, combining some of the work he’d done with Jim and the subjects with only one or two senses, examining who chose work and chose ‘vocations’. It didn’t set the world on fire, but it moved him up the Rainier pay scale. Tenure was distant, and that was fine. He wasn’t sure that he wanted it, anyway. The year moved on, and Blair figured that he did, too. There were a couple of women, and one man, but they were just casual. Fun, sure, but Blair decided that he felt more comfortable splashing at the shallow end of the relationship pool. Simon Banks’s abiding tolerance extended to a few invites to social occasions – a dinner for Simon’s birthday, a couple of afternoons crowding around a tv watching basketball with Joel and other guys, cop and civilian. In his more cynical moments, Blair thought it was a pretty neat impersonation of a life.
Nine months after Jim died, Blair parked his car late on a Friday night and climbed the exterior steps to his apartment; he got as far as his bedroom before a sound behind him made him spin around. He caught a glimpse of a man, average build and height, brown hair, brown eyes, before he reflexively raised his hand to the sting he felt at his neck.
‘Well, shit,’ he thought, ‘this isn’t what I had planned for the weekend’, and then everything grew disoriented and heavy. It was too hard to think; his mind was as slack as his body, and he watched with confused detachment as he was bundled downstairs and into the back of a sleek sedan and driven away.
He thought that maybe he spent time in a plane, but he didn’t really start thinking clearly again until he looked out the window of the car he was travelling in and saw, past the solid bulk of the men sitting either side of him, a landscape that was more reminiscent of southern California than Washington. Blair sat quietly a while, trying to figure things out. He started with the easy things – the dryness in his mouth and the pounding in his head, and the loss of memory. He’d been drugged and abducted by someone with money, because he was riding in an expensive, spacious car.
“I’m thirsty,” he said eventually.
The man on his left-hand side bent and offered him a bottle of water. “It’s a side effect of the tranquiliser,” he said.
Blair stared at the bottle. “You guys can’t just point a gun at someone like normal thugs?” he enquired, and observed that this thug found him funny. There was a little lift of the mouth, a narrowing of the eyes.
“Tranks make people more docile than guns, and besides, Dr Sandburg, you come with a reputation.”
“Only if you work for Rainier’s admin office,” Blair said sourly, and cracked open the water bottle. He tilted his head back and tried not show how pleasurable the sweet flow of chilled water felt in his mouth. “I’ve gotta admit, guys, this is one of the nicest kidnappings I’ve experienced in a while.”
Blair turned his head, to check out Thug Two. He was taller, and narrower across the shoulders than Thug One, and he looked competently alert and thoroughly uninterested in Blair as a person. “Dr Sandburg,” he said, and no more. Blair returned his attention to Thug One.
“So, where are we going, and why couldn’t you guys just phone or send me a written invitation?”
There was a frosted glass panel separating the back of the car from the front. It slid open, and a man twisted around from the front seat. “Where we’re going isn’t that important. It’s why, and I think that you can guess why.”
New guy (Blair categorised him as Boss One, because of his front seat ride and the way that his two guards somehow sat more respectfully) was dark-haired and carefully groomed, and probably younger than Blair was. He reminded Blair of Francisco Rivera. It wasn’t even the physical appearance; this young man was bonier and longer-faced than Rivera of the evil, baby-faced good looks. But there was that same challenging element of ‘you’re not so much’ about him when he looked at Blair, and Blair felt his own temper, usually well-controlled, rise.
“Nope,” Blair said with insolent brightness. “Can’t say as I can.” Boss One turned his head away and the glass panel slid shut again.
Thug One gave Blair a sideways look. “Oh, yeah. This is going to be fun.” He sounded rueful, but Blair picked up a vibe from him of suppressed anticipation, and something that looked suspiciously like sympathy. Blair took comfort from it. He’d spent way too much time in the company of people who’d shoot him as soon as spit at him, and this guy, for all the easy competence he projected, didn’t have that stone-cold aura. He reminded Blair of Jim for a moment and Blair straightened his spine because Jim was gone, and whatever was going down here he was on his own.
They were travelling up a dirt road towards a small group of shabby buildings, built in the seventies and by the looks of it never painted since. Not a farm or ranch. Someone’s abandoned rural lifestyle, maybe. Whatever it was, it didn’t look promising. On the other hand, why bring him all the way here when Washington State boasted hinterland enough to hide a thousand bodies? None of it added up and Blair shifted in his comfortable seat, filled with deep frustration and resentment as well as fear.
The car came to a stop and Blair watched as the locks popped open, not through the action of anyone sitting in the back seat. Thug Two got out his side, Thug One got out his, and gestured to Blair to please exit the vehicle. Blair got out and stood, staring around him. The air was dry against his skin and mouth, and he wished he’d swallowed more of the water while he was still in the car. Then, without a word, he found himself hustled between Thug One and Thug Two, and pushed against a waist height aluminium framed fence, its chain link loose and sagging. One hand was hauled against the frame and plastic ties were looped around his wrist and the fence.
“Hey! Hey, what the hell are you guys doing?” Blair demanded.
Thug One smiled with that genial sympathy. “Sorry, Dr Sandburg. Paulie’s kind of theatrical about some things. But don’t worry, you won’t be here long.”
“Oh, I’m really comforted here.” Blair tugged hard, but with no purchase. The plastic tie bit into his wrist, and the sun felt like it was beaming right into the back of his skull.
Thug One watched him for a moment and then reached into the breast pocket of his dark suit, to draw out Blair’s pocket knife before returning it whence it had come. “You had it in your pocket, Doctor Sandburg. We’ll return it later.”
Blair suspected that his relief that there would be a ‘later’ was written all over his face, but it only increased his frustration. “Hey!” he called. “Hey, Paulie!”
Boss One, aka Paulie, approached with a sneer. He’d just finished yelling into a cell phone at someone, and he placed the phone in a pocket of his lightweight suit. It was, Blair noted, a very well-cut, expensive looking suit. Blair hadn’t worn a suit in nine months. He hated suits.
“Do I get to know what’s going on, now?” Blair said.
“He’s on his way. I’d give him shit, if I were you. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry and here you are, all uncomfortable and tied up and everything.”
“Give who shit?” Blair said blankly. He felt like he’d been dropped into a surrealist play.
Paulie shook his head. “Maybe he thinks that the fact that you can keep your mouth shut doesn’t change the fact that he never should have told you anything at all.”
“Sorry, man. I can’t give you the next line because I still don’t have a clue what this is about.”
“This is about Ellison, and the fact that he doesn’t get to bull his way into the business while he’s breaking the fucking rules.”
Blair shook his head, trying to process too many things at once: Paulie’s sullen tone, like a student sitting in front of Blair’s desk presenting his grievance; that continuing sense that everything was tilting into weirdo land; the way that feeling jolted hot and cold in Blair’s gut at that name. “Hey, if you think that I was ever involved in anything to do with Ellison money, then you have another think coming. I barely know the Ellisons.”
Paulie got up in Blair’s face then. “We’re talking about Jim Ellison. You remember the guy? Sentinel?”
Blair felt his lips peel back in a snarl. The hand that wasn’t tied to the fence lifted and shoved Paulie hard in the chest. Blair watched with hot, furious satisfaction as Paulie staggered back, his expensive, shiny shoes scuffing in the dirt. “I remember Jim just fine. Past tense, because Jim’s dead, and this is one really sick fucking mistake, man.
Paulie straightened and took a step closer, but he stayed out of Blair’s reach. “Oh there’s been plenty of mistakes, Doctor Sandburg, but you know as well as I do that Jim Ellison is alive and well, and getting to be a pain in my ass.”
“I carried his goddamn coffin out of the church!” It was meant to come out with low sarcasm and disdain for the crazy dude, but somewhere along the way it turned into a ragged shout.
“I’m sure you had a touching reunion. “ Paulie shook his head. “Jim Ellison’s a sentinel, and you know what that means as much as the next person. A lot more than the next person.”
“Why don’t you tell me? Come on, you’re the big sentinel expert here. Enlighten me.”
Anger flared in Paulie’s eyes and he turned away, showing Blair nothing but a rigid back. Blair refused to believe anything he said. Jim was dead, and this was all some ridiculous con or terrible mistake. “Come on, Paulie, tell me what it means that Jim was a sentinel.”
Paulie walked away, staring down the dirt road. “About fucking time,” he said, at the sight of a car and its trailing dust cloud. The car drew up to park alongside the car that Blair had arrived in. Thug One approached it and opened the back left door. A woman stepped out, in her sixties, and as immaculately and expensively dressed as the rest of them. Thug One stooped to reach into the car, and then stood with a small video camera in his hands, before he walked back to Blair. The woman marched up to Paulie and slapped him hard across the face. “Tia!” Paulie protested, but she cut him off with a low, intense stream of Spanish.
Thug One, Blair noted, winced at the conversation, and then held the camera in front of his face, checking settings. “Ready for your close-up, Doctor Sandburg?”
“Sure, knock yourself out. Tell me, DeMille, what the fuck is going on?”
Thug One lifted an eyebrow. “You’re about to find out.” He looked toward the car. “Ready when you are.”
The woman approached now. “Hi!” Blair said brightly. “Come to join the party?”
“Please be quiet,” she said. Her accented voice was precise and educated, and tight with strain.
“Maybe I’d be quiet if I knew what was going on here.”
Her eyes were dark and, Blair realised, shiny with miserable, unshed tears.
“The end of a family. Now, for god’s sake will you be quiet!”
A car door slammed shut and Blair turned his head to see the last player in this crazy set-up walk towards him. Tall, athletic, dressed in another damned suit, player lucky last wore sunglasses against the glare. His hair was short and slicked back. He walked with a long, easy lope and Blair, standing under that hot sun, went cold all over and all the way through.
Blair’s mouth shaped a word but no sound came out. “Jim?” The woman reached out a hand and skimmed it across his cheek, and Blair flinched away. “Jim?” he said again, finding an actual voice.
Jim took off his glasses. “Chief,” he said. He examined Blair the way that Jim used to look at victims at crime scenes – courteous, sympathetic, and carefully dispassionate.
Blair stared back. “What is this? What the hell is this?” he demanded. His voice shook.
Jim ignored him and turned to the woman. “Are you satisfied, Zita? Between what you’ve seen and what you feel? Are we done with this?”
The woman nodded, five big tilts of the head, as if she couldn’t stop. Jim moved on to Paulie.
“I could almost feel sorry for you, Paul. But I figured out what sort of snake pit I was in after a day. If you couldn’t figure it out after living all your life in it, then that’s your problem. Enjoy your time at the local ranch. I hear it’s very nice out there.” Jim’s voice was smoothly arrogant, and he turned his back and headed towards his car. “Hey, Randall,” he said to Thug Two. “Please seat Paul in the rear of my car.” He kept on walking.
Paul began shouting, and so did Blair. “Jim! Jim! Don’t you go, man. This is crazy, and you don’t get to just walk away without explaining.” But it seemed that Jim did. Paul, swearing and struggling all way, was shoved into the back of the other car, the car that Jim was getting into, by Randall and Paulie’s erstwhile driver. Zita had burst into weeping and Thug One put the camera gently down on the dusty ground, and put an arm around her and escorted her to the front seat of the car that Blair had arrived in. Blair was ignored, which was no problem because Blair was busy screaming Jim’s name right now. He tore his throat with it, but the car drove away down the dirt road, ignoring him like everyone else.
Blair dropped to his knees, leaning his face against his free arm which he folded against the fence frame, in the grip of a full-scale panic attack. He shook, trying to breathe through the spasming gasps that had replaced the shouts. He was frozen through at his core but the surface of his skin twitched with itchy heat, and he felt completely dazed. There was blood trickling down the wrist tied to the fence – he hadn’t even realised that he’d been struggling that hard, until now. His breathing eased, but his heart still pounded in his chest, and his head felt like a balloon that was almost ready to burst.
“Doctor Sandburg?” It was Thug One.
“Yeah?” Blair said, his voice a worn, cracked thing.
“If you’d hold still, please.” Thug One carefully cut the plastic tie.
Blair grabbed the bar in both hands and hauled himself to his feet, swaying for a moment. “Oh, man.” He took a slow breath, to see if he could. “I need to use a bathroom.”
“Follow me.” Thug One led him to the house, a low, ranch-style building, and unlocked a door. “On your left.”
Blair walked down a shabby hall, brushing his hand against the wall and found the bathroom, small and dark and cool after being outside. He’d hardly drunk enough to really empty his bladder, but he forced a few trickles out, and then stood there, his head leaning against the painted wall, his eyes shut. He kept flashing on Jim, known and beloved and missed so much, looking at him with that impersonal concern. “Oh, god.” He thumped his head against the wall. “God,” he said again.
“Doctor Sandburg? It’s time we left.” Thug One’s voice. Blair guessed that he should really ask his name. He knew everyone else’s now. Randall, Paul, Zita. Jim. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands, blotting at the stinging gouges at his wrist, and then walked into the hallway.
“I’ve been calling you Thug One. In my head, I mean, but you do have a name?”
“You can call me Tony.”
“Hey, Tony.” Blair clenched his fist against his sternum. His heart just wouldn’t settle down. “Where are we leaving to?”
“I’ll make arrangements to get you home.”
“Definitely one of the nicer kidnappings. You guys do good work.”
Tony didn’t acknowledge the compliment. “If you’ll come out to the car.” Blair was escorted into the solitary back seat. Tony drove. Blair presumed that Zita and her grief sat in the front with him, screened behind the darkened glass partition. They drove for an hour and a half, until the landscape became gradually built up, filled with all the evidence of a city. San Diego, Blair guessed. Eventually, the car eased its way up the drive of a palatial home and Tony stopped, and exited, and opened the door for Zita. A man strode out the front door, and took Zita in his arms. It appeared that she was crying again, and Tony wasted no time in taking the car down the drive back to the street. The glass screen slid open.
“I’m taking you to the airport, Doctor. You should be home soon.”
“That’s great, Tony. Great.”
Tony was a good driver, just the right combination of careful and speedy, and the road signs told Blair that they were headed for Montgomery Field. Blair found he didn’t really care. He leaned his head back against the smooth, expensive leather of the seat, and held on to not caring with a clawing, desperate determination.
When the car stopped, Tony ushered Blair up the steps of a small jet, and set him down in a luxurious flight chair. He provided Blair with water and coffee, and a small plate of beautiful and expensive-looking finger food, and handed his pocket knife back to him. Blair checked his watch. It was only the early afternoon. “Hey, Tony,” he said. “Is it Saturday?”
“Yes,” Tony said pleasantly. “Would you like a newspaper?”
“Yeah, sure, why not.”
A copy of the Union-Tribune was offered him. Blair scanned the headlines. Yes, it was Saturday. No, the world had apparently not tilted on its axis. He thought that maybe he hated Jim. He stared at the clouds and the sky on the journey back, hating Jim all the way.
Tony left him alone for the flight, sitting down opposite only on the landing approach.
“I expect that you’ve figured this out, Doctor Sandburg, but let me make it explicit. You don’t mention this to anyone. You don’t discuss it; you don’t try to find Mr Ellison. If you do, the consequences will be unpleasant. You understand me?”
“I understand you fine,” Blair said. But they clearly didn’t understand him, because if they did they would have shot him and left him back in that California desert. Blair presumed that still living was Jim’s little favour. Screw Jim and his favours. And screw consequences. He nodded at Tony. “I understand,” he said, and they let him off the plane, and Tony escorted him to a taxi stand and handed over a wad of money to the driver, and then he walked away. The taxi took Blair back to his apartment, which looked just the same on Saturday as it had on Friday. Blair had trouble figuring out how that could be so, but you never knew, did you? You never knew anything.