Change of Scenery
Author's website: http://kayjay206.livejournal.com
This story is a sequel to:
The backyard bonfire radiated an intimate space of warmth and light around the small group of students. I would've thought a late summer evening in California would be warm, but Santa Cruz was a coastal community, this house just a few blocks, in fact, from the open sea. A chilly breeze was pushing a thin fog in from the Pacific, and the little gathering had drawn their flimsy folding chairs in close, obviously appreciating both the heat and the atmosphere the fire provided.
From my spot just inside the open window, I could easily pick out Sandburg's voice from the others, not using more than my normal hearing. I didn't make any effort turn up my hearing to catch their actual words, or even a general sense of the discussion.
I'd chosen not to join the party, so I'd be eavesdropping if I listened in, and besides, they were probably picking apart some anthropological conundrum, or comparing notes on the academic politics of Rainier University versus UC Santa Cruz. I wouldn't really be able to follow the debate anyway. This wasn't my world.
I realized, with a twinge of what might have been guilt or might have been resentment, that I could probably count on one hand the number of times I'd observed Blair Sandburg in his natural element like this.
It was good, though, to see him laughing again, a real grin lighting up his whole face, his hair untied and wild. Good to see him gesturing not with frustration but enthusiasm, blunt yet expressive fingers sketching the shape of his ideas in the firelight. Blair as he'd been when I first met him years ago.
I leaned into a chilly gust that brought me the mixed scents of wood smoke and salt air, hints of car exhaust, sweat, eucalyptus, tequila.
When the booze had made its first appearance, I found myself estimating the ages of the gathered students. There were a couple of undergrads among them, but they all looked over twenty-one. Once a cop, always a cop, a grim voice whispered in my head. Let it go, I answered.
Sandburg took the shared bottle from the dark haired student to his left -- Leo? Leon? -- and saluted him with it before taking a swig and passing it on. Leo, or Leon, leaned in to say something, their knees bumping, and Sandburg grinned and shook his head. Let that go, too, Ellison. Maybe I should have accepted Blair's invitation to join the gathering. But I knew I wouldn't have been comfortable. My presence would only have broken the magic inside that fire-lit circle.
For me, Santa Cruz was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. An appropriate setting, I thought, for this physical and professional limbo that I hadn't chosen and couldn't escape. For Blair the move to California was a new beginning, a chance to regain what he'd lost back in Cascade, and I had no right casting my own bitter shadow over that.
I felt, suddenly, as tired as I'd claimed to be when turning down Sandburg's invitation.
It took a firm grip with my good left hand on the window frame to haul myself up out of the shabby easy chair in the still sparsely furnished living room. Balanced on my good leg, I grabbed the crutches that leaned against the stack of boxes Blair and his new friends had piled up this morning in the corner behind the chair.
The apartment was small, half the ground floor of a converted Victorian. It didn't take me that long to make my way to the tiny study that would serve for the next few weeks as my bedroom. The hide-a-bed, when folded out, filled nearly the entire room and was almost long enough -- so if I lay corner-to-corner my feet didn't hang off the end. Blair had offered to sleep here and give me the real bedroom during my stay, but I'd insisted this would be fine.
I undressed and settled in as best I could.
"I'd like to speak to Captain Banks, please."
"Who should I say is calling?"
"Tell him it's Blair Sandburg," I said.
She asked me politely to hold. Not Rhonda, or anyone else I knew from the Cascade PD, and I wondered what was up with that. Major Crimes could be going through all kinds of changes and I wouldn't have any idea. I waited.
From the cafe payphone at Oakes College, one of the mini-campuses that made up the University, I had this amazing view down the hillside that led back to town. Beautiful spot for a university -- dense stands of conifers, interspersed with grassy slopes and weathered rocky outcroppings.
My eye traced an odd ripple running like a scar through the meadow near the road, and I wondered if it was from the big earthquake they'd had here, ten years back in '89. The length of roadway I could see had been repaved recently, so there were no cracks or patches, but at the point where the scar crossed the road it did look like there'd been some heavy grading and fortifying work done to the road base. According to Dr. Jamieson, the quake had caused serious fissures and countless landslides, making many routes around the campus and down into town almost impassable, and cutting Santa Cruz off entirely from cities and towns to the north for several days.
"What the hell is going on down there, Sandburg?!"
I nearly dropped the phone as that familiar voice crackled out of the speaker at my ear. "Simon! Hey!"
"I've been trying to call the number you gave me for two days, and all I get is that damn 'check the number and try your call again' message!"
"Sorry, Captain. It's been almost a week and, man, the phone company down here still doesn't have my new line hooked up! I got a cellular phone, too, and that hasn't come yet either. So anyway, I'm on a campus payphone. Hey, you've been trying to call! Is there news? The investigation? Jim's suspension?"
"I'm afraid not, Blair. Internal Affairs still doesn't have anything to report. At least not anything they're willing to share with me," he growled. "I just wanted to check in. They treating you all right at this new program? How are you settling in?"
"So far so good. In fact, they seem to like the idea of taking in black sheep around here. It's an unusual program, and of course they want me to take a lot of their coursework. Sets me back a bit from where I was at Rainier, but things could be a whole lot worse. Man, I owe Eli big time for putting in a good word for me."
"That's what mentors are for, Sandburg. He realizes what you're worth. And so will the folks at Santa Cruz, once they get to know you. You just be yourself."
"Too bad that didn't work with Chancellor Edwards."
"Oh, her." Simon let out a disgusted harrumph. "There's just no pleasing some people. Let it go, Sandburg. You're moving on to better things now."
"Don't mention it, kid. Now, how's my other favorite black sheep? Is Jim getting around any better? He had me worried that last time I stopped in to see him at the loft."
"Yeah, he's doing better than he was then," I said, which was true enough, as far as the physical recuperation went. Simon had been so sure this trip was what Jim needed, a change of scenery to snap him out of the doldrums he seemed to have fallen into, and I didn't want to disappoint him. "He's still on the crutches, but he'll be trading in the cast for a leg brace next week, which I know he's looking forward to."
Before saying goodbye, I gave Simon a short summary of the trip down from Washington, me at the wheel of Jim's truck and him 'backseat' driving most of the way. I described the apartment I'd found, through a campus email list while I was still in Cascade, and gave him my first impressions of the town and the school. I left out Jim's moodiness and the lack of interest or enthusiasm that still seemed to define his attitude. Maybe he just needed a little more time, after everything he'd been through, and then I'd be able to give Simon better news.
I honestly couldn't figure out, though, why Jim had even agreed to the trip, if he was going to be like this. It wasn't that he resented coming down here with me, that wasn't the impression I was getting, although I realized that from his perspective it was a lousy time for me to have to leave Cascade.
Bad enough with Internal Affairs investigating Jim. Again. And, I mean, how many times did this make?
But with the injuries from the shoot-out that had ended that disaster of a case, he really couldn't be on his own, whether he'd admit it or not. This was the best option we had, and Jim had agreed, but he sure wasn't trying to make the best of it, or even investing much interest or effort in his recuperation. Not resentful, just -- indifferent, gloomy.
And anti-social, seriously.
I'd managed a few times, during the week since we arrived, to get him out of the house with me, to see the sights or run some errands. And now and then we had something approaching a real conversation, as long as it was just the two of us. But with other people, like my new neighbors or the students I'd met from the program, he barely said a word.
I hoped he really did just need more time, but I wasn't seeing many signs of improvement so far.
An unruly group of college students jostled their way past us, nearly knocking me off my crutches, as Blair matched my slow progress out of the downtown movie multiplex. We'd seen the earliest matinee, and after the darkness inside the theater the bright sunlight was blinding until I convinced my shocked eyes to filter it out.
"First rule of Fight Club!" one of the young men bellowed.
"Don't talk about Fight Club!" came the inevitable response, in a badly synchronized chorus, followed by a rowdy and noisy scuffle.
"Man! Talk about finding your own level," Blair said, pulling a sour face. "They're totally missing the point, if that's all they got out of that film! It's supposed to leave you questioning everything you thought you knew about right and wrong, society, your own identity, and all they want to do is beat each other up?" He shook his head. "Did you like it, Jim? Pretty twisted, but it gets you thinking, huh?"
"Not sure that was the best thing to do to myself right now." I thought about the protagonist's untethered drift into chaos, and wondering if there'd be any tethers for me when I got back to Cascade to keep me from drifting ... somewhere. No job. No mobility. And I could maybe see myself dealing all right with those hurdles, if it wasn't for the other 'no' that would be waiting for me. No Sandburg. "More disturbing than, uh, enlightening, I guess, given where my own head's been at lately."
"Oh." he said, crestfallen, and a little sheepish. "Sorry. Maybe we should have seen 'American Beauty'?"
I thought about that one and couldn't resist an ironic snort of laughter. "Middle-aged guy has a mid-life crisis. And then he dies. Yeah. Sure, Sandburg. That would have been much better."
"Um, right, I guess not." Blair gave an embarrassed chuckle, and then squinted down Pacific Avenue, shielding his eyes with his hand. "Hey, do you mind if we stop in at that cafe down there?"
There was a table, just inside the door by the window, with room enough for me to stretch out my leg, as I hadn't been able to in the cramped theater seating, and a nearby corner where I could lean my crutches.
Blair eyed the chalkboard menu over the espresso bar across the room. "Can I get you anything," he asked, as I got myself settled.
I shook my head. "Just some water."
He nodded, and then dashed off to the back of the shop. I'd told him he should use the restrooms back at the theater, but leave it to Blair to do things the Sandburg way, rather than the sensible way. Not something about him I'd ever really want to change, either. It was a part of his charm, his essential character even -- and safer for him down here at the university than when he'd been riding along with me, back in Cascade.
This latest IA inquiry had trotted out all kinds of things I'd thought of as old history and nearly forgotten. It was staggering to see tallied up in black and white the number of times Sandburg's proximity to my work had put him in harm's way, gotten him hurt, nearly gotten him killed. No, be honest, Ellison. It had gotten him killed. His vibrant living presence here and now was the result of some kind of miracle I couldn't take credit for, though I might have been the vehicle for it.
And that was only one aspect of the investigation. Sandburg's hurts and near-misses had not been the only collateral damage, and Greeley was far from the first person to die at my hands. Not all of them as clearly guilty as he had been. A few of them guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If the current IA inquiry had been limited to the Greeley case, I'd already have been cleared by now, but this time they were examining the accumulations over years, picking out patterns and trends I couldn't help finding disturbing myself. Some of those incidents looked very different, knowing what I knew now.
The latest shooting had been by the book. I knew it, Simon knew it. The IA investigators had as good as admitted it themselves.
I couldn't honestly say that about the five rounds I'd emptied into David Lash three and a half years ago. I understood much better now what that had been about, silently acknowledging a truer explanation than the one I'd struggled to give in the departmental interview -- the one about days without sleep and the adrenaline from the chase, from the fight, from the fall. All those things had been true, had contributed, but they weren't the root of the cause. Blair had asked, later, about the same thing. "He hurt you," I remembered saying, giving him something closer to the truth, without realizing then what that truth really was.
A newspaper dropped onto the table in front of me.
"Jim! Check this out!" Sandburg deposited my glass of water and an oversized coffee mug crested with foam at the edge of the table. He leaned in over my shoulder, unselfconsciously close in a way I knew I was going to miss when I got back to my empty loft in Cascade. The paper was open to the 'Local' section, and I looked where his finger was jabbing at the edge of the right hand page.
"Your column!" I pulled the paper over to get a closer look.
"Yeah! They printed it!" He was grinning from ear to ear. "I've got a byline! There's even a photo!"
"So there is."
It was a good picture, striking a balance between the spectacled-scholar and the long-haired-hippy aspects of Blair's chameleon-like character. I'd already read the article that appeared below, before he sent it off to the local paper as part of his pitch for a bi-weekly column -- short explorations on anthropological topics presented in layman's terms. This one was the first in a series of articles he was planning on parallels between aboriginal cultures and 'modern' societies.
"I see they left in your critique of new age misappropriations of shamanism. Aren't you worried that'll ruffle a few feathers in this town?"
"If it gets people talking about the column, all the better."
There was one topic he'd assured me he'd be staying away from. After the very public dissertation disaster that had drawn the wrath of Chancellor Edwards and precipitated Blair's expulsion from Rainier University, it was as important to his own academic career as it was to my privacy that he not publicly discuss the subject of Sentinels. And there was also no mention in this article of a Chopec Indian leader who'd once told Blair he was a "shaman of the city." Not any more, Incacha. Cascade's going to have to find itself another shaman.
Eyeing the top of the page, I recalled Blair's discovery of the newspaper's name -- "Jim, you're not gonna believe this! Their local paper down there. It's the Sentinel!" Right now it didn't seem so funny. Sandburg would be staying here with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, I thought, while Cascade's Sentinel returned home alone. Getting bitter again, Ellison. I knew I should be happy for him and made an effort to shake off the mood.
I forced a smile, looking up to congratulate him, and found his attention had been drawn to someone or something outside the window. I wouldn't have thought his grin could get any bigger, but it did.
"Look! It's Leon!" And he was up from his chair and leaning out the door and waving. "Hey! Leon!"
Wonderful. Just wonderful.
I scooted back towards the corner so there'd be room for Leon to pull up a chair, which he proceeded to do, making all the appropriate noises over the debut of Blair's column. I sorted through the rest of the paper and lean back with the sports pages, giving them space, giving myself the excuse to withdraw as they launched into another discussion of the feats and foibles of their respective sections of undergrads.
"Oh! Blair, you should see this," Leon said, finding the front section of the paper and pointing out an article on the second page. "I could hardly get them to talk about anything else this morning!"
Blair surveyed the story, and nodded. "Native Ceremonial Site Slated for Destruction. Right, I think I heard something about that, during orientation, maybe. Listen to this, Jim."
I looked up from the page of stats.
"Just in time," he read, "for the ten year anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake that struck this area with such destructive force in 1989, a final casualty of that 6.9-magnitude tremor will be removed in the interest of public safety."
The ten-year milestone had spurred some fairly interesting publicity around the event, and Blair and Leon were soon off on a tangent that included other stories the newspaper had run for its Anniversary Series on the quake. I made a half-hearted show of interest, following along without joining in, aside from a nod now and then when Sandburg repeated his attempts to draw me into the conversation.
Most of the historic brick buildings once situated along the downtown stretch of Pacific Avenue where we now sat had been structurally compromised, even those not immediately reduced to rubble. At the insistence of local officials, most of those buildings had been leveled within days, citing safety concerns.
"Man!" Blair exclaimed. "Did you know they didn't even let the owners and tenants go in first to retrieve their records or goods or possessions, before they brought in the wrecking balls?"
The same had not been true for the nearby native ceremonial site, significant for being in continuous use for at least a thousand years, up until the relatively recent past, less than two hundred years ago. Situated on the edge of a seaside bluff, the area had been dangerously unstable after the quake, and was cordoned off with fences and warning signs. Carefully planned research continued, but the public was kept away.
But now, with the natural action of surf and storm, and aggravated by the previous winter's heavy rains, the area had further weakened. Based on consultations with geotechnical experts, the decision had recently been made to intentionally dislodge the unstable mass, before it came down in a spontaneous landslide, with the possibility of human casualties on the popular stretch of coastline below.
"Most of the Anthropology faculty have been to the site," Leon said. "And I had lunch today with a couple of our fellow grad students who got to see it last summer."
"Damn! We got here a year too late, Leon," Sandburg said, and I could tell he was only half joking.
"Yeah, it's too bad," Leon replied. "Anyway, you know how the campus grapevine is. I bet you'll be hearing about it from your bunch in no time."
About a week later, Leon's prediction came true on a larger scale than any of us could have imagined.
It started out in my study section, about on par with Leon's experience, but I guess my group was a bit more ambitious, or maybe I'm just a bad influence. I mean, they're good kids, really -- they just got carried away on their own enthusiasm. And maybe I don't set the best example when it comes to that.
Dr. Jamieson's course had an enrollment of just under a hundred, with four teaching assistants, so each of us had between twenty and twenty-five students in our section.
Sophomores made up about eighty-five percent of the lecture hall. They were returning for their second year, no longer the wide-eyed newcomers, but not yet jaded and bored, most of them earnestly completing course requirements for a major in Anthropology or a related field. The other fifteen percent of the seats were filled by a mix of juniors and seniors from other majors, taking the course as an elective, and a few freshman who had what it took to waive the pre-reqs -- socially awkward overachievers who reminded me, a bit uncomfortably, of the sixteen year-old freshman I'd once been myself.
The distribution in my group pretty much matched that of the class as a whole. My awkward freshman was a rebellious girl with dyed black hair and rings on every finger, whose daily attire usually involved long gypsy skirts and Converse high-tops. My junior was belatedly opting for a double major and overloading on credits to shoehorn all the requirements into the standard four years. My senior, already pre-enrolled through an early acceptance track into a doctoral program in Physics at UCLA, was coasting. The other eighteen were your basic sophomores.
The day things got out of control was the seventeenth of October, anniversary number ten of the Loma Prieta quake, which I'm sure had something to do with it all. I'd invited Leon over that afternoon for a marathon session of grading.
We were each responsible for a stack of bluebooks full of handwritten essays, collected after the midterm that morning, and we'd found that the process went easier when you weren't doing it alone. Grading at Santa Cruz is based on a narrative evaluation system, rather than simple letter grades, and it took a lot more time and mental energy than the same number of essays would have when I was teaching at Rainier. I'd hoped to finish off the stack that afternoon, but I'd barely passed the halfway point when it was time for Leon to go.
"Don't sweat it, Blair," he said, hauling his backpack up from under the coffee table on which we'd spread out our work. "You've got office hours up at the Oakes College Cafe tomorrow afternoon, right? I doubt anybody's gonna show up the day after the midterm. I'll meet you there, and we can finish these off. Deal?" He gathered up the exams on his half of the table into two stacks, graded and un-graded, and fit them into his pack.
There was the slam of a cupboard door behind me, and I turned around to discover Jim in the kitchen alcove. He'd finally emerged from his room and was now stooped over to peer into the nearly empty refrigerator.
"Sorry, Jim. I haven't made it to the store yet. Cupboards are kinda bare."
"Yup," he said, still considering the fridge's meager offerings.
"Well, hey, I've gotta take off, Blair," Leon said, slinging his pack over his shoulder. "See you around, Jim," he added as he headed for the door, getting a nod and a mumbled reply in return. After I'd walked him out to his car, I came back in to find Jim hunched over the little dining table, reading the label on a bottled juice container.
"Not quite everything a hungry Sentinel needs to get him through the day, I guess, huh?"
Jim shot me a crooked half-smile -- now that Leon was gone -- and took a drink. "It'll do for the moment, but no."
"I guess it's time to make that grocery run. You wanna ride along?"
"I think I'd better, Chief. Who knows what you'll come back with, if I'm not there to supervise."
Humor even. Now that no one else was here to witness it, of course. Almost sounded like the Ellison I remembered.
"Hah. Hah." I dropped my cell phone into the front pocket of my pack and nodded toward the door. "Let's get out of here, Funny Man."
It was getting on toward dusk as I eased the truck down the narrow driveway, squeezed between house and fence, that accessed the small tenants' parking lot in the back.
"What does the shopping expert suggest for our list?" I asked, once we gained the street, trying to keep the old Ellison engaged. "Since you're apparently so much more qualified than me to make these kinds of decisions?"
"Let's just be sure we don't miss any staples, all right, Chief? I don't want to end up with lunchmeat but no bread, like last time, or salad but no dressing."
Unfortunately, that seemed to exhaust his store of wit for the evening, and he went back to staring silently out the window.
I couldn't figure out what it was about Leon Jim didn't like.
Of all my new colleagues here, Leon was the most outgoing, the most charming. You'd think he'd be the one to win Jim over, if any of them could. But when Leon came over so we could work on grading, like we had today, or compare notes on Jamieson's latest lecture, Jim would shift into anti-social mode. He'd say he was tired or that his leg hurt, or he'd grouse about how he couldn't read his book with all the chatter, and then he'd crutch himself off to his room under a cloud. I just didn't get it.
I'd been thinking it might be fun to invite Leon up to visit, once I was back in Cascade. He seemed genuinely interested in visiting the Washington coast. But the idea of getting a repeat performance back at the loft of Jim's silent treatment here was giving me second thoughts. And that was assuming he'd even want me back at his place when I finished my coursework here, something I wasn't feeling all that confident about these days.
We were halfway to the store when my cell phone rang, and I reached for my pack on the seat between us.
"Eyes on the road, Sandburg," Jim growled, waving away my hand. He unzipped the pack, fished the phone out and handed it to me.
I glanced down long enough to locate the right button and punch it with my thumb.
"Hello, this is Blair Sandburg." I was using the cell mainly for university business, so I was trying to be professional when I answered, in case it was a faculty member or one of my students.
"Blair! You're there. Great! Um--" It was Gillian, my non-conformist freshman, and she sounded worried. "Sorry to bother you, it's probably nothing, but I thought I should call someone and I didn't know who else..."
Probably nothing, she was saying, but I knew better. After all, she was calling me -- Blair Sandburg, trouble magnet -- so there must be something wrong. I looked over to make sure Jim was listening in.
Blair ended the call and handed me the phone, which I returned to its place in his pack. Then he made a careful left turn and circled the block to get us headed back in the other direction. The situation wasn't serious enough to merit an illegal u-turn on a busy thoroughfare, at least not yet. But I could tell he was worried.
"All right, I admit it," he said. "It was me that told them those stories. But it wasn't supposed to be a set of instructions. That was a totally different situation than this!"
"What stories, Chief. Fill me in here." I'd heard what the girl, Gillian, had said but there was more to it that I knew I wasn't getting.
He gave me the background as we made our way back across town to where Mission Street turned into northbound Highway 1.
Back in '89, just after the quake hit, concerned citizens had violated a no-trespass order to rescue victims in a collapsed department store. Another group of Samaritans were allowed two days to save thousands of books for the owner of the beloved local bookshop, before the fatally damaged building was demolished. They weren't permitted to enter the condemned structure until they'd signed waivers.
According to Gillian, four of Blair's students had been inspired by those accounts, and apparently decided it was just as important for them to defy caution and visit the Indian ceremonial site up the coast before it was too late.
"This isn't like that," Blair exclaimed. "This historic site, it's a loss, sure, but it's been researched and documented already, by experts, and-- and it's just history, not saving anybody's life or livelihood. It'll be gone forever, sure! But it's not worth risking your own life just to see it!"
We almost missed the turn-off in the dark and the fog. The truck's headlights barely provided enough visibility to follow the winding unpaved road. As we neared the coastline, a rising wind thinned the fog to mist, but it was still tough going.
"Damn it," Blair growled when we jolted over a pothole that snapped my teeth together. "This is so stupid. When we find them, I think I might kill them myself!" He peered over the steering wheel into the darkness. "If they're even out here."
"They're out here," I said grimly as a curve in the roadway brought us around from behind a stand of wind-twisted junipers and we finally had a clear view out over the grassy bluff.
The parallel beams from a set of headlights angled steeply skyward through the mist.
"There's no way they could have parked at an angle that steep, is there?" Blair asked, and I shook my head.
He sped up, and I didn't complain as we jounced painfully down the rutted road. Then he skidded to a stop at a fork, where a narrower track angled off to the right. A barbwire fence flanked the turn-off on either side, and a heavy chain blocked the entry, hung with a sign warning "Hazardous Area - Keep Out." The chain was still secured across the road, but I could see fresh tracks running beneath it.
With the truck's engine off, I dialed up my hearing, filtered out the routine night noises, and caught the sounds of panicked voices and a shower of dirt and pebbles over rocks.
"Someone's in trouble," I said, after focusing in on what the kids were saying. "I think they all made it out of the vehicle, but it sounds like one of them's gone over the edge." The smaller road wound its way south between the fence and the edge of the bluff, up and over higher ground beyond which the students had run into trouble. "They drove their vehicle through here, an SUV I'd guess from the tracks, but I don't think we should follow their example."
"Oh man, I'm with you there! It looks like if we keep driving down the main road, though, we can get closer than this. I'll get to them faster than if I head out on foot from here." Blair started up the engine, and we sped off again, following the fence until it stopped at the cliff-edge of the bluff and our road veered away to the left down the coastline. We still couldn't see the students or their vehicle, but we were closer. Blair was scrambling out of the truck almost before he'd shut off the engine.
"Jim, I gotta get over there!" he protested, spinning around and waving an arm wildly back towards the place where those beams cut across the night sky.
There's rope!" I shouted, motioning over my shoulder toward the bed of the truck and the coils of sturdy rope we'd used to tie down Blair's possessions for the trip south.
"Yeah! Right! Good thinking." He dashed back, grabbed up two coils and slung them over his shoulder, then headed for a low place in the fence.
"Call 9-1-1, Jim," he yelled back at me as he pushed the sagging barbwire lower and stepped over. "And stay in the truck!"
I dug his cell phone out of the front pocket of his pack. Adjusting my vision, I could see him in the growing darkness, as he scrabbled up the trackless rocky ground, but after only a dozen yards or so he was disappearing over the top of the rise. I called in the emergency, half my attention still following his progress by the sound of his feet over the uneven ground, his occasional grunt of pain as he missed his footing, his heavy breathing and pounding heart.
He reached the students about the same time I finished the call, and I dropped the phone beside me on the seat as the operator told me to stay on the line. It sounded like Blair was making proper use of the ropes, instructing the three students still on solid ground to support him with one rope while he extended the other down to the fourth kid clinging to the cliff-face.
"Are you still there, Mr. Ellison?" The operator's voice came faintly from the phone at my side, and I absently answered in the affirmative. "Help is on the way, sir," she was assuring me, when the beams of the headlights wavered and someone yelled "shit!" and Blair was calling out urgently, "Turner! Turner, duck! T--" A screeching of metal on stone, a clatter of rocks and gravel, and a screaming clamor of voices severed the more and more tenuous thread of connection I'd been maintaining to Blair.
At the same time, the beams sketched a downward arc through the billowing mist, first slowly, then faster, then disappearing, and a split second later I heard a deep resounding whumph and crunch of impact, overlaid with a rain of soil and gravel and pebble-glass onto rock and sand.
I reached out everything I had to find him again. I desperately combed the rush of chill wind that streamed over the bluff for any sign. Sight wouldn't help me and the world slipped into darkness. Touch wouldn't help me and I felt nothing, except a distant excruciating pain, stabbing my bad knee, ricocheting up and down my leg, tearing sharp points across my palm.
The cold wind that howled past me carried no sound of him, no voice, no heartbeat, but I caught the scent, and the tang in the back of my throat, of his blood.
Not the signs I was searching for.
They swallowed up everything else.
All I had was the scent of his blood.
The taste of his blood.
The memory of pain.
The memory of an endlessly wailing wind.
Not the wind.
Not a memory?
"Jim!" Faintly. Blair's voice. "What the hell were you trying to do?" Strong hand gripping my arm. "Jim. Oh, Fuck. Can you hear me? Jim! How bad are you hurt?" Gentle hand touching my face.
"Doesn't matter what happens to me." The words tumbled out, unplanned, unedited. The world tilted, while an arm I could barely feel anchored me in place. "Doesn't matter..."
"Jim, no, come on! Of course it matters!" The arm got tighter, more present. The voice edged up and down with emotion. "What's this about? The suspension? You think if they don't reinstate you, if it turns out you can't be a cop anymore, you're nothing?"
Blair's pointed questions, his firm grip around my shoulders, his face inches from mine, made the world start to feel more solid, more real, and with that came the dawning realization of just how out of it I'd actually been, and where I was now, and what I'd just said.
"Come on Jim, talk to me. Is that what's going on?"
I replayed my earlier words and his question in my head.
"Maybe, yeah," I lied, as the pieces of the world began falling neatly back into place.
I was out of the truck. I was halfway across the fence, Blair using one leg and an arm around my shoulders to keep me up off the vicious steel barbs. His hands were bleeding -- from the palms, from the knuckles. He was alive.
With the return of this reality came the return of physical sensations I could have done without. "Look," I gasped. "Can we not do this now?" Fitting the words together with growing confidence. "If you hadn't noticed, this hurts like hell."
"Sure, yeah, let's get you taken care of. But don't think we're finished with this conversation."
We made quite a crowd in the hospital's small ER.
My trespassing sophomores all got checked out. Turner, the one who'd gone over the cliff, had some pretty serious scrapes and bruises, but that was it.
I had rope burns across both my palms, gashed knuckles and a sprained index finger -- on my left hand, thank God, which would make keyboarding tough, but at least I could still write the old-fashioned way.
Jim's injuries weren't as serious as I'd feared. He's always so damn stoic about getting hurt, I figured he could even have needed more surgery on the bad knee without letting on any more than he did. Given that Jim was still recovering from previous injuries, the ER doc sent for the orthopedic specialist on-call. Upon arrival, Dr. Davies gave Jim's leg and hand a thorough examination and then sent him for X-rays, just to be on the safe side.
In the end, she said it could have been much worse, and prescribed an anti-inflammatory, painkillers, elevation, ice, and rest. I got a funny look from her when I insisted on reviewing the prescriptions.
Jim and I had determined, through a series of mostly unplanned adventures in trial and error, what drugs his heightened senses seemed to handle okay, and which ones had serious Sentinel side effects.
"No, he can't have that," I said, handing back the slip for the pain medication, and started suggesting alternatives.
The doctor looked over to Jim, who nodded.
"Whatever Blair says," Jim confirmed, with a careless dismissive motion of his good hand. "He keeps way better track of all that stuff than I do."
So she went ahead and prescribed the pain medication I'd asked for, the one I was pretty sure wouldn't send Jim's senses spiking out of control.
After that discussion, I noticed her referring to Jim as my "friend" with some big ass verbal quotation marks around the word. Only in your dreams, Sandburg, I thought ruefully, but I didn't bother correcting her assumption, since I needed my time and energy right then for more important things -- like answering the police officer's questions about the trespass and the upside-down SUV on the beach at the bottom of the cliff. And I figured it'd be a good idea to leave a voice mail for the dean of Anthropology, giving him a quick summary of what had happened, and my cell number if he wanted the details.
"Make sure Mr. Ellison stays off that leg for a few days," Dr. Davies said to me as we headed out of the ER. "I know you'll take good care of him," she added, with a tone and a look that said Don't worry, I understand, to which I nodded and smiled. If she wanted to think Jim and I were more than friends, she could go right ahead, as long as it didn't affect the quality of Jim's treatment.
Driving back to the house was a challenge, with my bandaged palms and the rigid plastic brace taped to my hand to protect and immobilize my injured finger. It was nearly five in the morning when we finally staggered into the apartment and dropped gratefully onto the couch with the fast food I'd picked up from a drive-thru on the way.
Jim had perked up enough to make a derisive comment when I pulled into the burger joint, but the last thing I wanted to do right then was get out of the truck to buy groceries, or fix anything in the kitchen.
"I'll make us a healthy breakfast in the morning, er, whenever the hell we get up," I said, as Jim let his crutches drop to the floor with a clatter. "We've still got all the stuff for that. But right now I really don't have the energy for anything tougher than this." I up-ended the bag and let the burgers tumble out onto the coffee table.
As Jim sorted the identical paper wrapped bundles into two piles -- separating mine from his by smell, I assumed -- I picked up the remote and slumped back into the cushions. "I wonder if we're on the local news."
Sure enough, a TV reporter and camera crew had ambushed the students outside the ER and got interviews. Luckily, they hadn't waited around out there long enough to do the same to Jim and me, or come into the hospital looking for us. Jim isn't real big on publicity. We got a brief mention, all the same.
"...in addition to the four undergrads you just met, there were, according to a police department statement, two other individuals involved in the incident -- the graduate student mentioned in the interviews, Mr. Blair Sandburg, who arrived on the scene in time to rescue young Mr. Turner, just moments before his vehicle plummeted thirty feet to the beach below, and also an unnamed acquaintance who apparently sustained the most serious injuries of the group, in a fall while attempting to reach the scene..."
"Hey, what do you know! It's my turn to be the hero, finally!" I switched off the TV, and went to work on my food.
"You've done the hero thing plenty of times, Sandburg. I think you've saved as many people from horrible fates as I have over the last few years."
"Yeah, but I'm actually getting the credit for it, this time!"
"Your time to shine now, Chief."
He bumped his soda cup against mine in a toast, but I heard the bitter edge, the resignation, creeping back into his voice, and remembered my earlier promise.
"You feel like your time's over, Jim?" I asked, turning to give him my full attention.
"Who knows? Verdict's still out on my future. Yours is looking brighter by the moment, that's the important thing. Let's not worry about me, all right?"
"Oh, now damn it, here you go again! Jim, I think we should finish that talk now."
"No," he snapped. "We don't need to finish that talk. What I said before -- it's true, in a way. I mean, okay, it matters what happens to me, sure. It matters to me, I guess. But it isn't your problem. You're here, and I'll be going back up to Cascade. I can handle things on my own now, so it's time."
I figured it might be better not to point out that he was talking, saying a lot more than I'd managed to get out of him since we arrived. He wasn't talking sense, but it was a start.
"And the thing with Internal Affairs?" I asked, pressing the advantage. "What if it sticks this time? What'll you do?"
"I don't-- I don't know! But it's not your problem!"
"So you plan on handling that on your own? Is that what you're saying? That's what you want?"
"It doesn't matter! It doesn't matter what I want. You've got your life down here to worry about. You've got this fresh start, and I'm not fucking that up for you." He leaned over, sagging down with his elbows on his knees. "I won't do that."
"Christ, Jim! It's not like I've gone off to the other side of the world, Australia or the Antarctic or something! It's only a few hundred miles. I can still be there for you if need me. And besides, it's not for that long--"
And then it hit me what he'd really just been talking about. Your life down here. This fresh start.
"Shit! Jim. Did you think--? Oh man, all this time you've been thinking I--"
He was still slumped over staring at his hands. I wasn't sure he was even hearing me.
"Damn it, Jim, Look at me!"
Blair shifted around toward me on the sofa, his fingers almost painful on my shoulders as he forced me to sit up and face him. "It's a fresh start on my academic goals, sure."
His grip eased, but he didn't let go, holding my eyes with his.
"That doesn't mean I want to start my whole life over from scratch. Once I finish my coursework here... There's things I have in Cascade I don't want to give up."
And there was something in his eyes when he said that. Something there for an instant. And then he looked down, dropped his hands to his lap. "I mean..."
Whatever it was he'd thought but hadn't said, it made the blood rush to his face. Not so anyone but me would notice, probably, but still a blush. And I had to wonder. Was it possible? Was he hiding the same things from me that I'd been guarding away myself, all this time?
"You mean..." I prompted. "What do you mean, Blair?"
"I mean," he said, with and exasperated sigh, "that it does matter what you want. It matters to me what you want. So stop being such a self-centered jerk and spill it, okay? What do you want?"
It had been one hell of a long night. I was tired, exhausted actually, and I hurt, just about everywhere, and he wasn't going to back down, so what the hell, just spill it, like he said. And there'd been that look. So maybe...
"You're right, I don't want to handle it all on my own."
"I want you to come back to Cascade," I said. "I want you to come back to the loft." I was on a roll, why stop? "I want you to come back to me."
"That was always part of the plan."
He laid a gauze-swaddled hand on mine. "I thought you knew that. I never meant-- I guess I never said it. Sorry."
"I guess we never said a lot of things." And where, I wondered, had that gotten us? There were plenty of things I hadn't said either. "Blair, I--" I turned my hand palm up and watched his fingers slip between mine. "I want--" The words I was looking for weren't there, wouldn't come. "I want--"
And then his lips touched mine, rescuing me from the inability to put that bigger deeper want into words, a light tender kiss, so quick I didn't have time to react, to return it.
"Yeah," he said. "Me too."
"Yeah, I do."
The words still weren't all there, but I knew we were both talking about the same thing, even without them. I suddenly had no doubt of that. I could see it in his eyes. Feel it in the way he lay his bandaged hand against my face, in the heat radiating from him as he leaned in closer.
When he kissed me again, I kissed him back, tasting passion on his tongue, scenting arousal as I slid my good hand up his arm and over his shoulder and under the fall of his hair to cup the back of his head.
"Jim," he whispered against my mouth when I wouldn't let him go. "God, Jim, I wish--"
"Shhh." I tipped my head down to brush my lips against his neck. "Can't undo what's already done. Let's just--" Words failed me again and I dropped my head to his shoulder, letting my hand slide down his back. "God! I'm so I tired. I want this. I do, but--"
I felt his chuckle, more than heard it, a huff of warm air behind my ear.
"Maybe we'll get more out of it if we get some rest first, huh?" He gave me an awkward hug, without any hands, and then leaned back, steadying me with arm around my shoulder and lifting my chin back up with a nudge from a knuckle. "How would you like to sleep in a bed where your feet don't hang over the end, for once?"
"You taking the guest room, Chief?"
"Sorry, man, no way am I giving up my room, but I'm willing to share if you are." He shot me a grin.
In the bedroom we somehow arrived at an unspoken agreement to undress to our shorts, leaving anything more intimate for a later date. His bed was not only longer than mine, I discovered. It was a whole lot more comfortable.
I sank into the Blair-scented paradise with a sigh, while he somehow found the energy to marshal my prescriptions and a glass of water on the nightstand.
"Try and remember to take those pills when we get up, all right?" he said, settling in next to me.
"Mmmm, sure. Will do." I shifted a little onto my side, the better to admire the picture he made, sleepy and smiling, a bare shoulder visible above the bedclothes.
"Night, Jim," he said and leaned in to plant a quick kiss on my lips.
I pulled him back for another, and despite our earlier conversation, we started to get seriously involved in that one, until Blair shifted his weight a little, and somehow one of his knees knocked against my bad one and I couldn't suppress hiss of pain.
"Shit, sorry, Jim."
"S'all right. I'm okay."
He chuckled then, and rested his forehead wearily against mine. "It's gonna be interesting making this work, when we really get going, you know?"
"Not sure how we'll manage it," I replied. "I mean, we've only got one good hand between the two of us."
He lifted his head and raised an eyebrow at me. "Who needs hands?" he said, and dipped back down to run his tongue in a warm wet trail from my collarbone, up my neck, and along my jaw, where he stopped to nibble my earlobe before collapsing at my side.
I sighed, a little ruefully, and he snuggled closer, resting an arm across my chest.
"To be continued, Jim," he whispered. "I promise."
"Mmm, s'good," was all I could manage in reply.
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