Imperfections VIII: One Warm Line
Summary: AU. Crossover. Jim's finally getting his feet under him. The rest of the world? Not so much. Warnings for language and minor violence.
Notes: Here is where I thank Martha for her ongoing support and Kitty for her excellent beta. She's *good* at it, which is wonderful. I'm grateful.
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters or ideas, and I am only borrowing them from Pet Fly, Alliance Atlantis, Gecko, and so forth for fun. I'm not even going to whine when the time comes to give them back. Honest.
Monk's new office was the former broom closet next to the forensic electronics lab. The space was tiny, and the dull walls were decorated only with an inspirational poster and a photo of Monk's last guide, his wife Trudy. As offices went, it wasn't much, but it gave Monk and the other analysts a chance to get away from each other.
From his seat behind his ruthlessly tidy desk, Monk looked up at Jim in mystification. "Let me get this straight. You're leading a team out into the wilderness."
Put like that, it made Jim feel slightly sheepish for some reason. "Well, not into the wilderness. We're not even leaving the county, obviously."
"But there will be--" Monk struggled to contain his repulsion. "Trees and leaves and bugs and-and-and dirt?"
"You're going to wander around in the woods, probably all day, looking for a criminal who deals in dead animal parts?"
"Yes," Jim said, and now he had to work not to smile, because, really, Monk's expression was very funny.
"Really, dead animal parts. The actual parts of dead animals?" He shook his head in wonder and horror.
"It's a criminal enterprise that runs into the hundreds of millions," Jim said.
"And you're inviting me to go with you?"
"I take it that's a 'no' then," Jim said.
Monk blinked. "Thank you for offering." He waved a hand unhappily. "Have a good time."
Jim gave up and headed back upstairs to join Blair and Simon, who were making final arrangements for the operation. "Well, you were right, Chief. He wasn't interested."
Blair looked up from the map he was studying. "You're kidding. Really?"
Jim shook his head. "I just don't get it. A chance to get out of the city for a few hours. Away from the stink, the noise...."
Blair laughed. "Away from indoor plumbing, climate control, his supply of bottled water."
Weird. But that was Adrian Monk all over. It was hard to imagine a sentinel preferring downtown Cascade to the woods, but then again Marcia also did better in the city than she had in open country. It was still hard to imagine. "Yeah, whatever. We ready to go?"
"As soon as Simon gets off the phone."
The guy they were after was named Sid Polk. Officially speaking, he was some kind of hunting guide. About five hours earlier, his partner, Jake Marshall, had ruined Jim's day off (and Simon's and Blair's) fishing by being killed by a bear he was trying to harvest illegally.
They'd had only the one day off, so they hadn't gone far, just out to a fishing reserve Simon used to take Daryl to when he was a kid. Sandburg had never been fly-fishing before. He had smelled a little bit nervous, a little bit uncomfortable; he'd been worried that he wouldn't be able to keep up, that he'd embarrass Jim in front of Simon. He'd lost his worry in the first half-hour. The water. The sun. The wind. The low mountain rising up behind them. And fly-fishing--Blair had picked it up fairly quickly. He'd caught a fish.
They had all heard the gunshot. Its low frequencies had carried well in the open air, bouncing sonic afterimages off the ridge to the north and the rock face to the west. Only Jim had heard the screams. If he hadn't been a sentinel, they might never have known about the hunting accident and the DB. And the poaching. (Jim had never gone after bear, but he knew you didn't use a fully-automatic to do it.)
So instead of spending the afternoon eating a lazy picnic lunch, they were going after the second poacher. Half a mile below Polk's cabin, they pulled off onto an old logging road and turned the corner so they were out of sight. Simon and the two patrol cars would wait there while Jim did a little reconnaissance.
It turned out that Sandburg was about as quiet in the woods as a herd of elephants. Jim glanced back just as his partner's foot came down on a broken branch that was hidden under leaf-fall. It gave with a snap that made Jim wince. Well, okay. Fine. That was next. They would take up woodcraft just as soon as they were finished with self-defense. At least Blair wasn't uncomfortable in the woods. Or afraid. If, like Monk, Sandburg jumped at every bug and speck of dirt, well, Jim would have a *real* problem on his hands. This was just a deficiency in skill set.
Impatient at the time it took but unwilling to risk breaking cover because of Sandburg's astonishing racket, Jim circled around the cabin by a wide margin and came around on the bench just above.
Long before he was in position to see anything, Jim heard movement and smelled fresh auto exhaust. One hand on Blair's arm so he wouldn't have to expend attention keeping track of him, Jim crept them slowly forward until, from the cover of a large rock, he had a good view of the cabin below. Jackpot.
Sid was rushing around, hurriedly packing his truck with ammunition, weapons, and what Monk would have called 'pieces of dead animal.' Jim clicked his radio and said quietly, "He's here. And the evidence is all over the place, right in plain sight."
"*Is he alone?*" Simon asked. Jim had the ear piece turned down as low as it would go, but still, it was like being shouted at.
"Give me a moment," Jim said, pushing his attention closer and closer to the little building.
Beside him, Blair pulled out a pair of binoculars. Jim wondered how far away from the cabin they were, that normal eyes would need help.
"He's alone. But let's wait until he packs up the heavy artillery before we move," Jim said.
"*Everybody stand by.*"
"Man, I'd hate to think about how many of those pelts are from endangered animals," Blair whispered.
The animal pelts were the money in this thing, but Jim's eyes were on the guns "A D-3, an F.N.... We'll be able to bust this guy on weapons violations alone."
He heard a car coming down the main road, from the opposite direction than the one the police had come in. Probably, it wasn't related, but the narrow paved road wasn't really wide enough for passing. "Stand by, Simon. We've got a vehicle coming."
The car paused, and Jim thought he heard a door open, but no one got out. The door shut and the car continued. It turned up the dirt track leading to Polk's cabin. "It's coming this way." Jim's mind turned to the worst case scenario of a lost civilian wandering into a major weapons bust. A family of picnickers, maybe. "All units hold your position."
Tires crunching on the rutted road, an ancient Buick Riviera pulled up at the cabin, and two men got out. Polk picked a rifle out of the pile and pointed it at them. One man was a sandy blond, the other dark-haired. They both had their backs to Jim. "Hey," the blond said, "take it easy, Sid. It's just us. We had an appointment, remember?"
Polk lowered the weapon, but said, "Something's happened. The deal's off."
This didn't go over well. "What do you mean the deal's off?" the other one said.
"We came out here from Chicago!"
Polk turned his back on them and picked up his packing where he left off. "My partner got killed by a bear. I'm closing up and clearing out before the cops show. If you've got any sense, you'd beat it, too."
"Hey, buddy, I'm sorry about your partner, but a deal's a deal." "I told you, damn it!" Polk shouted. "Look, we brought the cash. $10,000." The dark haired man held out a yellow envelope. Jim pressed his radio and said softly, "We got a deal going down here. We're going to be able to bust them in the act."
"If you're closing up, you're going to need traveling money." This was too good. Jim was sorry he hadn't brought a camera. "We want to see the merchandise."
Polk finally gave in. "All right," he said, "but we got to be fast." He led his customers over to a tarp erected over piles of pelts and other anonymous animal parts. Jim could almost smell it--musk, traces of old meat and mold, fur, something strange--sour and rank, but sweet, too....
"Jim? You with me?" Blair's gentle whisper was like being hit in the head with a board. He'd gotten lost, working the sentinel deal on all that pungent, weird crap. In the clearing below, Polk was already handing the two men a sack. "It's all there. Elk horns, bear paws, gall bladders. The whole shopping list. Okay?"
*Thank you, Chief*, Jim thought. He was present in time to watch the money and contraband change hands. "All units, move in." He heard the engines start below and estimated the time it would take to climb the short dirt track. Plenty of time to make it down the hill and join the party.
A movement at the edge of his vision made him jump. It was only an animal. A reindeer. A long, long way from Santa Claus, but huge, and less than ten feet away. He tapped Blair in the shoulder and motioned him to go in the other direction. The last thing they needed was this animal making a racket and alerting Polk. "Ease away from him. Go around. Move," he whispered.
Blair looked around. "Around what?"
Jim looked again. It was big, not like those cute things on Christmas cards. The rack of antlers was huge. It was much closer to Jim than any wild animal had any business being. Jim sniffed discretely, looking for the scent of illness or injury. If the animal was hurt or out of its mind, it might hurt them.
"Jim? What is it?"
"That reindeer." He couldn't smell anything, not even an earthy animal-smell.
At the same moment that Blair said, "What reindeer?" the reindeer said--clearly, impossibly--"Caribou."
Jim's stomach sank. Not real. A hallucination in broad daylight, while on a job was bad enough, but probably this was much worse than that. Probably, it was an hallucination that *meant* something. His mind scrambled and stumbled, bracing for a threat, franticly guessing at what kind.
The sound of tires turning off pavement snapped him around. He all but leaped over Sandburg and flew around the rock. The grade wasn't steep and the footing--exposed rocks and the soft fallings from a stand of pines--was both easy and silent.
Polk was trying to get rid of his company. "Well, you've got what you came for. Beat it."
"We have a client who's looking for eagle feathers. He's willing to pay big money."
"I don't have time for this--" Through the trees, Jim saw Polk's head shoot up. He'd heard the cars. Police sirens chirped once, shattering the quiet. Jim burst from the trees even as Polk reached for his shotgun. "All right, nobody moves, nobody gets hurt. Cascade Police Department!"
In a shower of dirt, the black and whites piled in behind Polk's truck and the Buick. Cops spilled out in a flurry of weapons and shouted orders. Polk straightened and put his hands on his head. "You have got to be kidding!" the dark haired buyer shouted, turning around.
"Hold it!" snapped the nearest cop, but the buyer was already frozen, staring at Jim.
"Ellison," he said. "Well, doesn't that just put the icing on the cake? My partner's in the woods. You wanna tell these jokers not to shoot him?"
"Vecchio," Jim acknowledged, wondering just how big the operation was that he had just FUBARed.
"Sooner is better than later, if you don't mind."
"Back off," Jim said to the uniforms. "These two are feds, sort of. They've got a partner in the woods. He's a sentinel."
Simon was disgustedly chomping on an unlit cigar, looking Vecchio and his partner Kowalski over. "You know boys, if you were going to stop by you might have dropped us a card." He gave Jim a dirty look. "You didn't mention anybody in the woods."
Jim winced. "I didn't know he was there."
Benton Fraser jogged around from behind the cabin. "Thank you," he said. "That's very gratifying." He sent an apologetic look toward his partners. "I'm sorry. I found their trail, but I was too far away to realize what was happening in time."
Vecchio shot a dark look at the milling Cascade cops. One of them was photographing the piles of furs and cartons of desiccated something. "It wasn't your fault."
"Don't worry about it," Kowalski said quickly. "These things happen. We'll think of something."
"We'll *think* of something?" Vecchio snapped. "This was our best lead."
Blair came out of the woods with Diefenbaker trotting just behind him. "Is this everybody?" Simon asked.
Jim glanced at Fraser, who nodded.
"Wonderful!" Simon growled. "Gather up the evidence and pack it in." He turned to Polk, who had been cuffed and searched and left sitting on a cut stump. "You're not, say Secret Service? No? Coast Guard? Customs? Texas Rangers? Glad to hear it."
As far as Blair could tell, the bust was about as big a disaster as you could get without somebody actually dying. Yes, they'd gotten Polk, his illegal weapons, and thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of dollars in animal contraband. Unfortunately, they'd interrupted a sting mounted by a joint effort between the United States and Canada. This was a fairly big deal. Simon would get yelled at over this screw-up. It was an embarrassment for the entire department.
Blair got out of the way. There was a woodpile beside the door to the cabin. He wiggled the logs at a low spot. They seemed stable, so he sat down. Most of the activity was centered around documenting and packing the boxes of fur and preserved flesh. Polk was already gone, and a van was on its way to help carry off the evidence. They'd be here for at least another hour.
Benton Fraser came over. He was dressed in the astonishingly vivid Mountie uniform. He sat beside Blair. "You know, you have to be careful of woodpiles. They're frequently occupied by snakes."
Blair felt a shiver, but he didn't jump. "Any snakes here?"
"No. No, there aren't."
"I'm glad," Blair said. "So." He considered small talk, but, no, this was embarrassing, but they might as well face it. "Wow, this was a real disaster."
"I'm afraid so, yes."
"It was hardly your fault," Fraser said easily. "It's a setback, but nothing we can't move beyond." He looked around, his gaze encompassing the clearing, the cabin, the truck. "Blair, I need access to the scene."
"You have jurisdiction. You have the whole federal thing going."
Fraser's eyes shifted to Simon, but his attention was still on Blair. "If we demand jurisdictional priority from the local law enforcement community, what we gain in access we lose in cooperation. I think the pipeline we're looking for might be here in Cascade. We can't spend this investigation fighting you."
Oh. "I'll talk to Simon. Jim will want a look around, too."
Fraser nodded. "So I would assume."
Blair tapped Vecchio and led him over to Simon. "What kind of paperwork are we going to need for interdepartmental cooperation?" Blair asked.
Simon grunted. "Us and--who? Who are you guys working for, anyway?"
Vecchio smiled a little. "Fraser and I are employed by the RCMP. Kowalski is ATF. Technically. He's on loan to the State Department. At the moment, we're all on loan to American Fish and Wildlife."
Simon glared hard at Blair, and then glanced over at Jim, who was walking the edges of the clearing. "Joint operation?"
Blair glanced at Vecchio. "It's the best offer we're going to get. And we want it. Jim's not going to want to give up the case, not now."
"Don't make me regret this. I'll start the paperwork." Simon turned away and began to gather his men.
Vecchio sighed. "When I was a cop, I always hated the feds."
"So there's no irony here?" Blair asked.
"Heh. Most of the time I'm hip deep in irony."
Blair joined Jim at the tree line. "Anything?" he asked.
"Nothing we can use," Jim answered distractedly.
"Well, come on. You and Fraser need to work out how you're going to split up the scene."
Jim brightened. "Great. So we're--?"
"Not off the case."
Ray Kowalski headed back to town with Simon to start the formal liaising that would make the entire day look like something other than an inter-jurisdictional cock-up, while the uniforms finished packing the evidence for transport. Jim and Fraser went over Polk's truck before allowing it to be taken away. Then, as things got quiet, they began their search of the cabin.
The old building was small; a single room, dim and dirty. Vecchio recoiled visibly and planted himself just outside the doorway. He looked down and scowled. The tiny porch was rickety and half-rotten. Jim and Ben brushed past him, pausing just inside to glance at each other. Blair was a little surprised; he knew that Jim and the other sentinel were well acquainted, but he'd never seen Jim concede anything to a fed before. Polite, yes, he was polite. He never said anything that could be cast as inappropriate. This was the first time, though, that Blair saw even a trace of real respect. Ben shrugged and motioned Jim to go first.
Jim started to the left of the door and swept the room clockwise. He moved slowly, shaking out dirty laundry with gloved hands, flipping through a discarded girlie magazine.
What Ben did was like nothing Blair had ever seen. Admittedly his experience was limited to Jim and Adrian Monk, and their styles were very different. But neither of them moved as fast as Ben, and neither was as confident. He stepped to the center of the room, closed his eyes, and took a single, deep breath through his nose. His eyes popped open and he turned his head, body following, in two swift circles. How the hell could he process that much information that fast? Without pausing or hesitating he walked to the closet. There was a ratty old coat hanging there. Ben swiftly checked the pockets, ran his hands over the rear walls, crossed the room and checked the bed. Except for avoiding bumping into Jim, his movements seemed random to Blair.
Jim was searching the frayed and sagging sofa. "Hey, Chief," he said, "can spiders bite through latex?"
Blair shuddered. "Let's not find out, hmmm?"
Vecchio took another step away from the open door and said firmly, "So. Can you recommend a local hotel?"
"Room service at the downtown Holiday Inn is very good, but feds usually stay at the Radisson."
"No, not the Radisson. We did that last time." He glanced away. Blair winced inwardly. What had happened in December, that had been hard. Jim seemed to be mostly over it, but he hadn't been held nearly as long as Ben had. Blair couldn't think of a polite way to ask, "So has your guy recovered from the kidnapping and mistreatment yet?"
Jim, tossing a battered box of dusty antlers, straightened suddenly. "Someone's coming," he said.
Ben leaped to the door and hauled Blair and Vecchio inside. Jim slammed the door shut behind them. "Down, get down," he said.
"How close are they?" Ben asked, peeking over the window frame.
Jim leaned his forehead against the closed door, listening. "One car on the gravel road. Definitely coming this way. How do you want to play this?"
"Let him come to us."
"You're not armed, are you?" Jim asked.
Vecchio pulled free and crawled over to the far side of the window. "He's not, but I am. Crap, I just ruined these pants. I swear, Benny--"
Blair peeked up over the windowsill. He could see a car moving through the trees. Ben pulled him back down. From this position, all Blair could see was the rough wood of the wall. Over the pounding of his heart he could hear gravel popping in the access road. The car was coming up slowly.
"He's cautious," Ben whispered.
"If he bails, even better. We can follow him from so far back he'll never know we're behind him." Vecchio had his gun in one hand and his keys in the other.
The car stopped moving. The engine turned off. A car door opened and shut. Blair couldn't hear footsteps himself, but Jim breathed, "He's coming."
Outside, a voice called, "Sid? Jake?"
Jim smiled grimly. "Well, he's not a lost camper."
"He's turning," Ben whispered.
"Our lucky day," Vecchio answered.
Blair swallowed hard, forcing himself to hold still, hold still, hold still--
The bang of gunfire hit at the same time as the crack of wood and the scream of shattering glass. Blair curled into a ball, hiding his face as glass rained down into his hair and onto his back.
"Freeze, Cascade PD," was, surreally, followed by, "Halt in the name of Fish and Fucking Game!"
"Wildlife," Ben corrected softly. "The Department of Fish and Wildlife."
Another burst of gunfire. This time, the bullets left a hole in the wood not a foot from Blair's left knee.
Above Blair, on both sides, single shots fired. Blair's head shot up. Vecchio was pulling back, he'd fired through the window. Jim had fired through the closed door.
There was utter silence. Maybe. Or maybe Blair's hearing was stunned by all the noise. He braced his hand against the floor and started to get up. He jerked his hand back, bleeding from the glass on the floor. As he moved, more fragments rained down from his hair.
Ben opened the door and went out. Vecchio and Jim followed.
It took Blair two more tries to stand up. Carefully he leaned forward and shook the glass out of his hair. He checked his cut hand in the light from the window to make sure there was no broken glass embedded. Unsteadily, he walked out.
The body was crumpled beside the Buick where he had apparently tried to take cover. There was blood on the ground, and some splashed on the trees. Ben was squatting beside it, arms folded, face impassive. "Is he dead?" Blair asked.
"His heart is still beating. His brain is mostly gone."
"There's not," Blair began. "We can't...?"
"Nothing," Ben said.
Vecchio was pacing, cursing to himself.
Jim was behind them, already on the phone to Simon, who didn't seem to be pleased with the news that he had to come back, and yes, the situation was even messier than when he left.
Ben let out a sigh and went into the cabin. He returned with a blanket, which he laid over the body.
"I think you have to wait for the coroner," Vecchio said.
Ben blinked at that. "My mistake. What is the proper procedure in this jurisdiction?"
"Probably give first aid until help arrives to declare him dead."
"He's dead," Ben said flatly. Then, "I'm not performing first aid on a dead man. That's disrespectful."
"Disrespectful?" Vecchio repeated. "Disrespectful is being dead." He looked down at the covered body. "Asshole," he said.
"Don't blame yourself," Ben said softly, watching his partner from behind lowered eyes.
"Blame myself? Excuse me, blame *myself*? *I* did not open fire on a bunch of cops." He kicked a small rock hard enough that it bounced off a tree and came halfway back to him. "Isn't it time we got a break in this stupid case? I mean, we've been working on dead animals for weeks. Dead animals. Don't you think we'd get just one goddamn clue we could use?"
Jim closing his phone said, "Let's search his car." Jim was icy, angry, brittle. Blair moved to join him at the blue sedan parked behind the green Buick, but Jim turned back suddenly and seized Blair with both hands. "*Damn* it, Sandburg." He had Blair's wrist, bloody palm facing up. "Where's your backpack? Vecchio, his pack is on the porch there."
Ben appeared beside them, holding out a pair of clean handkerchiefs. Who carried handkerchiefs?
"Jim, it's fine. It's nothing, just a little cut," Blair protested.
Jim pulled a bottle of water from the backpack Vecchio brought him and doused the bloody hand.
"It's fine. Jim. I'm okay." A sentinel, under stress, whose partner had been injured. Blair wondered if Jim was going to freak. Or if he was already freaking, but it was internal.
Ben offered a small jar of brown paste. Jim leaned down and sniffed it. "Oh, no," Vecchio protested. "You do not want to use that. It's moose placenta."
"Elk placenta, and I'm out of that. This is mainly sugar and clay."
Jim scooped out a lump and smeared it on the cut before wrapping it in the handkerchiefs. "Oh, so you don't listen to me, but you'll listen to him?" Mostly, the tease was an attempt to see if Jim was interfacing with the normal world at all.
Fortunately, Jim managed a tight smile. "I have no objection to using hokey, naturalist shit on *you*, only on me."
From behind, Ben was running light fingers over Blair's clothing and through the ends of his hair. "This shirt is ruined. A lot of glass is tangled in the folds. You need to take it all off and shake it out before there is an accident."
So Blair went behind the cabin, stripped down to nothing and shook the glass out of his clothing. The sun had gone behind the hillside, so Blair couldn't see the glass fall. He heard it tinkle as it hit the leaves.
When Blair got back, the others had finished searching the car. There was a small heap of fast food bags piled to one side. The dead suspect's cell phone and gas receipts were neatly bagged and piled. "Nothing we can use?" Blair asked.
"About twenty thousand dollars in cash," Jim said. "Our boys missed out on a really good day, business-wise."
It was full dark when Simon finally arrived. He was followed shortly by Serena and the coroner. Kowalski was on his way with a Federal Marshal. "The fed is your fault," Jim said to Vecchio.
"Bite me," Vecchio said.
Simon collected both their guns, but only Jim's badge. "Fortunately, *you* are not my problem."
"Simon--" Jim protested.
"Don't start. At least you didn't blow anything up or crash anything. I should be grateful."
Simon took their statements himself. This wasn't the first shooting Blair had witnessed. He'd even done this a couple of times in the fall, when Jim had been officially on 'desk duty.' When Simon was finished with him, he went to sit on the steps to the rickety cabin. Kowalski and the Marshal arrived. The Marshal tried to micromanage Serena and threatened to squeeze the CPD out completely. Kowalski, it turned out, could be very charming when he needed to be. He bounced between them, trying to sooth ruffled feathers.
The little drama played out. There was stomping and yelling and posturing in the harsh lines made by headlights. For the first few months, this part of police work had been interesting. Now, long after it was time to knock off for the day, it was just kind of irritating. Blair breathed in and out, made himself relax. Investing in patience here was necessary. You had to document or you couldn't prosecute. Getting the details right was important. It took as long as it took. All things grow to fullness in their own times.
A man had died. Okay, yes, as Vecchio had said, he was a *stupid* man (and a criminal, but that was beside the point and wouldn't Naomi have his hide if he even suggested that it was okay to just kill people because they were stupid criminals), but there were still little rituals that had to be carried out. The coroner had to take possession of the body, examine it, take his own pictures (Dan was efficient with these things, but the evening shift photographer was slow and disorganized). Then the body had to be loaded up. Bullets dug out of walls. The car towed away. Blair sighed.
Jim dropped onto the step beside him. "So. Anyway, looks like we get a couple of days off." The joke had no mirth.
"Sorry, man," Blair said sympathetically.
"Nah. No help for it."
Simon, stepping around them as he strode down the steps, paused long enough to say, "Time off or not, you've promised to meet that big shot from Las Vegas day after tomorrow."
"Aw crap." Blair buried his head in his hands. "Is that this week? I need to buy a new tie."
Jim rolled his eyes. "New tie? What are you trying to impress this guy for? He's the enemy."
"Six sentinels, Jim. In one department. This man could have insights nobody else does."
"He's coming through to discuss a case, not weird ideas about sentinels in packs."
"I might get lucky. Hope springs eternal, man."
Blair woke the next morning with the room too bright and the clock saying eight-forty-five. Shocked, he jumped out of bed. Jim's voice answered his movement. "Take it easy, Sandburg. I turned off your alarm."
Blair poked his head out the door. "I slept through it?" he asked.
"No, I turned it off around three this morning. I couldn't sleep, and there was no point to us getting up early." He was at the stove, flipping over bacon. Blair also saw scrambled eggs and toast that was clearly over-buttered. Leave it to Jim to take advantage of a half-hour head start on making breakfast.
"You should have said something if you couldn't sleep."
"The senses were fine." Jim began carrying dishes over to the table. "Grab some plates."
There was something stiff about his movements. Carefully feeling his way, Blair said, "So we have a non-sentinel problem? That's different."
"Not exactly." Jim set down the bacon and took a seat.
"So." Jim took a deep breath. "There may be a problem with the shooting review."
Blair was shocked. "But--you identified yourself. He fired first! You have witnesses. Jim."
"My shot was the kill shot," Jim said softly. "And at the time, I wasn't... arguably, I wasn't in immediate danger. I had cover. I shot him through the door. It can't look good."
Blair blinked. "Jim. His bullets were coming through the walls. The door wasn't *cover*. It was a joke."
"Sandburg. What I did yesterday, that wasn't normal."
"Right. For people who aren't sentinels. Jim, sentinels have been recognized in law enforcement and the military for about a hundred years. There has to be lots of precedent for this."
Jim thought that over. "Shooting through things. Around corners. I don't suppose you could find some documentation? Just in case I need it?"
Jim was already looking relieved. Really, Blair wished he'd woken him up to talk. "Half an hour at the library," he promised. "No problem."
"Thanks," Jim said. "That's--thanks."
"You want to come?"
"To the library? Gee. No thanks. Anyway, I need to talk to Rafe about one of my cases. I had a witness coming in from Portland for an interview this afternoon. He'll have to do it now."
On his way into the library, Blair ran into Jack Kelso coming out. "Hey," Blair said, surprised. "I didn't know you were back on campus." Jack winced in reply and Blair reconsidered. "You're not, are you? I bet Marcia doesn't know you're out of the house."
"Marcia's working. They're shooting a movie downtown. A couple of the stars warrant special protection."
"And you snuck out."
"I did not *sneak* out...."
"But you'd appreciate me not mentioning it to her."
"Or to Jim. But that's probably too much to ask."
Blair thought about that. "If there's any sign that you're overdoing it and hurting yourself, I'll rat you out in a heartbeat."
Jack heaved a sigh. "I suppose this is a bad time to ask for a favor, then."
"Uh, no. I mean, any favor but that. What's up?"
Jack motioned to some tables set out in a little patio between the library and the Law School. "If you have a minute?"
Blair went to the nearest empty table and pushed one of the chairs aside so there would be room for Jack's chair. "So what's up?"
Jack sighed. "I assume the barbecue is still on for Monday?" Blair nodded. "I need Joel Taggart to be there. Before you say anything, yes, I realize that by saying that I become the worst kind of manipulative shit."
"You're trying to set up Marcia?" Blair hadn't meant to make that a question.
"Joel is the man who got Jim help. He's kind and he's smart. I can't want more than that for her. She needs good people in her life."
"Yeah," Blair said uncertainly, "I can see that."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Do you disagree?" he asked with an edge of threat in his voice.
"No. No, Joel really is a good guy. I just, well, maybe this is over the line. But I was wondering how you, ah, *felt* about it. Her seeing someone."
Jack scowled. "Guilty, mostly. Her life was just starting to come together when I got myself shot and ruined everything."
"Yeah, but," Blair floundered. "I was wondering about you and Marcia."
Jack blanched. He shifted in his chair and focused his eyes over Blair's shoulder.
"I'm sorry. It's none of my business."
"Nonsense. I also need good people in my life. You're a friend. And I started this. You have a right to ask." He sighed. "Marcia isn't my type, Blair. I never saw her that way. I suspect that might be why we worked so well together. But..." He glanced down, watching a finch who had come to investigate some crumbs left on the ground. When he spoke again, his voice was so soft that Blair had to lean forward to hear him. "I worked for the Company for almost twenty years. There are a lot of weaknesses you can't afford when you're--heh--a spy. There are a lot of secrets you have to keep. As a guide, I was already vulnerable. My partners were a weak point. One too many. I couldn't afford...."
"Jack, you've been out for, what? Five years? Six?"
"Lord, longer than that. But so what? Where shall I prowl, Blair? Among my students? Or my research subjects? Don't suggest my colleagues. Those academics who are not predators are neurotics."
"It took everything I had to un-learn enough crap to be a good guide. To be a good lover?" He laughed. "Someone's partner? You have no idea."
Blair swallowed hard. "So you're setting Marcia up."
"I want her to have the chance that I can't." He looked into Blair's eyes. "Don't," he said. "I have friends. That's a luxury I couldn't afford before. Do you really think I'm unhappy?"
Blair had seen Jack in the classroom. He'd heard him talk about his work. The worries he had had nothing to do with his love life and everything to do with his fragile sentinel and changing the world and turning out students who wouldn't kill their partners. "I never noticed you missing anything," he said.
"Can you get Joel to come to the party?"
"He's already coming. But he's a cop. I can't guarantee that he'll be able to be there. Hell, I can't guarantee that a big enough emergency won't come up to make all of us miss it."
"I won't hold you responsible for all the criminal activity in the county," Jack said with a show of generosity. He sat back. "How's Jim?"
"On administrative leave. Discharge of weapon."
Jack winced. "Do you expect a problem?"
"The suspect was shooting first. Damn, I don't even know his name. How's that for cold? Anyway, Jim was returning fire, so there shouldn't be a problem. Say, you ever hear of a sentinel shooting someone he couldn't actually see?"
"Quantico has a six week course in it. So does Paris Island. Hmmm. And Fort Knox. Only about fifty percent pass, though. Tracking someone by hearing while guns are being fired shuts down a lot of sentinels. Are you saying Jim--?"
"Yeah. It weirded him out a little, when he thought about it. So it's normal?"
"It's exceptional. But it's not pathological or improper. You're thinking of the review board?"
"He's afraid it won't look good."
Jack sighed. "In the Army, doing that in combat has its own medal. I can email you the reference."
"Wow. Thanks. That would pretty much do all my work for the whole day."
Jack laughed. "Good. You can give me a ride home. I came in by taxi."
"And if Marcia should realize you went out, you can always say you were with me."
"You see right through my nefarious plan."
After dropping Jack off, Blair ducked into the mall to get a new tie and stopped by the grocery store. Bread, skim milk, oatmeal, cheese (strong, pungent goat cheese because Jim liked it, go figure), pasta. When he got home, it was late afternoon. Jim was back. He was parked in front of the TV, watching what appeared to be a Katharine Hepburn movie on video. "Any more downstairs?" Jim asked, nodding to the bags Blair carried.
"Nope. All set." He set the milk and cheese in the fridge. "What *are* you watching?"
"'Desk Set.' Jack recommended it."
"Jack recommended it? A 1950's chick flick?" Blair asked doubtfully. "Jack Kelso?"
"Well, he said it was the first movie to treat a sentinel like a human being. I'm not sure I see it."
Huh. "Oh. Well, it was the first time a sentinel in the movies had a sense of humor. Until Bunny Sumner, sentinels in popular culture were sort of super heroes or tragic figures. They were all pretty grim and two-dimensional."
"Bunny Watson," Jim corrected.
"No, she married Sumner."
Jim hit pause. "So--what? It's a true story? She was real?"
"Sort of a true story. Bunny Sumner was actually a pretty prominent activist. She resisted the mandatory requirement that sentinels work with guides. Well, she never needed one."
"She was working in an office," Jim said. "I wouldn't need a guide, if I worked in an office. Who cares if you zone off back in the stacks."
Blair shrugged. "She didn't get her way."
Jim ended the pause. On the screen, Katharine Hepburn was plowing through an eighty stanza poem: "*She has reached the topmost ladder. O'er her hangs the great dark bell, awful is the gloom beneath her like the pathway down to hell.*"
"Any chance I can--?" Jim asked.
"Your memory is very good," Blair said, "But it's sensory, not textual. I don't see you ever reciting long strings of numbers, either."
"His memory is more textual than yours. But I don't think he could do that."
"*'Shall she let it ring? No, never! Flash her eyes with sudden light, as she springs and grasps it firmly, curfew shall not ring tonight.' They hung up... And I know another one! 'Out she sWung--'*"
"So what is normal for a sentinel?" Jim asked.
"Variation," Blair said immediately. "Oh, I ran into Jack. He says targeting things you can't see is something most sentinels have to be trained for, but it's not something with no precedent."
"So it's normal?" Jim asked, just as Blair had earlier.
"I guess," he answered, thinking, trying to snag the thought that was sliding through his mind. This might be a good sign. Sort of. Jim, instead of resisting being a sentinel, was solidly working toward being a 'normal' sentinel. Blair had seen hints of this before. It was a step in the right direction. The problem was, "Jim, sentinels aren't all alike. They're just not. We can describe different skills and capacities and compare performance in certain areas, but how, well, how *anybody's* brain works is pretty much still a mystery. Whatever you are, that's normal for you. Nobody else's standards matter."
"Right," Jim said, his voice thickened by raw disbelief.
"Okay, try this. Normal isn't the right question. *Healthy* is the right question. Huh. *Effective* is an okay question, too. *Strong*."
Jim stopped the movie. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
"Well. I'm sure there are lots of things I haven't told you--Oh. You think... you think I'm being easy on you."
"Blair, 'special' is what they call people who are damaged. And, okay, yeah, I know I'm damaged. But I'm trying to find out how much, and I'd appreciate a little help."
Blair folded his arms, holding himself still. He was pretty sure his scent was spiking with all kinds of anger and impatience that Jim could smell. He was afraid to speak, since his voice would almost certainly give him away.
Jim, watching him, said, "Chief, I know you really want me to be okay. But if I'm not, we need to face this. Your feelings--"
Blair exploded. Spectacularly. "Being okay has nothing to do with being normal! Your dad was an ass, all right? He was wrong. You are not defective. There is nothing wrong with you. Ask Jack, all right? If you don't believe me, ask Jack."
Jim was staring at him with rounded eyes. He looked horrified rather than frightened, so while Blair was probably not guilty of maltreatment at this moment he might have convinced Jim he was crazy.
Even knowing that the best thing he could do was *shut up now*, Blair continued. "You are not Bunny Sumner. Or Adrian. Or Ben. Or Rodney. You're Jim. I don't know what you're capable of yet. I don't know what you need or how you'll be five years from now or--damn it. You want me to tell you how to be. I can't. There isn't any normal. I'm sorry, it's harder than that."
"Haven't we been over this? Why can't you hear this? There is nothing wrong with you. There never was. *You* were never the problem."
He didn't see Jim move. He only felt the arms around him. "All right. All right."
"I'm not in denial, damn it. You're fine. You're fine. You're better than fine, you're wonderful."
"Okay, okay. I give up. You win. I'm wrong. I'm wrong."
Blair groaned, burying his face in Jim's arm. "You're fine," he whispered. "You're wonderful."
There was a long silence. Then Jim whispered, "You accept me. I get it. I get it. All right?"
It wasn't all right. Jim didn't get it. This wasn't about Blair accepting Jim. It was about Jim accepting Jim. And, okay, Jim was a lot closer to seeing that than he'd been last October, when he'd been assuming that a) he was some kind of freak of nature, and, b) he was unviable and dying besides. Oh, damn it, Blair thought. It's not easy. It doesn't get to be easy.
Jim was shaking. He was holding on very tightly, pinning Blair against him. He tried to be comforted by that: Jim had learned to bodily connect with his guide. He'd learned to take comfort. He found Blair safe. They'd come so far. Jim was healthy now. He was engaging with his friends. It was good. It was all good. No, he wasn't comfortable with himself yet, but long before Jim had learned to reject himself, his senses--his reality--had been rejected by his family in the harshest terms possible. Jim's father, surely knowing the risks faced by untrained sentinels, had refused to admit the possibility that his son was a freak until, finally, Jim had suppressed the reality his father was denying. As it was, Jim had been maimed by that repression. Possibly, though, he had gotten off lightly. Living with the senses and no training, denying his experience, ignoring the warnings his nose and skin gave him, he might not have survived at all.
Jim had survived William Ellison. He had survived the Army and more than a year abandoned among strangers. He'd survived Lee Brackett. He'd survived Lee despising him and ignoring him and punishing him for 'weakness' and 'insubordination' and 'wasting' Brackett's time. He'd survive this last thing, too. He would. He just needed time. And relentless pushing. And Blair's utter, unwavering certainty that Jim was wonderful.
"You smell okay," Jim said suddenly. "Can I trust that?"
Blair swallowed. "Yeah." Jim let him pull away. "Yeah, trust smell. I'm okay. You deserve better than the crap you've been given, but I can't just reach out and take it way. I can't just make it better."
Jim glanced away. "You fixed everything else."
Blair laughed. "No, that was you." He patted Jim's shoulder. "So? Want to go out to eat? Since we have all this time on our hands? Or see a movie?"
Jim didn't want to go out. It turned out he'd rented a bag full of sentinel movies. He had *Smilla's Sense of Snow* (sentinel amateur detective), *The Sound of Bones* (sentinel zombies from hell), *King Solomon's Mines* (the 1954 version, sentinel in Africa), and *Buffy the Vampire Slayer* (teenage sentinel hunting vampires). Blair made popcorn (not the microwave kind, the real stuff) and watched with him. When they rewound the last one and put it in its box, Blair asked if Jim had any questions or anything. Jim shrugged and grunted and ordered pizza.
Jim's meeting with Internal Affairs was set for the next day at 11:15. He wore a tie and showed up on time. Blair, in contact with Kowalski, knew that Vecchio wouldn't be cleared for duty till Monday morning, but Kowalski and Fraser had been left on the case. They'd attended the autopsies of both Jake Marshall (killed by the bear) and Mickey Wen (killed Wednesday night at the cabin) and had looked over the evidence. Because Vecchio was still out in the cold, they couldn't meet at the precinct, so they'd made plans to join up at the hotel the feds were using.
So Jim was prompt and well groomed and Blair had traded flannel for a sweater and put his hair in a tidy pony-tail. Blair was not required at the meeting. Probably, IA would have preferred not to involve him. Testimony and reports were optional for guides--they were trained observers, but it was assumed the only thing they were paying close attention to was the sentinel so they weren't necessarily 'reliable.' Besides, it wasn't the job they were being paid to do.
But while Blair's participation wouldn't be compelled, a sentinel in a hazardous profession couldn't be ordered to leave his guide behind for any reason. He wasn't required to be supervised every moment. In the field, yes, the rule was no working without a guide, but in the office, going to meetings, going to lunch, they had discretion. That was, Jim and Blair had discretion. The decision wasn't in the hands of Jim's superiors. They couldn't send Blair away.
Personally, of course, Blair was very interested in the outcome and he wanted to provide moral support. He had the data Jack sent, not that he thought it was necessary. Probably, Jim didn't need him at all. Tactically, Blair was mainly there as a symbol. A guide, to remind them that Jim was a sentinel--a sentinel in the field as a detective, not in a laboratory or restricted to tracking--and too valuable to jerk around just for the fun of it.
In fact, it was actually kind of anticlimactic. The suspect had had a long record of minor violence, including occasionally shooting at (but not hitting) people. His next arrest would have been the "third strike." As it was, he'd opened fire not only on a cop, but on some visiting feds.
Blair, relieved that it was over so quickly and neatly, didn't think too hard about the phrase, 'righteous shoot' and hoped to god that nobody ever said it in front of his mother.
Jim collected his gun and went straight to evidence to take a look at the stuff that had been brought in from Polk's cabin. There was a lot. A lot-a lot. Thirty one boxes of a lot.
Half of those boxes were checked out by the lab. Caroline's people couldn't log the pelts and horns and appalling dried internal organs properly until the species were identified. Kowalski and Fraser were there now, helping out since only one of Caroline's people had experience with animal remains, and none of that experience was with (for example) otter pelts.
Jim looked at the remaining boxes of dead animal parts and decided not to try it alone. Forensics would be crowded this time of day, and he wasn't in a crowd mood, but he wasn't equipped to make any sense of a poacher's stash. He'd have to see how the others were doing. He turned Sandburg around and headed down one flight of stairs to the lab. The door to Monk's office (closet) was shut, although Jim could hear him in there. Everyone else on duty had wandered away from their stations (even Serena, who primarily dealt with information technology) to crowd around Fraser, who was lecturing on the difference between black bears and brown bears. Apparently, they were all brown, for a start.
The bear pelt in question was taking up an entire table. Fraser, immaculate and poised, was now explaining how the skin had been improperly cured. Jim, ignored by the enthralled lecturees, went to a heap of antlers spread out across another table.
"What do you think?" Sandburg whispered in his ear.
Jim tried to form a coherent answer. "I think there are three or four different kinds of animal here." Barehanded and not even really caring, Jim stroked one finger along the surface of a horn. "It all looks pretty clean, but I smell blood."
A hand, at once, on his back. "Is it human blood?" Sandburg asked.
Jim shook his head, an uneven twitch. "Animal." He swallowed hard. He began to sort the antlers and horns by type. He'd be only guessing as to what animal any of them came from, but the different kinds looked nothing like each other. Nothing.
There was something a little obscene about the mounds of booty. Jim had ghostly memories of hunting; of small animals and making poison for the tips of the darts and the taste of roasted meat. This stuff just didn't make any sense.
Kowalski came over and hopped onto the next table beside a pile of bear paws. "Wow," he muttered by way of greeting. "Looks like somebody took out Bambi *and* all of Bambi's friends and family."
Jim sneezed. Three times. Hard.
Sandburg passed him a tissue. "How much is all this worth?" Sandburg asked.
"Right now, Fraze is guessing about two hundred thousand dollars. And these guys, they weren't even the big fish."
"Have we got any evidence that might lead us to bigger fish?" Jim asked, looking at the array of fur and dried innards.
"We think the big fish is Ho Ng. But so far, we've got nothing to tie him in. Oh, we do have this." He fished out a scrap of paper and passed it to Jim. "Your people pulled a phone number off his cell phone. A Chinese herb shop called Tong Fong Lo."
Blair frowned. "So the guy was into alternative medicine?"
Kowalski grinned. "Polk called the same number, about twice a week."
Jim blew his nose again, realized that he had practically shredded the tissue, and shoved it in his pocked. "Looks like we have a lead."
Kowalski grinned. "I'm thinking we go in, bust a few heads, shake things up."
Fraser, coming up behind him, said, "You only say that to bother me."
Jim looked thoughtfully at the number in his hand. "We need to figure out how to make contact. Tell me something. If I was a contraband dealer, what would be the most expensive and rarest item I could sell?"
"Ounce for ounce?" Fraser asked. "Narwhal tusk."
Jim blinked. "A nar what?"
"Narwhal," Sandburg said. "It's an arctic whale. The tusks can grow to eight feet long."
Frazer bestowed an approving look on Sandburg. Jim didn't dwell on the idea of a whale with tusks. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number on the slip of paper.
"You're kidding," Kowalski said.
Fraser shook his head. "It is more valuable than gold."
"It has certain properties," Blair said, trying to sound delicate. "I'll tell you about it later."
The line picked up. "*Tong Fong Lo*."
"Yeah," Jim said. "Tell your boss if he wants a steady supply of narwhal tusks to dial 555-4563."
"*I don't know what you're talking about.*"
"Your boss will." Jim snapped the phone shut. "Now we wait."
"What makes you think we can get any," Kowalski said.
Jim glanced at Fraser, who was looking serious and attentive. "What?" he said. "You can't?"
Fraser nodded once. "We can," he said.
They made arrangements to meet later, off public property so that the other Ray could join them. Jim didn't have time to continue the discussion now; the appointment with the VIP from Las Vegas would probably eat up most of the afternoon.
On the way to the bullpen to pick up the copy of the file Jim kept at his desk, Sandburg said, "You know, Jim. You don't have to talk to them if you don't want to."
Jim shrugged. "No big," he said. It didn't sound very convincing, so he added, "Brackett was in Vegas. I want to hear what these people have to say."
Jim knew a couple of sentinels in law enforcement. Ben Fraser. Fox or something with the FBI. His own cousin was in the Coast Guard. He'd only ever met one forensic sentinel, though. While they couldn't all be Adrian Monk--it was hard to believe that many people came close--he sort of expected that sentinels who went into forensics were too fragile and unstable and, well, twitchy to make it in actual law enforcement or search and rescue.
The reality surprised him. The man who appeared--exactly on time--in the main lobby was wearing khakis and a short-sleeved shirt; he didn't dress with Adrian's tense precision. When he greeted them he had a confidence that was nothing like Adrian either. He was tall. He made good eye contact. While Jim was pretty sure he could take him in a fight, he wasn't at all what Jim had expected. "Dr. Grissom," he said, reaching to shake hands before he remembered that some sentinels didn't (and really, after seeing Adrian Monk meet people even once, how could he forget?), and Jim was supposed to show that he knew that and was polite. "I'm Jim Ellison."
Grissom took Jim's hand and didn't give any sign that he even noticed the slip. "My guide, Sara Sidle." He nodded to the woman with him. She smelled like a guide. Her shampoo was unscented, her deodorant mineral based, she wore no make-up.
Sandburg didn't wait for an introduction. He leaned around Jim and said, "Hi, I'm Blair. I've read your work."
Leave it to Sandburg to say something charming right off the bat. Grissom responded with a short, ironic smile. "Not insects, I assume."
Irritated, Jim said shortly, "Blair is a student of Jack Kelso."
It took a moment for the name to register. "That's right. We're in Rainier's backyard. Dr. Kelso's work has opened up a very interesting dialogue." Neutral and polite, even when ambushed. Jim had to concede the point to the visiting team.
Sandburg rolled his eyes. "Thanks a lot, Jim. Could you at least let me ask a couple of questions before outing me as the antichrist?"
Jim tried to tell himself that this wasn't about a shocking lack of loyalty on Sandburg's part. Blair loved Jack, but he would sell his soul to find out about sentinels in groups. For Jim. Sandburg kept wondering--hoping?--if sentinel community had something to offer, something Jim could use to compensate or recover from all damage his isolation and ignorance had done.
The visiting guide, Sidle, pushed a paper bag into the center of the awkward moment. "Have you had lunch yet? We brought sandwiches. We know what it's like, trying to get a minute to eat in this business."
Jim led them to the first floor conference room. It was carpeted, with paneled walls. Since it was small, it was mainly used for press interviews and meetings with community complaint delegations. It didn't get a lot of use.
There were a dozen sandwiches in the bag, including some with (what a nasty idea) wheat-free bread. It was a casual preparation for any unknown sentinel dietary restrictions.
Grissom looked Sandburg over curiously. "What was it you wanted to ask?"
"You have half a dozen sentinels working together. How does that change things? For them, I mean. Normally, sentinels together--it's kids at camp for a few weeks in the summer or patients in a special hospital. How is it different when it's just life?"
Grissom opened his mouth and shut it again. "I have no idea?"
Jim selected a ham on rye and a bottle of water. "How can your department even afford that many sentinels?"
"We don't recruit sentinels. We don't use pay incentives. The guides are all trained CSIs." Grissom shrugged. "It doesn't cost us anything special."
Sandburg sat up alertly. "Then how do you get so many?"
"We have the second best crime lab in the country." As though that explained everything. Maybe to forensic sentinels, it did.
"So? What's it like?"
The frown was puzzled, as though Sandburg was making no sense.
Sandburg showed no trace of impatience. He prompted, "In the army, they keep sentinels apart as much as possible, because they tend to get competitive and antagonistic."
"Ah. I see. No, my people are all professionals. As far as deportment goes, the standards are the same for sentinels and guides as for everyone else."
Jim could practically see Sandburg's ears perk up. "You wrote that excessive emotionalism is a distraction. Were you referring to," he wiggled his fingers, "to it causing conflict within a group? Do crowds of sentinels have a problem with possessiveness?"
"Possessiveness? Possessive of what?" He looked a little horrified. "Of *guides*?"
Sidle, who had been very quiet, muttered, "Yeah, but try sitting in Katherine's chair," around a bite of sandwich.
"I agree that it's important to encourage the development of working relationships. But any sentinel in my department has to be able to work with any of the guides in a pinch. Some of them normally shift among multiple sentinels."
Frankly disbelieving, Jim tried to remember what Blair had told him about this man's theories. "So it doesn't matter who your guide is?"
With a grave patience that set Jim's teeth on edge, Grissom said, "Competence matters. Most well-trained sentinels can work with any competent and attentive guide."
Jim looked them over. He glanced at Sandburg, who was thinking hard. So Jim said, "Easy to say when the guide sitting next to you smells like she completely adores you."
Suddenly, everybody smelled like acute embarrassment. The guide in question was the first to recover. "To be fair, we don't usually work together," she said. "Would you hand me a napkin?"
Grissom shot her a grateful look. "Sara is the best guide we have. I don't usually waste her on me."
"And this works?" Blair asked, trying to salvage some information.
"Some people are more flexible than others. But nobody complains if they can't have their first choice all the time. We do what's necessary." Jim heard no lies in Grissom's voice, although it was possible that he was just insane.
"You didn't come here for sentinel theory," Jim said, wishing the meeting was over already.
Grissom sighed. "No, we didn't." He pulled a file from a battered leather briefcase. "You've seen a copy of our report?" He pulled a hand drawing of Lee Brackett from the file and passed it across the table.
Jim found himself looking away, but Blair said, "Yeah, that's him. But you already knew that."
"What we're looking for," Grissom said, "Is any insight you might have into what he was doing in Vegas, how dangerous he actually is, and if you think he'll be back."
Jim shook his head. "No connections in Nevada that I ever knew about, but we weren't close. Your case report said he attacked a working girl. Was there any hint, anything at all, about what he might have been doing in town in the first place?"
*Something* passed through their two guests. It wasn't quite anger. Or embarrassment. Grissom's jaw shifted slightly. Sidle laid a quelling hand on his arm. The air sang of 'threat,' although Jim couldn't have explained or described what that meant.
"Sex therapist," Sidle corrected carefully. "And no. He made an appointment. He paid in cash. I think the question--"
Jim glanced at the report. "'Lady Heather's Dominion'?" he drawled doubtfully.
"She's a sentinel. Since she's self employed, she isn't required to work with a guide. So what we need to know is, is Lee Brackett so obsessed with hurting sentinels that he went all the way to Las Vegas in order to get a shot at one?" Grissom spoke calmly, his eyes giving nothing away.
Jim sighed, laid his own file on the table. "You've seen the psych report?"
"Most guides I know could fake a psych exam," Grissom said. Blair nodded.
Jim glanced at the closed file, didn't open it. "In my opinion--" Jim stopped and glanced away. "This is my opinion, and it's not an educated opinion. I don't have a lot of experience with guides. But I don't think he's insane. I don't think he's obsessed with sentinels. I'm not even sure he hates me." Jim glanced at Sandburg. "He wasn't incompetent. Well, obviously, he was incompetent. But he wasn't ignorant. And his goal wasn't to hurt me--No, Blair, listen. He... he liked hurting me. He didn't care what happened to me. But what he wanted was control. And he wanted me convenient. And he was contemptuous--" God, this was hard. Jim stopped to breath, made himself give the report. "But mostly, he didn't care. As long as it didn't impinge on him, he didn't care."
"He was a bad guide...." Blair whispered.
"No. He wasn't." Jim glanced dismissively at the closed folder. "He's not an idiot. The psych report was wrong; he's not out of control. He's just a sociopath. He was a competent guide. He knew exactly what he was doing. He didn't care, not about me. He did care about his career, and being comfortable. And having people... being superior to people. Having power."
"So--why attack Heather Kessler?" Sidle asked, mercifully breaking the raw silence that followed.
"Not to get his jollies off," Jim said. "Not just for that. And not because it was a stupid mistake. He must have wanted something he could use. Could she have known something he needed? Could he need a sentinel *for* something? Was she special, somehow?"
"Guide training," Grissom said. "She has the degree."
"She was easy to find," Sidle said. "She advertises that she's a sentinel. Charges more for it. He could get her alone."
They looked at each other. "If she knew anything else, she would have told us," Sidle said.
"Her memory is perfect. If Brackett had let anything slip, we'd already have it."
Sidle turned to look at Jim. "We've been watching. No assaults on sentinels. No disappearances. It's been over a week. Whatever he was looking for, I don't think he found it in Las Vegas."
Under the table, Sandburg slid his hand into Jim's.
Jim said, "He lost all the career he had, and all his legitimacy. We think--we suspect--that he might be looking for work as an assassin specializing in sentinels. Something that makes use of his skills and experience." His mouth was very dry. There didn't seem to be quite enough air in the room. "He may have been looking to make a demonstration." Jim swallowed. "Or if he's already found a client, well, does your sex therapist have any enemies? She may even have been his first target."
Everyone smelled like ignorance and worry.
"I'd almost rather he was just 'crazy,'" Grissom whispered.
"His self control is excellent. We won't find him through his excesses. We've looked at his history, his contacts. Nothing. Brackett's good with disguises. He has espionage training. And he has help, which we haven't yet identified."
Brackett's ugliness seemed to be right there in the room with them. No one said anything for a long time.
Sidle reached across the table and brushed Sandburg's arm. "It's him." She inclined her head at her partner.
"What?" Blair asked.
"You wanted to know about sentinels in groups. How we do it. What sentinels can get from each other."
"Yeah," Blair breathed. His hand was still wrapped around Jim's.
"Because he's also a guide?"
"No. Because he's compassionate. He's not open. And he's not fun. But he knows what's important to everybody. He puts himself in everybody's place."
Blair shook his head, confused.
"For sentinels the world gets narrow," she said softly. "They tend to lose track of things, either in the sensory load or their own pain. The world gets away from them."
"It's isolating," Blair answered.
"He doesn't let them forget about the world outside themselves. He gives them a model of how to live with it. That's why we can float guides. All the guides are real people to the sentinels. Nobody gets isolated in a single pairing."
"Sara, that's not--I'm a lousy administrator. I don't--I don't do anything special."
She swung his chair so he was facing her. "Everybody's real to you. And everybody's the same. The homeless, the suspects, whales, the mayor, the guides, the techs, the cops on the street. Everybody is real to you, and you make them real to us."
"I ask everybody to be professional. That's all I ask."
She turned to Blair. "How many sentinels work here? Is it just the two of you?"
"One other. In the lab." Jim thought of Adrian, hiding from the dead animal parts scattered everywhere but the electronics lab.
She heard Jim's answer, but didn't take her eyes off Blair. "Here you are, surrounded by a bunch of macho cops who think he's some kind of freak who makes evidence appear out of thin air."
"Not everyone," Sandburg said quickly.
"But enough." She glanced at Jim. "I'm betting it was bad," she said.
Jim wasn't sure what she meant, but Sandburg nodded. Then Jim smelled a faint trace of pain and knew Blair was thinking--again--about how sick Jim had been by the time Brackett had left.
Without looking away from Blair, she pointed at her partner. "He's wrong. So is your Dr. Kelso. It's not about the guide. It's not about competence or attachment."
"Believe me," Blair said, leaning across to meet her. "Sometimes it's about the guide."
"Okay, yeah. You get something criminal once in a while. But day to day--it's almost never about the guide. One person isn't the answer. Or the whole problem. It's the *isolation* that kills them. The loneliness and the fear and not having enough hands to help."
Blair's eyes were on fire. "They keep telling me sentinels have nothing to offer each other. That it's not natural. That sentinels want guides--"
She shook her head. "That's wrong."
For a long moment they were frozen, then Sandburg slumped back to sag in the chair.
Sidle began to gather up the lunch mess, separating the sandwiches from the other detritus. "Well?" she asked Grissom. He shook his head.
She glanced at Jim. "Is there anything else--? We're sorry to have kept you so long. We're actually due in Seattle in about three hours, and we'd like to check in to the hotel first."
"No, thank you. We'll keep you up to date on the case."
"We'd appreciate that," Grissom said. "I don't suppose you could find use for these other sandwiches?"
"Thanks. They'll be very popular upstairs."
They walked their guests out to the front, and then it was over. Jim felt kind of drained, and in the elevator, he glanced over at Sandburg and tested the waters with, "Well, that was intense." He'd only meant to say 'interesting,' but the truth had slipped out.
"It's the Brackett thing," Sandburg sighed.
"Now wait. That wasn't all me," Jim said.
Sandburg winced. "Okay? You know how Jack and I and Sharona get a little strange when the topic comes up?"
"I had sort of noticed."
"Everybody does. The guide faculty at Rainier. Andy--you know, with Rucker. John Sheppard. The Brackett thing makes everybody twitchy."
"Oh," Jim said.
"It's like parents and child abuse. But a lot worse, because nobody gets years and years of training and has a psych test before they can be parents."
"It's not like there's no guide malpractice," Jim answered, trying to keep the growl out of his voice.
"No, it's not. But Brackett is so far past everything we believe about ourselves. It's just..." he trailed off. Before he added anything else, the elevator doors opened.
They dropped the remaining sandwiches off in the break room. There was stuff to do. Nothing urgent; everything time sensitive had been farmed out to other detectives. Two homicides waiting for lab results. A series of burglaries that was completely stalled. Inquiries on a high profile missing persons case out of Ohio that looked like it might have a local connection. And paperwork, of course, always paperwork.
Sandburg, for once, didn't offer a hand with the typing. He was researching poaching and endangered animals. Jim had to wonder if this was normal. He was pretty sure that Sharona, upstairs, didn't spend a lot of time doing background work or looking for new avenues of investigation. Not that she was disinterested or apathetic or anything. She worked long hours and climbed in and out of dumpsters like a trooper. But she didn't take a lot of initiative when it came to cases. He wondered if the guides Marcia worked with when she did security work also carried guns and little radios. He couldn't use Fraser and Vecchio as a model; Vecchio was just some cop who'd been drafted as an amateur guide. Maybe Jim should have asked about that when he'd had an expert on sentinels in law enforcement sitting across the table eating lunch with him.
They walked out of the PD at 5:00. Jim would almost have liked to head home, but they had an appointment with the Mountie and his entourage. No dinner in front of the TV, no quiet run in the park afterward.
Continued in part two...