An Ill Wind
By Gil Hale – email@example.com
Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply.
A cold, damp wind from the ocean had been gusting into Cascade all week, growing stronger every day. It plagued everyone — and cats and Jim seemed to mind it most. Maybe, Blair thought, it was a cat thing rather than a sentinel thing and he could blame the panther vibe. It was a pity Jim couldn’t stay in the warm with a large bowl of food. It seemed to work for Tibbles.
After three days of coming in chilled and wet, even Blair was losing any sunny sense of optimism. They got back from a failed surveillance operation at lunchtime but it might as well have been evening. He lit the fire; Jim put on the soup and heated the bread; they couldn’t even summon the energy to bicker while they ate. And just when Blair was beginning to relax a little as the heat from the food finally seeped into him, Jim stood up and without a word of warning opened the doors to the balcony and the freezing wind. Blair gasped as it whipped in with a full load of moisture.
“What the hell…?”
“Shut up!” Jim said harshly.
It said rather a lot about their friendship that Blair could recognise several different tones of ‘shut up’, almost forming a subset to Jim’s language. This one had the urgency of Jim really needing to hear something else out there; something… not good.
“Jim?” Blair asked much more softly, flinching slightly at the bite of the wind, but joining him at the open door.
“I can hear someone in trouble,” Jim said, leaning into the gusts as he tried to focus.
Blair put a hand on his arm. “Nearby?” he asked. It was hard to imagine anything being audible except the wind itself and every loose trashcan, awning and shutter across Cascade.
Jim shook his head. With an effort, as though part of him was somewhere else entirely, he said, “Out at sea.”
Blair shuddered, not just at the cold in the room but the thought of what this storm must be like on the ocean.
“A fishing boat’s gone down, I think,” Jim said. “I was… following the wind’s direction, I suppose, back out to the west, trying to hear if there was something calmer beyond… I heard their Mayday. I don’t know why or how…”
Blair did. Jim seemed to be hard-wired to respond to a cry for help. He could feel the tension in the sentinel that he couldn’t respond to this one.
“If they got out a Mayday, the coastguard will be on it,” he said quietly.
“Their emergency radio beacon hasn’t activated.”
“But they got their position out, right?”
“Not clearly.” Jim stepped right out onto the balcony. “I can hear them, chief. Three or four crew. They’ve pulled themselves up on something, floating crates maybe, but they’re in ten foot waves or worse. I need to pinpoint their position. I don’t think the coastguard will have got any more than I did from their Mayday.”
Blair thought of men floundering in the sea in this weather and fought past his own floundering thoughts. “How much of a message did they manage?”
“Latitude.” Jim was either too cold to say more or his focus was too far away, in the waves.
Blair swiped cold wet hair from his face and thought frantically. Longitude, then. He’d seen something recently about longitude…
“Jim! I read about this! It’s possible to sense longitude. Creatures can do it so you could. You can use the earth’s magnetic field!”
“No, it can be done for both, man. And you already know latitude, so you’ve somewhere to start. Only…”
“You’re going to have to kind of be there with them, Jim. And it’s so far. You’ve never used your hearing quite like that.”
He pushed out onto the balcony with the sentinel. His hand on Jim’s arm was almost numb; Jim, when he glanced at him, was white and wet, sculpted in icy water. Blair felt as if he was already losing him to the sea. He gripped him more firmly, began to talk, coached him as if one of them actually knew what the hell to do, tried to follow him out into a maelstrom where only Jim could hear the desperate fishermen. And at the end of a cold wet hell of straining, they got the longitude, mumbled by Jim though numb lips.
Blair fell inside, his legs too cold to respond to his brain’s command to run. Some part of his mind must have been working on the next step unawares, because he was calling Rucker before he knew what he was doing. They’d never talked about Jim’s senses with his coastguard cousin, but over a few visits Blair had formed an idea Rucker understood enough of what Jim could do. His instincts were right. Rucker listened to his frantic message and went straight into action, contacting the helicopter that was already out searching.
Blair dropped the phone, turned and realised Jim was still standing frozen in place, leaning towards the sea.
“I got Rucker,” Blair called quickly. “He’s onto it. Come in, man. You did something no-one else could do. Let the coastguard do the rest.”
Nothing about Jim’s frozen stance changed.
Blair pushed back out into the wind, saw Jim’s eyes were blank and distant, not even blinking at the rain blowing into them. “Shit,” he muttered. “Come on, big guy. Inside.”
He turned Jim around, pushed him into the loft and slammed the balcony doors shut. Zoned or hypothermic or both? Or somehow lost out at sea? Not if Blair had anything to do with it. He dragged a chair in front of the fire and sat Jim there, turned the leftover soup on to reheat, started to strip Jim’s wet clothes from him. “Jim, come back. You’ve done what you can for those fishermen. I need you here, Jim.”
Maybe that genuine need in his last few words did the trick, or maybe it was just the freedom from the wind and rain, but to his huge relief Jim shuddered and returned. Blair kept talking, turned the fire up, allowed – with huge relief – Jim to push him away and finish getting his wet clothes off himself. He went back to the soup.
“You too,” Jim said stiffly, as though the muscles were of his face were still frozen.
“Me too what?”
The relative warmth inside the loft was deceptive, Blair realised. He was still shivering. Hot showers would have been a good idea, but he couldn’t face any more water and he wasn’t trusting Jim out of his sight, so they made do with dry clothes and soup and the fire as hot as they could get it. The storm seemed finally to be shut outside. Tibbles, with an acute sense for when there was warmth to lie in front of, fussed at the door and Blair let him in, because nothing could be further from danger at sea than a fat cat purring in the heat.
Sometime much later, when they were all dozing, Rucker called.
“The helicopter’s got them in a rescue basket,” he said. “I don’t want to know how Jim does it, Blair; probably better if I don’t, but you can tell him they wouldn’t be alive without that position being pinpointed.”
The remaining tension in Jim relaxed as Blair passed on the good news. He yawned and stretched and Tibbles copied him.
“Your idea,” Jim told Blair after a moment. “And you were the anchor…”
“Thought for a minute I was losing you at sea,” Blair admitted, still seeing the white drenched figure on the balcony.
“My personal rescue service,” Jim said, not quite joking.
Neither of them was sure what to do with the silence.
“Where did you get the longitude thing from, anyway?” Jim asked hastily.
Blair grinned. “I read an article about loggerhead turtles. If they could sense it, I thought it should be a cinch for a loggerhead sentinel!”