Disclaimer: I don't own the concept or the characters associated with The Sentinel. No harm is intended by, nor is any profit being made from this story. Any income I earn from my "real" job is the property of the Internal Revenue Service, Ford Motor Company and 15th Street Vet. Associates of Tulsa, OK. Please do us all a favor and don't sue Sue.
Acknowledgements: This story went through several incarnations before the present version. For all their help, proofreading, formatting, knowledge and encouragement, I am indebted to (deep breath here): Dawn, Wendy, Linda, Judy, Melanie, Sandra, Linda, Jan, Cathy, Kitty, Jon, Deb, and Mary; the Tattered Cover Bookstore (Denver, CO), Novel Idea Bookstore (Tulsa, OK); and the wonderful caring staff of St John's Medical Center, Tulsa, OK (especially ER, PICU, MICU and Pediatrics!)
Note: A somewhat different version of Forbidden Fruit was published in the zine "Observations of the Function of a Modern Sentinel". Edited by Catherine Schlein and Kitty Woldow. Copyright July 1997 by Of Dreams and Schemes Press, 10975 W. 66th Ave., Arvada, CO 80004
Ordering information available from Cathy Schlein at firstname.lastname@example.org
Okay, I think and hope that's everything. On with the story!
"Explain to me again, Sandburg," Jim Ellison said to his roommate. "Who is this woman and why does she have to see *your* test?"
Blair Sandburg slid down in bed until only the tip of his reddened nose could be seen over the mound of blankets. "Dr. Murray is the new Head of Anthropology," he said drowsily. He propped his eyes open with an effort. "Are you sure you don't mind taking the test over there, Jim? 'Cause if you do, I'll--"
"You'll do nothing, Chief, except stay in that bed and get well," Jim ordered. "This is your health we're talking about. You already have the flu. It's 39 degrees out there, and pouring. Do you want pneumonia or hypothermia or worse?" He stalked out of the room.
Blair thought about arguing--after all, Jim would hear him from anywhere in the loft --but changed his mind. He really did feel lousy. The new strain of flu plaguing Cascade was brutal. The police department--like the University--had less than a third of the staff reporting to work. Blair had staggered home from school early in the afternoon, already burning up with fever and too sick to meet Jim at the station as he'd promised, to find a message from Dr. Stacey Murray on the machine.
Jim came back into the room carrying a bottle of aspirin. He put two tablets in Blair's hand and then lifted a glass of water from the table beside the bed. "So why does the new Department Head want to see your test? Doesn't she have enough to do?"
"Jim, do you ever listen to me?" Blair regretted the testy tone as soon as he heard the words. He held up a hand in apology, cutting off whatever his roommate would have said. "Sorry, man, I didn't mean that. Blame it on the headache. Anyway, Dr. Murray is very... hands on, I guess you could say. She started reading the tests that were given last semester in the Intro to Anthropology classes, and decided that some of the questions were too detailed. It is an Intro course; a lot of students take it to satisfy a GE or Humanities requirement and they have no plans to ever take another course in the field again. She just thinks that maybe the Teaching Fellows have forgotten that, so she wants to read the midterms before we give them." He yawned again, then forced his eyes open to look at the clock. "And, Jim, I did tell her you'd be there by six thirty. She's really into punctuality, and I'm really into sleeping right now, so could you please just go?"
Jim Ellison drove slowly along the rain-drenched highway, Sentinel-sharp eyes seeking the turn-off that Stacey Murray had indicated in her directions. Heavy darkness had fallen early, a combination of the storm and the shortened days of fall. He spotted the road, marked by a huge, split oak, and braked sharply to make the turn. Neglected asphalt soon gave way to hard-packed mud. Jim frowned. 'Just my luck this woman lives out in the middle of nowhere!' he groused to himself.
The directions indicated he should be looking for another road. Jim spotted it, made the turn and flicked on his high beams. This was a forest--pines and redwoods-- with a lot of scrub growth. Still, the road showed signs of recent travel, and soon enough it widened out into a gravel road that abruptly terminated in front of a two-story cottage, built from local gray flagstone. Lights beamed a welcome from arched windows and smoke puffed from the chimney.
So this was where the famous Stacey Murray lived.
Blair was wrong when he accused Jim of not listening to him. Jim always listened, even though sometimes he didn't understand half of what the younger man was babbling about. But Blair had been surprisingly reticent on the subject of the new Department Head. Now, Jim conjured up a picture of what she looked like. Tall, he mused as he parked behind a new-looking Plymouth Voyager. Big boned, dressed sensibly (mentally he clothed her in flat shoes and a droopy tweed skirt). Short, salt and pepper hair, cut simply. This was not a woman who would want to waste a lot of her time in a beauty parlor.
He knocked on the heavy double-doors. Waited, then knocked again, as there was no doorbell.
The door opened.
Jim knew he'd never before seen the woman who stood in the doorway, but he was stunned by the odd sense of familiarity, rocked with the force of the connection he felt when his eyes locked with her dark blue ones.
Silence. Jim could feel his heart beating rapidly.
"Detective Ellison?" The woman spoke finally, sounding as shaken as Jim felt. "Blair's friend?"
Another silence. Jim became aware he was staring, and he shook his head, trying to pull himself together. 'God, am I zoning? Zoning never felt like this before.' "Uh, yeah," he stammered, then recollected himself with an effort. "Dr. Murray? I'm Jim Ellison" 'and you look nothing like I imagined you,' his mind added.
The woman hesitated, then stepped back, allowing him entry into the cottage. "Please. The weather is so awful, I'm sure you could use some coffee or a drink or something. It's such a long drive."
Numbly, Jim stepped into the oak-floored entryway, his mind automatically sorting out smells: lemon polish and wood smoke, and "Is that meat loaf?"
Dr. Murray blinked. Jim couldn't blame her. Hell of an opening remark. But the smell was delicious, and his stomach, suddenly reminded that it hadn't had anything since coffee and a bagel at six a.m., set up a clamor.
The woman smiled suddenly, showing a flash of even white teeth and dimples at the corners of her mouth. "Yes, it's meat loaf." She gestured to the fireplace. "Please, sit down. I've got to check something on the stove, but I'll be back in a moment." She vanished through a white paneled door. Slowly, heedless that he was dripping all over shining wood floors, Jim stepped down three steps into a small, cozy room, drawn to the cheerful warmth of the blazing fire in the fireplace.
He looked around, soaking up the atmosphere. Lots of bookcases, true, but they were filled with an eclectic collection of well-worn hardbacks and paperbacks. Mysteries, science fiction. One whole shelf of kids' books: Grimms Fairy Tales. Hardy Boys. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Not new, though, these were the most well-worn of the lot. A lot of the books were in other languages, but they sure didn't look like the 20-pounders Blair was always packing around. He did spot a copy of "Anthropology News" on the antique trunk that apparently served as a coffee table. There was an impressive computer set-up on the corner desk, but other than that there was nothing to indicate that the owner of the room was anything other than an extraordinarily-well read person.
'Well, so much for my precognitive abilities,' Jim thought, mildly amused. His hostess entered the room again bearing two mugs of steaming coffee and murmuring vague apologies. He took the cup with thanks, trying not to stare.
Stacey Murray was almost a complete opposite from his preconceived notion of what she would look like. For one thing, she was much younger than he had imagined; Jim doubted she was even as old he was. Slender--almost too thin, really--her petite frame clothed simply in blue jeans and a bright yellow sweater. Lots of dark, glossy brown curls swirling about her shoulders, and those impossibly blue eyes. Jim had thought her pale when he'd first seen her in the doorway but now her cheeks were softly flushed as she seated herself on the sofa. "I'm sorry, I just assumed you took it black."
It took the detective a minute to realize she was talking about the coffee. "Oh, that's great, perfect." He took a hasty gulp, belatedly appreciating the brew. He sipped the second mouthful appraisingly, then tilted his head. "Hazelnut?"
She smiled again. "Very good." She held out her hand. "It's good of you to drive all the way out here. Is that the test?"
Jim looked at the envelope in his hand, only then remembering why he was there. "Oh, yeah." He handed it to her. "Sandburg was sorry he couldn't bring it himself--"
She waved her hand, dismissing his apology. "I thought this morning he didn't look well at all. This flu bug is really terrible." She placed the envelope next to the magazine and gave Jim a rueful glance. "The grad students in the department haven't been receiving that much supervision, apparently; none of them are very happy with me right now for asking to see the midterm questions."
Jim said the first thing that came to his mind. "Well, I know Sandburg worked hard on the test." Safe bet. Blair had been up until all hours recently.
"Actually I'm not too worried about his test, but I couldn't ask to see everyone else's and not his." Murray curled one foot under her body, daintily, like a cat. "So, how did you two meet? You must be good friends to drive all the way out here for him."
"He's my partner," Jim replied, wondering again when that had become so natural to say. The woman looked surprised, then thoughtful.
"Detective Ellison. Of course, how stupid of me. I know he does some work with the police department." An odd light dawned in the blue eyes as she studied her visitor. "You're the one he observes?"
Jim felt suddenly uneasy. He knew--because Blair had assured him it was so--that only Sandburg's actual advisor knew any of the real details of his Sentinel study and even he had no idea who the "anonymous subject" really was. It had never occurred to him to wonder how Blair explained his work with the police department to others at the University. Around Major Crimes, Blair babbled that "Thin Blue Line" crap--or at least he had in the beginning. Now, after two years, he was simply accepted as "Ellison's partner," and most of the time, Jim quite simply forgot that Blair had any agenda other than being his Guide.
Murray was still studying him and he felt he had to say something. "Sandburg helps me a lot," he muttered lamely. "My paperwork, and research..."
"I'm sure he does." Her words were interrupted by a faint "ding" from the kitchen. Jim started. "It's just the meatloaf," she said, standing.
Jim stood too. "I don't mean to interrupt your dinner--"
A flash of something like dismay swept across the woman's expressive face. "Don't," she started, then flushed even pinker. "That is, could I persuade you to stay for dinner? I made too much, meat loaf and mashed potatoes and salad and all, but I was really in the mood for comfort food tonight."
There was something so lost and forlorn in her voice when she said the words. Jim felt everything nurturing and protective in him rise to the surface. "I'd like to stay."
Jim stayed later than he meant to. Dinner was excellent: the meat loaf and a big bowl of mashed potatoes were accompanied by steamed carrots garnished with fresh mint and a colorful salad with a variety of ingredients; Jim couldn't even name them all.
After dinner was over, they took fresh cups of fragrant coffee and thick slices of cheesecake back to the living room. Stacey (they'd become on a first-name basis over dinner) regaled Jim with a hysterical reenactment of the latest Anthropology department meeting. She had a wicked sense of humor and a real gift for mimicry. Jim had met some of those people at different times when he'd been at the University, and he really enjoyed Stacey's story. He couldn't stop laughing.
"So, Jim Ellison," Stacey murmured, leaning back against the couch. "Tell me about you."
Caught off guard, Jim shrugged. "What's there to tell?" he asked easily. "I'm a cop."
Stacey waited, then raised her eyebrows. "That's it? I don't believe it! There's got to be more to you than that."
She gave him a look. "Oh, let's see. Are you married?" She looked at him closely and then shook her head. "No."
"Divorced," Jim confirmed. It no longer hurt to talk about Carolyn or their failed marriage. His ex-wife was happy with her new life in San Francisco.
"Hmmm. Any pets?"
Jim laughed shortly. "Just Sandburg."
"Oh, yes, Blair Sandburg. So tell me about that? How'd the two of you even meet? Somehow I can't see Blair walking into Police Headquarters and saying, 'Hey, man, like, I want to do some paperwork for some cop who is like, diametrically opposed to me. Got anybody in mind?'"
Jim was aware of that uneasy feeling again. He shrugged, moved a little farther away from her on the couch. "I was working on a case," he finally said, carefully choosing his words, "and I needed some help. Some expertise. The word got around, somebody gave me Blair's name, and I went to see him. The observer thing, that came later." Although technically the truth, the story was close enough to a lie that Jim felt uncomfortable. He got up and busied himself putting another log on the fire. "What about you? I saw the wedding ring; is your husband an anthropologist, too?"
There was such an extended silence that Jim turned around, surprised. Stacey wasn't looking at him; she had raised her left hand and was watching the firelight play on the narrow gold band. "I'm a widow," she told Jim, never looking at him. "Kevin, my husband, was killed last year."
"I'm sorry." Jim felt like kicking himself. "I didn't know, Sandburg never mentioned it."
"I doubt he knows. I don't talk about it much." She sighed. "Dr. Keene was my mentor at UCSD. He knew us, Kevin and I. We kept in touch. After Kevin died, I... well, I had a hard time coping. I was trying to write a book and--well, it was just a bad time. Dr. Keene knew his health was failing. He talked me into moving up here so that when his position came open, I'd be on the spot." She raised her eyes to meet Jim's. He found himself entranced by them; deep pools of blue... Jim pulled himself back, shaking his head violently. He'd come very close to zoning.
"Jim?" Her voice was uncertain.
"Sorry," the Sentinel apologized. "I just got distracted. You have the most beautiful eyes."
Stacey's hand jerked suddenly, spilling the coffee on the carpet. "Oh, great. I'm such a clutz," she muttered shakily, slipping to her knees on the floor and scrubbing at the wet spot with a napkin. Jim reached down to capture her hand, then drew her chin up so that she was facing him again.
He stared at her, losing himself in the blueness of her eyes, opening his senses to her, the softness of her cheek under his hand. The silky feel the dark curls that twisted around his fingers. That faint scent, floral but somehow spicy and exciting, that overlaid fainter smells he couldn't identify. He could sense her longing somehow, sense the arousal and the need she was struggling to control. Then his own needs flared, and he bent low to capture her lips in a kiss.
The first touch was tentative, searching, and gentle. Jim lightly teased her lips, silently requesting them to part, then they did, and his tongue slipped into her delicious mouth. Heat exploded in his senses, tightening his loins in a way that reminded him of how long it had been since he had last enjoyed a woman like this.
Rational thought shrieked inside his head, driving him to disentangle is tongue from hers, to pull his head away. "We shouldn't do this," he groaned. "We barely know each other."
"I've known you my whole life," she whispered. "Don't you feel that, too?"
Jim stared at her, hearing the truth in her words. He struggled to regain control, but a fire was burning in his veins and he had to quench it. He tangled his hands in her hair and bent to capture her mouth again.
Jim parked his truck in the usual spot in front of the building. Flicking on the dome light, he scrubbed the faint traces of Stacey's lipstick off his face with a Kleenex. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror.
His body was tired--a good, sated tiredness. His mind, however, was alive with thoughts of Stacey Murray and the time they had spent together. He hadn't felt this enthralled with a woman in so long, maybe forever. He'd sure never been attracted to Carolyn like this when he'd first met her. It was more than just desire. Sure, a part of him had wanted to clutch the woman in his arms and bear her to the nearest bed or alternative horizontal surface, but it was more than that. He just felt so connected to her.
Before their kisses in front of the fire had led to something else, Stacey had stopped him. She'd taken his hand and led him to the greenhouse at the back of the house. They had walked among the plants, Jim inhaling deeply of the different scents. She'd told him of her research into ancient healing practices; her book on natural herbal remedies. He'd nibbled at fresh parsley and mint; drank a cordial of her making, the sweet light taste dancing over his tongue. He'd pulled the flowers from a jasmine bush and sprinkled them in her hair. Then he'd buried his face in her neck, overcome by the faint spicy scent of her perfume. There was jasmine there too, and other things he couldn't identify. He tried to sort them out the way Blair had taught him but he couldn't. The scent rose around him, surrounding him, stealing into his mind until his senses were full of her.
They'd laughed when it was over, when they lay together on the hard floor, the sweat of their lovemaking cooling on their bodies, their clothes discarded around them. Couldn't even make it to the bed, she had laughed breathlessly. Next time," he'd murmured, pulling her soft hair into his sweaty neck...
Jim jerked himself back from almost zoning again. God, what was wrong with him? He'd barely made it home; driving took every bit of concentration he could muster. His head felt as thick and muddled as if he'd been on a drunken binge, but the only alcohol he'd had all evening was the amaretto in the cheesecake.
He wished he could blame it on being drunk. What the hell had he been thinking? Sex with a woman he'd just met, one of Sandburg's teachers, for Pete's sake! They hadn't even used protection. Jim was less concerned about that than he probably should be; he knew he was safe and he suspected he'd been the first since Stacey's husband had died. But still-- he couldn't honestly say he regretted what had happened, though. It had been awhile, too long, since Laura... Jim shook his head, banishing the thought of that whole pheromones incident. What he felt for Stacey was nothing like the irrational lust he'd had for Laura.
Suddenly aware of the cold, Jim got out of the truck and headed for his building. As he mounted the stairs he tuned his hearing ahead to his own apartment, sensing Blair's heartbeat almost immediately. Rapid. Frowning, Jim unlocked the door and stepped into the darkened room. He knew at once that his roommate was awake: there was a light on in the kitchen and he could hear the sounds of drawers and cabinets being opened and closed.
Sandburg was standing on a chair, rummaging about the top shelf of the cupboard where kept some of his exotic herbal preparations. Jim scowled at the sound of the younger man's wheezing. "Sandburg, what the hell-- Blair!" he jumped forward to grab his roommate as the younger man started and lost his balance. Jim supported him until his feet were securely on the floor, then gently pushed a hand against his chest until Blair sat down in the chair. Jim kept his hand where it was, sensing the increased heart rate and the heat from the fever. He let go and stooped to pick up a couple of boxes that had been jostled from the cupboard. "What are you doing up?" he asked, trying not to yell.
A little color was coming back to Blair's face now. "Cripes, man, don't sneak up on somebody like that!" His voice was raspy.
"Sorry." Jim cocked his head to one side. "How do you feel?"
Blair made a face. "Don't ask." He shot a look at the clock on the stove and then turned back to look at his roommate. "Where have you been? It's after two!"
Jim felt the heat rising in his cheeks and was grateful that his partner didn't have Sentinel senses. He turned to pull a mug from the cupboard as Blair continued, "Did you have car trouble? No, of course not... no car would ever dare stall on you. Was there an accident on the highway or something?"
Jim filled the mug with water and then put it into the microwave to heat. He rummaged through the various boxes and canisters in the cupboard until he found a tea he vaguely remembered Blair forcing on him the last time he'd had the sniffles. "I've been at Stacey's," he answered.
"Stacey?" Blair questioned. Then his eyes widened. "You mean Dr. Murray? Oh man! You've been there all this time? What were you two doing?" Then he caught himself and his cheeks, already flushed with fever, burned even more red. "I mean, well, I didn't mean to... I mean--"
Jim laughed affectionately at his partner's well-meaning floundering. "Drink your tea, Sandburg," he responded lightly, "I'm sure your imagination can fill in the details of why I'm so late getting home." He tousled Blair's already mussed hair as he headed toward the bathroom. A long, hot shower was definitely called for.
Left alone in the dimly-lit kitchen, Blair reluctantly took a sip of the tea. It was good, but his throat was so raw and swollen it was hard to force it down. His head was pounding as he tried to make sense out of this. Jim and Dr. Murray--! Had they--? 'Well, of course they did,' he chastised himself. He hadn't seen that particular cat-ate-the-canary look on Jim's face in months. But Stacey Murray? They'd just met!
It wasn't that Blair disapproved of his roommate having a sex life. But the though of him getting involved with Stacey Murray made him oddly uneasy. He closed his eyes against the pounding in his head, trying to think.
Stacey Murray had a world-wide reputation as a brilliant anthropologist. Her most recent book--on the healing practices of North American Natives--had been read by thousands of people who'd never even of the field of anthropology and had been Oprah's "Book-of-the-Month". Blair had been as exited as anyone when he heard she was taking over for the retiring Dr. Keene.
But now--barely a month into the semester--Blair shook his head, biting his lip as the action intensified his headache. It wasn't that Dr. Murray played favorites; she didn't, but her whole attitude was "my way or the highway". No other options. She expected 110% from everyone on the staff and Blair didn't have a problem with that because she gave it herself. But he had received the strong impression from her that his "extracurricular" work with the police department did not meet with her approval. His remark that the work was integral to his dissertation had been met with the icy comment "I fail to see how following a detective around doing his paperwork for over two years can be of any assistance at all in completing your dissertation in a timely manner." Short of actually telling her about Jim's sentinel abilities--
Blair's thoughts screeched to a halt. Sentinel senses... there was something there. Some connection between Dr. Murray and his Sentinel studies. It made him uneasy. I need to talk to Jim... Forgetting that his roommate was in the shower, the anthropology student struggled to his feet, ducking his head in a vain attempt to avoid the increased pounding. He gripped the side of the table as dizziness swept over him, willing it to go away. Instead it increased. Blair felt cold sweat break out all over his body. He sat down hastily, but missed the edge of the seat and sprawled awkwardly on the floor. "Damn!" escaped through clenched teeth as white hot knives of pain lanced his eyes.
The shower turned off in the bathroom and he could hear a door open. "Sandburg?" Jim appeared in the kitchen, still dripping and in the act of knotting a towel around himself. "Are you-- Blair!"
Blair opened his mouth, tried to say something. But before he could form words the clouds of black swirling around the kitchen overtook him and he slid into the darkness.
It was well past noon by the time Jim made it into Major Crimes. His boss, Captain Simon Banks, was getting a cup of coffee from the communal coffeepot. He took one look at his star detective and handed him the mug. "Here. You look like you need this."
Jim took a gulp, wincing. "Brown made the coffee again." It would have made a good cleaning solvent. Jim sighed and glanced at his boss, who had poured himself another cup of the noxious brew and was regarding it with a singular lack of enthusiasm. Simon was something of a coffee-holic and enjoyed trying out new brands and flavors, but a week before the night cleaning staff had dropped the coffeemaker in his office, damaging it beyond repair. Banks would have replaced it the next day but for the intervention of his son. Darryl wanted to buy him a new coffeepot for his upcoming birthday. He was so excited that there was something that he could get his dad that Simon would actually use and enjoy that the captain couldn't find it in his heart to disappoint him. Unfortunately, Simon's birthday was still two weeks away.
Simon shuddered as he tried to drink the coffee without tasting it. "How's Sandburg?" Jim had called from the hospital to explain why he'd be late.
"They let him go home, with the agreement that he stay in bed at least until the weekend." Blair had refused to be admitted to the hospital, a diagnosis of severe bronchitis notwithstanding. The doctor had reluctantly released him with prescriptions for antibiotics and cough suppressants, decongestants and God only knew what else. Over two hundred dollars worth of drugs; Jim knew because he had stopped on the way home get the prescriptions filled.
Jim leaned over his desk to snag the pink message slip someone had left for him. A "Stacey" had called around ten a.m., just wanting to say "thanks."
Jim smiled, then the expression changed to a frown as his conscience nudged him uncomfortably. He'd meant to call Stacey Murray this morning, but Blair's collapse and the subsequent trip to the hospital had banished other thoughts from his mind. He should call her. He wanted to call her. Besides, she needed to know about Blair.
He knew that really wasn't necessary. He'd called the university earlier, around eight, telling the department receptionist about Blair's illness and the need to find someone to cover for him for the next several days. The secretary had just sighed. The flu was hitting everybody so hard. But she had promised she would take care of everything.
Jim suddenly flipped through the Rolodex until he found the number of a florist near the University. He grinned. Sandburg had stuck the card in there while he was dating another student who got her feelings hurt when he had to keep canceling dates. That relationship--like most of the younger man's romances-- hadn't lasted long.
The number was busy the first few times he tried but he finally got through. The girl on the other end of the line assured him that the roses he ordered would reach Stacey Murray in just a few hours. Jim almost gasped aloud when she cheerfully told him the total amount of money that would be charged to his credit card. It had been a long time since he had bought red roses for anyone-- his first anniversary with Carolyn, to be exact. Shaking his head over the rate of inflation, Jim turned back to the pile of paperwork on his desk.
She called as Jim was getting ready to leave for home. "Roses this time of year? My goodness, the man's a romantic, besides his other good qualities!"
Jim grinned at her teasing tone. "And what other qualities are those?" he bantered back.
"Hmmm, well..." Stacey dragged it out. "I'm sure you have tons of redeeming qualities, but I must admit I was thinking of your prowess in the bedroom." He heard her laugh. "Not that we made it to the bedroom!"
Jim quickly glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. "Maybe next time?"
"I'd like that." Her voice was throaty, almost a purr.
It excited Jim. He swallowed carefully. "I'm looking forward to it. This weekend, maybe?" 'Sandburg will be better by then and I won't have to worry about leaving him--'
There was a pause before she answered, "This weekend? Well, yes, I guess that's okay." Her voice was flat, just a bit reproachful. Jim thought about questioning it, but decided not to. Instead he asked,
"You got the message about Sandburg?"
"You mean that he's sick? Yes, I got it. Took most of my afternoon just trying to cover his responsibilities. More than half this department is out sick; I was really depending on him."
She sounded irritated and it made Jim uncomfortable. "He didn't get sick on purpose. And he is really sick."
"I didn't say he wasn't. But out all week? For the flu?"
"He has bronchitis," Jim protested. "His temperature was pretty high when I took him to the ER. And--"
"You took him to the ER?" Stacey's voice was surprised. "How did--are you the one who called in for him? The message I got just said he'd be out sick until Monday, I didn't get any other details."
"He'll be out at least until Monday," Jim corrected, emphasizing the "at least". "He's supposed to go back to the doctor Monday morning for a recheck. But they said he's pretty run-down, and it may take longer."
"I'm not surprised. Graduate students have no resistance." There was no mistaking the irritation in her voice now. "They don't seem to understand that we have to be able to depend on them. Blair, for instance, did you know he's been hospitalized three times in the last eighteen months? At least that's what it says in his personnel file. I'm rather surprised his fellowship wasn't in jeopardy."
Jim's conscience gave him a swift kick. "Why would it be?" he demanded. "Yeah, it was three times but he had absolutely no control over what happened. All three of those times something happened to him because if his involvement with the police department." 'With me,' his mind added. 'I should have protected him from Lash, and from Quinn. As for the thing with the Golden, well, anybody in Major Crimes that day could have eaten the pizza.' He shivered as the memory of holding Blair in his arms, feeling his heartbeat slow and falter, his breathing become more and more shallow. Praying that the ambulance would arrive before it ceased altogether. The sound of the respirator pumping oxygen into the young man's lungs. The look on the doctor's face when he admitted Blair was failing, that he might not ever wake up...
Jim blinked. Simon was holding his arm, shaking him lightly, his face concerned. The Sentinel belatedly realized he was still clutching the phone so tightly that the bones showed white through the skin. He put the phone back to his ear, was greeted by the sound of the recorded message, "We're sorry, but your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try your call again... We're sorry--"
Jim hung up the phone. He glanced at the concerned face of his captain. "Thanks, Simon. How long was I zoned?"
"I'm not sure," his captain responded, shaking his head. Relief crossed his features. "But I wasn't sure you were going to come back. I must have yelled at you three or four times." He took a rather unsteady breath. "Sandburg makes that look so easy," he complained.
Jim quipped, "He's had more practice than you," but he and Simon both knew it wasn't a matter of practice. There was a link between the Sentinel and his Guide, one that only seemed to grow stronger as time passed.
Stacey called again after nine thirty. Jim was already in bed, although it was too early for him to sleep. He was reading the latest Higgins novel, shaking his head tolerantly over the idiotic way law enforcement was portrayed, when the phone rang. He grabbed it on the first ring, even though he knew there wasn't much chance it would disturb Blair. The younger man seemed a bit better, his breathing wasn't quite as labored and his fever lower. He'd been asleep for hours. The ER doctor had warned Jim that the cough medicine he'd prescribed would knock Blair out. Rest was the best thing for him.
"Did we get cut off earlier?" Stacey asked. "All of a sudden there was nothing. I tried to call back but your line was busy, then I had to go to an emergency staff meeting."
Jim didn't enlighten her to what had happened. Stacey went on, "Jim, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like I was bitching about Blair. It just was a bad day. We've had to dismiss one of the other teaching assistants and I was rather counting on Blair to take over his class load."
"You dismissed one?"
Stacey hesitated. "Oh, I shouldn't say anything about it, at least not yet, but, well--it really upset me. We met all morning on it, then I got back to my office and found the message about Blair. I was just stressed out."
"Who was dismissed?"
"Well, don't tell Blair. At least, not for a day or two. The department head and I plan to meet with him... We had to dismiss Jerry Bryson. And it looks like Scott Margolis will probably have to go too."
Jim was less surprised about Bryson than Margolis. He knew both young men, not well but he'd met them and Jerry Bryson had just never impressed him. He knew there wasn't a whole lot of love lost between Bryson and Sandburg, either. But Blair and Scott were friends. "What's going on?"
He heard the sigh. "I can't really say. Not yet. But Jerome Bryson has been expelled from the University... oh, it's such a mess, Jim! There's a possibility of a lawsuit, maybe more than one. It's just awful." She sounded as if she were going to cry. Jim wanted to help her but he didn't know what to say."
"Can I--" he started.
Stacey interrupted him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you with this. It's just, most of the administration is out with this flu, and this happens. There are five classes tomorrow with no instructor. It's a mess." She calmed. "I will need to talk to Blair before Monday... I could come over there to see him. Tomorrow, do you think?"
"Do you need him to be coherent?"
Stacey emitted a choked laugh. "It'd help."
"Then you'd better come day after tomorrow. He's on some medicine that just puts him in lala land, but the doc only wanted him to take it for the first 48 hours. Tell you what, you come over after I get off work and then maybe the two of us can go out for dinner."
"I'd like that."
After a few more comments, Jim said good bye and hung up the phone. His mood was much improved. He went downstairs for a glass of water, letting his hearing tune into the sound of Blair's breathing. Still raspy but easier now. The young man was obviously deeply asleep. Deciding not to wake him for another dose of cough medicine, Jim went back upstairs and read for a short time until he fell asleep.
Stacey Murray turned on the kitchen lights, glanced in the refrigerator for supper ideas. She pushed the chicken aside impatiently. Early this morning, before she had left for work, she had been hoping Jim Ellison might join her for dinner and she had taken the poultry from the freezer. But that hadn't worked out, and she was too tired to think about cooking now. There was a little meatloaf left. Not much--Jim had really enjoyed it the night before--but enough for a sandwich. She spread mayonnaise on wheat bread, then poured a glass of milk. Turning off lights as she walked through the house, she balanced the sandwich and glass in one hand and picked up her briefcase with the other. She'd spread out these notes and things on the bed. Looked like she'd have to teach at least three of the Intro classes this week and with midterms coming up it would be unfair to the students if she didn't know what had been covered and what had not. She already knew Blair Sandburg's sections were the farthest ahead, Jerome Bryson's were almost two weeks behind. Scott Margolis's two sections were a week behind and Debra Miller's were right on schedule. Unfortunately, Miller's midterm test was awful; apparently the girl had no idea how to phrase a multiple choice question clearly and concisely.
The roses caught her eye. She had placed them on the entryway table so that their fragrance could perfume the whole house. One of the secretaries had found a plain glass vase for them. Stacey frowned; the vase didn't suit the beauty of the flowers or complement the antique cherry table. Her Waterford vase would be perfect...
The Waterford vase was packed in a box in the spare room.
Stacey shuddered. She hadn't stepped a foot inside that room since the movers had delivered everything. Another moment of indecision, then she placed the sandwich and milk on the bottom step and slowly went up the stairs.
Past her bedroom, the bathroom. Her hand on the doorknob, Stacey took a deep breath, steeling herself for memories she was about to unleash, then turned the knob and let herself into the room, switching on the overhead light.
The weekly cleaning woman was doing a good job. All the boxes were neatly stacked three deep, and not a smidgen of dust marred the floor. The antique white trunk, brass lock gleaming, stood under the window. Kevin's favorite chair--that huge old overstuffed monstrosity his grandmother had given them for their first apartment--was in one corner. She closed her eyes, remembering those three tiny rooms; remembering how the chair took up so much room they didn't have any place for a couch. Nor any need for one as they would both curl up in the chair together. The chair had been given a place of honor in every place they'd lived. /She'd been sitting in it, knees drawn up to her chin, arms wrapped around them, when they'd come to tell her Kevin was gone. Come to tell her her life was gone. Come to tell her what she'd already known./
Stacey's eyes snapped open. No. She wouldn't remember.
The vase. Get the vase and get out of here. Unerringly she walked to the box where she knew it was packed, opened the lid, pulled out the treasured piece, securely wrapped in layers of newspaper and scraps of a worn-out blanket. It was bound to be dusty. She'd go downstairs and wash it before she put Jim's roses in it.
She closed the door on the room once more.
"Damn!" Blair Sandburg groaned aloud. 'Jim is absolutely going to kill me. Dead. Slowly.' He conjured up the sight of his big, compulsive roommate, jaw bulging in his cheek as he contemplated this latest screw-up on the part of his Guide and erstwhile friend, and groaned again.
It hadn't really seemed that big a deal at first. Jim was at work, and Blair had been feeling better. So much better he'd decided to sneak down to his office on campus and try to get a jump start on the coming week. There wasn't much chance he'd run into anyone; the morning paper had been full of the story about how the University had closed down for only the second time in history because so many students and teachers were out sick. Classes were expected to resume Monday morning, and Blair intended to be there, doing the best he could for the department recently caught in scandal.
When Dr. Murray had come over the night before to tell him what was going on he'd been stunned. Jerry Bryson and Scott Margolis changing grades on the computer in return for sexual favors from both female and male students? He couldn't believe it! Well, actually, he *could* believe it of Bryson: the guy was an arrogant son of a bitch who thought the whole world should drop down and worship him just because he was good-looking and rich.
But Scott? That didn't even make sense.
After Jim and Dr. Murray had left for their dinner, Blair had tried to call Scott with no luck. He had reached Debra Miller though. The only other remaining teaching assistant was as stunned as Blair, and in a panic. Five-and-a-half months into what was proving to be a difficult first pregnancy, she was overwhelmed at the thought of the increased workload and terrified and intimidated by Dr. Murray. "She said my midterm test was totally incoherent and way above the Intro level!" she'd sobbed.
In all likelihood that was quite true. Debra was passionate about anthropology. That enthusiasm carried through in her lectures: she could and did hold classes of eighteen and nineteen-year-old college freshman spellbound. But her written communication skills were terrible. Her dissertation outline had been rejected three times so far and she was incapable of formulating test questions that were less than thirty words long.
Blair shivered, pulling his jacket collar closer around his neck as protecting against the cold rain. 'Better stop worrying about Debra or Scott,' he chided himself, 'And start worrying about yourself! Of all the places to have car trouble--' He looked around the deserted area, desperately searching for a pay phone. Luck was with him for a change; the phone he spotted outside an abandoned gas station proved to be working. Mentally bracing himself for the lecture he knew was coming, Blair fumbled some coins into the slot and punched in Jim's cell phone number.
Jim and Stacey Murray wandered around The Port, a small area of exclusive shops. They'd met for a late lunch at a small fish restaurant near the docks, and then just strolled around, enjoying the weather. After a week of almost ceaseless rain, Nature had seen fit to bestow upon Cascade one of those matchless blue and sunny days. The wind was a little chilly and it seemed natural for Jim to put his arm around the woman as they window-shopped. A little voice nagged at him that he should get back to the station, but he was in no hurry to return to the mountain of paperwork and besides he was enjoying the woman's company. 'After all,' he thought, 'I did run out on her last night.'
Their dinner the evening before had been interrupted before it had even begun when Jim had overheard a vicious argument at another table. The middle-aged woman who had been on the receiving end of her companion's vituperative utterances had left the table in tears. Instinct had prompted Jim to leave when the man did, and the detective arrived in the parking lot in time to stop the woman from being stabbed with a steak knife the man had swiped from his table setting.
As if her thoughts had run along the same lines, Stacey looked up at Jim. "How is that woman from last night?"
"I checked before you called this morning. They kept her at the hospital overnight for a sedative; she was pretty hysterical. He's in the hospital now, too, for psychiatric evaluation. But their kids were going to fly in today, so she won't be alone."
"What caused him to..." Stacey's voice trailed off and she made an expressive gesture with her hand.
Jim shook his head. "Nobody seems to know; she says he was fine until they left for the restaurant, then he started picking on her about the dress she was wearing, and it just went on from there, until he accused her of having an affair with his business partner. She says she wasn't; the partner says they weren't." Jim shrugged, then added the part that seemed to him the most poignant, "They were there celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary."
A shadow crossed the woman's face and she turned away. Jim's senses picked up her increasing heartbeat and the catch of her breathing. Concerned, he put an arm around her and turned her face until he could see the tears sparkling on her long lashes. "Hey, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up."
Stacey shook her head, brushing the teardrops away impatiently. "You didn't bring it up, I asked. I'm sorry about the tears. You must think I'm a fool. I didn't even know them!"
Jim pulled her close against his chest. "I don't think anything like that." He paused, running his hand in slow soothing circles on her back. He didn't know why he added, "Is your anniversary coming up?"
He felt Stacey stiffen in his arms, then she crumpled against him. "The end of the month," he heard her whisper.
Noticing that other people in the shop were starting to stare, Jim steered his friend to the door and out into the cold crisp air. There was a bench across the street looking out over the ocean. No one was nearby as Jim guided the woman there, holding her in his arms as she cried.
Finally Stacey pulled away, fumbled in her purse for tissues. "Don't look at me," she protested weakly as she dabbed at her smeared mascara. "I never could cry without making myself look horrible."
With a sudden surge of tenderness Jim realized he'd never thought a woman more beautiful. He drew her closer and pressed his lips to hers in a kiss, tasting the salt of her tears.
It started out gentle but rapidly intensified. Her lips softened, parted, allowing his tongue entrance. Jim was lost in the sensations, the flavors of her mouth, her perfume, that light floral fragrance that seemed so much a part of her, wafted into his nose, entwined through his senses. Heat rose between them. Stacey's arms came up around Jim as he pulled her tighter into his embrace.
A ringing noise came from inside Jim's jacket.
At the second repetition, Jim shuddered, then pulled himself away from the woman, reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. "Ellison," he managed through tingling lips.
"Hey Jim, it's me."
"Sandburg?" Jim put his arm around Stacey again and she cuddled into his side. "Something wrong?"
"No. Well, yeah, kinda." Then all in a rush, "Jim don't be mad but I went to the University I had to start on all this new work and I was feeling better but then the car died and I'm stuck and there's nothing open around here and I'm really sorry to bother you but I'm getting kind of wobbly and--"
"Sandburg! Breathe!" While his partner caught his breath Jim closed his eyes and prayed for patience. "Now," he went on, trying to keep his voice very calm, "Where are you?"
A short, unhappy silence. Finally Blair answered in a very small voice, "Umm, on Portage. Between Romany and uh, Victoria Street."
"You're where?" Jim exclaimed. "Sandburg, that is the absolute worst area in Cascade. And it's not even remotely on your way home from the University!"
"Not normally. But Dillon Road is all torn up with construction. It was either this way or the freeway, and this time of day--"
Jim cut him off. "OK, we'll discuss this later. Go back to your car and lock yourself in, do you hear me? I'm on my way." He clicked the cell phone closed and looked at Stacey. "I have to, well, that was Sandburg. He's had car trouble and I need to go get him before something worse happens," he explained, apologetically. "I'll walk you to your car."
Stacey looked at him, an unreadable expression on her face. Finally she said, "No, that's okay. You go on. I think I'd like to look around a few more of these shops." Her voice was carefully neutral, but Jim sensed her irritation.
"I need to be getting back to work anyway," he said. "I'll call you, this evening?"
A small smile brightened her face. "I'd like that."
It was a good thing traffic was light because Stacey Murray's mind was not on her driving.
Jim Ellison was a Sentinel. She was sure of it.
Her mind drifted back to the first time she'd learned of Blair Sandburg and his Sentinel research...
/Such a hot day. The Santa Ana winds had been blowing inland for a week. Even this close to the ocean the heat was oppressive, the smog hanging dirty and heavy in the sky. Not weather for packing. No, a day like today would be better spent immersed in the ocean itself.
Which was where Kevin was. Surfing. He'd wanted her to come along but one of them had to do the packing. The moving van would come in less than seventy-two hours.
God, she was dreading this move! Washington DC, of all places. Hot and muggy and crowded in the summer; cold and dreary in the winter. But it wasn't the weather she despised as much as the thought of the job Kevin was taking.
'Oh, be fair,' she chided herself. He thinks he can help more people this way. Setting up emergency response teams on a national level, procuring federal funding so that existing groups would be able to get equipment and support. It still pained him that the New Mexico group he'd founded had had to disband.
But damn it, it was an administrative post! That wasn't Kevin at all. He was no politician. He was made for action. He was a Sentinel.
Impatiently she pulled books off the shelves, wrapped her few treasured ornaments in layers of newspaper. They hadn't even been back in San Jacoma long enough to get everything out of the storage unit...
Sweat trickled down her back; her cotton shirt and ragged cutoffs dampened and clung uncomfortably. She needed a break. Sitting cross-legged so long had made her foot go to sleep; she favored it as she walked into the tiny kitchenette for a glass of ice water. The ice cube trays were almost empty and as she filled them she succumbed to the temptation to stick her head under the faucet, gasping a little as the cold water streamed through her hair. It felt so good! Twisting the mass into a coil atop her head, she secured it with a clip. Rivulets of water trickled down her neck.
She flipped on the computer. Kevin was making noises about packing it up tonight so this would be her last chance for awhile. She logged on and started checking various bookmarked sites, then frowned as she caught site of the icon in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Response to a search? What was that all about? What search? Then her face cleared and she hastily pulled up the document to discover it was--as she surmised--a reference to some Sentinel research. She'd forgotten about that permanent search command, it had been over a year since it had turned anything up. She scanned the information eagerly.
Three articles published out of Washington State by somebody named Blair Sandburg, MA. The notation at the bottom of the last article mentioned that the information was a compilation of resources utilized by Mr. Sandburg in the course of completing his Master's thesis.
Stacey skimmed the articles quickly, then, getting more comfortable, she pulled up the first article and read it more slowly, nodding occasionally. He was good, this Sandburg; thorough. His writing style was interesting and energetic. He obviously loved the topic; what was equally obvious, at least to Stacey, was that it was all theory. He didn't have any evidence that Sentinels actually exited in modern-day society. He did make reference to a couple of articles published in the early 1980s that purported to describe the development of a modern Sentinel, but explained in a footnote only two monographs in a series of five had been published and that he had been unable to locate them. Stacey smiled in delight; those had to be her articles--the two she'd published before she and Kevin had decided it was too risky to reveal any more information to the world at large. If anyone ever suspected the truth... Stacey had switched her area of emphasis away from Sentinels entirely. Thereafter her Sentinel research was done on her own and separate from her academic work./
Stacey blinked and shook her head, realizing that she was approaching the turnoff to the house. Banishing other thoughts for later, she forced herself to concentrate on the road.
Blair looked so miserable when Jim finally reached him that the detective decided to postpone lecturing him until later. He left the younger man sitting in the cab of the truck with the heater turned up high while he tried to start Blair's car. Giving up, he used his cell phone to arrange for a tow, grabbed Blair's backpack up from the back seat, and jogged back to the truck. The earlier sunshine had been masked by thick fog rolling in off the ocean. The interior of the truck felt like a sauna to Jim, but a quick glance revealed Blair was still shivering, so he didn't say anything. He was surprised when the younger man reached over and turned the heater down. "You're cold," Jim pointed out.
"You're not." Blair's teeth were chattering. "The heater's not helping me much, anyway."
Concerned, Jim took one hand off the wheel to feel Blair's forehead. The younger man dodged but not quickly enough. "Your fever is coming back," Jim sighed. He glanced sidewise at his roommate and just shook his head, clenching his jaw.
"Go ahead and say it," Blair sighed, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.
Blair didn't open his eyes but his lips curved into a tired smile. "Oh, something along the lines of, 'Sandburg, *what* were you thinking? Or *were* you even thinking?' Or, 'Of all the stupid stunts, Sandburg--'"
"Well, since you know what I'm going to say I guess I don't need to waste my breath saying it," Jim interrupted briskly. "Besides, you're half asleep. I'll wait until you're awake and alert to share my thoughts on this subject."
Blair muttered something about "Great, something to look forward to," that Jim didn't feel was worthy of a response. They detoured by the police station so that Jim could grab the paperwork he'd been avoiding that afternoon. If he had had a wistful half-thought that Blair could be talked into doing it for him, that thought vanished when they got home and Sandburg went straight to his room. Jim checked on him about a half-hour later and the younger man was asleep, curled up in a cocoon of blankets and quilts. Giving the unheeding lump a fond grin, Jim pulled the door half-closed and resolutely went to spread his work out on the table.
Jim was behind on his paperwork and by the time he got all the reports done and organized it was past seven and his stomach was clamoring for attention. There hadn't been a peep from Blair all evening but he staggered out of his room as Jim was frying bacon for triple-club sandwiches. A saucepan of canned chili with beans warmed on the back burner of the stove. The nap had done Blair good although his cheeks were still flushed with fever. He took a considering whiff of the aroma in the kitchen. "I don't suppose that you used turkey bacon for those?" he asked without much hope. Jim gave him what was commonly referred to as a "look" and the younger man chuckled, going over to a cabinet and poking among the canned soups.
"Stacey sent you some chicken soup. It's in the refrigerator."
"No thanks," Blair answered shortly, pulling out a can of chicken and rice and dumping it into a Pyrex bowl. Jim raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything else until after Blair had poured the heated soup into a mug and sat down at the table.
"You surprise me, Sandburg. You eat canned when homemade is available?"
Blair took a deep breath and then coughed. Jim winced as he heard the wheezing and rattling of the kid's lungs. "Look, Jim," Blair choked when he could finally speak, "You're dating her. Okay, that's up to you, man, I'm not going to tell you who to see. But Stacey Murray and I don't have a great relationship and I don't think we're ever gonna have a great relationship, so maybe we shouldn't discuss her."
"What's your beef against Stacey?" Jim asked, concerned. "What's she done to piss you off so bad?"
"You mean besides her overall judgmental condescending nit-picking attitude?" That overtaxed Blair's congested airway and he started coughing again, so hard that his face took on a purplish hue. Tears came to his eyes.
"Take it easy!" Jim warned, grabbing one of the brightly-colored boxes of tea from the cupboard. He'd put the teapot on earlier and now he filled a mug with the boiling water and dunked the teabag inside. He set the cup in front of his roommate, who was slowly recovering his breath.
Finally, Blair could draw a clear breath. He picked up the mug for a sip of the tea and made a face. "What the hell is that?"
Surprised, Jim reached behind him for the box. "'Raspberry Zinger'. Why?"
"Never mind," Blair smiled, taking a smaller sip. He sat back in his chair, shoulders slumping. "Jim, can I ask you something? How serious are you about Dr. Murray?"
Jim felt his mouth literally drop open. "Serious? Chief, we've dated a couple of times. You sound as if I'd given her a ring or something!"
"You slept with her," Blair pointed out quietly.
"That doesn't mean anything," Jim snapped, irritated. "Hell, you of all people should know that. Mr.-Dive-Into-the-Sack-Directly-After-the-Introductions Sandburg."
Blair winced. "I may have done that a few times," he said, hurt clearly showing on his face, in his voice, "But there's a big difference between me doing it and you doing it."
"Why is there a difference?"
"You! When you go to bed with somebody it means something. Or your libido is out of control."
All of Jim's anger drained away suddenly. "Well, that was going on too," he admitted. He shrugged at Blair's questioning look. "Hell, Sandburg, I don't know! I like her. A lot. That first night, it just happened. We both wanted it, and I was fascinated with her, I'll admit it. But now... she's very sweet but we don't have much in common. She just seems so, I don't know, not needy but... lonely, I guess.
Blair rolled his eyes. He put the cup down without tasting the tea. "Look, Jim. Your sex life is none of my business. I don't mean to pry. It's just that, well, Dr. Murray really pissed me off yesterday, when she was telling me about Scott and Jerry. Her whole attitude about Scott really bothers me. It's like he's guilty until proven innocent, you know?"
"Look at it from her point of view, Chief," Jim urged. "She's the head of the department, and she wants to do a good job. Sexual misconduct is a serious thing. If those charges had been made against a police officer, he'd be suspended immediately, if only for his own protection."
"Jim, there's no evidence against Scott. I did some checking today when I was at the University. Not one single student has accused Scott. Jerry, yeah, but not Scott."
"Stacey said his access code was used--"
"So what? The codes aren't secret, Jim. The Department secretary keeps the list right there on the bulletin board. Anyone can look."
Jim frowned. That seemed careless. "Sandburg, there must be some evidence--"
"That's just it, Jim. There isn't."
"Look, why was just Scott's code used? If the codes are all that easy to come by, why not yours?"
Blair pursed his lips to blow at the steaming tea. He sat the cup down carefully. "Someone may have tried. Several weeks ago, I noticed someone had logged in using my access code. It was on a day I wasn't even there, so I knew it had to have been someone else." Blair shrugged. "I didn't think it was that big of a deal, you know? I checked--nothing seemed to be disturbed. But after that I started changing my password every week. The default password is the user's last name. I told Dr. Murray that, the other night." Blair shook his head. "I don't think she believed me. I mean, she asked if I'd told anyone at the time, Campus Security or Admin--"
"--And you hadn't," Jim finished for him.
Blair shrugged. "I should have. I just didn't think it was important. But Scott--he doesn't notice things like that. Even if he did--" he broke off.
Jim broke the silence between them. "Come on, Chief, there's more than you're telling me. What is it?"
Blair hesitated. He spoke slowly, as if he were thinking it through as he talked. "Even if Scott had noticed something going on with his code...even if he knew it was Jerry doing it...Scott was--is--kind of passive. Easily intimidated, and he hates conflict. If he suspected something--it might have been easier for him to just ignore it than to do anything about it."
"And you don't think that's wrong? Come on, Sandburg, that doesn't sound like you at all!"
"It *is* wrong. I'm not saying it's not. But he doesn't deserve to be expelled. I know him, Jim, he'll never get over something like that. And I think your girlfriend has already made up her mind."
"I think you're wrong about her," Jim said calmly. "But even if you're not, I can't fault her, Chief. She's trying to do the job the best way she can; she has to protect her students. She has to protect the department. You know University politics a lot better than I do; what does a scandal like this do to fund raising? Enrollment? Alumni support?"
"She's been talking to you about it," Blair said flatly. He slammed the mug down. "You're already convinced she's right."
"Chief, it's not my decision. It's not yours, and it's not even Stacey's alone," Jim pointed out. "If Scott is innocent he'll be exonerated. In the meantime, it's cold in here and you're shaking. Why don't you go take a hot shower? I'll clean up in here."
Several hours later, when Blair lay snoring in his downstairs bedroom and Jim was ensconced in his own bed with the Higgins novel, he remembered he had said he would call Stacey Murray. A curse and a quick groan as he looked at the clock revealed it was after midnight. Damn. She was probably asleep. Oh, well, he'd call her from work tomorrow.
Jim was tired. He slid a bookmark between the pages, turned off the light, and quickly slid into a restful sleep.
The delicate gold clock on the mantel struck two a.m. When the last echo of the chime had died away, Stacey Murray got rather stiffly to her feet from the stool where she'd been gazing into the fire. Not sparing a glance for the crystal glasses, the bottle of fine amontodillo sherry, the plate of canap‚s, she turned off the one small light in the room and fixed the screen in front of the fire.
Her black silk corded slacks swirled around her legs as she went up the stairs. It was chilly in her bedroom with the vents closed, but she pulled the new black and gold outfit over her head roughly and left it where it landed.
She leaned against her dressing table, studying her reflection in the mirror. The extra makeup she'd indulged in couldn't hide the flush of anger on her cheeks, the disappointment in her eyes. 'He never said he'd come over. But he said he'd call! Why didn't he call? Maybe something has happened. Maybe he zoned, like he did this afternoon. Maybe he's hurt. Maybe he's dead...' Her heart pounded wildly.
"Stop it!" she told her reflection sharply. "You're not his Guide. You were Kevin's! And Jim isn't Kevin!"
'He could be,' a small voice in her head insisted. Stacey shook her head, started to turn from the mirror. Her elbow brushed against something and it fell to the floor with a little tinkling crash.
Stacey stared in shock at the shards of blue and red crystal on the floor. The smell of the perfume pervaded the air oppressively. Damn! That was the last of the batch. She'd have to make more tomorrow, or resort to the bottle of Tribu hidden in her underwear drawer. 'I wonder if Jim's allergic to "real" perfume? Kevin was. That's how I got started making my own. And then...'
Stacey grabbed her robe off the hook behind the door and threw it around her shoulders, the cool silk caressing her bare skin as she ran down the hall. A deep breath, hand on the knob, turn it, switch on the light. This time she headed unerringly for the white trunk under the window. The lid lifted easily, revealing them, the dozens and dozens of notebooks. The documentation of her life as a Guide. The documentation of her life with Kevin.
She started digging in the right hand corner. She knew which book she was looking for. She'd discovered what Kevin had always called the "perfume trick" during that semester at UCLA, before UCSD had offered Kevin a better deal. That notebook had been purchased in the UCLA Bookstore and had a blue and gold "Bruin" on the front cover. There it was! She pulled it out. As she did so, her hand brushed against a cloth cover and she jumped, then folded her fingers around it as well and held it to the light.
It was the last one.
The notebook dropped from limp fingers. It fell open showing one page closely covered with her ornate handwriting. The facing page had only a few words noted on it, written so small and neat she could hardly believe her hand was the one that had formed them. The pages behind were blank. Empty.
Memories spilled into her mind, threatening all the safeguards she had put in place so many months ago. Walls formed when she'd met the plane bearing the pitiful few remains of the Bosnia task force. Formed when she'd listened dry-eyed as the President of the United States eulogized the group as "True Humanitarians". When she'd walked behind the coffin to the resting place Kevin's parents had insisted upon in Arlington. When she'd stared down into that gaping hole and known they were taking Kevin away forever. When she'd felt the tearing pain in her womb that ended the life of Kevin's baby, her last link to him.
The baby that had killed him.
/"You can't go without me! I'm your Guide, Kevin!"
"You can't travel, Stace. Not now. The next few weeks are critical. Besides, I wouldn't take you even if you weren't pregnant. Bosnia is no place for you right now."
"Excuse me?" Stacey could hardly believe she was hearing him correctly. "Dammit, Kevin, you may be a Sentinel, but I'm your Guide."
His hands on her shoulders. "You're my wife." His voice firm. Stacey pulled away, saying,
"I was your Guide long before I was your wife. You can't leave me behind."
Kevin's eyes, pleading with her to understand. "Stacey, you're carrying my baby. Our baby. You know what that means to me, after all these years. I can't let you take any risks."
Stacey sighed. Eighteen years together, fifteen of them married. Never a thought of a baby. She'd always assumed that was the way it was supposed to be: no children, totally committed to each other. The Sentinel protecting the Tribe, the Guide caring for the Sentinel. Kevin had never even mentioned a baby. But when they'd found out he'd been so thrilled Stacey realized he'd always wanted a child. She'd managed to put aside her misgivings because he was so happy. Then this assignment had come up, but for Kevin only. She wasn't to go. Too risky, in her condition, with the spotting and all. And Kevin agreed! Eighteen years and he'd never left her behind, had always known he needed her. Now, because of this baby, *his baby*, he was leaving without her..../
Stacey blinked, pulled herself forcefully from thoughts of the past. The past was over. This was now. A new life. A new Sentinel to Guide.
He already has a Guide, the little voice in her head was quick to remind her. He doesn't need you.
He does. He just doesn't know it yet.
Gripping the notebook tightly in her hands, Stacey started downstairs. She hesitated, stopped; looked over her shoulder back into the room.
For a brief moment, two conflicting destinies warred with each other and the future trembled at the outcome.
Then, Stacey Murray firmly closed the door on the room and on the past. She didn't hesitate as she turned the key in the lock.
One month later...
"Dammit Jim! Get down!" Something hard and heavy flung itself at him, shoving him to the ground.
Jim Ellison shook his head, startled. "What--" he started. A hand shoved his head back down to the sidewalk just as a bullet screamed past. Jim cringed at the roar, became aware that his hearing was wide open and struggled to turn it down, to control the sensations. Some other noise was close by, a sustained noise. One that he should recognize. Concentrating on the dial in his mind, Jim closed his eyes and managed to turn the hearing down, all the way down. Then he opened his eyes.
The heavy thing on top of him he recognized as a very pissed-off Simon Banks. The Major Crimes head was glaring at Jim, his mouth moving but no sound came out. It took Jim several seconds to realize that Simon was saying words, he just couldn't hear them. Slowly, hesitantly, he visualized turning the dial up, just one notch. Then another.
"--Man I thought you and Sandburg were getting a handle on this! Dammit Jim. You could have been killed, or gotten somebody else killed!"
"Simon," Jim protested weakly. "What happened?"
"What happened?" Banks was practically frothing at the mouth. "You zoned, that's what happened! Right in the middle of a firefight between the SWAT guys and the Taylor brothers. Do you have any idea how close you came to getting shot?"
Jim looked around, seeing officers from Major Crimes and the SWAT guys milling around, mopping up what had obviously been a nasty situation. Jim thought back. Yes, he'd come here with Simon. Noah Taylor, recently escaped from State Prison, and his twin brother Neal had taken refuge in this abandoned apartment complex near downtown after robbing a liquor store and killing the owner. There had been some doubt about the owner's wife; nobody had seen her and there was concern that the Taylor's had taken her hostage. Jim had turned up his hearing as far as he was able to try to count voices in the building, and then---
--the next thing he remembered was Simon knocking him down.
Captain Street of the SWAT team jogged over. "You two OK?" he demanded to know. "Jim, how bad is it?"
Jim just stared at the other man. What is he talking about?
"He took three rounds in the vest," Simon answered for him. "I think he's still stunned."
'I was shot?' Jim looked down. Sure enough, there were three holes in his shirt, two in the center of his abdomen and one directly over his heart. Sensation flew back suddenly and he took a shallow gasp of air, feeling the unmistakable heavy pain of cracked ribs. Simon and the SWAT leader were talking now as Jim looked around, befuddled. The spectators who had been drawn by the excitement were drifting away now, but that other bane of police work--the media--were still there. Most of their attention was focused on the young blond man sitting in the back of a squad car with his head buried in his hands, or on the sight of the filled black body bag being carried to the Coroner's wagon. The sight of the body bag shook him out of his daze and he said, hesitantly, "The hostage?"
Simon and Street broke off their conversation to stare at him. "There wasn't any hostage, Jim," Street pointed out. "Turns out Mrs. Omiliak is visiting her daughter in Houston."
"Then--?" Jim nodded in the direction of the body bag and Street followed his gaze.
"Noah Taylor. Guess he meant it when he said he'd die rather than go back to prison," Street said briskly, although his eyes as they rested on Jim were filled with concern. His next words were for Simon. "Are you sure he wasn't hit in the head? Maybe he should get checked out."
"We'll take that under advisement, Jim," Simon said, a subtle hint to the other man about who was in command of whom around here. Jim jumped, then remembered that Captain Street's first name was also Jim. The Sentinel didn't protest as his captain unobtrusively guided him towards the car.
It was a quiet ride. Simon didn't say anything as he drove Jim to the hospital, waited with him the two hours it took to be seen. A flying visitation from a harried and overworked resident and Jim was free to go home, with a warning to take it easy for a few days. Simon insisted on driving Jim home, saying he could pick up his truck the next day. It was a silent ride to the loft, but Jim wasn't surprised when, instead of pulling his car up in front of the building, the Captain drove around to the side and parked. Jim went up the stairs with his captain in tow. Once inside, Jim tossed his keys into the basket on the table by the door and moved toward the kitchen, saying over his shoulder, "I'm going to make a pot of coffee. You want some?"
"Sounds good." Simon's voice was carefully neutral.
Jim looked with displeasure at the place setting he'd left before going to work that morning. Plate, bowl and glass were untouched. There was still coffee in the pot from his own breakfast. "Damn you Sandburg, didn't you even come into the kitchen?" he cursed quietly. Dumping the old coffee, he looked in the cupboard for the bag of French Roast Stacey had surprised him with a few days before. Simon came into the room just as the pot finished filling.
"Jim, we have to talk."
'Here it comes.' Jim poured coffee into two mugs and sat down opposite the captain. He didn't say anything, just waited. After the silence had drawn out from an uncomfortable few minutes, Simon exploded, "Damn it, Jim, what's going on with you?"
"What do you mean, Sir?"
"Oh, stop it! Don't even try to act as if you don't know what I'm talking about. This is serious, Jim. That little stunt this morning could have got you killed, hell it could have got a lot of people killed!" Jim winced but didn't say anything and Simon went on, "How many times have you zoned in the last week? Yesterday you were out of it just sitting at your desk! Half of Major Crimes thinks you're epileptic. Where's Sandburg? I haven't seen him in days. What's he doing about this zoning business? Hell, I thought he had it under control!"
That comment made Jim a little angry. "I don't need Sandburg, or anyone else, to help me control--" he stopped because that just wasn't true. He did need Blair. "Look Simon, we're working on it," he temporized. "Sandburg has a lot on his mind right now--"
Simon just stared at him. "Wait a minute, Jim. We're talking about Blair Sandburg, right? Short guy, long hair, looks like some kind of new age hippie, right? Guy who thinks you, his own personal living breathing Sentinel, is the center of the universe? Are you telling me that he knows you're out there falling apart and he's not moving heaven and earth to find out why? That he's letting you walk around without being attached at your elbow? Because I don't believe it, Jim." He paused, studying the detective's face. Understanding slowly dawned in his eyes. "He doesn't know, does he? You haven't even told him what's been going on!"
Jim hesitated but he couldn't actually lie to his Captain. "He doesn't know," he confirmed with a nod. Then he braced himself and waited.
He didn't have to wait for long. "Why the hell not!" Simon exploded. "Isn't he your Guide, or whatever you call it? Isn't that his job?"
Jim jerked himself up from the table. "His job," he ground out through tightly clenched teeth, "is to get his Ph.D. To keep up his responsibilities at the University. To take care of himself first." Jim gestured at the untouched place setting. "Do you have any idea how much weight he's lost in the last couple of weeks? He hasn't even recovered from having bronchitis yet, and he's at the University at all hours trying to cover those extra classes, then he comes home and tries to cook and basically be my servant, worrying about me and what's going on, and write his dissertation and maybe, maybe squeeze in a few hours sleep around five a.m. So no, Simon, he doesn't know. It hasn't come up in the two or three minutes of conversation I've been able to have with him lately."
Simon had sat unmoved through this diatribe. When Jim finally wound down, Simon asked quietly, "There's something else, isn't there?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Come on, Jim. Don't try to kid a kidder. I'm a detective, remember? What does your new girlfriend have to do with any of this?"
Surprised, Jim answered, "Stacey?" He felt himself smiling at the thought of her. Remembering last night, cappuccino in front of her fireplace. Her perfume, that light, haunting scent, wrapping around his senses. The fire of passion in her dark blue eyes, her lips swollen from his kisses. The silken feel of her skin as he--
Jim blinked and looked around, disoriented. Simon rose from his chair and stood before him, a tower of concern. "Are you back?"
Realizing what had happened, Jim slumped over his coffee. "Damn. It happened again? Right here in the kitchen?"
Simon nodded. "Jim, take the rest of today off. But I want you to talk to Sandburg, tell him what's going on. Because if things don't change, like immediately, I'll have no choice but to put you on medical leave until this is resolved. You're no good to anyone, not yourself, or me, or the citizens you're paid to protect, like this."
After a long pause, Jim nodded.
Blair groaned as he caught sight of the familiar blue notepaper in his mailbox. To think he had once liked the color blue! Not any more, though; now, blue paper meant one thing: a note from Dr. Stacey Murray.
He grabbed the note. As usual, the paper had been folded over and stapled; apparently the woman didn't believe in wasting envelopes on graduate students. Taking a deep breath, Blair glanced over the ornate handwriting.
"Blair, Several students in Intro Section 4 have complained that the grades from last week's quiz have not been posted. Please post before you leave campus today."
Blair sighed, rubbing eyes that felt dry and itchy. God, he was tired! He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a good night's sleep; well, actually, he could remember, it had been while he was sick, a month ago.
He glanced at Dr. Murray's note again and shook his head. If she thought Intro Section 4 students were complaining now, just wait until he *did* post the grades. He'd inherited Section 4 from Jerry Bryson, and he'd never taught such a frustrating group in his life. There was a high percentage of athletes, which didn't bother Blair; he didn't usually subscribe to the belief that athletes were morons, but this group seem determined to prove him wrong. The class performance on the midterm had been so poor that Blair had been forced to grade it on a curve, something he absolutely despised. Three weeks of his instruction didn't seem to be helping much: the quizzes he'd read so far were uniformly bad and at least a third of the class had requested extensions for turning in the outline for their term papers.
Blair looked up as the office door opened and Dr. Murray sailed in, trailed by the pathetic figure of Debra Miller. The pregnant woman's face was splotched and red, her eyes swollen as if she had been crying. She saw him before the other woman did and gave him a frightened look. Blair frowned at her expression and would have stepped over to talk with her, but Stacey Murray spotted him and beckoned imperiously. "Blair! Just the person I needed to see."
Blair tried not to wince as he stepped around the secretary's desk to join them, gazing at Debra with concern. Before he could ask how she was feeling, Dr. Murray announced, "You'll need to cover Debra's classes tomorrow. She has another doctor's appointment." There was just the slightest stress on the word "another" that sent the color leaping to Debra's face and fresh tears spilling from her swollen eyes.
Blair's own eyes narrowed as he responded, "Dr. Murray, I only have the one class tomorrow and I was planning to--"
She didn't let him finish. "I know your schedule, Blair. I'm sorry, you'll have to postpone your plans. Debra has two Intro classes and one section of Classical Anthro."
Without waiting for a response, Dr. Murray pulled her mail out of her own mailbox and left the office, leaving only the scent of her perfume behind. Automatically Blair inhaled, savoring the fragrance. He didn't like the woman; that became more obvious to him every day, but he did like her perfume.
Debra sniffed and rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. She grasped Blair's sweater. "Blair, I'm so sorry. But when I told her about my appointment--"
"It's OK," Blair replied automatically, although it really wasn't. Debra's health had been too precarious to run the risk of giving her a very heavy load, so she had inherited only Scott Margolis's one section of Intro to Anthro. Blair had ended up with all the rest of the classes in addition to his own load. But none of that was Debra's fault, and she looked miserable enough. Blair forced his lips into a semblance of a smile. "Come'n," he said, giving her a quick hug. "Let's go down to my office and we can run over what you've got planned for tomorrow. I'll make you a cup of tea."
Debra's woebegone face brightened just slightly. "No caffeine?"
"It's herbal," Blair reassured her. He opened the door and let her precede him through it. He consciously slowed his normally frantic pace as Debra moved slowly, with that backward tilt manifested by pregnant women through the ages.
He kept up the cheerful front for Debra's benefit while she drank two cups of lemon tea and went over her notes. Once she left, with fervent thanks echoing behind, Blair dropped his head in his hands and groaned aloud. 'I don't need this today!' his mind screamed.
The two Intro classes wouldn't be that bad. Debra's classes were slightly behind his own, so it was just a matter of repeating his lectures. The Classical class, though, that was something different.
The class that the Rainier catalog referred to as Anth 223--Classical Anthropology--was a sore spot with Blair; indeed with most of the department. It was a holdover from the 70s, a dumbed-down version of Survey of Anthropology for liberal arts majors needing another three hours of humanities credit. Blair hated the whole idea of such a class and had managed to avoid ever teaching it. Debra didn't like it either, which explained why, in contrast to the comprehensive lesson plans she'd produced for her other classes, her Classical lecture was only a few pages of notes on a yellow legal pad.
Blair glanced at his watch, then looked at the piles of paperwork on his desk and groaned again. Might as well call Jim and tell him that his Guide would, once again, be unable to join him. He had several hours of hard work ahead of him.
Much to his surprise, the phone was answered promptly, but it wasn't Jim's voice, it was Simon's. For a crazy minute, Blair thought in his exhaustion he'd dialed the wrong extension, but Simon's first words relieved that fear. "Detective Ellison's desk. This is Captain Banks."
"Hey, Simon. This is Blair. Is Jim around?"
A moment's pause, then "Sandburg?"
"Yeah." Blair frowned; why was Simon answering Jim's phone? A sudden cold fear shot through him, freezing his heart. He bent over a little as he gasped, "Something happened to Jim!"
"It's not that bad! Sandburg! He just got bruised. Dammit, kid, breathe!" Simon's strident voice pierced through the receiver. Blair gasped for air.
"Yeah. This time."
Blair closed his eyes in thankfulness, concentrated on taking deep breaths. Then Simon's last words penetrated. He frowned. "What do you mean, 'this time'?"
Simon told him. And Blair clenched his hand around the phone, white-hot rage filling him as he listened.
Jim Ellison reclined on his bed, exhausted but totally unable to sleep. His cracked rib throbbed with every breath he took. He had tried to "turn the dial down" as Sandburg had taught him, but had abandoned the attempt when he felt himself starting to zone. Simon was right. As much as Jim hated the idea, he was going to have to tell Blair what was going on. It was not a conversation he was looking forward to.
Moving slightly in a vain attempt to get more comfortable, he caught sight of the clock and frowned. He pulled himself from the bed with a groan. He and Stacey had made tentative plans to do something tonight; he'd better call and let her know he wouldn't be able to make it. No answer at her house; at the University the department secretary briskly informed him "Dr. Murray has left for the day." Might as well get it over with, Jim thought, and asked to speak with Blair. "He's on the phone," came the answer back. "Would you like to hold?"
Jim declined rapidly and hung up, cursing himself for a coward. A part of him was hoping Blair might not come home until late. They hadn't seen that much of each other lately; his roommate had no reason to assume Jim would be home that evening. Maybe this conversation could be postponed indefinitely.
The middle of the year 2005 seemed about right.
Jim knew there wasn't much hope of that. He sighed and dialed Stacey Murray's cell phone number.
She answered on the second ring. From the sounds in the background he assumed she was on the highway going home. She confirmed this, then said, "This rain is terrible! All I want to do is curl up by the fire tonight. Care to join me?"
There was a definite purr to her voice. Jim grinned in spite of himself even as he was saying, "Rain check, huh, lady? I know, bad pun; truth is, I'm not feeling much like getting out tonight either."
Concern sharpened her tone. "What's wrong? Are you sick?"
"No. Not really. Just tired," Jim temporized.
"Then don't you want to come over to my place? I made beef in wine. You could spend the night, then you wouldn't have to face the rain again."
Although they'd seen each other almost every evening over the last month, Jim had yet to spend the night at Stacey's place. He usually slept for a few hours after they'd made love, then got dressed and came home in the early hours of the morning. The two of them never discussed it but Jim sensed Stacey was as uneasy about the connotations of him spending the night in her bed as he was. Spending the night, at least to him, implied permanence, commitment. He wasn't ready for that and he hadn't believed she was either, but now he pondered what her invitation could mean. "Stacey, not tonight. I--" he hated having to say it, "I had an accident at work today."
He could almost feel the adrenaline spike through the phone line. "What kind of accident? Are you hurt?" He heard the panic catch at her breath. "Oh, God, Jim, are you in the hospital? Where are you? I'll be right there--"
"Stacey!" Jim cut across her words. "For God's sake, pull over before you have a wreck. Now, Stacey!"
There was a pause, then he heard her take a deep, shaky breath. "Okay, I'm on the side of the road. Jim, what's happened?"
"Please calm down. It's not that big of a thing. I just-- it's kind of stupid, I got careless today and made a stupid mistake, and before you really panic, I had on a vest so the only damage is a couple of bruised ribs--"
"You were shot?"
Jim winced as her shrill tone assaulted his eardrums. "Yeah. But it wasn't that bad. No blood, nothing like that. I'm just sore."
Harsh breaths through the receiver testified to the battle the woman was fighting to calm herself down. Finally she said, "I'm going home. I'll get the beef and come right back to your place, it will only take me about ninety minutes--"
"Oh, Stacey... that's a nice idea. But-- you know you don't want to get back out on the highway and I'm going to crash early tonight anyway. Besides, I need to talk to Blair tonight."
He was startled at the tone in her voice as she fairly spat the name. "Fine. If you change your mind you know how to reach me." There was a click as she disconnected. Jim was left staring at the dead phone in his hand.
Stacey Murray gripped the steering wheel with both hands, so tightly that her metacarpals showed yellowish white through the skin. She closed her eyes, forcing herself to take deep, relaxing breaths. How many times had she used the formula with Kevin? /Just relax, baby. Listen to my voice. My voice is all you hear.../
Her eyes snapped open and she stared unseeingly out at the rain soaked road. 'Shot. Jim shot. But he's okay. This time.'
He made a stupid mistake? Men like Kevin, men like Jim Ellison--Sentinels--did not make stupid mistakes. People around them made mistakes, their Guides made mistakes...
Jim must have zoned out. 'And where was his Guide? Not by his side,' she thought angrily. 'Not doing his job. Not protecting Jim.'
'Blair Sandburg is a failure as a Guide. I wouldn't be. I wouldn't fail again. Somehow, I need to make Jim see that. But how?'
She shook her head. Jim was disturbingly loyal to the long-haired kid. She understood it but it still enraged her. Blair Sandburg was endangering Jim. If Blair was gone, Jim would have to turn to someone else. To her, a Guide who knew how to help him.
If Blair was gone...
Later, she realized that she must have subconsciously been planning for some time. The idea unfolded in her mind so clearly, so in-depth, as if it had been there all along. Just waiting for her to realize there was only one way...only one way to save Jim. To save her Sentinel.
She sat quietly for several minutes, thinking about it. Then she flipped on her turn signal and prepared to make a U-turn on the highway.
She needed to pick some things up at the store.
Jim stared morosely into the bare shelves of his refrigerator.
More disturbed by the conversation with Stacey than he wanted to admit, even to himself, he'd elected to come downstairs and start dinner. In the back of his mind was the thought that perhaps he and Blair could relax over a good meal, then really talk. He tried to picture the two of them conversing amiably over (decaf) coffee with Blair agreeing that Jim was right to keep certain things from him, then brilliantly coming up with a solution to his Sentinel's problems.
In a pigs eye.
Jim knew as soon as Sandburg heard the words "zone out" he might as well run for cover. But still, he decided to fix dinner. Only one problem: there was nothing to fix. Jim had been eating most of his meals with Stacey, and Blair was so overworked that neither eating nor shopping had been a high priority. Jim was idly constructing the resulting conversation if he fed his Guide a delicious dinner of oatmeal followed by stewed tomatoes over water chestnuts, with a dessert of canned butterscotch (Butterscotch?!) pudding, when the phone rang.
Simon's voice greeted him. The head of Major Crimes wasted no words as he said, "Just thought I'd warn you. Your roommate is on his way home, and he is *not* happy with you."
"What are you talking about? He doesn't know anything yet."
"Actually, he knows *everything*."
"But--" Jim sucked in his breath in a horrified gasp. "Simon, you told him? Why? I said I'd talk to him!"
"Because I know you too well, Jim. You'd have figured some way around it having to tell him. Well, now it's all over but the shouting. And, judging from what he said, there's going to be a lot of shouting before he's through with you." Chuckling evilly, Simon hung up the phone. Jim was left staring at a dead phone again. He put it down slowly.
'Okay, Sandburg's on his way home, and he's pissed off. Okay. I can deal with this. I'm bigger than he is. Like that would help, he can out-yell me if he puts his mind to it. What am I feeling guilty for? I was right, damn it! He didn't need to be dragged into this--- oh, God, is that his car?'
Sentinel hearing focused, targeted on a particular defective muffler attached to a certain battered Volvo, normally driven by one Blair Sandburg. One no doubt very angry Blair Sandburg.
Making a sudden decision, Jim scrabbled around in the drawer where he knew there were a couple of take-out menus. He'd order Chinese. Blair liked Chinese. 'And maybe the delivery man can help hide my body.'
Anger lending his legs strength, Blair as usual by-passed the elevator and charged up the three flights of stairs to the loft. 'I'm going to kill him. No, wait, first I'll make sure he's all right, *then* I'll kill him. How dare he keep this from me? I'm his Guide. Now he's zoning out every day and he never bothers to mention this? I'll absolutely kill him.
Then I'll order dinner.
Maybe the delivery man will help me hide the body.'
Sentinel and Guide met at the front door.
Angry deep blue eyes met defensive light blue eyes. Met and held, challenged. Jim broke the gaze first. Stepping back out of the doorway, he silently pointed to the hook on the wall, beneath which he'd laid some newspapers to protect the floor from dripping water. Nodding once, Blair pulled his jacket off, hung it in the designated place, then turned to drop his keys in the little basket. His eyes swept over his roommate's figure. "Are you all right?" he asked, his voice neutral.
Jim nodded. "Just bruised. I ordered dinner," he went on awkwardly. "Chinese. From the Ming Palace."
Blair nodded once. "Sounds good," he said shortly, walking to the kitchen.
'It's like we've reversed roles, or something,' Jim thought suddenly. 'Usually I'm the one who's mad and he's the one who's trying to smooth things over.' He watched warily as the younger man came from the kitchen clutching a beer in his hand. Awkward silence spun between them. Finally Jim couldn't stand it any longer. "Aren't you going to say anything?"
Blair just glared at him. "And where would you like me to start?"
"Chief, it really wasn't that bad--"
Blair opened his mouth, looking as if he was trying to say something but couldn't get the words out. Then he turned, picked up the beer bottle by the neck, and threw it with all his might at the wall.
Both men stared at the brown liquid dribbling down the pristine white wall; the fragments of glittering glass on the floor below. Finally Blair turned horrified eyes on his roommate. "Oh, man, I'm sorry," trepidation in his tone. Thou Shalt Not Throw Breakable Objects At The Walls surely had to be one of Ellison's House Rules. Blair made a move to gather up the glass but Jim stopped him.
"Leave it." He looked Blair in the eyes. "Did that help?"
"Actually, it did," Blair admitted.
"Then it's okay." Jim dropped down on the couch and gestured for Blair to do the same. The younger man did so slowly, curling his legs underneath him in a half-lotus.
"I'm pissed off," he admitted.
"Never would have guessed," Jim responded ironically. "Are we going to talk? Or do you need to throw something else first?"
"I'd like to throw *you* through that wall!" Blair exploded. "Why didn't you tell me about all the trouble you've been having with your senses? About the zone outs? Damn it Jim, I'm your Guide. That's supposed to mean something!"
"It does mean something!" Jim fired back. "But you're more than my Guide, you're my friend, and that means more to me than just protecting my back. It means making sure I put you first because I know you won't put yourself first."
Blair shook his head. "You sound like a Hallmark commercial. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Put myself first? What are you talking about? I'm your Guide. You're my primary concern."
"Well, I shouldn't be. *You* should be, your career. Your dissertation."
Blair shook his head again, like someone who'd just bumped into a wall. "Even if my dissertation was more important than your life, which--by the way--I don't agree that it is, you *are* my dissertation. No you, no Sentinel, no diss."
"What if you lose your funding?" Jim's voice was very quiet.
"My funding?" Blair stared at him.
Jim took a deep breath. "Blair, I know," he said, very gently. "You don't have to keep lying to me. I know all about it, about the threat of losing your fellowship if you don't devote more time to the University. But you should have told me, kid. I'm so sorry, I just never thought--"
Blair's face was rapidly undergoing a change of emotions, from puzzled and angry to puzzled and confused, clearing suddenly and then looking confused again. He held up one hand. "Whoa, wait a minute. You're worried about me losing my fellowship? That's why you didn't tell me you were having trouble?"
Jim nodded. "I knew you would drop everything to work with me. Blair, you don't have to. Your position at the University has to take precedence over your police work. I've been a selfish bastard all these months, not even thinking about how much you were leaving undone there, but that's over now, Chief. From now on--"
Blair held up a hand to stop him again. Jim obediently fell silent, looking at his friend with pleading eyes. Blair opened his mouth, then closed it, licked his lips, opened his mouth again.
"Where did you get the idea my fellowship was in any jeopardy?" His voice was completely confused. And equally sincere.
Jim stared at his partner. "You mean it's not?"
Blair just shook his head. Jim went on, "But Stacey said, she told me--"
"Dr. Murray told you they were going to take away my fellowship?"
Confused, Jim nodded. "She said there'd been a meeting, and you'd been warned several times... I thought you just weren't telling me because you didn't want me to..." He stopped talking and just looked at the younger man.
Blair hopped off the couch with a determined air. "There's one way to solve this." He picked up the phone and rapidly punched in a number. "You have my permission to listen to this conversation, in fact, I insist that you listen to this conversation."
"Chief," Jim started, but he broke off as the phone was answered on the other end. A man's voice. Blair said, "Hello, Dr. Willick. It's Blair. I hope I haven't called at a bad time."
"Blair? No, it's fine. I just got home. What can I do for you?"
Jim frowned. Doug Willick was Blair's advisor, the only person at the University who knew the details of Blair's Sentinel study. Jim had met the man once or twice. Tall, balding at age forty-two but with a full black beard. Blair had mentioned once that Willick had been a forest ranger for ten years before going back to school to earn his Ph.D. in Anthropology.
Blair spoke into the receiver, "Dr. Willick, I'm sorry to bother you with this. But I need to ask you a question. All I need is for you to give me a yes or no answer."
"Hmmm. Sounds intriguing. What's the question?"
Blair took a deep breath. "I need to know if there has been any discussion about taking my fellowship away."
The answer was instantaneous, and explosive. "What? Of course not! You're doing fine work. Especially now, with everything that's happened. I know how hard you've had to work, to cover for Jerome and Scott. Everybody on the faculty is aware that the bulk of the load has fallen on you. Not that that's any reflection against Ms. Miller; she's doing her best under the circumstances." He paused for breath. "Why would you even ask that?" His voice sharpened. "Has Dr. Murray said something to you?"
Blair's gaze met Jim's. The younger man's gaze was challenging as he spoke into the receiver, "Well, she doesn't seem to approve of me." He kept his voice light, rueful.
"She doesn't approve of anyone or anything, apparently." The older man's tone was acerbic. He hesitated as if he realized that he really shouldn't be saying things like this to a student, but the pent-up feelings were too much and he went on, "You know, she and I were in school together, at San Diego, studying under Dr. Keene what, oh, fifteen years ago. She's changed a lot since then. Maybe her husband dying had something to do with it." He sighed. "She actually said that you were devoting too much time to your dissertation, and not enough to your teaching." A short bark of laughter. "Dr. Stroup rather pointedly reminded her that you were a doctoral candidate, that your dissertation is supposed take priority. And if she doesn't stop harping on Debra Miller's pregnancy--" There was some noise in the background and he went on hastily, "Well, Blair, I know you can't ignore her, but there's no need for you to worry about your fellowship, I'm quite pleased with your work. You know, when your dissertation is published and Dr. Murray finds out what you're really studying, she'll probably become one of your biggest fans."
Just then Jim's cellular phone started ringing from his loft bedroom. Both men instinctively glanced up and Jim shrugged, then nodded at Blair and hurried up the stairs. Blair shifted his attention back to his own phone call. "Why do you think that?"
"Oh, she started out studying Burton's theories. I'm not sure, but I think her Master's thesis was on the Sentinel concept. I know she had a couple of articles published on the subject, before she changed her field of study." The noise occurred in the background again and he excused himself hastily, muttering something about the dogs getting in the trash. Blair hung up the phone slowly.
The woman walked down the darkened hallway, her wet running shoes making little squelching sounds on the polished linoleum. She stopped at the door of a certain artifact room, listening. It was so quiet that the hum of the central heating could be heard. Shrugging, she reached into her pocket, then changed her mind and tested the door knob. The door swung open willingly, revealing the lights on in the small room. Piles of papers were stacked on the desk, appearing haphazard but she was willing to bet there was order there. The computer was on, showing a screensaver of Scooby Doo cartoons. The woman frowned. Scooby Doo? didn't seem like Sandburg's style at all.
She looked around appraisingly. From all appearances, the occupant of the office had departed hastily but was planning on returning soon. The woman nodded her head, satisfied. She put the small plate she was carrying down on the corner of the desk. As she did so she caught sight of an envelope propped against the computer screen. Greeting card sized envelope, bright yellow, with "Blair" written on the front. She recognized the handwriting.
She picked it up, tore it open carelessly. A joke card, recycled paper. Inside, a message, "Thanks Blair! I'll pay you back, promise. Dinner's on Ty and me, soon. In the meantime, maybe this'll hold you over. Debra". There was a chocolate bar in the envelope.
The woman smiled. Someone was looking out for her. Shoving the candy bar and the torn envelope deep into her coat pocket, she moved the aluminum foil-covered plate she had brought closer to the computer and stood the card behind it.
With another cautious glance around, she silently left the office.
Blair squinted through his windshield at the curtains of rain.
He hadn't intended to go back to the University tonight. He had thought he would spend the evening trying to get to the bottom of what was causing Jim's zone outs. But that was before the combination of pain, adrenaline letdown and too many nights with not enough sleep had combined to literally knock Jim out on his feet. He was asleep practically as soon as he finished his broccoli beef. The only useful thing Blair had learned was that the zone outs had been going on for almost a month and that sometimes they were "different". In response to Blair's patient plea for more information, Jim had blushed and recounted an incident that had happened the week before. Jim had been at Stacey Murray's (Where else? Blair inserted parenthetically) on the couch in front of the fire. Jim's blush had deepened as he mentioned that Stacey had been reading. Out loud. To him. (He'd blushed even more when he'd sheepishly admitted the book had been Grimms Fairy Tales. Blair had managed to refrain from commenting "Kinky!")
And that was really all Jim knew. One minute the tailor was killing seven flies with one stroke; the fire was warm upon his skin and he was lying there with the scent of Stacey's perfume wrapping around him like a comforting embrace (Jim's words, not Blair's) and the next thing he knew, they were upstairs in her bed, hot and heavy in the middle of something. Jim had turned brick-red and refused to say any more.
Well, he'd said enough to worry his Guide. This didn't make sense. Apparently Jim had "functioned" fine during the "lost" time; he just had no memory of it. This was a completely different phenomenon than a "typical zone out" 'Face it Blair, nothing about any of this is typical of anything!'
Confused, in a quandary with no way to figure out anything while his Sentinel snored away upstairs, Blair finally decided to head back to the University. That pile of papers to grade was haunting his thoughts; plus, there was no way to get around the fact that he had left campus without posting the quiz grades, in direct defiance of Dr. Murray's mandate.
He drove carefully over the rain-soaked streets. Falling temperatures indicated they'd be iced over before morning. Blair would have borrowed Jim's truck but he knew it was still at the station. The truck with it's 4-wheel drive would have been much safer than Blair's car with its' nearly balding tires. 'I've got to come up with the money for at least a new set of retreads. Preferably before Jim takes a good look at my tires.' He thrust that thought resolutely away with all the others and concentrated on his driving, cursing whoever in the Department of Public Works had decided to start construction on Portage, Bellflower and University all at the same time, forcing Blair to take the QuadCity Freeway to get to school. 'It's a plot,' he decided. 'The city didn't need this piece of overpriced roadway but now that we've got it they're going to make sure we use it!' He sighed with relief as he safely exited onto Rainier Road. Past the dorm parking lots full of vehicles: this was a good night to stay in. Hargrove Hall's parking lot was empty. Good, with nobody to pop in to shoot the breeze he'd have those quizzes graded and posted and hopefully be back home before midnight. Jim wasn't the only one who hadn't been getting enough sleep lately.
Padding down the darkened hallways, he stopped with surprise when he saw his office door was ajar and the lights still on. He probably had left it that way, but it seemed strange the security guard hadn't closed up. Glancing at his watch, he mentally shrugged. Maybe the guy was behind on his rounds tonight.
As he sat down in his chair, he noticed the bright card and the wrapped plate somebody had left on the corner of the desk. Debra. He smiled at the card and hungrily peeled off the aluminum foil to reveal three triangular pastries, the crust light and flaky, topped with powdered sugar. He bit into one and was rewarded with dark fruit filling oozing from the crust. Delicious. And home made. That let out Debra, to whom Slice'n'Bake cookies were the epitome of culinary achievement, as well as her husband, an assistant basketball coach who'd probably never seen the inside of an oven. Debra's mother must be in town again. Funny she hadn't mentioned it. He gobbled the tart down in three bites but resolutely left the others untouched. It was going to be a long evening.
10:57 p.m. Blair wearily entered the last grade into the database. As usual he spared a thought for that student, wondering what kind of parents would name their baby daughter Maura Zamora. Apparently the rhyming of her name didn't hamper either her self-image or her study habits; Ms. Zamora had scored her typical "A" on the quiz.
Unfortunately, hers was the only "A". There was likewise a paucity of Bs and Cs, with some Ds and the most common grade, the grade scored by 72 per cent of the class, F. Seventy two per cent. Almost three-fourths of the class. No way did this fall within Dr. Murray's much touted "Acceptable Passing Ratio". She was going to insist he re-grade the thing on a curve. He knew it, he might as well go ahead and refigure it now, not even post the actual scores.
His hand resting lightly on the keyboard, he scanned up to the first entry and then stopped. No, dammit, he wasn't going to do it! Defiantly he hit the key that logged the grades in at the Department office. Murray wasn't going to like it, in all likelihood she'd throw a fit, but Blair was just too fed up to care. He'd made concessions for that class: their quiz had been over less material; they'd had an extra weekend to study and he had offered to conduct study sessions in his office. Maura Zamora and a few others had taken advantage of his help and they'd passed. The other sections of Intro had done well on their quizzes. This class just wasn't learning the material.
Blair printed out the grades and then studied them sadly. Depression swept over him. Blair took no joy from failing a student, much less failing three quarters of the class. A born teacher, he reveled in the light that sparked in a student's eyes when they grasped a new concept. Not that there were too many of *those* moments in Intro Section 4. There he was thrilled if he saw the gleam of eyeballs indicating most of the class was awake.
Blair glanced down at his desk, at all the work left to do; at Debra's notes for the Classical Anthro class he had to cover. He groaned. 'No way. I can't do it. Man I am so dead...' He decided to take the notes home. Maybe he'd feel better if he could stretch out on his bed. The combination of the Chinese food for dinner and having to face Dr. Murray in the morning with the news that the majority of his class had failed the quiz set his stomach burning.
Blair stood up, then grabbed the corner of his desk as a sudden violent wave of dizziness swept over him. The overhead lights seemed very bright suddenly and he closed his eyes as he sank back down in the chair. Cold sweat broke out on his brow and the small of his back.
"Oh, God, please, I can't be getting sick again. I don't have time!"
The sound of his own voice startled him. He put his head down on his desk, mentally giving himself a pep talk. 'You're just tired. Jim's always saying you're going to collapse.' The cold metal of the desk felt good on his face and he just rested quietly there.
*Dr. Murray was studying Sentinels?*
The thought hit him so strongly he was aware that it must have been buzzing around in the back of his brain for hours; since the phone conversation with Dr. Willick. There was something else, something... he frowned as he tried desperately to grasp the idea that was just out of reach. Something about an article...
Blair opened his eyes cautiously. The room stayed still this time and he raised his head slowly, then pulled open the big desk drawer. Most of his Sentinel research was at the loft but he had some of it here. He leafed through the neatly labeled folders. Nothing unexpected. But there was an envelope of stuff, research he'd been collecting for years that didn't quite fit in with what he was working on, but that was valuable all the same. Where was that envelope? He could almost swear it was in the office somewhere... maybe the filing cabinet?
Groaning, he rose from the chair, his eyes falling on the plate. One tart was left, but his stomach was so uneasy he couldn't even bear to look at it. He pushed plate and all into the trash can. Holding onto the desk, he moved around the room to the filing cabinet. Just as he opened the drawer, his queasy stomach rebelled and he tasted bile in his mouth. Knowing he was going to be ill, but refusing to let it happen in the small cramped office, he staggered, panicked, to the door and lurched across the hall to the Men's Room.
After several minutes of violent retching when it seemed like the only thing left to come up was his stomach lining, Blair flushed the toilet and stumbled to the sink. Turning on the cold water tap full blast, he scooped water into his hands and let it cascade down through his hair, further dampening the shirt already soaked with his sweat. He washed his face, then rinsed his mouth out several times, trying in vain to erase the bitter taste in his mouth. Finally, shakily, he turned off the water and dried off as much as he could with paper towels.
He managed to stagger back to his office. The lights still seemed too bright and he switched them off, turning on instead the small desk lamp. The dimmer light seemed to ease his pounding head slightly. His stomach still burned like acid, but the nausea had abated.
Blair eyed the phone uncertainly. Maybe he should call Jim, ask his roommate to come get him. He sure didn't feel up to driving himself. But then he remembered that Jim's truck was still at the station. All he'd accomplish with a phone call would be to wake the Sentinel and cause him to worry.
He'd have to get himself home. It was too late for a bus, and even if he could get a taxi in this weather, the trip would cost well over ten dollars. Ten dollars was the cost of a dinner, or two lunches. Money that Blair Sandburg couldn't afford to squander just because he'd eaten some bad moo shoo pork. God, I hope Jim isn't sick too...
Standing on unwilling legs, Blair shoved stuff heedlessly into his backpack, then staggered out of his office and headed for the parking lot.
Once outside, the blast of frigid air and the sting of sleet against his cheeks did much to clear his head. Great. The roads would be a mess. The weatherman finally got it right! His hands clumsy with the cold, Blair finally managed to unlock the Volvo's door. He shoved his backpack in then collapsed into the driver's seat, shutting the door against the elements. For several minutes he sat still, head against the wheel, trying to summon strength for the drive home.
Cold finally convinced him to start the engine, to wait with shaking limbs and chattering teeth while the heater warmed. Finally, wipers battling valiantly against the clinging ice, the Volvo started the trip home.
Blair clutched the steering wheel with fingers tight from tension. Eleven thirty at night--this kind of weather--and there was still traffic on the Quad City Freeway. Worse, much of the traffic was big trucks: semis, eighteen wheelers. Just because Blair could drive one of the monstrosities didn't mean he relished having to share the highway with them. Especially when the road was this icy. Blair blinked, trying to banish his headache to some distant corner of his mind, but said headache was stubbornly refusing to be banished. Headlights zoomed up behind him, reflecting from the mirror. The bright acid light assaulted tender optic nerves, causing the eyelids to slam down in defense. The steering wheel moved in his hands and he felt the car swerve.
He forced his eyes open. Weird figures, electric blue shot through with glittering silver, danced in his vision, mingling with the pelting sleet. Lights came up behind him again and he tensed, hunching in his seat to protect his pounding head.
The deep blast of the airhorn tore through him like a physical thing. He felt his hands fly from the wheel, felt the car skid, the worn tires fighting for purchase and finding none.
The world slowed, time passed infinitesimally. Thrown against the door by the centrifugal force as the Volvo spun around once, then a second time. The guardrail coming closer and closer--
Jim Ellison stood perfectly still, all his attention fixed upon the green curtain that hid the cubicle where his best friend lay. He tried to focus on what was being said, but his ears were fixed on the sound of Blair's heartbeat, the painful rasp of his shallow breathing.
He was vaguely aware of a hand under his elbow. The hand tried to pull him away; he resisted. He needed to be right here--
Someone grabbed him under the chin, forced his head to turn. He was staring into a pair of brown eyes strangely close to his own. Brown eyes. Dark skin. Lips moving. He forced himself to turn down the sound of Blair's breathing so he could hear what the familiar voice was saying.
"Come on, Jim. Drink some coffee." Simon's voice. Jim looked down blankly as his sense of smell kicked in. Coffee. Hot. Strong. He took a sip almost automatically. He blinked, looked around in the harsh light. Linoleum floors, antiseptic smells. A row of yellow and orange chairs around the perimeter of the room. A color TV mounted in one corner, turned to CNN. Jim managed to say, "I'm okay, Simon."
"You sure? I thought you were in another zone out."
Jim shook his head. "No, it's different. I'm just... really focused on Sandburg."
"Can you tell how he is?"
"He's alive," Jim answered shortly. "He isn't breathing very well." He restlessly paced the room.
"Jim," Simon started, "Where was Sandburg tonight? The trucker that saw the accident, he said Sandburg was driving erratically. Had he been out, I don't know, at a party or something?
"No. I mean, I don't think so. He was right there in the loft when I went to bed; he didn't say anything about going out. He probably went to his office for awhile. He's practically been living there lately." He clenched his hand on his cup, ignoring the hot liquid that spilled over onto his wrist. "Damn it, why did he go back there tonight? He was exhausted--"
Jim spun around to see a youngish man in a long white coat, holding a clipboard and looking around with a slightly puzzled air. Jim took a step forward. "I'm Ellison. How is my partner?"
The man stuck out his hand. "I'm Doctor Hanson. Please, let's sit down."
Jim didn't want to sit down. He wanted this guy to tell him Blair was going to be fine. Simon took his arm and forced him to a chair.
Hanson stretched his legs out with a deep sigh. "Long night," he remarked. "You'd think people would stay at home in weather like this."
"Please, Doctor. Is Sandburg going to be okay?"
The doctor shuffled through the papers on his clipboard. "Well, the good news is that Mr. Sandburg is actually pretty stable at this point."
"What the hell does that mean?" Jim exploded. "Is he going to be all right, or--"
"Jim!" Simon snapped.
The doctor looked over the rims of his glasses. "It means that Mr. Sandburg is conscious, he's reasonably alert and there doesn't seem to be any internal bleeding. On the negative side, although he was wearing a seat belt, he wasn't wearing a shoulder strap and his sternum apparently contacted with the steering column. He has three broken ribs and quite a bit of damage to his right lung. That's causing some difficulty breathing." He smiled shortly. "He has a lot of deep bruising, a mild concussion and in all probability what is known as 'whiplash'".
Jim had been following the words very carefully. Now he frowned. "There's something more. Something you're not saying."
The doctor's smile vanished. "Well, his vitals aren't as good as I would like, and there were some anomalies in his initial bloodwork. We're going to be doing some more testing, and he'll be in ICU for at least the next 48 hours." He stood up, indicating the briefing was over. Something on the clipboard caught his eye and he added, "Oh, yes--the officers at the scene of the accident requested an toxicology study. There hasn't been time for the lab to get all the bloodwork done, of course, but the preliminary was negative for alcohol." He frowned again. "Is he a drug user?"
"No, he is not." Jim's voice was ice-cold.
"Well, that's good. I didn't see any signs of it but sometimes we can't be sure." He made a note on his clipboard, then looked up again. "Detective Ellison, if you don't mind me asking, what is your first name?"
"Then you're the one that he's asking for. If you would follow me?"
Jim nodded, then glanced at Simon. "Simon, why don't you go home. It's almost five a.m., you need to get some sleep."
"So do you," Simon pointed out. "Jim, your truck is still at the station. If I leave now you'll be stranded here."
"It's okay. I'm going to stay here anyway." He paused. "That is, if I can have the day off?"
Simon waved his hand. "Think I'd let you out on the streets today anyway? Look, Daryl's at my place, I'll run home and check on him, then I'll come back, take you out for breakfast.
Hanson cleared his throat; Jim glanced at him, then back at Simon, "Okay, sure; whatever." He added, "Thanks, sir," as he followed the doctor out of the waiting area.
"Now, he's been heavily sedated against the pain," Hanson warned as they reached the curtained-off cubicle. "We're having to monitor him very closely to ensure the pain medication doesn't depress his breathing any further. Try to keep him as quiet and as still as possible." He pulled the curtain open. "The orderlies will be coming to take him up to ICU shortly."
Jim glanced around the room quickly. Machinery, instruments. A pile of blood-covered clothes on the floor. He recognized the plaid shirt Blair had been wearing earlier that evening. A young woman in dark green scrubs, brown hair tied back in a messy ponytail, eyes drawn with fatigue, was checking an IV. She gave the patient in the bed a reassuring pat on the shoulder before gathering up the clothes and shoving them through a panel on the wall. She gave Jim a tired smile. "He's dozing." She pointed at a call button on the wall. "Just push that if you need anything. I'll be out at the station, charting." She slipped out, drawing the curtain closed behind her.
Jim walked over to the bed, looked down at still form of his partner, appraising his condition. Bruises starting to erupt over the pale skin. Bandage on one temple, dried blood crusting the hair behind it. Oxygen tube in his nose. Numerous IV tubes in his left hand and arm. Patches disappearing under the hospital gown with wires leading to one of the machines behind the bed. Something that looked like a plastic clothespin clipped to the index finger on his left hand, with a cord connecting to a small machine. Jim glanced at the screen. Green LCD display showing 97/68. 101. 27. 88%. He looked back at his partner. Blair's eyes were closed. Jim closed his own and tried to tune out the noises around him, the beeps and chirps of the machinery, the hiss from the oxygen concentrator, the controlled chaos on the other side of the curtain. He focused on Blair.
It took a while, but gradually everything else receded and his ears were full of Blair's shallow breathing, the rapid beat of his heart.
Reaction swept over him, so suddenly and strongly that he felt as if his legs would give way under it. He gripped the railing of the bed. There was a rolling stool some feet away; Jim hooked a foot around and dragged it close. He sat down and carefully folded both hands around Blair's limp right one, taking care not to disturb any of the wires or cords.
A faint whisper. Jim gripped his friend's hand a little more tightly. "Yeah, Chief, I'm right here."
Eyelids flickered, then slowly opened, revealing blue eyes dulled with pain and medication. Slight movement of the head until he could see Jim. Faintest flicker of the lips in a smile. "Wondered... where you were."
"I've been close by," Jim said reassuringly. "Just out there in the waiting area." He paused because he had to work some moisture into his suddenly dry mouth. "You gave me a scare, Chief. How do you feel?"
Faint movement of the head side to side. "Don't... ask." Blair's eyes closed again but Jim could tell he wasn't sleeping. "The doctor told... me, he said... car accident?" The slightest questioning inflection on the last word. Jim nodded although Blair could not see him with his eyes closed.
"Out on the QuadCity Expressway. Do you remember anything?"
A long pause, then that faint negative movement of the head again. "Was... did anybody else get... hurt?"
This was so faint that even with Sentinel hearing Jim could barely make out the words. He frowned, glanced up at the monitors, zeroing in on the one that had dropped from 88% to 85%. The rest of the readings were likewise dropping. Jim said, very gently, "No, Blair, no one else was hurt." He squeezed the hand he held. "Look Chief, you need to rest and be quiet. You keep talking and they'll kick me out of here. Just go back to sleep."
A slight nod of the head. Blair circled his fingers around Jim's thumb. The eyelids slowly rose again. "You'll stay?"
With his free hand Jim gently brushed Blair's damp hair back from his face. "I'm staying right here, Chief. Everything is okay now. You can stop fighting. Just go to sleep."
That faint smile. Lips moved, forming a silent "thanks". Then Blair slid back into sleep.
It was nearly an hour before an orderly came to take Blair upstairs. The same nurse followed him through the curtain. Her face was slightly less tense now and as she passed Jim he could smell the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke. Blair was sleeping and he didn't stir as the two of them efficiently disconnected monitors, wound IV tubing neatly around the bedrails, switched the oxygen to a portable tank. Then the nurse pulled open the curtains and the orderly pushed the bed out into the hallway. Jim and the nurse followed him to the elevators; not the ones that the public used but down another hall to four deep, wide elevators, each one with a sign on the door stating "These elevators to be used for the transportation of patients and supplies only. Visitors please use bank of elevators in the East hall". Skillfully the attendant maneuvered the bed into the lift, waited for Jim and the nurse to board, and then pushed the button marked "4". A few seconds later, the doors opened again on a wide hallway painted pale blue. A sign opposite the elevator indicated that "MICU" and "CICU" were to the right, "PICU" and "NICU" were to the left. The little procession turned to the right, going past three large waiting areas. Two of them were darkened and the Sentinel could hear rhythmic breathing of sleeping persons. He glanced at his watch. 5:54 a.m.
The hallway forked and widened out. The orderly steered Blair's bed to the left, to large double doors marked "Medical Intensive Care Unit. Restricted Visitation." Past the double doors was a huge circular area with a dozen rooms around the perimeter. The wall dividing the rooms from the central area was all heavy-duty glass, and there were curtains instead of doors going into the rooms. A stout middle aged nurse greeted them and directed them to an empty cubicle. She stopped Jim when he made to follow, politely but firmly directing him to the waiting area and promising to let him know when Blair was settled in.
The morning passed in a blur. Simon came by with coffee and bagels, then left to go to the station. Jim spent as much time with Blair as the strict ICU nurses would allow, then spent the rest of the time restlessly pacing in the waiting room, or gazing unseeingly at the "Home and Garden" channel on the television set.
Blair was still asleep when Jim went in at noon. He was tossing restlessly though, moaning, and his breathing was harsh and labored. Jim called in the nurse, who listened to the young man's lungs and looked concerned. She hurried away to the telephone. Several minutes later, Dr. Hanson burst onto the unit. Lainey, the tiny blonde nurse who barely came up to Jim's elbow, hustled him out of the room. Jim refused to go back to the waiting room and instead walked over to the window, staring unseeingly out over the city.
A familiar scent came to his nostrils and he turned quickly to see Stacey Murray hurrying down the corridor, an anxious expression on her face. She came directly into his arms. "Captain Banks called the University about Blair being here. Jim, I'm so sorry. Can I do anything?"
Jim realized vaguely that he hadn't even thought to call the University. 'Thanks, Simon.' He buried his face in Stacey's soft hair, letting her fill his senses, holding her tightly. She didn't protest, just rubbed circles on his tense back.
"How bad is it?" she asked softly.
With his face hidden in her hair, Jim could answer honestly. "It's pretty bad, I think. He's having trouble breathing, and he's in so much pain..." he tightened his grip on her. "God, I feel so helpless!"
Stacey pulled back, reaching up to frame his face with her hands. "Jim, this isn't your fault. You know that, don't you?"
"Yeah. I guess. I mean, I didn't even know he'd left the loft. But, I just feel, like I could be able to do something..."
"Look, you need to get out of here for a few minutes. Come on. Let's go take a walk, go down to the coffee shop or something. Or there's that new restaurant right across the street."
"No," Jim answered flatly, "I can't leave. What if... he needs me?"
Stacey looked deep into his eyes. "Jim, he's surrounded by the best doctors and nurses, there's nothing you can do for him."
"No," Jim repeated.
Stacey opened her mouth as if to argue, then closed it and shook her head. "Okay, but let's at least get out of this hallway. Can we go sit down in the waiting room?"
Jim focused his senses, letting his hearing take control, identifying sounds, blocking them out, until he could target Blair's distinctive heartbeat, his breathing. He widened his focus to hear Hanson snapping, "Increase the oh-two to four liters. Get the lab up here, I want another complete blood profile. Has the pulmonologist on call been in? How about the neurologist?--"
"Jim? Jim? Come back."
Jim blinked and suddenly his vision came back on-line. He was still in the hallway outside MICU. Stacey had her hand on his arm and was speaking to him in the same calm, soothing voice Blair used when he was trying to get Jim to focus his senses. He looked at her startled. Just for a second, he thought he saw something in her eyes... but then it was gone."
"Jim? The waiting room?" Her voice was insistent. Finally, Jim nodded.
"He means a lot to you, doesn't he?" Stacey asked.
Jim looked at her, seated cross-legged next to him on that shapeless orange sofa. Just for a second, she again reminded him of Blair, of all the times the younger man sat in the same position when they were talking. He nodded. "He's my best friend. Stacey, you don't know what he's done for me. I can't lose him. I just don't think I could keep going."
Stacey looked down at her hands in her lap. When she looked at him again her eyes were oddly intent. "You could, Jim. You'd have to keep going. It would be hard, but you'd find someone else who could--not replace him--but do the same things he can do." She stared deep into Jim's eyes.
"What are you saying?" Jim demanded.
"Listen. Just listen." Stacey picked up Jim's right hand and laid it over her breast. "Can you feel my heartbeat, Jim? Can you hear it? Just let it fill your ears."
Against his will, Jim focused on the gentle throb under his fingers, then blocked the feeling and opened his hearing again. Stacey's soft voice went on, "Listen to it, Jim. Hear it. Mark it, just like you mark Blair's."
Jim felt himself starting to slide away. Her heartbeat filled his ears, the scent of her perfume his nose. The room around him, the other people, the ugly furniture, orange and yellow and green, the drone of the television, all disappeared. He found himself looking into her eyes. Blue. Deep blue. Blue of the ocean. Soft throbbing of her heart---
Jim jerked away, almost falling off the soft sofa. Without a second thought, he shakily pulled himself to his feet and tore back down the hall to MICU. He bumped into Lainey coming through the double doors. "Detective Ellison? I was just coming to get you. Mr. Sandburg is awake."
Jim pushed past her, through the doors and into Blair's cubicle. His Guide was there, pale and weak, his eyes darting around the room, a panicked expression on his face. He saw Jim and immediately relaxed, his breathing becoming slower and easier. "Hi, Big Guy," he said faintly.
Relief sweeping though every limb, Jim walked close to the bed. "Hi, Chief."
The growling of his stomach woke Jim from a restless doze. He blinked, focusing on the clock on the wall, then at his watch. Almost nine p.m. He'd lost track of time sitting at Blair's bedside. The ICU nursing staff had given up trying to make him leave when somebody realized Blair rested easier with Jim there. What they thought about that no one said. Jim didn't care. It was enough that they just did their jobs around him.
Now the evening nurse, a young woman named Jenni, came into Blair's cubicle. She had on a pin that said, "I can only please one person at a time, and today ain't your time. PS, Tomorrow doesn't look too good either." Jim had been surprised by the pin when she'd come on duty at three, but in the last six hours he'd come to realize it was a joke. Jenni did her best to please everybody, but especially her patients, and if that meant ignoring the rules and letting a certain big police detective stay in the room around the clock, no problem to her.
Now she gave Jim a warm smile as she stepped around him to administer medication into the IV. Blair sleepily opened his eyes and she smiled at him. "Time for your nine o'clock cocktail, Blair. A little something to help your breathing, and a big whopping dose of painkiller. How does that sound?"
Blair gave her a faint smile and a tiny nod. "Do I have a choice?" He glanced over at Jim. "Have you left...at all?"
"Where would I go? Do you know they have every TV set in this place locked into the Home and Garden Channel? This afternoon they had a show on about how to turn your living room into an African savanna."
Blair's tired eyes brightened a bit. "Hey--"
"Don't go there, Chief," Jim warned in a mock-serious manner. "It's enough that we've got those South American masks hanging over the CD player; I draw the line at having gazelle antlers for a coat hook."
"I don't think... you call them antlers."
"Whatever." Jim patted his hand. "How you feeling?"
"Gee, and I was about to ask that," Jenni quipped. She looked across the bed at Jim. "Can I ask you to step out for just ten minutes? I have to do his status report, and the lab's coming up to take some more blood. It's going to be pretty crowded in here."
Jim glanced at his partner. "That okay with you?"
"More blood?" Blair griped. "I thought I needed all of it." He managed a grin and a slight flip of the hand toward his roommate. "Go on. Matter of fact, why don't you go home--"
"Nope. End of discussion," Jim said firmly. "But I will go down and grab a sandwich, if that's okay." He stood up and stepped toward the curtain, saying, "I'll be right back, Chief."
"I'm sure I'll be here."
As Jim started away, he heard Jenni ask, curiosity in her tone, "Why does he call you Chief?"
Jim whirled around at the sound of the soft voice. Stacey Murray came out of the waiting room and walked over to join him at the elevator. "Stacey! I-- how long have you been here?"
"A couple of hours. I wanted to be here in case... well, in case you needed me."
"That's nice of you." Jim felt very uncomfortable. He remembered what had passed between them that morning and he didn't know what to say. The elevator opened and he glanced into it, then back at her. "I'm going down for a sandwich. Do you want to come?"
Stacey nodded wordlessly, stepping past him to board the car. Neither of them spoke as the elevator deposited them two floors down, where a sign announced the cafeteria was open 24 hours. Suddenly aware how long it had been since he had had something to eat, Jim surveyed the meager selection, finally grabbing a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches, a bowl of fruit, and a rather wilted salad. Stacey took a muffin and tea.
"When are you going to go home for some sleep?" she asked when they had settled at a table near the door.
"I'll catch a nap tonight, in the waiting room. He's doing better, but I don't feel I should leave him yet."
"What about your job?" Stacey's voice was cool. "Do the citizens of Cascade have to suffer because Blair Sandburg was a reckless driver?"
"What does that mean?" If Stacey's tone was cool, Jim's was ice cold.
Stacey held his gaze for a minute; he had that feeling again that she was trying to tell him something more with her eyes, then she looked away. "Nothing," she said flatly. A long silence; Stacey aimlessly dunked her teabag in the cup. "You know, Jim..." she started.
"Don't tell me to go home again, Stacey. I'm not leaving him."
"And what does it help to have you sitting here?"
"Stacey, he almost died! And he's still not out of the woods."
"And if he dies?" Stacey's voice was shaking. "If he dies, he'll die whether or not you're here. When do you take care of yourself, Jim? When do you put his needs before his?"
"He puts my needs before his own every single day. Stacey, I know you're just trying to help, but you don't understand--"
"What? What don't I understand?" Stacey snapped. "Jim, Blair Sandburg is not irreplaceable. If the worst happens here, you can make it without him. You'll have to."
Jim looked away. "There's... stuff about me you don't know, Stacey. You don't know what... how Blair's helped me."
There was a long silence. Stacey continued to dunk her tea bag in the hot water, lifted it out, dunked again. There was something hypnotic about it; Jim tore his eyes away as he felt himself start to zone. Finally Stacey took a deep breath. She reached over and captured one of Jim's hands. "So what am I to you?"
"You heard me. Jim, I can be everything that Blair is to you. I can be more. You know that!"
"Stacey, I think you've got the wrong idea--"
"No, Jim, I don't have the wrong idea. You do. You seem to think Blair Sandburg is the only person around who understands you. But I understand you, and I can be... we can be very special to each other--"
"Stacey, I think we'd just better drop this." Jim broke in, ice coating his words. " Look, you've been here all evening, and I appreciate that. And...the last couple of weeks with you have been very special. But I get the feeling you're trying to make me chose between you and Blair. Don't do it, Stacey. Don't. Not ever." He took a deep breath. "Because I won't chose you."
Stacey's eyes widened, a shocked expression appearing on her face. "You're joking."
"I think maybe we'd better consider this whole conversation a joke. Or better yet, let's forget we ever had it. I'm exhausted; you must be tired too." Jim stood up. "I'll walk you to your car."
Stacey tipped her head back to stare at him. Her eyes darkened from blue to gray. After a few seconds, her heavy lids came down, shielding those expressive eyes. She shook her head. "No. I don't need you to bodyguard me." She stood up in turn, grabbing her purse. "I am just trying to help you. Why can't you realize that?" Turning on her heel, she practically ran from the cafeteria.
Three days later
A gentle knock on the door. Blair eagerly turned from the television set (today, Home and Garden was showing how to "take plain ordinary watering cans and turn them into eye catching planters!") "Come in," he called, wincing at a brief stab of pain. The hospital had finally released him from ICU that morning and transferred him to a regular private room. No sooner had that happened than the physical therapist showed up to take him for his first of three daily prescribed "walks" around the floor. Now he was exhausted and in a lot of pain and he welcomed a distraction.
The door opened and a tall man with a full dark beard poked his head in. "Blair? Are you up for a visitor?"
"Dr. Willick! Sure. Come in," Blair exclaimed. He was really pleased to see his advisor. Jim had mentioned that Willick had called several times to check on him.
"I drove Debra Miller over for her ultrasound," the tall man commented, dropping into the chair beside the bed. "Her husband is out of town. So I thought I'd visit with you for a bit while she was having the test. How are you feeling?"
Blair made a face. "Kind of like I've been put back together backwards. But I'm a lot better than I was. How are things at school? How's Deb?"
"Well, we're managing," Willick grinned. His smile vanished as he went on, "Debra, well she's not doing very well. That's why I offered to drive her this morning. I wouldn't be at all surprised if her doctor doesn't confine her to bed today." He caught sight of the stricken look on Blair's face and shook a finger at him. "And don't you start feeling guilty about being in here. We're all just extremely grateful you're recovering."
"Everybody?" Blair asked, with a little smile. "Even Dr. Murray?"
Willick laughed. "Especially Stacey Murray! She's having to teach all your classes. And she's actually been a lot more understanding with Debra the last few days." He sobered. "I think she feels very badly about your accident. Maybe she wasn't aware she was coming across like a," he paused, "well, like a bitch, to be blunt."
Blair managed a grin. "Maybe. She sent me those flowers." He pointed at the lavish bouquet sitting on the window ledge. "They were already in the room when they moved me in this morning." Blair had been surprised to see the flowers; shocked when he'd read the card and found out who they were from. Jim had been thrilled, though. The big detective's sunken eyes had brightened and he'd actually sniffed the card, telling Blair traces of her perfume had clung to the paper. Blair of course couldn't smell it, but he was glad to see Jim happy. The last three days, with Blair in ICU and Jim flatly refusing to leave, had been hard. Jim had finally agreed that morning to go home for a shower and a nap, and then go by the station for a few hours before returning to the hospital.
Blair blinked his eyes, startled from his thoughts. It took him a few seconds to realize that Dr. Willick had asked him a question. "Oh--I'm sorry. My mind wandered. What did you say?"
"That's understandable. You've had a rough time. When I spoke to your roommate he said you don't recall the accident?"
Blair shook his head, just very slightly because he'd learned to his chagrin that his normal enthusiastic movements either intensified the constant headache or set his damaged chest and ribs throbbing. He shoved at the oxygen tube impatiently. At least they'd muted the monitors--all that beeping and whistling had been irritating him ever since he'd become aware enough to notice it. He could only imagine how distracting Jim found it. "No, I don't. The last thing I remember was walking into my office. Then, nothing else until I woke up in ICU." He closed his eyes and slid down a little in the bed. It was good to have a visitor but he just had no energy and he could feel himself starting to drift off. Dr. Willick seemed to sense it too.
"Well, I'll get out of here and let you rest. I have no idea how long an ultrasound takes but I'd better go check on Debra. Oh! I almost forgot." Willick produced a green file folder and waited until Blair opened his eyes and focused on it. "You remember us talking about Dr. Murray's once doing Sentinel research?"
Blair frowned. "I remember," he responded slowly. There was something else teasing at the edge of his mind but he couldn't grasp it.
Dr. Willick went on, "Well, it just so happened that I was cleaning out one of my filing cabinets at home and I found this. It's a preliminary version of one of the articles she published. If I remember correctly she and Dr. Keene were differing about the approach of the article and she ended up changing it significantly. I have no idea why I kept it; she may have left before I could give it back to her, her husband finished medical school and joined, hmm, the army? I can't really remember--no I think it had something to do with UNICEF. Anyway, they left rather suddenly and she ended up taking a semester off. I thought you might find it interesting." Willick placed the folder on the bedside table.
Jim hurried down the hallway. He had been gone longer than he'd planned. At the last minute, driving from the station to the hospital he had detoured by Rainier University, hoping to catch Stacey and personally thank her for Blair's flowers. But she had been in a class. Anxious to get back to Blair, Jim had settled for scribbling a note.
He wished he'd been able to see her. They hadn't spoken since that night in the hospital cafeteria. Jim regretted the things he'd said. It had been late; they'd both been tired; surely he had just misinterpreted what she was saying. She only meant to help. The flowers were nice--a peacemaking gesture on her part. He wondered if she'd grown them herself in her greenhouse. The faint scent of her perfume had clung to the card...
Jim swung around at the sound of Dr. Hanson's voice. He had failed to notice the blond man approaching. "Doctor? Is there a problem? How's Blair doing?"
Hanson hesitated. "Detective, could you come to my office for a moment?
There was something odd about his voice; Jim alerted to it instantly. "Is something wrong? Has Sandburg had a relapse?" he demanded, his voice strained.
"No. Oh, nothing like that at all. It's just, something I'd like to speak with you about."
Jim hesitated, then nodded and followed the doctor.
Blair gave up trying to nap. He was tired, but for some reason the normal sounds of the hospital suddenly seemed loud and annoying. Every nurse on the floor had to stand outside his door and yell. Then a young woman he'd never seen before brought in his lunch tray. Her tag identified her as a nursing student named Judi. She was pretty, with warm brown eyes and shoulder length black hair and Blair bestirred himself to flirt with her for a few minutes before she left to deliver another tray.
Blair looked at his own tray and sighed. He was starting to get a little bit of an appetite, but a glance at what the hospital was passing off as lunch was not encouraging. The largest compartment on the tray was filled with some shapeless brown stuff--so chopped and disguised with lumpy mashed potatoes and tepid gravy that no name could be put to it. The vegetables were overcooked carrots and boiled Brussels sprouts. Dessert was butterscotch pudding. Blair sighed; drank the fluid they called coffee and ate his roll. He'd discovered that one thing the hospital kitchen could do was bake delicious hot breads.
Lunch done, he pushed the tray away and reached for the bright green folder Dr. Willick had left. Fumbling in the nightstand for his glasses, he slid them on and glanced casually over Dr. Murray's article.
Within mere minutes he was absorbed and fascinated.
He already knew Dr. Murray was a gifted writer. He'd read several of her articles and most of her latest book before he'd even met her. Her writing style was infinitely reader-friendly; she obviously enjoyed her topic and made sure the reader enjoyed it also. It was no wonder the woman despaired of Debra Miller; someone who could explain the complicated dream ritual of the pre-Colombian Tetral tribe in a three page chapter would have no patience for one who took nine paragraphs to explain lab setting versus field study.
This article dated from the early 80s. Blair frowned; he knew Dr. Murray had started college at seventeen and he'd read or heard somewhere she'd received her BA after three years, in 1980. This article appeared to be post-Master's thesis, building on several points she had apparently touched upon in her thesis itself.
Blair's heart started pounding uncomfortably fast.
The article was "Some Extrapolations Regarding the Projected Role of a Sentinel in Modern Society." Theory. But the article itself didn't read like theory; it read like fact.
But not the role of the Sentinel in Modern Society.
The role of the Guide as influencing the Sentinel.
The papers dropped from Blair's suddenly nerveless fingers with a few fluttering to the floor. Oh my God. Everything seemed so suddenly crystal clear.
Stacey Murray was a Guide.
And that meant, her husband must have been a Sentinel.
Her late husband. Late as in dead, gone, not around anymore.
Blair struggled to breath, to make sense of this. Stacey Murray. A Guide without a Sentinel. A Guide who had spent what--fifteen, twenty years *with* a Sentinel. What were the chances that someone with that kind of background would not have recognized another Sentinel when she met one?
Jim stared across the desk at the doctor. "Are you saying Blair was poisoned?"
Hanson leaned back in his swivel chair. "I'm saying that the lab finally came up with a match for the unidentified substance we found in Mr. Sandburg's blood the night of the accident. It took a while, because a so called 'drug screen' checks for more common substances such as alcohol, cannabis, cocaine--"
"I told you Blair doesn't take drugs!"
"And I believed you. But given how the accident occurred, plus the symptoms he had the first few days after the accident, especially the erratic pulse, we had to check. You understand that."
Jim nodded. "So you found--what, again?"
"Actaea is the Latin name. Baneberry."
Jim shook his head. "I've never heard of it."
"It's more common in the eastern U.S., but there is a variety that is found in heavily wooded areas around here. Has Blair been camping lately? Field trip in the forest, that kind of thing? Maybe he picked some--the berries are quite attractive, the lab said. They look edible, but they're quite lethal."
Jim shook his head. "No, that doesn't make sense. Blair is into natural stuff, homeopathic remedies and all that, but he wouldn't eat anything unless he knew it was safe. And he hasn't been out of the city in almost a month. How long would it take after he ate these things for some symptoms to appear?"
Hanson opened a file, rummaged through the papers within. "The lab pulled information off the database and sent it up...hmm, looks like the time is widely variable, symptoms usually appear 48 hours after ingestion but can appear anywhere from a half-hour to several days afterwards."
"So we can't tell for sure when he got hold of them or how. Did he have to eat them? Could someone have injected them into him, maybe?"
"You mean deliberately?" Hanson frowned, then studied the papers again. "I don't think so; I mean, I don't know if it would have been toxic that way or not. I'll have to call the lab again." He looked up to meet Jim's eyes. "You really think someone deliberately poisoned him?"
"I don't know what I think." Jim paced restlessly. "But he doesn't remember the accident... could this baneberry stuff have caused him to drive erratically that night?"
"Oh, yes. If he was suffering the effects that night, I could well believe he'd be unable to drive."
"Did he eat enough to kill him?" Jim asked suddenly.
"Well, that's debatable. The amount of the toxin it takes to kill varies from person to person, in any poison really. A lot of factors come into play. But I would say not... however, baneberry can effect some people as an emetic." At Jim's frown, Hanson elaborated, "It makes some people vomit. Violently. Depending on what else he'd had to eat, he could have actually rid himself of the majority of the berries before the toxin could be absorbed into the bloodstream."
"But the only person who would know that--"
"Would be Mr. Sandburg." Hanson rose from his desk. "Shall we go speak with him?"
"Just the tarts that Debra left me."
Jim stared down at his roommate in the hospital bed. He'd just asked Blair if he remembered eating or drinking anything before leaving his office the night of the accident. "What tarts, Chief?"
Blare frowned, obviously thinking hard. "When I got to the office that night, there was a plate of some kind of berry tarts on my desk. From Debra, thanking me for taking over her classes."
"Did you eat them?" Jim barked in his best "interrogating the suspect" voice.
"Yeah. I mean, I guess. I don't remember much after that." Blair's eyebrows furrowed together, his forehead knitted with the effort. After a minute he looked up at Jim and shook his head. "I don't know. I mean, I guess I did because there wouldn't have been any reason not to, but I don't remember. Why is it so important now?"
Jim and Hanson exchanged looks. Blair's eyes narrowed as he suspected something was going on. "Jim?" His tone allowed for no shilly-shallying. "Tell me."
Jim shrugged, reluctantly saying, "Well, Chief, it looks like you were poisoned."
"Poisoned?" Blair repeated blankly. "Are you nuts?"
Jim nodded to the doctor, who quickly briefed Blair on the results of his blood work, finishing, "So you see, Blair, you were poisoned somehow; we just don't know if it was an accident or if someone did it deliberately. I don't supposed you went berrying in the woods recently?" It was meant as a joke but it fell rather flat. Blair rolled his eyes.
"The last time I wandered anywhere near a woods I ended up with a bullet wound in my leg and a concussion," he replied dryly. He shook his head again at the sight of the doctor's face, "Long story, man. But, no I haven't eaten any wild berries lately...I don't know what was in the tarts, some kind of berry, I think. But Debra wouldn't poison me!"
"It could have been an accident," Jim pointed out. Maybe she or her husband picked the berries--"
"Jim, give me a break! The woman is pregnant. Walking down the hall leaves her breathless for fifteen minutes. And her husband grew up in Chicago. He thinks roughing it is going for a picnic in the park." At Jim's dubious look he tossed up his hands and leaned back on the pillows. "Fine. Ask her yourself. She's having an ultrasound here at the hospital."
It took quite awhile to find Debra Miller. No one in radiology seemed sure of her location. Finally Jim tracked her down in the cafeteria, where she was awaiting the results of the tests. Her mind was on the doctor's threat to hospitalize her; it took a few repetitions of his question before she seemed to have any idea what Jim was talking about; then, she flatly denied leaving Blair any tarts. "Me bake? Get real. I love Blair, but not that much."
Fortunately she wasn't inquisitive as to why Jim was asking. The man with her, who turned out to be Dr. Willick, Blair's advisor, gave Jim a funny look but didn't say anything. Jim persevered, "Well, where did you get the tarts then?"
"What tarts? I didn't leave him anything like that, just a card and a big granola bar. And I got both of them at the student union." The young woman stared loathingly at the tall glass of milk in front of her, then took a deep breath and began to sip it.
There was no change in her breathing or heart rate that would indicate she wasn't telling the truth. Jim frowned. Blair hadn't said anything about a granola bar, but he *had* mentioned the card. So maybe someone else had left the tarts. "Is there anyone in the department-- a student maybe--who would be likely to bake fruit tarts?"
"Hardly a student, I wouldn't think," Willick interjected. "Although Blair is very popular... hmm, the only person I could think of offhand would be Dr. Murray."
"Well, that could be," Debra admitted. "She did make some fruit tarts of some kind for the faculty breakfast last week. But there wasn't anything like that on Blair's desk that night when I left. I know because I went into his office last thing to leave the card."
"So that leaves us... where exactly?" Blair panted.
"Take it easy," Jim warned. "You're supposed to be walking, not running a race. Come on, let's sit for minute." He guided the younger man to cluster of chairs in a small alcove near the elevators. "Well," he said, watching with concern the way Blair leaned his head heavily against the wall, "I don't know. Since you were asleep when I got back to your room, I went ahead and tried to call Stacey, but I couldn't reach her."
Blair raised his head to look at Jim, his blue eyes faded and tired. "You really think she left those tarts?"
"I can't see her deliberately trying to poison you, can you?" Jim laughed. "But I suppose it's possible she baked them, for a peace gesture." At Blair's snort he went on, "Look, Chief, maybe she opens her mouth first and thinks later--kind of like another anthropologist I know--but I think she really does like you." (Uncomfortably his mind flashed on to the conversation he'd had with Stacey in the cafeteria but he firmly pushed that thought away). "You said she was a bit snappish that morning, maybe she felt badly about it and came back to leave you something, knowing you'd have to work late that night--"
"A little something that just happened to be a deadly poison?"
"Those berries grow wild in the woods. You know where she lives, she could have picked them, mistaking them for edible--"
"Jim! Listen to yourself, okay? This woman has written I don't know how many books on herbs and plants and their uses in various cultures; I sincerely doubt that she goes wandering out in the woods picking unknown organics and tossing them into pastry dough unless she's damn sure what she's doing!"
Jim blinked a little at Blair's vehement tone. "Well, what other explanation could there be, Chief?"
Blair sighed. He absolutely hated it when Jim got that condescending tone in his voice, his let's-humor-the-little-kid voice. Reigning in his irritation, he said, slowly and carefully, "Jim, I'm a researcher. So is Dr. Murray. There are certain things that are just ingrained. OK, look, you wouldn't go off on a call and 'forget' your gun, would you?" at Jim's bemused shake of the head, he went on, "Of course not, anymore than you would forget your pants in the morning.
"So you're point is that Stacey wouldn't have made a mistake. So what? She deliberately tried to poison you? Sandburg, do you know what you're saying?"
Blair took a deep breath, let it out explosively. He murmured, "Doesn't it seem a little bit odd to you that Stacey Murray knows about Sentinels, has researched them extensively, and has never mentioned that?"
Jim shook his head. "You've lost me, Chief. Who says she knows so much about Sentinels?"
Blair sat up with a frown. "You heard Dr. Willick--" he started. At Jim's confused look Blair started to panic. '0h damn, he must have stopped listening right after Willick said my fellowship wasn't in danger.' "Jim, can you help me back to my room? I need to show you something."
Blair hastily sorted through the piles of paper until he came to the green file folder. He handed it wordlessly to the other man.
"Read it," Blair said quietly. Jim opened his mouth as if he were going to protest, then shrugged and flipped open the cover.
"Some Extrapolations Regarding the Projected Role of a Sentinel in Modern Society". Jim smiled. "Hey, Chief, you didn't tell me you'd gotten another one published!"
"I didn't write it."
"You didn't?" Jim glanced back at the folder and Blair saw his shoulders stiffen as he saw the author. "Stacey. But when... Chief, this is dated May, 1982. Where'd you get this?"
"Dr. Willick brought it to me. He knew her in San Diego years ago. He said her Master's thesis was on Burton's Sentinel Theory, and then she wrote some articles afterwards. But she changed her area of emphasis." Blair took in another deep breath. "Jim, I read that article this afternoon. Stacey Murray is a Guide."
A long silence.
Finally, Jim repeated the words, "A Guide." He looked down at the papers he held in his hands. "She says that? In here?"
"No, of course not. But I can tell by the way it reads. Maybe nobody would notice but another Guide. Which I am. And I'm telling you, as an anthropologist *and* as a Guide, that article is not based on theory, it's based on facts. She is a Guide. Or, maybe, she *was* a Guide. What did her husband do, anyway? How did he die?"
Jim slammed the folder shut. "Damn it Sandburg, I don't know anything about her husband except that she gets upset if she talks about him." He leaned closer to the bed, his pale blue gaze pillaring Blair's face. "Look Chief, you've been trying to say something for twenty minutes now. All this pussyfooting around the subject isn't like you at all, and it's irritating the hell out of me. Why don't you just say it, you're accusing Stacey of deliberately poisoning you."
"Not exactly," Blair responded evenly, trying to hold his heartbeat steady with an effort. Suddenly Jim seemed like a stranger, no, rather he seemed like the Jim Ellison Blair had met two years before, the man who had been teetering on the knife's edge of losing his sanity. That man had thrown Blair up against a wall in an irrational fury.
One of the few times Blair had been scared by the man he would come to call Sentinel. Roommate. Friend.
Blair pulled himself together. "I'm not accusing her," he repeated. "All I'm saying that if we look at this logically--"
"That'd be a first for you," Jim snorted.
Blair ignored him. "You have convinced me that the poison was in those tarts." He held up one finger, then another. "Point two: it seems most probable that Stacey Murray made said tarts." Slowly uncurling a third finger, "Stacey Murray would not have made a mistake and accidentally used poison berries."
"For God's sake!" Jim exploded. "Have you been taking a pre-law class this semester or maybe hanging around with the DA? What you're describing, Sandburg, is called circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence, which may, or may not, indicate she had the means. Did she have the opportunity? Debra Miller says everyone was gone when she left that card on your desk. And here's the kicker, Sandburg... a motive. You can't answer that because Stacey has no reason to want to kill you--"
"Am I interrupting something?"
Stacey Murray stood in the doorway.
Jim had been so caught up in ranting at Blair he hadn't paid any attention to the faint knock on the door. Judging from the look on Sandburg's face he hadn't either. Both of them were startled into silence by the sudden appearance of the cause of their argument.
Stacey looked back and forth between them, obviously aware that something was wrong. "I can leave--"
"No, don't." Jim jumped from his chair and hastily crossed the room. He all but flung the green file folder at her. "Did you write this?" he demanded.
"Jim!" Blair protested but the Sentinel paid no attention. All his senses were focused on Stacey, on the sudden increase in her pulse, quickly slowing down again. Her shallow breathing. The faint scent of sweat and cold outdoor air overlaid by the delicate scent of her perfume.
Stacey glanced at his face, then at Blair in the bed. Slowly she moved past Jim and sank into the chair he had so recently vacated. Paging through the article, she frowned, then flipped back to the first page again. "Goodness. Where'd you get this?"
"Did you write it?" Jim demanded again.
"Jim, there's no reason to be so abrupt. Yes I wrote it. A long time ago. I don't even remember... oh, San Diego, of course. It was never published, well, not in this form at least. I think I did publish a radically different version of it in Anthro Today, maybe? How did you even get hold of this?"
"Dr. Willick had it," Blair jumped in. "He thought I'd find it interesting, brought it to me to keep me occupied."
Stacey laughed. "Well, I imagine it probably was a good distraction, although I'm embarrassed. It's certainly not the best technical writing I've ever done. The whole thing reads more like a fairy tale--or maybe a Harlequin romance--than a scholarly research article." Still smiling, she closed the file and fixed her eyes on Blair. "How are you feeling?"
"How do you explain that article?" Jim snapped
"Jim! Why do I have to explain it? Bad writing is not a crime, especially if one doesn't publish it." She looked at Blair. "Have you ever read Burton's theories?"
From across the room Jim saw Blair's eyes narrow suddenly, felt the sudden increase in his pulse. "My Master's thesis was on Burton's theories."
"Really? I wasn't aware of that." Stacey looked down, then back at Blair, faintly blushing, "Of course, I haven't given you the chance to tell me much about yourself. I do want to apologize, Blair, I've been unpleasent to you and I'm hoping we can start over." She glanced down again, now Jim could see she was watching the light reflect on her wedding band. "Well, if you've studied Burton you know that there's not much there, and it's very easy to get caught up in fantasy. You see, my husband is... was, rather, extremely intelligent. One of the highest IQs ever measured.
"The best way to describe Kevin is that he could stand at Point A and see Point D whereas the normal person could only see Point B."
For some reason Blair grinned, as if this was not a new theory to him. "But he couldn't always see the points in between, or how to get there from Point A."
"Exactly!" Stacey beamed on him, then looked back at Jim. Something in her eyes drew him across the room to place his hands on her shoulders. She rested her head against his stomach and a sudden spurt of warmth shot through him, centering in his groin. He inhaled deeply, savoring the scent of her.
"Well, to make a long story short, I started working with Kevin, trying to help him see the intermediary points, I guess you would say. He got to where he depended on me for that. In the course of my undergrad studies I came across a mention of Burton's Sentinel theory and the whole concept of the "Guide" fascinated me. It sounded something like what I was doing with Kevin. I even started thinking maybe Kevin was a Sentinel." She laughed. "All I can say in my own defense is that I was young and rather silly. Dr. Keene pointed out that I was presenting my own theories as fact with no documented evidence whatsoever--which was true--and by that time I'd gotten fascinated with herblore, so I started doing research into that, and well, the rest of the story you know." She smiled at Blair, then turned the full effect of her blue eyes on Jim.
Jim rocked back with the force of the connection. He remembered the lyric of a song he'd heard recently, something about "You can see the world in her eyes". He knew now what the singer meant. Stacey's glorious blue orbs filled his vision. taking up his world. The two of them were alone, together, in a separate universe--
'Oh shit!' Blair Sandburg thought as he saw and belatedly recognized the besotted expression spreading across his partner's face. 'Pheromones!'
Why hadn't he realized before that Jim was acting wierd? Well, to be fair, he'd rarely seen Jim and Stacey Murray together before his accident. But now, seeing the look on Jim's face, the way his eyes looked glassy and sluggish-- Blair recognized the expression--he'd seen it before, with a jewel thief named Laura.
Stacey Murray looked away from Jim and toward Blair. He tried not to show what he was thinking but she must have seen something; she narrowed her eyes and gave him a look that could only be described as challenging. Then she glanced back at the entranced detective.
"Jim, hon, are we still going to the game tonight?"
Blair almost groaned. The game. The Jags versus the Lakers. And Cascade PD night at the game. He and Jim had got tickets weeks ago; this was the first he'd heard that Stacey was going, too.
Jim blinked rapidly. For just a brief instant, hope flared in Blair's heart as the Sentinel's eyes cleared, seemed to focus, but then Stacey put a hand on his arm and they clouded over again. "There's one problem," Jim muttered. "With one thing and another I never got around to asking Simon if Darryl was going to use that extra ticket." Then his face brightened. "Hey, you can use Sandburg's ticket! You don't mind, do you, Chief? After all, no sense in letting it go to waste." Jim grinned like a loon.
Blair knew his own face was stricken, but Jim didn't seem to notice. Stacey looked calm, but there was a triumphant gleam in those blue eyes as she surveyed Blair in the bed.
"Chief?" Jim prodded. "You don't mind, do you?"
'Fine time to ask that, Jim!' Blair cursed inwardly. It wasn't so much the ticket; on the surface, that made sense. Those tickets were hard to come by. And Blair surely didn't begrudge Jim a night away from the hospital, did he? He wasn't that selfish.
He suddenly realized what was bothering him. 'We've spent the better part of an hour discussing whether or not this woman poisoned me, and it's all just gone out of Jim's mind. He probably doesn't even remember what a 'baneberry' is. That's not like Jim.'
With no way out, Blair nodded and gestured to the closet. "It's in my backpack." As Jim turned to retrieve the bag an idea crossed Blair's mind. He felt his heart speed up with anticipation, then ruthlessly forced himself to calm. 'If I just left the truck key in my backpack...' He groped in one of the many pockets in the canvas bag and was rewarded immediately by feeling a strip of stiff paper. The ticket. And something else, something hard and metal-- the key to Jim's truck. 'Yes!' Carefully schooling his expression, he pulled the ticket out and left the key where it was. 'Now, just gotta make sure Jim leaves the truck here.' His voice deliberately casual, he remarked, "Jim, have you had anything to eat today? You guys could grab some dinner before the game."
Jim glanced at his watch. "We'd have to hurry, the mayor is making a presentation to the Cascade PD at 6:30; I want to be there."
"You could take one car," Blair offered innocently, almost holding his breath.
"Well," Jim considered.
Stacey volunteered, "We can take my car."
"But then you'd have to drive home by yourself," Jim protested.
Stacey smiled and wrapped her hands around his arm. "You could go home with me, spend the night. I owe you an apology, after all, for the way I've been acting since Blair's accident."
Her words were so quiet that Blair could barely hear them, be he couldn't miss the seductive look on her face or the lusty look on Jim's. For a second the younger man considered getting out of the bed and offering it to the two of them, but then Jim seemed to get a slight grip on reality. "Will you be okay here tonight, Chief?" he rasped, his eyes never leaving Stacey's face.
'Like it would accomplish anything if I said 'No'?' "I'll be fine, Jim," Blair said aloud. "You two have a good time."
Blair leaned, panting, against the driver's door of Jim's truck. "I will not pass out," he said out loud, then repeated the mantra more firmly, "I will not pass out!"
He gulped in lungfuls of the frigid air, one tiny corner of his mind absurdly grateful for the warm sweats Jim had brought for him from the loft. His good running shoes and heavy winter coat had been with him in the wreck and Jim had brought them at the same time he'd returned the backpack. Idly Blair wondered where his car was; had an insurance adjuster even seen it yet? What was he going to do if the car were totaled? The value of the Volvo would come nowhere near the purchase price of another car....
Dismissing such thoughts as useless at the moment, Blair took another deep breath and willed his lightheadedness away. He unlocked the door and grabbed hold of the steering wheel to pull himself into the high seat, biting his lip against the shriek of pain that tore through his battered ribcage.
So far everything had gone well. Fate--or the patron saint of anthropologist Guides worried about their Sentinels--had been on his side: the hospital was short-staffed tonight and with any luck he wouldn't be missed until his ten o'clock meds. Steeling himself, Blair put the key in the ignition and carefully backed the truck out of the parking space.
Jim couldn't rid himself of the nagging feeling that something was wrong. He ignored it through dinner, but after they arrived at the arena he made some excuse to Stacey and slipped away. There was too much interference to use his cell phone, so he went to the bank of pay phones near the entrance to call the hospital.
Four, five, six... Jim gripped the receiver tightly as he listened to the ringing phone. No answer.
Maybe Blair had taken one of the pain pills his doctor had prescribed. Not likely, but possible. Or maybe he was taking another walk around the floor. That could be it; Jim hung up the receiver and heard his change clink into the coin return. He could call the Nurses Station and have someone check--
Jim looked up to see Simon Banks and his son Darryl approaching, followed closely by Joel Taggart and the woman he'd been seeing lately. Greeting them with a wave, he scooped the coins out of the machine and joined his friends.
He'd call Blair during half-time.
Blair sighed with relief as the headlights picked out the shape of a cottage. He'd been uncertain of the way and only the mailbox with "Murray" painted on the side kept him from missing the turn altogether.
His muscles had stiffened from the drive and it took a lot of effort to hoist himself out of the car, moving slowly through the gentle drizzle to the front door. One look at the heavy brass deadbolt and he groaned. He'd managed to acquire some lock-picking abilities since he'd been hanging around with Jim but there was no way he was going to break into this door. If all of Stacey Murray's locks were like this... he set off on a slow tour around the house.
Side door, back door: good strong new looking locks on both. But the entrance into the attached greenhouse was a pair of French doors that moved promisingly at Blair's experimental rattle.
Feeling much cheered, he went to work with a credit card and in less than a minute had the doors opened.
The greenhouse itself was dark but the adjoining room had a gooseneck lamp shining light onto the work table. Blair glanced curiously over several clay pots filled with plant clippings; colored index cards with notations on them; a number of tiny glass vials filled with different colored liquids. A very fine-tipped pen had been used to write on the white labels affixed to each bottle. Curiously, Blair picked one up and looked at it. Jasmine. Another was ylang-ylang. Honeysuckle.
Ylang-ylang? That heightened...sexual feelings...
Blair put the small bottle carefully down on the table, picking up instead one of the index cards. A recipe? No, a formula... jasmine, ylang-ylang, myrrh, several other oils and binders that he saw scattered about the table. Perfume, maybe? Stacey Murray must make up her own unique scent.
There was a shallow, wide drawer in the center of the table; it would have been difficult to see except that it was ajar. Inside was an old-looking book, the gold print on the outside rubbed off. Curious, Blair opened it and glanced at the title page. "A Guide to Poisonous Plants". Two or three blue index cards had been stuck in the book near the front; Blair opened to that page and looked at the cards. The same formula for perfume, but with the measures changed slightly; notes in some code Blair couldn't make out jotted in green ink to the side. He laid the book down, still opened, and burrowed again in the drawer, pulling out an open, spiral bound notebook. The page was almost full of entries in Stacey Murray's distinctive handwriting, each line starting with a different date. The page was headed "J.E."
The dates were all recent, each one followed by a number: one, two or three, then notations in a combination of symbols and abbreviations. Blair puzzled over them fruitlessly, then glanced back at the dates. The newer entries all had the number three beside them.
Blair glanced at the index cards he still held.
They were numbered: one, two, three.
It hit him like a thunderbolt.
"The perfume!" he said, his voice sounding abnormally loud in the silent house. "She's using the perfume!"
His elbow knocked over one of the bottles; the stopper came loose and the scent of jasmine flooded the air as the liquid poured over the opened book. Blair desperately grabbed a towel and started to blot up the liquid. His eye fell on the opened page.
The first column was headed "Baneberry". There was a star next to the word; a star written in green ink.
Jim hung up the pay phone a little too hard. "Damn it, Sandburg, where are you?" This was the fourth time he'd called with no answer. The line at the Nurse's Station was still busy.
Jim made his way back to his seat, noticing the empty space next to him. Blair's seat, that Stacey Murray was supposed to be sitting in. "Simon? Where'd Stacey go?"
Simon held up a hand, his eyes on the court, where the Jag's Rion Delazier had just stolen the ball and pounded down the floor to the opposing basket, closely followed by a trio of pissed off Lakers. The arena went wild as Delazier made the shot to put the Jags up by two. Collapsing back into his seat, Simon glanced over at the other man and shook his head. "These seats were wasted on you tonight," he chided. "How's Blair?"
"Still no answer. Maybe he's taking a shower or something. Where's Stacey?"
Simon looked surprised. "I don't know. She was there a minute ago--" he broke off as the Laker power forward elbowed Delazier in the ribs as he grabbed the ball. Now whistles blew. "Hey, Ref! Get your eyes on the game!"
"Maybe she went to get a hot dog," Darryl volunteered from the other side of his father.
"More likely she went to the ladies'" Taggert's date said, rising from her seat with a impish smile. "Which is where I'm headed, if you gentlemen will let me out?"
Blair leafed through the notebook one more time. He'd had no luck deciphering Stacey's note-taking system, although he was starting to think that "@" meant "sex". "@!"? Great sex, maybe?
Only three pages in the notebook dealt with Jim. All of the earlier pages were filled with similar entries, dating back to 1984. The initials K, H, and S appeared constantly. K: Kevin? Wasn't that Stacey's husband's name? But H and S? S could be Stacey, but the more Blair pored over the entries the more he became convinced they were all about one person. So H could maybe mean "husband"? But S? 'Oh, damn,' Blair thought. 'S for Sentinel?'
He let the notebook slide from his numb fingers. The room was cold and he was rapidly reaching the end of his endurance. A glance at his watch revealed he'd better get out of here if he wanted to be back in his room by ten o'clock. This was one night he'd take the pain medication without an argument.
Did he have enough evidence to convince Jim? Blair slowly shook his head. The star beside "Baneberry" in the poison book was suspicious, but there were no plants marked "Baneberry" in the greenhouse, much less any berries. He'd even ventured out to the kitchen, but there were no recipes for "Baneberry Tarts" or anything else on the spotless tile counters.
He thought briefly again of trying to get into her computer and as quickly discarded the thought. His own "Sentinel" files were protected with a myriad of passwords; he doubted that Stacey Murray would have been any less cautious.
"So, what's the evidence?" he said to the darkened room. "Well, see Jim, Stacey Murray makes her own perfume and I think she somehow manipulates you through that scent. Of course, I can't prove it except that you get a dying cow look on your face every time she wafts in your direction and your libido takes over total control of your psyche. Oh, and she has a book in her possession that has a star marked by an entry for baneberry. Well, no Jim, I can't prove it's her book, I can't prove she marked the entry, but it is in her house..." He sighed. Circumstantial evidence. Jim had believed some of his Guide's theories with even less evidence in the past, but those theories hadn't concerned Stacey Murray. Blair remembered how hard it had been to convince Jim that Laura was a jewel thief who was just using the sentinel, and he groaned. Somehow he suspected Jim would be even less likely to believe any ill of Stacey.
Well, he'd have to try. Shoving the notebook, the poison book and the index cards in his backpack, Blair left the house through the French doors, making sure they locked behind him. Every inch of his body throbbed as he forced himself to walk around the house to Jim's truck.
He stopped, feeling the backpack slide from his shoulder to land in the soft mud.
A car had been pulled up closely behind the truck, blocking its exit.
Stacey Murray leaned against the truck. The security light illuminated her clearly, so clearly that Blair could plainly see the gun in her hand.
A gun that was aimed at him.
The score was 68-67, Jags, when the horn blew announcing half-time. The crowd cheered wildly as the uniformed figures ran off the court, then the exodus to the bathrooms, the snack bars and the telephones started.
"Stacey never came back?" Simon asked, belatedly noticing the empty seat next to Jim. "Jim?" he looked sharply at the detective, who was staring unseeingly at the emptying court. "Not again! Jim!" He shook the other man's elbow.
"I hear you, Simon," Jim said. "I'm not zoned, I'm just thinking."
"Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, especially lately," Simon grumbled. "What are you thinking about?"
There was a pause, then Jim reluctantly answered, "About how I think I've been a fool."
Simon raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Jim went on, "Simon, Sandburg was poisoned."
"Before the accident. It's probably what *caused* the accident. Baneberries. They grow wild in the woods."
"Sandburg's been eating strange berries lately?" Simon prompted. Jim shook his head. Simon went on, "When did you find this out, Jim?"
"And you're just now mentioning it to me?"
Jim sighed. "To tell the truth, it kind of slipped my mind until now."
Simon just stared at his detective.
"Excuse me?" Both men looked up to see a young woman wearing the bright yellow blazer of the arena staff standing in the aisle next to their seats. "Are you Detective Ellison?"
Jim nodded. "I'm Ellison."
The woman handed him a piece of paper. "I have to apologize, Detective. A woman gave me this note for you, told me what seat you were in and everything, but a busload of kids came in late to the game and it just slipped my mind. I sure hope it wasn't anything urgent."
Jim tore open the note. It was from Stacey. "Jim. I'm so sorry but I have a migraine and the lights and noises are just too much. I need to go home before it gets any worse. Hopefully one of your friends can give you a ride back to your truck! Forgive me, please. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Stacey."
"Problem?" Simon asked. Jim handed him the note and stood up.
"I'm going to call the hospital again."
"Why don't you use your cell phone?" Simon asked, looking up from the piece of paper.
"It's not working," Jim explained. "I guess too much interference from the TV and radio leads or something."
"That's odd," Simon frowned. "Mine's working; I just called the station. I'm expecting a fax from the Cleveland PD on that jewel theft ring." He pulled the phone out, checked it rapidly and nodded, extending it to Jim. "Yeah, mine's fine."
Jim called the hospital main number, identified himself as a police officer and asked to be put directly through to the Nurses Station on Blair's wing. When a woman's voice answered, Jim said rapidly, "This is Detective Jim Ellison with the Cascade PD. My roommate, Blair Sandburg, is a patient there. I want you to go check on him." He frowned, listening to the voice on the other end. "I don't care that you're the only person on the desk! I've been trying to call his room for almost two hours and there's no answer. Just check!" He lowered the phone, meeting Simon's eyes. "She's checking his room."
"Gee, what a surprise," Simon responded dryly. Jim made a face in return.
The seconds stretched out like hours. Darryl returned from his snack-bar run and plunked into his seat to enjoy the extra-spicy nachos he'd purchased. "Where'd Jim's date go?" he asked through a mouthful of cheese and chili.
"She had a headache. Don't talk with your mouth full," Simon groused.
Darryl nodded, then took a big swig of Pepsi to clear his mouth. "Well, I don't mean to be rude or anything, but I'm kinda glad she's gone. That perfume was giving *me* a headache. Did she pour the whole bottle on herself or what?"
Before Simon could reprove his son, he felt Jim stiffen beside him. Jim's face tightened as he held the phone clenched tightly to his ear. "Yes!" he snapped. "Search the hospital. I'm on my way." He closed the phone and stood up in the same motion. "Simon, I need to borrow your car. Blair's not in his room and nobody remembers the last time they saw him." His voice was rushed but very calm. His eyes however were bright with concern and more than a hint of panic.
Simon hesitated, then turned to his son. "Darryl, you stay here with Joel and, and...whatshername, hear me? If I'm not back by the time the game is over tell Joel I said to take you home." Ignoring Darryl's noises of protest, he stood and followed Jim up the steps.
"Is your tea too hot?" Stacey asked politely.
Blair shook his head, although in fact he hadn't yet tasted the fragrant beverage she'd put in front of him. The whole thing seemed so unreal. Here were the two of them sitting in Stacey's brightly-lit kitchen with mugs of spice tea, like two friends having a chat. Except Blair couldn't forget he'd been walked into this room with the business end of a gun pointing at him. The same gun that was now resting on the table.
Stacey saw where his eyes were focused. Wordlessly she picked the gun up, clicked on the safety and walked over to put it in a drawer. "My husband gave it to me," she said, sitting back down again. "Drink your tea."
"What's in it?" Blair challenged. "More baneberries or did you just opt for plain old arsenic this time?"
Stacey didn't reply. She took a sip from her own mug, then swapped it for Blair's and sipped from that too. "Don't mind my germs."
Blair stared at her, then finally picked up the mug and drank. The tea was hot and tangy with ginger and cinnamon, and it helped ease the violent shivers wracking his body.
"Poisoning you was an impulse," Stacey said quietly, peering into her mug. "I didn't think it through, and I apologize."
"Are you apologizing because it didn't work? Or because you did it?"
She shook her head. "I don't want to kill you. I'm not a killer, Blair. We can be reasonable about this, discuss it."
Blair felt the insane desire to laugh. He clenched his teeth and ground out, "Discuss what?"
"Where we go from here, of course."
"You're going to go to jail!"
"Blair. There's no need to be so hostile." Stacey's voice was patient.
"Excuse me! You tried to kill me. You're trying to brainwash Jim, or something like that. That makes me a little hostile!"
"I've already explained I didn't mean to kill you," Stacey said. "Well, I meant to at the time, but I didn't want to. And I can't hurt Jim. I wouldn't! I'm trying to help him, to protect him. My job is to protect my Sentinel."
A long silence.
"He isn't your Sentinel, Stacey. Your Sentinel is dead. It was your husband, wasn't it? He was a Sentinel?"
Stacey nodded. "Yes. He was. And you're right, he's gone now."
"So you want to replace him with Jim?"
Stacey's face darkened. She slammed her mug down so hard that amber liquid splashed over the edges. "I'm not trying to replace Kevin," she hissed. "I am a Guide. There is a Sentinel to be cared for--"
"My Sentinel!" Blair interrupted, his voice just as quiet, just as intent as hers. "Mine. Not yours."
"You don't even know what you're doing, Blair! I do. I can help him. I can be everything a Guide is supposed to be. You can't even keep him from zoning out!"
"I was doing pretty well until you came along!" Blair fired back. "That perfume, you use it to control him, brainwash him, don't you? Is that why he's been having so many zone-outs? Does the perfume blur his lines of concentration?"
"That's absurd! Where are you coming up with this? I used the perfume all the time with Kevin. It--" she fell silent suddenly.
"So it does have some affect?" Blair pointed out.
Stacey took in a breath, let it out in a deep sigh. "Yes," she admitted. "But not like that. It made Kevin more relaxed, suggestible, so I could help him channel his senses, focus his concentration, reduce the zone outs, not cause them! Blair, I've been doing this since I was sixteen years old! I know what I'm doing--"
"No! You knew what you were doing with Kevin! OK, I'll admit that. Maybe the perfume, maybe all those tricks and aids and everything helped *him*... but Jim isn't Kevin! How do you know it worked the same way on Jim as it did on your husband? I saw your notes. Those dates correlated to days when Jim had multiple zone outs--"
"He's zoning because you don't know what to do--"
"No! He's zoning because you have been drugging him!"
Simon held on as Jim screeched the Taurus around a bend in the road. "Jim! Either slow down or let me drive my car!"
"There's no time!" Jim gritted.
"Would you calm down! He's probably at the hospital. You're getting all worked up and he was probably down in the cafeteria flirting with a pretty nurse."
Jim slammed on the brakes. "What the hell--?" Simon gasped as he was thrown forward.
"He's not there," Jim announced, his eyes distant. "He's not at the hospital."
"How do you know? Jim. we're still blocks from the place! Even you can't tell from this distance--"
"It's different, sir," Jim interrupted, cranking the car around in a U-turn. "Call it instinct. I know he's not there."
"So where is he?"
"I don't know."
"Then where are we going?"
"Why the hell are we going there?" Simon exploded.
Jim didn't answer.
"Come with me," Stacey ordered, her voice shaking. She shoved herself away from the table and yanked the gun out of the drawer where she'd hidden it. "Get up!"
Blair slowly rose, holding his hands away from his body. "Look, you said you didn't want to kill anyone--"
"We're going upstairs! I'm going to prove to you that I'm the person to guide Jim."
Blair considered rushing her, but he knew in his weakened condition there was every chance he wouldn't be able to take her down. Besides, the way her hands were shaking as they grasped the gun it would be smart not to take any chances. Following Stacey's gestures, he pulled open a door and saw a steep flight of stairs leading to the second story. Gripping the railing to help him, he dragged his aching body up. Stacey followed him. On the second floor, she pointed to the left. "That way. The second door." She handed him a key. "Open it."
The white-paneled door swung open. Blair stepped inside and groped along the wall until he found a light switch. Blinking in the sudden glare, he looked around at what seemed to be a storage room. Stacey nudged him with the gun and he obediently stepped toward a small white wooden trunk. Stacey moved around him to sink into a heavy overstuffed chair, still covered with a sheet. "Open the trunk," she directed, her voice a little calmer.
Blair obeyed and stared down at the dozens of notebooks.
"That's my Sentinel research," Stacey said. "Twenty years of it. Studying everything there was in print, everything I could find, but mostly just learning with Kevin." Her voice was small and lost.
"How... how did it start? You and Kevin, how'd you find out you were a Guide, and he was a Sentinel? You must have just been kids."
Stacey nodded. "I was sixteen," she said in a faraway voice. "He turned eighteen while we were out there..."
"Out where?" Blair whispered, afraid of breaking the spell. Memories were so heavy in the room that he could feel them.
Stacey stared ahead, eyes unfocused, gun unheeded in her lap. "We were in Alaska. A summer program for high-Q teens. One day almost everybody in the compound was sick, some kind of food poisoning I guess. All the advisors were heaving their guts up... Kevin had a pilot's license. Supplies had to be delivered to a feeding station a couple of hundred miles away." She smiled wistfully. "I'd been crazy about him since I first saw him. I was so shy I couldn't even talk to him without blushing! But somebody had to go with him and I was lucky enough not to be sick. We took off late, we were going to spend the night at the feeding station and then come back first thing in the morning. But somehow we got off course and ran into bad weather."
"The plane went down?" Blair asked.
Stacey nodded. "I broke my arm. Kevin seemed fine at first, then later he started having trouble focusing; we thought he had a head injury, but later I realized he was just overwhelmed with the sensory input he was getting. We couldn't worry about what was happening to his senses; we had to survive." She was quiet, then added, in a dreamy voice, "We were out there for eleven days and nights. They'd given up hope of finding us alive, or of finding us at all, I guess. Everybody said it was a miracle." She smiled. "Only Kevin and I knew what the real miracle was."
Blair looked down at the notebooks. "When did you realize what he was? What you were?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Several years later. Mostly we just learned as we went." She sighed, pointing to the books. "You see, Blair, I know everything about Sentinels. Jim will be safe with me. It's okay. You can let go now."
Blair's thoughts flashed through his brain like quicksilver. "It's not that easy, Stacey. You may know everything there was to know about Kevin. But you don't know Jim. You don't know anything about Jim." He snorted. "Oh, I forgot, you know how to turn him on sexually. Hate to tell you this, Stacey, but you aren't the first woman who's figured that out!"
Her eyes darkened. "A Sentinel--"
"A 'Sentinel' is a name Burton translated for a tribal guardian, someone who has enhanced senses and is driven to protect the tribe. Okay, they're genetically predisposed to those senses, and they may even be genetically linked, but they aren't clones! Just because you knew how to take care of Kevin doesn't mean you can protect Jim, help Jim the same way. Hell, your little perfume trick has caused the very problem it's supposed to help! Jim is *not* Kevin. He is not your husband." Blair lowered his voice, made it as soothing as he knew how. "He's not the man you love."
Tears were spilling down Stacey's beautiful face. "Stop," she moaned.
"You know it's true." Blair shifted to his knees, reached toward her, hand outstretched for the gun.
"No!" Stacey screamed, jerking the gun up and aiming it wildly at Blair. "No, I won't let you take him away from me! I won't lose him again!"
Blair froze, trying not to stare at the muzzle of the gun, forcing himself not to think about what a bullet would do to him from this close of range. "Stacey... Kevin is with you all the time, you know? If he loved you, and you loved him, he's always with you--"
The tears were coming faster and harder now. "No, I've lost him. Don't you see, I failed him. He wouldn't let me go, and he got himself killed, and I lost him! Until I found him again--"
"But you didn't find him," Blair pointed out. "You found Jim. Somebody different. He's Jim, not Kevin, and he'll never be Kevin. And you trying to turn him into Kevin will just get him killed too."
Stacey shook her head desperately. "No!"
"Yes." Getting to his feet with an effort, Blair stood in front of the distraught woman. "Come on, Stacey, give me the gun."
A moment of shattering silence.
Stacey looked up at him, then at the opened trunk and around the room. She took a deep breath. "Oh, my God. What have I done?"
"Nothing that we can't fix. It's okay now. Just give me the gun."
She tightened her hand on the pistol. "Get out, Blair."
"You're wrong about one thing. I can't fix what I've done. All I can do is... damage control."
Blair felt cold chills down his spine. "What are you talking about?"
Stacey stood. She was a shorter than he but suddenly Blair was struck by how much she resembled the person he saw in the mirror every morning. He blurted out, "Maybe Guides are genetically linked too? Did you ever think that? Stacey, with your help, the Sentinel research we could do--"
"Oh, I will help you," Stacey said very softly. "The only way I can."
Too late Blair saw her raise the gun. Before he could move or say anything an explosion of pain detonated in his skull as the barrel of the gun slammed into his temple.
He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Stacey panted as she neatly arranged Blair's still form in the entrance hall, directly in front of the door. She made sure the deadbolt was off the door, then pulled a soft blanket up over him. "You should be safe enough here," she said, kneeling beside him, pushing the hair away from the swelling on his temple. "I'm sorry about hitting you, Blair, but you would have tried to stop me." Going into the living room, she made a phone call, then stooped to pick up the bucket she'd brought in from the shed outside. It was heavy with everything she'd put into it and she staggered a little under the weight as she started up the stairs.
Jim's phone rang, shrill in the tense silence of the car Before it could ring a second time Simon had grabbed it. "Banks!" he barked. "Jim can't take a call right now... He's right here, give me the message.... what? When did she call?...OK, I've got it."
"What?" Jim snapped, his eyes never leaving the road.
"That was Dispatch. Someone identifying herself as Stacey Murray called to leave you a message. She said to pick up your partner at her house. And to hurry."
Jim clenched his jaw and his foot pressed harder on the accelerator. "We're almost to the turn," was all he said.
Jim slammed on the brakes. "That's my truck!" He threw open the door and tumbled out. "Do you smell that?"
"Smell what?" sighed Simon.
Jim inhaled deeply. His face changed. "Gasoline. Smoke. In the house!" He charged toward the front door, Simon at his heels.
The door opened partway and then stopped. Jim turned sideways to slip inside and almost stumbled over something. "Sandburg!"
Simon joined him in kneeling by the still figure on the floor. "Is he--"
"He's alive," Jim interrupted, his fingers resting on Blair's neck, checking his pulse. He frowned, studying his Guide's pale face. "Looks like he got hit in the head."
Simon interrupted, "Jim, I do smell smoke!" He looked around. "Upstairs!"
Thick smoke was drifting out of a room on the second floor. Jim closed his eyes, focusing his hearing, hearing coughs, labored breathing. A heartbeat that he recognized-- "Stacey!" He leapt to his feet. "Simon, get Blair out of here!"
"Jim, no!" Simon tried to grab his arm.
Jim cringed, hands over his ears, as a gunshot shattered the silence of the burning house.
Blair shoved his glasses farther up his nose, wincing at the pain that shot through his temple at the movement. "Come in," he called, pulling off the glasses and closing his eyes.
"Chief? You okay?" Blair opened his eyes to see Jim standing beside the bed, staring down at him in concern. The police detective looked good, but uncomfortable, in a dark suit. His fingers absently scrabbled at his tie.
"Since when do you knock?" Blair teased.
"I was hoping you were asleep," Jim responded, sighing with relief as the knot in the tie finally came undone. He pulled the dark blue silk from around his neck and rolled it into a ball, shoving it into his pocket. Blair's eyes widened.
"Won't that wrinkle it?" he pointed out cautiously.
"Suppose so," Jim grunted, shoving Blair's backpack and several books off the chair so he could sit down. "I hate ties."
Silence fell between the two men.
"So how was it?" Blair finally asked.
Jim shrugged. "Okay under the circumstances, I guess. The University chapel was full. The chaplain seemed kind of at a loss for words; guess he doesn't preach too many funerals for suicide victims, but Dr. Keene gave the eulogy." Jim paused. "It was nice. He said that sometimes two people are so close they really can't exist without each other. That the *real* Stacey died when her husband died and the woman who shot herself three days ago was just an empty shell."
Blair nodded. "What's the police report going to say?"
Jim sighed. "What you wanted it to say, Chief. Although Simon and I had to do some fancy dodging and explaining. But the official report is that you tried to stop Stacey from killing herself; she knocked you out and then called me; set the upstairs room afire and waited until she knew you'd be all right before she shot herself."
"All of that is true," Blair pointed out.
"Yeah, but why was it so important to you that it not be known Stacey tried to kill you?"
Blair sighed. After a while he said, "Stacey Murray was a good anthropologist, and I wanted to make sure she was remembered that way."
"Too bad she burned all the Sentinel stuff," Jim said, his eyes on his Guide's face. "That might have come in handy someday."
Blair looked at him innocently. "She was doing a Guide's duty, Jim, protecting her Sentinel. Even though he was dead... besides it's just as well. If that stuff had fallen into the wrong hands, it could have led to some very uncomfortable questions."
Silence fell between the two of them again. Finally Blair looked at Jim in exasperation. "Come on, man, out with it! What's bothering you?"
Jim looked away. "She could have killed you, Chief. She tried. And I didn't even see it."
"Uh uh," Blair interrupted. "Don't even try to go there. We've talked about that. Jim, you couldn't help what happened. And if there's anyone to blame, it's me, because I should have seen what was going on long before I did. Besides, I don't buy it. There's something else bothering you. What is it?"
After a pause, Jim said quietly, "I just keep thinking about what Keene said, that Stacey really died when her husband did--"
"Yeah?" Blair encouraged.
"Were they so close, because of being married, in love, or because--they were Sentinel and Guide?"
Blair frowned. "I don't know. Probably a combination. What difference does it make now?" Then he saw where Jim was going with this. "Oh, I get it. You want to know if I'd eat a gun if something happened to you."
Jim winced at Blair's phrasing.
"I can pretty much guarantee I wouldn't do it that way," Blair commented. "Too noisy. Too messy."
"I'm serious, Sandburg!"
"I know you are," Blair sighed.
"Promise me that you won't," Jim urged.
Blair studied him carefully. "Okay," he said softly. "But only if you promise me the same thing."
After a minute, Jim nodded. "I won't eat my gun, Sandburg." A faint smile crossed his face as he parrotted Blair's own words.
Blair reached out and grasped his hand. "And hopefully neither one of us will ever have to abide by that promise."
The atmosphere had become too somber and Jim sought to lighten it. "You get to come home tomorrow."
Blair nodded. "Yeah. And I am so ready!"
"Don't let it go to your head, but I'm ready for you to get out of here too," Jim teased lightly, standing. "Look Chief, I'm gonna go on home, change out of this suit, okay? I'll be back in a couple of hours."
Blair shook his head. "Jim, you're exhausted. Just go home and go to bed early tonight." He gave his best impish grin. "You'll need all your rest to put up with me during my convalescence!"
"I'm looking forward to 'putting up with you'" Jim returned fondly. "Well, okay, if you're sure you'll be all right by yourself--"
Blair rolled his eyes. "Go!"
Once the door had closed behind his friend Blair let his smile fade. He pulled his left hand out from under the blankets and solemnly stared at his crossed fingers. 'You just keep your promise, Jim, because if anything did ever happen to you... I'm not sure I could keep mine.'
Jim strode easily down the hallway. Just before he got to the elevator he turned and glanced back toward Blair's room. "Keep your promise, Chief," he said aloud. "Because I promised I'd wouldn't eat my gun." He turned to get on the elevator, thinking to himself, 'I never said I wouldn't jump off a bridge.'
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