|Home||My Photos||My Fiction||My Dolls Houses|
Dr. Blair Sandburg looked up in surprise as the door of his office at Rainier opened. Although he believed in an open door policy in order to give his students the maximum amount of help possible, he did expect them to knock first; and at this particular time of day no one was likely to come knocking. The surprise deepened when his wife entered; especially since she was accompanied by a thin, dark-haired man Blair knew he had never met.
"Alex?" Blair asked. "What brings you here?" She had never shown any interest in his academic work - she had always seemed to be far more interested in drawing and sculpting the visions she had of jaguars and temples, things that he knew from his reading of Burton's 'Sentinels of Paraguay' were linked to her enhanced senses. And while her drawings and statuettes were excellent, and selling them gave her a reasonable income, he had always thought it a pity she hadn't shown any interest in putting to more practical use the abilities he had spent many hours teaching her to control, always hoping that the sentinel he had spent years looking for would develop an interest in using her gifts. He looked at the man. "Who are you?"
Alex Sandburg smiled. "Carl and I - Oh, you don't know Carl, do you? I'm sorry, Blair dear, but Carl here is my legal husband. We married four years ago. Shortly after that I started having trouble with my senses, and thought I was going mad - but then you found me and knew what was wrong - and it was much easier to get you to help me if you thought I was your wife, so... " She shrugged. "But I have full control of my senses now, so I don't actually need you any more.
"We both find it much easier to help ourselves to what we need than work for it - which makes him a far better partner for me than you are, Blair dear. You're so boringly honest.
"I don't really want to kill you - you did help me, after all, and yes, I'm grateful for that - but I can't leave someone alive who knows about me, about my abilities."
Shocked, desperately trying to understand what was happening, Blair looked from her to Carl, and knew he had no chance of escaping unless he could talk his way clear. "Alex, Alex," he said. "You have such a great gift... Do you really want to misuse it? Sentinels were born to help people, to protect people."
"Oh, I can use my gifts to help someone," she replied. "I intend to use them to help myself - and Carl, of course. I can use them to protect myself. Nobody will ever be able to catch me when I can hear them coming from half a mile away. Your lessons will make me rich, Blair dear." She looked at him, a calculating look in her eyes. "Of course, we could make you rich too, if you agreed to help us. Imagine it - no more using half your income to pay back student loans, so no more poverty; no more running when the Chancellor crooks her finger, no more burning midnight oil as you grade papers, no more frustration over lazy or careless students. Wouldn't all that be worth joining us? Because as well as I can control my abilities, having you there as backup would be an advantage. But you're too honest to agree to that, too honest even to lie and say you will in an attempt to escape from us - aren't you?" The scorn in her voice was plain.
"Why do I think you wouldn't trust me if I did say I was willing to join you, work with you?" Blair asked, somehow managing to control his voice.
"It seems that he knows you better than you thought," Carl said dryly.
She shrugged. "I always knew he was a reasonably good judge of character, darling. But he had an idealized concept of what a sentinel was, judging all sentinel behavior from a study of primitives that was made over a century ago; also he was gullible enough to take me at face value, and you know what a good actress I've always been." Her face hardened. "But you're right, Blair dear. I wouldn't trust you. I'm afraid you must die. It's so thoughtful of you to work late - the place is deserted, and it's dark. no one around to hear you scream for help. I imagine it'll be quite a shock for the student - I assume it will be a student - who finds your body in the morning. Such a tragic accident - the dedicated professor, working so late he was too tired to notice where he was going, tripping at the fountain...
"I believe drowning is a relatively easy death," she added. "I do owe you that, at least. And it's so much tidier than - say - shooting; no blood to stain everything around. And no noise to attract unwanted attention."
As she spoke, Carl moved around behind Blair, to catch one arm in a half-nelson. Alex moved quickly to the door, opened it and glanced out, also listening intently. "Clear," she said after a moment, and Carl forced Blair out.
If there had been anyone nearby, Blair was ready to scream, kick out, try to escape despite the danger of having his arm broken; a broken arm was better than death. But Alex was right. At this hour there was nobody else around, and on his own he had no chance of escaping them. Carl forced him over to the fountain, following Alex; at the edge of the fountain, as Carl pushed Blair forward, Alex stuck out one foot and deliberately tripped him. As Blair tipped forward and into the water, the thought flashed through his mind that his killers were clever; if in the morning there were any marks detectable on the ground, they would show that he had tripped. His weight almost wrenched his arm from Carl's grasp, but the other man somehow retained his grip.
Blair struggled, but Carl kept hold of his arm, keeping him under the water. As he threshed, his head hit something; only half conscious, he could no longer deny his breathing reflex, and he felt the water rushing into his lungs. He flailed weakly for a few more moments, then went limp as consciousness failed and blackness seized him.
Carl released his grip; the two killers stood for some seconds, watching for any sign of life although even Alex was hardly able to see the slightly darker shadow in the dark water; then Carl said quietly, "He's finished," and turned away.
Alex stood for a moment longer before following. She had spoken truthfully when she said she regretted having to kill Blair; he had been useful, and - she was forced to admit - had been a far better, more considerate, husband than Carl ever was. If only he hadn't been so uncompromisingly honest!
Half a dozen running strides took her to Carl's side, and she fell into step with him. Regret pushed aside, she was already planning her next move.
As it happened, the campus wasn't quite as deserted as Alex had thought. She had directed her attention to her surroundings, thinking that only campus security would be around at this hour, and completely ignored the building they had just left. Moments after she and Carl drove away, two late students walked out of Hargrove Hall. Knowing they would be studying late, one of them had a flashlight. As they went past the fountain, the light shone for a moment on the body in it.
"Hey, Don, what's that?" he said as he steadied the beam of light.
"God, Bill, someone's fallen in!" Don exclaimed.
They splashed into the pool and dragged Blair's body out. They rolled the body onto its back; Bill gasped, "It's Mr. Sandburg!"
As Don - always the more decisive of the pair - bent over Blair to begin CPR, he snapped, "Go back in and call 911."
"Right." Bill turned and ran back to the building. A minute later he reappeared, joined his friend and began chest compression.
They were still applying CPR when they heard an ambulance approaching. It pulled up beside them and within moments the paramedics had taken over.
When the police found themselves unable to contact Alex Sandburg - the phone went unanswered and several visits to the house over the next two days proved fruitless - they contacted the owner of the apartment in order to gain access, suspecting that Blair had perhaps killed his wife then attempted suicide. Instead they found a note -
I'm sorry, but I've met someone else. Please don't try to find me.
I still love you, but I love this other man more.
A quick check of the house showed that most of Alex Sandburg's clothes were missing; her departure was clearly well planned.
On the basis of the note, it was officially decided that in a fit of depression caused by his wife's desertion, Blair had tried to kill himself - despite the testimony of several students that he had been his usual self that day and although the faint marks at the side of the fountain showed that someone had indeed tripped into it.
Before his marriage, Blair's next of kin had been his mother. It took the hospital four days to contact her, and it took her another day to reach Cascade.
Naomi Sandburg walked into the room where her son lay on full life support.
"There does appear to be some brain activity," the doctor told her. "We can't say he's brain dead. But he's not breathing for himself, and he's showing no sign of regaining consciousness. It's too soon to give up hope, Mrs. Sandburg - "
"Ms." The correction was automatic.
"Ms. Sandburg, but we do need to know about insurance."
"He's well covered," Naomi said. "But I know my son. He wouldn't want to be left lying like this, kept alive by a machine. If he doesn't regain consciousness soon - say in another week - " She swallowed a sob. "If he hasn't regained consciousness a week from now, I want you to turn the machine off. Let him die with dignity."
"Are you sure? A week seems a very short time." The doctor glanced at her, then added, "There's still a very good chance that he could regain consciousness two or three weeks from now, though obviously the longer he remains unconscious the poorer the odds. Perhaps a month? After that, the odds would drop quite drastically."
"A week. It's what I know he would want."
The week passed with no change in Blair's condition. At the end of it, Naomi signed the necessary papers then went to sit beside Blair's bed. She took his hand, and sat holding it.
The doctor gave her half an hour; then he went in and quietly, without fuss, switched off the machine that was breathing for the unconscious man, and slipped the breathing tube out of his mouth.
There was a moment of complete silence - and then Blair drew a long, shuddering breath, and then another. And another.
But although he was breathing for himself, Blair remained deeply unconscious.
Detective Jim Ellison sat at his desk rubbing his forehead, vainly trying to massage away the headache that plagued him, the dull throbbing that interfered with his concentration. He could barely remember when he had last known a pain-free day; sheer force of will pushed him through his work, and kept his solve rate at what was at least an acceptable level. He blamed his constant migraine for the too-bright light that hurt his eyes, the constant barrage of too-loud noise that battered his ears. Nor could he remember when he had last enjoyed a meal; almost everything was too spicy, too salty, too sweet; even some items that at one time he had considered bland to the point of inedibility now seemed too strongly flavored to him, and his diet consisted mostly of bread and fruit and multi-vitamins. He was, he knew, steadily losing weight, but the doctors had been unable to discover anything wrong with him.
He glanced at his watch, noting gratefully that it was nearly five o'clock. At least he could soon go home, where he could lie in the dark and get some relief from the bright light and the incessant noise. Who would have thought that a dozen busy people could generate so much chatter?
Turning his attention back to the report he was trying to read, Jim struggled through it, knowing that he would have to re-read it in the morning - he simply couldn't concentrate enough to absorb any of the information in it - or even tell if any of it was of value.
He put it back in his 'IN' tray, sat for a moment gathering his strength to deal with the elevator trip down to the garage and tackle the interminable ten-to-fifteen-minute journey home. Then he pushed himself to his feet, collected his coat, and walked out of the bullpen.
Luck was with him; by leaving the bullpen two or three minutes early, he managed to beat the rest of the finish-at-five cops who would otherwise be leaving at the same time, which cut his journey time by fully five minutes. He parked his truck in its accustomed spot, sat for some moments, then forced himself to climb out and make his way into 852 Prospect. He chose to take the stairs; even the thought of dealing with the squeaks and groans of the elderly elevator was more than he could handle, and it was only two flights.
Inside, he hung up his coat, collected a bottle of water from the fridge, and took it into the living room, where he sank into a couch that had felt very comfortable when he first bought it less than a year previously, but now the stuffing seemed too soft, and the material very rough.
He swallowed some water, and took a deep breath. Although he was reluctant to go to a doctor, partly because he was afraid of what the diagnosis might be, he was beginning to think that he had to. Even if what was wrong was a brain tumor, even if he was told he had only a few weeks to live, he was coming to the conclusion that knowing would be better than not knowing... and although he wasn't a man to give in easily, he was starting to feel that death would be preferable to this constant, never-easing, agonising headache.
He glanced towards the kitchen, but the idea of forcing down some unwanted fruit did not appeal. Eating was a habit he was becoming convinced was barely necessary - a chore, in fact, since nothing tasted particularly good. Finishing the water, he put the bottle away, detoured to the bathroom to relieve himself, then went up the stairs to bed. With the comforter pulled up over his ears to muffle the sounds from the street outside, he fell into an uneasy doze.
He woke in a dimly-lit world and sat up, looking around, puzzled, wondering where he was. He was no longer in bed, or even in his bedroom or any part of the loft where he had lived since just after his return to Cascade when he left the army. He was lying - sitting, now - on bare, albeit grassy, ground; trees surrounded him, trees that were little more than darker shadows in the blue dimness. He could hear, very faintly, a rushing sound, like distant water or the wind blowing through the treetops, but he could detect no movement of the branches around him. It had to be water, then, somewhere reasonably close.
A dark shape padded out from the trees in front of him, and for a moment he thought it was a German shepherd - and then he saw it more clearly, and realized that it was a wolf.
He drew in his breath with a sharp hiss. There was nothing nearby that he could use to defend himself; despite the trees all around, there were no dead branches lying on the ground - not even twigs. The ground was as unlittered as if it had just been swept. He was wearing nothing but the boxers that were his usual sleepwear; he didn't even have the illusion of protection that a shirt would have given.
Vaguely aware that the worst thing he could do was show fear, Jim scrambled to his feet and took a step forward. The wolf stopped, looking at him, tail held high, and Jim's heart sank. Its posture indicated that it was the alpha male of its pack; not a beast that would be easily intimidated. And yet... where was its pack? It seemed to be completely alone. Then it moved towards him, slowly, almost as if it was trying to say that it was no threat to him; and when it reached him, it sat, tongue hanging out, almost as if it was smiling at him. Then it nudged his hand as a dog might do. Moving tentatively, Jim stroked its head, then, gaining confidence as it accepted that, he scratched behind its ears. It pushed its head forward, and he found himself smiling. "You're a friendly one, aren't you," he murmured.
He sat again, cross-legged, and the wolf settled down beside him with its head resting on his knee. For the briefest of moments he wondered if his first assumption was correct, and that it was indeed a German shepherd; but he knew he hadn't made a mistake. It really was a wolf, though he wondered at its tameness.
"I wonder why you're alone," he went on softly. "Are you lonely? Is that why you're so friendly?"
The wolf lifted its head again, and looked at him. It sat up, and then as Jim watched in slack-jawed amazement, it seemed to shimmer... and a moment later, a young man sat cross-legged where it had been.
Even in the dim blue light Jim could see him quite clearly. He was, Jim guessed, in his early to mid-twenties. His face was framed by curly, brown, shoulder-length hair. Jim had never been an admirer of long hair on a man; his father's views on the subject had been blunt and intolerant. A man with long hair had to be a faggot and, by definition, effeminate. Although Jim had silently rejected most of his father's opinions - if only because they were his father's opinions - even when he still lived with the man, that was one that had stuck because the description had matched the son of one of their neighbors. But there was no lack of masculinity about this man, no lack of strength in his features. There was a gentleness underlying the strength, but somehow Jim knew that anyone fooled by that gentleness into trying to take advantage of it would be making a serious mistake. This was someone whose nature was to be friendly; but at the same time, Jim knew he would not want him as an enemy.
It took Jim only a moment to assess the young man; he was able to respond immediately to the cheerful, "Hello. I'm Blair."
"Jim." He glanced around again, then asked, "Do you live here?"
Blair shook his head. "No," he said, though he sounded uncertain. "At least I don't think I do, though I've been here for a while - I'm not sure how long. I think the wolf lives here, though."
"But you're the wolf," Jim protested.
"No. Or... No, I don't think I am."
"Who is the wolf, then?"
"He's my spirit animal." This time there was no doubt in his voice.
Jim frowned. "Spirit animal?"
Blair nodded. "We all have one, but not many of us ever know it, or what our spirit animal is. I know because I'm an anthropologist; I've spent time with tribes that are still living close to the earth, as their ancestors did, and the shaman of one of those tribes helped me to discover mine."
"Oh." Jim felt slightly lost; his life had always dealt with facts, not with mysticism, and discussing it made him slightly uneasy. "Do you know where we are?" he asked.
"I think we're somewhere on the spirit plane," Blair said slowly. Once again he sounded ever so slightly doubtful.
"Do you know how you - how we - got here, then?" Jim asked, with a curiosity that surprised himself.
"No. I don't know how I got here. Well, I can guess..." He was silent for a moment. "You - you could be dreaming, I suppose. Like I said, I've been here for a while. I woke up just now, and I was sitting facing you. But I seem to have been here, or somewhere like here, for some time. I sleep, and wake up in slightly different surroundings. Last time I was awake, for example, I was sitting beside water, with the wolf beside me, knowing there was something I had to do... but I don't know what it is. This time, you're here. Maybe... maybe what I have to do is connected to you; you're the first person I've seen here, the first living thing apart from Wolf."
"What do you do when you're not here?"
"I'm not sure. I can't remember much, except that I'm an anthropologist. Mostly because it doesn't matter much, here. What about you?"
"I'm a cop," Jim said. "A detective with Major Crime in Cascade."
"Cascade..." Blair looked thoughtful. "That sounds familiar - as if I should know it." He snapped his fingers. "Rainier! I work at Rainier. I'm a professor there."
"You look pretty young to be a professor."
Blair laughed. "I'm not that young," he said. "I'm thirty. I remember now; I went to Rainier as a freshman just before I turned sixteen, and got my doctorate in anthropology when I was twenty-six." He sighed. "I wanted to write my dissertation on present-day sentinels, but I could only find people with one or two senses enhanced, even in tribal cultures. In the end, I settled for writing about them, and what had been lost with civilization."
"Sentinels?" Jim asked. "What are sentinels?"
"People with enhanced senses. They had better hearing than normal, could see further than most people; taste, touch and smell were enhanced too, so they knew if meat was tainted or someone had a fever before it was immediately obvious. It wasn't just that they had enhanced senses, though; just having the senses didn't automatically make them sentinels. They had to have a highly-developed protective sense as well. Historically, they acted as watchmen for their tribes. There never were very many - it's probable there was never more than one at a time in any given tribe. And there was a period in 'civilized' history - " making quote marks with his fingers - "when anyone different was regarded with suspicion - if they claimed to hear voices when there was nobody there, or see things nobody else could, they were more likely to be executed as witches than considered as beneficial to the community, and their genes would be lost." He fell silent for a moment. "I went on several expeditions into the Amazon rain forest, and although I never met any full sentinels, some of the tribes in the more remote areas certainly knew about them."
"I suppose enhanced senses could be useful to a cop," Jim said thoughtfully.
"God, a cop with enhanced senses would be like a walking crime lab!" Blair exclaimed. "Though in today's world... He'd have to make sure that anything he found with his senses was backed by hard evidence. I imagine you know more about it than I do, but you hear those stories about criminals who walk free because the defense can claim some sort of irregularity in the way evidence was obtained..."
"That's true," Jim agreed. "Or some slight irregularity in procedure. Sometimes I think it's a wonder we put away as many criminals as we do." He sighed. "Well, it's a nice dream, but the idea of enhanced senses is pretty wishful thinking, and I have to live with reality. And reality," he went on, not sure just why he was confiding in this dream acquaintance, "means I really should see a doctor. I've had a bad headache for weeks. Typical migraine - light too bright, sounds too loud, my stomach's off... "
Blair looked up sharply. "The same symptoms... " he whispered.
"What same symptoms?"
"Jim, just after I got my doctorate, I did meet someone with all five senses heightened." His voice broke for a moment; he took a deep breath before continuing. "She was having all sorts of problems - the light was too bright, she was overwhelmed by sound, she had no appetite because everything tasted too strong or too sweet or too tart, her clothes were uncomfortable... It seemed too good to be true, but when I ran her through some of the things I'd learned, it was clear that she did have all five senses enhanced, but because she'd never heard of sentinels, she had no idea what to do when her senses ran away from her. It took a while, but she learned to control her senses, to be confident she could use them instead of being overwhelmed by them. Unfortunately."
"Unfortunately?" Jim asked.
"A sentinel is meant to be a protector. She didn't have that instinct."
Jim heard the bitterness, the disillusion, in his companion's voice. "And?" he asked.
"She drowned me in the fountain at Rainier."
When Jim woke, he realized that apart from a niggling bladder, he felt better than he had in weeks - hell, better than he had felt in months! Even the migraine - his constant companion for so long - had gone.
As he went down the stairs to the bathroom, Jim could only feel grateful that whatever ailment had caused it had apparently cured itself. Perhaps he had simply been over-tired, and by going to bed as early as he had, had finally caught up on his sleep.
He had no memory of his dream. He had no memory of dreaming at all.
He checked the time; just after six. Well, there was no point in going back to bed for approximately twenty minutes. After relieving himself, he washed and shaved, ran back upstairs to dress, then went back down to check the contents of fridge and cupboard; for the first time in he couldn't think how long, he actually felt hungry.
Both were relatively bare.
Grateful for the bakery downstairs, Jim slipped on his coat and went down, bought some warm bagels, and went back upstairs to his loft apartment. Remembering the way his sense of taste had been spiking, he settled for spreading the first one with the unsalted butter he had learned not too long ago tasted better than salted. He enjoyed it, and was tempted into making coffee - the first for weeks. Wary, he chose to make it fairly weak, and while the coffee maker spluttered away to itself, he ate a second bagel, then poured himself a mug of coffee.
He sipped cautiously, tentatively, then took a full mouthful, savoring it. It would be a mistake to make it full strength, he realized, but at this strength... He took a third bagel and poured himelf a second mug of coffee.
When he finally left to go to work, he found he was actually looking forward to it, and to tackling the report he had been unable to make sense of the previous day.
As Jim worked steadily through the day, he was aware of a growing sense of achievement. Not that he was actually doing anything except catching up with paperwork - but it had been so long since he had been able to concentrate properly on anything that his newly regained ability to do so, in the absence of his headache, was a reward in itself.
He read through two witnesses' accounts of a robbery in a small store, finding himself comparing the two in a way that had once been completely automatic but had been impossible when every day was a struggle to get through with his sanity intact, without losing control and screaming at everyone to be quiet, how could anyone be expected to concentrate with the amount of racket there was in the bullpen? In the light of his almost-forgotten freedom from pain, he realized fully that it had indeed been his migraine that had made the normal volume of office noise seem so loud.
He was so intent on what he was doing that it came as a shock to discover that it was nearly seven; he had worked almost two hours past the end of his shift, and it was only his growing hunger that had pulled his attention to the time.
Hoping that this day wasn't a flash in the pan, and that he would remain back to normal, he quickly cleaned up his desk and left the bullpen.
Remembering how empty his cupboards were, he stopped on the way home to buy some groceries, but, wary and afraid of triggering a return of the headache, selected items that were fairly bland.
Once home, he prepared a quick chicken stir fry, and ate with considerable enjoyment. Then, with the dishes washed, he regarded the television thoughtfully - was there anything worth watching, he wondered. A yawn decided him; he was tired and, although it was still early, the thought of sleep beckoned seductively. He turned his back on the television and headed for the stairs.
He woke in a dim blue jungle. Startled for only a moment, he remembered his meeting with the young man called Blair, and looked around, wondering if Blair was anywhere near.
"Jim! You came back." There was a note of almost relief in the voice behind him. He swung round.
"Hello, Blair." Jim frowned. "What happened? The last thing I remember you saying is that you drowned - "
"I think you woke up," Blair said. "I wasn't sure that you'd come back," he added. "But I'm glad you did - it gets lonely here, not having anyone to talk to."
"And you like talking?" Jim guessed.
Blair chuckled. "Well, I can be quiet when circumstances call for it," he said, "but... well, there's always so much to talk about. You can't learn anything if you don't ask - and I'm a teacher. Was a teacher. My job was to tell people things, or direct them to where they could find out things, or - "
"You like talking," Jim said positively. He hesitated before adding, "You changed tenses there - is to was. Does that mean you don't think you're a teacher now?"
"Alex drowned me, Jim. I think I'm dead. But if this - " he gestured around - "is heaven, it sucks. And if it's hell, the various religions have all got it seriously wrong. No, I think it's some kind of limbo. A place where the spirits live. I'm here... I'm probably here because there's something I still have to do before I can move on, but what it is and how I can do it when I'm stuck in a blue jungle... And you? You must need someth... " His voice trailed off. "You're a sentinel. I spent three years teaching Alex how to control her senses... She had the senses, but she wasn't a sentinel. But you - you're a cop, man! You are a sentinel. That's what you need - someone to help you learn how to control your senses; what I have to do is teach you!"
Jim jerked awake to the sound of a persistent ringing. It took him only a moment to identify the sound as the phone. He scrambled out of bed, ran down the stairs and grabbed the phone.
"There's been a break-in at Rainier," Simon Banks told him, his voice more serious than Jim had ever heard it. "It's bad, Ellison."
Rainier? Jim thought. What could anyone steal from a university that could be bad? Especially in the sort of tone Banks is using.
"Bad?" he asked. "Deaths?"
"Not at Rainier."
Jim registered that it was a strange answer. "Where, then?"
"Just come over to Rainier. I'm at the HazMat research unit."
"On my way, Captain."
As he scrambled into his clothes, Jim's mind worked furiously. HazMat? At Rainier? Why would a university carry hazardous materials? What sort of hazardous materials did it carry? How could it maintain the proper safety and security protocols? It could be, of course, that they depended on secrecy for much of their security; nothing was more secure than the item nobody knew existed. However, if students had access - and it was probable that graduate students doing advanced studies did - total secrecy was shot to hell and back; it didn't take much intelligence to realize that they had to have access to something; and there had to be doors marked "Danger - authorized personnel only". Human nature made it certain that students in general would talk about that.
Grateful that his migraine had gone, Jim drove to Rainier, wondering why Banks had called him. Yes, his solve rate was adequate, but Jim was too honest to fool himself; these last months, his work had been less than his best. He knew it, and Captain Banks knew it. Oh well, maybe now that he'd finally recovered from that blasted persistent headache his work would improve.
Reaching Rainier, he parked alongside several cop cars. He wasn't surprised to see that the place was thick with uniforms and a fair number of gawking students. There was nothing for them to see other than the police, but that wasn't stopping them from looking. He went into the building, showing his badge to the cop on duty at the door.
"First corridor on the right, Detective."
The door was clearly marked 'HAZMAT', which instantly demolished his theory that they depended on doubtful secrecy for security. He flashed his badge at the cop guarding it - a formality this time, because he knew that the cop knew he would have been checked as he entered the building - and went in.
The door opened onto another corridor with several doors. He could hear Simon Banks' voice clearly, and followed it.
Banks was speaking to an attractive woman wearing a white lab coat. He broke off in the middle of a sentence when he saw Jim. "Ellison. Where the hell have you been?"
Jim opened his mouth to snarl back, but what he actually said was, "It's only twenty minutes since you phoned me, Captain. I came straight here." Somehow, without knowing how, he was aware that Banks was very worried, and his comment had been in response to that worry.
Banks, who had expected a snarl from his normally short-tempered subordinate, was surprised into momentary silence. Recovering himself, he said, "This is Dr. Price. She's head of the department. Doctor, Detective Ellison. I'm assigning him to the case because he's ex-military."
"Detective," she murmured.
Jim nodded acknowledgement. "I didn't know Rainier had a Hazmat unit. What's missing?"
She took a deep breath. "A canister of VX nerve gas."
Jim did not need to ask how dangerous it was; it was Banks who added, "It contains enough gas to kill everyone in Cascade five times over."
"Who all knew this gas was here?" Jim demanded. "Come to that, why was it here? That sort of thing should be under really tight security in an army facility."
"Nobody should have known it was here. Only Dr. Tregarth - my immediate subordinate - and I knew about it. I believe several other canisters are in the keeping of other units such as this; it was left with us for safe keeping just a few days ago because there had been a warning given of a terrorist attack on the army base where it was normally kept."
"Safe keeping," Jim muttered to himself. "Yeah, right." Louder, he went on. "How did the thief - thieves - get in?"
"The really dangerous stuff is kept on the fifth floor. Each floor is accessed from the one below. There are security systems on each level, so anyone going to the fifth floor has to get through five different security systems. Somehow he was able to override the systems on the first four levels, and he used some kind of laser on the fifth - it has a fingerprint scanner it's impossible to over-ride, and only Mark and I can open it. What worries me is how the thief knew he could over-ride the system on the other floors, but came equipped to break though the door on this one."
"He could have thought he'd have to blast his way through all the doors," Jim suggested.
"It's possible, I suppose," Dr. Price said. "But in that case, why didn't he? It would have been quicker. Unless he already knew the codes for it, over-riding the security systems would have taken time, and he really didn't have time.
"They don't know what's kept here, but because it's a HazMat unit, campus security patrols it regularly every half hour. The theft was during the time between one patrol and the next."
Jim shook his head. "Regular patrols are a mistake. With a regular patrol, all the thieves have to do to know exactly how much time they have is watch for a couple of hours. For maximum security, what you want are totally random patrols. That way, potential thieves can't establish a pattern, no matter how long they watch. They don't know if they have five minutes or fifty. You might bear that in mind for a future occasion."
There were no obvious clues. It seemed the thief knew exactly what he wanted and where it was kept. Although Jim checked the place thoroughly, he could find nothing. Forensics found nothing. There were no fingerprints; the thief had clearly worn gloves.
As he watched Jim checking the place, Banks asked, "Who provided the security system for the HazMat unit?"
Dr. Price frowned. "Oberon Security systems," she said. "You don't think someone there is responsible, do you? I mean, Oberon's reputation..."
"No, I wouldn't think so; Oberon is very careful about checking out new staff," Banks said.
Finally, leaving Forensics still examining the over-ridden security systems, Jim and Banks made their way back to the PD. Meeting in the garage, they rode the elevator to Major Crime together, both men occupied with their own thoughts.
As they entered the bullpen, Banks snapped, "Connor!"
"My office. You too, Ellison." He said nothing more until the door was closed on them. "Connor - that break-in from last week you're working on - "
"The one at Oberon?" she asked.
"That's the one."
She shook her head. "All they know is that the intruder accessed their files and downloaded some information, but they have no idea which files were copied. They're reluctant to cause a panic by alerting all their clients to the possibility of a security breach, so they've been contacting all the firms that use their systems and offering them a minor update, free. The only firms they haven't contacted are the ones that use fingerprint recognition, because that can't be breached."
Jim and Banks looked at each other. Banks said quietly, "The security system at Rainier came from Oberon..."
"... and the thief knew he couldn't get past the fifth floor fingerprint scanner, so he took in a laser," Jim finished. He sighed. "This guy is clever. I wonder... Captain, Dr. Price said the nerve gas was normally kept at an army base, but they'd had warning of a terrorist attack, so it was sent to other places for safety. Maybe that was all part of the plan. The thief knew he didn't stand any sort of realistic chance of breaking into an army base, so he called in a fake terrorist warning, hoping that sensitive stuff like this gas would be dispersed to possibly less well-guarded sites. Since Rainier has a HazMat unit, it was probable that some of it would be sent there. Possibly he had some way of checking that it was. Then he broke into Oberon to get the codes to get past the security systems at Rainier. That also told him he'd have to have something to breach the last door, so he could go in completely prepared."
"That's feasible," Banks said slowly. "Though it still doesn't answer the question of why."
"Seems to me nerve gas could fetch a pretty high price in the right market," Jim said.
They discussed the situation for a few more minutes before Jim and Connor left Banks' office, but could come up with nothing to help them find the missing canister.
Jim returned to his desk, but he had been there only a few moments when the phone rang. With a sigh, he picked it up.
Jim had taken the call; it was his case, and it was another nasty one.
The furnished apartment had actually been empty for a few weeks, and that morning the owner had taken someone to see it. When he opened the door, an explosion set fire to the place. The owner had been caught in the blast; he was still alive, but badly injured. The potential tenant, standing two or three feet further back, had escaped with only minor injuries. He had reacted quickly, using his cell phone to call 911.
The fire had been fierce - despite the speed of their response, the firemen had been unable to prevent massive damage; and inside the apartment, they had found a body, badly burned.
When Jim went first to see the witness, it was a woman, probably some fifty years old, who answered his knock.
"Mrs. Green?" The witness had been described as a man in his mid twenties; this, Jim guessed, was the man's mother. He held up his badge. "Detective Ellison, Major Crime. Is Danny here?"
"Oh... Yes, Detective. Come in."
"How is he?"
"Shaken. Badly shaken, and is it surprising?" She sounded both indignant and protective.
Jim nodded sympathetically as she showed him into a comfortable living room. The young man sitting there glanced up as Jim entered; from the look on his face, Jim suspected that Danny Green was glad of the arrival of someone to take his mother's attention from him for a few minutes. Mrs. Green gestured him to a seat.
"Daniel Green?" he asked for the sake of formality as he sank into an armchair that was far too soft and low to be comfortable.
"I won't take up much of your time. I understand you went this morning to look at an apartment at 98 Dawson Road?"
"Yes. I - " He glanced at his mother. "Don't get me wrong, Detective, I like living with my parents, but I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to move someplace nearer where I work, and Dawson Road seemed perfect; a furnished apartment just a couple of blocks away from my work, I could walk it in five minutes instead of the twenty or so it takes to drive from here, and not have any problems with parking."
Jim nodded, understanding the young man's rationale; it was quite clear to him that the mother was not anxious to see her son leave the nest, but he'd found an argument that made logical sense.
Green went on. "I met Mr. Kelly at the entry to 98, and we went up to apartment 513. He unlocked the door, and when he opened it there was an explosion. It caught him full in the face. He was thrown back against me - I was behind him; his body protected me from the main force of the explosion, but when he hit me, we both fell. I think I was stunned for a moment; then I pushed him off me and called 911 - it could only have been a minute, if that, but the apartment was already blalzing. Mr. Kelly was moaning, so I knew he was still alive, but I didn't know how badly he was hurt. Do you know? Nobody would tell me anything."
"I understand he's quite badly injured, mostly burns, but the doctors expect him to recover. Do you know anything about the apartment? Who had lived in it previously? I'd ask Mr. Kelly, but he's in no condition yet to answer any questions."
"Not much. Mr. Kelly said it had been empty for a couple of months. The previous tenants were a married couple, no children, who had been there for three years; but the wife had gone off with someone else and the husband had attempted suicide. Mr. Sandburg was found in time, but he was still in a coma, and Mr. Kelly wanted another tenant."
"Had he checked it out during that time, do you know?" Jim asked.
"Yes. The police went to the apartment to tell Mrs. Sandburg that her husband was in the hospital, and when they didn't get an answer, they contacted Mr. Kelly to see if they could find out where she was, and he opened the door for them. She'd gone, and left a note saying she'd met someone else. Mr. Kelly went back a day or two later to check the inventory, and everything supposed to be there was, and everything was clean and tidy. So he cleared out any perishable food and locked up again, and he hadn't been back since."
"He didn't try to find out if Mrs. Sandburg had gone home before he advertised the place again?"
"He said he'd phoned, but there wasn't any answer, so he assumed she hadn't."
"Right. Thank you. I don't think we'll need to bother you again." Jim grinned. "Good luck with finding somewhere else."
Green glanced towards his mother again. "I'm not sure I'll try," he said wryly, and Jim interpreted that as meaning 'mom would have a fit if I did.'
Jim pushed himself out of the armchair and handed over his card. "If you do remember anything else, you can contact me at the PD."
As Mrs. Green showed him to the door, Jim said softly, "I'm sorry. Danny was very unlucky. Something like that is never likely to happen to him again. Don't let it discourage him from looking for somewhere else."
Far from certain that his comment would lessen her obvious overprotectiveness, he left.
By the time Jim arrived at the burned-out apartment, a team from Forensics was already beginning work. The body he had been told about was gone. He wandered around, careful not to get in the way. Eventually he found himself standing next to Serena Chang, who looked up from a small object she was examining, and shrugged as she registered his presence. "I don't think we're going to discover much here, Jim. I've contacted Arson, and Debra Reeves is coming over, but really all she can do is confirm that an accelerant was used."
"This was a very hot fire - and a very fast one. You know there was a body found?"
"On the face of it, I'd say the fire was set to destroy the body - the door boobytrapped to start it, giving the killer plenty of time to get away."
"And to hell with whoever it was opened the door," Jim finished. He looked at her hands. "What's that?"
"We found a badly damaged zip drive. This disk was in it, but I don't think we'll get any useful information from it."
"Can I see it?"
She handed it over. He peered at it, running his fingers over it. He could - almost - feel something. He concentrated harder...
... and found himself in a strangely familiar blue jungle, gazing intently at a big, motionless black cat. It took him a moment to realize that it was a rare melanistic jaguar; he vaguely remembered seeing one in Peru, shortly before he was rescued. Incacha had said it was a lucky omen...
"Jim. Jim. JIM. JIM!"
The voice, initially so faint he could barely hear it, grew steadily louder as a wolf trotted out from among the trees to join the black jaguar; it began to lick the jaguar's face. He watched for some moments as the cat showed signs of responding to the wolf's actions, then jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned quickly. "Blair!"
"Jim, you have to wake up!" Blair said forcefully.
Jim shook his head, trying to gather his thoughts.
"What... Why am I here?" he managed.
"If a sentinel concentrates too hard on one sense, he gets lost in it. It happened to Alex several times. I did manage to pull her out of those blank spells, but not easily; you responded much more quickly. Historically - well, according to Burton - a sentinel had someone who worked with him to prevent that. What sense were you concentrating on?"
Jim thought for a moment. "Touch," he said. "There were letters embossed on a burned zip disk. I was trying to make out what they said."
"Try using sight as well," Blair suggested. "And if the thing was burned - was there a smell of burning?"
"God, yes - it was in a burned-out apartment. The stink was really bad. I had to concentrate hard on the disk to keep from being sidetracked by the smell."
"I wonder... One of the things I tried with Alex was getting her to visualize dials for her senses. It does work; you can dial down the intensity of something unpleasant or distracting like that so that you hardly notice it. Of course, you have to remember to dial the sense back up again to 'normal' afterwards; she tended to forget that."
"Blair, when I'm here I can remember what happened in... well, what you might call the waking world. But when I'm there, I don't remember here."
"That could be a problem," Blair muttered. He looked over to where the jaguar was still passively accepting the wolf's attentions. "Isn't there anything you could do to make yourself remember? Whatever I teach you about your senses while you're here won't be much use to you unless you can remember what I tell you when you're awake."
"I might subconsciously remember - " Jim began.
"Some things you have to actively do," Blair replied. "Subconscious won't cut it. Not all the time, anyway. I'll think about it... But Jim - you have to go back, wake up, now, before someone notices you've zoned out, and starts to think there's something seriously wrong with you. Don't just use touch - use sight as well. As long as you're using more than one sense, you should be all right. I'll see you tonight."
"I hope so," Jim said, meaning it. Already, he realized, he had grown surprisingly fond of this young man he was meeting only in his dreams.
"Jim?" A hand was shaking his shoulder. "Jim, are you all right?"
"Are you all right?" she repeated. "You've been just standing there for two or three minutes."
"Oh... Yes. Yes. I was just concentrating on this... " He held up the fire-damaged disk, believing what he had just said. Not sure why he did it, he focused on the cover, his eyes confirming what his fingers had already told him. "It says O-B-E-R... The rest is too badly damaged to make out."
She squinted down at the disk. "You can make that out?"
"Only just," he said mendaciously. In fact, although he had had to concentrate on it, the four letters were reasonably clear to him.
"O-B-E-R," she repeated.
"Yes... Serena, is there any chance you could retrieve the data on this disc?"
Serena looked doubtful. "I can try," she said as she took the disk, "but the amount of damage... I don't think I'll get much off it."
"It doesn't need much," he said. "We need just enough to confirm where this disk came from."
Already turning away, she swung back at that. "You mean you know where this came from?"
"I'm pretty sure," Jim replied. "But let's pretend I'm not. I want to do this one completely by the book, Serena. I don't want this guy's defense to have any chance to claim 'irregularity', or say - as you did - 'How could you make out any letters on that disk?' and throw doubt in the jury's mind. I want to be able to say, 'Forensics managed to retrieve enough of the content to prove that... ' and I want you to be able to say you had no pre-conceived ideas of where it had come from, if you're asked."
"Not likely," she commented.
"I know. But let's not take any chances."
"Hi, Jim. How did it go?"
He was back in the blue jungle. Jim walked slowly over to where Blair was perched on a rock overlooking the wolf and the black jaguar, which was now looking a lot brighter. Blair grinned at him, then turned his attention back to where the two animals were lying facing each other, nose to nose, almost as if they were deep in conversation.
"I don't know if Serena brought me out of it, or if I'd have come round myself," Jim said. "Did you realize I was only here for a couple of minutes?"
"No, but then it doesn't seem that long since you left," Blair said. "Time seems to pass differently here, depending on how much you're trying to do."
"Anyway, she'd noticed I was... somewhere... and shook me. I don't know if I was coming out of it by myself at that point."
"Whichever," Blair said. "All right, we've got time now. You're asleep, not zoned out. So - you said you zoned out on touch? Did using your sight help?"
"And the smell? Did you manage to dial the intensity of that down?"
"Yes... Yes, I did."
In the ensuing silence, Jim became aware that Blair was watching him, waiting. "What?" he asked.
"So talk to me about it. Come on, man - I'm stuck in this jungle, who else am I gonna tell? You're the only person I've seen here - the only living thing apart from them." He nodded towards the two animals.
Jim sighed. "I told you it was a burned-out apartment. The fire was caused by an explosion when the owner opened the door - we have reason to suspect it was arson, rather than something like a build-up of gas ignited by a spark when he unlocked the door. Once the fire department put out the fire, they found a body. To the best of our knowledge, the victim had nothing to do with the people who'd lived there. We need to identify him, and - well, we were looking for anything that would help do that."
"You're sure it wasn't the person who lived there?"
"The place had been empty for weeks. The owner was showing it to a possible tenant. Only the door blew up in his face."
"Anyway, Mr. Kelly - "
"Who?" Blair asked sharply. "Kelly? John Kelly?"
"I just heard him referred to as 'Mr. Kelly'."
"Do you know the name of the previous tenants?"
"Sandburg," Jim said.
Blair blew out a long breath. "That's me," he said. "Blair Sandburg. But I'm dead. Alex - my supposed wife - killed me. With some help from her legal husband."
"No, she didn't," Jim said. "You're not dead. You're lying in the hospital in a coma. The official verdict was that you tried to kill yourself."
"No way. She came to see me at Rainier with this guy she introduced as Carl. Told me Carl was her husband. She'd married me - bigamously - to get me to help her control her senses. Bottom line, they were criminals and she could use her senses to help them commit crimes. But she couldn't leave me alive because I knew what she was; so they took me out to the fountain, and drowned me." He sighed. "You know what pisses me off most? That he was apparently quite happy for her to... well, prostitute herself for three years. And I couldn't help but wonder if she'd been slipping off from time to time to - well, keep him happy."
"It hurts, doesn't it."
Something in his voice made Blair look thoughtfully at him. "You, too?"
Jim shrugged. "I married a woman who worked in Forensics. It wasn't a perfect marriage, but I thought we were happy enough - until I discovered she had a lover in another department. So I divorced her. I think Ryan expected her to move in permanently with him after that - though in his place I wouldn't have trusted her not to cheat on him the way she did on me - but she didn't; she left Cascade, moved to San Francisco."
"You don't really sound bitter about it, though."
"I'm not. It hurt, but I think it was my pride more than anything else. Ryan's the one who's bitter; it's been nearly four years, and he still can't see that he's better off without her." Jim watched the wolf lick the jaguar's nose. "And you, Chief? Are you bitter?"
"No," Blair said slowly. "No, I'm not. Not about that, at least. I'm annoyed that she suckered me like that. Disappointed that my holy grail turned out to be base metal instead of pure gold. I suppose I am a little bitter about that. But... although I liked her well enough, I don't think I ever really loved her. I suppose... I loved what I thought she was. In hindsight, I can see things... She resented having to depend on me for help, even when she knew she had to; she was always slow to develop the skills that would help her control her abilities instead of letting them control her. At the time I didn't see that, I thought that was how it always was; but you... This is just the fourth time we've met, you said you don't remember it when you wake up, but already you're beginning to respond to the things I'm telling you. If you can do that on a subconscious level, how much more could you do if you could actually remember meeting me in your dreams?"
"Have you thought of some way I could remember?" Jim asked.
"No," Blair said unhappily. "But there has to be a way. Otherwise what's the point of my being here and trying to help you?
"Anyway - is there anything in particular you'd like to ask me about having enhanced senses?"
"Yes," Jim said dryly. "Why me?"
"It's got to be genetic, maybe the random result of two recessive genes coming together. Or maybe it's directly inherited, something that's been in your family for generations. Does anyone in your family have particularly good vision or hearing, for example?"
"Not as far as I know," Jim said, "but I've got a very limited family. There's just my dad and my brother... my half brother, that is - and my cousin Rucker. None of them are freaks."
"You're not a freak. You have a gift - a very rare gift. Rucker - a cousin on your father's side or your mother's?"
"On dad's side. Mom - she walked out when I was just a baby. I don't know any of her family."
"So it could be inherited from her side," Blair said.
"There's no way to know. I found out her name - Margaret McDonald - and a few years ago I tried to trace her. Useless. Do you know how many Margaret McDonalds there are in America? Let alone the rest of the world?"
"Couldn't your dad tell you how to find her family?"
"He cut off all contact with them when she left." Jim shrugged. "It doesn't really bother me. It's not as if I ever actually knew her. Steven was worse hit when his mom walked out. He was six."
"Your dad didn't have good luck with his wives, then."
"Or his sons," Jim said. "I left home as soon as I was eighteen, and I haven't spoken to him since. Rucker told me Steven left, too; we didn't part on the best of terms, so I've never tried contacting him to find out why. It had to be a pretty big why, though, because he was always dad's favorite. Says something about dad, though, wouldn't you say, when even his favorite son walked out?"
Blair nodded. "I guess. My experience is the other way. I don't have a father."
"Oh. He walk out on your mom?"
"No. Mom always said she doesn't know who he was. She was a child of the sixties, into the flower power, free love thing. She never said whether they used condoms, but if they did, she found out too late that they don't always work." He was silent for a moment before adding, "She was always more of a big sister to me than a mom; a lot of the time she was there, but some of the time she wasn't. As if... there were some parts of her life, some things, she wasn't prepared to give up, you know, but she couldn't take a young kid with her when she went in search of them. We spent a lot of time at a commune, and sometimes she left me there for a week or two, knowing the people there would look after me. Once I actually settled in at Rainier as a student, she took off. Travels all over. Calls herself 'a citizen of the world'. She comes back sometimes and visits, but half the time I've got no idea where she is, though if I really need to contact her, usually I can track down one of her friends who does know - but if I ever left Cascade, she'd have no easy way to find me again. She loves me, but if she never saw me again I don't think it would really worry her - because I'm a reminder of how old she actually is. When I'm not around, she can pretend to herself that she's still twenty."
Jim opened his mouth, meaning to say something, and closed it again. There seemed to be nothing useful to say.
Blair grinned. "I've lived with that knowledge all my life, Jim. It doesn't worry me. It's nice when I see her, but I don't need her. I've been self-sufficient for half my life.
"Anyway, it's you we need to worry about - not our relationships with our parents."
"Shouldn't that be 'non-relationships'?" Jim asked wryly.
"Whatever. Now your biggest problem would seem to be the zone-out factor. There's nobody out there who knows anything about sentinels. You zone out, and nobody knows what to do; you tell anyone you can see or hear things nobody else can, if they believe that you genuinely think you do, you end up in psychiatric care. You tell anyone you can see or hear things nobody else can, they're as likely to think you're attention-seeking at best, a pathological liar at worst."
"I've already had experience of that," Jim muttered. At Blair's enquiring look, he added, "My father, when I was a child."
Blair said nothing, but continued looking at him expectantly.
"I'd forgotten about it until now... All I remembered was him calling me a freak. I told him several times when I heard or saw something," Jim said. "He kept telling me not to make things up. Then when I was about ten... It was the only time he actually laid a finger on me - the rest of the time it was just disapproval. But god, you knew it when you were on his shit list! That time he beat me black and blue, because I'd told someone else I saw something. After that... after that I stopped being able to see or hear better than anyone else. So why am I suddenly able to do it again?"
"Did you recently spend several days on your own?" Blair asked.
"Couple of months ago. A killer who was being transferred from one prison to another escaped when the prison van was ambushed by his friends. He took a cop with him as hostage. The official search went one way; I don't know why, but I was convinced he'd gone off a different way, and went after him on my own. I'd a personal grudge - Quinn was already a cop killer, and the cop he killed was a friend of mine. It took me several days, but I caught up with him. Anyway, it was after that I began to get headaches, noises got too loud, lights too bright..."
"Classic," Blair said. "According to Burton - "
"Burton?" Jim asked sharply. "I thought you said nobody nowadays knows about heightened senses?"
"He was the nineteenth century explorer who first identified sentinels in the 'modern' world. At the time, his observations were disputed, then debunked, and although he was stubborn about it, after a while even he seemed to have realized that if he persisted in arguing that they existed, he'd be completely discredited. According to the one book he wrote entirely about sentinels, time spent alone triggered the abilities if they were dormant. Something to do with Man's need for company - someone on his own would strain his abilities in the attempt to see or hear other people, and if the sentinel abilities were there...
"Burton indicated that sentinels were invariably male, but of course he was the product of a very male-centric era - and when you come to think of it, women of his time and culture were mostly regarded as frail creatures who had to be protected at all costs; and in tribal cultures, the women rarely if ever spent any time on their own. They'd go out in groups, gathering food; they'd work in groups in their villages. It was the men who were more likely to spend time on their own - a group might go off hunting, but it wasn't unknown for one man to go hunting on his own."
Blair shrugged. "Because of Burton, I was slightly surprised to find a woman with sentinel abilities, but she fitted the pattern; she said she'd been lost in the woods on a camping trip. But thinking back to the number of women who were accused of being witches, when I'd already speculated in my doctoral thesis that some of them could have had one or more heightened senses, well..."
"And you really wanted to find a sentinel."
"Now I'm wondering if Burton was right all along; that women might have one or more heightened senses, but only men could actually be sentinels."
"I'd doubt that," Jim said. "Most women have a highly developed protective instinct - they need one to look after their children. And not all men do. Some people - for whatever reason - become criminals. They're greedy, looking for instant wealth - which doesn't happen - or they're power hungry. I think you were just unlucky."
"And gullible," Blair said bitterly.
Jim blinked. Blair seemed to fade for a moment, his body becoming briefly transparent, then solidified again. "I think I'm waking up," he said.
"See you tomorrow night?" Blair asked.
About to answer, Jim whirled as he saw a movement out of the corner of his eyes. The jaguar was leaping towards him; even as he realized that, before he could make a move to defend himself or dodge out of the way, it took one more bound and jumped against his chest. He felt himself being pushed slightly backwards... and then the animal was gone.
"What...?" he began.
"He's your spirit animal." Blair's voice was fading even as he began to turn transparent again. "I think he'll help you..."
Jim sat up in bed, aware of a vivid dream. He had been in a jungle when he was attacked by a big cat...
And there was something he had to remember. Somehow it was vital that he remember. But he couldn't think what it was...
It was late morning before Serena contacted Jim.
"Can you come down, Jim." Worded as a question, the tone said it was a request.
"On my way."
Jim walked into the examiner's room and crossed to Serena. "You have something?"
"Two things. First, that disk. I didn't pull much off it, but what I did was enough to identify it as information on a security system at Rainier." She looked at him. "You're not surprised."
"No, I'm not."
She didn't press him for an explanation, but continued. "The body - the man was dead before the fire started; there was no sign of smoke in his lungs. We've a partial identification - there was a partly burned letter in his pocket. It would have been completely destroyed, but the way he was lying meant his weight was on top of part of it." She picked up a half burned envelope and sheet of paper that had been folded down its length, rather than its width.
Jim pulled on gloves and took them.
The envelope was addressed to
Mr. Carl Het.... 93 Dawson R.... Cascade WA... USA
"Carl..." Jim said slowly. "Why does that sound familiar...?"
//She came to see me at Rainier with this guy she introduced as Carl."// He could hear the quiet voice in his mind. //Told me Carl was her husband. She'd married me - bigamously - to get me to help her control her senses. Bottom line, they were criminals and she could use her senses to help them commit crimes.//
Now where did that memory come from?
"Blair," he murmured.
"Jim?" Serena asked.
"The people who lived in the apartment were called Sandburg," Jim said. "Officially the place has been empty for about eight weeks. Dr. Sandburg is in the hospital, still unconscious after nearly drowning; Mrs. Sandburg went off with someone else. This 'Carl Het' had no legal right to be there."
How on earth do I know that? he wondered. Danny Green just said 'Mr. Sandburg attempted suicide when his wife left'...
//She drowned me in the fountain at Rainier.// The voice in his mind was still quite clear.
He pulled his attention from his thoughts to the fragment of letter in his hand.
...prepared to offer you four million U.S. dollars for the merchandise. I expect you to deliver it to me as soon as possible.
The lines immediately before that were too badly burned to be readable, even to sentinel eyesight.
"Oh, God!" he whispered. //Carl was her husband. She'd married me - bigamously,// he remembered. What if she went back, taking her legal husband with her? he thought. It could certainly explain the presence of a man called 'Carl'. //they were criminals...//
Serena's words - //the man was dead before the fire.//
Jim was afraid that Alex Sandburg had decided to get rid of her criminal legal husband as well as the innocent bigamous one, probably in order to keep the four million dollars for the 'merchandise' for herself... and the 'merchandise' was almost certainly the stolen canister of nerve gas.
Serena's department had managed to get one clear fingerprint from the dead man, and when they ran it through CODIS, they discovered that his name was Carl Hettinger. He had been released from a southern Californian prison on parole just two weeks earlier, having served three years of a five-year sentence for being in possession of stolen goods.
As he read that, Jim felt unaccountably relieved. //You know what pisses me off most? That he was apparently quite happy for her to... well, prostitute herself for three years. And I couldn't help but wonder if she'd been slipping off from time to time to - well, keep him happy.// At least one of Blair's concerns was probably unfounded. While Carl was in prison near Los Angeles, it was very unlikely that Blair's bigamous wife could have 'kept him happy'.
He shook his head, trying to pull his attention back to Serena's report, but he couldn't force his thoughts away from the partly-burned letter.
Carlos Arguillo. Why did that name sound familiar? And why would the man want...
Dropping the report, he reached for his keyboard. Search... Carlos Arguillo...
It only took seconds for the information he needed to appear.
Carlos Arguillo, based in Sierra Verde. A drug lord who had tried to expand his empire northwards some months previously, but had failed to establish a foothold in the face of opposition from the Yakuza, who controlled much of the drug trade throughout the southern and western states.
Opposition from the Yakuza? Well, that was one way of putting it. Jim snorted, remembering some of the details now that the Arguillo-Yakuza war had been brought back to his attention. Everyone known to be employed by Arguillo had died. They hadn't gone down without a fight; the Yakuza, too, had died in their dozens before Arguillo pulled back.
As far north as it was, Cascade was hardly touched by the gang war, which was why Jim had been slow to recognise the name 'Arguillo'. Now, he didn't like the picture he was putting together. Time to take this to Simon Banks.
He did a quick printout of the basic facts on Arguillo, gathered the various papers together, crossed to Banks' office and knocked.
He went in. "I think I've got something," he said, putting the papers down on the Captain's desk.
Banks glanced through them, thought for a moment, then looked up. "Tell me why."
Jim obeyed, giving Banks the facts as he knew them, finishing with, "So I think Arguillo wants to use the nerve gas to take out the Yakuza - forgetting, or not caring, that it'll take out a lot of innocent people as well. I think Hettinger arranged the deal, and his wife killed him and is now taking the gas to Arguillo, wanting all the money for herself."
Banks frowned. "I see where you get a lot of this, but what makes you think Hettinger had a wife, let alone that she killed him?"
"Ah." Jim rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I got the wife bit from an informant. Under the circumstances, she seems the most likely killer."
The frown deepened. "Serena only just gave you the man's name. You haven't been out on the street since. When did you see your informant?"
"Last night. He could only give me the name 'Carl' for the legal husband of the woman who lived in the apartment on Dawson. He also told me that Alex Hettinger had better than average sight and hearing, and she had already tried to kill h... her second, bigamous, husband."
"She did? Has the man come to the PD to press charges?"
"He's in the hospital, still unconscious."
Banks remained silent for a moment as he considered that. "All right, we can forget about him for the moment. But we need to find this woman before she can get the nerve gas to Arguillo. Going through official channels would take far too long - I think you need to go direct to Sierra Verde, contact the police there, and try to get their help."
Jim nodded. "I'd better have someone with me as backup, especially if I'm bringing her back to Cascade. Connor's probably the best bet - another woman, so she can't think of crying rape to muddy the waters."
"You're right; she sounds like the kind of conniving woman who'd do that in the hope of getting sympathy - the poor defenseless female being brutalized by the big strong amoral cop." He rubbed a reflective hand over his chin. "I think I'll come too. For someone of my rank to be there would show the Sierra Verde cops how seriously we're taking this. Connor! Rhonda!"
His secretary appeared in the doorway mere seconds later. "Yes, Simon?"
Megan Connor was just behind her. "Captain?"
"Rhonda, I need three tickets on the first available flight to Sierra Verde." She nodded and turned back to her desk. As Connor entered and closed the door, Banks continued, "Connor, once we know the flight time, you'll know how long you have to get home and pack. I don't know how long we'll be there, but assume at least a week."
"Isn't that out of our jurisdiction, Captain?"
"We believe our Oberon perp is headed for there," Banks said. "That's your case, so you get to come along with Ellison and me as we pursue his thief, since we think it's the same person."
"Oh." Connor thought back to their earlier discussion, and nodded, recognising that Jim and Banks had moved from guesswork to certainty for no reason that was clear to her.
Jim grinned slightly, appreciating her quiet acceptance of the statement, and explained briefly about the letter.
Connor frowned. "Won't we be at least two days behind her, Captain?"
"Yes - but she's got to find Arguillo, and do it circumspectly if she doesn't want to bring herself to the notice of the authorities," Banks replied. "Then she'll have to negotiate a price with him - his deal was with Hettinger, and a lot of these Latin-American crime lords don't take women seriously; they have the mindset that says women are good for only one thing, and it isn't brainpower. So she'll have to persuade him that she is someone to take seriously, that she won't sell for less than Hettinger demanded. With luck, all that will lose her the time advantage."
"Can we be sure the local police will let us arrest her and take her out of the country?"
"I don't see why they wouldn't - we'd be taking a foreign criminal out of their jurisdiction, after all."
There was a knock on the door and Rhonda opened it. "You're booked on flight 59 to Sierra Verde, Captain, leaving at eight thirty-five tomorrow morning. You need to be at the airport to collect your tickets at least two hours before that."
Banks nodded. "Thanks, Rhonda. Wait a moment, please." He turned his attention to the others. "All right, you two; we meet at the main entrance of the airport at six tomorrow morning." He glanced at his watch. "Head off home now; that will give you plenty of time tonight to get ready."
They nodded, and left; Banks said, "Rhonda, I want to contact the Chief of Police in Sierra Verde. I wouldn't like someone chasing a criminal turning up in my territory without warning; I don't imagine he will."
Rhonda nodded, and left. Banks turned his attention to dealing with as much of the work still on his desk as he could before he, too, went home.
Jim dozed for most of the flight; it was one way of coping with the constant loud noise of the engines. When Banks shook him awake they were already taxiing to a gate, and as he sat up he was aware of a strange sense of disappointment, although he couldn't have said why.
All three had packed lightly, and only had their carry-on bags. As they entered the concourse, they saw a man in police uniform holding a sign - "Captain Banks". They crossed to him. "I'm Captain Banks."
"Chief Ortega sent me to meet you, senor. I am to take you to him."
Ortega stood as they entered his office. "Ah, Senor Banks." He held out his hand.
Banks shook it, then handed over a photo. "This is the woman we're following," he said.
Ortega studied it for a moment, and shook his head. "I have not seen her."
"We have reason to believe she is here to meet Carlos Arguillo."
"Arguillo?" Ortega shook his head. "This is not the time for anyone to do business with Senor Arguillo."
"It isn't? Look, we've done our homework. We know that if your business is weapons or drugs, he's likely to be involved."
"Senor, my government is cracking down hard on his operations." He shrugged. "Perhaps he didn't pay them enough to look the other way - who knows? But nobody with any sense deals with Arguillo these days. I think this woman is here to deal with someone else."
Jim and Banks looked at each other. "Can you suggest anyone else she night think of dealing with?" Jim asked.
Ortega looked thoughtful. "There are several possibilities; several would-be crime lords - that is how you describe them, yes? Give me a little time to make enquiries. Where are you staying?"
"My secretary booked us rooms at the Hotel Santa Cruz," Banks said.
"Ah, yes. There is a small cafe just across the street from it - it serves the best margaritas in town. Why don't we meet there at... say, around four this afternoon? By then I should have a list of other 'businessmen' for you to consider."
Banks nodded. "Thank you," he said, and they left Ortega's office.
They went to the hotel and, after checking in and leaving their bags in their rooms, Jim and Connor went to Banks' room.
"So - opinion, detectives," Banks said.
"Ortega made a reasonable point," Connor said. "Arguillo could have written that letter before the government cracked down on him."
"Or he wanted the nerve gas to blackmail his government, rather than make war against the Yakuza," Jim said.
Banks nodded. "You could both be right," he said. "If he got word that the law was planning to crack down on him, he could have gone looking for something to give him an advantage. Well, let's wait and see what Ortega comes up with."
They went to the cafe with half an hour to spare, and decided to try what Ortega had described as 'the best margaritas in town', finding them indeed very good.
Just before four, Ortega arrived, carrying a folder.
"Ah, Senor Ortega," Banks said. "Have a seat. Would you like a drink?"
"No, I thank you," Ortega said. "I am a busy man, senor. I can only spare a few minutes. There are five names here; any of them I believe are more likely than Senor Arguillo to be the person your target is meeting."
"Thank you," Banks said.
A rumbling noise attracted Jim's attention; he glanced around, and saw a big tank moving down the street towards the cafe. He looked back towards Ortega, in time to see the man quietly disappearing. Frowning, he turned back towards Banks, and as his eyes passed the tank, he saw the guns pointing towards the cafe. Suddenly suspicious, he yelled, "Get down!" as he dropped to the ground.
Quicker to react than Connor, Banks grabbed her and hauled her down with him. The three crawled quickly into the shadows, then scrambled to their feet and ran.
They nearly escaped, but as they dodged around a corner, Jim heard a yell and then the sound of the tank coming after them. They ran frantically, dodging from street to street for several minutes then, seeing another cafe, Jim hauled his companions towards it. They ducked in and sat at one of the tables, panting, mildly surprised that nobody paid any obvious attention to them.
Outside, the tank rumbled past.
They ordered a meal and stayed in the cafe for a while, then, satisfied that they had lost their pursuers, left, knowing that it was not in their best interests to return to their hotel.
"We need to find somewhere to stay," Banks muttered.
"This way." Jim led the way to a small church. It was, as he suspected, open. "I don't think they'd commit sacrilege by killing anyone inside a church," he said.
"What if there's a late service?" Connor asked.
"I wouldn't expect one," Jim said. "But we'll probably have to leave early; an early morning mass is more than probable."
As they settled down, Connor said, "I hate to sound suspicious, but do you suppose Ortega set us up? Nobody would have any reason to kill us except Arguillo, and Ortega was terribly anxious for us to look for our perp somewhere other than him."
"I'd hate to think a police chief would do something like that," Banks said.
"You get dirty cops anywhere," Jim muttered. "And you heard what he said about Arguillo maybe not paying the government enough to make them look the other way. Bribery is a way of life in places like this... and after members of the government, who better to have in your pocket than the police chief?"
"I think I must go and have a word with our Senor Ortega tomorrow," Banks said drily.
"We need to find out where Arguillo lives," Jim said.
"Tomorrow," Banks said. "For the moment, let's just get some sleep."
"Sleep?" Connor asked. "It's barely seven."
"Can you think of anything else we can do?" Jim asked. "We could spend a couple of hours discussing this backwards and forwards, but we'd just be talking in circles. We've had a full day; I, at least, am tired."
He selected a pew and lay down.
The familiarity of the blue jungle was welcome.
Jim looked around, wondering where his... yes, his friend... was, though it seemed strange to use the word for someone he had only met in his dreams. The place seemed totally empty.
"Blair?" There was no answer, and he was aware of acute disappointment. Then, for a moment, hope pushed disappointment aside. If Blair wasn't here, could it - could it possibly - be that he had regained consciousness?
And then in the distance Jim heard a low, long-drawn-out, mournful howl. The wolf! But if it was howling like that, something must be wrong. He turned in the direction of the sound and began to run.
It seemed to take forever, yet paradoxically it seemed no time at all before he left the trees and entered a clearing dominated by a huge pyramid-like building. He stopped, staring at it. A flight of steps led to what seemed to be an entrance partway up one side, and the wolf was sitting there, its head thrown back as it howled again.
Was Blair inside? It seemed possible. Jim started forward again, to be stopped almost instantly by a snarling spotted jaguar which, after a few seconds, morphed into a human shape - a woman, handsome rather than beautiful, and, although he had never seen her in his life, he immediately knew who she was.
"Mrs. Hettinger, I presume."
She stared at him for a moment, then smiled - a slow, seductive smile, and despite all he knew about her, he felt his body responding. "I prefer to use my own name," she purred. "Alex Barnes. It's so demeaning, don't you think, for a woman to lose her own name just because she marries. Though poor dear Carl could never get past the idea that I should be honored to use his name. He could never understand that a woman could have intelligence, ambition, and the ability and drive to succeed on her own without having a man to speak for her. At least dear Blair did understand that; he even pushed me to attempt more than I thought I could... and I've never lacked in self-confidence.
"Of course, he did teach me how to use my senses."
"And you showed your gratitude by drowning him."
"He was too honest, I'm afraid. After all, what use are heightened senses except to benefit yourself? Surely even an unimaginative cop like you can understand that."
"As I understand it, sentinels worked for the benefit of their communities. Selfishness was never part of their lifestyle."
Alex Barnes shook her head. "You've allowed dear Blair to fool you with his idealism. A sentinel should rule her - his - community, not be a servant to it. We're the next stage in human evolution." She took a step forward. "Think how powerful the child of two sentinels would be," she murmured.
"Think how many problems the child of two sentinels might have," Jim replied. "You had problems before Blair showed you how to control your senses. I've had problems - God knows I've had problems. I wouldn't wish a fraction of them on anyone else."
"We could teach our child how to maintain control," she said persuasively.
Jim shook his head. "Only a guide can teach a sentinel control. Only a guide can help a sentinel maintain control."
She laughed. "That's what dear Blair would have had me believe. What I think he was making you believe. It's not true. I'm doing perfectly well without him.
"Come," she said. "I can show you. Meet me. I'll be waiting on the beach... " She faded from sight. So - she had awakened, but he was still asleep.
Jim looked up the temple steps to where the wolf still sat, suddenly aware that Alex Barnes had seemed totally oblivious of it. "Blair?" he called.
The wolf stood, shook itself and, turning, disappeared through the doorway. Jim moved to follow it, but as he put his foot on the first step, both the temple and the blue jungle disappeared, and he found himself lying on an uncomfortable wooden pew in a church dimly lit by the light of early dawn.
Jim sat up, thinking.
The details of his dream - or most of them - were clear in his mind. Blair had not been in it, although the wolf was - and it was clearly not happy. Blair's bigamous wife had been there and, somehow, knew what he was... and she was waiting for him on the beach. This would be the perfect chance to catch her!
Getting to his feet, he ran out of the church. Behind him, the door swung closed with a bang.
Outside the church, he paused for a moment, orienting himself. There was nobody around; the street was empty, for it was still very early, not more than half light, though the cloudless sky to his left was bright and getting brighter. He judged that the sun would rise inside half an hour. He breathed deeply, smelled the salt of the ocean, and headed unerringly towards it. As he reached the beach, he noticed a bright star shining just a little above the horizon, and close to it was a mere sliver of moon - both were probably already hidden to normal eyesight in the brightening eastern sky.
He heard a sound behind him, and turned, instantly recognizing the woman from his dream.
She smiled. "Oh, that sounds so formal, Jim," she murmured. "I'm sure dear Blair told you my name. And we're going to be such good friends, you and I. Two sentinels, able to do anything... raising our own little sentinel family... We may never get the power that is rightfully ours, though I don't see why we shouldn't - but our children will." She stepped close and slipped her arms round him.
He gripped her upper arms, meaning to push her away, but instead found himself pulling her close, kissing her with something akin to desperation. God! What was wrong with him? Part of his mind fought his sudden lust; this woman was a criminal, a killer... He knew he could never trust her, that if he accepted her offer the day would inevitably come when she would kill, or at least try to kill, him, if only because he did not, could not, share her vision of future power. He didn't want power; he wanted to carry on as he had been doing for most of his life, protecting his tribe... Even without what Blair had told him, his every instinct told him that a sentinel was meant to protect, not rule.
The angry voice behind him provided backup to the protest in his mind. He stiffened, and pushed her away. She looked over his shoulder, shrugged, said, "I'll see you later, Jim," and, turning, ran, keeping Jim between her and the irate Simon Banks.
Banks, with Megan Connor close behind him, strode down the beach to Jim's side. "What the hell do you think you were doing?"
Jim looked at him. "She was trying to seduce me," he muttered.
"Trying? From what I could see, she'd managed!" Banks snapped. "I take it that was our perp?"
"Yeah." Jim sighed. "I don't know what she's done to me. I dreamed about her last night; she said she'd meet me on the beach. I meant to arrest her - I swear I meant to arrest her. I know she's not to be trusted. But when she came close... " He shook his head. "I don't want her, Captain - at least, my mind doesn't; but my body? It was like being fifteen again, seeing a pretty face and bang, instant lust!"
//...although I liked her well enough, I don't think I ever really loved her. I suppose... I loved what I thought she was.//
This time Jim knew exactly where the memory was coming from. Yes, Chief, he thought. If she turned that... whatever it was on you, the way she did on me, I can understand why you married her, thinking you loved her. At least you didn't have reason - then - to despise her and everything she wanted.
Ortega walked into his office, quietly pleased that Arguillo's men had failed to kill the Americanos; despite the government crack-down, Arguillo had been throwing his weight around a little more than Ortega was comfortable with. It was one thing to turn a blind eye to the man's activities; but he was demanding more and more of the Police Chief, and Ortega knew that one day soon he would have to choose between his duty and his son, and it was a choice impossible to make.
As he closed the door, an arm came around him from behind, choking him. A voice he dimly recognized - more from the accent than the timbre - demanded, "When was your last confession?"
The chokehold was released just a little. Ortega pulled in as deep a breath as he could. "If Arguillo acted on information given to him, Senor Banks, that is not my sin."
"What about betraying your country? Did your friend Arguillo tell you he's negotiating the purchase of nerve gas? You're about to become Captain of a graveyard unless we can stop Barnes selling him the gas. And what I really want to know is why you let Arguillo buy you."
As Banks released him, Ortega sank helplessly into a chair. "My son," he said dully. "He owes Arguillo money - much money, and cannot pay. Nor can I, although by the standards of my country I am well paid. Men who cannot pay their debts to Arguillo do not live long. I bought my son's safety the only way I can - by ignoring what he does, by letting him know of things that might endanger him. You are a father?"
"What would you do - to ensure your son's safety?"
"My son wouldn't do anything as stupid as get involved with someone like Arguillo."
Ortega looked up at him with a wry smile. "That is what I would have said of Leon, once. But then he stopped being a child, became a young man, and no longer paid attention to his parents' values. I hope you never have cause to change your mind, Senor Banks."
"I hope so too," Banks murmured, almost to himself. Then, more briskly, he continued, "Where will we find Arguillo?"
Ortego was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, "Six miles south of here, a main tributary joins the Zaragordo River. Arguillo is meeting someone there at mid-day, I don't know who. But you did not hear this from me."
Banks nodded, turned and left.
It was easy enough to rent a car to cover that six miles. The river was barely visible through the trees at that point. Connor, Banks and Ellison left the car and made their way on foot to it, finding that they were perhaps sixty yards from the point where the two rivers met. Crouched behind a fallen tree, they had a perfect view of both banks, and settled down to wait the ten minutes until mid-day.
Five minutes later, six men arrived on the opposite bank. Four of the six scattered, taking up hidden positions around the two remaining men and about twenty yards from them. One of the two carried a case.
"Setting a trap," Jim murmured.
"When you deal with someone like Arguillo, you should expect to be double-crossed," Banks muttered.
"Somehow I don't think she'll be tricked that easily," Jim said. He raised his head, listening. "There's a helicopter coming."
"I don't hear anything," Banks protested.
"I think I do," Connor said uncertainly. A few seconds later, she said, "Yes. There's something coming."
"I'll take your word for it," Banks said. "I thought I had reasonably good ears, but... " He broke off. "You two have ears like... like... " He shook his head. "How you heard that, Ellison... I'm just hearing it now, and I certainly can't identify it yet as a helicopter."
"I've probably heard more helicopters than you, Captain," Jim said. He was gazing skywards, and could already see it, but decided he was better saying nothing about that. It was Connor who finally said, "I think I see it. It's at three o'clock, and high... coming lower... "
"I see it," Banks said.
They watched as it hovered for a moment over the far bank, then settled down. The rotor continued to revolve slowly as it sat there. After a moment a woman dropped to the ground. "Arguillo?"
One of the two men standing waiting took a step forward. "Si, senorita. You have the merchandise?"
"Show me the money first." There was a tense watchfulness in her pose.
Arguillo nodded to his companion, who took several steps forward, opening the case to reveal the bundles of money inside it.
"All right," she said. "Put the case down, then back off. I'll get the container from the helicopter, put it down beside the case and take the money. After I'm back in my helicopter again, you can come forward to collect the container."
"Don't you trust us, senorita?" Arguillo asked.
"In a word, no," she replied. She glanced around, and turned back to the helicopter. As she climbed in, she said, "I did warn you that if you brought more than one man with you, the deal was off. You have men hidden - and the deal is indeed off. Go!"
The rotors speeded up and the helicopter lifted smoothly into the air. Arguillo's men sprang from hiding and began shooting at it, but after a moment Arguillo waved a hand and the gunfire ceased.
They heard Arguillo's voice clearly as he spoke, puzzlement and anger in his voice.
"What's he saying?" Connor, who spoke no Spanish, asked.
Jim translated easily. "How did she know? How could she know? The woman is a witch!"
Arguillo turned and led his men away; Jim, squinting as he focused on the fast-disappearing helicopter, said, "I think someone made a lucky shot. The bird's losing fuel."
"How can you know that?" Banks asked.
Jim led the way down to the rocky bank of the river, and pointed. "That's fuel oil." A trail of it led away up the line of the tributary. "She's not going to get very far. Come on!"
They ran back to the car, knowing that there was a road following the tributary for some distance. After several miles, when the road and the river parted company, they left the car again and Jim led them back towards the river, led to it by the sound of running water. He cast around for a moment, then pointed to the ground again. "There's our trail."
Jim led them onwards for nearly an hour, their pace hampered by the undergrowth, until they came on the crumpled wreckage of the helicopter. He pulled himself up, glanced inside it, and dropped back to the ground. "The pilot's dead. There's no sign of her or the canister of gas. But she can't be very far ahead of us." He studied the ground carefully. "This way."
Neither of his companions could see any tracks, but they followed as Jim moved confidently away from the helicopter.
They moved steadily onwards, until finally Banks said, "Ellison! It's getting dark. Now I'm prepared to believe you've been following a trail, but you can't possibly follow it in the dark. We have to stop, wait for morning."
"We've got to catch her!" Jim protested.
"Captain Banks is right," Connor said. "We can't keep going in the dark. If she hasn't stopped yet, she'll have to stop very soon; after all, she doesn't know she's being followed."
"It's not that dark yet," Jim protested, but even as he did, he realized that his eyes had been unconsciously adjusting to the reduced light intensity and it was much darker than he'd thought. "All right," he added reluctantly. "I tend to forget not everyone has as good night vision as I do."
As they settled down, resigned to a hungry and possibly chilly night, Jim was afraid that Alex Barnes wouldn't stop... unless for a short rest. She was carrying a canister of nerve gas, after all, and although the gas itself wouldn't be heavy, the metal canister was bound to weigh quite a bit, and would handicap her. She had to be aware that she would be followed, probably by Arguillo and his men, although first they would have to find the crashed helicopter... if in fact Arguillo realized that a lucky bullet had punctured the fuel tank. She might or might not know that Jim was also following, but he thought it probable that she did.
The three spoke desultorily for a few minutes, then Connor fell silent and Jim knew she was asleep. He was tired himself - more tired than he had realized while he was still concentrating on the trail he was following. He murmured, "'Night, Captain," and closed his eyes.
Jim woke in a clearing in the blue jungle. He glanced around; he was alone.
"Blair?" he asked. There was no reply.
His peripheral vision caught movement to one side, and he looked around. The black panther was padding forward, and he turned towards it. Apparently satisfied that he was paying attention to it, it turned and moved off, pausing at the edge of the trees to look back. Jim followed it.
It ran easily through the trees, and Jim found it surprisingly easy to follow. Its dark shape showed up against the blue of the jungle far more clearly than he had noticed on his previous visits.
As on the previous night, he seemed to run for a long time, yet it seemed no time at all before he found himself once again in the clearing beside the pyramid. The panther padded over to the steps and began to bound up them; Jim followed, noting that this time there was no sign of the wolf.
There was a low doorway at the top of the steps and he went in. Looking around, he realized he was in a passage that stretched away both to his right and his left. There was a faint glow from the walls that provided enough light for him to see. In front of him were several steps; he counted twenty as he went down them. The panther was waiting for him at the bottom, and he followed it along another passage that led some yards deeper into the pyramid before opening out into a square chamber. Looking around, he saw that there were hieroglyphics on the walls - he would have said 'decorating', but knew he wouldn't describe walls covered with writing as 'decorated'. These hieroglyphics were there to say something, and he had a sense that he should know what they meant, that he was supposed to know what they meant if he could only stop and think, stop and concentrate on them - but he knew that wasn't why the panther had brought him here.
Then he realized why it had. Two big troughs sat side by side in the center, and beside one of them was the wolf, with the panther standing beside it.
Four quick strides took Jim to the trough.
It was full of water. Lying in it, his face just breaking the surface, was Blair, a gag around his mouth. Peering into the water, Jim could see that Blair's arms were angled as if his hands were tied behind his back. His eyes were open, and there was a panicked look in them.
Jim reached into the water and pulled Blair into a sitting position; then quickly unfastened the gag.
"Oh, man!" Blair gasped.
"Are you all right?" Jim asked, though it seemed a weird question to ask of someone in this place that wasn't quite real.
"I knew you'd come if you could," Blair said. "But I knew she'd try to stop you."
Jim fumbled at the knot fastening Blair's wrists as he replied. "Barnes? Yes, she did. Last night - it was her I dreamed about, her I met in the jungle. She tried to seduce me in the waking world, and she nearly managed. If Banks and Connor hadn't come... God knows I didn't want her, but I couldn't stop myself. Ah!" He untied the rope. "What's going on?" he went on as he helped Blair out of the trough. They sat on the edge of it; Jim slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders, the movement instinctive, and Blair leaned against him, unquestioningly accepting the near embrace.
"What did she say, Jim?" Blair asked after a moment. "What did she want?"
"She said sentinels should rule. She wanted a child fathered by a sentinel."
Blair sighed as he pushed himself upright and away from the invitation of Jim's supporting arm. "The child of two sentinels would probably be driven insane by the amount of stimulus he received," he said. "But I understand now what she's after. She doesn't want me; she never did. I didn't realize it at the time, but she always did resent having to depend on my help, my guidance, even when she realized she needed that help to control her senses. I know now that I never loved Alex Barnes the person. I was drawn to Alex Barnes the sentinel. Whatever it is that gives someone sex appeal, I think that in her it's enhanced too.
"At the same time, she knows that if you bond with me, sentinel to guide, together we can resist her. So she acted to prevent us from bonding, by trying to bond with me again."
"But weren't you bonded to her already - sentinel to guide, as well as being married?" Jim asked.
"Yes, but I realize now that it wasn't a close bond - she never cared for me to begin with, I was just a tool; and it broke completely when she drowned me."
"So she's trying to bond with you again? How? By tying you up and putting you in a bath of cold water?"
"Lukewarm, in this climate," Blair said wryly. "In all the time I've been in the jungle, I hadn't found this place, but she must have been coming here for a while - here here, I mean, rather than just the jungle. She said she was able to understand the writing on the walls - " He gestured around.
Jim glanced up at the wall facing him. "I've a feeling I should be able to read them, but... " He shook his head.
"She told me what it says. There's a recipe for a hallucinogenic drug. If only one person takes the drug, it heightens his - her - senses; he - she - has visions. If there are two people, one in each trough, they share a vision and it bonds them.
"I told you, sometimes I sleep. She found me sleeping, and had me tied before I woke. Then she brought me here, told me about the shared vision, and forced me into the trough. I reminded her she didn't want me, and she said if it was the only way to stop me from bonding with you, she'd bond with me again. That after all, in the waking world, I wouldn't be there. She left, saying she was going to find the ingredients for the drug... God, Jim, I was terrified. I didn't want to be bonded to her."
"That's why I couldn't find you last night - I heard the wolf howling, and the sound led me here, but then she came before I could get into the pyramid." Jim frowned thoughtfully. "We have to get you out of here and away to somewhere safe - "
"There's no such place, here," Blair said sadly. "If she wants to find me, she just has to concentrate - just as I could find her, when she's here, if I wanted to. I didn't realize that before."
"So why couldn't I find you? I wanted to."
"I think it was because you and I aren't linked in the waking world. Alex and I were. Something of it has remained. I don't like it, but while I'm stuck here, I don't think there's very much I can do about it."
"Wait a minute," Jim said. "Do you actually have to be stuck here? We've met now, you've taught me some basic things, can't you just make yourself wake up? She can't force you to do anything you don't want to if you're awake. I know where to find you - you're in Cascade General - and you can always find me at the Cascade PD Major Crime Department - at least, you'll find me there after I get home again."
"Where are you now?" Somehow it hadn't occurred to Blair that Jim would be anywhere other than Cascade.
"Oh - Sierra Verde. Barnes stole some nerve gas and came here to sell it. Three of us followed her; we weren't too far behind her when we had to stop for the night. It was getting too dark - Banks and Connor couldn't see. But darkness wasn't going to stop her."
"Are they asleep now?" Blair asked.
"Then you have to wake up and follow her. But be careful, Jim."
On a sudden impulse, Jim leaned over to kiss Blair's forehead. "Always. But you be careful too. Try to wake up, and get yourself out of her reach."
"I'll try," Blair promised.
Jim sat up, fully alert. The night was nearly over; in the half light of early dawn it was easy for hin to see the trees and the uneven ground. He gave his sleeping companions one look, then rose, slightly stiffly - he had become unused to sleeping on the ground after a full day - moved to one side and relieved himself, then turned his attention back to the ground. The tracks were there - a little fainter than they had been, but still perfectly visible to his eyes. He swung into a steady jog, slowly at first and steadily speeding up.
It was not long before he entered a familiar clearing; and there in front of him was the pyramid.
In full daylight he could make out details that had been invisible in the blueness of his dreams There were the carved heads of jaguars at the foot of the stairs and at either side of the doorway, and carvings decorating the entire front.
Ignoring them, Jim started up the stairs. When he reached the doorway, he discovered that, unlike in his dream, he had to duck and keep his head down for a full two yards before the roof heightened and he was able to stand upright again.
Inside was as he remembered it, the passages leading off to right and left and in front of him, all lit by that weird glow. Then as he looked around, he felt something sharp sting his neck. He slapped his hand against it, felt something, gripped it and pulled; looked down at his hand and saw that he was holding a small feathered dart.
He felt dizzy, and leaned against the wall for support; and slid down it to lie unconscious on the floor just inside the doorway.
He woke feeling slightly sick, and lay for a moment gathering his thoughts. It felt as if he was lying in a bath of not-quite-cold water.
//Lukewarm, in this climate.// The memory was clear.
He tried to move, and found that he was paralyzed. He could breathe, but he couldn't move his arms or legs. He tried to open his eyes; it was an effort, but he managed.
Someone was sitting beside him, leaning over him. With an effort, he focused on the face. "You!" he managed.
Alex Barnes smiled down at him. "We were meant to be together," she said. "Soon we'll be bonded, and then you'll see how unimportant everyone else really is.
"There's a drug, made with local plants - the instructions for making it are written on the wall. I tried it last night - it was amazing. With it, your abilities will improve. My sensory awareness has doubled... " She leaned over as he tried to answer, and carefully poured a dark green liquid into his open mouth. He tried to spit it out but, unable to move his head, he failed. The liquid filled the back of his throat, and he was forced to swallow or choke.
She smiled; a triumphant smile that repelled him. "We'll bond soon," she promised. "I'll be back - after I've seen the Eye of God." She put the rough pottery cup holding the rest of the drug down on the side of the trough, rose, and walked briskly up the stairs towards the entrance.
Jim lay for a minute wondering how he could avoid the bond she was determined to have. He was quite sure she didn't like him, any more than he liked her; he was only a means to an end - to father the double sentinel child she wanted. He had no doubt that once she had her child, his value to her would be reduced to zero; and she had a proven history of killing - or attempting to kill - her husbands.
Gradually he found himself unable to think clearly; memories began to force themselves from the depths of his subconscious, where he had ruthlessly pushed them over the years. Memories of death, of destruction, of people hurt, people he had been unable to help; some he knew, while others were strangers but people who, as a police officer, he was sworn to protect. He saw Barnes opening the canister of gas in the middle of a shopping mall, laughing as the people around her collapsed, writhing in agony as the nerve gas worked its evil.
"No!" he gasped, and closed his eyes in a fruitless attempt to block the visions.
"What do you see?" The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't force his eyes open to see who it was.
"Death," he whispered. "Death and destruction. Some of it hasn't happened yet, but it will unless I can stop her..."
"Is there nothing else?"
A figure stepped out of the shadows of his mind, smiling, hands held out in welcome. "Blair!" he said, and found that he could open his eyes again.
He was aware of a faint tingling sensation in his limbs, and tried to move. This time he managed to sit up. He had to pause for a second - even so small a movement tired him - before he pulled himself out of the trough.
He looked towards the second trough; Barnes lay in it, only her face showing above the surface of the water. He frowned for a moment, thinking. Blair's words of the previous night came back to him.
//If there are two people, one in each trough, they share a vision and it bonds them.//
He had 'seen' Barnes open the canister, and the result. Did she share that vision? Or was that just another image of destruction that his mind had conjured up? It could be either... but if that was a shared vision, it was a hell of a way to create a link between two people!
No. He felt no tie to Barnes, and was aware of an overwhelming sense of relief. Standing, he took the single step that separated the two troughs, and looked down into it. There was something in one corner... He reached in, and pulled out a canister. The nerve gas! Relieved, he slipped it into the water he had just left, out of her reach. With luck he could fool her into thinking he had taken it somewhere else.
He had to get her back to Cascade... Something to fasten her hands. There were trees outside, he remembered, and in the tropical forest of Sierra Verde there were bound to be creepers he could use as rope. He turned towards the stairs.
Jim swung round. Barnes was sitting up, frustrated fury twisting her face into an ugly mask.
"We should be bonded! Why aren't we bonded?"
He crossed quickly back to her. "Maybe because you were already bonded to your second husband? Maybe because you bonded with him when your spirit put his into one of those baths last night, only he didn't bond with you because after what you did to him he didn't want you? And I don't want you either, Ms. Barnes. Maybe people only bond if they actually both want to. Maybe the revulsion Blair and I both feel towards you was enough to prevent a bond forming. How should I know? I'm just an unimaginative cop."
She glared at him, then lunged towards the corner of the trough where she had left the gas. "No!" she screamed. "Where is it? Where did you put it? I need it. I need it!"
Jim's smile curled his lips but didn't reach his eyes. "I had plenty of time to move it," he said.
"No. You wouldn't have had time to go far. It has to be somewhere just outside this temple... " She scrambled out of the trough on the side opposite him, and ran towards the steps. She was halfway up them when her head rose above the shadows into the direct light from the doorway, and she screamed. "Ah! My skin... it's on fire! My eyes! I can't see - the light's too bright, it's blinding me... " She screamed again and collapsed into a whimpering heap.
Not trusting her, Jim moved slowly forward, alert for treachery. As he reached the foot of the steps, a spotted jaguar seemed to step out of her body. It shook itself, bounded up the rest of the steps, glanced back at Jim with something almost apologetic in its stance, then turned and padded out of the doorway.
"Not even her spirit animal would stay with her." There was sadness in the voice.
Jim glanced behind him, recognizing the voice. He could see only a faint body-shaped shimmer. "Blair?"
"She was too greedy," Blair said. "She over-stimulated her senses when she went into the pool the second time hoping to bond with you, and now she has nothing. She's alone, trapped inside her mind, with nothing but empty memories and images of what she might have been, what she could have done."
"Will she recover?" Jim asked.
"I don't think so. I think her senses are burned out. But I think she's also stopped you and me from bonding properly; we've both been in one of the pools, and I for one wouldn't risk going back in again."
Jim was silent for a moment. "Maybe there are other ways to bond," he said. "I'll come and see you when I get back to Cascade."
The shimmer faded and was gone.
Jim turned his attention to the whimpering woman on the steps. He leaned down and touched her, still alert for treachery despite Blair's apparently knowing words. She gave no response. "Alex?" There was no sign that she heard him, and that was when he realized exactly what Blair had meant. Her senses had been destroyed.
Somehow Jim managed to drag her dead weight to the top of the steps and along the passageway into the open air. It was probably safe to leave her here, he thought; he would backtrack until he found Banks and Connor, and then decide what to do.
He saw movement among the trees, and crouched back in the passageway until he could see who it was; it was probably Banks, but he couldn't ignore the possibility that Arguillo had also found Barnes' trail.
Six people walked out of the trees; first were Banks and Connor, clearly prisoners; then Arguillo and three of his men. Two of them began to move towards the pyramid; and then, apparently from nowhere, a huge black cat bounded into sight. The men shrank back; one of them, with the courage of desperation, raised a gun and fired at it. The bullets made no impression on it, which didn't surprise Jim, who had recognised it instantly. There was no way those bullets would harm a spirit animal. Ignoring the two men, it stalked forward towards the other group. Arguillo pushed Connor forward towards it; it ignored her as well, and leaped, landing on Arguillo, carrying him to the ground. Then it raised its head and roared... and vanished. Arguillo lay motionless.
His men turned, and ran back into the jungle as if the devil were after them. Jim watched them go, quietly certain that none of them would get out of it alive.
He moved out of the passageway. "Captain!"
Banks looked up at him and he made his way down the steps to join his friends.
Three days later, Jim walked into a small room in Cascade General Hospital.
The woman sitting beside the bed, reading aloud from what sounded like an anthropology textbook, looked up, startled, and broke off mid-sentence. She studied him for a moment, then said, "I think you're in the wrong room."
Jim smiled as he looked at the man lying in the bed. "No, ma'am. I'm in the right room. You're Blair's mother? I'm Jim Ellison."
She nodded, but still looked doubtful. "He's never mentioned you."
"We haven't known each other very long."
"Just a few days, really," he admitted.
"A few days? My son has been lying here unconscious for weeks, Mr. Ellison."
"I know." He looked down at the man he had come to think of as a close friend. "But I think he's about ready to wake up."
"Who are you?" There was anger in her voice.
"I'm the cop who tracked down the 'wife' who tried to kill him."
She stiffened. "The hospital thinks - " she began
"The hospital thinks wrong. She was a criminal, Ms. Sandburg; she tricked Blair into marrying her, and when he was no longer of use to her, she tried to kill him."
"How do you know that?"
"I'm a detective, and I'm good at my job." He wasn't sure how open she would be to the full truth.
"Where is she now? That woman?"
"Dead," he replied. He turned his attention back to the bed. "Blair? Come on, Chief, it's past time for you to wake up. I need you, Chief; you know I need you. There's so much I still have to learn."
There was no movement from the man lying there.
Jim leaned down and gently kissed Blair's forehead, as he had done in his dream - and as he straightened again, Blair's eyes opened.
Blair blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light, trying to focus on the two dark figures beside the bed.
"Naomi," Blair murmured. He smiled, then looked at the taller figure. "Jim..." and the note of contentment in his voice made the older man catch his breath.
"You do know him!" Naomi exclaimed. "But when did you meet him? Where?"
Blair's smile broadened. "In our dreams," he said softly. "In our dreams."
"All right," Blair said. "What happened after Alex collapsed? The wolf pulled me away, and I sat in that blue jungle for a while, and then I woke up in the hospital bed and you were there. What happened?" He was sitting on the couch in Jim's loft apartment, basking in the heat of the fire while Jim made coffee; his weeks of unconsciousness had left him weak, but fit enough otherwise, and when Jim offered him the use of his small spare room until he could find an apartment - his previous home on Dawson Road being a gutted ruin - he had been quick to accept.
Naomi, after initially watching their interaction with suspicious eyes, had proved more accepting of the mystic aspect of their friendship than Jim would have expected, although they hadn't spoken about what had happened in Sierra Verde. Apparently satisfied that Blair had found someone who would look out for his interests, she had waved a cheerful goodbye just before he discharged himself, three days after he regained consciousness, and left his hospital room with an airy, "I'll be in touch, sweetie." As the door closed behind her, Jim had glanced at Blair, seeing the resigned look on his face.
"Does that happen often?" he asked.
Blair shrugged. "All the time, man," he said. "She's a wanderer - her grandparents were gypsies, and never stayed long in one place. Although her father settled down when he married, she was like them, never happy staying in one place for long. Me - I took after her father; once I went to Rainier I put down roots. Pretty elastic ones, I admit; as an anthropology student I traveled around a bit, went on two or three expeditions - but I was always drawn home again. I'll see her again in a few months, when the wind blows her back this way."
That had been barely an hour earlier, and Jim had wasted no time in getting Blair home.
Jim poured the coffee. "Milk?" he asked. "Sugar?" He was suddenly aware that he actually knew very little about this man.
"Black is fine, thanks," Blair said and Jim, carrying the two mugs, went over to him.
Jim gave him a mug, and sat beside him.
"You know Barnes is dead?" he asked gently. "The coroner's verdict is that she had a massive stroke."
"Under the circumstances, it was the kindest thing that could happen," Blair said. "What about the nerve gas?"
"We retrieved it, and it's safely back with the army where it belongs. Arguillo, the man she was trying to sell it to - he's dead too. The verdict there was a heart attack, but actually the panther killed him."
"You saw that?" Blair sounded excited.
"Yes. I think his men did, too, but none of them got out of the rain forest alive. But even if they had, they wouldn't have been believed, because there wasn't a mark on him."
Blair sipped his coffee. After a few moments, he said, "What about Ortega?"
"We couldn't actually prove anything against him, but now that Arguillo is dead and Leon Ortega isn't being threatened by him, I think Ortega will go back to being an honest cop. But quite frankly, I don't much care. I don't plan to get involved in Sierra Verde's internal affairs; Cascade is enough for me."
"Your territory," Blair murmured.
"Ours," Jim said. "A sentinel needs a guide, right?"
"Usually," Blair agreed. "But to be fully effective, they need to bond... and we can't."
"Well, I've been thinking about that," Jim said. He put his mug down, took Blair's from his hand and put it on the table as well. Then, as Blair turned his head to look at him, Jim leaned forward and touched his lips to Blair's forehead again. Both men stiffened as they realized they suddenly had a new awareness of each other.
"Remember me doing that in the temple?" Jim asked. "And I did it again in the hospital, and you woke."
"And the third time's the charm," Blair said. He smiled. "But more than that - I realize now, we did share a vision... in the jungle, when I was beginning to teach you."
Jim nodded. "How closely can you work with me?" he asked. "You have your position at Rainier - "
"Which is fairly elastic," Blair said, "because we have the 'publish or perish' sword hanging over our heads. So if we need time off for research, we can get it, within reason. As long as I give two or three lectures a week, I don't see any reason why I can't ride along with you till you get your senses properly under control, and justify it by writing some articles on the work cops do, the social structure of a big police station, trying to understand the criminal mind... I'll go in and have a word with the Chancellor tomorrow morning, then we can beard your boss in the afternoon - that sound like a plan to you?"
"Yes," Jim said. "That definitely sounds like a plan."