Picking a rather isolated corner of the lot, Blair carefully parked the truck straddling two parking spaces. He hopped out, grabbing his ever-present backpack as he slammed the door, then stepped back to scrutinize his handiwork.
"I've always hated people that hogged up two parking spaces to protect their precious cars. But, I do know what Jim threatened to do to me if I got so much as one scratch on you, Sweetheart, so, as they say, discretion is the better part of valor!" Smiling slightly, Blair gave the old truck's hood a fond pat before heading in the direction of the library.
Focused as he was on his destination, Blair didn't notice that the man who'd pulled up in the same remote corner of the parking lot just after he did never got out of his car nor did he notice the intense stare the man aimed at his retreating back.
The man watched until Blair had vanished from sight. Then, after giving a five-minute grace period, just in case the police consultant had forgotten something back at the truck, the man casually unlocked his car door and stepped out. After scanning the area to be sure there was no one within sight, he reached quickly into the back seat and pulled out a small, black satchel. Glancing around one more time for possible witnesses, the man gracefully dropped to the ground beside the truck and rolled swiftly under its chassis, opening the bag as he did so.
Blair hitched his backpack higher on one shoulder and pushed open the library doors, pausing just inside the threshold to appreciate the myriad of sights and sounds that greeted him. He'd forgotten just what a hive of activity the campus library could be--especially when finals were starting to draw near, and he had to admit to himself that he'd missed it. Being a professor, his workload did not involve as much time at the library as it used to in his grad student days.
As he strode further into the building, toward the computer screens where card catalog information was displayed, he had to smile at all the memories this brought back. There were at least forty students seated at the tables in the main gallery. Some were grumbling quietly as they tried to track down some elusive fact, the soft flutter of turning pages a fitting counterpoint to their frustrated voices. A slightly louder, 'Yes!' and the accompanying thud of a book closing let Blair know that at least one student had finished her quest. The sound of soft snoring and the sight of two or three students with their foreheads resting on their open books were a sure sign that a long night of cramming had finally caught up.
Seating himself in front of one of the computer monitors, Blair fumbled in his pockets for a piece of paper. "Okay, okay, I know it's here somewhere. I did put it in my pocket, right? Yeah, I'm sure I--ahh! Okay, here it is!" Pulling the crumpled sheet from his jeans, he started smoothing it out, his motions slowing as he gazed sadly at the familiar handwriting covering the paper.
"Ahh, Sky. I'm so sorry. I still miss you so much. I know, I know, you'd say not to mourn you. I'm sure you're happy in the Otherworld right now, awaiting your next incarnation. I can't help it, though. Just promise me that you'll look in on me occasionally, okay?" Wiping a hint of a tear from the corner of one eye, Blair looked at the list again and began typing the first title into the library's search engine. "See, Sky? You always knew I'd look further into this shamanistic legacy one of these days. Thank you again for the suggested reading list," the young man's voice became softer and more melancholy, "I'll always miss you."
A short while later, Blair found an empty table in a secluded corner of the library and carefully laid the three books he'd collected off the shelves in front of him. "'By Oak, Ash and Thorn' by D.J. Conway, 'Real Magic' by Isaac Bonewits and 'Animal-Wise The Spirit Language and Signs of Nature' by Ted Andrews. So, where do I start? I can take all three of them home with me for later perusal, but I really only have time to look at one this afternoon. Okay, Sky, you're the one who recommended these to me originally. Which one should it be?"
Blair sat for a moment, his gaze flickering between the three covers. Suddenly, he stopped and smiled, reaching out to draw one of the books closer, while simultaneously pushing the other two to the far side of the table. "'By Oak, Ash and Thorn' it is." Taking a moment to set the alarm on his watch, Blair opened up to the book's title page, settled himself in and began to read.
Four hours later, the soft beeping of the watch's alarm jolted Blair back to reality, and he reluctantly drew his mind away from the fascinating information he'd been reading long enough to look at the time. "Four o'clock. Okay. I've got to pick Jim up by six-thirty. This should give me just enough time to check out these books, head over to my office for an attempt at meditation, and then over to the precinct in time to pick Jim up before he even has time to start bitching about how I'm always late for everything."
The young man quickly gathered up the books and his backpack and made his way to the desk at the front of the library and checked out the books. Fumbling in his backpack for a moment, Blair came up with his cell phone, and flipping it open, quickly dialed a number that was almost second nature to him. He started across the quiet campus to his office as the phone was answered.
"Major Crimes. Ellison speaking."
"Hey, Jim, it's me. I've just spent the past four hours reading this really fascinating book on shamanism. I've checked it and a couple of other books on the subject out of the library. I'm heading over to my office right now, and I'm going to try a short meditation. Maybe it will help me to really digest what I've read, and help us come up with an answer for this thing with Rachael.
"Don't worry. I'm setting the alarm on my watch for quarter of six so that I'll have plenty of time to be at the station by six-thirty to pick you up."
"You forgot to mention that there won't be so much as a scratch on the truck, didn't you?" Jim's voice was slightly teasing, but Blair could hear the underlying command in the playful words.
"You worry too much, Jim," Blair tried unsuccessfully to suppress a sigh. "I promised you I'd be careful with your precious truck, and I will be. If I'm really good, though, Daddy, can we go out for ice cream after dinner?"
Despite himself, Jim was chuckling as he ended the conversation. "Only if you eat all your cheeseburger and fries first."
"Cheeseburger and fries?" The anthropologist grimaced as he snapped the phone shut with one hand while fumbling the key into his office door with the other. "I think that man is having delusions of Wonderburger again."
Blair stopped for a moment at his desk to shove the three library books inside his already bulging pack. Opening the second drawer on the left side of his desk, he withdrew four mild smelling meditation candles and, lighting and arranging them in a pattern on the floor, dropped into a half-lotus, closed his eyes and began to try to make his way to that inner-space.
As the scents of the Peruvian rainforest replaced the gentle aroma of the candles, Blair opened his and found that he was once again standing on a path in the middle of the jungle, just as he had last night. Looking ahead, he saw the grey wolf from his previous vision. Yipping once, the great beast turned and continued to lead the way down the trail.
After walking seemingly forever, Blair noticed that the verdant rainforest was giving way to the darker green pine forests native to the Pacific Northwest. Before he had time to really wonder about the change, however, the trees stopped abruptly at the entrance to a large clearing. Blair felt a nameless dread seize his bones as the sound of flowing water and screaming voices reached his ears.
The young man slowed his steps, uncertain whether he really wanted to see whatever it was that was taking place in the center of the clearing. The wolf turned back to him, and growling impatiently, gripped Blair's shirtsleeve firmly in his teeth, drawing the anthropologist into the clearing, regardless of whether he wanted to go or not.
Breaking through the circle of trees, Blair found himself watching what seemed to be a vision out of his own private hell. Directly facing him was the fountain in front of Hargrove Hall--the fountain. His lifeless body lay dripping on the grass, Jim and Simon trying desperately to coax new life into it. He could hear his Sentinel exhorting him, in heartbroken tones, not to leave. He started to turn away, not wanting to witness anymore of the wrenching scene.
Before he completed the movement, however, he felt a hand on his arm, and looked over to see Incacha watching him, a very serious expression on his face.
"Why did you bring me here?" Blair's voice was rough with his surging emotions. "In case you've forgotten, I've been there, done that, have the T-shirt. What possible use could there be in showing me this again?"
"Did you not learn anything from the experience? How did you grow as a result?"
"A shaman has to die in order to truly open his powers. I'm assuming that most of the time it's done on a more symbolic level, but I was never an underachiever, so I went for the gusto." Blair's voice cracked a bit at the end, and he stopped, unable to continue.
"Yes, but what did you truly learn?"
"I defeated death, okay? What do you want out of me? What else am I supposed to learn?"
"But, what did you learn? How did you truly defeat death?" Incacha's voice was endlessly patient, and Blair suppressed a momentary urge to slug him for it.
"Defeat death? I was dead. I died and came back. What more can I do to defeat death? Wrestle it to the ground, best two out of three?"
"You died, but how did you defeat death?"
Blair looked back over to the scene by the fountain, just in time to catch Jim's heartbroken, 'No!!!' as Henri and Simon hauled him bodily away from the young man's corpse still lying on the grass.
"No. I think you're right." Blair's brow furrowed as he considered the Chopec's question. "I died, but I have not truly defeated death. I don't need to die, I need to overcome my fear of it, so that death has no hold over me. Only then can I truly recognize it as part of the natural cycle. I do not fear for my death, but I fear what effect my death would have on a certain other who was left behind. I cannot truly defeat death until I can accept that what happens, happens. My fearing death on his behalf will not change what will be if my death does happen, will it? Until I can accept that death is part of the natural cycle and comes to all in its time, regardless of those left behind, I have not truly defeated death, have I?"
The other shaman's face broke into a rare smile and he gave Blair an encouraging pat on the back. "Now you begin to learn, young shaman. Learn to defeat death and you will truly open the potential inside you."
Blair opened his eyes to find himself still seated in a half-lotus on his office floor, the meditation candles guttering as they burned out around him. Staring at the dying flames of the candle in front of him, Blair stayed where he was for a few minutes, contemplating the message his vision had contained. He had thought that when he died at the fountain, he had defeated death. He now understood that dying and defeating death were often two entirely different things. As a part of his calling, the shaman revered life and was willing to do battle to preserve the life force. However, the shaman also understood that death was a part of the natural order and comes to all in their turn.
He could understand the distinction. Death did not wait until a man had his affairs in order. When it was time, it was time, and nothing could, or should, change that. Yes, he did not want to leave Jim without a Guide, but, by the same token, a woman did not want to leave her children, nor a husband his wife.
Blair stood up slowly, brushing the dust off the legs of his jeans. When he looked at it that way, his situation really was not that different from anyone else's. Many people died leaving unfinished affairs of one sort or another behind them. His situation was no different. To truly defeat death, he had to learn to fight it whenever possible, but to welcome it when the time came, no matter whom it came for.
Still deep in thought, Blair absently extinguished the candles on the floor and gathered up his backpack before leaving his office and heading out to the parking lot. Half way to the truck, he remembered his promise to call Jim and pulled the cell phone out of his pocket.
"Hey, Jim, it's me. I'm all done here at the university and am heading back out to the truck right now. I should get to the station in about twenty minutes."
"That's fine, Chief. Were you able to find anything useful?"
"Oh, yeah, Jim," Blair chuckled as he juggled the phone and his backpack while attempting to pull the truck's keys out of his jeans pocket. "I have lots to think about. I'll tell you about it when I get to the station, okay?"
"Sounds good. We still have some stuff to finish up here, so would you mind stopping off at Wonderburger for dinner on your way here? I want the Megaburger with cheese, large fries and a large coke."
"Yeah, sure, dream on. I'll tell you what. I'll stop at that deli you like and pick you up a nice roast beef sandwich with tomatoes and onions and hot mustard. Okay?"
Jim's sigh was theatrical in its suffering. "If that's the best you can do, Sandburg, I guess I'll have to live with it. Don't forget the large bag of potato chips, though."
"Fine. I'll get you the chips, Jim, I promise."
"None of those baked ones, either, I want the real thing! Got that, Sandburg?"
"Sorry, didn't quite catch that, Jim," Blair laughed as he clicked the phone shut and climbed into the cab of the old, Ford pickup.
He didn't pay any attention to the car that pulled out of the parking lot behind him, trailing his route through the roads leading back to the city.
The other man stared intently as Blair guided the pickup through the turns leading back to Cascade. He gently fingered a small remote control device as he watched the truck maneuver around a particularly twisty part of the route. Timing his action carefully, the man depressed the button just as the old Ford steered into a rather tight curve that was bounded by a guardrail and a rather steep drop off.
He smiled as a small explosion rocked the other vehicle, and the passenger side tire blew, sending the truck into an uncontrolled skid into the rail and down over the embankment.
Glancing just once in the direction the truck had disappeared into, the man tucked the remote control into the glove compartment and continued at a leisurely pace back toward Cascade. Whether the young man was dead or not was not his concern. He had only been paid to arrange the accident, and, once again, he had performed superbly. A self-satisfied grin split the man's face as he began considering all of the things he would buy with his payment for this job.
The sound of the explosion and the hard jolt that rocked the truck shocked Blair out of the half zone he'd been driving in. He could feel the vehicle veer off to the left, toward the guardrail and the drop off. Gripping the wheel tighter, he attempted to control the skid by pumping the brakes gently and steering in the direction the truck was sliding.
In the end, though, he could only stare in horror and pray to all the gods and goddesses he had ever heard of as the old Ford crashed through the guardrail and careened down the steep embankment. Attempting to steer or apply the brakes had no effect as the pickup tobogganed wildly down the hill. The truck skidded sideways, and the last thing that Blair saw was the trunk of the huge, old oak as it slammed through the passenger door of the cab.
Consciousness returned to Blair by slow degrees. At least he assumed that it was consciousness. Opening his eyes, he found that he was lying flat on his stomach in the midst of some completely featureless, black plain. There was no sign of anything that he'd expected to see upon waking. No truck, no tree, no ambulance, no hospital, hell, even his vision forest and his ever-faithful wolf companion were nowhere to be seen.
Pushing himself up to a sitting position, Blair began to feel the first stirrings of fear as his eyes tried unsuccessfully to pierce the darkness. Taking a deep breath, he called out, his voice cracking just a little bit, "Hey, is there anybody out there? What's going on here? Where is everybody? Everything?"
His voice seemed to echo slightly, but other than that, the void gave him no answers. "Hmmm. Maybe I'm dead. Funny, though. I always thought that being dead would be a lot more interesting than this. Guess I'm not going to figure anything out just sitting here. Of course, it's not like I have the slightest idea of where to go--or even if there is anywhere to go."
Rising to his feet, Blair turned a slow circle. The flat, black, featureless plain stretched as far as his eyes could see in every direction. "Well, eenie-meenie-minie-moe. Left it is." Turning, the young man began to walk in the direction he'd chosen, scanning around him for anything to break the monotony of his surroundings.
"Couldn't you find a better use for your time discovering why you are here rather than wandering aimlessly about?"
"Incacha?" Blair jerked his head around quickly, searching for the owner of that voice. "Incacha, where are you? Where am I? What am I doing here?"
"Where do you think you are, young one? Why do you think you are here?" The Chopec shaman's voice seemed to come from all around, and Blair could not pinpoint a single direction no matter how hard he tried.
"Come on, young one. I know you can do better than this. Think."
Drawing a deep breath, Blair contemplated the blackness all around him for a moment before he spoke. "I think maybe I'm dead. I'm hoping that I'm not, but all of this nothing doesn't exactly make me feel happy, sunshine thoughts. Is this an in between place that my soul has to go through to make it to the other side?"
A resonant voice suddenly spoke. "It's not for me to give you the answers. You must find those for yourself."
"Incacha! Why can't you ever give me a straight answer rather than talking in riddles all the time!" Exasperated, Blair let out a long sigh, which rustled the hair hanging around his face. "Okay, okay. So it's my journey, right? Well," he gestured at the black, featureless plain, "I must be dead. This must be a sort of staging area where I have to wait until, I don't know, my soul can move on or something?"
"And how do you feel about that?" Incacha's voice was quiet and cajoling.
"I'm not sure. I definitely wasn't planning on being dead this young, and there's no way I want to leave Jim behind. I'm not sure what he'll do without me. I'm not trying to make myself sound indispensable or anything, but he'll have a hard time trying to deal with all that Sentinel stuff alone. Damn it, Incacha--I'm really not ready to die right now! I've got things to do and obligations to meet."
This time, there was no mistaking the reproof in the Chopec shaman's voice, "Did you not learn anything from your prior vision? What is the way of the shaman, young one?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Blair's frustration came through clearly in his voice and posture as he spoke. "The shaman defends life, but accepts death when its time comes. What good does it do me, though, to accept death--my death in particular--if that means I'm actually going to die? What good does this do me as a shaman if I have to die for good to defeat death?"
"Who ever said death was fair?"
Blair's head shot up at the unexpected echo of his comment to Simon. He grimaced, his sense of justice outraged. If life wasn't fair and death wasn't fair, how did anyone ever get the chance to get things right?
Incacha went on before he had the chance to voice his questions. "Why should you be different or be given special consideration over others? The shaman knows that death is inevitable, and while he may fight to keep it at bay, death will not and should not be denied. When the time comes, whether for you or your closest friend or the most powerful man in the world, you must accept that, for only in accepting that death is as necessary as life, can the shaman truly open himself to the power that surrounds him."
Blair hung his head and sighed sadly, brown curls obscuring his face. "You're right, Incacha. I would rather not die, but if this is my time, then at least I can face my final test with a bit of style." A tiny smile quirked the young man's lips as he threw his arms wide. "Death, if this must be, then I welcome you! If this is not set in stone, then I ask that you pass me by on this trip, but if I must go, let's go! I would ask, if possible, that you help those I leave behind, especially Jim, to go on with their lives, but I know that what happens, happens."
Lifting his head, squaring his shoulders and peering through the impenetrable blackness, Blair spoke in a calm, quiet voice, "Incacha, I am ready. Guide me to the other side, so that I may meet those who have gone before me and prepare for my next incarnation."
Suddenly, the oppressive darkness lifted, and Blair found himself once again standing on a path in the middle of a thick, Pacific Northwestern, pine forest. Incacha stood before him, a handsome grey wolf close by his side.
A rare smile split the older shaman's face as he reached forward with a bloody hand and grasped Blair's forearm. "Now is not your time to die, young one. Now that you are truly ready, I once again pass the way of the shaman on to you. Use it wisely."
Blair gazed, dumbfounded at the bloody handprint on his arm for a moment. A soft growl caught his attention, and he looked down at his spirit guide just in time to see the wolf gather itself and leap. He gasped in wonder as the animal merged with him, and he felt a sudden rush of power and ancient knowledge fill his soul.
"Once you have finished the business before you now, you and Enqueri must complete your bond. You cannot truly think that the two pools in the sacred temple were for the use of two Sentinels, can you?"
"No. . . ." Blair answered slowly, the knowledge suddenly as sure in him as anything ever had been in his life. "They are for the use of the watcher and his partner, to complete the bond between them.
"Incacha--I know that this is true. But why didn't Jim and I know that when we were at the temple before? It certainly would have saved us some time and heartache," Blair finished with some asperity.
"You were not prepared then. To have rushed the ritual when both parties are not ready would have been disastrous. You are ready this time."
"But, Incacha, is Jim ready?" Blair's voice was quiet and carried a strong undercurrent of concern. "I know I made my mistakes before, but Jim did, too. I will not go forward unless it is safe for him as well."
"Your concern for your Sentinel does you proud, but this is your story we are telling, not his." Blair did not miss the hint of reproof as the older man continued speaking, "We cannot tell another man's story. I am sure that Enqueri will make whatever preparations he must.
"Remember, young one. The way of the shaman is truly yours now. Use the gifts it brings you wisely." The Chopec shaman's voice seemed to be coming from a great distance as Blair was once again enfolded by velvet blackness, only this time, he was not aware of his surroundings.
The next thing Blair was aware of was a liquid trail slowly wending its way past his eye and down his cheek. The warm wetness of it was annoying and itched miserably besides. Warily opening one eye, Blair took careful stock of his current situation.
Okay, crumpled truck, large tree poking through the passenger door, various bumps and bruises--he could handle this. No Chopec shamen, no wolves, no dream forests, he was back in the real world. Lifting his hand, Blair cautiously touched the warm, wet trail running down his face. Blood. Okay, that was hardly a surprise. Glancing around, he took stock of his situation. The truck? Well, as far as he could tell, it was toast. He, on the other hand, seemed to have escaped serious injury. Carefully flexing all of his limbs and feeling along his ribs and up and down his body just confirmed his first impression. A few bumps and bruises, a nasty cut to his forehead, but he was otherwise intact.
As he cautiously felt his way into the crumpled passenger side of the truck, Blair could hardly suppress a little cry of triumph. He could feel his beloved backpack wedged on the floorboards of the truck. A little more careful poking located his cell phone, still zipped up in its side compartment. Gingerly opening the zipper, trying to be careful of the sharp edges of crushed metal that surrounded it, he managed to extract the device. Upon inspection, he was pleased to find that the instrument seemed to have come through the accident unscathed. Flipping the phone open, he dialed a familiar number and waited while it rang once in his ear.
"Jim, it's me--"
"Sandburg, where are you?" Jim's worried voice cut through Blair's words, "You're an hour late to the station already. I've been trying your office and cell phone, but haven't gotten an answer. I even had campus security at Rainier check your office and look for my truck in the parking lot. Simon and I were just about to head out to look for you. What happened?"
"Well, Jim, remember that promise I made that I wouldn't get a scratch on your truck?" Hearing nothing but his partner's suspicious silence on the other end, Blair continued, "I'm afraid that I was a bad boy, Daddy, and there won't be any ice cream after dinner tonight."
"What happened, Sandburg? Where are you? Are you hurt? How's the truck?"
Blair couldn't help smiling at Jim's steady stream of questions. Trust him to immediately try to take control of any situation. "No, no, really, I'm fine, Jim. I was driving to the station from Rainier and when I got to the part of the road that has that really steep drop off, the front tire suddenly blew. I lost control of the truck and ended up here, halfway down the hill, with a large tree making itself comfortable in the passenger seat. And, Jim, I felt an explosion when that tire went. I don't think it was a natural occurrence, if you know what I mean."
"Okay, Chief, as long as you're okay. Just stay where you are. We're on our way with an ambulance and a wrecker."
"Jim, the ambulance really isn't necessary, I'm fine."
"That's non-negotiable, Sandburg. Now, just stay where you are. You probably shook what few brains you have up even more than normal. We'll be out there soon."
The line went dead in Blair's hands before he could come up with any sort of suitable retort. Closing up the phone with a sigh, he looked around, taking better stock of his surroundings, or more particularly, of his chances of getting out of the truck without killing himself. Peering through the windows of the vehicle, he realized that the old Ford had gone only about fifty feet down the slope before hitting the tree. Although the slope ended in an almost vertical drop-off another fifty feet down or so, this part of the incline was actually fairly shallow. The truck and the tree it had hit seemed to be wedged securely together.
Okay, that was a good start. Experimentally, he tried shifting his weight slightly in each direction. The wrecked truck did not move at all. Okay, the truck probably wasn't going to plunge over the cliff if he tried to escape the vehicle. Now the sixty-four thousand dollar question was whether he was pinned in the vehicle in any way, and whether he could open the door or knock out a window to allow his escape. Feeling around carefully, he was able to determine that with a little bit of squirming, he'd be able to work his way out of the crumpled cab. Pulling at the latch and pushing at the door, he quickly determined that nothing short of a long session with a crowbar was going to convince it to open. When he turned his attention to the driver's side window, he was surprised and delighted to find that the handle turned easily and the window lowered obediently. Well, at least halfway.
Eyeing the resulting opening, Blair decided that with some prodigious wiggling, he'd just be able to fit his body through the window. He took a deep breath and squeezed through the portal, falling onto the soft pine needles scattered over the ground with a thump. Standing, he brushed himself off and started carefully back up the hill, toward the road.
Reaching the crumpled guardrail and soft gravel along the shoulder of the highway, Blair could hear the approaching wail of sirens steadily rising in pitch as they neared. Okay, boys and girls, this is the Doppler effect in action. Remember this for your next pop quiz. Giggling slightly, he listened more closely, That sounds like, let's see, two police cars and an ambulance. I don't think there's any fire trucks with them. Oh, lord, what does that make now? Method number four hundred and twenty-two to tell that you've been hanging around with the cops too long. You can identify what type of emergency vehicle it is by the sound its siren makes .
Peering down the road in the direction of Cascade, Blair had to smile when, right on cue, two police cars and an ambulance rounded the corner, followed, at a slightly more leisurely pace, by a heavy-duty wrecker. See, I knew it! The wrecker doesn't count. Those don't have sirens.
As Simon's sedan skidded to a stop nearby, the passenger door flew open, even as the police captain was disengaging the sirens and shutting off the ignition to his car.
"Chief! Are you okay?!? Here, let me see." Jim was by Blair's side almost before the anthropologist could register surprise that the man could move so quickly. Calming down as his first assessment assured him that Blair had suffered no serious injuries, the detective continued in a more placid tone of voice, "What happened here, Sandburg?"
Following the other man's gesture down the slope, Jim's eyes widened in shocked disbelief. A choked whisper of, "Sweetheart!" was torn from his throat as he found his feet drawn, almost beyond his control, down the hill toward the crushed remains of his truck.
Stopping at the smaller man's side, Simon tilted Blair's head up for a moment to get a better look at the blood still trickling down from a gash near the other man's hairline.
"Don't take it personally, Sandburg," the big captain's voice was quiet and comforting. "He was worrying himself sick over you the whole way here. Now that he's seen that you're okay, I'm afraid that the age old attraction between man and his big machine is coming back into play." Smiling slightly, Simon patted Blair's cheek gently before steering him in the direction of the waiting ambulance. "I think you're probably fine, Sandburg, but just for everyone's peace of mind, why don't you step over there and let those fine gentlemen check you out."
"No buts, Sandburg. It's going to take us a while to secure the accident scene and determine what happened. I'll send one of the uniforms over to take your statement in just a minute. In the meantime, why don't we just make sure that you really are fine.
"Jim would never forgive himself if you dropped over dead while he was down there mooning over that old truck of his. Get yourself checked out, make everyone feel better, and give Jim a minute to mourn the dead. Now, go." Simon punctuated his final words with a gentle shove in the direction of the waiting paramedics.
Watching long enough to see the younger man actually seated on the gurney and being attended to, the big police captain turned to look at Jim. The other man was seemingly in a deep discussion with the driver of the wrecking truck on the best way to haul the crumpled remains of the F-150 back up to road level.
Picking his way carefully down the slope, Simon surveyed the wreckage before touching his best detective briefly on the shoulder. "I'm really sorry, Jim. I know how fond you were of this truck."
"How fond I was? What are you talking about, Simon?" the other man's voice was disbelieving and slightly belligerent, "A few repairs, a little time at the body shop and she'll be as good as new!"
"Jim," Simon's gesture encompassed the whole scene, "look around you. I know that your insurance company hates you, but I don't think that even they will begrudge totaling the truck. It's got no bluebook value whatsoever. It's worth nothing except the salvage price."
"Salvage? You must be kidding, Simon." Jim's eyes flashed dangerously as he laid a protective hand on what was left of the old truck's hood. "You don't just 'salvage' a classic. With the proper care and TLC, and she'll be back on the road before you know it."
Holding up his hands in a placating gesture, Simon decided that it was time to turn Jim's thoughts back to the reason the truck had crashed in the first place. "Jim, Blair told you that there was an explosion before he lost control. Can't you check out the scene a little bit before we move anything, see if you can tell what happened? See if you can tell whether the tire blew by accident or if it had a little help."
"God, Simon, you're right, I got so wrapped up in the damage to the truck that I forgot all about the bigger picture here. Blair could have been killed! If the truck had spun in the other direction and that tree had hit the driver's side..." Jim shuddered at the thought.
"Let me see." Jim's gaze went slightly unfocused as he walked slowly around the truck, concentrating on finding anything out of place. "Wait a minute! Here, by the passenger side wheel well. I can smell just a slight hint of C4. I can't get close enough to actually take a look because that tree is in the way, but tell forensics to look carefully at that part of the truck."
"Okay, that's it!" Simon clapped his hands, calling the attention of the wrecking crew who were still trying to hook the truck up to the winch chain. "This is now an official crime scene. You're going to have to clear out of here. Tell one of the uniforms up top to call this into the station and get forensics out here. Also, please ask one of them to bring the crime scene tape down so we can mark this area off.
"C'mon, Jim. Let's go collect Sandburg. Maybe he can give us some clue about how this might have happened and who they were gunning for--you or him."
"Simon," Jim's voice was hard and angry as he answered his captain. "That C4 was new. I would have smelled it if it had been in the truck before we got to the station. That explosive was added either while I was parked in the PD garage, which I seriously doubt--too many witnesses, plus video surveillance--or it was done while Blair was parked at the university." Taking a deep breath as he reached the top of the hill, the detective made his way toward the ambulance. "I'll bet this has something to do with that bastard, Myles. I doubt that anyone Blair's flunked is proficient with C4. The timing is just too coincidental. I'll bet that sleazeball lawyer called somebody and set this up. But why would she do that? What possible purpose would that serve?"
"Hey, Sandburg--how are you doing? Have these fine medics given you the green light to go back to the loft, or is a trip to the hospital necessary?" Without waiting for the young man's answer, Simon looked back at his senior detective.
"How about as a distraction, Jim? You've got to admit that we got real lucky here. If that truck had gone over the edge or if it had hit one of the trees driver's side first or if it had rolled or if a hundred other things had happened Blair could have been hurt much worse. Then you would have been distracted by your worry or by waiting to see how things were going to go. It would have kept you busy for a while, anyway."
"Simon, what are you talking about?" Blair's voice trailed over the other man's words. "Someone was trying to hurt me as a distraction for Jim? Man, that sucks."
"A distraction, yes, Sandburg, but not just for Jim. I'm assuming you can go home now. Get in my car, both of you, I'll give you a ride back to the loft. I'm going to let the uniforms know what's going on, and I'll call Serena and tell her that you smelled C4, Jim. Don't take too long getting back to the car or I just might leave without you." With those words, the captain stalked off, leaving Blair gaping in disbelief behind him.
"Oh, wow, man, did I hear right? Not just a distraction for you? I mean, I know Simon's my friend, but to hear him actually admit he cares, I mean, wow." Blair smiled hugely as he watched the big man retreat.
"Now don't be getting any bright ideas there, Junior. You know better than to push Simon on this. 'Don't ask, don't tell' is his motto."
Grabbing the younger man's arm, Jim turned to the ambulance crew, who were busy packing up their supplies, "I take it he doesn't need a trip to the hospital and is free to go?" At the medics' nods, he steered his friend toward the waiting Chrysler.
Opening the door, he pushed Blair into the back seat, "Just wait there, Chief. We'll be leaving in a minute." Jim shut the door on the other man's complaints and peered over the roof of the car to see Simon approaching at a fast walk. Quickly opening his door, Jim slid into the car's comfortable front seat and waited for his captain.
"Hey, Jim," Blair's complaint came just as Simon was inserting his keys into the ignition. "How come you get the front seat, again, while I'm stuck back here like the red-headed stepchild?"
"Sandburg," Simon fixed the younger man's reflection in the rear view mirror with a glare. "Can you please act your age for once? So far as I know, there's no lasting social stigma attached to riding in a car's back seat." Snapping his head quickly to the side, he proceeded to fix Jim with an icy stare. "And that means that you stop sticking your tongue out at him, too. I swear, you two are worse than Daryl ever thought of being! Now, can we please discuss this case and what happened out there like the mature adults I am and you two pretend to be occasionally?"
"Uhm, okay, Simon." Blair actually did sound slightly chastised, although Jim privately thought he was just acting for Simon's benefit. "What were you two talking about back there? Someone rigged the truck so I'd wreck it on purpose? Why?"
Turning around to look at his partner, Jim filled his partner in on the suspicions he and Simon had discussed.
"Jim, look at the bright side." The detective cocked a disbelieving eyebrow at his captain's words, but Simon continued to speak anyway. "He wouldn't have tried something like this unless he's afraid that you and Blair are getting too close for comfort on the murders of his wife and daughter. Once you put him away for life, that should be payback enough." Pausing to fix Blair's gaze in the rear view mirror, he continued, "Are you absolutely sure you're okay, Sandburg? You really don't need to go to the hospital? I saw what the cab of that truck looked like, and I can't believe that you just walked away from it."
"No, no, Simon, I'm fine, really. I don't think I was unconscious for more than a half-hour or so, tops--"
Blair's words were cut off as Jim lunged across the seatback to grab hold of his upper arms while Simon screeched the big Chrysler to an abrupt stop. "Dear god, Chief, you were out for half an hour and you didn't think that it was worth telling anybody about? Don't the words 'brain injury' mean anything at all to you? Simon, turn this car around now, we need to get him to the nearest hospital."
Shaking his head in agreement, Simon started to turn the car toward Cascade General Hospital, but was stopped when Blair shook off Jim's grip and yelled at the top of his lungs, "NO HOSPITAL, I'M OKAY, REALLY!!!" Lowering his voice, he continued in a much calmer tone, "Look, Jim, I don't think I would have been unconscious after the accident at all, except that Incacha saw it as his opportunity to get me to really accept death."
"Whoa, whoa, hold it right there," Simon's words were commanding and brooked no argument. "This sounds like it's going to be one of those discussions about all that mystical Sentinel stuff. I really don't want to hear it--too much information. So, let's leave it that you're not seriously injured and the two of you can continue this discussion once I get you back to your apartments. Got that?"
"Sure, Dad." Blair leaned forward to secure Simon in a one armed hug over the seat back. "Wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable talking about our dates or anything, so we'll just wait until you go to bed then we'll meet out in the hallway and whisper together."
"Hey, Sandburg." Jim's features were set in an unhappy pout. "You said earlier that I was Dad. How come he gets to be Dad now and I'm just your older brother. It's not fair!"
"Well, Jim, you were supposed to take me out for ice cream after dinner, remember? You're not going to do that now, so I went out and found myself a nicer Dad.
"So, what do you think, Daddy?" Blair tightened his one armed hug around Simon even more as he continued, "Will you be nice and take me out for ice cream?"
"Now, that's not fair, Sandburg. I would have taken you out for ice cream, but you promised that you wouldn't get a scratch on the truck. You totaled it, Chief! I hardly think that's grounds for being treated to ice cream!"
"But even you said it wasn't my fault, Jim." Sticking his tongue out at the older man, Blair continued, "I don't think I should be held accountable for something that even you said wasn't my fault."
Shifting his car into park at the entrance to 852 Prospect, Simon let out a sigh of relief. "Okay, you two, out! Now! Some of us do have real work to do. I'll expect to see you two at the station by nine tomorrow. I'll let you know what forensics finds, and we'll do your official statement then, okay, Sandburg?"
Leaning in through the open car window, Blair smiled sweetly at the older man. "Uhm, Dad, we have a little problem there, remember? The truck is totaled and the Volvo is still at the PD garage. We don't have any way to get in. Please pick us up. You wouldn't want us to have to take the bus, would you?"
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Simon yanked his wallet out of his back pocket, extracted a $20 bill and handed it to the other man. "Here, take a cab! You two can be hard enough to handle in the afternoon when I'm wide-awake. If I had to pick both of you up first thing in the morning, I don't think a jury in the world could convict me of homicide. Now, get out of my window and let me get back to work!"
"Bye, Simon!" Blair laughed as he opened the door leading into the building. "Man, what a pushover! Cab fare to the precinct is only $10. I'm making $10 on the deal!"
"Well, then," laughed Jim as he followed Blair up the steps, "you're definitely the one buying the ice cream!"
"Rain check, okay? We have things we need to talk about tonight. Besides, you know I'm going to give it back to him, anyway." Pausing on the second floor landing, Blair dug through his pockets until he produced his apartment key. "I want to stop off to take a shower and get changed, and then I'll be up. Do you have sandwich makings?" At the other man's nod, he continued, "Okay, then. I'll bring up some of that fresh fruit salad I made and we can have dinner. I'll see you in a half-hour or so."
"Hey, Jim," Blair's voice floated up the spiral staircase to the loft. "Can you please come down here for a minute and help me? I've got too much stuff and I can't handle it all."
"Geez, Sandburg, what is all this?" Heading down the stairs, Jim took in the bowl, bottles and assortment of books laid out on the other man's kitchen table.
"The bowl, obviously, is the fruit salad. If I remember correctly, you're out of spring water, so I thought I'd bring some up because that's what I want to drink. It's what you should drink, too, so there's enough there for you. As for the books--I told you we have things to discuss, remember? The books have some references that could be helpful."
Suppressing a groan, Jim looked at the pile of books again. Although I should probably refer to them as research materials or academic texts. Jim thought with a sigh.
"Okay, Sandburg, I'll tell you what. The fruit salad sounds good. I'll even agree to go with the water instead of beer. But, is all this research material really necessary? Why don't you just tell me what you have to say without bringing other people's viewpoints into it? If we really need to get something clarified, we'll come down and get the books then, okay?"
Blair considered the other man's words for a minute, then smiled and picked up the fruit salad bowl. "I guess I can live with that. I'll grab the bowl, you take the bottles and let's go have dinner. I'm starving."
Back upstairs, Blair immediately started digging through the refrigerator for sandwich makings while Jim pulled small bowls out of the cupboard for individual servings of fruit salad. "Ham, cheese, turkey, corned beef, pastrami--I see someone was at the deli recently. Okay, let's see, mayonnaise, mustard, tomato, lettuce. I think we're ready to go here."
Sitting on the couches in the living room, the two men ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, then Blair placed his empty dishes on the coffee table and turned to look at his partner. "Well, truck crashes aside, I had a very interesting afternoon. I learned a lot, and I think I've taken care of the problems you've been having with Rachael's ghost. Where do you want to start?"
"Why don't you just pick a place near the beginning, and we'll go from there."
"Okay, I spent most of the afternoon reading this really fascinating book on shamanism. It said--"
"Whoa, Chief." Jim held his hand up for the other man to stop. "Do you really need to tell me everything the book said? Is that really necessary to the rest of your story?"
"No, I guess not." Blair's voice was slightly deflated, but brightened considerably as he continued his story, "After I was done at the library, I went to my office to try to meditate. It was so cool, Jim! I slipped right into a trance, or whatever you want to call it, and then the wolf was there. He led me to this clearing, where I saw Incacha."
"Incacha?!?" Jim's voice was disbelieving as he interrupted his friend's story.
"Yes, Incacha, Jim. He had some pretty important stuff to say. Anyway, they brought me to this clearing where, uhm, I saw the fountain and all of you trying to save my life." Blair's voice dropped to almost a whisper as he said this, and looking at Jim, he saw the telltale tensing of the other man's jaw muscles.
"I asked Incacha why he would want to bring me back there, and he told me that I hadn't really defeated death there."
"What do you mean, you didn't defeat death? You died--what more do you have to do to defeat death?" The older man's voice was incredulous.
"Well, that's what I asked Incacha. He explained that dying is not the same as defeating death. I died, but I didn't accept death as a natural and inevitable part of life--even mine. It seems that I had a little too much attachment to something here." Blair peeked through his hair at the other man, just in time to see a small smile flit across his lips. "So, anyway, since I hadn't defeated death, that's why the way of the shaman that Incacha passed to me wasn't kicking in or anything."
"So, what do we do about that? Wait a minute--didn't you say something in Simon's car about Incacha getting you to really accept death after you wrecked my truck?"
"And they say you only made detective because of your sterling wit and native good looks." Blair's voice turned serious as he continued. "Yeah, actually it was kind of a dirty trick. When the truck hit that tree, the next thing I remember is waking up on this completely black, featureless plain. After letting me wander around aimlessly for a while, Incacha got into this heavy discussion with me about how the role of the shaman is to fight for life, but to accept death when it comes and how no one has a choice when it's his time and it doesn't matter who or what we leave behind, we just have to accept it.
"Man, he really made me think that I was dead. So, eventually I agreed with him and called for death to come get me." Glancing over at his friend, Blair noticed that Jim's molars seemed to be taking a lot of punishment tonight. "When I did that, suddenly we were back in the forest and Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to me again. He said that I was ready to use it this time. Then the wolf leaped into my chest--man, did that feel weird! I think that means that I'm now the official shaman of this partnership."
"Does that mean that you're going to be the one seeing the ghosts from now on? I certainly hope so--I really could do with a few less of those headaches and blasted sensory spikes."
Smiling at his partner, Blair answered the other man's question. "I think so, Jim. After all, traditionally, the spirit is the realm of the shaman. Since I've done that whole defeating death thing and been named shaman, again, by Incacha, I would think Rachael's ghost would be my bailiwick now. Unfortunately, though, until she actually shows up again, we can't be positive that that's what's going to happen."
"Great, Sandburg," Jim sighed in exasperation. "I thought it was your job to figure all of this out. Can't you figure what's going to happen?"
Shifting to face the detective, Blair swallowed hard on the hurt that threatened to over flow into his words. "Jim, I'm sorry, I'm doing the best that I can. I truly don't think that you're going to have any further problems with Rachael blasting your senses. However, until I can positively tell you, I don't want to make any promises that might not turn out to be right. If this doesn't take care of it, I promise you that I will find some way to do it."
"I know, Chief." Jim ran the back of a tired hand across his face. "It's just that I always expect you to know the answers, and it always takes me by surprise when you don't. Sometimes I don't react quite as well as I should."
"Well, Jim, before you go getting all humble and apologetic on me, I have one more thing to tell you that I don't think you're going to like." Seeing Jim's encouraging nod, Blair took a deep breath and continued, "Incacha had one more thing to tell me when I saw him after the truck wrecked.
"He said, well, he said that now that I have fulfilled my shamanistic destiny, so to speak, that we need to go back to the temple of the Sentinels in Mexico."
"He what?!? He wants us to go back to that place?" Blair almost swore that he could hear Jim's teeth cracking from the strain as he talked, "Why in the world would we want to go back there? I don't exactly have the best memories from our last trip, and I doubt you do either."
"Incacha said that the purpose of the two pools was actually for the Sentinel and his Guide or shaman. He said that last time we were there," Blair suppressed a small shudder, "I wasn't ready. Now that I am, we need to go back and cement our partnership."
"Sandburg, I'm sorry. I have absolutely no interest in going back to that temple. I think that our partnership is fine the way it is. I don't see how some mystical mumbo-jumbo is supposed to make us work together better."
"I said no, Sandburg!" Jim's tone was implacable. "I don't want to go back to that temple, and I don't want to talk about it anymore tonight.
Smiling at his partner, the detective continued in a much lighter tone. "There's a Jags game coming on if you want to stay up here and watch some television with me. Now that we're finished with our 'healthy' dinner, there're some beers in the fridge if you want to grab a couple. Look, I'm sorry, Chief. Today has been a little tough and I just need to relax and unwind a bit. You can give your statement at the station tomorrow and we can try to figure out what to do about Rachael, her slimy father and her ghost, but for tonight, I just want to kick back and enjoy the game."
The first thing Jim did the next morning after they reached the bullpen was to buzz down to Forensics. Remembering his last talk with the Forensics Chief and mindful that he needed her cooperation for what he was about to ask, the detective decided to put Blair's advice into action. When Serena answered her phone, Jim's tone was nothing but pleasantly polite.
"Hello, Serena. How are you this fine morning?"
Beside him, Blair rolled his eyes. Way to go, Jim. Make her suspicious from the very beginning .
"I'm fine, too, thank you. Serena, I have a favor to ask. Is it possible that your techs could be finished with Sweet--er--my truck by late this afternoon? Why? Well, I called that garage this morning and they said they could pick it up then. I just wanted to make sure it would be all right."
Blair watched with growing amusement as the pleasant facade on his friend's face rapidly shifted into the more familiar belligerent expression that he wore when his wishes were thwarted. Uh-oh. Must have made a derogatory remark about Sweetheart's chances. Serena, you're lucky you're several floors away.
"What do you mean, she can't be fixed?! Of course she can! She's been through worse and come out okay. Just tell me if she'll be ready to go by 3:00!"
A spate of shouting from the captain's office diverted Blair's attention from the ridiculous conversation to the closed off room across from his desk. The blinds had not been shut, and the anthropologist could see the angry man gesticulating wildly as he chewed out whomever was on the other end of the phone he was holding. Blair, having been on the receiving end of Simon's temper more than once, winced sympathetically for the poor soul. He hastily diverted his gaze when the captain slammed down the receiver, rose from behind his desk, and stalked towards his door. This did not bode well for someone.
Damn, I shoulda guessed! the curly-headed consultant thought woefully as the big man crossed the room in several ground-consuming strides, straight for he and Jim.
By that time, Jim had finished his conversation with Serena and was staring impassively at the furious man heading their way. He didn't know what had happened, but he guessed it had something to do with the Myles' case since they weren't working on anything else at the moment.
The captain confirmed his suspicions by saying, "Myles has disappeared."
"What?!" Blair exclaimed. "Didn't we have people watching him?"
"Of course we did, Sandburg, I ordered the surveillance myself! But he must have known we were watching and found a way to get out of his house undetected. No one knew he was gone until this morning."
Frowning, Jim asked, "Who called his disappearance in?"
Simon snorted. "Would you believe Vanessa Sedgewick? Apparently, she was supposed to meet him at his house to go over the case, but by the time she got there, he was gone." A grim smile spread across the dark man's face. "She sounded pretty ticked off about losing her client."
"Aw, poor thing," Blair muttered in mocking sympathy. "So now we're back to square one."
"Not completely," his partner contradicted. "At least now we know who we're looking for. We just have to find him."
The younger man nodded dejectedly. "Back to the salt mines, then." He started in the direction of Jim's desk.
"Why don't we take the files into one of the smaller conference rooms, Chief? It'll be easier to spread out there, and we won't be disturbed as much. That okay with you, Captain?"
"Yeah, sure, fine. Jim, can I talk to you a minute first?"
The detective left with his superior for Simon's office, leaving Blair to his own devices. Scooping up the pertinent files from Jim's desk, the consultant walked the short distance down the hallway to the conference rooms, picked one at random, and went in.
Dropping down into one of the conference room chairs, Blair sighed as he snagged the top folder. They had already been through these files a dozen times over the past few days, but maybe there was something that had been missed. Something that would not only tell them what had happened to Rachael, but also where her father was currently hiding.
Flipping the folder open, the first thing the anthropologist was confronted with was Rachael's picture. He picked it up, one finger tracing the image of the smiling, dark-haired eleven-year old. A deep sense of sadness, anger, and determination closed around the young man's heart, and he silently renewed his promise to the girl to bring the man responsible for her death to justice. He set the photo back on the table and was in the act of reaching for Myles' first interview statement when a small voice piped up at his right elbow.
"Hey, Mr. Blair, can you hear me? The wolf said you could now."