Sorry this is late. I was supposed to post this in October and the month slipped by without me noticing.
Hope you enjoy!
[Previously Published in Cascade Beyond the Veil, I, October 2000]
(Posted to the Net: 11-01-01)
It began as a simple search for a fleeing robbery suspect. White male. Late teens to early twenties. Jeans, striped collared pullover, blue and white Nikes. Last spotted in the southwest division of the city, near a suburban area called West Cascade. The neighborhood consisted of older, wooden homes constructed for the post-WWII "I want a family" market. Unlike some of the other housing developments that popped up for that sector, these houses were well-made and had weathered the nearly fifty years well.
My partner and I joined the chase late. It was a Major Crime case, but Brian Rafe and Henri Brown were the lead investigators, and as a rule you only helped another team when they asked. It wasn't like there wasn't enough crime to go around. We were talking Cascade, Washington, where criminals outnumbered the law-abiding by at least a two to one margin. Well, Rafe and Brown asked, calling specifically for Jim because he was a skilled tracker thanks to the U.S. Army. At least, that was the official excuse they used. They really asked for Jim because they know he's a Sentinel, although nothing's ever been said aloud. But take one highly publicized, "stolen" manuscript, add in my vehement avowal of fraud, throw in Jim's uncanny abilities which he displays/hides depending on his mood, a squad full of trained detectives, and, voila, here's a living and breathing Sentinel, ladies and gentlemen.
Anyway, Jim picked up the trail easily, thanks to the distinctive tread on the Nikes. He pulled up short in front of an obviously abandoned property. High grass. Rusted fence. The house was leaning slightly, its white paint curled in uneven strips, allowing mottled gray wood to show through. Surprisingly, all the windows and the front door were intact, but even with that oddity it was still the perfect hiding place for a felon on the run. While Jim tugged on the corroded gate, I whipped out my handy cell and dialed for back up. Badge or no badge, I knew my duty. Once a phone boy....
Jim made it about halfway up the broken concrete walk, then stopped so abruptly that I ploughed into the back of him. As soon as I recovered from running smack into that brick wall, I noticed his head had taken that Sentinel tilt. "What do you hear?" I asked, my eyes darting around anxiously.
Whispers? "Is our guy meeting with someone?" No reply. "Jim?"
I stepped around to look at him, and groaned as I recognized the vacant stare and open mouth. Zoned. Damn. That hadn't happened in at least two years. What? Why? Willing those questions to the back of my mind, I reached out to guide my Sentinel back to the here and now, and gasped when it felt like I touched a live electrical wire (uh, an accident in my ninth grade science lab made this a valid comparison--trust me). Despite that vivid memory, my Guide prerogative and a healthy/unhealthy dose of curiosity had me extending my hand again. No sparks flew as I made contact with his jacket-covered arm, but I could feel a fine tremor running through him. What the--?
I lowered my hand to cover his, wanting to feel his bared skin. It was cool, almost cold to my touch, and I felt the tremors increase until Jim was in a full-blown shiver. "Hey, man. Tell me what's happening. C'mon, Jim. Come back to me. Jim!"
He gasped, and I had a second of triumphant relief before I was easing his sagging, shaking body to the walk. Oh, crap. This was more than a simple zone. "Talk to me, Jim. You're scaring the shit out of the Guide," I muttered. "That's a big no-no. Right up there with teasing sharks and stealing Simon's cigars, you know?"
My words had no effect. His body continued to vibrate. "Are you cold? Scared?" Now that was a sobering thought. When it came to being scared, Jim didn't have the sense God gave a goose--as one of my Southern girlfriends used to say. That whole "fear response" thing was based on psychological fears like failure, abandonment, stuff like that. But when it came down to run-of-the-mill danger and things that went bump in the night, Jim was always the first horse out of the gate. So if there was something around that was making him shake in his boots, I was definitely going to be in need of an adult diaper.
Don't get ahead of yourself, Sandburg, I mentally chided. This could be a simple chemical response. Being a Sentinel made Jim more vulnerable to, well, everything. If there was something toxic in the air or in the soil it affected Jim until his body acclimated to it. That was why taking him to see a doctor was always such an adventure. Contaminant Central. Forget the sick people. We're talking about medications being turned into aerial missiles aimed straight for my partner.
"Sandburg, what's going on?"
I looked up to see our captain hovering over us, his glasses not hiding the concern in his eyes. Wonder when he arrived...and those squad cars too. Oh, the question. "I don't know. We tracked the guy to here, I think. Then Jim just started shaking apart."
"You need an ambulance?"
I checked Jim out, just to make sure this was a Sentinel "event", as opposed to a medical one. "I don't think so. His respiration is steady and his coloring seems to be okay. He just can't seem to stop shaking. Help me get him to the truck."
"Put him in the back of my car instead. Then close the vents and turn on the air conditioning. Maybe he picked up something airborne."
I grinned at Simon. "You're getting good at this Sentinel stuff, sir."
"Can you ever say 'sir' without it following an insult?" Simon muttered as he helped me pull Jim to his feet.
"Of course I can, sir." He growled and between the two of us we got Jim into his car. I sat in the back with Jim while Simon got the air going. Jim had been cooperative, following my gentle prods and nudges as I guided him inside, but as I tried to turn his head from the house, he stiffened and refused to break his steady gaze. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand to attention.
"I'm going to coordinate entry into the house. Let me know if you change your mind about medical assistance."
Simon started from the car, but Jim's hand landed on his shoulder and stopped him. We both looked at Jim in surprise.
"I wouldn't go in there if I were you," Jim said in a high-pitched, sorta sing-songy voice.
"Sandburg?" Simon said quickly, as if I was supposed to have all the answers.
Shadowed blue eyes met mine, then swung to Simon. "You'll be sor-ry," he sang.
"He'll be sorry if he sends men into the house?" I interpreted. Jim nodded. "Why? Why will he be sorry?" Jim didn't say anything more.
"Do something about him, Sandburg," Simon snarled. He got out of the car and slammed the door with more force than necessary.
I wondered what exactly I was supposed to do. I examined the form beside me. It looked like Jim Ellison, but the way the body was sitting, squirming actually, it brought to mind a young boy. So did the voice. "How old are you?" I asked.
Six. Jim was six. This was not good. Actually, I didn't even know if it was Jim. At this point, possession didn't seem too far out of the realm of possibility. "Can you tell me your name?" Silence. "Do you know my name?"
Hmm. That was pretty close to Blair--for a six-year-old. "And do you know the name of the man who just left the car?"
He grinned. "That was Binky."
I laughed. The situation was dire and there was something terribly wrong with my Sentinel, but Simon Banks as Binky? I just wasn't that strong. "His name is Captain Simon Banks," I said, when I finally had enough breath to speak.
Jim, or whoever he was, shook his head. "Binky."
Okay. Binky it was. "So, I'm Bear, and he's Binky. What are we supposed to call you, young man?" I said in my best teacher's voice.
He closed his eyes and cocked his head to one side. Then he smiled. "I'm Champ."
Progress. I spared a second to wonder who or what had supplied him the answer. Was he still hearing whispers? "Why shouldn't Binky and his men go into the house, Champ?"
"You'll see," he said mysteriously.
Jim went back to staring, and since he ignored any more queries, I decided to use the time trying to figure this all out. I was still stuck on the problem of Jim being six when, fifteen minutes later, Simon stomped back to the car. "I want some answers, mister," he yelled at Jim.
Champ slid closer to me and stared balefully at Binky--I mean Simon. I didn't much care for our superior's attitude either. But I recognized fear beneath his harsh words. "What's happening, Captain?"
"Brown, Rafe, and three uniforms went inside the house. They haven't come back out, we've lost radio contact with them, and it appears that the windows have been painted over so we can't see inside."
"Did you send in someone else?"
Simon shook his head. "The door closed and locked behind them. I've called in S.W.A.T." He took a deep breath. "Has he told you anything?"
"Nothing about the house. But he's six years old, and his name is Champ. My name is Bear, and you're Binky."
I'd expected outrage, not the sad look that crossed the captain's face. "My mama used to call me Binky when I was young. She stopped when I got big enough to protest. She...she didn't use that name again until...until she was on her deathbed."
I started to reach out and clasp his shoulder in sympathy, but a sudden thought made me gasp. Simon's gaze lit on me. "Naomi used to call me Bear." I looked at Jim. "I wonder what the odds are that his mother called him Champ?"
"That's all very sweet, but that's not getting my men free. I need to know what's going on inside that house."
I turned to my charge. "Champ, can you hear inside the house? Focus, okay?" I put my hand on his arm. At least the trembling had stopped.
He tilted his head and focused his bright blue gaze on the house. "All gone," he said a few minutes later.
"You don't have your gifts anymore?" I guessed.
He shook his head. "Birds." I glanced out the window, and a second later a flock of birds winged their way overhead.
Apparently he was still a Sentinel. "What does 'all gone' mean?"
"Not in the house."
Simon hit the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. "I don't need this. I really don't."
Champ patted his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Binky."
"Yeah, kid. Well, you tried to warn me. Thanks." The captain sighed. "Get him out of here, Sandburg. This is no place for children. And you might want to think about taking away his weapon."
I secured the gun as Simon went to join the arriving S.W.A.T. van. "C'mon, Champ. We're moving over to that blue truck and going home."
"Pretty," he said, his hand stroking the side of the "classic" vehicle as he waited for me to unlock the passenger's door. Guess the six-year-old and the forty-year-old really weren't that different.
"This is home, Champ," I said proudly as I unlocked Apartment #307. He peeked around the door and grinned.
"Mine?" he asked happily.
He looked at me, then the apartment again. "Ours."
"Yep. Ours. You hungry, Champ?"
"Nope." He walked over to the patio doors and looked out. "Bootiful," he said with awe.
I opened the doors and he bounced out. At the beginning of our relationship, Jim complained that I bounced. For the first time, I understood why that annoyed him. "Be careful," I warned, which earned me a disdainful glare. He was six years old, not months, the glare said. If I hadn't been so terrified by the situation as a whole, I think I would have been fascinated by how early his life-patterns had been set.
We stayed on the balcony until the sun set and the city lights came on, then Champ wandered back inside. He was so at ease with his senses. He touched everything he passed, sniffed this or that, and told me I needed to dust my room. At that, I decided to turn on the television, only to discover that the "family viewing hour" had long ago disappeared. If it hadn't been for the Nickelodeon stations, I would've cut the set off and figured out some other kind of way to entertain my new ward. Champ watched the old sitcoms with enthusiasm, but still said he wasn't hungry. I made him a sandwich and gave him a glass of milk anyway. When I joined him on the sofa after I'd made a few phone calls, the sandwich and milk were still there, and Champ was fast asleep.
I ate the sandwich, drank the milk, and was about to doze on the other sofa when someone knocked. I hurried to the door before the sound could wake Champ.
"Simon?" I glanced at the clock. After midnight. Apparently, I had fallen asleep without realizing it. "Brown and Rafe?" I asked hesitantly when I saw how haggard he looked.
A shrug. "We can't get into the house. We tried shooting the lock. We tried a battering ram on the door. A brick through a window. Hell, we even had the Army bring out some C4. Nothing."
I took his arm and gently led the exhausted man inside. I grabbed a bottle of juice from the fridge and placed it in his hand. He didn't need alcohol or caffeine in his system. "What's your next move?" I asked, joining him at the table.
"Where's the kid?"
"Sleeping." I angled my head toward the sofa.
"He seems to be the only one with a clue, Sandburg."
I laughed softly. "Well, if he's our only clue, we're in trouble, man."
"I really haven't pushed. I didn't know it was going to be critical."
"Well, it is."
I nodded. Child psychology was not my forte. Neither was ghost-busting houses that ate people. "We might need professional help."
"I'd rather keep it within the family, but if we have to go outside, that's what we'll do."
I understood his reluctance to bring in outsiders. It wasn't just to protect Jim, although we both would die to do that, but it was about protecting the unit and the department as well. The press would have a field day with this. CASCADE P.D. LOSES FIVE MEN IN HAUNTED HOUSE. We would be the laughingstock of the Northwest. "I'll see what I can do."
I reluctantly woke Champ. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. "Binky!"
The flare of jealousy I felt at his enthusiastic greeting for Simon faded when Champ leaned against my arm. That was something I would examine later--or never.
"Champ," I said, "the people the house took? They're still missing." He nodded solemnly. "We need your help. Can you tell us how to get them back?" He shook his head. "Can you tell us where they've gone?"
That was helpful. "Somewhere else inside the house?" A shrug. "Do you know where you came from?"
"My mommy's tummy," he replied with a cheeky grin.
It was obvious I was getting nowhere, so Simon tried. "You knew the house would take them, didn't you, Champ?" A nod. "How did you know?"
"The house told me."
"Did it tell you why it took them?"
"It was lonely."
Simon rubbed at his forehead. "Sandburg, we need to run an ownership history on the house."
"I've already done it, Captain. But we won't get anything until morning."
Simon frowned and tried again. "Hey, Champ, did the house tell you anything else?"
A head shake. Then his head cocked to one side, and the captain's cell phone trilled. I made a mental note to check that reaction if I ever got Jim back. Could the man hear the phone ring before it actually rang? I focused on Simon as he put the phone back in his pocket.
"Someone thought about tunneling into the basement."
"And the equipment digs about a foot, then can't go any farther."
"How about getting a priest to the site?" I mused, running options through my head.
"Why? You think they're dead?"
"No! I was thinking more along the lines of an exorcism or something, Simon," I said quickly. I hadn't meant to imply that we were out of hope.
Jim got up and slowly inched his way up the stairs, his progress stop-and-go as things like photos and my native artwork distracted him. I watched him leap onto the bed, giggling as he bounced. At least he was a happy child at that age. I'd often wondered. I glanced back at the captain and noticed he'd fallen asleep on the loveseat. He couldn't be comfortable. "Captain. Simon," I called softly. He jerked awake, surprised he'd drifted off.
"Damn it. Sorry about that, Sandburg."
"Why don't you move over to the sofa? Jim bought it extra long for comfort. And take off your shoes."
"I need to--"
"Do what? Go home and worry? Go back to the office and worry?"
"My men are in that house."
"They're my men, too. We're all a team. And we'll get them out. But not if we collapse."
Simon stood and heeled off his shoes. "Four hours max, Sandburg."
"I'll set the alarm."
As it turned out, we didn't need the alarm. I sprawled out on the smaller sofa, wanting to be as ready to move as Simon, his cell phone on the coffee table between us. I'd checked on Jim before getting comfortable and found him curled up in the center of his bed, a pillow snuggled in his arms like a favorite stuffed toy. I suppose I should have been more concerned about this regression of his, but I knew it wasn't some kind of nervous breakdown. It was somehow connected with the house and if we "fixed" the house, Jim the adult would return. No shrink required.
Champ woke us with his screams.
"Bear! Bear!" he cried when I ran up the stairs to see what was wrong. Tears ran down his face. I sat on the bed, and his arms went automatically around my neck.
"What is it, Champ? Did you have a nightmare? Is that it? Did a dream scare you?"
He hiccuped and pulled away. "I gotta go."
Go? "I showed you where the bathroom is, didn't I?"
"No, silly," he said with an exasperated sigh and a look that specifically asked if I had been dropped on my head as a baby. "I have to go to the house."
I shared a glance with Simon who'd thundered up the stairs behind me but paused at the top step, not wanting to crowd the frightened child. "Why do you have to go to the house, Champ?" No answer, just the quiet slipping on of shoes.
Simon led the way, while Jim and I followed in the truck. Champ was silent the whole time, his jaw so tense that the bone jutted slightly out. It saddened me that he already knew how to do that. The area was still flanked by cops, the uniforms changing every so often as the night passed by, not wanting their five missing officers to think they'd been forgotten. There were family members there, also, keeping vigil for their loved ones. Amazingly, the press was few in number. Either this was too bizarre even for them, or the CPD was getting better at keeping them out of our business.
Our arrival was noted with hope by all present, hope that we had figured the whole thing out and had come to rescue the men. But if there were any answers, only one forty-year-old "boy" knew them. A boy who turned to me with tears in his eyes. "What is it, Champ?" I asked, avoiding the sudden lump in my throat.
"I have to go."
"There." He pointed to the house.
"Why?" Simon came and stood by Champ's open window.
"Because I can make it not lonely and it will give you back your friends."
Damn. I knew that was coming.
"We can't get the door open," Simon said.
"It'll open for me, Binky."
I reached out and used my finger to turn his strong jaw toward me. "You're our friend, too, Champ. We don't want to lose you to save them."
He gave me a watery smile. "It's okay, Bear. The house has been waiting for me a long time. It will take care of me. It always did." He reached for his door handle. I got out, too.
"Can we walk with you?" I asked, taking his hand. He nodded ,and Simon took his other hand. We were watched solemnly, the waiting group instinctively knowing that something critical was about to happen. Halfway up the walk, at the point where Jim had started to shake, Champ stopped. "Bye, Binky," he murmured and gave Simon a hug. He turned, wrapped his arms around me for a long moment, then dropped a kiss on my cheek. "Bye-bye, Bear. You be a good boy, okay?"
I sniffed. My Blessed Protector still looking out for me. "I'll try, Champ. You be good, too."
He smiled, stuck his hands in his pockets, and walked two steps.
"Champ," I called, all my worry and fear contained in that one word.
He swung around to look at me. "I gotta go, Bear. I gotta."
"What…what about Jim?"
"Everybody gets to go home," he answered, and started up the walk again. The door swung silently open. He turned, gave a little wave, and walked inside. The door closed.
"What now?" Simon asked.
"I have no idea."
"Captain?" One of the uniformed officers approached. "Has Detective Ellison gone after them?"
Simon just nodded impatiently. "Yeah. Tell everyone to just hang in there a bit longer, okay?"
"Guess that proves it," I murmured when the officer walked away.
"The officers sent a representative to ask. Major Crime is not even bothering."
Simon gazed over at his men and women, not to mention Brown's brother and Rafe's girlfriend. "They know if we had anything, we'd share it with them."
"No, they know I lied about the diss. They expect Jim to do the impossible. They think he's Superman or something."
"Does that bother you?"
"That they know I lied? No. That they think Jim is Superman? Yes, because Jim isn't invulnerable. He can be injured just like anyone else."
"They know that also, Sandburg. You both bleed too regularly for anyone's comfort."
Whatever I was going to say was lost when the front door opened. Two officers walked out of the house, followed by the third who had a cuffed suspect in tow. Behind them were Rafe and Brown.
"Thank God," I heard the captain say before he started toward the house.
"Not yet," I whispered, watching the door close. I stepped aside, ignoring the happy reunions taking place. I was grateful that everyone appeared to be unharmed, but what about Jim? Did the house want Jim or just Champ? Could it separate the two?
Somehow I had missed the bulk of the crowd leaving, including those who had been prisoners. "How is everyone, Captain?" Come on, Jim. Come back to me.
"Bewildered. They think they were only in the house ten minutes at the most. We're going to have them checked out in the E.R. just to be on the safe side."
"That's smart," I said absently.
"He's going to come out."
"You think so, or you hope so? Because if he doesn't, we're going to have to live with the fact that we sacrificed a six-year-old without any argument."
"He didn't belong here anyway, Blair."
"Because he was a freak, an oddity? That's what Jim was told, too."
Simon sighed. "You know we did the right thing, Sandburg. Listen, the Major Crime guys wanted to stay here and help you keep watch, but I'm down four officers already. So a couple of officers who have the day off are going to stay with you. Is that okay?"
I shrugged. Simon started to walk away and I grabbed his arm tightly. He looked at me, then up to the house. The door was open. Jim stood on the porch. A porch that looked newly constructed. No sags or missing boards. In fact, the entire house looked freshly painted and repaired. My body hair stood at attention. This whole Amityville thing just wasn't working for me, and from the muttered curses I was hearing, I surmised that Simon felt the same.
Suppressing a shiver as I watched a flower unfurl at the base of the steps, I deliberately changed my focus to Jim. I could tell by the way the figure stood that this was not Champ, but my partner, a grown man comfortable in his grown body. He started down the steps and came to where Simon and I stood.
"Beautiful sunrise," he said quietly, tilting his head back to view the sky.
I hadn't even noticed morning had arrived. "You okay, man?"
He nodded. "I suggest this place be fenced off, Captain. It's not safe around here."
Simon opened his mouth, then closed it again before nodding.
"C'mon, Chief. I think a cup of coffee's in order. We'll see you back at the office, Simon."
I gave Simon a shrug and headed after my partner. Just as we climbed into the truck, my cell phone rang. I answered it, listening intently as Jim headed toward our favorite coffee shop. I finished my conversation and sat quietly until the truck was parked.
"That was the real estate company. Since my request was so urgent, the East Coast office replied as soon as they opened up." Jim didn't so much as twitch. "The last known inhabitants of the house were a family named Ellison. You lived there until you were six." Still no reaction. I suppose, if you looked at it the right way, there really wasn't much to say. But there was one last question that needed asking.
"Is Champ going to be okay?"
Jim nodded. "The house always loved Champ."
"And Champ will be happy?"
"Champ was always happy as long as he knew he was loved."
"I wish that surety had lasted forever."
"Now it will."
Okay, maybe more than one question before this whole thing was transformed into a foggy, you-can't-be-serious, memory. "And what about Jim? Will he be okay? Is he happy?"
"Yes, Bear. He's happy."
I gave him a hug as soon as we got out of the truck. He grunted, and gave me the "dropped on the head as a baby" look, but didn't move away.
Brown and Rafe eventually wrote this up as a simple robbery case. Simon signed off on it with a great flourish. The rest of the CPD seemed quite happy to have it tucked away, and even I was glad, almost eager, to let the incident fall into the "weird things that happen to Jim" folder. Maybe that was because I knew I had no chance in hell of understanding what happened.
But sometimes, when the night is too long or too dark, when my mind's too full or too empty, I remember that part of Jim lives in a house in West Cascade, and I wonder if losing Champ has made him stronger or weaker. I also worry that he will sacrifice more parts of himself along the way, ransoming them to protect the tribe...to protect me. What other unexplainable forces lurk in the Sentinel's realm, waiting to snag bits and pieces of him? What monsters are hiding behind the curtain that shades the world we know from the world beyond? And how many of them hunger for Jim?
As for the man in question, Jim's surprisingly philosophical about the entire thing. "We'll deal with whatever whenever it comes, Chief," he tells me, and off he goes, charging full speed ahead like that goose I mentioned earlier. Thanks to some judicious snooping, I also know he purchased the property in West Cascade. That makes me uneasy, even though it makes sense. He needs ownership to keep others out, to secure Champ's home, to perhaps bind the powers of the house. But ownership also keeps an open connection between him and the weirdness, and I'm afraid I'll lose him to it some day.
Has he ever heard the whispers again? Maybe. I've noticed him cock his head a time or two. I've seen him nod as in answer to an unheard question. I've seen him smile for no apparent reason. As his Guide, I'm supposed to understand. As his partner, I'm supposed to watch his back. As his friend...as his friend, I plan on giving the supernatural a hell of a fight for his soul. Because I know how the house felt. It needed Champ, and it was willing to do anything to get him back.
I need Jim….