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"DROWNING" Part 2


Jane Leavell

When James Ellison lifted his head from between his hands, he had the distinct impression that every head in the room abruptly dropped to direct a studious gaze at a desktop. It was pretty noticeable; after all, what were the odds that absolutely no one in the Major Crimes bullpen would be glancing in his direction at any given time? Between the way he had practically pissed a territory line around his desk when the other Sentinel showed up in Cascade, and the fact that no one quite knew how to deal with what happened to Sandburg, the general consensus seemed to be that the safest course was to leave him alone.

Lunging to his feet, Jim stalked to Detective Henri Brown's desk and put his closed fists on the desk, leaning on his knuckles. "What's the word on the Sandburg case?"

Brown looked up slowly. from the knuckles to his face. "Good morning to you, too, Jim."

"Sandburg?" he prompted.

"I showed you the file yesterday, remember? Nothing's changed."

Jim snatched up the open folder on Brown's desk. "What's this? The Allsop drug sting? You aren't even working on Blair's case, are you? After everything he did for this department, you're all willing to just write him off."

Anyone else would've been on his feet by now, but Brown was still gentle. "Jim, we all loved Hairboy, but the trail's cold, and even if we found his body- -"

"Don't say that! It's not true!"

"Ellison!" Simon Banks' voice cracked through the room. Even Ellison shut up. "In my office. Now."

Gritting his teeth, Jim dropped the Allsop file and crossed the bullpen, past rows of monkishly bent heads and pens scribbling meaninglessly on paper. In fact, although only a Sentinel's enhanced vision could've caught it from this side of the room, Rafe was holding his pen upside down and hadn't even noticed yet. Captain Banks slammed the office door shut behind him, cutting off his view.

"Jim, I told you to take two weeks off, and here you are, bouncing off the walls. What the hell good do you think this is going to do?"

His jaw tightened, biting back the words. "My partner is missing, sir."

"Jim, you were there. We all tried. We couldn't get a heartbeat. You have to admit--"

"His body disappeared from the morgue...sir."

"And you think he got up and walked out and is taking a little vacation? Is that it?" Ellison glared at him briefly, then stared at the wall behind him again. Simon shook his head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. But the kid was as much one of my men as you are, and it hurts to lose him."

"He's not dead."

"Jim, it's just some--some vicious, sadistic game that other Sentinel's playing, a way to torment you and keep you off-balance while she gets away. And it's working."

"He's not dead."

"He drowned, Jim. He wasn't breathing. He had no pulse. How could he be alive?"

"I've thought about that, sir. She's a techno-thief, she specializes in high-tech crimes. She must have drugged him until his heart rate and breathing were undetectable, and once we left him alone in the morgue she came back and kidnapped him, and we let her get away with it."

He cut the words off, not willing to share the nightmares with his commander. The one he'd had most often was when he was Blair, waking up freezing cold in the dark morgue, entombed on a cold slab slid into the wall, unable to get out, with no one to hear his screams. But it wasn't the only nightmare that tormented him. There was the one where Dan and Cassie started the autopsy before Alex Barnes could steal Blair's body, and he was awake but unable to move as the scalpels began their work. Then there was the one about drowning, where the fountain was much deeper, and he was struggling to swim to the surface but the water was filling his lungs and he knew that even if he made it to the top, she would bat him back down, like a cat playing with a mouse.

"Jim? Jim, are you still with me?"

Ellison focused on Simon's worried face, knowing that the captain was afraid he would have to take over Blair's duties as his guide. But Blair wasn't just an advisor, he was a shaman, as necessary to the city's protection as a Sentinel. He knew enough about psychology, nutrition, anthropology, health, and ancient lore to deal with Sentinel problems, and had the emotional balance Jim sometimes lacked. No amount of studying and good wishes would make a shaman out of a cop, no matter how good he was at his own form of serving and protecting. "It wasn't a zone-out, Captain. I was...I've been having nightmares about what she might be doing to him."

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Jim. God knows I've had a few, too."

"But these are different."

Simon came alert. "Something connected to being a Sentinel?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Sometimes they're just nightmares about her hurting him, trying to get something from him." He wasn't even going to mention the one about the gloriously golden, black-stained jaguar stalking the wolf that morphed into Blair in the middle of the fight. "Sometimes he sees me, and...."

"And?"

"He runs away," Jim said flatly, and wondered if you could clench your teeth together so tightly that they broke.

Simon removed his wire-rims and rubbed the base of his nose. "Do you want to talk to the police psychologist?"

"And tell her what, Simon? I'm a mystical warrior with ancient near-magic powers, and everyone else thinks my shaman is dead but I think he's alive and needs me? There'll be a room in the Psych ward of the nearest hospital with my name on it before I've even gone into the details."

"I know, I know. But you can't hang around the bullpen bullying your fellow officers; they have jobs to do, and they've done the best they can. We know Alex Barnes or Alicia Barnett or whatever she's going by now took Sandburg's body from the morgue, but we have no idea why or where she went after that, and standard police work isn't going to solve this one. None of the street snitches have any clues for us. She's better at covering her tracks cybernetically than we are at tracking them."

"So we just give up? We let her win? He was only a Police Observer, but he was our Police Observer, one of our own."

"No, we're not giving up." Simon moved closer, towering over him, rage briefly flaring so hot that his skin would probably be warm to the touch. "Don't you get all righteous with me, Ellison. Don't ever assume that you're the only one feeling pain here!"

He closed his eyes. "No, sir."

After a moment, Simon sank onto the edge of his desk, the rage dying. "Listen. The Feds are still searching for the stolen poison gas canisters, and that's our best chance of finding Barnes and making her tell us what she did to Sandburg. They believe they have a lead in Canada."

"What kind of a lead?"

Simon spread his hands out. "They don't feel like sharing that information with a mere police captain in a town in Washington state. But with your Covert Ops background, you can probably join them in the hunt. I can make a few calls, see what I can arrange."

"I'm not sure I want to do it that way, sir."

"Excuse me? I'm offering you a chance to help search for Sandburg, or at least his killer. I thought that was what you were just hollering about out there."

No matter how hard he tried to maintain that militarily erect pose, he kept finding himself hunching over, like a cat arching its back before a fight. "This is my city, damn it. I should be able to track her down. The minute she stepped into Cascade, I could feel her out there, invading my territory, endangering my people. So why can't I track her down now? For that matter, why can't I track down my shaman? We're supposed to be linked, aren't we?"

"Maybe you can't sense Blair because he isn't there. There isn't anyone to sense any longer. Have you thought about that?"

"Yes, I've thought about that. Do you think I don't know it's my fault?"

"Jim, I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to. I know. Instead of turning to him for help when my senses went crazy, I drove him away. Instead of listening when he tried to talk to me, I went sneaking through his papers and started fighting with him over that damn thesis, when I've known about it for three years now--hell, there were times when I couldn't get him to shut up about it. Instead of protecting my shaman, I drove him out of my home--our home--and practically handed him to the other Sentinel on a silver platter. I think about that every minute of every day, all right?"

Banks rose again, put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Jim, I'm sorry."

"All the times I showed up in the nick of time for him, just happened to be there when he needed me, by 'coincidence' found what I needed to find him...I think it was some sort of link we had, Simon. And now it's gone. Maybe he's out there deliberately blocking me, keeping me from locating him, because he's finally had enough."

"And maybe there's some other explanation. Maybe neither one of us is right. But the only one who'd know how to find out about how that kind of bond works, if it even exists, is Blair, and somebody already ransacked his records."

"Which proves my point, don't you see? She took the records for Blair to use."

"Or she took the records because there is no Blair left to help her."

Their gazes locked. Jim clenched his jaw again. "I think I'll take those two weeks after all, sir."

Banks sank into the chair behind his desk and began shuffling the paperwork on the desktop. "Fine, then. I'll turn in the paperwork for you today."

Nice work, Ellison. Drive Simon away, just like you did Blair.

Nodding curtly, Ellison opened the door, to find the bullpen silent except for ringing phones, and every head turned his way. If this was the way they all did their undercover work, no wonder the arrest records were low. He slammed the door behind him.

Every head quickly went down as Ellison stormed out of the bullpen and down the stairs.

=#=#=#=#=#

After working on his Sentinel data all morning, Blair could safely say that it was all screwed up. Maybe in her haste Alex had left half of it behind, or maybe someone had already been into his records before she got there. One thing seemed increasingly likely, although it bothered him: he had been working with Ellison, too. No doubt he'd kept the existence of each a secret, since introducing two defenders-of-territory to each other would be tricky. It wasn't likely that they would get along, any more than two alpha wolves from different packs would. The censorship job, if that's what it was, was good--only once did the word 'Jim' appear--but some of the references to the Sentinel couldn't possibly be talking about Alex.

Thinking about Alex made him briefly surface from the data to present reality, and he realized that his head was throbbing again. Where was Alex, anyway? How long had he been ignoring her? He remembered her at breakfast, in those red leggings and low-cut sleeveless red tunic, but after that he'd gotten absorbed in the laptop.

Sitting back in the kitchen chair and stretching, he realized Alex was talking, but couldn't quite make out the words. That's strange. Is she talking to me? He strolled into the family room to check, and she looked up, startled.

"I'll talk to you later," she told the phone, and hung up.

"Hey, I didn't know we had a phone up here."

"We don't. I have a cell phone. I was talking to my business partner." She half-smiled. "I did tell you that hiding out somewhere warm will cost money."

Cell phone, eh? He hadn't realized they were so far down the mountain that they could use one-they were definitely too far from the glaciers to be using the upper region connection--but it explained why the cabin wasn't some rough hunting shack. They were holed up in an expensive vacation nest for people who didn't really want to get too far away from civilization.

Forget the phone. What about the call?

"I, um, don't remember what you do for a living," Blair admitted.

"I free-lance. Now that you won't be teaching, maybe you'll help me out on some jobs."

He felt his breath catch. "I won't be teaching?"

"Of course not. Blair, it wouldn't be safe. As soon as you walk back on campus--hell, as soon as you enter Cascade--Ellison will be on your tail."

That throbbing before? That was nothing. This was a headache. "I guess I hadn't thought about it."

Alex touched his shoulder. "I'm not saying it will be easy, but we'll make it. We may have to lower our sights a little, take some jobs we wouldn't normally want to, but it'll work out. You'll see. Together, we can do anything."

Except teach. Except have full access to the academic world, to the anthropological field trips and the respect that comes with publishing in your field. Let's face it, my whole life since birth had been one flea jump after another. I finally settled down in one place and finished something--no, came this close to finishing something--and now I'm hopping off again like your typical flea. Except they at least get noticed enough to get scratched.

Well, okay, that was stupid. He was getting scratched, in every sense of the word. James Ellison, Sentinel, was trying to kill him.

"Blair." Alex shook him gently. "Don't worry about it, remember? Listen, you've been cooped up inside long enough. How about we go outside and work on some of my senses?"

Blair forced a smile. "Sure." Might as well try to be useful. At least I can teach one person something.

He trudged in her wake to the cabin door. She flinched from the bright sunlight as she opened the door, throwing up one arm, then stepped back to fumble along the coffee table for a pair of sunglasses. "Sorry. All that light really bothers my eyes."

"We'll work on that," he promised. "It's possible, with practice, to make dilating and narrowing the pupils a controlled response, on a subconscious level, that's so rapid it seems automatic, plus on the psychological level--"

"Huh?"

"We'll work on it." Somewhat gingerly, he stepped outside. The sunlight helped, but there was still a brisk wind coming down from the glaciers every now and then that sneered at his sweat suit. He promptly retreated. "Did we bring any of my clothes up? My leather jackets? Something, uh, warm?"

"Your jacket's on the tree-rack there."

"Oh. Yeah. Thanks."

It wasn't some store-bought replacement, it was his own leather jacket, the black one he wore in his j.d. moods as opposed to his Indiana Jones brown one. Shrugging into it was reassuring, like putting on a coat of chain mail. This was something he remembered, and it wasn't going to hurt him. Now if he just had his Alaska boots, instead of these moccasins, he'd be ready for bear, or at least for Washington in the spring.

Although he couldn't see her eyes through the sunglasses, it was obvious from Alex's stance that she was nervous. There was a wooden picnic table under the trees a few yards from the cabin, so he wandered in that direction, letting her follow him.

"Gorgeous day, isn't it? For Washington, anyway. No fog, no rain."

"Not since last night, anyway."

The benches didn't look too damp. He slid into one and gestured at the other. "Weather's kind of like our senses, hard to control. Me, I don't really care for all the cold and damp, but people who've lived here all their lives tell me you can get used to it."

"Your point being?"

It's like the problem with your senses. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed, surrounded by sounds you never used to hear, but you can get used to the extra sounds and they'll fade into background noise. Did you ever visit, say, Niagara Falls?"

"Yes."

"Okay, so close your eyes and picture it."

"American or Canadian side?"

"Come on, Alex, play along with me here." He waited while she shifted position, putting her elbows on the table and resting her chin on her fists. "The falls are totally awesome, right? All that power thundering over the rocks, wide and fast and loud. Real loud. Do you remember hearing it?"

She winced. "Oh, yeah. But it's worse now than it was then!"

"Your enhanced senses probably weren't activated then. Okay, so that was hearing it from the edge, or maybe from the caves behind the falls. Did you ever see the falls from inside the building, walled off? The water isn't so loud now, is it?"

"No."

"Because you moved the sound one step farther away, and it wasn't so overpowering. Now picture seeing Niagara Falls on a TV screen. All the same sounds are still there, but you're the one in control of how loud they are. You can move up close, or step back. You can crank the sound on the TV up so loud you'd swear you were a fish in that waterfall, or turn it so low the falls turn into a drip from a water faucet."

She smiled dreamily at the idea.

"So let's try it now. Remember when you tried to hear everything around the cabin? It was overwhelming, like Niagara Falls: too much input. So you have to step back a little. You can hear the wind in the trees, and the birds, and the squirrels, but it's like they're on that TV screen, and you decide how loud each sound should be. Got it?" He waited until she nodded. "Okay, now there's a bird in the tree above us. Focus on that bird. Can you hear it?"

"It's shuffling back and forth on the branch...ruffling its feather...spreading its wings....."

Even Blair could hear it screech as it leaped into the sky. Alex flinched.

"There's a squirrel in the tree--"

Yeah, but you're not listening to it. Turn that sound down. It's on another channel, okay? You're just listening to the hawk. What do you hear?"

"It's flying, flapping its wings...chasing something, I think, because I hear another pair of wings. It landed on a tree, and the leaves are rustling."

Blair sat back, feeling a mix of euphoria and depression. Why couldn't a guide share a Sentinel's senses? Just once he'd like to be able to experience a bird's flight like that, not just in his imagination. It must be almost like being able to fly yourself.

Alex whipped off her sunglasses. "God, that was great! Can you do that with my eyes?"

"Sure. A TV screen is an even better icon for that kind of mental maneuvering, since it's so visually oriented."

"Whatever. Can we try it now? Show me how it works."

He walked her through it, linking her to the hawk with her hearing and then tying in the visual image so that she ignored the leaves and shadows and zeroed in on the distant hawk as if viewing it through a powerful telephoto lens. It was hard to tell which of them was happier. This was like running a test on her senses, demonstrably proving that his theories about Sentinels and sense-use were correct, while simultaneously helping her master her own power. No one should have to wince from the sunlight, or be afraid to step outside for fear of being overpowered by the noise.

Certainly Alex agreed. Exultantly, she leaned over the table, grabbed his face, and kissed him hard, sucking on his lower lip. He jerked away, because it was still sore from last night, but she didn't seem to notice. "Enough with the nature watch. Let's use this for something practical. Something useful."

"Like what?"

Her grin widened. "How about hide-and-seek?"

"What's so useful about that?"

"Oh, Blair, think creatively. We might find ourselves having to do bounty hunter work for awhile. Or we could use it to help defend us against Ellison, or other Sentinels out there." She stood up swiftly. "Or we could just have fun. Tag--you're it!"

"No, I'm not!" It took him an instant to slide out of the picnic table bench. "Alex!"

She darted into the woods, but his longer strides let him almost catch up with her before she disappeared. After that, he didn't have Sentinel senses to rely on, but he did have a lot more experience in the field than she did. He'd been in various jungles and survived with no Sentinel to help him. Granted, his sense of direction wasn't always the greatest, but he had enough sense to notice when branches were still swaying or weeds had been trampled.

His mistake was concentrating on the ground.

The birds had fallen silent. Was that because he was intruding, or because someone else had already passed by? He crouched, checking for footprints.

When a few leaves fell on his head, Blair glanced up in alarm, throwing up his arms, but it was too late. Alex was already pouncing on him from a tree limb, giggling. They rolled once, then she straddled him and bent, licking his nose.

"Gotcha."

He protested, "Hey, I'm 'it,' remember? I'm supposed to find you."

"I couldn't resist. I like to hunt."

"That's cheating."

"But it's fun, isn't it?" She slid her hands up under his shirt, raked his belly with her long fingernails. "Admit it."

"It's fun," he gasped.

"I knew you'd see it my way."

"But I can't breathe, and if my ribs aren't broken already, they will be in another minute."

With a pout, she rolled off him. "Spoilsport."

"Better a breathing spoilsport than a dead shaman," he observed. "Look, if you want to play hide-and-seek, let's do it right. You go back to the cabin and wait for five minutes, without using your senses to track me. I find someplace to hide. At the end of five minutes, you can use sight, hearing, smell, anything you can come up with to track me."

"And what incentive do I have to find you?"

"Other than the thrill of the hunt, you mean?" He sat up and cocked his head, smiling. "Well, there's this erotic ceremony the Ijo tribe reserves for honeymoons that legend says is so enjoyable that some new brides have refused to interrupt it to eat or sleep."

She scrambled to her feet. "Five minutes!"

Cupping his hands around his mouth, he yelled, "If you don't find me in fifteen minutes, it's my turn!"

Chances were that she'd find him--if she thought about it, she could listen for his heartbeat and track him down that way, since there didn't seem to be any other people around here--but reflecting on how she could reward him for successfully hiding would keep him pleasantly occupied while he waited to be found.

Why couldn't all test situations be like this? Of course, the university might object if he rewarded all passing grades in Basic Anthropology with an orgy, but still....

Smiling to himself, Blair Sandburg started down the mountain.

=#=#=#=#=#

Walking into the empty loft still hurt, like walking into the morgue and finding an empty slab where Blair Sandburg had been. When Jim crossed the living room, his footsteps echoed; he might have been crossing some deserted warehouse down by the docks, instead of entering his own home.

The echo was easy to understand. First he had tossed the kid out, so all the tribal knickknacks and mats and tapestries were gone. But that hadn't been enough; the loft still felt oppressive and crowded, so he moved the furniture into storage, leaving him as the center of a vast expanse of emptiness. That hadn't worked, either. The problem wasn't Sandburg, and it wasn't the loft. It was the presence of another Sentinel, an invader, in his territory.

Now the other Sentinel was gone. Cascade was his. That constricting sense of being stalked, that conviction that he and his city were being threatened, had vanished. So why didn't he feel better?

It was so quiet. When Carolyn, his ex, left, it hadn't been this quiet. He'd been comfortable, actually.

Ellison wandered into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and leaned on the door. His leftovers were there, in blue-lidded Tupperware. Sandburg's red-lidded assortment of Thai and Cuban and boiled tongue was gone. There was plenty of room in the refrigerator, now.

"I'm not hungry," he told the room.

Nobody objected that he'd missed the last two meals, or offered to cook Italian, or suggested going out for dim sum.

Ellison drifted back to the living room. There was dust on the floor: not much, but he could see a thin film. He didn't feel like dusting. He didn't want to watch tonight's game on TV. He didn't want to go on a date, or hang out with other cops at the bars near the station.

He sat down on the floor, leaning his head back against the wall, letting his hands dangle between his raised knees.

What I want is to turn back time. I want to tell Sandburg that maybe I wish he'd tone down some of the descriptions he used, but his paper is fine with me. Hell, I want never to have burglarized his personal stuff in the first place. I want to have been smarter, to have kept him right here where I could protect him. I knew he was in at least as much danger as the rest of Cascade--more, with his history of getting kidnapped and shot at--and I threw him out. Might as well have hung a sign around his neck: "take me."

And she did.

He closed his eyes. How long had it been since he'd slept, really slept?

Across the room, the phone rang, jarring him awake.

For just a moment he hesitated. What if Naomi had finally gotten one of his urgent messages, and was calling to find out what he had done with her only son? But by the third ring, he was on his feet.

"Ellison."

"Jim?" Captain Banks said. "We got a phone call from Alex Barnes."

That galvanized him. Maybe they would finally get some kind of lead. "I'll be at the station in five minutes. Maybe I can hear something in the background--"

"No time. Let me play the tape for you."

Concentrating, he could hear the tape spooling. "As you know, gentlemen, I picked up some interesting toys lately. Before I move on to areas with better financial gains, I'd like your city to come up with a token amount--say, five million dollars--to be deposited to a Swiss bank account. I'll call you back tomorrow with the account number. Now, I know you're too macho to just give in, so as proof that I mean business, why won't you pay a visit to Rainier University?" Her voice was too sweet. "Besides 'killing' Mr. Sandburg, I left one of the canisters there." There were verbal quotes around the word, damn it, she was as good as admitting he wasn't dead! "Oh, and Jim? Too bad about Blair, but I never did like to share my toys."

There was an audible click as Simon shut off the tape. "She called and told us to check a locker at Able Bodies gym, that's how we got the tape. She wasn't on the phone long enough to trace the call, and there were no fingerprints on the tape. I've already got the EMT's and Haz Mat team on the way."

"Sir? I'd like to cancel those two weeks off."

He heard paper rip. "It's already taken care of, Jim. I'll meet you there."

=#=#=#=#=#

As he bent over the keyboard, Blair yawned. It had been a long and physically strenuous day, both in and out of bed. Losing a game had never been such a delight before. He had to make a real effort to concentrate on his work.

That was partly because it was so depressing. Everything he had written was full of enthusiasm, so optimistic and excited. Right now, he felt decades older than the teaching assistant who believed Sentinels were good people, just because they were essential to the tribe. After all, warriors who were good at massacring enemies were also valuable to the tribe, weren't they? Why had he assumed Sentinels were moral and upright and genetically determined to Do the Right Thing? The fact that he'd only found two Sentinels with full use of all five senses, and 50% of them wanted to kill him, made him feel stupid for even choosing Sentinels for his thesis. He should've stuck with sexual rites in the Lower Basin, the way Professor Atherton had suggested.

What made it worse was that now that he didn't feel so groggy, and wasn't sleeping the days away, he kept having to dismiss stray warped memories. Sometimes he was sharing a doughnut with Alex, but it was Jim Ellison's hand that reached for it; or he was demonstrating using a spear to catch fish, only to find Ellison watching him instead of Alex. Intellectually he knew it was his subconscious substituting the wrong images, partly out of a paranoid conviction that his potential killer was everywhere, but emotionally it was a stunner.

"How about some tea?"

"No way. Sorry, Alex, it's probably stale or something, but that stuff is the pits."

She leaned over his shoulder. "Did you finish that ham? You want to keep your strength up so you can keep teaching me those erotic tribal rites, don't you?"

"I ate it. I'm pretty sure I ate it." He scanned the kitchen, finally locating the mostly empty plate. "Yup, I ate it."

She nibbled on his ear, licking at the two earrings. He moved his head away. Arching one eyebrow, she sat down across from him, studying him. "What's gotten into you?"

"I don't know, I just...." He pushed the laptop away. "I just can't understand how someone with the heightened senses of a Sentinel, meant to protect people, could abuse those senses."

She laughed. "You know, not everyone is as naive as you are."

"I'm not naive!" he bristled, suspecting that sometimes he was.

"Honey, I was never as young as you are, not even in my mother's womb. Given time, maybe you can still outgrow it. Just how does someone abuse enhanced senses? Overuse them?"

"No, I mean, why use them for the wrong things? Just think of all the things that can be done with those abilities."

Alex ticked off one finger. "No one can ever sneak up on you."

"So much for big-city muggers."

She continued ticking them off. "You can sneak up on people, the way I did with you today. You can see and hear what they're doing, without them ever noticing you're there."

"It'd be great for babysitters or police officers or--"

"It would be great for all sorts of people," she noted coolly. More fingers. "Sex becomes a whole experience once your sense of touch is hyperactive. You can smell someone hiding out near you, or smell smoke or poison before it affects you."

So far they'd covered sight, hearing, touch, and smell. That left taste, right? He offered, "You could taste poison in your food or drink."

Alex sat a little stiffer. "I don't think there's been a need for that since the Middle Ages."

"No, but if your meat's gone bad in the fridge or something, you'll know before you eat it and get food poisoning."

"But none of that will do me any good if I'm not thoroughly trained in using my senses. That's why I need you, right?"

He grinned across the table at her. "That, and my knowledge of tribal sex rites."

"Sometimes there's a fine line to walk, isn't there? I mean, take listening to someone's business conversation with your Sentinel powers, to take advantage of a stock deal."

"That's what I mean. Abusing it."

"But suppose you're trying to swing that stock deal because a killer is stalking you, and you have to get yourself and your partner out of the country. Doesn't that change things?"

Blair sighed. "This is the sort of bullshit philosophizing we used to do over too many beers when I was an undergrad. Is there a true evil, or is evil based on circumstances? Are there times when it's okay to commit murder?"

"Well, are there?"

"I don't know. I haven't killed anyone yet. Can't we use prisons or drugs instead of executions? Better yet, can't we all just be nice to each other?"

"You've studied different cultures. You know better than that." She got up and rummaged through the cabinets. "Was it wrong to kill Nazis? Even though some of them were good-natured young kids who were drafted, just by fighting they were supporting the murders of six million Jews, Gypsies, and Catholics. Wasn't it right to stop them?"

"They should have mutinied, protested--"

"We're talking about whether it was right to murder Nazis, not about what the Nazis could've done. So killing them was a good thing--whether it was in a battle, or in an assassination. Right?" When he hesitated, she prompted, "Right?"

"I suppose."

"Now suppose we have to steal a car to escape Ellison, or to escape Federal agents who want to kidnap me and use my abilities. Is that wrong? Would you give me a hard time over it?"

"Well, no, but--"

"So desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Just bear that in mind, for the future." Alex sat down again, holding a familiar bottle and spoon, and Blair groaned.

"Not that again. Just when I'm starting to feel like myself--"

"I know you're better, but we don't want you to backslide, now, do we? It's been a busy day for both of us."

"I don't even know what it's--"

Just a half dose now, once a day. It'll help you sleep."

"But--"

As soon as he opened his mouth, the tablespoon was tipped inside. He spluttered, but couldn't get a mouthful gathered up to spit back out before she was rubbing his shoulders and back. "See? You're so tense, you never would have fallen asleep without this."

"I'm not sleepy."

"You should be. It's been a long day. But we don't have to sack out yet if you don't want to. We can talk," she offered, kneading his muscles, trying to force them to relax.

He groaned. "More philosophy?"

"Not necessarily. Let's talk about what you did all day. For instance, you were going to research what happens when a Sentinel isn't with his helper and starts to zone-out. Did you have any luck with that yet?"

=#=#=#=#=#

Except for the familiarity of these halls, Jim Ellison might have been in a bad science fiction film. The Hazardous Materials suit he had liberated from the truck after the rest of the Haz Mat team entered the university was as bulky and oblong as the space suits shown in Fifties movies, and left him moving slowly, carefully, as if trapped on a planet with strange gravity. His ears were bombarded with the hiss of oxygen and static-ridden radio blasts from the Haz Mat workers, and that also reminded him of childhood movies.

They had formed a straggling line down the main hallway in the anthro building--cute prank from Barnes, hiding the time-release device there--and were passing bodies down the line to the sealed main entrance, where EMT's gave them oxygen and tried desperately to revive them. Scouts like Jim moved into the individual rooms, searching for victims.

The horrible thing was that even though the gas hadn't been released until early evening, they found victims: a balding dough-faced man in a sweater and jeans, collapsed against a desk in a puddle of vomit and paperwork; two young girls unaware of the indignity of dying in a public restroom; a maintenance man with his head in the bucket where the mop should've been. Thank God it was after dinner, when only a few over-achievers were lingering; otherwise, this nightmare would have been even worse.

Although Rainier University wouldn't agree, it was also fortunate that Barnes struck here. The building was modern, the windows sealed, so that it was easy to contain the poison; if she had set it off on a street in downtown Cascade, the death toll would have been in the thousands.

The radio in his suit crackled. "Speed it up, guys. Time's the deciding factor with the antidote, and the guys in white suits say we're running out of time."

That was another factor in their favor: from the moment that Barnes stole those gas canisters, they'd been amassing supplies of the antidote, knowing that sooner or later it'd be needed somewhere.

"Jesus." Approaching an intersection, Jim found himself about to step on a body curled in fetal position by the door, one tanned hand futilely outstretched. When he hefted the body, he glanced down at the lolling head, recognizing the white hair and freckled face of Professor Atherton, the woman who used to hit the bars with Blair. He swore that even though she could've been his grandmother, she was more fun than half the women his age, and what she didn't know about anthropology usually wasn't worth knowing. "I've got another one in sector eight."

"Copy that."

Jim carried her back to the main hall, trying to move quickly but feeling as if he were underwater and fighting for every step. Maybe it wasn't too late. The gas tended to rise, and they were having more luck with the ones who'd fallen flat.

This didn't happen in spite of me. It happened because of me. She would've stolen the gas and moved on, but she had to defeat the other Sentinel, had to prove she was better than me.

Professor Atherton was passed down the line of space-suited workers. Jim turned back. He had to find the canister and shut it down.

They had searched Sandburg's office thoroughly after they found him in the fountain out front; if the device had been hidden there, it would have shown up. But he knew it would be close by, because it would be less trouble to hide on her way to get Sandburg, and because that was her idea of fun. It was too bad, because Sandburg was in a corner on a mid-level, not so much in an office as in a fully-packed storage room with a desk and two chairs, meaning the gas could rise through the higher floors of the building. The office would be empty, though; they'd packed up his belongings--his whole life jammed in boxes, taken with him when he was evicted from his home--and stored them at the loft, after he was declared dead.

At least I won't have to go in there and see it.

Ellison stopped and took a deep breath of canned oxygen. There was no way to turn off the radio in these damn space suits, but he could use the trick Blair taught him: pretend the noises around you are playing on a radio, find the volume knob, and turn the volume down. It didn't make the sound go away, but it focused his concentration on what he wanted to hear. The hiss of his own oxygen got in the way, but there was an echo behind it. He zeroed in on that, making the fainter hiss more powerful until it wasn't just a whisper of sound, it was a waterfall, drowning out everything else.

Someone was shaking him. "Jim! Jim, for God's sake, wake up!"

He shook his head, dazed. There was someone else in Haz Mat gear standing beside him and shaking him. The other guy pressed his face mask against Ellison's.

"What the hell happened? When you didn't answer, we thought you ripped your suit."

"Captain? What are you doing here? You're not part of Haz Mat."

"I might say the same of you," Banks pointed out acidly. Since his voice was normally overbearing, it was even louder and harsher over the radio. "You must've been standing there for half an hour. Is this one of those Twilight Zone things?"

"A zone-out," he corrected, reaching up. "Simon, the gas is behind that ventilation grill, and it's still coming out. See if you can help me up there."

"I'll do it. You give me a leg up. And stay awake down there, you hear me?"

He watched as Banks fumbled with the grill, his own fingers curling, wanting to help yank it out. I zoned out. Damn it, I don't do that anymore, not since Sandburg taught me--

Simon grunted. "Got it. Listen up, all units, we found the source."

Someone whimpered behind Ellison. Another victim? Still alive, after all this exposure? He turned around and realized they were just eight feet from Sandburg's office.

Banks finished reporting the location and climbed off Ellison's shoulder. "Jim?"

There was a wolf sitting on the gleaming linoleum outside the office, head cocked, ears pricked.

What the hell--?

Although Simon seemed too preoccupied twisting Jim around and fiddling with his equipment, he should've seen the wolf, because it was solid and very real. So was the jaguar, its glorious golden pelt smeared with black, that padded around the corner from behind the wolf and snarled at Ellison. The wolf looked from the sleek cat to Ellison, whimpered again, then turned and ran past the jaguar, down the corridor and out of sight. Fangs flashing, the cat leaped at Jim, who staggered back, falling into Banks' arms.

"Jim, you're about out of oxygen. Come on. We've gotta get you out of here."

"But--"

"NOW!" Banks thundered, and he found himself stumbling in the captain's wake.

When he twisted around to search for the jaguar, it had simply disappeared.

=#=#=#=#=#
Having swum through this, I would like to continue to "Drowning" Part 3. The edge of the pool is almost in sight!

I've swallowed enough water. Forget this story. I'll check Jane's fan-fiction site to try some other tale.

No, on second thought, I'll dive into Jane's main page to check out the links and guestbook.

Never mind, I'll just call a lifeguard.

Copyright 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.