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"It is time to foster young Jamie."
Uilleam Fraser looked almost helplessly at his foster-brother, the one man he allowed to speak to him so freely. "I know that, Euan. but Mhairi is unwilling to let him go just yet."
"You have ever been too indulgent in your dealings with her," Euan said quietly.
"Have you not always told me so?" Uilleam asked wryly. "But you know her history."
Some twelve years previously, Murdo MacKenna had bought a bull from a man called Donal Grant, who swore it was a potent breeder. It had failed to sire one calf - indeed, Murdo's herdsmen had never seen it showing any interest in the cows at all, even when they were in season and blatantly offering themselves to the bull. It was clear that Grant had cheated MacKenna. It was Grant's shame, and MacKenna's right to retribution. However, MacKenna did not know where Grant lived; they had met for the first time at the Dalmally sale where MacKenna bought the useless bull.
MacKenna planned to confront Grant at the next sale. He and his foster-brother Lachlan had arrived a few days early, and the evening before the actual day Lachlan chanced to meet Ronan Grant, there with his ten-year-old daughter Mhairi. Ronan had some calves to sell, and Mhairi had begged to be allowed to make the journey with him.
Ronan turned, wondering who was calling him and in such a hostile tone. He frowned, puzzled. "Do I know you?" he asked.
"Nay, but you know my brother, you who cheated him out of the price of a useless bull last year!"
Ronan shook his head. "I only sell calves," he protested. "Whoever sold your brother the bull, I did not."
"You would add lying to your cheating!" Lachlan exclaimed. With a quick move he drew his dirk and attacked. Taken completely by surprise, Ronan was too late to defend himself. As he lay bleeding to death, Lachlan turned to Mhairi, his dirk again raised.
She screamed, and ran.
Luckily for her, two men who knew her were not too far away, and when she saw them she ran to them for protection.
Lachlan confronted them - and it was then that he learned he had killed the wrong man. A chance resemblance, enough to fool a man who had only seen the cheating dealer for a few minutes a year previously, combined with the coincidence of the two men having the same name; an innocent man had died, a young woman was traumatised, a woman with four other children younger than Mhairi was left widowed, with the responsibility of running their croft for her six-year-old son.
MacKenna paid the blood price for Ronan's murder, appreciating what Lachlan had done - tried to do - for him.
Donal Grant was not at the Dalmally sale that year, nor was he ever seen in those parts again.
"What happened to her was unfortunate," Euan agreed, "but such things happen."
Uilleam nodded. "Such things happen," he agreed. "And who knows how many children suffer from the feuding of their fathers? Mhairi was left very nervous, you know that; she will always be afraid of strangers, afraid to trust, afraid to entrust her son to a family she barely knows."
"Jamie does not have to go to strangers," Euan said. "Neall McArthur, your piper; he has two sons, one a year older than Jamie, one a few months younger. He would be happy to foster Jamie."
"You have spoken to him on the matter?"
"Yes and no. He approached me a day or two ago, knowing that Jamie is close to his second birthday, wondering if you had given any thought to where he would be fostered. I promised to speak for him."
Uilleam thought about it for some moments. Neall MacArthur was a good man, his wife Kate was a hard worker, and her four children were all close enough to Jamie in age that he would have plenty of companionship as he grew up, and with two of them older, there would also be plenty of opportunity for him to learn that he was not the most important person in the clan. Yes; Neall would make an ideal foster-father for young Jamie.
Two days after Jamie's second birthday, his father took him to Neall MacArthur's house. Neall and Kate were waiting for him; and in the kitchen with them were their four children; five-year-old Mairead, three-year-old Alasdair, eighteen-month-old Blair and the baby Cara, barely a month old. Mairead and Alasdair were old enough to be curious about this boy who, they had been told, was their new brother. Their parents had told them no more than that, even although they were still too young to understand the clan heirarchy. Jamie must grow up as their brother, not knowing that he was the heir to the clan chief until the concept of first among equals was an instinctive part of his thinking.
Jamie did not really miss his father after Uilleam left. He barely knew him; his days had been spent with his mother, and her, he did miss. Not that he had been spoiled, exactly, but he was accustomed to being the first in her thoughts. So initially he clung to Kate, the mother-figure in this new, strange life where he was no longer the only child but had to share his 'mother's' attention with four other children. At first he resented the two younger children, especially the baby who needed so much of Kate's time; but slowly he began to appreciate the greater freedom of movement that he had in this new life, where he was allowed to run... not wild, but reasonably freely. The children were allowed to learn through play the skills they might need in their lives - including social skills - but it took only one spanking to teach Jamie, young though he was, that his foster parents' few rules were there to be obeyed. Mairead's position as the oldest gave her a position of responsibility that she took seriously, and that one spanking taught him that if he did not pay attention to her words, he could get into trouble. It was only as he got older that he realized that, young though she was, she was learning how to care for even younger children, readying her for the day when she would marry and have children of her own.
He had paid little attention, at first, to his two younger foster siblings. Blair was barely old enough to join the older children, while Cara was simply - to his two-year-old mind - a noisy, smelly nuisance that took his foster mother's attention away from him - a nuisance that was joined, some seven months later, by another baby that appeared, as if by magic, overnight; Stewart. By then, Blair was two and of an age for Kate to leave him in Mairead's care; and for some reason he insisted on attaching himself to Jamie, who found himself becoming very fond of the younger boy. Before long, he barely remembered that for the first months of his life with the MacArthurs he had ignored Blair.
All the children of the scattered community played together, when they had time away from the chores all had to do, the older ones all keeping an eye on the younger ones. Over the next two or three years he learned their strengths and weaknesses, never realizing that his knowledge of them would one day be of value to him. By the time he was seven, Mairead had her responsibilities in and around the house, and no longer played with the younger children. In four, perhaps five, years she would be married; she already knew how to look after young children, now she had to know everything about running a house. She could already milk a cow, now she had to practice making butter and cheese. She could already mend a torn shirt, now she had to learn how to stitch one. From watching their mother, she had a fair knowledge of how to cook and bake, now she had to do those. Jamie did not envy her those domestic jobs although he too had had to learn how to milk a cow, because it was the young men who took the cattle to the high pastures in the summer and the cows still needed to be milked when they were there. Indeed, he quite enjoyed doing it, although it was not something he would ever admit openly.
So it now fell to him to take responsibility for the younger children, soon coming to understand that his foster parents considered him more reliable than Alasdair, who in any case had his own lessons to learn; as the oldest son, Alasdair was expected to become a piper, like his father, and from the time he was seven had had to spend long hours practising.
Jamie understood that in another year or so, he too would have to learn a skill to prepare him for the day when he was no longer a child supported by his parents, but expected to support himself and - in due course - a wife. He would never be a piper; he had tried, but he had no talent for it. A pity, in a way; he could see that as piper to the Chief his foster father had a standing in the community that none of the other men had, apart from Euan Donn MacFarquhar, the Chief's Overseer. Indeed, it was well known that before he married, Neall MacArthur had lived in the Big House, as Euan Donn still did... Of course, Euan Donn had never taken a wife.
Well, the decision would not be his; his foster father would decide what would be best. When he thought about it, Jamie hoped that he would be sent to work with the cattle - he had several times helped drive them from the low ground to the high pastures, or back again, as they were moved to different grazing depending on the season, and it seemed to him that watching over the beasts was more enjoyable than working in the fields, though even some of the herdsmen helped with the harvest. But for the rest of the year... Digging, planting, weeding... Boring. But - he shrugged philosophically - if that was where he was needed when he was ten, he would just have to make the best of it.
Jamie was more than surprised when, on his eighth birthday, his foster father took him, and Blair with him, to the Big House, where one of the women showed them into a room furnished more grandly than he would have thought possible. Two men waited there - one he recognized as Euan Donn, but the other? As finely dressed he was... could that be the Clan Chief?
Frantically, Jamie searched his conscience, trying desperately to remember if he had done anything, anything at all, that would make his foster father bring him here instead of summarily punishing him. He could think of nothing; no sins, even those of omission.
"Ah, Jamie," the Chief was saying, and Jamie quickly pulled his attention back from his thoughts and directed it at the Chief. "MacArthur tells me that you are a lad who shows considerable promise. I think, from what he says, it is time to give you an education."
Education? Even for the piper's son, that was unheard-of. For one who was merely the piper's foster son - and he had no idea of who his real parents were; for all he knew, they were felons who had been executed for any sort of nameless crime - it was like a miracle. "Thank you, sir," he managed.
"And you, Blair; you are close to Jamie in age, your father tells me that you are of an inquisitive nature, always seeking to know about things; it seems to me that even although you are still relatively young, you would also benefit from an education, as well as giving Jamie some competition in his lessons."
"Thank you, sir," Blair echoed.
"Starting on Monday, you will both come here in the mornings, every day except the Sabbath, from nine until one, when you will attend the tutor I have arranged for you. That should not interfere too much with their assigned chores?" The chief directed the question to Neall.
"Their chores can be organized around those hours," Neall agreed.
A few more words, and Neall ushered the boys out. As they left the Big House, Jamie whispered, "We are getting an education? That is... wonderful!" Blair nodded agreement, for it was an opportunity granted to very few of the village boys. "But Alasdair will not like it, that Blair is to accompany me, and not him."
"Alasdair has his path in life set. He shows great promise as a piper; when I am too old to continue as the piper to the Chief, he will be ready to take my place. It is an important position. Blair, on the other hand, is like you; he has no talent for the pipes. You will both benefit from being lettered."
Jamie had been right; Alasdair was not best pleased that his younger brothers were being given an education, were learning to read and write, while he remained illiterate. It was the first time Jamie had seen his foster father really angry with any of them; even when he had punished any of them for disobedience or taking an unnecessary risk, it had been calmly, without apparent anger; this time he lost his calmness as he told Alasdair clearly that he had his career set, he did not need education.
It frightened even the children who had done nothing wrong, and drove Alasdair into a sullen silence.
Both boys enjoyed their lessons. Both were intelligent and learned quickly; their tutor was pleased with them, and so, it seemed, was the Chief; they did not see him often, but when they did, he eyed them with approval.
The next four years passed quickly.
Jamie and Blair, already close, became inseperable, sharing everything, their only competition being when each sought to obtain better results than the other when their tutor tested their knowledge, but it was rare that there was more than a single mark between their results, with sometimes Jamie and sometimes Blair having the higher mark. They were very evenly matched.
On Jamie's twelfth birthday, he was called to the Chief's study. This time he went without any apprehension; he had been doing well in his lessons, and he had discovered that the Chief, distant though he seemed to be, was not a bogieman. He did wonder, briefly, why only he had been summoned, but it didn't particularly matter. He could tell Blair about it afterwards.
He knocked on the door, and entered on the Chief's call of "Come."
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes, Jamie." The Chief studied the boy before him for some moments, then - "This is your twelfth birthday. For ten years you have lived with Neall MacArthur as his son; now it is time for you to take your rightful place in the clan."
Jamie looked at him, puzzled. Yes, he knew that Neall was his foster father... but 'his rightful place...'? And how did the Chief know that this was his birthday?
"Jamie, you have grown up not knowing the name of your father-by-blood. Now I tell you; your name is Fraser. You are my son, and it is time for you to return here and learn how to manage the clan lands."
"Here?" he whispered. "Your son?"
Uilleam Fraser smiled. "My son, and I am proud of you. The reports Neall has given me over the years... and your tutor's reports, this last four years... Yes, I am pleased."
Jamie could only stand in silence as he absorbed the information. Then, "You had Blair educated with me?"
"I think Blair is to you what Euan is to me; Euan is my foster-brother, my closest friend, my confidante, my adviser."
"Yes," Jamie said. He was silent for a moment, thinking, and a faint, vague memory surfaced, of a woman who had cared for him... He looked up, and asked tentatively, "What of my mother?"
A look of grief passed over Uilleam's face. "Dead," he said quietly. "She died some seven months after you went to live with Neall MacArthur; the birth fever took her a week after your brother was born."
"I have a blood sibling?" Sheer surprise gave Jamie a boldness he knew Neall would have called impertinence.
"Stewart," Uilleam said. "I had half hoped that he would prove to be the brother you turned to, but the three years between you proved to be too great a span - when your heart was drawn to Blair."
"Stewart was never drawn to me," Jamie said. "From his earliest days playing with the other children, his closest friend was - is - Fearghal MacInnes."
"Older son of Innes the deerstalker," Uilleam mused. "His father is a reliable man. What do you think of the son?"
Jamie hesitated briefly. The Chief was asking him what he thought? Surely Neall would have reported on Stewart's life, as it was now clear he had reported on Jamie's. But he had been asked, and he had no real doubts about Fearghal; if he had had any, he would have tried to discourage Stewart's friendship with him, considering it his responsibiity to the younger boy that he had believed was another foster brother. "I have never seen in him anything to make me doubt his friendship with Stewart," he said. "He is not particularly quick-witted but... I have to admit he has been a steadying influence on Stewart. Young through he is, Stewart is likely to leap at something without considering if it is dangerous. Fearghal can persuade him to think first, to look and assess the situation before committing himself to action. But if you intend to have Stewart educated... I do not think Fearghal would benefit over-much from joining the lessons. He could, I think, learn to read and possibly even to write his name, but I do not think he would ever do well in a classroom. However, that does not prevent him from being a good and faithful friend."
"Yes, Stewart must have his education; it will begin on his next birthday." Uilleam obviously saw the way Jamie was looking at him; Stewart would be nine on his next birthday, a year older than Jamie had been when his academic education had begun. "Neall MacArthur's opinion of Fearghal MacInnes is much the same as yours. A good influence on Stewart, but unlikely to benefit much from the attention of a tutor, and so I waited an extra year... We will attempt to have him taught to read and write, at least; even if he does not progress past a very simple level, those are skills that as Stewart's chosen companion will be of use to him."
This was unheard-of! The chief - all right, his father-by-blood - was treating Jamie as an adult. Certainly he was of an age when the village boys would be beginning serious training for whatever their duties to the clan would be... but to be spoken to as if he were an adult, to have his opinion listened to?
And then he realized... this was, this had to be, the beginning of his training as the Chief's heir.
The next few years passed uneventfully. By the time Jamie was seventeen, Uilleam's health was beginning to fail, and he handed more and more of the running of the clan lands to Jamie; with Blair's able assistance, he improved the quality of the cattle grazed on clan territory, and by the time Uilleam died four years later, the older man knew that his son would be a worthy chief of the clan.
Jamie looked up as his study door opened, not best pleased at the interruption. It was Alasdair who entered, however, and his piper foster-brother was accorded more leeway than most.
It seemed to Jamie that Alasdair looked just a little apprehensive, although he could not think why.
"Alasdair!" he said cheerfully. "What brings you here at this time of day?" for it was not yet noon.
"One of the cattle in the river field is lying dead," Alasdair said. "The hoodies are showing an interest; if we want the meat, someone should go now for the carcase."
Jamie nodded. Whatever had killed the beast, it would be wasteful to let the carrion-eating birds get the meat; if it had died of a murrain, cooking would destroy the evil humors that caused it. "Help yourself to ale," he said as he rose. He was aware that Alasdair poured a mugful with surprising speed and had swallowed the first mouthful before he had even reached the door.
As he reached the outer door, Jamie could hear voices. "Tak' care!" one snapped, louder than the others, and he recognised the voice of Calum, the senior herdsman. He opened the door on a scene of absolute horror.
Four men were carrying a roughly-made litter, and on it...
"Blair!" Jamie hurried forward, seeing the blood, the terrible gash across the young man's throat, knowing instantly that his younger foster-brother, the one who held his heart, was beyond help. He looked at Calum. "What happened?"
"His brother happened!" Calum growled. "I saw them talkin', doon near the devil's acre. I dinna ken whit was said, I wis too far awa', but I wager that whitever young Blair said, whitever angered Alasdair, wis a truth that hit hame. Havin' said it, Blair wis turnin' awa an' didna' see Alasdair pullin' out his dirk. I yelled a warnin', an' Blair swung roond, but it wis clear he wis only expectin' a blow, no' an attack wi' a dirk. Alasdair had tae ken that someone wis there an' could see him, whit he did, but it didna' stop him. He stabbed Blair in the neck, threw the dirk aside, an' ran, where to I dinna' ken - I wis more concerned wi' Blair, wi' tryin' tae help him, but he wis deid when I reached him. I called the lads frae their wark tae bring him hame... The dirk is there, beside him. Ye canna' help but know it."
Jamie nodded. Yes, he recognised it; he had given it to Alasdair when he inherited the clan lands. He laid his hand on Blair's forehead; his skin was already growing cold. "Blair," he whispered. Raising his head, he saw Calum watching him, saw the terrible understanding in the old man's eyes. Yes - Calum knew the dilemma Jamie was in.
"Alasdair maun pay for this," Calum said quietly. "Killing a brother is the greatest sin there is." There was a murmur of agreement from the other men. "Even if it means you have tae kill - tae execute - Alasdair, who is also your brother."
Jamie nodded. "Alasdair is making of me a man who also kills his brother," he said. "But I will carry that responsibility without shame, for my greater loyalty is - must be - to the brother he slew." He drew a deep breath. "Take Blair to his room, and have the women prepare him for burial."
Calum nodded and Jamie swung back, heading for his study, sure now that Alasdair's tale of a dead stirk has been only an excuse to enter the Chief's study.
He had half expected Alasdair to have gone by the time he re-entered the room, for he had to have heard, had to have known... But he was still sitting there. As Jamie entered, he raised the mug to his lips and swallowed the last of its contents. There was a calculating expression on his face.
Jamie glared at him. "Did you think that what you did was not seen? There is a witness to testify against you, and your dirk with Blair's blood on it lying beside him. But you did know that, didn't you." He walked over to stand in front of Alasdair. "Why?" he asked.
"He had what should have been mine."
"What should have been yours?"
"I'm the oldest. I should have been the one... "
"Alasdair, I gave you a position that suited your talents. Even our father said you were a better piper than he ever was."
"But it was Blair you turned to for advice, never me, although he was younger."
"Blair had a way of seeing things that made his advice fair, impartial, unprejudiced. That was his gift, as piping was yours."
"You always loved him best," Alasdair muttered. "As for me - did you ever love me at all?"
"I loved you both. Yes, I loved you in different ways, for the different qualities you had. But I can no longer trust you, Alasdair, for you murdered our brother, and his soul cries out for justice."
"Ye canna' touch me"!" In this moment of confrontation, Alasdair reverted briefly to the speech of his childhood. He grabbed the mug and waved it in Jamie's face. "Even if you choose to forget that I am your brother, your ale is in my belly, given to me freely, and so for three days you cannot raise a hand against me, if you are not to be shamed forever."
"And what of your shame?" Beyond anger, Jamie spoke very quietly.
Alasdair gave a harsh laugh. "Blair was ever a thorn in my flesh. All I have done is remove that thorn."
"And now you are a thorn in mine. Did you think that with him dead I would turn to you? No. Even if you had not killed him, even if he had never been born, I would not turn to you for advice. You think too much of yourself, of how something will affect you. You remind me that you are my brother, but you and I are kin only through fosterage, close though that tie is; and yet you expect me to remember and honour that over the fact that you killed the brother who shared your blood?
"Whatever I do, I am shamed because of you. Shamed for turning against a brother. Shamed if I betray the three-day law of hospitality. Shamed if I do not seek retribution for the death of my brother Blair.
"You have your three days, MacNeall. Use them well, for I hereby declare blood feud against you. Be very sure - if I ever see you again, I will have your blood, even though it breaks our mother's heart." He turned and walked out of the room.
He went direct to Blair's bedroom, finding, as he had expected, that the women were already there washing Blair's body and readying him for burial. They retreated as he entered, giving him the privacy he needed. He took Blair's limp hand and pressed it to his lips. "Forgive me, my brother," he murmured, "that I did not immediately kill Alasdair to avenge you. He tricked me - and not even for you dare I flout the rules of hospitality. He was jealous of your place in my heart, Blair, but now he has lost everything - and that, perhaps, is the greater punishment."
Alasdair had gone by the time Jamie returned to his study, probably by way of the open window.
Like his father, Alasdair had lived in the Big House until his marriage a few months previously, when he had moved to a house in the scattered village. Jamie guessed that he had gone home for what he could carry, and he could only hope that wherever Alasdair was heading, he would keep going and not try to stop anywhere within a month's steady travel.
If his wife had gone with him, fine. If not... Jamie's quarrel was not with her, and he would not see her suffer for Alasdair's crime. Bad enough that she would have the status of a widow - but one who couldn't remarry, because her husband was, as far as she knew, alive.
In the evening, Jamie went to speak to his foster-father and mother. Calum, and the men he had called on to help carry Blair's body to the Big House, had not been quiet about it, and village gossip being what it was, they had already heard about it in some detail. Neall wore an expression of shock; Kate had obviously spent time weeping, but had pulled herself together.
"Is it true?" Neall asked, the moment Jamie walked into the house.
"If what you heard is that Alasdair killed Blair - aye. Calum saw it, but was too distant to intervene."
"And Alasdair?" Neall asked.
"Gone. I declared blood feud on him, warned him that if I ever saw him again one of us would die."
Neall nodded. "It cannot be easy for you."
"No more easy for me than it can be for you, father... mother."
"Did Alasdair tell you why?" Neall asked.
"He envied Blair his place at my side," Jamie said. "He accused me of not loving him enough."
Kate said sadly, "He was my first-born son, and I loved him, but I could see his faults. Even as a baby, he wanted to be first, wanted to be thought the best at whatever he did. He was ever selfish, and I often thought that the only person he loved was himself."
Jamie slept restlessly that night. Towards dawn he finally sank into a deeper slumber, but it gave him no relief; his dead foster-brother walked in his dreams, gazing reproachfully at him, yet with an odd understanding in his eyes.
"Forgive me, Blair," he murmured in his dream. "I failed you. I knew that Alasdair resented your place in my heart, but chose not to think of it, because he too was my brother; I felt guilt that I did not love him more. He was right when he asked me if I ever loved him - I think I did not. Even when we were boys I never really trusted him, although I never dreamed that he would stoop so low as to murder you! How could he ever have hoped that with you dead I would turn to him? When you died at his hand? And I am damned whatever I do. How can I leave you unavenged, yet how can I kill one brother to avenge the other? Tell me that!"
You will do what is right, when the time comes.
"Then the day will come when I see him again?"
Aye. On Drumossie Moor. And on that day, we will meet again.
And finally Jamie slept without dreaming.
With Alasdair gone (and his wife had indeed gone with him) Jamie persuaded Neall to resume the position he had resigned, when Uilleam died, as piper to the Chief; and he turned to Euan Donn, old though he now was, as adviser. But the joy had gone out of his life, and he no longer sought to pursue the innovations that Blair had encouraged in an attempt to improve the living conditions of his people. Euan's now somewhat old-fashioned views did not challenge Jamie in any way, and he was glad of it.
Slowly, as the months passed, Jamie began to take an interest in life again. As the anniversary of Blair's death passed, Euan persuaded Jamie that he should take someone younger as adviser, and for a brief hour Jamie wondered whether his brother Stewart might serve - but Stewart had never lost the impetuousness that only Feaghal MacInnes could control, and consideration quickly told Jamie that while Stewart might be a competent Chief with Feaghal at his side, he would never be a good adviser.
A chief's adviser was normally his foster-brother... but Jamie now had no foster-brothers. There were only his foster-sisters -
Jamie's thoughts paused there. Cara was content in her position as the wife of old Calum's grandson and mother to three promising boys, but Mairead's husband had died some seven months after her marriage, drowned when he tried to take a short cut across the arm of a frozen loch; the ice, apparently strong enough to bear his weight when he stepped onto it, had proved to be thinner than he expected once he was half-way over, and had broken under him. Mairead had not remarried - because she had not quickened during the months of her marriage, it was feared that she was barren, and so no man had sought her hand. She had been a sensible and reliable influence on Jamie when she was ten and he was seven; and while it went against custom, there was no law to say that he couldn't choose a sister as adviser.
And so Mairead became his adviser. Not as novel in her thinking as Blair had been, she still had a keen mind and an eye to what would be good for the clan, and for the next five years the clan prospered. Two years after Blair's murder, Jamie married Rowan, the oldest daughter of a neighbouring chieftain, and within the year found himself the father of twin sons. When they were two, he had the boys fostered by Cara and her husband. His daughter was born a year later.
They paid little attention to what was happening in the world outside their home glen. What need? Let those who were interested in politics squabble among themselves. Jamie - a minor chief - paid his taxes to the supreme Chief of the Frasers. Beyond that, he had no great interest in the world outside his home glen.
And then, two weeks into August, a messenger arrived from the Fraser chief. All the clan was being mobilised in support of the young Stuart Prince, Tearlach. Jamie was summoned to the supreme Chief's home, with instructions to take with him forty men.
He thought about these orders for some minutes after the messenger had left on his way to the next glen.
"You can't refuse to go," Mairead said, but it was clear from her voice that she was far from happy about it.
"I know. But forty men... that is a lot, from such a small clan as we are. There will be fighting; some will die. Who can I take without leaving the glen short of able-bodied men to tend the beasts and gather the harvest? And without possibly leaving women with young bairns widows?"
They discussed the matter for some time, and eventually decided on forty names. Jamie gathered the selected men, one of them his foster-father, and next morning they marched out, Jamie leaving Stewart and Fearghal to manage his lands, with Mairead's advice.
The clans gathered at Glenfinnan on August 19th, and marched eastwards. Edinburgh was taken with little effort. At the subsequent battle at Prestonpans, short thought it was, Jamie lost the first two of his men.
The Jacobite army remained in Edinburgh for some weeks; Jamie considered this a prudent move. Forced for the first time to consider the politics of what was happening, it seemed to him that if they could hold Edinburgh, they would hold Scotland. He listened when others spoke, and believed what some of the more outspoken said, that if they could hold Scotland they could break free of the Treaty of Union, formulated before Jamie was born, a worthless paper with provisions that the English government had begun to breach before the ink of the signatures on it was even dry.
Just who was responsible for the orders to march south, heading for London - in November, with the winter coming on - Jamie never learned. Weather conditions were not good; for part of the time they were marching through snow, and morale among the clansmen began to fail. He was not totally susprised when, at Derby, just over a hundred miles from London, the army was turned and marched north again.
In many ways, he reflected, the sensible thing to have done, once they were retreating north, was for the Prince to abandon the Rising and tell everyone to go home. If the Redcoat army investigated the glens, the soldiers would find everyone busily occupied with preparations for spring; preparing for planting and calving and the other tasks that needed to be done. But Jamie wasn't surprised when that didn't happen; he had formed no great opinion of the Prince's common sense. Tearlach was a man who, having committed himself to something, was stubborn in pursuing it. Left to him, his army would have continued marching south, instead of turning at Derby; it was an open secret among the men that Tearlach had been more than reluctant to agree to the retreat.
The Jacobite army was suffering badly from the cold and lack of adequate food; few of the people in the towns they passed were willing to provide them with food. Jamie suspected that the leaders, Tearlach and his immediate advisers, were well-fed enough, but even the supreme chiefs of the clans did not get any more than their men did.
Though they were far from defeated. In late January, they routed the redcoat army at Falkirk, but despite this victory they continued marching north.
If there was one thing the Highlanders prided themselves on, it was loyalty, but even loyalty has its limits. Jamie was not the only man to understand that it was now only a matter of time before they were, for the first time, defeated. Each morning saw the army reduced in numbers as men whose homes were not too far from their route slipped away during the hours of darkness. Jamie himself let it be known among the surviving thirty-eight of his men that he would understand if any of them decided that enough was enough; the next day, he found that there were now only twenty-three of his original force still marching with the army.
Finally they reached Inverness, and stayed there, knowing that a redcoat army was also marching on Inverness. Seven weeks later, the two armies met on a dreich, deserted stretch of moorland. As they waited for the order to advance, Jamie glanced at the leader of a group of men who were stationed beside him, knowing that Lachlan Grant's home was not far from Inverness. "What is this place?" he asked.
"Drumossie Moor," Grant answered.
Jamie nodded, not surprised. He turned to Neall. "We will meet Alasdair today," he said, "and then I will die."
There was no reply that Neall could make.
The order came to charge; handicapped by the boggy ground and the rank clumps of heather, the usual Highland charge lacked force, but even if they had been on ground more suited to their usual tactics, they were unable to face the rifle fire directed at them by the redcoat army. The redcoats had been slow to learn how to combat the Highlanders' attack; now, it seemed, they had learned an effective counter-move.
Courage can only accomplish a certain amount; the survivors, many of them walking wounded, fled. Those unable to walk lay where they had fallen, hoping for help that would never arrive.
Uninjured, Jamie was leading the eight survivors of his party away from the battleground when he stopped, staring down at one of the injured. "MacNeall!" he said.
His foster-brother looked up at him, and then, shuddering, looked past him to Neall MacArthur. "Father?"
Neall shook his head. "You are no son of mine," he replied.
Alasdair looked back at Jamie. "Are you going to kill me, brother?" he asked.
Jamie glanced at Neall, whose face betrayed nothing. "I said I would, the next time I saw you," he said quietly, "but on consideration, I would not add fratricide to my shame; I would not kill my brother in front of our father." He looked at the leg injury that was preventing Alasdair from trying to escape. "I think you will die soon enough, in any case." He turned away, and moved on.
He had gone only a couple of steps when a sharp pain in his side stopped him in mid-stride. As he collapsed, he heard a roar of outrage from Neall; there was a flurry of movement, and then Neall threw Alasdair's limp body to the ground. Somehow the injured man had found the strength to drag himself to his feet and stab Jamie.
Neall dropped to his knees beside Jamie. "How bad is it?"
"Bad," Jamie gasped. He was rapidly losing strength and as he looked down at the growing pool of blood that was already beginning to soak into the ground, he knew that he was bleeding to death. "The night he died, Blair's spirit told me we would meet again on Drumossie Moor. I think he is coming now for me. Take the men, father, and get them safe home. Give mother, Cara and Mairead my love, tell Stewart that he must act as my factor until Colin is old enough to leave Cara's care; and tell Rowan my thoughts were of her when I died."
"I will," Neall told him.
Jamie smiled, and then his gaze moved past Neall as he looked at someone only he could see. "Blair, my brother," he murmured. "We have indeed met again on Drumossie Moor. Will you forgive me that I did not exact vengeance on your killer?"
He has killed you as well, he heard in his mind. Our father has avenged us both. Come now with me.
Jamie thought he held out his hand; he felt a touch, as insubstantial as that of a feather, but gaining in strength as he was pulled to his feet - and Blair was standing there holding his hand. He looked around; Neall was bending over a body that Jamie recognized as his own, then he straightened, called the other men together, and without a backward glance they headed off westwards towards Inverness.
Jamie looked all around. There was a growing number of spirits in the area, some of them just standing as if in disbelief, some beginning to move away from the shells of their bodies. There was no sign of Alasdair's spirit, although his body lay there barely three yards from Jamie's own.
"What of Alasdair?" he asked.
"He fled when he saw me approaching. But there must be repayment for what he has done, if not in our next life, in the one after that. There is balance in all things, my brother, and a debt owed in one life must be settled in another life. Come, now; we will not be reborn for some years, and this world of the spirits is interesting and exciting."
Jamie smiled, and allowed Blair to lead him away from the battlefield.
Blair Sandburg was sitting at Jim's desk in the bullpen, two piles of blue books, one about five times the size of the other, in front of him. At this hour the bullpen was practically empty; almost everyone was out following up leads, talking to witnesses or snitches. He glanced up from the essay he was reading as Henri Brown approached and paused at his side.
"Hairboy? I thought this was Jim's day off?"
"Yeah." Blair made a face. "Jim's at home - well, unless he's headed off to the gym, though he wasn't planning to. Normally I'd have been doing this there, but Jim's in one of his weird moods - just having someone around is irritating him. Well, I can understand that - there are times he needs his space, and when that happens, I usually go back to my office to work, but they're fumigating my building at the university, so I can't work there. I thought it would be quiet enough here, this time of day, that I wouldn't get in anyone's way." He glanced over to where Megan was sitting talking to a blonde woman. The exchange officer was looking more than a little impatient. "Any idea what's going on over there?"
Brown chuckled. "Connor was on her way in. Girl was sitting on a curb, car wrapped around a telephone pole. Connor arrived just before the patrol car that arrived in response to the 911 call - pure routine, no other car involved, nobody was hurt, but because she'd hit a telephone pole someone had to check it out. The girl was yelling and screaming that the lights were killing her eyes and then she started yelling for people to be quiet. So while the patrol cops dealt with the car, Connor hauled the girl in on suspicion of driving under the influence of drink or drugs."
Blair stiffened. "So what's happening?" It was an effort for him to speak calmly, as if he was just curious.
"Connor got Serena to do a blood test. I have the result here - I was down there just finishing up something with Dan before I head out to see a snitch when it came through from the lab, so I said I'd bring it up."
"Tell you what," Blair said as he stretched briefly, "I could do with a minute's break. You head off to see your snitch, and I'll take that over to Megan."
"Thanks, Hairboy!" Brown thrust the report into Blair's outstretched hand, and headed for the door.
Blair moved unobtrusively towards Megan's desk. As he neared it, he found he could hear the voices quite clearly.
"... car flashes its lights so you can't see. I can buy that. But why start to strip off in the middle of the highway?"
"My skin hurt," the woman said defensively. "All of a sudden my clothes felt like sandpaper. I don't know... "
Bright light. Noise. Sense of touch... Another sentinel? Is it possible? Blair moved directly to Megan's desk. "Here's that blood test you wanted, Megan."
Megan glanced up. "Thanks, Sandy." Blair delayed for a moment as she glanced down at the report. "Hmmm. Negative." She raised her head to look at the woman.
"I told you I wasn't on drugs," she said. "May I leave now?"
As Megan pushed a sheet of paper over, saying, "Please sign here. You'll get your belongings at the booking desk downstairs and... go see a doctor."
"I've already been to three different doctors. None of them could tell me what's wrong," she snapped as she got up and headed for the door. Blair followed.
The moment they were out of the door, Blair said, "Excuse me, miss? My name's Blair Sandburg. I'm a consultant to the police department. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the light hurting your eyes and about your clothes making your skin ache."
She glared at him. "Read the report. I don't have to go over it all again."
Ignoring her rudeness, Blair carried on. "Do colors seem more vivid? Do smells seem more powerful?"
Her jaw dropped. "How do you know that?"
Without answering the question, Blair carried on. "Look, have you recently experienced any prolonged isolation?
"Who the hell are you?" But there was no real anger behind the question.
"As I said, I'm a consultant to the department. I'm actually an anthropologist. I think I know what's happening to you. If you could just meet me at the university tomorrow, we could talk further." He thrust a card with his Rainier details on it into her hand.
She took the card. "I'll think about it," she said, and walked away.
Blair arrived home to find that Jim's mood hadn't improved; if anything, he was more unsettled than he had been earlier. Still, Blair thought he might be interested to know about this other - female - sentinel. "Hey, Jim," he began. "The weirdest thing - there was this woman at the PD today - "
"Chief, I'm not interested in your love life!" Jim snapped.
"But - "
"What part of 'not interested' don't you understand? I don't want to hear about her. If you're seeing her again, good luck to you - but I don't need to hear chapter and verse about her."
"All right." Blair brushed past Jim and headed for his room.
Inside, with the door closed, he dropped his backpack on the floor and sank onto the bed, allowing the unhappiness he felt to show on his face. What was wrong with Jim? He'd believed that their friendship was solid - hell, once or twice he'd begun to wonder if what they felt for each other was more than friendship. But the way Jim had been behaving this last couple of days was making Blair wonder if, perhaps, he had overstayed his welcome.
He had seen it several times when he was a child; Naomi had visited someone, inviting herself to stay there for a few days, and sometimes, when the days stretched into weeks and she showed no sign of leaving, her 'hosts' became irritable and rude, usually hinting that it was time she left though rarely being outspoken enough to actually say so. But Blair had also noticed that Naomi had never spoken of those people again, never saw them again. It was almost as if she had used 'outstaying her welcome' as a test...
He should be getting on with grading those essays... Instead, he kicked off his Nikes and lay back on the bed, thinking.
Yes, he had in effect invited himself to stay - 'for a week, and I promise I'll be out of your hair...' and he had, at the end of that week, offered to leave; Jim had told him he was welcome to stay. But that was more than three years ago, and he had never again suggested leaving. Maybe Jim was beginning to resent having a room mate, resent his hospitality apparently being taken for granted. Maybe it was time to move on, little though he wanted to.
Who, among his fellow TAs, did he know well enough to beg floor space from while he looked for a cheap apartment? He shook his head. Nobody, really. Although he was on friendly enough terms with most of them, it was a casual friendship, too casual for him to ask that sort of favor. Asking one of them to cover one of his classes, fair enough, but... It's a measure of how casual most of my 'friendships' are, he reflected, when I felt more comfortable asking Jim for floor space, back then, rather than anyone else! It was one big difference between him and Naomi; she had no difficulty in asking the most casual of chance-met acquaintances to give her a bed for a few nights. He preferred... Well, sleeping on the streets would have been preferable!
As long as he was discreet about it, he could sleep in his office, pretending, if he was found out, that he'd been working late and was too tired to make the trip home. But that was a last resort. For the moment he would wait and hope that Jim would get over whatever was bugging him.
Early in the morning, after a sleepless night, he pushed some clothes into his backpack - not easy fitting them in with all the books there - grabbed his shaving things, and left the loft without bothering with breakfast. He closed the door quietly behind him, knowing that Jim would not be awake yet, made his unhappy way down the stairs, climbed into his car and drove off.
At Rainier, he made his way to the little-used storage room he used as an office, nodding a greeting to the cleaning staff as he passed them, aware of a faint chemical smell lingering after the fumigation. He put his backpack on the desk long enough to take from it the essays he had graded the previous day, then dropped the pack onto the floor beside his desk and turned wearily to start grading the essays he had decided not to take home - back to the loft, he corrected himself, unhappily aware that he could no longer call the loft 'home'. Even if Jim did get over whatever was bothering him, Blair had little doubt that any further time he spent in the little room below Jim's bedroom would be under sufferance; he would be a resented 'guest'.
Should he also hand in his observer's badge, he wondered. At the moment, Jim would probably be happy if he did. But it might be as well to hang onto it for the time being. Jim - little though he might like it - did still need his help at times.
And what of his Ph.D.? Well, it wasn't that long since he told Jim he had enough material for ten dissertations. As long as he worded everything very generally, made things sound like supposition rather than the facts they were, he should be able to cobble one together. And if the woman he had seen in the bullpen - he still didn't know her name, he reflected wryly - did come to see him and did turn out to be another sentinel, he could blur Jim's identity even more.
He was procrastinating, and he knew it. He pulled the books out of his backpack, putting them into two piles - the ones he'd already graded and the ones he hadn't. Opening the first unread one, he began reading. The thought passed briefly across his mind - would he be able to grade these essays fairly? In his currently depressed mood, would even small mistakes seem major? Or might he be unprecedentedly lenient because he was afraid of being too severe? He wasn't in the mood to deal with the sometimes logical, but totally inaccurate, conclusions some of the students managed to reach, and he was certainly not in the mood to deal with incorrect homophones, some of which made total and incongruous rubbish out of what the students were trying to say.
The knock on his door came as a welcome relief.
It was the woman from the bullpen. "You are here," she said, and now there was a note of - yes, relief - in her voice. "I know I'm early - I thought I might have to wait a while - "
"I had some work to get on with," Blair said. "I'm glad you've come. I'm quite sure I can help you, Ms - ?"
"Barnes - Alexis Barnes. Call me Alex."
He put the book he was currently grading back onto the pile of unread ones, and turned his attention to Alex Barnes, studying her carefully. She was quite good-looking, handsome rather than beautiful, and her fair hair, he decided, owed more to her hairdresser than to nature. She was smiling now, but somehow he felt he preferred her hostility of the day before; it seemed more genuine than the smile - which of course was ridiculous, he told himself firmly. She had clearly recovered from the irritation her senses had been causing her; her clothes were clearly no longer 'feeling like sandpaper'. However, the problem was more than likely to recur, and she was unlikely to find anyone else who knew anything about enhanced senses.
He did feel slightly guilty, though. Helping this woman seemed almost like betraying Jim - but Jim was pushing him away...
He took a deep breath. You offered to help her, he reminded himself. So help her, dammit!
He swung into the explanation similar to the one he had given Jim, three years previously. "For hundreds of years, in so-called primitive cultures, every now and then someone was born who developed senses that were more acute than everyone else's," he said. "They were known as guardians or watchmen; and an eighteenth century explorer who wrote about them called them sentinels. Villages that had a sentinel prospered, because the sentinel could warn the people about the approach of potential enemies, of adverse weather conditions, help the hunters find game - there were many ways in which aa sentinel could use his - or her - abilities.
"Burton - the explorer who wrote about them - suspected that the senses were dormant until triggered by time spent alone in the wild. Have you recently spent time alone in the wild?"
"I was... I was camping with some friends, went hiking, and got lost. It was several days before a search party found me."
"A textbook situation. It has to be a survival adaptation when the potential is there.
"In the so-called civilized world, people are rarely in that sort of situation. Even if someone has the dormant senses, they're seldom in a situation that will trigger them. Burton saw no reason why sentinels couldn't be found here; he speculated, though, that a lot of the potential was lost in the witch trials and executions of three hundred years ago." About to mention Jim, Blair abruptly changed his mind. It might be possible to bring Jim and Alex together in a controlled situation, see how they reacted to each other. "I've been interested in sentinels since I first read about them, and spent quite some time trying to find one. I found hundreds of people with one or two, even three, senses better developed than the norm, mostly taste, sense of smell and eyesight, occcasionally sense of touch or hearing, but that was it.
"But there's a downside to heightened senses, as you found out yesterday. Given the right - or wrong - stimulus, one or more of your senses can spike; or if you concentrate too long on what one sense is telling you, you can get... well, stuck, using that sense, and sort of freeze, trying to see or hear or taste more and more."
"Is there anything I can do to prevent that?" she asked.
"Always try to use two senses in tandem," Blair said. "That stops you from concentrating too hard on just one. As for the spikes - imagine a radio dial. It's calibrated from one to ten. Normal is about three or four. if you're concentrating hard on something it'll rise; a sudden loud noise or bright light causes a spike. So in your mind you turn the dial back down to three as fast as you can..."
Over the next hour he took her through exercises that he knew would help her control spikes and the zone-out factor. Although he was prepared to help her, he did not, he realized almost immediately, want to devote more time to helping her than was absolutely necessary. Something about her... He wasn't sure what, but something about her repelled him. He was surprisingly relieved when he realized it was time for him to call a halt, because he was due in a classroom in ten minutes and he still had to gather his notes for the lecture he would be giving - granted it was one he could wing if he had to, but he preferred to have his notes to hand.
He arranged to meet her again the following day, stating a time when his responsibilities as a TA meant that once again he would only have to spend roughly an hour with her. As she left, Blair turned to shuffle through the papers on his desk.
Walking briskly towards his first class of the day, Blair found himself wondering about his reaction to this new sentinel. He had been drawn to Jim the moment they met; in any other context, he would have said his reaction to Jim was love at first sight. With that as a guideline, he had expected to feel a draw towards any sentinel.
But he didn't. His reaction to Alex Barnes was the exact opposite. Quite simply, now that he had seen a little more of her, he didn't like her. He knew he would have felt guilty if he had left her to suffer when it was so easy to give her some help, but he didn't want to spend more time with her than he had to. A week or so down the line, he'd tell her that she'd learned everything he knew, that there wasn't any further help he could give her, and quietly discourage her from coming back.
With the two classes he had to teach that day behind him, he went back to his 'office'. He still had those essays to grade...
He settled down to read them, and lost track of time.
Several hours later, nearly finished, he was interrupted when his phone rang. He sighed, put down the essay he was reading, leaned down and took the phone from the side pocket of his pack.
"You still at Rainier, Chief?"
"Jim. Yes." He glanced at the small pile of books he still had to grade. "I thought I'd get on with grading essays here, but I'm nearly finished. Shouldn't be more than maybe half an hour."
"Okay. I'm ordering Chinese - the usual for you?"
Well, it sounded as if Jim was over his snit, and expecting him back at the loft. And he didn't really want to sleep on the floor here if he could avoid it. "Yes, thanks."
He slipped the phone back into the pack, and carried on reading. His estimate of how long he'd need wasn't far out; twenty-eight minutes later, he put down the last essay. He'd get the results posted next day, before Alex came.
The next few days passed quietly. Each day, Alex came to Rainier; each day, Blair talked her through exercises aimed at teaching her control; each day he breathed a silent sigh of relief when she left.
The more he saw of her, the more she made his skin crawl.
And, depending on his classes, each day he went back, either to the loft or to the PD, wary, wondering if Jim's temper was holding or whether he would react with irritation over the slightest thing.
It was holding, but Blair had the oddest feeling that Jim was having to make a positive attempt to keep under control.
On this day he walked into the bullpen to find Jim scowling at the computer screen. Jim glanced up as Blair dropped his backpack beside the chair he normally used. "Chief."
It seemed to Blair that Jim was definitely having to make an effort to sound even vaguely welcoming.
"Bad case?" he asked softly.
"Puzzling," Jim said. "There was a break-in at Oberon Security a couple of nights ago. They know the intruder downloaded something from their files, but they don't know what, yet, though they're hopeful of finding out. I've got a security tape here - the cameras picked up the intruder. But something about him... "
Blair moved to where he could see the computer screen. A figure dressed in dark clothes and with its head covered so that the features weren't visible was moving steadily down a corridor. Suddenly it stopped and bent over, hands pressed to its ears.
"That's how I'd react to a sudden loud noise," Jim said. "I think there's someone else like me in Cascade."
"Yes," Blair said. "There is."
"But there's no way she could be your thief," Blair went on. "She's an artist - "
"How do you know about her?" Jim demanded.
"Last week? I tried to tell you about a woman in the bullpen?"
"Another sentinel?" Jim whispered.
Blair nodded. "She'd wrapped her car around a telephone pole, then she was standing there in the middle of the street taking her clothes off. Megan happened to be passed and pulled her in on suspicion of driving under the influence of drink or drugs. I heard her saying her clothes felt like sandpaper... I was going to tell you about her, but you blew me off, said you didn't want to hear about her. Anyway, I offered to give her some help, and she's been coming to Rainier for an hour or so most days. I don't really like her, I don't know why, but I couldn't see her suffer... "
"No, I don't suppose you could," Jim agreed. "So she told you she's an artist."
"Yes. It's all sort of sentinel related, from what she says - apparently she dreams, then when she wakens she draws what she dreamed about. Pyramids, jaguars... "
"But you only have her word for it?"
"Well, yes - an hour once a day was as much as I could tolerate of her, and as long as we were at Rainier, I could get rid of her. But she did ask me to go to her apartment one night, ostensibly to see her artwork - I was glad I had a valid excuse to get out of having to accept - "
"That lecture two nights ago, when you stood in for Brian Whitford?"
"Yes. But would she have invited me to visit if she didn't have a lot of artwork lying around?"
Jim frowned thoughtfully. "I don't suppose she would," he admitted, "unless she had the idea she could use you as an alibi. Did she tell you where she lives?"
"Then let's go visit her. I'd like to meet her."
The moment Alex Barnes opened her door to them, Jim's every instinct screamed 'DANGER!'
"Hi, Alex," Blair said.
"Blair? I thought you said you couldn't come to see my pictures."
"That was two nights ago," Blair said. "But I'm free this afternoon. Jim, here, was in South America for a while, working with one of the jungle tribes. I was telling him about your art and he said he'd like to see it - as I would - so here we are."
"If it's convenient," Jim said, a little stiffly. It was all he could do not to grab Blair and retreat.
The apartment was indeed full of drawings - several were of pyramids, Aztec or Mayan temples, a lot were of animals, mostly jaguars. One pyramid was more elaborately drawn than the others, with a lot of stone jaguar heads decorating it. Jim found himself drawn to it. "That's... very striking," he said.
"I've dreamed about it for years," she replied. "I think... Do you believe in reincarnation?"
"I do," Blair said.
Alex turned her attention back to him, although it seemed to Blair that for some reason she was more interested, now, in Jim. "I think I must have lived there, or near there, in a past life," she said, "or else that something about it was significant to me in a past life, because I keep dreaming about it."
"Which would argue that you must have lived near there, because in the past it was difficult to travel any distance," Blair commented.
"It's not easy even today, in that kind of terrain." Jim felt he had to add something to the conversation, though he was far from sure how he knew what 'that kind of terrain' was, for the pictures didn't give much indication of background.
They stayed for almost half an hour, then made their excuses and left, to go straight home.
Neither said anything until they were almost back at the loft.
"You said you didn't like her, Chief?" was Jim's first comment.
"Uh-huh. I don't know why, she seems nice enough, but... "
"Something about her feels off," Jim said as he swung the truck into a parking space. "It was all I could do, when I first saw her, not to just grab you and run. And yet... by the time we left, I got the impression that she wasn't really... well... interested in you; that you were just someone she was - whose knowledge she was - using."
"That might be part of it," Blair agreed. "It was quite clear to me that once she saw you, she was far more interested in you as a person."
"While all I wanted was to get her out of my territory."
"Could there be a sexual element about it? As a sentinel, she'd probably want another sentinel as mate, to try to ensure sentinel offspring."
"Is there any way to ensure that? There's no history of enhanced senses on either side of my family, as far as I know. Yet here I am, with five senses at or near the top of the scale... "
"No aunt or uncle that nobody really mentions except in a whisper, who's tucked away in an asylum somewhere because he or she hears voices and was diagnosed as schizophrenic?"
Jim shook his head. "If there was, the whispers were so soft that even I didn't hear them."
"Could have been a great uncle, or even a great-great uncle, then... The genetic potential has to have been somewhere in your family, even if it was recessive for two or three generations - possibly even on both sides of your family."
"But Stephen is perfectly normal."
"I'd guess he's carrying the potential as a recessive, though," Blair said. "Thing is, genetics is a complex science. Two people with the same gift don't necessarily produce a child with that same gift, though it's probably in his genes as a recessive. Two... oh, top grade opera singers could have a child who's tone deaf. So two sentinels won't necessarily produce a sentinel child, even if they try to trigger any potential that's there."
"On the other hand, all I want to do is get another sentinel out of my territory," Jim said. "The last thing I want is to get up close and personal with her."
Blair frowned. "That picture," he said. "She's kept dreaming about the place it depicts, feels it was important to her in a past life; you were drawn to it, fascinated by it."
"Maybe that's the answer. Maybe that's where sentinels went if they wanted a child - neutral territory where they could fulfil a biological imperative then go back to their own territory... though... "
"I'm wondering... If a sentinel mother has a sentinel child... how will they react to each other as the child gets older and the senses develop? Maybe in the past the mother took the child back to the temple pyramid when that happened and left him - or her - there with the priests. If, in a past life, Alex grew up at that pyramid, of course it would feel important to her when she dreamed about it."
They got out of the truck, Jim locked the doors, and they headed for the loft.
Inside, Jim said, "Now that I've seen her, I'm pretty sure she was behind the Oberon break-in; her movements are too like those of the perp in the corridor for it to have been anyone else."
Blair nodded unhappily. "I think you're right," he said. "The odds on there being a third sentinel in Cascade... But how do you prove it?"
"And what information did she download?" Jim added.
They soon found out.
Blair didn't have a class next morning so he went to the PD with Jim. The first thing Jim did was cross to Brown's desk. "Hi, H. Got anything for me on those fingerprints from Oberon?" He was aware that Blair was staring at him, and shrugged. "The perp got careless - maybe needed to take the gloves off to cope with the equipment and didn't take time to wipe things down properly - maybe thought that so many people handled the equipment that there'd be too many prints to lift identifiable ones. Who knows? But we got a couple of prints that didn't match anyone who did handle the equipment."
Brown had lifted a paper from his inbox. "Got it here, Jim. Alicia Bannister, a.k.a. Alexis Barnes. Warrants issued for grand theft, industrial espionage - the girl's not bored, man."
Jim took the paper and glanced over it. "She served three years at the women's prison in Corona. So much for her being an artist, Chief. Granted she can draw pretty well, but that's obviously only a hobby. Thanks, H."
As they went back to Jim's desk, Blair said soberly, "I feel so stupid... She really played me."
"People like her are good at that. Your own instincts told you you didn't like her - your humanity insisted that she was suffering and that you should help her."
"Well, yes... and she was suffering that day. I mean, stripping off all her clothes in the middle of the road? Was your sense of touch ever that much out of whack?"
"Not quite, but close. It was sight and hearing that bothered me most... until you came along."
About mid-morning, they got a phone call from Oberon. Jim took the call, then turned to Blair, who was telling Connor of their suspicions regarding the woman who'd wrapped her car around a telephone pole.
"The Oberon techs think what was downloaded was the security design for the hazmat research unit at Rainier university."
Connor looked a little stunned. "A what?"
"It's a lab where they do research on hazardous materials," Blair told her. "The regents put in a state-of-the-art security system two years ago, after a canister of ebola virus was stolen. To get to the unit, you have to go up five storys. The first four levels have electronic security, the fifth one is controlled by retina recognition; only two people have the clearance to open that final door."
"I suppose Oberon will let them know their security might have been compromised?" Connor asked.
"I'd expect so, though that final door should stop any potential thief," Blair said.
"Ellison! Sandburg! My office. You too, Connor!" Simon sounded far from happy. Entering last, Blair closed the door. Simon looked at them. "We know what was downloaded from the Oberon computers," he said.
"The Rainier hazmat security codes," Jim said.
"How do you know that?"
"We've just had a call from Oberon."
"Yes - well, Oberon was late finding out. We've just been contacted by Rainier. The security systems on the first four levels had been over-ridden, and the final one - the thief used some sort of laser to burn through the door."
"What's been taken?" Blair asked.
"A canister of VX nerve gas."
"What the hell was campus security doing?" Jim asked.
"Someone had set fire to a car in one of the parking lots furthest from the buildings," Simon said grimly. "Campus security was tied up there for the best part of an hour. Plenty of time for a thief who had done his homework to get into the hazmat unit and grab a canister of nerve gas. It's pretty deadly stuff," he added. "Apparently what's in that one canister could kill everyone in Cascade five times over. In the right market, it could net the thief millions."
They paused for long enough to get a hurried warrant to check Alex Barnes' apartment then went to Rainier to check things out, but there was nothing anyone could add to what they already knew, and after questioning everyone who had any right to be in the Hazmat unit, and campus security regarding the burned-out car, Jim decided to head back to the PD, going by way of Alex's apartment. Megan Connor went with him; Blair, who had a class to teach later that afternoon - the last class of the day - decided to stay.
"There's plenty I can get on with," he said wryly.
"Call me when you're finished," Jim said, "and I'll come and get you."
Blair watched them drive away, then headed for his office.
Once there, he sank into his chair and buried his face in his hands. God, how could he have been so stupid? Though once he had offered to help Alex, there had really been no polite or tactful way to withdraw that offer, no polite or tactful way to limit the lessons on control to just one or two days... especially since at that time he had had no idea that she was a criminal, no reason to want to limit the help he gave her except the inexplicable dislike he felt for her once he saw more of her than he had done in that initial few minutes at the PD.
After a few minutes he straightened, and switched on his laptop. He had some lecture notes to prepare, but first he really had to get some work done to an article he was writing for a magazine, and the deadline for it was rapidly approaching. Certainly the first draft was done, but he had one or two references he needed to check as well as polishing the terminology. As an afterthought, while the laptop powered up, he reached into the top drawer of his desk for the clock that lived there, and set the alarm for ten minutes before he was due in the classroom; and then he took a deep breath, called up the requisite file and started writing.
In due course the alarm rang, he saved the file, shut down the laptop, picked up his notes for the lecture and headed off.
The lecture went well, considering that half his mind was on the problem of Alex Barnes. After he dismissed the class and answered the inevitable questions asked by the handful of students who delayed, conscientious enough to want something they weren't sure of clarified, he headed back to his office down deserted corridors. He opened the door...
... and found himself facing Alex Barnes.
She pointed a gun at him. "Close the door, Blair."
He obeyed, reaching behind him to do so. "I didn't expect you would still be in Cascade after you stole the nerve gas."
"You worked it out. I thought you might."
"No," Blair said. "You left some fingerprints at Oberon when you downloaded the Rainier security details."
She raised her eyebrows. "Interesting. Yes, I had to take off my gloves - even though they were quite thin, they were bulky enough that I couldn't work properly with them on. But I really thought any prints I might leave would be undetectable among all the prints that had to be on that equipment."
"There were two that were quite clear, and didn't belong to any of the Oberon staff," Blair told her. "It didn't take long to run them through the database. Which is your real name? Alex Barnes or Alicia Bannister?"
"Does it matter?" she asked.
"No, I don't suppose it does."
"You know, if it hadn't been for you, I never would have understood what I really am - I owe you that." She smiled a little ruefully. "You want to know how I really got the sentinel senses? Solitary confinement in prison. I thought I was going crazy. It wasn't until I met you that I realized what I'd become."
"And it's a gift that you're wasting."
"I might make a more law-abiding use of it... after I've sold the nerve gas. The money I get for that will leave me rich for life; I won't need to risk my freedom ever again. Or perhaps not. I have to admit I'd miss the adrenaline rush.
"However, you're a loose end I can't afford to leave. I really didn't want to do this, but I can't leave you alive. You know too much about what I can do."
Seeing her finger tightening on the trigger, Blair threw himself sideways, trying to keep his desk between himself and Alex, half hoping that the sound of the shot would attract attention, half hoping that it wouldn't, for Alex would undoubtedly shoot anyone who got in the way of her escape. But she didn't even try to fire. She moved quickly around the desk and pointed the gun at him. "Get up."
"We're going out," she said. "It was so thoughtful of you to give me the lessons in control here; I imagine anyone who sees us will think I'm your girlfriend. And if you try to attract anyone's attention, I'll kill them too. If there's anyone about. It was so considerate of you to be teaching the last class of the day."
Where was she taking him?
She walked close beside him, the gun pressed against his ribs, as they headed along the corridor, up the stairs, and out of the door. They were down the steps from the door to the road and on, over the road and across the grass until they reached the campus fountain. Alex glanced around, smiled, then with a movement too quick for him to try to counter it, hit him over the head with the gun.
He was still half conscious as he fell forward and into the water. He tried to push himself up, but his arms refused to obey him. He tried to hold his breath, but the breathing reflex took over and he felt the rush of cold water into his lungs...
After leaving Rainier, Jim made his way to Alex's apartment. There was no answer to his knock on the door, and he could hear no signs of movement inside. He began to turn away, saying, "Looks like nobody's home."
"Wait a minute," Megan said. "We've got that warrant. It's easy enough to open a door with that kind of lock. Let's do it." In spite of her comment about virtually breaking in, she tried the handle first; much to her surprise it began to turn.
Jim stiffened, sniffing. Plastique. "Connor!"
With the handle half turned, her attention caught by the note in his voice, Megan looked at him. "What?"
There was, he decided, no time to try to explain. He rushed at her, pushing her away from the door, his momentum carrying them two or three feet from it. As they dropped to the floor, the door was blown outwards in a tremendous explosion.
By the time they had called the fire department, the fire had been extinguished and they were allowed inside, it was well into the afternoon. While they waited to be allowed inside, Simon joined them.
The apartment was gutted - and only the speed of their response had limited the damage to the one apartment. If they had been badly injured in the blast, possibly knocked unconscious, unable to call for help, it was probable that the fire would have spread... and they would have been dead.
Inside, they found the remains of a portable hard drive with a removable data disk; from it they managed to retrieve a badly damaged disk. While Jim examined it, Megan went off to check the kitchen area.
"I can make out the letters O B E R," Jim told Simon quietly.
"Oberon. That's enough confirmation. I'll get a warrant out for her arrest."
By the time they'd finished checking over the apartment, it was late afternoon, and Jim decided to go straight to Rainier to collect Blair. "He'll have finished his lecture by now," he said, "and he's probably in his office grading stuff. If I wait for him to phone, I'll end up having to come out somewhere about ten." There was an affectionate note in his 'complaint', leaving Megan in no doubt that if he did have to go out 'somewhere about ten', Jim wouldn't really mind. "I can drop you off after I pick him up."
"Thanks," Megan said.
As they reached the truck, Jim handed Megan his cell phone. "Call him, let him know I'm coming. It's speed dial one."
What am I, your secretary? she thought rebelliously, but once she was belted into her seat, she obediently rang Blair. After a minute, she said, "Hi, Sandy, we're on our way to pick you up," and rang off. "It went over to voice mail," she said.
Jim glanced at her, and speeded up.
"What... " she began, and then, "Jim!" in a near scream as Jim swung out to overtake a vehicle travelling at a sedate and law-abiding just-inside-the-speed-limit, narrowly missed hitting an oncoming car. "What the hell - !"
"Blair's in trouble," Jim said grimly.
"How do you know that? He wouldn't take his phone if he just went off to the john, would he?"
"I just know," Jim replied.
"Well, you won't be able to help him if you wrap this truck round a telephone pole!" Megan snapped.
Jim ignored her. If anything, he drove even faster. Megan shut her eyes. God, let us just get to Rainier in one piece!
The truck skidded to a stop at the doorway of Hargrove Hall, leaving long black lines on the roadway. It was barely stopped when Jim leaped out and ran up the steps. At the door he stopped and swung around. "Sandburg!"
It seemed to Megan that he took the steps in a single leap and landed running towards the fountain. She looked that way. There was something in the water... She, too, began to run, but by the time she had reached the fountain, although she had less distance to go, Jim was already knee-deep in it and hauling out a limp body. Megan stopped, seeing that Jim had the rescue well in hand, and opened the cell phone she had been clutching tightly all the way to Rainier. With shaking fingers, she dialled 911, called an ambulance, and then called Simon.
Jim dropped Blair face down and started the old-fashioned method of chest compression, putting weight on the rib cage, trying to force water out of Blair's lungs, knowing there was no point in trying to force air into lungs that were full of water. Megan had just finished the second call when Jim rolled Blair over, took a deep breath, leaned over and fastened his mouth to Blair's, breathing for him. Megan slipped the phone into her pocket, knelt beside Blair, and began chest compressions.
There was still no sign of Blair's trying to breath on his own when the ambulance arrived. As the paramedics reached the fountain, one asked, "How long was the victim in the water, do you know?"
Megan shook her head. "No idea," she said. "I tried to phone him - that would be at least quarter of an hour before we found him - and didn't get an answer, so I think it had to be at least that long."
"And you started CPR at once?"
Meanwhile, the other knelt beside Jim. "We'll take it from here, sir."
Jim looked at him, and moved reluctantly away as the paramedic fastened a mask over Blair's face and began puffing air into his mouth.
They were still working on Blair when Simon's car arrived. "What happened?" he asked.
Megan replied, seeing that Jim was still totally focussed on Blair. "After we left Barnes' apartment, Jim decided to come and pick up Sandy. I phoned Sandy to let him know we were coming, didn't get an answer. Jim totally freaked, said there was something wrong, and... How we didn't have an accident, I'll never know! We must have taken every corner between there and here on two wheels."
Simon gave a wry smile. "You were probably safe enough. When Jim's concentrating on something, his attention is on it two hundred percent."
"There are probably at least fifty drivers that we passed - in both directions - still recovering from the shock of the near misses. If just one of them got Jim's truck number, he'll probably be reported to the police for dangerous driving."
Simon indicated Blair. "Jim was a cop responding to an emergency."
Megan shook her head. "The man's a hazard when he's behind a wheel," she muttered.
The paramedics were looking at each other; one shook his head and sat back. "Sorry, sir," he said as his partner removed the face mask from Blair. "It's been too long. Even if we could revive him, by now his brain has been without oxygen for too long. It's kinder to let him go."
"No!" Jim lunged forward, his hands cradling Blair's face. Suddenly he looked up; to Simon and Megan, watching, it seemed that he could see someone or something invisible to them. He remained motionless for perhaps five seconds, then leaned over Blair, staring down at him. Ten more seconds, and then Blair convulsed, coughing up more water.
"Hey! Guys!" Jim yelled, then turned his attention to supporting Blair as he brought up still more water.
Afterwards, Simon thought it was a pity that nobody had had a camera. The expression on the faces of the paramedics who had just pronounced Blair dead was priceless; and he had no doubt that the look on his own face was as stunned. Megan wore a look combined of equal parts stunned disbelief and overwhelming happiness.
Jim just looked relieved.
Blair rolled his head from where he had been watching a cloud drift across the window towards the door. "Jim."
"How're you feeling?"
"I'm... not sure," Blair said slowly. "I saw it. The whole out-of-body experience. It wasn't like that classic light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel thing. At first there was just a valley surrounded by hills, then I was in a jungle. But I've come back with the weirdest memory, and I'm not sure just where it came from, if it was just something I dreamed... or if it really was a memory. But if it was... Jim, we've discussed a lot of things over the past three years, but we've never really spoken about our religious beliefs."
"What is there to discuss? You're a Jew, I'm nominally Christian, we're both non-practicing - "
"No," Blair said. "Actually, I'm not. Letting people assume that I'm a Jew... It's simpler than trying to explain that I was brought up to be pretty well polytheistic. That's even more way out than Pagan."
"What about the knife you said was a bar mitzvah gift?"
"Part of the smokescreen. It was a gift, for my thirteenth birthday - which is about when I'd have had my bar mitzvah if I had been a Jew. But... Traditionally, in the orthodox faith, to be counted as a proper Jew, you have to be born of a Jewish mother, right? My great-grandfather was a Jew, right enough, but although my grandfather was brought up in the Jewish faith, technically he wasn't a Jew, because my great-grandmother was Christian. Grandfather also chose to marry a Christian. Naomi... Well, she was given a Jewish name, but from the time she was old enough to understand, she refused to accept either Judaism or Christianity, saying that as far as she could see the monotheistic religions existed only to give men a position of power over women - and one thing she never did was accept that a man was in any way 'better' than she was." He grinned. "It was one of the reasons she never stayed with any man for long. The moment she felt that her current man had ideas of marrying - of making her his 'possession' - she was off. She didn't see that as him taking responsibility for her welfare - she only saw it as him wanting to 'own' her. I think her father had been pretty dominant, and she resented being dominated - which is why she left home when she was still very young, of course, and she certainly wasn't going to risk putting herself back in that position!
"She could accept that a man was physically stronger, she could accept that he might have training - and therefore knowledge - that she didn't have, in exactly the same way that she accepted other women having training that she didn't have, but apart from that, as far as she was concerned the playing field was equal - and she brought me up to believe that too.
"She embraced the notion of the Earth Mother, but also learned what she could of the polytheistic religions... or the religions that don't actually have a god, like Buddhism. So I grew up believing in reincarnation, and I have to say that it still makes a lot of sense to me. You meet someone, and take to him right away, or you meet someone else and although you can't say why, you just don't like him. Alex said the pyramid she'd drawn felt important to her. Reincarnation can explain that - Alex even said so."
"I suppose," Jim said.
"Well... remember I said I didn't like Alex? I had a... vision, I suppose you could call it, while I was in that mountain valley. It was Alex, but at the same time it wasn't - the face was much the same, but it was a man, I think a little older than I was, and he cut my throat. At least this time... drowning wasn't quite as irreversible.
"Then I was this wolf, and I was running towards a black jaguar. We collided, and there was a big burst of light. Next thing I knew, I was spitting up water."
"The same image... " Jim whispered. "I saw that too... only I was the jaguar... " He licked his lips. "Incacha," he said. "Incacha told me how to bring you back."
"Einstein said the greatest experiences we can have are the ones with the mysterious," Blair murmured. "We are definitely dealing with that, my brother. Come on in, man. The water's nice."
"Chief... " Jim shook his head. "This is all too... too weird for me to accept easily. I don't know if I'm ready to face that sort of... of... "
"Yeah, I suppose. At least, not yet. Not until I've had time to think about it. Meanwhile, I have a job to do. It was Alex Barnes who drowned you?"
"Yes. She said she didn't really want to kill me, but I knew too much about what she could do. I thought she was going to shoot me, but instead she took me out to the fountain at gunpoint, then hit me on the head... and in I went. It can't have been very long before you arrived - Incacha might have been a damned good shaman, but I doubt even he could have helped you bring back someone who'd been dead for hours."
"Don't say 'dead'!" Jim exclaimed. "You can say 'wasn't breathing', but don't say 'dead'!"
"Same difference," Blair muttered.
"But yes, I doubt you'd been in the water that long. Connor and I had been to Barnes' apartment - she left it booby-trapped, but I smelled the explosive in time to get Connor and myself out of the way of the blast. Wasn't much left, but we did get confirmation that she was the Oberon thief and therefore the Rainier one. I'm going to go back and see if I can sniff out anything more."
"Be careful," Blair said, and Jim nodded.
"I'll be careful, but I don't think she'll be back there. I think she'll have left Cascade by now. The question is - where has she gone?"
Despite Jim's claim that this was all too weird for him to accept easily, once he was in Barnes' burned-out apartment he began to 'see' things that he was sure were images of things that had happened in that apartment - especially since one of the images was of himself looking at a drawing, and that really topped the list of weirdnesses.
More than one of the images involved a man. The interaction between Barnes and the man was strange; Jim couldn't make up his mind whether she was telling him what to do, or whether he was telling her. Either way... She was a known criminal, the odds were that he was too. Jim committed the face to memory, then headed for the PD.
Two hours later, somewhat after his usual stopping time, Jim went to see Simon, who was also working late.
"Barnes is working with a guy called Carl Hettinger."
"How do you know that?" Simon asked.
"I'd... seen him with her. After I saw Sandburg this morning, I came back here and had an artist rendering done; then I ran it through the fed's database and it spit out the name Hettinger. He's known for international weapons trafficking... and known to have contact with South American drug lords Carlos Arguillo and Jaquin Cesaro."
"You definitely saw this man with Alex Barnes?"
"Yeah," Jim said. "In her apartment."
"Why didn't you mention this before?"
Jim hesitated. "It's... one of those things you don't really want to know. My senses are picking up things that I don't fully understand at this point, but Sandburg's alive because I trusted a vision."
Simon groaned. "You're right. I don't think I want to know."
"However, Hettinger is known to have travelled to Sierra Verde twice in the last three months. Although he's South American, Arguillo operates out of there. I think that's where we're going to find Barnes and the nerve toxin."
"You got all this from a vision?" Simon's voice was redolent of disbelief.
"Yeah. I got a clear mental image of her talking to him. But there's more.
"Barnes is a sentinel too. And she's an artist. She'd drawn things that she said she'd dreamed. One of them was a sort of temple, and I found that picture... fascinating. You know how irritable I've been this last week or two?"
"Yes," Simon said grimly.
"I think it's because she was here. Sentinels are territorial, and don't take happily to having another one inside their territory. Sandburg thought the temple might be someplace neutral where sentinels could interact with each other. So she has two reasons for going there. One, to find a buyer for the nerve gas; two, to get to that temple."
Simon sighed. "And I suppose you want to follow her?"
"Simon, we have to get that nerve gas back before she finds a buyer for it."
"If you're right that she's working with Hettinger, and Hettinger is in contact with Arguillo, it sounds as if she might already have found a buyer."
"A potential buyer. They would have to agree on a price; haggling over it will take time. Time that we can use to catch up with them."
Blair turned his head to face the door of his hospital room as it opened, expecting to see Jim. "Megan?"
There was a forced cheerfulness in her voice, and she looked just a trifle... Blair tried to find a word for her expression, and failed to find one. It seemed to be a mixture of apology and anger, with maybe just a touch of guilt included. "What's wrong, Megan?" He wasn't worried. Concerned, yes - wondering what was wrong with her - but not worried.
"Jim and Simon have gone off chasing Alex Barnes," she said.
"And left you behind, to tell me that?" Yes, he could interpret her expression now.
"Yes. Barnes was just as much my case as Jim's, dammit!"
'Gone off...' Something about that phrase... "Where have they gone?" Blair asked.
"A place called Sierra Verde. It's somewhere in Mexico, I think. Jim was muttering something about a lead, but how he got it, God knows!"
"When he left here yesterday, he was meaning to go back to Alex's apartment. He might have found something there."
"Sandy, he couldn't have found anything there. The place was totally gutted. Everything that could possibly burn had burned! Oh - wait a minute - you mean he might have picked up on some psychic vibrations when there was nobody else around?"
'Psychic vibrations' - well, that was as good a way to describe sentinel visions as any other. "It's possible."
At least Jim hadn't gone off after her on his own - Simon was there. And he was probably in no immediate danger from Alex, who seemed to be interested in Jim... as a potential mate? Well, if so, Blair reflected, she probably made a major mistake when she attacked me. Jim might not be ready to pursue the 'weirdness' of the vision world just yet, but that didn't alter the depth of their friendship.
"So - when are you getting out of here?" Megan asked, making an obvious and fairly forced change of subject.
"This afternoon, any time after one. I left a message on the answering machine at the loft, but if Jim isn't there... "
"You'll need clothes?"
"Yes. The ones I was wearing... well, they didn't have to be cut off or anything, but I certainly can't wear them again until they've been washed!" He reached over to open a drawer in the small cabinet beside his bed, and retrieved a set of keys. "This one is the loft key. Could you bring me some clothes?"
"See if you can get a couple of plane tickets for Sierra Verde, leaving first thing tomorrow - we're probably too late to get a flight any time today. Rhonda might know where Jim and Simon went, what hotel they planned to stay in."
Megan grinned. "Sandy, I like the way you think. They're not leaving us out of this!" Grabbing the keys, she headed out.
Left alone, Blair thought over the facts as he knew them.
This was the second life - at least the second life - when the soul that was currently Alex Barnes had killed, or tried to kill, him. That soul was building up some seriously bad karma for itself, which meant that he - and possibly Jim, too, though he couldn't be sure of that - would have to meet it again in a future life; there would have to be some sort of repayment.
All in all, though, he thought he would just as soon not ever meet Alex again, either as a male or a female. Seeking repayment for that kind of debt was definitely not his way!
Odd, though, how sure he was that by killing him, Alex was not seeking retribution for a wrong that he had done her in some unremembered past life.
They landed in Sierra Verde in the early afternoon. Rhonda had indeed known which hotel Jim and Simon were using, and had promised to phone and let the hotel know to expect Megan. They took a cab to it, and hadn't gone far before Megan decided that Jim wasn't the worst driver in the world; this driver made Jim look positively cautious.
At the hotel Santa Cruz, Megan identified herself at reception and was given the number of the room Jim and Simon were sharing, as well as the information that neither man was there. However, the receptionist was quite happy to call someone to let them into the room.
They settled down to wait, Megan in a chair and Blair lying back on the bed that instinct told him was Jim's. He wasn't really prepared to admit it openly, but he was tired; the journey, coming so soon after his drowning, had taken more out of him than he had expected, even though his doctor's last instruction had been to go home and take it easy. It wasn't as if he'd been exerting himself after all; he'd had a night in Megan's very comfortable spare bed, Megan had driven them to the airport and actually dropped him off at the entrance before parking, their flight had been at a relatively close gate to check-in, the rest of the time he'd been sitting... well, not quite relaxing, he conceded. Physically relaxing, yes, but his mind had been more than busy, and he had long since learned that mental activity could in fact be exhausting.
He caught Megan watching him, and forced a smile. "Just thinking," he said. "Wondering... Why do some people become criminals? Alex has artistic talent; why has she ignored that, something she could have turned into a career, and turned to the... yes, riskier business of crime? We know she served three years in Coronado, some of it in solitary confinement - it can't be any fun, being caught and stuck in prison for years."
"If any of us knew that, I'd probably be out of a job," she said cynically. "Greed? Could be. And knowing you're running a risk has to be an adrenaline rush for some people, just as some of us get a rush out of catching them. Maybe with some it's even compensating for a feeling of inferiority; they're saying, 'Look at me! I wasn't any good at... whatever... but I can beat you at this!"
"Though from what Jim's said, according to his father nothing he ever did was good enough. Shouldn't that have given him a feeling of inferiority?"
"Well, for some people it probably would," Megan agreed. "But Jim's a stubborn cuss. He's more likely to think 'I am too good enough!' and mentally thumb his nose at the old man."
This time Blair's smile was more genuine. "That's true. He walked out just as soon as he was old enough, went into the army. Even when he came back to Cascade - I only found out he has a brother here about a year ago, and that his father's still alive just two or three months ago. But he's still avoiding contact with them both for most of the time."
"Doesn't forgive readily?" It was more of a comment than a question.
"Depends," Blair said. "I love the guy, I really do, but I have to admit that he can carry a grudge. On the other hand, he can be the most generous, caring... He's usually like that with me," he added.
She chuckled. "Rafe warned me about that, my first day in the bullpen," she admitted. "Said that anyone who tried to give you grief bought himself a lot of grief from Ellison."
"I don't think that's true now," Blair said thoughtfully. "Three years ago, yes - when I first started riding with Jim, there were a few guys, especially in Vice, who assumed I'd be frightened off pretty easily. It wasn't that they threatened me or anything like that - just made a point of talking about pretty gruesome cases when I was a captive audience, like in an elevator. But a case we had not long after I started riding with Jim rather stopped that little game before it went too far; after David Lash kidnapped me - I was going to be his fifth 'friend' here in Cascade - Jim put five bullets into him. And it was a pretty open secret, a few months later, that when Jim thought Galileo had blown up an elevator I was in, he was that close to dropping Galileo out of a thirty-seventh story window. But by then I'd worked with Jim for long enough that everyone had realized I wasn't going to be frightened away, and the talk aimed at scaring me off had stopped."
Meanwhile, Jim and Simon had gone to see Manuel Ortega, the local chief of police. As they entered his office, he said, "You must be the police visitors from the United States of America, yes? So tell me - what can I do for you?"
Jim left Simon, as his superior officer, to do the talking. "We're looking for two suspects wanted in a series of robberies. We have reason to believe they might be here in Sierra Verde - and if they are, it's not good news for you." He handed Ortega two files.
Ortega looked over them. "I have not seen her," he said. "However, I can tell you where to find him. If you will come with me?"
He led them along a corridor, down a flight of stairs, and back along another corridor. By then both Jim and Simon had a fair idea of where they were going.
They were right; the room Ortega entered was undoubtedly a morgue. Ortega opened a drawer. "This is the man you are looking for, Senors?"
"Yes - that's Hettinger," Jim said quietly.
"How did he die?" Simon asked.
"He was found at the foot of the stairs at his hotel. We'll schedule an autopsy, of course, but our examiner believes it was an accident, that he fell down the stairs."
"There weren't any witnesses?" Jim asked. Something about the tone of his voice drew Simon's attention.
"No," Ortega said.
"And he didn't have a woman friend also staying at the hotel?" Simon asked.
"No, he was alone."
"Captain," Simon said after studying the body for some moments, "I'm sure your examiner is very competent, but may we examine the body?"
"Yes, of course. Do you need me here? If not, I have some work to get on with; I'll be in my office."
"If you don't mind leaving us alone," Simon replied.
"You are fellow police officers; why should I mind?" Ortega nodded and walked out.
Simon turned to Jim. "You know something, don't you?"
"Barnes had something to do with this," Jim said.
Simon raised his eyes to gaze heavenwards. "Look, Jim, I believe in your abilities - I have to, after some of the things I've seen you do - but what we need is some regulation evidence."
Jim touched the dead man's mouth. "There's a trace of lipstick here. It's hers." He concentrated on the neck. "There's tissue damage on the neck muscles. I'd say that she kissed him, then while he was distracted by that, she snapped his neck." There was, he decided, no need to confuse the issue by telling Simon he was having a vision of it happening.
"But why?" Simon asked. "She comes down here to sell the nerve gas, right? She must have used Hettinger to contact... probably Arguillo, since we know he operates from here."
"And once he'd set up the deal, she didn't need him anymore, so she got rid of him."
"Jim, if that's the case, she's already done the deal. She could be anywhere by now."
"No," Jim said. "She's still here in Sierra Verde. I know she's here, just as I knew there was another sentinel in Cascade. It's not as marked here - this isn't my territory - We've still got time. Come on; let's have another word with Ortega."
Finding their way back to Ortega's office was easy. His door was open, and he looked up as they reached it.
"Ah - you are satisfied that that is your man?" Ortega asked.
"Yes," Jim said, "but it leaves us with a... a problem. Captain, that man was trafficking in weapons, and possibly also in drugs. We have reason to believe he and a colleague came here to meet a possible buyer."
"A colleague? The woman whose file you gave me?"
"Yes. She's dangerous, Captain - very dangerous."
"Do you know if there was any chance that Hettinger met with Carlos Arguillo?" Simon asked.
"Carlos Arguillo? This is not the time for anyone to do business with Senor Arguillo," Ortega said.
"We've done our homework," Simon said. "If your business is weapons or drugs, he's your man."
Ortega shook his head. "Senor, my government is cracking down hard on his operations. Perhaps he didn't pay them enough to look the other way, and it's dangerous to get caught in the middle. I think your Senor Hettinger dealt with somebody else - there are other men here who deal in drugs and possibly weapons. They are not as powerful as Senor Arguillo, but while the government's attention is on him, it would be safer to deal with one of them.
"It is not safe to talk of this here; it is possible that one of my men takes money to let criminals know what is happening so that they can avoid being caught. There's a cafe across the street from your hotel. Why don't we meet there around four? By then I can have a list of other... businessmen for you to consider."
That's fine," Simon said. "Thanks." As they left, he added, "Jim I want a word with the American consul. I'll meet you at the cafe."
Rather than go and sit in the cafe for an hour, Jim decided to go back to the hotel. As he approached his room, he heard noises from inside it. There was no cleaning cart in the corridor - in any case he would have expected the cleaners to have been long finished. Drawing his gun, he unlocked the door very carefully then, gun held ready, slammed it open.
Blair jumped, sitting up. "Wait, Jim! It's us!"
"What are you two doing here?" Jim slipped his gun back into its holster.
"We both felt we wanted in on catching Barnes," Megan said. "Have you found her yet?"
"We... know she's here. Her partner certainly is - he's in the morgue. We think she killed him - probably because he'd served his purpose by putting her in touch with a buyer here." He turned his attention to Blair. "Are you sure you shouldn't still be in bed, Chief?"
"I've been taking it easy," Blair protested.
"Chief, your idea of 'taking it easy' is to have five hours of sleep instead of four. What did the doctor say?" He glanced at Megan, correctly assuming that she would have some idea of the instructions the doctor had given Blair.
"Told him to take it easy for a day or two," Megan confirmed. "And he has. I took him home with me from the hospital; he spent the rest of yesterday with his feet up just watching television. Packed him off to bed early. I booked the air tickets, I drove to the airport, all he had to do was walk to the check-in desk and then to the gate and onto the plane."
Blair nodded. "She was even worse than you when you're in Blessed Protector mode. If I'd given her half a chance she wouldn't even have let me feed myself."
Jim looked at him for a moment, then turned back to Megan. "I owe you," he said quietly.
"Nah, that's all right," she replied. "Any of the others from Major Crime would have done the same. I just happened to be the one who was there."
"So when did you actually get here?"
"Couple of hours ago," Megan said. "We got Rhonda to phone the hotel and let them know we were coming to join you - "
"Which is how you got into this room." Jim shoved his annoyance with the hotel staff to the side. "All right - this is the situation... "
By the time he had finished explaining what he and Simon had been doing, it was quarter to four. Glancing at his watch, he said, "So now I've to join Simon at the cafe, see what Ortega has come up with. Coming?"
Simon was already at the cafe when they reached it. Although Ortega had said that it served 'the best margaritas', Simon had ordered coffee, and they did too.
"Shouldn't you still be in bed?" Simon asked Blair as they savored the first mouthfuls.
"Not you too!" Blair groaned. "Why am I surrounded by people intent on mothering me more than my own mother ever did?"
"It's not 'mothering' you," Megan said. "It's just watching out for a friend."
"Well... I don't say I don't appreciate it, at least sometimes, but I've been looking after myself since I was sixteen... and even before that, a lot of the time I had to be responsible for myself."
"Chief, sometimes I think it's a wonder you lived to be seventeen!" Jim told him.
"Ah, senors." Ortega joined them, glancing at Megan and Blair.
"Two of our colleagues from Cascade," Simon said. "Inspector Connor and Consultant Sandburg."
Talk about making me sound official! Blair thought.
Ortega nodded an acknowledgement before returning his attention to Simon. "Here are the most likely people for your Senor Hettinger to have contacted," he said.
"Thanks. Care to join us for a few minutes?" Simon asked.
"Thank you, but no. I have work to do. Let me know if you discover anything. As I told you, the government is cracking down on Senor Arguillo; I would not like to see one of these men rising high enough to challenge him. That would lead to a great deal of trouble." He turned and walked away.
Moments later, a car drove slowly down the street. Something about its sedate pace drew Megan's attention; she looked at it, saw the rifles sticking out of both front and rear passenger windows, and yelled, "Get down!"
Simon reacted instantly; Blair hesitated for a split second, but Jim grabbed him and dragged him down just as the firing began. The windows exploded in a shower of glass. There were screams as the other people in the cafe, both customers and staff, dropped to the ground, mostly seeking shelter but several actually wounded.
"Come on!" Jim said urgently as he began to wriggle across the floor towards the kitchen. The other three followed him. They weren't the only ones with the idea that the kitchen, in the back of the cafe, would be safer than where they were, but they reached it first. It was empty - the kitchen staff had clearly fled at the first sign of trouble. Regaining their feet, they headed for the open back door. Jim hesitated for a moment, checking the alley, then nodded. "Come on!" He grabbed Blair's hand and dragged him along, making sure he didn't fall behind.
After a hundred or so yards, the alley joined the main road. They paused, checking. They were safely behind the attacking car, and even as they watched it sped away.
"It might come back," Megan panted.
Simon nodded, and led the way into another cafe. They sat where they could see the road, and sure enough, a few minutes later the car - or one very similar to it - drove past, heading back to wherever it had come from.
They didn't dare go back to the Santa Cruz. Instead, looking around for somewhere they could shelter for the night, they found an open church.
"I wouldn't think even Arguillo would kill anyone in a place where they worship," Jim said as they settled down, glad that it promised to be a warm night.
"Do you think Ortega set us up?" Megan asked.
"It's possible," Simon said. "I'd hate to think that a top police officer would be working with the top crime lord - but he did seem very anxious to steer us away from Arguillo."
"I don't think we can trust anyone but ourselves, here," Jim said.
"Could it have been Alex that set us up?" Blair asked.
"I wouldn't have thought she had the clout," Jim said. "It would seem Arguillo's got the most to benefit from the possession of this toxin with his war on the government - assuming Ortega told us the truth about that - or whatever else he's got going on. We have to find a way to stop Barnes from making delivery."
"And she doesn't want any interference," Blair agreed. "She already tried to kill me because of what I knew about her. Well, actually, she did, didn't she?"
"She'd probably quite happily see the three of you dead," Jim agreed. "I don't think she wants to kill me, though. When we visited her..."
Blair nodded. "She did seem quite interested in you."
There didn't seem to be anything left to say, and one by one they fell asleep.
Jim woke early next morning. He sat up, wondering what had wakened him. A priest, come to take an early service? No, he could hear nothing inside the building except Simon's soft snoring, Megan's steady breathing, Blair's slightly harsh breathing - his lungs clearly hadn't quite recovered yet - and a faint scratching sound that he instantly identified as small rodent. The church had mice.
Barnes! He knew where she was. He stood, hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should waken the others but then, remembering how sure he was that he was the only one of them she would not willingly kill, walked swiftly out of the building.
Behind him, Blair stood and quietly followed.
Jim headed unerringly for the beach. He was right; Alex Barnes was there, sitting on a rock and gazing out over the sea, as if lost in thought. He was, however, quite sure that she was aware of him and, right enough, as he approached her she turned.
"Hello, Jim. No - I think I want to call you Jamie. It's so much more friendly, don't you think?" She moved close to him, running her hands down his arms.
"What makes you think I want to be friendly?" Jim asked. "You drowned Blair."
"He was getting between us. We're meant to be together, Jamie. Don't you feel it?" And then she stiffened, looking past Jim. Moving incredibly swiftly, she grabbed Jim's gun from its holster and raised it.
Jim caught her wrist, forcing the gun down, knowing that she'd seen Blair. "No. No!"
She dropped the gun, swung around, and ran. Jim watched, not sure why he found it so difficult to move. Blair ran over to him.
"Jim, come on... Stop her!"
Helplessly, Jim shook his head as Blair scooped the gun up and tried to hand it to Jim.
"I can't shoot her," Jim said. "I don't know why."
"Is there any chance that you're attracted to her, despite everything?"
"I don't think so. I just... I don't know."
"We already discussed the possibility that in neutral territory sentinels might be drawn to mate. Maybe that's the problem. You know she's a criminal, so that conflicts with the biological imperative to have sex... "
"Does that mean the temple she dreamed about, the one she drew, is near here?"
"It's possible," Blair said. "She seems quite open to the mystical side of things. Could be that although Hettinger brought her here, presumably to deal with Arguillo, she might have come here anyway, drawn to the neutral territory because she'd met another sentinel, one that she found attractive. But that's only a guess; all this is way beyond anything I actually know."
How he knew it he didn't know, but Jim was sure that Barnes hadn't managed to make direct contact with Arguillo - Hettinger had done that, which made it all the more puzzling why she had killed him. If she had simply wanted rid of him, possibly to avoid splitting the money from the sale of the nerve gas, surely the time to do it was after they actually had the money. It made sense, therefore, to assume that at some point in the fairly near future, Barnes would try to make that contact.
It was surprisingly easy to discover where Arguillo lived, just on the outskirts of the town, and they found a quiet corner nearby where they could watch the house.
After a while, three men left the house and went to where a gardener was busy. One of the three spoke to the gardener for a moment, and Jim clearly heard him say, "Si, senor Arguillo."
So that was Carlos Arguillo. He looked like a man whose primary interest would be his family, but at least three of his watchers weren't fooled by his easy-going appearance. They knew it was a carefully cultivated shell designed to fool potential adversaries.
A phone rang; Arguillo took a cell phone from his pocket with a quick gesture that sent the other three men a few yards away.
Blair put his hand on Jim's arm. Jim nodded and strained his hearing - good though it was, at the distance involved it was going to be difficult for him to hear the person on the other end of the phone. But he knew her voice instantly.
'... nerve gas, Arguillo.'
"So you're the one who killed Hettinger?"
'We were supposed to be equal partners. He was planning to cheat me.'
"So how long before you can arrange the delivery?"
'As soon as we agree on the price. $10 million American.'
Arguillo chuckled. "Now you are cheating, me, eh? The agreed price was four million."
'Originally, but then Carl told you five, and you agreed to that. However, you and I never had a deal. I'm negotiating.'
"I do not call doubling the price 'negotiating', senorita. Tell me - why should I pay you double?"
'Your operation grossed $500 million last year before your government declared war on you. Now you barely clear half of that, and it can only get worse. My ten is a drop in the ocean compared to what you'll get back once you have your government frightened off.'
"You are well-informed," Arguillo said. "Very well; ten million it is."
'Good. Six miles south of the village of Monte Leon, there's a fork in the Zaragordo River. I'll meet you on the west bank tomorrow at noon. If I see more than you and one other person, the deal is off and I sell to somebody else.'
"I'll be there. Ciao." He flicked the phone off and stood for a moment tapping one foot. Then he turned, called his men to him with a jerk of his head, and headed back to the house.
They risked going back to the hotel that night, assuming that Arguillo's men - if they were watching the hotel - would think they had left when they didn't go back there the previous night, especially since they stayed out of sight all that day. It seemed that they were right; they had no trouble. Blair and Megan got rooms, Simon took the one assigned to Blair, and Blair went into the double room with Jim.
Once they had retired for the night, Jim said quietly, "How are you feeling, Chief?"
"A little tired," Blair admitted, "but apart from that, I'm fine."
"I'm not sure you're not overdoing things."
"Jim. Between you and Megan, I haven't had a chance to overdo anything. Simon isn't quite as bad, but anything you two overlook, he catches." Blair was silent for a moment, before saying softly, "I might fight against it, call it being pampered, but I do... I do appreciate it, that you give me that attention. I never had anyone to care - really care - about me before I met you. Eli Stoddard kept an eye on me when I was a student, but it was the eye of a teacher who felt responsible, not the eye of a friend. Before that? Naomi wasn't what you would call maternal, and after I was about ten I was left to fend for myself a lot. She wanted me to be independent - she said - which would have been fine, but she always thought that what she wanted for me was best... The number of times she's interfered in my life, trying to lure me into the aimless wandering from commune to retreat that she favors. Even though I'm an anthropologist and it would make a fascinating study - at least for a while - that sort of life wouldn't suit me at all."
"No, I don't suppose it would," Jim murmured. "You'd end up questioning the teaching."
Blair chuckled. "I first visited St. Sebastian's when I was eighteen. It was part of a study that I was doing for a term paper. I got on well with everyone, but I drove Brother Jeremy crazy because I was always asking 'But why do you do that, why do you do it that way?' In the end he passed me on to Brother Marcus, who had the time and patience to answer my questions in a way I could understand. After that, I went back a few times just to have a day or two to unwind; I'd learned to appreciate the peace."
He fell silent, and a few seconds later his steady breathing told Jim that he was asleep.
Next morning saw them heading for the fork in the Zaragordo River. They arrived a little before noon, approaching carefully; sure enough Arguillo and one of his men were waiting there. They hid a little distance away, planning to try to arrest Arguillo and Barnes during the transfer.
Jim raised his head, listening; Blair glanced at him. Moments later, Jim said, "Helicopter. Barnes doesn't miss a trick, does she."
The helicopter swung round and landed; Barnes got out and walked forward, her every movement signalling alertness. It was quite clear to the watchers that she did not entirely trust Arguillo. Suddenly she stopped, just as Jim said, "There's someone else down there!" Then, raising his voice, "Barnes - it's a trap!"
But she was already moving, turning, running back to the helicopter.
There was a flurry of gunfire; in the midst of it the helicopter lifted from the ground, and soared up and over the trees.
A few shots had come their way, but not many - Arguillo's men clearly had no real idea where the warning shout had originated. With the helicopter gone, Arguillo gathered his men - the one 'officially' with him and half a dozen others who had been hiding - and retreated.
Jim turned to Blair. "Chief, you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. But Jim, what the hell was that about?"
"Arguillo had too many men for us to tackle. I think she was aware of them anyway, but if she hadn't been - if Arguillo's men had overpowered her, she might or might not have been killed, and Arguillo would have had the gas. We have more chance of getting it back from her than we would have had of defeating Arguillo and his men."
"How?" Megan demanded as Jim led the way down to the river. "By now, in that helicopter, she could be halfway to Panama!"
"I can find her," Jim said. paused, looking down at the ground. "Hold on a second... " He crouched, checking something. "Her helicopter's leaking fuel. It won't get far. It was heading upriver - come on!"
"Jim, even if the chopper goes down, how can we track her in this bush?" Simon asked. Jim just looked at him, turned and walked away. "All right. I want you two to stay with him. I'm going to get help. Sandburg, I'm going to give you this. It's a G.P.S. transponder. It'll help me locate you later."
Blair nodded. "Okay." He pushed it into a side pocket of his ever-present backpack, and headed off after Jim, Megan at his heels. Simon sighed, and turned to go back to the town.
Blair and Megan caught up with Jim before he had gone very far, walking behind him as he followed an unhesitating route for mile after mile.
Slowly, slowly, Blair dropped behind, his stressed body unable to maintain the demands his will was making of it. But as long as he could keep the others in sight, he was unwilling to ask them to stop, even for a few minutes, to let him catch his breath. He could understand what was driving Jim, and Megan, he knew, was driven to prove that she was as fit as any man - though it was his personal opinion that she was fitter than many of the detectives in the PD. He reluctantly admitted to himself that his own pride was what was keeping him going - he didn't want to be the one responsible for delaying them. Eventually, however, Megan glanced around and saw how far behind he was.
"What?" Jim demanded as he kept going.
"We need to stop for a minute. Blair's not fully recovered yet, remember?"
Jim stopped dead and turned. "God, Chief!" He ran back and slung an arm around Blair. "Why didn't you tell us you needed to take five?"
"We're already... a long way behind Alex," he panted.
"It won't help us catch her if you exhaust yourself." The caring note in Jim's voice turned what could have been a stern rebuke into a gentle scold.
"Jim's right, Sandy," Megan said as she joined them. "I wouldn't mind stopping for a few minutes myself."
Jim supported Blair as he sank to a sitting position, then sat beside him, with Megan two or three feet away. "I'm sure she's on foot now too, and if she's carrying that container of nerve gas, that'll slow her quite considerably. And speaking of carrying something - I'll take that backpack of yours."
"It's not... that heavy," Blair protested.
"Any weight is too heavy when you're under par," Jim told him.
He waited until Blair was breathing easily again, and two or three minutes beyond that. "Okay, Chief? Feel up to going on?"
Blair nodded, although in truth he knew he would be glad to lie down and sleep.
Jim slung Blair's pack onto one shoulder and set off again, but more slowly, at a pace Blair could maintain more easily. He kept an eye on Blair, too, and as soon as he felt that the younger man was beginning to flag, he called for another brief halt.
The light began to fade; Blair murmured, very softly, hoping that Megan didn't hear him. "Jim - it's getting dark."
Jim carried on for a few minutes, until they came to a small clearing. "I think this will do for a camp site," he said.
There was a fair amount of dead wood lying around; they gathered as much as they could in the half light, Jim scraped a circle bare of anything combustible and built up a small heap of tiny twigs. Blair scrabbled in his pack and retrieved a waterproof box containing matches, and in a surprisingly short time they were sitting around a fire, glad of the heat as the temperature dropped.
They talked spasmodically for a few minutes, then Megan yawned and lay back.
"You should go to sleep too," Jim said.
"In a minute. What happens tomorrow? We carry on? We haven't found the helicopter yet."
"It's not far away," Jim said. "She's been on foot for just about as long as we have."
"And if she's been making roughly the same speed as we have, that puts her - what? Fifteen miles at least ahead of us?"
"Not as much. The canister of gas would be awkward to carry, and was bound to slow her down; and she doesn't know that anyone is following her - she doesn't know we know the chopper was damaged. She wouldn't have any cause to hurry.
"But - " he dropped his voice although he was fairly sure Megan was asleep - "I had another of those... those visions. She's found the temple."
"Is that a good or a bad thing?"
"I'm not sure. I can... I can feel the temple, feel it calling to me - that's probably how she found it. But... " He shook his head. "The temple isn't the place to confront her."
"At least not for you, and possibly not for me," Blair said. "But Megan isn't a sentinel or a guide. She could challenge Alex."
"I suppose," Jim said.
"Jim - what are you feeling about her?"
He sighed. "She's a criminal. I know I need to stop her, but somehow... I also feel like I have to protect her. Quite apart from her being a criminal, I shouldn't owe her any... any consideration, after what she did to you, but something keeps nagging at me - as if I'm in some way responsible for her welfare - and yet at the same time... I don't think I've ever hated anyone as much as I hate her. It would be so easy to kill her, and claim she was resisting arrest."
"Jim, you're not a killer."
"I've never killed anyone in cold blood, certainly, but it's been a near thing once or twice. Most cops would probably say the same - when they're faced with someone who's brutalized a child, for example. That's how I feel about her. What she's done is beyond forgiveness."
They settled down and Blair fell asleep almost immediately. Jim lay still for a few minutes, until he was sure that Blair was asleep, then he got up and moved quietly away.
Blair blinked sleepy eyes open. "Megan? Whassamatter?"
It took a moment to penetrate his still-waking mind. "Gone?"
"I've been awake for about half an hour. He wasn't here when I woke. I thought he'd maybe gone off... well, behind a convenient bush, if you get my meaning, or else he was checking the start of our trail for today, but there's no sign of him coming back. I think he's gone off without us."
"He's pretty driven to catch Alex," Blair said as he pushed himself into a sitting position. "And he'd feel obliged to protect us. If I had a dollar for every time he's told me to 'Stay in the truck, Sandburg!' I could have paid off all my student loans months ago."
She gave a half-hearted grin. "I can see him wanting to protect you, Sandy," she said, "because you're a civilian, but I'm a fully-trained, fully-qualified cop, and he knows that. He saw me take down Scott Brunell. And because I'm a woman, there's no way I'd underestimate another woman - I've seen cops who could take down a rampaging bull elephant without turning a hair be completely fooled and land flat on their asses because they've completely underestimated a woman. Too many men have that chivalrous instinct even when they know a woman's a crook."
"I don't think Jim would underestimate her," he said slowly, "but I have to admit that he has a very ambivalent view of her. He knows he has to stop her, but for some reason he also wants to protect her."
"That doesn't make sense."
"No, it doesn't - and believe me, Jim knows that." Blair took a deep breath, and scrambled to his feet. "Come on - he's gone this way."
"How can you be sure of that? He hasn't left any trail that I can see."
"It's... it's hard to explain," Blair said as he picked up his backpack and set off. Megan hurried to join him.
"Is it something to do with the way he managed to revive you after you drowned?" she asked. "Did that give you a kind of psychic connection?"
"You could put it that way," Blair said. "Megan - do you believe in reincarnation?"
"I've never really thought about it," she said.
"Well, I do. When I drowned... I had a weird sort of vision. I think Alex killed me - really killed me - in a past life; and I think Jim probably knew Alex then too, because one of the theories about reincarnation is that in every life there's a strong possibility that we may meet and interact with the same... souls, I suppose you could say. The relationships might vary. You might be a man in one life, a woman in the next. Several lives ago, I might have been your mother and Jim your son. Okay, we mightn't meet in every life - we could be born out of synch with each other. Then there's karma. If Alex did kill me in a past life, it might be because in an earlier life I killed her, maybe by accident. But she tried to kill me again in this life - would have if Jim hadn't been able to call me back, and that's building up some seriously bad karma for her."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, then Megan said, "Sandy - is Jim a watchman?"
"Watchman?" Blair said, forcing a question into his voice.
"I heard about watchmen back home from an Aboriginal girl I knew. She explained that they had sharper than usual sight and hearing... how they worked for their tribes... I've been watching Jim since we got here, and started to put it together. All those times I couldn't understand why he knew things, saw things. That's what he is, isn't he?"
"It could be dangerous for Jim if it became common knowledge," Blair said, recognizing that it was impossible to deny it. "There are various words for what he is, depending on what tribe you ask - watchman, guardian, protector... Our term for it is sentinel."
"And Alex Barnes - is she one, too?" Megan asked.
"No," Blair said. "At first I thought she was; but no. She has the enhanced senses, yes; but she has no instinct to protect. To be a sentinel, there has to be the instinct to protect."
Jim passed the downed helicopter less than an hour after leaving the campsite where Megan and Blair slept peacefully. He did pause for a few seconds, the light of a setting quarter moon enough to let him see - even if his nose hadn't told him - that the pilot was dead. There was no sign of Barnes or the canister of gas, which didn't surprise him. The pilot might have died in the crash, but Jim had a suspicion that Barnes had killed the man.
He cast around for a minute, but he had no doubt about the direction Barnes had taken. He could feel something pulling him to the north - a tug, as if he was dragged by a rope - and he knew that Barnes had felt it too. He hurried on.
It took him less time than he had expected to come to a large clearing. The temple from Barnes' drawing stood there, a pyramid showing some signs of erosion - but that was to be expected in a structure built over five hundred years previously. Considering the condition of a lot of the pyramid temples in Mesoamerica, this one was in surprisingly good condition, and he found himself wondering if the locals kept it maintained.
There was what appeared to be a doorway partway up it - easily reached by the steps that led to the top. Jim started up, pausing when he reached the doorway. Yes - there was someone inside...
But before he could do anything, before he had done no more than register the presence of that other person, something stung his neck. His slap was an automatic reaction, and he felt something under his fingers that he instantly recognized as a dart. He barely had time to think, Shit! before he collapsed.
When he regained consciousness it took him a moment to realize that he was lying almost totally immersed in a bath of water. He could feel that his head was supported so that his face was out of the water. He tried to sit up, and discovered that he couldn't move.
"It's no use trying to move." It was Barnes' voice. "The drug on the dart is still in your system." She moved into his line of sight, easily visible in the faint light that illuminated the interior of the pyramid. "Centuries ago someone discovered that if you take a drink made from local plants and herbs, then lie in one these chamber pools, it sharpens the senses - almost as if they'd found a way to make sentinels. If your senses are already heightened, it enhances them even more."
With an effort, Jim managed to say, "How do you know that?"
"I found the instructions carved on the wall. No, they weren't in English, they were hieroglyphs, but somehow, I understood what they said. I tried it last night; and now my sensory awareness is far, far greater than it was."
"We already have heightened senses," Jim said. "We don't need a drug or this sensory deprivation to enhance them more. You're playing with fire."
"There's so much more to experience than you know." She brought up a hand holding an earthenware mug. Jim kept his mouth closed, but she gripped his nose and he was forced to open his lips in order to breathe. She tipped some of the liquid from the mug over his mouth, still holding his nose so that he was forced to swallow or choke. "I want you to see what I see, feel what I feel."
"No!" Jim gasped.
"Yes," Barnes said. "And then you'll realize that we're meant to be together."
She moved away, out of his line of sight.
Slowly at first, and then more rapidly, Jim began to 'see' things. He saw things that he remembered from the past three years with Blair - always things where Blair was in danger; Lash, Galileo, Zeller, Iris... then he began to see things from his time in Peru. The helicopter crash. The death of his men. And then he began to see things that he didn't remember happening...
"Blair!" He hurried forward, seeing the blood, the terrible gash across the young man's throat, knowing instantly that this man who held his heart was beyond help... The men carrying Blair were wearing tartan, and he knew this was nothing he had ever experienced in this life.
He left the men to bring Blair as he went to the house. Inside, he walked over to stand in front of the man who so resembled Alex Barnes. "Why?" he asked.
"He had what should have been mine."
"What should have been yours?"
"You always loved him best. Did you ever love me at all?"
The part of his mind that was aware he was dreaming, aware he must be remembering something from a previous life, thought, "Did I? I certainly don't like you now." And he guessed that this was why Barnes thought they belonged together. But they didn't. He and Blair did.
The scene changed. He and another man were standing looking down at the one who wore Barnes' face, who was lying on the ground with a badly injured leg; then he turned away, and the man on the ground lunged up, despite his injury, and he felt the pain of a knife sliding between his lower ribs. The man beside him moved quickly, and he saw that it was Incacha. Incacha caught Barnes' neck and snapped it.
The scene changed again. The clothes were, he thought, even more old-fashioned than the tartan of his previous vision. He was, he knew, a rich landowner. Two young women - sisters - were vying for his attention - one was Barnes, and he knew she only saw his money. The other... The other was Blair, and he knew that Blair loved him and cared nothing for his wealth. And then he saw Blair lying dead, and knew that Barnes had killed him... her.
Remembering that one of the men in his... his what? hallucination? memory? wore Incacha's face, Jim called desperately, "Incacha, help me!"
Incacha appeared, wearing Chopek clothes rather than the tartan he had worn in the earlier vision.
"Why do you call me?" Incacha asked. "You should not be afraid to walk through your dreams. They allow your spirit to speak."
"But my dreams are dark; all I see in them is death."
"If there is darkness, then you must face it - knowing that the darkness will flee from the light. But I cannot bring you the light. What do you see?"
"The death of my guide," Jim whispered.
"What do you fear?" Incacha asked.
"The death of my guide."
"What is your light?"
"If you know that, you know what to do."
Blair and Megan made fairly steady time - walking a little more slowly than the previous day they were able to keep going without Blair's falling behind or stopping for a break, so they were basically making much the same time.
A little over an hour after they started they reached the crashed helicopter. Blair peered into it and shook his head. "Pilot's dead," he said. "No sign of Alex."
"That woman has more lives than a cat!" Megan growled.
She made to set off again, continuing the eastward line they had been following, Blair said, "No - this way," and turned to head in a more northerly direction.
Megan said, "How do you know that?"
"I'm Jim's guide. I can feel a sort of pull that wants me to go this way."
Megan looked at him, shrugged and joined him. "At least the G.P.S. transponder will lead Simon to us - you do still have it, don't you?"
"Yes, I still have it," Blair said. They walked in silence for a few minutes, then Blair said, "Jim can't be terribly far behind her."
"Sandy, she has to be... Assuming we were covering three miles an hour, she has to be at least fifteen miles ahead of us!"
"Doesn't follow." Blair thought for a moment. "She probably lost a while getting over the shock of the crash - it's only on TV that someone can crash something hard enough to cause the sort of damage that chopper had and jump up instantly, ready to go - then making sure the pilot was dead... then carrying something as awkward and heavy as a canister of gas would cut her speed quite a bit. She probably had to stop fairly often to rest, and then once it was fairly dark, she'd probably have stopped for the night too. She wouldn't expect a pursuit on foot, not knowing that anyone had realized the chopper was damaged. She might be a fair bit ahead of us, but I suspect Jim isn't far behind her; I think he probably left last night as soon as he was sure we were both asleep."
They carried on.
Four or five miles further on, they came on a clearing, and stopped, staring at the pyramid in it - one in far better condition than many that Blair had seen, one he was sure was unknown to archaeologists because one in this condition would have made all the archaeology and probably anthropology magazines, and he wondered how it had escaped notice. It was, he was sure, the pyramid Barnes had drawn, but he had assumed that she had 'seen' it in her dreams as it had been centuries previously.
"What...?" Megan said as Blair pulled her down to crouch behind a bush.
"Ssshhh. A pyramid like this? It's an ancient temple," Blair replied softly. "Alex had a drawing of it, and said she'd dreamed about it."
"Is that a doorway?" Megan asked. "Halfway up the steps - is that a doorway?"
"I think it is," Blair agreed. He paused for a moment, trying to interpret what he felt. "I think both Jim and Alex are in there, but just what they're doing... "
"A man and a woman, both sentinels, in an ancient temple?" Megan asked dryly. "What do you think they'd be doing?"
"Not that," Blair said. "Whatever else, not that. Jim didn't have the remotest scrap of liking for her."
"No? So why did he call out to tell her Arguillo had set a trap for her?"
"What chance would we have had to get the gas back from Arguillo and half a dozen of his men, all well armed?"
"Oh. Yes, Jim did say that, didn't he." She glanced around. "Do you think Arguillo is following as well?"
"I'd guess not. He went off the other way, back towards the town. And he had no way to know that the chopper was damaged. We wouldn't have known but for Jim's abilities. No, I don't think he's a player now. Not unless he went back to get a chopper himself, and is following the direction Alex took. If he did that he'd see the crashed one and know she has to be somewhere fairly near. But we've cut off at an angle from her original direction, and he'd assume she'd go straight on, unless she went in a circle to get back to where she left from. He might well think that's what she would do, and go back to set another trap for her."
"Well, we won't find out anything just staying out here," Megan said.
"I know. Yes, we'd be best to get inside - but be careful. Remember she's a sentinel, and her hearing is acute. The slightest noise out of place will alert her. Indeed, she might very well already be aware that we're here from hearing our voices. But if she isn't, as we get nearer she could become aware of us just from the sound of us breathing." No need to add that Jim was aware of heartbeats, so she probably was too.
They climbed steadily up the steps, moving slowly so that there was no risk that they would start breathing heavily. By wordless mutual consent they paused when they reached the doorway.
"Now what?" Megan breathed.
Blair strained his ears, but could hear nothing. He said so, adding, "But I'm not a sentinel. Jim sometimes checks that he is actually hearing something unusual by asking me if I can hear it." He nibbled his top lip, thinking, then murmured, "Let's risk it."
They ducked low and slipped inside, moving quickly to one side to keep from being silhouetted against the opening, and lay still, straining their ears and eyes in the dim light.
"I though it'd be darker than this, inside here," Megan breathed.
"Don't know what's lighting it, though," Blair answered, equally softly.
"Doesn't seem to be anyone in," Megan murmured after a few moments.
"They're in here," Blair said confidently. "But they could be asleep."
Megan glanced at him. "According to Tiana - my friend - even when he was asleep a watchman was aware of his surroundings."
"Yes, in their own territory they'd be alert 24/7, but this... This is neutral territory. There would be priests here, and they, or their acolytes, would be the ones responsible for the safety of the place. The sentinels would know that, and could allow themselves to relax. They might come here for a few days every year; or they might come only once in their entire lives - and their time here would be the only break they'd ever get. Being the tribal sentinel was - is - no picnic, Megan. The strain on them... "
"Is that why Jim is sometimes so... so... "
"So much of a hard ass?" Blair grinned. "Partly. And you never saw him at his worst... Come on - Jim, at least, is down here. I'm not sure if she is, though."
They moved slowly, carefully, down some steps, to find themselves on a flat surface. At one side of it were two big stone troughs; Blair moved to one of them, Megan at his heels, and they found themselves gazing down at Jim - well, his face, which was the only part of him above the surface of the water than filled the trough.
His eyes were open.
"Jim?" Blair muttered. "You awake, man?"
"Blair," he whispered. He looked past Blair to Megan. "Mairead," he said. There was a weird, not-quite-with-it quality to his voice. He tried to sit up, but could only move weakly. Blair steadied him, helped him to sit up, stand, and then climb out of the trough. He nodded to the other one. "Alas- Barnes is in there. I'm not sure where she put the nerve gas, though." He sounded more like himself with each word.
Blair helped him to move over to the other trough, and they stood looking down at the woman who had led them to this place.
"Ah!" Jim said. "There!" He reached into the trough, and pulled out the canister. He glanced around. "Where can we put it that'll be safe?"
"How about in the other bath?" Megan suggested.
"You always had good ideas, Mairead," Jim said. His voice had returned to the half dreamlike tone of his first words. Then he shook his head, took a deep breath, and - with Blair still steadying him - returned to the trough he had been in and put the canister carefully into it. "Do we have anything we could use to tie him - I mean her - with?" Jim asked, nodding towards Barnes.
Blair shrugged off his backpack. "I should have something in here," he said. He groped in the pack, finally pulling out a small box. "First aid kit," he said as he opened it. "Bandages. Will they do?"
Barnes remained unaware of them as Blair and Megan pulled her into a sitting position and Jim tied her hands firmly, then they lifted her out of the water and laid her on the floor.
"I'd have expected that to waken her," Megan said.
"She's drugged," Jim replied. "If she's aware of anything, she'll think it's part of one of the hallucinations the drug gives."
"Hallucinations - or visions?" Blair asked.
"Damned if I know," Jim said. "But... when you woke up, after she tried to drown you - you said you'd had a vision - that she had cut your throat?"
"Yes - but she was a man."
Jim nodded. "When I was in there - " he nodded at the trough - "I saw you lying dead. The man who killed you had Barnes' face, claimed I always loved you best, and asked if I had ever loved him. We... the three of us... were brothers." He looked at Megan. "And you were our sister. Then later, he killed me as well. You were right about reincarnation, Chief. I think that was probably our last life - lives. I don't think that was the first time she'd killed you, either... but the visions sort of ran into each other... "
"But this time you brought me back," Blair said. "You changed the pattern - "
"No!" It was a hoarse scream from the woman tied on the floor. "No - What have you done? We belong together!"
"You're a thief and a murderer, Barnes," Jim said quietly.
"We're both sentinels! We belong together!"
"No," Blair said quietly. "Two sentinels don't belong together."
"What... " She stared at him. "I killed you! Will you never stay dead?"
"Two sentinels don't belong together," Blair repeated, ignoring the hatred in her voice. "They can only come together here, briefly, before they return to their own territories. The person who belongs with each one is his - her - guide. I could help you, Alex, I could advise you, but I'm Jim's guide and always have been."
"NO!" And then she screamed in agony. "God, my skin! My skin's on fire!" She closed her eyes. "The light! Too bright... Can't you turn it off? What's making all that noise?" She tried to move her bound hands up to cover her ears. "Jamie! If you'd only turned to me... We should have been one... Should have be... " Her voice trailed off and she slumped, unconscious.
Jim looked down at her. "No. I'm sorry, but we could never have 'been one'," he said quietly. "I found my match long ago, but you never found yours, did you? Or did you, only you rejected him, you were so intent in your belief that it was me? But it never was." He straightened, and looked at Blair. "How did you find me?"
"The same way you found here, I suspect," Blair said. "The temple called to us."
Jim nodded absently, and looked around. He crossed to the wall with the hieroglyphs, and studied it for some moments. "Chief - can you understand what this says?"
Leaving Megan standing beside Barnes, Blair joined him, peering at the glyphs. "Not really," he said.
"No, I don't either," Jim said quietly. "But Barnes could read them. 'Centuries ago someone discovered that if you take a drink made from local plants and herbs, then lie in one these chamber pools, it sharpens the senses'," she said. "She thought that meant someone with ordinary senses could be given enhanced senses - and if the senses were already enhanced, it sharpened them even more. She'd already tried it, yesterday, and said her sensory awareness was far greater... "
"She did say, back in Cascade, that the temple she'd drawn - this one - seemed familiar, as if she'd spent time in it. Maybe she had an incarnation here that we didn't have. Maybe that's why she could read the glyphs."
"I suppose that's possible." Jim sighed. "I don't like all this mystic stuff, Chief."
"But you can't deny it - think animal spirits?"
"I'm thinking," Jim said resignedly.
"You said... she'd used the drink yesterday, and her senses were sharper?"
"And she was in one of the troughs again today... I think she overdid it. Enhanced her senses to the point where it became impossible to control them. The slightest thing became magnified... "
"Basically she overloaded and fried her sentinel circuits?" Megan had joined them without either noticing.
Jim looked at her, then at Blair. "Megan knew someone back in Australia who told her about sentinels," Blair said. "She put two and two together. Don't worry - she understands the need for secrecy."
"Well, currently she's unconscious," Jim said, returning his attention to Barnes. "The only way to get her out of here is to carry her; kindest to do that while she's out."
He and Blair lifted Barnes between them while Megan retrieved the canister of gas and they made their careful way out of the pyramid, down the steps and onto the ground. They laid her down.
"Now what?" Megan asked.
"Simon should be turning up soon," Blair said.
"Is anyone there?" Barnes' voice was weak.
"Yes," Blair said.
"It's so dark," she whispered, her voice agitated, then repeated, "Is anyone there?"
"We're here, Alex," Blair repeated more loudly.
She was shaking, and it was obvious that she could neither see nor hear them. Blair laid a hand on her shoulder - and it was obvious that she couldn't feel that either.
"Her senses are totally fried," Megan said, horror in her voice. "It looks like she's deaf and blind, can't feel anything... "
Blair nodded. "I think... I think this could be the spirit world's way of exacting retribution for her misuse of the gift she was given."
Jim raised his head. "There's a chopper coming... make that two."
A few minutes later, the two helicopters came into sight. "I hope this is Simon!" Blair said.
It was. Simon jumped down from the first one to land, ducking to avoid the blades, and ran over to the waiting group. "Are you all right?" he demanded.
"We are, and we've got the nerve gas," Jim said. "But Barnes... "
Simon looked down at the sobbing woman. "What's wrong with her?"
"It's a long story," Jim said. "Let's just say that what she experienced in there - " he indicated the pyramid behind them - "has left her blind and deaf and probably lost her her marbles too."
Simon supervised while Barnes was put onto a stretcher and loaded onto one of the helicopters. Watching from a greater distance, Blair said quietly, "She still owes us a debt."
"More than one," Jim murmured. "According to the visions I had, she killed you at least twice in previous lives."
"Was she punished for it?"
"In one of the visions, Incacha broke her neck. I think she was executed - hanged - the other time, but I'm a bit vague about that one."
"This time, you brought me back and we didn't try for retribution. The spirit world did that," Blair said. "But there's karma; she must still repay us for what she did - so we might very well meet in another life."
"I'd just as soon never meet her again, no matter how many lives we may still live," Jim said. "In all the visions I had involving her, she was selfish and jealous. She hated you because in every life it was you I turned to for advice. She never understood that I knew her 'advice' would have been given only for her benefit, not mine." He slung an affectionate arm around Blair's shoulders and turned him towards the helicopters. "If the spirits are listening - the best repayment she could give us would be to keep out of our lives for the rest of eternity.
"As for you and me, Chief - "
Blair grinned. "With luck, from now on every life will be long and fulfilling. Right?"
"Right," Jim said as he helped Blair into one of the helicopters.
Notes on Part I
I realize that for many people, some of the details in this part must seem a little weird, so I thought to give some explanation here. This first segment is (very) loosely based on an eighteenth century story local to where I live. In the legend, the chief tricked into helping the man who killed his foster-brother met the dead man again in America, at Ticonderoga; I set it a little earlier in history. Drumossie Moor is another (older) name for Culloden Moor.
There was strict custom regarding hospitality. After a guest had been given food and drink, he was regarded as close kin to his host while the food remained in his stomach - a period usually designated as either two or three days. The host defended the guest, whatever he was accused of doing. If the host was attacked, the guest was expected to fight at his side. This law of hospitality took precedence over anything else, and must have caused a lot of mental suffering over the years. (One of the main reasons that the Massacre of Glencoe is remembered with abhorrence is that it was 'murder under trust' - the soldiers had spent time as the guests of the Glencoe MacDonalds; though the story also goes that many of the soldiers found a way to warn the families where they were staying, allowing a lot of them to escape.)
Scotland - especially Highland Scotland - while recognizing that having a leader was necessary, has always held to the belief that 'Jock is as good as his master'. It was customary for the sons of Highland chieftains to be taken, when they were about two, to be fostered by one of the clan families, and the tie between foster-brothers was particularly close.