"God damn it, Jim!" Blair shouted at the closed door. "Why don't you ever listen to me? You're as bad as Naomi. Worse! Damn it!"
Blair paced the living room, gesturing at the air in time to his thoughts. He wanted to hit something. He wanted to break something. Something that would shatter into a million pieces so Jim could spend a couple of hours picking every last one of them up to appease his anal-retentive need for order. His life was shattered, why not a window or a coffee mug, too?
"Okay, Blair," he said aloud, "calm down. And stop the melodrama. Anger isn't getting you anywhere. Anger is counter-productive. Jim isn't the problem here. He's not the solution, either, but he's not the problem. Just calm down and think."
Coffee. He needed coffee. No he didn't. Caffeine was the last thing he needed right now. Tea. Pau d'arco. That was what he needed. Not coffee.
Blair snatched up his untouched mug of coffee and dumped it in the sink. Tea kettle on the stove, gas on, clean mug, tea measured into the pot. There, that was one decision made. That wasn't so hard. Maybe if he took this in small increments, he could make the rest of his decisions just as easily. Maybe not. Maybe he was being hopelessly optimistic. If he was, he got it from his mother. Good old Naomi. A boy's best friend was his mom.
Damn. He was losing it. He should be okay with this. Why wasn't he okay with this? He'd made his decision. He'd chosen friendship over his career. He'd do it again. So why the panic now? What was the problem?
He needed to talk to somebody. He needed to do it now. Jim was out, in more ways than one. Naomi. Blair reached for the phone, and stopped, staring at it. No. Bad idea. Naomi had checked into a hotel to give him space to think, and that was exactly what he should do. He needed to work this out on his own, not go running to his mother. Or to Jim. His life: his decision.
The tea kettle shrieked at him. Blair filled the pot and waited for the pau d'arco to steep. He wanted it strong. Strong enough to keep his brain from running in circles, if that was possible.
Five minutes. Ten minutes. That should do it. Blair poured himself a cup, and took it and the pot back to the living room. Maybe he should eat something. No. His stomach was already full of knots and worry, there was no room for food. Later. He could eat later. And sleep. Right now, he needed to think. He sipped the tea, and gazed through the liquid to the bottom of the cup. He could almost see the gold shield lying there, the one Jim had tossed him in the bullpen yesterday, the one Simon had taken right back. Maybe that should've been a clue.
God. A cop. A cop. They wanted him to be a cop. All of them. Jim, Naomi, Simon. Blair Sandburg, cop. Officer Blair Sandburg. Detective Blair Sandburg. Detective Blair Sandburg? With a gold shield and a gun?
Couldn't be. No way. Blair Sandburg only played at being a cop, he was really an anthropologist. He'd always been an anthropologist, always wanted to be one, ever since he was an eight year old kid who read encyclopedias for fun and spent every afternoon either trying to talk the local bully out of beating the crap out of him on the way home from school, or just trying to outrun him. Could that kid be a cop? The thought was--was--Well, it was very cool. But was it right? Was it him? Could it be?
Blair ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back, noticing the texture of the long strands as though for the first time. If he did this, they'd try to make him cut it. Could he do that? Of course, he could do it, but could he do it? Could he cut off his hair and put on a uniform? He fingered his left ear; the holes were still open, but he hadn't worn his earrings for months. Not since--since he'd died. The hospital had removed the silver hoops when he was brought in, and he'd never restored them, hadn't even considered it. Why hadn't he? He'd worn them since he was sixteen, on and off, almost half his life. They were a part of his identity, yet he'd discarded them without thought. Could he do that with his hair? Did he want to? What did it matter, anyway? It was only hair. It was only a book. It was only his life. Not important. Not important at all. Just ask Jim.
No, that wasn't fair. Jim hadn't asked him to declare himself a fraud on live television, to give up everything he'd worked for, everything he'd dreamed. Jim had made it clear that if something wasn't done, they'd no longer be partners, or friends. He'd said in no uncertain terms that he considered the whole mess to be Blair's fault, that he didn't trust him, not even after three years, not even after he'd died. But Jim hadn't actually asked Blair to do anything. No, he'd decided that on his own, and he'd done the right thing, he knew that. It was for the best, he knew that, too. He knew it. Jim had to be able to do his job. The sentinel had to be able to function. That was more important than a best seller, or an academic career, or even a Nobel Prize. He knew that.
So he'd done the right thing. And Jim hadn't seemed surprised by it. Though he was the same Jim who'd accused Blair of exposing him on purpose. But that little bit of conflict wasn't his problem, it was Jim's, and Jim would have to work it out for himself. If he'd even noticed.
So he and Jim were friends again, and he was openly in Simon's good graces, and he still had a place to live--Jim hadn't kicked him out this time, there was an improvement--and he had a potential new career as an actual cop with an actual paycheck instead of as an anthropologist/observer with a couple of grants and a lot of time donated to the City of Cascade, and even Naomi was happy about it, and man, that was weird.
Naomi. His mother. His mother. The woman who'd said, "The next thing I know you're going to be parading around in a blue uniform and jackboots." was happy that her son was going to be a cop. If anyone had told him that before the whole Sid Graham fiasco, he would have said no way, no possible way, so he wondered--he did wonder--why Naomi was so happy about it, and if it maybe gave her an out from her guilt over what she'd done, but that might be an unfair thought, so he tried not to wonder that and just to accept that his mother was happy for him and for the facts that he and Jim were still friends and that there was an institution that wanted him, even if it wasn't an academic one.
He didn't blame Naomi. Not really. Well, okay, he did really, but he had to let it go, he knew that, she'd only been trying to help him, in her own interfering, do what she wants no matter what anyone says and God forbid she should actually listen to the words coming out of his mouth way. Okay, okay, that wasn't fair either, she did try to listen, she just wasn't very good at it, and shouldn't he be used to that by now? Didn't he go through the same thing with Jim on an almost daily basis and hadn't he learned to deal, so that Jim actually ended up following his suggestions more times than not, whether Jim realized it or not? Naomi had done what she thought was a favor for him by having Sid read his diss. She hadn't meant to cause trouble. He knew that, and he forgave her. Mostly.
So, okay, he'd thrown away his career as an anthropologist. All of academia--hell, the entire world--now believed he was the fraud he'd declared himself to be. He wasn't going to get a Nobel Prize, or a three million dollar book contract. He'd deal with it. He'd deal.
What had he really lost? Money? He'd never had that; it had only ever been a pipe dream, not an objective. Fame? Ditto. The honor of his peers? Well, they weren't his peers anymore. And besides, it was his own honor that counted, not what someone else accorded him. He knew the truth, and that was all that should matter. His diss? Okay, that sucked. But who was he kidding? In three years, he hadn't figured out how to publish without exposing Jim to the media frenzy that had happened. What had made him think he ever would? Chances were good that he'd have had to give up the diss anyway. His PhD? Yeah, that was gone. But they were only letters, a public affirmation of something he already had: knowledge. Did he really need to be Dr. Sandburg? It wouldn't prove anything, except to other people, people he didn't know or care about. Teaching? Teaching. That one hurt. He loved teaching. He loved seeing the proverbial light come on in a young face when the student finally got it; loved sliding the knowledge into their brains without them even being aware that they were actually learning something; loved the enthusiasm of a student who had just discovered that anthropology was a completely and utterly fascinating field of study, worthy of a lifetime's devotion.
But teaching was gone, along with everything else. No reputable school would hire him now. How could they? How could anyone allow a man so obviously unethical to teach? He couldn't be trusted with impressionable students, because no one knew what corruption he might expose them to. He was a fraud and a liar. He'd said so himself.
Blair swiped angrily at the wetness around his eyes. Damn. This wasn't getting him anywhere, this was just a pity party. A self-pity party, and that was the last thing he needed. Okay, so he couldn't teach anymore. So what? Teaching wasn't exactly exciting. Field expeditions could be, but most of the time was spent on tedious transcribing or translating or organizing, not actually interacting with the people he studied. It was kind of like stakeouts: lots of waiting and prepping for a possible few minutes of action. He could live without that. And there was nothing that said he couldn't study on his own, anyway. Field expeditions to anywhere exotic were certainly out--cops didn't make that much and they sure as hell didn't get funding--but he could still do independent local studies of anything he wanted. When he had the time. Which, okay, wouldn't be often if he was a cop. Jim worked long hours and a lot of weekends. He should know that, he'd been working the hours with him long enough. So that wouldn't be any different. Hell, he might have more time, now that he didn't have obligations at Rainier. And he'd get paid for all those hours. Overtime. Overtime could add up. Not to three million dollars. But it would still be more than he'd made in--well, ever.
Not that money mattered, because it didn't. All he needed was enough to get by, to pay his own way. That was all he'd ever needed. Sure, three million would have been nice, but what would he have done with it? Bought a big house? Fancy cars? Designer clothes? Not his style. That wasn't what he'd planned in the five minutes he'd actually thought about it anyway. No, he'd had visions of expanding his sentinel studies, finding other sentinels--there must be some, Jim and Alex couldn't possibly be it--and helping them to live with their abilities. Training other people to guide them, so there'd be other pairs--sentinel and partner--to protect the tribe wherever they happened to be.
Of course, that was just a fantasy. It could never really have happened, even if he'd taken the money. The public finding out about one sentinel had caused enough excitement; a bunch of them would probably cause a panic. Anyway, what did he know about training other people to guide? He operated on a few theories, some research, and a lot of guesswork. He had no idea what he was really supposed to be doing. Hell, maybe he wasn't supposed to be doing anything. Maybe Jim was supposed to be on his own. Jim wanted him as his partner, but what if that was wrong? What if, by hanging around, hanging on, he was somehow holding back Jim's development as a sentinel? What if this whole mess was some kind of cosmic message telling him to get out of Dodge?
Maybe it wasn't about Jim at all. Maybe it was about him. Maybe there was something he was supposed to do and staying on at Rainier and the PD was keeping him from it. Maybe becoming a cop was the absolute last thing he should do. Maybe he was supposed to do something else, something that would make him a better partner for Jim than he could ever be as a cop. Maybe he even had some kind of destiny of his own, that had nothing to do with Jim. Maybe he'd really given up his diss because it was what he needed. Maybe he was a Jedi, and Darth Vader was really his father. Maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi would come along and tell him what to do now.
He did not regret what he'd done. He wouldn't. He'd done it for Jim, and for their friendship, and he would do it again, if he had to. Jim would--Well, Jim wouldn't ever be in a situation like that. But Jim had brought him back from the dead, and that was pretty damn big. Bigger than giving up money, fame, and honor. Because of Jim, he was breathing. Everything else looked kind of small in comparison.
So why didn't it feel small? Why did it feel like he'd died again? Why did it feel like his spirit was back in that jungle, waiting for the jaguar to come looking for him, or for some disembodied voice to say, "Okay, Sandburg, you've passed the test, you can come back now."? Because this was a test, right? It had to be, even though no one had told him about it, so he hadn't had time to prepare, and no spirit guide in whatever form had asked him an obscure question or shown him a cliff to jump off of. He'd made the sacrifice without any kind of otherworldly instructions. Shouldn't he get bonus points for that? Shouldn't he get something? A pat on the back? A gold star on his forehead? Something?
Oh, good. We're expecting rewards for doing the right thing now? That's not the way the cosmos works, Sandburg, and you should know that, even if you aren't the Shaman of the Great City. What reward did Jim get for choosing to be a sentinel? Nothing, unless you count a lot of aggravation, physical pain, and having to spend his life hiding the abilities he didn't want in the first place. It may seem to you that the sentinel abilities are an incredible gift, but you're not the one who has to live with them. Jim never asked to be a sentinel, but he keeps having to reaffirm his commitment to being one, and every time--after some prodding from you and the mysterious--he does it. Every time, he chooses the welfare of the tribe over his own comfort. And you? You whine because you had to give up your PhD and your diss and because, so far, you haven't been given any special powers of your own. Well, hey, Blair, maybe you're not supposed to have any. Maybe that's not what this is about. Maybe you're just supposed to do your job guiding Jim, backing him up, and shut up about the rest of it. Maybe that's all the universe requires of you.
But what if it isn't? What if I'm supposed to do more? What if Incacha was trying to pass some actual thing on to me when he died, and not just the words? What if I just haven't gotten it? What if I've screwed up, and I'm screwing up more with each passing minute? Incacha was Chopec; he grew up with people who know what a shaman is and what he does and what it takes to be one. What if he figured I'd just know what the way of the shaman was, that I'd just say, "Oh, okay, right, I'm a shaman now," and go off and do it and there'd be no problem? What if everything that's gone wrong since then--the whole mess with Alex, the diss, everything--happened because I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do? What if I'm right and the vision I shared with Jim was supposed to be some kind of wake-up call? Jim doesn't think so, but this isn't Jim's area; it's mine. It's supposed to be mine. But I don't know enough.
Blair leaned his head back on the couch, staring at the ceiling. He didn't know enough. He knew a lot about shamanism; he could quote any number of sources, and he'd observed in a variety of different cultures. He'd even written papers on the subject. But observing wasn't doing. He didn't know how to be a shaman. Or even if he was supposed to be one. Maybe Jim was right, and passing the way of the shaman hadn't meant anything more than passing the sentinel. But how was he supposed to know? And if he didn't know what his role was, how could he make a decision about what to do with the rest of his life? How could he continue to work with Jim, if he didn't know what to do for him?
Blair closed his eyes. This was getting him exactly nowhere. If Jim were having this problem, he knew what he'd tell him: follow your instincts. And that would work, because Jim was best operating on an instinctual level, he just needed a little prodding sometimes. Naomi would say, "Follow your heart," and that would work for her, because it always did, with a couple of spectacular exceptions. And okay, he did that a lot, too, because he was, after all, Naomi Sandburg's son and he'd been brought up on the philosophy and, for the most part, he liked it. But right now, his heart wasn't leading him anywhere and whatever instincts he might have were making themselves scarce. So the emotional track wasn't providing any answers, and logic had thrown up its figurative hands and walked away in disgust, and that left him nowhere. And he really would like to figure this one out before he went crazy or Jim came home tonight, whichever came first. At the moment, crazy was ahead of Jim by a nose.
So, fine, the tea didn't work. What now? He had to get focused. He had to--Meditate. That might do the trick.
Blair pushed himself off the couch and cleared the coffee table, dumping everything in the kitchen. He fetched a dozen or so candles from his room, all shapes and sizes, all white; debated a moment, and brought a small, hand-thrown smudge pot striped in soothing shades of blue, and a bundle of sage. He'd air the loft out when he was done so Jim wouldn't react to the sage, but he needed it right now. There was too much negative energy, in him and in the apartment.
He lit the candles and the sage, let the soft leaves get a good burn before he blew out the flame and waved the bundle around to spread the smoke. His Aboriginal CD was still in the player. Blair took it out and replaced it with a Carlos Nakai CD, setting it to repeat. Drumbeats filled the loft, and the song of a single flute. Blair knelt before the coffee table and breathed in the scent of sage, beckoning the smoke toward him, around him. He sat back, brought his legs around to a half-lotus, positioned his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes.
He'd thought it would be hard, that his mind was racing too much, but he slipped into the meditative state easily, between one breath and the next. Breathing became all-encompassing. Positive energy entered him with each inhalation, and negative energy was expelled each time he exhaled. His body relaxed, and thought was first of breath, then of nothing. He drifted, buoyed by the music, feeling the heat of the candles, the denim beneath his hands, the cotton and flannel covering his torso, the soft weight of hair against his jaw and the back of his neck. Aware, yet unaware, he floated.
The flutes and drums faded from his consciousness, became his heartbeat and the song of his blood. The blue of his eyes seeped into his mind, the blue of smoke and water, pooling, swirling, drowning the darkness, filling him with blue. He opened his eyes to azure leaves and indigo earth, midnight trunks and branches tapering to slender twigs of cobalt. He couldn't see the sky, but the air itself was visible, cornflower mist surrounding him. He put out his hand to touch it, and saw his skin tinged pale cyan, like someone who was frozen, or drowned.
Blair felt eyes on him. He got to his feet and turned, peering into the trees and bushes, trying to see who it was. A patch of darkness caught his eye, and he stared at a weaving of branches and a camouflage of leaves. As he stared, a spark of sapphire resolved itself into an eye; shadows coalesced to form a long muzzle and one pointed ear. Deeper darkness split, and ice-blue teeth grinned.
The wolf turned and trotted away. Blair followed, shoving branches aside, pushing through undergrowth, the wolf always just visible, a glimpse of pale fur or a back-glancing eye. The wolf increased its pace, loping through the trees, and he ran after it, arms raised to shield his face from branches. His feet made no sound, nor his breathing, and the drumming of his heart was a thrum he could not hear. He crashed through the forest in the silence of deep water, following.
The wolf vanished. He ran on, determined to find it, to know where it had gone and why. He burst out of the trees, and stopped.
Stone steps rose before him, ancient and cracked, festooned with jungle growth. High on the stairs, the wolf sat, tongue lolling, grinning down at him. He knew the stairs, and the structure at the top: the Temple of Light, spiritual home of the sentinels.
The wolf bounded up the last few steps and disappeared inside the temple. Blair set his foot on the bottom step and began to climb. The temple loomed closer, its open doorway dark, too dark for him to see the wolf or any of the temple's interior. He reached the top, but the darkness remained impenetrable, defying his attempts to see within the sacred place. The wolf had gone in; it must want him to follow, or why lead him here? Blair took a deep breath, and stepped into the darkness.
Falling. He was falling! Fear rushed up, and he flailed wildly, trying to find some surface to cling to, to stop his fall, but there was nothing, only darkness and terror and thick air shrieking past without sound, and he knew that he would die.
Blair slammed into the floor, or his body, or the world. His eyes shot open, saw candles and a blue-striped pot, and the air he held in his lungs rushed out. He leaned forward, put his head in his hands, and concentrated on breathing. In, out, simple, easy, he did it every day, all day, and he could do it now, he just had to remember. He wasn't falling. That hadn't been real, it was a vision, or a dream, or--something. Jim had them all the time. Well, not all the time, but he'd had a few, and now Blair had had two, but this one wasn't quite as cool as the last one had been, though he'd thought it was, right up until the end. Watch that last step, Sandburg, it's a doozy.
Blair raised his head, gazing at the curl of smoke rising from the sage. It was supposed to be a doozy, right? Visions didn't happen just for the hell of it, they were supposed to tell you something, if you paid enough attention, and he had, he just had to calm down enough to realize what the wolf had been trying to say. No. No, he didn't. He knew. He knew what the wolf had meant, and what he had to do now. It was simple. It was obvious.
One by one, Blair pinched the candle flames out, a thread of smoke following his fingers. No sense in waiting. He had to do it now. Jim would understand. Or not.
Jim opened the door to the loft and sneezed violently. What the hell? Sage? Naomi couldn't be here, she'd gone to a hotel, and there were no lights on.
No answer. He scanned the dark apartment, saw candles and one of Blair's pots on the coffee table, but no Sandburg, mother or son. He extended his hearing, but found no heartbeat other than his own. Naomi must have been here earlier; she and Blair probably went out somewhere.
Jim shucked his coat and moved into the apartment, trying not to breathe. Turning on lights as he went, he made his way to the balcony doors and opened them. Cold air blasted in, but he didn't care. Anything to get rid of the sage.
It was after midnight; Naomi was keeping her little boy out late. Jim grinned briefly at the image that popped into his head of Blair as a kid: skinny, gap-toothed, all dirty knees and elbows, a tangle of curls tumbling into one eye. He'd seen the pictures. He shook his head, banishing the image from his mind. Blair wasn't a kid anymore, no matter how tempting it was to think of him as one. He probably had a lot to talk to Naomi about. Maybe she could make sense of whatever he'd been babbling about this morning.
Jim frowned at himself. Blair hadn't really been babbling, he knew that. But damn, what was he supposed to say when the k--when his partner started going on about being a shaman instead of concentrating on his chance to become a cop? Blair was just trading one career for another, one he'd be just as good at as he was at anthropology. Sure, there were big differences between the two, but it wasn't like he was quitting the priesthood to be a hitman or something. So why was Blair obsessing over this shaman stuff? What was he so worked up about? He'd still be working with Jim, still be guiding him, still be doing everything he'd been doing for the last three years, except for the school stuff, and he'd always done more complaining about that than anything else. Okay, the complaints had mostly been about time, but now he wouldn't have to worry about that. Not having to juggle police work and school should make things easier for him.
But Blair had never asked for things to be easier. He'd seemed to thrive on the impossible fullness of his days and the three or four hours of sleep he got at night. He'd loved staying up until all hours to write a paper, or correct one, or rearrange his notes on the sentinel thing in some obscure Sandburgian order that made sense only to him. Even when he complained about how lazy or dense the students were, his love of teaching had been clear in the tangle of words tumbling out of his mouth. He'd hated the politicking, but that went on everywhere, even at the PD, and when he triumphed over it the righteous pride just shone out of him. The rest had been cake to him. No, that was wrong. To Blair, the police work had been cake. The academic stuff was his bread. And now it was gone.
Jim rubbed his temples, trying to banish the headache he could feel starting, courtesy of the sage. All right, maybe he could have been a little more--What? Sensitive?--this morning when Blair was talking. Maybe he shouldn't have gotten mad. Blair had a right to be uncertain about this, to wonder if he was moving in the right direction. Kid never had been any good at following a map. Or rules. Or doing what he was told. The academy would be tough for him, in that respect. Hell, it was tough for everyone. It wasn't supposed to be easy. But Blair could handle the physical stuff, and he'd sail through the written tests. He'd make it. If he wanted to.
Maybe he'd have to have a little talk with him, to convince him that he wanted to. Or, knowing him, just sit back and listen while Sandburg talked himself into it. Blair should be a cop, he deserved to be a cop, he'd be a great cop, and a great partner. It was the best thing for him. He had to see that.
Jim expanded the temple rubbing to cover his forehead. He should probably talk to Blair the minute his partner got home, but he was too tired. All he wanted right now was something to eat and his bed. He'd talk to Blair in the morning. The kid wasn't going anywhere.
Holding his breath, Jim grabbed the smudge pot and brought it out onto the balcony. He left it there and came back inside, shutting the doors against the January night. The smell was gone, for the most part. At least he could breathe without sneezing. He looked at the coffee table, decided Blair could clean up his own candles, and headed for the kitchen.
Jim opened the refrigerator door and reached for a Tupperware container that should hold leftover pesto pasta with shrimp and peas. He could eat it cold. His hand encountered paper. Lined paper, torn out of a notebook and folded, with his name scrawled across it in Sandburg's distinctive handwriting. Not that anyone else would be apt to leave a note for him in the refrigerator. Great. Sandburg had probably eaten all but a spoonful of the pasta and left him an apology. He would. Jim sighed and unfolded the paper, reading in the light of the refrigerator.
Following the wolf.
That was it. That was it? What in hell was that supposed to mean? God damn it, Sandburg! Jim crushed the note in his fist, images of blue wolf morphing into dead Blair filling his mind. God damn it.
Thumb running up and down the sweating neck of his beer bottle, Blair gazed out at the street, telling himself that he was not keeping an eye out for the occasional stray APC. Arguillo was in prison; Alex Barnes was in a hospital for the criminally insane back in the States; there was nothing to worry about. And Jim wasn't here, which reduced the odds of anyone shooting at him considerably. Before he met Jim, hardly anyone had ever tried to kill him. Now it was a semi-regular event. If he became a cop--Man, he wouldn't be able to walk the street. But at least he'd be able to defend himself. He'd have a gun, just like Jim. And he might have to use it. No, if he were Jim's partner, he would have to use it. And he wouldn't be able to get away with just shooting over people's heads, he'd have to shoot with the intention of hitting something. Someone.
God. God, he couldn't do that. How could he do that? How could anyone? How could Jim?
Blair downed half his beer in one gulp. Jim did it because he had to. Because he believed it was necessary in order to do his job. Because the bad guys had guns, and if a cop wanted to survive, he'd better have one too. Not a lot of really bad guys would put down their guns just because you asked nicely. He knew that. And he was pretty sure that he could shoot someone to save a life. But that was a far cry from packing a gun virtually 24/7, knowing all the time that you might have to use it. Knowing that your partner, other cops, every citizen of Cascade depended on you to know when to use it and to do it without hesitation, because if you didn't, someone--your partner, another cop, a citizen of Cascade--could die, and it was your job to prevent that. And if you lost a piece of yourself, a little bit of your humanity along the way, well, that was a hazard of the job and you knew that going in, so don't blame anyone else, Sandburg, just keep your weapon and your shoots clean and get on with it.
Blair signaled the waiter for another beer. He did not need to be thinking about this now. Too many hours and too little sleep in a series of planes that had gotten progressively smaller and less comfortable, followed by a hassle at customs and a jouncing, interminable bus ride from Sierra Verde's only airport, had left him exhausted, but too wired to sleep. He wanted to sleep--he really, really wanted to--but half an hour of staring at the grimy ceiling of his hotel room had convinced him that it wasn't going to happen. So here he was, sitting in the same café where Jim had dragged him and Megan to meet Simon last time they were here, wearing the same Hawaiian print shirt, drinking the same kind of beer, and feeling just as crappy as he had then. Maybe he should eat. The food actually smelled pretty good, and it had to be better than what he'd gotten on the planes. If Jim were here, he'd order the weirdest thing on the menu, just to watch his partner try not to watch him eat it. But Jim wasn't here. And shouldn't be. He had to do this alone. Which meant he could stick to some conservative dish without risking his reputation as a grossout gourmand.
"You're the anthropologist?"
Twin shadows fell across the table. Blair looked up, shielding his eyes against the strong afternoon sun. Two men looked down at him. Both were slightly under six feet, in their late 30's or early 40's. One was blond, blue-eyed, unshaven, his clothes dirty and sweat-stained: worn chinos and a Hawaiian shirt ten times brighter than his own, despite its age. The other was dark, black-haired, brown-eyed, probably a native of Sierra Verde. He was stockier than the blond, his khakis and linen shirt clean.
"How'd you know that?" Blair asked.
The darker one smiled. "You told the desk clerk at the hotel."
Had he? Yeah, he probably had. Force of habit. He'd have to watch that. Wouldn't want people accusing him of fraud. He held out his hand. "Blair Sandburg."
The dark guy shook it, then the blond. "Ed Bryce," the blond said. "This is Tony Carreno."
"What can I do for you?"
They sat down, one on either side of him, neither facing him directly.
"You're cautious," Carreno said. "That's good."
Cautious? What did that have to do with--Oh, no. Oh, man. This couldn't be good. "Uh, yeah. Thanks."
"Let's get down to business," Bryce said. "We've got some very nice stuff, and we're prepared to be reasonable about the price."
Stuff? Not drugs. Please let it not be drugs. Or guns. Or nerve gas. Especially not nerve gas. "Great. That's great. But I'm not--"
"Of course," Carreno interrupted, "we understand that you will need to inspect the merchandise."
"Uh…." Get out of this, Blair. Get out of it now. "Yeah. Of course. Um, what have you got, exactly?"
"You weren't told?"
Are you out of your mind? What are you doing? You are not undercover. You are not a cop. Jim isn't even here. You have no backup. You can't do this on your own. Shut your big mouth and get out. "I want to hear it from you."
"We have too many to list, but as Ed told you, there are some very fine pieces. Bowls, cups, jewelry, weapons. Our prize is an obsidian dagger with a gold jaguar hilt. Magnificent. All Mayan or Olmec, or other local tribes, of course."
Artifacts. He should have known. No wonder they were expecting an anthropologist. No way this was legal. No way. Bastards. Blair forced himself to nod. "Sounds good. If they're authentic."
Carreno nodded at Bryce, who pulled a lump wrapped in filthy cloth from his pants pocket and handed it to Blair. Blair unwrapped the cloth gingerly, to reveal an armband carved from a single piece of turquoise. Unable to resist, he inspected it closely. It was definitely old, definitely real turquoise, and the pattern was Mayan. It looked authentic.
Bryce plucked the armband out of Blair's hands. "Yeah, isn't it?"
"The rest are equally good," Carreno said. "Would you like to see them now?"
"Now?" Oh, God. Stall, Blair, stall. You can't go off with these guys alone. "Uh, let's make it tomorrow. It's been a long trip."
"Fine. We'll meet you here at, say, 8 A.M?"
The two men stood up and started to walk away. Blair's anger got the better of him. "Can I ask you something, Senor Carreno?"
The dark-haired man turned back.
"No esta usted averganzado de vender su cultura?" [Aren’t you ashamed to sell your culture?]
Bryce's eyes narrowed, but Carreno met his gaze straight on, his expression unchanged. "I would be more ashamed to live in a shack and eat only corn and beans."
"There are other ways to make a living."
"But few so profitable. This is a pot and kettle situation, isn't it, Mr. Sandburg?"
"I guess it is. Sorry. I was just curious."
"I understand. Tomorrow."
They left the café, not without a few backward glances from Bryce. Blair put his head down on his arms. Wonderful, Sandburg. Just wonderful. You came here to get yourself straightened out spiritually, not to get involved with artifact smugglers. You can't handle these guys by yourself. Hell, you don't even know if these two are it. There could be a dozen more somewhere. Probably not--it would cut down on the profits--but there could be.
So just what are you going to do now? Meet them, and probably get yourself killed? No, thanks. Once was enough. Call Jim? He'd love to hear what you've gotten yourself into. And he's got no jurisdiction down here anyway. He'd have to set something up with the local cops, assuming they'd cooperate. They might, though. After all, they did know the guy in charge down here. What was his name? Ortega. Captain Ortega. He hadn't exactly been ramrod straight--okay, he'd almost gotten them killed--but he'd come around when Simon explained the danger presented by the nerve gas. Ortega was the best bet. But you can't wait for Jim. Even if you manage to reach him, Jim couldn't possibly be here by tomorrow. You've got to handle this yourself.
Blair left the café, abandoning his beer. If he wanted Ortega to listen to him, he had to be clear-headed, not a drunken American tourist. Ortega might not even remember him; most of the Sierra Verdean's contact had been with Simon and Jim. Keeping an eye out for Bryce and Carreno, he made his way to the police station, trying to be inconspicuous about it, and slipped inside.
Cool, grey-blue walls--newly painted--offered visual relief from the yellow heat outdoors, and fans did their best to stir the heavy air. The uniforms reflected the tone of the walls; the men, accustomed to the heat, showed no sign of being affected by it. Sizing him up with one glance, the young officer at the front desk spoke to Blair in badly-accented English. His nametag read "Ribera".
"Your business, senor?"
Blair replied in Spanish. "Quisiera ver a Capitan Ortega."
Officer Ribera disappeared into an office, and emerged less than a minute later with another man who quickly moved ahead of him. For a second, Blair thought it was Ortega; he was the same size and slight build. But this man's hair was straight where Ortega's had been curly. His nose was longer, his face wider and there was grey peppered in his hair and moustache.
"I am Capitan Sedillo," he said in English. "How may I help you?"
"Actually, I was hoping to see Captain Ortega."
"Come into my office, please."
Sedillo led him to an office devoid of personal touches. What papers there were lay in precise stacks on the desk. Pens were lined up in neat rows. When he first met Jim, his desk had looked like that.
"Please, sit down."
The wooden chair creaked when Blair settled onto it. Sedillo folded his hands.
"I'm afraid Captain Ortega is no longer with us."
"He got transferred?"
"No. He was killed four months ago. Shot to death here, in front of the station."
"You are familiar with Arguillo?"
Blair explained about Alex, and the nerve gas, and Arguillo's attempt to steal it, leaving out any hint of the sentinel thing and skirting around the events at the Temple of Light by referring to it as some nondescript ruins. Sedillo listened attentively, taking occasional notes, until Blair launched into a description of Bryce and Carreno and their conversation earlier. That, he seemed to be writing down almost word for word. His calm demeanor disappeared. He scribbled furiously, brows knit, jaw set in anger. When Blair finished, Sedillo stared at his notes, flipping through a page or two before he looked up at Blair.
"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Senor Sandburg. This is most unfortunate. I will look into it immediately."
"Great. You know, Captain Sedillo, I've already got an in with these guys. They think I'm this anthropologist they were supposed to meet. If you want, I can stick with it, get them to lead me to their stash. With your office backing me up, we can nail these lowlifes."
"A generous offer, Senor Sandburg, but that won't be necessary. Whatever business you are on for your American police should be your first priority."
"I'm not here in an official capacity."
"No. Like I said, I am an anthropologist. I was intrigued by the ruins we found last time, and I wanted to get a closer look. I took some vacation time, and here I am. So, if you need me to help out on this--"
"No." Sedillo rubbed his nose, and stroked a finger over his moustache. "I shouldn't tell you this. But you are a fellow officer--almost--so I will trust you. The men you met today--Bryce and Carreno--work for us."
"I thought Bryce was American."
"He is. This is a cooperative operation between your country and mine. We are trying to halt the smuggling of artifacts."
"So, this is a sting?"
"What about the anthropologist?"
"He is one of the men we are after. Bryce and Carreno--those are not their real names, of course--mistook you for him."
Blair grinned. "Oh, man. That could have caused some embarrassment with the brass."
"Yes. You see how grateful I really am that you came to me. The entire operation might have been--how would you put it?"
"Blown," Blair supplied.
"Yes. Blown. As it is, Bryce and Carreno's superiors will have some words for them."
"I'll bet. I know what Simon--Captain Banks would say if Jim and I screwed up like that."
Sedillo smiled. He stood up, prompting Blair to do the same, and held out his hand. "Thank you again, Senor Sandburg. I don't mean to rush you, but I have to make some phone calls right away."
Blair shook his hand. "No problem, Captain. I understand."
"Enjoy the rest of your visit to Sierra Verde."
"Thanks. I will."
Relieved on one count, Blair left Sedillo's office. Might as well go back to the café. He should be safe from any more smugglers. At least, the ones Captain Sedillo knew about. Besides, smugglers or not, he was starving.
Captain Sedillo watched the long-haired American leave the building. As soon as the outer door closed, he picked up the phone and punched in the number of a cell phone known only to him and three others. It rang five times before Bryce answered.
"Idiot!" he exploded, as quietly as he could. He couldn't afford to let his men hear, especially young Ribera. "You contacted the wrong man!"
"What are you talking about?" Bryce demanded. "He's the anthropologist."
"He's an American police consultant! The moment you left him, he came here to report you to Ortega."
English curses flooded the line. Sedillo waited until they died down, and said, "You and Carreno take care of it. Tonight."
"Us? Why don't you--"
"You made this mess, Bryce. You clean it up."
Sedillo hung up without waiting for Bryce's answer.
"He did what?"
Simon took the unlit cigar out of his mouth, glaring up from his wheelchair. Watery sunlight filtered through the blinds in Simon's living room, striping Jim Ellison's face with bands of light and shadow. Jim stood in front of him, a piece of folded notebook paper in his hand. His expression was carefully neutral, his voice quiet.
"He took off, Simon. Sometime yesterday."
"Just like that? Without telling you first?" Simon wheeled himself toward the couch, gesturing for Jim to sit. Ellison ignored him. "His mother's still in town, isn't she? Maybe--"
"She was the first one I called," Jim supplied. "Naomi said he called her, told her not to worry, he knew what he had to do."
Simon frowned. "I don't like the sound of that. Especially coming from Sandburg. Do you have any idea where he went?"
"He left me this."
Jim handed Simon the paper. It was neatly folded, but showed signs of having been wadded up into a ball. Simon unfolded it and read the five words written there. Oh, damn. "'Following the wolf'? What the hell does that mean? What wolf?"
Jim took the note back, staring at the paper so hard that Simon couldn't tell whether he was seeing its individual molecules or nothing at all. "When Blair-- When he-- At the fountain, when I--brought him back, Blair and I shared a vision."
"A vision¼ ."
Jim nodded. "The jaguar--my jaguar, the black one--and a wolf jumped into each other. They--merged. I'd seen the wolf before, but this was Blair's first time. He thinks it's his spirit animal."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. Maybe it is. When I dreamed about it before, I killed it and it turned into Blair."
"You killed his spirit animal?"
"It was a dream, Simon. Just a dream."
"Uh-huh." Simon fixed his gaze on Jim, trying to read the set, expressionless face. "So, you think Blair's following a vision now?"
"Yeah, I do. He was meditating yesterday. He must have had some kind of weird experience."
Simon grimaced. "With Sandburg, life is a weird experience. Jim, maybe you should back off, let him do whatever it is he thinks he has to do."
Jim's response was immediate. "I can't do that, Simon."
"Why not? You're not the kid's father, Jim. He's an adult; he can take care of himself."
Jim shook his head. "He's gone to Sierra Verde. I checked the airlines, he was on the only flight out yesterday."
Sierra Verde? "Why would he go there?" As soon as he said it, he knew. "Oh, no. Not back to that temple of yours?"
"I'm afraid so, Simon. But it's not my temple."
"Whatever. Is he out of his mind?"
"I dunno. Could be. I was." Jim stared at nothing. Simon could only imagine what he was thinking. He hadn't reached the Temple of Light until the excitement was over, but Jim had told him some of what had happened there. Jim shook himself, snapping back to the present. "I'm going after him."
Oh, God. Simon put on his patented "reasonable superior officer" tone. "Jim--"
Jim held up a hand. "Don't start, Simon. I'm already booked on today's flight."
"So that's it?"
"That's it. I thought you should know. I told Taggert a couple of hours ago."
Nice of him to give a few hours' notice. At least he was together enough to think of it. That was a hopeful sign "Do you need any help?"
Jim very deliberately did not look at the wheelchair. "No. Blair and I need to work this out alone."
"You sure? God only knows what the kid's getting himself into down there."
"We can handle it."
I hope so, Jim. But he didn’t say it. He went gruff instead. "Go on, then. Get out of here and get Sandburg out of whatever convoluted mess he's no doubt gotten himself into this time."
Jim stuffed the note into his back pocket and opened the apartment door. Simon looked up. "Jim?"
"If you do run into trouble, I expect to hear from you. I'll be out of this chair in a couple of days."
Jim gave him a strained smile. "Thanks, Simon."