Imperfections IX: Unexpected Places and Other Strange Roads
See disclaimer and notes on part one.
Marcia fumbled the keys as she dug them out of her purse. Joel leaned down and scooped them up. It was sort of surprising. Usually, she was very graceful. Not like a dancer was graceful or a debutant was graceful. But her most casual movements were always as perfect as though she had choreographed them out days in advance. She never tripped, never made a second grab for anything, never bumped into anyone. Driving with her--the first time, it had been a nightmare. She zipped in and out of lanes without any apparent concern for the huge trucks and bad drivers around her. It was only after the third or fourth (very reluctant) experience that he noticed her uncanny, nearly telepathic awareness of every car around them and *what they were going to do next*.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She brushed gently against his fingers as she took the keys back. "I'm fine. It really isn't contagious."
Something clearly was wrong, though. Joel followed her in, asking, "Are you worried about Rodney?"
In the middle of putting her keys away, she looked up, surprised. "Yes, I suppose so...."
"You're not close," Joel said.
"You mean because he's a jerk?" She shook her head. "He *is*, but it's not important. Do you want something to drink? I think we have some beer?"
"Are you having any?"
She shook her head. She was on medication again, then. Joel didn't ask. "Got any apple juice?" It was a safe bet. They always had apple juice.
"And some left-over meat loaf, if you're hungry? It's emu, but Jack made it, so it's edible. We never did get dinner." She was saying all the right things, but something...was off in her voice, her eyes. Joel wished he had a nose that read minds.
As it was, all he had was another guess. "Are you jealous? That Jack went with them?"
Her head already in the refrigerator, she froze. Slowly, she backed out, setting the a Tupperware container and a carton of juice on the counter. "No," she said tightly, "I'm just pissed because Jack's already made himself sick once this week solving other people's problems."
Joel wasn't quite sure what to say to that.
"Not that I don't--Jack owes them. We owe them." Refusing to look at Joel, she walked around him to the cabinet to take down plates. "I know that. And Jack won't be completely stupid again so soon."
Joel poured them each a tall glass of juice. "They were very helpful, after the shooting," he said neutrally.
"There's mashed potatoes and left-over peas in the fridge. No. Before that."
"I don't understand."
Her quick, precise fingers filled the plates with left-overs. "He was different, before. And it wasn't, well, it wasn't good. The way he was."
Joel was used to being the nice guy people talked to. In interrogations, he was always the good cop. On the other hand, a lot of interrogations were easier than a 'serious' conversation with Marcia. "Before he was disabled."
For a moment, her hands stilled. "No. Before the research." After that mysterious pronouncement, she covered the plates and stacked them on the rack in the microwave. "The research--I thought it was just *strange* when he started. Completely ridiculous. Although, I mean, it was *Jack* so...anything he wanted, you know?"
"You didn't try to talk him out of it."
"No. But...at first it didn't help much. I mean--he was talking about all this weird, useless stuff and he was still...pretty messed up."
"Messed up how?"
She compressed her mouth slightly, shaking her head. Jack's secrets, whatever they were, were on the list of things she wouldn't discuss except in very vague terms. Also on the list was her time working for the government and the details of sentinel-related health problems.
"I wasn't *here*," she said. "We didn't speak very often. But one day I came to visit, and Jack was...better. Good, even. And the research still didn't make any sense to me, but--"
"You never cared about the research, you only cared about him," Joel said.
"And whatever happened, John and Rodney were part of that."
"So...you owe them."
Instead of answering, she turned back to watch the food go around in the microwave.
Joel went to the sink and washed his hands with the bar of hypoallergenic milk soap. "Jack talks about how important it is to have friends."
She muttered an answer.
"I'm sorry--?" he prompted.
"McKay's a bad bet. Jack's all...*wrapped up* in them and--Joel, it really is a question of when, not if he's going to die. It's going to end badly, and Jack--"
"Well, of course it's going to end badly. That's usually what 'ending' means--unless what's ending is pretty bad to begin with."
The microwave beeped. Marcia rotated the top and bottom plates and turned the microwave back on.
"You don't understand."
"I was at an arson last week. A duplex over on Welleston. The place went up so fast we were looking for bits of bomb."
"Joel, I really don't think--"
"There were two kids. Unlike most fire victims who are killed by smoke inhalation, they were actually burned alive--"
"If McKay lives to ninety, it's going to end badly. If you live to ninety... it's going to end badly."
Body rigid, eyes hard, she turned to face him. "So it doesn't matter? The when doesn't matter? The how doesn't matter?"
"It matters. But it's not a reason...to not even try."
"It's going to hit Jack so hard when he dies. And that's not McKay's fault, but--"
"Do you think it is? That McKay...shouldn't have any friends? He should stay away from people? Because that would be easier? You just said that Jack was worse off before. You can't have it both ways."
She stood there for a long time, refusing to look at Joel. The microwave beeped, finally. Marcia turned around and retrieved the food.
Rodney stirred, looked around, made brief, worried eye contact with Jack, looked around some more. "Where's John?" he whispered.
"He went out to get a little air," Jack said. "He'll be back soon. And don't get that look. He didn't leave you alone."
"And you can handle me?"
"You know I can," Jack said. Lifted the cup of water from the nightstand and handed it to Rodney.
"I'm scared," Rodney said. It was a challenge, seeing if he could push Jack away.
"So were we," Jack admitted. "John's down in the chapel trying to pull himself together."
"Oh." Rodney looked at him. "What caused it? Because I could have sworn the room was okay--"
Jack took the cup back. "We don't know," he said.
"You don't know? You don't know and you think you're done being worried--"
"Rodney, it wasn't just you. Apparently a dozen sentinels went down at the same time you did."
"And this helps--how, exactly?"
"It means we don't start freaking out and searching you for symptoms of something rare and deadly, Rodney. It was sun spots. Or a new kind of supersonic jet. Or nuclear testing in India."
Rodney closed his eyes. "Oh. Yes. How very reassuring. Um, Marcia?"
"She's fine. So is Jim."
"Oh, well, of course," Rodney rolled his eyes. "The big, macho police detective isn't going to pass out in front of a dozen witnesses." Rodney hid his face behind his forearm. "God. Those people are never going to look at me the same way again."
"Rodney," Jack said. He knew Rodney couldn't have had any illusions about how he'd been seen before. The people he worked with might be colleagues, but they were neither peers nor friends. His genius was intimidating, his senses an unfair advantage it would be hard not to resent in a competitive, academic department. Nearly dying at his own birthday party had been dramatic, but it probably wouldn't change anything, not really.
Rodney was still bemoaning his fate. "But of course, I pass out in front of the police officer. No, wait, two. And Marcia--she will never let me live this down. You don't suppose--you don't suppose Stephen will lose faith in me now? I mean, I can still do the work. My brain is still--"
"Rodney, hush," Jack said. He squeezed Rodney's hand warningly. "Give me a body check."
"I just passed out at the first birthday party I've had...well, in a long time. I think I have a little sympathy coming."
Jack thought about that. "You know, I can remember...I guess you'd call it 'blending in.' Sort of. It was probably a lot easier. I donít think it was any better."
Rodney snorted. "You just hated it because you were spying on the Russians and killing people."
Jack sighed. "Yes, Rodney. You're right. I don't know anything at all about living with a social stigma."
His eyes were already drifting shut. "You're mocking me, arenít you?" he muttered.
"Yes, but only because you're being sort of a bastard."
Rodney had been asleep for about five minutes when John got back. He didn't stir when John took his pulse.
"He was up for while," Jack said. "Lucid." John nodded. "Any word from Sam Beckett?"
"I talked to Al again. They don't know anything." He let go of Rodney's arm and pulled back. "What the hell, Jack? I don't...get it. He's been good lately." He pressed his hands to his face, holding in tears. Jack inched his chair closer and put an arm around John's shoulders. "It's not fair...."
"No," Jack agreed. "Nothing is fair."
When the elevator doors opened, Jim pushed Blair behind him and drew his gun. Gaping, Blair drew breath to ask what the hell was going on, but Jim motioned him to silence. Still carrying the sack containing Rodney's presents, Blair followed his partner down the hall to the door of 307, which was ajar.
Jim paused for a moment, head canted, listening. Without warning, he sprang, tossing the door open and pointing his gun at the head of a dark-haired man who was sitting on the couch, reading. The invader looked up irritably and said, "You don't have any good snacks. You should go shopping."
"Keep your hands where I can see them," Jim growled.
Staying motionless, the invader said, "That's my ID on the coffee table."
Jim approached slowly, the gun never wavering. Blair followed, keeping out of the way. Blair picked up the slim, leather case and flipped it open. "FBI?" he read incredulously. "You're kidding."
He passed the case to Jim, who examined it carefully. "Sealie Booth," he read. "Brennan's guide." He holstered his gun and tossed the ID back at Booth just hard enough to sting. "You should have called for an appointment." A stranger in the house was a sure way to unsettle a sentinel. A guide couldn't have done this by accident. Looking at Jim's face, Blair guessed that it had worked.
Agent Booth smiled icily. "What can I say, Detective? A small-town flatfoot nosing around in Dr. Brennan's private affairs gets my full and undivided attention."
Jim put his gun away. "I'm sorry. Have I interfered with your progress on the case? Oh, right. You haven't made any."
"You can either explain what you're doing collecting information on Dr. Brennan's case here, or we can do it down at the federal building. I'm not picky."
"So," Blair said brightly, "Can I get anybody coffee?"
Jim said, "We believe her abduction is related to that of several other missing sentinels who were taken in May and June of this year."
That seemed to surprise Booth. He shook his head slowly. "No," he said. "None of our evidence is indicating it's part of a pattern, or that there are any other people missing along with her. She was taken as retribution for her work identifying--"
Jim was shaking his head. "I'll show you."
A copy of the brief version of the case notes was in Blair's backpack. While Blair made coffee, Jim laid out the descriptions and abductions of the other victims. Before he was half finished, Booth was shaking his head. "It doesn't make sense," he protested. "Except for being healthy sentinels...they have nothing in common."
Visibly keeping his temper I check, Jim said, "Why don't you humor me, and tell me your story."
Agent Booth paused for a long time, his eyes on the small, black and white faxed photo of Dr. Brennan that had been in the abbreviated file. "We were at a conference," he said slowly. "At a little lodge that backed up on a state park. It was desert, you know. Hot, and not a lot of green." He paused, some of the anger slipping away to be replaced with helpless resignation. "We'd had a fight. All the way down from the room. Bones needed a vacation. I *wanted* a vacation. Hawaii, maybe. Or a cruise, you know? If she didn't want to spend that much time on the plane. She'd been having headaches. She needed a break. But she wanted to go to Poland."
"On vacation?" Blair asked, surprised. That was a long time to spend in a plane. What sentinel would do that for fun?
"No. They'd just found a mass grave there. Maybe thirty years old. Something left over from the Communists, maybe. She'd been invited in, and she wanted to go. I was angry. I told her if she wanted to go that badly, she could go without me. And she stalked off, went out onto the patio, instead of into the meeting room."
He stopped there. Jim had his patient interrogator face on. He waited, barely breathing, for Agent Booth to continue. At last he said, "After I calmed down, I followed her out. Bones was struggling with a tall woman. High cheek bones. Fair skin. Impossibly black hair. I pulled my gun and my badge--and something hard hit me from behind." He stopped again. From reading the file, Blair knew how this story would end, but still, it was all he could do not to jump up shouting for him to go on. "It wasn't much of a fight. The man was behind me, but he was almost my size and as well trained. He tossed me off the patio into the ground, about twelve feet. I broke my left leg in four places. They didn't leave any prints. Nobody got a description. Nobody saw their car. Bones--" He stopped, changed direction. "She's probably in an unmarked grave somewhere." He shut the file in front of him. "You're chasing phantoms, Detective. This--doesn't even make any sense."
"None of them make sense," Jim said. "Your explanation doesn't make sense. If it's a statement, why don't you have a body? We've got five sentinels missing, and the evidence in those cases only makes sense if they're connected."
For a moment, Booth seemed to waver. Blair thought he saw a flicker of hope. Then he blinked and the hope was gone. Booth just looked blank and unbending. "No," he said. "There's nothing here to make a case out of."
"We've put in a request for the complete file," Jim said, the statement a polite request.
Booth looked Jim over slowly. "I'll send you a copy. Add it to your little obsession. Do whatever you want, I don't care. Just don't get in my way."
He stood up, retrieved his ID from the table, and left. He was limping, badly favoring the left leg. He shut the door behind him.
"Wow," Blair whispered. "What the hell was that?"
Jim sighed. "He was really hoping we were on to something, Chief, that's all. Imagine his disappointment in discovering that we're a pair of conspiracy theory nuts."
Jim locked the front door, then went to the kitchen and retrieved a broom. The loft was, as always, pretty tidy, but Jim had had his home invaded, and he'd probably spend the next half hour or so getting rid of that touched-by-strangers feeling. Blair wondered if he should help or if Jim would feel better doing it himself. He was just getting ready to give in and wipe down the counters in the kitchen when his cell phone rang.
It was Jack. "*How's Jim?*" he asked without preamble.
Blair looked over to where Jim was re-tidying all the magazines and art on the coffee table. "He's fine. Why?"
"*We just got off the phone with Rodney's doctor. At the same time Rodney went down, so did eight of his other patients. No warning. No precipitating event. Just--collapse. Rodney was the worst case so far, but Sam doesn't have any explanation....*"
"Jim's fine," Blair said firmly. Jim had stopped tidying and was following the conversation from across the room. "How's Rodney?"
"*Shocky*," Jack said. "*But conscious and coherent, which is great. Pissed about missing the party. I'll probably go home in another hour of so, if he's stays stable. There's nothing I can do for them here.*"
"That's good," Blair said. "That he's doing better."
"*Yeah, it is. It...scared the crap out of me, Blair. But--we don't know what did this or who else is vulnerable. You need to stay close to Jim.*"
"Right. Got it. Don't worry."
"*Don't worry? Blair, sentinels in five different states collapsed simultaneously. This has never happened before and we donít know why it happened now. Don't worry? I dearly wish I had something to do besides worry.*" He rang off, and Blair stared at the phone. Jack was completely freaked out. There was no other word for it. Blair hadn't realized that Jack *could* be freaked out.
Jim lightly touched Blair's arm. "Chief? Any of your books on religion explain how to get a vision on purpose?"
Blair blinked. "Um, yeah. Sure. Why?"
"I need to borrow one."
"Okay, sure. But, Jim, you know you only have to ask, man. I'll help--"
Jim smiled sadly. "You'll only tell me the techniques that are safe." He seemed to brace himself for Blair's angry explosion.
Blair gulped, surprised himself that there was no furious explosion forthcoming. "Well," he said, "how about we just try the safe ones first and see where we go from there." He knew where this was coming from. Jim had a vision right before Rodney took a header for the floor. He clearly thought the two events were connected, and maybe he was right. "You know 'dangerous' doesn't necessarily mean 'more effective.' And if--if we have to use more extreme measures--we'll talk about that later, okay?" And it wasn't a lie. Although Blair had four years of training that said that *nothing* was worth endangering your sentinel...that wasn't true. Some things were worth risk. Some things were even worth loss.
Jim nodded gratefully. "Okay," he said. "What do we try first?"
"Jim, it's fast, it doesn't require any special equipment, it's easy to learn, it has a fast recovery time, it works--"
"And it's so safe that last February when Marcia was so sick we all thought she was going to die, Jack had her doing it three times a week."
"And it worked so well that she's been able to go back to work. Jim. Trust me. This first."
When Jim, clean and warm from the shower, came back into the living room, Sandburg had already set up the nest on the floor. A couple of towels for cushioning, a pillow, a lit candle. Jim relaxed his jaw, squared his shoulders, and crossed the room as though he were completely confident.
Sandburg finished turning off the lights and sat down on the floor beside the nest. "Ready?" he asked, fussing with a pillow.
Jim didn't let himself hesitate. He lay down on the floor and let his hands rest palm-up beside his body. "All set," he said.
Sandburg loosened the drawstrings on Jim's sweats and then gently brushed his palm over Jim's belly. "You're going to breathe from here," he said. "It's going to be fairly fast. Inhale and exhale need to be the same length."
"I've done this before." It sounded sharp and impatient; could Jim be any more transparently anxious?
Turning to lie down on his side with his mouth close to Jim's ear, Blair whispered, "If you mess it up, it's no big deal. You hyperventilate yourself into a headache, we take a break, and then we try something else. No risk. Nothing to worry about."
Right, yeah. Pattern breathing was just a technique. A skill. Something you learned, like cleaning a rifle or making spaghetti sauce.
The first time Lee had tried to teach Jim a breathing pattern, they had ended up on the floor...about here, actually...with Jim pinned down in an armlock and Lee's sweaty hand clamped over Jim's mouth and nose. Even with Blair here beside him, the memory of panic and helplessness danced around the present moment.
"Jim. Door number two is I reserve the sensory deprivation tank over at the college. It'll take about three days to get scheduled, but you'll be seeing things in under an hour. Pretty much guaranteed."
Three days was too long. Jim shook his head.
"Door number three is we drive out into the mountains and sit you under a tree until sleep deprivation and/or hunger make the gods pity you and send you a vision. Say, twenty-four...thirty six hours."
Jim swallowed. "What about drugs?" he asked. "I'm not talking about anything made in a laboratory. But. I know there are options."
"Sure. There are herbs and mushrooms that will give you visions. Some of them are even legal. But Jim, you have to *learn* to use those. They're not a shortcut to spirituality. And...they're *really* not safe for sentinels. You can't work on the case from a hospital."
Jim realized he was holding on to Blair's arm. He'd have to let go for this to work. He dropped his hands to the floor and took the first breath. The others followed in a swift--almost mechanical--rising and falling. Blair had been telling the truth; it wasn't complicated. Ruthlessly fast and harsh, yes, but the rhythm was easy to find and, though he'd done it only once before, his body remembered and fell into the pattern easily.
It was boring. And tiring. And his throat quickly felt raw. Jim felt himself starting to flag, but before he even really noticed the temptation, Blair was gently prodding him to keep his pace.
The room began to spin under him. Jim hoped it wasn't just hyperventilation. He got his answer as his hands stretched painfully into paws. The pain in his jaw and head were worse, and Jim cried out as he sprouted a muzzle. Blair was still close, still murmuring demands that Jim breathe, and so Jim forced himself back to the rhythm. The breaths themselves hurt, now. His throat was raw, the muscles in his gut ached. He couldn't remember why he'd wanted to do this. His tail--
Having a tail was so distracting that he sat up and stared at it. It was only then that he realized that he wasn't lying on towels on his living room floor. He was lying on leaf litter on the floor of a jungle. The pain was gone. So was the pounding breath. And Blair's voice, but that was all right. He had known he'd have to go alone.
He wasn't alone, though. Above him, hanging from the canopy, were five steal cages. Each of them held an animal. Impossibly, in some cases, because there was no way to fit a full-grown orca in a cage that looked no bigger than a foot locker.
Five, he thought, with some surprise. What were the odds that they'd gotten the numbers right? That he and Jack had hadn't missed one or mistakenly gotten an extra on the list?
And then he saw, scattered about, heaps of broken wood. Other cages, Jim realized. Other cages for other kinds of sentinels. And empty, now. They had tried before, and it had ended badly. Maybe by design. He counted half a dozen and then stopped counting. Instead, he tipped his head back, looking up at the living prisoners dangling above him.
Only one was looking down, the hound. And she didn't seem too sure of him. Cautious, she watched without moving. "Where are you?" Jim asked.
She didn't answer.
"How do I find you?"
But no, this had been the problem before, hadn't it? He could find the animals, but they wouldn't talk to him.
"Please," he begged.
Floppy hound ears cocked slightly. She might be considering it. Before she decided, though, a hand grabbed Jim by the tail and *hauled* him bodily backwards through the trees. The bright clarity of the blue dream gave way to grey, candle-lit dimness and pain.
Hands had him pinned, a weight on his shoulders, a horrible claustrophobia--
Jim shoved, squirmed, Blair, God--
"Easy, Jim. Breathe. Come on--"
Jim shoved him back and tried to turn and crawl away. "Why--" he croaked. His throat was dry and raw. His hands, no longer paws, wouldn't work right.
"Are you all right? What happened? Jim--"
"Why did you stop me?" Jim's voice was still breaking, but that might be betrayal as easily as exhaustion.
"Why did I *stop* you--"
"I almost had them!"
"You stopped breathing!"
"I was there!" Jim crawled the rest of the way to the couch and managed to rise as far as his knees by pulling himself up on the arm. "I was there! I didn't need to keep doing the damn pattern--"
"No! Jim! You weren't breathing at all! And what the fuck, by the way!"
"I was fine!"
"You were supposed to be fine! It was supposed to be safe! You stopped breathing!"
Jim dropped his head and let the couch take his weight. "Damn it. I almost--I'd found them--"
Timidly, Blair touched him on the small of his back. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Did you learn anything?"
Jim shook his head helplessly. "I don't know where they are."
Blair's hands were hot on Jim's shoulders, even through his tee shirt. "We'll try something else," he promised. "I'll try next time. I've done it before." His voice dropped to a whisper, "I found you. We both know I did. I'll give it a try."
Blair got up and went to the kitchen. His sudden absence left Jim feeling cold. He climbed up into the couch and pulled the afghan down around him.
The kitchen light Blair turned on was blinding, even from the living room. Jim pulled his knees up and hid his face.
"Here, drink some water."
Jim took the glass without looking. The cold water was soothing on his raw throat. "How long was I out?" he asked.
"The whole thing didn't even take half an hour. But Jim. Not again tonight. Please."
"No. Not again. I need to try something else."
"Okay. Hypnotism is a possibility. I'm....okay at it. Jack is better, but I really donít want to explain. Hey--Isobel! I took a class for her for three days when she got sick over the summer. She's a great hypnotist and she owes me a favor. We can tell her...something."
Jim drained the rest of the water. "No. I need to be *there*. Call the airport and get us the earliest flight to Los Angeles. And hand me my cell phone, would you? I need to call Simon."
Sandburg had an easier time booking the flight for 5:30 the next morning than Jim had convincing Simon that he hadn't completely lost his mind. "Look, I'm going as part of an ongoing investigation--"
"*There's an investigation now? Jim, you have no evidence!*"
"Then I'm on vacation. Or sick leave, if you decide I've lost my mind."
"*What does Sandburg say about all this?*" Jim gritted his teeth and said meekly that Blair was just fine with it and would be going along to make sure Jim didn't do anything irrational or stupid.
Simon sighed extravagantly. "*You may not have noticed this, Detective, but I am actually on your side." In the end, Simon promised to get Jim's cases covered for the next day and let him off with a promise to be careful.
It wasn't even nine o'clock yet. Sandburg made tuna sandwiches, and they ate them sitting on the couch. Throwing together a single overnight bag--just in case--took less then ten minutes. It was still early for bedtime, and, frankly, Jim wasn't looking forward to going upstairs to stare at the ceiling for hours. Sandburg just settled in on the couch, though, and after a few minutes, Jim set the alarm on his cell phone to go off at three, and sat down beside him. If they fell asleep, well, that would be fine.
He woke in darkness, covered with a blanket, his cell phone squealing obnoxiously. Breakfast happened at the airport: coffee purchased from a trendy alcove and granola Sandburg had brought.
The plane ride was--best forgotten as quickly as possible. Before coming on line, flying had only been inconvenient. He'd wondered how bad it would be with the senses. It turned out the answer was 'profoundly unpleasant.' The plane smelled. And shook. Jim gritted his teeth and counted the minutes. Sandburg repeatedly asked if he was all right. Jim just nodded. He did, when they landed, give in and let Sandburg negotiate the rental car counter and drive the little Toyota they had available.
They caught the tail end of LA morning traffic, and it took almost forty-five minutes to make it to the address Alan Eppes had given them. As they pulled up in front of the aging bungalow, Jim spared a thought to worry about not having called first, but he could hear someone moving around inside.
Jim's knock was met with a short, flustered pause, a flutter at the peephole, and a nervous, "Who is it?"
"My name is Jim Ellison. This is my guide. We're with the Cascade Police Department."
Jim held up his ID. "It's about the Eppes case. Alan Eppes met with us--"
"That was in Washington."
Jim continued to hold his ID in view. "Yes, it was."
Slowly, the door opened. The man on the other side was short and middle-aged and not Alan Eppes. "Alan's not here," he said. "Don is getting out of rehab today. I'm here to help get things ready."
"We won't take up much of your time," Jim said. "I just wanted to see the site of the abduction. Mr.--?"
"Fleinhardt. Dr. Larry Fleinhardt. I'm a...friend of Charlie's. And you can see anything you want, but the police were all over it months ago. It's been professionally cleaned. There's nothing left. Even Charlie wouldn't be able to find anything in there."
"I'd like to see it anyway," Jim said.
Fleinhardt shrugged and led them to the living room. It was warmly furnished in well-used Mission Style furniture. It didn't smell of blood or fear. Slowly, Jim stepped into the room. Behind him, he could hear Blair making nice with the civilian. He was being friendly and distracting, leaving Jim to look around.
Charles Eppes. *What the hell happened to you here?* A gifted sentinel, not particularly young, but sheltered, carefully cared for, his first guide was his mother, not certified, apparently, but well trained--
Charlie had been sleeping, there on the couch, when the blond woman came in. He and Don had been working all night on traffic patterns for the LA city planning office, and when they'd finally finished Charlie had collapsed to sleep on the couch and Don had gone out for breakfast. Charlie was a light sleeper, and careful as she was, he heard her. He jumped up, terrified, tried to retreat over the side of the couch.
She was fast. Predator fast. Jaguar fast.
They struggled. The syringe she'd brought to subdue him went flying, but still, she was strong--
And then a second man came in. The older brother Don, obviously. The jaguar pulled a handgun, and, without hesitating, fired.
Don Eppes made no sound as he fell, but Charlie started keening. He slid out of the woman's grasp and threw himself down onto his knees, smearing the blood.
"Stop it!" she snarled.
The desperate, half-formed shrieks continued. She grabbed him by the hair. "He's not dead yet. He might even survive. But if you don't shut up and come with me right now, I'll shoot him in the head."
Charlie hadn't managed to stop the crying, but he'd gone without resistance....
Jim gasped, bracing himself on the fireplace mantle. His hand knocked over a tiny, plastic figurine. Numbly, Jim picked it up. It was an animal, yellowish and slightly goofy. "What's this?" Jim asked.
Fleinhardt frowned in puzzlement. "Oh. That's Charlie's. He got it in a hamburger meal when that movie came out. Hamlet, but with Lions."
"What kind of animal is it?"
"Um, a meerkat, I think?"
Jim put the tiny plastic animal back. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to hold on to the image of the woman. She was different in every description, but Jim had been looking for traces of her for months, putting together scraps of information. Well trained. Competent. Very, very clever. He knew her now, though he still didn't have her name.
"Listen. About Charlie--"
Jim opened his eyes and looked at the nervous little man. "Yes?"
"I was talking to Alan before he left this morning. He said all the sentinels who had been taken, they were healthy."
Jim nodded, waiting.
Fleinhardt looked at the floor, the walls, anywhere but at Jim. "The thing was--Charlie was--is--Charlie is healthy. But he's not...he's still not normal. Not the way you think of it. He zoned."
Jim glanced at Sandburg, wondering if he should be offended. Even if he *should* be, the reek of misery and worry wafting off this man would have been enough to soften up a heart of granite. "We all zone," he said gently.
"Not like this. When he's gone, he's really gone. Last year, on campus--he teaches part time--he zoned through the fire alarm. The fire alarm! I'd hate to think what would have happened if the building had actually been on fire. It's just--whoever has got him, whatever they have in mind, he's not going to be easy to, ah, manage." He petered to a stop and sighed.
"We'll do our best to bring him home soon," Jim said. He heard a car pull up into the drive, and followed the sound out onto the small porch.
Mr. Eppes was bent over the passenger side of the car. A face peered over his shoulder. It was a face Jim recognized, although he hadn't seen pictures. "Who's that?"
Mr. Eppes turned. "Detective? What are you doing here?" he asked, surprised.
"I wanted to look at the scene for myself," Jim answered, acutely aware of how lame that sounded.
Fleinhardt said, "I let him in. I hope that's okay."
"It's fine." Eppes turned back to the car and carefully levered Don out and onto his feet. Jim waited, watching, as they made their way up the short steps. Don Eppes was moving very slowly, clinging to a cane and his father's arm. He smelled of hospital disinfectant and pain medication and recent infection.
Jim waited off to the side while Alan Eppes and Fleinhardt got Don settled on a chair in the living room. Don himself was watching Jim. "Have you found anything?" he asked.
Jim shook his head. "We're still collecting information. That's why we're here, actually. I was wondering if any of you noticed anything unusual in the days before Charles was taken?"
"Ah, what do you mean, 'unusual'?" Fleinhardt asked.
"Was there any indication that he was being watched or followed? Was he...nervous? distracted? Anything...unusual?"
Don Eppes closed his eyes. "He was dreaming about mom. For days.... I think he was a little distracted by that. He might not have noticed if someone had been hanging around."
Fleinhardt's scent spiked of alarm. Jim looked at him. With visible reluctance, Fleinhardt said, "He was...seeing things. That weren't there."
Don sat up. "Now hold it right there, Larry. Of all the *crap*, Charlie has ever had to take, he's never had to hear it from you--"
"No. I mean things that *really weren't there*! Things he knew weren't there. The Tuesday before...before he was taken, Charles and I were in his office. He was holding office hours, and as usual, the students were too intimidated to come. So I was hanging out. And he asked me if I could see the leopard sitting in the corner."
"The leopard," Jim whispered.
"You know. A big, spotted cat. He said he'd seen it a couple of times."
"He never mentioned that to me," Don said. His father shook his head.
"He said he was kind of embarrassed," Fleinhardt whispered. "He said...he knew it happened to other sentinels. But he never thought it would be him."
The silence that followed was horrible. Finally, Don asked, "Detective, is my brother still alive?"
Jim thought of the plastic meerkat sitting on the mantle behind him. "He's alive. And I'll find him."
After the Eppes house, Jim had Sandburg head out to the building that had housed 'Psych', the oddball private investigation company run by Shawn Spencer. Jim paced back and forth along the sidewalk in front, looking at angles, wondering about vehicles, thinking like a cop. He read over the file again, checking the sketchy and short witness' report. None of the weird double vision hit here. Guster came out and let them in, but the dusty inside of the small office was equally...normal. Concealing his disappointment, Jim thanked Guster and led Sandburg back to the car.
"So what next, man?"
"Airport," Jim said, sighing.
"Are we going to head to New Mexico?"
"No, we're going home. I don't know what I was hoping to find. There's nothing useful here. I still have no idea where they are. This was a waste of time."
Sandburg called to arrange a flight, but insisted on lunch before heading back to the airport. Jim tried to be casual and confident. It was a case. He was working on it. Sooner or later they would find something.
Blair managed to contain his questions until they were settled on the plane. "Have you seen the leopard, too?" he asked under the crash safety demo.
"Jaguar," Jim corrected, answering the question. He turned his face to the window, and reluctantly, Blair let him have his retreat. Jim was disappointed and frustrated; he didn't need to have his guide hopping around with curiosity and pushing for details. He felt responsible for what Brackett was doing now; all those months that Jim had quietly accepted his own abuse, and now Lee Brackett was out there, hurting someone else. Nothing would fix this but finding him and putting an end to it.
More of a worry was the whole thing with the animals, which he thought Jim was seeing more of than he admitted to. Despite the anxious rumors surrounding the phenomena, Blair was confident that animals formed a healthy part of sentinel spirituality and psychology. A way to deal with stress, access intuition, connect with the universe, and bond with each other.
That was the problem, really. Although animals had never hurt Jim before, if he was being touched by the sentinels who had been taken....Blair really did not want Jim put through that.
It would be nice if he could get some advice about Jim's inner visions. Blair could never tell anybody, though. First off, it would be a waste of time since nobody would believe him. Blair was in police work. He couldnít go around looking like some kind of hippy flake, at least not in his professional life. Second--well, saying anything at all, even couched in the most neutral terms, would imply all sorts of things about *Jim's* inner world. Which he would hate even if he weren't in police work.
Blair's mom would find it fascinating. She'd probably arrange a special visit, just to ask questions.
Jack would be disappointed. Not just because it would look like Blair was abandoning science for mysticism, but because he saw the current discourse about guide skill and attachment to be vital to the future of sentinel health, and a glitzy but fuzzy move toward the occult would distract attention from the more boring, concrete issue. Jack would be more than disappointed, he'd be absolutely crushed. He'd also be convinced Blair was too incompetent to allow near a sentinel.
Jim had fallen asleep, his head resting against the window. Poor Jim. He didn't want any of this crap. He just wanted to find Brackett.
God, Jim was going to be in a state if they didnít get a break soon. Or if the bodies of those missing people started turning up. But Jim had said that Charles Eppes wasn't dead. And he had sounded sure. But whatever Jim knew, he wasnít talking.
Blair stared for a long time at the seat in front of him, his eyes tracing the rough weave of the utilitarian upholstery.
Jim sat up suddenly and glanced around.
"What's wrong?" Blair asked. "Are you okay?"
Jim didn't really answer. "What's in Sierra Verde?"
Blair wondered if it was a trick question. "Um, some nice tourist beaches. Some drug runners. Oh, Dr. Paulson. Some jungle. Accusations of illegal logging and drilling."
"From Rainier. He took a bunch of grad students down to work on restoring some Mayan ruins at Xel Che. For tourists, you know? Why?"
But Jim didn't seem to be answering any questions at all. "Why would you take a sentinel to Sierra Verde?"
"Me? I wouldn't." Jim seemed to want more, so he added. "Look, it's the Third World down there. That means poverty, which means pollution and sanitation problems....Sentinels and travel don't mix even when you're going somewhere rich."
Jim thought for a moment. "If you had--if someone had taken sentinels there, what would they be doing?"
Huh. "Well...hiding? The government's pretty chaotic, especially once you get past the tourist areas. Why? Is that where they are, Jim?"
Jim nodded once.
"And the spotted cat?"
"The woman working with Brackett. I...I just dreamed her."
"In Central America."
"Chief--if we go running off there and...it's all some kind of--of hallucination--"
"Right. But we don't have any other clues. So. We should probably pack when we get home. Comfortable shoes. Passports."
Jim looked at Blair, and for a moment naked gratitude showed on his face. Blair wished he could think of something wise or comforting to say. Lives were on the line, and the best leads they had were coming from spirit guides and vision quests. Blair couldn't even say the words 'spirit guide' or 'vision quest' without Jim getting all freaked out and resentful. Blair had tried. *Because* lives were on the line, Jim would do what he needed to do to solve the case, but he would hate trusting so much to such tenuous and uncontrollable processes.
At home, Jim went right to the phone to make arrangements to fly to Sierra Verde while Blair set about re-packing. Lots of socks and underwear. Jim's own soap. All the granola in the house. Dress pants? A tie? Just in case?
Abruptly, Blair walked away from the shoulder bags and picked up his cell. He had Jack on speed dial.
"*Blair. Hi. They're sending Rodney home later today, but they still don't know what caused it, the victim count is past a hundred and fifty, so you still need to keep a close eye on Jim.*"
"Right. Believe me, I am. Um, I wanted to ask you a question."
There was a short pause, then: "*You have my full attention.*"
Blair hadn't been asking for quite that much. In fact, now that he had Jack on the phone, he felt kind of silly. "Does Sierra Verde mean anything to you?"
To his surprise, Jack laughed. Sounding much more relaxed, he asked, "*Is Jim still on that? I thought he was past that stage.*"
"Uh, what stage?"
"*Researching obscure sentinel references in the popular culture.*" Another chuckle. "*Where in the world did he find out about Henry Jones?*"
"Henry Jones," Blair repeated, mystified. Heíd been half-afraid that Jack would tell him Sierra Verde was known as the hub for an international sex trade in sentinels, or something. But Henry Jones? He knew the name--the gonzo archeologist who was the model for the "Indiana" Jones movies. The original hadn't been as violent in real life as his fictional counterpart, but he'd been every bit as careless and erratic.
"*All right, if he really wants to know the whole story of Henry Jones and the lost temple of the sentinels, a book came out about five years ago...by the same guy who wrote the big biography of the Kellogg brothers. I hear it's actually very funny.*"
"Oh. Thanks, Jack. Great."
Lost temple of the sentinels. *That* was Sierra Verde? Slowly, Blair came out of his bedroom. "Jim?" he asked. "Are we going into the jungle?"
Jim was staring at the house phone in bemusement. "What? Oh. I donít know. I saw them offloading a private plane on the beach somewhere. Maybe."
Blair went back to collect their hiking boots and more socks.
"Simon's coming," Jim called after him. "Can you believe that? He says...He says Brackett is as much his problem as ours."
Including layovers, the trip to Sierra Verde was going to take at least twelve hours. Just how much more than twelve hours was a mystery of changing time zones. Blair was tempted to just dig into the savings account Jim had made him set up--and which he mostly ignored--and spring for business class, but two of the planes they would be on didn't even have business class, and probably the entire trip would be an unsalvageable hell. He packed everything he could think of in his backpack, including a CD player and Jim's good headphones.
Wednesday night after dinner, Blair had rushed out to the book store to pick up the biography on Henry Jones for himself and a political satire for Jim. Simon was at the loft when he got back. He spent the night on the couch; they were leaving for the airport at 5:30 Thursday morning.
The two longest legs were first. These were also the largest, most comfortable planes. On the first flight, Jim had gotten exit-row seating--plenty of leg room. Jim and Simon talked about old cases. Blair, half-listening, opened the book on Henry Jones. Who was, apparently, spectacularly nuts.
On the second flight, Simon and Blair had aisle seats and Jim sat next to Blair. "I'm going to try to sleep through this one," Jim said, digging out the headset. Blair pushed up the arm between them and let their hips brush together. He could feel Jim breathing slowly. Everything was fine.
He hoped everything stayed fine. It was risky, putting a sentinel on a plane for half a day. Especially on top of traveling yesterday, too.
After serving the snacks, one of the flight attendants paused beside Blair's seat and glanced down. "Good book?" she asked, flipping her hair and looking perky.
Blair blinked. "Oh. Well. Hysterical. It's very funny. Unfortunately for the poor guy it's about, he took himself very seriously." He shut the book and held up the cover so she could see it: Henry Jones in a pith helmet and khakis, standing in some severe-looking ruins.
The flight attendant's eyes widened. "Are you going to Mexico to visit the ruins?"
"No, further south. Sierra Verde."
"Oh, very nice. My best friend Cindi went on her honeymoon there. Very romantic. Perfect white beaches. Moonlit coves. Mysterious jungle."
"I'm afraid I'm going on business."
"Wow. Shame. No adventure for you, then."
Blair sighed dismally. "Probably more adventure than I want...."
When the flight attendant moved on to answer a signal light, Jim carefully took off his ear phones and scooted a bit in the seat so he turned toward Blair. "So," he said. "Pretty girl."
"I guess," Blair said. He opened the book and flipped to the index, wanting to skip forward to the "Temple of the Sentinels" bit.
"So, I'm putting it at, what? February, Chief?"
"What February?" Blair asked in confusion.
"Since you dated," Jim's voice was hard. "Because of me, I assume. Is there a technical word for it? Separation anxiety, like they have for kids? Or is it something worse?"
Blair undid his seatbelt and slid to the edge of his seat so he could angle in Jim's direction. "Christ, Jim, it wasn't like that." The book, forgotten, slid off Blair's lap and jammed between them. "It wasnít like that."
"Just what was it like, then, Chief?"
"You were just starting to get really healthy last winter, Jim. You needed all of my attention. It wasn't a big deal."
"It's been almost eight months, Sandburg. And you're--you're still ignoring pretty little--"
"Jim! It's not like there's a future in picking up someone I met on the plane. And for the last half a year, we've been kind of *busy*. For that matter--I'm going to be kind of busy in the immediate future. Remember?"
Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose. His breathing was fast and shallow. "For me," he whispered. "You've been making stupid sacrifices for me--"
"Jim, stop, okay? Stop." He reached out and shielded Jim's eyes with his hand, and leaned as close as he could, trying to block out the noise and stink of the plane. "Breathe. It wasn't a big deal. I was making...a big transition professionally. Right? Finishing school? Going full time at the PD? And you were finally getting on your feet. I didnít have time to date. It didn't matter. It doesn't matter, Jim."
"I got sick," Jim said. "When you went out...I was getting sick."
"You needed more of my time. That was all."
"Why have you got my eyes covered? Am I a horse now, Chief?"
"Right. Sorry." Blair didn't pull back, but he shifted his hands to Jim's shoulders. "Not a horse." He smiled thinly. "Jim--it's okay. Really."
"It stops. I mean it. You don't put your life on hold any more."
"Well, geeze, Jim. Do you mind if we solve the current case before you start setting me up?"
Jim looked away. "Yeah. Okay."
"Can you relax for me? We've got a long day ahead of us. And this is the easy part. When we get there...."
Jim nodded. He started to settle back into his seat, but paused. "Listen, Chief. I don't want...."
"I know, Jim. It's okay."
"It's not that I don't appreciate--Because I do. It means a lot. But you can't...."
"Okay, okay." Blair nudged Jim back and then pulled a thin cotton blanket out of his backpack. It smelled like home. Blair spread it across Jim's lap. "I get it. You need to relax, though, okay? It's all right. I hear you. And it's cool."
Jim nodded tightly.
Blair retrieved his book and pretended to read until he felt Jim sag into his shoulder as he fell asleep.
The layover in Mexico City was short. The airport was nice and busy. The weather through the windows calm and bright.
Jim balked when Blair wouldn't let him go looking for food. "What is this, prejudice? Sandburg, you're the last person--"
"Absolutely. I am the last person to let his sentinel eat foreign, *airport* fast food while he's traveling in the middle of a big case. No. Simon can eat what he wants."
"You let me eat on the plane."
"Right. World-class *bland*, Jim." He handed over a baggie of organic, cinnamon-roasted almonds from the co-op back home. "Protein, fiber, calories. Go to town."
Jim and Simon shared surprised, amused looks, and Simon went off to find something to snack on while the waited.
After Mexico City, Belize City. After Belize City, Sierra Verde. Trudging through the last airport, exhausted and stinky, they formed a sad knot at baggage claim. "I thought this was a huge tourist destination," Simon said. "Why is it such a bitch to get here?"
Jim jumped as the luggage carousel honked loudly and lurched to life. "Tourists have a direct flight from Dallas-Fort Worth. But those flights were booked for the next three days. Going back should be better."
The hotel was one of those chains that deal with tourists. Not Blair's first choice for either aesthetically or morally, but predictable, which was what they needed under the circumstances. It was only about ten o'clock at night, local time, but about one a.m. at home. Jim hadn't been able to get two singles close enough together, so he and Blair were sharing a double, a decision Jim had made without any help or hints. Simon was on another floor. In the room, Blair handed Jim the last of the bottled water, and pulled open Jim's duffle. The sheets were packed on top.
"What are you doing? Sandburg, don't play maid here--"
"It's a guide thing. We change sheets. And I think this is my first time, so let me enjoy it."
"Iím sure the sheets are fine."
Blair shot him an irritated look and balled the hotel's sheets into a wad and set them on the dresser. "Hey!" Jim said. "Okay, seriously, you didn't change the sheets at St. Sebastian's."
"It was a *sentinel* monastery. Right? All cotton, high thread count, washed in phosphate-free, fragrance-free soap? Go take a shower and quit kibitzing the guide."
Jim made a face. "All right, if they have to be changed. But you don't have to do it. It won't hurt me to *touch* them."
"It's traditional, all right. A guide thing." He turned his back on the bed. "You've just ruined it for me. My first time. Always with the fussing and complaining. This was supposed to be a proud moment, too. I'll probably have to go into therapy now. Thank you very much."
Jim laughed until he lost his balance and sagged onto the second bed. "Oh, right. And now you're on the wrong bed. All my work for nothing--" Jim was still laughing when Blair chased him into the bathroom to shower.
Simon was knocking on the door before 8:00 local time the next morning. Resentfully thinking things like 'bright eyed and bushy tailed' and 'bastard,' Blair dragged himself out of bed and opened the door. Any grumbling he might have done out loud was cut off by the sight of the coffee and pastries Simon was carrying. "I might marry you," he said instead.
Simon smiled cruelly. "I just got off the phone with Joel. You need to call your boss. He's been looking for you."
"My boss." Oh, crap. "Jack."
Simon handed him a cup of coffee. "Good luck with that."
Blair started for the phone, spun back and headed for the shower. It was too early go call Cascade. Jack wouldn't appreciate being dragged out of bed to yell at Blair.
At the same time, Jack would be pissed if Blair put it off. Blair headed back to the phone, stopping when he pictured Marcia's face when she realized what idiot student had interrupted Jack's sleep.
He should have just explained before they left--Jack would have understood--
That Jim was having hallucinations, and instead of taking him to a doctor, Blair had headed for a tourist beach in the Third World. Jack would understand just fine.
Well, hell. It wasn't like Jack wasn't going to find out sooner or later. Blair had just been hoping that in the excitement of the arrests or whatever, Jack would forget to ask what they were doing there in the first place.
He compromised, finally, taking a slow shower and getting dressed before giving in and making the call to Cascade. Marcia didn't answer the phone by cursing him out, so he had hope that Jack was already up.
What little optimism he had faded when Jack greeted him with, "*So, Blair. How's my sentinel.*"
"Um," Blair began.
"*You do remember, right, that legally speaking, I'm responsible for Jim's health and wellbeing? You're just my proxy, my agent.*"
"Right. I'm sorry--"
"*How did he handle the flight?*"
"He did great. He's in the shower now. Jack, look, I know it's not fair. If you want to file the paperwork to terminate your supervision--I never meant to put you in a legal bind--"
"*Wrong answer, Blair.*"
"Wrong answer," he repeated miserably.
"*According to Joel, Jim is on personal time. What he does and with whom he does it is not the concern of the Cascade Police Department or its contract with Rainier University. Or me, as an employee of the university. And that is what you will tell anyone who asks.*"
"Yes, Jack," Blair breathed gratefully. His own guilt had blinded him to the obvious out.
"*But that's not why I wanted to talk to you.*" He chuckled dryly. "Although, you seem to have beaten me to my news.*"
"Um? Oh?" Blair still felt terribly slow.
"*A former co-worker came by last night after dinner. A good friend. He showed me a picture of Lee Brackett in the company of a woman who is suspected of being a part-time sentinel hit-woman and Bud Torin, vice-president of a major oil company.*"
Jim came tearing out of the bathroom, naked and dripping wet, to stare at the phone.
"Really?" Blair asked. "Where were they?"
"*Well, they were in LA. Right now, the businessman is here in Cascade. Brackett and the woman...we don't know. But right now I'm holding a list of places Torin has been during the last year. He's been to Sierra Verde seven times.*"
"No shit," Blair whispered.
"*Much shit,*" Jack answers. "*Blair, how did you--*"
"I--Jim had a hunch. I can't explain it."
"*Blair, that's not an answer.*"
"Well--if he got a tip, he didn't tell me where. Jack--you've got more than we do. Please--"
"*Sierra Verde is just one on a long list of destinations, Blair. And if Torin was doing anything shady there, I don't know what it was.*"
"What about the...sentinel hit-woman?"
"*She's also an art forger.*"
"*Yes, the mind boggles. We've been wondering just what her involvement in all this is.*"
"Is she--she's not using Brackett as a guide, surely," Blair said. Even a hardened criminal didn't deserve Brackett.
"*There's no record of her working with a guide for the past few years. She may not need one.*"
"Jack--what's going on? Really. What the hell?"
"*I have facts. I don't have explanations." His facts were pretty detailed. For five minutes he listed names, dates, holding companies that might be involved, the record of Alicia Bannister, the hit woman. "It's a big picture, and your missing persons are only part of it. I donít know what part. Blair. I donít have to tell you to be careful.*"
"I know, Jack."
"*Blair. Remember that this is Jim's area. He has a lot of experience dealing with very dangerous people. Listen to him.*"
Blair met Jim's eyes across the hotel room and swallowed. "Okay."
"*Check in again in a couple of days. I may have more for you then.*"
In the silence that followed, Jim went back into the bathroom and rinsed off. He returned half a minute later, drying his hair and filling Simon in on the half of the conversation he hadn't been able to hear.
Simon scratched his chin. "Sandburg? You got your student ID?"
Obligingly, Blair took it out and passed it to him. Simon chuckled. "Well, how about that, Jim. It says 'Anthropology' on it. That's primitive peoples, isn't it?"
"We don't use the word prim--" Blair began.
Jim reached over Blair's shoulder to appropriate the ID. "Oh, ho. How about that?"
"What?" Blair asked.
Jim grinned. "You're going to walk in the front door of the local Cyclops Oil office and tell them you're a graduate student studying the effects off habitat loss--"
"How about 'natural resource management,'" Simon put in.
"On local tribes."
"But--Jim I donít know anything about the local--"
Simon laughed outright. "That's okay. They won't talk to you about that. Your job is just to get Jim in the door and keep him there for as long as possible. Let him look around. Maybe overhear something."
Blair blinked. "Oh," he said.
Continued in part four...