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Naomi Sandburg turned from her aimless study of the night sky with a reluctance she knew she would be hard-pressed to hide, and left her unlit bedroom to make her way to the second bedroom in the small house. She was tired... so tired... with the bone-deep mental and emotional exhaustion that mere sleep could never ease.
She paused for the briefest of moments just before she reached the door, carefully donning the caring smile she had worn for months, the smile that she only permitted to slip when she was alone. Going into the bedroom, she said with forced cheerfulness, "Are you all right, Mom? Are you needing something?"
"No, dear, I just wondered where you were. It's been hours since dinner, and I haven't seen you since then."
In fact, dinner had been rather less than an hour previously, but Naomi knew it would be useless to point that out. "Well, I had the dishes to wash, and then there was some tidying I needed to do." It was only half a lie, and telling it was better than telling the truth; that she had needed a few minutes to herself. She had begun to resent the never-ending demands her mother was making on her time; she had needed, desperately needed, the solitude of the ten minutes or so that she had spent standing at her bedroom window.
Her plans, her hopes for the kind of academic career that would let her travel the world, were lost; abandoned a little more than three years earlier when, at sixteen, she had been forced to leave school in order to care for her mother, who had been left crippled by the motor accident that had killed her husband. In her more depressed moments, Naomi sometimes found herself wishing that the accident had killed her mother, too - so then guilt was added to the emotional burden she carried.
She had always been more her father's child than her mother's - and she hadn't even had time to mourn for him.
The doctors said that her mother could live for years. They also said there was no reason why she shouldn't be able to walk again, albeit with an arm crutch, if she set her mind to it. But Betty Sandburg had never been the kind of person who persevered at anything that needed effort. Naomi could see herself, forty, fifty years in the future, still caring for a dedicated invalid, her chances of a normal life forever lost.
Most of the time, certainly, she was resigned to the demands of a mother who had always been possessive and was now using emotional blackmail to tie her only child to her, as if she was afraid that Naomi didn't love her enough to look after her - "What would I do without you, dear?" - and she told herself firmly that she didn't really wish her mother dead - but she wished, oh, how she wished, that someone else had the job of caring for the invalid who didn't even try to do anything for herself.
If she had only realized, Betty Sandburg's pleas were counter-productive; Naomi, who was trapped but mentally rebellious, would have been trapped more effectively by her conscience if her mother had been less manipulative.
"I wonder if you would read to me for a while," Betty Sandburg went on. "Your voice is so soothing... "
Grimly, not allowing the expression on her face to slip even fractionally, Naomi opened the book Betty was currently getting her daughter to read to her. Naomi hated Harlequin romances with a vengeance, but they were the only books her mother enjoyed now, and in the years since the accident Naomi had been forced to read altogether too many of these mindless novels.
Not that her mother couldn't have read them for herself; it was her pelvis and left leg that had been so severely damaged, not her arms or her eyes. It was the little, little things like this that were so hard to tolerate. "Your voice is so soothing" was yet another way she used to tie her daughter to her side, and Naomi was well aware of that. But she was too tired to fight, too tired to cope with the... yes, the tantrums her mother threw the moment she thought Naomi wanted any sort of life away from her side.
So she read, the words passing from the page through her eyes and out of her mouth without passing through her brain, until her mother's eyes drooped shut.
"Mom? Do you want to sleep now?"
There was no reply; Betty was already asleep.
Naomi put the book down, tucked the blankets carefully round her mother - they had learned early on that Betty was most comfortable lying with her upper body propped up a little - and moved quietly out of the room, dimming the light as she went. She left the door open, just as she left her own bedroom door open, in case her mother called during the night. It wouldn't be the first time she had been called simply because her mother had wakened in the night and couldn't get back to sleep, and she had never heard the end of it the one time, just a couple of months after the accident, when she had been so tired she had slept through her mother calling her several times.
Once she was in bed, Naomi usually read two or three pages of one of her own books to unwind a little before she settled down for what she knew would be an unrestful series of catnaps - but it was only a little; each day saw her more and more tense. If only her mother would allow her to employ a nurse for part of the time! They could well afford it - her father's parents had been rich and he had been their only heir, he himself had had a well-paid job, and there had been a sizeable settlement as a result of the accident, which had been totally the fault of the other driver. But - "You're the only one who can care for me properly, dear."
So the bonds of servitude remained tight around the completely untrained Naomi, who was well aware of how little she actually knew about caring for anyone - and how poorly she was suited, temperamentally, to the task. She had never been particularly patient with helplessness, and knew that if she had been the one injured, she would have fought to recover as much mobility, as much independence, as possible.
After a few minutes she put her book down, switched off the bedside light and tried to relax; but she seemed particularly tense this night.
She tried to empty her mind, to think of nothing, but within seconds she found the first lines of a poem she had learned at school going through her mind.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to go;
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, "Snow".
Time to go? If only...
She knew exactly how the wild geese felt.
But her wings were pinioned.
The monotony of repeating the poem over and over in her mind finally proved soporific - but just as she was sliding into sleep, a loud thud from the other bedroom jolted her awake. Thrusting her feet into slippers, she ran through.
Betty lay on the floor beside her bed. As Naomi ran in, her mother screamed, "Blair!"
Naomi rushed to her mother's side. This was clearly something more serious than the petty clinging demands her mother had been making; something in her mother's mind so serious that she had somehow managed to roll out of bed. "Mom!"
Betty looked at her without recognition. "My husband! I can't see him... He was driving... Blair!"
"Mom! That was three years ago!"
But her mother either didn't hear her or - more likely - was so lost in her nightmare that the words didn't make sense.
"Blair!" She called again for her dead husband. Naomi shook her, thinking she was still asleep, trying to waken her, and her mother turned tear-filled eyes to her, with no recognition in them. "Find him, please. My leg's hurt, but he'll know what to do."
"I'll... call an ambulance," Naomi managed, and fled towards the phone.
Whatever had caused her mother's mental return to the past Naomi never learned, for Betty Sandburg suffered a massive stroke shortly after her arrival at the hospital, and died two days later without regaining consciousness. All Naomi could feel was relief; although in her more frustrated moments she had occasionally wished that the accident had killed her mother too, she had not, in her calmer moments, actively wished for her mother's death - but she was long past the stage of being able to feel grief over it. She dealt with the formalities with quiet efficiency, finding that because her mother had actually died in the hospital everything went much more smoothly than it had when her father died.
After the funeral she returned home, and while she disposed of her mother's things she wondered what she should now do. She could, of course, try to pick up the academic career she had been forced to abandon, but three years away from studying... Somehow she couldn't summon up the energy to even think about that as an option.
She didn't have to work, of course; money was not a problem. She could have a very comfortable lifestyle from the interest on the money in the bank and the income from the shares that she had inherited from her father. She didn't even need to touch any of her capital - indeed, she could add to it.
The idea of travel beckoned. Just... travel. Not the work-related travel she had once hoped for. Yes... Sell the house, which they had bought after the accident for its convenience, and spend a while just... doing nothing. But not yet. Not just yet. She needed time to recover from the strain of the last three years before she committed herself to anything.
She had had very little opportunity to socialise during the last years, either, and a few days after the funeral she decided to relax by going out.
She went to one of the nightclubs, making sure she had proof of her age with her, but in fact she wasn't asked for it. She sat sipping a glass of wine and watching the dancers.
"Hello - are you waiting for anyone?"
She glanced round. The young man grinning at her was attractive and she found her interest immediately caught. "No, I'm on my own."
"May I join you?" He was already sitting down, putting his glass on the table. "I'm Jeff."
She was flattered, and smiled back. "Naomi."
"I haven't seen you here before?"
"No, it's my first time here."
"It's much more fun if you're with someone."
"Well, I am now," she laughed.
Jeff was good company, and if he didn't say much about himself, well, she didn't say much about herself either. They found a fair amount to talk about - she had read fairly widely, and he seemed to know something about many of the things that interested her. He bought her another drink, then asked her to dance. She admitted not really knowing how to dance; he said that didn't matter, and set out to teach her.
She enjoyed the evening, and the unusual experience of being taken home by a young man. At the door he kissed her goodnight. "See you again?" he asked. "Tomorrow night, maybe? I'll pick you up at seven."
They went out several times over the next couple of months, and Naomi flourished. On the second night he bought her bourbon instead of wine; she discovered that she quite enjoyed it, and thereafter drank it, sensing that he considered wine a drink for babies and not confident enough to insist that although she had liked the bourbon well enough, she actually preferred the wine.
And he was a perfect gentleman. His love-making never extended beyond kissing and a little gentle caressing of her breasts. He was taking things slowly, and she appreciated it.
One night at the club they had just returned to their table after a dance when someone exclaimed, "Jeff!"
Jeff glanced round. "Oh, hi," he said as three other men joined them. "Naomi, these are friends of mine - this is Ralph, that's Bill, and the redhead there is Danny."
She smiled politely, secretly hoping that they wouldn't stay long.
But they did. Having joined up with Jeff, they were clearly unable to see that she and Jeff were a couple - though she had to admit they were good company. The drinks flowed freely and she was very drunk by the time Jeff suggested leaving.
She expected the others to leave, then, but they didn't; they piled into the back of Jeff's car, obviously taking it for granted that he would provide a taxi service for them.
She was paying very little attention to where they were going; she did register that the car took an unfamiliar turn, and decided that Jeff was going to drop off his friends before taking her home - but when it stopped, it was in a small parking lot in the middle of... nowhere. She couldn't recognise anything.
Jeff got out of the car, moved round it, opened the door for her, and pulled her out and into his arms. She was half aware of the others getting out as well; and then she was on the ground, there were hands all over her, her skirt was pulled up and her panties pulled down, and then for the first time in her life she felt the smooth hardness of an erection touching her vagina.
She gasped at the sudden but short-lived pain as it pushed into her; the thrusting that followed was oddly pleasant but too short-lived, and she gasped her disappointment when the hardness pulled out of her. It was immediately replaced, however, and she yielded to the continuous stimulation, too drunk to be aware of what was actually happening.
Eventually she lost consciousness.
She woke in the first light of dawn, cold, feeling nauseous, with a raging headache and a dull pain between her legs, to find herself lying beside her front door. What...?
And then half memories slipped into her mind, and for a moment she could only be grateful that Jeff had brought her home again instead of either leaving her wherever he had taken her the previous night or killing her.
Her purse was lying beside her, and she took her key from it, unlocked the door and went in, locking it behind her. The movement heightened the nausea; she barely made it to the bathroom in time. Not that there was much in her stomach to come up but bile.
After a while she rose from her knees, took two aspirin and a long drink of water, and stumbled to her bedroom. She kicked off her shoes and collapsed on the bed.
Slowly both the sickness and the headache eased, and she tried to make sense of what had happened.
She couldn't even call it rape, she thought, for she had made no protest; she had submitted quietly, even willingly, too drunk to realize what was happening but so hungry for love that she had thought, when Jeff took her - she was sure he had been the first of them - that it was out of love; now, in the sober aftermath, she knew it wasn't. It had all been a trick. Jeff had set out to win her confidence, and then he and his friends had got her drunk, taken her out to... somewhere, and... She had no idea how often she had been used, or by how many men. She wasn't even sure that there hadn't been more than Jeff and his three friends - she had a half memory of seeing another car with at least another four men in it as Jeff pulled her out of his car.
She knew she would never see Jeff again.
The only thing that had kept her in Dallas was Jeff. The next day she did what she had been considering before she ever met the man; she contacted a realtor and put the house on the market, to be sold furnished. Then she went through her possessions.
She owned very little that she wanted to keep. Although it was a wrench to dispose of a lot of her books, she only kept one or two of them, old favorites that she never tired of re-reading; some jewelry; a few photographs; enough clothes to fill a large suitcase. It was something of a slaughter, for she had already been ruthless in getting rid of a lot of things when they sold the big house they had owned before the accident, moving instead to a small house on one level where it would be easier for her to care for her mother. Everything that she had worn in the last few weeks, everything that had any association with Jeff, she threw out without a second thought.
She had an aunt in Fort Worth - her mother's sister. Aunt Laura had been kind to her during the previous years, taking care of the invalid for an occasional weekend to give Naomi a short break, but she had a family young enough to claim much of her time, and had been unable to help on a regular basis. Now she contacted Aunt Laura and asked if she could stay with her for a few days.
Then she handed the keys of the house over to the realtor and turned her back on Dallas.
She had only been in Fort Worth a day or two before she realized she was pregnant. Her period was seriously overdue.
Abortion was not an option she even considered, much though she hated the idea of having a child as the result of... what had happened, and without knowing who the actual father was. She could, of course, give the child for adoption... Well, she had nine months to consider what was best to do.
But first, she knew she had to tell her aunt.
Laura was furious when she heard the story - not with Naomi, for she understood how her niece had been tricked.
"You've got to find this man, force him to take responsibility for his actions." she insisted.
Naomi shook her head. "I should have been suspicious," she said. "He never told me his second name. I don't even know that his first name really *was* Jeff. And he never asked for my second name, either, come to think of it. He knew where I lived, because he always took me home... but I don't think he realized I had that much money - it wasn't a big house, after all.
"I think... if he had realized I had money, he'd have married me to get his hands on it. If he'd asked me to marry him before this happened, I'd have said yes, because I really liked him. But now - I don't think I would want to marry someone like he turned out to be. This is going to sound crazy, but even though I'm pregnant, I think I maybe got off lighter than I might have done - with a charming con man like him."
Laura Manning nodded slowly. "You could be right, dear. You liked him - did you love him?"
"I'm not sure." She hesitated. "He was the first man I ever went out with - well, he was the only one - and he was fun, but I really don't know how much we actually had in common. Some of the things that interested me - I sometimes felt he was only pretending an interest, but at the time I thought it was nice of him to do that. Given a few more weeks... I realize now I might very well have... outgrown him."
"All right, we'll forget him." Laura did not say, then or later, what she would dearly like to do to the man if she ever caught him in a dark alley and she had a knife. "Have you had a chance to decide what you want to do?"
"No. I'm still trying to come to terms with it. But I don't have to decide anything right away."
"Well, I'll support whatever you decide, and Naomi - you have a home here for as long as you want."
Laura's husband Arnie didn't totally approve of Naomi - he wasn't entirely convinced that the story she had told her aunt was the whole truth, being sure in his own mind that any woman who was raped had asked for it in some way; but he accepted Laura's decision to give her niece a home for as long as she needed it. He was too much the gentleman to show Naomi open disapproval, but he did use her as an example when he warned his daughters to be careful when they went out with their boy friends.
It never occurred to him to tell his sons they should make sure they kept their pants buttoned.
During the early months of her surprisingly easy pregnancy, Naomi found it impossible to decide what best to do, and eventually decided to wait till the child was born to make up her mind; and when at last her son was born, one look at him was enough to make her decide to take what was in some ways the harder option, and keep him.
She gave him her father's name.
Much to his own surprise, Arnie found that he was fond of young Blair, who when he began talking called him 'Granda'.
For eight years, Naomi and Blair had a happy life with the Mannings. Blair thought of Naomi's cousins as his uncles and aunts; and when, one by one, they married and left the parental home, he was sad to see them go. Not that he was spoiled - Naomi made up her mind that he would grow up independent but well-behaved; that she would not be the possessive parent that her own mother was.
And then Arnie died.
Naomi supported her aunt through the difficult days following the funeral, but it didn't take long for her to realize that although Laura had seemed to be much stronger than Betty, in fact she had been almost as dependant on her husband for many things as Betty had been on hers. However, Laura made it clear right away that she was not going to coerce Naomi into showing her gratitude for the support she had been given by tying Naomi to her.
"It's your life," she said. "Not mine."
One of the decisions she made was to sell the family home, and she called the family together to announce her plans. "It's too big," she said. "Your father was talking about finding somewhere smaller anyway, now that you've all moved out. There's no rush - I'll take time to look around for somewhere I like."
"You don't actually need to buy a house." Angie, Laura's oldest daughter, was looking thoughtful. "You know that extension on my house - it's self-contained, because it was originally built for an elderly relative by the people Jack and I bought it from. It's got a bedroom and a living room, a toilet and shower room, and although we just use it for storage, it's got what was originally a small kitchen as well. It won't take more than a day or two to empty it and get it cleaned and painted ready to be used as a kitchen again. It would give you the freedom of having a home of your own, but right beside me in case there was a problem, and you could come through any time you wanted company."
"What about Naomi?" Laura asked.
"It's all right," Naomi said before her cousin could answer. "You've been more than good to me all these years, but I've been thinking for a while it was time I moved on. I'd like to do some travelling, but I thought it more important to give Blair a stable home while he was young. But he's eight now, old enough to be able to handle travelling around for a year or two."
"What about his education?" Laura asked.
"I can teach him," Naomi said confidently. "Anyway, you know what he's like - he wants to know about everything that's going on, so he learns a lot that way, and he reads everything he can lay his hands on as well."
Naomi stayed long enough to help Laura clear the house and move what she wanted to Angie's. During those busy days, Angie kept Blair at her house, out of the way, expecting to spend her time chasing after him and finding to her surprise that he was no bother at all - she had thought him too hyperactive to settle - so that she ended up telling Naomi that if she ever needed anyone to look after Blair for a few days, she would be happy to take him. Laura's oldest son had agreed to take out the last of the furniture (the beds, a table and some chairs that had been retained for use on their last night in the house) so when they finally left it early one morning, Laura with tears in her eyes - it had been her home since the second year of her marriage - they could simply lock the door and walk away.
Naomi took Laura to Angie's, staying long enough for a polite cup of coffee before she kissed Laura goodbye, thanked her again for giving her a home all these years, promised to keep in touch, took Blair and left.
Knowing that she would be moving on one day, she had, over the years, added very little to what she had taken to Fort Worth. She had given Blair very few toys, but in any case from the time he learned to read he had preferred books, and he got most of these from the library. The games he had played, he had preferred to use his imagination to supply the 'props'. So she only had one big suitcase and one smaller one, a holdall that she could sling over her shoulder, and a small backpack holding the few books he actually owned for Blair to carry.
She already had plane tickets to take them to Europe.
The wild goose had grown her wing feathers again, and she was about to fly.
They spent the next years travelling all over the world, and during that time she slipped into the hippie life-style, joining in protests when she found them if she felt they were aimed at correcting injustice, sometimes moving into a commune for a few days or weeks before moving on. Blair picked up a working knowledge of several languages on the way. Occasionally they stopped in one place for two or three months - usually when Naomi met someone she found interesting and moved in with him for a while. She had not lived a totally celibate life in Fort Worth, for Laura had encouraged her to socialise to some extent, and she had had two or three semi-serious boy friends during her years there, but none that she trusted enough to want permanently in her life. She guessed that she would never fully trust a man again, but she was not averse to using them when she could - and although she took precautions herself, she always refused to sleep with anyone who did not also take precautions. She loved Blair, but one child was enough.
After the first couple of times when Naomi moved in with someone - once in Spain and once in Cyprus - Blair learned not to expect any of these men in his mother's life to become permanancies, and there was only once, in Australia, that he tried to change her mind about moving on. That was when he learned that she didn't expect any relationship to last, and that she preferred to be the one who left, because that hurt less than being the one who was abandoned. She had never told him the circumstances leading up to his birth; but from that conversation, he assumed her then boy friend had abandoned her when she discovered she was pregnant.
He was ten.
That was the day he decided that he would never risk leaving anyone pregnant; that when he reached the age of wanting a sexual relationship, he would always take precautions.
Not long after Blair's twelfth birthday Naomi decided to return to America, feeling that it was time for Blair to learn more about his own country. They went first to Fort Worth, where they stayed with Angie for a month and Blair renewed his acquaintance with his relatives, finding his cousins more interesting now that they were a little older than he had when he was eight and they were seven and younger, and developing a friendship with his oldest cousin Robert that was to prove lasting, if intermittent. Naomi herself spent a lot of time with Laura, telling her about all the things she had seen and done. Then the wild goose stretched her wings again and moved on.
When she first announced that it was time to go, Blair was briefly doubtful; this was not the longest they had stayed anywhere, but - apart from the time they had been with Eric in Australia - this was the place he felt most accepted. But he felt oddly responsible for his mother, and so he pulled up the roots that he had hardly realized he was setting down and left with her.
Naomi had kept her promise to herself, and brought Blair up to be independent; to give her her due, she never realized the sense of responsibility that was in him, although he had inherited it from her. But it was something she had pushed into a closed segment of her mind years earlier, when she first left Fort Worth. She did not want to be responsible for anyone else, ever again; not even for her son, as he grew beyond dependant infancy.
They zig-zagged all over America, with one quick and short-lived excursion into northern Canada where they lived for a few days with an Inuit family. Naomi moved from boy friend to boy friend, never letting any of them know that she was wealthy, but leaving as soon as any of them gave any indication of wanting a lasting relationship; usually, especially if they had been particularly nice to Blair, she tried to be kind and let them down lightly.
Blair's education was patchy during those years. Although Naomi had said she would teach him, her ideas about the best education she could give her son were unorthodox, and she only taught him what she thought was relevant to life. When they stayed put for a while he attended school, and it was those short periods in school that taught him the little he knew about number - a subject Naomi found mostly irrelevant to the life they led, and which in fact interested him hardly at all. His travels with Naomi taught him geography. He had an active, inquisitive mind and a retentive memory; he found the places he had been, the people he had met, interesting, and because he spent most of his time with adults he found it easy to speak to adults; speaking to the people he met taught him some history and something about different cultures. Almost unconsciously he compared the life styles in the different countries he saw with each other.
Already an avid reader, he continued to absorb books extensively and hungrily, hardly interested in fiction but studying non-fiction keenly and able to understand and appreciate books that most adults would have thought too advanced for him. It was not really surprising that as he entered his teens he found himself more and more interested in anthropology, an interest Naomi encouraged - although they had plenty of money and Blair would not in fact ever need to work, she had begun to recognise that a life spent in communes and meditative retreats would not suit her active son although it was one she had come to love. A career in cultural anthropology would let Blair continue to spread his wings, let him continue to fly free, let him continue to travel all over the world, never staying anywhere for long but like the migrant geese moving on when the time was right.
If there was one constant she actively taught him, it was that it was a mistake to settle for long in one place; and as a corollary, that possessions just tied a person down. That almost every material thing could be replaced; so it was best to travel light, with what he valued in one easily-carried bag.
So he developed the habit of always carrying a back-pack that contained the few things he did not want to lose as well as whatever was going to be useful to him at the time.
Blair took his first vacation away from Naomi when he was fourteen, heading back to Fort Worth while she joined a group at Big Sur. Although he found meditation relaxing, he wasn't sure he wanted to spend several weeks in a retreat where meditation was an integral part of the experience; in thinking that her son would be bored by such a life, Naomi had been right.
He and Robert picked up their friendship as if he had never been away, although Blair soon realized that much though he liked his cousin, they actually had very little in common. The age difference, small though it was, that had been important to him at eight, that hadn't seemed so important at twelve, had resurfaced at fourteen; their interests were no longer much the same, and these new and different interests were pushing them just a little apart again.
But Laura and Angie encouraged the friendship, for both realized that Blair, who was perfectly at ease with adults but didn't consider himself too old to look after his younger cousins, had little knowledge of how to interact with his own age group. So Blair went out with Robert and his friends and learned many things, some of which he knew would have horrified Laura and Angie if they had found out about them and which he mentally categorised as 'the habits of the American teenage boy' alongside 'the habits of the young male Inuit' and 'the habits of the adolescent hunter-gatherer' (although he was far from convinced that the African 'hunter-gatherer' tribe he and Naomi had visited as part of an 'educational tour' was completely authentic), apparently accepting them but in no way tempted to adopt them as a permanent part of his lifestyle.
When Blair was due to leave to rejoin his mother, Laura contacted Naomi and persuaded her to let Blair stay on in Fort Worth. "You've done a marvellous job with Blair," she told her niece. "But there are a few gaps in his education. He really needs a little proper schooling if he's to go to university and make a career for himself. And if I'm honest, he's a stabilising influence on Robert that Angie would like to see continuing for a while - you know Jack's a long-distance trucker so he's away a lot. Chronologically Blair's only a year older than Robert, but he's far more mature, and he's providing an older, steady male model that Robert needs quite badly; and it would be giving Blair the chance to continue associating with his cousins and - well - learning how to be a teenager."
So Blair stayed on at Fort Worth. He went to school and - except in number work, in which he had little interest - soon proved that he had little to learn; just before his sixteenth birthday he applied to go to Rainier, which had the best anthropology department he could discover, and was accepted.
If Naomi's mother hadn't been crippled in the accident that killed her father; if Naomi hadn't had to leave school, instead of going on to university as she had hoped to do; if she had never met Jeff. If none of these things had happened, Naomi might have been more trusting. As it was, she did trust people - but only up to a point. She had learned a hard lesson, but she had learned it well. Fooled once into believing that a charming rapist was sincere, she instinctively realized that she could be fooled again; that for con men, charm was their strongest weapon. And so she never let anyone know just how rich she was; not even Blair had known, for a long time.
However, once he was accepted at Rainier, Naomi had a short but serious talk with Blair.
"Sweetie, did you ever wonder how we were able to travel so much, when I didn't work?"
Blair shook his head. "The way Grandma and Aunt Angie live, I guessed our family had some money, and that you'd inherited enough to live on, but that we lived the way we did to make it last. It wasn't as if we needed all that much when we were moving around, staying at communes and things."
"You're partly right. Actually, I inherited quite a lot of money. But there are always people who will try to - well, live off you, use you, if they know how rich you are, so I never told anyone. Now, though, you'll be on your own.
"We're going to open a bank account for you, putting in five thousand dollars, and I'm going to give you a monthly allowance of fifteen hundred. You should be able to live off that, buy whatever books you need, without touching the five thousand - that's an emergency reserve. It's enough to say 'I've got enough money to survive' without admitting to being wealthy. If you've a serious and genuine need for more, contact me, but I won't bail you out if you've just wasted your money or been conned out of it. Fair enough?"
Blair nodded. "Yes, Mom. Fair enough." He had seen enough in his short life to understand what she meant.
Much though she loved Blair, once he was settled in Cascade and she was totally on her own, Naomi breathed a silent sigh of relief. Certainly he had lived at Fort Worth for the last two years, but there had always been the possibility that he would leave there, and come looking to travel with her again. But he was committed now to an academic career.
There was so much she couldn't do in the company of a child, even a quiet, precocious teenager; so many places, even some of the retreats she wanted to visit, were barred to anyone considered underage, whatever the age of majority was in whatever country they were. And for Blair's vacations, there was always the house in Fort Worth where he was happy and welcomed.
Feeling for the first time that she was not burdened by any responsibilities or even potential responsibilities, the wild goose flew totally freely.
As it happened, Blair didn't have to worry about wasting his money or anyone discovering that, even without a student loan, he had more than many of the others. He discovered almost immediately that his social life had just taken a complete downturn. Not that he had ever had much of a social life until he started going out with Robert two years previously, and he had no desire to go out trying to pretend he was older than he was - he had no need to experiment with liquor, because Naomi had carefully introduced him to it several years earlier, or drugs - over the last six years he had seen for himself the damage drugs could do. But he was fully two years younger than any of the other students, many of whom resented the younger student who already knew so much and who showed up quite a few of them on a regular basis; none of them seemed to realize that for someone of sixteen who looked even younger and who had no friends to distract him, study was virtually the only way to fill his evenings - even if he hadn't been a voracious reader. All that saved him from some petty victimisation was the simple fact that it never occurred to him to boast about his academic achievements; as far as he was concerned, there was nothing at all unusual about his knowledge - he simply considered himself lucky that he had had the opportunity that had been denied to his fellow students to see for himself a surprizing amount of what was covered in many of the Anthro 101 lectures.
His knowledge brought him to the attention of Eli Stoddard, who at the time was head of the Anthropology Department at Rainier.
At sixteen he was still too young for Dr Stoddard to consider him for any of his short trips to work in the field, but Stoddard made a mental note that if young Sandburg continued to do as well in later years as he did as a freshman, he would be an excellent addition to an expedition in another two or three years.
The only lecturer who was less than enthusiastic about Blair was Professor Buckley, who was firmly of the opinion that sixteen-year-olds were far too young to be accepted by Rainier, and considered that Blair's self-assurance in class was a form of impertinence. But even he had to admit that Blair's high marks were deserved.
If Blair's student years were often lonely, he didn't let it bother him. In truth, he hardly noticed that he was lonely. He was used to being the only child among adults, accustomed to making his own entertainment, and he loved learning.
He returned to Fort Worth at vacation times. When he went back to Rainier to start his sophomore year, he realized from the conversations he overheard that in future years he would have to get some kind of job if he was not to betray his real financial position - he was able to obfuscate his way around it on this occasion, the one half-friendly enquiry that was made, by pointing out that he was really on the young side for anyone to employ him, but he knew he wouldn't get away with that again. However, the next two summers saw him working for one of his uncles; that was where he learned welding. The following year he joined Jack, Angie's long-distance truck driver husband, and spent that summer sharing the driving - strictly illegally, since he was not old enough to hold a licence to drive heavy vehicles. He knew by then that some anthropological expeditions used fairly big trucks to carry their gear, and realized that an ability to drive such vehicles could be a definite advantage in the career he hoped to follow.
During those years, he never saw Naomi and after the first year he heard from her only rarely. She did love him, he had no reason to doubt that, but it seemed to him that she loved her freedom even more - and while she had never forgotten her promise to herself not to be possessive, she *had* forgotten to tell Blair about it.
Eli Stoddard kept a watchful eye on his progress, and was gratified to see Blair more than fulfilling his early promise; and when Blair was twenty, Stoddard invited him to join one of his expeditions - a fairly short follow-up to one he had done in the Amazon rain forest the previous year.
Blair loved it.
It wasn't that meeting new cultures was strange to him. He had done plenty of that in the six years he had spent travelling the world with his mother. He had also learned how to adapt, to fit in, with the minimum of fuss, and much to his surprise, because of Blair, Stoddard found himself learning one or two things about the tribe they were visiting that the previous year had been... not kept from him, exactly, but hadn't been readily revealed to an outsider.
This trip - which also proved to him that his assessment of the 'hunter-gatherer' group he had seen in Africa as having been orchestrated for tourists was correct - was what really triggered Blair's interest in sentinels.
He had found Burton's *The Sentinels of Paraguay* in a second-hand bookstore a couple of years earlier - it was not the kind of book the store normally carried, and he guessed that it had been handed in along with a lot of other old books by someone clearing the house of a deceased elderly relative. The store owner clearly had no idea what it might be worth, and Blair cheerfully paid the $5 the man was asking for it, knowing that he had a real bargain - and well aware that the man thought he had sold the book for a lot more than it was worth. He had no compunction when it came to cheating someone who was trying to cheat him. He could see in it a useful reference source for his studies. But when he actually looked through it, he was fascinated enough by Burton's stories about sentinels to search for other references in books written by travellers - and found none. Or, at least, none that were obvious.
But then in the Amazon rain forest he discovered that some of the tribes had had sentinels - or at least part sentinels - inside the last century even if they had none - or would not admit to having one - at the present time. Nobody was willing to speak too openly about them, but he heard enough to know that he wanted to discover more.
When they returned to Cascade, aware that his fellow students knew he had been with Stoddard and not working over the summer, Blair took out a small student loan in order to disguise the true facts of his financial status. Not that he was averse to lying if he had to; he had learned the fine art of shading the truth from a mother who appeared reluctant to hurt anyone's feelings but who - if he was honest with himself - he believed was basically too selfish to consider anyone's needs but her own important. Why else had she left Eric? And Tim and Dean and Andy and Joe and Murray and... They had all been nice, all been guys who'd accepted him, all been guys he'd have been variably happy to have called 'Dad'.
But she hadn't stayed with any of them. She said to him she didn't trust any relationship to last... but was it more that she was too selfish to consider their needs instead of just her own?
He read Burton again, this time trying to read between the lines, trying to see if Burton had given any clues about the possibility of sentinels outside tribal cultures, and finding a few oblique references. In the time he could spare from his actual studies he devoured books on travel, this time searching for throwaway comments and sometimes finding them.
He began to search for people with heightened senses, finding a surprising number with heightened taste and/or sense of smell, most of whom worked as wine, tea or coffee tasters or for perfumiers. He found a few with better than average hearing or sense of touch, and a few long-sighted people whose distance vision was excellent but who had problems, and needed glasses, when trying to read. Few of the people he found had more than two senses heightened; none had more than three.
Over the next six years he continued to study, finally, when he had accomplished everything for a doctorate except his dissertation, becoming a TA at Rainier. He had packed a lot into these years - he had learned several more skills as a result of vacation or evening jobs, had been on another three expeditions with Stoddard, had finally met up with his mother again when she turned up unexpectedly during one of those expeditions - "I was in the area, sweetie, and I couldn't just pass on without coming to see you". That was when he discovered Naomi had remained in regular contact with Laura, and through Laura knew what he was doing, how he was getting on, although she had asked Laura not to let him know what she was doing; and he insisted that from then on, she should remain in touch with him as well, obstinately refusing to accept her argument that she did not want to be a possessive mother by pointing out that the occasional letter or phone call was hardly being possessive.
In keeping with his pretence that he was a just-had-enough-cash-to-manage student, Blair had never paid to keep an apartment during the summer, renting somewhere new each time he returned to Cascade. This time, however, transport difficulties meant his return had been delayed slightly, and all he had found to rent in an area where he was willing to live was an empty warehouse. There had been one or two other possibilities, certainly, but these had been in areas he preferred to avoid; even the warehouse's position was marginal. He had made a 'home' in one corner of it that was comfortable enough, although it was impossible to heat the place and conditions would get colder as the year drew nearer its close; he was looking out for somewhere else, but suspected that if he wanted to move before midwinter he would have to beg floor space from one of his acquaintances - which he would do if he had to, though several years spent with his mother while she did that left him disinclined to copy her, for he had seen how easy it could be to outstay his welcome.
He knew he should have begun work on his dissertation months earlier, but he was reluctant to commit himself to a subject. More than anything, he wanted his dissertation to be about sentinels, but he had only found part sentinels, people with at most three heightened senses. And so he had delayed, hoping against hope that one day he would find someone with four; he didn't dare hope he would find anyone with all five.
Stoddard, who supported Blair's decision to make sentinels the subject of his dissertation, had left Rainier that summer to concentrate on research, heading off on the first of what was to become regular expeditions to Borneo; and almost as soon the academic year started, Blair found that Stoddard's successor, John Sidney, was less than sympathetic to the delay while he still searched for subjects on which to base his thesis. Sidney, quite bluntly, told Blair that unless he came up with something concrete soon, he must find another subject for his dissertation.
That night Blair huddled over the small electric fire in the corner of the warehouse, leafing slowly through Burton. Could he perhaps do something with historical sentinels? But if he did, virtually all he could do was rewrite Burton, who was the only positive source he had been able to find.
He went to his notes, the notes he had taken on his travels with Stoddard; read over the little he had been able to persuade the different tribes he had visited to tell him about their sentinels, and was reminded that even there, in tribes that used even some of the culture of the technological world, the number of sentinels appeared to have declined.
Perhaps... perhaps he could still write about sentinels, but make his subject why the number of sentinels had declined as the world became more... more technological. He refused to say 'civilised', for he refused to accept that genuine stone age hunter-gatherer cultures were uncivilised - he had a great deal of respect for them, for they had their rules of behaviour, their customs, their own technology and a range of knowledge that would let them survive when the more apparently advanced cultures failed - as they always did, eventually.
Reluctantly, he began to list possible reasons why sentinels were fewer than they had been - beginning with 'too many people; less opportunity for the extended period of solitude that seemed to be necessary for the senses to be triggered' and continuing with 'too much stimulus - lights too bright, sounds too loud, smells too strong and unpleasant - even if the senses were triggered, self-preservation would probably force the budding sentinel to suppress his abilities.'
He sat and looked at the paper, rereading the two points he had made. He would be more than pushed to write anything other than a short paper on the subject if those were his only two reasons. He sighed and added, 'even tribes in relatively remote areas have mostly been exposed to our culture and affected by it.'
Hmmm... Could he do something on the subject of the effect the technological world was having on hunter-gatherer tribes, and put in something about the scarcity of sentinels as a side result? It was a possibility...
He turned back to his notes, which included drafts of several papers he had had published over the previous five or six years and began to read them carefully, from time to time scribbling a page reference onto the paper his three points were written on.
Two days later he sat in the storeroom that doubled as his office looking gloomily at the results of his reading. There was still hardly enough on which to base a dissertation; he was either going to have to get more material somehow or completely abandon any hope of producing a dissertation that included any mention of sentinels.
He didn't begrudge Eli Stoddard the change of career direction that took him away from Rainier; he knew his mentor had always been far more interested in the research side of anthropology than in teaching. However, he did wish that Stoddard's successor had been like Stoddard, a man with imagination and - yes, understanding. Two days into Sidney's administration Blair had already realized that the university had exchanged an excellent Head of Department who encouraged original thought for an extremely mediocre one who, when he set an examination of any kind, would want nothing more than his own notes parrotted back to him, a man for whom research was ultimately a waste of time because 'it had all been done before'. He had the academic background, certainly, but it was all on paper; Blair suspected that at least part of the reason he had been given the job was his lack of interest in research; he would not be disappearing for weeks at a time the way Stoddard had.
But then neither would he be bringing Rainier to the notice of the anthropological world by publishing papers about expeditions made 'by Dr Sidney, Anthropology Department, Rainier University'.
Blair sat thinking. This early in the academic year, 'office hours' were something of a joke; the students were still settling in and unlikely to realize yet that they might be having problems. He had to be in his office for a couple of hours just in case, yes, but while he was there he could pursue his own studies as long as nobody came to see him.
He stared at the blank sheet of paper in front of him, his mind as blank as the paper. There was nothing he wanted to make the subject of an in-depth study except sentinels - the subject that had intrigued him for a dozen years and more.
'Tribal protectors', he wrote, and stared at the two words for a long time.
Protectors. Now there was a possibility, and he could incorporate sentinels, too - protectors. People who protected their tribes. Police. Firemen. Who else... Coastguards. The army? Possibly, although from choice he would not want to include the armed forces.
There was a single knock on the door before it opened and one of the secretaries came in. "This was just faxed in for you, Blair."
"Oh - thanks - " She was new to the department. A split second of searching his memory produced her name - "Joyce."
He took the papers and glanced at the top sheet as she closed the door again.
Blair - I thought you might be interested in this. He'll be here for another hour or so waiting for test results. Nancy.
Nancy... Oh, yes, the nurse he'd gone out with once or twice back in the spring, though he hadn't seen her since he left Cascade for the summer. She'd been quite interested in anthropology, but she didn't have the urge to discover things that was necessary for anyone who wanted a career in the subject. She had however understood his frustration at not finding a subject for his dissertation. He turned to the next page.
It took him some seconds to realize what he was reading.
Lights too bright... hearing voices... things tasting and smelling far too strong...
Could it be? Was it possible? And if it was, he owed Nancy, big time.
He had to see this... He turned over the page searching for a name. Ellison. James Ellison.
Abandoning his office without a second thought he ran out to his car.
Despite his anxiety to reach the hospital as quickly as possible, Blair was careful to drive inside the speed limit - he didn't want to risk being stopped for speeding, for that could delay him to the point where he might miss seeing James Ellison.
And he had to find some way to approach the man, get him into his territory - the university - where he could show him Burton's book, his notes on tribal sentinels. He didn't think that would be difficult, though - he had always been good at thinking on his feet.
James Ellison... The name seemed familiar - something he thought he had read, but the faint recollection hovering at the edge of his memory refused to emerge and take shape. Well, if he succeeded in seeing the man and arousing his curiosity he would have at least some time - probably until the next day, at least - to search through his papers and magazines and see if something there triggered recognition.
He managed to park fairly near the main entrance, and walked briskly into the hospital. He headed for casualty, and paused at the admissions desk.
"James Ellison?" he asked briskly, as if he had every right to know where he was.
"He's in room eight," the girl said after a quick glance through the admissions book.
He headed down the corridor; hesitated; and opened the door of what looked like a store-room. There were two white coats hanging on pegs; one had a name tag on it. He registered 'McC-y' as he shrugged into the coat, then walked out of the room and carried on down the corridor until he came to room eight.
He paused, took a deep breath, and walked in.
Until he was twenty-six, Blair had never really had the opportunity to put down roots.
Fort Worth was the nearest place to home Blair had ever known; first Grandma Laura's home until he was eight - although he knew now that she was actually Naomi's aunt, he hadn't realized it back then - although even there had been subject to change as Laura's children, one by one, moved out; then Angie's during several vacations. Although he had lived in Cascade since he was sixteen, he had lived in many parts of the city, changing his 'home' nearly every term, until his warehouse home was destroyed and he moved in with Jim Ellison. But he stayed there for four years and for most of that time knew that he was welcome. And even the day Jim threw him out, Blair knew, objectively, that it was nothing personal although subjectively it had hurt; he had quietly moved in again on their return from Sierra Verde, knowing that when Jim helped him carry his things back into the loft, it was as near an apology as his emotionally-repressed friend could make.
But then everything blew up in his face. Naomi sent his first-draft dissertation to Sid Graham, Graham refused to accept that when he said the dissertation was not for publication he meant it, and he had been forced to deny his work to protect his friend.
When Simon Banks offered him a detective's badge, he gave serious thought to accepting - he had enjoyed working with the PD; but he was forced to the conclusion that if he stayed, if Jim was seen to be happy working with the man who had written a 'dissertation' featuring him as a sentinel, people would begin to wonder why. And so he realized that he had no choice but to pull up the roots that during the last four years had burrowed deep, and leave Cascade.
He couldn't help but laugh wryly at Graham's belief that money would change his mind and make him agree to the publication of his dissertation, for money, of course, was not a problem. Although he had supported himself for ten years and paid his share of their expenses over the four years he had lived with Jim, his initial five thousand dollar emergency reserve had grown quite considerably - and he had learned during the years he had travelled with Naomi how to live cheaply. He still didn't know just how wealthy she was, but he had the monthly allowance she had given him, without apparently shorting herself; it was in his view sufficient to give him a comfortable enough life even if he never worked. He would not need to ask her for any additional money - although he was quite sure she would expect him to, and under the circumstances give him an increased allowance without a murmur of protest. But if he did, it would be a sop to her conscience, and he felt enough anger over her actions that he was not prepared to give her any feeling that she was compensating him for what she had lost him.
But what to do with his life? He had devoted himself to the study of anthropology since he was sixteen. Hell, he had been absorbing anthropological knowledge since he was eight!
Although he believed that he had pulled his weight on the expeditions he had been on, he could not hope that Eli Stoddard would be willing to give him a place on any future expedition - not now. Stoddard was bound to have heard that Blair had declared himself a fraud.
So - what to do?
Blair was well aware that his mother's lifestyle was not for him. Although he found meditation relaxing, he had too much energy to pursue a lifetime of investigating esoteric religions interspersed with time spent at retreats where hours spent in meditation seemed to be the norm.
He could of course return to Fort Worth and find work with one of his various relatives; but a stubborn independence would, he knew, keep him from choosing that option. It was one thing to lean on them for vacation jobs when he was a student; it was a different matter entirely now that he had thrown away his academic credibility. They would support him unquestioningly - but he refused to be beholden to them.
It would be hard to leave Jim, but he could not feel he was abandoning his friend. Jim had almost total control over his senses; he might want Blair along, but he didn't actually need him now.
It was time for the gander to forget the domestication he had willingly embraced, and return to the wild.
It had not actually been difficult to clear his office at Rainier. Much of what he took home from there was books, and there were only one or two of those that he actually valued. The papers he had simply dumped without a second thought - he didn't need old drafts of published papers - and now he started to go through the books and papers he had at the loft. Half-written papers that had been lying unfinished for months, as well as one or two nearly ready for submission, he knew would never now find a publisher, and he binned them, not without regret but without hesitation. He looked through the books and eventually, from his entire collection, chose half a dozen - one of which, tattered now, was, he remembered, in his backpack the day he first left Fort Worth. The others he sealed in two boxes addressed to Angie's house. Clothes he felt he wouldn't immediately need but would want later in the year he put into a third box. She would put the three boxes in the room he had always used when he went back - although he hadn't been there for four years - and when he finally returned there for a few days they would be waiting for him.
He left out The Sentinels of Paraguy. He would, he decided, leave that with Jim. It might be useful to him, and it would also serve as misdirection, letting Jim think he might come back one day. But for Jim's own sake, that was the one thing he must never do.
Jim, realising that putting his past life away would be difficult for Blair, let him get on with it undisturbed, not realising that Blair was planning to leave and even as he filled up the boxes he was quietly filling a duffel bag and his packpack with the few things he planned to take with him.
Ten days after the dissertation fiasco, on the morning Jim returned to desk work at the PD, Blair said, apparently cheerfully, "I've a couple of things I need to do, Jim - you go on ahead and I'll follow you. I'll be in around ten."
He watched Jim leave, still limping slightly but no longer using a stick, then turned his attention to what he had to do.
He carried everything down to his car - the boxes of books and clothes, his bag, his backpack - then went back to the loft. He double-checked that he had left nothing in his room; put the one book on the kitchen table and laid his note to Jim on top of it, then wandered round the loft, imprinting everything on his memory, knowing he was procrastinating.
Then, taking a deep breath, he walked out of the loft, locked the door, and went down to his car.
He drove to the post office and sent off the three boxes. He went to the bank and changed his address to Angie's, saying simply that he didn't want to change banks but because he would be travelling for a while it would be easier if any mail was sent to his aunt's house, and paid his credit card in full; he had already paid back the small bank loan he had taken out years previously. Then he drove to the PD.
He paused at Jim's desk. "Any problems?" he asked.
Jim grinned up at him. "Nah, they've taken pity on the old guy, just given me a couple of paperwork cases to check over."
Blair committed the grin to memory before he said, "Great. Simon in?"
"OK, I want a quick word with him - think this'll be a good time?"
"Don't see why not," Jim said after concentrating for a second. "He's muttering to himself right now - sounds a bit frustrated. I think he'll be glad of an interruption."
Blair forced a smile at that and crossed to Simon's door, knocked and opened it. "Got a minute, Simon?"
Simon looked up and frowned at the expression on Blair's face - with his back to Jim, Blair had relaxed and was no longer trying to pretend that everything was normal. He nodded, and as Blair closed the door he said, "Problem?"
"In a way," Blair said quietly. "Look, Simon, never think I don't appreciate the job offer. I do, and I'd love to take it. But if I do... if I'm Jim's partner... reporters are going to hear about it on our first major case as official partners - if they don't hear about it before that - and they're going to wonder why Jim's tolerating someone tagging along with him who put his name on a bit of fiction masquerading as a thesis. Some of them might very well begin to speculate that it wasn't the fiction I said it was, and the whole circus could start up again. Jim deserves better than that."
"Does he know you feel that way?" As he spoke, Simon waved Blair to a seat.
"No. I haven't told him. At the moment he's feeling guilty that I've lost my academic career, and as a result he'd try to persuade me to stay, and... " His voice broke. He swallowed hard. "I don't have the strength to resist, if he did. Hell, I've barely got the strength to do it this way. I'm not going back to the loft tonight." Blair reached over to put the loft key down on the desk. "Give him this tomorrow, would you? I've left him a letter, explaining why."
"Where will you go?" Simon asked quietly.
"I'm not sure yet. I'll travel for a while - that was Mom's way of dealing with things - moving on - and she took me with her a lot of the time when I was a kid.
"I'm too close to things here. There's a sort of emotional detachment that comes with distance from the problem; I know it'll let me clear my mind."
"What about money?"
"I've got enough saved to manage on for a while," he admitted. "And I'll find work somewhere, maybe in America, maybe abroad, I don't know. I'm able to turn my hand to a lot of things."
Simon got up and poured coffee for them both. "I'm not sure this is a good idea, you know."
Blair took a mouthful, swallowed. "Simon, I've had ten days to think this through. I've looked at it from all angles. I know that at the moment I'm too emotionally involved, so I'm probably not thinking completely straight, but I really don't see any alternative.
"If I told him what I'm thinking, what I'm afraid of, Jim would probably quit Cascade and come with me - but I can't allow him to do that.
"He's a cop, Simon. A protector. That's what he is. It's his life."
"And anthropology was yours, but you gave it up without a second thought."
"Well... yes and no. There are a lot more anthropologists around than there are viable jobs for. Yes, some make a living from it - a lot don't, or at least not in the form that interests them most. I was never sure just what I'd do once I got those three letters after my name."
"Well, teaching, then."
Blair shook his head. "No, though by default I might have ended up as a teacher - and that is so not what I wanted to do with my life. Not after a semester or two of it, anyway. A lot of the students were good, hard-working, interested - but I had to spend too much time dealing with the football jocks who only wanted an easy academic credit, or the girls who basically went to University to meet guys who they hoped were going to end up in well-paid jobs, and weren't really interested in a career for themselves, or scum like Ventriss and his world-owes-me-a-living attitude - though Ventriss was the worst. Have you any idea what it's like, having your boss not only not support what you've done but instead actively support the guy who's given you the problem?"
He took out his wallet, removed a piece of paper from it and handed it to Simon. "I'm not totally abandoning Jim. If he has a major problem with his senses - though I don't expect he will - you can get a message to me through that phone number. I might not get it straight away, but I will eventually get it."
"Doing a full Naomi, are you?" Simon asked, his voice sad. "It would be easy enough for you to phone Jim - or even me - occasionally, but you aren't going to do that, are you? You're just going to drop out of sight."
Blair sighed. "Yeah, I suppose I am 'doing a full Naomi' - she's my role model, after all. But seriously, the only way I can do this at all is make a clean break. Talking to Jim once or twice a month... I couldn't do it, Simon. I'd be running back to Cascade an hour after the first call finished.
"But that number - that's my lifeline, and in a way Naomi's, too. There was a time I didn't see Naomi, hear from her, for years - she cut me loose; but through that number she knew what I was doing, how I was getting on."
Blair nodded. "The only actual home I ever had till I met Jim."
He finished his coffee, and sighed. "And now I've got to think of some reason to give Jim why I wanted to speak to you."
"Give him a limited truth - you're good at that. Tell him you told me you were thinking of going off for a day or two on your own to think about things and wanted me to keep an eye on his senses for you. And tell him that you've decided to head off today. Don't let him go home and discover then that you've gone. It wouldn't be fair to him."
"You're right," Blair said. "It wouldn't. But... Hell, Simon, I love the guy. All he needs to do is say 'Stay, talk to me about it, whatever it is,' and I'd do it. And like I said, it's the one thing I can't do because I know how he'd react. I can't let him make that sacrifice for me."
"So you're the only one allowed to make that big a sacrifice?" Simon asked quietly.
Blair stared at him. "I... hadn't thought about it that way. But Simon, Jim did nothing wrong. I was the one who screwed up. I should never have put his name on that paper. I should have had it password protected in the computer. I didn't know Mom knew anything about computers, but I shouldn't have assumed she didn't and left her alone with my laptop; I knew she never really listened to what I wanted unless it was what she thought was best as well. It's only right that I should be the one to pay for it. Not Jim."
"But if you go, Jim will be paying for it as well, just in a slightly different way."
"Maybe, but his life will go on the way he wants."
"Will it? Sandburg, from the day he met you he chose to include you in his life. He knew you'd be good for him, that you'd help him - and not just with his senses. He gave you a home for a week - and that's all you'd have got if it had just been the senses thing.
"Now I don't know much about the way he grew up, but from one or two things he's said... You're the first person who ever gave him unqualified friendship."
"There was Jack Pendergrast - "
"That never really went beyond a working relationship. A good one, but nothing more than a working one just the same. And Carolyn? I could have told him that was a relationship heading for disaster from the first day he went out with her. Me? We were friendly enough, but the boss element came into it, so it wasn't more than a working relationship either until you came along and I ended up in a conspiracy of silence with the two of you.
"But you came along, and he was everything you'd been looking for. You started thinking of him as a friend, rather than a subject for study, almost immediately, didn't you?"
Blair nodded. "Right from the time he ended up hanging underneath a helicopter - I knew a lot of that was the determination not to let Kincaid escape, but I hoped part of it was for me, as well."
"Well, he certainly was worried about you, knowing you were in the building, with Kincaid threatening everyone... Though I think the first time I realized just how much you meant to him was when Lash kidnapped you. But after that I saw it over and over. How much he cared; and how much he trusted you."
Blair closed his eyes, screwing them shut in anguish. "Did he, Simon? Did he really?" There was a terrible sadness in his voice. "'I need a partner I can trust'. Did I imagine that, Simon?"
"Sandburg, you know how Jim reacts when he feels threatened. He hits out. He doesn't necessarily mean what he says."
"I know, but Simon, it hurt."
Simon frowned. "I thought you'd got past that."
Blair sighed. "Yes and no. It was always there in the back of my mind, you know? And when Mom sent Sid Graham my dissertation - it never occurred to him to blame her, he automatically blamed me. If he left Cascade with me... he would mean it at the time, but how long would it be before he hit out at me again? I'd rather go while I can still remember him as a friend, rather than watch our friendship slowly disintegrating because ultimately he blamed me for taking him away from the job he wanted - needed - to do." He got up. "I'll tell him now I'm taking off for a few days, and... Anyway, thanks, Simon. You've been a good friend."
As Blair turned to go, Simon said quietly, "Just think of this, too, Sandburg. You may only have known each other for four years, but you're the only person I know of he's ever allowed to get so close to him. What do you think it'll do to him when he realizes you're not coming back, never meant to come back? Whatever your reasons, however much you pretty them up to look as if you're being unselfish?"
Very slowly, Blair turned back. "You think I'm actually being selfish by going?"
"Nnnnno. I can see your reasoning is valid though I think you could be over-reacting. But you're selling Jim short by not telling him everything you've said to me - including your fears that he might end up resenting you - and giving him the chance to decide what he wants to do.
"Go off for a few days, if you feel you really do need the distance to think objectively about everything. And then come back and discuss it with Jim before you make a final decision. And the job offer will stay open."
"Tell me one thing, Simon. If I did take it - what do you think the press will say? Or a defending lawyer, the first time I had to give evidence in court? I did admit to fraud after all."
"I think some reporter is bound to ask - and all you need do is say you wrote a bit of fiction for your own amusement, and Jim's, that was sent to a publisher without your knowledge or consent. You didn't submit it to Rainier as your dissertation, after all. I also think you should sue Graham for leaking bits of it when you'd told him it wasn't for publication. And if you're worried about the cost of suing him, there are plenty of lawyers who'd take the case on a no win no fee basis. Win the case, the fraud thing goes out the window. Anyway, it's only really fraud if you've made money out of it. You didn't."
"That's true." Blair sighed. "All I want to do is what's best for Jim."
"And what you think is best for him isn't necessarily what he will think is best. Or even what is best."
Blair looked at Simon for some moments in silence. Then he turned and left the office.
He went across to Jim's desk; Jim looked up at him, his eyes troubled.
"Jim - "
"I know, Chief. I'm sorry - I listened; I knew something was wrong."
"Then... you do realize that I need some time alone to think this through?"
Jim nodded. "I can see your reasoning. I don't want to you to go, I don't want to lose you, I know I need you, but - " He swallowed. "I know it has to be your decision, and much though I'd like to, I won't pressure you. But Chief - whatever you decide, promise me you will come back and tell me personally. Not just do it by a phone call or a letter if you finally decide to leave."
"You're not angry?"
"I can hardly fault you for it," he said wryly, "when I remember how I took off for Clayton Falls last year because I needed a few days to myself.
"But remember, Simon's right; there are ways to get round the dissertation issue. It's a pity you ever used the word 'fraud', but at the same time you did describe it as 'fiction'."
"Yeah, I realized later there were other ways I could have described the whole thing and still made my point - at the time I could only think of getting it over with as quickly as possible and that seemed the most effective way." He shrugged. "Okay, Jim - once I've reached a decision I'll come back and let you know."
Blair gave him a quick, unhappy grin and walked out.
He wasn't quite sure where he was going, but he was sure he would find somewhere quiet to camp out for a day or two if he just headed into the North Cascades National Park.
Blair paused, looking back at the panorama behind him. The clouds were red from the approaching sunset; he wouldn't get much further before it was dark. But this was a good place for a camp; there was even water, in the form of a small stream.
He had left his car behind several hours previously, and set off on foot, making good time up a path where he had seen nobody, although it gave the appearance of being a fairly well-used trail.
He was glad to have nobody around; it would be easier to meditate out here with only the sounds of nature as company.
He hadn't bothered with a tent; he had learned years before how to make a perfectly adequate shelter out of a large sheet of plastic - much lighter to carry than a tent - and having decided that this spot would serve as a camp, he set to work and constructed one on the bank of the stream. He cleared the ground of twigs and a few small stones, put down a smaller piece of plastic as a sort of groundsheet and shook out his sleeping bag.
The food he had brought didn't need to be cooked - bread, cheese, some cold meat. He wasn't particularly hungry, despite the exercise - but he had noticed that before, on some of his varied journeys; he was tired enough that eating was almost too much effort. At the same time, he knew he must, so he put together a sandwich with some of the meat and forced it down.
By then it was half dark, the sky holding just a few streaks of red low on the horizon.
He moved some tens of yards from his shelter and relieved himself, then went back, kicked off his shoes, pulled off his jeans and sweater, and wriggled into his sleeping bag. He pulled his backpack over to form a pillow, and settled down.
But although he was physically tired, sleep refused to come. After a while he opened his eyes and lay gazing through the transparent plastic at the stars shining through gaps in the clouds.
What should he do?
Five days later, he was still completely undecided. He had been so sure his decision was the correct one, and he damned Simon for putting doubts into his mind. Physical distance from the problem hadn't helped in the slightest.
He had looked at the situation from all angles, and he kept coming back to the same realisation; although Jim seemed to have developed excellent control of his senses, Blair didn't think he was being egoistic in thinking that he, his presence, was vital to that control. Without his presence, Jim would probably clamp down on his use of his senses; 'a sentinel will always be a sentinel as long as he chooses to be'... and Blair was horribly afraid that if he left, Jim would choose not to be a sentinel any more. But how could he stay in Cascade, where he was known as a fraud? Yet if he left, and if Jim accompanied him, what could they do that would let Jim continue as a Protector with his guide at his side?
He realized that he had no option; he would have to discuss it with Jim. Even if he hadn't promised to go back, he would have had to go back.
With his mind made up, he settled down for his last night here. He slept uneasily, however, unable to relax, but he thought he understood why.
All Jim needed to do was say "Stay" and he would, even although he was still unconvinced it was the best thing he could do.
He forced himself to stay in his sleeping bag until first light. As the sky began to lighten, he slipped out of the bag, relieved himself and had a quick wash. Then in the gradually intensifying light, he made up one last sandwich with the last of his cheese and ate with a little more appetite, subtly more cheerful from the knowledge that he would soon see Jim again.
He packed up, checked the site to make sure he had left no rubbish lying around, and set off back towards his car.
As he drove into Cascade, he remembered that he had left his key with Simon; he should go first to the PD. If Jim wasn't there, Simon would know where he was.
The building seemed deserted - as he made his way to Major Crime, he thought he had never seen the corridors so empty. He walked into the room and stopped, staring around.
The place was a mess of shattered windows and bullet-scarred woodwork, with only one person sitting in it.
"Rhonda? Where is everyone?"
Simon's secretary looked up at him, her eyes red. "The Bartley case."
"There was a contract out on him," Blair remembered. "But Zeller was killed."
She shook her head. "The day after you left... Bartley heard that Zeller was believed dead and came in, insisting that he had to hold his rally. Jim and Simon tried to stop him. They were still arguing with him when Zeller walked in. He had two automatic guns - swept the room with them. He kept yelling, 'I want Bartley!' He... he had to be insane. He got Bartley right at the start, but he didn't seem to realize it, he just kept on shooting. He didn't care who he killed.
"I got under my desk right at the start. But Blair - it was a bloodbath. Simon's been killed, and Jim, Megan... "
She went on talking, but Blair no longer heard the words.
Jim's been killed. Jim's. Been. Killed.
If he'd still been here. If he hadn't left. Would it have made a difference?
Slowly, Rhonda's voice faded in again. " ...Rafe's got a bad spinal injury - he'll never walk again, but at least he's alive.
"Several of the funerals were today, but some of us had to stay here - crime doesn't stop just because pretty well the whole of one department's been killed, so I said I'd hold the fort for Major Crime."
"You weren't hurt?" Blair asked.
"No, I was lucky. The ones who got down on the floor right at the start got off lightest. It was the ones who tried to stop Zeller who were killed."
Blair nodded. "What happened to him?"
"Someone got him, but I don't know who. But by then it hardly mattered any more. The damage was done."
They exchanged a few more words, but as Blair left he couldn't have said what they were. He made his way back to his car; sat for some minutes with wrestling his guilt.
If he'd still been here. If he hadn't left. Would it have made a difference?
Eventually he started the car, not quite sure where he was going. There was nothing left for him in Cascade, yet he no longer had any urge to leave.
He was halfway across a junction when another car slammed into his. He had just enough time to realize that he had right of way - the other driver had run a red light. By the time Blair's car came to a halt, slammed hard against a wall, he was unconscious.
When Blair regained consciousness, he lay without moving, trying to remember what had happened. The surface on which he lay was soft; he was no longer in his car, then.
Quiet voices were speaking nearby, but he had no interest in what they were saying - it was too much effort to be curious about anything. After a few minutes he slipped back into sleep.
He woke again to a silence that was broken only by a soft, steady, beeping noise, and lay for a moment trying to work out what it was. The faint smell he detected was easily identified, and it was that that told him where he was - he had spent too many days in hospital, both as a patient and as a visitor, not to recognise the antiseptic smell of one.
There was pressure on one hand; it took him the moment he spent trying without success to recognise the noise to realize someone was holding his hand. He opened his eyes and looked up, to meet Jim's concerned gaze.
"Jim?" he whispered. "Man, I didn't think there would be hospitals in heaven."
Before Jim could reply, Blair's eyes drooped shut again.
He felt more alert the next time he woke; he looked round the small room, registering that the beeping had stopped. Ah - had he been attached to a monitor, then? He was attached to a drip...
The room was empty; the dim lighting told him it was night.
He fought to remember what had happened to him, why he was here, in hospital... Ah, yes; an accident. He had been leaving Cascade, but he had only driven a very short distance before another car rammed into his. But apart from that, memory was confused; he seemed to remember that Jim was dead, but Jim had been here, sitting beside his bed...
Thinking was still too much effort. He allowed himself to slip back into sleep.
He was wakened by voices, and opened his eyes to see the white coat of a doctor. He had time to register that there were several other figures behind the doctor when the man spoke.
"Ah, you're awake. How are you feeling?"
Blair considered the question. "Confused," he said slowly.
"Do you know where you are?"
"Do you remember what happened?"
"Accident. At lights. The light was green, but someone ran through on red and hit my car."
"Very good. Do you remember what day it was?"
Blair thought for a moment. It had been a Thursday when he spoke to Simon. Then he had been camping out for five days - six nights - before coming back to discover that Jim was dead, that Zeller had attacked the PD, and... No. No!
He had been there when Zeller attacked the PD! He could remember ducking under a desk, then, later, following Jim onto the roof, discovering that a ricochet had given Jim a nasty flesh wound, helping Jim to the edge of the roof, seeing Zeller trying to abseil to safety... and falling. And Simon and Megan hadn't been at the PD at all that day; they were in hospital, injured by Zeller's attempt to kill Jim.
He could remember Simon offering him a badge, his fear that if he accepted it it might damage Jim's career... his decision to go off for a few days to think things over... but he had never left Cascade! The accident had happened just minutes after he left the PD. Intent on what he had planned to do, his mind had carried it through while he was unconscious.
"It was Thursday," he said.
"Good." He glanced behind him at his companions. "Unimpaired memory is always a good sign," he commented.
The doctor returned his attention to his patient. "This is Monday."
Blair was silent again as the doctor checked him over. Then - "Am I seriously hurt?" He was aware of several aches, but no actual pain.
"No, you've been very lucky. Apart from hitting your head on something, you've suffered nothing worse than bruising. Even the head injury was relatively minor; you shouldn't have been unconscious as long as you were."
"I think I may have been in a meditative state, rather than unconscious," Blair offered. "I remember being aware of things once or twice, but only for a minute or so before going under again. There's been a lot on my mind this last couple of weeks that I needed to process."
"Well, you certainly seem to be all right now. I'd like to keep you in one more day, just to be safe, but I don't see any reason why you can't go home tomorrow morning." The doctor grinned suddenly. "Reception will be glad to hear that. You have no idea how many people have been calling to check on your progress."
As the doctor left, the accompanying students following him rather like a brood of ducklings scurrying after their mother, Blair closed his eyes again.
Basically, nothing was resolved... or was it? He thought back to his dream, the dream that had seemed so real, and that he could still remember in painful detail.
His mind had been processing events, and the decision he had reached... had been to discuss things with Jim. Get Jim's input. But he would have to insist that Jim thought about things objectively, without feeling guilt or even loyalty to his friend.
The door opened again. He looked over to it, disappointed when he saw it was only Simon, but even so he managed to grin a welcome.
"You're awake. Good. How are you feeling?"
"Like I've caught up on four years' worth of sleep," Blair grinned.
"You're looking more cheerful."
"I know now that you were right; I've got to discuss this with Jim," Blair said.
Simon nodded. "Good. There's one thing you should know - Jim and I went to see the Chief of Police on Friday. Jim half admitted the Sentinel thing."
"He gave Warren your speil about tribal sentinels, told him you'd been looking for modern sentinels, that you'd found a lot of people with heightened taste and smell who worked as tea and coffee tasters, then admitted to good distance sight and a slightly better than average range of hearing. Nothing too extreme. Then he said you'd written a fictional story in the form of a thesis using his name and giving him all the senses, but better developed than the ones he had actually were, while at the same time you were gathering material for your proper thesis on the police, and explained that your mother had come across the sentinel one and sent it off without your knowledge - and that because the publisher wouldn't listen when you tried to stop him publicising it you had no option but to declare it fraudulent.
"I admitted to knowing Jim has excellent eyesight and hearing, but pointed out that all his cases were solved using proper police procedure.
"Warren's seen the reports; he knows the amount of help you've given Major Crime in the last four years. I didn't have to call in any favours to get you that badge; Warren told me a while ago that he hoped you would consider working permanently with the department once you'd finished at Rainier.
"Anyway, it's now a matter of record that Jim has slightly better than average sight and hearing, and that you exaggerated those in a story that was never intended for publication, rather than making it all up. That should cover any attempt to discredit you."
Simon hesitated for a moment before saying, "So what made you decide to discuss things with Jim?"
"I had a pretty vivid dream while I was unconscious; it could have reflected my subconsious fear of harming Jim, of course, but in it I spent five days meditating and considering things, and then came back to Cascade to find everything gone wrong and Jim dead." He sighed. "I took on an important role as Jim's guide four years ago, Simon; at the time I didn't realize just how vital a guide's responsibility is, though I soon learned at least something of what it meant.
"I said to you a few days ago that I wanted what was best for Jim; and since then - well, I guess my subconscious mind has told me that the best thing for Jim is for me to stay with him."
"He'll be glad to hear that," Simon said quietly. "Hell, I'm glad; I want the pair of you in my department."
After Simon left, Blair lay thinking over what he had said. They would still have to be careful, of course... and he was beginning to think seriously about suing Graham.
The door opened again; this time it was Jim. Blair grinned a little tentatively.
Jim crossed to his side and put down the bag he was carrying. "How're you feeling?"
"Ready to leave here right now, man."
"Good, but you're not being released till morning, remember. But Chief - I couldn't find any of your clothes?"
"There should have been some in the car. In a bag. As well as my backpack." Blair hesitated. "Jim, I'm sorry. I realize now I was all wrong."
"It wasn't all your fault, Chief. I should have listened to you."
"Simon said you went to see Chief Warren?"
"Yes - and Blair, we're going to sue Graham. I can pay for a good lawyer - "
"No, Jim. You're not going to pay for a lawyer." Habit died hard; he was reluctant to admit, even to Jim, just how wealthy his family was. "Simon suggested going for a no win, no fee package. Even if the lawyer takes the lion's share of any settlement, the money isn't all that important; winning the case is."
"Blair, you've got student loans to pay back, don't you?"
"Well... no. I did have a student loan, but it's already paid back." He hesitated, then decided on another limited truth. "How do you think Naomi manages to travel the way she does? She inherited some money when her mother died; she gives me an allowance. It's been enough for me to live on. And I worked summer jobs; that gave me a bit more money. I took out a loan at one point so that I could truthfully say I had one. I didn't want the other students to know I could live off my allowance. Once I had an income as a TA, I paid it back. I never told you because... well, the subject of where my money came from never came up."
Jim nodded. "It was none of my business, anyway, and you always paid your share of everything. So - you had some clothes in your car. Which, incidentally, is totalled. What about the rest of your stuff?"
Blair made a face. "I sent it to my aunt in Fort Worth. Well, she's really Naomi's cousin. She's used to Naomi and me coming and going."
"Okay. I did get a couple of bags from the wreckage, but I didn't investigate what was in them. I brought in some of my stuff for you - the pants are on the big side, but they'll do to get you home - you are coming home, aren't you?" He looked suddenly anxious.
"Yes," Blair said. "Like I said - I was wrong, and I realize it now."
"So you'll stay? Take firearms training, and become my official partner?"
Jim sighed, relief on his face, and sank into a chair beside the bed.
Next morning, back at the loft, Jim settled Blair on the big couch while he made coffee. Blair relaxed; they might still have some problems to face, but he knew now that as long as they faced things together they could overcome almost anything.
Jim brought the coffee over, and sat beside him.
By mutual consent they had spoken only of trivialities the previous evening. Now, however, both knew there was one last serious discussion in front of them.
"So. You were unconscious till some time yesterday. When did you have time to change your mind?"
"I had a dream." Briefly, Blair described it. "It told me that all I was doing was running away. Well, I knew I was, really - I suppose you could say it showed me what the consequences might be."
Jim nodded. "We've always been stronger when we worked together."
Blair looked at him. "I didn't think I'd ever hear you say that."
Jim grinned wryly. "I've had a few days to think, too, Chief. And... Blair, it's not guilt speaking when I say I need you.
"I... admit there have been times when I've sort of resented needing you. But I've finally accepted that while I can control them a lot of the time, I can't depend on my senses without your help."
They looked at each other, then Jim grinned. "Partners?"
Blair grinned back, his eyes filled with affection. "Partners," he agreed.