|Home||My Photos||My Fiction||My Dolls Houses|
"They've got a heart! We have to get to the hospital inside the next hour!" Tony Murray dropped the phone and turned to help his roommate.
Alan Rix was unable to move quickly; his own failing heart, almost destroyed by a virus, had been struggling for months to keep him alive, but he had had a bag packed from the day he had been approved for a transplant, and Tony had been able to work from home so that he was at hand to get Alan to the hospital the moment they got the call.
As Alan made his labored way towards the door, Tony grabbed the waiting bag from the hall closet where it lived, and rushed out to start the car...
They reached the hospital with nearly twenty minutes of their hour to spare, and while Tony dealt with the paperwork, Alan was rushed off to be prepared for the transplant operation that would save his life.
Six months later, with his new heart beating strongly and feeling a vigor he hadn't known for altogether too long, Alan said, "Do you suppose we could find out whose heart I got? I'd like to thank the relatives... "
"I'm not sure that the medical authorities would consider it ethical to let us know, but we can always ask," Tony agreed. "And even if they won't give us a name, they might be willing to forward a letter; after that it'd be up to the relatives if they wanted to contact us. And if they won't do that - " he grinned - "I'm a pretty good hacker; I'm quite sure I can hack the hospital records and find out that way."
Blair Sandburg had no actual memory of the event that had completely changed his life. He had - eventually - managed to get hold of the official report, so he knew what had happened - as far as anyone had been able to reconstruct what was coldly referred to as 'the incident'.
He and Jim, it appeared, hadn't even been on duty; on their way home from work, they had been approaching a store when the two men who had just robbed it ran out. Blair had made a call for backup while they pursued the getaway car. It seemed that one of the men in the car had fired at them; the shot had been horrendously lucky - or unlucky, depending on which side of the gun you were; the bullet had hit Jim, apparently disabling him to the point where he lost control of the truck. By then they had actually left Cascade, and were in open countryside. It appeared that Blair had tried to take control from the passenger seat, but had been unable to prevent the truck hitting, and partially demolishing, a wall bordering the road. When backup arrived it was to find both men unconscious and the car they had been following gone. Blair's injuries had mostly been to his left leg; Jim's had been more extensive (Blair avoided reading the details) and he had died without regaining consciousness shortly after being taken to extensive care.
For Blair, life had gone from a) leaving the PD garage to c) lying in a hospital bed with a shattered left leg without passing through b).
Simon had been there when Blair finally regained consciousness, ten days later, to discover that the doctors had worked a miracle to save his lower leg. Above the knee, the bone had been set. From just below the knee, seven inches of splintered bone had been replaced by a metal rod. But the ache in his leg was nothing compared to the pain in his heart when he looked at Simon's face, and he knew, without being told... He couldn't remember what had happened to leave him lying in a hospital bed, but he knew that whatever it was, his sentinel - his friend - his partner - was dead.
He hadn't even been able to go to the funeral; Jim had been buried while Blair lay, still unconscious, in a hospital bed.
Because there was nobody at home to help him, Blair remained in hospital a little longer than usual, but at last he was released. He went back to a home that was now merely a place to live. The loft was now his; Jim had made him joint owner after the dissertation fiasco, ensuring that it would remain the property of the survivor after the death of either one.
Although with his injury he could have stayed off work for longer, he went back the day after he got home. Bad enough the lonely evenings he would now know; he couldn't face lonely days as well. Restricted to desk duty though he was, that didn't matter. There were other people around, even though he barely spoke to anyone, responding politely when he was approached but never initiating a conversation.
Time passed. The plaster was removed, and Blair set about getting himself fit again. He was aware that Simon knew he was suffering from depression, and would keep him on desk duty as long as necessary, but life as an invalid depressed him even more.
And so he spent his time checking reports, helping everyone with the often monotonous routine that was so much a part of the job, attended physiotherapy once a week and worked doggedly at the exercises he was given.
Six months after Jim died, Simon called Blair into his office.
"Blair, I've been thinking. Don't get me wrong, I value the work you do here and I wouldn't want to lose you, but do you want to consider trying to get back into academia with your dissertation on sentinels? Yes, I know you publicly denied that Jim was a sentinel, but remember, I knew about it all along, and Megan found out pretty quickly - and several of the others knew Jim had some kind of gift. It can't hurt Jim now; we can explain why you denied it, and our testimony would serve to validate it."
Blair shook his head. "Thanks, Simon, but no. At least not yet. Maybe one day, but not yet. Working here, working as a detective, I'm sort of carrying on Jim's work. At the moment, that's more important to me than... well, taking a step back in time."
"Okay," Simon said. "I just thought I'd remind you the option is there now."
"I'll... let you know if I change my mind," Blair said. "In a way I'd like to get those letters after my name, and I'd like the world to know what Jim was - but not yet. In any case, I wouldn't want to go back to teaching. Not after... I'd still want to work here."
As Blair went back to the bullpen, Simon nodded slowly, aware that Blair - impossible now to think of this so-serious, depressed man as 'the kid' - had become disillusioned with academia after the way Edwards had treated him.
Tired after an hour spent exercising his leg, Blair was sitting, remote in hand, flicking through the channels hoping - but not really expecting - that something might catch his attention to fill the interminable hours until bedtime, when someone knocked on the door. He walked carefully over - he was still having to make a positive effort not to limp, especially when he was tired - and opened it.
A stranger stood there, a slightly tentative expression on his face. "Mr. Sandburg?"
"I'm Alan Rix. I... I'm the one who got James Ellison's heart."
Blair stared at him for a moment, totally nonplussed. Then he shook his head slightly, and said, "Come in." As he closed the door, he went on, "Coffee?"
"Have a seat." Blair crossed to the kitchen and as he turned on the coffeemaker he considered this new development.
This man had Jim's heart?
He licked his lips nervously and looked back at Rix... Alan.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This... this... I didn't even know Jim wanted his organs to go for transplant, though I'm not really surprised. I was totally out of it for a while after the accident - didn't regain consciousness for several days, and I still don't remember exactly what happened; theoretically I should have been asked if I agreed, because I had his medical power of attorney, but if they'd waited, they'd have lost the chance to use his organs. But nobody told me, afterwards... Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have objected, but... I suppose everyone felt that it was better just not saying anything."
"I'm sorry - maybe I shouldn't have come; but I wanted to thank Mr. Ellison's family, and you were the only person we could find that... well... "
"We were partners," Blair said as he poured the coffee. He carried both mugs over to Alan, put one down in front of him and sat in the yellow chair that was now his chosen seat. "Police partners can be closer than family. Jim... well, his mother was dead, and he'd had no contact with either his father or his brother for years, though we'd encountered both in the year before he... died, and he was beginning to re-establish a connection with them. But I was the one listed as his next of kin."
"Would you... would you tell me about him?"
Blair took a deep breath. He could do this. He could. "Jim... spent his adult life serving his country. He was an army ranger, then when his enlistment was up he joined the police. Spent a year on patrol, then two years with Vice before transferring to Major Crime. He was a loner; too many of the people he trusted had let him down, one way or another. Some of them died, and in a way he saw that as a kind of abandonment. He didn't want to be close to anyone because of that." He fell silent for a moment, taking a mouthful of coffee, remembering what he had said to Simon earlier in the week. He wanted the world to know what Jim was... and who better to tell than this man who had been given a new lease of life because of Jim?
"He was a man with a gift," he went on. "His senses were enhanced; he could see and hear things nobody else could... That was how I met him. I was a grad student, studying people with better-than-average senses for my dissertation. I got a ridealong pass so I could work with Jim, and we became friends. But we had to keep what he could do secret; if it had become common knowledge, he would have become a target - more of one than cops usually are... "
"Wait a minute," Alan said. "I thought you looked sort of familiar. About a year ago, maybe a little more - You were on TV, denying that James Ellison had hyper-senses."
"Yes. My mother - with the best of intentions - got hold of the first draft of my dissertation and sent it to a publisher friend, to get him to vet the grammar, etc. Graham decided it was too good a story to ignore, paid no attention to me when I told him it wasn't for publication, leaked bits of it to the press... Because of that, a hit man who was in Cascade to kill a union leader went after Jim as well - like I said, he'd become a target - but instead of getting Jim, Zeller badly injured two of the other Major Crime detectives. The reporters got in Jim's way every time he tried to do anything, and... well... it was basically my fault because I'd used Jim's name on what I'd written. The only way to stop it all was to claim I'd lied, made it all up.
"Of course, I was thrown out of Rainier, but by then... although we hadn't said anything, enough cops had realized Jim had that gift, and I got a job doing - officially - what I'd been doing unofficially for four years."
"I see," Alan said.
"Like I said, Jim didn't trust readily; but at the same time he'd do anything to protect others. He had a quick temper - if he had a fault, it was that when he got angry he was too ready to assume that someone was screwing him - and often tried to push people away if he felt they were getting too friendly, so that it was his choice that he was left alone again. But that press conference I called... It let him see, really see, what I would do for him, and for possibly the first time in his life he let his guard down and... well, trusted me.
"But when he was killed... I've read the report, but - " He shook his head, repeating, "I've no memory of it."
"He sounds quite a guy."
"Life had really screwed him over... He was a man with so much affection to give, terrified to give it... If his mother hadn't died when she did his life would probably have been very different. I spoke once to his brother about it. Stephen was younger, less affected by it, but he said that Jim had been devoted to their mother, was shattered when she died, and afterwards always seemed to hold people at arm's length.
"But he did finally allow himself to love me."
"And you loved him - a great deal, to destroy everything you were working for to help him."
"He... was everything to me," Blair told the floor, so quietly that Alan barely heard him. After a minute, Blair raised his head. "So tell me about the man who got his heart."
Alan shrugged. "Not much to tell," he said. "I'm a graphics artist. About eighteen months ago, I picked up a virus that weakened my heart to the point where it was an effort to walk from the living room to the bathroom. I could still work, but slowly. I was approved for a transplant, and... well, six months ago I was called in; they had a compatible heart. I've got a completely new lease of life - yes, I have to be careful and I'm on medication to prevent rejection - even though it's compatible, there's always that risk - and I can promise you that I'll never do anything that would make Mr. Ellison regret his gift to me."
Blair looked at him, and nodded. Jim was not the only one who had suppressed his emotions after a bereavement; Blair had done so too, but he was aware of liking this man.
He knew that the heart was just a muscle to pump blood, and that 'giving someone their heart' was purely metaphorical, that it was the brain that was the real source of emotions, but he liked this man who carried the heart that Jim had given to Blair, in friendship, a year previously.
"Would you... would you come and see me again?" he asked, his voice slightly tentative.
Alan looked at him, reading more into the question than Blair realized he had betrayed.
"I don't think that would be a good idea," he said gently. "I wanted to thank you on Mr. Ellison's behalf, to let you know... well. But even though I have his heart, I'm not him, and I don't think it'd be wise to... to let you think of me as a sort of replacement."
"We could be friends," Blair said.
"Yes, I think we could be," Alan agreed. "But I can never love you the way he did, and you'd keep expecting me to, or hoping I would, wouldn't you? At least subconsciously. So it's better if I go now, and let you get on with rebuilding your life, knowing that because of Mr. Ellison several people's lives were improved - in a way, I'm speaking on behalf of all of them."
After Alan left, Blair sat for a long time, unable to summon up the energy to do anything - even wash the coffee mugs. He was both... pleased, he supposed... that Jim had sought to make his death worth something by helping others, and more than ever unhappy because he had lost Jim. He didn't regret Alan's visit; he appreciated that the man had gone to the bother of finding Jim's next of kin to thank him; but it had renewed the pain in his own heart that had begun to dull just a little, restoring it to the stabbing grief of the first day that he had discovered his loss.
At last he drew a deep breath and forced himself to move. He washed and dried the two mugs, put them away, hesitated, then took an unwanted ready meal from the freezer, microwaved it, then went back to his seat and slowly forced himself to eat while 'watching' the travel program on TV. It finished, and if anyone had asked him about it two minutes later, he would have been completely unable to tell then any detail of the program; he couldn't even have said what country it was about.
He couldn't go on like this.
Still confined to a desk as he was, at least he wasn't putting anyone else's life at risk, but he couldn't go on like this. It had been six full months, dammit! Granted the traditional period of mourning was a year, but it wasn't healthy for anyone still to be so despondent after six months. Yes, until Alan's visit wakened it again, the grief had begun to dull, but he still had no appetite - when he forced himself to eat everything tasted of ashes - he'd lost weight, and the only reason he hadn't lost more weight was the very sedentary nature of his current lifestyle; his only exercise for the last six months was the therapy to restore his leg to something approaching its pre-accident strength. He had no enthusiasm for anything, although he did his work with a grim determination. But there was no pleasure in a job well done when his work helped one of the others track down a criminal; just a grim satisfaction that another bad guy who wanted to harm the tribe was off the streets.
He had been going in to the bullpen for part of the days he was officially off duty, wanting the illusion of company that the presence of his fellow workers gave him. So he should be able to get time off to compensate for that. Yes - he would go in tomorrow, ask Simon for two or three days off, go to one of the campsites that he and Jim had favored and see if that would help him get his head together.
With a positive decision made, early though it still was, Blair went to bed.
Two days later, Blair set off for a long weekend in the Cascade National Forest. Although it was dull it remained dry, and the early evening saw Blair sitting on the edge of a bluff overlooking a small river - too small to be marked on any but the largest scale maps, they had never known its name, if indeed it had ever been named. The ground fell away sharply just two or three feet in front of him. It would be so easy to walk forward that short distance; just three steps... and although Simon might suspect, nobody would ever know it hadn't been an accident.
Of course, although it would probably prove fatal, he couldn't absolutely guarantee that the fall would kill him. He could be left permanently disabled - and living like that would be even worse. At least as it was he could bury himself in work, pretend to himself that what he was doing was useful, and escape for a few hours from the misery of Jimlessness.
Escape? There was a space beside him that nothing would ever fill.
As he stared down the so-attractive drop, he forced himself to remember his life before Jim. He had never been lonely then. Often alone, yes, but never lonely. Moving around as they had done so much when he was young, he had never had much chance to make friends - and in any case, what point? In one month or three, Naomi would move on, and he would probably never see these people again. He was content with his own company, and as long as he had a book he was happy. Now? He hadn't opened a book in six months; all he had read in that time was the various reports from victims and witnesses...
He heard a soft whine beside him, and looked around. A wolf sat there watching him.
Now was this a real wolf, or his spirit animal? A moment's reflection told him that it couldn't be a real animal; wolves weren't that tame.
There was a message here for him... if only he could decipher it.
"What should I do?" he asked, and his voice broke as he spoke.
The wolf shimmered, rising to an upright position, morphing into an Inuit.
"Come," the Inuit said. He held out his hand, and Blair took it.
Instantly, or so it seemed, Blair found himself inside a building. A Chopek warrior was waiting; he nodded a greeting that, although it encompassed both, seemed to Blair to be directed more towards the Inuit, then turned and led them down a corridor, the Inuit still holding Blair's hand. Several doors opened off the corridor, but the warrior passed the first three or four. Then he stopped at one, beckoned, and walked through the door. The Inuit followed, pulling Blair with him.
Blair felt a momentary resistance, then he was through the door and in a sparsely-furnished room that clearly doubled as a bedroom and a sitting room. It looked as if the furniture was fastened to the floor. The window had bars across it, but looked as if it was designed only to open two or three inches at the top, so that anyone wanting to try climbing out could only do so by breaking the glass first. There was no television, but there was one shelf holding several books.
A man was sitting, his back to the door. He appeared to be reading, but without much enthusiasm, as if he wasn't particularly interested in the book but reading it was better than sitting doing nothing.
The Inuit urged Blair forward, and he moved slowly to stand in front of the man, looking at him without much interest though he did wonder why the spirit guides had brought him here.
And then he really looked...
Jim clearly didn't hear him; had no idea that he was there. But, of course, physically he wasn't; his body had to be still sitting on top of a bluff in the Cascade National Forest roughly half a mile from his camp. Wolf had brought him here on a spirit walk.
So now he knew; whatever had happened, Jim was still alive. Someone else had been identified as Jim... but how? Just what had happened that day six months previously?
Now he knew. But how, in the physical world, could he find Jim? The kidnappers had had plenty of time to take him anywhere in the world; for all Blair knew, this house could be in Tibet.
Jim's shoulders were slumped; he looked as if he had long abandoned hope, and Blair's heart ached with sympathy. Yet at the same time Blair felt more hopeful. Jim was alive, and the spirit guides were clearly willing to give positive help.
He looked at them. "Where is this place?" he asked.
The Inuit held out his hand again, and Blair took it. This time he was led towards the window; as they reached it, Blair glanced back at the man sitting in the chair. "I'll find you," he promised. "Somehow I'll find you."
And then he was outside. The spirit guide rose effortlessly for several hundred feet into the air, lifting Blair with him; the Chopek was close beside them. For a moment Blair tightened his grip on the Inuit's hand, then he relaxed, remembering that in this incorporeal form he wasn't going to fall.
From this vantage point Blair could see that in fact the house was close to the edge of the Cascade National Forest, possibly twenty miles from Blair's camp. He studied the ground carefully, beginning to commit to memory the route to it.
He became aware of something pulling at him, dragging him back to his body. He threw one pleading look towards the Chopek. "Look after Jim!" he gasped, knowing as he said it that he didn't need to; and then he was back sitting on a bluff in the Forest, with someone shaking him.
He raised his head to look at the person who had joined him. "Simon," he said. He should have been surprised; he was only surprised that he wasn't surprised.
"Thank god," Simon said. "You seemed to be asleep, but I couldn't waken you - "
"I was... on a spirit walk," Blair said, and grinned, his expression closer to normal than it had been for months. "I know - too much information, right?"
Simon shook his head as he sat on a rock facing Blair. "You and Jim - " he began, and stopped abruptly; and Blair could easily read what was in his mind. For the first time in six months, Simon was seeing a recovering Blair, and didn't want to say anything that would delay, halt or even reverse that recovery.
"It's all right," Blair said quietly. He thought quickly. If he had to, Simon could probably cope with the concept of a spirit walk; he had, after all, seen Jim bring Blair back after the paramedics declared him dead. On the other hand, spirit guides were probably too much. "I learned a lot on that spirit walk. I don't know how, but Jim's alive, Simon. He's being held prisoner in a fairly big house just outside the Forest - that way." He pointed. "Back in Cascade... I was too miserable, didn't even try to meditate. Out here... In a way it was what I came here to do. Meditate, process everything." He didn't need to add that suicide had also been in his mind. Simon might suspect it, but as long as he didn't actually have any confirmation of that suspicion, he would have no reason to insist that Blair undergo a psychiatric assessment.
Though when Blair came to think of it - he was probably lucky that Simon hadn't already insisted on a psychiatric assessment purely on the grounds of how depressed he'd been, how slow he had been to accept Jim's death and move on.
And that thought gave him pause. Had he been so slow to accept Jim's death because subconsciously he had been aware that Jim wasn't dead? At the same time, why had it taken Wolf so long to lead him to Jim?
Because in the real world, you couldn't do anything until your leg healed, passed through his mind.
He became aware that Simon was watching him carefully, and raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Blair... are you forgetting that Jim's body was there in the wreckage?"
"How was it identified?" Blair asked, as he remembered the few words describing the injuries that he had seen before quickly turning to the next page of the report. "The face was so badly damaged it was unrecognizable, wasn't it."
Simon glared at him. "How do you know that?"
"I managed to get hold of the report, okay? Since I couldn't remember anything and nobody would tell me any details. So how was he identified?"
"Who else could it have been?" Simon asked unhappily. "It was Jim's height and build, he was sprawled just where a driver would have been thrown by the impact, his badge was in his pocket... You were there beside him... and backup was just a few minutes behind you."
Blair frowned thoughtfully. "Yes, the timing is what makes a switch of bodies unlikely... and yet... So much of the report on the accident was supposition."
"Deduction," Simon said. "How did Jim manage to lose control of the truck? Someone must have got off a lucky shot from the car you were following - there was a bullet in his chest that had badly damaged one lung - the doctors found that when they - " He broke off.
"Harvested his organs," Blair finished.
"Do I want to know how you found out about that?" Simon murmured. "I know Jim never told you, but it was something he'd... I suppose you could say 'signed up for', long before he knew you."
"The guy who got the heart came to see me," Blair said.
"I thought organ donation was supposed to be anonymous."
"He didn't say how he knew, and I didn't ask," Blair said, "but it's possible to find out almost anything if a man's determined enough. Could be he knew one of the nurses well enough to talk her into giving him the info. It doesn't really matter. His own heart had been seriously damaged by a virus. He seemed a nice guy - I was glad he'd been given a second chance." He was silent for a moment. "But all that doesn't change what I saw on that spirit walk. It was definitely Jim. He was locked in a small room, and didn't look any too happy about his situation. It was a fairly big house, just off the direct road to here from Cascade." He gestured in the approximate direction. "We must have driven pretty close to it when we came here... Simon?"
"Don't get me wrong... but why are you here?"
"Can't I join my friend for a day or two of quiet?"
Blair looked thoughtfully at him, quite sure that wasn't the reason; or, at least, not the full reason. Had Simon guessed that he was suicidal? But then he nodded. "Okay." There was no point, after all, in delving into Simon's real motive. If he was right, if Simon had indeed been worried about his mental state, it would only embarrass the man if he was forced to admit it - especially since Blair's spirits had taken a massive leap upwards over the last hour. But Simon had to have thought fairly hard to decide that this was where Blair had come.
Simon remained silent for some seconds, twisting around to look in the direction that Blair had indicated, then turning back to face the younger man. "Blair... I believe you when you say you think you saw Jim; but when I saw you sitting there, you seemed to be... well, like I said, asleep. Can you be sure you didn't just dream something that you wanted to be true?"
"I know it's pretty hard to believe," Blair said. "And yes, if someone had come to me yesterday and said 'Hey, Blair, I've just seen Jim - I think he's being held prisoner somewhere' I'd have found it pretty hard to believe. But... " He hesitated, not sure of the best way to explain what he had seen. "You found the sentinel thing hard enough to swallow, and you've never wanted to know anything about the shaman stuff, right?"
"Mysticism was never part of my background. My family always dealt in hard facts," Simon said, a note of apology in his voice.
"Can you at least accept that in some cultures, a shaman is the equivalent of... oh, medicine man, prophet, priest, all rolled into one?"
"In primitive cultures, maybe - but I've always felt that they were... well, con men, working on the superstitions of their tribes - like fortune tellers or so-called psychics here."
Blair shook his head. "I don't say that can't happen, but it's rare, if only because in those tribes, a shaman chooses and trains his successor, and it's a long, arduous training. A con man isn't prepared to go through that - he's looking for an easy scam. I haven't actually been trained, though on expeditions over the years I've spoken with the shamans of different tribes, different cultures, and I was recognized by one shaman as his successor - only he died... I've read as much as I can about shamanism, but in some ways I'm only a shaman wannabe, though I have satisfied one requirement - I died. You can't deny that, Simon - you were there."
"I never did understand what Jim did that day," Simon admitted.
Blair grinned wryly. "I don't think Jim really understood what he did that day. Anyway, since then I've been more entitled to call myself 'shaman' than I was before it. And one of the things a shaman can do is spirit walk. He's in a trance and is aware of things, often a long way from where his body is."
"All right, say I do buy that you saw Jim. Why now? Why not months ago?"
"I think there were two reasons. In the first place, my leg was a mess; I needed all my energy to heal and regain a reasonable level of fitness. In the second place - I wasn't in the right frame of mind to make the effort. A spirit walk can be dangerous if your mind is anything but calm. Down there - " he nodded towards his tent, just visible through the trees - "was one of our favorite camping sites, and up on this bluff... we came up here a lot, and just sat, unwinding, relaxing... Once I was sitting here, I just... fell into the right mindset. You pulled me back before I had time to get more than an idea of where the house is. I'll need to go on another spirit walk to try to find out more, but I can't do that immediately; you wouldn't think a spirit walk would involve much effort, but it does. I'm too tired from this one to do another right away - and while I hate that Jim's stuck there and obviously unhappy, another day or two won't make that much difference. He didn't look as if he was being actually ill-treated."
They went back down the mountainside to the small level clearing where Blair's tent sat. Simon had left his gear lying beside the tent, and Blair helped him put up his tent then, while Simon arranged his sleeping bag, turned his attention to building a small fire.
Soon they were sitting enjoying mugs of coffee. The only thing missing was Jim, but Blair was confident that the next time they were there, Jim would be with them.
Simon, too, admitted to being tired - it had been a difficult six months for him as well, Blair reflected - and they turned in early.
Although Blair was tired he wasn't actually sleepy, so as he settled into his sleeping bag, he let his mind drift into a meditative state. Almost immediately the Inuit appeared, and he smiled a welcome. Once again the Inuit held out his hand, and Blair grasped it; moments later they were in the house again, this time in the room where Jim sat. The Chopek was standing behind him, glaring at the man who stood facing Jim - who, it seemed, had made no attempt to stand.
Blair drew in his breath with a sharp hiss. "Brackett!" he growled.
"... not happy with your work this afternoon," Brackett was saying. "Remember, Mr. Sandburg's continued well-being depends on your co-operation."
"I can't help it if a couple of your trainees aren't particularly gifted," Jim said, and it was clear to Blair that he was holding on to his temper by his fingernails. "Asking Sorensen to hear a conversation more than fifty yards away is like asking a profoundly deaf man to hear one at fifty inches. His sight is 20/20, but that's not enhanced at all, just at the top end of normal. Conway is long-sighted, but he can only see clearly in full daylight or strong artificial light; on a day as overcast as today, he has difficulty, and he's totally night-blind.
"You said you'd read Sandburg's papers. Didn't you understand what you read? A sentinel is born, Brackett; his abilities are genetic. He can be taught how best to use what he has, but to expect training to turn someone who isn't particularly gifted into top-of-the-range is like expecting training to make someone who's completely tone-deaf into a world-class opera singer. Training can only do so much, and it's not the fault of either the trainer or the trainee if that falls short of what you want.
"In any case, a sentinel isn't the best trainer for another sentinel. What you need, if you're to get the best out of your sentinels - and none of them is a full sentinel - is guides. But then you couldn't find any, could you?"
Brackett scowled. "Part sentinels should be able to work without a guide, once they have the necessary training." He shook his head. "I would actually have preferred to take Mr. Sandburg, who is a guide, but circumstances made it necessary to take you instead... which was perhaps fortunate after all. It's relatively easy to keep a watch on Mr. Sandburg, whereas it would have been harder to maintain one on you."
Blair glanced at his companions. "He's controlling Jim by threatening me?"
The Chopek warrior grunted an affirmative, and Blair hid a smile. Jim's spirit guide, it seemed, was in his own way as taciturn as Jim could be at times.
"What about the other sentinels Brackett's got here?"
"None of them are true sentinels," the Inuit replied. "They can see and hear better than normal men, but that is all. This man does not understand that the other senses are also important."
"Do they have spirit guides?"
"All men have spirit guides," the Inuit said. "But only those who are special ever meet them."
"Like Jim," Blair said.
"And you, young shaman," the Chopek told him.
Blair lowered his head, embarrassed, but accepting the comment. "Are they here willingly?"
"Two are," the Inuit replied, "though all have been coerced in some way; one by the promise of wealth, another by what he have been told will give him power. The rest are here because of a threat to one they love, as Enqueri is forced to work for this man because of a threat to you."
"Is it a real threat, or an empty one?" Blair asked. "I haven't been aware of being watched."
"Does it matter?" the Inuit asked. "Your leg was not broken by accident, but deliberately damaged on this man's orders, and Enqueri knows that; so he believes the threat to be real - and that is what is important."
Blair took a deep breath, aware of an unaccustomed and very real anger.
Six months. For six months, Jim had been forced to work for Brackett, training part sentinels in the use of what senses they had, knowing that Brackett had ordered Blair's injury although - with luck - not knowing how severe that injury had been, believing that only his obedience to Brackett's orders would save Blair from further injury. Although Blair suspected that there had to be some additional reason that made Brackett confident enough to be in the same room with Jim without an obvious weapon or any apparent backup.
"I think this man must die," he said, and the very quietness in his voice made his comment the more chilling.
Both spirit guides nodded agreement, their faces solemn.
Blair drifted from meditation into an uneasy sleep, and when he wakened he was aware of still being very angry. He began to sit up, then realized that it was still fairly early, and lay down again. No need for him to disturb Simon just yet; he needed a little time to think over what he had seen the previous night - as well as decide just what to tell Simon.
Jim, being forced to train sentinels. Was this still the first group that Brackett had recruited - or conscripted, Blair thought, remembering what Wolf had said about 'a threat to someone they loved'? How many of them were there? And why? What was Brackett's motive? And how had he managed to get out of prison? The last they had heard, he was tucked securely away to serve a sentence long enough to ensure that he was unlikely ever to see freedom again; the CIA was not happy when one of its agents went rogue.
Of course, it was possible that...
Blair frowned thoughtfully.
He had always suspected that Naomi was slightly paranoid on the subject of what could be called the alphabetical agencies - CIA, FBI - even ones like NASA, as well as the 'pigs'. And much though he loved her, he hadn't always accepted her views on things as being 'right', especially when his teachers, in the various schools he had attended over the years, had expressed opinions different from hers but pretty well matching each other. However... perhaps she was right to be suspicious of the motives of at least some of those agencies. He knew that the police in general seemed to regard the FBI as being more of a nuisance than a help to them, though even Jim admitted that some FBI agents were good, in that they co-operated with the police instead of apparently competing with them. It could very well be that Brackett had bought his freedom - possibly a limited freedom - by offering to recruit men with certain abilities, train them to use those abilities; men who could then be used to gather 'intelligence' without having obvious spying technology in their possession...
It seemed unlikely that this was the first group. Whatever Brackett's agenda, he was unlikely to be patient enough to wait several months while his... his what? tools, dupes, spies? were being trained. And if he had bought his freedom with the promise of trained sentinels, his bosses - whether CIA or something else - were also unlikely to wait patiently for several months before they saw results. Though from what he had heard... Jim certainly hadn't spoken as if he had already successfully trained anyone.
Whatever, he had to get Jim away from Brackett ASAP... and Brackett had to die, he reminded himself with a cold determination - but in such a way that Blair himself could not be accused of murder.
He was still considering that when he heard Simon moving, and wriggled out of his sleeping bag. Pulling on his jeans and sweater, he crawled out of his tent to join Simon, who was already relighting their fire. Before long they were sitting drinking the morning's first mug of coffee.
Blair, who had been staring abstractedly into the fire, soon became aware that Simon was watching him, and looked up. "Brackett," he said.
"Brackett?" Simon frowned, remembering the man but not sure where Blair was going. "He got a life sentence."
"Yes - but somehow he got out. It's Brackett who's holding Jim prisoner. He's found some guys with better than average sight and hearing, and he's forcing Jim to train them in the use of their senses, using my safety as a lever to ensure Jim's co-operation."
"Blair." Simon's voice was very gentle. "Are you sure of this? You're sure you weren't just dreaming, subconsciously looking for a way for Jim not to be dead?"
"I'm sure," Blair said, "and I realize it's not going to be easy to mount a rescue. We're outside Cascade's jurisdiction here, but even if we weren't how do I get anyone to believe I've not just slid into paranoid insanity? You have to admit you're halfway to thinking that yourself."
Simon hesitated for a second before answering. "Not paranoid insanity," he said. "Wishful thinking, perhaps. But I can't deny that you're looking more like yourself right now than you've done for the past six months, and I can't believe that you could fool yourself so totally. Something has given you positive hope, and... Well, I've seen you and Jim do some weird things... what happened that day at the fountain, for example. I believe you when you say you saw Jim, though I don't understand how." He shook his head. "You two give me more grey hairs... "
"I know where the house is," Blair said. "The difficulty will be getting inside it with enough men to overcome Brackett's goons... as well as the sentinel trainees who are there voluntarily."
Simon looked at him, a question in his eyes.
"A couple are there from choice," Blair said. "Brackett bought them with the offer of money or power. But most of them are like Jim - originally kidnapped, whether or not their deaths were faked - and kept co-operative by threats to their family."
"And you know this - how?"
"Last night... I spent quite a lot of time in the house. I saw and heard a lot. Learned a lot about the set-up. Brackett isn't happy at how slowly the training is going. He'd hoped this lot - who I think have to be the first ones - would be completely trained by now and working - "
"Can you imagine how effective a spy would be who could see and hear better than the norm?" Blair asked. "Brackett was CIA; suppose that was how he bought his freedom? By offering the CIA spies who didn't need surveillance equipment? And what if they've mostly been coerced by threats to their families? The threat holds wherever the men are. All it needs is for them to be convinced it's real, even if it isn't. Jim believes the danger to me is real because he saw Brackett's goons break my leg. Brackett doesn't need to watch me - he knows where I am, and if Jim were to step out of line it'd be easy enough for Brackett to send someone to beat me up, take a couple of photos of me lying there bleeding to show to Jim, and his defiance is destroyed."
"If the CIA is involved... " Simon looked unhappy.
"What Brackett is doing is totally illegal. What I suspect he offered to the CIA would be okay, if everyone involved were there voluntarily, recruited through normal channels; with someone who knew about heightened senses employed - employed, not held against his will - to train them in the use of those senses. But if they're unwilling, they'll be slow to learn how to use their gift properly. It's too easy to be overwhelmed by the amount they can see or hear. I suspect the zone-out factor is a problem for them all, and none of them seem to have touch, taste or smell to help someone pull them out of it."
"Organisations like the CIA usually think there's one law for everyone else, but not for them," Simon said unhappily. He sighed. "If they were inside Cascade, I could do something. Out here... "
"I know," Blair said quietly. He smiled mirthlessly, and there was a look in his eyes that chilled Simon. "I have an idea, Simon - no, I'm not going to tell you what it is. The less you actually know, the better. Plausible deniability. All you need to do is be on the road somewhere very close to the track up to the house, ready to call for help - maybe on your way to join me where I'm camped; you'll know when to call. People might comment on the coincidence, but coincidences do happen. And officially, I won't be near the house at all; I'll still be here, having a few days to unwind, relax and - well - finally come to terms with everything - and who more surprised and delighted when you call me to say you've found Jim, and I join you as fast as I can." He swallowed the last mouthful of coffee. "Let's get something to eat - then we pack up and get on the road. Just believe me, I'll get Jim out."
"I'm sure you will," Simon said quietly. "One thing I've never doubted is your determination."
But Blair could see in his eyes the fear that Blair was still somehow fooling himself, and could only be grateful that despite that, Simon was willing to support him.
After a quick breakfast, they packed up - Blair careful to make it look as if he had been in a hurry and just pushed things into his pack - poured water over their fire and carried their gear the quarter mile to where they had left their cars.
"I'll lead the way," Blair said as they went, "because I know where we're going. I'll stop as soon as possible after we pass the house, then you turn, to make it look as if you're coming up here, and park just off the road. I'll turn and come back, stopping on this side of the house, then... do what I have to. You're going to have a fairly boring wait, I'm afraid; I don't know how long it'll take me to get Jim and the others out - I've never done anything like this before - probably several hours. Keep listening; you'll know from what you hear if I've been successful. If you don't hear anything by the time it gets dark, you'll know I've failed, and probably been taken prisoner too. But I don't expect to fail," he added.
Simon looked at him. "You know - sometimes you frighten me," he said. "Everyone thinks you're this harmless, almost helpless academic, forced by circumstances into working as a cop... "
"I don't get let myself get angry often, but next time you see her, ask Naomi about my temper," Blair told him quietly.
Simon put his gear carefully in the trunk of his car; Blair threw his in, and seeing the way Simon glanced at him, grinned slightly. "Attention to detail, Simon. It has to look as if I've just bundled up everything and thrown it into the car without bothering about anything but speed once you call me. Don't forget that - as soon as you have Jim and the others, first you call for help and transport for everyone, then you call me. I've timed how long it took us to pack up, and I'll make a note of how long it takes us to get to the house, and I'll join you after that length of time - I don't suppose help will reach you before that, but it might. Jim'll know the truth, but if possible nobody else must; sheer chance that you're 'passing' at the time, remember, and I'm around twenty miles away and know nothing."
"I'm just glad you're on our side," Simon said. "I shudder to think how hard it'd be to catch you if you were a criminal."
Blair's grin widened, this time in genuine amusement. "Simon, if I were a criminal, I'd be so good at it you wouldn't even know I existed."
Tempted to put his foot down, Blair resolutely kept to a safe speed - it would do Jim no good whatsoever if he ran his car off the road on one of the sharp corners, and after some three-quarters of an hour he pulled in to the side and stopped, thinking it was just as well that the road had been quiet; they had only passed one vehicle going in the opposite direction, nearly half an hour previously. Even if the story of the rescue of several kidnapped men made the headlines, it was unlikely that the driver of that car would associate the two cars that had passed him with that rescue.
Simon pulled in behind Blair, who got out of his car and walked quickly back. Simon wound down his window. "Okay, Simon, the track to the house is about quarter of a mile behind you."
Simon nodded. "Yeah, I saw it, though I wouldn't have known that was what it was." He gripped Blair's arm for a moment. "Be careful."
Blair nodded, seeing the genuine concern in Simon's eyes. "I always try to be careful," he said. Then he went back to his car.
He turned it and headed back the way they had just come.
He had noted another side track about half a mile before the one to the house, and it had seemed to him that he could hide his car a short distance up it. When he reached it, he stopped, got out of the car and checked it. Yes - if he backed into it a few yards, his car would be hidden from the road. Getting back into the car he maneuvered it carefully up the track until he could no longer see the road.
Getting out of the car, he locked the door, then leaned against it. Breathing deeply and steadily, he called silently. "Wolf!" A moment later, a big grey wolf padded silently out of the trees and joined him.
Here in the everyday world, his spirit guide looked almost transparent, Blair thought as he pushed himself away from the car. Wolf turned and led the way through the trees; a few minutes and they were standing at the fence that surrounded the house and its grounds.
Blair had originally wondered, when he saw the fence on his spirit walk, if it was electrified; on closer inspection, however, he doubted it, for if it was, it was like no electrified fence he had ever seen. However, it might be alarmed - a thought that had occurred to him the previous night, but he had found no way to check the possibility. He looked closely at it, seeing nothing that looked even vaguely suspicious about it, but still disinclined to trust that it was harmless; he was quite sure that even though Brackett had his prisoners carefully locked up, and guarded when they were not in their rooms, he was not going to take any chances that one or more might make a run for it if the opportunity arose - and this harmless-looking fence was almost certainly his last line of prevention.
He was aware that Wolf was watching him, almost curiously - as if wondering why he didn't just simply climb over the fence.
Now, how to explain to a spirit...
This isn't the same as the spirit walk when you brought me here, he thought carefully. I think something about this fence is designed to tell the men in the house if someone from the physical world is trying to climb over it. If they catch me, it would make it very difficult to rescue Enqueri and the other men who are prisoners here.
Wolf looked at him for a moment longer, then uttered a short bark. Seconds later, another wolf padded out of the undergrowth; this one had a more solid look to it, and Blair guessed that it was a real one, summoned by his spirit guide. It went straight to the fence, and began to dig.
Before long, it had burrowed under the fence and stood on the other side, waiting.
Blair drew a deep breath, dropped to the ground and wriggled through the hole.
Once through, he paused and listened, wishing - not for the first time - that he had at least a marginal degree of sentinel ability. He could hear nothing, but he wasn't about to take any unnecessary risks. Crawling would take longer than running, but it would be safer; he was sure the grounds were guarded, and a crawling man would be harder to spot than a running one.
Lying flat, he began to wriggle towards the house. After some moments, pausing to check all around, he realized that he had company; not only the wolf that had dug the tunnel and Wolf, but at least twenty other wolves that looked solid enough to be real. The grass over which he was crawling was fairly long - he was surprised that Brackett didn't insist that it was kept cut short - and the wolves moved easily through it, a small pack in hunting mode. As he went, Blair was thinking fast, trying to decide on the best course of action. It was clear that the wolves were being directed by his spirit guide, but how could he be sure they could cope with the inside of the house? Blair paused for a moment to take stock, and the pack sank down into the grass around him. Only Wolf remained standing.
The problem of the house was solved for him when the door opened. Seven men walked out. Two were the men Jim had dismissed as not particularly gifted, Sorensen and Conway, the two men who were there willingly, for what they believed would benefit them; four looked like hired muscle; and Brackett.
Blair was completely unable to prevent the soft grunt of anger that built in his throat when he saw the man, and knew that the wolves were reacting to the sound.
Brackett's voice carried clearly to him. "I want to see better results from you two today. If I don't - you're no use to me."
So - Brackett was getting impatient?
"It's not our fault if Ellison isn't training us properly," one of them blustered.
"Possibly, but I certainly have him motivated to try," Brackett said. "However, I'm beginning to wonder how motivated you two are."
Hmmm. So Brackett was realizing that money and power were attractive, but not necessarily the best motivators? Blair turned his attention to the wolves, forming in his mind a picture of what he wanted them to do, hoping that Wolf would pass on his instructions. However, from the way the wolves were watching him, he suddenly realized that they were aware of his thoughts.
Now did that mean he had suddenly acquired mastery over wolves? Probably not, he decided with a quick glance at Wolf, and continued giving his instructions.
The wolves began to move, spreading out, moving into position as he directed. Seven worked their way carefully to behind the men. Blair watched carefully, waiting his moment.
NOW! he thought, and the wolves leaped, bringing down the seven men virtually simultaneously, and remaining either standing or half lying on the shoulders of their victims. The remaining wolves padded forward, alert, ready to take action if any of the men managed to regain his feet. Blair stood, and began to walk over.
He stopped beside Brackett, looking down at him. "Who are you working for?" he asked, and there was a note in his voice that nobody at the PD had ever heard him use. When Brackett made no reply, he went on. "You were CIA... but the government has other agencies like the CIA, and some of them are really covert... And for you to get out of prison... that took influence. I don't think you're loyal to anyone but yourself, though you'll probably refuse to say who got you out - either in the hope they'll do it again, or from fear that they'd kill you if you betrayed them.
"Now I could hand you over to the police or - because there's kidnapping involved - the FBI. But whoever got you out this time could do it again, and I really don't want you coming after Jim again - or the other guys you're holding prisoner. I'm afraid you must die, Brackett."
Brackett tried to move, but the weight of the wolf on his shoulders held him down. Despite that, he said, in a surprisingly confident voice, "You don't have the guts."
"You think not? Beware the anger of a tolerant man who has reached the limit of his tolerance. And Brackett - I'm not as tolerant as you think I am."
Blair swung around to look at the other six, then, ignoring the muscle, turned his attention to Conway and Sorensen. "Brackett managed to buy you two, but I know Ellison doesn't consider you particularly gifted. Despite that, you are gifted enough that your agreement to work with and for Brackett could do serious damage to the tribe - for whatever he told you, I am quite certain that the work you would finally have been given would not have been of any benefit to this country."
"This country was betrayed by its government years ago," one of them - Blair thought it was Sorensen, but wasn't completely sure - said.
"Oh, yes... " Blair murmured. "I remember... 'The republic that I swore allegiance to was overthrown years ago. The people in charge today - they're the traitors... You have no idea what your government's up to.' That was what you said, wasn't it, Mr. Brackett?" He glanced once at Brackett, then returned his attention to Conway and Sorensen. "Unfortunately, I know that patriotism was never involved in your decision to work with Brackett; he bought one of you with the promise of money and the other with the promise of power." He shook his head. "That makes you both criminals in my book - but at the same time, I'm not sure just what charges could be brought against you."
"You can't blame us for thinking of ourselves!" the other man - Conway? - gasped. "If someone is willing to pay me good money for spying for them, why shouldn't I take it?"
"It would depend on who that someone is," Blair said. "If you were being asked to spy for America, then yes; if you were being asked to spy in America for the benefit of another country, then no. Spying in America for another country would make you a traitor."
"Brackett told us we'd be working for an American agency," Conway babbled.
Blair thought about that. It wasn't impossible, and - at least for the moment - it was in Brackett's best interests to remain at least semi-loyal to whoever had obtained his release. However, he gave a disbelieving, "Hmmm," and turned his attention to Brackett's four... employees? Or were they employed by, or even part of, the group that had obtained Brackett's freedom, there in part to make sure Brackett delivered whatever he had promised?
Well, it would be easy enough to have them charged with kidnapping. Let the FBI argue it out with the CIA - or whoever it was that had obtained Brackett's release. But - it would be easier if they all died.
He repressed a wry grin, knowing that, like Simon, Jim had always considered him to be something of an innocent, naive, trusting, always looking to see the best in everyone and horrified when, in some people, 'the best' proved to be pretty unpleasant. It was an image he had worked hard to establish when he was still a young student, realizing just how seriously it would lead people to underestimate him; in truth, although they had remained in one place between his fourteenth and sixteenth birthdays, the life he and Naomi had lived until he was fourteen had left him with few illusions. He had, over the five years since he first met Jim, forgiven Jim much that would have caused him to walk out of the life of almost anyone else without giving them another chance - because he understood Jim, understood Jim's fears... and he loved Jim. The only other person he would forgive anything was Naomi - but he knew that if she wasn't his mother, he wouldn't have been able to forgive her for sending his dissertation to Sid Graham. 'Do you still love me?' she had asked in the aftermath of that particular incident, and he knew why she had felt it necessary, needing to reassure herself that she had not finally gone beyond his forgiveness.
However, he had seen nothing of her in the year since, and he was sure she knew nothing about the accident. Well, it wasn't the first time she had dropped off the map for months, and in this case he was grateful for it; he couldn't have coped with her during the last six months.
The Chopek warrior materialised a yard from him and Wolf morphed into the Inuit. "Brackett must die. But what should I do with these others?" he asked.
"You already know," the Inuit said.
Blair nodded. "They must all die."
"If Enqueri and the others who were forced here are to be safe, yes."
Blair glanced over at the wolf pack. "Will my grey brothers be safe from the guns of those who might come seeking to destroy the man-killers?" He could use the gun belonging to one of the... guards, he supposed he could call them, to kill the seven men, but that would inevitably give rise to a murder enquiry. The death of all seven at the teeth of wolves would be commented on, but no human would be considered responsible.
"We will make sure that they are."
Blair nodded, and directed his thoughts towards the wolves. Kill, he ordered.
The wolves were quick, and they were thorough.
He turned away from the slaughter, closing his ears to the sounds behind him as he walked towards the house. Brackett had left the door open; inside, he looked around. A flight of stairs led upwards; at the top he found himself in a corridor he recognized, and he moved easily to the door behind which he knew Jim was imprisoned. A key hung on a hook beside the door; about to reach for it, he stopped. His fingerprints mustn't be found here. Pulling out his handkerchief, he wrapped the key in it and unlocked the door; leaving the key in the lock, he wrapped the handkerchief around the knob and opened the door.
Jim was still sitting in the solitary chair, still reading. He looked up without interest, and then the book hit the floor with a soft thump.
"Blair," he gasped.
"Jim. Oh, Jim!"
As Jim stood, Blair threw himself into his partner's arms. They clung together for a long time. Finally Blair pulled away. "Brackett and his men are dead," he said quietly. "So are the two who were working willingly for Brackett. I'm not here. Give me five minutes, then get the other men out. I think... The story is that they were kidnapped to work for covert ops, and you were taken to train them. Someone was careless and left your door unlocked this morning; you seized your chance, released the others who are being held prisoner, and when you reached the front door, it was to see your captors lying dead, mauled by something. You should, I suppose, check to make sure they're all dead. Then go down the drive to the road, and when you reach it, turn right."
"If you're not here - where are you?"
"Camped twenty miles beyond here - you know the place, our site near the bluff overlooking the river? Simon's on his way to join me for a couple of days."
Jim pulled him close again for a moment. "I've been declared dead, haven't I?"
"Yes, and someone was buried as you. Do you know what happened?"
"Pretty well - Brackett couldn't keep from gloating. I'll tell you later - tonight, when there's time."
Blair nodded, then resolutely turned and moved quickly out of the room, back down the stairs, and out of the house. There was no sign of the wolves. In the ten minutes or so he had been in the house, the small pack had gone - no, there was one animal still there - as it moved to join him, he decided it was the first one to arrive. He concentrated for a moment, sending the wolves a message of thanks, and from the distance he heard a howl that could have been a response, as well as a soft 'yip' from the one beside him. He moved quickly over to the bodies lying on the grass, seeing immediately that all seven men were undoubtedly dead; then he ran over to the fence and slipped through the hole, and headed on towards his car. The last wolf crawled through after him, and he knew that there would be one or two paw marks on top of any marks he had left.
Someone, probably Wolf, thought of everything.
Roughly quarter of an hour after he reached the car, his phone rang. "Sandburg."
"Blair, it's Simon. It's Jim - he's alive and well. Apparently Brackett managed to kidnap him and some other men, and he's been held prisoner in a house not too far from where you're camped. I was on my way to join you when he and the others came out onto the road - sheer chance that I was there." Blair grinned - Simon could so easily have just said, 'They're here!', but he was clearly remembering that the men with him had enhanced hearing. "I've called it in - we'll need transport to get everyone back to Cascade - "
"I'll be with you as soon as possible!" Blair exclaimed and snapped his cell phone closed. He checked the time, then sat back to wait impatiently until he could move.
A little under an hour later, he started the car, drove carefully down the track, glanced back up it when he reached the road, glad to see that there was no obvious sign that a car had been there, then put his foot down. He ignored the drive up to the house as he passed it, then saw the group of men at the side of the road and slammed on his brakes as he reached them.
He jumped out of the car. "Simon? Where's - "
"Chief!" Jim broke away from the group, and for the second time in just over an hour they clung together, both giving and taking comfort from the embrace.
They went first to the PD, where Jim, after some minutes of being enthusiastically welcomed - Simon had phoned Rhonda to tell her that Jim was alive, and she had lost no time in passing the news on - gave his report.
"It was all a matter of timing. Apparently they'd been watching us for several days... I hadn't realized just how much of a pattern our movements followed. The store robbery was timed so that the 'robbers' would escape just as we reached the place - Brackett knew that we'd follow the getaway car. The road they took - they'd set up a diversion sign so that nobody would be coming the other way, and immediately after we passed, set one up so that nobody would follow us. They only left it in place for about ten minutes, and took it down again just before our backup reached it.
"But that gave them ten minutes when the road would be deserted. Brackett had two snipers positioned, and they took us both out with tranquilliser darts at a point when one of the men in the car turned and looked as if he was firing at us. That was the one thing that could have gone wrong; we could have crashed more violently than they wanted, but we didn't. We hit a wall hard enough to do serious damage to it and the truck, but neither of us was actually hurt in the crash.
"They used different tranquillisers on us. You were out cold, Chief; for Brackett, it was vital that you didn't know what happened. What he used, apparently, was undetectable after about an hour. I was conscious but couldn't move; Brackett wanted me to know... I saw them batter your leg with a crowbar, Chief, and couldn't do anything to stop them. It... It... "
"It was pretty bad," Blair admitted, "but I'm more or less fully recovered now." Jim looked consideringly at him, and Blair smiled reassuringly. "Truth."
Jim glanced at Simon, who nodded. "He's been on desk duty - he hasn't been cleared for full duty by the doctor yet, but I'm expecting him to be passed as completely fit at his next visit. So yes - more or less fully recovered."
Jim looked less than completely convinced, but carried on. "When his men lifted me out of the truck, they removed the dart, so I suppose that was when they removed yours, too, Chief; then they put in another guy - my height and weight, and wearing clothes that were an exact replica of mine. He'd been shot, and his face was badly damaged; they placed him to look as if he'd hit it when we crashed, making sure there was blood smeared in the appropriate place. And they went through my pockets and put everything - my badge, wallet, everything - in his pockets. Then they put me in the getaway car, and headed off. The whole thing didn't take them more than five or six minutes; we had to have been away three or four minutes before the backup arrived.
"That was another thing that I suppose could have gone wrong; the fake 'me' was still alive at that point, and might have been saved."
"The doctors tried, but he died a couple of hours after we got him to the hospital," Simon said.
"Of course, since the doctors thought he was you, they'd have been treating him as if he had the drug sensitivities you do, with a low dosage of anything they gave him," Blair added.
"Anyway, from Brackett's point of view, nothing went wrong. He spent the first few weeks - I rather lost track of time - checking on the range of my abilities, though I was able to make them seem less than they are. And right from the start he told me that if I didn't cooperate, you'd suffer for it." He looked at Blair. "Remember, I knew what he'd ordered done to your leg - so I believed him.
"Then a few weeks ago, he produced these other guys who had heightened sight and hearing, and ordered me to train them so that they knew what they were doing. They had mostly been kidnapped too, and were being forced into some degree of compliance by threats to their families.
"I don't know who got Brackett out of prison, who he was working for - or if he was actually working for them, not just appearing to; but he was clearly trying to get these men trained so that they could be used as spies."
"From what we know of Brackett, I'd guess that whatever he was doing, he saw an advantage in it for himself," Blair said.
"Yes," Jim said. "I certainly wouldn't have trusted him. Anyway, I don't suppose we'll ever know - he's dead, along with the men who were working for him."
"And that's weird," Simon said. He glanced at Blair. "They all seemed to have been killed by wild animals, though there was no sign that any animals had been kept in the grounds."
"I never saw any," Jim confirmed. "Anyway," he went on, "whatever happened, today someone was careless - or maybe thought I was completely cowed. Whichever, he forgot to lock the door of my room, and I grabbed the chance to get out, taking the other prisoners with me. We didn't think it would be easy to get out of the grounds, but we all wanted away from Brackett. Then when we reached the front door and looked out - there was Brackett and his men, all lying dead, all - as Simon says - apparently mauled by wild animals. We just left them, headed down the drive towards the road - and there was Simon, on his way to join you, Chief."
It was late when Jim and Blair got back to the loft. Simon had sent out for food, so they weren't hungry, but both were very tired. However, Jim did have one question.
"Just what did you do, Chief?"
"It was mostly the spirit guides," Blair said quietly. "They brought the wolves. Yes, I told the wolves to kill - it was the only way to protect you and the others. Alive, Brackett would always have been a danger to you all. It hasn't turned them into man-killers, and they'll be safe; my spirit guide promised me that. But remember - I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened. Simon wasn't there - he just happened to be passing when you and the others reached the road, so he doesn't know what happened. You and the others were in the house and came out to find Brackett dead. None of us know what actually happened. The CIA - or whoever got Brackett out - might wonder... but who can control a pack of wild wolves?"
"A shaman who has a wolf as a spirit guide," Jim murmured, "and a more ruthless streak in him that I ever suspected."
Blair grinned. "I told Simon - ask Naomi, some time, about my temper. I've had to work at keeping it under control. But we can discuss that in the morning. I'm exhausted, and I'm sure you are, too. There are beds calling our names, and I don't want to keep mine waiting any longer."
They moved quickly through the routine of checking that everything was securely locked, and headed for their respective beds, Jim happy to be home, and Blair more than happy that Jim was home and he was no longer alone.