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Little Greenham was situated at the base of a low, tree-covered slope, and the trees closest to it were beginning to invade the outlying houses that had lost windows and doors, and in some cases roofs as well, to winter storms after their owners died.
Most of the young people had left years previously, tired of the lack of social life and - after mechanisation replaced manpower on the surrounding farms - the almost hour-long commute, morning and evening, to the nearest large town. The bus from the much larger Newton, eight miles away, still passed through, stopping briefly at 6.55 am to pick up the occasional passenger and 7.10 pm to offload mail and a few boxes of goods for the village store, and drop off the returning passengers or anyone who came to visit - mostly a younger relative come to see aging parents or grandparents for a day or two before retreating, bored and glad the duty visit was over, to the busy life of the city. But for that bus, even the oldest residents, the ones who had been born in the village and wanted to die in it, would have been forced to leave. There was no longer an evening bus back to the city; where once there had been two buses daily, there was just one bus a day in each direction now.
The small store-cum-post office was the centre of such life as was still in Little Greenham. Since losing her husband eight years previously, Mrs Bridger had run it - not very efficiently - with the doubtful help of Davy, her forty-one-year-old brain-damaged youngest son, who was frankly incapable of doing any sort of job, no matter how repetitive, without supervision and constant reminders to keep working. Left to himself, he had an attention span that could be measured in minutes.
She often wondered what would happen to him after she died, but lacked the drive to try to make any arrangements; afraid that if she did, she would indeed die shortly thereafter.
Although the store made a modest profit, Mrs Bridger lived frugally, afraid that the nest-egg left by her husband would quickly run out, leaving her destitute, if she drew on it. There was in fact little fear of that, and her daughter Norah - the oldest of her five children - tried unsuccessfully to convince her of it on her annual visits. She invariably nodded in apparent agreement and seemed to relax the austerity of her lifestyle, but after Norah's departure reverted to a life that many would call positively miserly.
Despite the simplicity of her housekeeping, Mrs Bridger was plump and round-faced, the sort of person who might have been described as 'apple-cheeked' if her face hadn't been so pale. She had never quite got over Martin Bridger's sudden death, although she gave little outward sign of missing him; she admitted to no-one, even herself, that she had been much happier in the days when he ran the store and she - even then the main purveyor of village gossip, much of it picked up from him - had simply looked after their house and children - although she had always blamed herself for the illness that had so damaged Davy's mind thirty years earlier. At the time it had seemed totally harmless - allowing the young tinker woman burdened with three children under five to sit at her fire for a few hours on a day so wet that even the trees seemed to be looking for shelter. Davy had developed viral meningitis within the month, and Mrs Bridger, convinced that the tinkers had carried the infection, had never again offered shelter to any traveller, no matter how inclement the weather.
The store had to stay open until the evening bus arrived because it was the evening bus that brought in the mail - which everyone picked up at the store - and such supplies as Mrs Bridger needed to restock her shelves. On this day she peered through the glass of the door as the bus drew up, ready to open the door when the driver reached it, carrying the first of two or three boxes. On this day, however, he delayed, waiting beside the open luggage compartment, and Mrs Bridger wondered which of the handful of inhabitants was getting an unexpected visit.
It was with some surprise that she - who prided herself on knowing all the relatives of the villagers - did not recognize either of the men who left the bus.
They retrieved well-worn rucksacks that, while obviously full, were not stuffed to overflowing, spoke to the driver for a moment then both, after swinging their packs onto a shoulder, picked up a box and followed the driver as he carried his box and the small bag of mail into the store.
As Mrs Bridger signed for the goods she exchanged a few words with the driver, who, with a schedule to maintain, then hurried off. She turned her attention to the two strangers, who had put their rucksacks down beside the boxes in front of the counter.
She thought, as she watched them wandering around the small store, that they seemed to be a very mismatched pair.
The older man, who looked to be about fifty, was tall, perhaps an inch above six feet, with short, dark hair just beginning to show grey. She caught sight of his eyes and shivered; there was in those eyes a shadow of things so dark and dire that the man who had seen them did not care to remember them while he was awake - but that might well haunt his sleeping hours. The other man, who looked to be perhaps eight or ten years younger, was smaller by some four or five inches. He was carrying a bag over his shoulder, and she wondered what was in it that he kept it on him rather than leaving it beside his pack.
As they perused the half-empty shelves, the two spoke together, not quite loud enough for words to be overheard, in a language whose cadence sounded unfamiliar to the listening storekeeper; then the younger man selected several packets of cookies and some candy bars, and crossed to the counter.
"On holiday, sir?" Mrs Bridger asked as she wrote down the prices on a scrap of paper, then laboriously added the total.
"Yes," the man replied quietly.
"Going far?" As she glanced up she realised that his smile did not reach his eyes, and he too looked as if he had seen things too unpleasant to remember.
"We're meaning to walk over the hill to Ramsey - there's a track over the hill that goes there? Have you any idea how long it might take us?"
"It's been a long time since anyone travelled that path," Mrs Bridger said. "Ten years at least. The first mile or two is clear - Jack Davies walks his dogs that way, but he never goes beyond the first rise. The rest of it will be badly overgrown, unless anyone from Ramsey uses the other end to walk their dogs the way Jack does. There was a murder up there, back then, around this time of year - a young woman, found lying beside the track about six miles from here with her throat cut and the ground around all covered with blood, and nobody was ever caught for it. Nobody knew who she was, either - she was buried in the graveyard here.
"It took a full day to get from here to Ramsey when the Ridgeway walk started or finished here, but everyone stopped at Ramsey after that. We hoped that after a year or so the walkers would forget and start coming through here again, but nobody ever did. Now? It's close on twenty-five rough miles - it might take as long as a week, and that's a fact."
"We have the time," he said.
"Will you be coming back this way?" she asked.
His smile was sad, almost regretful. "No," he said. "We can never go back." The last words were murmured so quietly she barely heard them.
He paid for the cookies and candy, and pushed some into the side pockets of both rucksacks. The two swung their packs onto their backs, and as they adjusted them, shifting them easily into a comfortable position, he added, "Thank you. Goodbye." They turned and walked out.
She watched, squinting sideways through the window as, late though it was, the men walked down the road, the weight of their packs clearly no handicap to them, then, with almost no hesitation, turned up the unmarked track that had once gone to Ramsey, and disappeared among the birches that lined the path.
"It's easy to see she doesn't have much idea of how far or how fast it's possible to walk over even very rough ground," the taller man commented as the two strode up the semi-overgrown path indicated only by a half-hidden arrow incised into a stone at the end of it.
"Well, let's face it, Jim, she doesn't look as if she's ever done much walking except around her store, or maybe the village - such as it is - in her life."
"True, Chief. How long do you think it'll take?"
"I'm not sure. I was fourteen when Uncle David brought Robert and me here, and we did the walk to Ramsey in a day, like she said; though Robert and I were exhausted by the end of it. But the path was well marked then, and fairly well used - we passed three or four groups heading towards Little Greenham, and at one point when we looked back we could see another party following us, two or three miles behind. We didn't do the rest of the Ridgeway - the whole walk was about a hundred and fifty miles and Uncle David only had a long weekend free. We spent the Sunday recovering and caught the first bus from Ramsey to Leeds on the Monday, then the afternoon train back to London. But twenty-five miles, with no track? Depending on how overgrown everything is, I think we should get to Ramsey the day after tomorrow."
The man called Jim nodded. "That was what I thought. I doubt we can go more than maybe three miles tonight before it begins to get dark, but surely we can cover fifteen or even eighteen miles tomorrow, even without a track."
They strode on. After about half an hour they came to the end of the path, such as it was, and found themselves facing a wall of shrubs. They glanced at each other, then Jim moved forward, his companion close at his heels.
Pushing through the shrubs was tiring, although the path - that was almost obliterated by the vegetation - was no longer climbing higher. If anything, they were losing a little height; and both were glad when, after another half hour or so, with the light beginning to fade, the ground again began to slope upwards. Before long they had pushed out of the belt of shrubs and found themselves on an open moorland. A small stream trickled down towards the dip.
They stopped, swung off their rucksacks and Chief's camera bag, and set about making a camp.
The sky was almost cloudless, but both men knew better than to trust that it would stay that way. Jim took a small folding saw from his pack and headed back into the belt of shrub, reappearing a few minutes later with two straight sticks about five feet long and half a dozen smaller sticks about a foot long.
Meanwhile, Chief had pulled two folded sheets of plastic from his pack, shaken them out and laid them on the ground, and from the bed of the stream had retrieved several fairly large stones. Jim pushed one end of both long sticks into the ground; each man took a stone and hammered a stick into the ground until about a foot was buried. They capped the sticks with small plastic beakers, then pulled one end of the top sheet over the sticks, pulling the sides down and anchoring them in place with the smaller sticks. The stones, including the ones they had used as hammers, weighed down the back of the plastic sheet. It gave them an open-fronted lean-to facing away from the wind. The second, smaller, plastic sheet went on the ground.
Taking a hunting knife from his pack, Jim cut away a large piece of turf from in front of their shelter, laid it carefully to one side, then loosened the earth in the bare patch to a depth of two or three inches and scooped it out.
Chief, who had gone off to the belt of shrub, came back carrying an armful of sticks, dead wood that he had gathered from the ground. He set about building a fire in the hole Jim had made while Jim once again headed off into the trees.
Chief nursed the fire carefully until it was well alight, then took a lightweight pan from his pack, went to the stream for water, and put the pan carefully on the fire. While the water heated he went to a nearby patch of young nettles, and carefully trimmed the tops off several; he dropped them into the water. There was a faint smell of garlic; casting a little further afield he found a patch of wild garlic at the edge of the trees and gathered a handful of the leaves, dropping them into the water too. A quick search gave him some more leaves that he recognized as edible, and he added them. He shook in a little salt from a camp cruet. Going back to the belt of shrub, he gathered another big armful of dead wood, which he took back to the camp. There was nothing else he could do until Jim returned except lay out their sleeping bags.
The water had just begun to bubble when Jim arrived, carrying an already skinned and cleaned rabbit. Crouching beside the fire, he cut it neatly into pieces which he dropped into the water. A quick trip to the stream to wash his hands, and he returned to sit beside Chief.
They were so skilled at making camp that it was still only half dark.
As it grew darker, Chief switched on a small flashlight to augment the light from the fire.
"The moon'll be up soon," Jim said, nodding to where the north-eastern sky showed a faint brightness.
They sat quietly, in the easy silence that was only possible between close friends. Occasionally Chief leaned forward and stirred the contents of the pan, testing the meat when he did, or added a stick or two to the fire. After a while he switched off the flashlight; the moon, a little past full, was high enough in the sky to let them see quite clearly what they were doing. When Chief decided the meat was fully cooked, he served it onto two plates, giving Jim slightly more than half, and they ate hungrily. The various leaves lent the meat a subtle flavor both enjoyed.
As they ate, the red embers of the fire blackened.
"One of your better concoctions, Chief," Jim murmured as he picked the last of the meat off a bone.
Chief grinned. "Unfortunately I can't guarantee ever to make it the same again," he said.
"But the same mix of leaves as flavoring will make it similar."
"Oh, yes. But similar isn't quite the same. Different proportions of the leaves, different size of rabbit... even a few grains more salt or a few less. That all changes the taste. Subtly, but it changes the taste - and you of all people should be aware of that."
Jim leaned forward. With a spoon, he carefully picked out the leaves, which he knew would be simmered into tastelessness, and poured the liquid into two mugs, sharing it equally. They drank, then as Chief washed the dishes in the stream, Jim carefully covered the embers of the fire with earth.
They relieved themselves, and turned to their lean-to. Chief's sleeping bag was at the back, Jim's in front. They undressed to their underwear and wriggled into their sleeping bags, using their rolled-up clothes as pillows. Jim remained alert for some minutes, then relaxed.
"Everything all right?" Chief asked softly.
A few minutes later, a distant owl hooted, and hooted again, but neither man heard it. Both were sleeping.
They woke to find the scenery subtly changed. The belt of shrubs was gone, replaced by a few scattered small trees - rowan and birch and holly; the trees that had spread to provide the shrubland. The stream still ran past their camp, but there was more water in it than there had been the previous night. Several feet away, a well-marked path led onwards across the moorland.
"Damn!" Jim muttered as Chief gave a resigned sigh. "I hate it when this happens!"
"Like we have any choice," Chief said wryly. "We made a deal with Incacha, remember. And we do a lot of good."
"I know," Jim said, "and the alternative would be worse. But it's a helluva strain on you, Chief."
"On both of us," Chief said quietly. He looked around. "I was half expecting this, after what the woman at the store said about a murder out here 'about this time of year'. What do you think? Ten years back?"
Jim looked at the scattering of trees, and compared the scene with the one his memory supplied. "Probably."
"We'd better get moving. About six miles from the village, she said, and we've probably come about three."
"It's a fairly loose description of where we need to be." Jim sounded very unhappy.
"I know. I don't want to waste any time right now - though I think later in the day is a more likely time for the killing. The victim didn't pass through Little Greenham - if she had, the storekeeper would have said so; if she came from Ramsey, it would take her six to seven hours to travel the nineteen miles to where she was killed. If she left Ramsey at nine - a reasonable time that would let her reach Little Greenham around possibly six, that would mean she was killed between three and four in the afternoon."
"Assuming she kept up a fairly steady three miles an hour and didn't stop for a fairly long break half way."
"And if she did have a longish break, that gives us even longer to find the right place. If we go on for an hour, that should be close to the six-mile mark - assuming Mrs. Storekeeper was right about the distance. I'll see what I can find out once we get there."
They washed and dressed quickly, then took the time to eat a quick breakfast before striking camp. They rolled up their sleeping bags and pushed them into their packs. Chief poured water over the embers, then threw the earth back on top of the blackened ashes and carefully put back the turf Jim had cut away the night before, while Jim pulled the stakes from the ground and folded the sheets of polythene, slotting them into one of the packs. Chief dried the pan he'd used for water and replaced it in the top of his pack. Within half an hour of wakening, they were ready to move on, leaving little sign, apart from the cut sticks and the last of the firewood, that anyone had spent the night there.
With a clear track to follow they made good time. After a short while another path joined the one they were on, but a signpost only indicated Little Greenham; there was nothing to say where the other path had come from. Around threequarters of an hour later they found themselves in a dip where for a short distance the path was hidden from the sight of anyone coming from either direction. Chief stopped. "Here," he said.
Jim glanced at him. "You're sure?" he asked, knowing even as he did that the question was unnecessary.
"It hasn't happened yet, but I can feel the fear," Chief replied, and Jim nodded.
They moved a little way from the path, put their packs down, and Chief settled, cross-legged, on the ground. He closed his eyes and began breathing deeply and steadily.
Jim scrambled up the bank above Chief, to settle down where he could watch the path. Chief wouldn't, he knew, take long, but an interruption of his trance by anyone but his friend would be a considerable strain on the younger man's nerves. He didn't think anyone would arrive in the next few minutes; by camping where they had, they were at least an hour, probably more, ahead of anyone else walking from Little Greenham and, as Chief had said, nobody was likely to arrive from the direction of Ramsey until mid afternoon - assuming anyone coming from that direction had spent the night in Ramsey and not, like them, camped a few miles along the way.
As he expected, there was no sign of anyone else coming when Chief moved, some ten minutes later. Jim slid down the slope to rejoin the other man.
"There were two deaths, not one," Chief said quietly. "The other body was buried several hundred yards from the path, and never found. He was the actual target; the girl was collateral damage. She was killed because she was there, and there was no link between her and the killers, so they didn't bother taking the time to hide her body. All they did was make sure there was no identification on her."
"Killers?" Jim asked.
"Two of them."
"That's lucky," Jim said, and Chief nodded, although he looked less than happy about it. Whatever happened, two people had to die in that place that day, and he had slowly, reluctantly, reached acceptance of what Jim had long known; that the best way to protect the innocent was to regard cold-blooded killers who acted with premeditation as expendable. And, above all, they were protectors. "Motive?" Jim went on.
"Greed, what else?" Chief replied. "The male victim was - is - the only child of a rich businessman; an honest man who considers the welfare of his workers and in giving value for money. His son has been raised to hold the same values. The killers are his cousins, who will inherit everything if he... disappears; but all they see is the money, a life of luxury with no responsibilities."
"Wasn't there a search for him?" Jim asked.
"Nobody except his cousins knew where he was. He was on a walking holiday; camping. He'd discussed his route with his cousins, trusting them. Only they knew he planned to walk the Ridgeway. He met the girl on the bus that took them to the north end of the Ridgeway; she was planning to walk it too, meaning to stay in youth hostels, but ended up joining him, camping with him."
"And nobody ever identified her?"
"Ah, well, I'd guess that was just a bit of add-to-the-shock-value of the story. She was identified a day or two later by a friend, after a photo was released to the papers. She had no family; her friend saw to the arrangements, and had her buried at Little Greenham. But of course the friend didn't know about the man. Anyone they passed during the week - they were just faces seen for a few seconds and immediately forgotten. Nobody came forward to say, 'I don't know her name, but I saw her - she was with a man', even though 'Murder on the Ridgeway' was headline news for two or three days. Of course, it's possible that anyone who might have come forward was still halfway along the walk, and missed seeing the papers."
"So he was just listed as a missing person?"
"Yes. His father died within the year, a broken man, and the cousins inherited... not everything, not immediately, not until six years later when they applied to have their cousin declared dead. Then they sold off the business - which they'd been mismanaging and milking for what they could get during those years - and settled back to enjoy the proceeds."
"We're here to save more than two lives, aren't we," Jim said.
Chief nodded. "The father's, too - and the livelihood of a lot of people."
"Okay. Let's get into position."
They scrambled up the bank, and hid both packs in a clump of bracken before settling down in the heather, Chief watching the path to Ramsey, Jim, the path leading back to Little Greenham.
Nothing happened for nearly an hour; then Jim muttered a quiet, "Here they are."
Chief peered back the way they had come. About half a mile away, two men were approaching - "But they didn't come from the village," Jim went on. "They came up the other track."
"Might be locals - keepers or shepherds?" Chief suggested.
"Not the way they're dressed," Jim said. He watched them for a few seconds. "And they're carrying spades."
"The killers buried their cousin," Chief said, and Jim nodded.
"They came prepared," he said. "They knew that path, wherever it goes. So nobody in Little Greenham would have seen them, either walking up the track with spades, or leaving it again three or four hours later."
As they reached the dip, one of the men, who had a backpack as well as a spade, said, "Here. This is the ideal place, out of sight of anyone else who might be on the track. Dave wouldn't have started this morning before nine, so he won't get here until about three at the earliest. We've got a little more than four hours to get a hole dug." He glanced around. "This way."
Jim listened as they went. They hadn't gone far before the second man whined, "Kev, don't you think this is far enough?"
"Sure it is, if you want to risk someone's dog finding Dave's body. God, Phil, you're pathetic! A little bit of effort now, and we're in easy street for the rest of our lives. Remember that."
It was another five minutes before Jim heard the sound of spades hitting the ground, and Kev's voice again. "We need to take the top layer off carefully, so we can put it back on top to disguise that someone's been digging here - and make sure you put the earth on the tarp. We don't need to leave loose earth lying around either."
"But nobody's likely to come this far from the path," Phil objected.
"Brother Kev's the planner," Jim murmured. "Brother Phil's the sort of careless criminal that's easy to catch - the kind that takes shortcuts. I'd guess that Kev came up with the whole plot - on his own, Phil would have envied cousin Dave his money, might even have managed to sponge off Dave fairly successfully, but wouldn't have thought of killing him. But he fell in with Kev's plans, so... Two people have to die," he finished grimly, as he took two throwing knives from his pack.
Chief nodded his reluctant agreement. "Pity Kev couldn't die twice," he muttered as he followed Jim along the top of the bank towards the two men.
After about five minutes, Jim dropped flat and wriggled onwards. Chief copied him, and they ended up looking over the edge of the bank at the men digging there.
They waited until Kev said, "I think that's probably deep enough. Now we go back and wait for Dave."
Jim stood. "Good afternoon, gentlemen."
The men below him jumped, and gaped upwards. "You have your crime well planned, I see," Jim went on.
"What... Who are you?" Kev asked, bravado in his voice.
"Justice," Jim replied, and with smooth movements, threw both knives.
Moving quickly and easily, Jim and Chief checked the two men; both were dead. Jim retrieved his knives before they dropped the bodies into the grave. Dug for one man, it was a tight fit for two, but neither sentinel nor shaman wanted to delay. They quickly shovelled earth on top of the bodies, folded the tarpaulin as small as possible and pushed it into the soil at one side of the grave, put the backpack and spades on top of the soil, then replaced the turf and heather surface.
Finished, they studied the small mound for a moment. "As long as nobody comes past here for a few days, they'll never be found," Jim said.
They went back to their packs, and Chief once again sank down cross-legged and closed his eyes. He opened then again inside five minutes.
"Incacha is pleased," he said.
"Let's get on the road. We might as well take advantage of having a good track to follow." Then he gave a wry half-laugh. "But of course, it'll stay good, now; there won't be a girl found lying with her throat cut to discourage walkers from doing the stretch from Ramsey to Little Greenham. I wonder if that'll make a difference to Little Greenham as well?"
Shouldering their packs, they set off. The first water they reached, Jim carefully washed both knives, then replaced them carefully in his pack.
The track was fairly quiet; about two miles further on, they passed three men, and then, about half an hour later, a man and a young woman. They passed, saying, "Afternoon!" A few steps further on, Jim and Chief paused, glanced at each other, neither doubting that these were the two whose lives they had saved, and looked back. The couple walking away from them were clearly enjoying both the walk and each other's company.
"He seems a much nicer guy than either of his cousins," Chief murmured. Jim nodded agreement, and they carried on.
They stopped on a rise that overlooked Ramsey, although they could have continued into the town. There were no trees here that they could use to help them make camp; but there was a stone wall. It took them only a minute to use that as one side of a shelter, using some of the top stones to hold one end of their large plastic sheet and some smaller stones that were lying around to anchor the other end to the ground three or four feet from it.
There was no water here, but Chief took from his pack a bottle of water. Their meal consisted of a tin of cold meat and a cup of water each. Flattening the tins, they carefully buried them, then settled down although it was still early.
Jim lay awake for a while, tired but not sleepy, listening Chief's soft snores, wondering, as he so often did, at the strength of his younger companion.
A distant owl hooted once, twice, then fell silent as Jim thought back...
Someone in a position to do something about it had not believed Blair's claim that "My thesis, The Sentinel, is a fraud... the documentation proving that James Ellison actually possesses hyper-senses is fraudulent," and set in motion a chain of events that he could never have dreamed possible...
Jack Kelso wasn't sure just which covert department was coming, but he gave Jim and Blair warning enough that they were able to spare ten minutes to pack some clothes, one or two valued possessions, their sleeping bags and a bag of food - mostly cans, a half-finished loaf of bread and some butter and cheese. They wasted thirty seconds debating whether to take a tent, then Blair reached instead for two large plastic sheets that they normally used to cover anything they left outside the tents, saying that these would be lighter to carry and cover them as effectively as they covered their supplies. The last thing they picked up was Blair's laptop, which held the only remaining copy of his sentinel research. They took Blair's car, both men considering it less obvious than Jim's truck, then they went to their respective banks, where they both withdrew almost all their money, leaving only enough to make it look as if the accounts were still active. Jim directed Blair to a third bank, went in alone and soon reappeared; as they left the third bank Jim made a quick phone call to Simon telling him what had happened, and that they were heading for Canada.
As they discovered later, they were nearly an hour away from Cascade, heading east rather than north, when 852 Prospect and the PD were simultaneously invaded...
They stopped briefly at a picnic area for a quick meal, and there Jim cut Blair's hair to change his appearance, burying the 'evidence' in a hole some yards into the trees that surrounded the stopping place. They carried on to Spokane, where Blair - apparently a man on his own - sold the car to a dealer in a fairly run-down area for about half its actual value, claiming that it belonged to a recently deceased uncle, that he'd inherited it and certainly didn't need a car so ancient. He knew he was being cheated, but he also knew that the dealer thought he was buying a stolen car; Blair had little doubt that before nightfall it would probably exist only as a pile of untraceable spare parts. He walked away, knowing that the less-than-honest dealer would keep his mouth shut about this transaction rather than risk being charged with buying a possibly stolen car.
He strode briskly back the way he had come for a hundred yards or so, and rejoined Jim, who was standing guard over their belongings around a corner out of sight of the dealer's yard.
Shouldering their packs, they headed off in search of a not-too-expensive motel.
They booked in as James and Jake Petersen - the names on the false papers Jim had produced, much to Blair's surprise - and giving a Chicago address.
"On vacation?" the girl at the reception desk asked as she checked the computer for a free room.
"Yes," Blair said. "Vacation's almost finished, though. We're still headed west; once we hit the coast - probably Cascade, maybe Seattle - that's it - we catch a plane back to Chicago, then it's back to work." He sighed. "Pity we couldn't get fifty weeks' vacation a year and just have to work two."
She chuckled as she handed over the key. "Room 385, and the elevator is just around that corner."
Once in their room, Blair plugged in his laptop, deleted all his sentinel data and then, finding a phone socket, set it to reinstall Windows, ruthlessly deleting everything else in it. It wouldn't stop a real expert retrieving at least some of the material, but with any luck whoever it was Kelso had warned them about wouldn't find it, since he planned to sell it in the next big town they reached. Leaving it downloading, they headed off in search of a meal.
Next morning they booked out, Blair chattering excitedly about the things he hoped they might see on the next leg of their trip and making it very clear that they were heading west.
After they left the motel, they went in search of a different, more reputable-looking car dealer, and bought a small, fairly cheap car - when Jim asked if he could check the engine, the dealer cheerfully agreed, which convinced Jim that the man was confident of the reliability of what he was selling even before he performed the check. To him, too, Blair spun the tale of heading west. Jim smiled at him indulgently, giving the perfect appearance of a much older brother resigned to keeping an eye on a dearly loved younger brother who - without being mentally challenged - was retarded enough to be childlike in his enthusiasm.
Blair fitted their rucksacks into the trunk while Jim saw to the formalities of the sale.
"Doesn't all that enthusiasm get tiring after a while?" the dealer asked.
Jim grinned. "He'll wind down soon." Then he sighed. "It's heart-breaking, though - he was doing well at university, had a great future, and then about five years ago the car he was in was involved in an accident, and he suffered some brain damage. Left him like this - everything's an adventure, like it is to a kid. He can't live alone - he's too easily distracted; which means he can't hold down a job either. But at least he's alive - the drivers were both killed."
"That's tough," the dealer agreed sympathetically. "You his main carer?"
"No, our Mom is. I take him quite a bit, though, to give her a break."
"You're not from Spokane, are you? So how did you get here, if you're buying a car here?"
"Came in by train from the east. But I want to see some bits between here and the coast that are only accessible by road, and decided to buy a car instead of just hiring one. It's interesting, you'd think Jake might have a car phobia after the accident, but no - he loves cars. Thanks - " as he took the offered paperwork and handed over a check for the car.
He strolled unhurriedly from the dealer's office and joined Blair at the car. He opened the passenger door, Blair got in, and Jim made a big display of checking that the seat belt was fastened before closing the door and going to the driver's side. He drove smoothly away.
They headed south, both confident that if their pursuers ever traced them to Spokane, they'd covered their tracks there quite well. They didn't hurry, because Jim decided that facial hair would do a great deal to disguise them, and he wanted it to be grown enough to look not new when they next entered a centre of population. So they camped for a few days in an out-of-the-way site before travelling on southwards.
Jim sold the laptop in Las Vegas and the car in San Francisco, giving the dealer he approached the tale of having bought a car for his vacation - "But I'm flying home tomorrow, and don't need it." He was sorry to dispose of the car - it had indeed been a very good buy - but they dared not assume that their pursuers hadn't tracked them to Spokane and were now trying to trace them through the car. He paid the checks for both into a bank there, to an account in the name of James Petersen. He then went off shopping - they needed to change the type of clothes they had been wearing.
It was some hours before he returned to their hotel, carrying bags from several different stores. There was no sign of Blair, but he wasn't surprised; Blair had gone in search of his cousin who, he admitted, wouldn't be easy to find even although he had an address for him. Jim busied himself packing the new clothes into their rucksacks, keeping out only enough for them to wear the next day; in the morning they would give the old ones to one of the shelters before catching a flight out.
Blair arrived about an hour later, just before Jim started really worrying about him. "Well?" Jim asked the moment the bedroom door closed.
"Well, I managed to find Robert," Blair said. "And yes, he's got a contact who can provide us with papers. Won't cost us anything, either; the guy owes Robert a pretty big favor, and Robert called it in." He grinned. "It balanced a favor Robert owed me from years ago, when we were kids. They were both happy to clear those favors so easily - though if this hadn't happened, I'd never have called in the one from Robert. I've never thought of it as that big a deal, though I've always known he did."
"Do I even want to know?" Jim asked.
"I don't know about the other guy, but what Robert owed me - " Blair shrugged. "He was doing badly in school - in just one subject, but it was pulling down his average very badly; he had a teacher who found the subject so easy he didn't explain things fully. Didn't understand it needed to be explained at all. The school authorities had to have known he was a hopeless teacher, but didn't do anything about it. We're close enough the same age, but I went to a different school, and I was able to go over everything with him, made it clear enough that he got a passing grade - the only one in his class who did. Saved him a lot of trouble from his dad.
"But it'll take another three or four days to get the papers. The guy uses the identities of people about the right age who are dead - that's what causes the delay, finding ones that are suitable. And he provides a short background history for them - place of birth, parents' names, things like that."
Jim frowned. "I'm not happy about staying here as long as that," he said.
"Well, I was thinking about that," Blair said. "There's no law says we have to stay together all the time - "
"I don't think it's a good idea to split up," Jim muttered.
"Jim, let me finish," Blair said. "The guys looking for us are looking for two men travelling together. So separating for a day or two, at this point, makes sense. James Petersen told the car dealer he was flying home tomorrow - so James Petersen flies out, maybe to Chicago in keeping with what he told the dealer in Spokane. Once you're there, change terminals, use another name, fly standby to... oh, New York, stay there a day or two then use a different airline to fly to... let's say Phoenix. Get a room at a Holiday Inn - there's one in Scottsdale. Book in until... Mmm... This is Thursday. Until Tuesday, calling yourself... Ralph Young. That gives Robert's friend five days to get the papers ready. If they aren't ready in time for me to fly out on Monday, I'll give you a quick phone call. Identify yourself as 'James' and I'll reply with just one word - 'Woden' for Wednesday, 'Thor' for Thursday, 'Freya' for Friday, 'Saturn' for Saturday, 'Sun' for Sunday, 'Moon' for Monday, 'Tiu' for next Tuesday. If there's a delay... If it's before you hit Phoenix, just book in to the day after I've said. If it's after... "
"It'd better not be!" Jim growled.
"If it's after, book out as planned and go to the Holiday Inn Express at the airport, and book in there till the day after I say. I wouldn't think a phone call lasting two words is likely to give anyone who managed to hear them much clue as to where we are and what we're planning."
Jim muttered a reluctant agreement, and Blair carried on.
"Meanwhile, Jake Petersen books out of here tomorrow morning with his brother, we take a cab to the airport, I go in with you... then at the terminal I say goodbye, wave you onto the plane, leave, find another hotel, then once I get the papers from Robert, I fly to Phoenix. We meet up by chance in the hotel lobby - maybe old but fairly casual acquaintances. I'll use the name David Harcourt. We book out at about the same time, decide to share a cab to the airport, making no secret about you going back to New York and me going to... say Denver. At the airport we book separately on a flight to Los Angeles. We can join up again there - nobody will notice if one of us delays to let the other catch up, as if we've been separated by the crowd."
"You sound as if you've done something like this before."
"No, not really, but Naomi always planned all our trips carefully, and I always knew what to do and where to go if we were separated. That included having code words for certain things - once or twice she had to run away from an abusive relationship and the guy wasn't prepared to let her go."
"Okay." Jim carefully repeated the instructions Blair had given him, and then they went to get a meal.
There were no glitches, and they met up in Scottsdale as planned. Jim examined the false papers minutely, and had to admit that they were perfectly done. They were 'Canadian' papers, identifying him as Keith Marshall and Blair as Euan Cameron; since neither wanted to retain the beards longer than necessary, Blair had provided photos that showed them both clean-shaven.
Jim nodded. "These look perfect. Though we'll have to be careful; since we've got our own passports too as well as the Petersen ones, if we're ever subjected to a search, say at an airport, having more than one set of papers each would set off all sorts of alarms."
Blair grinned. "Ah, well, I've got some experience there, too," he said. "Naomi sometimes used false papers when we were travelling, and I got pretty good at hiding the spare ones."
"Dare I ask?"
"I told you - sometimes when she moved, it was to escape an abusive relationship. We were followed more than once, and had to change our identities, and sometimes we flew out of America, where checks were stricter than on internal flights - and I've noticed security is even tighter now, but I think I can still manage to hide the extra papers. It's weird," he added thoughtfully. "It was always the abusive ones who tried to find us again; never the ones I wouldn't have minded her staying with."
"It always seems to be those ones who think they own whoever it is they're abusing," Jim murmured. "I'd like to keep my gun - think you can hide that, too?"
Blair looked at him, and shook his head. "With luggage being x-rayed and passengers going through a metal detector? No way."
Not prepared to sell the gun in case it fell into the wrong hands, Jim disposed of the gun later that night, kicking it into a storm drain where, he hoped, it would remain unfound.
They met 'by accident' at the registration desk as they booked out of the hotel, and when Blair 'overheard' Jim asking the girl at the desk to phone for a cab to take him to the airport, said, "Hey, I'm going there too - flying out to Denver later this morning. How about we share the cab?"
Jim glanced at him. "Well, no point in getting two cabs to go to the same place. Fine by me."
At the airport they separated again, made their individual way to the desk for Los Angeles and, two or three other passengers apart, booked flights. Waiting at the gate, they sat separately but where they could see each other, and were careful to board with several others between them.
When they landed, Blair let Jim go some distance before he speeded up, just after passing a fairly big group of people going the other way, and caught up with his friend, falling easily and casually into step beside him.
They booked into one of the airport hotels, then made their way into the city. They visited the post office and Blair got himself a box number. Then, finding a bank, he went in alone and opened an account using the name Euan Cameron, depositing about half the cash he had left as well as a check from 'J Petersen' from the sale of the laptop, using the box number as a local address, and giving his cousin's address in San Francisco as his permanent one. He also applied for a credit card, arranging for it to be paid in full every month from his account.
The trail - for anyone following them - was, they hoped, getting harder to trace.
They went together to a camera store, where Blair selected a powerful camera and Jim paid for it, saying cheerfully "Happy birthday!" as he did.
"Thanks, Jim," Blair responded happily. He was about to begin a new career as a freelance photographer.
They left Los Angeles two days later, heading south, and crossed into Mexico at Tijuana, walking across the border just behind a group of tourists off a coach, as if they were part of it. Once out of sight of the border post they edged away from the group and joined several other individuals waiting for a bus to take them into the town.
In the town they wandered off as if they were merely sight-seeing, found a hotel and booked in, using the Marshall/Cameron identities. Next morning, they booked out, made their way to the airport, and caught a plane to Mexico City.
There, clean-shaven again, Blair spent several days taking a range of photos which he submitted to one of the anthropological magazines in America, with a short blurb about each site, still using his Cameron identity; committed to staying in the Mexico City hotel until he heard back from the magazine. He also contacted the post office where he had his box number to see if any post had arrived there for him - not that he expected any - and was given the negative reply that he had expected.
Several of his photos were accepted and he arranged for payment to be made direct to his bank in Los Angeles. He submitted the rejects to a different magazine, and had several of them accepted by it, also with payment being made directly to his bank. The two or three that were returned to him, he packed carefully away. He could perhaps do something with them later.
While he waited for a response from the magazines, he made several trips to sites outside Mexico City, and prepared some material on the photos he took there. He would submit them from his next stop.
'Keith Marshall' stayed in Mexico City for three weeks, an apparently casual acquaintance who had met 'Euan Cameron' at the hotel, then flew on to Brazilia. After spending a month there, he went on to La Paz and, from there, eventually went on to Lima. During that time, he was very careful to keep his senses dialled down to normal.
Neither man was happy when they separated, but Blair insisted, and Jim reluctantly conceded, that whoever Kelso had warned them about would be looking for two men travelling together. Time enough to join up again permanently, rather than as occasional and casual acquaintances, after a year or so of leaving false trails. With luck, by then they would have completely shaken off any pursuit, the search for them abandoned.
Two days after hearing from the second magazine, 'Euan Cameron' packed his bags and flew to Lima.
They met as apparent strangers in the hotel bar when Jim, having bought a drink, wandered over to where Blair was sitting on his own.
"Mind if I join you?"
Blair looked up. "Help yourself."
Jim sank into a comfortable chair opposite him. "Keith Marshall," he said.
"Euan Cameron. So what brings you to Lima, Mr. Marshall?"
"I'm on an extended vacation," Jim said. "Doctor told me I was overdoing things and needed a long break, no worries, no responsibilities. Knew if I stayed at home I wouldn't get that - my wife wanted to me to do all sorts of things around the house, my boss kept phoning to ask if I could check on some things nobody at work had time to do... But I don't deny I'm finding it just a little lonely."
"Your wife didn't want to come with you?"
"Not unless I settled for the kind of vacation that was only going to increase my blood pressure," Jim grinned. "What about you?"
"Freelance photographer," Blair said.
"Ah, so life's a permanent vacation for you?"
"No way!" Blair said. "Okay, I travel all over, but I'm always looking for photogenic images - places, people... It's not just a case of point and snap, though that sometimes produces a candid camera shot that magazines will go for. I've got to work out unusual angles, good lighting effects, get away from the standard 'everyone takes a photo from this spot, it's so scenic' and go for something that isn't run-of-the-mill, that'll catch an editor's eye. There are too many of us trying to make a living from photography for it to be easy."
"What sort of magazines do you sell your photos to, then?"
"Well, I've just sold some photos to a couple of anthropology magazines. Then there are ones like National Geographic - they have staff photographers, but they're always looking for human interest shots, and if you can write a bit about the photos, a short article to go with the illustration, that's always helpful. Central and South America have a lot of remains that an imaginative photographer can exploit."
They chatted for a while, then Blair glanced at his watch. "I think it's about time for dinner - care to join me, Mr. Marshall?"
"I was thinking much the same. Thank you."
They continued to chat inconsequentially throughout dinner, carefully keeping to subjects that sounded as if they were indeed two strangers who were finding each other's company congenial, and were getting to know each other.
After dinner - each of them carefully charging what he had eaten to his own room - Blair yawned. "It's been a long day for me," he said. "I think I'm for bed."
Jim nodded. "Good idea," he said. As they left the restaurant, he said, "Join me for breakfast? I usually eat around eight."
"Okay, thanks - I'll be glad of the company. Then I need to hit the streets and see what I can find to photograph. Maybe you could suggest some possibilities, since you've been here a few days?"
In the elevator, sure that they couldn't be overheard, Jim murmured, "What room are you in?"
"That's handy - I'm in 738. Join me for a while?"
Blair nodded. "If it's quiet."
Much to the relief of both men, the corridor was empty, and they went into Jim's room.
As soon as the door closed, Jim turned and caught Blair in a tight hug. Blair reciprocated enthusiastically.
"God, Chief," Jim murmured, "I've missed you!"
After a minute they separated and settled down to talk - exchanging more personal details than had been possible when they had had to appear to be the most casual of newly-met acquaintances.
It was late before Blair returned to his own roon.
Ten days later, they went together for an evening meal in a nearby restaurant, and when Blair tried to pay, his credit card was rejected.
Puzzled, he shook his head when the waiter came back to ask for a different method of payment. "The card should be good," he said. "I don't understand what's gone wrong."
Jim pulled out his wallet. "I'll pay," he said.
As the waiter took Jim's money, Blair pocketed the rejected card, muttering, "I'll have to phone my bank first thing and get this sorted out."
In the street, he said quietly, "I suspect this means I've been traced to LA. The 'men in black' have put a stop on the card to make sure they can trace where I am. That means the Cameron identity's been compromised somehow, possibly the Petersen one as well, though they mightn't have caught onto your Marshall one."
"So now you've tried to use your card, they will know you're in Lima."
"We've got to get out."
"We have a few hours. Let's get back to the hotel and think about it."
As they made their way to the seventh floor, Blair said, "We need to muddy the waters. Get away, while making it look as if we don't suspect anything."
"The Chopek," Jim said.
Blair looked at him. "Huh? But - "
"Yes, I can undoubtedly be linked to the Chopek, but maybe that's so obvious they'll overlook it; they won't expect us to head for what they consider a primitive culture; they'll expect us to think we can hide out easier in a city. But even if they don't overlook it, the Chopek will hide us. But we have to get to La Montana without being caught."
"Dare we wait until the morning?" Blair muttered. "Because the obvious thing to do is leave, saying we're headed for Cuzco and Machu Picchu, and instead go north - maybe to Trujillo, then inland from there - but we won't get transport at this time of night, and if we wait till morning, that gives them at least ten hours to get here and trap us."
"And we don't want to book out of the hotel either; we want to make it look as if we're coming back."
"True... though I hate cheating the hotel. Wait a minute. We might have been tracked to Lima, and even to the restaurant where we ate, but they won't know what hotel we're in - "
"Unless they phone all the hotels in Lima saying they're trying to find Euan Cameron, because there's a family emergency, and is he staying in your hotel."
"Yeah, they could do that... No, I think we have to get out now, even if we spend the night sitting at the airport."
Once again they spared a few minutes to gather the essentials; a change of clothes, their papers, money, putting it all into Blair's backpack - the hotel staff were already used to seeing him going out, camera slung over one shoulder and pack over the other. As they walked past Reception, Blair grinned at the girl on duty.
"You are late going out, senor," she said.
"I want to try to get some atmospheric night shots," he replied.
"Ah. Going out late can be dangerous. Be sure you are not attacked - your camera would draw the thieves who hide in the darkness."
"That's why Mr. Marshall is going with me. He'll stand guard while I'm working."
"Si, of course."
They left the hotel. Once outside, Blair pushed the camera into the pack and they headed down the street. Once they were satisfied they were far enough away from the hotel that it might be difficult for anyone asking if a cab had picked them up, they caught a cab and asked the driver to take them to a good nightclub. After he dropped them off and drove away, they walked two or three hundred yards and took another cab, this time going to the airport.
At night, with no flights coming in or going out, there was only a skeleton staff on duty, but using the Young and Harcourt names they were able to get tickets on the first morning flight to Trujillo, paying cash. They found a quiet corner and settled down.
"Should we try to get from Trujillo into Equador, then head back on foot?" Blair murmured softly. "If they managed to track us to there, they wouldn't expect us to come back into Peru, would they?"
"They might have all the international airports alerted to whatever names we might use," Jim said, "saying that we're wanted criminals. Granted we weren't asked for proof of identity here, but this is an internal flight. Going into Equador, we'd certainly have to produce passports."
Blair shook his head. "All the times Naomi and I ran, we never thought about that as a possibility... but then we were never being followed by anyone who could pull strings or had the resources to discover what false names we might use." He gave an unamused half laugh. "At least one of them didn't have the intelligence to realize we could use false names. Even Naomi admitted she couldn't understand what she ever saw in him."
They fell silent. After a while, Blair's eyes drooped shut, and his head slipped sideways to rest on Jim's shoulder. The older man smiled almost indulgently even as he mentally cursed Naomi for her well-meant meddling. Blair shouldn't have to live on the run like this - despite his claim that Naomi had run from an abusive partner and that he had become pretty good at hiding false papers.
And Jack Kelso. Jim was quietly determined that he would find some way to repay Kelso for the warning. Even if he didn't have sentinel abilities, Jim had no doubt that life would have been very unpleasant for both him and Blair if they had been delivered to a covert ops secret lab for testing - and it might have been a death sentence, too, at least for Blair; Jim had signed all kinds of nondisclosure forms when he was in the army, but Blair hadn't, and Blair was not a man to keep his mouth shut over what he perceived as injustice. He might very well have been killed to keep him quiet... and if Blair had been killed, Jim's death would have been close behind. The sentinel knew that his temper had a very short fuse, and there was no way that he could have seen Blair die and not reacted.
Now, in the overnight quiet of the airport, Jim considered their options.
The Chopek would be happy to see Enqueri return, happy to have a sentinel as one of the tribe again, happy to accept the man Incacha had made his heir as shaman (even although Blair was untrained) and would certainly give them sanctuary, but was it fair to involve them more than briefly? Jim had no illusions when it came to the men who ran covert ops. They were, in his opinion, sociopaths who had found a legitimate way to use their ruthlessness, their lack of conscience; and while many of the covert ops rank and file were honest men who genuinely believed they were working for the good of their country, a few had the same mindset as their superiors, who would be certain to use those men as guards in their attempt to discover what made a sentinel tick.
Maybe they should have gone public; admitted the truth, if necessary gone back to court to prove that everyone he'd been responsible for having convicted were arrested on evidence gained without the use of his senses - they had learned the necessity of that very early, with Tommy Juno. If they had gone public, if the residents of Cascade had known what he was, could covert ops have spirited them away? Not without garnering a lot of bad publicity for the government's use of its armed forces. The media attention would have been more than annoying, but media attention being as notoriously short as it was, publicity would soon have switched to something else. At the same time, though... all it would have needed was an official letter recalling him 'for the good of his country'. He couldn't have refused... though Blair would probably have been safe. Possibly. The first time he had a major problem with his senses, the men in black would have grabbed Blair to find out why.
No, it was better this way... and surely, surely they would find someplace where they were safe!
They took a cab from the airport into Trujillo, asking the driver - who spoke surprisingly good English - to take them to a reasonable hotel. As they went, Blair chattered knowledgeably about the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon; the driver asked, "You have been to Trujillo before, then, senor?"
"It's been a few years, but yes. The archaeology of the area is amazing! And if I'm honest, places like Machu Picchu and Nazca are impressive, but I found this part of Peru far more generally interesting. I'm hoping to get some good photos and then write an article about the structures the Moche and Chimu built."
"You are an archaeologist, then?"
"Not really. I studied some archaeology at university, so I do know something about the subject, but although sometimes you find plenty of things when you excavate, often you don't find much at all - it depends a lot on the site - so I found the actual hands-on of excavating pretty boring much of the time. So I prefer letting others do the digging, then I read the reports they publish, go in, and write my impression of things for a more general public. I'm looking forward to visiting Chan Chan - I didn't get there the last time I was here, and I understand it's quite impressive."
"Much of what they found when they excavated is now in museums," the driver said. "All that the visitors see is the ruins."
"Well, yes, but a city of that size, built seven hundred years ago... You never really think of that many people living together so long ago; you tend to think that people back then lived in fairly small communities. Chan Chan is really remarkable."
The driver took them to the Hotel Primavera. "It is a little way from the town center," he said, "but it has hot water. A lot of the hotels only provide cold water."
"Thank you!" Blair said. They paid him, adding a good tip, and went into the hotel as he drove away.
They booked in, saying they weren't sure how long they'd be staying, and giving the receptionist the same story about planning to write an article on the archaeology of the area. Then they went in search of a bus to take them into the interior.
After a while they found a bus that went to Tarapoto, but the first one that had seats available was in four days. They booked seats. "It is wise to confirm each day that your booking has not been lost," the clerk told them, in Spanish. "This is a very busy bus."
"Ah, si. Muchas gracias," Blair said.
They spent the four days as tourists, checking their bus booking each morning before heading off to visit the various sites around Trujillo. Blair took a lot of photos, looking for unusual angles - he had every intention of trying to sell an illustrated article on the area to a magazine... some time. And always they watched for any sign that they had been followed.
On the fourth morning they booked out of the hotel, saying they were going back to Lima; then they headed for the bus.
It was, as the clerk had said, a very busy bus, but as it went it slowly lost passengers and by the time it eventually reached Tarapoto, hours later, it was only half full. They found a cheap hotel for the night, and next day booked onto a pickup headed for Yurimaguas.
It was a bumpy five-hour trip, and the pickup badly needed some attention; the bodywork squeaked and rattled and the engine sounded very rough; by the end of the journey Jim was nursing a headache. When they climbed from the pickup, all he wanted was to find somewhere to lie down. Glancing around, Blair saw a hotel that looked clean, and led Jim towards it.
Their room had a cooling fan, and Blair switched it on with a sigh of relief. He settled Jim on the queen-sized bed - there was only one bed in the room - and lay beside him, holding him. Slowly the tension in Jim's body eased, and he drifted into sleep.
Blair was reasonably certain that they had - at least for the moment - lost any pursuit that might have reached Lima, so once he was certain that Jim was fast asleep, he slipped out of bed and went exploring.
Under other circumstances, he would have been happy to stay in Yurimaguas for several days. It was a fairly small town, and he knew there were no archaeological remains nearby; it was quiet, with few tourists, the perfect place for an over-stressed sentinel to spend a few relaxing, undemanding days. He paused for a moment on the bank of the Rio Huallaga, looking downriver. The Huallaga was a big river which, some miles downstream, was joined by the Maranon river, then some distance further on joined the Ucayali, to become the Amazon.
But they didn't actually want the Amazon; they needed to head away from civilisation now, north-westerly, to reach La Montana and the Chopek.
Blair found the local tourist information office, went in, and bought a map. "I really should have got one back in Lima," he said ruefully. "I want to keep track of where I've been, what I've seen."
"Where have you come from?" the clerk asked.
"Today? Tarapoto," Blair replied. "I'm thinking of going on to Iquitos in a day or two - what's the best way to get there?"
"You have two choices - fly or find a boat," the man replied. "There are no motor roads to Iquitos. For speed, you fly, but if you want to fly, you need to go back to Tarapoto. To see the land, perhaps some of the animals, you should take the river - that is the only way to get to Iquitos from here. It takes three days, perhaps four. If you go to the docks, you will easily find the offices for the cargo boats, or you could approach one of the captains. You can book a passage for a few dollars."
"Thanks." Blair paid for the map, and returned to the street. Knowing that the clerk was watching, he walked slowly, stopping to look in windows, giving the impression of a man on his own who was filling in time in a town that lacked many obvious tourist attractions.
Once he was out of sight of the tourist office, he speeded up, and returned to the hotel. Jim was still asleep, and Blair settled quietly to study the map, noting that there was a small river running from the Montana region that would provide a useful guide for the next part of their journey.
Jim woke about an hour later, and pushed himself up on one elbow.
"How do you feel?" Blair asked.
"Better," Jim said. "I'm just glad that pickup didn't die on us when we were halfway here. What have you got there?"
"I bought us a map," Blair said. "And at the same time asked how to get to Iquitos, which is a long way from where we want to go."
Jim joined him, looking over his shoulder at the map. Blair traced the course of the river with a finger. "If we follow this river... " he said.
Jim nodded. "Yes," he said. "Pity we couldn't get a canoe, but if we tried to buy one it would make us stand out."
"That's what I was thinking," Blair agreed.
They stayed two nights in Yurimaguas, and booked out of the hotel already talking about the river journey to Iquitos.
During the previous day, they had explored the outskirts of the town, and once out of sight of the hotel set off briskly, knowing exactly where they were going. Although obvious luggage would have been a problem, Blair's backpack, which held all their possessions, had the look of a day pack that held little more than waterproofs and food.
Finding the track they wanted, they set off as if for a day's hiking. After a mile or so, the track took them to the bank of the river they wanted before petering out. Jim took the lead, and they began to push their way through the rain forest.
It was an arduous journey; they could only cover a few miles a day, partly because of the density of the vegetation, partly because they had to hunt for food as they went. After several days they realized they were approaching a small town, and swung away from the river to pass it unnoticed. Another day, and they had to leave the helpful river, striking out in a slightly more northerly direction. The ground was rising now, the air cooler, pleasant after the unrelenting heat of the Huallaga... valley, Blair supposed they might call it, although the land all around the river was very flat.
They soon lost track of time, with no idea of how long they had spent forcing their way through the forest. A distance that could be covered by a helicopter in an hour took them many days. They were less careful now about not leaving traces of their passing than they had been early on; both men certain that even if their pursuers had managed to follow them to Yurimaguas and realized they had headed into the rain forest instead of going to Iquitos, the odds on them following the exact same route were vanishingly small. They had, in the opinion of both men, finally, successfully, vanished.
The voice coming from the trees in front of them stopped them both as three men armed with blowpipes and bows stepped into view.
Jim grinned broadly. "Tupaq!" He didn't recognize either of the other men, but that didn't matter; Tupaq knew him, so he was not a stranger. And it was probable that both the young men could remember him from his days living with the Chopek, although he had had little to do with the children, even those boys who were nearly old enough to be considered men.
"You have left the Great City, although you are its sentinel?" Tupaq went on.
"For a while," Jim replied. "I would live with you again for a season; my companion needs to learn from whoever is your shaman now."
"You are most welcome," Tupaq went on. "Your companion is your shield?"
"Yes, and he is a good shield. But there is more; as he lay dying, Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to him, but in the Great City there is no-one to teach him a shaman's skills. This has worried him; that he cannot properly use Incacha's legacy. So we have come here that he might learn."
Tupaq nodded. "Inchawaqa is our shaman now. He foresaw your coming; we have been watching for you. Come."
Jim and Blair followed Tupaq as he turned and headed confidently off into the forest. The other two men fell in behind them as they went.
When they reached the village, Inchawaqa was waiting for them, and immediately took charge of Blair, leading him off into his hut, while Tupaq showed Jim to a newly-built hut. "We knew you were coming; this was built for you."
Jim suspected that he would see little of Blair for some days, possibly some weeks; but here, in a world where sentinels were known and accepted, he knew he could use his senses naturally, as they were meant to be used; to read the weather, to help the hunters find game, and if he also watched for approaching enemies, the men of the tribe would watch out for him when Blair wasn't there.
And so it was. Blair lived with Inchawaqa and for four weeks neither of them left the shaman's hut except rarely, while Jim worked with the men, hunted with them, and once tracked down and helped to kill a group of white men whose integrity was very clearly lacking. The drug runners Jim had been sent into the area to combat, years before, still made the occasional foray into the area; the Chopek still guarded the Pass, still hunted them down.
At the end of four weeks, Inchawaqa led Blair to the fire where Jim sat sharing a meal with Tupaq's family. "Incacha chose well," Inchawaqa told Jim. "Chimalli is a fast learner; and he has already walked the Path of the Spirits, dying and being reborn, before coming here to learn from me."
"He has died twice," Jim replied. "The first death was when an evil woman killed him. The second was when he sacrificed the life he had led to protect my life."
"Sentinel and Shield must now take a spirit walk together. You must be prepared for it; tomorrow you will both fast, and then tomorrow night you will eat the mushrooms that give you visions. Your future will be determined by that vision."
Jim looked at Blair, knowing how his friend felt about hallucinogens; in reply, Blair glanced quickly down, then up again, and Jim understood that Blair recognized the necessity, little though he might like it. And hallucinogenic mushrooms were at least natural, not the chemical poison Golden had been. Inchawaqa would know the amount it was safe for them to eat.
Jim spent the next day in solitary contemplation. Blair, he knew, would be meditating, but Jim had never quite mastered meditation. As the tribe began to gather for the evening meal, Jim went to the river and carefully washed before returning to sit at the door of his hut, watching Inchawaqa's hut as he waited for the shaman's summons.
He did not have long to wait. Inchawaqa appeared at the doorway of his hut and beckoned; Jim rose and walked steadily over.
Inside, Blair sat cross-legged, naked, his body painted with designs that Jim could remember from his days with Incacha. Jim immediately removed his clothes, and put them beside Blair's; nodding approvingly, Inchawaqa indicated that he should sit beside Blair before approaching him, a container in one hand that Jim knew contained paint. Using the chewed end of a twig, Inchawaqa carefully painted Jim's body, muttering incantations as he did, then handed both men a bowl of mushrooms. He continued to chant as they ate, Jim choking a little at the slightly bitter taste.
Almost immediately he began to feel dizzy; Inchawaqa's voice faded and he found himself in a clearing in the blue jungle of his visions, Blair at his side. He reached out and took Blair's hand. "Together, Chief, whatever happens," he said.
Blair smiled. "Yes. Together."
There was a path leading away from the clearing, and they turned towards it. They had not gone far, however, when an owl flew down and landed on the path in front of them. It immediately began to change shape, growing larger, wings changing to arms...
Incacha stood in front of them. "Your skills are wasted as long as you remain in the Great City," he said. "You are needed in many other places. I offer you the protection of the spirits - you can go wherever you wish in the world with no danger that the men who now pursue you will ever find you, although sometimes what you think is your own choice will be directed by the spirits. The money that the outside word uses will never be a problem - Chimalli's words and pictures will see to that."
"What do the spirits ask in exchange, old friend?" Jim asked.
"That you put right things that have gone wrong. This will sometimes mean travelling through time; I will see to that. You will meet with danger - the only certainty I can offer is that it will not be from the men now following you. Now that he has learned what to do, Chimalli can come here any time, and I will advise him. You will see me less often, Enqueri, but you will see me sometimes."
"What if we reject your offer?" Blair asked.
"Then you can stay with the Chopek; you will work some of the time with Inchawaqa and some of the time act as Shield to Enqueri, who will continue to be the Sentinel for the tribe. You will be safe here and be of great benefit to the Chopek; but people will die who should not have died because you are not there to save them. The only problem - for you, Chimalli - is that for every life you save, someone else must die."
"The obvious people to die are the ones who would have killed," Jim said.
Jim and Blair looked at each other, each seeing in the other's eyes the willingness to accept the greater burden. "We'll do it," Blair said.
Inchacha smiled. "I chose my successor well," he said, and then morphed back into an owl that shook its feathers before stretching its wings and flying away
Jim lay in a rough shelter made from a sheet of polythene, feeling his eyes beginning to close as his thoughts brought him back to this place.
In the years since they made their bargain with Incacha, they had travelled the world, using the identities of Keith Marshall and Euan Cameron. They left the Chopek a few days after their joint vision, Tupaq leading them to a small town from which they could get transport back to Trujillo. Incacha had been as good as his word; 'Euan Cameron's' credit card had been accepted again when Blair used it to pay for the flight; one of the first things they did, having established that everything seemed to be safe, was send the Lima hotel a check for their stay there.
Blair's articles and accompanying photographs were welcomed by several magazines, and the Cameron bank account grew steadily and was now very healthy. Jim retained the James Petersen bank account and it was growing as well; Jim discovered in himself a surprising ability to write detective novels. Done in the first place purely to pass the time when he and Blair separated, he had reluctantly submitted the first one, on Blair's insistence, to an agent Blair knew, only to find himself being pressured to write another and then another... As with Blair, it did mean committing himself to staying in one place until he heard back from the agent, but he knew that if he did have to move, he could always contact the firm and give them a change of address. The one thing he refused to provide was a photo for the book jacket.
Every year, starting with their second one away from Cascade, they sent Simon a letter letting him know they were still safe. With the first one they had authorized him, in a separate note that gave no indication of where they were, to use the loft as he saw fit; since Jim owned it outright, no financial company would have repossessed it in the intervening months.
They had saved many lives, leaving dead in their place the cold-blooded killers who had thought to use murder to further their greed or selfishness. Jim knew that Blair regretted the deaths even although he accepted that it was better for these men to die than the planned victims; he wouldn't have been Blair if he hadn't. Jim himself was more pragmatic about it, but then he had spent his life in either the army or law enforcement; he was the protector of society, Blair was his protector. His shield.
Although Blair had told the storekeeper in Little Greenham that 'we can never go back', that wasn't quite accurate. One day soon they would have to return to America, the one country they had avoided in their years of travel; the passports they had been using would expire shortly, and getting false ones renewed would probably be difficult. Dare they return to Cascade? he wondered. Close on ten years had passed; they could probably go back, contact Simon, make their base there and continue to spend part of each year travelling, letting Blair get more photos to illustrate his articles. Of course, he had a stock of photos he had never used in a deposit box at his bank in LA, sending them there at frequent intervals; he could collect them and use them as a basis for articles for an indefinite period, and Jim himself could write his novels anywhere.
Their bargain with Incacha would still hold; there were plenty of wrongs in and around Cascade to be righted; and if Incacha wanted something done elsewhere, why, they were free agents; they could go to wherever he wanted them to go, apparently on vacation...
When they woke in the morning, they would be back in their own time, he knew. Yes, he thought. We'll finish walking the Ridgeway; Blair only went as far as Ramsey when he was a child, and from the way he spoke I'm sure he'd like to do the whole walk. And then we'll go home.