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Early April. The end of winter.
By any dictionary definition, spring.
The return of warmer weather.
Yeah, riiiight, Blair thought viciously, though he couldn't understand why he should feel so annoyed, so personally picked on by Fate. This was typical Washington spring weather - wasn't it?
Except that the previous two weeks had been beautiful.
Temperatures in the mid sixties fahrenheit. In March.
The forecast was for the warm, dry weather to continue for at least another week. And the weather forecasters - a dozen different ones from a dozen different TV channels - couldn't all be wrong, could they? After all, these guys were professionals. They'd studied their subject. They were paid to be right, dammit! Hell, lives could be lost if they weren't.
And at the moment it looked as if the life of one Blair Sandburg, ABD student at Rainier University, might very well be one of them.
Blair had taken advantage of the warm weather to visit St Sebastian's; his partner was tied up with a court case, and remembering Jim's discomfort at the monastery three years earlier, Blair made that his excuse for going alone, midweek, Tuesday to Thursday, instead of waiting till the weekend when Jim could have accompanied him. If truth were told, as fond as he was of Jim - and he didn't think it was possible to care more for anyone - sometimes he wanted - no, needed - time away from him - or, more accurately, time away from his responsibilities as Jim's guide.
He needed a little time alone with Brother Marcus; on the rare occasions when meditation seemed inadequate to centre him and recharge his batteries, exposure to the elderly monk's quietness provided an antidote to Blair's customary, almost frenetic, rush through life. But he knew that if he were to admit that openly it would worry Jim, who was already concerned at Blair's still constant struggle to keep up with his studies and complete his dissertaton as well as pursuing his life as Jim's guide and his work as a consultant with the PD. He was no longer as overworked as he had been, however; a respectable inheritance from his recently-deceased grandfather meant he no longer needed an income from teaching, which he had abandoned with a sigh of relief.
Jim thought only that Blair wanted to visit one friend while sparing another the embarrassment of visiting a place where he was unable to understand the motivation of the people living there. One visit had been enough, even though during it Jim had come to respect the monks who were Blair's friends there.
The weather was good when Blair left the monastery, but he had not gone far before it changed drastically and with horrifying speed. As he turned onto the main road, the sky was clouding over with a rapidity that was almost frightening, and as it began to rain he made a face, far from happy about driving through worsening conditions, though resigned to it. He was relieved that the road was fairly quiet; the last thing he needed was a lot of traffic throwing up spray.
Inside another half hour, the temperature dropped, the wind rose, the rain changed to snow that very quickly began to lie, and visibility rapidly reduced to only a few yards. Blair slowed, his speed reflecting the distance he could see, thinking hard. A car - the first one he had seen for some minutes - passed him going slowly in the opposite direction, its driver also clearly unhappy driving in these conditions.
He wasn't quite half way home. He judged that it would take him three hours or more to reach Cascade in these conditions, and fully two hours to get back to the safety of the monastery, and already the edges of the road were losing definition; he realised that if he didn't stop soon he could very well drive off the road, unable to see the bends in the mantle of white that was covering everything - and he knew that between him and Cascade there were some nasty drops he certainly didn't want to drive over. So while he could still make out the side of the road he drove part way off it, parking with his car more than halfway onto the verge.
If a snowplow going in the right direction happened along he could follow it; but he didn't expect to see any snowplows out just yet. If he couldn't see where he was going, neither would the driver of a snowplow. And this was not a busy road; it would be low priority for clearance.
No, he couldn't expect to see a snowplow along until the visibility improved and busier roads were cleared.
Luckily he had some survival gear; a quick rush out of the car took him to the trunk to retrieve the sleeping bag he kept there - in the past it had been useful for the odd nights when he slept in his office, too tired to make the trip back to the loft, and habit had left it there even though he no longer had an office at Rainier. He slammed the lid down and threw the bag into the car; remained outside, crouched in the shelter of the car, long enough to pee, then scrambled round the car and into the front passenger seat, slamming the door shut quickly to prevent more snow than necessary blowing into the car. He scrabbled the sleeping bag and his backpack from the back seat onto the driver's seat, kicked off his trainers, shook out the sleeping bag and slid into it, then groped in the backpack for his cell phone.
It wasn't there.
He frowned, puzzled for the briefest of moments, then swore imaginatively, cursing Brother Jeremy's insistence that visitors' phones be left with him while they were at the monastery. He had forgotten to make sure it was returned to him before he left.
He pulled his hands back inside the sleeping bag, and settled down, worried because he knew Jim would be worried, but resigned to a probably long wait for conditions to improve.
The wind-blown snow piled up against the car; it grew progressively darker as the deepening snow covered the windows, cutting off the light.
Sweeping down from the north, the blizzard conditions, rare this close to the ocean, hit Cascade at about the same time. As it became obvious that it was on for the day, businesses were closed early and people began heading for home; with the judge halting proceedings early, Jim Ellison was among them. He made slow time, taking nearly four times as long as usual to reach the loft, having to alter his route twice as skidding cars, their drivers totally unused to the conditions, blocked the more direct roads, and he spared a moment to feel sorry for any traffic cops who were called out to deal with an accident. He doubted there would be any serious accidents, though; everyone seemed to be driving very cautiously, unnerved by the snow, and he suspected that inside another hour the whole city would slither to a nervous halt.
As he parked, he frowned when he saw that Blair's car was not in its usual spot; he had been hoping Blair would make it safely back before the roads got too bad. He ducked out of the truck, locked it and ran for shelter.
In the loft, he shivered despite the warmer indoor temperature. Nibbling his lip, he reached for the phone and dialled Blair's cell phone.
Switched off or out of range.
Damn! But he knew where Blair had a note of St Sebastian's phone number, so he checked for it and dialled.
"St Sebastian's. Brother Jeremy speaking."
"Brother Jeremy, this is Jim Ellison. Is Blair there?"
"No, Brother Jim. He left about an hour before the snow started."
Jim took a deep breath. "He must be stuck, then. Even in Cascade the streets are getting impassable. I tried phoning him, but his phone was switched off."
"Ah - I'm afraid that's my fault. I still have it. I told him I'd put it in his room after breakfast - he was having a last conversation with Marcus - and not long after he left, I remembered that I hadn't done so, but by then it was too late to do anything about it. When he didn't see it, he probably assumed I'd put it into his pack. At the time, I didn't see any reason to worry."
Jim swallowed his instinctive reply, saying only, "He might have tried to get back to you - if he does, will you phone and let me know?"
"Of course, Brother Jim. And we'll pray for our young brother's welfare."
Jim put the phone down, thinking A lot of good that'll do! while appreciating that Jeremy undoubtedly thought it would be helpful, and instinctively turned towards the door; halfway to it he stopped, his brain - which knew there was no point, no point at all, in his going out - catching up with his instincts. It had taken him all his time to get home through the relatively busy Cascade streets where weight of traffic was helping to flatten the snow. All he would accomplish by going out was get himself stranded too, probably before he even left the Cascade city limits.
Better to wait - although it tore his heart in two to accept that - until the snow had stopped, at least. The one comfort was knowing that Blair always had survival gear with him - the sleeping bag that lived in his car, water and, at this time of year, chocolate and dried fruit in his backpack.
Jim didn't feel like eating, but scrambled himself a couple of eggs anyway, knowing that it was foolish not to eat; switched on the TV and sat eating listlessly, not noticing that the eggs were cold long before he finished, watching with only half of his attention on the screen.
The weather forecast came on, the forecaster babbling about unexpected cold fronts from the Arctic and a low pressure area developing over the American north west much faster than anyone could have anticipated, bringing unseasonal blizzard conditions even to the low ground.
"Unexpected!" Jim muttered to himself, wishing that it was feasible to sue the weather department for a forecast as inaccurate as the one he had seen as recently as last night, that had confidently predicted the continuation of the mild, dry spell over the weekend.
He washed his plate and made himself coffee; anything to fill the worried hours till he could head off in search of his guide.
During the night the snow turned to rain, leaving Cascade's streets a mess of wet slush that was almost more treacherous than the snow. Rising in the half light of dawn after a sleepless night, Jim stared out at the rain, knowing that further inland it would still be snowing, not sure whether to be glad or sorry that the wind had dropped considerably. No wind meant a straight fall rather than continued drifting, but would that make it harder or easier to clear the roads? He had no idea; Cascade experienced snow so seldom, snow was something he knew very little about.
And there had been no word from St Sebastian's; making it clear to him that Blair had not managed to return there. Even if Blair had reached the monastery in the middle of the night, Jim knew he would have phoned immediately to say that he was safe.
At eight, Jim phoned Simon.
"Simon, it's Jim. Blair's been caught in the storm - probably about halfway between St Sebastian's and here. I'm due in court again today, but I can't not go looking for Blair."
"There's nothing you can do until the snowplows get the roads cleared, and they'll find the kid. Once the road is clear he'll get home OK."
"Simon, you know what he's like. There are times he'd make a mule look positively co-operative. He'd want to get home; he could have gone on driving long after it was safer to stop and missed a bend, gone off the road. If he did that, nobody could find his car except me."
"Jim, under these conditions not even you could find him from a moving vehicle. Or are you planning on walking the whole distance from Cascade to St Sebastian's?"
Jim opened his mouth to answer then closed it again. 'Spirit guides' came into the realm of 'too much information', as far as Simon was concerned. At the same time, he was subtly relieved that there was not as yet any sign of his panther; he was quietly certain that it would have made an appearance if Blair had been in serious danger. Their spirit animals might have merged at the fountain, but each still showed up individually from time to time when he and his guide were separated; it was almost as if between them he and Blair had three animal spirits - his, his and theirs.
"I realise you're worried about him," Simon went on after a moment when Jim didn't reply. "Hell, now you've told me he didn't get home, I'm worried about him! But at least give the snowplow crews a chance to get the roads cleared before you go rushing off.
"And anyway, you have to be in court today. If you don't go, if you're not there to give your evidence, you know what could happen. Quinton could walk. Do you really want to see Quinton back on the streets?"
Jim shook his head, forgetting for a moment that Simon couldn't see him, then said, bleakly, "No." It had taken altogether too long for them to pin a rap that would stick onto the man, and during the months Quinton had spent thumbing his nose at the PD, they knew - but had been unable to prove - that he had lured at least twenty underage runaways of both sexes into addiction and prostitution, and killed three of them when they tried to run away from him. A fourth runaway, fleeing within twenty-four hours of being 'befriended' by Quinton, had reached the safety of the PD, and their case had been built round the testimony of the fifteen-year-old who was being identified only as John, and the things that Jim had discovered as a direct result of John's statement.
And while John's testimony alone might be enough to convict Quinton, there was no guarantee of it; Jim's additional evidence would certainly see the man put away for a long time.
No, he couldn't risk letting Quinton walk; Blair would never forgive him if he did.
Jim forced himself to eat a breakfast that was as unwanted as the eggs he had scrambled the previous night, and headed for the court.
Even inside the sleeping bag it was chilly, but there was too much snow round the car for Blair to risk running the engine - even if he could get it to start. He suspected that the exhaust was totally plugged by snow.
He dozed, despite the cold, and woke again. He meditated for a while, using the meditation to prevent his enforced inactivity from becoming boredom; then, groping, he found the inside light and switched it on; ate some chocolate and took a sip of water - not too much, though; if he could avoid it he didn't want to discover the problems of peeing from a car totally blocked in by snow. Then, deciding that it might get stuffy, he opened his window just a little, pushing two fingers against the snow to compact it a little, prevent too much of it from falling into the car.
Is it still snowing? he wondered. He could hear nothing, but the snow covering the car could account for that; for all he knew the blizzard was still raging around him. He looked at his watch.
How long had he slept? Was this eleven at night, or had he slept long enough for it to be eleven in the morning?
Probably still night, he decided; he wasn't hungry enough to have been trapped for nearly twenty-four hours.
He switched the light off again, and burying his nose inside the sleeping bag closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
Unfortunately, he wasn't really tired, and his short snooze had taken the edge off what little tiredness he had been feeling. Eleven o'clock at night, he would normally still be alert, deep in a book or feeding information into his laptop. It would be another three hours at least before he began to flag, and recognising that he soon abandoned the attempt to sleep and instead began to occupy his mind by mentally putting together possible chapters for his dissertation.
Thinking about the PD, however, took his mind straight back to his partner.
What's Jim doing right now? he wondered. Knowing his friend, it wouldn't surprise him to discover that Jim had come out in search of him and got trapped himself, but he hoped the big cop had retained enough sense to stay put while the blizzard raged.
Of course, it was always possible that in Cascade it was raining, Jim didn't know about the snow and was simply annoyed that he, Blair, hadn't phoned to say he was delayed; and for the second time Blair cursed the forgetfulness that had left his cell phone at St Sebastian's.
He yawned, and decided it was getting just a little stuffy inside the car, despite the inch-open window. Just how much air could percolate through a blanket of snow, anyway? He wished he knew.
There couldn't be that much snow on the driver's side of the car, though - that was the side away from the wind.
He leaned over and wound the window down about quarter way; some loose snow fell into the car. He felt the wind blowing cold into what he suddenly realised was the warmer - relatively speaking - car, and wound the window almost all the way back up.
Just two or three inches of snow on the sheltered side, he decided. Probably just clinging to the car. Now, though, some of it had fallen into the car. Well, it could be worse. Peering out, he saw that yes, it was still dark, and he could hear the wind now, too. Though not, he thought, blowing as strongly as it was.
But just the sound of the wind made him shiver.
He leaned over and raked as much of the snow as he could off the seat and floor, compressing it into a big ball, then gritted his teeth, opened the car window again and pushed the snowball out. He wound the window up again quickly, leaving it open just a crack, and snuggled back into the sleeping bag to warm up again as much as possible.
After a while, he resurfaced, nibbled a piece of dried fruit, then settled back down for the rest of what he knew would be a very long night.
His bladder was beginning to niggle ever so slightly, but he knew he could hold out for quite a while yet.
By the time Blair knew he had to pee soon or he would involuntarily wet his pants, it was daylight, though the light filtering into the car through the covering of snow was very dim. The window that had been clear of snow some hours previously had been covered again. He wriggled out of his sleeping bag, climbed over to the driver's seat, and carefully opened the window - he didn't want any more snow falling in on him. He quickly discovered that he had been right; the snow on that side was just clinging to the car, the depth of snow on the ground on that side only a foot or so, and although it was still snowing, it was no longer heavy and the wind had dropped almost completely. Relieved, and began to knock the snow off the window.
Next he cleared the snow from the top of the door, closed the window again, then tried to open the door. It opened a few inches before the pressure of the compressed snow on the bottom of the door made it impossible for him to push it any further, but it was far enough; he knew that he could get out if and when he wanted to. As it was, he wriggled round until he was kneeling on the seat, unzipped, and peed out of the opening with a long sigh of relief. Intent on relieving himself, he didn't register how cold his hands were from clearing the snow until he shook the last drops off. He quickly zipped up again, shivering, still feeling the ghost of cold fingers against his skin.
He closed the door again, pushed the backpack onto the floor and wriggled back into the sleeping bag. He groped in the pack for something edible, ate some chocolate and took another mouthful of water, then folded over the top of the bag and wrapped his hands in the fold.
After a while, when his hands felt warmer again, he took off his socks to keep them dry, pushed his bare feet into trainers that he knew would soon get wet, forced his way out of the car and began to clear the snow off the roof.
He might not be able to move from here until the snowplows arrived; but he was going to make a damned good attempt at being ready to move when they did appear.
Jim Ellison sat in court knowing that if Quinton did walk, it wouldn't be his fault. If he had to be here instead of searching for his partner, he was going to make sure that it was worth it. He gave his evidence with a grim determination and a single-mindedness that had left the defence lawyer floundering, which was probably a new experience for the man, who was more accustomed to tangling up the witnesses' thought processes, confusing them into giving contradictory evidence. Instead of the answers of 'Possibly' or 'I thought so' or even 'I'm not sure' that the lawyer's questions were carefully designed to encourage, creating doubt as to the witness's certainty in the minds of the jury, he gave blunt 'yes' or 'no' answers and after one particularly obliquely-worded question, he simply looked straight at the judge and said quietly, "I'm afraid I can't answer that, because I have no idea what I'm being asked."
The judge nodded, looked at the defence lawyer, and said quietly, "Please reword your question."
Now the jury was out debating the verdict.
Beside him, Megan Conner - who had driven him to court, sent by Simon to keep an eye on him - murmured, "You did well, Jim. They can't find him innocent after your evidence."
"I just wish they'd hurry up," Jim muttered. "I want to get out to look for Sandburg."
"Sandy's tough," Megan said confidently. "And you said yourself he has survival gear. He'll be all right."
"I try to tell myself that. If I knew he'd stopped I wouldn't worry. I'm just afraid that he tried to go on after it stopped being safe, tried to get home, and ended up driving off the road. There are some places where a car that drove off the edge could lie for years without being found."
Megan had no answer to that.
Movement, noise, the jury coming back...
Guilty on all counts...
Twenty years before being considered for parole...
Jim should have been satisfied with the verdict and the sentence, but all he could think was how long it was taking to complete the formalities. And then they were free to leave, but he was still delayed by well-meaning comments, congratulations on the solidity of his evidence... He had to grit his teeth and force himself to be polite, for these people, even the reporters, were being complimentary, being friendly, not getting in his face with impertinent questions designed to delve into his personal life.
At last he managed to get to the street; Megan, who had not been delayed, had moved quickly and was already waiting for him in her car. He excused himself as politely as possible and ducked quickly into the passenger seat; she drove off immediately. He gave a long sigh.
"He's maybe back already," Megan suggested. "Phone home and see."
Jim glanced at his watch. Mid afternoon. It was... just possible, he supposed. He took out his cell phone and dialled the loft. After some moments the answer phone kicked in. He rang off. "Nothing," he said dismally. Certainly he had not allowed his hopes to rise too high, but knowing for certain that Sandburg was still missing was a real downer.
Megan pulled up at the loft. "Do you want me to come with you?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Thanks, Conner, but no. I'll be best on my own."
She looked at him, clearly doubting it, but accepting his word for it. All she said was, "Be careful."
She watched as he entered the building, then drove off.
Jim went straight to the bedroom, stripped off his court clothes and quickly dressed in warm casual gear. He went down the stairs again and crossed to the kitchen; anxious though he was to get started right away, it made sense to make sure he had at least a sandwich and a flask of coffee with him.
That ready, he packed it carefully into a bag and turned towards the door.
Just as he reached it, it opened.
He was so afraid of zoning, he had turned his senses right down; he was taken completely by surprise. He froze for the briefest of moments, then realised -
"Hi, Jim." Blair dropped his backpack as he kicked the door shut.
Jim dropped the bag he was carrying, clutched at Blair, pulled him into a hug. "Chief. Oh, Chief. You're safe... You're here... "
"I'm sorry - " was all Blair had time to say before he was effectively gagged by being held almost too tightly for him to breathe.
After a while they pulled far enough apart that they could look at each other. "Blair," Jim said again, his voice completely content; and then, more urgently, "are you all right?"
Blair nodded. "I'm sorry, Jim. I left my cell phone at St Sebastian's - "
"Yes, Brother Jeremy told me."
"Oh. You phoned him?"
"It was bad here yesterday. I didn't know if you'd left before the snow started or if you'd decided to stay over until conditions improved, and if you did you knew I was in court so you wouldn't phone till late... Jeremy was extremely apologetic."
"Well, if he hadn't insisted on keeping my phone... I could easily have left it in the car, after all, but no, he had to have it. He said he'd put it in my room before I left - and although I enjoy visiting there and talking to Brother Marcus, I was so anxious to get home again I forgot to make sure he had." He was silent for a moment, then said quietly, "Were you very worried?"
"I knew you'd be okay if you'd stopped before conditions got too bad, but I was scared you might have tried to get home and maybe gone off the road."
Blair shook his head. "I know that road, Jim. I know how dangerous parts of it are. Yes, I wanted to get home - too much to take stupid risks. I was comfortable enough - except I knew you'd be worried."
"And I couldn't even come looking for you," Jim muttered. "The court closed early yesterday so everyone could get home, so the case carried on into today. I had to be there, Chief - you know I had to be there."
"Was Quinton put away?"
"Twenty years minimum."
"Good." Blair yawned. "Two things, then I'm going to bed."
"First, we phone St Sebastian's and let them know I'm home; they'll be worrying too. Then I want something to eat. I haven't had anything except some chocolate and dried fruit since breakfast yesterday, and I'm hungry."
Jim grinned. "Second, phone Simon and let him know you're safe. Third, phone Conner and let her know. Fourth, eat."
"Simon had her babysitting me today, but there wasn't any real risk of me zoning; I usually keep everything turned down low when I'm in court. Okay, you make the phone calls and I'll get a meal ready."
"A quick meal," Blair suggested. "Soup and a sandwich."
"You got it." Jim grinned. "Actually, the sandwich is already made up - I was just getting ready to come looking for you."
"You might have forced a way up the road with the truck," Blair agreed, "but seriously, there were a couple of bad drifts I think would have stopped you - except..." He chuckled. "I thought it would be a low priority road, that I'd be stuck for at least another twenty-four hours, but apparently someone 'important' lives up there - someone with the clout to get his road cleared ahead of schedule, and for once I'm not complaining about someone misusing his position."
He picked up the phone and dialled as Jim retrieved the sandwiches from his pack.