Joey's Kitchen, Cascade, Washington, May, 1996
The soup kitchen was quiet, and Jim was grateful for the peace. The headache that had been toying with him earlier had at last sunk its teeth deep behind his eyes. But the place was quiet enough right now that he could do his work before the evening crowd drove him to his tiny room in the basement.
Joey had offered to go it alone tonight, but Jim had just shaken his head and gotten started cleaning up the stray pots and pans left over from the breakfast shift. His strange condition had already stolen almost everything from him. He was lucky the V.A. had managed to find him this placement. So he'd be damned if he couldn't even make it as a kitchen helper.
"Jim. Hey, Jimbo." There was a gentle nudge at his shoulder, and he realized he'd been standing with his hands sunk in the sudsy water long enough for it to cool. Damn. He'd been mesmerized by the ticking of the bubbles and the sleekness of the soapy film against his skin.
"Sorry, Joey." He cleared his throat, embarrassed. Really, Joey was so damned patient with him. "I'm almost done."
"Sure." Joey clapped him once on the back, and Jim winced. "Sorry, Jim. Forgot."
"It's all right." Jim hitched up his shoulder and rubbed his nose against it, scratching an itch.
"Anyway, no rush. Looks like there's not gonna be much of a crowd tonight. Guess folks are scared to come out."
"Scared?" Jim dipped the last pot in the sink full of disinfectant, then rinsed it off and set it on the rack. "What're you talking about?" He turned and leaned back against the edge.
Joey raised his bushy white eyebrows. "You haven't heard? There's been another death. They think it's murder this time, not just a hit and run. Happened just a block away on McAllister."
"Jesus." Jim felt the familiar, helpless rage. People dying. His people dying. Before, it was the men under his command. Now, it was the folks of this poor, forgotten neighborhood. And Jim hadn't even known about it. His hearing and vision had been blowing up all week, and he'd spent most of his free time huddled behind his shrouded windows riding out the storm.
"Aren't the cops looking into it?"
Joey shrugged and turned back to the cutting board. "Yeah. This time it was an old lady."
Jim swallowed. "Old lady?" The headache swelled behind his eyes.
"She must have been at least seventy. Living on the streets all alone." Joey's voice was gruff. "They found her in a dumpster. Someone had messed her up good."
"That about says it," Joey said evenly. He lifted the big cutting board. It was heavy, and Joey wasn't a young man. Jim knew he suffered from arthritis to boot. So Jim casually caught the other end, helping Joey tilt it to dump the vegetables into the pot of water that was boiling on the stove.
Steam rose with a hiss that blasted Jim's oversensitive ears. The heat of the vapor struck his skin like a scald. He involuntarily released his end and jumped back.
"Shit! Sorry." Jim clamped his hands over his ears, trying to stem the blooming pain, squeezing his eyes shut against it. It felt like his brain was going to pop from the pressure.
He heard Joey curse, and then came another hiss as he dropped the rest of the vegetables in.
"Knew I should've sent you back to bed," Joey said. His voice was booming, and Jim stifled a groan.
"Sorry, Joey," he said, "It caught me by surprise. Did you get burned?"
"Nope." Joey's rough, gnarled hands grasped his forearms, and Jim let them guide his hands away from his head. "Can't those quacks at the V.A. figure this thing out?"
"No. Just had another series of tests this morning. That's why I'm no good today, I think. Goddamn doctors don't know their asses from a—"
Joey's kind blue eyes crinkled. "Need I remind you that Paulie—?"
"All except for your brilliant doctor son, of course," Jim said hastily, smiling a little even though Joey's gusty laugh was painfully loud.
Joey's brows drew down again in concern. "Looks like it's getting worse."
"Yeah," Jim admitted.
"Why don't you git, then? I told you it's gonna be quiet tonight. Besides, I have some new volunteers coming in later for the serving. Kids from the university."
"Volunteers are pretty useless until they learn—"
Joey gave him a push toward the door. "Don't worry. I'll make them toe the line."
There was a touch of the old Marine in Joey's voice, and Jim grinned a little in spite of the pain in his head.
Bet those kids are in for a surprise.
Jim closed the door of his tiny room with a sigh of relief. The thick black curtains he'd put up were still drawn from the afternoon, and he didn't bother trying to turn on the light. He was able to navigate easily thanks to the faint bleed coming from the streetlight outside.
He walked over to his bed and grabbed the earplugs sitting on the headstand. They were supposed to be good up to thirty decibels, but barely made a dent for Jim. Especially on Thursdays, when the big garbage trucks lumbered by. The diesel rumble of their engines was enough to have him curling in a tight ball on his bad days.
And his bad days were getting more and more frequent.
This could be it for me. Jim popped the earplugs in and lay down on his small bed. He finally let himself think about what his neurologist, Dr. Gordon, had told him earlier that day.
"We'll know more when I get back your scans, Jim, but I have to tell you I think we're running out of options. You've had adverse reactions to each of the medications we've tried, and none of them seemed to have any palliative effect on the symptoms. But there might be one other possibility...I think you should consider electroshock therapy."
Jim's mouth fell open.
"Believe me, it's nothing like the horror stories of the old days. We're talking about a very controlled, very mild current, with the hopes of jolting your sensory receptor areas into a new status quo. We could start with taste—"
"You're not going to shock my brain." Jim rose, fighting the sudden urge to either pummel Gordon's face in or run out the door.
"I can't...no. That can't be the only way."
Jim had stumbled out of the office barely able to walk thanks to the sudden graying of his vision.
He sighed and rolled over. After the day that had followed, he was starting to reconsider the doctor's suggestion. Maybe it would take something extreme like that to fix him—make him normal again. Experimenting on his taste wouldn't be so bad. It wasn't like he'd be losing much.
But, God, he felt cold inside at the idea of electrodes, at the idea of such an invasive procedure. He'd been tortured with electricity once. Would it be like that?
Jim punched his pillow. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair, and it wasn't fair, and no matter how many times he chanted it like a bratty little kid, it didn't change a damned thing. He'd gone from a healthy, active leader of men to a worthless, cringing pot-scrubber. His life had no meaning beyond holding on and trying to keep going.
If he had to stick electrodes in his brain, he'd do it. Ellisons, goddamn it, never gave up. It was probably the only thing of worth his father had ever taught him.
Jim put on his eyeshade and tried to tame the monster in his head.
He drowsed, not quite sleeping, because it was too early and he couldn't block out the drift of voices coming from upstairs. Joey's, of course, and he thought he heard Vanetta, the grand dame of the neighborhood who liked to lend a helping hand after she'd eaten her dinner. Vanetta always got served first—she was adored by everyone, especially by the children who liked to come over to her shabby but clean apartment and listen to her fantastic stories.
There were a couple of strange voices, too—a young woman's and a man's. The girl sounded light and breathy. She was asking how large a serving she should scoop out.
The young man was talking to Vanetta. His voice was low, resonant. He was asking her a lot of questions, rapid-fire, barely giving her a chance to answer. Vanetta's responses were sharp and amused.
Vanetta liked him, then. And that was a feat, because Vanetta only tended to like children, and didn't warm up to men very often. She especially didn't seem to like Jim all that much. But he didn't mind; a helping hand was a helping hand, and Jim didn't like serving the kids. The expressions on their too-wise faces depressed him.
He heard his name, and his eyes startled open behind the mask.
"—not feeling well tonight. Guess he wasn't in the mood for your company, Vanetta."
Vanetta's laughing response was too low for him to hear.
The deep voice of the new volunteer asked some more questions. Something about the rhythm of his tone was soothing, and Jim went deep into the texture of it, a rough, silky feel.
He fell asleep with the soft touch in his ears.
"You must be Jim. I'm Blair Sandburg."
Jim didn't turn immediately. He'd heard the unfamiliar step behind him, but he'd long ago trained himself out of the habit of spinning at an unexpected approach. He didn't want people thinking he was more of a freak than he really was.
Jim wiped his hands on a dishcloth and turned casually.
Sandburg was standing with his hip canted against the stainless steel prep table. He was shorter than Jim, and young, maybe twenty-five. He had a strong jaw and penetratingly blue eyes.
And hair. Jesus, lots of hair.
"Yeah, I'm Jim." When the guy offered his hand, Jim held his own up apologetically. "Sorry, I'm a little grimy, here." It was an easy excuse—sure, he'd been cleaning the grill, but the truth was he didn't like people touching him, not anymore. Not even for a handshake.
"Oh. Sure thing. It's nice to meet you. Joey said you weren't feeling well last night."
"I'm fine," Jim responded, his voice clipped.
Sandburg nodded and his eyes dropped to Jim's chest. "So, you're a vet, huh?"
"What? How did you—?"
A finger pointed at him. "You're wearing dog tags. At least, I'm assuming that's what those are."
Jim's hand rose automatically to cover the tags under his shirt. He cleared his throat. "Yeah." He never took them off, not even when his skin was acting up. It was the least he could do to remember his guys.
"So what was it? Army? Navy?"
Jim crossed his arms. "Kid, you annoy me."
"Yeah, I get that a lot." Sandburg shrugged. "I ask too many questions, and some people feel threatened."
Jim squared his jaw. "You're not any threat. I just don't like talking."
Sandburg's head cocked, and he grinned. "No problem, man. So..." He clapped his hands together. "Joey sent me back here to help bring out the food."
"What are you doing back here so soon, anyway?" Jim asked abruptly. "Most volunteers come maybe twice a month."
"Oh, I'm not a volunteer. I mean, I am, but I'm also a grad student. Anthropology. I'm doing a paper on tribal patterns in homeless communities. A study of the organization and subsistence strategies the homeless utilize to maintain their community—"
Jim's brain was starting to hurt. And it wasn't the usual over-stimulation kind of hurt, but the dull pain of being bored out of his gourd.
"Here," Jim said, interrupting him. "Use these." He handed him a couple of potholders. "Grab the stew pot, there. And watch it—it's pretty heavy."
But in spite of his smaller size, Sandburg seemed to have no trouble with the weight. He hefted the huge pot of beef stew and carried it out of the kitchen without complaint.
Jim wrinkled his nose at the sudden explosion of scent. Today his sense of smell was acting up. But thankfully his vision and hearing had settled into normal parameters. He washed his hands, then picked up the large tray of rice and went into the serving room.
Of course, during serving he found himself elbow-to-elbow with the annoying hippie student. Fortunately, Vanetta soon appeared on the kid's other side and took the brunt of the curious questions he was spouting off.
"No, dear." Vanetta seemed soft on the kid. "My husband, Ray, rest his soul, left me a lovely apartment. But the neighborhood has changed somewhat since he died."
"But would you consider moving if you could afford it?"
"Oh, no. I've even received an offer on my property. But this is my home," Vanetta said with fierce pride. "These are my people."
Jim hid a smile at hearing Vanetta echo his earlier thoughts. These are my people.
Just then, one of his people, Crazy Eddie, wrapped in his usual hundred layers of clothing, came shuffling through the door.
His unwashed scent hit Jim like a wall, and he dropped his serving spoon, barely registering Sandburg's start of surprise as he lunged from the room.
The bathroom was down the long hallway that led to the stairwell, and he barely made it to the toilet before heaving up his entire dinner. His stomach roiled again and again, the smell of his own bile combining with the still-lingering scent of Eddie's body odor and something else that caused uncontrollable spasms.
He was between bouts when he heard a knock on the door.
"Jim?" It was Joey.
Jim rested his forehead on his shoulder, glad that he'd cleaned the little bathroom himself just the day before. The white porcelain was spotless. Another spasm hit, and he moaned a little afterward.
"Yeah," he croaked. "'M okay, Joey."
"Like hell," came the muffled reply.
"One second." Jim rose and flushed the toilet. Turning to the sink, he squeezed out some of the baking soda-based toothpaste he used. It always left his teeth feeling gritty, but was the only brand that didn't give him an allergic reaction. He scrubbed his mouth with it and then rinsed and spat a few times.
He felt shaky as he opened the door a crack to reveal Joey's concerned face.
"Sorry, Joey. My nose is acting up. Check on Eddie, would you? I smelled blood on him."
The voice came from behind Joey's shoulder, and Jim opened the door further to see Sandburg standing there.
"How about a little privacy?" Jim growled.
Joey put a hand on his shoulder. "You sure you're okay? That sounded pretty bad."
"I'm fine." Jim gave a tentative sniff. "It's over. We'd better get back out there." He pushed by them. "Be sure to check on Eddie, okay?"
They were just finishing with the clean up when Joey came back into the kitchen. Sandburg was busy filling takeaway containers. Joey's Kitchen always liked to provide leftovers to whoever stuck around to take meals back to their less mobile friends.
Jim leaned over the sink and retrieved the last of the silverware from the depths of the water. His nose was annoyed by the stinging disinfectant, and he had to keep wiping his eyes. But his sense of smell wasn't out of control any longer. Maybe the funk of his own puke had shorted out the circuit. Jim smiled wryly to himself.
Joey came over to him and nudged him with a shoulder. "You were right. Eddie had a bad cut on his arm, said he got it dumpster diving. I made him go over to the clinic."
"Good. That's good." Jim liked Eddie. He was a sweetheart of a guy, for all he was a little paranoid about taking off his layers long enough to clean up. And Eddie was a vet, too, just like them.
Joey gave Jim's shoulder a squeeze and went back out. Jim pulled the plug on the drain and closed his eyes, listening to the heavy swirl of water escaping down the pipes.
"So, you just smelled the blood on Eddie? From across the room?"
Jim jumped a little before edging away. Sandburg was crowding him, his young face looking eager and fascinated.
"Back off, kid."
"Seriously, Jim—that's amazing. You must have an incredible sense of smell."
Jim shook his head wearily. "Yeah. Incredible. So incredible it has me chucking my dinner." Sandburg's scent washed over to him, not unpleasant, but a little too much stimulation for his crowded brain. Jim rubbed at his forehead fretfully, wishing he were already tucked in his dark little room.
"I did a study once on people with enhanced senses...a jeweler who could identify a fake stone from three feet away, a chef who could tell you the exact percentages of spices in a stew from a single taste—"
"And I'm a soldier who can always smell blood in the room. Big deal."
Jim winced at the volume of Sandburg's enthusiasm. "Keep your voice down, kid."
The student looked immediately contrite. "Sorry. Hearing, too? You seem to think I'm too loud. And what about your other senses?"
"Jesus." Jim spun and moved in on the guy. "It's none of your fucking business what's going on with me, okay? Take a hike." He didn't want to touch the kid, but he tried to use his height to loom a little threateningly.
Sandburg looked completely unimpressed. "It is more than one, then?"
Jim clenched his jaw. "I told you to back off. I mean it." He thrust one finger out and tapped the guy hard just above the sternum. Sandburg flinched, but only with discomfort. He didn't back down at all.
"Jim, I need to know. Please. It's important, man."
"Important to you."
"No, important to you, Jim. Just tell me one thing: how many of your senses are enhanced?"
"Enhanced? That's so—they're fucking out of control, okay? Enhanced? Shit."
Ignoring the kid's dumbstruck expression, Jim grabbed the filled containers and strode out into the dining area to put them on the serving table. He saw Eddie sitting in the corner, and Jim took one of the containers over, mentally telling his nose to behave.
"How're you doing, Eddie?" Jim said softly. Eddie sometimes had flashbacks, bad ones, inspired by loud noises. One artillery shell too many for Eddie.
"I'm okay, Jim. Okay. Okay. How's by you?"
"I'm good, Eddie. Here—I heard you missed dinner." Jim handed Eddie the container of stew, rice and vegetables. Eddie clutched it to his chest and gave Jim a grateful look before ducking his head again, his eyes hidden behind his camouflage cap.
"Thanks, Jimbo. Thanks. Okay."
"No problem, Eddie. You take care of yourself. See you tomorrow."
Jim finished clearing the tables of trash, conscious of Sandburg joining him silently. The kid was fairly buzzing with excitement.
Jim ignored him.
When they returned to the kitchen, Joey was putting the last of the leftovers in the fridge.
"That's it for tonight, Jim. You can knock off. You too, Blair."
"Thanks, Joey." Jim turned to leave, and the kid had the audacity to grab his sleeve.
Jim twisted his arm away, efficiently breaking the kid's grip. "Leave me alone, Sandburg."
"Is there a problem, Jim?" Joey's voice was even, but he straightened up, looking every inch the ex-Marine. The glare he gave Sandburg could've melted copper.
"No. No problem, man," Sandburg said, raising his hands and backing away.
"Didn't ask you." Joey turned toward Jim.
Jim relented a little at the pleading look Sandburg shot him. The kid still needed to hang out here for his homeless study; Jim knew that much. "Kid's just a little nosy, is all."
Sandburg laughed nervously. "My biggest character flaw."
Joey nodded slowly. "Yeah, well, some people don't appreciate that, Blair. Just remember." He gave Sandburg a little push toward the front. "We're locking up now. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, yeah." Blair bobbed his head once. "See you, Jim." Another blue-eyed look, pleading for something.
Jim sighed. "Sure. See you."
Sandburg flashed a grateful grin and left. Joey shook his head.
"Pesky little guy. But he's good with the folks."
Jim shrugged. "I'm gonna go down now, Joey. Thanks for...well, I'm sorry about tonight."
"No big deal, 'padre. You know that. Get some rest."
Jim nodded and went downstairs to his room. His stomach was howling at him now, his earlier nausea finally gone. He went over to his coffee table and found the bag of donuts he hadn't been able to eat that morning. But now they were heaven, in spite of the way the paper bag smell seemed to have sunk into the donuts themselves.
He was used to it. Everything tasted different nowadays. His whole life was different. Everything from eating donuts to being unable, some days, to leave his little room.
Jim finished his donuts with some bottled water and then prepared for bed. Tomorrow it was back to the V.A. to talk to his doctor. If he felt well enough he'd wake up early and get a run in before the streets were too busy with traffic noises and smells. Otherwise, he'd use the free weights—do a little upper body work. Just because his senses were rebelling was no reason to let himself go to shit. With the rest of his body in constant rebellion, his strength was his only ally.
As Jim settled down on his bed he took a moment to wonder about Sandburg's weird reaction to hearing about Jim's senses.
Pushy little bastard. Jim had a feeling he'd be back.
Blair ran up the stairs to his student apartment, almost bumping into Albert on the landing.
"Sorry, man. In a rush."
"When are you ever not, Blair," Alby said with a smirk. "What is it this time? Larry run out of bananas?"
"No, man. Larry went back to the primate center, you know that." Blair dug out his keys and pushed into his apartment with a wave.
It was here somewhere, in the boxes of books he hadn't managed to unpack since the warehouse fire. He hoped it wasn't damaged; it was a seriously rare volume. He hadn't even looked at it in a year, ever since his dream of finding a real live Sentinel had vanished in a waning puff of grant money. Hell, he'd never managed to find anyone with more than one enhanced sense, let alone five.
But Ellison had at least two. He was sure of it.
The Burton was under a stack of old National Geographic magazines. A silverfish was startled at being disturbed and disappeared into the sheaf of musty papers at the bottom of the box. Blair carefully pulled the volume out. It looked okay, even if it smelled like burnt wood and plastic.
First off, find references to headaches and nausea, with possible treatments. Of course, any cures were bound to be tied to native plants that didn't even exist in this hemisphere, but Blair could probably come up with an equivalent using the compendium of homeopathic remedies Naomi had sent him.
If Blair could find a way to help the vet, maybe Ellison would be willing to talk to him about what he was experiencing. All Blair needed was a foot in the door. And he really wanted in this particular door. There was something compelling about the guy beyond his classic good looks and the hard body that the T-shirt and jeans did little to hide.
The light of near-dawn was creeping in Blair's window by the time he lifted his head from the computer. He'd found references, all right, and the news was really encouraging. If Jim were experiencing even a little of what Burton had described in his volume, the chances were good he was a real Sentinel.
And Blair had a foothold on some possible remedies. The Peruvians of the rainforest apparently treated illness as a disruption of the "body-spirit harmony" and had means for re-establishing that harmony. Many involved meditation or other work with the shaman of the tribe, but some involved "arrow poisons", which were supposed to bring death to the evil spirit causing the problem.
One of the arrow poisons for easing headaches consisted of the pharmaceutical agent Acanthaceae, or, in Quechua, misapu-panga, a low-growing creeping herb from the forest. Cimicifuga was thought to be a good equivalent, but they could also try bryonia.
Blair set the alarm for his noon class, stumbled into bed, and drew the sheets over his head. His brain was swimming with excitement, but his body was screaming sleep, sleep.
Jim dreamed he was sitting next to a familiar man with red markings on his face. The man was bruising the leaves of a plant and dropping them into a steaming pot.
"This will help, Enqueri."
The language wasn't English, but Jim understood anyway. He nodded his head and pain stabbed behind his eyes.
The man leaned over and pressed his thumb against the center of Jim's forehead. It felt cool, a coolness that spread, momentarily easing the ache.
The steam from the pot rose to envelope him. He slipped into a darker dream. The jungle. He hadn't dreamed of the jungle since he'd left the V.A. hospital. He didn't want this. Bad things happened in the jungle, things he had no control over. But he couldn't stop it.
The leaves parted before his face, wetness brushing against his forehead, a taste against his lips. Not water. Coppery.
Blood. Blood everywhere, dripping from the leaves, and up ahead, the twisted limbs, the torn bodies, their ropey intestines gleaming in the too-vivid light. His men. All his men, in pieces—dead, or dying.
He charged forward, trying to shout at the top of his lungs, trying to yell for help, for a medic, but his throat was locked, the sound trapped, until he heaved a breath and screamed—
—and awoke, his throat raw, his body trembling and damp with perspiration.
Goddamn it. Jim lay panting for a while and forced the nightmare back down where it belonged. After a few moments, he removed his earplugs and eye mask and did his usual early morning systems check. Skin—okay. Vision—not the best. Objects careened in and out of focus until they stabilized suddenly, settling. That was manageable. Smell was fine. He licked his hand, and the salty taste was normal. Then he stretched out his ears.
Cacophony. Rodent scratchings, early traffic noise, the ticking of a pump somewhere, water whooshing through pipes, and then he zoomed in on a strange sound, a faint gurgling wheeze. Something weird about it. What was it?
Jim rose out of bed and pulled on a pair of sweatpants and boots, then slipped up the stairs. The wheeze was coming from the back, somewhere in the alleyway that ran along the building, behind his casement window. He heard the gurgle turn into a pained gasp, and suddenly he was running for the rear exit, tearing into the alley to where the garbage bins huddled in a row. It was coming from behind them. Behind.
It was Joey, lying on the asphalt by his car. Oh, God.
"Medic!" Jim found himself yelling, still half in his dream. He dropped to his knees.
His friend's face was a battered wreck, nothing but blood and bruised flesh. At Jim's gentle touch on his arm, Joey's eyes cracked open, just a slit of blue showing. His mouth moved.
"No. No. Don't talk. Don't try to move," Jim begged. "I'm gonna go call an ambulance. Just hang on, Joey."
Joey's hand grabbed for his and he mouthed, Paulie.
"Yes. Yes, I'll call Paulie next thing. Please, Joey, just don't move."
Jim jumped up and skittered back to the kitchen to grab the phone and call 911. He could hear Joey's soft wheezing almost louder than the dispatcher's voice on the other end of the line.
Hurriedly, he gave her the necessary information, begging her to contact Paul O'Brien at Cascade County General Hospital and tell him his father had been injured. With any luck, Jim could get the ambulance to take Joey there directly.
He'd give anything to have a cell phone at that moment, but he'd never had the money for it. He knew Joey had one, but it hadn't been on him. Maybe in his jacket—
Jim took precious moments to grab Joey's jacket from the hook as well as his own. He rushed back outside to Joey and settled next to him.
Gently, he lifted Joey's feet and bunched his coat underneath them to raise his legs. Then he covered Joey with his own, thick jacket before sliding his hand under Joey's head to pillow it from the hard asphalt.
And then he waited, occasionally whispering assurances to Joey, who seemed to be slipping further into shock.
Jim heard a tweeting sound coming from Joey's pocket. The cell phone. Stupid. He dug through the folds, locating it and flipping it open.
"Paulie, it's Jim. Your dad's right next to me. I think he's in shock. Someone...someone beat him. But I don't think his life is in danger. The ambulance is on its way—"
"Jim." Paul's voice cracked. "Give me his condition as best you can. Start with his pulse."
"I don't have a watch," Jim said helplessly.
"I do. Count it off for me."
Jim didn't even need to put his hand on Joey's wrist. He could hear Joey's heartbeat. It sounded too fast. He counted it off for Paul, and then Joey's respirations. He described the bruising, and held the phone to Joey's mouth so Paul could hear his labored breathing.
"Sounds like cracked ribs, possible involvement of the lungs...Oh, God, Pop."
"He's going to be okay, Paul. I'll make them bring him to you."
"Do that. God, do that. Where's the goddamned ambulance?"
Jim lifted his head and listened. He heard the distant siren. "Sounds like they're en route. You know how it is getting them to respond to an emergency down here—"
"Don't I know it. I keep telling Pop it's not safe, that he should just go ahead and sell the place—" Paul was babbling.
"It's his life, Paul," Jim said softly. "It's what he loves. It's how he met your mom for crying out loud."
"I know. It's just that he's getting old for it, you know?"
Jim wondered if you ever became too old to help others. Maybe not. He looked up at an approaching vehicle. The ambulance, followed by a police cruiser.
"The ambulance is here."
"Hand the phone to the EMT so I can give his vitals."
Jim gestured to the approaching medic, a sandy-haired young man. "I have a doctor on the line, the patient's son. He wants to give you the information."
"Great." The man took the phone and started talking.
The other EMT quickly dropped to his knees next to Joey and checked his pulse. Joey opened his eyes, and Jim put his hand on his shoulder.
"It's okay, Joey. These guys are here to help you." He leaned down so Joey could see his face easily. "I talked to Paulie," Jim said clearly. "He's on the line. He'll be waiting for you at the hospital."
Joey gave a slight nod before his eyes slid shut again.
Jim moved away to give the medics room to work, then turned at the sound of footsteps.
A big, well-dressed man was approaching with another man in tow.
"Mr. Ellison? You called this in?"
"Jim. Call me Jim. Yes, I'm a friend of Joey O'Brien's—he's the man who was attacked. I work at his soup kitchen." Jim pointed behind them.
"I'm Detective Brown, with Major Crime, Cascade P.D." He offered his hand, but Jim was in no mood for amenities. He crossed his arms.
"I heard about the murders. Two of them now. Is this the same M.O.? Were they beaten to death?"
Detective Brown gave a wry grimace. "I'm not at liberty to talk about that, Jim."
Jim shook his head in disgust.
"What can you tell us?"
"Nothing much. I had just woken up. I heard a strange noise coming from the alley." Jim paused as he realized he couldn't very well tell the detective he'd heard Joey's wheezing from down in the basement. "Someone sounded hurt. I came outside and saw him. There was no one around, and he was barely conscious. He couldn't tell me anything."
"Well, maybe he will once he comes around." Brown looked around Jim and down at Joey. "He's lucky. I wonder if he got away somehow before they were done."
From that, Jim gathered the M.O. was the same. He turned and looked at Joey, then scanned with his eyes up and down the alleyway. His vision zoomed crazily for a moment.
"Hey, what's that?" Jim started walking down the alley. He heard Brown mutter something to his partner and then follow him.
It was something shiny. Looked like a gum wrapper, too fresh-looking to have been lying around too long. And some cigarette butts, likewise fresh, one of them only partially burned.
Jim looked up and tilted his head at Brown. His partner knelt next to him with an evidence bag and started collecting the butts.
"Well, I'll be." Brown gave Jim a suspicious look. "You saw that from down there?"
Jim nodded. "Looks like they were waiting for him. Joey is pretty popular in this neighborhood. He helps a lot of the homeless on a daily basis. If someone is targeting them, this would be a good way to hit them where it hurts."
Brown still looked suspicious, but he nodded at the statement.
Jim excused himself for a moment and went back inside to leave a message for Betty, the cook for the morning shift. He also went next door and slipped a note under Vanetta's door. With Vanetta in the know, pretty much the whole neighborhood would learn what had happened within hours. Jim was sure Joey would be swamped with well-wishers as soon as he was up for the company.
The detectives told him they'd be following Joey to the hospital in order to get his statement later. Jim begged a ride.
In the car, Detective Rafe, Brown's partner, introduced himself and then continued with what sounded like an enthusiastic report on some new bowling alley that used black light and neon bowling balls. Jim spared a longing thought for his earplugs, which he'd left sitting neatly on his bedside table.
He was wishing for them even harder once he was in the hospital waiting room. The hospital noises were intense and varied in pitch and volume, and he could hear the pain and despair of the patients within the rooms. The sharp, antiseptic odor of the floors and walls wasn't helping much, either, or the heavy smell of sickness. Jim rubbed at his temples and waited.
Brown shifted beside him and said something.
"I said, that was pretty remarkable, how you picked up on that gum wrapper."
"I have really good vision."
"Not me. Been fighting getting glasses for a while." Brown didn't really sound suspicious anymore. Maybe a little of Jim's concern for Joey was softening his attitude. But Jim knew he'd have to be more careful in the future about letting things slip.
"How long have you known Mr. O'Brien?"
"Since the V.A. placed me at Joey's Kitchen. About a year and a half, now."
Brown nodded as if hearing something confirmed, and Jim realized he'd probably already checked up on him over the phone.
"I went to the police academy after I got out of service," Jim said, carefully watching Brown's reaction. "Finished up. But then my health took a tanker, and I had to give up on the idea."
Brown nodded again, his lack of surprise telling. "And how about now? You ever think of trying again? With eyesight like that, you could get a leg up on Forensics."
"No, I—" Jim paused to consider how to word it. "I get headaches, bad ones. I'd be pretty worthless as a cop."
He wasn't sure why he was telling this stuff to a stranger, and he shut his mouth suddenly. But Brown seemed like a decent guy, and Jim wanted a good connection with him so he could follow up on Joey's case.
For the first time in a long time Jim had a purpose outside of just getting by. First, he'd make sure Joey had everything he needed to get well.
And then, Jim was going to try to figure out how to use his fucking condition to do some good for once. He was going to find out who'd done this to his friend.
He settled back to wait. It was after two o'clock before Paul came out to the waiting room, and he looked like he'd been hit by a truck. His face was pale, but he gave Jim a small smile as he walked over to greet him.
"He's going to be all right, Jim. Thank God you found him so quickly. We had to set his ribs and re-inflate his right lung. He also had a concussion, but he's lucid, and there doesn't appear to be any subdural swelling." Paul removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "God, I wish Mom were still alive."
"That's good, Paul. Real good." Jim hesitated, then reached out to squeeze Paul's arm. He was surprised when Paul dropped his other hand to put it over Jim's.
"Thank you, Jim. I can't thank you enough—"
Jim shrugged and pulled away. "I didn't do much." He turned and indicated the two detectives standing behind him. "This is Detective Brown and Detective Rafe. They're going to need a statement from Joey. Is he up to it, you think?"
Brown stepped forward. "Hello, Doctor O'Brien. We'd like to speak to your father as soon as we can, before he forgets anything."
"I think that'd be okay. But he's asking for you, Jim."
Jim nodded, and he and the detectives followed Paul to Joey's room. Jim gave a tap at the door before entering.
The back of Joey's bed was raised up high; Jim assumed so he wouldn't put too much pressure on his ribs. He had a tube under his nose. The beeping of the heart monitor was in counterpoint to his noisy breathing.
"Hey, Joey. Hell of a way to get out of doing your shift."
Joey's swollen mouth bent in a slight smile. "Jim." His voice was hoarse. He waved his fingers at the chair beside the bed.
Jim settled into it, leaning forward to put his hand on the railing. "How you feeling, old man?"
"Like I just had a three-day pass in Saigon. After the fall."
"That good, huh?"
Joey lifted his hand with an obvious effort and dropped it onto Jim's.
"Hey, take it easy." Jim put his other hand on top, sandwiching Joey's. "You're gonna be fine, you tough old bastard. And we're gonna get the guys who did this."
"I notice you're assuming it was more than one." Joey's creaky voice sounded amused.
"Hell, yeah. I mean, I know you weren't a Ranger—"
"—But you Marines do okay in a pinch. Had to be three-to-one, at least."
"Yeah. Three of 'em."
"Did you know them?"
"I wouldn't mind hearing the answer to that." It was Brown. He moved into the room, Rafe behind him. "I'm Detective Brown, Mr. O'Brien. This is my partner, Detective Rafe."
Joey nodded, then shook his head. "Didn't know them from Adam. Young guys. All of 'em white, and kind of scraggly looking. One of 'em had his arm around my throat and a knife pushed against my back before I even knew they were there. Told me to stay still if I didn't want to be buying a new set of kidneys. Held me there while the other two started in on me."
Brown made a sympathetic noise. He had his notebook out and was scribbling fast.
"Did they say anything? Call each other by name?"
Joey wrinkled his forehead. "The guy behind me said, 'Just get on with it, Stan.' I think because Stan was fucking around, trying to kick me in this weird martial arts way while the other guy laughed. So Stan started whaling on my face until I dropped. I think they really meant to kill me." Joey stopped and swallowed suddenly. Jim lurched up and poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the side table, offering the straw to Joey.
Joey took a few sips and then dropped his head back again.
"What stopped them?"
"There was this scream, like you wouldn't believe. Sounded horrible. I thought someone had seen what was going on. They must've, too, because they all made like rabbits and scrammed. But when I tried to look around I didn't see anyone."
Jim cleared his throat, and they all looked at him. "I think that might've been me," he said haltingly. "I was having a bad dream and woke myself up with it. My window is on the alley."
"Jesus, Jim. Must've been a doozy of a dream. You sounded like—"
"Do you remember anything else about these guys? What did their faces look like?" Jim asked quickly.
Joey's eyes squinted up. "Stan had dark hair. It was shaved on the sides and kind of floppy on top. The other punk had reddish hair down to his shoulders, like a hippie. I didn't really see the guy behind me, but he stank like cigarettes."
"Did they say anything else?"
Joey shook his head slowly, his eyes drifting closed.
"Hey, looks like you're getting tired, buddy." Jim lifted his chin at the detectives.
Brown took his cue and cleared his throat. "We'll let you get some rest, Mr. O'Brien. My partner and I will be back later with some mug books."
Joey barely seemed to have the strength to nod. Jim followed the cops out the door and walked them to the elevator.
"Look," he said quietly. "I know you can't talk about the case with me, but I know a lot of people in the neighborhood. If you need any help getting people to talk to you, come to me. I'll figure something out. A lot of folks rely on Joey and his Kitchen. They'll want to help, I know it."
"That's good to know," Brown said, sounding relieved. "We've been having some trouble getting folks to talk to us. Seems like they're scared we'll put them away or send the underaged ones back home."
Jim could understand that. The living situation on the streets didn't inspire a lot of confidence and trust in the police.
"Let me give you the number at the Kitchen." Jim waited until Brown pulled out his notebook again before reciting the number. "I won't be there for a while, though. I'm going to stay here until reinforcements arrive."
Brown nodded and offered his hand again. This time Jim took it, giving it a quick shake. His quiet partner nodded, and they left.
Jim went back to Joey's room and sat as quietly as he could in the plastic chair by the bed. Joey seemed to be sleeping comfortably. Jim amused himself by listening to Joey's heart beating in harmony with the monitor until he slipped into something of a daze.
Paul stopped by at least three times to check on his father. And then Jim heard a bustle in the corridor, and Vanetta appeared, floating into the room as if she were wearing an evening gown.
"How is he?" she whispered.
"He's just fine," Joey answered, cracking his eyes open.
"You old goat. You gave us a scare." Her mocking tone didn't hide her deep concern.
Jim rose and offered her his chair. Leaning over the bed, he caught Joey's eye. "I'm going to head back to the Kitchen, Joey. Someone's gotta prep for dinner."
"Don't you worry about that," Vanetta said. "I have a couple of friends who'll be coming by to lend a hand. You just get some rest—you look as bad as the old man, here."
"Who you callin' old, woman?"
"Gee, thanks," Jim responded at the same time, smiling slightly in surprise. Vanetta's tone was almost affectionate.
Jim gave Joey's shoulder a quick touch, and headed out.
He splurged and took a cab back from the hospital, but regretted it almost immediately. The smell of old tobacco, body odor, vinyl, and rotted food assaulted his nostrils, and he found himself holding his breath. The cab was vibrating, too—it was definitely time for new shocks, and the brakes had a shattering squeal that stabbed behind the bones of his ears.
By the time he got back home he was barely holding on. His stomach was pure acid from the endless cups of coffee that were all he'd taken in all day while waiting for Joey to get out of the ER. So Jim was less than happy to encounter Sandburg and a stranger in the kitchen when he let himself in.
"Jim! Hi. You look like crap, man. Come sit down."
Sandburg reached for his arm, and Jim shied back. "How'd you get in here? And who's this?"
"Betty let us in before she left. And this is a friend of Vanetta's. Craig, this is Jim."
The stranger, a young blond guy, offered his hand, looking a little hurt when Jim didn't take it. "I work with Vanetta's grandson, Roy. He's the manager at the restaurant where I'm lunch chef."
"You're a chef?" Jim could feel his eyebrows trying to crawl up his scalp. "Vanetta found us a real chef?" He found himself laughing weakly at the image of this kid whipping up a gourmet meal for the denizens of the neighborhood. The day couldn't get any crazier.
He was still laughing when Sandburg nudged him down onto one of the benches in the serving area. A warning pang in his skull shut him up pretty fast, though, and he groaned and rested his head in his hands.
"Jim, let me get you some tea, okay? Craig here is all set to make dinner."
Jim snorted again weakly. "Okay. Sure." He rubbed his temples. The skin of his forehead felt tight and hot.
He was utterly exhausted, and he must have sunk into another daze, because before he knew it there was a steaming cup in front of him and Sandburg was sitting across from him.
"How's Joey doing?" Sandburg asked quietly.
"God. He's...he's all right, but they really did a number on him. If I ever catch up to those bastards—" Jim's hand clenched into a fist on the table.
"I'm glad he's okay, Jim. Real glad." Funny thing was, Sandburg really did sound relieved.
The heat from the cup brushed against the back of Jim's hand, and he raised it to sniff at it.
"What the hell? You call this tea, Sandburg? It smells like an old sock!"
"It's not your normal tea, I grant you. I did some research last night and..." Sandburg leaned in and lowered his voice, "This is the modern world equivalent of misapu-panga, which is a Peruvian herb the—"
"That's Quechua," Jim said dully. "I know that plant. Deep green with red veins. Find it low. Usually in shade." He suddenly became aware that Sandburg had stopped breathing. "What?"
"Jim." Sandburg shook his head. "How did you know that?"
Jim shrugged. "Shouldn't I be asking you that? How do you know Quechua? And this stuff doesn't smell anything like misapu-panga."
"It's not supposed to, Jim. It's not like we can find that here. This is cimicifuga, an equivalent remedy. Hopefully." And Sandburg actually crossed his fingers, which to Jim's tired mind was a little amusing. A hippie and superstitious, apparently.
Jim lifted the mug and took a careful sip. It smelled awful, but it didn't really taste bad. Kind of nutty, a little like chalk.
"To answer your question, I did some research last night about headaches. Well, the research was on more than headaches—it was on a subject I've spent a lot of time on: people with enhanced senses."
Jim put the mug down carefully. It was shaking slightly in his hand.
"Jim, don't get angry, okay? But I think I know what's going on with you."
Jim struggled to contain the sudden rage, an outflowing of his frustration and anger over what a screwed up joke his life had become.
"What's going on with me is I have a fucking condition and the doctors don't know shit, Sandburg. They say maybe post-traumatic stress. They say possible exposure to some virus when I was in the jungle. They've tested me up the wazoo, put me on so many drugs I can't think straight, and now they want to try electroshock on me, for fuck's sake."
"Jim! No! You can't let them do that to you!" Sandburg sounded totally panicked.
"I don't want to, believe me, but this thing, it's...it's..."
Jim's head dropped. "Yeah." He lifted the tea and took another sip. It actually seemed to be helping a little—that was the crazy thing. Like a knot between his eyes was slowly coming loose.
"Drink this, Enqueri. Breathe it in deep."
A gray pot hung over a fire. The sharp scent of bruised leaves bit his nose. Jim shook his head, startled by the powerful memory. The voice, so familiar, teased at his mind. Incacha.
I forgot him. Oh, my dear friend.
Blair's voice intruded. "What did you mean about being in the jungle? Have you been to Peru? Is that how you know how to find misapu-panga?"
With a sensation strangely like surrender, Jim nodded his head. The guy seemed to want to know everything. His motives weren't clear, but it was obvious that at least part of it was an innocent hunger for knowledge.
Jim explained, "Incacha showed me how to find it. He was shaman of the Chopec I stayed with when I...when I was there. I was there a long time."
"Why?" Sandburg sounded breathless.
Jim shook his head. The memories were pushing, pressing against the veil. He pushed back.
"Why were you there, Jim?" Blair prodded again when Jim didn't respond.
"I was on a mission. It went bad. I had to wait eighteen months for my relief to show."
There was silence from the other side of the table. Jim took a long swallow of the tea, now almost cool enough to drink comfortably. He inhaled from the cup, thinking of Incacha, wondering how he could have forgotten his shaman, why he hadn't even recognized him in his dream.
"Jim, I have something to tell you, and I don't want you to freak."
"I'm a little too tired to freak, Chief." Why did I just call him that? As if he were one of my men?
"It's possible the problem you've been having with your senses is genetic. I think you're what Burton calls a Sentinel—someone who, in older times, was kind of a watcher, a warrior who looked out for the tribe—"
"Tell me what you see, Enqueri. Look, listen, tell."
"Burton was an anthropologist who studied Sentinels back in the 1800s. Last night I found references in his monograph to Sentinels having problems controlling their senses and suffering from spikes that caused migraines, nausea, allergic reactions."
"When the mind fools the body, it falls out of balance."
"Jim? Jim? Oh, man."
A soft touch on his arm jerked him back, and he looked into Sandburg's face.
Jim took a deep breath. "I'm not sick? I'm a Sentinel?"
The kid's face split into a wide grin.
"Yeah, Jim. You're a Sentinel. And I'm going to help you."