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Despite his problem with heights, Blair Sandburg looked down at Cascade just before the plane climbed into the clouds, fighting back tears as he gave a last look at the city where he had spent so many years, and where he had left his heart. Then, as the cloud hid everything, he turned his attention back to the book on his lap.
He 'read' it without absorbing a word, turning the pages at regular intervals; at least it gave his fellow passengers the illusion that he was engrossed and thus prevented the man beside him from trying to start a conversation that he was in no mood to have.
Because five hours earlier, he had attended the memorial service for James Ellison.
It was chance that led Jim Ellison to be in the neighbourhood when two fire engines sped past, paying no regard whatsoever to the speed limit. He turned and followed them, curious, for they were headed towards a part of Cascade that was inhabited only by squatters, people who would be sleeping on the street if they hadn't broken into empty and condemned property and there made homes of a sort for themselves.
He pulled up a short distance from the firemen unrolling hoses, and strode over to the couple of uniformed cops who were already there. "Jim Ellison, Major Crimes," he said briskly. "What's the story?"
"I reckon one of the squatters lit himself a fire in the wrong place," one of the two said. "Can't see as how there'd be any other answer; the electricity was cut off months ago."
Ellison nodded, and was about to turn away when he saw movement at one of the upper windows that did not as yet have flames behind it. "It's a kid!" he snapped. "No - there are two of them!" He was already running for the building, ignoring the yells behind him.
A few minutes later, with a dull rumbling sound, the roof caved in.
Flames leaped high into the sky.
Blair spent the day at a more than usually boring talk that the Rainier TAs were informed they must attend; he learned nothing from it except possibly how not to give a lecture, and he doubted that any of the others learned anything either, but they had been seen to be there.
He returned from Rainier to an empty loft; a quick check of the time told him that it was earlier than he had thought; boredom - a fairly new experience for a man who normally found virtually everything of interest - had lengthened the day by at least twelve hours. He couldn't expect Jim home for about another half hour - but it was Simon Banks who arrived, a Simon who hadn't needed to open his mouth for Blair to know what he had come to say.
There was no funeral.
No bodies were retrieved from the burned-out derelict building where Jim died trying to reach the two trapped children who had (presumably) set fire to it. It was a very hot fire, something in the building so highly flammable that it was next day before everything was finally damped down and the remains of the exterior walls secured so that the firemen were at last able to check it. There was no sign of any bodies; just ash, ash and more ash, the origins of none of it identifiable without full chemical analysis, and even after nearly three months only a relatively small fraction of the ash had been analysed in an attempt to discover what had been in the building.
Blair tried to come to terms with events; he really tried, but as the days passed, things seemed to get worse for him instead of slowly improving. Wherever he looked, wherever he went, there seemed to be something to remind him of his friend. He found himself turning to speak to Jim, only to be forcibly reminded by the space at his side that he would never again see him, speak to him, never again hear the once-annoying, "Stay here, Chief. Remember you're not a cop."
After some two months of a return to a fully academic life, heart-sick, feeling unbearably guilty even although he knew nothing he had done or not done would have made any difference, and knowing he would be unable to put things behind him if he stayed, he went to see the Chancellor.
"Well, Mr Sandburg?"
He had never really seen eye-to-eye with Chancellor Edwards, and this was one of the reasons - this total formality that she thought was professional and that Blair found stifling.
"I'm planning on leaving Cascade fairly soon, Chancellor. The exams are done, it's near enough to the end of the academic year that we're really just marking time till the semester actually finishes - you know, probably better than I do, how many of the students have actually gone home already. I'll stay till the end of the semester if necessary, but I doubt anyone will miss me if I were to leave early."
"Are you giving me official notification that you are leaving Rainier permanently? Without presenting your dissertation?"
"Permanent? I don't know yet. But I'm planning on at least a year, to travel and probably do some field study as I go, possibly coming back to Cascade next August."
"And your dissertation?"
"At the moment I'm afraid that's on hold. The cop I was working with... he was killed a couple of months ago. Without him... it's possible I don't even have a dissertation any more, since a lot of it revolved around his work."
"Ah - that's why we've been seeing rather more of you than usual this last few weeks?"
There was a coldness to the comment, an impersonality, as if she had no idea what it was to like anyone, let alone love someone, that made Blair actively hate her.
"Well, I won't try to stop you from leaving," she continued. "You've missed too many days at the university because of your police work - yes, I know you were working for your dissertation, but really, I think you took things to extremes. I'll grant you've been a good lecturer when you've been here, but I'm afraid I've come to regard you as unreliable when it comes to considering the needs of your students; you were paying too much attention to your own studies, at a point in your career when you should be able to organise the material for your dissertation without too much thought."
He swallowed his pride. "If... When I come back, will there be a place here for me to finish my dissertation? I don't know yet how much of it I'll be able to salvage, I might have to redirect a lot of it..."
"Obviously we'll look at the work you've done, but you will have to re-apply to Rainier for a position, just as you would have to apply anywhere else. If you were to apply anywhere else for a position similar to the one you have held here, we would give you a reasonable academic reference." She stressed the word 'academic' ever so slightly.
Blair remembered to say, "Thank you," and walked out to return to his office, where he spent the rest of the day sorting through it. He was ruthless with a lot of the paper he had on file - much of it consisted of early drafts of papers, many of which were now published - filling several rubbish bags before he was finished with it; it was something he knew he should have done long ago. There was little point in keeping early drafts once the article was finalised and submitted for publication. At the end he was left with a relatively small pile of final, unsubmitted, drafts and notes for ongoing projects he was not yet ready to abandon. Then he turned his attention to his books. He boxed most of them, added two or three to the bundle of papers he was keeping, and went to see the university librarian.
"Well, Blair - what can I do for you?"
"Hi, Ralph. I'm... I've decided to take a year's sabbatical. I've got several boxes of books in my office that I won't be needing while I'm away - would they be any use to the library, on loan till I get back?"
"Very probably - and thanks."
"I've only just got them sorted out today - do you want me to make out a list?"
"No, I can do that. When are you leaving?"
"Whenever I want. I've got the Chancellor's blessing - more or less, though she wouldn't guarantee me a place if... when I get back."
Ralph noted the verbal stumble, and ignored it. "That's typical of her."
"Well, I do see her point," Blair said. "In fairness, I have been spending more time at the PD, researching for my diss, than I probably should have done, and I'm probably the only TA in Rainier's history who's ever had to take time off due to research-related injury."
Next morning he went to the PD, which he had only visited once since Jim's death (although his friends there had visited him at the loft several times). It took him nearly half an hour to get through the greetings and conversation directed at him before he reached the Captain's office.
Simon was aware of his presence in the bullpen but knew it was best to wait, to let the cops there speak for themselves, let Blair know how much they all missed him - being reminded they still had friends was part of the recovery process all cops went through after they lost a partner, and Simon felt that Blair, as a civilian observer, would probably need it more than any cop ever did.
Once he reached Simon's office, Blair collapsed into a chair and took the mug of coffee Simon handed to him.
"Simon, I need to get away for a while. There are too many memories here for me to cope with right now."
"You mean leave Cascade?"
Simon looked at him in some dismay. "I know it'll be hard on you, Blair, but won't you at least stay for Jim's memorial service? I've been in touch with his father, and both he and Stephen want you there with them."
"They do?" Blair had visited them once or twice with Jim since the older man resumed contact with his family, but had felt they regarded him as something of an interloper, sure that at heart both thought of him as taking advantage of Jim's good nature, and he had carefully avoided them since Jim's death.
"They know how much you did to persuade Jim to be reconciled with them; they know how much you helped Jim. But even if they didn't, we'd want to you there. You're not a cop, but you were Jim's partner, and you were a good partner. You have the right for that to be acknowledged."
More for the sake of doing something to hide his feelings than because he actually wanted it, Blair took a mouthful of coffee. Simon rarely commented on his value to the PD, and having it mentioned now caused a surge of misery instead of the satisfied warmth that was the normal reaction to a compliment.
"All right," Blair finally agreed, reluctance in his voice. "I won't leave till after the memorial service. Have you any idea when it'll be?"
"It shouldn't be too long now. Everything's been slowed up because of... well, because of the way things happened. I... " He hesitated, then went on and it was obvious to Blair that Simon was close to breaking down over what he had to say. "I don't say the labs won't ever find organic remains identifiable as human that can be buried, but it doesn't look as if it'll be soon."
Blair nodded. He couldn't, in that moment, have said one word.
Finishing his coffee gave him the time to pull his ragged control together before he faced the cops in the bullpen again. He swallowed the final mouthful and said quietly, "See you, Simon."
From the door of his office, Simon watched him leave; as he turned to return to his desk, Joel Taggert joined him, went into the office with him.
He sighed. "You know, Joel, there have been times I thought Sandburg was just using Jim, that once he finished his dissertation he'd be gone and we'll never hear from him again - and I was worried how Jim would react, because I knew how fond he was of the kid."
Taggert shook his head. "Then you were the only one who ever doubted Blair. The rest of us could see he worshipped the ground Jim walked on."
"I know. I'd see something like that, that made me think I was wrong, that the kid really cared. And then he would say something that seemed to be saying that all he cared about was his academic future, and I'd begin to worry all over again. This last couple of months, Joel - I've been wishing I was right."
The loft was his; apart from one or two small bequests Jim had left Blair everything. It gave him security, but its very emptiness spoke all the time of the friend he had lost; it was no longer a home. It was just somewhere to stay.
Now that he had finally made up his mind to move away, ostensibly for a year, and made it official by telling the University and the PD, he slept on his first impulse, which was to cut his ties to Cascade altogether by putting the loft on the market, and decided to let it, furnished, on a lease that would make it easy for him to terminate the agreement when - if - he wanted to. It was good camouflage, for he had finally realised just how much pressure his friends in Cascade would apply to wring a promise from him that he would return.
With that decision made and the legalities in hand, he went back to see Simon a few days later.
"How're you doing, Blair?" Privately, Simon thought he had never seen the kid looking so tired, so dispirited - he looked, if anything, worse than he had a bare week earlier, and it suddenly occurred to Simon that Blair was looking much thinner, as if he hadn't really been eating.
Blair shrugged. "I'm managing. But I've a favour to ask."
"Name it. Anything I can do... "
"Well, you know I'm leaving Cascade for at least a year. I did think of selling the loft, but then I realised that if I let it furnished, it'll be a home to return to. I've seen a lawyer about it, and he's drawing up a lease that gives a tenant reasonable security but when I decide to come back, I give him notice of my return and he has a month to find somewhere else."
"Sounds reasonable." Simon looked thoughtfully at the younger man. "In fact, I think I know a possible tenant."
"Yes, Blair. Me. I've been looking for a new house for a while, but because of my divorce I can't get a mortgage. If I rent the loft it would give you a tenant you know, me a good temporary home and give me up to a year to look for somewhere better than where I am now. If I do find somewhere else inside that time, I'll guarantee to find you another trustworthy tenant."
Blair nodded. "Sounds good to me - and if I did come back inside a year, it shouldn't be too difficult for us to share the house for a while, if you're still in it." He gave Simon the lawyer's name. "Now, I've opened a bank account specifically for the rent for the loft. There's a direct debit drawn on it to pay the house insurance, and I was going to ask you to be a sort of intermediary for things like repairs - those would have to be paid out of that account too. I could get the lawyer to do it, but even if you weren't living there, I think I'd trust you to keep a better eye on the place than someone who was just doing it as a job."
"Right. And Blair - thanks for your confidence in me."
"We can check with the lawyer that it's OK, if you're the tenant, but I'd like your name to be on the account as co-signatory, so that you could draw money out of it to pay for anything that needed done."
"I think that should be all right as long as I keep all the receipts," Simon said. "They're the proof of where any money went."
"Yeah. Wouldn't look good for a Police Captain to be cheating his landlord, anyway, would it!"
Only Blair knew that all of this, too, was an obfuscation; not only had he no intention of returning to Cascade, he no intention of regarding any of the rent money as part of his income; he had not yet decided exactly what to do with it when he came to make his will, but he did know it would be something of which Jim would have approved, and it would go there in Jim's name.
Nor did he tell Simon that he had withdrawn almost all the money from his personal bank account, leaving just enough in it to look as if it was still active, and opened an account in a rival bank, giving as his permanent address the house in Fort Worth where a cousin lived, explaining that as a student he had not yet found permanent accommodation in Cascade because he expected to be doing quite a lot of travelling over the next few months in connection with his studies. Daniel, who had done it for him before (though not at any time in the previous three years) would, he knew, have no objection to holding any mail that arrived for him; he would shrug, think, 'That's footloose Blair on the wander again. Wonder if he'll ever settle down?' if he thought anything at all, and mark a cardboard box 'BLAIR' in readiness for whatever mail might arrive.
As he walked out of the bank, he reminded himself that it would be only courteous to let Daniel know...
As soon as he had the date and time for it, and allowing some extra hours to shake off the expected well-meant but uncomforting attempts of Jim's colleagues to console him afterwards, to persuade him yet again that even without Jim there they were still his friends, even that he would still be not only welcome but needed at the PD and could be partnered with someone else if he wanted to continue his ever-extended ride-along as well as helping in the bullpen, he booked a seat on a late afternoon flight for the day of the service, telling anyone who asked that he was headed for New York.
Master of misdirection that he was, he reflected, not for the first time in his life, on how good a lie could be told by telling the exact truth.
What he carefully did not say was that he wouldn't be leaving the airport when he reached New York. He would simply be changing planes, and spend barely three hours there.
While he waited through the interminable days till he could leave, he finalised one or two more things. He returned the artifacts he had borrowed, mostly from Rainier; the things he had picked up for himself on various anthropological trips he simply gave - officially on an indefinite loan of at least a year - to the anthropology department at Rainier, just as he had done with his books. The box of papers he had kept was carefully tucked away in a corner of his room in the loft as yet another misleading indication to Simon that he intended to return; though he had made certain none of his sentinel research was included in the box in case a future tenant rifled through it. All the paperwork for that had been destroyed; the only record of it all was in his laptop. And when he packed to leave, he took with him only the laptop, the few books he had kept, and some clothes.
He had always known how to travel light.
He promised Simon that he would let him know where he ended up - a promise he had no immediate intention of keeping, though he supposed that eventually, when the first ache of bereavement, still as intense as ever even after close on three months, had passed and he grew accustomed to the loss of his sentinel - his friend - he would phone. Or, more probably, write.
It was strange, though; academically he had known, especially since Incacha passed on the Way of the Shaman to him, that there was something tying sentinel and guide together, but he had never really considered the ramifications of that tie. In addition, he had thought of Jim as his best friend. Now he realised that Jim held his heart, as well, had held it since the day they first met.
And how do you live without your heart?
Even although he appeared to be reading steadily, he spent much of the flight to the east coast with his thoughts still caught in a cycle of weary, repetitive hopelessness over what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Yet even while he considered his options for the thousandth time, he knew there was nothing that he really wanted to do.
He had wanted his doctorate, yes; but he now realised that 'PhD' would have been virtually meaningless letters after his name. He had never consciously thought about it, he wasn't sure how they could have swung it, but he now realised that for close on three years he had expected to spend his future working with Jim; despite the everyday dangers of a cop's life, despite the dangerous situations he had several times found himself in, he had never seriously considered that one day one of them might lose the other.
His plane encountered a strong easterly headwind that delayed it slightly; his landing was a little later than timetabled, giving him less than a two-hour stopover at Newark. Having found his departure gate, he slumped in a seat, apparently asleep, his mind held resolutely blank as he visualised the peace of a starless void, using it in a hopeless attempt to centre himself.
During the transatlantic flight, leaning back with his eyes closed, he was unable to maintain the false peace his near-meditation had created, and for the first time he began to wonder if leaving Cascade had indeed been the wisest thing to do. At least in Cascade he had friends; and although he had several times travelled alone with no immediate destination in mind and completely happy with his own company, he was slowly coming to the realisation that he was no longer the totally self-sufficient loner he had been three years previously.
When the plane finally landed at Glasgow Airport, he had still not reached any decisions; he had simply been going over and over the same options time and again, his mind set in a never-ending rut.
As if that was any surprise.
While he waited for his luggage to appear, he considered his options once more, knowing that it was a useless exercise.
He could apply for a lecturing job at one of the universities here; he had the qualifications and the Chancellor had said Rainier would give him a reasonable reference, but he didn't really want to do that.
Deliberately, he killed his circular train of thought. If he was honest with himself, at the moment there was nothing he wanted to do, nothing for which he felt even the slightest enthusiasm. It was a new sensation, and a strange one, to feel so uninterested in anything, so totally unmotivated; in the past he had always had a goal, something he was working towards. Even when he achieved his immediate aim, there had always been something else in the distance beckoning him on; something he wanted to do, some place he wanted to see.
Now he was facing a totally blank, featureless wall of apathy.
Apparently a total extrovert, Blair was in fact more introverted than anyone, even Jim, had ever guessed, though Jim had eventually realised he had greater depths than was immediately apparent; when he was still quite young, he had found that an apparently exuberant, outgoing, chattering persona, one that seemed completely interested in other people, was the most effective one to present to the world, and he had deliberately cultivated just such a shell - only he knew how little of himself he actually exposed. He spoke readily of places he had been, things he had seen, but rarely of how he personally reacted to them, how he felt about anything. Not even Naomi knew how little of himself he showed to her; he had 'closed down' so slowly, so subtly, hidden his growing maturity so carefully, that she never realised how far he had grown away from the lifestyle in which he had spent his childhood. And although at the moment he was depressed, he knew he was not suffering from depression. It was just...
He had spent fully a dozen years studying sentinels and their importance to their tribes, and nearly three years living and breathing sentinels - or rather, a sentinel. Half of his life. Now he was having to make a total break, on a professional level, and find a new subject for his PhD - if, he thought hopelessly, it's even worth trying for it. Before he met Jim, he had been thinking he would have to make his dissertation subject why there were no longer any sentinels; why they were no longer needed, because of the influence of the 'civilised world'. Then he had obfuscated, babbling on about 'closed societies' to anyone who had asked.
Certainly he had made notes that would fit such a dissertation; it would, he supposed, give him something to do, something to keep his mind occupied, some apparent purpose to his life, even if he never submitted it anywhere... if he could summon up the energy to do it.
It was such a total change to the direction of his life; everything he had been living and working for lost, the best friend he had ever had dead, the one person he had ever allowed to glimpse what was really in his mind lost, because two stupid kids had been playing with matches in a derelict house!
Okay, okay, they had died too... but he found it impossible to summon up any sympathy for them or even for their parents, who hadn't been interested enough in them to keep an eye on what they were doing.
Their stupidity had killed his partner.
They had killed his partner.
And come to think of it, they had never been identified. Their parents hadn't even cared enough to report their children missing.
For the first time, it occurred to him that the parents - or even just one, probably their mother - might have been in the building and died there too. It would certainly explain why they hadn't, apparently, been missed; and he wondered briefly if that possibility had occurred to anyone else and been put in the official report he hadn't wanted to know about.
His bag finally came into sight on the carousel, and he retrieved it.
The formalities dealt with, he walked out of the terminal building and stopped, looking round, briefly at a loss.
Half amused by his own indecision - this was not by any means the first time he had landed on his own in a foreign country, and here there would not be the problem with language that he had encountered with the Yamomami, or in Sumatra, or in the Kalahari - he headed for the clearly-marked bus that would take him into Glasgow.
Leaving the airport bus at Buchanan Street bus station, he hesitated, trying to decide where to go next; he had not thought further than leaving America as quickly as possible, and this was terra incognito; for as many places as Naomi had visited, as many places as she had taken him over the years, as many places he had been in his own travels in the past ten years, he had never been to Britain except on brief stopovers spent in the airport waiting areas.
Should he stay here in Glasgow for a day or three, take time to recover from jet lag and consider his next move?
It took him only a few seconds to decide against stopping. He was not feeling particularly tired yet, though he knew exhaustion would hit him sooner rather than later; there was no reason why he should not stop; but he was, he knew, in a 'keep running' frame of mind. He wandered round the bus stances, not sure where he wanted to go.
The stance marked 'Aberdeen' caught his attention, if only because the driver was at the wheel, the bus clearly on the point of leaving. He caught the driver's eye; the man left his seat, jumped to the ground and went to the luggage compartment. "Aberdeen?" he asked.
Blair said slowly, "Where else do you stop?"
"Cumbernauld, Stirling, Perth, Dundee - "
"Dundee," Blair decided.
"You on holiday?" the man asked as he slid Blair's case into the compartment.
"Yes," Blair lied easily - it was the simplest answer. "Just arrived. I'm in Britain for several weeks, just going where my nose takes me."
"Hope you enjoy your time here." The driver led the way back to the door of the bus. Blair paid for his ticket and found a seat easily - this morning bus was far from busy.
He spent the first part of the journey with his mind resolutely blank, watching the scenery, such as it was, as if he was indeed the tourist he had claimed to be, and the second part apparently watching the scenery but actually wondering how best he could disappear... just in case Simon decided to try to find him in a week or two when he heard nothing from the PD's one-time observer/consultant.
No, he realised, it's not 'just in case'. He knew that Simon had once promised Jim that he would look out for the younger man if anything happened to him, he had visited Blair at least once a week during the past three months, and he would certainly want to continue keeping that promise. Though... occasionally Blair wondered if the big cop was keeping in touch from his own feelings of friendship, as well.
Do he really want to disappear permanently? he thought, aware once again of a touch of homesickness, and wondered at himself; with the amount of travelling he had done in his life, he had always considered himself immune to that particular ailment. And loner though he had been, he now realised that in the past three years he had come to think of people as friends, rather than as acquaintances he might think about from time to time, be glad to meet again, but not miss when they were out of sight.
No, he told himself. I can do without that emotional baggage. Until three years ago, he hadn't needed anyone since he was about fifteen. Hell, he hadn't really needed anyone since he was about seven or eight; Naomi's lifestyle, the one in which she had reared him, was one that stressed self-sufficiency. Although he knew she loved him, she had never encouraged him to depend even on her for anything he could do for himself.
It was time to return to that emotion-free life.
He concentrated on the scenery. Briefly.
After a moment he found himself thinking again. Moving on as he had done would certainly make it harder for Simon to find him; since Simon thought he was going no further than the Big Apple any search he might make would be concentrated on America for quite some time. Though of course he might try to contact Naomi...
But considering how easily Naomi herself disappeared for months at a time, apparently without stopping to consider that her son might need to get in touch with her, she could hardly complain if he did the same, and either 'forgot' or 'didn't think' to look for a way to tell her where he had gone.
The bus reached Dundee in the early afternoon and drove into a bus station just a fraction of the size of the one in Glasgow, in what looked like a fairly run-down part of the town. Even the buildings at the bus station - the waiting room, the ticket office, a tiny shop - had a dingy, unwelcoming look to them. Blair shook his head slightly, reflecting that any genuine tourist arriving in Dundee by bus would instantly be less than impressed by the place.
As he retrieved his case, Blair asked the driver, "Do you know if there's a tourist information centre anywhere near here?"
The driver pointed. "Go up that road - five or six minutes and you'll be in the centre of the town. You'll have to cross three side roads. Traffic lights at the second one. Twenty, thirty yards past the third one, the City Square is on your left; the tourist information centre is one of the shops surrounding it," and the automatic phrase always uttered by someone giving directions. "You can't miss it."
"Thanks, man." He slipped a pound coin - change from the bus fare - into the driver's hand.
Blair turned away and set off briskly up the road.
He had suspected it would be harder to find his destination than the bus driver had said, but much to his surprise the directions were exact, he couldn't miss it, and within ten minutes of leaving the bus station he found himself discussing inexpensive bed and breakfast accommodation with one of the tourist information staff.
About to produce his passport, he was surprised when the girl didn't ask to see it, and instantly decided to muddy his trail a little more by using a false name. Probably the simplest one, he decided, and the one he wouldn't forget to answer to, was Blair, using his first name as his surname; so he gave his name as James Blair, and as a home address the house in Fort Worth where a now-dead aunt had lived, rather than Daniel's.
Two phone calls later he had a room booked for a week; bed, breakfast and an evening meal. That, he decided, would give him time to think about his next move.
The girl told him how to find the house, but when he saw a taxi rank near the bus stop he had been directed to, he decided to spend money on a cab rather than struggle taking his case on a bus when he didn't know exactly where he would be getting off it again. He couldn't afford to spend too lavishly, but he also knew how easy it would be to pick up casual unskilled work, a day here, two days there, to augment his finances.
The journey was virtually all uphill until the last couple of hundred yards; Dundee, it seemed, rivalled San Francisco in that respect. Blair paid the driver and watched as the vehicle drove off, then turned towards his lodgings.
The house was not immediately obvious from the road; it was built behind another one that fronted the road, with a narrow path leading to it, the house number painted on the wall beside the path.
He was greeted cheerfully by a woman who looked to be in her early sixties; he signed in, and she took him up the stair. His room was quite small, but the bed looked comfortable.
As she showed him to his room, Mrs Cairncross said, "Come far today?"
"Flew in from America this morning," he said. "I wasn't sure where I wanted to go, and in Glasgow I just picked a bus and chose a destination at random."
"You'll have had breakfast in Glasgow, I suppose?"
He shook his head. "Actually, no. I haven't had anything since I left New York. They served a meal on the plane, but I wasn't hungry."
"I thought you were looking tired. You just come along with me."
She took him to the dining room and pushed him into a seat; and in a very short time produced a bowl of soup and a chicken sandwich. "And if you want to go up to your room and catch a nap, I won't disturb you," she added.
He found himself almost pathetically grateful for her consideration, and close to breaking down as he remembered that this was the kind of thing Jim would have done for him; had done for him when he had been exhausted from trying to do two full-time jobs plus his own studying, or been injured or was feeling ill. He had had to be self-sufficient for so much of his life, he had always been touched when Jim, tough, stoic Jim, had shown him those little kindnesses, not realising that he had unthinkingly done the same for his friend. Although he loved his mother, he had to admit that she had rarely thought to do anything emotionally satisfying for him since he was about five, saying that he was too grown-up now for a mother's coddling.
He had not really been aware of hunger, though it was actually fully twenty-four hours since his last meal; however, as he ate, he discovered that he was in fact glad of the food; it was the first meal he had come close to enjoying since Jim... He killed the thought. "This is good," he said. "Thank you."
"You look as if you could do with a good meal," she told him, using what she clearly considered the liberty of a woman nearly old enough to be his grandmother.
He forced a smile. "My Mom always said that if I was intent on something I'd forget to eat. I've been travelling around for a while, in America, and a lot of the time I did forget to eat."
Which was at least half true, he reflected; he had no appetite, sheer willpower forcing down the little he had eaten in the past three months. How could he enjoy food, with everything tasting like dust?
"Well, even if she understands that, she won't be pleased if you go back looking like a walking skeleton! How long is your holiday?"
"Well, it's not exactly a holiday, though I'll be looking at some of the places tourists visit, because they're part of the culture of the country," he said. "I'm a student - anthropology - and I've taken a year out to travel round, meet people, get a feel for how people live in some of the developed countries - most of my studies up till now have revolved round the handful of stone-age cultures that are left. I'll move on from Britain to Continental Europe, probably in four to six weeks, then go on into Asia. If I've got time I'll finish up in Australia."
"And it doesn't worry you, travelling on your own? Do you never get lonely?"
"Not really." That had been true, once, but loneliness was his ever-present companion now. "It's a good way to learn about the different cultures; if I was with a friend, I'd probably talk less to the people I meet, learn less. People are always happy to talk to someone who doesn't know much about their country and who is prepared to listen."
He decided not to lie down yet, although his hours of sleepless travelling were beginning to catch up with him; experience had taught him that if he could stay awake until perhaps 9 pm, he would waken next morning past the worst of the jet lag. Instead, feeling just a little stiff after the hours he had spent travelling, he went out on foot to explore the area around his B & B.
He quickly realised why his landlady offered an evening meal. This was a fairly residential area; although there were some shops, there were no restaurants apart from one small shop about quarter of a mile away selling takeaway 'fish and chips' - Hmmm, he thought. Fish and French fries... grease... - and now that he'd actually seen an unpretentious little shop that sold 'fish and chips', he realised he understood the comment made by an Englishman he had met once; 'Fish and French fries somehow doesn't have the same ring to it as fish and chips'.
He could see that by mid-evening the streets would be pretty well deserted.
He checked out the timetables posted at the various bus stops, and eventually found a stop marked with the number of the bus he had been told to take. He knew from the taxi ride, however, that it wasn't too far to walk, and decided that next day he would walk into the centre of the town, though he would probably catch the bus back. I must, he decided as he made his way back to the house, ask Mrs Cairncross tonight about tourist attractions. Should have asked at the tourist information, really, or picked up some leaflets there. I told her I'd be visiting the places tourists do, so I'd better do it.
In fact, Mrs Cairncross turned out to have leaflets from various visitor attractions in the general area, not just in Dundee itself; what was more, she had personally visited several of them.
"The one I always recommend is the Discovery," she enthused. "That was Captain Scott's ship - he used it when he went to the Antarctic. It was built in Dundee, back when we had a flourishing ship-building industry, and brought back here a few years ago. You must see it even if you don't visit anywhere else. Captain Scott did some of his training in the hills north of Dundee, you know - well, I suppose, being American, you wouldn't know..."
He partially tuned her out, appreciating her enthusiasm but finding it exhausting, for the first time understanding how, for his friends at the PD, his enthusiasm must have palled at times.
"... Mills Observatory. Are you interested in astronomy? Unfortunately this is the wrong time of year, in the summer it's only open during the day because you don't see many stars in the summer sky."
"I'm afraid it's one of the things I don't know anything about," Blair murmured.
"Well, we can't all be interested in the same things," she said, cheerfully undeterred by his admission as she picked out another leaflet. "This one's in Fife - the other side of the Tay, not too far from the air force base at Leuchars. Scotland's Secret Bunker - one of my visitors took me there last year. I'm not sure if you can get to it without a car, though. It's an underground shelter that was built as a base in case of a nuclear war, but the government seems to have decided that there's no chance of one now, so the place was opened to the public. After it opened, my cousin said that when he did his National Service, that was in the early 50s, it was a pretty open secret that there was something on the hush-hush list near Leuchars, but nobody knew what it was. Then if you do go over to Fife, there's a deer farm near Cupar... "
He tuned her out again, mechanically taking the leaflets as she went through then. Finally, she said, "But I'd better go and see about dinner. It'll be about half an hour."
"Thanks," he said. "I appreciate all the information."
She nodded, and bustled off.
Dinner was a silent affair shared with three other residents - a single woman of about his own age and an older couple who seemed to be quietly uninterested in their fellow boarders but looked at his hair and earrings with a clearly disapproving eye, and totally discouraged conversation at the table - which suited his mood perfectly. Afterwards, he retired to his bedroom with the information leaflets; but he was increasingly sleepy, decided to look at the them properly in the morning, and went to bed.
Three days into his week there, the couple, somewhat to his relief, moved on - normally he couldn't care less what others thought of him, for he knew who and what he was and he was perfectly happy with who and what he was; but he was depressed enough to find their obvious disapproval of him daunting. For the moment only he and the woman were left.
Alone at the dinner table, they found themselves looking at each other, and Blair smiled - an automatic smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "James Blair," he said.
"Alice Bannerman." Her smile was more genuine. "I'm glad those others are away - they gave me the impression that they disapproved of everything they ever saw."
Blair grunted. "They certainly didn't seem to approve of me. Though I've heard it all before - long-haired, no-good hippie layabout, bound to be on drugs..."
"And are you?" Her smile took any sting out of the words.
"I'm a student working for my PhD, taking a year's sabbatical to do a bit of travelling. And no, I'm not a hippie and I don't do drugs."
"That's interesting. About you being a student, I mean. I'll be attending Abertay University here in the autumn - going in as a mature student."
Once, Blair would have been really interested; now he had to force himself to be sociable. "What subject?"
"Economics. I've been working in Edinburgh, but I gave up my job ten days ago - decided to have a good holiday before I started. I came up to Dundee now because this is the best time to look for a flat - when this year's university leavers are moving out and there's vacant accommodation."
"And have you found somewhere?" Blair knew from experience how hard it could be to get a reasonably-priced house in a university town.
"Yes. Actually I signed an agreement for a furnished flat this afternoon. It's not too far from Abertay, and I can move in as soon as I want. I booked in here for a week, so I'll stay the week, then I'll move into my own house on Thursday."
The next morning he was on his way down the stair to breakfast when, rounding a corner, he almost bumped into Alice Bannerman; she was sitting there rocking backwards and forwards, clearly in distress, and he paused, putting aside his own unhappiness in the face of her obvious misery.
"What's wrong? Can I help you?"
She raised pain-filled eyes to him. "Mr Blair. I think I'm going mad."
"Well, you're obviously hurting, but that doesn't mean you're going mad."
"I must be. When I woke this morning... I'm hearing things... the light's hurting my eyes...and my clothes... they're the softest I've got, but just after I came out of my room, they suddenly felt as if they're made out of barbed wire..."
Blair stiffened. It wasn't possible - was it? "Sense of smell? Everything smells really strong? And taste? Things taste sharper, or sweeter...?"
She looked at him, fear in her eyes. "Smell, yes. I could smell breakfast cooking this morning, I couldn't any other morning. I don't know about taste."
"It's all right," he murmured. "You don't have to be afraid. This is something that's normal for you, Ms Bannerman. It's a rare gift. Look - picture a dial in your mind. Like a clock face. It's marked from one to twelve. At the moment it's set to twelve. See it?"
"Y...yes." She sounded just a trifle uncertain.
"Now turn it down, slowly, steadily... Think of the hand turning back towards one. Take it down to... mmm... three. Easy, easy... Is it going down?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"Got it at three?"
"Everything looks and feels pretty well normal?"
"Why - yes." She sounded startled.
"Okay. After breakfast, would you come to my room? There's a book I want to show you."
Alice leafed through Burton, pausing from time to time to read something. After a while she looked up at Blair. "Is this for real? I mean - this book - it's fact, right, not just something someone's made up?"
Blair nodded. His voice was subdued as he said, "I came across this book when I was about fifteen, and something about it, about the idea of people with heightened senses, caught my imagination. I've found a lot of people with one or two senses heightened, mostly taste and smell, a few with touch; to have four, or especially all five, seems to be really rare, though. According to Burton, only a few tribes at a time ever had a sentinel, and the tribes that did were the envy of their neighbours. My subject's anthropology, and that's included field trips to tribes that have had exposure to Western culture. Most of them had one or two who could speak English or French so it was possible to hold a conversation using them as interpreters.
"I always asked about sentinels. None of them would ever admit to having had a sentinel in recent years, though a couple of them agreed that the tribe had had one in the past. The inference was that full sentinels are probably fewer today than they were in the past, and like I said, they were never exactly common. From what one tribal spokesman said, I think sometimes they had to settle for one with only sight or hearing, on the principal that even one enhanced sense was better than none."
"From what you said, though, you certainly have four senses, Ms Bannerman; and I think you may have all five. I think you're a full sentinel."
She looked back at the book. "It says the sentinels always had a partner?"
"Yes. If you concentrate too hard on one sense, you can lose contact with your surroundings. Obviously a tribal sentinel who just stood there unconscious of his surroundings wasn't much use to his tribe. So there had to be someone with him who could pull the sentinel back without too much trouble, and that person became his partner. The shaman of one of the tribes who admitted having had a sentinel relatively recently told me that the two men were still there when he was a child, but quite old." Somehow, he managed to keep his voice steady. "They had been close friends all their lives, and when the partner died... the sentinel only survived him by about a day." And how I wish it worked the other way, too!
"Can... can you help me? I mean, you know about this, and you've already helped me by telling me how to turn down the intensity of everything. Is there more you could teach me?"
"I can help you up to a point, but there's some evidence that to be completely effective it's always a same-sex partnership. The tribes who would speak about sentinels always implied that the partner was the same sex. You really need to find a female partner." He found himself reluctant to use the term 'guide' and more than reluctant to commit himself to anything more than extremely short-term.
He didn't want another sentinel. Not yet. He wanted... He killed the thought. "Anyway I'll only be in Britain for a month or so - two months at most; I wasn't planning on being in Dundee for more than a week, but though it's easy enough to extend that a little, I can't stay indefinitely. Yes, I've taken a year's sabbatical, but there are several more countries I want to visit, and come next fall I have to be back at university."
"James - can I call you James? Or maybe Jim?"
"No! No, I'd rather you called me Blair. I... I don't much like my given name," he lied.
She smiled ruefully. "I can identify with that. My given name is actually Alicia. I hate it! But I can live with 'Alice'. Anyway - Blair. I'd be really grateful if you would stay as long as possible."
Another sentinel. Someone who needed him. Really, really needed him, as only a sentinel could need a guide. And in truth, he needed to be needed like that; three years as a guide had shown him clearly how much he enjoyed working with a sentinel, even one as apparently unappreciative at times... He killed that thought, too, as he was still killing many thoughts these days.
Could he give another sentinel the... yes, the devotion he had given to Jim? He knew the answer was 'No'. He didn't want the involvement yet, but he did know what he could give another sentinel - help, certainly, loyalty, certainly, friendship even, but love?
No. Not love. That was a gift he had given to Jim, and only to Jim, even though his friend had never realised just how far beyond mere friendship Blair's feelings had gone. Even if Jim hadn't been a sentinel, he would still have loved him.
He pushed the thought away.
Only a sentinel could need him the way he needed to be needed, but the only one he needed was dead.
And yet -
How could he desert this sentinel without giving her at least some help? Some advice? Even although what she needed was a female partner?
"Well, if Mrs Cairncross will let me stay on for another two or three weeks, I can give you that long," he said.
"Actually, she doesn't need to. I get entry to my flat on Thursday; there's a spare room, you could finish your week here and move in with me on Friday, which would give me a day to get settled in. I'd be happy for you to use that room for two or three weeks in exchange for giving me some help to control my senses. I don't want to go through that... that overload... again."
"I wouldn't want to impose - "
"It wouldn't be imposing. I'd expect you to split the bills for food, electricity, pay any phone calls you might make... but a bed in a room that would otherwise be empty in exchange for a bit of help with my senses - you'd be doing me a favour."
"Ms Bannerman - Alice - I'm not sure that I can give you very much help. That dial thing - that was based on something the shaman who told me about the sentinel he knew said," he obfuscated. "I'd be guessing - and guessing pretty wildly; I don't really know anything beyond the fact of what sentinels did, what they could do." And in a way that's completely true, he thought. As often as not he had been guessing when he worked with Jim - and he reckoned that it worked because he and Jim had proved to be so compatible, had become such close -
He killed the thought.
Unaware of his mental turmoil, she was still speaking. "Even that could be better than nothing," she said. "Please, Blair."
He needed to be needed; and when it came down to it, he couldn't resist a sentinel's plea. "All right," he said. "I'll try. But I can't promise anything."
He didn't - he really didn't - want to make her dependent on him.
But already he was beginning to work out just how much she would need to know if she was to function. Not as much as Jim, certainly; she was studying economics, she would never be the guardian of a tribe the way Jim had been. She would never need to push her abilities to the limit of a zone-out... though he would have to warn her about those - a proper warning, not just the passing mention he had already made.
They left the house together, Blair feeling at the same time more hopeful than he had been for weeks, yet more depressed. The shaman could once again perform his duty, and he was just beginning to realise how important performing that duty was to him... but it would be for the wrong person.
Alice stopped when they reached the road. "Have you been up the Law yet?" she asked.
"The Law - you know, the hill in the middle of the town."
"You get a great view of Dundee and the surrounding countryside from it. You can't possibly visit Dundee and not go up the Law. It's a clear day, too - you'll be able to see for miles. I used to love going there when I was a child. Come on - this way." She began to walk quite briskly along the road.
"You used to live in Dundee, then?" Blair asked, more for politeness than because he really cared.
"Yes, till I was sixteen. Left when I got married - "
"Married? At sixteen?" There was no way Blair could hide the shock in his voice.
She glanced at him, clearly puzzled. "Yes, what's wrong with that?"
"Sixteen's under age."
"Not in Scotland. Sixteen is perfectly legal here. We go down this way - " She turned down one of the side streets. "I really was too young, though, too naive, but I was in a bad home situation - or rather, I thought I was. I adored my stepfather when I was younger, but by then I didn't get on with him at all, thought he was far too strict, and my mother wouldn't give me any support. I was seeing a man more than twice my age, and when he asked me to marry him, I thought it was my chance at happiness. Of course, my mother and especially my stepfather hit the roof but they couldn't stop me, although heaven knows they tried to talk me out of it.
"Anyway, I got married and we moved to Edinburgh, where I didn't know anyone.
"I realised very quickly that they were right - my stepfather really did know what was best for me - or rather, what wasn't good for me, I soon came to realise that - but he went about it the wrong way. Just put my back up. Though come to think of it, I'm not sure what would have persuaded me; you have no idea how flattering it was to have a man Andy's age paying attention to me. You'd have to be a 16-year-old girl in the throes of first love to understand how I felt.
"Things were fine for about six months, we were both working, seemed to have plenty of money - then Andy lost his job; the factory closed, everyone was made redundant, and of course because he'd only been there six months his redundancy money was peanuts, and lucky to get the litte he did. And he couldn't get another job. That was when I discovered what he was really like. First he drank all our savings, such as they were, then he stole my money for drink - he'd always been fond of his dram, right enough, and I knew that, but a lot of men do and he'd always controlled his drinking before. He started coming home half cut every night. He was supposed to have been looking for work, but I knew he'd been spending all afternoon in the pub. I started buying a week's groceries as soon as I was paid just so we'd eat - but then one night he started hitting me because there wasn't any money in my purse, accusing me of squandering my pay and denying him his right to a share of what I earned. I could see the day coming when we'd be evicted for not paying the rent.
"I couldn't come back to Dundee - I wasn't prepared to admit that I'd been wrong - but I wasn't willing to accept being abused either. I'd got friendly with a girl at work, and next day I begged her for shelter, just for a few nights till I decided what to do."
She fell silent. Blair glanced at her, aware that she was playing him for sympathy - there could be no other explanation for telling a virtual stranger so much; and indeed, he was sympathetic - if her story was true, and he had no reason to doubt it, then she had indeed had a difficult time.
The grass and tree covered hill was in front of them now, and she led him onto a path that led upwards, with trees on one side and small cultivated plots of mostly vegetables on the other. It was a green haven in the middle of the town.
"And did you get it?" he asked at last, politeness urging him to respond in spite of his lack of any real interest.
"Yes. Gloria said I could stay as long as necessary.
"I'd half expected Andy to come to my work looking for me, full of apologies - well, it was the first time he'd actually hit me - but he didn't. Then that night on the news there was a report of a man killed in a house fire earlier that day."
"Andy?" he asked.
"Yes. They reckoned he'd begun to cook breakfast then fallen asleep again with a frying pan on the stove. He was found sprawled on a couch in the living room. A neighbour mentioned his wife to the police, and they were looking for me, so I phoned them, told them I hadn't been home because I'd arranged to have the evening out with a friend, had seen the report on the news, that he'd been asleep when I left for work, but that he'd been really drunk the night before." She shrugged. "It was a shock, but I knew by then what a terrible mistake I'd made; like my parents had said, I was too young; in the months we were married, I'd grown away from him. Even without his drinking, I'd have grown away from him.
"I didn't tell my parents the truth. They thought I'd still not seen through him at the time he died. God, if they'd known...
"Anyway, I decided to stay in Edinburgh for a while. Gloria was marvellous - even though I didn't need the shelter any more. I could have been rehoused virtually overnight by the authorities because my house was totally destroyed - she said I could stay with her as long as I wanted to... as long as I needed to. She knew, she understood... I was grieving, though not really for Andy... more for what I'd lost, the way he turned out... and I felt so guilty because I felt I ought to be grieving for him - he was my husband, for heaven's sake, even though I'd fallen out of love with him. She was only a couple of years older'n me, but it was enough; she knew better than I did what was wrong with me. It took her a while but she eventually made me see that I'd really lost him weeks earlier, if indeed I'd ever really had him. And it was true what she said; I was as close to underage sex as he was going to get and still be legal."
Blair nodded, and forced himself to say round the tightness in his throat, "It's good when you can find a friend who'll help you like that."
They were above the trees, on the last part of the climb up the hill; the path had turned into made steps up the steepest part. They went up them in silence.
There was a big war memorial on the top, which he remembered seeing as his bus approached the town, although at that time he hadn't known what it was - or, to be honest, cared. They paused to look over the River Tay with its two bridges stretching over the estuary; Blair chuckled, not really amused, as he said, "You know, this is not unlike being on Twin Peaks looking across the Golden Gate Bridge to Oakland. The scale is different, of course, but it's the same sort of view."
Down-river they could see the North Sea a dozen miles away; but the view up-river was partly blocked by a second, lower, hill; Alice pointed out a building just showing through trees on it. "That's an observatory that was built for the people of Dundee by one of the mill owners of the nineteenth century."
"The... Mills Observatory?"
"That's right. How did you know?"
"Mrs Cairncross mentioned it."
They walked across the flattened top of the Law to see the view inland. The northern horizon was occupied by a range of hills just five or six miles away; the same hills that he could see from his bedroom window, he realised. Towards the north-west she pointed out a perfect cone that looked exactly the way a child might draw a hill. "That's about fifty miles away," she said. "I saw it from here as a child, and always said that one day I would climb it." She grinned. "For me as a ten-year-old, something fifty miles away might as well have been on the moon. But I've been up it."
She nodded. "Gloria's keen on hill-walking, and she persuaded me to start going out with her. Well, it was something to do with the weekends rather than sit moping at home. I found I enjoyed it; if anything I got keener than she was. One day I realised we'd gone to 'my' hill, and it felt great, standing on top of it.
"It was Gloria who talked me into going to evening classes and taking the exams to complete my education, then eventually persuaded me to apply for a place at Abertay.
"She was supposed to be coming with me this week - well, last week too - but at the last minute she couldn't get off work. She insisted I took my holiday, though, especially since I had to look for a house."
"After all that time, couldn't you just have moved back in with your parents?"
"They're dead too." She swallowed. "Gloria persuaded me to contact them - I'd deliberately lost touch when I moved to Edinburgh; nobody else knew that I was leaving Andy, and like I said, I let everyone think that he'd accidentally set fire to the house after I left for work. It was the truth, after all; only Gloria and I knew I hadn't meant to go home again. I visited them several times after that, and they visited me... and one day on their way home they were involved in an accident and killed."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"It was nearly ten years ago. I do still feel responsible though; if I hadn't rebelled, if I'd never left Dundee... but then I'd never have met Gloria."
Blair looked at her. "Forgive the question - are you lovers?"
"No, but we couldn't be closer if we were."
"Yeah, I know what it's like. I'd... a friend like that."
"He died." His voice was completely flat.
"Recently?" she asked, her voice sympathetic. He could only nod.
She was silent for some minutes, just staring towards the distant triangle of the hill fifty miles away. Finally, as if realising there was nothing she could say about his loss that he could accept, she said, "I came back to Dundee at the beginning of last week, and inquired about renting a house. Then I went, on my own, to the hills about thirty miles north of here. I was there for a week, camping, exploring the area."
"Totally on your own?" he asked.
"That was probably the trigger," Blair told her. "There's some evidence that time spent entirely alone in the wild encourages the emergence of heightened senses. Modern people today, especially in the West, are rarely in that sort of situation, which makes sentinel ability very rare."
"I see," she said. "I can't say I'm happy about it. I mean, what earthly use are heightened senses going to be to me?"
It had been a quiet shift, and now Bruce Harris and Paddy O'Rourke were heading back through a badly run-down part of Tacoma to the PD, in the half light of early dawn - a little before the end of shift, certainly, but on a night as quiet as this one had been, who was going to care if they filled in their report half an hour early? It meant that for once they could leave on time, instead of anything up to an hour into the next shift.
Suddenly Harris slammed on the brakes so sharply that O'Rourke, who had been peering at the half-seen shops they were passing, checking them, exclaimed, "Christ, Bruce, warn a guy, willya?"
For answer, Harris pointed to the heap lying on the road a bare yard in front of the car, almost indistinguishable in the shadows of this half-lit road. "Great way to finish the night - with a fucking drunk lying in the middle of the road! He was lucky I saw him in time."
They got out of the car and went to the man lying there. Harris leaned down and shook him roughly. "Wake up, punk!"
There was no response, but then he paused in the act of pulling the man over, his attention drawn by the simple fact that although he could smell urine on the man's clothes, he couldn't smell any liquor. He leaned over to look at the face that up till then had been hidden from him by the way the unconscious man was lying, and drew a sharp breath at the bruising on the face, visible even in the poor light. "Paddy, call for an ambulance. This was either a hit and run or a mugging." He felt for the neck pulse. "He's still alive, but he feels cold - could be going hypothermic, from shock if nothing else."
So much for an on-time finish to the shift! he thought viciously.
The injured man was carrying no identification; no wallet, nothing that could identify him. A mark on his wrist, a little paler than the skin of the rest of his lower arm, indicated where a watch had been removed, putting the victim clearly into the category of mugged.
He was filthy, though, and clearly hadn't washed for some time; his beard was also obviously the result of not having shaved for at least a fortnight, rather than a deliberate decision to grow one; someone who had been growing a beard for a fortnight would have started to trim it into shape. That much was obvious even before his clothes were removed. Once they were...
The doctor called the two cops into the examination room. "I think this is more than a simple mugging," he said quietly.
The unconscious man had been laid face-down on the table; Dr Sitchi drew down the light blanket covering him.
"Oh, my god!" Even the hardened cops stared in horror at the bloody mess that was the man's back. He had clearly been flogged, and more than once over a period of time - there were half-healed marks curling round his sides; but his back was now flayed raw. There were dark bruise marks round his upper arms and thighs that showed he had been tied down while the damage was inflicted; he might very well have struggled to free himself until he got too weak.
"Basically he's in good physical condition, though he's showing signs of having been starved over the last few days," Dr Sitchi said, and the cops nodded, noting the muscular arms. "He's clearly a man who has kept himself fit. There is heroin in his bloodstream, but taking everything else into consideration, I'm inclined to think that whoever did this to him also drugged him. He does not have the look of a man who habitually uses drugs."
O'Rourke grunted. "Wonder what he did to piss off someone enough to get that done to him," he muttered.
"Could be something as simple as talk to a mobster's girl friend, without even knowing who she was," Harris replied.
O'Rourke nodded, knowing how possessive of their women most gang leaders could be. "Any idea when he'll regain consciousness?" he asked.
Dr Sitchi shook his head. "No. In some ways the longer he's unconscious the better it will be for him. It will get the drug at least part-way out of his system, and start his back healing, with the minimum of pain - with the heroin already in his system, we daren't give him any painkillers at the moment."
"Well, keep us informed," Harris said as the two cops headed for the door; there was nothing more they could do until the victim regained consciousness.
Dr Sitchi shook his head. "Since we don't know who's going to pay for his treatment, he'll be transferred in the morning."
"To the charity hospital," O'Rourke muttered.
"Yes, you could call it that," Sitchi agreed. "Of course, once he regains consciousness, if he has insurance he can be transferred back to here; and that would be best for him. He won't be neglected, of course, but those hospitals are very busy; care is extremely basic, because the medical staff is seriously overworked, and they won't be able to do as much as we could to minimise the scarring."
They were so late by the time they left the hospital the two cops simply went home, but knowing that the paperwork still had to be done, they agreed together to report in early that evening.
While O'Rourke typed up the report on their John Doe, Harris checked the missing persons file, and came up blank. Nobody on it even remotely resembled the tortured man now lying in hospital, not quite fighting for his life, but close to it. After thinking about it for a minute, Harris called up the missing persons files for the nearest cities, but they too produced no description that came close to matching the appearance of the man they had found.
"We have two possibilities," he muttered at last. "Either he lived alone and was independently wealthy so he didn't have to work and nobody's missed him yet, or he was one of the gang that mauled him."
"There's a third one," O'Rourke said. "Considering his physical condition - could he possibly have been an undercover cop whose cover was somehow blown?"
Harris considered the suggestion for a minute. "Nah," he said finally. "He looked as if he'd been held prisoner for at least a couple of weeks, right?" O'Rourke nodded. "Well, wouldn't he have been missed by his contact inside that time?"
O'Rourke thought about it. "Wouldn't it depend on how deep undercover he was? Anyway, even if he was missed, would Vice or Narcotics or whatever bother notifying us grunts? It wouldn't do any harm to pass word about him to Vice, at least, just in case."
"Yeah - it wouldn't do any harm." Harris knew that the other man wanted to get off the beat and into one of the more prestigious departments of the PD, and although he would be sorry to lose his partner he was willing to help him do everything he could to be noticed. For himself, he was happy with the lesser responsibility of being a mere uniform.
Once O'Rourke had handed in the report on the previous night's activities, they went up the stair to Vice. There, they paused at the secretary's desk.
"Any chance of a word with Captain Ythan?" O'Rourke asked.
"I'll see if he's free," she said, picking up a phone. "Your names? Right. Captain? Officers O'Rourke and Harris would like a word if it's convenient. Yes." She hung up the phone. "Go right in."
O'Rourke knocked on the door, however, choosing to take the comment as meaning, "He'll see you now", and opened it on the "Come in!" from inside.
"You wanted a word."
"Yes, Captain." O'Rourke knew that Harris would let him, as the ambitious member of the team, be spokesman. "We picked up a John Doe early this morning. We initially thought he was the victim of a mugging - no ID, no wallet - but when we got him to hospital it turned out that he'd been tortured - we think he's possibly been held prisoner for at least a fortnight.
"From the look of him, he wasn't just street scruff; once he'd been cleaned up, he looked the sort of man who'd be considered respectable. Missing persons hasn't come up with anyone fitting his description; and we wondered if there was any chance that he might be an undercover cop who hasn't been missed yet. He's tall - at least six foot; short brown hair; muscular; hard to say what his normal weight would be because of his condition."
Ythan grunted. "I take it he's still unconscious or you'd know his name."
"Yes, sir. Obviously we need to try to find out who he is, but if he's one of yours, or Narcotics, then it becomes a matter for either his department or Major Crimes rather than ours."
"Right. Well, it's not one of my men. There are only a couple undercover at the moment, neither one fits that description, and both have reported to their contacts inside the last forty-eight hours. None of the neighbouring towns have informed me that they have anyone undercover in Tacoma." He grinned at the surprise that showed on both faces. "Sometimes somebody undercover has to move to another town with his mark, and it's a matter of courtesy to let the resident Captain in Vice know, though not who he is, of course. Did nobody ever tell you that? Ah, well, you know now. And it doesn't fit the description of anyone currently undercover in Narcotics either. You'll have to look somewhere else to identify your John Doe."
O'Rourke nodded. "Thank you, Captain. Sorry to have wasted your time."
"No, lads, you showed initiative. If it had been one of mine, I'd've been more than grateful for the word. Let me know how it goes."
They retreated, nodded their thanks to the secretary and returned to their own department.
They checked every day with the hospital where the man ended up. It was six days before their John Doe regained consciousness, and Nurse Jarvis, who had been rather charmed by O'Rourke, phoned the PD with the information rather more promptly than she might otherwise have done; by that time Harris and O'Rourke had rotated back to day duty, so they, as the officers who found the man, were sent to the hospital to take his statement.
The young and overworked doctor on duty met them as they approached the ward where their John Doe lay. "You're here to see our assault victim?"
"Yes. How is he?" Harris asked.
Dr Larsen shook his head. "Physically, in much better condition than we could have hoped for. Unfortunately he has no memory of the events leading up to his arrival here."
"He can't remember."
They went into the ward. The man on the bed beside the window looked in far better condition than he had; a wash and shave had worked wonders, though the bruises on his face had yellowed and one on his forehead looked very nasty. He was sitting up, supported by a selection of pillows; pain showed clearly in the lines on his face and in his eyes.
"Mr Doe - these are the policemen who found you and brought you in," the Doctor told him.
He managed to smile as he looked at them. "Then I must thank you."
"We're just glad we were able to help you," Harris replied. "And I must say you look better now than you did a week ago. How are you feeling?"
"Sore," he replied. "I'm grateful that I've been unconscious this long; it's given my back a chance to begin healing. The doctor tells me someone really did a number on it - and it certainly feels that way."
Harris nodded. "Can you tell us your name?"
The man shook his head. "I can't remember it. I'm sorry."
"Address? Home town, even?"
"Have you any idea who held you prisoner? Or why?"
He shook his head. "I have a vague memory of several men, but I can only visualise them as shadows. I think - but I'm not sure... One of them was the boss, and I think the others were all afraid of him. But I've no idea why they would target me. Maybe I was just unlucky - in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"It's possible," O'Rourke said, although he did not actually think so; the viciousness of the flogging spoke to him of a deliberate target, revenge for something, some wrong, real or imagined.
"We haven't been able to find anyone answering your description in our missing persons files. Can you remember if there's anyone who would report you missing?" Harris asked gently.
"I must have relatives, surely? Everyone has relatives!"
"Yes, but if you moved away from where your family lives when you started work..." Harris suggested.
"Then why hasn't my boss reported me missing?"
"You could be on vacation," O'Rourke commented.
"That's a point!" Harris exclaimed. "We should try the hotels, see if anyone booked in but hasn't been seen since. We didn't think about someone on holiday."
They spoke for a while, but it was clear that John Doe couldn't really help them. Finally, Harris gave him their names, and said, "If you do remember anything, report to the PD, will you?"
"Yes, I'll do that."
After the two cops left, John Doe drowsed despite the ache in his back and the stomach cramps for which he had no explanation but which, had he known, were withdrawal symptoms from the heroin that had been forced into him.
He was wakened by the arrival of another visitor.
"Hello, John. My name's Jerry. I've been assigned to work with you when you get out of hospital."
"How are you feeling?"
There was a flash of spirit. "How do you think I feel?" but then John Doe sighed and sank back into a state of near lethargy. "I'm sore. My back hurts, my belly hurts. My arms and legs hurt where they're bruised. I keep thinking it wouldn't be so bad if I knew why someone had beaten me up like that, but I can't remember anything."
"I'm sorry." Jerry looked genuinely sympathetic.
"And... well, it hurts that nobody has even missed me."
"It's possible you were just passing through Tacoma and everyone you know thinks you're somewhere else," Jerry said. "Sooner or later someone will report you missing - I'm sure of it. Meantime, we need to assign you an identity. If we just call you 'John Doe' - well, that's not individual. Have you any idea what you'd like to be called?"
He shook his head despondently. "Does it really matter? I'm nobody. An unknown. Captain Nemo... Why does that sound familiar? No. Not Nemo. Nimmo. That would do. It means unknown, doesn't it. John Nimmo."
"Right." Jerry noted it on the form he was carrying. "We need a birth date... if we say May 8th, that was the day you were picked up - the day John Nimmo was 'born'?"
"We'll really need a year of birth too... " Jerry looked at the man, trying to see past the mask of combined pain and hopelessness that he wore, to get an estimate of his age. "Let's say 1962. OK?"
"Whatever." The newly-named Nimmo found he really didn't care. For a man whose only memories were of vague shadows, little details like a date of birth that his reason told him had to be inaccurate were unimportant.
"Let me see your hands, please."
Nimmo held them out. Jerry grunted. "Well, I don't think you were a manual worker," he said, "but you don't look like an office worker either. Unless you went in for keep fit?"
The question was almost thrown away; if Nimmo was faking his amnesia, this was a moment when it might show.
"I don't know," he said. "It's possible, I suppose. Hell, anything is possible."
Jerry nodded. "Yeah, it is." He opened his case and took out a magazine. "Can you read this?"
"Reader's Digest," Nimmo said. He opened it at one of the articles, and began reading fluently.
After a minute, Jerry nodded. "That's fine, John." He grinned. "Will I leave it with you? Give you something to do."
"One last thing." He produced a sheet of paper with numbers on it, and gave it, and a pencil to the recovering man. "Can you do these sums?"
It took only a few minutes. Jerry nodded. "Good. Just for the record, will you sign your name on it?"
Nimmo hesitated barely a second, muttering, "How would you spell 'Nimmo'?" then signed 'John Nimmo'.
Jerry looked at the signature. There was a careful quality to it, as if it was written by a child or a man who was used to writing legibly for anyone to read. He glanced through the sums, noting that the answers were all correct. So Nimmo's conscious memory of who he was might be gone, but his subconscious memory for the things he had learned as a child, things that had become automatic, still operated. With luck, then, the memory loss might prove to be temporary.
Nimmo left hospital almost a week later, bound for a rehab centre. His back was healing well, but the muscles had been damaged and he found some movements difficult; therapy was clearly indicated before the scar tissue hardened too much.
The rehab centre proved at first to be an almost complete waste of time. Because he was a charity case, Nimmo was given a set of exercises to do, then left to get on with it. He watched with some bitterness as people with injuries less severe than his were given more personal attention than he got, then gritted his teeth and worked at the exercises, ignoring the pain as complaining back muscles began to stretch and loosen. He noticed that most of the patients only worked at their exercises for perhaps an hour at a time; unnoticed by the therapists, he remained in a quiet corner of the gym hall and continued exercising without taking time for a break until he was the last man there. Then, and not till then, did he stop.
He went back to the hall the next day and returned to his corner, and when none of the therapists looked his way, he resumed the exercises from the previous day; again he worked solidly at them all day, determined to regain the fitness his muscles told him he had known prior to the assault.
On his third day there a 'new' therapist came on duty - one whose days off had coincided with Nimmo's first two days at the centre. Saunders noticed Nimmo, checked over the man's notes, grunted, had a quick word with one of the other therapists, and crossed to where Nimmo had begun his solitary routine.
"Hello, Mr Nimmo. My name's Saunders. How are you doing?"
Surprised, Nimmo paused and looked at the man. "Mr Saunders. You do know that I'm a charity patient?" There was a tautness in his voice that told Saunders a lot about the way his colleagues had regarded the man... and also that amnesiac though he was, Nimmo still had his pride.
"Mr Nimmo, I don't care if you're a reincarnation of Lucifer's third illegitimate son. You were the victim of an assault; you've been sent here for physical therapy, and as far as I'm concerned, you deserve as much attention as anyone else here. Possibly more than some; certainly not less. Now, you've been doing that routine for two days?"
Nimmo nodded. "I think I'm ready to move on to something more demanding, but... " He broke off.
Saunders nodded, 'hearing' the unspoken words. "Nobody has bothered to check on your progress. Let me see what you're doing."
After Nimmo spent a couple of hours doing new exercises, Saunders directed him to the swimming pool. "Can you swim?"
Nimmo had realised by now just how many of the throwaway comments made to him were designed to entrap a patient faking amnesia into giving a betraying answer; but he was also aware that the staff here were simply doing their job, just like the welfare worker Jerry, when they tried to trick him into an unwary answer. Unfortunately for them, his amnesia was genuine, and his answer was instant.
"I can't remember." Then he shrugged, wincing slightly. "Considering my general physique, I imagine I probably did swim... and I'm gonna look helluva silly if I jump into a pool and have to be fished out again because I can't."
Saunders chuckled. "I think you're probably right. You probably went in for a lot of exercise, and you're well enough proportioned that it must have been general exercise, so it probably did include swimming. So we'll give you a try - but no way are you jumping into deep water this first time! You'll slide nice and gently into very shallow water. Time enough for jumping into fairly deep water once we've established that you can swim."
"Will... will there be many people at the pool?"
"One or two - there shouldn't be many. Scared folk'll laugh at you?"
"No - it's just... I'm sort of sensitive about anyone who isn't a doctor seeing my back."
Saunders nodded, remembering what the case notes had said. "Everyone here is the victim of some sort of accident or assault," he replied. "While you're here you'll see some other people who've been quite badly injured, some of them probably worse scarred than you are."
Having been picked up off the street, Nimmo only had the clothes the hospital had provided - and these did not include swim wear. The rehab centre had some for general use, though, and with Saunders' help Nimmo soon found himself ready to try swimming.
He hesitated as he approached the pool. "I... You know, I'm feeling quite scared," he confessed. "Maybe that means I can't swim and my body knows it."
Saunders, also ready to enter the pool, put a reassuring hand on his arm. "Just remember, you're six feet tall, this water isn't more than three feet deep, and I'll be in there with you. Right?"
"Now, sit on the edge."
Nimmo obeyed; Saunders sat beside him.
"I'll go in first, then you slide in. And remember, I'm smaller than you, and the water'll only be about waist deep on me." With that, Saunders slid into the water, waded a couple of steps away from the side, and turned to face Nimmo. The bigger man took a deep breath, then slid into the water. As his feet hit the bottom, he reached out to clutch Saunders' arms.
"Good. That's fine. Come on, now; two or three steps away from the side... that's right... Now, lean forward and kick yourself towards the side. Good!" as Nimmo obeyed. "How did that feel?"
He needed little encouragement to try again, and again; then he went a little further from the side, and this time he began to swim as he glided towards the side.
"That's it!" Saunders exclaimed. "You can swim, man. Come on - into slightly deeper water, but still inside your depth. Right. Now let's see if you can swim across to the other side."
He could, easily, and soon progressed to deeper water yet, by which time he was swimming confidently.
From then on, Nimmo's progress was swift. Having someone paying attention to him, to what he was doing, helping him, made a tremendous difference to him. It wasn't possible for Saunders to devote all his time to one patient - he had others to work with as well - but he spent as much time as possible with the man whose determination seemed greater than that of all his other patients put together. After about ten days, Nimmo was discharged from the rehab centre, and Jerry came to collect him and take him to the apartment that had been assigned to him.
Alice Bannerman's apartment was in a fairly wide street that looked as if it had been, at one time, an upper middle class area. The buildings on both sides of the street were long terraced rows four storeys high. At the south end of the street was a grassed area; beyond that a branch of the railway climbed a curving twenty or thirty feet on the approaches to one of the bridges over the river.
Several of the houses had 'For Sale' signs attached to their windows, and Blair commented on it as they walked up the street to number 14.
"Yes," Alice said. "A lot of this area is student accommodation. I don't know what it's like in America, but what often happens here is that a student's parents buy a house, especially if there's a younger sibling who also plans to attend university. The student gets one or two friends to share the house, paying rent of course, and the rent they pay covers the mortgage. Finally, when all the family has been through university, the parents sell the house - and since house prices may well have gone up in the interim, they might make a thousand or two profit on it - and another student's parents buy it. So these houses change hands a lot.
"I couldn't afford to buy a house, but I landed lucky; this flat belongs to an elderly woman - she inherited it, so doesn't need it to live in - who wants a small income to augment her pension, so she rents it out, furnished, relatively cheaply. The previous tenant finished university last week."
The apartment was a three-roomed one on the second floor; it had a reasonably-sized kitchen and bathroom. All the rooms opened off a small hallway. Alice indicated the room immediately opposite the front door. "That'll be your room, Blair." He nodded and put his case and backpack on the floor just inside the door. "This is the living room." It was a big room on the same side of the hall as his room; both overlooked the street. "This is the bathroom, that's my bedroom, and this," she added unnecessarily, because the door was open and he could see into it, "is the kitchen."
"Have you any particular food preferences?" she asked. "Sorry, I should have thought of that before."
"No, I can eat anything," he said. "I'm not over-fond of things like hamburgers - too much grease - but that doesn't mean I won't eat them, even enjoy them occasionally. But mostly I go for healthy eating."
She grinned. "Then that makes two of us. I didn't always bother, but Gloria nagged me into it. Now it's habit."
She turned into the kitchen, filled the kettle and plugged it in. "Coffee?"
She took a jar of instant coffee from the cupboard and Blair resigned himself to a too-weak, not really coffee-tasting brew. Finding a shop that sold herbal tea was clearly going to come high on his list of things to do the next day.
Jerry Taggert hugged the brother who had just entered his office, then gripped his shoulders and held him at arm's length, studying him. "Hey, it's good to see you, man! Whoa - you've lost weight, haven't you!"
Beaming, Joel Taggert nodded. "The doctor told me I had to lose weight - it was either that or lose my job. Hell, I've been telling myself that for long enough, I knew I was too damn' heavy - I just needed a good kick to get me started. Wasn't that hard once I did start, mark you - just had to cut out a lot of the fat, you know? Ate my last Wonderburger six months ago, and it's surprising how little I miss 'em."
"Well, you're looking good."
"Man, I feel good. So - you all set for a couple of weeks lazing around?"
"Amn't I just! Talk about overworked - we really need at least six more bodies in the department, even our boss says that, but can we get 'em? Nope."
"Budget restrictions?" Joel asked sympathetically.
Jerry nodded. "Budget restrictions," he agreed. "And then they complain that we don't do enough for the people we're trying to rehabilitate. What we need is give those folk time several days a week, not just an hour once a week! We need to encourage them by spending time with them, letting them see they're important to somebody... I've got three dozen men I'm working with - even the ones who are really trying get discouraged, dammit!"
Joel nodded. "I know what you mean. We're working shorthanded right now - one of our top men was killed back in April, and his partner - actually an observer, but he was a damn' good detective - didn't come back to the precinct, and left Cascade close on two weeks ago; they haven't been replaced. Well, Blair wasn't paid, but what he did was saving the department a man's wages. Now the Mayor is complaining that our success rate has dropped - what the hell else does he expect?"
"Yeah - conscientiousness is all very well, but it doesn't pay the bills or keep us from getting over-tired. Still - we've both got a fortnight off, and I for one mean to make the most of it. I've finished up here - " He began to lead Joel towards the door. "I've got just one visit to make on the way home - sad case - guy with amnesia. The cops who picked him up thought at first it was a mugging, but it was more than that - looked like a revenge attack. Whoever it was really cut up his back, and because he doesn't know his name and we haven't been able to identify him - nobody's reported anyone answering his description missing - he's had to get state medical care, and you know how basic that can be. He's been working at getting himself fully fit again, but it's been an uphill battle for him because his back muscles were so badly cut up. We haven't found out yet what skills he might have - found him a job in a sports shop, but he's clearly wasted there."
As he spoke, they reached the road and Joel led the way to his car.
Jerry directed his brother through the streets to the gloomy apartment building that housed several of Tacoma's welfare recipients. "Yeah," Jerry said, seeing Joel's expression. "It's pretty hellish, but it's better'n sleeping in the streets. Want to come up?"
Joel hesitated. "Will the car be OK here?"
"At this time of day, yes, it should be. However - " He indicated a couple of youngsters sitting on the sidewalk nearby. "We might as well have a bit of insurance. Those kids know me; we can use them. Hey, lads!" he called. "Ten each for keeping an eye on the car."
"You got it, man," one of them said.
Jerry led his brother up the dingy stair. "Like I said, this guy's a John Doe. We had to give him a name, and he came up with Nimmo - John Nimmo. Said it was as close to Nemo - unknown - as he could think of." He shrugged. "He's clearly been well educated, and it shows in little things like that. Keeps his house spotless, too. He's probably been in an academic kind of job, but if so, even his bosses haven't bothered to report him missing. That's the really weird thing - that nobody's missed him. He was picked up about three months ago. You'd think in that time somebody would have missed him."
He stopped at a door and knocked. After a moment the door was opened. The man inside the house was only a vague shadow in the unlit hallway.
"Hello, John." Jerry entered, Joel following. Nimmo closed the door and followed them into the living room.
Joel saw instantly what his brother had meant. The place was indeed clean and tidy - something he would not have expected in an area like this. He turned to look at the man they had come to visit - and froze.
Nimmo looked at him; recognition slowly dawning in his eyes.
Jerry Taggert stared in astonishment as his brother threw his arms round 'Nimmo' in an embrace that was desperately reciprocated.
At last the two men drew slightly apart and looked at each other.
Jerry said, "Joel? You know John?"
Joel Taggert glanced at his brother. "Jerry, this is Jim Ellison - Cascade's cop of the year two years in a row, and in line for this year's award too till we thought he was killed." He returned his attention to the man whose arms he still gripped as if keeping him from disappearing again. "What the hell happened, Jim? The last we knew, you went into that house after the kids. We thought you were dead; the house... After they got the fire out, there was nothing in there but ash. The firemen said it was a helluva hot fire."
"I remember," Ellison said slowly. "I remember now... It was a trap, though it wasn't actually directed at anyone in particular, and obviously there was no guarantee that anyone would go in after those kids - would be able to go in after them. I got to them all right - but they weren't alone, there was a man with them, their father. I thought they were all trapped, turned to lead them back the way I'd gone in - by then the fire was pretty fierce, and I knew we'd have to be fast - and then something hit me on the head. When I came round... " He shrugged. "It was obvious that I was being held prisoner, though I couldn't work out why. Then another man came in, with two or three others following him. One of them was the man who'd been in the building with the kids. They never did say how they got out, got me out, without being seen, but I'd guess there was an exit from the cellars.
"The one who was clearly the boss... I reckon he was insane. He said the cops and the fire department had let his family burn to death and he wanted - needed - the blood of one of the men who had failed them 'to set their spirits free'. The fact that I didn't know what he was talking about, and I'd gone into a serious fire to rescue a couple of kids - kids whose lives he'd risked - he didn't seem to regard as relevant." He was silent for a moment, "Joel, from what he said, I don't think the original fire was even in Cascade. But he set his trap there, in a derelict house he knew, because he knew the man he placed in it to capture a rescuer would have an escape route from it. He let that much slip.
"I think he was meaning to beat me to death... " He looked at Jerry. "Perhaps he thought he had, and he just dumped my 'body' on the street as the easiest way to get rid of it... The doctor did say I was unconscious for six days."
"And the men with him?" Joel asked.
"They were afraid of him. Terrified past rationality. The one who was in the house... He spoke to me one day. Apologised." His lips twisted in a wry smile. "He said he had to risk his own life, his kids' lives, because his boss was holding his wife and she was going to be the blood sacrifice if he hadn't... and if nobody had gone in, he would have died there and his kids with him, because if he didn't capture someone, it was the only thing that might save his wife. All of the men... they all knew that someone close to them would suffer, and suffer badly, if they failed him. Obviously they were more willing to see a stranger suffer than risk one of their own."
"Obviously," Joel agreed, a dry bitterness in his voice.
"We're not in Cascade, are we?" Jim asked. "Someone at the hospital would have recognised me if we were."
"No, this is Tacoma," Joel said.
Something suddenly seemed to occur to Ellison. "Blair? Joel, how's Blair?"
Joel drew a deep breath. "He's gone, Jim."
"He left Cascade a fortnight ago. Said he was heading for New York."
"Oh, god. Joel, I've got to find him."
Taggert nodded. "I reckon everyone will be willing to work all sorts of overtime to help you track him down." He looked at his brother. "Sorry, Jerry; the vacation's off. We've got Ellison's partner to find."
Of course, it wasn't quite as simple as just leaving Tacoma; with 'John Nimmo' now identified, Ellison had to arrange for his insurance to pay his medical bills, and that alone posed a problem since as far as the insurance company was concerned, James J Ellison was three months deceased.
While Jim was speaking to the insurance company, Joel phoned Cascade PD.
"This is Captain Taggert - Captain Banks, please..."
"Yes, sir. Is it important?"
Switchboard staff! Joel though impatiently. "Yes, it's important! I'm on vacation, I wouldn't be phoning him if it wasn't important! "
"Well, sir, he's in conference with the Mayor and the Chief of Police right now, and - "
"I don't care if he's in conference with the President, I need a word with him now!"
There was a brief pause, then, "Banks. Taggert, this had better be something really worth interrupting me!"
"Simon, it's Ellison. He's here in Tacoma - alive."
Silence. Then, "What did you say?"
"Jim Ellison, Simon. He was picked up unconscious off the street in Tacoma as a mugging victim a couple of weeks after we thought he was killed, but he couldn't remember anything. Who he was, anything. My brother Jerry's in the welfare office here, and after I arrived he had this John Doe to visit; I went with him - and it's Jim. All he needed to get his memory back was a familiar face. I'm bringing him back to Cascade just as soon as we get the paperwork dealt with. At the moment he's having trouble with his insurance company - he's trying to get his medical bills sorted out before he leaves here. The fact that he's sitting in the office of the Tacoma branch trying to stay polite doesn't seem to be enough to convince them that he's alive; they have the paperwork that says he's dead. He doesn't have any paperwork that says Jim Ellison is alive - all they have is his word, and mine, that he is Jim Ellison, and it's not enough to satisfy them. Though I think his medical bills should be covered by our department since he was... you could say injured, in the line of duty. If I can get the hospitals involved to phone you for clearance on that, we can get away from Tacoma that much quicker."
"Yes - and you're right - this news is too good to delay passing on. Thanks, Joel. Oh god - Sandburg! Does anyone know exactly where he went?"
"If he didn't tell you, Simon, he didn't tell anyone. 'New York' was all he said to me."
"Yeah, me too. And I've my doubts that he went there. OK, just get Jim back here as soon as you can."
"Will do, man."
Simon put down the phone and looked at the two men in his office. "Jim Ellison is alive, gentlemen. He's in Tacoma, and he's been suffering from amnesia. That's all I know right now." He looked at the Chief of Police. "I'll give you a full report after I speak with him."
Warren nodded. "You mentioned Sandburg? That's the observer who was working with Ellison, isn't it?"
"Yes, and a real asset to the department. He was shattered when Ellison was lost in that fire - well, you know what it can be like with partners, sir; how close they can get. Even though Sandburg was a civilian, the two of them were just as much partners as any two cops would have been.
"He's a civilian, he wasn't even paid for the work he did here. When he decided to leave Cascade, there was nothing we could do to hold him."
Warren nodded, remembering, as he so often did, a partner he had lost years previously and still missed. "Do whatever is necessary to find him."
"Yes, sir!" Banks knew they would have done that anyway, but it was nice to have his superior's blessing, and know that they would not be accused of wasting time when they went about the search. "If I may have a minute? I'd like to let my people know about Jim right away."
"Right," Alice said unnecessarily, straightening from the newly-reinstalled phone. "That's Gloria's number fed in to memory. It can take nine more - do you have any you want programmed in?"
"No," Blair said. "There's no real point, anyway - I'll be moving on soon."
"I wish you wouldn't."
"Alice, I'm not the right partner for you."
"Maybe not, but you're the only one I've got right now," she reminded him.
He nodded. "I know," he said, "and I'll do what I can to advise you how to keep control. But you really need to find a proper partner. She would be able to help you just by being there... as far as I've been able to discover."
"And how do I find her?" she asked, a little bitterly. "Put an ad in the paper? 'Sentinel with runaway senses needs a partner. Must be female. No prior experience needed'." She gave a wry laugh. "I couldn't, anyway. All ads have to be equal opportunity. You can't specify male or female any more - it's illegal. Sexist. Hell, you hear about people getting into trouble for an ad that says, 'Man wanted for a job that involves heavy lifting'."
"An ad wouldn't accomplish much," he agreed. "And it doesn't help that it's best if you keep your abilities secret. Can you imagine what would happen if one of those scientists who study people with psychic abilities got to hear about you? Instant lab rat."
"On the other hand, being a lab rat mightn't be so bad. Surely they'd try to find some way for me to control my senses."
"Yes, but for their own purposes. Not a good idea, Alice, believe me. If you are going to use your senses - and from my studies I think you'll find you're impelled to - you'll have to look for a job with - say - the police. On the streets where you can use your senses...but only if - "
" - I can find my 'proper partner'. Yes, you keep on saying that. And she'd have to be in the police too, and we'd have to be assigned to work together. There are a lot of ifs there, Blair."
"I know. Of course, it doesn't have to be the police - you go hill-walking, you said - you could volunteer to join a search and rescue team." He sighed. "It was so much simpler in the tribes I visited - or it had been, in the past. Even the tribes that still clung to their traditional ways were being corrupted to some degree. Westernised. Getting hold of steel knives, for example. The young people in particular were looking to a way of life that they perceived as being easier than 'the old ways'. Maybe that's why none of them had sentinels any more. From what I was told, from what it says in Burton, it wasn't the easiest of lives for either the sentinel or the partner."
After a moment, she said quietly, "So why did they do it?"
"I think... I think perhaps they couldn't help themselves. Once they knew, really knew, what they were... sense of responsibility, the urge to help their tribe, kicked in..." It was hitting too close to home, and he changed the subject slightly. "Why do some people become active in charity work, while others don't seem to care other than maybe giving the occasional donation? Why, historically, did some people become actively involved in - oh, freeing the slaves, or stopping children being sent down coal mines or up chimneys, while almost everyone else saw these things as just the way things were. Why did some rich men devote their energies to amassing more wealth than they could ever find a use for, while others became philanthropists, using much of their money to improve life for other people? I think some people are genetically motivated to help others, whatever form that need to help takes."
She thought about that for a moment. "I see where you're going... but Blair, what real use are heightened senses in today's world, in today's cities?"
He should have known she wouldn't let it go. "That's why I said 'police'. Investigating crimes, things like that. Heightened senses could be a great instrument to help find out who the criminal was... I would think," he added hastily. "Though obviously you'd have to find corroborating evidence. 'I could smell his sweat at the scene of the crime; yes, I know it was his - everyone's sweat smells different' - yeah, how credible would that sound in court?"
She laughed. "I see what you mean. It's something that could be proved, but you're back to lab rat again."
"Exactly. And while the rat is in the lab, it's not out helping others."
For some reason, that analogy seemed to hit home where nothing else had; she suddenly looked very thoughtful.
After a light lunch, Blair went to his bedroom to unpack. He paused at the door and looked round it. "Alice?"
"Yes?" She looked out from the living room.
"Would you mind if I rearranged the furniture a little?"
Sometimes he wondered why he never really liked sleeping in a bed with its head against the wall, and the rest of it sticking out into the middle of the room; but he had long ceased to worry that it said something deeply significant about him, so now he pulled the bed round until one side was against the wall; and instantly felt more relaxed. His few books were placed carefully on the bedside table, his laptop beside them. His few clothes went into a drawer; he grunted as he put them away, knowing that very soon he would have to get them washed; he was almost out of clean underwear.
He looked round the room.
It was hardly bigger than his room in the loft, but even he had to admit that the lack of all his academic clutter made it look a lot larger. Not that that mattered, any more than anything at all had mattered since... April. He wouldn't be staying here that long; he'd give her till the end of August, he decided, then move on at the beginning of September.
It would be easy to stay; Alice needed the help that only he could give her. But he didn't want to put down even the shallowest of roots anywhere. For despite everything, he had begun to realise that for the first time in his life he was just a little homesick. Despite everything, Cascade was calling to him.
Despite his anxiety to return to Cascade, it was several days before Jim could leave Tacoma; he had several sessions at the PD with Joel in silent support, talking to Harris and O'Rourke - even Captain Ythan had joined one of those sessions; but there was little he could remember that was going to be helpful. He had no idea where he had been held prisoner, and he had heard no names; he had heard his captors talking together once or twice, but even then no names had been used. A day spent checking mug shots proved abortive. Several hours spent driving around the area where he had been found produced no result - though as Jim pointed out, if his body was dumped to get rid of it, it was probably going to be dumped some distance from where he had been held. A check with the fire department produced no information on anyone whose family had died in a fire through anything that even the most paranoid survivor could interpret as negligence.
Finally, however, they were able to leave. As they drove towards Cascade, Ellison said slowly, "Joel - Blair left, you said. Have you any idea what he did about the loft?"
"He said that as he was just going away for a year, he'd decided to rent it, furnished, so he'd have it to come back to. Simon picked up the lease."
"Simon? But... So he has a lease for a year."
"Well, not necessarily. From something Simon said, I think the lease is short-term; Blair got it properly drawn up by a lawyer. He decides to come back early, the tenant has a month to find somewhere else. But Simon's also been looking for a permanent move - you know how desperate he's been to get away from his old house - and Blair knew that when Simon found one he'd move immediately. I think Simon's got something to do with the leasing, though, so he'd be finding a new tenant for the loft."
"Yeah. Well, I'm not about to chuck Simon out on the street, even if I could. We'll manage something."
They drove in silence for several miles.
"That was what he said." Taggert knew immediately what Jim was referring to.
"D'you think he meant it? That he would come back?"
Joel sighed. "Jim, I don't know. Hell, you know what the kid's like. He could have meant it. He could have meant it at the time but changed his mind later. He could have gone on anywhere and he could very well find something or somewhere interesting enough between now and then to keep him from coming back. He could have just been saying it to keep us from trying to persuade him not to move away permanently."
"Even if he meant it, though, I'm not willing to leave him thinking I'm dead a minute longer than necessary. Is there any sort of trail we can follow?"
"He told everyone he was going to New York."
Ellison grunted. "And from there, like you said, he could have gone anywhere."
Taggert nodded. "Reckon he meant us to think that's where he'd be, but I don't think I'm the only one who didn't really believe he meant to stay there."
"I wonder if Naomi knows anything?"
"No," Joel said. "She doesn't. She turned up a couple of days after he left, obviously expecting to see him. He hadn't contacted her, but she did promise Simon she'd let us know if he did. But she didn't really sound surprised - it was more like, 'I knew Blair would eventually realise this wasn't the life for him, especially with Jim gone'. She didn't even seem particularly concerned that he hadn't let her know what he was doing. 'Why should he?' she asked. 'He's a grown man. He doesn't have to account to me for his every move'."
They fell silent again as the miles passed.
Taggert glanced sideways at Ellison, gauging his condition as they drove into Cascade. "Do you want to go to the PD first, get that over with?" What he hadn't told Jim was that he'd arranged with Simon that they would go there first, and told him approximately when to expect them.
"Well, I'd better, since at the moment I'll be depending on Simon's goodwill for a bed," Jim said, but it was clear from his tone that he was, if not entirely joking, at least half joking.
Joel pulled into the PD garage, and they got out. Jim took a deep breath, and as they headed for Major Crimes, he deliberately lowered the dials on his senses, guessing that things would be noisy when they got there; having one of their own literally returned from the dead was likely to cause some reaction.
The moment they walked into the bullpen, it was clear to him that this was a moment everyone had been waiting for.
Although under Blair's influence Jim had mellowed a lot from the tough-loner-cop-with-attitude that he had been in the days post-Pendergrast to immediately pre-Sandburg, although in the past two-and-a-bit years he had developed a casually friendly acquaintance with most of his fellow detectives, even socialising occasionally with a few of them, although he had expected a lot of noise, Jim was more than surprised by the exuberance of the welcome he received. While he had not thought of himself as being actually disliked, he had never considered himself well-liked, let alone popular; it seemed he had been deceiving himself. He was instantly surrounded by what, later, he could only describe as a seething mass of bodies; pretty well everyone seemed to want to touch him, as if to make sure he was actually there. Then Simon was standing in front of him, and it was obvious that Simon - Simon - wanted to hug him, and he moved instantly into that hug, clinging to Simon as a lifeline in much the same way as he had clung to Joel just a few days earlier. After three months of being nobody, with even the social worker assigned to him too busy to give him much attention, it was more comforting than he would ever have thought to be accepted so enthusiastically back into his own environment; to know that here he was known, he was someone, he was accepted - and most of all, he had been missed.
Leaving Joel to explain just what had happened, Simon led Jim to his office, stood aside to let him enter - and Stephen was waiting there, and his father, and as they caught him into a three-way embrace he knew that finally he could let the past go and for the first time in close on thirty years accept and believe that he had a family who loved him.
"The dials are the key to control," Blair said patiently.
Unlike Jim, who had latched onto the convenience of the dials almost immediately, Alice clearly had difficulty controlling them - but Alice was not the anal-retentive, already-controlled person that Jim had been. She could turn the dials down relatively easily, but she was having problems keeping them turned down.
At last he said, "I think you're getting tired."
"I am, a bit," she said. She gave a wry chuckle. "I'd never have thought that just looking at things and listening and trying to taste things could be so tiring."
He smiled sympathetically. "I know. But it would be relatively easy with your proper partner, and you'd be able to do more, because she could centre you." He held up his hands. "Yeah, yeah, I know, you're sick of hearing me say that."
"Well, you have to admit it's not very helpful. You don't even really know if it's true - it's just something you inferred from your reading."
He nodded his agreement; "I know; I'm sorry." What he could have added, though he carefully did not, was that he knew it was true; his sentinel had been able to do so much more, control so much more easily, than Alice could, simply because his guide was another man.
She got up. "Want a coffee?"
"I'd rather have some of my tea, thanks." Once had been enough of the instant coffee that Alice normally drank. He was already getting up as she said,
"You'd better come and make it yourself, then - I'm not sure I get it right. You make it yourself, you can only blame yourself if it's the wrong strength."
"Now all I ever said was, 'Could you leave it longer next time, it's a little weak'," Blair protested.
A few minutes later they returned to the living room with their cups. As they sat again, even Blair heard the sound of a train moving onto the bridge and heading south towards Fife. Alice put her cup on the table.
"It's going to rain," she said absently.
Alice sighed. "When I was a child, we lived not terribly far from Mrs Cairncross's. A little nearer the river. We could sometimes hear trains on the bridge, and when we did, we knew it was going to rain."
"Low pressure," Blair murmured and sipped his tea.
"Yes, I know that now. But for me as a child it was magic. A never-failing way to forecast rain... It was something I missed... when I went to Edinburgh..." Her voice faded away as her eyes blanked.
"Alice? Alice!" Hastily, he put down his cup and moved to her side. He touched her arm. "Alice. Turn down your hearing. Stop trying to hear the train. It's gone. You don't need to hear it. Come back. Alice."
Nothing. No response. He tried everything that had ever worked to bring Jim out of a zone; it was useless.
If he had needed any proof that he was not the best guide for Alice, this would have been it.
He sank into his chair, studying her.
What to do for the best? Wait for a while, in the hope that she would come out of the zone on her own? But the longer he waited, the more difficult it would be to explain why he had done nothing if she remained... well, unconscious.
He glanced at the clock. Nearly half an hour. How long could he safely wait, to see if she could come back herself? How long would be reasonable?
He tried once more. "Alice, you need to come back now. The train's gone. Not even you can hear it any more."
With a muttered curse, he reached for the phone.
He went with her to the hospital; when she was taken for assessment Blair was called to the admissions window to give details.
"Alice - no, Alicia - Bannerman... widow... fourteen Bellefield Avenue... Date of birth? I'm afraid I don't know. She's around thirty, I think, but I don't know for certain. I'm just renting a room from her for a couple of weeks."
"Have you any idea about her next of kin?"
"She did say her parents were dead, and she hasn't mentioned any siblings."
"She said she'd be starting at Aber... Aber...?"
"Yes. In the fall. As a mature student."
Grunt. "And what's wrong with her?"
He gave what details he could, able to stick to the truth - that they had been sitting talking, when she suddenly went into this fugue state.
"I shook her in case she'd just fallen asleep, then thought she'd maybe fainted, so I waited a little while in the hope that she would come round, then when it became obvious that she wasn't going to, I called an ambulance."
The girl taking down the details nodded. "I don't suppose you know her doctor?"
"Right. And your name?"
"Blair - " He stopped himself just in time. "James Blair."
"Right, Mr Blair. If you'd care to take a seat, one of the doctors will have a word with you once Mrs Bannerman has been examined."
It was nearly two hours before he was called.
The doctor had a tired, overworked look about him, and Blair said sympathetically, "Long shift?"
He nodded, then shrugged. "I knew when I got the job what the hours were. Anyway. I understand you came in with Mrs Bannerman, that you're staying with her?"
Blair nodded. "Yes. I'm not, like, a boyfriend or anything - I'm just a friend."
"Well, Mr Blair, I have to say we have no idea what's wrong with Mrs Bannerman. So we're admitting her for observation. You said she was talking to you and suddenly went into this coma-like state?"
"Had she eaten or drunk anything recently?"
"No. She'd just made herself a cup of coffee, but she hadn't drunk any of it."
"You said 'made herself a cup of coffee'. What about you? Didn't you have one?"
"I don't care for the instant coffee she likes, so I'd made myself some herbal tea. Alice wouldn't make it for me because she could never get the strength right."
"So you were in the kitchen together. She didn't eat anything while she was in there? A biscuit, perhaps?"
"Biscuit?" Blair was puzzled for a split second. "Oh, a cookie. No. Nothing."
"What has she eaten today?"
"She just had coffee for breakfast, using a jar of instant that was about half empty. I had tea and some toast. We both had kedgeree for lunch then yoghurt - a big pot we split between us."
"So she hasn't eaten anything you haven't."
"That's right," Blair agreed, wishing it was feasible to explain zoning to the doctor.
"And you're feeling all right? No dizziness, faintness, anything like that?"
"I'm feeling fine."
"All right, Mr Blair. Now, it'll be anything between half an hour and an hour before Mrs Bannerman is settled in the ward, so I'd suggest you go home. Visiting hours are between 3 and 8 every day, and she'll be in ward 12."
Blair said, "I'll probably look in tomorrow. Thanks. Oh - "
"I don't know about medical insurance or anything either."
The doctor smiled. "That's not a problem. You're American, aren't you? You've to pay for hospital treatment, don't you?"
"Usually. There are some free hospitals..."
"Well, we've got the NHS here. It's not to say you can't pay for treatment if you want to jump the queues a bit, but nobody, nobody at all, has to." He grinned. "The Queen could get NHS treatment if she wanted."
Blair smiled, only half appreciating what the doctor clearly meant as a joke, then turned and walked away.
He reached the apartment just as the rain started.
Inside, he looked at the time. Nearly 9 o'clock. Not too late to phone.
He punched the memory button he had watched Alice programming.
"Is that Gloria?"
"Yes." The voice sounded friendly, but quietly wary.
"My name's Blair. I've been staying for a day or two with Alice - Alice Bannerman."
"Well... I thought you'd want to know she collapsed unconscious this evening. When I couldn't revive her, I called an ambulance. I'm just back from the hospital. The doctors don't know what's wrong with her, so they're keeping her in."
"Where is she?"
"Ninewells Hospital, ward 12. If you want to come to Dundee I can meet you - "
"I'll have to check the train times and see about getting off work, but I'll be in Dundee tomorrow. I'll phone and let you know when my train gets in."
"Do you have the number?" He was sure she did.
"Yes, Alice gave me it."
He hung up, then picked up the two cups still sitting on the table and took them to the kitchen. He washed them as he waited for the kettle to boil; made himself another cup of chamomile tea and went back to the living room.
He sank into the chair he normally used with a long, deep sigh.
He was filled with self-doubt, for he had completely failed a sentinel.
Was it just chance that all the pairings he knew of had been same-gender? Perhaps a male-female pairing, while rare, was perfectly possible. How could he know for sure? If he had been less reluctant, would it have made any difference? Could a willingness on his part to accept a permanent partnership with another sentinel, a female sentinel, have altered things, made Alice more susceptible to his call? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Blair had genuinely believed that he was not Alice Bannerman's proper guide; he had genuinely believed he was the wrong sex to be her proper guide; but he was the only one she had. The only person who knew what she was, who knew how to help her. He had failed her. On the face of it, that meant he had been right; but was it simply that he was not a proper guide at all? Had he simply been fooling himself for nearly three years? He and Jim had been a good partnership; he could accept that even in his depressed state of mind. But might Jim have been more successful with a different guide? He shook his head. How could he ever know, now?
He had been the only guide Alice had. He had failed to bring her out of a zone.
He had been the only guide Jim had. He had pulled Jim out of zones several times and if he was fair to himself he had to admit nobody else could - at least as easily.
Incacha had passed the Way of the Shaman on to him; Incacha must have seen some potential in him.
But - no matter how often he had told Alice he was not her real partner, he was aware that he had still failed a sentinel. If he was half a guide he should have been able to pull her out of her zone. Somehow.
At last he drank his half-cold tea, and went to bed.
Next morning he began reading through Burton, hoping desperately to find something, anything, about the responsibilities of a guide that he might have missed, even although, over the years, he had studied the book so intensively that he had practically memorised it.
He was so deep in Burton that he completely forgot the time, and when the phone rang he jumped, his heart racing. He took a couple of deep breaths as he went to pick it up.
"It's Gloria. My train gets into Dundee just after half past two."
"OK, I'll meet you at the station. You'll know me easily enough - just look for the short geek with long hair." It was a description of himself he'd heard several times when people thought he wasn't listening, and it seemed as good as any.
"That's not exactly what Alice said when she told me about you," Gloria said quietly.
He hadn't realised that Alice had told her friend about him.
"She also said she had a lot to tell me when she saw me again, but that you were giving her a lot of help with something that seemed to have her worried - but she said she couldn't speak about it on the phone."
"Oh. Yes. Let's just say I do know what's wrong with her, but I can't - I just can't tell the doctors. They wouldn't understand, but even if they believed me, it wouldn't help Alice. I'll... tell you about it when I see you."
"Right. Half past two."
He ran his fingers through his hair. Although guides didn't normally zone, he practically had, he was concentrating so hard. But he mustn't miss picking up Gloria... Alarm clock! He went to his room and retrieved his alarm clock, setting it for 2. That would give him half an hour to get to the station.
Then he turned back to Burton.
Alice was roughly his own height. Gloria was rather smaller, almost painfully thin, with a brisk, no-nonsense and very serious attitude; observer of human nature that he was, Blair's first impression was of someone who had suffered considerable emotional trauma but refused to let it affect her; and he remembered Alice saying how understanding Gloria had been.
Because she had been there too? It seemed quite possible.
Although there was a reasonably convenient bus, they took a cab to the hospital; Gloria was anxious to see Alice with as little delay as possible, and this let them reach Ninewells just before three; by the time they had walked through the reception area and along the corridors and down the stairs to the ward, it was three and visitors were being allowed in.
A helpful nurse directed them to Alice's bed. She was linked to a drip and a catheter, and looked very peaceful.
"Alice?" Blair said softly. "Gloria's here, Alice." But there was no response.
They pulled up chairs, and sat at the bedside; Gloria took Alice's hand and began rubbing it gently, then said, "All right, Blair. Tell me."
"I'm a student. During my studies, I came across mention of people who had heightened senses - they could hear and see better than anyone else, and they acted as guardians for their tribes. The most gifted of them had heightened touch, taste and sense of smell as well. They were known as sentinels."
"Right." She sounded fractionally doubtful, but willing to carry on listening.
"These heightened senses were usually triggered when someone genetically predisposed to have them spent time alone in a potentially hostile environment, or even in a safe environment but with no human contact to distract them from what they could sense."
"I'm with you."
"You couldn't get away, but you insisted that Alice took her holiday anyway."
"Yes. There was no reason she had to lose out just because I was tied up unexpectedly."
"She had a week on her own in the hills, not seeing anyone. It triggered those senses. She's a full sentinel.
"The senses can sort of run amok if there's too much input, and the sentinels always had a... a partner to help them, to ground them."
"Like Superman's kryptonite," she said. "There's always a downside, a weakness, a vulnerability, to go with the advantages."
"Yes. I knew enough to help her a little, told her how to dial down the intensity, but she could never do it automatically. That was why I was staying with her - I was trying to help her learn that automatic control.
"Yesterday, though... There are two ways a sentinel can overload. The input gets so intense it hurts - that's when the input has to be dialled down. Or he can be concentrating so hard with one sense to detect something faint that he loses contact with his surroundings, and that's what's happened here. She was listening to a train crossing the bridge. It reminded her of her childhood, she said, and she kept listening to it... even when it got too faint for her to hear. She's still trying to hear it.
"I tried, but I couldn't pull her out of it."
"What will pull her out of it?"
"A sentinel's partner could do it easily just by speaking to him, making him - or in this case, her - use another sense. Alice zoned on hearing. Theoretically, touch should bring her out of it. Or smell. But I tried those before I called the ambulance. None of them worked - not for me. Neither has the attention she's had from the staff here, and heaven knows hospital smells should catch a sentinel's attention.
"But you see why I can't tell the doctors? I could show them the book I got all my information from and they'd still think I was crazy. Because that sort of thing belongs to primitive, therefore superstitious cultures, not modern, materialistic Western man; Burton was fooled into believing it all because he was living in the unenlightened nineteenth century, not the educated twentieth."
Gloria ignored the touch of bitterness in his voice. "How were these partners selected?"
Blair shook his head. "Burton was only really interested in the sentinels; he only gave a passing mention to the partners. At least... in what's been published. After he died, his wife burned a lot of his unpublished writings. Maybe there was information on the partners in what she burned."
"Let me get this right. This Burton gathered a lot of information about these... sentinels?" Blair nodded, and she went on. "Some of it was published... last century?" He nodded again. "Which means it's all out of print today?"
"Pretty well," Blair said. "But it's still possible to pick up the books secondhand. Not easy, but possible."
"I suppose it would be. But either he didn't bother gathering information on the partners or he didn't bother incorporating it in his books or it was there, maybe ready to be published as another book, and his widow destroyed it."
"But... If it was ready to publish, why burn it? Wouldn't it have represented some additional income for her?"
"Good point. But some of what he wrote was considered... improper... at the time he was writing it. Remember, the Victorian age was one of considerable outward respectability."
"So what was he writing that was so improper?"
"He... er... had a more liberal view of sexuality than was common in those days."
"You mean sentinels and their partners might have had a homosexual relationship?"
"It's possible. It's equally possible that they didn't, but he interpreted it that way. I've spoken to men whose tribes have had sentinels inside living memory, and while they didn't mention sex as part of the relationship, they did stress how close the relationship was. Wives were never mentioned."
"It would make sense," Gloria said slowly. "If sentinels and their partners were regarded as so important, everyone else would back away from them in awe. Like it or not, they mightn't have anyone but each other."
They had been so intent on their conversation they had almost forgotten the unconscious woman they were officially visiting, although Gloria had been holding her hand the entire time. Now, Alice was struggling to sit up.
"What...?" She looked at Blair, the person who had been able to give her answers. "What happened?"
"I told you about the zone-out factor."
"Well, you zoned, big time, on the train going over the bridge. I couldn't pull you out of it in half an hour. But we've been here maybe ten minutes, just talking, with Gloria holding your hand. Even without her knowing anything about all of this, I think her presence pulled you out of the zone.
"Gloria is your partner; I should have realised that when you told me what good friends you were."
He stood. "I'd better get the nurse... Just remember, we were sitting in the house talking, and then you woke up here. We don't need to say anything about you trying to hear the train all the way to Edinburgh."
As he left the bay, heading for the nurses' station, Gloria said quietly, "He's right, you know."
Alice nodded. "I know."
When Jim finally re-emerged into the bullpen, his father and brother behind him, Simon was waiting for him. Everyone else had returned to work, giving him the space they clearly realised he needed. He gave the taller man a grateful smile. "Thanks, Simon."
"You're welcome, Jim. Now, what are you planning on doing?"
He glanced apologetically at his father, who had made it clear that he would be welcome to return permanently to his childhood home. "Joel said you've got a lease on the loft?"
"Yes, but I'm looking for someplace else. There's a good possibility I'm looking into at the moment. But hell, it's your home, Jim. If necessary I can move into a hotel for a week or two."
"No, no. Blair gave you the lease in good faith. The least I can do is honour it. But if there's a spare bed there... "
Simon chuckled. "You know there is. And that's roughly what Blair said; that if he came home before I found somewhere, we could share for a while. No reason why you and I can't."
"You've taken the upstairs room?"
"Well, yes - it's the bigger bed."
"That's OK. I don't mind sleeping in Blair's bed." And his scent should still be on it. God, Chief - where are you? He turned to his father. "Don't think I don't appreciate your offer, too, Dad; but the loft is my home."
William Ellison nodded. "I see that. And I understand."
Simon handed Jim a key. "Go on - get yourself home. I'll see you tonight."
"I'll take you home," Stephen said.
Jim nodded. "Thanks, Steve. I... Thanks."
Everyone in the bullpen jumped at the sharp, triumphant exclamation from Brown's desk, swinging round to look towards him.
Brown finished his telephone conversation, hung up, and looked triumphantly round the room. "That was the airport," he said. "Hairboy booked a flight to Glasgow."
"But he said New York," Rafe protested. "That's why we've been concentrating on there... "
"He had to change planes there."
"The little shit!" Rafe muttered.
"Hadn't anyone tried the airport before?" Jim asked. A night's sleep in the familiar surroundings of the loft, after a long evening spent talking with Simon, had gone a long way towards restoring the normal quiet self-control he had come so close to losing the day before.
"Not until you suggested that he'd been trying to mislead us," Brown replied gloomily. "We didn't think he'd lie to us."
Jim shook his head. "Not an outright lie," he said. "Just one of his obfuscations."
"He could have gone anywhere from Glasgow," Simon said slowly from the door of his office, "but it gives us a starting point."
"Britain's not that big." Rafe, who had never been to any part of Europe, was considering maps.
"Big enough." Jim, in his army days had visited Britain. He thought for a moment. "I'm going after him. Simon - do you know if my passport is still at the loft? It didn't look as if Blair dumped any of my stuff, but... "
"It's still there. Got to be. Blair couldn't bring himself to dump anything of yours before he left. I told him I'd clear your stuff for him if he wanted, before he got back, and I would have done it, but... well, I was delaying too."
"Thank God for that. Rhonda - "
"Would you phone the airport and get me a flight to Glasgow, tomorrow morning if possible, if not, then the earliest flight available."
"Wait a minute, you can't go alone!" Simon exclaimed. "I'd come, but I doubt I could get off... "
"I've got time due," Brown offered.
"I'm still on leave," Joel pointed out. He might still be officially on vacation, but there was no way he was willing to be left out of the bullpen's search for Blair. "And I was the one who found Jim."
There was no possible reply to that, and Joel grinned. "Two tickets, Rhonda."
"They'll have to be one-way since we don't know how long we'll be," Jim added.
Taggert glanced at Simon, who said quietly, "You've got it, Joel. As much time as you need - I'll swing it for you, but I doubt it'll be hard to do - Chief Warren understands."
"Thanks," Joel said.
Rhonda picked up the phone.
Because by then they were in the height of the holiday season, the earliest flight they could get was four days later, by chance the same overnight one that Blair had taken - and even then they had to travel first class.
They relaxed in the unaccustomed comfort of wide seats and plenty of leg space as they flew across the Atlantic, talking spasmodically about the search to come. They dealt with the formalities relatively quickly and walked out of the airport building.
"Now... what would Sandburg have done?" Ellison muttered. "Transport... "
Taggert nodded towards a bus with Airport... Central Station... Queen Street... Buchanan Bus Station clearly marked on its side. "That's the cheapest way."
Ellison nodded. "Let's go."
In the bus, Joel said, "I wonder where Blair got off?"
"Mmm... we've a choice of three places."
"The bus is still probably the cheapest," Joel suggested.
"Right. He's got some money, but he'll have no income... he'll be looking for cheap. Make his money last as long as possible. Especially if he wants - eventually - to fly back to America. He'll have to save enough money for that."
At the bus station, they looked round, then looked at each other. "How the hell... " Joel took a deep breath. "I don't think I realised until now just how difficult it could be, tracking him down."
"I did," Jim said quietly, "but I couldn't not try."
He stopped an obvious bus station employee. "Excuse me - where might I find the manager?"
The man took them into the main building, through a doorway marked "STAFF", along a corridor to a door marked "Manager".
The man nodded and turned away. Ellison knocked on the door.
As he walked in, Ellison held out his Cascade PD identification. "I don't know if you can help us, sir, but we're looking for a man who we believe passed through here between three and four weeks ago. He's not a criminal; he's needed as a witness in a pending court case. At the time he left America for a vacation in Britain, he had no reason to think the case would be heard this side of November, so he didn't leave an address where he could be contacted; but things moved faster than we expected, so we need to find him, get him back home as soon as possible."
"You realise we have thousands of people passing through here every day."
"I know, and I know it's a long shot, but we have to try. There are other avenues open to us, including a television appeal, but the lower key we can keep this search, the better."
He nodded. "Have you any idea what time of day your man might have come through here?"
"Our information is that he took an overnight flight, so assuming he came directly here from the airport, it would be around this time of day."
"All right. If you want, we can go round the various drivers and see if any of them can help."
"There are a couple of buses due out in the next five minutes - you should speak to those drivers first."
As the manager took them back to the station forecourt, Jim took out his wallet, and removed two photos of his friend; one with his hair loose, the other with it fastened back.
The first stance the manager approached was marked AYR. He had a quick word with the bus driver, who nodded and turned to Jim. He held out the photos. "This is the man we're looking for."
The driver studied both for a moment then shook his head. "No, I don't remember seeing him."
The manager led them on to the stance marked ABERDEEN.
The driver looked at the photos and touched the one with the hair fastened back. "Yes, I remember him. He didn't know where he wanted to go, asked where the bus stopped, and got off at Dundee. I remember him because he asked about the tourist information centre in Dundee, and he gave me a tip. Not many passengers do that."
"Thank you." Ellison glanced at the manager. "Many thanks. We appreciate your help."
The driver looked at Ellison as the two men boarded the bus. "The guy's not in any trouble, is he? He seemed a nice bloke."
"No, he's not in trouble. He came away on holiday without leaving a contact address, and of course he's needed..."
"That's it, Gloria," Blair said. "A nice, steady, even voice. Remember, you're your sentinel's control; her anchor. You're the lifeline that always brings her back whenever her senses run away from her."
They had returned to the apartment two or three hours earlier, Alice having been kept in hospital one extra night as a precaution. Now Blair was busy giving Gloria advice, and she was already progressing rather better with controlling Alice's responses than he had.
"Blair," Alice said as Gloria nodded.
"When I asked you to help me, you said you didn't know much. Now that Gloria's here, suddenly you know an awful lot."
He gave a half smile. "A lot of it is guesswork, Alice. I think every... partner... has to learn for himself - or herself - what works best with his sentinel. All I'm giving Gloria is a few tips."
She looked at him. "You lost your sentinel, didn't you." It was not a question.
Blair drew a long, sobbing breath, wanting to lie, knowing he couldn't deny Jim, what Jim had been. "Yes. I'm... not ready to partner another one. Maybe one day. Maybe never. But certainly not yet. Not yet."
"The friend you mentioned once?"
"Yes. He was a cop. He was killed... on duty... one day when I couldn't be with him." There was a dead quality in his voice.
"Are you really a student?"
"Yes. It was after he died... I decided I needed to take a year out. Get away from my memories. Travel. See some more societies, more cultures, how they live...
"I'll probably teach, I suppose, once I get my PhD, though I'd prefer to do field work; but it isn't always easy getting on an expedition. If I bother finishing my dissertation. Right now, it seems too much effort." His voice broke; he pressed his lips together, fighting for control.
"Would your friend have wanted to see you wasting your life grieving?" Gloria asked quietly, and already her voice held the calming tone of a guide centering her sentinel.
It worked on him as effectively as it worked on her sentinel. He shook his head slowly. "No. But I need a little more time to get used to being alone again." He looked at Alice. "Gloria is your partner, and she's learning really fast - there's not much more I can suggest to her. Though... either you give up on Abertay and go back to Edinburgh or she moves to Dundee. You have to be together.
"Considering how rare sentinels are, I suppose I've been lucky to find two. I doubt I'll ever find another. But even if I do, and it's another male, I'm not ready to partner anyone else yet. The pairing... it's emotionally very close. Well, I think you and Gloria realise that already. I'm not ready to be that close to anyone again. Not yet... if I ever am. I don't think I want to feel grief like this ever again."
"Were you lovers?" Alice asked, echoing a question he had asked her.
"No. I loved him, but... No. Neither of us swung that way."
The shrill sound of the doorbell made them all jump.
"I'll get it," Blair said. He went quickly to the door, and opened it.
He took one look at the face of the tall man standing at the door; his face went deathly white; and he collapsed in a faint.
Jim Ellison followed him down, gathering him into his arms as Alice, hearing the thump of Blair's collapse, shot into the hallway.
"What the - ! What have you done to Blair?"
Ellison was aware of a distant voice, but only as background noise, he was so intent on his Guide. It was Joel who stepped forward, holding out his Cascade PD identification.
"Joel Taggert, miss, and this is Jim Ellison. We're American cops. Our department has been searching for Blair for nearly a fortnight."
"Are you trying to tell me Blair is a criminal? Wanted in America?" Her voice was very cold.
"No! He's one of ours. Jim's partner."
Ellison looked up, belatedly registering the presence of the angry woman. "Where's a bed? It'll be more comfortable for him than the floor... "
Alice indicated the door beside him. "That's Blair's room," she said, and watched, slightly mollified by the obvious concern on the man's face.
Ellison scooped Blair up, carried him into the room, put him carefully on the bed and sat on the edge of it, studying his guide's face. He had already forgotten the presence of the others.
Joel touched the woman's arm, and jerked his head, indicating that they should leave the two men alone, and turned, nearly bumping into a second woman whom he had not realised was there.
He picked up the two bags they had put down at the door; the second woman closed the door of the apartment, then he followed the two women into the living room.
He put the bags down again just inside the living room door, and looked from one to the other. "Miss Bannerman?" he asked.
Alice nodded. "That's me. And this is my friend Gloria Dawson."
He sighed. "And Blair lives here?"
"For the moment."
"Thank heavens Blair found friends," he murmured.
"What was all that about, anyway?" she asked, looking towards the door.
"Blair was studying the cops for his PhD dissertation," Joel explained. "Jim didn't have a partner, so he ended up with Blair as his ride-along. Didn't take long before we all realised Blair was a real asset to the PD. Even though he was a civilian, Jim began to consider him as his partner; our Captain stretched the rules to keep him in the department.
"Then back in April, there was a bad fire; a couple of kids were trapped in the building, and Jim went in after them. When nobody came out, we thought he'd been killed. It was a very hot fire - nothing left but ash."
Gloria and Alice looked at each other as Joel went on. "Partners... can be very close - and they were partners, even though Blair wasn't a cop. If one is killed, it can take the survivor months to get over it. And last month, when the university year ended, Blair left Cascade, without telling anyone exactly where he was going. He said he needed time away - there were too many memories in Cascade, he had to get away from them."
"We knew someone close to him had been killed," Alice said slowly, "but it isn't something he's talked about. I think it had hit him too deep."
Joel nodded. "He talks a lot, but if you think about it afterwards, you realise he's never really says anything personal. And this... We were all hit bad when we thought Jim was dead, but the rest of us lost Blair, too." He was silent for a moment, then went on. "Anyway, a couple of weeks ago... "
Jim sat on the bed, absorbing his Guide's presence. He opened his senses fully, something he hadn't dared to do since recovering his memory; he studied Blair's face, seeing the stress lines that hadn't been there earlier in the year; he listened to the steady heartbeat and the quiet breathing; he breathed deeply, re-imprinting Blair's scent on his senses; he ran gentle, caressing hands over Blair's face.
He opened his eyes to gaze into Blair's. "Yes, Chief." He forced control on himself. The last thing Blair would need was an emotional breakdown.
Blair reached up and hooked his hands behind Ellison's shoulders. "You're alive."
"What the hell happened?"
"I don't really know. I turned up in Tacoma - from the date, it was about two weeks after the fire; I'd been beaten up, I couldn't remember anything. By sheer good luck, Joel came to Tacoma, and when I saw him, I started remembering. But that was weeks later, and you were a fortnight gone by then." He grinned. "Everyone pulled out all the stops to track down where you'd gone. Once we'd established that you'd come to Scotland, Joel and I followed - Simon would have come but it was impossible for him to get off.
"You left a fairly easy trail to follow, thank goodness. Even though you did change your name a bit. Were you ever meaning to go back, Chief?"
"I don't know. No, that's the truth. When I left, I didn't mean to go back... But although it's just been a month, I've had time to think since then, time away from everything... While I was still in Cascade, it was all too close, know what I mean? Too many memories, people sort of walking on eggshells round me... But here, with nobody knowing who I am... I've been able to think more objectively. At least - as of half an hour ago - I was no longer thinking of staying 'lost'; another week or so and I'd probably have contacted Simon, let him know what I was doing. But I was going to take the full year out. It's no accident that the traditional period of mourning was a year."
Blair smiled, and it seemed to Jim that the sun had emerged from behind a dark cloud.
He uttered an inarticulate sound and pulled Blair hard against him; and Blair responded with all the emotional hunger of four months of grief.
In the living room, Joel had finished explaining the situation to the two women. Now he was beginning to get a little twitchy, wanting to speak to Blair, to see for himself that Jim's partner was all right after his collapse a few minutes previously.
"I hope Blair's all right," he muttered.
"They need time to re-establish their bond," Gloria said.
"Huh?" Joel said blankly.
The two women glanced at each other, realising that this man did not know what his friends were; then Alice said quietly, "You said they were partners?"
"And partners are close, emotionally?"
"They have to be," he said.
"Then you must understand that they will need to share a period of privacy to recover from the trauma of their separation," Gloria said. "Blair especially."
In the bedroom, the two men finally drew apart again, while still gripping each other's arms. Jim took a deep breath. "So - what made you come to live with Ms Bannerman, Chief?"
"She's a sentinel, Jim. Just recently developed her senses."
"When I first came to Dundee, I was staying at a bed and breakfast - "
"Mrs Cairncross in Clepington Road."
Blair grinned. "Yes, you must have been there... Anyway, Alice was staying there too before she got entry to this apartment, and one morning I found her sitting on the stair, in agony - the light was too bright, sounds too loud, her clothes were irritating her skin... Sounds familiar? I told her about the dials, and got her dialled down to normal. She wanted me to stay with her, be her partner - "
"No! You're my guide, my partner!"
The possessive tone was balm to Blair's wounded spirit, already healing though it was. "Never doubt it, Jim. I told her I could give her some tips, but that I'd be moving on in a few weeks. But then she zoned, and I couldn't pull her out of it."
"Eh? Blair, you've never had any difficulty pulling me out of a zone."
"Ah, but I'm your guide. I'm not Alice's. She had a friend in Edinburgh who came to visit her in hospital - she was still in a coma - and she responded almost instantly to hearing Gloria's voice, the touch of Gloria's hand. It was clear then that Gloria was her guide. Since then, I've been teaching them both, but I wasn't planning on staying much longer."
"No, you're not."
Blair grinned at the positive tone in the Sentinel's voice. "Man, suddenly I am so ready to go home... though... "
"You gave Simon the tenancy of the loft for a year."
"He's making finding somewhere else a priority."
Blair nodded. "If necessary, I suppose he could stay in my room till he does find somewhere - I can sleep on the couch."
"Chief, if Simon does have to stay on at the loft for a few days, there's no reason you can't share my bed. It's big enough."
Blair found himself reddening at the affectionate tone in his friend's voice, and changed the subject. "Did you say Joel was here with you?"
"Yes." Jim chuckled. "There was almost a riot at Major Crimes deciding who was to come with me. Joel won because a) he's the guy who found me, b) he was already on leave and c) he pulled rank. Oh, not in so many words... but he pulled rank. I hope he's explained things to your friends."
"I hope they haven't mentioned the word 'sentinel' to him!"
"Oh well - if they have, I think we can trust him to keep his mouth shut."
Blair nodded, then resolutely pulled away from Jim. "I think... I think we'd better go through and join the others."
And aware that Blair, a far more private personality than most people realised, needed the discipline of having others around to help him come down from his emotional high, Jim nodded agreement.
Joel looked round as the door opened, rising as Blair entered.
The young man crossed to him and threw his arms round him. As Joel responded, Blair whispered, "Thanks, man." Then Blair stepped back to Jim's side.
"We've all missed you, Blair. It's good to see you." There was no mistaking the affection in Joel's voice.
"Good to see you, too." Blair turned to the women. "Jim, this is Alice Bannerman, and this, Gloria Dawson. Alice, Gloria, this is Jim Ellison, my very good friend. I suppose Joel's already introduced himself?"
"Yes," Alice said, "and told us what happened."
Blair nodded. "We'll be leaving as soon as possible to go home," he said, "but there's always the phone or letters if you need any advice - though I don't think you will."
Joel looked puzzled; Blair said easily, "Alice is starting university in the fall. I've been giving her a bit of tuition."
Gloria said, "I notice you have bags with you - have you anywhere to stay tonight?"
Jim shook his head. "We were waiting to see if you knew where Blair had gone before committing ourselves to anything. Once I knew he was here... I was half thinking we could head back to Glasgow tonight, see if we can get an early flight tomorrow."
"Well, you probably could get back to Glasgow, but I'm going to suggest you stay here tonight - you and Joel look exhausted - then go into a travel agent first thing tomorrow and book seats on a flight. This time of year, you could spend hours sitting at the airport waiting for standby seats. If you can't get a flight for a couple of days, you can stay on here."
Joel nodded. "Four days to get a flight to here, Jim, remember?"
"Wouldn't we be putting you out?" Jim asked. "You don't have a spare room, do you?"
Alice laughed. "Well, Joel can sleep on the couch in here - you're a bit big for it; you can either sleep on the floor in here - we have an airbed - or in Blair's room."
"He'll sleep in my room," Blair said, to no-one's surprise.
"Meanwhile, I'm hungry," Jim said. "Why don't we all go out for a meal? Is there anywhere near here we could go?"
"Yes - this is student territory," Alice said. "There are a couple of Indian restaurants and a Chinese at the top of the road, a European one a little closer to the town..."
They ended up at the Chinese restaurant that was some five minutes' walk from the apartment. Jim, who had looked slightly doubtfully at the street they had to take to get to it, looked even more doubtful on the way back, and made a comment about 'a run down area so close to what's obviously good housing'.
Alice laughed. "Not really. Oh, it was pretty run down a few years ago, but most of the houses have been refurbished - the ones beyond redemption were knocked down. It's a safe enough area, if that's what you're thinking - and - " with a quick glance at Joel, two or three yards ahead with Gloria, she lowered her voice - "I'd know if anyone was lying in wait... just as you would."
Jim nodded and glanced at the guide walking close to his side. Equally quietly, he responded. "Yes, Blair said you're a sentinel."
"But very new to it. And you're his sentinel."
"Yes." He was silent for a moment, then, "You and Gloria have a lot of exploration ahead of you, to learn how best to work together. It's a very rewarding relationship, too."
"Blair told us - about the work, that is. But I'm not a Guardian like you; I'm going into economics."
"Your abilities will be wasted there. You should try for a job where you can use your skills."
She was silent for a moment. "Blair said that, too."
"He's usually worth listening to. Though he can be a bully - "
"Like you can't?" Blair put in indignantly. "'Stay in the truck, Sandburg! You're not a cop!'"
"Sandburg?" Alice asked.
"Oops. Yes - Blair's actually my first name. That's why I used it, so I wouldn't forget to answer when someone spoke to me. When I first got here, I was... sort of trying to stay lost, if you see what I mean. I wasn't bargaining on anyone coming in person to look for me." He glanced at Jim, and his heart was in his eyes.
Back at the apartment, Jim said suddenly, "Joel, while I was with Blair earlier, did you think to phone Simon?"
Joel looked at him. "Phone... No, I reckoned - hell, I forgot about the time difference. I was thinking that everyone'd probably gone home." He glanced at his watch. "What will the time be in Cascade now, anyway?"
"About eight hours difference... early afternoon." He glanced at Alice. "Mind if I make a quick phone call to America? I'll pay for it."
"Jim, you paid for dinner. I think we can pay for a phone call, even to America."
Jim grinned. "I promise, it won't be too long." He punched the code for America, the number for the Cascade PD. "Captain Banks, please... hello, Simon..."
The distant voice said, "Jim! How's it going?"
"We've found him."
"Already? Thank goodness. That was fast, though."
"We got lucky. We'll be home as soon as we can get a flight..."
"It'll be good to see you all back. I've got a place, by the way, though I'm afraid I don't get entry for another week - but I can always move to a hotel - "
"No, you won't. Simon, you can stay as long as necessary..."
"You can't mean that, Jim. The two of you - "
"Yes, we mean it." He beckoned, and gave the receiver to Blair.
"Blair! Why didn't you let me know sooner where you were? Were you just meaning to disappear permanently?"
"No, I was planning on phoning you in a day or two anyway."
"No, I promise you, I was."
"And Simon, what Jim said - and what I said before I left; we're not chasing you out of the loft."
"Well, I won't overstay my welcome," Simon said. "I'll be out in a week. And we're all looking forward to seeing you back again."
"It'll be good to be back," Blair said quietly. "See you, Simon." He hung up.
Although it was still not particularly late, Alice and Gloria made up a bed on the couch for Joel, recognising that all three men were tired - two were still jet-lagged, while Blair was emotionally drained; then headed off to their room. Jim and Blair said goodnight too, and went through to Blair's room. Jim looked round. "I thought Alice mentioned an air bed?"
"I told her not to bother. I know it's not very big, but... I think we can both fit onto the bed. I... Tonight, want to be close to you."
"Yeah, me too."
"If we're still here tomorrow night we can get the airbed out."
They undressed quickly. Suddenly, Blair drew in his breath sharply; Jim turned from putting his clothes on a chair, and looked at the horrified expression on Blair's face.
"It happened weeks ago," he said quietly.
"I know... but seeing it - what was done to you..."
"And half the time I didn't feel that much; it was surprisingly easy to zone on the pain. In the end... in the end, I think that's what happened; I zoned and they couldn't pull me out of it, so they thought I was dying and just dumped my body. When I came round in hospital, I'd been unconscious, or at least they thought I was unconscious, for close on a week. By then everything was at least half healed." He knew from the look on his Guide's face that Blair was far from convinced, but he was determined that the younger man would never know exactly how much pain he had suffered.
"And the amnesia?"
"I think... Although I seemed to be functioning perfectly well, since I could hold a coherent conversation, things like that, I think it might have been a sort of zone too. I think I was looking for you - or at least for someone I knew. But not even a sentinel can sense Cascade from as far away as Tacoma. Seeing Joel, hearing his voice, was all it took to bring me out of that one." He grinned, seeing the thoughtful look in Blair's eyes. "No, Chief. I don't think there's any way you can test that."
Blair grinned back, but awareness of what Jim had suffered was still in his eyes.
They slipped into bed wearing only their boxers; Jim gathered Blair into his arms and pulled the younger man's head onto his shoulder. "What's past is past, Chief. Our people, and the cops in Tacoma, are searching for the guys responsible. But whether they find them or not... I've found you again, and that's what's important."
They were very tired, the emotional catharsis having taken a great deal out of them both; and for the first time since late April, both could relax completely. Arms round each other, they fell into the first refreshing sleep either had known for months.
In the other bedroom, Alice said quietly, "They're asleep."
Gloria nodded. "They'll be all right, I'm sure, now that they're together again."
Alice smiled. "It's a good relationship, isn't it. And we've sort of had it all these years without knowing what it was."
"Yes," Gloria said. She was silent for a moment. Then, "Alice?"
"What Blair said... about the police... "
"It could be worth thinking about it," Alice replied.
"Yes," Gloria said. "It could be worth thinking about it."