Following the Wolf: Part 4

Jim parked his rented jeep outside the Hotel Santa Cruz and surveyed the town. He'd been almost afraid to come here, afraid that the pull would seize him again, force him to go to the temple or to do something else, something worse. Though there wasn't much worse he could do than mate with the woman who had killed his partner. Thank God it had never gotten that far, that first Blair and then Alex's insanity had stopped the overwhelming desire, the need.

He didn't understand why Blair had come here. He'd told Blair as much as he could of his experience in the Temple of Light, of what he'd seen. Only days ago, too much of it had come true. He was just grateful that no one had died. If what he'd foreseen had meant Simon and Megan's deaths, he didn't think he could have handled it. He'd be a basket case somewhere, instead of following Blair around on some spiritual wild goose chase.

What did Blair expect to find here? Did he want the kind of visions Jim had experienced? Why would anyone in his right mind want something like that? Did he think visions would give him answers? If he did, he was wrong. Visions only gave you more questions, and confused what you thought you already knew. Blair was confused enough already; he didn't need to make it worse.

Besides, the Temple of Light was no place for him. It had been built for sentinels, and only for sentinels. No one else could use the pools safely, not even a shaman, and definitely not some neo-hippie witchdoctor punk kid whose major claim to shamanism was that he thought he should be one. Incacha would never have tried it. Incacha would have known better. But not Blair Sandburg. No, he took it into his head that he should go there to get revelations and off he went without ever thinking about what could happen to him in Sierra Verde, never mind in the Temple of Light. Foolhardy. One of his father's words, but that's what Blair was. With emphasis, Jim hoped, on the "hardy" part.

Jim registered at the desk, saw Blair's name and room number just above his, and had the clerk put him in the next room. It was still early; with luck, Blair was sleeping in and hadn't started off into the jungle yet. Jim hefted his bedroll--the only luggage he had--and left the lobby, deciding it wasn't worth it to move the jeep closer to the rooms. He started up the stairs to the porch, and stopped, frozen.

One of the guestroom doors was open. Blair's room; it had to be. Nothing moved inside. He focused through the doorway, and saw destruction. Oh, God.

Jim dropped his bedroll and ran. He paused for a second outside the door, but there was nothing alive in that room, no heartbeat, no sigh of breath. "Sandburg!" he shouted, uselessly, picking his way through chunks of wood and shards of glass, across the room to the tangle of shredded cloth and splinters that had been the bed. He dropped to his knees, "Sandburg!", clawed the ruined bedclothes aside, the stink of cordite in his nostrils, mixed with dust and the heavy sweetness of flowers. But not blood. Not blood.

Jim sat back on his heels and ran one hand over his face. Thank God.

"No se mueva."

"What?"

Jim turned his head. A local cop stood in the doorway, gun drawn. He didn't look familiar, but that didn't mean much.

"Don't move," he said, in English this time.

"It's okay," Jim told him. "I'm a cop. Jim Ellison, Cascade, Washington. This is my partner's room."

"And what is your partner's name, Senor Ellison?"

"Blair Sandburg."

"Where is Senor Sandburg?"

"I don't know. Someone shot up the room."

"So I see." He gestured with the gun. "On your feet, please."

Jim stood slowly. "My badge is in my pocket."

"Leave it there." The local advanced into the room. "You say Senor Sandburg is your partner?"

"That's right."

"Yet he told the desk clerk at this hotel that he was an anthropologist. Which is it, Senor Ellison?"

"Both. Sandburg's not a cop, he's an observer. He rides with me."

"Where is he?"

"I don't know. He may have been kidnapped."

"Whoever did this," the local cop gestured wide with the gun, "was not interested in kidnapping."

"Probably not."

"I ask you again, Senor Ellison: Where is Blair Sandburg?"

"I don't know."

"I think you do. I think you killed him."

"He's not dead. Look around: no personal belongings. He took off before this happened." Local looked around as directed, but the gun didn't waver. "Look, I'm a cop, just like you. Sandburg's my partner. We've been here before. Ask your captain--what's his name--Ortega. He knows us both."

"I am Capitan here," the local said. "My name is Sedillo. You had better come with me, Senor Ellison."

Jim shook his head. "This is ridiculous--"

"There is nothing ridiculous about murder," Sedillo snapped. "Move! Or I'll shoot you here and save my government the expense of a trial."

Jim clenched his jaw against the words he wanted to say. This idiot wouldn't listen. Better humor him for a while. "Fine. Let's go."

Sedillo marched him to the police station. A kid who looked about twelve patted him down--he wasn't carrying; he wasn't here in an official capacity--and relieved him of his wallet, badge, and watch. Sedillo inspected the badge carefully, then ordered the kid to lock Jim up. The kid hesitated, then took his arm, trying to lead him out back, but Jim didn't budge.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded. "You know I'm a cop."

"Yes," Sedillo replied. "But that doesn't make the rest of your story true."

"Call my captain, Simon Banks. He'll confirm--"

"What can he confirm? That you're here? I can see that. For the rest, my men and I will investigate."

"Oh, for--" Jim fixed his gaze on the floor, fighting to keep his temper in check. "Listen. My partner's out there somewhere. Whoever shot up his room will probably try again."

"We'll find him," Sedillo said. "If he's alive."

"You don't know where he is."

Sharply, "Do you?"

Jim opened his mouth to answer. A distant growl sounded in his ear. He looked around, seeing nothing. "You got a dog around here?"

"A dog?" Sedillo echoed. "No. No dog. Answer my question, Detective Ellison. Do you know where Senor Sandburg is?"

"No." The growling stopped. "I have no idea."

Sedillo waved two more cops over, both bigger and older than the kid. "Escort Detective Ellison to a cell."

He didn't fight. He could have tried, might even have made it, but the odds were not good, and risking himself was risking Sandburg, too, so he let them take him to a cell and lock the door on him. He paid no attention to them as they walked away. His hearing was focused on Sedillo, who was in his office now, seated on what sounded like a leather desk chair. Sedillo picked up the phone and punched in a string of numbers. Jim filed the tones away in his memory for future reference; Blair had taught him that, taught him to retrieve them anyway, knowing they were already in his head somewhere, though how he'd known was a mystery. Blair knew a lot of weird stuff like that.

Someone answered. "Yeah?" A man, American by the accent.

"You failed," Sedillo said.

"What?"

"Sandburg is alive."

"No way in hell. There was nothing left of that room."

"So you killed the room. Sandburg wasn't there. He said something about ruins. Find them. Find him. And this time, make sure he's dead."

"What about you?"

"I have another problem to deal with. You and Carreno take care of Sandburg."

Sedillo hung up. Jim gripped the bars of the cell. He had to get out. He had to find Blair before Sedillo's men did, or Blair would die. He wouldn't let that happen. Not again.

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The sun would be setting soon. Not that he could see it through the trees, but the light filtering down through the foliage was getting dimmer. Just as well. Sleep was sounding really good right now. He still wasn't sure why he'd felt compelled to set out in the middle of the night, but something about his nightmare had said "go", so he'd gone. When you were trying to get the cosmos to communicate with you, it wasn't a good idea to ignore what could be a message just so you could catch a few more hours sleep.

Unfortunately, following spiritual directions meant he hadn't had a chance to buy supplies. He had water, but no food other than a couple of granola bars he always kept in his backpack for emergencies. They were pretty old, but better than nothing. What he was really missing was coffee. Or, to be honest, caffeine. But he probably shouldn't indulge in stimulants when he was on a spiritual quest anyway. He didn't think The Powers That Be would accept caffeine as a substitute for ayahuasca. Though it might be worth a try.

Blair stepped over a creeper and shoved some arm-length leaves out of his way. He was doing pretty well, considering. Because of his early start, he'd covered a lot of ground; he hadn't fallen into any pits or rivers, or down any ravines; and he hadn't run into anything big enough to eat him. He had no map or compass, but he wasn't lost. He knew exactly where he was going. At least, he thought he did. The day had been half gone before it had even occurred to him to wonder just how he knew. He'd stopped then, and rested while he thought about it. The entire time, something had been pulling at him, urging him on, almost as though the wolf were tugging on his arm or nudging his back to get him moving. Thinking about it hadn't done any good. There was no logical explanation for it; it was a feeling and it didn't want to be analyzed. So he'd stopped thinking and gone with it, just like he'd told Jim to do. What was good advice for the sentinel should be just as good for the shaman.

So, here he was. He was getting close now, he could feel that, too, and it was impossibly cool that he did feel it, that he had some of the same instincts Jim had, because he sure as hell hadn't had them last time they were here. All he'd done was follow Jim and try to keep him from mating with Alex Barnes instead of arresting her. He still didn't like to think about that. She'd been ready to kill him again out on that beach, and Jim--Jim hadn't reacted at all for several eternal seconds, during any one of which Alex could have pulled the trigger on Jim's gun. And when he had reacted, all he'd done was pull Alex's arm down and tell her "No," quietly, calmly, for God's sake, as though she'd been about to shoot something that didn't really matter and Jim didn't really object, but he thought there was no point in wasting the bullet. Man, it was a good thing--it was a damn good thing--he believed Jim hadn't really been in control of himself then, that the sentinel mating instinct or whatever the hell it was had made him crazy, because otherwise, otherwise-- There was no otherwise. Jim would never willingly allow him to be hurt. He believed that absolutely. He had to. Or he couldn't believe in anything.

Blair glimpsed stone ahead, and increased his pace. Yes! The jaguars! He'd found them. He knew he'd been going the right way. He continued on, past the statues, which had somehow escaped being engulfed by the fast-growing plant life that covered everything else. As he went by, he touched one of the jaguars, thinking maybe he'd feel something different, but there was nothing, only stone. He reached the arch, and passed underneath. It seemed wrong to go around, though he didn’t know why.

The Temple of Light loomed before him, the last rays of the sun turning its pale stone walls to gold. Blair approached the broken, plant-draped steps. Nothing had changed. There was no sign that they had ever been here, no sign that anyone had been here in a thousand years. For a moment, he stood at the base of the stairs, gazing up at the open doorway of the antechamber. He could see nothing inside, but he knew what he would find. His stomach knotted; he ignored it and set his foot on the first step. He didn't run up, or take some slow, formal pace; he walked as he would up any flight of stairs, though most didn't require dodging fallen stelae or clumps of greenery.

As he climbed, the light faded around him. The walls of the temple glowed orange, then shadowed to grey. The last of the light shone through the open door, and he took that as a sign. He reached the top of the stairs, and entered the antechamber.

The carved eye faced him, the inner door closed. He wondered how. Jim hadn't closed it, and the cops who'd taken Alex out on a stretcher couldn't have known how. It might close on its own, but it hadn't while they were there. Blair shrugged, and reached out to press on the iris of the Great Eye.

A snarling black jaguar leaped through the door. Crying out, Blair fell back. He landed hard on the stone floor, tried to brace himself for the jaguar's weight, expecting to feel teeth and claws tearing his flesh. The jaguar vanished.

Blair scrambled to his feet, shaking, staring at the air where the jaguar had been. Okay. Okay, that had definitely been a message. "Sentinels only, no shamans need apply"; "No admittance"; "No trespassing"; "No way, Sandburg". He got it. No obscurity there. Go away, Blair, go away now, and what the hell are you doing here anyway? This isn't your place; you don't belong here. Get out.

So, fine, he'd go. Where, he had no idea, but if he wasn't wanted here, he wasn't stupid enough to hang around. It wasn't that he was afraid; he wasn't. Majorly embarrassed, maybe, but not afraid. The cat wasn't real in a physical sense, he knew that. It was Jim's spirit animal. Of course, Jim wasn't here, so that meant the jaguar was probably a hallucination caused by something in his own subconscious, some part of him that didn't want to go into the Temple of Light. Could be entirely psychological, could be some kind of instinctual shamanic thing. Or it could be an actual manifestation of Jim's actual spirit animal in the actual physical plane. It didn't really matter what it was, the message was the same. He only had one question: Why the hell had whatever it was brought him here if it wasn't going to let him in?

Whoa. Blair paused in the doorway of the antechamber. It was dark outside. Really dark. So dark that he couldn't see the stairs. He'd never make it down without breaking his neck. He turned around, addressing the air, laughing a little because he felt like such an idiot.

"Uh, look, I'm not a sentinel. I mean, you know that, I know you know that, but I'm not sure you know what that means as far as my physical limitations are concerned. Basically, I can't see in the dark. So, if it's okay with you, I'm just gonna spend the night here in the antechamber. I won't try to get into the temple--I know I don't belong there--so just chill, okay? Once daylight hits, I'm gone. I promise."

He waited, but no black cats jumped him, and he didn't hear any snarls, growls, or disgusted snorts. "Guess that means I can stay." Working by feel, he untied the knots holding his blanket to his backpack and spread it out on the floor. He was hungry, but the granola bar could wait until morning, when he could see to eat it. Using his backpack as a pillow, he lay down and folded the blanket over himself. The stone floor wasn't exactly a featherbed, but he'd slept on worse. Before closing his eyes, he lifted his head, peering into the darkness.

"Uh, wherever you are--thanks."

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Jim's hands slid across the wall for the hundredth time. He had to get out of here. He had to get to Blair before Sedillo's men found him. He was not going to be trapped in this third-rate holding cell while his partner was murdered. There had to be a way out. There was always a way out. He was just missing it.

Choking back a roar of frustration, Jim shoved himself away from the wall and sat down on the cot. He wasn't missing anything. The building was relatively new. There was nothing sophisticated about the holding cell, but it wasn't shoddy either. The bars were solid and immovably set; he had nothing with which to pick the lock; there was no window and no weakness in the walls. He was stuck here. And Blair was out there in the jungle, alone and unarmed. He hoped to God that Blair knew these guys were after him. If he did, he'd at least be careful, maybe even find someplace to hide. Blair wasn't stupid, he wouldn't try to take these guys on alone. He'd damn well better not.

Jim was on his feet before the door to the lockup opened. He gripped the bars, and waited, his body so tense that he felt like he might shatter. Quick steps; light; young. The kid approached his cell, carrying a plate of food. The nametag above his pocket said "Ribera". He wasn't much taller than Sandburg, but he was younger by a few years. Curly hair was cut close to his head, and his face was all angles and sharp points, punctuated by acne scars. Eyes downcast, the kid shoved the plate through the slot in the bars. When Jim didn't take it, brown eyes rose to meet his.

"Do you speak English, Officer Ribera?" Jim asked.

"Yes."

"What's your first name?"

"Aurelio."

"Jim Ellison. I'm a cop, like you."

"Not like me. You killed your friend."

"He's not dead. Even if he were, I couldn't have killed him. I just got here this morning. Besides, he's my partner."

The kid looked away. "A man can kill his partner."

"I wouldn't. No good cop could. You're a good cop, right, Aurelio?"

The kid stiffened. "Better than you."

"Maybe so. How about your capitan, Aurelio? Is Sedillo a good cop, too?"

"What do you mean?"

"I think you know. You're not blind, Aurelio. You see what goes on. Sedillo's gone bad, hasn't he? He's corrupt."

"You don't know that."

"Yeah, I do. And so do you. Who's Carreno?"

"Carreno? He's a smuggler. Artifacts, cultural things. He works with an American, Bryce. How do you know him?"

"Sedillo's working with him." The kid’s glance slid away again, his heart pounding. "You already know that, don’t you? Sedillo's one of the bad guys, Aurelio. He's got to be stopped."

"He's my capitan. What can I do?"

"You can start by letting me out."

"I can't do that."

"You have to. Sedillo and this Cerrano are after my partner. If they catch him, they'll kill him. I can't let that happen. You can't let that happen. Let me out, Aurelio. Then contact Sedillo's superiors, tell them what's going on, get some help."

"I don't think--"

"Do it, Aurelio. If you don't, you'll be as guilty as Sedillo. My partner's a good man. He's never hurt anyone in his life. Don't let him die."

The kid stared, unmoving, while duty battled fear. Spanish curses erupted from his mouth. Still cursing, he snatched the keys from his belt and unlocked the cell door. Jim laid a hand on his shoulder.

"You did the right thing, Aurelio."

The kid ran a hand through his short curls. "There's a back door. Only Valdez and I are on duty now."

"Can you trust him?"

He thought for a moment. "No."

"Then don't make your call from here. Find a phone someplace safe."

"What about you?"

"I'm going to find my partner."

"Good luck, Senor Ellison."

Jim nodded his thanks. Grabbing his bedroll, he followed the kid out of the holding area, then split off and headed for the back door.

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Cold. Wet. Touching him. Touching his face. He raised a hand to brush whatever it was away, and touched fur. Warm, short fur.

Blair opened his eyes, and stared at the muzzle of a wolf less than an inch from his face. Panic flashed through him, but he knew better, he didn't try to scrabble away. He lowered his hand, slowly.

"Uh, hi."

The wolf dipped its head and nudged him under the chin. Blair tried to slow his hammering heart. Take it easy, Sandburg. The wolf is your spirit animal, it doesn't want to hurt you. Probably. The wolf nudged him again, its nose cold, the short hairs on its muzzle scraping his neck. He eased back away from it, and sat up. The wolf didn't object, so he got to his feet, moving carefully. Spirit animal or not, he really did not want to startle it.

"Okay, I'm up. Is that what you wanted?"

The wolf snorted. Since when did wolves snort?

"Y'know, this would be a lot easier if you'd morph into a person, like Jim's spirit animal does."

The wolf began to growl. It stalked toward him, stiff-legged, teeth bared. Blair backed away.

"Hey, it was just a suggestion."

The wolf circled him. Blair tried to turn with it, to keep it in front of him, but it moved too fast and he lost it in shadows. A push on the back of his thigh sent him lurching forward, toward the antechamber door. Great. The wolf was kicking him out. He moved on his own, but apparently, that wasn't fast enough. The wolf nudged him again.

"Okay, okay, I'm going."

Talk about a bum's rush. A guy could get a complex from all the warm fuzziness around here. The least the wolf could do was let him get his stuff, but no, he had to be out right now. He reached the door, and started to go down the stairs, but before his foot touched the top step, the wolf's teeth closed on his khakis, pulling him back.

"Hey! Make up your mind, will you?"

The wolf let go and moved up beside him in the doorway, gazing out over the jungle. It lifted its head, and howled.

"What? What is it? Come on, give me a clue here."

Blair followed the wolf's gaze. He couldn't see anything but jungle, and even that wasn't clear. It was barely even light yet: everything looked blue.

Blue. Oh, man. That meant that this was--

Blair turned to the wolf and crouched down. The wolf looked at him. You weren't supposed to look wolves in the eye, they'd take it as a challenge, but this wasn't a real wolf, this was his wolf, sort of an extension of himself, right? Even if it wasn't, it was definitely something more than real. So he looked straight into the wolf's blue eyes.

"Look, I know you're trying to tell me something, but I'm not getting it. You've got to help me out."

The wolf sighed--Blair refrained from comment--and shoved its nose under his hand, just like a dog asking to be petted. Not knowing what else to do, Blair obliged, running his hand from the wolf's muzzle up over its head to its back. Its fur felt incredible: soft and so thick he could lose his fingers in it. The wolf watched him for a minute, then returned its gaze to the jungle. Blair glanced out the door, and froze, his fingers buried in blue-silver fur.

He could see. Not just the trees, but the animals in them, the birds and monkeys and snakes. He could see rodents on the ground, and insects--God, he could see insects! It was amazing. This must be what it was like for Jim, to be able to see all this every day. He couldn't hear any more than usual, but that didn't matter. He reveled in the seeing, drinking in all that he could.

In the distance, something large moved. For a moment, he thought "jaguar" and a thrill passed through him, but it wasn't the jaguar or any kind of cat at all. It was a man--two men--walking through the jungle. One was light, the other dark. Blair strained, trying to see details. Abruptly, their faces came into focus: Bryce and Carreno. Both men carried guns. And they were on a path that would lead them directly to the Temple of Light.

But--that was okay, wasn't it? Bryce and Carreno were cops or feds or whatever. Coming here shouldn't be a problem. Unless .

Blair looked at the wolf. "Sedillo lied to me, didn't he? They really are smugglers. And they're coming here. Oh, shi--"

Blair opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. Oh, man. This was not good, not good at all. He sat up, half-expecting to see the wolf, but he was alone. And Bryce and Carreno were on their way, he was sure of it. No, this was not good at all.

He had to do something. He couldn't let those two find the Temple of Light, they'd loot it of anything they thought they could sell, up to and including the paintings on the walls. But what could he do? He was pretty sure they wouldn't turn around and go away if he asked politely. He could try leading them away, but that would only work if 1) they were after him, and 2) they wanted him more than a new source of artifacts. Besides, he had no illusions about his skills in the jungle. He could survive for a while, but he'd never been an Army Ranger, or even a Boy Scout. On most of his expeditions, there'd been a guide leading the way. Here, he was as apt to go in circles as to actually lead Bryce and Carreno away.

So, what? They had guns; he didn't. Even if he had, what was he supposed to do? Kill them? Or make an observer-from-another-country's arrest and expect Sedillo to lock them up if he managed to get them back to town? Sedillo was probably a business partner. Had to be, if he'd lied about Bryce and Carreno being undercover. Which meant he was on his own. Great. Just great.

Worrying about what to do with them afterward could wait. Bryce and Carreno had to be stopped now.

Okay, so what did he have that he could use? Blair dragged his backpack to him and rummaged through it, pulling its contents out one by one. His Swiss Army knife; comb; razor; notebook and pens; granola bar (Oh, that would be useful.); change of underwear and socks; three bottles of water; cigarette lighter, more reliable than matches, but burning the jungle down was not an option, and Bryce and Carreno weren't likely to be afraid of a flaming stick; soap. That was it.

Blair surveyed all the stuff he'd laid out. All right, Sandburg, this is what you've got: go with it.

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Blair wiped sweat from his face, smearing the dirt around. Couldn't hurt. The last thing he wanted was light skin giving him away. After some inner debate, he'd taken his shirt off, too, counting on a coating of dirt for camouflage. The shirt now hung in some bushes about fifty feet away, the red flowers on it bright enough to catch the eye and serve as a decoy. As far as he could tell, it was about noon. For the last couple of hours, he'd crept around while he worked, expecting Bryce and Carreno at any minute, but they hadn't shown yet. Which was good, because he hadn't been ready. Now he was.

He crouched in a thick patch of undergrowth, peering out at his own trail, made yesterday and widened this morning to ensure that Bryce and Carreno would take the same path he had. If they didn't, he was in trouble.

Beside him were six rocks, as close to baseball size and weight as he could find. Too many, probably. Either a couple would do the job, or it wouldn't matter. He had more, in other places, assuming Bryce and Carreno got past here and he could still move.

They might kill him. He knew that. He was trying not to think about it, not to let negativity in, but he knew it. If it happened--Well, it was nothing new, but it would still suck big time. He hadn't come here to die. And he wasn't going to make it easy, if he could help it. But just in case it happened, he'd come out here, about a mile away from the temple, to set everything up. Hoping that Bryce and Carreno were after him, that they didn't know about the Temple of Light, and that once they got him, they'd leave. Maybe he was being egotistical, and they didn't care about him at all. But he didn't think so.

Two water bottles stood to his left, one a squeeze bottle, one not. He picked up the second, took a drink, and set it down. Blair wiped his sweating palms on his khakis. God, it was hot. Yeah, right. Hot. That was the problem. Not fear. Nope. Uh-uh. None of that here.

Blair dropped to his knees. They weren't coming yet; all crouching would do was wear out his legs. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, letting it out through his mouth. Again. That's it. Calm down, Blair. Again. You're okay. Again. You're fine. Again. Those guys will never know what--

A rough hand clamped over his mouth, yanked him back against a rock-hard body. An arm snaked across his chest, steel band holding him still. He fought, but he couldn't break free, couldn't do anything. Oh, God, not like this. Not like this!

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End Part 4

Part 5