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Tim Heron Junior never used a recognized camp site; he preferred to camp wild, on his own. A loner, he had once told his sister Wendy - his sole friend and confidant - that these weekends spent alone allowed him to unwind from the stress of having other people around him all week, and she - obedient to what she knew were his wishes, unstated though they were - told nobody else, keeping it a secret. Although she had no interest in camping or hiking, she had once offered to join him, perceiving, as he apparently didn't, that solo hiking in the wilds could be dangerous. He had expressed gratitude for the offer, but refused it. "Not even you," he told her. "I need to be totally alone."
And so he had gone off one Friday evening, leaving no indication of the route - or routes - he meant to hike once he reached the area where he planned to camp. All his family knew was that area - and they knew that only because, when he started going away on his own, Wendy had persuaded him to promise that he would at least tell them that much.
When he failed to arrive back home on Sunday night, his father contacted the police to report him missing. When there was still no word on Monday morning, Highway Patrol had gone to check the place where Tim had said he would camp. They found his car and tent, but no sign of the missing man.
Timothy Heron Senior was a wealthy and influential man whose finger dipped regularly into local politics. He didn't himself want to be directly involved in politics, but he did enjoy knowing he was in a position to influence the local politicians - it was rumored that he had personally financed the Mayor's last campaign, giving the Mayor a high incentive to listen to him - and so strings were instantly pulled for him that were unlikely to have been pulled for anyone else. During Monday, Search and Rescue units were rushed in from all over the country, and on Tuesday morning, in twos and threes, were sent off in all directions with instructions to cover as much ground as a young, fit man could possibly travel in one day. Tim Heron - who, even his father admitted, had never been known for common sense - was known to be a keen hiker whose idea of a 'lazy day' was a walk of less than twenty miles.
There were five dog teams; and eight of the searchers were sentinel-guide pairs, all brought in from other areas.
It had been a long, tiring and fruitless day; Sentinel Ranger Jim Ellison and his guide, Ranger Mark Lovell, had covered many miles in the search and still had some seven miles to travel to get back to base - the area beside Tin Heron's camp where sedarch headquarters had been set up.
Suddenly Jim stopped, his head raised. Recognizing the posture, Mark took the three steps that separated them and put his hand against Jim's back to ground him and help him to focus. "What is it?" he asked.
"Decay," Jim said. He turned his head slightly, trying to pinpoint the source. "This way."
He headed off at an angle that, after a couple of miles, took them to a point at least a mile from their original route - and there, at the foot of a short but very steep bank, was a body. Even Mark could smell it by then, had been able to smell it for the last two or three hundred yards. Marks on the earth of the bank showed where the dead man had fallen.
Jim bent over the body, checking it. "Dead at least two days," he said. "Possibly three - it was quite cold over the weekend." He looked up at the bank. "Not too far from his camp - he was either tired at the end of a long day, or striding out too confidently at the start of his hike. Walking along the top of that, he either walked off it or lost his footing; I'd say his neck's broken, so he'd have died instantly. He certainly doesn't look as if he moved or tried to move once he hit the ground. Call it in."
Mark nodded and flicked on the small radio transmitter that was more dependable in the mountains than a cell phone.
"Sentinel Two to base," he said.
"Come in, Sentinel Two."
"We've found a body." He didn't bother giving any sort of reference - GPS would pinpoint their position to within a few yards. "Sentinel Ellison thinks the victim has been dead for possibly three days."
"Helicopter on its way, Sentinel Two. Base out."
Mark switched the transmitter off and turned his attention back to Jim, watching as his sentinel scrambled up the bank a full hundred yards from the body. Jim made his way back along the top to where the dead man had fallen, studying the ground carefully.
"Do you need me up there?" Mark asked.
No, there was no need for Mark to join him - this close to his guide, in a situation where he didn't have to concentrate particularly intently, Jim could use his senses to almost their full extent without his guide's immediate support, although when he needed to concentrate he always seemed to be at his most efficient if Mark was in physical contact with him. He checked the ground above the body, quickly finding the heather-covered hole that had thrown the dead man off balance and down the eight-foot drop.
Not even carelessness. Simple bad luck - though Jim thought that in Heron's place he wouldn't have been walking quite so close to the edge - and even worse luck that he had landed awkwardly, at an angle that broke his neck rather than his leg.
He raised his head, hearing the distant whump-whump-whump-whump that signalled the imminent arrival of a SAR helicopter. Probably still some five minutes away, Jim estimated, even as Mark asked, "Helicopter coming?"
"Yes." Jim could see it now, a distant speck becoming more helicopter-shaped with every second.
John Quilley, leader of the local SAR unit, was on board the helicopter, and as the paramedic in its crew checked the body he joined Jim, careful, as Jim had been, to climb the bank some distance from the dead man.
Jim showed him the hole, and Quilley agreed that the presumed Tim Heron - until an official identification had been made they could still only presume that they had found the man they were looking for - had been walking along the top of the bank, stepped into the hole, been thrown off-balance and gone down the drop head-first. Quilley took some photos of the ground to show the way the hole had been hidden and how deep it actually was, then returned to the lower level and took more photos of the marks that showed how the dead man had fallen - Heron Senior being a man who would insist on knowing exactly what had happened, and might - illogical though that would be - even accuse the rescue services of negligence, despite the medical evidence that Tim had died on Sunday at the latest.
The body was carefully put into a body bag and onto a stretcher that was then secured on top of one of the runners - none of the men present, accustomed to death though they were, cared to have a three-day-old corpse in the cabin with them. The men, including Jim and Mark - fit though they were, neither man was averse to getting a lift that would save them two hours' walking - boarded the helicopter, which then took off, headed back towards the nearest morgue.
The SAR teams that had been drafted in left first thing the following morning - it was too late that night for any of then to consider travelling - apart from Jim and Mark, who had to remain long enough to give an official statement. That done, they left in the early afternoon, heading back towards Cascade.
At least Cascade was close enough that despite their late start they would still be home that night.
Jim sat, only half relaxed, in the passenger seat of Mark's car as Mark drove steaadily, just inside the speed limit. Although he admitted to himself - and frequently reminded himself - that Mark was a good driver, he always felt slightly on edge when someone else was driving. He would have preferred to be doing it himself. He had no option, however, than sit as a passenger; registered sentinels, even when accompanied by their guides, were not allowed to drive in case they zoned out on anything. It had happened once, some fifteen years previously, and the result had been a multi-vehicle crash in which eight people had died. The sentinel responsible had survived, but spinal damage meant he lost the use of his legs, and his guide had lost an arm just below the elbow. Within a week, a law was passed stating that no sentinel could legally drive inside America - what other countries did was their own affair - and when Jim's senses manifested after a week of solitary stakeout, he had had to surrender his licence - tempted though he had been to keep his new-found abilities a secret, he had too much integrity to do so.
Without a driving licence, he had quickly learned that without a partner it was almost impossible for him to continue working in the Cascade PD; and since the suspicious disappearance of his first - only - partner in Major Crime he had always worked alone. After thinking about it for a day or two, he had resigned and applied for work with the Ranger service in their Search and Rescue unit, where sentinels were always welcome.
Nobody knew what made a guide a guide but, in the presence of a sentinel, some people showed an immediate ability to work with one - most people didn't, and some were actually uneasy in the presence of a sentinel. It had been noted that those who felt uneasy were often those whose sense of morality was somewhat elastic, even if they hadn't actually broken any laws - even parking ones.
Jim and Mark met on a search a month after Jim joined the unit, and showed an immediate ability to work well together, although unlike many, indeed most, sentinel-guide pairs they didn't share a home; Mark was happily married with two children, had no intention of leaving his wife - who, while not objecting to Mark's new status as a guide, emphaticallly did not want to share her home with his sentinel - for any reason, and Jim saw no reason to object to that. He had no need to use his enhanced senses in the familiarity of his own home, felt he was in no danger of zoning out there, and had never in fact had a problem. Besides, although they worked well together and were friendly enough, they weren't exactly friends. They didn't socialize outside their work - in any case, Jim had never been a man who made friends. Taught by a father he had come to realize was embittered - though he had no idea why - that to trust someone with his heart was a major mistake and a recipe for unhappiness, even teenage rebellion had proved insufficient to let Jim relax his wariness enough to love anyone. He didn't, he knew, love even his father or his brother, though he did retain a certain affection for Sally, the housekeeper/cook who had been a mother figure in his life - his own mother having died in an accident when he was four, shortly after his brother was born. He could remember his mother, but only just; and his father had always refused to speak of her. He had always got on well enough with his fellow workers, but they were acquaintances, not friends, and in the days before he resigned none of them had shown any sign of guiding ability.
The drive was mostly silent, and when Mark stopped the car at 852 Prospect Jim got out and collected his kit from the trunk. "Thanks," he said. "See you Thursday."
Mark nodded. "Be careful." It was a routine, almost meaningless comment that he made every time he dropped Jim off at his home; Jim had long suspected that Mark made it out of some sense of 'my sentinel will expect it' rather than the genuine reminder of a close colleague. All of Mark's emotional commitment was directed towards his family, and Jim was well aware of that. It could have been quite hurting if Jim hadn't expected that sort of reaction from everyone - the one upside to his refusal to trust anyone fully. Although he trusted Mark to keep him gounded, he knew that if he had been able to like Mark more than superficially, he would have found Mark's total devotion to his family and working-relationship-only with his sentinel very difficult to accept.
He watched Mark drive away, and sighed as he turned to enter the building. Mark was a conscientious guide, a good guide, but - not for the first time - Jim, who found it so impossible to trust anyone on a personal level, wished that his guide felt something for him other than responsibility. Felt... yes, friendship.
Yet how could a friendship survive if it was wholly one-sided?
As he unlocked the door of apartment 307, Jim shook his head, wishing, not for the first time, that his teenage rebellious years had led him into trusting people; into refusing to believe that everyone he met was out to betray whatever trust he gave them.
He wasn't really hungry - a search that ended with the discovery of a body was always depressing - but he knew he must eat something, so he checked the fridge, even knowing that there was very little in it. The loft was a place to come back to in the evenings - and not always then, if a search was prolonged - and to relax in on his days off, and a weekend of patrolling, keeping an eye on visitors to Cascade National Forest, followed by a SAR call-out, meant he had had no chance of making a grocery run since the previous Thursday.
The small Mom and Pop store a block away that he normally frequented would still be open, but he was disinclined to go out again. Instead, he checked the freezer, knowing that although he didn't have much in it, he did have some pre-cooked meals; often when he cooked he made two or three times as much as he needed, and froze what was left in individual freeze-and-microwave containers. He checked what was there, selected a container of macaroni cheese, and slid it into the microwave.
As he ate, he watched something on television - two minutes after it ended, he was completely unable to remember anything about it. He washed the dishes, then automatically checked the contents of his backpack, replacing the trail mix he had eaten the previous day, showered, and went to bed.
On Wednesday morning he went out early and stocked up on groceries, leaning heavily on tins, packets and things he could freeze. He made a big pot of soup and some chicken stew, cooking more than he needed, and put most of both into the freezer.
He had just finished eating lunch when the phone rang. Instantly alert, he reached for it.
"Paul Carter. Sorry, Jim, I know this is still your day off, but this is an emergency."
It always is, Jim thought, resigned but alert.
"A group of children on an 'adventure' walk this morning somehow got split up. As of an hour ago, two of them had failed to get back to their base. The teacher in charge admits that she might be panicking over nothing, but one of the adults with the group has already retraced the route - it was only about five miles - and saw no sign of the missing boys."
The word 'children' instantly destroyed any objections he might have made. "Mark on his way here?"
"Yes. You'll be flown in - "
That was a surprise. Bob Temple, the helicopter pilot, was off sick, and as of Monday no replacement had been available. "Okay."
"Hurry." There was a click as Carter hung up.
No point telling me to hurry, Jim thought mutinously. I'm not the driver! He thrust his feet into light shoes, left his lunch dishes to soak, emptied the stew he had intended for dinner into a container and put it in the fridge, checked that everything in the loft was in order, grabbed his anorak, pack and boots, locked the door, pushed the key into a side pocket of his pack, and ran down the stairs.
Two minutes after he reached the curb, Mark's car pulled up beside him. He tossed his gear into the trunk, climbed into the passenger seat, and Mark floored the pedal as he headed for the airport.
Even Jim had to admit that he couldn't have driven there any faster (or more safely).
Mark pulled in to a parking space close to the SAR helicopter pad on the edge of the airport, stopping beside the elderly Volvo already parked there; and Jim had to chuckle to himself as he realized that they had arrived before Carter.
Both men took the minute needed to change into their boots, leaving their shoes in the trunk, then lifted out their backpacks. Mark locked the car and thrust the key into his pocket as they headed for the waiting helicopter.
Just before they reached it, the pilot dropped from it to the ground. "Hi. You must be two of my passengers? Blair Sandburg." He held out his hand.
Predictably it was Mark who responded as he gripped the outstretched hand. "Hi, Blair. I'm Mark Lovell. This is Jim Ellison."
"Hello, Mark. Jim - " He extended his hand to Jim.
Already, Jim knew he had never met anyone like this man. Reluctantly, but knowing that politeness, at least, demanded a response from him, he gripped the outstretched hand briefly. "Sandburg." He knew his voice was discouraging even without Mark's headshake, but it didn't seem to faze the pilot.
"You're the sentinel, right, Jim? God, you guys are so valuable! I mean, search dogs are good, and they do cover a lot of ground faster than people can, but you guys can interpret what you sense, and that can save so much time!" He looked at Mark. "And you're his guide? You're so lucky, having what it takes to work with a sentinel. I really, really envy you." He sighed. "All I can do is get you to a search point as quickly as possible - "
God, all Jim needed was a pilot with a strong case of hero-worship! "Here's Carter," he interrupted. A moment later a car swung into view some tens of yards away, and pulled up beside Mark's car. Carter's passenger - paramedic Katy Leigh - got out first and was opening the trunk as Carter got out. They took their packs from the car, Carter locked it and the two joined the three waiting men.
"I see you've introduced yourselves," Carter said.
Sandburg grinned. "Yes, sir," he said cheerfully with a nod to Katy; it seemed that they had already met, but that didn't surprise Jim; it was no secret that she and Carter were an item, and the only thing preventing them from marrying was Carter's estranged wife who, although she had left him, had flatly refused to agree to a divorce, citing the Church's ruling that marriage was for life.
Jim had never said just what he thought of that little bit of 'logic'.
"We're still waiting for Jerry and Dan," Carter went on. Jim nodded to himself, unsurprised. The ones being flown in were the elite of the SAR team; Jerry Hope and Dan Murphy each had one enhanced sense, sight and hearing respectivlely, and always worked together. Carter himself had no enhanced senses, but he had an eye for detail, an awareness, that made him an excellent searcher. The rest of the squad, who had no such advantages, would be gathering as well at the SAR office, to make their way to the search area in landrovers; indeed, the first of them were probably already on their way.
Another car pulled up, and the two men in it collected their packs and joined the small group at the helicopter. Carter introduced them to their new pilot, the six passengers climbed into the helicopter, followed by their pilot. Blair had already run through his checks; he started the machine and lifted it smoothly off the ground.
Just over an hour later he brought it down a few yards from the edge of the small campsite at Whitewater. In the tiny parking lot beside it was a minibus and a car. Several children, who looked to be around ten, were sitting on the ground in a circle, a man and a woman sitting beside them, talking to them. Stretching his hearing slightly, Jim nodded to himself as he realized they were being given a lesson in not leaving their designated route. Two more people - another man and woman - were standing beside the car.
Even as the helicopter landed, the pair began to walk towards them. The woman, Jim noted, was limping badly, a stretch bandage wrapped around one ankle.
"Mr. Carter?" the man asked.
"I'm Harry Kirgan - head of the school. This is Della Irvine, our PE teacher. She was in charge of the walking group."
"Mr. Kirgan, Ms. Irvine. Miss Leigh is our paramedic," Carter went on. "Sentinel Ellison and his guide, Ranger Lovell; Ranger Hope, Ranger Murphy. Mr. Sandburg, our pilot. He and Miss Leigh will stay here while the rest of us start searching, ready to fly to anyone we might find... if he can land," he added gloomily as he looked around and saw just how heavily wooded the area was.
"What's wrong with your ankle?" Katy asked.
Della smiled wryly. "I twisted it badly just after we arrived last night. It meant I had to be the one to stay here in case of a problem - normally it would have been Annie Grant. She's relatively inexperienced, but perfectly capable of leading a group on the kind of undemanding hike we had organised, so there didn't seem to be any need to change what I'd planned - roughly half these children are completely new to this, it was designed as a taster trip to try to get them interested in walking. The other half have been out at least once before, some of them twice. That's why, although they all went out together they were split into two groups that took different routes when they were coming back - to give the inexperienced ones an easier route back if they wanted it. Most did, one or two didn't, and one or two of the ones who'd been out before chose the easy route. Barry and Stan weren't missed at that point because everyone thought they had gone with the other group. When they got back we realized we were two short."
Kirgan went on, "Mr. Fleming walked back up one of the tracks they used to come back and down the other to check if the boys had just fallen behind and then weren't sure of which way to go, though that seemed unlikely, and Miss Irvine phoned me as soon as they knew the boys were definitely missing. I called the police. They told me they'd alert Search and Rescue. We've been hoping that the boys would turn up, manage to find their way back, but - " He shook his head.
"If you can tell us where the boys were last seen - " Carter said.
"Yes, of course." Della raised her voice. "Miss Grant, Mr. Fleming, could we have a word, please."
The campsite was at the edge of a forested area, and the children had actually been taken along a path that parallelled the road, and was only some fifty yards from it but hidden from it by the trees. The children would have been able to hear traffic without seeing it. Their turning point was about a mile up it where two other tracks joined it; one of these, about two miles long, followed the line of a small river back towards the campsite, the other went a little deeper into the forested area before it, too, turned and rejoined the middle track close to the site, giving the group that took it a walk that was a little over three miles long. The missing boys were last seen at the junction of the paths; none of the other children could remember which group the two had joined - twins, they seemed content with the companionship of each other, and had no friends among the other children.
But that was no reason why they should have wandered away from the others.
"As soon as I got here, I called the parents, let them know their sons seemed to have wandered off," Kirgan went on. "I'll have to get the other children home and let their parents know they'll be home early - they should have been staying here until tomorrow morning, but under the circumstances... "
Carter looked at his men. "All four of you follow the route going out. When you reach the junction, Jim, you and Mark take the longer route back, Jerry and Dan take the short one. That'll cover the entire route the boys should have taken. If you can't find any sign of them, we'll extend the search."
As the four men set off at a brisk walk, the teachers turned their attention to getting the other children ready to leave.
By the time Jerry and Dan returned an hour later the bus had gone, taking the children and the two assistants. Jim and Mark were a little more than quarter of an hour after them.
None of them had seen any sign of the boys.
"Is there any chance they went missing deliberately?" Blair asked.
Kirgan frowned. "Why would they do that? Why would they want to do that?"
"Had they been scolded for getting into any kind of mischief, or doing something silly?"
Kirgan glanced at Della, who had joined them as Jim and Mark came into view. "Anything?" he asked.
Della shook her head. "No. They're almost too well-behaved. I have to admit I don't really like to see children so quiet - not even the loners. It doesn't feel natural."
"What makes you ask?" Carter looked inquiringly at Blair.
"Just... The tracks have been checked twice now. Seems odd you didn't see any sign of them - if they'd gone into the trees for privacy to have a pee, even if one of them slipped and fell and maybe broke a leg, you'd think the other one would go for help, or be looking for help coming, and yell when he saw someone."
Kirgan sighed. "I'd better phone their parents again, let them know there's still no sign."
They were in a dead zone; he had to drive almost a mile down the road before he could get a signal. He returned with a worried expression on his face.
"Mr. Lowry proved difficult?" Della asked.
He shook his head. "I couldn't get an answer." He looked at the SAR men. "Sorry - you checked where they should have been, but... Mr. Ellison, I know it's getting late, but you're a sentinel; can you go out again and see if you can find where they left the track?"
"Smell would be the obvious sense to try," Jim said slowly. "Do you have anything that either of the boys handled, to give me an idea of their scent?"
"We put their cases on the bus," Kirgan said. "So I don't think... "
Jim shrugged. "Doesn't really matter. Okay, Mark - let's go back up the track and see if I can find anything."
The other SAR men - including the pilot - and Kirgan accompanied them as Jim and Mark set off. When they reached the point where the three tracks met, Jim began to range a little; Carter caught Kirgan's arm when he would have gone with him. "Let him work," he murmured. Jerry and Dan - and even the newcomer Blair - were all standing back, carefully not interfering. Only Mark, as Jim's guide, folllowed him.
After two or three minutes, Jim said, "Someone went this way." He moved into the trees, closely followed by the others.
Fifty yards took them to the road. Jim looked down it. "They went this way," he said as he set off. However, he only went a few yards before pausing. "They stopped here," he said, "but then the scent vanishes. I think they must have been picked up by a car." He studied the ground. "No sign of a struggle - I think they got into it voluntarily."
"But... but why?" Kirgan asked blankly.
"I don't know, but you need to alert the police. You have two ten-year-old boys standing at the roadside, apparently getting a lift from persons unknown. Either they're the victims of an opportunist pedophile or someone picked them up, took them as far as he was going, then dropped them off somewhere to try to get a further lift to wherever they want to go."
Kirgan, who had been looking very concerned, now looked positively worried. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket - "No signal," he said. "I'll have to go back down that way - " he gestured - "five or six miles."
"Easiest if we go back to the campsite first," Carter said. "Then you can drive to wherever you got the signal earlier."
"Yes." As they headed back through the trees, Kirgan went on, "We've been bringing children away for several years now, and never had a problem. Why? They weren't being bullied or anything - I have strict rules about that, anyone found bullying is severely punished."
It was Blair who said, "How long had your party been here?"
"They drove in last night - "
"Isn't Tuesday an odd day to come out?" Jerry asked. "I'd have thought Friday, for the weekend, or Monday for the week?"
"It's because it's the first time for several of them. Come out Tuesday, walk on Wednesday morning, talk about route-finding, weather conditions etc. in the afternoon, followed by a nature treasure hunt around the campsite, and back to school on Thursday morning. Two nights camping, with a day of walking and education in between."
"Isn't it an unusual activity for during a school week?" Blair asked as they emerged onto the track and started down it.
"Well, yes... But look at it this way. You get extroverts and introverts and a lot of people who are neither. Some psychologists call extreme introversion unhealthy, and most schools put a lot of emphasis on team games, which are supposed to instil team spirit, the idea of working together, co-operation... Teachers are supposed to encourage the solitary child, the loner, to join in and be part of the 'group' - but that doesn't work with some children. Both Della - Miss Irvine - and I feel that for some children, it's just going to make them miserable, either because their co-ordination isn't good so the other children don't want them on their team, or because they are happier working and playing on their own or, more likely, with just one or two companions - like the Lowry twins; they never seemed to need anyone else.
"But the child who isn't part of team training isn't getting the same amount of extended exercise, so we came up with this - not quite a walking club, but substituting a day of walking twice a month for the children who weren't interested in football or baseball or basketball. Also it's introducing them to a sport where co-operation is potentially life-saving.
"As long as they stay in sight of the teacher who's leading the group, they can walk alone or with one or two friends, and it's worked well until now."
"Maybe that was the problem," Blair suggested. "If the missing boys were totally content with each other's company, maybe they found having the other children around them all the time, even if they weren't socializing with them at all, was putting more nervous pressure on them than they'd expected."
"So what are you thinking?" Carter asked.
"What if they're trying to get home?"
Kirgan stared at him for a moment. "If they weren't happy, all they needed to do was tell one of the adults."
"Did they know that?"
"They should have known."
"Should have known and knowing aren't the same," Blair said softly. "Not for a psychologically insecure ten-year-old."
"I thought you were a pilot, Chief," Jim commented. "You a psychologist too?"
"I minored in psychology," Blair said. He was silent for a moment before adding, "Actually, from what's been said about these boys... I think it's maybe just as well they have each other because I'm not sure they have anyone else they feel they can depend on. I don't think they totally trust anyone apart from each other - not even their parents."
"That's pretty harsh," Jerry said.
"Oh, it can be amazing how many parents dismiss their kids' emotional needs, assuming that as long as they have material things they're not being neglected," Kirgan said grimly, "but I wouldn't have thought it of Mrs. Lowry, at least. I'm not so sure about Mr. Lowry - not after his reaction when I told him the boys were missing. He seemed more intent on blaming the school for negligence than in hearing what we were doing to try to find the boys."
As they carried on down the track, Jim found himself watching the pilot. Something about the way he had spoken made Jim wonder what kind of childhood the man had had. Had he known the kind of emotional neglect he had suggested? And why, Jim wondered, did that suspicion bother him?
They reached the campsite to find that the first of the SAR landrovers had arrived, the personnel from it talking to Della Irvine. Carter crossed to them. Jim didn't bother trying to overhear what he was saying; it would, he knew, be a report on what he had found, and instructions to return to Cascade, radioing the rest of the SAR personnel who had been called out as they went. Sure enough, after two or three minutes the men returned to the landrover, and headed off.
Kirgan drove off down the road again, heading for the point where he could get a phone signal and Carter rejoined his team. "I don't think there's anything else we can do here," he said apologetically, his attention on the remaining teacher who was sitting on a rock, having finally agreed to let Katy check her ankle.
She nodded. "I just hope that they ended up getting lifts from responsible drivers," she said unhappily.
Katy glanced up. "You're right, I think it is just a bad sprain," she said. "Just take it easy for a few days," she went on as she started rebandaging the ankle.
Della gave a weak smile. "I know enough about first aid to know that."
Drifting over to stand beside Blair, Jim asked softly, "You understood where those boys might be coming from. Are you all right?"
Blair sighed. "I will be," he murmured, apparently accepting that the sentinel would read more into a few sentences that anyone else.
"Want to talk about it?" It was strange, Jim thought, how his view of Blair as a hero-worshipping nuisance had changed in just a few hours. This man was far more serious, far more thoughtful, than he had appeared to be when they met him at the airport.
"No need. I don't doubt that Mom loves me, but I've been on my own since I was sixteen, and recently? I haven't seen her in over a year. She has her life, I have mine. What happened - or didn't happen - before that is spilled milk, water under the bridge... life on the mountains of the moon."
"But you understand what motivated these boys." It wasn't a question. "Did you have anyone?"
For a moment, he thought that Blair wasn't going to answer. Finally - "I think you would call himn an imaginary friend. A wolf." He paused for a moment as if expecting ridicule, and when Jim just waited, he went on. "I started at Rainier University when I was sixteen, majoring in anthropology, and on one expedition when I was nineteen, a shaman told me that my spirit animal was a wolf. He wasn't surprised when I told him I already knew the wolf.
"Wolf was very real to me back when I was a child... He's still around, and he's still my best friend." He fell silent again, then he added, "Recently, he's been accompanied by a black jaguar. I guess that's the spirit animal of someone I'm going to meet, probably quite soon. Could be someone who's going to change my life... though I'm perfectly happy with it as it is."
"Happy? Or is it just something you're so used to that you think you're happy?"
Blair looked at him, frowning. "Same difference, surely?"
Jim shook his head. "Not quite," he said, "though it would be difficult to explain the difference." It was a difference that he understood only too well; he could remember a few times when he had been happy, but for most of his life his most positive emotion had been contentment.
He was prevented from saying anything more when Kirgan's car drove into the parking lot, and Kirgan got out. The expression on his face attracted everyone's attention.
"What is it?" Della asked.
"I still couldn't get an answer from the Lowry's number, so I called the Cascade police. Turns out the couple who picked up the boys took them straight to the police - they were just a little suspicious of the boys' story that they were on an initiative exercise. A policewoman took them home... and found the place deserted. A neighbor told her that the Lowrys had loaded some furniture into a big van during the morning, and drove away in it fairly early in the afternoon - it must have been just after I let them know the boys were missing. She's taken them to Social Services. But - and here's the hell of it - the boys didn't seem surprised. Barry admitted they'd decided to try to get home early because from the way their mother spoke when she saw them off on Tuesday, they'd suspected they were being abandoned."
Jim glanced at Blair, seeing sadness in his eyes. "Did you feel abandoned?" he murmured.
"Never this way," he replied as quietly. "When she went off somewhere - and I never knew where she went; I still don't know - Mom always left me with someone I knew; and she always came back. It was only after I started at Rainier that she sort of lost touch... but she knew I'd be safe at Rainier." He took a deep breath. "I saw her occasionally, heard from her occasionally, usually a card and a letter around my birthday - though like I said, she hasn't contacted me for well over a year now, and that's two birthdays; for all I know, she could be dead, with nobody knowing how to contact me, or even that there is a 'me' to contact about it." There was a matter-of-fact note in his voice, but underneath it Jim could hear a hint of desolation that for some reason he couldn't explain to himself disturbed him badly, made him want to comfort the younger man even though he instinctively knew that Blair would insist that there was nothing wrong.
He was aware that Mark was watching him, clearly puzzled; Mark knew how focussed he usually was, and that after a search he normally wanted solitude to unwind, with nobody around but his guide; it was unheard-of for him to spend time talking to anyone else, especially someone he had only just met.
There was nothing else to do; the missing boys were safe, and all that was left was for everyone to return home. The SAR men climbed into the helicopter while the two teachers got into the car; a minute later the small campsite was empty.
When the helicopter landed, Blair powered down while his passengers retrieved their gear and headed for their respective cars. As he put his pack into the trunk of Mark's car, Jim glanced at the fourth car, the Volvo that had to be Blair's, noted that a tire was flat, and hesitated.
The other two cars were already pulling away.
"Jim?" Mark paused, about to get into the driver's seat.
"Blair's car has a flat tire. I think we should wait and help him."
"Yeah - we probably should... You aren't usually so thoughtful?"
Jim make a 'so what?' gesture. "So? I like the guy - and it's getting late; it'll be dark soon. With a little help he'll get the spare on faster."
Mark said nothing, though his eyebrows lifted. Jim knew exactly why; for the entire time they had known each other, it was the first time he had ever admitted liking anyone.
It was two or three minutes before Blair left the helicopter and walked across to the cars. He was carrying a backpack that looked to be fairly heavy. "Hi, guys; I thought you'd be away by now."
"You've got a flat," Jim said. "We thought you might like a hand to change it."
"Oh, no," Blair muttered. "It's my second in two days - the spare is at my garage, getting a new tire fitted - I didn't have time to collect it this morning." He shook his head as he checked his watch. "I can't even call Russ and get him to bring it - he'll have gone home by now."
"Where do you live?" Mark asked. "It's easy enough to give you a lift."
"On Dock Street," Blair said.
Jim frowned. "I thought there was nothing but warehouses there, mostly derelict."
"It's one of two that have been converted into apartments," Blair said. "Cheap, very open-plan apartments. It's mostly students who live there - I've been there for about four years. I am looking for someplace else, now that I've graduated, but I have student loans to pay so I don't really have the money for a halfway decent apartment. I could earn more if I decided to teach - I know Rainier would employ me, because I was a TA there, and my classes always did pretty well though I do say it myself; but I don't want to teach."
Jim took Blair's pack, finding it even heavier than it had looked, and put it in the trunk of Mark's car. "In you get, Chief. Probably easiest to take Blair home first, Mark?"
"Yeah, I think so," Mark agreed.
"So what did you teach?" Jim asked, surprising himself, as the car moved off.
"Anthropology," Blair said.
"And you must have been a grad student, if you were a TA?"
"Yes. Like I said, I started at Rainier when I was sixteen, had my Masters before I was twenty. Got my PhD a couple of months ago, and decided to have a year or two away from studying before I finally decided on a career. But of course once I left Rainier and got a job, the loans came due."
"What made you decide on piloting a helicopter for SAR?" Mark asked.
"I knew how to fly a helicopter," Blair said. "It seemed a good way to put that knowledge to use."
As the car turned into Dock Street, they could see activity ahead of them; smoke was pouring out of a building part way down the street, showing red in the light of the flames flickering out of the windows, there was a fire engine in attendance, its crew already at work; and several police cars. Several people were gathered on the opposite side of the street, speaking to the police.
"That's my building," Blair whispered.
Mark pulled up beside one of the policemen whose job appeared to be to stop anyone trying to get too close to the burning building.
Jim recognised the man from his days in the force. "Caffrey?"
"Detective Ellison! Hello."
"I'm not too sure of the details, but apparently there was an explosion not long before seven." He sighed, and went on unhappily, "We know there are two dead, but as well, there are at least five missing. Some of them were probably not at home, maybe gone out for the night, but there's always the probability of finding more bodies once the fire is out."
"I'm one of the missing ones," Blair said unsteadily. "I've been out since early afternoon on a SAR mission."
"I'm sorry, sir," Caffrey said, sounding sincerely sympathetic.
"Can you tell me... who's dead?"
"I don't have any names," Caffrey admitted. "You would need to speak to Lt. Manners over there - " he indicated the group on the sidewalk opposite the burning building. "In fact, you'll need to speak to him anyway, to let him know you're okay."
"Mark, if you wait here for us, I'll go over with Sandburg," Jim said.
Again he noted the surprise on Mark's face, but Mark just nodded, and the two men walked over to the group that, Jim assumed, consisted of the students who had successfully escaped as well as the police taking their statements.
As they reached the group, someone saw them. "Blair! We weren't sure if you were back or not."
"Terry! Just back," he said. "The cop over there said there were two dead? Who...?"
"Mary Grant and Jack Venables."
Blair drew a deep, almost relieved breath, nodded, and turned towards a policeman who was holding a sheet of paper. "Lt. Manners?" On receiving a confirming nod, he went on, "Blair Sandburg. I've been away all afternoon."
Manners ticked the paper. "You might be able to get back into the building at the end of the week to see if you can salvage any of your property," he said briskly, but not unsympathetically.
Blair looked over at the building. "Somehow I doubt there'll be anything worth salvaging - it looks pretty... thorough." He glanced around the shocked young people, nodded to several, then turned back to Jim. "Let's go," he said. "Terry, I'll come over to Rainier tomorrow - see you there."
Terry nodded, and Blair led the way back to Mark's car.
"Were the two dead students friends of yours?" Jim asked.
Blair shook his head. "I knew them, of course, but only to say 'good morning' to. Their subject was math, which has never really interested me. They were engaged, living together, planned to marry once they'd graduated." He fell silent for the seconds it took to reach the car. As he got in, he said, "Mark, if you could drop me off at a cheap motel...?"
"Don't bother," Jim said. "Blair can come home with me. I have a spare room - it's small, but it's quite comfortable."
"Jim? That's... You hardly know me," Blair said.
"You're one of the SAR team," Jim said. "That's all I need to know."
"If you're sure... "
Jim could see in the helicopter pilot a diffidence that fitted his comment, several hours earlier, about having a spirit animal - an imaginary wolf - as his only friend. But then in a way he had surprised himself by making his offer. "I'm sure," he said, and knew that he was.
Mark dropped them off at 852 Prospect, and Jim led the way up the stairs to apartment 307. Inside, they put down their packs and Blair looked around. "Yes," he said softly. "Even if I didn't know you're a sentinel, I'd have guessed it."
"How?" Jim was honestly curious as he waved Blair to a seat.
"Minimalist," Blair said as Jim also sat. "Nothing to draw your attention, that you might concentrate on too hard. Space, so that the walls don't press too close."
Jim had never thought of the loft that way, but now that it had been brought to his attention, he realized that Blair was right. "How did you know that?"
"That was the subject of my PhD dissertation; sentinels throughout history, from the first ones recorded by Burton in the nineteenth century. I had one chapter that took it further back than Burton, but that dealt only in speculation and supposition and the word of mouth tradition of a few tribes - I couldn't find any hard facts, but reason said there had to be sentinels before Burton identified them and wrote about them.
"What I said to Mark, back at the airport earlier today - I really do envy him for being able to work with a sentinel. I would have liked to, but I've had to accept that I'm not a guide; I met several sentinels while I was gathering material for my dissertation, some of them unpartnered, and none of them found me in the least bit inspiring."
"I would have," Jim said without thinking, and then realized that it was true.
Blair looked sharply at him. "You...?"
"It's the only explanation I have for the way I've reacted to you. But I already have a guide."
"You mean... you think I'm a guide? In that case, I shouldn't be here," Blair said, rising. "The last thing I want to to is come between a sentinel and his guide. If you have too much exposure to me... "
Jim grabbed his wrist and pulled him down again. "You've studied sentinels," he said. "Have you ever heard of a case where a sentiel had two guides?"
"No. At least not at the same time - very occasionally, after a guide died, his sentinel found another one. There have been one or two cases of someone guiding two sentinels, but it was always a temporary thing until one of them found another guide."
"So maybe we'll create history - if I'm the first known sentinel who has two guides."
"Jim, it's not fair to Mark - "
"Chief, Mark doesn't have any emotional attachment to me. What we have is a purely... I suppose the best description is business relationship. We work well together, yes - but he has a wife and children, and I come second to them in his life."
Blair looked slightly shocked. "His sentinel should always come first in a guide's life."
"Is that what you believe, or what you've been taught?"
"It's what I saw when I was researching for my PhD; and I saw it in a lot of tribes - in the Amazon, in Borneo, in Central Africa... There were places where sentinels and/or guides were married, but the spouses lived separately with any children and always knew they came second. If there was a life-threatening situation, sentinel and guide would seek each other's safety before that of their spouses."
"I don't see any reason why a guide should give up his life - especially if, like Mark, he has a family before he meets his sentinel. Mark's devoted to his wife - and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Blair looked at him, opened his mouth, then closed it again.
"You want the whole truth, Chief? I've never been someone who trusts easily. I have a spare room, and you're the first person who's ever used it - but I'm happy for you to stay here as long as you want."
"A week," Blair said. "That should give me time to find someplace. Anything else - anything longer - could interfere with your link to Mark."
Jim shook his head. "Although we work well together and he does help me control my senses, I don't think I really have more than a superficial link with Mark. I think I already have more of a link with you - but I won't reject Mark." He fell silent again, wondering when, and how, he had come to expect himself to be loyal to anyone when his father had taught him not to trust anyone; how he had come to expect himself to be loyal to anyone when he knew he had no friends.
Or... was loyalty a measure of friendship?
It was a new thought, something that had never occurred to him until now.
Were some of the people he had believed to be mere acquaintances actually his friends? It was worth considering.
He felt a pull towards Blair, a pull that, because of his loyalty to Mark, he had to resist; but Blair had already taught him something that Mark had failed to teach him, probably because he had never had to consider it. His father's brainwashing had failed. He did trust - perhaps not many people, but he did trust.
He felt nothing for his father, whose main aim in life seemed to have been to denigrate almost everything; nothing for his brother, who had been a competitor for what little praise his father ever gave. But Sally - yes, he realized now that he did love her. He considered the men and women he had worked with in the PD. Yes - he felt something for many of them, the ones he had worked with most closely. He liked Mark. But Blair? Blair was someone who had already, in less than twelve hours, burrowed deep into his heart. He couldn't accept him as his guide - but he didn't want to lose him either.
That night, in his dreams, Jim watched a black jaguar prowling through a jungle. A lion joined it; for a moment he thought they would fight, but it seemed that they knew each other, strange though that was. They padded on for a short distance until they entered a clearing. A wolf sat there, as if waiting. When it saw the other animals, the wolf rose to its feet and moved forward to meet them.
Almost it seemed the three animals were having a conversation; and then the lion licked the jaguar's neck, turned, and began to walk away - and there was something about the way it moved that said it had a definite destination in mind, one that it would be happy to reach.
The wolf and the jaguar watched the lion go; and then when it was out of sight, they turned to each other and began the sort of mock fight that to a carnivore was play. At first Jim thought the wolf would be badly handicapped by its smaller size, but its agility compensated for that, and he quickly understood that the two were in fact very evenly matched. And then the mock fight ended, and the two animals curled up together. The jaguar closed its eyes in sleep; but the wolf remained alert, watchful, almost as if it was guarding the bigger carnivore.
Jim woke abruptly and sat up, the dream still very vivid in his mind. What did it mean?
Blair said his spirit animal was a wolf, a wolf that had recently been joined by a black jaguar. Was he the jaguar? But who was the lion? It has to be Mark, he thought. But it had walked away, leaving the jaguar with the wolf.
Did that mean... did it mean, could it mean, that Mark was going to leave? But why would he leave? There was no reason - no reason at all.
But what he had said to Blair held good. If Mark chose to leave, fine; but Jim would not reject Mark, even though he was so strongly drawn to Blair, even though he was now sure that Blair was his true guide, and Mark had been nothing more than a very competent interim guide.
Thursday was a normal working day. Mark arrived early to pick up Jim, clearly prepared to take Blair back to the airport via his garage.
Blair picked up his tire and they went on to the airport, where he thanked Mark, refused their offer to help him - "Thanks, guys, but you have to get to work. I'd have been glad of the help last night - it was late - but there's plenty of time now."
"Are you coming out today?" Mark asked.
Blair shook his head. "I have to check the chopper today, then tomorrow is my day off - assuming there isn't a call-out," he said. "I can use the time to look for someplace to stay."
"Blair, I told you - " Jim began.
"No, Jim, I won't abuse your hospitality," Blair insisted.
Jim sighed. "See you tonight," he said. Blair nodded, and waved them off.
Jim was aware of Mark glancing at him as they pulled away, but he said nothing about it and neither did Mark.
An hour later they drove into the Ranger station, just two or three minutes late, to be greeted by Jerry and Dan.
"Aye, Mark," Dan said. "You're late. Car playing up again?"
Mark grinned, although Jim knew that he was irritated by the comment. His car had broken down, just once, at an awkward time, but Dan was not about to let him forget it, and the 'joke' had grown more than a little thin.
"No, the problem was Blair's car," Jim said, knowing that Mark wouldn't defend himself or his car, in the so-far vain hope that if he always failed to get a response Dan would finally give up. "Remember, we were late getting back last night. You two and Paul had already left when Blair discovered he had a flat tire, so Mark took him back into Cascade and then took him back to the airport this morning. We were held up a few minutes there - the road was really busy."
At the same time he found himself wondering if Dan would now start 'joking' about Blair's car and flat tires. It seemed more than likely; Jerry got on all right with him, but there was something about Dan - and not just his doubtful sense of humor - that kept him from being liked very much by anyone else.
Paul and Katy arrived moments later, and the group gathered for a brief discussion of the previous day's search before Paul sent the other four men off on their routine patrols before settling down to fill in all the routine paperwork that went with a call-out. Katy, the paramedic, remained at the station ready to respond to any emergency.
For Jim and Mark it was a day much like any other. As they patrolled their beat, they met a few hikers, exchanging a few words with them, pointed out a few landmarks, directed a group of three to a waterfall they had heard about and wanted to see, but for which they had been given only the vaguest of directions by the friend who had seen it a month or so previously, and ended up helping a man who had slipped and gashed his leg quite badly on a sharp rock the last half mile back to the station, where they handed him over to Katy.
They gave Paul a quick report, and then, their day over, they headed back to Cascade.
Jim entered the loft and was instantly aware of the smell of dinner cooking.
Blair popped out of the small spare room. "Hi, Jim. Have a good day?"
"Much the same as usual," Jim said. "Pretty routine, really. How about you?"
Blair pushed his hair back. "I went to Rainier after I changed the tire and saw Terry - he's a TA in the anthropology department. Seems there was an explosion in Jack's apartment. That's what killed him and Mary, and enough damage was done that the resulting fire spread throughout the entire building. The guys who were there had just about enough time to grab one or two valued possessions before they got the hell out."
"And because you weren't there, you lost everything?"
"Wellll... no. Dock Street isn't in the best of areas, and security in that building wasn't exactly... well, secure. It was better at night when everyone was there - we'd rigged up an alarm system so that if an apartment was broken into the rest of us would be alerted and could go and help; but during the day, when everyone was out... " He shook his head. "I've never bothered amassing much in the way of possessions, apart from a few books - picked up a few small souvenirs when I was on expeditions, mostly inexpensive things I bought to give support to the locals though there were one or two things I was given and I did value those, and I do have a laptop. Thieves wouldn't likely bother with the artefacts or the books, but a laptop? So I got into the habit of taking the laptop with me when I went out, and one day after someone else's apartment was broken into and trashed, probably because the thieves couldn't find anything worth stealing, I decided to start taking the artefacts too, just in case - at least the ones that had been gifts; they were all small, easily carried - and three or four books that would be hard to replace."
"I thought your pack was pretty heavy," Jim commented. "So everything you'd have been unhappy to lose, you had with you?"
"Yes. The laptop is replaceable, of course, but some of the data on it isn't - even though I have it backed up to a small external drive. I keep that in my car during the day, so it isn't in the same place as the laptop. What I have lost is clothes, but tomorrow is my day off so I'll pay a visit to Goodwill - there's plenty of good stuff there, some of it almost new and the money goes to a good cause. Then I'll check around for an apartment - "
"Blair - please, consider staying here."
Blair looked at him and sighed. "Jim, I'd love to, but it isn't fair to Mark."
Jim licked his lips, hesitated, then said, "I had a dream last night. A black jaguar and a lion were walking together through a jungle, and they met a wolf. The three animals seemed to - well, discuss something, and then the lion went away - and he seemed happy enough to go - and left the other two together. I think it had somewhere it wanted to be, or needed to be, and that wasn't beside the jaguar."
"What are you saying?"
"You said your spirit animal is a wolf. I think I'm the jaguar, and I suspect Mark is the lion. I think the dream was telling me that Mark has stayed with me because he was able to guide me, but if he gets the chance, he'll be more than happy to move on.
"I won't tell him, but I think he'll know, too, that he can move on - or more likely back, to a time when he didn't have an inconvenient sentinel to nursemaid."
"Is that how you see yourelf? As an inconvenience?" Blair asked.
"I think that's what I am to Mark. His wife has been pretty understanding, but she can't be happy that so much of his life has to be geared to his responsibilities as my guide. He has to feel a bit like the rope in a tug-of-war, being pulled in two directions at the same time, and eventually something has to give."
"And his wife comes first," Blair remembered. "If he has to choose between you... you think she'll win."
"I know she'll win," Jim said quietly.
When Jim arrived home on Friday, it was to find that Blair had once again prepared dinner. Unlike the previous day, when dinner had been chicken, this was a red meat that Jim didn't recognize, and he said so.
Blair grinned. "Do you like it?"
Jim took another mouthful, chewed reflectively, and nodded. "Yes - it's good. Like beef, but there's something different about it..."
"Okay, remember you said that. Don't go 'Yeuk' when I tell you what it is; just remember the taste."
Jim looked at him suspiciously. "It's not something like flavoured tofu, is it?"
Blair laughed. "Hey, just because I try to eat healthy doesn't mean I eat tofu. Come to that, if I was a vegetarian, I sure as hell wouldn't want to eat tofu or soya tasting of meat! No, it's genuine meat. Ostrich."
"Ostrich? Isn't that African?"
"Yes, but there are some ostrich farms in America, and - like all bird meat - it's low in fat. It's not something I buy often, because I don't usually eat much red meat, but you strike me as the kind of guy who thinks steak is the only kind of meat worth eating." His grin told Jim that he was joking.
He grinned back. "Seriously? Seriously, I think steak is vastly over-rated. Something cooked like this - " he indicated his plate - "or the chicken we had yesterday has far more subtle flavour - and you're a good cook, Chief. I appreciate it, and coming home to a meal I don't have to cook for myself... Though I realize that you'll be back to work tomorrow, and won't be home ahead of me."
On Saturday, Blair left early, muttering something about going to pick up the chopper. Mark called in for Jim about half an hour later, and when they reached the ranger station, the helicopter was already there. When they went into the office, it was to find Blair talking to Paul, who looked around as they entered.
"Ah, the very guys we were talking about!" he said. "Jim, Mark, Blair feels he needs to spend a few hours overflying our area - he'd be happy to do it on his own, but I thought it might be a good idea if you two went with him. You can give him an idea of what the ground is like in any given area - "
"Er... Paul," Mark said. "Um... Do I need to go along? I'd like a word with you, and Jim shouldn't really need to use his senses - it's not as if they'll be looking for anything in particular."
Paul glanced at Jim. "Do you mind?"
Jim shook his head. "No. If anything does go wrong, Blair should be able to cope - sentinels were his field of study." He deliberately kept his comment off-hand, but he was already sure that if he did have any kind of problem, Blair would be better able to deal with it than Mark was - and that was something he would never tell Mark.
As he and Blair left the office, he did something he normally didn't; he listened, hoping to get some idea of why Mark wanted a word with Paul. It seemed, however, that Mark was too aware of how well his sentinel could hear; Paul; began, "So - " and stopped, almost as if Mark had gestured for him to remain silent. Jim shrugged mentally, and headed after Blair towards the helicopter.
It was a rewarding trip; as Blair turned the chopper to return to the ranger station, he said, "I have a much better idea now of places it's not feasible to land, and where the best place near them is where I can land."
"Yeah, the most likely places for something to have an accident is just where it's hardest to get them out," Jim agreed. He hesitated, then said, "I didn't ask - how long are you here? The way you're speaking, it's as if you expect the job to be permanent."
Blair glanced at him. "It's not really my place to say, but just between ourselves... it could be. It's not certain, but it could be. The pilot you had will be out of commission for at least a year. He should have gone to see a doctor several months ago; by the time he did he was very run down. He has cancer, and he's not strong enough for them to operate. He'll be getting chemo while they try to build up his strength to the point where they can operate. I was put in the picture because they had to explain to me how uncertain the length of my employment might be - anything from a year to permanent."
"God. Poor Bob."
"When I took the job, I was regarding it as a year's sabbatical - it was advertised as being for 'a minimum of a year'. Now... for as short a time as I've been with you, I know I'd be happy if it turned out to be permament - apart from what that means for... Bob, you said?"
Jim nodded although Blair wasn't looking at him. "Bob Temple. He's been with SAR for the last six years. Pulled off some pretty difficult airlifts." Then he remembered something. "Wait a minute - if you stayed with SAR, wouldn't that be a terrible waste of your PhD?"
"In some ways, yes; but I've never been quite sure what I wanted to do once I got it. Basically, I was the perpetual student, amassing more and more information, collecting letters after my name. But once I got my PhD, there was no further I could go with anthropology - well, with cultural anthropology; to carry on studying, I would have had to shift to another discipline. Oh, I could have gone with archaeology, which is related... but it really was time for me to grow up, start earning money, clear some of my student loans... Do something useful with my life." He was silent for some moments, then, "I could get some papers out of the work SAR does, or the ranger service, but I don't really want to do that. It's too like hanging on to a time in my life that I've left behind - at least for the moment.
"I had a reputation as a pretty good teacher, so I might go back to the academic life one day, but at the moment I feel that if I'd stayed at Rainier, I'd simply have been passing on what I'd learned - even what I'd learned from visiting tribes still living in the stone age. I've had no real life experience."
"When did you learn to fly?"
"Several years ago. I learned to drive big rigs at the same time - just as soon as I was old enough to get a licence. When you're being considered for an expedition, it helps to have skills a lot of the other considerees don't have."
"Considerees? Is there such a word?"
"Yes - I just made it up," Blair chuckled.
Jim laughed with him, and then realized he had never laughed with Mark. They worked well together, but they had never really been able to relax with each other.
They flew on in a comfortable silence, and landed beside the ranger station. Blair cut the engine and the two men headed into the station.
Paul looked up from the paper he was studying as they entered his office. "Successful trip?" he asked.
"Very successful," Blair replied.
"Good." But Paul was looking slightly worried.
"Problem?" Jim asked.
"Mark wants a word with you. He's in the education room."
Jim looked at him, then turned and made his way to the education room, paying no attention when, behind him, Blair and Paul began talking.
Mark was sitting with his back to the door, and didn't turn even though he must have heard it opening. "Mark?" Jim walked over and turned a chair to sit facing his guide.
"I'm sorry, Jim. There's no easy way to say this - but I've resigned."
The lion walked away... "Can I ask why?"
"You know that Jenny comes from Wyoming." Jim nodded. "Her father is seriously ill. Terminal, but the doctors can't give a time scale. He might die a month from now, he mightn't die for a year or more. Jenny's their only child. Her mother wants her to go home, to be there...
"Jim, I can't let her go alone, to face that situation alone. She'll have to be strong for her mother, but she'll need someone to be strong for her. So I've decided that we - the whole family - must make the move. It'll give the boys a chance to get to know their grandfather, even for a short while. I wanted to tell Paul first, give him a chance to decide what to do about finding a new guide for you. I'm sorry to desert you... but... "
"Mark, I've always known that Jenny is more important to you than I am," Jim said. "We've had a good working relationship, but we've never had much of an emotional one. Don't worry about me." He hesitated, then went on. "Paul's letting you resign immediately>"
"Under the circumstances - yes. We'll be leaving early on Monday." Mark stood, hesitated, then said, "You get on well with Blair, better than I've seen you react to anyone. Is there any chance he might be a guide?"
"He could be," Jim admitted. "It's something I can investigate. But I wasn't looking to replace you; you've been a good guide to me."
Mark smiled. "Sometimes I wondered just how effective I was," he murmured.
"You were very effective," Jim told him. "I know I haven't been as apprecialtive as I might have been, but I couldn't have done half what I did without you there to ground me. But now Jenny's needs come first. You head off home - I'm sure you have a lot to do, especially if you're leaving on Monday. I'll fly back with Blair - his car is at the airport, and he can be my driver for the moment. And good luck - I hope you get the year, rather than just a month."
"Thanks." Mark hesitated for a moment longer, then turned and walked briskly away, and as he went, Jim was reminded once more of the lion, walking off to its new future. Then he made his way back to the office.
As he entered, Paul and Blair both looked up from the map that they were studying. His eyes met Blair's.
"Has Paul told you?" he asked.
"Told me what?" Blair asked.
"Mark's resigned." Blair's mouth dropped open as Jim went on, "His wife's father is terminally ill; they're moving to Wyoming to be with him. I told him you'd take me home."
"Yes... yes, of course."
"So that leaves you without a guide," Paul said. "How well do you think you can manage?"
Jim smiled. "I managed fine in the month before Mark joined us," he reminded Paul, "but I do still have a guide. We didn't say anything to anyone, but we realized on Wednesday - Blair's a guide.
"I think Mark knew, as well, and it made the situation with his father-in-law that much easier for him - the knowledge that he wasn't leaving me in the lurch. He even suggested, just before he left, that I might consider Blair as my new guide."
Paul looked from Jim to Blair, and back again.
"And will you?"
Jim grinned. "It's a done deal. I'm already reacting more positively to Blair than I ever did to Mark."
"My doctoral dissertation was on sentinels," Blair said. "In it, I put forward a tentative theory that for each sentinel, for each guide, there was one perfect match. That there might be near-matches who would recognize each other and work together well enough, and in many cases think they had met their match - like Jim and Mark. I'd met other sentinels, obviously, and none of them showed any interest in me - I didn't realize that I was a guide - but Jim was drawn to me right away - to the point where, when we discovered on Wednesday night that my apartment building had burned down, he offered me his spare bed - and then invited me to stay, permanently. Have you any idea how rare that kind of offer is, from a sentinel to someone he's only just met - unless it's his true guide?"
Paul frowned. "What would you have done if Mark hadn't left?"
"Nothing," Blair said. "Mark would halve remained Jim's guide, I would have remained the helicopter pilot.
"What it does mean now, though, is that you'll need another new helicopter pilot... "