Remembrance of Things Past
by Sheila Paulson
Summary: One of Blair's 'temporary' fathers is reported dead. But the truth is more than it seems. Rated PG. Originally published in Sensory Overload 6.
Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters do not belong to me.
"...and I think their tribe used to have Sentinels, but they hadn't had any for maybe four or five decades, according to what the chief told me. His English was pretty shaky, and I don't know more than a few words of Tagalog, but it was pretty exciting. I got the impression that the Twentieth Century messed it all up...."
Jim knew his eyes were glazed over. Sandburg had been rambling for nearly an hour about primitive Sentinels and their tribal functions, and while it had been okay at first, it didn't really relate to what he faced every day on the job. He inhabited a jungle, too, but it was a modern jungle full of perps, drug dealers, agents, generally the type of people a primitive Sentinel couldn't have dreamed of. Sandburg sometimes became so hung up on the subject that Jim felt a little lost in the middle of it. Could he zone out just from listening to one of Sandburg's endless stories? He was sure there was a ball game on TV with his name on it, if only he could figure out how to shut his guide down without seeming to shut him down....
"As we all know, the Malay tribesmen were the original developers of MTV," Blair continued in his formal 'lecture' voice. "They wore red, white, and blue Speedos and their dietary staple was the cheese enchilada."
Jim nodded automatically before he backtracked Sandburg's words and realized what he'd said. "Sandburg!" he groaned.
"I had you there, Jim. I really did." Blair's eyes twinkled wickedly. "You're gonna have to cultivate a new 'I'm really listening' expression here. The old one doesn't cut it anymore."
"Sorry," Jim said. "But I just don't see how I can *use* that."
"It isn't all about how you can use it, Jim." Sandburg actually looked a little disappointed. "And it's not just that people never really put in the effort to learn from history. It's part of what you *are*. I'd think you'd *want* to know everything you can. The more we work on it, the more it'll all come together. Maybe I know more about Sentinels than anybody else alive, but that doesn't mean I know it all. I'm trying to keep one step ahead of you here, and that's so tough, man."
"I see where you're coming from, Chief, but I'm the one who has to use it. I need practical applications. I need something that can save a life or solve a crime, not anthropological data about the way it worked in primitive tribes, not unless I can adapt it." He could still see a lingering letdown in the back of Sandburg's eyes. "It might come down to saving a life. I'm not trying to shoot you down, but I *know* it's different in the Twentieth Century. For you, it's this fascinating anthropological study. For me, it's something I face every time I look in the mirror."
"I know, Jim. I'm trying to do everything I can to help you." He produced a wry little grin. "I hope you're not saying we've got a case of 'irreconcilable differences' here."
Sandburg could be melodramatic at times, but that was taking it too far. Of all the people he'd known in his life, Sandburg had come closest to Jim. No one had ever known him so thoroughly, or understood him so well. Yeah, they were different; they came at things from different directions, but they usually arrived at the same place eventually. Maybe they could irritate each other or misunderstand each other, but there was no one Jim trusted more. He thought Sandburg knew that. He wasn't exactly good at talking about it any more than Sandburg was. He'd hoped it had become a fact of life. Everybody at Major Crimes took it that way.
"God, I hope not," Jim said with a grin. Time to lighten the mood. "After all, I've learned to live with all this clutter." He gestured around the loft. Okay, so it wasn't as cluttered as it could be. There were only four or five stacks of books here and there and maybe three weird artifacts. Sandburg's laptop, with an accompanying stack of papers and folders had pride of place on the coffee table. Jim suddenly realized he hadn't enforced the 'house rules' in weeks. Was he actually growing comfortable with the now-familiar jumble? Had Sandburg indoctrinated him so thoroughly that he simply didn't notice it any longer? "When's the last time I told you to clean the place up?" he countered.
Sandburg's face scrunched up with concentration as he thought back. After a second, a delighted glow warmed his eyes. "Oh, man--" he began, probably to say something corny and sentimental. Before he could speak, the telephone rang.
Jim was closest so he scooped up the receiver. "Ellison."
"May I speak to Blair, please, Jim?" Female, absolutely beautiful soprano voice, extremely upset. Jim thought he had heard the speaker before, but he couldn't remember where. Keeping track of Sandburg's girlfriends was about as easy as counting the grains of sand on the beach. This one knew who he was, though. Probably someone he'd met.
"Here he is." He passed the phone over.
Sandburg said, "Hello," and listened for a second. "It's great to hear-- " he began, then chopped it off. "What's wrong?" He listened for a second, then an expression of utter horror settled on his face. His eyes went vague and blurry and Jim was appalled to see them moisten with grief. "Oh, no," he breathed, and then hastily, "I am soooo sorry. When?"
God, somebody must have died. From the way Blair's face twisted with pain, it was someone who had been very important to him. What if it was Naomi? Jim edged closer and rested his hand on Sandburg's shoulder. Blair scarcely noticed, although he flashed a vague, unconvincing smile in Jim's direction before he returned his full concentration to the phone.
"When? I'll be there. You know I will. You've got Eddie with you? God, I didn't know. I wish I--"
Jim tightened his grip. Sandburg vibrated with unhappiness. All the eager delight Ellison had seen in his face before the phone rang had vanished as if it had never existed.
"Okay. I'll be there tomorrow. It's so close. We can drive there. First thing in the morning. I'll call and get somebody to cover my classes. Hang in there, Whit. I'll be with you as soon as I can. I could leave tonight--"
'Whit' must have told him not to. "But it's okay. I'm not tired. I don't need a lot of sleep. I could-- Well, okay. Tomorrow, though. I'll be with you before noon. I am so sorry."
He hung up in such a daze that it took him two tries to get the receiver into place. He raised stunned eyes to Jim, eyes that brimmed with unshed tears, then he turned aside desperately, and lunged over for the door. He grabbed his jacket on the way.
"Jim, I've gotta... I'll be back in awhile. I..." His voice quavered and he pressed his lips together to still their shaking.
"Come on, Blair..." Jim took two quick strides and caught up with him. "Take it easy. It's...not Naomi, is it?"
Sandburg blinked in surprise and that caused a tear to spill down his cheek. He didn't even appear to notice. "Oh, man, I'll have to tell Mom," he blurted. For a second, resentment warred with the grief in his face, but it was an old resentment and it trickled away. "I gotta get out of here, man," he breathed and pushed past Jim to the door. "I gotta..."
Ellison didn't want to let him, but he hadn't seen that kind of bludgeoned expression on Sandburg's face before. Let him wander out there in the darkness when he was so benumbed he wasn't thinking straight? No way. Jim grabbed his own jacket, prepared to accompany his friend.
Blair's eyes tracked the gesture and recognized it for the support it was. He shook his head fiercely--his hair bounced around his face--and said, "I've gotta be alone, man." The gratitude for Jim's intention warmed the desolation in his eyes for all of two seconds.
Jim put his hands on Sandburg's shoulders. "Blair..."
Somehow, that was all it took. Sandburg heaved a deep, miserable sigh and leaned against Jim. He didn't sob out loud, but after a second, Ellison could feel the moisture of tears against his shoulder. Sandburg was not the kind of guy who broke down like this. This was so bad. If it wasn't Naomi... Whit? That sounded familiar.
Blair didn't speak for a long time. Jim settled his arms around him. When had it grown so easy to reach out to Sandburg? He didn't offer any platitudes. They wouldn't help. Instead, he just held on and waited. Finally, Blair made a little snuffling sound and his body bunched. Jim let go instantly. Sandburg, took two quick steps backward and whirled away, fists raised to scrub his eyes. "I'm sorry, man. Didn't meant to lose it like that."
"It's okay," Jim said. Idiotic thing to say. But he didn't want Blair to fault himself for his grief reaction. "Can you tell me about it?"
Sandburg sucked in breath. "Jed's dead," he said. There was a fierce need to deny it in his voice. "God, Jim, he's dead and I never got to say goodbye."
"Jed?" Jim hesitated. The name was familiar. Then he put it together. The 'Whit' on the phone had been Whitney Stone, the singer. Her father Jed Stone and Blair's mother had lived together for a year when Blair was fourteen. Sandburg had once admitted that Jed Stone was the only one of Naomi's men he'd wished had been his father. Jim had met Whitney once about a year ago when she and her husband, rock legend Eddie Plummer, had dropped in for a weekend visit after a concert in Seattle. Three years older than Sandburg, she evidently still considered him a brother. They kept in touch. Jim didn't know if Sandburg and Jed Stone had been in contact recently or not. "Oh, that Jed. God, Sandburg, I'm really sorry. I know he meant a lot to you."
"He was the only real dad I ever had," Sandburg said in a small voice. "All the imaginings about Naomi and one of the famous ones from the Summer of Love, that was just talk. I may never know who my real father was, but Jed Stone was the only one of all Mom's men who was filled the role. He was special."
"He sounds like he was a great guy." Sandburg had never seemed unduly bothered by not knowing his real father's identity. He'd lived with it all his life; it was simply fact. But there had to be a feeling there, some lack that he didn't acknowledge, just as Jim tried to avoid admitting how his own father's attitude had hurt him when he was growing up. "Have you seen him lately?"
"Not for about six months. I went up to see him for two days that time you got sent off to that seminar in D.C. and I couldn't go with you because it was finals week. Soon as I took my last test, I went up and spent the rest of the weekend with Jed. God, he was right in Seattle. I should have gone more often."
Sure he could, in between being a student, teaching fellow, police observer, and Sentinel's guide. "Sandburg you have ten things that need your attention every minute of every day. I'm sure Jed knew that."
"Yeah. But that doesn't make me feel any better." He was still staring away, but now he turned, and his eyes were old. "Jim, I've gotta ...." He gestured at the door. "I appreciate the offer, man, but let me go. I won't be long."
Ellison measured him and came to the conclusion that he had to let him. "You're not back in an hour and I'll come looking for you."
It was the right thing to say. "Thanks, Jim." A smile flashed and died almost immediately. "The funeral's tomorrow. Whitney was in France and just got back. She didn't have a chance to call before."
"Want me to come to the funeral with you?" Jim volunteered. He was sure he could convince Simon to let him take the day off.
Sandburg's eyes warmed with gratitude. "You'd do that?"
"What kind of question is that? Of course I'd do that."
For a second, he thought Sandburg was going to hug him, but he didn't. Instead he just managed a shaky smile, then he turned and let himself out of the loft. Jim looked after him, drew in a deep breath, and phoned Simon Banks. Once that was done, he went out onto the balcony into the night that was loud with the sounds of the city, and set about identifying and then blocking every extraneous sound he could. If Sandburg needed him out there, Jim intended to be able to hear it in plenty of time to act.
Whitney Stone was a beautiful woman, tall and as fair haired as her husband Eddie Plummer. The two of them were accompanied by a tall, muscular black man, Jackson MacKensie, the third member of the Eddie Plummer band, and by an even taller, blond guy who looked vaguely like a giant Eddie on steroids. A relative? A bodyguard? Jim had met MacKensie when Whitney had last visited Sandburg, but he'd never seen this character before. When Jim and Blair walked into the reception room of the funeral home, Eddie had his arm around his wife's shoulders, and she had been leaning into the embrace, but when she saw Sandburg, her face lit, she cried, "Blair," and flung herself into his arms. Sandburg hugged her fervently and gave her a quick kiss.
Eddie stuck out a hand to Jim in greeting. He had a long face and a head of punk-rock hair that should have looked out of date but somehow didn't. A trademark pair of sunglasses perched amid the spikes. The collection of photographers and TV reporters gathered outside the funeral home were a tribute to his fame. They hadn't recognized Jim and Blair, but they'd clamored to know which funeral they'd come for. Jim had gestured them away. Eddie might be used to reporters, to the paparazzi, but Jim had never enjoyed media attention.
The singer greeted him with a handshake. "Ellison. Glad you came along with Blair. Whitney needed him here."
"He needed to be here," Jim agreed. "I never met your father-in-law, but according to Blair he was a great guy. This is tough."
"Yeah, it is. Jed never stood in our way. He was so proud of Whitney's success." He drew the black man up beside him. "You remember Jackson, don't you?"
"Yes, I do." Jim shook hands with the drummer. "You fulfilled my captain's son's lifelong ambition when you were here last time. According to Simon, Daryl didn't stop talking about you for months."
"A good kid," Jackson agreed. "I remember him. Tell him hi for me."
"This is Mel," Eddie went on, gesturing at the body builder. "He's...well, he's a roadie with the band, but he's also a close family friend." Jim got the impression that the description was completely inadequate to explain Mel's function. Maybe he *was* a bodyguard and Eddie didn't like to admit it. With the press feeding frenzy outside, a bodyguard might be just what the doctor ordered.
"How do you do," said Mel with formal politeness. "You are Jim Ellison? Eddie says you're a policeman." Something flashed in his eyes, a remnant of the wide-eyed stare impressionable kids give cops, at least the kids who aren't scornful of authority figures. "And that's Blair." He looked over at Sandburg, who was speaking to Whitney in low tones. "Whitney loves him. She says he's her only brother."
"Sandburg considers her his sister," Jim agreed. He shook hands with the tall man, and then frowned. There was something...different about the man's grip, an eerie sensation he'd never experienced before. He didn't recognize it for what it was, just that it was entirely new and that it tied into his Sentinel awareness. Abruptly, his senses sent off wild warnings, and he took back his hand as carefully as he could, as if Mel could chop it off at the wrist. Yet the warning was tempered by something milder. Mel might be able to take it off without effort--but he wouldn't. What was this? Some new Sentinel ability, breaking out at such an inconvenient time?
Mel saw his reaction. He looked at his hand as if he had never seen it before, then at Jim, and his eyes went blank--for a second, it was almost as if they glowed golden. Had to be a trick of the light. His lips shaped a word he chose not to speak aloud. Although Ellison wasn't a lip reader, he had the idea that Mel had meant to say, 'Sentinel.' Shit. Shit. Shit. What the hell was this?
Whitney slid in between them then and gave Jim a quick hug. "I'm glad you came with Blair," she said. "He needs you here."
"He's here for you," Jim told her.
"For dad," she corrected. "I wish there had been something I could have done for dad. It was just so sudden. He wasn't sick; it was a car accident. They tell me he must have died instantly. I still can't believe he's gone."
Eddie slid his arm around his wife's shoulders. "At least they say he didn't suffer, love."
"I know. I have to be glad of that."
In spite of his grief, Sandburg had noticed Ellison's reaction to Mel. He drifted over to Jim's side and said in an undertone, "What's wrong?"
"Tell you later." He cast a doubtful glance at Mel, who spotted it, interpreted it, and smiled reassuringly. He seemed to have a great many teeth. Sandburg noted the exchange of glances and frowned slightly, then he pushed the questions away due to the mood of the day. He'd remember later.
"The service will be held here," Whitney told Blair. "I'm glad you could get here beforehand. Would you like to go into the viewing room?"
Sandburg hesitated visibly, then he steeled himself. Jim remembered the way he reacted to dead bodies on cases; in a way, this would be different because they'd surely have cleaned up evidence of violent death, but it would be worse because it was someone he knew.
"It's a closed casket," Whitney said in an undertone. "They had to; there was fire..." Her voice trailed off, either to keep from wobbling or because the violence of her father's death shocked her too much to continue.
Blair patted her hand and said quickly, "I'll go in now."
They migrated to the viewing room in a body. As Whitney had explained, the casket was closed, and banked with flowers. A couple of people, probably local friends of the deceased, sat at random in the rows of pews, and glanced up when they came in. One of them, a tall man with prematurely white hair got up and went to meet Whitney, who gave him a hug but didn't introduce him to any of the others. Firmly at his wife's side, Eddie reached out for her hand when the older man let go of her, and she put her hand into Eddie's without even looking. Jackson MacKensie stuck next to Eddie, but Mel fell in at Sandburg's side--he towered over the guide--and gestured him up toward the coffin.
Blair cast one quick look at Jim, then he went with the roadie only to stop a couple of steps from the casket. Jim let his senses focus on Sandburg, enough to hear the almost-inaudible, "I'm so sorry, Jed."
Mel dropped a huge hand on Sandburg's shoulder. Jim could practically see the kindness that motivated the gesture, as if emotion had suddenly become visible to his senses. Sandburg reacted to it instinctively with a flash of a smile that faded immediately. What was it about Mel that caused Jim's senses to accelerate? Could there be such a thing as a sensory motivator? Once this was behind him, Sandburg would have a field day with that question. Uncertain of what had triggered such weird awareness around the tall man, Jim concentrated on it and on Sandburg. Blair's heart was racing and his breathing was accelerated. Reluctantly, he put out his hand and rested it on the casket.
"I should have come to see you more," he said so softly that none of the others heard him, unless it was Mel. Jim didn't know what Mel was--he wasn't another Sentinel, Jim was positive, and he wasn't a potential guide, not like Sandburg. But there was a weird energy about him that felt unnatural. It wasn't a negative energy, but it was utterly strange, unlike anything Jim had ever encountered. Jim's senses sent him warnings, but he couldn't interpret what they tried to tell him. Maybe Sandburg was right to want to find out about all those primitive Sentinels and how they'd operated. Just when he thought he was finally getting a handle on it, something bizarre came from left field and disturbed him.
Mel spoke softly to Blair. "Knew you loved him. Knew you were busy. Never blamed you."
Sandburg's mouth fell open in astonishment and he stared up at Mel, though his hand lay like a caress on the casket. "How did you know...." he began.
"I just did. Know things like that." Mel stretched out a huge hand and laid it on the casket along with Sandburg's. "Was a good man--" he began, then, abruptly, he jerked his hand free as if it had been scorched. The movement was so abrupt and violent as to seem almost obscene but the feeling Jim got from Mel was one of utter shock and astonishment, nothing malicious. This was getting really eerie.
Too fixed on his goodbyes, Sandburg didn't notice. But Eddie did, and a frown brought the singer's brows together. He said, "Just a second, love," to Whitney and dragged the roadie off to a corner of the room. Jim focused his hearing on them. "What's wrong?" Eddie asked Mel in an undertone.
"Not Jed," Mel blurted out. He caught himself and lowered his voice. "Stranger."
"You can tell, just like that?" Eddie was surprised but believing. He stared at Mel and then turned worried eyes upon his wife. "Are you sure? I mean, it has to be Jed, doesn't it?"
"Doesn't." Mel glanced over at Whitney, too. "Would never hurt Whitney. Wouldn't make it up. I can feel it." He thumped his chest. "Know it, in here."
"Is this because you're a..." Eddie lowered his voice still further, but Jim focused in and listened, his attention divided between them and Sandburg, who was still communing softly with the deceased. "...demon?" finished Eddie.
*What the hell*.... Jim felt an urge to rub his ears to make sure he'd heard correctly. A *demon*? What kind of unlikely crap was that? Demons didn't roam the earth posing as roadies for rock bands. Eddie had to mean something else, but Jim knew what he'd heard.
Mel nodded once. "Must be. You know I can sense auras. Know things about people." He glanced briefly in Jim's direction. God, if he could, he might have picked up on the Sentinel thing that way. He added, "Need Ellison. Need a policeman. Need a..." He censored himself before he could mention Sentinels--Jim was positive that was what he'd stopped himself from saying--and plunged on. "Something is *wrong*."
Oh yeah, something was wrong, all right. A self-proclaimed demon just insisted that the dead man wasn't who he was supposed to be, and that same 'demon' knew what Jim was. This was crazy. It was impossible. Yet Mel had shaken Jim's hand and identified him as a Sentinel, just like that. There had been that weird overlay, bizarre and unnatural, about the handshake, about the projection of awareness and emotion that Jim had received from that moment. Not a demon, surely, but *different*. Psychic, maybe? Nah. Jim had grave doubts about most so-called psychics. Even if that friend of Naomi's had been on the money, didn't mean they all were real.
Eddie approached Jim and spoke in an underone. "Mel says we need you. Can we talk out in the hall?"
Ellison glanced over at Sandburg. He hated to leave his friend at a time like this, but Sandburg was so absorbed in his farewell that he probably wouldn't notice. Whitney stood beside him and his arm was slung around her shoulders. He could wait a few minutes. "Sure," he said followed Eddie into the corridor.
Once certain they wouldn't be overheard and that no reporters had sneaked into the funeral parlor and were lurking nearby, Mel said quickly, "Not Jed. Somebody else. In the casket. I know."
"It sounds crazy," Eddie admitted with a wry grin. "Really crazy. But Mel does know these things. I can't explain."
"Don't have to," Mel said with a quick grin at Jim. Not a shred of malice in it. "Knows I'm really a demon."
Eddie stared. "He *knows*? How the hell does he know?"
"Just like I know it's not Jed in there," Mel replied simply.
"Oh, come on, *he's* hardly a demon." Eddie yanked his hands through his hair without displacing the sunglasses. He'd probably had a lot of practice tearing his hair out if he regularly consorted with demons. It had to be frustrating. Had to be impossible.
"No. But he's one of the people who can tell." Mel caught Jim's eye and Ellison read as clearly as if Mel had spoken it, *I won't give you away.*
"What's this demon business?" Jim asked stiffly. He'd had enough trouble accepting that he was a Sentinel, that the concept even existed. Now this character expected him to accept that there were actually demons walking around like something out of a horror film. Compared to that, five heightened senses seemed the epitome of normalcy.
Eddie grinned wryly. "It was a surprise to me, too. I had an obsessive groupie once who was stalking me. Only difference was, she wasn't...human. She was an evil demon." His mouth twitched in amusement. "I thought it was a crock at first, too." His face darkened. "She stole my baby son. We got him back, thank god, but it was close. She was so focused on me that she'd told her followers that they had to obey me. She was gonna take me as her prisoner but in order for it to work, I had to agree to go; that's why she stole Cy. In the end, we defeated her, but Mel believed what she'd said about obeying me. He switched his allegiance to me, and now he works for me. He's my friend." Jim had an idea the story was a lot more complicated than that, but that was enough to go on. Demons walking the earth looking just like human beings? God, he so didn't want to believe that. But his senses had shouted alarms at him when he had gripped Mel's hand. Maybe those primitive Sentinels Blair wanted to learn about had known things like this. If only it didn't so completely violate reason and logic....
Okay, so Jim would just put that aside for now and think about it later. Was he getting so attuned to the weird that he could simply shrug it off? He'd have to consider that later, too. "Look, I get weird vibes off you," he said to Mel.
"You would," Mel agreed.
"Most people don't," argued Eddie. He was still frowning.
"Some people can pick up on it," Mel said. "It's okay, Eddie. He is a good man."
"Yeah, that was my take on it, too." Eddie frowned. "Okay, Mel, bottom line. You say it's not Jed in the coffin. But it has to be. They found him in Jed's car with Jed's wallet--and Jed isn't anywhere around. I think it was pretty clear cut. They said they identified him by a ring he was wearing. I wouldn't let Whitney look at him. She didn't need that. Besides, by the time we got here--we were in the middle of a European tour when it happened--he'd been identified and things were ready for the funeral. We got in last night and she called Blair as soon as we got to our hotel."
"They probably wouldn't have checked dental records unless there were doubts raised," Jim said thoughtfully. "The wallet, the ring, the car itself--and the fact that Stone wasn't around to refute it--made it seem pretty clear cut. Do you know who actually identified him? If we have doubts, we'll need to justify them. The problem isn't just that Mel says someone else is in the coffin--if that's true, where is Jed Stone? Too big a coincidence for the situation to be anything but what it seems."
Eddie's mouth quirked in a wry grin. "I've seen so many strange things in my life that I don't automatically assume that things are what they seem, not anymore. My house was haunted by a pair of lovers who were separated by her father. I once ran into a rock band composed of psychic vampires. I've been in a weird place called the Netherworld. In his natural shape, Mel's really eight feet tall and blue. He says you can sense what he is--if you can do that, you've got to know things aren't always what they seem. Like Poe said, 'all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.' Most of the time, things *are* what they seem, but sometimes there's more."
"Okay, I'll grant you that." He couldn't refuse to grant it, not when he sometimes saw a panther wandering around where no panther could be. Not when his senses had produced some very unlikely experiences. But this-- demons. It was too much. Still, it explained his own reaction to Mel. "But that still doesn't make this likely. If it's true, where is Jed Stone? Either someone stole his wallet, his ring, and his car and then conveniently died, leaving Jed who knows where, or it's a setup."
"Not Jed's setup," Eddie denied instantly. "You didn't know Jed. He'd never put Whitney through this."
"He might have had no choice," Jim said thoughtfully. "This could be one of those Witness Protection Program things." It was possible, although such an explanation was far more common in fiction than in reality. But the staged accident would definitely keep people from looking for Jed Stone. Jim didn't like to think that the U.S. Marshals would sacrifice someone to stand in for the absent Jed, although under the right circumstances it wouldn't be impossible. Jim doubted he'd be able to find out even by calling in favors. The most he'd get was a 'we can neither confirm or deny your speculation.' Didn't help anybody.
"Can you find out?" Eddie asked. "Whitney adored her dad. She's going through hell over this. You can't prepare for such an abrupt and violent death. I've watched her, all the way here, and she still can't quite believe it's real. She told me she didn't want to go in and close up his house because he might come back and be mad at her for it. She knows that's ridiculous, but it's instinctive. Denial."
"I can run a check, try to get authorization to tell if his credit cards have been used since the accident," Jim suggested. Seattle wasn't his jurisdiction and he'd need to link up with the local police if anything strange surfaced. He could hardly ask for dental records because a demon said the body in the coffin wasn't who it was supposed to be, although he could claim an anonymous tip. He had to have some reason to request it, something that would be possible, that would be believed. God, he was believing Mel. When had that happened? Could the demon--if he really was one--be influencing him?
"Even that might help." Eddie tucked his hands into the pockets of his designer jeans. "The funeral's at two. Can you get things going before then? If there's any way to prove Mel's claim, we can't wait too long."
"We can check out Stone's house for signs of foul play," he offered. "And I can put in a phone call or two." He'd contact Simon, suggest there was something a little weird about the death. Simon wouldn't like it, but he'd probably be willing run a few checks. It might give them something to go on. Whitney could probably request a dental check. But Jim could tell why Eddie wouldn't want to raise her hopes. Even if the body wasn't her father, that didn't mean Jed Stone was still alive. He took out his cell phone and looked around for a private place to make his calls.
When Jim returned to the viewing room, Sandburg and Whitney had moved away from the casket and were talking to the man who had hugged Whitney before. Probably one of Stone's local cronies. Sandburg noticed Jim's return and arched a questioning eyebrow at him. Jim shook his head slightly. He'd have to talk to Sandburg, but he didn't want to build up *his* hopes either.
Eddie materialized at his side. "Find out anything?"
"Simon's gonna look into the possibility of a credit card check. He'll get back to me. I think we ought to check the house. Has anyone been there since it happened?"
"Not that I know of. Since it wasn't an open coffin, they didn't go and get his best suit or anything like that, and we didn't really have time to run out there yet. He didn't want to be cremated; personal choice; although that might have been better under the circumstances. Maybe it's just as well if we need to check dental records."
"You trust Mel's impression?"
Eddie hesitated, then he nodded fiercely. "Yes. I've trusted Eddie with my life, with Whitney's and Cy's life. I believe him completely. I don't understand it, and I don't see how it's possible, but I believe him."
The singer's sincerity was so apparent that Jim had to go with that. Maybe he didn't want to buy into it; that meant accepting what Mel was. A demon. But Mel had shaken his hand and known him for a Sentinel, and how many human beings could do that? Short of another Sentinel, Jim didn't think anybody could.
"Then I want to go and check out the house."
Blair drifted over. "Jim? What's wrong?"
"Minor complication," Jim began, then he caught himself. He couldn't lie to Sandburg. Mel's identity wasn't his secret, but the rest of it.... "Okay, major complication. We're gonna go and check out Jed's house."
Sandburg's eyes grew huge. "You think Jed was *murdered*?" he blurted.
Eddie made shushing noises, but it was too late. Whitney had heard him.
"What? What are you saying?" She faced them, stricken.
Sandburg looked appalled. "No, I was just...." he began helplessly, and cast an appealing glance at Jim. "I was...."
"My fault." Mel hung his head. Last thing Jim expected was for the demon to take blame. "Have to tell her, Eddie," he insisted. "Have to."
The other mourners started to gather around. You'd think they all had Sentinel hearing. What bothered Jim was the possibility that if there had been foul play one of them could be responsible. He made abrupt shushing noises and corralled the members of their party. The man who had greeted Whitney tried to follow, but Jim shook his head. They found a smaller room, probably a secondary viewing room, that was deserted, and Jim gestured them inside.
"Tell me," Whitney insisted. "Eddie, love, what's wrong?"
"Not Jed in the coffin," Mel blurted. "Can tell."
Her mouth dropped open. "What?" she said blankly. The words simply didn't register. How could they? She tried to speak, stopped, tried again. "Dad's *alive*?"
"We don't know that, love." Eddie put his arms around her and held her gently. "Mel can sense things, you know that. You know how he can pick out a troublemaker at a performance? Maybe this is like that."
"But it can't be." She wrinkled her elegant brow. "If that's true, that means someone died in Dad's place--and it means Dad is missing. It's-- oh, god, Eddie, I want him to be alive so badly, but I can't see.... How can this be?"
"We don't know what's going down," Jim intervened. "But it's possible this is a police matter."
She didn't even react to the fact that he evidently accepted Mel's word for what was happening at first. It was Sandburg who reacted. "You can *tell*?" he blurted out, gazing at Mel in wide-eyed wonder. "Man, that's incredible. How do you do it?"
"All demons can," Mel said dismissively.
Sandburg was more open to new experiences than anyone Jim had ever met, but this was a shock even to him. "All *what*?"
Mel did something. Jim didn't know what it was, but for a second, it wasn't a muscular blond guy standing there but something big and shambling and blue. He didn't shift his size--that would probably mean hulking out of his clothes--but his appearance phased into a creature with horns and then back again. Jim swallowed hard. It dawned on him that a part of his own mind had seen that image over the top of Mel's original appearance all along and that he hadn't allowed himself to acknowledge it. Sandburg had a name for that, too, something like, what was it, cognitive dissonance. His mind couldn't accept the existence of blue demons so he didn't see blue demons. "Like those Kalahari Bushmen in The Gods Must be Crazy, Jim," Sandburg had explained. "They didn't know about cars and airplanes and Coke bottles, so they saw them as things that made sense to them." Was that the same thing as being *unable* to see something that his own mind insisted couldn't be? Jim's expansion of the possible cranked up another notch. He didn't like it.
Sandburg's eyes shone with awe. "Wow," he breathed like a kid in a candy store. "That's so incredible, man. I only saw a demon once before. This is great."
Jim stared at him. "What the hell...?"
"Well, I saw something like...like that once before. Remember those primitive tribesmen I was telling you about last night, Jim? They used to talk about the 'guardian'. I thought they were talking about a Sentinel, or maybe even a Sentinel's guide, but then this *thing* came. It didn't say anything, just looked at me--and I mean *really* looked at me, all the way down into the soul. They were using something...ritual stuff, you know, like peyote; it was in the campfire smoke--you couldn't avoid breathing it in--and I always thought I'd just...imagined it because I was a little high, you know? But it looked just like...." He waved a hand at Mel. "I didn't know it was *real*."
"I am very real," Mel told him. "Mean no harm."
"Mel has one of the kindest hearts I've ever encountered," offered Eddie. "He's been more loyal than you can imagine. I trust him utterly."
"You're trusting him with something big this time," Jim offered.
"You mean this, Mel?" asked Jackson MacKensie. He was obviously in on the secret, too.
"Not Jed," Mel insisted. "Can tell."
"Can you *find* Jed?" That was Sandburg. "If you can sense that it isn't Jed, does that mean you can sense Jed wherever he is? I mean, you've obviously got powers above and beyond human senses. I study heightened senses."
"Sentinels," Mel agreed. "Whitney said. Sentinels know more than normal humans with senses. Only five of them, though, sometimes six. Demons have more."
"How *many* more?" Blair caught himself. "Never mind. Jed's more important." He cast a sideways, questioning glance at Jim. *Does he know about you?*
Jim gave him a quick nod. Blair's mouth tightened in concern, then it ebbed slightly. Mel hadn't said a word that would give Jim away to any of the others. Sandburg shifted without a visible trace into protective guide mode. Jim could always tell when that happened. With all the secrets flapping around out there in the wind, Blair tightened his mouth, determined to protect Jim's. Jim felt a surge of gratification at Sandburg's loyalty.
Mel scrunched up his face as he pondered. There was something almost childlike about him at times, although he couldn't be completely childlike. The guy was wearing a wedding ring. Did demons get married? Never mind. They might have a crime here. It was possible that Jed Stone was still alive and could be saved, and that was what mattered.
"Can't sense him now," Mel admitted. He hung his head. "Maybe not close enough. Go to his house and see."
Whitney caught up one huge hand in both of her far smaller ones. "Mel, please, you have to find my father. If someone died in his car, maybe it was a thief who attacked him and stole it. He might be hurt."
"I didn't know Jed Stone," Jim interjected. "But is it possible that he could have been involved in what happened; that the person in the car was there with his permission?"
"No!" said Whitney and Blair in perfect unison, and Eddie shook his head fiercely.
"There wasn't the slightest touch of dishonesty in my father-in-law," he said. "He'd never conspire--you're suggesting he wanted to disappear and found someone to die publicly in his place."
"I don't know if I'm suggesting that or not," Jim disagreed. "I'm a cop. I have to consider possibilities. Whitney, could your father have been in a position to uncover criminal activities? Would someone want to hurt him?"
"If so, he'd have been the one in the car, not someone in his place," she argued stubbornly. "I can't see someone like a master criminal snatching him for his own enjoyment and faking his death to get away with it longer. That's the stuff of B movies."
"I think he meant the Witness Protection Program, love," Eddie told her.
"I put in some inquiries," Jim admitted. "They'll see if we can find out about credit card usage checks, things like that. If he's in the Witness Protection Program, no one is gonna tell us. It would defeat the purpose. But the Witness Protection Program doesn't usually produce convenient bodies in exchange for concealment. Besides, if it was a car accident, the powers that be would have had no way of knowing the car would burn." That was a naive statement; he knew it as soon as he said it. How easy to put an incendiary device in the car? Maybe even easy to find a body to substitute, if it were important enough. But wouldn't that have been found at the accident investigation? The answer was, not if it was sophisticated enough, not if it wasn't meant to be found. And not if someone had ordered that information silenced. But that implied a complex scheme, and most crimes weren't that complicated. In the world of crime, most things were pretty much what they seemed, killings for gain or revenge, hot-blooded crimes. The fictional master criminal was pretty rare, although Jim had encountered more than his share of clever criminals in his tenure with Major Crimes. Somebody like Brackett, or Lash, could have dreamed up such a devious scheme. It wasn't impossible. But it usually didn't happen out of the blue, without some kind of advance warning.
"Look, I'm at a disadvantage here," he said. "I don't know a thing about Jed Stone except that Blair thought highly of him. I don't even know what he did for a living."
"He sold insurance," Whitney said. "And he was an archaeologist by avocation. He used to volunteer on digs on weekends and on his vacations. A lot of digs are run on a shoestring and they'll take volunteers to do some of the grunt work. You can even sign up for vacation digs and pay for the privilege. He did well with insurance because he was genuinely interested in people."
Jim tried to imagine Blair's mother living with an insurance salesman for a year and his mind boggled at the concept. Wouldn't that have been a little too establishment for Naomi? Or was it the part of him that was fascinated by the past that had appealed to her. Maybe she'd met him on a dig.
"He knew a lot about Native American cultures," Blair put in as if he'd followed Jim's reasoning. "He took me to a potlatch once. He was into all that aspect of it. That's how he and Mom met."
Okay, that made sense. But it didn't fill in answers. Unless... "Could he have been involved in denying someone a big insurance payment?"
"I don't know much about his work," Whitney said. "He always just said he'd sold another policy or something, when he'd come home at night. He sold ordinary life insurance. I don't think there's anything in there that could cause problems like this. That was what he *did*. It wasn't what he *was*."
"You never know," Eddie replied. "But I still can't figure somebody dying in his place. That implies not only a reason to keep Jed but finding someone to die in his place. It doesn't make any sense."
"Maybe it's just simple," put in MacKensie. "Somebody robbed him and took his car. They'd have his wallet--"
"And his ring," Whitney put in.
"And his ring. And when the car crashed, they'd just expect it to be him in it."
"Who made the identification?" Jim asked.
"The man I was talking to in there," Whitney explained with a wave of her hand in the direction of the viewing room. "Thomas Wright. He worked with Dad. He was dad's boss. Dad was going to retire next year..." Her voice trailed off and she gnawed on her bottom lip.
"I'll talk to him," Jim volunteered. "Then we can check out the house."
"Jed Stone was one of the best fellows you could ever hope to meet," Thomas Wright insisted when Jim called him out of the viewing room and took him to a small office that the funeral home allowed him to use once he'd displayed his badge. Jim had gestured the older man into the chair across from the funeral director's desk and seated himself at the desk.
Wright studied Ellison, his expression doubtful. "I don't see why the police should be involved in his death. It was a tragic accident, no more." Wright looked older close up than he had across the room earlier; there were fine lines around his eyes, the kind that had been put there by laughter and a lot of time spent in the sunshine. There wasn't a shred of dishonesty or deviousness in his vivid blue gaze, either, but the set of his shoulders spoke of his regret. "Hiring Jed was one of the best things I ever did. We were more than employer and employee; we were friends. Jed was one of those guys who made friends wherever he went. And he raised a lovely daughter. I was never surprised that she made it to the top. It wasn't that Jed pushed her but he gave her every iota of encouragement possible."
Jim nodded at him to go on. With Blair sitting in the corner chair to keep an eye on him and avert a potential zone-out, Jim could focus on Wright's heartbeat and respiration and be on the lookout for any lies. So far, there wasn't a single physical clue that he was lying.
"I remember you," Wright said surprisingly to Blair. "And I remember your mother. A lovely, warmhearted woman. I was disappointed when she and Jed broke up. I thought she was good for Jed, and for Whitney. And I thought Jed was good for you."
"I...think I remember you, too." Sandburg squinted at him. "But you...didn't you have red hair?"
"That was me. It went white five years ago. "
Sandburg's face was abstracted, lost in memories. "You're--he called you 'Right and Tight'."
Wright grimaced. "For my sins. I miss the guy like crazy. He used to drag me off on one of his archaeological digs every now and then. I'm not into it like he was, but there was a good companionship, and he knew I was an outdoorsman. I may just have to go on a few more without him, in his memory. You'd think I'd be too old to spend my spare time sifting dirt for artifacts, but I did a lot of that. We'd sometimes sit around a campfire at night and Jed would scare the pants off the genuine archaeological students with the greatest ghost stories I ever heard."
"I remember. He'd scare Whitney and me, too." Sandburg's eyes were vague with memories.
Wright looked at him sympathetically. "It's a tragic loss. When they called me in to identify him, I kept hoping it was all a mistake. God, I wish it was."
"How did you make the identification, sir." Jim was almost convinced that Wright was on the up and up, but he needed to know for sure.
Remembered horror darkened the older man's eyes. "I couldn't. No one could. But I had to spare Whitney. They showed me...the body." He swallowed very hard. "God, if it wasn't for the pinkie ring, I wouldn't have had a clue. I hope to god I never have to see anything like that again. You could barely tell he was...." he saw Blair flinch and let his voice trail off. "He was the right size and shape, and there was one lock of unburned hair that was the right color. And the ring. And Jed's watch, too, now that I remember. He had this battered old watch he'd worn forever that you could wear scuba diving, with all kinds of settings on it." Sandburg nodded, eyes full of memories. "When I saw that and the ring, I knew it had to be Jed. There was no question in my mind." He caught himself. "I take it there's some in yours. How can that be? Don't you think I'd have done anything, grasped at straws, if there was the slightest possibility that it *wasn't* my friend?"
"We've come into some ambiguous information," Jim admitted. "I can't reveal the source. Let me ask you something else. You probably know more about his day-to-day life than anyone else."
"Well, I think I do. Unless it's Charlotte." His mouth quirked as if he'd bit into something he'd expected to be sweet and found it sour.
Jim's ears pricked up. "Charlotte?" Sandburg stared at the older man in surprise.
"Charlotte McKelland. She called herself Jed's 'girlfriend'." Wright pursed his lips. "Sorry, but in my book a woman in her forties isn't a 'girl' any longer. I have to say I put it down to the 'no fool like an old fool' game. Jed hadn't been really serious about any woman since Naomi walked out on him. He dated, had companions from time to time. He was hardly a hermit and he liked the female of the species. But this Charlotte..." He made a disgusted sound.
"I never heard of her," Blair admitted in a small voice.
"No, and if Whitney has, I'd be surprised. You notice Charlotte wasn't out there with the other mourners? She hasn't been here once. She didn't even go to identify him. Called and asked me to do it. Have to give her that; she sounded upset when she phoned. I had a bad feeling about the woman from the word go. I thought she was out to take advantage of Jed, but he was a canny one. I didn't think he'd be misled--but then I doubt there's a man alive who can't be fooled by a woman. Maybe not every woman, maybe hardly ever, but every guy has his weakness."
"And you thought this Charlotte had found Jed's?" It was the first break in the pattern. Jim exchanged a raised eyebrow with Sandburg, who frowned and shrugged.
"Well, I thought he made a fool of himself over her. I even told him so. He'd expect me to speak my mind. He didn't even resent it. Said I was probably right, but he didn't stop seeing her."
"How long has this been going on?" Sandburg asked.
"About two months."
"Did she live with Jed?"
Wright shook his head. "No. I don't think she was even angling for it. I don't know where she did live. She just went everywhere with Jed. Liked to be seen in his company."
"Setting him up?" Jim said thoughtfully. The way Wright said it struck a chord in his mind.
"If so, why?" The insurance agent puzzled over the matter. "You're implying she had an agenda?"
"But what good would it do?" Sandburg couldn't remain seated any longer. He jumped up and took a few energetic paces around the room. "She was setting him up for something? Did it go wrong when he was killed? And what on earth could it be about, anyway?"
"The accident was when? Thursday?" Jim frowned. He had a few vague theories. Maybe it was time to sound them out. "Okay, let's go at it from another direction. "Have there been any high profile crimes committed either Thursday or a day or so earlier?"
Wright shook his head immediately. "Oh, now, you're far off there, son. Jed would never be into anything crooked. Ask anybody. Ask your young friend here. He'll tell you. There aren't a lot of guys in the world like Jed Stone. I'd have trusted him with my bankbook, my business, my life. Hell, I'd have trusted him down to the soul. He never committed a crime in his life. He wasn't made that way."
Blair raked his hands through his hair. "He wasn't, Jim. He was the greatest guy. He was genuinely interested in people. He'd listen to you like what you had to say really mattered and he wasn't faking it. It did matter to him. If he wasn't interested, he'd say so; he wasn't phony. But if he made a commitment, he lived it. I know you can't say that there's no one on earth that would never commit a crime. Sometimes people are driven to it. But he was not the type of man to *plan* to commit a crime. Can you see the difference?"
Jim knew exactly what he meant. Sometimes otherwise honest and admirable people had been driven in the height of desperation or passion to commit murder. But in those instances, should the situation have prevented the killer to take immediate action, he would probably have calmed down and never done it. You couldn't always second-guess something like that. But it was easier to tell in general whether or not someone, while in his right mind, was the type to cold-bloodedly plan a crime.
"He wasn't," Wright backed Sandburg up. "You're suggesting this Charlotte woman could have tricked him or set him up? How does that help us? I'd rather not know, if that's the case. I'd rather let it go and not blacken a good man's name, now that he can't defend himself."
Jim had a niggling feeling more was going on here than he'd expected. He wasn't sure where it would lead him, but any good cop knew that a break in someone's usual pattern usually meant something. "Let's go over the crimes that might have been committed. Anything make headlines?"
"There's always something going on in a city this size," Wright admitted. "You're from Cascade. You know what I'm talking about. There was a bank robbery the morning of the day of Jed's accident, or was it the day before? No, it was the same day. Because it made the headlines the next day and I skimmed over it on the way to making sure they had Jed's obituary right."
"Jed wouldn't rob a bank." Sandburg's tone was utterly final. "I know he wouldn't." He spread his hands in denial. "That's crazy, Jim."
"I'm not saying he would, Sandburg. I'm trying to make sense of all this."
"But *why*?" Wright jumped to his feet. "Jed's dead. What can it possibly matter now? I won't let you blacken his name."
"We're not trying to," Sandburg soothed him. "We can't explain, but there's...well, it's more a mystery than a crime, if that makes sense. We want to find out exactly what happened. Now that we know you were using the ring and watch to identify him--"
Wright's mouth hung open. "Wait a minute! You're saying it *wasn't* Jed I identified. That's what this is about, isn't it? That body in there isn't Jed? But how can you know? And if you're right, where the hell is Jed?"
Sandburg planted his feet and stared at Jim. "I won't believe Jed had anything to do with that bank robbery," he said. "I won't."
"Maybe this Charlotte did." Wild speculation there, but Jim needed to reason this out. Okay, so his 'informant' was a demon, for chrissakes, using weird demon senses for his information. But that same demon had shaken Jim's hand and known him for a Sentinel, and he'd sent off the weirdest vibes Jim had ever felt. It had to mean something.
"No, it was a man," Wright offered. "They had a picture of him in the paper from the security camera in the bank, I think. I didn't pay any attention to it. I'm only barely remembering it. They think a woman drove the getaway car, though...." He frowned. "Son, check those newspapers over there on the rack. Friday's paper, if you can find it."
Sandburg leafed through a small stack of newspapers. "Got it." He handed it over to Wright, who glanced at the headlines and flipped to an inner page. He squinted at the picture--Jim could imagine; most security camera still shots weren't exactly prime examples of the photographic art--then his mouth fell open and his eyebrows arched. "Son of a bitch!"
"What?" Sandburg wrested the paper away from him. His eyes grew huge. "Omigod," he muttered.
"What is it? Come on, Chief...."
"The guy looks like Jed, Jim. I mean, it's not Jed. You can tell that. But he looks a lot like him. A whole lot." He thrust the newspaper in Jim's face. "I know it's a lousy picture, but anybody could see the resemblance."
Jim had never seen Jed Stone, but when he'd returned to the loft last night Sandburg had produced a couple of snapshots of the guy, younger shots, with him, Naomi, a fourteen-year-old Blair and a seventeen-year- old Whitney, looking just like a family. Maybe it had been the most 'normal' year of Sandburg's entire childhood and that was why he clung to it, but the young Blair had looked utterly happy and contented in the picture, and Jed's pride not only in Whitney but in his temporary son had been obvious. There was a definite resemblance between Jed Stone and the bank robber. Something slightly off along the hairline, he thought, but guys' hairlines had a tendency to change and retreat as they grew older.
"It's not Jed," Sandburg insisted, with a certainty that was borne more of knowledge of his former stepfather than it was of wishful thinking.
"But, what does it mean?" Wright couldn't stay in his chair any longer. "You think they wanted a fall guy for the bank robbery?"
"Because he looked like Jed, you mean?" Sandburg waved his hands for attention. "Jim! Listen! They had the robbery planned, the robber guy that looks like Jed and this Charlotte. They saw Jed or ran into him somewhere and spotted the resemblance. They thought maybe they could use it somehow. If the woman who drove the getaway car was Charlotte, she could always pretend to be a poor victim if she was caught, and pass the blame to Jed. If they took his car, it would only prove it. His car and his ID."
"But why?" Jim frowned. "I mean, the guy couldn't step into Jed's life if he were dead."
"Maybe he didn't mean to be dead." Wright frowned. "Not as if he could pass himself off as Jed with anybody who knew him."
"No, but he could use Jed's passport to get out of the country to a place we don't have an extradition treaty with," Jim theorized. "Once he had Jed's papers, he could buy his plane ticket and take off. Were there any suitcases in the trunk?"
"I don't know. The police never told me."
"So the guy thought he could get away posing as Jed." Sandburg frowned and Jim could tell why. A story like that gave them no guarantee that Jed Stone was still alive. The odds were that the bank robber had disposed of him when he stole his car, wallet, watch and ring. The body could be anywhere: in a shallow grave, thrown overboard from a boat out in Puget Sound, dumped in a back alley without identification.
"We have to find this Charlotte," Jim decided. "I'll talk to the local police and explain our reasoning. They probably won't want to listen. We don't have any reliable evidence that Jed Stone isn't in that coffin." Wright's ears pricked up at that, but he took a look at Jim's face and didn't press it. "We'll see if we can put out an APB on her. The accident? Could it have been on the way to the airport?"
Wright nodded. "Yeah, it could have been. Not that far from Sea-Tac, actually. He wouldn't have even needed to have luggage in the car. It could have been left at an airport locker days earlier. But that doesn't explain what happened to the money from the robbery. If that had been in the car, they'd know. They'd have found something...."
"You think Charlotte has it?" Sandburg caught Jim's eye. "Jim, I know this is all speculation. But it means there's at least a chance that Jed's alive, doesn't it?"
"Not a very good one, Chief. I'm sorry."
Sandburg's eyes filled with shadows. Damn it, now he was probably imagining all kinds of horrible deaths for his former stepfather, each of them worse than the last. Sandburg's imagination was sometimes his own worst enemy. "Even if it's a fragment of a chance, I want to take it, Jim. Where do we start?"
"Probably his house," Ellison decided. "If we can convince the local authorities that this Charlotte may have had criminal intent, we can get them looking for her. I'll make some calls, and then we'll check the house for evidence. Wright, do you know if Charlotte had a car?"
"I don't know. I don't remember seeing her in any car other than Jed's. Sorry."
"Well, we can check it out. Come on, Chief. We have work to do."
Jed Stone's house was set high on a hill thick with pine trees that opened up to give him a view of the water far below. He'd made a good life for himself. Not wealthy, but comfortable. There were no cars in the driveway when they arrived, but the car bearing Whitney, Eddie, and Mel was right behind them. Whitney had a key to her father's house. Jim was glad they'd managed to get away without the press in hot pursuit. He was surprised there hadn't been anyone covering the back door of the funeral home. Maybe someone had and was just taking longer to get to them. Someone would discover Jed's address. The press could arrive at any moment. Better get this over fast. The last thing any of them needed was a collection of reporters underfoot.
Jim had remembered an old friend of his on the Seattle Police Department, David Beggs, who had listened to his unusual speculation and read through it. "You've had a tip," he realized.
"Anonymous tip," Jim confirmed. Well, *he* wanted to keep it anonymous. "Just that the body we had wasn't Jed Stone. The rest of it is theory on our part, and maybe it's farfetched, but that security cam shot of the bank robber looked enough like Stone that it might be feasible the robber would have thought he could pass himself off as Stone, at least long enough to get out of the country."
"Makes as much sense as anything," Beggs replied. "I can run a check on this McKelland woman. We do have a description of the woman driving the getaway car--and it's close enough to the one you gave me of McKelland, even though the car in question didn't match Stone's. But then, it wouldn't, not if they meant to use it to drive around in, posing as Stone, until they could get away. They could have stolen a car for the robbery itself and then switched to Stone's car. Leave his car at the airport, drop a few hints to people that he'd done it and fled, let his car be found there, and no one is going to look for the guy who really did it. Doesn't say much for Stone's chances, though, if any of this is true."
"Yeah," Jim had said without enthusiasm. Sandburg had his hopes us. He knew it was crazy to do so. They'd have had no reason to keep Jed Stone alive. On the other hand, bank robbery wasn't murder. All they needed was to keep him out of the way long enough for them to leave the country. Sandburg had to be thinking of that. "I bet you anything once this McKelland knew what was going down she got out of the country with the money. Unless you've been watching the airports...."
"With such a vague description, she could probably have put on a different-colored wig and walked out without any trouble."
Jim knew that. There had been no pictures of her to go on. Eyewitness descriptions were often widely divergent and wildly inaccurate. Not much hope there. So he'd given his cell phone number to Beggs and gathered everyone up to check out Stone's house. He wasn't sure what he'd find there, but the one thing he didn't expect to find was a living, breathing Jed Stone.
Yet, as they got out of the cars in front of the house, he turned his Sentinel awareness up high. Sandburg noticed and slid into place beside him, ready to shake him out of a possible zone-out. Whitney stared toward the house and Eddie caught her arm and shook her head. He nodded at Mel, who was concentrating much the way Jim was.
"Someone's in there." Jim and Mel said it at the same moment, in perfect unison.
"Two people," Jim added.
"Two people? My *father*?" Whitney's eyes flew wide open. "He's in there?"
"Can't tell," admitted Mel. "Not so far away. Need to be closer."
"One of them is lower." Jim gestured downward. "In a basement. The other's higher, a floor above us." He raised his eyes and spotted a flicker of the curtains at one of the second-floor room. "Quick. I want to keep them from getting together."
Whitney produced the key from her purse. Jim took it. "You stay here," he told the two singers. "Stay in the car. We could be going into a hostage situation. Sandburg...."
"I'm *going*, Jim. You need me to." Irrefutable. Sandburg planted his feet at Jim's side.
Mel nodded. "Needs to come. Sentinel needs guide." At once, he looked regretful that he'd spoken, but by then it was too late.
Sandburg frowned. He didn't like that coming out, but then he'd already realized that Mel knew. Now he shot a wary glance at Whitney and Eddie. They gazed blandly back. Sandburg muttered, "Shit," under his breath.
"It's all right," Whitney said hastily. "We guessed the last time we were here. We just didn't say anything. When we brought you that book that talked about Sentinels, we were pretty sure Blair had found one. But we can keep a secret. We never told anybody. We didn't even tell Mel. That can wait. My father can't."
Sandburg nodded. Jim started for the house with Mel and Sandburg in tow.
Still focused, he let himself in with a key. The one heartbeat was still upstairs, but it was moving toward the back of the house. Mel nodded at a door on the far end of the hall. "Basement," he said. "Jed."
Sandburg lit up like Times' Square on New Year's Eve. "Alive?" he gasped.
Mel nodded. "Alive. Down there."
Sandburg ran for the door. Jim couldn't sense anybody down there with him so he didn't try to stop him. Instead he headed for the stairs, consciously tracking the other heartbeat. Sandburg had just flung himself at the basement stairway when Jim realized the other person was descending, too. Back stairs? Mel might have been here before, but he wouldn't have the layout of the house memorized. If it was Charlotte and all their speculation was correct, she'd want to get to Jed and silence him--or would she just want to get away? Jim went after Sandburg. If there was a back way down to the cellar, he couldn't let the woman reach Jed first--Sandburg would be sure to try to protect him, and McKelland would be desperate.
He reached the cellar just in time to see Mel manhandle open a heavy wooden door and fling it wide. Sandburg ducked under the demon's outstretched arm and went into the room at a dead run. "Jed!" he cried.
Jim glanced past the demon. Jed Stone lay sprawled on a makeshift cot, wrists bound behind him and ankles tied and fastened to a metal hook in the wall. He looked white and disheveled, but his eyes were open. Dead? No, there was awareness in them. He didn't speak--there was a gag in his mouth--but he saw Blair and relief filtered into his eyes.
Sandburg's voice quivered with relief. "Oh, god, you're alive." He shot one quick, blazingly triumphant glance at Jim before he threw himself at the bound man to free him.
"Heads up, Sandburg. There's someone else in the house."
Blair popped the gag out gently. "Jed? Jed, it's okay, we've got you."
"Charlotte. She's still here. She has a gun."
Jim drew his own. "So do I. And Mel's...." He cut that off abruptly. Did Whitney's father know about Mel?
"Take care of her, then, detective." Stone's voice was hoarse and cracked, but he was fully aware. How did he know who Jim was? Had Sandburg told him enough for him to be identified? Didn't matter. The other heartbeat was approaching. Jim left a vastly relieved Sandburg to free Stone and nodded at Mel. "On me. Take my lead."
Mel sketched a salute at him. "Aye aye, sir." He was enjoying himself hugely. Great. That was all he needed, a gung ho demon.
A shot rang out, obscenely loud, in the enclosed cellar. Stone chips from the wall near Jim's head exploded outward and one of them sliced his ear. Ducking back, he could feel the wetness of blood but he didn't think it was more than a graze. His own gun in hand, he focused his attention on the shooter.
"Give it up, Charlotte," he said. "We know all about you." What he didn't know was why she was still here. That made no sense. Why had she hung around? Why had she kept Stone alive?
"You don't know anything." Her voice was hoarse and furious. "You can't stop me. I'll get the money and go." Another shot rang out; this one closer to Mel. The demon didn't even flinch.
"Stay back," Jim hissed at him.
"It's okay," Mel said with a happy grin. The shooting didn't appear to worry him.
"Drop the gun, Charlotte," Jim called. "We've got you outnumbered and the Seattle police know all about you and the bank robbery. Your partner's dead, but we've got you as an accessory--and for kidnapping," he added.
"Kept me tied up down here," Stone called from within his prison room. "Stole my wallet, my ring, my watch, even my car. She won't talk, but I think the police got him."
"No, he's dead," Blair gabbled an explanation. "He wrecked your car. We all thought he was you."
"Oh, god, Whitney! Does she think I'm dead?"
"Bastard died," Charlotte spat. She fired another shot that whizzed past Jim's face. "Damn him to hell. Died and didn't tell me where he hid the money."
The light dawned. That was why she was still here. She thought the money was here somewhere, in the house or on the grounds. Stone was alive simply because there was a chance he might know where it was. The bank robber must have gone to pick up plane tickets. While he might have stashed the loot in an airport locker and meant to desert her, there was a possibility he hadn't. She couldn't throw away the chance to find the money, no matter how risky it had been.
"Don't worry, Detective Ellison," Stone called. "I know where he hid it. I'll turn it over to you as soon as we're out of here." He raised his voice. "You won't win, Charlotte, or whatever your real name is. I was a fool over you, but I'm wise to you now."
She called him a foul name that shocked even Jim, and then she fired again. She was finding Jim's range. This one missed his shoulder by such a small margin that it plucked the fabric of his jacket. He tried to flatten himself into the floor. It wasn't going to work. He concentrated on her location. The second she moved, he'd know it. He could take her down.
"Hurt, Jim?" Mel called anxiously.
Sandburg yelled, "Jim!" and plunged out of the room to see.
Jim heard the woman move and jumped to his feet to take her down before she could shoot Blair. As she aimed for Sandburg, Mel roared, a horrible, ghastly sound that reverberated through the cellar and made Jim long to clasp his hands to his ears to drown out the sound. Frantically he dialed his hearing down. With a fierce bunching of muscles, the demon shifted, not only into the blue, horned being they had seen so briefly at the funeral home, but to his full height and width. His suit jacket and shirt shredded into fragments and his tie, a clip-on one, fell off. His suit pants went skin tight and ripped out along his thighs, and his belt broke. Huge clawed feet erupted from his shoes. Unprepared for the horrible sight, Charlotte McLelland shrieked like a teakettle and fired wildly full at the demon, three shots that hit him full in the chest. Ellison got off a shot a second later and the woman collapsed, but not before Jim had seen Mel reel with the force of the impact.
Sandburg screeched to a halt beside the demon, and all color drained from his face. He cast one quick glance at Jim, registered the blood on his ear and categorized it as a flesh wound, then exchanged a horrified glance with Jim before he reached Mel's side. "Omigod, she got you, man. How bad is it?"
Jed Stone tottered out into the doorway on shaky feet. "Oh, no," he breathed. "Mel, is that you? How bad is it, son?"
The demon wavered. He put a hand like a ham on Sandburg's shoulder for balance, and Sandburg nearly collapsed under it before he forced rigidity into his knees and slid an arm around the demon's waist to try to hold him up. He never hesitated, not for one second, and Jim was proud of him.
Blood gushed from the wounds, or something analogous to blood. Would it be called 'ichor'? Jim didn't know where he'd heard that word before, and he didn't care. He went over to the downed body of the woman and removed the gun from her limp hand. She wasn't dead. She was moving feebly. The shot had taken her in the shoulder and she was losing a lot of blood from it, but it needn't be fatal. At least it was enough to take her out of the game.
Mel's unfamiliar face was tight with pain as Sandburg and the shaky Stone helped him to sit down. Surely you couldn't kill demons with bullets. God, that was so wrong. The guy had acted to save Sandburg and now he was....
Blair fussed over him anxiously, then he lifted a tragic face to Jim. "What do we do?" he blurted out. "Jed, what do we do?"
"It's...okay." Mel spoke with difficulty. His face knotted with concentration. "...okay." A shudder passed through his whole body, then the weirdest thing yet happened. Sandburg tried to stop the bleeding, then he gasped and jerked his hand away. In his palm lay a spent bullet. A second later, the other two popped out of the wounds and clattered to the floor.
"Oh, *man*," Sandburg breathed, eyes enormous.
*Too weird*, Jim thought. *This is just too much*. Before their eyes, the wounds closed over, shrank down to pinpricks, vanished. Mel shivered and put up a shrinking hand to wipe away the blood. By the time he'd finished, he was 'human' again, in the tattered remnants of his clothes, and if he looked a little shaky, he was alive and on the road to a hasty recovery.
"Jed, you okay?" he asked.
"God, that you should ask *me* that. I never thought I'd see you in your natural form, son, but I'm glad it can stop bullets."
Sandburg cast one glance at Mel's chest, shook his head, then he turned to Jed Stone and flung his arms around the older man. "I am so glad you're alive," he breathed, elated. "Oh, man, this is absolutely incredible. We've gotta tell Whitney right away."
"Waiting right outside."
"Sorry, guy, I couldn't keep her out there once we heard the shooting."
"Dad!" Whitney pushed past Eddie on the stairs and flung herself at her father, her eyes awash with tears. He freed Sandburg with one arm and pulled his daughter into a fiercely comforting embrace. For a moment, the three of them held onto each other--like a family--then Sandburg wiggled free to leave them to their reunion and came over to Jim.
"Hey, man, let me look at your ear. Are you okay?" He reassured himself that Ellison wasn't about to keel over, and then nodded at father and daughter. "Isn't that amazing, Jim?" His grin expanded to include the revived Mel, who had bent to bandage McKelland's shoulder and restrain her until the police arrived.
"Have to say you called this one, Chief," Jim agreed. "I can't think of a better word for it myself." He slung his arm around Sandburg's shoulder and with his other hand reached for his cell phone to call the local police.
"I have to say I brought some of this on myself," Jed Stone admitted that evening as the party gathered for dinner in one of Seattle's finest restaurants. Whitney, joyous as a flame, sat at her father's side with her husband beside her, and Sandburg had bagged the seat on Jed's other side, looking so different from the unhappy man of the previous evening that it was like a miracle. Mel, tidy and neat in unshredded clothes, looked remarkably human and ordinary and even grinned and pointed to his wedding ring when the waitress batted her eyes at him. His wife wasn't a demon, Eddie had explained in an undertone. She was a New York secretary. They even had a child who was human--most of the time. Jim decided he didn't want any more details than that.
Thomas Wright, delighted to have his old friend restored to him, and Jackson MacKensie made up the rest of the party. They crowned the festive occasion with a bottle of Dom Perignon. Sandburg made the first toast, to Jed.
"You didn't bring it on yourself," he corrected as they all sipped the champagne. "They were criminals. They set you up."
"Yeah, but the mark has to buy into the scam," Jed reminded him. "I was flattered by Charlotte--I should say Maude Kenner." They'd learned that 'Charlotte McKelland' was an alias, and that she was the 'girlfriend' of the bank robber, a man named Bart Kendrick. Mug shots of Kendrick proved he did bear a striking resemblance to Jed Stone. As far as anyone knew, he was not a relation.
"She worked at it," Thomas Wright chipped in.
Stone grinned at his boss. "You warned me about her."
"I thought she was just a gold-digger. I didn't know she wanted to steal your identity for Kendrick so he could leave the country with your passport."
"She found out I had one," Stone admitted. "She pretended to be interested in the archaeological digs I'd been on in Guatemala, but I think she was just figuring out if I had a passport Kendrick could use. If I hadn't, they might have worked out something else. When she was looking for the money, she would gloat about it, really rub it in that she was going to kill me once she found the money. She said she'd burn down the house with me in it and I have to say I believed her. Kendrick was dead then, even though she hadn't told me about his death, and she must have loved him; it showed. But she was furious with him, too, for hiding the money. I'd guess he didn't trust her. He did it when he first grabbed me, right after the robbery. I'd arranged to take the day off, to meet Charlotte. We were going to drop in on some friends of mine who were staying at a local dig. Instead, Kendrick showed up, and he had a bag of money. He made me show him around the house at gunpoint and he finally hid the money up the main fireplace; there's a shelf in there that isn't very obvious if you don't know it's there. Then he took my wallet, ring, and watch, and tied me up in the cellar. I don't know what happened after that until Charlotte came much later. She was shaken and in tears and I thought for a second that she was going to let me go, but she didn't. It didn't take me long to figure out she was in it with Kendrick."
"I didn't know at first that he was dead, but I'd heard something on the radio about the robbery right before he showed up and I'd put two and two together. I thought the police had killed him or that he'd run out on her until she started ranting. Then it dawned on me she had come for the money. I didn't tell her anything, but I didn't deny I knew about it. I figured it was the only leverage I had--not that it was much. I was sure someone would come here eventually and if I could hold out I had a chance of rescue. It came out gradually that he'd died--in my car with my ID. I figured no one was going to come looking for me so I had to keep her as sweet as possible. But believe me, it hasn't been a good four days."
"But you're all right," Whitney insisted fiercely. "The doctor said you were fine, not even dehydrated."
"She gave me water, very grudgingly, and even a sandwich or two. She didn't want me to die before I told her about the money. I knew someone would come to the house eventually and I had to hold out, that's all."
"You did an excellent job," Eddie told him.
"But it's thanks to all of you that I'm here tonight," Stone said. "Every one of you, putting it together from the most fleeting of clues."
"We couldn't have done it without Mel," offered Sandburg. He couldn't say anything about Jim's senses, not in front of Stone, Wright, or MacKensie, but he cast a quick, reassuring glance in Jim's direction.
"I know. And I'm very grateful. Well, this is a celebration, indeed. Now if only I don't have a major struggle to convince my credit card companies and Social Security that I'm still alive. The paperwork involved.... It makes me shudder to contemplate it all."
"I've gotta tell Mom," Sandburg burst out. "Jed, she was really upset when we thought you were dead. I know she was gonna try to come for the funeral but she didn't think she could get here before tomorrow."
Stone's eyes widened in sheer delight. "Naomi's coming? That's the best news I've heard in a long time. It will be wonderful to see Naomi again."
Sandburg's eyes lit up and Jim could see 'matchmaker' spelled out in them in letters a foot high. He didn't know if anything would come of it. He couldn't see Naomi Sandburg settling down with any guy, even if Jed Stone was proving to be one of the best. It wasn't in her nature.
"We can stay long enough to see Naomi, too, can't we, Eddie?" Whitney asked.
"Well, we should be in Rome on Thursday, love. But we can wait another day."
Sandburg opened mouth to insist that he and Jim stay another day, too, then he closed it again. Maybe he knew Jim couldn't really take any more time off, maybe he thought that the university would expect him back. He might even think that Naomi and Jed had a better chance without an audience. But he looked content and happy, and ready to take life as it came.
He leaned over and spoke softly, for Jim's ears alone. "Hey, Jim."
"Sandburg?" Did he want to hear this?
"Remember when we were talking about the primitive tribesmen and learning what they knew?"
"Unfortunately yes. Is there a little lesson in this, Sandburg?"
"Well, just goes to show," said Sandburg with huge delight, "that you can never know too much about the past." He glanced meaningfully in Mel's direction. "You never know what allies you might find."
Jim glanced at the demon for a second as he sipped his champagne, then back at Sandburg, who had come to life remarkably since they found Jed Stone alive in the cellar of his house. Okay, if he had to take a few lectures about primitive tribes and unlikely demons in stride, it was worth it, to see Sandburg looking like this. Next time he went off in one of his academic lessons, Jim would make himself listen.
Well, he'd try anyway. Red white and blue Speedos, indeed.
He gave Sandburg a cheerful nudge in the ribs and raised his own glass.