Rating: PG 13
From the Ashes
San Francisco, 1974
Shadows flickered against the surrounding trees as flames broke through the windows of the two-story house set in the clearing. Yellow tongues licked rapidly through the rotting lumber of the ancient structure. People staggered from the house and down the wide porch. Others huddled on the wide lawn.
Against the nightmarish backdrop, a thin man shook a red-haired woman but failed to break through her drugged haze. A blonde woman stood to the side, staring open-mouthed at the disaster before her. At their feet a child cried, shaking his reddened and blistered hands and staring at the figures, some screaming, some silent in shock and pain, scattered around them. The roar of the flames eating the house almost drowned out the voices around him.
A young man with long, curly brown hair ran toward the four people from a shed beside the house.
"Oh, man!" he screamed, ignoring the women, the child and the injured dotting the wide lawn and grabbing the taller man by the arm. "Roger! We have to get the stuff!" he told the thin man, running toward an exterior basement door of the burning house.
Roger flung the red-haired woman at the blonde, shouting, "Get her out of here. I'll take care of him! Don't let the cops know she was here!" He looked at the crying child at his feet. "Stay here, son. Don't move!" He turned and ran after the shorter man. "Matt! Don't go in there!"
The blonde woman grabbed her charge by the arm and yanked her into the cover of the nearby woods, running as fast as she could get the woman to move. The child, tears blurring his sight, watched the woman leave. He tried to push himself up but fell when his injured hands contacted the rocky ground.
"Mama!" he mumbled around his tears of fear and pain. "Mama, come back! Mama, don't leave!" He rolled over and watched the men disappear into the basement door. "Roger! Roger! Roger! Mama!"
The five-year-old's cries were unheeded as other injured figures milled around the yard. The child ceased his cries as he watched the two men come back out of the basement. Roger shoved Matt in front of him, away from the house.
"It's gone, Matt! Leave it be!"
A spectacular explosion ripped the house apart. Flaming timbers rained down on the yard and felled the two men and several of the others who had thought themselves safe. Matt struggled to his feet then crumbled, landing on a smoldering piece of door. He screamed in pain and rolled dazedly away, trying to rise before collapsing to the ground. The flames latched on to Roger who had been between the house and Matt, and consumed his plain cotton peasant clothing. Yellow flames licked eagerly at the untreated fabric, and the man screamed in pain and panic, rushing away from the house.
The child stared as the golden figure lurched toward him. Sirens sounded close by as the yellow and black man dropped in front
of him. The child watched soundlessly, the heat from the fire drying the tears on his puffy cheeks.
Blair guided his Volvo over another series of ruts in the road and cringed when the undercarriage scraped rock. He blew out his held breath as he rounded a corner and saw the old, two-story house sitting among the clearing. Easing his way across the rough dirt parking area, Blair pulled to a stop near the sidewalk leading to the wide, wraparound porch. He contemplated the structure from his car for a moment, unsure as to whether he had the right place. Sighing with weariness, he crawled from the car, sidestepping the puddle near the driverís door, and looked up as the door to the house creaked open.
"Hello," Blair greeted. "I hope I'm at the right place."
"I'm sure you are," a middle-aged man with bleached, short, curly hair greeted him, making his way stiffly down the front stairs. He shifted the hammer to his left hand and pocketed a handful of nails before reaching out for a handshake. Blair did his best not to stare at the scarred right side of the man's face or cringe at taking the badly scarred right hand. "Welcome to Crystal Visions, a place to seek insight into your life--past, present and future."
Blair nodded with a wry grin, trying to ignore the queasy feeling in his gut. "I'm at the right place. Kind of off the beaten path, aren't you?" Blair studied his host and recognized the gaunt appearance he'd seen in too many of Naomi's friends, friends malnourished and either drug addicted or overcoming drug addictions.
"That's what makes it peaceful," the man said. He looked Blair up and down with a critical eye. "I'm Matthew Tatting, owner of this oasis of peace in today's frenzied world."
"Blair Sandburg," Blair introduced himself, forcing down a shiver at the man's touch. "I'm meeting my mother here for a few days. She said an old friend of ours owns the place, but I'm sorry, I don't think she mentioned your name."
"Well, I'm relatively new to the establishment," Tatting said. "Peter Johnson is probably the name your mother mentioned. Naomi, right?"
"The only Sandburg I know," Tatting smiled, although to Blair it looked slightly sinister, and he found himself stepping back.
"You know Naomi?" For some reason the thought surprised and appalled him.
"Long time ago. She and my brother Roger were hooked up for a while. Nothing serious." Blair nodded. "Let's get your things inside and get you settled, then I'll show you around."
"Actually," Blair said, "I'd like to try to get some rest. I've had very little sleep in the last three days getting ready to come here, and I am beat."
"Then let's find you a place to rest yourself," Tatting said, turning and leading the way back up the stairs. Blair hesitated, then grabbed his backpack and a duffel bag from the Volvo's back seat and followed the man. Tatting led Blair into a large, open living area with a counter running along the south wall. A large fireplace took up most of north wall and set back, beneath a loft area, was a large dining table. A swinging door led out of the dining area into what Blair presumed was the kitchen.
Tatting continued to talk as he headed toward the counter. "Roger was quite taken with your mother."
Blair stumbled slightly and caught himself on the entry railing. He paused, catching his breath and balance. Tatting looked back at him.
"I'm okay," Blair said. "It's just been a really long three days." He followed Tatting to the counter. "I think I remember Naomi mentioning Roger. I can't say I remember much about him, though."
"Well, you were only five when he died." Tatting pulled out some forms and had Blair fill out his name and address, then the older man showed him up the stairs. "Pete's in town picking up a few things, taking care of some business. He'll be back in a couple of hours. He bought the place about six years ago. There were originally five large bedrooms, but he remodeled and made 10 small bedrooms instead."
Blair listened to the creaking floor, spied the tell-tale signs of a leaking roof, saw the warped baseboards and considered turning around and going back to Cascade. If he hadn't been so dead-tired, he probably would have, plans with his mother notwithstanding.
"How long has it been since Naomi's been by here?" Blair asked as Tatting passed through the loft area that opened over the living room, took him to a hallway and showed him into a room which looked like a set for an old Western. He could see the curtains moving around the tall, thin window even though he suspected the window was closed.
"I don't know," Tatting said. "I started talking with Pete about six months ago and finally settled in here last month. She hasn't been by in that time." Tatting watched Blair's reaction to the room and hid a smile. "We're looking into some remodeling." Blair nodded and smiled. "I'll let you get some rest. Bathroom's down the hall. Like I said, we're not expecting anyone else for a few days so it should be real quiet." He backed out the door and tugged it closed.
Blair looked around the dingy room and raised his eyebrows. "Mom," he whispered. "I'm going to get you for this." He walked to the window and confirmed his suspicions. The window was closed, but a draft poured easily around its ill-fitting, rotting frame. He was way ahead of his schedule so Blair hoped his Mom would be here soon, and they could just head on out and spend their few days together somewhere else. He rubbed his arms against the chilling spring air. Head somewhere warm, he hoped.
He sat gently on the bed and grimaced. His futon mattress at the loft was in infinitely better shape then this, but it would
do for a nap. He peeked under the edge of the bedspread and sniffed, pleased to discover the sheets seemed fresh and clean. He
kicked off his shoes, took off his jacket and pulled a corner of the bedspread over him as he lay back. Just a short nap, he
figured, then he'd see what else was around.
Johnson noted the green Volvo in the parking lot as he drove up. His errands had taken longer than anticipated and were as fruitless as he'd expected. He parked the rusting sedan in the back and slammed the door as he got out. Stomping up the steps to the porch, he went in the back door directly into the kitchen.
"Who's here?" Johnson asked when he saw Tatting come into the kitchen. Johnson turned on the burners of the industrial stove to take the chill out of the room. The sun, going down now, had long since disappeared from the woods among which the farm house sat and its early spring heat was disappearing just as quickly.
"Blair Sandburg," Tatting said.
"He's staying even though Naomi's not coming?"
"Well, we never did get to her message."
"You didn't tell him she's not coming?"
"Not yet. He was dead on his feet when he got here."
"And what made you feel so hospitable all of a sudden. Seems to me you've done your best to run off what guests we had signed up."
Tatting grinned. "I just feel like I owe him something."
"I doubt it," Johnson said, turning back to warm himself at the fire. He was silent. "He doesn't know you? Naomi acted like he should."
"I don't think he remembers me."
Pete Johnson hadn't realized his business partner knew Naomi or Blair, but from Naomi's verbal reaming of him early this afternoon when she'd found out he had a new investor and that investor's name, they knew each other well enough for Naomi to refuse to use the man's given name. She'd had plenty of names for him, but not many he'd use to Tatting's face.
"Naomi is a pretty easy-going woman. Why does she hate you so much?"
Matt shrugged. He slipped a bottle of beer from the
large refrigerator and twisted off the top. He
stared at his burned hand and then at the reflection of his scarred face
in the stainless steel refrigerator door. "Let's say we've all had a lasting effect on each
others' lives." He turned on his heel
and left the room, swallowing half the beer as he went.
Blair drifted off to sleep, and his body waged little battle with his mind as the events of the previous week caught up with him. Twice in the last hour of driving he had almost nodded off. In the previous five days, he had worked long hours between preparing for his own graduation, grading the last of his students' finals for the semester, and helping Jim with a nasty arson case. The last three days, in particular, had been consumed with the case, and only this morning had they finished up the paperwork.
Between the work and the images from the case he knew would haunt him, Blair had averaged less than two hours of sleep over the past three nights. Images from the case, especially its ending, followed him into sleep.
Flaming men ran from the warehouse. Blair stood in the shadow of a tree. He watched the figures drop to the ground and, then, surrounded by a surreal golden light, rise again, black and charred beneath their golden aura. White eyes found him in his hiding place, and Blair looked around for an escape. Suddenly a house stood behind him, and he ran for it only to find himself in the police garage surrounded by more of the glowing yet charred beings. He cast his eyes about again, looking for help and saw one figure in the distance. "Jim," he thought, running between the closing ranks of ash-people, crying out as one raked a gold-black hand along his arm. But as he neared the exit, he found himself again in a house, smoke-filled with the crackle of fire all around.
Blair's head whipped around, looking for the source of the words. A man appeared at his side, and he looked into the face of a mummy. The mummy screamed at him, but he didn't understand the words. When he looked away then back he was outside, sitting in the dew-drenched grass. He scooted back, away from the house engulfed in flames. He could see people inside. He could see them burning......
Blair shot up out of the bed and stood, shaking and breathing heavily two feet from the single bed. He looked around, unsure of where he was, not recognizing the dimly lit room. He stumbled back away from the unfamiliar bed and bumped into the chair next to the room's small desk. He sat heavily, resting his elbows on the desk and covering his face as he tried to slow his heart, his breathing and figure out what was going on.
He looked around again, finally remembering the arson case he and Jim had finished and realizing it had invaded his dreams. He sat for several minutes, trying to recall his dream, to analyze its origins and defeat its power. Ten minutes later he could recall almost nothing of the dream except that he had been very young and very afraid.
Rubbing his face vigorously with his hands, Blair regained control of himself. Looking at the darkening room, he glanced out the window to see it was evening. He must have slept for a good three or four hours. He decided to check to see if Naomi had arrived.
"Hey, Blair Sandburg!"
Blair smiled from the top of the stairs as he recognized the man greeting him. "Pete!" he returned, hurrying down to give the older man a hug. Peter Johnson was only a couple of inches taller than Blair.
"Come on. Sit down and tell me what's happening with you, kid," Pete said. "I haven't seen or heard from you in years."
"I guess it's been about 10 years, hasn't it?"
"Every bit. Saw Naomi about three years ago, and she said you'd started--really started--your doctoral studies. Said you were working with the police?"
"Well, yeah," Sandburg smiled. "I officially get my degree Saturday at commencement. Come down, if you can."
"Find your superman?" Pete asked, nodding and taking a seat in a wing back chair next to a blazing fireplace. He pointed Blair to a nearby couch, and Sandburg settled into the old but surprisingly comfortable sofa.
Blair grinned. He'd taken a lot of teasing from Pete since he was fifteen. He'd just discovered Sir Richard Burton's brief mention of Sentinels, tribal watchmen with heightened senses. He'd seen heightened senses in everyone for a while. Hey, what's an enthusiastic fifteen-year-old to do? Now, every time they saw one another, Pete asked the same question. And just like he had ten years ago when he'd been nineteen and still searching, Blair said no he hadn't.
Of course, 10 years ago, it hadn't been a lie.
"I ended up doing a study of the Cascade Police Department's Major Crime division. A study of an enclosed group within a group. My advisors liked it."
"So, what's next? Some big expedition?"
Blair smiled crookedly. The million dollar question.
"Don't know for sure. Ranier's offered me a teaching position, and I'm considering a consultant position with the police department."
"Really? I thought Naomi said you'd be going back on a trip somewhere." Blair shrugged. "Naomi's little boy working for the pigs?"
"Hey, stranger things have happened. At least I won't have to carry a gun."
Blair lost himself in his own thoughts for a moment. The decision would be easier if he had a clue as to whether Jim wanted to continue working with him. As a consultant, there was really no guarantee he'd work with Jim. On the other hand, Blair knew, there was really no reason to think he could only work with Jim. They had been friends for four years. In Blair's experience with relationships, that meant it was time for some serious changes. And change for him usually meant a physical break.
"Well, well." Peter's comment broke through his thoughts. "Working with the police." Pete shook his head in amazement.
"Nothing's really decided," Blair reminded him. "Hey," Blair said. "Has Mom made it here yet?" He looked around for evidence of the red-haired woman.
Peter hesitated. "I'm sorry, Blair. Matt should have told you when you got here. She called this afternoon and said she wouldn't be able to make it. In fact, she said she was going to call you and tell you. I really wasn't even expecting you or I would have been here when you came in."
Blair's expression clearly telegraphed his disappointment. He and his mother had gone nearly a year without seeing one another, and he had looked forward to this time together. The plans for this trip had been made hastily during her whirlwind visit last month.
"I guess I missed her call. I got away a little sooner than I expected. I left the loft around one o'clock."
"Oh, man. She would have missed you. She called me around two."
"So it goes," Blair said, trying to keep his smile. The news changed a lot. He wondered about leaving.
"Hey," Peter said before Blair could find a good excuse to leave. "You missed supper. Let me get you a sandwich and a bite to eat. Matt said you looked beat when you came in this afternoon. How about staying the night anyway." Peter rose from his chair and headed into the kitchen. "I know the place has run down a little, but we're trying to pull in some new investors so we can get a little work done."
Blair followed the older man into the kitchen. "How is business? Your partner said Naomi and I were the only ones expected for a while."
"I won't lie. It could be better. We haven't had a full house in a while, but things will pick up soon. Matt and I are both working on some options."
He slapped together some sandwiches while Blair wandered around the kitchen, looking at the equipment. He saw several bare wires which made him cringe and wondered if he detected the odor of gas, but he refrained from asking about them. He also caught the distinctive odor of marijuana. Peter filled the silence with stories about mutual acquaintances who had come by in the past several years.
Blair told a few stories about his four years as an observer with the Cascade police department and Detective Jim Ellison, leaving out the parts about Ellison's heightened senses. He had changed his dissertation subject from Sentinels to allow Ellison to keep his secret.
"Listen, Pete," Blair said as he finished his sandwich and tea. "I really have a few things that I need to get done in Cascade. It's been great seeing you, but I really think I'd like to head on back."
"Oh, don't do that," Matthew Tatting said from the kitchen door. He drifted into the room and Blair immediately recognized the source of the marijuana odor as well as the signs of a man under the influence in the gaze and gait of the other partner. "You're still tired. That road is rough in the daylight. It can really be rough at night if you're not familiar with it. Just hang around for the night."
"Come on, Blair." Peter added his plea to his partner's, although he wondered about Tatting's motive. "You really look tired."
"No, man. I appreciate it. Look, I used the bed so I'll pay for the night, but I'd just as soon head back."
"If you insist," Peter acquiesced. "I'll help you get your stuff."
The two men headed up the stairs and left Tatting to his own devices. His devices included a trip to the parking lot where he took two nails from his pocket and drove them into the Volvo's two back tires. He was back in the kitchen before Blair and his partner came out the front door. He smiled as he listened to them carry out Blair's things and came to the front door and watched from the porch as Blair pulled away.
Blair felt the difference in his car immediately but the sight in his rear-view mirror of Tatting standing on the porch encouraged him to keep driving. Before he'd gone 50 feet toward the tree line, he realized he'd have to change a tire before he'd get any farther. Stopping the car, he found both back tires low and getting lower. Repressing a shiver, he looked back at his two hosts and offered a shallow smile.
"Looks like I'll be staying the night after all," Blair said. He got back in, parked the car out of the driveway and carried his stuff back inside. He missed the questioning glance Peter threw at Matt.
Unhappy with the turn of events and uneasy in Tatting's company, Blair quickly claimed weariness and retreated to his room. He regretted letting Naomi talk him into leaving his cell phone at the loft, and he briefly considered calling Jim for a helping hand. Unfortunately, he had no concrete reason for leaving. The condition of the place was unsettling, but Blair knew he and his mother had stayed in worse places. He didn't look forward to telling Jim he wanted to leave because one of the guys gave him the creeps. They were Naomi's friends, and he didn't want to get them in trouble.
And he was tired. And he knew Jim had to be as well. The detective had worked hard on the arson investigation. He'd also renewed his acquaintance with Debra Reeves, a Cascade arson investigator, in the process. Jim hadn't said as much, but Blair figured he was looking forward to having his home to himself again for a few days as much as Blair had been looking forward to a few days with Naomi. Part of him wondered about how wise it would be to let Jim have a taste of having his place to himself again.
He lay back on the bed to consider his options and was asleep before he knew it.
Peter watched Blair go up to his room and gave him time to get settled. He walked up about 15 minutes after Blair and listened outside the room. He heard nothing and saw only a dim glow, probably from the bedside lamp. He went downstairs but couldn't find his partner anywhere. Forty minutes later he heard Tatting in the kitchen. Checking once again on their guest and still hearing nothing, Peter went back downstairs to confront his partner.
"What did you do to his tires?" Peter demanded when he found Tatting in the kitchen.
"Me? He must have picked up some nails or something. You did that the other day, remember?"
"I haven't been able to afford to have any work done to this place in months."
"I was fixing a board on the porch this afternoon when he drove up," Tatting explained. "So he drove in the wrong place at the wrong time." Tatting ignored his partner and began taking supplies from the cabinets.
"What are you doing?" Peter asked.
"This will make a fine snack for our guest," Matt said, continuing to set up equipment around the kitchen.
Recognizing what his partner was doing, Peter started to put the equipment back. "Matt," he explained. "Blair's partner is a cop. Major Crime. I don't think you ought to be cooking a batch of whatever you're cooking up while he's nearby."
"He's his father's son," Matt said. "I'm sure it won't be his first exposure to drugs. In fact, I know it's not."
"Roger never used drugs. He was smarter than that."
"That's what you think. Besides, what makes you think Roger is his daddy? And he's still his mother's son. She's no stranger to a little alternate reality, I promise you."
"Naomi said Roger was Blair's father."
"Just because she hoped it was Roger, doesn't mean it was. She was pretty clueless that whole time she was with us, you know. She didn't know which one of us was doing her."
"You're telling me, you're Blair's father?" Tatting didn't answer, just continued measuring his ingredients and heating the equipment. "I can't imagine her having anything to do with you."
"She wasn't quite coherent most of the time. Damn kid's lucky. You have any idea what drugs can do to an unborn baby?" he laughed. "I wasn't using when I first met Naomi, but that night, man, she was pretty far gone. She had no idea which brother she was with. Roger told me a couple of years later, when he met up with her again and she told him the kid was his, that he doubted it. He'd had some test. Said his sperm count was real low, practically non-existent. Must have taken after his dad. That's why they adopted me. The old man couldn't get the deed done again. Anyway, that's why Rog never bothered with a vasectomy. Figured it wasn't worth the pain."
"You're Blair's father?"
"But you hate him?" Matt continued, baffled at the man's obvious scorn for his apparent offspring. "Why?"
"Because he's the reason I look like this!" Matt screamed, dropping all semblance of calm. "He's the reason my life's a mess. If it hadn't been for him, Roger would have gotten my supplies out of the basement. I wouldn't have gotten burned. I wouldn't have gotten in hot water with my bosses when all their supplies went up in smoke and they couldn't meet demand." He sneered at his partner. "I owe the kid a lot. And he'll get his payback." He turned back to his manufacturing process. "Now get out of here. I've got company coming."
"What company? You've done nothing but run off customers in the past month."
"Well, this company can help us out of our financial woes."
"That's what you were supposed to do. You said you had money to put into this place."
"Actually, I think I insinuated I could make the place profitable. Without the risk of witnesses, this can be a profitable location. The cops are too small-time to work any kind of enforcement, and the people don't think they have a drug problem. I think they're right. What they have in this little community is a business opportunity. And even if they were to suspect something, my new partner will certainly keep me apprised of any potential problems."
"I'm through with your deals and your plans," Peter announced, starting to put away the supplies and unused ingredients laying about. Pots clattered to the floor and contents spilled across the floor and the counter as he fumbled them in his haste. "We are not turning to drugs to pull this place out of debt."
"Oh, get real, Petey!" Matt shouted. "I'm not in this to pull your butt out of debt or save this piece of trash. This place can keep falling down slowly. The fewer people we get around here the better. This place could be a gold mine if you're offering the right product."
"No," Peter shouted back. "I've done my time in prison. I'm not going back. This place was doing okay before I let you come in!"
"This place is falling down around your ears!" Matt retorted. "Now get out of here and let me work."
The shouting in the kitchen woke Sandburg from the start of another dream. He lay awake for a moment, wondering if he should get involved. He walked to the window when he heard a vehicle pull up. Pete hadn't mentioned any other guests. He watched a tall figure get off an all terrain vehicle and walk toward the back door. When he heard the first crash, he decided he'd better check it out. When he heard the second, he hurried down the stairs, tying his hair back out of the way as he went.
Matt and Pete looked up as the back door opened and a tall, thin gentleman stepped into the kitchen. He looked suspiciously at Pete, who recognized him as one of the older deputies in the White County Sheriff's Department. Matt gave him a welcome smile and greeting, moving over to shake his hand.
"Welcome, welcome," Matt said. "I was just trying to get a fresh supply started here. I've got a new product someone shared with me. We've even got a guest who can test it when I'm done."
Pete realized Matt was planning to drug Sandburg. He fell silent in shock as the newcomer nodded, smiled and excused himself to use the restroom. Matt looked at Pete and called to his new partner.
"I'll just let this batch cook, and we'll talk details outside," Matt said, and headed for the door. The off-duty deputy nodded and walked into the restroom off the kitchen.
"No way, Matt," Pete warned, throwing the metal spoon he held onto the stove where it bounced to the back and hit the frayed wires, sparking and igniting the flammable liquid near the stove.
The shouting had stopped by the time Blair made it to the first floor, and an ominous muttering could be heard in the quiet of the night. Blair stumbled toward the kitchen only to be thrown back across the 20-foot living area and slammed into the front door as an explosion ripped through the house and shot flames through the kitchen door. The impact knocked Blair out, and he slid bonelessly to the floor. When he came to several minutes later, fuzzy vision distorted even more by smoke muted the golden flames coming from the kitchen and working their way rapidly toward him. He coughed and struggled to his feet. He started toward the kitchen, confused and worried about Pete. He saw figures behind the flames, golden shapes that made him stumble back. He grabbed the doorknob and twisted around, yanking at the stubborn, old knob. Finally the old door gave, and he yanked it open, stumbling into the fresher air on the porch, smoke billowing out the door behind him.
Blair looked back to see a flaming figure emerge from
the smoky depths. The screams coming
from the fiery throat chilled him, and he stumbled farther away, falling
to his knees. He scrambled
across the wide porch as the terrified and terrifying walking corpse
approached him, tangling with
him as it tripped over his feet, and went down on the porch. Sandburg
screamed as he scuttled
away from the fallen figure on his hands and feet. The body didn't move,
but Blair kept screaming
and backing away, images from past and present melting together in his
mind. He scrambled
awkwardly down the steps, watching as flames on his jeans legs followed
him. Rising, he slipped
in the large puddle he'd avoided earlier and rolled, effectively dousing
the flames that had eaten
away the material. He rose unsteadily to his feet and ran for the cover
of the trees as another explosion ripped through the old house, blowing the roof off. He ran until
he tripped in the dark
woods over a fallen tree. Exhausted and frightened, he huddled behind
the log, watching the
flames dance and cavort in the house, seeing the nightmarish vision even
after he passed out.
"Ellison!" Captain Simon Banks' bellow from across the room startled the Cascade detective, and his head snapped up from where it had been drooping in front of his computer. He forced his eyes wide open and took a deep breath as he faced his captain. "What are you doing here?" Banks continued when he had the detective's attention.
Banks had last seen the detective at a crime scene five hours ago. Ellison should have had last night and today off, but a call came in just before he'd left the bullpen yesterday, and curiosity had pulled him into the investigation. It was pretty cut and dried, but they had been up late searching for a suspect always just a little beyond their reach before ending the night with the arrest.
"You said I could have the day off once I finished the reports on last night's arrest," Jim Ellison explained, reaching over to shut down his machine. He had two days off coming to him and plans for both of those days. "I finished the reports. I thought I'd head home and get some rest today."
Banks eyed his detective. "Seeing Debra again tonight," he surmised.
Jim smiled and looked behind him to grab his light jacket. "I've got the loft to myself for the next three days, Simon. Just thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity."
Simon laughed, then sobered as he headed to unlock his office. "You sure she's not working that fire?" he asked.
"Some place northeast of here in White Springs County. Burned to the ground last night. Some fatalities. Sheriff asked Cascade for help."
"What was the name of the place?" Jim's voice raised the hair on the back of Simon's neck, and he looked over his shoulder at the detective.
"Crystal Visions, I think." He unlocked his office and dumped his briefcase and file folders on the conference table in order to spread out the morning paper. The story made papers because of the deaths, but the time of the fire prevented much detail.
Jim Ellison watched Captain Banks place his armload on the table and hurry to open the paper. Jim finished slipping his jacket on but stayed where he was. He saw Simon scan the news reports and nod, confirming his memory. Jim reached for the phone on his desk even as the older man turned to face him.
Suddenly very awake, Ellison asked information for the number of the sheriff's office at White Springs, White Springs County, Washington. He remembered Sandburg saying the place was rather isolated. The largest city was the county seat, hardly more than a wide spot in the road compared to Cascade. Shortly, he was on the line with a rather harried county deputy trying to get information about the fire, fatalities and whether Sandburg was one of them.
More officers were filtering into the office by the time Ellison slammed the phone down an hour later and grabbed up his discarded jacket.
"I'm going up there, Simon," Ellison said, nearly bumping into his desk as he tried to round the corner and head through the door.
Simon reached out. "Hold up, Jim," Banks said. Ellison tried to push around his superior but a stern, "Ellison," brought his blood-shot and weary eyes to the captain.
"I'm not getting any answers," Jim said. "They just keep putting me on hold. They think I'm some kind of reporter. I have to get up there."
"You've been awake more than 40 hours straight, Jim," Simon cautioned. "I can't let you drive in this condition, especially that far."
"Not alone." Simon's eyes swept the room and lit on Megan Conner. He hesitated, having sensed a growing attraction between Conner and Sandburg in the past weeks. Good or bad, she'd be the best person for this trip. At least she knew about Jim's enhanced senses. "Conner!" Simon barked. "What's on your plate today?"
"Nothing much, Captain," the Australian exchange officer replied. "Joel and I wrapped up the paperwork for the DA yesterday. We're just waiting to see what new comes up."
"Take Ellison up to White Springs." Banks watched the question rise in Megan's eyes and saw the slight blanching of her features as her eyes shifted to Jim.
"Sandy was at that place?" she whispered. Jim nodded. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed her purse and walked up to the two men.
Jim headed for the door again, but Banks grabbed his jacket sleeve firmly enough to pull the detective into an about face.
"She drives," Banks ordered.
"I'll fit better in your truck than you will in my car," Megan said, holding her palm out for his truck keys.
Jim turned toward the door. "I'll give them to you downstairs."
Simon snagged his jacket sleeve again. "She leaves the room with your keys in her hands."
Ellison studied the two for a few seconds then fished the keys from his pocket and dropped them in her hand. Silently he turned on his heel and headed out the door. Megan glanced at the captain, the smile fading from her face.
"We'll call when we know something," she said.
"So, Sandy said he was meeting his mum, right?" Megan asked Jim as they pulled out of the parking garage and headed out of town.
"Yeah," Jim said. Megan thought he was going to clam up there, but he eventually went on. "She breezed through town last month and talked him into taking this vacation with her." He paused. "Actually, it was probably a good thing. He's been keyed up about officially getting his degree next week." Jim smiled at the thought. "He needed the time away. That last case really got to him, I think."
Jim nodded. "At least he was too busy getting things cleared at the university to have nightmares this time."
"We worked a case a couple of years ago. That's when we met Debra Reeves. When it was over, he had a hard time putting it behind him." Jim thought back to the early morning mumbling he'd heard for several days coming from the bedroom below his. He'd never really been able to make any sense of them, and Sandburg never talked about them. Jim rubbed his hands over his face, trying to drive away the fatigue. "God, Megan," he whispered, turning to look out the window. "Why now? He's been working like crazy on this dissertation for a year. God. He can't miss out now. And Naomi. What's he gonna do if he loses her?
"Switching his dissertation topic was a lot of extra work, you know," Jim went on after a moment "Better for me, but rough on him. He's worked so much this year, between getting that thing finished and helping me and teaching classes. He really needed the time away. He needed rest, not this."
Megan had no words of comfort that didn't sound trite so she remained silent. As silence filled the truck's cab, she chanced a glance at her passenger. Seeing him still awake she brought up a topic very much on the minds of all the Major Crime officers.
"What's Sandy going to do?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"After his graduation. What's he going to do? Will he be staying in Cascade? Is he going to take the consultant's position Captain Banks has offered him?"
Jim was quiet so long that Megan thought perhaps he was ignoring her. While she debated whether or not to repeat her questions, he finally answered.
"I don't know. We haven't talked about it."
"You haven't talked about it?" Jim remained silent. "He knows you want him to keep working with him, doesn't he? You've at least told him that, haven't you?" When the silence continued, she let up on the accelerator and turned toward him. "You do want to keep working with him, don't you?"
"Yes," Jim snapped. "I also want to get to White Springs today." He pointed to the speedometer and their rapidly diminishing speed.
Megan stepped on the accelerator again but refused to let the subject drop.
"You haven't told him, have you? Why not?"
Jim looked out the window at the passing scenery. The city was giving way to the suburbs now and soon they'd be in the thick of the surrounding national forest. Jim looked forward to the forest. He and Sandburg had actually managed some non-stressful camping trips to the area, pleasant, laid back times of simply being with a friend.
"I want him to do what he wants to do," Ellison finally said. "He's been my shadow for four years. I know he passed up one career opportunity to stay. I don't know how many others he's missed out on. He spent half his life looking for someone like me to prove to his colleagues that he knew what he was talking about." Jim paused. "And now he'll still have to put up with their snide comments because I'm scared. He wanted to shock the anthropology world and now he won't because he's changed his topic for me. How can I ask him to keep following me around and putting himself in danger?"
"I think you should tell him, Jim," she said.
Jim continued his study of the scenery.
"The other day I was went to pick him up at the library at Rainier," Jim began again. "He was still researching something somewhere, and I was stuck in the middle of anthropology reference and periodicals. Someone had left one of those periodical index books open so I looked at it. Sandburg's name must have been listed in there four or five times. That was from five years ago. I looked up the year before that and same thing. He was published in periodicals and stuff at least four times a year until three years ago. In the last three years, I found one reference under his name."
"I still say you should tell him," Megan repeated. "It might make a difference in his decision."
"I'm not the only one who can make a difference in his decision," Jim whispered. He fell silent, and the subject was dropped.
Megan accepted the sentiment behind Ellison's confession. She knew Sandburg had suffered several times through his association with the police, with Ellison. She wanted to know what the anthropologist was planning to do, and had wondered at his apparent indecision. In the year and a half she'd known the two men, she'd come to realize they were very close friends. Sometimes she wondered if they knew how close they were.
Jim couldn't fight sleep any longer. Succumbing to the long day and night he had just completed, he fell into an exhausted sleep as they entered the quieter forest. Unfortunately, he had heard the news reports of the fire while sitting on hold most of the morning, and his dreams filled in the pictures outlined by speculating reporters still searching for facts.
Jim wrestled with dreams of flames and burning buildings, wanting to awaken, but unable to fight his body's demands for sleep. Forty hours without sleep forced him to endure the flickering visions of his subconscious. The visions that tormented his imagination were bad enough, but as the two drew closer to their destination, his enhanced senses, under flagging control, picked up the faint odor of burned flesh.
The odor invaded his dreams as well, and all his fears combined in his subconscious to show him a vivid, black picture with just recognizable features. He climbed to wakefulness just ahead of the bile that rose from his empty stomach.
Megan slowed to pull off at the sign pointing to the entrance of Crystal Visions, and Ellison suddenly came awake.
"Stop, Connor!" he whispered harshly, already fighting to open his door and practically falling out as the truck skidded to a stop at the turnoff. He nearly ripped the seat belt off in his haste to leave the vehicle and fell to his knees as the increased smells assaulted him.
Megan cut the engine and hurried to his side. She watched helplessly as Jim struggled to stop his empty stomach's revolt. Megan knew about the man's enhanced senses. She had stumbled upon the truth last year when she and Sandy had followed Jim and Simon to Mexico looking for the female Sentinel who had turned their world upside-down.
Sentinels had once been part of ancient tribes' protection, using their enhanced senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste to keep their tribes safe, to locate and track food sources and to keep an eye on weather systems. Evidently, genetics and periods of isolation both played a part in bringing sentinel senses to the fore and might also account for the lack of sentinels noted in modern society. Jim's female Sentinel counterpart, Alex Barnes, had enhanced senses, but where he used them as an officer of the law to protect the citizens of Cascade, she used them for a life of crime and murder--murder which included drowning Blair Sandburg, the anthropology student who had brought order to Jim's life four years ago and had only wanted to help another person with the same problem. His generous offer to help her had gotten him kicked out of a territorial Ellison's home and drowned in a university fountain by Barnes. Jim's persistence that spring morning at the side of his apparently dead friend had somehow brought the grad student and police observer back to life.
As Jim continued to fight for control, Megan knelt beside him. Tentatively, she reached out to touch his arm. He flinched but didn't move away.
"Jim?" she asked quietly. "What's wrong?"
"Don't you smell it?" he gasped.
"That!" he whispered harshly. "Burned flesh." He struggled to sit back, and she helped him lean back against the truck. He closed his eyes and focused on the internal dials Sandburg had helped him develop to control his senses. The smell of burned flesh assaulted him and twisted his thoughts through a whirlwind of memories: the crash that killed his crew in Peru and left him stranded in the jungle for 18 months; the arson investigation he and Sandburg had just wrapped up; even the memory of his "unofficial" partner on a police car's hood fighting back drug-induced visions of the "golden fire people," burned bodies still alive and moving.
"What would Sandy do?" Megan asked. "What would he tell you to do?"
Jim concentrated on hearing Megan's words in Sandburg's voice. When she fell silent, he dredged up his Guide's voice and managed to get a handle on the dial and the odor. Huddled on the side of the road in rural Washington state, Jim wondered if his control was slipping because of his own exhaustion or because Sandburg was missing....or worse.
Tensing, Jim took a deep breath to test his control and noticed nothing offensive in the air. In fact, he'd managed to dial down the sense quite a bit and barely took in the fragrance of the forest around them. He opened his eyes to see Megan's worried expression hovering in front of him. He started to rise and accepted her help to get to his feet.
"I'm okay, now," he said. "We need to get there."
"Jim," Megan began, hesitating before plunging ahead with her thought. "We're still two miles away. If you can pick up an odor here, what's it going to be like at the scene?"
"I'll be okay," Jim assured her, starting around the truck. "It's under control." He glanced back at her with a weak smile. Megan let him get around to the front of the truck before holding up the truck keys.
"Yes," she said. "And I'm still driving." She rounded the back of the truck and climbed in behind the wheel, waiting patiently for Ellison to reverse direction and take his passenger seat again. If not for witnessing the sudden nausea and the still pale face, Megan would almost have believed the stop a ruse.
Megan was quiet and Jim concentrated on not concentrating on the smells which would be growing worse as they neared the site. Their badges got them past the roadblock where reporters were set up. Jim was out of the truck before Megan had it fully stopped.
Conner stepped out of the vehicle and nearly gagged on the smell. Her eyes quickly found the Cascade detective among the crowd of weary firefighters and deputies. If this was what Jim had first detected from two miles away, she knew she couldn't let him out of her sight. She hurried to catch up with him, hiding her face behind her arm and breathing deeply of the leather jacket she wore.
Having watched him fight off nausea on the side of the road minutes before, Megan was surprised to see Jim virtually unaffected by the odor at the site. Charred remains of a large building smoldered at the center of the scene. Firefighters still doused the building. Thank God for rainy Washington, Megan thought as she looked at the damp woods around her, envisioning how such a fire would take off in drier areas.
Megan touched Jim's arm as he zeroed in on a person giving orders near a sheriff's vehicle. He stopped momentarily and favored her with an annoyed glance.
"What?" he snapped, turning to focus back on the officer.
"How can you stand this?" she asked.
"My sense of smell is really low right now," he whispered. "Besides, I've had two miles to get used to it." He tugged his arm from her light grasp and headed for his quarry again. Stopping at the man's shoulder, he waited for the short, gray-haired man to complete his conversation with two deputies.
"I'm Jim Ellison," he introduced himself. "This is Megan Conner. We're with the Cascade PD. Our friend was here."
"You've got a friend who'd come here?" the sheriff asked, looking up and taking in Ellison's square jaw and stiff posture.
"Yes," Jim snapped. "My partner was meeting his mother here. I tried to get some information by phone this morning but no one would tell me anything. Have you found any survivors?"
"Sorry," the older man apologized. He extended his hand. "Stan Cooper," he said. "It's been a hell of a night." He reached into the car and pulled out a clipboard. "We don't seem to have any survivors. So far we've got two bodies, apparently one tried to make it out of the house. The other one we just found in a restroom off the kitchen. We had two vehicles in the parking lot. One was too close to the house and is burned. It will take a while to identify it for sure, but it looks like what the owner, Pete Johnson, drove." He nodded to a metal shell toward the west of the rubble. "We had the other one towed to town. It had two flat tires. Who are you looking for?"
"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg and Naomi Sandburg."
Jim heard the sheriff's heart beat spike as he said the name and felt his own world grow dark.
"The Volvo we towed off was registered to a Blair Sandburg," Cooper confirmed.
Megan reached out a comforting hand to Ellison who jerked his arm angrily away. He turned his sight to the blackened ruins and took several short, quick breaths, his back to the other two. Megan left him his privacy and questioned the sheriff.
"What happened?" Megan asked.
"We're not sure. Cascade's supposed to send us an arson investigator. This is over our heads. We've got a small department, spread thin and a couple of those guys are on vacation. We pulled one back in, but haven't been able to reach the other one. He's due back tomorrow."
"Any idea on how many people were here? Were there just the two?"
"No idea. We only had the two cars, but lots of Pete's guests don't come in their own vehicles. He used to get a lot of hitchhikers, old hippies, you know."
"Did you know him?"
"A little. Lots of people worried when he showed up. He'd just got out of prison, but most folks warmed up to him. Heard he might have gotten himself a partner lately, looking for some money to put into the place, but never heard for sure."
"Do you know if he was one of the bodies?"
"Could be. Pete was average height, but a little on the rotund side. We're pretty sure the body we found on the porch was him. The other body we found was pretty tall."
"Neither one of those sound like Sandburg. He's thin, and 5-9, 5-10," Jim said, finding hope in the sheriff's descriptions of the bodies and finally feeling enough control to speak. He continued to look over the ruins, wondering if more bodies could be hidden in the ashes. There didn't seem to be a lot of room left, but the fire looked like it had gotten hot. Chances are, as far away from neighbors as it was, it hadn't even been discovered until it had almost burned itself out. He looked at where one body was covered and thought about what the sheriff had said. If one person had gotten that close to the exit, maybe Sandburg had gotten out. If he hadn't, Jim would make sure he found out what had happened here. He turned back to the sheriff. "We'd like to help."
The sheriff looked him over and nodded. "There might be something later. Right now, we're waiting for the fire department to make sure the hot spots are out."
"Sheriff!" a voice called from the smoldering ruins.
"Excuse me," Cooper said, pushing through the Cascade officers. "I'll be right back." Jim snorted as he heard the man mutter something about city cops overstepping their bounds.
"What?" Megan asked.
"He'll take help for the fire department, but he doesn't need any help," Jim sneered, pulling Megan off to the side of the action but still keeping an eye on the sheriff and firefighter. He continued to listen as the fireman reported no more bodies to be found.
Megan watched Jim as he stopped at the edge of the forest and wondered just when he'd topple over from exhaustion or shock. Jim clenched his jaw and grabbed at the nearest tree for support and Megan shook him roughly.
"Don't pass out on me, Ellison. Or do that zone thing."
Jim shook his head. "I'm not. They don't think there are any more bodies."
"Do you have any idea if Sandy was in there? Where he might be?" Megan asked, watching Ellison survey the area.
"How the hell would I know?" he snapped.
"You brought him back from the dead, Ellison," Megan reminded him. "What's finding him in this mess?"
Jim leaned back against an ancient oak and rubbed his temples. "I was just trying to decide the best way to look."
"Well, what would Sandy tell you to do?"
"I don't know. Smell might be overwhelming. Maybe sight, maybe hearing."
"Well, then, do it." Megan turned her back to him and watched the officials milling around the site. She wasn't sure what she should do, but she figured she could make sure no one noticed Jim do his little trick, whatever it was.
Jim rubbed his temples, fighting back the growing headache and the general sense of despair that threatened him. He started with hearing. Blair always said it was his strongest sense. He didn't expect to find anything, not with all the noise around, but just as he was about to shut his hearing down, he caught an out-of-place sound. He cocked his head and concentrated, losing the other sounds: the trucks, the people, the popping of the hot wood and metal as it cooled, the spray of water, the hiss of ashes being doused.
There. A sharp intake of breath, almost a sob. Not so out of place considering, but everyone here seemed to be in a strictly professional mode. He looked at Megan to make sure she wasn't producing the sound. The sound was replaced by soft keening, and Jim swung around to let his eyes follow the sound and locate the source.
There. A huddled figure burrowed into the leaves behind a fallen tree. Jim couldn't see the features but headed off swiftly in the direction, opening his sense of smell as he went. Just a whiff of the familiar scent of his roommate had Ellison at a run toward the fallen tree a hundred yards from where they'd stood, ordering the trailing Megan to get medical help.
Jim focused in on the figure and slowed his headlong rush as frightened blue eyes watched his rapid approach. He knew it was Sandburg, but the anthropologist was still and silent as he drew near. Jim could see very little about Blair's physical condition because the man was covered with leaves and dirt and well-hidden behind the fallen tree. What sight couldn't tell him, however, smell could. He knew Blair had at least one serious burn, somewhere, and that it was likely infected. He could see the minute tremors that coursed through the body, and the man's clothing was muddy, scorched and soaked.
"Hey, Blair," Jim whispered, crouching down just out of reach and waiting for some sign of recognition from his friend. When Sandburg remained silent, only staring at him, Jim inched closer. Sandburg watched but didn't react as Jim sat on the tree behind which he was hidden.
Jim wanted to snatch his friend from the filthy nest of leaves and dirt and get him help but didn't want to add to Sandburg's obvious discomfort. He continued to speak softly to his friend, fighting the desire to pull him close and soothe the pain and fear.
"Why don't you come over here?" Jim asked. "We'll get you some help. Make you feel better." No response. "Megan's here. She's on her way over. Come on, buddy." He reached out a hand but Blair flinched. Jim stopped his movements, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could hear Megan on her way. "Come on, Chief," Jim whispered. "Let me help."
Blair blinked at the nickname Jim used so often. He tried to focus on the person seated so close. He tried to soothe his red mouth but had very little moisture left and could do little more than open parched lips. Images of flames and burning people overlaid the scene before him and he had trouble concentrating on Jim. The name, though, Blair recognized. He concentrated on the one image before him and tried to filter out the memories. His eyes grew heavy as he admitted the sense of safety that had eluded him during these long fifteen hours.
The voice was barely audible, even to Jim, but when Blair pushed the sound past his reddened lips, Ellison was ready. When Sandburg began to slip backward into unconsciousness, Ellison was there to catch him. Gently, Jim scraped away as much of the leaves and dirt as he could and eased the younger man into his arms and off the cold, damp ground. A medic team was at his side before he'd had a chance to note more than Blair's ragged clothes. He held his friend as long at the emergency medical technicians let him.
Sheriff Cooper came to them moments later.
"That your friend?" Cooper asked.
Ellison nodded, focused on what the EMTS were saying and on listening himself to Blair's labored breathing. Oxygen started, the pair eased Sandburg out of Jim's hold and onto a stretcher and carried him toward the waiting ambulance. Jim kept close by, waiting for a sign of Blair's return to consciousness.
He hovered outside the ambulance, waiting to jump in the back when he was distracted by a familiar voice calling his name. He turned to find the source and saw Debra Reeves approaching. He nodded at her.
"Hey, Jim," the arson investigator from Cascade said. "I don't know what brings you out here, but it saves me a phone call. I don't think I'll make our date tonight."
"Neither will I," Jim said, turning his attention back to the ambulance for a moment. "Are you working this?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Not yet," she said. "I haven't had much of a chance to look around. What brings you here?"
"Sandburg," he answered.
"Your professor friend?"
"Yeah," Jim replied, holding the ambulance door open as the attendant tried to close it. He jumped in the back and nodded at Debra and Megan. "I'll catch you later, Debra. Megan, bring the truck? Sheriff, if you hear anything about Naomi, let me know immediately."
Both women and the sheriff nodded as he closed the door. They stepped away to their respective duties as the ambulance sped
away, sirens wailing.
"Banks," Simon snapped into his cell phone.
"We found him," Jim said without preamble. The flat tone worried Simon, but he waited for Jim to go on. "He's alive," Jim said. He leaned his head against the wall of the phone booth and closed his eyes. "They're still looking at him. They haven't come out yet. He's been here for an hour."
"Where's here?" Banks asked.
"White County Memorial. Pretty small. One story hospital. I may see if he can be moved."
"Have you been able to hear anything?" Simon asked when Jim let the silence build.
Jim rocked his head against the wall by the booth. "I zoned the one time I tried. Conner about decked me."
"You're exhausted, Jim," Simon reminded him. "You need rest. Is there a hotel nearby?"
"I don't know, Captain." Jim's weariness put him on edge quickly. "I haven't looked." He paused and Simon was about to speak when he continued. "He didn't know me, Simon." Jim sighed heavily at the memory of his friend huddled on the filthy forest floor. "He didn't speak. He was looking right through me."
"He was in shock."
"I don't know what he saw, but on top of this arson case...." Jim trailed off, his own memories supplying the visions of their suspect running from the building, flames eating his clothing and flesh. The discovery of four teens in the not-so-abandoned warehouse that had been the arsonist's last target had hit Sandburg and Ellison hard on that long, seemingly endless night.
"Do you want me to come there?" Simon asked.
"No. It's okay. Conner's here."
"Why does the thought of you and her without a referee give me no comfort?" Jim huffed out a small laugh, recalling the undercover assignment in which he and Conner had posed as a married couple, and Simon had sent Blair along as a referee.
"He'll be all right?" Simon had meant it to sound reassuring and winced as he heard the question. Jim didn't answer. "Jim, if you need anything, call. In the meantime...." Simon trailed off. "Is Conner around?"
Jim raised his head and looked up to see the Australian inspector coming into the small hospital's waiting room. "Yeah," he said.
"Let me talk to her."
Jim called Megan to the phone. He handed the phone to her and debated listening in. However, he spotted the doctor coming out of the examining area just then and hurried to meet him.
"Conner, here," Megan greeted, turning around to keep an eye on her exhausted companion. She saw him hurry to meet a man in a white coat and cut into whatever Simon had begun to say. "Captain, the doctor's just come out. I'll call you back."
"Wait," Banks ordered. "Watch out for Jim. He needs some rest. See if you can find a motel nearby and don't let him sleep in the hospital."
"Right, Captain Banks," Conner agreed. "Watch out. Get rest. No sleeping here. I need to go." She hung up and quickly took her place next to Jim.
"I'm Jim Ellison," Jim introduced himself. "You're taking care of Blair Sandburg?"
The doctor nodded, introduced himself as Dr. Weil and motioned Jim to a seat in the nearly deserted room. Megan joined them just as they were seated, and Jim took a moment to introduce her.
"You've had a long night?" the doctor asked, noting Jim's pale, haggard appearance, and Megan's worried expression.
"Long couple of days," Megan supplied. "Jim hadn't had much sleep before we heard about the fire. How's Sandy?"
"Actually, I'm surprised. The burns on his legs will be painful, but they're not nearly as bad as they could be. Only a very small section of his left leg is third-degree. However, both shins will be very painful for a while. He also has a concussion that could leave him disoriented for a while. I see no signs of internal bleeding, however. We'll have to keep a watch out for pneumonia, but if we can nip that, he should make a full recovery. We're getting a room ready for him right now."
"Would it be possible to get him moved to Cascade?" Jim asked.
The doctor hesitated and another voice entered the conversation.
"We'd rather he stayed nearby for a while, Detective Ellison," a tall, thin deputy put in.
Jim looked over to see the man and Debra Reeves walking into the room. Debra concurred.
"He's the only survivor of a fire that's killed two people, Jim," she pointed out. "It would be helpful to the investigation to keep him here if possible."
The doctor turned his attention to Jim. "He'll have the best of care here," the man assured Jim. "I really don't think it would be in his best interest to move him just now."
Ellison studied the people before him and eventually nodded, unsure of everyone's motives, but finding no reason to object just now.
"Can I see him?"
"Yes, Dr. Weil," the deputy added. "We'd like to see him. See what he can tell us."
Ellison turned on the two, but the doctor spoke first. "We're getting a room ready for him right now." He looked at his watch. "It's already noon. He'll probably be in and out most of the afternoon." He looked at the deputy. "I'd rather you didn't bother him today, Steve. He's had a rough night and morning. I don't think he'll be able to tell you anything."
"Just a few minutes, Doc," the deputy persisted.
"You heard the doctor," Jim cut in. "He needs rest." He stared at the uniformed man until Debra pulled the reluctant officer away.
"Let's get back out to the site," Reeves suggested. "We have some more to do out there."
As soon as the two were out the door, the doctor turned to Jim and eyed him critically. "My patient isn't the only one who could use some rest," he said. "There's a little motel just up the highway. It's small, but it's clean. They might even have a room or two left." Jim began to protest, but the doctor went on. "Your friend will be fine. He just needs some rest."
"He's right. Captain Banks gave me explicit orders, Ellison," Conner said.
Jim swiveled his head from one to another and almost fell over from dizziness. The sensation convinced him not to argue their point, and he conceded with a nod and one last request.
"Can we see Sandburg for a minute before we go?"
The doctor nodded and led them back toward the treatment room. "We'll have to move him to a room in a few minutes, but you can see him until we're ready to move him."
Megan nearly ran into Jim when the man stopped abruptly at the door of the room, taken aback by his friend's appearance. Pale and trembling, Blair lay amid a small examining room with only a single nurse in attendance. Megan glanced up at her shocked companion and then eased around him to take a place beside Sandburg. Gently, she reached out to touch him.
"Hey, Sandy," she whispered. "Am I glad to see you. You had us worried, mate." She paused and glanced back at Jim, still almost frozen in the doorway. "We'll be back later. I've got to get this big lug somewhere before he falls over from exhaustion." She bent to kiss his forehead. "Be back soon, I promise."
She stepped away to stand beside Jim. She nudged the man toward his friend and then left the room.
Jim took a deep breath, gave a silent prayer of thanks for his friend's survival and then forced himself to Blair's side. He gripped the rails for support as he took in his friend's pale complexion, the trembling from the battle with low body temperature. He pulled the thin blanket higher around Blair's shoulders, still struggling to find his voice.
"Hey, Chief," Jim whispered around a sudden constriction in his throat. "They're going to get you all fixed up, okay." Exhaustion and emotion combined to take his voice, and he stood silently beside the gurney. He closed his eyes for a moment to regain his composure and opened them to find Sandburg looking up at him.
"Blair?" Jim leaned over directly into Sandburg's field of vision. Sandburg stared blankly at the ceiling. "Chief?"
Sandburg blinked at the name, and Jim saw him struggling to focus on the man standing over him. Jim noted the slight difference in pupil reaction to the light and was relieved when Blair blinked again and then obviously registered the familiar face. Blair opened his mouth to speak but Jim held a finger over the oxygen mask.
"Take it easy," he said when Sandburg recognized his position and surroundings. "You're going to be okay. They're getting you a room."
Sandburg swallowed and Jim could easily read the confusion on his face. "Don't worry about anything right now." Jim turned to the hall and called to Megan to get the doctor. "You've had a little mishap. They're going to have you fixed up soon." Jim stopped speaking as the doctor came into the room. He choked out a quick good-bye and a promise to see Sandburg soon. With a gentle tap to Sandburg's chin, Jim stepped away and left the room, avoiding meeting Megan's eyes when he got to the corridor. They waited for a few moments until the doctor came back out.
"Doc?" Jim asked.
The doctor smiled broadly at the two. "I'm glad he woke up. He's resting again now. Like I said, he'll be in and out all afternoon. Go get some rest."
In the truck, Megan, still driving, said only one thing.
"Once we get a place, I'll come back for a bit while you get some rest." Jim nodded, still avoiding her eyes, and
stared out at the small city.
Keeping to her plans, Megan checked them into a nearby motel, getting one room, figuring they wouldn't be there much anyway and even less together. Leaving Jim to get some much-needed rest on one of the two double beds, she returned to the hospital. Jim slumped on the bed, weary beyond belief with the aftermath of his concern. He placed one call to the sheriff to check on Naomi, but there was no news about his friend's elusive mother. He kicked off his shoes and lay back on the bed, pulling the bedspread over him. Within seconds, he was fast asleep.
Megan stopped by the hospital, found Sandburg's room, saw he was still out and decided to find a bite to eat. Late afternoon paperwork kept the nurses huddled in their work station and no one noticed the man who slipped in a side door of the small hospital and into Sandburg's room.
Blue eyes filled with hatred glared at the patient.
"You really know how to screw your old man over, don't you, kid?" Matthew Tatting said. "You're about my size. Least you could have done is die in that fire and give me some time to get out of town, you know? Now, I got no way to get out. No money. No way of getting any money. Everything's burned to the ground. Again. Thanks to you." Tatting reached out for a pillow then stopped when he heard voices in the hall. "Guess we'll see you later, kid." He smiled. "Maybe your mama will stop by." Tatting snarled at the young patient then eased out the door and walked away.
Blair's first conscious thought centered on pain--in his legs, in his head, all over his body. He felt thoroughly whipped, worse than after Ventriss' hired goons had found him on his way home. Voices played through his memory, voices that teased him with their familiarity. One voice floated around his heart, warming his soul. He remembered another one that made him feel safe and allowed him to let go. But one especially teased his memory. He tried to tie it down, hoping the distraction of chasing the memory would ease the pain.
He gasped in surprise and lashed out, striking something cold and metallic and igniting a new fire of pain in his legs even as his lungs rebelled. He began to cough and struggle for breath through a throat that erupted in pain.
Fire! Mama! Roger!
Blair tried to force his eyes to open, but the coughing spasm drained his strength and he slammed into unconsciousness.
Megan, having stepped into the room just as Blair tried to rise, hurried to the patient's side. She started to talk to him but
realized he was asleep again before she'd spoken two sentences. She sat in the recliner and started reading a book she'd bought
in the convenience store where she'd grabbed a sandwich.
Jim awoke to a dark room and stared at his surroundings for several long seconds before he remembered what had brought him here. From the silence of the room, he realized Megan was absent, probably at the hospital with Sandburg.
Jim rolled onto his back and stared for a moment at the ceiling of the room, simply wishing things were different. He realized he must have slept for nearly five hours and it was well into the evening by now. He turned his mind again to wondering where Naomi would be. He rose to sit on the bed and reached for the phone. Reaching into his wallet he retrieved the instructions for listening to the messages left on the loft phone. Finding the small card Sandburg had insisted he carry, Jim dialed his home number and followed the instructions. He yawned as he listened to several hang ups before Naomi's voice floated to him over the line.
"Blair, sweetie," Naomi said breathlessly. "I'm sorry. I won't be able to make it to Crystal Visions. Something's come up and I really need to spend some time processing it. I'll let you know more later. I promise, I'll be there for your graduation Saturday. I won't miss this one. I'll see you and Jim Friday night."
Jim listened to the remaining messages, hoping for another message that would at least tell him where Naomi was but found no more information. He called Sheriff Cooper's office next and let the officials there know Naomi had never made it to Crystal Visions.
After a quick shower, Ellison was back at the hospital. Megan was sitting in a chair in Blair's room, reading a book. She looked up when Jim entered the room and, taking one look at his still ragged features, rose for him to take the more comfortable recliner.
"How's he doing?" Ellison asked.
"Okay," Megan said. "He's been restless. He woke briefly a couple of times. The nurses got him to tell them his name but he's still unsure about the date or what happened."
"Has the doctor been back by?"
"What are visiting hours, anyway?" Jim asked, looking for a notation.
"From what I've seen this afternoon and evening, there really aren't any," Megan said. "There's a couple of people here with one patient practically camped out. The woman said she hasn't spent a night at home in four days." She pointed to a stack of blankets on a chair in the corner. "The nurse dropped those by just a few minutes ago."
"Good," Jim said. "Why don't you head back to the room? I'll stay here."
"Don't stay all night, Jim," Megan said. "Captain Banks has already warned me about you getting some sleep." She stood and stretched before putting on her jacket. "He's going to try to come out here tomorrow. Captain Banks said he called the university and explained that Sandy won't be going to his graduation." Megan glanced at Jim and then leaned over and gave Blair a gentle kiss to his cheek. "I'll be back, Sandy," she whispered. She hesitated there, wanting to say more but finally pulled back without another word.
Jim nodded and took her seat as she left the room. He took a moment to look over his friend before turning his attention to the view outside the room. His enhanced vision easily compensated for the lighting of the street lamps, and he unconsciously honed in on a figure walking along the sidewalk. As he started to study the person more closely, his sense of smell kicked in, and he caught the faintest aroma of smoke and ash in the room. He looked quickly at Sandburg, but he had been cleaned up since his night of terror and smelled only of hospital soap and medicine. Jim rose to prowl the room, searching for the source of the odor. It didn't grow stronger so he was sure it wasn't a fire in progress. In fact, he realized, it smelled just like the site of the burned house.
As he considered that new aspect, he heard Sandburg begin to mumble. He took a position beside the bed and waited for Blair to open his eyes.
"Blair?" he called softly, leaning close to the bed, hoping to learn something about last night's tragedy as the patient continued to mumble.
"Get out," Sandburg said, the sound all but lost behind the oxygen mask. Jim pulled back, surprised at the words, before he realized Blair wasn't awake and hadn't been talking to him. "'Havta go. Mama. Let's go. Mama..." The voice wasted away behind the mask and from vocal chords weak from the smoke inhaled earlier.
Jim's forehead creased with his frown as he deciphered the whispers coming from the smoke-ravaged throat.
Blair began to thrash, his hand flinging out to rap against the bed rail. Jim reached out to calm him, grasping his arms gently to protect the IV port.
Jim's own breath escaped in a rush as he felt the ripple of power flow from Sandburg. Before he could speak to calm his friend he was transported, not to the usual blue-tinged jungle of his visions and dreams, but to a fire-lit clearing he'd never seen before. He looked around and saw a burning house and several people. For a moment, he wondered if he were at Crystal Visions, but then realized there were too many people and the setting beyond the fire-lit area was wrong. He watched as the people scattered until only a small wolf pup whimpered at the edge of a ring of trees. The pup whined in fear and pain, its paws blistered and red. It tried to walk into the woods, following someone Jim could see just leaving the area, but collapsed into a heap, yelping in pain.
"Detective?" Hands shook him. "Sir? Are you all right?"
Jim felt himself pulled away from Sandburg's side and took a deep breath as he regained his bearings. He looked dazedly at the nurse by his side until her questions registered and then he nodded, stepping back slightly from her touch. He turned his attention to the bed.
"Hey," he whispered, hoarsely, as a nurse tried to bind Sandburg's wrists. "Don't do that."
"We have to keep him in bed, sir," the nurse explained.
"Let me talk to him. He's just having a nightmare."
"It'll be all right," Dr. Weil said from the door, motioning the nurse to stop. "I'd like to examine him right now."
The nurse pushed Jim from the room and he leaned against the wall, opening his hearing without the slightest twinge of guilt.
Dr. Weil nodded for the nurses to hold Sandburg's hands themselves for a moment and stepped to the bedside.
"Mr. Sandburg? Blair?" he called softly. Blair opened his eyes and stared silently at the doctor before him. Weil smiled and continued his questions. "How are you feeling?"
Blair simply watched as the nurses tentatively released his arms. He looked around the room and tried to piece the information floating in his mind together. Sidetracked by the doctor's question, he turned his scrutiny to himself, looking down the bed and his sheet-draped body. He realized his head hurt, his legs hurt, his throat hurt and his chest hurt.
"Hurts," he rasped, moving uneasily with the pain.
"We'll see about getting you something for that," Weil said. "I'm Dr. Weil and I want to ask you a few questions, okay?"
Blair nodded, turning his mind back to the puzzle of his situation.
"Do you know your name?"
"Do you know where you are?"
"Do you know why?"
Blair creased his forehead, trying to place the last few hours or days or a recent memory. The doctor let him think for a moment then prompted him.
"Do you remember the fire?"
Fire! Blair recoiled slightly and looked around frantically. Fire. He remembered the fire. He raised his hands and examined his arms, but saw nothing. The hairiness surprised him and he quickly dropped them to his side, again looking around the room. "Mom?" he whispered. "Where's my mom? Where's Roger?"
Weil watched his patient grow increasingly agitated and disoriented. He could almost see the panic building. He reached out a calming hand.
"It's okay," he said calmly. "It's okay. You're going to be okay."
In the corridor, Jim listened as Blair grew more and more panicked. Afraid for his friend's health, he stepped into the room and worked his way into his friend's line of sight.
"Hey, Chief," Jim said.
Blair's eyes landed on Jim and paused, staring for a moment without recognition. Before Jim could become too concerned, Blair calmed, smiled and then pulled the oxygen mask from his face to ask urgently.
Jim smiled at his friend to reassure him. "She's fine. She left a message at the loft. She never even made it here."
Blair blinked, confused. But she was there. He remembered. He remembered waking her, remembered pulling at her as smoke filled the room, remembered pulling her toward the door of the house.
"No," he whispered, his voice raspy from the smoke. "She was there. I saw her."
Jim shook his head. "No, Blair. We didn't find her."
Blair creased his head in thought, pain riddling his body and making thinking difficult. "I saw her," he persisted. "I got her out. I pulled her out. She was sick or something..." His voice trailed off as his eyes closed.
Jim was at his side as he continued his weak protests. Jim took his hand gently, breathing a silent thanks when the world stayed where it should, and leaned close as he fell silent.
"Blair?" Jim whispered. "Chief? Come on, wake up for a minute." He watched as Blair opened tired eyes and stared at him.
"Jim?" Blair whispered. Jim nodded. Blair looked around again. "What happened?"
"That's what we're hoping you can tell us."
Blair thought for a moment, looking again at the faces gathered around him. He recognized the particular sting of burned flesh from his own legs and moaned. "Legs hurt," he whispered. He closed his eyes against the sudden onslaught of pain and opened them in a hurry. "Fire!" He tried to rise, but Jim gently held him in place. "It burned. It blew up."
"Do you know what happened?"
Blair shook his head, dropping back as exhaustion tugged at his eyelids again. "I don't know. I heard something in the kitchen. Then blam. I don't remember anything else."
"Did you see Naomi?"
"No. Pete said she called and canceled." He winced again and moved restlessly. "Oh, man, Jim," he rasped. "It hurts. Did I get burned again? Man, my legs hurt. My chest hurts."
"Yeah, you got a little singed. You're going to be okay, though. Just take it easy."
Weil motioned to a nurse and ordered a pain killer. "We'll get you something for the pain, Mr. Sandburg. You just concentrate on getting some rest, okay?"
Blair nodded, waiting uneasily for the drugs he felt entering his body to take effect. He gripped Jim's hand tightly, riding out a particularly intense wave of pain. He heard people start to leave as he tossed restlessly, praying for relief. He could hear Jim talking to him, but the words made little sense. He finally noticed a lessening in the sensations from his legs and felt himself starting to drift.
Jim waited patiently and impotently as Blair held his hand in an iron grip, riding through the pain until the medication could take effect. He talked to Blair about the arrest that had kept him up the night before, realizing even as he spoke that his friend wasn't really listening. He felt his own sense of relief when Blair's grip lessened, and the patient dropped off to sleep.
Flexing his hand to return feeling, Jim watched his friend sleep. He recalled Blair's words and confusion and went out to seek the doctor. He found Dr. Weil in the nurses' station, reviewing Sandburg's chart. Weil led him to a small chapel where they could speak privately.
"How's he doing?" Jim asked as the doctor took one of the two seats in the small, dimly lit room.
Weil hesitated. "He seemed very confused when he woke. I had hoped some of that would be gone by now. I still don't think there's anything physical to worry about as far as a head injury, but we might look at transferring him to a larger facility if he doesn't improve tomorrow."
"What do you mean, you don't think it's physical?"
"I see nothing to indicate any pressure building on the brain. His pupil reaction is equal and normal now. His blood pressure does seem a little elevated. Does he have a problem with high blood pressure?"
"It's something that can be easily missed. We'll keep an eye on it."
"He's been hospitalized three times in the past three years, Dr. Weil. No one has ever mentioned high blood pressure." Jim paused, considering his friend's ramblings and how to bring them up since he wasn't in the room at the time. Weil spoke again before he could continue.
"Detective," Weil began. "The nurses said you seemed to be unresponsive when they came into the room. How are you feeling?"
"Do you have an explanation for what happened?"
Jim smiled, knowing how his explanation would sound. "I'm just tired and worried about my friend. You said he seemed confused. How? He remembered the fire when I talked to him."
"I asked him about the fire and he became extremely worried. He asked about his mother and someone named Roger. Has he had a bad experience with fire before?"
Jim's rueful sigh and nod was an answer in itself, but he went on to explain.
"He helps me with my investigations," Jim told the doctor. "We just finished an arson investigation a few days ago. The suspect burned to death outside the last building he torched. Sandburg and I watched him run from the building covered in flames." He paused. "We found out later there were also four teens in the building, and they also died in the fire. We've had run-ins with an arsonist before, as well, and when Sandburg was given an illegal drug during the course of an investigation, he had hallucinations about golden fire people. He said they were burned and nothing but ashes but they still came after him."
"I noticed the drug incident in his history," Dr. Weil said. "He was expecting his mother to be there. He may just be confused."
"Could it be an old memory?" Jim asked. "Something from his past?"
"I really don't think I can say. At this point, especially. He is in pain. He has a concussion. He saw something very traumatic. He's probably just confused. Like I said, if he doesn't show some significant improvement by tomorrow, we'll see about transferring him." Weil stood to leave. He paused at the door. "He's sedated. I believe he'll sleep most of the night. You should go get some real rest. We try to make the room comfortable, but sleeping in a recliner is no replacement for a bed."
Jim nodded but found himself extending his hearing, searching for anything unusual. He heard the doctor walk out and bid good-night to the nurses he passed. He returned to Blair's room and listened as a new shift came on. Megan stopped by around 11 and finally convinced him to go back to the hotel by promising to stay with Sandburg that night.
Ellison reluctantly left the small hospital but again was asleep almost before he pulled the covers over himself. He drifted almost immediately into the vision he'd had in Sandburg's room. The house engulfed in flames. The people milled around but ignored the whimpering wolf pup. Jim tried to help but was unable to comfort the pup which kept trying to follow someone into the woods. Jim turned to call to the others, to find out who had abandoned the pup, but as he moved away, the sad eyes of the pup looked up at him and the soft whimpers increased in volume.
The phone's ring jolted Ellison from the dream, and he jumped at the second ring before picking it up.
"Ellison." His voice was hoarse with sleep.
"Jim, it's Megan. I think you should come down here."
"What's wrong?" Jim glanced at the digital alarm clock on the bedside stand and noted the red 2:00.
"He's confused, Jim," Conner said. "He woke up about thirty minutes ago. He thinks his mother was at the house and died in the fire." She paused and Jim heard her nervous swallow. "He doesn't really know where he is, Jim. It's scary."
"I'll be right there." Ellison hung up the phone, ran the toothbrush over his teeth quickly, dressed and was out the door within five minutes. Ten minutes after Megan's call, he was walking quickly down the small hospital's corridors and barging into Sandburg's room.
Jim stopped short at the sight which greeted him. Blair was strapped in the bed, pulling frantically at the restraints on his wrists and screaming as loudly as his recovering lungs and throat would allow him. The rattling of the bed rails with his struggles only increased his panic and Jim could hear the man's heart thundering. He reached the bed in two short strides and laid a gentle hand on Blair's shoulders.
"Hey, Blair," he said calmly. "What's the matter, here? You need to calm down."
"I want my Mama," Blair whispered, eyes closed tightly.
Jim was taken aback by the child-like quality of his friend's plaintive request. Tired, scared blue eyes opened to meet his and a bottom lip quivered.
"Where's Mama?" Blair whispered, tears welling in his eyes and choking his already strained voice. "She died in the fire, didn't she?"
"No, Chief," Jim assured him. "She wasn't there. She's fine."
"I want Mama," Blair repeated.
"Okay," Jim promised. "You just sleep right now. I'll find her and she'll be here soon. Just get some sleep for me, okay?"
Blair took shaky breaths and nodded, pulling again at the restraints. "Let me go," he pleaded. "He can't be me."
Jim smiled calmly and started to release the wrist restraints. "I'll get these off, Chief," he said, "but you have to calm down and rest, okay."
Blair nodded, watching from behind drooping eyelids as Jim released first one hand then the other. Blair rubbed his wrists and continued to calm. "Watch the step, Jim," he whispered before dropping off to sleep.
"What the hell happened?" Jim demanded in an angry whisper.
"We're not sure," the head nurse answered. "Lots of times, people get confused when they wake up in the night at the hospital. We'll let the doctor know what happened." She and the other nurses drifted out of the room.
Megan repeated what she'd told him on the phone. "How are you going to find Naomi?" she asked.
Jim sat in the straight-backed chair near the door and rubbed his face with his hands. "I don't know." He yawned and handed his truck keys to Megan. "Here, take the keys and head back over to the hotel. I'll stay the rest of the night here."
Megan considered arguing the point but instead gave in without a fight. She took the keys and walked out the door. "I'll see what I can find out about Naomi."
"Call Simon and have him go to the loft and check the caller ID box. Maybe he can get Naomi's number from there."
"He's already tried that. I talked to him just after you left. He tried the hotel, but you weren't there yet so he called here."
Jim nodded. "Her message said she'd be here Friday. She promised she wouldn't miss this one."
"This one?" Megan repeated. "What does that mean?"
"Sandburg said she'd missed his other graduations. High school, and his bachelors. He said he didn't go through ceremonies for his masters. If it weren't for Naomi, I don't think he'd have planned to go through ceremonies this time."
"How do you miss your child's graduation?"
"Forgot the date."
Megan rolled her eyes in disgust. "Call me if you need me. I'll see what I can do about tracking Naomi."
"Thanks," Jim said as he settled in for the night. He stared at the quiet figure on the bed, frightened to his core by Sandburg's reactions in these early morning hours. He thought of the child-like pleas coming from the young man and recalled his vision/dream of the young wolf pup.
Man, he hated this mystical shit.
Rising, Jim stood uncertainly by Blair's bed. Putting down one rail, he sat beside the patient, cradling the younger man's face in his hands, much as he had that day beside the university fountain when the world had never seemed bleaker. Jim was relieved when no visions assaulted him. His hands lingered for a moment, then he released his friend and returned to the recliner.
Blair slept through the remainder of the morning, waking only when prodded by a nurse at 5:30. Jim awoke with the woman's entrance into the room and stood closely by as Blair opened his eyes. Jim watched the deep blue eyes sweep across the dimly lit space and light on him. A weak smile showed behind the oxygen mask as Blair raised one hand to remove the device.
"Mr. Sandburg?" the nurse called quietly. Blair turned to look at her. She returned his smile and nodded when he correctly told her his name, the year and the president. He turned back to Jim when the detective released an audible sigh.
"Hey, Jim," he greeted softly. "What time is it?"
"Why aren't you in a hotel sleeping, man?" Blair asked.
"What? And miss breakfast here?"
Blair nodded blearily. "Yeah, right." His eyelids dropped to half-mast, and he almost suppressed a grimace. "My legs hurt."
"We're getting you something now," the nurse assured him, injecting a pain killer into his IV as she spoke. "You'll be getting a lot of rest for the next few days." She turned to leave. "Call me if you need anything," she said to both.
"Chief?" Jim's whisper brought Blair's eyes back to his face. "Do you remember what happened?"
Blair waited a moment, staring blankly into Jim's face long enough to put a scare into the detective.
"I heard something in the kitchen. I heard someone drive up. It sounded like someone was fighting. I went downstairs...." He paused and Jim waited patiently. "It blew up. I never made it into the kitchen." Blair's heart began to race and he started to rise but Jim gently held him down. "Peter? What happened to Pete?"
"They don't think he made it," Jim admitted softly. "Blair? How many people were there?" He waited anxiously for his friend's answer.
"Pete. He's a friend of my mom's. And his partner, Matthew Tatting. And whoever drove up." Blair thought back over the afternoon and evening at the house. "I wanted to leave, but the tires were flat. Only one spare."
"What do you know about Tatting?" Jim asked, watching as Blair shuddered at the question and the man's name.
"He gave me the creeps," Blair admitted quietly, voice growing raspy. The medication began to take effect and Blair began to mumble. "I don't like him. He scares me, Mama."
The last words cooled Jim's restored faith in Blair's condition, and he gently shook Blair's arm, trying to wake the patient again, wanting a more lucid comment to end this conversation. Blair remained asleep and Jim carefully replaced the oxygen mask. He sat back to await Blair's next emergence into the conscious world.
Three hours later, Dr. Weil came into the room, looking over Blair's ever-expanding chart. Weil greeted Jim briefly and then went back to reviewing the night's notes.
"I see we had a rough spell last night," Weil mentioned, "but he seemed better this morning?"
"Yeah," Jim said. "He was a little confused just before he fell asleep, though. What's wrong?"
Weil smiled. "I really don't think anything's wrong. He's been medicated when he's had these episodes. I think he'll be fine." He stepped to Blair's bedside and awakened the patient. "Mr. Sandburg?" After a couple of more calls, the young man began to stir.
He looked around, confusion showing in his face until he again saw Jim. He smiled slightly, and took a deep breath which set off a coughing spell. Jim helped him sit up while the doctor poured water into a small cup and offered it to him when the coughing eased.
Blair accepted the drink gratefully, sipping cautiously and wincing as the liquid passed over his raw throat. Jim raised the head of the bed while Blair drank, and the anthropologist thanked him with a smile as he lay back.
"How are you feeling this morning, Mr. Sandburg?" Weil asked.
"Sore. My legs feel funny."
"That's the burn salve. We'll put more on later. You need to watch the burns carefully for several weeks."
"That sounds like I can go home soon."
"Well, not for a day or two, yet."
Blair grimaced. "What day is it?"
"I could still make it to commencement exercises on Saturday. Naomi's coming in for this," Blair said, then found himself panting for breath.
"You inhaled a lot of smoke, young man," Weil said. "You won't be doing much of anything except laying in bed for at least a week. And your legs aren't going to feel like supporting you for very long."
Jim found Blair's pointed silence amusing and he grinned, relieved again that his friend was in the here and now. He yawned widely as Blair settled back against his pillows. Weil took the oxygen mask away.
"We'll put you on a nasal cannula for the rest of your stay here," he announced, making a notation in his chart. "Do you want to tell us what you remember?"
Blair's brow creased and Jim waited for the young man to work his way through his memories. Blair looked at Jim.
"Pete died in the fire?" Jim nodded. "What about his partner?"
"We don't know. There were two bodies. You said last night that someone else drove up?"
"Yeah," Blair replied. "I saw him from the window of my room. I couldn't see his face, though. Just that he came on a four-wheeler. I think he came through the woods."
"Do you remember anything else?" Debra Reeves asked from the door of the room. She and Deputy Steve Bridges walked in, nodding at the other occupants of the room.
Jim scowled at her, but Blair greeted her with a small smile.
"Not really. I heard something downstairs, in the kitchen I think. Then I heard someone drive up. I went to the window, then I heard more shouting from downstairs. I went to see what was going on....." Blair paused to regain his breath, and Jim offered him another drink of water which he accepted. "Then blam."
"How well did you know Johnson?" Bridges asked.
"He was a friend of my mom's," Blair whispered, his voice growing hoarse. "I haven't seen him in a while."
"Did you know he spent time in prison?" Blair shook his head. "Did you know your mother lent him money to buy that place?" Again Blair shook his head. "Did you consider it a good investment? Did you know his partner?" Another shake. "Are you sure?" Jim stepped into the conversation before Bridges could continue.
"What's going on here?" Jim asked, stepping between Blair and the deputy.
"Just trying to figure out what happened, Detective," Bridges replied.
"Well figure it out later. Sandburg can barely speak now. He needs rest."
"He's the only witness, Jim," Debra reminded him.
"That's right. He's a witness." Jim turned his gaze to the deputy. "You sound like you're interrogating a suspect." The deputy remained silent. Blair shifted uneasily on the bed, and Dr. Weil turned to him, checking the time.
"You're due for another pain killer, Mr. Sandburg." He turned to face the other occupants. "If you'll leave now. Mr. Sandburg does need his rest."
Reeves glanced at the pale features of the man in the bed and nodded, turning to leave the room. Bridges hesitated, and Jim took one step toward him. The two men locked eyes. Bridges turned away first, spinning smartly on his heel and leaving the room.
"What's going on, Jim?" Blair asked, dazed as the pain began to inch back into his awareness.
"I don't know. I'll find out." He patted Blair's arm. "I'll be back later, okay." Blair nodded.
Jim found Debra and Bridges in the small waiting room of the hospital. Bridges' stony face reinforced his belief that Debra had "explained" certain things to him.
"I want to know what the hell you think you were doing?" Jim demanded as he approached the two officers.
"I was trying to get information," Bridges replied.
"You were feeding him questions."
"Jim," Debra said, stepping between the two men. "What can you tell us about Sandburg's connection to Crystal Visions?"
"What connection? He and his mom know the owner, Johnson. There is no connection beyond that."
Debra waved Jim to a seat which he took reluctantly. She sat beside him, motioning Bridges to the chair behind her.
"Jim," she said again, her calming tone grating on nerves frazzled with worry and lack of sleep. "We've spent all night going over this. Preliminary tests indicate the fire was caused by chemicals commonly used in manufacturing illegal drugs."
"Johnson was in prison for possession with intent to distribute until six years ago. When he got out of prison, Naomi Sandburg loaned him $15,543 toward the purchase of this property."
"What kind of figure is $15,543 for a loan?" Jim asked.
"I don't know. That's just what the records show. He's never paid that money back, according to what records we can find. People around here say the place was falling down around his ears. It was losing money in a big way, and he was about to lose everything."
"Just what are you getting at?"
"Your friend has been in school for several years. Couldn't he have used a loan from his mother?" Bridges asked.
"You're trying to blame Blair for the fire because his mom loaned the guy some money?"
"That's not all." Bridges was interrupted by Reeves.
"Johnson's partner was Matthew Tatting. He's been arrested for dealing several times. He was burned in a fire that killed his brother."
"So maybe he started the fire."
"His brother was Sandburg's father."
Jim stared at her for a long moment. "What are you talking about? Sandburg doesn't even know who his father is."
"Roger Tatting died in a house fire in 1974 in San Francisco. His obituary lists Blair Sandburg as his son."
"He was probably the guy Naomi was living with at the time."
"Several other official documents list Tatting as Blair's father, Jim."
"None of this information gives him the right to treat Sandburg as a suspect. None of this in any way points to Sandburg being involved in this. And why didn't you ask him about this other person. It sounds like he may be your other victim, which means Tatting is the one running around alive and with motive to burn the place down."
"You said the place was falling down. If he had money in it, maybe he wanted the insurance."
"The insurance policy had lapsed."
"Maybe he was mad at Johnson."
"And what this bozo believes about Sandburg isn't?" Jim stood and eyed Debra coldly. "You find this other clown. You find the person who left on that four-wheeler, and you'll find the person responsible for this mess. And unless you get something a little more concrete to go on, you leave Sandburg out of it."
"We've seen nothing to indicate another vehicle at the scene," Bridges insisted.
"Have you looked?"
Megan walked into the hospital and immediately spotted the warring individuals. She quickly jumped in.
"Looked for what?" she asked, smiling innocently. The smile faltered slightly when Jim turned an icy gaze on her.
"Good," Jim said. "Conner, stay here with Sandburg. I'm going out to the site with these officers to check it out."
"How is Sandy?"
"He's resting. They've given him something for the pain."
"Was he all right this morning?"
Jim nodded. "He seemed to be okay. Just tired."
Megan considered the players gathered around her. "I think I'll just tag along with you, then, Jim," she said. Jim frowned, then shrugged and turned for the door. Conner was on his heels. She met him at the driver's side of his truck. "I think I better drive. You're not the best driver when you're calm, Jim," she reminded him, "and calm is not a word I'd use for your state just now."
"Whatever," Jim muttered, moving around to the passenger side yet again. Megan had them out to the site just ahead of Bridges and Reeves.
"What was the layout of this place?" Jim asked as Bridges got out of the car. Bridges pointed out the front and back of the place, indicating vaguely the layout of the bottom floor.
"Blair said he saw someone from his window, but we don't know where his room was. He did say he thought the guy came in through the woods." Jim began to pace the perimeter of the burn area. He paused at a jumble of tracks near what Bridges had said was the back door into the kitchen. He looked out into the woods and took off for the edge of the clearing. He waited impatiently for the others to catch up. Kneeling on the ground, he pointed to the tracks of an all-terrain vehicle.
"When was the last time it rained here?" Jim asked.
"A day before the fire."
"These tracks are dry. They haven't been here much longer than that."
"They could have been made earlier in the day," Bridges said.
"Maybe. But Blair said he remembered an ATV that night." Bridges opened his mouth again. "Follow the tracks," Jim ordered, taking off along their trail himself.
Megan rolled her eyes and followed the angry man. The four tromped through two miles of brush and forest before cresting a hill and sighting a cabin. Jim heard Bridges' heart rate increase and looked over to find him paling at the sight of the little cabin.
"Whose is it?" Jim asked, his eyes already having tracked the elusive ATV into the small shed beside the cabin.
"Waterman. He's a deputy. Been with the Sheriff's Office for 30 years. He's been on vacation for the past few days. No one's seen him." Megan and Debra started for the cabin.
"What else?" Jim asked as the women moved away.
Bridges looked down. "His physical description would be a match for the second body. He was my uncle, too." Bridges looked back into Jim's eyes, cold hatred barely contained. "You better hope your friend had nothing to do with this."
Jim snagged the man before he could head for the cabin. "Don't even think about putting this on Sandburg's head."
Bridges shrugged out of Ellison's grasp and followed the women who were halfway to the cabin's front porch. He strode confidently between them and pulled a key from his pocket. "We used to come here and hunt during deer season," Bridges explained, letting the group inside.
Ellison took a deep breath as he stepped across the threshold of the cabin and immediately identified traces of illegal drugs, some he recognized and at least one he didn't. He pulled a pen from his jacket pocket and flipped open a cabinet door to reveal shelves dusted with white powder. He looked at Bridges with raised eyebrows, daring the man to say something.
Debra came to stand beside Jim and took samples of the powder to be tested.
"We'll handle it from here," she told Jim, reaching for her phone to call in other deputies.
Jim and Megan stepped outside the cabin and watched from the sidelines. Jim kept a close eye on procedure and knew he was making no friends with the local authorities. He also didn't care.
While Megan and Jim took advantage of Blair's medicated rest, Matthew Tatting took advantage of their absence. While the Cascade officers were tromping through the forest on the trail of the all-terrain vehicle, Tatting walked the four blocks from his hideaway in an abandoned bus depot to the hospital. He glanced around the parking lot and noted the absence of Ellison's blue and white truck. Still cautious, he waited inside the hospital, keeping an eye on Sandburg's room for several minutes. When only one nurse entered and came out during his short reconnaissance, he made his way inside. He was relieved to see no one with the sleeping patient.
"Hey, son," Tatting whispered when he found Sandburg alone in the room. "Resting comfortably?" He saw the leg bandages outlined under the thin blanket and laid his hand roughly on Sandburg's left leg. The young man moaned in his drug-induced slumber. "Oops," Tatting whispered, looking around at the door. "Guess you've got a better idea what it all feels like, now, huh?" Tatting smiled coldly at the patient, pleased when the young man opened his eyes and spotted the visitor. Tatting watched recognition light in the blue eyes.
Blair opened his eyes and saw the familiar face leering at him, just as it had before. He cringed back into the bed and stared disbelieving at the man standing over him. He knew Tatting had given him the creeps at Crystal Visions, but he hadn't known why. The familiar scene before him shoved him back in time and he cried out.
"Get out! Get away from me! Mama! Mama!"
Tatting glared at him and slammed his hand over the man's mouth.
"Shut up," he warned.
Blair twisted from his grasp. "No! Go away!" He shrank back into the bed, kicking with his feet and shoving Tatting away with his hands. "Go away! I don't like you!"
Tatting backed hastily from the room and fled down the hall as Sandburg's cries drew attention. He kept his head down as he hurried from the building and back to the depot, keeping careful watch once he left the hospital grounds for anyone following him.
Nurses hurried into Sandburg's room as his shouts traveled down the hallway. They saw the man rush from the room but spared little time for him as they hurried to their patient. Again, they found the young man floundering in the bed, tangled in his sheets and IV and oxygen lines and struggling to get out.
Voices surrounded him, trying to soothe him and calm him. Finally, one woman stepped out and dialed the hotel number she'd been given. When she failed to reach Ellison or Conner at that number, she tried the Cascade number and was connected with a Captain Simon Banks. After explaining the situation, Simon gave her Ellison's cell number.
As he waited and watched outside the cabin, Ellison kept a close on the local authorities. He was startled when his cell phone rang. Answering the call, he listened for a moment with Conner watching his hardening expression. Without a word of explanation to his exasperated companion, Ellison waylaid Debra Reeves near a deputy's car.
"We have to get back to the hospital. Sandburg's having a bad reaction or something."
Debra nodded and asked Sheriff Cooper for a car to return the Cascade duo to the city. Grudgingly, he agreed. Irritated at the man's request on the one hand, but on the other hand, glad to have the laser blue eyes off his men as they searched and inventoried the contents of the cabin, he handed over the keys to a cruiser with barely a word.
Sheriff Cooper knew what the evidence they were compiling looked like, and he didn't need a big city detective watching one of his best-loved and respected deputies lose his reputation. He was particularly offended by the idea that Ellison thought they'd frame the out-of-towner just to safeguard their man's reputation.
Ellison went first to the burn site to gather his truck then asked Megan to return to the cabin to watch the process. The search and inventory should be completed soon, and Jim wanted a friendly face on the premises. He headed straight for the hospital and Sandburg's room.
All the nurses were gone by the time Jim walked into the dimly lit room. He studied his sleeping friend closely and noted new bruises and a new IV port in his arm. Sandburg's hair was damp and smelly with sweat. Jim eased quietly to the bedside and looked up when a nurse entered the room.
"Hello, Detective," the nurse greeted.
"We had to sedate him," she explained. "I think he had a visitor who upset him."
"I don't know. We saw someone leaving the room when we got here, but I didn't get a good look."
"He was very agitated. He kept asking for his mother and telling someone to stay away." Jim nodded, concerned at Blair's request for his mother again. "I don't think he knew where he was," she continued. "It happens sometimes. Will you be staying a while?"
"Yeah," Jim said. "I'll be here."
"Okay. Call if you need anything. He should be out for a few hours, but he was supposed to have been out for several hours before, also."
The nurse left and Jim turned his attention to the late afternoon outside the window. He pulled the straight-backed chair close to the bed and sat down, crossing his arms on the rail and leaning his chin on this arms as he contemplated his sleeping friend.
"What's with you, Chief?" he asked. "What demons are you hiding in that head of yours? Who was here? Tatting? Why does he scare you so much?"
The late afternoon passed quietly into early evening. Megan returned around eight to report what they'd found at the site. She told him about Bridges' theory that Waterman had been investigating Johnson and Tatting. She also told him what else they had learned about the San Francisco fire that had killed Tatting's brother, Roger.
"Sandy was there, Jim," Megan said. "A newspaper report said he was found hurt, scared and crying on the outskirts with a burned body lying in front of him. The body was Roger Tatting's. Evidently, Tatting and Sandy's mom had been together about three years. Police had kept an eye on Tatting for some time. He was suspected of dealing all up and down the California coast. Reports say he had his son with him almost constantly."
"He was hiding his drug deals behind Sandburg?" Jim asked.
Megan nodded. "That's what the investigating officers thought. When they had the chance to arrest him, there was concern about the little boy's welfare if they went ahead with it."
"The bastard. What about this Matthew character? What have you found out about him?"
"He was burned in the fire. Police seem to think he wanted to take over his brother's business. But he's strictly small time despite what he wanted to be. He's spent as much time in prison as he has free. They think he hooked up with Johnson about a month or so ago. Friends of Johnson's said he talked about getting some fresh money in the place to fix it up."
"What's Tatting's description?"
"Roughly Sandy's height. Very thin, bleached blonde hair last anyone saw. His hand and face are badly scarred from burns he got in the fire that killed his brother."
"No chance he's the second victim?" Megan shook her head. "He's probably the one who took the four-wheeler then."
"They've positively identified the second body as Deputy Waterman. They found traces of heroin and some designer drugs in his cabin. Tatting's prints were also at the place. And on the four-wheeler. They think Tatting's probably gone."
"He's not." Jim said. "He's coming to visit Sandburg. I think he's been here twice. The nurses said someone was leaving the room when Sandburg had his little episode this afternoon." He paused. "They had to sedate him, Megan. His blood pressure was way up there. He was fighting everyone, calling for his mom."
Megan dropped her gaze to the man in the bed, touching his hand. "What's wrong with him, Jim?"
Recalling his visions, Jim chewed his lip before answering. "I don't know. I think it's tied up in the fire that killed Tatting. I need to talk to Naomi. Have you heard anything from Simon?"
Megan shook her head. "Jim," she said, "You need to get some rest. You haven't had a decent night's sleep in a week."
"I'm not leaving here again," Jim told her. "When he wakes up and sees me, he knows where he is. And when. It's when I'm not here that trouble starts. Besides, I want to be nearby if Tatting shows up again."
"Why would he come around?" Megan asked. "Why wouldn't he just get out of town?"
"I don't know." Jim took a seat in the recliner. "But I'm going to be here when he does come back."
Megan left, shaking her head and mumbling about stubborn men and explaining this to Simon.
Jim pulled the blanket the nurses had left in the room over himself and quickly fell asleep. He didn't know what time it was, only that it was several hours later when he found himself suddenly awake and alert. He lay still, trying to pinpoint what had awakened him. The answer soon came. On the bed, Blair shifted, mumbled and shifted again. Jim was by the bedside in a flash.
He recognized the creased brow of concentration and the rapid heartbeat signaling a nightmare in the making. Jim hesitated, knowing somehow that touching Sandburg now would transport him into the nightmare. He took a deep breath and reached out to his friend, cradling the face in his hands instead of grasping shoulders.
"Hey, Chief," he whispered....
Then found himself before the burning house again. He looked around and watched people flee from the structure, some in flames. From a back door, a small child tugged at the hand of a woman who stumbled dully after him. Behind the two was another man, pulling on a shirt as he tumbled from the house. The three stopped beside the tree line and Jim watched as the woman drifted away, oblivious to the small child--now a wolf pup--whimpering at her feet. The man, too, ignored the animal and walked away, leaving the pup crying and alone. Jim felt himself move forward in the vision but paused several feet away, unsure of what to do. He wanted to retrieve the woman or the man but both were out of his reach.
As he hesitated, he was again ripped from the vision and found himself gasping for breath. A nurse's face appeared before him, swimming until he regained his balance.
"Sir? Are you all right, Sir?" she asked.
Jim nodded and turned his eyes back to the bed where Sandburg still moved restlessly. "He was having a nightmare," he explained quietly. "I was trying to calm him down."
She kept an eye on him as she moved to Blair's side, checking his vitals. Jim sank into the straight chair and reached out for his friend. He talked softly to the younger man, assuring him all was well and by the time the nurse left, Sandburg had calmed. The nurse reported the patient's blood pressure down and all other vital signs well. She checked his burns and applied more salve before leaving.
Jim watched Sandburg for another half hour before returning to the recliner where he was able to sleep the remainder of the night. Sandburg rested peacefully until the doctor came in the following morning.
Weil was concerned about the condition of Sandburg's left leg, noting that the burns there seemed to have been disturbed. He repeated his instructions on caring for the injury, asked how the night had gone and again suggested Blair stay at least another day in the hospital before returning home.
Blair was finally able to turn his attention to Jim after an orderly arrived with his breakfast. Jim encouraged him to eat first and then ask questions. Jim took the opportunity to step outside the room for a breath of air and to call Simon about the search for Naomi.
He was almost out of the waiting room, intent on digging his cell phone from his pocket and reviewing his visions or dreams or whatever they were, when a familiar voice caught his ear.
"If that man has hurt you, I will kill him myself," Naomi's voice promised with an anger Jim had never guessed her capable of. He looked up to see the red-haired whirlwind yanking open the front doors of the hospital. He continued to listen as she stormed past him, not recognizing him in her single-minded course for the just-opening front desk. "Matthew Tatting, you can kiss this world good-bye."
Interest beyond piqued, Jim reached out to snag her arm as she whizzed by. Flashing eyes turned on him and he was taken aback by the fire released from those orbs, a fire barely dimmed even as she recognized the man who kept her from her goal.
"Where's Blair?" she snapped.
"He's having breakfast," Jim said.
"What happened to him? How badly is he hurt?"
"It's not bad," he assured her, leading her to the small chapel the doctor and he had used the morning before. "But I think you can answer some questions for me."
"I want to see my son," Naomi said, balking at the door.
"And I want answers." Jim pulled her into the room and closed the door.
"After I see Blair."
"No." Jim blocked her way. "Your son has something bothering him, and he doesn't even know it. I think you have the answers."
"Why did you back out of this trip? Do you have any idea how much trouble and how much he worked to get the time free?" Naomi was silent, relenting to the questioning only by sitting on a chair. "Why did you back out?"
"I found out who Peter's partner was."
"Tatting." Naomi nodded curtly. "Why would he want to hurt Blair?"
"He blames Blair for the fire that burned him and killed his brother."
"Was his brother Blair's father?"
Naomi looked sharply at him. "How do you know about Roger? Or the fire? Blair never talks about them."
"Blair told me he doesn't even know who his father is."
"Of course he knows. He loved Roger. Roger took him everywhere."
"To cover his drug deals."
Naomi pushed to her feet and nearly spit in Jim's face. "Don't you say that. Roger was a good man."
"Who dealt drugs."
"Who took care of me and his son."
"Who hid behind a little boy while he sold drugs on playgrounds and in museums and at zoos."
"That's just more of the junk they always tried to pin on us."
"The pigs. They were always after Roger."
"Yeah, Naomi. Why? Why would they pick on Roger?" Naomi was silent. "Where'd you meet him?"
"At a peace rally. I was sixteen and on my own. He gave me a place to stay."
"And a baby. At sixteen." Jim's tone did nothing to hide his opinion of a man who would have sex with a sixteen-year-old. He knew from the reports the man had to have been at least 10 years older than Naomi.
"He gave me a place to stay."
"Why isn't his name on Blair's birth certificate?"
"Because he wasn't with me at the time. I was afraid he would get in trouble."
"For loving me. I knew I was underage. He knew I was underage." Naomi sat down again. She wanted to make her son's friend understand. "I was on my own. I ran away from home. He gave me a place to stay. He made me feel loved. I stayed with him about two months. His brother came to live with us for a while and before long, Roger said he had to leave because the pigs were after him and Matthew for something they didn't do."
"You never saw drugs around his house?"
Naomi looked down. "He didn't do anything wrong."
Jim looked at her. "Tell me something, Naomi. Were you high the first time you had sex with him? He did nothing wrong because using drugs isn't wrong?" Naomi refused to answer him. "Never mind," Jim finally said. "That's not the issue here. Blair is. Why would he forget someone so important to him?"
"I don't know."
"Tell me about the fire that killed Roger."
Naomi's own forehead wrinkled in thought, and her words took on the cadence of an oft-repeated story. "I don't know what happened. I wasn't there. Roger and Blair had gone to a museum. Blair loved museums even as a child. Roger met some friends and decided to stay the night with them. I stayed with my friend, Rita. They called me the next morning and said there'd been a fire. That Roger was dead and Blair was hurt."
"His face was red and his hands were blistered. It was painful, but not too bad. He stayed in the hospital for a few days then I took him and we went to Mexico for a while."
Naomi bit her lip. "Matthew blamed Blair for the fire, for his burns, for Roger's death. He came to see Blair in the hospital a few days after the fire and started shouting at him. I was out of the room for just a minute and when I came in he was shaking Blair and shouting at him and Blair was trying to push him away and screaming for me." She stopped and swallowed. "I took Blair the next morning and we went as far as my money would take us."
"What did the house look like?" Jim asked.
"What did the house look like? The one that burned."
"Two stories. Wraparound porch. Why?"
"Because I think he's remembering it and confusing it with the other night."
"I heard. I came as soon as I heard."
"Two people died in that fire. Blair is the only survivor we've been able to talk to, but sometimes he thinks you were there and sometimes he doesn't. You weren't there at the other fire?" Jim asked, puzzled by Blair's confusion.
"No," Naomi replied quickly. "I don't have to answer to you, Jim Ellison. I want to see my son." She stepped past him and walked out, asking the next nurse she saw for her son's room.
Jim let her walk away, puzzling out what she had told him. He considered the visions he'd had and wondered why what she was saying didn't ring true to him. He stood abruptly and followed her to Blair's room. Jim listened as she burst into Blair's room. He paused at the door of the room, trying to force himself to calm down. He could hear Blair speaking with Naomi and didn't want to upset his friend with his suspicions. Megan stopped beside him.
"Mom!" Blair greeted her warmly in his raspy voice.
"Oh, sweetie," Naomi whispered, fighting tears. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Blair said. "I'll be fine. How did you know to come?"
"I heard about the fire from the news and when I tried to call you at your office and Jim's you weren't there, so I called Captain Banks and he finally told me you'd been injured in the fire and were in the hospital so I came as fast as I could. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'll be fine," Blair repeated. "Looks like I'll miss out on the commencement exercises, though. Why'd you decide not to come here?"
"I just had something come up. I really couldn't get here."
Blair watched her pace nervously and looked up only when Jim and Megan entered the room.
"Hey, Sandy," Megan greeted happily. "Good to see you awake." She quickly moved to his side and gave him a soft kiss to his cheek. "How are you feeling?" she asked, taking his hand in hers.
"I feel fine," Blair repeated. Then he looked straight at Jim. "I feel fine."
"I didn't ask," Jim said.
"Thought I'd save you the trouble."
Jim's smile gave away his immense relief, and he settled into the chair with only a short, irritated glance at his friend's mother. Naomi stood on the opposite side of the bed from the detective and forced a bright smile at him.
"How long are you going to be here, Blair?" his mother asked.
"Another day unless I can convince the doctor to let me go," Blair said, coughing and reaching for a cup of water. He looked at Jim and Megan. "What's the story with the fire? Do they know what started it? Who died?"
"They think it was connected to drugs," Jim said. "Tatting has a history of dealing. The chemicals in the ashes are consistent with drug manufacturing. Pete Johnson was one body, and the other has been identified as a county deputy."
"A deputy?" Blair asked. "Was he investigating Tatting?"
"I don't know," Megan said. "They found traces of drugs in his cabin. I don't know if he was going into a side business before retirement or if he was running his own investigation."
"So Tatting survived?" Naomi asked.
"It looks like it," Megan admitted.
Blair leaned back, color draining from his face as the conversation went on around him. He shifted restlessly on the bed and Jim noted the grimace of pain that crossed his face. He put his head out the door and flagged down a nurse. Conversation stopped when she came in long enough to check his pulse and blood pressure. Jim noted the blood pressure was still elevated.
"At least they won't try to pin it on you," Jim said as the woman left the room.
"Why would they think I'd have anything to do with it?" Blair asked.
"Because of your mother's ties to the owners."
"Just because Naomi knew Peter?" Blair asked.
"Among other things."
Conversation stopped again as the nurse returned to inject the medication in the IV line. Blair turned his head to look at his mother. "Tatting said he knew you, Naomi? When did you meet him? I don't remember him."
Naomi gave her son's hand a gentle pat as he yawned. "It was a long time ago," she said. "It has nothing to do with this, I'm sure."
"He really seemed to think I should know him. He gave me the creeps. Who is he?"
Naomi smiled thinly. "He was Roger's brother."
"That's what he said, too. Who is Roger?" Blair breathed deeply only to cough again, although Jim noted the coughs didn't seem as painful and deep as they had before. Blair leaned back against the slightly raised bed.
"Roger," Naomi said. "Roger Tatting."
Blair shook his head. "I remember you talking about him, but I can't put a face with the name."
Naomi stared at her son as if he was lying to her. "Of course you remember Roger, Blair," she insisted. "He took you to museums and the zoo. He bought you all those books about different cultures."
Blair shook his head again. "I don't remember him."
"Blair," Naomi's astonishment wasn't hidden. "He was your father. We lived with him for three years."
"Naomi," Blair repeated. "I'm telling you I don't remember him. What do you mean, he was my father. I don't know who my father is."
"Of course you do, Sweetie."
"No!" Blair shouted. "I don't. I don't remember him and I don't remember Matthew and I don't remember!"
Jim stood as Blair's voice rose.
"Take it easy, Chief," he urged.
"Sandy, it's okay," Megan said, gripping Blair's hand tighter as she glared at Naomi. "I don't think we need to discuss this now." Naomi looked at the woman as if seeing her for the first time.
"Let's take a walk, Naomi," Jim insisted, taking her arm and pulling her away from her son.
"I want to stay with Blair." Naomi pulled at her arm to disengage Jim's hold. He simply took a firmer grip as Blair began coughing. They all watched anxiously until Megan was able to help him take a drink and calm down. He lay wearily back against the bed. "I won't talk about it anymore," she promised as Blair closed his eyes. "I'm just so happy you're all right. I just wish you'd have gotten my message and never come up here."
"Me, too," Blair said, fighting a yawn.
"You need your rest. When you get out of here, we'll go somewhere together," Naomi said.
"He's not going to be up to traveling, Naomi," Jim said. "He'll need to rest at home. And he still has to decide what to do now that he's finally out of school."
"Oh, that's decided," Naomi said. "I talked to a friend of mine from Duke. He's going to Nairobi to study at a site and was more than happy to get Blair on his team."
Jim blanched and looked quickly at Blair, who was fast losing track of the conversation. "Blair?" he asked. "Have you made plans for after graduation?"
"What?" Blair asked, fighting to keep his eyes open as he was lost in thought over the previous conversation. Megan brushed stray strands of curly hair from his face as he began to breathe easier.
"Don't worry about it now," Megan said softly. "Just get some rest."
"Sleep well, Baby," Naomi whispered, finally disengaging herself from Jim. "It'll be over soon. When you're better, we'll go away somewhere."
"I don't like him," Blair muttered. "He's mean." He pulled the blanket snugly against his chin with one hand while clinging to Megan's hand with the other. "He doesn't like me, Mama."
Jim recognized the plaintive voice of a young child in Blair's tone and the sound sent a chill down his spine. His jaw hardened as Blair fell asleep, and he and Megan exchanged worried glances even as Naomi leaned over to give him a kiss.
"There's nothing for you to worry about," Naomi repeated. She moved close enough to caress Blair's face and the three waited until he was obviously asleep.
Jim glared at the woman. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked her. She ignored him.
"I appreciate what you've done for my son, Jim," Naomi said with a smile that belied the steel in her eyes. "I know it must have been inconvenient at times to have him along with you in your work but it did allow him to finish his degree. But he's done playing cops and robbers now, and I'm sure he'll be ready to go back to anthropology."
"That's his decision. Not yours."
"Or yours." Naomi stepped away from her son.
"You shouldn't have upset him," Megan said. "He doesn't need the aggravation."
"I don't understand. He adored Roger."
"He was five when the man died, horribly, in front of him," Jim pointed out. "Maybe you should have been curious when he didn't talk about him in 25 years."
Naomi eyed the two officers. "I don't think Blair needs all this negative aura," she said. "Until he's better, maybe we shouldn't visit together."
"I'm not leaving for you," Jim said. "Hell, you'd probably try to sneak him out of the country."
Naomi looked at Megan, who smiled sweetly and nodded at her hand, clasped firmly by Blair. "I don't want to disturb him," she said.
"I hear you," Naomi snapped. She picked up her shoulder bag and headed for the door. "I'll be back later and I'll expect some time alone with my son." She stepped out the door and Jim listened to her hurry down the corridor.
"What was that about?" Megan asked when Naomi had been gone for almost two minutes.
"I'm not sure." He rubbed his face in his hands.
"Jim," Megan said. "You really need to get some sleep. Go back to the motel. I won't let Sandy out of my sight."
"No," Jim replied. "You heard him when he drifted off. I'm afraid he may be in for a rough time. I think I can help him."
Megan shook her head and sank slowly into the chair beside the bed, still hanging on to Sandburg. Jim sat back in the recliner and before long, he was as deeply asleep as Blair.
Megan kept silent watch over the patient while Jim slept. As Blair's grip loosened over the next hour, she took advantage of the freedom to retrieve her book from her purse and settled down to read quietly while her two companions slept.
Two hours had passed before she noticed Blair stirring restlessly in the bed. She sat up and pulled closer to him. Within moments, Jim was awake and beside her. They watched anxiously as Blair slipped into another nightmare. Megan began murmuring for him to wake up, but Jim stopped her. He hesitated, then found the courage to speak his mind.
"I think I can help him," Jim said, "but I don't want to be interrupted this time. Watch the door. Keep everyone out of here."
Megan eyed him suspiciously but went to the door and took up her post. She watched Jim cradle Sandburg's face, much as he had at the fountain, and her breath quickened with remembered fear and horror. She watched the two men grow motionless.
Jim quickly found himself back with the abandoned wolf pup outside the burning house. The pup tried to leave but Jim caught its attention. Jim was somewhat surprised he had taken on the black panther's shape but spared little thought to the condition as the feline touched noses with the pup and greeted the frightened animal. The panther lay down beside the pup and the pup snuggled close to its warmth, surrounding itself in a cloak of safety.
The panther looked up sharply as a disagreeable scent filtered through the smoky air. He raised his head and spied the source--a bedraggled, thin and sickly jackal. The sorry creature was inching closer, oblivious to the panther and intent on the pup. The panther sprang from its spot and hurried toward the jackal. So focused on his pursuit of the now fleeing jackal, the panther failed to hear the renewed whimpering of the pup.
The sharp bite of smoke filtered into the dream and Jim came out of the trance with a jolt. Wordlessly, he moved to the door and out into the corridor where he spotted a curly-haired man moving quickly through the hall. He took off after his quarry.
Megan almost followed him but heard a gasp from the bed. She turned to see Blair awake, eyes fixed on the ceiling. She grabbed the phone in the room and dialed the sheriff's office. She prayed she was correct in assuming Jim was after the elusive Matthew Tatting. Glancing out the window of the room, she noticed a deputy sheriff's car pulling into the hospital entrance. As she watched, the driver hit the sirens, and Megan relaxed a little knowing Jim had back up.
With that accomplished, she turned her attention to Blair.
"Sandy?" she whispered. After a long moment, Blair turned to face her. She worried about his pale complexion and the haunted look in his eyes. "How you feeling?" Blair shrugged and bit his lower lip, looking around. "You were having a nightmare. Do you remember what it was about?" Blair nodded. "Do you want to tell me?"
"There was a house on fire," Blair whispered. "I was young. And everyone left. Then there was a panther. But he left, too." He looked around even as he latched onto Megan's hand. "Where's Jim?"
"Tying up some loose ends." Megan watched as Blair closed his eyes.
"She left a few minutes ago."
Blair was silent for a long time and Megan saw the pain medication reasserting its grip on him as he calmed from the nightmare images. "She'll be back. She always came back eventually."
Megan kissed his forehead as he dropped back asleep.
Jim had spotted Tatting heading out the door of the hospital. He sprinted through the corridor and burst through the front doors in time to see Tatting grab Naomi as she climbed from her car. Thinking quickly, Naomi threw the car keys toward the grassy strip in the parking lot. They fell short of the grass but skittered into a drainage hole at the edge of a parking slot.
"You bitch!" Tatting screamed in her face. "You were always causing problems. You and that bastard."
Naomi recoiled from the twisted face before her, seeing the insanity and drug-induced rage in the blue eyes.
"Give it up!" Jim ordered. "Let her go."
Tatting turned his attention to the cop. "What? She got you wrapped around her finger like she had Roger?" He shook Naomi roughly, backing away with the woman as he heard sirens snap on. "Impressed with her dedication to her son?" Tatting snarled. "Let me tell you about this little lady," he snapped. "She was there! She and her bastard. If it hadn't been for them, Roger would be alive and we'd be living good. He would have been able to get the shit out of the house instead of worrying about getting them out!"
Naomi stared at the man in shock.
"No," she whispered.
"Oh, yeah," Tatting assured her. "Course, you were as stoned as the night I first saw you. You don't remember much when you're high, you know, lady. I bet Rita didn't have any trouble convincing you you'd been at her place all night instead of partying with the rest of us."
"I didn't!" Naomi shouted. "I wouldn't leave my son!" Powered by the horrible thought and words, she twisted from his grip, and Jim and the deputies moved in quickly. Naomi fell to the ground and watched, horrified at his words.
Jim wasn't ready to let the questioning end. "She was there?" he asked, thinking of his visions and dreams.
"Yeah. Roger sent her away with someone. Said she might lose the kid if they knew she was there."
"No," Naomi whispered. "I wasn't there."
"Yes, you were. You were just as stoned as you were the first night I saw you. You don't remember that and you don't remember being at the fire." Tatting laughed at the shocked woman. "Hell, you're good at that, aren't you? Remembering things the way you want them to be. You wanted Roger to be the daddy, so you don't remember me. You didn't want to leave your kiddie, so you don't remember being there. So nice and neat."
"Shut up," Jim said as he watched Naomi crumble further into herself.
"You are such a cheap little..."
"Shut up!" Jim shouted. "You have the right to remain silent. Use it." He reinforced his advice with a tighter hold on the man's throat. Tatting wisely clamed up. Jim released the man reluctantly when two deputies secured him with handcuffs.
Jim walked to Naomi and considered the woman at his feet. He reached down to help her up, and she allowed him to direct her movements until they reached the doors of the hospital. She balked.
"I can't go back there yet," Naomi whispered.
"He needs to know what happened."
"I can't, Jim," she whispered. "I have to have some time. I have to figure out what happened. I have to...."
"He needs you here." Jim thought back to his vision, to the figures leaving the pup behind and he recognized the woman as a young Naomi. "You left him once. Don't do it again."
"I didn't leave him alone. I never deserted him," she whispered.
"You left him on the lawn of a burning building. That sounds like abandonment to me."
Naomi looked down. "Roger would have been right. If I was high, they never would have let me keep him." She looked into Jim's face. "But I left him with Roger. Roger would have taken care of him. That's the only way I would have left him. I swear, Jim."
Jim simply stared at her, wondering how she and Blair had survived the years, wondering how many other times his friend's life was at risk because of Naomi.
"Jim," Naomi said. "I swear to you, I rarely used drugs. When I first met Roger, and maybe that night. I remember, Roger did call and say he'd met some friends. A friend and I went by after we got off work. There were so many people there, and maybe I let myself get caught up in the party. That's all I remember until Rita woke me at her house the next morning. She told me there'd been a fire, and Blair was at the hospital."
She pulled away from his touch. "When I got there, Blair was so scared. He was hurt and scared, and he just clung to me for hours. I didn't leave the hospital for several days. I left one night and when I came back the next morning, Matthew was in his room, shouting at him and screaming and shaking him. The police arrested him and Blair got out that day. We went as far as we could. We stayed in Mexico for months.
"Blair had nightmares for years about monsters on fire coming after him. It was a long time before he could even stand a candle burning. I was so relieved when the nightmares stopped and when he wasn't afraid of candles anymore. I never asked him about it. Ever. I tried never to think of it." She looked away. "I just need to get some things straight in my mind, Jim," she said. "I can't answer his questions, until I know the answers to mine."
"He needs to have you here," Jim said. "He needs to know you'll be here."
"I always come back for him," Naomi said. "He knows that." She walked away. Jim watched her for several minutes before going back inside.
Megan looked up from Blair's side as Jim eased himself into the room. He nodded at Megan. "How's he doing?"
"He's asleep again."
A deputy appeared at the door and motioned for Jim to come outside. After a moment, Jim stepped back in. "I have to go down to the sheriff's office and give my statement. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Megan nodded. When he'd been gone a while, she disengaged herself from Blair's grip and settled back into the chair. It was nearly an hour and a half later when Blair began to stir. As his eyes opened, Megan met him with a smile.
"Hey, Sandy," she whispered. He returned her smile and looked around. They reached at the same time for the bed controls and she raised the head of the bed until he was comfortably reclined. Before he could ask, she handed him a cup of water.
"Thanks," he said after sipping the liquid. He took a deep breath and smiled when it didn't produce a coughing spasm. "What time is it?"
"About 4. You're looking a lot better."
"I feel better." His forehead creased. "A little confused. Wasn't Naomi here?"
"For a bit. She's taking a break."
Blair nodded. "I remember a dream. Jim was there."
"I was a wolf pup and there was a fire and people were all around me, but they left me and no one was helping me. Then this panther showed up and I felt so safe. Then...." Blair trailed off as he recognized the panther as Jim's spirit guide and remembered its abrupt departure.
"Nothing." He turned the object of the conversation.
"What's going on with the investigation? Have I missed much?"
"I'm not sure. Jim was here a couple of hours ago. He was trying to help you through a nightmare I think." Megan paused. "It was a lot like what happened at the fountain. Then he took off. I think he went after Tatting. They must have caught him because Jim had to go to the Sheriff's office for a bit. He should be back soon." Blair nodded. "You've had us worried, Sandy. I think you still have Jim worried."
"Your mom said something about you going on a trip after graduation. She talked like you'd be leaving Cascade."
"I haven't decided what I'm going to do," Blair said.
"Don't you think you need to soon?"
"It will make a difference in what a lot of people do, you know."
"Like me." Blair's questioning look had her explaining, but she turned to look out the window as she did. "I've been offered the chance to stay another year, but I'm not sure if I want to." She looked back to see a soft pink blush rising in his face and she smiled. "It's scaring Jim, too," she said.
Blair let the comment hand for a long minute. "He doesn't need me anymore," he finally whispered. "He hasn't had a problem with his senses in a long time. I'm nothing but a tagalong." He looked around. "A tagalong that keeps attracting trouble."
"That's not true, Sandy. He depends on you. I don't think he even realizes it."
Blair let the topic drop.
In the corridor, Jim stopped, and listened to the last of the conversation. The ball was in his court, now. Sandburg's dissertation was finished. He could easily move on to other things. Simon had finagled a consultant's position with the department, but, mindful of the sacrifice Blair had made years before in turning down the Borneo study, Jim had been silent on the topic of whether Blair should take the offer. Ranier had also made him an offer, but, Jim knew, so had many other institutions across the country. At least one letter he had seen on the table one morning included an offer to study in Australia. Jim suspected he had Conner to thank for that one.
And what did he want his friend to do?
That was easy. He wanted him to keep staying in the little room in the loft. He wanted him to keep following him around on cases. He wanted him to keep watching Jags games with him. He wanted him to be there when the next friend let him down.
What did Blair think Jim wanted. Jim had been silent whenever the topic of the future had come up. He hadn't thanked Blair for changing his dissertation topic. He thought back to the time the Chopec warriors had come to Cascade, and Jim's Sentinel abilities had gone suddenly dormant. Blair had asked then if Jim would want or need him around. Jim had answered by accusing him of being worried about his dissertation.
And now? Had he been distancing himself from Blair over the past few months? With the change in dissertation topics, Blair had spent some time talking to other department officers. Sometimes weeks would go by without Sandburg's presence at his side at the station.
When was the last time Jim had asked for Sandburg's presence at the station? Had he been afraid? Sure that Blair would pursue a career path that didn't include Jim? Was Blair as afraid of being abandoned by Jim as Jim was of being abandoned by Blair?
Incacha had entrusted the shamanistic duties to Blair. Perhaps it was time Jim entrusted them to Blair as well.
Taking a deep breath, Jim knocked on the door and stepped into the room.
"All done?" Megan asked. Jim nodded. He glanced uncomfortably around the room and wondered how to politely ask Megan for some time alone with his friend. Megan smirked at him and grabbed her bag. "I'm going to go freshen up. I'll be back in a bit." She gave Sandburg a kiss and left the room with a wave to Jim.
"Hey," Jim said.
"Hey," Blair repeated. He studied his nervous friend.
Jim looked out the window, watching Blair's reflection in the glass. "You were right," Jim said. "The water's nice." Blair's confusion was evident and Jim faced him, leaning against the window sill. "After the fountain. When we shared the vision. You said the water was nice."
"You said you weren't ready to take that trip."
"It was you in the dream." Jim nodded. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Silence fell for a while as they considered the dream/vision.
"She was there, wasn't she?" Again Jim nodded. "Where is she now?"
"I don't know," Jim said. "Tatting told her some things that she didn't much care for. She said she had to get away for a bit."
Blair nodded and repeated what he'd told Megan. "She'll be back. She always comes back eventually. I have a question though."
"In the dream, vision, whatever," he paused and looked away. "You left."
"Tatting was coming."
"Oh." Blair smiled as he realized the reason for the abrupt departure.
Jim looked down at his hands and took a deep breath. "We haven't talked about it. I didn't want you to do something just because you felt pressured into it," Jim began. "I know you've given up a lot of opportunities in the last four years. You could go a lot of places, do a lot of things." He paused again and chanced a look at his friend. Blair was waiting patiently, a smile teasing his mouth, and Jim felt himself returning the smile. "But I'd really like it, if you'd take Simon up on that consultant's position." He stopped and decided to go for broke. "I'd really like it if you'd keep working with me."
"I would, too," Blair said.
Jim watched him carefully, breathing shallow and quick. "Yeah?" he finally whispered.
"Yeah," Blair said.
Jim released his held breath in a relieved sigh and gave his friend a crooked smile. Jim reached out with his right hand, and Blair mirrored the gesture, sealing the deal and their friendship in a firm shake. A final nod and they moved past the awkward moment.
"I really don't remember much about Roger," Blair said.
"You were only five when he died. I'm not surprised."
"I can't really think of him as my father," Blair admitted.
Jim looked away, thinking of the conversation he'd had with Tatting at the Sheriff's Office. Tatting had admitted believing he was Blair's father, had said Roger had been virtually sterile.
"He wasn't, was he?" Blair asked as he caught Jim's expression.
"I don't know. Matthew Tatting doesn't think so." Blair shrugged. "Do you want to know?"
"No," Blair said. "It doesn't sound like he'd be anything great to claim. I've lived this long without knowing. I don't think it will make a difference now."
"What about Naomi?"
"What about her?"
"She left you there, Blair. You remember that, don't you?"
Blair shrugged again. "It's not important. Jim, I accepted a long time ago that Mom was different. But like I said. I know she'll always come back for me. It had to be hard for her to raise a child, especially then. Being an unwed or single mom now isn't quite as big a deal, but this was still the early '70s. Hell, I'm just happy to be alive and sane. Whatever you think of her, man, I can honestly say she was always there when I really needed her to be. If she couldn't be around, she always made sure someone she trusted was. If she's leaving for a while, it just means she trusts someone to be there for me."
"And I'll always be there for you, Chief. I promise."
Blair smiled. "Same here, man. Thanks."
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