This story appeared in Merged Worlds, published by Skeeter Press in May
2002. Many thanks to Vikster, Jean, Michele, and anyone else I've forgotten
who betaed for me. Thanks also to Joss Whedon and Pet Fly, for creating Angel
and The Sentinel, respectively.
Susan L. Williams
The stink of fish assaulted him, mixed with salt and rot and machine oil. Except for the slap of waves against metal and wood, it was quiet. Clouds hid the moon and stars; lights were spaced about a hundred yards apart, dim cones amid the shadows. The display on his cell phone glowed green. While it rang, he smoothed his hair and straightened his tie. This was not going to go over well.
"Sir? It's Lindsey. I'm in Cascade. The package isn't here."
Gentle tones on the other end. He was in deep shit.
"No, sir, I have no idea. Yes, sir, I will find th--the package and deliver it. No, sir, it's not a question of non-arrival. The package was definitely on board. Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I will."
He snapped the phone closed, and ran his fingers through his hair. Sweat had gathered under his collar; he loosened his tie and looked to his driver.
"Get rid of this."
He toed the body at his feet. A merchant seaman, probably. Well, not anymore. Oh yeah, the package had definitely arrived. Now he just had to figure out where the hell it had gone.
Hard rain soaked through Blair Sandburg's red jacket in seconds, spreading a patch of damp across his shoulders. Water-weighted curls hung lank and dripping around his face. Clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, he shoved his hands into his pockets and ran for his car. The Volvo waited under a streetlight, the only car visible as far as he could see, which wasn't very, considering.
Damn. Why couldn't it have held off for another hour? He hated the clammy cling of wet clothes, hated the cold, hated the entire climate of the Pacific Northwet. Nights like this made him ache--literally--for the old days, when he could avoid Cascade's weather by signing up for whatever anthropological expedition happened to be leaving for someplace warm.
The old days. Huh. Listen to you, Sandburg, you sound like somebody's crotchety grandfather. It's only been six months. Six months since you were a grad student writing your dissertation on sentinels. Okay sentinel, no "s," only one guy with all five heightened senses, your one-time Holy Grail a.k.a. Jim Ellison. Six months since the universe let you know in no uncertain terms that you couldn't go on pretending it was possible to base your entire dissertation on Jim and still be his partner/guide/shaman/whatever you want to call it. Six months since the cosmos made you choose: Jim or your career. Not much of a contest. Oh, sure, it hurt. A lot. Maybe more than anything in your life. But it wasn't a choice, really. So, good-bye fame, fortune, reputation, anthropology, Nobel god-damned Prize if you can stand it. And hello Detective Blair Sandburg, o-fficial partner of Detective Lieutenant James Ellison, with a gun, a badge, a paycheck and everything. Who'da thunk it? Who'da guessed? Who'da believed it three and a half years ago when Jim slammed you up against the wall in your office/storage closet? Hell, who'da believed it six months and one week ago? Not you. Not Jim. Not nobody, not nohow.
Whoa. Quoting The Wizard of Oz. Man, I think the water's soaking into your brain. Not to mention through your shoes. At least it's slowing down. Figures, now that you've reached the car. Keys, keys, where are the keys? Ah, here.
An SUV screeched around the corner and roared through a small lake that turned into a tsunami with his name on it. Filthy water smacked his face, thoroughly drenching any part of him that might have been dry before. He shouted after the SUV, spreading his arms to show the damage done in case the jerk was looking in his rearview.
"Thanks a lot, assho--"
A scream cut through his invective. He turned, trying to locate the source, couldn't see anything, but there was an alley almost directly across from the Volvo. Yanking out his cellphone with one hand and his gun with the other, Blair dashed across the street and flattened himself against a wall. He hit the speed dial for dispatch and pitched his voice as low as he could.
"Jennie? This is Blair Sandburg, I've got a possible 040 in an alley off of Spangler between Hatch and Chestnut."
"Got it, Blair. Is Jim with you?"
"No. I'm alone."
Seconds passed in silence. Blair sneaked a look around the wall. The rain had stopped, but the alley was too dark. Wait. Did something move?
A second scream sent ice through his body.
"Blair, Captain Banks says to sit tight, backup's--"
"Can't." He was already moving. "Tell Simon I'm going in."
He dropped the phone into his pocket, heard Simon's faint "Sandburg!" but couldn't stop, not now, he had a job to do, he wasn't an observer anymore. Sticking close to the wall, he crept down the alley as fast as he could, straining to see something--anything--that would give him an idea what was going on. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. He glimpsed something white, high in the air: a bird, or a scrap of paper tossed by the wind. It vanished, and he stopped, confused, until he realized the alley was L-shaped. He flung himself across, to the wall that offered concealment, peered around it. A single bulb mounted on the building's back wall cast a wan smear of light across the alley. It was more than enough. Oh. God.
A man held a woman in his arms, kissing her hungrily. She was shadows and dark, but Blair could see her arms dangling, her hands weakly fluttering. He was white. All white. Hair, skin, clothes--his sleeves ragged streamers twisting and billowing. Bare white feet stood in black puddles. Above and around him, two white shapes fluttered and flew, darted and dipped. Blair couldn't tell what they were. He saw no weapons. He stepped away from the wall, gun held out before him, two-handed grip, one supporting the other, just like he'd been taught in the Academy. Just like Jim.
The white man broke the kiss, jerking his head up, standing straight, and Blair swore, swore he saw the man's tongue slide out of the woman's mouth, long and thin and palely pink, curling up past the white lips into the open mouth. One arm held the woman, held her up, draped across the fluttering sleeve.
"Put her down--easy--and back away."
The white man stared at him. The white shapes--Birds? Butterflies?--fluttered and danced. Blair moved closer, staying out of reach. He couldn't tell if the woman was breathing, couldn't look.
"Now! Do it!"
The white man blinked. Dark eyes gleamed in his pale face. There was something wrong with them, something--no whites. God, what--? Contact lenses. Had to be.
"Put her down!"
The white man dropped his arm, and the woman slid to the ground. Her eyes were open, but she wasn't seeing. Oh, God, don't look at her.
"Back away, and keep your hands where I can see them."
The white man stepped over the woman and walked toward Blair, a slight smile on his lips. Blair went cold. Something in his mind screamed "Kill it!" but he ignored it, had to ignore it. He firmed his grip on the gun. In the distance, he heard a siren.
"Stop right there. Don't make me shoot you, man."
The white man kept coming. The siren wailed, loud now and close. He would not back up. He was not going to let this freak think he was scared.
"Stop, dammit! I will shoot."
Closer. Too close. The pale smile widened. The white man reached for him, opened his mouth, and Blair could see the pink tongue inside, see it coiled and waiting. He wanted to vomit.
The muzzle of his gun touched the white shirt. White fingers touched his shoulder. Weakness flooded through him. His legs shook from the strain of holding him up. Blair jerked back, pulled the trigger. The gun roared. Powder burned the white shirt and the bullet burned through the white skin beneath. The white man staggered, lost his smile, but didn't fall, and there was no blood. No blood. Blair fired again, would have fired a third time, but the white shapes flew at him, streaked toward his eyes, and he flung up a hand to drive them off, seeing them clearly only now. Moths. White moths, with no markings, their wingspans at least six inches across. He didn't want them to touch him, didn't want them near. He batted at them, but they evaded his hand and darted for his face. The white man reached for him again, and there were two blackened holes in the white shirt.
Jim! "Jim! Back here!"
The white man stopped, drew back, raised his arms, ragged sleeves fluttering. Wings flapped in Blair's eyes. A panicked yelp, a frantic hand slapping at white wings, and Blair lost his footing, slipped to his knees. The white man was gone. The white moths fluttered away. He tried to track their flight, but they blurred in his vision until he thought there were three sets of wings, three furred bodies climbing into the cloud-blackened sky.
"Sandburg!" Jim's hand gripped his shoulder. "Are you hurt? Blair!"
He couldn't look away. "Can you see them, Jim?"
"Moths?" Jim shook him a little. "Are you with me here, Chief?"
"Yeah." Reality shuddered through him. "Yeah, I'm here." His gaze fell to the woman crumpled on the ground, her eyes staring, staring. "Jim, we need an ambulance. She's--"
"It's too late, Chief." Jim squeezed his shoulder, and let go. "She's not breathing. There's no heartbeat."
"When you pulled me out of the fountain--"
"That was different."
"No." He started to get up, to go to her, do CPR, something, but Jim grabbed his arm, held him back. He stared up into eyes that were gray in the dim light, and hard to read, always hard to read, no matter how close you were, no matter how well you knew him. He wanted to argue, but the grip on his arm and the set of the jaw, and the gaze fixed not on the body but on him told him that there was no argument to make, no magic word or touch that could make her live.
"She's gone, Chief. We'll do this by the book, but we can't help her. All we can do is find her killer and put him away."
Blair looked at the empty sky. "That might not be so easy, Jim."
"Sandburg, this is not a joke!" Simon Banks roared at his newest, youngest, and currently wettest, detective. "You fired your weapon. I need the real story, not your bullshit."
"That is the real story, Simon. Captain." Blair shoved still-damp hair out of his face. "Look, I know how it sounds, but it's the truth."
Banks looked to Jim, who stood near the office door, to all appearances leaning casually against the wall. Ellison's square-jawed face was expressionless, hooded blue eyes giving no indication of what he thought about all this. He wasn't rushing to the kid's defense; but then, Sandburg could usually hold his own. Simon returned his full attention to the dirty, bedraggled, defiant man before him.
"Sandburg, that can't be the truth. There are no albinos with curled up tongues running around Cascade. And if there were, they wouldn't be able to disappear with a wave of their hands."
"I didn't say he did. I said--"
"That you were attacked by giant moths. What happened, Sandburg, you been watching too many cheap Japanese horror movies?"
"Simon, a woman's dead. The man I saw killed her. What he may or may not be doesn't change that. If you'd just listen to me--"
"I have listened, Sandburg."
"No, you haven't! You stopped listening the minute I said something you didn't want to hear!"
Blair flung the office door open, ready to storm out. Ellison grabbed his arm, holding him back.
"Take it easy, Chief. You've got to admit, all this is pretty hard to believe."
Sandburg looked at his partner. "So are sentinels, Jim."
Simon scowled, to no noticeable effect. He had to stop this now, before it got any weirder. "Sandburg, get back here and sit down. You too, Ellison. And shut that door."
For once, they did as they were told. Simon reached behind him, poured a cup of been-sitting-here-all-day-strong coffee, and handed it to Sandburg. He sipped at it, grimaced, and closed his eyes. Simon settled into his chair.
"Blair, listen to me. You cannot hand in a report that says you shot a man at point blank range because he touched you."
Blue eyes opened wide. "Oh my God." Sandburg began to shake. "That's what I did. That's exactly what I did. Oh, God."
Jim relieved him of the coffee cup before it spilled. "It's okay, Chief. You didn't shoot him."
"I did, Jim. I shot him twice. I saw the powder burns on his shirt."
"Sandburg, there was no blood. The guy walked away. You didn't shoot him."
"Yes I did. He just--he just didn't bleed."
This was beyond ridiculous. "He was wearing a vest," Simon said.
Sandburg shook his head. "I saw his skin."
"You thought you did," Jim countered. "It was dark in that alley, Chief."
"Jim, the guy was so bright he practically glowed. I saw him. I saw his tongue, and I saw his skin when I shot him."
"Did he threaten you, Sandburg?" Simon asked.
"Not with words. He never said anything. He just came at me. I told him to stop, but he wouldn't. He just smiled and kept coming. When he touched me, I--"
"Yeah. He scared the shit out of me, Simon. He would have killed me, just like he killed that woman. I could see it in his face. I could feel it."
"Blair. Son, do you have any idea how that sounds?"
Sandburg heaved a sigh. "I know. I know how it sounds, but it's the truth. I'm not crazy. I'm not hysterical. He was some kind of monster."
"If you put that in your report, do you know what will happen to you?"
Sandburg shrugged. "Suspension. A psychiatric evaluation."
"Blair, you could lose your badge."
"Wouldn't want that, would we? After all you and Jim went through to get it."
Simon exchanged a glance with Ellison. "Sandburg, it's late. You're tired, wet, and probably in shock. Go home and get some sleep."
"It won't change anything."
"Maybe not. But you'll have some time to get yourself together before you complete your report."
Sandburg stared at him. "You want me to lie."
"No. I want you to think about what you're saying and how the review board will interpret it."
"You want me to obfuscate."
"Sandburg, I'm just saying that things may look different in the morning."
"What if they don't?"
"Then I want you to obfuscate." Simon stuck a cigar in his mouth. "Ellison, take your partner home."
"Yes, sir." Jim stood and hauled Sandburg to his feet. "Let's go, Chief."
"I can't believe it." Blair charged through the garage, arms spread, waterlogged shoes squishing with every step. "I can't believe Simon wants me to lie. I could get fired."
Jim unlocked the truck. "Unless you want to get Simon fired, you'd better keep your voice down, Chief."
"Sorry, man." Blair jumped up onto the seat and slammed the passenger door. "I just can't believe it."
Jim ran a hand across his scalp, feeling each individual hair. "Sandburg, which do you think would get you fired: 'The monster was unaffected by my bullets' or 'The perp was wearing a bulletproof vest'?"
"That's what happened."
"That's what you think--" Jim shook his head. There was no use arguing with him now. "Look, Blair. I think you should take Simon's advice and sleep on it."
"I didn't imagine it, Jim."
"I'm not saying you did."
"Yes, you are. You and Simon both. You think I lost it. I'm surprised Simon didn't ask for my badge."
"He wouldn't do that."
"The hell he wouldn't. He's done it to you."
"Only when he had to."
"You think this doesn't qualify? As far as you and Simon are concerned, the best you can say about this situation is that I shot an unarmed man. No, wait, tried to shoot him, because I must have missed, even though he was standing right in front of me. I shouldn't have a gun or a badge. I should be locked up somewhere with nice padded walls, where I can't hurt anyone."
"Nobody thinks you're crazy, Chief."
"Bull. I'm not crazy, Jim. I saw that--whatever it was. It killed that woman. It would have killed me. Why can't you believe me?"
Listen to yourself, Blair. Jim clenched his jaw, stopping the words before they left his mouth. "We'll talk about this in the morning."
"In the morning, Sandburg."
Blair slouched down as far as the seatbelt would let him. "Fine."
"Have it your way."
"I'm not crazy."
"In the morning, Sandburg."
Jim woke at precisely 7:15. Dreams vanished from his mind, forgotten before his feet hit the floor. He padded barefoot down the loft stairs, intending to hit the shower, but didn't make it past the living area.
Blair sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a bank of candles, right where Jim had left him the night before. "I'm too wired, Jim," he'd said, "I've gotta unwind." Right. So there he was. The candles had gone out, but not Sandburg.
"You're up early," Jim lied.
Blair started, and turned a bleak gaze on him. "My God, Jim, what did I do?"
"What you had to, Chief."
Blair shook his head. "What I saw isn't possible. It's just--not. Jim, I tried to kill that guy. And he was--What if he was just a guy? Maybe I am crazy ."
"And maybe you saw exactly what you think you saw."
Hope flared, and extinguished itself just as quickly. "You don't believe that."
Jim sat on the loveseat. Blair leaned his head back against the cushion, closing his eyes.
"Blair, I'm not going to lie to you. I'd prefer a rational explanation: we all would. But after everything we've been through--ghosts, spirit guides, visions, whatever that is where I see things when I touch something--"
"Psychometry," Blair supplied.
"Right, that. Hell, just being a sentinel--after all that, I'm open to pretty much anything. Who was it who said 'You can't just shut this door after it's been opened'?"
"Yeah, well, that Sandburg guy says a lot of things. If you ask me, half of it's b.s."
Blair grinned. "About there, yeah."
"Yeah, well, he's still right most of the time. So maybe you should listen to him."
"I don't know, man." Blair opened his eyes. "I've heard he's nothing but a neo-hippie witchdoctor punk."
"Nah. It's neo-hippie shaman punk now."
"That's the worst kind."
"Tell me about it. Kid thinks he runs my life. The hell of it is, half the time, he does."
The grin widened. "Only half?"
"The other half, he's just a smartass."
Jim lightly cuffed Blair's head, and made his way to the bathroom.
Blair closed the door and faced the three people sitting at the conference table. He only knew one of them. Red-haired Sheila Irwin--Irwin-Roberts now--of Internal Affairs had given Jim a hard time once, when he was suspected of being in collusion with his late partner, Jack Pendergrast. When Jim had cleared himself and Jack, she'd apologized, and they'd worked together once or twice since then. She was okay.
"Hey, Sheila, how ya doin'? How's married life?"
Sheila gave a tight smile. "Fine. Please have a seat, Detective Sandburg."
Uh-oh. Blair slid into the lone chair on his side of the table. The two men flanking Sheila, introduced as Ed Bartlett and Fred Hendricks, fixed identical gimlet gazes on him. Blair tried very hard not to squirm. Or babble. Don't babble, Sandburg, that's all you need. Do what Jim said: keep your answers short and to the point, and don't give them any more information than you have to. And thank God none of them are sentinels, so they can't hear how hard your heart is pounding.
"Detective Sandburg," Sheila began, "Your report states that you found the suspect with the victim--Ms. Sandra Worthy--in his arms, and that she was alive at that time."
"As far as I could tell," Blair said. "I thought I saw her hand moving."
"Yes. You ordered the suspect to put her down, and he dropped her. She showed no signs of life then."
"No. But I wasn't close enough to tell for sure."
"The suspect approached you, despite repeated requests that he stop. He touched your shoulder in a threatening manner, and you shot him. Is that correct?"
Sheila flipped through the pages in front of her. "It doesn't say anything here about the suspect speaking. Did he say anything at all?"
"Detective Sandburg, did it occur to you that the suspect might be deaf, or that he didn't understand English?"
"He reacted to sounds. He heard me call out to Ji--Detective Ellison. And he dropped Ms. Worthy when I told him to put her down."
"Hmmm. Your report also states that you shot the suspect twice, at point blank range, and that he was unaffected by the bullets. Can you explain that?"
"No. He might have been wearing a bulletproof vest. He staggered, but he didn't go down. And I didn't see any blood."
"Detective Sandburg, we have an autopsy report here which states that Ms. Worthy died from cause or causes unknown. Were you aware of that?"
"No. I haven't seen the report yet."
"Ms. Worthy was not shot, stabbed, strangled, or beaten. There were no marks on her body. She did not have a heart attack, or an aneurysm. As far as the coroner can determine, she died for no apparent reason. You state that you observed the suspect holding her in his arms and kissing her. Did you see anything--anything at all--to indicate that he had harmed her?"
"You heard a scream."
"How do you know that Ms. Worthy was the one who screamed?"
"It had to be her. There was no one else around."
"But did you see anything, Detective? You state that the suspect was kissing Ms. Worthy. Couldn't he have been administering CPR?"
"In that position? I don't see how."
"He may not have known the correct position."
Blair shook his head. "You don't stick your tongue down someone's throat when you're doing CPR."
"You saw that?"
"It's in my report."
"Isn't it possible that you're wrong about the suspect? Couldn't he have been someone close to Ms. Worthy, someone who might become hysterical on realizing that she was dead or dying?"
"No. He didn't care about her. He dropped her like she was nothing, like--like she was an ice cream cone after the ice cream's gone. He was--"
"He was what, Detective Sandburg?"
"I don't know how to explain it. I just know that--that he was responsible, somehow, for Sandra Worthy's death. She screamed because of him."
"But you have no proof?"
"I-- No. I don't."
"Could your certainty have anything to do with the fact that the suspect suffers from albinism?"
"Are you sure?"
He laughed. He didn't want to, but he couldn't stop it, even though he could see that Sheila and her cohorts were appalled.
"Is something funny, Detective Sandburg?" Sheila demanded.
"No. God, no. I'm sorry, but are you seriously asking me if I'm prejudiced against albinos? Gimme a break, Sheila, I'm a short Jew with long hair and earrings. I can either laugh or I can get mad, and I don't need the negativity. Besides, I'm not sure he was really an albino. His clothes looked like some kind of costume, and his eyes were--dark."
"Fine. Let's return to your report. You say the suspect escaped, but you don't know how. Would you care to explain that?"
Blair fixed his gaze on the table, taking deep breaths to calm himself and quell the laughter. Tears welled, and he blinked them back. Great. Hysteria, just what you need. "I--I guess I got distracted. He was--I thought he was coming for me again. Jim called my name from the street. I turned my head to answer him, to tell him where I was, and something flew at me. I slipped and fell. When I looked back again, the suspect was gone."
"You didn't pursue him."
"No. The victim--Ms. Worthy--was my first concern. Detective Ellison determined that she was--that she was gone. We called an ambulance and did CPR anyway, but there was nothing ."
"Couldn't you have pursued the suspect while Detective Ellison determined the victim's condition?"
"I should have, I guess. But I didn't see which way he went, and--she was just lying there, with her eyes open."
Sheila's tone became gentle. "Had you ever fired your weapon before, Detective Sandburg?"
"Not--in the line of duty. I had to use guns a couple of times when I was still Detective Ellison's observer, but I never had to shoot at anyone before. I know you're not supposed to let a perp get close enough to touch you, but I--I really didn't want to shoot anyone if I could help it."
"Were you afraid?"
"Yes. I guess--I guess it came down to being more afraid of him than I was of shooting him. His eyes were so dark, and cold. It was like there was nothing behind them--no soul."
"Very poetic," Ed Bartlett drawled.
"I'm serious. I've seen eyes like that before. I worked at Conover for a while as a grad student. I was doing a paper, so they let me interview some of the inmates. I talked to one guy, a sociopath; he'd killed nine women, but it didn't matter to him. They didn't matter. Nothing was real to him but himself. His eyes were just like that. Empty."
"Is that your official diagnosis, Doctor Sandburg?" Ed asked.
That rankled. "I'm telling you what I saw. If you don't believe me, bring me up on charges."
"You think we won't?"
"That's enough, Ed," Sheila snapped. "Detective Sandburg isn't claiming to be a psychologist, but he does have specialized knowledge in the area, which you would know if you had read his file as you were supposed to before this meeting."
The man subsided instantly, and Blair almost grinned. There was no mistaking who was in charge here, and it wasn't Ed. Or Fred, for that matter.
"Thank you, Detective Sandburg," Sheila said. "If we have any more questions, we'll let you know."
"So that's it? I'm still on active duty?"
"Yes. But I think you should make an appointment with the department psychologist." Sheila dropped her official manner and gave him a sympathetic smile. "It really does help to talk to someone, Blair."
"I made an appointment this morning." Blair stood up. "Thanks, Sheila. See ya, Ed, Fred."
Jim heard Blair coming when he stepped off the elevator, but he didn't look up until his partner actually entered the Major Crime bullpen. Blair flashed a quick smile, but he still had that haunted look he'd worn since the alley. Jim had very deliberately not listened in on Blair's session with IA. He'd wanted to, badly, but Blair deserved better than to have his partner eavesdropping on him just because he could.
"How'd it go?"
Blair's head gave a purely Sandburgian combination of a nod and a shake. "Okay, I guess. I still have my badge."
"Sheila give you a rough time?"
"Not really. She asked some tough questions, but that's her job. Man, I need some coffee."
Blair snatched his mug from the desk and took off for the break room. When he returned, he sat staring at his computer screen, the coffee untouched at his left hand. He tapped a key now and then, but Jim was pretty sure he wasn't actually seeing whatever was on the screen. He'd just about resigned himself to having to pry more information out of him when Blair's eyes went wide. He sat up straight and started keyboarding furiously. Jim watched him for a few seconds, then went back to his own work. Whatever Blair had figured out, he'd hear about it sooner or later. Probably sooner.
Okay, so he was wrong. Blair hadn't told him what he was doing. He'd waited, all day, expecting at any moment to hear, "Hey, Jim, I found " or "Hey, Jim, I had an idea about ," but no, nothing, Blair just kept pounding away at that keyboard whenever they were in the station and said never a word about it when they were in the truck, or scoping out the scene of their latest assignment--yet another gang-related killing, this one with ties to the Yakuza and the Russian mob--or eating lunch at Scoletti's, where Blair regaled Nonna Scoletti with stories about the month he'd spent in Rome and Florence when he was fourteen while simultaneously making a plate of sweet potato ravioli disappear, or after his appointment with Dr. Webster, the department shrink, from which he returned looking, if anything, more haunted than he had before. Jim hadn't asked. Maybe Blair wanted him to ask. Maybe the perverse little bastard was waiting until he did ask, which would be a first, since Jim had never known him to keep quiet about anything he was doing before. Well, except for the whole sentinel thing. As far as Jim knew, Blair had never told anyone about that except his dissertation committee, and then only when they demanded proof that he was making some progress. In fact, over the years Blair had cautioned Jim more than a few times about displaying his sentinel abilities where other people could see. That was all moot, now. There was no more dissertation, so no more committee, and no one for Blair to discuss sentinels with except for Jim himself and the rest of the Major Crime unit, who were in on the secret but didn't really want to know the details. And Jesus Christ, he was starting to think the way Sandburg used to talk, all one continuous sentence with no pauses for anything as ordinary as breathing.
Aha. Here we go. "What, Sandburg?"
"Did the coroner's report come up?"
"The one on Sandra Worthy."
Jim unearthed it from the pile on his desk and held it up.
"Have you read it?"
Jim nodded. "They didn't find anything."
"I know. Sheila told me." Blair got up and came to his desk, leaned over so he could speak too quietly for anyone else to hear. "Would you do me a favor, man? Would you take a look at her body?"
"You know: to see if you can find anything the coroner missed."
"How should I know? Needle marks. A trace of something that doesn't belong. Anything. There's got to be something."
"Chief, I'll look. But there's no guarantee I'll find anything. We might never know what killed her."
"I know, Jim, but it's worth a shot, right?"
"Yeah. It's worth a shot." Jim stood. "You coming?"
Blair paled, and swallowed, already anticipating his reaction to the body. He set his jaw, and straightened up. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm coming."
Jim pushed open the men's room door to find a pasty, sweating Blair mopping his face with a wet paper towel. Most of the smell had been flushed, but enough remained to make Jim feel slightly nauseated himself.
"You okay, Chief?"
"Yeah. Sorry, Jim. I thought I could handle it."
"Don't worry about it."
"But I'm a cop now. I should--"
"Hey." Jim clasped Blair's shoulder, shook him a little. "I said, don't worry about it. Changing jobs doesn't change who you are. And getting used to seeing bodies sliced up for autopsy isn't exactly something to be proud of. You got that?"
"Yeah. I got it. Did you find anything?"
"Nothing. Sorry, Chief."
Blair sighed. "That's okay, man. It was a long shot anyway." He wadded up the paper towel. "We can't even look for this guy, can we?"
"Not unless we can prove murder."
"Dammit!" Blair hurled the paper towel into the trash. "He'll do it again."
"How do you know?"
Blair looked up quickly, checking to see if Jim was making fun of him before he answered. "I can't explain it, Jim. I just know."
"Maybe we should check for similar cases."
"That's what I've been doing all day, man. There's nothing. No killer albinos with extra-long tongues. No albinos, for that matter, except for one guy who got busted in '86 for public indecency."
"How about unexplained deaths?"
"Jim, there are hundreds of those. And the farther back you go, the more there are. Medical science has made a lot of advances in the last few decades."
"So just look at the last ten years."
"That's still an awful lot of reports, Jim. Simon'll ream me out if I spend too much time on this."
Jim shrugged. "We'll do it on our own time."
"We? You mean, you'll help me?"
"I'm your partner, aren't I?"
"Well, yeah, but you don't . Thanks, Jim."
"No problem, Chief." Jim put an arm around Blair's shoulders and steered him out of the men's room. "So, what'd the guy in '86 do?"
"Dressed as a sperm in a Gay Pride parade. All he had on was a tail."
Heat shrouded him, wrapping his body, immobilizing him. It lay heavy on his chest, his limbs, squeezed water from his body, drops running into his hair, his mouth, the corners of his eyes, staining the sheet beneath him, staining the shroud. If he could move, the shroud would fall away. If he could move, there would be cool air streaming. If he could move, he would float, and nothing could weigh him down, nothing could hold him or bind him or order him. If he could move.
His eyes opened, not to expected darkness but to muted light, brightness strained through gauze. The shroud was gauze also, a whisper clinging to his face and to his limbs, nothing to hold him, nothing to keep him. He rose, and the shroud slid away, slid down in whispering white folds that pooled around his feet. He stepped over them, walked away, through doors that opened at his approach, opened because he came. Gauze draped and hung, fluttered wing-like in the breeze of his movement, white ripples trapping light, draining color until all else was pale or dull, insubstantial, suggestions of reality that might vanish when his head was turned.
A second set of doors swung open before him. Cool breeze invited, danced, seduced, and he swayed toward it willingly, passed through the doors to a place of light and air and gauzy wings fanning, caressing his skin with the softest silken touches, lighter than feathers, lighter than breath. Beyond was darkness, so close that he could touch it if he wished, his languid, reaching hand gauze-pale against velvet black, and he thought he should be afraid, but he was not. Gauze cocooned him, shielding him from the darkness, and he gave himself over to the light, and the air, and the freedom of wings.
Jim snapped awake, swiped at cobwebs left over from a dream, and sat up, listening for what was wrong. He heard his own heartbeat; Blair's; many more, faster, probably birds or animals; the humming of the refrigerator; a light breeze blowing through the open balcony doors. Sandburg was out there, and he wondered if he should get up, go down there and make sure his partner was okay, or leave him alone to work things out for himself. Maybe he'd just gone out there to cool off; he'd done it before, they both had, on those rare nights when the heat in Cascade was sticky and stifling.
Undecided, he tuned in to Blair, more a violation of his privacy than joining him on the balcony, but one Blair would never know about. He wasn't talking to himself. Heartbeat and breathing were okay, but there was something something off. What ? Breathing. His breathing was light, shallow. Jim grinned and shook his head. Blair must have fallen asleep out there. Better get him back inside before he found some way to roll himself off.
Jim threw the sheet off and stood up. He paused a moment, nostrils flaring, drawing in a scent that was strange, yet somehow familiar. Sweet, but with an odd, underlying layer of dust, or decay. It wasn't one of Sandburg's incense or candle scents, but he knew it. Where had he ?
Oh Christ. Sandra Worthy's body. He'd dismissed it as the remnants of perfume and the beginnings of decomposition.
Jim flung his pillow aside, grabbed his gun, and ran down the stairs. Sandburg was on the balcony, but there was something else, white, fluttering around him, rippling, and he couldn't tell if there was someone else there, or more than one, or nothing more than flapping sheets. The smell was stronger, the heartbeats louder, too close to Blair, too close. He couldn't shoot, couldn't see clearly anything but the glimpses of Blair when the white dipped or creased or drew apart.
Like some magician's trick, the white leapt into the air, twisted, folded, seemed to shrink, and vanished over Blair's head.
He grabbed Blair, yanked him back inside and twisted out, bringing his gun up where he'd seen it go, but it was gone, there was nothing, only the night sky and the stars. Heartbeats, hundreds of them, insects, birds, animals, but nothing he could distinguish, nothing he could follow or hope to find. He lowered his gun, lowered his head, and met Blair's eyes, blue smothered by black.
"Jim? What's going on? Are you okay?"
He stared, tried to reconcile what he'd seen--what he hadn't--what his senses told him and what his mind said was possible.
"What the hell did you think you were doing, Sandburg?"
"Me? What are you talking about?" He took a step closer. "Jim?"
"Why?" Shakily, "Jim, talk to me, man. What's going on?"
Nothing on the street but parked cars. A red Escort sped by, driven by a young woman glittering in club clothes, her radio tuned to some retro-disco station. A black limo cruised in the other direction, holding two men, driver and passenger, both in dark suits. He came inside, closed the doors, caught no flash of white, heard no footsteps. He rested his forehead against the glass, closed his eyes, wanting to be asleep. "You were out on the balcony."
"I was?" A moment passed. Bare feet padded, and Blair stood beside him. "So, what's with the gun, Jim?"
Don't say it. Don't. "There was something else out there."
"I dunno. It was white, flapping."
Blair's heart jerked into top speed. "A bird, maybe?"
"It was too big."
"Bigger than you. There might have been more than one. I couldn't get a good look. It kept--moving."
"Jim, the guy I saw. His clothes kept flapping."
"I didn't see him. I smelled ."
"What? What did you smell, Jim?"
He shook his head. "Old. Dry. Like--like paper that's so old it's yellow. No. Not like paper like dried flowers. Still sweet, but dead. Crumbling."
"Yeah. I guess. I smelled it on Sandra Worthy. But I didn't notice. I thought it was just the body."
"Can you smell it now?"
"Yeah." He faced Blair. "On you."
Blair paled. "So--so what are you saying, Jim? You think the guy was here? That he was out on the balcony? With me?" Blair's head shook, back and forth, like he was one of those perpetual motion toys. "That's impossible, man. He couldn't get in here without you knowing. And--and even if he could, where'd he go? Did he jump?"
"He didn't go down."
"Then where--" Blair's head jerked up, his eyes searching the ceiling he couldn't see. "Jim, are you telling me the guy's on the roof?"
"No. I don't know. I don't hear him."
"So he has to be gone, then, right? He's gone. Right, Jim?"
He didn't know. "Yeah, Chief. He's gone."
Blair sat on the edge of the yellow armchair, shoved sleep-tumbled hair out of his face. "Okay, so, he's gone. However. We can figure that out tomorrow. It'll be easier in the daylight."
Not for him. But he didn't correct. He didn't want to be the sentinel now. Blair raised his head, found him in the dark, though he couldn't have been much more than shadow.
"How did I get outside?"
"What do you remember?"
Blair shook his head. "Nothing. I think--I think I was dreaming. Something about--flying?"
He refused to think about that, refused to think of what it might mean, willed Blair not to, just this once. "Long day tomorrow, Chief. We should get back to bed."
Blair looked toward his room. The French doors were open. Beyond them, Jim could see the window, open but screened. A cool breeze drifted through.
"It's too hot in my room," Blair said. "I think I'll sack out here on the couch."
"Suit yourself," he said, and didn't mention scared, didn't joke, didn't acknowledge. He started up the stairs to the loft.
Blair called after him. "Good night, Jim."
Blair thought he wouldn't sleep, but he did, eventually, after he pulled the shades down on the balcony doors, and closed the doors to his room. Jim's hand shaking his shoulder started him awake, and he surged up, squinting in bright, early morning sun, wondering what Jim was doing in his room until he remembered where he was, and why.
"Rise and shine, Chief."
"Yeah. Sure." A huge yawn. "Whatever."
They did the morning things, the automatic things, keeping thought and conversation light, usual, normal. Jim pretended not to notice when Blair hesitated before entering his room, and Blair pretended not to notice that Jim kept his distance until after Blair had showered and tossed last night's boxers and tank into the laundry room. It worked just fine until the caffeine kicked in and his brain revved up and laughed at the idea that he could keep his thoughts from going where he didn't want to go, to the balcony, and dreams, and white wings, and Jim's near-panic, and staring eyes: Sandra Worthy's empty of life, and the white guy's empty of soul.
God, the white guy had been here last night. It must have been him. He'd been here, and he'd almost--almost-- And Jim was sitting there like nothing had happened, sitting there reading the sports section and sipping coffee like everything was normal.
"How did he get in?"
Jim put down the paper. "What?"
"How did he get in, Jim? He didn't come through the door; you would have heard him. He didn't come through the fire escape door; I would have heard him. I checked the window in my room; he didn't get through there. So how did he get in?"
"He must have come in through the balcony."
"Without you hearing him?"
"So maybe he had a white noise generator."
"And maybe he was never in here."
Jim got one of those "gonna be patient and explain to the kid" expressions, which wouldn't be quite so irritating if Jim Ellison and patience had ever actually met. "He had to be, Chief. He took you out on the balcony."
"How? How could he do that without waking me up? And how could he not leave any trace behind?"
"Well, what's your explanation, Professor?"
"I think--I think he used some kind of hypnotic suggestion to lure me out there."
Jim snorted. "What is this, 'Dracula'? Your master called you and you had to obey?"
"Jim, I'm just trying to make sense of this. Look, what if-- You said you smelled something on me, right? The same odor you smelled on Sandra Worthy's body."
"So what if it's some kind of drug? What if he--I don't know--blew it through the window at me, then told me to go out to the balcony? What if my dream wasn't really a dream, but some kind of drug-induced hallucination?"
"Sandburg, we're three stories up. How could he get to your window?"
"I don't know, man! The same way he got to the balcony."
"Sandburg, this is crazy."
"It's not, Jim. It's a logical explanation. One you can check out."
Jim pushed his chair back and got to his feet before Blair finished speaking. "There should be traces of the drug."
Jim barreled through the French doors, straight for Blair's bed and the window beyond it. "I can see it. It's on your pillow, the screen, the floor ." Jim faced him. "Let's go, Chief. We've got to get a sample of this stuff and get you to the Emergency Room."
"Jim, I'm fine."
"Sandburg, you were dosed with an unknown drug. We don't know what it does or how long it stays in your system. For all we know, this is what killed Sandra Worthy."
Jim snapped on some gloves, scraped a sample of some stuff Blair still couldn't really see into an envelope, and bundled him out the door in under two minutes.
Blair waited outside the hospital, bouncing on his toes, pacing, bouncing again. Fine. He was fine. Medically. Whatever the drug was, it had worked its way out of his system before they got to the hospital. He'd been stuck in there the whole day, waiting for the results of blood tests before they'd let him go home. At least he'd gotten Jim to go to work instead of hanging around the hospital with him. Which didn't mean that his cell phone hadn't rung every forty-five minutes so Jim could "let him know what was going on." He hadn't minded. The phone calls dragged him away from thoughts he'd rather not have anyway. Jim had made no progress on the gang-related case, but forensics had been to the loft and now they were doing the same testing as the hospital to try to determine exactly what he'd been drugged with. They hadn't found any prints or signs of forced entry. If not for the residue of the drug, there'd be nothing to show that anyone had ever been there last night.
The blue and white Ford pulled up, and Blair bounded in.
"Hey, Jim, I'm starving, man, let's go out to eat, how about DiStefano's?"
Jim smiled. "You on an Italian kick this week, Sandburg?"
"No, well, maybe, but they're close and you know you love their scampi, and I can get the diavolo." He almost clapped a hand over his mouth. Jeez, what was with the motormouth? He was fine, dammit. "Sorry, man. It's been a long, boring day."
"No problem, Chief. DiStefano's is fine."
Once there, they ordered exactly what Blair had predicted, but passed on the wine. Blair hadn't eaten all day; if he drank now, even just wine, the motormouth would only get worse. What Jim's excuse was, he didn't know, but he had his suspicions. Jim always took the seat that gave him the best view of the room, and he always spent a certain amount of time looking around, scoping out possible threats. He was a cop; he was a sentinel; that was what he did. But he seemed to be on extra alert tonight. He'd requested a booth in an obscure corner of the restaurant, his glance skittered around the room every few minutes, and from the position of his head, Blair knew Jim was listening to more than his monologue on the necessity of hospitals considering people's emotional needs when planning the setup and decor of waiting and examination rooms.
Blair waited until the waitress had brought their food--and hey, her phone number, which he carefully slipped into his shirt pocket--before calling Jim on his observations. "What's up, Jim?"
Jim knew when he was bagged. He didn't make any pretense, just looked Blair straight in the eyes. "Simon wants you to go to a safe house."
"No. No way."
"No!" His fork became a pointer. "I'm a cop now, Jim. I never hid while I was your observer, and I'm sure as hell not going to do it now. This is my case; I want to be the one who arrests this guy. Besides, we have no clue who or where he is. If I go to a safe house, I could be there for weeks. I am not leaving you alone out there. It's not an option."
The slightest of smiles creased Jim's face. "I told Simon you'd say that."
"Then why'd you bring it up?"
"I promised Simon. You know, he could make it an order."
Blair speared a piece of lobster. "He tried that once. Didn't work."
"Yeah. But you're a cop now, Chief. When the Captain says jump, you say--"
"Been there, done that, Simon. And he remembers you and me rescuing him and Daryl in Peru, and lets me do what I want."
Jim shook his head, trying not to laugh. "You can't trade on that forever, Sandburg."
"Sure I can, Jim. Once you know how to play him, Simon's easy."
"Better not let him hear you say that."
Blair grinned. "Rule one, Jim."
Dinner went okay after that. They ate a lot, and had a good time, and didn't mention anything else about last night, and Blair managed not to think about it either for at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half, but it was in his head, and he knew it was there, the knowledge that he had to think about it, they had to talk about it, no matter how badly they didn't want to and how much Jim did not want to deal with it. Oh, Jim wanted to protect him, sure, but Jim also desperately wanted this to be just another in their long line of out there perps. But this guy was no David Lash or Lee Brackett or even Alex Barnes, crazy as they'd all been, this guy was worse, this guy was something he couldn't understand or categorize in a nice neat slot like "psycho killer" or "psycho rogue ex-CIA agent" or even "psycho sentinel," this guy was a whole new kind of psycho and he did things that couldn't be done, things that were impossible, like disappearing while a sentinel's eyes and ears were on him, and nobody could do that, nobody, not even another sentinel.
So he kept his mouth shut during the ride home, and while they watched the first few innings of the game, but it boiled and roiled inside him, and he sat on the couch, but he couldn't keep his leg from bouncing, which he knew drove Jim crazy, but Jim didn't say a word, Jim just ignored him and concentrated on the game, and his leg bounced faster and faster, and finally he couldn't stand it anymore and it just burst out of him.
"How'd he get away?"
Jim looked at him and started to say something about the left-fielder, but stopped, because he knew what Blair meant and Blair was in no kind of mood to put up with evasive Ellison crap and was trying really hard to convey that with body language and expression and a look in his eye that he damn well hoped was saying "Just don't start with me, Jim," but it didn't seem to quite get across, because Jim came out with,
"He must have gone over the roof."
"Jim, you would have seen and heard him. What exactly did you see?"
"I told you, Sandburg. Just white. Flapping and twisting. Like sheets, or--"
"You think he flew away, Sandburg? You think we're dealing with a birdman here? No, wait, the mothman, right? He turned into a giant moth and flew away."
Way to be "open to pretty much anything," asshole. "Maybe he did."
"Jim, he got away. He couldn't have gone over the roof, and you said he didn't jump, but you didn't see how he did it. You didn't even see him. You didn't see, Jim. How is that possible?"
"I can't see everything, Sandburg."
"But you should have seen this. You were looking right at him."
"Sandburg, the perp did not fly away. You figured out how he got to you; there's got to be a rational explanation for how he got away."
"Then you tell me what it is, Jim, because I can't think of one."
"What are you, Einstein? If you can't think of it, it doesn't exist?"
"Dammit, Jim, don't do this!"
"Me? You're the one who thinks this guy can fly. Listen to yourself, for Christ's sake, you're grasping at imaginary straws."
"And you're burying your head in the sand!"
"I think you need to go back to the hospital, Sandburg. You're still hallucinating."
Blair stood, trying not to shake, failing. "You bastard, Ellison. You can blind yourself if you want, but you are not going to blame me because I can see."
"You're seeing elves and fairies, Sandburg!"
"I wish I were!"
He went to his room. He almost didn't, almost made himself stay so that Jim wouldn't be driving him out and couldn't accuse him of running away, but he didn't care, he needed distance more, even if it was only twenty feet. He sat on his bed, and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, wanting safe darkness with no disturbing images, wanting none of it to have happened, wanting to check his feelings at the door, or maybe down the block, or in Peru. He shouldn't have blown up at Jim like that. Jim was right, he wasn't being rational. But this was not a rational situation. He wanted it to be. God, he wanted it to be. But what he wanted didn't come into it.
"Chief? You okay?"
Shit. He dropped his hands, looked up. Jim stood in the doorway. Round two. "No, man. And neither are you."
Jim's eyes filled with the cool waters of denial. "I'm fine."
"Fine?" He shot to his feet, had to, because the words he needed to say, had to say, could not come out of a sitting body; and he moved toward Jim because the words would abide no distance. "You're not fine. This is not fine. There is nothing fine about this. Weirdness of the first order is going on around us. It is pulling us in, and we are not fine, Jim, and we can't just ignore it, and we can't pretend that nothing is going on, because if we do--" The words clawed at his chest, tore their way out, "if we do, then the weirdness wins, Jim, and it's not a good weirdness, it's not spirit guides and shamans and warnings from beyond, it's killing people, and it wants to kill more, and I think--I think it wants to kill us, or maybe just me, but either way, we have to do something, and the first thing we have to do is to not pretend that any of this is business as usual, because it's not. Are you getting me here, Jim? Are you hearing me? Because I do not want to do this alone, man, I do not want to be alone out here, I need us to be in the same place. Can you do that, Jim? Can you go with me on this? Can you?"
"Sandburg." Jim gripped his shoulders. Jim was white. He'd never seen Jim go pale before, not once in four years. Jim's fingers dug into his shoulders, and they hurt, but he didn't move, he waited. "Blair, I-- You're not alone. I'm with you. I'm with you."
"Are you sure, Jim? Because I don't know where this is going, but I don't think we're going to like it when we get there."
"I'm sure, buddy. Okay?"
Breathing became something he could do. He grasped Jim's wrist, and squeezed. "Yeah. As long as you don't mean 'with you' in a humor-him-till-the-guys-in-the-white-coats-get-here kind of way."
Jim's grip loosened with his grin. "Chief, if I called 'em, they'd have to take me away too."
Jim sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. The shooter in the street gang-Yakuza-Russian mob case had turned up dead; now they had to find his killer. For the past six days and nights, he and Blair had divided their time between that and the Worthy case, barely stopping to eat or sleep, and Sandburg wouldn't do that if Jim didn't drag him away from his computer. Blair was seriously freaked out by this case. Hell, who was he kidding, they both were. But Blair was driven. He needed to figure out how Sandra Worthy had died, and why. He needed to understand just who and what this white guy was, and he needed to bring the guy in. Jim understood it; the entire unit understood it, or thought they did, and Simon was cutting Blair as much slack as he could, but they were getting nowhere. Forensics couldn't identify the drug they'd found in the loft or tell if it had killed Sandra Worthy, and there'd been no more sign of the perp. Given a choice between giving the white guy another crack at Blair and him vanishing from the face of the earth, or at least Cascade, Jim would take the latter. That was unprofessional: sue him. He wouldn't be happy to see Sandra Worthy's killer get away with it, but he'd be even less happy if Blair got himself killed in pursuit of the guy. He'd never wanted a case to just go away so much in his life. And he was not going to tell Blair that. No matter how weird things got, with Blair or this case, Blair was his partner. Blair had stuck with him through spirit guides, ghosts, and Alex Barnes; the least Jim could do was stick with Blair through the mothman.
And he was doing it. He'd dutifully allowed Blair to use that relaxation/hypnosis/whatever the hell that was thing he did to take him over the memory of that night in the loft in hope of getting a clearer picture of exactly what had been out there on the balcony, with no luck. Whatever it was--mothman or someone's escaped laundry--he hadn't seen more than that rippling white stuff. No face, no head, no body, no means of identification. Blair wanted to try it, but he couldn't hypnotize himself, Jim had no intention of doing it, and this wasn't something they could tell anyone else about, so all he'd been able to do was meditate. After a couple of hours of that, Blair had drawn a picture of what he remembered. He was no artist, but what he'd drawn had been recognizably human. Sort of. To Jim, it looked like one of those glitter rockers from the eighties, without the platform shoes. Not being completely clueless, he hadn't said so to Sandburg.
Blair bolted off the elevator and into the bullpen, carrying a cardboard tray of coffees and assorted mini-mart junk food in both hands, a newspaper folded under one arm. He plunked the tray down on Brown's desk, ignoring Brown's indignation since at least half the stuff on it was for him and Rafe, snatched two of the coffees and Jim's pre-packaged pecan roll--to get which Jim had endured what was probably the shortest Sandburgian lecture on record (a preoccupied Blair had its benefits)--and dumped it all on Jim's desk along with the newspaper. The paper unfolded, and Blair stabbed a finger at the picture on the front page.
"Look at that, man."
Jim looked. He raised his head, met the curious gazes of Brown, Rafe, Connor, and Taggert, then looked down again. He stood, grabbed the paper and his partner, and took them both to the break room, where a single glance was enough to convince the current occupants that it was time to go back to work. Once the last of them had scurried out, he shut the door and faced Blair.
"Sandburg, have you lost your mind?"
"Jim, just look at it."
Jim turned the paper toward Blair. The picture showed a vaguely human-shaped white blob with what might be arms covered by what could be ragged streamers of fabric. The caption below read "Alien Terrorizes L.A."
"Sandburg, this is the Daily Meteor. It's a tabloid."
"I know that, Jim."
"This picture is faked. They're all faked."
"The story says he killed somebody, Jim. Somebody else."
"The story says this is an alien!"
"Alien, mothman, crazy guy in a white suit--what's the difference? He's in Los Angeles, Jim. And he's still killing people."
"Sandburg, I'm telling you this is fake! The story is made up." Jim tossed the paper into the trash. "Look, Chief, I know how bad you want to catch this guy. But this garbage isn't gonna help us."
"It's not garbage, Jim." Blair rescued the tabloid from the trash. Someone had dumped coffee grounds earlier; the paper dripped brown. Blair stared at it for a minute, closed his eyes, and let it drop back into the bin. "Okay, it is garbage. But it's all we've got, man. Can we at least call LAPD, see if there's actually been a murder like ours?"
"Sandburg--" Give him something, Ellison. What can it hurt? "Fine. We can do that."
Blair smiled briefly. "Don't worry, I'll make the call myself. You've got a rep to watch out for."
"So do you, Chief."
"Yeah, but this fits right in with mine."
Jim clapped a hand on Blair's shoulder and guided him out of the break room. "So true."
"Yeah, hi. This is Blair Sandburg with the Cascade PD in Washington? I've been directed to you. I was wondering if I could take a few minutes of your time to compare one of our cases with one of yours and see if anything matches up. I'd really appreciate it."
"Sure. Sandburg, is it?"
"Yeah, Blair, I'm a detective in the Major Crime unit here."
"Okay, Sandburg, what've you got?"
He told her. The woman on the other end of the line was silent for a few seconds.
"This is a joke, right? One of my 'colleagues' here paid you to call me."
"No! Detective Lockley, I am not joking. I was the officer on the scene here. Believe me, there is nothing funny about this. Well, okay, there are a lot of things funny about this, but I am serious."
"No. You're not."
"Look, please, just tell me if you've had a similar unexplained death within the last few days."
"We get a lot of unexplained deaths."
"Yeah, okay. How about one with a body that smelled funny?"
"We get a lot of--"
"Detective Lockley, please. This is a sweet, dry smell. It can be a really fine powder. We think it's a drug of some kind."
"Sorry. Nothing like that."
"Are you sure?" Damn, he'd hoped he wouldn't have to mention this. "Look, this is gonna sound stupid, but hear me out, okay? There was a story in the Daily Meteor today, with a picture. I think it might be our perp."
"The Daily Meteor ."
"Yeah, I know, believe me, I know. This guy's all white: skin, hair, clothes. Has there been a report of anyone like that? Maybe someone who might be connected to one of your unexplained bodies?"
"You hesitated. Come on, Detective Lockley, give me a break here. You've got something, right?"
"All right, yes, there was a report of someone in white. But the witness was unreliable."
"Was there a body?"
"Yes. But we've got no cause of death."
"Do me a favor. Check the body for that powder and get back to me. Please."
"I--" Lockley sighed. "All right, Sandburg, I'll look into it. Give me your number."
"Thanks, Detective Lockley. You have no idea how much I appreciate this. And it's Blair, okay?"
"Kate. And I do have an idea."
White. Surrounding Blair, madly dancing. Blue eyes stared straight ahead, blind, the only color in the dark and the whirling white. He shouted, and reached, but he couldn't get through the white, couldn't get to Blair. His gun was in his hand, black. He fired, and black bullets pierced the white, but the holes healed instantly, had never been.
White closed around Blair, shrouding him, wrapping limbs and body, head and face, leaving only his blue, blind eyes. It rose into the air, lifting Blair, and he tried to catch it, to pull him down, but the white slipped from his grasp like air, like cloud, and there was nothing to touch, nothing to hold. Blair looked down then, looked at him, and the blue was gone from his eyes, leaving only white, and black, and gray despair.
Black. Rotten wood; broken asphalt; night sky without stars. A single, dim light cast shadows, illumined nothing. Screams flashed lightning, and they ran, man and man, black jaguar and gray wolf. Spill of black hair; white face cut by shadow; gray stare.
Gray man: white-faced, black-haired, black-clothed. Brown eyes. Faint, gray whisper. Gray man leaped, charged, black coat spreading like wings, like night. White teeth; blood-red.
He opened his eyes, sat up, shaking. "What the hell was that?"
"Jim?" Blair called up from the couch. "You okay, man?"
He got up, surprised to see blue and yellow bedclothes, red brick, Blair's brown curls and dark blue eyes, the same color as the couch. He'd never noticed before. Color had never seemed so important before. The rug was red, blue, yellow, white. The armchair was yellow. In the kitchen, the walls were green. The lights were red, and the peppers hanging. Blair's yellow boots stood under the silver coat hooks. So much color.
"Are you sure you're okay? Jim?"
"I'm fine. Just thirsty."
He opened the white refrigerator. Brown bottles; tupperware, red and blue. Green apples, orange carrots, purple grapes. He wanted beer, took water, twisted the cap off. Drank, watching crystal prism colors dance in clear water. He wandered around the kitchen island, stared through the French doors, needing no lights to see blanket, pillows, pots and feathers hanging.
"Your room," he observed, "is all red."
"Not all of it." Blair laid a green book aside and came to stand beside him. "It drives Naomi crazy. You know my Mom: Red's not restful, it energizes, all that stuff. I figure, if I'm awake, I should be energized. And if I'm sleeping, the room's dark and I can't see the color anyway." The blue gaze shifted to him. "So, why the color assessment, Jim?"
"No reason." He drank some more water. "Did you know your eyes are the same color as the couch?"
He nodded. "It's a good color."
"It's blue, Jim. You've seen it before." Blair studied him while he drank. "I think you should sit down."
"Because something is going on with you."
"Nothing's going on with me, Chief. I'm just--enjoying the colors."
"That's nice, Jim. But why now?"
"What's wrong with now?"
"It's two o'clock in the morning."
He frowned. "Why aren't you in bed?"
"Jim, you were in bed, remember? You were sleeping, and now you're down here tripping out on all the pretty colors. What the hell is going on?"
"Nothing." He shrugged. "I had a dream."
"A dream? Okay, great, we can deal with dreams." Blair gripped his biceps and led him to the couch. He sat, and Blair perched on its arm. "Tell me about it."
White. Black. Gray. Not-blue eyes. Jaguar, wolf. The gray man, black and white. Whispers. Blair listened, nodding, not interrupting.
"Okay. We know what the white surrounding me is, a combination of what you saw and your fears. The jaguar and wolf are obviously just you and me. The gray man I don't get. Did you recognize him?"
He shook his head. "Maybe he was your perp, Chief."
"I don't know, man. My guy was all white, remember? Hair and everything. What about the whisper? Did you hear what it said?"
He closed his eyes, tried to hear memory. "Lost Lost Angelus."
"Los Angeles? Jim, could it be Los Angeles?"
"I don't think so, Chief."
"It has to be, Jim. It's the only thing that makes sense."
He opened one eye. "Something about this makes sense to you?"
"Jim, I think it was a message. I think your dream was telling us to go to Los Angeles."
"Chief, you're jumping to conclusions, here. Lockley hasn't even called you back."
"She will." Blair leapt to his feet, started pacing. "The white guy's there, I know it. We have to go. I know I'm right, Jim."
Blair stopped in front of him. "Jim, you know that place I need you to be? This is it."
"Your place is Los Angeles?"
"Well, no, that was a metaphor. But we need to go, Jim. The longer we wait, the more people will die."
He ran a hand over his face. He'd been afraid of something like this. He should have kept his mouth shut. Just rolled over and gone back to sleep. "Blair, I'll make you a deal. If LAPD finds the drug on their body, then we'll go check it out. If they don't, we stay here and make Simon a happy captain. Okay?"
"I'm going back to bed."
Blair went back to his books. Manfully suppressing the "Jim 'More-Experienced-Than-You' Ellison's Why a Cop Needs His Sleep" lecture, he climbed the stairs and lay down. A page turned. Another.
"Don't forget to pack your sunblock."
Blair looked up from the book in his lap, a red one this time, and grinned. "So, Jim, did you pack that sunblock?"
Jim thought of whapping him, but settled for a baleful stare. Airline regulations could be tough. "Yes, Sandburg, I packed it."
"Good. Wouldn't want you to get burned in beautiful, sunny Los Angeles."
"This isn't a vacation, Chief."
The grin vanished. "I know that."
Blair turned back to the book. Great, Ellison. Slap the kid down just when he finally manages to think about something other than the case. Jim sipped the bottled water Blair had snatched from the galley for him. He hated this. He hated that Blair had been right, that the mothman apparently was in Los Angeles and killing more people. He hated that Simon had given in and let them go to L.A. when it was out of their jurisdiction and a few phone calls and emails should have ended their involvement. He hated what he knew would be Lockley's reaction to two out-of-town cops claiming to know more about her case than she did, because his own reaction would be exactly the same. And he hated that they might--hell, they probably would because it was just their luck--actually find the god-damned mothman.
Mostly, he hated what this was doing to Blair.
He glanced at the book. "What are you reading?"
"You don't want to know."
"Goes without saying, Sandburg. Tell me anyway."
"It's a book on supernatural beings that have appeared in various myths, stories, or other forms of cultural expression from ancient times to somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, when this was written."
"So, this is research."
"Have you found anything yet?"
"No. But I've got the names of some other sources I can check, and some experts in the field who I can maybe talk to, if I get up the guts."
"There are experts?"
"Jim, there are experts in practically anything. You'd be amazed."
"I don't think so, Chief. I happen to know the world's only expert on sentinels."
Blair grinned briefly, and kept reading.
"How many books did you bring with you?"
"Hmm? Six or seven."
"Why don't you give me one?"
Blair looked at him. "Are you serious?"
Jim shrugged. "I've got nothing else to do."
"A lot of this is pretty dry, Jim."
"Just give me a book, Sandburg."
"Okay, man." Blair dragged his backpack from under the seat in front of him, rummaged through it, and pulled out a thick brown book with gilt lettering. He handed it to Jim. "Thanks. If you find anything that looks like it might be related, jot it down or mark the page with a scrap of paper, okay?"
"Got it." He opened the book.
"I'll wake you up when we land, Jim."
"You're a comedian, Sandburg."
"Are you sure you know where you're going, Sandburg?"
Blair cast an irritated glance at his passenger. "I don't have a clue where I'm going, Jim." He waved a hand out the car window at the darkened factories and warehouses around them. "I spent a few weeks in L.A. ten years ago. This isn't exactly the part of town I used to hang out in. You know, we could have waited until Kate got back from interviewing the witness."
"No." Jim peered from one side of the street to the other, his sentinel sight piercing shadows and darkness. "We need to be there."
Jim shrugged. "You're the shaman, Chief; you tell me."
"Did you have a vision?"
"No visions. Just a feeling."
"So, this isn't necessarily a sentinel thing. It could be a cop-instinct thing."
The streets were deserted. Keeping one eye on the road, Blair scanned the area. Why, he wasn't sure. He'd never see anything Jim couldn't. He wished Kate had waited for them. He understood why she hadn't, sort of. It was that territorial case-ownership thing. Jim had it. Most of the detectives he knew had it. And he was pretty sure he was starting to get it himself, though he was trying not to. Solving crimes shouldn't be a competition, it should be a cooperative effort. Not that anthropology was a hell of a lot different. In his time as a grad student, he'd seen a lot of cutthroat behavior among students and professors alike. Some people just couldn't share the credit; others, like Jim, tied their pride up in doing the job themselves. The best detectives, like Jim, tended to be mavericks, and mavericks tended not to be team players. There ought to be a way to change that. But that was a problem for behaviorists; he was a cop now, and he had to work with the system the way it was. Fortunately, Jim didn't see him as competition, or as outside interference. He never had. Blair had his own theories about why that was, but it didn't really matter. With a few exceptions he didn't like to remember, Jim trusted him as a partner. Now all he had to do was get Kate Lockley to trust them both.
"Slow down, Chief."
Blair hit the brake. "What is it, Jim? Do you hear something?"
Jim shook his head. "Do you smell that?"
Okay, humor him. Blair took a deep breath, smelled garbage and dirt and things he didn't want to think about, but nothing special. "Smell what, Jim?"
"That scent. The drug. Keep moving, but slow."
The rental car snailed forward. Jim turned his head from side to side, sniffing. Bloodhounds came to mind, but Blair kept his mouth shut. Contrary to popular belief, he could do that, occasionally.
He braked. Jim was out of the car before he put it into Park, running for--what else?--an alley. Dammit, Jim! Blair yanked the keys out of the ignition and took off after him, swearing under his breath. Jim would hear, if he wanted to. Blair just hoped he was listening.
The only light reached in from the street, throwing shadows in front of him. Blair ducked around a dumpster, jumped over something small and skittering that he did not want a closer look at, twisted to avoid stepping on something he just knew would have squished horribly, and nearly ran into Jim's back. Jim had his gun out.
"Police! Back away, now!"
A chain link fence walled the right side of the alley. Two bodies lay near it: one a man in cast-off clothes, the other a woman, blonde, in a white sweater and jeans. Another man bent over her. He straightened up at Jim's shout, faced them. He was pale-skinned, dark-haired, dressed in black with a long black coat. Blair didn't see any weapons, but there was something...something wrong about him. Looking at him sent a bug crawling up Blair's spine.
"Look," the man said, "I--"
"Shut up." Jim's face was white. "Back away, and keep your hands where I can see them."
The man put his hands out to the side, and moved a few steps away from the body. His gaze never shifting, Jim pulled his handcuffs from his back pocket.
"Cover him, Chief."
"Jim, I can--"
Blair drew his gun, trained it on the black-coated man. Jim approached him with unusual caution. The man shifted his gaze from Jim to Blair, met his eyes. His voice was low, quiet, certain.
"You're making a mistake."
The man obeyed. Jim slapped the cuff on his right wrist and reached for his left. The man spun around, left arm swinging, and hit Jim in the chest. The blow lifted Jim off his feet, threw him at least ten feet away. He landed heavily, his head just missing the corner of a building.
"Go!" Jim wheezed.
The man was up and over the chain link fence before he could move. Blair leaped onto the fence, but when he reached the top, the man was nowhere in sight. Cursing himself, he holstered his gun and ran to Jim.
"Jim! Are you okay?"
"Fine." Jim struggled to sit up. "Just knocked the wind out of me. Call an ambulance, Chief."
"For them." Jim nodded at the bodies.
Blair pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. While he talked to the dispatcher, he checked the bodies. The man was dead, his eyes open and staring. The woman had a pulse.
"Jim, she's alive."
Jim nodded, joining him at the woman's side. He pulled a leather wallet from her pocket and flipped it open. "It's Lockley."
Jim stood at the window, staring out at the lights of the city. Unfamiliar lights; unfamiliar city. Not his city, but still he stood sentinel. Pretending to read, Blair watched him.
Kate Lockley was in bad shape. She hadn't regained consciousness, and no one knew what was wrong with her. There wasn't so much as a bruise on her body. He and Jim had talked to her captain, but had gotten nowhere. Whatever Kate knew, she kept to herself, and the why of that was obvious. Kate was a laughing-stock in her department. She got all the weird cases, and she took them seriously. Her arrest record wasn't great, but whenever she investigated, the perps seemed to either just quit or vanish. Either way, the crimes stopped.
They were pretty sure the dead man was her witness. Kate had said he was unreliable, and the body reeked of alcohol. With no witness, and no investigating detective, they had nothing. Just another unexplained body.
Jim had barely spoken two words since they left the hospital. He'd let Blair drive back to the hotel, staring out the car window all the way. And now this. They'd been back in the room for over an hour, and Jim hadn't so much as sat down.
Jim blinked, and turned his head. "What?"
"I let the suspect get away." Again.
"Not your fault, Chief."
"I should have done something."
"I don't know. Something."
Jim shook his head. "Wouldn't have done any good. He was too fast. Too strong."
Jim rounded on him. "Jesus Christ, Chief, he threw me across the alley! What the hell do you think you could have done?"
"I could have shot him."
"Maybe." Jim looked away. "But I don't think it would have done any good."
"What do you mean?" Blair put his book down and stood up. "Jim?"
Jim shook his head. He took a deep breath, and held it. Let it out with, "He didn't have a heartbeat."
"What? Jim, that's not--"
"He didn't have a heartbeat. He didn't breathe."
"Are you sure, Jim? Maybe he had a white noise generator, or--"
"No." Jim faced him again. "He was the gray man."
"From your dream?"
Jim nodded. "He wasn't human, Chief. He's got to be what's killing these people, what came after you."
"I don't think so, Jim. He wasn't the man I saw in Cascade. He wasn't white."
"His skin was white."
"But that was all. And it wasn't the same white. And his eyes were--different. Human. Sad."
"Sad? Sandburg, don't tell me you're feeling sorry for this thing."
"I'm not! And he's not the same thing! I'm telling you, he didn't look anything like the mothman."
"So maybe there are two of them!"
"Two of them? God." Blair rubbed his arms. The air-conditioner in this place was turned up too high. "God, Jim. What are we going to do?"
"Figure out what they are. Find them. Kill them."
"I don't know." Jim grimaced. "Guess we'll find out."