New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections VIII: One Warm Line
Part Three
by Dasha

See disclaimer and notes on part one.

Jack Kelso smelled like his dog just died. Since Jim could also smell healthy puppy on him, he assumed that the problem must be something else. Jim gave the tongs to Stephen. "Turn the hotdogs for me? I have to check on something."

Jim squatted beside Jack's chair and linked their hands lightly. Yes, in a house full of people, including people from work and *Stephen*. Damn it, yes, it was weird, but he was long past trying to conceal he was a sentinel and he wasn't going to apologize for it either. He put his body between Jack and the rest of the room and covered the cold hand with both of his own.

Strictly speaking, he didn't need either the proximity or the contact to read Jack's body. Jim was acutely aware of Jack's fragility. What little he couldn't smell or hear he could see. Despite the hours of exercise he put in every week, his disability had 'deconditioned' him badly. Jack had lost muscle mass. His digestion was erratic. His resting heart rate was eighty-five--fast for anyone, let alone a guide who meditated regularly. Jack didn't have a lot of reserves. Even on good days he smelled tired. The shooting, though not in itself very serious, had nearly killed him. So had the recovery.

"What's going on?" Jim asked softly.

Jack shrugged, his eyes sliding toward the hall that led to the back door and the bathroom. Turning his attention in that direction, Jim could hear Marcia grinding her teeth in the bathroom. He raised his eyebrows.

"I lied," Jack whispered. "I told her Joel wasn't coming." Despite the smell of utter disappointment and dread, he looked completely calm and relaxed. Poise. Jim didn't have nearly as much of it.

"She's going to yell," Jim muttered.

"Really? You think?" For just a moment, the poised facade cracked. "I'd hoped...." Then the facade returned. Jack nodded to where Chloe was playing under the table with Fraser's wolf. They had found (or she had made) a ball of aluminum foil and were passing it back in forth. "Your niece?"

Jim sighed. He had no idea what to do with a little girl. Or what they thought. Or what they needed. Or anything. "My niece," he agreed. At least he could get that far.

"Blair was going to try testing her...?"

"Yeah, last weekend. Blair gave her the Pendleton. It was inconclusive."

"Ah. I imagine there is some anxiety there."

Jim tried to come up with an accurate and fair answer. "I can't complain about how Stephen and Linda are handling it."

"I meant you," Jack said. "The idea of a child you know and care about suffering what you've gone through must be very daunting."

Jim looked at Chloe. She seemed to be happy enough. The wolf had fallen asleep and she was carefully un-crumpling the foil ball. "There's nothing wrong with being a sentinel," he said.

Jack gently pressed the hand he was holding.

Jim relented and gave up some of the truth. "She won't be ignorant. She'll know how to protect herself. I think I can do that much."

"It's not just about avoiding the nightmares, Jim. Life can be very good for sentinels." Jack nodded toward McKay and Sheppard, who were in the kitchen arguing over the deviled eggs Joel had brought.

Jim rolled his eyes.

Still silently, Jack indicated Adrian, who had pinned Joel by the window and was griping about their progress on a case they were working together. Jim would have hoped the party would provide an escape from work, but Adrian had a one track mind. Jim had to admit that Jack had another point; Adrian's worst problems were personal, not biological.

Jack nodded at the corner where Blair and Fraser were standing close together, talking very seriously. "He's a legend," Jack said voicelessly. "A beacon."

Not according to Blair. According to Blair, Fraser was having serious problems, and they were psych problems, which sucked. Jim had just about reconciled to the endless and dangerous physical problems. Dragging psych into it now... But Jim wasn't going to say anything about that.

Still. Jack's point was made. Nobody made it through life completely unscathed, but, at the same time, being a sentinel wasn't a guarantee of doom.

Jim glanced at the still-shut bathroom door and patted Jack's shoulder. "Right," he said, offering help he hadn't been asked for. He cornered Ray Vecchio by the dip, guided him into an acoustic shadow near the stairs and whispered, "You need to use the bathroom, and don't be particularly polite about it."

Vecchio was cool. He didn't even ask why, he just moseyed down the hall and knocked firmly on the door. "Hey, toots. You wanna let somebody else have a turn?" Which of course brought her storming out. Before she could vent her irritation on Vecchio, Fraser closed on her with polite apologies and charming embarrassment on behalf of his friend.

Really, watching people knocked on their butts by Fraser's sweetness and unearthly charm was kind of funny. When Jim had first met him, Fraser had been worn down by a couple of weeks of confinement, filth, and inadequate food. Seeing him clean and reasonably well rested was a completely different experience. One Marcia certainly wasn't ready for. Flustered, her irritation forgotten, she took a step backwards. It was, in its way, a step forwards. Marcia was out and circulating. Joel might have a shot, if he didn't rush it. If he was still interested.

Before he was tempted to get any more involved, Jim retreated back to the grill and Stephen, who was happily flipping meat and talking to Rodney McKay about rollercoaster safety. Or possibly rollercoaster insurance. It was a little weird that they both knew about it. Jim's relatives weren't supposed to have things in common with sentinels.

Except they did, because they were arguing about the future of magnetics in "wild mouse" loops. Stephen didn't think you could get a good ride safely. Rodney thought you could, and was trying to explain how by scribbling on a napkin. Jim poured them each a beer and nudged them off to the side.

Jim wondered what William Ellison thought of his younger son making his living playing with toys. Apparently there was money in revamping theme parks and race tracks and concert venues, but Jim suspected that that wouldn't be enough, not for dad. In his early thirties, and Stephen was still goofing around with rides.

Stephen hadn't talked about Dad, not in the present tense. They might not be in contact. Not that Jim blamed him. Just thinking about the old man was making his stomach churn.

Jim took the last round of burgers off the grill and sent the last platter back inside. "Have you got an old tennis ball?" Ray Kowalski asked.

"No, why?" He had some golf balls in the closet upstairs, but if Kowalski wanted to play tennis that wouldn't work.

"There's a park a couple of blocks away. I thought I might take the kids down to throw a ball around with Diefenbaker."

Sure enough, Darryl, Chloe, and Fraser's wolf were standing by the door looking hopeful. Tossing a ball was one of very few activities that would be the same for big kids and little kids both. "I've got a golf ball, will that do?"

Coming back down stairs with the golf ball, Jim met Stephen. "Jim? Is this okay?" he asked.

"What, playing in the park with a dog?"

"It's a police dog, isn't it? Aren't they...?"

"Dief isn't an attack dog." But the center of Jim's gut felt funny. Stephen was a dad. He worried about dogs with big teeth and crossing the street and leaving his kid alone with somebody he didn't know. The sentinel thing and any possibility that Chloe was some kind of genetic freak wasn't even on his radar most of the time. "I'll send Blair with them. Chloe's used to him."

Jim had to lean sideways on the balcony to catch a glimpse of the little group on its way to the park. He wished he were going too, but it was his party.

The whole event was supposed to be mostly for Stephen, right? Get Jim's brother in a room full of sentinels, let him see the truth of their normalcy and weirdness and make his own judgment. Well, that and matchmaking Joel and Marcia. Possibly Blair had had some kind of 'sentinel education' ulterior motive.

Maybe that was what was going on. Maybe Jim was looking around at a room full of sentinels and--? What? Freaking out? He wasn't freaking out. These were his friends. Well, friends and irritating acquaintances. Nothing shocking or new here.

Jim sat down on one of the folding chairs. Joel and Marcia were standing awkwardly in the kitchen, not looking at each other, but talking in each other's general direction. Jim couldn't bring himself to eavesdrop; they were pathetic enough without being a spectacle.

By the table, Jack and Vecchio were talking about sentinel medicine. Jack was being patient--far more patient than when he talked to Blair. Vecchio's qualifications as a guide must be truly horrifying.

Fraser and McKay were on the tiny balcony next to Jim, arguing about hockey like it actually mattered.

Stephen's wife Linda was sitting on the couch with Sheppard. They were exchanging pet stories, which was so trivial and *mundane* that it felt kind of surreal.

Jim listened outward. The park was small and close. Chloe's squeal was piercing. "Daryl, throw it really, *really* high!" Jim wondered if Stephen would worry less if he knew that his daughter was still easily in range of Jim's hearing. Or would he decide once and for all that Jim was just too odd to expose his family to.

At the table, Sharona was trying to convince Adrian that it was safe to eat the potato chips.

Joel and Marcia were headed toward the door together. It was a good sign, but their body language said they were still at the negotiation stage. Because it was important to Jack, Jim hoped it worked out for them. Well, maybe he hoped it for himself, too. If Marcia could have a good relationship with a normal human, then anybody could.

Rodney laughed suddenly--a sharp, unexpected sound--and began to sing the Canadian national anthem. Fraser jumped in on "True patriot love in all thy sons command," and the sound of it changed. The harmony was very tight, and did things in Jim's ears that he had no words for. Most music lately had been a little disappointing. Recorded music sounded flat and canned, and even the best speakers sounded weirdly limited. *Live* music, while vibrant and vivid, was usually a little off--acoustically uneven or slightly off pitch. Jim hadn't noticed any of this before, when he'd had normal ears and a normal life. He'd sort of gotten used to it since coming on line.

Except the two guys singing "O Canada" on Jim's balcony were perfect. The difference was like moving from black and white pictures to color. Or from recycled building air to wind on the beach. The same, but completely different.

Jim didn't breathe until they finished. Except they didn't finish. Rodney started again at the beginning, and this time Ben came in as a shadow, just slightly behind and singing in French. Pitch and timing remained perfect--except perfect was too shallow a word for the bright feeling that seemed to grow in Jim's hands and feet and gut.

Again they finished and started over. This time they alternated lines in French and English. Ben stepped closer to Rodney, and the resonating voices seemed to merge and then multiply. The hairs on Jim's arms were already standing up, and now they began to shiver with sympathetic vibration. He'd had no idea--no idea--that any sound like this was humanly possible. Yet here he was, hearing it, and the impossible music seemed to hold secret meanings Jim couldn't even guess at.

This time, when they reached the end of the verse they really did stop. The silence was shocking. Sudden, cold, solid, like a thing Jim could touch. The quiet filled every corner of the room--almost every corner of the *world*--for a long moment, and then the party guests applauded. The thin, flat sounds trembled against Jim's skin.

Jim held still, not trusting himself to move. He was standing up, but didn't remember moving. He wasn't sure where the floor was. Or where he would go if he did move. Or what the hell he'd just heard. He didn't know--

Stephen--his movements sounded worried--was crossing the room, closing fast. Jack caught him at the door to the balcony and halted him. "He's fine, Stephen, give him a minute."

"Look at him. He's--something's wrong. What's it called? Zoning?" Stephen's voice, quiet but near panic. Jim tried to rouse himself, but it was hard to think, impossible to focus.

"He's zoning, yes. But he's fine. He's in a safe environment. He's not under stress. He's processing a very complicated input. Let him be." Jack's voice, level and calm. Jim breathed in and out, trying to collect himself enough to focus on their faces. They weren't standing very far away.

"You're a guide," Stephen said hesitantly. "You work with Blair."

"I'm his supervisor."

Jim wasn't sure how far away they were. Or who else was around. He tried--hard--to shift his attention, but the senses had taken charge and Jim had no control.

Stephen smelled like pain. He smelled like worry and fear and shame. Jim thought, He gives a shit, and it should have been a comforting thought. A relief. A certain place to start: Stephen cared.

But instead of feeling a relief, a thawing, a warmth--all Jim felt was the same, flat, empty feeling he'd felt about Stephen for years.

Jack was saying, "There's nothing to fix because there's nothing wrong. It looks scary, especially if you've never seen it before. But he's not in distress or any danger."

Stephen swallowed hard, trying to compose himself. He still smelled afraid. He said, "I can't see him breathing."

"Jim is breathing as much as he needs to."

Jim tried to push past the flat, empty feeling. He could remember--vividly, now--being very young and loving his brother. He could remember when there were only two people in the world Stephen trusted; one was Sally and the other was Jim. Surely he still had those feelings. But under the flat, hard feeling was only the memory of Stephen lashing out. And fear.

"You can't ask him to fight what he is in order to become what you expect. If he tries it, he will fail. And he will probably die."

"So anything goes?"

"Not at all. A great many things are very dangerous. Not this mild altered state." A pause, and then, "We're watching him. I'm not the only guide here. Blair is not very far away. If he gets into trouble, he won't be alone."

"You're the expert." It sounded resentful as much as disbelieving.

"Stephen--I understand better than you think. Wanting to take control. Wanting to fix things. Being tired of fear. But with Jim, you have very little to be afraid of. Ah. Stephen, go get a chair. He'll want to sit down."

Then, suddenly, Jack seemed to be *right next* to him. "You okay?" The question was almost casual. Jim wouldn't have thought much of it, if he hadn't been observing the previous conversation.

"Yeah," Jim answered automatically. He blinked. His mouth was dry. His skin felt cold. "What the hell was that?"

"You were distracted by the music and lost the usual distance you keep from the world," Jack said, like that sort of thing happened every day.

"That wasn't--I meant, the singing. What was that?"

Jack shrugged. "They have undeviated pitch and a great deal of practice. I also expect they have enough talent for acoustics to compensate for any imperfections in the venue. But, Jim, I can't hear well enough to appreciate it."

Stephen returned then, carrying a chair. Jim murmured a thank you and sat. Jack had been right. He felt strangely tired and a bit detached. "Are you all right?" Stephen asked.

No, Jim thought, I'm a freak. The thought was strangely without bitterness. If this was being a freak--being completely knocked on his ass by a bit of casual music that Jack and Stephen couldn't even hear properly--then it wasn't so bad. Yes, he'd done a freaky sentinel thing at a party, in full view of his boss and his family, but nobody seemed to be upset or even have given it particular notice.

Except for Stephen. From his seat on the chair, Jim looked up at his baby brother. I'm the same, he wanted to say. I don't know what the hell I am, he wanted to say that, too. You don't have to do anything but be here, that was what he was supposed to say. But it might be a lie; Jim wasn't sure that Stephen sticking around was what he wanted. As much as he'd missed him, Stephen wasn't someone Jim knew how to trust.

It hadn't been Jim's fault that William Ellison had been a lousy father. It wasn't Stephen's fault, either, but Stephen's defection had hurt.

What kind of bastard was Jim, to hold a kid's frustrated and hurt lashing out against him so many years later?

There was a clamor in the hall. Sandburg, Kowalski, the wolf, and the kids came bursting in with a brilliant rush of energy and noise. Jim's ears followed his partner as Blair stopped at the cooler for a bottle of water and came out onto the balcony, looking for Jim. Stephen shot Blair a relieved look and ducked out of the way. He can relax now, Jim thought. My keeper has arrived.

"Hey," Blair said cheerfully. "Did we miss anything?"

"The musical performance of the century," Jack said. "It turns out Rodney and your friend Ben have voice training."

"Oh. Wow. Damn," Blair said. "That's not something you see every day."

Jim didn't understand, but Jack explained, "Most sentinels, even the most talented--especially the most talented--don't perform publicly. The equipment, the instrumentation, it's never good enough. Acoustics are never clean. The few sentinels who go into music professionally, they earn their reputations as being perfectionist bastards."

Sandburg sighed. "Sentinels singing, pure gold, man, pure gold."

Chloe raced up, thrusting a soggy golf ball into Jim's hands. "Thank you, Uncle Jim." She climbed up into her father's arms, talking at high speed about the trip to the park and the magic dog and how cool Daryl was.

About half a minute into the display of familial cuteness, Jack's head shot up. He touched Blair's hand with a single finger. Blair and Jack talked for a moment in some silent guide code, and then Blair turned to listen very closely to Chloe.

When Stephen carried her off to the table where--Jim listened shamelessly--Chloe harangued him for cookies, Blair shook his head. "I don't see it," he said.

"I listened to sentinel recon reports for a very long time. That is what they sound like."

Blair chewed his lower lip. "Memory at this age is weird. You know they all have that almost-photographic recall. Even if she is a sentinel now, she might not be after the transition."

Jack turned to Jim. "I assume Stephen wouldn't remember what you were like at that age."

"He would have been three," Jim said.

The doorbell rang. It was Brown and Rafe getting off shift. They'd stopped and bought pies on the way. Jim got up to meet them, pointed out the now-cold burgers, the still-hot chili in its crock pot (Rhonda), and decided he felt like eating pie.

Joel and Marcia came back. While Joel was thanking Jim for a nice time, Marcia asked John and Rodney to give Jack a ride home.

Chloe had fallen asleep in her dad's lap while eating cake. "I'll put her in Blair's room," Jim said, holding out his arms.

Chloe was amazingly small and light. She smelled like grass and wolf and chocolate. Jack thought Jim and Chloe were the same. Blair repeatedly said that sentinels who grew up learning who they were and what it meant didn't have the problems Jim had had his first year. But Jim knew plenty of sentinels with great training and support growing up who still had a hard time as adults.

If Chloe wasn't a sentinel, there were so many things she would never know. Blair and Jack and Simon--they were practically half-blind and mostly deaf. The things they didn't know about the world around them--the people around them, it was kind of frightening.

Linda followed Jim into Sandburg's room. She pulled back a quilt that was being used as a bedspread and held it out of the way, covering Chloe as Jim set her down.

***

Blair came back from the park slightly sweaty (from running around after kids) and deeply abstracted. Watching wolf, teenager, and small child made it clear that while they were all participating in the same activity, they didn't all understand it in the same way. Blair found himself distracted by trying to figure out how they thought of each other.

And watching how they communicated. It was clear that Diefenbaker's simple and direct communication worked much better with Chloe, who was totally present, than with Daryl, whose mind was clearly somewhere else most of the time. What were they doing, while they seemed to be doing the same thing? Where did they learn it?

When they got back to the loft, Jim was in a very promising-looking conversation with Stephen and Jack. Jack, listening to Chloe talk, thought that she was probably a sentinel. Without a clear determination, though, there was nothing anyone could do but watch her very closely and be careful when giving her medications or exposing her to potentially overwhelming environments. With her family history, they would need to do that anyway. Blair didn't want to deal with it. Not yet. Jim was using up all the attention Blair could spare.

He wandered over to the cooler and fished in the melting ice for a beer. Adrian Monk and John Sheppard--not a combination he would have expected boxed him. "Rhonda says you had a meeting with Gilbert Grissom on Friday. How could you not tell anyone? He's the--he practically invented--his work in forensic entomology sets the standard for everyone everywhere! And you never said a word."

Blair blinked. "I didn't realize you were interested in bugs," he said. He honestly hadn't thought to mention it to anyone.

"Oh--well, I'm not. I mean I'd never. But it's *good* that other people are experts in insects and other biological... things."

"You have to realize that Grissom is Jack's only credible critic."

Blair spun around. John was looking at him as though he were some kind of traitor.

"It was police business," Blair said. "He was in town and wanted to share information on a case. It had nothing to do with being a guide. Or his position on *anybody's* guide research."

"And you let it go at that?" John's voice was icy. He and Rodney had been one of Jack's developed case studies.

"We do Jim's job. That's the point." Blair looked around. The loft was very small. Jack was in the kitchen, talking to Sharona. He was starting to look weary. "He's given me some of Grissom's stuff to read, you know? Because practically nobody else works with groups of sentinels."

John was very still for a moment, frowning slightly. "How seriously... how important do you think this is?"

Blair shrugged and looked around. "How serious does it look?"

"Blair, sentinels didn't evolve to congregate with each other. Simple communities couldn't support more than one or two specialists like this. The rarity would have made them too valuable to--"

"Mostly, yeah. Probably," Blair admitted. "But that may not be the point. The world has changed. A lot. If they don't find a way to adapt to those changes-" Blair stopped. There were a lot of sentinels in the room. Some things weren't discussed in mixed company.

Adrian didn't need it spelled out for him. "We'll die," he said. "We already are."

John shot him a quelling look. "How is bringing them together going to help?"

"For a start, I think their experience *living their lives* is worth something. Particularly since they don't all get a chance to work out what it means to be a sentinel as kids," Blair hissed.

Rodney ambled up, munching on a cold hot dog. "If you're going to fight, I want to put money on the little guy. He's feisty." He shot Blair a rough grin and offered his partner a bite of the hot dog. Something passed between them, and John's aggression faded. "I wouldn't have minded knowing some sentinels when I was a kid. Seeing somebody who'd actually survived." He finished off the end of the hot dog and prodded John in the side. "We need to go. We're Jack's ride and he's smelling tired."

***

People started clearing out at about nine, which Blair decided wasn't an indication of party failure since it had started at two and everyone had to work the next day. Adrian volunteered to stay and help clean up. Blair didn't understand Sharona's frantic head-shakes until he put on two pairs of latex gloves and began to sort the garbage by size and food group.

Jim hastily reminded Adrian that Sharona still had to pick up her son from a friend's house and assured him that he could make it up to them next time.

Jim, thank god, wasn't so overwhelmed by the chaos in his life that he had to compensate by organizing the garbage, but they did need to get the mess cleaned up and the trash out in the dumpster, or the smell would keep him awake.

It didn't take them long to get the worst of the detritus gathered up and carried out. Blair put the leftovers in the fridge and joined Jim on the balcony, where he was scrubbing off the still-warm grill with a metal brush. "I think that went well," he said.

"Yeah. No disasters. No public embarrassments. I'm kind of surprised."

"Not that you're a pessimist."

Jim covered the grill, brushed off his hands, and said, "Memorial Day. I know it's well meant and respectful. But I can't just rip a day off the calendar and say, 'Oh, it's Memorial Day. Time to grieve now.' It doesn't work like that. I'm glad we did this."

Right. Because Memorial Day was a military holiday, really. And Jim had a lot of baggage. It seemed like they'd just dredged up all that baggage with Norman Oliver. Jim really did deserve a break. "Want to go see what's on television?" Blair asked.

***

Blair had long stopped being disoriented and slow when the phone woke him up. As a graduate student, he'd been a largely nocturnal creature, sleeping until comparatively late in the morning to make up for long nights doing homework. His real life--long awaited, at last arrived--kept erratic hours. Calls in the middle of the night were usually Simon.

Blair didn't bother trying to race Jim to the phone. Jim kept a cordless upstairs, and even if he were running down the stairs, Blair probably couldn't beat him. Instead (stifling the groan he didn't want Jim to hear), he got out of bed and reached for clean underwear.

He was just putting his socks on when Jim opened the bedroom door and shook his head. "False alarm," he mouthed, the phone still to his ear. "Was anyone hurt?.. Yes, I understand.... Yes, we can do that. Sure. What? Oh," he glanced at Blair, "The cat is named after I M Pei. Right."

Blair took his socks back off since it looked like they weren't rushing out the door.

"Sure. Hey, good luck, huh." Jim clicked off the phone. "That was John Sheppard. He and Rodney have to go out of town. They've asked us to feed the cat, since their usual cat sitter isn't available."

"Oh, sure. What happened?" Jim was looking a little unsettled.

"There was a bridge collapse in California. It was one of the ones McKay inspected last year. There are people missing."

Blair glanced at the clock. Not even seven. The alarm wouldn't go off for another five minutes. "It's early yet," he said. "The traffic--"

"Rush hour starts early down there, Chief. Apparently, it's pretty bad."

Oh. Right. Hell.

Well, they were up. "Feel like breakfast?" Blair asked.

It was a long and tedious day. Waiting as they were on the big poaching case, Jim didn't want to get involved in anything that they couldn't back away from. They did paperwork. They looked at a couple of new crime scenes for other detectives. They interviewed witnesses.

Joel was out all morning testifying, but Blair was waiting when he came back after lunch. He was tempted to tease Joel about leaving the party early with Marcia, but since there was a good chance things hadn't gone well--or that even if they *had* it wouldn't last--he just said, "So what's new?"

Joel snorted. "I've turned into a lovesick idiot."

Blair grinned. "Congratulations! How's it going?"

"Well, she's still talking to me." Joel nodded toward the breakroom, and Blair followed him in and shut the door. "She's not convinced I'm serious."

That was a surprise. Joel was both practical and sincere. If Blair had to select one of his friends as an example of 'serious' it probably would have been Joel. Blair's surprise must have shown, because Joel said, "She thinks I don't know what it means, being with a sentinel. That I'll, you know, give up when I find out." For just a moment, Joel looked a little bleak. "I know it's inconvenient. I get that. And--and--I know she's fragile. I've read up. I know what that means."

Blair thought about how worried he'd been in the first weeks working with Jim. It hadn't been clear how much Jim could recover from Brackett's mistreatment. Or even how much of Jim's illness had been caused by Brackett in the first place. Blair had been *scared*, but not for very long, because Jim had been pretty healthy, really. Marcia, though, wasn't nearly as resilient as Jim. Jack was doing his best--his very best--but her hyperactive senses were linked to a hyperreactive body and there was only so much that could be done. "Are you sure, Joel? Really sure?"

"Blair. I diffuse bombs for a living. I can't--I just can't get hung up over what *might* happen a month or a year from now."

How the hell could you argue with that? From Joel's perspective, every day must be a good day. Blair had decided that a lifetime of usefulness had been worth the grief that came with sentinels. Maybe for Joel, it was love that made it a fair trade. "I see your point. But you can't rush her. You're seeing the world *right now*, but she's dug in for the long haul."

"Yeah. I hear you. So, tell me, what's a good gift for a sentinel."

Blair grinned. "Well, perfume is out."

"Gee, thanks. Anything else really obvious?"

"Cooking equipment is usually a safe bet. Sentinels are finicky. But I understand she's not much of a cook. Really high quality herbal tea or chocolate should be okay. Or nice coffee."

The ten minutes Blair spent talking to Joel was the high point of the day. The smuggling contact didn't call.

After work, they picked up the key to John and Rodney's from Marcia and went to feed the cat. The little condo overlooking the bay was pleasant and very tidy. The cat--I M Pei--was pampered and friendly. The little cans of expensive cat food had been left out.

When they got home, the bridge collapse in California was all over the news. Three people dead, as many as a dozen more missing. Every search and rescue sentinel and police dog in the state had been drafted for disaster site. There was still no official word on what had caused the collapse, except that it hadn't been a quake. Everyone who wasn't flinging accusations was speculating wildly.

The smuggling contact didn't call that night either. Blair gritted his teeth and tried not to fidget. Jim went to the gym to work out. Blair went shopping. Dinner was stir-fry and rice.

The call came the next morning while they were eating breakfast. Blair practically held his breath until Jim shut his cell phone and said, "We have a meet."

The meet was for lunch at a four star restaurant downtown. Jim and Kowalski dressed up. So did Vecchio and Fraser; electronic surveillance was out, but Fraser could follow the conversation from across the room. Not easily--his hearing wasn't nearly as good as Jim's--but he was predisposed to filter for any conversation one of his partners was in.

Blair was going to be the 'outside man.' His job was walking a leashed Diefenbaker in the little park up the street, watching the restaurant from the outside. He wasn't sure why; there wasn't anything to see. He said as much to Ray Vecchio, who shrugged and said, "Actually, kid, you're window dressing. We want to give the idea that we're organized and professional. With resources."

So Blair missed all the excitement. He stayed in the park looking conspicuous, and, hopefully, not amateurish. Diefenbaker was a huge help with the casual end of things. He marked the park's five trees a total of (Blair counted) thirty-four times. What could be more inconspicuous than a dog lifting his leg?

Blair didn't want to speculate on the capacity of that dog's bladder.

When it was over, they met in Vecchio's hotel room. Jim was carrying a two-page shopping list of endangered animal parts.

"Is this a problem?" Blair asked. That was an awful lot of gall bladders.

Vecchio laughed. "You should see the warehouse."

"So we can fill this by Friday afternoon?" Jim asked. It was Wednesday now.

"No problem."

***

Simon was satisfied with the progress of the joint operation. A lot of his satisfaction, Jim suspected, came from the fact that he had two federal agencies thanking him for his department's exemplary cooperation.

After reporting in to Simon, Jim took the bagged shopping list up to Forensics for printing. It was a long shot, but sometimes chemical treatment could produce prints even Jim's eyes couldn't see.

He heard the argument when he was still one floor away. Monk was saying, "No. Absolutely not. I'm sorry, but you can't make me."

Carolyn's voice had a hard edge he remembered well from their married days. "It's your job." Jim hesitated, wondering if his life would be easier if he just came back later.

"Adrian, why?" Sharona asked. "Is it the blood? Or the meat?"

"Yes," Monk said.

"Because, you know, it's all very fresh--" Sharona said.

"You do find blood at crime scenes. Fairly often, actually," Carolyn grated.

"The fact is that if I walk in there I will spot literally dozens of health violations."

Both women protested with the placating voice that never worked.

"No. All right? If I see a cockroach or a stray hair or a trace of feces I'll never eat again."

"If you *know* the violations are there, how is it you are able to eat now?" Carolyn wasn't even trying to pretend she was being patient.

While Sharona was saying, "For the love of god, don't help us--" Monk was saying dismally, "Some days I really don't know."

Because he just couldn't listen any more, Jim stopped lurking in the stairwell and came out. "I'll go look at your crime scene if you'll put a rush on this." He smiled winningly and held his bag out to Carolyn.

Monk looked at Jim with incredulous pity and fled. Carolyn smiled gratitude and something calculating. "I'll process it myself. And if you don't tell me how disgusting it was afterwards, I'll throw in a dinner Merton's."

Jim wondered what he'd gotten himself into as he went to collect his partner. He found Sandburg in the break room buying a sandwich out of the machine. He caught Sandburg's hand as he started to unwrap it. "You might not want to do that."

"You got lunch at the nice restaurant. *I* stayed outside and walked the dog."

"Wolf. We've got a crime scene at a meat packing plant."

"Huh," he said. "I've never been to a meat packing plant."

Jim shrugged. "Monk wouldn't go."

Wincing, Sandburg put the sandwich in the little fridge.

***

The victim and the suspect had both been line workers, far from where the livestock were actually killed. That was the good news. The bad news was that their job on the line had been disarticulating leg joints.

It smelled like blood. Old blood, new blood. And meat. Jim could barely make out the fight-smells and the cop-smells for all the blood-smell. The air was very cool, and that helped. Sort of. Jim breathed shallowly through his mouth. Sandburg, looking a little shocked, took Jim's hand.

The line was stopped. Meat was everywhere. Some of it was a body, still and crumpled on the floor. Jim went to have a look there first. The coroner had been there already and tagged the body for pick-up. The wound to the torso was clearly visible, jagged, and large. Jim's mind suddenly separated out human blood-smell from beef-smell and he was nearly sick.

"Wow," Sandburg said, and Jim nearly laughed aloud. He clamped his teeth down and got to work.

The murder weapon was an old meat hook. It had already been printed and bagged, so Jim hefted it thoughtfully. Heavy. Unbalanced. A weapon of opportunity, heat of the moment sort of thing. The hook was sharp and jagged, but not easy enough to control to make it anyone's first choice for mayhem. The suspect was in the corner, complaining at the uniform guarding him and demanding his lawyer. The detective from homicide--a young guy, possibly on his first solo--was interviewing witnesses.

Jim paced the floor, looking for any trace that this wasn't what it looked like; a disagreement that turned ugly. It did all look plausible. The perpetrator had defensive wounds coming up on his hands and arms, suggesting a fight. The witnesses all agreed that the two men had been close, but argued a lot, and that no one else had been involved in the incident. Jim eased closer and tried to sniff him for lies or drugs or *something* and immediately regretted it.

Sandburg said suddenly, "You know, this goes on the list of things we don't tell my mom," and Jim had to laugh. The abattoir seemed surreal rather than overwhelmingly nasty now.

The young detective came over. "Well? Do we send the evidence guys home or keep looking?"

Jim sighed and tried to think about something besides blood and meat. "There's nothing here we can use." But. "Everybody says they were close, right? Tell me, if you just accidentally killed your buddy with a meat hook--right in the middle of a place covered with signs that continually harangue you to be careful--would you be thinking about your lawyer?"

The kid shrugged. "Everybody also says they weren't the sharpest tools in the shed."

Well, Jim had given him a chance to see it for himself. "Pull your people out of here. Search the lockers. Search their domiciles. Search their cars. *Something* isn't right." Trying to look stern and experienced, Jim turned on his heel and stalked off.

He made it to the parking lot before he threw up the fantastic lunch.

Sandburg wanted to head home, but Jim couldn't let either of them get into the SUV smelling like a slaughterhouse, so they walked around the block--four times--trying to let the worst of the stink dissipate. On the third trip, Sandburg's cell phone rang.

"*Blair, it's John. We're on our way back, so you don't have to worry about the cat tonight.*"

"Okay, sure. How, um, did it go?"

A short pause that did not conceal that things had gone horribly. "*It was a bomb, Blair. Nobody's taken 'credit' yet, but it was deliberate.*"

Sandburg looked at Jim, his eyes wide. "Wow. Tell Rodney I'm sorry, okay?"

"*Yeah, thanks. He didn't build it, just inspected it, but.... This is just.... Damn. I gotta run.*" The other end clicked off, and Sandburg shut the phone.

After another half block, Sandburg said, "You know, I think their day was worse than ours. If that helps."

"Today wasn't 'bad'," Jim said with as much mocking cheerfulness as he could muster. "It was educational."

Sandburg laughed. "Asshole."

"Really, Chief? That's what I was going for."

They stopped on the way back to the station to shower and change. Jim was convinced that he could tough it out the rest of the day--hey, the worst was over, right? And he'd done fine--but Sandburg put his foot down. When they finally got back to Major Crimes there were two messages in his voicemail. One was from the homicide guy, who'd found twenty thousand dollars in the trunk of the dead guy's car (no explanation yet, but dollars to donuts murder wasn't the only crime at play) and the other was from Stephen.

"Hi, Jim, I'm sorry to bother you at work, but I'm trying to get in touch with Rodney McKay, but he's not at the University and the department won't give out his private information."

He passed it along to Sandburg, who called Stephen back and explained that McKay was out of town dealing with the mess in California and should probably be left alone for a few days. This led to a lot of very pointed and odd questions from Stephen, until Jim went and retrieved Sandburg's sandwich from the breakroom. He returned just as they were ringing off.

"What was that all about?" Jim asked, handing over half the sandwich and taking a bite out of the part he'd kept.

"I think they got to talking about rides and things at the party. Stephen's company manages family entertainment things. Facilities. They're cleaning up the racetrack here in town, making it snazzy and more, ah, 'G' rated, I think. Then there's the little amusement park right next door. That's next. He may be looking to hire an engineering consultant."

"Oh." Jim thought about his brother hiring a sentinel, just like any other business contact. Huh. "So what's the deal with McKay anyway?"

"The sentinel thing or the engineering thing?"

"The engineering thing. What does he do besides inspect bridges?"

Sandburg chewed his sandwich thoughtfully. "Well, according to rumor, if you want to build, well, pretty much anything, you show him the design and he tells you how to do it more simply, twice as strong, and usually for about a third off the cost. He really is a genius." Sandburg lowered his voice. "The problem is, his original stuff is apparently just ugly. Really ugly. Frighteningly ugly. His taste pretty much doesn't match anybody else's taste on the planet. So he's stuck inspecting bridges and making other people's designs work."

"Ouch," Jim said.

"He's bitter. From what I hear, he takes it out on his graduate students."

"They let him teach?" The academic life made absolutely no sense at all.

"The students fight each other like rabid animals to make it into his seminars."

Jim's phone rang again. "Ellison," he said.

"*Detective, I apologize for bothering you.*" It was Fraser. He sounded unusually formal, even for him. "*This is Constable Fraser.*" Jim already knew that. "*We've made an arrest, and it seems we will need some help transporting the prisoners and the evidence. We were unable to make clear to police dispatch the nature of our problem.*"

"You've made an arrest?" Jim repeated. He didn't usually get lost so early in a conversation unless it was Sandburg talking about guide theory. "In the smuggling case? I just left you four hours ago--"

"*No, this is another matter. We--that is, my partners and I--stumbled across a counterfeiting ring. I'm afraid there is no way to transport nine people in the Rivera, and the evidence--*"

"You caught nine counterfeiters?"

"*No, we caught six. But there is also the three of us. And Diefenbaker, of course--*"

"Right. Hold it. Wait." Jim stopped, thinking hard, coming up with nothing. "What's your location? We'll be right there."

Jim ordered up a black and white for good measure, but he didn't want to cause too big a fuss until he'd had a look at the scene. The address was for a shabby old garage in the warehouse district. Sandburg's only was comment was, "Hey, I used to live around there," but Jim decided to pretend he was kidding. When they found the Mountie and his entourage, they did, in fact, have six prisoners.

Diefenbaker trotted up happily, nosing their pockets to make sure neither Jim nor Blair were packing donuts or anything similarly delightful. Jim patted him absently and looked over the surly group of bound prisoners. He decided to ignore Vecchio and Kowalski, who were both soaked head to toe in mud. Some things only got weirder if you paid attention to them, and since two uniforms were right behind them, Jim wanted to keep things as normal as possible. "Counterfeiting is a federal crime," he pointed out casually, making a stab at that 'normal as possible' thing. "You could have called treasury."

"Well, yes," Fraser said patiently. "Counterfeiting currency is, in fact, a federal offense. However, I believe these men have only committed an offense against the State of Washington."

"Washington doesn't print any money," Sandburg said, walking right into it, whatever *it* was.

Scraping thick mud off of his very expensive (and completely unsalvageable) shoes, Ray Vecchio yelled, "Lottery tickets, okay? They were counterfeiting lottery tickets!"

Jim raised his brows slightly. "Ben?" he asked. "Lottery tickets?" He looked at the muddy Rays, the bound men, and was kind of stunned at the size of the fuss.

"Essentially, yes. Lottery tickets. It is clearly a case of conspiracy to commit fraud. Possibly also receiving stolen property, since there is some evidence to indicate that they did not come by the equipment honestly."

One of the uniforms laughed. Jim managed a vague nod. "Where is the evidence?"

"The printing equipment is in the building. The tickets are there. You may," he added, "want to call for a tow truck in order to bring it in." He pointed to a bland, grey paneled truck.

Jim took a step toward it, stumbled back. "How many fake tickets are we talking about?"

"Well, it hasn't been possible to do a close count," Fraser hedged.

"Guess," Jim suggested.

"Well, roughly...."

"Yes, roughly will do."

"About two hundred and fifty thousand."

"Oh," Jim said.

The uniforms stared in open astonishment. Blair clapped both hands over his mouth and snorted. Jim opened his cell and called Simon.

***

If Wednesday set new records for weird, Thursday set new records for dull. Nothing interesting happened, nothing useful got done. It wasn't that they didn't try. They did try. Jim visited crime scenes for other detectives (every single one was just what it looked like, no hidden clues, no big mysteries, no car chases, even), interviewed (and re-interviewed) witnesses in a few of his ongoing cases (no one was lying, no one remembered a surprise bit of key evidence, no one broke down and confessed, weeping with shame), and went to a couple of meetings (at which absolutely nothing happened also).

The high point of the day was when Joel cornered Jim and Blair in the stairwell as they were trying to leave and quizzed them about which restaurants in town were popular with sentinels. This didn't qualify as 'interesting' so much as 'frustrating and pathetic,' since every suggestion they made, Joel found a reason to reject. He had a date on Friday night, and he was a little tense.

Friday morning, they didn't *try* to do much of anything, which was fine with Blair. Just thinking about the afternoon's delivery was making him nervous. They went to the gym to practice 'self defense,' which mostly meant Jim tossed him around. It was challenging, but didn't make the time pass any faster.

They inspected the truckload from the Customs warehouse. Jim examined a total of five items before being felled by a sneezing fit that lasted--Blair timed it--ten complete minutes. Fraser, of course, was very apologetic. Blair sat his partner down on the curb and crouched behind him, rubbing his back and trying to keep him calm. When it was over he collected the heap of used tissues at Jim's feet and handed him a bottle of water from the backpack.

While Jim pulled himself together, Ben and the Rays quarreled over how the next stage was going to go down. Ben and Ray Kowalski wanted Ben to follow their contact when he left; they weren't satisfied with how quickly things were moving, and they wanted to build up a profile of their contact. Ray Vecchio said they were rushing things; Ray K had no patience and Ben had no sense of self-preservation, and they would get further just building trust with the suspects.

Eventually, a compromise was reached: Jim and Kowalski would make contact, Blair and Vecchio would be the visible flunkies guarding the truck, and Fraser, looking nearly inconspicuous in old jeans, a ratty sweater, and a jags baseball cap, would wander around the marina gathering what information might be available.

Blair hoped it was a good plan.

Of course, the opposing side had plans of their own. While Blair and Ray were lounging beside the truck trying to look both casual and menacing, a cheerful young Asian man--he might easily have been one of the psych students Blair had been tutoring the previous year--trotted up and handed them a map and a set of boat keys. He told them to load the cargo onto a small power boat.

Fuck.

Even while Blair was wondering what to do, the fancy yacht Jim and Kowalski had boarded to conduct business was casting off. Looking unflappable, Vecchio waved the courier off, took the keys from Blair, and went to inspect the small boat. Right. They were too far in to hesitate now.

Toenails scratching the concrete causeway, Diefenbaker skidded to a halt, cutting Vecchio off from the boat and growling. Vecchio staggered as though struck and spun around, scrambling to unload the truck. "Move it," he snapped, "Get moving."

Obediently, Blair picked up a box. "What's wrong?"

Vecchio plunked another box on top of the one Blair was carrying, staggering him. "Hurry, go. My partner's on that boat--he's stowed away with them," he hissed.

He wasn't talking about Kowalski, but Blair didn't see how Fraser could have gotten on that yacht. "What? You can't know that."

"Dief knows that. Move it."

In record time they loaded the boat, stuffing their contraband cargo under the tarp the perps had generously left for them. While Vecchio figured out how to cast off, Blair pulled out his cell and called Simon, making his report even as they pulled out of the slip.

***

It took a couple of hours to get to open sea, and even then, for a long time the yacht moved north along the coast. Not so bad, all in all, except for the plan going to hell. As the sun began to dip noticeably westward, the shoreline sank into a thin, grey line and the small islands became fewer and further between. Jim, standing casually at the railing, carefully slowed his breathing. Everything was fine. The ocean was calm and nearly flat.

Kowalski leaned in and whispered--very softly, although it would be hard to get much use from a listening device out in all this open air--"Are you going to be all right? Without Blair for however long?"

Hell, he hadn't even thought of that. He'd been thinking about the operation and the *water*, thinking like it was the old days when he hadn't been a sentinel, because all of this had seemed so normal--

He'd thought he had the sentinel thing worked out, maybe. But no. Sweat was coming up on his palms. Jim turned his back to the water, dragged his attention to the *boat*, the deck under his feet, the rumble of the engine, the creak of struts. Ignore the water. Ignore the fact that he was a sentinel, vulnerable and easily out of control and no way to get to Sandburg for help. His hands tightened on the rail behind him. Rough and hard under his palm.

At least this time when the caribou appeared there was no uncertainty about it being incorporeal. Jim gulped a breath, tried to look casual, muttered, "Fraser's here."

Kowalski jumped and looked around. "Where?"

"I'm not sure. Here on the boat--" He stopped. Tommy Wu, their 'host', was on his way over.

He strolled up, smelling a little wary but not of lies. He looked Jim up and down. "Not seasick, I hope?"

Jim managed a smile, just a little feral. Let Wu believe what he liked. "Not very. We've got a nice day for it."

"You haven't seen your cabins yet. I think you'll be pleased with the facilities. I regret that this little voyage is an inconvenience, but I hope it won't be an unpleasant one."

He led them toward the hatch. Going below deck, they wouldn't be able to see just where the yacht was going--not that it would make any difference, isolated as they were. Going for casual and unimpressed--or, at least, just impressed enough to sound polite--Jim said, "A pleasant little sail hardly counts as an inconvenience."

Kowalski--bless him--playing his part a little more crudely, added, "Not packing, though, that's an inconvenience."

Another smile, half-amused and half-polite: "We've arranged for you to have everything you'll need." He turned to Jim as he opened the hatch and held it politely, "So, I was surprised that a poacher like yourself would know Sun Tzu."

Behind them, Kowalski was looking around, trying to get the lay of the boat and maybe some kind of sign of Fraser. Jim played his part and moved closer to Wu, capturing his gaze. "You know him, and you're a smuggler." Wu acknowledged the point with an incline of his head. "Ever read Miyamoto Musashi?"

Jim had, years ago, although since it was on Jack's list of sentinel classics he had bought a copy to read again. "The Five Ways of Strategy -- it's a favorite of mine -- ground, water, wind, fire and void."

"Very good!" Surprised and pleased. "Have you mastered them?"

"Not completely." Very carefully, Jim kept his attention on this one conversation, not letting himself dwell on the endless water that lay beyond the hull of the boat or the dangers of the assignment. "There is still a lot I haven't mastered about war." "Well, to Sun Tzu, life was war. One was either in battle or training for it. Miyamoto believed that the way of the warrior is acceptance of death in the cause of duty."

"It's true up to a point, but we can't forget what Gandhi said, 'The true warrior does not die killing.'" That got a laugh. "Gandhi! You don't seem like a man who'd practice nonviolence." "Well, in life, I'm a pragmatist; in my heart, an idealist, but Patton himself once said, 'A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.'"

Wu considered that and gave back another Patton quotation: "'If a man does his best, what else is there?' That's very cowboy, but I actually approve." He leaned past Jim in the narrow passage and swiftly opened two doors. "Here are your rooms. Please let me know if we've left out any necessities." The rooms were claustrophobically small and decorated in cutely efficient, high-end 'ship's cabin.' Jim nodded politely to Wu and Kowalski and shut himself in the small room.

The bunk was narrow, but not the sort that folded in the wall, so Jim wouldn't spend the night worried that it would give under him. He sat down and covered his face with his hands, at last acknowledging his impulse to escape. A few minutes. He had a few minutes. No noise. Of course, he couldn't hear any listening devices, but the distant engine noise might be covering that. He breathed in and out, trying to find a way to accept the sea around them. He was below the waterline now. The shape of the boat around him was impossible to miss. The vibration of the engine in the hull. The pressure of the waves--

No. No, it wasn't that bad. It really wasn't. He was expecting it to be bad, because he had a *thing* about water and Blair wasn't here and there'd been no time to prepare. But they just weren't that far from land. The ocean here wasn't really very deep. The boat wasn't particularly small, and certainly not fragile. Jim was being a cop right now, goddamn it. He had to focus.

What was this going to do for the operation? Out here with no witnesses, there would be no nice photos of the exchange. No back-up to rush in and bust everyone if it went bad, either. On the other hand, Ng might make an appearance. A meet with the big boss would move things along nicely. Jim just had to make sure that nothing went wrong.

***

"So," Blair asked as they pulled out of the slip, "You good with boats?"

Vecchio snorted. "You're kidding, right? Hey, watch where we're going!"

Blair eased back on the throttle. They couldn't afford to hit something and sink the damn boat before they even got started. God. Jim.

No, no, don't panic yet, he told himself. The smugglers wanted this shipment or they wouldn't have gone to all this trouble. This might be a problem or it might just be a really inconvenient and scary delivery, but whatever, it wasn't time to panic yet. Besides, Jim and Ray had a secret weapon on that boat, and Fraser was pretty much a legend.

A legend whose guide thought he was losing it. God.

Vecchio pulled a thin nylon line from his pocket and clipped it to Diefenbaker's collar.

"Do you have to do that?" Blair asked, half-shouting over the motor. "I mean, he seems pretty smart."

Vecchio looked at him balefully. "Kid, this wolf is probably smarter than I am. Hell, he did my job for years and he might have been better at it. But when Fraser is MIA he stops being a team player, and if this wolf gets himself killed because he's not bothering to read my lips--tell you what, let's just not go there, okay?"

"Right," Blair said, trying to back off, though the boat really didn't have room for him to actually give him any space. "Leash: good. Swimming off to the rescue: bad. Got it."

They didn't talk for a long time after that, except to squabble, voices loud and flat as they competed with the engine noise, over the directions and compass. Vecchio was a city boy who had always relied on Fraser to handle complicated navigations that didn't involve street signs or freeways. Blair had used a map and compass plenty of times before, but never on the water, which changed everything.

As the sun began to set, Vecchio said, "Dark, soon."

Something twisted in Blair's gut. "Yeah," he said.

"Think we should slow down?"

Experimentally, Blair turned on the headlights and tried to gauge the reflection on the water. "Probably," he admitted reluctantly. They were safely out of the bay and into the 'open' water, but the coast here was interrupted by sandbars, small islands, and shallow reefs. If they hit something and cracked the hull or beached the boat it wasn't just Blair and Ray who were in trouble. Jim, Fraser, and the other Ray would be pretty screwed as well.

The dusk seemed to come on very fast. One moment, the setting sun was turning the wide sea to glittering fire, the next it was over, the sky casting only a dim grey light that was already fading. An illusion, he thought, doubting that the illusion would hold and morning would seem to come as quickly. Blair dropped their speed.

Vecchio, checking around the seats, produced a brown paper bag. "Hey, I think we got dinner," he said, and pulled out four pre-packaged "lunch" kits, a six pack of soda, and a bag of chips.

"Wow," Blair said. "How nutritionally complete."

Vecchio shrugged. "You don't want to fight for your share, Dief will take it."

***

Dinner was like an exercise in sentinel control. Blair cooked creatively, if a little on the healthy side, but the food was pretty good and not completely crazy. Wu took Jim and Ray to a very nicely appointed dining room and served them heron's eggs, bear paw soup, baked rock cod, sea cucumber, abalone....

Jim knew you could eat almost anything when pressed by necessity. He'd done it: monkey, guinea pig, grubs, cold and lumpy plantain soup. That had been fine.

But here, in this very polite, very posh dining room--

Using a fork and patterned china plates--

It was just surreal.

He'd never eaten sea cucumber and never wanted to. It was slimy and gritty and weirdly sweet. Surely, it couldn't taste like this to normal taste buds or it would be used as a form of torture. The heron's eggs tasted like fish. Bear paw soup was *gamey* and fatty and sat on his tongue like a sour oil slick.

Jim ate, looking bored. Or doing his best to look bored. Nothing unusual or impressive here. Really. Kowalski, bless him, chatted inanely, irritating their host just enough--Jim hoped--to keep the edge off his suspicion.

About halfway through the meal, two things happened. The first was the yacht cut engines and dropped anchor; apparently they had arrived at the rendezvous point. The second was Jim's sense of taste faded out entirely. It happened while Wu was serving crepes filled with some kind of exotic goat cheese and topped with wild mushrooms and a glistening, black caviar. No, it couldn't just be any black caviar. It had to be contraband caviar from some endangered Black Sea sturgeon. Jim had tasted caviar once as a child--and obviously it had been back when his senses had been on line, because he distinctly remembered the bite positively reeked against his tongue. He had fled the room because just spitting out the mess of salt and rotting fish hadn't been *enough* and Dad would have had a fit if Jimmy had thrown up on the carpet in front of company.

Jim wasn't a little boy anymore. He could eat enough to be polite. He could--

Then he found that yes, in fact, he could. The crepe, the goat cheese, the tiny black pearls of fish reproduction, all had no more taste than yesterday's chewing gum. "This is very good," Jim said, letting Wu see his genuine pleasure. "Where do you get it?"

Jim could concentrate on doing his job. Just like that. He ate, not caring what, while drawing Wu out. Jim admired how skillfully Wu managed to mix business and pleasure. He talked business (did Wu have any advice about refrigeration methods? Jim was thinking about moving into more perishable products....) and classical music.

As one of Wu's minions brought out dessert Jim thought he heard a boat approaching. He didn't say anything, though. Eventually Kowalski looked up and asked. "Expecting company?"

Wu smiled tightly. "Actually, no. If you gentlemen will excuse me--? Please, continue. I'm sure this will only take a few minutes."

In his wake, Jim and Kowalski looked at their poached pears with raspberry sauce and wondered what the hell to do. The unexpected was *never* good when you were undercover. On the other hand, even if they could afford to back out now, there was nowhere to run to. Kowalski scrubbed a sweaty hand along his leg. "Just be cool," he whispered. "Everything's fine."

Jim nodded, took a bite of pear. "How can you eat?" Kowalski squeaked.

"Turns out my taste has an off switch."

"Oh. That's handy." Kowalski pointed at his ear, then the room.

Jim was already pretty sure, but he listened again. No bugs. "We're clear," he said. It was probably the only thing Brackett had taught him; well, the only useful thing, but Jim's stomach didn't twist so much this time when he thought about that--listening for electronics.

Even assured they were private, Kowalski leaned closer and whispered, "How are we doing?"

"Well, we're not dead yet."

The sound of footsteps in the hall made Jim draw back. He popped a bite of soft fruit in his mouth and opened up his body language, projecting confidence and unconcern.

Wu returned with Ho Ng. Wu introduced him as "my associate, Mr. Wang," but Jim had seen the pictures, and underneath his pleasant smile was a surge of adrenalin. If Ng was here when the contraband arrived--but, no, damn. The intention had never been to close the trap with this shipment. Simon had set up an undercover crew with cameras at the marina. They'd been sure Ng wouldn't show for a while yet. Blair and Simon might have called in the Coast Guard, but according to the plan, back-up was to keep its distance. Under the circumstances, Jim wasn't even sure if they could get compromising pictures of Wu and Ng out here.

A steward brought out another serving of dessert for the additional guest. Dinner continued to be very civilized. The conversation turned to sailing and weather and boat construction. Jim cheerfully admitted to knowing nothing about steel-hull versus wood-hull cruisers, and he tried not to think about how much an undercover evening with organized crime resembled a dinner party with his father's business partners.

***

Concluded in part four...