The Compassion Trap
By Gil Hale – email@example.com
“Stop running,” Vin said as soon as he realised they were clear. To run was to draw attention to themselves. “Walk casual and look like you’re just thinking where your next meal’s coming from. That was two lots from different sides looking for us, and I don’t suppose they’re the only ones. Keep to the inside of the sidewalk, and don’t say anything.”
Blair slowed but his distress was still obvious. Vin knew they couldn’t handle talking about it as they walked along, but he was lost for where to go. They’d turned in the opposite direction from the junk store, and he didn’t know Cascade. He didn’t really want to turn back though: although the buildings here were old and slightly dilapidated, they were walking into a less rough part of the city.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked quietly, hoping that giving Blair something to think about might bring him back from whatever remote and miserable place his mind seemed to be in.
Blair looked around him vaguely, and set off down the street—still too fast, but Vin let it go. He wondered what Blair was doing as he looked up at the fronts of the buildings, some in multiple occupancy and some with small businesses on different floors.
“Here,” Blair said. He had stopped outside a building, and now went down the steps to the basement. To Vin’s amazement he punched in the numbers on the security lock, and the door swung open to let them in to a small room almost full of books, bound periodicals and dusty magazines.
“Belongs to a local anthropological society,” Blair said. “It’s not much used.”
Abruptly he noticed the way Vin was looking at him, stared round at his surroundings and sat down hard on the single plastic chair. “Oh. That was… weird…”
“You knew the doorcode,” Vin said. “You didn’t have to think about it. You must have been here a few times.”
Blair looked at the walls. “I have. I’ve read some of these journals…”
But beyond that his memory didn’t seem to go, and his brief interest in his surroundings faded. He looked up at Vin who was leaning against the closed door. “That man. He was going to arrest us. He’s the one who wants to lock Naomi up. But he was a friend… someone important…”
“Cascade PD,” Vin said, not sure how he knew it, but the fact was there ready to be picked out of the chaos. “But th’ other man…” He stopped, got control of his voice, knew it had to be said. “He’s th’ one I told y’ about. They must’ve been close behind us to find us so quick. We aren’t going to be able to run for long, Blair; not with them near and Josephs near, and I reckon Josephs has got others on the street looking out for us, and there’ll be uniformed cops…”
Blair was paying no attention at all. “I think maybe he was the sentinel.”
Vin was silent. He still believed the sentinel had been a dream.
“But he couldn’t have been. Only I knew his face so well. I’ve a memory, or it feels like one of telling him he was the holy grail, but no way would I have been saying that, and then I remember just as clearly him holding me up against a wall and shouting… calling me a neo-hippie and a punk…”
That sounded more likely. Vin let him talk. He was having enough trouble with his own thoughts. It had been perhaps two seconds he’d met the eyes of the man in black who had also jumped out of the truck. Two seconds that lasted a lifetime. Felt like that man could see clear to the depths of him, and the shame that was piled up there, and Vin couldn’t bear it. He’d been glad of the attack that had burst out on them almost simultaneously, though he recoiled slightly from the savagery he remembered feeling as he got them through it.
Now he felt numb. His head ached, but worse than that was a feeling of enormous pressure on him, that had been there since he saw the man; a feeling that all the memories piled up, unattainable, were close to breaking their dam and overwhelming him.
He straightened up, tried to bear the load, and put his hand on Blair’s shoulder to stop him rambling to himself. “We c’n stay here a while, but not too long. Seems to me we got two choices. We c’n try and change what we look like and go on the run again, get out of Cascade. Or we can stay and try and take Josephs down with us.”
“Blair, the whole Naomi thing don’t make real sense. If they were going to arrest her, whatever reason, they’d do it without you.”
“Maybe they don’t know where she is. They think they can find her through me…”
“Do you know where she is?”
Blair broke off and looked at him, surprised. “Oh. No, I don’t think I do.” He paused and considered it, then shook his head. “Maybe this whole fucked-up memory thing has an upside. They can’t make me tell them what I can’t remember.”
“So we stay?”
That was his own choice. Blair nodded. “No point running, anyway, if there’s a sentinel trailing you; and Josephs has to be stopped. But I don’t see what we can do.”
Vin was tired of propping the door up, tired through and through come to that. He dropped to a squatting position and began to think it over.
“First there’s a chance the cops will pick him up from what we put in the letter about the warehouse, nevermind we didn’t know where it was. Can’t be that hard to find. But I reckon he’d’ve cleared out of there once he knew he’d lost us; he wouldn’t’ve felt safe in a place someone knew. Maybe he’d leave Cascade, but I don’t think so. He probably knows enough about us to know we’d been on the run. Might not even think we’d risk something like the letter. And I reckon he’s unfinished business with us.”
“You said you thought he put those roughs onto us?”
“Thought there was a good chance. They must’ve thought they could get something out of it, and we don’t look like we’ve any money. That’d suggest he’d been around these streets. Course, if we got lucky he might run into the cops while he’s looking for us like those three this morning, but we can’t rely on that. We need to get him and the cops together, maybe use ourselves as bait. But we don’t want to be picked up too soon.”
“We could change how we look even if we’re staying,” Blair said. “I mean, how difficult can it be to look different from the descriptions people have got?”
“We’ve got no money at all.”
“Okay, so we can’t buy shades or change our hair colour. But we could cut our hair off, and maybe get hold of caps or something. The hair’s the thing people would notice.”
Vin could see that made sense. “Could cut it with the knife.”
“And our faces… Vin, do you think you’d normally have needed to shave by now?”
Vin ran a hand over his chin which was definitely still almost smooth. He didn’t know. It felt wrong as it was.
“Maybe in a day or so, there’ll be more shadow. That and a haircut would make a real difference.”
“Okay. We’re talking about taking days now. If we’re going to do this, we need to eat, and we need to get back to the junk shop without getting mugged—and hope the owner doesn’t show up.”
“The notice looked weeks old.”
“Still can’t bank on it. We’ll go back carefully; ought t’ be able t’ get something to eat on the way.”
Vin had kept an eye on the places they were passing on the way. This would be the easy part. They left the little basement, and went back in the direction they had come. It was late morning by now, and the small restaurants were already busy. He led Blair to one with a few tables and chairs outside, and jerked his head towards the occupants of one. It was a family, a mother, father and a couple of under fives. “You c’n see the mum and dad’s finished, and the kids are just playing with theirs.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later, the parents decided they’d had enough. As they walked away, Vin moved quickly to the table sliding most of a plate of fries into a napkin, along with half a burger. He picked up the plastic cup of cola that had been abandoned almost full, and was back with Blair before anyone from the restaurant came out to clear the table.
“Move on,” he muttered. “Can’t stand right outside the place and eat it, even if it would’ve gone in the trash.”
Blair was looking at him oddly. “I’ve seen you do that before,” he said.
“Done it plenty of times before; be surprised if you hadn’t. Here—eat.”
Blair didn’t look as if he thought much of it, but he ate half the fries. He wouldn’t touch the burger. “You really don’t want to know what they put in cheap burgers. Anyway, it’s been chewed.”
“Hasn’t been in the dumpster, though.”
He had a feeling that sometime long, really long, ago they’d had this sort of conversation before. They passed another restaurant and a small store which had put a box of bruised fruit out for people to take free, so they managed half a bun, another plastic cup of cola and several parts of apples. By then they were getting too close to the mission for him to feel comfortable, and he started to try to find his way to the junk store by a different route.
Twice they had to stop and lose themselves for a while, once in a cheap clothes store, once among the kids playing basketball on the park they’d seen the day before. It was late afternoon when they approached the side street the store was in, and in spite of the food he felt drained of energy. Even so he was alert. He caught Blair’s arm and pulled him to a halt when he realised there were two men at the entrance to the street—homeless like themselves by the look of them. One was sitting on the pavement, maybe drunk. The other was slouched against the wall. They didn’t seem to be looking for trouble, but something about them made Vin wary. Without any evidence for it, his instincts were screaming ‘trap’.
If anyone had dared to say Chris Larabee was running for comfort to his undercover agent, they probably wouldn’t have been able to say anything else at all for a week or two. But deep down, Chris was aware of at least a sort of easing in the black mood he was in when he and Jim sat down in the luxurious hotel room and told Ezra what had happened.
For one thing Ezra listened without interrupting and without a trace of judgement. For another, although he looked concerned, he also had the look which Chris recognised as an idea for where to go next, something that was definitely out of Chris’s reach. Jim Ellison also seemed marginally less bleak as they finished filling Ezra in, but he was still almost unable to believe that Blair had fled. “I don’t frighten, Blair,” he said. “I’d hardly met him before I had him up against the wall of his office threatening to shake the place down for drugs, and it didn’t phase him for more than about ten seconds. I’ve seen him cope in situations that threw people with years more training and experience. He doesn’t let me get away with any bullshit. And today he looked as if I was his worst nightmare.”
“I haven’t met Blair,” Ezra said slowly. “I do know Vin, and I know that there is only one thing that would make him run from Chris like that—feeling he’d let him down in some way so appalling he could no longer face him. He would never feel a physical fear of him and the penalty of the law would not be enough. It would have to be something Vin would feel cut more deeply than that. ”
A tendril of warmth weaselled its way into the chill of Chris’s world, because although it hadn’t occurred to him until Ezra said it, this made perfect sense. He had been so shocked at Vin’s appearance and so shaken by the horrified reaction he’d seen in Vin when their eyes met, that he had hardly begun to think again.
“But whatever Josephs did to them,” Jim said, and they all shared the awareness of what that could include, “they’d have to know no one would hold them responsible. They were the victims here.”
“I doubt if it is as straightforward as that,” Ezra said. “I have been finding out a little more about Dr Josephs, and it appears that false memories, or at least warped memories, were a sort of speciality of his. You can imagine how easy it would be in the sort of lives we lead. I know that I have nightmares of judgement calls I made that in fact were correct but might have led to tragedy if they had not been. That is the type of material the doctor may have worked on.”
Chris thought it over. Hell, who didn’t have nightmares like that. He remembered once waking up, drenched in sweat, because in his sleep he’d been convinced that he’d given Buck an order which had put him in the wrong place at the wrong time, to take a fatal bullet. Even when he was awake and could hear Buck snoring in the spare room it had taken him an hour and a lot of coffee to shake that one off.
Jim Ellison was looking at Ezra as if he was a revelation. “I can believe Blair blaming himself for something, yes. Now you say it, maybe that was part of what I was picking up from him. But if that’s what’s keeping them from coming back, where do we go from here? They’re in danger where they are, from Josephs, from this bounty he seems to have put on them, and from all the other hazards of being on the streets. They can’t have recovered physically from the time Josephs had them, either. They looked ill, both of them. How do we get close enough to them to help them?”
Ezra sat and thought a while. “I can only think of one reliable way. You will have to become something much less visible than your normal presence, and you will, in effect, have to set a sort of trap.”
“No good trying to be invisible to Vin, in the open or on the streets,” Chris said.
“I am not suggesting that you lurk round corners. What is required is a form of camouflage. You must look like the people already around them—in this case, I think it would be advisable if you, too, appear homeless. Appropriate clothes, perhaps a hat of some sort pulled down a little; it should be possible for you to fade into the general background of the streets.”
“They’re still going to be wary though,” Chris said. “After what happened this morning any man could be a threat. We might get close enough to see them, not closer than that.”
“That, I think, is where the trap will have to be involved. Mr Ellison—if Blair is, as Chris rightly suggests, wary, what would overcome that and draw him towards a person?”
Ellison shrugged. “He’d approach a girl.”
“That, I think, is beyond the acting capabilities of either of you.”
“Or, if someone was hurt…” Ellison said. “He wouldn’t walk away from someone who was in need.”
“That is also my estimate of Vin.” He glanced at Chris.
Chris said slowly, “Vin’s not easy to fool.”
“No, but this I think is potentially our ‘best shot’. If we set you up as homeless people with some further problem, requiring assistance. The question is, what would be plausible. And need their direct aid.”
Ellison looked up from his intensive study of the carpet, suddenly alive at the possibility of action. “You want a bait? Heightened senses, out of control. When I first met Blair, I was like that. I couldn’t do my job, I couldn’t do the most basic things like eat a normal meal. The doctors thought it was all in the mind. It wouldn’t call for much acting to put on an appearance of being like that again. Blair could never pass up someone suffering from over acute hearing, sight and so on. It would get to him on all levels. And maybe it would help him key into memories of who he really is.”
“Excellent,” Ezra said. “And it would need his direct input. That would be an ideal solution. I think we should proceed with it without delay. As you said earlier, they are not in a safe situation.”
“I can see it might work with Blair,” Chris said doubtfully. “Not sure Vin’ll be so easy.”
“No, nor am I. Well, you will just have to hope he indulges Blair, and beyond that rely on your… powerful personality. I still think this is the way to proceed. Now, I suppose we should look for a charity store to obtain some clothing.”
“No need for that,” Chris said. “We can just go back to the mission. We’d have to start from there anyway, and hope we find some trace of where they went. Charlotte will help us out.”
After that crack about his personality, he rather enjoyed Ezra’s expression, first at the thought of being dragged along to the mission, and then at his use of Miss Duncan’s first name. “We’ll need you along, Ez,” he added. “We need you to take your car. Anyway, you’re the one with the ideas.”
“It’s fortunate that someone has some,” Ezra said tartly. “I hope you’ll explain to the old witch that you invited me there.”
“That must have been one hell of a phone call,” Jim commented.
“Her bark’s a lot worse than her bite,” Chris said.
“Oh, wonderful. Now I have to put my reliance in clichés.”
He grumbled all the way to the mission, but they let him get away with it as he’d just transformed their morning into something with a bit of hope in it. Fortunately Miss Duncan approved the idea of their going onto the streets as homeless men. “I can see that in the circumstances a more devious approach has been helpful,” she said. “Come downstairs. The clothes will be simple enough. However, you will also need to adopt a different manner. Less…”
“Aggressive?” Ezra offered.
“There is no need to interrupt me, young man. Less authoritative, I was about to say. Homeless people lack power.”
Ezra sulked all the way down to the basement. “Are you sure you still need me?” he muttered to Chris. “I have several things I need to do, and you can call me once you are successfully on the streets.”
“I’d call that running out,” Chris said. “Come on, Ez. You’re the one who’s good at camouflage. Help me disguise that powerful personality.”
“Touché,” Ezra said. He wandered around the basement looking at the clothes available. In front of Miss Duncan they could not discuss the further, sentinel, aspects of the plan, but he found a cap with a green sun visor and handed it to Jim. That could be pulled well down over his eyes, and would be more realistic than shades while supporting the idea of hypersensitive sight. Chris found some old black jeans, and had them firmly removed from his grasp. “Black is far too much your trademark,” Ezra said firmly. “Here.”
Chris looked with distaste at the faded camouflage trousers. Ez was right though. He would be like himself in the jeans. Gradually he and Jim put together an appearance completely different from their normal one. The clothes were baggier, it seemed natural to shamble slightly in them. As they dressed, Ezra made them think of who they might be, how they might have come to be on the streets. Ex-military made sense. They wouldn’t be the first to end up there.
“You’ll have to keep your heads down too, once you sight them,” he said. “Ellison’s not so bad. With the visor pulled down you can hardly see his face. Your hair shows up too much, though, Chris. There must be another hat or cap in here.”
Miss Duncan pulled out a drawer, and rummaged through it. “This would do,” she said.
Chris glared at the camouflage hat which was even more offensive than his trousers, then switched the glare to the smirk on his undercover agent’s face; but there was no doubt the hat would do, and Ez was right, he needed something. In the very brief moment his eyes had met Vin’s he’d felt that instinctive recognition and connection, however warped it had become. If he looked Vin in the eyes, that would be the end of their deception.
“You’re too clean, as well,” Ezra said. “You’d better dirty your hands a bit, especially the nails. And walk where there’s cigarette smoke or a hot dog stall or something. Everything down here smells vaguely antiseptic.”
“It’s the soap in the showers,” Miss Duncan said. “Like carbolic, it provides for a certain level of antisepsis in washing, and I suppose it is rather pungent.”
Chris recognised a glint in Ezra’s eyes that suggested he was thinking. A second or two later, the undercover agent said politely, “Is that someone calling you from upstairs, Miss Duncan?”
As soon as she had gone, he turned to Jim Ellison. “Go and learn the scent of that soap. Our female Attila informed me in my first conversation with her that Blair and Vin had showered as well as receiving clean clothing. That is less than two days ago, and the scent is powerful and distinctive. Could you track it?”
“Maybe,” Ellison said. “It’s worth a try, anyway.”
Miss Duncan came down, annoyed. “Are you trying to amuse yourself at my expense,” she asked Ezra.
“Not at all. Was I mistaken?”
“I think we’re about finished here,” Chris said hastily. “We’re very grateful for your help.”
“I’m glad we could do something. I shall be thinking of you, and those poor boys. I hope you find them quickly.”
“You’ll let me know how things progress,” Ezra said. They’d agreed on carrying cell phones well concealed.
Chris caught the fleeting wistfulness that no one else would have heard. Ezra was finding it hard not being a part of this, though they all knew three of them would have been too many.
“Soon as I’ve got him, you can come and help me remind him where he belongs,” he promised quietly. “Update Buck and the boys for me.”
“I’ll do that.”
Miss Duncan glanced at the clock. “You should be on your way, and I must lock up,” she said, leading the way back upstairs. “I shall go straight to St James, and pray for you to find them quickly.”
“And I’ll be off too,” Ezra said hastily, as Jim and Chris stepped outside.
“Not so fast, young man,” Chris heard Miss Duncan say firmly. “I have a couple of heavy bags I need to take to the church. You may carry them for me and join me in prayer. Quite apart from being the most practical thing you can do for your friend, I am sure it will be good for your soul.”
Ezra’s squawk of protest followed them down the street, but when they glanced back a couple of minutes later he was following Miss Duncan, carrying the two bags and looking very much like a schoolboy being led to detention.
Chris hoped she’d be merciful and turned his attention back to what they were doing. “Okay, where do we go?” he asked.
“Give me a minute,” Ellison said shortly. Using his senses never seemed to improve his mood. Maybe it was because it reminded him he was missing Sandburg.
Chris leaned on the wall, pulled his hat down a bit and waited.
“It’s sifting out every other scent that’s hard,” Ellison said. “I think I’ve got a trace though. It’s faint, but that’s not surprising.”
It was a curious experience, following a trail that to Chris had no existence at all—though he sometimes felt like that even with a normal expert tracker. He put a hand on Ellison’s arm to help him concentrate, and they shuffled along like a drunk and his minder. Most people got out of their way; a couple of labourers deliberately crowded them off the sidewalk. He was aware of becoming somehow invisible to a lot of passers by, as if they’d rather not think about this downside to their city.
They stopped and started a lot, lost the trail and cast around to find it again. Once Ellison zoned, but Chris was getting used to the signs and jerked him sharply back. Towards the end of the afternoon, they lost it altogether, and decided in the end it had genuinely turned into a side street and stopped. A small girl watched them from the steps of her building as they stood and tried to decide where it ended.
“Go away,” she said firmly. “My mom don’t want bad lots ’round here.”
“Don’t see any bad lots,” Chris said, pretending to look everywhere and making her laugh. “Were there any yesterday?”
“My mom saw some bad boys last night,” she said, sitting down on the top step. “Lindy says they were hot and they could come and be bad with her any time, but mom said she was a wicked girl and she’d come to a bad end.”
Chris glanced at Jim, who shrugged. “Well, that fits.”
The little girl seemed pleased to have someone to listen to her. “The boys was in our yard. Mom says they told her some story. And Davey says they went over the wall, but Davey makes stuff up.”
Chris looked at the buildings. “The junk store?” he said under his breath to Jim.
“Just what they’d want, I should think. There’s a note on it saying it’s shut, and it looks like it’s been there a while.”
“Who owns the store?” Chris asked his small informant.
“Mr Peters. He’s nice. He gives me peppermints and if it’s quiet he reads me out a big book with pictures. But he’s real old and he gets sick a lot.” She looked at him suspiciously. “You leave his shop alone.”
At that point a bigger girl came out. “You talking to strangers? Come on in.”
There were other children, but they were playing a sort of tag further down the street, and anyway, Chris thought they’d learned enough. “They were here,” he said. “Reckon they’ll come back?”
“Good chance. They must have decided to avoid the places they’d be looked for. I think it’s worth waiting around here, at least until dark. Not right in front of the store, though.”
They walked back to the entrance to the side street. Jim sat down on the sidewalk; Chris leaned against the wall. They waited.
Dr Josephs, now passing as Mr Ullman, heard the policemen in the foyer of his cheap hotel asking about any new guests who were using rooms. The manager lied fluently, for his own sake. Josephs knew, as he was sure the police did, that the rooms were rented out by the hour in some cases, used by dealers in others. No one was likely to find him just by asking questions. The CIA were the ones who worried him, rather than the PD, and anyway Miller and Henshaw wouldn’t want the Cascade police interfering, so they were unlikely to be doing them any favours. He was rather surprised there was a police investigation at all, but he hoped he could safely ignore it. His weak point would be the men he’d suborned. He would have to be careful there. He’d heard rumours already that three had been picked up that morning, but they wouldn’t know where to find him, and he didn’t really care what else they talked about. All the same, later, when it was fully dark, he would slip out and find the dealer who had been very happy to take some drugs off his hands. The man would almost certainly know the truth of what had happened, and would act as a go-between for him if he made it worth his while.
Jim Ellison had too much time to think as he sat and waited. He didn’t regret what they were doing, because he couldn’t think of another way that held so much chance of getting close to Blair, but it bothered him that he was playing on Blair’s ready compassion to bait a trap. And it bothered him that if they didn’t time this quite right, Blair would look at him again with that horrified alarm and this time might run beyond all possibility of Jim bringing him home.
At the moment he sat with his chin on his knees, his cap pulled forward, and knew that to anyone passing he would look stoned or asleep, depending on their level of cynicism. In fact he was reaching out with his hearing, searching this street and then the next ones, through the heartbeats of the young, the old, the sick, the hurrying, looking for Blair. It was his voice he picked up first though, with a sudden jerk to alertness: Blair’s voice low and tired, saying, “I can’t see how we’re ever going to find Josephs.”
“Reckon he’s hunting us.” That was Vin. “That’ll bring him in the open.”
Jim nudged Larabee’s knee to let him know. Larabee squatted next to him, face taut with anticipation. “You got something?”
“I can hear them, maybe a street away.”
Larabee’s hand gripped his shoulder briefly, painfully hard. They had to get it right; there was no promise of second chances.
Vin and Blair weren’t saying much, but Jim was tuned in to them now, monitoring their progress towards him without ever lifting his head from his knees. He started his litany as soon as he thought Blair was in earshot, trying to sound different from his normal manner, complaining loudly to Chris. “I’m going out of my mind here. It’s all too bright, too loud. I can feel this fly as if it was twenty times its weight. You gotta help me, man. This traffic noise! It’s like being in a subway tunnel.”
Chris came in on cue, dropping his voice to a rough growl. “Shut up you fool, less you want locking up. Cops’ll think you’re on something. Light’s not bright. You don’t want to start up with this again, seeing things too far off to see, claiming to hear folks a street away. You can’t do it, okay?”
Jim clasped his hands over his head, Chris crouching beside him as Vin and Blair drew level. He could see how rigid Chris’s muscles were, with the same tension he felt at the prospect of having to let them pass. He heard Blair’s footsteps hesitate, then stumble as if he’d been pulled along. The sound turned the corner. Stopped. He heard the two of them begin to argue, and relayed it in an undertone to Chris.
“You’ve got to let me go back,” Blair was saying. “Did you hear him? Did you hear the things he was saying? That is absolutely typical of a person with heightened senses. That was someone with a real problem, not a drunk. We can’t just walk away. How many people know how to help someone like that. I could be his best hope of some kind of sanity.”
“We’re not going back. It’s a set up,” Vin said, with equal force. “I don’t buy it. Did y’ look at them? They look homeless but they got a lot too much muscle for men on th’ streets. Sides, they were waiting for us.”
“How could it be a set up? That’s just too way out to be a possibility. How many people have even heard of heightened senses, let alone know I’m interested in them? And even if they knew, how many could act it convincingly?”
“Too much of a coincidence they’re just sitting on this street corner.”
“Vin, if they’d wanted to jump us, don’t you think they’d have done it by now. They didn’t make any move to hurt us. At least let me ask him some questions.”
“I don’t know what they’re planning, or what they want, but I’m telling you there’s something more going on here. Don’t believe that guy was even talking until we were in earshot.”
Jim winced. He’d thought he’d got the timing about right, but he’d underestimated Vin. Well, if they walked on now, he knew where they were going. He’d just sit here until Blair went past again, even if it wasn’t before morning. Chris, squatting beside him, said very softly, “Vin goes by instinct, and he tends to be dead on.”
“They’re walking away, but they’re still arguing,” Jim said. “I can see them reflected in that window. Going into the store the front way this time. They must have found a key—I suppose the owner had a spare inside.”
“At least they’re safe for now.”
They were safe. All the same, Jim’s preferred course of action at this point would have been to go in and grab Blair, take him back to the loft, give him the care he obviously needed and not let him out of his sight again until Josephs was under arrest. He was just afraid that Blair would be too confused to realise he was being rescued rather than attacked. He didn’t look as if he could cope with many more traumas.
“If it’s a choice between losing them or taking them by force, we take them,” Chris murmured, his thoughts apparently running on similar lines. “Are they staying put?”
“Yeah. They sound as if they’ve had about enough for one day. They’re talking about trying to find a way to bring Josephs down with them. I can’t make it all out, but they do think they’ve done something—something really serious from the tone.”
A car horn blared near him and he flinched. “Damn. If I’m going to keep on listening lets move into the street a bit.”
They shifted around the corner and a little way into the side street. The sun had set, but their small acquaintance from earlier was still there. She looked sweet and old fashioned nursing a doll until her words became audible. “You’re nothing but trouble. You bad baby. Going to throw you in the trash ‘less you stop crying.” She cuddled it instead though, and stood up to look at them.
“Going to rain,” she told them smugly. “You best go or you’ll get wet.”
A boy ran out past her and snatched the doll, holding it up to torment her. She started to yell as he went down the steps. Chris stepped over as he went past, took the doll as it waved in the air, and walked across to the little girl.
She came down a step and snatched the doll. “Those bad boys come back. Only they got a key now, so mom thinks maybe they know Mr Peters.”
Jim looked up as Chris settled back against the wall beside him. The boy was making rude gestures at them from a safe distance, and the little girl was still finding them more interesting than the cartoons Jim could hear from the TVs in the apartments. It started to rain a little and she looked up. “Told you.”
Chris nudged Jim. “Look sick,” he whispered. “If we’re going to get wet, maybe it’ll play in our favour.”
Jim groaned and leaned over. He wasn’t sure if Blair was likely to see, but he agreed it was worth a try.
The boy, his interest caught, came back and stared at Jim. “He stoned?”
“No. He’s sick. He shouldn’t be out in the rain.”
The little girl came as far as the bottom step. “He can’t come in here. Mr Peters helps people when he’s well. Maybe the bad boys will let you in.”
“I don’t think so.”
She gave him the universal and ageless look of a woman faced with male incompetence. “Gotta ask them, stupid.” She waited, then made an impatient noise. “Want me ‘n Davey to ask ’em for you?”
Without waiting for an answer she marched down and got Davey by the hand. “You gotta ask just right if you want something.”
“She’s good,” Davey said. “She’s the best at getting candy.”
She pulled him with her and went and banged on the door. There was a pause, perhaps while Vin and Blair looked out and saw how small their visitor was, then it opened. “What is it sweetheart?” That was Vin.
If you had to ask just right, she was perfect. “There’s a poor man there, and he’s sick.”
“And it’s starting to rain,” Davey added, with the sort of pathos he probably used when it was his turn to persuade sweets out of old ladies.
“You ought t’ be inside then,” Vin said, unimpressed. “And you shouldn’t be going near strangers.”
They stuck their tongues out and ran home. “Our sister thinks you’re a hottie!” they yelled from the top step and went in giggling.
The rain started to come down more heavily. Jim doubled over as if it hurt. He remembered once when he had still been new to the senses and rain like this really had hurt, each drop thudding or needling onto his skin. Blair had stood there with him oblivious to the fact he too was getting soaked, teaching him to dial down the sensitivity. He clenched his fists in a spasm of genuine pain at the frustration of being so near him yet still unable to bridge the last gap, and decided there wasn’t that much subterfuge involved in this trap. He really needed Blair’s compassion; always had, probably always would.
Chris leaned over him. “You hear anything?”
“Same argument. Blair wants to come out. Vin still says it feels like a trap.”
He heard Blair’s answer to that, but didn’t repeat it. “You’re wrong, Vin. Maybe your instincts tell you it’s a trap, well mine tell me that man wouldn’t hurt me. It’s weird, but I felt like I knew him when I went past him, almost like there was some connection there.”
There was a pause. Blair spoke again, stubbornly. “I won’t bring him in if you don’t want, but I’m going out to see if I can help him.”
Blair broke the grip Vin had on his arm. After all the confusion and uncertainty he had struggled with since he woke outside the warehouse, he welcomed the conviction he felt now. He needed to go outside to the man he could see hunched over in the street. Even if it was the trap Vin said it was, he should go to him. There was an odd calm in feeling so sure of something. The clarity of it lightened his exhaustion, and gave him the energy to ignore the throbbing headache that had returned during the afternoon.
Vin must have seen that he was determined. “I’ll come with you,” he said shortly.
Blair caught something in his tone that made him uneasy. “What are you going to do.”
“Just keep an eye on his friend.”
The rain was coming down heavily now, soaking their hair as soon as they stepped out. Neither of the men looked up, even when they walked up to them. Blair crouched down next to the man who had been complaining of the lights and noise, and put a hand gently on his shoulder. “Do you want to come inside?”
The man didn’t lift his head, but he made a muffled sound of thanks.
“Are you okay to walk? Maybe your friend will help you…” he looked at the friend, and broke off, shocked. Vin had also squatted down by the men, but his hand wasn’t held out helpfully, it was holding the knife he’d painstakingly sharpened—not exactly threatening the other man, but definitely ready to do so if he made any unexpected move.
“Don’t think that’s a good idea,” Vin said quietly. “This one stays outside. Reckon you can guarantee your friend’s behaviour?” he added to the man.
“He’s sick,” the man muttered. “Thinks he can see things no one could see without a telescope. Says he can feel the rain bruising him. I’ll wait with you if that’s what you want. Don’t suppose your friend can help him, but he can try if he wants.”
Blair saw there was no hope at all of deflecting Vin, but at least he could offer some hope to the one man. “Sure I can help you,” he said. “Come inside with me, and I’ll explain to you what’s happening. You don’t have to suffer like this.”
The man who had been hunched over on the ground lurched to his feet, and followed Blair to the store. If he was concerned about leaving his friend with Vin it didn’t show. Blair was concerned, seriously, but short of starting a fight in the street he hadn’t a lot of options. Maybe the passive way the man was accepting it would change Vin’s mind.
He felt a surge of relief that was way over the top once he got the other one inside. The world was suddenly seeming to right itself a little. The man was still hanging his head and shambling, but for some reason Blair found his presence almost reassuring. He didn’t question it; he was too tired and too cold. He just went with the flow.
The man said unexpectedly, “Get yourself dry first.”
“Dry’s not really an option,” Blair admitted. “There’s no towels and no heat. But we’re not as wet in here as we would be outside.”
Without a word the man went to the hallway, lifted off a panel and did something inside. Puzzled, Blair watched. “Sorry, man—you’ve lost me here. What are you…? Oh. Cool. We thought there was no electricity.”
Evidently it had been switched off in the hall. Still silently, the man looked into the other rooms, found the small oil-filled radiator in the one with the couch, and switched it to full. “Sit down,” he said at last. “You’re soaked.”
“Well, hey—so are you. Tell you what, big guy. Sit down as well and listen to me, and we’ll both dry off.” He remembered suddenly. “I’m sorry about your friend. Vin won’t touch him.”
The man pulled the radiator closer to the couch. “It’s okay, Chief. They look like two of a kind. Maybe it’ll be one of those bonding experiences.”
Blair felt a small bubble of laughter. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to laugh. His clothes started to steam gently, and he sighed with relief at the warmth. “That is so much better.” He glanced at the man who had sat on the floor leaning back against the couch, where Blair could only see the top of his cap and the way he sat. Vin was right; he looked fit. Maybe he was only out on the streets because of the problem with his senses.
He wasn’t sure where to start now. He had a feeling he’d done this before, and his explanation had come out not quite as he’d intended. At least this man didn’t look as if he’d hold him up against a wall and yell. He said tentatively, “I heard what you were saying out there. Things too bright, sounds too loud. Maybe you find flavours intense too?”
“And skin that feels like cloth is sandpaper,” the man said.
“Wow. That’s four then. Four senses I mean. You see, what I think you’re experiencing isn’t an illness. In a way it’s a gift. In fact you could be… Do you notice smells too?”
“Sometimes. They come and go.”
Blair felt an excitement that was somehow familiar. “That’s all five then! Oh man, I wish I had some books here. I could show you exactly what you are. How am I going to explain this? This is a gift that was known way back. When tribes relied on knowledge of the weather and movement of game—or the movement of their enemies—each tribe would select a special warrior, a sentinel. He’d be someone like you, whose senses could help to protect the tribe, lead them to water and so on. A lot of people think it’s died out because modern life doesn’t need sentinels. Do you remember how you first came to have heightened senses?”
“It’s a long story,” the man said. “Sure you want to hear it?”
“Oh, yes, you bet I’m sure. Do you actually remember when it started.”
“It started when I was in the military,” the man said. “I was in an accident, crash-landed in a jungle area. For a long time I lived with tribesmen.”
Blair settled into the corner of the couch, listening. An odd sense of déja vu was beginning to make him feel giddily strange, but he wanted nothing more than for the man to go on talking. He began to picture a man in the jungle of Peru, among the Chopec, although he heard no facts as specific as that. His headache returned, worse than he had known it, and he must have made a slight noise. The man paused and turned to look at him. “Maybe we should do this some other time, Chief.”
Why did it feel so familiar when the man called him Chief? “No. Go on,” he managed to say. “I want to hear this.”
The man stood up, without any of the clumsiness he’d shown earlier, and in one smooth movement shifted Blair so he was lying down, his cheek against the damp leather. He sat back down next to the couch, one hand resting on Blair’s arm now. “I’ll tell you about when I came back to Cascade,” he said softly. “Some time after I was back, I started experiencing the heightened senses again. It made it difficult to do my job, and didn’t do a lot for my temper either. I wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world at the best of times, and just then I was a real son of a bitch. But I was probably a hell of a lot luckier than I deserved, because someone decided to help me in spite of the reception I gave him when he first tried…”
Vin stood in the rain and watched patiently. The man he was watching had made almost no move, except to stand up slowly and lean back against the wall. The shapeless camouflage hat he wore was soaked, rain dripped from it as it did from Vin’s hair. It ran down from their clothes into the filling gutters. Vin wasn’t sure he’d ever been wetter. Didn’t matter though.
“Should go inside before you get pneumonia,” the man said quietly.
“I’m going nowhere,” Vin said. “Nor are you. Don’t know what your game is, but you were here for a purpose. You set your trap, but you’re not springing it.” He showed the wicked double edge on the knife. “In a minute I’m going to check on my friend. You’d best not move.”
It bothered him, the man’s apparent acquiescence. He could read the way a person walked or stood. This man wasn’t really passive; he was waiting for something. Waiting for him to go down? He wondered how much his weakness showed. The headache and dizziness which had been with him intermittently since he woke up in the lab were almost overwhelming now. He had hardly slept the night before, and the things he and Blair had talked of had haunted him all day, worse since the morning’s brief sight of the men who were after them. He could shut it out of his mind when there was something there to do in front of him, but it was never far off, waiting dark at the edge of his thoughts.
He walked swiftly to the store, hoping the movement would restore him a little. It was the work of a moment to open the door, and hear the soft noise of voices from the back room. It sounded okay—peaceful even. He rubbed rain off his face, and closed the door quietly. Maybe that guy had after all been an innocent part of this set up. Or maybe, like camouflage man, he was biding his time. Vin had to keep himself alert. He grazed his left knuckles sharply down the wall next to the door, not enough to do damage, just enough to let the discomfort focus his mind, and took up his position again a few yards from the other man.
Time passed. Rain fell. He felt chilled clear through. The knife was starting to feel like it weighed more than a shotgun. The sting in his knuckles had faded to numbness. He was startled when the man he was watching finally spoke.
“Seen two different men setting traps for mountain lions, down in Mexico one time,” he said, as casually as if they’d been chatting. “One of ’em was a hunter. He didn’t give a damn about the lion. Just wanted the pelt. Wasn’t a bad man, just a peasant wanting to make some money. Other man, he couldn’t have been more different. He was a naturalist. It was a female he was trying to trap. He knew something about her bit of territory, that’s why he was after her—big company was going to start mining, and the cave where her den was, that was going up in the first explosion. Lioness didn’t know that of course. Trap was a trap to her, whether it was meant to harm her or help her.”
He fell silent again and his last words hung in the quiet.
Vin started shaking so much he was close to dropping the knife. It wasn’t just the chill from the rain. The man hadn’t looked up, but there was something about his voice now that brought Vin close to some abyss, and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to cross it safe or lose himself falling. Trap was a trap… only now even that was suddenly not the certainty it had been.
“Who are you?” he asked hoarsely.
“I’m not here to harm you.”
Vin fought against the temptation to believe it, to listen to something in himself that seemed to be tugging him towards the man. He would not give in to that or to the weakness that was dragging him down. But he was losing the battle with his body. He heard the knife fall at his feet, though his hands were so numb he’d never felt himself let go of it, and briefly felt a fast fading spurt of adrenaline. It would happen now. The attack would come.
But the man didn’t move. Vin stooped too swiftly to pick the knife up, and found himself on his hands and knees, the street swirling in front of him in the rain. He expected a swift kick now he was visibly helpless, some violent move to finish him and remove the knife, but still nothing happened.
Nothing happened, even when he couldn’t get himself up for a long painful minute. He lifted his head and saw the man still standing motionless against the wall, still waiting. What th’ hell was he waiting for?
He struggled back to his feet. The rain soaked world was spinning, and he felt like the abyss was in front of him now. He was past thinking, he knew that. Maybe he should listen to the instinct deeper than thought that had begun to pull him towards the man. He took a couple of steps that way, stumbled, caught himself and stopped. He was walking straight into the trap, some lingering wariness warned. What kind a fool did that? But at the core of him this felt okay, this was the path he had to go. His eyes fixed on the silent, drenched man who was still waiting. He stumbled on, the few yards a vast space. Now at last it seemed right, when he looked up and at last saw the dripping arms of the trap open up in front of him. He half fell the final step, then he was inside and the arms closed warmly, holding him safe. His soaked face dropped against soaked fabric, someone else’s strength took his weight, and there was an echoing familiarity in the reassuring voice.
“Okay, cowboy. Just take it easy. How about we get out of this rain before we both melt.”
He couldn’t lift his head, and his legs felt as insubstantial as the water running along the street, but it didn’t seem to matter any more. The instinct that had brought him this far told him he was home. An arm supported him, and he found himself moving. There were noises, and more movement. The air round his face was suddenly warm, not cold, and when he opened his eyes briefly, the small back room of the shop had taken the place of the street.
But Blair was comfortably asleep on the couch, next to the warmth of the radiator, watched by the other half of the trap, who was scrambling to his feet, sounding concerned.
“Here, my clothes have dried. Get those wet things off him.”
Vin mumbled a protest as his sweater and shirt were stripped away, but then warm clothes replaced them, and he realised that it was easiest just to let it happen. His eyes closed again, and the conversation he could hear made little sense.
“I’m going to call Ez, get him to bring some dry clothes and blankets, Tylenol, some food and maybe a way of making a hot drink. I’d rather get them away from here, but I don’t want to push things too fast.”
“No—I think we’re only at the beginning. They need to get it back at their own speed. The loft might just be too much.”
The warmth of the radiator was seeping in to him now, but something was missing. Vin reached out blindly for what he’d lost, and found a wet hand that gripped his wrist firmly. “Go to sleep,” the man said. It was an order rather than a suggestion. Seemed a good idea, anyway. Vin returned the grip, then slept.
“I appreciate you coming in to tell me this.”
Simon Banks had been working almost round the clock since he’d had that first meeting with Miller and Haines, and discovered just how much dirt the CIA were happy to get on their hands and just how deep into it Sandburg was probably sinking. It wasn’t that he blamed himself—not really, not as much as Jim probably blamed him, anyway. He was responsible for all of Major Crimes, and there were other unpleasant things going on in Cascade. He couldn’t really have handled things much differently until he knew what was going on, and Ellison had got onto the CIA link faster than anyone else could have hoped to have done.
But he was as worried now as Jim could have wanted—and not only about Sandburg. Watching Jim this last couple of weeks had been painful, and against all his expectations he’d actually been grateful for Larabee’s presence. It didn’t make his own job any easier though. Running interference for the two of them was a full time assignment in itself, and for their own sakes and the department’s he had to know they weren’t overstepping the lines too far. And all that was without the added complication of the CIA. He’d had Miller calling yet again about some supposed lie detector Ellison had used on Henshaw and about how they’d found the warehouse, and before he’d got back to work the Chief—doing his own tapdancing—called to remind him issues of national security were involved and basically that it was his duty to jump when the CIA said jump.
On top of that, he’d overslept this morning, because he’d dropped into bed at 4:00 confident he’d be woken up again before 7:00. Instead, he’d heard nothing of Jim and Chris all day and now into the evening, and had been completely unable to find where they were. Lately every time the phone rang, his blood pressure had gone through the roof.
So he was very grateful when Larabee’s man turned up around ten o’clock to check that he knew what was going on.
“Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you coming in fact. Losing those two is like mislaying a hand grenade you’ve already pulled the pin on.”
“Well, I cannot of course guarantee that nothing explosive will happen, but the last news I received seemed reasonably positive. They had located a place where Mr Tanner and Mr Sandburg apparently spent the last night, and were hoping that they would return to it later today. The fact that I have heard nothing since then is quite probably a good sign; it suggests they are not simply waiting there.”
Simon poured coffee for him. “You say Tanner and Sandburg took off when they saw them this morning? That can’t have been easy for anyone.”
“No.” Ezra evidently didn’t plan to discuss it though. “This is really excellent coffee,” he said instead.
“Thanks. I’m learning to like it. So, you’re waiting for another call from them?”
“And checking to see there has been no trace of our elusive Dr Josephs.”
“Not a thing. The CIA won’t hand over an up to date photo of the man, which isn’t helping. I’ve been trying to call in some favours tonight and get some pressure put on Miller, but it’s not working. They want to get Josephs themselves, and you can see why.”
“The CIA and Denver’s Dr Death,” Standish said. “It would make an interesting headline.”
“The only trouble is, no newspaper would print it, and if they would, anyone giving them the information would be out of a career.”
Standish smiled. “We will have to hope that someone finds a suitably indirect route. Mr Tanner is my friend, and I would prefer not to see the cause of his suffering go unpunished.”
Simon looked thoughtfully at the man. He was as elegant as Rafe, and probably as devious as hell, most undercover men were, but he used the word friend like a man who meant it. It was probably better not to ask about the indirect route; Simon had a feeling it was one of those things he was better not knowing about. He poured more coffee.
“Sandburg’s made a lot of friends here—and whatever Ellison may have said, I count myself one of them,” he said, and felt a bit better for saying it.
Standish looked carefully at the rich liquid in his cup. “As a matter of fact, when he called, Detective Ellison said that if it was good news tonight, I was to let you know immediately. I am just pre-empting that slightly. I thought you would like to know there was that possibility.”
Simon straightened up a bit. “Thank you.”
Standish made no move to go, and it occurred to Simon that perhaps, in spite of the man’s self reliant manner, he would rather wait for news with someone who shared something of his own feelings. “Maybe you’d like to look through what I’ve got today on the case,” he offered. “Save you calling me with whatever news does come.”
“That would seem a very practical suggestion,” Standish agreed.
They looked at the files of negative reports. They drank far too much coffee. They waited for news of friends. And at last Ezra’s cell phone rang.
Chris had found it hard, worse than hard, to stand in the rain and wait for Vin to drop, but he thought what he was asking Ezra to do—to come and leave again—was even harder.
“I woke Nathan up and talked to him, and he says better go too slow than too fast,” he told him. “I haven’t even lifted this damn hat enough for Vin to recognise me yet. I think we’ve made a beginning, but there’s a hell of a long way to go.”
“I fully understand,” Ezra said. “I can deliver the items and leave. What should I bring?”
“Depends what you can get hold of reasonably fast. Where are you at the moment?”
“In Captain Banks office, which will probably make me considerably quicker, as he will be able to direct me.”
Jim Ellison leaned over and took the phone. “Simon?”
“Good work, Jim.”
“Simon, you’ve got a key to the loft. Can you get some things from there, I’ll tell you what in a minute, and—this is important—a book as well. Blair’s usually got it in his room; it’s the one he has a picture of a sentinel in. Old book. He’s had it since he was a kid I think.”
“I know it. By Richard Burton, the explorer not the actor. He’s shown it to me.”
“Yes. Bring it along with you. I’ll tell you where to come. And Simon—I’ll give you the address of this store. It belongs to a Mr Peters, who I think is sick. Can you see if you can trace him and clear it for us to use the place for a while.”
Chris left him to do the talking, and went back to the other room which was comfortably warm now. The clothes spread on the backs of a couple of chairs were drying. Vin and Blair hadn’t stirred from the couch. He felt Vin’s cheek. It was no longer so clammy, and his hair, falling raggedly across it, was only damp, not dripping. Chris wondered how long they’d been out there in the rain. He hadn’t been able to do anything except wait it out. He’d seen Vin wouldn’t last the night, but it had hurt watching him go down by inches. He still didn’t understand what had made the difference, and had brought Vin to him at the end. He’d got to the point where he thought his only option was to wait for him to pass out and then carry him in. Even when Vin dragged himself to his feet and stumbled over to him, he hadn’t been sure he knew what he was doing. Only at the last minute, when he’d held out his arms and Vin had carried on into them, was he certain Vin had chosen to trust him, and that gave him some hope for where they’d go next.
It wouldn’t be easy though. They hadn’t even shown their faces so far. Maybe Jim’s way was the best, just talking about what ought to be familiar, though Jim wasn’t sure his narrative had done any more than send Blair to sleep.
“They should be here in an hour or so,” Jim said, coming back through. “As they’re going to the loft, they can bring most things from there. I told him to pick up Vin’s sleeping bag and some of their clothes. They might recognise things—it’s not as if there’s real brain damage here, it’s a whole different sort of problem.”
They were talking quietly, but Chris doubted if it mattered. Nothing around them seemed likely to wake Blair, and even Vin, who normally had the ability to be wide awake in an instant, showed no response to their presence.
“They look wiped out,” he said to Jim.
“From what we saw of Josephs methods, they would have been pretty weak when they got away from him, and I doubt if they’ve had much to eat, or much rest, since. You can’t keep them down, though. They were talking about trying to take Josephs when they were coming towards us.”
“Lucky we found them when we did then.”
“Yes. I think what plan there was seemed to be using themselves as bait to bring Josephs out, then being in the middle while he fought it out with the PD. After that they were going to, quote, ‘give themselves up.'”
“You didn’t get any idea what for?”
“No, but I’d say from what I picked up just the thought of it was sending their heartbeats and breathing way over the top. Oh—and from the way they spoke, they seem to think it’s something they were both involved in, so if Standish was right about Josephs being more likely to warp memories than actually create them, that would limit the sort of thing it could be.”
Ezra had said that. In fact, he’d provided all the ideas that had worked so far, Chris realised. He was going to need Ez if they were going to get Vin back the way they knew him, and probably need him soon. Just seemed that Vin was still too near the edge to expect him to cope with seeing both of them at once when he woke up. Even as deeply asleep as he was, he didn’t look peaceful.
Ezra noticed that when he and Banks finally arrived. They pulled up fairly close, and Jim had already recognised the characteristic note of Simon’s car. Both of them seemed determined not to let it show how badly they wanted to see for themselves that Vin and Blair were all right.
“Come on through,” Chris said, dumping what seemed enough equipment for a month’s camping in the front room of the store.
Ezra was uncharacteristically hesitant. “I am not certain…”
“I am. He won’t wake up. And quite apart from the fact that I know damn well you want to see him, I want you to get some idea of what we’re dealing with.”
He knew it would shake Ezra, just as he and Jim had been shaken. It wasn’t so much that Vin looked pale and gaunt, restless even though he was obviously exhausted. It was the fact that, still, he just didn’t look like Vin. Partly of course it was the ragged hair, and the clothes which were nothing like Vin would normally have chosen. But it went deeper than that. Vin normally slept lightly, but with a sort of trained alertness that went with a confidence in his abilities and a knowledge based on experience. This Vin, struggling to shake off the weariness dragging him down had something more like the wariness of a wild animal, an animal that expected everyone’s hand to be against it. They could see him force himself somewhere near awake, and curl slightly as if to protect himself, then be pulled down again into sleep.
“At least when I was a child there was seldom more than one specific person to fear,” Ezra muttered.
He was completely preoccupied with Vin, and for once obviously not thinking of the effect of his words. Chris was careful to say nothing, in fact give no indication he’d heard at all. He looked at Vin with Ezra’s words in mind, and could see the child of the streets, in danger if he slept too long or too deeply; he also saw that other child in much more apparently comfortable circumstances, afraid of his mother’s mark, or worse, her current partner. No wonder Vin and Ez seemed to understand each other.
“Maybe you should stay,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure how well I understand the way Vin’s feeling right now.”
“No,” Ezra said. “Now is not the time for empathy. Vin needs someone to rescue him from where he is, not understand it. You are the only person for whom he feels that degree of trust—and respect.”
“Vin trusts you.”
“As I do him. But nevertheless, he trusts you in a different way—enough to rely on your judgement rather than his own, or your word against what he thinks is the memory he holds. You are not just his best friend, but also a person whose authority he acknowledges. And you are going to need all those advantages and more…”
Chris nodded, aware of it. Ezra turned reluctantly away and Chris went with him. “I’ll call you,” he said quietly. “Whether its good news or not. And if I forgot to mention it before, it was a damn good thing you came up to Cascade.”
Perhaps it was because of Ezra’s earlier remark, or perhaps he was just getting to read the undercover man better, but he caught the momentary unguarded reaction in Ezra—the desire to simply take the words at their face value, overshadowed instantly by the fear of being conned—then Ezra was changing the subject hastily. “Perhaps you could make a point of calling at around 11.30. I was inveigled by Miss Duncan into promising to return at that time and let her know what had happened.”
He didn’t really sound too upset about it.
“You and Charlotte kissed and made up then.”
“That is a truly revolting image, and one that I imagine the lady in question would object to even more strongly. However, she did appear to appreciate some of my finer qualities by the end of the day. The church was actually refreshingly peaceful, and she insisted on treating me to excellent tea and cake.”
“No situation you can’t handle, eh?”
“I prefer to think so.”
On that upbeat note he went to rejoin Simon Banks who had taken a hasty look at Blair and was now ready to leave.
Chris watched them go, then turned at the touch of Jim’s hand on his arm.
“Let’s go and make the place look something like home.”
Blair was riding a rollercoaster, images of action coursing up and down his sleep. He saw a man dead in the street, someone’s hand resting on him and covered in blood; he saw men leaning from a window, guns pointing down at him, and he was dangling way above the ground; he was flung from a couch and hit the floor to skid on his face as fire and smoke erupted behind him; but all that was nothing to the plunging horror he felt at the face in front of him on this downward loop, a pale strange face mockingly adorned in a wig that was a parody of his own hair. “You can’t be me!” he shouted out.
“Shit,” Jim said.
Wasn’t there anything good Blair could have remembered? He’d picked up a little of what he was thinking of from odd mutterings, restless twists and turns, but for the last few minutes Blair had been writhing as if he was trying to break free of sleep, and now he knew why. Lash. Blair was dreaming of those hours spent as Lash’s prisoner. They’d haunted Jim’s sleep more than once this last couple of weeks; he probably should have expected them to be in Blair’s nightmares too.
“I’m going to wake him up,” he said. He didn’t think anything could be worse than what Blair was probably dreaming at the moment.
Chris Larabee moved out of the line of sight. They’d left Blair on the couch, covered with one of his own spreads, and shifted Vin to the floor, managing to ease him into his sleeping bag without properly waking him. Without discussing it, they’d both been aware of the need for Vin and Blair to be able to see each other safe if they awoke. Chris and Jim had taken it in turns to doze a little, but Blair had been talking and tossing about for some little while now.
Jim lifted Blair so he was sitting up, leaned against him. “It’s just a dream, Chief,” he said, trying to sound the way he would if they were home and everything was normal. “Lash is dead. It was all over a long time ago.”
Blair shuddered and half woke. “Oh man. I’ve got to get a dreamcatcher. That was a doozy. He was there as large as life saying he could be me, and I’m telling him no way, then suddenly I think, I can’t be me either, I don’t know anything about me any more. I don’t know when my birthday is. I don’t know…”
“How you broke your arm falling out of Mrs Danbush’s tree?” Jim said. Every word spoken to Lash that night was imprinted painfully on his memory.
“Yeah, that too,” Blair said, still more asleep than awake, and still shuddering so much the couch moved with it. “It was one hell of a dream. I couldn’t remember how old I was, and you were going to arrest Naomi and…”
He jolted abruptly upright and looked around the room, which was dimly lit from the bulb they’d left on in the front of the store. His heart rate rocketed and he started to breathe so fast he began to cough violently. He struggled to shake off Jim’s arm.
Jim let him go free. Maybe he should say something, start explaining, but Blair had his own ways of arriving at the truth, and even though he was on his feet now, wide eyed and horribly pale, there was that glimpse of bright intelligence in his eyes. Chris managed to be almost invisible, sitting head bowed, in the shadows near the door—strategically placed, Jim realised gratefully, to intercept anyone who made a bolt for the door.
Blair stared in silence at the room itself, the old desk and leather couch, and then at the discarded covers on the couch, and Vin’s sleeping bag. His hand went to his forehead as if it ached, but still Jim dared not move, and still he could see that Blair was thinking, with the trained analytical skill that always seemed at odds with his general manner.
Blair moved unsteadily, to the desk to pick up the book Simon had brought. Even Jim could only see it dimly, but it must have been so familiar to Blair he hardly needed sight. Blair ran his hand over it, then picked it up, tucking it under his arm.
And finally he turned and looked at Jim—properly.
“Jim,” he said, with something that was almost a smile. “Damn. I sound like Spock in that movie… You have got no idea what it does to my head to even get the name, though. I think two realities just collided and now they’re pulling me apart.”
Jim realised that he’d really missed the Sandburg zone; he didn’t worry about trying to make sense of this, but he welcomed it. Blair sounded something like his real self at last and he was looking at Jim directly, without any sign of horrified panic. He was still white and swaying and obviously confused, but somewhere the balance of power had shifted, and Joseph’s lies weren’t holding. Jim no longer worried about him bolting. He stood up and took Blair’s arm gently.
“How about you try to stay in my reality?”
“Hey, you’re there in both of them, man.” He leaned against Jim’s support. “And you’re definitely real. And you knew about Lash so that would kind of be evidence for the better option, but you’re here…” He paused for thought, resisting Jim’s slight effort to move him back towards the couch. “You’re here on the streets, right.” His voice sharpened a little. “You’re here because you set me up—you knew I’d fall for the sentinel line!”
Okay, so sometimes it might be better if he was a bit slower at thinking. “I knew you wouldn’t turn your back on someone you thought was in pain.”
“Nice try. I notice you weren’t acting a broken ankle.”
“I wanted to get close enough to talk to you, not be given directions to the clinic.” He shifted his arm a little so Blair was held comfortably, and to his relief, Blair accepted it. “I thought whatever else you’d forgotten, the sentinel stuff would still be there. Are you going to give me a chance to explain?”
“Someone needs to,” Blair said. His weight against Jim was becoming heavier by the moment, as if his brief energy was running out, and his headache was apparently getting worse. He was holding on to the old book as if its solidity reassured him. Jim tried again, unsuccessfully, to persuade him back towards the couch. Blair seemed determined to stand there until he had things settled in his own mind.
“I was afraid he would ask about sentinels,” Blair said suddenly, and shivered, as if he was remembering something. “But he asked about Denver. Jim, if you’re not hunting me down, and you’re not trying to arrest Naomi, why the hell would I believe it. And how do I know which parts are real and which aren’t. What happened?”
“Come and sit down, and I’ll tell you,” Jim said, pushing aside the urge to pick him up and carry him to the couch. “It’s a long story, and you don’t want to hear it standing here. It starts with you and Vin deciding it’s a good idea to go and look for a dangerous psychopath on your own and without telling anyone…”
He broke off. He hadn’t meant it to come out quite like that, nor with the days of frustration and worry too clear in his voice, but for some reason it seemed to convince Blair better than the sweet reasonableness he’d been trying to go for.
“Now you, my brother, are definitely real,” Blair murmured. “That’s the Jim I know. Not some idealised atavism at all…” He stopped resisting so suddenly that Jim was taken aback and nearly dropped him. Blair made a small noise of pain. “Whoa. I feel really weird. I think I’ve been programmed not to think…” To Jim’s alarm as he said it he collapsed completely.
“Blair?” He did pick him up now, hastily, and lifted him on to the couch, checking him over and talking reassuringly to him at the same time. “It’s all right. You’re cold and a bit shocky, but you’ll be okay.”
Blair’s hands were icy, and shaking so much he’d dropped his precious book; if it wasn’t shock it seemed something very like it. His eyes were open though, and he suddenly started to talk very rapidly. “Jim. Listen to me. We went to a place called Redlands. They were CIA. You know what you always say about them, and, man, were you right. They had this complete secret set up there and we just walked into it. Jim, Dr Josephs was working for them. I’ve got to tell you, what he is, what he did, in case I forget it again, and there’s no way he should ever be allowed…” He tried to draw breath, and it made him start gulping for air.
“It’s okay,” Jim said hastily, lifting him up against him again and rubbing his back until he started to breathe more easily. “We know all about Josephs and the CIA. They won’t be using Redlands any more. Calm down a minute and… oh, thanks.”
He’d half forgotten Chris Larabee, and hadn’t noticed when he left the room, but he came back now with a hot mug of coffee which he offered to Blair. Jim intercepted it and steadied it while Blair drank. It rattled against his teeth. “Sorry,” he managed to Chris between mouthfuls. “My mind’s in total meltdown. I don’t remember you.”
“You never met him,” Jim said, almost surprised as he remembered that. He’d grown so used to Chris over the past weeks that it seemed odd Blair didn’t know him. “This is Chris Larabee. He’s Vin’s boss. We’ve been looking for the two of you since you disappeared that Saturday night. Now how about letting me do the talking for a while, and you can have your say later.”
“Like that isn’t the way in all realities?” Blair murmured into his cup, apparently restored a little by the hot drink. “Okay man; it makes my head split when I try. This is more comfortable.”
Jim was monitoring him with all his senses, and it did seem that brief total collapse had been a reaction to his finally accepting who Jim was. It had evidently triggered a flood of memories, and he had been overwhelmed. He was still slightly shaky, but he seemed to be recovering fast. Jim leaned back so Blair was sprawled easily against him. He noticed Blair had retrieved his book and was holding it like a talisman. “I’m going to tell you what happened,” he said. “Just listen to it from our point of view for now. You can fill in your part later.”
He glanced across at Vin, still motionless in his sleeping bag, and wondered if he should be keeping it down a bit. They must be in imminent danger of waking him up. Chris, seeing the line of his gaze, made a slight gesture he didn’t understand, but then he tuned into Vin’s heart and breathing and knew he was awake. He wasn’t sure how Chris, without the benefit of sentinel abilities, had been so certain.
“When did you realise they were missing?” Chris asked quietly. “Saturday night?”
It was a clear enough prompt to get on with the story. Chris moved to sit down next to the sleeping bag—still between Vin and the door, Jim noticed.
“I thought at first you’d taken Vin to see Cascade’s night life,” he said to Blair. “Well. I tried to think that. I couldn’t help remembering that all the previous week you’d been doing a good impression of what Caro was like with PMT, but I assumed you’d have told me if you were thinking of doing something dangerous involving a man you knew was a psychopath…”
“Yadda, yadda,” Blair muttered, settling himself comfortably against Jim’s warmth. “We had that bit earlier, man. We weren’t to know he was in with the CIA. So when you decided we weren’t blowing our minds at Club Doom?”
“Well, I tried a few of the obvious things, then I put an APB out on your car…”
Vin lay still, not intending to give away the fact he was awake. The pretence had served him well a few days ago. He feigned sleep now, partly to give himself the advantage if he needed it, and partly because he no longer felt he knew what was going on and he preferred his reactions to it all to stay hidden. He wasn’t sure what had woken him—a shout, a thud? He’d not known where he was for a moment, and in that time he’d heard someone talking, quietly, and then Blair answering as if he was talking to a friend. He’d opened his eyes to the back room of the store, and realised he didn’t know how he got there. If Blair had sounded afraid, or the person speaking to him had sounded less concerned, he might have moved then, but there seemed no immediate threat, and he needed time to think.
Eyes closed again, carefully not moving, he struggled to understand. There were things he remembered from this evening: the trap, baited with a lure Blair couldn’t resist, and his own determination not to allow it to be sprung. He remembered the relentless downpour, and feeling chilled and sick. That at least made sense. But the rest… When he’d first been on the streets, he used to make up that sort of story. Friends. A place where he was respected. Someone who cared enough what happened to him to go as many miles as it took. Family.
Had he trapped himself with that old longing? He couldn’t recapture the quiet voice that had spoken to him, or the sense of home that had driven him to surrender. And yet, he wasn’t locked up. His fingers rubbed against the material of the sleeping bag. He was warm. Didn’t feel great, but he was warm and dry.
Blair was talking, but not making a lot of sense. He knew the voice answering him, but it wasn’t the one he was listening for. That one didn’t come. He listened instead to what Blair was saying, and began to feel afraid. Blair believed whatever line the man had spun him. He was talking to him, calling him Jim, so he had to know now—yes he was saying it had been a set up, but the man had an answer, and chillingly, Vin even found himself wanting to believe it.
He wanted to look, but he still didn’t want to show that he was awake. He could hear Blair make a sound as if his head hurt, and then that low reassurance that didn’t sound faked. Was it all just a complicated ploy to get them to talk, a different sort of interrogation, all the worse for playing on their weaknesses? There was noise of a slightly different sort and the smell of coffee, faint but tantalising, and then he was digging his nails into the palms of his hands to keep himself from making any other movement, because he heard the name Chris Larabee, and the unlikely assertion ‘Vin’s boss,’ and suddenly images started flooding into his mind. He felt cold and more afraid than he had felt for a long time. It mattered to him too much wanting this to be true—he saw the fair haired, black clad man, leaned against black steel, then with others in an office, in a bar, laughing at a barbecue, watching his back… There were too many pictures and too fast, and although he finally heard now a few words in the voice he’d been waiting for, it wasn’t enough to anchor him against the whirlwind in his mind.
For a minute longer he held onto some sort of control, and then he lost it.
Scene after scene battered at his memory. He forgot about faking sleep and tried to roll up to stop the fierce pain in his head. He was being torn apart, his thoughts dissolving before this random disconnected assault. Faces filled his vision though his eyes were pressed shut and now his fists were grinding into them. There was nothing fixed to keep him from losing himself completely, nothing to show what was true and what wasn’t, nothing to grasp onto at all.
He couldn’t hold himself against the chaos, but suddenly he was held.
Someone gripped his shoulders, lifted him from the sweaty tangle of the sleeping bag, spoke to him with a rough gentleness that bypassed all suspicion and sent him back to where he’d briefly been safe earlier that evening. His hands were eased away from his eyes, and he let his face press into a hard shoulder instead. Arms closed round him, rock solid to steady him against whatever came. He held on to this refuge, and the whirling images in his mind stilled and focussed.
Chris Larabee. The name seemed to have unlocked all the closed doors of his mind at once. He saw him, holding out his hand and in his thoughts he gripped it, arm to arm; he saw him riding, and remembered his dream of the night before. The name, the man, was as familiar to him as he was to himself. He knew what he’d see when he looked at him, and that there was no hiding from the scrutiny he would get in return. And then, spoiling the security he’d found, he remembered, the eyes he’d fled from the day before, so that they couldn’t see the shame at the core of him. That had been Chris Larabee too. He flinched from the images of friendship now. It couldn’t have happened, not if Larabee had known the truth about him. If it had happened, if what he was seeing was real, it had to be that he’d hidden what he’d done. Or lied.
“You don’t know,” he said, realising, and with the realisation struggling to get free. “You don’t know about me. Shit. You haven’t got any idea what I done.”
“I know you haven’t done anything wrong,” Chris said, holding him with a grip he had no chance of breaking right now. “Vin, stop it and listen to me. You’ve done nothing. I don’t know what lies that bastard Josephs has got into your head, but they are lies. Ow. Dammit, Vin…”
Vin found a second pair of hands preventing him from using his knee again, and he stopped fighting.
“The fire!” he heard Blair say, and he knew it was all over. If there was one thing in this world Chris couldn’t forgive, it would be a fire taking the lives of innocents. “Jim, I’d forgotten the fire. No, not forgotten. I thought maybe it wasn’t real after all, if this is all real… but I do remember it, even now, I remember the building on fire…”
“Hold on a minute.” That was Jim. “There hasn’t been any fire.”
“A long time ago,” Blair said slowly, sounding confused. “I mean, it must have been a long time ago, because it was in Denver… I don’t think I’ve been back to Denver…”
What did it matter when it was? What mattered was what had happened. He couldn’t face this coming out slowly, piece by wrenchingly painful piece. He tried to push himself upright. “We set a fire,” he said to Chris, meeting his eyes, though it came hard. “We wanted to bring folks on the scene, get Josephs—Levine he was then—put away. But it went wrong and…”
“It didn’t go wrong,” Chris interrupted, with a certainty that shook him. “Vin, I know what you’re talking about, but that was fifteen years ago, and it went exactly right. What did Josephs make you think?”
“Fifteen years?” Vin said, disbelieving. “How’d you know about what I was doing fifteen years ago, anyway?”
“I was reading the newspaper accounts of it a few days ago,” Chris said. “Josiah found them, when we were trying to work out where the hell you’d gone, and we’d got the fifteen years thing from some of the people we questioned. Whole story was in the Denver papers. The reporters didn’t know who’d set the fire, but the rest of it was clear enough. Emergency services arrived, some kid sent them down to the basement, they found the children Josephs had been using for his sick experiments, and they took them away, safe.”
The words hammered down, black and white, nailed to reality by the knowledge that Chris didn’t lie, not to him, not about something like this.
But he’d seen the fire. He could almost taste the smoke. He could even see the shell of the burnt out building. “It did burn down,” he said.
“Not that night,” Chris said. “It was later. Looks like the CIA used it as a way to explain Josephs’—Levine’s—disappearance. Vin, the fire you set did no more than send a bit of smoke up through the roof. Anyone in the basement was long gone when the building actually burned.”
“They were safe?” Vin said blankly, the huge weight beginning to slip from his shoulders.
“Vin, you know they were safe. Nate told me you were asking him before this mess started, when Mandy Roblin brought her baby in, if a baby that had been badly treated would get over it in a good home.”
The detail caught and held in the chaos of Vin’s memory. Yeah. He could hear himself asking it. He’d wondered sometimes what happened to the kids who’d been rescued… He did know they were safe… As the belief in it sharpened, the world shifted. It changed its form, settled, then fell into place different; and he tumbled with it, not caring that he fell, because he knew Chris would catch him.
Chris did. For a little while the world shrank to that; encircling arms, and everything beyond them chaos and darkness, then very slowly reality crept back. He was half-smothered against Chris, and his face seemed to be wet. The headache and the dizziness were gone. He could hear Chris and Jim Ellison and Blair talking quietly, and though at first it was too much trouble to listen, gradually he started to take it in, and his own memories took shape, coherent.
He knew who he was again.
Vin Tanner. ATF. Part of a team. A man who could do his job, and was respected for doing it. Someone who had friends t’ watch out for him. The things he’d longed for as a kid on the streets hadn’t been out of reach after all. Even the bad-tempered horse he’d dreamed of…
“Peso,” he said, stirring. “That’s my horse, isn’t it?”
“No one else’d want him,” Chris said. “Might’ve known you’d remember that damn horse, whatever else you forgot.”
“You dreamed about riding him,” Blair said, remembering. “Along with some cowboy…”
Vin, grinning silently, waited for it.
“Do I want to know who you were calling a cowboy?” Chris asked.
“If the hat fits… or th’ boots come t’ that.”
He knew there’s be just the hint of a smile twisting one side of Chris’s mouth. He could see it as clear as if he’d bothered to lift his head up and look at him. He let the faces of the rest of the team drift through his mind: JD eager, wanting to know what it had been like; Buck giving him a hug that warmed him clear through; Ezra, maybe the only one who would fully understand; Nate concerned for his health, and ‘Siah for what it had done to his spirit. Only Josiah’d be able to find words that fitted what he felt like now, to have a life like this, not the one he’d seemed to be trapped in.
He shifted slightly, since his face was dry now, and Chris’s shirt was damp. Chris’s arms tightened just a bit. He realised something he’d never properly understood ’til tonight. It really didn’t matter to Chris what he was. He didn’t have to prove anything to him, be anything to earn his friendship. Okay, he’d known it, sort of, but with his mind. Now he could feel it. Chris held him the same whether he was the kid on the streets or the sharpshooter—like it was just all him. He’d always been wanting to live down, shut away, that part of his past and just be what he’d become, and he didn’t feel that way any more. Maybe for all his hate, Josephs had done him a kind of favour there.
“Still plenty of night left,” Chris said.
He knew when he woke he’d be completely the trained, adult, ATF agent. Just for now though, he let the warmth surrounding him be partly for that boy on Denver’s streets who’d come so vividly back into his life.
“Wish I’d known you then,” Chris muttered, their thoughts connecting like they did ‘times.
“Wish y’ had,” Vin agreed. “Feels like y’ did, now.”
At peace with himself, he slept.
Edgar Benedek picked up the papers he needed, ready to set off for the airport. It was a disgustingly early hour, but it meant he should be in Cascade by noon. He wanted this trip away from respectable academia. It was years since he’d last enjoyed that hunger for a great story. He liked his academic work—even if he amused himself slightly—but the thought of a belated guest appearance for the National Register was irresistible. He’d contacted them after little Ezzy’s phone call and Jordy Kerner, still editor in defiance of blood pressure, law suits and the vagaries of changing fashions in the tabloid world, had been equally enthusiastic.
“You’re a life saver, Benny. Sales have been sliding from disappointing to bloody pathetic. Some of the lads I get now would make the Marie Celeste sound like a shipping report. A guest appearance by Edgar Benedek should boost the circulation even if the story isn’t all you’re hoping.”
“It’s looking promising. I’ve got a lot of inside information that makes it almost a certainty that old story of Levine needs reopening. I told you back then there was something very fake about the neat way he was pronounced dead.”
“You told me a lot of things over the years, Benny. I still haven’t forgotten the one about the ghost of the Duke of Wellington coming to fight the War of Independence properly and take back the colonies.”
“Okay, okay. But ghosts are unpredictable. This story’s got everything—human wickedness, connived at in the highest areas of national security, threatening the children on our streets. What more could a tabloid editor want?”
“A touch of the supernatural? Be creative—your loyal readers, assuming there are still some out there, won’t be happy without it.”
“You’re a bloodsucker,” Benedek said. “I’ll get back to you from Cascade.”
“I’ll keep you the front page and a few inside ones as well.”
Smiling, Edgar Benedek added a rather tasteful orange and blue tie to his ensemble, ignoring the fact that the orange in his Armani jacket was a distinctly different shade, and set off for Cascade.
Continue on to Part 5 of 7