alyburns: (Default)
2013-10-06 06:29 pm

ANNOUNCEMENT!

ATTENTION & WELCOME! 

This is no longer a back-up site nor a personal journal. This is now the storage site for all the stories written for the Moonridge Online Auction and submitted to me for posting via the
moonridge_fic Live Journal site.

The reason for utilizing two sites (LJ for the Welcome Page, explanation, and Table of Contents that include story links - and DW for actually hosting the stories themselves) is simple: DW allows for longer single posts, which means longer stories will be in fewer parts (and may often fit into a single part) and second, many fans and readers are still over at LJ rather than here, at DW.

If you're interested in reading any of the stories written for the auction, you can do this one of three ways: 

1. If you're here, use the tags at the left (all stories are tagged by the author's name) and click on the author of choice.
2. If you're at LJ, go to the
moonridge_fic site (which hopefully you have bookmarked - right? *g*), click on the cut tag in order to get to the Table of Contents and, once there, click on the story you want to read
2A. Or use the Links to the right of that Journal

Note: At the conclusion of all stories, you'll see a link that will take you the Table of Contents.

Note; the Sequel: In order to ensure that your reading group isn't inundated by stories every time I post one, I pre-date them, thus keeping them off your reading list.

Note: Sequel #2: If you'd like to have any of your auction stories archived, please contact me and I'll let you know how to send to me for posting. If you won an auction story, please check with the author first and, if granted permission, again, contact me for instructions.

Please spread the word! We need the auction stories in order to be an auction archive! :)


Thank you!
alyburns: (Default)
2010-06-13 07:04 pm
Entry tags:

Fire! by Bluewolf

Title Fire!
Author Bluewolf
Fandom The Sentinel
Category Slash implied
Pairing J/B
Moonridge Year 2005
Won by PatK

STORY )
alyburns: (Default)
2010-06-13 05:52 pm

The Legend Of Buffalo Creek by Bluewolf

Title: The Legend of Buffalo Creek
Author: Bluewolf
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: PreSlash
Pairing: J/B
Moonridge Year: 2003
Who won the story: Lady Quadressus

The Story )
alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-04 07:11 pm
Entry tags:

Touch of Forever by April H

Title: Touch of Forever
Author: April H  knghtmar44@sbcglobal.net
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: Drama, sexual content, series
Pairing: Jim/Blair
Moonridge Year: 2006
Who won the story: Terry Shrader
Series: 3rd in my 'Sentinel Senses' series
Warnings: m/m, nothing too extreme

Notes: I want to thank my two betas, Dark Cherry and Susan Field, both whom I count as good friends.  Their suggestions made this story so much better.  Any mistakes are mine as I always fiddle with a piece after having someone look through it.

Sequel: Yes, to Ricochet of Sounds (takes place one week later)

This is my Moonridge story for this year's auction.  It took longer than expected to finish as I had a computer basically blow up.  I want to publicly thanks Terry Shrader for her patience through all that. 



alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-03 07:07 pm
Entry tags:

Rogue's Report

Title: Rogue's Report
Author: Bluewolf
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: Gen, surprise xover
Episode Related: Rogue (this is from Brackett's POV)
Moonridge Year: ?
Warnings: None

 
ROGUE'S REPORT
by Bluewolf

 

 

 The security at Rainier was virtually non-existent; for a place with a Hazmat Unit, even a small one that doesn't normally store anything particularly deadly, security was criminally lax. Admitted, I set things up so that a fire alarm would sound in another part of the campus, but there should have been some protocol for the situation, a minimum of two guards with orders not to leave their posts unless they were actually in danger from the flames. It appeared, however, that there was no provision made for emergencies; the only person who approached me was Dr. Price, and her comment that, "This is a restricted area. You shouldn't be in here" was unlikely to be a deterrent to any even half-determined would-be terrorist, let alone a professional like me. Getting past her was easier than taking candy from a baby.

 

As an aside; this is not something that would normally involve the C.I.A.. Rainier doesn't usually carry any materials as hazardous as ebola virus; it was merely a... well, an overnight store for it; but Dr. Price is normally based at a Unit in Atlanta that does carry some extremely dangerous materials, and she should have made sure there were better precautions at Rainier.

 

Having got the canister containing the virus, my first priority was to put it somewhere safe. Fortunately Kelso's office was nearby. Kelso, incidentally, was very helpful in supplying the police with misinformation that established 'Lee Brackett's' identity and character.

 

Next, I needed to find a way to get into the facility holding the A.V.C.X. stealth fighter that was my immediate target. That would be a slightly tougher job, but I had an idea about that - hence my theft of the ebola virus. Five years ago, I was C.I.A. duty officer in Peru. I debriefed Mathis, a Special Forces officer who commanded a troop that rescued a Covert Ops officer who'd been stranded there for eighteen months. Mathis' report on that officer's behaviour was very interesting; of particular note was his comment that James Ellison seemed to hear things before anyone else did.

 

I knew that the C.I.A. found my report of that debriefing interesting, and for some time thereafter watched James Ellison, but when, in civilian life, he showed no signs of the acute hearing that Mathis had reported, the covert surveillance was terminated.

 

I was interested enough to investigate the subject of acute hearing, and found details of men with acute senses in an old book, The Sentinels of Paraguay. So - there was a name for what Ellison possibly was. Sentinel. And there were references to a companion, who guided the sentinel in the use of his senses. Perhaps that was why Ellison had shown no signs of his gift when he left Peru; one of the primitives there must have acted as his guide. In Cascade he did not have one.

 

Searching further, I came across some academic papers on the subject of sentinels, written by a young student, Blair Sandburg; and then I discovered that Sandburg had become friendly with Ellison, and was actually working with him; and when I hacked into the Cascade PD's computer system, I discovered that Ellison had on one occasion claimed to have identified a gunman at a distance of fully two hundred yards. His identification was thrown out on the grounds that nobody could identify anyone at that distance, especially in the poor light available; but I knew then that what I had only suspected before was true. James Ellison had a better than average sense of sight and hearing; possibly touch, taste and smell too, but sight and hearing were the important ones. He'd managed to keep his abilities hidden, even from the C.I.A. surveillance, but if Sandburg was working with Ellison, that could only mean that Sandburg knew what Ellison was, and could guide the man.

 

Ellison was the key to getting into the A.V.C.X. facility, and the ebola virus would provide him with the incentive to help me. Working with him would also let me assess the man with a view to drawing him into C.I.A. work.

 

First I went to see him, taking with me a dummy explosive device, and told him I wanted him to help me commit a crime. I laid it out - either he helped me, or I'd release the virus. Then I tossed him the dummy explosive to delay him, and left.

 

Next I had to prove to him that I meant what I'd said. I released a sleeping gas in a theater, called 911, then hid to watch what happened.

 

Dr. Price really should have realized that not even ebola would leave a whole theater full of people apparently dead, with no obvious sign of disease, inside the time frame involved. Ellison, however, knew immediately that the people lying around were sleeping, not dead; and I was not surprised when he tracked me to my hiding place. I warned him that next time it would be the ebola, and escaped by seeming to drop Westlake off the balcony. I had already prepared the floor underneath so that she would have a soft landing, if Ellison failed to hold her. Her commitment to our work is really admirable.

 

The following day, I contacted Ellison, telling him where to meet me. As I expected, both he and Sandburg were wired - and had been supplied with protein transmitters, which did surprise me; but the scanner confirmed the presence of the transmitters. Then I took them to the A.V.C.X. facility. We were challenged at the gate; I had my gun to hand but, as I had hoped, Ellison beat me to it; he used the car door to knock the guard out.

 

He tried telling me I was a traitor; while I headed for the bridge leading to the plane, I spun the fiction that the government I had sworn allegiance to no longer existed. Then I explained about the grid, telling him I was sure he could tell the difference between active and inactive mines, and reminding him that I needed to be alive to disarm the detonator on the canister of virus.

 

I was right; there was only one problem as we crossed, when he seemed to black out for some moments, but Sandburg talked him back. As a side note; those blackouts make it unlikely that sentinels would, in the long term, be of any great use in the field.

 

Once across I overrode the system, triggering all the mines. Another side note; it was altogether too easy to do that. Granted it could only be over-ridden by someone who had successfully crossed the bridge, but it should have been password protected so that only someone authorised could change the setting. Having Sandburg along made it easy to provide a warning to the emergency security squad; I didn't want to kill anyone.

 

I have to admit I didn't expect Ellison to attack me once I was into the plane, and while we were fighting the remote control unit I had ready to 'defuse' the explosive attached to the container in my car was broken. To maintain the fiction that the virus was in my car, after the security guards finally arrived I got Ellison to help 'defuse' it.

 

In fact, Kelso had already taken steps to return the virus to the lab in Atlanta.

 

Ellison had established himself as a police officer, and his immediate superior, Captain Banks, arrived moments later. Banks explained that Ellison - and Sandburg with him - had been working to recover the virus; they left me with the lab security team, who claimed me as an army arrest. Once the hazmat team had secured the apparent container of virus and they and the police had gone, I identified myself to the security commander.

 

Earlier, Waters had stolen a helicopter from the nearby air force base, and was waiting for me on one of the offshore islands. Since I had no idea how long it would take to get into the lab, our arrangement was that he would wait until he heard from me. Unfortunately a coastguard on a routine check found and arrested him. His report will follow when the C.I.A. has secured his release.

 

My conclusion; the security at the A.V.C.X. facility, while adequate against most potential intruders, has weaknesses. I got in without seeing anyone except the single guard at the gate. Anyone managing to cross the mined bridge can prevent pursuit too easily by over-riding the system. Using Ellison both helped and hindered my mission; his sentinel abilities speeded up my access to the plane, but his protective instincts prevented me from leaving with it.

 

Investigating a sentinel was not part of my brief, but because circumstances led me to observe one closely I would add, with regard to Ellison - or other sentinels, should we find any - that I do not think they would be of any great value to the C.I.A. Apart from the danger I already mentioned of them blacking out, Sandburg's study of them indicates that they are territorial, and have a strong instinct to protect their home territory. They will, however, only react aggressively if their territory, or the members of their personal tribe, are attacked. Although Ellison was in the army, it was before his senses came online; now that they are, he appears to have chosen Cascade, his home town, as his immediate territory, and he has little interest in protecting anywhere else. In addition, his guide - Sandburg - appears to be a man who will never follow orders unless he sees an advantage in doing so. He is apparently easy-going and peaceful, but in an army setting he would cause considerable disruption because he would query the necessity for almost every order given by a superior officer, and be able to provide logical reasons for doing so. He is like a conscientious objector who is quite prepared to kill, provided he makes the decision that it is necessary - but is not willing to obey an order to kill that has been given by someone else. And he has considerable influence over Ellison. If Ellison's territorial behaviour is typical of sentinels, I suspect that most guides would show similar character traits to Sandburg; they would need that independence of thought in order to assist their sentinels to best advantage.

 

Surveillance equipment - directional microphones and infra-red cameras - in the hands of trained operatives are probably as accurate as a sentinel at picking up information most of the time.

 

***

 

Thomas Cole reread the report he had just written, correcting two or three typos as he went and altering a word here and there. He grinned to himself as he remembered how he had yanked Ellison's chain by suggesting that Sandburg remove the wire from his pants, then paused, remembering the reaction - or rather, non-reaction - of both men. It was almost as if the suggestion hadn't fazed either in the slightest. Was it possible that his meant-to-irritate implication was true, and the two were indeed involved romantically? Well, it was no concern of his if they were. He saved the file, printed it and signed it. He glanced at the clock, noted that it was nearly five, put the report into his boss's in-tray, grabbed his jacket and left the office, idly wondering what crazy undercover operation he would be given next.

 

Life was much simpler when he was left in peace to drive Viper.
 

The End

alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-03 06:45 pm
Entry tags:

Ricochet of Sounds by April H

Title: Ricochet of Sounds

Author: April H

Fandom: The Sentinel

Category: pre-slash

Pairing: Jim/Blair

Moonridge Year: 2003

Who won the story: Tammy (last name withheld upon request)

Series: 2nd in my 'Sentinel senses' series

Warning:  R rating, Police violence, pre-slash, though things are heating up.

Summary: What does a working sentinel hear?

Notes: This story was written as payment for a winning bid in the 2003 Moonridge Zoo auction. With Tammy's statement of 'I like long stories with plot', I watched this little pwp I had been playing with suddenly morph. Muse had definite ideas for this story and continuously hit me over the head until I complied.

 

This story picks up a short time after Colors. I've written Jim a bit softer than cannon. Hope this doesn't put anyone off – I have plans and need him more receptive.

 

Acronyms:

BDU's – Battle Dress Uniform  (the greens the military usually wear)

FRB – Firing Review Board  (department of the IA that investigate shootings officers are involved with)

On to Sequel or back to Table of Contents

 

alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-03 06:38 pm
Entry tags:

Once Bitten

Title: Once Bitten
Author: Bluewolf
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: Gen/AU
Moonridge Year: 2010
Warnings: None

Notes: At bottom of story

ONCE BITTEN

by Bluewolf



Blair Sandburg, Senior Lecturer in Guide Studies at RainierUniversity, stood in front of the new intake of softly chattering, recently-established guides, waiting for his silence to impress itself on them. Gods, they were all so young! Had he ever been so young and naively enthusiastic, he wondered briefly, knowing that he had been... before disillusion regarding his abilities had killed that enthusiasm/dedication/sense of vocation. He still believed that guides were of value, or he wouldn't have made a career out of teaching young guides, but he no longer wanted to be one.

They were all between thirteen and fifteen - the qualities that defined a guide normally manifested themselves not long after puberty, although on rare occasions a guide came online much earlier - as he had done.


He wondered occasionally if that was what had gone wrong. Had he simply been too young, too emotionally immature - despite the unconventional upbringing that had given him street smarts at a very early age? But he didn't need to wonder. In his more introspective moments, he knew he had been too young.


It was one reason why, senior lecturer though he was, he had chosen to teach the freshmen rather than the final year students - the class the senior lecturer would normally have taken. He knew what it was like, to be online very young.


The class had finally fallen silent. He stood for some seconds longer, simply looking at them, knowing that his patience was making its own impact on them. Then he began.


"Sentinels first came to the notice of the so-called civilized world when a nineteenth century explorer, Richard Burton, realized that in some of the tribes he visited there were men - never more than one per village - whose senses appeared to be much more acute than those of their fellows. He was fascinated by these men, and studied them as best he could - learning quickly that the villages that had such men were more successful than villages that did not, and therefore tended to be very possessive of them.


"'Sentinels' was his name for them - the word that automatically came to the mind of a Victorian, rather than the terms 'watchman', 'protector' or 'guardian' that the tribes used.


"By using the word 'sentinel', however,
Burton did these men a disservice. Today, we identify the word as meaning 'sentry', one who stands guard. To their tribes, these men were far more than that. Yes, they guarded their villages, warning them of approaching danger; but they also led the hunters in their search for food, led a wandering nomadic group to water in times of drought, knew if a chance-found carcass was fit to eat, forecast changes in the weather...


"
Burton also noticed that a sentinel was invariably accompanied by a friend, whose presence seemed to assist the sentinel in the use of his abilities; but although he registered this, in his obsession with the sentinels, he actually paid very little attention to the friend. The constant companion.


"His work on sentinels was at first disputed, because none of his contemporaries had encountered one - hardly surprising when there were so few of them; it was amazing that he found as many as he did - and then it was ignored; his book about them, 'The Sentinels of Paraguay', was forgotten for many years, although one or two copies survived. After sentinels were... we could say rediscovered and found in Western countries, and the public realized how useful sentinels could be in certain professions, an enterprising publisher tracked down a copy and reprinted it.


"That book is required reading for this course." Blair paused for a moment, registering the expression on many of the faces in front of him, and grinned. "How many of you had to read Dickens when you were in high school?" Almost every hand went up.


"How many of you found him easy to read?" His grin broadened at the lack of response. "A lot of people do like his work, but I suspect they were older than any of you when they first met him.


"The trouble with many Victorian writers was a combination of verbosity and what appeared to be an irresistible habit of never using a one-syllable word where they could use a polysyllabic one.
Burton's writing was typical of his era. However, nobody has to struggle through Burton's original wording. The reprint of the original book was very small. Then the publisher found Trevor Davis, an elderly anthropologist with an interest in the subject, and got him to rewrite it, translating it, so to speak, into more modern English. That version has been very successful.


"
Davis was the first person to identify the absolute importance of the sentinel's friend... companion... guide. He had read Burton; like Burton, he had encountered one or two men with heightened senses when he was on expeditions into what is still commonly referred to as 'uncharted territory', and realized what they were; Burton's 'sentinels'. There were still - over a century after Burton's travels - one or two small tribes in remote areas that had had no exposure to 'civilization', who had never seen a white man or a metal knife; it's doubtful that any such tribes still exist today, even though several have chosen to continue living a hunter-gatherer life. It was Davis who, eighty-three years ago, found the first known sentinel of modern times in America - do any of you know his name?"


A hand rose tentatively, and Blair smiled encouragement. "Yes?"


"Rupert Anderson?"


"That's right. He was thirty-six years older than
Davis, but despite the age difference they became friends, and worked together until Anderson died some twelve years later. By then more sentinels had been identified, and Davis turned his attention to publicizing a sentinel's need for a guide - Anderson had used Davis to help stabilize his sometimes erratic control with considerable success.


"
Davis' book, 'My Life as a Guide' is the other one that is required reading, because it gives the origins of many of the techniques that guides use today to help their sentinels. Even if some of you eventually decide that you don't want to partner a sentinel, it's still useful for you to know those techniques."


Blair continued with his lecture, giving his young students a broad overview of the work that sentinel/guide pairs did in the modern world as well as an indication of work that a guide on his own might do.


As he reached the end of his talk he checked his watch, noting that there were still ten minutes of the class to run, and wound up his talk by saying, "Before next week's class, you need to buy the two books that are required reading - and just be grateful that I only list two books. The lecturers in some subjects list a dozen. I want you to read the first chapter of each book, and be prepared to discuss what you've read. Anyone who wants to consult with me about anything will find my office hours posted on the Guide Studies notice board. Any questions?"


One of the girls raised a hand. He had noticed her during the lesson, but had been unable to decide, on such brief exposure to her, whether she was a potential troublemaker who was unlikely ever to be a good, reliable guide or a genuinely ambitious guide who would be an asset to her sentinel. Strength, on its own, wasn't always a positive attribute. "Yes, Miss...?"


She correctly assumed that he wanted her name as well as her question. "Donna Tompkins. Sir, you've been referring to sentinels as 'he' all the time. Isn't that... well, isn't that a bit sexist?"


Blair drew a long, shuddering breath. Well, it was something that had to be addressed at some point, though not in detail for another two years; as well get the simple fact of it over with now, especially since he saw several of the girls and one or two of the boys nodding agreement. "No. Although there are as many female guides as there are male ones, sentinels are always male. There has never been a female sentinel recorded."


As he paused to take another steadying breath, one of the other girls said, "Are you saying that women have never had heightened senses? Or have they just never been given the chance to use them?"


"That might have been the case in tribal cultures, where women were rarely in a position where their senses would be triggered, even if they had the potential. In our culture, women can be in such a position, and... it can happen. I knew... knew of... one woman - and only one - who had heightened senses... and she wasn't a sentinel."


"But isn't that what defines a sentinel?" one of the boys asked. "Heightened senses?"


"There has to be the instinct to protect as well," Blair said. "She had no instinct to protect."


"What happened to her?"


"She ended up committed to a mental hospital - with the provision that it was for life. That no doctor or psychiatrist would ever be allowed to pronounce her mentally capable. Not that it's likely any doctor would try; she had reverted to having the mental level of a three- or four-year-old, and to the best of my knowledge still does."


"But didn't she have a guide?" Tompkins asked.


"She had a guide for a short while," Blair said quietly. "A young man, a trained guide who felt the way at least some of you do, that there was no reason why there shouldn't be female sentinels. He... in a way, he was broken as well. He survived with his sanity intact, because he had never totally trusted her and hadn't in fact imprinted on her, but he'll never guide again. Academically he knows that what happened with her isn't likely to happen with a male sentinel who has had the proper training - something she never had - but he isn't prepared to take the risk."


Nobody, it seemed, had anything more to say after that. Blair waited for some seconds, then said, "Remember - be prepared to discuss the first chapter of both books next week. Dismissed." He watched them go, then sank into the seat behind his desk that he almost never used, gazing blankly at the empty seats in front of him, remembering...

 ***

Brought up by a single mother who espoused sexual equality with a fanatical fervor, it never occurred to Blair that there was anything he could do that a woman couldn't... well, except father children; and nothing a woman could do (except give birth) that a man couldn't, or was beneath a man's dignity to do - even though he had met a few men whose stated belief was that a woman's place was either in the kitchen or in bed; that women were there for no purpose other than to serve men.


He was well aware of his mother's disapproval of such men; of her contempt for women who allowed themselves to be dominated by such men. He was well aware, when he was growing up, that his mother felt as Donna Tompkins did; that 'only men were sentinels' was sexist, even though it was an apparently demonstrable fact.

As a young child, he had often thought how wonderful it would be to be a sentinel, with senses acute enough that helping other people would be automatic, instinctive, rewarding, and hoped that he was one - although there was no way to tell, when a child was very young, how he would develop; if he would be one of the very small percentage who were sentinels or guides, or the much higher percentage of people who were counted as 'normal'.

When he was ten, it became obvious that Blair was not, as he had hoped, a sentinel, but he was that other rarity, a guide. Not quite as uncommon as sentinels, not all guides chose to partner a sentinel, though all were trained in the necessary techniques; there were other jobs that someone with guide capabilities could do, and do well. But if he couldn't be a sentinel, he wanted to be guide to a sentinel.


His mother Naomi knew how he felt about sentinels, and encouraged him to train as a guide, although she deplored the fact that he would automatically be partnered with a male; she was quite sure that somewhere there had to be female sentinels.


At ten, Blair had developed a full three years earlier than was usual, but guides were rare enough that the authorities were not going to let that little detail delay Blair's training, even if it meant his education in general subjects suffered - and so Blair found himself enrolled as a student at Antioch University. Because of his age - or was that his youth? - he had to live in university accommodation, and for the first time in his short life he found himself in a situation where it was possible to amass more possessions than he was able to pack into a single duffel bag.


Not that he wanted many possessions; though he did seize the opportunity to buy some books, he was always aware that when he left
Antioch, having found a sentinel to guide, he might have to return to an existence of being always on the move. It seemed unlikely, sentinels being as territorial as they were, but it wasn't impossible. A few sentinels did travel around, taking their skills to places that didn't have a resident sentinel, if there was a problem there that required one. Accustomed to traveling as he was, Blair thought that working with a peripatetic sentinel would suit him very well, but it wasn't something he would regard as essential; somewhat to his surprise, he found that the settled life at Antioch was surprisingly pleasant.


Naomi made one 'arrangement' for him when he went to
Antioch; for the breaks in the university year, he traveled to Fort Worth, where Naomi's brother lived, and spent the holidays there.


She herself stayed in
Los Angeles only long enough to know that he had settled in - and was doing better with his general studies than the Chancellor had thought possible, even though he was now doing work suitable for thirteen-year-olds. He enjoyed the challenge of the more advanced work, and although he no longer had the highest grades of anyone in his class, he was still in the top ten percent.


The one thing he lacked was friends.


Not that that was anything new. Moving around the way Naomi did, he had had few opportunities to form any kind of lasting friendship, though he had found many reasons to be bullied - the new kid, the small kid, the kid whose level of attainment was far in excess of the others in the class he was assigned to, the kid who actually enjoyed reading as a form of recreation, the kid with no father (even though Naomi usually claimed to be a widow, finding that people understood that more readily than her creed of 'I wanted a child but I never wanted a man permanently in my life')... all of these were anathema to the non-academically-minded often just would-be tough guys who ruled the playgrounds of too many schools. He had, in the past, been glad to move on, though occasionally it hadn't been quite as soon as he would have liked.


Because his fellow students at
Antioch were all guides, he wasn't bullied in any way - bullying was not in a guide's nature; but although he was mature for his age, he was too young for most of them to find his company particularly congenial. Even the ones who were friendliest didn't go out of their way to spend time with him outside the classroom. Fortunately, he was used to being the only child among adults, and had over the years found several ways to compensate. He sat quietly in a corner of the common room watching and listening, learning more than anyone realized, forming his own opinions but not putting any of them forward. And for company, he had books; more now than he had ever had, thanks to the university library and, for fiction, the nearest branch of the LA library.


By his third year at
Antioch, at least some of the new guides arriving to start Guide Studies were close to him in age, but there was still a barrier created by his being close to graduating while they were only starting.


In any case, friendship was a concept strange to him. Academically he knew what friendship was. From his reading, he knew the classical stories of close friendships - Damon and Pythias, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander and Hephaistion... but at the same time, when he watched his fellow students and saw what some of them considered 'friendship' he couldn't help wondering if he was better off without friends. He recognized that the classic stories were probably an idealized depiction of friendship but, even though he understood that, he knew that that was the kind of friendship he wanted; the kind of friend he could be if he ever had the chance. The kind of friendship he hoped he might form with his sentinel. Who would be male.


He had finally learned why there were no female sentinels.


Although it had been pointed out to the guides-in-training quite early on that sentinels were mostly territorial, it wasn't until their third year that their lecturers went into any detail about that, and about why it was a bad thing for a woman's senses to be triggered, assuming she had the potential.


A sentinel did not readily allow another sentinel of any age into his territory once he had established it, seeing him as a rival. It had never been quite decided whether or not that instinct to defend a specific territory was a strength.


When sentinels were first identified in the 'civilized' world, it had been postulated by Andrew Howell, at that time a leading psychologist, that because of that territorial instinct, any woman who was a sentinel would, if she had a child who had sentinel potential, either abandon the child or - worse - kill it as soon as it showed any sign of developing into a sentinel. Granted most sentinels, like guides, didn't fully develop until they were entering their teens, so abandonment wasn't deadly, but how could anyone legislate against a mother killing her sentinel child before anyone else recognized what he was? It followed, logically, that it was maladaptive for the mutation for women to be sentinels. As it was, if a child's senses began to develop beyond a certain point in an area where there was a resident sentinel, mother and child could move away into a region where nobody was allowed to establish a territory other than his own bedroom - several such areas existed, with some older, unlinked guides whose job it was to help the young sentinels maintain some basic control while they were, first, trained and then found their own guides.


Although he understood the reasoning, Blair had a suspicion that there was a flaw in it. All mothers trained their children in certain basic skills as they began to develop them. It was primarily the mother who taught a child to talk, for example. There might be some input from other adults, mainly the father if there was one around, but such teaching was primarily the mother's domain. So wouldn't a sentinel mother be more likely to have the instinct to give her child some training in the control of his senses as they began to develop?

So Blair found himself wondering if females with sentinel potential had simply never been given the opportunity to develop it because of a mistaken theory postulated years previously by a psychologist who had enough of a reputation that his suppositions were accepted as facts.


It was a thought he chose not to voice. He had learned that few lecturers appreciated their facts being challenged, even by a question from someone genuinely seeking information about, or clarification of, some point they had made. Indeed, he found himself wondering if some of his teachers really knew their subject or if they were simply repeating what they themselves had been taught. For just as one sentinel could recognize another one, even sense the presence of another one in his territory, a guide could easily recognize another guide, although his reaction to the presence of another guide was less extreme - if only because part of the guides' training was aimed at teaching them how to control their automatic possessiveness regarding their sentinels; something that was vital in a world where some guides didn't work with sentinels.


So couldn't a sentinel be given similar training, at least enough that he wouldn't automatically consider all other sentinels, regardless of their age, as potential rivals, if they should enter his territory?

Well, to almost-thirteen-year-old Blair, it didn't seem likely that he would ever be in a position to find out.


 
***

Three months before the end of their final year, the guides-in-training had interviews with the Chancellor. This would to some extent decide their future. The Chancellor had a list of young sentinels who needed guides; this included what work the sentinels planned to pursue. After the interview, the young guides would send a resume, with their personal details and interests,  to the sentinel whose details seemed the most congenial. A meeting would follow. Some pairings were made instantly at that first meeting. Other sentinels and guides met with two or three possible partners before meeting the one with whom they felt the most rapport.


This had been the subject of a lot of common room discussion for some weeks.


Some still hadn't decided if they wanted to guide a sentinel or apply for some other work where their abilities would be valued. Of those who thought they did want to guide a sentinel, several still hadn't decided what they wanted their sentinel to be; but of course if they felt sufficient rapport with a sentinel, they would fall into line with whatever work that sentinel wanted to do.


Blair faced his interview with less trepidation than some of his classmates; he knew what he wanted, had always known what he wanted; a sentinel to guide. He had no great preference for any particular line of work, although he thought Search and Rescue would be particularly rewarding.


Their interviews were done in alphabetical order, and not for the first time Blair silently cursed the fate that put him close to last in a society that considered alphabetical order the most obvious one. The ones with names in the first third of the alphabet would have a far better choice, and some of them were among the ones with the poorest grades - the ones whose guiding abilities were weakest. Surely it would have been fairer to have put the guides with the highest grades first, to give them a better choice of sentinel, to give the sentinels a greater chance of getting a guide who was better than just competent! Yes, personalities came into it too, but...


At last his turn came, and he entered the Chancellor's office.


"Mr. Sandburg. Sit."


Blair sank into the chair facing Chancellor Eli Stoddard, who glanced down at the paper in front of him.


"Hmmm. Yes. Excellent grades, Mr. Sandburg."


"Thank you, sir."


"Have you given any thought to what you want to do?"


"I want to be a sentinel's guide, sir. I've always wanted that."


Chancellor Stoddard nodded. "There's just one problem," he said. "Your age.


"You developed your abilities exceptionally young," he went on gently. "We couldn't, in good faith, allow you to stumble along without training once it was clear your ability had fully manifested, but we have to face the fact that you are only now at an age when those who are considered to have matured early would normally have been about to begin training. You are not yet quite thirteen, and quite frankly it wouldn't be legal for you to be partnered with a sentinel just yet. It's not legal for you to be working, even though you have completed your school work more than satisfactorily. You know, don't you, that guides who come on-line before they are fifteen, and therefore finish their training early, so to speak, have to spend the time until they are eighteen in further education before they can apply to work as guides. Only the ones who start at fifteen can go on to work as guides as soon as they finish their training."


Yes, Blair had known, and had chosen not to remember.


"I'm afraid, therefore, that for the next five years you must continue as a student, although as a qualified guide you won't have any student fees to pay, and you will get a small allowance from the government; I hope you will choose to remain with us, but you must choose a subject to study during those years. And once you are eighteen, you will be given a short refresher course and then automatically get first choice of the sentinels available at that time."


"Yes," Blair said dully, fighting back the tears that would have betrayed, more than anything else, his youth. "I... I understand. I don't deny I'm disappointed; five years before I can partner a sentinel seems...
seems... "


"Seems like forever," Stoddard agreed sympathetically. "But you'll be surprised how quickly they pass. Now, unless you already have some thoughts about what you want to study...? No," as Blair shook his head. "You hadn't really thought past partnering a sentinel, had you? I suggest that you go back to your room and think about it, and I'll see you again tomorrow afternoon, 4 pm."


"Yes... Thank you, sir." Somehow Blair managed to keep his head up as he left the Chancellor's office.


The student with the next appointment was already waiting. "Hey, how did it go?" he asked.


Blair managed a smile. "I have to stay on here till I'm eighteen," he said.


The other student's jaw dropped. "But you're top of the class - "


"Doesn't change the law. I can't work as a guide until I'm eighteen. Neither can you," he added, remembering that Paul Sheridan was just seventeen.


"Shit."
Sheridan made a face. "They told us, too... "


"Way back," Blair agreed. "They made it perfectly clear right at the start that those of us who'd matured early would have to mark time once we'd finished our training. Did anyone remember that, I wonder?"


"Probably not,"
Sheridan muttered. "And none of the ones who were affected by it that Stoddard has already seen thought to mention it, either. At least for me it's only a year. For you... "


"Five years to get some probably useless qualifications under my belt," Blair said bitterly. Turning, he headed off down the corridor, hearing, behind him,
Sheridan knocking on the Chancellor's door.


 
***

Blair sat at the desk in his room doodling absent-mindedly as he considered his options. Was there any subject he could choose to study over the next five-and-a-bit years that wouldn't be a complete waste of time?


Yes, he had always been interested in learning, but as guide to a sentinel the work he did would be dictated by what his sentinel did. There would be absolutely no point in getting a degree in mathematics if his sentinel turned out to be involved in search and rescue; it would be a paper qualification that he could never use. Finally it occurred to him that anthropology might be useful. Studying tribal cultures could perhaps give him an insight into the ways in which sentinels had served their tribes, probably still did, an insight into the ways in which these sentinels were helped by their guides. And even if it didn't, it might help him understand human behavior - and since sentinels in general went in for jobs where they could help others, anything that helped understand what made people react in certain ways could only be an advantage.


And so Blair Sandburg, barely thirteen years old, qualified guide, moved from guide studies to anthropology.

***


He hadn't thought it possible to have less of a social life than he had had as a student guide; as a student anthropologist, however, he discovered that it was indeed possible. Some of his fellow guides-in-training had been eighteen by the end of their third year at
Antioch, but many were not, and while he had no friends among them, they had respected him as a fellow guide and had been tolerant of his presence in the guide common room. But the six or so years that separated Blair from his fellow anthropology students seemed to pose a barrier that couldn't be crossed. They saw him as a young upstart who needed to be put, and kept, in his place, and resented the ease with which he learned; perhaps fortunately they had no idea that he had already been at Antioch for three years. There was no more sitting quietly in a corner of the common room listening to whatever his fellow students were discussing. It was made very clear to him that they might have to put up with his presence in the classroom, but children were not welcome in the common room.


Luckily he still had books to occupy his leisure hours. And he studied. Constantly.


He had his Bachelors and his Masters before he was sixteen, and with still more than two years to fill before he could partner a sentinel, began working towards a doctorate in anthropology; and that didn't particularly endear him to the older students, many of whom felt he was showing them up, even though he was now much closer in age to the freshmen.


It was perhaps fortunate that none of them ever knew that, as a fully qualified guide who planned to work with a sentinel, he was getting an allowance from the government - and housed and fed by the university and with no social life, he was spending almost none of that allowance except when he had to buy himself new clothes as he outgrew what he was wearing; but he shopped at Goodwill, saving most of his money. At sixteen he already had a nice little nest-egg; by the time he was old enough to work, it would have almost doubled in size, making him far more independent than guides often were; he had begun to realize that financially, at least, he was benefitting from these years that - in his opinion - were being wasted.


And for all of those years from ten to sixteen, he had seen nothing of his mother.


He did hear from her reasonably regularly; postcards from many of the places she visited, a card every year at least close to his birthday, a carefully non-specific card each year close to midwinter; she was eclectic in her religious observance, cheerfully accepting that a midwinter celebration of some kind was common, at least in areas far enough from the equator to have a winter, and not particularly caring which one she celebrated. Well, that at least was familiar; Blair could remember several totally different midwinter celebrations from before he was ten; Naomi simply joined the celebrations local to wherever she happened to be.


Until he was ten he had had nobody else, and he had no doubt that she loved him, but he was well aware that, although she had wanted a child (at a time when she had really been too young to understand the responsibility involved) when he went to Antioch, she had cheerfully shaken off her maternal responsibilities and flown free. He was never quite sure whether or not he missed her, after the first shock of her departure - though within a day of it he had accepted it, even, at ten, mildly amused that he should have thought, even for a moment, that anything would ever make her stay anywhere. By the time he was sixteen, he occasionally wondered if he would even recognize her, if she ever popped back into his life.


His
Fort Worth relatives had become his family.


He enjoyed the time he spent at Fort Worth; David and Anna Sandburg had one son, Robert, who was close to Blair in age, and although Robert had other friends, he and Blair became quite close; Robert was his first actual friend - and if he secretly envied Robert the... yes, the security that having his parents around all the time gave him, he knew that Robert often envied him the freedom of having had the apron strings cut... especially when Robert wanted to go somewhere and his parents said no.


Blair knew that, when he first went to stay with them, his uncle and aunt had expected to have some difficulty getting him to understand that they had rules, and had been very happy to discover that he had fewer problems with obeying them than their own son did. Of course, at ten he had been obeying unspoken, self-set rules aimed at giving himself as trouble-free a life as possible for fully five years. With David and Anna, for the first time other people had set the rules for him, which meant they knew them too. Blair also knew Robert never quite understood how much he appreciated that. He had tried to explain that life without rules - even self-imposed ones - led to unhappiness, but faced with Robert's total lack of understanding of how or why that could be, he gave up, and simply tried as best he could to keep his cousin out of trouble, quickly finding that "I don't want to do that" was far more effective than "Aunt Anna wouldn't like it".


David and Anna were devout Jews, but Blair had seen enough in his first ten years to doubt, even at that age, that any one faith had merits denied to all the others. However, when he was at
Fort Worth, gratitude made him pretend to adhere to Judaism.


His (and Robert's) bar mitzvah, when he was thirteen, had been a way of repaying David and Anna for their kindness to him. Robert, who had been rebellious about it, accepted Blair's argument that it meant that in the eyes of the church they would be regarded as adult even though legally they were still counted as children. However, away from
Fort Worth, Blair resumed the 'take what you like out of all religions' approach that Naomi espoused. It was his only... rebellion, he supposed was the best word, against his uncle's standards; that his uncle didn't know he was rebelling didn't matter.


 
***


The card that arrived a little before his sixteenth birthday included a note - 'Blair, sweetie, I want to take you on a trip this summer to celebrate your academic success over the last six years. Make sure your passport is up-to-date! I can promise you something you'll never forget. I'll be in touch with David and Anna and explain to them why you won't be going to
Fort Worth this summer.'


Blair read it. He thought for a moment, then he read it again. And again.


Well, wherever she was taking him, she'd better make sure he was back in time for the start of the university year! Although he had been forced to continue studying, he did want to get his Ph.D. before he finally quit the world of education to get himself a sentinel. And... it felt disloyal, but he didn't totally trust her; he loved her, despite her long absence from his life, but his memories of her didn't include reliability. She was very easily distracted. She might have meant to contact Uncle David, but had she actually remembered?


He went in search of a phone.


"Uncle David - it's Blair. Has Mom been in touch with you recently?"


"Yes, she has - day before yesterday, in fact. She said - oh, it's maybe a secret..."


"Mom was never any good with secrets," Blair laughed. "She wants to take me on a trip somewhere this summer, as a treat for doing so well at
Antioch. She hasn't said where, but she told me I'd need a passport."


"Well, considering how little she's ever in
America, I'm not surprised she's taking you somewhere abroad. We'll miss having you here, son, you know that."


"I'll miss seeing you and Aunt Anna and Robert. But... well... "


"You haven't seen your Mom for years, and she is your Mom. Don't worry, Blair, we understand. And I expect we'll see you as usual for the winter break."


"I certainly hope so." Blair meant it. In a way it would be nice to see Naomi again, but his
Fort Worth relatives were his family now, and he knew he would miss visiting them.


"And you phoned to check that we knew about the summer?"


"Well... yes. Mom can be very forgetful. She said she'd let you know, but I didn't want to depend on her remembering."


David chuckled. "Enjoy your summer, Blair. Drop us a postcard if you can - I know your Mom often ends up someplace where there's no reliable postal service - and remember, after you get back, if you have two or three days before you dive back into your studies, we'd love to see you."


"I'll remember. Give Aunt Anna my love. 'Bye." With that off his mind, he went to see about getting an up-to-date photo for his passport.

 
***

Naomi arrived on the last day of term.


Blair was free that day; there was no class where he was supposed to show his face, even if all the students did was chat. Normally he would have headed off first thing, catching the first available bus east. Flying to Dallas-Fort Worth International was faster and more direct, but more expensive; he preferred to take the cheaper option, saving as much as possible of his money. He had, however, taken some money out of the bank to have spending money on this holiday Naomi was planning, tucking it in small quantities in various pockets and the duffle that held his clothes. Naomi had taught him that, even if he hadn't seen for himself in some of the areas they visited how skilled some pickpockets could be. He even sewed a little into hidden pockets in the hem of his various T-shirts or the waistband of his jeans. At least American dollars were acceptable currency pretty well everywhere, easily exchanged for local currency if necessary. And then he waited in his room, not knowing when she would arrive but knowing that she would be directed to it when she did.


Someone tried to open the door, but from habit he had it locked. He crossed quickly to it, knowing it had to be Naomi - only she would walk into his room without first knocking - and opened it.


He was happy to realize that he did recognize her immediately.


"Blair, sweetie!" She caught him in a hug that took him totally by surprise; she had never been all that demonstrative when he was younger. After a moment he hugged her back, releasing her quickly when he felt her arms slackening, surprised at how little he had appreciated it - there had been a time when he would have given anything for a hug from her.


He still loved her, but he realized that the past six years had taught him he could manage without her very well.


"Let me look at you! Oh, you've grown so much!" She gave a slightly guilty laugh. "Though I don't know what else I was expecting... But all the time you've been here, I've been learning too. I've learned so much about meditation and seeing auras and spiritual healing... and... Oh, dear. Your aura is ever so slightly dark. Have you suffered a disappointment recently?"


Yes, he thought mutinously. I wanted to go to Fort Worth, not wherever you're planning on taking me! But he knew he couldn't say that. And just maybe, once they were on the road - well, more probably plane - he might find he was enjoying the journey as much as he had until six years earlier. "Not recently," he obfuscated. "I qualified as a guide three years ago, but I can't work as one until I'm eighteen." Well, it was the truth, although he had begun to see the logic behind the ruling, and he had enjoyed his anthropology studies. "It still seems a terrible waste of five years."


She nodded understandingly. "They think you don't want to be too much younger than your sentinel," she said.


"I know. But I can't help thinking that somewhere there might be a very young sentinel who doesn't want a guide who's five or six years older, suffering because younger guides, no matter how well qualified they are, aren't allowed to work till they're eighteen. There should be some provision to let under-age sentinels and guides at least get to know each other and pair up, learn how to work together, even if they have to carry on at school. One of the reasons they give for not letting us partner till we're eighteen is that once people leave school, it's easy for them to drift apart, but that's silly; plenty of people who become friends at school stay friends."


"And there's been no mention of female sentinels?"


"No. Apparently it has something to do with a sentinel's terratoriality. The psychologists think that any woman who was a sentinel would either abandon or kill her children if they developed heightened senses, rather than share the territory for even a year or two till they were old enough to find their own territory, so the genes for it are apparently linked to the Y chromosome."


She shook her head. "You don't believe that, do you?"


"It seems plausible... but I think it's more likely that she would begin to train them."


"Of course she would!" Naomi exclaimed. "Anyway - are you ready to go?"


"Yes."


"Passport up-to-date?"


Silly question
, he thought, since you told me to make sure it was! But all he said was, "Of course. Where are we going? You didn't say anything about visas... "


"Just
Mexico," Naomi said. "A place called Sierra Verde. It's one of those places that time seems to have passed over, leaving it almost unchanged, with the people living pretty well as they did a couple of hundred years ago. There's a fairly modern hotel, and the foreigners who stay there are mostly ones on package tours that include showing people living as they did before 'civilization' took over everything." She obviously saw the doubtful look that he couldn't repress, and went on hastily, "I don't mean that in a bad way. The town itself gets most of its income from the visitors, and the people take... well, pride in showing that they can live without the amenities that America thinks are necessities. You'll find it really interesting from an anthropologistic viewpoint."


He nodded slowly, remembering from his lectures that some small tribes had turned themselves into living 'museums', earning a reasonable income from the visitors who came to see 'hunter-gatherers living a hunter-gatherer life' and buy 'authentic hand-crafted' souvenirs, where at least some of the tribesmen, and even one or two of the women, were actually highly educated; they hadn't lost the skills of their forefathers, but basically they were playing with those skills, acting out the lifestyle of their grandfathers, and if the tourists believed they were seeing the genuine article, well, it was a harmless pretense. He strongly suspected that the people of Sierra Verde were also living a double life, and that in the privacy of their own homes, in the rooms the public didn't see, they had at least some of the creature comforts Naomi believed were unknown to them. Probably not electricity, he decided; the hotel, and possibly the church, were probably the only buildings to have electricity. It would be too difficult to conceal power lines going to houses where the people were supposed to be living in the eighteenth century, and too expensive for those power lines to have been put underground.


So he pretended to believe what Naomi told him, gathered up the duffle bag that held his clothes and a couple of books, a large notebook and a pencil, double-checked his jacket pocket for his wallet and passport, and nodded. "Ready."


He locked his door, paused at the caretaker's office on the way out to hang the key on its hook, then followed Naomi to a small car parked, totally illegally, in 'administrative parking'. Naomi never had believed that rules, in general, applied to her.


***


They finally arrived at
Campeche International Airport - which was rather smaller than its 'International' name implied - after two changes of plane and a fairly lengthy layover at one of the airports. Once they had dealt with the not very stringent formalities, Naomi led the way to a small car rental business. It seemed that she was known; after a few words exchanged with the attendant, she was handed a key, and with a quick, "This way, sweetie," she headed towards a small Ford.


The road she took was extremely good, but seemed underused for its quality; they met very few cars after they left
Campeche, even although they were on the road to Merida - a route that Blair would have expected to be very busy. After about half an hour, however, she turned onto a side road... and then onto another, ending up on one that was... adequate, Blair supposed would be the best word. It was narrow, the edges potholed, and Blair suspected that in wet weather it would be rather muddy.

Well, if this road took them into Sierra Verde, it fitted Naomi's description of a town living in the past.


***


However, when they reached it, Sierra Verde proved to be something of a surprise. For a start, it was bigger than Blair would have expected, and the houses, far from being the thatched huts that he had expected, looked surprisingly modern.


"I thought you said this place didn't have any modern amenities?" he asked, careful to keep his voice curious rather than accusing; if this was where she had brought him for an 'archaeological holiday', as a 'treat' for doing well at Antioch, it was a serious let-down.


"Well, the houses don't have electricity, so they are living a fairly primitive lifestyle," she said. "And they do sell hand-made crafts. They need the income from visitors. But that wasn't the only reason I brought you here."


She turned the car into the parking lot of what looked to be a very modern hotel.


They retrieved their bags from the trunk and Naomi led Blair into the hotel.


The girl at Reception smiled cheerfully at them. "Senora Sandburg! Es bueno verte de nuevo. Este es tu hijo?"


"Si. Blair, this is Renata."


"Hello," Blair said, taken aback by the cheerfully flirting look she was giving him.


"Sabe si Señorita Bannister está en su habitación?" Naomi went on.


Renata nodded. "Si."


"Gracias."


Naomi turned away from the desk and headed for the stairs; Blair grinned cheerfully at Renata, and followed. Naomi only went up one story, and headed along the corridor; stopping about half-way along it, she knocked at a door. After a moment, it was opened.


The blonde woman who had opened the door smiled. "Naomi! Come in. And this is Blair?"


Blair followed Naomi into the room. As the woman closed the door behind them, Naomi said, "Yes. Blair, this is Alicia Bannister. She's a sentinel."


Blair's mouth dropped open. It took him some moments to find his voice. "A sentinel? But... they told us... "


"I always said there had to be female sentinels," Naomi said triumphantly. "And Blair - we're in
Mexico. American rules don't count here. You can be a guide now; you don't have to waste another two years."


"We should let the Sentinel Institute know!" Blair said. "Dr. Howell's reasoning, eighty-odd years ago, for why there weren't any female sentinels, sounded extremely plausible and it's still being quoted today, believed today." He looked at Alicia. "Weren't you ever tested?"


"When were girls ever tested?" she asked.


"Well, not routinely, but once your senses began to show - "


"My parents thought I was lying to get attention," Alicia said.


"And you've never had a guide?" Blair asked, honestly horrified.


"No. My brother had heightened hearing, and I learned some... tricks, I suppose you could call them, that helped me by watching him, but how could I get a guide? Nobody would believe that I had heightened senses; even when I tried to prove it, they said I was cheating somehow." She sounded bitter.


"Well, I'm sure I can help you," Blair said. He wouldn't get the 'short refresher course' Stoddard had mentioned three years previously, but he had forgotten nothing of what he had learned.

***


What he didn't know, what he hadn't been told, the one thing about which all newly-linked guides and sentinels were sworn to secrecy, the one thing that was meant to ensure that an under-age guide couldn't break the rules, was that once he and his sentinel had found each other they would have a final series of lessons together, to teach them how to drop their mental barriers with each other, to enable them to imprint fully on each other.

 

He didn't know how to drop his barriers. He didn't even know he had them.

 

***

 

The first two or three days were fun, as he began to help Alicia control her senses, quickly discovering that sight and hearing were by far the most enhanced. Touch wasn't bad, but taste and smell - although more sensitive than normal - weren't very much enhanced. The 'tricks' that she already knew were very basic, little more than bandaids on a cut that needed stitches, though for someone who didn't know anything else they were better than nothing. He was finally - finally! - getting to use the skills he had been taught. And yet...

 

Although these first few days were fun, they were somehow less... less satisfying than he had expected working with a sentinel would be. He had expected to have a rapport with his sentinel that was unlike any other he had ever experienced, and it just wasn't there. He hadn't expected it to be <i>instant</i>, but after a week he began to wonder if what he had been taught about the link between sentinel and guide was... not a myth, exactly, but an exaggeration. Part of it, of course, was that one thing he didn't know - that they both had barriers. He was just increasingly aware that, given a choice, she would not have been his choice.

 

His mind had begun to understand the logic behind the 'not until you're eighteen' ruling, but now, suddenly, he found he understood it emotionally, too, although he still felt that somewhere there might have been a fourteen-year-old sentinel who desperately needed a guide, a fourteen-year-old sentinel who had come on-line early, as he had. He was mature for his years, but - although he didn't know Alicia's age - it was obvious that she was a lot older that he; there was an age difference between them that there didn't seem to be any way to bridge. Maybe in four or five years the age difference would become unimportant, but - as it had been with his fellow students - he was young enough that it was still there.

 

Lying in bed on his eighth night in Sierra Verde, thinking about things, he decided that Alicia had been desperate; desperate enough to accept an underage guide as the only one she was likely to get. And Naomi, meeting a female sentinel, had been so delighted at the opportunity that would give Blair a female to guide, that she had been more than happy to ignore the ruling that said he was still too young - well, he had always known the ease with which she ignored rules she didn't think should apply to her, and by extension, to him. By bringing him here, ostensibly on holiday, she had almost kidnapped him.

 

He had never fully agreed with Andrew Howell's view that a female sentinel would react adversely to having a sentinel child, but this past week was making him reconsider, for it seemed to him that Alicia cared for no-one but herself.

 

Oh, she appeared friendly... on the surface; but he doubted very much that she was genuinely friendly. As far as he was concerned, the age thing came into it - but unless all his lecturers had been seriously wrong, with each generation misled by the teaching of the generation before into thinking of it as more than it actually was, he would have expected that he would feel something stronger from Alicia than... yes, something that was barely surface deep.

 

Naomi thought that the three of them were friends - although in many ways she was streetwise, she had always been a person to extend friendship readily. But Blair knew that they were not. He felt a responsibility towards Alicia, a responsibility that had been forced upon him by Naomi's expectations when she brought him to Sierra Verde, her joy that she could present him with a female sentinel. It was reinforced, in a way, by the way she had reared him to consider men and women as equal in all things. But he was beginning feel that Alicia lacked... something. Empathy? Yet was that innate, or had she learned, by the refusal of both her family and society to accept what she was, that the only person she could truly depend on was herself? If that were the case, he was trapped, for if he tried to leave - and he could, he carried his own passport and return ticket to Los Angeles - it would reinforce her feelings of being rejected - and if her guide rejected her, surely she would be completely destroyed.

 

And if it was innate... then sentinels weren't what he had always believed them to be. Was their service to their communities merely a matter of expedience, something that made them feel important? Or something they had been reared to believe was their destiny, even if they didn't want to spend their lives working for the good of their communities? How would he ever know?

 

What should he do? What could he do?

 

Finally he rolled over, and fell into a restless, unrefreshing sleep.

 

***

 

Matters came to a head just two days later.

 

Blair woke with a headache and a sense of something being terribly, horribly wrong. He forced himself out of bed, washed and dressed, and headed for the door, wondering if the hotel shop carried anything like Tylenol or if the girl on Reception could tell him where it was possible to buy some. As he opened the door, he heard voices - loud enough that he could recognize the voices, though not loud enough that he could hear what was being said.

 

Naomi and Alicia... From the tone of their voices, Blair thought that Alicia was trying to persuade Naomi of something that Naomi was angrily rejecting.

 

Naomi - angry? That was... unprecedented. Or it certainly would have been, back when he was ten, although it was possible that her attitudes had changed, unlikely though that seemed. With all she had always said about negative emotions being 'bad karma', as he remembered her she just didn't have it in her to feel very strongly about anything - except, possibly, women's rights. But even there, she didn't get angry; and whatever the provocation, she didn't get angry with another woman. Ever.

 

So what was Alicia wanting of her?

 

And then he heard a scream, and a succession of thuds.

 

He rushed out of his room, and ran along the corridor, to find Alicia standing at the top of the stairs, gazing down.

 

"Alicia?" he gasped as he reached her. She turned to face him, and for the briefest moment he saw something that looked like satisfaction on her face before she twisted it into sympathy as she caught him.

 

He looked down the stairs. There was a crumpled heap at the bottom, with two of the staff already bending over it... and he knew it was Naomi.

 

"Mom!" he screamed.

 

Alicia held him, preventing him from rushing down, as the man who had been bending over Naomi made his way up to them. "I'm sorry," he said. At least, unlike many of the staff, he spoke good English. "Senora Sandburg is dead. Do you know what happened?"

 

"We were talking," Alicia said. "She turned, seemed to lose her balance, and fell. There was nothing I could do. Then Blair came along, and I knew I had to keep him from going down the stairs... "

 

"Yes, of course." Blair recognized the man now as the hotel manager. "We have sent for a doctor, but I have training in first aid, and I know... She must have hit her head as she fell down the stairs." He turned his attention fully to Alicia. "It was clearly an accident, but I will have to inform the police."

 

"Yes, of course," she said.

 

***

 

Because Naomi was a foreign visitor, Police Chief Ortega came himself to speak to Alicia about the accident. She repeated what she had told the manager, Ortega nodded sympathetically, offered his condolences to her and to Blair, who sat huddled in a chair to one side of them, then said, "Have you thought about what you want to do about a funeral? Do you want to have her buried here, or taken back to America, to be buried there?"

 

Alicia turned to Blair.

 

Although he had been very much on his own for years, used to being dependent on nobody but himself, although Naomi had been nothing but a background figure in his life since he was ten, her death - if only because it was the first time he had encountered death - had really shaken him and his mind had gone totally blank. "Blair?" she prompted him.

 

"I... I don't know. My uncle... in Forth Worth... He'll have to be told. I think... I think maybe he'll want her buried there."

 

"All right," Alicia said. "Tell me how to contact him, and I'll let him know, ask him if he wants her body sent back. You don't have to worry about anything, Blair. I'll see to it all."

 

"Thanks." He told her the address and phone number, not noticing that she didn't bother to write them down, then added, "I think... I think I want to be alone - if you don't mind, I'll just go to my room..."

 

"Yes, of course." He stumbled out, half blinded by the tears he didn't allow himself to shed until he was back in his room and nobody could see them.

 

***

 

Blair finally pulled himself together. What should he do? Although it had always seemed to him that he had always made his own decisions, he was suddenly very aware that in fact many decisions had been made for him. As a student, he had had rules to follow; at vacation times, he had gone to Fort Worth, and once there he had obeyed his uncle's rules - his only decision had been how he got to and from Fort Worth. Even this trip had been decided on by Naomi, who had taken for granted that he'd be happy meeting a female sentinel - and he had certainly been happy to know that there was such a thing as a female sentinel - but somehow, in the back of his mind, there had been the knowledge that he was still too young, that in a few weeks he'd be going back to Antioch...

 

He knew that Naomi had hoped, possibly assumed, that he would be happy to stay with Alicia, here in Mexico where American laws regarding a guide's age could be ignored; but he had been working with Alicia now for nine days and - despite his realization of a couple of nights earlier that leaving her might destroy her - those extra two days had been enough to confirm in his mind that she was not, never could be, the sentinel he had hoped he would one day work with.

 

Had Naomi guessed that? Had she, that morning, decided to put her son's interests first and told Alicia that they wouldn't be staying on? Had - oh, God - had Alicia reacted by attacking Naomi, so that she had fallen backwards and down the stairs? No, surely not... A sentinel was a protector, a sentinel wouldn't kill... But he had already decided that Alicia didn't seem to have a sentinel's instincts...

 

And considering his age... she could claim that because they were friends, Naomi would want her to take responsibility for him, and even if he said he wanted to go back to America, that he was due back at Antioch, how much attention would anyone pay to that? Alicia was the one on the spot who knew him, after all...

 

Blair came to a sudden decision that owed nothing to logic and everything to an instinct that said he should keep his options open. He carefully unpicked a hidden pocket in his jeans, and added his plane ticket home and most of his money to the $20 note already in it, all carefully folded inside a plastic bag, then resewed the seam. He put the small sewing kit back into his duffel bag. He would have hidden his passport too, but there were probably times he would need it. In any case, Alicia knew he had it. She didn't know he had his own plane ticket, or that he had more than a few dollars spending money.

 

***

 

The knock at his door, just before dinner time, wasn't unexpected. He opened it, to find Alicia there.

 

"How are you feeling now, Blair?" she asked.

 

"I'm... I'll be all right. I'm still... processing what happened." He fell back on Naomi's vocabulary effortlessly.

 

Alicia nodded, apparently sympathetically. "I contacted your uncle," she said. "He told me to have your mother buried here - 'She liked to travel,' he said. 'I think she'd prefer to be buried in the place she was when she died.' I've been in touch with an undertaker, and he's seeing to everything for us."

 

"Will Uncle David be coming for... for the funeral?"

 

"No. He said he hadn't seen her for years, didn't hear from her very often, so there was no point."

 

"Yes, of course." But Blair was puzzled. Surely Uncle David would come for his sake, even if he wasn't interested in coming to bid his sister a final farewell? He said nothing about that, however. He was getting more and more distrustful of Alicia, even though she was a sentinel.

 

***

 

Naomi was buried two days later in a low-key affair with the only mourners Alicia and Blair, though the undertaker had somehow found a rabbi to conduct the funeral. Blair found that quite ironic; in her life she hadn't followed the religion of her birth, and he had a feeling that she wouldn't have chosen to be buried as a Jew. But again he said nothing, just thanking the man, appreciating the consideration and probable effort he had gone to.

 

Afterwards, back at the hotel, Alicia said, "So it's just you and me now, Blair. I'm sure we'll have a good partnership."

 

He nodded unenthusiastically. Luckily - he decided later - she seemed to take his lack of enthusiasm as a symptom of his grief.

 

"I've found an employer here - Carlos Arguillo. We start work on Monday."

 

Blair frowned. He understood Spanish better than he spoke it, and just a few days previously, he had heard... "Isn't he a drug lord?"

 

"What of it? If people are foolish enough to take drugs, that's their business. He's simply responding to a demand that's there. We don't have to sample the merchandise. He can easily find things for a sentinel like me to do."

 

Honest work? Somehow he doubted that. A form of industrial espionage seemed more probable. Was that what Naomi had been angry about? Alicia's plans to work for a drug lord, plans that would automatically include Blair? Naomi had never, to the best of his knowledge, used drugs, and before he went to Antioch, she had made him promise never to touch them - not that he had ever been tempted. Nor, when he thought about it, had any of his fellow students in Guide Studies, though he had his suspicions about one or two of the anthropology students he had worked with in the last three years. Naomi would have been far from happy at the mere suggestion that Alicia was even considering working for a man who was known to deal in drugs.

 

Caution once again reared its head. He nodded, as if he was happy to accept that. But it made him more than ever determined to get away, preferably before next Monday. Meanwhile Alicia was still speaking, but had changed the subject.

 

"But before that - We hadn't said anything to you about it, wanting it to be a surprise, but your mother and I had been thinking about a little trip into the interior. There are stories about an old Aztec temple twenty or thirty miles from here, and we thought that with your interest in anthropology you might like to see it - well, look for it, because nobody could tell us exactly where it's supposed to be. I was able to get rough directions from one old man who said he'd seen it when he was much younger."

 

A few days earlier he would have been reasonably enthusiastic, even though an old temple was in many ways more appropriate for a student of archaeology. But the two disciplines were related, and he would have been interested. But on this day, having just buried Naomi, all he really wanted to do was go home; back to America, to Uncle David, to the family who would share his grief. He gave Alicia points for at least trying to - well, distract him; but at the same time he was far from certain that she was acting out of kindness. If he had been asked to describe her in one word, he wasn't sure what word he would have chosen, but it would not have been 'kind'.

 

"Hasn't it been excavated?" he asked, forcing himself to show some interest.

 

"No. It's supposed to be almost intact, but like I said, nobody's quite sure where it is. The locals have a name for it - the Temple of the Jaguars, and one of the men who told me about it said that the jaguars keep it hidden from all but a favored few." She shook her head. "Just the kind of superstition you'd expect in this kind of backwater. I'd guess they don't go looking because they're afraid of the jungle."

 

Blair wasn't so sure, but decided he didn't want to risk contradicting Alicia. Let her think he agreed with her, that he was happy to be her guide, even working for Arguillo... until he had a chance to escape. He would, he was sure, only get one chance.

 

"We won't need to take much," she went on. "Just a change of clothes and food for a couple of days. From what I could learn, we'll be able to drive almost to it, then we have to walk, and that's the bit where apparently everyone who tries to find the temple starts going around in circles."

 

"Surely with a compass... " Blair began, forcing himself to respond.

 

"Exactly. But even without a compass, I don't think I'd lose my sense of direction, especially with you there to keep me balanced. We'll leave first thing in the morning."

 ***

 

In one thing, at least, Alicia was right; they didn't get lost. After they left the car, she selected a direction and led the way in a straight line. Inside half an hour they found themselves in a big clearing, and in the center of it was an Aztec temple in a better state of repair than many Blair had seen, or had seen pictures of.

 

All around it were carved stone jaguars.

 

Blair looked at them in some awe. The workmanship was superb... but Alicia started walking again, ignoring the stone animals, and led the way past two snarling beasts that looked as if they were guarding the doorway. Blair paused for a moment beside the stone jaguars, aware of a weird need to acknowledge them. It was, after all, only courteous to greet these guardians of the temple. He touched each one lightly on the head, and without understanding why, somehow felt himself welcome. And then he hurried after Alicia, catching up as she began to mount the steps to the doorway halfway up it.

 

He had expected the interior of the temple to be dark, but to his surprise it was light enough for him to see - faintly, it was true, but he could see. They were inside a relatively small room, and at one side of it were two stone troughs. There were no other furnishings.

 

Alicia paused, looking around. "There's nothing here," she said, sounding faintly disappointed. "Just those patterns painted on the walls."

 

Blair, who couldn't see them, hesitated for a moment, feeling that to say anything would be a betrayal of the welcome the stone jaguars seemed to have given him, then realized that he must. "The people who built these temples didn't paint meaningless patterns, wanting decoration on the walls. The paintings always meant something. For an archaeologist... they'd probably be priceless. Difficult to interpret, but they'd have been meant to tell the people who came here something, back when it was built."

 

"What sort of thing?" she asked, and he didn't like the almost predatory note in her voice.

 

"It could be anything, from something as simple as instructions about whatever ceremonies were carried out here, to a record of important events - "

 

"History," she said dismissively.

 

" - to a clue to where there was treasure of some kind hidden," Blair finished. "But although we know quite a bit about Aztec writing, it's all pictographs, and that's all pictographs really do - give the reader a clue about what the writer was saying; a lot of the meaning was - in effect - passed down from scribe to scribe, in a culture where reading and writing was... well, an esoteric mystery known only to the priesthood and a few of the top nobles." He was, he knew, over-simplifying the explanation, but he was quite sure Alicia wasn't interested in a more accurate report.

 

She looked at him, then walked over to the painted wall. She looked at it in a way that said 'superficial' to Blair; and then she suddenly stiffened, reached out and ran a finger over a line of pictographs. "This... " She looked around again. "Ah!" She walked quickly over to the nearer trough and picked up a small stone bowl. "Wait here!" she snapped, then turned, walked briskly back to the entrance, and went out.

 

Left alone, Blair walked over to the troughs and looked at them. Both were half full of what looked like ordinary water; he dipped a finger in and found that it was quite warm. Not lukewarm, positively warm. Peering more closely, he saw that at one end of each was what looked like a stone pillow. Well, that made sense; if these troughs were meant to be ritual baths, which seemed quite likely, they would need something to keep the participants' faces out of the water.

 

He turned his attention back to the pictographs. He could understand a few of them - a pictograph of a man meant 'man', whatever the language - but had no idea what Alicia had apparently read. Leaving the wall, he began to wander around, but there was nothing else to see.

 

His restless walk took him towards the doorway, and he looked out. Alicia was sitting beside a small fire that she had built, apparently cooking something on it. He frowned slightly; none of the food in their packs needed to be cooked... so what was she doing?

 

Well, in the days since Naomi's death he had learned that she didn't encourage curiosity; although he had never totally trusted her, he had only now begun to understand just how effectively Alicia had hidden her true nature while Naomi was alive. If she wanted him to know something, she would tell him. He turned away from the doorway before she realized he was watching her, and went back to the pictographs. They at least gave him something to look at while he waited.

 

He was more than ever glad that he had hidden his plane ticket and all but a few dollars of his money - Alicia hadn't asked, apparently presuming that, in bringing a guide to her, Naomi had only bought single tickets to Mexico, but it wouldn't surprise him to find Alicia going through his backpack, even now, to make sure he couldn't run away from her. He was surprised that she had let him keep his own passport... but she had to be reasoning that, without money, where could he go, even carrying his passport? There was no American Embassy anywhere near Sierra Verde.

 

It seemed a long time before Alicia came back, although he suspected it only seemed long because he had no way of filling the time except trying to make sense of the pictographs - and he had 'read' the ones he could understand in the first two or three minutes. In another context he might have thought it was about farming, but there was no pictograph for 'maize', an Aztec staple. When she came in, she was carrying the stone bowl very carefully. Without saying anything, she went straight to the second trough, and picked up the small bowl sitting beside it. Carefully, she tipped some of the thick liquid from the first bowl in the second, beckoned Blair over and gave it to him.

 

"I could understand the writing. This was a temple dedicated to sentinels and their guides," she said. "This will make it easier for us to work together. Lie in the trough, then drink this."

 

Reluctant, but knowing he had little choice, Blair stripped off his shirt and trousers then, wearing only his boxers, climbed in. At least the water was warm. He sniffed the liquid in the bowl, finding it smelled not too unpleasant, and took a tiny sip. It tasted not bad - but he was not about to do anything that might tie him to Alicia with an unbreakable knot. He pretended to drink it all, while in fact letting the rest of it trickle into the water beside him, then deliberately splashed the water as he settled down, stirring the spilled liquid thoroughly into the contents of the trough. He was sure Alicia's sense of smell wasn't strong enough for her to realize what he'd done.

 

Alicia had not hesitated; she drank her share of the liquid enthusiastically, then slid down to lie in her trough, out of his sight.

 

He felt oddly sleepy; even the little he'd drunk was affecting him. For the briefest of moments he thought about trying to make a run for it now, while she was lethargic from the effects of the drink, but knew there was no way he'd get as far as their rented car, let alone manage to drive it to Campeche International. No - he could only hope that by drinking only a fraction of the amount she had given him, he had minimized its effects on him.

 

He felt his eyelids drooping, and blinked... to find himself standing in the clearing in front of the temple. The stone jaguars were moving, stretching... several of them lay down, giving the impression that they were glad to rest their legs. The faces of the two snarling ones relaxed. One of them padded over to Blair and nudged his hand; he stroked its head gently and it gave a satisfied rumble deep in its throat - not quite a purr, but probably as close to one as it could manage. He had the weirdest feeling that this one had somehow appointed itself his guardian and would protect him.

 

He was right.

 

One of the other jaguars padded forward, snarling menacingly; his protector glared at it, as if daring it to attack, and it backed off a little, though it still looked as if it wished it had the nerve to make the attack. Blair was suddenly aware that the second one he had 'greeted' had moved forward as well, clearly prepared to back up its companion if necessary, but somehow he knew it wouldn't make a move unless the challenging one had reinforcements.

 

The others, however, all looked as if they were quite happy to lie resting.

 

Dominance, he thought. The two guardian jaguars are the dominant ones, and the others all know it. But why does this one seem to be challenging? And then he realized. It had to be Alicia's spirit animal, trying to claim him for her. Was this dominant one his, then, telling Alicia's that Blair was not her guide?

 

The challenging one hesitated a moment longer, then leaped forward. Blair's protector met it instantly; instinctively, he thought Be careful! then gave a wry smile. He had no doubt which animal would win this fight.

 

He was right. His protector took only a few moments to overcome its challenger, which rolled onto its back, baring its throat and vulnerable belly to signify its surrender.

 

The winner snarled once, then padded confidently back to Blair.

 

"Thank you," he said. He had time to give its head one last stroke before he blinked again, and found himself back in the trough.

 

He sat up, no longer feeling in the least bit sleepy, and climbed out of the water. He looked into the other trough, and saw that Alicia was still... what? sleeping, drugged into unconsciousness?

 

He pulled his clothes on over his wet body, and went to the doorway. Looking out, he saw that the stone jaguars had resumed their places... and yet something was subtly different. He frowned as he studied the clearing, and then he realized - one of the statues was no longer standing, head held high; it was crouching ever so slightly in a clearly submissive pose.

 

Now that was interesting.

 

Blair turned and went back to the troughs. He had a feeling that he could leave now, but - as much as he wanted to escape from Alicia, he couldn't bring himself to desert her, abandon her here.

 

After a while she sat up. There was a blank look on her face.

 

"Alicia?"

 

She blinked at him. "Daddy?" It was the voice of a very young child. "Why am I having a bath with my clothes on?"

 

"I don't know. I... found you like this. Come on, out you get."

 

He helped her out of the trough, and led her out of the temple. She clutched his hand as they went down the steps. He paused beside the two guardian jaguars, only half aware that Alicia had started crying, apparently frightened by them, and stroked both stone heads. "Thank you," he murmured to the one he was sure had protected him as he gave it a final stroke.

 

A little to one side, he saw a dark shape, apparently a living jaguar, and knew that it was there to lead him - them - back to the car.

 

Somehow, although he had never had any driving lessons, he managed to drive back to Sierra Verde. At the hotel, he managed a stumbling explanation, and the manager took charge. He got Alicia admitted to the nearest hospital (which happened to be in Campeche) and arranged for Blair to go to the small Embassy there. The ambassador took responsibility for Alicia, and Blair caught a plane for home.

 

With half of the holiday left, he changed planes in Los Angeles, for once choosing speed over economy. And when he reached Fort Worth... it was to discover that Alicia had not, in fact, contacted David Sandburg to tell him that Naomi was dead.

 

***

 

Over the remainder of the holiday he had thought long and hard about his future, and when he returned to Antioch he went to see Chancellor Stoddard and told him what had happened; and that as a result of Alicia's actions, he no longer wanted to be a sentinel's guide.

 

"You still have two years before you can think about accepting a sentinel," Stoddard reminded him. "Leave things as they are for the moment. Keep your options open."

 

"And if I do, and carry on getting my education paid and a guide allowance, then say I've changed my mind... Won't I have to pay these two years back? Maybe not the first three, when I really was planning on being a guide... but from now? If in two years' time I still feel this way... Wouldn't the authorities say I'd had that two years' money under false pretenses?"

 

Stoddard shook his head. "Blair, while five years is the longest any underage guide has ever had to continue his education, you wouldn't be the first one to change his mind after he had exposure to other possibilities. A doctorate in anthropology - at eighteen, which is unprecedented - opens up so much - "

 

"If I get it that young," Blair said.

 

"I'm confident that you will," Stoddard told him. "Do you still believe in sentinels, in the good they can do, or did this woman totally destroy that belief?"

 

"I still believe in sentinels as a force for good," Blair replied, "and that they need guides if they are to work to their full capacity. It's my own ability to be an effective guide that I doubt. I'm not sure whether Alicia would have been a proper sentinel if people had accepted, when she was a child, that she had the senses, or if she never had a sentinel's instincts along with the heightened senses. But surely it would have helped her if I'd been a better guide - surely I should have been able to direct her into... into at least an honest life!"

 

"From what you've told me, she accepted you as a guide because she couldn't get one any other way, but still saw you as a child. She wasn't going to let a child direct her away from the path she had chosen. Just think about that."

 

***

 

As his memory wound down, Blair became aware once again of the classroom in front of him. Yes, he had thought about Stoddard's words often in the years since then, but while he accepted them as truth, he still doubted that he could ever be more than a barely competent guide - despite his having had the highest grade ever recorded for a student guide at Antioch.

 

He had indeed obtained his doctorate in anthropology just before his eighteenth birthday, and had spent the next two years mostly studying sentinels in hunter-gatherer tribes - having chosen to remain in academia, working with sentinel-guide studies and working from Antioch. When he was between expeditions and actually at Antioch, Stoddard also asked him to stand in occasionally if a lecturer was sick, and somewhat to his own surprise he discovered that he was good at passing on information. And once he was eighteen, because he was working with guide studies, he learned about mental barriers and how to drop them... at which point he guessed that the herbal concoction Alicia had made had been designed for that purpose, and he was more than ever glad that he had only tasted it, hadn't drunk it all. Though he suspected that even if he had, the guardian jaguar would still have defended him, prevented the other one from reaching him.

 

When Stoddard was offered a job heading up the newly-opened Sentinel-Guide department at Rainier he accepted it, and one of his first actions was to offer a lecturing position to Blair. Blair would have been happy to remain affiliated to Antioch, but he felt he owed Stoddard - the one person who knew why he had changed his mind about working with a sentinel - and he quickly discovered that he liked living in Cascade and working at Rainier. After a year, he was granted tenure and promoted to senior lecturer, though he seriously suspected that he owed that promotion to the simple fact that he had initially been the only one, and a year later, two more were appointed.

 

Occasionally, in those first years, he had wondered if he should apply for consideration as a guide, but his feeling of having totally failed Alicia prevented him from doing so; and so he continued to lecture trainee guides, something he was confident he could do well.

 

At last he rose, picked up his notes and headed for the door. Distracted as he had been, it was as well that he had given his last lecture for the day. In his office, he put everything away, put on his coat and left, heading for the small apartment he called home.

 ***

 

If any of his Guide 101 students guessed that he himself was the 'young man' who had tried to guide the 'woman who was not a sentinel', none of them said so in his hearing. It was an excellent class; usually a class had one or two students who were barely competent wannabes rather than genuinely online protoguides - there were no wannabes in this group, and Blair hoped that they would all choose to become sentinels' guides. It would be a terrible waste of talent if they didn't.

 

He was mildly amused by the irony of that thought. While Eli Stoddard valued his ability as a teacher, Blair knew that Stoddard still believed that he was born to be a guide, that he was wasting his talent by remaining safely in a classroom. Indeed, he occasionally wondered about that himself - now - but as the years passed, he had begun to feel that he was getting too old to partner a young sentinel. And after his failure with Alicia, he was still afraid of - yes, the responsibility involved.

 

His feelings were highly ambivalent. He had regrets - he would be lying if he said he had not - and he could understand, now, the feeling of inadequacy his sixteen-year-old self had experienced. Yes - he had resented the ruling that said he had to be eighteen before he could work as a guide, though he had discovered, as soon as he began lecturing, that sentinels, too, had to wait till they were eighteen before they could be partnered with a guide and begin working; until then they had to make do with the help of their teachers. And Alicia had taught him that sixteen was too young, reasonably streetwise though he was.

 

He was sitting in his office checking his notes for the following day's lectures when there was a knock on the door. It opened before he could give permission to enter. He looked up, ready to suggest to the student responsible that it would be polite to wait for an invitation, and promptly changed his mind about what he was going to say.

 

"Eli! Come in. What brings you here?" Normally if Stoddard wanted to see someone, that person would be summoned to Stoddard's office.

 

Eli Stoddard - with whom he had been on first name terms since his arrival at Rainier - sank into the chair facing Blair. "I have a favor to ask."

 

Something about the note in his voice warned Blair that it would be a favor of some importance. "Anything I can do - you know that."

 

"This... is asking a lot." Stoddard hesitated for a moment. "Blair, I had a visit today from a friend - Simon Banks. He's a captain in the Cascade PD."

 

"Yes?" Blair prompted when Stoddard fell silent.

 

"He has a problem... or rather, one of his men does. This man was on a stakeout in the woods outside Cascade two or three weeks ago - on his own, and he didn't see or speak to anyone for six days."

 

Blair knew instantly where this was going.

 

"There had been nothing to indicate that he had any potential for heightened senses... but now he's complaining about light being too bright, sounds too loud, his clothes irritating his skin... "

 

Blair frowned. "Late onset - " he began.

 

"Yes. It's very rare," Stoddard agreed. "I certainly never expected to see a case of it in my lifetime. He needs a guide - desperately needs a guide. Blair, I know it's asking a lot of you, but would you at least see the man, see if you can help him until the next batch of students graduates? Obviously he'll get first choice from them, but they won't be ready for several months, and he needs someone now."

 

Blair took a long, steadying breath, aware of a feeling close to panic. "Eli, Alicia Bannister desperately needed someone; I tried, and I wasn't good enough - "

 

"This is a totally different situation. Although she knew she needed a guide to help her handle her senses, you said at the time that you instinctively mistrusted her, apparently with good reason. She had the senses but she wasn't a sentinel. You know that; you were the one who told me that. In any case, even though you were fully qualified, you were still barely sixteen; even fully trained you weren't really ready for the responsibility involved."

 

"Well, yes... Even at sixteen I'd begun to understand that, even though I didn't when I was thirteen."

 

"The difference is that you're thirty now; and this guy is a cop, one of the best according to Simon. He's thirty-five; he spent twelve years in the army and the last five with the police. Even without the senses, he's been a protector. Frankly, he'd prefer not to be a 'freak' - his own description of his situation, according to Simon."

 

"Freak?" Blair said blankly.

 

"Yes, it's an odd word for someone to use, isn't it. Makes you wonder why he used it. The PD has a couple of sentinels in other departments, and Simon said Ellison has always seemed quite accepting of them, never referring to them as freaks - being in different departments, even in the same city, seems to satisfy their territorial imperative."

 

"Much the same way, I suppose, that when they're in training they can only claim their own room as their territory," Blair said, seeing a sudden opportunity to lead Stoddard down a side track.

 

Stoddard wasn't fooled. He grinned. "Good try," he said. "Let's get back to Ellison, shall we?"

 

Blair grinned back ruefully. "I have to admit... well, you know. For six years, from the day I first realized I was a guide, I was desperate to partner a sentinel. Up until I tried working with Alicia. That experience taught me I wasn't really much good at it - though because of what she was probably nobody could have helped her; I realize now that what it really did was make me realize how cocksure I was. After I was eighteen, and old enough - though I did think about it once or twice, I was still more than hesitant about it - what if I failed again? I was afraid to take the risk, so I still shied away from trying. Recently I've been more relaxed, because a ten-year age gap between sentinel and guide is more than unusual, and that could have been part of what went wrong with Alicia - too big an age difference. Sentinel and guide have to see each other as equal partners, and I'd guess that Alicia only saw me as a tool, while I saw her as... well, a surrogate aunt, I suppose; she was more my mother's generation. So this last two or three years, I've stopped thinking about it as any kind of possibility.

 

"Now you're telling me that there's a late onset sentinel here in Cascade - and I know you, Eli; you've always thought I was wasted in lecturing, but getting me into it was just a way of keeping me in the guide program. You're seeing this as a chance for me to fulfil the potential you think I've been wasting, these past twelve years."

 

"Not entirely," Stoddard replied. "Yes, I've always thought that with the right sentinel, you'd be truly motivating, encouraging him to stretch his senses to the limit and even beyond that, enabling him to use his senses totally effortlessly. But as a lecturer you've been brilliant, and managed to push more than a few average trainees into stretching themselves beyond what they thought were their limits. I'd hate to lose your teaching skills permanently.

 

"Seriously, I don't really expect you to join with Detective Ellison; I can't see you being happy in police work, and if you had gone through the usual procedure when you were eighteen, and he'd been a candidate, I doubt you'd have considered him as a possibility. All I'm asking is that you help him to gain control until he does find his true guide."

 

"Eli, if he's thirty-five, am I not I the only guide he's likely to meet who's anywhere near his age? With a guide just finished training, there would be a seventeen year difference. I could take on a forty-seven-year-old sentinel with a fair chance of success, just as Davis was able to work with Anderson in spite of the thirty-six years between them, because there does come a time when age doesn't matter too much, but when the younger one is only eighteen? Not easy, no matter how mature the eighteen-year-old is."

 

"I know, but it's almost inevitable with late onset that there'll be a fairly large age difference. The only hope such a sentinel would have to get a guide close to himself in age would be to find someone whose sentinel had died, or someone who'd had the training but had chosen another line of work, and persuade him to change his mind about being a guide."

 

"You're coming back to me, aren't you."

 

"I suppose I am." Stoddard sighed. "Like I said, I don't want Rainier to lose you... but at the same time, you're Ellison's best bet. If he can't get control, we'll lose him, and we really can't afford to lose a cop of his caliber... even if he wasn't a sentinel.

 

"I'm not trying to guilt you into this, Blair; but I am appealing to your sense of responsibility."

 

"All right," Blair said. "I'll see the man - Ellison, you said? - and I'll do my best to help him. But I can't promise that I'll be successful."

 

"Thank you. And don't worry about your classes; although it's been years, I was a pretty good teacher before I went into administration. I'll take over from you. Just leave me your notes."

 

Blair gestured around his office. "Help yourself. On the theoretical side, the class is working through Burton's Sentinels - "

 

"The Davis rewrite, of course?"

 

"Of course. Also Davis' Life as a Guide. On the practical side they're working on ways of grounding a sentinel. Some of them are already surprisingly good. It's an extremely promising class."

 

"I won't let them down," Stoddard promised. "Now - can you go straight to the PD, central precinct, and have a word with Captain Banks in Major Crime. I'll phone him and let him know to expect you."

 

***

 

Trying to calm himself, Blair hesitated for some moments before he got into his car. As he switched on the ignition and drove out of his parking space, he was muttering to himself, "Eli, you did  guilt me into it... just as Naomi guilted me into trying to help Alicia... Okay, this guy's a cop... but you hear about dirty cops. What if he's just been really good at hiding that? No. No, Sandburg. Give him a chance. You still believe in sentinels, after all. Alicia wasn't typical... but if I was a halfway competent guide, shouldn't I have been able to draw out the sentinel in her? If there was one in her... Howell was right," he tried to convince himself, "though maybe not for the right reason.

 

"This Ellison guy, though... he's a cop, a protector. But oh, God, he hasn't had any training. He won't know about anything...

 

"It can't be very different from teaching young guides, can it? You can do that... "

 

Still close to panic, calling himself all kinds of idiot for not just throwing a panic attack in front of Stoddard who, in the face of it, probably wouldn't have pushed him, he gritted his teeth and forced himself to drive to central precinct, stubbornly ignoring the small voice that was telling him to turn the car and go, leave Cascade, keep on driving till he got to... yes, Fort Worth. Anna Sandburg had died three years previously - cancer - but Uncle David was a healthy and active sixty-six-year-old who was always glad to see Blair.

 

Finally he turned into the police garage and stopped in a bay marked 'visitors'. He sat still for some moments, just breathing deeply as he tried to calm himself.

 

"All I have to do is speak to the man," he told himself. "He's late onset, not someone whose family denied what he was. He's a cop; a protector, not someone who plans to work for a drug lord. He  - didn't - kill - Mom!"

 

At last he forced himself out of the car, locked it, and headed for the stairs leading into the building. He paused at the reception desk. "Dr. Sandburg," he said. "I think Captain Banks is expecting me."

 

The officer on duty checked a list, nodded, and gave him a visitor's pass. "Floor eight, and turn right," he said. "Elevator's over there."

 

"Thanks."

 

Tempted to walk up the stairs - to waste time - he forced himself to stop at the elevator door and took a deep breath before pressing the 'up' button.

 

He exited the elevator to find himself in a corridor. There were doors in both directions. but remembering the directions he had been given he turned right. Three doors along he found the door marked 'Major Crime', took another deep breath and walked in.

 

Half of the desks in the room were empty - the detectives who used them had to be out somewhere, maybe seeing witnesses to whatever crimes they were investigating?

 

"Can I help you?" It was a friendly-looking woman at a desk fairly near the door, and something about her said 'secretary'.

 

"I think Captain Banks is expecting me - Dr. Sandburg." He was beginning to feel a little like a tape set to 'repeat'.

 

In the manner of all secretaries everywhere, it seemed she knew exactly what was going on, why he was there. "He'll be glad to see you, sir. Over there." She gestured to a door that proclaimed 'Captain Simon Banks'.

 

"Thanks." He crossed to the door and knocked, half aware that the handful of detectives in the room were watching him. Of course, that made sense; they had to know about Ellison, and for detectives it would - certainly should - be a short step to realizing that their Captain would try to find some way to help him.

 

That understanding didn't help his nerves - even though it didn't automatically follow that a stranger coming into the place was help for Ellison.

 

"Come in." He took one final deep breath, opened the door, and entered.

 

Even sitting behind his desk, Banks looked huge. His face held a welcoming smile that quickly changed to a sort of stunned disbelief.

 

"You're Sandburg?"

 

It had been a long time since Blair had last met that sort of reaction - and back then he had been too young to do anything other than quietly back off. But since then he had obtained his doctorate in anthropology, he had been a respected lecturer in guide studies for several years, and an unaccustomed anger carried away his nervousness.

 

"Yes, I'm Sandburg. What were you expecting? A suit-clad sexagenarian?"

 

Banks looked slightly taken aback. "Well, no, but Dr. Stoddard said he was sending a senior lecturer in guide studies, and... well... "

 

"Captain Banks, I'm thirty years old. I've been the senior lecturer in guide studies here at Rainier for the past six, seven years. I came online young, qualified top of my year as a trained guide when I was thirteen. I got my doctorate in anthropology when I was eighteen."

 

"I'm sorry," Banks said, and sounded as if he genuinely meant it. "You have to know that you don't look a day older than twenty-one, if that - but I should know better than have a prejudiced reaction based on how you look. Please - sit."

 

The apology mollified Blair. He sat, saying, "Yeah. I know. I don't go out much - being carded every time I try to buy a drink stopped being funny eight years ago.

 

"Now - " He got straight to the point. "I understand that Detective Ellison is late onset, so he's never had any training. That'll be my job - to give him some training, so that when he does partner a guide, he'll at least know what the hell that guide is talking about."

 

"I'd hoped, from what Eli said, that you would be Jim's guide... " Banks said, a little tentatively.

 

"Until I was sixteen I wanted to partner a sentinel; that year something happened and I changed my mind, and instead went into training young guides."

 

"Must have been something pretty traumatic."

 

"Eli didn't give you any hint?"

 

Banks shook his head.

 

"I suppose I should explain... We were taught that sentinels are always male, but when I was sixteen my mother met a female in Mexico who had heightened senses and took me there - her idea was that in Mexico, US laws about not working as a guide till I was eighteen wouldn't matter.

 

"I tried to work with Alicia, but wasn't very successful. Then Alicia told me she'd got a job with a local drug lord - "

 

"What? But... "

 

"Yeah. Anyway, to cut a long story short, in the end she had a total breakdown, reverted to about four years old. She's in a mental hospital.

 

"We'd never linked, even partially, so I escaped unhurt... but I'd completely lost confidence in my ability to guide a sentinel, and I'm still far from sure than I could. I... couldn't bear to fail another one. But I can  teach young guides what to do, so I'm sure I could teach a sentinel how to respond. Then at the end of this academic year, we'll see that Detective Ellison gets first choice from the newly-graduated guides."

 

"Anything you can do. Jim's desperately in need of someone to help him."

 

"Is he here?"

 

"No," Banks told him. "He tried - but there was too much stimulus. He's at home." He rose. "I'll take you to him."

 

***

 

852 Prospect was in an area of warehouses-converted-to-apartments with shops on the ground floor. There was an elevator, which Banks ignored - "Faster to walk up the stairs," he said wryly. Shrugging mentally - presumably Banks was speaking from experience - Blair followed.

 

Banks paused at the door to No. 307 and tapped lightly. When there was no answer, he make a face, selected a key from several on his keyring, and unlocked the door. Inside, it was quite dark; curtains were drawn across the windows, leaving visibility in the loft apartment - for someone with ordinary senses - totally inadequate, only the level provided by a long skylight. Blair nodded - that was consistent with a sentinel whose sense of sight was possibly spiking.

 

"Jim?" Banks said softly.

 

Silence for a moment, then - "Simon?" A shadow curled up on a couch moved, straightened, and rose to its feet. In the dim light, Blair couldn't see his face clearly, but what he could see -

 

He reacted automatically. "Do you know how to dial down your senses?" he asked, stepping closer, his voice even softer than Banks' had been.

 

"What?"

 

"I'll take that as a no," Blair murmured. "Here - sit down. Close your eyes. Try to relax." He was half aware of Banks retreating to another part of what seemed to be a single big room, but for the moment his surroundings were of very secondary importance. "Now - take a deep breath - "

 

"Can't," came a miserable whisper. "Even though it's my own home, there are too many smells... "

 

Blair thought fast. Normally a guide could use his own scent to steady and center a sentinel whose sense of smell was playing up, but he wasn't Ellison's guide; he dared not risk letting Ellison close on him in any but the most superficial way or he might find himself trapped by Ellison's need - forced to become a plaster instead of a band-aid when he knew that however efficient he might be as a band-aid, no matter how high his grades had been as a student guide, no matter how well he could teach youngsters to use their gifts, he was useless as a plaster. This late-onset sentinel deserved a proper guide, not one who had proved to be a failure.

 

He glanced around, seeing a little more now that his eyes were becoming accustomed to the dim light. There was a bowl holding what he thought were three or four apples sitting on a table beside what appeared to be a kitchen area.

 

"Captain Banks," he said softly. "Could you cut one of those apples in two, and give me one of the pieces, please?"

 

Banks was quick to oblige, and Blair gave Ellison the half apple. "Hold this under your nose," he instructed. "Now try a deep breath."

 

Ellison began to breath in, slowly, shallowly, then he gave a soft grunt and breathed more deeply.

 

"That's it," Blair said. "Hold your breath... now breathe out, slowly. Breathe in... hold... breathe out... "

 

After several repetitions, Ellison began to look more relaxed.

 

"Right," Blair went on. "Now - picture in your mind some kind of volume control; like the control on the TV remote, perhaps? And think of it in colour - green, maybe pale green."

 

Silence for some moments, then - "Got it," Ellison muttered.

 

"At the moment it's set high; too high. Hit the remote and turn it down - slowly - slowly - down... down... take the apple away from your nose... a little further down... How's that?"

 

Ellison raised his head and took an experimental sniff. "It's fine," he said. "Thank you... " He looked, really looked, at Blair. "Who are you?"

 

"Blair Sandburg. I'm a lecturer in guide studies at Rainier. Captain Banks thought I might be able to help you until there are some qualified guides available."

 

"You mean... You think I really am a sentinel, not just someone with freak senses?"

 

Blair struggled for a moment to remember the man's first name. "Jim, a lot of people have one sense enhanced, or maybe two. The only thing unusual - not freakish, unusual  - about you is that you have more than one sense that's more acute than 'normal' - whatever 'normal' is. No two people are exactly the same.

 

"Yes, it's possible for someone to have five enhanced senses but not actually be a sentinel; but I'm quite sure that you're a sentinel."

 

Ellison was silent for a moment. Finally, he said slowly, "I'd forgotten, until... until... " He turned his head to look at Banks. "I remember now; I did have acute senses when I was a child, but for some reason my father wouldn't believe it, said I'd be called a freak if I kept saying I could see or hear things... " He looked back at Blair. "Why would he say that if it wasn't true?"

 

"I don't know," Blair said. "Only he could tell you." Only the strictest self-discipline was keeping him speaking gently, keeping him in this room, when his every instinct was to run - to get away from this man whose childhood history was so like Alicia's... My parents thought I was lying to get attention. Nobody would believe that I had heightened senses; even when I tried to prove it, they said I was cheating somehow. He could still remember the bitterness in her voice.

 

"I remember," Ellison repeated. "After that I wouldn't let myself see things or hear things or... Somehow I turned myself into the normal child he wanted. So why... why... "

 

"Whatever you did back then was the equivalent of ramming a plug into the end of a hose with the water turned on," Blair said. "Eventually the pressure of the water pushes the plug out. And the six days you spent entirely alone wouldn't have helped; solitary time in the wild brings out senses that have been - well, dormant. Tribes whose rite of manhood for the boys involved surviving alone for several days always had more sentinels than tribes where - for example - it involved suffering pain stoically, or single-handedly killing a dangerous animal."

 

"Oh." Ellison seemed to consider that. "And I don't suppose I can... plug the hose again?"

 

"I wouldn't think so," Blair said sympathetically.

 

"Remember, too, that sentinels automatically get 25% higher pay than anyone else on the same pay scale," Banks put in.

 

"Beamish and Meldrum have guides."

 

Blair guessed that those were the other two guides in the Cascade PD. "Yes. A guide helps you keep from being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of input you can get from your senses. Not everyone with guide potential chooses to be a guide, for various reasons, though everyone identified as having the potential gets the training; sentinels and guides tend to be partnered at eighteen or nineteen, with only a year or so difference in their ages, so there are rarely any spare guides available for someone like you, who comes online late. As I said, you'll get first choice, the first batch of guides that comes available, though you will have to settle for one a lot younger rather than one close to your age."

 

"You - ?" Ellison sounded tentatively hopeful.

 

"I'm a teacher," Blair said gently. "Yes, I had the training, so I can help you temporarily, but I don't have what it takes to be a permanent guide. I can - and will - teach you the basics that young sentinels normally learn in their teens, though it'll be up to the guide you eventually pair up with to turn those basics into a working strategy.

 

"One of the first lessons all young sentinels learn is how to dial down their senses any time they are overwhelmed by the amount of input. Even so-called 'normal' people can be overwhelmed by too much noise, too strong a scent, and so on; I've often wished I could dial my senses down, but only sentinels seem to be able to do it - maybe Nature's way of compensating for making them so aware of whatever they're hearing, etc, in the first place.

 

"We call them 'dials' because that's the term used by the first person to realize a sentinel could turn his senses up or down, eighty-three years ago. Trevor Davis was brilliant; he worked with a sentinel for twelve years, and subsequently wrote about those years and what he did to help his sentinel. Back then controls for sound, etc, were dials. Today, different sentinels can vizualise different things, like the remote control I suggested you use. You might be able to come up with something you feel works better - it doesn't matter. Your guide will still use the term 'dial'.

 

"We usually assign colors to the dials for different senses, to help the sentinel differentiate. It's always green for scent, yellow for taste, red for touch, blue for sight and some shade of purple for hearing, but the intensity of the color is entirely up to you. That way, if a sentinel's guide is missing for any reason and the sentinel is in extreme distress, any trained guide - or even a non-guide who knows the colors - can help. 'Dial down purple' can be a better directive than 'dial down hearing' under those circumstances."

 

"And if the sentinel is color blind?" Banks asked.

 

"That could be a problem," Blair admitted, "but there's never been a full sentinel diagnosed with color blindness. Someone with one, two, three or even four acute senses, but not sight, could be color blind, but not someone with sight as well.

 

"So... Jim, you've already mastered the dial for sense of smell. Let's try the other four."

 ***

 

It was well into the evening before Blair left Ellison's apartment. Banks had already left, to return to work; Blair stayed on until he was sure Ellison had a fair grasp of the dials. When he left, it was with the promise to return early the next day.

 

When he reached his own apartment, Blair sank into his favorite chair, breathing deeply and steadily. He desperately needed to center himself.

 

Damn you, Eli! he thought. His sympathy for Ellison was threatening to overwhelm him, threatening to make him agree to becoming the man's guide, but he couldn't. He couldn't! He couldn't risk failing Ellison. He knew the theory of guiding forwards, backwards, sideways and inside out, he could teach others what to do, but when it came to using the theory, he just wasn't good enough.

 

He wanted nothing more than to head back to Rainier in the morning, resume his place in the classroom, and forget that in the police department there was a sentinel who had been abused by his father's refusal to accept what he was. But he had promised to teach Ellison as much as he could...

 

He just had to be more than ever careful that Ellison didn't come to depend on him too much.

 

***

 

Blair spent the next day with Ellison consolidating the use of the dials, stressing the importance of being able to turn the volume down instantly if the input from whichever sense was involved was suddenly heightened.

 

Ellison was a fast learner - surprisingly fast for someone who had been forced to suppress his senses for most of his life. Of course, Blair thought, for a protector, being unable to do his job must be pretty close to hell on earth.

 

As he went home that night, he found himself wondering just why Ellison Senior had been so unwilling to accept that his son had very acute senses. He could understand why Alicia's parents had been dismissive - there had never been a female recorded with sentinel-level senses. But for eighty-three years <i>males</i> with heightened senses had been known about, and for at least seventy of those years efforts had been made to identify and train them, team them with guides so that they could work most efficiently... Sentinels were automatically paid more than 'normals' doing the same kind of work because of the edge their senses gave them. Families with a sentinel son were envied because of the prestige that son gave to them. It just didn't make sense for the older Ellison to dismiss his son's abilities!

 

He deliberately dismissed that line of thought as unproductive, and instead turned his attention to his plans for the following day. Ellison would need to do more work on the dials, but he wanted to cover as much as possible as quickly as possible... so he needed to move on to the zone-out factor. It would be easy enough to instigate a zone; finding a safe way to bring Ellison out of one, though... It would be too easy to let Ellison depend on him, he reminded himself yet again, so he mustn't use his own body - scent, voice, heartbeat, whatever, the first things a guide normally employed - to pull Ellison out of one. He had to find alternatives...

 

He spent the evening gathering a selection of possible alternatives for hearing, touch, taste and smell. There was little he could do about sight... but sight wasn't normally employed when bringing a sentinel out of a zone; at least half the time sight was what he'd zoned on.

 

***

 

It seemed that Ellison was highly motivated to learn how to use his senses to best advantage, but all the time - or so it seemed to Blair - he was trying in several subtle ways to persuade Blair to become his guide, rather than his teacher. It was becoming harder and harder for Blair to maintain his distance; but he would not, could not, allow Ellison to imprint on someone who had already failed one sentinel.

 

He accepted the irony of his statement to his students that 'the woman he knew of' wasn't a sentinel despite her heightened senses. In his less pessimistic moments he understood that nobody could have guided her successfully. In his less pessimistic moments he accepted that he had been young and cocksure, over-confident, and had needed a serious lesson in humility.

 

But at least having learned it he knew better than risk harming anyone else.

 

***

 

"Simon! What brings you here this evening?"

 

"Just wondered how you were doing," Simon said cheerfully. "You seemed to be responding well to Sandburg - how are things going now?"

 

"I don't know," Jim said. "No, I mean that - I honestly don't know. Sandburg's a brilliant teacher. I understand that for young sentinels it's a three year course, most of it spent working with teacher guides, but the speed we're going through stuff, he'll have me trained by the end of the month. But that's trained to respond to a guide, with a guide present; I can't work to full efficiency without a guide close by to keep me grounded.

 

"He keeps telling me that I'll get first choice of the new guides leaving training this summer, but I already know that he's the guide I want - and he won't consider it. Just says that he's not competent to guide anyone. But he is. I know he is."

 

Simon sighed. "I don't know the whole story, Jim; Dr. Stoddard might, though I doubt it - but if he does, he didn't tell me. All I got was the Readers' Digest very condensed version. Apparently, when he was sixteen something happened that destroyed his confidence. It isn't that he doesn't want to guide you; it isn't that he lacks the ability. Stoddard said he'd be the best - if he would only trust himself."

 

"Doesn't he believe that I trust him?"

 

"He probably does," Simon said sadly. "But he's sure your trust is misplaced. I don't know what you could do to persuade him. Where is he now?"

 

"Gone home. I've tried to persuade him to stay over, but he won't."

 

Simon looked thoughtfully at him. "Get your coat," he said. "Let's go and see Eli Stoddard. I know he's working late tonight."

 

***

 

They went to Rainier, where they found Stoddard in his office. He looked as if he would be there for at least another hour, perhaps more, but he grinned cheerfully at them, as if the interruption was unimportant.

 

"Hello, Simon," he said, and looked at Jim. "Is this your sentinel?"

 

Simon grinned back. "Jim Ellison," he said. "Jim, this is Dr. Stoddard, head of the Sentinel-Guide department. He might be able to tell you a little more than I could about Sandburg."

 

"How are you getting on with Blair?" Stoddard asked.

 

"He's... done wonders for me," Jim said. "But... Why won't he believe me when I tell him he's the guide I want?"

 

Stoddard shook his head. "I'd hoped... " he said sadly. "It's true that when Simon came to me, asking for help for you, there was nobody else I could think of who I felt was competent enough to recommend. He's an excellent teacher, but I'd hoped that if he finally had to work with a true sentinel it would restore his confidence. It was such a waste - he came online when he was ten, was fully trained by the time he was thirteen - "

 

Jim whistled softly.

 

"And despite his youth, he was far and away the best in his year. Indeed, his results were the highest I've ever seen. All that time, he wanted to guide a sentinel. But then he had to mark time till he was eighteen.

 

"Blair told me quite a lot about what happened, but even so I doubt I know the full story. What I do know - he had never quite believed that women couldn't be sentinels - and he wasn't unique in that - and when he was sixteen, he met a woman who had heightened senses and tried to guide her. I don't know exactly what went wrong, but she had a total breakdown and is currently - permanently - in a mental hospital. He blamed himself, believing that somehow he failed her, and since then he's been afraid that he'd fail any sentinel he worked with."

 

"He obviously wasn't the right guide for her," Jim said.

 

"Academically, he knows that, but he still believes that he should have been able to do something to help her until she found her real guide. That's the trouble when someone is so gifted. He'd never failed at anything. Even his second... well, career, anthropology - the subject he chose when he discovered he had to continue in education until he was eighteen. He had his Masters at sixteen. It took him just another two years to get his PhD. That's unprecedented.

 

"So feeling he'd failed, when he'd had the highest results in his year despite his youth, hit him very hard. He's done extremely well as a teacher here at Rainier, and has had really good reports when he's been assessed. He'll admit he knows the work, he'll admit he's good at imparting the knowledge and taking young students through what they need to know; but he still can't - or won't - believe that he can use that knowledge to help a sentinel.

 

"Trouble is, just as a sentinel without a guide can't function at full efficiency, a guide as gifted as Blair needs a sentinel to work with if he's to lead a fully fulfilled life. Teaching young guides, while valuable, is a total waste of his ability. I won't deny I've been worried about him, and hoped that he'd realize that he didn't have to be afraid of failing the right sentinel. It seems his insecurity goes even deeper than I thought."

 

Jim was looking thoughtful. "He's taking me through the work very efficiently."

 

"I'd guess that's because he has his teacher's hat on. He's teaching you, not guiding you. In his own mind, that is creating a difference. So far, nothing has happened to damage his confidence as a teacher. He'll do everything he can to help a struggling student, but can ignore the odd one who ultimately ignores everything he's taught and does badly, as long as the others in the class do fairly well. If an entire class was to do badly, though... I think that would utterly destroy him."

 

"Because he'd blame himself?" Jim asked.

 

Stoddard nodded. "Because he'd blame himself."

 

***

 

Jim decided not to say anything to Blair about what he had learned. He would, he decided, just have to work harder at getting Blair to realize that he had no doubts about the ability of the man Jim definitely thought of as his guide; no fears that Blair would ever fail him. His only doubt was that he himself was barely good enough to interest a guide as good as Blair.

 

Next morning, when Blair arrived as usual, Jim was surprised by Blair's first words. "I've been thinking," he said. "You're doing extremely well, learning really fast - but I think you're still slighly inhibited by remembering that your father used the word 'freak' about your abilities. He is still alive?"

 

"Yes."

 

"In Cascade?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I think we should go and see him and ask him why."

 

"No!"

 

"Jim, there has to have been a reason why he... well, denied your abilities. Knowing what it was can only help you."

 

"Blair, I haven't seen or spoken to him in years. I never want to see him again."

 

"That's harsh," Blair said.

 

"Nothing I ever did was good enough," Jim told him. "Nothing. Luckily one of my teachers took me under his wing, encouraged me... and I respected him a lot more than I did my dad, so I listened more to what he had to say - and what was more to the point, I believed him. If I'd believed Dad... if I'd believed Dad, I'm not sure where I'd be today, but it certainly wouldn't be in Cascade PD. I think he wanted me to follow him into business, but - " He shook his head. "I couldn't have worked with - or for - him. If he'd tried giving me, as the boss's son, any sort of responsibility, he'd have spent so much time undermining my authority... telling me I didn't know what I was talking about, didn't have the experience to make this decision... Mr. Heydash taught sports, but he was always ready to encourage me in everything."

 

"Would you mind if I went to see your dad, then, even if you don't want to come?"

 

"Blair, he'd take one look at you - "

 

"And you think Captain Banks didn't? His immediate reaction when he saw me was 'what does this youngster know about anything?' He was quite surprised when I snapped back."

 

"Snapped back?"

 

"Oh, I can throw a great temper tantrum when I think it's necessary. Just ask any student who thinks he can get away with doing less than his best."

 

Almost unwillingly, Jim grinned. "Okay, I'll come with you. I have to admit... Now I know I'm a sentinel, I have to admit I'm wondering why he kept saying 'freak'."

 

"Especially since he grew up knowing there were some people around whose senses were very acute. The first sentinel-guide schools were started seventy years ago, and they were never an esoteric secret. Granted sentinels have never been exactly common, but by the time he was an adult there had to have been at least one working in every big city - and even today the media still makes a big story out of things sentinels accomplish. Back then, anything a sentinel did would have been reported in even greater detail. He couldn't have not known."

 

***

 

"Jimmy?"

 

"Hello, Sally."

 

"Jimmy, it's so good to see you!"

 

"Blair, this is Sally - she pretty well brought me up. Sally, this is Blair Sandburg - he's acting as my guide, teaching me how to handle my senses."

 

"Your senses?"

 

"Sally, I'm a sentinel."

 

"I knew it," she whispered. "Back when you were a child, I knew it - but your father... he wouldn't believe it."

 

"That's why we're here. We want to find out why." Jim's voice was grim.

 

"I never knew," Sally said. "He always told me not to encourage you by believing what you said - perhaps I should say 'by appearing to believe what you said' - and apart from that he was a good employer, so I went along with it. But he never said why."

 

"So is he in?"

 

"Yes. He'll be glad to see you, but... "

 

"But not if I ask him what I want to know?"

 

"He won't be happy to have the subject mentioned."

 

Sally closed the door behind them and led them up the stairs. She paused at a door, and said, "Don't leave without saying goodbye, Jimmy?"

 

He smiled. "Dad mightn't give me any choice, but if I do, I'll phone you afterwards."

 

She nodded, knocked on the door and opened it.

 

"Mr. Ellison - it's Jimmy."

 

The man who rose from a very comfortable-looking armchair looked to Blair to be a lot older than the sixty or so that he had to be.

 

"Jimmy? What brings you here?" He sounded pleased but surprised.

 

Jim looked at Blair, who responded instantly. "Mr. Ellison, I'm Blair Sandburg. I'm a lecturer in sentinel-guide studies at Rainier, currently teaching Jim how to use his senses - "

 

"Don't tell me you've started that nonsense again!" There was uneasiness mixed with anger in his voice.

 

"It isn't nonsense, Mr. Ellison," Blair said firmly. "The existence of heightened senses has been documented for at least a hundred and fifty years, and studied in increasing depth for seventy. You have to have heard of them all your life! Now, I've been studying sentinels and guides for twenty years - "

 

"You mean since before you were born?" Anger was mixed with disbelief this time.

 

"Mr. Ellison, I'm thirty. I came online with guide abilities when I was ten, and my life and studies since then have revolved around sentinels. I know what I'm talking about. Jim is a sentinel, and a very strong one. His abilities will help him immensely in his work, and - " remembering that Jim's father was a businessman - "will automatically earn him a higher salary than he is currently paid. However, he's being inhibited by something you said about his abilities when he was a child. Jim would like to know why; I need to know." Blair's voice was that of a lecturer demanding obedience, and he saw a faint respect in the older Ellison's eyes.

 

Mr. Ellison gestured them to seats, and retook his own before he replied. "Yes, I knew about sentinels. I also knew they were rare." He sighed, looking more at Jim than at Blair. "I suppose I do owe you an explanation. When I was eleven, my older brother seemed to have heightened hearing, at least; he claimed he heard things nobody else could. My parents took him to the doctor to be checked. He was diagnosed schizophrenic, suffering from auditory hallucinations. With that in my family history, how could I be so egotistic as assume that there actually was a sentinel in my family?"

 

"You could at least have had him tested," Blair said, careful to keep his voice non-judgemental.

 

"And if it turned out that he was schizophrenic too?" He turned his attention back to Jim, as if he was relieved to get this all into the open at last. "Andy killed himself a few days later - the disappointment of learning that his 'hearing' was due to hallucinations was too much for him. That destroyed my mother; she had a nervous breakdown, spent the rest of her life in and out of a mental hospital, and died a few months after you were born.

 

"I decided... You seemed to hear things, and I was quite sure you did; but if you were schizophrenic like Andy, I didn't want to know. It seemed easiest not to mention the word 'sentinel', and to call what you could do, what you were aware of, 'freakish'."

 

"All right," Jim said. "Given the circumstances, I can understand that; but why did you never seem to feel that I was any use at anything? Whatever I did, it wasn't good enough."

 

"I thought that was the best way to push you to try harder. I needed to be pushed when I was a child; I was lazy, and never did as well at school as I could have done. So I ended up taking over Dad's business, when - if I'd worked harder - I could have done so much more. Oh, I was successful enough - but I could have done more, and I wanted more for you and Stephen. But all I really succeeded in doing was alienating you both."

 

"Dad, if I'd taken your word for it, I'd have ended up on the streets, thinking I wasn't fit for anything better," Jim said. "Yes, I know that's harsh, but what you did was make me believe I wasn't any good at anything. That nothing I could ever do, no matter how hard I worked, would be better than mediocre. What saved me was Mr. Heydash at school; he praised me when I did well, encouraged me to try harder when I did badly - but I knew he wouldn't be there all my life, that I couldn't lean on him after I left school; but by then I'd realized that staying here would just kill my self-confidence all over again."

 

"The carrot usually works far better than the stick," Blair said softly.

 

"Usually, and I can see that now," Mr. Ellison said. "For what it's worth, Jimmy, I really am sorry. I treated you the way - well, the way I needed to be treated when I was young. Praise for work well done never worked for me - it was something I could more easily live without because I felt uncomfortable - embarrassed - when I was praised. I needed the discomfort of extreme disapproval from my parents to overcome my basic laziness, to make me work harder so that life became more comfortable. 'Comfortable' was normal. I thought that was the way things always were. You were like me - you always seemed to be a withdrawn child, not wanting to be embarrassed by being singled out."

 

"I think that although being singled out can embarrass a lot of children, they're usually happy to get positive attention from parents," Blair said.

 

Mr. Ellison shook his head. "I wasn't, but I think I was aware that my mother felt embarrassed if she ever did praise me," he said. "That could have been just my perception, of course - "

 

"Our own perception is what we often judge things by," Blair said. "And just because it's your perception doesn't mean that you're mistaken. If your parents weren't particularly demonstrative - "

 

"Mom certainly wasn't. I remember feeling surprised when she reacted so badly to Andy's suicide. She was the one who'd always pushed me; Dad was always ready to let me do just as much - or as little - as I wanted, saying that the results I got were what I deserved." He looked at Jim. "I'm glad you came," he said. "Glad to get all that out into the open. I did really want what was best for you; I just didn't understand that the best way to motivate me wasn't the way to motivate you."

 

"Understood," Jim said.

 

"And now I know all that, it'll let me help Jim better," Blair said.

 

"If Jimmy really is a sentinel - are you his guide?" Mr. Ellison asked.

 

"No. I do have some guide abilities and I did get the training, but as I said, I'm a lecturer, training young guides how to work with sentinels. Not all of them will - some, like me, will end up as teachers, some will go into social work or psychiatry - the guide 'voice' that helps a sentinel also works with disturbed - well, 'normals'. As senior lecturer, I was the best person to be seconded from Rainier to work with Jim, teach him how to control his abilities and how to respond to whoever he finally selects as his guide. He's actually doing extremely well, though I probably will have to ride along with him until the summer, when he should meet his true guide."

 

"And if he doesn't?"

 

"There are some extremely promising guides in their final year of training," Blair said. "I think it's unlikely that he won't. But if he doesn't, I won't leave him without the help I can give him."

 

"And now - will you stay for lunch?"

 

Jim and Blair looked at each other. Blair's eyes said, 'Your decision.'

 

Jim took the deep breath Blair had taught him to use to steady himself. "Thanks," he said. Although he understood things better, he wasn't totally sure he had forgiven his father - but Sally, he knew, would be happy if they stayed.

 

***

 

In the end they stayed for dinner as well. The day passed more pleasantly than Jim had expected, at least in part due to Blair, who carried the burden of conversation and whose range of knowledge seemed infinite. Much to his son's surprise, Mr. Ellison admitted that he had managed to keep track of Jim's career, and that he was proud of all Jim had done. They parted on reasonably friendly terms, and Jim promised that this time he would keep in touch.

 

They had come in Jim's truck; Blair's car was still parked beside 852 Prospect, so Jim headed for home. After driving for a minute in silence, he said,

 

"He was doing what he thought was best."

 

"Even though it wasn't what was best. Yes. I feel sorry for Andy, though," Blair said sadly.

 

"Any special reason? Certainly it had to have been hard for him to be diagnosed schizophrenic - "

 

Blair glanced sideways at him. "Jim, I didn't want to say this in front of your father, but I'm not convinced that the diagnosis was right."

 

"Huh?"

 

"He wasn't properly tested. He was checked by a doctor."

 

"So?"

 

"That would be... when? Fifty years ago?"

 

"Near enough. Dad was born in '38, so he'd have been eleven in '49."

 

"Although by then sentinels had been known about for twenty years and there were plenty of tests available, some doctors - especially older ones - were still skeptical about them and relying on what they had been taught - and the perceived wisdom when they were trained was that someone who heard voices when there was nobody near was 'hearing things' - aka hallucinating. It's a pity nobody thought to have him properly tested at a sentinel-guide center."

 

"I suppose... " Jim said thoughtfully, and broke off.

 

"Yes?"

 

"What Dad said - about thinking it egotistical to assume that someone in the family was a sentinel. Maybe his parents felt the same."

 

"Or maybe they just trusted their old-fashioned family doctor," Blair said unhappily.

 

***

 

The next day, some two weeks after he started working with Jim, Blair finally agreed that Jim had learned enough that it was probably time that he returned to work - provided he didn't try to do too much, and had the support of his - his teacher.

 

Although Jim had learned a great deal about controlling his senses, Blair still didn't think he was safe to drive alone, for fear of zoning out, so in the morning Blair came to drive Jim to the PD.

 

A desk sergeant, who nodded to Jim as he stood waiting, signed Blair in as a guest, and then they took the elevator to Major Crime.

 

Blair dropped a little behind Jim as they walked in; partly because he wanted to see how the other occupants of the bullpen reacted to Jim, partly because he didn't want them to assume that he was in any way important. He was Jim's teacher, not his guide, dammit!

 

It took a few moments before anyone actually registered who had entered. Then -

 

"Jim!" It was a cheerful-looking, very over-weight African American. "Good to see you back! How are you?"

 

"Hi Joel. I'm learning control." He glanced to his side, then behind him, reached back and pulled Blair forwards. "Everyone - this is Blair Sandburg. He's a lecturer at Rainier, giving me what young sentinels are taught in the sentinel-guide unit as a crash course."

 

"Hello, Blair. A lecturer? You're not Jim's guide, then?" Joel asked.

 

Blair shook his head. "I know what to do, I can teach it, but I'm not competent to guide anyone," he said, getting that out into the open.

 

"Ellison!" It could only be called a bellow, and Blair flinched as he realized it was Banks. Banks, who knew Jim was having problems with control, who had cared enough to go to Rainier to get help for Jim, but who, in this work situation, had apparently forgotten how sensitive Jim's hearing was.

 

His response was automatic. "Captain, you don't need to shout. Jim can hear you perfectly well - remember?"

 

Banks' lips twitched for the briefest moment, and Blair knew he'd been had. "Sandburg, that wasn't the reaction of a teacher. It was the reaction of a guide protecting his sentinel."

 

"Interim guide," Blair admitted.

 

Banks turned his attention to the sentinel. "Did you have a problem, Jim?"

 

Jim shook his head. "I might have had, if Blair hadn't been here; but he is here, and I didn't have a problem."

 

"Are you here for a visit, or are you planning on working?"

 

"I'd like to come back to work," Jim said.

 

Banks looked at Blair. "Sandburg?"

 

"I think he's ready to try, at least, but I wouldn't like to see him attempting too much for another few days. He's got good control, but it still isn't totally automatic."

 

"Okay," Banks said briskly. "First thing we need to do is get Sandburg credentials as your guide - "

 

"Temporary," Blair said.

 

"Temporary or permanent, the procedure's the same. Take him down to personnel, Jim, get him signed on, then come back and start work. There's a case involving what seems to be a serial killer that was bumped up to us from Homicide this morning that I'd like you to have a look at, now that you're back."

 

***

 

His new police guide pass clipped to his belt, Blair followed Jim back to Major Crime, more than ever aware of the responsibility he had been handed and that, willy-nilly, seemed to be increasing daily. It was one thing to teach Jim some control, teach him the ways that his permanent guide would use to let him keep control relatively effortlessly; when he had agreed that Jim was probably ready to return to work, he had assumed that for the first few days, at least, Jim would be doing busy work while Banks assessed just how good his control was; he certainly hadn't expected Jim to be handed a case involving a serial killer five minutes after he walked in the door!

 

Someone had already put the files pertinent to the case on Jim's desk, and a second chair at the desk. As Jim settled into his chair, Blair took the second one, tipped it a little backwards and wiggled a little until it was at a comfortable angle, then settled it back on all four legs. "So now what?" he asked.

 

"Now we read through these reports," Jim said.

 

"Which are? Remember, I don't know anything about police work."

 

"The reports of the cops who were first on the scene with the statements of whoever found the bodies, the forensic reports, any follow-up interviews with the witnesses - "

 

" - if you can call them that," Blair muttered wryly.

 

"If you can call them that when all they did was find the bodies, but it's the easiest word to use. Also any statements by the families of the deceased. And we have those for each of the victims."

 

"I didn't realize how much... well, routine paperwork was involved in police work."

 

"Believe me, Chief, real life detective work isn't half as exciting as TV programs would have you think. An awful lot of it is reading reports, checking them against each other, looking for similarities or inconsistencies... "

 

"Oh, well, that's one thing I'm experienced at doing. Although all guides get the same training, it's changed a little over the years - any time a guide finds something new that works, or discovers that something they've tried positively doesn't work with their sentinel, they're expected to report it to their training center, and the lecturers then have to go through these reports and assess them. We're getting these in pretty well all the time, both from our own ex-students and from other centers. Then we decide which of them to incorporate or leave out of the program. The basics remain the same, but some of the details change. Okay - we might as well get started."

 

They read steadily, quickly discovering why this case was considered to involve a serial killer; a few dog hairs had been found on all three bodies, and Forensics had established that all the hairs came from the same dog - presumably one owned by the killer. In addition, every victim worked for the same employer.

 

According to the reports, the victims - two men and one woman - had been good workers and were well liked by their colleagues. All had been even-tempered and had never had a serious disagreement with anyone. All had had good family relationships. The first had died a month previously; the second two weeks later; the third, two days previously.

 

"This is the kind of case cops hate," Jim said after a while. "There doesn't seem to be any motive."

 

Blair looked up from the report he was reading. "Everyone has a motive for what they do. It mightn't be something that would motivate most of us, it mightn't be something that we could even understand as a motive, but it's valid to them."

 

"Sometimes it's just plain badness," Jim said. "Some criminals are out and out psychopaths."

 

"I doubt anyone is born bad. Even psychopaths have their reasons."

 

"They're insane."

 

"By our standards. But they don't think of themselves as insane. Come to that, they mightn't even be aware of why they're doing something - they're just convinced that they have a good reason for what they do."

 

"Hey, I thought your doctorate was in anthropology, not psychology."

 

"Anthropologists study people. And guide training includes some psychology classes."

 

"And did your psychology classes give any reason why someone would become an amoral killer?"

 

Blair sighed. "Working out reasons... there are so many possibilities. We tend to assume childhood trauma - deprivation, neglect, abuse; that's the kind of thing defense lawyers would lean on to try to get sympathy for the killer if he were to be sent for trial. But there's another kind of abuse that nobody ever thinks of; the kid who's utterly spoiled, given everything he wants, never learns what 'no' means. When he finally hits an age when he meets outsiders who tell him 'no', he can't handle it; he doesn't see them as people, he sees them as enemies to be disposed of, but it's all in his mind; even he probably couldn't verbalize a reason why.

"Or a kid with over-protective parents, who wrap him in cotton wool and leave him thinking that everyone outside the family is a potential enemy, to be disposed of before they can hurt him. Might be a girl brought up by a mother who's been deserted by her husband or boyfriend, taught from the moment she understood words to distrust all men; she doesn't necessarily remember being taught it, as she grows up she just knows that men are a danger to her. Could be a boy raised in a house where Dad is very much the boss and Mom a total doormat, beaten black and blue if she ever dares to express an opinion or doesn't have a hot meal ready when Dad walks in the door, no matter what time of day or night he arrives - he'll grow up thinking that's the way it is, that women are there purely for the convenience of men, and if Dad is also a racial and religious bigot - "

 

"You have a white supremacist," Jim finished.

 

"Exactly."

 

Both men returned their attention to the reports. At last Blair said, "We need to speak to the co-workers of the victims."

 

"I doubt they can give us anything that isn't here - but - "

 

"But you could tell if they're being totally truthful."

 

"That wasn't what I was going to say, but yes, I suppose I could."

 

"And I don't see any sign that anyone has checked on whether any of the co-workers owns a dog."

 

"They did - I have the report on that here. Eight of the people employed there have dogs. Samples of hair have been taken from each dog, but the testing isn't finished. It's not definitive, but none of the owners objected."

 

***

 

It was mid-afternoon before they reached Mutual Aid, the insurance office where the murder victims had worked.

 

Jim decided to speak to the dog owners first. With Blair sitting silently beside him, a hand on his back to keep him grounded, he studied the physical reaction of each person as he questioned them. As the last one left the room, some two hours after he started interviewing them, Jim shook his head.

 

"I'll swear they're all telling the truth," he said.

 

"Okay," Blair said. "Do you feel up to seeing any of the other employees, or would you rather put it off till tomorrow?"

 

"I should see them now - "

 

"Do you feel up to it?" Blair's voice was quietly demanding.

 

Jim rubbed his forehead. "No," he said. "Not really; I'm tired. But I have a job to do - "

 

"And so do I," Blair said. "As your guide, I'm calling a halt to this for today."

 

"And if there's another death tonight?" Jim asked. "The killer has to be here - "

 

"We don't know that," Blair said. "What we do know is that the killer has a dog. You've spoken to all the employees who have dogs; you're sure none of them is guilty. What, at this stage, would you say to someone else who was asking the questions, who admitted to feeling tired? And who had a headache?"

 

"How did you know - ?"

 

"What would you say?"

 

"Wait till tomorrow," Jim admitted.

 

"So we call this a day, and come back tomorrow," Blair said.

 

Jim sat silently for some moments. Then - "You're the boss," he said.

 

Blair grinned internally. No way was Ellison submissive! This surrender was simply a measure of how tired he actually was.

 

***

 

Blair took Jim home, settled him into a couch and turned his attention to the fridge. Apart from several cartons of milk and three bottles of water, it was empty.

 

"Hey, Jim, what've you been eating?"

 

"Oh... this and that," Jim said. "I'm sort of out of stuff - I really need to do some grocery shopping."

 

"Yeah, you do. And you know what? I think you need to start eating a bit more - not just drinking milk."

 

Jim flushed slightly. "I... I... "

 

"Tell me," Blair said gently.

 

"I haven't been terribly hungry," Jim admitted. "Nothing tastes right. I... can manage lunch fine, because you're there. With me. But in the evening... nothing tastes right. I've... Milk is all I've been able to stomach... since this whole thing started... except when you're with me."

 

Blair's mouth opened slightly. All he could feel was awe. This was the reaction of a sentinel to his true guide, and for the first time in fourteen years Blair found himself wondering if perhaps he was an effective guide... for the right sentinel.

 

"Okay. Now you just sit there and relax; practice your breathing exercises; I'll go and get you some decent food - eggs, chicken, something fairly light. And then... " He licked his lips nervously. "And then we need to make some decisions about the future." He was out of the door before Jim could reply.

 

As he went down the stairs and into his car, Blair was thinking furiously. Although as an interim guide/teacher he had maintained his own apartment, spending the nights there, sentinel and guide usually shared a home; and now that he had suddenly begun to think that he might, after all, actually be a reasonably competent guide for a sentinel who wanted him, he would have to address that. It was something he had not mentioned, not thinking it relevant to the current situation, and thinking there would be time enough to warn Jim about it. He did wonder how Jim would react to learning that fact - although by the time he reached the nearest supermarket he'd remembered that Jim understood how much he needed a guide. And if the choice was between living with someone and only able to consume milk when his guide wasn't there... Well, there wasn't really much of a choice.

 

He would - he admitted to himself - miss having his own apartment, especially since Jim's open-plan loft offered its occupants no privacy; but he was sure that Jim would feel more comfortable in his own home than moving into Blair's much smaller apartment.

 

He moved quickly around the supermarket - free-range eggs, chicken, fish, bread, unsalted butter, potatoes. He hesitated over fruit, and finally selected one or two items - he would try the local Farmers' Market in the morning. That was more likely to have organic... and although sentinels could handle non-organic food, organic was always best for them.

 

The store was quiet enough that he wasn't held up at the checkout, and he lost no time in returning to Jim's apartment. He went in quietly, hoping that Jim had managed to relax.

 

He smiled when he saw that Jim had fallen asleep... and remained asleep despite the noise of the door opening. He had been quiet enough that he wouldn't have wakened - but a sentinel would, unless he was confident that what he was hearing was a legitimate sound. Despite all Blair's attempts during the last two weeks to hold Jim at arm's length, despite all Blair's protests that he was only teaching Jim, it seemed that Jim had imprinted on him.

 

Jim had imprinted on him.

 

They weren't linked - yet - because he hadn't been able to believe that he was indeed a guide; but even without knowing how to lower his personal barriers, Jim had imprinted on him!

 

Blair moved into the kitchen area. He put the chicken and fish into the fridge, found a bowl, broke several eggs into it, added a little milk and whipped them up. He glanced over at Jim; still fast asleep. He put some butter into a pan, and when it was melted added the eggs, stirring the mixture gently.

 

After a minute, Jim moved; raised his head. "Mmm... smells good."

 

Blair smiled. "Hi, Jim. Sleep well?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Hungry?"

 

"Yes. Yes, I am!" He sounded almost surprised.

 

"Good. Eggs are almost ready."

 

Jim nodded, then looked sharply at Blair. "I... I didn't hear you come in. But when I woke... you were there, and it seemed... It seemed... I just accepted it... "

 

Blair's smile widened. "Because I'm your guide," he said quietly. "There are some things we do still need to discuss, but that can wait till we've eaten."

 

"You're not fighting it now? You accept that you're my guide?"

 

"You were wiser than I was," Blair said. "Because I failed to help a sentinel when I was sixteen, a sentinel who ended up in the hospital with a mental age of four, I thought I wasn't - couldn't be - a proper guide. But Alicia wasn't really a sentinel - though I thought she was. I knew she wasn't my sentinel, but I was young, too sure of myself, too sure that I should have been able to help her. And yet - I owe her. Because if she hadn't destroyed my belief in myself, I'd have joined with a sentinel when I was eighteen, settled for someone I found reasonably compatible and probably been perfectly content. But because she did destroy my belief in myself, I chose to teach rather than guide... and that meant I was still free when you needed a guide.

 

"I think I've known, right from the moment we met, that you were my sentinel; I just wouldn't admit it even to myself, because I'd become so used to thinking of myself as inadequate. But I'm admitting it now. You are my sentinel; I am your guide.

 

"Now - the eggs are ready; come and eat. And then we can discuss the future."

 

***

 

Blair had deliberately chosen a light meal, remembering that although Jim had been eating lunch, he had eaten sparingly. Blair had assumed that that was Jim's eating pattern - light lunch, substantial evening meal. Now he knew that Jim hadn't been eating at all in the evening, he wasn't about to make Jim ill by making him eat too much too quickly.

 

After they had finished, Jim insisted on washing the dishes, then walked over to a door that Blair had assumed opened into a walk-in closet. "It isn't much," Jim said, "but apart from the bathroom, it's the only place inside the loft that has a door."

 

The small room was furnished as a bedroom; everything in it looked new.

 

"I know that the guide usually moves in with his sentinel," Jim said diffidently. "Will... will it do?"

 

"I didn't realize you knew that," Blair said.

 

"I... There are two other sentinels in the PD - Meldrum in Narcotics, Beamish in Vice. I asked them what it was reasonable to expect my guide to do for me. What it was expected that I would do for him. They both told me that sentinels normally provide a room for their guides. That - that was part of the reason I kept asking you to stay over. But if you'd rather keep your apartment, I can move in with you."

 

"This is your space," Blair told him. "You'll be more comfortable if I move here rather than you moving in with me. In any case, I don't have a spare bedroom. I don't need one - at least, I haven't until now." He moved into the room that would be his and sat on the bed.

 

"Doesn't your family ever visit?" Jim sat beside him.

 

"Mom's dead - officially she fell down a flight of stairs, but... I'd heard her arguing with Alicia; I'm sure Alicia pushed her. Of course, there was no way to prove that. But even if there had been proof, there's no way that someone with a mental age of four, and no memory of her years since she was four, could be charged with anything. I never knew my father, or even who he was - Mom wanted a child, but she never wanted a husband. I would doubt she even told whoever it was that she was pregnant.

 

"My uncle was - well - a surrogate father, but he doesn't particularly like travelling, so he doesn't come to visit me; I visit him when I can. His wife died three years ago. His son, my cousin Robert - we were friendly enough when we were younger, but we grew apart. I still like him, but his interests and mine... you could say they clashed. And that's it for my family." Blair shrugged. "As for friends - I've got several casual friends - well, more like acquaintances - but they're all my colleagues at Rainier. Now that I'm your guide, I won't be working there again, and none of them will bother keeping in touch with me. Even though we were working together, I never felt I had much in common with them, and I'll have even less in common with them now. The only one I might try to stay in contact with is Eli Stoddard - like Uncle David, he's been a sort of surrogate father ever since the day he had to tell me that although I was fully qualified as a guide, I couldn't work as one until I was eighteen."

 

"Girls?"

 

"I've had a few girl friends over the years, but... " Blair shook his head. "None of them worked out. When it came down to it, I expected them to be like Mom - never in a relationship for the long haul."

 

"Haven't you been lonely?"

 

"Not as long as I had books." He twisted around to look at Jim. "That doesn't mean I don't know what friendship is. It doesn't mean that I don't have it in me to be a loyal friend. All it means is that until now I haven't met anyone in what you might call my age group that I liked well enough to socialize with."

 

"Until now?"

 

"Although I denied it, I felt a connection to you right away," Blair admitted. "But I was afraid."

 

Jim raised a querying eyebrow.

 

"Afraid of failing again. But today... the way you've been reacting to me... I'm no longer afraid of failing you. Now I need to relax my barriers, to imprint on you."

 

"Imprint - ?"

 

"Imprinting links sentinel and guide, gives them an awareness of each other that they really need if they're to work properly together. To imprint on each other normally needs both sentinel and guide to work together to lower their mental barriers - something that isn't easy. It's interesting that you seem to have done it without being told how."

 

"I have?" Jim sounded startled.

 

"That's why you didn't waken when I came in. Although I was quiet, you couldn't have missed the noise, but your mind told you that everything was all right, that the person who came in was your guide."

 

"Yes," Jim said. "My guide. So... how do you imprint on me?"

 

"There are one or two ways... The easiest, for me - since it is just me, not both of us... Just sit there. Don't try to speak to me - just sit quietly. Relax. Fall asleep again, if you want." He kicked off his shoes, drew his feet up onto the bed and sat cross-legged, his hands on his knees. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, breathing steadily...

 ***

 

Blair opened his eyes to find himself in a clearing in the Mexican rain forest. In front of him was the temple guarded by the stone jaguars. He moved slowly forward, aware of another subtle change in the position of the stone animals.

 

One of the two guardian jaguars looked somehow even more dominant than it had, and he was sure it was the one that had defended him when he was there with Alicia. He walked up to it, and stroked its head. "Thank you," he said.

 

It moved, morphing into a tribal warrior, and he smiled. "It was you who made me think that I wasn't a proper guide, wasn't it. You knew that I had to wait for my sentinel, that I wouldn't meet him for many years."

 

"Yes. Enqueri is very powerful, and needs a strong guide."

 

A wolf trotted out of the surrounding trees and joined them. Without being told, Blair knew that this was his spirit guide, just as the jaguar warrior was - he was sure - Jim's. He smiled at the wolf; it leaped towards him and he felt a momentary pressure against his chest as it seemed to jump into him. He gasped at the sudden feeling that he could do anything - anything - he wanted to, without regarding the consequences, and firmly reminded himself that his job was to support his sentinel in upholding the law. The feeling changed to one of approval, and he knew that he had been tested - and had passed the test.

 

The warrior was still speaking; it seemed that no time had passed while the wolf tested him. "You have the strength your sentinel needs. Never doubt yourself again, Yachachiq."

 

Blair lowered his head in acceptance, and as he raised it again, saw that the stone jaguar was once again standing in its place. The scene began to waver slightly; he just had time to touch the jaguar's head in farewell before it disappeared.

 

Blair opened his eyes to find himself sitting cross-legged on the bed that he knew was his, with Jim watching him. He smiled, aware of Jim in a way he hadn't been before, and he knew that he had been successful in lowering his mental barriers. He had imprinted on Jim, and they were now fully linked, sentinel to guide.

 
***

 

They wasted no time in going to Blair's apartment and packing up all his things - it was rented furnished, so they didn't have to worry about the furniture, only Blair's laptop and CD player - and then while Blair unpacked and put away his clothes, Jim cleared space on the living room shelves for Blair's books and CDs. There would be a few things to pick up from his office at Rainier as well, but that could wait, although Blair knew that he had to let Stoddard know in the morning that he'd been right, Jim was his sentinel and he'd accepted it. The sentinel-guide unit would have to find a new lecturer.

 

There was little left of the evening by the time they'd finished, but they lingered over coffee - the first time Jim had been able to enjoy coffee since his senses had been triggered - getting to know each other a little better before they finally headed off to bed.

 

And it was an extremely comfortable bed, Blair decided as he settled under the comforter.

 

It would, he knew, take a few days before either of them fully adapted to living with someone else - both having been the sole occupant of their individual territories for what was probably far too long - and there would certainly be times when they each needed their own space; but he had this room, with its closing door, and he would respect the upstairs bedroom as Jim's sole territory, where he only went by invitation, even though it was part of the open-plan structure of the apartment.

 

His last thought, as he fell asleep, was that this was the first time in his life that he had been truly happy.

 

***

 

In the morning Blair was wakened by the sound of Jim moving around. He swung his legs out of bed, sat up and stretched, more alert than he could ever remember feeling, and he realized that - although he had taught it - he hadn't truly understood that a guide needed a sentinel as much as a sentinel needed a guide; and the realization destroyed the last trace of the doubt that had shadowed his life for so long. Rising, he opened the door and walked into the living room.

 

Jim looked around from the kitchen area, where - the smell told Blair - he was preparing coffee. "Morning," he  said. "Breakfast in quarter of an hour, okay?"

 

"Right."

 

He had a quick shower and shaved, then hurried back to his room to dress. He took a minute to brush his wet hair and tie it back before going back to join Jim.

 

"Scrambled egg again, I'm afraid," Jim said.

 

Blair grinned. "Easiest on your stomach," he said. "But I'll do fish tonight, and we can maybe find time before we come home to do some more shopping - I just grabbed a few essentials last night."

 

As they ate, he said, "What's our program for today?"

 

"First we'll need to go in to the PD, get you signed on as a permanent guide. That'll get the wheels rolling to get you a decent pay check. Then I'll write up my report on yesterday's interviews. Next we'll see if the results are in yet for the dog hairs. If they are, we see which owner it is - "

 

" - if any," Blair put in.

 

" - if any, and check his original statements and compare them against the one I got. After that we can go back to Mutual Aid, speak to him again and then possibly interview the rest of the staff."

 

"And at some point I need to go to Rainier, tell Eli that - well, that he's just lost his senior lecturer. He'll be sorry to lose me - but at the same time, he'll be delighted that I've finally found a sentinel - and clear out my office, though that's not an immediate essential. I could phone Eli, but I really want to tell him face to face."

 

"Okay, we'll make a slight detour and fit that in when we're going to Mutual Aid."

 ***

 

The report on the dog hairs was there; they were a match for the animal owned by Gerry Branigan, the fifth man that Jim had interviewed the previous day.

 

"Didn't he have an alibi for one of the murders?" Blair said.

 

Jim nodded. "Cast iron," Jim agreed.

 

Branigan's ten-year-old daughter had been involved in an accident the day before the killing - a driver, going far too quickly, had failed to make a turn and ended up on the sidewalk. Jenny Branigan had tried to get out of the way, but hadn't quite made it. She had ended up in the hospital overnight, and left it with her arm in a cast.

 

Her parents had spent the night at the hospital; there was absolutely no way he could have killed anyone that night. He didn't have alibis for the other two killings, but that one alibi cast a lot of doubt on his potential guilt. Jim decided to have a word with him anyway.

 

As they had agreed, they went first to Rainier.

 

Stoddard was delighted with Blair's news. "As I said, though, I'm sorry to lose you as a lecturer," he said. He glanced at Jim, not betraying the fact that they had already met, then turned his attention back to Blair. "If you could do one or two guest lectures I'd be grateful, but if your duties at the PD don't allow it, I'll understand."

 

"I don't see any reason why he can't," Jim said.

 

Blair nodded. "I'm sure we can negotiate something," he agreed. "I don't have time today to clear my office - we're on our way to interview some people - but I will be in as soon as possible, and we can discuss it then."

 

"No hurry," Stoddard said. "I was able to give you a job without an interview because I knew what you were capable of, but we'll have to advertise for your replacement, then interview applicants - nobody'll be needing the office for at least a month, maybe longer."

 

They left Rainier and headed for Mutual Aid.

 

***

 

Jim decided to talk to Branigan again before he spoke to the other employees.

 

He watched carefully as Branigan walked into the room. The man looked a little concerned, obviously wondering why he was being called again, but he was clearly not worried.

 

"Sit down, please." Jim indicated the chair facing them. As Branigan sat, Jim went on, "We've got the results back on the dog hairs. The hairs found on the victims came from your dog."

 

"From Toby? That's not possible!"

 

Jim nodded. He could detect surprise and genuine confusion in Branigan's voice. "So someone managed to get hairs from your dog to plant on the bodies, to throw the blame onto you."

 

Branigan shook his head. "Toby isn't what you might call a trusting dog. He was removed from an abusive owner about this time last year, and I rehomed him a couple of months later. It took me ages to make him understand and accept that I wouldn't abuse him. The only people who can get near him without panicking him are my family... "

 

"Has he shown any signs of panicking recently?"

 

Branigan frowned, clearly thinking. "Not panic... " he said slowly. "But a month or so ago - just a day or two before Len Barclay was killed - Toby seemed... I don't know how best to describe it. Clinging. He wouldn't leave my side at all for about a week. As if something had spooked him, and he was looking for protection."

 

"And that was a different kind of reaction from his panicked one?" Jim said.

 

"Yes. When he panics, he shrinks away from contact and hides behind me. This time... This time he was leaning against me pretty well all the time, as if he was afraid to let me out of his sight. Even when I walked him - he doesn't range much at the best of times, but for that week he stayed closer than usual. After that he began to cling a little less, though he's still not quite back to what I'd call normal."

 

"Who took him from the abusive owner?"

 

"The ASPCA. Toby was in a terrible state; they treated his injuries and fattened him up a bit before they offered him for rehoming, but he was still well below his optimum weight when I got him."

 

"Right. I think that's all, Mr. Branigan. I don't think we'll need to bother you again. Thank you for your time."

 

As Branigan left, Jim turned to Blair. "I don't think we need speak to anyone else here, Chief."

 

Blair nodded. "ASPCA next?"

 

"Yes."

 

They paused at the reception desk long enough to thank the girl on duty and let her know they didn't expect to be back, walked briskly to Jim's truck and headed for the ASPCA kennels.

 

In the office of the Chief Inspector, Jim introduced himself and Blair, doing so for the first time as sentinel and guide.

 

"Sentinel?" Inspector Lowry said. "What brings a sentinel to an animal shelter?"

 

"About a year ago, you rescued an abused dog - yes, I know, you're doing that all the time. This particular one was rehomed after about two months with a family called Branigan."

 

"Just let me check." Lowry crossed to a filing cabinet. "Be... Bl... Br... Branigan." He pulled out a file and opened it, reading quickly. "Yes. We prosecuted the original owner and he was fined and banned from keeping a dog for ten years."

 

"I need his name and address," Jim said grimly.

 

"Even although we prosecuted, I should really see a warrant... " Lowry said apologetically.

 

"I have reason to believe that he recently tracked down the dog and while he didn't harm it, he did leave it somewhat traumatized," Jim said.

 

"What? In that case, I can forget the warrant. Jake Davis. His address at the time was 927 West Street, number 434."

 

"Thank you." Jim swung around and headed for the door. Blair nodded to Lowry, echoed the "Thank you," and followed.

 

Back in the truck, Jim said, "I'll need you with me, Chief, but stay behind me. We know that Davis is abusive; there's every reason to suspect that it isn't just with animals. He could very well turn violent."

 

"Just you be careful too, Jim."

 

West Street, while not in the seediest part of Cascade, was in an area that looked as if it was going downhill fairly quickly. Jim found a parking space in front of 929, locked the truck and led Blair down the street to 927.

 

They entered the building. There was no elevator; they climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and found 434. Jim knocked. After a few moments they heard movement; the man who opened the door clearly hadn't shaved for two or three days, and his shirt was badly in need of a wash.

 

"Mr. Davis?"

 

"Who wants to know?" But Jim was aware of the nervousness behind the bravado.

 

"Sentinel Ellison, Cascade PD."

 

Davis made an attempt to slam the door, but hadn't bargained for Jim's quick reading of his intentions. Jim pushed Davis backwards, and with Blair at his heels, walked into the apartment, wrinkling his nose at the smell.

 

"Dial down green," Blair murmured, wishing that he could do the same. The one-room apartment smelt of cheap liquor and cigarettes, unwashed human and decay, and he was sure that Jim could identify more than those.

 

"You're nervous, Mr. Davis," Jim murmured. "I wonder why?"

 

"I don't trust no cops. Cops always pick on guys like me."

 

"In what way like you?" Jim asked, genuinely curious.

 

"Guys who aren't rich."

 

"Mr. Davis, only a very small percentage of people in this town are rich. If they were the only ones we paid any attention to, we'd have very little to do.

 

"Now - I understand that a few months ago, you were charged with ill-treating a dog."

 

"I paid the fine!" Davis growled.

 

"The dog was rehomed, and was settling down nicely. But then a month ago, it suddenly changed. It was worried, nervous... as if it had had a visit from someone it was afraid of. Did you find out where it had gone, Mr. Davis? Did you pay it a visit, hoping to give its new owner a problem?"

 

"Why would I do that?"

 

Even Blair could hear the bluster in the man's voice.

 

Jim looked around the room, his nostrils twitching. He walked towards the unmade bed, and stopped at it, looking at the bedside unit. He took a pair of latex gloves from a pocket and opened the drawer on the unit. Inside were a number of plastic bags. Some obviously contained drugs; but one held a ball of dog hair. Jim picked it up. "Was that what you did, Mr. Davis? Caught the dog, brushed it, collected its hair - "

 

Davis made a run for the door.

 

He had totally discounted Blair, seeing only that the sentinel's companion had long hair and looked very young.

 

Blair raced after him, and brought him down with a perfect football tackle.

 

***

 

When charged, Davis finally admitted that he had seen the dog with its new owner and resented the obvious affection it showed the man, because it had never given him any; he didn't seem able to understand that the way he had treated it made it fear him and gave it no reason to love him. He had decided to remove the new owner from the dog's life.

 

"By killing other people, and trying to throw the blame onto the new owner?" Jim asked.

 

"Yes."

 

Jim nodded to the police officer standing at the door, he came forward and led Davis away.

 

As Blair and Jim made their way back to Major Crime, Blair said, "The guy's insane."

 

"I think he is, but that's up to the court to decide," Jim agreed. "And now you get to see a bit more of the routine of a cop's life; filling in reports."

 

***

 

After they finished, they went via Rainier to clear out Blair's office, not that he had many personal items there. Some of the books were Blair's own, but most were ones he used for the classes he taught, and belonged to the university. As they left, they passed a group of students that Blair recognized.

 

"Dr. Sandburg!" It was Donna Tompkins. "Dr. Stoddard said you'd gone to help a late-onset sentinel. Does this mean you're coming back now?"

 

Blair smiled. "No, I won't be back, not permanently, though I might do one or two guest lectures," he said. "This is Detective Ellison - my sentinel." He looked around the group. "So - if you want to guide a sentinel, but don't meet one when you're eighteen and so you settle for doing something else, don't give up hope; you might still meet your sentinel several years later."

 

"You've had a long wait, sir."

 

"Yes - but it was worth it."

 

They watched the budding guides heading off down the corridor, then turned and made their way back to Jim's truck... and home.

 

The End

 

Notes: The Spanish was taken from a 'translation' web page, so I don't guarantee how absolutely accurate (aka colloquial) it is!

 

Si - yes

gracias - thank you

Hola - Hello

Es bueno verte de nuevo. - Nice to see you again

Este es tu hijo? - This is your son?

¿sabe si Señorita Bannister está en su habitación, - Do you know if Miss Bannister is in her room,


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alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-03 06:01 pm
Entry tags:

Writer's Block by Akablonded

Title: Writer's Block
Author: akablonded
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: Slash/AU
Pairing: J/B
Moonridge Year: 2005
Who won the story: Multiple donators (this was part of the 2005 Moonridge My Mongoose E-Zine)

Warnings: None

Notes:
THE WIFE OF INDRA - A position in the Kama Sutra described as one offering "highest congress," i.e., maximum penetration.
"INVICTUS" - A poem by William Ernest Henley.


read the story )

 

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alyburns: (Default)
2010-06-03 05:58 pm
Entry tags:

Moonridge Story #1 - Polly B's sequels

This is the first group of stories from Moonridge, specifically, 2009. They arose from a Claim made by a TS fan who wanted an ending to a story called "Five in the Stink", which was written by Polly Bywater for a challenge on Sentinel_Thursday (on LJ). Three people took the claim, including Polly herself.

Under the cut, you'll find first the prequel that got the original story, Five in the Stink, rolling, then Five in the Stink and finally, Polly's own sequel (or epilogue). And finally, the links to the other "Claimed" sequels.

 

 

First Moonridge Story/ies )


 

Sequel #2: Love's Forebearance by Arianna
Sequel #3: Building on Ashes by Chrys

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alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-03 05:49 pm
Entry tags:

Off Limits by Akablonded

Title: OFF LIMITS

Author: akablonded

Fandom: The Sentinel

Category: Slash

Pairing: J/B

Moonridge Year: 2006

Who won the story: Mary a.k.a. krystalrain

Warnings: None

 

story this way )
alyburns: (writing)
2010-06-03 05:48 pm
Entry tags:

A Taste of Honey

Title: A Taste of Honey
Author: Bluewolf
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: Mild slash
Pairing: J/B
Moonridge Year: 2009
Warnings: None
 
story this way! )

  

Lorna Webster hummed softly to herself as she performed her usual morning chores. It wasn't that she enjoyed housework, but on this morning she was happy - surprisingly happy. Her husband, who normally worked from home, was away for several days at a business meeting he had to attend in person. She loved Steve and missed him while he was away, but as fulfilling as their marriage was, she found it refreshing, invigorating, to have the house to herself - well, apart from six-year-old Becca. But Becca was at school, so yes, for the moment she had the house completely to herself, and she was thoroughly enjoying the rare solitude. A loner by nature, she had surprised herself when first she started dating Steve then, a few months later, agreed to marry him.

 

Steve was far more gregarious - indeed, their personalities could hardly have been more mismatched. In her more introspective moments, she thought that might have been what drew them together. In some ways she envied the ease with which he interacted with others, while happily standing back and letting him do so, watching but not really wanting to participate in the social events he so enjoyed. And she knew that Steve, in some ways, envied her ability to be content with her own company, the ease with which she could amuse and entertain herself.

 

Their friends were - with one exception - his. Only one of their friends was hers, despite the attempts made by Marisa, the sister of Steve;s closest male friend - to befriend her. But although she liked Theo, she hadn't liked Marisa much, though good manners kept her from revealing that to anyone, even Steve.

 

She and Marilyn Young had been in the same class at school; two loners drawn together by the need, at school, to have a partner for certain things, they had remained casually friendly thereafter; often several weeks would pass between the times they saw each other, though each considered the other her closest friend. Marilyn had been her bridesmaid, the only person she could ask... although she knew that even if there had been several people available to her, Marilyn would still have been her bridesmaid of choice.

 

Lorna had no real regrets; she loved Steve, she loved their daughter - though she had never wanted children, and certainly didn't want another child - but she sometimes felt overwhelmed by their company; she missed having 'me-time'. At those times she envied Marilyn, who had never dated, never wanted to date, wanted nothing to do with men... and remembering how Marilyn's stepfather had made her flesh creep on the rare occasions she encountered him, Lorna thought she knew the source of her friend's aversion to men. Marilyn had left home the day she was legally old enough to do so, and to the best of Lorna's knowledge had never gone back, even to visit her mother.

 

As she worked, Lorna allowed her mind to wander. She had always had a vivid imagination, and before her marriage had spent many happy hours making up stories; mostly fantasies. She often thought that in another life, if she had never met Steve, never married, she could have had a reasonable supplementary income as a writer - she was pragmatic enough to know that few authors actually earned enough from their writing to make a living from it, that she would have had to have a regular paying job as well. But Steve had an old-fashioned way of looking at marriage; it was his place to support his family, his wife's place to make a comfortable home for them. No wife of his was ever going to work, he had said. Not even if that 'work' was a paying hobby. And so she had suppressed the rich worlds of her imagination, the adventures her characters enjoyed, in favor of the - yes, she had to admit, monotony of real life. The one indulgence she had allowed herself since her marriage was the bedtime stories she made up for Becca.

 

She would not have changed her life. She was happy with Steve, and if she occasionally wished that he understood her need to give her imagination free rein, well, giving up her fictional world seemed a small price to pay for his devotion and the security with which he surrounded her.

 

A knock at the door broke into the story she was constructing, and putting down her duster she went over and opened the door.

 

"Parcel for you." The delivery man was elderly, and, she guessed, probably glad that it was a fairly small parcel.

 

"Thank you."

 

Puzzled - who could be sending her a parcel at this time of year? It was two months since her birthday, a month until Steve's, nearly three until Christmas. Lorna opened the box and, from the generous padding, lifted out a big jar of honey. There was a covering note - "Enjoy. Marilyn." She frowned slightly. It was unlike Marilyn to give her a present except at Christmas, and then they normally exchanged presents in person. On the other hand Marilyn, who had left some six months earlier on an extended vacation, might have decided to send this as an inexpensive holiday present, especially as she had said she mightn't return to America; and had probably asked the shopkeeper to add the printed message before sending it. There were no stamps on the packet, only a printed label too faint and smudged for Lorna to make out what it said.

 

Yet it seemed an odd present. Marilyn knew that she didn't care for honey, and Steve positively disliked it. Oh, well, Becca, who did like honey, would be happy. Throwing the wrapping and note into the trash, Lorna put the jar away in a cupboard in the kitchen, and carried on with the dusting.

 

***

 

Jim and Blair were spending a lazy evening half watching television, half spasmodically discussing a recent case that had stalled, when Jim raised his head. "Visitors," he said. "Steven and someone I don't know."

 

He waited for the knock on the door before moving swiftly to open it. "Stevie! Come in."

 

Blair's lips twitched slightly at the calculated surprise in Jim's voice as he hit the standby button on the remote, glad that nothing on television that night was particularly enthralling. "Coffee?" he asked as Jim ushered their visitors over to the couch.

 

"No, thanks," Steven said. "This isn't a social visit." Jim looked from him to the man with him, noting the strained look on the stranger's face. "This is Steve Webster. He's a business associate of mine, and - well - he has a problem. Strictly speaking it isn't a case for Major Crime, but... Hell, I think you'd be more help in solving this than Homicide is."

 

"Homicide?" Jim asked.

 

Webster licked his lips. "My wife's been arrested and charged with killing our daughter," he blurted out, and it was clear to both Jim and Blair that he was maintaining his self-control by the merest thread.

 

Blair moved quietly to the kitchen and started the coffeemaker. This might not be a social visit, but even though Steven had refused it, a cup of coffee would give Webster something to do with his hands.

 

"What happened?" Jim asked, his voice quietly sympathetic. He was more used to playing 'bad cop' when they were facing a criminal, but he had learned at least some people skills when facing an obvious victim.

 

Webster took several deep breaths. "I was away," he said. "A business trip. Mostly I work from home, but just occasionally I have to meet the people I work for - " He broke off, clearly fighting to keep from breaking down.

 

"Steve works in computing," Steven put in, obviously giving his friend time to regain at least some of his composure. "He's done a lot of work for my company. We met at one of those face-to-face conferences, and the coincidence of our having the same first name and both living in Cascade... Well, we got friendly."

 

Jim nodded.

 

"I was away," Webster repeated. "Apparently Becca took ill during the night - vomiting, diarrhea... Lorna waited a day to see if she would shake off whatever bug had upset her stomach, and when she wasn't any better the next morning took her to the doctor, and he had her admitted to the hospital. She seemed to be improving during the day. Lorna visited in the afternoon and again that evening, and two or three hours later Becca started vomiting again... and... and... " He broke off again.

 

"Take your time," Jim murmured as Blair came over and put a mug of coffee on the table in front of Webster, along with a bowl of sugar and the milk. As Webster used the adding of milk to his coffee as an aid to pulling control around himself again, Blair went back to the kitchen for coffee for Steven, Jim and himself.

 

Webster swallowed a mouthful of coffee. "She died," he whispered. He took another mouthful. "The doctors had no idea why; they thought it might have been something she'd eaten, but Lorna insisted that Becca hadn't eaten anything that could have caused it; nothing that she hadn't eaten dozens of times before. But the autopsy showed that she'd been poisoned, and the next thing we knew, Lorna'd been charged with killing Becca."

 

"You were home by then?" Jim asked.

 

"Yes; Lorna phoned as soon as the hospital called her. I left a message to explain what had happened - there was only one meeting left anyway - and came straight home. 

 

"I don't deny Lorna never wanted children - she agreed to one because she knew I wanted a child - but she did love Becca. She wouldn't have killed Becca! She couldn't have! She... " He fumbled the mug down on the table, and buried his face in his hands.

 

Steven laid a comforting hand on Webster's shoulder. After a minute, the grieving man raised his head again. "Homicide isn't considering anyone else, Lorna's been denied bail... Mr. Ellison, is there anything you can do to find out what really happened?"

 

Jim sighed. "On the face of it... Mr. Webster, can you suggest anyone, anyone at all, who might have poisoned Becca?"

 

"No," he whispered. "But I'd stake my life that it wasn't Lorna! It had to have been an accident..."

 

It was Blair who said quietly, "Steve, did they say what the poison was?"

 

Webster shook his head. "I don't think so... They might have, but as soon as they said 'poisoned' I... I lost track of what they were saying. I'm sorry."

 

"No, it's not surprising. Anyway, they'd probably have given it a long polysyllabic chemical name - the kind of name that nobody except a toxicologist would be able to remember. We can check that, at least." He caught Jim's eye. "Depending on the poison - it could have been something Becca ate away from the house." He turned his attention back to Webster. "Do you know if any of her friends took ill?"

 

"No... no, I don't know. Sorry."

 

"There's no reason you should know," Jim said reassuringly. "All right, Mr. Webster - we'll see what we can find out."

 

"Thank you."

 

As Steven followed Webster out of the loft, he glanced back at Jim and mouthed, "Thanks."

 

Once the door had closed on their visitors, Blair looked a little anxiously at Jim. "What do you think?"

 

"Oh the face of it, given what Webster said... it does look as if Mrs. Webster did give Becca something that poisoned her," Jim said. "He does genuinely believe that she didn't, but... If Mrs. Webster didn't want children, only agreed to have one because he wanted a child, it's possible that she came to resent the tie. I think we need to speak to her as well as whoever did the autopsy. It could have been Dan, but it's more likely to have been someone at the hospital."

 

"And since it's Homicide's case, that means treading very carefully if we're not to offend whoever has the case?" Blair said.

 

Jim nodded. "We need to have a word with Simon first."

 

"He won't like it."

 

"No, he won't. But if necessary, we can get Stevie or Dad to put some pressure on the Mayor to get him to shift the case to Major Crime." Jim gave a wry grin. "Sometimes it's useful having rich relatives who know people... "

 

***

 

Blair was right; Simon didn't like it. "Bad enough when the Mayor or the Commissioner gives us a case that rightfully belongs to another department." He glared at Jim. "But when you come to me asking to take over a case from Homicide, because your brother asked you to... "

 

"Simon," Jim said quietly. "Webster genuinely believes that his wife wouldn't, couldn't, have killed the child, but from what he told us, Homicide is so convinced she did, they aren't bothering to investigate further. I'd at least like to do two things - check and see what poisoned the child, and then have a word with the mother. I'd soon know if she was lying about not giving her daughter anything harmful. If it turned out that the poison was something like... oh, medication that the mother was taking, marked 'keep out of reach of children', well, you know how often children do manage to get their hands on that sort of thing. It'd have been the mother's fault for not putting her medication away securely, but the most you could pin on her would be carelessness."

 

Simon rubbed a hand over his mouth. "All right," he said at last. "Go down to Homicide and have a word with Captain Jerome. But make it clear you're not trying to take over the case!"

 

"I'll get Blair to do the talking," Jim said. "Three years ago, Blair had Jerome's son in one of his classes, gave the kid a bit of extra help that boosted his grade, and Jerome's had a soft spot for him ever since."

 

Blair shrugged. "Just doing my job," he said. "Kenny's bright enough, he was just having a bit of trouble understanding something. All it needed was having it explained - fully - in simpler language."

 

"Maybe, but it wasn't your subject, was it?" Jim said.

 

"No, but it was one I'd taught one semester as a stand-in when the TA who normally taught it was having a difficult pregnancy. I saw Kenny was worried, asked him about it, and when he said who his lecturer was... It was one of those cases where the teacher simply assumed that anyone attending university was intelligent, so if there was a problem the student hadn't been paying proper attention; so even if Kenny had gone to him, it wouldn't have helped. He'd never have thought to simplify the explanation, just told Kenny to pay more attention."

 

They left Simon's office and went to Homicide.

 

"Blair! Haven't seen you for a few weeks," Jerome greeted them.

 

Blair grinned. "We've been busy," he said. "How's Kenny doing these days?"

 

"Very well," Jerome said. "He's settled down well in his job, and he's already being given more responsibility, which, considering his youth and inexperience, says his bosses are pleased with him."

 

"That's good," Blair said. "Just you wait, he'll be head of his department before you know it!"

 

Jerome grinned. "I'd like to think so, but he'll need a few more years yet before he can take on that sort of responsibility."

 

"I think he's got what it takes," Blair said seriously. "Five years at most, and he'll be on the fast track up the promotion ladder."

 

"I'll get back to you on that in five years," Jerome threatened.

 

Blair laughed. "Ten dollars on it?"

 

"You're that sure?"

 

"I'm that sure."

 

"In that case... I'll take your word for it. Now, I'm sure you didn't come here just to ask about Kenny - especially when Detective Ellison is with you. What can I do for you?"

 

"We had a visit last night - Jim's brother, with a friend. Apparently the friend's daughter died recently, poison showed up in the autopsy, and the mother was arrested and charged with murder."

 

"Webster," Jerome said.

 

Blair nodded. "Steve Webster is convinced his wife couldn't have killed the child, but nobody is telling him anything, and - well - Jim's brother wondered if we could find out anything for the man."

 

"It's mostly circumstantial," Jerome said. "The child was ill, Mrs. Webster took her to their doctor, who got the child admitted to hospital. She seemed to be improving, then that night, about three hours after the mother visited, the child had a relapse, started vomiting again, and died."

 

"Yes, that's pretty well what Mr. Webster said," Blair agreed.

 

"In the short time the child had been in the hospital, the doctors hadn't been able to discover a cause for her condition, so there was an autopsy, and poison showed up - the child had ingested a fair amount of it."

 

"What was the poison?" Blair asked.

 

Jerome shuffled quickly through some of the papers on his desk, found the one he wanted and glanced quickly through it. "Acetylandromedol - and I've no idea if I'm pronouncing that properly."

 

"I don't think I've ever heard of that one," Jim said.

 

"I hadn't," Jerome agreed.

 

Blair was frowning thoughtfully. "There's something in the back of my mind... I feel I should know it... Damn, why can't I remember?"

 

"Don't try to force the memory," Jim advised.

 

"I know, I know," Blair muttered. "The more you try to remember something... It was one definite reference... " He shook his head, but continued to look pensive.

 

"Captain, would you mind if we went and had a word with Mrs. Webster?" Jim asked. "As Blair said, Mr. Webster asked if we could find out anything."

 

"She's denying wanting to harm her daughter. But then she would."

 

"Jim's very good at knowing when someone is lying," Blair said.

 

"There's always the possibility that it was an accidental poisoning," Jim said.

 

"That's true, but what makes it suspicious is the fact that once she'd been admitted to the hospital the child seemed to be getting better, then two or three hours after her mother visited her, she had a relapse. As if she'd been given more of the poison." Jerome looked from one to the other. "Go and see Mrs. Webster. I'll let the prison authorities know to expect you."

 

***

 

When they met Lorna Webster in the prison governor's office, in the presence of Doreen Lovat, the governor, and two guards, it was immediately obvious to both Jim and Blair that Lorna was extremely upset.

 

They had already decided that Blair should ask the questions, so now he stepped forward.

 

"Mrs. Webster, I'm Blair Sandburg," he said. "This is my colleague, Jim Ellison. I know this is difficult for you, but we'd like to ask you one or two questions about what happened to Becca."

 

"I've already told the police everything I know," she said. "It hasn't helped me much, has it?"

 

"Your husband is adamant that you did nothing to harm Becca," Blair said. "After speaking with him, and with the men who originally questioned you, we got permission to ask you a few more questions. Forgive me if we go over some of the same ground - I know this can't be easy for you."

 

She licked her lips nervously, but nodded. "If it helps you find out what really happened... "

 

"What happened the day before she took ill?"

 

Lorna shook her head. "Nothing, really. Steve - my husband - usually worked from home, but he was away at a meeting in Tacoma. Becca was at school. I have to admit I enjoyed having the house to myself for a few hours; it let me get the housework done without interruption. Becca got home from school - "

 

"You didn't go to the school to get her?" Blair interrupted.

 

"Five of us shared the school run - we each did one day a week. I did Mondays. That day, it was Ann Cox from Number 375. She dropped Becca off at the gate, and Becca came straight into the house. We had dinner about 6 pm, then Becca did her homework - she was always very con- " Lorna broke off, choking back a sob. Blair waited patiently. After a minute she went on. "Very conscientious about it. She... she wanted to do well. When she finished, she read for a while, then went to bed."

 

"She didn't have any supper?" Blair asked.

 

"Just a slice of bread with some honey on it," Lorna said.

 

Blair stiffened. "Honey?" he asked, and something about the note in his voice alerted Jim, who had been quietly monitoring her physiological response to Blair's questions. "Just ordinary honey from the store?"

 

Lorna shook her head. "No. A friend who's on holiday in Greece sent it to us as a present. It seemed a funny thing to send, because neither Steve nor I like honey, and Marilyn knows that - but Becca loves... loved it. She... she ate two or three spoonfuls from the jar as well as what she put on her bread, but I didn't mind - honey's a natural product, after all."

 

"Yes," Blair said. "So then she took ill during the night - ?"

 

"Yes. She was ill all the next day - "

 

"Did she eat anything that day?" Blair asked.

 

"She wasn't hungry - well, she was vomiting or trying to... I gave her as much liquid as she would take. It gave her something to bring up... "

 

"Did you try to encourage her to eat something - anything?"

 

"Just a little of the honey. She asked for it - said it was really good honey, better than... than anything I'd bought from the store."

 

Blair nodded. "And then when she was still sick the next day - ?"

 

"I took her to the doctor, and he had her admitted to the hospital. And she seemed to be getting better... "

 

"Hospital food isn't the most palatable around - crazy, isn't it, when you think that the people being expected to eat it are already not feeling well. When you visited her, did you take in anything for her to eat?"

 

"When I visited her in the afternoon, she asked if I'd take her in some honey that night, and I did... that was all."

 

"Do you still have what's left of the honey?" Blair asked.

 

"It should still be in the kitchen, unless Steve's thrown it out."

 

"I imagine he's had more on his mind than tidying the kitchen," Blair said. "Thank you - that's been very helpful. Oh - one last thing. Your friend Marilyn, who sent you the honey - do you have a contact address for her?"

 

She shook her head. "She was travelling around, and the postmark on the package was very blurred, so I don't even know where she was when she sent it. She's not due home for several weeks - if she comes home. She was seriously considering emigrating, if she found someplace she liked."

 

He pushed his notebook and a pencil to her. "Can you write down her full name and her address in Cascade for me? Thanks," he added as she pushed the items back. He glanced at the governor. "Thank you, Ms. Lovat."

 

She nodded to the guards, who took Lorna away. Once the door was closed behind them, Lovat said, "I find it hard to believe that Mrs. Webster killed her daughter, but who else could it have been?"

 

Blair said, very quietly, "The person who sent her the honey." He looked at Jim. "Did she read guilty to you?"

 

"No. She's afraid that she maybe didn't do what was best for Becca, though she's telling herself she did all she could - but that's a normal 'could I have prevented it?' reaction. You said 'The person who sent her the honey'?"

 

"I think the poison was in the honey," Blair said quietly.

 

Doreen Lovat said slowly, "So you think she did kill the child?"

 

"Yes, but I'm sure she didn't know that was what she was doing. And now I'm wondering... Mrs. Webster said her friend Marilyn knows she doesn't like honey - so why send her a jar of it? There's more to this than is immediately obvious. I wonder... No. I'll swear Webster was genuinely concerned."

 

"You wonder if Webster had thought up a complicated plot to get rid of his wife and daughter?" Jim asked.

 

"No, I don't," Blair replied. "Like I said, he was genuinely concerned. Anyway he had to know his wife didn't like honey, and he wasn't going to try to poison the child he'd wanted."

 

"Mr. Sandburg," Lovat said.

 

"Yes?"

 

"Surely, if someone had put poison in the honey... wouldn't it change the taste?"

 

"No, it wouldn't, because it would be the honey itself that was poisonous. It's something I read a long time ago... Two or three reported incidents in Classical Greece. The autopsy report on Becca gave the poison as acetylandromedol. It sounded familiar, but it's so long since I read about it... and I only ever saw the word written. Actually the poison has several other names that are easier to remember. But as soon as Mrs. Webster said 'honey'... There are some rhododendrons that have nectar that's poisonous to man. Bees collect the nectar quite happily; the poison doesn't affect them. It's not usually fatal, but it invariably makes anyone who eats it very sick for two or three days. Becca would probably have recovered if Mrs. Webster hadn't thought she was being kind by giving her some when she was in the hospital... though the next time she ate any of it, she'd have been sick again."

 

"All right," Jim said. "Let's go and see Mr. Webster, see if what's left of the honey is still there. At least that'll prove what killed the child."

 

***

 

On their return to the PD, they gave the honey to Serena for analysis, to have a scientific confirmation of Blair's belief, then went on to the morgue to see Dan Wolf.

 

Dan shook his head when they asked him about the autopsy. "It would be done at the hospital," he said. "I only get the cases where we know, or have strong reason to believe, that there's foul play. With an unexplained death in the hospital, it's a hospital doctor who's most likely to perform it, to establish cause of death for the record.

 

"Because it was poison, we got a copy of the autopsy report, but it would have gone direct to Captain Jerome. I didn't see it."

 

"Yes, he was able to tell us what the poison was," Blair said.

 

"Right, let's go and see him again," Jim suggested.

 

***

 

"So what do you think?" Jerome asked as soon as they entered his office.

 

"Blair thinks it might have been an unfortunate accident," Jim said.

 

"The child ate something the mother should have had safely locked away?" Jerome asked.

 

"No. We've given Serena some honey to check for poison. If there's... " He looked at Blair.

 

"Acetylandromedol," Blair said.

 

"That, in it, then Mrs. Webster wouldn't have known she was giving the child poison."

 

Jerome frowned. "Why not?"

 

"Blair," Jim said.

 

Blair quickly explained about the poisonous nectar, and Jerome's frown deepened. "Does that mean a contaminated batch of honey? Are we likely to have several deaths?"

 

"No," Jim said. "A friend who's on holiday in Greece sent Mrs. Webster a jar of the stuff as a present. She did say she thought it was odd, because her friend knows she doesn't like honey, but the child did like honey so she was the only one who ate it. Apparently she thought it was really good; when she was sick, it was the only thing she wanted to eat - "

 

"So her mother gave her more of it," Jerome finished.

 

"She didn't think it would do any harm, because it's a natural product," Blair said.

 

***

 

When it came in, late the next afternoon, Serena's report said that the honey was indeed poisonous, containing grayanotoxin.

 

"It's not the same poison," Jim said.

 

"What?" Blair asked, looking up from the report he was reading.

 

"Serena says the poison in the honey is grayanotoxin." He stumbled slightly over the pronunciation, not sure which syllable should get the emphasis, so very carefully giving each one the same intonation. "Not the same poison."

 

"It is the same," Blair said quietly. "Grayanotoxin is another name for acetylandromedol... though it's probably more accurate to say that acetylandromedol is another name for grayanotoxin. It's got some other names as well."

 

Jim sighed. "Let's go and see Jerome again."

 

***

 

As they walked into his office, Captain Jerome put down the report he was reading. "Hello, Blair... Ellison."

 

"We've got the analysis of the honey from Serena," Jim said.

 

"And?"

 

"The honey was definitely poisonous. But it isn't a deadly poison, from what Blair tells me; most of the victims do recover."

 

"So it was just unfortunate that the child died?"

 

"I think so - but..." Blair said. "It was certainly Mrs. Webster's good luck that she doesn't like honey, so didn't eat any of it."

 

Jerome sighed, and indicated the papers he had just put down. "I hadn't had a chance to read the autopsy report on the child fully," he said. "And I suspect the men assigned to the case didn't, either - the actual cause of death was heart failure caused by the poisoning. Nobody saw past the word 'poison'."

 

Blair nodded thoughtfully. "If her heart was weak at all... Grayanotoxin can cause low blood pressure and bradycardia but also ventricular tachycardia."

 

"Wait a minute - the poison - "

 

"This particular poison has half a dozen names," Blair said. "Grayanotoxin is more commonly used than acetylandromedol."

 

"Oh." Jerome was silent for a moment, then went on. "You said 'but'?"

 

"Someone sent the Websters the honey. The woman it was allegedly from is on vacation and out of contact, but she knows that Mrs. Webster doesn't like it, so why send her some? I find myself wondering if the honey was sent by someone who doesn't know that; I'm wondering if Mrs. Webster was the target, and Becca was collateral damage."

 

Jerome glanced at Jim, who grinned mirthlessly. "Think about it, Captain. It could be worth asking Mrs. Webster if there's anyone who hates her enough to want her dead."

 

"She mightn't know," Jerome said. "Anyone who hates enough to kill might very well hide that hatred, knowing that it would make him a suspect if he did indeed kill." He sighed. "In the face of this - " he touched the report - "we've got no reason to hold Mrs. Webster. I'll see about getting her released in the morning."

 

***

 

As they washed up after dinner that night, Blair said, "It might be an idea for us to go and see Steve Webster, let him know the situation. Lorna's going to need a lot of emotional support."

 

Jim nodded. "Though I guess Steve will need emotional support as well. But we can at least let him know... "

 

They put on their coats and headed out.

 

***

 

When Steve Webster opened the door to Jim's knock, it seemed to both men that a slight look of relief dawned on his face when he saw them.

 

"Come in," he said. "You have some news for me?"

 

"Some good, some bad," Jim said as Webster showed them into the living room.

 

A woman who appeared to be about thirty was sitting there; she looked up as they came in. "This is an old friend, Marisa Demas," he said. "Marisa, Detectives Ellison and Sandburg. They've been investigating... " he swallowed. "Investigating Becca's death." He looked back at them. "Have you... found out anything?"

 

"Yes." Although they had decided beforehand that Blair should give the explanation, Jim spoke before Blair could answer. "It seems to have been nothing more that a tragic accident. Your wife will be released as soon as the paperwork's done - probably, now, in the morning."

 

"Thank God! Marisa, isn't that wonderful?" Webster only glanced at the woman, before continuing, "Was it the honey?"

 

"Yes. Blair - you know more about it than I do." Jim stepped back.

 

"This particular toxin isn't in itself particularly deadly," Blair said. "Most people who consume it just get a seriously upset stomach. What it can do, though, is cause quite a strain on the heart - basically that's what causes the occasional death." He knew he was over-simplifying the explanation, but he didn't himself fully understand what grayanotoxin poisoning actually did - toxicology wasn't a subject he'd ever delved into - he had understood very few of the words in the 'description' of what it did that he had found, and ordinary dictionaries didn't include the words he hadn't known.

 

"Apparently Becca's heart gave out," he went on. "The trouble was that although it was the honey that was making her sick, it was also the only thing that she wanted to eat, so - believing it to be a harmless source of nourishment - your wife kept giving her more of it; and Steve, she's going to be very, very aware of that. It's up to you to convince her that it wasn't her fault. How many people know that honey can be poisonous? Only a very few; beekeepers, for example, should be aware of it, but how many people actually keep bees? I only know because in my university studies I came across mention of honey poisoning from over two thousand years ago, in Ancient Greece - but it's not something that'll be mentioned in the history books used in schools.

 

"It was Lorna's good luck that she doesn't like honey - though it would probably only have made her sick - "

 

"She doesn't?" Marisa said. "But I've seen her buying it - "

 

"Becca liked it. She bought it for Becca," Webster said.

 

" - and sheer bad luck that Becca had an undiagnosed heart weakness, so that it failed under the strain that the poison was putting on her body," Blair finished.

 

"What I don't understand, though..." Webster went on slowly.

 

"Yes?" Jim asked.

 

"Why did Marilyn send us a jar of the stuff?"

 

"That's a question that'll have to wait till she gets home again, and we can ask her," Blair murmured.

 

"If she comes back," Webster said. "Before she left, she was talking about staying in Greece, if she found someplace she liked."

 

"I doubt she'd find it that easy just to stay," Blair said. "Of course, she could stay as an illegal immigrant, but that's no way to live. Illegal immigrants can be exploited by ruthless businessmen, forced to work long hours for minimal pay in order to survive... If she found someplace she liked, her wisest option would be to set things in motion to buy it, ostensibly as a holiday home, come back here and see about emigrating legally.

 

"No, if she has any sense I'd expect her to come home, then - if she had found someplace she liked - contact the Greek Embassy, and apply to immigrate."

 

"Lorna certainly seemed to think she wasn't meaning to come home," Marisa said. She hesitated for a moment before adding, "Maybe she resented Lorna for being married when she wasn't, and took an opportunity to do something to harm her."

 

"No," Webster said. "She never wanted to marry. She never trusted men. It took a long time for her to accept me, to accept that she could expect me to treat her as if... I'd say like a sister, but it was more extreme than that. As if... as if I were a woman too."

 

"Oh." Marisa glanced at her watch. "Oh, goodness! I didn't realize it was getting so late. I have to go. Steve, tell Lorna I'm glad she's been found innocent."

 

"I'll do that." Webster got up to see Marisa out. He returned almost at once. "Thank goodness she's gone! She's the sister of a good friend, so I've known her for years, but I've never really liked her, though I don't know why. She's hardly been away from the house since Lorna was arrested, supposedly to give me moral support, but I'd swear she was trying to seduce me half the time."

 

"Maybe she was," Blair said. He frowned. "Demas is a Greek name, isn't it."

 

"Yes - her grandfather came here from Greece, at least - oh - fifty years ago."

 

"The story about honey poisoning in Ancient Greece has to be known to modern Greeks, I would have thought - if I learned it through my studies, I'd certainly expect Greek children to hear about it... even if it was only through a 'tale told by a grandfather'."

 

"She was fairly worried when we confirmed it was the honey that killed Becca," Jim added. "You weren't looking at her, but she was very tense."

 

"And very anxious to throw blame onto Marilyn," Blair added.

 

"You think Marisa might have sent us the honey? But why?"

 

"What did you say about her a minute ago?" Jim said.

 

"She's been here a lot since Lorna was arrested, but - You think she wants me? Thought that if Lorna was out of the way, I might turn to her?"

 

"It's possible, but remember, grayanotoxin isn't usually a fatal poison, so why did she do it? And proving it won't be easy."

 

"And where did she get the honey?" Blair asked.

 

Webster pushed his hair back. "Theo Demas and I have been close friends for nearly twenty years. If Marisa is the one who sent us the honey... How will that affect our friendship?"

 

"Do you blame him at all?" Blair asked.

 

"Never."

 

"If we can prove something against his sister - would he blame you for wanting justice?"

 

"I would hope not. But family loyalty... "

 

"Steve - if he puts loyalty to the sister who was responsible for the death of a child ahead of his loyalty to the friend whose child she killed, he's not worth your friendship," Blair said quietly.

 

Webster sighed. "My head tells me that. My heart... No, I'm sure he wouldn't throw away twenty years of friendship."

 

"You said Marisa has been a regular visitor since Lorna was arrested. What about Theo?" Jim asked.

 

"He's been out of town," Webster said. "His firm has a branch in Chicago, and he's been there for the last four months. But he's phoned every night to find out what's happening. At least tonight I can give him some good news."

 

***

 

Late the next afternoon, Webster and another man who was walking on crutches came into the bullpen. Blair happened to be looking towards the door as they did, and waved. "Over here, Steve!" he called. "Is Lorna home?"

 

"Hello, Blair... Detective Ellison," Webster said. "Yes, I picked her up quite early this morning. Her mother came over, is staying with her while I collected Stefan and brought him here, since he isn't allowed to drive yet.

 

"This is Stefan - Stefan Demas - my friend Theo's cousin. Yesterday, not long after I told Theo what had happened, Stefan phoned me. We... Stefan thinks he knows something."

 

Jim and Blair glanced at each other. Blair said, "Just a moment - " and went to collect a chair. As Webster helped Demas to sit, Blair went on. "Mr. Demas... Stefan. Any help you can give us... "

 

Demas was looking very unhappy. "Steve and I... we'd met through Theo, but didn't really know each other, so he had no way to know that I keep bees as a hobby, sell some honey through a local store. I know about the danger of rhodotoxin. There's a big patch of ponticum on a hillside near my home, and every spring I move my hives several miles away onto the land of a farmer friend who grows fruit. Three months later, I move the hives back. We both benefit; he gets his fruit fertilized, I get toxin-free honey.

 

"This spring, I had an accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. As you see, I'm not completely recovered yet. My cousin Marisa sometimes helps me with the bees, and she offered to see to moving the hives, collecting the honey, processing it... "

 

"And she knows about rhodotoxin too?" Blair asked, easily adapting to this third name for the poison.

 

"Yes. We knew - Theo and I - that when she was younger, Marisa had a... a crush on Steve, though he never noticed and we didn't tell him; and she wasn't happy when he married Lorna - but we thought she'd outgrown it. But... I have six hives. I saw Ty - my farmer friend - two or three weeks ago, and he asked if I'd lost one, because Marisa only put five into his orchard this year. It didn't seem important enough to contact her specifically about it, but I was meaning to ask her about it next time I saw her, because... well, what did she do with the sixth hive for those three months? But then last night Theo phoned and told me about Becca... and I got in touch with Steve immediately. I think Marisa left the sixth hive beside the ponticum, to get a batch of toxic honey."

 

"So Marisa has resented Lorna since Steve married her, but this year was the first chance she had to do anything to... well, get back at Lorna," Blair said slowly.

 

Demas nodded, his face even more miserable. "I think so," he said. "I don't think she would have expected anyone to die. I think she just wanted to make Lorna very sick, and didn't stop to consider the child."

 

"That's possible," Jim said.

 

"How did you learn about rhodotoxin?" Blair asked.

 

"When I first got interested in beekeeping, I read up everything I could find on the subject before I bought my first bees. That included information on rhodotoxin. But I knew about the possibility anyway - Grandad sometimes told us legends about our ancestors of two thousand years ago, and one of his stories was about how Mirthridates of Pontus slaughtered Pompey's army after some of the women gave the men food sweetened with honey. It made them sick so they were easily defeated. I'd always thought the story unlikely - why would the women have a supply of poisonous honey anyway? - but Marisa certainly knew that story."

 

"Back then, wars were always fought in the summer, and the women might have had enough warning of Pompey's advance that they had time to put the bees to the ponticum," Blair said, almost absently. "I think you're right, though - Marisa probably only expected the honey to make Lorna sick, and she'd have been chuckling to herself, knowing that she was responsible for Lorna's misery... She did sound surprised when Steve told her that Lorna didn't like honey and only bought it for Becca. Can you give us Marisa's address?"

 

"Yes," Demas said. "1389 Seattle Drive."

 

Jim scribbled it down as Blair said, "Thanks. And thank you for coming in. We realize how difficult it must be for you, giving evidence against a relative."

 

"Theo and I are both agreed. Marisa might not have done this, but she had the opportunity, and a child died. If she did do it, she should pay."

 

"Stefan - you know how much I appreciate your help, don't you?" Webster asked. "Whether Marisa did it or not - anything I can ever do for you... "

 

"Just - don't blame Theo," Demas said.

 

"I never did," Webster replied. "He's not responsible for anything Marisa might have done. Neither are you."

 

"Thank you," Demas murmured.

 

As Webster helped Demas to stand, Jim closed down his computer, and then he and Blair followed the two men out of the bullpen. Webster and Demas left the elevator at street level, while Jim and Blair continued down to the garage.

 

Marisa Demas might have thought she was playing a practical joke on a woman she presumably considered a rival, although it was clear to both men that Webster had never given her any reason to think he might be interested in her; but practical jokes often go wrong, and this one had proved fatal.

 

It would be counted as manslaughter rather than murder, certainly, probably even involuntary manslaughter, but Marisa would certainly have to pay for her 'practical joke'.

 

***

 

1389 Seattle Drive proved to be a very residential area. A car was parked in the drive - Jim recognized it instantly as one that had been parked outside the Webster's house the day before.

 

There was no answer to their knock. Leaving Blair at the door, Jim made his way around the side of the house, peering in the windows as he went. He went almost all the way around it before reaching a window that looked into a sitting room. There he saw a body lying back in an armchair.

 

He rejoined Blair, and checked the door. It was unlocked, and they went in. Jim quickly found the room he had looked into.

 

The body was cold. An empty pill bottle stood on a coffee table beside the armchair, an empty glass beside it. Marisa Demas, it seemed, had gone home from her visit to Steve and taken an overdose. A piece of paper and a pencil also sat on the table.

 

Blair leaned over to read the note.

 

"I'm sorry, Steve. I never meant for your child to die. You're the only man I ever loved."

 

Jim and Blair looked at each other. "And he didn't even like her very much," Blair murmured as he pulled out his cell phone.

 

*** 

 

It was quite late before they arrived back at the loft. They went in, Jim locked the door, and turned, straight into Blair's arms. "I can't help being sorry for her," he said. "I know what it's like to feel that the person you love can't return your feelings the way you want - "

 

"I always did," Blair said. "But with us it was the gender thing that got in the way for a while."

 

Jim pulled back a little to look straight into Blair's eyes. "If you hadn't given up everything to protect me... we might still be fumbling along, close friends but afraid to take that final step."

 

"She didn't even have the friendship," Blair said sadly. "It was her brother who was Steve's friend. She was just the kid sister - Steve never saw past that, would never have seen past that.

 

"A lot of kid sisters develop a crush on their big brothers' friends, but outgrow it. I suspect that having fixated on Steve, though, Marisa never quite grew out of it. Maybe she first met Steve at a point in her life when she was particularly vulnerable, at an age when a crush seemed like positive love, and something in her nature meant that she felt she had to stay loyal to that love, that moving on and loving someone else was a kind of betrayal."

 

"It's not a betrayal if the person you want doesn't want you and makes it clear, makes himself unavailable by marrying someone else."

 

"You know that and I know that. Any sane person would. But I wonder if Marisa was quite sane. Well, we'll never know. I just hope Steve and Lorna manage to survive what she did to them."

 

"Yes," Jim said. "I hope they do." He pulled Blair close again. They stood for some moments clinging together, then Jim took a deep breath and moved away. "I'm hungry. What do you want for dinner?"

 

"You," Blair murmured. "But yes, I'm hungry too. There's some ostrich chili in the freezer - it won't take long to nuke that, then after we've washed up, how about early to bed?"

 

"That," Jim agreed, "sounds like a very good idea."
 

The End

alyburns: (Default)
2010-06-03 05:40 pm
Entry tags:

Sequel #1 Love's Forebearance Part 1

Oddly enough, while I was writing this story, I was given a fortune cookie that read: "There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure." It seemed particularly apt for this story. (PS: Highlight the space after "onto" at the bottom to reach Part 2)

 

 

 

Part 1 Love's Forebearance )

 

alyburns: (Default)
2010-06-03 05:26 pm
Entry tags:

A Break from Cascade

Title: A Break from Cascade
Author: Bluewolf
Fandom: The Sentinel
Category: Mild slash
Pairing j/b
Moonridge Year: 2009
Minimum Warnings: None


 
A BREAK FROM CASCADE

by Bluewolf


They normally went to the Cascades National Forest when they had time off and wanted to get away from the pressures of urban life - a several-times-a-year escape that was a lifeline for Jim Ellison. Sentinel of the 'Great City' though he was, instinctively driven to protect the tribe though he was, the sheer weight of input his senses received in Cascade made the occasional time away from the city vital, and Blair - with the willing support of Simon Banks - made sure that Jim was granted some, though all-too-few, relaxing breaks.



Although Blair was still considered a rookie despite his four years of experience riding with Jim, Jim certainly had the seniority and length of service to be entitled to regular weekends off (and as his partner, Blair would have been granted those too) and the maximum holiday entitlement (which Blair didn't get, whatever jobs he might be given while Jim was off); but his sense of responsibility to his tribe meant that he often chose to work instead of taking the time off, especially if he was in the middle of investigating something really serious. Of course, all his cases were serious or they wouldn't have landed up with Major Crime, but some were always more serious than others. In any case, he didn't really want to take time off when Blair had to work.



They had just finished dealing with two bad cases; one the murder of two young children and their mother - which they had, after several days, managed to prove had been done by the husband. The other was an arson case where several workers had died, trapped between the flames and a locked fire exit. They had finally been able to prove that the fire had been started by an ex-employee with a grievance, but the factory owner was also facing a charge of failing to maintain a safe environment for his staff - the fire door had been deliberately locked so that it couldn't be used as a shortcut to the parking lot, and the owner - the only man on the premises who held the key - had been in his office on the other side of the building when the fire started. There was also some evidence that after he got out, he hadn't even tried to help the trapped workers - without risking his own safety, it would have been easy enough for him to have gone around the outside of the building and unlocked the door from there.



Both Jim and Blair were more than depressed although the outcome of both cases was positive. Simon, recognizing that, insisted that they take two weeks off, suggesting that for once they should go further afield than the Cascades.



That evening, Blair started his computer, called up a map of Washington state and began to study it while Jim was preparing dinner.



"How do you feel about heading for the eastern side of the state?" he asked just as Jim began serving the meal. "We were only over that side once, when we took Simon to Rossberg - and that was cut short - "



"Because you took us forty miles in the wrong direction," Jim said, but his voice was affectionately teasing.



"To help Simon, we'd have had to turn back anyway even if we'd gone in the right direction," Blair pointed out. "Going the wrong way gave us a helluva good excuse to go back. What was our excuse going to be if we'd gone the right way?"



"That we'd gone the wrong way?" Jim suggested as he put the plates on the table. "Come and eat," he said. "You can carry on checking out the map afterwards."



Blair joined Jim at the table. "Well, I already have a sort of idea where might be a good place to go," he said, continuing to talk between mouthfuls. "Boundary Dam. It's pretty well due north of Spokane, in Pend Oreille County, close to the Canadian border. There's a small park there, Crawford State Park. Overnight camping isn't allowed in the park itself; it isn't big, just forty-nine acres - that's only a fraction of a square mile. But there's a campsite beside Boundary Dam - it's not far from the park, and staying there increases our options. There should be fishing on Boundary Lake or the Pend Orielle River - we might even be able to get in some of the canoeing we didn't do that other time. It's limestone country - the main point of interest in the park - well, the only one, really - is a big cave, open to the public, though you have to go in on an organized tour. I can't find any mention of any other caves, but in limestone country there must be more, even if they haven't been discovered yet - Gardner Cave itself was discovered less than a century ago. And there could be some good 'wild' hiking in the area. But, basically, even though all there is to the park is Gardner Cave, well, there's still the fishing."



"You want to see this cave, Chief?" Jim asked.



"I wouldn't mind - it sounds well worth seeing, though apparently there was quite a bit of damage done to the limestone formations over the years with people knocking off pieces as souvenirs - until the parks department made it trips with a tour guide only."



"What do you bet there's some graffiti there too?" Jim asked.



Blair grinned. "I might bet that there was; I sure wouldn't bet that there wasn't. Universal literacy has its points, but it also has its downside. If people can't write... though I wouldn't like to bet that people who didn't have a written language didn't leave graffiti. How do we know that the Neolithic cave paintings archaeologists admire so much weren't the graffiti of that era? The equivalent of the graffiti wall some cities have?"



"A lot of it is too good to be just graffiti, Chief."



"Jim. There are two kinds of graffiti. One lot is just unskilled paint-sprayed 'I was here' or carved initials that deface everything. The other is a highly-skilled form of art. I'd imagine that was always the way of it. If the cave paintings were just graffiti, I'd expect some of it to be good and some just saying 'I was here' - like the outlines of hands in a lot of places; there's no skill involved in putting your hand up against a wall and blowing paint at it."



"I don't suppose archaeologists would agree that any of it is just saying 'I was here'. They seem to think that all the cave paintings have some deep significance, probably religious."



Blair looked thoughtfully at him for a moment. "Sometimes you surprise me, Jim. You're good at hiding how much you really know."



Jim grinned, but said nothing.
 
***



Two days later saw them booking in to the campsite at Boundary Dam. The main vacation season was still some weeks away; they didn't have the place to themselves, but it was fairly quiet. Most of their fellow campers seemed to be older people, possibly retired.



They spent the first day just relaxing beside their tent, talking spasmodically - even fishing seemed too much effort. Early in the afternoon, Jim lay back, closed his eyes and went to sleep. Blair nodded to himself; he was tired - so how much more tired must Jim be? Keeping the sentinel centered, while important, was hardly as strenuous a job as the sentinel's. No matter how easily Jim now used his senses, no matter how automatic much of his control of them now was, he still had to concentrate in order to ignore sounds and smells that threatened to overwhelm the often subtle ones that would help him identify the kind of evidence that could be presented in court.



Blair reached for his journal and wrote in the previous day's journey and a quick description of the countryside around them, put it away and picked up one of the books he had brought in case of a day so wet they didn't want to leave the tent. Soon he was deep in the adventures of Allan Quatermain as he searched for King Solomon's Mines, acknowledging, but ignoring, the political incorrectness of some of the ideas expressed, reminding himself that Rider Haggard was simply reflecting the cultural attitude of the era when the book was written, and was possibly less extreme in his views than many of his contemporaries. Indeed, Blair had long been of the opinion that a lot of the books of that period were anthropologically fascinating simply because they so clearly did express the beliefs and prejudices of their time - although he was well aware that some anthropologists, especially among the older generation who were anxious to be seen as 'modern', were reluctant to accept that viewpoint.



Perhaps it was just as well that he was no longer pursuing a career in anthropology, he decided. He had always been very tempted to give a class two or three books that were written in the nineteenth century as required reading, then getting them to write an essay on what the books told the modern reader about the lives, beliefs and expectations of people living in that era, comparing that with the present day. The only reason he hadn't done it was his awareness that asking them to add the price of some fictional books to the already high cost of required non-fiction ones was increasing the financial burden the students had to carry, even if it was only by twenty or thirty dollars.



From time to time Blair glanced over at his sleeping friend, watching for the first signs of sunburn, but there were enough clouds drifting across the sky to block the sun much of the time, although it remained fairly warm even when the sun was hidden. He checked his watch, put the book down and began to prepare dinner.



The smell of cooking woke Jim, who pushed himself into a sitting position. Blair caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, and looked around. "Have a good sleep?" he asked cheerfully.



"I didn't realize I was so tired," Jim said, almost sheepishly.



Blair grinned. "You needed the break," he said. "And if you want to spend two or three days catching up on your sleep, I have several books - "



"Of course," Jim put in.



" - and it's part of my job as your guide to make sure you get enough rest."



"It won't be much of a vacation for you if all you do is sit reading while I sleep," Jim protested. "Come to that, there's not much point in coming all the way here if all I'm going to do is sleep."



"Jim, having the time to read, with nothing to take me away from the book, is a vacation for me," Blair said. "And you know what would happen if we'd just stayed at home. Simon would have ended up phoning us to go in and check on something. He'd have been very apologetic, but... And he knew that, which is why he encouraged us to come away."



They ate, washed up, and Jim said, "I'm sorry, Chief - I'm still tired. I think I'll go to bed. Maybe in the morning I'll feel like being more active."



"I won't be far behind you," Blair grinned. Much as he would have liked to join Jim in bed right then, Jim needed sleep more than he needed to make love.



Jim paid a quick visit to the rest room, returned to their tent, undressed and slipped into their sleeping bag.



Once he was satisfied that Jim was sleeping again, Blair strolled over towards the water and wandered northwards through the trees, following the course of the river. There was more water in it than he would have expected - he had seen other rivers where there was very little water just below a dam. Of course, at this point the Pend Oreille River ran northwards into Canada, and it was a fishing river; there was an international as well as a sporting reason to allow a fair overflow.



He didn't go far, although he suspected he'd gone far enough to cross the boundary into Canada. After about quarter of an hour he turned and made his way back, walking more briskly as he returned to the tent. He diverted by the rest room and then, although it was still relatively early, he too crawled into the tent, wriggled out of his clothes and into the sleeping bag. He rolled over to face Jim, snuggled against him and wrapped his arm around Jim's chest.



Even although he was relaxed in sleep, Jim seemed to relax even more.



"Rest," Blair murmured. He closed his eyes, and he too slept.
 
***



They woke early, and as Jim pushed himself up onto an elbow, Blair said, "How do you feel this morning?"



"As if I've slept for a week," Jim said, sounding surprised. "But then... it's quiet here. At home, there's always noise... "



"And you're always half alert for sounds that could mean trouble. But this isn't your territory and you're right, it's quiet, so you've been able to relax. Feel up to a bit of hiking today?"



"Yes... but not just yet." He leaned in to kiss Blair, who responded avidly. He knew that Jim hadn't fallen out of love, but the older man had been too tired for several weeks to want to do more than just cuddle.



Blair had time to decide that Jim's libido had fully recovered before he was carried away by the ecstasy of it. Although they had long passed the stage of being almost unable to keep their hands off each other, it had been far too long since they had had the time or the energy to spend just enjoying and pleasuring each other, and both were happy to take the opportunity...



Afterwards, wrapped in each other's arms, they lay for a while just enjoying the afterglow. Finally Blair said, "We don't actually have to do anything today. Let's just stay in bed."



Jim kissed his nose. "Good idea, Chief."
 
***



After they got dressed next morning, Blair leaned over and pulled a folded map from a side pocket of his pack. "The trails are marked on this. See where you'd like to go while I get breakfast ready."



Jim selected a relatively short walk, and early afternoon saw them back at their tent. Although it was a pleasant, sunny day, as soon as they'd eaten a late lunch they moved back into the tent, both feeling the urge to get naked again...



They spent the next two days fishing, then went to visit Gardner Cave - left to himself, Jim wouldn't have bothered; caves were not among his favorite places - but Blair wanted to see it. Jim knew that Blair would unhesitatingly abandon his own wishes if Jim explained his... not fear of caves, not exactly, nor was it as extreme as claustrophobia - it was more an extreme discomfort that he suspected might very well have to do with his senses.



But this was Blair's vacation too, and Jim was determined that nothing he did was going to interfere with what Blair wanted to do. And so Jim grimly and silently lowered the sensitivity of his hearing and sense of touch, the two things that he thought probably caused his discomfort, and followed Blair as the group they were with accompanied their guide into the cave.



With hearing and touch reduced, Jim found that the experience was less of a problem than he had feared, he enjoyed the tour more than he had expected to, and when they left the cave a little more than half an hour later, he was able to respond to Blair's excited comments with at least the appearance of enthusiasm.



"You know, I can't believe that this is the only cave in the area," Blair said after he had finally wound down. "I mean, it's limestone country. Limestone plus rivers equals caves. There have to be more!"



"Probably," Jim agreed. "But if as they said this one was only discovered early this century, it'd argue that they're all hiding pretty efficiently."



Blair shot him a suspicious look, clearly suspecting that Jim was laughing at him, while at the same time nodding agreement. "I'd like a word with someone from the local tribe, see if they have any legends about caves."



"You could," a voice behind them said, "and you'd get an answer, but a lot of the time the 'legend' has just been concocted for the benefit of any incomer who asks."



Both men swung around. Behind them, grinning amiably, was the guide who had conducted their tour.



"Oh! Hey," Blair said. "Yeah, you could be right. I've heard a few tales over the years that sounded just too good to be true. But are there any other caves?"



"Yes, there's another one over that way - " he pointed - "but the entrance has been blocked; it's too dangerous to take visitors in, although experienced cavers do sometimes get permission to explore. But if a party did run into difficulty, we'd have a problem; because we're not equipped for cave rescues."



"Do any of the Park staff ever think of going exploring there?"



The guide shook his head. "You know what they say about people who work in a candy store. After the first day or two, they're not tempted to help themselves. I can see the appeal of exploring a cave, seeing for the first time something nobody's ever seen before - but we see plenty of cave in our working hours. You a caver?"



"I did a little, a few years ago, but always following known, relatively easy, routes. Wouldn't classify myself as a total beginner, but I know I'm not competent to tackle anything too demanding. Some routes - some caves - include quite big drops, and I don't really have a good head for heights. I'm fine with the crawl-and-swim caves, but not the rappel-down-a-couple-of-hundred-feet ones - which of course means prusiking back up again. No, thank you - not for this boy."



The guide chuckled. "Which means you don't go in for rock climbing either."



"Not if the rock is more than two feet high," Blair said.



"And at that he'd want a safety rope," Jim grinned.



Without turning, Blair threw a hand sideways to hit Jim's arm.



The guide's chuckle turned into a full laugh. Jim and Blair laughed with him.



"Nice talking with you," the guide said, as he glanced at his watch. "About time for me to pick up my next group. You going up the trail to Canada?"



"Pity not to," Blair said, "though we're actually planning on hiking a few miles before we head back to camp, and Canada's no distance at all, is it?"



"Not more'n a hundred yards. Lotta people get their photos taken with one foot in Canada, one in America. Well, you have a good day, now."



"Thanks," Blair said.



As the guide turned to go back to the cave, Jim and Blair headed north... for Canada, which they reached in just a couple of minutes.



"If we were ever on the run and wanted to slip into Canada, this is where to do it," Blair muttered as he walked two or three yards into that country.



"It's probably not quite as easy as that," Jim said, stopping beside Blair.



Blair glanced around. "Wild country," he said. "Anyone who knew what he was doing could disappear in these woods, no bother at all. Get a rental car in Spokane, preferably using a false name, leave it at Metaline, hike from there making sure you couldn't be seen from the road, come up here out of hours when there's nobody about, over the border and vanish. If the car's found, or when it's reported to the police as possibly abandoned, there's no telling which way its occupants went."



Jim looked at him. "You have a criminal mind, Chief."



Blair chuckled. "When I was a child... sometimes Naomi had to do a disappearing act. There was once... She'd been arrested for taking part in a protest, and I was put into a foster home. Not one of the better ones - the people were in it for the money, I think. Oh, they weren't neglectful, just not particularly... well, loving, and they certainly didn't know how to treat a slightly traumatized child who had no idea what was happening to him, or even exactly why. Anyway, the court decided that someone like Naomi, with no fixed address and no steady job, wasn't a suitable guardian for a nine-year-old, and although she was released with a warning, she was told that she would have to get a fixed address and prove that she could support a child before she would get me back.



"How she tracked me down, I never did find out - but it only took her a couple of days. She grabbed me and we ran for it. Three days later, we were over the border into Mexico, via Tijuana - walked over the border as if we were tourists, and we stayed in Mexico for nearly a year. Then we headed further south, through Guatemala and into Belize, and came back to America from there. So I know how easy it can be to slip across a border.



"And, Jim - I'm always aware of the danger to you, if someone decided to try to grab you. I'm always looking for viable ways to let us escape and disappear. This would be perfect - crossing into Canada well away from our own territory, and from Canada we could fly to anywhere in the world before anyone realized what we'd done."



"We?" Jim asked, his voice oddly vulnerable.



"Of course 'we'. You don't think I'd let you go on the run on your own, do you? In any case, anyone looking to grab you as a lab rat would probably want to grab me, too, for my knowledge of sentinels. Not that I could tell them much more than they could find out for themselves - the way Brackett did. God, I wish there was some way that I could suppress that paper I did on sentinels - the one Brackett got hold of. Then there would just be Burton... "



"Don't beat yourself up over it, Chief," Jim said. "Back then you didn't know that you'd ever find a full sentinel... If I'd never been in the army, if I'd gone into business the way Dad wanted, it wouldn't really matter too much - I wouldn't have the training and I'm too old now to be trained for special ops the way I was... "



"If you were grabbed by scientists wanting to know what makes a sentinel, none of that would matter," Blair said unhappily. "When we first met, you said you didn't need the bad guys to know you had an edge - and I took that point. It was only later I began to realize all the
possibilities... "
 
***



They took what might be called the scenic route back to the campsite, walking in a semi-circle through the trees that took in several paths and needed close to two hours to complete. As they reached a point from which they could see the dam, Jim's head lifted in away that was all-too-familiar to Blair.



"What's wrong?" he asked.



"Not sure - but something's up. There's too much activity at the campsite."



They had been walking reasonably briskly, but without hurrying; now, by mutual consent, they speeded up, arriving back at the campsite to find it buzzing, with several police cars and an ambulance parked beside the site office. After one quick glance at each other, they headed over to the assembled police who looked to be getting ready to go hiking, Jim at least noticing that a few civilians, mostly men but a couple of women as well, that he had noticed during their stay were with the police. Blair at his heels, Jim made for the man who was clearly in charge.



"Afternoon," he said. "Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, Cascade PD. Can we help you?"



"Don Fraser, state police. We have a report of a missing family. A woman and three boys, ages three to six. They arrived yesterday, mid-afternoon, and booked in for a week; she said her husband would be arriving today. When he arrived during the morning, there was no sign of his wife or the kids. He was earlier than he'd expected to be, and thought at first she'd maybe taken them for a walk, but when it hit early afternoon and there was still no sign of them, he got a bit worried, and asked the folk in the tent beside theirs if they'd seen his wife. Turned out they'd seen her go off with the kids last night about five, and hadn't seen her since. They'd gone out themselves a little later, and just assumed she arrived back while they were away, and hadn't really thought about it when they didn't see her in the morning."



Jim frowned. "We've been along several of the nearer paths that way - " Jim pointed - "this afternoon, and didn't see anybody."



"Several - but not all?" Fraser asked.



"I think we covered all the main tracks," Jim said slowly, "but not the ones that were pretty obviously made either by animals or people taking a short cut."



"We didn't hear anything either," Blair offered. "If she was up there, hurt and calling for help, I think we'd have heard her."



"And with kids that young, she wouldn't have gone far," Fraser added.



"There's no chance she's a runaway?" Jim asked softly, glancing over at the obviously worried man currently talking to the paramedics. "Using this as her chance to leave her husband, taking the kids, knowing that any pursuit would be delayed by a search for her?"



"That did occur to me, but Mr. Newcome maintains that they weren't having any problems, that they were very happy. In any case, she didn't have any gear with her," Fraser said. "If that was what she planned, surely she'd have taken at least a small pack with food." He glanced around, seeing that everyone was ready to go. "Can I depend on your help in the search?"



"Yes, of course," Jim said.



It didn't take Fraser long to finish deploying the waiting searchers, who set out briskly, fanning out from the campsite. Finally, the only people left were Fraser himself, the paramedics from the ambulance, Jim and Blair, and the distraught-looking husband.



"You didn't assign anyone to go up the side of the lake?" Blair asked.



"Mrs. Newcome was last seen heading away from the water towards the road," Fraser replied. "There's one party going down the river, because she could have gone that way once she reached the road, but if she headed up the road she wasn't likely to have cut back to the lake. However, if you two would go that way, it would cover it, just in case. You have cell phones?"



"Yes."



"Time was, all SAR contact was by radio," Fraser said. "And in some areas, it still is; radio doesn't have the dead zones the phones have. But this area isn't bad... inside the area, that is. You'd have a problem phoning... oh, Cascade," he grinned. He handed over a card. "That's my contact number. If you find anything... "



"Yeah, we know the drill," Jim said. "Come on, Chief."



They set off, briskly at first then, after several hundred yards, more slowly, forced by the slope of the ground and the trees that grew down it to the edge of the lake to be more cautious.



"I'm beginning to think Fraser was right," Jim said after a few minutes. "She's not likely to have come this way - not with a three-year-old."



"It's amazing the kind of terrain very young kids can tackle," Blair replied. "But I take it you don't hear anything?"



"Nothing but birds," Jim said. "And there's some traffic on the road... "



"That's not very far from the shoreline, is it?" Blair remembered catching glimpses of water through the occasional gap in the trees as they drove the last few miles to the campsite.



"No... it's one of the things that makes me wonder if this is a planned disappearance. She's seen to be going in one direction, then once she's out of sight of the camp she cuts back into the trees, then hidden by them she goes a little way before she turns back to the road, where she's picked up by someone - a friend, a new boyfriend... Everyone thinks she's lost... then when a search for her comes up blank she becomes a statistic, along with her kids."



"It'd be a pretty cold-blooded way of leaving her husband. I mean, there isn't a good way, especially since he seemed to think he had a sound marriage, but it seems particularly cruel, doing it like that."



"If she wanted to leave him and keep her children, keep them away from him - no weekend visitation rights or anything like that - it's the best way to go." Jim was silent for a moment. "I don't say Mr. Newcome is abusive - he certainly didn't give me that impression - But I haven't lived with the guy. For all I know, he's not a man who's easy to live with. And I remember a case from years ago... It was just after I'd finished my training. The wife had walked out, taking her two children. The man accepted that his marriage was over, but demanded his right of access to the children - two girls, ages four and five. The mother objected, saying that she didn't think it would be good for the children; and the older one in particular said she didn't want to visit Dad, but there didn't seem to be any reason to deny him - he insisted that his wife had turned them against him. About a year later, the older girl said something to a school friend, who had the sense to repeat it to her mother... who was concerned, and went to see the child's mother, who promptly went back to court to get the access revoked on the grounds that their father was sexually abusing the older girl. She'd had her suspicions, which was why she'd left him, but no proof - the man had stopped short of actual rape, he'd 'limited' his abuse to indecent assault.

"Hard to live with. Like... he talks too much?" Blair asked.

"Expects to run tests on his kids' abilities all the time," Jim added. "Mental abuse, Chief, mental abuse."

Blair grinned. "That's a matter of opinion," he said, refusing to rise to the bait. "It's only abuse if it's not done for the genuine benefit of the person being tested - rather than to satisfy the... we'll say needs of the person doing the testing."

Jim reached over and rubbed the top of Blair's head. "I don't say thank you often enough," he said seriously. "But... you know I couldn't do it without you, don't you?"

"Just doing my job," Blair said. He hesitated, then added, "I didn't really understand just what I was taking on when I said I'd be delighted to help you, way back when we first met... but now I do know, and I wouldn't change anything."
They carried on.

"How far do we go?" Blair asked after a few more minutes. "How far could a three-year-old realistically walk, especially in this terrain, remembering he'd have to walk back again?"

"Good question," Jim said. "Wouldn't it depend on his culture? I seem to remember that Chopek kids could walk much further than I'd expected."



"Because that was the only way they could get around," Blair agreed. "But we're not talking about a kid from a hunter-gatherer tribe, we're talking about a kid whose environment says 'car', whose only normal walking is probably going around the supermarket with Mom."



"Although if Mrs. Newcome decided to take the boys for a walk, she must have been confident that they could all go... what? At least a mile?"



"In which case we must be getting close to the point where she would have decided to turn back - if she came this way."



"Another five minutes," Jim decided, "then we move uphill a little and head back, following - " He stopped, his head lifting.



"You hear something?" Blair asked softly.



"Yes... Come on!"



He speeded up a little, Blair following close behind him. Another minute, and Blair could hear the sobbing that had caught Jim's attention, and a tired voice speaking, although he was still too far away to make out any words. Another minute, and they reached the family.



A woman was lying awkwardly at the uphill side of a tree, hugging a sobbing child. The other two boys were huddled close beside her.



"Mrs. Newcome?" Jim said.



"Oh, thank God!"



Blair scooped up the crying boy as Jim knelt beside the obviously injured mother. "Ssshhh, ssshhh," Blair murmured. "It's all right. You're safe now."



"'M cold," he whimpered. "'N hungry."



"I bet you are," Blair agreed. "But we'll soon get you back to the camp. Your Dad's there, and he's really worried about you."



Meanwhile Jim was checking Mrs. Newcome. "What happened?"



"We were walking on the road, but the boys saw a deer among the trees, so we tried to get closer to it. Then Tim slipped. I tried to catch him, and fell as well. We both slid downhill quite a distance before we hit that tree and stopped. I tried to get up but my leg..."



"Broken," Jim said, as he turned to check the biggest boy, who was lying very still.



"Bobby wanted to try to get back to the camp to get help, but he's not quite five, and - well - I thought it would be asking too much of him. How's Tim?



"His leg is broken too, but he's also hit his head on something, probably the tree, and I'd guess he has a concussion." He pulled out his cell phone, and dialled Fraser's number. "Ellison. We've found them. Mrs. Newcome and Tim - the oldest boy - are hurt. They both have a broken leg, may or may not have other injuries." He glanced at Blair. "Chief?"



Blair nodded. "It's not far to the road. I'll head up to it and flag down the ambulance."



"We're not too far from the road," Jim told Fraser. "Sandburg's heading up to it now; if you send the ambulance out, that's the easiest way to get a couple of stretchers to here... Yes, the other two boys seem to be all right, just hungry."



Meanwhile Blair had tried to return the youngster hanging on to him to his mother, but the boy wouldn't let go. He shrugged, and set off up the slope, still carrying the child. "What's your name?" he asked as he went.



"Jack."



"Okay, Jack. We're going to meet an ambulance that's coming for your Mom and your brother, and I bet your Dad will be right there as well."



It was no great distance to the road, and a couple of minutes after they reached it, an ambulance appeared, with two cars behind it. Blair waved, and the three vehicles stopped. Fraser got out of one car, Newcome out of the other, and rushed over to Blair. "Jack!" he exclaimed.



"Daddy!"



Blair transferred the child to his father as the paramedics pulled stretchers from the ambulance.



"How far is it?" one asked.



"Three, maybe four hundred yards, but it's fairly steep in places."



"Mr. Ellison said they have broken legs?"



"Yes. He thinks Tim has a concussion as well. He had medic training in the army, so he does know what he's talking about. Apparently they slipped, and fell downhill for some yards before they hit a tree."



It took them only a few minutes to reach the Newcomes and Jim. As soon as he saw his father, Bobby ran over to him. "Dad!" Concerned as he was about his wife, Newcome could only smile reassuringly at her as his attention was demanded by the two younger boys.



The two injured were soon checked, but as careful as the paramedics were, Tim screamed as he was rolled gently onto a backboard. Both parents looked concerned; one of the paramedics said, "Poor kid's reached his limit. I don't think he's broken anything apart from his leg, but having it moved does hurt."
 
***



Mother and Tim were taken straight off en route to the nearest hospital; Mr. Newcome took the two younger boys back to the campsite, where they were given a meal by the neighboring campers, who were very apologetic that they hadn't raised an alarm earlier even although they'd had no way to know Mrs. Newcome had been hurt. He told them he would have liked to head off immediately, but it was getting late and he knew the two younger boys needed a good night's sleep. After he settled them down, he made a quick tour of the site to thank everyone who had joined in the search before he headed back to his tent.



After finishing their own meal and washing up, Jim and Blair crawled into their own tent. They had had a long day, and both were tired.



"Let's hope the rest of the holiday's quieter than today!" Blair murmured as they settled down, tired enough to be happy with some gentle kissing.



It was.

The End


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