Blair let himself into his room and dropped down on the bed. He was too tired to move, too tired even to undress and pull the covers down. Maybe he'd just sleep as he was, fully dressed and sitting up. But it was too hot for that. A faint breeze came through the open window, but without a fan to distribute the cooler air, it didn't help much. He shouldn't complain. He was always bitching about the cold back in Cascade, always telling Jim about his expeditions to tropical countries and how much he liked the heat. Not that Jim listened, half the time. But that was okay, he didn't mind, really, sometimes he just talked to fill the silence. He knew that he did it, and he'd stopped expecting people who weren't his mother to listen a long time ago. As long as Jim listened when he talked about sentinel stuff, they were good.
Not that he'd had much to say about that lately. The last significant thing they'd learned about Jim's abilities was that he could sense ghosts. He hadn't been any help with that. He'd tried. He'd borrowed the equipment, tried to measure, to record, to scientifically quantify, but none of that had worked. He'd tried to convince Jim to be open to the experience, but all Jim had gotten out of that was embarrassment when Simon and Joel overheard. Jim hadn't really been fighting it anyway. His senses had told him Molly was there, and he'd gone with it. Nothing anyone said had made the slightest difference one way or the other. Jim knew what he saw and what he felt, and nothing else mattered.
Okay, that was significant progress from where Jim had been three years ago, and Blair knew he was partially responsible for that. He'd done his best to help Jim get to where he was now. But that was farther than he'd ever expected. Jim was beyond anything he knew, beyond anything he could contribute. Jim didn't really need him anymore.
There was nothing personal about it. Jim was still his friend. But, in order to progress from where he was now, Jim needed someone who knew what should come next. Someone who would have known all about a sentinel's ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead, who would have been able to reassure Jim that it was all perfectly normal for a man with heightened senses. And who wouldn't have been even the slightest bit jealous that Jim-the-sentinel could see ghosts and Blair-the-supposed-shaman-who-had-died-already couldn't. He didn't go around dwelling on it or anything. But he'd felt it all the same--if only for a second--and he knew he shouldn't. He knew that was wrong, for a shaman or a friend.
Blair pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. He had to get over this dying thing. Okay, he'd died, but he was back, he'd been back, and it was time to move on. Jim wouldn't obsess over it. Well, Jim would probably repress it; Jim repressed everything. But he wasn't Jim Ellison, he was Blair Sandburg, and Blair Sandburg didn't repress, Blair Sandburg dealt. That was what he did and that was what he needed to do now, here, in Sierra Verde, because he couldn't go back to Cascade unless he did, he couldn't just pretend everything was fine when it wasn't, he couldn't go home until he knew that it was home, the place where he lived and belonged and wanted to be.
It wasn't a question of whether he was wanted. Jim and Simon wanted him there, and so did the rest of the guys in Major Crime. They'd gotten him a job to prove it, and that was a very cool thing, just very--well, nice. It was a rush to know that these people didn't just have an "abiding tolerance" for him, that they actively wanted him around. Between Major Crime and Rainier University, it was a no-brainer where his true friends were. It hurt, some, that no one at the U had stuck up for him. He'd thought he had some friends there. But not one had come up to him to express sympathy; no one had even called. He knew why: They were afraid. They had their own careers to think about, which would not be helped by associating with a known fraud. So he understood. But right now, if he were asked to choose between hanging with a bunch of academics and a bunch of cops, he'd just laugh, because there wouldn't be any choice involved. They didn't have PhD's, and most of them couldn't write a paper if their lives depended on it, but the guys in Major Crime wouldn't desert one of their own, and he was fortunate enough to be considered just that. It was nice. Some of his former academic "colleagues" would scoff, but
he liked nice. Blair Sandburg, defender of niceness everywhere. Hadn't there been an old TV show like that, with that guy who was the voice of the car in Knight Rider?
Oh, man. Blair forced himself to his feet and started to unbutton his shirt. He was losing it. He'd better get to bed before he lost all ability to think coherently. Besides, he wanted to get an early start tomorrow. The sooner he got his head straightened out, the better.
Blair tossed his clothes onto the room's lone chair and crawled into bed wearing only his boxers. There was a time when he'd slept nude in heat like this, but 3 AM wake-up alarms in Cascade had broken that habit in a hurry. His head hit the pillow, rose up again long enough for him to yank the band out of his hair--taking a few strands with it--and dropped. Insects chirred outside his window. Outside. Good place for 'em. 'S funny. He had no problem with bugs outside. They belonged there, it was cool. But inside? Uh-uh. He really¼ really¼ hated¼ .
Blue again. Not the calm, soothing blue of a placid lake. Vein blue; corpse blue; water in your lungs blue. Sapphire eyes glittered. Cobalt tongue lolled in laughter, and the wolf ran away, cerulean coat dappled by bits of moonlight that dripped through the leaves. He followed. What else could he do? To remain stationary was to learn nothing, to stagnate; he'd known that since childhood.
Around him, the rainforest grew. He ducked under branches he'd been pushing aside, slipped through narrow gaps in the undergrowth that reached now to his waist and not his knees. His pants were ripped, and the toe of his right sneaker was patched with a bright yellow smiley-face. His arms were full of something heavy, with sharp corners--a book. He sneaked a glimpse at the title: The New World Encyclopedia, Volume W-Z. Oh, no.
"We're gonna get you, Snotburg!"
Not them. It couldn't be them. Blair tossed a glance over his shoulder. It was them. John and Billy Dyer. John was twelve and Billy was ten, which meant that he was eight, and they were all in the 4th grade at Etonsville Elementary School, in Etonsville, Wisconsin.
"I'm gonna pound you, you little sissy Mama's boy!" John shouted. "You made me look stupid in front of Miss Redding!"
"You did that yourself," he'd wanted to say, and still did, but he hadn't, didn't, because it took too much breath, breath he needed to run, to keep ahead of the two bigger boys. If they caught him, they'd beat him up, and he really, really didn't want that to happen. Billy wasn't much, but John could hit really hard and it hurt, and the best thing was to keep out of reach, to keep his mouth shut and keep running and hope the Dyers got tired before he did. He wanted to scream for his mother, but a guy just didn't do that, not if he wanted to keep his self-respect, and besides, she was too far away to hear him anyway. He hated Wisconsin, hated it, hated it, and he didn't care how nice Stewart was, he couldn't wait until Mom dumped him and they moved someplace else. Someplace warm, where he could go swimming. Or maybe back to Cascade. He liked it there, something was always happening. They hadn't been back since he was six, and weren't John and Billy ever going to get tired? They were still behind him, he could hear them yelling, but it sounded more like growling now, and one of them gave this weird, howly-coughing laugh, and he couldn't help it, he had to look, had to see which one of them it was.
Oh no! Oh shoot! It wasn't John and Billy at all. John and Billy were gone, it was animals chasing him. They looked like dogs, but meaner, and they had dark muzzles and spotted coats, and he knew what they were called, he'd read it in the encyclopedia, they were--they were--
Hyenas! God, he was being chased by hyenas! What kind of weird crap was this? And where was the wolf? What was he supposed to do here, just let them chase him? Maybe he should stop, confront them, find out what they wanted. Then again, they didnt look much like they wanted to talk. They looked like they wanted to eat. Weren't hyenas scavengers? Was he supposed to remember something he'd read when he was eight?
Blair ran, crashing through undergrowth, shoving some branches aside, missing others so they slapped his chest or scratched his face or caught at his hair. A stitch tore at his ribs, and he couldn't get enough air, couldn't run fast enough to escape. The hyenas closed in, and he could hear their breathing, panting, see their tongues and the saliva dripping from their mouths, and their teeth, sharp enough to tear flesh living or dead and don't look, don't look! just run, run, damn it!
Azure bulk burst out of the darkness in front of him, arcing toward his head. Blair threw himself back, landed hard, and the wolf sailed over him. He scrambled to his feet to see the wolf facing down the hyenas, all three growling, fur bristling. Two against one, and the hyenas didn't back down, they paced back and forth, crossing each other's paths, trying to get around the wolf, to get to their prey, to get to him.
He wasn't going to stand here and let the wolf defend him. Blair searched the ground for weapons, found a rock and a half-rotten branch, picked them both up. He pitched the rock at one of the hyenas, striking it in the ribs. It yelped and shied, surprised that its prey could fight. Blair stepped forward, brandishing the stick, shouting. The hyenas ran.
Within seconds, the hyenas had vanished into the thick undergrowth. Blair heaved a relieved sigh, and dropped the branch. "It's okay," he told the wolf. "They're gone."
The wolf looked at him. Moonlight made glowing orbs of its eyes. Its hackles were still raised, its tail up. Snarling, it stalked toward him. Blair backed away, one hand raised between them.
"Whoa. Hey. You're my spirit animal, remember? You're supposed to be on my side. Hey. Hey!"
The wolf leaped at him. Blair threw his arms up to shield himself, knowing it wouldn't do any good. Paws slammed into his chest, knocking him over, bearing him down. White fire seared his eyes, and his ears exploded.
Blair opened his eyes, expecting to be blind and deaf. Moonlight illuminated the bed. The insects still sang outside. Blair sat up, and put his head in his hands, trying to slow his breathing and the wild pounding of his heart.
The moon had dropped below the trees, leaving the town in darkness unrelieved by anything so costly as streetlights. Moving in near-silence, two figures crept up the short flight of stairs to the verandah of the Hotel Santa Cruz. Boards occasionally creaked under their feet, but no one woke or stirred. The staff was asleep, and the hotel had only one guest.
The figures stopped outside the door to Room 24. A hand reached out, inserted a key in the lock, and turned it with a soft click. The door swung open. In one smooth motion, the figures brought their weapons up and opened fire. Bullets splintered wood, woven grass, cloth, and glass. Most slammed into the narrow bed. Feathers and bits of fabric danced in the air. Riddled, the frame collapsed, sending the bed and everything on it crashing to the floor in a horrific ruin.
The figures ceased firing. No sound came from the decimated room, no cry or gasping breath, or scrabbling twitch of finger. Without word or gesture, the figures returned the way they had come. If the gunfire had disturbed any of the town's residents, they did not show themselves to make it known.