This is for Paulette, who not only wrote 300(!) letters for this story in the gen auction, but who was also kind enough to beta for me and to offer ideas. Paulette asked for an "explain Blair" story. I added more plot and weirdness, and she came up with a brilliant theory about that, too. I only wish I could have incorporated everything she came up with. Thanks, Paulette.
Thanks also to Sue, Kandy, and Vickie, three excellent betas, two of whom were subjected to the unfortunate first draft. Brave women, all.
The usual disclaimer: Not mine, never will be. Apparently, not Pet Fly's, either. No money involved.
Rated PG, for language.
written December, 1998 - May, 1999
Susan L. Williams
Hospitals were all the same. The sharp antiseptic that couldn't quite cover the smell of death and illness, the chill that permeated the air, the fluorescent lighting that only accentuated the bleak coldness of the atmosphere. Even here at Sargent Memorial, a private hospital for the wealthy, it was no different. God, he hated hospitals.
Blair followed Jim through the corridors, the sentinel's feet silent on the spotless linoleum. Blair's own workboots could barely be heard, though he was sure they were loud to Jim's ears. He walked a half step behind the detective, as he usually did when they were on a case. But this wasn't a case; he only wished it were.
Jim strode ahead, counting on him to catch up. Seconds later, he saw the reason for Jim's sudden speed: Room 320 was just ahead. The door was closed; Jim pushed through without knocking. Blair caught it before it shut in his face and sidled through. He stopped just inside the room. Sometimes, it was better to stick to his job title and just observe.
The furnishings were nicer than any hospital room he'd ever seen. Real wood cabinets and table, cushioned armchairs, heavy drapes on the windows, a single bed with a quilted coverlet that matched the drapes. As comfortable as they looked, the chairs were empty. William Ellison stood at the head of the bed, watching Jim approach. He looked tired, and older than he had when Blair last saw him. Jim's brother Steven lay in the bed, his blandly handsome face relaxed in unconsciousness or sleep, Blair couldn't tell which. Jim probably knew, but he wouldn't ask. Not now, anyway.
Even from the door, Blair could see the bruises darkening Steven's face. Butterfly bandages held a cut on his forehead closed. He'd been lucky. The bullet had passed through his torso just below the ribs without hitting anything vital. Still, he'd be in a lot of pain when he woke up.
Jim gazed down at his younger brother, an expression on his face that Blair couldn't interpret. It wasn't exactly anger, or precisely grief, or completely guilt, but some strange, sad combination of the three.
"The doctors think he'll make a complete recovery," William said, his voice low so not to wake Steven.
Jim nodded. "How did it happen?"
"He was mugged."
"On Water Street."
Jim frowned. "What was he doing on the docks?"
William pointedly looked past Jim, but didn't quite look at Blair. "Do you think this is something we should be discussing in front of a stranger?"
"Blair's my partner," Jim said simply.
"I understand that you work with him, Jimmy, but this is a family matter."
"Dad...." The jaw twitched, but Jim managed to get himself under control. "We're talking about a crime, not a social blunder. I asked Blair to come with me."
"To your brother's bedside?"
"Jim, it's okay." Blair opened the door. "I can wait outside."
"You stay right where you are, Chief." Jim turned back to his father. "Blair's my partner. He stays, or we both go. It's your choice."
The alarm on the elder Ellison's face made Blair want to sink through the floor. This was not good. Jim and his father had enough stress right now without fighting over him. Okay, Blair, you're supposed to be smart. Think of a way to make two conflicting Ellisons happy. Yeah, right. How was he supposed to leave and stay at the same time?
Blair moved away from the door, toward the table and chairs on the other side of the room. "Why don't I just wait over here?"
Father and son watched him cross the room and sit down. Neither said a word. When they turned their attention back to Steven, Blair assumed he'd done the right thing. They conversed quietly, and Blair caught a word here and there, but he didn't try to listen. He didn't have to, Jim would fill him in later. He occupied his time scribbling in his latest notebook, outlining the paper he was writing on the similarities between underworld and academic societies. Jim had laughed at the idea, but in certain departments at Rainier, there wasn't that much difference between a dean and a don.
"Chief, come here for a minute, will you?"
Jim had moved to the other side of the bed. Blair took his place at the sentinel's side. He cast a single glance at William Ellison, saw the displeasure in the older man's gaze, and looked away again. "What's up, Jim?"
"Do you see anything on Steven's face?"
Blair studied the still features closely, knowing he wouldn't see whatever it was Jim was looking at. Sometimes, he wished Jim would get it through his head that no one else could sense the things that he could. "Cuts and bruises. You see something else?"
"Right here." Jim pointed at a darkening bruise on Steven's left cheek. "You don't see that?"
"See what, Jim?"
"An impression. It looks like some kind of animal, but I can't quite make it out."
"Try feeling it."
Jim didn't question him; he didn't even hesitate, and Blair wondered if this display of trust was for William's benefit. Another thing he wouldn't ask. Not now, probably not ever. Jim laid one finger lightly on the bruise, stroking over it as though he were caressing his brother's cheek. His eyes were focused on the wall, or in his own head, seeing what his finger touched.
"What do you feel, Jim?" Blair prodded.
"It feels like...I think it's some kind of cat. A lion. Or a tiger."
"Or a bear, oh my," Blair murmured, too low for any but Jim to hear.
"Just doing my job, Jim. Gotta keep you from zoning."
"With bad jokes?"
"Whatever works, man."
Jim cuffed the back of his head lightly, never cracking a smile. Blair breathed easier. At least Jim wasn't too upset to function.
"So, it's a cat, huh? How was it made?"
"Probably a ring," Jim said absently, his fingers mapping the rest of Steven's face.
"Whoever it was must have hit him pretty hard."
"I'd say so."
"Why would a mugger beat him up and then shoot him?"
"Who knows why anyone does anything, Chief? Maybe Steven did something to piss the guy off. Maybe the jerk just didn't like his face."
"Maybe. It just seems like overkill." He winced at his unfortunate word choice. "Sorry."
Jim ignored him, used to those times when his tongue ran away with his brain. The sentinel concentrated on his brother, looking for anything else that might give them a clue who had done this. Not exactly a brotherly reaction, maybe, but one that Jim couldn't help.
"Do you have to do that now?" William demanded.
"Yeah," Blair answered. "He does. If he waits, he might miss something."
"Excuse me, Mr...?"
"Sandburg. Blair. You probably don't remember, but we met when--"
"I remember. I don't mean to be rude, Mr. Sandburg, but I was talking to my son."
Jim looked up from his inspection. "Don't start, Dad."
"Jimmy, he doesn't belong here."
"Fine." Jim straightened up and moved away from the bed. "Let's go, Chief."
Jim paused at the door. "Have someone notify me when he wakes up."
Jaw set, back stiffly erect, Jim left the room. Casting a final, rueful glance at
William Ellison, Blair followed.
Jim exited the hospital with Blair right behind him, the smaller man taking two quick steps for every one of his. The pressure in his teeth warned him, and he tried to relax his jaw, but every time he did, he thought of his father and his teeth ground together again. He climbed into the truck and slammed the door, barely waiting for Blair to get in before he drove off.
Why did he have to be such a bastard? Steven was lying there, beaten and shot, and all he could think about was his precious family name. Did he think being mugged was something to be ashamed of? That Blair was going to go out and tell everyone he knew what had happened, as if it were some kind of juicy gossip? And calling Blair a stranger! Blair was not a stranger. Blair was his friend, his partner. His partner. In many ways--hell, in all ways--he was closer to Blair than to either his father or Steven. But his father assumed that Blair was just a co-worker--or something less, knowing him--and had no right even to be there, much less to hear what was going on. And Blair: Blair was ready to go along with him, to just let himself be thrown out, as though his presence wasn't important, wasn't absolutely necessary. What the hell was the matter with him? He was sitting there now, just sitting there, hands in his lap, not saying a word, giving him those concerned glances once in a while when he thought he could get away with it. Was he insulted by the way the great William Ellison had treated him? Was he mad? No, of course not. He understood. He was forever understanding things, even things that should make him furious. Jim could count the number of times Blair had been angry--really angry--on the fingers of one hand. Well, he should be angry now, damn it. He should be cursing Jim, his father, and all his ancestors back to the first primitive throwback. But he just sat there.
"Jim, it's okay."
"Stop saying that, Sandburg. It's not okay. He treated you like dirt."
"He was upset. His son's in the hospital."
"I know that. Don't you think I know that? But it's no excuse."
"Jim, come on, man, try to look at it from his point of view. As far as he knows, I'm just some guy you work with."
"Are you saying I should tell him about the sentinel-thing, your part in it?"
"No, I'm not saying that. All I'm saying is, to your father, I'm a stranger and he doesn't want strangers hanging around Steven's hospital room. Come to think of it, though, it might help if you told him."
"No." Of all the stupid suggestions. It was just like Sandburg. The kid seemed to think that, if only the right words were said, everyone would get along. Sometimes, his naivete was incredible. And incredibly annoying. "It's none of his business."
"It's up to you, man. I just think, if he were my father--"
"He's not your father, Sandburg, he's mine. I'm the one who had to live with him for eighteen years, not you, so don't go making excuses for him. I'll decide what I tell him."
Blair held up his hands. "Okay, okay. Do what you want, Jim. Just don't bite my head off about it because I am not in the mood for that paternal shit right now."
"What would you know about anything paternal, Sandburg?"
"Nice, Jim," Sandburg snapped. "Just because I never had a father doesn't mean I don't know what they're like."
"Yeah, it does. You've got this sweet little image in your head of this ideal daddy with his little boy, and you think that's how it is. Well, it isn't."
"I know that, Jim."
"I don't think you do."
One hand sliced the air. "Stop right there, man! I am not going to do this. I am not going to be your punching bag tonight, Ellison, I'm too tired. You can take out your frustrations someplace else."
Jim stared at the man beside him. "Is that what I'm doing?"
"Yeah, that's what you're doing. That's what you always do. I don't mind, usually. I mean, I can take it and I know you don't mean it, but it's four o'clock in the morning and I have a paper due in five hours and--"
"Why didn't you say so?"
"What?" Tirade interrupted, Blair stared owlishly, not processing.
"Why didn't you say you had a paper to write?"
He shrugged. "You needed me."
Jim bowed his head to the steering wheel, eyes closed. 'You needed me.' That was all Blair had to hear, or to think, and he just dropped everything. "Chief?"
"I'm a bastard."
"Don't go there, Sandburg. I'm trying to apologize."
"Keep trying, Jim."
He turned his head and opened one eye to look at his partner. "That's it?"
"Well, yeah." Blair's gaze shifted out past the windshield. "There is one thing, Jim."
A quick grin. "The light's green."
Blair surged out of sleep, heart pounding. What the--? Oh. The phone. And by the sound of it, Jim was in the shower. Blair stumbled out of bed, flung open the French doors, and lunged for the phone before the machine could pick up, stubbing his toe on the couch in the process.
"Shit! Ow, ow, ow, hello?"
Silence for a moment. Then, "I'm sorry. I must have dialed the wrong number."
"...Yes. Is this...Mr. Sandburg?"
"You're working early today?"
"No, we don't go in until later. I just got out of... Um, Jim's in the shower. Hold on, I'll get him."
"No. Don't do that. Just--tell him that Steven's awake."
"Are you sure you--"
He hung up. Blair glared accusingly at the receiver before putting it down. Great, Sandburg. Maybe for an encore, you can make crank calls to the Chief of Police, get Jim in deep with all the authority figures in his life. Jim was going to kill him.
"Who was that, Chief?" Jim called from the bathroom, opening the door to let steam escape.
"You weren't listening?"
"Would I be asking if I had?"
Maybe he'd get out of this alive after all. "It was your father. Steven's awake."
"I'm gonna head over there in fifteen, Sandburg. Will you be ready?"
"Sure." An hour's sleep, wet hair, no breakfast. No problem. "Um, Jim?"
"Does your father know we're roommates?"
"Don't think so. It never came up."
"He does now."
Jim stuck his head out the door, razor poised in one hand. He didn't say anything. Just waited.
"I, um, sort of let it slip."
"It's not a secret, Sandburg."
"I know, it's just--he didn't seem exactly happy about it."
Jim shrugged. "He's never been happy about anything else I've done, why should my living arrangements be any different?"
"Not a big deal, Sandburg."
Jim finished shaving and left the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. "All yours, Chief."
Fifteen minutes later, Blair emerged from his room clean, shaved, dressed, and dripping water from the ends of his hair. Jim already had his jacket on.
"Let's go, Chief."
"Yeah." He took a deep breath. "Jim, do you really need me to go with you?"
Jim's face went still. Never a good sign. "Sandburg, if this has anything to do with what we just talked about--"
"Jim, I'm just asking. I'll go if you want me to, but I have to get that paper in by nine."
"Oh. Right. No problem, Chief, you go on to school. Why don't I meet you for lunch?"
"Great. See you later, Jim."
"Yeah." Jim paused in the door. "That 'classic' of yours gonna make it?"
"The Volvo's running great, Jim."
"Okay, then. See you."
Jim shut the door behind him. Damn, he'd hated doing that. Jim obviously wanted him along, for moral support if nothing else. The fact that Jim would never in a million years admit that made it easier to get around him, but it made Blair feel ten times worse. He hadn't lied, he did need to get that paper in. It just wasn't his only reason for begging off. Jim needed to see his father and brother alone, without his roommate/partner/guide/whatever tagging along. And, okay, there was also some cowardice involved. It might have gone right past Jim, but he knew exactly what William Ellison was going to think about the living arrangements and he just wasn't up to facing that right now. Once he'd had some sleep, he could stand up to anything the elder Ellison might throw at him, but not now, not without losing his temper, and he didn't want to do that with Jim's father. Not if he could help it, anyway.
So, okay, it was not quite 7 AM. He'd drive to Rainier, drop off his paper--Early! Dr.
Mariades would faint--beat it back here and sleep for a few hours before he met Jim for
lunch. By then, his hair would even be dry. Now that was a plan. Provided
his conscience would go along with it.
The hospital looked the same in daylight as in darkness. A little less haunted, maybe, less redolent of the thousands who had died here over the years. Jim smiled slightly. Blair would love that image. In half a second flat, Sandburg the scientist would be all over him with questions about whether or not he could actually sense the presence of departed souls. He couldn't. At least, he didn't think he could. But he did not want to do any tests to find out. So he wouldn't mention it to Blair, and he'd have a little peace in exchange for the oppressiveness he always felt in these places. And he wouldn't question whether that was a sentinel thing or just a human thing. As Blair would say, hospitals sucked.
All was quiet in Steven's room. There were no monitors beeping, no IV's dripping, no voices talking, just breathing, and two heartbeats he wouldn't have recognized before last night. Steven turned to look at him when he walked through the door; their father was asleep in one of the chairs next to the bed.
"Hey, Jim," his brother said softly.
"Steven," he returned. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone bashed me with a telephone pole, then shoved it through my body." He smiled, but lines of pain bracketed his eyes and mouth.
"You look it."
Jim regarded his brother. Younger, smaller--dumber, he'd always said, but he hadn't meant it. Steven had always been a smart kid, not as athletic as Jim, but no wimp, either. No football, but he'd played baseball and basketball. When Jim left, he'd just been getting into track and field. He was a runner. Like Blair. Of course, Blair had never lived anywhere long enough to get involved in any organized sports, even if Naomi would have let him, which he doubted. He couldn't see the original flower child wanting her son to take part in "ritualized competitive brutality" or whatever she would have called it. That hadn't stopped Blair from playing, when he could. The kid had a hell of a fastball and was pretty good in a pick-up game.
"Jim? You with me?"
"Yeah. You were damn lucky, Steven."
"What the hell were you doing down there?"
Their father jerked awake. "What? Steven?"
"Right here, Dad."
Steven laid a hand on his arm, and he calmed down, his heart resuming its normal rate. He looked around blearily, spotted Jim, and the anxious look he seemed to wear whenever he was in his older son's presence came over his face.
Steven glanced from one to the other. "Take him home, will you, Jim? He's been here all night."
He set his jaw. "I'm staying."
"Dad, I'm going to be here for a couple more days. You can't stay here the whole time. Go home and get some rest. Please." Steven squeezed his father's arm, whispering, "It's not your fault."
"All right." Their father stood slowly, his age evident in the careful precision of his movements. "But I can drive myself."
Steven looked to Jim, a pleading glance he couldn't ignore. "I'll take you, Dad. You've been up all night. If you get into an accident, with Steven already in here, I'll never live it down at the station." He turned his attention to Steven. "Someone from Robbery will be by to take your statement."
Alarmed. "You reported it?"
"The hospital. They had to, Steven, you were shot. It's the law."
"Oh. Right. Then you won't be working the case?"
"Not officially. It doesn't qualify as a major crime."
"I'll keep my eyes and ears open."
Steven nodded. "Okay. Great."
Behind him, his father's heart rate soared. "You coming, Jimmy?"
Jim studied him, seeing nothing on his face but weariness. "Yeah. Sure. I'll stop by later, Steven."
Jim walked beside his father, slowing his stride to match the older man's, resisting the unreasoning urge to offer physical support. It wasn't needed, he knew that, but he was still having trouble reconciling the man beside him with his memories of his father. William Ellison had never been a jock type--he'd worked with his head, not his hands--but now he seemed thin, almost fragile. Not at all the strong, cold, demanding man Jim remembered. Had age given him wisdom, as Sandburg claimed? Or was it just fear of being alone that made him desperate to make peace with his sons? Should that matter? Did it matter?
The ride to his father's house passed in silence. It still looked the same; the same as it had last spring; the same as it had thirty years ago. His father pulled up on the door handle, and hesitated.
"Can you come in for a while? Sally will have coffee on."
Jim sniffed the air. Coffee. And coffeecake. He hadn't tasted Sally's coffeecake since he was a kid. He shut off the truck. "If you want. Sure."
In minutes, they were ensconced in the living room with plates of coffeecake and mugs of coffee. The coffeecake was still warm, and just as good as Jim remembered. His mother hadn't been much of a cook, but Sally was the best. His mother hadn't done much of anything that he remembered. She'd been prone to incapacitating migraines. One of his strongest memories of her was lying in her darkened room with a damp cloth across her eyes.
His father finished his cake and stared at the crumbs on the plate.
"Jimmy," he began, "when I called this morning...."
He looked up, but Jim wouldn't give him any help. He knew where this was leading.
"Your...uh...your partner answered."
Jim nodded. "Blair's also my roommate."
"I see." He cleared his throat. "What does that mean, exactly?"
"It means we share the apartment, Dad."
"That's all? You're not...?"
"Not what, Dad?"
"Dammit, Jimmy, you know what I'm trying to say."
"No, Dad." Jim fixed his eyes on his father, his voice as cold as he could make it. "I don't know."
"Are you--Is he--Do you--" He gripped the coffee mug so hard Jim thought it would break. "Are you gay?"
Jim sipped his coffee. "No."
"Thank God." His father set plate and mug down on the table with shaking hands. "Jimmy, do you know what it looks like, you living with him?"
"I know exactly what it looks like, Dad. It looks like Blair's my roommate."
"Jimmy, he's so much younger than you, so, so--hippie-ish. He has long hair, for God's sake!"
"Is that supposed to mean something?"
"He's not even thirty! Is he?"
Jim shot to his feet. "What, Dad? You want me to throw him out? Is that it? How many times do I have to say this to you? Blair's my partner. He's also my friend, and my roommate. So he looks a little different, so what? He's loyal to a fault, braver than most of the cops I know, and a hell of a lot smarter. I like him. And I like things just the way they are. I'm not about to change them because you don't like the way it looks."
"Drop it, Dad. And don't ever bring it up again. Not to me, and especially not to Blair."
His father gazed up at him. "Why is he so important to you?"
"Because he--" Anger drained out of him. He was not going to explain Blair to his father. "He just is, Dad. He just is."
His father looked away, and he stood in awkward silence. "I've gotta go to work. Get some sleep, Dad."
A nod was his only answer. Well, what else was new? Jim walked out. That wasn't new,
Blair walked into the restaurant, spotted Jim already in a booth, and slid in opposite him. Jim handed him a menu in silence. The jaw wasn't going, but no greeting meant something was wrong. Jim Ellison wasn't that hard to read, if you knew him.
"Hey, Jim. How's Steven?"
Oookay. Worth pushing? Blair studied his partner. Nah, not yet. "Did he tell you anything?"
"I'm not on the case, Sandburg."
Patience. "I know. But you asked, right?"
"No." Jim looked at the menu. "Did you get your paper in?"
Smooth, Jim. "Yeah, thanks. Dr. M. practically fell over."
"On time for a change, huh? Better be careful, Chief. Some of these professors are old; their hearts can't take that kind of shock."
"Hey, B.S. I was never late in my life."
Jim quirked an eyebrow. "B.S.?"
"That's b.s., all right."
Blair snorted. "If that's the best you can do, you have no right to complain about my jokes."
Lunch passed in small talk. Blair waited until Jim had finished eating and visibly relaxed before he tried again.
"How's your father doing?"
No dice. Jim stiffened right up. "Same as always."
"What does that mean, Jim?"
"It means I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay. Fine. Don't." You will. "You ready?"
"Sandburg, I just said--"
"To go, man."
Jim sighed, staring into space. "Sorry. Yeah, let's go."
The ride to the station was silent. Jim looked pissed off at the world. That wasn't unusual, but it could be a real pain in the ass. Sooner or later, Blair would get everything out of him, but he'd really prefer it to be sooner. The longer he waited, the harder it would be, for Jim and for him. If nothing else, he'd learned that in three years. And if it was his fault, he definitely wanted it out in the open. He hated it when Jim was mad at him. Especially those times when he wasn't quite sure why. Not that that happened often. Jim usually didn't hesitate to tell him when he'd screwed up.
Jim had incredibly high standards in some areas. In most areas. Right and wrong. Courage. Loyalty. Loyalty was a big one. Blair wasn't sure how much of it was genetic--an offshoot of the sentinel abilities--and how much had been learned. Based on what little Jim had told him, William Ellison had been a strict father with very definite ideas about what was acceptable behavior in his sons. But Jim hadn't said enough for Blair to form a good picture of William's morality or lack thereof. Pitting his sons against each other counted as rotten in Blair's book, but he might have done it out of some skewed belief that he was preparing his sons for the "real" world. Then again, he might just have been a mean son of a bitch who got some perverse enjoyment out of turning brothers into rivals. From what he'd seen, Blair didn't think the latter was true, but Ellison could have changed a lot over the years. People did. Just look at how much Jim had changed since Blair met him. If Jim could change that much in three years, William Ellison could have become an entirely different person in twenty.
"So, did your father say anything?"
Blair suppressed a sigh. Pulling teeth? That was easy. "The phone call this morning." Me.
"He mentioned it."
Blair waited. When nothing more was forthcoming, he twisted to look at his stone-faced partner. "Well? What did he say? He thinks we're shacking up, right? Oh, man, I am so sorry."
Some day, Jim was going to break that steering wheel. "Sandburg, I told you not to worry about it. What he thinks isn't important."
"It is, to you."
"I stopped caring about his opinion a long time ago."
"No, you didn't. He's your father, Jim, you're always going to care."
"We've already had this conversation, Chief."
"What did you tell him?"
"If I tell you, will you shut up about it?"
Jim's glance was skeptical, but he answered. "I told him you're my roommate."
"So, you didn't mention the sentinel thing?"
"Come on, Jim."
"No, I didn't mention the sentinel thing. I mentioned the partner thing, the friend thing, and the roommate thing. Okay? Are you happy now?"
"Yes." For now. "You told him I was your friend?"
He didn't expect an answer. Blair faced front again, sporting a smile that wouldn't go away. After a while, the blood flow returned to Jim's fingers. His eyes slid in Blair's direction for half a second.
"'Shacking up', Junior? I'm surprised you even know the term."
"Hey, man, I'm just trying to keep it in a context an old guy like you can understand."
Jim reached over and cuffed the back of his head. He could have ducked out
of the way, but he didn't bother. It didn't hurt, and it gave Jim something
to grin about.
The afternoon passed slowly. With no pressing cases to occupy him, Jim was reduced to completing backed up paperwork and dwelling on what had happened to his brother. Or maybe what had happened with his father. Blair's attempts to lend a hand resulted in so many snaps and growls that he finally took himself off to Brown's desk and busied himself with school work. Seeing Blair's retreat, everyone else gave Jim a wide berth, which was probably just the way he wanted it. Blair got a sympathetic cup of coffee and a vending machine brownie from Rhonda, who still seemed to consider him the division mascot; Jim got decaf and no brownie. Blair's offer to share was turned down with a look. Hey, fine. No chocolate for you, Detective. You just sit there and brood.
By three, it had gotten so bad that Blair actually e-mailed Simon, begging
him to assign Jim a case--any case. Simon refused, citing Jim's need to concentrate
on his family, and Blair resigned himself to living with a panther with a thorn
in his paw until Steven's case was resolved to Jim's satisfaction.
At four, a clerk from Robbery--Diane, if Blair remembered right, and he usually did--walked into Major Crime and handed Jim a folder. Jim stared at her like she'd handed him a bucket of fresh manure.
"What you asked for, Detective," she replied frostily. "A copy of the report on your brother's shooting."
Jim managed a smile. "Thanks very much for your trouble."
Denise returned Jim's smile, winked at Blair, and left. Blair watched her out, admiring the view, letting his imagination run wild until Jim's voice snapped him back to reality.
"God dammit, Steven!"
Before Blair could formulate a question, Jim was striding out the door, the folder clutched in his hand.
"Jim?" Blair hastily shut down Brown's computer, snatched up his backpack and jacket, grabbed Jim's jacket off the back of his chair and raced after his partner.
The elevator doors slid shut in his face. Dammit! Ellison, you son of a bitch! Blair took the stairs, racing down at breakneck speed, arms full of jackets and pack, cursing the name of Jim Ellison all the way. He burst through the door to the garage to see Jim pulling out of his parking space, heading for the exit.
Blair jumped an island, wove through a maze of concrete barriers and ran out in front of the truck. Jim slammed on the brakes. Blair slapped the hood, dashed around to the passenger door, jerked it open and jumped in.
"Sandburg, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"What do I think I'm doing? What do you think you're doing, man? Why'd you take off like that?"
"I need to talk to my brother."
"Why? What's going on?"
"Read the report."
Blair looked around. "Where--?"
"You're sitting on it, Darwin."
"Oh." Blair slid the folder out from under him and began to read.
His eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, shit."
Blair half-ran in an effort to keep up with Jim. The drive to Sargent Memorial hadn't calmed him down at all. He was majorly pissed. If Steven hadn't been in the hospital already, Jim might have put him there.
Jim slammed through the door to Steven's hospital room, startling his father and brother. William half-stood; Steven jumped, grabbed his side, and sank back onto the pillows. Jim thrust the folder in Steven's face.
"What the hell are you up to?"
Steven glanced at his father. "What are you talking about, Jim?"
"This." Jim practically shoved the folder up his brother's nose. "What kind of 'business meeting' were you having down on the docks at midnight? Huh? What are you into, Steven?"
"Don't lie to me!"
William reached for his older son. "Jimmy, calm down."
Jim wheeled on him. "Stay out of this, Dad!" Back to Steven. "Do you think I'm stupid? You sure as hell thought the cops from Robbery were when you fed them this bullshit. No wonder you were so worried about me reporting the shooting. What are you involved in this time?"
"It's a development deal, Jim. Perfectly legitimate. Anyway, the client didn't shoot me, it was a mugger. It's in the report."
"The report is crap! Legitimate clients don't have midnight meetings."
"This one does."
"Oh, really?" Jim grabbed the bedside phone. "How about we call
him and ask? I'm sure this legitimate business client of yours will be happy
to verify your story."
Steven struggled up and put a hand over Jim's. "No. Don't." He fell back again, closing his eyes. "You're right. I lied. There was no client. I'm sorry, Jim."
Shit. Slowly, Jim returned the receiver to its cradle. He looked stunned, as though he hadn't really believed what he knew had to be true. "What the hell were you doing down there, Steven?"
"Stevie," William began.
"No, Dad," Steven said quietly. "Jim needs to know." He opened his eyes, but couldn't look at Jim. "I was meeting a blackmailer."
"What?" Jim's voice would've lowered the temperature in Antarctica. Having been on the receiving end of that more than once, Blair winced in sympathy for Steven, but kept his mouth shut. "What did you do?"
Steven looked to his father again. "Dad?"
William nodded slightly and fixed his gaze on the floor. "Steven isn't the one being blackmailed, Jimmy. I am."
"You?" Jim faced his father. "Why?"
William glanced at Blair, hesitating.
"Maybe I should wait outside," Blair offered.
Jim shook his head. "No, Chief. Stay."
The distress on the older Ellison's face was too much. Blair tugged on Jim's sleeve, drawing him aside for the illusion of privacy. Probably, both William and Steven could hear anyway, but they'd be polite and pretend they couldn't. People did that.
Blair pitched his voice low. "Jim, I don't think this is a good time to push the partner thing. You want your father to open up; I don't think he'll be able to do that in front of me. I'm gonna go get a cup of coffee. I'll be back in fifteen minutes. Okay?"
Jim didn't look at him, but the tension in his arm eased slightly. "I'll fill you in later."
Blair gave Jim's back an encouraging pat, and left the room.
Jim watched Blair's exit from the corner of his eye, then switched his focus to his father. The greying head was bowed, resting in hands that had once been strong, but were now unaccountably bony, the skin sagging and wrinkled, dotted with age spots.
"He's gone," Jim said, sounding cold even to himself. "Tell me."
The hands muffled his father's voice, but Jim heard clearly. Of course. "It's about your mother."
Every part of him that could move was instantly sheathed in ice. His mother? His mother was dead. How could anyone--"What about her?"
"She.... While we were separated, before the divorce, she--she had an affair."
"You were separated. She had a right to do what she wanted. How can anyone blackmail you with that?"
"There are pictures, Jimmy. They're--not very nice. The blackmailer threatened to make them public, to send them to the club, the papers--anywhere I wouldn't want them to go."
"Where are the pictures now? Did you handle them?"
"They're gone. I burned them."
"Dad, they were evidence--" Jim sighed. It was too late now. Why waste his breath? "How much does he want?"
"Fifty thousand dollars."
"Do you know who it is?"
His father's heart rate increased. "No."
"I don't know him, Jimmy."
"Fine." He turned to Steven, whose sympathetic gaze was locked on their father. "You went to make the payoff?"
"No. I went to negotiate."
"Negotiate? Did you think this was some kind of business deal?"
"That's exactly what it is, Jim. Or what it should have been."
"But the blackmailer didn't play by your rules, did he?"
Steven actually blushed. "No."
"Was he alone?"
"Can you describe him?"
"Not very well. It was dark. He's big, a couple inches taller than you. And about twice as wide."
"Did you see the ring?"
"He wore a ring. It left an impression on your face."
Steven lifted a hand to his jaw, trying to feel the mark. "Something flashed just before he hit me. Must have been that. I didn't really see it, though." He frowned. "I don't feel anything."
"Trust me, it's there." Steven shrugged and lowered his hand. "This guy's idea of negotiating was to beat the crap out of you?"
"He said the price was non-negotiable. Said he wanted to show Dad just how unhappy it made him that he didn't live up to his end of the bargain."
"So he shot you just to make it extra clear?"
"He could've killed you."
"I know. I guess I'm lucky he just wanted to make a point."
"I guess you are." It wasn't easy, but he managed to keep from telling
Steven how stupid he was. That could wait until later. "Dad?"
Finally, his father looked up, his expression miserable.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want you to know. I didn't want either of you to know, but Steven was there when he called yesterday. He insisted...."
"You should have told me, Dad. You should have gone to the police."
"No. No police, Jimmy. He said--"
"Dad, I'm the police."
"You're my son. This is a personal matter."
"It's a crime. I can't ignore it."
"Yes, you can."
"What are you saying, Dad? You want to pay this guy? You want to let him get away with this? He shot Steven! Does your name mean more to you than your own son?"
"No! Of course not. But--your mother...."
"What do you care? You divorced her."
"She divorced me. But she was your mother, Jimmy. Yours and Steven's. I don't want you hurt by this."
"Steven's already been hurt."
"Hey," Steven interrupted. "I'm still here. Do I get a say in this?"
Jim and his father spoke in unison. At any other time, it might have been funny. Not now. Blue Ellison eyes glared at each other. Steven broke the silence, a firmness in his tone that Jim had never heard before.
"I'm the one who got shot. I agree with Dad. Keep it private. Pay him and he'll go away."
"And if he doesn't?" Jim demanded. "What then?"
"I think we should take the chance."
"It's not up to you, Jim. It's up to Dad."
He couldn't win. His father would never give in; he never had, not on anything. Steven's support just made it worse. But he was a cop. He couldn't just stand by and watch while his father paid a blackmailer. Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stop the headache he knew was coming.
"Has he called again?"
"When he does, let me know. I'll make the delivery."
"This is non-negotiable, Dad."
His father sighed. "All right, Jimmy. Whatever you want."
He almost laughed. The door opening saved him from having to answer. Blair stuck his head in cautiously. "Everything okay, Jim?"
"Fine, Chief. We're done here." Jim picked the folder up from the bed and moved to the door, pausing to cast a final glance at his father. "Call me."
You'd better, Dad. But he didn't say it.
Curling into lotus position on the couch--no shoes, he wasn't about to listen to a lecture on upholstery-cleaning costs--Blair sneaked a look over his glasses. Jim lounged at the other end, long legs extended in front of him, remote in hand, staring at the TV screen with every appearance of a nothing-better-to-do level of interest. Blair doubted that he actually knew what he was looking at. Jim had told him the real story behind the blackmail. To anyone else, Jim would appear amazingly unconcerned, but Blair knew better. There was no way this was not making Jim crazy. He'd go crazy if someone were blackmailing Naomi. Not that anyone possibly could. Naomi wasn't ashamed of or embarrassed by anything she'd ever done. The Ellisons were another story. Whatever William and Steven's real concerns might be, Jim would not want his mother's name dragged through the mud. Jim might not have known Grace Ellison very well, but she was still his mother, and a guy didn't let things like that happen to his mother.
Of course, Jim being a cop complicated matters. He'd want to arrest this guy
and bring him to justice at the same time that he wanted to wring his neck.
Talk about a conflict of interest. Jim really should tell Simon, but he hadn't.
When the captain found out, Jim would be in deep, deep shit. But would he listen
to Blair, his shaman, his guide, his roomie, his friend for God's sake? Of course
not. It was enough to make him tear out his hair. Not that he ever would. But
if anything could make him start, it would be Jim Ellison, Sentinel of the Great
City and Hardest Head in the PNW. And he wasn't getting a single test graded.
His eyes didn't leave the screen. "Yeah?"
"What are you gonna do?"
"I don't know yet, Chief."
"Y'know, Simon could put a tap on your father's phone."
"Not without his permission."
Jim levered himself up and headed for the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge. Let's not make that avoidance too obvious, huh, Jim? "You could convince him."
The bottle hit the counter. "He doesn't listen to me, Chief. He never has."
"Maybe. But you don't even want to try, do you?"
Blue steel points pierced him. "Why wouldn't I?"
"I don't know, man. You tell me."
"Look, Dr. Freud, I don't need to be analyzed."
"Hey, I'm just trying to help."
"I don't need any help."
"Fine." Blair unfolded himself from the couch and stalked to his
room. Before he shut the doors, he tossed back, "Let me know when you do."
He threw the tests on the futon and climbed on after them. Raking his hair back with both hands, he glared at the Peruvian pattern on the coverlet. Great. Way to be the reasonable, mature one in the situation, Blair. Go to your room and sulk when your partner lets his feelings control his responses. Something you should know all about, by the way. Dammit!
The red pen sailed across the room, smacked the glass over his rainforest frog print, and fell to the desk. He was sick of being reasonable. If Jim didn't want his help, fine. Let him handle this on his own. He had other things to do. Tests to grade, papers to write, notes to organize. He wasn't just an adjunct to Jim Ellison. Jim said he didn't need him, so he'd just stay out of the way and let Jim do what he wanted.
Yeah. Right. That's gonna happen.
A soft tap at the door. "Sandburg?"
"You want popcorn?"
Blair shook his head. You'd think Jim would have learned by now that food didn't
solve everything. Knowing the sentinel would hear, he heaved a sigh. "Sure,
Jim. I'll be right out."
Jim snatched the phone up before it was through its first ring. Shoving the
sleep mask up, he brought the phone to his ear. Great. 2 AM.
"Jimmy?" The well-known voice shook. Jim steeled himself.
"Sally? What's wrong?"
"It's your father, Jimmy. He got a phone call. He said it was nothing, a wrong number, but he went out."
"Do you know where he went?"
Sally's voice became increasingly hysterical. "He said to the drugstore, but why would he go now? Something's wrong, Jimmy. Something's wrong."
"Sally. Sally, calm down. It's going to be okay."
"Steven was shot, Jimmy!"
"I know. I know, but that's not going to happen to Dad. Look, I may have an idea where he went. I'm going to check it out, then I'll come over. If he comes home before I get there, make him stay there, okay? Can you do that for me?"
"I'll try, Jimmy."
"Good. Don't worry, Sally, I'm sure he's fine. I'll see you soon."
Jim hung up the phone and started to get dressed, pulling on the first thing that came to hand.
"Jim?" Blair's sleepy voice drifted up from the living room. "What's up, man?"
"My father got a call. He went out."
A beat, while Blair processed this. Then bare feet padded quickly into the room under his. When Jim ran downstairs, Blair came back out, dressed, his backpack dangling from one hand.
"Where do you think you're going?" Jim demanded.
Blair just looked at him.
Jim sighed. "Come on, Chief."
Blair didn't say a word, just followed him out to the truck and hopped up into the passenger seat, like always. He didn't even ask where they were going. He just sat quietly, glancing at Jim every so often, as if gauging his condition, whether emotional or physical, Jim couldn't tell. Probably both, though how Sandburg knew that kind of stuff without the benefit of sentinel senses was a mystery to him. Sure, all cops could read body language to a certain extent, but Blair made it a fine art. Must have something to do with anthropology. Though from what Blair had told him about some of the people he'd worked with or studied under, that might not be it at all.
"It's not your fault."
"It's not your fault, Jim."
"You're analyzing again, Chief."
"Hey, psych minor, man. It's what I do."
Jim shook his head, keeping his eyes on the road. "I should have known he'd do this. He never listens to me."
"Yeah. You told me."
"I told you. But I didn't do anything about it. I should've moved in with him until the call came. I should've been there."
"Jim, he's your father. You trusted him."
"I know better."
"You can't blame yourself for his actions."
"I'm not talking about his actions."
Blair heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Jim, I'm going to tell you something and it might come as a shock, so get ready, okay?"
"Just say it, Sandburg."
"Okay, man, here goes: Nobody's perfect. Not even you."
"You minor in smartass, too?"
"All I'm saying is, there's no way you could have been one hundred percent sure what your father would do. So you guessed. You chose to trust your father. There's nothing wrong with that, Jim."
"And if he ends up in the hospital, like Steven? Or dead?"
"Then that'll be horrible. But it won't be your fault. Your father made
a choice, too. So will the blackmailer. You aren't responsible for either of
"I get the point, Chief."
"Do you? Or are you just saying that to shut me up?"
He couldn't keep his lips from twitching. "Can't I do both?"
Blair snorted, but for once didn't comment. The kid was half right. He wasn't responsible for his father's actions. But he was responsible for his own, and he'd known damn well his father couldn't be trusted. Even if he hadn't, there was procedure. He should've been there when the call came, or at least listened to Blair and asked Simon to put a tap on his father's phone. What the hell had he been thinking?
Jim pulled over and shut off the engine. Blair looked at the deserted warehouse.
"Returning to the scene of the crime, huh? You really think this guy is dumb enough to meet your father in the same place he met Steven?"
"Criminals are stupid, Chief. That's--"
"--how we catch 'em. I know."
"Stay in the truck."
"Not in this lifetime."
"Fine." Jim got out of the truck, remembering at the last second not to slam the door. "Do what you want." Muttering. "You always do anyway."
"Man, that is so not true." Blair grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"
"Don't look: listen." Under his breath. "That sounds familiar."
Jim obediently extended his hearing, first to the warehouse in front of them--no voices, just heartbeats, lots of them, fast, and claws scrabbling: rats--then to the surrounding buildings and docks. More rats--hundreds of them, too many, and roaches, scuttling, clicking--God!
He shook his head, trying to drive the sounds out. "It's too much."
Blair laid a hand on his back, and he zeroed in on the pressure, the warmth. "You've done this before, man. Filter out the extraneous sounds. You know what you're trying to find; let everything else go."
Anchored in touch by the hand on his back, Jim let the rats and roaches fade from his awareness. The creak and slap of ropes and water surged and receded, as did his own heartbeat, and Blair's, leaving nothing. No voices, or footsteps. No--
Jim cocked his head. A heartbeat. Faint. Fast. No, two, slower. But no voices, no movement. He began to move, toward the sound. Contact with the hand on his back was lost, but he knew Blair was behind him, with him. He all but ran, gun in hand, not knowing what he would find, trusting Blair to keep up, to keep quiet. Then he did run, through the empty, echoing building, once a factory of some kind, now stripped of all the machines, the lights, the workers, leaving only concrete posts, and creaking wooden stairs that betrayed their presence. The heartbeats didn't change, didn't speed up with the knowledge that someone else was here. They were unheard, but Jim's heart pounded, dreading what he would find, and Blair's heart beat no slower or less hard.
Close now. Jim stopped, put a hand out to stop Blair, and gripped a jacket-warmed arm for a moment, drawing strength, or imparting it. The heartbeats came from a room to their left, rhythms mingling in his ears, no other sound reaching him, no other sound possible. He pressed Blair back against the wall, ordering him to stay there with a look and no fear, this time, that his partner would disobey.
Jim readied himself, and spun into the doorway, gun pointed unerringly at the heartbeats.
Two men huddled in the corner. Ragged, filthy, reeking of alcohol. And deeply asleep.
Jim's shoulders slumped, gun hand dropping to his side. Damn. Damn. What the
hell was the matter with him? He should have known neither of those heartbeats
was his father's. He turned to find Blair just peeking around the doorway. Sandburg
saw the sleeping men and looked to Jim with a mixture of relief and sympathy.
Leaving the men undisturbed, Jim exited the factory, Blair in tow. They returned to the truck, and Jim got in. Blair hesitated, his hand on the door handle.
"Let's go, Chief. He's not here."
Blair climbed in, glanced to and away from him. "Jim. What if he is? What if he's...?"
"He's not here."
Blair subsided, but couldn't keep still. One knee bounced, for a while. Then one hand slid up and down the shoulder belt. He shoved his hair back over and over, rubbed his thumb and index finger together, ran through all of his nervous tics one by one, until he realized what he was doing and stopped each one in succession. Finally, he was left with staring out the side window, avoiding any possibility of eye contact with Jim.
After twenty minutes of this, Jim pulled up in front of his father's house.
Sally's Escort was in the garage; his father's Mercedes wasn't. Dammit, Dad.
Sally opened the door before they reached it. She clutched a flowered robe around her, her hair disordered, eyes bloodshot. Jim hugged her, and she clung to him while Blair stood by, looking around with interest he didn't bother to conceal. Jim had expected as much. After all, Blair had only been here once before, and this was the childhood home of "the sentinel".
"I'll--uh--I'll make some coffee," Blair offered.
"No." Sally broke away from Jim. "I'll do it."
Sally disappeared into the kitchen. Jim heard her opening cabinets, scooping measures of coffee, pouring water. And another sound: a car turning onto the quiet street. He faced the door, waiting. Blair didn't even ask.
"I'll go help Sally."
Jim just nodded. Moments later, the car pulled into the driveway. Only then did Blair say softly to Sally, "He's back." The key turned in the lock, and his father walked in. He saw Jim, started, but closed the door before he spoke. "Jimmy. What are you doing here?"
"Sally called me."
His father's gaze flicked toward the kitchen. "She shouldn't have."
He tried to go past, but Jim grabbed his arm. "No, she shouldn't have. You should have. We had an agreement, Dad."
His father shook free and headed for the couch. "I couldn't keep it."
"You never could," Jim muttered.
"What does that mean?"
"Never mind." His father shook his head and sat down, rubbing his eyes. Jim stood over him. "Did you pay him off?"
"No. I didn't."
"Then where did you go?"
"To meet him. He doubled his price. I thought maybe I could talk him down."
"Jesus Christ, Dad, that's exactly how Steven got shot! Are you crazy or stupid?"
Blair came out of the kitchen, Sally right behind him, both probably hoping to prevent bloodshed. If his father was affected by Blair's presence, he didn't show it. He stared at his clasped hands. When he answered, his voice was low.
"I don't know. Maybe both. I thought I could talk to him, make him see reason. He wouldn't listen."
"He didn't hurt you, did he?"
"No. He--laughed at me. He said he wants the hundred thousand tomorrow."
"When and where?"
"I don't know yet. He's going to call tomorrow night."
"Fine. When he does, I'll take the call. And I'll make the payoff."
"No. I don't want you involved in this."
"Dad, I'm not going through this again. We're doing it my way. It's that,
or I call my captain right now. Which is what you should have done in the first
"I'm only trying to protect you."
"You can't protect me, Dad. You tried that before, remember?"
His father flinched. "I've only ever done what I thought was best."
"Yeah. Well, you were wrong then and you're wrong now. I'll handle it."
"No," Blair said. "I'll be with him."
"You?" His father looked Blair up and down. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, but frankly, I don't see what you could do to help."
"Dad--" Jim warned.
"No, Jimmy. I want you to explain it to me. Why is he your partner? What help can he possibly be to you? He's not even a cop."
Jim met Blair's eyes for a long moment. Blair nodded encouragingly, but didn't speak, leaving it up to him. He knew what Blair wanted him to do. But it wasn't right. Blair's presence in his life shouldn't have to be explained to anyone. Not even to his father. Least of all to his father. For his father's sake, he wouldn't do it. For Blair's...? Oh, hell.
"Blair's an anthropologist, a grad student at Rainier University. He's doing his doctoral dissertation on sentinels."
His father mulled this over, and frowned. "So...he's studying you?"
"It started out that way. When my heightened senses came back a couple of years ago, I didn't remember having them. I thought I was losing my mind. Blair found me at the hospital when I was having some tests done, and offered to help. In exchange, I agreed to be his thesis subject.
"Of course, it wasn't that simple. It never is, with Sandburg." Behind him, Blair stifled a comment. Jim smiled briefly. "Most of Blair's 'studying' meant finding ways to help me use my abilities. And to help me deal with having them. Blair would tell you that I spent a lot of time in serious denial. What he'd really mean is that, even before the abilities came back, I walled myself off from other people and devoted myself to being an obnoxious, arrogant jerk. It took me a long time to accept being a sentinel. Blair was there every step of the way, sympathizing, arguing, or pushing, whatever I needed. Sometimes, I still need one or all of those, and Blair's always there.
"That in itself is a lot. More than I had any right to expect from our agreement. But that wasn't all, by a long shot. To help me, Blair had to ride along with me on the job. He was supposed to be just an observer. But from day one, he got involved in the cases I was working on. He's brilliant, Dad, you have no idea. He comes up with ideas, makes connections, just knows things that would amaze you. His insight has helped solve a lot of cases. And he throws himself into everything without hesitation. That includes dangerous situations he shouldn't be anywhere near. I try to keep him out of that stuff, but sometimes--more often than I'd like--I can't. He's been kidnapped, beaten, shot--all to help me. And he keeps coming back for more."
His father stared. "I had no idea."
"I'm not done, Dad. Through all of it--helping me with my senses, risking his life in police work, whatever--Blair has been my friend. He puts up with a lot of crap from me, and gives it back when he has to, but he never walks out on me, or tries to make me be something I'm not. He's given up career opportunities for me, more than once, though he thinks I don't know that."
"Jim," Blair began.
Jim held up his hand. "Let me get this out, Chief. No one has ever been
as good a friend to me as Blair is. No one. And I doubt that anyone else ever
will be. That's what Blair does for me, Dad. That's how he helps me. That's
what he is to me. I hope you can understand that. But if you can't, it won't
change a thing."
His father sat silent for a minute, rubbing a hand over his jaw. "I'm glad you have a friend like that, Jimmy. But there's one thing I don't understand.
"Blair. What do you get out of it?"
"You mean, aside from my diss?"
"A dissertation can't be worth risking your life."
"It isn't," Blair agreed. "But Jim is. And what he stands for is, too."
"What does he stand for?"
"Protecting the tribe. That's a sentinel's responsibility. Cops do it every day, but in Jim, the urge is even stronger. He has to do it, he's genetically programmed. Sometimes, he needs help. I do my best to give it to him."
Blair shrugged. "I'm his partner; it's my job. Even if it wasn't, Jim's my friend. If I can do anything to help him, I will. Just like Jim would for me."
"For anyone, according to what you just told me."
"That's true." Blair smiled. "But I like to think that, with me, it's because he wants to."
"If you're everything he says you are, then I'm sure it is." His father stood. "I'm going back to bed, Jimmy. Why don't you and Mr.--Blair--go home?"
"We're staying, Dad."
"I wish you wouldn't."
"I know you do."
He shook his head and started up the stairs. When he reached the top, Sally turned to Jim. "Your room is made up, Jimmy. Blair can take the guest room."
"Thanks, Sally. Good night."
"Good night, Jimmy."
Sally stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, and headed upstairs. Blair grinned
at him, but Jim refused to blush. The grin softened to a smile.
"Thanks, Jim. I know you didn't want to tell him."
"It had to be done."
"I agree. But you made me sound like Saint Einstein. You didn't have to do that."
"I didn't say anything that wasn't true, Chief."
"Maybe. Anyway, thanks."
"You said that already."
"Can't be brilliant all the time, man."
Jim groaned. "I knew I'd regret those words."
"Oh, yeah." The grin was back. "You will, Jim. You definitely will."
Pulling his flannel shirt on, Blair shivered a little in the chill morning air. Like son, like father: apparently, William Ellison didn't like heat any more than Jim did. He wondered if it was an aversion to heat itself or to paying the heating bill. Whichever, it made things uncomfortable for Naomi Sandburg's progeny.
He opened the bedroom door just as the shower started running. Perfect. Shoes in hand, Blair argyle-footed it down the hall and folded himself to the carpet with his back against the bathroom door. At his normal volume, he said, "Morning, Jim. Since you can hear me just fine and I can't hear you at all, this seems like a great time for a talk. Just stay calm and hear me out, man, I wouldn't want you to get soap in your eyes or anything. Anyway, here goes: I think you should call Simon. I mean, you're going to have to anyway, since you're not planning on showing up for work today, but I think you should tell him about the blackmailer. I know you don't want to. I know this is about your mother's reputation, and that's important, but Jim, not telling Simon is just--well--dumb. I know you. I know you have no intention of just giving this schmuck the money and walking away. You're going to arrest him. But what happens when you do that, Jim? Simon finds out what's been going on and rips you a new one, that's what. You know I'm right, man. Besides that, it doesn't make sense to go after this guy without backup. Sure, I'll be backing you up, but Steven said this guy was huge, right? Don't you think there should be other guys with guns on your side? And, I know I said this before, but I really think it would be a good idea to put a tap on your father's phone. If nothing else, you'll get the blackmailer's voice on tape, right?
"Okay, I'm done. You can be mad if you want, but after you've had your morning dose of caffeine, you'll know I'm right. I trust you, Jim. I know you'll do the right thing."
The bathroom door jerked open. Deprived of his support, Blair tipped over. Lying on his back, he looked up into the stratosphere, where Jim's lathered face loomed. The shower was still running.
"You know I'm right, Jim."
"Wasted lecture, Professor. I already called him. He'll be here in an hour."
"Oh." Blair sat up. "Well, good."
"You think I could shave in peace now?"
"Sure, Jim. Go ahead."
Jim shut the door. Grinning, Blair climbed to his feet and went downstairs to see about breakfast.
They were gathered in William Ellison's living room. William sat on the couch, his jaw set, his eyes hard. Blair imagined he must have worn that same expression when cutting the figurative throats of his business competitors. Simon sat in an armchair facing him, leaning forward, long arms and legs at precise angles. Jim paced back and forth, arms folded, jaw working. Blair had placed himself out of the line of fire, close enough to do the observer thing, and to douse fires if the situation called for it.
Simon took a deep breath, held it while he put on his "not a criminal, not an underling, not even an observer, can't yell at him" expression, and let it out slowly. "Mr. Ellison, we understand your concerns, but--"
"I don't think you do, Captain. But the fact remains that I have not given my permission for a wiretap on my telephone."
"Mr. Ellison, do you or do you not want the man who shot your son to go to prison?"
"All I want is for him to go away. I want to pay him and have done with it."
"For God's sake, Dad," Jim said, planting himself in front of his
father, "Mom's been dead for almost thirty years. Whatever this guy has,
it can't hurt her now."
"It's not your mother I'm worried about."
"Then what are you worried about? Your reputation? Your standing in the community?"
"You, Jimmy! I'm worried about you!"
"Whatever it is, Dad, I can handle it."
"Why? What is it, Dad? What does this guy have?"
William shook his head. "Just let me pay him, Jimmy. It's for the best."
"I can't do that, Dad. I have to do my job."
"There are more important things than your job."
"That's not what you used to say to me and Steven."
The older man winced. "I was wrong. Please, Jimmy."
Quietly, "Dad, I can't do what you want. You know that. Now help me do my job: leave the tap in place."
William looked at everyone in the room, finding no support. "I guess I don't have much choice."
Jim squeezed his father's shoulder. "Thanks, Dad."
The call came at 10:13. On the first ring, his father went pale, and Blair's head jerked up from the book he was reading. On the second, Jim picked up the receiver and held it to his father's ear.
The voice was male, unremarkable, but careful to enunciate. "The Mattson Warehouse, in one hour."
Jim snatched the receiver away. "Make sure you have everything with you. Including the negatives."
"Jimmy!" the voice crowed. "It's you, isn't it?"
"Who is this?"
"You don't know me. But I know all about you, Detective. My business is with your father."
"Not anymore. You deal with me or you get nothing."
"Fine. But we do it my way. I'll send you what I have after I get the money. And if I see another cop anywhere, the whole world finds out about your mother. Do you understand me, Jimmy?"
"What makes you think I care?"
The bastard burst into laughter, tried to say something, failed, and hung up.
Jim managed to put the receiver down without smashing it. "Let's go, Chief."
The dark van hugged the side of an abandoned factory, out of sight of the Mattson Warehouse. Inside, Jim touched the wire affixed to his kevlar vest one more time, making sure it was secure. The tech officer fiddled with something, muttering to himself, mostly cursing the equipment that had been state of the art five years ago. Blair barely perched on the seat next to him, his gaze fixed on Jim, as it had been for the last fifteen minutes.
"I don't like this," he said for the thousandth time. "I should go with you."
"No," Simon and Jim chorused automatically.
"Chief, I explained this to you," Jim said, refraining from adding how many times he'd explained it. "He's expecting one man: me. Any more--even just you--could scare him off."
"You need someone to watch your back," Blair insisted.
"That's what the wire's for. And why Brown, Rafe, and the rest of the unit are on the rooftops."
"Come on, Jim, I'm not some rookie fresh from the Academy. A whole SWAT team's no good if they can't see the guy. And all the wire will do is let us listen while he shoots you."
"Nice to know you have such faith in my abilities, Sandburg."
"Hey, man, nobody has more faith in your abilities than I do. But you need backup."
"And that's exactly what I've got."
"Forget it, Chief. You're staying here."
Blair turned pleading eyes on the captain. "Simon...."
"No. No way, Sandburg. In case you've forgotten--again--you are an observer."
"Sure," Blair said bitterly. "Until you need me to go undercover
in a car-theft ring, or seduce some gun-runner's daughter. Then I'm 'part of
"I'm not going to argue this with you, Sandburg. You don't belong in that warehouse and you know it."
"Neither does Jim."
"It's his job."
"And watching Jim's back is mine."
"Time to go," Jim announced. He picked up the briefcase full of cash and opened the van door. "You two behave yourselves while I'm gone."
He swung up into the truck, slinging the briefcase onto the seat beside him, resolutely not thinking that was where Blair should be. Blair was exactly where he should be right now. If he concentrated, he could still hear his partner arguing with Simon. Jim shook his head. Simon should know better. Saying you weren't going to talk about something with Sandburg was the surest way to guarantee a barrage of Blairisms.
Jim parked in front of the Mattson Warehouse and got out. He could hear Rafe, Taggert, and the rest on the roofs of the adjoining buildings, talking to each other over their mikes, but he didn't look to see where they were. Gun in one hand, briefcase in the other, he went in, automatically extending his hearing to try to pinpoint the blackmailer's location.
Jim flinched at Simon's bellow. The van door slammed and rapid footsteps sped
away from it. God dammit, Blair, what the hell are you doing? God dammit, he
knew what Blair was doing: backing him up. And the little bastard had timed
it so that Jim couldn't send him back. Dammit! Damn him! Damn it all!
Footsteps. Two floors up. And a heartbeat, not fast, no excitement or fear there. A voice filtered down; not a shout, he spoke in a normal conversational tone.
"Right on time, Jimmy. Come right up. I'm sure you can find me."
Jim froze, heart slamming in his chest. He knew. This guy knew about the sentinel thing. How? He'd been on alert before; now his awareness tripled. He saw clearly into the darkest corners, heard the slightest sound, felt the air moving around him. He knew where the blackmailer was to the inch, smelled his deodorant, his cologne, the scent of his new clothes and polished shoes.
His footsteps silent, the sentinel glided to the stairs and up, sparing a wish that his shaman would stay outside before his concentration centered wholly on the threat waiting for him above. The enemy felt no fear? That would not last. The enemy was a skulker, a sneak, a coward who hid in shadows. Exposure would bring the fear-sweat; teeth at his throat would set him trembling. He could not threaten the tribe. He would not.
Panther-shadow paced him up the stairs, flowed across night-blackened walls, vanished in the light spilled from a doorway, dim to normal eyes, sun-bright to his until his sight adjusted. He hugged the wall, listening. The enemy hadn't moved. The sentinel swung around the corner, gun trained on the man who stood in the center of the windowless room.
The man smiled. He was tall, taller than Simon, and so wide that his shoulders must brush either side of the doorway. The sentinel saw other details, and ignored them. The cop took care to file them in his memory. Greying hair was cut in one of those Clooney/Caesar things that no one else could carry off, and a goatee divided an expanse of chin. Rafe would know the designer of the navy blue suit, and probably the shirt and tie, too. To Jim, they said only "expensive". Broad fingers gripped a .45, the index finger encircled by a gold ring cast in the shape of a lion's head. He turned the gun slightly.
"You showed me yours, and I showed you mine," he said. "Now
that the display's out of the way, put yours down in the hall and kick it away,
"Now why would I do that?" Jim asked, grinning back.
"Because you don't want Don Hass doing a story on Detective James Ellison, superfreak? I'm sure the public would love to know the real reason behind your remarkable arrest record, Jimmy."
Instinct screamed at him to kill, to eliminate the threat. Jim fought it down, forced it to the back of his mind. The sentinel could not be in charge here. He had to play along, had to find out where the blackmailer had stashed the pictures of his mother. Taking the jerk out now could be disastrous. Blocking the panther's image from his mind, Jim did as he was told.
"Good boy. Now, come here. Not too close."
Jim stopped six feet away. "How did you find out? And what has this got to do with my mother?"
"Daddy didn't tell you? Now that's interesting. There's not a lot of trust in your family, is there, Jimmy?" When Jim didn't respond, he said, "Are you sure you want me to explain this now, in front of whoever's on the other end of that wire you're wearing?"
Jim scowled. "Just tell me."
"All right. My name is Robert Lyons. Doctor Robert Lyons. My father was Dr. Andrew Lyons. A psychiatrist, as I am."
"Should that mean something to me?"
"It will. Thirty years ago, a young woman came to my father for help. For years, she had been experiencing sudden increases in the acuity of her senses. Sometimes, they lasted for moments, sometimes for hours, even days. They could be quite painful, and were always frightening. Doctors had been unable to find anything physically wrong with her, but the surges in sensitivity, if you will, had become more frequent. Understandably, she thought she was losing her mind. So, she had separated from her husband, leaving their two sons in his care."
"My mother," Jim whispered.
Lyons nodded. "My father agreed to treat her. After a few sessions, he became convinced that her problem was not one of the mind, but of the body, no matter what the other doctors had said. She did exhibit signs of depression, but given the circumstances, it would have been surprising if she hadn't. Being the kindly man that he was, my father determined to help her.
"Unfortunately, unlike your Mr. Sandburg--Oh yes, I've seen him, Jimmy--my father had no resources, no information from which to extrapolate a course of treatment. He felt sorry for Grace, but he didn't know what to do for her. Oh, he tried. He tried many things, and conducted countless tests, hoping that something would work. Sadly, nothing did. Your mother's sensory attacks continued to grow worse. My father believed that her despair over his failure caused her suicide. Personally, I believe it was fear. And of course, the divorce. "
"Suicide...." Lyons faded from his sight, the gleeful voice receding. His body went numb. He couldn't see. Couldn't hear, or feel. The world vanished from his awareness, leaving him alone. Everything was grey. Everything was gone.
"Jim! Snap out of it, man. You have to come back now."
A voice penetrated the grey nothing. Shaman. Guide. Blair. Blair was here. Oh, God, Blair was here.
Jim snapped back, his senses slamming open. Lyons was still talking. Out in the corridor, Blair's heart hammered.
"--tell you that, either? Your family has some definite issues, Jimmy. I'd get into counseling, if I were you."
Lyons didn't know Blair was there. Thank God. "You're lying. My mother didn't kill herself. She was sick."
"Now you're in denial. I should have expected it. It's all true, Jimmy. Fortunately for me, my father was so fascinated by your mother's case that he kept meticulous records. He took notes, he taped their sessions--he even went so far as to film some of them. I had the films transferred to videotape, they make fascinating viewing. You'll find that out for yourself, one way or another."
"You bastard!" Jim took a step forward, stopped himself just before Lyons raised the gun higher.
"Anger. You're progressing. But don't let it control you, Jimmy. I'd hate to have to kill you." Lyons waved the .45 at Jim's chest. "Down to business. I'd like you to take that wire off, please."
Lyons' punch knocked him off his feet. Jim shook his head, trying to clear away the fog. Jesus, Lyons was as strong as he looked. No one had ever flattened him like that.
Lyons sighed. "Don't aggravate me, Jimmy. Do it, or I'll be forced to shoot you. That would be painful, wouldn't it? More painful than it would be for anyone else. I'd love the chance to observe you as my father observed your mother. A multi-generational study would be fascinating."
"That son of a bitch!" came from Blair, too low for anyone else to hear. "Jim, I've got your gun. What do you want me to do?"
Jim climbed to his feet, determined not to touch his throbbing jaw. "I already have an observer. He's waiting."
"Okay, man," Blair breathed. "But if he tries anything else, I'm coming in."
Jim removed the wire, and tossed it on the floor at Lyons' direction. Lyons beamed.
"Good. We're leaving now. But first, I think you should work out some of that aggression, Jimmy. Smash it."
Jim stomped on the wire until Lyons was satisfied.
"Feel better now? I know I do." Lyons gestured to his left. "Move
to that wall, please. Take the briefcase with you."
"Do you see the top right-hand bolt on those shelves? What am I saying? Of course you do. Pull the bolt out halfway and stand clear."
Jim pulled. As he watched, the bolt slowly sank back into place, and the wall
swung outward, shelves and all. Beyond was a wooden staircase, leading down.
"Clever, isn't it? During Prohibition, this warehouse was used by rum-runners. I've made some improvements. Soundproofing, for one." Lyons pulled a flashlight from his pocket and waved the .45. "After you, Jimmy."
Oh God oh God oh God. Blair pressed back against the wall, Jim's gun clutched in both hands. Lyons was taking Jim down some sort of secret passage. Simon and the guys would be here any second, but he couldn't wait, Lyons could shoot Jim whenever he wanted. He had to follow them now and make sure that didn't happen, make sure Lyons didn't get away, with or without Jim.
Blair heard the secret door closing and hazarded a look around the doorway. They were gone. Okay. He dug the flashlight out of his jacket, clicked it on, and went directly to the shelves. The bolt was a reach, but he managed, and slipped through the second the wall opened wide enough. Shit. He had to do something to let Simon know where they were. What...?
Blair shrugged out of his jacket, putting both flashlight and gun down to do it--Okay, not bright, but what else was he supposed to do?--and stuffed it between the door and wall. With luck, it would keep the door open. If not, he'd lost a perfectly good jacket. Again. Police work was hell on a guy's wardrobe.
Gun and flashlight again in hand, Blair started down the stairs. He couldn't see the bottom, couldn't see or hear Jim and Lyons, though he was sure Jim could hear him. Man, he hated stuff like this. He'd never liked horror movies. "Don't go into the basement, Blair." But the idiot always went, and here he was, playing the idiot. Of course, in the movies, the ones who got it were always the ones who'd gotten some. The way his love life was going lately, he should be perfectly safe. Besides, Lyons wasn't a slasher, he was just a blackmailing psychiatrist. A giant blackmailing psychiatrist, who beat the crap out of people who annoyed him, then shot them just to make sure he got his point across. Nothing to worry about. How long were these stairs, anyway?
Was that light down there? Blair stopped and snapped off his flashlight. Definitely light. He thumbed the flashlight back on, careful to shine it only on the next couple of steps, hoping Lyons wouldn't see it. The gun was getting slippery. Sticking the flashlight in his mouth, he shifted the gun to his left hand and wiped his right on his jeans.
Voices. He was getting close. He could see another open wall, the light coming from a room beyond. He couldn't see Jim or Lyons, but that was okay; it should mean that Lyons couldn't see him either. He hoped.
Only about ten more steps. Blair turned the flashlight off and pocketed it, slowing down so he wouldn't trip. He stepped off onto a concrete floor and crept toward the open wall, put his back not-quite-touching it, and edged along to the end. Mentally rehearsing the fastest prayer to the most well-disposed deity he knew, Blair risked a lightning-quick peek, glimpsed Lyons' back, and tried another, longer look.
Lyons had his back to the door, the briefcase in one hand, gun undoubtedly still in the other, though Blair couldn't see. Jim faced him, hands at his sides, looking as cool as ever. That non-expression drove the bad guys crazy. Blair had tried to cultivate one himself, but even when he could manage to keep his face still, he couldn't do anything about his eyes. Jim said they always gave him away. He could bluff at poker, he could obfuscate with the best of them, and he could bullshit his way through meetings with a police captain or an academic advisor. He just couldn't look as though he didn't care. He wasn't sure if that was good or bad, in the general scheme of things.
"What now?" Jim asked.
"Now we close the door and wait for your cop friends to give up and go away. They'll be certain we slipped away somehow, and expend their efforts on trying to figure out where I could have taken you. Just to be on the safe side, I'll give them a few hours."
"Then I leave and you stay here."
"Simple as that?"
"Not quite. Before I leave the country, I'll call your father and have
him wire a small deposit to a little account I have set up in the Cayman Islands.
He was willing to give me a hundred thousand to protect you. Think how much
he'll pay to get you back alive. Once I'm safely away, I'll let Daddy know where
"What about my mother's records?"
Lyons waved his arm. Yup, he still had the gun. "They're here, Jimmy. Feel free to take them with you when you go. And if for any reason I don't get safely away, you can die knowing they're securely entombed with you. At least, until the city finally gets around to demolishing this place."
Jim grinned at the huge man, laughing softly.
"What's so amusing, Jimmy?"
"You, Lyons. You think you've got all the angles covered."
"Yes. I do." Sharply, "You know, it might be fun to shoot you after all, Jimmy."
That's your cue, Sandburg. Blair stepped into the doorway, bringing Jim's gun up with both hands. "I wouldn't do that, Lyons."
Lyons glanced over his shoulder. Geez, the guy could at least look surprised. "Mr. Sandburg, to the rescue. All alone?"
"The cops are right behind me." My hands are not shaking. My hands are not shaking. "Drop your gun."
"I don't think so."
Lyons started to turn. Oh God, don't! Blair squeezed the trigger, but Jim was already lunging at Lyons. Lyons switched his aim. Both guns went off. Jim cried out in pain, but there was no answering cry from Lyons. Jim fell to one knee, clutching his arm. Oh God, Jim! Blood was leaking through his fingers. Don't look, you idiot, watch Lyons, watch Lyons! Blair wrenched his gaze away from Jim. The briefcase slammed into his wrist--Ow! Shit!--sent the gun spinning from his hands. It clattered to the floor, but he didn't see, he was too busy staring up into Lyons' grinning face and not at the gun in the enormous hand, not at the gun, don't look at the gun, Sandburg, you complete fuck-up.
"No rescue this time," Lyons said.
Blair closed his eyes. Oh, man, Naomi's gonna be pissed. God, Jim, I'm sorry.
The gun went off and he flinched. Flinched? He was supposed to fall dead, wasn't he?
Blair opened his eyes. Lyons crashed to the floor, blood spreading across his back and chest. Jim still knelt, the backup gun from his ankle holster in his bloody fingers, left arm hanging at his side. Blood soaked his sleeve and dripped from the tips of his fingers.
"Oh my God, Jim!"
First snatching the gun from Lyons' lax fingers--he'd learned something in three years--Blair threw himself down beside Jim. He yanked his shirttail from his jeans, tore off a strip of cloth, and wrapped it around Jim's arm. Jim hissed when he touched it, and swore, but didn't pull away.
"Dial it down, Jim," Blair murmured. "Come on, man, you can do it."
"Simon's coming," Jim gritted.
"Great. In here, Simon!" he shouted. Jim winced, and Blair grimaced in sympathy. "Sorry, Jim. Geez, I'm sorry. I screwed up."
Jim relaxed a little, the pain under control. "You did fine, Sandburg."
"I almost got us both killed, man. That is not 'fine'. I should've waited for Simon."
"Did I hear that right?" Simon stood in the doorway. He surveyed the scene, snapped, "Get an ambulance!" at Brown, then approached Jim and Blair. "Sandburg, did you actually admit that you should have waited for me?"
Blair couldn't meet his eyes. "Yeah."
Jim shook his head. "If you had, Lyons would have shot me."
"Jim, he did shoot you."
"This is nothing, Sandburg. If you hadn't been there, I would have had to make a move then anyway. And Lyons wouldn't have been distracted."
"I missed. I pulled the trigger and I missed. I had King Kong standing six feet away from me, and I missed. How is that possible? Oh, God." Blair sank back on his heels, feeling the blood drain from his face. "I tried to shoot him. I tried to shoot someone."
Simon's hand came down to grip his shoulder. "You did what you had to do, Sandburg."
"Yeah. Yeah. I know. I know. I--" Shut it down, Sandburg. Shut it down! Blair shivered and looked up at the captain.
"Simon, what's taking that ambulance so long?"
Jim looked around the dining room of the Ellison household, absently adjusting the sling on his wounded arm. He hadn't sat at this table for more than twenty years. His memories of it were not good ones. Meals had been opportunities for their father to harangue him and Steven about whatever failing was currently topping his list. He'd lost count of the number of times he and Steven had been sent from the table, supperless until Sally sneaked them leftovers later on. He'd always laughed at televised images of pleasant family dinners, knowing them for fantasies.
Now here he was, back at the same table, with the same tablecloth, the same dishes and silverware. He and Steven still sat in their accustomed chairs on opposite sides of the table, their father at its head. But some things were different. Sally sat at the other end of the table now, an unheard of breach of the employer/housekeeper relationship when Jim was a kid. And Blair Sandburg sat next to Jim. Twenty years ago, no long-haired, weirdo hippie freak would have been allowed in William Ellison's house, much less at his dinner table. But there Blair sat, chatting away with Sally, Steven, and his father, hands flying through the air when they weren't engaged in getting food into his mouth. Nobody was yelling; everyone looked happy. It was weird.
"Blair," Steven said when he could get a word in, "Jim told me what happened."
"Oh." Blair's gaze fell to his plate. "Yeah, I messed up bigtime."
"Sandburg," Jim growled, "I thought we were past this crap."
"Jim said you saved his life," Steven clarified. "He said you've done that a lot."
"Jim exaggerates," Blair said. "It's more the other way around."
"Not the way Jim tells it. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. In case you hadn't noticed, the Ellison family needs all the help it can get."
Blair smiled. "You're welcome. But according to Jim, it's the Sandburgs who are the trouble-magnets."
"Only one Sandburg, Chief," Jim said.
"You haven't met my cousins."
Blair proceeded to regale them with a story about Robert the bookie, then segue
into his truck-driver uncle, all seemingly without taking a breath. When Blair
was in the middle of a story involving three big rigs, the Arizona State police,
a Navajo hataalii, and a giraffe, Jim caught his father's eye and nodded toward
the study. They got up from the table together. Jim felt Blair's concerned gaze
as they left the room, but the kid never ceased talking. He didn't even slow
Jim closed the study door, closing his ears to sounds outside the room at the same time. "We have to talk, Dad."
Anxiety creased his father's face. "I know. I should have told you what
Lyons really had, that he was threatening to expose you. I know that. But I
William Ellison? Afraid? "Of what?"
"Him. You. I don't know." His father ran a hand through his hair. "I didn't know what you'd do, Jimmy. I didn't want you to be hurt."
Jim went cold. "Did you think I'd kill him?"
"No!" His heart pounded. "Of course not."
"But I did, Dad. Lyons is dead."
"Not on purpose. You didn't--you didn't set out to kill him. You had no choice: Blair told me."
"What if I'd told you?" Jim demanded. "Would you have believed me?"
His father looked him in the eye. "You're my son."
"Is that a yes or a no?"
"It doesn't matter. You're what matters."
"So you'd support me if I'd murdered him? That would be okay with you?"
"What do you want me to say, Jimmy? You're my son."
"Dad...." Jim shook his head. "Jesus, Dad, this isn't even what I wanted to talk about."
Now he looked away. "What else?"
"What else? You know what else. Why didn't you tell me about Mom? Why
didn't you tell me she was a sentinel? Why didn't you tell me she killed herself?"
"You didn't need to know."
"It wouldn't have helped you!" Jim watched his father struggle for
control. "Your mother--your mother couldn't cope with her--condition."
Jim exploded. "It's not a condition! She was a sentinel, just like I am!"
"We didn't know that! All we knew was that she had episodes, times when she couldn't block out sounds, or light was so bright the pain made her cry, or she couldn't stand to have any clothes on her body. It started when--when she was pregnant with you. It wasn't bad, at first. We thought it was a side-effect of the pregnancy. Your mother--for a while, she liked it. She could see things, hear things--she could hear your heartbeat, inside her. It was incredible. But when she went into labor.... She was in so much pain, and nothing the doctors gave her helped. I could hear her screaming from the waiting room, but they wouldn't let me in. They didn't let the fathers in, in those days."
"I know, Dad."
He nodded, not really hearing. "When we took you home, she was fine. I thought the sensitivity had gone away, but it hadn't. She always knew whether you were sleeping or awake, when you needed changing. I thought--Hell, I'd never been a father before, I thought it was something all mothers could do. I was in awe of her. I guess--I guess I was a little jealous, too. They say that happens with fathers. Her bond with you was amazing, and I knew I'd never have that.
"When she got pregnant again, the sensitivity went away. We thought it was gone for good, but after Steven was born, it came back. This time, it.... She'd never been able to control it, but this was--it hurt her, so much. She avoided--stimulation--as much as she could--"
"The darkened room."
"You remember that? It didn't help. Not for long. Finally, she--she couldn't bear to be here anymore. She loved you boys, but she couldn't stay here. She needed quiet. She left."
"You divorced her."
"She divorced me. She decided that it wasn't fair for me to be tied to her, and I--I couldn't talk her out of it."
"Did you try?"
Anger flashed. "Of course I did! I loved your mother." The anger
subsided. His father looked old, older than Jim had ever seen him. "Maybe
I could have tried harder, I don't know. When she left, it was hard. I loved
her, but I was angry, too. Angry because she left us, and because I couldn't
do anything to help her.
"She tried doctors. When they didn't help, she went to Lyons. He was a good man; he tried. But he couldn't help her either. When she realized that nothing could help, that she was only getting worse, Grace...."
"She killed herself. And you told us she'd been sick."
Tears stood in his father's eyes. "I couldn't tell you the truth, Jimmy. I knew you had the same sensitivity as your mother. You seemed to be handling it okay, but there was no guarantee that it wouldn't get worse, that you wouldn't.... How could I tell you, Jimmy? How could I tell you your mother killed herself? How could I tell you why?"
Realization stunned him. "You were afraid I'd kill myself, like she did."
A whisper. "Yes. You're my son, Jimmy. I wanted to protect you. I wanted to do everything I could to help you grow up."
"To grow up normal, you mean."
"To grow up! To live. And yes, I wanted you to be normal. I'd seen what your mother's sensitivity did to her. I thought, if you didn't have it, you'd be all right. I loved you. I only wanted to protect you. That's all."
His father touched a trembling hand to his arm. Jim studied the narrow, lined face, the hope and anguish, the trace of old bitterness. Somewhere within him, something softened. Gently, lightly, he folded his father in his good arm. "Okay, Dad. Okay."
His father returned the embrace, his arms thinner than Jim remembered, his strength leeched by age. It didn't last long; they were uptight Ellison men, after all, not Sandburgs. Jim stepped back, fixing his father with a stern gaze.
"You've got to tell Steven."
"I know. I will."
"All right." He sighed. "All right."
"I can't believe it." Steven looked from Jim to his father, shaking
his head. "I can't believe it. When Jim told me that he was one of these--these--"
"Sentinels," Jim supplied.
"--sentinels, that was hard enough. But Mom?" He shook his head again. "I can't believe it."
"You believed me," Jim said. "Why is this so hard?"
"I didn't, at first. But then I remembered, when we were kids, how you could see things, hear things no one else could. I didn't think anything of it at the time. It was just something else you were better at than me. But Mom.... I don't remember her doing anything like that."
"You were really young when she left, Steven. Do you remember anything about her at all?"
"Just that she was pretty. And--she always seemed to have a headache. She was always in her room, lying down. I used to think it was my fault, that I'd made her sick by making too much noise or not doing what I was told." He gave a rueful smile. "Guess it was my fault after all, huh?"
"Absolutely not," their father declared. "Don't even think that, Stevie. What happened to your mother was not your fault."
"But you said she was handling it fine until I came along. Doesn't that make it my fault?"
"No," Jim said. "No way, Steven."
"Then explain it to me, Jim. If it wasn't my fault, whose fault was it?"
At a loss, Jim looked to Blair. Silent until now, the anthropologist stirred to life.
"It's no one's fault, man. You're looking at this the wrong way. Your mother was a sentinel, yeah, but her senses didn't come online the way most sentinels' do. Jim had his from birth. Sir Richard Burton--the explorer, not the actor--said that most sentinels' abilities manifested when they were isolated for a period of time, probably in some kind of coming of age rite of passage, similar to the vision quests of certain Native American tribes, or...." Blair grimaced. "Sorry. Anyway, your mother's abilities didn't manifest until she got pregnant. It's possible that it was a defensive reaction of her body to the changes it went through, or it may have been psychologically triggered by her feeling isolated due to her condition; it could even have been a way to help her prepare for having a sentinel baby. We'll never know. You can't assign blame for something we don't understand." Blair turned to their father. "Mr. Ellison, were there complications with either of Grace's pregnancies?"
"No. They both went fine. She had no trouble."
"Good. We can assume her becoming pregnant again did have something to do with her abilities going offline, maybe as a protective measure for Grace, so she wouldn't experience the pain she went through with Jim. But, as far as we know, there was no physical reason for her abilities to go back online the way they did. Given the conditions we know about, she should have had the same level of control she had before. Her abilities didn't go out of control because you were born, Steven. They couldn't have. We'll probably never know what did happen. But it wasn't you."
"How can you be sure?" Steven asked.
"He's the expert," Jim said. "Trust him, Steven. I do. Without Blair, I would've been in Mom's situation."
"Never, Jim," Blair said. "Not you."
"Yes, me. Don't downplay your part in this, Chief. You didn't when we
met. Remember? 'Mess with me and you will never figure out what's up with you.'"
"You were holding me off the floor at the time, Jim. I would've said pretty much anything to get you to let go."
"It was the truth. No one else could've helped me, Chief. They would've put me away somewhere."
Blair just shook his head.
"So, Blair," Steven ventured, "are you the only expert on sentinels?"
"As far as I know. And I'm not exactly an expert. I'm just the only one who's made a study of sentinels in the last century or so."
"How did you find out about them?"
"I read a monograph by Burton about fifteen years ago. It had basically gone straight into obscurity after he published it. The concept of sentinels fascinated me, so I researched it on and off through school. I wrote some papers, and eventually, it became my dissertation subject. I had hundreds of documented cases of people with one or two hyperactive senses, but I never thought I'd find a real sentinel. I was pretty much convinced they didn't exist anymore, except maybe in remote locations, like the Amazon. Then I found out about Jim." Blair smiled. "It was like all my dreams had come true all at once. When he agreed to let me study him, I was ecstatic. Of course, that was before I knew what a hardnose he is."
Blair grinned. "Jim fought me every step of the way. No matter what I asked him to do, his first reaction was always to say no. It still is, most of the time, but I don't have to argue as hard as I used to."
"Sounds familiar," his father murmured.
Steven grinned back at Blair. "You're getting him trained, huh?"
"I'm working on it."
"I'm the one doing the training," Jim declared. "You wouldn't believe what a slob this guy used to be. I'd come home to find the whole apartment covered with books and papers, discarded clothes, and the remains of whatever weird concoction he'd been eating. Not to mention the assorted artifacts and dead animals he'd leave lying around."
Blair laughed. "That is so not true. I do not deal with dead animals. And I was never that much of a slob. It's just that Jim was so anal, he thought a magazine out of place on the coffee table was a major disaster."
"There you go, Sandburg, obfuscating again."
"That is not an obfuscation, Jim. It might be a slight exaggeration, but--"
Steven shook his head, making no effort to suppress his laughter. "How do you two stand each other?"
Blair and Jim exchanged glances. "He's gotten better," they said.
Jim and Blair sat side by side on the couch, each with a glass of milk and a piece of Sally's chocolate cake, in flagrant violation of House Rule #33. Blair slid a forkful of cake into his mouth, savoring the dark chocolate, the rule-breaking, and the rare peace of the evening. Despite having to balance the plate on his sling, Jim looked equally content, so much that Blair hated to bring up what he knew he had to bring up. He couldn't let it go. As a shaman, an academic, and especially as Jim's friend, he had to do this.
"So, I guess the genetic theory is correct, huh?"
They paused to eat a bite and swallow some milk. So far, so good. Nothing had been spilled, and his head was still on his shoulders. Maybe it was the chocolate. Maybe Jim was mellowing. Nah, must be the chocolate.
"In a way, it's too bad your mother's records were 'lost'. I know Dr. Lyons wasn't able to help her, but they might have told us something."
Jim chewed and swallowed. "You think?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
More cake disappeared. Jim frowned thoughtfully. "Guess it's a good thing they were 'lost' right into my storage space in the basement, then."
"What?" Blair sat up straight. "Jim, are you serious? Why?"
Jim fixed his gaze on his glass. "She was my mother, Chief. I barely knew her. She saw Dr. Lyons for months, told him things. Maybe, if I go through this stuff, I'll know her better."
"Yeah." He laid a quick hand on Jim's arm. "I hope so, man."
"Besides, anything you find out will help me, right?"
"Right. Yeah. Of course."
Possibilities raced through his mind. The things he could learn, the information,
the test results he could put to use. This could be incredible!
Whoa. Calm down, Sandburg. This is Jim's mother you're talking about, not some anonymous test subject.
"Jim, are you sure you want me to see this stuff? Some of it's got to be really personal."
"I'm sure, Chief. You're the only one with a chance of understanding what she went through."
Jim finished his cake and took a long drink of milk.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Chief, but part of me wishes you were thirty years older."
Softly. "Because of your mother?"
Jim nodded. "You could have helped her, Blair. If you'd been there, she'd be alive now."
"I wish I could have helped her too, man. But--and don't you take this
the wrong way--I'm kind of glad to be here now. With you."
"Yeah." Jim reached out and ruffled Blair's hair. "Me too, Chief. Me too"