In a Land of Shadow
By Gil Hale – firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.
Author’s Notes: This story was originally published in Sentry Duty 8.
Naomi Sandburg danced barefoot around the fire, and her long hair flamed in its light. She glowed with the knowledge that all the men watching her were stirred by the twisting of her body. The women who’d lived in these chalk Downs when the first white horse had been carved had danced in the same way. They’d let the invitation of their bodies give them power; she was sure of it.
She felt inspired by this impromptu festival of pulsing music and free love. Southern England had sounded staid and boring, but this site, offered by a young local farmer, had hosted one of the wildest concerts she’d ever attended. A couple of the other girls joined her in the dance, but they could not whirl with her uncontrolled sensuality. She glimpsed the dark look on Roddy’s face; he thought because she had traveled to Europe with him he should own her. Well, nobody owned her. She could choose who she wanted and she knew that anyone she chose would respond. The other girls knew that, too. The one who was nicknamed Star—perhaps because she was all spiky angles—was looking at her enviously. It added spice to her pleasure. She writhed seductively like the wisps of flame.
Later, when the moon rose, she slowed, stretched and dropped at the side of the man who’d been her lover every night she’d been here. He smiled at her as she curled beside him, and although she knew he was ensnared, there was a sort of remoteness in his green eyes that she still found a challenge. ‘Cat,’ they called him. Most of the people here didn’t seem to use their real names. She thought that in some cases it was because they came from rather pampered wealthy backgrounds, to which they’d probably return after this summer’s fling, but that wasn’t true of Cat. Even Naomi, unattuned to English accents, could tell that his belonged to the working class north.
Cat had just shrugged when she asked him why he used the name. Most people seemed to think it was a tribute to Cat Stevens, but Pammy said it was probably a nickname other people had given him, because he had that separate, slightly self-contained air of the cat who walked by himself. Naomi thought Pammy stodgy and unimaginative in general, but she agreed with her on this. It suited him. She smiled to think that, for her, he would roll over and purr.
She leaned against him now, possessive, and enjoyed the feeling of her power. Pammy and Star glanced at them wistfully; Roddy with annoyance. It amused her that he was jealous. Cat didn’t like Roddy, either. The first night he’d joined their group, she’d worried about it, because Roddy was hulking by comparison, but there was a lithe strength in Cat and a confidence in the way he moved, and Roddy had let it go.
The music had stopped now, except for the strumming of a few guitars around the site. Most people were smoking joints, and the still air was a bit hazy, scented. She didn’t want to be stoned tonight, though. She turned her face up to Cat and ran her hand lazily inside his unbuttoned shirt. She was expecting him to respond and kiss her, but for a moment he hardly seemed to notice. His face was quite different, almost hard. He was watching Roddy, she realized—and Roddy was heading into the back of his tent, where he kept the stuff she didn’t ask about, stuff which gaunt and nervous people came to buy. There was a young man waiting there now. He was thin and dirty and moving with restless unease. The ugly word ‘addict’ drifted into her mind, and she pushed it away. Roddy didn’t tell her anything, and she never asked.
Much better to think of beautiful things. She and Cat were beautiful. She used her hands expertly to regain his full attention, and when she looked up from the kiss, the young man in Roddy’s tent was gone. People lay on their backs looking up at the stars. The fire burned low. Someone pushed a rolled joint into Star’s hands, laughing when she looked uncertain. She would have smoked it, Naomi thought, but Cat leaned over to pick up his guitar and called her and Naomi to sing while he played. Their soft music continued until the fire ebbed.
She had no idea what time she and Cat finally slid into his small tent, but it felt as though she’d hardly slept when he woke her. The light outside was pale with the colorlessness of early morning. Cat, was unshaven and disheveled, his face a pale blur over shadowy stubble. She ran her fingers from his tangled long curls to the thin silver chain which was all he wore above his jeans.
“Why are you so wide awake?”
“I want you to go and cut me some willow,” he said. “They say there should be three girls to do it, so take Pammy and Star with you. Go down to the stream, and when the sun comes up high enough to fall on the branches, cut an armful each. Can you wake them and do that?”
“Of course,” Naomi said, instantly enthralled. “What ritual is it? Something that’s special to this place? I know about the properties of willow. I learned to weave it once.”
Cat handed her a Swiss army knife, which seemed rather mundane for cutting willow at dawn.
“You’d better hurry,” he said. “Get down there before sunrise.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me any more?”
“This wouldn’t work if I told you beforehand.”
She took this tantalizing hint of mystery with her, and went barefoot out onto the short grass. Pammy and Star were easily persuaded to join her, as enchanted as she was by the suggestion of some Iron Age rite—and also by Cat showing an interest in them. Almost everyone else on the site was asleep, in tents or simply rolled in sleeping bags by the ashes of the fire.
It was a long walk down to the stream, but an easy one following the chalk paths or walking on grass the sheep had cropped. Naomi watched a small blue butterfly hover. She liked this place. Perhaps when the festival was over she would break away from Roddy completely and persuade Cat to stay here a while with her.
They dipped their feet in the brown shallows of the stream, and waited until the rising sun lit the willows before they cut the trailing strands. Naomi dropped the knife into the deep pocket of her trailing skirt, and gathered up an armful of branches. They’d been here quite a long time already, and it would be uphill going back, and hotter.
They left the belt of undergrowth by the stream and started up the open slope. For a little while, all they could see was the round of the hillside, then they were high enough to glimpse the camp site—and the peaceful morning shattered into panic and dismay.
Star dropped her bundle of branches. “Oh, no. Oh, God. Pammy, what are we going to do?”
Naomi wouldn’t have wailed like that, but she, too, was shocked into immobility. The festival site which they had left silent and asleep was now as busy as a stirred ant heap, and all around the perimeter of it were what seemed ridiculous numbers of uniformed police.
“Pigs,” she said, finding her voice.
“It’s because of the drugs,” Star said. “What are we going to do? Our bags and clothes and everything are there. Naomi, your passport’s there.”
“Pick up your branches,” Pammy told her. “They’re not going to arrest everyone. They don’t know who we are—or who we were with. We’ll say we came last night, and just slept in the open. Lots of people were doing that. Roddy and his lot won’t drop you in it, will they, Naomi?”
“No.” But if she’d been there, in Roddy’s tent… if she hadn’t gone with Cat, or if Cat hadn’t sent them off on this early morning quest…
“Cat was still there,” Star said. “I wish he’d come with us.”
“He’s not into drugs,” Pammy said.
“They plant it on people,” Naomi said. “They’ll look at him and their closed-up minds will say user, and they won’t care. They’ll arrest him and make up the evidence. They’re just robots.”
They went on walking slowly up the hill. A young constable stopped them at the edge of the site, heard their story and told them to stay where they were. Soon though, they managed to edge around a little so they could see their friends.
“They’ve got Roddy,” Star whispered. “And those people who used to come to him.”
The activity was thickest here, the noise—official or panicked—loudest. They had most of the people who’d been in her small group, Naomi realized. Roddy looked angry and frightened, and the box he kept at the back of the tent was being pulled out into the open.
“They haven’t got Cat,” Pammy said, and there was an odd note in her voice.
Naomi had already seen that Cat didn’t seem to be under arrest. Now she realized there was more to it than that. Cat was still disreputably untidy in skintight jeans and a torn T-shirt, but he wasn’t standing with the queue of people waiting to be told they could go; he was in the middle of the action and he looked… different. Where everyone else seemed nervous, he was confident. Authoritative, even. As she watched, she saw him give an order to one of the uniformed police.
“I don’t understand,” Star said plaintively, and Naomi wanted to smack her.
Because she understood, and with her understanding came a rising tide of anger and disillusion, almost choking her as she watched him. Cat—no wonder he’d wanted some stupid nickname—had lied. He’d lied not just with words, but with everything he was. He was one of the hated, fascist, freedom-crushing police and he hadn’t stayed with their group because he found her so attractive, he’d stayed to bust them. Her face burned hot with humiliation and anger. She heard the abuse Roddy was shouting at him as he was taken away. Several of the others she’d traveled to Europe with looked as if they’d been arrested, too. She hadn’t liked them enough to feel any deep concern for them, but she was beginning to feel horribly alone.
“He made sure we were out of it,” Pammy said, also watching Cat, but sounding almost grateful.
Naomi thought how easily she’d been sent off, like some naive schoolgirl. “How could he? He lied to me, over and over again. Everything he said was a lie. He was planning this from the start.”
“He must be undercover; drug squad or something,” Pammy said. “He was very good.”
“I hate him,” Naomi said fervently.
“We could have been sent to prison.” Tears had started to run down Star’s face, blotching her cheeks. She held tight to Pammy’s arm. “If he hadn’t sent us to the river, we’d have been with them.”
It seemed that almost all of the group they had been with were being escorted away by the police, for cannabis possession, if nothing more. Cat walked over to the girls and there was a set look to his face that made Naomi even more angry, because she could see he was satisfied with what he’d done. Before she could find the words to tell him how she hated and despised him, Star started to howl more loudly and hurled herself into his arms.
“We didn’t know,” she wailed. “We didn’t think.”
“Shh, I know,” he said, rubbing her back. “It’s all right. You only have to give your name at the gate, then you can go. Go with Pammy. Have you got enough money to get home?”
“I have,” Pammy said quickly. “Come on, Star. We’ll get a train together.”
He gave Star a final pat. “Take up that college place. This is over.”
“You patronizing, arrogant bastard,” Naomi said.
“Thanks,” Pammy said, ignoring her. “I’ll see she gets home okay.”
Naomi let them go. She had no intention of moving until she’d finished what she wanted to say. “You really get off on this cop thing, don’t you? Look at you, Mr. Fascist Pig, telling people how to run their lives. That’s what you really enjoy, isn’t it? I suppose I was just a bonus.”
“You’d better go,” Cat said. “I don’t suppose you want to know it, but a girl younger than you died of an overdose at the last place where your friend stopped to peddle his ‘stuff’. Maybe you could stop thinking about yourself long enough to consider that.”
“Why should I believe you? Everything else you’ve said has been lies. You just used me to get at my friends.”
“Your friends make money out of people’s suffering. Anyway, I don’t think you were the only one ‘used’. I was supposed to be another trophy, wasn’t I? Another man who found you irresistible until you decided to move on. That’s what really annoys you.”
Naomi slapped him across the face with all the force she could manage. A couple of the uniformed police started towards them, but Cat—or whoever he really was—waved them away. For a moment, she thought of continuing until they had to arrest her, but, treacherously, her mind tossed up the image of the gaunt young man outside Roddy’s tent. She saw the red traces of her handprint appear like a stain on Cat’s face. It was ugly. Everything was ugly now, all the beauty of the night before trampled into the mud by police boots. Suddenly, all she wanted to do was leave it behind. She turned abruptly and walked away.
Two weeks later, she met Timothy Leary. One of the things about her that caught his attention was her outspoken conviction of the hypocrisy of the English police.
Eight years later, when she and seven-year-old Blair were packing to move from a shared house to a commune, she sorted through a bundle of old clothes. In the deep pocket of a cheesecloth skirt, she found a Swiss army knife, and wondered where on earth it could have come from.
“Cool,” Blair said, holding out his hand for it. “Look. It’s a real one. It’s got two blades and lots of other bits. Only one boy in my class has got one as good as this. Can I keep it?”
“Be careful with it, sweetie,” she said automatically. She wasn’t sure she liked to see him looking so like a typical little boy, intent on the blades. “Promise me you will never ever use it to cut into a tree?”
“And that you’ll remember how much harm a knife can do.”
“Promise,” Blair said. “Look—I can use it to clean that thing I found that might be an arrowhead.”
He was already disappointed at having to move away from his friends, but she just couldn’t settle in one place. Even for Blair, it was too much to feel tied down. Perhaps this would help.
“All right, sweetie,” she said, and he looked up and smiled, then returned to his absorption with the knife.
Briefly she watched him as he sat there, his tumble of curls almost hiding his intent little face, his bitten nails struggling to extract another tool, and the sight vaguely bothered her. There was something… but she couldn’t pin it down. It must have been something she had let go of long ago, she decided, and went back to her packing.
Blair paused at the door and looked back across the loft. Jim was a silhouette, his back turned, and it was no easier to read his mood than that of any of the concrete silhouettes that stood out against Cascade’s grey sky. Maybe it was worth one more attempt at explaining.
“I’m just saying, it’s a bit like getting married on the rebound.” Damn. That hadn’t come out right, and it certainly didn’t seem to be communicating to Jim. “I mean, the diss is gone, Rainier’s kind of done with…” If he couldn’t get these sentences out without his voice wobbling, Jim was going to be slamming mental doors shut too fast to take in a word. “It’s like when years of a relationship go down the drain. It’s so empty, the next girl who comes along, you grab at. It would be too easy to do that with Simon’s offer, just because it’s there.”
Jim didn’t answer for a long time. He was looking intently at the glass doors to the balcony, maybe seeing beyond the eagle’s view, maybe focused in on some tiny speck close by. Blair didn’t know. He wasn’t sure he knew anything much anymore.
Naomi had gone, hoping that everything could be sweetness and light again, meltdown assuaged by some burning of sage and her own karmic sacrifice in accepting that her son could become a police officer. The dissertation was finished—in every sense—and what dreams he’d once associated with it were turned to nightmares. Regular, frequent nightmares, that left him shaking and sweating from visions of Megan, Simon, Jim all dead. People were acting on his behalf at Rainier, appalled by the unprofessional behavior of the chancellor, but he had no personal stomach for the fight.
“What about those years at the PD?”
He jumped as Jim finally broke his silence. “What?”
“Those aren’t down the drain.”
“Have you seen how everyone outside Major Crimes looks at me? Even a few inside, come to that. And I’d be in the department—if I ever did get there—only on Simon’s sufferance. What if he ever moved on? Or was injured again? You know what it was like when I was an observer and we had a sub. Becoming a cop means I’d have even less leeway if anyone chose to break up our partnership.”
“You still want it, then?” Jim’s voice sounded remote to him, even cold. “The partnership?”
“Do you?” Blair asked. The sense that he was losing everything was rising up to choke him again. He needed the answer to come fast. When it didn’t, he turned and went quietly out of the loft, leaving silence behind him.
Jim had been struggling to find the right words, the ones which would actually convince Blair he meant it when he told Blair he was the best partner—and friend—anyone could want. He only realized he’d run out of time when the door swung shut.
“Sandburg!” he called, but it had already closed and he cut off his instinctive move to go and open it and shout after Blair. Instinct wasn’t working for him. On the balcony, the tiny spider he’d been watching made another perfect link to its web. That was how instinct should be.
Building, not destroying. He didn’t want to press Blair; he didn’t want to map his future out for him—Jim blamed himself too much for his share in wrecking the present. But as he limped to the couch and sat down stiffly, he wondered if, instead of showing he supported whatever decision Blair made, he was just giving the impression he didn’t care.
Sitting down brought no respite. It wasn’t his leg that was the problem; sure, that ached, but it was a simple physical hurt. He could handle the pain, and knew it would heal. He’d have settled for any amount of physical pain compared to the aching sense of unease that filled him and the loft and clouded every thought of what he and Blair were going to do.
Blair went down the stairs without seeing anything he passed, and was in his car and a block from the loft before he began to think again. They couldn’t go on like this, making choices they didn’t want because they both felt guilty.
Although it wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to be a cop as that he just didn’t see how it would work for him. He was—had been—a part of Major Crimes in his own way. He’d used his own skills, and he’d worked with Jim, and for a while it had been a cop-of-the-year success story. It was never going to be like that again, and becoming a cop wouldn’t solve it.
But what else could he do? Leave? It wasn’t impossible. Jim was a long way from the tormented man he’d first met. He could control his senses most of the time, and if he only used them a little, well, he’d been a good cop before he ever had them.
It was a bleak thought, though, that if he did leave, it would only be to get away from this situation, not to do something he cared about doing. He couldn’t, right now, think of anything that came into that category. He could go on retreat, but the last thing he needed was time to think. Professor Stoddard, quietly supportive, had indicated he could find Blair a place on an expedition, but even that woke no enthusiasm in him. The only thing he wanted was his life back: Jim, the PD, Rainier all at once. He’d found his grail, and he’d not been worthy, and now that he’d lost it, everything else was ashes.
He didn’t care where he was going, simply driving by habit; the other cars that passed could have been carrying naked girls on the roof and it wouldn’t have caught his attention. The fact that someone had pulled out after him when he left the loft, and had been following him since, had completely escaped his notice. When his cell phone rang, he certainly didn’t associate the caller with the driver in the car behind him.
He hesitated a moment before answering it. Number restricted… and most of the things people seemed to want to say to him these days were better left to voice mail and then deleted. But it could be personal, maybe Naomi wanting to hear he and Jim were ‘good’, or Jim himself…
The voice that addressed him was polite and British and completely unknown to him. “Mr. Sandburg? I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes of your time?”
“All of them, if you like. There certainly aren’t many demands on me at the moment.” It came out more bitterly than he had intended. “Sorry,” he went on hastily. “But I do have plenty of free time. How can I help you?”
“In fact, Mr. Sandburg, I hope we may be able to help each other. As you have indirectly touched on the subject, I trust you won’t mind my commenting on the fact that I am aware of the… recent difficulties… you’ve been having with your research. It has given me the confidence to approach you for your advice on a patient I believe you might be able to help me treat. Her name is Alex Barnes.”
Blair swerved, recovered himself, and tried to sound normal. “You want me to help you with Alex Barnes?” His voice came out too high, and his hand clenched on the case of the phone.
“Forgive me if I introduced the subject with too little warning. My name is Dr. Wilson, and I am responsible for some specialist help Miss Barnes is currently receiving in the United Kingdom. Obviously, this is a complex matter to discuss over the phone; suffice it to say that my efforts to understand her problems have made me aware of your research. Unfortunately, they also made me aware of your, shall we say, difficult history with her.”
“That’s one hell of an understatement.”
“I appreciate your feelings, Mr. Sandburg, and I might have hesitated to approach you, even though I feel she no longer poses a threat to anybody. However, I feel I can now suggest a way in which this contact could also be beneficial to you in your current circumstances. I have read enough of your very scholarly research to understand the Sentinel concept, and to see how it might be applied to Miss Barnes. It seemed to me it might be useful at the present time for you to have a different Sentinel from Detective Ellison…”
“Detective Ellison is not a Sentinel. That work was an experiment in ideas, published prematurely in error.”
“Exactly. However, there is no problem with acknowledging Miss Barnes as a Sentinel, and I believe you have already done some research with her. Would you be prepared to meet me for a couple of hours to discuss a short visit to the UK—funded by us, of course— to give me your impression of the progress she is making, and perhaps advise on her treatment?”
Blair knew that whatever else he did, he’d better stop driving soon. He was going to run into someone if these surprises kept coming at him. Besides, he needed to think. Already, spinning treacherously promising patterns in his mind, were sudden thoughts of how much of his thesis could be adapted to Alex, and how much of her history he already knew.
“When would you like to meet?” he asked.
“Could you make it early this afternoon, at the Portsmouth Hotel?”
Blair knew it; it was a popular choice with UK visitors. “At 2:00?” he suggested. That would give him just over an hour to think this through.
“That would be excellent, Mr. Sandburg. I’ll look forward to seeing you.”
Still unnoticed by Blair, the car that had been following him turned off. Blair pulled over when he saw a coffee shop, bought himself a latte and drank it slowly while he struggled with a jumble of thoughts and hopes and fears.
Top of the list, was the question of whether this could pose any further threat to Jim. Even the word ‘Sentinel’ was sounding warning bells at the moment. But Dr. Wilson had shown no interest in Jim at all. He’d read Blair’s research, he said, but that must mean published papers, none of which dealt with Jim. He knew about the history with Alex—though how much, he hadn’t said—but that probably was to be expected if he was treating her. He had to know about her meltdown, and some of the situation around it. Blair couldn’t see how any of this could endanger Jim’s privacy or his career. But could it—possibly—be a step towards retrieving Blair’s?
Now that there was a trace of a hope, he allowed himself to acknowledge the longing he still felt for his academic life. There were people who would back him all the way at Rainier. Professor Stoddard was only waiting for his word to set all sorts of procedures in motion, but Blair hadn’t seen the point of fighting, however good a case they had against the Chancellor. What could it do but make more trouble? Now if he decided there was a chance of rescuing something, he knew Eli would be delighted finally to have the chance to act. There was no doubt Rainier had broken any number of professional codes. And Sid—Sid had published something he had no right to, and judging by his last call to Naomi before she left, was panicking about it now. He owed Blair and he knew it.
Blair could already see how it could go. It would hardly even need anything that could be called obfuscation. They could say Alex Barnes was, and had always been, the Sentinel. Blair’s so-called thesis was a piece of fiction writing exploring how her attributes, which had been used for crime, might have worked on the other side of the law. His other work with the PD had prompted him to write an imaginary piece about how an effective policeman like Ellison might have achieved even more with heightened senses. A whole complex story began to fall into place in his mind.
It could work, he was almost sure of it. It would even explain why he’d used Jim.
At the thought of Jim, his ideas jumped the track and derailed.
Jim—would not like this. Well, in the interest of accuracy, he would hate this explosively. In fact, he was quite likely to handcuff Blair to the loft stairs rather than let him go anywhere near Alex Barnes.
If Blair told him.
He glanced at his watch. Whatever else he did, he’d promised to go to meet Dr. Wilson. He needed to set off now if he was to get to the Portsmouth Hotel in time.
Jim walked stiffly across the campus at Rainier waving his thanks to Rafe for the lift. He ignored the people around him and headed purposefully for the block containing Dr. Stoddard’s office. He knew roughly where it was, and the man’s reaction to his hasty phone call had been warmly positive. Blair did still have friends. Better ones than Jim had been… He caught sight of the fountain and flinched. Why was it when they both messed up, it always worked out so much more painfully for Blair?
Jim had never met the elderly professor, but he felt as if he had known him for some time as he was welcomed into the room. Somehow, he’d picked up a sense of the man from Blair, and he wasn’t disappointed. A handshake, a couple of words, and he knew he had a wise ally who valued Blair enormously.
“I suspect, Detective, you’ve gained a rather negative impression of how much Blair’s qualities are recognized here at Rainier?”
“Rainier… let him down badly,” Jim said. Screwed him over had been the words that came to mind, but he felt an instinctive respect for the professor that made him less blunt.
Stoddard nodded. “And some of Blair’s colleagues, myself included, are ready to use the rather cumbersome machinery of the university statutes to make this point. Chancellor Edwards is an administrator. Academic excellence is irrelevant to her unless it brings in hard cash. However, she’s exceeded all her powers in this case. I suspect she does not realize that Blair has friends—those here, she sees as old fuddy-duddies without the force to get things done. As for the PD…”
Jim frowned at the slight note of reproach. “My captain has represented very strongly to Chancellor Edwards the value of the advice Blair has been giving at Major Crimes. There are several cases where he provided the key contribution.”
The professor looked at him thoughtfully. “And you, Detective?”
Jim wondered what he wanted. “Blair didn’t want me to talk to Edwards,” he said briefly. Blair had thought, very emphatically, that it would only make matters worse. If Jim didn’t admit he was a Sentinel, what could he say that Simon hadn’t already said? If he did admit it, Edwards’ unscrupulousness would probably know no bounds, and they would be in a worse situation than ever.
Stoddard seemed to guess his line of thought. “I think she should remain Rainier’s problem,” he agreed. “We old academics have let things go on for too long. Like Tolkien’s ents, we’ve tended our own areas and rather neglected the bigger picture; now perhaps, like the ents, it’s time for one last march.”
Jim blinked at the mental picture of elderly academics with twig-like fingers and mossy beards demolishing Chancellor Edwards’ seat of power, but he was all for the principle of it.
“All we want,” Stoddard added, “is for Blair to agree that we should go ahead.”
“Do you need that?”
“Technically, of course not. Personally, yes.”
Jim nodded. This distinguished, elderly man accorded Blair the respect of an equal. It made Jim realize even more how much of his life Blair would be losing if he could never continue as an anthropologist. “What do you think you can achieve for him?”
Professor Stoddard said slowly, “I think we’ll wait to assess that until we know what Blair actually wants.”
Dr. Wilson seemed a pleasant, intelligent man. He met Blair in the foyer and took him along to his room, where he had a pile of journals and printouts of papers that Blair recognized.
“I’m beginning with Ms. Barnes’ original problem, before her episode in Peru,” Dr. Wilson told him, after the usual introductions. “I believe her present symptoms must be taken in the complete context, though at the moment we find it impossible to tell exactly what she is perceiving. Some of the notes we received with her were rather inadequate, but I gather you saw her enough before her ‘crash’ to feel certain she was a Sentinel—we might as well use that term.”
“That’s right.” Blair began to detail his contacts with her, and found it oddly cathartic to put them into strictly academic terms. He found he had a well-informed listener, interested in what he had to say about her heightened senses, and her potential control of them. Dr. Wilson picked up on his feelings about the negative use of them.
“You seem surprised that she would have this criminal bent? I would have thought sensitive touch, for instance, would have been a natural asset in safe-breaking or lock-picking, though I admit that my limited knowledge of crime is mainly based on fiction.”
Blair felt it was a good opportunity to try out the story that had come to him over his lunch time coffee. “I was surprised. My studies suggest that a Sentinel would be working for the good of the community—the tribe, originally—and be more like a sort of guardian or watchman. That’s why I thought it would be interesting—as a work of fiction—to use some of my notes and studies and apply them to things I’ve seen in my time at the PD; what would someone with Alex’s abilities be like as a cop, sort of thing. Only as you’ve probably seen, there have been a series of misunderstandings about it which we’re still trying to set right.”
“I saw your press conference,” Dr. Wilson admitted. “I’d just arrived in Cascade then—I have a private patient to pick up and take back to my clinic in England.”
“The press conference was the only way I had of getting the media off Detective Ellison’s back long enough for him to do his job. The real story was more complicated.”
“Of course,” Dr. Wilson agreed. “I hope you’re soon able to sort out the remaining problems. Perhaps being able to follow up your work with Miss Barnes might be useful? It would help you to make clear exactly whom your research is about. And we would be very grateful if you could suggest any therapy for her—perhaps even some way of helping her to recover her abilities.”
Blair braced himself not to shudder at the thought. For all his instinctive recoil, he was becoming convinced that Alex might be the key to recovering something from the dissertation debacle. After all, what were his feelings except a fear-based reaction? He could analyze them and put them to one side. Alex was harmless now. And supervised all the time, from what Dr. Wilson said. And a long, long way from Jim’s territory.
Besides, even when he’d had most reason to hate her, he hadn’t been able to avoid a pang of regret at her self-destruction. She’d wasted her gifts, and finally lost not just them, but everything. Although he’d been relieved to see her neutralized, a creeping sense of pity had bothered him almost as soon as her inert body had been removed.
“I think she probably could be helped,” he said. “There are tests that could be tried. She might be in some kind of really deep zone… You say you’ve found no visible neural damage, so she could be having a psychological reaction to a total overload. It’s hard to tell without seeing her.”
“I’d be thrilled if you could come and see her,” Dr. Wilson said. “I was afraid you’d be convinced she was an impossible case.”
“I’d never jump to that conclusion. I have quite a lot of experience with people who’ve suffered trauma from heightened senses. I can think of a whole range of potentially reversible causes we ought to consider.”
“It sounds as though you’re the man we want.”
There was a decisiveness in Dr. Wilson’s voice that made Blair hesitate. “Of course, there’d be things to sort out here before I could make a trip.”
“I imagine you let Detective Ellison know about this as soon as I called you?”
“Well, no. Like you said, we have a history with Alex Barnes. It’s rather a sore subject. I think I’ll need to approach it tactfully.”
“And there I was assuming you’d have been letting all your colleagues know,” Dr. Wilson said lightly.
“I didn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes,” Blair said. As a matter of fact, he’d left a very brief message for Eli Stoddard, but only to the effect that he was going to see a man about a research opportunity that might help him rescue parts of his thesis. “I thought I’d make sure this would work before I told anyone,” he explained to Dr. Wilson.
“Very sensible. Well, I’ve one more thing I’d like to show you, if you have time. That’s the results of the last series of tests we did on Alex. Unfortunately, they’re in my briefcase which is still in our vehicle outside—I hired a small van which could serve as a sort of private ambulance—as I said, we are planning to take a patient back to the UK. If you don’t mind walking out to it with me, I could give you a copy.”
The van was parked at the very end of the hotel parking lot. Blair followed the doctor, and was surprised to see another man there, just coming out of the rear doors. There was a wheelchair inside, but little other equipment.
“Climb in,” Dr. Wilson said.
His voice was somehow less pleasant, more cold and efficient. Blair felt an abrupt stirring of alarm. Both men were right behind him now. He tried to turn, but his arms were immediately gripped, and before he could shout out something stung his neck and the numbness which instantly followed made his half-formed cry come out softened and garbled. His legs buckled under him, and he was only distantly aware of being heaved up into the van. The doors slammed, and he was dropped into the wheelchair. His head flopped to one side. Wilson and the other man were talking, but he heard their voices from too far away to trouble to make sense of them.
“We’ll have to leave within the hour to check in for our flight. The bookings are all correct. Get his keys and go and move his car. You noted where he parked? Just take it out of the hotel parking lot; you don’t need to go far. I’ll fix his appearance.”
“What needs fixing? We used stills of him for the passport.”
“I know. I just don’t want him to look too obviously like himself when he passes the security cameras at the airport.”
Something happened to Blair’s hair, he felt his arms being lifted and flopping back and a warm cover was put around or on him, but it was too much effort to pay attention to it all. Straps held him vaguely upright, and he made a garbled noise of protest as one went rather uncomfortably around his neck.
A hand patted his cheek. “You’re drooling very nicely. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to enquire too closely into the poor handicapped boy our charity is taking to England. You’re going to be very useful to me, Mr. Sandburg. Let’s go and see what sort of Sentinel can be made of Alex Barnes.”
Even through the haze, Blair couldn’t help reacting to this. He heard a laugh, then his arm was lifted.
“Don’t worry; by the time you meet her, you’ll be much better adjusted. Now we’d better make sure you seem a happy little imbecile before we catch our plane.”
There was another brief sharp pain in the crook of Blair’s arm, and then he lost track of events altogether.
Ray Doyle stood on a cliff edge and looked down at the waves. Two weeks he’d been walking along the south west coastal path; two weeks in which he’d gradually walked off some of his anger and bitterness, and found that once they were gone he was empty; there was nothing left. The drop here was dizzying, the high tide a violent froth at the cliff’s foot. He’d been surprised a few times on this path at how close you walked to oblivion; he was much more surprised at how little it tempted him.
Now that he was suspended from the task force, he really had nothing. He’d thought that a long time ago, had believed the fierce accusation in a grieving woman’s voice, but now he realized that in some ways then he’d been rich. He could really see nothing at all in the future now. The battles he’d been fighting all his life against the drug dealers and predators of the criminal world were no closer to being won, and, anyway, he’d been thrown out of the fight. He couldn’t think of anyone who would grieve for long if he took two or three steps forward and over the drop, and wasn’t even sure himself how much of a loss he’d be. He was old by the standards of the career he’d followed. Even in the specialist capacity he’d been in recently, the job could not have gone on indefinitely. He had neither family nor anyone he’d allowed close enough to be a real friend.
But he knew he’d go on. “Don’t let them beat you.” A voice from the past, when someone had thought him worth willing back to life. He’d fought this battle a long time ago, and though sometimes he wasn’t sure if he’d won or lost it, he knew now he would always choose to live. The emptiness was there, but he could endure it while he walked, tramping for so long each day that sleep came easily at night. He turned away from the drop.
“Blair? Mr. Sandburg?”
The quiet voice barely penetrated the fuzzy layers of sleep in his mind, but he was aware of a vague mental assent. Blair Sandburg. He could not think beyond it, but he knew that was who he was.
“Can you open your eyes for me, Blair?”
It seemed like a lot of effort, but he did. He was lying in quite a comfortable, rather sterile room, with a man in a suit looking down at him. The sight didn’t seem worth staying awake for. He went back to sleep.
The next time he awoke, which might, for all he knew, have been quite a lot later, he managed a tentative curiosity. “Accident?”
“The accident was a long time ago. You’re not in any pain, are you?”
Did he remember pain? Or discomfort? Or fear? He wasn’t sure. Nothing was hurting now, anyway. He drifted off again.
Gradually, fuzzy awakenings became the pattern of his days. He seemed to remember waking up a long time ago, and calling out for someone, but as he woke for longer and the doctors talked to him more, he began to accept that he’d been dreaming. He retreated into sleep as much as he could; the dreams seemed more appealing than the reality. But slowly, inexorably, he had to return to the waking world.
It was a long time since Jim’s world had been such a cold and isolated place. In the first few days after Blair’s disappearance, he had been frustrated, then angry, but finally beaten down by the fact that everyone else seemed to think it was not surprising at all that Blair should have simply… gone. No one saw it then as a reason to suspect a crime or a disastrous accident; a depressing number found it more than understandable he might want some time well away from Jim.
Even Simon, still on sick leave at the time, had said, “Give the kid some space, Jim. He’s got a hell of a lot to sort through. You weren’t easy on him, and he was a lot harder on himself. Add that to a whole lot of flak from here, school and the media, and who could blame him for wanting to get away?”
“He would have said where he was going.”
“You said he left a message for Professor Stoddard telling him to go ahead with the appeals at Rainier, and that he had an idea for rescuing his thesis. That doesn’t sound like someone who’s desperate; more like someone who’s gone to follow up whatever it was he’d thought of. He didn’t explain any further?”
“It was just a quick message.”
“And what does Stoddard think?”
Jim shrugged reluctantly. “More or less what you do. He’s expecting Blair to get in touch any day, and meanwhile he’s gone ahead with the politicking.”
“Well, let’s wait ’til Stoddard’s worried before we do anything drastic. I could get a discreet search put on the car, but I don’t want to risk causing Sandburg trouble.”
“That’s why I haven’t done it yet,” Jim agreed. “He’s been hounded enough.”
At the time, he had begun to wonder if Blair simply did need some space. The arguments he put up against it weren’t that convincing. Blair wouldn’t have left him while Jim was still healing, would he? But Jim had been ungrateful enough for any help Blair had offered, brushing it off as unnecessary. Blair wouldn’t have done anything to rock their partnership further, would he? But in the last moments he’d seen Blair, he’d failed to tell him in time how much that partnership mattered.
And so Jim hadn’t done anything in those vital first days—and now, now it was nearly two months, and there was still no hint of where Blair had gone or where he might be. The car had turned up, parked without problem on a side street in the area from where Blair’s last phone call had been made. His backpack was in it; Jim couldn’t imagine him ever walking away and leaving it. Things were moving on slowly at Rainier, but no one there had heard any more than Jim. Naomi, reached with enormous difficulty in Tibet, thought Blair had probably gone somewhere to meditate and process as she had done, and that he would come back once he had found peace. Jim just didn’t buy into that—Blair would know after this length of time that Jim, and others, would be seriously worried, and he would have sent a message even if it didn’t say where he was.
Back at work, on desk duty, Jim stayed for long hours in the bullpen. He hated returning to the loft, but he didn’t feel like accepting the dinner invitations his concerned colleagues were starting to offer. He called Eli Stoddard often, and began to feel a real gratitude for the older man’s unfailing sympathy and understanding. Eli and Jack Kelso had formed an unlikely but very effective combination at Rainier to work for Blair’s interests there, but neither of them, with all their contacts in different areas, had any more success than Jim in tracing Blair.
Then late one afternoon, on the forty-ninth day since he’d last seen Blair—he couldn’t stop the mental clock running—Jim got a call from the professor.
“Detective Ellison? I’m sorry to bother you at work. Jack Kelso has just been in contact, and although he was somewhat enigmatic, I gather he thinks he may finally have something worth following up about Blair. He wants to introduce us to a visitor of his, so I suggested they both come to dinner—can you make it?”
“I’ll be there,” Jim said. He would have canceled anything but urgent police work, anyway, and he had none of that. He confirmed a time, and decided to stay at the station until he went. The emptiness of the loft would have made waiting even harder.
He arrived at Eli Stoddard’s apartment slightly early, and found Jack Kelso was accompanied by a dark-haired man, older than Jim, with hard eyes and an expression that gave nothing away. Over a beer, he discovered that this was a British Intelligence officer. “Bodie,” Kelso introduced him—no further name, no invitation at all to familiarity. Bodie simply nodded to Jim and left Kelso to keep the conversation—such as it was—going.
Eli, a widower now for some years, was busy in the kitchen, and an appetizing smell of roast came from there. Jim told Kelso about his own total lack of progress in the search for Blair, and tried to ignore the cold assessment he was receiving from the British agent. Neither Kelso nor Bodie offered any indication of why they were there. Jim was about to ask them bluntly to get down to it when Stoddard announced that dinner was ready and the moment was lost in the move to the table. He had a feeling, anyway, that Kelso did not know very much himself and that Bodie wouldn’t speak until he was ready.
The meal was plain but excellent. Jim enjoyed it more than he had expected, and Bodie made the effort to ask the professor about his anthropological studies. Jim assumed this was just courtesy until the talk, drifting around areas of study, Africa and tribal customs suddenly became focused, with a question about his own time in Peru with the Chopec.
“Sorry, I don’t remember much of it,” he said smoothly. “PTSD, apparently. I still shoot a good arrow, though.”
Bodie smiled blandly. It occurred to Jim, too late, that he might not have wanted to know about Peru, but to see whether Jim felt the need to conceal anything of his time there. He decided he might as well reply in kind. “What were you doing in West Africa, anyway? I thought all those colonial interests were long gone.”
“Oh, there’s always somewhere in Africa for the black sheep of the family,” Bodie said. “Or there was when I was that age. Surprising what a boy can learn in a country with so many ongoing wars.”
There was something in the way he said it that jarred, but before Jim could pin it down, Bodie had returned to the earlier subject of the tribes there. “Surprising, really, how many people still live according to the old customs. Oh, they may drink cola or smoke Camel cigarettes, but when it comes to anything like hunting, they keep the old ways and skills. Did you hunt with the Chopec?”
“Sometimes,” Jim said, pausing to accept dessert. “Game and men.”
Bodie smiled and helped himself to a large slice of cheesecake. He managed to give the impression that he was above picking up on this remark and that he probably already knew about what Jim had been doing in Peru. He ate with every evidence of appreciation, then said, “I don’t know South America well. In Africa, though, I once saw a hunter with quite astonishing abilities. The man seemed to be able to see the most minute traces of a person passing. He could find clean water better than any animal, too—reckoned he could smell it, at distances you wouldn’t believe. Did you come across anything like that in Peru?”
Jim met the hard, uncommunicative eyes. The rather chilling thought struck him that if he had gone on from Special Forces to Intelligence, if the world had never held the PD, Simon, or Blair, his own eyes might have looked like that. “Like I said, I don’t remember Peru well.”
It was a defensive answer, he knew. Blair would have had something inventive that turned the tables on this man, whereas Jim’s thoughts were already getting a violent tinge. He sensed an unease in Kelso and Stoddard, both of whom would easily have picked up the subtext.
“I studied water finders once,” Eli stepped in manfully, and the conversation once again turned to safer anecdotes. Kelso shrugged at Jim apologetically. Probably he, too, just had to wait until Bodie felt like talking. Bodie, perhaps enjoying the situation, made small talk as they cleared away and sat down with coffee, but then his manner changed slightly, and Jim could see he’d decided to show his hand.
“I’m not going to ask whether you’re a Sentinel, Ellison,” he said abruptly, anchoring everyone’s attention. “What I would like is to tell you all about how British Intelligence came across the term some time ago, and why that has now brought me to Cascade.”
He paused, waited for some comment. No one spoke. Jim could see his own wariness mirrored in Kelso. Stoddard, more interested than alarmed, gestured to Bodie to go on.
“We began to get whispers a year or so ago that one of the illicit organizations in the UK —possibly a terror group, possibly agents of some country we’re on less than friendly terms with —is looking for what anthropologists appear to call a Sentinel. It took us a while even to get that much clear; the intelligence, as you’ll understand, was fragmentary and in some cases filtered through informants whose IQ barely reaches double figures. Once we’d ruled out their more bizarre errors, and any possibility Superman was about to land, we got our research boys down to some serious work on heightened senses, and they quite quickly came up with the Sentinel concept. You don’t need to know details of what we’ve investigated since then, but it caused the recent news from Cascade to take on a particular interest for us.”
He gave them another chance to speak, but what was there to say? Jim could only wait.
“This was the first time, to our knowledge, that Sentinels had been in the media. If it caught our attention, possibly it caught the attention of our elusive Sentinel-seekers, though intelligence on that front had been quiet recently. We followed the story, and Sandburg’s eloquent denial of his thesis. Naturally, we regarded that with some cynicism—we deny things regularly for exactly the same sort of damage limitation reasons. More significantly, it drew our attention to the names of Ellison and Sandburg. It was a very small step from there to discovering your connection with an affair that has always… puzzled… our people. That was Brackett’s attempt on the prototype. How did Brackett get through all that state of the art security, Detective Ellison?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Oh, we’d love to. Unfortunately, he’s in the hands of people whose mothers never taught them to share. But we were intrigued to note that it was soon after this affair that we’d begun to pick up an interest in Sentinels among just the sort of people who might have provided Brackett with a market. Now, you arrested Brackett?”
“Impressive that you were just on the spot like that. You’ve made some other pretty impressive arrests in your time, too. ‘Uncanny’ was the word some of our informants used. And of course our research boys have had fun digging up every paper Sandburg has ever had published.”
“Is this going somewhere?” Jim asked.
“Certainly. I came to Cascade to make contact with you and Sandburg, and to make sure no one else had caused you any trouble. We don’t think these people who want a Sentinel are likely to be very scrupulous; they might be inclined to help themselves to one. My first point of contact was Kelso here, who happened to owe one of my bosses a favor. Since he was at Rainier, we thought he could introduce me to Sandburg and I’d take it from there. Now I find Sandburg is possibly missing—no one seems too sure—and under the circumstances, this strikes me as disturbing. What do you think?”
Jim thought ‘disturbing’ was putting it mildly. The fear that rose in him as he thought about it found its release in anger. “How long have you known about this?” he demanded of Jack Kelso.
“He only arrived this afternoon,” Jack said without resentment. “Without sharing any of this, I might add. Basically he turned up, called in his marker, and Eli here was generous enough to invite us to talk to you over a meal.”
“An excellent meal,” Bodie said politely enough. “Professor Stoddard, you’re an expert on the anthropology side. Would you have said Blair Sandburg was an authority on these ‘Sentinels’?”
Eli glanced at Jim, who nodded. Between his rising alarm and the fact that Bodie seemed to hold most of the cards, he didn’t see any point in dissembling.
“Blair is the only expert on Sentinels I have ever encountered,” Stoddard said. “He’s an extremely able anthropologist, and his studies in this area are unique.”
“But he doesn’t have super senses himself?”
“No, not at all. He studied people with one or more heightened senses.”
“He could help them if the senses caused a problem,” Jim said. “There are lots of instances of it in his work.”
Bodie thought about this. “Why might they need help?”
“Does it matter?”
“I think it might. To be honest, if anyone had disappeared from Cascade, I would have expected it to be you. The fact that it’s Sandburg puzzles me. But if a Sentinel or whatever might need specialized help—well, that suggests to me a very disturbing thought. If our problem group really do have anything to do with Sandburg’s disappearance, they may possibly have a Sentinel already.”
They were lighting candles in the little stone chapel on the cliff at St. Aldhelm’s head. The summer evening was still light, but inside the chapel the candlelight softened and warmed the old walls and gave a little extra illumination for those furthest from the small windows or open door. There was no electricity here, and services were only held in the summer holiday season, when locals from the Matravers could be joined by tourists and by walkers from the South coast path.
Tom Hunter balanced a squat candle to throw some extra light on the music on his keyboard, and hoped his batteries would last. Celtic worship tonight. It was different every week, but tonight’s pattern of songs and prayers originating from the community on Lindisfarne struck him as especially appropriate to this place.
The benches were beginning to fill, the murmur of voices welcome in a place that was more used to the echoes of sea and gulls. There were a number of children; no one was suppressing their natural exuberance, but the gentle mood of the place and the candlelight had them quieter than usual. A couple of well-behaved dogs had come in with some of the walkers, and he saw a small girl jump, then giggle, as her bare swinging leg bumped on a cold nose.
The place went on filling as he began to play, so that latecomers had to stand. He glanced up from time to time, knowing the service would wait until they’d all arrived. It was getting quite packed there. He looked at the latest person to arrive, missed a note and lost his place. He recognized this man. It was years since he had seen him, and he was the last person he would have expected to see here, but Tom was certain he was right. Forgetful of the music, he stared. People changed, and they were all a decade or so older, but there was no mistake. The man silhouetted against the light of the doorway was Ray Doyle.
With a nod of apology to the minister, who was waiting to begin, Tom turned his attention to the keyboard, but he couldn’t help being distracted. Ray was leaned up against the doorpost, legs half crossed in a way that was utterly characteristic. He looked gaunt and tense and tired, and there was grey in his hair. The mixture of light and shadow fell on the uneven contours of his face, and Tom winced at the bleakness he saw there.
He played, half aware of the beauty of the music, the softly echoing worship, but his mind busier with wonder at what the years had held for Ray and why he had walked off the coastal path into this small chapel looking like a man in need of a lifeline. At least by the end of the service there was something less taut in the way he was standing, and a hint of a smile for the children who suddenly discovered how quiet they’d been and erupted out onto the grass to run about.
Tom abandoned the keyboard and went hastily over before the man could slip away. “Ray!”
Doyle turned, surprised, and his first puzzlement eased into warmer recognition. “Tom… I suppose I knew you were somewhere in this part of the world now, but I hadn’t remembered it was near here.”
“That’s because you haven’t answered a letter in ten years or more. Stella gave up writing, but she still thinks of you. And she’ll never forgive me if I don’t bring you back to see her. Come back with me and spend the evening with us; we’ve been out of touch for too long.”
Doyle glanced at the open space leading back to the path, but didn’t answer either way. Tom bit back the desire to be more persuasive, and went to gather up his music and keyboard. The chapel was emptying rapidly, but when he heaved his load to the door, Doyle was still just outside.
“Maybe you could give me a hand to the car with this lot?” Tom asked. “Stella had to work tonight and the boys are away, so I couldn’t enlist a helper.”
Doyle picked up the stand and an armful of books and followed him to where his car was pulled up at the edge of a field. Tom stowed the things away, then turned to Doyle. “You don’t have anywhere you need to be?”
“No. Thought I might sleep rough tonight, find somewhere to stay tomorrow.”
“You wouldn’t like to come with me to pick up some fish and chips and then gladden Stella’s heart with some unexpected company? It would be a real pleasure, Ray, for both of us.”
The moment hung poised, like the stillness of the evening around them hanging between sunset and dusk, and Tom silently weighted it with a prayer.
“Thanks,” Doyle said at last. “Fish and chips?”
“Real, traditional, wrapped in a newspaper.”
“Fried in an artery blocker.”
“I’ll make you a fruit salad for dessert.”
He opened the rear door and slung Doyle’s backpack onto the seat.
Blair had been superficially ‘better’ for quite a while before he could even begin to accept the nature of the breakdown he had suffered. He didn’t want to believe it, even though he had childhood memories of visits to therapists and suffocating panic attacks. Those, after all, were a long way from the hallucinatory meltdown he seemed to have suffered this time. But slowly, very slowly, he began to face the bitter facts.
The biggest shock was the amount he seemed to have forgotten, or blotted out, of the last three years of his life, substituting a complex but entirely escapist reality, that now he did at least recognize as fuzzy and unreal, and full of improbable melodrama. He supposed it was a good thing he was beginning to forget it. It was getting harder and harder to escape into the fantasies even in his dreams.
“You actually told me a crazed rogue CIA agent threatened to expose America’s north-west to the Ebola virus,” Dr. Hooper said gently. He and Dr. Wilson were the people Blair usually saw; there were a couple of nurses, but they were neither young nor friendly. He’d wondered why no one came to visit him, until he discovered with a shock that he was in the UK.
“Your mother had you admitted here, and stayed with you for a while,” Dr. Hooper said. “But she featured so much in your fantasy world—and in rather a negative way—that we thought it best if she stayed away for a little while. And it was very stressful for her.”
“Gone to process?” Blair had said, resigned. Naomi loved him, he knew that, but she disappeared so very easily, especially when anything was chronic rather than acute. She would fly to his side in a crisis, but she wouldn’t stay through the depressed aftermath.
For the last couple of weeks, he’d hardly seen anyone except Dr. Hooper. Even when he walked out in the grounds, he’d never seen another patient. Dr. Hooper had been very patient, spending hours explaining to Blair what he had fantasized and what the reality had been, but his company did nothing to dispel Blair’s gnawing sense of loneliness.
His imaginary world hadn’t been lonely. Perhaps that was partly why he’d created it. He found it hard to focus on the fantasies now—it was strongly discouraged and, anyway, it seemed to give him a splitting headache—but he wasn’t cured of longing for them.
The real world, even in a sunny garden, was bleak. Dr. Williams and Dr. Hooper had slowly and considerately made plain to him the train of circumstances that had brought him to this English clinic. Dr. Hooper had traced a history of mental instability Blair could not really argue with, not without clearer memories, anyway. And he did recall Naomi taking him to various counselors and alternative practitioners… and some of the traumas of being so young at college. But he’d coped, hadn’t he? He hadn’t been a basket case all his adult life. But that flurry of defiance faded when he found himself thinking of an imaginary friend laughing at the statement. Besides, he had to admit he had no proper recollection at all of the events involving Alicia Bannister.
“She was, of course, the culmination of your years of research on the Sentinel theory,” Dr. Hooper had told him, several times. “Even before the accident, you had problems accepting that she used her abilities in a criminal context. You even thought of writing a novel—I believe you told Dr. Wilson in the early stages of your breakdown that you thought of using some of your notes and studies and applying them to police cases you’d read about, to create a Sentinel police officer.”
Blair could, miserably, almost hear himself saying something of the sort. Was that where his detailed, unreal world had begun?
“We think it was because of your unease with Miss Bannister’s ethics that you created this complicated illusion that, rather than there having been an accident, she attempted to kill you,” Dr. Hooper theorized.
Blair had on one level accepted that a car accident was actually considerably more probable than attempted murder, drowning and a trip to Peru that seemed to come out of an Indiana Jones movie. But he couldn’t get past his gut conviction Alicia had tried to kill him.
“She was hurt more badly than you were,” Dr. Wilson—always less patient than Dr. Hooper—told him. “She was driving, so you may have subconsciously felt the accident was her fault.”
This took them into the realms Blair had no recollection of. Their car had apparently gone into the bay, and his near drowning had been followed by a chest infection, a bad reaction to the antibiotics, then a total retreat to la-la land.
“In Cascade?” he asked uncertainly at his latest session. He thought he’d asked this before, but these days he needed an atlas to be sure Cascade was real.
“Yes,” Dr. Hooper said patiently. “You’re here in England because Ms Bannister proved to have a next-of-kin, a rather remote connection, but he has been very generous in providing for her care. As he was currently with his company’s UK branch, he arranged for her to be treated here. Your mother felt you should stay with her. We all think that you will be better able to help her than anyone else.”
Blair shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t want to face up to this, and it was being suggested with increasing frequency now that he was apparently recovering.
“We’re really concerned for Ms Bannister, Blair,” Dr. Hooper said. “She’s almost completely unresponsive. We believe it must be something to do with the Sentinel concept, but your papers and notes only take us so far.”
“Notebooks,” Blair said. “I had notebooks. Allergies and test results and…”
“Sadly, we think those were in the car,” Dr. Hooper said. “With your laptop. So we’re really dependant on what you know without them. We’re achieving very little.”
Blair was caught between a heavy sense of guilt—he suspected he might well be able to do something—and a visceral abhorrence of going anywhere near her. It might be an irrational fear, but it knotted his stomach and made his heart pound as much as if it were entirely real and logical.
He’d been surprised, when he walked out this morning, at the heat of the sun, and the vividness of the garden. When had it become summer? But now as Dr. Hooper began to explain again how it would help both him and Alicia for him to see her, all Blair could feel was cold panic. This time, though, he was pressed so much on the issue that he caved a little. He would see her. Just that, no more. He’d tell them if he thought this was some sort of Sentinel thing, some relation of the zone-out factor.
“That’s all I can do. I’m not promising any more.” He wasn’t sure if it was satisfaction or frustration he saw in Dr. Hooper’s face.
Blair had been told again and again what to expect when he saw Alicia, but it was still a shock. He had somehow pictured her as fierce and sharp in essence, but as she lay gazing emptily at the ceiling, everything about her was slack and vacant. What horrified him most was his own reaction. There was something too much like satisfaction in it. He didn’t wonder if he could help her; he was quite ready to turn away and leave her to her mindlessness. In fact, if they let go of him, he was going to run away from her, and from here, and…
“Blair!” Dr. Wilson said sharply.
He startled back to awareness of his surroundings, but still said, “No.”
“You could help her, couldn’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you’re the sort of person who’d refuse your help to someone who needs it so much.”
Blair yanked at the arm holding his elbow. “Not her.”
He found Dr. Hooper at his other side. “Now, Blair, we feel this has gone on long enough. We’ll give you something to help you with the panic, and then we’ll try again.”
“I don’t want anything,” Blair protested angrily and ineffectually when he saw the syringe in Hooper’s hand. This was wrong, surely. This was totally unethical. But his protest was ignored and his thoughts about it faded out as the sedative took effect, and he was helped into the chair next to the bed. The room swayed in and out of focus, and he no longer had the will to refuse when Dr. Hooper said, “Talk to her, Blair. You know how to bring a Sentinel out of a zone, don’t you?”
“Mightn’t be zone,” Blair said thickly. “Worse’n zone.”
“Will talking to her help?”
Blair thought he began to talk. Maybe he just dreamed it. He felt rather sick and drowsy, and even though he could hardly think, it seemed all wrong to be here doing this.
Some time later, he woke up in his own bed. Dr. Hooper came in and said he’d done very well. He rolled over and tried to find his way back to fantasy land, but it really wasn’t there anymore.
Jim tried to stretch a little in the not-quite-adequate space of the economy class seat. The police department was funding his trip, and Bodie’s superiors were presumably equally parsimonious over air fares. He wished he could doze as Bodie seemed to be doing—though he had already learned not to take Bodie at face value. Jim’s leg was healed, but it still seemed to cramp in these conditions. He rubbed at it irritably, and tried not to think how tenuous a connection he was following to England.
Maybe it wasn’t much of a thread, but he’d had nothing at all with a hope of leading him to Blair before.
When it had come down to details, Jim had only ever heard Blair refer to one other person as a Sentinel, and that was Alex Barnes. He’d said as much to Bodie, then dismissed her because she’d been catatonic and no one gave her much hope of ever being anything else, but with nowhere else to look, Bodie had followed it up, anyway.
They’d found… something. Bodie thought it had potential. Jim, who’d never done anything in the aftermath of the whole Alex thing except shut the memory out, wasn’t sure what he thought—except that he never wanted Blair to be in the same room with her again. Maybe it was better not to doze. The fountain had started bubbling in his dreams again, the sense memory giving a horrible reality to it—sight, sound and, worst of all, that musty drowned smell.
Alex Barnes had been moved to England for specialist treatment some months before, apparently at the offer of a charitable trust. The paperwork was impeccable; the charity, though, had quickly proved untraceable. When Jim expressed his disbelief that the authorities weren’t watching her more carefully, Jack had offered to find out who approved her transfer, but there didn’t seem to be anything sinister there. She was in something like a persistent vegetative state, and predicted to stay that way, and the thought of someone else paying for her care had been persuasive.
Bodie had his people working from the other end, trying to find any trace of her arrival in England—or Sandburg’s, for that matter; he had the rough dates. Simon, who hadn’t any happier recollections of Alex and the fountain than Jim, was giving over some manpower to the tedious job of checking the people on flights to England from Cascade around the time Blair first went missing. It all seemed too tenuous, too little and too late.
Jim moved again, found an even more uncomfortable position and sighed.
Bodie opened his eyes. “About an hour now,” he said. “I have to go and make some reports when we get to London. My bosses aren’t thrilled I brought you along, so don’t expect to come.”
Jim wondered, in fact, why Bodie had put up so few objections to his company. The man was annoyingly confident in the superiority of British Intelligence, and gave the impression of being too much of a loner to welcome anyone’s company. “I’ll go and book myself in at a hotel,” he said. “Anything you recommend?”
“I haven’t been back in London more than twice in the last ten years. Ask Janey.”
Something else that would have annoyed Jim if he hadn’t been too depressed to care was that in spite of being at least ten years older, Bodie had effortlessly gained the interest of every air hostess who’d come near them; they’d been pleasant and polite to Jim, but it was Bodie who got their names and phone numbers. For the moment, though, Jim was more interested in this unexpected information. “You don’t work in England?”
“I’ve been in Hong Kong for a long time. I was transferring back when this blew up; I think they must have got some particularly cheap deal on sending me via Cascade.”
“You’re coming back permanently?”
“I think so. Things are changing—in Hong Kong and here.” He turned around and smiled with unexpected charm over Jim’s shoulder. Janey stopped and smiled in response. She gave Jim some excellent advice on hotels—and Bodie a lingering look of much more unprofessional promise.
“I’ll make arrangements for us to see the security camera footage from Heathrow,” Bodie said. “For both sets of dates.”
“I don’t see how Blair could have been brought unwillingly through an airport,” Jim said doubtfully.
“You think he might have come willingly? That message did sound as though he could have been told a plausible story.”
“He would have let someone know before he left Cascade.”
“But not necessarily you?” Bodie said, picking up Jim’s own doubts.
“We’d had a bad few weeks. He was trying to make up his mind whether to accept the offer of a badge…”
“Becoming a cop wasn’t a done deal?”
“I thought he’d been working along with you for a while.”
“He’d been like a partner,” Jim said. “And a damn good friend. But I think… Hell, I don’t know. He had reservations—about carrying a gun, about a lot of the justice system. Maybe about everything.”
“So he might have been going to walk out on the whole deal, ditch the partnership.” Something in Bodie’s voice spoke to the raw, devouring sense of betrayal that Jim knew was a totally unfair reaction to the situation.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said, smothering it again. “He… I respected his reasons.”
“There aren’t any good reasons for walking out on your friends,” Bodie said.
Jim didn’t want to be having this conversation. “And what sort of friend would I be if I didn’t give a fuck about the prospect of him, day in, day out, doing something that screwed him up? Or if I let it make any difference now? The way he thought—that was part of him. Okay, so sometimes I thought it was woolly idealism and it irritated the hell out of me—but a lot more of the time he was right, and whether I told him so or not, I respected him for it. And regardless of if he’s going to stick with the partnership, I’ve got every intention of finding him.”
He didn’t know why he had said all that to Bodie, and assumed the Brit would be cynically amused; it would have given Brackett hysterics.
But Bodie was silent a moment, and to Jim’s utter astonishment, said, “You’re a good man, Ellison. I wouldn’t have brought you over here if I didn’t think there was some hope of finding him. Good luck to you.”
They’d landed before Jim had even begun to assimilate this. He’d thought he was beginning to get a line on Bodie and the way he worked; he realized now he didn’t understand him at all.
Ray Doyle knew he was being ungracious, but he couldn’t manage the effort of making conversation. Tom didn’t seem to mind. He talked without expecting answers: Stella was nursing part time and had gone in tonight because they were short-staffed with people on annual leave; Rachel, their oldest, had finished her first year at university; the boys were waiting for exam results, and all three of them were away camping with friends. To Doyle, who’d forgotten they’d no longer be children, it was another reminder of time passing irretrievably. It was lucky Tom didn’t seem to want a reply, because he had nothing to say. Since his mother died, he’d lost the last connections with any of his own family. Girls… women… had come and gone over the years; those who’d liked him well enough to stay had never coped with his commitment to his work. Now even the work was gone.
He realized the car had stopped. Tom touched his shoulder lightly. “I’ll get the fish and chips. I won’t be long, then we’ll pick Stella up.”
Doyle was relieved he wasn’t expected to eat immediately. Even though he’d been walking most of the day he had little appetite. Luckily, the Hunters decided to celebrate seeing him again with a bottle of wine, and between that and the informality of the meal, he found himself drawn a little into their relaxed mood.
“So, are you on holiday?” Stella asked as she cleared away the dishes and put coffee on. “Or have you left Sheffield? We wondered if you’d ever come back south.”
“I’m suspended,” he said briefly. “For harassing a local businessman.”
“Oh, Ray, I’m sorry. I bet if you were harassing him, he deserved it.”
He was slightly heartened to see they both looked indignant on his behalf rather than shocked. “We’re losing the battle out there,” he said quietly. “Any kind of drugs, in spite of the undercover work, the busts and so on, there are more on the streets all the time. Oh, we get the smaller dealers, but people like this man—he’s laughing. What with men like him and the gangs and the people who’re bringing drugs in to fund extremists groups, we just can’t fight it on enough fronts. It’s not that the Home Office is unsympathetic, but we’ve no one at Westminster like…”
“Like George Cowley was?” Tom said gently when the silence trailed on.
He didn’t need to say any more. They’d known him when he left CI5, even if they hadn’t known all his reasons, and it had been headlines in all the papers less than a year later when the department was finally closed down and Cowley put out to grass. Cowley, Bodie… he’d never seen them since the day he handed in his resignation. It seemed like another life. It was much too late to regret the choice he’d made then.
“It wasn’t your fault, Ray,” Stella said. “How could it have made a difference if you’d still been there? It was a political decision.”
Doyle had never told them about the bitter phone call he’d had from Bodie, the first time they’d spoken in months, the last time they’d spoken at all. Bodie thought he should have been there. Of course, the final decision to close the department had only just been made and Bodie’d been furious on the old man’s behalf, not just with Doyle but with the whole of the English establishment. Bodie had taken an intelligence assignment in Hong Kong almost immediately after that and stayed there, and Doyle wondered, more often than he cared to think, whether his ex-partner had ever forgiven, or forgotten, what he saw as Doyle’s betrayal. Probably not. Personal loyalty had always mattered more to Bodie than some sort of abstract idealism, and Doyle had walked away from that partnership.
“So what are you doing?” Stella asked, putting coffee in front of him.
“They told me to be a long way from Sheffield, and I’d nothing to keep me there.” Or anywhere, come to that. “Why the coastal path? I suppose mostly because I’d never walked any of it, and I wasn’t likely to run into anyone who knew me.” It occurred to him, rather late, that this sounded as though he regretted meeting Tom, but neither of them seemed to notice. “I’ve enjoyed it. I didn’t know Devon or Dorset.”
“You’d be very welcome to stay for a few days, see something more than the sea,” Stella said.
“That’s nice, but I’m not good company at the moment.”
“If you’re enjoying the area, I know someone with an old caravan over near Lulworth,” Tom said. “It’s primitive, but it would make a sort of base, and it wouldn’t cost you anything.”
That thought actually had some appeal. He’d half agreed when Stella said, rather more hesitantly, “If you do stay, do you think you could maybe take a look at something for a friend of mine—just give her an idea whether she’d look an idiot if she went to the authorities.”
“What sort of something?”
“I was working tonight with a woman I’ve known slightly for years. She used to have a permanent post in a sort of nursing home up on the heath. It was taken over a while ago, and she’s been doing agency work since. Anyway, she’s a keen gardener, and it has lovely grounds. She’d taken some cuttings of shrubs and one she particularly wanted had died. She went along last week to see if the same gardener was still there, and not only was she refused entry quite rudely, she says the man who stopped her at the gate had a gun.”
“He ordered her off at gunpoint?” Doyle said, trying not to let his disbelief sound too rude.
“Oh, no, nothing like that. But it was a really hot day, and she was surprised he was wearing a jacket—especially if he was an outdoor worker. That made her look closely and she’s sure she got a glimpse of a shoulder holster under it. Don’t look like that. She’s not the sort of person to fancy things. She was a nurse in the forces when she was younger.”
“How old is she?”
“Well, she’s near retirement now.”
“This sort of question is what she’s afraid of getting if she goes to the authorities.”
“It’s exactly what she would get. Is she certain it was a gun?”
“No. I mean, she’s certain in her own mind, but she couldn’t swear to it in all honesty, because it was just something she thought from a moment’s glimpse.” She paused, reading his expression too well. “That’s the trouble, Ray. No one’s really going to listen, are they? But she’s genuinely worried.”
Doyle managed not to sigh. “It’ll be inaccessible and I’ve no transport.”
“The kids aren’t going to be here. You could take the old Triumph they sometimes use. I won’t touch it, but Tom says it goes well.”
Somehow, although that morning he’d had no firmer plans than walking a few more miles, Doyle found himself agreeing to put up at the caravan for a couple of weeks and take a very low key look at the nursing home. He hardly knew why he did it. Probably because he was bored and he’d been thinking too much about the past, and instead of dismissing Stella’s friend’s imaginings with the firmness they almost certainly deserved, he’d allowed the thought to creep in that once he might have staked out just this sort of place—isolated, in placid countryside where people mostly minded their own business, and the title ‘doctor’ earned unquestioning respect.
Whatever the reason, he slept better that night than he had done for weeks.
Blair supposed, without much interest, that he was getting better. He couldn’t remember his fantasy world even when he tried, and he didn’t try so much now. He’d been in to see Alicia several times, and although he felt rather dopey and detached, he no longer felt the panicked need to be somewhere else. Dr. Hooper had come in after that first visit, and explained why they had felt it necessary to sedate him, but Blair’s memories of it were unclear, anyway. He’d found it hard to wake up the next day, and ever since then, he’d seemed to feel lethargic. Giddy sometimes, too, if he stood up suddenly. Dr. Hooper thought maybe he had a touch of some virus and it would soon pass.
Alicia was improving. Blair still felt vaguely uncomfortable with her, but vague was the significant word. Luckily, he seemed to be able to do the right things, even half asleep. The doctors were very pleased. She responded to his voice now, and he’d gotten them to try mild tastes against her mouth, which also provoked a slight response.
“Dr. Hooper will take you to see her a bit later this morning,” his nurse said, coming in with the breakfast tray.
Blair nodded. He felt headachy this morning, and unpleasantly tired. When the nurse had gone, he dragged himself off for a shower, and made the mistake of looking at himself in a mirror. He’d lost weight, he knew, but he looked worse than ever this morning. The previous three or four days, he’d downed his coffee hurriedly in the hopes it might wake him up, but this morning he wondered if maybe he would be better just to drink water. Maybe his system needed cleansing after all the crap of the last few… weeks? He realized he didn’t know how long he’d been here. Water and fruit. That was healthy. He tipped the coffee down the drain, and only ate the banana from his tray. His headache got worse, but he thought he felt rather less sleepy and detached.
Alicia was definitely closer to the world. He spent the morning trying different textures of material against her hands, and playing the CDs he’d told the doctors to get. At least they seemed happy to do exactly as he asked. Lunch he ate alone, as usual. He thought of drinking his tea, because his head was really pounding now, but he decided to try to hang on. In the long run, he’d feel better; he was sure he’d done this before after nights of studying on too much coffee and junk food. He didn’t remember it making him feel quite so edgy then; he had to keep biting back irritable remarks when they urged him that afternoon to see if he could get Alicia to open her eyes.
“She looks on the verge of waking,” Dr. Wilson said. “We’re getting eye movements completely unlike any we’ve observed before.”
For the first time in days, Blair felt the shortness of breath that came with panic. “Wait!” he said sharply.
Alicia jerked, a startling movement in someone who’d been so still for so long. Blair realized, too late, that she was responding to the tone of his voice rather than the words, and that it had been an abrupt order, abrupt enough to cut through to her. He stepped back. The others leaned forward.
There was a second of silent anticipation, then awareness, focus came back into Alicia’s eyes. It was followed so immediately by movement that no one had time to react. She shot upright, in spite of muscles that must have been wasted by going so long with little to exercise them but the ministrations of the physiotherapist. Blair took another step back, his heart pounding and his breath coming in ever faster gasps, and then her hands fastened around Dr. Wilson’s throat. For a minute, there was chaos. Both doctors, the orderly and the man who seemed to hang around in the corridor tried to restrain her without hurting her.
Blair only knew that he had seen that look of murder in her eyes before, he truly had, and he had to get out. He was running even as they gathered around the bed. Panic lent him speed. He hurtled down the corridor, up stairs he knew led to the ground floor, turned at random and found himself looking out onto a side of the grounds he had never seen.
People were shouting behind him, but nowhere close. He ran outside, hardly knowing what he was doing. Every step hurt his head and took what little breath he had, but the instinct for flight was stronger than the pain. He ran through bushes without feeling the scratches.
Someone was running after him, he heard the heavy footsteps. He tried to go faster, but whoever it was was gaining on him. He stumbled and a meaty hand grabbed his arm and spun him around. It was a big, burly man he’d seen before out in the grounds; a man who looked more like a bouncer than a gardener. Blair tried to pull away. “Keep still, yer little bleeder, or I’ll flatten you,” the man said, gripping him savagely.
Blair scrabbled to get loose and saw the man’s hand raised threateningly, then, from nowhere, someone else appeared. The burly man’s raised hand was expertly hauled back before he could land the blow, and he let go of Blair to turn to face this newcomer. Blair gasped for breath, more from panic than genuine breathlessness, and saw his assailant making a lumbering attempt to flatten the stranger who had so suddenly come on the scene. He ought to have managed it. Blair’s would-be rescuer was a slighter, older man, who looked more like a peace protester than an action type—but it was the big thug who ended up on the ground groaning.
Blair blinked, completely dazed by the rapid turn of events, and heard the urgent order, “Come on, we need to get over the wall.” There was concern for him on the stranger’s face, and an urgency in his voice that got Blair’s feet moving. They ran through the bushes towards the wall.
Where was it, Blair thought, hardly able to focus on anything beyond his stumbling feet. The wall had to be close. He couldn’t keep this up much longer. He stumbled, but then saw the grey stone was only a step or two in front of them now. He scrabbled at the rough surface, was dragged over it onto the road. Everything was getting out of control. He couldn’t get any air into his lungs, and he knew he was starting a full-fledged panic attack, made worse by his headlong flight. He tried to say something, that he was a patient, he shouldn’t be running away, but then he thought of Alicia’s murderous eyes and the threatening man in the garden, and let himself be hauled along, gasping.
Just as his legs were giving up under him, he realized they’d turned off the road into a gateway, and that a car was parked there beneath an overgrown hedge. He was bundled into it, and was aware over the harsh sounds of his breathing of something that sounded like a gunshot. Maybe he was hallucinating again, maybe they both were, because the man said, “Shit, hold on, they’re firing at the tires.” The car shot out backwards, spun with a horrible screech of rubber and rocketed down the road.
Blair was jolted back in his seat, but he hardly noticed it over the clawing effort to breathe. Tight bands seemed to be constricting his chest, and lights had started to dance in front of his eyes, obscuring everything else. His rescuer was speaking to him, and the voice was warmer, more genuine than anything he’d heard in a long time. He couldn’t respond, but he hoped the sound would go on. He was on the edge of unconsciousness, he could feel himself falling, but that reassuring voice and a firm hand on his arm held him back long enough for him to gasp in a lungful of air. He sank against his seat, managed another breath, let his eyes close, and the pain and everything else faded.
Continue on to Part 2 of 5