"And that, ladies and gentlemen, completes our presentation on the New Prospect development," beamed the smartly-dressed young man in front of the projector screen. "Perhaps we could raise the blinds now, and take another look at the scale model on the table."
There was a flurry of movement as the assistants who had been sitting at the back of the Ellison Estates boardroom hurried to raise the blinds, revealing the grey snowy day outside. The meeting attendees who were gathered round the long table blinked a little at the cold light flooding in, and shuffled their presentation papers together, murmuring quietly amongst themselves. The smartly-dressed young man picked up a short cane and, leaning over the table, used it to point at the scale model that sat in the centre.
"Now here, Mr Ellison," he said, indicating the central area of the model where the highest buildings stood, ringed with structures which decreased in size as the rings radiated outwards, "you can see in particular how the commercial real estate element of the development will blend almost seamlessly into the residential, just as I was explaining earlier. That was, of course, the major part of our brief from Ellison Estates. This vision includes these very handsome glass structures - very desirable office space – and, barely a block away, high-end apartments for the professionals who will be working in those very blocks. Think of the benefits! No commute, much reduced traffic and congestion, much more productive employees in the long run. And I have to say, we at Conrad Associates believe this will be one of the most prestigious developments in Cascade this decade. A high specification, and a brilliant location. This will be a very lucrative investment for Ellison Estates." He moved along the table a little, and now pointed his cane at a number of large-format photographs, which were arranged in a neat row.
"Now," he continued, "compare and contrast that with what currently lies in the Ellison Estates portfolio. This area of Cascade, as you all know, is currently a mish-mash of opportunistic development that's taken place over many decades. There's real mix in quality of construction, a low-calibre retail and commercial real estate offering, and that, plus the existing residential buildings, aren't modern enough to garner maximum rental opportunities for their owner. Which of course is, ultimately, Ellison Estates," he added, with an ingratiating inclination of his head towards the man who sat at the far end of the table. "Your recent property acquisitions in the area now complete the picture, and this is absolutely the right time to be launching this major redevelopment. We at Conrad Associates believe the vision I've presented today entirely meets your specifications. A golden opportunity indeed…."
His voice trailed off, a little uncertain now. There was something about the figure who sat at the head of the long table, remote from the rest of the attendees and also remote in demeanour, that made the smartly-dressed young man nervous, despite his skill in corporate flattery. He cleared his throat.
The man wasn't looking at the model development; the smartly-dressed young man wasn't even sure that he'd been looking that hard at the presentation on the screen. Right now, the man's face was turned to the big window which showed a grey and frigid Cascade, the sky full of snow clouds that were dropping untidy lumps of sloppy snow. Rather than covering up the urban bleakness with some Christmas-card special effects, the snow seemed to merely dissolve into yellow-brown slush on immediate contact with the ground. The large loose flakes were whirling hypnotically outside the window, and every few seconds a clump would get thrown against the glass by the sharp wind outside, where it would cling desperately for a few moments and then slide away. The man was just watching the snow.
A square, stocky-looking man who had been leaning back in his chair near the head of the table tapped a finger on his copy of the presentation papers, and turned towards the silent figure.
"So, Jim, what you think?"
The silent man suddenly turned his head away from the window, as if just remembering that there were other people in the room. The stocky man kept talking.
"Seems to me, this is just the right time to be giving the go-ahead. The market's in a perfect position. We get the right demographics coming in, it's gonna be a real boost for that part of Cascade. And there'll be lots of knock-on benefits to our other investments outside that immediate area, too."
He turned to the smartly-dressed young man and gave him a tight smile.
"Mr Harris, do you think you could just take us through the model of the development again, area by area?"
But before the smartly-dressed young man – Mr Harris - could start again with his spiel, the silent man at the head of the table stood, pushing back his chair.
"Murray," he said to the stocky man, "I think we've seen enough today. I'll think about this overnight." Harris and Murray exchanged a glance.
"Ah, but Jim," smiled Murray, with just a hint of exasperation showing, "we still need to approve the prospectus. I was really hoping that we could agree the main points on the development today, now we've seen the full plan, and then Mr Harris and Conrad Associates can work everything up in detail. Strike while the iron is hot, you know? Plus, we have the Christmas break is coming up.
Jim Ellison did not reply to him direct, but instead turned to the rest of the attendees with a polite smile.
"Thanks for coming, everyone. We'll reconvene sometime tomorrow. Sasha will get the diaries together." And with that, he turned from the table and walked to the window, where he stood, his hands behind his back, staring out into the grey blankness. Everyone else looked at each other in consternation – had the guy forgotten tomorrow was Christmas Eve?
Murray Fraser watched the others leave the room, and when the last participant had closed the door quietly behind them, he walked over to the window and looked up at Ellison. Murray wasn't a small man - what he lacked in stature he made up for in sheer bulk - but Jim Ellison look like a tower beside him; ramrod straight, with a soldier's stance, every line of him speaking of his power and strength.
"Come on, Jim," said Murray, tapping him on the arm. "What's this all about? I thought we were ready to confirm the New Prospect deal? You know we have City Hall all lined up and on side, and we don’t want to unduly ruffle feathers there. We've worked very hard to get the politicians on board." Jim still didn't turn his head from the view outside.
"You know it's a perfect strategy," went on Murray. "Your dad had this in mind all the years we were building this portfolio up, piece by piece. The City needs a new business district – has done for a long time. New Cascade is the perfect opportunity – right location, right size, and very few problems likely in getting the existing tenants out..." Jim gave Murray a sharp look.
"I've been told there are signs and placards out already," he snapped, "and there's a citizens' protest committee sending petitions to City Hall, and lobbying the media." Murray shrugged.
"That's just the little people, Jim. Don’t worry about them. They’ll get fair compensation for eviction, far more than many landlords will give them. Ellison Estates has always done right by its tenants, remember? Your dad knew that played well in the Press. But the tenants aren't making the decision – it’s us, with the full support of City Hall. They’ve got the few remaining buildings we don't have in the portfolio already lined up for purchase orders, so the development as a whole can go ahead. All our stars are aligned, Jim. Let's not unpick this now, eh?" Jim sighed.
"I hear you, Murray, and I know how hard you've worked on this. And I also know it was one of Dad's ambitions…." Murray broke in quickly.
"Sure was! Think how happy he'd be, knowing that it's still going ahead, even though he's no longer with us!" But with the sudden cold look on Jim's face – even colder than the man's normal stony expression – Murray realised he'd overplayed his hand.
"I want to think about it overnight," continued Jim steadily. "It's a big step. It's the first significant development I've headed up since I came into the company. I want to be sure it's the right move, for Cascade as well as us. New Prospect will change the face of that part of the city entirely. It's right we be careful about making the decision." Murray put his head on one side.
"Ah, 'right for Cascade'. Sure that's it, Jim?" he asked. "Sure there's not some sentimental reason for this?"
Jim walked over to the boardroom table, and then stood motionless, staring at the scale model of tall office buildings and dwarfish residential blocks, surrounded by thin lines of little fake trees. Here and there were ornate plazas, complete with tiny fountains, and tiny people on their way to work in the glass behemoths or to spend their replica money at tiny replica high-end stores. Murray saw Jim's eyes flicking over each element in turn, and he wondered whether his boss was looking for a trace of the old Prospect in the reimagined towers of steel and glass. But when Jim turned away from the table, his face was quite emotionless.
"I used to live there, Murray," said Jim. "That's all. It's just a place I used to live."
Jim Ellison's apartment on Harborside was a world away from 852 Prospect, in terms of value, neighbourhood and square footage, but ironically still had a lot of things in common. It was still an open and airy space with large windows, here looking down over the marina. It had clean lines of pale wood and bare walls, and was furnished in neutral colours. But the most striking similarity was that the sleeping area was open plan on a mezzanine level; if it weren't for the fact the whole thing was about three times the size of the Loft, one might say that the resemblance was uncanny. If Jim had bought the apartment because it reminded him of his former abode, it was certainly not something he acknowledged to himself or anyone else. And after all, it wasn’t as if anyone from his old life ever visited him there to notice it.
It was late; he had gone on to a number of meetings after the presentation, and then had attended a Mayoral function at City Hall, and so had returned to the apartment well after 10pm. The meeting about the New Prospect development had unsettled his mind, despite what he had said to Murray Fraser, and so he decided to have an early night. But he settled badly; though he was determined not to think about New Prospect or Old Prospect, his brain paid no heed to that intention. He eventually dropped off only after a good while tossing and turning. He had no idea for how long he had been sleeping, but when he later opened his eyes, he immediately knew there was somebody else in the apartment.
Cop senses, he thought to himself. Another voice, not heard for a long time but well-remembered, murmured in his mind: "sentinel senses". But it was the ex-cop that silently pulled the automatic revolver from the side table, and swung his long legs out of the bed, eyes searching the darkened corners of the apartment downstairs.
Whoever it was, they weren't bothering to hide. The lights of the marina cast a vague glow into the apartment, and he could see a tall figure silhouetted against the big window. Jim placed his feet squarely and raised the gun, about to call out a challenge, but then a sudden intuition caught him in the gut, a strange mix of remembrance and loss; it was like a physical blow. The man at the window turned, and Jim saw for sure who it was. He lowered the gun and walked slowly down the stairs, his eyes never leaving his visitor.
"Hey, slick" said Jack Pendergrast.
There was no doubt, it was clearly Jack. It was the Jack he had last seen deeply involved in the Brackley case; it was the same Jack whose voice he had heard for the last time on that fatal taped message which had given Jim the clue as to why his old partner had ended up in a pauper's grave with the tag of 'crooked cop'. Tall and rangy, with the familiar sharp, intelligent features, Jack was looking at him intently as if sizing him up. Jim found himself oddly unperturbed by the fact a dead man was apparently alive and well, and standing on his pale oak flooring.
"You've done well for yourself, slick," said Jack, waving a hand around the apartment. "You enjoying life not being a cop?"
"What are you doing here, Jack?" asked Jim. "Haunting me? You're dead, pal. I saw you come out your first grave, and going into your second. That time you had full PD honours." Jack smiled crookedly.
"And I know I have you to thank for my rehabilitation," he replied. "It's nice to know you went that extra mile for me, after I was dead."
"I did what I needed to do," said Jim testily, "and why am I even having this conversation with you? You're just some figment of my imagination, a dream. I made my peace with myself about you and Emily a long time ago." Jack raised his hand in a gesture of dismissal.
"Slick, I'm not here to relive my past. I'm here to talk about yours, and your future. Seems like somebody needs to take you in hand. You walked away from the Army, away from the PD; you've walked away from anyone who ever cared about you. And you treated those people pretty damn shittily, too. Right now, I think you're on the fork in the road. You need to choose the right direction."
Jim gave an exasperated sigh. He went over to the couch and sat down heavily, placing his revolver on the coffee table in front of him.
"So a ghost is going to give me life lessons, right?" He leaned back against the cushions. "Okay, Jack, go ahead. I got all night. I guess at some point I'll wake up."
Jack walked to an easy chair and sat down, stretching his long legs out in front of him.
"Setting aside you playing around with your partner's girl, I thought in general our partnership was pretty good. I knew you'd make a damn good cop, and you went on to be a fine one. You had a reputation in Major Crime department for great work, long after I was gone. You'd found your home, Jim, so why did you leave?"
"If you know that much about me," replied Jim, acidly, "then you'll know that my life got derailed. I couldn't go on being a cop because of…. something. Because of what somebody else did. As it happened, it was a time when my dad decided he could bury the hatchet and give me an opening into Ellison Industries. He figured I could be trusted with the real estate portfolio. So far I've done pretty good, and I don't miss being a cop. End of story."
"Still feel like that, when it comes to knocking down 852 Prospect and all the surrounding blocks? Replacing it all with skyscrapers, and apartments going for seven-figure sums?" asked Jack. "Happy with that? What do you think will happen to all your old neighbours? All your friends?"
"That was in the past, Jack," said Jim, his look stony. "Life has to move on." Jack nodded to himself.
"You see, slick, I don't really think you're getting things in perspective. Oh, it's great, all the money and the power that you want, here right now. But I don't think it really suits you."
"Thanks for your concern," said Jim dryly. But Jack kept talking.
"You see, I tried to look after you when we were partners. Maybe I didn't do it too well then. Or at least, maybe I didn't manage to point you in the right direction quite how I should have. I think I'd rest easier if I finished the job." Jim gave an exasperated snort.
"You can't change me, Jack. You can't change people. Nobody has that kind of power, least of all a dead man." Jack tilted his head from side to side in a kind of acquiescence.
"Sure, I can't change you. You're the one who has to make the changes. But I think I can give you choices; point you in the right direction. Like I said, Jim, I think you're at one of those forks in the road right now. You could go in one of two directions. But if you take the wrong one this time, then that's it, you're set on that path forever. That's not where I want you to be. I think this is the last chance now for you to make things right. I want to help you in that."
"Oh, really? And how you're gonna do that?" Jim put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. Time for this dream to finish.
When he lifted his hands, he saw he was no longer sitting on the couch in his Harborside apartment. He was perched on a fallen log in a large suburban garden. There was snow all around, and the houses up and down the street were displaying Christmas illuminations. The building right in front of him was tall, with a portico over the doorway. Lights were glowing in the lower windows.
He rose slowly, perplexed. Here he was, in real snow and dressed for winter, standing in the garden of his dad's house. But this was the garden of years ago. He could clearly see that the cars parked in the street outside were old-style Buicks and Chryslers, even though they were partly covered by snow. The log he was sitting on came from that cherry tree that had fallen in an autumn gale, when he was 10 years old.
Jack Pendergrast was at his elbow.
"Let's go and look at the house," he said, nudging Jim.
Jim wasn't sure he wanted to do that, but he felt his feet moving across the snow just the same. They gained the pathway and walked up the steps under the portico, and pushed the heavy front door open. It swung wide easily. Inside, the hall was gleaming with golden tinsel and baubles. From the sitting room, just off the hallway, came the sound of voices - his father's baritone and the squeak of young boys. He frowned and walked up to the doorway to look in.
It was his father, all right; looking a good 30 years younger. The two kids – well, the two kids were Stevie and himself. He could remember that red sweater he was wearing, and little Stevie's pyjamas in the Noah's Ark print. They were playing some kind of board game – yes, it was Monopoly, always his father's favourite game. The boys seemed quiet and dutiful, listening to their father, and what Jim heard was Bill Ellison giving his sons an early lesson in cutthroat management.
"You see, Stevie, you made a real mistake in giving up that square. Now, Jimmy could get an advantage on you. That's the last thing you want. Do unto others, remember? Don't give Jimmy an inch. And Jimmy, you gotta rack up your rents. You get the other two in that area, you'll ruin Stevie. See, boys, that's the whole point. Which of you is gonna be the first to take the other out? No point waiting around. Someone will take the prize away from you!"
Jim nodded along to every sentence. He had heard that lecture what seemed like a million times in his childhood, on any occasion from sports to getting the right seat in church, via the kind of kids' past-times that they were playing now. And he watched those two little boys, with their eyes wide, and their slightly worried expressions, concentrating so hard on what their dad was saying to them, knowing there was a real chance he was going to test them on it later. Each knowing that beating their brother at this game, and all the others, was the surest way to get Pop's approval.
He felt like saying, 'Stevie, Jimmy, don't listen to him!' But the words wouldn't come, and as he bit his lip in concern, the scene in front of him seemed to shimmer, then dissolve in a golden haze of firelight and Christmas baubles. And he was back, standing in his Harborside apartment, staring out at the marina lights.
He looked around in bemusement, and saw Jack lounging against the kitchen counter, watching him carefully.
"Good trip down memory lane?" asked Jack innocently. Jim frowned at him.
"I told you some of that crap about my childhood years ago. What's your point? So what, my old man wasn't the best at empathy and compassion? There's no point me crying about it now." Jack shook his head.
"The past shapes you."
"Sure it does," said Jim. "But that doesn't mean you have repeat the past, either."
"So how's that working out for you?" asked Jack, with a pointed look.
Jim turned his back to look out of the window again, determined to ignore his old, dead, partner. But instead of the rainy, slushy night scene outside he found he was facing the battered red door of the Loft. This time, the shock was so great he took a step backwards and stumbled into Jack, who was standing behind him.
"Well, go on," said Jack, giving him a push.
A discreet Christmas wreath of willow twigs had been tacked to the door. The door itself was locked but, almost without thinking, Jim reached up to feel along the lintel, and there, as expected, was Sandburg's spare key. He put it in the lock, and the door opened. Inside, the lights were low, and there was the smell of something warm and savoury cooking.
He gazed around. Here were the wood floors, the windows, the mezzanine bedroom, the pillars and stove that he remembered so well. He saw the flashes of textile colour that Blair's arrival as room-mate had introduced about the place. But the Loft was also decorated for Christmas. A large branch of a pine tree, draped with some coloured ribbons, was standing in a container near the window, and here and there were some low-key knots of holly and other greenery. A line of Christmas cards paraded across one of the bookcases.
And there was Blair, sprawled on the couch next to him – no, next to another Jim, a younger Jim. And what was so wonderful, and what was so terrible, was that they were both laughing, quite beside themselves with hilarity.
"And so the pastor said," spluttered Blair, hardly able to get the words out, "and so the pastor said, 'I don't mind that, but you'll need to come back tomorrow.'"
With that, the Other Jim, who was already doubled over in mirth, let out a bellow and threw his head back. Blair's own delighted laughter seemed to be as much to do with Jim's reaction as the story itself. Other Jim righted himself, and wiped his eyes.
"Seriously, Sandburg? I really can't believe that happened!"
"My word of honour, man," grinned Blair. "Hey, when you get to meet my mom, you can ask her you yourself. Wasn't long before we got out of that town, though. We were constantly an embarrassment to ourselves and other residents!
They both rested back against the couch, still chuckling, relaxed and at ease with each other. Jim – the real Jim - looked on with fascination, tinged with something like grief. Which Christmas was this? It must have been the first they shared at the Loft. He had not even met Naomi yet. Happy, uncomplicated. This was life at the Loft at its best. And Blair; it was so good to see that old Blair with the long, tangled curls and the glint of gold earrings. It was so good to hear his voice, cracking with laughter rather than cracking with emotion and sadness.
Jack put a hand on his arm.
"I guess this is a good bit of past?" Jim frowned at him.
"There's no need for you to ask leading questions," he snapped. Then he hesitated, looking quickly back at the two men on the couch. Jack chuckled.
"They can't hear us. We aren't here, are we? This is just what you remember."
Jim turned back to Blair and the Other Jim, taking in as much as he could of that joyful moment in time, one that he thought he'd long forgotten. But now he was in it again, he knew he missed that life deeply. He gazed at Other Jim, registering the clearness of his eyes, the lack of worry lines on his forehead. There were a lot more laughter lines, though.
"But you must have stupid Christmas stories from your childhood, too?" continued Blair. "The relatives you loved to hate? How about your… oh hey, do you have siblings? Did you ever tell me that?"
No, not until much later, thought Jim.
"Chief, let me assure you," replied Other Jim, with fake solemnity, "there was nothing remotely amusing about my childhood Christmasses. Oh, I wasn't locked in a closet and fed gruel or anything. There just wasn't any fun. You know what they say about family…?"
"… that it’s good that you can get to choose your friends? With you on that, man! Hey, I'm thirsty. You want some tea? A beer?"
And with that, Blair stood up, and Jim was suddenly face-to-face with the man - felt his breath, felt his warmth.
Blair, he breathed, it's me.
But Blair was no longer there, and Jim was just facing his own dim reflection in the Harborside window; behind the glass, the marina lights twinkled wetly. Jim's deep sense of loss suddenly morphed into rage.
"What the hell was that?" Jim turned on his heel to face Jack, who was still leaning insouciantly against the counter. "Why the hell was that necessary? That was long ago!" Jack shrugged.
"Not that long ago. And anyway, worthwhile having a bit of good past to balance out the bad past, don't you think?"
"I've had enough of your manipulation!" shouted Jim, obscurely conscious that he was shouting at a ghost in a dream. "All that is over, it's finished! If you’d done your research, you’d know that the other guy in that sentimental little tableau of yours was the same jerk who in the end let me down, who went against his word!" Jack shrugged and frowned at Jim.
"That so? Even though that same 'jerk' changed his whole life around, gave up all his ambitions, trying to make it right?"
"That doesn't…" spluttered Jim, "…that doesn't excuse what happened in the first place!"
"It was a mistake, slick, just a mistake, albeit a big one. Deep down, you know that. Deep down you know you’ve made a big mistake, too. No one needs to be punished their whole life for it. Not him, not you, either."
"Okay, Jack," snapped Jim. "I'll accept you're entitled to an opinion, and you just gave it. Thanks for the advice, but I can draw my own conclusions. And I conclude the past is over. It's done. Like 852 Prospect, I don't live there anymore!" Jack raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"Interesting. Where did that little thought come from, I wonder?" But before Jim could reply, Jack straightened up and rubbed his hands together.
"Right, we're done with looking at the past. I think we need to bring things up-to-date. Come with me…"
"Now just you wait a minute…!" began Jim, and he heard a 'ping' directly behind him. He spun round to see two battered elevator doors opening, and he was facing the hallway in front of Major Crime Department at the Cascade PD headquarters .
He walked out into the hallway in a daze, gazing around. Not much had changed. Still the same old utilitarian paintwork and squeaky linoleum, but right now the walls were also bearing paper decorations and the occasional clump of holly, and there was a crowd of people milling around the bull-pen; full-decibel conversations and loud laughter greeted him like a wall of sound. It was the annual MC Holiday Party.
"Come on, slick," whispered Jack, giving him a nudge from behind. "Let's get to the party!"
Jim twisted his head.
"Where is this? I mean, when?"
"Right now." Jack looked at his watch. "Well, right now, sometime this evening. You can't be too precise with this sort of thing. Now get going! I'm running out of time!"
He pushed Jim through the crowded bull-pen; people gave way for him as if they knew he was there, though no one turned to greet him. He cast around for familiar faces. There were a lot of new people; no, they were all new people! MC department had changed beyond all recognition! The fact hit him like a physical blow. For some illogical reason, he had thought the old gang at MC were immutable, but now it seemed like they had all changed, just as Jim's life had changed.
Something like panic welled up inside him, and with an audible gasp of relief he spotted a knot of people sitting around the table in Simon Banks' office; he could see Banks himself, and Joel Taggart. He pushed eagerly on through the throng, but then stopped, hesitant, on the threshold of the office itself, too wary now of what other changes he might find.
Simon was at the head of the table, a soggy unlit cigar stuffed in one corner of his mouth. Joel was by his side, smiling at his colleagues in a very characteristic way; Henri Brown and his cop partner Rafe were toying with glasses of punch. There were a couple of other old-timers there, too, and a new face; Jim recognised him as Bob Lawrence, a Young Turk who had been in Burglary when Jim had been in MC, and who had impressed Jim with his skill and enthusiasm. Jim nodded to himself; good to see someone like that in Major Crime department now. It was Lawrence who was speaking.
"I did work with Ellison a few times. Crossed cases, you know? He wasn't too friendly but he was a great cop, I could tell that." Henri Brown turned to him eagerly.
"But did you know him when he was partnered with Sandburg? Oh, man! That was a pairing to behold. Ain't that right, Cap?" Simon removed the cigar, placing it on a paper plate of food, and sighed.
"I'd give my eye teeth to have them back again. Hey, no disrespect to you gentlemen or any of our colleagues. And it's not just that we are still so short-handed. Those two… well, they were good friends to me, personally. They saved my life, and my son's, a bunch of times. Sandburg was just inspired. There's no other word for it. Even though he was never a cop…" he tilted his head towards Lawrence, "… highly irregular, I know, but it was something that just seemed to set itself up almost without anyone noticing, Blair was a natural. And a whirlwind. A fantastic mind, very analytical but all the time kind of lit with a brilliance. He'd come up with these his ideas and you'd think he was crazy, but then all of sudden you'd realise he was right on the money. I've never met his like." Joel Taggart nodded gravely.
"That's right. He was a rare person, our Blair. A friend to all of us, but most of all to Jim. Jim changed completely when he was working with Blair. Oh, he could still be a surly sonofabitch at times, but Blair had a way of bringing out the better side of him. And as for closure, they were unstoppable, a perfect mix of abilities. You hear people talking about 'dream teams'. Well, that’s what Ellison and Sandburg were, for almost four years."
"So, what happened?" asked Lawrence, frowning. "I remember some kind of scandal in the Press about Ellison, but I was on an exchange with Portland, those years. When I got back, everyone was just shrugging their shoulders, and Ellison was gone." Simon sighed again.
"It was a tragedy, as far as I'm concerned. Something came out about what Sandburg was researching – oh, don’t ask me for details. It was all very complicated and weird and I never really understood it. But the short story is that Sandburg was actually an academic who was writing a thesis on people with heightened senses. Jim had really good eyesight and hearing. That was it, Joel, wasn't it?"
"That’s right, Simon," agreed Joel. "His hearing was superb, I remember that. I think he'd honed it when he was a ranger. Covert ops, and all that."
"Yeah, eyes and ears. But somehow Jim's name got put into the thesis – he was 'identified'', you see? That should never have happened. And some eager beaver at a publisher got hold of it and touted it as a book, portraying Jim as some kind of superman. The Press went wild, hounded Jim and his family day and night. Jim blamed Blair for it; well, technically it was his error in letting the name slip out, but it was never intentional, that was always clear. The partnership broke up, but not before Blair went public about the whole thing, restoring Jim's reputation, but ruining his own academic career in the process. Like I said, a tragedy."
"So what happened to them after that?" asked Lawrence. But Simon had lapsed into a morose study, and Joel was smiling sadly at him. Henri Brown lifted his head.
"Blair just walked way. Oh, there was some attempt at reconciliation, I think, but it never worked. Blair just moved out - he had been Jim's roomie as well, you see? He moved out and left; no forwarding address. He cut all his ties with the PD, which was a real shame, because he has many, many friends here."
"And Jim just quit," continued Rafe. "Went off to work in the family company." Simon roused himself again, picking up the story.
"Yeah, that's right. You know that Ellison Industries was Jim's old man's business? Started by his great-grandfather, I believe. But Jim never wanted anything to do with it. Hadn't had a great relationship with his father for years. But I gather that his dad thawed just as the whole Press thing blew up. Offered Jim a place in the company, and Jim just walked." He nodded at Joel. "My personal stocks adviser knows more about that."
"If what I've read in the City columns – and the gossip columns – is true," said Joel, "then Jim was given the real estate portfolio to manage. You know, office blocks, malls, that kind of thing. Then when Old Man Ellison died and left the whole shooting match to the two boys, Jim and Steven decided between themselves that they would split the business. Steven had always been into the manufacturing side, and never really liked the property investments. He felt they held the rest of the business down with their mortgages and loans. So he was happy for Jim to take it on as a separate business. Ellison Industries is going great guns with AI – robots and such like – right now. The real estate side is much slower game, I believe. You have to make strategic investments. They get built up over time. So what's going to happen now with New Cascade is the culmination of years of Jim's father buying up block after block. But like I said, that’s only what I've read in the Press. Jim's never told us anything."
"That’s right," said Simon, shaking his head. "He's never kept in touch with any of us. Oh, I tried contacting him a few times, but never got anywhere. And to be honest, I think it was for the best. He was a changed man after Sandburg left. Went right back to his old, bad-tempered days. He was never an easy person when he was like that."
"And Sandburg?" asked Lawrence. The company shrugged, to a man.
"I heard he was involved in environmental groups in the area," replied Rafe, after a moment. "Campaigning, lobbying, that kind of thing. He'd been very keen on that in the past. But he stays out of the limelight. Maybe he worries that people might cotton on to the fact he was the guy at the centre of the whole Sentinel catastrophe, and think he can't be trusted."
"That’s what Blair called them, Bob" replied Henri. "People with those super senses. But we never had a real Sentinel, did we, Cap? Just a guy with really great hearing." Henri looked at Simon pointedly, and Simon nodded slowly.
"That right. But we lost a real good cop. Two of them, in fact. And two good friends." Joel lifted his paper cup of punch.
"What about a toast, gentlemen? To absent friends." Paper cups were lifted high in response.
Jim turned to Jack, amazed.
"They talk about me?" Jack rolled his eyes.
"Jim, even dead people get talked about, and you ain't dead. But we're wasting time…."
The table and its occupants faded right in front of Jim's eyes
He was standing by a large, heavily- decorated Christmas tree, looking out on a long room, richly carpeted. There were low tables and comfortable-looking leather armchairs dotted in groups all around. The lighting was subdued, with golden lamps reflected in the dark oak-panelled walls. The whole scene oozed opulence, and the impression was reinforced by the fact that the occupants of the room, apart from the smart and obsequious flunkies, were all elderly or late-middle-aged men in expensive suits or, here and there, tuxedos. Cigar smoke filled the air.
Jim recognised the place as the lounge of 'The Legislator', an exclusive club much patronised by businessmen and local politicians of his father's generation. Jim had been there a few times, but in general tried to avoid it. He disliked the atmosphere - self-importance and privilege, coupled with political sleaze, as it was clear that all sorts of murky business dealings got hatched there between executives and City Hall big-wigs, over copious scotch-and-sodas. But given the reputation for being the place where major deals got brokered, he was not surprised to see Murray Fraser there, ensconced in a deep armchair and in conversation with a senior member of the Planning Committee at City Hall.
"Go on," nudged Jack. "See if these guys talk about you, too."
Murray Fraser was toying with his glass, looking thoughtful. His companion, whom Jim knew had been a top lawyer before he went into city politics big-time, raised an eyebrow at him.
"Don't tell me things aren't going too well on New Prospect, Murray. A number of us have a lot riding on that development. We've stuck our necks out a long way for you." Murray gave the man a sharp look.
"You and your pals aren't blushing virgins when it comes to deals like this, Richard. I know you've oiled wheels with even more than your customary flair on this one, but you also know that the rewards will be stupendous. Property is a long game. You’ve played it for decades enough to know that."
"Still," continued Richard, "we are exposed, should there be any scrutiny of the planning and acquisition process. The sooner the deal gets locked down, and these nascent protests extinguished, the sooner I'll relax. Is our boy playing hard to get?" His look was searching, but Murray shrugged.
"He's taking some time to think. That's understandable. It’s the biggest deal he's been involved in since he started at Estates. But I'm confident he'll be on board by tomorrow. He's shrewd and, best of all, unsentimental. He has the genes for business, whatever his early career."
"A cold fish, I always thought," mused Richard. Murray nodded.
"That too, but he'll get the job done. I give you my word. No reason for you guys to worry about your nice lives collapsing round you." Richard frowned.
"Not so loud, Murray, if you please. And I would point out, you are just as compromised." Murray inclined his head, non-committal.
"I've often wondered," mused Richard, now in a gentler tone, "why it was you jumped ship when they split the business. You were perfectly placed, heading up Industries. Steven Ellison might be Chairman, but he relied on you for much of the decision-making, as I recall." Murray smiled.
"Oh, I still have Rob Beckett over there, keeping an eye on things for me. I could swing back whenever I wanted to. But the truth is, Richard, I think the real opportunities are in Estates. Oh, I don’t mean the bricks and mortar, though with New Prospect that will generate huge wealth - for me, personally, as well as Ellison. My remuneration deal is nicely put together. No, what I really mean is the opportunities for political office.
"Jim Ellison, you mean?"
"Of course! He's perfect. Good-looking, still relatively young, and most importantly, ex-soldier and ex-cop. That public service is a great card to play, and I think that need to serve he had is still there, underneath that whole stone-face appearance. Warmed up a little, he'd make a superb candidate for Senator. And with a huge personal fortune coming his way soon to help with bankrolling any campaign, the timing is pretty darn perfect." Richard grinned broadly.
"I can see the logic in all of that. And having a friend in the Senate would be extremely helpful to me and my colleagues, without a doubt. But I imagine you wouldn't stop there, Murray?" Murray smiled; a crocodile's smile.
"Oh, I don’t think the White House would be too far away in the future, if we played our cards right," he replied, complacency in his voice. Richard chuckled.
"And you at the heart of it all, Murray. Well, well. I applaud your stratagem." They clinked glasses. "But there is still the matter of New Prospect. Clearly much hangs on that going through. For all of us."
"Never you worry, Richard. Jim will make the right choice. Of that, I'm certain."
Jim turned to Jack, looking troubled.
"It's dirty. The whole scheme is dirty. What do I do?" Jack frowned.
"Hmmm, this is worse than I thought," he muttered. "The old Jim I knew wouldn't have hesitated to make a judgement about that."
"What do you mean?"
"Hold on, slick," replied Jack, clapping him on the back, "we still have some visits to make. Maybe things will get clearer for you then."
And with that, 'The Legislator' faded from view, and the world in front of Jim's eyes reshaped itself into a noisy, dark bar.
The place was full of young people – well, younger than Jim, at least. It was crowded; people standing at high tables drinking beer, or shouting at the bar. The booths were filled with noisy gangs of friends, or couples on their own, gazing at each other blissfully. Jim frowned at Jack, bemused. He couldn't work out why this bar was relevant to him. But then he heard a very familiar voice mixed up in the babble around him. His hearing grabbed onto it like a lifeline; the words were quietly spoken, but nonetheless entirely audible to Jim.
"…No, I don’t think you’ve ever told me that one…"
Jim spun round and made a beeline for one of the back booths, and there he was. Blair; hair shorter, but ear-rings still evident, he was wearing a thick, dark blue sweater that brought out the blue of his eyes. Jim's breath hitched. He had surely given Blair that sweater, the last Christmas in the Loft? Blair had liked it so much he cherished it, only bringing it out for high days and holidays. Precious few of those after the present had been given, thought Jim, with a pang.
Blair had a companion, a good-looking young man – somewhat younger than Blair - with a shock of dark hair and a gentle face, which at that moment was creased up with mirth. The boy was in the middle of an anecdote, and clearly very amused by it.
"And so my uncle said…. my uncle said, 'Just remember, it was his pig'!" The boy threw back his head with a howl of laughter. Jim looked at Blair.
Blair was watching his companion with a rather fixed smile; the sort of polite smile people use when they don’t want to hurt someone's feelings. As the boy righted himself and came up for air, Blair broadened his fake smile, so that it looked more like a grin. He laughed - a strange, coughing sound - as if he, too, were overcome with hilarity.
"No, you really never told me that one before. It's a great story," he said kindly, when the boy had regained his breath. The boy smiled fondly at Blair, and to Jim's utter surprise, took Blair's hand, and Blair didn't pull away.
"You must have loads of funny Christmas stories, baby. How come you never tell me them?" Blair shook his head, smiling back with that fixed smile.
"No, I don’t. Not really. My mom and I moved round so much, we never had a chance for those sorts of things to happen to us." The boy squeezed Blair's hand.
"Aw, poor baby! Never mind, we can make our own funny stories from now on, can't we? Hey, let's go back to mine, now. I just want to be on my own with you…" Blair dropped his head, and the boy pulled his hand away sharply.
"You mean you aren't coming to stay with me, after all? But we agreed, Blair! This Christmas, us together! You promised!" Blair looked up at him, his expression pained.
"I really need to be in my own apartment, Gary. This Christmas is an important time with everything that's happening, you know that."
"So, let me come back and stay with you! We can have a great time, liked we planned." He looked so sad, thought Jim; the heartbreak was coming.
"Gary, that isn't going to work. I need to be on my own. And you know, I think this is a good time to be saying this. So you can move on and start the New Year with a clean slate. Time you spread your wings."
"You’re breaking up with me?" Gary's voice held the hurt Jim knew so well.
"You can't be that surprised. You're a bright guy, Gary." And Blair reached out suddenly and stroked his hand own the boy's face. Gary recoiled.
"Yeah, but I'd fallen in love with you, you jerk! So I'm okay for some casual rolls in the hay but you need something more, something better? Am I right?" Blair sighed deeply.
"Gary, you’re a lovely person, and I'm genuinely fond of you…" But Gary had already slid out of the booth. He stood up, staring down at Blair, his face twisted with grief and anger.
"You know, my friends always said you were damaged goods. I didn't believe them, but you really are, aren't you?"
"Goodbye. Take care of yourself," said Blair, his voice calm, his face open and resigned. And Jim remembered that Blair had said those same words to him, the day he left the Loft. Except on that day, Blair's face, his whole body, vibrated with his sadness, and his voice was cracked and hoarse with unshed tears.
They were back in the Harborside Apartment. Jim looked around him, agitated and impatient.
"What next? It can't stop there, can it? What next?" Jack considered him gravely; Jim realised that his old partner was getting fainter, less well-defined.
"Some might say you’ve been given enough chances tonight," Jack replied testily. "You’ve a lot to go on, especially now you know your chief executive is playing a game of his own with your money."
"But Blair was with a man!"
"Why am I surprised that's the one you're gonna fixate on," muttered Jack to himself. Then louder, he went on, "Look, Jim, the things you've seen tonight, they aren't impossible for someone of your intellect to work out on their own. If you only thought more about how other people see you, about how your actions affect others, about who makes a friend and who doesn't, and why. But you’ve shut yourself up for so long with those precious hurt feelings of yours, you find it difficult to separate out the good from the bad."
"But I still have a choice to make, tonight?" insisted Jim. "I can still get that right?" Jack shrugged.
"You worry me, Jim. You still haven't let go of everything that’s holding you back. I'm going to take you on to a final stage. Be clear, this is something that very few people, if any, ever see. This is going to be what's to come in the future."
"How it all works out? I can see that it all works out okay?"
"No," replied Jack firmly, "you'll see what might happen. Remember the fork in the road? You’re gonna see where each path takes you. But you are the one who has to make the right choice, in the end. And I can’t be here much longer…"
"Shut up, slick, and hold on to your hat."
Jim's hat was large and woolly, and it needed to be; they were standing in deep snow in front of a rustic wooden cabin, clearly high in the mountains. The snow cover was pristine and sparkling, and the pine trees glittered. Jim could just make out the shape of a vehicle parked outside the cabin, but flakes had long since covered any tracks; a full moon shone down on a world of perfection.
Jim turned to Jack for a prompt, but then heard once again that familiar voice, muffled, but clearly coming from the cabin.
"He's here!" began Jim, and then stooped short as another voice rumbled in counterpoint to Blair's. Jim's hopeful expression turned to stricken.
"He's got someone with him!"
"Of course he has, slick," sighed Jack heavily. "It's you! Just go in, will you? Don’t ask me to watch this one. Jeez Louise….."
With a final uncertain glance at Jack, Jim ploughed through the snow and climbed the steps to the cabin. The windows glowed with gold, and when he pushed open the door and stepped inside he was immediately enveloped in warmth. A log fire glowed under a stone mantelpiece and colourful rugs covered the floor. A table bore the remnants of a fine meal. But Jim's attention was solely on the large bed in the corner, where two figures lay entwined. They moved in such perfect unison, Jim could only believe that these were men who had known each other well for a long time, and who had enjoyed each other's pleasures in love-making for almost as long.
They made a beautiful sight, with their muscles rippling golden in the firelight. Blair sat astride the Other Jim, and Other Jim strained upwards for constant kisses. Real Jim held onto the back of a nearby chair and bit his lip until blood came, willing his body not to respond to the sight, but with little effect. He watched as Blair's back tensed and his movements became even more powerful, and then Other Jim threw back his head and moaned. Jim saw Blair's hands moving quickly and then he, too, was coming, arching over his partner.
Panting almost as hard as the two men in the bed, Real Jim tried his best to focus on hearing what they were saying to each other. His throat was tight and he felt tears close; is this what the future could be? Or might have been?
"Whoa, baby," groaned Blair, as he slumped down next to Other Jim, "I always love your idea of an anniversary present." Other Jim's response was a rather dirty chuckle, and he buried his head under Blair's arm.
"Of course," went on Blair, "I guess it helps you to remember the date, our anniversary being so close to Christmas Day…" His tone was teasing, and Other Jim surfaced to bite Blair's ear, which got them both laughing. Then Other Jim pulled himself up over Blair's body and gazed down at him with a look of utter devotion.
"Like I need any reminders of our first time, baby. And we are gonna celebrate it every day for the rest of our lives, rely on me." Real Jim watched entranced as they kissed deeply. A long time later, Other Jim spoke again, his voice hoarse with emotion.
"You're my life, Blair. Always were, always will be." Blair stared up at him, his face gravely intense but happy, too.
"I love you so much, Jim."
They gazed at each other for long moments, then both faces broke out into knowing smiles.
"You want your anniversary present now, Mr Ellison?" asked Blair innocently, with an arch look. "Or do you want to wait till Christmas Day?" Then he yelped with laughter as Other Jim picked him up bodily and enveloped him in a huge embrace.
"I want it now, Sandburg. And then I want it again on Christmas Day, too. I'll always want it from you…."
The two bodies disappeared beneath the covers again. Real Jim dashed tears away from his face, and closed his eyes on the scene. He suddenly felt very cold.
There was good reason for feeling cold, Jim discovered, on opening his eyes. He was standing in a parking lot outside the Ellison Estates headquarters. There was snow and ice all around, and the sky was a dull grey with low cloud. The wind was bitterly cold and blew in sharp blasts, stirring up ice crystals that swirled around in the air for a moment before settling back down again on the frigid ground.
Along the edge of the parking lot, behind metal barriers that were manned by Ellison Estates security guards, stood a line of protesters. They held up banners declaring things like 'Stop the Dunes Development!' and 'Don’t Squander our Environment, Ellison!', and there was a steady chant of "Save the dunes! Save the dunes!"
A long limousine swished up beside Jim, and a man who had been standing nearby hurried to open the rear door. Other Jim climbed out in an elegant, sinuous movement. He stared at the protesters.
"I thought you were clearing this lot out today," he said to the man. It was a statement, not a question.
"Ah, sir, Mr Fraser said we should maybe let them stay for a while longer, until you get the TV interviews done. Mr Fraser said he thought it would play better not to have them evicted before then." Other Jim nodded.
"Okay, if Murray is happy with it. I’ll speak to him later." He started to walk towards the office building. Real Jim felt a nudge to his side, and turned to see Jack who was motioning him to follow. But this Jack was faint, and indistinct.
"Jack, are you okay…?" began Jim, but Jack just waved Jim on.
"I'm running out of time. Make this one count, okay?"
With a doubtful look at Jack, Jim turned and hurried after his alter ego. He had just drawn level when both men heard something that stopped them in their tracks.
"Jim? Jim Ellison! Don’t pretend you can't hear me, you sonofabitch!"
It wasn't shouted, but rather spoken almost in an undertone, yet both Jims heard it with perfect clarity; Blair. Both Jims scanned the line of protesters. As they did so, a figure from the middle of the line vaulted the barrier and ran at full pelt towards them. A shout went up from the crowd:
"Go, Blair! Go, Blair!"
The man dodged the first rank of security guards and had almost reached both Jims when another phalanx of guards came in from the side and brought him down heavily on the asphalt.
"Sorry about that, Mr Ellison….. I mean, Senator Ellison," panted one of the security guards. "We'll get him out of here. We can put him on a trespass charge."
"No!" said both Jims, in unison. Other Jim waved at Blair, prone on the ground. "Bring him over here."
Blair was heaved up, and dragged over to Other Jim, where he stood defiantly, staring the other man down. He was older, Real Jim noticed. His hair was very short and flecked heavily with grey. His face was thinner and bore deep frown-lines. The ear-rings had gone. Other Jim, though suave in his sleek suit and cashmere overcoat, had aged, too. Physically he was still am impressive figure, but Real Jim looked into the man's eyes, and saw a hollowness there. There was deep animosity between this Jim and Blair, and deep bitterness; Real Jim could almost touch and taste it.
"Let me have a word with this guy," said Other Jim to the security guards. "Just make sure we don't have any more breaches, okay?" The guards nodded uncertainly, but slowly backed off. There was no one around them now; it was just Blair and Other Jim, with Real Jim looking on. Blair was the first to speak.
"Come to check on your investment in Murray Fraser, Senator Ellison?" he jibed. "Gotta be squeaky clean, now you're in high office." Other Jim ignored the barb.
"Not surprised to find you in the thick of this lot, Sandburg. Yet another personal crusade, huh? The environment's what pushes your buttons nowadays?"
"I was a conservationist long before I met you, Jim. You'd remember that, if you took the time."
"I don’t need to waste time on you, Mr Sandburg. This is a lost cause you're fighting. The Dunes project is backed by everyone, apart from you little guys with your banners. It’s going to be a great economic boost for the area."
"Oh, yeah?" spat Blair. "Just like New Prospect was a great boost for Cascade? Look what that did, all those years ago! Ripped out the heart of the city, and replaced it with soulless buildings and soulless people whose only interest was money and making more of it. It's the same thing with the Dunes. Golf courses! Play areas for the facile rich and famous! You've got all that stitched up, I know. You and your cronies in the Senate have been making hay with the nation's environmental laws and Cascade's going to see the first fruits of your strategy. You're all despicable! You're going to ruin an amazing eco-system. It's irreplaceable! And it's something that our city - our State - should be proud of, should value..."
"Can’t eat the scenery, Sandburg," said Other Jim nastily, cutting right across Blair's tirade. Then he reached out and patted Blair's cheek with a gloved hand. It was an utterly contemptuous gesture, and Blair violently shrugged it off, with a look of disgust.
"Why do you hate Cascade so much, Jim?" he snarled, his face burning. "Trying to sublimate something, maybe? Like your hatred for yourself?" Jim sneered down at him.
"No, Chief." Real Jim flinched at the use of the old affectionate name – from the mouth of Other Jim now, it was like slap in the face. "Oh, no; just the people who did me wrong. Now, go off and find yourself another cause to fight. That’s what you're good at, I guess - pointless campaigns. Leave real life to the big boys."
"You tore down our home," said Blair, very quietly. "You destroyed my home."
"You tore down 852 Prospect."
"Chief, I'm sorry you're now delusional, but that was never your home, you know. You rented a room, when you could remember to pay the rent."
"I bought the Loft," replied Blair simply, all fight seemingly gone out of him now. Both Jims' jaws dropped open.
"What?" said Real Jim.
"Why?" asked Other Jim, frowning. "Why would you do that? To spite me?" Blair laughed bitterly.
"You didn't even know, so how could I spite you? I bought it from your Ellison Estates, after you moved out and the block changed hands. Your company was keen to set up mortgages. I see why now – so you could foreclose on people easier when the time came. So you see, it was my home, and you tore it down."
"But why?" repeated Other Jim, not used to dealing with doubt.
"Because it was the only home I had ever known, with you," replied Blair, his voice now wavering. "It was the place I had been the happiest of my entire life. Because if nothing else, I could have the memories there. But you even took those away from me."
"Oh, Chief…. oh, Blair," breathed Real Jim.
"Sorry for your loss," said Other Jim acidly. Blair's eyes lit up again with a fierce anger.
"I loved you once, you sonofabitch!"
"Once?" cried Real Jim, distraught. Other Jim merely sneered.
"Can't help what you thought, Sandburg."
"I loved you once," repeated Blair. "And you took everything I had away from me, bit by bit. My studies, my career, my dreams, my home. Bit by bit…" Other Jim put up a hand to summon one of the security guards.
"You can get this guy out of here now," he called.
"Oh, I'm going," said Blair, in the most defeated voice Real Jim had ever heard. "We're done. Finally." He started to walk towards the protest line, without a backward look. Other Jim turned on his heel and continued towards the Estates head office.
Real Jim whirled round, turning to first one receding figure, then the other.
"You can leave it like that!" he howled. "You can't! Come back! Make it right!"
A sudden gust of wind hurled icy flakes into his eyes. When he had blinked them clear again, he was back facing his own reflection in the window of the Harborside apartment.
"No!" he shouted at himself, and then spun round to look for Jack. "No! It can't end like that!"
There was no one in the apartment but him. His voice sounded flat and dead in the still air. He stood, panting, filled with an enormous sense of grief and loss; for the Blair and Jim that once had been, and the Blair and Jim they had become. He stumbled to the couch and sat down, his head in his hands. And then he heard Jack's voice again; this time, it was caught up in his swirling thoughts.
"Make the right choice, Jim. For both of us."
Jim sat for a long time on the couch, then he rose and stood for an equally long time at the window, staring out. At last he roused himself. It was still dark outside, but there was something about the sky that told him that although dawn was still some time away, the night had passed. He checked his watch – 6.30am. He crossed to lounge and pulled a notepad from a bureau drawer, found the name he was looking for, and picked up the phone, punching in the numbers quickly. It rang for a moment, and then a man's voice answered.
"David? Jim Ellison. I know it’s early, pal. Sorry to call you at home, but I've got something really important that needs doing right away, and by someone independent of Ellison Estates. I need your firm to deal with a serious legal matter for me. I'll clear the way for you with Art Jacobson, the assistant head of Legal at Estates. He hasn't been involved with New Prospect. But first, let me tell you what I want you to do…."
The skies had lightened by the time Jim drove down Prospect and parked the car, but it was still only just after 8am. He got out and looked around him. There were posters everywhere on the buildings, protesting against the New Prospect development, but at that moment the streets were quiet, and there was a sad, resigned look about the slogans in the messy, slushy square, as if a battle was already over, and had been lost.
He went into 852 Prospect and climbed the stairs, conscious that his heart was beating quickly and his palms were sweating, even in the cold. In the familiar hallway, he saw Frank Eberman, one of Jim's former elderly neighbours from the floor below, who was shuffling towards the door to the Loft.
Frank looked up as Jim approached; he was elderly and his eyesight was now none too good, so clearly didn’t recognise Jim, who simply offered a "good morning."
"And a good morning to you, young man," smiled Frank. "You here to volunteer for the campaign, too? That's great! Blair will be pleased to have more helpers." He knocked on the Loft door, and Jim heard Blair's voice clear from within.
"Come in, Frank, its open."
Jim pushed open the door and made way for Frank. The Loft was brightly lit after the dim of the hallway, and Jim's eyes were immediately drawn to Blair, who was sitting on the stool at the kitchen counter, working on his laptop; Jim could see its lights reflecting in his spectacles. Blair looked up absently as the two men entered, but as soon as he saw Jim, his jaw dropped and he stared, his eyes wide. Frank, meanwhile, was doing some staring of his own; the better light inside the Loft meant that he could now see who he'd actually met in the hallway.
"Say, aren't you…." he began, pointing a wavering hand. Blair jumped swiftly off the stool, rushed over to Frank and propelled him outside the door, before he could finish his sentence.
"Sorry, Frank, I need to postpone our meeting. I’ll catch you later."
With that, he closed the door firmly, and stood a few feet away from Jim, eyes fixed on him.
"Why are you here?" he said at last. Jim cleared his throat.
"Thought we ought to talk."
"I'm guessing this isn’t in the spirit of Christmas," replied Blair acidly. "I think I'd better call the rest of the Committee. I can't have conversations with you about New Prospect on my own…" He started to move towards the phone, but Jim caught him by the arm.
"No!" Blair halted, and twisted his head to look pointedly at Jim's hand on his arm; Jim let him go and stepped back a pace, embarrassed. "No," he repeated, his voice softer. "Please, I’d like to talk to you privately, first of all." Blair shrugged and led the way to the kitchen table, where they both sat down. Blair's gaze never left Jim, and Jim felt increasingly uncomfortable with the scrutiny. He let his eyes range around the apartment, anywhere but Blair.
"You've made a lovely home, Blair," he said, a little helplessly.
"It was a lovely home before you left," said Blair, without emotion. "So, you finally worked out I'd bought it?"
"A friend told me," said Jim.
"Right, now the pleasantries are out of the way, can we get down to business? Why are you here?"
Jim looked straight into Blair's eyes but saw little there to encourage him; hostility, irritation, fatigue… and yes, deep unhappiness. On his drive over, he had been at a loss to work out how to start the conversation, but now faced with the man, he realised he simply had to take a leap of faith.
"Blair, that same friend came to talk to me about my future. He told me I’d made a bad choice a long while ago, and that I was in danger of making a worse choice now, one that would set me on a path I couldn't return from. It took me a while to work it out, but I realised he was absolutely right."
Blair remained silent, giving nothing away. Jim took his courage in both hands.
"I'm not cut out for what I'm doing now. It doesn't suit me; it never has. That wasn't the first or the biggest mistake I made, but it's compounded all the rest. So I'm making a change."
"Well, I ought to say I'm pleased for you, I guess," said Blair. "If I felt better disposed towards you, I might even say 'Hallelujah' and buy this friend of yours a beer. But I don't. Who was he anyway?" Jim shook his head.
"Not now. Later maybe, if you still want to hear the story. But what I really want to tell you… well, the easiest thing to do would be to make a phone call. Can I use your phone? Does it have a speaker on it?" Blair nodded, though still looking doubtful, and pulled the phone off the kitchen counter so that it sat in front of Jim, who extracted a card from his wallet and dialled the number on it.
"Swain and Partners."
"Jim Ellison for David Latimer."
"One moment please. Putting you through…."
Jim glanced at Blair to find the other man frowning at him, and biting his lip thoughtfully. He realised his hands were shaking; he put them in his lap, so they were out of sight, under the table.
"Jim!" came the voice on the other end of the line. "You're calling a little earlier than I expected. Not everything is in place yet, but we've made the first key steps, so I can update you …"
"That’s okay David," replied Jim, cutting through the lawyer's rapid report. "I just wanted to ask you another small favour. And by the way, this is on the speaker, and I have someone here with me who will be listening. His name's Blair Sandburg."
"Oh!" said the lawyer, clearly surprised. "Jim, you do know that Mr Sandburg is…"
"…head of the Protest Committee against New Prospect? Yeah, I do know that, David. But never mind that now. Just be clear that we can speak frankly in front of him. Now, I’d like you to tell Mr Sandburg exactly what I asked you to do when we spoke early this morning."
"All of it, please, David." He heard the lawyer catch his breath, pause for a moment, then sigh.
"Okay, Jim. You called me at…. just checking my notes… 6.35am this morning and instructed my firm to cancel, on behalf of Ellison Estates, all negotiations, contracts and other business arrangements connected with the New Prospect development. That's being done right now and all parties are being informed that New Prospect will no longer happen. By the way, I don't anticipate much contractual fall-out from this; the discussions and agreements so far have stopped short of legal confirmation."
Jim glanced at Blair to see how he was reacting to the news; Blair was staring open-mouth at the phone. Jim permitted a slight feeling of hope to flicker inside him.
"Go on, please, David."
"Well, a lot of the rest is pretty prejudicial, Jim…"
"We can trust Mr Sandburg, David," replied Jim calmly, and he saw Blair flick a questioning glance at him. He turned his head to look directly at Blair, holding his gaze, and added, "In fact, in the past I have trusted Mr Sandburg with my life. I know I have no reason to doubt his probity. Please carry on." Blair's jaw dropped even further; Jim felt himself blush, and turned away again to hide his discomfiture.
"So," continued the lawyer, "you instructed me to contact Mr Jacobson at Ellison Estates Legal Department and between us we have carried out the following. One, we have revoked the security clearances for Mr Murray Fraser, Chief Executive of Ellison Estates, and Mr Peter Wade, head of Legal, Ellison Estates. They are now suspended pending a disciplinary hearing and possible legal charges. Two, all staff directly connected with the New Prospect project are also suspended on full pay, pending a further examination of their roles in the project. Three, Mr Jacobson and I have contacted the Legal Department at City Hall, and they are now instigating their own investigation into the involvement of members of the Planning Committee and other City officials in the New Prospect project. Four, we are working up Press announcements for later this morning."
"Wow," breathed Blair.
"Thank you, David. That’s excellent work. And the last part?"
"Finally, you asked me to begin work to transform Ellison Estates into a charitable trust, the aims of which will be to promote better quality, affordable housing for people on lower incomes, sustainable development, and environmental protection, whether in Cascade, Washington State, or further afield. That'll take a while to do, Jim, as you know, and we will need to concentrate on the fallout from New Prospect, first."
"Understood, David. And thanks for your quick work on this. I'll check in with you again later today." And with that Jim pressed the button to end the call, and then let out a long breath. He felt weak; it was as if all the tension of many years had finally left his body. After a moment contemplating the table- top, he turned again to Blair, to find the man still gazing at him with a look of entire disbelief. Jim gave a slightly hysterical snort of laughter, amazed by his own actions, and Blair's uncharacteristic silence.
"You can do all that?" asked Blair, finally.
"It's my company, Chief," - oh, how good that word sounded now! - "I can do what I want."
"I don’t mean the prosecutions, though thank God, man! This is just what we've been saying all along; the corruption, as well as the sheer vandalism of those plans. Thank God for that. I meant the charitable trust thing? What about Steven?"
"Steven and I split the company when Dad died. It was always privately owned, and now we simply each own separate halves. Estates has nothing to do with Steven." Blair was shaking his head.
"But why, Jim? Why now?" Jim realised that suspicion was creeping back after the first shock of the announcements.
"Because it's the right thing to do, Blair. Because it's the right path for me to take. I want to make things right." And, with a flash of intuition, he added, "I'm not asking for anything in return, from you or anyone."
"Good," said Blair, quickly. "I mean, a lot of water has gone under that bridge, Jim." He looked straight at Jim, and Jim saw not finality, but a rawness, a sadness – and a desperation for the pain to be over.
"But I would be glad for your advice in the future, about the aims of the trust. If you felt able to, I mean." Blair nodded slowly.
"Yeah, I think I could do that. With my colleagues, of course."
There was silence. Jim thought about the Blairs he had seen over the course of the night; young, happy, in love, in passion, isolated, old, disillusioned, despairing. He thought about the Other Jims. He thought about the cabin and found he was instinctively watching the play of Blair's muscles under his checked shirt, remembering the golden bodies in the bed; he blushed again and turned his head away.
"Okay," said Blair, clearly making an effort to pull himself together, "some things need to happen. Jim, would you be willing to tell the rest of the Protest Committee what you've just told me?"
"I'm very happy to tell them about the cancellation of New Prospect. I can't talk about the legal stuff - Murray Fraser and the planning committee - right now. There are too many important things to get right, and I don’t want to jump the gun and spoil the chances of prosecution." Blair nodded.
"Of course. I understand that."
"But I could also tell them my plans about the charitable trust," continued Jim, shamelessly exploiting an opening to ingratiate himself further. Blair's face twitched into something like a smile.
"Diplomacy skills showing there, Jim. You know, you might make a good politician one day." Jim grimaced, reminded of the overheard conversation in The Legislator. "Nah," Blair went on, as if considering further, "you could never keep that up."
Jim had the strangest feeling he was being slightly teased; he realised he rather liked it.
"Hey, look," said Blair, the tone of his voice different now, "I'll set the meeting up for later this morning. In the meantime, would you…. ah, would you like to stay for breakfast?" Jim stared at him, hardly believing what he'd just heard.
Yes, Blair, I would, he thought. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, the night, the morning after, the week, the month… for ever and ever, amen.
"Whatever it takes," was his actual reply. It was somewhat nonsensical, but Blair seemed to get his drift, and nodded. Jim felt his mouth break out into an unaccustomed smile; it hurt his face.
"Are you in pain?" asked Blair, puzzled. Jim shook his head, not able to say anything more. "Only you look kinda constipated," Blair went on. "I think we should have granola, not eggs…"
Jim felt his mouth relax into a grin, and was rewarded with something like a smile from Blair, a smile which reached Blair's eyes and lit them once again from within, this time with warmth. Then Blair stood up briskly.
"Let's get this show on the road. I'll make the calls, you can make the coffee." He gestured vaguely towards the kitchen. "You know where the beans are." Then he commandeered the phone and started dialling.
"Sir, yes, sir," said Jim softly, still grinning, and although Blair didn’t look up from his dialling, he saw an answering twitch on Blair's lips.
Jim went to find the coffee grinder.
"You took my dreams from me
When I first found you"
"I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you"
The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas day
["Fairytale of New York" – The Pogues]