Jim Ellison sat on the low concrete seawall bordering Revere Beach, dragging lines in the sand with the heels of his boots. The sunny, freezing-cold day had brought out a few hardy joggers and dogwalkers, but he and Blair mostly had the sand, snow and crashing waves to themselves this Sunday afternoon in early January. All morning Jim had been testing his Sentinel senses on the ocean, trying to differentiate between the Atlantic here just north of Boston and the Pacific back in Cascade. Blair's idea, of course. So far he'd determined the Atlantic smelled more briny and oily, felt thinner between his fingers, and tasted less of seaweed. An underlying odor of sewage of unknown origin stung the back of his sinuses. An old-timer sitting by the bandstand gave him the bad news.
"Raw sewage, just north of here. They dump it right into the water," the man said. "You know, this was the first public beach in America, back in 1896. First public cesspool, if you ask me."
Jim refused any more tasting after that. Blair took the non- cooperation with good grace, considering he'd paid his own way to Boston while Jim traveled free, courtesy of the Cascade Police Department. Captain Simon Banks could fund Jim's attendance at the special FBI symposium on terrorism starting the next day, but expenses for his graduate-student sidekick and secret Guide didn't come with the deal. Blair had tagged along in order to scour the research stacks of the Harvard Anthropology Department, looking for clues to help hone and refine Jim's Sentinel senses.
"Hey," Blair said, approaching from behind. Jim had listened to the soft tread of his sneakers as his partner walked from the counter of Kelly's Seafood across the street to the seawall. He turned to help the younger man unload his burden of two tin-foil-covered plates of fried clams, scallops and fish. Paper cups of soda came out of the large pockets of Blair's army jacket, only slightly sticky from the trip. The odor of fried fat made Jim's stomach twist, and although he tried to internally tone down his senses he had difficulty blocking out the greasy atoms floating up to his nose, the stench of airplane exhaust from the jets streaming overhead to Logan Airport, and the great heaving mass of sewage rolling in the ocean.
"You don't like?" Blair asked as he watched Jim pick at his food.
"Nah, it's fine," Jim said.
"Must be the jet lag." They'd landed the night before, after a five hour flight during which Blair's feet had incessantly tapped on the floor and Jim's patience had grown increasingly frayed. The cold weather in Boston had slapped both of them in the face the minute they walked out of the terminal. The Copley Place hotel they were booked into turned out to be nice enough, but it took an extra thirty minutes to switch to a room with two double beds and the neighbors next door played pay-per-view until three a.m. Jim figured he'd earned the right to be a little grouchy. His head began to pound in rhythm with the incoming tide, and he slipped his sunglasses down over his squinting eyes.
"You don't look so hot," Blair said, contritely. "Why don't we call it a day and head back to the hotel?"
"No more ocean experiments?" Jim joked. "Maybe you want me to count all the grains of sand or something?"
Blair threw away the remains of their lunch - his plate completely cleaned, and Jim's hardly touched. "Nah. We've got to save something for next weekend, right?"
Simon had been able to cough up enough money for a rental car. Jim let Blair drive them back through the Sumner Tunnel into the nightmare of Boston's downtown streets. The younger man navigated through the mess of blocked arteries, construction detours and traffic jams with the sureness of a homing pigeon. The noises of the city bored into Jim's skull - car pistons exploding, subways rumbling beneath the ground, jackhammers gnawing on cement. The smells of thousands of bodies, cigarettes, perfumes and foods burned his nostrils. By the time they reached the hotel Jim's headache had flared into a full-fledged migraine, and he crawled into bed with a muttered curse.
"I hate this," he rasped.
"I know," Blair soothed. He pulled the drapes shut against a western view of the Boston's skyline and turned on a small lamp in the corner. He disappeared into the bathroom and returned with a cold wet facecloth. "Here. Drape this over your eyes."
The water in the facecloth smelled of chlorine, copper and fluoride. The threads scratched his face with a thousand tiny hooks. Jim shifted on the bed as he heard Blair unfold a blanket, and a soft weight that reeked of laundry detergent and fabric softener descended on his legs. Blair tugged off his boots for him, and the sound of them thumping on the floor sounded like mountains falling over.
"Make it stop," he ordered Blair, and put his hands over his ears. "I can't stop it."
"Stop what?" Blair asked, sitting on the bed beside him and catching his hands to pull them down. He sounded calm and assured. "Jim, what is it?"
"My smell and hearing - they're haywire. I can't turn them down!" It had been a long time since Jim's senses had last cartwheeled out from under his control, spinning him into chaos. His fists clenched in Blair's grip. "They're just hammering at me, forcing their way into my skull - "
Blair cut him off confidently. "No they're not. They're just there, Jim. Just floating. Like you are. You're just floating, okay? You're going to relax now. From the top of your scalp to your toes. Work with me on this."
Under Blair's soft persuasion Jim began the steady, hypnotic relaxation they'd practiced countless times before, in situations when Jim especially needed to concentrate, remember or wind down. He focused on releasing the tension in his head, jaw, neck and shoulders. He moved down, to the rigid lock in his diaphragm and stomach. Breathe in, breathe out. Blair guided him in the way only he could, leading Jim into a floating place where his heightened senses didn't attack, didn't hurt, didn't make him want to cower in a corner. The facecloth reverted to a non-threatening coolness, pleasant on his face. The blanket receded into nothing more than a secure source of warmth.
He fell asleep to Blair's voice, and woke to the dull, distant sound of traffic from behind the thick window glass of the hotel room. Blair sat in the corner, by the re-opened curtains, backlit by the glittering skyline. He'd fallen asleep with a sheaf of papers in his lap, the soft glow of a lamp draped by a towel barely enough to read by. Jim rolled over cautiously and peered at the bedside clock. One a.m. He felt tired and sore but much better than he had earlier. He went to the bathroom, returned, and shook Blair awake.
"Come on, Chief. Off to bed you go."
Blair blinked at him groggily. "Huh?"
"It's late." Jim scooped the papers out of his lap and squinted at the titles - an article on human behavioral biology from Anthropology Quarterly, and printed web pages from Harvard. All Greek to him. Jim put the papers on the bedside table. "Go to bed before you get a big kink in your neck."
"Too late," Blair muttered, rolling his head from side to side. He disappeared in the bathroom for a few minutes, then came back clad in his underwear and slipped under the covers of his bed. "How do you feel?"
"Better." Jim stood at the windows, looking at the glow of the Hancock Tower and Back Bay. "What do you think brought all that stuff on?"
"You might be coming down with something, but probably just the jet lag and the different smells here - "
"Sandburg, Boston doesn't smell that much different than Cascade."
Blair yawned and pulled his blankets higher. "Sure it does. The Atlantic and the Gulf Stream, the acid rain carried in from the industrial belt, the different trees and fauna . . . you know, maybe . . . we should . . . tomorrow . . . "
He trailed off into sleep before he could finish the thought.
"Good night, Blair," Jim said fondly.
Simon had not wanted Blair to come on this trip. The police captain thought Blair occupied too much of Jim's world, a crutch perhaps, a sometimes-useful police observer who nevertheless didn't fit into the law enforcement world and who often created more problems than he solved. Jim disagreed. He knew Simon didn't quite understand the link between a Sentinel and Guide. Heck, sometimes Jim didn't understand it himself. But he needed Blair, needed grounding, needed someone who could talk him through the rough spots when his Sentinel abilities threatened to cave in on him. Their lifestyles, opinions, background and outlook on life had more differences than similarities, but in an odd way that just made their relationship better.
"And thanks," he added before going back to his own bed.
Blair took an instant liking to Harvard Square. He blended in the clutter of cafes, eclectic bookstores and used music stores much better than he did in a hotel convention hall crowded with four hundred police officers in suits. His long hair, knapsack and gold earrings earned him anonymity and acceptance in Cambridge, not the snickers he'd heard outside the FBI symposium while making plans to meet Jim for dinner. He knew Jim might meet some soul- mates and decide to go out for beer and steaks and swapped stories of "My Favorite Stake-Out," but the current plan called for Blair to be back at the hotel at six. Maybe he'd phone and let Jim off the hook. Blair didn't want his partner to feel obligated about entertaining him or babysitting him for the whole two weeks they were in Boston. And he harbored at least a few hopes of finding compatriots of his own, at book readings or in the research stacks or at student unions.
He spent two hours wandering around, ignoring the voice in his head accusing him of procrastination, trying to quell the nervous twists in his stomach with croissants and coffee. He tried not to think of himself as a tiny insignificant fish in the biggest academic pond in America - a pond filled with piranhas. He'd attempted to explain the ruthlessness of academia to Jim, but the Sentinel thought of universities in simple dichotomies. Professors and students. Graduates and undergraduates. Blair found nothing simple in the tricky navigation of afternoon socials, grant applications and peer reviews; nothing simple at all in juggling his teaching duties with publishing pressure and Ph.D. research. That Dr. Peter Mayhew Thorpe had not returned Blair's phone calls, e- mails or written letters shouldn't have depressed him - after all, Blair had only earned a master's degree so far, and he worked at a backwater university in a specialized area almost entirely lacking in credibility. Dr. Thorpe ranked as Harvard's leading expert on biological anthropology, a man who'd spent more years teaching than Blair had been on the planet.
But Dr. Thorpe's silence, his very refusal to even acknowledge Blair's existence, did depress the younger man. He knew most professionals in his field derided Sentinel research. He'd had to put twice as much time and effort into his master's thesis than any other anthropology student, driving himself to exhaustion in the process. He'd overwhelmed the review board by sheer force and intensity, not to mention solid research and sound hypotheses. Finding a real live Sentinel had fueled his appetite to learn more not just for himself, but for Jim too. Someone had to keep the big guy on track. Someone had to watch his back. Blair feared outliving his usefulness - one day Jim would realize Blair had nothing left to offer to the partnership - but until that time came, Blair had a duty to his studies, himself and a certain Cascade cop to do whatever it took to further his Sentinel knowledge.
He reviewed his own little pep talk for several minutes before screwing up enough courage to walk up Divinity Avenue to the Peabody Museum. The massive doors, walls and windows dwarfed him, making him feel small and grossly insignificant. Once inside, out of the biting wind, he caught sight of a few students in the distance, drifting down the hall like ghosts. A muted telephone rang behind the powdery plaster walls, then abruptly stopped. The immense somberness and gravity of the building settled on Blair's chest like a pair of concrete blocks, and he almost turned around then and there. Instead he tried to imagine what Jim would do, how Jim would act, and jabbed at the elevator button. After a few minutes of wandering around he found an ajar door labeled with Dr. Thorpe's name. He slipped into an office suite bigger than the loft apartment he shared with Jim in Cascade.
The deep blue carpet stretched as wide and formidable as an ocean. On the far side of it sat a mammoth mahogany desk manned by an elderly secretary with upswept white hair, tortoise-shell glasses, and a severe black suit. She didn't look up or otherwise deign to acknowledge his presence. Bookshelves encased the walls from floor to ceiling, harboring thousands of leather-bound volumes. A set of double doors behind the secretary led, presumably, to Dr. Thorpe's hallowed inner sanctum. The sound of the secretary's pen scratching on paper didn't travel far in the office, but instead sublimated into a massive silence that obliterated Blair's hopes, thoughts and confidence. He looked down at his faded green army jacket, torn sneakers and well-worn jeans, and then at the ocean of blue separating himself from his goal.
His courage abruptly fled.
Blair turned around and left.
At dinner that night in a fabulous Italian restaurant in the North End, Jim asked how Blair's research had gone. Blair's forkful of spaghetti paused midway to his mouth as he fixed a smile on his face and lied, "Fine."
"What kind of research, Blair?" Craig Holley asked. Jim had made friends with Holley, a sheriff from Maine, during the course of the day. Blair liked Holley well enough - taller than even Jim, the man had a droll manner and a friendly handshake - but he'd already sensed bad vibes from the fourth man at the table, Holley's deputy Paul Briggin. Briggin had frowned at Blair's earring and shook his hand as if he expected Blair to be carrying some weird hippie disease.
Naomi had always insisted on one matter of etiquette - never speak with his mouth full. Unable to answer for himself, Blair watched Jim pick up the conversation. "Blair's an anthropology professor at Rainier University."
"Professor?" Briggin asked skeptically, as if Jim had just identified Blair as Most Valuable Player for the Boston Celtics or a world famous brain surgeon.
Holley picked up a garlic roll and smiled. "Blair, you can't be that much older than my daughter, and she's a senior. Just how young do they hire college professors these days?"
Blair swallowed quickly. "I'm really just a teaching assistant."
"Same thing," Jim scoffed easily, signaling the waitress for another round of beer.
Briggin frowned, obviously still trying to adjust to the idea of Blair instructing a classroom of students. "Anthropology - like dead people?"
Blair glanced sideways at Jim. "Actually, my primary focus of research is alive and well, thanks."
Jim shot him a warning glance and turned to Holley. "So what did you think of that last seminar, huh?"
Blair smiled inwardly as the three police officers slipped back into their own world of crime, suspects and procedures, unburdened by any sneaking suspicions of the academic profession running amuck. From a purely intellectual standpoint, he enjoyed watching the changes in Jim when the older man shifted from the world of science and academia into the testosterone-laden law enforcement society. His posture relaxed, he smiled more, his voice got looser and louder, and his vocabulary became more monosyllabic. Or maybe the changes came with the third or fourth round of beer. Cops, Blair had noticed, really liked beer. Briggin's stories portrayed Hudson, Maine as a hotbed of international smuggling, Mid-East terrorism and high-tech crime. Holley cleared his throat and admitted most crimes were of a decidedly lower caliber. Jim told some funny stories about Cascade criminal antics Blair had heard before in the squadroom and demurred when Jim tried to draw him into the conversation. He didn't feel especially talkative, especially in light of his cowardice earlier that day.
If Jim noticed his reticence he said nothing, and the four men wandered from the Italian North End to an Irish sports bar near Fanueil Hall that boasted large screen televisions and green beer in commemorative mugs. Blair left them to their stories and wandered around the trendy shops until he found a natural science store. Cheap gems glittered from shelves, fake plastic fossils dangled from the ceiling, and a truly awful imitation of Tanzanian tribal music played softly through the store speakers. He stood for several minutes reading an elementary school text about cavemen, shaking his head at the inaccuracies and wondering who got paid to write such crap. Maybe, since he didn't even have the courage to approach a fellow researcher, he could apply for the job of passing on bad information to children and Jim could find someone with enough scientific guts to be a real Guide.
He drifted back to the sports bar thoroughly depressed, and within the hour persuaded two drunk cops from Maine and one drunk cop from Cascade to pile themselves into a taxi. He paid the cabbie at the hotel with the last of his cash and ushered Jim into the elevator to take them to the fifteenth floor. Jim leaned against the shiny panels and pretended to be in a helicopter as the glass car slid up the side of the lobby. Once in the room Jim turned on the TV and spent a half hour trying to decipher the onscreen pay-per-view instructions for the Playboy channel. Blair hid in the bathroom, reviewing his notes on Dr. Thorpe and the Harvard Anthropology Department.
"Enough!" he finally told his reflection in the mirror. "Stop being such a coward."
The next morning he showered for a solid half-hour, dressed in the best clothes he'd brought, pulled his hair back neatly, brushed his teeth twice, and returned with his heart in his throat to Harvard. The Peabody Museum hadn't changed physical location during the night, and he forced himself up the stairs toward Dr. Thorpe's office without giving himself time to chicken out. The office suite door stood as precisely ajar as it had the previous day, making him wonder if anyone had gone in or out since. The secretary didn't look up as he slipped inside. She didn't look up as he crossed the wide blue carpet. She didn't look up as he stood there, trying not to fidget, hoping his voice wouldn't squeak.
"Excuse me," he said. The carpet, walls and bookcases sucked all the volume out of his voice, and the words sounded like a whisper.
She didn't look up. Her Cross pen moved slowly and precisely in stylized longhand across a piece of paper. He considered himself a master at reading upside down, but couldn't decipher a single one of her notes. "Yes?" she asked sternly.
"I'd like to make an appointment to see Dr. Thorpe."
He'd said it. His voice hadn't even cracked. He wondered if the first man to face the riddle of the Sphinx had sounded as calm.
Not even the slightest fraction of her gaze lifted from her task, nor the tiniest pause marked her writing. "He's not available."
Blair's composure began to fail, and in horror he heard himself start to babble. "It doesn't have to be today. I mean, tomorrow's good too. Anytime at his convenience. See, I'm working on my Ph.D. with a special emphasis on Sentinel studies, and I read Dr. Thorpe's amazing work with the Ureau-Wau-Wau Indians in Brazil - "
Her gaze lifted. She had incredibly blue eyes, like tiny circles of a tranquil Caribbean bay. They shone out of a stern face marked by thirty or forty years' hardship duty in the dry, withering heat of Harvard guarding the Sphinx.
"He's not available," she said.
Blair stopped. His cheeks burned, and in humiliation he groped for sarcasm. "How not available? Is he dead?" he demanded. "Is he on another planet? Let's talk relativity here."
She lowered her head and returned to her writing. "Goodbye."
He stood for several impotent seconds, stunned, and then turned away. Humiliation followed him out of the office, down the hall, down the stairs, and back out to Divinity Street. Shame - "Is he dead?" - added ten pounds to each shoulder as he stumbled to a coffee shop and flopped his head down on the table. Blair Sandburg, utter moron. Complete idiot. He'd been belittled before by the old guard of secretaries who fiercely defended professors, but never with such utter disdain and dismissal. Although he'd just walked four blocks he checked under the table to make sure his legs hadn't been cut off at the knees. He thought about inspecting another vital part of his anatomy to ensure it hadn't been lopped off either, but even Harvard Square drew the line at certain behavior.
A waitress with a pierced nose and bloodshot eyes came to take his order. "Can I help you?"
"Do you know the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx?" he asked.
As a matter of fact, she did.
The speaker droning on at the podium had been talking for seventy minutes already. Jim stretched as unobtrusively as possible - why did they make hotel convention chairs so darn small? - and glanced at Craig Holley sitting beside him with eyes at half-mast and a snore beginning to rumble out of his chest. Jim had spent the last half hour distracting himself from the boring speech by practicing one of Blair's hearing exercises. He had identified fifty two different sounds in the quiet of the convention hall, ranging from the soft hiss of the ventilation vents to one particularly disgusting guy in the back flossing his teeth. The scrape, scrape, scrape of tiny waxed cord against enamel had nearly driven Jim to distraction. He didn't need Sentinel sight to see the hands on the wall clock marking each excruciatingly slow, incredibly dragging moment of the Friday afternoon.
At least Blair didn't have to suffer through this. At some point in his wanderings he'd met an undergraduate waitress whose roommate's boyfriend knew a research assistant working in "cognitive neuroscience." Jim didn't understand the gist of it, but Blair had hopes of correlating Sentinel abilities with "primitive acoustic perception" in a bunch of monkeys. Jim had bristled at the thought of being compared to an ape.
"No, no, no," Blair protested. "They're not apes. They're tamarins. Or talapoins. I forget which."
Jim raised his eyebrows.
"It's really fascinating work they're doing, because like humans, some primates exhibit left hemisphere dominance for processing vocalizations. The question is -well, one of them, anyway - whether or not primate communications have the same spectro- temporal parameters as human communication. I'm mainly interested in their low-level visual and general acoustic perception experiments. They've got a Mac Power PC 7100 with isolation chambers that you wouldn't believe - "
Jim didn't understand most of it, but Blair seemed happy enough. The older man still thought something bothered his Guide - Blair had been depressed all week long, although he denied it - but the monkeys seemed to have successfully distracted him. Meanwhile Jim decided he couldn't possibly make it through another thirty minutes of the current speaker. The facilitators had run out of interesting things to say early that morning, and he had the distinct impression they were just killing time now.
"Hey, big city cop," Holley said ten minutes later, when the speech finally ended. "What do you have planned for the weekend?"
"Tourist stuff, I guess. What are you doing?"
"Paul and I are driving back to Hudson. I got news this morning of a missing girl, and I'd like to check up on the investigation. My guys are good, but they pay me the big bucks to stay on top of things. You want to tag along?"
"I think that's a great idea," Jim said, before he stopped to consider what Blair might think. Well, the kid hadn't mentioned any specific plans for the weekend. He'd probably be happy hanging around his monkey lab or in one of the ninety libraries he claimed Harvard had. Still, Jim had a duty to his partner. "I'd like to talk to Blair about it, though. He's out at the moment."
"Paul and I have to hit the road," Holley said, scratching his jaw. "I'll leave you directions to Hudson. You want to try and get a jump start on the afternoon rush hour, or wait until it's over. If you come up, you can stay with Sarah and me. We have a huge farmhouse and she loves guests."
Jim took the directions and went back to the room to pack a weekend bag. He tried to be patient, but as the clock hands swept past four, four-thirty, five, five-thirty, six and six-thirty he found himself pacing the carpet, flipping through TV channels, and straightening the already tidy room. Blair's electronic card slid into the door lock at six forty-two, and Jim nearly pounced on him the minute he walked in the room.
"Hey, Chief, grab your stuff. We've been invited to Maine for the weekend."
Jim explained about Holley and the missing girl. "You don't have to come if you don't want," he added. Truth be told, he half- thought it might be a good idea to split up - a week's worth of sharing a hotel room had begun to grate on him - but he didn't want to hurt Blair's feelings. "If you want to stay, I'll understand."
Blair slung his backpack onto his bed. "No, it's okay," he said listlessly. "Give me a few minutes to pack."
Jim forced himself to sit down and be patient. He only yelled at Blair twice to hurry up. They climbed into their rental car at seven-fifteen and headed for I-93. Jim concentrated on the thick traffic and suicidal maniacs on the highway. After thirty minutes he noticed Blair's uncharacteristic silence.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I don't believe you. Something go wrong on Planet of the Apes today?"
"Sandburg, if I wanted to pull things out of you, I would have been a dentist."
Blair rubbed his eyes. "It's nothing, really. They kinda just asked me to confine my studies to the library."
Jim deciphered the words immediately. "They kicked you out?"
"They found out I didn't have any kind of affiliation with Harvard. They're kind of territorial."
"Did you tell them you were affiliated?"
"So you misled them."
Blair shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Their studies don't prove anything. I shouldn't have even gotten my hopes up."
"I'm sorry they kicked you out, Chief."
"Not your fault." Blair leaned forward and started playing with the radio tuner half-heartedly. "Twice in one week just gets a little old, that's all."
The younger man grimaced. For five miles he stayed quiet while Jim fought the urge to interrogate him. Blair finally said, "I tried to see one of the professors there who'd done some Sentinel work in Brazil. His secretary wouldn't even talk to me."
"Obviously she didn't recognize the presence of Blair Sandburg, world-famous scientist." Jim grinned, but the joke fell utterly flat and made Blair look out the window. Jim tried a different tactic. "Look, Chief, I know your research is important, and so do you. It doesn't matter what some stuffed shirts at Harvard say. Let them sit around being snooty. We don't need them."
"We don't, huh?" Blair asked quietly.
"Nope. Not at all. They can sit around with their thumbs up their asses all day long, and we'll just work this Sentinel stuff out together."
Blair sighed. "Sometimes, I don't have your confidence, Jim."
"That's okay, Chief. I have enough confidence for the both of us."
The ride to Maine took four hours, and they didn't reach Craig Holley's farmhouse until after midnight. Jim almost turned around to go look for a motel, but at the sound of their car a woman peered out the living room window and a few seconds later the porch light switched on. Sarah Holley, a short round woman with curly blonde hair, met them at the door in a worn blue bathrobe. "Come on in and welcome!" she said. "Put your bags right there in that first room on your right. Craig's down at the station, looking at the case on that poor Kristie Ingalls. He said turn in, get a good night's rest, and remember that we wake up with the roosters around here."
Blair looked so alarmed at the thought that Jim nearly laughed out loud. "Thanks," the Sentinel told Sarah. "And thanks for having us."
"With Michelle at college and Robbie in the army, the place is too quiet," Sarah confided. "Do you want some hot chocolate to put you to sleep? It's cold out there tonight, and they're saying we'll probably get snow tomorrow."
They declined the hot chocolate but accepted the extra wool blankets she yanked down from the hall closet. Blair fell asleep within minutes of snuggling into the warm coziness. He woke at seven thirty and saw Jim's bed already empty. The sky had almost finished lightening with the advent of sunrise. He spent several minutes drifting drowsily, struck by the homey comfort of the room as opposed to the cold chill of Harvard's halls. His feet burned with cold when he stood on the hardwood floor, but he collected his scattered socks and pulled on heavy clothes and followed the strong smell of coffee to the kitchen. Sarah stood cooking eggs on the stove and watching Jim and Holley split wood in the backyard.
"Sleep well?" Sarah asked.
"Fine," Blair yawned, accepting a cup of coffee from her. "Can I help you with that?"
She waved him off. "No, no, you're the guest. Sit down. You like your eggs scrambled or boiled? That's the only way I know how to do them. Craig didn't marry me for my cooking skills."
"Scrambled is fine," Blair said with a smile. He liked Sarah Holley immensely, and thought her kids must have been pretty lucky to grow up in this farmhouse, with these loving parents. Sarah turned out to be an aspiring writer - she'd been working on a mystery novel for two years - and they discussed their favorite writers and books until Jim and Holley came stomping in the back door, shaking clumps of snow off their boots.
"As soon as you two are ready we'll head down to the station," Holley said.
Blair swallowed down the last of his coffee. "Ready."
They took Holley's Nissan Pathfinder down the winding road toward the center of Hudson, stopping briefly so the sheriff could fill his gas tank. The city had a population of thirty thousand, supporting a decent tourist economy in the summer and slumbering through the winters. The sheriff's station , only four years old, proved to be both bigger and more modern than Blair expected. Paul Briggin met them in the conference room, frowning at Blair's presence. Blair ignored him. A map of Hudson and its outlying areas, including two large lakes, lay spread on the table marked with notes and symbols. Holley sipped at a fresh cup of coffee and outlined the case to Jim and Blair.
"Kristie Ingalls disappeared three nights ago, sometime after midnight. She called one of her school friends from the payphone of the Texaco parking lot on Route 12 east. I live out here, on Route 12 west. She'd had a fight with her parents earlier that evening and said she feared going home, could her friend come pick her up. By the time the friend snuck out of her own house and borrowed her daddy's car, Kristie had vanished. Parents deny any wrongdoing, seem genuinely concerned. No ransom note's been received, no phone calls, nothing. The friend's never been in trouble before. A search of the woods around the station revealed nothing."
Jim eyed the map. "Do her parents or friends know if she's ever hitchhiked before? Maybe she changed her mind and decided to run away instead of wait for her friend."
"No history of hitchhiking that we know about. She's not a bad kid, just a little edgy. Seventeen years old."
"And went to the school nurse twice last year because of the clap," Briggin volunteered.
Holley frowned. "I don't think that has anything to do with it, Paul."
Jim's finger went to the map. "What's here, a couple miles north of the Texaco station?"
Briggin folded his arms across his chest. "Summer cabins on Lake Mull. My uncle Mel is the caretaker up there. He says there's been no sign of Kristie, but he's keeping an eye out."
"What's worrying me," Holley confided, "is that Kristie's not the first girl to disappear. Laura Pillbry disappeared six weeks ago. We thought she ran away. But now I'm not so sure."
Jim wanted to go out to the Texaco station. Maybe his Sentinel abilities could detect something that the local police hadn't. He and Blair drove out in Holley's Pathfinder, and Jim checked out the phone booth. Too many people had used it since Kristie's disappearance for him to decipher through the smells of nicotine, perfume, sweat, coffee and donut that lingered on the black plastic receiver. Snowfall since that night had obliterated any chance of tracks through the woods or roadside. Blair shivered, wondering what a seventeen- year-old girl would think as she stood out here in the darkness of a cold winter night, and what might have happened to her.
"Sometimes kids get themselves into trouble and just hide, afraid to turn themselves in and ashamed of causing so much trouble," Jim said thoughtfully as they drove back to town.
Blair turned up the heater and burrowed deeper into his army jacket. "You think that's what happened here?"
"No way to tell yet."
Snow started pouring out of the sky before ten, and the radio and fax machine started passing along with winter weather advisories. Jim kept busy reading the transcribed interviews with the family and friends of both missing girls and Holley got on the phone to call other towns up and down the highway, asking if they'd had any disappearances. Blair wandered around the station, feeling useless. He preferred helping Jim in the field, not hanging around an office. His long hair and earrings didn't earn him any more acceptance in Hudson than in Cascade - another interesting but tiresome aspect of the machismo-dominated law profession - and he grew tired of Briggin and some of the other deputies looking at him as if he were from Mars. At three o'clock nothing new had developed and Blair wanted to head back to the farmhouse. Sarah had promised to try and cook beef stew for dinner, and cold weather always made him feel carnivorous. The lady of the house called her husband at three-thirty, asking him to pick up some kerosene at the store on his way home.
"She's worried about the power going out," Holley said, peering out the window at the thickening flakes. "We usually keep a stock on hand but used up most of it during last month's storm."
"I'll do it," Blair volunteered.
Holley threw him the keys to the Pathfinder. "Thanks. I appreciate it. We'll take one of the patrol cars back."
Jim looked up from the transcribed interviews with Kristie's family and friends. "We'll meet you back at the house in about an hour, okay? Drive safely and don't get lost."
"Ha ha," Blair said. He found the general store with no problem, although the limited visibility and piling snow made parking a challenge. The store had already started to close due to the inclement weather, but he sweet-talked his way past the clerk in a way that had utterly failed to impress Dr. Thorpe's secretary. Back on the road a few minutes later, he turned on the Pathfinder's headlights and inched along the road, extremely worried about wrecking their host's truck.
Only after he passed the Texaco station did he realize he'd gotten mixed up and turned on to Route 12 east, not west. Holley's farmhouse lay several miles back in the opposite direction. Wind buffeted the vehicle's windows, rocking him side to side, and he peered anxiously at the dim road outside. He needed to turn around. He had just decided to chance a three-point turn in the middle of the highway when a figure materialized in the glare of the headlights - a battered and sobbing teenage girl, dressed only in a man's T-shirt, fleeing for her life.
Blair slammed on the brakes in horror. The Pathfinder skidded, slid, recovered, and slid again. The girl bounced off the hood and disappeared. "Oh, shit!" Blair gasped, expecting to hear a thump beneath the wheels. None came. Seconds later the truck's skid slowed to a stop. With shaking hands he fumbled at the door handle. When the door swung open he leaped down into the cold air. The driving snow and dusk nearly blinded him as he sought for the girl and found her a few feet away, sobbing hysterically in a heap on the ground.
"Miss? Oh, god, I'm sorry. Are you hurt? You just came out of nowhere - " Blair tried to sound confident and helpful, but Jim always seemed better at maintaining control in an emergency. Some part of his brain still functioned, though, because he recognized her photo from the police station files. In amazement he asked, "You're Kristie, right? Everyone's been worried about you. They're all out looking for you! Come on, I'll take you to the hospital. Let me help you up - "
Kristie flinched as he touched her, but she let him lift her up to her feet. "You have to stop him!" she wailed, clutching wildly at Blair's jacket, pulling at his arms and shoulders. "He's got Laura - he's going to kill us - he's right behind me - "
"No, no, you're safe now, there's no one else here," Blair assured her, helping her toward the Pathfinder. She shook so hard he had trouble holding her, and her skin could have been made of ice. He threw a look over his shoulder to ensure they were alone. The woods stretched dark and silent, and snow drove against his eyes. He helped Kristie climb up into the passenger seat and shut the door. As he circled the hood a loud pop took out the driver's sideview mirror, and he threw himself down as another bullet scraped the Pathfinder just inches away from him. The ground beneath him tilted precariously, and he found himself at the bottom of a ditch as more shots rang out.
"Get back here, Kristie!" a man's voice yelled from the woods - an angry voice, full of venom and fear. The Pathfinder's engine gunned into a full-throttled roar and the truck spun toward the road. Fear of being abandoned and murdered drove Blair past the point of common sense and he lunged toward the vehicle, shouting at her to stop. He slipped and fell hard, slamming his head on the ground. The thud reverberated throughout his skull and he watched, dazedly, as the rear lights of the Pathfinder disappeared in the gloom and snow. Someone appeared over him, pointing a gun down at his face.
"No witnesses!" the man said grimly.
Blair didn't stop to devise a plan of action. Using a move Jim had showed him at the police gym, he lashed out with his right foot and connected solidly with his attacker's knee. The gun went off with a blast of gunpowder as the man collapsed. The gun itself landed in the snow, somewhere Blair couldn't see it. He tried scrambling away but Kristie's abductor grabbed his leg, dragged him back, and began pummeling him.
The man outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. In a normal fight Blair would never have stood a chance. But panic gave him the strength he needed to flail, kick and gouge at the man trying to pin him to the ground. They rolled down a slope and landed on something that cracked and gave way - a half-frozen stream, eight or ten inches deep and three or four feet across. Blair landed on top and desperately tried to scramble away, but his opponent grabbed him, flipped him into the water, and straddled his hips with his crushing weight.
The icy stream covered Blair's face as the man's hands encircled his throat and began to throttle him. More scared than he'd ever been in his entire life, Blair arched up and tried to upset the man's weight. He remained relentlessly trapped in the water, his heart ready to explode, his lungs burning as if on fire, his throat being inexorably crushed. His hands groped for something, anything, and closed on a handle of some kind even as consciousness started to fade. The man had a second gun wedged into his belt -
Blair's fingers found the trigger.
The gun jerked against his own stomach with an enormous blast of sound, and with a grim, dying irony he thought he'd shot himself. Oh, well, it would be quicker this way. But he felt no hot invasive pain, no internal explosion. The man sagged sideways, the weight easing off Blair's body, and Blair's windpipe opened up again. Stunned and disoriented, Blair had no idea what to do next. He remained submerged in the icy stream, too dazed to make a decision.
His body chose for him. He coughed and choked on the water that had already flooded down his nose and mouth. His lungs heaved spastically and his body's flailing brought him out of the stream bed. He rolled over instinctively and began to retch out water. Each deep, convulsive heave brought him a tiny step closer to dragging in enough air to breathe. The screeching of his breathing sounded awful over the wail of the wind, and pushed him toward panic. He couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe -
Several minutes passed before his lungs resumed a normal sound and rhythm. His chest ached so fiercely he must have torn muscles. Wet and freezing, huddled on the ground, Blair finally lifted his head. He could see the outline of a large, still body next to him. With a flare of fear he thought the man might be Jim, and he frantically checked the face. No, not Jim. No one he'd ever seen before. He couldn't bring himself to touch the body or look for any signs of life.
Blair turned his face to the sky. Snow swirled down on him, cold and hard to the touch. The wind cut through his wet clothes and nearly shredded them like tissue paper. His throat hurt horribly but, on the bright side, the coldness in his skin and body had faded to a pleasant numbness. Incredibly weary, infinitely tired, he nevertheless climbed to his feet and tried to focus on the road. He could barely make it out in the darkness, but knew that back that way lay town, warmth, safety, Jim. He couldn't stay out here in the horrible weather and with luck, someone driving by might stop and give him a ride.
He started walking.
And in his dazed, confused state never realized he was moving in the wrong direction.
"Storm's getting worse," Holley noted, hanging up the phone.
Jim nodded. He would be glad to get back to the Holley farmhouse and stretch out before a blazing fire while the worst of the weather rode itself out. "Ready to call it a day?" he asked.
"Yeah. I'd hoped we might catch a break, find some kind of lead, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen." Holley sighed and rubbed at his eyes. They donned their coats and said good night to the dispatcher. The wind and snow tried to push them back as they fought their way to the patrol unit Holley had commandeered. Holley climbed in first, then leaned over and unlocked Jim's door. The roar of an engine and the squeal of brakes brought Jim's head up. A pair of headlights barreled down the road and a Nissan Pathfinder similar to Holley's slammed into a parked cruiser at the edge of the parking lot.
"Jesus H. Christ," Holley said, sliding out from behind the wheel with his jaw wide open in disbelief. "Your friend always drive like that?"
Only then did Jim realize the vehicle *was* Holley's. But he didn't need Sentinel sight to see that the thin, shaking driver was someone other than his partner. "That's not Blair!" he yelled as he sprinted toward the Pathfinder.
Kristie Ingalls sat in a depleted heap behind the steering wheel, sobbing. Jim couldn't begin to guess how she'd managed to drive in her condition. He and Holley hustled her into the police station conference room. Officers broke out blankets and coffee and the dispatcher called for an ambulance. She raved on and on about the man who'd kidnapped her, a man still holding Laura. Every part of her appeared bruised or frostbitten. Holley spoke to her calmly and softly, asking her how she'd escaped. She couldn't form a coherent answer.
"Kristie, where's Blair?" Jim asked twice. "Where's the man who was driving the truck you escaped in?"
Kristie only shook her head and cried harder in response.
Frustrated enough to want to shake some sense into her but at the same time knowing how disastrous that might be, Jim pulled Holley aside. "We've got to find out where Sandburg is," he hissed urgently.
Holley nodded his head. "Maybe the doctor can give her a sedative and calm her down some. But in the meantime, let's think this thing through. Blair must have found her on the road somewhere. I had the dispatcher call Sarah. Blair never made it back to my house. I'll send cruisers up and down the route, and we'll find him."
A dozen terrible scenarios played themselves out in his head. The most likely one, that Blair had been hurt or killed by Kristie's kidnapper, turned his stomach into a heavy chunk of ice. "Why isn't he with her?"
Holley squeezed his arm. "We'll find out, I promise. We'll find your friend."
"I'm going to look for him," Jim said. "I need keys to a cruiser."
Holley handed over his own set. "I'll call you as soon as we get something useful out of her."
Jim's hands shook as he steered the cruiser onto the road - from the cold, not fear, or so he tried to tell himself. He fumbled for the heater but hit the windshield wipers instead. Swearing, he turned off the wipers, found the heater, twisted the knob to High. Icy air shot at him and he quickly turned the knob down again. He slowed the car to five miles per hour and rolled down the window, following the way to the Holley farmhouse as slowly and methodically as possible. Every passing minute ate at his nerves like an electric current edging up in voltage.
"You'd better be all right, Blair," he warned grimly.
He listened with senses wide open, filtering out the car engine, the crackle of the radio, the crunch of tires against snow, the wind. He heard no call for help. No racing heartbeat except his own. At the crossroads of route 12 he turned west toward the Holley farmhouse and saw two other cruisers inching down the road. Snow and wind buffeted all three cars, and Jim's hopes of finding Blair alive sank lower and lower as he realized the storm hadn't even hit its peak yet.
Fifteen minutes later the radio crackled with a call from Holley. "The doctor's got Kristie, but he doesn't know if he can get anything useful out of her. Listen up, though. I checked the Pathfinder and I've got some bad news. It looks like the sideview mirror's been shot off. There's another bullet mark on the door."
Jim sat perfectly still, his hand clenching the radio microphone so hard his muscles ached. He stared unseeingly out the windshield.
"But we've also got some stuff to go on," Holley continued. "Blair got as far as the store, because there's kerosene in the back from Harry's store. I reset the trip odometer mileage this morning when I filled the tank, and now it's at thirty six . . . "
Jim forced himself to do the math with him, as a distraction from the image of Blair shot and left for dead out in the storm. From the gas station to the police headquarters was two miles. Jim and Blair had driven out to the Texaco station, eight miles each way. The general store sat three blocks from Holley's office, the distance not even worth noting. Eighteen miles total. If Blair had driven in a straight line, and Kristie had driven straight back, then Blair had to be somewhere within a nine mile radius of the police station.
"That's a lot of area to search," Jim complained.
"Stay with me, now," Holley said confidently. "Blair wouldn't have gone driving around for fun in bad weather, right? He would have headed straight for the farmhouse after leaving the store. Nine miles on route 12 west puts you past my place, and there's no reason he would have driven past there. So I'm thinking maybe he took a wrong turn somewhere."
"You don't have to sound so hopeful about it!" Jim shot back. Don't get lost. A joke. Maybe he'd inadvertently cursed Blair into doing just that. In the dark and cold, burdened by fear and guilt, he could believe almost anything. "If he got lost before he even found Kristie, if he turned the wrong way somewhere, we might never find him!"
Holley didn't sound fazed by Jim's hysterics. "What I'm thinking is that maybe he took a left on Route 12 instead of a right. Try driving out on Route 12 east, to a mile or so past the Texaco station. See if there's anything out there."
Jim had already turned the cruiser around.
He smelled the corpse before he found it. Blood drenched into the clothes gave off a coppery scent, and with death the body had voided both urine and excrement. Jim stood over the corpse for a full minute, letting his flashlight play across the features frozen in a hideous grimace. A man in his late thirties, perhaps, and no one he'd ever seen before.
Another cruiser rolled to a stop behind Jim. Paul Briggin climbed out holding his hat against the wind. "Holy hell! Who's that?"
"Kristie Ingalls' kidnapper, I bet," Jim said tightly. He bent down and used his Sentinel vision on the gun wedged in the man's waistband. Judging by the entry wound, it had gone off in place. Probably fired during a struggle. Jim found scuffle marks nearby, along the banks of a stream whose ice cover had been shattered.
It had happened here, then. Whatever had befallen Blair had happened here. Without a word to Paul Briggin, Jim moved away from the cruiser lights and engines and exhaust, and took a deep breath. He smelled nothing that would lead him to his partner. He listened as hard as he could, pushing his senses into overload. Nothing.
"Blair!" he shouted, and heard his own voice whipped away on the wind. "Sandburg!"
He had to find him. Jim started walking away from the corpse, his senses as wide as he could force them. He heard Briggin yell out "Where are you going?" but ignored the question. Only one thing mattered at the moment.
His vision picked up indentations in the snow the size of Blair's feet. Falling snow had already blurred the tread marks. He focused exclusively on the trail at the cost of free thought, lost in what Blair would have called a walking zone-out. He followed the marks as they wandered off the road and into the woods. The spaces between them shortened. The staggering man who'd left the tracks had fallen three different times, and Jim found each crushed spot. Time worked cruelly against him, though, as the wind and snow overran the marks and wiped out any trace of their existence.
He came out of the zone-out in the middle of the woods, lost himself, every bit of him freezing cold. He had waded into snow up to his shins and somehow gotten his feet wet.
"Blair!" he yelled. "Answer me, goddamnit!"
The wind drove him to his knees. Jim fought it, swearing, and hauled himself up. He stood against the wild elements, stripped bare and on the edge of a deep brink of grief.
"If you don't answer me I swear I'm going to throw all of your stuff out of the loft!" he threatened.
Foolish to be yelling that of all things, but Jim had little to draw on.
"The next time your car breaks down you're on your own, pal!" he shouted. "And you can forget about playing with the siren or lights anymore!"
He had lost it. He had gone nuts. It had seemed like an attractive option, but the release of anger into nonsense threats only made Jim feel even more full of despair.
"Oh, Blair," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I can't find you."
Then he heard Blair's weak, hoarse, disbelieving, tremulous, beautiful voice.
"Blair!" he shouted. Snow dragged at him as he waded toward the shape huddled against the base of a pine tree not fifty feet away. The falling snow had hidden Blair from even Jim's exceptional eyesight. Blair sat in a tiny human ball, arms wrapped across his chest, knees pulled up tightly. Ice encrusted his eyelashes. He muttered Jim's name again but it became quickly, desperately clear that he was not fully conscious, nor capable of moving independently on his own.
After checking for life-threatening injuries and finding none, Jim forced Blair to his feet. "We've got to get out of here!" he yelled over the shriek of the wind. "You've got to walk!"
Blair sagged against him. "Cabin," he muttered against Jim's coat.
"There's no cabin! We have to get back to the road!"
"Cabin," Blair insisted, sinking to his knees, obviously delirious with cold. Jim caught him and cradled him against his chest. He knew, deep in his heart, that by the time they found the road it would be too late. He would have to find some kind of rough shelter, the hollow of a tree or fallen logs -
Looking up, he saw Blair's cabin.
The dark shape loomed through a patch of trees a hundred feet north of them. Blair must have seen it, must have been trying to reach it. Jim hoisted him into his arms and staggered toward the structure. The steep porch steps cracked and nearly broke beneath his boots. The door handle opened easily. He carried Blair to an ugly green couch and dumped him unceremoniously onto the cushions.
Exhausted by his efforts, enormously relieved to be out of the driving snow and sleet and wind, Jim sank for a moment against the end of the sofa and dragged in deep breaths of air. He wanted to curl up on the floor and go to sleep, but knew he couldn't. Not if he wanted to wake up to a live partner and best friend.
Jim forced himself up on rubbery legs and went to shut the open door. Task accomplished, he quickly inspected their new home. The green sofa beneath Blair's huddled form and two rocking chairs made up the bulk of the living room. The fireplace stood wide and empty. A small kitchenette boasted of two stools, a sink, three mounted cabinets, a propane stove and a small refrigerator. Water trickled from the sink faucet, left open during the winter months to keep the pipes from freezing. The bathroom held no first aid supplies whatsoever, but four wool blankets had been left neatly stacked in the bedroom closet. Jim scooped up the blankets and hurried back to Blair's side. His first instinct told him to start the fire, but logic argued that the ambient temperature of the cabin mattered less at the moment than getting Blair out of his freezing, sodden clothes.
Blair's eyes fluttered at Jim's first touch. "J-J-Jim?" he asked, his voice curiously rough.
"Right here," Jim answered. His own fingers burned with cold as he fumbled with the zipper on Blair's jacket. "How you doing?"
"I know. You'll be warm in a few minutes, trust me. Keep talking, okay? It's too quiet without your babbling."
"D-d-don't babble," Blair protested. He'd curled up into himself again, his arms folded so rigidly that when Jim pried them apart he feared the bones would snap.
"Sure you do. Tell me all about what happened in the woods, okay?"
Keeping Blair awake and talking might serve no medicinal purpose, but the sound of his voice reassured Jim enormously as he worked off his partner's wet jacket, sweater, shirt, jeans, boxer shorts, socks and boots. He wrapped the younger man in the blankets and spread his clothes out by the base of the fireplace. Blair had a bump on his head and a ring of nasty bruises around his neck, visible imprints of thumbs and fingers that made Jim's own throat constrict. With halted words, stuttering and increasing anxiety, Blair recounted how he'd found Kristie Ingalls running in the woods and how she'd left him behind. Jim didn't like what he heard, and he especially didn't like the increasing incoherence in Blair's voice. He repeated himself, lost track of the story, and insisted the kidnapper might come after them. His skin grew colder and his heartbeat slowed as his condition worsened.
Jim frowned and put his hand on the side of Blair's icy face.
"Listen to me. We can talk about Kristie later. Tell me about Harvard again. Tell me about that Jell-O club thing."
Blair tried to curl up tighter in the blankets. "Jell-O?" he asked, confused.
"Yeah, that club. You told me about it on the plane coming in. The Harvard Jell-O Club."
A massive shiver shook Blair from head to toe and he closed his eyes. "Pudding, man. Hasty. . . Pudding Club."
"Whatever," Jim said.
But Blair had drifted off, into sleep or unconsciousness, and didn't answer. Jim turned quickly to the task of lighting the fire. He needed wood, but he didn't dare venture outside. The kitchen drawers produced matches and old paper plates. He smashed both kitchen stools apart for kindling. The first cheery flames of fire almost made him laugh with joy. Within a half hour the living room had lost most of its chill, and Jim stripped off his jacket. The propane tank for the stove had no fuel left in it, so he wedged the iron kettle against the fire until it produced water hot enough to mix with instant soup mix scavenged from the nearly bare kitchen cabinets.
"Sandburg, wake up," Jim said, propping the younger man upright and shaking him firmly. Blair groaned and tried to slide back down to the cushions. He wouldn't respond to Jim's questions, but at least he opened his eyes and obediently drank from the mug Jim held up to his mouth. He finished half of it before muttering an indistinct protest and falling back to sleep. Jim finished the soup, glad for the warmth filling him from inside, and made Blair comfortable again on the sofa.
Jim hovered, feeling useless now that his obvious paths of action had been exhausted. He watched the marble-white of Blair's complexion gradually fade beneath traces of pink. Blair's shivering stopped, and his heartbeat and breathing began to sound stronger and quicker. His hands and feet, like blocks of ice earlier, revealed returning warmth beneath Jim's touch, although the redness and swelling in his fingers indicated mild frostbite. Jim's own hands had warmed up with no signs of damage, but as he peeled off his boots and socks he realized his feet were frostbitten too, and beginning to hurt in earnest.
Great, just great. He wrapped his feet in the remaining blanket and propped them near the fire for gradual re-warming. He leaned his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes wearily for a minute. His hearing magnified in compensation for the loss of sight, and he listened to Blair's breathing, the shifting frequency of the wind, the thousands of little scrapes as snow hit the sides of the cabin. A field mouse scurried under the bedroom floor, the water in the sink splashed with a low-pitched bounce, individual fingers of flame sizzled around crackling wood . . . He slid into a deep sleep, and woke some time later to the sound of giant wings beating through the air, like the appendages of a mammoth butterfly. He pulled himself up from where he'd curled up on the floor. The butterfly wings were Blair's eyelids, fluttering open. The fire had died, and gray daylight poured in through the windows.
"Blair?" he asked, reaching over and wrapping the disheveled blankets tighter over his partner's chest. His voice sounded scratchy to his own ears. "Are you with me?"
"Mmmm," Blair answered, fighting down a shiver. His voice had grown even more hoarse. "Yeah. I'd rather be at the beach, though."
Jim managed a faint smile, although privately he chided himself for falling asleep and letting the fire go out. "Yeah, I'd rather be at the beach, too."
He touched Blair's forehead and hands. Chilled, but not with the same bone-numbing cold as before. Jim spent the next several minutes lighting another fire and boiling more water. Snow fell in a thick, steady curtain outside, but at least the wind had died down a little. Jim's swollen feet hurt, but he could walk on them with only a moderate degree of discomfort. A second, more thorough inspection of the bathroom revealed some dry, powdery aspirin stashed beneath the sink. He swallowed two gratefully. He hadn't inventoried the kitchen before and in dismay counted two remaining packets of instant soup, a handful of old tea bags, four ketchup packets, one bottle of vegetable oil, and a container of flour. Neither of them had eaten since lunch yesterday, and breakfast looked like a very unlikely possibility.
Blair hadn't moved from where he lay on the sofa, but as Jim approached with the two cups of tea he struggled upright against the cushions, clinging to the blankets for either modesty or warmth. He gulped down his tea thirstily, probably burning his tongue but voicing no complaints. Jim filled another cup and retrieved the aspirin.
"Don't need it," Blair said.
"The dilation of your pupils and lines around your eyes say something else, pal. How big is your headache?"
"Not bad," Blair said, but took the aspirin. He juggled them in his hand for a few seconds. "You can tell I have a headache by the dilation of my pupils? Cool."
"Yeah, cool," Jim answered dryly. Trust Blair to think of research at a time like this. He sat on the sofa beside his friend and they watched the fire burn. "Take them, Blair. There are no herbs for miles and no need to be in pain. Your throat hurts a lot, too, doesn't it?"
Blair didn't answer, but his frown deepened and he forced down the aspirin with obvious difficulty. "Where are we?"
Jim lifted a shoulder. "One of the cabins on Lake Mull, I think. I lost track of where we were last night. You remember what happened?"
Blair sank lower in his blankets. "Yeah. Some of it. Most of it. Thanks for saving my life."
"De nada," Jim said. "I just wish Kristie Ingalls hadn't abandoned you out here."
Blair didn't sound bitter. "She panicked. It happens." His gaze lowered, and shame flitted across his face. "But the guy . . . did I kill him? I killed him, didn't I? It's kind of hazy."
Jim didn't answer for a moment. He wanted to spare Blair that particular pain, but couldn't lie to him. "He's dead," he admitted, watching his friend closely.
What little color had come into Blair's face during the night drained away entirely. "I killed him."
"You had no choice."
"There's always a choice, man," Blair said softly, and turned his face to the fire.
Jim didn't know what to say to that. From what Blair had told him, he'd been struggling for his very life. He'd have to make Blair repeat that, over and over, until the younger man understood that it had been his only option. Jim couldn't even imagine how he would have reacted if it had been Blair's corpse on the road, not Kristie's kidnapper.
"Are we going to walk out of here, back to your car?" Blair asked, sounding as if it didn't really matter.
"I am. You're staying here to wait for help."
The words brought Blair's attention back sharply. "No way. We go together."
"Blair, last night you were an ice cube. Hypothermia is serious. You look like hell and you don't have a real high tolerance for cold at the moment."
Blair persisted with, "I feel fine, Jim. Certainly well enough for a hike out of here."
"Not through those drifts, and not in this weather. That storm hasn't passed yet. And I'm not carrying you over my shoulder after you take a nose dive in the snow," Jim said matter-of-factly. He stood up and crossed to the stove to boil more water, and Blair frowned as he pulled the blankets to his chin. He did feel horrible - tired and achy and cold. He didn't think he could get more than a dozen feet without having to sit down and rest. But he didn't like Jim dismissing him so easily, treating him like a child or an invalid.
"Chief." Jim's voice came from right above him. Blair twisted to see the Sentinel perched on the top of the sofa. The older man put his hand on Blair's shoulder.
"If I thought it would be quicker or safer, I'd take you with me," Jim said reasonably. "I just think it's better for you to wait here. I almost lost you once out there, so give me a break, okay?"
"Stay here," Blair pleaded. "Don't go."
"Have to. We don't have any food."
"Come on, man. We're not exactly at the Donner Party stage yet, are we?"
"You're not hungry?"
Blair knew perfectly well that Jim could hear the grumbling in his stomach, but he said, "Not really."
Jim shook his head. "If we wait much longer, the furniture is going to start to look appetizing."
Blair looked away. He couldn't say why the thought of Jim leaving made him afraid. Damn it, Jim couldn't just order him around. He stood up carefully, ignoring the dizziness that bounced around his skull. His clothes had dried stiffly by the fireplace, and he retrieved them awkwardly. Okay, so far so good. He tugged on his shirt, but the hand-eye coordination necessary to fasten the buttons escaped him and he left most of them undone.
He turned his head to see Jim watching him emotionlessly, hands wrapped around a cup of tea.
"This isn't a peep show. Turn around and look the other way," Blair ordered firmly.
Jim obediently turned around.
Underwear. On. Uncomfortably stiff, but on. The pants proved a bit harder. His sluggish muscles didn't want to be of any use. He struggled to pull the fabric up over his hips, lost his balance in the process, and fell back onto the sofa with a soft thud.
"Can I look now?" Jim asked.
Blair pulled the blankets over his head. "I think I'll stay here," he said unhappily.
Jim fixed him up with more hot tea and plenty of drinking water. He also insisted on leaving his gun with Blair.
"I don't want it!" Blair said.
"Take it," Jim said. "It'll make you feel more secure, right?"
"I won't need it."
"You shouldn't. But we don't know if that guy worked alone or not - "
"What?" Blair asked in alarm, bolting upright. Too quick, too sudden. A sledgehammer of pain whammed into the back of his eyes and he groaned. Jim's hands helped him back down to the cushions.
"Blair? Can you hear me?"
It took a minute to force the next word out. "Yeah."
"I'll. . . . live."
Jim sat back with a worried expression on his face. "Kristie never mentioned two kidnappers. If I really thought some madman was running around here, I wouldn't leave you alone."
Blair took a deep breath and grabbed Jim's arm. "Listen to me, Jim. You said yourself the storm hasn't passed. Right here we've got enough shelter and heat and water to meet Maslow's basic hierarchy of needs, you know? All I need or want is for you to get lost out there, or fall in a hole, or get eaten by a bear, and I'm stuck here with a psycho pounding on the door."
Jim's expression turned skeptical. "Eaten by a bear? Psycho at the door? I think you're being melodramatic."
Blair let go his grasp. "Fine," he said angrily. He closed his eyes and turned his face into his pillow. "Go. Get out of here. Have fun."
Jim didn't care for childish tantrums, but he had to give Blair points in the guilt department. The younger man certainly knew how to make him feel bad. To his credit he'd just survived a horrible ordeal, and couldn't be feeling very well at all. Jim sighed. He stood up, shrugged into his jacket, put his gun on the floor beside the sofa where Blair could reach it, and left the cabin.
Anger surged through Blair at the sound of the door shutting. Damn Jim Ellison anyway. He should have known the policeman wouldn't listen to him, wouldn't spare his opinion a second thought, wouldn't take him seriously. Their relationship had been unequal from the start and had grown more lopsided ever since. When they got back to the real world Blair would sever this partnership once and for all, and abandon Sentinel research for something better -
A sharp thwacking sound interrupted his thoughts. Blair halted his inner tirade and listened harder. Another thwack. He dragged himself to his feet, gun in hand, and stumbled to the window. Jim stood in the side yard with an ax, methodically splitting wood pulled from a tarpaulin-covered pile. Snow swirled down on Jim's bare head and dusted his shoulders. Feeling more than a little sheepish and childish, Blair went back to the sofa and crawled under his blankets. He couldn't hide from himself, but he sure could try. Several minutes later Jim came in carrying an armful of wood.
"This stuff should burn pretty well," Jim said non-committally, crouching by the hearth and piling logs on the fire.
Blair poked his head out. "Jim, I'm sorry, man. I'm acting way too emotional. You go get help, and be careful, okay? I'll be fine by myself."
Jim shook his head. "No. You're right. There's no need for me to go stumbling off in this weather."
Blair frowned. "But you wanted to go - "
"I want to do something," Jim corrected. "You know me. I have to be out saving the day or I get antsy."
Blair listened for a note of self-deprecation, but Jim sounded entirely serious. "Don't sell yourself short, Jim. You save the day a lot. One day off won't hurt anything."
Jim smiled. "Yeah. Maybe. The thing is, I can see one of the other cabins just over the rise. I thought I'd go check it out and see if there's any food up there. What do you think?"
Blair recognized the goodwill gesture of being included in the decision and took back every bad thing he'd ever thought about Jim Ellison. Well, most of the bad things. He still thought color- coding leftover food in the refrigerator counted as anal-retentive.
"Sounds like a plan," Blair said. "I could really go for ham and eggs, you know?"
"I'll settle for French toast. I'll settle for *any* toast. I'll be back soon, Chief."
"Be careful!" Blair called out after him. Jim just waved. Blair turned to the fire, glad for the warmth but even gladder that he could count Jim as a true friend. Jim had only been gone for about fifteen minutes when footsteps sounded on the porch, and the door swung open with an inrush of cold air.
"Back so soon?" Blair asked, lifting his head. A strange man stared down at him. Not much taller than Blair, and at least fifteen pounds lighter, the man had a thick mustache and beard that looked orange-red in the overcast light. He wore thick winter clothes and a black stocking cap, carried a large knapsack on his back, and offered Blair a decidedly evil grin.
"Where'd I go?" he asked.
Blair sat up so quickly that he lost his balance and thudded, butt- first, to the floor. The blankets tangled around his feet as he tried to scramble backward. "Who are you?" he demanded. He fumbled for the gun and brought it up to aim square at the man's chest.
The man's smile disappeared as he raised his hands in a calming gesture. "Now, now. Just hold on. I'm the caretaker for these lake cabins. You're not from around here, are you?"
"Not at all," Blair retorted. His hands began to shake, the result of a massive adrenaline surge, and he fought to keep his aim steady. He took a closer look at the man. Gray threads marked his shortly cropped red hair, and crow's feet edged patterns around his eyes. "What's your name?"
The name triggered a memory for Blair. "Who's your nephew?"
Mel raised his eyebrows. "Well, I got five of them. Jerry's got an auto shop over in Portland, Tom's in the merchant marines, Paul's a police officer - "
"Paul Briggin," Blair seized on the name. "He's your nephew?"
"He ain't my niece," Mel said, with a hint of a smile. "Now, will you put that gun down? You're making me nervous."
Blair slowly lowered the weapon. "Sorry. I thought you might be someone else."
The stiffness in Mel's shoulders melted away. "Who else would be out here, in weather like this? Paul radioed me about a missing policeman and his partner. I told him I'd take a look. Where's your partner gotten to?"
Some deep, instinctive part of Blair didn't entirely trust the stranger. Maybe his dislike of Paul Briggin clouded his feelings. He composed himself with a little white lie. "He's out scouting around outside. Didn't you see him?"
Mel shook his head. "No. I came up from the west - my cabin's about a mile from here. It's shorter by road, but the road is impassable in the winter. I saw the smoke from your chimney, and that's how I found you. You must be starving up here."
Blair's stomach twisted. "Well, there's not a lot of food," he admitted.
"I can fix you up, no problem," Mel said. "The cabin owners don't leave much behind when they close down for the winter - no use drawing in raccoons and mice. But I've got everything you'd want down at my place - food, heat, you name it. You come with me, we can radio in to Paul, and when the road clears they'll send a plow up for you."
The very prospect of a well-stocked cabin warmed Blair from the inside out. He freed his legs of the entangling blankets and tried to stand with a hand on the sofa for support. "That sounds great," he said, just as the cabin started to sway. Mel circled around and offered him a hand for support.
"Easy now," the man said. "What happened, did you get knocked upside the head?"
"Something like that."
"Well, then. They say the second time's the charm - "
Blair didn't have time to ask what he meant before Mel's fist smashed into his face, sending him hurtling toward the floor.
The second cabin proved to be as barren as their own. No first aid kit, no blankets, not even a pillow left on the sagging bed in the bedroom. Jim studied the empty kitchen shelves in dismay and heaved a sigh. Well, lady luck couldn't always look their way. He debated about searching for more cabins, and idly turned his hearing in Blair's direction. Silence except for the crackling fire and Blair's slow, steady respiration and heartbeat. Jim decided to chance another foray, down the other side of the hill. He trudged wearily through the knee-deep snow, forming fantasies about a nice tropical vacation, and stopped as a sound scraped at the edge of his attention. He focused intently on a clomping that sounded like boots crossing a wooden porch. The creak of the door opening sent a twinge of fear into his heart.
"Back so soon?" Jim heard Blair ask.
"Where'd I go?" a man asked.
A thump followed, as if someone had fallen. "Who are you?" Blair asked, sounding frightened.
Jim's own heartbeat sped up but couldn't outpace Blair's rapid pounding. He stood frozen in place, channeling all of his energy into his sense of hearing.
"Now, now. Just hold on. I'm the caretaker for these lake cabins. You're not from around here, are you?"
"Not at all," Blair said. "What's your name?"
Jim turned and started back to his partner, all the way tracking the conversation taking place a half-mile away. He heard Mel asking Blair to put the gun down and quickened his pace. Blair relaxed after Mel identified Paul as his nephew and Jim let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Rescue, at last. The whole nightmare would soon end. He'd only gone forty paces through the deep snow when he heard Mel say, "Well, then. They say the second time's the charm - "
Something hard hit something thicker and softer. A heavy thump followed. A sick sense of dread filled Jim's chest. He pushed himself faster and faster through the snowdrifts as a sloshing sound filled his heightened senses. The smell of kerosene burned its way into his nostrils, along with the terrifying odor of burning wood.
Oh, God. He should never have left Blair alone.
But Blair, who'd evidently been unconscious for a minute or two, refused to stay down. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded, and Jim heard Mel rush him. The two men began trading blows, grunting and swearing with effort.
As Jim crested the hill he saw the eastern side of the cabin completely ablaze. Orange flame licked up the wooden logs, great sizzling tongues of it reaching for the gray sky and swirling snow. Blair and Mel Briggin stood struggling on the porch, positioned just a few precarious feet from the edge of fire. In a fair fight Blair would have had the advantage, but he looked groggy and dazed as he fought for the gun in his attacker's hands.
"Police!" Jim yelled from the hill. He felt naked without his gun. "Freeze! Mel Briggin!"
Mel turned, stunned by the shout. Blair froze, relief spreading out across his face. But the relief fled as Mel recovered from his shock first and swung a blow that caught Blair square in the stomach. Blair doubled over, air whooshing out of his lungs, but somehow managed to drive himself forward so that both men stumbled and fell to the porch. The planks splintered beneath their weight and they vanished together, sucked down into darkness.
"Blair!" Jim shouted, but he heard no answer. He couldn't concentrate enough to decipher anything out of the rushing, crackling sound of fire racing up all the cabin sides to the shingled roof. Timbers collapsed and combusted beneath the onslaught. By the time he reached the porch it too had caught on fire. The skin on his face tightened in the blasting wave of heat coming off the structure and his eyes squinted into narrow slits.
"Blair!" Still no answer. The chances of him being alive were good, but the likelihood of that lasting much longer were not. At any second the flames would reach down to the space beneath the porch and take delight in consuming cloth, hair, flesh, muscle, bone. He could almost see Blair's charred and smoking corpse already. Blair's jaw would be wide open, caught in his last agonizing seconds of life and a silent howl -
Chances, odds and likelihoods fled. Common sense followed, evicted by panic and stubborn pig-headedness. Jim kicked and pulled at the side of the stairs, packing snow on the blazing planks, ignoring the searing pain racing through his hands and up his arms. He ripped away enough boards to crawl into the space beneath the porch, coughed violently on the thick smoke choking his lungs, and with a desperate lunge snagged Blair's left leg.
He didn't know if Blair still lived. He didn't know if moving him would exacerbate any spinal or skull injuries caused by the fall. But he had no choice. With a blast of almost superhuman energy he dragged his partner backward to safety. Blair's right sleeve caught on fire, and Jim packed snow over his crumpled form. Belatedly he realized his own jacket was burning, and he rolled over several times to squelch the flames racing up his back toward his neck and short fringe of hair.
Jim didn't realize he'd blacked out until he heard Blair calling his name and felt the younger man vigorously shaking his shoulder.
"Jim, don't be dead!" Blair pleaded, over and over. "Don't be dead, man."
Jim forced his eyes open. Blair hovered over him, pale and crying, on the edge of hysteria.
"I'm not dead," he rasped out. The heavy smells of charred wood, melted plastic and scorched metal flooded up his nose and nearly overwhelmed him for a minute. The stench of burned flesh hung in the air, turning his stomach into knots. His lungs itched crazily, and it took several deep hacks to clear them enough for him to breathe without the accompanying sensation of being smothered. Blair kept shaking his shoulder, as if deliberately trying to give him motion sickness. "Sandburg, quit it!" he forced out in irritation. "I'm not dead!"
Blair sagged sideways and dragged his arm across his nose. "I thought you were."
"I'm not," Jim insisted. He sat up with a groan. His back and neck hurt, as if he'd stayed out too long in the sun. But he saw no sun, only sky. Gray, overcast sky, barren trees, a winter forest. The collapsed and smoldering remains of a cabin stood a few dozen feet away, dying flames hissing under the steady fall of snow.
"What happened?" Jim asked.
Blair sniffed. "What do you mean, what happened? Pyromaniacs 'R' Us, that's what. You saved my life. Again."
For the first time it occurred to Jim that Blair sat barefoot in the snow, dressed only in trousers and an unbuttoned shirt, his right sleeve blackened and burned. The ring of bruises around his throat from where Kristie Ingalls' kidnapper had tried to throttle him stood out starkly in the winter light. The temperature still hovered below the freezing mark, but Blair wasn't even shivering.
"Are you okay?" he demanded of his partner.
Blair nodded and repeated, dully, "You saved my life."
Jim peeled off his jacket, wincing at the pull on his tender back, and inspected the material. Charred but usable. Thick, shiny blisters marked both of his hands and the skin tingled awfully. Setting his jaw against the pain he started to force Blair's arms into the jacket sleeves. Blair tried half-heartedly to push him away but Jim persisted and ordered, "Stop it. You're freezing!"
"No I'm not," Blair insisted, the words slurring slightly.
"Sandburg, I've seen your impression of a human popsicle, and it's not amusing. Just sit still." Despite his swollen fingers Jim managed to get the jacket zippered all the way up. Getting his boots off took several more minutes, but in the end he peeled off his socks and forced Blair to don the heavy wool. The socks wouldn't be of much use when they started walking, but they were certainly better than nothing. Jim forced his swollen bare feet back into the boots and loosely knotted the laces.
Blair's gaze strayed to the cabin. "Is he dead?"
"I think so," Jim said.
"How do you know?"
Because of the smell. No one burned like Mel could possibly be alive. Jim decided to skip the explanation and went to check anyway. The corpse lay smoldering under the collapsed wood of the porch, and Jim's Sentinel hearing detected no heartbeat, no respiration. He made a quick scan of the cabin's remains but saw nothing salvageable.
Blair looked awful in the overcast daylight - pale, sooty, sitting with an odd stiffness, obviously not operating at full mental or physical strength. Jim didn't feel so good himself - his back had begun to ache in earnest, and his two hot, vise-like fists gripped both lungs. He made a concerted effort to tone down his senses, but the cold had sapped most of his energy and robbed him of the focus he needed. He went to his partner and pulled him up to his feet. "Come on, Sandburg."
Blair stood hunched over, hanging on to Jim's sweater for support. "Where? Where are we going?"
"Up to that other cabin. We need shelter. It's just at the top of the hill, see?"
Blair obediently turned his gaze toward the hill, but Jim didn't think he actually saw the dim outline of the second cabin. Jim wrapped his arm around his partner and began half-dragging, half- carrying him through the thick drifts. The younger man's groggy, gasping participation seemed limited to putting one foot in front of the other and clutching Jim. Each erratic foot of progress sucked at the Sentinel's strength and oxygen. He began to think he'd done significant damage to his lungs by inhaling too much smoke. Blair's breathing sounded just as shaky, and punctuated by small, stifled grunts of pain.
"Just a little bit further, I promise," Jim urged. "Come on, Blair, you can do it. You're not going to make me carry you, are you?"
Blair didn't respond, but kept his legs moving.
The falling snow whirled around them, revolving curtains of cold and wet. The deep winter woods stretched for miles, with no signs of searchers or rescuers among the brown tree trunks or dark evergreens. Jim had long since lost track of time and couldn't spare the effort to check his watch. His face and ears had gone numb from the cold even as his back and neck burned. His frostbitten feet hurt horrendously. He prayed silently that neither he or Blair fainted - he didn't know if he had the strength to carry Blair, and Blair certainly didn't have the strength to carry him. The freezing snow would cover them like a thick blanket and smother them in icy darkness, leaving their bodies to be found only in spring -
Thirty feet from the cabin Blair's knees folded and he fell against Jim. "No!" Jim yelled. "Stay with me, damn it!"
"Can't," came the mumbled reply against Jim's chest. "Sorry."
Anger and fear gave Jim enough energy to hook his arms under the younger man's shoulders and haul him back up to his feet. "Don't you quit on me now, Sandburg!" he yelled. He spared a hand to slap Blair's face. Blair's eyes were only half-open, and he rocked limply under the blows. "Wake up!"
But Blair had slipped away from him, into a place where he would not be bothered by cold or snow or madmen. Jim tried lifting him but the effort landed them both in the snow. He fought the enticing urge to go to sleep in the soft loveliness and instead climbed back to his feet. He started dragging Blair by his arms to the cabin. Up the stairs. In the door. He kept going across the hard wooden floor to the bedroom, and made it just inside the door before his own knees gave out and a violent fit of coughing threatened to blot out all awareness.
He drew on all the discipline and stubbornness he had to keep from blacking out. Boot camp. Ranger school. Peru. He had been trained to function in the most adverse conditions imaginable. Surely he could cling to just a few more minutes of consciousness. When he could breathe again he lifted his pounding head. No blankets in this cabin. He remembered that much. He reached out, snagged the twin mattress from the bed and dragged it toward him.
"Best I can do," he muttered to Blair. "I'm sorry."
He pulled the mattress over them both. The lumpy, comfortable weight settled on top of their bodies, blocking out most of the light and offering the faint smell of mildew. Jim took Blair into his arms, pressing their bodies close, entwining their legs. He did so without reservation or embarrassment. Body heat, the mattress, and a fortuitous rescue were the only chances they had.
"Breathe," he mumbled to Blair. "Keep breathing, Chief."
Blair didn't answer.
Oblivion came back for Jim, a siren song he couldn't refuse, and after that the cold didn't matter to him either.
He slept, he woke, sharp things poking him, people prodding him, dizzying lights, grating sounds, beeps, wheels, voices that didn't make sense, he slept, he tried to move and couldn't, his sides and feet hurt, his head ached, a hand on his forehead, bleach and sickness fumes wafting up his nose, pinching, prodding, panic, the snow pressing down on him, massive heaviness that froze his limbs and slowed his heart -
"Mr. Sandburg, it's time to wake up."
A man's voice, deeply authoritative. Blair tried to shy from the light shining into his right eye but couldn't. Someone squeezed his hand. The light moved to his left eye. He didn't want to wake up, but as surely as if someone had flipped a power switch inside his body his eyes opened and he realized he lay in a hospital bed.
More important than the unfamiliar nurse and doctor standing beside his bed was the overwhelming, blessed, joyful sensation of *warmth.* From his toes to his head he practically glowed with heat. He could now die a happy man.
"Mr. Sandburg?" the doctor's eyebrow lifted. "Can you hear me?"
He answered "Yes, of course I can hear you," but his mouth produced only a slurred gibberish. They raised the bed for him and the nurse put a straw in his mouth. The tepid water tasted wonderful. The doctor introduced himself, but Blair forgot the name immediately. He asked Blair a dozen questions, ranging from his name and date of birth to whether he could feel his feet and if anything hurt.
"Everything. But I'm warm," Blair muttered, and went back to sleep.
The next time he woke the room lights had been turned down to allow for just a dim glow over his bed. Color and sound poured out of the television hanging from the ceiling. Jim sat in the bedside chair, dressed in a sweater and jeans, munching on a bag of microwave popcorn and apparently engrossed in the Boston Bruins' spectacular loss to the New York Rangers.
"Hey," Blair croaked out.
Jim didn't acknowledge him in any way.
So much for Sentinel abilities. "Jim!" Blair said, more strongly, and this time Jim's attention broke from the television. His rapt expression became softer and he put the popcorn down on the bedside table.
"Welcome back, Chief," he said. "You've been in and out of it for two days."
Blair frowned. "In and out of what?" he asked despite the dry scratchiness in his throat. "I've been right here."
"I think you're still a little groggy. Are you thirsty?"
Blair drained half a cup of water through a straw before slumping back into his pillow. He took in more details of the hospital room - another bed lay just beyond the pulled curtain, and someone snored from that direction. The window above the long, old-fashioned radiator shook with the force of wind outside. The door had a narrow window in it, and he could see a fat nurse move down the hall. He focused back on Jim, and tried to remember how he'd come to be in the hospital.
"Fire?" he asked. Something about a fire stuck in his brain, but the details hovered just beyond his mental grasp.
"Yeah, the cabin caught on fire. Mel Briggin doused it with kerosene after knocking you out. The state crime lab is still running tests on the rubble, but I smelled it in the ashes and what's left of his backpack."
"Mel," Blair repeated. He didn't think he knew anyone named Mel.
"Dead. They found the other missing girl, Laura Pillbry, locked up in the cellar of Mel's cabin. She's in rough shape. Kristie Ingalls says Mel and Robert Morrey - that's the guy you found chasing her - were in on it together. When Mel found out Morrey was dead and you and I were in the woods, he must have decided to take care of loose ends. I saw pictures of the cellar where they were kept, what those men did to those girls - death's too good for both of them."
The multiple names confused Blair, and he had no idea what woods or cabins had to do with anything. Still, the story seemed important to Jim, so he feigned as much interest as he could. Jim didn't look fooled.
"You're still tired, huh?" Jim asked.
At least he knew the answer to that question. "Yeah," Blair said. "But warm."
Jim smiled fondly. "You keep saying that whenever they wake you up. The doctor asks how you feel and you say horrible, but warm."
"It's *true,*" Blair insisted. He shifted in the bed. He had the sneaking suspicion the ache between his legs would turn out to be a catheter, and something stiff had been wrapped tightly around his sore ribs. "Warm is all that matters."
"I hear you, partner."
The faint memory of Jim being hurt or unconscious nagged at Blair, and he studied Jim intently. "Are you okay?"
"Me? Sure. Just some minor burns here and there. You're the one with a concussion, hypothermia, frostbite and bruised ribs."
The list sounded both impressive and expensive, but Blair didn't care about his own injuries. He reached out and snagged Jim's left arm, following the sleeve down to the bandages covering his hand.
"Minor burns, huh?" Blair asked skeptically.
"Nothing to worry about," Jim said easily. "Blisters popping, that's all. You need anything? You hungry? You want some popcorn?"
"No. Definitely not. What time is it?"
"About ten o'clock."
Blair's eyes started to close. He fought down a yawn. It would be rude to go to sleep with Jim sitting there. "You know. Big place. Loft. Favorite hang-out of bad guys."
Jim leaned forward slightly. "Blair, what state are we in?"
Blair looked up at the television and back to Jim. "Not Washington?" he guessed.
"I think you should go back to sleep. Things will be a lot clearer in the morning."
A second yawn caught him off guard. "I think," he mumbled after he worked his way through it, "that in the morning, you're going to have to tell me all this stuff all over again."
He was right.
A parade of interrogators marched through Blair's room the next morning, all demanding information. His doctor and the nurses wanted to know how he felt and what hurt. Craig Holley and a trooper from the Maine state police asked him to tell them everything that had happened in the woods. An FBI agent in an ill- fitting suit showed up, trying to link Mel Briggin to the kidnap of a girl from Vermont the previous autumn. Blair answered the police questions as best he could, even though his memory remained spotty in some places and a deep abiding guilt tinged the two worst parts - the struggle and gunshot that had resulted in the death of Robert Morrey, and the burning of the cabin that left Mel Briggin a charred, blackened corpse.
Jim stayed at his side for most of the morning, offering both silent and not-so silent support. He sat with his arms folded while Blair recounted being lost in the woods, growing colder and colder as the storm raged around him. A tell-tale muscle twitched in his jaw when Blair said Mel Briggin had knocked him unconscious in the cabin. Only when a news crew from Portland barged in with lights and a camera did Jim get to exercise his tongue, telling the reporter in no uncertain terms to leave immediately. He ushered the crew out forcefully, and closed the door with as much of a slam as the cushioned hinges allowed.
Blair smiled at him fondly. "You enjoyed doing that."
"Yes, I did," Jim said. He returned to his blue plastic chair. "How are you holding up?"
Blair admitted, "A nap would be good about now. Why don't you go get lunch or something?"
Jim looked at the clock. "You sure?"
"Sure I'm sure. Go eat. Go rest. I'm not going anywhere."
Shortly after Jim left, Blair's own lunch arrived. The thin, watery soup tasted like beets and old socks. The ham sandwich that accompanied it had probably been assembled and frozen in the waning days of the Reagan administration, and kept in reserve just for Blair. He unwrapped the fudge brownie, considered using it as a paperweight or door stopper, and finally just pushed the tray and rolling table away in disgust. The wind rattling the pane woke him after an hour of restless dozing, and with a stab of dismay he watched snowflakes battering against the glass.
Not snow. Not again. He turned away from the sight and burrowed deeper into his sheet and blanket. The hiss and clang of the radiator, although comforting, kept him awake. His mind began replaying the events of the previous forty eight hours, the terror and cold included. Everyone said he'd done well in the woods, but he wasn't so sure. Two men lay dead in the hospital morgue because of him. He could see Robert Morrey's blood-stained body, the ashes of Mel Briggin's eyes -
His roommate returned from physical therapy for a broken hip, chatted about fishing with the orderly for ten minutes, and was wheeled off by his wife to go smoke in the visitor's lounge. The wife clanged the wheelchair against Blair's bed on the way out and didn't even apologize. Blair abandoned the idea of going back to sleep and levered himself upright. He ached from head to toe, but at least they'd taken out the catheter and other needles and left him with only a rolling IV stand. He made it to the bathroom without triggering any major catastrophes.
Paul Briggin stood waiting for him when he came out, his face a mask of cold fury.
"I want you to stop lying about my uncle," he said harshly. "Tell them you were wrong."
Blair stopped mid-track. He stood in his hospital gown and robe, one hand grasping the IV stand, the floor cold beneath his thin paper slippers. Paul's anger swept over him like the blast wave of an atom bomb, and for a moment all he could do was try to stay upright.
"I'm sorry," Blair said, his throat suddenly dry. "I'm not lying - "
"He didn't do what they're saying!" Paul snarled. He hadn't taken off his thick winter coat, and snow melting off his boots left wet spots on the floor. Blair couldn't help but glance toward the holstered gun in the cop's utility belt. Paul shook his finger at him. "It's some kind of mistake, do you understand me? Mel would never hurt a fly. He certainly wouldn't kidnap two teenage sluts or burn anything down!"
Blair gripped the IV stand harder. "But he did," he protested weakly.
Thick veins bulged out of Paul's neck and his lips narrowed to bloodless slits. "The first time I saw you I knew you were trouble! You're not a cop and you don't belong in a cop's world. Everyone's saying you're such a hero but you and I both know you're nothing but a coward who shot that man and burned down the cabin and god knows what else - "
"Paul Briggin, that's quite enough!" a woman's voice said sharply from the door.
Blair lifted his gaze from the floor and tried to focus on Sarah Holley, who stood in the doorway with a fierce expression on her face.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," the sheriff's wife continued mercilessly, her gaze burning into Paul. "Browbeating an innocent man because of what your own flesh and blood did. Get out of here, Paul. You don't belong here."
"I don't work for you," Paul said angrily. "You can go to hell."
She lifted her head. "I know you're angry, and I know you're hurt. But that's no excuse. Go back to the station, Paul. Leave before Craig has to come down here and drag you out."
He shot Blair a murderous look before pushing past her and stalking down the hall. Blair remained standing in place, afraid that if he moved his knees would give way. Sarah put down the shopping bag she'd been carrying, came to his side, and took his elbow.
"You should be in bed," she said worriedly. "You're whiter than the bedsheet."
"I'm okay," Blair protested weakly, but let her help him back into bed. He felt cold and defenseless in the wake of Paul's anger. Obviously the cop had been wrong about his uncle, but had even a small part of the other things he'd said been true? The thought tormented him as Sarah pulled the blanket up to his chest and patted his shoulder.
"Don't listen to Paul," she soothed. "He's got a hot head and doesn't always think about what he's saying. When he was a teen he spent every summer working up at the lake with Mel, and it's just hard for him to accept things."
Blair nodded but didn't trust himself to speak. He wished Jim would come back. Jim's presence made him feel safe and protected. He supposed that was childish and immature, but he didn't care.
Sarah retrieved her bag. "I brought you some real food instead of hospital slime," she said, obviously hoping to cheer him up.
He forced himself to sound light. The effort didn't entirely succeed. "I thought you didn't cook."
She smiled and pulled out a Tupperware serving plate. "I don't! I called my sister Janie and made her whip me up a casserole. Jim said you like green beans."
Actually, Jim liked green beans - Blair preferred spinach. His partner had probably suggested the dish in a sneaky, underhanded scheme to nab the leftovers. The food smelled appetizing, though, and he tried a bite out of courtesy. "It's good."
"Janie will be glad to hear it. Do you want something to drink? There's a juice machine down the hall."
He hesitated. He didn't want to be an imposition. "Apple juice would be great, but only if it's no problem."
"The only way it would be a problem is if I had to squeeze the apples myself. I'll be right back."
He managed a few more bites but then stopped. His appetite didn't seem as strong as it had before Paul's entrance and diatribe. Blair sat back against his pillows and focused on the snow falling outside the window. He wondered how Paul saw his uncle - a benevolent father figure, perhaps, a favorite relative who'd helped him grow from boy to man the summers they'd worked together. He hadn't known the man who'd kidnapped two girls and imprisoned them in his cellar. He hadn't seen the Mel capable of punching Blair and then setting fire to the cabin. No wonder he hated Blair -
"Blair," Sarah said softly. He hadn't noticed her return.
"Thanks," he said, taking the can of apple juice from her with a slightly shaking hand.
"May I ask you a question?"
"Do you blame yourself for what happened?"
Blair concentrated on the absorbing task of opening the can. "Which part?" he asked, hoping to throw her off track.
"Any of it. All of it. Two men are dead - is it your fault?"
He hadn't expected her to be so forthright. He shot one quick glance her way before returning his attention to the apple juice. His right thumb traced the moisture condensing against the bright red and green of the can's surface as he feigned interest in the nutritional value label. "I don't know. Maybe."
"Are you a murderer?"
He knew she was a mother of two, but did she have to be a mind reader as well? A lump rose in his throat. "You said it yourself - two men are dead. I shot and killed the first one. As for Mel - he started the fire, yeah, but if Jim hadn't been so worried about just me, maybe we could have gotten him out too - "
"Blair," she said firmly, "look at me."
He looked. She sat stiffly in the bedside chair, her short blonde curls still damp from the bad weather outside, her green eyes glinting with resolve. She'd dressed in comfortable, worn clothes - a faded pair of jeans, a beige and green blouse, and a beige sweater. A no-nonsense wedding ring encircled her finger, and an all purpose handbag rested on the floor beside her. She must have been his own mother's age but she looked older, weathered and seasoned by not only Maine but by the stresses of twenty years of marriage to a police officer. He remembered the warmth of her home, the pictures of her children hung on every wall, the way she'd waited up late on a cold winter night to properly welcome her husband's guests.
"I killed a man once," she said.
Blair blinked at her.
"Shot him three times in the chest," she added, as calmly as if they were discussing the weather. "He was dead before he hit the floor. I scrubbed all the blood out and Craig replaced the planks, but I can show you exactly where it happened. There's a green throw rug over the spot."
Blair found his voice. "In your house?" he asked.
"In the living room. By the television."
He waited, but she simply gazed at him and waited back.
"Why?" he asked.
"He broke in. He was a convict named James Polson who blamed Craig for all sorts of things, and threatened to rape and murder the children and I. For months he harassed us with phone calls. Michelle's puppy disappeared - she was ten years old and devastated - and Craig found the poor dog gutted in the woods behind the house. A stranger tried to force Robbie into his car one day after school. We were absolutely terrified. Then everything fell silent for six months. Nothing. No calls, no harassment. We thought Polson had gone away. One night Craig got called to the scene of a truck wreck on the highway, and Polson broke through the front door. I shot him."
Blair said, "My God. I'm sorry, Sarah. You shouldn't have had to put up with all that."
"No one should," Sarah agreed. "But we did. We made it though all the crap and survived. Like you did. If you blame yourself for Mel and that other man, if you tell yourself their lives were more important than yours, then it's just like telling me I should have let that monster into my house and watched him kill my children."
Blair shook his head violently. "No. No way. You did what you had to do."
"And so did you," Sarah said triumphantly. "Don't doubt yourself. Don't let them keep hurting you."
After a moment of thought and reflection Blair offered her a tentative smile. "Thanks," he said.
The stiffness went out of her posture and she leaned back in the chair. "Anytime."
"Hey, Chief," Jim said, appearing at the door, his head tilted as he made a show of sniffing the air. His gaze centered on the Tupperware and he grinned. "Green beans! My favorite."
The next morning, Jim and Craig Holley showed up at the hospital wearing identical smiles. Blair, who'd been dressed and sitting impatiently on the edge of his bed for an hour, eyed them suspiciously. "What are you two up to?" he asked.
"Up to, Chief?" Jim asked innocently. He put the Hudson police duffel bag he'd been carrying down on the floor. Holley handed Blair a small box wrapped in recycled FBI posters.
The sheriff said, "This is for you, Blair, from all the guys down at the station. Any time you need a real job, you come back and see us."
Blair unwrapped the gift and held up a gold police shield. The metal caught the reflection of the fluorescent lights above, making his eyes water slightly. "Thanks a lot. I mean it."
"You deserve it. You did good out there, Blair. Take care of yourself, okay?"
"Yeah," Blair said, ducking his head in embarrassment. "You too."
Holley shook Blair and Jim's hands before leaving. Jim watched him go and said, "He's a damn good cop, Blair. If anyone else had been in charge, we'd probably still be out there. He kept those rescue teams going all night for us, and they're the ones who saw the smoke from the cabin."
Blair carefully put the shield back in the box and covered it up. He didn't want to talk about the woods anymore. Kristie Ingalls' parents, Laura Pillbry's widowed father and the mayor of Hudson had all stopped by to think him for his heroics, despite the fact he didn't feel heroic at all. Sarah's story had helped him accept the deaths, but he couldn't help wishing events had gone a little differently. CNN had picked up on the lurid tale of kidnapping and death in the Maine woods and he'd watched, mortified, as the story was broadcast across America every hour. All he wanted to do was to go home.
"You okay?" Jim asked.
Blair lifted his head. "Yeah, fine. What's in the bag?"
"Oh, this? Just my personal Blair Sandburg Emergency Kit, for the drive back down to Boston."
Blair didn't like the sound of that. "What's in it?"
Jim opened up the zipper and began pulling out items. "Scarf. Gloves. Thermal blanket. Hot thermos of coffee. Flares. Stuff like that."
Blair actually laughed. Trust Jim to think of everything - or almost everything. "Make sure you put some burn cream in there," he said. "A compass. An all-weather tent, maybe a global positioning device - "
Jim grinned broadly. "Let's go, Chief. Dr. Torres said he never wants to see either of us again."
Dr. Torres had actually told both of them to see their own physicians back in Cascade if they had any further problems. He said Jim's first and second degree burns should heal without complication, and the smoke inhalation had left no permanent damage to his lungs. His frostbitten feet might be tender for some time, but that would pass. Blair might feel dizzy on occasion until his concussion fully subsided, and the aftereffects of hypothermia would include fatigue and susceptibility to cold, but he could be very thankful about keeping all of his fingers and toes.
Blair intended to stay awake and keep Jim company on the drive down to Boston but he fell asleep almost immediately, lulled by the passing scenery and warmth from the car heater. He woke when Jim pulled into a roadside McDonald's for lunch. Just after one o'clock the skyline of Boston appeared, but Jim took an unexpectedly early turn off I-93 instead of continuing on toward Logan Airport.
Blair fished the map out of the glove compartment. "Where are we going, Jim? The plane leaves at two-thirty."
Jim gave him a mysterious smile. "Nope. Our flight changed. We leave at five."
"Five? What are we supposed to do until five?"
"Not us, Chief. You."
Blair tried to imagine what Jim's twisted mind had dreamed up this time. With a growing sense of dread he recognized the quaint, narrow streets of Cambridge. He clenched the map in his hand. "Oh, man. You didn't."
"I don't know, but tell me you didn't."
Jim pulled their rental car to a stop outside the Harvard University Peabody Museum. His smile widened. "Okay. I won't tell you you've got a two o'clock appointment with Dr. Peter Mayhew Thorpe."
Blair tried to sink lower in his seat as dismay tied his stomach into knots. "Jim, you didn't! How did you know Thorpe's name? I never told you!"
"I'm a detective, Blair. It's what I do. You'd be surprised what someone could learn from the notes in your backpack."
"Jim, this is really rotten. You should never have done it."
"What? Pull a few strings for my partner? Actually, Craig Holley did most of the work. He talked to the mayor, who mentioned it to the governor, who has a friend at Harvard - "
Blair could feel his face turning red. "You didn't even bother to ask me!" he yelled.
"Ask you what?" Jim demanded, his smile slipping away. "What in the world is wrong with you? I thought you wanted to talk to this guy."
"That's not the point! I didn't ask for your help."
Jim's voice took on a steely edge. "You didn't ask me to find you in the woods, either. I didn't ask you to sit by my side and turn into an icicle while I was unconscious. I thought we were friends, and friends do stuff for each other. Pardon me for being such a big jerk."
Blair shut his mouth and silently counted to ten. He didn't know if he could dredge the correct words out of his anger and embarrassment to explain to Jim what he had done wrong, but he had to try. "You're not a big jerk," he said, forcing calm into his voice. "It's just ...Jim, what happened in Maine has nothing to do with my anthropology research. It's like they're two separate lives, okay? I want Dr. Thorpe to accept me as a colleague, not some media freak or idiot who happened to get lost in the woods - "
"You wait just a minute, Blair Sandburg! You happen to be the idiot who saved that girl's life. Two girls, in fact!"
" - and you think he's going to care one whit about my research?" Blair finished. He took a deep breath, folded his arms and glowered at Jim. "What do you mean, 'the idiot who saved that girl's life?'"
"Okay, fine," he said tightly. "I thought this was a nice thing to do, but I screwed up. Sue me."
"It *is* a nice thing to do - it's just not how I want him to see me, okay?"
"Blair, he wasn't going to see you at all! Remember? You tried that route." Jim shook his head. "But if your pride is so damn important, we'll just go sit in the airport for the rest of the day."
Blair shot back, "It's not pride!"
"Then what is it?" Jim demanded.
"It's - it's . . . " Blair couldn't tell him what. Couldn't find any words. Because his anger had vanished as quickly as it had come, replaced by shame at dumping everything on Jim. Still he offered one last token of resistance. "Are my Sentinel studies so important to you that you go scheming behind my back?"
"No," Jim said softly, sounding injured. "They're so important to *you.* And I didn't think that doing a friend a favor counted as 'scheming' behind his back."
In the silence that followed Jim turned the key in the ignition. He had just started to pull into traffic when Blair's hand moved to cover his.
"Stop," Blair said. "Please."
Jim reversed, parked, and turned the car off. They looked at each other for a long moment, still caught in hot washes of emotion. Blair said, "I'm sorry. You're right. You did a nice thing, and I'm letting my ego get in the way."
Jim shrugged, as if it didn't matter.
"I'm sorry," Blair repeated forcefully. "You're a good friend. And I'm the idiot."
A slight flush tinged Jim's cheeks as he took a look at his watch. "You're the idiot who's going to be late if you don't go up there."
Blair didn't move.
"You don't *have* to go up there, you know," Jim reminded him.
Blair smiled faintly. "Yes, I do." He slid out of the car and shut the door behind him. He felt a twinge of remembered dread at the thought of seeing Thorpe's secretary again, but after two murderers and the worst storm of Maine's winter and barely escaping with their lives, she no longer seemed very important at all. Blair squared his shoulders and crossed the street to the museum grounds. He thought of something, and walked back to the car to tap on Jim's window.
"It may take awhile," he said when Jim rolled down the window. "I've got a lot of questions to ask Dr. Thorpe."
Jim grinned. "I'll be here, Chief."
"I know." Blair smiled in return. "You always are."
P.S. The title comes from a poem by Nobel-prize winning author
Albert Camus, who wrote: "In the midst of winter, I finally learned
that there was in me an invincible summer." "Invincible Summer"
would, of course, be the title of the sequel if Paul Briggin ever
decided to wreak revenge on Blair and Jim....
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