Long time, huh? Sorry about that. My muse ran off and left me in November, so I had to pick up a temp muse and she ended up being a Highlander one. Then my usual returned, just in time for the holiday rush at work....
Anyway, here's the latest in the Alternate Reality series. Do NOT read if you haven't read the first four.
I'm having problems (temporary ones, I hope) with my Prodigy account, so the email address below may seem different, but it works.
Hope you enjoy!
As a child, I had been taught that staring was rude. As a lawyer, I had learned that staring could be an effective weapon-- shattering, devastating, yet wholly legal. Within the past year, I have discovered that staring can also be an enjoyable and enlightening pasttime-- if the subject is fascinating enough. And Jim Ellison is fascinating and more.
His face is back to its usual perfection, the damage his brother had done to it completely healed and physically gone. But will it ever be forgotten-- by him or me? Doubtful. Jim has relegated the instance to that long list of hurts his father and brother have heaped upon him over the years, and I-- I have placed it at the top of my list of hurts those two have perpetrated upon Jim, and for which they will suffer eventually. Actually, his brother Stephen is already suffering. For ratting out his partners in the drug business, he had been allowed into the Witness Protection Program. For hurting my Jim, his life in the Program wasn't what he thought it was going to be. He lives in Appalachia, a whole country away from Jim, and he works in a chicken processing plant-- for minimum wage. God love Garrity.
My staring used to startle him, but the man is highly adaptable. I think that's what kept him sane throughout a life that would make a damn good Movie of the Week. Abused child enlists in the Army, goes down in a helicopter crash and is MIA/presumed dead for eighteen months. He's found, honorably discharged, and a few months later, is sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Oh, and let's not forget the bit about him having heightened senses that causes him to fall into fugue states. Take all that tragedy, then watch him rise above it-- watch him become Caretaker-- protector of tender morsels in prison, followed by Jim Ellison-- victim/victor of a miscarriage of justice, then Ellison-- independent private investigator with friends and family.... Damn. Sounds like Emmy material to me. Could see it as a CBS movie following Touched By An Angel. Maybe put Della Reese in the role of Simon Banks (okay, we'll call her Simone Banks, if you prefer), police captain and personal friend, and Roma Downey can be me. Won't even have to change the name since Blair can be a feminine name as well as a masculine one. Now, the guy who plays Andrew would have to darken his hair to take Jim's role.... I grin as my fanciful thoughts get the better of me.
"Do I want to know?"
My eyes silently question Jim.
"Do I want to know the reason behind that grin of yours?" he asks patiently.
"No, I don't think you do," I reply honestly. Jim does not consider himself a hero. I'm not sure what he thinks about himself. It's a subject he's not comfortable with, and while I've been known to push him on occasion, I hold back on that one-- at least until I know more about the matter. I know that meeting his niece has made him look at himself in a different light. He's a bit nervous about being Jenny's primary male role model, but when you see him with her, you know he is one of the best things to ever come into her life. A young girl needs to know that there is a man in her life she can count on. A man needs to know that there is someone out there who is depending on him. It keeps him from drifting off, from detaching too much from the business of life.
For a while, Naomi had been that person for me. Then, I'd had my small rebellion and my clients were the ones who anchored me, gave me a reason to get up in the mornings. Now, there is Jim. He is my dependent; not legally and certainly not physically. Without me, he would breathe, eat, survive. But he would not be a whole man. There would be huge emotional chunks missing from him, and I think that brain, which even the military had discovered for a short while, would start to decay, and either sink into essence or graphically rot away.
Ah, now you're assuming I think too much of myself. But you have to remember where I entered the picture. Just after our first meeting, Jim killed a man. No matter how justifiable the action, unless you're an amoral psycho/sociopath, the event will eat away at you. Add to that Jim's sense of personal failure because his charge had been murdered, and you see the danger my friend was in. If I hadn't listed myself as his attorney earlier in the day, if I hadn't given him just the slightest amount of hope, he might have slipped away that night-- slid into an abyss of self-loathing, or even given over to the violence that breeds so freely in such a captive environment. What a fucking waste that would have been.
Hmm. We deserve a reward, don't we? Me for arriving right on time, and Jim for not being a fucking waste. There's this resort I've been dying to try up in the mountains, where they say the bass are as big as small children. Before I can voice the suggestion, the phone rings. "Sandburg."
"Mr. Sandburg, this is Captain Joel Taggert. I'm with the Cascade P.D."
I frown and look at Jim. No reaction which means he doesn't recognize the name either. I know he eavesdrops on my conversations until he assesses whether it's a personal call or business. If it's personal, he quickly withdraws his exceptional hearing. If it's business, well, it saves time. Captain Taggert. Who the hell is he? Then it hits me. "You're the head of the Bomb Squad," I blurt out. Jim stiffens.
"Yes, but that's not why I'm down here in your lobby, Mr. Sandburg."
"In the lobby?" Jim heads out the door.
"Yes, sir. There's something I need to discuss with you and your associate, Mr. Ellison. If it wouldn't be too much of an imposition, could I come up and talk to you?"
"Mr. Ellison is already on his way to escort you up, Captain."
I hang up, check to make sure the room is neat (as if Mrs. Thomas and Jim would let it be otherwise), then head for the coffee maker. It's probably going to be a long night.
He's watching me. I've gotten used to it, and quite frankly, I sometimes feel ignored when his attention is elsewhere. Yeah, that's petty, I know, and totally unlike the solitary creature I am. But I've changed a lot since Sandburg swept into my life and took it over. I bet the military thought they had the monopoly on assimilating people into a new way of life, but they have nothing on Sandburg. He took me-- an ex-bag boy, ex-GI, ex-con, and occasional killer-- and completely remade me. I have money, a job, respectability, and a home. With him. Because of him. I still wake in the middle of the night and wonder when I will lose it all.
Now, he's not only watching, but smiling. What is that keen mind up to? "Do I want to know?" I ask. His eyes turn inquisitive. "Do I want to know the reason behind that grin of yours?"
"No, I don't think you do."
I'll take his word for it. Rummaging through the workings of Sandburg's brain is not for the faint of heart. And that would be me. I have always kept my body strong, but the rest of me is weak. How else would you categorize my reluctance to turn my brother in to the police? He was trafficking Golden, and it was killing people, yet I-- hesitated. Captain Banks saw it as family loyalty. Little does he know the word never existed in the Ellison household. Sandburg figured it was some kind of conditioning. He thinks my childhood was one long brainwashing episode. But I know what it was truly about. I just didn't have the guts, pure and simple. It truly sickens me when I think about how easy it would have been to keep my mouth shut...how, if I hadn't kept picturing how disappointed Blair would have been with me, I would have let Stephen continue his activities.
I look up as he answers the phone. The hour is late. Either it's a personal call or trouble. He looks at me with a frown. Trouble, I surmise.
"You're with the Bomb Squad," Blair says suddenly, and I freeze. No! Then Blair relaxes and I follow suit.
"In the lobby?"
I stand and head downstairs. We live in a high-security building; no one gets in after hours without a personal escort. He's still at the phones when I arrive. He's black, tall, and a little heavy-set. He looks tired, his suit wrinkled, but he has very kind eyes. I could imagine him laughing, patting his belly and saying the story about cops and doughnuts are true. Why the hell is someone this nice working with bombs?
"I'm Jim Ellison," I say, holding out my hand like Sandburg taught me. I'd gotten out of the habit of doing so during my incarceration.
"Mr. Ellison." The return grip is firm. I like that. "I'm Captain Taggert. Sorry to disturb your evening--"
"But the matter could not wait," I interrupt. "Is it police business?"
"In a way, sir."
I consider that as the elevator glides to the top floor. Maybe it had something to do with one of Sandburg's cases. Had some slumlord we'd investigated blown up one of his former buildings? Or could a client be in some kind of trouble? I don't bother to ask the questions-- Sandburg will ask them and many more when we reach the penthouse.
"Coffee, Captain Taggert?" Blair asks politely after introductions are made.
"That would be nice, thank you," the captain said. "I think caffeine is the only thing keeping me on my feet at this time."
"Long day?" Blair asks, giving the captain an opening to disclose the reason for his visit.
The large man shifted in his chair. "Simon Banks speaks highly of both of you," he began uneasily.
"Our acquaintance has been mutually beneficial."
Sandburg has a way with words, doesn't he?
"Not only is Simon a colleague of mine, but he's also a personal friend," Taggert says, and there's something in his tone that causes a shiver to run down my spine.
"Is he in some kind of trouble?" I ask.
"What do you mean 'missing'?" Sandburg asks quickly. "He isn't where he's supposed to be, or you have evidence that something sinister has happened to him?"
Taggert sighed. "His apartment door was kicked in. There were signs of a struggle."
"When did this occur?"
"Our best estimate is about six hours ago."
"There was no mention of this on the evening news," Blair says.
"We want to keep a cap on it as long as possible."
"Then why tell us?"
Soulful brown eyes look at us. "As I said, Simon thought a lot of both of you. You impressed him a great deal, Mr. Ellison. Said he'd never seen someone with the number of contacts on the street that you have. And you, Mr. Sandburg, have contacts as well. Simon was convinced that between the two of you, you could cover every base known to mankind. He joked that if anything ever happened to him, he'd want you on the case. I'm sure he wasn't being prophetic, but...."
Sandburg reaches out to pat the captain's hand. "We need to know everything the department knows. Then we need to see Captain Banks' apartment."
Taggert nods. "Detectives Rafe and Brown have been assigned to the case. I think at this point they'll be open to outside help. They're at the apartment now. We might as well go over and see how they're going to take this."
"You didn't consult them first?"
"No, Mr. Sandburg. I'm not exactly supposed to be involved in a Major Crimes case myself. But at the moment I'm more concerned about Simon's life than company policy. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," Blair replies.
I toss Blair his jacket and follow him out.
"Coffee, Captain Taggert?" I ask. The man looks like he can use it. Boy, don't they have any normal-sized cops in the CPD? An average guy like me could get neck strain hanging around them. But I'm not supposed to be hanging around them. Why is this man here?
"That would be nice, thank you. I think caffeine is the only thing keeping me on my feet at this time."
"Long day?" The curiosity is killing me, but I hesitate to push the man. He looks like someone who has been pushed enough for one day.
"Simon Banks speaks highly of both of you."
So, this has something to do with Captain Banks? I should have known. The captain was not a regular visitor or anything, but ever since the incident with Stephen Ellison, we've kept in contact. I wonder if he's volunteered Jim and me for some police charity thingy. "Our acquaintance has been mutually beneficial," I reply. But if the favor requires me being auctioned off, or something along the lines of a blind date....
"Not only is Simon a colleague of mine, but he's also a personal friend," Taggert continues.
"Is he in some kind of trouble?" Jim asks sharply.
Trouble? This is about Simon Banks being in trouble? I trust Jim's instincts explicitly and if they're telling him there's trouble, I'm a believer. But if a cop's in trouble, why wouldn't he turn to other cops?
Shit. I hate that phrase. It can mean anything from a forgotten dinner engagement to blood spatters in an empty car. "What do you mean 'missing'? He isn't where he's supposed to be, or you have evidence that something sinister has happened to him?"
"His apartment door was kicked in. There were signs of a struggle."
This doesn't sound good. "When did this occur?" Taggert says something about six hours ago. "There was no mention of this on the evening news."
"We want to keep a cap on it as long as possible."
No big surprise there. "Then why tell us?"
Sorrow and fear are in the brown eyes that look at me and Jim. "As I said, Simon thought a lot of both of you. You impressed him a great deal, Mr. Ellison. Said he'd never seen someone with the number of contacts on the street that you have. And you, Mr. Sandburg, have contacts as well. Simon was convinced that between the two of you, you could cover every base known to mankind. He joked that if anything ever happened to him, he'd want you on the case. I'm sure he wasn't being prophetic, but...."
I didn't even silently question Jim before reaching out to comfort the captain. "Caretaker" Ellison is probably already planning what to do and "Sentinel" Ellison is always ready to work. "We need to know everything the department knows. Then we need to see Captain Banks' apartment."
Taggert gives a small, grateful smile. "Detectives Rafe and Brown have been assigned to the case. I think at this point they'll be open to outside help. They're at the apartment now. We might as well go over and see how they're going to take this."
Rafe and Brown had been part of the arrest of Stephen Ellison as well. I remember seeing the horror on their faces when Stephen attacked Jim. I don't think they'll be a problem, but.... "You didn't consult them first?"
"No, Mr. Sandburg. I'm not exactly supposed to be involved in a Major Crimes case myself. But at the moment I'm more concerned about Simon's life than company policy. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," I reply. Jim already has our jackets. We drop Taggert off at street level, then head down to the parking garage. In one accord we head for Jim's red Jeep. It's weird how things become routine. For investigations, we take Jim's Jeep; a trip to the courthouse is always made in my Mercedes.
We pull out onto the street and fall in behind Taggert's police-issued Chrysler. Jim is quiet, but I expect that. I don't think he's ever been really talkative, but now that he's a Sentinel, there is so much to hear that I don't think he realizes how quiet he is. Good thing I'm capable of talking for two or more people all by myself. "I hope Banks is okay. He's a good man, and the world can use all the good cops it can get, you know what I mean? I can't believe someone had the balls to break into a police captain's place. Didn't the idiot realize the kind of heat he's going to get for going after a cop? Probably thinks all cops are dumb. But he didn't know there was going to be a Sentinel on his ass, huh? I hope the forensics people didn't mess up the crime scene too badly. We're going to have to do some heavy filtering out for you to get anything useful, but I think--"
"Uh, Chief? I think there's something you should know," Jim interrupts.
"What?" I ask distractedly. Wonder how well he can recognize Banks' scent? Could he actually track him through the city? We'd never tried anything like. Why hadn't we? You're getting slack, Sandburg.
"I'm not a Sentinel anymore."
It would have been such a simple exercise. I could have had him track me or Garrity through the mall, or.... WHAT? "Repeat that for me, Jim?"
He shifted his hands on the steering wheel. "I'm not a Sentinel anymore. I don't have the heightened senses."
"Since when?" That I can say two words is amazing since it feels like my heart is getting ready to come out of my chest.
"It, uh, started just after I ran into Stephen. Sometimes everything would be the way it should be, and then the senses would just revert to normal. I thought maybe it had something to do with the medication I was taking for the cut, but it didn't get any better after I stopped taking it. Then about two weeks ago, I realized the senses were gone for good."
"Two weeks ago?" My God. The man had been without his heightened senses for two weeks and I hadn't even noticed? "You should have told me," I murmur, but he shouldn't have had to tell me; I should have known.
"I'm sorry. I know I should have said something, but it's really for the best. It's not like I need them to be your investigator. I just have to work harder for the answers, that's all. I study the scene a little longer, maybe ask more questions.... I don't need to hear a heartbeat to know someone's lying, and a pair of binoculars are just as effective as my enhanced sight. And quite frankly, I find I can eat better without the increased taste and smell. Not to mention we can cut the laundry bill in half now that my things don't have to be specially treated."
Wow. More words from him in one breath than I've heard the entire time he's lived with me. This must be upsetting for him. To have something so precious taken away from him.... And it was all his brother's fault! "Damn," I snarl angrily. Suddenly, working in a chicken processing plant is too good for him. Let's see how Stephen likes working on a pig farm.
I glance over at Jim at the same time he's glancing at me. The fear in his eyes is obvious. "We'll work it out, okay?" I say, trying to reassure him. He's had these talents since he was a child. Granted, the occasional zone-outs were scary, and one of them had landed him in prison, but for the most part, he learned to live with what he could do and now he couldn't do it anymore. It had to be devastating. I reach out to pat his arm comfortingly, but he flinches and I let my hand fall. He probably can't stand the flatness of my touch now.
Taggert pulls up in front of a three-story apartment building and Jim parks behind him. We're met at Simon's apartment by Brown and Rafe. I think they would have liked to have been upset about Taggert inviting us into the investigation, but at this point they were exhausted, and quite frankly, pretty convinced that Banks was dead. I guess they figured if that was true, even Jim and I couldn't fuck up the investigation too badly.
I'd had great hopes when we'd jumped in the car to follow Taggert, but now, after learning about Jim's "problem", I'm not too sure what we can do to help Banks. Jim examines the room, still cheerfully confident that he can save his friend. In fact, he's starting to frighten me. There is such an intensity about him, a desperateness that apparently the others can't see, but I can feel. Is it because, even though he isn't technically a Sentinel anymore, he still feels the need to protect his tribe? Is this desperation because he's trying to compensate for the loss of his enhanced senses? I hate that he's had to go through this alone. I should have noticed what was going on. We're together nearly twenty-four/seven. How could I have not noticed?
Upset with myself, I'm barely aware that for once it's Jim who's doing all the talking, asking the questions, finding out which cons and former cons are high on the suspect list. Hell, I'm so caught up in self-flagellation, that I'm surprised to look up and find myself in my own parking garage. "What?" I ask, noticing that Jim seems to be waiting on a reply of some kind.
"I mean, you can come with me if you want, but I just think they may be more inclined to speak to me alone. Although this doesn't sound like anything the blacks would do-- a drive-by is more their style-- the guys in Hawthorne usually know what's going on in Cascade."
Oh. Jim wants to go visit Hawthorne alone. It's a mostly African-American neighborhood known for it's high-crime rate and a somewhat low regard for the white race. I don't blame them for how they feel. Throughout the years, they have been screwed by the best Cascade has had to offer. While working a real estate case in another part of the city, I ran across evidence of all sorts of crimes perpetrated upon the peoples of Hawthorne. I wanted to pursue the matter, but I was told in no uncertain terms that Hawthorne takes care of its own. So, if I went to Hawthorne, at best I would be ignored; at worst, I'd come out in a bodybag. But Hawthorne accepts Jim as Caretaker, and Caretaker is an adopted son of the community. In prison, Jim had taken care of people, regardless of race, and many of them (a sad reflection on the judicial system, not African-Americans) were from Hawthorne. That has won him a loyalty not many others could match.
However, the last time Jim was left alone in Hawthorne, he'd run across his brother and it had been hours before I knew where he was. "Check in at the top of every hour," I order as I open the Jeep's door.
"Sandburg," he begins.
"No. Every hour." I turn around to make sure he's listening. "I agree I can't be your backup down there, but you don't have your senses as backup either. I need to know you're okay. Okay?"
He nods, the engine idling until I'm safely in the elevator. I barely make it to the penthouse and the bathroom before I'm sick to my stomach. I lean my head back against the cold porcelain of the tub and give a bitter laugh. Was it just barely an hour ago I was sitting out there in the living room, so smugly staring at him? I loved looking at him, but apparently I wasn't seeing a damn thing. All those weeks he'd been struggling with intermittent senses and finally their disappearance altogether, and I hadn't noticed. No wonder he hadn't told me; if I was the Guide I was supposed to be, I would have known. The most important job I have...and I fall asleep at the switch, fade in the homestretch, choke in the clutch.
Hello. My name is Blair Sandburg, and I am a failure.
Wonder if it will fit on a tombstone?
I don't recall ever being as fucking scared as I am now. Not even coming out of a zone to find a dead woman and her child at my feet was as terrifying as this. I didn't want to tell him. I knew what would happen when I did, but I couldn't allow him to sit over there in the passenger's seat, dreaming up these things I was supposed to do at Banks' apartment...not when I knew full well that I couldn't do them anymore. It was only fair of me to give him a clue, right?
I'm not a Sentinel. Before I even knew what the hell the word meant, I knew what being one meant. It meant that I was a freak, that I "lost" minutes, that my mother had left me, and my father and brother hated me. After Sandburg told me what I was, I found out it meant different things. It meant I was unique, that I was skilled, that I had a purpose in life. But more importantly, what it meant was that I was special to Sandburg.
Oh, I know he'd come to visit me in prison, had become my personal advocate before he'd discovered my peculiar genetic make up, but come on, folks, we all know why I'm living with the man, why he gave me a job, why he stares at me all those long hours. I was just as much a freak as I'd always been, but I was his freak, and he was proud of me. Now, I'm nothing, and if I can't prove my continued worth by finding Banks alive, he's going to dropkick me out of his life so fast....
Of course, I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to move out, even if I do manage to rescue Banks. Why have me around to study if I'm just an ordinary person, right? But maybe I can stay on at the office. I like the work I do, the difference Sandburg & Associates makes in the lives of others. I like Garrity and Audrey. We're a team, and I haven't felt so much a part of something since my Ranger days-- then, again, that ended with everyone dead, except me. Maybe it's a good thing that I leave.
I don't know why I have this knot in my chest. God knows, this isn't the first time I've had to start over. And I knew from the beginning that this was too good to last. But, sue me, I allowed myself to hope, okay? I thought for once, whatever curse I'd been born under was going to be lifted, that I would be spared another great loss. Why I was so foolish as to entertain that notion, I don't know. It wasn't like I'd been particularly good or anything. I'd killed Orrin Pierson, failed to protect Bailey, and sent my brother into the Witness Protection Program. Oh, yeah, Ellison. This has definitely been a stellar year for you.
I park my Jeep on the street, not caring whether it's there when I get back or not. I'd been so excited when I got the vehicle. It was the first thing that I truly owned. However, now it's a reminder of the stunned look Sandburg had given me when I told him my news. Then he'd grown angry, and for a minute, I thought he was going to hit me. But I should have known better. He's beyond petty violence-- just another difference between him and me. Another difference in an endless stream of them.
I spot Marcus and his crew at the far corner and head toward them, tucking my useless self-pity back where it belongs. You would think you'd finally outgrow shit like dreams and desires. Especially when Santa and William Ellison were one in the same, so you knew Christmas morning was for every other kid in the neighborhood. Especially when you've spent ten years in the pen, seeing what others' dreams and desires led them to doing. Especially when you know that hope has done nothing for you other than broken your heart a time or two in the past.
Damn. I guess I'm just a slow learner.
He's been out the streets for three hours. How do I know that? Because he's called three times. The first two times he was full of false cheer, but this last time I think I heard true hope. He has a solid lead, a guard out at Starkville who's willing to talk to him when he gets off his shift at 5 A.M. Do I like that he's going to meet this man alone? No. Did I argue with him about it? No.
I've had a lot of time to think in the past few hours. You see, Jim's contacts inhabit the dark, while mine are of the day variety. As soon as the sun rises, I'll be attacking my Rolodex with a vengeance, but for now, I'm just an anxious housewife waiting for her hubby to call. Well, you know what I mean. Anyway, back to my thinking. I've come to the conclusion that the loss of Jim's Sentinel abilities is Jim's loss, and if he can handle it, then I damn well can too. He doesn't need my shock, my pity. He needs to know that I can adjust as well as he can, that, damn it, if he's having trouble adjusting, he can count on me to be his anchor. Me walking around in a daze was just plain self-indulgent. I'll have to make it up to him somehow.
There is that fishing trip I thought about earlier. That might do it. He seems to enjoy fishing. Rarely tries to catch anything though. I think he just likes being out in nature, away from the Sentinel-worrisome complications of urban life-- noise, smog, overcrowding, etc. But since he's not a Sentinel anymore.... Shit. He wouldn't want to leave me, would he? I mean, he doesn't need a Guide anymore. No zoning to worry about, no headaches to soothe, no standing guard between him and noxious additives in food and other products.
I frantically look at the closed door of his room, then at his chair-- the chair placed just so, in order to let me watch the play of light against his cheekbones, or the glitter of his eyes as he reads a book or magazine. I don't want to find another hobby, damn it. Fuck coin-collecting or building dollhouses. I've found a hobby I'm good at and I want to keep it. I don't care if he's a Sentinel or not. It was never him I casually watched anyway. No, when the Sentinel was on the job, so was I. I had to be vigilant for his sake, to protect him from the little things he couldn't notice because of his tight focus. The Guide watched over the Sentinel. But Blair Sandburg just plain old watched Jim Ellison.
What about the office? Would he want to go out on his own? And, of course, Garrity would go with him. No. Unacceptable. I grin, thinking about us having a custody battle for Garrity. But that's basically what I'm talking about, isn't it? Jim and me getting a D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Separating, splitting our assets, living apart...me living alone again. I don't want that. I want to listen to him yell at the coaches and/or players on the television. I want to watch him smile shyly at Mrs. Thomas when she absently pats his shoulder or brings him a treat. I want to have to read the ingredients of every item that will come in contact with him. I want Jim and Garrity and Audrey and Mrs. Thomas. I finally have a family to take care of, and by God, I'm going to keep it!
The phone rings and I grin at it evilly. Sorry, Jim. No divorce this year. I pick up the receiver. "Hello, dear," I purr.
Jim, bless his heart, isn't fazed by the greeting one bit. "Been nipping at the sherry again, sweetheart?"
"Well, it gets so lonely around here without you and the kids. By the way, who tossed out my bonbons?"
"They were delicious. Now, if it won't destroy your manicure, I need you to get a message to our kids with the badges."
"Your meet was a success?" I ask eagerly, grabbing a pad and pen.
"I got a name and a vague location. Dawson Quinn. Supposedly he has a hideout or something in Cascade Forest."
"That's a pretty large area, man."
"I know. Maybe--"
"I can contact my friends in real estate? Already on it." I reach for my Rolodex. Told you it would come in handy-- and hell, the sun's been up for at least seven or eight minutes.
"Good. I'm on my way back to the city. Keep me up to date."
"Will do." I click off, then dial the police station. "Brown, this is Sandburg. Jim has information. You're looking for a Dawson Quinn."
"No way!" the detective exclaims. "Quinn escaped from Starkville three months ago. The Feds figure he's long gone by now."
"Yeah, well, I guess he's not as bright as the Feds thought." Federal agents and thinking-- what a novel concept. I shudder when I think of the cases I've taken to federal court.
"No, Quinn's always been a few peas short of a pod, but to go after the captain...."
"What was he in for?" The silence is so protracted that I start to ask the question again. Then a faint answer comes through the receiver.
"Killing a cop."
Damn. "How was Banks involved?"
"The cop was a rookie, and the son of the captain's training officer way back when. After the murder, Banks swore he would bring down Quinn and his gang. Our captain's a man of his word," Brown says reverently.
"Do you know anything about him having a place in the woods?"
"I know he and his crew were pseudo-survivalists, but the Feds scoured the woods right after his escape. Didn't find a trace of him."
"Well, he's holed up somewhere in Cascade Forest. And there's a damn good chance he has your captain with him." Or, at least, his body. "You better get on this right away."
"I don't mean any disrespect, Mr. Sandburg, but this is a hell of a longshot," Brown hedges.
"Is Captain Taggert there?"
"Put him on." I'm struggling to hold my temper because I understand what these people are going through. The fear, the rage.... "Captain Taggert," I say when I hear the man's voice. "Our information is the best shot you have at finding Banks. I suggest you convince them to trust us."
"Don't worry about it, Mr. Sandburg. This end is covered. You and Mr. Ellison just keep doing what you can for us."
I hear his silent pleading, and it urges me along as I start to dial my contacts. For Taggert's sake, for Banks' sake, hell, for all our sakes, Jim and I will find the captain, alive, if not well.
Then Jim and I can get back to our non-divorce.
Damn. A cop killer. Simon Banks must have been born under the same star or curse that I was. I didn't know anything about Quinn, although we must have been in Starkville at the same time. But there's a different sector for federal prisoners, and dealing with the cons in my own cellblock was enough for me. The escape would have been common news, but at that time I was working on straightening out my own life.
I wonder why I had to get the news from Sandburg. My informant should have told me. But I guess I'll forgive him-- if I find Captain Banks alive. Thanks to Sandburg, we know human activity has been spotted in a quadrant of the forest which should be devoid of two-legged beasts. Although there is no proof that these are the humans we seek, my instincts are screaming at me that we're on the right trail. Years in the service taught me that ignoring those screams could be stupid as well as deadly.
Funny that I think about being in the Army on my way to the rendezvous point, because when I join the others, I find out that apparently, thanks to my Ranger training, I'm the one best-suited to track the alleged kidnappers. The Cascade P.D. has its own trackers, of course, but Det. Rafe reluctantly admits that the evidence was too thin to warrant the department's full cooperation. In other words, the five officers accompanying Rafe, Brown, and Taggert are basically volunteers. I shrug off the supposed slight; that they trust me this much is a shock in itself. Sandburg, on the other hand, isn't too happy about their disbelief. I guess the department brass are going to end up on his "list".
Anyway, I take point, and the trail is an easy one. Whoever went through the area maybe eight hours ago, weren't being too careful. By examining the footsteps left in the damp soil, I come up with a total of four men and a woman. I think one of the men is hobbled, because his steps are too short compared to the size of his feet. I share this information with Sandburg and he gives me a relieved smile, assuming the hobbled man is Banks. So, at least he'd been alive when they entered the woods.
I signal a halt when we smell smoke. I send the others off to flank right and left, warning them to watch out for booby traps, and keep Sandburg with me. I know that this will put him in a more direct line of fire, but I don't know the others well enough-- I can't trust them to keep him safe. We head straight toward the camp, pausing just outside the perimeter. It appears to be abandoned. For a brief moment, I wish for my Sentinel abilities. But they really aren't necessary. The place has been abandoned.
We've arrived too late.
I met someone new today. His name is Captain James Ellison.
From the moment he found out he was the only one in the group with experience in tracking, he took command. Yes, took. It was not given. It was not decided. He just squared his shoulders and started giving orders-- and was instantly obeyed. I'd often wondered how a soldier could just blindly follow his commanding officer's orders. Now, I know. I would do anything for the man in front of me. Anything.
He has such-- presence. He is confident in his abilities, self-assured but not arrogant. He stalks a trail that only he can see like an animal on the hunt. No, not just an animal-- a cat. Long, fluid, sinuous movements, so light on his feet that he doesn't leave a mark behind him. If he didn't keep in visual range, we would be hopelessly lost. But he's careful when it comes to his men. There is an impatience about him that lets me know he could do this a lot faster on his own, but he matches his pace to keep to ours, and he patiently waits and helps when the terrain gets treacherous. Taggert's out of shape and is the oldest of us. At one point, he falls behind and we turn to see him bent over, panting, one arm braced against a tree. Anyone else would have made him turn around long ago, and when Captain Ellison walks over to him, I'm pretty sure what's going to happen. He asks Taggert if he wants to go back, and the captain shakes his head. He mumbles something about Banks. Ellison pats his arm and heads back to the front of our straggling line. Once he has position, he turns and smiles at Taggert encouragingly. Taggert seems to reach inside himself and finds a reserve of strength I doubt he knew he had. He never lags again.
Captain Ellison says that Captain Banks is alive, well, at least he was alive when the three men and one woman took him into the woods. Shit. That's impressive, isn't it? He does this without benefit of being a Sentinel. No wonder the military was reluctant to give him up. When he mentioned the hoops he had to jump through to get discharged, I thought it was because of security reasons. But now, I think it's because they knew what they were losing. Their loss. My gain.
He holds up his hand, signaling us to stop. He then breaks the group into two. "Sandburg, you're with me," he says gruffly.
Always, I almost answer. "Yes, sir," I reply instead. He looks at me curiously, then dismisses whatever fleeting thought he had, and focuses on the mission. I don't think I've ever addressed him as "sir" before, but it's so natural in this situation. He is my leader and worthy of my respect.... God, remind me to steer clear of enlistment offices for a while.
We end up in the middle of an old mining camp. It's abandoned, but smoke still swirls from a lump of ashes, so we're not that far behind them. I turn to ask Captain Ellison what his orders are, only to find Captain Ellison in the middle of a zone.
We're probably less than an hour behind them. I don't know if they heard us coming, or if they had some contact to the outside world which let them know their position had been compromised. Whatever. Brown has a radio. Surely, this is enough proof to set up a roadblock around the area. I just wish.... He should BE here. Banks, I mean. I was certain that we would find him here. It was a gut feeling, you know. But maybe my gut's not cooperating because it's used to having the heightened senses to rely on for backup. I wish I had them now.
"Why do you reject your gifts, Sentinel?"
I blink. Instead of being surrounded by a North American forest, I find myself in a South American jungle. Believe me, I know the difference. And in front of me stands a warrior. Chopec. I lived with the people for a year and a half, but this warrior does not look familiar. Of course, why the hell should he? I'm not in Peru. I'm in Washington. And this was not happening.
"Why do you reject your gifts, Sentinel?"
Could Quinn have set up some hallucinogenic gas release? "You're not real," I mutter.
"I am as real as your gifts, Sentinel. Do you reject me as well?"
"What do you want?" I ask, hoping to get through the experience without losing myself.
"Why do you reject your gifts, Sentinel?"
Tenacious, huh? "I haven't rejected them. They left me."
"A Sentinel will be a Sentinel as long as he chooses to be."
"So, you're saying I've chosen not to be?"
"The time of choice is not yet. Why do you reject your gifts?"
"I don't know. Maybe because they cost me ten years of my life?" I reply bitterly.
"Why do you reject your gifts, Sentinel?"
"I don't need them anymore. They do not fit into the world I live in."
"Why do you reject your gifts, Sentinel?" the warrior demands.
The man is a broken record. "I'm not very good at using them," I admit reluctantly.
The voice changes this time. It's less harsh, almost soothing. "Why do you reject your gifts, Sentinel?"
I close my eyes and surrender to the truth. "I am not worthy of them. I am not worthy to be a Sentinel. I am a killer, a man of violence and hatred. Nor do I possess the wisdom necessary for such gifts."
"A Sentinel cares for his tribe. Sometimes violence is part of that. Sometimes killing is part of that. Sometimes wisdom is part of that."
"Maybe that's why I failed."
"No, you must be a man of great wisdom, since you apparently know more than those who endowed you with the gifts in the first place."
"No, that's not what I mean," I explain hastily.
"Your rejection says that they were wrong and you are right. Is that not so?"
Fuck. I make it a rule never to question authority. It's not very healthy, and it can get quite painful. Yet, that's exactly what I'd done. "I am a Sentinel."
"I never meant to question their wisdom. I am sorry."
"And very arrogant," the warrior says, and I swear there is a hint of amusement in his voice.
"Yes." I drop to my knees and humble myself. "I will be what I am. Being a Sentinel is not my choice to make."
"The time of choice will come," he repeats. "But it is not now."
"See that you do, Sentinel." The warrior turns into a huge black cat and stalks away.
I gasp as my senses come alive. Sound pounds into my ears. Scents assault my nose. The air settles uneasily on my skin. The taste of smoke churns my stomach. And sight.... I open my eyes to find a North American forest and two worried blues eyes staring into mine.
My Guide. I had rejected him too, hadn't I? Fool. I had thought arrogance had been beaten out of me at an early age. I was wrong. "Forgive me."
"What's going on, man?" Sandburg asks, anxiety pouring off of him in great waves.
I shake my head to clear away the last vestiges of the dream, vision, whatever. "He's here."
"No, Jim. The camp is empty. We need you to tell us which way they went when they left."
"They left. He didn't," I clarify. "I need your help, Chief."
"Ground me for a moment."
I feel his hand on my arm and I concentrate on it, even as my other senses go in search of the man I know is here. There. A muffled heartbeat. I open my eyes...and see nothing. I stumble to my feet, Sandburg with me movement for movement, tracking the heartbeat aurally and visually. I end up on a course toward the blocked off mine, but I stop several yards shy of the main opening. The heartbeat is below me. I look down and focus my sight. The grass. A circle of it has been removed, then placed back almost perfectly.
I rip away the deceptive sod to expose wooden beams which cover a deep opening in the ground. Some kind of tunnel. Probably another access to the mine, a supply shaft perhaps. Whatever it was, Captain Banks was at its end. "Rafe! The rope!" Thank God, I'd made everyone secure whatever survival gear they had in their vehicles before we started out. "Brown, call Search and Rescue. We're gonna have to chopper the captain out."
"I can't even see a bottom," Brown comments as he plays his flashlight over the hole.
"There's a bottom and Captain Banks is there," I reply as I check the knots I've made.
"Maybe we should send someone in who's lighter?" Sandburg says softly and I know he means himself.
"No, Chief. I've had medic training and," I drop my voice lower, "I'm the only one who doesn't need a flashlight."
"Everything's back, then?"
"One-hundred percent, Chief."
"I'm glad." I nod, and he reaches out to touch my arm briefly. "I'm glad-- for you."
I get the point he's making, and he's right. I did feel-- incomplete without my Sentinel abilities. I'd just been too stubborn to admit it. "All right, men. The shaft is supported by rotting wooden beams, so I'm going to try to avoid contact. That means the rope will be taking my entire weight."
"Don't worry, sir. We can handle it," one of the officers says.
"Good. When I make it to the bottom, I will give the rope one solid tug to let you know. Three quick yanks will mean I have secured the captain and you are to pull him up. Then, you'll send the rope back down to me." I lower myself into the pit. "Let's take it easy, gentlemen. This is really unstable."
Those are the last words I speak for a while. It's been many years since I had to do anything like this, but I don't find it uncomfortable. Guess I'm quite used to having my life in the hands of others. I send out my hearing to Banks. His heartbeat has remained steady, but his respiration has been fluctuating. That's why I dismissed the notion of waiting until the SAR team showed. I see the ground rising beneath me and the knot is loosened just as my feet land. I tug once, then reach for the medical kit swung over my arm.
"Captain Banks, can you hear me?" I ask. "Captain Banks, it's Jim Ellison. I need you to wake up if you can. Simon!"
He jerks and I'm rewarded with one eye opening slightly. "Jim," he says weakly.
Relief shoots through me. He recognizes me. That's a good sign. A damn good sign. "Is anything broken?" I will check him out myself, of course, but for now I want his cooperation.
"Anywhere else?" I run my hands along his legs. Yep. There's a break.
Shit. That could mean internal bleeding. "Can you localize the pain for me?" I ask as I press my fingers tenderly along his chest, his shirt instantly disposed of by the scissors in the kit. I don't find any evidence of a punctured lung, although the thought had worried me, considering the problems he's having with breathing. But I think that could possibly be from the gases that have built up down here in the mine.
"This is going to hurt me more than you," I say as I take a small flashlight to examine his pupil reaction after finding a large knot on his scalp. I mentally adjust Sandburg's dial and turn on the flashlight. Simon and I both react just fine. Minutes later, I have Banks in an inflatable neck brace, his ribs securely taped, his leg splinted, and the rope made into a sorta sling. Even with the injection I've given him (cops come with a pretty damn handy first aid kit), I know he's in considerable pain and that it will only get worse during the trip upward.
"Try to stay away from the sides as you go up," I warn, rearranging the rope to hold him secure even if he lost consciousness. I give three quick yanks and the rope becomes taut. "Enjoy your trip," I joke.
"At least I'm heading in the right direction this time," he says haltingly.
I watch his ascent until his leg brushes one of the walls and dirt trickles down, nearly blinding me. So, I turn my head and monitor the rest of his rescue aurally. It's because of this that I hear the sides of the shaft break free from their mud mortar.
Then I hear nothing else.
"Shit! The hole's collapsing!" Rafe yells. He's at the front of the rope, while a large, musclebound officer is our anchor. "Pull, dammit!"
While we waited for Jim to give the signal to haul the captain up, I had looked around and figured out that maybe playing tug-of-war in elementary school hadn't been such a bad thing. We'd automatically arranged ourselves according to our strengths, had known how to pull in smooth, synchronistic strokes.... Hmm. Next thing you know, I'll find a real-life use for diagraming sentences.
Anyway, such frivolous thoughts fly out of my head at Rafe's yell. We pull Banks up enough that Rafe gets a grip on him, then everyone's carrying him over to a blanket we'd spread out for him. Well, everyone but me. I like the captain, but there's someone else more precious to me. I run around the crowd to peer down into the shaft-- which doesn't exist anymore. It's just a shallow hole.
"Jim! Hold on, man! We're going to get you out!" I call, praying that he hears me. Then I remember he's a Sentinel again. Of course he can hear me.
"Mr. Sandburg, I don't think we can--"
"Then, don't think," I say sharply to the officer who has joined me over the blocked passageway. "Just dig!"
"That's just going to make it worse, son," Captain Taggert replies as he comes to my side.
"We have to do something!"
"The SAR team will be here in a minute, okay?"
"Okay," I reply. They would have the right equipment. They would know what to do. "Jim, we're waiting on the professionals. Yeah, you can probably already hear the helicopter, right? Just hang on a little while longer," I tell him, earning myself a sympathetic pat on the shoulder from Taggert. He doesn't understand that Jim can hear me.
The rescue team arrives and while half of them prepare Banks for transport, the other half is told about Jim. The leader examines the collapsed shaft and says it's impossible for us to retrieve him that way. Our best bet would be to try from the mine itself.
"Jim, we're going to be coming for you through the main mine. Move in that direction, okay? We'll meet you along the way."
"It's probably a fucking maze down there," one of the team mutters.
"Well, he happens to like fucking mazes," I say furiously. These people are ticking me off. If I didn't need them to help me get to Jim....
The helicopter takes off with Simon, and returns with equipment and an old map of the mine. The guy was right; it is a fucking maze. I want to call out to Jim, tell him which turns he needs to take, but I'm not a fool. The rescue people are already looking at me funny. I have no intention of being strapped to a gurney and being sent away for psychiatric evaluation. I don't trust these people enough to leave Jim's rescue in their hands.
I feel silly wearing a hard hat, but hell, I'd walk around buck-naked if it would get me to Jim. There are some minor blockages as we make our way through and I'm grateful that the eight cops have stayed behind to help. Then, we hit the mother of all blockages. Rock, timber, and dirt have created a rather daunting wall-- a wall, which according to the SAR leader, Major Tillis, is too daunting. With a shake of his head, he tells me he won't risk his men any further, that Jim probably died in the initial collapse anyway.
I tell him to go to hell.
According to the Tao, a journey of a lifetime begins with a single step. I figure that works for walls, too. I've managed to remove five rocks by the time I hear the helicopter take off. Tillis, tried to reason with me, making all sorts of lame-assed excuses why he was giving up, why I should get on the helicopter and put up a nice memorial marker in Jim's name. I told him to shove the marker up his ass, and either start hauling rock or get the hell out of the way. I guess he decided to get the hell out of the way. Good. Now I can talk to Jim.
"Hey, buddy! It's me. How are you? We got a problem here, but I'm working through it. It's just you and me now. Yeah, the odds have improved, haven't they?" I pause, grunting as another stubborn rock finally gives way. "Oh, yeah. Let me give you the directions to get out. They left the map and the lights behind. Damn thoughtful, aren't they?" I grab the map and move closer to one of the powerful halogen beam lamps. "Uh, have I told you I'm lousy at reading maps?"
I jump ten feet straight up (Michael Jordan would be proud of me). Rafe, Brown, and Taggert are standing in the adit. "I thought you guys had left," I finally gather enough of my wits to say.
"We don't leave our own behind," Taggert replies, handing me a pair of heavy work gloves.
"So, how do I do this?" Rafe asks, picking up the map I'd tossed in my fright. "Do I just call out what turns he needs to take?"
"Yeah," I say shakily. "He can hear you."
I stiffen, wondering if he's being condescending or patronizing, but he reads out the directions without so much as a smirk. Who are these people? Certainly not the pigs my mother always warned me about. After Rafe finishes with the map, the four of us settle into an organized routine, moving rock at a reasonable pace. Every so often, I call out encouragement to Jim, telling him the progress we've made, asking if he's okay.
"Can you hear him?" Rafe inquires.
I shake my head. "Jim's special," I reply, too tired to go into the details.
"Yeah, we'd already figured that out." Brown takes a deep breath and pulls back on a large boulder. It dislodges and another rolls in its place. "He knew where the captain was," the detective adds when he sees me staring at him.
"If it wasn't for him, we would have gone running after Quinn and left Simon to die," Taggert continues to explain. "He's some kind of psychic, isn't he? We noticed he went into a trance or something just before coming up with Simon's location."
Trance. Zone. Sentinel. Psychic. What difference did the words make? "Yeah, it's something like that. Listen, guys. We have to keep this just between us. There are people who would like to exploit what he is."
"We understand. If you want us to forget it, we can do that, too," Rafe offers.
Maybe that would be for the best.... No. Jim belongs to the tribe, not just to me. A link to the police would help him fulfill his obligations better than just dealing with my court cases. "No. If you ever need his help, just call. What about the others? They know, too?"
"Yeah. But it's like I said: we take care of our own. You and Ellison are part of us now, Mr. Sandburg," Taggert says with a gentle smile. "We'll keep him safe."
"Good. As you can tell, I need all the help I can get," I remark dryly.
They had managed to snag some supplies before the helicopter left, and we took short breaks-- individually-- as we worked. Just as I'm lifting a bottle of water, I hear the words I've been waiting for. "We're through! I see the other side!"
The water's forgotten as I shove Brown aside. "Jim! You there, man? Come on. Answer me, big guy!"
Silence as everyone holds his breath. Then-- "Blair."
It's just a whisper, but it's enough. "Hang on, man! We'll have you out in a minute." I'm digging like a dog now, barely aware of the tears dripping from my cheeks. As soon as the hole's big enough, I scrape my way through to the other side. In deference to his sensitive sight, I keep my flashlight aimed at the floor, until I catch a glimpse of a white Nike.
"Turn down your sight, Jim," I warn, then I play the beam over him. He's a mess-- bloody, dirty, pale...and the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. "Hey, there," I whisper gently.
"Safe at a hospital." The way his breath hitches bothers me. Hadn't I seen-- "I need oxygen!" I yell desperately through the hole our friends are widening. The slim bottle is in my hand in less than a minute.
I turn the control and slip the mask over his head. "Can you tell me what hurts?"
"E...ev'ry...thin'." His voice is muffled by the mask.
I smile, and reach out to wipe at the grime on his face. I notice I'm still wearing the gloves and I strip them off. I need to touch him, to assure myself that he's here, with me-- where he belongs. "It's okay," I croon. His skin is cool to the touch. That's not good. I move until I'm sitting beside him, and I notice the rock behind him is cold and damp. I wrap my arms around him until he is slumped against me. He presses against me, instinctively seeking my warmth. I kiss the top of his head and tuck him in beneath my chin. His journey to the surface had been cold and lonely, but the journey is ended. He's home now.
"Uh, Mr. Sandburg?"
I look at the body sliding through the hole. Rafe. "What is it, Detective?"
"We called SAR. They say they can't send a chopper for us until morning."
I run my hand across the silky head in my caring. I don't want him resting against that cold wall again. Rafe, ever observant, sees my dilemma.
"I'll hold him. If you don't mind."
I reluctantly transfer Jim to his arms, then crawl through to the other side. I'm not sure what look is on my face, but Brown quickly hands me his radio. I shake my head and go over to my pack. I remove a cellphone and walk outside for a clear signal. Those assholes at SAR can wait for their comeuppance; my Jim needs help now.
"Garrity? Sandburg. Jim's hurt. We need you."
I don't think I felt as bad waking up from the chopper crash in Peru as I do now. Of course, since I don't actually remember waking in Peru.... I key in on three things: I'm in a great deal of pain, I'm in a hospital, and Blair is asleep in the chair beside my bed. Funny, how the first two dim in comparison to the third.
I remember the shaft collapsing...and that's about it. There was darkness and voices and I was moving and...and then Blair was there. That's it. That's the sum total of what I remember. Maybe I zoned. Maybe I'm repressing. I don't know. I don't care. Blair's safe. I'm safe. And yes, I remember Blair saying something about Banks being safe. I drift off to sleep again.
The next time I awaken, Blair's blue eyes are open, and his mouth splits into this huge grin when he sees me looking at him. I try to mimic the expression, but from the alarm that springs into his eyes, I don't think I succeed. He reaches for the call button, but I block him. Then I look at my hand curiously. It's completely bandaged. So is the other, I find.
"From your injuries, we know you literally crawled your way through the tunnels, Jim. Your hands, forearms, and shins were a mess. They had to be aggressively cleaned, and there are a number of stitches."
Well, that accounts for the pain. What about the hospital? "How?" I gesture helplessly, my throat hurting too much for more words.
"Garrity bribed, browbeat, or blackmailed someone into getting us down off the mountain. He was very worried about you, you know. He only left to attend to some...uh, unfinished business we have with the Cascade SAR."
"Captain Banks is fine, concerned about you and grateful. He will recover fully. Just like you will."
I finger the plastic tubes going up my nose and pat my throat.
"You inhaled a lot of dirt. You've been coughing for the past three days and you've had a respiratory infection." He stops, and looks away. "You had us all pretty worried for a while."
"No, don't apologize for being what you are, Jim."
"What...I am...for now."
He gives me his full attention. "What?"
His brow creases into a frown. "Jim?"
"Cat...says," I try to explain.
His frown turns into a smile, and he strokes his cool fingers across my cheek. It feels good. "Rest, Jim. You're just a little confused. It'll be okay."
I close my eyes obediently. I know I'm not confused, and when I'm well-- sitting at home with him staring at me-- I'll tell him a story about accepting what is, and patiently waiting for a time to choose.
Then, he'll help me make my choice.